[REVIEW] Rumors of Empathy: Mariko Nagai’s Irradiated Cities

 

Les Figues Press, 2017

REVIEWED BY GIOVAN ALONZI

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18
the cracked face of an angel : the shadows of men left on walls
—Mariko Nagai, “The Specimen Nagasaki”, Irradiated Cities

 

Beloved apocalypse media, shall I compare thee to Sonnet 18?

More temperate—Roughs winds—Too hot—all that…

 

To prepare for it?—The apocalypse.

To experience it? —The apocalypse.

To savor it? —The apocalypse.

To feel the unfeelable apocalypse?

 

To consume, over and over again, especially if it’s fiction.

Especially if there are zombies.

Especially (especially in Hollywood) if a cut/gruff/hot/frumpy white man kicks zombie-ass to save the whole world?

 

If we can see a breathing apocalypse, does it give us life?

 

How about: sourcing an apocalypse? Anchoring it to nonfictional prerogatives, contemporary to us, dependent on testimonies and footage and technology? Truth may quickly decay into porn: despised, fetishized, commercialized, shunned, “interesting-ized”, e.g. “: it means that when you speak of your experience, some will say that you are selling your tragedy : it means that you keep telling the story of that day again & again, that your voice sounds mechanical & your story soulless :” (Nagai).

 

The fictional apocalypse bears a small, but powerful promise: that things might start over, that we may be able to see it through and start anew. This is the hope of the fictional apocalypse: redemption.

 

The apocalypses that have already happened on Earth, however, are far more fraught—after they are manufactured and dealt as paternalistic gifts and savage, entitled domination, they linger, fusing to us: European settler colonialism in North America and the eradication of indigenous peoples in modern day Dominican Republic and Australia were apocalypses; the African slave trades running through the Atlantic and Indian oceans were apocalypses; genocide is a people’s world ending.

 

These apocalypses bear no redemption. In fact, the through-line Mariko Nagai connects between the atomic events in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima, is that they all primarily bore suffering; meaning, they bore capital.

 

Irradiated Cities: a work at the epicenter of its blast, processing the start of its after, the beginning of its ending, the economic development of its shame: a book not intending to deliver new information (perhaps, more, conventionalized information from a series of ground-zeros); a book that reminds us that the culture of irradiation has only just begun, that irradiation has no truck with certainty, that treating irradiation in the human body as “deadly and unpredictable” creates a surplus of second-class citizens to be exploited by politicians and artists alike, that irradiation is handled like a fruitless aphorism (something like “knowledge demanded of the masses cannot be known as a mass”). For even if one does follow a path of certainty through an irradiated city, a mass of rumors irradiates everything.

 

Nagai’s meditations on the atomic history of Japan are presented in four parts: “Hiroshima”, “Nagasaki”, “Tokyo”, and “Fukushima”—“Hiroshima” and “Nagasaki” focus on their respective nuclear blasts on August 6 and August 9, 1945; “Tokyo” on post-WWII Japan, the U.S. lead Bikini Atoll nuclear test blast, and the slow embrace of nuclear energy in Japan; “Fukushima” re-centers the effects of the recent nuclear catastrophe in March 11, 2011. All four sections present a distillation of facts and rumors circulated in the wake of their respective tragedies, and the similarities these moments shared with each other. The writing resists purity, including constant repetition of phrases and lines, slightly modifying and mutating as the accounts progress.

 

The section “Hiroshima” starts with “: enough : enough has been told again & again : now it’s iconic, offering no space for an alternative : (but then, maybe there never was an alternative) :”. The “:” run through the entire book, simultaneously connecting and separating everything Nagai writes in Irradiated Cities, a crucial textual posture of the work—we are soaked in the illusion that things can be separate, that separation is safety, that separation is danger. For what do nuclear blasts and nuclear meltdowns yield more than paradoxes? One primary paradox being the immediate commodification of hibakusha [survivors of atomic bomb blasts / irradiated people] trauma: “: we make our living going through the rubble to find intact skulls, pulling out gold teeth, or keeping just the skulls to sell to the Americans, & they buy anything, including suffering, on this sojourning to the land of the bomb :” Nagai writes this early in the book, mindful of the history her book is attached to as another form of Japanese nuclear catastrophe media. This is where the stakes of the book are essential—in a history rife with exploitative documentation, how does one write about nuclear catastrophe? Irradiated Cities might be asking: How does one write about the experience of death en masse honestly? Honesty, connoting compassion as much as it should raw, untainted facts? As much as it should the superstitions built around the deadly unknowns a society is bound to after an apocalyptic event?

 

Nagai writes from the perspective of someone who has been listening for a long time (in her acknowledgements, she thanks strangers she met in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima who shared their stories with her), locating the lingering hum of nuclear tragedies, and at the same time fighting the trap of iconifying: the flattening of personal experience—the ultimate removal of empathy for those who’ve experienced nuclear catastrophes personally and survived.

 

In The Writing of the Disaster, Maurice Blanchot writes “The disaster, depriving us of that refuge which is the thought of death, dissuading us from the catastrophic or the tragic, dissolving our interest in will and in all internal movement, does not allow us to entertain this question either: what have you done to gain knowledge of the disaster?” While Blanchot seems more concerned with a cosmic and pervasive existential disaster of the human condition, I think the part that resonates with real-life apocalyptic events that are survived is this removal of refuge. That death, before having its harbinger irradiate you, with twenty Sievert of radiation or burabura-sho (the loser’s disease), is one of the only things in this world that is actually simple. And though a book might be proof that someone has gained some type of knowledge, excavating the complexity of a material disaster does not have to be a gauntlet, nor do I think Nagai is attempting one. In it, she is far less concerned with knowledge as truth, and far more concerned with knowledge as the life of rumors and longevity (and simultaneous invisibility) of iconifying. “: this city :” she writes of 1945 Nagasaki, “: this entire city is a scientific specimen : […] : when will it be freed? : when will it be freed from the shadow? :”.

 

Many questions in this book remain unanswered. But, she does provide some: she tells us “How To Treat That Mysterious Disease”; she tells us “No One Talks About It, No One Can Talk About It”; she tells us “The Story of Hibakusha”; she tells us “What It Means to Be Irradiated”; she tells us “How to Build Nuclear Power Plants”; she tells us “Rumors of Distant Disasters”; she tells us “Things People Say”; she tells us “Truth & Lies”.

 

Her prose are cunning in their mutability—through imitation of guides leading atomic tours, or genuine reimaginings of a city at the moment a bomb dropped on it, or listing observations in sobering “how-to”’s, it always feels like Nagai’s solemn voice, not shying away from the culture of rumor-making in the wake of bombs and nuclear meltdowns; her writing treats rumors as a poetic form: amassing, contradicting, repeating the reasons for why, the reasons for why not. This way of speaking—perhaps the only way we might socially cope with apocalyptic events—produces cultures obsessed with scarring, however visible or invisible, especially among those who are not hibakusha, those who don’t have to deal with a gaze hungry for symptoms of an apocalypse.

