learns the name of her desire
FRAIMOW drains a saturated love story
LOUNDY helps us remember what matters
dissects Darfur advocacy
CHAGOYA on how he came to do the work he loves
LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007
Volume 2, Issue 1
Copyright 2007 by Leland Quarterly • Stanford University All Rights Reserved. Giant Horse Printing • San Francisco EDITORIAL BOARD, FALL 2007 Editors-In-Chief BOB BOREK, NICK HOY
FRANK GUAN, REVTI GUPTA, ANNIE WYMAN
CHRISTINA CACIOPPO, MEGHAN DANIELS, JANET KIM, OTTO LEINSDORF, BILL LOUNDY, RUTH MCCANN, SARAH SCHARF, ANDREW VALENCIA, COURTNEY WEAVER
GEORGE XANDER MORRIS
Layout Editor and Web Manager SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN
Special Thanks ANDREW ALTSCHUL for his support THE CREATIVE WRITING PROGRAM, THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT, and THE ASSU PUBLICATIONS BOARD for their significant contributions to the first issue of this volume.
Leland Quarterly: A Statement on Literature, Culture, Art, and Politics is a general interest magazine that showcases the very best in Stanford University undergraduate art and writing. Our mission is to tap into the almost incomparably diverse talents of Stanford’s undergraduate student body, soliciting a wide array of poetry and prose, and working closely with authors to achieve a publication of superior content and design. Leland’s statement––from fiction to poetry, essays to reviews––will be enduring, common, recognizable, and extraordinary.
We’re not wearing ties. We carry neither briefcases nor resumes. We wear t-shirts, plaid shirts, sweaters. We sidle up to cute recruiters and begin our job pitch, ‘Sup?’ We smile and we laugh more than anyone else at the career fair, and we like to think it’s genuine (i.e. we’re not selling out), but it’s not. We laugh, but we’re afraid, and though we form a substantial group, each of us feels very alone. This is the community that I’ve imagined around myself. We’re the unemployable: the unpragmatic, the clueless, the vain dreamers. We don’t know what we want to do, but it’s not that. We’re headstrong, and we’re proud, and, in many ways, we’re dumb. I talked to approximately one recruiter at the most recent career fair. It was sheer coincidence that I took her to be the best-looking girl there. In the middle of our conversation, she took out a fun-size piece of Laffy Taffy and began chewing it in front of me. She read me the joke off of the wrapper. “What’s an owl’s favorite kind of math?” I shrugged. “Owlgebra,” she said. I laughed, and she laughed, then drooled (apparently the taffy had caused saliva to build up in her mouth), but I pretended I didn’t see it. I continued to laugh, and the longer I did, the emptier I felt. I was too disheartened to hit on her. As I walked away, I thought to myself: I have no marketable skills. Then I thought: that’s a lie. I like money. I want to be happy. I have dreams, but I probably lack the confidence and the talent to carry them into action. I enjoy taking orders, and I’m a real champ at wasting time. Later that week, a friend and I were camped out with a bottle of Carlo Rossi in the center of an empty Lake Lag. I was blabbing on about myself as usual, and she was half-listening and looking up at the stars. I was listening to myself, and thinking that I wasn’t a true dreamer. I was just vain. Real dreaming is hard work, and it has a lot less to do with the interests of the dreamer than the dream. There was a long silence between the two of us. Then my friend spoke up. She said, “People have been telling me to follow my dreams since I was a little kid. It always seemed intuitive, but now I wonder if the problem is that dreams are like the cars of the KGB in Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Gorky Park.’” I looked at her and we smiled. “They don’t always take you where you want to go, do they?” –– BOB BOREK & THE EDITORS OF LELAND
POLITICS & SOCIETY
Acting on Guilt: The Campaigns to Save Darfur
A look at the history of Darfur advocacy and the difficulty of reconciling inspirational rhetoric with accurate information.
FICTION BILL LOUNDY
A Story in the Water
Dreams (39), Sara Sisun
Poetry Enough: An Essay in 12 parts
(28), Mike Fleming
West Coast Ceramics Obelisk at Manzanar Rise; Fall Flip (8), Sara Sisun
Sonnet, Incomplete JOHN COLLINS
Cover: HEAD SHAKE FIP by Sara Sisun
My Smoke Alarm is Going Off
Acquiring the Skeleton of Irishman Charlie Burns ANNIE WYMAN
North Dakota Elegy MARLON FOOTRACER
Scales of Balance
An attempt to wrest Beckett from the reading elite, and to make a case for his humanity and wit.
The Fig IRIS LAW
Dolls, by a Palm Tree, in the Sand
(14), Mike Fleming
Recalling freshman yearâ€™s purest moments (and how we overcame them).
(37), Rachel Hamburg
(47), Mike Fleming
In Conversation with ENRIQUE CHAGOYA
A reflection on negotiating cultures and the formation of an artist.
(44), Mike Fleming (50), Susan Nourse
Woman Clapping (19), Sara Sisun
(34), Mike Fleming
POLITICS & SOCIETY
ACTING on GUILT: THE CAMPAIGNS TO ‘SAVE DARFUR’ BY SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN
It’s precisely because activism can make a difference that we need to be honest with ourselves when we assess what has succeeded, what hasn’t, and what has had unanticipated side effects. - Alex de Waal, Fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard
very once in a while, a violent conflict in a far off place gets to us. We care, we want to help, we want to do something. These days, the conflict that has moved us is the one in Darfur. And these days, doing something can mean any number of things. “Dolls for Darfur” sends to senators thousands of tiny paper dolls representing the victims of the conflict, while “Designers for Darfur” puts on cutting-edge fashion shows. Students from Aviation High School in Seattle formed “Flying to the Rescue!” to raise money for Darfur, and the county of Westchester in New York spent a whole day organizing for and conversing about the issue. The crisis has also entered into new technological realms. In the online video game “Darfur is Dying,” users can play a refugee who goes to fetch water for the camp and learn how their character dies (which is likely). Darfur is everywhere; the urgency evident in the rhetoric and quantity of activism is palpable. What is the goal of all this activism? About “Darfur is Dying,” Douglas Thomas, Professor of Communications at USC, suggested to the BBC, “Even just the idea that there is that game out there, that makes people say, ‘Oh, there’s a problem in Darfur,’ even if it provokes that kind of discussion, we’re miles ahead of where we were.” A similar sentiment was expressed in 2005 when Stanford’s STAND group dressed in black and lay down in a “diein” that blocked the so-called “Intersection of Death.” A Stanford Daily article quoted one of the founders of Stanford STAND as saying, “Was the ‘die-in’ met with typical objections? Yes. But more importantly, did it make people say the word Darfur that wouldn’t otherwise [have said it]? Absolutely.” Although getting people to speak the
word ‘Darfur’ together with ‘crisis’ might generate a widespread, superficial awareness of the conflict, where does it lead from there? Some of these activities are— dare I say it?— silly. Their tenor creates a strange contrast with the gravity and complexity of the conflict they are designed to address. Much of this activism works using a simple emotional formula: generate enough anxiety to compel action, while assuring that participation can make a difference. At best, this leads us to act in a productive, informed way for what we believe is right. At worst, we are turned off from the accusatory tone and do nothing. In reality, many of us settle somewhere between the two: vaguely informed, undirected, and a bit turned off. On confronting the Stanford “die-in” for Darfur, one freshman responded, “My automatic thought was that it was slowing me down on my way to class, and my second thought was that it was pretty superficial of me to have had that first thought.” Where did all of this activity come from? Since 2003, the crisis in Darfur has emerged as the highest profile humanitarian issue of today. Around 2004, a positive feedback loop between media coverage and advocacy led to increasing awareness of the crisis. Advocacy organizations began to proliferate. In July 2004, the Save Darfur Coalition was formed as a collaboration of those groups interested in advocating for peace in Darfur. The coalition represents around 130 million people in more than 175 member organizations, ranging from Amnesty International to American Jewish World Service to the American Society for Muslim Advancement, to, of course, Aviation High School’s “Flying to the Rescue!” Since the Coalition was formed, it has dominated the Darfur issue. Last
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year members sent more than one million postcards to President Bush in favor of a UN peacekeeping force. In rallies put on by the Coalition, 75,000 activists gathered in Washington and New York City. As the crisis in Darfur persists, advocacy work continues to grow. Largescale campaigns have been created which give to their members lists of Darfur related activities, from postcards to car washes, from concerts to poker tournaments. The “Instant Karma” campaign is one of the newest of these large campaigns, in this case put out by Save Darfur Coalition board member Amnesty International. For this campaign, participants buy an album of various artists covering John Lennon songs whose profits go to helping resolve the Darfur crisis. The title, “Instant Karma” is significant as a marker of the direction high profile advocacy for Darfur has gone: in purchasing this album, it is suggested, one may be instantly absolved of all of their guilt for not having acted in the past and for probably not acting in the future to help “save” Darfur. This intimation alone is problematic inasmuch as it constructs a commodity as a spiritual cleanser— it’s almost reminiscent of the indulgences of pre-Reformation Catholicism. But this particular effort also stands out because of the way it epitomizes the tactics of similar high profile Darfur campaigns: a blend of low-commitment participation with shock-factor. In keeping with similar advocacy campaigns, “Instant Karma” is ripe with drama. One section on the website called “Who are the victims?” opens with, “In the remote, parched landscape of Darfur, in western Sudan, the rhythms of everyday life are a distant memory. Now there are days and nights filled with the dread of ‘evil horsemen’… They charge
into villages on horseback and camelback and in trucks, armed with automatic weapons and murderous intent.” This rhetoric is compelling and moving, which is a mark of good advertising. However, the simplification of the complexities and the clear editorializing of this information makes it resemble entertainment— a tragic, easy to follow story we can observe with vague sympathy and interest while we listen to our CDs. What’s lost is actual engagement with the issue, an understanding of what your participation in these flashy campaigns does or does not accomplish. “Instant Karma” rewards a small contribution with substantial return, streamlined information, and minimal contact with the political ramifications of the act. Is this a productive way to address the issue? Save Darfur organizations generally take the tact that a conflict this desperate requires no nuance, and there is a moral imperative for intervention. An issue this horrific requires the loudest condemnation our voices can muster, and we must rally everyone possible around us. If simplification is the only way to do this, then so be it. It is better than nothing. That is the key question: if flashy simplification helps to end the crisis, then what does nuance matter? Isn’t silly, oversimplified advocacy better than nothing at all? Yet when thousands of paper dolls are merely getting recycled by interns, never even making it to a policymaker’s desk, when money from high profile campaigns never gets applied on the ground, and when activist policy petitions enrage groups that carry out relief for Darfuris, then it may well be that our energy and sentiment are misplaced. A closer look at the role of this type of high profile advocacy work is in order. Investigating just below the superficial level unearths complexities and more questions: How exactly did the conflict originate? How are we
being encouraged to act on behalf of victims of the conflict? What is Darfur advocacy doing and what is it failing to do?
SOME HISTORY With endless acronyms and constantly shifting rebel groups, round after round of peace talks, declarations and demands, and conflicting analyses, the situation in Darfur is hard to follow. Media often offers information incrementally— that is, assuming background knowledge and context for developments in the conflict— so it’s difficult to find material to get up to speed. Even if we’ve signed petitions and read some newspaper articles, we may still be missing a basic understanding. What follows is a summary of key points of the origins and development of the conflict, as well as a sense of how the international response has grown over the past few years. The current situation in Darfur has its roots in inequality both between Darfur and eastern Sudan, and within Darfur. The conflicts within Darfur are not new— for centuries, non-Arab farmers and Arab pastoralists have struggled to negotiate use of the very limited primary resources in the region. In the late 1980s, Darfur began suffering from drought, which exacerbated
tensions over resources. During this period, the Arab Sudanese government, headed by President Omar al-Bashir, helped the Arabs in the struggle for resources by arming them. In the spring of 2003 newly formed groups from Darfur, called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), accused the government of abandoning and oppressing the non-Arabs of Darfur. These rebel groups attacked a sleeping army garrison at the Chad border. The Sudanese government was caught off-guard and enlisted the local Arab militia called the janjaweed— armed twenty years before by the government— to combat the forces on the ground. In a method reminiscent of the civil war within the south of Sudan, the Sudanese government enlisted and armed the janjaweed to combat the rebel forces. However, in lieu of paying them, the government authorized them to loot and pillage whatever they wanted from the villages. Thus, instead of fighting a war specifically against the rebel forces, the targets of the janjaweed were the non-Arab civilian villages thought to be the bases for the insurgents. The next few months after that first attack, several ceasefire agreements were drawn up but quickly failed, and in their
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wake, fighting surged. By December of 2003, hundreds of thousands of Darfuri refugees were pouring into the neighboring country of Chad. The fighting escalated through 2004, and the number of people killed and displaced continued to rise. In late May 2004, the first international observers were allowed into Darfur, and their reports were bleak. There were descriptions of brutal killings, dismemberment, systematic rape, and thousands of children sickened from malnutrition and disease due to poor health conditions in the camps. It became clear that in this conflict, non-violent deaths of those people displaced and not adequately cared for would be a significant proportion of this conflict’s toll. Resisting international intervention, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir denied access to humanitarian assistance to some of the worst affected areas. The janjaweed was said to be destroying food and water sources, leaving many in the camps without access to relief. In April of 2004, the African Union deployed 7,000 troops to assist in keeping the peace. They were ill equipped, underfunded, and had a limited mandate, all of which greatly hindered their efficacy. In July of 2006, due to the janjaweed’s threats of violence, the UN and several relief organizations began to pull out of Darfur. At the same time, because of funding cuts, the World Food Program halved its rations for Darfur, leaving 350,000 people in the region without food. On top of this, the Chadian government accused Sudan of arming an attempted coup and cut off diplomatic relations, further complicating aid to refugees settled there. At this point, the UN Security Council began to discuss augmenting the African Union troops with 17,000 UN peacekeeping troops. Their first attempt at deploying these troops failed because the Sudanese government refused to cooperate— complaining that this intrusion was related to a US anti-Arab agenda related to the Iraq war and support for Israel. Recently, however, the Sudanese government has agreed to these UN forces. A UN resolution made on July 31st of this year will send a combined African Union and UN peacekeeping force to Darfur by the beginning of 2008. The hope is that, finally, this international response will be significant enough to make a difference. Some worry that, with the fighting spreading into Chad,
NORTH DAKOTA ELEGY In that wind, I pulled my blanket in to me, the edges of it beat against my legs. Above, clouds germinated over grey-grass hills, hiding the land line. The finality of a grave is hard to see. Dirt piled on wood and bones. I wished to see a sapling, budding blue, or even a prairie fire in all that space. 8
LELAND QUARTERLY FALL –– MARLON 2007 FOOTRACER
“RISE; FALL FLIP,” SARA SISUN
the conflict has the making of a civil war as long and brutal as the twenty-year war in the south of Sudan. To complicate things even more, there is also a messy economic element to the conflict. The UN has recommended sanctions to pressure Sudan’s government to resolve the fighting, but so far they have been unsuccessful. China, which owns a huge portion of Sudanese oil reserves, has refused to comply, and has even expanded drilling into neighboring Chad. The US has enforced sanctions, but this has little impact because the portion of the Sudanese economy that the US ceases to invest in will simply be taken up by other countries. There still remains the question of what constitutes an ethical mandate for intervention. In 2004, the United States Congress unanimously voted to term the conflict in Darfur a “genocide,” but the UN has since fallen short of calling it that, favoring “war crimes.” The basic line of reasoning in favor of terming the conflict “genocide” is that the Sudanese government arms and sponsors the janjaweed, who selectively murder, rape, pillage, and burn non-Arab villages, leaving the nearby Arab villages untouched. President al-Bashir is indignant at these allegations, claiming that the government is simply fighting with rebel groups and is unaffiliated with the actions of the janjaweed, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Alex de Waal, Darfur scholar and Fellow at the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard, argued in a Newsweek article against addressing the Darfur crisis as a genocide: If we applied the letter of the convention, any attempt to inflict harm on members of a racial, religious or ethnic group, with the intent to destroy them in whole or in part, would be genocide. That would mean that at least half a dozen episodes in the Sudanese civil war would be genocide, as well as episodes in Ethiopia in the 1980s, Uganda in 1983, Somalia in 1988 and 1992-3 and again in the last few months, numerous episodes in the DRC and various others would all be genocide… Many scholars prefer to use a narrower interpretation of the genocide convention to apply to projects of racial or ethnic annihilation— which Darfur is not.
