Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Three from Quebec: Awaiting the Barbarians (on the film The Barbarian Invasions)

Denys Arcand (writer and director) Les Invasions barbares/The Barbarian Invasions / 2003

—Why suddenly this unrest and this confusion,
(The faces how grave they have become).
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly
and everyone so pensively returning to their homes?

Because it’s night already and no barbarians have arrived.
And some people came from the frontiers,
and said that barbarians don’t exist any more.

And now what shall we become without barbarians.
These people were some kind of a solution.

Constantine Cavafy
Translated from the Greek by Nanos Valaoritis

Rémy, a Quebecois Canadian in his 60s, is dying of cancer, and his ex-wife, Louise, calls her son, Sébastian, who lives in London, to return to help her. Our first glimpse of the sick patient is of a man faced with the end of everything—of his life, his beliefs—even the welfare hospital system for which he voted, as seemingly hundreds of patients suffer their stay in the hospital corridors. He and his friends, we soon discover, are of the generation who came of age in the 1960s, and lived their lives with a strong sense of purpose, filled as they were with high sentiments regarding their pleasure in the intellect, books, food, wine, friendship and sex; but they were also a hedonistic generation—my own generation—perhaps the last group born within a particular decade that might be described as having a deep generational kinship.

Like many people his age, Rémy is distressed with the generations that have followed, represented by individuals like his son who make fabulous salaries, but live hollow lives, symbolized by their attachment to video games and various electronic gadgets. Late in the movie, Rémy and his friends humorously list the various causes which they momentarily embraced—at one time or another espousing the values of Separatists, Existentialists, Marxists, Troskyites, Situationists, Deconstructions, etc. None of these movements and value systems were sustained, but they represent for the individuals of that period a search for values in which the younger barbarians—as Rémy and some of his friends perceive their offspring—have no understanding or interest.

One of the most rewarding themes of this film—a film which gloriously embraces multiple views of life—is the sense of love and continuity among these older individuals, despite their recognition of one another’s failures and, at times, even betrayal.

In contrast Sébastian and his fiancée Gaëlle have little understanding of “love,” a word they believe has destroyed thousands of useful and valuable relationships; each in their own way, the younger figures of this film—Sébastian, his sister Sylvaine, Gaëlle, and Nathalie—act alone and
are cut off from one another, isolated in highly efficient acts of financial attainment and self-destruction.

Sébastian works with banks to broker financial transactions, and of all the characters in the film is the most competent in attaining what he seeks. The problem, quite obviously, is the value of that attainment. No sooner has he arrived in Montreal than he is able to broker a deal—oiled with large sums of money— between the formidable hospital bureaucracy and the equally hard-nosed unions to set up a room for his father in a currently unused (presumably for lack of funds) section of the hospital. It is he who brings the group of his father’s and mother’s friends together. When Rémy, a former history professor, complains of his quick dismissal from the university, Sébastian pays students to briefly attend his father’s deathbed. Told that heroin will relieve his father’s suffering, he goes in search of the drug, uncovering the drug-addicted daughter of one of his father’s former lovers. Later, when the beautiful addict is found to have overdosed, he is able to convince her—unlike her mother and friends—to undergo Methadone treatment. When his father speaks of his stay at a cottage by the lake as representing one of the most beautiful times of his life, Sébastian arranges for his father and friends to spend their last days there together. Somehow he convinces even the religiously minded nurse to provide him with the drugs needed to painlessly end his father’s life.

His wife, an art appraiser, performs in one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, when she is forced to tell the regional church officer that the religious objects and icons that all once held so dear are worthless in the art market.

Sébastian’s sister, Sylvaine, who works as a sailor delivering new ships to wealthy customers around the world, cannot even be there for her father’s death.

In short, each of these figures is quite capable of accomplishing his or her goals, but in relationship to the far more spectacular failings of their parents, they seem nearly lifeless, sleepwalking through their lives without wonderment and joy.

Writer and director Arcand, however, makes it apparent through what is basically an extended series of tableaus that it is the parents and the selfishness of their passionate involvement with living that may have left their often ignored children so incapable of expressing or experiencing love. Or perhaps it is simply that the expression of love for these younger figures is not the same emphatic, melodramatic expressions of pleasures employed by the older generation. Perhaps the pleasures themselves have changed—or even the evaluation of those pleasures. As Rémy and the others face the end of their lives, they generally note that much of their sexual drive has dissipated; the dying man is unable even to join them in their final feast of scrambled eggs with cavier and fresh truffles. Most importantly, despite their determined efforts to embrace pleasure, they too must finally come to terms with the horrors of the previous century and the post-9/11 world of the present. In the end, Rémy is distressed that, despite all his ideals, he has done nothing of importance for the human race.

On the other hand, just as the nurse has urged him to do, Sébastian physically embraces his father, demonstrating his love of the man who has spent much of his life verbally abusing him; later, as Sébastian arranges for the drug-addicted girl Nathalie to stay at his father’s apartment, she awkwardly leans forward with a kiss. Can this “barbarian” generation recover the passion of living despite themselves? Arcand does not attempt to answer the question

In may be, as Cavafy warned us, there are no barbarians at the city’s gate, or that the barbarians will never arrive because they were they here all the time; they were ourselves.

Los Angeles, December 9, 2003

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Three From Quebec: Negotiation (on Nicole Brossard's Shadow Soft et Soif)

Nicole Brossard, Shadow Soft et Soif, translated from the French by Guy Bennett (Los Angeles: Seeing Eye Books, 2003)

The coincidence of Nicole Brossard’s short book of poetry Shadow Soft et Soif being published at the same time as the Canadian poet and fiction writer’s three fictions, The Blue Book (Toronto: Coach House Press, 2003), gives joy to those, like me, who think Brossard is one of the most outstanding of North American writers.

Like many of her other works, the book is written in a voice that is at once highly lyrical and extremely private. The reader often has the feeling in Brossard’s work that he or she is a sort of voyeur, listening in to an immediate series of events and thoughts expressed by the poet to a loved one. But then, perhaps the reader can also feel herself or himself as the lover, and that creates a kind of sensual thrill in reading her work.

As in her other books, also, there is a feeling of “negotiation,” of the poet straddling worlds. As a French-speaking Canadian, her work in translation often contains both English and French lines. As the title indicates, the shadow about which Brossard is writing is both soft and “thirsty,” something both gentle (as if she had reversed Dylan Thomas’s plea to “not go gentle into that good night.”) yet slightly rapacious. As a poet and fiction writer, Brossard often crosses genres, and in this book she reminds the reader several times that, while it is a work of poetry, it is also a narrative:

for now
we’re still narrating
night falls slowly

In order to create the “shadow” one must have the sun and such oppositions as the morning and evening, the fresh beginning of life and potential death. Love is often proffered and just as quickly pulled away. Order and precision alternate with “avalanches of shattered glass.” Indeed, Brossard’s world is pulled between “pleasure” and “gestures / bites, bedrooms with their shadowy, supple, hollow spaces, knotted brows.”

By the time the narrative is complete and, at the end of the series of short poetic sequences, “night falls,” the poet is left with no answers, only “questions,” lingering “bubbles of silence.” But the language she has used to get there has expanded her comprehension of life. And one perceives that even while the human experience has been utterly fragmented (“nights displace knees,” and “heads or tails” are “scattered”), at dawn once more life is put into motion, “the verb to be courses / in the veins, a heavenly body, it flies / after love or a grain of salt.” The cycle, the negotiation between self and lover, between reader and poet, will begin anew.

Los Angeles, 2003

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three From Quebec: Gabrielle of the Spirits (on Denyse Delcourt's Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning)

Denyse Delcourt Gabrielle au bois dormant (Laval, Québec: Éditions Trois, 2001), translated from the French by Eugene Vance as Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2007)

As in the film The Barbarian Invasions Denyse Delcourt’s 2001 novel, Gabrielle and the Long Sleep into Mourning—a book first published in English in 2007 by my own Green Integer press—is structured around the gathering of several friends on a weekend retreat. These individuals, Thérèse—the one who has invited them all to join her at a rented lake house—Marguerite, Cécile, François, Paul, Mimi, Suzanne, Jacqueline, and Léo, now all in their fifties, grew up together around a lagoon of the Palus River in a semi-rural town near Montreal. Accordingly, their links are those of childhood, each of the nine now living at some distance from one another, some, like Paul—a doctor by day who “does drugs before setting out each night for the toughest gay bars in the city,” who we later discover has AIDS—now living lives that have little in common.

As an adult group, they remain cordial to, if slightly at odds with one another. They do not share the lifetime interconnections of the friends gathered around the dying Rémy of the 2003 movie, and their conversations and interrelationships, accordingly, are less intense than the 60-year- olds of The Barbarian Invasions. Yet one cannot help but note the kinship of the two works, for like the later movie, Delcourt’s lyrical fiction is centered upon love and death—in this case the mysterious loves and death of the fifteen-year-old Gabrielle in 1951.

