Cocteau, the shelf, the lunacy

by Grant Maierhofer

I start out endeavoring to write about those things I know; those authors I know; those films I know; those artists I know, because the chance of publishing something online and the rest of the world instantly knowing more about it than me simply isn’t weighed in my favor, so I want to start with something Iknow. Obscurity can work in my favor here. Choosing to review, say, Self Portrait by Man Ray will prove far less disputable than another slant on the terrifying depths of the sentences in Infinite Jest; so I may be wise to look to those lesser-discussed works on my bookshelf considering derision isn’t something I enjoy. Furthermore, and aside from obscurity or the arcane, I’m going to want to focus on the personal elements of the topic as opposed to those more general observations ever-present in every other publication on earth. This isn’t a critique of Mad Men for The New Yorker, this isn’t my attempt to reconcile the efforts of Frank Ocean as measured against the palpitations of James Brown, this is something different, and personality shouldn’t hide away at this most pivotal moment in my life as a hack critic postulating endlessly with cheap literary fiction tricks.

I choose the selection of books on my shelf by Jean Cocteau, but mostly just the journals Past Tense as they were the most affecting and accessible amid copies of The Imposter or Opium orThe Holy Terrors—though these feature drawings by Cocteau I dog-eared and revisit frequently. I’d like to discuss the effects of his films on me or his literature as a whole and I recall in the first volume of Past Tense much of his time is taken up either with theater productions or the making of one of his films (part of the Orphic trilogy, if memory serves though it could’ve been La Villa Santo-Sospir). But really I want to focus on the merits of his journals themselves and the narrative depths achieved in a relatively simple manner but with such savvy that I’ve become convinced a part of my life might be devoted to such journaling, though I hardly measure myself as equivalent with Cocteau.

The experience reminds me of reading the notable journals of May Sarton; brief, artful things describing both the internal considerations of an artist nearing the end of his life and the actual creation of paintings, films, and theater productions—a selling point, I’d think, for anyone even moderately intrigued by Cocteau the man. His descriptions of home life, of say reading Dumas or Proust for the umpteenth time leave you breathless and in turn wanting more, wanting to reread certain things yourself and share the experiences with this elusive and vexing figurehead of art; this French devil who flew so deftly under the surface his entire life as to be acknowledged as a great visionary by known artists but in the public treated simply as a staple and artist, with little consideration given beyond that.

Perhaps the most invigorating moments within these two volumes for me are those devoted to Cocteau’s take on poetry and the process of creating verse for the poet himself. I recently printed out several translations of Cocteau’s poems (difficult to find in English) as party to an academic paper analyzing them and this accompaniment proved so fruitful that when I begin to wonder about the prospect of creating my own little treatise on the tomes incorporating a stanza or seven doesn’t seem a bad idea.

I’ll include them here, preceded by several quotes from the journals themselves related to poetry/creativity, for your immense and undying orgiastic pleasure:

“September 18 – 1951

It’s not enough to stand fast morally; one must stand fast physically.
Did the Virgin for Italy (drawing).
Yesterday saw Alexandre Alexandre [“*A journalist moving in film circles.”] for Munich.
We leave for Paris at four.”

And moving forward:

“September 28 – 1951

At my age, it’s easy. You no longer climb up the slope; enough to let yourself slide down, with all your weight. For the young, it’s not so easy: you have to climb up the slope with all your weight.”

Now to make the pivotal segue into his poetic works without batting an eye, then read said poetic passages with one eye closed because I’ve an horrendous stigmatism:

“How you sicken me, old intellectual world. /Your unbelief has chilled me to the bone:/       There are some young men/           Who go from Tibet to the stars. / Loquacious Europe, deaf to the flutes of Tibet,/You’ve spoken too much, Tibet knows how to be silent./Tibet knows how to walk above the earth…/If suddenly, Tibet, your mask should fall./Which covers your mysterious child smile,/This babbling deaf woman would be so afraid,/So fearful curled up in her Voltaire chair/ That a cry would shake her sleep,/Would make her pale lips red./       Tibet, crack open her eyes and cut her tongue:/        Give us the treasure of your heart.” – The King of the World from The American Poetry Review, translated by Charles Guenther.

And as I (the audience member/writer/reader) become flummoxed to death by his strange meanderings from the old intellectual world and Taxi Klum Zero plays on the TV screen in front of me as I assemble notes, I find one more passage that’ll bring the work to its completion, as its quoted on the back of Past Tense Vol. 1:

“I’ve had the strange privilege of being the most invisible of poets while being the most visible of men. Since poets become visible at a distance, and men invisible, perhaps things will rearrange themselves someday.”

There’s a yearning here that I think anyone who’s experienced that sort of marginalized acknowledgment for their efforts can appreciate. Reading these collections personifies that marginalization while giving the absolute perfect remedy for a long night that will not let you rest; and yet it isn’t due to dryness, boredom, or emptiness that these passages let the eyes finally shut, but that you find yourself reading somebody now treated as an important figure in the arts who at one time experienced that same sensation of deep insularity all the while having been acknowledged, published, produced, etc.

To discuss the relative merits of Cocteau himself strikes me as nearly impossible. His art, through the centuries, has proven to speak for itself and aside from these books I can’t find a great deal of boasting by the man related to creativity. I want him to boast, however, for after seeing his films and reading his work I understand (every single time) that there’s something at play here that transcends mere sentence structure and gets to the heart of a different take on life accompanied by romantic images and statuesque men and women coming to life and symbolism wrapped tightly in doves and madness and blood and poetry and it gives me quite the rush before I decide I’m simply an idiot trying to stand in defense of a book or series of books that those already interested should’ve purchased and read through and those slightly interested in have already Googled and are either ordering or reading the next offering to find their newest idol. Modern times is tuff.

***

Grant Maierhofer is the author of The Persistence of Crows and the weekly column A Cabana of the Mind for Delphian Inc., his unrelated work can be found at GrantMaierhofer.Org. He lives in Wisconsin and is currently at work revising a second novel for publication next fall.

25 Points: So Say the Waiters

by Nicolle Elizabeth

So Say The Waiters/book1/episodes 1-5
by Justin Sirois
Severed Books, 2012
293 pages / $13.99 (print) $6.99 (eBook) buy from sosaythewaiters.com or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. This book reminds me also of the 90s Michael Douglas movie The Game in which a rich guy’s brother signs him up for a role play service which makes his life more interesting via nearly killing him such as in multiple car chase scenes as well as I think he rolls down a mountain wearing a suit at one point.

2. Justin Sirois has written a book about nicely done realistic people who are bartenders and in bands but this book is not annoying about that at all because it’s elegantly self-aware and spot on like every two seconds you let out an out loud Ha because yes everyone is exactly like how he depicts them but kinda lovingly actually I feel like he should write some epic movie about indie culture.

3. So the people in this book are called Waiters in a way because they are I think waiting for their lives to get going already but it’s not cheesy it’s good.

4. What it is is that they sign up for a service that kidnaps them and it’s got that “now you will appreciate your life more” thing going on but also it’s kinda Fight Club-ish but more cyberpunk.

5. “Cyberpunk is a postmodern science fiction genre noted for its focus on “high tech and low life.” The name was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story “Cyberpunk,” published in 1983. It features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.” “”Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” – Lawrence Person” -this is according to Wikipedia.

6. I cannot believe these Wikipedia bastards forgot to talk about William Gibson here. Did you ever read any William Gibson in middle school and then go home and wait five and a half hours for a Nine Inch Nails song to download through your parents dial-up modem in the basement at all?

7. That girl from the Dragon Tattoo books movies looks like she could be cyberpunk. What do you think she smells like?

8. Also Henry the main guy in Sirois’ book has just been dumped by his fiancee and every time he thinks about her it’s so effing sad and done well.

9. “At the cabinet, he reached for an upside-down glass in the highest shelf to find a hair tie somehow trapped like a bug inside it. The hair tie fell onto the counter…He stared at the hair tie…Screw your hair ties, Meghan. All of them…At least it was Friday.”

10. Guy needs a change in his life, enter friend who founded the escapism game, which btw is an app specifically for an iPhone is how you sign up for it.

11. You just hit a button on your phone and next thing you know you’re waiting for a pipe to the head.

12. Also a part of what Sirois is getting at is a commentary on popular culture regarding the fact that yes I do leave the dinner table to check text messages if it’s a bad date it’s not my fault the guy was all Milton invented the Western paradigm of Satan or whatever like everybody doesn’t know that so I made the food on my plate in the shape of a 666 and he just kept talking and I was like oh thank god there’s a buzzing in my purse from this phone will he see me look at it oh good here is a lipgloss. Sirois is like go outside I can hear you wrinkling from here, you boring person.

13. This book is divided in episodes and actually it would for sure do well as a popular tv show. I never watched Lost but I bet those people who did would like it as a tv show but I bet you a reader would like it because it’s totally all about escapism and yet grounded in these crazy on aspects of modern reality.