There is a compelling logic behind ceasing the arguments: No matter who is being killed for what reason, no matter what government agencies declare, the situation in Darfur needs a huge push from the international community so that peace can be attained as soon as possible.
ADVOCACY VS. RELIEF You may have managed to glean some bits of this history already, despite the necessity to filter through the huge amount of articles, fact sheets, and emails on the subject. The truth is, communicating about another violent African conflict in a clear and compelling way is difficult. As an American, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Even if we would like to make a gesture towards peace in Darfur, most of us don’t feel informed enough to call Capitol Hill or to donate to a relief agency, and all the Darfur fliers and events get lost in the shuffle. There is a place for advocacy here. The idea is that groups make understanding an issue and acting on that understanding easy. Grassroots advocacy work— from the polio vaccine to apartheid— makes clear that rallying the pressure of the American people can make a difference. However, contrary to the maxim of public relations, not all publicity for a humanitarian cause is good publicity. In this kind of work, content and quality do matter. Galvanizing Americans on a humanitarian issue is touchy, not only because it’s difficult to do effectively, but also because it’s hard to then know how to most effectively direct that attention. When it comes to advocacy, the basic goal is to build a member base. Members contribute to the advocacy organization by giving them money that they raise in their local activism, and by giving the organization leverage in lobbying for particular policy points. Because of the dominant position held by Save Darfur organizations in advocating for this issue, it’s worth taking one campaign like “Instant Karma” and asking: What does this campaign do with the money and attention they have raised? In a press release, Amnesty’s executive director Larry Cox said he is very hopeful about the “Instant Karma” campaign for this reason: We know music’s power to unite and inspire people... The “Instant Karma”
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campaign combines John Lennon’s passionate desire for us to imagine a more peaceful world with Amnesty International’s expertise in achieving justice. “Instant Karma” allows ordinary people to lend their hand in saving lives— a notion we think would make John proud. It is an attractive notion, but how true is it that the money from this campaign actually saves lives in Darfur? Although Save Darfur groups tend to clump themselves with relief efforts, funds for these campaigns primarily stay in the US, coming no closer to Darfur than Capitol Hill. Advocacy groups are different from relief organizations— while the former works to garner public pressure for policy changes, the latter carries out services for Darfuris on the ground. Both advocacy and relief organizations have their ultimate goal as saving lives, but money for one does not infer money for the other. According to their website, Amnesty International uses the proceeds from “Instant Karma” albums to conduct research on the situation in Darfur, contact news media about developments, and lobby Congress. Although they may send canvassers to Darfur, they do not stay long; instead they focus their efforts on informing people here. This is good work, but it is not the same as “saving lives,” as Larry Cox implies. The Coalition’s budget last year was $15 million; none of it went to relief groups working on the ground in Darfur. In a very roundabout way, money from an “Instant Karma” album does affect the relief Darfuris receive. The proceeds from your album go towards Amnesty’s lobbying Congress on behalf of the people of Darfur. Each fiscal year, Congress sets out a budget for foreign aid that is sent to the US Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID is in charge of figuring out how to best use the money that Congress allocates for international aid. This budget stipulates how much money goes to a given country, and how that money should be spent (e.g., water wells, food donations, medical care, etc). Your “Karma” dollars end here, trying to convince Congress to favor Darfur in this process. There are still several steps before anyone in Darfur benefits from this effort. Once USAID receives its budget, it must find effective and reliable organizations to carry out the relief itemized in the budget. The agency receives grant proposals
Contrary to the maxim on public relations, not all publicity for a humanitarian cause is good publicity. In this kind of work, content and quality do matter. from organizations to set up programs to implement the relief. In the past, the money went directly to foreign governments; however, because of certain incidents this slightly more circuitous route of giving foreign aid is now the norm. The organizations that do the relief work are often large international nonprofits, such as Save the Children, World Vision, and the World Food Program. Although the method of giving aid to the organizations cuts the local government out of the money equation, often they enlist the help of local people and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for implementing their projects. These projects, with the funding from USAID, then move in to Darfur and Chadian refugee camps and carry out help for the people there. To recap, you buy a CD; your money pays for Amnesty International to lobby Congress; Congress makes a budget giving money to Darfur; USAID takes that budget and enlists relief organizations, who carry out aid on the ground. That, at least in basic terms, outlines what the money from “Instant Karma” does for Darfur. The real impact of advocacy lies in using American public and media pressure to influence policy. Through petitions to President Bush and Congress, advertisements listing demands, press releases to put pressure on the media to continue coverage, etc., advocacy groups try to rally the American public to cry out to end genocide. One way to get the American public’s attention is through celebrity support. Enter Bono. For that matter, enter Mia Farrow, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and others. These are people who America pines to see in their bathrobes, having their hearts broken, and paddling in the oceans with their kids. The idea of turning that indefatigable attention towards issues that deserve it is commendable. Many of them have been hailed by experts as doing genuinely good work and being wellinformed. And many of them have chosen
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Darfur as their issue. Celebrity involvement is designed to focus the media’s attention on the issue, so that people are continually exposed to the word “Darfur.” After meeting with Sudanese President al-Bashir in December 2006, actor Don Cheadle told the UN News Centre that he hoped he could use his celebrity status not so much to influence the leaders of Security Council members and other individual nations, but to maintain the public pressure and ensure that the media stay focused on Darfur. Several who have met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir report that he follows American media and has a sense for how he is being portrayed. In the Save Darfur-sponsored meeting with Governor Bill Richardson, President al-Bashir told him that he felt he was being unfairly represented. If media coverage and public pressure compel President al-Bashir to end the conflict, then that is certainly a worthwhile effort. With the attention of key policymakers on the issue, how is the Coalition working to direct that attention? The sudden influx of money, attention, and responsibility passed onto the hastily formed coalition has raised some questions about its efficacy. In June, a New York Times article by Stephanie Strom and Lydia Polgreen, called “Advocacy Group’s Publicity Campaign on Darfur Angers Relief Organizations,” examined the recent criticism of the Save Darfur Coalition: The organization that helped bring the conflict in Darfur to the world’s attention is in upheaval, firing its executive director, reorganizing its board and rethinking its strategies. At the heart of the shake-up are questions of whether [David Rubenstein], the former executive director of the organization, the Save Darfur Coalition, wisely used a sudden influx of money from a few anonymous donors in an advertising blitz to push for action.
The advertising blitz in question listed “international relief organizations” among supporters of policy recommendations, such as forced deployment of UN troops into Darfur and a no-fly zone over the region. Many relief organizations were angered by being abstractly clumped into supporters of these policy plans, worrying it might anger the government and put in jeopardy what little aid was allowed to go to Darfur. The Strom and Polgreen Times article relates an exchange between aid groups and the Save Darfur Coalition: Sam Worthington, the president and chief executive of InterAction, a coalition of aid groups, complained to Rubenstein by e-mail that Save Darfur’s advertising was confusing the public and damaging the relief effort. ‘’I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions,’’ Mr. Worthington wrote. One relief group, Action Against Hunger, stated that unilateral deployment of United Nations troops “could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardizing the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people.” Some relief groups also argued that the creation of a no-fly zone above Darfur would interfere with the distribution of aid to millions of people depending on it. Relief groups were also concerned that, if they were associated with advocacy groups that preach a hard-line with the Sudanese government, then the relief work would become even more difficult. Sudan’s government is notorious for making life difficult for relief workers— delaying visas, confiscating supplies, etc. This is a very worrisome situation. Although advocacy groups have done a remarkable job of getting public, media, and celebrity attention on Darfur, the money they have raised and the policies they endorse do not seem to be helping the victims of the conflict.
WHY DARFUR? The final question about this overproduction of advocacy is: why Darfur? How did we arrive with all our advocacy
efforts focused there? All around the world there are atrocities that do not garner a fraction of the media coverage or advocacy attention given to Darfur. To address this problem, Doctors Without Borders puts out an annual report of the ten most under reported crises of the year. For 2006, the list included Colombia, Haiti, Chechnya, the DRC, and tuberculosis— a health issue that suffers from lack of novelty but still claims the lives of two million people a year. But who would go to a car wash for tuberculosis or for Chechnya? Darfur seems to have gained the position of an “in-vogue” crisis. Why does Darfur deserve our attention and grassroots mobilization more than any number of other equally serious humanitarian issues? There are a number of possible answers. In an article called “How will History Judge Us?” Slate Magazine’s Anne Applebaum observes: I can offer no scientific explanation for why the tragedy of Darfur conjures up the specter of history’s judgment and why other tragedies do not. But the answer must lie in the fact that this conflict has so few strategic or geopolitical implications. Because it seems to be in no one’s “interest” do so, a call for a U.N. intervention in Darfur surely feels— at least to Americans and Europeans who haven’t followed China’s involvement in Sudan’s oil industry— like an act of real charity and not more evidence of the West pursuing its interests. Although this is a rather cynical view of the reason for our intervention, it does raise the point that there are non-altruistic forces that play a role in the attention being paid to Darfur. Related to this is the issue of an unequal balance of power between organizations and the causes they serve. NGOs that do both humanitarian and advocacy work have to decide which crises receive their limited attention and support, decisions not based purely on need. This issue is discussed in an intriguing way in The Marketing of Rebellion, by Duquesne University political science professor Clifford Bob. In a related essay for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, he says: While many have good intentions, NGOs carefully choose where they
devote their scarce money, personnel, and time. In addition, they have internal needs–pleasing funders and constituents while sustaining and expanding their organizations. Therefore, NGO views of what constitutes a major problem, NGO predilections for certain tactics, and NGO demands for accountability— themselves a reflection of Northern perspectives or fads— profoundly shape the field on which needy groups compete for support. With the level of attention focused on Darfur, it’s sometimes difficult to remember the number of humanitarian crises that are not in the spotlight. Although in 2004 Darfur was declared the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, it’s possible that the overproduction of advocacy is obscuring other issues from the international frame of view.
here are daily developments in Darfur. In the time it has taken to compose this essay, already the facts here have become dated. Eventually there will be news that peace is imminent, the fighting will cease, and people will be able to return to their homes and begin to rebuild and recover. In the coming weeks and months, the American people galvanized by Save Darfur advocacy need to consider carefully how we may fit in to the effort of bringing this conflict to a close. Sudan is a country where we have, in the last 40 years, born witness to what internal strife can turn into when inadequately addressed by the international community. Yet every conflict is different. The desire to recompense past failures— like the drawn-out civil war in the South of Sudan or the brutal genocide in Rwanda— must not blind us to the particularities of this place and these people, the history of this conflict, and the various external pressures that threaten to complicate any best intentioned work for peace. The number of people saying the word “Darfur” is a start, but now we must direct that awareness towards action that is effective— first of all— and conscious of the stakes involved. We cannot just act to alleviate our guilt that people in a far away place are suffering. We cannot just act for the sake of acting. L
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ACQUIRING THE SKELETON OF IRISHMAN CHARLES BURNS
I. He tears up my letters. He sends back no word. But Burns has been staggering. His shinbones must pain him, Decade on decade longshanking about– Or so says my shadow, a greedy young gnome Who follows my Burns for a generous sum– With a whistle to signal the butcher and wagon. What a sight they must be as they slouch Down the High Street, the giant unnerved By the unblinking dwarf.
II. Men of Burns’ size are like pachyderms, Like mastiffs or baluchitheria. It takes so much effort, such muscular pumping, For the heart to succor all those organs. And bathe the brain with blood for long. I predict the strain will take him. The taller a man is, the shorter his life. The gnome reports it will be soon.
To my study The news comes. I set down my scone. (The dwarf knows not Hygiene. He ruins My appetite.) It seems Burns has hired a sailor to end it, To take him to the river’s mouth And drop him in the drink. Lash your anchors To my corpse, says Burns– And so he will entomb himself At the bottom of the sea. But still, says the dwarf, he Fears you will find him, Run a hook through his sinews Reel him up from the brine. No, I think I shall Harpoon his pelvis. Dear Burns. He really is Too much.
