May 172014


In the achingly beautiful short documentary “Mother’s Song,” filmmaker Matthew Brown investigates “the opera woman” of Seattle and carries us intimately close to a life we might just pass by on the street. Brown notes,

There is a woman who walks through the streets randomly singing opera. Wherever she goes she is singing, sometimes under her breath, sometimes loud enough for whole blocks to hear. Some people think she is deranged, some think she is inspiring. I was compelled to sit down with her and have a short conversation about Why. I only had an hour and a half with her, but she struck a cord enough that made me buy a ticket to go see my mom, heh. I decided that I would put this online and hope to inspire people to go embrace their mothers and children. She’s also a very prime example of why not to judge people by their eccentricities.

Though this is ostensibly a documentary about the opera woman, how Brown documents this glimpse into the woman’s life matters tremendously. Brown chooses to begin and end his documentary short with just a voice, her voice singing opera over a black, empty screen: this is the opera woman, Janna Wachter.

Brown does not just simply place his subject in front of his camera and leave the audience to judge or appreciate. He lures us first with her voice, her singing, then, in close-up shots, presents Wachter bare faced and vulnerable as she tells the story of her son, her grief, and her philosophy on joy and singing. We have a strong visual and narrative connection to Wachter before we see her on the street singing opera.


Another documentarian might have begun on the street, started with Wachter singing there without context, perhaps sought to evoke discomfort, anxiety, or judgment in the audience and then subverted it by revealing this woman’s story. This narrative strategy runs the danger of playing out like a trick, one used to embarrass audiences and show them their prejudices.

Brown’s narrative strategy, however, helps first build a compassionate relationship between the audience and Wachter, through the intimacy of her singing and then the profound vulnerability in the story she tells of her son. He gives us first the voice without the sidewalk, the bare face before the lipstick, the world indifferent and busy before she sings bursts into song on the corner for us.

Brown goes further though, departs from the realist conventions of documentary when he takes artistic liberty to emphasize the passion behind her opera: he knocks books to the ground and shakes the camera, crescendos the music so we, in an aesthetic way, might understand the emotional urgency and impulse to sing, the desire to break through the day-to-day into the sublime moment.

In all these ways, Brown’s film is not just endeavouring to build tolerance and compassion, or reflect on our superficial understanding of others, he’s building awe for a woman who lets candour and earth-trembling joy rule her life instead of decorum or polite pedestrian street etiquette.

— R. W. Gray


May 162014

Desktop52W. G. Sebald

The movie writer/director Ron Shelton once told me he figured he had enough material for a movie when he had enough for twelve movies. Something like that must be at the back of Patrick Madden’s essays because he will wander and digress and quote and ponder and talk about himself and reflect and quote again. This essay is notionally about W. G. Sebald’s discursive, essayistic novels, especially The Rings of Saturn, but then Patrick wanders off and talks about the nature of the essay itself, the nature of creative nonfiction, the fictional aspects of nonfiction and the nonfictional aspects of fiction, and the way he likes to write his own essays (maybe a dozen different topics—you count). In effect, he incarnates the form (of the essay) in his discussion of the essay and Sebald as essayist in the most amiable and slyly convincing manner. “Walking, Researching, Remembering” is, yes, an extremely amiable and charming tour de force, which, to me, also has the advantage of drawing attention to one of the differences between North American and European fiction — the Europeans (see Kundera’s The Art of the Novel) have never been averse to mixing their essays with their novels, whereas North Americans have been stunned into minimalism by that show-don’t-tell nonsense. Don’t get me started.



In his book Understanding W. G. Sebald, Mark McCulloh contends that “Even more than The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn defies description; it does not seem to fit into any conventional prose or fiction category.” This sentiment has found its way into praise and criticism from the beginning, ever since Sebald’s books began to appear in English. Yet I disagree; unless we remove the essay from the ranks of “conventional” genres, it fits what Sebald wrote very aptly. But I would do well to begin by defining terms.

The word essay has been misused and abused for long centuries since Montaigne appropriated it to describe his writings. School teachers and children use it to mean a written test of knowledge, usually with an expected correct answer. Colleagues of mine use it to refer to academic articles, which may have somewhat in common with essays, but which are quite different in direction and intent. In fact, the best theoretical works on the essay, including those written by Georg Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, and William Gass, pit the essay in opposition to this very thing. This is how I’ve grown to think of the essay, not as non-fiction, but as non-article. It is a malleable literary form that admits experimentation and imagination. More on this in a minute.

It is not usually my nature to make arguments. I’m more likely to content myself with leisurely explorations that churn up questions but not answers. So I expect to go back and forth, circle around my claim, perhaps contradict myself (it was Walt Whitman who declared it so memorably, but we should remember that Montaigne made a genre out of it). And, speaking of Montaigne, here’s his justification for drifting, rambling a bit:

It is the inattentive reader who loses my subject, not I. Some word about it will always be found off in a corner, which will not fail to be sufficient.

In any case, before I get lost in the branches, let me return to the trunk of my argument: Sebald was an essayist. I’ll focus my here today on my favorite of his books, The Rings of Saturn, but not only on that book. I’ll divide my argument into two considerations: Fiction vs. Nonfiction and The Essay as Form.



Part I: Fiction v. Nonfiction

Although it’s rarely professed explicitly, far too many of my academic colleagues seem to espouse a one-drop theory of creative nonfiction: if a writer invents even a small detail, the prose is deemed fiction. Of course, this view immediately becomes problematic, as any nonfiction writer will attest to inventing dialogue, or crafting it to recall approximately what was said, not offer a verbatim transcript. A more theoretical view argues that all writing is fiction, either because it is a made thing or, more in line with our colloquial definition, because it is a recreation in words of an exterior reality. This is sometimes fun to ponder, but I think we’re arguing about the wrong thing. After all, poetry is not divided along factual lines; it is a literary form that admits invention as well as re-creation.

Nevertheless, the essay as a literary genre has been swept up in the current trend of “creative nonfiction,” and as it has traditionally been a nonfictional genre—one that utilizes real-life experience as a springboard to thinking—this has come to be a sort of requirement or expectation. I am not saying that this is always a bad thing—in my own writing I make it a point to stick to the facts as I remember or can discover them—but that the essay form is big enough to admit some fictionalizing.

CaptureVirginia Woolf


Fictionalizing essayists

An easy case may be made for essays that use fiction in a way that is not deceptive. Take, for instance, Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” whose plot is utterly undramatic—she goes in search of a pencil—and yet whose technique is highly imaginative—she invents thoughts and backgrounds for the strangers she encounters along the way. No critical reader believes that Woolf knows the details she writes. She obviously makes them up. Similarly, no critical reader believes every detail in a James Thurber essay, or a Christopher Morley or Robert Benchley or David Sedaris. And what can we make of Joseph Addison writing in the voice of a shilling that has traveled the world or of George Orwell perhaps borrowing the haunting central scene of “A Hanging” from a comrade’s recollection? What of Ian Frazier writing as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s ex-husbands? Or as a coyote captured in Central Park!? Essayists have been utilizing fiction for as long as the essay has existed.

There is also the question of an essayist’s persona. Much is made, directly and indirectly, of Sebald’s narrators. Critics are careful not to associate author and speaker, to make such an amateur’s conflation. Yet, I would argue that an essayist always speaks through a persona, at least through a necessarily partial version of him- or herself. Was Sebald as neurotic or morose as his narrators? No, say those who knew him. Was he as interested in history and biography? He must have been, to write his books. Martin Swales assures us that “the persona clearly overlaps with the author…there is a good deal of shared identity between the narrative voice and the person who wrote and published the text.” Mark McCulloh assents: “The self-references, the literary references, the references to art and music, and the seemingly tangential digressions are indeed drawn from the author’s life and researches” (82). Most readers I know seem to agree and accept this notion. But again let’s look at a few examples of old to trouble this question:

Charles Lamb wrote his essays under the pen name Elia, an Italian immigrant, a clerk, a person very much like “the real” Lamb, but not entirely. To complicate matters further, “Charles Lamb” appears as a third-party in some of Elia’s essays, including “Christ’s Hospital Five-and-Thirty Years Ago,” written by Elia to debunk an overly sunny Lamb composition on the same subject. A third level of difficulty arises as Elia appropriates Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s troublesome experiences as a youth at the boarding school both Coleridge and Lamb attended. This resembles very much the nature of Sebald’s ficionalizations: conflating two acquaintances to create the painter Max Ferber (whose name was changed in the English translation to be less recognizable), and two others to create Austerlitz, changing the names of certain characters, moving buildings, rearranging events, etc. There are other examples, too, of essayists trying on fictional personas, perhaps most notably Oliver Goldsmith, an Irishman posing as a visiting Chinese man writing about eighteenth-century England. Edith Maude Eaton performed a similar self-revision, writing as Sui Sin Far. Violet Paget wrote her essays as Vernon Lee, and other women likewise wrote as men. And while critics may argue the literary merits and meanings of their works, the question of their genre seems to have been settled. They wrote essays.



Sebald’s nonfiction

Still, lots of us want to know what really happened, whether Sebald wrote true to life. On the one hand, it seems naïve, unsophisticated, to wonder if or to hope that Sebald’s books are nonfiction. On the other hand, this very question has given a number of academics projects to investigate and write about. And they seem to enjoy their quests. Certainly I enjoy reading Jo Catling’s revelation that the Eccles Church Tower Sebald places in Dunwich is really far north of there; Silke Hostkotte’s puzzlement at the library date-stamp on the newspaper that Sebald supposedly bought in Switzerland; Adrian Daub’s conclusion that the Eastern Daily Press article about Major George Wyndham LeStrange must be a forgery created by Sebald. These researchers seem genuinely pleased with the treasure hunt Sebald has left them. I myself have twice set out on my own brief treasure hunt, a tour of some of the places Sebald (and his narrator, if you prefer) visited in The Rings of Saturn.

Thankfully, then, a lot of interviewers were interested in just this very subject, and Sebald was never coy. Carole Angier, in an interview for the Jewish Quarterly, asks about the real people behind the four narratives in The Emigrants. They were real, says Sebald, “with some small changes.” He explains these changes, adding that “What matters is all true…The big events…you might think those were made up for dramatic effect. But on the contrary, they are real.” He adds “The vast majority of factual and personal detail that I use is very viable.” Nevertheless, Angier has her answer: the book is fiction.

Very well, the books fit that bill, but it is still heartening to hear Sebald detail the nonfictional elements of his books. Ninety percent of the images are authentic (41), he says. His narrator’s travels mirror his own travels. He does a great deal of historical research, searching for connections. Sometimes these connections present themselves from the long shadows of memory. Certain epiphanies “can be achieved only by actually going to certain places, by looking, by expending great amounts of time in actually exposing oneself to places that no one else goes to” (85). “The changes that I made, i.e., extending certain vectors, foreshortening certain things, adding here and there, taking something away, are marginal changes, changes of style rather than changes of substance” (38).

CaptureTheodor Adorno


Part II: The Essay as Form

There must be something, then, that distinguishes the essay as a genre. In terms of form, the simplest way to distinguish genres is by their shape on the page. My children can tell a poem from a play from prose. They can also tell country music from jazz from rock-n-roll. This is where the essay differs from the short story or the novel.

Theodor Adorno, as I have mentioned briefly, begins his “Essay as Form” railing against the tendency of humans to categorize, compartmentalize, and therefore cage. He singles out what he calls a German binary: art is irrational, science is knowledge. This is not only a German tendency, nor is it relegated to the past, of course. Adorno returns regularly to this dichotomy: on the one hand the systematic article, on the other, art, and in the middle, the confluence of the two, in good deconstructivist style, is the essay, free of restraint or obligation to either camp. The “intellectual freedom” here symbolized by the essay seems as much praise and rebellion as description, and Adorno’s tone is often exasperated, his words a counterattack on those “enemies of the essay” who “hire out to stupidity as a watchdog against the mind” (4). Central to Adorno’s idea of the essay form, then, is its fragmentariness (a mirror of fragmentary reality), its intuitiveness, its “luck and play” (4), its individuality, its uncertainty, its incompleteness, its focus on the “transient and ephemeral” (10), its dealings in experience, its contingency, its situatedness within culture, its immediacy, its skepticism, its non-linearity, its direct treatment of complexity, its resistance to reduction, its grounding in language, its musical logic, its self-reflexivity, its heresy. He is often quoted for this last sentiment, with which he ends his essay on the essay: “The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy” (23). He means, I think, a rejection of the norms of thought, of the fear of thought, of the fear of losing the solid ground created by the illusion of objective knowledge. The essay is cast in relief (perhaps with a double meaning: “standing out” and “refreshing”) against the rigid systems of science, positivism, the reification of methodical provable truth. An essay, in this sense, is a kind of anti-genre, or at least, in O. B. Hardison’s words, a “protean” form.

Georg Lukacs, who preceded Adorno and who offers many similar statements, seems to deal specifically with an essay that begins with an external, not a personal subject, much as Sebald’s work is derived from studies of other people, places, and events. Lukacs’s rendition of the science/art split hinges on his statement that “science offers us facts and the relationships between facts, but art offers us souls and destinies” (3). He justifies the need for essays in contrast with drama (or, I imagine, fiction) by pointing out that some reactions can be shown visually and aurally, but thought is invisible. Thus the essay deals with the inner workings of a mind. The essay is needed also as intermediary between concepts (abstractions) and things (concretions), between image and significance. For Lukacs, then, the essay form is marked by its questioning, its avoidance of didactic or simplistic answers, its fragmentariness, its humor, its modesty, its consideration of the quotidian, its irony, its fight against tradition, its visionary nature, its friction with fact (perhaps this is key), its interruptions, its primacy of point of view over feeling. He sees the essay as process, not product, journey, not destination. The essay, according to Phillip Lopate [Against 75], “allows one to ramble in a way that more truly reflects the mind at work,” struggling, grasping, circling, but never preaching.

Adorno deals with the misguided view of essay as simply nonfiction when he writes, “The bad essay tells stories about people instead of elucidating the matter at hand” (6). Lukacs would seem to agree: “Every event [is] only an occasion for seeing concepts more clearly,” he writes (14), and “The idea is the measure of everything that exists….Only something that is great and true can live in the proximity of the idea.” (16). Both writers stress that the essay is an ordering of things already present, not a creation ex nihilo. This calls to mind an Sebald interview with Michael Zeeman, [Netherlands TV, 12 July 1998] in which he says, “Making in prose a decent pattern out of what happens to come your way is a preoccupation, which, in a sense, has no higher ambitions than, for a brief moment in time, to rescue something out of that stream of history that keeps rushing past.” To Zeeman’s amazement, Sebald claims that as he’s writing, necessary and fitting items seem to present themselves to him. He quotes (he thinks) Adorno: “If you’re on the right track, then the quotations come and offer themselves to you; you don’t have to look for them.”


Others’ statements about Sebald’s form

I hope you have read some of Sebald’s works, have marveled at their complexity and swooned in their beauty. If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that the traits Adorno and Lukacs (and others) attribute to the essay fit Sebald. Critics and academics have made similar statements to describe Sebald’s strange prose.

Susan Sontag said The Emigrants was “like nothing I’ve ever read…an unclassifiable book, at once autobiography and fiction and historical chronicle. A roman d’essai?” Margo Jefferson of the New York Times wondered about categorizing Sebald’s books: “What does one call them? meditations, elegies, mutations grown from memoir, history, literary biography and prose poetry.”

W. S. Merwin said that Sebald’s writing conjures from the details and sequences of daily life, and their circumstances and encounters, from apparent chance and its unsounded calculus, the dimension of dream and a sense of the depth of time that makes his books, one by one, indispensable. He evokes at once the minutiae and the vastness of individual existence, the inconsolable sorrow of history and the scintillating beauty of the moment and its ground of memory.

Michael Silverblatt, in a radio interview, comments that “The wandering that the prose does, both syntactically and in terms of subjects, reminds me a bit of my favorite of the English essayists, de Quincey: the need, in a sense, to almost sleepwalk, somnambulate from one center of attention to another, and a feeling in the reader that one has hallucinated the connection between the parts.”

J. J. Long, in W. G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity finds in The Rings of Saturn an anti-Cartesian parallel between the narrator’s ambling and the narrative’s form: “He wanders with no ostensible purpose or goal, following the dictates of the land, inadvertently doubling back on himself, inexplicably tracing out the same route time and again, and striking out only to end up back where he started…The Rings of Saturn, like the journey it recounts, is filled with diversions, recursions and a refusal of teleology.” The book, he says, “consists almost entirely of digressions.” The narrator’s walking “is deliberately inefficient and, one might say, anti-disciplinary. This tendency to explore byways rather than make beelines goes hand in hand with a narrative technique that is multiply digressive: it repeatedly shifts focus, as each digressions is soon abandoned in favour of another digression or a brief return to the story of the journey itself; it frequently changes the context within which phenomena are understood, evoking a parallel mythic temporality that transfigures the quotidian object-world and produces a split attention, a kind of distraction, in both the narrator and the reader; and it frequently gets sidetracked into length enumrations of physical objects” (140).

Mark McCulloh, in Understanding W. G. Sebald, makes similar claims about Sebald’s digressiveness, adding that The Rings of Saturn declares its subject from the outset, another essay commonality, thus eschewing suspense and drama, that it, like Thomas Browne’s work, pursues enigmatic interconnections, “casting doubt on virtually anything that is readily apparent” (61). “The book is thus an associative, digressive, and allusive journey through East Anglia,” he concludes.

Charles Simic notes that “[Sebald] never hesitates to interject some interesting anecdote or bit of factual information arrived at by some not-always-apparent process of association. He does this without forewarning, transition, or even paragraph break” (146)

Or hear Martin Swales [“Intertextuality, Authenticity, Metonymy? On Reading W. G. Sebald” from The Anatomist of Melancholy ed. Rüdinger Görner]: “Random meetings, memories involuntarily triggered, chance thoughts—these are the stuff of his imaginative universe.” And “In a curious way, the Sebald text stays where is has been from the outset; it does not quite go anywhere, in other words.”


Sebald’s statements on his method of writing

It’s not only the critics who see Sebald’s books as digressive, associative, logically non-linear. When Sebald discussed his writing style and methods, he likewise seemed to be describing essaying. Consider what he told Joseph Cuomo:

I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. … So you then have a small amount of material and you accumulate things, and it grows, and one thing takes you to another, and you make something out of these haphazardly assembled materials. And, as they have been assembled in this random fashion, you have to strain your imagination in order to create a connection between the two things. If you look for things that are like the things that you have looked for before, then, obviously, they’ll connect up. But they’ll only connect up in an obvious sort of way, which actually isn’t, in terms of writing something new, very productive. You have to take heterogeneous materials in order to get your mind to do something that it hasn’t done before. That’s how I thought about it. Then, of course, curiosity gets the better of you.

Later in that same interview, he describes his “escape,” as it were, from the demands of academic life: “The preoccupation with making something out of nothing, which is, after all, what writing is about, took me at that point. And what I liked about it was that if you just changed, as it were, the nature of your writing from academic monographs to something indefinable, then you had complete liberty” (99). His dichotomy seems to be the same as Adorno’s: article vs. essay.

In “An Attempt at Restitution,” published in English in Campo Santo, Sebald describes his method or procedure as “adhering to an exact historical perspective, patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still life” (200). To Arthur Lubow, he once explained, speaking specifically of a 1918 German army map: “I don’t think I shall be able to understand it, but I want to marvel at it,” which seems to me the fundamental impulse behind the essay.


Textual evidences from The Rings of Saturn

The plot of The Rings of Saturn is the author takes a series of walks in the countryside of southeastern England. Not much really happens to invite drama or excite our sense of the exotic, but this book is not about plot, it’s about keen observation, happenstance research, memory and meditation. One need only turn to the book’s contents page to get a sense of the breadth and depth of the subjects it mulls. Take, for instance, chapter 3: “Fishermen on the beach – The natural history of the herring – George Wyndham Le Strange – A great herd of swine – The reduplication of man – Orbis Tertius.” Already the work displays its digressive, meandering nature.

I read The Rings of Saturn as I was living for a year in Uruguay, riding the buses downtown each morning, finding books in the National Library and the used book shops, interviewing former revolutionaries about their pasts. I found in Sebald a tempered, beautiful prose that swept me up in its rhythms and convolutions, that seemed to perfectly reproduce the author’s mind processing the accidental sights and insights that crossed his path. Along for the journey with Sebald are Thomas Browne, Rembrandt, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the Dowager Empress. Underlying the meandering (on land and in mind) are considerations of the strange geometric form called a quincunx, the intrigue behind the coming of silk worms to the West, the strange resonances between Sebald’s life and the life of one Michael Hamburger, the unstoppable decline and decay of cities and lives and all that man may hope to build up, the shadow cast by death.

One of my favorite passages, one that made me laugh out loud, is this: Sebald is very tired after a day of traipsing about, so he falls asleep in an armchair watching a BBC documentary about Roger Casement. He is left with only vague, ethereal notions of what he had heard as he drifted off to sleep, but he’s interested enough to want to write about him. He says, “I have since tried to reconstruct from the sources, as far as I have been able, the story I slept through that night in Southwold.” Then he goes on to tell the story of Casement at great length.

And here is a Sebaldian moment for you: When I first wrote the above passages, for a brief book review, I repassed the section of the book in which Sebald parallels his life to Michael Hamburger’s, but I could not find the name Hamburger, only Michael. I thought I remembered Hamburger in any case, so I did what any self-respecting twenty-first-century essayist would do. I googled “Michael Hamburger.” The top results were all obituaries. I clicked on the one from the Guardian. Sure enough, this was the man I was looking for. He had just died that very week.



I am self-aware enough to recognize that part of my drive to see Sebald’s writing as essay is selfish, a wish to claim him as part of my tribe, so that maybe some of his glory will shine on me. But weren’t more prominent critics performing a similar feat by claiming genrelessness for Sebald? Wasn’t their real message that “Sebald is great”? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with participating in a genre, especially one as malleable as the essay. And after all, genre definitions are more like recommendations or descriptions, not prescriptions. So when I say that Sebald works for me as an example of an essayist par excellence, that his works serve as models to scores of nonfiction writers as well as fiction writers, all I’m really saying is “Sebald is great,” a rather unacademic thing to say, but I wager it’s what we’re all saying, underneath it all.

—Patrick Madden


Madden_Num5Patrick Madden walking

Patrick Madden teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His first book, Quotidiana, won an Independent Publisher Book of the Year award, and his essays have been published widely in journals and anthologies. He’s completing his second book, Sublime Physick, and an anthology, with David Lazar, called After Montaigne: Contemporary Writers Cover the Essays.


May 152014

 Wayne Grady in SMAAuthor photo by Merilyn Simonds

Wayne Grady just last month won the First Novel Award for his book Emancipation Day, the amazing story of an African-Canadian man who passes as white his whole life long, to his work-mates, friends, wife and son (even more amazing is the fact that the novel is based on Grady’s own family). Prior to this, Wayne Grady was best known as a Governor-General’s Award-winning translator, nonfiction writer, editor and anthologist, an author with a lengthy pedigree of fine writing and a list of books as long as your arm. In “Tragedy Postponed,” Grady looks at the mystery genre, from Agatha Christie to Ian Rankin, through the lens of Shakespeare’s comedies, finding therein broad similarities, parallels and resonances, not the least of which is a classic U-shaped plot pattern: social order, followed by upheaval, chaos, crime and corruption (not to mention mistaken identity and inappropriate love choices), leading to, yes, a reconstitution of the social order (relief, laughter, and sometimes marriage). Think: Prospero as Detective Rebus.



“That’s all comedy is, a tragedy postponed.”
—Reginald Hill, Bones and Silence

In the city of Toronto, in 2004, criminal charges were laid against five officers of the metropolitan police force’s drug squad. The Crown claimed that, going back to 1997, the officers “showed a pattern of violent shakedowns, beating up drug dealers, stealing their money and then lying to cover their tracks.” Specifically, they were alleged to have pocketed $10,000 seized as evidence during a non-warranted raid on the home of a small-time heroin dealer. At the trial, which dragged on until 2013, all five were acquitted of charges of assault, extortion and theft, and found guilty only of attempting to obstruct justice, for which they were sentenced to forty-five days’ house arrest. In justifying the light sentence, the judge cited the “pain and humiliation” the officers had already undergone during the lengthy trial. Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson said he was “astonished” by the outcome: “It’s very unfortunate,” he said, “and sends a message that leaves a lot to be desired.”

A classic Shakespeare comedy starts with social order, proceeds to something happening that upsets that order, and ends with order being restored. It’s the last bit that matters. A lot of other things happen along the way – when social order is upset, lovers quarrel, kingdoms are usurped, ships are reported sunk, men are turned into donkeys – but when the curtain goes down, everyone is happy again, the audience goes away reassured that the sun will rise in the morning and good government has been reinstated. As in a good lovers’ quarrel, there may be some crying in the middle of it, but by the end everyone is laughing.

“Comedy,” as Shakespeare scholar E.K. Chambers put it in 1916, writing about A Comedy of Errors, is “a criticism of life, which is at heart profoundly serious, and employs all the machinery of wit or humour, with the deliberate intention of reaching through the laughter to the ultimate end of a purged outlook upon things.”

Sometimes the original social order is implied or recalled, as in The Tempest and As You Like It. A little plot summary here: As You Like It begins with a newly established regime (which is really disorder) in an unnamed French duchy: Frederick has usurped his older brother’s dukedom and banished Duke Senior to the forest of Arden. Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, has been allowed to remain in court because of her friendship with Frederick’s daughter Celia. However, all is not well with in new scheme of things: Oliver persecutes his younger brother Orlando, who then flees; and Rosalind, also suddenly banished from court, sets out with Celia (disguised as Ganymede and Aliena, respectively) to Arden to join her father in exile. Chaos ensues, as everyone falls in love with the wrong people, trysts are missed, false weddings performed, until in the end the masks are off, the wrong people turn out to be the right people, and a mass wedding takes place. The old order is restored, symbolized by the brothers: Orlando saves Oliver’s life and their bond is reestablished; Frederick repents and restores the duchy to Duke Senior. The Tempest has almost the identical plot, with Prospero’s island standing in for the forest of Arden.


A classic mystery novel follows a similar pattern. Think of Agatha Christie’s country cozies, let us say her first, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1916. Everything takes place in that most stolid of British bastions, the country manor house, in this case Styles Court, with the family, a few guests and ancient retainers in residence. A wealthy widow, Emily Cavendish, has recently married the young Alfred Inglethorp. When Emily is murdered (poison), the new order is broken and chaos ensues. Everyone is found to be hiding something, everyone suspects and accuses everyone else. Enter Inspector Hercule Poirot (a Belgian refugee of the First World War). Fingers are pointed, threats are made. Eventually, the chaotic dimensions of the crime are sorted out in Poirot’s “little grey cells,” the suspects are gathered in the drawing room (originally in a courtroom, but Christie’s publisher insisted on the drawing room, which became her trademark scene). The crime is explained, the perpetrator identified and arrested, and order is restored. (There isn’t murder and mayhem everywhere, people, it’s just this one isolated case, and now it’s been cleared up. Everyone can go home, nothing more to see here.)

This basic plot was repeated by nearly all the writers of the Golden Age of Mystery Writing, which lasted from about 1916 to the beginning of the Second World War: E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Marjory Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh. And well into the post-war period, such English writers as Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin, Ruth Rendell, and P.D. James followed the same pattern: order disturbed by chaos, and order restored by the intervention of a figure representing the apotheosis of decency and social order, the intelligent and urbane private detective (descendents of Sherlock Holmes: Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsy, Gervase Fen) or the intelligent, urbane Chief Inspector (John Appleby, Reginald Wexford, Adam Dalgleish).