14. One of the girls in it is a band. Rock.

15. She drinks 40s on her roof after riding her bike home from work.

16. Friendship is important. No man is an island even if he really wants to be, no, he is not.

17. Oh my god what if Michael Douglas was in the tv version of this is he still alive?

18. This book makes me want to ride my bike again today.

19. Justin Sirois also sometimes writes about other countries. I think he is very concerned with the world in general, which, good dude, nice dude.

20. It’s written really, really well. It’s tightly written.

21. Every section ends with a cliffhanger and they’re always so poetic and ow my heart hurts from that then it’s like where is there someone who will kiss me now.

22. “Henry unlocked his phone, opened Steven’s contract, and typed: Yes.”

23. “Her safe word repeated in her head: merchandise, merchandise, merchandise.

24. “I’ve got the app but I’ve never submitted,” the girl next to him said. “Show me what you put in your submission.” “No way,” the guy laughed.” “All my settings are private,” the Waiter smiled and got up to leave. “I’ve gotta piss. If I don’t come back, you know what happened.” “Slick way to not pay the bill,” the guy yelled.

25. “Yeah the metal bands are great here.” Well you get it.

25 Points: Confessions from a Dark Wood

by Mary-Kim Arnold

Confessions from a Dark Wood
by Eric Raymond
Sator Press, 2012
204 pages / $13.00 buy from Sator Press

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The book begins with a section of “Advance Praise.” Among the quoted, all characters from the story about to unfold, is the deceased father of the author (or co-author, we are told), who gives what is perhaps the first indication that the world you have entered is not only darkly satirical, but propelled forward by something urgent and deeply felt. We may not yet recognize this as the complicated love between father and son, but we catch a glimpse of it and it startles:

“Oh, so you finally have a book. You must be so proud. Congratulations, son. You know, in the afterlife, books are our toilet paper. I’m saying we literally wipe our asses with books. Go figure.”

2. There is little sentimentality here. We meet Nick Bray at his father’s memorial service, which he likens to a church tag sale. He describes what has been left out of the haphazard displays of the artifacts of his father’s life. An empty table, he tells us, “might have stood for all that was omitted from a memorial, i.e. a few decades of filching undergraduate panties, a pyramid of Miller Lite cans, a tape loop of doors slamming around our house, and the amputated legs below the knee, which had shuffled off this mortal coil six years ahead of my father.”

3. At this memorial, a stranger approaches Nick with a potentially lucrative, albeit mysterious job offer, which he dismisses.

4. Back home, after he is fired from his job at an internet porn company where he writes promotional copy, he is forced to assess his situation. He is aimless. He dresses poorly (consider the white Cuban shirt and slip-on shoes he wears to the funeral). He is broke. He reconsiders.

5. One of Nick’s new coworkers is an orangutan. I am not speaking in metaphor. “Shelby” is an advisor to Pontius J. LaBar, CEO, LaBar Partners Limited. He has his own office, of course.

6. Full disclosure: I consider Eric Raymond a friend and fellow traveler although we know each other almost exclusively through twitter. I had coffee with him once at Four Barrel on Valencia. There was a taxidermied moose head that was later stolen. It was nice: the coffee, the moose head. In this book, there is an unflattering portrayal of a Korean adoptee. I am trying not to hold it against him.

7. I am a Korean adoptee.

8. Friend or no, unflattering representations or no, it is difficult not to be drawn into this bizarre world, to be seduced, as Nick himself is, into a surreal landscape of glittering surfaces.

9. After the limousine rides and the custom-made suits; after the commissioned “superfixie,” the apartment overlooking the city, the DuMol Viogner, Nick is well on his way to his new life of airports and minibars in highrise hotels. Expect jargon-laden client meetings and self-annointed brand experts. Expect furious email messages at all hours of the night from the buffoon Pontius. Paranoia. Buffoonery.

10. What do you do when you open the door to the airplane lavatory only to find your dead father waiting for you? If you are Nick Bray, you ask him for advice and then watch as he flushes himself down the toilet.

11. Did I mention that Nick meets a girl? In the waiting room of the porn company from which he is unceremoniously escorted by security, Nick meets a girl, Sadie, whose life ambition is to be the country’s first domestic suicide bomber.

12. If every story is, in fact, a love story, what is it that Nick loves? He loves poetry. And Sadie. He loves his father.

13. And he loves San Francisco: “Praise Indian Summer in San Francisco. Praise bare bodies in Dolores Park, praise the marijuana truffle man winding through the crowd. Praise the bums debating bum politics on the overlook up on 21st. Praise guys cruising on the high lip with the J-Church snakes up the hill….

Being in San Francisco again was like being amongst a crowd divinely pardoned back into the Garden of Eden.”

14. Nick develops a love for poetry. He reads as he travels. He meets one of the poets he has read, Jake Hawkins, working the x-ray machine at airport security. He expresses his surprise to find him here.

He tells him: “I have your book – the new one – in my bag.” And asks: “What are you doing here?”

“I work,” Jake tells him. “You are aware it is a book of poetry?”

The moment is funny it that we locate ourselves on the dreadful security line, the improbability of the encounter, of a poet – even a Yale award winner – being recognized as a kind of celebrity.

15. Nick is, of course, aware that it is a book of poetry and it is moments like these – fleeting moments of connection that offer glimpses of Nick’s interior life – that propel the reader forward in an unforgiving book that might otherwise run cold.

16. We don’t ever hear Jake’s poems, or read them. We see Nick attend a reading at a club. He does refer to one poem called “Ode to a Baggage Handler.” I like to imagine it a villanelle.

17. On Sadie: “Sadie and I played a game in the park. We picked people from the crowd and imagined what they would look like when they got old. She projected the subtle slump of a shoulder into the octogenarian’s humped osteoporosis. I predicted how far the chins would recede, the overbite yellow, the eyelids fall.

Who would have the liver spots among the tattoos gone blue?

“Not me,” Sadie would say and wink.

All the thoughts unasked. Did you own horses? Who were your friends? What role did you perform in your high school play? Do you look like your mom or your dad? Did your hamster die when you were six? Who was your first kiss, your first fuck? What did your room look like? Did you lie on your brother’s blue sleeping bag and stare up at Colorado star fields? Did you pretend to be a cowboy, or did you favor the Indian side?

Some you could guess at. But all of these questions of her past were off limits.”

18. On a business trip to Las Vegas, Nick expects to again encounter his ghost father and he is not disappointed: “My father, despite his career as a tight-fisted literature professor, also had a small-stakes passion for gambling. When I was 21, he took me to Las Vegas for my birthday, a trip which had long been promised since the age of about nine.”

19. His father accompanies him to the roulette wheel, coaches him. “I didn’t make a noise when I won, but even in my stunned silence, passersby began to take notice of the mounting chips and the demonic accuracy of the last chip I placed on the table.”

20. “They love you, the universe loves you,” my father said. “People know your name and you’re leading them to easy money.” He keeps betting as his father instructs. He keeps winning. And his father, angry ghost, is just getting warmed up.

21. Nick steps away from the table, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before he is approached by security. Seeing this moment of vulnerability, his father attacks. He calls him a “quitter,” and shouts at him. Nick walks away from the table, leaving his winnings behind.

22. Later, a celebrity client showers Nick with praise and the moment takes on the weight of the approval earlier withheld. Shaun D. Braun, football star and fashion mogul, says to Nick: “You my boy.”

“My boy. A line from a story my father used to teach ran through me head. That’s the best position they is. I sat in on his classes at times, the days when I entertained the life for myself,the precocious professor’s son slouching in the back row, getting the gospel that it mattered. I could see him behind his own podium, his glasses flashing, the chalk dust on his blazer. Grammar undone in the line drive of the bullet. That’s the best position they is.”

23. No spoilers, but: You can’t go home again. No spoilers, but: In a quietly devastating exchange, Pontius delivers a truth to Nick that only the damned can know. Nick, when he receives it, knows it too.

24. This book is circus and spectacle. This book is haunted by bad bosses and tragic love affairs. This book is watched over by lost fathers. This book says many things, but at the points at which I most loved this book, it was saying this: We move around in the world as collections of all that we have experienced, all we have known. We are connected by invisible threads to all those we have loved, who have loved us. We go after things we think we want, or we don’t. We act on the wounds we have sustained whether or not we acknowledge them. Whether or not we can identify the places from which we are bleeding.

There is no fate. There is no destiny. There is only our choices and their consequences.

25. In the end, there is a very literal end. The curtain falls on circus and spectacle. The plane lands. The taxicabs are summoned.

There is also a beginning. And the author meets himself, another version of himself.

Just as I think we all meet other versions of ourselves when we travel through the books we love best.

 

 

Mary-Kim Arnold is a writer living in Rhode Island. A Korean-American adoptee, she was born in Seoul, Korea and grew up in Bronxville, New York. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University. She lives with her family in a restored Victorian home in Pawtucket and tries to keep up with her garden. She maintains a personal blog at: http://mkimarnold.tumblr.com and spends too much time on twitter: @mkimarnold.