 

The blunt sentences become morbidly adaptable in the flattened, physically square body of her prose: if one assumes the “:” means all of the sentences are connected, and goes on (as I did) to dissect the sentences from various parts of the book and re-connect them to other parts, out of the intended order, a sick momentum appears: “: they do not know that their bodies now carry a bomb inside : a ticking bomb :” (“The Living Calls to the Dead”, from “Hiroshima”), “: psychologists study the survivors & their ways of living : […] : 5592 bodies autopsied in 1948-1950 :” (“The Specimen Nagasaki”, from “Nagasaki”), “what is medicine? doctors ask themselves : […] : who are they doing this for? :” (“Eighty-Three Days in 1999”, from “Tokyo”) “: the men in suits came with promises :” (“Before the Beginning”, from “Fukushima” ) “: it is a good era : […] : workers at plants are quietly getting sick, leukemia, bleeding gums, bleeding noses, exhaustion, cancers : doctors tell them there is nothing wrong :” (“A Good Era”, from “Fukushima”). This is the nature of rumors Nagai portrays—they’re accessible; they’re far more about providing sense than any deliberate truth or falsity; they can be experimented with; mostly, especially when doctors are involved, we keep repeating ourselves.

 

In Cities, Nagai uses “before” and “after” as verbs (“: they come : they come to after the pika [before] & don [after] :”) and states of being (“: it is always beautiful on a catastrophic day : it is beautiful because the before is beautiful & the after dreadful :”). Though writing about events that occurred before Milton Friedman and The Chicago Boys’ academic development of neoliberal globalization, Nagai’s attention to U.S. interests dominating Japanese socio-economics hearken to Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”: “America’s ‘free market’ policies [that have] come to dominate the world—through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.” Even after America bombs Japan, Japan justifies nuclear energy production as “: …American technology, no, it’s not the same as atomic bombs, it’s better, it’s safer, it’s cheap :” in order to get poor inhabitants of Fukushima to sell their land to TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company). The before is manufactured as soon as the after is; a two for one, detailed pointedly by one title in Irradiated Cities, “Hiroshima : ????” . Nagai equates the Katakana spelling to a “: synonym for tragedy : the first city :” connected to its original spelling (??) only by nostalgia for “the Before”.

 

Like this after-ing of a place, the production of rumors produce insatiable curiosity—“: suffering is photogenic :” Nagai writes in “Hiroshima : ????” . She follows this up in the piece “What It Means To Be Irradiated”, saying:

 

“: it means that every year, when those days come around, photographers take your photos without permission, as if hibakusha lost the passport to humanity the moment they were irradiated : & you see the faces of these journalists & photographers, their eyes gleeful because the more scars you have on your face, the more tragic you look, the more they can elevate you into an icon : it means to be told by politicians & doctors to be sterilized so that there wouldn’t be bad genes in the future :”.

 

Between pieces that list off descriptions like this, reimagined day-of-the-blasts in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bikini Atoll, and Fukushima, and references to pop phenomena like Hiroshima Mon Amour, Godzilla, Hiroshima Maidens and Nagasaki Maidens, Nuclear Power Plant Sweets and Radium Eggs, Irradiated Cities presents us with relentless crises of empathy, perhaps asking if its possible for a society to do catastrophe right. Towards the end of the book, I began to see Nagai as a detective dissecting a murderer’s devious plot—she is aware of all points of entry, times of death, suspects involved, their motivations, potential witnesses and outcomes of the crimes committed. But, instead of soliloquizing as an individual, she presents a poly-vocal deposition bound to its contradictions. But how does one put “the iconic” on trial anyway? More importantly: how do cities process shame? Cities are machines—the nostalgia for prosperity points to money and commercial development. Wealth becomes healing, treatment remains a commodity, and silence becomes the only indication of disaster.

 

Silence—imposed by American censorship of documentation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombs detonated, imposed by the trauma of the bombs themselves, imposed by one’s own community who doesn’t want to hear about the survivors of the bombs anymore—is everywhere in this book. Where silence may indicate shame though, Nagai looks to it as a way of writing about Japanese nuclear catastrophe without exploiting those directly affected. What can we find in the silence? “: stones sing their irradiated songs & enough will be said about this moment for years to come : but maybe it is not enough : there is never enough in this everafter story of one bomb & another bomb & the illumination of the night : & the silence :”. For every one page of prose, there are about three pages of black and white photography—all given full, square pages, and all taken by Nagai herself in the cities she is writing about. In all 133 pages of the book, only ten photographs have people in them—six of those only show the hands of the subjects, two only showing feet, and the only face not obscured by a blur or darkness is a face in an advertisement on a street in Tokyo. The photography, all mesmerizing, transmits total silence, simultaneously refusing to exploit humanity’s visible scars. It’s beautiful effect: the silence cuts through the sensational rumor-making and empathy documented in the language.

 

It’s important to know that Nagai isn’t fishing for epiphanies about nuclear bombs and meltdowns either—her book is much larger than that. More than anything, she’s written a way to feel the irreverent permanence of national traumas, a sense of trauma’s half-life in the flesh of these cities, as well as the minds, products, and industries of their inhabitants.

 

Blanchot writes, “when the disaster comes upon us, it does not come”—is it because it is already always here? Perhaps the primary effect of apocalyptic disasters, like bombs and meltdowns, is emphasizing a society’s existing alienations—from other cultures, as well from itself. That said, I do not think Irradiated Cities is posing as a model—at no point is Cities a general warning for those unaware of nuclear catastrophe, not an effort to universalize hardship and suffering; it is an attempt to feel and see the nuclear legacy of Japan without exploiting quotidian life—writing towards the constant paradox of capital (the person/commodity), the amnesia induced by obsessions with national wealth, and, if you listen like Nagai, the murmurings of cities: “: on this shore, all is well : because they tell themselves : on a distant shore : it all happens on the distant shore : it can never happen here :” (“Rumors of Distant Disasters”, from “Tokyo”).

Giovan Alonzi’s writing has appeared in VOLT, Entropy, and The Believer. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts, and currently teaches writing composition at East Los Angeles College.

The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”
––

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

 

[REVIEW] Mile-high with Mary Ruefle: a review of My Private Property

Wave Books, 2016

REVIEWED BY E.D. MORIN

A bad baby kicks the back of my airplane seat. Bad baby gurgles. A cacophony of jungle ululations (moist, hot and fretful) assaults my ear drums. Bad baby makes strident, vomity sounds as if his caregiver clutches him too tight.

I get it. I want to clutch bad baby tight too.

One time a bad baby howled for my entire long flight, not so much shrieking as emitting gulpy, infant cries meek enough to draw co-traveler sympathies. This bad baby is not sympathetic. An exotic hell-parrot foments in this bad baby. Bad baby howls, lazy and wanton, hatchling of lazy parents. I can just see it. All those tricks these parents perform at home to calm their squalling babe in arms (loud punk music, baby bouncer in the kitchen doorway) are inoperable here.