The survivors’ conversations and walks into the nearby woods occasion a series of memories as, one by one, they come to terms with Gabrielle’s and their own lives in the Palus, which came to a sudden end by a government decision to buy their homes and cover the back waters they describe as a lake with concrete. In this sense, Delcourt’s short masterwork is a work aimed at digging up the past, another kind of “unburying” and “reburying” of the dead.

Growing up in a home where their father is seldom in residence, Mimi, Marc, Gabrielle, and François live a life very different from most of the other children around them. Their mother, Éveline, hates housework and cooking equally, and although she is socially likeable, often leaves the family to its own means:

…the children often ate alone or together the dishes that they them-selves, or else Mimi, had prepared. Their father, an absent-minded man, sometimes joined them. On the tablecloth, traces of jam, butter or molasses formed mottled patterns. You could see leftovers of the previous night’s supper lingering on the counters. There were breadcrumbs everywhere.

When Éveline is unable to pay a traveling salesman for her purchases of children’s clothing, she pays by staying “shut up” for the salesman in a room “for a long time,” a source of confusion for Gabrielle and her friends, but an act bringing only a shrug from the elder Marc and a blush to Mimi’s cheeks. Later in the fiction, it is revealed that Gabrielle’s father may have another family, and that his wife is having an affair with a man—who also sexually flirts with Gabrielle—whom they call Uncle Georges. We later discover that her brother Marc’s night wanderings may be related to his trafficking in drugs. In short, it is the kind of family in which neighborhood children delight and about which their parents gossip.

One day while riding in the woods with another girl (Jacqueline), Gabrielle falls from her bicycle, scraping her knee. Suddenly a man, Walter Black, appears out of nowhere and offers to take her in his large, black car to his house in the woods. There the girls meet Walter’s sister, Maria, who bandages the wound and asks Gabrielle to return in three days. As the girls prepare to leave, a headless bird flys out of the window from the second storey of the dilapidated building. Soon, we discover that Gabrielle is also disappearing on long journeys each night.

If this event has the sound of a fairytale, it is clear that Delcourt—herself a specialist in medieval French fiction—intends it to call up various tales, as within her realist construct she projects a magical world where the young Gabrielle nightly travels to the house in the woods, where she is welcomed by Maria, a black snake, and her courtier, Walter. As the other children get word of her adventures—some clearly imagined, others perhaps embroidered versions of real events—the tale of Gabrielle’s descent into a relationship with these figures gradually becomes intertwined with tales of wolves and underground chambers, calling up a number of childhood fables, from the Brothers Grimm to Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s early version and Jeanne-Marie Leprinces de Beaumont’s retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Certainly some of the elements of that latter tale—the missing father, the beast-lover, and the final late return of the young girl—are similar; but other elements of Delcourt’s story of Gabrielle remind one of elements of “Sleeping Beauty” and similar fables of a young girl lured to her death within a woods. All represent various versions of adolescent sexuality, and the author of Gabrielle allows these concerns to emanate throughout the book, as we witness Gabrielle and her fifteen-year-old friends entering into a world of sexuality that is always potentially dangerous.

In a letter from Walter—or perhaps a romantic epistle from Gabrielle to herself—the wolf-lover warns his princess of just those possible dangers:

Gabrielle of the Spirits,
At eleven o’clock this evening you will go down the stairs covered with moss—you know them: there are

wildflowers in the cracks. Be careful not to fall. Remember that you must lean against the wall beside the steps, but watch out for the plants creeping along the wall, making for a confusion of stone and vegetation. Beware, the moss offers no sure footing and there will be no hope if you miss a step and reach for a hold to save yourself. Then push the worm-eaten door, but remember: it will creak as soon as you touch it because the hinges are rusted. You will enter the vault. The darkness there is total, but do not be afraid, Sweet Thing. On each side of the door there are niches in the walls with oil lamps darkened by smoke and by the years. Light them and wait for me, my beloved. I will soon be there.

Like Beauty, Gabrielle arrives too late and cannot find the entrance to the magical vault. And in her rush to reach it she has aggravated her asthma; unable to breathe, she falls to the forest floor, dead.

For the survivors, life in the Palus, ending with Gabrielle’s death, has served almost as a mirror for the many possibilities of love in their own lives. From Éveline’s desperate affairs to Mimi’s almost secret wedding (the bridegroom refusing to participate in a public ceremony and the sharing of wedding rings), from Gabrielle’s romantically conceived encounters to Paul’s sexually-acquired illness, love is always a spirit to be reckoned with, a spirit to be brought into the light, just as Jacqueline, sitting in the night, finally sees her long-dead friend:

The lake is flat. Night. A white dress. Gabrielle is on the beach. She runs. Her hair is flowing. She glides through the tall grass. Oh, the snow of her dress. She speeds toward the wood. Faster, faster. She is barefoot.
She seems to be flying. It is night. She is free. The shadow of her dress bathes her like cool water. Faster, faster. Her dress, the ribbons, diaphanous. Gabrielle.

And now, she has disappeared.

In their gathering and their various retellings of events, these friends have laid the past to rest. It is the even more terrifying future which they now must face.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2007

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: The 8th Night (Roger)

I had known Fluxus poet Dick Higgins for several years, meeting him several times at small press book fairs, where he showed books published by his renowned Something Else press (which published Gertrude Stein, Marshall McLuhan, Emmett Williams, Claes Oldenburg, George Brecht, and Ray Johnson, among others). I also published a story by Higgins, “The Truth about Sadie Mee,” in the fiction/narrative issue of Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art, 6/7 (1978-79). But I did not know Dick well, and our correspondence over the years had not been extensive.

I did know that early on in his career, Higgins he had studied with John Cage, and in 1960 he’d married Alison Knowles, with whom he later taught at CalArts near Los Angeles. Yet I hadn’t followed his writing or performances over the years. Recently he had sent me a gay story that rather startled me with its porno-like content. I wrote saying that I felt it wouldn’t work for Sun & Moon. Dick wrote, explaining that he had recently realized that he was gay!

Later that same year in 1980 someone at the Folger Shakespeare Library—a noted D.C. institution, recognized for its remarkable Shakespeare collection and productions of his plays—called to ask if I might introduce Dick Higgins at his reading there in a few months. At first I was simply surprised to hear that such an august and orthodox institution had invited a figure such as Higgins to perform; my first reaction was to explain that I was not well-acquainted with the author or his work. Yet I quickly comprehended that the Library was perhaps finding it difficult in Washington to even come up with someone who knew his name! Ultimately, I agreed to introduce.

On the day of his reading, I picked Dick up for lunch, at which time I hoped to discuss with him some details of his life. But he spent most of the afternoon discussing his new lover, a boy named Roger, who, he almost proudly declared, he had met through his daughter. “She came home with this boy,” he chuckled, “and I took him to bed. It seems amazing that he found me attractive.”

“Yes,” it did, I thought to myself when I encountered the willowy kid. Soon after, I began to realize that one of the enticements that Dick had provided him was a constant source of marijuana.

Roger, evidently, was a drummer, and Dick intended to employ him in the performance. Higgins gave me a large hardback publication which he had recently published containing numerous photos of their “performances to the sun,” Dick looking up at the skies, Roger, stark-naked, beating upon something that looked to me more like a can than a drum.

I had a sinking feeling that Dick’s infatuation might not be so easily assimilated by the Folger Shakespeare crowd.

I introduced him as best I could, noting his remarkable career and pointing to his evident achievements. Dick stood and began to read. So far everything was fine. But then, he announced, that several of his works featured an accompanist, and Roger, dressed in white T-shirt and blue jeans, was called out to pound the drums. Several of the audience members’ faces turned pale, others had frozen in rigid smiles.

A short while later, Roger was called out again. “Roger, Roger,” Dick called. But no Roger appeared. “Roger, Roger,” he repeated. Still no drummer in sight. Finally, the boy stumbled out from backstage ready again to thump upon his instrument.

After a brief intermission, the remaining audience members returned to their seats to encounter yet another piece featuring the duo. “Roger, Roger,” Dick screamed out. Once again, Roger did not appear. “Douglas,” Dick called over, “will you go back and bring Roger out?” I found the boy huddled in a corner puffing away. “You’re wanted,” I told him. He stood and shuffled off.

I returned to my seat, somewhat red-faced, but still delighted that Dick had dared to confront this obviously puzzled room of people with something different from their previous experiences.

Later that year, I was asked to return to the Folger, this time to introduce my dear friend David Antin. Things were apparently changing, and a few years later my friend and former student, Joe Ross, joined the Folger Shakespeare committee for performances.

Los Angeles, October 6, 2001

Friday, December 12, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: The 7th Night (Free Tickets)

The Kennedy Center Opera House

In the graduate student bullpen I shared with others at the University of Maryland, a large basement room crammed full of desks, I became friends with Donald Duncan. Duncan had been in a couple of seminars I'd taken, and he was interested in theater and opera. Moreover, he worked regularly as an usher at the Opera House of the Kennedy Center.