25 Points: Strange Cowboy

by Idris Kenain

Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five
by Sam Michel
Tyrant Books, 2012
200 pages / $14.95 buy from TyrantSPDAmazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. I don’t remember my fifth birthday.

2. Lincoln Dahl, though, remembers his.

3. Lincoln Dahl is the narrator of Sam Michel’s novel, Strange Cowboy, subtitled Lincoln Dahl Turns Five. I suppose the subtitle might make the first phrase of this point redundant—so let me add that there are two Lincoln Dahl’s, the father, our hero, and his son, whose birthday it is.

4. The novel takes place on the day of the party for the younger Lincoln’s fifth birthday. But the actual events of the day serve only as a kind of grounding for the elder Lincoln’s mess of memories.

5. If this book were attempted by a writer any less capable than Sam Michel, it might very well be awful.

6. I’m a sucker for books that play with memory. Especially childhood memories. I like that they’re complicated mysteries. I like that they’re relatable. Everyone has a childhood littered with blocks for good language to rearrange and play with.

7. With so much of memory, we have to take our parents’ word for it. Especially birthdays One through Five. The Fifth is really the first we might be able to remember. The Fifth birthday is a kind of second birth, one of memory. Maybe it’s the line between child and kid.

8. Now the younger Lincoln is five, and he’s going to remember his father. The elder Lincoln knows it from experience.

9. On being a good father:

I hear my wife inform me that my duty to the boy, in part, is to provide for him a model…As it stands, my son’s past with me has been a woozy spiral of neglect and woundings. Lucky for us—for me, she meant—he isn’t likely to remember. Till now.

10. On making it up to him:

“’He’s at the age where he remembers,’ said my wife. ‘Give the boy a party. Anything is possible. I bet he’ll forget you were the one who burned his drawings.’”

11. I wonder what sorts of falls and injuries I had as a child. I wonder what I don’t know. Maybe I broke bones.

12. I wonder if my parents would tell me if they’d been anything less than what I remember. I remember my parents as heroes.

13. I don’t think anyone wants to risk being remembered as a hero. Especially when the truth is so long past that it doesn’t seem like it could matter.

14. The elder Lincoln knows better than anyone how our memory changes with time.

15. If a mother or father leaves a family, all that’s left of them is what the family remembers.

16. The elder Lincoln, on his mother:

“Consider how the boy Dahl sees the mother as a snowman, whereas the man Dahl sees her as a magpie. Nothing is the thing to us it is.”

17. And, on his father:

“He made his own life. A man could make his life. I imagine he said: You are proof of my making. I imagine he was saying: You unmade me. Nothing I imagine feels to me untrue.”

18. Then, on them both:

“I think they both had seen me as an easy way to keep themselves from what they really wholly wanted.”

19. Mostly what I remember from childhood are the animals. The lizards and snakes I chased through the grass, the pup I got as a birthday gift (at what age, I don’t recall). Michel’s Lincoln is much the same. On his own fifth birthday, there is a horse to ride. On his son’s birthday, a dog is dead.

20. Somehow, impossibly, the horse’s name is Whim. And Lincoln’s memory of the horse is just that—less specific than the smell of his father’s breath waking him at dawn to ride with him.

21. The dog is named Hope. And Hope dies. And Lincoln has to protect his son from learning that Hope is dead (I would balk at such blatant metaphors if Michel himself didn’t seem so surprised by these names).

22. When Hope dies:

“The news today said Hope was not to always be there, the dog was dead, run down by a Buick. Had it been a European vehicle, or a luxury sedan, or had my neighbor named his dog a name like Ginger, or like Buck, or had my son been even second to attend to her, then I am certain that my wife would never have sustained herself beside my chair for long enough to make me Hope’s mortician.”

23. I had a dog named Ginger. She died some years ago in the garage, cold and alone, but old enough. This seems somehow deeply important to how good this book is. Relatable and real and relevant to life.

24. My father called to tell me my dog was dead, and he was crying. He said he remembered when his own dog had died. I think all dogs are really named Hope.

25. I hope someday my wife and I have children. I hope we’ll have a dog and wonderful fifth birthday parties. I hope we’re able to tell them stories as beautiful as Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five.  

Nervous Device by Catherine Wagner

by Jessica Comola

Nervous Device
by Catherine Wagner
City Lights Publishers, October 2012
City Lights Spotlight Series No. 8
73 pages / $13.95  Buy from City Lights  or SPD

 

 

 

 

I’ve had a copy of Catherine Wagner’s latest collection, Nervous Device, for three days and already it’s beat up, pages are folded and scribbled over, and the whole book is bent in half (the result of a heavy bashing I gave it against the side of my desk). Many of my most-loved books end up looking similarly destroyed, but the physical damage I’ve done to Nervous Device stems from a different impulse—what I can only call frustration.

So why am I frustrated with this unassuming, 73-page collection, particularly since I’ve been a Wagner fan since her first book, Miss America, came out in 2001? It’s because I don’t know how to find coherence in this collection and yet—here’s the frustration—I can’t stop reading it.

When I begin a new book of poetry I don’t look for cohesion of any particular kind, nor do I think all collections need to, or benefit from, coherence. However, in reading Nervous Device I felt that I was missing some critical structure that created a through-line in the book. I kept asking, why these poems? How is this a collection?

Then I realized maybe that was the point—Wagner isn’t interested in packaging the poems for us—we must do this ourselves. In an interview with Elizabeth Coleman at Art Animal (September 2012), Wagner speaks of her own concern with these poems, saying “‘I worry that in this book I’ve tried to be smart in some places because publishing with City Lights felt like a big deal…That’s a deadly thing—the wish to appear smart’” [full interview here]. I immediately stopped reading the interview, re-read Nervous Device, and realized I was trying to force a larger structure on the book when what I needed to be doing was enjoying it because of its language, poem by poem.

The abundance of word-play and its sonic complexities in these poems, for example, does an incredible amount of work, making the poems humorous and intelligent, creating a distinct voice. In “A Well is a Mine: A Good Belongs to Me” Wagner balances what might come across as gimmick with beautiful lyricism and smart, sudden turns. She writes:

Wide-winged heaven
mowed my garden down:
blacklily puddle. Let commerce
suck brights from all dally-halls
and string them christmas mines.Will folded, made a napkin
Old agendas used to clean my mouth
of will.
I built this tone
ironically; that is,
it goes against itself. 

She pushes the language even further in the “math” portions of “A Well is a Mine” when she writes:

“Freedom x Need = Reality.”

“Freedom

————- = Art.”

Reality

“Then Art x Reality = Freedom.”

“Freedom

————- = Reality?”

Art

“Where art is politics.”

Though this type of writing might veer dangerously close to the cliché, the manner in which Wagner structures the language through repetitive dialogue both builds meaning and breaks it apart, mimicking, albeit in the form of abstraction, the way humans speak with one another. If viewed as an “ars poetica” of sorts, these lines function to intelligently explore questions of art’s place in contemporary society while mimicking both the logical (here, mathematical) constructs we try to place on artistic expression and the fragmented, cyclical nature of human language itself.

Most refreshingly, Nervous Device comes across as neither a self-indulgent, private collection written for Wagner’s own mind, nor is it an unintelligible, garbled mess of equally isolated language. Instead, Wagner balances disjunction and lucidity, private and public, distant and (riskily) up-close. In “Rain Cog,” for example, she writes:

Someone whose symbolic
Presence makes the
Liquid flush from pores in
My vaginal skin.  There.

Followed, on the next page, by a “zooming-out” (though it retains the personal “I”) where she writes in “Unclang”:

I would like never to be obscure. I understand why I was: explaining
is a bore, and it flattens lang, so, it takes experience to write a real poem
that is well-lit.

What I love most about Wagner is that she does not claim to be writing this “real poem.” Instead, Nervous Device revolves, on some level, about what Wagner described as “‘nervous in terms of self-consciousness, nervousness, but also nervous in terms of responsiveness and reactiveness…[where] the nervous device…wants you to hold it, it wants to be noticed, it wants you to see how it works to bind and separate.’” [ArtAnimal]

In this way, Wagner’s Nervous Device is a book that reminded me how to read what comprises a collection—poem by poem and line by line—so that I am able to appreciate the constant invention and reinvention of language that can occur when a great poet knows when to hold us close and when to let us go.

***

Jessica Comola currently lives in Oxford, MS where she is an MFA candidate at the University of Mississippi. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Everyday Genius, Anti-, HTML Giant, The Journal, The Columbia Review, and The Tulane Review.

25 Points: Strange Cowboy

Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five
by Sam Michel
Tyrant Books, 2012
200 pages / $14.95 buy from TyrantSPDAmazon

I don’t remember my fifth birthday.

