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Derecho

Monday, August 10, 2020. Derecho. I had never heard of the word before. I was just about to go to the grocery store when my wife turned on the noon news and we heard the weather gang talking about an oncoming storm of straight-line winds that might exceed 100 miles per hour. A derecho. It was headed for our town in less than twenty minutes. We would need to take cover in the basement by then.

When we emerged after a frightening forty minutes of listening to the wind thrashing, to the earth-shaking thud of falling trees, and to a real gusher of a downpour, we found our world had altered immeasurably. It seemed as if every tree in sight had been felled or broken in two. One tree was leaning against the front of our house, another lie across the back patio, having smashed everything that was once there.

In the end, the winds reached 140 mph at times. We lost all five of the large, old trees in our yard-an elm, a basswood, a locust, an ash, and a beautiful river birch. We were without electricity for eight and a half days, although we bought a generator to see us through. And we are still without local phone or Internet service twelve days later. I’m working off my iPad, which is tethered to my iPhone’s phone service at the moment. On the plus side, I passed my chainsaw merit badge.

All of this is to explain why I have been silent for so long. But now I am working on some new posts for Vertigo which should start going up before too long.

 

 

“Don’t Rush”: Andrew Zawacki’s “Unsun:”

Zawicki Unsun

Poetry geeks tend to write things about Andrew Zawacki’s poetry like: “Unsun takes on digital networks, international transit, the uneven movements of capital, and the unrelenting feedback loops of data surveillance, weather disaster, war” (from the Coach House Books blurb). In somewhat simpler terms, it’s fair to say that Zawacki is ever alert to all that is going on around him. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing” (From “Outside a Ruined Casino.”)

Many of the poems in his recent book  Unsun:f/11 (Coach House Books, 2019) draw on the terminology of scientific disciplines, including geology, mathematics, meteorology, and astronomy, plus the fields of medicine, computer programming, photography, and probably several others that I have forgotten, not to mention a couple of foreign languages. In other words, I spent a lot of time Googling things as I read his vocabulary-expanding poems.

We are all on our way
Out don’t
Rush

(from: “U9 to Zoo Station Sonnet”)

My take on these challenging poems is simple: don’t rush. One of Zawacki’s goals is to encourage (i.e., force) the reader to look at things differently. More precisely. More scientifically. This is implied in the book’s subtitle f/11, which represents the f stop, or aperture, of a camera lens. In this case, f/11 suggests a lens in which nearly everything should be in sharp focus.

A glassstar shrieks into
                                   starfall, its falllight
casting enriched uranium
shadows over the ruins

                                  of a city of
lead and cement : an early-
                                 warning satellite chitters, the end
times barely begun, no witness

protection program for any of us.

(from “END_PROGRAM_HELLOWORLD”)

I’d like to steal a short phrase from John Vincler’s recent essay “Grid Logic” (over at the Poetry Foundation), which is about the poetry of Susan Howe. He writes about Howe’s “atomistic attention to units of sound and typographical form.” Zawacki, I think, pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from. If one word comes from chemistry and the next from metallurgy, no problem. Few readers are likely to fully grasp some of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through. Nevertheless, by the end of a poem like “END_PROGRAM_HELLOWORLD”, few readers will have trouble recognizing that Zawacki is describing the ecological catastrophe that unchecked technology has wrought on our planet.

Take four minutes and go over to Soundcloud and listen to Zawacki talk about and then read “Gratophoph,” a delightful poem from Unsun written for his young daughter, and I think you’ll see that clarity isn’t everything.

One section of Zawacki’s book is a series of poems and photographs called “Waterfall Plot,” which he says is “lifted from the ‘Wheel-Rim River’ suite by eighth -century Chinese poet, painter, musician, and politician Wang Wei.” Each of the twenty brief poems in this suite is accompanied by beautiful abstract, black-and-white photographs by Zawacki. The photographs were shot at “a compound of disused chicken coops in Athens, Georgia.” In his photographs, Zawacki makes the recognizable (chicken wire, windows, feathers, dirt) look otherworldly. He turns them into eerie, if not ominous landscapes and skyscapes that serve as the inspiration for each of the poems, just as Wang Wei’s poems were inspired by the Chinese landscapes he knew so intimately. (David Hinton’s translation of Wang Wei’s WheelRim Sequence can be read here.)