IV. The vitrine cost a hundred quid, I’d call that much an arm and leg– And then there is the blacksmith’s bill For all those iron mounts, And a bundle for the boatman, For the delivery of the bones. Though Burns was not a wealthy man, The sailor asked for twice his sum– And that I procure the pistol He would take out on the Thames. He fastened the irons to Burns’ ankles, And shot for the belly– Just as I’d shown him– And didn’t scratch a single rib. So what was the use Of your stubbornness, Charles? Come now, say What was the use. –– ANNIE WYMAN
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BALANCE BY BILL LOUNDY
om sits with Mark at a lacquered mahogany table in the parlor, scanning through frayed puzzle pieces, her eyebrows furrowing into an upside-down V. In front of them, the box is propped open and they take turns looking up and down, first at an image of a calico cat lounging among dahlias and marigolds and then down at the scrambled puzzle pieces, a mash of similar colors that sits on the table like a small undulating reflecting pool. Some of the pieces litter the carpet near Mom, but
she seems not to notice or care. She doesn’t have a chance in hell of finding matches, but she keeps saying, “Mark, Look!” and he keeps responding, “Hey—I think that might be right.” Across the room, I don’t even need to look up from the paper to know that she just forced together two random pieces— some blue sky jammed against grey fur, or a center piece squeezed next a corner. Mark laughs, but he’s just happy she remembers his name. He moved with his family to Phoenix a few years back, and now he’s got
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a real sense of calmness about him. I went to New York and my blood pressure’s never been higher. Mark tugs his chair out a bit, and I’m already uncrossing my legs and putting down the business section when he says, “Lunchtime, Dave. Whudda ya say?” So I help Mom into her wheelchair and Mark pushes the puzzle pieces back into the box. Lunch will probably be tuna sandwiches or macaroni and cheese, but I hope I can get my hands on some kind of soup and oyster
crackers. “I promise we’ll finish that puzzle next time, Mom,” Mark says. She hunches over so far in her wheelchair, I’m afraid that if I stop short, she might fall forward. We make our way toward the cafeteria, passing the kind of artwork you wouldn’t take for a nickel at a yard sale. It’s all kitschy shit, mostly westerns: Cowboys at the rodeo, on bucking broncos or out in the desert taking a water break, their horses tied to a wooden stake. Some of them stalk buffalos, traversing from left frame edge
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to right frame edge in front of a grey wash streaking across the background. It’s either a silvery mountain range or an oncoming storm—I wonder if the artist even knew. The cowboys are all typecast, pigeonholed to play a counterfeit hero, except for one miserable bastard who munches an apple while dark skinned Indians line up their bows behind his back. I like the Indians. Mom would too, but she’s missing all this static melodrama, her face aimed square at the floor. “Mom?” Mark repeats, putting his hand on her shoulder. “Next time, right?” I can still see the cat among the flowers, and so can Mark, but Mom has no idea what puzzle he’s talking about. She has forgotten that quickly.
Mom, twice our height back then, flashed a peace sign and a smile so broad it was like the moon turned on its side. visitors from various bushes and shrubs as they made their way up the path. Mom dug a particularly large hole in the ground one spring (“We really need a meditation pond,” she said) and later I found a letter taped to the side of our mailbox. On the front of the envelope, in loopy housewife handwriting, was written, “Just a reminder…” I showed Mark and we laughed about what was inside, before I tossed it into the trash: Village of Little Mill Homeowners Association Policy Statement: The Village of Little Mill supports a community of individuality and freedom of expression balanced with community-wide standards that maintain an overall architectural harmony and sustain property values.
* You really should know my mother the way I know her—the way I try to remember her, at least. She packed me peanut butter and seitan sandwiches through grade school, and cold tofu patties and yogurt for Mark. She could name ninety-seven species of wildflowers growing in the back yard, and sometimes, she took Mark and me on nature walks through the woods, even on schooldays. Thanks to her I know how to make tie-dye shirts from pokeberries, and how to “smoke” a house with sage on full moons. She walked around our Gypsy home, draped in hemp, chunky beaded chains, and exotic pendants and pins that clanked like the rusty wind chimes she hung from the oak tree near my bedroom window. One of my girlfriends once asked if my mother was a witch. “I’m not sure,” I said. In our front yard, twelve steppingstones led the way from the curb to the front door, each painted for a different zodiac sign. Vishnu, Ganesha, and Shiva eyed
If Mom wanted a pond, she would have a pond, and nothing was going to faze her, especially the women of Little Mill with their manicured topiaries and white chocolate mousses. “There’s too much beautiful atmosphere out there to breath in the filthy gas of cynics,” she said. And if Little Mill wore Mom out, she never let us know, though I later suspected it might’ve. For one thing, the family left town almost every weekend, especially when we were really young. Usually we went to the beach, where I could tell mom felt at home. She would dive through waves with mermaid precision and sift sand through her knobby toes. She was mother Earth, creating tiny landslides and sinkholes and earthquakes at her feet. She tossed Mark and me into crashing waves that rag-dolled us to the shore. We coughed water, shook sand from our swimsuits, and jumped back in for another round. Dad was fond of photographs, and from behind us he would yell, “Smile!” and we turned around to strike our favorite poses—Mark and I karate chopped and kung fu kicked and Mom, twice our height back then, flashed a peace sign and a smile so broad it was like the moon turned on its side. As the tide rose, other moms took their children out of the water, but my mom demanded,
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“CHARGE!” and led us into battle, all of us laughing like a group of wild banshees.
* Twice I’ve heard my older brother cry. The first time was when I was seven and Mark was nine. Dad was allergic to fur, so we never really kept pets, but Mark and I won a pair of hermit crabs on the boardwalk one summer. They came with a piece of paper that read: Feed your crabs daily and bathe them weekly in warm water. For the first few days though, out of anxiousness and excitement, we fed them on the hour and bathed them every morning. Mark named his Hermie, mine was called Crabby, and we loved them with all our hearts. But we had had the pets for only a few days when I woke up one morning to Mark screaming from the bunk below me. He had brought the glass terrarium onto his bed, and was sitting Indian-style next to it. “No. No, Hermie, no.” he said. His hands were open in front of him. In one he cupped an empty shell, and in the other the corpse of his beloved crustacean. There was steam coming off a bowl of water—Mark had cooked the lobster. Crabby was lounging poolside, still in the terrarium, unaware that his only friend had been boiled alive. Dad buried Hermie in the back yard, and Mom led us all in some ritualistic prayer. It involved a dark potion-like tea poured on the grave, a string of bulbous black beads, and a lot of chanting in Sanskrit. We all stared at the small hump in the ground and I wondered what the neighbors would think if they saw my Mom sitting in the dirt while Mark stood next to her crying into his sleeve. To conclude the service, Dad tossed a shovel up against the shed, and left his family outside. Mom stood up slowly and smiled in my direction, brushing soil off the back of her thighs. She cupped her hands under Mark’s ears, her thumbs gently drying the puffy skin under his eyes. She was wearing a black camisole with silver lunar stitching around the neckline, and a patterned midnight blue skirt that flowed to her ankles. Mark’s sobs turned into sniffles, which faded to long soft
breaths and with regained composure he turned to me. I tried to keep a neutral face, one that meant, “I’m sorry about Hermie. It’s okay to cry. I don’t think less of you. You are still my older brother and I still look up to you.” “Crybaby,” I said instead.
* I’m losing my cool in a hotel room three perfectly squared blocks away from the nursing home. It’s the middle of the night and I can’t escape ninety degree angles all around me: a Camel light resting between my parallel fingers, the legs of my wooden chair anchored into the floor, a metal fork stuck into the top of a Styrofoam container of cold leftovers. I turn around and notice the sharpness of the corners of the linens the maid has smoothed to perfection. Even the smoke from my cigarette is rising too perfectly. I shake my hand and the smoke wafts around for a moment, but then it’s a straight line toward the ceiling all over again. The ash refuses to fall, even bend. There must be an inch of it now, and I want nothing more than to see it break from the cigarette and drop on to the bottom of the tray, but the Camel refuses to comply. The ember continues to steam tunnel towards the filter, leaving behind a trail of dead grey that still won’t crumble. I grab the cigarette and tear it apart at its middle. Raw tobacco shavings fall onto the table, a mini heap of kindling, a GI Joe campfire waiting to be blazed. Looking at the cigarette halves before me, I’m reminded of Doctor Livingston, who spoke with a Southern drawl. “Let me tell you about Alzheimer’s,” he said. He cracked a wooden tongue depressor before my face to a perfect ninety-degree angle and told me that the splinters, like the connections in my mother’s brain, could hold together for only so long before the two sides would break apart. It bothered me that he snapped it so close to my eyes. “We’ll talk again soon,” he said as the door closed behind him. The sound of that snapped piece of wood was like a redwood struck by lightning. A few months later, Doctor Rodriguez, who feigned a sort of empathy, told me that Mom’s memories would always be there, but as her illness progressed, she would struggle more and more to access them—“It’s like a bottle of wine but no corkscrew,” he said. “There’s really not too much you can do.” In my hotel room, the table is a mess.
I’ve eaten four meals here without cleaning, and now there’s a snapped cigarette on it and black ash rubbed into my palm. My eyes are closed and I can remember nothing but forgetting. I’m coming home from school and mom’s sitting at the kitchen counter, unable to balance her checkbook. I’m sitting at the airport waiting for her to pick me up. Three hours late because she can’t find her keys. The piano bench in the living room is turned on its side, books sprawled across the hardwood floor, and Mom can’t offer an explanation. I’ve got the flu and she’s recommending Benadryl and Immodium. I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not what I need. It’s Christmas. Mom gives me books and the inscriptions are written to Mark. She’s stealing bingo chips in the nursing home, dropping them into her purse one at a time. “Mom, you’ve got B10, right here,” I say, pointing to the square. She turns to me and says, “Do I know you?” “Mom. It’s me, your son, David.” She breathes a quick laugh. “Don’t be silly, I don’t have any children.”
* The second time I saw Mark cry he was thirteen and I was eleven. I saw him through a crack in the shed door, sitting up against a rack of nearly empty paint cans. Three days earlier Dad left for good, and the family photographs went with him. I’ll never understand why he wanted those pictures. To remember the family he deserted? Mark was a lunatic, punching the plywood walls inside the shed and screaming into patio furniture cushions. I had the sense to run away before he caught me peering in, and he emerged as though nothing was wrong—as
though he hadn’t just bawled his eyes into tiny rivers. If Dad is still alive, I wonder what he thinks when his sons’ birthdays pass: if he remembers dizzying me around to pin a paper tail on the donkey, or pressing Mark’s face into a slice of birthday cake and then letting Mark do the same to him. Mom definitely deserves to remember.
* I am in the driver’s seat of a beat up truck that’s not my own. A plastic wrapped American flag with yellow tassels is bobbing in my periphery. Mom may or may not have known who I was when I stole her out of the home, but she didn’t put up a fight either way. She was half asleep, only marginally mobile, and mumbling about Mrs. Templeton, who gave me four detentions in one marking period. She asked, “Where are we going?” and I said, “For a ride.” Mom’s lying down in the flatbed, laughing and screaming and howling at a crescent moon, and smiling with her gummy mouth wide open. I tossed all the scrap lumber to the curb and put a quilt back there so she could be comfortable. We’re doing seventy-five on the highway, and I know she’s enjoying this more than bingo and medicine and James Stewart and puzzles she can’t even solve. My foot is pressing harder on the accelerator, and I’m blasting the radio. I’ll tell Mark about this, but he won’t believe me—that I set up a ramp against the tailgate to get her into the back of the truck. Her hair is everywhere in the wind, and her arms are reaching towards the stars. She found a long piece of red yarn, and she’s holding it high up to watch it dance. In the rearview I can see kicked up fallen leaves and dust and I wipe sweat off my palms. The whole world is dancing—not only alive, but living. Scientific white lines appear in the sky above us, tracing the outline of Mom’s maiden carrying the scales of balance. She’s tiptoeing across the big dipper, and my centaur is lining up an arrow on his bow. The truck is rumbling along and I’m hooting and hollering with Mom and blaring the horn. The neon sun will soon bruise the perfect blackness of the East, and the glowing fireflies will tuck themselves into tall cold grasses, but for now the leafy trees are swaying with us and flowers are blossoming marvelously as we pass. L
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MY SMOKE ALARM IS GOING OFF. I say, Thank you. You say, No, I think I might have carbon monoxide poisoning, and the way the looped wire casts shadows dissecting your face into slivers I count, re-count, you may be right. You say, I want to make love out of cardboard boxes, corrugated for your pleasure. Where water and road bend together, bracelets of protein denatured, cardboard boxes won’t work, I say, and begin to trace iron letters on your galvanized steel mouth: acidulous quartz and orthoclase, marble veined with other, second layer phloem, redwood, if possible. Did we start building bell-curved breath upon bell-curved breathlessness? Spring migrates while you force me phonemes. I try to write it with wet-erase transparency. Of comfort I know nothing, so when you say splintering wood of slammed doors and speed of darkness on mausoleum floors, I stutter, recalling the last kiss akin to the first— you’re aware of the teeth. –– JESSAMYN EDRA
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“WOMAN CLAPPING,” LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007 SARA SISUN 19
ABOUT BECKETT BY BOB BOREK
amuel Beckett sympathized with lobsters. A female liaison told one of his biographers, James Knowlson, that when they would dine together at the Iles Marquis in Paris, they would always sit as far as possible from the trout and lobster tanks because of how much they upset “Sam.” The detail appears in an early short of Beckett’s, “Dante and the Lobster,” the first in his collection More Pricks than Kicks (1934). The protagonist is a university student named Belacqua. He is obsessed by Dante, and named, rather curiously, after a character that appears in the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy–a young Florentine lute maker who is condemned to sit crouched under a rock for idleness. After taking an Italian lesson, Belacqua picks up a lobster for dinner with his aunt. He assumes that the lobster he carries back with him is dead. When he realizes that it’s not, he’s horrified, but his aunt assures him that “lobsters are always boiled alive.” Belacqua imagines the lobster’s journey: “In the depths of the sea it had crept into the cruel pot. For hours, in the midst of its enemies, it had breathed secretly. It had survived the Frenchwoman’s cat and his witless clutch. Now it was going alive into scalding water. It had to. Take into the air my quiet breath.” Nicely stated, but the sentiment is a bit odd. It appears even more so in light of the fact that earlier in the story Belacqua read with disinterest an article about a man who was going to be executed, and that in the collection Belacqua constantly disparages the women around him and mocks their love for him. The crustacean catches him off guard: why? Perhaps it’s the immediacy, or the fact that it’s unexpected, but quite transparently, the incident with the crustacean becomes an occasion for Belacqua’s own musing on the
pain of dying and the inevitability of death. After all, it’s Belacqua, not the lobster, who has an affinity for Keats’ “quiet breath.” To console himself, Belacqua thinks: “it’s a quick death, God help us all.” The narrator’s reply: “It is not.” The humor entwined with pessimism points straight to Beckett, but the author of More Pricks than Kicks is not the same author that would later write the trilogy of Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnamable (1953)–novels which set Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille to scratching their heads, and sent Harold Pinter into paroxysms of praise. Nor is it the author that would captivate Western theater audiences with his two-act play, Waiting for Godot (1952), and it’s most especially not the same author that would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 for writing that, in the words of the Swedish Academy, “in the destitution of man acquires its elevation.” No, the author of More Pricks than Kicks was an unknown and largely unemployed 28-year-old who had earlier cast aside a promising academic career at Trinity College in Dublin, and who had little reason to believe that anything he wrote would be either widely or narrowly read. It’s the work of a young man with a stubborn determination to create, but without a very clear idea why, how, or for whom. It’s a shame that a story like “Dante and the Lobster” is almost always read in the shadow of Beckett’s later work because, taken separately, there’s something extremely refreshing about it. The simple short illuminates aspects of Beckett that can get lost in the fray as a reader struggles with the difficulty of his mature work. Namely, there is real yearning in Belacqua’s sentimentality, and the strong narrative voice that comes in to strangle that sentimentality leaves the
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reader rather unseated, even if he’s chuckling in his discomfort. The narrator seems to be making a bold and merciless push for the truth, refusing to accept any consolation. Still–why so uncompromising? The curt response hints that there’s something the narrator’s hiding: vulnerability. It’s a human weakness that he’s shunted entirely to the character, but Belacqua’s yearning is also the narrator’s. The fiction reveals something about the morose storyteller that he can’t quite admit to himself, and by doing so it eludes the narrator’s grasp. It’s a story that the older Beckett simply could not have written. Most of those who are familiar with Beckett know him through his play Waiting for Godot, and further reading or theatergoing probably took them to plays like Endgame (1957) and Krapp’s Last Tape (1959). He’s an author who stands very close to the heart of the 20th century Western canon, but most of his work, and especially his prose, tends to go unread. The work has its own inherent difficulty and obscurity, but it doesn’t help that it now exists amidst a glut of postmodern criticism, both good and bad, or that a reader often encounters the work mediated through the unrestrained praise of the cult. Consider Pinter: “I’ll buy his goods, hook, line and sinker, because he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely. He brings forth a body of beauty.” The accuracy of the statement is not what’s in question, but rather the fact that it’s delivered from a vantage point that it would take the uninitiated reader quite some time to reach. The average reader approaching Beckett can hardly be blamed if his expectations have been set artificially high or if in his fifty or sixty pages of reading he sees little to no sign of this acquiring-ofelevation-in-the-destitution-of-man. Beckett’s work is full of paradox, and a keen reader will quickly realize that his popularity is not without contradictions. It’s paradoxical that his work is so focused on insignificance, and yet is surrounded by those who are determined to proclaim its importance. Beckett was always puzzled by his success, and believed it was based on a misunderstanding. In many ways, his work resists both canonization and popularity. A writer who presents the human condition as grounded fundamentally in pain, suffering, and uncertainty cannot be heralded with trumpets. Praise can quickly reach such
a pitch that it seems that its only point is to drown out and ignore the voice of the praised work. Where the gushing acclaim about Beckett begins, the man and his work end. Of course, not everyone is lining up to prostrate themselves at the Beckett shrine. Beckett is an author capable of inducing genuine hostility in his readers, and those who develop an aversion to his work often read him just as closely and thoughtfully as those who profess enormous admiration. The most pronounced complaint brought against him is that he’s nothing but a dark and depressed man determined to hoist his misanthropic vision onto the world at large. The impression creeps in at the end of “Dante and the Lobster” through the voice of the narrator. It’s a voice that becomes much stronger, albeit also more refined, in his later work. The fact that Beckett read Schopenhauer would seem to support the complaint. Schopenhauer was a philosopher writing in the 19th century who believed that the driving force in the world is the will. In his major work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), he suggests that we are all products of one vast will, and that our separateness is only an illusion. The rather enormous catch is that Schopenhauer’s will is wicked and is the source of endless suffering. He suggests that, though our lives are destined to be full of pain and though death will win in the end, most of us will still pursue our futile ends “as we blow out a soap-bubble as long and as large as possible, although we know perfectly well that it will burst.” The only way out of the situation is to break down one’s will in any way possible, to practice poverty, chastity, fasting and selftorture. The view is not very different from that of ascetic monks, but where they are seeking some sort of communion with God, in Schopenhauer the end is wholly negative. He says, “We freely acknowledge that what remains after the entire abolition of will is for all those who are still full of will certainly nothing; but, conversely, to those in which the will has turned and denied itself, this our world, which is so real–with all its suns and milky ways–is nothing.” It’s worth noting that Schopenhauer himself never saw a need to put his world-view into practice, and lived a rather comfortable life. In his philosophy, a compelling reason not to commit suicide
also falls by the wayside. Schopenhauer’s ideas surface in Beckett in myriad ways. In his trilogy, the move from traditional narration to the troubled voice of The Unnamable calls into question just how individual the narrator is. The stripping down of form is analogous to Schopenhauer’s call to break down one’s will. In Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (1938), the title character attempts to induce a sort of nirvana-like state by tying himself into his rocking chair. Throughout Beckett’s texts, there are also frequent references to birth as little more than a death-sentence.