The attraction of the classic mystery novel to contemporary readers is similar to that of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies to his Elizabethan audiences: they affirmed that we were okay, that despite temporary setbacks, someone was in charge, setbacks would be overcome, order would be restored. As P.D. James put it in her memoir, Time to Be in Ernest, “The detective story is, after all, one way in which we can cope with violent death, fictionalize it, give it a recognizable shape and, at the end of the book, show that even the most intractable mystery is capable of solution, not by supernatural means or by good fortune, but by human intelligence, human perseverance, and human courage.”

And not just violent death, but any disturbance of social order. Corruption in high places, governmental perfidy, corporate greed, anything that upsets the apple cart. We needed to know that these were disruptions that could be overcome, not permanent paradigm shifts that signaled a new, unwanted order. We looked to fiction to reassure ourselves that chaos was real but temporary, and that order would be restored in time for the late train on Sunday night.


In Los Angeles, in 1991, after an eight-mile, high-speed chase through residential areas, four LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King, a black construction worker who was on parole after serving a sentence for robbery, nearly to death. They laid into him with tasers, batons and their feet. All four officers were charged with using excessive force, and at trial all four were acquitted. There was general outrage at the verdict. Even then-president George H.W. Bush found “it hard to understand how the verdict could possibly square with the video.” The court’s leniency triggered riots in L.A. during which 53 people were killed and 2,383 injured. Smaller riots erupted in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Toronto. Rodney King went on television and called for an end to the violence: “Can we all get along?” he asked. He then sued the City of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million. At a second trial, two of the officers were found guilty of violating King’s civil rights, and were given jail terms of 32 months. The other two were again acquitted. Of the thirty-three baton blows delivered to King’s body, the judge decided, only the last six were unlawful.

When did intelligence, perseverance and courage no longer triumph over anger, hatred and evil? When did continuing to believe in justice, however harshly meted, begin to feel a little naïve, a little behind the times, even a little laughable? When did our laughter at the human comedy begin to sound hollow and forced?

As Yeats might have put it, when did things start falling apart and staying that way?

It’s never easy to fix a date to a paradigm shift. George Packer, in The Unwinding, his recent analysis of the sub-prime mortgage debacle and the decline of the American Dream, somewhat arbitrarily points to 1978 as the year in which it became hard to continue to teach our children that honesty, hard work, and financial responsibility were the keys to “getting ahead.” There was no long an ahead to get to. There was only back. Orwellians might fix the date as 1948, when Big Brother began infiltrating our private lives, and the state became powerful enough to quell protest and deny citizens their democratic say in how they were to be governed.


Mystery writers might split the difference. In 1964, the Swedish detective novelist Per Wähloo published Murder on the Thirty-First Floor. Wähloo, with his partner, the poet Maj Sjöwall, were well known to mystery readers in the 1960s as the co-authors of a brilliant but short-lived series of ten crime novels featuring Swedish detective Martin Beck. The series ended with Wähloo’s death in 1975.

The couple also published novels separately, and Murder on the Thirty-First Floor is one of those. Like 1984 and Brave New World, it is set in a futuristic dystopia in which the three traditional defenders of social order – the government, trade unions and the media – have come together to rule Sweden under something known as “the Accord.” All social unrest has been outlawed by official edict. Alcoholism, for example, was socially disruptive, and so drinking alcohol has been made illegal (although there still seems to be plenty of alcohol around). Anyone reported having even a glass of wine in the privacy of their own home can be arrested, and if caught at it three times are sent to a mandatory rehabilitation centre. All magazines, newspapers, radio stations, television channels and printing presses are owned by a conglomerate known as the Skyscraper Group, whose four thousand employees work in a thirty-storey building in Stockholm, and nothing that appears in any of its publications is of the kind that would disturb the public. It’s all good news all the time. Bad news has been totally replaced by entertainment: “eight-page horoscopes, cinematascope picture stories and real-life stories about the mothers of great men,” film-star bios, tips on interior decoration, healthful recipes, regenerative exercises. Sound familiar yet? Don’t forget sports. Meanwhile, alcoholism is rampant, and the prisons are jammed with drunks rounded up off the streets; the suicide rate has tripled; the birth-rate has plunged. None of this, of course, is reported in the press. Everyone in Sweden is either too emotionally and intellectually dead to object, or else are seething with suppressed, helpless rage. The latter are deemed criminals, to be locked up, given pointless tasks, kept out of harm’s way. Besides, most of them are given to drink.

In other words, the old social order has been replaced by the new Accord, only this time there is no forest of Arden, no Duke Senior waiting in the wings to return us to our senses. When the Skyscraper Group receives a bomb threat, Inspector Jensen is assigned to find out who sent it. Chaos doesn’t ensue: this is chaos. And it is Inspector Jensen’s job to maintain it. Jensen is conscientious to a fault. He is a good cop. He may sympathize with those who rail against the new order, but he has a job of work to do and he does it, even if he does keep a bottle of whisky hidden behind the Corn Flakes and suffers from acute acid reflux. Faint flickers of hope in an otherwise dark Scandinavian landscape.

How close are we now to having something like the Accord take control? Again, mystery writers offer a few unsettling suggestions.


In Bad Debts, a recent mystery by the Australian crime novelist Peter Temple, the narrator is a defrocked lawyer named Jack Irish, who sets out to find why a former client of his has been murdered shortly after serving a lengthy jail sentence. (Order disturbed.) His inquiries eventually disclose shady dealings involving the Australian government, a large real-estate developer, and the Catholic Church. (Chaos.) Here’s a newscast Irish listens to that more or less sums up the mess he has helped uncover: “Tonight, this program deals with allegations about the involvement of a Cabinet Minister, public servants, a clergyman, trade union leaders and others in an under-age sex ring. It also alleges police involvement in the death, in 1984, of a social justice activist, and massive corruption surrounding Charis Corporation’s six-hundred-million-dollar Yarra Cove development.”

Although the corruption has been exposed in the media (the collusion of media with the federal government and union leaders that Wähloo depicted in Sweden hasn’t yet spread to Australia, apparently), Irish is under no illusion that order will be restored. “It came to me with absolute certainty,” he realizes, “that my little inquiry into the lives and deaths of Danny McKillop and Anne Jepperson was of no consequence whatsoever. Nothing would change what had happened, no one would be called to account for it.” (Order unrestored.) The novel ends with Irish going to a horse race and making a lot of money on a tip-off, and we are left to wonder how that differs from life under the Accord. The comedy, if it can still be called that, has become dark.


With his $3.8 million, Rodney King bought a large home in Rialto, a suburb of L.A. His cash award was supplemented by $1.7 million to cover legal fees, and King sued his own lawyers for that amount, claiming legal malpractice presumably because they failed to nail the four police officers. He lost that suit, and his life from then on resumed its downward spiral. In 1993, he was arrested for drunk driving after crashing his car into a wall in downtown L.A. Two years later he was charged with hit-and-run after knocking his wife down with his car. There followed more convictions for driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license. In 2007, he checked himself into the Pasadena Recovery Center, where he took part in the television program Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and, later, a spin-off called Sober House, and declared himself cured of his various addictions. In 2010, he became engaged to Cynthia Kelly, who had been one of the jurors in the civil suit against L.A. that awarded him the $3.8 million. On the morning of June 17, 2012, his fiancé found his body at the bottom of his swimming pool; an autopsy disclosed that the alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and PCP found in his body “probably precipitated a cardiac arrhythmia, and the subject, thus incapacitated, was unable to save himself and drowned.” Earlier, the BBC had quoted King as saying, “Some people feel like I’m some kind of hero….Other people, I can hear them mocking me for believing in peace.”


According to many mystery writers, elected government officials, civil servants, the church, unions, and the police, the very institutions that we have traditionally relied upon to maintain and restore order, have turned against us and are now perpetrating the crimes from which they were designed to protect us. It’s difficult to write a comedy in which everyone is corrupt. The American gumshoe-detective novelists of the 1930s and ‘40s tried it, and ended up creating private detectives who were seedy, dissolute, violent, and seriously flawed, but – unlike the police and public servants – were basically honest and genuinely interested in restoring some rough form of social justice. They were villains, but they were on the right side. It’s impossible to imagine a hero of the Golden Age, Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn, for example, beating witnesses, sleeping with suspects, destroying evidence incriminating someone he likes, and drinking himself into oblivion in order to forget his personal and professional failures. Yet that’s all in a day’s work for Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, or for Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade (who says, in The Maltese Falcon, “My way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery”). John D. Macdonald’s Travis McGee is neither a police officer nor a private detective, but a person who recovers other people’s lost or stolen property, which my be the American version of restoring order. But even in these hard-boiled stories about the decline of the American ideal, the detective rises above his environment. Here is Chandler’s view of the detective, as expressed in The Simple Art of Murder:

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.

The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things.

A version of this ideal detective crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s, showing up in such brilliantly flawed English and Scottish policemen as Colin Dexter’s E. Morse, Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel, and Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, all of whom are prodigious drinkers (even when on duty), are always more or less at odds with their straighter-laced superiors, have difficulties with women, especially female police officers, and yet are honest, hard-working, and almost always solve the crime and restore order. A classic example outside Great Britain is the Norgwegian crime novelist Jo Nesbo, whose Detective Harry Hole is more than a prodigious drinker, he’s is a falling-down alcoholic who has been dismissed from the force and who, at the beginning of Nesbo’s 2003 novel, The Devil’s Star, the fifth in the Harry Hole series, is working out the last few weeks of his employment. Hole is described by his fellow officer and arch-enemy Tom Waaler as having “a work record with notes on drunkenness, unauthorized absences, abuse of authority, insubordination to superiors and disloyalty to the force,” none of which Hole denies. But Waaler also notes that Hole is “goal-oriented, smart, creative and your integrity is unimpeachable.” Hole also has the best record for solved cases on the force. Things haven’t permanently fallen apart yet, and there is still hope that order will be restored by the end of the novel, or at least the series. Which is all we ask.


We don’t get it at the end of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001),with the detective knowing about a murder but not reporting it. Nor do we get it in the 2002 movie Insomnia, in which Al Pacino (who two years later will play a brilliant Shylock in The Merchant of Venice) is Will Dormer, a Los Angeles police detective under investigation by Internal Affairs for dubious conduct during a previous investigation (he allegedly secured a confession from a suspect by hanging him by the neck in a closet, not one of Hercule Poirot’s preferred methods). On a new case in Alaska, he shoots his partner, who is to be a witness in the investigation by Internal. In the original 1997 version of the film by Norwegian director Erik Skjoldbjærg, the shooting is clearly accidental; in the American version it is not so clear. As if to underscore the point I’m trying to make about crime fiction as the canary in the social-dissolution mineshaft, the chief suspect in the Alaska case is a mystery novelist, Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams, who witnesses Dormer shooting his partner and offers to help him cover it up in exchange for his freedom. Dormer finds a neater solution. Dame Agatha must have been spinning in her grave; except, don’t forget, it was the good Dame who wrote Who Killed Roger Akroyd?.

In Bad Debts, police corruption is also the subject of an internal investigation. The intention of the official inquiry is to reassure the public that the police are as pure and honorable as they were in Dame Agatha’s day, but of course the officers under suspicion don’t see it that way. They interpret it as an attempt on the part of the “new culture,” which relies on statistics and psychological profiling, to oust (or banish) the instinctual, seat-of-the-pants methods employed by the “old culture.” The new dukes see no reason why a police department should be run differently from any other branch of the government: Internal Revenue, for example, which also goes after miscreants. Why should murder be treated as a more serious crime than, say, tax fraud? Here is one of the old culture complaining to Jack Irish:

“You hear him [a younger cop] sprouting all that shit about getting rid of the old culture in the force? Mate, I’m part of the old culture and proud of it.”

“What exactly is the old culture?”

“The dinosaurs left over from when it didn’t count if you took an extra ten bucks for the drinks when you put in for sweet for your dogs. When you had to load some cockroach to get it off the street. Public fucken service. We’re the ancient pricks think it’s okay to punch out some slime who dob in a bloke who’s walked out on the wire for them to fucking Internal Affairs. That’s us. That’s the old culture.”


Ian Rankin makes this kind of Internal Affairs purge the main focus of several of his most recent novels. In The Complaints, for example, which features Detective Inspector Malcolm Fox, the Complaints and Conduct Department is investigating an officer suspected of being involved in a child-pornography ring. Fox clears the officer, but only by proving that he was framed by an even higher-ranking member of the force. At least the corruption is rooted out and order is restored, after a fashion. Rebus, when he comes back from his earlier, somewhat forced, retirement, is constantly at daggers drawn with Fox, whom he sees as a cancer within the department. “John Rebus should be extinct,” Fox says in Standing in Another Man’s Grave” (2012). “Somehow the Ice Age came and went and left him still swimming around while the rest of us evolved.” Which makes him not a dinosaur, I suppose, more like a Giant Ground Sloth, but certainly belonging to the old culture, the one in which the ultimate goal was actually catching murderers. “I know a cop gone bad when I see one,” Fox continues, incorrectly. “Rebus has spent so many years crossing the line he’s managed to rub it out altogether.” Not true: we have seen, the line began to be smudged around 1930, and disappeared in the mid-1960s. Mystery writers knew it all along and tried to warn us but, well, we were too busy reading something else.


Rebus and Fox square off again in Rankin’s most recent novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible. The Saints of the title were members of the Summerhall Criminal Investigation Division, the murder squad, thirty years before, including the then-young John Rebus. The Saints are being investigated by Fox for possibly destroying evidence that would have convicted a certain Billy Saunders for the murder of “a scumbag” named Douglas Merchant. Saunders was a snitch for one of the CID officers, and the suspicion is, as Rebus puts it, that “we banjaxed the Saunders case to keep a good snitch on the street.” That would be chaotic enough, but it gets worse.

“How dirty was Summerhall?” Rebus’s mentee, Siobhan Clarke, asks him.

“Dirty enough….” says Rebus.

“Beating a confession out of someone? Planting evidence? Making sure the bad buys get done for something?”

“You thinking of writing my biography?” says Rebus, who rarely says anything without being sardonically evasive.

In real life, as in detective fiction, forced confessions, planted evidence and trumped-up charges are old hat. They belong to the Los Angeles of the 1940s, before corruption went systemic. It’s become a lot worse since Philip Marlowe slapped a few suspects around and bought drinks for their girlfriends. Police officers in the good old days broke the law only when it was necessary to catch the bad guys. They weren’t themselves the bad guys. They were still attempting to restore order. Now, it seems, the police break the law simply to protect themselves.

Is it naïve to think that corruption at the highest levels of society has destroyed any hope we might have that order will eventually be restored, if not by the end of the weekend at least in our lifetime? Are politicians in the pockets of developers? Do they sometimes risk hundreds, if not thousands, of lives in order to lessen the chances of another politician being elected? Do entire police forces take money from drug cartels? Does the church cover up evidence of sexual abuse in residential schools? Do corporations own university departments? Have prison authorities lied about the deaths of inmates? Do governments employ tax audits to rid society of groups that oppose their policies? Do banks issue fraudulent mortgages in order to squeeze money out of a middle class that now believes in the quick buck instead of hard work and frugality?

These have all become rhetorical questions. The press hardly bothers to report such abuses anymore. Investigative journalism is “too expensive,”  mainly because news outlets that publish them would lose advertisers. Disrupted social order is so ubiquitous it has become a kind of white noise on the Internet, humming away behind the pornography and the mindless social networking. If you Google “police corruption,” you’ll get 159 million hits in 0.31 seconds. Try “political corruption” and you get 283 million in 0.33 seconds. One of them, the website for Transparency International, a global coalition dedicated to exposing misconduct by politicians, begins: “It’s natural to think of elections when we think of political corruption.”

All of this is still grist for the mystery writer’s mill, however. It just doesn’t seem as comical as it used to. Or perhaps we’ve lost our collective sense of humour.

In London, England, on September 21, 2012, the ruling Tory party’s Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, was stopped by police while riding his bicycle through the gates of 10 Downing Street after a meeting with the prime minister. There followed a forty-five-second altercation, during which Mitchell allegedly swore at the police officers and called them “plebs.” The offended officers leaked the story to the press, and there was a flurry of calls for Mitchell’s resignation. Mitchell apologized for swearing at them, but denied calling the officers “plebs.” What he claimed to have said was: “I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us.” But he resigned as Chief Whip. In December, Scotland Yard’s Complaints department mounted “Operation Alice,” assigning thirty police investigators to undertake “a ruthless search for the truth.” After a half-million-dollar inquiry, eight officers were arrested; four of them were charged with “gross misconduct” for lying about what Mitchell had actually said. He never called them “plebs.” Apparently, the officers were targeting Mitchell because of his support for his party’s plan to cut police budgets. “We must now consider,” Henry Porter wrote in The Guardian last October, “that the rot has spread, that the police service in England and Wales is so infected by a culture of dishonesty, expediency, and outright corruption that radical reform is the only answer.”

It’s enough to drive a good cop to drink.

—Wayne Grady

Wayne Grady is a Canadian writer of fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction works include The Bone Museum, Bringing Back the Dodo, and The Great Lakes, which won a 2007 National Outdoor Book Award. His travel memoir, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, co-authored with his wife, novelist Merilyn Simonds, appeared in 2009, and his novel, Emancipation Day, was long-listed for the Scotiabank-Giller Prize in Canada and named one of the ten best books of 2013 by the CBC. He and his wife divide their time between their home near Kingston, Ontario, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.



May 142014


Dede Crane writes the anatomy of an affair of the heart in her story “Tattoo,” which is, yes, the story of a tattoo and what that can lead to. Two sisters lounge on a Mexican beach; it’s their last day; the sisters practice their sibling rivalry; Corona beers mark the hours in the sun. A Mexican tattoo-artist, auspiciously named Jesus, plops down beside them and starts his spiel. The narrator has not been lucky with men; she rescues dogs instead; she is acutely aware of stereotypes and the tepid bourgeois agonies of the North American tourist class. Should she? Shouldn’t she? She wants to pay; Jesus considers it a gift. Something is happening. Eventually, there is dinner and more drinking and Jesus ends up carrying the drunken and unconscious sister to their room. And then he stays. What follows is not, as I have somewhat disingenuously called it, an affair — something else, more revealing and innocent, surprising and right.




Late afternoon, we had ordered beer and tortilla chips. Two ahead of me already, my sister thanked the waiter for her third Corona and squeezed the slice of lime down its neck. Our last day in Mexico and she seemed determined to squeeze as much good time out of it as possible.

It was only my second.

I’d had enough of the sun, the salt and my know-it-all sister. I felt like going back to the room, packing for tomorrow, ordering dinner in and finishing reading Donoghue’s Room.

The last of the daytime hawkers were trudging down the beach with the same cheap goods you found in the market, half of them made in China. Yet another one, a backpack slung over one shoulder, was making his way over to us. I sipped my beer and looked right through him at the banana boat about to flip its thrilled passengers into the sea.

“Henna tattoo for your shoulder, ankle, breasta,” the hawker announced in slow but impressive English, all his T’s crossed. He stopped in front of us, blocking the sun for which I was grateful.

“No gracias,” my sister and I said together, a reflex now, like brushing away a fly.

I scooped guacamole onto a chip. Did he say breast?

“My tattoos are the besta, they last longest and do not wash off in the ocean.”

I ate my chip ignoring him. I’d instructed my sister not to respond to hawkers a second time. “It’s like training dogs,” I’d said, “you give the command once not six times or you’re training them to not respond until after six commands.”

“Today, ama feeling generous.” He spoke in such a grand yawning accent that I looked up. Taller than most Mexican men but with the same barrel chest, he had a goatee and bare hint of a moustache. The black curls that blew round a face that made me think of third grade and the boy I’d loved, Freddy Quintana.

“Two for the one price.” He held up his fingers like a peace sign and smiled.

Like Freddy, his cheeks bunched high at their corners when he smiled and his round-cornered teeth gave them the appearance of Chiclets. I used to imagine the sweet taste of Freddy’s teeth.

I was about to break my own rule and repeat ‘no, gracias,’ when my sister said, “Let’s see your tattoos then.” Seeing my expression, she said, “Jim thinks tattoos are sexy.” Jim was my brother-in-law, a mortgage broker and former college football player. “Come on. I’ll pay.”

The hawker dropped to his knees in the sand and swung off his pack. He looked up at my sister with sad gratitude like some sort of beggar.

No, he didn’t. His eyes ran the length of your legs.

My sister was an emergency room nurse. Forty-one, she lived in Denver with her husband and thirteen-year-old son. She’d paid off her mortgage, had a pension plan, an investment portfolio, and international condo shares which was the sole reason I was in a wet bathing suit watching a fleet of bucket-mouthed pelicans fly over the Pacific. Waves crashed on the beach before me while the narrow streets of old Puerto Vallarta, its white stucco buildings and clay tile roofs, raced up the hills behind me.

I lived in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, in a rental house, and my life savings amounted to two thousand dollars. Never the stomach for a nine-to-five, I grew medical marijuana for cancer patients and painted houses, interiors.  I rescued dogs and found homes for them. At any given time I had between three and eight mongrels warming my bed. A dog, I discovered, was more faithful than a husband.

On the beach that day: for the first time in years I had shaved my legs, knowing my sister would have felt embarrassed on my behalf. I’d also allowed her to buy me a pedicure and my toenails were a shiny Bruised Plum. I hadn’t used nail polish since junior high and every time I looked down, my feet startled me, as if they were someone else’s.

The hawker handed us a black binder of sample tattoos and of photos of smiling teenage tourists wearing his product. My sister paid his two-for-one asking price which seemed no cheaper than two tattoos, then picked a lotus flower for the small of her back. He introduced himself as “Hayzeus” was what I remembered, but my sister remembered him saying the English “Jesus.”

She lay down in the sand while he straddled her legs.

He did not straddle me. He sat beside me.

His back arced over her, his bare thigh muscles taut as he pressed a rectangle of paper along her bikini line to transfer the image. Apparently he wasn’t an artist but a professional tracer. He took up his ink bottle and squeezed out not the brownish-orange color of henna but a black viscous line that looked like crude oil. What sort of cheap and unregulated substitute did they use down here? I imagined blood poisoning, raised welts, skin cancer.

When he was done, he told her not to wear her cover up nor sit in her chair until the ink had completely dried. He stood and kneaded his right thigh.

“How’s it look?” she asked me.

It was precisely like the lotus picture in the book and not at all smudgy. “Nice,” I said. “It’s very black ink, just so you know.” I waited to see if this might concern the nurse.

“I’m going to get a prawn skewer,” she said, eyeing the vendor down the beach. “Want one?”

I shook my head, not trusting shellfish that had been out in the sun all afternoon, and Jesus said, “Thank you, yes.”

We looked at him and a smile raised the flags of his cheeks. My sister laughed and walked away twisting happy feet in the sand, her newly painted black flower swiveling side to side.

I’d looked through the book filled with dragons, skulls, hearts, geckos, swastika-like armband and anklet designs and didn’t see anything I cared for. I didn’t have someone at home who thought tattoos were sexy and didn’t want to further tax Jesus’s thighs.

“I choose for you?” he said and his face turned serious. Then, as if searching for something, his eyes, yes, did run down my legs. Shaving had raised and reddened the pores and my pale legs resembled the skin of a plucked chicken.

“Sure.” I was not at all sure. What was in that ink? I should have asked for an ingredient list. He took the book from my hand and tossed it on the sand.

“Please stay in seat” – he looked around for another chair – “I want to work on your feet.”

“My feet. Okay.” It was still winter back home, so the swastikas would be safely covered when I returned. I watched him pull over a chair, knowing that chair cost the price of a drink. The head waiter, also watching, promptly came over and said something in Spanish, the sounds curling up and over each other. It was a language, I thought, born beside the ocean.

“Cervaca por favor,” answered Jesus and pointed to my bottle of Corona.

The waiter gave me a strained look as if he wanted to tell me something but didn’t have the English. A warning? Did he know this Jesus fellow? Was Jesus just a name he used on female tourists?

“Me, too, gracias,” I said and waved my bottle in the air.

I was embarrassed by the whole tourist invasion thing. Jesus could speak near perfect English and I couldn’t say more than ola, gracias, quanto questa and el bano.

Jesus took a paintbrush from his pack and squeezed out a pool of ink onto a plastic lid palette then sat directly across from me. His short sleeved shirt was missing its first two buttons and revealed the same hairless brown chest of the male dancers we watched the night before on the malacon. A professional group from Mexico City, twenty couples performed traditional folk dances. The men were mesmerizing with their bull fighters’ posture, their macho, muscular movements, feet beating down the floorboards as they led the women with such forceful yanks and throws, and at such speeds, the women wouldn’t have had a second to resist much less think. It was breathtaking.

Jesus inched his chair forward until our knees almost touched. He was my age.

He was thirty-three, tops.

Without asking he lifted my leg and planted my foot on his thigh which caused me to slip down further in my slouchy chair. “I painta top of foot.”

I smiled warily and sipped my beer, tried not to think of my bathing suit, old and too small. I had shaved my legs but that was as far as I’d go.

He hooked his entire arm under my calf to steady my leg and wiped down my foot with a rag drenched in what I trusted was rubbing alcohol judging by its coolness. On the beach in Puerto Vallarta, I imagined telling my friends back home, Jesus washed my feet.

Skipping the paper transfer, he began directly with his ink bottle.

“You’re improvising?” I pictured a cartoon-eyed gecko, a smiley faced sun.

“I like to painta,” he said.

The waiter arrived with our beers. As he set them on the table, Jesus did not look up. I pointed at myself and scribbled on my hand. “Our tab, please.”

When the waiter left, Jesus gave me a shy glance. “Thank you.”

“Thank my sister. I don’t have any money.”

“Then we are not alike. Because none of my sisters have money.”

I laughed and though he was concentrating on my foot, I sensed a smile.

Down the beach waving her half eaten skewer – and was that another beer in her hand? – my sister was bopping up and down alongside a small Mariachi band and its harried sounds of forced cheer.

Staring at the top of Jesus’s head, I wondered if I should make conversation – did you grow up here? Where did you learn your English? What sort of work do you do on the off season? I could tell him I legally grew marijuana for profit, see what he thought of that, considering his country’s drug wars. I said nothing, took off my hat instead – it was past sunburn time – leaned back and let Jesus have his way with my foot. Keeping my eyes closed, I tried to guess what he was drawing… something that started between my first and second toe and fanned out towards my ankle… a lop-sided heart? The waves inhaled and exhaled the distant music, the exclamations of children and broken conversations in Spanish. Jesus blew his cool breath around my toes. Being touched felt ridiculously good and I relaxed in a way I hadn’t since meeting up with my sister in the Phoenix airport.

After an unknowable amount of time, Jesus carefully placed my foot on a towel and then raised my other leg. Would two feet, I wondered, still count as one tattoo? Was it his pride making up for the free beer? He said nothing and I pretended to sleep.

You were sound asleep and snoring.

I was snoring?

I must have drifted off because I woke to my sister’s lightly distrusting voice, “You’re still at it?” before it dropped into genuine surprise, even admiration. “Oh wow. Now that is amazing.” The click of her phone camera and I reluctantly opened my eyes as she apologized to Jesus about the prawn skewer. “I was really going to get you one but he ran out.” She was slurring a little.

I was not slurring.

“Let me buy you a beer to make up for it,” she said and signaled the waiter.

“You already did,” I told her and tried to sit up to look at my foot but Jesus said, “No, don’t move.”

“Well, let’s have another. I’d like one.”