Some time into our friendship, Duncan suggested that Howard and I come one night to the Kennedy Center to meet the head usher, Pat, since she often was able to find free seats for those recommended to her. Howard and I had attended a number of events of the Center, but on our teaching assistant salaries we could simply not afford to go to the theater, opera, etc. very often. Pat took us to her hearts the very first time we met her, and over the following months we able to see numerous plays and performances—including productions of Salome, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Bolshi Opera's Eugene Onegin, Moon for the Misbegotten, and others—for free.

Despite Pat's great friendliness and seeming affection, however, both Howard and I felt somewhat guilty for the pleasures she offered us, and we alternated the free events with ones for which we had paid. In fact, we probably spent more money on drama and opera than we could afford.

Moreover, when we did attend we were often asked to join Pat and Don with cast members at nearby bars and restaurants after the performances. Although these were generally enjoyable events—I recall a long conversation after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with actress Elizabeth Ashley, who we had also seen in Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth—everyone had to wait for rather long periods for the actors to remove their makeup and for the closing down of the theater before we could began our group treks to the selected locations. And once there, Howard and I felt beholden to pay since, after all, we had been given "free tickets." Accordingly, we often spent more money on these after-theater celebrations that we would had we simply paid for the tickets in the first place.

There is no question that there was something exciting about these seemingly covert acts; we were always seated or positioned at the very last moment before the curtain rose, one time taking over the President's box in the balcony, at the Bolshoi production standing behind the last row of the orchestra seats until it became clear that there were two empty seats in the house into which we were clandestinely moved. Yet this very sense of undercover theater-going also made us uncomfortable. Was there danger should the management discover our secret? Probably not; I am certain most theaters have such arrangements, if for no other reason than to fill the house.

But with the often added cost of food and liquor, the late hour of our returning home, and this sense of discomfort, we began to take less and less advantage of this gracious arrangement. And over the period of about a year we stopped going, feeling somewhat guilty, given the generousness of Pat and her staff, for even attending as paying members of the audience. Were we rejecting the kindnesses they so readily offered us?

So, I recall, it happened that we began attending more theater at Washington, D.C.'s famed Arena Stage and the theater at Catholic University than at the renowned Kennedy Center.

Los Angeles, November 11, 2001

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

On the Other Side of the Page (on Ascher/Straus's ABC Street)

Ascher/Straus ABC Street (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002)

In April 1992 Sheila Ascher and Dennis Straus wrote me to ask if I'd be willing to read a manuscript of theirs, ABC Street. I suspect the manuscript arrived soon thereafter, but in my files the next serious correspondence was dated five years later, July 1997, at which time they sent me the dedication to the book. Only this year (2001) did they send photographs for the cover of the book now scheduled for 2002. My only reaction is that Ascher/Straus must be the most patient couple in the universe, having now waited nearly 10 years for their book to appear—combined with the fact that another manuscript of theirs, to have been issued as a early side-stapled book on the nascent Sun & Moon Press in 1978, was never published!

These incidents are made even more ironic by the fact that, although Dennis and I have kept in fairly close touch by telephone over the years, I have never met Sheila or Dennis, but simply followed their migrations from Rockaway Park and Canaan, New York to Captiva Island, Florida through phone conversations and occasional correspondence.

Given their immense patience, I thought it might be appropriate to at least indicate through this short essay what I found so interesting about their writing, particularly since a history has developed around this work that makes it very appropriate to this year's thematic stitching of My Year.

For despite the rather long relationship I have now had with Ascher/Straus, like the writing itself, it is a narrative without a coherent story. ABC Street is part of an ongoing project on which the two have been working since 1977, titled Monica's Chronicle, a day-by-day journal penned by the seemingly observant, but determinedly passive narrator, Monica. This chronicle alternates between intense depictions of the daily weather—evocative descriptions of the rain, snow, and sun Monica observes through her window and on her occasional walks—and the often gossipy comments of a large cast of characters Monica describes as "A Constellation," mostly lesbian women friends, and the various neighbors of what is obviously a location similar to Rockaway Park.

There are also silences ("Days intervene, unwritten"), undated entries, and sporadic ruminations on the nature of her writing activities. There is a strong sense that in writing Monica is forgetting or, at least, replacing the act of memory with the writing itself. If, as Lyn Hejinian argued early in her career, "Writing Is an Aid to Memory," in ABC Street "Writing isn't an aid to memory, but a replacement for it." History, accordingly, is eaten up by the narrator's acts, and as quickly becomes part of the ongoing snowfall of words that pour from Monica's pen. Individuals and their statements just as quickly are swallowed up into a kind of nonjudgmental commentary.

Just as the landscape Monica describes, the numerous human figures she portrays often collide in the reader's mind as a jumble of abstract flesh. Some families are so extended with sons and daughters, their best friends, various lovers and boarders that, although on the "Monica's Chronicle Website" created by the authors all characters are listed, the reader loses sight of the individual, and ultimately can hear only the chorus of communal voices, which is perhaps appropriate, since all the choristers are themselves singing of one another. Accordingly, although Monica can see Manhattan's Empire State Tower from her window, ABC Street is a tale of small-town living, a world in which everybody is somehow interrelated and involved in each other's lives.

Yet unlike, say Winesburg, Ohio or any of Sinclair Lewis's tales, ABC Street does not comment on or evaluate—and only seldom satirizes— its characters. Rather, they become somewhat flattened reporters of their own destinies without an audience to coherently receive their messages. As Monica describes her own conversation with one of the most memorable figures of the book, Nancy St. Cloud:

It was windy and Nancy's navy blue wraparound skirt kept
blowing open in the middle of sentences. Every time she
reached down words got irretrievably whisked away across
the flat, dazzling surface littered all the way to the horizon
with sparkling bits of green, blue and amber bottle glass, so
Monica remembered the story as incoherent, though it may
not have been.

Unlike the utter falsity of normalized fictions, accordingly, Ascher/Straus's collaborative work is not just a collaboration between authors, but a collaboration between characters and readers. As in our everyday experiences, what we receive from one another is not always what has been communicated—or even what each of us attempted to communicate. People make their own conclusions and impact one another much as in the old game of "Telephone," through incredibly garbled readings of one another's lives by people they have never met.

Although the members of the "constellation" have all had regular encounters with Dr. DaVinci, a psychiatrist influenced by Wilhelm Reich, their psychological interpretations of one another are most often mistaken and motives are regularly confused or, as in Monica's encounter with Nancy's handsome and charming husband, Andre, are represented in multiple possibilities:

(1) Real, husbandly concern. (2) Enlisting the aid of a trust-
worthy friend who happens to be intruding in any case. (3)
Aligning himself with Monica's involuntary look of distress...
(4) Distancing himself (and not only in the eyes of others) from any
accusation of complicity.

In short, in Monica's chronicles of the world around her there are no answers and relationships between people and events are at best tentative.

While normative fiction carefully constructs a set of interrelated histories that ultimately work together to present a vision of an individual or community, Ascher/Straus' work, like the characters and events of real life, keep their histories secret—even while attempting to reveal them. Like the streets and lawns of this primarily wintertime landscape, history is buried under an avalanche of information: readings and misreadings, interpretations and interventions. As Monica writes: "Our lost history is a daily panorama though not necessarily a panorama of the everyday."

Despite the enormous joy of encountering this canvas of colorful characters, accordingly, the reader realizes that in Monica's chronicle there is no way to imaginatively reach out and touch these figures, nor any way to interweave their actions into a coherent or even consistent pattern. Writing is ink on paper, and any narrative, as much as it may seek mimesis, is as absolutely flat as unprimed canvas. At the end of Ascher/Straus's book, Monica closes her winter night's tale with the words:

February turns its sharp edge, black winter on the other side of
the page.

Not only is the tale over, but the human beings it has mentioned have yet to appear, as they stand in wait on the "other side of the page."

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Los Angeles, December 22, 2001

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Melancholiacs and the Missing Bucket (on Aksel Sandemoses's The Werewolf)

Aksel Sandemose Varulven (Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1958), translated from the Norwegian by Gustaf Lannestock as The Werewolf (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1966; reprinted 2002)

I first purchased a cloth copy of Sandemose's The Werewolf during my sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin, one year after the publication of the translation into English. The book sat unread on my shelves as a desired but foreboding object (the book is 375 pages long in a 6 x 9 format) for 35 years until this year, when Wisconsin reissued it in a paperback edition. In many respects, it was fortunate that I did not attempt to read it at the age of 19. I would not have understood it, and probably would have grown impatient with its rambling, dissociative structure. Even today, as an admitted admirer of fictional genres that lay outside of the more normative psychological novel, I was annoyed, at times, by its seeming lack of narrative continuity—at least until I recognized it as a kind of encyclopedic work that was attempting to reveal Norwegian culture from the 1930s until the date of its publication, 1958. And even then there were numerous times when Sandemose's long journeys into metaphoric ideation—the figure of the werewolf as a being who must have control over others is, quite obviously, at the center of this fiction—bothered and, at times, even confused me.