Here is the photograph and the poem that comprise “Waterfall Plot 2”:

WP4 001

Leaves in the wind a kaleidoscope—developer
amber, hypo pink—and chickens blind, asphyxiated

by contaminated streams. Root canal : ammonium
nitrate and diesel fuel, to fracas a mountain in half.

Photography is typically about framing the world. But in these photographs, Zawacki is mostly concerned with focus and scale. He wants to turn the micro—the grime or residue that has naturally built up over time on a scrap of screen or on a pane of glass—into something that resembles a landscape or skyscape. He uses the science of photography to aid the eye in seeing in more precisely and then he employs the vocabulary of the sciences to articulate more precisely. We often think of poetry as invoking mystery or pointing us to that which cannot be spoken. Zawacki is going in the opposite direction, towards a kind of rigor or exactitude. There are still mysteries in this world, but they are all the more stunning if seen clearly.

Coach House Books has produced an exceptional short video about Unsun that I highly recommend watching. No, it’s not a poetry reading. Think of it as a sort of sci-fi music video for the book’s opening poem “Optic Audio.” The video was edited by Paul Cunningham and the music excerpted from “Ice as the Sun” by the Berlin-based electronic music composer Hainbach.

The poems of “Waterfall Plot” are also available in a chapbook. Waterfall Plot. Greying Ghost, 2019. Chapbook. Limited edition of 100.

Sebald Issue of boundary 2 Journal

bou_47_3_cover

Readers of W.G. Sebald are in something special. boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture has devoted the entire contents of Volume 47 Issue 3 to Sebald and it’s all available online for free.  Edited by Sina Rahmani , the title of the issue is “W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.” Here is what you can find in the issue.

Sina Rahmani, “Words, Not Bombs: W. G. Sebald and the Global Valences of the Critical.”

Sebald’s meteoric rise shines a light on the hegemonic role the anglophone literary market plays in the processes that authors and their texts undergo when they migrate from a national literary market to a planetary readership. Indeed, migration offers a key to Sebald’s oddball career and its place in literary history. Like many of the literati holy orders into whose ranks he has been admitted, Sebald’s biography is marked by a permanent departure from the land of his birth.

Uwe Schütte, “Troubling Signs: Sebald, Ambivalence, and the Function of the Critic.”

His unconventional authorial identity cannot be fully comprehended without an appreciation of the critical writings and, in turn, his transformation from scholar to writer. The most prominent feature of his work in the critical sphere is the stubbornly contrarian stance Sebald assumed toward his peers in German studies specifically and the Germanic literary establishment more generally. . . .Only when both sides of Sebald’s coin [his critical writings and his imaginative writings] are considered in concert can one begin to grasp the power and significance of his career.

Stuart Burrows, “The Roar of the Minotaur: W. G. Sebald’s Echospaces.”

I will describe the contours of this different dimension, in the belief that Sebald’s distinctive contribution to the global novel lies in his reordering of the space of representation. This reordering is both literal and metaphorical. It is literal, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores actual spaces: the pages upon which his novels are written, which become inextricable from the world being described, and the landscape being traversed, such as the Suffolk coastline in The Rings of Saturn (1998); it is metaphorical, in the sense that Sebald’s work explores a set of imaginary spaces nested within each other, those spaces occupied by his characters, who inhabit several worlds simultaneously, and those allocated to the narrative voice, which speaks to us out of a clearly demarcated yet ultimately unlocatable place.

Yahya Elsaghe, “Penelope’s Crossword: On W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.”

The crossword as a form has the upper hand over the rhizome as a metaphor for textuality—something it shares with other allegories of memory like a ‘wonderblock’ and ‘palimpsest’ as well as ‘signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things’.

Sina Rahmani, “The Stateless Novel: Refugees, Literary Form, and the Rise of Containerization.”