“Not for me,” I said, but she ordered three anyway and talked at Jesus’ bent head as he painted up the inside of my ankle. “My sister lives next to a reserve,” she told him, “Native land, and once a month drives over there and picks up half dozen undernourished dogs and puppies.”

“I know many of the families,” I said so it didn’t sound like kidnapping.

“And they’re happy to let her take them. They can’t feed them, don’t keep track of them and let them roam in packs and breed like… dogs.”

I had told my sister these things with an exaggerated exasperation, knowing it would rouse her sympathies.

“Yet, yet” – her finger shot up – “when she offers to have her vet friend come spay and neuter the dogs, for free I might add, they refuse the offer.” She shakes her head. “It would drive me crazy. Why bring all these unwanted dogs into –”

“But they are wanted,” said Jesus. He blew on my ankle and a shiver sailed up my spine. “If those people not let the dogs do what dogs do, then your sister will not be able to rescue them.”

My sister laughed as if he was being funny but Jesus didn’t smile. And in that instant I saw the reserve situation differently, saw it from above the fray of human interference and labels of right or wrong, as simple cause and effect. The notion that I was some kind of savior to these dogs rang not so much false but unnecessary.

Part paisley, part labyrinthine, part Japanese art, yet not any of those, fanned out from between my first and second toe to cover the tops of my feet, the left design curling asymmetrically up the inside of my ankle like a rogue wave. My first thought was that nothing in my wardrobe would do my painted sandals justice. My second was how much worse my blood poisoning was going to be compared to my sister’s.

“Painted on shoes” – my sister spread her hands as if surprised no one had thought of it before.

“I be back,” said Jesus, his eyes brightening. Leaving his bag and book, he jogged off down the beach, the muscles of his calves being worked by the soft sand.

My sister snorted, a little puff of air. “What’s he doing?”

Though we wanted to head back to our condo to shower and change for dinner, we couldn’t leave Jesus’s pack.

You thought there might be a bomb in it.

I was kidding.

Fifteen minutes later, we startled when he came up behind us.

Jesus, I said, not his name but His name, and I wondered how often his head was turned by swearing tourists. From his sagging shirt pocket he drew out a silver anklet. Little filigree bells hung from the chain and as he lengthened it between his hands, it swung back and forth and the bells made a dull tinkling.

“Lovely,” I said.

“My friend, he makes them.”

Quanto questa?” I asked because nothing in this country was free. Cheap yes, free no.

He drew a quick breath and gave me a hurt sideways look.

“Sorry” – I felt terrible – “but I assumed you had to –”

“Dinner.” A mischievous smile.

“We’d love to take you to dinner,” my sister said then looked right at me. “Being  local, he must know the best places.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“That I do, yes. What time shall I meet you?”

My sister suggested in an hour’s time and he gave us directions to the restaurant of his choosing.

“Why did you invite him for dinner?” I asked once out of earshot. “I was planning on staying in. Packing and finishing my –”

“Come on. It’s our last night. I want to go dancing.”

“I don’t dance.”

“I know. That’s what Jesus is for.”

True, I didn’t dance except around the privacy of my living room with a couple paws in my hands. It was a great way to stop a dog barking. “Aren’t you worried he’s just using us?”

She waved me off. “Relax. Maybe we’re using him?”

My only real sandals wrapped up to the ankle Roman style or had a thick strap across the top of my foot. Both threatened to ruin my tattoos.

“Go barefoot,” said my sister. “You won’t be able to tell.”

“Barefoot, suggests the nurse. On these streets.”

“Not going to wear your anklet?”

“It’s something a thirteen-year-old would wear,” I said, guessing that’s what she was thinking.

“Looks like a dog collar for a Chihuahua.”

I had been going to put it on, thinking Jesus intended it to compliment his tattoo. But the adolescent in me still cared what my sister thought.

On the way to the restaurant, I purchased a pair of black flip flops which blended in, sort of, with my foot art. Jesus was waiting for us on the street outside a dingy looking building whose stucco was cracked and stained. His hair was wet or greasy, I couldn’t tell which, and he wore what looked like a brand new white shirt which lay open at the neck and had the sleeves rolled up. A gigolo’s shirt. His backpack from this afternoon hung from one shoulder and for a minute I wondered if maybe he was homeless.

“You’re not still working?” My sister pointed at his pack as he shrugged good-naturedly.

“I never know.”

We followed Jesus up a single flight of stairs to a dim lit room with a tiled floor, rusty punched tin walls and no more than eight or ten tables. The restaurant was full, not of tourists but Mexicans talking noisily over flickering votive strewn randomly over the table. As the head waiter showed us to our seats, he and Jesus laughed and joked in Spanish. I listened hard, hoping to understand but it was as though I was hearing them from underwater and if I could only reach the surface I’d comprehend the words. As we were shown to our table in the far corner, I could have sworn we were walking ever so slightly uphill. The head waiter gallantly pulled out my sister’s chair for her and Jesus pulled out mine.

Jesus must have told him who was paying.

I don’t think so.

The wooden chair with their thick woven backs were uncomfortably upright and each mango yellow tile on the table’s top was cracked or chipped. There were darkened spots on the red cloth napkins. Grease stains? From a dramatic height, the waiter filled our water glasses before I ordered a bottle of Evian. I’d had my bout of Montezuma’s revenge and that was more than enough.

“It is naïve spelled backwards,” said Jesus.


“Evian.” He recommended the margaritas.

“Our margaritas?” echoed the waiter and kissed the fingertips of one hand and my sister ordered a pitcher.

The margaritas turned out to be the perfect blend of sweet and tart and strong. I only hoped the alcohol killed any bugs thriving in the ice. The best guacamole I’d ever tasted was mixed with a pestle at our table in a rough black bowl of volcanic stone – “a molcajete,” Jesus told us – and topped with a deliciously salty cheese, “cojita from Cojita.” The homemade tortillas melted in one’s mouth, the beef for a change was tender, even the refried beans somehow tasted fresh. We exclaimed over the food and Jesus looked genuinely pleased. It was not until half way through the meal did I realize that the room not only had no overhead lights but no roof, and that the dim lighting was moonlight.

“What happens to this place in the rainy season?” I asked.

“It gets very wet,” said Jesus.

My sister laughed too loud.

He pointed back toward the entrance. “The floor, she is tipped a little. And the far wall does not quite reach the floor, you see.”

I pictured rain drumming on the tiled tables and floor, water gushing over the eaves to the street.

“It’s called the washing season,” he added and my sister rolled her eyes.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“Everything is true,” he said. “What else could it be?”

“False,” barked my sister and poured herself another margarita.

After dinner, we went to a crowded disco two stories high, where they played an eccentric mix of the Beegies, Santana and Lady Gaga. I kept watch over our table and a bland and watery pitcher of margaritas safe and while my sister danced with Jesus. During the slow ones, her face rubbed against his white shirt like a rooting infant and I wondered how my brother-in-law would feel about it. And if I was the one with the high stress job and investments portfolios, I’d also need to dance in public, get drunk and rub my head on a stranger’s chest. Jesus’ cheeks bunched every time my sister called something into his curls yet I thought he looked a little bored.

On our walk back to the condo, the alcohol catching up to me, I was drunk enough to believe that the night air off the ocean was the source of the surrealist sculptures that graced the malecon. When you lived in a place where you couldn’t tell where your own skin ended and the air began, ordinary perceptions, I decided, didn’t stand a chance.

I pointed out my favorite sculpture to Jesus; a free standing ladder to the sky, thirty feet tall, with two caped girls made of the same burnt-gold metal, climbing it, one nearly at the top. Their hooded heads were shaped like fat triangular pillows, their capes hanging down their back in severe pleats. A larger version of the girls, the caped, pillow-headed mother, stood down on the ground, her open O of a mouth and extended arms imploring them to come down.

“That is Bustamante,” said Jesus. “It is named In Search of Reason.”

“The mother seems to be saying, don’t go up there,” I ventured, “as if she knows their childhoods are about to be lost.”

“The sculpture,” he said, “makes reason look very dangerous.”

“Ladders are meant to be climbed,” my sister said, steering unsteadily toward a nearby bench. “I can’t walk anymore,” she muttered and laid down on it.

I sat down on it.

“Not far now. I’ll carry you.” He hooked his left arm inside the other strap of his backpack and hiked the bag onto his back. Then he hoisted my sister, too drunk to resist, into his arms.

I felt I should have protested but I could neither carry her nor leave her there so what would have been the point? Besides, like a dog who instinctively trusts certain strangers, I realized I instinctively trusted this one.

“I know a short cut,” he told me and soon I was following him down a narrow alley.

Despite the hour, men, women sat around open doorways, some smoking, others cooking on hibachis, playing guitar or cards, nursing babies or beers. A small pointy eared dog, something larger mixed with Chihuahua weaved around our feet, nose to ground, tail wagging as it hunted. Jesus greeted people and people greeted him back.

“Ola Hayzeus. Como esta?”

I was glad to hear the name was really his. No one in that alley seemed the least bit troubled or impressed by the sight of him carrying a drunk, middle-aged white woman. Was it a regular occurrence? A young Mexican woman pointed at my feet and clucked, then said something to Jesus in a teasing tone.

“What did she say?” I asked when we’d passed.

“That you must have inspired me.”

“Amused you,” I said.

“Amuse, yes,” he said though he may have meant a muse for all I knew.


Arriving at the condo, he laid my unconscious sister carefully on the couch.

I was not unconscious.

I arranged her arms and legs and though the air conditioning was off, covered her with a sheet and blanket. As I stood there watching her settle into sleep, Jesus, now standing by the French doors to the balcony, asked if he could paint me.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” I said, flattered.

At dinner we’d learned that Jesus drove cab in the off season and painted watercolors, his real passion – “of the old buildings and churches” – which he sometimes sold at a gallery in one of the big hotels. So I’d thought he meant paint me on paper. But that wasn’t what he meant.

Then he proceeded to undress you.

He did not.

I went to the bedroom and undressed. For an awkward second I considered putting on my bathing suit then thought of how silly dogs look in doggy raincoats and sweaters. My nakedness felt utterly ordinary as I walked back to the living room. He was outside on the narrow wrought iron balcony, adjusting the placement of a lamp he’d moved outside. As I passed my sister on the couch making sure she was sleeping, I imagined her bolting upright to rip the figurative needle from the record. She didn’t move and when I looked up, Jesus was looking at me with an eagerness akin to hunger. Whether artistic hunger or sexual hunger I didn’t know though both, in that moment, seemed aspects of the same urge, the same need. I continued towards the deck and Jesus stepped back as one steps back to appreciate a painting before he gestured where he wanted me to stand.

Hidden from neighbors across the way by a jungle of parota trees, the balcony overlooked the bay below and vast sky above, the single blackness lit by a three-quarter moon that much larger than the one back home, its reflection spilling a wavy path along the water.

He took my arm and turned it over. “If the moon were flesh,” he said more to himself than to me.

The single point of his brush was achingly soft where it defined my skin, traveling from elbow to shoulder and down to my breast only to turn and go back again.

He stole the cash from my purse.

No. You bought dinner with cash and left a ridiculously big tip.

We didn’t speak but it was a conversation nonetheless, an exchange of charged molecules, vibrations and wonder. Angled into the light, I arched my back for him, extended an arabesque across his knee, draped my hands shameless behind my head. His depth of concentration stilled my thoughts and made me feel cherished for the simple fact of possessing a body. Only later did I wonder if it was a case of an artist unable to afford his paint and canvases.

He probably drugged our drinks.

The horizon was a pale line of fire by the time his painting reached my inner ankle where it hooked under the wavelike curve of this afternoon’s tattoo. As if all evening he’d been patiently waiting to finish what he’d started. As I turned in a circle, arms in the air, his design spiraled up one side of my body and down the other. He asked me to put on the anklet, then had me keep my face averted as he took several pictures with his phone. Said he planned to transfer me to the canvas some day, that he’d send me a photo of the painting.

“Maybe I’ll buy I,” I said.

“With your sister’s money,” he said and we laughed.

His art and I one and the same, when we kissed he was careful as to where he placed his hands.

He was a con artist.

He was an artist.

Afterwards, energized and unable to sleep, I felt a curious presence in the air as if we were being watched but my sister remained sound asleep on the couch. If there had been eyes in the trees, well, it was too late now.

Jesus left well before the harp sounds of my sister’s ring tone sent her rolling with a groan off the couch. By then I had covered the evidence with long pants and sleeves, a turned up collar, was all packed for the flight home.

I woke to stamping and the tinkle of bells. Saw you dancing on the balcony, hands twisting in the air.

You must have been dreaming.

No, you must have.    

—Dede Crane


Dede Crane is the author of five books of fiction and co-editor along with Lisa Moore of Great Expectations, a collection of essays on birth. Her work has been shortlisted for the CBC literary prize, a Western Magazine award, the Victoria Butler Book Prize, the Bolen Book Prize and a CLA prize among others.  Her most recent book, a novel in stories, is Every Happy Family.  She lives in Victoria, B.C. with her husband, writer Bill Gaston, and their children.


May 132014

Photo on 2014-01-28 at 09.48

This is Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying. Stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. The language is matter of fact, the only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the sentences. There are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated, cannot turn away.

This is from a memoir/novel in progress, a new book (please read the NC interview with Breckenridge and two earlier pieces of fiction we’ve published here — links at the bottom of the piece), equal parts fiction and autobiography. This is the first autobiographical section.



I asked the waitress for a chocolate donut and told her that I didn’t need a bag. She handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed a dollar from my wallet and gave it to her. She rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime, pushed open the door and ate the donut while walking to the corner. I wiped my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station entrance.

I was washing the dishes when the phone rang. “Can you get that?” A cigarette was burning between his fingers, “It’s not for me,” another one smoldered in the ashtray. Poker chips, two soft packs of Marlboro 100’s, wallet, magnifying glass, notepad, checkbook, beige coffee mug filled with ballpoint pens, and a worn deck of cards were crowding his end of the table. Three chairs, “Of course it’s for you,” with the brown vinyl cushions torn open, “it’s your birthday,” that leaked powdery chunks of yellow foam all over the floor. “So?” December sunlight filled the broad row of casement windows in the living room, “Why would they be calling here,” facing the tall trees, “if it wasn’t for you?” Brown paper grocery bags, empty cigarette cartons, five or six months worth of the Washington Post, beige plastic shopping bags overflowing with the blue plastic bags the Post was delivered in, glossy color circulars for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Labor Day, Back to School, July 4th were piled on the floor. He tried sounding resolute, “You get it.” Pizza boxes stacked atop the microwave. My hands were submerged in warm water, “I’m busy.” Blackened chunks of rotten countertop surrounding the sink held puddles of suds. My sister hired a maid service to come and clean his townhouse twice a month but they quit a few years ago. My father got up, “It’s a robot,” and made his way into the kitchen. I turned to him while saying, “You can’t know that until you pick it up.” He was wearing flip flops and tube socks, jeans that were baggy at the knees and stained with urine from the crotch to the waist, an oversized grey cable-knit wool sweater pocked with cigarette burns, long wispy grey beard, an eye patch coated with dried mucus, and a Band-Aid that covered most of the large open sore near his right temple. “Someone is trying to sell me something.” I saw him, “You shouldn’t be getting those calls anymore,” once and sometimes twice a month during the last few years of his life. He cleared his throat, “They still call.” I washed the dishes and did his laundry, bought groceries, vacuumed the carpet, and occasionally cleaned the bathroom. “A hundred dollars says it’s not a robot.” Coffee grounds, dropped food, ashes, spilled milk, strands of pasta glued to the splintered linoleum floor. He had a distinctive smokers croak, “You’re sure about that,” that I still hear while recalling this conversation. I would open the window above the kitchen sink to get some air and frequently lingered there—especially in winter. “Absolutely.” The window overlooked a well-tended lawn, clusters of bushes and trees, a park bench at the foot of a towering Sweet Gum tree, and rows of two-story red brick townhouses constructed during the Second World War. A high-rise dominated the skyline and the faint drone of traffic from 395 always accompanied the view. Despite his grumbling, “We’ll see about that,” there was no mistaking the anticipation in his voice. He picked up the phone and said hello. I turned off the faucet then dried my hands with a paper towel. He told the caller that he had, muttered thanks and hung up. Tomato sauce was smeared on my elbow. “And?” He walked through the kitchen, “The phone company was asking about the yellow pages,” returned to his chair. “What?” He picked up the cards, “They wanted to know if I got the new one,” and began to shuffle them. I stood in the doorway and said, “Those assholes.” He turned to me with a deflated smile, “You owe me a hundred dollars.” I balled up the paper towel and tossed it in the trash. The garbage disposal was still working. Filmy water vibrated in the sink before being sucked down the drain.

I encountered the owner of the diner and an elderly waitress standing behind the counter. They were discussing the best place to display the sign for a new online delivery service. The owner greeted me like a long lost friend while handing me the sign, “You can order what you want on there.” I recognized the logo, “I’ve seen this advertised on the subway,” placed it on the counter and asked the waitress for a coconut donut then added that I didn’t need a bag. The owner proclaimed, “You can now order that on your computer through the internet.” I was taken by his enthusiasm, “That’s really great,” although I’ve never purchased anything, “I hope you get more customers that way,” except the donuts, “Your donuts are really great,” the food has never looked appetizing, “the best in the neighborhood.” Bleached color enlargements lining the walls above the counter are backlit by dim fluorescents and feature dozens of greasy dishes undoubtedly made with the cheapest ingredients available. The waitress handed me the donut with a serrated sheet of wax paper folded over it, “That will be ninety cents,” and two napkins. I removed the dollar from my wallet and handed it over while wondering if a purchase this small would make the minimum for free delivery. If I asked the owner that, even if he knew I was joking, it would only prolong our conversation. He proclaimed, “This will change the way my customers order food.” The waitress rang up my purchase then handed me a dime. When I thanked her she told me to have a nice day. I pocketed the dime then congratulated the owner while pushing the door open.

I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. A woman picked up her baby in the stroller and hoisted it over a turnstile. Another woman was pushing an old man in a wheelchair. They were headed toward the stairs leading to the Manhattan bound trains. A rowdy group of high school kids were on the platform yelling at each other and clearly enjoying the aggravation they were causing around them. All of the seats on the bench were taken—the West Indian homecare attendant eating a bag of BBQ potato chips, two old Asian women talking quietly, a teenage boy dressed in black with techno leaking out of his earbuds and two teenage girls in Catholic school uniforms engrossed in their cell phones.

In 1968 (the same year I was born and adopted) the doctors removed a small growth from the tear duct of my father’s left eye. Further tests revealed a massive brain tumor behind his nose. After being told of his condition, he overheard a group of doctors in the next room discussing his x-rays, and one doctor expressed surprise he was still alive, all of them doubted he would live more than a few years. He was 31. My father underwent a number of invasive brain surgeries over the next decade to remove those tumors. My brother and sister were born in ’76 and ’77; having two biological children with my mother while fighting for his life gave him the strength needed to defeat cancer. In the early 80’s he took part in an experimental neutron procedure to rid his brain of the tumors. The operations of the previous decade had taken an awful toll on him and the doctors were out of options on how to approach his cancer. At the time only three patients were willing to undergo this experimental procedure, of those three, he was the only one who survived.

When the donut was gone I wiped off the corners of my mouth with the napkins then dropped them and the wax paper into a trashcan before descending the stairs at the subway station. I removed the metrocard from my wallet and swiped it at the turnstile. The train arrived and the doors opened. It had been a long day and I was (finally) on my way home. I took a seat. I was going uptown to my job on 207th street. I was going to the Port Authority to catch a bus. I was on my way to JFK. Our flight to Athens was in three hours. I had to catch a train at Penn Station. The Chinatown bus left for DC every other hour. I was meeting my publisher for drinks at Grand Central. My corduroy jacket was too thin and I left my scarf at the office. They couldn’t start the reading without me. The subway ride to the bus that went to Laguardia would take an hour. I had to meet with the bank manager before 5 o’clock. The library book was overdue. I promised to mail all of these documents yesterday. I needed to take a piss so hopefully the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was late for my next appointment across-town and hadn’t called ahead. I should have brought a book. It was a warm spring evening growing dark and I wouldn’t get to Alexandria until early in the morning.

I would dab at the sores on his forehead with a paper towel that was soaked in rubbing alcohol before covering them with an over the counter ointment for Staph infections. “That hurts.” After searching the Internet I’d concluded that it was a Staph infection. The puss-filled lesions were black around the edges and gradually tearing through his broad forehead already scarred by repeated brain surgeries. “Does it burn?” The most familiar looking images of Staph infections that I found were from photographs of corpses. The sweet smell of rotting skin is stronger than cigarette smoke.  He looked up at me with obvious discomfort, “It tingles.” In the summer of ’04, a horn-like bump appeared on his forehead, instead of consulting a doctor and getting it removed, he simply cut it off with a pair of scissors.

Seated across from me were two teenage boys in blue tracksuits and running shoes, an Orthodox Jew with poor eyesight reading the Talmud, an old woman staring vacantly at the subway floor.

Cigarette smoke effectively mutes your sense of smell and it’s only hours after leaving a smoke filled environment that it returns. My sense of smell would come back on the bus, usually a few miles before we pulled into the Baltimore Travel Plaza, and although I knew what to expect, the stench of nicotine on my hair and clothes always embarrassed me.


When you sleep time no longer exists. Sleep is the best relief for pain. Death is better but you cannot will yourself to death. The sores gradually burrowing into his forehead began as an ugly thumb-size wound that appeared above his right temple in the late spring of ’08. He refused to see a doctor, and the infection gradually spread from there. My father passed two kidney stones in the summer of ’08, alone and lying on a couch in his sweltering living room, with a broken air conditioner, no fan, and the windows closed. When I saw him that August, I begged him to go to the hospital, pleaded with him, cursed him, and ultimately failed to convince him to get any medical attention. A few years earlier my siblings and I attempted an intervention—to get him to give up his car, sell the townhouse and move into an assisted care facility—we only succeeded in hurting his feelings. “I think that means that it’s working.” He was tired of living and wanted to die but dying is hard work. “How would you know?” Understanding why someone you love wants to die isn’t the same thing as accepting that decision. “I don’t.” Standing by as my father continuously refused medical care while living in absolute squalor was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. “Why don’t you go and see a doctor?” If you can go through your life without entering into this kind of agony, you may be short on experience, but you are very fortunate. “I’ve had enough doctors.” We were nearing the end of our very long thread. “Then tingles means it’s working.” I stood above him and applied band-aids to what became the lethal skull infection that killed him ten months later. I was completely helpless and tremendously grateful for all of the time we had together. My father lived far beyond everyone’s expectations. I was so afraid that he would die at any time, and my only regret, now that he is gone, was not lingering after saying goodbye. I never rushed out the front door but leaving him in that filthy townhouse after we embraced always made me feel unkind.

He would go weeks without answering the phone. I would call the fire department and ask them to check up on him and tell them to tell him to call me. I got so fed up with being unable to reach him, after the third or fourth time of having the fire department check in on him, that I took a Chinatown bus down to DC and woke him up long after midnight. The ringer was off because answering the constant barrage of telemarketing calls was a pain in the ass and he simply forgot to turn it back on. Getting those calls to stop was as simple as putting him on a do not call list. Surviving could have been as simple as making an appointment and taking a cab ride to a doctor’s office. His insurance offered fairly good coverage but getting him to care about his health was impossible. “Ok, doctor.” He was still smoking three or four packs of cigarettes a day depending on how many hours he slept. He would only leave the house to go to the supermarket. “It’s almost finished.” The ancient looking man with grey hair and a scraggly beard, eye patch, glasses with heavy black frames, brown windbreaker, white dress shirt, worn at the knees blue jeans, canvas sneakers dyed beige from nicotine slowly pushing a shopping cart through the Giant on South Glebe Road once a week. That was my father. Maybe you saw him there? He always paid with a check. His diet consisted of waffles drowned in syrup, black coffee, tall glasses of milk, candy bars, ice cream, occasionally canned vegetables, bananas, sometimes pasta, mashed potatoes, and grilled meat that would frequently begin to rot in the fridge before he got around to cooking it—unless one of his children found the souring Styrofoam packages first and threw them away.

The West Indian nanny feeding grapes to an unhappy child strapped in a stroller, the young Mexican mother with her two daughters wearing identical pink dresses and haircuts although one was a few years older and taller than the other, the West Africans standing around the metal pole having an animated conversation in French, a scowling Haitian teenager texting someone, the Dominican boy playing with a Spiderman action figure, an attractive brunette reading a paperback and showing plenty of thigh, two young black boys jumping on their seats antagonizing their distracted and clearly exhausted mother, an old drunk with his eyes closed and head resting on the window, the Chinese man slowly walked by playing something that sounded vaguely like Mozart on a bamboo flute and there was a lull in the noise as everyone took in his waltz-like refrain.

The neutron procedure worked and my father beat cancer although he lost an eye and his ability to smell. His marriage ended soon after, my mother had stood by him through some of the most difficult years of his life, but now found him changed physically and mentally to the point where she could no longer live with him. They split-up in ’83 and he moved from Virginia Beach to Alexandria for work. I joined him in his townhouse two years later, attended high school and lingered under his roof for another year before moving to New York City. My father never remarried, never dated, after being downsized in the early ’90s he never held another job, and rarely left his townhouse.

I grabbed a few pairs of socks and some underwear. Monday was our laundry day so my options were limited. A few clean T-shirts, a dress shirt, a pair of jeans, toothbrush, and the phone charger went into the backpack. A paperback copy of Théophile Gautier’s My Phantoms got tossed into the backpack—although I doubted I’d be able to read on the train.

Born and raised on a dairy farm in Oneida County, New York, my father was the third of six children. Photos from his teens reveal a very handsome and ambitious young man. He was the high school senior class president and the only one in his family to finish college. He earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He commanded a Swift Boat in Danang, Vietnam in ’69 -’70 and saw combat although he never talked about it. He was the cool sailor in dress whites and the decorated officer with a storied and distinguished career. He was a plainspoken dairy farmer. He possessed an intrinsic sense of decency and extraordinary tenacity in the face of impossible odds. He was an epic procrastinator. He had a terrific sense of humor. He never locked the front door to his townhouse. He was incredibly stubborn–pigheaded to the point of being a public menace. It was only after plowing into a DC Metrobus and totaling his car while driving legally blind on an expired license that he started taking a cab to the supermarket. My father wasn’t vain, and although he rarely acknowledged it, the drastic alterations to his physical appearance were extremely difficult for him to accept. Every look in the mirror—regardless of how diminished his sight or filthy the reflection—was a reminder of what cancer had taken from him.

I tried calling after purchasing the ticket—thinking he would be able to get off the couch, walk across the living room and answer the phone. Or maybe the phone was on the coffee table and he would be able to reach it. I wanted to tell him that I was on my way. I would be there as soon as possible.  It rang and rang as I crossed Penn Station then the line went dead. I tried again and finally gave up after a recording informed me that the person I was calling was unavailable, that I should try calling later. The TGIF was nearly empty. I ordered and downed a shot of Jameson but didn’t have time for another because the train to Washington was boarding.