If I turn to peer behind me, I fully expect snap! a forest canopy. Down fall the oxygen masks. Rubber liana air tubes, snot-and-milk soaked and strung with fruit loops.

Don’t turn. Don’t even think about it.

In the air, time goes by as if in a dream, seconds and seconds and minutes and minutes and suddenly hours are gone. Somewhere above our destination and nearing the Greater Toronto Area, surely by now, I hold my book open, Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property. The writing here is reduced to essential, devastating truths. “You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause,” she writes in “Pause,” a piece about menopause.

“You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.”

The back dust-jacket flap tells me that Mary Ruefle lives in Bennington, Vermont, which Google later tells me is a town with two colleges and a population of just over fifteen thousand. In other words, small. Google will also inform me that Mary Ruefle is off everything, Facebook, Twitter, doesn’t even have her own website. Certainly not Snapchat. There will be images of Bennington’s fall leafage, the world’s tallest ladderback chair, a covered bridge. There are reports of a recent heroin scourge.

My guess is the town’s folk don’t know Mary Ruefle the star poet. They may notice she visits the same coffee shop every day. And if they know her as a poet, she’s approachable enough that the police headquarters will ask her to compose something for the chief, a “dry and understated” statement as she writes in “Little Golf Pencil.” Maybe people do ask such things. If they even know about her being a poet.

I yearn for such off-the-grid seclusion. What writer doesn’t yearn for seclusion these days? A reprieve from the endless distractions, cut off from WIFI, cell service. Incommunicado. This cross-country flight is a gift, then. And only now, when I’m almost at my destination, does my mind grow quiet enough that I’m able to even begin. My own private mile-high writing retreat, however brief.

And so I observe.

The man in the row ahead of me has just put away his bagpipes, an electronic device. A black stick and box with earphones so he can practice Prince Charles’ Welcome to Lochaber in silence. He opens a paperback and begins to read, but I can’t make out the title or author. One of the Scandinavian crime writers or British, could be. Likely a male author, bloody minded, perhaps with a military background providing a nice foil to the piper’s sensitive finger manipulations.

In the row ahead of the piper, another infant, pudgy and brimming with health. The tray covered with infant paraphernalia, which is a word in today’s crossword, paraphernalia running the height of the puzzle’s grid of black and white boxes. I can’t recall the clue for this word and I can’t look it up now because I just relinquished my paper to the flight attendant for recycling, assuming the airline actually recycles its papers. A national paper it was, originating in Toronto. I bought it in the Calgary airport where I began, and now here it is almost back home, like a return to Mecca. Such a short life for that paper. Only just begun, and now it’s about to be shredded and pulped and relegated to an enormous pile.

I didn’t finish the crossword. I might have kept it and, after a time, returned to scan the clues and they might have finally made sense such as happens sometimes. But instead I said, fuck it (inaudibly as I was still on the airplane), who needs an unfinished puzzle hanging over their head? It’s not like this crossword is Mount Assiniboine, the mountain I hope to summit two months from now. “We’ve begun our descent. Hope you enjoyed the flight. Welcome to Toronto,” the pilot’s disembodied voice announces, and as usual the voice is male.

So I guess that’s it for my private writing retreat. Only a few minutes left to pull that long, long ribbon out of the carpet bag and examine it. Never mind that there’s a barf bag in the slot at my eye-level, there are seeds at my feet from the sandwich I brought with me on this no-frills flight, or that my toes are ensconced in no-nonsense footwear. Menopausal sandals, the kind of sandals that have small, rubbery, self-massage bumps on the footbed, and a wide cover over the toes to protect them and so that no one can see, heaven forbid, any of my nail fungus.

My younger self wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing these sandals. Or maybe, just maybe, she would have worn them ironically the way young women dye their hair gray these days. I don’t know what they’re getting at. I sometimes still wish I was a full brunette.

——

Winner of the 2007 Brenda Strathern Writing Prize, E.D. Morin co-edited Writing Menopause: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry and Creative Non-fiction (Inanna Publications, 2017.) A native Albertan, she is a director of the long-running Calgary reading series Writing in the Works. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Antigonish Review and Fiction Southeast and has been produced for broadcast on CBC Radio.

[REVIEW] We All Just Want to Be Touched: Courtney Maum’s “Touch”

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017)

 

REVIEWED BY DAVID PLICK

I’m sitting here in this café on my laptop typing out a review of Touch, remembering that as I walked in here I inquired whether or not they had wifi, and when I heard the answer was no, I had to force myself to not be annoyed. “Okay,” I thought to myself, calming down. “I can do other things . . . Like, write that review for Courtney’s book. I don’t need internet for that.”

Let me describe this horrible café with no wifi. It has high ceilings with exposed heating vents and painted steel rafters—the obligatory industrial chic décor—atmospheric geometric art everywhere, Allman Brothers’ “Blue Sky” is playing on the radio (I remembered how much I loved that song), a large communal table with plants all over it. Actually, come to think of it, living plants are everywhere. The windows are open, and the summer heat isn’t stifling. Also, it’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so there are interesting characters moving in and out of the café and on the street (I’ve been here twenty minutes and I’ve already seen a French woman yell at a man for nearly spilling his coffee on her). This is all to say, what reason do I have to want to leave this place—the present, where I am, with these wonderful people—to disappear into the world of the internet? Is it because I’ve been programmed to be that way (and is that an acceptable excuse?)?

This is what Touch is about—how we’re moving further and further from each other, yet all we truly seek is intimacy, for someone else to know and understand us deeply, our true selves, not our avatars, or our feeds, or our digital presence.

Touch tells the story of Sloane Jacobsen, a trend forecaster who lives the life that most cosmopolitan people dream of. A self-identifying “anti-breeder” who moves from Paris to New York to lead a technology/commerce behemoth (imagine if Amazon and Google had a baby) called Mammoth through a three-day conference with trendsetters from around the world called “ReProduction”. Their tagline: “What will we make when we stop making kids?” Mammoth also carts her around New York in a self-driving AI automobile named Anastasia who becomes her best friend. On the surface, her life sounds thrilling.

Not to mention she also has an overachiever French boyfriend named Roman, a sex-intellectual (a “neosensualist”) who gets 700,000 likes on his Instagram posts, has his articles published in New York magazine, and is into Zentai suit onesies (As ridiculous as some of the characters seem in this book, they are rendered with absolute truth and humanity.).

But of course, it’s not that easy. She and Roman haven’t had sex in eighteen months (he doesn’t believe in penetration). Practically every time he opens his mouth to tell her how amazing his life is, she wants to scream. He won’t touch her, so she eventually finds someone willing to. This person, at first, is herself. Touch has some playful and intimate masturbation scenes with Sloane, told by Maum in a fearless way. For example, there’s a scene where Sloane watches pornography while pleasuring herself (her stupid boyfriend ends up walking in), and while she snidely and subtly mocks the artfulness of the porn, she absolutely revels in it. Sloane, after being restrained and quieted in her desire, bursts to feel something. Anything.