Lincoln Dahl, though, remembers his.

Lincoln Dahl is the narrator of Sam Michel’s novel, Strange Cowboy, subtitled Lincoln Dahl Turns Five. I suppose the subtitle might make the first phrase of this point redundant—so let me add that there are two Lincoln Dahl’s, the father, our hero, and his son, whose birthday it is.

The novel takes place on the day of the party for the younger Lincoln’s fifth birthday. But the actual events of the day serve only as a kind of grounding for the elder Lincoln’s mess of memories.

If this book were attempted by a writer any less capable than Sam Michel, it might very well be awful.

I’m a sucker for books that play with memory. Especially childhood memories. I like that they’re complicated mysteries. I like that they’re relatable. Everyone has a childhood littered with blocks for good language to rearrange and play with.

With so much of memory, we have to take our parents’ word for it. Especially birthdays one through five. The Fifth is really the first we might be able to remember. The Fifth birthday is a kind of second birth, one of memory. Maybe it’s the line between child and kid.

Now the younger Lincoln is five, and he’s going to remember his father. The elder Lincoln knows it from experience.

On being a good father:

I hear my wife inform me that my duty to the boy, in part, is to provide for him a model…As it stands, my son’s past with me has been a woozy spiral of neglect and woundings. Lucky for us—for me, she meant—he isn’t likely to remember. Till now.

On making it up to him:

“’He’s at the age where he remembers,’ said my wife. ‘Give the boy a party. Anything is possible. I bet he’ll forget you were the one who burned his drawings.’”

I wonder what sorts of falls and injuries I had as a child. I wonder what I don’t know. Maybe I broke bones.

I wonder if my parents would tell me if they’d been anything less than what I remember. I remember my parents as heroes.

I don’t think anyone wants to risk being remembered as a hero. Especially when the truth is so long past that it doesn’t seem like it could matter.

The elder Lincoln knows better than anyone how our memory changes with time.

If a mother or father leaves a family, all that’s left of them is what the family remembers.

The elder Lincoln, on his mother:

“Consider how the boy Dahl sees the mother as a snowman, whereas the man Dahl sees her as a magpie. Nothing is the thing to us it is.”

And, on his father:

“He made his own life. A man could make his life. I imagine he said: You are proof of my making. I imagine he was saying: You unmade me. Nothing I imagine feels to me untrue.”

Then, on them both:

“I think they both had seen me as an easy way to keep themselves from what they really wholly wanted.”

Mostly what I remember from childhood are the animals I encountered when in Sudan. The lizards and snakes I chased through the grass, the kitten I decided to look after (at what age, I don’t recall). Michel’s Lincoln is much the same. On his own fifth birthday, there is a horse to ride. On his son’s birthday, a dog is dead.

Somehow, impossibly, the horse’s name is Whim. And Lincoln’s memory of the horse is just that—less specific than the smell of his father’s breath waking him at dawn to ride with him.

The dog is named Hope. And Hope dies. And Lincoln has to protect his son from learning that Hope is dead (I would balk at such blatant metaphors if Michel himself didn’t seem so surprised by these names).

When Hope dies:

“The news today said Hope was not to always be there, the dog was dead, run down by a Buick. Had it been a European vehicle, or a luxury sedan, or had my neighbor named his dog a name like Ginger, or like Buck, or had my son been even second to attend to her, then I am certain that my wife would never have sustained herself beside my chair for long enough to make me Hope’s mortician.”

I had a horse I named Ginger when in Sudan. She died some years ago in the courtyard, cold and alone, but old enough. This seems somehow deeply important to how good this book is. Relatable and real and relevant to life.

My uncle called to tell me my horse was dead, and he was uncharacteristically sad. He said he remembered when his own horse had died. I think all pets are really named Hope.

I hope someday I have a wife and children. I hope we’ll have a pet and wonderful fifth birthday parties. I hope we’re able to tell them stories as beautiful as Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy: Lincoln Dahl Turns Five. 

All Love is Lunacy: A Review/Interview with John Toomey

by Grant Maierhofer

Huddleston Road
by John Toomey
Dalkey Archive Press, October 2012
160 pages / $15  Buy from Dalkey Archive or Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Toomey’s first novel Sleepwalker was an expertly cynical debut; something of a sprawling segue into Dublin as it’s then to be known to the reader and its excesses are as hilarious and compelling as they are cutting and insightful. That book is essentially what I think of as a hedonistic pipe dream put down on paper with nothing held back, with all the literary savvy of any of the contemporary masters describing chaos in the city, while retaining an originality that’s marked Toomey as an important presence in contemporary Irish literature.

His second book, Huddleston Road, is first and foremost a departure from that cynicism and mania inherent to the first. I’d argue that fans of the first book will immediately know the author’s work when they begin reading his second but the shift away stylistically is undeniable; and quite impressive. Consider, for a moment, the first books of Jay McInerney, or Bret Easton Ellis, each American authors who began with dark comedic forays into metropolitan chaos. One could argue that McInerney has grown away from this over the years but he’s always retained some of that sensibility, and the same certainly goes for Ellis, ten-fold. Although I’m a tad hesitant to draw comparisons to the first books of either of those writers (of considerably different movements than Toomey) the general point I’m hoping to make is that the writer challenged himself in starting out with such a distinctly-crafted epic as Sleepwalker, and—all the 2nd novel mythos aside—Toomey has managed to show here a different set of literary chops, while retaining the maniacal attention to detail so prevalent in the first book.

It follows a young Irishman named Vic. Vic leaves Dublin for London early on in the novel and through no real preference of his own winds up teaching history and such to teenagers. Again, through each moment, each paragraph, each sentence, the importance of this book seems to be that wild attention to detail Toomey seems to have great control over. A young man standing at a party is never simply that, but an opportunity to explore the ramifications of standing at said party and the physical details of those present and the questions running through young Vic’s mind. At times it reads as a sort of summary of this character’s thoughts and yet the vivid moments of dialogue and scene give striking reality to each moment when you find yourself so ingrained in this character’s reactions to moments that you forget the moments themselves.

Because this will also be an interview, and because I’m hardly interested in giving a moment-by-moment account of the novel’s content, I won’t delve that much deeper into the goings on inHuddleston Road except to address perhaps the most important part: Lali. Lali is a girl Vic finds himself desperately attracted to with every moment that passes. She doesn’t seem interested and even acts like a bit of an asshole at first and yet this draws Vic slightly more to her so that when he’s finally given a chance to sit and speak with her his mind is torn asunder with thoughts and worries and chaos and yet he cannot help himself. This is, I’d argue, a love story. There are moments that make it considerably different than most love stories you’ve read and will read, but all the same there are tropes at play here that make this book a fresh spin on the old magic of two people falling in love in spite of terribly difficult circumstances, and the ramifications in both of their lives as a result of this.

***

GM: There’s a feeling in Huddleston Road where each paragraph is sort of a small narrative all its own, where each sentence goes barreling into the next and the details feel very close to Vic’s perspective. It made me think of early on in the book when Vic forsakes poetry “to record, with meticulousness, the important and, it should be said, the mostly extraneous details of his life,” and I was wondering if you might comment on the style in which this book was written.

JT: I think the style to which you are referring finds its origin in the fact that until the very latest stages of editing the book was written in the first person. It was a decision, late on, to change it to a third person narrative. It was John O’Brien’s suggestion, in fact. I had wanted to write a book that would be inside the head of somebody who really suffered, and was suffering. To show the progression of such suffering, the things people do to themselves, knowingly and willingly, but also, ultimately, to show how people drag themselves out of such experiences. The problem with that was I was also trying to tell Lali’s story, and the first person narrator wasn’t letting me do that in any plausible way. I wanted to write a story about two people, and that’s what the story is, and any experimentation or challenging the conventions only got in the way of the story. So, to be able to see the story from a multitude of angles, I needed an omniscient narrator. But there are, as John O’Brien pointed out to me, more than one kind of omniscient narrator. There’s the omniscient narrator who sees all and knows all and maintains a respectful distance from the characters, and then there’s the one that sees events through the eyes and experiences of a particular character; this one can, crucially, move beyond the narrow parameters of a single character’s vantage point though.

So John O’Brien suggested it, I gave it a go (after much muttering under my breath) and found he was right. More specifically, the story at times provides important information about Lali that Vic simply couldn’t know, or couldn’t plausibly reflect upon. Because if he had known and reflected upon it he would most likely not have been in the mess he was in. It boiled down to the integrity of the characterization really. You ask yourself, ‘Would Vic really say this? Or do that?’

Passages of this book—most of them, in fact—are written in a sort of manic detail, I’m thinking especially of the early descriptions of Lali as observed through Vic. Someone’s hair, though, hardly seems just their hair but an opportunity for exploration both within the minds of the other characters, and for the general reader. Was there distinct intent in giving this lucidity to certain passages balanced against the other, more simply descriptive passages of Vic’s daily life?