Wake up around 8, have coffee and waffles, read the funnies, do the crossword, play a few games of Solitaire, Sudoku, then nap until lunch, nap after lunch, watch television, more Solitaire or left hand vs. right hand Scrabble, have dinner, watch the local and national news, Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, sports or sitcoms then fall asleep on the couch around 10—nearly everyday for two decades. I walked to the supermarket while he napped and picked up a steak, some potatoes, and a container of mixed greens. I brought down a strawberry cheesecake from Juniors and a bottle of red wine. We always drank good wine together. If I’d known this was going to be his last birthday I would’ve bought more wine. Why hadn’t I forced him to go to the hospital? I could have just picked him up, tossed him into the back of an ambulance—strapped him onto the gurney and away we go. I could have prolonged his life. Everyone who loved my father tried to convince him to take better care of himself and now he is gone. A few bites of steak and half a helping of mashed potatoes, he barely touched his salad after drowning it in Ranch dressing and only drank half a glass of wine—it was a Saint-Chinian—but managed to eat a sizeable wedge of strawberry cheesecake and washed that down with a tall glass of milk. I finished off the wine and smoked his cigarettes with the filters torn off while we sat at the table talking and playing poker. My brother called while we were watching How I Met Your Mother to wish him happy birthday. He was 72.

Four months later he took a cab to the supermarket and fainted in an aisle. He told me later that he was simply tired and needed to lie down. The manager called an ambulance. He spent three days in the hospital before he was released, took a cab home, made it up the stairs and collapsed on the floor. He lay on the carpet for two or maybe three days before a neighbor called to tell me that the newspapers were piling up on the porch, that he wasn’t answering the door, or the phone. Should she call an ambulance? Would it be okay to check on him? I told her to go in and that I would stay on the line. Instead she promised to call me back when she knew what was happening. I spoke to him after she got him onto the couch and he assured me that there was nothing to worry about, that I shouldn’t come down, everything was going to be okay.

I was lulled to sleep after Newark and woke up just as the train pulled into Baltimore. I could have been the only person in the car. The weirdly glowing vegetation that clung to the rocky embankments surrounding the empty platform and my reflection in the window gradually superimposed over a warehouse. We crawled by deserted loading docks, a staggered sequence of orange lights as the train curved through a tunnel, slipping by blocks of desolate row houses, theatrically lit graffiti adorning brick walls, running along a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire, a billboard glaring defiantly into the darkness, carried above empty intersections, through swaths of dark green, long white lights and patches of trees, flashes of suburban lawns, parking lots, illuminated vegetation glistening beneath streetlights, prefabricated condos, darkened strip malls just off the highway now adjacent to the tracks, red taillights vanishing into headlights casting onto rain-slicked roads, gas stations like small islands awash in cold fluorescents, empty intersections, darkened houses, churches, restaurants and racing over a large body of water while watching for a sign that never arrived.

When hailing a cab outside of Union Station I learned that drivers pick up two or three passengers going in approximately the same direction before leaving the station. Since the Metro closes at midnight and there is a shortage of cabs I shared the ride with a chubby Delta Airlines pilot who had been stranded at BWI due to a thunderstorm and a sleep deprived Army officer just back from Afghanistan. The officer, seated on my left, remained silent throughout the ride to Crystal City. The pilot was seated beside the driver and never stopped talking about how he had been inconvenienced by the weather. His car was in the long-term parking lot furthest away from the arrivals building at Reagan National. He drunkenly apologized for parking so far out of the way, had he known that the storm was going to cause his flight to be diverted, had he known that he was going to take the train down from BWI in the middle of the night, had he known that he would have to take this ridiculous cab ride, had he known all of that he would have parked much closer to the airport. He wouldn’t shut the fuck up and when we finally reached his car he couldn’t get out of the cab fast enough. I was relishing the thought of kicking his ass until I realized that would have only prolonged this unbelievable delay. I asked the driver stop at the 7/11 closest to my father’s place so I could get cash out of the ATM to pay for the ride. It was two-thirty in the morning when I finally pushed open the door and climbed the stairs. My father was lying on his back between the couch and the coffee table. He had fallen while attempting to answer the phone. He was soaked in piss and shit. I picked him up and got him onto the couch, assuring him that I was there, and that everything was going to be okay. Would he like a glass of water? Yes. A cigarette? No. Would he like to take a shower and change his clothes? No.

 —Donald Breckenridge

Donald Breckenridge is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of InTranslation, Editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (2006) and The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology 2 (2013), and the managing editor of Red Dust Books. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays, the novella Rockaway Wherein, and the novels 6/2/95You Are Here, and This Young Girl Passing. He recently completed his fourth novel, And Then, and he is currently working on a new book and a one-act play.


May 122014

Patrick OReilly-001

Patrick O’Reilly is a bona fide discovery. I met him in an undergraduate senior projects creative writing class at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. He was wearing a tweed suit. With his mustache and parted hair, he looked a bit like pictures of E. M. Forster — Edwardian, an aesthete. He is from Newfoundland. He’s got poetry in his genes. His poems have an Irish registry, something in the rhythm, phrasing and diction. That gives him a glorious air, an authority, which, coupled with what he has learned from the Imagists and the early Moderns, renders him unique amongst the young poets I have come across. He already fits within the tradition. He has read and absorbed tradition. But then you’ve never read anything quite like this. Biblical, epic, dramatic, hammers and tongs, surgical phrasing. You just wish he’d go on.


What Wolves Eat

Twice-banished, blood-spotted Cain
limps across the barrens,
the mute, unyielding ground of Half-brother Country,
far-far-east of Eden.

Eight wolves sprawl and watch
with indifference:
choosy beggars,
they will not eat scavengers,
tramps, trash-eaters.
Cain does not know what wolves eat;
he keeps walking, keeps not breathing.

He walks ’til sundown. Every limb pleads
“It wasn’t me. The first murderer was God.”
Adam in furs. Adam forcing the plough. Amateur.

Shivering among twigs,
his back to the cold cold ground
his chest to the cold night air,
he falls asleep inventing names for himself:
Cain the First Born Man,
king and government and nation.

Then, always, the vivid dream:
a fist reaching into the wheat,
clenching a paleolithic stone,
red tendon, white knuckle, black stone
raised high against the sun,
smacking him into wakefulness.


The Offer

I’m sitting on a rock,
throwing rocks at the harbour,
chewing on the word husband.

Love is a corset word,
snug on the girl
that can hold her breath.

But husband.

That’s a word about a house,
and I’ll be good
god-damned if I’m hitched
to three rooms, seven youngsters.



His collar’s been dry this ages.

I heard nine different places

his ship spun round
like a crumpled needle.

But he won’t talk about it.
What monsters, murders
he beheld
in that crumbling ocean-close                                                         

I’d only be making up.


i mBolc

Rubbers sob at every step.
He’s come to the high place of the meadow
this first thawed day of spring.

The Ground quivers – swelled belly,
starved for whatever’s near:
booted feet, the heads
of shovels, picks, beads of sweat.

The constant striking aches – strike, strike,
gaffing the ground,
gouging down to the meadow’s toothless maw.

He feeds the meadow his horse;

junk by salt-stained junk she falls
into the ground like coppers.



Last New Year’s Eve (or day, it’s hard to tell
’cause every other soul was gone aloft),
while the dregs of rum were settling in the keel,
himself stayed up with the backhoe driver, Croft.

The bottle drained, Croft stumbled to his feet:
“Before I go, now, do one thing for me.
You sang a song once, this time years ago,
sing that song – I’ll dig your grave for free.”
Half-dreaming in the hallway I could hear
how, instantly, that voice shivered with shame,
but then the old man’s voice came, keening clear,
smashed to Hell, but singing just the same.

On the day they put the body down,
Croft shivered with the handful dressed in black,
and cried to see that casket in the ground,
then turned to go and never would turn back.
At any rate, that grave was dug for free.

No one knows this story, now, but me.


Clothes He Never Wore

His pallmen hitched their gloves around the rail
and down he crossed the bar.

We waited, sole in gravel,
until the drizzle dried into our coats
until the paper flowers burst
until we knew he’d never
pull himself from the dirt.

Just the same, we backed to the truck.
Just the same we left.


That night we ransacked the closet, mined
a trashbag’s worth of oily sweaters, the shoes
from last Christmas, laces curled beneath the tongue,
three piece suit, sans mourner. But no

secret will, no pirate’s map, no
letter from a bastard brother.
Nothing but the clothes he never wore.


The Dance

In a disaster of movement, accordions gasping,
their feet flash off the floor, sounding claps like sparks
flying into the awestruck eyes, mouths of the guests.
Awestruck eyes – the bride’s, the groom’s
fixed to each other: her brown hair shaken
against the fine lace patterned shoulders, a smudge
of blackberry wine on her upper lip, moving too fast
for a kiss. It must have happened then:
some time in the dance, suddenly.
The next morning he rose
and she rose,
announced the arrival,
the spark flung between them,


Oldest Man in Town

One afternoon he might have
one memory after another
wrecking themselves
against his idleness.

His eyes are vices
squeezing every flinch
of every dog for scrutiny.
Things have changed here.

Sundays from his window,
watching the procession,
the long procession
heading to mass,

he can see
what others must miss:
the bodies shifting in time,
their clothes rising and falling

in and out of fashion, their bodies
rising and falling from old age
to fresh youth over
and over and


A for Argyle

On the day the Argyle was first due in spring
the baymen waited for hours at the landing,
sitting with their chins in their hands like girls
waiting for the boys to come dancing.

When they heard the steamstack’s trumpet
they followed it to the water’s edge:
the loud mechanical trumpet blast that beat just once
before she rose above the horizon, a plated beast,
the bowels belching soot, the rivets straining
like a harness around oxen shoulders.

They lifted their eyes in terrible faith,
but I was watching the little girl
cowering behind her mother’s sepia dress,
her eyes grown big enough
to reflect the whole of the monster.



His was a body in want of a bar –
a corner of West Country shebeen,
his face lit by a mug of punch,
scratching doggerel on a scrap of rolling paper.

Instead he’d sit on the daybed,
browned and bow-shouldered
like rum out of the bottle.

Instead he’d sit on the daybed,
loudly quiet,
his breath barely white on the window,
and his bones not content with the room.

Sure he was never big.
Still they say he starved himself
right down to the ribs, as animals do,
and excused himself to the quiet
shelter of his stable.

—Patrick O’Reilly


Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He is studying English with a Concentration in Creative Writing at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and expects to begin work on his MA this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”


May 112014


Running Through Beijing ought to be profoundly depressing. And yet it isn’t. Just the opposite: it’s uplifting, thrilling. It’s a form of meta-text: the fact that you are reading the book at all, the fact that the book was written and published, confounds the darkness of its message. The novel itself, with its sharp, detailed prose and vivid storytelling creates an exhilaration, a giddy hope in the reader that its characters can never share. —Steven Axelrod


Running Through Beijing
Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen
Two Lines Press, 2014
161 pages, $14,00
ISBN: 978-1-931883-30-8


Dystopian novels and films based on them crowd bookstores and multiplexes. These grim fictional futures, and hardy young people who struggle against contaminated environments and corrupt totalitarian governments that define our ruined future have become a favorite brand of escapism in an uncertain world. Things may be bad, these works seem to be saying, but they’re going to get worse. Partly a call to action but mainly an invitation to a cozy fatalistic complacency, novels and movies like The Hunger Games and Divergent want to lull us to sleep.

The novels written about actual dystopian societies, like Xu Zechen’s Running Through Beijing, have a different purpose: to wake us up.

From the moment that Dunhuang, the hero of Xu Zechen’s remarkable picaresque, returns to a Beijing sandstorm after a stint in jail for selling fake IDs, we know we have entered an ominously different world. The streets are buried in yellow dust — Dunhaung casually mentions boiling the tap water (it’s undrinkable otherwise) — and the police are so corrupt that bribes (of money or just cigarettes) are viewed as “fees,” standard as sales tax. As to the larger government, and the social structures of a civilized society, whatever light they shed they doesn’t penetrate the depths of Beijing’s street life as Xu Zechen describes it. These hustlers, prostitutes and con artists scuttle and scheme on the urban sea floor in the dark.

Dunhuang’s goals are simple: to make enough money selling pirated DVDs to bribe his friend Bao Ding out of jail and to find Qibao, Bao Ding’s girlfriend, and take care of her until the couple can be reunited. He knows nothing about Qibao but her name, and he’s only seen her from the back. It was a memorable view but not much to go on while searching through a city of almost twenty million people.

He’s not totally alone though. The first day in the city he meets a girl selling DVDs and buys a few, just to keep the conversation going. One of them happens to be Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece The Bicycle Thief, the first of many film references that play in subtle counterpoint to the story. Rome stands in for Beijing, and the quest of Lamberto Maggiorani’s character for his stolen bike, essential for the job he needs to feed his family, resonates quietly with Dunhuang’s efforts to free Bao Ding from jail. In the underworld of Italy after World War II, just as in today’s China, the only real value is personal loyalty. Bao Ding let the police catch him so that Dunhaung could escape, and Dunhuang never questions or tries to shirk the obligation Bao Ding’s sacrifice imposes on him.

The DVDs these characters sell are more than an easy illicit commodity. They have expanded into a plastic jewel box philosophy, a code of ethics and aesthetics, illegally downloaded from America along with the movies themselves. Dunhaung echoes Hollywood con men from Paper Moon to The Grifters when he goes to dinner with the DVD girl, Xia Xiaorong, and claims that someone in the restaurant has stolen his money and his cellphone. The apologetic and embarrassed manager covers the meal and insists on buying them a few more rounds of beer. They emerge from the restaurant tipsy and triumphant.

It’s an awkward situation, because Xiaorong has an on-and-off boyfriend called Kuang Shan, who supplies her DVDs from his video store. But Dunhuang fits himself in somehow as part of the team. Hawking movies at the gate of the Agricultural University, Dunhuang recalls his earlier days selling fake IDs, revealing that world’s mundane anarchy and social dislocation:

Students needed fake IDs just like the rest of society. When it came time for the job hunt, in particular, they showed up in droves wanting fake transcripts and certificates of honor, the gutsy ones even asking for fake diplomas or degrees: polytech students wanting to be BAs, BAs wanting to be MAs, MAs wanting to be PhDs. It went the other way, too: older doctoral students wanting undergraduate student IDs for the half-price tickets to public parks.

Duhuang is cast out into that world again when Kuang Shan moves back in with Xia Xiaorong.  No arrangement is stable in this world for very long.  Dunhuang puts his head down and goes back to work. He moves from squatter’s digs in a disused diner to student lodgings near the university to a one room shack that at least offers privacy, building his clientele, dodging the police and occasionally sleeping with Xia Xiaorong, their stolen moments together unfolding “leisurely, like  silent film from the twenties or thirties.”

Even their romantic moments conjure the astringent snap of Hollywood.

Dunhuang says, “What’s wrong with me saying you’re young, beautiful, graceful and refined?” (And Jack Lemmon says, “Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you!”)

To which Xia Xiaorong replies, “A whole bowl of noodles can’t shut you up. Do the dishes!” (Like Shirley MacLaine’s four-word rejoinder that memorably ended Billy Wilder’s The Apartment: “Shut up and deal.”)

Eventually Kuang Shan and Dunhuang come to blows over Xia Xiaorong, but they wind up getting  drunk together and wind up at the beginning of a wary friendship.

Xia Xiaorong suggests another familiar movie trope: the corrupt city girl longing to return to the country and a more innocent life. But that’s an expensive proposition. For the moment she’s stuck in the big city, caught between two men. When she gets pregnant, we never know for sure if Dunhuang is the father or not. In any case it’s hard to imagine raising a child in  the chaotic world of Beijing street hustlers.

It feels like “a year of bad omens” to Dunhuang:

…he could see how the streets and the low residential buildings had all turned to the same dirt yellow color overnight, the way winter snows might blanket the earth. But the feeling was completely different; it made the dust covered buildings and streets look like ancient ruins, silent and deathly.

After a particularly nightmarish dust storm, Dunhuang starts scrawling advertisements for his business on the powdered windshields of parked cars. The trick works and he starts to notice other guerrilla advertisements stuck to hoardings and brick walls, mostly for fake ID sellers. Qibao sold fake IDs, or so Bao Ding had told him. Dunhuang makes the connection: all he has to do is call the numbers on these advertising stickers and keep asking for her.

It’s a long tedious process and in the meanwhile he keeps building his customer base. One girl lives so far away he has to buy a (stolen) bicycle, which itself gets stolen, doubling down on De Sica. Dunhuang winds up running everywhere (“They can’t steal my legs”), and soon he’s in marathon shape, which helps when the short-winded police give chase, though one of the scariest cops turns out to be a fake also, with his own counterfeit ID, just looking for an angle like everyone else.

And then, after more than three hundred phone calls, Dunhuang’s strategy for finding Qibao finally pays off. She turns out to be gorgeous from the front, also, a classic “bad girl” who smokes because she’d “die of boredom” if she quit.

“I barely remember what that jerk Bao Ding looks like,” she says.

“He remembers you.”

“Fuck, plenty of men remember me, Wouldn’t you remember me?”

Soon they are making love, mocking and copying the porn films they both sell on the street.

“You’re my girlfriend,” Dunhaung gushes.

“Whooo! Lucky me.”

But ominous events continue to pursue Dunhuang. When he and Qibao run together to the far district where the girl who buys his movies lives, she’s gone. The apartment is sealed and no one in the building has any idea what happened. People just disappear. No one is quite what they seem, even Dunhuang’s landlady, who turns out to be a Communist Party Secretary and threatens to turn him in when she discovers his cache of DVDs. Of course, she settles for raising the rent. “Stingy bitch,” Dunhuang mutters.

“What did you say?”

“I said, I’ll soon be rich.”

That joke is a small grace note of translation; one can’t help wondering how the rhyme worked in Chinese.

Qibao has little interest in her old boyfriend. Getting Bao Ding out of jail would take connections and Dunhuang doesn’t have any. “You’re not going to meet Buddha just by lighting incense,” she says. Instead of trying to buy Bao Ding out of jail, Dunhuang should save up his money and give it to his friend when he’s out of jail. “He’ll need it more then,” she points out, ruthlessly practical as always.

When Dunhuang visits Bao Ding, he agrees with Qibao. “Don’t even think about it, don’t kill yourself on my account, either way it’s cool. Just bring me a carton of smokes from time to time.” Bao Ding’s sense of loyalty is more impulsive – getting arrested so that Dunhuang could escape, or jumping in to defend a friend who was getting beaten up in jail.

Their world isn’t kind to long range plans.

When Dunhuang returns to Beijing he goes directly to Qibao’s house, but she’s not there. He waits outside for her through most of the night and when she finally shows up, startled to see him, he’s furious. She claims to have been out with friends. He knows she’s lying but he doesn’t have the heart to dig for the truth. Instead, he stalks off. She follows him.

They walk for hours, Dunhuang smoking compulsively and flicking the butts into the street, Qibao following him, picking them up. It’s a bizarre interlude, a hieratic ritual of improvised self-abasement: a concubine, serving the emperor. Her gesture simultaneously evokes the formalities of a bygone era and mocks them. Or perhaps she is just mocking herself and Dunhuang and the very possibility of a structured rational society, however oppressive. In any case, the final offering, the handful of spent cigarettes, is enough to defuse Dunhuang’s anger and win him back.

Spring comes to Beijing and fortunes change: Kuang Chan’s video store is closed by the police, and Dunhuang has to find a new supplier. The pal Bao Ding rescued in jail turns out to have political connections. A few phone calls, and Bao Ding is back out on the streets. When Bao Ding goes to a whorehouse, one of the prostitutes turns out of be Qibao. He tells Dunhuang the truth, and after a screaming, slapping match in the street, Dunhuang breaks up with her.

But when Qibao is busted, Dunhuang bails her out. Loyalty comes before every other emotion. They wind up together, as do Xia Xiaorong – now pregnant — and Kuang Shan. But Beijing doesn’t allow for happy endings, and these characters take “ever after” ten minutes at a time.

The last moments of the novel sum up its theme and story in a single heartbreaking image, a visual jueju poem that seems to encapsulate the past and the future of these trapped, doomed children of the street.

The set up is simple and familiar, echoing the events that first landed Bao Ding and Dunhuang in jail. Kuang Shan and Xia Xiaorong are selling DVDs in the street, now reduced to competing with Dunhuang for sales. A police raid explodes and Dunhuang draws the cops away from his friends. We know his running skills by now. He loses the police but when he returns Kuang Shan is gone and Xia Xiaorong is sprawled on the sidewalk in a puddle of blood. In the violence of the raid she has lost the baby, and her DVDs – brightly colored plastic squares showing the life these kids have aspired to and emulated – are scattered across the dirty pavements: gaudy, mendacious trash.

This is how authentic dystopian novels end, from We to A Clockwork Orange to Oryx and Crake: the characters defeated, the revolution a chimera, all hope lost. No warrior princess or cunning hero is going to save the day. The day was lost before it began.

Running Through Beijing ought to be profoundly depressing. And yet it isn’t.  Just the opposite: it’s uplifting, thrilling. It’s a form of meta-text: the fact that you are reading the book at all, the fact that the book was written and published, confounds the darkness of its message. The novel itself, with its sharp, detailed prose and vivid storytelling, creates an exhilaration, a giddy hope in the reader that its characters can never share.

And so does Xu Zechen’s life. Born in 1978, he got a master’s degree in literature, and edits a prominent literary magazine, People’s Literature. He has won prizes and traveled abroad, serving as a writer in residence at Creighton University in Nebraska and distinguishing himself in the  University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. And now Xu Zechen’s tough, unsentimental novel has been translated into numerous languages, including this elegant English version by Eric Abrahamsen.

It might cheer Dunhuang to know, as he moves beyond the last page, picking up Xia Xiaorong’s DVDs and helping her to the hospital, looking out for the ever present, ever-corruptible cops, taking care of himself and his friends as best he can, with no hope for the future beyond the Hollywood vision, the pirated movie playing in his head, that his humble, anonymous story has finally been told, and that the whole world is listening.

They might even make a film out of it someday.

And if they do, you can be sure Dunhuang will be selling pirated copies of it on the street.

— Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the Writers Guild of America (west), though he hasn’t worked in Hollywood for several years. Poisoned Pen Press kicked off his Henry Kennis Nantucket mystery series in January, with Nantucket Sawbuck. The second installment, Nantucket Five-Spot, is scheduled for 2015. He’s also publishing his dark noir thriller Heat of the Moment this summer, with Gutter Books. An excerpt from that novel appeared in a recent issue of “BigPulp” magazine, which will feature his post-modern horror satire The Risen in its upcoming “All Zombieissue. Steven’s work can be also be found on line at TheGoodmenProject and A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island where he writes novels and paints houses, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. His web site is here.


May 092014


 Where would I have gone? one character asks. Is this question meant to illustrate his entrapment? Where would I have gone: there’s nowhere else I can go. Or is it an expression of preference? We walk a line, always, between obligation and isolation. Can you make peace with what you owe to your partner? What do you mean when you tell her, where else would I have gone? — Adam Segal

Selected Stories Cover

Selected Stories
Kjell Askildsen
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, May 2014
Paperback, 100 Pages, $11.95.


When Ameir discovered that I was a nonbeliever, he was incensed. We worked in a kitchen in downtown Iowa City; it was mid July and sweat was plentiful. What began as a jocular conversation about the benefits of certain religious dietary rules had become an expression of more radical thought: the most just society, argued Ameir, would be a total theocracy populated only by faithful adherents. He was a master provocateur, somehow believing this sincerely while simultaneously saying it simply to goad me. What about atheists, I said. They don’t belong in any society, he said. So I began to make my case.

The ensuing debate was lengthy and passionate but likely unremarkable, having been played out by young students for centuries. But one of Ameir’s more compelling barbs connected, and has stayed with me for years. If you’re so certain there’s no God to judge you, he says, and no afterlife to reward or punish you for your deeds, then why are you still here? Here, in Iowa City, in the July heat, in a restaurant kitchen. The mundane Here and not the seductive Elsewhere. His challenge presupposed questionably that the forces holding me in this Midwestern college town (close friends, need for financial stability, general contentment, crippling postgraduate uncertainty, etc.) were moral obligations as opposed to practical ones. But the challenge stung, and the challenge lingered, because in truth I’d been contemplating escape. In truth I’d been wondering just what ties were holding me in place.

This May, Dalkey Archive Press is publishing a taut little collection of fictions by the Norwegian author Kjell Askildsen.  Askildsen has been writing consistently since the 1950s, though these Selected Stories have been gathered from four collections published in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Askildsen is currently in his eighties. His writing has not yet been widely translated into English.

I think of this encounter with Ameir when I think of Askildsen. Selected Stories is a meditation on individual freedom, a book fraught with the day-to-day pressures of human life.

The nine brief stories collected within can all be described in terms of absences. The absence, for example, of experimental or ornate, “flowery,” prose. The absence of unnecessary characters. The absence of exotic or alien locales, or of complicated plot arcs. The emotional landscape is barren, bleak. The stories, on first glance, exhibit such stark similarity that it’s almost alarming. The first four take place prominently in suburban gardens and on the overlooking verandas. Very few of the protagonists mention work, none of them are seen working, and only one, in the three-page “The Nail in the Cherry Tree,” has a named profession. He is a poet. Only in the opening story, “Martin Hansen’s Outing,” is a young child involved or even mentioned. Parents are aging, ailing, or freshly dead. One senses that Askildsen is delicately, deliberately seeking answers to a particular set of nagging questions, and is never quite satisfied with what he uncovers.

Askildsen’s stories are thus constrained, quiet, and at times they even feel polite. But they are not simple.

It does at first seem odd, the overwhelming lack of employment. Where, after all, is this idle world in which one’s primary concerns consist of caring for guests and tending to the vegetable patch, a world in which several stories can begin with some variation of, “We drank morning coffee in the garden”? But it is precisely in this idleness that Askildsen is able to pursue his obsessions. He is fascinated by human pettiness. His characters lie in hundreds of small ways, grow unfairly annoyed with one another, expect much and offer little. They refuse to forgive, and never apologize.

“Martin Hansen’s Outing” sees the titular protagonist lie to his wife about having to meet his brother, just so he will be able to spend his evening drinking alone on the town. Elsewhere characters pretend not to hear their wives, berate grieving relatives for not having enough ashtrays, empty bottles of wine down the drain to create the illusion they got drunker than they did, and stand around in the middle of an upstairs room, simply to “let time pass.”

These antics are variously sad, cruel, and uncomfortably relatable. But Selected Stories is not just a comedy of minor indiscretions. Martin Hansen’s lie about his brother, for example, hints at further lies, and deeper infidelity. Martin comes clean and is asked by his wife “what’s the point of all this sudden honesty?” a question that keeps him up all night, wondering, “what does she know about me that I don’t know that she knows?” Askildsen convincingly plays out the multifaceted tensions and aggressions that arise between siblings and lovers alike. These stories, with very few words, evoke whole years or even decades of family history.

The peaceful, almost pastoral setting in which these stories take place does very little to abate the characters’ strife. Askildsen avoids lingering in his descriptions of nature. In “The Dogs of Thessaloniki,” the protagonist casually takes stock of what is perhaps the collection’s most vivid depiction of Norway’s natural splendor: “I had the fjord and the distant, wooded hillsides in front of me. The murmur of hushed conversation and the gentle gurgle of the water by the shore put me in a drowsy, absentminded state.” Otherwise one gardens in order to ignore one’s family, walks in the woods as a means of hiding from one’s spouse, discusses the weather to cover up all the things one ought to say but refuses to, or can’t. “A Lovely Spot,” a story about a married couple visiting the family summer home, repeatedly employs the title phrase as a sickening joke to illustrate just how incapable the couple is of genuine communication.

—Isn’t this a lovely spot, she said.

—Certainly is, he said.