This ‘prose book of an undetermined kind,’ Sebald’s coy descriptor for Austerlitz, offers an instructive lesson about the novel of the global era, which has become a formal container providing refuge to any and all narrative and literary forms. In the same way that the shipping container is completely unconcerned with its own contents, Austerlitz furnishes us with incontrovertible evidence that in a stateless era, the foundational distinctions between written and visual, fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, analytic and creative, and, as Stuart Burrows points out in his contribution to this issue, verbal and written have been eradicated.

Isa Murdock- Hinrichs, “Adaptation, Appropriation, Translation: Sebald on the Silver Screen.” Murdock-Hinrichs examines two films based upon books by Sebald: Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2012) and Stan Neumann’s Austerlitz (2015).

Gee’s deliberate transformation of the visuals in the film into a maze of images whose uniform intelligibility is obscured represents a translation of Sebald’s disjunction between text and visual.

. . .

Neumann highlights the various qualities of visuals as he weaves static images, alternative film stock, and printed materials into the film. The camera is the translator of the narrative of the literary text by further portraying the instability of systems of meaning.

Global Critical Forum

“This special issue of boundary 2 has sought out translations of articles and reviews of different Sebald texts. The Global Critical Forum highlights the array of responses and mixed feelings Sebald solicits in different national contexts.”

Nissim Calderon, “Sebald or Gevalt?” [Originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth (Tel Aviv, Israel) in 2009.]

Sebald’s Rings of Saturn is a particularly bad text; bad precisely because it features his idiosyncratic and excellent style but lacks the content to justify it. It is an empty style, like the painter Salvador Dalí, who in his youth paved the way for art’s new surrealist path but in his later years became a serial producer of the “Dalí style.”

Rodrigo Fresán, “The Sebald Case.” [This is a slightly revised translation of an article published in Letras Libres, a Spanish- language monthly literary magazine published in Mexico and Spain, in July 2003.]

In the here and now, the departed Sebald is very, very interesting for those who have survived him, for the many that quietly concede in hushed tones, perhaps out of fear of falling victim to a Pharaoh’s curse, his some-what exaggerated prestige, and for the many more that swear by his divine name they continuously invoke in vain—to remain in good standing and to have a ready response to the question, What are you reading at the moment? Sebald serves, functions, protects, and refreshes best, and is so fashionable, so useful for the nouveaux riche of the intelligentsia. Sebald is practical and legible; he grants a certain prestige to his user and his consumer. Sebald is not only learned but also produces the agreeable effect, or impression, of cultivating and producing evangelical astuteness.

Maria Malikova, “Witnessing the Past in the Work of W. G. Sebald.” [This article was published in 2008 in Отечественные записки (Notes from the Home-land: A Journal for Slow Reading).]

Artist and photographer Jan Peter Tripp was a key figure in the career of German writer and critic W. G. Sebald. . . .[in Sebald’s 1998 essay on Tripp] he provides a graphic display of the evolution of the role of the visual in [his] poetics from photographs of objects, faces, landscapes, architecture, and paintings, to depictions of the very organ of sight, the mechanism of vision: eyes, fixed directly on the reader- viewer, demanding a reciprocal gaze, an ethical reaction.

He Ning, “The Bricolage of Words and Images: W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.” [This article is translated from a Mandarin article 文字与照片的拼接—评W. G.赛巴尔德的《奥斯特里茨》, which appeared in Trends of Foreign Literature (《外国文学动态研究》) in 2012.]

Austerlitz’s method of piecing together memories through recategorizing the photos he has into a spatial rather than temporal order reifies what I call a retroactive act of bricolage, an innovative way to reconstruct the protagonist’s own narrative. Inspired by the art of photography, he seems to find a psychological equilibrium between his defense mechanism (i.e., selective amnesia) and his desire to recover and rediscover his own identity.