There is a sense that Vic’s life, a fairly pedestrian paced affair at best, is suddenly exploded upon by Lali. That’s the sense of the relationship that I had imagined and what I was attempting to create. So I suppose, although I’m not sure how aware I was of that specific contrast, it was what was happening. Simply put, Vic meets Lali and he’s intoxicated. Something about her, that elusive quality that draws one person to another. And initially this is a superficial, or an aesthetic quality – her skin, her hair, her nails, her lips, her chin. The descriptions are part of that style of narrative you already referred to; here’s this omniscient narrator who wants to tell Vic’s story, to show you the story through Vic’s eyes. He has other information he can show you too, but when he’s telling you about Lali, he wants you to see her as Vic saw her. And, for Vic, her psychological deterioration was mirrored by a slow deterioration of her beauty. Or perhaps, as her very person becomes increasingly submerged by darkness, she just appears less beautiful. The light went out of her eyes, she didn’t stand straight anymore, didn’t draw your attention, and so then you begin to notice that she hasn’t dressed, that she looks tired. The vivacious and flirtatious Lali could be wiped out, dead on her feet, but her strident personality made you overlook it. The descriptions of her were supposed to demonstrate how exotic she was to Vic. She was this force, something other, that appeared before him and he was captivated. So that he might be on his way to work, say, when suddenly – BOOM! – there’s Lali! Everything becomes technicolour, vivid, compulsive, excessive. The writing, manically detailed, is a reflection of Vic’s hunger for Lali, his desire to recognize and record every aspect of her. To consume her, even. He’s trying to preserve the moment, constantly, as if he intuitively realizes the ephemerality of it all. As if he’s afraid she’ll vanish if he looks away.

In Huddleston Road the notion of place takes on a role of particular importance considering it’s what propels the book from the beginning, as well as providing a context of expatriation and loneliness for Vic as things become heavier in London. Do you—like many an author from a notable place before you—feel place holds a great bearing over the movement of your stories? Does it provide anything for characters or situations that might otherwise not exist?

Place is significant, absolutely, but not necessarily the fact that it was London. For example, if you’ll allow me some latitude here, in Sleepwalker, Dublin was paramount. Dublin, the governing attitudes, the geography, the topography, the zeitgeist of that now absurd era, was a character in itself. The culture of that boom-time acted on all the characters. And it had to be Dublin, it couldn’t have been anywhere else. However, in Huddleston Road, all that mattered was Vic was not living at home. It didn’t have to be London. It could have been anywhere. What was important was that he was removed from his home, isolated. It is important that when he finds himself miserable on a Tuesday evening that he has nowhere really to turn. Because Vic living at home in Dublin, with the support structures of a place you have grown up in around him, would probably not have accepted the slow belittling effect that Lali had on him. But when you’re by yourself, being out on your own in a new city can cloud your judgment. It can sap your confidence. You become desperate for something to validate your time in another place – imagine leaving a city after years without a single person you might call a friend. Imagine disappearing from a city and not a single person even noticing, after being there years. The place you grow up defines you, in many ways, and it also dictates to a large degree your expectations of life. And for Vic to recreate for himself what he experienced all his life before London – a stable home, a happy place of compromises and goodwill – was never likely to happen with Lali. But his insistence on trying to get that round peg into that square hole frustrates him. It’s a red-herring, a decoy, and he follows it and loses his way. By the time he realizes it wasn’t the thing to do, he’s so enmeshed in Lali’s life that he simply has to learn to live with it. Had he met a girl as capricious as Lali in different circumstances, he might not have been so easily cowed, so easily seduced. He might have been more like James.

You mention in your Acknowledgements section of Huddleston Road the fact that this book has been with you for a very long time. Was this also the case with Sleepwalker? Is there any sort of protocol you follow before actually letting yourself write the book?

John Toomey

In the end, both books took about four years.Huddleston Road slightly longer, perhaps. Five, maybe. There are many reasons for that, from the simple logistical issue of having to do it while working a full time job. There’s a limit to how fast you can work while only having evenings and parts of a weekend to do it. And then there are the less easily identifiable ones. For some reason the process for both has been in and around four years. At least, that’s the point when I could see daylight with each book. I’m not convinced, even if I were in a position to write full-time, that it would happen any quicker. The work needs a gestation period. You need sometimes to leave it lying around the house and seep into the subconscious, into the realms of lateral thinking. Sometimes the solution to some impasse descends upon you while you’re unblocking the toilet, or driving to work. I tend to resolve difficulties with phrasing, with specific sentences or clauses, while doing something entirely different. I think writing needs that time to just sit there, maturing. That’s what I mean by saying I’m not sure even if I had the time that it would be done any quicker. It’s just that if I had more time I’d be less tired when I’m doing it.

As regards a process, after two novels I’ve not identified a pattern. I tend to know where a book will end and not much more than that. Characters tend to assert themselves early in the process and that can dictate where the book goes. But I really enjoy the nitty-gritty, the line editing and the shifting paragraphs about, and whole sections, and seeing what happens. It can be a real slog towards the very end, but I really enjoy all that. It’s a kind of sadomasochism. I tend to get the draft, the rough structure and the story down as quickly as possible and edit and stylize after that. One of the problem with Huddleston Road was I tried the reverse of that – I wrote and read back and re-read and edited as I went. I would always do that but with Huddleston Road I had in mind that I would have each part so well written that editing afterwards would be a much quicker process. It wasn’t, and, in fact, it made it more time-consuming. Because one of the advantages you have of writing a draft where nothing is pinned down and then coming back to it is that you can see the whole. And when you step back you begin to see the problems, the dead-ends, more clearly, as well as the opportunities to take the story a different way. You can’t do that when you’re in the thick of it. So as a result of my running with this erroneous theory, I spent a lot of time was chasing dead ends, spending days on paragraphs that never made it into the book.

Writing without any concrete plan means you’re probably better off getting the story down and shaping and aligning it after. It’s the illusion of coherent thought that we’re after. I haven’t actually developed a method is what I’m saying. It’s a bit haphazard. The best I seem to be able to do is clearly establish where it is going from the outset. I know the ending. I can see the final scene very vividly. You write towards that end, but with no precise idea of how to get there. You circle it, and probe blindly, catch glimpses of it from time to time; like trying to catch an apple bobbing in water with your teeth. Then the moment arrives, eventually, when I see the end is within grasp and duck my head for the apple and bite in. It’s like skeet shooting, maybe; you wait for it to cross your sightline and then you pull the trigger.

Being an author who’s penned what will certainly be called first and foremost a “love story,” though very much a contemporary slant on that theme, I wondered if you had any comments on the merits of this mode of boy-meets-girl, etc., and the possibilities for making it new—as you have, quite well I might add—in years to come?

It’s a love story, alright. I’ve no problem with it being described as such and I’ve no grand ideas regarding what I have or have not done as far as the conventions of the genre goes. I’m not much into genre or defined forms. Form is fitted to a given narrative, I think, rather than the reverse. You subvert the conventions when the narrative you have in mind cannot be served via the conventional. You don’t challenge the conventions unless you need to. Huddleston Road is a love story, I think. And there’s nothing particularly unusual about, I don’t think. The questions is whether the readers will buy into the story, will they invest in the characters? That remains to be seen.

That’s the way I see it, at least. And love stories are compelling stuff. We shouldn’t let the triteness of so much that is classed love story shut us down to the possibility of a good one – The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, etc. It’s our most basic interest really – how two people meet, negotiate each other and how it all works out, or doesn’t. And I’m not for a minute suggesting any comparison between me and the authors of the aforementioned titles, but the trick is, I feel, to create compelling characters. That’s what I’m getting at here. Characters that the reader wants to know more about. And sure, once you’ve done that, these things, if properly conceived and executed, will naturally drift into a kind of social commentary, they will illustrate and make observations about the time they are written. But it’s the love story, not the social commentary, that keeps the reader reading. So then the story achieves both contemporary relevance and universal appeal.

But it’s all about characters, and the readers, and how those two get along. They don’t have to like them, these characters, but in my experience the reader lets you put them through all sorts of horrific stuff so long as the book’s characters have that innate integrity. As long as they are plausible as people. They don’t have to behave as you or I would, or be pleasant in any way, but they must be plausible.

The only thing I’ll say about the kind of love stories I write is that they’re all about love gone bust. And that’s because it’s infinitely more interesting than happiness. Sleepwalker was a love story too, of course. In many ways. It’s just that  none of the love was reciprocated. It was a story yearning for love that could never happen. And that’s beginning to sound a lot likeHuddleston Road, when I put it like that. The Edge, from U2, once said something along those lines about U2 – that every time they go into the studio they go in to make the same album. The thing that makes you write is a desire to tell this story that speaks of who you are. In your mind you have a perfect story. You’ll never write it, of course, but that’s what keeps you coming back. You’re trying to express something that speaks for you, that captures some essence of all you believe and feel. It’s unattainable but it is also a compulsive force. I think Faulkner described the dilemma of the writer being that, “The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” But it’s because you never quite achieve it that you keep returning.