One of Askildsen’s more acute concerns in these stories is the nature of adult male sexuality, which to him contains subtle underlying elements of violence, rapaciousness, and exploitation. Martin Hansen stares out the window at his daughter’s 15-year-old friend and finds that “it wasn’t difficult” to close his eyes and picture himself “taking her.” Another character reads a “rape-like scene” in a novel, and “felt [himself] aroused.” He develops an intense sexual interest in his new sister-in-law, commenting several times on “how easy it would be to lift her up.” None of the male characters act on these darker urges. But the urges are there, contributing to the sense that the thoughts and actions bubbling up to the surface in Askildsen’s stories–the lies, evasions, and little betrayals–are just superficial manifestations of the forces really at play.

In fact the depictions of male desire reminded me often of the work of J.M. Coetzee, whose aging, overeducated protagonists are often disgusted by and at odds with the power their lust still holds over them. But where Coetzee’s protagonist philosophizes and self-interrogates, reining in the influence of his phallus as if it were an excitable beast on a chain, Martin Hansen and his compatriots are much less interested in self-study. There is very little guilt or shame to be found within these pages. Defending his curious, evasive behavior while home for his father’s funeral, Bernhard, the protagonist of “The Unseen” declares, “I can’t help the way that I am. If I were to kill a person, for instance, I couldn’t help it, but I’m not about to kill anyone, that’s not how I am. Everything that I do, I do because that’s how I am, and it’s not my fault that I’m the way that I am.” Only in “The Unseen” is this idea so explicit, but a soft fatalism envelops every one of Askildsen’s stories.

I have, on several occasions, attempted to comfort myself and close friends in the wake of a breakup with the observation that, individual human desires being as they are so fleeting and disparate, it’s really something of a miracle that any romantic relationship manages to last at all. I acknowledge that the verity of this observation, as well as its usefulness as a soothing agent, are open to debate. But it strikes me now that if youthful romance is “miraculous,” then a lifelong committed marriage must be an exercise in impossibility. Two unlike and unlikely lives, welded together by tradition, eros, child-rearing, desire for fiscal responsibility.

At very least, this might be the thought of many of Askildsen’s characters, who view marriage as a form of oppression in direct opposition to their freedom. Martin Hansen (who, it seems, makes for the perfect prototypical Askilsenian protagonist) wonders for some time just why it is he lies to his wife, and eventually lights upon the realization that “my non-disclosure and falsehoods were prerequisites for my freedom.” Another character lies about visiting his sick father in order to get away from his wife for a few hours. He, too, is attempting to reassert control over his life: “Later on, as he was driving out of town in the direction of R, he felt almost cocky, and he thought: I do as I please.”

“Do you remember the dogs of Thessaloniki,” asks the protagonist’s wife Beate in the story of the same name, “that got stuck together after they mated… All the old men outside the café shouting and screaming… and the dogs howling and struggling to get free from one another.” This unsubtle little allegory makes it clear that all parties feel equally choked by the marital bond, and also brilliantly depicts the overwhelming agitation – the howling and the struggling – hiding beneath all this small talk over coffee in the garden. But how to break free? Beate’s husband, out for a walk earlier in the story, confides: “I noticed I was reluctant to go home, and suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.”

What, exactly, is this sort of freedom that manifests itself in such childish, petty ways? Why is it so important to establish one’s autonomy through minor deceptions, just so that one can go smoke cigarettes down by the fjord? It turns out that marriage isn’t the real culprit. What these characters want, more than anything, is to be free of all obligations, to be owed nothing and owe nothing in return.

It’s no coincidence that friendship is almost completely missing from these stories. The closest thing any protagonist has to a friend is described as “a man my own age who lives in the area, with whom I have a somewhat forced relationship, because he once saved my life.” This same character explains to his sister that he has no girlfriend because “I prefer women who don’t make any demands of me, but who give, take, and go.” In “The Unseen,” Bernhard is shown contentedly allowing his sister and her fiancé to carry on a conversation without him: “It had grown darker, their faces weren’t completely distinct, he felt almost unseen. Almost free.”

So it’s appropriate that so many of these stories are about family visits and homecomings: the homecoming is the time when one’s current self is weighed against old expectations and aspirations, when weddings and funerals shake up or reify the accepted family dynamics. Longtime conflicts, neglected or forgotten, seethe and push against expectations of civility. In an environment of increased pressure, it’s hard not to dream of escape.

But Askildsen’s stories don’t ever build to a level of tragic, operatic family collapse. The conclusions are anticlimactic, the conflict is rarely resolved. There is generally a return, or a resignation. There is an uneasy acceptance of the fact that one is trapped in the same situation as before. “The Grasshopper,” a story of admirable subtlety and palpable sadness, ends with the husband finding his wife–with whom he has of course had some quarrel–alone and afraid in their bedroom. “I thought you had gone, she said. Where would I have gone, he said.”

Where would I have gone?

Is this question meant to illustrate his entrapment? Where would I have gone: there’s nowhere else I can go. Or is it an expression of preference?

Askildsen’s Selected Stories present a world in which one can never truly escape from one’s obligations. There is one character who gets close. His wife is dead and he is ambivalent; he speaks with her father and feels “something approaching satisfaction thinking about how, now that Helen was dead, he was no longer my father-in-law, and Helen’s sisters were no longer my in-laws either.” In all this loss of ties he seems to lose his humanity as well. Contemplating life alone on a large, empty estate, he closes his eyes and sees “that great deserted landscape, that’s painful to see, it’s far too big, and far too desolate, and in a way it’s both within me and around me.” There’s only one place we’re certain to be freed from our debt: the grave.

We walk a line, always, between obligation and isolation. Can you make peace with what you owe to your partner? What do you mean when you tell her, where else would I have gone?

— Adam Segal


Adam Segal

Adam Segal is a writer and culinary professional in Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Iowa some time ago, and has since interned for Graywolf Press and contributed extensively to Whole Beast Rag magazine, among myriad other adventures.


Read “A Great Deserted Landscape” on Electric Literature

May 092014

Ripped and torn (4371)-crop

I met Martin Mooney in August ’95 at The Poet’s House (where he was a faculty member) in Portmuck, on the Antrim coast in the northwest of Ireland. I have memories of musty mornings in damp stonewalled cottages without electricity, stormy days filled with writing and workshops, dark evenings of readings and raucous conversation, and scandalous nights best forgotten.

Somewhere amidst all of this he signed my copy of Grub (Blackstaff Press), his first collection. A remarkable book of poetry that had burst out into the world in 1993 – winner of the  Brendan Behan Memorial Award,  nominated for the Forward Prize, shortlisted for the Rooney Prize for Irish literature, and a Poetry Book Society Recommendation to boot – socially aware poems of shipyards, pubs, punks, and politics.

A few years later, as an occasional reviewer for Poetry Ireland Review, his chapbook Bonfire Makers (Dedalus Press) landed on my doorstep. I can feel the brunt of its words yet –  “Picture yourself drinking with your father,/the talk collapsing down through itself like/badly-erected staging. You are both/on the verge of drunk, and everything/is either forgiven or forgotten” (Painting the Angel) or “It’s no fucking metaphor,/The stuff comes in hundredweight/drums, like dehydrated rage,/a bad temper you could add to water” (Caustic).

“Martin Mooney is a poetic force to be reckoned with,” I wrote, and later on in the same review, “In a world filling ever increasingly with bad poetry, Mooney is a godsend.” He sent me a note of appreciation some time afterwards, but as an atheist apparently had some reservations about being a ‘godsend’!

The fragments below are a departure, prose fragments from a book in progress – snatches of memory – or as he himself says, “For me, remembering is like looking out of the window of a ferry in a heavy chop – just random slashes of sea, sky, coastline.”

— Gerard Beirne

I have a terrible memory. The past is fits and starts, jump-cuts, snatches of sights and sounds too trivial to be called epiphanies. ‘Moorfield Street’ is an attempt to gather together some of these fragmentary episodes into some kind of autobiographical order. As a document it falls far short of memoir, and if it is poetry I’d be the first to admit it struggles to attain that condition. And it avoids narrative connectedness, because I can’t help suspecting that narrative connectedness could only be – given my terrible memory – confabulation. Not of course that there aren’t confabulations in here still.

But by way of narrative background, or context: Moorfield Street in east Belfast is where my maternal grandparents James and Isabella Kirkpatrick lived, from the 1940s until my widowed grandmother moved to a sheltered housing complex. My parents had their troubles, and I spent a lot of time during my childhood in the Kirkpatricks’ Victorian terraced house. I remember it as another kind of sheltered dwelling, a safe house and bolt-hole, and it feels good to renew acquaintance with that security.

There is also, in middle age, the realisation that what one remembers of childhood is now historical. The house in Moorfield Street is still there, modernised with parquet floors and indoor bathroom. But the world of the 1960s and 70s – which in east Belfast was still the postwar world – has been dissolved in the annotations of local historians. These texts are a species of precipitate.

—Martin Mooney



I envy your memory, the way you recognise people on the street and know their names, the way you can correct me so confidently. For me, remembering is like looking out of the window of a ferry in a heavy chop – just random slashes of sea, sky, coastline – or trying to watch something through binoculars, magnifying and multiplying every blink of the eye, every shake of the hand, every twitching muscle in my forearm.


Moorfield Street

At the turn of the stairs in Moorfield Street there was a window onto the back yard. The glass was old, uneven, with that gel-like pooling towards the bottom of the frame. Around the edge of the window, smaller frames in coloured glass. Sometimes I’d sit quietly on the top stair of that flight and watch sunlight take colour on the old wallpaper, moving its oblongs of red, blue, green as the morning passed.

The house was louder with clocks than any I’ve known before or since. The coal fire – we had gas – crackled and spat in the grate, and individual lumps of coal hissed out tiny plumes of smoke. A Swan Vesta would crackle, dottle bubble in my granda’s pipe stem. When he spat into the fire, phlegm sizzled on firebrick.


martin mooney

James Alexander Kirkpatrick and Isabella Shaw Kirkpatrick. In a photo booth, sometime in the 1970s.


The Bridge

With Granny Kirkpatrick on the up line platform on Sydenham halt. It must be late July or August, there’s the high summer smell of oil shimmering on the gravel track bed, of the putrid black mud of nearby Connswater. She is holding my hand. We have to cross to the other platform to catch the train that will take us a few miles to Holywood where we can sit on the tiny beach and watch the ships come into the port of Belfast. At the far end of the platform, the iron footbridge seems to buckle slightly in the heat haze, then pull itself together. All of a sudden – I don’t remember hearing thunder – the bridge is struck by lightning and glows faintly blue. We stare, then walk on and tentatively cross.


Sounding Moorfield Street

Factory sirens in the morning and afternoon. My post-war ears hear warning and all-clear, howling over the rooftops. Early on, before I am up but long after Granda Kirkpatrick, the whirr and chime of the Co-op electric milk float. The Maine man’s lorry, heavier lemonade bottles clanking in their crates. A short run through the entry, the electricity sub-station hums behind its bars. I know I could squeeze between them, but the steel and smoothly-moulded ceramics of the Frankenstein apparatus frighten me. A Skyvan’s twin-engined throb. Incongruous chickens cockadoodldoing somewhere nearby.



From Moyard to Newtownards, my father’s home town. Ian and I spent the night in a big bed in Granny Mooney’s house, shared with aunts and uncles not much older than ourselves. Next day we moved into the new house on the new – the still-unfinished – estate on the slopes above the town. This had been pasture, hazel and holly woodland, and the roads and avenues were named after the flora torn up by the builders. Whin. Juniper. Ilex.


Does He Know?

Granny Kirkpatrick: Does he know?
Mum: Does he know what?
Granny Kirkpatrick: Does he know?
Mum: What, Mai?
Granny Kirkpatrick: About his Daddy?
Mum: What about his Daddy?
Granny Kirkpatrick: You know what.
Mum: What?
Granny Kirkpatrick: That he’s RC?
Mum: Oh for God’s sake!


What We Ate

Egg boiled and beaten in a cup with butter and salt. Lentil soup with the heel of a plain loaf dipped in. Toast made on the gas ring. Boiled potatoes served with butter and salt. Stewed beef from a tin. Fray Bentos pies with layers of damp flaccid suet pastry under the dry crisp flaky pastry top. Cheese triangles. Chops and sausages. Shepherd’s pie. And what I wouldn’t eat: onions, tomatoes, baked beans, peas.

And later, Toast Toppers. Cremola Foam. Chicken Tonight. Soda Stream. Birds Eye steakettes. Oven chips. Vesta beef risotto. The microwave. Frozen stir-fry. Crispy Pancakes filled with a volcanic paste of mushroom and minced beef or poultry fragments, blistering the roof of my mouth.



The bin lid was upturned and set back in the mouth of the galvanised dustbin. Newspaper was crumpled, sticks for lighting the fire put on. A bonefire for Hallaseve. We had sparklers, false-faces, a box of Bengal matches. Bully Martin. Bully Ian.



As if he lives in a fortress, as if he feels himself under siege, Granda Kirkpatrick has cemented pieces of glass into the top of the back yard wall. They are the bottoms of bottles, different shapes and sizes, shark’s-fins of different coloured glass catching the light. The smoky glass of a milk bottle, the brown of beer bottles, the vivid blue fang of Milk of Magnesia.



To dress in the morning was to get on you, and to undress for bed was to get off you. If it was cold I kept my simmit on. In the toilet, to pee was to wee-wee – boys used their wee man – and a turd was a loadie. When she was upset or sad Granny Kirkpatrick would sigh something that sounded like ‘lawnie days.’ When I was upset or sad they told me to straighten my face. My feet were kebs, my ears lugs, if I swallowed Bazooka Joe bubble gum it would stick in my puddings. A splinter under the skin was a skelf, to be dug out with a sewing needle or it would fester.

—Martin Mooney



Martin Mooney is the author of four collections of poetry – most recently The Resurrection of the Body at Killysuggen (Lagan Press, 2011). He was born in Belfast and has worked as a civil servant, creative writing teacher, arts administrator and publican. As well as writing poetry, he has collaborated with visual artists on a number of site-specific projects, and with composer Ian Wilson on ‘Near the Western Necropolis’ for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra.

Eyewear magazine recently called Mooney ‘…one of the best Irish poets writing under the age of 50.’ And according to Sinead Morrissey, ‘Gritty, disturbing, often uncomfortable, terse, controlled, aggressive, lyrical, Martin Mooney, at his best, extends the boundaries of what is and is not appropriate subject matter for poetry.’


May 082014

A. AnupamaA. Anupama

A. Anupama, one of our regular contributors, dusts off her translating skills, bringing us hilariously sexy, curiously modern couplets from the classic Tirikkural, a vast book of over a thousand rhyming couplets written in ancient Tamil and dating from about 2,000 years ago. They run the gamut from agricultural advice to law to flirting couples (the most charming).

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

A. Anupama gives us a rare glimpse into this ancient world, also providing us with a brief gloss on the difficulties of translation and her modus operandi, plus, joy of joys, some sound files with the original Tamil verse (beautiful liquid sounds) and the English translation.

This is not her first translation effort. See also her “Poems from Kuruntokai” and “Sweet to my heart | Translations of Tamil Love Poems.”




Tirukkural is a collection of 1,330 rhyming couplets (called kural) written by the Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar perhaps around 30 BC (dating is vague). The verses were meant as a comprehensive portrait of Tamil culture, a description but also an epigrammatic guidebook in verse to the formulas of this south Indian civilization. The poems cover every aspect of society and right living from the conduct of kings to the sowing of fields, from aspects of ascetic virtue to the intricacies of lovers’ quarrels, and from the art of friendship to dire warnings against vice.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

The couplets are organized into chapters of ten each, and the entire work is divided into three sections, Virtue, Wealth, and Love. Tirukkural differs from other classical Indian philosophical literature (e.g., the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) by not including the fourth section of traditional teaching on spiritual release. Tirukkural emphasizes domestic life over ascetic or religious practice.


The colossal statue of Tiruvalluvar built on a small islet at the meeting of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, represents the poet’s legendary status. Designed by sculptor V. Ganapati Sthapati, this granite monument stands 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of Tirukkural. The height of the statue’s base, at 38 feet, represents the 38 chapters of the first section, Virtue, symbolically setting the foundation of the other two sections, Wealth and Love. The poet is depicted holding up three fingers, a stylized and definitive gesture of Tirukkural’s three sections.

According to tradition, Tiruvalluvar lived in about the first century BCE (though estimates vary by a few hundred years) and was a weaver from Mylapore, near present-day Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil culture and language are the oldest of Dravidian heritage, originating in the southern tip of India.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil is the oldest living language in the world, with a rich classical literary history. Tiruvalluvar’s work dates from the period of the classical Cankam, a famous gathering of poets, scholars, and sages in the ancient city of Madurai. His poetic couplets are the shortest verse form in Tamil literature, and his work was known and referred to by the writers of classical Tamil epics like Cilappatikaram and Manimekhalai.

If you search YouTube for “kural recitation,” you’ll find videos of young schoolchildren reciting memorized couplets, sometimes with a little prompting, but mostly with ease and confidence. The boy in this video recited chapter 40 from Tirukkural, a set of ten couplets on learning.

On the other hand, centuries of erudite commentary on Tirukkural have revealed its subtlety, and its influence on modern thinkers and writers has been significant. Leo Tolstoy quoted several couplets from it in a letter to an editor at Free Hindustan, a letter that was later translated into Gujarati and published by M.K. Gandhi. Albert Schweitzer said about Tirukkural, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much of lofty wisdom.”

I couldn’t find a tougher or more rewarding translation challenge than this. Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay “On Language and Words” remarked, “Take translations of authors from antiquity: they are as obvious a surrogate as chicory for coffee. Poems cannot be translated; they can only be transposed, and that is always awkward.”[1] W.S. Merwin in the prologue to his collection Selected Translations, cites advice he received from Ezra Pound: “He spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language… Pound also urged—at that point and to me, at least—the greatest possible fidelity to the original, including its sounds.”[2] Tirukkural is a particular gift to the translator because in addition to offering fresh mental vistas, it invites one to stricter attention through the voice and the ear.

The couplets, like most proverbs, are designed to be easy to remember and repeat: the alliterative and assonant strength of the compositions aids memory, and tight line-length keeps each verse within a single breath. These same qualities make the couplets difficult to translate, requiring the translator to create equivalencies in sound and sense in a very tight space. Kural 12 showed me quickly how impossible it might be to honor the sound of the original. “Living” sounds nothing like “thupakith,” and yet, the poem in English requires the repetitive transformation of the single word for the purpose of the poem’s sense. The Tamil “Thupaarkuth thupaaya thupaakith thupaarkuth thupaaya” turns into “living,” “live,” “life-giving,” and “life” in my translation.

Still, I found that evoking the original’s sound was possible in many places, with some effort and luck. For example in Kural 18, the “s” sounds in the first line and the “v” sounds in the second line were reproducible, though they lack the alliterative effect of the original. In Kural 20, I added the words “nearness” and “farthest” at the beginnings of the lines to mimic the sounds of the Tamil words “neerindru” and “vaanindru,” which altered the sense only slightly by emphasizing the nuance of distance in the poem’s imagery.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.

Word order and integrity of the poetic line are another challenge, because Tamil syntax runs in the opposite direction from English. Subject-verb-object in English often translates to object-verb-subject in Tamil, and even prepositions become postpositions. Sometimes, I could maintain word order, as in Kural 19: “Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world, / sky unyielding.” In Kural 20, however, I had to flip word order for sense, translating the two phrases “all worldly work ends” and “all natures end” exactly inverted. The rest of the word order, as well as the couplet’s line integrity, I carefully maintained.

I learned my method of line-by-line translation in Richard Jackson’s translation workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2011 when Patty Crane showed us her work translating poems by Tomas Tranströmer. For each line of poetry, I add directly underneath it a literal translation, maintaining the syntax of the original. Alternative word choices are included in this step. Then, directly under that is a first draft of my literary translation of the line. I continue in this way, adding lines for each line of the original poem. I keep everything, every attempt to translate stays in the document. If the lines of poetry get too far away from each other in the process to look at on the computer screen, I copy and paste what I want to work with on a new page in the same document.

Kural 11 in Tamil

Kural 12 in Tamil


In this work with Tirukkural and in my previous translations from Kuruntokai, I relied on my co-translator B. Jeyaganesh for literal translations and recorded readings of the original poems. B. Jeyaganesh is a native speaker of Tamil, the son of a scholar with a Tamil PhD, and a fellow self-described non-expert in this classical literature. For this selection from Tirukkural, we spent over three hours coming up with alternative word choices in English and discussing the relative emphasis of words in the couplets. I listened to the recording over and over to gain a familiarity with the poems’ sounds. I used the recordings again to check my work, often reading my drafts aloud for comparison. Another helpful tool was an English transliteration of the full text online along with the original Tamil and the classic translation by Rev. Dr. G.U. Pope from 1886.

Palm-leaf manuscript

I chose this particular set of couplets to translate (the second chapter and the penultimate chapter) from Tirukkural partly to keep this first try easy for me and easy for a reader unfamiliar with this work. The poet intended these very specific moral edicts and proverb-like statements for people living in a certain cultural and philosophical context, making translation for a contemporary reader in English difficult. The universality of the need for rain and of quarrels between lovers is obvious, and I found this a generous place to begin. My idea was to bracket the work as a whole, but also to bring its didactic verse and its elegant love poetry close together in this small set. The couplets in the third section on love are beautiful, witty, and very different from those in the preceding chapters. In words, sounds, and imagery, however, the thread of the work from beginning to end is wonderfully consistent. The recent drought in South India, and its continuing effects in the region, also inspired me to bring this poetry off my shelf and to translate the chapter on rain.

Tiruvalluvar statue and Vivekananda memorialPhoto by Bennet Anand

In two instances in these couplets, I departed slightly from the literal meaning in order to evoke the sense of the whole work. In couplet 17, my eco-poetic commentary in the addition of “those who don’t give from within” reflects Tirukkural’s moral standard of generosity and right action, as in Kural 211: “Duty expects not anything in return / just as rain expects none.”[3] The literal translation of the line is roughly “gives not, if that’s the state of things.” The state of things today is marked by the urgency of eco-conscious moral imperatives. I found in this a beautiful opportunity to investigate how Tirukkural in translation might evolve in order to retain its original function, which was to describe the cultural, ethical ideal. My initial idea for the change in this line, however, came from the poem’s sound: the end-word “vitin” sounds like my “within.”

My second departure from the literal translation is in Kural 1323, the couplet taken from the last chapter of Tirukkural. My version ends “with earth and water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart,” while the literal includes no mention of a clay water vessel. My addition of the object attempts to bridge the distance between that specific culture and universal understanding. While this image would hover in the subconscious mind of a Tamil reader 2000 years ago and offer another level of mystery to the poem, a contemporary reader from another culture might miss it.

These departures from the literal in my translation are experiments based on an essay by David Damrosch, titled “Translation and World Literature.”[4] In writing about the problem of translating one of the oldest known lyric poems—an Egyptian poem inscribed in 1160 BCE—he observes, “Some literary works, indeed, may be so closely dependent on detailed culture-specific knowledge that they can only be meaningful to members of the originating culture or to specialists in that culture; these are works that remain within the sphere of a national literature and never achieve an effective life in world literature.” In regard to the Egyptian word mss in that poem, which has been variously translated as tunic, dress, loincloth, and clothing, he writes,

…however mss may be translated, most readers will be unable to visualize the ancient garment in all its authentic particularity. Yet as long as the translation doesn’t impose a wholesale modernization, we won’t assimilate the mss directly to our modern experience, as we remain aware that we’re reading an ancient poem: whatever we think a mss is, we won’t envision it as a Gore-Tex windbreaker, though this might be a modern equivalent of the original item. All the same, we can never hold the poem entirely away from our own experience, nor should we. As we read, we triangulate not only between ancient and modern worlds but also between general and personal meanings: however the mss is translated, different readers will visualize it very differently, and this variability helps the poem to resonate with memories from the reader’s own life. (Italics mine.)

In my translation, adding the material object of a water vessel creates a specific resonance and aids the reader’s associations within the ancient world of the poem. Adding the phrase “or if by those who don’t give from within” aids the reader’s associations in the modern world, simultaneously awakening moral consciousness, which is the original objective of Tirukkural. Though I initially felt awkward treating translation as a sort of geometry problem, I felt that the result brought me closer to the text. The availability of many complete translations of Tirukkural also lessened my concern over maintaining literal exactitude in every line. I hope that my work inspires more readers to take a close look at this ancient literary treasure.

—A. Anupama


Translations from Tirukkural


Chapter 2: On the excellence of rain

The sky, so distant, gives to our living world
rain, its own self, living essence.

The living live by the life-giving gift of the seed of life itself:
nourishment spraying down, this rain.

The sky, yielding no rain in spite of these steep surrounding seas,
will bite you from inside your hunger.


The plow won’t plow if the farmer’s awaited downpours, which sow
and grow their wealth, ebb.

Drought’s devastation crushes lives and brings ruin, while its reverse is
restoration in rain.

The sky’s quell of falling raindrops upsets
the lush grass, whose heads will then hide from sight.


The enormous sea, voluminous and teeming, will diminish if not diminished by clouds,
or if by those who don’t give from within.


Grand rituals and extravagant offerings will end if the sky is
rain void, serving the little gods no festivals.

Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world,
sky unyielding.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.


Chapter 132: On pretending to sulk


Women’s eyes savor your every line,
but mine won’t embrace your broad chest.

Our silent spat dragged on, so he sneezed on purpose, so that I would say
“bless you.” So he thought.


A whole branch of blossoms for a garland, and you accuse me of wearing it to catch another woman’s glance,
showing off how I’m dressed.

I love you more than anyone, I said. She sulked,
demanding more than whom, whom!


In this life, we will never be apart, I said.
Eyefuls of tears, she replied.

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

She blessed me when I sneezed, then altered, asking
Who thought about you to make you sneeze?

My next sneeze I quelled, but she cried, someone is thinking of you,
I know, you’re hiding it from me.

She spurned all my assurances, imagining the other women for whom
I’ve offered the same.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?


from Chapter 133: On the pleasures of lovers’ quarrels

Inside this lyric sulk, a heaven nears, with earth and
water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart.

—A. Anupama


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



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Peter Mollenhauer, transl. “On Language and Words,” in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  2. Merwin, W.S. Selected Translations. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2013.
  3. Rajaram, M., transl. Thirukkural, Pearls of Wisdom. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2009.
  4. Damrosch, David. Translation and World Literature: Love in the Necropolis,” in The Translation Studies Reader, third edition, Lawrence Venuti, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
May 072014

Ingrid Ruthig - at Station GalleryIngrid Ruthig

Ingrid Ruthig is a protean artist, a poet, fiction writer, editor, recovering architect (now dealing in architexts), hybrid artist, text artist (dealing in dBooks and recodings and TexTiles, i.e. puns, visual and verbal), the very epitome of the kind of artist we like to feature on Numéro Cinq, a hungry spirit who breaks forms and recombines them, who is always trying a little something new, the kind of artist Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel is always on the look-out for, to interrogate and display, as in here, below, the latest in her amazing series of Off The Page art & interview pieces.



oneTwo facing pages from BinaReCodings: ‘In the beginning was the word’ Click on the image to view the entire book.

NVW: BinaReCodings. I recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Uncreative Writing, in which he talks about these binaries (of 0 and 1) as the basis for all computer “language.” If a jpg image file won’t open, it comes to us as linguistic code. In referring to a Charles Bernstein poem, Goldsmith explains that the “text becomes active, begging us to perform it, employing the spaces as silences.” (p. 18) Goldsmith goes on to say that “Never before has language had so much materiality—fluidity, plasticity, malleability—begging to be actively managed by the writer.” (p. 25) And, I might add, re-managed by the reader! It seems to me your BinaReCodings sketchbook suggests similar ideas. Here, I’m thinking specifically about remaking and repurposing what has gone before, but with a focus on an elementary nature of linguistic activity, a 1 and a zero, a something and a nothing.