The issue concludes with an article not about Sebald but one closely aligned with his lectures on “Air War and Literature,” included in On the Natural History of Destruction. Sina Rahmani conducts an interview with Emran Feroz entitled “Death from Above: An Afghan Perspective on the US Drone War.”

boundary 2 has an unusual editorial statement:

The editors of boundary 2 announce that they no longer intend to publish in the standard professional areas, but only materials that identify and analyze the tyrannies of thought and action spreading around the world and that suggest alternatives to these emerging configurations of power.

This Tilting World

Fellous tilting

In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.

In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.

This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.

Although her family had been in Tunisia for generations, they were of European descent, and as she ruminates on her past, she begins to realize that there were really two Tunisias—an Arab Tunisia and a Tunisia for those of French and European descent. “We did not live so happily together,” she now sees, “we lived side by side, we tolerated each other, but only up to a point, up to a point and no further.” When her father finally decided to move the family to France sometime after Tunisian independence, he gave his tractor repair store to his Tunisian employees and walked away. Now, decades later, with terrorists trying to scare tourists out of Tunisia, the narrator realizes that once again “there was no longer a place here for the ‘foreigners’ we had become since choosing France.”

The brilliance of Fellous’s book lies in the vivid imagery and the intimacy of her self-examination. For example, take this admission:

And then there was the city. The battered sidewalks, the window bars on dilapidated buildings that were never repaired, the whitewash that peeled off in great flakes during the winter, the doors swollen with moisture, the strange skin diseases we saw on passers-by, leprosy, smallpox, bonnets worn to cover lice infestations, the torn dress of the enormous beggar women on the synagogue steps, surrounded by her great baskets and her dazzlingly white dog for which she knitted multicolored coats; that’s all she did: he was well dressed while she was in rags. All of this was strange and did not match up with my schoolbooks in which the poems and great texts bestrode the centuries, marked and measured them: each era had its own language and each of them was stunning, astonishing, the paper smelled so good, I wanted to sink into them, I wanted to be of books, and far from what I saw all around me. . .

. . . I chose pleasure, I chose love. Sensations, stories, shades of meaning. Now I think I got it all wrong. I should have been harder, sharper, more violent. I should have fought some other way.

This Tilting World reads like a memoir written in a moment of turbulence. Time is disjointed and memories of her deceased friend and her childhood keep intruding. The French title, Pièces détachées, or “loose pieces,” is probably a better description of the book. Either way, it has a sense of immediacy that I found very appealing.

There are a dozen photographs in the book, both in color and black-and-white. Most of the photographs suggest the personal attraction that Tunisia has to her—a sunset, a beach, flowers, a harbor, etc. There’s also one romantic film still of James Mason and Ava Gardner embracing on a beach (from Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) that is meant to recall the era when cities like Tunis once had a hundred movie theaters. Fellous, it should be noted, is an exhibiting photographer and so the photographs in the book are very well done. The book closes on a self-reflexive image.

Fellous Tilting 1

Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis.

Telephone

Everett Telephone

In Percival Everett’s latest novel Telephone (Graywolf, 2020), our narrator, Zach Wells, is a professor of geology and paleobiology. He knows a lot about fossils and caves, “especially the bones of creatures left a long, long time ago,” but he admits he’s not very engaged with the present moment. He tends to gravitate toward grand philosophical pronouncements, but usually fails to consider the little moral issues that pop up every day. He has basically lived his life safely and without much passion or introspection and now he’s depressed and has even had the occasional thought of suicide.

So what if I was not happy? My happiness was overrated. My daughter was happy. My wife was unworried. But I moved through my life with caution, and caution in love is the most fatal to true happiness.

He’s also African American, although completely apolitical. During a campus protest over the police shooting of a Black teenager, several Black students come to his office. “We were wondering if you would join us, talk to us at a meeting tonight.”

“Who is ‘us’?” Zach asks. He explains that he’s never felt discriminated against at this university and he won’t join their protest. “I just crawl into caves and find fossils and then identify them. I am a scientist. I should probably be more political in my thinking and dealings with the school. But I’m not.”