The story, such as it is, is a fairly simple love story between Erling Vik and Felicia Ormsund, who meet and then—for a number of reasons, including World War II and their participation in the underground—go their various ways before meeting up again. Meanwhile, Felica encounters and marries Jan Venhaug, but with Jan's tacit approval returns to a sexual relationship with Erling. The three, accordingly, live in an unconventional triangular relationship, all having, as Erling describes it, faced down and won out over the werewolf, permitting each other to live as free and distinct individuals.

This simple love story, however, is merely one ingredient in a stew of dozens of characters that include Erling's former lovers and wife, his illegitimate daughter, Julie (who has been invited to live at Venhaug), brothers, strangers, and war-time heroes and traitors. Not only does Sandemose attempt to capture the whole of Norwegian culture during these years, but explores, through his major figures, particularly Erling and Jan, some basic dichotomies in the Norwegian psyche.

From my outsider's point of view, I have come to see two elements of the Norwegian sensibility, elements that are seemingly opposed, but which are perhaps only two sides to a single entity. Perhaps because of the differences in Norway's rulers before its independence, Norwegians are often represented, at least in literature, in two different manners, both presented in Sandemose's work: the melancholiac and the devilish imp, Brand and Per Gynt—differences one might attribute to the dour Swedish questioning of the meaning of life (which Americans know best through filmmaker Ingmar Bergman) and the Danish comedic vision (recognized by Americans in Hans Christian Andersen, the Norwegian-born Dane Ludvig Holberg, or Norway's own storytellers Asbjørnson and Moe). In Sandemose's work the darker, werewolf-vision of Norwegian society might be said to be best expressed in the problem plays of Ibsen as opposed to the Holberg or Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. Sandemose's novel nods to both Holberg and Hamsun several times, Erling quoting from Holberg and described as living a life as young man in Oslo that recalls Hamsun's novel Hunger. In another instance, Erling has an affair with his landlady, Master-Mason Pedersen's wife, Pedersen being Hamsun's birth name. Indeed many of Erling's legendary experiences, particularly his sexual adventures with a young girl trapped in a huge pot and his story about a bucket he has purchased that suddenly vanishes into thin air, remind one of early Hamsun, Per Gynt, and other magical Norwegian tales.

Jan, on the other hand, a man of ideas and great practicality, is much closer to a character out of Ibsen's social dramas, Sigurd Hoel's great war-time novel Meeting at the Milestone, or the intense social encounters of the novels of Jens Bjørneboe. In short, Jan provides Felicia with a house, food, and gentle love, as opposed to the often uncontrollable urges for sex and alcohol that face Erling. Yet, quite obviously, Erling is the more exciting, and in that sense, more beloved by the whole family and most envied by those outside of Venhaug.

It is clear that Felicia, the strong heroine of this book, must have both in order to survive and, as the work suggests at its end, such bi-lateral love is necessary in order to become part of the Norwegian myth represented in its enduring histories and sagas. But it is that very pull between these two—the inability of the average man or woman to live up to either of these ideals—that often tears the society apart allowing the werewolf entry into the heart, and ultimately it is that failure that revenges itself on the woman both men love.

What Sandemose most clearly reveals in this remarkable encyclopedia of mid-20th century Norwegian affairs is that World War II served almost as a crucible for Norwegian culture, asking its citizens to accept these extremes of identity or stand meekly in the middle awaiting the bite of the beast. The obvious answer is, like Erling's brother Gustav, too many hunkered down in terror, nearly allowing the nation to be swallowed up in hate.

At fiction's end, Erling finally joins Jan and his daughter Julie—the new mistress of Venhaug—in making history, in determining their own fates.

Los Angeles, November 18, 2002

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Confirming Reality (on Douglas Messerli's play, The Confirmation)

A scene from The Confirmation
Kirk Jackson as Blanche in The Confirmation
The cast, director (Mollie O'Mara, first figure in the back row) and playwright after the performance of
The Confirmation

Kier Peters The Confirmation (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
Kier Peters The Confirmation Vineyard Theatre (as part of the T.W.E.E.D. New Works Festival) /April 6 and 7, 1994

Almost from the moment in September 1991 when we returned to Jerry Fox’s condominium after the memorial ceremony for Howard’s mother Rose, I took out pen and paper and began to write the play The Confirmation.

Obviously, Rose’s death—I was close to both of Howard’s parents—triggered something in me about mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and sons—although the Midwestern women of the play could not be more different, in their language and mannerisms, than the Baltimore-raised Rose Fox. The character’s language, in its aphoristic repetitions, bore traces, however, of another Baltimorean, Gertrude Stein.

From the moment Mother commanded Grandma to “sit down there nicely and be out of the way!” (something, given the current situation, I might have commanded of myself), the women of my play took control of my head and hand, leading me through a series of incidents over which I seemed to have little control. Whenever I even attempted to think out some element of plot, the voices forced me in other directions, so that page after page of the original manuscript was torn up, lines crossed out.

“What are you doing?” asked Jerry, observing me writing in a seemingly uncomfortable position at the dining room windowsill.

“Writing,” was all I could mutter, as words tumbled through my fingers to the little notebook before me. It seemed I could not write fast enough, and by the time we had returned to Los Angeles a couple of days later, I had completed a rough draft. Never had I produced a work so painlessly. The only things that needed alteration, so it appeared, were instances where I had gotten ahead of my characters’ words and acts.

As I do with all my plays—or, at least, as Kier does—I sent a typed copy to playwright friend Mac Wellman, who read it with great enthusiasm, ultimately suggesting its inclusion in the 1994 T.W.E.E.D New York Festival.

Mac also arranged, at an earlier date, a reading at Richard Caliban’s Cucaracha Theater in New York, a production overseen by Richard’s wife, Mollie O’Mara, who later directed the Festival production. The wonderful actress/teacher Nora Dunfee performed in that original reading (there may have been others of the later cast in the first reading, but I have no memory of who else performed). I do know that playwrights Wellman, Len Jenkin, and Matthew Maguire, along with my editor, actress Diana Daves (upon whom I had based, in part, the character of Mother) were in attendance. The reading went splendidly, creating a much more absurdly comic effect than the later Festival production.

I had titled the play The Confirmation because the work concerned a group of figures who were all attempting to confirm their various visions of reality—visions each at odds with one another. The outsider to this dysfunctional family, Carmelita, was also attempting to confirm her position as a member of the family (yes, Carson McCullers had come to mind in the writing) and to confirm a reality different from what family members were willing to admit. During the final revision, moreover, I was watching on television the horrific circus of the confirmation hearings in October 1991 of Judge Clarence Thomas, accused by his former co-worker Anita Hill of inappropriate sexual conversations covering everything from gang rape, the size of porn star Long Dong Silver’s penis, to sexual intercourse with animals! Who could have made up such a bizarre scenario? To me, Hill’s painful testimony could be nothing but the truth, and to this day I am convinced of the incompetence of the conservative Justice of the Supreme Court.

Accordingly, I began my play with a quote, representing the two opposing visions of truth represented by those hearings: Anita Hill’s statement “I felt that I had to tell the truth,” as against Thomas’s summary of events, “I have never, in all my life, felt such hurt, such pain, such agony.” To me it seemed to sum up the idea of truth and consequence. My Sun & Moon Press published the play in 1993.

When I came to New York in early April 1994 to observe rehearsals for the Festival production, I discovered that O’Mara had read the work somewhat differently from what I had, particularly in connection with anti-war statements. It wasn’t that she was incorrect in her interpretations—indeed much was said in this family about military service, whose men, in war after war, had died—but the fact that she and costume designer Carol Brys had decided to literalize those issues, dressing Carmelita, the lesbian nun living in a relationship with Sister, in a military-like costume, came as a surprise. The other major change in the play was Mollie’s decision to cast the estranged sister, Blanche, whom the family believes speaks only Norwegian, but, in fact, speaks only Yiddish, with the wonderful actor Kirk Jackson, dressing in drag and speaking English in a heavy Yiddish accent. When she was at her best, Nora Dunfee, a beloved acting teacher (and the elderly Southern woman on the park bench in the film, Forrest Gump), was a perfect Grandma, but throughout rehearsals she was having difficulty memorizing her lines, and the day before the premiere we were forced to embed the script in a magazine, laying open upon the table in front of the backyard “couch.”

None of these “changes” really upset me, since I have always felt that one of the wonders of theater is the possibility of various interpretations of a work which directors and actors can provide. With that in mind, I write only minimal stage directions, and prefer to leave the set—in this case highly stylized, with large cardboard tubes suggesting the trees of the backyard—an abstraction. What I wasn’t prepared for was the utter stubbornness of some actors. The woman playing Carmelita, in particular, was constantly asking me about her motivations. Since I have never written from of a psychologically-based perspective, I simply could not answer her. “Clearly she just wants to be part of the family, wants to be part of something!” I declared. But again and again, Cate Woodruff was pulling the work into a kind of bog of conditions, reasons, explanations, and the more O’Mara and I tried to float the play as the slightly nostalgic comedic work I had imagined it, she flatly pulled it down into a thwarted drama of small-town lives.