Thus Hamm yells “Accursed progenitor” at his father, Nagg, in Endgame and Molloy, in a fit of frustration, refers to his mother as a “uniparous whore.” What is most illuminating in a study of Beckett and Schopenhauer, however, is where their ideas diverge. The most obvious distinction between Beckett and Schopenhauer is that the latter was a philosopher and the former was not. Though Beckett was a contemporary of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, he never aligned himself with the existentialist camp or wrote philosophy of any kind.
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The closest he came was in his early essay on Proust, titled simply Proust (1931). Ostensibly, its subject is the author’s A Remembrance of Things Past (1927), but the influence of Schopenhauer runs pretty much all through the essay, noticeably when Beckett suggests that original sin is “the sin of having been born.” The essay was one of the first to pick out the strain of Schopenhauer running through Proust, but Beckett is also using Proust as a template to work out his own artistic concerns. Like “Dante and the Lobster,” it’s the work of a young man attempting to veil his weaknesses and his doubts, a young man who feels compelled to make a positive assertion. What the younger Beckett tried to hide, the older Beckett embraced. It’s the admission of his own vulnerability that would later make a story like “Dante and the Lobster” impossible. The character who is a patsy for the narrator’s weakness would get absorbed to an ever greater extent by the narrator himself. The move is cathartic in some ways, but if the reader thinks that increased self-awareness will bring the narrator peace, he’s gravely mistaken. In Beckett’s prose, nothing will ever be quite so simple as “Dante and the Lobster” again. Bertrand Russell, commenting on Schopenhauer, wisely notes that “belief in either pessimism or optimism is a matter of temperament, not of reason.” One suspects that Beckett’s temperament was close to that of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, but any world view to be extrapolated from his works is, if anything, a constant struggle against pessimism. What he staked himself on as a writer was complete uncertainty. He was known to enjoy quoting St. Augustine’s shapely lines, “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.” Perhaps the most difficult and shocking thing about reading Beckett is realizing just how much we tend to presume. Beckett’s insistence upon uncertainty is apparent in the most popular question about his work: what does Godot symbolize? The usual hypothesis is that Godot is God, and that the play is about how God has abandoned man. In Anthony Cronin’s biography, The Last Modernist (1997), he catalogues a few other possibilities. One is that the name comes from a French racing cyclist in the fifties known as ‘Godeau.’ Another is that it comes from the French
slang for boot, ‘godillot.’ Another is that it came from an encounter Beckett had with a prostitute on the corner of rue Godot le Mauroy in Paris. When he turned her down, she asked him sarcastically if he was waiting for Godot. Others have noted that it echoes Nietzsche’s German lines, “Gott ist tod” (God is dead). The fact that in French the emphasis is on the second syllable rather than the first has even played a factor in the argument. The reason that Godot doesn’t symbolize God is that it could just as easily symbolize the absence of God. It’s the state of not knowing, the “waiting,” that is the heart of the play. Waiting for Godot is, in its way, a brilliant and simple demonstration of man’s state of uncertainty. In Beckett’s prose, “not knowing” was to take on a much different and more complicated character. Beckett’s reputation as a novelist rests chiefly on the basis of his trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. All three were composed in the space of only about four years, from 1946 to 1950–far and away Beckett’s greatest burst of productivity. It was while working on The Unnamable that he wrote Waiting for Godot, as a break from the monotonous task of writing and rewriting the novels. Each text was written first in French, the author’s second language. A few years later, when Beckett saw what a difficult time the translator of Molloy was having re-creating the text in English, he took up the task of translating himself–something he would do for almost all his later work. He had to ensure that the text came into English very much alive rather than as a stale direct translation from the French. The trilogy proceeds by disintegration. Molloy still has something of a plot to it. First, there is Molloy’s failed search for his mother, and then Jacques Moran’s failed search for Molloy. Malone Dies is the monologue of Malone as he sits alone in bed waiting for death. He decides to make up stories to pass the time, and though they quickly develop into beautiful and captivating narratives, he can’t help but interrupt himself with retorts like “what tedium” or “this is awful.” He states his dilemma quite clearly, saying: If this continues it is myself I shall lose and the thousand ways that lead there. And I shall resemble the wretches famed in fable, crushed beneath the weight of their wish come true. And I even feel a strange desire come over
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me, the desire to know what I am doing, and why. So I near the goal I set myself in my young days and which prevented me from living. And on the threshold of being no more I succeed in being another. Very pretty. Malone, like Beckett, is searching for answers to the most fundamental questions, the what and the why. His narrative of the young Saposcat suggests a younger version of himself in “a thousand ways,” but it is a disgust with the artificial that leads him to repeatedly abandon it. It would make no difference if he called the young boy “Malone” because he realizes that memory is far too imperfect to produce the narratives that are demanded of it, and so even the story of his past would be subject to craft. What he’s concerned with is his present situation, and there’s a push to find something that is pure and sacred, something that will satisfy his wish to “know.” The result is a constant stripping down of all that strikes the narrator as false. In the close of Malone Dies, the narrator’s desire to dismantle his fictions is projected into one of his characters as a terrifying murderous impulse. The momentum at the end of the novel carries the reader into the world of The Unnamable. The text begins, “Where now? Who now? When now? Unquestioning. I, say I. Unbelieving. Questions, hypotheses, call them that. Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.” It’s a–perhaps the–novel of doubt, one that starts with Descartes skeptical stripping down of everything, but doesn’t have such an easy time building up something from nothing. The book is determined to kick down every fictional prop, to rid itself of every logical means it has of sustaining itself, and yet to persist. Referring to the narrator of the text is questionable because he doesn’t always go so far as to ascribe himself a body. He admits that he was the one who created the characters of Molloy and Malone, and though he does his best to keep himself from telling “fairy tales,” there are still a few fictions in the text. There’s the story of Mahood, who returns home one day on crutches of uneven length so that he’s left revolving about his house while his family moves from window to window to watch his approach. By the time he reaches the home, they’re all dead. Later, Mahood manifests himself as a torso kept outside a restaurant
in a jar, set out as an advertisement. Most of the novel, however, is best conceived simply as a voice coming out of the dark. To say the least, it’s a frightening and unsettling read. At times, the main thing pulling the reader through the text is simply the beauty of the prose; there’s not a line in the book that doesn’t seem to be invested with urgency and longing. Here’s a sample: But it’s not I, it’s not I, where am I, what am I doing, all this time, as if that mattered, but there it is, that takes the heart out of you, your heart isn’t in it any more, your heart that was, among
the brambles, cradled by the shadows, you try the sea, you try the town, you look for yourself in the mountains and the plains, it’s only natural, you want yourself, you want yourself in your own little corner, it’s not love, not curiosity, it’s because you’re tired, you want to stop, travel no more, seek no more, lie no more, speak no more, close your eyes… The lines come from a paragraph that’s about a hundred pages long. Beauty notwithstanding, most readers will eventually have to ask themselves: what’s the point?
WEST MEXICO CERAMICS Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit We are unafraid here, and within The neat cup of our arms is where We hold everything in place You think we do not speak because Our faces have been baked into Expressions of open-mouthed surprise But we do not need to speak because Our mouths are flutes, and the Hollow sound of our voice needs no words We have no eyes because The twelve points of the sun act as our guide and The nine turrets of the moon hang heavy around our neck We have no feet because There is no need to run The earth is our strength We do not need to stand because Our bodies are baked from earth We are complete in and of ourselves We have no need for legs because We have no need to flee Though time grinds scars into our bodies and Wears the pigment from our skin We wear no clothing because The fierce points of our nipples are too proud to hide And the heavy thrust of our bellies And the neat sheaves of our penises Our backs are arched but not in defiance They are arched because this is how We hold the earth in place –– MIA SAKAI
The voice of the text is paralyzed by his doubt and his vulnerability. In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir and Estragon seem somehow stoic, if not oblivious, with regard to their current situation. The tension is in the form of the play rather than in the characters themselves. In the novels, the voice is one of a narrator who is hyper-conscious of his situation and his suffering. Here, the tension is not only in the form, but behind the form. It comes from the narrator as the reader might imagine him. The Unnamable’s search for something sacred, for the what and the why, seems in a sense to have become a search for self, a way to verify his own existence. Earlier I mentioned Descartes. One shouldn’t over-estimate his presence in the text, which struggles with quite a few of the major problems in Western philosophy. Still, Descartes is useful because everyone knows his proof of his own existence: “Cogito ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Needless to say, it would not be enough to satisfy the Unnamable. What the philosopher has observed is that there’s thinking going on. What, one might ask, is there to assure Descartes that he is the one doing the thinking? On this point, the Unnamable says, “I don’t say anything, I don’t know anything, these voices are not mine, nor these thoughts, but the voices and thoughts of the devils who beset me.” Is it any less possible that someone else could be injecting the thoughts into Descartes’ head, that it only seems as if the thoughts are his own? For that matter, what makes Descartes so confident that the pronoun “I” justifies his identity? Recall some of the first words of the text: “I, say I. Unbelieving.” In a fascinating essay called “Subjectivity in Language” (1971), linguist Emile Benveniste points out that the pronoun “I” is a product of spoken discourse and not written language. As he says, “It is in the instance of discourse in which I designates the speaker that the speaker proclaims himself as the ‘subject.’ And so it is literally true that the basis of subjectivity is in the exercise of language.” The pronoun “I” is what is called a deictic pronoun. It is derived from discourse and is used to bring attention to the existence of a particular thing in space in relation to the person speaking. It’s the same type of word as “here” or “there” except that it’s meant to refer to the body of the speaking individual.
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The original function of the pronoun, the link to the body, became obscured when it was taken up in the written text. After all, one can be reading the words of an author long since dead–in that case what does the pronoun refer to? With time, “I” came to stand in for one’s identity, for the core of the onion, for the way that each of us imagines the true self that controls his mind. What the Unnamable seems to find is that the referent of the pronoun, the “true self,” is ever elusive and indeterminable. It would be a lie to say that the reader who finds such philosophical speculation not far removed from navel-gazing would be as excited by The Unnamable as one who finds it enthralling. Yet the text reveals an incredible falsity about philosophy. David Hume once said that “the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” The implication seems to be that people are motivated by their religion in a way that they are not by philosophy, that they go to religion with a zealous desire to find a meaning to life whereas they go to philosophy with a cold and detached intellectual attitude. The Unnamable is not speculating. He attacks such philosophical problems with religious fervor. The form of the text is such that even if one were to read it in a foreign language that they did not speak, they would still be able to sense the spiritual craving running from line to line. The Unnamable was published in 1953, shortly after the close of the Second World War. Beckett’s role in events was by no means unique. He was living in Paris at the start of the war, and retreated to a small village in the south of France called Roussillon. He played a minor role in the French Resistance, for which he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, though he dismissed his actions as “boy scout stuff.” A number of his close friends ended up in the German concentration camps, and some of them died there. As the war drew to a close, Beckett was one of millions trying to fathom what had happened. They were faced with suffering that was simply too large to fit into the reasoned dialectic of History. Optimism suddenly came to seem like blasphemy and an affront to the war’s victims. It is difficult to imagine a time when pessimism and despair would be a greater temptation.