Then Zach and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and will slowly take away her speech and motor skills in the meantime. This also threatens their marriage and Zach begins to spend long periods sitting in his office or at a campus bar. He becomes lost in a despair that leads him down to “a dark place, a place that I secretly began to recognize as a safe harbor.” And that safe harbor is actually the guilt in knowing that death is coming for his daughter, not for him. “Guilt,” he admits, “is a terrible thing.”

But it’s something trivial that finally drives Zach out of his funk and into action. He buys a jacket on eBay and when it arrives there is a note inside, written in Spanish, that reads “Help me.” Curious, he buys a shirt from the same seller and inside is another note. “Please Help to Us.” He buys another shirt. “Help us. They will not let us go.” The packages all originate from a small town in New Mexico and Zach begins to imagine that somewhere in the desert there are women being held in captivity, repairing used clothing to be sold on eBay. Perhaps these are some of the woman that are missing from Ciudad Júarez, Mexico. He decides that he must investigate. If he can’t save his daughter from her imminent death, perhaps he can help these women.

I knew absolutely nothing, but the notes were real, felt heavy in my hand, meaningful. This feeling, of course, fed my need to know something, anything at all, all the business with my child being nothing but questions. The nagging inquiry at the end of this red herring of a rainbow, though undeniably just another distraction, was epistemological. When intellectuals get scared, they run to fundamental philosophical problems: What is goodness What is beauty? What is it to know a thing? About knowing, I was not so much interested in whether I could know some thing but in what kind of thing I could know. I knew my cryptic notes were real, but I could not know what they meant, or whether they meant.

Throughout Telephone, Everett remains scrupulously non-judgemental about Zach. He doesn’t guide the reader toward any opinion of Zach. Zach might be worried about the “profound and yawning dullness” of his life, he doesn’t have many moralizing afterthoughts or pangs of guilt when he rebuffs the Black protesters or abandons his family in order to spend weeks searching the desert. The result is that the burden of worrying seems to shift to the reader. I found myself puzzling over these things. Why won’t Zach feel more sympathetic to the Black protesters? Why doesn’t he tell his wife why he’s going to New Mexico? What if his daughter dies while he is away scouting the desert for slave laborers? Zach may think he is the kind of narrator who confesses all to his reader, but a crucial part of him remains a mystery even to himself.

In the end, Zach leaves his wife and daughter behind to go out on his Quixotic search. But he has dedicated himself and his cause to his daughter. “I tried to tell my daughter, while she could understand, that women are hunted in this world.” He thinks of Ciudad Júarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of women have been “pursued, raped, imprisoned, tortured, and killed” over some twenty years or so.

The numbers were so very large, obscene, fescennine. Olga Perez. Hundreds of women have no name. Edith Longoria. Hundreds of women have no face. Guadalupe de la Rosa. Names. Name. Maria Najera. It was so uncomplicated, safe, simple to talk about numbers in El Paso, a world away. Nobody misses five hundred people. Nobody misses one hundred people. In Juárez, it was one. One daughter. One friend. One face. One name. Somebody misses one person.

This is what Everett does so well. He takes a simple scenario and turns it into a story that suddenly quivers with moral ramifications, forcing the reader to become uncomfortable enough to start asking deep questions. And there aren’t any easy answers.

If you need any further proof, it turns out that Percival Everett had one last trick up his sleeve. He wrote three completely different versions of Telephone, each with a different ending and each book has been published with a slightly different cover. There’s a recently recorded conversation with Everett over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Take a listen.

The Paris Review Interview with W.G. Sebald

Paris Review Issue151

When I arrived in Norwich that morning on the train from London, Max had been waiting at the gate. I recognized him from the photograph on the back of The Emigrants. He was shy at first as we drove through the streets of Norwich in his rattletrap Peugeot, but he soon grew talkative, pointing out the eleventh-century Norman cathedral that towers immensely over the town and going on about his dealings with publishers, agents, advances—a writer’s shoptalk.

The Paris Review has removed the paywall for the interview that James Atlas did with W.G. Sebald in 1999—but only until Sunday, July 12! So hurry over and read this excellent piece. After a visit at his house, Sebald took Atlas for a drive through Norwich and then later they visited the poets Michael Hamburger and Anne Beresford in their ancient cottage. Atlas (1949-2019) was a publisher and writer, most notably as the biographer of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. He would have been a great Sebald biographer, I think.