Ruthig: When a viewer responds to the work as you have, it’s both exciting and disquieting, because it forces the artist to revisit and reconsider what was deliberate, intuitive, serendipitous—that is, can she actually explain the work? does she want to? Well, here goes!

Yes, on the surface BinaReCodings breaks down language to building blocks, to the letter, in order to prod new connections as we re-see it. It also documents how, through a type of repurposing of pages from history, it has been key to human progress. However, in terms of language, I see the process as akin to translation or transposition. If I use music as an analogy, the original libretto remains, but the score’s been shifted into another key. And the soloist sings in Cantonese rather than Italian, and the oboes play the first violin’s part, and all this happens against a changing backdrop, a contextual repositioning. The result alters how the reader-viewer engages with the original. But let me backtrack a little . . .

twoTwo facing pages from BinaReCodings: ‘In the beginning was the word’

While studying architecture at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, I took an elective on computers. I must have been intrigued partly because I worked as a bank teller during summer holidays, and new ooo-aah robo-digited computer systems had recently replaced pen-on-paper record-keeping. It all sounds incredibly antiquated now, but this was the era of UNIX OS and dot matrix, that held-breath moment before software and personal home computers, such as the Commodore 64, exploded off the digital launch pad. Along with punch cards, much of what the elective offered has dissolved into the shadows of the ancients. Yet the basic premise that everything can be reduced to “On” and “Off”, “1” and “0” remains, and thirty years later, its impact infiltrates our everyday lives.

BinaReCodings reexamines language by putting it into a state that confounds immediate meaning. It draws on Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of “defamiliarization” and aligns with Goldsmith’s take on language as ever-present material. Words are symbols of ideas, holding meaning so long as we know the language and take time to decode it. Using the usually invisible 1 and 0 elements of binary code, I translated the biblical phrase “in the beginning was the word.” But “word” is no longer capitalized and, rather than referring to God, instead references the human facility for language. Letter by letter the recoded phrase then spreads throughout the sketchbook, superimposed on images of key historic pages, those language vehicles.

By showing us where we are, surrounded by invisible (binary) language, as well as where we’ve been, by presenting words from history, by mixing things up, by juxtaposing then and now, known and unknown, BinaReCodings forces the viewer to relinquish assumed meaning and look again, look harder, see something different. Significance is not quite lost, only less obvious. BinaReCodings does manage and demands managing of text as well as image. In the end, drawing connections is what matters.

Sci Fi - from the TexTiles series 2013Sci Fi from the Textiles Series 

NVW: Several visual artist friends have told me this, or variations on this: “Nance, when people go to a gallery, they don’t want to READ; they want to LOOK.” This is an issue I struggle with— how to tempt someone not necessarily to “read” per se, but to want to interact with the text AS text. As both a poet and a visual artist, could you share your own thoughts on this, and perhaps with regard to this particular piece of yours I love, (detail) from TexTiles. To what degree does the semantic meaning of the words themselves illuminate or further the “looking” experience, or does it? Is it important to you that someone do something akin to “reading” while experiencing this piece?

Ruthig: A wild synchronicity is at work here… I tripped across this read/look issue a few days ago, so I’m glad you’ve brought it up. I understand the galleried inclination—I’ve caught myself responding that way to worded works. And if I’m honest, it usually stems from laziness on my part, especially if the text is oriented off-horizontal—I think, Seriously? I’m to stand on my head to read this? Just as we approach visual art with expectations, we approach language with assumptions, programmed so we have one less decision to make, and in a way that’s indolence on the collective scale. Yes, reading does require more from us. We have to process written language. To refer to Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing—which, like you, I only recently read (another intriguing synchronicity)—“the act of reading itself is an act of decoding, deciphering, and decryption.” We can’t connect with the ideas or images until that language processing has taken place. I might argue with myself here, and say that, if words are recited aloud, it’s entirely possible to preempt meaning by connecting through sound—I think of how mesmerizing it is to listen to Gertrude Stein’s work. But if we accept the usual premise about text, gazing at an image seems less daunting by comparison, because it taps intuition and is more immediately sensual, regardless of how it makes us feel.

The way someone experiences any of my textworks is going to be as unique as the person. If she’s inclined to read each word, great. If not, that’s fine too. I’d be happy to know that someone simply liked to look at it, that it was visually appealing. Just as I reassure those who insist they “don’t get” poetry not to worry so much about getting it, similarly, I’m open-minded about how viewers take in my art. To a degree, response does depend on the work—certain pieces are configured for reading, while others aren’t. Any approach is valid, though I believe the deeper the engagement with any work, the more the reward—in other words, the more you put into it, the more you come away with. The only thing that’s critical is to engage. In the case of TexTiles (based on sketches I made while preparing other work for the 2012 exhibition Reading the Image), the work questions assumptions and hopefully prompts the viewer to look again, to see print language less for what it means and more for what it is—i.e. a vehicle with form, one we expect will tell us something. The work plays upon our compulsion to seek (even concoct) meaning, to uncover story in what we don’t immediately grasp. And if we can’t make sense of it, is it still true? Was the original text even true? What was it? And does it matter?

70's POTBOILER - from the TexTiles series 201370s Potboiler from the TexTiles Series

When TexTiles was first shown, a viewer asked if he could tell me what affect it had on him. Of course! He said he came to it believing he would read what were obviously pages from a book, and they would reveal something. Then he realized the language, while still familiar in form, was remade and now unreadable. He found he was seeing the pages in a new way, and reading his own expectations. He also found himself thinking that, if only he could access the strips of woven text, he could realign the words and unlock the mystery. By letting me in on his experience, he revealed my own work to me. It’s easy to forget that we’re never merely looking—we’re always reading and shaping connections, even when words are not involved.

dBooked by Ingrid Ruthig. (mixed media on canvas) dBooked (mixed media on canvas)

NVW: In your artist statement about dBooked  you talk about how with this work we “become archaeologists, asking What was the story? Who told it? Where? And with whom did it once connect?” I’m interested in this idea of reconstruction too, in ways the reader/viewer “remakes” a whole out of pieces. It seems to me this is quite akin to how we live our lives: gathering pieces that seem increasingly fragmented, then holding and sorting these pieces, hoping to infer connections or patterns, albeit not necessarily a “whole.” With this particular piece, can you talk about how you think a reader/viewer might engage with it, i.e. your own understanding of how this “remaking process” might best occur.

Ruthig: Driven by curiosity in a wired world bursting with the incomplete, we’re reclaiming or inventing back-story all the time now. It’s second nature. My own inner archaeologist can’t pass up a chance to puzzle the pieces. The first series I did, Fragments of the Missing, happens to echo something of Walter Benjamin’s preoccupation with the modern world’s fragmentary nature. As a series of deconstructions and reassemblies, Fragments visually stitches shards of language from a variety of sources into a figurative, semi-semantic, patchwork quilt. Lacking punctuation and the usual paratextual guides, the narrative is further remade by each reader, who forms connections with words and phrases and reads the text based on the way the panels are arranged in relation to each other.

In contrast, dBooked is a single work of dismantling and a remaking of a different sort. The viewer confronts in two dimensions the remains of what once existed in three: a skeleton of pages nearly devoid of text flesh; segments of dust jacket, cover, endpapers, its physicality; library markings indicating a previous life; conjunctions and a sequence of chapter headings. Paratext is otherwise absent, though its original locations are still apparent. Most of the language has been removed word by word from the first page of each chapter of a novel, then reintroduced as visual streams and pools without semantic continuity. As the words drain away, the vivid, colourful picture they painted evaporates, the story disappears. Anything that might have been an obvious clue has been deliberately erased. The reader becomes viewer who must look beyond the words.

dBooked is less a commentary on language’s inherent metamorphosis than it is a reflection of the book’s apparent decline as iconic cultural object, as quintessential container for language and conveyor of narrative. In a sense, it is reverse architecture applied to text, where mindfulness of context is achieved by dismantling. The exercise is to take what has come before and deconstruct it for a new perspective. I think the viewer arrives at a similar place as with Fragments of the Missing, by searching for clues that might answer the questions it evokes. Though the original story is undone by the book’s undoing, and may never be rebuilt, language continues to exist and to offer a fresh, if different, narrative.

Your Heart Like A HouseYour Heart Like A House

NVW: Your Heart Like a House. With this one I think about the kinship of the actions of the heart and of reading: passages in and passages out, intake and output (responding). Little by little what enters us becomes us; the “house” is a construct. This piece is a sensuous mix of materials, of text and image so beautifully married. Those four quadrants/ventricles. And what is the text here? Might you speak a little about your process with this one: how did text and imagery find each other or “arrive” together?

Ruthig: Thanks, Nance. Words are at the heart (pardon the pun) of the textworks, usually arriving first, then driving the visuals forward. This piece is no different. It flipsides traditional ekphrasis, in that I wrote the poem “Your Heart Like A House” years before I thought to attempt a visual representation. The poem, which surfaced hard on the heels of unexpected news that overturned my view of the future, begins “I lie down in the rooms of your house / and listen to a new creaking / of timbers that contract and expand, / flexing to the weight of your sleep / while the wiring, unseen, / pulses from space to space / in the walls that contain us both. . . .” Years after it was published, after everyday life had again settled down, after I realized the poem’s images would not leave me, I began to experiment with a visual incarnation. I guess my architectural background is never far from the surface, because I’m inclined to interweave disciplines and mine the rich territory found in the crossover—as when a poem is visually transmigrated, or an image spawns words.

Yes, the quadrants mimic the cardiac chambers, and even at risk of pissing off the viewer, I chose imagery to reiterate that construct—I love how complex and beautiful the actual human heart appears, especially as rendered in historical anatomy books. The poem itself provides the rest of the framework. It loops in its entirety on and on in the background, circulating in red and blue from one space to another, reminiscent too of how we follow a stream of words from page to page when we read. In large font, foreground lines regenerate the stanzas, more or less, and also pass from room to room.

Adages are ingrained in us, and no doubt “home is where the heart is,” as well as Bachelard’s “abode” from Poetics of Space, found their way in, as did a lot of traditional residential and construction imagery—anything that felt as though it belonged. Your Heart Like A House has a lot to do with how we create and inhabit physical and psychic space, how we fill each with expectation, memory, our everyday vision of life, and what happens when that vision is shaken to its foundations.

The creative process, for me, is like stepping into a canoe and choosing a direction as I start to paddle. Then the current takes over. I can’t control it, but if I trust in the flow of words, images, textures, and imaginings into layers, discovery becomes arrival.

Antoinette's Head - a TexTileAntoinette’s Head 

NVW: Antoinette’s Head. Ah, a diptych, a hinged “book.” Here I like how the “head” image gives way—or opens upon—the more language-based material. Even the title  gives the work a luminous context. I think, for instance, of Marie Antoinette, and all that was in that lovely head . . . perhaps even as it left its body. You use weaving in some of your new work, and I wonder if you could talk about that craft in general with your work and perhaps in particular with this piece.

Ruthig: Here’s where I wax rhapsodic about titles for a moment! The way I see it, a title is a key to unlock the work, the point of entry, especially for a poem, that might also set the stage or mood. While providing one isn’t critical, it’s an opportunity for the artist to invite the viewer inside. I find, even as the artist, a well considered title helps gel the work in my mind. So I pay close attention to them, and it’s good to hear how this one let you in!

Antoinette’s Head is based on two portraits of Marie Antoinette and two pages of text, all from a fairly recent biography.  Reweaving the images and text let me confront a number of perceptions. On one level, it continues the exploration of the weft and warp of language, especially print language. On another, it examines our perception of books as repositories of truth. If we stop to consider what we take for granted as historically ‘true,’ we might realize a historic figure, in this case a queen, had to have been misread and a far more complex person than the one some historian or painter claims she was. There’s a literal warp to how people in history are portrayed. Even we ordinary people are storified differently by each person who knows or has ever met us, and each version is a reflection of the individual experience of whoever is relaying the image. In this era of the Web’s tightly woven net and social media’s image-massaging filter, it’s even harder to break the fictional code. What’s true? I want to suggest that we should recognize then question. Rather than read and accept, we should consider the fluid nature of text and image, the telephoning of story that inevitably takes place, even if fact-driven.

By physically shifting image and printed word to illegible states, Antoinette’s Head hopefully shifts assumptions of the reliability and integrity of any documentation, and encourages questions. Arguably, every work of documenting is the product of a narrator who filtered, translated, transposed, and in the process often composed a fiction, intentionally or unintentionally. What we think we know is more than likely false to some degree. Truth is threaded through the language we use to describe everything, but it’s tough to decode it then extricate it from the larger fabric.

Antoinette’s Head, as an extension of the TexTiles series, surreptitiously tapped into the personal. In the mid-1800s, my great great grandfather, an Austrian textile industrialist, founded the family business, which flourished despite war, upheaval, and relocation, and remained in the family until my grandfather died. The inherited stories linger in me, and some latent tactile knowledge, more tangible than one might think, prods me to visit his craft through mine. Antoinette’s Head is a way to explore the weft and warp of language, stories, history itself. It’s also carrying me into a new series of works. I’m well into the current now, and there’s no knowing where it will lead!

 —Ingrid Ruthig & Nance Van Winckel


Ingrid Ruthig - in the studio
INGRID RUTHIG graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Architecture in the mid-1980s. For more than a decade in Toronto she practised as a member of the Ontario Association of Architects – a profession in which word and image are inextricably linked – then retired her licence to write full-time. She also co-edited/co-published the Canadian literary journal LICHEN from 2000–2007, and later, was an associate editor for Northern Poetry Review. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared widely in Canada and abroad, in The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2012, The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, National Post, Canadian Notes & Queries, and many other publications. Her textworks have been shown in galleries, public venues, and are in private collections. Her books include Slipstream (a poem sequence / artist’s book), Richard Outram: Essays on His Works (as editor/contributor), Synesthete II, and she recently edited The Essential Anne Wilkinson (Porcupine’s Quill, fall 2014). Ingrid lives with her husband and daughters near Toronto. Her web page is here:

Nance Van Winckel

Nance Van Winckel is the author of six collections of poems, including After A Spell, winner of the 1999 Washington State Governor’s Award for Poetry, and the recently released Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013). She is the recipient of two NEA Poetry Fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner. Recent poems appear in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, Crazyhorse, Field,and Gettysburg Review. She is also the author of four collections of linked short stories and a recent recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Boneland, her newest book of fiction, is just out with U. of Oklahoma Press. Her stories have been published in AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, andKenyon Review. Nance’s photo-collage work has appeared in Handsome Journal, The Cincinnati Review, Em, Dark Sky, Diode, Ilk, and Western Humanities Review. New visual work and an essay on poetry and photography appear in Poetry Northwest and excerpts from a collage novel are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika and The Kenyon Review OnlineClick this link to see a collection of Nance Van Winckel’s mash-ups of poetry and photography, which she calls photoems. She is Professor Emerita in Eastern Washington University’s graduate creative writing program, as well as a faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her husband, the artist Rik Nelson. Her personal web page is here.


May 062014

Trinie Dalton Trinie Dalton in Teotihuacan on her birthday in sunglasses courtesy of Mary Ruefle

Camden Joy (aka Tom Adelman) is a rock star music journalist, fictionalist, and musician, something of a legend and a verbal riot and it needs a writer like that, with some voltage of her own, like Trinie Dalton, in fact, to take his measure. Trinie is a music journalist, also story writer, artist, collagist, book assembler, a generally high-energy dynamo of vertiginous genre mixing, an incredibly perceptive reader and eloquent decoder of form, also a friend and a colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. What you get here is not just an essay on Camden Joy but also an essay on form, on the consciousness of form and variation that makes art, not just one subject but five, deftly interwoven and self-demonstrated. See also Trinie’s amazing story “Escape Mushroom Style” published earlier on these pages.


Camden JoyCamden Joy from Presidential Coins (2012) Album Cover


All through this, I’ve always thought that if you thought of all of it as a book then you have the Great American Novel, every record as a chapter. They’re all in chronological order. You take the whole thing, stack it and listen to it in order, there’s my Great American Novel.

— LOU REED, Rolling Stone, 1987

In music feature/biopics, the pressure to dramatize every microscopic detail of a short visit with a total stranger is inherent to creating story—what editors want. In my own experience of music journalism, this contrivance began as a fun challenge and has come to drive me nuts. I’d rather just invent stories of my own. This is where my appreciation for Camden Joy begins. In light of the prerequisite that one must pressurize nonfiction to establish somewhat artificial tension up front to carry intriguing and suspenseful delivery of “facts,” a piece of good music journalism can come to feel like a Jane Austen novel—that is to say fictional. With any subjective interpretation of the mise-en-scene, genre boundaries slip away—this is what invites me as a reader into the excitement of the “story,” and what attracted me to music journalism in the first place. But I find that need to deliver facts or an “angle” according to some other person restrictive & repellent, too prone to misrepresentation and divergence from the artist’s POV.

The musician performs for the journalist, the journalist describes it; there’s a voyeuristic dance devoted to writing music features, power dynamics clearly defined from the get-go, in which the writer/recorder/observer adopts the swagger of the star for a few thousand words while informing the readership about where the artist has been and is going. Somehow, however, good writers manage despite this form’s predictability, to transform it into lasting art by showing, paragraph-by-paragraph, how discoveries and revelations (the unexpected) spring from a simple meeting, a single ecstatic listen to a record. This is the art of the variant. Maximizing a writing form and making it yours can be poetry, can be in this case a transliteration of rock and roll.


Post-swagger in New Journalism is where Tom Adelman, aka Camden Joy, finds lineage, namely with the Manifestos and personal essays collected in Lost Joy—with the impetus to 1/ depressurize reportage in favor of author’s lived adventure driving story, and 2/ insertion of author as character into the storytelling; both in the vein of Tom Wolfe’s Electric Koolaid Acid Test. Next, to disconnect from the narrativity of actual event completely in favor of total artifice, loosely constructed upon heaps of pop cultural reference. Adelman’s novels do this. But historical fiction does this, too—nevertheless it typically doesn’t deal so much in contemporary cultural referencing. Fictocriticism, or fiction that develops setting and character through musical referencing—in the vein of Joan Didion, Michael Taussig, Lynne Tillman, Dana Spiotta, Dana Johnson, Darcy Steinke, Ben Greenman, Jonathan Letham, Dennis Cooper… Joy’s brand of irony finds architecture here, but pushes even this trajectory. His novels are closer relatives to countercultural dystopian satire—think Ken Kesey—contaminated with what Raymond Federman in 1973 called Surfiction: conceptual projects that seek to expose the artifice of fiction as a process. In both genres, the politic is not simply implied in the content—it’s engrained in syntax, sentence construction, concept. Joy’s critiques of music in the novels aren’t explicit, then, but embedded in their reclamation of pastiche and in the seamless dedication to the conceits he sets in each story. The concept is high artifice, possibly camp per Sontag’s definition, crossbred with the exploitation of transparent metaphor.

To underscore irony, though, is the sincerity evident in the accuracy of the music lore, the obvious fandom implicit to each text’s concept. In Joy’s work, music journalism saves the day. Gathering facts and slavery to veracity—odious, dull, and rote back then to burgeoning New Journalists—what compelled rebellion and invention of new genre—experiences through Joy’s writing a fiery reversal. Weirdly, the more conceptual Joy’s novels are, the more journalistically accurate they feel to me. Maybe it’s because they convey, through the juxtapositions of hyper-specific (journalistic) musical fandom with poetic license to fictionalize—what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.” I’d call this “ecstatic truth” poetry through allegory, after Goethe’s adage that links allegory to poetry by differentiating them:

It makes a considerable difference whether the poet seeks the particular as a function of the universal or whether he sees the universal in the particular. In the first case we have allegory, where the particular is valid only as an example, as an emblem of the universal, whereas in the second case the true nature of poetry is revealed: the particular case is expressed without thinking about the universal or alluding to it. (Goethe, quoted by Umberto Eco)

In the novels, musical heroes are humanized, portrayed as flawed characters—not just because flawed characters are necessary to real stories; Joy’s journalistic style proposes that the best way to tribute a hero is to retain and uphold their humanity. (Ironically, though, since they’re fictional characters whose identities Joy has co-opted.) In this, they’re allegorical and poetic, ironic and sincere.


I was introduced to Camden Joy’s work through Dennis Cooper’s assignment of my first book review for the LA Weekly Literary Supplement, on the release of Joy’s novella trilogy: Palm Tree 13, Hubcap Diamondstar Halo, and Pan. In re-reading, I still find this triptych appealing and brilliant—back in my original review I wanted to offer a tribute even more metafictional & sincere than Joy’s ultra-meta treatments of Mark E. Smith & Glen Frey—an impossible task. Joy’s metafiction is absolute in those stories—his conceits unwavering and apparent, the satire loud and clear. So much so that he furthers the declarative style from his Manifesto series by transforming the declaratives into revelations that admit the aim of the books’ themes and conceits…for example in Palm Tree 13, Joy admits how easy (and predictable) it is in fiction for the reader or author to search for and to grasp metaphorical & allegorical intent:

After all, it took little brainpower to grasp that the department store was, in truth, a livery stable, and that the firehouse and the bank and the liquor store were all much older than they first appeared. They would simply travel the whole town, walking backward to a hundred years ago. They would defrock the present and will themselves into the frontier period that patiently awaited. (74)

This “defrocking” is exactly the project in all three books; Frey’s cowboy frontier as metaphor for the music industry, in this case, takes the notion of Swagger literally as Frey moves through a frontier that is tough for those in it (artists) and a seemingly glamorous, nostalgic stage set for those looking in from the outside (fans).

Here is the scene from on-lookers’ POV:

On hot summer days, everyone left their doors wide open. There was always music playing. Women wearing aprons peddled corn on the cob from tamale steamers. Men in sequined sombreros rested on corners practicing mariachi tunes. JD leaned out of the window and fired his capgun to delight the neighbors. Mahogany beauties sat on porches with grandparents in rockers, eyeing the world with suspicion. It was a place of crude language and cheap liquor. (63)

And here is Frey’s worn and tarried cowboy vision of it:

Melcher’s words slowly sunk in. They confirmed something Frey had long suspected to be true. The frontier was dying. Frey suddenly saw that it wasn’t just him who was looking to settle down, but the whole darn country. The spirit had gone out of the open prairie; the frontier was dying. (47)


It’s interesting to me how during the moments of epiphany allegory is double-edged, acquires double meaning because of the journalistic, essayistic undertones. Frey’s frontier parodies the music industry, sure, and does so through pastiche: by mashing “frontier” themes into a study of LA in the 70s. But more importantly, this impetus & narrative strategy belies a deep dig into the “stories” of Glenn Frey, Neil Young, David Geffen, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and others who populate this book…to tribute by humanizing them through the reinvention of story that fiction allows. Similar strategies were employed in James Schuyler’s What’s for Dinner, in which the characters from a Norman Rockwell painting come to life and run amok; or Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range, a pastiche as tonally swaggery as Palm Tree 13, but made literally from cut-up cowboy novels.

Music journalism (or art criticism in Schuyler’s case) as nonfiction for magazines perhaps couldn’t previously accommodate this kind of effort, especially given the necessary wall erected between journalist/critic and artist—that is, conflict of interest rules. Conflict of interest rules are important, but on the flipside they breed journalism that perpetuates myth and rumor; which again ironically, is what transforms a musician into a rockstar.


Joy’s overt myth-making is a radical bifurcation, or maybe tributary, of music journalism’s habit of mythologizing musicians. Mythologizing is a main function in fiction too, of course; and Joy acknowledges this throughout the trilogy. In Hubcap Diamonstar Halo, the protagonist constantly considers how to turn his lived experience of a car accident into song:

G’ll be working on a song when acutely he recalls a detail of the accident. The windshield buckling, for example, disassembling as it gushes back to shower him in a great many pebbles and splinters of grass. How to make that into music? (19)

This serves as allegory that transcends journalistic scrutiny—every creative person can relate to compulsion to make art from experience. In Hubcap, the allegorical aim is so inclusive, inviting all artists as readers in on G’s efforts to musically catalog his near-death car crash, that Joy switches occasionally to usage of 2nd person POV:

You inform him his system is undergoing a condition of extreme shock. He nods as if sympathizing with the complaints of a stranger, then gives a shudder and goes limp. For some reason this does not stir your concern. You find yourself without the urge to go for help. (25)

The usage of 2nd person obliterates boundaries between observer and observed—inviting the reader into the artist’s mind. This sets up sympathetic relationship for later in the story, when G. broaches larger philosophical questions about the nature of stardom and creativity:

Do you think any star can still derive even the most basic ego pleasure from expressing themselves artistically? The coordinator shakes his head. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it. (37)


I’ve made much of the differences between writing critically and writing fiction here, in an effort to delineate what genres are capable of and how Adelman combines them to expand their possibilities, but ultimately I think working in any genre or medium is about discovery of authorial opinion; all creative processes clarify and organize experience. My favorite aspect of Camden Joy novels is—just as Goethe found poetry in specificity—that they reiterate the compatibility of genres through highlighting distinctions between them.


ENDNOTE—SWAGGER in OED, as dating back to 1600:

a. intr. To behave with an air of superiority, in a blustering, insolent, or defiant manner; now esp. to walk or carry oneself as if among inferiors, with an obtrusively superior or insolent air.

b. spec. To talk blusteringly; to hector; †hence, to quarrel or squabble with; also, to grumble. Now only (directly transf. from prec. sense), to talk boastfully or braggingly.

In my usage, I shuffle past superiority to reclaim the proactive, confident aspects of the term: to promenade, to revel, to take possession or to own, to pimp, to create dizzying pageantry. Swagger can be unassailable, magnificent, rebellious, durable, and alluring (opposite of punk in historical/original usage = punching bag, man-toy, whore).

—Trinie  Dalton, adapted from a paper delivered at MMLA 2013, Milwaukee.


Trinie Dalton is the director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing and Publishing Program. She has published six books, most recently Baby Geisha (Two Dollar Radio). She teaches fiction and critical writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Art Center, and USC. She has forthcoming fiction and poetry in Santa Monica Review, The Austin Review, GAG (Capricious Publishing), The Milan Review; she has art writing forthcoming in books about David Altmejd (Rizzoli), Laura Owens (Rizzoli), Dorothy Iannone (Siglio), Dorothy Iannone’s Retrospective (Berlinische Galerie/Migros Museum), and Abstraction in Contemporary Video Art (UC Press). Visit her at


May 052014

Darfur, Minnesota - Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg Darfur, Minnesota – Birthplace of Adrien Stoutenburg


The goal here is not really to determine the why
behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership.
But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise –
that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background.

—Julie Larios


I often begin my treasure hunts for Undersung authors by looking for just the right author photo – one that will gaze back at us while we gaze at it, one that will allow the poetry to radiate out through the eyes, the smile, the averted glance, the stare. The treasure hunt this time around was for poet Adrien Stoutenburg, born Darfur, Minnesota, 1916; died Santa Barbara, California, 1982, aged 66. I had only two photos, both low-quality, both from the back jacket flaps of her books. The one below is on the flap of Heroes, Advise Us – her first poetry collection.

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

From Jacket Flap of Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964)

In terms of author photo categories (author as seductress, author as girl next door, author as bad ass, author as somber academic) this author photo of Stoutenburg might be placed in the “author as Republican great-great aunt” file. In it, the poet looks mild mannered but tightly coifed (her father was a barber, her mother a hairstylist.) Possibly a 1950’s country-club member and/or a Faculty Wives’ bridge player. But not even remotely the poet that critics once described as “ferocious” and “terrifying.”