A writer who presents the human condition as grounded fundamentally in pain, suffering and uncertainty cannot be heralded with trumpets. Praise can quickly reach such a pitch that it seems the only point is to drown out and ignore the voice of the praised work. Beckett’s misanthropic temperament had been violently cast onto the world without his having written a word. There were millions who could not reconcile their old religious and philosophical ideas with what had happened. In more fortunate times, uncertainty had seemed simply a negative alternative to optimism. It now became the guardian of hope. Beckett never wrote about the war (except for one very brief essay), and he never tried to explain the suffering that would become omnipresent in his work. Instead, he imagined worlds peopled by those who are given no reason to hope and yet hope, worlds peopled by those given no reason to persevere and yet persevere. It’s a theme which doesn’t always make for a cheerful night at the theater, but one that all of us have felt in our darkest, and perhaps our most truthful, moments. The Unnamable’s final lines: “I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” If all of this seems dreadfully heavy, it helps that Beckett had a razor-sharp sense of humor. It seems only fitting that one dedicated to uncertainty couldn’t take himself seriously all the time. For all the
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exegesis surrounding Beckett’s work, it’s something that usually goes completely unmentioned. It seems either that scholars have a poor sense of humor or in their wisdom they’ve realized that nothing kills a joke like trying to explain why it’s funny. Still, an attempt could be worthwhile because Beckett’s comedy is one of the most fascinating aspects of his work. At times, it is straight-forward physical comedy in the vein of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In Waiting for Godot, there is Vladimir and Estragon excitedly swapping hats, and Estragon’s trousers falling to the ground without his realizing it. In Krapp’s Last Tape, there is Krapp with a banana lodged in his mouth staring blankly into space, or reveling in the sensation of pronouncing the word ‘Spool.’ Yet the humor that is most difficult to understand is that which seems to be based on suffering itself. As Nell says from her trash bin in Endgame, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness… Yes, yes, it’s the most comical thing in the world.” Beckett’s humor often seems to contain the very means to undermine it. It should have the trajectory of a bottle rocket,
going up with the laugh and coming back down with the realization of the suffering on which it is based, but it just doesn’t. The humor seems to come from a gradual building up of tension that is calling for release. Lives pervaded by so much pain must eventually find a counter-balance in some sort of pleasure. With unhappiness, there’s a necessity behind the laughter that isn’t there in other types of humor. Yet the necessity would seem to suggest that these are desperate laughs, which most of Beckett’s are not. One can’t be too general about the humor because each laugh is unique, but they are all similar in that they are not a distraction from the current situation. They are a reminder of it. As an example, I’ll take Nagg’s joke in Endgame. Nagg is Nell’s husband, confined to a trash bin beside her, just far enough away that they are not able to kiss. They seem to have been put there by their unappreciative son Hamm, the central character in the play. Nagg tells the story of an Englishman who has a tailor make him a pair of trousers for the New Year. After his first visit, he comes back four days later to find that the tailor made a “mess of the seat.” He then comes back a week later to find that he’s made “a hash of the crutch.” The man is happy for the tailor to fix them because he knows that “a snug crutch is always a teaser.” He returns ten days later to find that the tailor’s made a “balls of the fly.” Again, he concedes that “a smart fly is a stiff proposition.” The tailor proceeds to “ballockses the buttonholes,” and finally the man’s patience breaks. He says, “God damn you to hell, Sir, no, it’s indecent, there are limits! In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making a pair of trousers in three months!” The tailor calmly replies, “But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look–at the world–and look–at my TROUSERS!” In many ways, it’s a traditional joke. With each return of the Englishman, the audience’s expectation grows, especially once it has recognized the pattern. In the tailor’s punch line, there is a release of tension; by this time, the audience is expecting something funny. Yet looking at the stage one sees that the joke is told by a miserable old man stuck in a garbage can, abused by his son, unable to kiss his wife. When one examines the punch line
of the joke, the underlying message seems to be that the world is miserable. There is something incongruous about the laughter in a situation that, by all accounts, calls for despair. Why do we laugh? Aren’t we debasing the character by doing so? What if someone really were suffering like this? These questions might seem to channel Beckett into the theater of the absurd, and the comparison would be fitting despite the fact that the absurdist label was one that Beckett particularly despised. Beckett saw ‘absurdism’ as just another value judgment about man’s existential condition, one based on groundless speculation. Labeling the humor as ‘absurdist’ can also lead to a dismissive analysis of the “but it’s funny” variety. It may be trite, but it’s still often forgotten just how many true things are said in jest. Answers to the questions posed by Beckett’s humor can lead in two directions. One is how humor affects the audience’s ability to empathize with the character. The other is what laughter does for the suffering individual. It’s worth considering that most people attending a Beckett play do not go to it in a mood of despair. When they sit in the audience and observe characters in distress, their mood must be brought down to that person’s level. If one doesn’t truly feel the way that the character does, then there can be a hint of condescension in their pity. If the audience member does feel that the play has lowered their mood, then there can be a touch of resentment for the despairing characters that brought them down. What Beckett’s humor does is give the audience a different point of entry to the character’s emotions–a point that is likely much closer to their own as they sit in the theater. When they laugh, they find themselves empathetically involved in the character’s situation without even having made an effort. With a little reflection, they would realize that the joy of the laugh is entwined with the character’s despair. They’ve become implicated in the character’s situation without even having been aware of it. As for the characters themselves, if they were to reflect on their laughter, they are not inclined to trace its links to the despair with which they are already all too familiar. Instead, they observe the incongruity and they revel in it. They observe themselves not giving into despair when they have every
logical reason to do so, and it is re-assuring. The laugh perpetuates itself. The bottle rocket does not come down. It’s the raw elements of Beckett–the uncertainty, the suffering, and the humor– that can occasionally get lost as people grapple with understanding his work. Due to his reputation, many approaching Beckett feel pressure to like what is before them and to appreciate it. Such pressure is ill-founded. Like any ‘great’ work of art, Beckett only has so much to offer at a glance. Leonardo da Vinci’s, “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned” is particularly fitting for the serious Beckett reader. If one initially feels repelled when they encounter Beckett, the feeling is completely natural. His work is not didactic, but the cult around it can make it seem that way. The work itself doesn’t insist upon its own importance, but if one really wants to become involved in it then it presents a profound challenge. As Salman Rushdie points out in an essay on Beckett, the terms are clear: “Surrender.” When people are trying to make sense of Beckett’s art, they often turn to the text the “Three Dialogues” (1947). It’s a fictionalized dialectic on the subject of modern painting. Beckett put it together based on conversations with friend and fellow art enthusiast Georges Duthuit, casting himself as Plato and Duthuit as Glaucon. Like in Proust, painting is only the ostensible subject–Beckett is really trying to work out his own ideas about his writing. Beckett speaks of a “new art” that will break with that of the old, that is content to survey the world with “the eyes of building contractors” and “never stirred from the field of the possible.” When Duthuit asks him what it will be based on, he puts forward the often-quoted manifesto-like lines, “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” The lines contain the same merciless push for truth as the final words of the narrator in “Dante and the Lobster,” all the confidence and gusto but none of the vulnerability. Though never quoted, the dialogue continues. Duthuit retorts, “But that is a violently extreme and personal point of view.” And Beckett’s reply: “—” L
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O B ELIS K at M ANZANAR,
I watch you in the dust and you are issei, Nisei, sansei in white stone and kanji I cannot read the thousand tsurus drape around your ropes refracting the sunlight you squinted away from and the Shinto Buddhist Christian prayers give me homeland and I know you are my people buried underneath the signs labeled “baseball field” and “Catholic Church” I see you running, laughing, trying to live while the guns point inward and I know you are my people captured in Chiura Obata paintings and Dorothea Lange black and whites you are my people, the checker-dressed girls pledging allegiance in San Francisco the old man whose soul looks skeletal his grandson slung over his shoulder I know that you are my people as I clutch the rusted barbed wire now tamed by National Park Service exhibitionism—I hear you in the subtle accents and patient cadence of gray permed Nisei ladies speaking of dead husbands and trips to Okinawa, of 442 veterans covered in buttons,
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sport coats, “Go For Broke” patches forgotten by yonsei and I know you are my people peppered in mochi and kirin to soak the past in I hear you in the swish-swash of Shinto streamers in the Pledge of Allegiance that tastes salty with contradiction, in the dust kicked by tires following the legacies of trucks in camouflage colors and I wonder where the shots were fired where the rioters fell like DeWitt’s unholy syllables and the gentleman soldiers fly through French tree trunks with rifles and memories scrambling, hugging death to their chests as they fight for the forgiveness for even existing I hear you in the silence of forty years the shame and the apple pies of denial the saliva on the ground of No No Boys splattering on the sidewalk like dreams deferred and I know you are my people almost gone, diluted in apathy, and you stand tall and white and illegible to my American eyesight like the Sierra Nevadas in the background In this arid air I hope we have not deserted each other,
APRIL 28, 2007
as I feel the shape of the scar but do not know how to respond to it My grandpa was MIS from Hawaii, plantation boy, avoided internment My grandma was Kibei, in Japan making the bullets that pierced Yankees and yet I see my reflection in the tears over broken China, homes resold, Japs Go Home signs and white women pointing with hatred in their forefingers like they see the devil in acute angles and eye folds I imagine my Chinese American friend wearing an “I am a Loyal Chinese” button and I know you are my people because I would’ve worn an ID tag instead and part of me screams at you see— this is what it is like, after Southern plantations and whips and smallpox and reservations and Emmit Tills and Geronimos what else could you expect? And the tragedy of our pain is that even we were imprisoned
even we, as if maybe the others deserved it more America did not betray us we betrayed ourselves America did not betray us we betrayed ourselves this is but one chapter in the red white and blue bullet that consecrated our borders the sandstorms of Manzanar blew gunpowder whose age we only now learn and I know you are my people lost in the shame of being less than our dreams lost in the shame of a betrayal from the greatest of all betrayers You are my people. You are my people. You are my people. And for the first time in years, I hear myself praying. I choose to whisper it into your illegible lines and wonder if you can hear it. –– TAKEO RIVERA
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him BY JESSAMYN EDRA
velyn grips the cold curves of the sink. She closes her eyes, lets the image of malformed Irish Spring soap and unscrubbed tub fade to black. She remembers back when she was a kid, her mother promoted afternoon naps by turning them into a competition. Evelyn dutifully shut her eyes alongside her brother and her two favorite cousins, knowing that whoever woke up last got to walk to 7-Eleven and pick out a piece of candy after church. She always faked it—listening hard for the rustling of clothing, the shifts in breathing, and waiting just a little longer before lifting her own lids and yawning. She entered second grade with several cavities. Evelyn opens her eyes and looks down at the rust-ringed drain. As she breathes slowly, in and out, she feels the full weight of her head. “Hey, babe?” Edward says with a light knock on the door. For the past three months, until now, she has only heard his voice over the phone, syllables distorted by static. Now in the silence of the small studio apartment, his words are clear, even through the bathroom door. “You okay in there?” he asks. She hears the steady note of concern in his voice, but also his barelymuted anticipation. She unclenches her hands. She puts the toilet seat cover down and sits with her knees tucked into her chest. “Yeah.” Then, with an effort at normalcy, she says huskily, “I’ll be right out, darling.” But somewhere along that last word, her voice hiccups into something from an old Western film, and her performance becomes parody. She coughs. There is a pause. For a moment, she fears that he has noticed her incompetence, her lack of experience with this sort of thing. “Looking forward to it,” Edward says. Evelyn listens to him walk quietly away from the bathroom, then stands up and lets the pink chemise, trimmed with black lace, resettle over her thighs. As the cool silk moves over her skin, she feels almost desirable. Hand outstretched, she takes three small steps to the door. But at the last moment she stops at the sink again, and this time, when she grips its edges, she looks up into the mirror. Her sleek hair has frizzed up in the humid, Hawaiian air and, despite her best efforts, her eyeliner is unevenly applied, giving her left eye a slightly sinister look. She dabs at it with a piece of
toilet paper and tries to smile. She lifts the corners of her mouth, but as she parts her freshly-glossed lips to show some teeth, the smile falls.
arlier that day, her mother drove her to San Francisco International Airport, telling her that Grandma bought herself a mink coat at the mall yesterday, that Auntie Luz waxed off too much of her eyebrows, that Bill did not like taking baths because it irritated his eczema. Smiling, Evelyn half-listened to the latest gossip, her mind inevitably drifting back to Edward. She had opted out of her cotillion this year, the traditional Filipino debutante ball that announced eighteen with dresses fitted too tight and stiff waltzes with vaguely reptilian cousins. Instead, she convinced her parents to send her to Hawaii to visit Edward during Thanksgiving break. It was cheaper, she reasoned, and with the bills from her first quarter at college filling the file cabinet, they agreed. Evelyn first noticed Edward more than a year ago when they were lining the dirt track for the meet against Washington High. The job normally needed one person, but she couldn’t chalk the straightaway without someone else’s eye. She tended to veer subtly to the right if left unsupervised. So he walked alongside her, his hands shoved in black basketball shorts that were too long for him. Sometimes he jogged ahead on the grass to check out the progress, but mostly he stayed with her. They finished lining the track and when she turned to look at him, she noticed the smudge of chalk on his jaw. It was smooth back then; the stubble she so adored would come later. She told him he had some chalk on his face. He pulled his hand from the deep pockets of his shorts and quickly brushed along his jaw line. She hoped he would miss a spot, but he didn’t. She knew because she spent the rest of the afternoon sneaking glances. “Are you bringing Edward anything from his dad?” her mother asked. “No,” Evelyn said. She put her fingers to the car window and watched suburbia stream past. “Mr. Flores just sent him a care package, actually.” This was a lie. Or maybe it was the truth, but she doubted it. Evelyn’s mother had wanted her to see Mr. Flores, let him know that she was going to visit Edward, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She didn’t like him. Maybe it was
the way he said, “Would you just call me James already?” every time she greeted him, or the cigarette smoke that announced his arrival. It could be the gleaming whiteness of his teeth that unnerved her, or the rigid part of his hair. But it was probably what he had said after Edward placed sixth in the twomile against Kennedy. If Edward had run a good race, Mr. Flores would jog over to the track, holding a bottle of water—not cold, ’cause cold’s not good for you right after a race, but room temperature water—and a stopwatch to show Edward the new time to beat. Kennedy High was not a good meet for either Edward or Evelyn, and when Mr. Flores came jogging over as they changed out of their racing flats, Evelyn saw Edward grab a fistful of grass in preparation. “All those nights with Evelyn are draining you, son,” he pronounced and winked at both of them. Edward tore the grass from the earth and looked at her. He whispered an apology as his father sauntered off. Granted, she and Edward did spend many nights kissing, and touching, and licking, and caressing. One night, they parked at Coyote Hills and fumbled about in the backseat of his Honda Accord. He pushed away fabric and bit down on her shoulder, and she prayed that he wouldn’t actually take off her shirt because she was wearing one of her rattier bras. The headlights of a passing car had been her saving grace, the sudden illumination of the car’s gray interior an apt reminder of where they were and what they were doing. Still— her smell was everywhere, and as soon as she got home, she washed her panties in the sink so her mother wouldn’t stumble upon them in the laundry. Evelyn was almost ashamed by just how much she loved feeling his skin under her fingertips, loved the taut muscles of a long-distance runner just below the surface, loved even the smell of his sweat after a quick six miles. Even better than his skin under her fingertips was his skin under her lips. He tasted good, like eating graham crackers and then waking up from a long, afternoon nap with the mild honey-sweetness still in her mouth. “Does that make sense?” she asked when she told him. “No,” he said, and kissed her. Still, they had not done anything that warranted Edward’s father winking in such a way. Mr. Flores never would have believed it, though. Edward said that since his mother died, his father only got worse.