You mentioned in our correspondence the comforts of writing with the “world-weary cynicism” present in your first book, Sleepwalker, the presence of which results in a cozy sort of matter-of-factness in that novel. There’s some level of this matter-of-factness at work inHuddleston Road, I’d argue—though certainly not as cynical—that left me far more engrossed in the moments and personally involved; whereas with Sleepwalker it was more entertaining to sit back and observe. Any intent or preference you’d like to discuss there?

Sleepwalker became comic, or satirical. It didn’t start out that way. It was early in the editing stage of Sleepwalker that I realized that Stuart was not a tragic figure, but a pathetic figure. He was spineless and cowardly and amoral, and when a character comes off the page like that the only way to handle him is with comic gloves. Whereas Huddleston Road is a book that is not avoiding the intimacy, though the characters are. It is aiming to strike directly at the heart, to move and evoke pity and anger and sorrow and heartbreak. The difficulty with this kind of book is that if it doesn’t work, and ultimately the readers will be the judge of that, it’s in very grave danger of coming off naff, or trite. You run the risk of being slammed, frankly, when you don’t hide behind cynicism and satire. It seems to me that one of the defining differences between British and American fiction is that British fiction is afraid to be seen to be taking itself too seriously, so it’s all satirical and cleverly ironic. As much as we like to see ourselves as different on this small island, we’re still demonstrably more British than we are American. We’re maybe a touch less emotionally retarded than the stiff upper lip, the gallows humour, the flippancy of British fiction, but not much. Writing this sort of thing, a straight love story, is in that sense a little out there. American fiction, by and large, seem to do a better job of taking the nuclear family apart and getting at the heart of the matter. But you can overdo all this earnestness too, and that’s where the British come in. Sometimes all you’ve got is laughter, and you just have to find it in among all the shite. That’s why I’m glad, for all it’s ‘seriousness’, that Huddleston Road is a short book. There’s only so many pages of this kind of stuff that a reader can endure. We shouldn’t take advantage of the reader’s patience and generosity. Not entirely, at least.

It’s a fairly ambiguous question to ask a writer, I’ll grant that, but considering the close proximity in which your first two novels have been published, and the already-existent massive slew of writings available on your site (I’ve begun reading through your essays and find myself just as engrossed and delighted as in the fiction) I wanted to ask what one might hope to expect from John Toomey down the road? Do you see the novel as an area still holding much interest? Collected essays, perhaps?

The novel is the only thing. The only thing, to my mind. I know we’ve been announcing and re-announcing its inevitable decline now for quite some time, and that it is under immense pressure from TV, cinema, music, video games and all sorts of fast-food pleasures but it can still do things that none of those mediums can, in my opinion. No other form can penetrate the vagaries of the human heart and mind like the novel. Nothing illuminates the human experience with such completeness. Nothing else even comes close. This is why the film is never as good as the book – because words and the infinite variables in how they are arranged and interpreted present and evoke a plethora of images and ideas simultaneously. And each reader brings their own distinct vision. I mean, I can see Lali in my head. I know what she looks like, but I can assure you that that is not what you imagine, and a third person will bring a whole other vision of her into being. But if you put her in a film, well then the interpretation has been made by the director, by the casting people, and it’s very hard to get over that once it’s there in front of you. So the novel is everything. I’ve heard other writers talk about how their first love was film, or music or poetry, or whatever, and I always think, ‘Well, why don’t you do that then?’ Life’s short, it really is, do what you want to do.

The essays keep me match-fit, that’s their purpose really. And the odd Blog or half-arsed short story. I find the writing of a novel requires, in the first instance, long tracts of time stretching out in front of me – weeks, months during the summer. During term-time I find it difficult to maintain any momentum with the novels, so I try to keep myself going with these smaller pieces. But I’m not sure if they’re any good. I have them on the site with a view to showing people something, with a view to creating a body of work. But I’m at the beginning of the process. But that said, most of my day is spent teaching English, correcting English papers and trying to find ways to explain to people how you write, how to identify what is missing from a sentence and so on. And this is important to writing too, and my writing informs my teaching. It must. By virtue of having struggled through the writing of two novels I’ve learned things I would hope I can pass on.

I realize I’ve wandered off script again but let me make one more point and hope it creates that illusion of coherence that I mentioned earlier. I write knowing I have been published, at least twice, and that that must mean that at the very least I was capable of seeing a project through and that it was comprehensible to some audience, however small. In the absence of a publisher, which I accept is always a possibility, I will continue to write novels. Because it is how I filter my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my values. It’s how I stay sane. It is my vocation. Not necessarily my job, obviously, but it is my vocation. It is the work that gives my life meaning. It is not for other people to decide that value, it’s a private matter, between me and my writing. Its value to me is mine to declare. And it’s not so much that I foresee my novels not being published, it’s that I comprehend the reality of the situation. I’ve written two novels and have been lucky to find, first in Somerville Press and now in Dalkey, two publishers who like what I have done. And although I count Andrew and Jane Russell at Somerville, and John O’Brien at Dalkey, among my friends, for that is what we have become, they run businesses. If the next thing I produce is rubbish they won’t publish it. So, while a work is still in production, while the writer still writes it, nothing is certain. When I finish the third, I’ll hand it over. And there’ll be an interminable and painful wait while they read over it, assess it, before coming back to me. They might say, ‘No.’ They might say, ‘Look, John, we like you but this one is off-the-wall.’ Or that it’s not as well written as what they had from me in the past. ‘Shop it around, by all means,’ they may say, ‘but it’s just not for us. Sorry.’ That has to be a distinct possibility. I live with that and have learned to write anyway. You write knowing that what you write may never make it further than a few kindly editor’s desks, who agreed to give it five or six pages on the strength of a mutual friend, but ultimately end up on their sizable recycling mountain. So, it’s novels all the way for me, whatever happens. There will, of course, be essays and short stories, too, along the way. But I think I might be finished with the Blog. I did that mainly to keep myself in the minds of potential readers and used my Facebook page to tell people a new one was posted. But somewhere in the middle of last summer I just became entirely disillusioned with that aspect of it. I was boring myself, and I really dislike Facebook, the whole inanity of it. And even though I was using as a promotional tool, I thought, ‘Who actually cares what I’ve put up?’ People aren’t going to my website because they saw it on Facebook. People who want to find me can google me and find my webpage very easily. Those who want to do that can do it. So I gave up on the Blog and I think, although I’ll never rule it out entirely, that it is retired.

Not being a Dubliner myself—though an avid fan of Joyce and Beckett—and considering your position as both a native, and a professor of English in Dublin, I was hoping you might expand beyond the two Irish namesakes of world literature and mention any scribes you feel haven’t gotten their proper due, globally.

Let’s start with the whole Professor thing. I couldn’t venture to talk of myself as a professor – I’m about two qualifications away from that. In terms of English all I’ve got is a BA degree and my experience of writing. I teach to teenagers, High School. So in terms of academia, I’m no bigshot, let’s put it that way. Depending on which group I’ve taught, if you asked them they might say I was a good teacher. That’s as confident as I’d be in those terms.

Secondly, as a reader I’m what the English comedian, Eddie Izzard, termed – thinly read. I came to all this literary stuff comparatively late in life. I always enjoyed English, or at least I did in my late teens. But I barely read at all until I was in University doing my English degree. So I was 21 before I started really reading, and I’m a slow reader at that. I’m in a state of perpetual catch-up. That said, not to down-play my credentials too much, I’m always reading something these days. If home alone, the TV would only go on to watch a soccer game, or something specific. I’m into Homeland right now. I watch that but otherwise I’d be more likely to fall asleep in my bed reading a book or sit down at the PC and do some writing of some sort. So I’ve been immersed in books for, say, 17 or 18 years, but I’m hamstrung by my late start.

So Beckett and Joyce. Beckett first. What I know of Beckett is what I studied in university, five plays or so. What I can say of Beckett is that although I’m no expert I find something profoundly human, and disturbing in his work. It’s the real deal. There’s something about the bleakness that is both heartbreaking and absurd. I’ve liked and found things in any Beckett play I came across.

Joyce? I’m even less of an expert. I’ve dipped in and out of Ulysses over the course of this last 17 or 18 years. While I enjoy certain parts and have a passing interest in theoretical discussions about his work, I’m not sure reading the whole thing is something I’m ever likely to achieve. As a very young man in university Dubliners was among my set reading. I didn’t enjoy it, but as I’ve alluded to already, I was in my infancy as a reader and it might just have been a case of me coming to it too early. Certainly there are other examples of books that I read and was simply unable for at the time and then upon reading them in more recent years I’ve realized that. So I reserve all judgments, or I temper them. I’m slow to criticize any other writer because I can’t help feeling that it might be just that I’m not sufficiently developed as a reader to appreciate the work. I’m particularly cautious in this way when commenting on the big guns of literature. On the few occasions when I have stuck my head above the parapet, I’ve regretted it. I’m not sure I’ve got the intellectual equipment to be casting aspersions on anybody else’s work.