Also, after living in Paris for ten years, she’s completely alienated from her family. Upon returning to the US, Sloane is reminded constantly of the death of her father. It’s clear that she’s never been able to process his death in Paris, that she never spoke to Roman about this. For years she quietly mourned the loss, but now that she’s home she tries to reconnect with the people who understand what she’s going through—her mom, her sister, her brother-in-law. But after ignoring them for years, it’s not like they’ll just forget what happened, and take her back with open arms. There are a lot of wounds being reopened, and resentments that are rising to the surface.

Sloane’s final trend forecast in the book, something that makes the CEO of Mammoth furious, is that people will seek to abandon technology for human interaction. Sloane has achieved legendary success, lived in the fanciest neighborhoods in the most chic cities in the world, a true fashion and social elite, yet all she wants in this world is to be touched.

Much like the film Her, Touch is funny but also a warning sign of things to come. An important reminder that we should go into cafes with no wifi, and revel in the simple and beautiful art of spending time with another human being.

 –

David Plick is the founder and editor of the online lit and humor magazine Down & Out, and a former Henry Roth Fiction Scholar at The City University of New York. His work has been in Fiction, ArchDaily, The Collagist, Entropy, Fiction Advocate, Word Riot, Philadelphia Review of Books, and other places. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Guttman Community College.

Seeking Gravity’s Center

BY JENNIFER AUDETTE

Carla’s office at Salon Beyond is a dark alcove of damp towels and a drain perpetually clogged with hair. After seven years of looking down, she’s learned the geography of foreheads. Her fingers know the topography of scalps. From her lather-worn hangnails she sucks dots of blood. Eight stylists rent chairs in the narrow space upfront by the windows. They almost never share their tips.

“You’ve been here a long time,” clients notice.

She’s saving to finish up cosmetology school, pay for her state license, rent her own chair.

“You must really love it,” the women say.

Truth: she doesn’t know what else to do.

The men who come in–and there are quite a few–she is sure, come to be touched. Moaners and sighers and silent smilers. She learns to curve her body just so, to avoid their open eyes, their flushed cheeks aching toward her breast as she leans to adjust the hot water. “This better?” she asks.

Truth: they are the ones who leave her tips.

Some nights Carla dreams of hairs looped and twisted around her fingers. She pulls at them and flails her hands to flick them away. They wrap tighter, grow thicker. Blood pounds beneath her fingernails.

She wakes. On her phone she searches for videos of men doing things in high-def slow-mo: skateboarding, skiing, boxing, big-wave surfing. She learns the lingo to find their captured pain: wipeout, fail, knockout, bail, bite, eat, slam. She watches ankles falter, wrists bend terrible angles. A punch lands. Spit flies. Eyes roll. A body skips like a rock down the face of a wave. There’s beauty in the way men twist and turn, the way they seek gravity’s center before they sense it’s hopeless. Carla waits until they realize. She taps pause. She holds them in the blink of awful knowing. She hits play. In slow motion, she watches them fall.

Jennifer Audette lives in Vermont. Her short fiction has appeared in The Front Porch Journal, Tin House’s Open Bar, Stoneboat, Crack the Spine, and Fiction Fix. Her review of Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04 is at Fiction Writers Review. Contact her at jennifer1million@gmail.com

 

Clicking on the Moon

BY INDERJEET MANI

Our front balcony faces the Gulf of Thailand, and on evenings when the moon is full or nearly so, we love to watch it rising over the sea, its luminous presence marked by those great basaltic plains once mistaken for seas. The moon is naturally the subject of countless iPhone pictures that I share on social media. In a network driven by mutual admiration, getting those likes from friends and acquaintances is now essential to the rituals of picture taking.

My memories of the moonlight I snapped a few nights ago are tied not only to the appearance of the moon, but also to what was going on when I took that picture. As it happens, my wife and I were enjoying a penne with spinach sauce. I remarked on the moon, and as we watched it, we held hands briefly. The moon that night also brought to mind memories of a much earlier time when my father and I would stand together observing those more distant moons.

Moon-Pic

When I look at my moon picture now, I recall the feeling of the wash of moonlight over air and water, and the presence of my wife beside me. For dozens of other moon pictures, unlike birthday or work-related ones, I have no recollections of the occasion of my taking them. While writing this essay helps preserve my personal memories, it’s possible that my clicking at the scenery around me might be diminishing or even erasing them.

In a recent psychological experiment, people touring a museum who were asked to photograph certain exhibits had trouble remembering them, whereas the exhibits that they didn’t photograph were surprisingly easier to remember. Another set of experiments has revealed the extent to which people rely on machines to relieve themselves of the burden of memory. Humans are willing to forget information if they believe it is available online, remembering where it can be found rather than the information itself. It’s sad enough to find memories of friends and distant places dimmed by age, without having to deal with technology ruining them further.

Not so long ago, the link between photographs and memories was celebrated simply and effectively. We sat around the fireside with our families, thumbing through those vintage photo albums with their wrinkled plastic sheets, remarking on a stooped grandfather’s piercing eyes, or admiring those glimpses of a daughter playing in the tub with her faded rubber ducky. Today, our kids, now grown up, show little interest in those family albums, offering only a brief nod and maybe an “uh-huh” while snap-chatting their friends about something far more interesting. The nostalgic world of physical photo albums is now an attic curiosity, like those fraying wedding saris and locks of forgotten hair. What the world offers us instead is the vast ocean of online repositories where we drop our little snapshots, hoping that our memories won’t face death by a thousand clicks.

All is not lost, however, in that sea. When I uploaded my moon shots that night to the Cloud, the system knew not only when and where they were taken, based on information available on my phone, but also the fact that the moon was involved, along with moonlight and the sea. My wife, leaning in on one of the shots, was accurately identified.  Realizing that some of my moon photos were taken in quick succession, Google Photos stitched them together into an animation, which I duly shared on Facebook. I also shared various digitally enhanced versions, including one that resembled an oil color. And I got those likes.

The systems we are tethered to are in possession of numerous potentially memory-jogging bits of information. The weather on the eve of the moon shot was lovely, reflected partly by the temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, and wind velocity. Earlier that day, my calendar had thoughtfully reminded me that it was the birthday of an 87-year-old aunt in India. The powers that be must also realize by now that when I take my moon shots, my wife and I are often seated together at dinner, sometimes in the company of friends, on a balcony at a considerable height above the sea. My wife’s emotional state might also be inferred from her facial expressions. My mood would be easy to discover from my tweets (some of which are already entirely predictable).