“Oh, so you’re really not bringing Edward anything?” Her mother was displeased; her mouth puckered in thought about the correct social protocols. Evelyn’s mother was still beautiful, even with the thinning hair she washed with a special shampoo; something about the brown freckles at the corners of her eyes kept her girlish. Though she complained about how much weight she had gained here in America, she had aged softly, retaining her high cheekbones and the easy class that Evelyn never inherited. “I am bringing myself,” Evelyn replied, twisting her long string of plastic pearls. “That should be more than enough.” “No, not that.” Her mother laughed. “Anything but that. It’s still early.” Evelyn laughed, too—and not the nervous, guilt-tinged laugh she may have uttered at any other time—but a real laugh; her mother had made a joke that acknowledged sex and, by extension, her adulthood. Evelyn knew her mother, who attended mass at St. Anne’s Catholic Church every Sunday, would never grant an official seal of approval on her decision to finally have sex with Edward. But understanding, on a woman-to-woman level, wasn’t impossible. The proof was in her name. Her mother had named her Evelyn after a Filipino woman who sold kalamansi in front of the house her mother had grown up in. Every day, her namesake would carry in her basket not only hundreds of these small, round lime fruits, but also the letters of young lovers. In Tagalog, the only language which her mother could use to describe these things, she recounted the sharp, tangy smell of the letter that had been wrinkled by the weight of the kalamansi and the pleasure of smoothing out the thin paper on the floor of her room, watching the black letters appear under her hands. Her mother was not allowed to date until she was in college and when it was discovered that she had been sneaking letters to a fisherman’s son in the barrio, her father forced her to drop a semester of classes. “You only have time to do one thing: study or date,” he pronounced. The next semester, her mother studied hard, remembering how she had knelt with bare knees on uncooked rice. She held pails of water, too, as her parents chastised her. Because of this, her mother let Evelyn date as soon as she was in high school. Because of this, her mother named
her Evelyn, after a woman who understood young love. Edward had written Evelyn letters, too—his cramped handwriting filling page after page of lined notebook paper with lurid remembrances of short skirts and sticky afternoons. Her name all but disappeared under the flood of babes, darlings, and sweethearts. Other, sturdier names popped up like driftwood: Anne from work and Shelly from the cross-country team. Edward and Evelyn’s conversations were either doyou-remember’s exchanged or promises for the future—they didn’t have a present together. Evelyn consulted friends. She read Advice for the Geographically Challenged along with articles in Cosmo. She researched and responded accordingly. She sent him perfumed pages of poetry: Amichai’s “Posthumous Fragments,” Neruda’s “Letter on the Road,” her own enjambed lines. She went to her first frat party, felt large hands grip her hips, and shed small tears. She sent Edward racy photos and care packages with his favorite candy, Mike and Ike’s. She glared at couples holding hands and ran for miles, trying to purge herself of this immense tension, this sleeplessness that made her mistake one head of hair for another, this affliction that made her grip armrests at movie theaters. She bought a scruffy loofah and inhaled chocolate. And one night, after she filled yet another awkward silence with trite advice when he was trying to decide whether or not to withdraw from organic chemistry, she promised him. A promise that their first night back together would be a night he would not soon forget. That got him talking, and the buttery flow of his low tones over the line loosened something heavy threaded through her.
hen they got to the airport, her mother gave her a soft smile and said, “Be safe and have a good time.” Evelyn spent most of the five-hour flight looking out the window and twisting her pearls. She tried to fall asleep but couldn’t keep her eyes closed for more than a few minutes. Instead, she opened and closed the paperback she brought until the sky drained of daylight. It was after midnight when she saw the lights. When a plane landed in California, the world came to view in square grids of city or farmland, but the lights outside her window were an organic net of golden
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points, more web than grid. The red lights on the wing flashed as the plane began its descent into Honolulu, and Evelyn realized all the darkness rushing below her was water. An island, she remembered, like the Philippines. Evelyn walked to the baggage claim, her steps shaky in her new highheeled shoes. She almost didn’t recognize Edward when he came toward her, walking in his slow and deliberate way, sensuous but precise movements through the crowd. It always surprised people how quickly those tawny thighs moved on the track. He was holding a lei of yellow flowers. He was leaner than she remembered, more tanned, too. The good runners look hungry, their coach had said. He was wearing the striped polo she liked. He placed the lei around her neck and smiled crookedly, flashing his sharp canine teeth. “I just lei’d you.” He winked. She pushed him, but he grabbed her hands and pulled her in for a kiss and the kiss was familiar, his fingertips weaving into her hair like they always did. “I’m just kidding,” he whispered in her ear. Edward planted a small kiss on her earlobe—thick earlobes were a sign of great intelligence, he once told her—and drew back to look at her face. She wondered if he noticed that she had pierced her ears. “I’m glad you’re here,” he said and picked up her bags. The moist air enveloped her as soon as they stepped out of the airport. She felt hazy, her edges blurring like an object overexposed in a photo. “Your hair makes you look surprised,” she said. He raised his eyebrows and chuckled. “Yeah, it’s due for a cut.” He ran his hand through his coarse hair and glanced at her. “So... how was your flight, kiddo?” “It was okay. How was your drive?” He shrugged and adjusted the backpack slung over his shoulder. “Eh, it was all right, a little long for me.” He smiled and she had a ridiculous urge to count his teeth. Instead she nodded, and felt petal and pearl shift against her neck. Edward should hand her back one of her bags. Her arms dangled uselessly at her sides. “How are things with Rich?” “Good, good,” he said. He re-adjusted the bags again and put his hand on the small of her back, guiding her in the direction of his car. His palm felt enormous and
warm on the eyelet fabric of her dress. “He actually decided to go back to Michigan for the break.” “Oh.” She looked downward, focusing on the heel-toe motion of walking in her heels. She thought suddenly of her mother, who had worked as a bank teller in college; it paid well back then and was respectable for a young lady. She told Evelyn that she would walk close to a mile to work from campus in the black heels required for her uniform. On her way, she always passed by the crumbling Spanish-style mansion of a blind old man. The gentleman’s ancestors were well-established in Quezon City, but his children were in America, all gorgeous mestizos who sent home LBC boxes crammed full of good coffee and tins of corned beef. He always called out the window when he heard her pass: “Hoy, kumusta ka na, Lita?” He swore that he knew her by the sound of her heels on the pavement, but she never believed him until one day she passed him on the street. Their shoulders brushed—puffed sleeve of white cotton and starched corner of gray tweed— and he was silent. Ha, she thought, clacking away with a smile. Three strides later he called out, “Marry me, Lita!” She laughed and hopped onto the jeepney, her dress stuck to her back in the heat. It was only later that she learned he was in earnest. He had even gone to see her parents. She had stared down at his hands, sun-withered and crossed with veins, and when he reached to take her hand into his own, she refused as politely as she could, citing her studies. “Yeah, so we have the place to ourselves,” Edward was saying. He looked at Evelyn and she returned her gaze to her shoes. “No coercion, I swear. His mom wanted to take him skiing, or snowboarding, or something.” “Oh,” she said and nodded again, thankful to be at the car. He opened her door and held her hand as he drove. The windows were rolled down and that thick air wafted in, carrying with it the possibility of warm rain. With Edward’s hand massaging hers, she felt her muscles slowly relax, one by one. She once sent him a rock she found on one of her rambling walks across campus. She thought he would appreciate its smooth lines, the way it retained heat, the way she held it under her pillow when she needed to grip something at night. The miles passed in
silence and much to her embarrassment, she managed to fall asleep this time. “Hey, babe?” She awoke to Edward whispering in her ear. “We’re here.” She opened her eyes to find him looking at her. “I was going to take you to get some food or something, but I thought sleep might be the better option.” He bit his already chapped lip. Still half-asleep, the words were out of her mouth before she could stop them: “I thought we weren’t going to be sleeping tonight,” she said. Immediately, she regretted the joke. “Well, then,” he said. She was glad he didn’t wink.
dward had some difficulty with the keys when they finally got to his apartment on the seventh floor. In between his apologizing for the out-of-order elevator and telling her how much he had missed her, she remembered that she liked him a great deal. She put her hand over his and he grinned, toothy and boyish. They unlocked the door together. “You’re going to love the view,” he said as he flung the door open. He tossed her bags to the side and took her hand. Quickly, they crossed the small space of the apartment; kitchenette, two twin beds, a television, a fan. He brushed aside the threadbare curtains that lined one whole wall, and they walked out onto the lanai. Her eyes took in the dark ocean continuously shaping the curves of the island, the banyan trees that grew both up and down, roots descending from the branches to steady the tree during flood times, but also the skyscrapers and road construction and traffic. So Honolulu was a city after all. “What’s the place with no lights?” she said. “Diamond Head Crater,” he said, wrapping his arms around her from behind. “Those high-rises around it are the U of H dorms.” He pressed his lips to her neck as she stared out. A plumeria tree worthy of worship spread its branches next to a streetlight and a tattoo place. There was a Mustang parked outside “Tropical Tattoos” and when Evelyn leaned forward, she could make out the figure of a man smoking on the hood of the car. An ambulance rushed past on the street below them and before the siren could reach its fever pitch, she took his
hand. “Let’s go back inside.” “Okay,” he said, and scooped her into his arms. One of her shoes almost fell off. “Hey, hey, hey,” she said. She batted at his forearms. He had never lifted her before; she told him short people didn’t like it. And they didn’t, especially on the seventh floor. “Put me down.” She tried to laugh. “Why should I?” he said. He buried his face in the crook of her neck. With only his foot, Edward slid the screen door shut. “So,” she said, tugging at her dress, which had ridden up a couple of inches in the process, “I can go get ready.” He stopped in the middle of the room and considered this. “Okay.” He put her down. She took a couple deep breaths. “Where’s the bathroom?” “It’s, uh,” he walked over and opened a door, “right over here.” He smiled down at her and tugged at his earlobe, a tic she had always found endearing. “I’ll just be out here, getting ready, too, okay?” “Okay,” she said and shut the door.
velyn can imagine him now, sitting on the edge of the bed, tugging at his earlobe, wondering exactly when she will be ready. She walks out of the bathroom. The clear clacking of her heels on linoleum is instantly absorbed by the dingy carpet. The silence is disconcerting. “Wow,” Edward says, the single, breathless syllable breaking into her thoughts. He is wearing the boxers she got him for Christmas last year, bright blue and covered with penguins wearing orange bowties. Emboldened by these penguins, she strikes a pose, placing her hands on her hips and jutting her chest forward. She turns her head dramatically to the right, letting her long bangs fly over her eyes, and pouts her lips, another parody of sexy confidence. “What do you think?” she says, careful not to look at him. He walks up to her and slides a fallen strap back onto her shoulder. His fingers are warm, his touch much-missed. “You look—” He chuckles the way he did on their first date, nervous but happy. “Too good for any of the clichés I had planned to say,” he concludes. “Spare me...” she begins, still half in character. But when she turns her head to look at him, she cannot finish her line. He
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brushes the hair from her face with those warm fingers. It’s been so long. “Thank you,” she says. She looks down, embarrassed by the rush of warmth in her body. It is then that she notices Edward’s erection poking through his boxers. Her head snaps back up just as he leans in to kiss her forehead. “Fuck!” His eyes are tightly shut and his thick eyebrows are knitted together as he grimaces. He exhales a single syllable through gritted teeth. “Ouch.” “Oh my god!” She winces in sympathy. “I’m so sorry.” She means this, she really does. But underneath her hand now covering her mouth, she feels herself begin to smile. She suppresses the impulse quickly. What is wrong with her? “Are you okay?” she says, “You want me to get some ice?” She slips off her heels, ready to run for the fridge. He slowly opens his eyes. She must still be conveying an accurate enough expression of concern because he sighs. “I’m okay.” He sits down on the bed. His erection has deflated considerably. “How’s your head?” he asks, staring at the wall in front of him. His roommate has a Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar up and next to that is the Greenday poster she sent Edward in September. “It’s fine,” she says. She needs to get a grip. She promised and it was not a promise made lightly. It was a promise she is sure even her mother would eventually forgive, as long as Edward and she got married immediately and never divorced. Breathe, she tells herself, this is Edward—you know him. She knows that his earliest and fondest childhood memory is of winding his mother’s hair in his small hands. She knows the way he kisses, never staying in one place long enough, and that his exgirlfriend is a little prettier than she is, but she is much smarter. She knows that despite his mother’s fatal accident, he drives like a maniac, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic, making bets about the ethnicity of the drivers who piss him off—all in a car with no horn. She knows that when he cries, he is like a little boy, both hands covering his face. She knows that he likes smooth, not crunchy, peanut butter, and that he has exactly three pornographic magazines under his mattress back in California. “I know you’re nervous,” he murmurs. “It’s my first time, too.”