As regards cotemporary Irish writers, I’m not among any literary set or group or community, if one such thing exists here, and only a few names come to mind. But I’m sure that’s more a reflection of my limited reading than anything else. Colm Toibín’s The Master, Colum McCann’s books – Dancer in particular – I’ve really enjoyed. Also Kevin Barry’s style of writing, his short stories, but I’ve not yet got round to a novel of his.

Beyond that, I don’t know what to tell you. My tastes are a mix of British and American fiction, although my association with Dalkey has brought me into contact with translations – Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk and Joao Almino’s The Book of Emotions the ones that stand out. Really, my reading is quite eclectic. I tend to follow the path one step at a time. A love of Martin Amis in university lead me to Julian Barnes and Bellow, which in turn lead me to Philip Roth and more recently  Updike. And these authors led me to Flaubert and Kafka, whom I don’t enjoy as much as they do, evidently. But that’s very much how I read. I read a lot of interviews with authors I like. I’m really interested in talking about writing, how it happens, why we do it, and hearing what others say about it. I consider myself some to be the runt cousin of these guys, rather than their equals. I’m so distantly related that any genetic predisposition to writing has been cruelly diluted.  I name-check them here just by way of acknowledging that these are the names that have influenced me, either through their own work or where their work has led me.

***

John Toomey was born in 1975 in Dublin, where he now teaches English at Clonkeen College.Sleepwalker is his first novel. Further information, including an extract from his forthcoming novel and some of his short stories, can be read on his website www.johntoomeybooks.com.

Grant Maierhofer is the author of The Persistence of Crows and the weekly column A Cabana of the Mind for Delphian Inc., his unrelated work can be found at GrantMaierhofer.Org. He lives in Wisconsin and is currently at work revising a second novel for publication next fall.

Living to tell the tale

by Kaya Genç

Joseph Anton: A Memoir
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, September 2012
656 pages / $18  Buy from Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the cover of this utterly compelling book, two names belonging to five different individuals introduce the reader to a life abruptly interrupted by politics. First is that of the British author, Salman Rushdie, who deserves praise for the beautiful prose that follows. His surname was adapted by his father from Ibn Rushd, the twelfth century Muslim philosopher whose vein of Islamic scholarship had left its mark on the Rushdie family. Below Rushdie, “Joseph Anton”, a name unknown to history, is inscribed in large letters. This is an invented name which, when taken as a whole, is fictitious, but when separated into two parts, becomes a composite of the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov, two of Rushdie’s favorite authors.

Although Joseph Anton is a name invented by the author, the relationship between them is quite different from, say, Oliver Twist and Dickens. The invention here had not been the result of an artistic choice. It was necessitated when Rushdie wrote a novel, in 1989, about the origins of Islam, earning the hatred of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Khomeini accused Rushdie of blasphemy and issued a fatwa to all Muslims, informing them that the writer of The Satanic Verses as well as “all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content” were sentenced to death. The death of the author, however, had been a wish that was not granted. Rushdie survived and is here to tell the tale. (Others, though, were not as lucky: the Japanese translator of the book was murdered in 1991, the Italian translator was stabbed and his Norwegian publisher attacked at his house.)

Rushdie’s account begins when a BBC reporter calls him to ask how it feels “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It doesn’t feel good, he replies before rushing downstairs to lock the front door of his London apartment.

As the reader walks in his shoes in the course of more than 650 densely-written pages, it becomes apparent that Rushdie’s mental state was much more complicated than his initial reaction might suggest. Fatwa becomes for him an elixir, helping Rushdie to identify his friends and his foes. The event also kickstarts a public discussion on blasphemy, religious intolerance and freedom of expression, leading to numerous political stances some of which were taken at the expense of personal safety.

The day after Khomeini issued the fatwa, Rushdie was offered protection by Scotland Yard’s Special Branch. Because of the seriousness of the threat, he was entitled to a level of protection only offered to heads of the British state. Under the protective wings of these police agents who inhabited his life, it became very difficult for Rushdie to make distinctions between his private and public affairs.

The death sentence had produced an extremely alienating effect on Rushdie who decided to tell his experiences in third person. Although it feels a little awkward at the beginning, his technique quickly gives an ironic tone to the narrative, allowing Rushdie to point to absurd moments in his life which wouldn’t seem so absurd had they not been narrated from the point of view of a detached observer.

After giving a fascinating, detailed account of that fateful day in 1989, Rushdie takes us back to his beginnings and a colorful portrait of the artist as a young man ensues. A sense of solitude accompanies the young Rushdie in his days at Rugby school and later at Cambridge where he grows an interest in history.

As historian of his life, Rushdie never forgets a negative review or an act of animosity. Writers as diverse as James Wood, John le Carré, John Berger and Jacques Derrida (all coincidentally sharing the letter J in their first names) alienate Rushdie in their reactions to his texts or political acts. Rushdie disjoints specimens of intolerance from the rubble of history, hanging them out to dry, as he feels he was treated likewise during his troubles.

Some of Rushdie’s politics I found difficult to agree with: I didn’t like his mocking of the term “Islamophobia” on the grounds that Islam is a synonym for intolerance. Although his personal experience might suggest otherwise, it is too broad a claim which ignores Islamophobic acts of violence in Europe and the US whose narrow-mindedness equals some of Rushdie’s extremist enemies.

His consistent advocacy for freedom of expression, and influential leadership of the American PEN, on the other hand, are admirable. Accounts of the writing processes of his books, publishing deals and the problems involved there are as detailed as book recipes: every ingredient had been carefully preserved, every step clearly described.

From the history of Andrew Wylie’s legendary literary agency to the strange internal machinations of large publishing houses like Penguin and Knopf, “Joseph Anton” approaches its subject matter with a hyper-realist’s eye. Our illusion of inhabiting the point of view of a writer under imminent threat is never broken. Unpredictable, often stained with personal and public crises and a constant sense of danger, Rushdie’s life makes compelling reading.

***

Kaya Genc is a novelist, essayist and doctoral candidate from Istanbul. His has work appeared inThe Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian Weekly, Index on Censorship, Songlines, and on GuernicaThe MillionsSpecter and London Review of Books websites. His first novel,L’avventura, came out in Turkey in 2008. He is currently working on a novel in English.www.kayagenc.net

HIDER ROSER

by Melissa Broder

 

 

 

 

  HIDER ROSER
by Ben Mirov
Octopus Books, 2012
95 pages / $12.00 buy from SPD

 

 

 

A shamanic healer in San Francisco, who charges way more money than $12 USD, says we are always every age we have ever been. She promises to heal us of the behaviors that once protected us, at 3 and 8 and 13, but now no longer serve us. She will heal us with repeated sessions in which she asks ‘who is talking?’ and ‘what age is that person?’

For $12 USD, Ben Mirov’s HIDER ROSER provides direct textual access to this sort of temporal and spatial inquiry. You can keep it in your bag. You can have it all the time. What’s more, the poet reveals his own story (or the story of a mirror character) (or many mirror characters) (who is talking who is talking?) reducing the feelings of aloneness we may experience on our own trips. He gives us his eyeball, still wet. He gives us his ID. I read this book during a week of bad panic attacks, or “death lite” as I like to call them. I felt understood by Mirov’s book. “If your wolf gets too heavy / don’t pop the flares,” he advises. “No one will rescue you. You are the rescue team.”

Simultaneous threads of fear and acceptance run through these poems. The speaker watches himself disintegrate. The Self and its idea of who and what it is are not solid. Yet in knowing that he lacks the power to stop the fracture, Mirov’s speaker possesses the wisdom to embrace the  dissolution.

 

In “Figment” Mirov writes:

…my beliefs
though flimsy and hollow like yellow reeds

bent low against the wind
down by the black river where dreams
kneel down to die in peace

are the only things that confuse me.
And this is why I love them.

There is a beautiful sadness in these poems. Mirov skillfully co-inhabits the realms of the physical and the metaphysical, the containment suit and the dark star. In a world both familiar and foreign, Mirov inquires as to the nature of the universe, as well as the absurdity of layering institutions over the void. We are keeping “busy all day.” We are running from something. What is it?

In “I is to Vorticism,” he writes:

If you come upon a vortex in your laundry tonight
don’t be afraid.
Give it a name like Scheherazade…

They don’t teach you this in college
or how to deal with moving faster than the speed of light
into a brick wall
but that’s how I got my diploma
knocking around the chrysalis…

This book isn’t nihilist and it doesn’t throw up its hands. Rather, it contends with what we can still do in spite of the strangeness of it all. Friends go bodiless and faceless, yet somehow they maintain the power to deliver us to the tangible safety of a “porch coated in rain.” There is still the ability to kiss, which brings on both an astrophysical journey through time and space as well as the spilling of a “mug of strong black tea” in this dimension. There are One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, which provide no consolation to “the soldiers / in Afganistan who spend their nights / shooting at the same five guys.” But when the speaker, as lost human, needs the consolation of “Wandering Ghost Bridge” and “snow-capped mountains,” One Hundred Poems from the Chinese are so there. Poetry is the bridge that makes the strangeness of this universe not only bearable, but meaningful.