In the near future, systems will be able to assemble such information and generate verbal summaries of our photos, explaining what was happening at the time. These summaries will include rich descriptions of image content. Today, photo captioning algorithms can provide not only tags, but can also describe entities and scenes (which is especially helpful to the visually impaired). These descriptions are generated using natural language processing from information found in pre-existing image captions as well as from online textual content related to objects and scenes found in the photograph. Taken together, these smarts may help resurrect, from their synaptic slumber, personal memories associated with a picture.

While technology may help our personal memories, they are not as cool, for sharing, as pictures. Even though a digital photo today is the result of a complex computational reinvention of the scene, it is still understood as a view of reality, and as such, on an equal footing with experience. After all, no matter how much it may be staged or edited, a photo must resemble the scene from which it was mechanically generated. In the language of semiotics, photographs are signs that are inherently iconic and indexical. Those characteristics, in turn, allow us to conveniently forget that a moon shot is entirely different from the moon that we view through our native visual system. As Susan Sontag observed forty years ago in On Photography, “Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”

Future technological innovations may continue to warp our definition of what is real and personal. We are already reeling from the disruptive impact of social network algorithms and search tools deciding on which collective events we should focus on.  When fully programmable cameras become commercially viable, algorithms worn on our face and body will decide when and where and how to take photographs, choosing and framing those experiences for us. From the buzzing confusion of images, shots with features that are popular across users, or that fit with a machine’s deep fantasies, will likely be preferred. And once virtual reality truly takes hold in online gaming and entertainment, almost all of the visual experiences we savor will have been selected by machines that capture and render them based on their own perspectives. By then, we will be used to living mind-bogglingly virtual lives.

In his 1922 essay Photography and the New God, the photographer Paul Strand wrote about the need to humanize the machine, “lest it in turn dehumanize us.” Nearly a century later, the direction we’re heading as a species seems to involve ceding key cognitive functions over to intelligent mechanical appendages whom we attend to more than each other. Some of our most treasured moments are now bits of electronic information, ghostly images desperately craving for attention. But unlike us, they have a chance to persist way into the future.

Just as we get that eerie feeling watching archival footage of Tolstoy or Tagore, anthropologists and historians of the future may wonder as they interpret our personal photos.  It behooves us to try and provide an honest and human-centered telling, mediated by technology, of what they were originally about. After all, it was we who were present, like our ancestors before us, observing the moon on an enchanting evening.

Inderjeet Mani is a writer and specialist in AI and computational linguistics. His books include The Imagined Moment, and his work has also been published in 3:AM Magazine, Aeon, Apple Valley Review, Areo Magazine, Babel Magazine, Drunken Boat, Eclectica, New World Writing, Nimrod, Short Fiction Journal, Slow Trains, Storgy, Unsung Stories, Word Riot, and other venues. On Twitter, he is @InderjeetMani, and his website is http://tinyurl.com/inderjeetmani

My Brilliant Blackout

BY MARCIA BUTLER

Forty years ago, I was an aspiring twenty-two-year-old oboist, recently released from four years of music conservatory, eking out a living as a waitress at an Upper West Side restaurant in New York City. For some reason, the manager had promoted me to bartender on Sundays. He knew I played music and perhaps this was his attempt to push me onto some sort of stage or in this case, a bar. But I wasn’t quite ready for the spot light. While I mixed martinis with the most inept pour imaginable, customers stared at me all day long. Arms flailed, beckoning to me like insane snakes, with a need to satisfy an endless urge for an afternoon buzz. But mostly it was those hot lights, crowning my head with a heat only Edison bulbs could produce.

Steven walked into the bar the Sunday before the blackout. I’d not seen him since our time at the Tanglewood Music Festival, a few years before. After downing several mimosas, he began a wistful reminiscence about our heady summer of yore and our current unrealized professional dreams. Eventually, throwing me a hangdog look, he confessed that he was playing piano for a show around the corner at the Promenade Theatre starring the actor Dick Shawn. This work was not up to what he aspired to, being a classical pianist and all. Yet, I detected a sliver of bravado in his tone.

Just as I was beginning to hate him, Steven offered me a free ticket to the show. I feigned ignorance. “Who the hell is Dick Shawn?”

“He’s an actor.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He was in the movie called It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World.”

I played dumb. “Huh?”

Steven rolled his eyes. “Look. I can get you in. Do you wanna go or not?”

“Yeah, sure.”

That Wednesday evening, I entered the theatre to find the stage floor covered with enormous heaps of crumpled newspaper. As the 8pm hour came and went, I began to wonder, where was “The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World”? Suddenly, Dick Shawn popped up from underneath the newspapers, scaring the devil out of everyone. He’d been hiding under front-page headlines the whole time. Shortly into the second act, 9:36pm to be exact, the theatre went black. Within a few seconds an emergency spot came on, aimed toward Dick who’d continued with a stream of consciousness soliloquy. I assumed this was all part of the show, but five minutes into Dick’s Hamlet moment, an usher ran into the hall and yelled, “Blackout! Everybody out of the theatre!”

When 200 plus people run inside a theatre, all headed toward an ever-diminishing door opening, it goes badly. I held back as a few bodies hit the ground, stepped over – not exactly trampled, but close. When I finally breached Broadway and a blast of almost 100-degree heat, the surreal quality of the night pushed into my dilated pupils. Traffic had stopped dead and headlight beams gave off the only available shaft of light down the swing of Broadway, at knee level. And the noise: Cars braying. People screaming or crying, while standing, walking, running, pointing, shrugging. Sirens at a distance, perhaps approaching, but nowhere near.

A roar of humanity swallowed me yet I sensed an internal calm. I’d just stumbled into an environment that reflected the way I saw myself: invisible. I was more than 50 blocks away from my apartment in Chelsea and considered how to get home. A bus, though a long trip for sure, seemed plausible. I crossed the street to the southbound side of Broadway and idled at a bus stop, along with other hopeful riders. But then I looked back across the street in front of the Promenade and noticed a northbound bus, jammed beyond capacity.

I began the long walk downtown.  Looters scampered about, pushed through the crowds and broke glass storefronts with handy trashcans. Somewhere between Lincoln Center and The Coliseum I felt a rough hand, like a claw, at the back of my neck as my gold chain was ripped off. I stopped suddenly, and, with a blind sense of the theft, slipped my fingers to my throat to feel the fresh absence of metal, not quite believing I’d lost this thin, sweet treasure.

Down past Madison Square Garden the crowds began to thin out. As I neared my apartment, it occurred to me that I didn’t have any candles at home. On an impulse I stepped into a Spanish restaurant. Through the window, I’d noticed votive candles glowing on tabletops, the kind in bulbous burgundy vases wrapped in white plastic mesh.

Suddenly I was in a foreign country. Couples pressed close and I smelled something I couldn’t identify at the time: the musk of love. With no jukebox to play Spanish love songs, men and women made their own music with a throb of murmured confidences. They seemed to take advantage of a night whose air hung heavy and with no place to go but into another’s arms.