Seeing the Body: Poems by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Griffiths body

I’d come into the room & try to write
a different ending on those anonymous walls.
There was less time all the time
until time changed. You know what I mean.

In the poem “Belief,” from her new book Seeing the Body (W.W. Norton), Rachel Eliza Griffiths recounts the frustration of trying to write while waiting in the hospital during the time that her mother was dying.

I tried to read & write. Over & over, I
arranged plain little soaps, toothbrush, & comb.

. . . But before I accepted her
dying, which would be true
five months later, I kept trying to write
my mother a strong beginning.

Seeing the Body is a deeply personal book that was born out of the passing of her mother, the grief that followed, and the eventual return to a new normal. “Seeing” is often the operative word in this book.

Two years later in Brooklyn I am getting my eyes
checked. I have good eyes today. But there were
whole years I couldn’t see. . .                                                                               

                                                             from “Name”

But the real challenge for Griffiths comes with fulfilling her responsibility as a writer. At first, there are only “cobwebs of words” as the poet struggles to get past the reality of her mother’s passing. Words may be gossamer thin but in Griffith’s book they have the power to grieve, to love, to hurl anger, to forgive, to build worlds.

I want my web to hold. I want to repair
what I have made. I was not given the golden hive.
In me seethes the silk of invisible worlds.    

         from “Arch of Hysteria, or, The Spider-Mother Becomes a Woman”

Throughout the book, Griffiths talks of having her mother’s presence still with her (“even now she is still making me”). She misses her mother’s cooking. She thinks about family. She thinks about other artists who inspire her, like Louise Bourgeois and Langston Hughes. She writes a poem to Leonard Cohen (“Where are the miracles now, Leonard?”). She seethes as yet another black man (Mike Brown) is killed by the police in America. And then she herself becomes ill.

. . . There I prayed. I hummed.
alone, half-bald. Being born alone again.

I could not trust such sentences of faith or fiction. Instead, I read
menus, trues crimes, prescriptions. Transcribed
simple miracles for my anxiety.

I could not taste life or honey.

But I could bleed.                                                                                                   

                                                               from “Signs”

But for me, the true core of this book comes when Griffiths knows there are times when she can not be silent. When she must speak for more than just herself. Seeing the Body reverberates with moments of outrage. The most powerful example is the poem “My Rapes.”

I promised my mother I would never speak a word
about my rapes. I would never tell the world.
about my power until she was dead. Her eyes sealed &
having a choice now to listen to me or be a ghost
when I am saying the difficult thing
& lived it. . .

“My Rapes” is “a terrible poem for us,”

we outlaw women who have taken off the silence
of our muzzles & armed our small bones with stars,
we who leap from the attics we are burning down.

In the poem, Griffiths writes not only from her own past (“when I tried to tell my mother about the rapes she asked me / what in the world had I been wearing & where had I gone”), but about the students who have come to her with poems about their experiences, the “typed-up evidence” and “the formatted corpse of a memory that won’t lie still.” It’s not so much a poem about rape as it is about the endless pressures to deny rape, to call rape by a lesser name, or, worst of all, to blame the victims. It’s a poem everyone should read.

Griffiths is also a terrific photographer and she includes a section of intriguing self-portraits in the book in a section called “daughter: lyric: landscape.” She writes: “I am looking at a woman whose spirit is both emaciated and exhilarated in the face of monumental loss.” Self-portraiture is a form of automatic self-distancing, a mirroring of the self. But here, by using the word “daughter,” Griffiths implies that she is also looking at herself through her mother’s eyes. She accomplishes the eerie act of displacement by momentarily trading places with the dead in order to look back at her living self.

Griffiths Double Portrait

Seeing the Body is a book that is tender and fearless and timely. Highly recommended.

. . . When some fucked injustice
smiled & shot into the crowd & said
Y’all need to go back from where you came from.
Well, we stayed and lived.                                                                         

                                                             from “Paradise”

Watch Rachel Eliza Griffiths read several poems from this book on YouTube, courtesy of Poets House.