Right—she knows that it’s his first time, too. She sits down next to him and rubs his back with one hand. He glances at her with a half-smile, not wide enough for dimples. She moves behind him and starts massaging his back with both hands, planting openmouthed kisses on his spine. “That feels real good, babe,” he says with a low moan. His excitement should excite her. That’s the way it’s always been in the past, just the sound of his pleasure gave her pleasure—but even now as she kisses him, each kiss committing her further, all she can feel is anxiety. What if she doesn’t know enough? Or what if what she does know has changed? She stops kissing him. Breathe. “You like that,” she says, pressing her body against his, “Edward?” He turns to look at her, somewhat surprised. “I do,” he says, “Evelyn.” He turns away from her as he says her name. In the silence that deepens between them, she can hear the continuous whirring of the small rotating fan in the corner of the room. She closes her eyes and tries to concentrate on the sheer warmth of his body. She can do this. Maybe one more fact to recite, one more story to hold. “Where did your name come from, Edward?” she asks him, her cheek pressed against the sinewy muscles of his back. She wraps her arms around his narrow chest and
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breathes him in; the plumeria-air making him smell as pure as soil. “My name?” he says. He shrugs off her arms, not roughly but decisively, and turns so that they are facing each other on the bed. He looks at her, his gaze direct and a little cold. She grabs a pillow to hug to her chest. “Why are you asking about my name right now?” “I don’t know,” she says. She buries her face in the pillow. “Just wondering, I guess.” She peers out from the top of the pillow, just enough to see his face through the hair that has fallen over her eyes. He sighs and grips his thick hair with one hand. “Edward,” he says, releasing his hair, “is actually my middle name.” She looks at him—at his rumpled hair; at his eyelashes even longer than her own; at the constellation of moles on his chest, Orion’s belt in sepia tones. “What?” “Edward,” he says, “was what my mom wanted, after some character in a Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility.” He stands up and just as quickly, sits back down. “But my dad didn’t go for it. My first name is Jamison.” Jamison. James’ son. Somehow, she is not surprised. Edward’s hands are back in his hair. He is looking at the off-white curtains now. The muscles in his face are tensed. “After she died—” He stops and closes his eyes. Evelyn watches as he takes a deep breath. He looks almost too lean, the
SONNET, INCOMPLETE In sleeping fields beyond the city lays I know not what, it matters not to me. In numbered days I craved the craze that brays In city streets; I think that you are free. I want to be a good woman, and I Wanted for you to be my good man, but I tried my best and could not make you cry But once. How is it now that I’m away? Do you sleep soundly? Do you sleep alone? When you smoke, or when you see the leaves sway, Do you think of me then? Is this our love, grown? Won’t you think of me when the city sleeps? My love, it is for nothing that you weep. –– JOHN COLLINS
newly tanned skin pulled too tightly over his lank frame. She remembered what he told her; his mother went on a drive to cool off from another argument with his father, just a spat about the groceries, and collided with a pickup while merging onto the freeway. He opens his eyes, but keeps his gaze averted. He starts tugging at the curtain. “When she died, I was just starting high school, and when people asked me what I went by, I said Edward.” She smiles softly and places a hand on his knee. He looks at her, his eyes taking a while to focus. “I see,” she says, rubbing small circles on his knee with her thumb. He is the same after all. “I like Edward better,” she says. “Me, too,” he says. She reaches out and holds the angles of his face in her hands, relishing the prickly feel of his stubble, wanting to feel it brush against other skin. He closes his eyes and she leans forward to press her lips against his. She has missed this. She feels as close to him now as she ever has, closer even; no sex necessary. And looking at him, she knows he feels the same. “So now that we know each other’s names,” she says, arching her eyebrows, “how about we, uh—” She can’t find the words so she pats the bed instead, still flexing her eyebrows. Her forehead hurts a little with all her exertion. He tosses the other pillow lightly in her direction. “You’re ridiculous.” She tosses her pillow at him. “You love it.” “I do,” he says. And he is sincere. He takes both pillows and tosses them aside. They hit the floor decisively and she knows as soon as she hears the soft thuds that she has misread him. He feels close enough to have sex. She braces herself, as if against a summer monsoon; her limbs stiff planks waiting for July flooding. His face becomes less and less clear as he moves forward; his chapped lips filling her half-shut eyes. He kisses her, lightly, tenderly even. On their third date, they had been sitting next to each other in a booth at Nation’s where he ate with such vigor that a rib popped clean out of his mouth and on to her lap. He was mortified, but she had laughed, turned to him and they kissed for the first time. Soft and barbeque-flavored, she recalls, and smiles against his lips. He notices, pauses, and smiles back, his hair falling over his
forehead. She breathes deeply and lifts her legs onto the bed. Maybe this will be okay. Edward begins kissing her again, his breath coppery-hot, and her scalp tingles when his tongue slips in and out of her mouth. He chews on her bottom lip. “Ow,” she cries out, louder than she intended to. “Oh, sweetie, I’m sorry.” His lips touch her forehead, eyebrows, cheeks, even her chin in feathery apology. She knows she loves him. He hums on her collarbone and she is breathless, her back arching in response. His smooth chest rubbing on top of her makes her squeeze her thighs together. All her muscles are rapidly contracting and releasing, except the ones in her fingers, which seem to be going numb. When he moves her legs so that they are no longer tucked underneath her and she is laying flat on the bed, she hardly notices. She begins to recite facts in her head again: He likes his tea stronger with each sip. He wants to be a forensic scientist. He tugs at her chemise and rubs his thumb furiously across her left nipple. She inhales sharply and exhales fractured words. His favorite color is red, but only because black is not a color. Black absorbs everything and reflects nothing. He moves to her right nipple. His breath fills the creases in between her breasts as he murmurs moist endearments: darling, babe, gorgeous. Everything but her name. He has terrible taste in music and cannot conjugate the simplest Spanish verbs, much less the irregular ones like ir, to go. Yo voy. Tú— He lets out a tangled groan that breaks into her recitation. She can no longer hear herself think, and yet still can’t pull away. They are both laying down now, his hairy legs intermingling with her smooth ones. He presses into her with the full weight of his body. Sweat gathers in the small of her back, along her forehead, in between her toes. And even now, she feels as though she could summon up desire, if he would just—she grits her teeth and thinks that they have time. They have more time together. There’s no need, no need to rush. His stubble scratching her clavicle feels almost too prickly. She shudders as his hand sprints over her calves, searing. His fingers part her thighs and she gasps. “You like that,” he says. She bites her lip and closes her eyes. He moves his rough fingers forward, his thumb slipping beneath flimsy black lace. Breathe. She lifts her
arms and begins to reach around his neck to remind him that she is still here, will be here for a while. There’s no need, no need to rush. Her fingers shake and she wills herself to solidify, to pull together. He grabs her wrists with his other hand and pins her hands above her head. “Edward!” His hand, the one that had been snaking in between her thighs, stops. His grip on her wrists loosens, but he does not let her go. He remains on top of her but eases back so that he can see her face. All the vulnerability in his once tense jaw has evaporated; his mouth is slightly open, his jaw slack. His brown eyes churn as they struggle to process the image in front of him: a woman restrained, breath curled on her dry tongue. Deep lines etch themselves into his brow. She tries to speak that one syllable, but her throat aches. She shakes her head. No. He releases her wrists first. Then he moves his other hand from underneath her chemise. He gets off of her. The bed creaks and she hears the whirring of that fan, spinning blades reverberating in her throbbing skull. She feels wetness on her cheeks and realizes she is crying. She stares at the ceiling and hears the screen door that leads out onto the lanai slide open. He is outside now.
er mother never saw him again, this fisherman’s son she had been writing letters to, this boy whose hand she held as they walked along the pier. In her second year of college, after her first proposal, her mother met a medical student with thick glasses and gentle hands. Not as cute, Evelyn’s mother admitted, but from the right type of family. Family is important, her mother said, you need to feel secure. By secure, Evelyn had always thought her mother meant financially secure. Young love is important, but her mother did not regret her choices—this is what Evelyn understood from the story. But maybe after all this time Evelyn had misunderstood this last sentence, maybe her memory of her native tongue had failed her and she had misinterpreted that last word: not secure, but something more basic—safe. Evelyn hears the screen door slide shut and Edward’s soft footsteps return to the bed. She dutifully shuts her eyes. L
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DOLLS, by a PALM TREE, in the SAND BY NICK HOY
I. ANNA KOURNIKOVA Two minutes into Stanford and I’ve spotted a girl with blonde hair and a California smile. She rolls into the Wilbur quad with wheelie-bags while I sling duffels like a real man should. She gives me a first-day half-wave, the kind that says, I’ll be seeing you around, but my hands are stuffed with linens and other things so I grin back the East Coast way, my best warm-hearted grimace. And here’s the thing. I never see her around. Never once in three years. Maybe she was someone’s sister. But that pretty half-wave was all I ever got. At the beginning of my Orientation Week in the Junipero Dorm, our RAs transform the lounge into a map-metaphor and tell us to sit ourselves down according to where we came from. “The Pacific Ocean is over by the piano and TV,” they instruct us. “North is in the direction of Cedro. So– imagine Canada is Cedro. And China is, uh, Okada.” “Where’s Okada?” “That’s Okada.” “I’m from Thailand.” “Oh, fuck, the international kids.” “They can sit on the pool table.” We are tightly-coiled and in near hysterics. Our parents have about-faced and alighted for the real flyspecks on the map. They left twenty minutes ago–and left us restive in a state of giddy abandonment. A
girl wanders in from across the Mexico border and her face shows the freshly flushed and scrubbed-out stain of tears. We are stirred by (and a little embarrassed for) this tender sacrament. She sits Indian-style in the Midwest, maybe Missouri or Illinois, and looks cheerful. I myself am pinned against the lounge windows, where Canada should be, if not in Cedro. I am desperate not to be segregated on the pool table like the rest of the international residents, who are from Greece and England but mostly Asia. I have a defense prepared. “I am from Toronto,” I will explain to them. “It is at more southerly latitude than Seattle. If you’re going to make me sit with the foreign kids, you’re going to have to make all of Washington State and Maine sit with them too. I skipped international orientation. I’m assimilated! Doesn’t that count for anything?” Like any new posting, college freshmanship takes guts and a steely resolve to fit in. For the same
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reason that you won’t wear a polka-dot necktie to your first day of work on Wall Street–and the same reason I carefully roll up the sleeves on my first-day-of-Stanford blue button-down, and wear my most winsome pair of distressed cargo pants (sartorial splendors that I now regret)–for that exact reason, Orientation Week unfolds like a high-wire tiptoe, where acting too gauche (or droite) risks a freefall tumble to the circus-ground. Whispers and hissing beneath the social frequency. “Umm… so what’s his deal?” That’s what we are afraid of. And as a consequence we are exceptionally boring. We are meant to recite our names and places of origin, geographical clump by geographical clump, but after the first eager beaver tells us just how excited she is to be at Stanford and among so many potential new friends (she is Very Excited), we feel compelled to reveal something of ourselves as well. “Hi guys. My name is Sam Lipsick. I’m from Palo Alto–that’s just around the corner!” This is said zippily and maybe apologetically. “And, uh, I like to play tennis.” “Hey everyone. I’m Meghan Daniels. I’m from Pawling, New York. So happy to meet everyone! In person, since I know a few faces from thefacebook.com!” Everyone laughs. “I like to meet new people and play tennis.” The good news is that we have rock-bottom standards for humor, partly because we are nervous and trying to be agreeable, and partly because we are freshmen. Virtually every-one in the dorm likes to play tennis, which is eventually deemed funny, and by the time we
--reach the Eastern seaboard the joke, “Well, I don’t like to play tennis” is funny, too. After Michigan it is my turn. I am at a distinct advantage because I am from Canada, and Americans find Canada funny just for existing. Canada is large and unwieldy but usually benign, and it contains moose and Mounties and mountains and igloos, each of which is inoffensively comical in its own way. Sometimes I will tell someone that I am from Canada and they will giggle to themselves, like small children might when they visit the hippopotamus at the zoo. “My name is Nick,” I say. “And I’m from Canada.” I survey the room. People seem to be smiling expectantly. “Well, Toronto, Canada.” I have dialed into two attractive girls out west who look bored. Probably Canada is not working because some wisecracker from Kansas tried the exact same swindle. “I play hockey. Not very well. Really excited to chill with everyone.” I nod my head slowly, to signify, Chilling with Nick will be fun. A college beat. Then, “Tennis is O.K.” Laughter; relief; the globe keeps spinning. High stakes is how I remember it. It doesn’t matter that three Orientation Weeks later the whole racket seems charmingly trivial. Come December I will be ass-naked except for a strategic red cup, belting out my national anthem, atop the foreign kid pool table. But by then we had our expectations managed. There’s a line in a favorite IHUM poem, Do I dare disturb the universe? This is such a viciously unfair question that we read it rhetorically. The universe gets along well with or without us.
II. ANTI-CELIBACY LEAGUE The question of fucking. Slamming, shtupping, Roxy-Sassing. We have more brains then the national average, but we’ve probably had less sex. No sooner have we cracked the spines of IHUM 1A than we’re told the real objective of our college careers is to pair off and lose it. This is no racy revolution. Hardly! We are attending passively our sexual evolution, which will sidle in like the hangover after a freshman bender. A little messy, painful, or awkward– but carrying the unimpeachable badge of adulthood. But the problem (we learn) is that sex at Stanford is difficult and highly-regulated.
For example, we’re not meant to have it with people who live near us, because that’s dormcest. We’re not meant to have it with people who live far away, because they are scarcely known and likely sketchy. We’re not supposed to do it drunk for the risk of non-tumescence. If we do it sober it will probably be extremely awkward (and quick). It’s strongly advised not to have sex with friends, neighbors, or strangers. There’s no dating at Stanford, but you should really try to lose it to someone who you’ve been dating. And so on. I have heard statistics some of which I am certain are untrue. 40% of Americans lose their virginity by the age of sixteen. 90% by the age of twenty. 80% of Stanford freshmen have never had sex. Three quarters of those 80% will still be virgins at commencement. That we manage to mate at all speaks to the anarchy of our species. To the thrill we take in breaking rules that we imposed ourselves, piece-by-piece. Why not screw same-floor girl? Because we’re amigos? Because we’re drunk? Because she has a boyfriend back home at the U. of Pittsburgh? Give me one good reason why not? As Orientation Week fades into Fall Quarter, we get told by our RAs to complete the Anti-Celibacy League (ACL) online “100 Point Purity Test.” This test, which purports to measure sexual purity, is considered definitive in these parts. You have probably taken it yourself. It asks awkward, probing questions. Have you ever: 4. Danced cheek to cheek? 17. Had an erection, clitoral erection? 19. Tasted semen? 70. Read a pornographic book or magazine? 87. Engaged in intercourse with an unconscious person, while conscious? 100. Committed bestiality? The quiz-answering itself is a private affair, conducted behind closed doors and dimmed computer monitors. In contrast, the results could not be posted more publicly. We scrawl them in blue dry-erase beside our names on hallway whiteboards. Leland Q. Freshman: 46% Pure. I take the test in the dorm computer cluster and try to decide whether to lie, and if so, to which end. I have an intuition that my sexual experience will fall somewhere within a standard deviation of the mean, but
it is too soon to be sure. The Purity Test nibbles at a freshman’s insecurities. Were we all too busy in high school, trading in skyhigh grades and chess club memberships, to take a breather and get it on? But instead of lying, I wait until nearly everyone else has written their scores on the whiteboard–until it is clear I will pass under the radar. There are three marks under 30 and two above 90. If I am witnessing exhibitionism, then it is unapologetic, and I am envious of it. Like confidence, sexual purity is a state of mind. This reminds me of Maggie Pollitt, the cat on a hot tin roof, who by willing herself pregnant made it so. To advertise bluntly our painful-past inadequacies is to acknowledge a conscious remaking of our prior selves. The object of the Purity exercise, after all, is to become Less Pure. In May, when we retake the quiz, we’ll marvel at how much Less Pure we’ve become.