There was my mark. I sidled past the bar crowd and made my way to the empty table. With my back to the vase, and glancing up to the ceiling, I reached behind to grab it. Then a man stepped in front of me, blocking all nonchalant momentum. He smiled. I froze – maybe caught – I wasn’t certain. He gestured like a bull fighter whipping a red cape, inviting me to join him at the bar. I assumed he was in charge, maybe the manager, so I gave in and perched on a stool. As he settled in beside me, the candles lined up across the bar surface gave his face a sinister, Vincent Price sneer.

This was lighting in which I could be myself; vaguely seen but not known, present yet without pressure for performance. My eyes adjusted to the man who’d taken my hand and began to caress each of my fingers.  His beard looked at least two days old, with sweat gliding around each and every hair on his chin. I liked his eyes; maybe medium blue, or light brown, hard to tell. He stood thin and tall in the torso. Somewhere at the V slice of his half-unbuttoned shirt, some spare, wiry chest hairs appeared. And his arms, poking out of pushed-up shirtsleeves, showed plump veins worthy of an injection. I slunk down into my seat, forgot about being a third-rate thief or even an aspiring oboist and began to love the heavy darkness of the room.

Six apricot sours, four blows of coke and many tongue-filled kisses later, I succumbed to my own personal blackout, sensing pleasure through his salty mouth and experienced hands. His desire for me felt pure and badly needed – all in the comfort of the shadows. Then, I felt the brush of his breath at my ear as he whispered to me in an incomprehensible dialect that I could only guess as encouragement: “Take it. Take that candle. It’s yours – my gift to you. Run, my little tiger, and light yourself up.”

The part about getting home eludes me, just that I woke naked in bed, alone. Damp sheets stung my abraded cheek – collateral damage from the man’s rough beard – his face now a pawn of memory. Morning was about to breach, yet the lit wick still threw red into the corners of the room. My oboe lay on the desk, mostly invisible. But its silver keys sparkled in the candle light. I turned on my side, looked out the window and waited for the sun to take over and render the candle impotent. Finally, light saturated the space and I could clearly see my oboe, just where I’d left it the day before. And I thought of one thing. Not Steven and his phony gig or Dick Shawn and all the news that’s fit to print. Not even the drunks on a Sunday afternoon. I thought only of my Spaniard – the perfect stranger who, on July 13, 1977, encouraged me to unfurl the coil of uncertainty wrapped around my mind and to forget about what I wasn’t. I began to dream about what I now knew I’d eventually become: a musician. My blackout was woozy, wet and smelly. And utterly hopeful.

Marcia Butler is the debut author of the nationally acclaimed memoir, The Skin Above My Knee. She was a professional oboist for twenty-five years until her retirement in 2008. During her musical career, she performed as a principal oboist and soloist on the most renowned of New York and international stages, with many high-profile musicians and orchestras – including pianist Andre Watts, and composer and pianist Keith Jarrett. Marcia was a 2015 recipient of a Writer-in-Residence through Aspen Words and the Catto Shaw Foundation. She lives in New York City.

[REVIEW] Deconstructing the “stronger sex”: Fernando Sdrigotti’s Dysfunctional Males

sdrigotti.JPG

La Casita Grande, 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Steeped in anger, misdirection, discontent, sex, alcohol, and the feeling of uncontrollable exasperation that is usually tied to states of agitated stagnation and solitude, Fernando Sdrigotti’s Dysfunctional Males is a hilarious, dark, and unapologetic deconstruction of masculinity that offers a raw look at the way the male psyche and its obsessions react to the harshness of life in a great metropolis. The collection brings together five stories that share a few cohesive elements: all take place in London, have a male protagonist, and dance between humor and despair.

The collection kicks off with  “The Grid (Bosnian Charlie),” a tale in which a man goes out and spends the night getting drunk, dealing with the father of his friend who’s in town for a wedding that’s not happening, and snorting cocaine in an attempt to achieve “the grid,” a state of connectedness to everything that makes him feel superior and in control. As the night progresses, the drinks and coke mix with the man’s frustration and eventually coalesce into a monster made up of anxiety, anger, desire, and the need to stay in the grid. Unfortunately, despite the quest for depth and significance, the main character spirals into a gloomy, strange state of mind in which he ends up becoming another victim of the night with a mouth full of blood and shattered teeth. Before that happens, however, Sdrigotti manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection and to clearly show what some of his recurring themes will be as well as displaying his knack for detail:

I wash my face. Refresh my mind with the sound of a subbuffer vibrating a couple of rooms away. This tacky wallpaper and tacky lights. A dripping urinal and a flashing light-bulb. I look at my face in the mirror. Blue eyes, short blond receding hair, thin nose and pronounced chin, a piercing stare in my eyes: Steve McQueen, I have turned into Steve McQueen. It must have been the charlie or Babo Kanic’s influence. If you want to be a man you’ve got to hang around with men and do manly things. It’s so clear now. So evident. I wonder how it escaped me for so long. Or maybe I just forgot it.

“Elision,” the second story, is also a standout. The narrative explores the way a man fills in the space in his mind where the memories of the previous night should be. Not remembering quickly becomes a serious problem, and he eventually starts obsessing about the possibility of having been raped by another man. The narrative allows Sdrigotti to deconstruct masculinity in various contexts and to explore sexuality in interesting ways. This story is also one in which the author’s prose shines. Sdrigotti’s style, which resides in the interstitial space between literary fiction, surrealism, and gritty realism, is in full display here: memories are created and destroyed, possibilities are analyzed, and, perhaps most importantly, the fourth wall is bombed from the inside and Sdrigotti comes out screaming, somewhat like a literary version of the Kool-Aid Man:

It is a well-known fact that only mediocre writers make use of the oneiric recourse. Dreams in fiction are hardly ever necessary for the flow of the narrative; and more often than not are used as an artifice to increase the page-count of a certain work, in order to satisfy a publisher. What’s the point in talking about the dreams of a character? How can the imaginary activities of an imaginary character mean something to a story that takes place mostly in the mind of the writer? I for one have fell into this sin before. The day I decided to become a serious writer — that is the day I made my mind up that I needed to be approved of by peers, academics, and assorted cognoscenti — I dropped it and assumed a Brechtian approach to writing instead: a decent and sincere rapport with my reader, where I’m always aware and making him or her aware that what is being read on the page is fiction. So, at some point in my career my characters stopped dreaming and Adrian is not an exception. What happened between the time when he went to sleep and the time when he woke up — around two-thirty in the afternoon — could be said to be another elision.