So I looked for another picture. No luck. I couldn’t find a single photo of her on the Internet. I couldn’t find much at all, in fact, about the poet Adrien Stoutenburg —one quick Wikipedia entry. A few mentions as an author of children’s books. But little else. Below is the poem that made me stop in my tracks several years ago when I first read it in a used book store:


I have never seen that beast
with his snout bearing a pagoda
and his eyes like little fragments
and his haunches carrying hills
with them. His teeth, I have read,
are monuments, and his heart colder
than a key in winter,
though he sweats from pores round as goblets
and full of swamps.
The white hunters have killed him
a thousand times over.
I think of myself walking toward him
and preaching a love of creatures,
leaves in my palm, or a loaf of sugar,
and his great horn still,
the knees waiting,
and between us, like birds,
a twittering hope,
or merely the pause
between monster and monster.

—from Heroes, Advise Us

I’m not sure Stephen King ever wrote a more ominous line: “…his great horn still, / the knees waiting….” Ready to charge, that’s what’s implied. What poet, I wondered, looks into the face of a rhinoceros and sees a fellow monster? 

"...his great horn still, / his knees waiting....

“…his great horn still, / his knees waiting….

On the basis of that poem alone, I bought the book, then proceeded to hunt down every other one of her four books that I could find. But finding Stoutenburg takes some doing.

It’s not easy to suffer obscurity or anonymity  (or achieve it, depending on your point of view) on the Internet these days, not with the decades of digitally archived material available, and it’s certainly not common if the object of the hunt is a prize-winning author. Nevertheless, I couldn’t find a photo of Adrien Stoutenburg anywhere online— not a professional portrait, not one of her at a lectern, nor one in a professorial workshop pose, and not even one where she stands at the elbow of – or peeking out from behind – a more famous poet at a conference somewhere.

Was I missing some key word to type in that would get me to a photo? Might there be a photo of her in a literary journal or academic review in a narrower database? I checked, but no. Next I tried to find images online of the covers of her books of poetry – there were four titles to post pictures of – Heroes, Advise Us (Scribners, 1964), A Short History of the Fur Trade (Houghton Miflin, 1969), Greenwich Mean Time (Univ. of Utah Press, 1979) and Land of Superior Mirages (Johns Hopkins, 1986.) Again, I came up empty – other than an unusable 115×115 pixel photo somebody posted at a used book site, there are no pictures of her poetry books online, not even via the increasingly amazonian Amazon. Apparently, the poet Adrien Stoutenburg is not only undersung, she’s invisible.

How is that possible? Heroes, Advise Us won the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1964; her second poetry collection, A Short History of the Fur Trade, won a California Commonwealth medal and was under serious consideration (a “close competitor”) for the 1970 Pulitzer Prize (Richard Howard won, but one of the judges – James Dickey – declared later in a letter to Stoutenburg that he believed her book should and would have won had not W.H. Auden insisted on Howard – and, as the poet David Slavitt said, “Auden… prevailed—he was Auden, after all.”) Joyce Carol Oates praised the book, calling it “brilliant” and referring to Stoutenburg as “a really striking artist.”  Poet Henry Taylor helped get Greenwich Mean Time published at the University of Utah Press, saying “[Stoutenburg] has a wonderful eye for the right detail, and the tact to arrange observed details toward deep conclusions.”  Consider this poem:

On the Wagon

In between drinks I go on the wagon
which is sometimes a sleigh
and always filled with children,
the ears of horses like furred leaves,
the reins black over rumps
that resemble gray, cleft apples,
the smell of leather strong as brown medicine.

It is sometimes summer
and my cousin and I
actually ride the horses
and feel their backs—
broad, alive, and separate—
under our legs
thrust out, spraddled,
like short tan oars.

Sometimes there is hay in the box,
and that is a wood-sweet, wild-smell,
hot-heady bundle
of what was rooted, clovered, seasoned,
and sickled into a great, riding pillow
where we can roll under the passing sky.

It is at other times winter
and the smoke of the horses
is like the breath of fires,
and if I could, even now,
I would sneak inside,
stow away and lean against those hearts
stroking above every kind of ice and sweat
and desire.

Filled, furred, straddled, rooted, clovered, seasoned, sickled – just the sound of the words furls you and unfurls you, as do the unexpected comparisons – those horses’ rumps as cleft-apples, the smell of the leather like brown medicine, the children’s short legs sticking out like oars. It’s a passionate poem that goes deep, certainly not one that stays at the level of surface “glitter.” It throws off the same heat as Rhinoceros, and I could post another twenty here that do the same.

How invisible are other Lamont Poetry Prize winners from the 1950’s through the present day? The list includes poets Kay Ryan, Adrienne Rich, Czeslaw Milosz, Philip Levine, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Hass, Carolyn Kizer, Jane Hirshfield, Kim Addonizio, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth – stars in the poetry firmament, with abundant photos of each one online.  But Adrien Stoutenburg – author not only of award-winning books of poetry but of forty well-received books for children – can’t be found. One-time editor of Parnassus Press. Frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Saturday Review, the Nation, Yale Review, Commonwealth, and Accent. A Poetry Society of America’s Michael Sloane Fellowship winner. Winner of nine Borestone Mountain poetry awards  – yet not one photo.

Heroes, Advise Us contains a 39-page multi-sectioned poem /narrative (“This Journey”) focused on the tragic Scott expedition to the South Pole, as well as another 70 pages of strange and powerful stand-alone poems. The collection won prizes, but the Kirkus review of it at the time said the following: “Although the poems sometimes glitter, they lack a basic warmth.” For me, the poems have such heat that I feel like moving slightly back from them for fear of getting scorched at the edges. I love Stoutenburg’s work with its startling metaphors and convergences, its physicality, its dark imagination and heat.

But no one I’ve ever asked has  heard of her.

There is a second photo, this one from the jacket flap of her posthumously-published fourth collection, Land of Superior Mirages:

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

Jacket Flap from Land of Superior Mirages

This photo shows what might be a younger Stoutenburg, despite the later release date (posthumous, actually) of that book. Younger or not, she appears more approachable and relaxed – like a kind, small-town librarian, which she actually was for awhile.  Stoutenburg, like another of our Undersung poets, Marie Ponsot, earned much of her income over the years by publishing work for children, with Ponsot translating French fairy tales and Stoutenburg interpreting American tall tales and publishing historical fiction and non-fiction for middle-grade school children. Several of her kids books were published as collaborations with the woman Stoutenburg lived with for almost twenty years, Laura Nelson Baker; the books were well-reviewed but not award-winners. Stoutenburg’s writing for children put food on the table just as medicine did for William Carlos Williams, insurance for Wallace Stevens, mortuary work for Thomas Lynch and Brooks Brothers clerking for Spencer Reese. Many of Stoutenburg’s children’s books were published under a pseudonym (most commonly “Lace Kendall,” the first and middle names of her father) – it doesn’t take too large a leap to reach the conclusion that a pseudonym was used because she didn’t want to be known primarily as an author of children’s books.

The reference book Contemporary Authors Online lists Stoutenburg’s authorial status as “Juvenile Writer” despite the fact that all the honors described in the CAO entry are for her poetry for adults.  First comes the long list of not particularly stellar children’s books, then comes the category “Other,” under which her poetry titles rest, like afterthoughts that don’t quite count.  The category itself –“Juvenile Writer” – is that a kind of ghetto-ization? And is that part of the reason readers of poetry have not heard of her?

I’m thinking right now of the photographer Vivian Maier, whose boxes (and boxes) of negatives were purchased by several people at a public auction (the most well-known of the three serious collectors was John Maloof, whose film, Finding Vivian Maier, is currently in release around the country.) Maier worked for forty years as a nanny to private, wealthy families; the fact that seems to surprise people most is that she supported herself by working with children. “A nanny? Really?” is the common reaction, and it comes out with a kind of derisiveness (am I projecting?) that sounds different than it would if people said, “A car salesman? Really?”  Photographers like Joel Meyerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark now say Maier was one of the great street photographers of the 20th-century, on a par with Weegee and Garry Winogrand. Maier, however, never published any of her photos, nor did she share them with anyone. Eventually, she descended into mental illness and true self-neglect. Maier was determined to remain anonymous, Stoutenburg was not, and Stoutenburg did achieve some recognition during her lifetime. But the paradox of being undervalued (people failing to be curious enough to find out who they actually were) due to work with and for children lingers around both these artists.

Two Girls, France - Vivian Maier

Two Girls, France – Vivian Maier

Perhaps it was difficult for Stoutenburg to present herself in a coherent way professionally, with feet in both the adult and the children’s worlds. Her final book talks about mirages:  “All images are bent / through time, and some most prized are fraudulent— / as mine may be.”  I wonder how clearly we can see a writer who moves between stories about Paul Bunyan and John Henry for six-year-olds and a poem like the following:


After my cousin, the choir boy,
murdered his mother with bitter candy;
and after my brother, the air force hero,
ruined his wife with a linoleum cutter;
and after my neighbor ignited his house,
and my best friend took a child to his room,
their gentle faces hung like jerky
from the live ceiling my bed looked up to.

Facts seemed fatal, at the beginning,
as the raw world must have
when it was imagined
with all its teeth and dung and passion.

Time tranquilizes, and bedrooms are cozy.
I rest most nights in the fearless moonlight
as well as the choir boy or the major
in their deep cells, or the child (grown-up now)
or the empty mothers.

Each day the pound master records the dead.
Bones of kittens burn like ignorant trees.
Headlines blur after too much reading
and the patched-up ceiling turns to mist.
I am chilled by the cold blue lisp of mice
hunting for traps arranged in my closet.
One grows accustomed even to this.

It’s hard to imagine a woman writing and publishing that poem if she wanted to be remembered for her children’s books. And since there is little to no critical writing about her, it’s hard to get a picture – both literally and figuratively – of who this woman was. Clear definitions of artists makes things easier for people who like to  pigeon-hole their art.

The goal here is not really to determine the why behind a poet’s lack of reputation and readership. But it’s such a puzzle – this business of a rising star failing to rise – that the temptation to try to solve the puzzle always lurks in the background. Maybe it comes down to what the photographer Saul Lister (himself unsung) once said about his own reputation:

I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason — maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did — in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success…My friend Henry [Wolf] once said that I had a talent for being indifferent to opportunities. He felt that I could have built more of a career, but instead I went home and drank coffee and looked out the window.

Fascinating – that something as simple as indifference (is it a character flaw or a character blessing?) or ambivalence (ditto) determines whether a writer’s work will or will not be read by subsequent generations of readers. Success obviously has many definitions, but isn’t it universally accepted that the trajectory should be, must be, consistently upward? Maybe the whole vertical model is wrong, and by reading poets like Adrien Stoutenburg we have a chance to restructure things, make our understanding of “success” more horizontal, less competitive, find those artists whose work we love but who were “indifferent to opportunities” and share their work with each other.

I look at Adrien Stoutenburg’s books on my shelf and feel lucky to have them. All four are out of print, and the used hardcovers (none went to paperback) online usually number in the half-dozen or so per title.  Who can explain this kind of obscurity for a poet described by James Dickey as having “an imaginative energy matched by few poets at any time, in any language” and who David Slavitt called “the toughest, most unrelenting, most terrifying poet I can think of.”  Slavitt, in fact, for an essay included in his book Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets, addressed the way success eluded Stoutenberg. He reached this conclusion:

…as I now see, there were two things happening in the po’biz that were adversely affecting Adrien’s chances. One was that most trade publishers were abandoning the enterprise entirely, leaving the activity to the University presses. The other was the feminism had hit, and certain female poets had figured out that there were more readers for politics and protest than there were for poetry. If the likes of Adrienne Rich, Marge Piercy, and Denise Levertov were in fashion, then Adrien Stoutenburg wasn’t, and the publishing houses are always sensitive to that kind of trend. They don’t know about literature, and they don’t know about business, but they do know about lunch, and they are good about picking up what’s out there in the air, which is a vulgar knack, but then publishing is, in the root sense of the word, vulgar….If you’re not a member of one club or another, it’s mostly a crapshoot, and not always an honest one, either.

Greenwich Mean Time, Stoutenburg’s third collection is dedicated to Slavitt.  I’ll leave you with a poem from that collection. It’s a fairy tale, yes, but hardly for children.

Riding Hood, Updated

There had to have been a wolf that night,
alive in his rank fur and throat,
ears twigged, wild feet leaving flowers
on spring-deep earth. The howl was there;
his shadow kept house behind every bush.

Remember, dead grandmother,
me in my hood, and the old rifle swinging
between us, ready for that hot tongue’s flash?
There was a moon, too, skull-shaped but red.

Clouds leaned against it,
and the pines were windy harps.
A lake beckoned blue somewhere
like sky at the end of a downhill road.

There must have an owl, as well,
feather-corseted, hinged with claws;
and a bobcat’s cry.
Who knows what other things
lurked there?

It is nothing now to you
snug in your bonnet of earth,
out of the howl, forever wolf-free.
Here, where the hunt goes on,
and unimaginable beasts are loose,
it’s different for me.

I encourage you to try to find Stoutenburg’s books. It’s worth the search. Then sit down with them and wonder why this poet – her poems precise, white-hot and fierce – is not more celebrated.

—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.


May 042014

CaptureGiulio Mozzi via

“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.”
—Federico Fellini

Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is an astonishing debut short story collection that English readers can now enjoy thanks to Open Letter Books. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris, these short stories all play in some way in the garden of the mind, the sandbox of introspection. Reminiscent of the work of Borges and Kafka, Mozzi’s psychologically acute, trenchant prose explores the self-conscious idiosyncrasies of the troubled mind. 

The story below is “Claw,” in which Mozzi imagines the later years of Yanez, the right-hand man of well-known Italian fictional pirate Sandokan. The once-infamous Yanez, known as the Tiger’s white brother, has now for years sat peacefully in his small, square, and white house, relying for subsistence and cigarettes on the daily visit of a woman from the nearby village. He sits in his small, square, and white house, smoking his cigarettes and looking meditative—but we do not believe he is meditating. The villagers react to the arrival of their “first real Englishman,” a threatening missionary who claims to be a saint sent by God. The villagers wonder how their own outsider Yanez will react. You can read my review of This Is the Garden by clicking here.

—Tom Faure




he house is small, square, and white. The roof is flat. The door, centered on the eastern side, is just a curtain with red and yellow flowers. The other sides have one square window, also centered. There’s no glass in the windows, just yellowing, loosely woven cotton rags nailed to the wood like mosquito netting. The house sits on a slight rise in the middle of the plain, and anyone looking out the windows could see a long way. Down the slope from the door, there’s a water pump. A leather razor strop hangs from a couple of nails in the pump’s wooden handle. A small washboard rests against the pump. The house has just one room. A hundred feet to the west, there’s a small shack for bodily functions. The house has a packed dirt floor. Two feet off the floor, a built-in shelf or bench runs along all four walls, interrupted only by the doorway. At the center of the room, there’s a wooden table, a single chair. A few things sit on the shelf: a bowl with a set of flatware, one fork, one knife, one spoon; a covered metal bucket with a curved handle and inside, a thick soup or mash; a basin with a few soap chips and a brush; a tiny, round mirror in a metal frame, a straight-edge razor resting on the mirror; a small rectangular basket with a lid, probably for linen or clothing; a rolled-up mat. On the table, there’s a white enamel pitcher with a blue rim and next to it, a slightly flared drinking glass, the bottom thick, rounded. The glass is cloudy, tinted pink. On one corner of the table, there’s a canister of cigarettes with a lighter. There’s a white man sitting on the chair. He has on khaki trousers and a light, collarless jacket, also khaki, but faded nearly white. He’s extremely thin: those clothes were meant for someone more muscular. The man’s face has a few deep lines. He doesn’t have a hair on his head. He could be fifty, someone who’s spent his life outdoors, but you can tell he’s extremely old because he’s so unnaturally thin. Another way you can tell his age: he barely moves. The man sits, facing the door, smoking. He’s not looking at anything in particular, or maybe he’s focused on the red and yellow curtain stirring just slightly in the breeze. The man sits rigid on the chair, left hand in his lap, right hand resting on the table, holding the cigarette, bringing it to his lips now and then. This man is Yanez, the Tiger’s white brother, and this ground where his house stands is far, far from any sea, in a part of India that appears on British maps as just a milk spot scratched with a few uncertain paths that could be swallowed up at any time by thriving forests or flooding rivers.

Once a day, in the morning, a woman comes from the village (which is close, just past the line of trees to the south), and she carries the bucket of food, and once a day, in the evening, she takes the empty bucket back again. Yanez has lost his teeth and his sense of taste; the bucket holds a milky broth with small bits of meat, boiled vegetables, rice. When he started eating only from the bowl, he gave the woman his metal plate but kept the fork and knife in case a large piece of meat needed cutting. Over the years, his throat has nearly closed. The woman also brings him soap and cigarettes when he runs out and sometimes a lantern wick or a piece of flint for the lighter. Sometimes the woman brings Yanez a shirt or a pair of pants, used, but still good enough to wear. She’s the only one who goes inside his house. Anyone could, but no one does. Yanez hasn’t asked to see anyone in years. For what the woman gives him, Yanez gives her nothing in return. When he dies, his few belongings will clearly go to her. But no one will live in the house—no one in the village can live outside the village. Yanez only leaves the house to fill the pitcher at the pump, or to wash his few clothes or to wash himself, pouring water over his body with the soup bowl; or else he’ll go to the small outhouse and relieve himself. To work the pump, Yanez must lean on the handle with all his slender might. Once a year, around the time of her wedding anniversary, the woman goes to Yanez’s house with her three sons dressed in their newest, cleanest clothes. She has her sons wait by the door, she pulls back the curtain, and Yanez looks at them a while. Years ago, there were two sons, and before that, one. Yanez looks at the young man, the youth, the child, and after a while, he smiles. Then the woman drops the curtain and sends her sons away. They’re healthy, handsome boys, and she’s a healthy, handsome woman—she hasn’t really changed with age. Yanez has never seen her husband. Years ago, Yanez went to the village by himself sometimes for supplies. The villagers knew who he was, but they never asked him any questions. The woman went to his house for the first time after they all realized no one had seen Yanez in nearly twenty days. She went once a week in the beginning; for years now, she’s gone every day. The two times she was in labor, her mother-in-law took her place, but didn’t go inside the house; the bucket of food she left outside the door in the morning was there by the door in the evening, empty. Yanez has given the woman two gifts: the metal plate, and on another occasion, his one book, a volume the size of his hand, three fingers thick, an English merchant vessel’s log of a voyage along the eastern coast of China.

The book was filled with small pictures: strange animals, strange plants, strange buildings, men and women with narrow eyes and strange clothing. The woman’s sons spent hours on boring or rainy days staring at those pictures, imagining all the strange and wonderful things he must have seen in his long, long life—this thin, silent man that people spoke of as a hero, a sea voyager, a great hunter of man and beast, brother in spirit to the Tiger. One day, before the youngest could even walk, the two older boys crept as close as they could to Yanez’s house and hid in the high grass and brush and watched Yanez leave his house with a torn shirt, the basin, the brush and soap. They watched him strain to pump a little water in the basin and wash the shirt, scrubbing it on the small washboard with the soap and brush. Then Yanez pumped a little more water, rinsed the shirt, and hung it over the pump handle to dry. They were quite impressed that he’d done this women’s work so easily, and they decided he could do anything at all. They never told anyone about their expedition and only admitted it to their little brother a few years later, after he swore a thousand oaths of secrecy. Their little brother knew he’d been made part of a great mystery, and he always kept his pledge.

No one knew what went on in Yanez’s mind. Some of the villagers thought he’d grown old and simple. Others thought he passed the time, in the absolute silence of his house, remembering his great adventures, his friends and brothers in spirit killed by accident or men, the thousand places where his name had been pronounced with reverence or rage, friendship or fear, love or loathing. When he first arrived from an unknown place and built his isolated, small white house, even then, Yanez was silent. He only said his name. And apparently, though he’d never been to this or any other nearby village, he knew his name would be enough for whatever he needed. And he needed little. He barely spoke, only if he needed something. When he still went to the village marketplace, he barely spoke a word. For years, the rumor had been that Yanez had died, but then he arrived in the village. The village boys imagined he’d taken refuge in this safe and tranquil place to plan his next great adventure. And they waited for him to tell them that they had to choose: either the safe, boring life of the village or the brief, glorious life of the hero.

But Yanez never told them. After almost a year of talking, meeting, stalling, the most spirited boys finally gathered up their courage and went to his house. They sat by his door and waited. Yanez came out almost at once, and then the boys spoke to him, taking turns, speaking passionately, for a long time. They recalled his great adventures, told him of their own desires to win glory in this life and honor in the next. Any adventure would do—it didn’t matter—it would be a glorious adventure, and they were ready for victory or defeat, because defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy would also bring glory on earth and honor in the heavens; they didn’t know their enemy, but they weren’t afraid; they’d fight anyone in his name, on the plains or in the mountains, in the rocky desert or the woods, even on the ocean that no villager had ever seen, but they knew it must be like a river with just one bank, and they weren’t afraid of any river or riverbank. Yanez stood in the doorway and listened, paying close attention to each boy, fixing his eye on the one who spoke, and when they’d all said their piece, and it was clearly his turn, the minutes passed in silence, and then he bowed stiffly and stepped behind the curtain. The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years—time for the village boys to become village men—before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant. The village was isolated, distant, and no one had ever seen an Englishman, but there still wasn’t a home without something made in England that had passed through a thousand peddlers’ hands. One villager, though quite suspicious, bought a sack of seeds from a bragging peddler, and it yielded thirty times the normal crop; from that year on, the children grew stronger. Some of the young men who longed to travel had gone off with peddlers to villages closer to the English, and they came back with stories of English medicines that cured almost anything and tools and machines that helped with every sort of labor. Who could resist the English when they brought such useful things? The village men wanted to consult with Yanez—he’d know everything about the English, everything good and bad—he’d fought them for so long and, really, was almost one of them, and the men wanted to know whether it was right or wrong to let the English take the village, even with fertile seeds, and strong medicines, and useful tools. The men talked a long while, but in the end they never went to Yanez—it was absurd, really—they could never keep something out that made life so much better. And then, around that time, a small caravan of peddlers arrived and brought the village its first real Englishman.

He was extremely robust, both muscular and fat, dressed all in black, with strange hair the same color you saw behind your eyelids when you closed your eyes and faced the sun. The Englishman’s hair shone in the sun, seemed almost to course with blood—not the dark blood of the body—a thinner, brighter blood. The Englishman could almost speak their language, but he used strange-sounding words, and once in a while, he’d go on and on when he was really saying something fairly simple, the same way children ramble when they’re first learning to talk. In the village square, the Englishman’s voice thundered that he was a saint of the English god, come for their own good, to save their souls from certain death, a death they’d all soon face, he insisted, if they refused his help. The village elders met for a long time, and finally they went to the square and told the Englishman they truly didn’t understand how a god, even the English god, could want or even allow men to die whom he hadn’t known existed until yesterday. The English saint laughed and said he admired the village elders for their intelligence and thought their answer was especially appropriate, coming from men who had understood the best ways of thinking when considering gods; but, he added, perhaps he hadn’t made himself quite clear, or the elders hadn’t quite understood. He asked permission to stay a while in the village, and they agreed. For a year, all the children, women, men, and elders listened every night while the English saint told stories about his god and the people to whom his god had first appeared. The English god treated his people (who weren’t English yet) like any good, stern father might treat his young son bursting with energy, both good and bad. When his people made mistakes, he punished them severely, and when they behaved, he rewarded them with his moderation. In the end, the English god wanted to teach his people a definitive lesson about the one true path, so he came down to earth as a man, yes, a real man who left his home and family when he was thirty and traveled around teaching the true path and living off the charity of others. Was he a buddha? the village asked. No, he wasn’t a buddha: he was god. An avatar? Something like that. A person could get along with this English saint; his topics were interesting and sparked debate. And he knew so many other useful things: how to cure certain childhood diseases, how to get an even larger yield from English seeds. The village men thought the god of the English saint seemed just and good, though they weren’t sure what to make of this idea of one god only; they might be willing to admit that he was a great god, and maybe—and this was extremely delicate—even a god more dignified and powerful than all the rest; but the English saint just kept insisting, ignoring all the evidence, that his was the one true god, and this, the village elders thought, was virtually insane; this pretense, this boundless pride was so out of character for a god who seemed so just, and kind, and good.

The English saint had been there almost a year, when much to everyone’s surprise, Yanez—who hadn’t left his house in years—showed up one night in the village square. He asked for the Englishman—so this was why he’d come. The English saint was astonished to see him, though Yanez didn’t say his name, at least in public, and somehow no villagers had mentioned it, either, so they’d kept Yanez hidden almost a year by just not saying anything. The English saint and Yanez wanted to be alone; they shut themselves away in the room of a house, and someone spying on them through a crack in the planks said Yanez dropped to his knees before the English saint, and stayed on his knees for over an hour, almost whispering—you couldn’t tell what he was saying—and the English saint listened, face attentive. You couldn’t see Yanez’s face, but his voice, that voice you couldn’t understand, that was the voice of a crying man, a man pleading to a vast superior, even pleading to a god. After a long time, the English saint and Yanez came out from the house, the saint in front, looking as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen with his own two eyes; behind him came Yanez, his face, as always, revealing nothing. Together they went to Yanez’s house; meanwhile, in the village, people were making up stories; some were furious that Yanez had bowed down to this English saint, who maybe wasn’t so saintly after all; some said if the Tiger’s Claw welcomed the English saint into his home, the English saint must be good; but then others wondered if this applied to him and him alone, or whether all English saints were good (the English saint had said there were many saints like him spread all over the world, commanded by a saint of saints who lived in a very ancient city with a name that rolled beautifully off the tongue . . . Rome); and then what about the rest of the English—saint or otherwise—were they good, too? They discussed this in their homes; later, in the village square; finally, in the council of the adults and elders; and since they couldn’t send a delegation to Yanez and violate his privacy, they went directly to the English saint and questioned him in the square for an entire day, the people crowded all around him. They wanted to know—and the English saint could see the change right away—they wanted to know what his intentions were, not as a saint of his god or a saint in general, but as an Englishman, if he was there on his own or if he’d been sent by other Englishmen, and if anyone else, saint or otherwise, might be coming; quite simply, they wanted to know who he was, this man who’d made Yanez kneel down and cry and plead, this man who could break the Tiger’s Claw with just his presence, or better, who was so powerful, the Tiger’s Claw had come down to the village of his own free will, to be broken. But their questions served no purpose. The English saint still seemed like a good man, English, yes, so different from other men, but a good man all the same.

He’d lived in the village nearly a year and told wonderful stories. He’d taught the children new ways of doing figures. He’d taught the boys and men how to make English seeds yield more. He’d taught the women how to lower a child’s fever. He’d talked with the men and elders about the gods, about suffering and death. He’d laughed at births and cried at deaths, always in good measure. But he’d humiliated Yanez, they all said or thought. That isn’t true, someone stood up and said: Yanez humiliated himself. Following this day of questions came a night of talk, and in the morning they all said: Yanez humiliated himself. It was a surrender, not a defeat. The English saint could stay.