Fortunately, lighting director Richard Schaefer and the composer Tom Burnett had captured the spirit of the work, and, along with Jackson’s slightly campy portrayal of Blanche, which completely pulled the play away from any sense of realism, often succeeded in restoring the work’s sense of bemused acceptance of the darker horrors of family life.

Howard attended the two performances on April 6 and 7 at the famed Vineyard Theatre, along with, once again, many of my playwright friends, Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, Hannah Weiner, and other poets and artists. Howard, however, did not feel the play succeeded, suggesting that I was straddling absurdity and realism, maintaining that what I had really attempted to do was to write a fully developed realist play—something that couldn’t be further from my mind. Besides, I had no control over the situation, I tried to explain; the characters wrote the play, not I.

A few weeks after this production, Nora Dunfee fell to a New York street, dead from brain cancer. Clearly her lack of memory throughout the production had been a product of her illness!

Some years later, a Los Angeles theater company decided to produce The Confirmation for one night. I suggested I might attend the rehearsals, but they seemed to question the need for that. Nonetheless, I did drop by, where I was obviously seen as an intruder even more dangerous than Carmelita. After the rehearsal, the director introduced me to the cast as the publisher of the play, and suddenly I realized why I had gotten such a cold shoulder. “And I might add, I am also the playwright himself; I write under the pseudonym of Kier Peters.” Suddenly several cast members came forward filled with questions.

That production was what I can only describe as a disaster. The company had been famous for, at one time, producing plays by Ionesco—which explained, perhaps, the continual manipulation throughout the play of various pieces of furniture, particularly the movement of chairs! Of close friends, I think only Martin Nakell attended—thank heaven! And today, so he tells me, he has forgotten the event.

Los Angeles, May 3, 2008

To order The Confirmation send an e-mail to:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Nation's Capital: The 4th Night (One's Enemies)

Alison Cheek celebration communion at the Church of St. Stephen and the Incaration in Washington, D.C., November 1974

Throughout our years in Washington, D.C., Howard and I—primarily through his role as an art curator—were invited to numerous embassy parties. At some point in the early 1970s, for example, we were invited to several events at the Australian and New Zealand embassies. Occasionally those invitations were even extended to the personal residences of the ambassadors of those countries.

The Aussies, I remember, were somewhat like American frontiersmen, a bit fearful of “high cultural” events. At one particular occasion, the evening began with a concert, whereat the wives of the various embassy officials sat dutifully attentive, while the men rambled about in an adjoining room, drinks in hand, impatiently awaiting the concert’s completion.

The New Zealanders, on the other hand, although completely unpretentious, were highly interested in culture. I recall a long discussion with the Ambassador’s wife one evening about the writer Janet Frame, whom she described as a “dear friend.” The food, which consisted of platters of slightly greasy lamb chops, may have been somewhat unsophisticated, but the conversation was another thing.

I don’t recall to which ambassadorial home we had been invited in December 1974 to a Christmas party, but it was one of those Washington, D.C. townhouses where such parties were celebrated downstairs, in what normally might have described as a basement, but had been so redecorated that no one could hardly think of it as such.

There I met the representative of the Federated States of Micronesia and another Oceania leader. Howard and I spoke with both gentlemen for some time.

But gradually, as one does at such events, we broke off into other groups, I noticed a gathering of individuals standing around a plain-looking but friendly woman. I joined them, listening in upon the conversation. Clearly, this woman had just received some high accolade, and the women surrounding her were curious about how she had reached this position. Gradually, I began to understand that she was somehow involved with religion, and few seconds later I realized who she was. At the very moment, Howard came up to the group, standing next to me, hoping, I presume, for an introduction.

The woman continued to speak intensely about how she achieved her position, using, over and over again, terms such as “those against change” and “one’s enemies.” At one point, she began a short diatribe against “one’s enemies,” chastising those, apparently, who refused to accept change.

Howard is a born diplomat, a careful but easy conversationalist, unlikely to say anything that might offend. But perhaps because he had still to be introduced to this slightly garrulous individual, or just out of an uncontrollable urge, he suddenly blurted out: “One’s enemies can go straight to Hell.” Suddenly all faces turned to him in apparent shock, and he quickly recognized that he had said something out of turn. He smiled and quickly fled the little clique, as its members turned back to continue their discussion.

I gradually shifted away from the group, cornering Howard alone. “What was that all about?” he innocently asked.

I began to laugh. “Well, Howard, I don’t think you could have chosen a more ill-suited phrase! Do you know who that is?”


“It’s Alison Cheek, the Anglican priest, the first woman to celebrate communion in an Episcopal church.” In January 1975, Time magazine chose her as the Person of the Year.

At the party, we returned to the conversations about Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, safer ground on which to talk.

Los Angeles, September 27, 2001

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Dance of Death (on Strauss' Salome)

Richard Strauss Salome / Metropolitan Opera's "Live in HD Series," / Bridge Theater, Los Angeles on Saturday, October 11, 2008

Howard and I attended the high definition live performance of Strauss's opera Salome in late 2008; but its appropriateness for inclusion in the 2002 volume became immediately apparent. This opera is, after all, almost an inverted paean to the subjects of love, death, and transfiguration—although no one in this work—except perhaps for the necrophilic Salomé—can be said to be in love or spiritually exalted at its end.

Strauss's libretto, based on Oscar Wilde's French play, is almost painful to endure, moreover, because of its characters' confusion of love with lust, death with power, and transfiguration with insanity. Each of its major characters is doomed from the outset by his or her perverse behavior through which each desperately strives to attain something that cannot be given.

The Syrian Captain of the Guard, Narraboth, desires the untouchable Salomé, destroying himself when he witnesses her mad acts.

Herodias, Herod Antipas's niece and the former wife of his brother, Herod Philip, has married her uncle/brother-in-law to the outrage of many in Judea, receiving widespread damnation by Jochanaan (John the Baptist), whom Herod has, accordingly, arrested and imprisoned. The historical Herodias also wanted power and ultimately forced her husband to demand he be named King of the Judea provinces which he controlled; but in Strauss's version she primarily seeks the restoration of her "good name."

The historical Herod also sought further power, but in the opera is seen primarily lusting after his sixteen-year-old daughter, willing to promise anything if she will reveal herself in her legendary "Dance of the Seven Veils."

Once Salomé has witnessed the man behind the outraged voice in the chambers below the great terrace to where she has escaped from the dinnertime leers of her father, she desires to sexually control the prophet, who emphatically rejects her.

Jochanaan obviously seeks his freedom, but is even more committed to the damnation and redemption of the entire family. If their desires emanate from the lusts of self and body, his stems from an equally perversely unforgiving faith.

In order that this unhappy family and guests might obtain what they desire, each also gives up something that will end in self-destruction. As I have already reported, Narraboth gives up his life. Herodias sacrifices her own daughter to her husband for the possibility of destroying Jochanaan, and, in so doing, further dooms her "good name." Herod will be forced to give up his protection of the holy man, Jochanaan, resulting in the wrath of the Sanhedrin and his Jewish subjects and perhaps in the loss of his kingdom (in fact, soon after John's and Christ's death, Herod Antipas was banished by Caligula to Gaul). Through her dance, Salomé gives up, symbolically speaking, her chastity, and through her murder of Jochanaan, loses her sanity and ultimately her life (the historical Salomé did not die, but was wedded to Herod Philip, her mother's former husband). For his faith, condemnations, and disdain of Salomé Jochanaan sacrifices his head.

Salomé's frenzied dance, accordingly, can be understood as a ghastly dance of death, an abandonment of all things honorable that love, faith, and freedom might represent. It is both a sexual tease and a prelude to the sexual frenzy she later plays out when she is served the head of Jochanaan on a platter. But it is not only Jochanaan's and her own death for which she dances, but for the end of her world, the destruction—so often symbolically sought (and occasionally accomplished) by the younger generation against the old—of her parents and their world.

The Metropolitan Opera productions on screen are almost as good as being at the opera itself, and the close-up perspective is perhaps even better than witnessing the stage in the cavernous space. In this particular production, however, the censors felt it necessary to save the "home" audiences from witnessing Karita Mattila's breasts. But given the limitations of her dance, performed in what The New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini aptly described as "Dietrichian drag," perhaps we were thoughtfully spared the spectacle. Although Mattila has a lovely face, and is able to vocally and physically convince the audience of her sexual energy, the very size of her body renders her performance to be more like that of an agile ox rather than a lithe teen. And it is hard to imagine Juha Uusitalo's Jochanaan as eliciting Salomé's intoxication with his eyes, lips, and hair. But then suspension of belief is often a requirement of opera productions, and the performances as a whole were riveting, particularly in Kim Begley's Herod and Ildkó Komlósi's Herodias.

Los Angeles, November 16, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Flying (on Ece Ayhan A Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies)

Ece Ayhan The Blind Cat Black and Orthodoxies (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1997)

In 1994 or 1995 poet and translator Murat Nemet-Nejat sent me a manuscript of his translation of the Turkish poet, Ece Ayhan. If Nemet-Nejat is to be believed, he had attempted to get this manuscript published for more than 10 years. I immediately was drawn to it, and in 1995 I gave him a contract which, through a series of underground figures, was passed on in Turkey to Ayhan, apparently in hiding from his government for failure to pay taxes or some other infraction, who signed and dated it 14.12.1995.