The third story, “The Vanishing Onanist of E5,” also merits attention. In this case, for two very different reasons. The first is that this entertaining tale of a man spending his day smoking, thinking, and masturbating has the best, most surreal ending of the collection. Sdrigotti flexed some muscles in this one that he doesn’t engage in any of the other tales presented in Dysfunctional Males. There are some funny moments and some that delve into depression and loneliness deeper than most contemporary short fiction, and that makes this one a disquieting read that sticks with the reader long after the last page is turned. The second reason is not so positive. The wealth of details presented here walks the fine line between commendable and too much. The story is very effective, but the cumulative effect reaches its zenith here, and that hurts the two stories that follow it. “The Vanishing Onanist of E5” closes with a bang and “Satori in Hainault” starts, and the transition hurts the second story, which is also packed to the gills with pornography and explorations of loneliness, both of which are approached with a staggering amount of minutiae that includes enough scatological details to satisfy fans of hardcore horror. By the time the last story, “Herne Hill,” rolls around, the names of streets, descriptions, and confusion are all too familiar. More of what has already been offered happens: descriptions of public transportation, more passages inside the main character’s head, more details about spaces, and more conversations that lead nowhere add up to a tale that, on top of the preceding ones, is a tad lackluster. Perhaps this points to the only drawback of this collection: five tales that come in at over 240 pages means that this is more of a novelette collection that, given its recurrent themes, maybe should have ended with “Satori in Hainault.”

Dysfunctional Males is a great collection from an author who is a sharp observer and fearless explorer. It is also a book that should help put La Casita Grande on the map because of its strength and genre-bending nature.

 

[REVIEW] Saving American From Itself: Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn

erickson

Blue Rider Press, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF

— a bumper sticker reads, in a land with a flag of disunion, a land wherein a shadowbahn, a secret highway (possibly running parallel with the night train), “cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.” On the shadowbahn, it appears the whole country is a secret. It is no longer a united land, if it ever was. The Twin Towers have reappeared, and they continue to reappear, here and there, and disappear again, from here or there. It’s a time and a land that reminds us “we never were as impervious to the chaos of human history as we thought.”  This is America, yes, and this is the land of disunion.  This is a land with a birth, and also a death, “dates on a country’s tombstone.” The appearance of the Towers is seemingly a miracle, yet none will lay claim to them. The county certainly won’t, even going so far as to shove the responsibility off on the Lakota, whose tribal council elders are none too pleased about such a notion. The nation here, as is, always, still, cares not for tribal lands and rights unless such may be exploited for the nation’s own convenience or gains, and this case is no different. There is no change, now as before, and so we are stuck, not impervious, forever trapped, disappearing and reappearing, and trying to remember what came before, as if we might finally discover that which holds us back.

The Towers are examined form every angle. From below, from on high, with our eyes, and with camera lenses. Photographs are “enlarged, decoded, in-zoomed, and out-zoomed.” It’s Blow-Up on a national scale, concern and distrust on a Blow Out scale. It’s the Zapruder film all over again. And just as we have failed to escape or even remember history, we are back in time, as well. The shadowbahn leads us everywhere. We are JFK. We’re Elvis. We’re Elvis’s twin brother Jesse, dead at birth, yet somehow surviving, living that life the shadowbahn lead him to. We’re in hotels, and we’re in the Factory. We’re being shot at, here. We’re being shot at by Valerie Solanas, and by snipers? Conspirators? Hired hands? We’re living and dying and surviving. The voice says, “what I’m telling here is your story, America… You’re the one who lived it, and you fucked it up, didn’t you? Sure you did.”

Shadowbahn is an exploration of our nation, a journey through it, past and present, all to the tune of an American playlist. Within the book are multiple playlists, in fact.  As I’m sure will be the case with everyone who reads this book, I have compiled these playlists. I’m listening to one now, actually, as I type and erase and revise. I am listening to the playlist of the chapter headings. Tracks one through twenty-four. At least, I’m listening as best I can, for there is no Elvis here, unfortunately. Erickson admits that the concluding tracks are practically impossible to find, and Dylan and Caruso are just fine, but they’re not the precise ones. Perhaps this is why we’re stuck in history and time. We’ve somehow filled the puzzle with ill-fitting pieces. They hold the whole together, but only as well as a single stitch. It bought us some time, but is useless if we don’t mend. Progress comes through union.

On the shadowbahn, we are reminded that it is up to all of us. We are all our own sound, and we are each other’s sound. We are hope and music and sound and voice. Let us not lose our sound. Let us not surrender.

My Favorite Gershwin Song (in the manner of David Lehman)

INTERVIEW BY LAUREN HILGER

poems in the name of cover grab

Poems in the Manner of… David Lehman’s most recent book speaks to the future by speaking to the poets who have come before. Featuring poems inspired by Kafka, Lady Murasaki, Catullus, alongside translations and astrological profiles, it’s a book that opens up with enthusiasm, deep love for poets’ technique and for their individual personalities, and provides possibilities for teaching. When I met David, he placed his hat on his hat stand and sang me the lyrics of my favorite Gershwin song. I talked to him about Poems in the Manner of… (Scribner), collaboration, and the American songbook.

Lauren Hilger: Most of the titles in this book begin “Poem in the manner of” and all start with a preface. I especially admire the poems that twist this constraint, like the twice-baked idea of a poem in the manner of Wallace Stevens as Rewritten by Gertrude Stein. I am curious, though, about how many layers it would take for it to no longer be a poem “in the manner of” and for it to just be your own. If this is a poem in the manner of Stevens rewritten through Stein, for instance, how many other voices would need to appear before it was yours again?

David Lehman: Writing the poems in this book I felt that I was writing my poems, as well as writing poems that were either homages to, or parodies of, appreciations of, translations of other poets.

I thought that was such a good idea: a poem by so-and-so rewritten by someone else. I wish I had done that more. I wish I had taken Wordsworth and rewritten it with the vocabulary and in the style of Wallace Stevens. A friend of mine, Terrence Winch, a very good poet, said after reading the book he wondered if the book had a different title and the poems had different individual titles, and there were no preface or no headnotes, how would people react? Another friend of mine said he came to the reading I gave and he felt the poems all sounded like me–which I was glad to hear. It’s really a device.

I wanted to write a poem one day in April of 2002 and I think it was either a poem of Max Jacob or Baudelaire that I looked at and took some of the words and some of the syntax of and built a poem around that, little knowing that I would enjoy the exercise so much I would repeat it the following day and day after until I had something that could grow.

Books are miscellanies, gatherings of poems, written from different periods. This is a unified project and the short headnotes and those prologues reinforce that. They can orient the reader, introduce them to Crane, for instance, open the door. The preface is a little bit like what you receive at a live reading or an anthology.

Hilger: I like that the prefaces are not “born, died, name of the boat off which he jumped, etc.” but they are your take on the poet, an usher guiding you to your seat.

Were there any poets with whom you struggled?

Lehman: William Carlos Williams. That one looks so easy. Williams’ first draft was easily done, but it was unsatisfying because it was easy. I imposed on it a rule that there be three words per line, and I often find that’s a good technical requirement because it will create a shape and perhaps a music as well, and that was the first thing I did but I rewrote that poem a lot.

Rimbaud also, those two were rewritten so many times. I rewrote both of them without looking at the previous versions. I had a pretty good memory of some of the lines or how it began, but in the abstract. One might think those were two of the less complicated poets.