The Scorpion

Memmi Scorpion

I was midway through Albert Memmi’s novel The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession (NY: Grossman, 1971) when I saw in the New York Times that the Tunisian-French writer had died. I first became intrigued with The Scorpion when I saw that it included seven photographs. As far as I am aware, this made it one of the first European novels to have photographs as an integral part of the text after a gap of almost twenty-five years, since André Breton’s Nadja came out in 1945. I wonder what prompted Memmi to take the then radical idea of including images in his novel? He even went so far as to propose that the different “voices” in his book be printed in different colors, but the publisher refused, saying the cost would be prohibitive. Instead, the publisher used different typefaces within the book. In his Washington Post obituary of Memmi, Matt Schudel correctly pointed out that “Memmi’s technique in The Scorpion pointed towards the fiction of W.G. Sebald and later writers by incorporating commentary, invented memoirs and diaries,” not to mention images.

The narrator of The Scorpion (which was translated from the 1969 French original by Eleanor Levieux), is Marcel, who is a Tunisian ophthalmologist. His brother Imilio has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his brother’s state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. And as the novel progresses, the ideas of two other men are also introduced: an Uncle Makhlouf and a certain J.H. (for Jeune Homme or young man), a former student of Imilio’s. J.H. is a young idealist, unwilling to compromise. Imilio’s accounts of his weekly meetings with J.H. show that their conversations had been growing more argumentative with each session as the two men hardened into opposing positions. One day, Imilio learns that J.H. has committed suicide and Marcel can’t help but wonder if this is this the cause of his brother’s disappearance. The title of the book is a reference to the popular notion that a scorpion, when cornered, will sting itself.

At times, The Scorpion can feel like a relic of the Existentialist period, when men argued about big ideas, women were relegated to minor roles, and one could still believe in absolutes. Just before the J. H. kills himself, he declares “Either literature is an exploration of limits or it is no more important than the art of arranging flowers.” As Isaac Yetiv has suggested in an article, J.H. might remind the reader of an impatient, radical version of the young Marcel himself. But these kinds of absolutist positions no longer sit well with Marcel, who has become increasingly disillusioned as he ages. As an ophthalmologist, Marcel is acutely aware of the limits of human perception and, therefore, he’s convinced we’ll never fully understand our own existential circumstances.

Now, how much of [the spectrum] do we manage to take in? Hardly anything—between four thousand and seven thousand angstrom units. Ah, our perception of the world is terribly limited! . . . In all events, a mystery of some sort envelops us, no doubt about it, even if that’s a word I don’t like to use. Let’s say I hesitate between two ways of putting it: “I don’t know, but I know there’s an explanation,” and “There’s an explanation, but we’ll never know what it is.”

The majority of the seven photographs in the book seem to do little more than illustrate, albeit somewhat indirectly, specific passages in the book, although one photograph seems to suggest the reader’s experience with Memmi’s book.

Memmi 1

We explored the labyrinth of rooms, nooks, stairways, and garrets constantly without ever exhausting its resources.

The events in The Scorpion take place around 1956, at the moment when Tunisia was separating from France. From the beginning, Marcel senses the oppressiveness of the native government that is about to take over from the French and that will eventually become one of the most corrupt regimes in the area. It wasn’t until in 2011 and the protests that began the Arab Spring, that this regime in Tunisia was finally brought down.

Albert Memmi seemed to have been the quintessential outsider. He was born in 1920 in Tunisia of Jewish and Arab heritage, but emigrated to France after Tunisia’s independence. “I am Tunisian, but Jewish, which means that I am politically and socially an outcast … I am a Jew who has broken with the Jewish religion and the ghetto, is ignorant of Jewish culture … a Jew in an antisemitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.”

Recently Read: Writing Slantwise

Tell all the truth but tell it slant
Emily Dickinson

Two terrific books that I recently read both approached their subjects slantwise, or indirectly. They did so in ways that strengthened their messages and kept this reader more engaged. The two books are Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life by Brigitte Benkemoun (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020) and Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars (NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020) by Francesca Wade.