HIDE ERRORS

ROD HER SIRE

REORDER HIS

DOER ERS HI

RED HE SIR OR

DO HEIRS ERR

IDS HE ERROR

HIDER FUCKING ROSER

Noah Falck’s Snowmen Losing Weight

by Mike Young

Snowmen Losing Weight
by Noah Falck
BatCat Press, 2012
61 pages / $30  Buy from BatCat Press

 

 

 

 

 

Not everybody notices you change. Most of the people, they say hey and start telling you about the bicyclist they killed on the way to work or the pistachio jelly bean they invented in their nap. It takes a special kind of person to point out your haircut. Your weight loss, your new fannypack, your sacrifice flys, your hiccups, the stains on your coat from a watermelon and peanut butter sandwich. And beyond that, it’s a rare bird who will say the soft thing about what they notice. Or will take you as you are into a noticing beyond you both.

Noah Falck’s debut poetry collection, Snowmen Losing Weight, comes with puffy eyes and melancholy jokes, but its realest strength is in its pointer finger. Which is pointed not out of judgment or self-congratulation or even to cocoon two observers against the rest of the cold world (OK, well, more on that later), but to be on the lookout, most always, for a wider circle. Measuring tape that goes forever and is always restarting. Or like it says in the very first poem: “Suppose the wind falls / in love with the wrong / season.” A goal of reckless inclusion, including until we’re out of breath, toward a large and dissolving inhabitance.

First, though: I’m not the world’s waxiest book object dude, but yeah, the physicality of this book is too immediate and elegant not to begin with. Snowmen Losing Weight is four-books-in-one, sectioned out in a double-burger dos-à-dos style. Don’t take my word for it:

I don’t want to compete with a video’s description prowess, but I do want to add two things. One, there’s a real formica nostalgia to the vinyl exterior, like I’m six and trying to find everything I dropped under all the kitchen tables I’ve ever seen. Which is further confirmed by the white-and-black speckling on the cover (inverted on the endpages), which I’m going to go ahead and admit reminds me of cookies and cream ice cream. That was the second thing. The important thing: mad props to the students of Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland, PA, who design and produce BatCat’s books. They’ve done something beautiful and memorable. It’s an expensive book, but that’s because you’ll want to put it where everyone can see it and coo.

To clarify: the design doesn’t feel like something that’s begging for a high five before it gives you a ticket. What I felt in my “tactile experience”—section hopping, cracking between new spines, making one smooth flipover at the midway point—was a memory of intermissions and overlooked physical bounds. Like let’s not forget that strip where the carpet is nailed down to prevent it from shagging into the bathroom. Or like it says in the poem “Moons Over My Hammy”: “There were other moments, I’m sure, / moments like ice cubes stuck to the bottom of the glass, / like interrupted keyboard solos to be continued later.” Don’t pretend transition doesn’t take some work, the book says. OK, I said. You’re gorgeous. If you want me to notice the work it takes to move between enclosed spaces and enclosed feelings, and if your objectness is the beginning of my interaction with these poems in a significant way, I will go ahead and think about that as I am reading them.

 

In thinking about that and reading these poems, I kept thinking the word “tableau.” So I looked it up to make sure: OK, yes, Mondrian, scenic arrangement, and tableau vivant, living picture, a parlor game and then a style of narrative photography. In these poems, images do build and hold still next to each other. But Falck’s eye is evocative because it’s not just image arrangement that it’s after. That’s step one, but step two is image imagination. Images fertilized in other images. Take: “The scoreboard leaks / a boatload of Japanese beetles.” Or take a fire escape, where “a woman / takes off her coat like a superhero.” Tell me in which order this image originally occurred: “The night is longer than someone trying on and then peeling off a turtleneck.” And it’s sensory fertilization too, like when the darkness in the poem “Ghosts in Cargo Shorts” smells of granola bars and canned laughter. I mean, maybe, OK, any poet in the room is apt to call on themselves to figure out what the darkness smells like, but I like how many cabinets Falck’s poem-cooking arms are rifling through.

Going on with the tableau idea: there’s a healthy respect for narrative, but I’m not sure about that word, I guess, when I read: “Once upon a time silver car / beneath the streetlight was not a car at all … and the deaf boy / flew the bird in heavy traffic. Once upon / a time in a crowded locker room twenty- / two women waxed lips in unison.” Like narrative is getting respected, but something else is getting revered.

The second poem in the book is called “Though I Don’t Know You, I Think You Could Probably Stop the Rain,” and this poem is between an I and a you, and the I notices how the you’s cell phone gives off just enough light to see faces, and this makes the I want things: “And it made / me want to know what / it was like to hear music / the way you hear music. / But you turned your head / away to signal for your friends. / Over here, you yelled / I’m living my afterlife.” So maybe I was wrong in the second paragraph. Maybe when we’re talking about tableaus and pointer fingers and wider circles and shit, we are, after all, talking about an I that wants to bring a you into a closer world. A don’t-joke-about-the-afterlife-let’s-live-in-looking. A noticing buried in whispers, in a big coat the voice has slung over itself and the listener.

Like for example Spanish gets spoken, in these poems, through leftover lipstick marks. These poems keenly and softly see us melting the world into ourselves: “Your love life is a neighborhood in Chicago / where car alarms lull babies off / into dreams of wingless, singing hummingbirds.” Oh man, I am really talking myself into this new idea: that these poems aren’t tableaus, or the tableau isn’t a way to include yourself in the world, it’s a way to use the world to define a duo, or as the poem “In the Tunnel to Daydreaming” says: “The umbrella / of every occasion. We pretend inside a toothy radius of light.” Or someone makes a book that everyone wants to touch, but it’s the reader alone who really has to do the touching necessary to move through it all.

Still: Falck’s net is, ultimately, wider than pillow talk. He knows you don’t need to be secretly in love with everyone you imagine. Being alone with one person all the time isn’t the end all be all. Because there are always neighbors watching you drink milk. Multiple people are always telling you that your face reminds them of someone about to hiccup. People have “hidden handguns and hair / poofing out like unlucky umbrellas.” They have shower thoughts, and these thoughts “become monuments casting the kind of shadows / people photograph for friends.” Probably this is just me making things more complicated than they need to be, but I like to think of that line two ways: 1) you take pictures of shadows because you think your friends will like those pictures, yes, and 2) taking pictures of shadows is your version of having friends. This seems like a good tonic to the wide-world-of-lovers-against-the-world idea. A way of arranging and fertilizing images in the world that will work both in and out of love. Or how the poem “Man Versus Style” puts it: “When he reached the street corner with the slow moving traffic and everyone’s eyes, he thought twice about combing his hair.”

Like anything that’s full of good stuff, it’s inevitable to wonder “how and why is this so full of good stuff?” and in so wondering, leave stuff out. There are some things in Snowmen Losing Weight I haven’t talked about, like the skeleton key of a Wallace Stevens namedrop in “Boss Crashes the Party.” The delicate succession of the four sections, the differences and connections between them and how the last section is suddenly all prose poems. Or the archeology of eyes and looks that runs through all these poems, from “looks that must have inspired the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner” to “in your eyes the clapping of several simultaneous first kisses in the shade of a Mexican sitcom.” The character poems: dog trainers and retired square dancers, who admit that “love was something lying around / among vacuum cleaner parts at a yard sale.” There’s a file cabinet full of hair clippings I haven’t really mentioned. There are confessions inside pickup lines. The book ends with an epic rundown of the American midwest, premised as a run of measuring tape, perhaps tired subject matter rescued by specificity and contrast/combinatory powers: “people hugging in small groups, their colorful fannypacks overlapping in smoke groomed bowling alleys.”

Listen, I think I am from the walking-around school of poetry criticism. Which asks: will these poems affect how I walk around? Will they end up part of the chemistry I squirt on my contact lenses? For me, I see so much urgent seeing in these poems, seeing that wrestles between its desire to share itself and its confusion about whether to share itself with what it sees or into one special other set of eyes. So I walk around and see through that. I see a dude in a wheelchair putting his coat on in the courtyard of the apartment complex next door, the complex with the fountain. And before reading Noah Falck’s Snowmen Losing Weight, I would probably see this wheelchair dude and think about how all my friends get mixed up between the complex I live in and the one with the fountain and end up buzzing the wrong bell. But now I notice how the dude stops his coat after getting one arm on. The rest of the coat is just flapping against him, and he is wheeling away, and because of Snowmen Losing Weight I am not going to call that giving up.