The manuscript Murat had given me seemed to me to have many similarities to the American poet John Wieners, who, like Ayhan, was a gay writer who had begun his early life at the edges of academic and socially responsible behavior—Wieners began his education at Boston College, later enrolling in Black Mountain College to study with Charles Olson and Robert Duncan before working as an actor and stage manager at the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge; Ayhan graduated from the school of Political Sciences in Ankara before serving as a civil servant—while later gradually moving out into the underground and sexual fringes of society.

According to Nemet-Nejat, by the time of Ayhan’s third major collection of poetry, Orthodoxies (1968), he had moved to the streets of Istanbul’s Galata section: “historically both its red light district—of transvestites, girl and boy prostitutes, tattooed roughs, heroin merchants, that is, the unnamed or ‘euphemized’ outcasts of Turkish culture—and the district where minorities—Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, etc—lived.”

The two works that made up the Sun & Moon book, ultimately published in 1997, A Blind Cat Black (which I inexplicably published as >The Blind Cat Black) and Orthodoxies, reveal Ayhan’s spiral out of the social center.

Nemet-Nejat describes the first work as a story of exile “masquerading as an adventure sea romance.” “One has a fairy tale with pirates, treasures, a la Peter Pan, whose child hero does not fly home at the end, but joins the secret and street society of homosexuals: a fairy tale, a misadventure of trauma, shame, torture and rape in deep sea.” Nearly all these elements, for example, are represented in the title poem:

An absent-minded tightrope walker comes. From the sea
of late hours. Blows out a lamp. Lies down next to my weeping
side, for the sake of the prophet. A blind woman downstairs.
Family. She raves in a language I don’t know. On her chest a
heavy butterfly, broken drawers in it. My Aunt Sadness drinks
alcohol in the attic, embroiders. Expelled from many schools.
A blind cat passes in the black street. In its sack a child just
dead. His wings don’t fit, too big. The Old Hawker cries. A
pirate ship. Has entered the port.

Already in this section “the wings don’t fit,” and by the end of the poem the author-hero’s inability to fly away ends in no longer caring, the narrator of the poem hiding “himself in dust with apoplectic kicks.” In a sense, Ayhan seems to be suggesting that it is impossible to be gay, to be a fairy, without the magic possibility of flight:

You don’t understand. Being without wings. And it gets
dark, weeping in the sea of a sea. A child waiting. The sail

By the time of Orthodoxies, the translator argues, Ayhan was no longer was interested in presenting a center against which his figures were judged, but focused on the word, particularly puns and slang, that made clear that language itself, “part of history, is a trap/tomb, a cribdeath, where the peripheral is buried,” which needed itself to be rejuvenated before the misfit might escape.

In the strange night world of Orthodoxies, even the perpetual sufferer Jonah has escaped the whale only to himself become a dolphin. While he may symbolize, however, a joyful aspect of the community (joy and community both connected with the image of the dolphin), this Jonah is, as Ayhan jests, “A sight. Cruising. Bedecked with holsters, stirrup, harness.” This horsey leather queen combs “his hair in cum water. Then is treated to flowers. A garland of braids. From time to time blinking, with vast hanging earrings.” In this work devoted to questioning notions of “orthodoxy,” (the translator points out that in Turkish the word means not only the holy, pious or virtuous, but also in Turkish slang suggests “whore, homosexual, pederast, betrayer, etc.”) Ayhan asks:

What is an Orthodox lad doing at Maidos? Banged about by
agitation which is after the knowledge of knives.

Along with Gallipoli, Maidos a nearby city to the South, was heavily damaged in the World War I battle of Gallipoli, the Allied assault on the Ottoman Empire—the last great battle of that Empire before being transformed into the Turkish Republic under Atatürk, himself a commander at Gallipoli—which resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 people. The horse imagery associated with this new Jonah is appropriate given that one of the major attacks on the Turks occurred at the Battle of the Nek when The Third Australian Light Horse Brigade futilely attacked, a battle depicted in Peter Wier’s film Gallopoli.

In short, the poet seems to take pleasure in the paradox that out of the Ottoman battle to save the Dardenelles from invasion another being, capable of creating a new world, had been spewn own, like Jonah out of the whale: a preposterous “dolphin,” a sea mammal associated for centuries by sailors with Christ. Accordingly, in Orthodoxies, Ayhan’s figures at least regain, through language, their wings, even if they are only artificial, sad and silver:

She cannot cover the sadness of her silver wings, the Greek

Drunk, her world reversed (“Boots in hand and parasol on her feet”), Ayhan’s outcast has , at least, the potential to fly away, to be forgiven or, if nothing else, to pray to be forgiven: “But she does know how to cross herself efficiently with index and third fingers.”

It was with great sadness that I learned of Ece Ayhan Çağlar’s death on July 13th, and I soon after determined to reprint these moving books in my Green Integer series.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2002

Friday, November 14, 2008

THE GREEN INTEGER REVIEW Nos. 11-16 (Table of Contents)

The Green Integer Review
Issues Nos. 11-16

Poetry and Fiction
Essays and Reviews

The Green Integer Review
Nos. 11-16 (January-December 2008)


Cyprian Norwid (Poland) [translated by Danuta Borchardt]
The Sphinx

Nick Piombino and Toni Simon (USA)
Three Collages (Simon)
from Contradicta (Piombino)

Ranjit Hoskoté (India)
The Secret Agent
Portrait of an Unknown Master
The Strange Case of Mr Narrative's Reluctance
Platform Directions
The Empire of Lights
The Randomiser's Survival Guide
Still Life

Bruce Andrews (USA)
Dang Me 1
Dang Me 2

Jules Michelet (France) [translated by Katia Sainson]
The Sea as Viewed from Shore from The Sea

Christopher Barnes (Scotland)
Pratfalls of a Lover
Prison Song

Susan Bee (USA)
Four Recent Paintings
Eye of the Storm
Après le Déluge
Happy Anniversary
Blue Ladies

John Wilkinson (England)
Unicorn Bait
Pure Cotton Buds
Bent Double
Dredge Spoils

Dagmar Nick (Germany) [translated by Jim Barnes]
Wild Ride
Hunting Season
Loss of Sight
What Remains

Douglas Messerli (USA)
You Know What I Mean (on Pina Bausch's Ten Chi and Richard Foreman's
Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland)

Richard Foreman (USA)
Deep Trance Behavior in Potatoland

Domício Coutinho (Brazil)
from Duke the Dog Priest

Frances Presley (England)
from Alphabet for Alina
Lake near Balcombe

Charles Bernstein (USA)
Leaking Truth: British Poetry in the ‘90s

Aida Tsunao [Japan] (translated to Hiro Sato)
As an Experience
Stolen Goods

Alistair Noon (England/lives Germany)
The Stop Before the Border
The Lakefarers
The Tin Islands
Filling the Triangle

Ger Killeen (Ireland/lives USA)
Erebus and Terror

Douglas Messerli (USA)
Unusual Appearances in Unexpected Places (on the art show Phantom Sightings)

Important Copyright Note: Please note that the material is this web-site magazine is protected by copyright by the authors and Green Integer. Readers may download material for their private reading purposes only. All material is protected by copyright. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved here, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without permission of both the copyright owners and Green Integer publishers. For further information, please write Green Integer, 6022 Wilshire Blvd, Suite 200A, Los Angeles, California, 90036. Or e-mail me, Douglas Messerli, at

Friday, November 7, 2008

THE GREEN INTEGER REVIEW Nos. 11-16 (Cyprian Norwid)

Cyprian Norwid


Bylem wczora w miejscu, gdzie mra z glodu –
Trumienne izb ogladalem wnetrze;
Noga powinela mi sie u schodu,
Na nieobrachowanym pietrze!

Musial to byc cud – cud to byl,
Ze chwycilem sie belki sprochnialej...
(A gwozdz w niej tkwil,
Jak w ramionach krzyza!...) – uszedlem
caly! -
Lecz unioslem, pol serca – nie wiecej -
Wesolosci?... zaledwo slad!
Pominalem tlum, jak targ bydlecy;
Obmierzl mi swiat...

Musze dzis pojsc do Pani Baronowej,
Ktora przyjmuje bardzo pieknie,
Siedzac na kanapce atlasowej –
Coz? powiem jej...

... Zwierciadlo peknie,
Kandelabry sie skrzywia na realizm,
I wymalowane papugi
Na plafonie – jak dlugi –
Z dzioba w dzob zawolaja: „Socjalizm!”

Dlatego usiade z kapeluszem
W reku –- a potem go postawie
I wroce milczacym faryzeuszem
- Po zabawie.


Yesterday I went to a place where they die of hunger –
Coffin-like chambers to behold;
My foot tripped over a stair,
On an unaccounted floor.