Hilger: I love that revision strategy–whatever needs to stay will stay. Whatever you remember is what needs to be, and what got in there but is excess is probably not what you’d remember anyway.

Lehman: Do you revise a lot?

Hilger: I value compression and I value how–you said it beautifully–to make it look easy, it’s so hard. To have those poems that seem as if they arrived fully formed, Venus on the halfshell, takes a lot of work.

In a book like this, you’re connecting to someone’s individuality. I’d like to ask you about Emily Dickinson’s poem. In that one, just that one word and year and dash, it’s both you and a heightened version of her style. Was it important to focus on her and not think of yourself? How do you allow for someone to come through you?

Lehman: With Dickinson, I made two dozen attempts to write it. I couldn’t do better than the one word poem, although I did try.

Hilger: Another poem I admire is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s–the brilliance of the beginnings and ends of her lines. It’s amazing to realize how Edna St. Vincent Millay it still is were you to chop her poem in half and see just the words she’s chosen. It’s difficult to isolate what’s great about a writer, it’s sort of amorphous, or takes a lifetime of reading to see.

Lehman: Millay I believe is a very underrated poet, totally underanthologized and underread. The Oxford Book of American Poetry, a previous edition that Richard Ellmann put together, a noted Joyce scholar …

Hilger: and Oscar Wilde!

Lehman: Yes, also an Oscar Wilde biographer, well he didn’t have any of her poems in the 1976 book. She had fallen so completely out of favor. She’s in the 1950 Oxford book that F.O. Matthiessen put together even though Matthiessen didn’t like sonnets. He thought there were too many sonnets in American poetry; there are always interesting biases.

One thing I was really happy to be able to do is choose certain poets–to give them a little boost. She’s such a fine sonneteer, in particular. She knows how to make a sonnet. It’s a little trick if you isolate the last and first words, you really distill it in a way that may not be true if you take Auden’s sonnets. I really enjoyed doing that with her poems.

Hilger: I’ve been thinking about your translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone.” That one took forty years? It’s a revelation of a last line. Maybe it required those years of approaching it and then it came on its own.

Lehman: The Mayakovsky one too, I possessed it in some way, I knew it for so many years.

Hilger: There so many poets behind closed doors. And if we’ve read one bad translation, they’re not going to be real to us.

Lehman: Goethe is another one, he’s less accessible than Dante or Homer, harder to translate.

Hilger: Were there any writers you admire or teach but who were omitted?

Lehman: There’s the problem of finitude, what you’re able to do given the exigencies of time and space. I didn’t invest time in writing something in the manner of Blake or Coleridge, though I love Coleridge. I tried Shelley many times and threw out most. As for the astrological profiles, I did one for Barbara Stanwyck Dostoevsky, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Graham Greene.

Hilger: I love those forms that feel like they’re having fun. If you lower the stakes, there’s something you can achieve that maybe feels too grand to approach in a different style. I love the Freud quiz.

Lehman: I love ad hoc forms, forms that are not literary but are out there. The multiple choice test is one we’re familiar with from school and examinations. They can have jokes, and can also have serious information.

Hilger: My favorite is “Poem in the manner of a jazz standard.” One lyric morphs into another. It’s what jazz musicians do, there’s a fakeout beginning: they’ll start with one song–you think you know you where you are–or maybe they’ll begin with three different songs’ beginnings, or maybe in the middle of one song they’ll play another–then they return.

The subjects of so many of those jazz standards are the most grave and hurtful parts of life. Nothing would connote that we would want to be in their presence, yet we go to those songs and those songwriters for that joy. Can you give some insight?

Lehman: Well, they believed in romantic love as a possibility.

I don’t know that the popular culture today does, really, but at that time in American pop culture the idea of love at first sight, for example, which is kind of preposterous as a proposition, was a wonderful point of departure for a make-believe kind of universe. In fact, there’s a song called “Make Believe” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, “We can make believe I love you.” And that’s a really interesting supposition. And in fact, Hammerstein liked that idea so much, he has “We Can Make Believe” and the bench scene in Carousel, “If I Loved You.”

If! There’s a supposition in those songs of a passionate love, that is really a condition even Freud would say is the most exalted.

Hilger: “It’s only a paper moon […] But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed in me!”

Lehman: It’s only a paper moon. That’s right. But we need those illusions.

Hilger: Is it real if we invent it?

Lehman: I think there’s a reality principle that comes along.

There’s an exuberance when you realize you’re falling in love with someone. And popular music, of the kind that I like and you like, especially that 50-60 year stretch, captures that: “I’ve Got the World on a String.” That’s a very exuberant feeling. “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”

Hilger: “If I seem to scintillate / it’s because I’ve got a date”

Lehman: Yes, now who wrote that…

Hilger: “Stepping out…”

Lehman: “…with my Baby.” Irving Berlin! That’s a whole subjective mood: the conditional if.

That allows for a lot of songs…there’s an equal number in which there’s heartbreak: “Angel Eyes,” “One for my baby / ”

Hilger: “…and one more for the road.” They make you light up, though, even the sad ones. There’s something to it that still makes you relieved to be in the presence of that–I wonder what that is and how we can understand it.

Lehman: I think it’s insane to think that all that matters of a performer is if they wrote the song themselves. If you have a song like Rodgers & Hart “Lady is a Tramp,” you can have Ella Fitzgerald sing that song and she does a magnificent version, and Frank Sinatra does a great version.

Hilger: And Lena Horne! They’re all so different.

Lehman: And the song’s the same! It lends itself to all of these different singers, and there’s a song “Day In, Day Out,” a Johnny Mercer lyric. The Sinatra version most people know is a swing version, a fast tempo, but he did a very slow early 50s version too. It shows you how the same song can be done in a different time signature, a different tempo, can be done in three part harmony, can be done with a chorus, can be done with just strings, no strings. You’d have the best composer and the best lyricist and the best orchestrator–that’s a division of labor that makes perfect sense to me. You can’t expect someone to do all of those things.

Hilger: And you need the alchemist performers. It’s true, it’s sort of like with one artist, their vision stops there, but it expands when you have someone else, it bounces off of them. It’s like reflecting and refracting light–in order to have a rainbow you need all of these angles and ideas bouncing off the back of a raindrop.

In maybe the way it’s hard to write a poem that appears easy, it’s hard to write these lyrics. Still, there’s a guttural difference in the reaction. If you hear one of these songs, there’s a lightness. It’s not not serious, but it’s different from that intellectual sigh at a poetry reading when someone hears something that moves them.

Lehman: The wit is such is that it appeals to the intellect, but the heart is the music; the music is the real genius. I would aspire to write lyrics. I’d have a wonderful time. You just need the composer, you need the band, and you need the people who are going to dance.

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Lauren Hilger is the author of Lady Be Good (CCM, 2016.) Awarded the Nadya Aisenberg fellowship from the MacDowell Colony, her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. She serves as a poetry editor for No Tokens