After his confession, Yanez barely slept. When it grew dark, he would unroll his reed mat and lie down, but he barely slept. He’d always been a light sleeper, but he slept often. Now he lay stretched out on the mat with his eyes closed, not sleeping, and this was like sitting and staring at the curtain moving slightly in the doorway, and really, if staring at the curtain was doing nothing, staying awake with his eyes closed was doing even less. He had only a short time to live, and he wanted to live every second of it, awake. He’d made himself a bet: if the priest absolved him and kept his confession, then god existed and was good and great, because only a true, and good, and great god could do great deeds with small men; and Yanez knew that he’d committed many large sins and pardoning them was a great deed, but above all, Yanez knew that even the smallest sin was enough for damnation, so even pardoning the smallest sin, and saving a soul from damnation, was a very great deed. If the priest refused to absolve him, then he had every reason to doubt the priest’s god. Yanez always knew the only one he could really count on was himself. He’d sailed a hundred seas, built and destroyed cities, been king and beggar, Portuguese and Oriental, loather and lover, friend and foe, only to find in the end that salvation comes not from what you take or lose, but from the gifts you’re given and keep forever. Yanez had been given three gifts: the friendship of the pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia; the friendship of the woman who brought him food; and, maybe, the friendship of god. Sandokan had been dead for many years now, but their friendship wasn’t dead. They were friends together and friends apart, and now the great distance between them didn’t matter at all. Sandokan died young and handsome, as he should—a life like that couldn’t end with a frail body, a toothless mouth, a nearly closed throat, and soup trickling down your chin. This was Sandokan’s gift: the lesson that all lives are different, and each ends as it should. The woman was alive and gave Yanez almost everything, asking almost nothing in return; she fed him, honored him, named her sons for him. Yanez didn’t mind the woman’s devotion; he knew the woman considered this to be right because of what he was: an old man who needed her. Yanez knew the woman honored him for his age and for the wisdom gained with age. That’s why Yanez wanted to gain some wisdom, after so many years of life, because it was all he could give the woman in return for all her silent care. His desire for wisdom was the woman’s greatest gift. The English priest came just when Yanez realized that, for all his effort, wisdom was slipping away, because, quite simply, he wasn’t worthy: he’d wanted to live a thousand lives instead of one, the right life, his life. Perhaps the priest had the power to free him from all those superfluous lives, to strip him down to the least, the poorest. This power, perhaps the priest had it, and Yanez went to the village the day he felt strong enough and weak enough to find out. Now Yanez lies stretched out on the reed mat, awake, eyes closed, and he feels like a newborn child in a basket of rags who doesn’t know yet that he has arms, legs, a belly, and a back, who sees those limbs waving all around him without knowing that they’re his. Yanez grabs his left hand with his right; he clasps his hands, knits his fingers; he touches his face, his neck, his chest, his belly, and his thighs; he squats, hugs his knees, caresses himself, lightly kneads his lower back; he counts his toes, touches his hard soles, the backs of his knees; he hugs his shoulders, touches his throat, the back of his neck. He struggles to his knees, as he’s done only a few times by choice and as he was forced to do as a child. On his knees, almost without thinking, he prays, he gives himself.

Now he can die. When god’s claw decides to strike him.

—Giulio Mozzi, Translated by Elizabeth Harris

Giulio Mozzi was born in 1960 in the small town of Camira Vicentino in Northern Italy. He is the author of over two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and writing craft, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of numerous young writers in Italy. “The Apprentice,” a story from This Is the Garden, appeared in the anthology Racconti italiani del Novecento, edited by Enzo Siciliano for Mondadori Press. Mozzi lives in Padua.



Elizabeth Harris‘s translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). Her prizes include a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome), a Banff Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from the PEN American Center.


May 032014


Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word. —Tom Faure


This Is the Garden
Giulio Mozzi
Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris
Open Letter Books
Paperback, 121 pages, $13.95


What is a garden? For Adam and Eve, it is the warm kingdom of innocence from which they have fallen. For Candide, it is the final plot he must dedicate his life to cultivating. For Giulio Mozzi, the garden resembles a Borgesian labyrinth—a mysterious, perplexing place in which people constantly write, read, and rewrite the ever-shifting planes of some elusive salvation. Mozzi’s garden is both the sandbox of the imagination and also an idyll his sad, thoughtful characters can never seem to achieve.

Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is easily the most rewarding book I’ve read this year. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris for Open Letter Books, these short stories each explore a combination of metaphors that plague and sanctify the human experience: the word, the letter, the sheltering garden, and the postlapsarian dream of succor.

The first piece in this brief, eight-story collection gives us a petty thief writing to his most recent victim. He is returning two letters he found in the purse he snatched. While detailing the thought process of a criminal observing potential victims, he digresses into disclosures such as that letter-writing seems more honest than the ephemeral, blunt honesty of direct conversation: “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me, and perhaps that’s making me too verbose; my apologies.” Such an existentially conscious and narcissistic character offers his victim enough gems about the letters that perhaps she’ll even forget her material suffering:

“Anyway, since your friend’s descriptions were completely unreal, I took to them at once. Children view reality this way, too, and I’m not sure if it’s instinct or habit that makes adults tell fairytales and stories to reinforce this idea of the world as somehow magical, or if adults are too lazy to explain the way things really work.”

A perfect opening to a story collection, “Cover Letter” tells us what to expect: very fine sentences, outcast characters, tacit ruminations on everything from first impressions to deontology and consequentialism, all held in check by a steady hand. Control is the order of the day and it is mesmerizing to see how much Mozzi packs into just under 120 pages.

His Kafkaesque characters—old, young, male, female, adroit, spacey—do not know what plagues them, necessarily. The second story, “The Apprentice,” tells of a young man who wishes to be more than just a delivery boy, but rather a true apprentice who might grow in time into “a man, a worker.” He experiences the joys and pitfalls of laboring for an uninterested boss who might hold, not only the keys, but the existential manual, to his future. He suffers the futility and anomie of his work, furiously certain that “he’s certainly much more than nothing, even if he doesn’t know what.” The boy haplessly considers the merits of punishment as biblical path to salvation, recalling the garden in which men first foolishly attempted to be like gods.

Each of these stories does indeed evoke or otherwise explicitly depict a garden, but the collection is not purely religious in nature. It’s thoroughly human, it’s Kafka, it’s experience of love and the puzzles of human connection and communication.

“To Mario, the dreams you can’t remember are the most important kind—they protect your vital secrets.” Mario is whiling the time on a five-hour train ride that reminded me in its style of Venedikt Erofeev’s masterful fugue Moscow to the End of the Line.  “Today, Mario is headed to Rome where, perhaps, a woman is waiting for him. A few days ago, he got a letter from her saying: ‘I miss you’ and ‘I wish you were here.’ But the letter didn’t say: ‘Please come.’”

“What he thought were her dreams turned out to be his instead.” What a line—and Mozzi offers many like this. “Trains” is my favorite for its relentless burrowing—again, a Kafka reference of Mozzi’s—into the seismic trepidations of the romantic experience.

Beyond the raw emotion and deft psychology contained in these stories, each of Mozzi’s parables drifts into the tall grass of that other garden—the garden of creation, of story-telling, of finding the right word.

“You might say that in some letters, maybe all letters, the important thing is only said after the final sentence, in the silence that follows.”

Or: “I ask myself what compels all this to hurl itself headlong into something so precise and defined as a story that has a beginning and an end. I think there must be some kind of grudge against reality in all this.”

But fear not—Mozzi does not stake his claim to meta-narrative navel-gazing. The experience that fascinates him most seems to be more primal, more guttural: a person’s simple search for how to speak to another, for how to begin, for how to end: “There’s something I keep trying to say, that grammar won’t permit, won’t allow.”

“I’ll never forget this pain. I beg you, all of you here, and I think I’ve finally managed to say what I had to, after all this hemming and hawing that was more from fear than anything else, because just bringing up certain things is scary, I beg you, please, try and understand my pain even a little, or at least try to accept it as something that could happen and could be true. The books I’ve read have taught me many things, but above all, they’ve taught me to preserve my life and to tuck my voice away inside my life and keep it safe—my voice, unique and private: my unique treasure and my health. I love you all.”

This is not easily digestible and forgotten. Mozzi’s is a European sentence—meandering, introspective, borderline Proustian at times. It is a sentence that demands its place on the page, that, without meaning to, reminds us of how many sentences don’t merit the space we give them. His words breathe in the vastness of their own possibilities, do not want to waste their breath.

“There have been many times, during intense conversations full of affection and emotion, with people I loved very much or at least wanted to love very much, that my words slowly disappeared, until all I had left in my head was one tiny phrase, or a few phrases, incongruous, but full of meaning, mysterious phrases, impossible to say. And in those moments, you can almost hear your brain creaking, straining to raise too great a weight. To say these words, to transform their mystery into a simple sequence, compressions and decompressions of air, to hear them disperse, scattered, useless, this would have been too much. As I stop writing this letter, I apologize to you that I can’t even sign it. Good luck.”

But to rave about the maestro’s sentences is insufficient—what of plot, drama, explosions? There is plenty of that here, in Mozzi’s dream garden. The conflict is buried deep in and burrows deep into the psyche of these perturbingly mundane characters. Mozzi’s little gem is not called This is the Garden, but rather This Is the Garden. The first thought upon finishing the last story of the collection is: ah, yes—there—I must return.

—Tom Faure


Tom Take 4

Tom Faure is an MFA in Fiction student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Zocalo Public Square, Splash of Red, Chattanooga Times Free Press, The Journal News, and undergraduate magazines at Columbia University. He lives in New York, teaching English and Philosophy at the French-American School of New York.



May 022014

Helen Oyeyemi

With Boy, Snow, Bird, the author treads a well-worn path alongside novelists who give voice to the most notorious villains in the Western literary canon. But she distinguishes herself by weaving a tale that digs at the deeper, uglier roots of human behavior and culture so that we can see ourselves reflected in her story. The novel is as stunning, complicated and magical as the women it presents. —Laura K. Warrell


Boy, Snow, Bird
Helen Oyeyemi
Riverhead Books
Hardcover, 320 pages, $27.95


Fairy tales may communicate the universal principals of life but a good story told from a villain’s perspective is often a more delectable read.  Certainly, there is much to learn about the human psyche through contemplating the souls of the wicked; thus we have a tradition of novels, like John Gardner’s Grendel, that retell time-honored tales from the points-of-view of monsters. British novelist Helen Oyeyemi adds her voice to this ever-expanding catalogue, offering her own series of fabulistic novels that weave yarns as bewitching as the classics.

For her fifth book, Oyeyemi wanted to write a wicked stepmother story.  In an interview with Canada’s National Post, she said, “I wanted to rescue the wicked queen from Snow White, because she seemed to find being a villain a bit of a hassle in a lot of ways.”  In Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi reimagines the tale of the girl “with skin as white as snow” and the jealous stepmother who banishes her. Oyeyemi artfully explores the same themes of beauty, vanity and motherhood as the Brothers Grimm did in the source material, but adds other enticing layers of meaning.  The story takes place in a small Massachusetts town in the 1950s when the American South was fully segregated and magazines predicted the “End of [the] Negro race by 1980.”  But even more intriguing is the secret the characters’ family has kept hidden away for generations: they are black people who have been passing for white. Thus, the novel becomes not only an exploration of the worship of beauty, but an elegantly twisted tale about race and identity.

A writer who has been compared to both Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson, and who bristles at the “magic realism” label often affixed to her work, Oyeyemi seems fascinated by the mystical and macabre. Whether the Bluebeard-inspired story of an author’s muse coming to life in Mr. Fox or the eerie tale of a troubled child’s relationship with a ghostly new friend in The Icarus Girl, Oyeyemi’s novels straddle the real and unreal. She published The Icarus Girl, her first novel, at the age of nineteen and since then has become one of the youngest writers to be added to Granta’s list of “Best Young British Novelists” and won the Somerset Maugham and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards.

Born in Nigeria, Oyeyemi grew up in South London where she spent most of her childhood in libraries rewriting classic stories. “I had so many problems with [Little Women]” she said in a National Public Radio interview. “I was so upset with Beth dying, with Jo and Laurie not getting married.  So I just crossed out all those things and wrote new endings. Then I went from there to writing my own things and never really looked back.”

Boy, Snow, Bird begins in New York City where Boy Novak, a beautiful white girl with blonde hair, lives with an abusive father who catches rats for work.  Such a horrifying set of circumstances – “the rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats, that’s your father’s claim” – prompts a twenty-year-old Boy to run away to a sleepy New England town called Flax Hill. There, she meets Arturo Whitman, a jewelry maker and widower, and his mesmerizingly beautiful daughter Snow, “a medieval swan maiden, only with the darkest hair and the pinkest lips, every shade at its utmost.”

Arturo eventually proposes to Boy with a handmade bracelet instead of a ring; “a white-gold snake that curled its tail around my wrist and pressed its tongue against the veins in the crook of my elbow…All I could think was: I will fear no evil…That snake was what he’d made for me…was maybe even what he thought I was, deep down.”  Boy’s fate as a wicked stepmother is sealed.  When she gives birth to her daughter Bird, a nurse tells her, “‘That little girl is a Negro’” thus prompting Arturo to reveal his black family’s history of “passing.”

In his mind he was no more colored than I was…his parents were the only ones from their families who’d decided to move north from Louisiana and see if anyone called them out on their ancestry.  His father had stood in line behind a colored man at the front desk of the Flax Hill Country club and eavesdropped as the colored man tried and failed to gain membership…Gerald liked golf and didn’t see why he shouldn’t play it in those surroundings if he could get away with it.  Gerald had thought: Well, what if I just don’t say…what if I never say?  He’d passed that down to Arturo, the idea that there was no need to ever say, that if you knew who you were then that was enough, that not saying was not the same as lying.  

Arturo’s mother Olivia has also passed for white and so refuses to accept her black grandchild, suggesting Boy send Bird to live with Clara, the daughter Olivia sent away for being “dark.”  Instead, Boy sends Snow to Clara, thus alleviating her growing jealousy of the beautiful girl “everybody adored.”

The novel is divided into three parts and the second is told through Bird’s point of view.  It begins with the adolescent girl turning to writing as a way of coping with a family she embarrasses while also trying to connect with her mother who is unashamed of her but cold.  Snow is a regular topic of conversation among the Whitmans who recall the girl’s mythic beauty and grace.

“I have a letter to Snow that I have never sent,” Oyeyemi writes in Bird’s voice.  “Dear Snow, Have you really got to be everywhere?

After Bird discovers a box of letters written to her from Snow, letters her mother has kept from her, the sisters develop a correspondence and more secrets are uncovered.  The third section of the novel returns the narrative to Boy’s point of view as the older, more reflective woman contemplates her choices.  One last secret is revealed in the book’s final chapters, a shocking turn that further underscores the novel’s exploration of the dualistic nature of identity.

Oyeyemi is faithful to much of the Snow White tale: the dead wife Boy replaces in the Whitman family is presented as saintly and “good,” Snow is described as a girl who “looks like a friend to woodland creatures,” and of course, the innocent young beauty is banished.

“Snow is not the fairest of them all,” Oyeyemi writes in Boy’s voice, echoing the Brothers Grimm’s tale.  “And the sooner she and Olivia and all the rest of them understand that, the better.”

But Oyeyemi is also faithful to the literary qualities of fairy tales as she infuses the narrative with supernatural elements.  When Boy arrives in Flat Hill, “insects dropped onto my shoulders, tentatively, as if wondering whether we’d met before.”  Later, she becomes aware of a ghostly presence “on the other side of the saplings” as she takes a walk.  Bird fears that trolls live in her bedroom and believes she can talk to the swarm of spiders she thinks are congregating in her room.

Such moments in the story suggest a curiosity on Oyeyemi’s part to explore what is “real,” but the author seems uninterested in drawing clear lines between these natural and supernatural planes.  The two co-exist in her work, creating an enchanting continuity between the spirit world, the real world and the characters’ imaginations.  There are as many allusions to the fabulistic – Alice in Wonderland, Red Riding Hood, genies and poisons in bottles – as there are to the painfully concrete – black boys teaching a parrot to say “Fuck Whitey,” references to the Black Panthers, Ebony magazine and Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old black boy beaten to death in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Within this context, the contemplation of beauty becomes profoundly more loaded.  In The Guardian, Oyeyemi stated that in Boy, Snow, Bird she wanted to explore the feminine gaze, the ways women seek approval and “who gets to be deemed the fairest of them all.”  Perhaps in no work of literature is the supremacy of white beauty made more explicit than in the tale of Snow White, in which a mother yearns for a child “with skin as white as snow.”  Boy’s white loveliness contrasted with what the Whitman family considers Bird’s unappealing blackness is only the first layer of the author’s exploration.  It is the Whitman family’s passing, in particular Snow’s apparently white beauty, that gives the novel its philosophical spine and its evil queen her dimension.

“Snow’s beauty is all the more precious…because it’s a trick,” says Boy.  “When whites look at her, they don’t get whatever fleeting, ugly impressions so many of us get when we see a colored girl – we don’t see a colored girl standing there.  The joke’s on us…From this I can only…begin to measure the difference between being seen as colored and being seen as Snow.  What can I do for my daughter?  One day soon a wall will come up between us, and I won’t be able to follow her behind it.”

One way to read Snow’s expulsion from the Whitman home is as an attempt by Boy to protect herself from the threat of the girl’s beauty, this from a woman who has been presented throughout the novel as obsessed with her appearance.  However, another way to read Boy’s decision is as an attempt to protect her black daughter from Snow, who otherwise would act as a constant reminder of the adoration and social inclusion Bird will undoubtedly be denied.

Oyeyemi includes a lengthy but beautifully written series of letters the sisters send to one another, which she uses to dig deeper into the notion of passing.  Snow lets Bird know that their family has been practicing “calculated breeding” for generations, monitoring the skin tone and hair texture of family members and lamenting the birth of dark children like Clara and Bird.  Living in a more racially diverse town, Snow has experienced racism in a way Bird has not, and describes how she avoids racist taunts yet feels unable to defend her black friends against them.  She also describes how her political awareness has evolved having spent most of her life with the exiled black members of the family.

“You can’t feel nauseated by the Whitmans and the Millers without feeling nauseated by the kind of world that’s rewarded them for adapting to it like this,” she writes to Bird.

Bird repeatedly asks Snow to describe how she experiences her immense beauty, a request Snow mostly denies until finally she admits, “I may or may not have hated my own face sometimes.  I may or may not have spent time thinking of ways to spoil it somehow.”

The sisters bond over many things but nothing connects them more than their shared inability to see themselves in mirrors.  Oyeyemi uses mirrors in the novel more than any other image or symbol, in fact, it is the backbone to the plot, much like her original source.  In “Reading Snow White: The Mother’s Story,” scholar Shuli Barzilai discusses Lacan’s analysis of the mirror stage in human development and suggests that the magic mirror in Snow White is central to the evil queen’s connection to and separation from herself, her daughter and the world around her.

“The queen’s confrontations with her magic mirror,” Barzilai writes, “set and keep the plot of ‘Snow White’ in motion.”

Mirrors perform the same function in Boy, Snow, Bird.  All three of the main characters, and some of the minor characters, interact intimately with mirrors, which reveals the internal conflicts that push the story forward.

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors,” says Boy in the first line of the novel.  “So for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  To Boy, everything becomes a mirror; she ogles herself in picture frames, brass pitchers and dessert spoons.  Mirrors are a way for Boy to come to “familiar terms” with herself as she communicates with and understands her identity through viewing her own reflection, for instance, when she tells her reflection “look what I got you” after finding a husband in Arturo.

“Mirrors see so much,” she says, a concept that supports a Jungian interpretation of the Snow White myth put forth by Barzilai, which suggests that Snow White is not a separate person whose presence threatens the queen but the queen’s shadow side, i.e., the “Snow White in herself.”  Such an interpretation seems even more viable after Boy becomes pregnant and is unable to see her reflection clearly in the mirror.

“When I stood in front of the mirror,” Oyeyemi writes, “the icy blonde was there, but I couldn’t swear to the fact of her being me.  She was no clearer to me than my shadow was.  I came to prefer my shadow.”

Bird’s interactions with mirrors are the opposite of her mother’s.

“Sometimes mirrors can’t find me,” she says.  “I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there.  Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough.”  Bird decides that the reason she is unable to see herself is because she is either not human or “someone [was] wishing and willing me out of sight.”

Snow also fails to show up in mirrors but she has a different explanation than her sister’s.

“My reflection can’t be counted on, she’s not always there,” Oyeyemi writes.  “But I am, so maybe she’s not really me.”

Mirrors, which also feature in the surprise twist in the plot’s final chapters, are only one of the elements working within the stratums of meaning Oyeyemi layers into this piece.  With Boy, Snow, Bird, the author treads a well-worn path alongside novelists who give voice to the most notorious villains in the Western literary canon.  But she distinguishes herself by weaving a tale that digs at the deeper, uglier roots of human behavior and culture so that we can see ourselves reflected in her story.  The novel is as stunning, complicated and magical as the women it presents.

—Laura K. Warrell

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


May 012014

Davis:Theo Cote

(Photo: Theo Cote)

How does one introduce Lydia Davis? By listing her accolades (which include the 2013 Man Booker International Prize)? Her acclaimed story collections, like Samuel Johnson is Indignant and Varieties of Disturbance? Her exquisite translations of Proust and Flaubert?

Since breaking through with Break it Down in 1986, Lydia Davis has stood at the forefront of American literature, constantly crafting fiction that both provokes reaction and mines the depths of the English language. In my review of her latest collection, Can’t and Won’t, I write, “The book is a remarkable, exhilarating beast: a collection that resumes the author’s overall style—short narratives, with the occasional longer piece—while simultaneously expanding her vision.” In addition, the translation work by Davis has both reintroduced classics (Madame Bovaryand ushered lesser known works into the libraries of avid readers.

It was a pleasure to connect with Ms. Davis for the following interview. We began speaking in February via email, and conducted this conversation over a series of electronic messages that lasted through the end of March.

— Benjamin Woodard

Benjamin Woodard (BW):
The 14 “Flaubert stories” in Can’t and Won’t feel right at home with your other narratives, often echoing ideas and themes from other stories. Were you drawn to these while translating Madame Bovary, or did they come earlier?

Lydia Davis (LD): Actually, I stumbled upon them as I was reading through the letters that Flaubert wrote during the time he was working on Madame Bovary. The letters were interesting for many different reasons, but the nicest reward was to come upon a little self-contained story that he was telling his correspondent, about something that had happened to him recently. I took whatever liberties I needed to—these were not meant to be “straight” translations—and shaped them into little stories.


BW: How did you shape the narratives?

LD: Sometimes, I barely touched them. Usually, though, I would make little changes—combine two sentences or cut some material out of one. In the first story, about the cook, I added the phrase “and yet it has been five years since he left the throne”—because a contemporary American reader would not have the same information that Flaubert’s correspondent did as he wrote the letter. I tried to write this, and other additions, in Flaubert’s style and tone. In another story, I added some information about one of the characters, since he was otherwise unidentified. Yet another story, the one called “After You Left,” actually combines material from two letters. On his way home in the carriage, Flaubert remembers riding home on another occasion in a sleigh—in my story. In fact, he recounted that sleigh ride in another letter.

BW: Does translation work ever affect your style in English?

LD: Usually, for whatever reason, the style of the work I’m translating does not creep into my own—although I noticed when I was translating Proust that my emails became longer and more digressive. But I certainly like the little Dutch stories I’m translating at the moment, by A.L. Snijders, and I’m sure I will begin writing stories modeled on those, if I haven’t already.


BW: The “dream pieces” story cycle is another type of translation altogether. What prompted this cycle, and how did you decide to interpret these surreal tangents?

LD: What prompted these was a combination or confluence of two things—often the case. A French Surrealist and ethnographer, Michel Leiris, had published a book that collected his dreams over forty years. What interested me about this book was not just the dreams but that he included waking experiences that were like dreams. I had this book in an English translation by Richard Sieburth. It sat on my shelf for a long time. But then one day I had a waking experience that was so like a dream that it inspired me to see what I could do with narrating dreams so that they were dynamic and vivid, and narrating waking experiences so that they were believable as dreams.

BW: Does your approach differ when writing an extremely short piece like “Ph.D.” compared to “The Seals,” one of the collection’s longest stories?

LD: Oh, yes. Many of the shortest stories occur to me already almost complete—though not the one you mention, which was actually shortened from a longer “dream” piece. Often, all that these very short pieces need is the right title, and I take some time over finding that. But a long, fully developed narrative, like “The Seals,” requires going into a sort of trance, allowing the inner voice to begin speaking, and letting one paragraph suggest the next. There is a lot of material in a long story that was not planned in advance but that occurred during the writing. Then, there is the problem of structure, which I don’t really have in a very short story. Will one part balance another part in a good way? Is the conclusion thoughtful and strong? And in the case of that story, I had to pay attention to how often the narrator’s present situation, sitting on a train, came back into the story, so that it wasn’t lost. Much more complicated, altogether, than the shortest stories. But on the other hand, the shortest stories have that challenge of being substantial enough, in their few words, to carry full weight as finished pieces of writing.

BW: How does the idea of travel fit into your storytelling? Your characters often find themselves on physical journeys. For example, “The Seals” takes place on a train, alternating between present and past, in a way reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

LD: The simple fact is that I was traveling when I began many of these stories, since I find that sitting on a train or in an airplane is actually very conducive to letting my thoughts roam around freely in a relaxed sort of way, which sometimes produces a thought that leads to a story. At home, more stationary, I may be translating, or writing something non-fictional, like an essay. So the travel stories arise from incorporating what is going on at that moment. I like traveling—I like the feeling of suspension that one has at those times. You are between home and your destination, you are surrounded by strangers, you have a fellowship or bond with a group of strangers, for better or worse. It is very interesting. And often I am also in a foreign place, which means a foreign culture. I enjoy the contrast between that and my domestic, rural, home existence.

BW: Thematically, Can’t and Won’t plays quite a bit with the idea of capturing different forms of history, be it dreams or memories or subconscious realizations. Was this a deliberate effort on your part?

LD:  Well, your insight is interesting—I rarely stand back and look at the pieces as a group. It is true that I’m very interested in history—as I never was in school. But as for a deliberate effort, no, I do not think ahead of time about themes. Stories occur as they want to occur—I try to impose as little as possible on them. They simply reflect whatever is on my mind at that time. Only sometimes, as in the case of the Flaubert stories or the dream stories, or the letters of complaint—of which there are five in the book—I see that there is a form I like and want to explore, to see what it might yield.

BW: Finally, what are you reading now? What writing inspires you?

LD: Interesting question. Actually, two quite different questions, possibly. I do keep reading the small stories of the Dutch writer Snijders—since he sends them out by email. And they inspire me to translate him. At the same time, I’m reading a biography of Glenn Gould, because he continues to fascinate me as pianist and person, and I want to know more about him. But that book would not inspire me to any kind of writing. W.G. Sebald’s novels inspire me—I’d like to do what he does;  so do Thomas Bernhard’s, though he is so surpassingly negative about everything—but funny. There is a wonderful, probably not very well known thin book by the Canadian Elizabeth Smart with one of the best titles I know: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. It is a story of obsessive love, and it is most eccentrically written. I know that title will seep into me and come out somewhere, sometime, and maybe the structure and style of book itself will, too.

— Lydia Davis & Benjamin Woodard


Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections. Her collection Varieties of Disturbance: Stories was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Award of Merit Medal, and was named a Chevalier of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers, including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust. Lydia Davis is the winner of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize.



Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in decomP magazinE, Cleaver Magazine, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews, interviews, and essays have been featured in Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed Books, Numéro Cinq, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Bygone Bureau, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at and on Twitter @woodardwriter.