It had to be a miracle – a miracle indeed,
That I grabbed a rotten beam…
(A nail was there, like in the arms
Of the cross…) – I escaped unharmed! -

But I carried off, half a heart – no more -
Of mirth?... merely a trace!
I by-passed, like a cattle mart, a horde;
I’m sick of world’s disgrace…

Today I must visit the Baroness,
Who beautifully entertains,
Sitting on a satin chaise longue -
What? I’ll tell her…
… A mirror will crack,
Candelabras make a wry face at realism,
And painted parrots
On the plafond – as it is long –
From beak to beak will cry: “Socialism!”

Therefore – I’ll sit, hat in hand
Then set it down – and home return
Like a taciturn Pharisee
- When the party’s done.

-trans. Danuta Borchardt


Na sliskim bruku w Londynie,
W mgle - podksiezycowej, bialej -
Niejedna postac cie minie,
Lecz ty ja wspomnisz, struchlaly.

Czolo ma w cierniu? czy w brudzie?
Rozeznac tego nie mozna;
Poszepty z Niebem o cudzie
W wargach... czy? piana bezbozna!...

Rzeklbys, ze to Biblii ksiega
Zataczajaca sie w blocie -
Po ktora nikt juz nie siega,
Iz nie czas myslec o cnocie!...

Rozpacz i pieniadz – dwa slowa –
Lyskaja bielmem jej zrenic.
Skad idzie?... sobie to chowa.
Gdzie idzie?... zapewne - gdzie nic!

Takiej to podobna jedzy
Ludzkosc, co placze dzis i drwi;
- Jak historia?... wie tylko: „krwi!...”
Jak spolecznosc?... - tylko: „pieniedzy!...”

Londyn 1854


On slippery London pavement
In fog, sub-lunar, white -
Many a creature will pass by,
You’ll remember her, terrified.

Her brow in thorns? or filth?
With certainty one cannot tell:
Are these whispers of miracles
On her lips… or? spume from hell?...

You’d say, that book’s the Bible
Rolling thus in slime -
No one ever reaches for it,
Nor is it - virtue’s time!...

Despair and money - two words -
Flash in her web-covered eyes,
Whence comes she?... only she knows,
Where goes she?... where nothing is!

Such is Mankind - a witch-like crud
That weeps today and finds things funny;
-Its history?... knows only: “blood!...”
Its institutions?... only: “money!...”

London, 1854
-Trans. by Danuta Borchardt

*This relates to larva in Latin: specter, mask, but also to something evolving as in biological larva.

Born in 1821, Norwid is considered one of the major Polish poets of the 19th century, a poet of the second generation of Romantics. After a tragic life, he died in Paris in 1883.

THE GREEN INTEGER REVIEW Nos. 11-16 (Nick Piombino and Toni Simon)

Nick Piombino and Toni Simon
from Contradicta

Acceptance of uncertainty won't banish every qualm but unreasonable demands for certitude will make doubt a steady companion.


Not all information is beneficial. Cultivating a taste for not knowing some things may make for a better day


Worries are daydreams without legs, or, worry is the caterpillar, daydream the butterfly.


Joy is the giant, sadness the shadow


What writing begins only commitment to a point of view completes.


Talk opens a possibility to listening, listening to understanding, understanding to insight, insight to change. But anywhere along the line the chain might break.

Strength is as important for love as kindness since it is as crucial to challenge the neglect of those whose love we want as it is to challenge our own neglect of those who want our love.


Perhaps before photography, prior to the omnipresence of the pose, people looked—and therefore felt—more like themselves.

Look back—it's always the same. One more moment and you would have found it.


If you haven't asked a question, you haven't said anything.

Copyright ©2008 by Nick Piombino

Author of Poems, The Boundary of Blur, and fait accompli, Nick Piombino lives in Brooklyn, N. Y. Green Integer will publish his and Toni Simon's Contradicta in early 2009.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

GREEN INTEGER REVIEW, NOS. 11-16 (Bruce Andrews)

Bruce Andrews / Photo by Larry Bremner

Bruce Andrews

Dang Me


Memories don’t even need language to be false. Luna park astro density — a deflatulent neighborly cranial busride, an abridged jitney, a swerve shocks skeezier sublunar underkill dose wobble gato muttonskin chrysalis monks on acid: vocational turtle-like dissonance. True-to-life means: let somebody else deal with it. Windowless cubicle silencing the spoiled & soft — pompano, glamour fish? — dizzier medfly tutus for trogs, penny diapers, sunset divas, intimate afterburners — fractal but late. Hypnosis victims impersonating our police — archeo- eerie calm lagniappe podunk saltlick mambo daikon gee-gaw slod — who loves the crude puffed-up ephemera.
Prehabiliation. Stereopticon valuepak, merrier & merrier demerits. Eventually it stains little boyblue with smack-sights, a real bowwow browser semi-human rocks on victorian lava flow atop the steak, diving for gravy. Partygoers at trough axis lava plug itinerary mudpies’ acumen fragrance despondent per flower bot — replace little smudge with big smudge. The dismantling species, a groove makes it stick an endless flow of kid stuff; zero oomph, zero charisma, swallow it. A variorum skyscape missing telemetry, gooier & stuck on decalomanic hornet, dervish belief in ceilings.
POV shit syringe immaculata, genetic halftrack matter doubles back oldies’ shiner run-off; whirligig axis tussle ogling purses naughty rubdown puckering the solstice — exo-perp iconage, a hydraheaded vishnu of unfocus teledeportation losing my semblance gazebo, you silly goose. Exhale astrophysically, overfund a secondary eruption. What’s fucking of its opaque dazzle me on & off again, impetuous as whiplash divinity with a driver’s license.

Dang Me

The only formal values are gothic spy rape imp text apology. EDITRIAGE — can we retard some lettering, adjectivally yak dung sling mike flapping your squishy pre-paradigm wings to be blownup the dashes. Ipso vario touché tips televisory supra- as ever — dizzy meditative bitterness, a little scarier, post-sub stead fast transactional spewing the bother whose doubts you’re pushing so better things are misunderstood. Incommensurate common sense mergered prehab scab entitlement — no, honey, narrative — verbs stack up, shimmy oblong bounce on stats that holler duelling thanatoids’ pocketbook. Microscuzzy, an impromptu crispier victory the literate sell upwind to render fat a workable skillset bobbing for affables. Checkpoint pindrop sense eases off suggestive beehive lessons to thug what webs would completely brazenly dubious not quite so & so in trouble completely... logic, that stoolie alert con rehab. Chilly me, acetylene [torch] that thought. Fetishize the splay proof goggles.
Unorthodox silly jelly boggle swathe a million toxic outtakes whose kicking around got the paradox jitters. Muzzle the re-unthought murky creativity think about diffidence quote like flapjack differently: the rational really got hammered. Just to bend it far back enough, infidels’ perforation gone mad scours the kiss-off a little more kick pops up — compulsive secrets all bunched up smuggling the catfight. Plutopraxis another follow-spot on your shadow buddy remy pap smear on classroom overhead projector. The church of not looking out nothing, that constructed fuck; here we go again — an airless abstractness qualm assay grizzly transience shook me bagging your mental groceries. Vampire plays breath organ waltz into lack of meaning, rack-mounted subliminal messages ascend to pre-op, the contempo prevaricaters boffing the dictionate entitlement with a thank you note. Lemon-squeezing daddy, syllables get up & jitterbug. How much are the unsubliminal message units... are they cheaper?


Copyright ©2008 by Bruce Andrews
As well as a number of essays, Andrews has published about forty books of poetry, either on his own or in collaboration with other writers. These include I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) (1992) and Ex Why Zee: Performance Texts, Collaborations with Sally Silvers, Word Maps, Bricolage & Improvisation (1995). Designated Heartbeat (Salt Publishing) and Swoon Noir (Chax Press, 2007) brings Andrews well into the 21st century. Also of note, recent projects (and e-reprints of earlier publications) are also appearing on-line.

THE GREEN INTEGER REVIEW Nos. 11-16 (Jules Michelet)

Jules Michelet
The Sea as Viewed from Shore / from
The Sea

A brave Dutch sailor, a steady and cool observer, who has spent his life on the sea, says firmly that the first impression that one has of it, is one of fear. For any terrestrial being, water is the unbreathable, asphyxiating element. It is the fatal and eternal barrier, which irreversibly separates two worlds. It should come as no surprise that the enormous mass of water that we call the sea, whose profound depth remains unknown and obscure, has always appeared formidable to the human imagination.

Orientals see it as none other than a bitter chasm—the Night of the Abyss. In all the ancient languages, in those of India and of Ireland, the term for sea is synonymous or analogous to the desert and the night.

It is with great sorrow that every night we see the sun—the world’s joy and father of all life—sink into and be engulfed by the waves. The world and especially the West mourn it daily. And although we see this spectacle every day, it holds the same power over us; it has the same melancholic effect.