Finding Dora Maar

Finding Dora Maar (which was translated from the French by Jody Gladding) has a remarkable backstory. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband after he lost his. She bought one on eBay for seventy euros and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside one of its pockets. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized that some of the names were famous, names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose vintage address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun finally figured out that it belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer. But perhaps more famously, Maar was the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943 and the subject of scores of his paintings and prints

Tete de Femme No 3, 1939


Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme (Dora Maar), 1939, etching
Musee Picasso, Paris

In Finding Dora Maar, Benkemoun writes short chapters for about thirty-six of the entries from Maar’s telephone directory. Most of these cover the high-profile artists and writers that Maar knew, but others deal with some of the more day-to-day people from her life, such as the architect who helped restore one of her houses, a friend who was a civil servant and police officer, a graphologist (Maar believed in handwriting analysis as a way to explore psychology), a doctor, and a manicurist. For each entry, Benkemoun describes how she identified the person (Maar sometimes had indecipherable handwriting and was prone to misspelling names) and what their relationship was to Maar. Maar was tough on friendships. She was suspicious of everyone’s intentions (she thought they were after her valuable collection of paintings by Picasso) and, as she aged, she became increasingly difficult to deal with. By the end of the book, we learn that few of the people in her address book were still on friendly terms with Maar.

By mimicking the format of an address book, Benkemoun ignores chronology and approaches biography from a friendship by friendship basis. In the end, I felt like a had a much better sense of Dora Maar than if I had read a traditional biography of her. Sure, I missed out on a lot of facts, but I felt like I was given the heart and soul of Maar in this slantwise approach to her life. My only regret about the book was that it has no reproductions of the address book itself, aside from the glimpse shown on the front cover.

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Wade Haunting

Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars explores the lives of five very different women through the prism of London’s Mecklenburgh Square, where each of the woman lived for a spell sometime between 1916 and 1939. The five women are Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer), and the writer Virginia Woolf. In the heart of Bloomsbury and near both the British Museum and the University of London (now University College London), Mecklenburgh Square was “a radical address” favored by artists, writers, and thinkers of all kinds between the two World Wars. By focusing on a single city square, Wade demonstrates how cities contribute to intellectual life through their ability to bring people and resources from diverse disciplines to nurture each other and create cross fertilization between disciplines. While the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge continued to discriminate against women, barriers came down much earlier in cities and in some of the universities in cities, like the University of London, which had been granting degrees to women since 1878. Oxford didn’t grant degrees to women until 1920, Cambridge not until 1948.

While each of Wade’s five biographies are much longer than Benkemoun’s and they are slightly more academic in tone, they nevertheless are written equally slantwise. Wade’s mini-biographies first focus on how the time that each woman spent in Mecklenburgh Square was “formative.” “They wanted to break boundaries and forge new narratives for women.” Wade summed up her book by saying that “the legacy of these women lives on . . . in future generation’s right to talk, walk, and write freely, to lead invigorating lives.”

Pandemic Time

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Without appointments and concerts, without events and other things that remind me of the date, I find myself looking at the calendar more often, trying to fix in my mind a place to lodge myself in the stream of time. Is it Sunday or maybe Monday? But to be honest, the calendar that seems more like the true pandemic calendar is the one that hangs on my wall made by the German artist Hanne Darboven in 1971 as a gift for one of her collectors, which I acquired years ago. It’s a calendar for the year 1972 and Darboven carefully filled all of the spaces surrounding the actual calendar with wavy black lines. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but it’s connected to a large body of work she did with calendars over several years.

When I first saw some of the calendar works by Darboven (1941-2009) for the first time I was struck by the fact that they depicted the way I felt about time, about eternity slowly unfolding before me.  The cinematic version of time passing, which often shows a succession of calendar pages disappearing off the screen, blown away by the breeze, was never how I understood time. For me, it’s the constant repetition, the endless mimetic motion of the hand up and down, left to right, the same gesture day after day after day. That feels like time. Read more