When diving into the sea to a certain depth, one is quickly deprived of light and enters a twilight where only a single color persists—a sinister red. Then, even that disappears and total darkness descends. It is absolute darkness, except perhaps for certain extraordinary phosphorescent phenomena. Immense in its expanse, enormous in its depth, this mass, which extends over the majority of the globe, seems a world of obscurity. Above all, this is what unnerved and intimidated the earliest men. It was believed that life ceased where there was an absence of light and that with the exception of its surface layers, the rest of the sea’s unfathomable depths, its bottom (if an abyss has a bottom), was a black lonely expanse. There, lay only arid sand and stones, along with bones and debris, so many lost goods that this miserly element is constantly taking and never returns, and which are jealously hidden in the deep treasury of shipwrecks.

Seawater does not offer a reassuring transparency. Unlike the engaging nymph of springs or of crystal-clear fountains, this water is dark and heavy. It strikes hard. To venture into the sea is to feel strongly transported. It is true that seawater helps the swimmer but it also controls him, he feels like a weak child, cradled by a powerful hand that could just as well crush him.

Once a boat is adrift, who knows where a sudden wind and an irresistible current can carry it? Thus, northern fishermen, in spite of themselves, found polar America and returned with terror-filled accounts about a mournful Greenland. Every nation has its stories, its tales about the sea. Homer and The Arabian Nights preserve for us much of this frightening lore: the reefs and storms; doldrums that are no less deadly where one dies of thirst while surrounded by water; man-eaters; sea-monsters; leviathans; krakens and great sea serpents. “The land of fear,” as the desert is known, could have also been used to designate the great maritime desert. The boldest of sailors, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the conquering Arabs who wanted to annex the world, enticed by stories about the land of the Hesperides with all its gold, went beyond the Mediterranean, set off on the great sea, but soon they stopped. The dark line eternally shrouded in clouds, which they encountered before reaching the equator, filled them with awe. They stopped. They said: “This is the Sea of Darkness.” And they returned home. “It would be impious to violate this sanctuary. Woe to anyone who follows his sacrilegious curiosity! On the last islands, we saw a giant, a menacing figure who said: Don’t go any further.”

These rather childlike fears of the old world are no different than the obvious emotions of a neophyte or a simple person who having come from the interior suddenly catches sight of the sea. Anyone, who has had this sudden unexpected surprise, feels the same way. Animals are visibly disturbed by it. Horses are uneasy even at ebb tide, when the water, which is weary and weak, drags sluggishly along the shore. They shudder and often refuse to walk through the languid waves. Dogs back away and bark, in their own way reviling the waves that they fear. They never make peace with this dubious and seemingly hostile element. According to one traveler, the dogs of the Kamchatka peninsula who are used to this spectacle are nonetheless frightened and irritated by it. In large packs by the thousands, over long nights, they howl at the roaring waves furiously fighting to the bitter end with this northern sea.

The melancholic course of the rivers of northwest France, the vast sands of the Midi, or the heaths of Brittany, act as the Ocean’s vestibule, a natural introduction that prepares us for its impact. This intermediate region that heralds the sea strikes anyone approaching by these routes. Along these rivers, is an infinite wasteland of bulrushes, willows and other plants, which with the intermingling of increasingly brackish water, eventually become marine plants. Before reaching the sea, the heath is a preliminary sea of low rough grasses, ferns and heather. At a distance of one or two leagues, you notice scrawny, sickly, grimacing trees that herald by their bearing—I am tempted to say by their strange gestures—the proximity of the great tyrant and its oppressive breath. If their roots didn’t hold them down, it is obvious that they would flee. They look down at the ground and turn their back to the enemy. On the verge of retreat, they seem disconcerted and frenzied. They bend down, bowing to the ground, and for lack of a better solution, as they stand fixed there, they contort themselves in the stormy winds. Still elsewhere, tree trunks becomes small and they endlessly extend their branches horizontally. On the beaches, trees are overcome and engulfed by the fine dust given off by fragmented shells. Their pores close up. They lack air. They suffocate but conserve their form and remain there as trees of stone, as ghosts of trees, as gloomy ever-present shadows, as captives even in death.

Well before catching sight of the sea, one hears her and therefore begins to imagine this formidable character. At first, it is a far off sound, muted and unchanging. Then little by little all other noises yield to her and are subsumed. Soon, one notices the solemn alternating and unvarying return of the same loud and deep note that increasingly rumbles and roars. The oscillation of a clock’s pendulum measuring out time is not as regular in comparison. And yet, there is nothing monotonously mechanical about this pendulum. In the case of the sea, we feel or we believe that we feel the vibrant intonations of life. In fact, at high tide when one wave—immense and electric—rises above another, the sound of shells and of thousands of diverse creatures brought in with the tide mixes with the stormy rumble of the waters. A murmur at ebb tide makes it clear that long with the sands, the waves are reclaiming a world of loyal tribes that the sea gathers to her breast.

And the sea has still other voices! When she is emotional, the sea’s moan and deep sighs contrast with the silence of the mournful shore. In fact, the shore seems to be quietly meditating, in order better to hear the threats coming from the one who just yesterday was flattering it with a caressing wave. What will the sea be telling the shore next? I do not want to predict. I do not want to speak here of the frightful concerts that the sea may give, of her duets with the rocks, of the basses and the muffled thunder that she produces deep inside the caves, nor the astonishing cries in which one thinks one hears: “Rescue me!”… No, let’s examine the sea in her so solemn days, when she is strong but not violent. It should come as no surprise that, when confronting this sphinx, both children and ignoramuses have always exhibited a stunned admiration—not so much pleasure but fear. As for the rest of us, from many perspectives, the sea is still a great enigma.

What is her true size? It is greater than that of the earth, we are certain of that. On the surface of the globe, water is the rule land is the exception. But what is their relative proportion? Water makes up four-fifths of the globe. This is the most probably theory. Others have suggested two-thirds or three-fourths. It is difficult to say for certain. Landmass increases and decreases. It is a work in progress. This part rises and that one sinks down. Certain polar lands that have been discovered and mapped by one sailor can no longer be found on a later trip. Elsewhere, countless islands, immense reefs of madrepores and coral are formed, rise up and upset our sense of geography.

The depth of the sea is even more of an unknown than her area. The first few soundings, which have only recently been attempted, have proved unreliable.

The small and daring liberties that we take on the surface of this indomitable element—our boldness in sailing over this deep unknown—do not amount too much, and can do nothing to diminish the sea’s rightful pride. In fact, she remains inscrutable and impenetrable. We are just now beginning to learn for certain about what we imagine is a prodigious world, filled with life, war, love and varied works moving within her. But the moment we penetrate the sea, we can hardly wait to get out of this foreign element. If we need the sea, she has no need for us. She manages perfectly well without Man. Nature does not seem to care to have us as a witness. This is God’s exclusive domain.

This element, which we perceive as fluid, ever moving, and capricious, does not really change. It is the embodiment of regularity. Man is the one who is constantly changing. Tomorrow, man’s body—which, according to Berzelius, is four-fifths water—will have evaporated. In the presence of the great immutable powers of nature, this ephemeral apparition has every reason to dream. No matter his well-founded hope that his immortal soul will live in eternity, Man is nonetheless saddened by his frequent deaths and by the crises which break at each moment of life. The sea seems to prevail over him. Each time that we approach the sea, it seems that she says from the depth of her immutability: “Tomorrow you pass away but I never will. Your bones will be in the ground, and, over the centuries, they will decompose. Majestic and indifferent, I will continue the great, perfectly-balanced life which hour after hour, reconciles me harmoniously with the life of far away worlds.”

On the violent beaches where the sea, twice daily, snatches stones away from the cliffs, then throws them back, dragging them along with a sinister sound like a ball and chain, this humiliating contrast is exposed in a deeply distressing and scornful way. At first, every young imagination pictures the sea as a war or a battle, and is frightened. But then, having observed that this fury has limits beyond which it may not venture, the reassured child feels hate rather than fear for this wild and seemingly resentful entity. And, in turn, the child throws stones at this great roaring enemy.

I observed this duel in Le Havre in July 1831. A young girl that I had brought there in the presence of the sea summoned up her young courage, becoming indignant at such defiance. She met the sea head on. This lopsided struggle between the delicate hand of a fragile creature and the frightful force that hardly noticed her made one smile. But the laughter did not last, when one realized what a short life this beloved child would have and when contemplating her ephemeral weakness, in the presence of this tireless eternity that will recapture us all. This was one of my first times gazing at the seas. There were my reveries that were marred by the all-too accurate omen that this struggle between the sea, which I am gazing upon again today, and that child whom I can no longer behold, inspired.

—Translated from the French by Katia Sainson

English language Copyright ©2008 by Katia Saison. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

Refusing to swear allegiance to the regime of Emperor Louis Napoleon, the great French naturalist Jules Michelet (1798–1874) turned his attention to a study of the natural world, which he published in several volumes. La Mer (The Sea), one of the best of these, is part prose poem, travelogue, and autobiography, which influenced such notables as Jules Verne and was the subject of studies by Roland Barthes and others. Green Integer will publish The Sea in early 2009).