III. CATHOLIC CHURCH After the geography icebreaker there is some awkward milling about. We have very little to say to one another because our entire first-day conversational arsenals have been exhausted. We can think of nothing to say except, “Where do you come from?” and “What is your name?” both queries that have been answered so recently that it is impossible to bring them up again (until tomorrow). No more than twenty minutes from now the scheduled programming will resume and we will be whisked to the first of endless pseudo-fun pseudo-events at Memorial Auditorium. In the meantime twelve of us pile into a first-floor dorm room. We’re a big bunch of dudes and we look each other over. This is the sort of the ritualized posturing that we never got to do in high school because other guys were doing it for us. The whole gig is unrehearsed but doesn’t ring false. “So what did you, uh, think of the girls in our dorm.” “They seem nice,” I say. “They went to Catholic school.” “A lot of them did, yeah.” “What’s that mean?” Cautiously. “Some… cute ones.” “Lots of Catholic schoolgirls…” “Looking to experience new things…” There’s a gleeful pause. The nut’s been cracked. “I like that,” we say. L
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THE FIG There was a fig tree in the sick room window, but none of this was on our minds– Only how the seed is born into equilibrium with the deadly wasp that lives within its walls. The fruit, a pestilence of blood red syconia, is cased within its sleek, leathered mask, hiding under finger-like leaves that grow low to the ground. It was this fruit only, and its sweetness, that announced the patch of blood on the sheets–stain of a fit, not a fruit–breathed deep into the sunset of his last meal, while all around us the sky was burning red on the dark, ripe skin of the horizon. –– IRIS LAW
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RACHEL HAMBURG LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007 37
A STOR Y
i n t he wat er BY REBECCA FRAIMOW
he tells him stories; every night, after he’s tired himself out with trying to find a way home, she tells him a story. “Once upon a time, there was a woman,” she tells him. “She was pretty as humans go–not as beautiful as me.” Her tone implies obviousness. To judge from her voice, she is almost always explaining the obvious. “Her skin was that terrible pale pinkish-brown color you have, and her hair was thin and straight, and she kept it tied up.” She runs a hand through her own flowing green locks, waving wild in the water, and smiles. “But all the same,” she says, “she was very pretty; and she broke your heart.” He remembers the woman she’s talking about, though not as a woman. He remembers her as a young girl. He remembers deciding that he wanted to marry her. He thinks–although he is not sure–that he did. “She was my wife,” he ventures, and the storyteller shrugs graceful shoulders with an air of supreme indifference. “What do I know about wives?” That ends the story for that night. “Once upon a time, there was a man,” she tells him. “He was not a very handsome man, but he was a good man, as humans go.” He thinks she may be talking about him. It’s sometimes difficult to tell. “He was in love with a woman who couldn’t be his, and it was really very hard for him.” She sounds pitying; she is pretending to be kind, but she is not very good at it. “He brought her gifts, pretty dresses and things for the house, and books about love
that conquered all odds. She gave the dresses to her sister and the things for the house to the poor, and the books about love to her friends, who read them and cried. Some of the better ones she read, too–she liked stories–but she wouldn’t keep them. She tried to give the man to her friends, too, but he was stubborn, and wouldn’t be given away.” “Good for him,” he says, still wondering if she’s talking about him, and she looks at him in scorn. He knows the look. It means he’s misunderstood, and she’s wasted her time. “You didn’t think so then.” That ends the story for the night; but he stays up a long time, after, trying to remember the men he’s known. He remembers working, long days squinting against the glare on the sea, and long nights drinking with the other men–fishermen?–after that. He remembers laughing. But he can’t remember any faces except his own, and he doesn’t remember knowing anyone who believed that love conquered all odds, except maybe the girl with the thin straight hair that he thinks might have been his wife. “Once upon a time, there was a man,” she tells him. “He was not a very good man, but he was a handsome man, as humans go. He had a good job, and a woman who loved him, and everyone told him he should have been happy.” Her eyes glint like they’re speckled with salt. It is clear that this idea amuses her beyond measure. “Maybe he wanted something else,” he says; then, more hesitantly, “Maybe he didn’t love the woman.” “Oh, he loved her,” she answers, more entertained than ever. “But he was
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afraid, and jealous, and he was a fool. The woman was very pretty, true, but not pretty enough to drive men mad. He had no excuse for his foolishness, and a human would say that if he had not been a fool, they might have been very happy indeed.” “And what do you say?” She smiles at him, pleased, and stretches out a slender finger to caress him under his chin. The finger has no nail. “I say that if a man acts as foolish as that for no reason, he is of a nature that is likely to make him unhappy regardless of a very pretty, very human wife. I say that a man acting as foolish as that is a sign that he wants something more, and I would say that a man like that would count himself very lucky to have found it.” But he’s not listening anymore; he says, “Wife?” and then, “I thought you didn’t know anything about wives.” She frowns, drawing back her hand. “I don’t,” she snaps. “But you will keep using the word.” She leaves him, and that ends the story for the night. “Once upon a time, there was a woman,” she tells him, “and you acted very foolishly towards her. You shouted at her, and told her to go, and she thought you meant it, and left, and didn’t come back.” He doesn’t remember shouting. He remembers a book, and a girl with thin straight hair reading it, and laughing. He remembers wondering where she got it. He remembers asking her, but he doesn’t remember shouting. “I remember a book,” he says, out loud.
“You tore out the pages,” she answers. “You dropped them in the water. I have them now.” “Do you take everything that falls in the water?” She laughs, and runs a hand through her thick green hair. The expected, flirtatious answer: “Only the things I like.” She looks at him, and he knows what she wants him to think. It might even be true. But he can’t remember it; he can’t remember seeing the water from land, and he can’t remember lusting after it. He can imagine himself with the book, tearing out the pages one by one and dropping them into the water, but he can’t remember it. He can’t remember jumping in after them. He looks away. “I think I’m going to sleep now,” he
says. That ends the story for that night. Once upon a time, the book says, there was a boy and a girl. The girl had golden hair and eyes of blue that flashed violet in her fits of passion; the boy was dark, with sullen grey eyes and more money than he knew what to do with. Or at least, so the man believes; some of the letters are unreadable, worn away with the water. He has pieced together the story that he believes to make the most sense, filled in words in his mind if not on the page–he has nothing to write with, nothing that works underwater. The story has nothing at all to do with him. He does not remember blonde hair. He does not remember money, any money at all, except perhaps a coin handed over a counter here and there. All the same, he
found the pages himself, folded carefully beneath a rock; they were not given to him by her hand to keep him content or discontent, and when he reads he tries not to hear the words in her rhythmic whispering voice. There are many pages to the story, though not as many as were in the book. It will take him a long time to read through, longer to weave the broken bits together with the most likely strands of narrative. He will keep it secret, he thinks. He will read it every night, and it will be his story. And by the time he has finished it, he promises himself, he will be gone from here; he will return the pages to the girl he perhaps took them from. He thinks that whoever she is, she deserves to be able to read the end. L
“DREAMS,” SARA SISUN
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POETRY ENOUGH: an essay in 12 parts BY ANNIE WYMAN
I. THE EXISTENTIAL BARF The only free seat on the bus is by a sullen boy who doesn’t turn his face away from the window as I slump down next to him. His Converses are dirty. As I shove my bag beneath my seat he scoots his feet out of the way and the phrase F*CK U 2 catches my eye, markered in black on one of his outsoles. The bus lurches forward, and despite my exhaustion and the boy’s smell and his surliness I find myself thinking, I like you, kid, I like your style. I mean, F*CK? That’s almost charming. The bus picks up speed. I press my forehead to the seat in front of me, sweating into its rainbow upholstery, and I relax, which means I let myself glower. I am unembarrassed to do this because 1) I am, like I said, exhausted and it’s hot and 2) I figure that this kid will understand me. Together he and I can fill up this whole row with our vague unhappinesses, all the way from Albany to Saratoga, and it will be great. He stares out the window. I stare at the floor. Yo. Kid, (I am thinking this at the kid— this is something I believe most people do, this thinking things at other people, on buses and in grocery stores and across restaurants and sometimes oceans). Yo Adam or Stephen or Eric, or whatever, I, too, have dark secrets and longings which may not be exactly the same as yours in the particulars but in a general sense must be similar, given your shoes and my chapped lips, which are bleeding because I have been biting them. You see, I bite when I am nervous, and when I am sad. You and me, Stephen, we should be friends. Then I think, more to myself than to the kid: Maybe everybody should just be friends. This last conclusion strikes my sleepstarved brain as perhaps genius and even makes my heart lift a little and I want to look at Eric or Adam and tell him about
it out loud, for real, but fortunately I don’t because at that moment something in my stomach ripples and clenches and I nearly puke. I swallow this back—this psychic nausea, this existential seasickness incarnated as barf (I’d say it might be something like plain old carsickness from staring at the bus floor mixed with lingering airsickness and far too much Diet Coke with those terrific rings of ice in it you can stick your tongue through and which you can pretty much only get on AA flights, but life is never so simple) and as I swallow back this barf I think about when I was in the sixth grade and I got a pair of Airwalks, real skater’s shoes. I mean, Stephen, Eric, whoever, there was this boy in my class who had Airwalks, I mean, he could ollie, and he was from Chicago, and his name was Ryan and he was hott. I etched SUBLIME into the toes of my very own Airwalks shoes with a ballpoint to make them cooler. Sublime was a cool band, and they played a song that had my name in it and I knew the hott boy liked that song especially and at the time I don’t think it mattered to me that it was a song about a prostitute. With my head bent like this, smushed up against the seatback in front of me, the only objects in my field of vision are my feet and his. My contact lenses are stuck to my eyeballs with a thin layer of blear. My mouth tastes of bile and ash. I am far too miserable to distract myself from my misery with my journal or a book, and my iPod exploded back in San Francisco two days before this trip. As we jolt to a halt at a stop sign another wave of something icky starts to rise. And then I notice that the boy’s shoes are identical, which they should surely not be, and the patches are attached to the canvas with a neat machine stitch. The graffiti is silkscreen. There’s no way that even handwriting is the boy’s own, which
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means it is a f*cking font. A patch reads FASHION SUX up the outside of his left foot; another reads FASHION SUX up the outside right. For a second I feel worse, and then I feel numb. The boy’s nose is now against the window. We pass a sign that says Welcome on our way out of town. We’ve made it to the country, and the highway runs upside the treeline. Hey kid, it’s okay. I never learned to skateboard. I wore my Airwalks twice, and then I stopped wearing them because it was too weird a thing for a girl at my school to do, and because I was ashamed each time I laced them, very ashamed and afraid, not of what the hott boy might think but because those shoes were a reminder that I had no idea who I was. And as long as I didn’t know that, there would be no friendships and no boyfriends and no fitting in.
II. THIS IS SARATOGA SPRINGS This bus ride marks my arrival in upstate New York, where I will spend my time in a poetry workshop at Skidmore College, run by the New York State Writers Institute, which I will go ahead and say right now is prestigious and which famous authors go to. The students here are of all ages, from twenty-or-so and school-age on up to sixty and professional—in short, it’s a smallish gathering of people who have made and are trying to make writing their life, and like many of these gatherings, you can pay to go to it, too. This bus ride of mine takes forty minutes. I’m dropped off outside the Adirondack Trailways / Greyhound bus depot, a portable building in a parking lot attached to a coffee shop with a plaster horse bolted to its roof. As I exit the bus, I smash a man’s seeing-eye dog across the skull with my messenger bag. His wife is seated across the aisle;
she has a seeing eye-dog, too. The couple got on about fifteen minutes ago, but I was half-asleep then, so by the time I notice they have animals I shouldn’t but could probably pet I’ve already nearly killed one. The poor thing doesn’t even yelp as I bash it—so welltrained, and so stoic. The woman smiles in my direction as I wish the driver a pleasant afternoon. In the sunlight I shove myself onto the base of a lamppost and stretch out my legs atop my suitcase and call 411 for a cab. My wallet is empty and I’m hungry and my cell phone is almost dead, and so I’m happy when the blue Crown Victoria arrives, though it stops eighty feet from where I’m standing, all the way at the other end of the deserted parking lot. The driver waves through the windshield and I lug my shit over. The driver uses one arm to rock himself out of the cab. He is enormous. Everywhere I look—each of his arms, his thighs, his breasts, there is enough mounded meat to make an average big man’s belly. A feathery orange beard covers his cheeks. Its growth begins almost at the corners of his eyes. He wears a thin greasegray polo and a pair of aviator glasses with orange rims. He helps with my bag. The lock is busted off my door. The back seat moans and I fasten my seatbelt.
We turn up Broadway, Saratoga’s main drag. We pass a few coffeeshops: Mrs. London’s (when I venture in, later in the week, I find tea cozies and floral wallpaper), Uncommon Grounds (a nice place that has a subpar cucumber wasabi dressing), and a place called The Circus Cafe (the hostess’s stand reads Step Right Up in crimson lettering) vying for al fresco space with larger restaurants. The shop windows are crammed with sundresses and riding crops. Gaudy plaster racehorses appear on both sides of Broadway, their hooves bolted to the sidewalk. One is covered with a mosaic of mashed-up disco ball, one saddled with flattened Pepsi boxes. One is wearing kneesocks, another an American flag. This, I can assume with only 98% accuracy, is Saratoga Springs’ version of the Chicago Cow Parade. But Saratoga is almost exactly 100 times smaller than Chicago, really freaking tiny, and so there are about four ponies on every block and they appear not at all serendipitous or whimsical but as a kind of kitschy equine infestation. Near the bank I see that one statue has been painted with a brick and mortar pattern up to its haunches, stucco above—camouflaged against the building behind it as though it were embarrassed to be seen. Saratoga Springs is home to the oldest racetrack in the country, and at the end of July, the town will triple in size and quintuple in wealth. I’ll miss the racing season, since it opens at the end of July, but the sidewalks are already bustling with otherwise welldressed women
wearing Bjørn sandals, plus husbands, plus townies, who are standing around the way townies do, as if you’re a total assh*le for not also standing around. The driver asks me if I’ve ever been to Saratoga before, how long I’m staying, hands me a little stack of homemade inkjet printer business cards and dictates to me the number for a 24-hour-service company since he likes to be off the road at six. We pass a few blocks of elaborately-banistered Victorian mansions the size of elementary schools. “The problem with the campus,” says the driver, “is that it’s up here in the projects.” “Ha-ha,” I say.
III. EXHAUSTION, DISCOMFORT, MEANNESS, GRAVY In actuality, the problem with the campus is that it’s up here in the boonies, and it’s tiny. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do, unless you want to hop the trolley into town (the problem with the trolley is that it’s just a truck, with the body of a trolley welded atop it). I get out of the cab at Case College Center, Skidmore’s atherosclerotic stucco heart. The Case Center houses a post office, a souvenir and bookshop, a café, a commonuse computer area, and a downstairs lounge area called the SPA, where every evening the Summer Writers Institute hosts its author receptions. I pick up my key at the housing registration desk on the second floor. The boy who takes my picture for my ID card is barefoot (outside the Case Center there is a motto etched into the sidewalk: We Value Creative Thought, which puts me in mind of primary-colored crayons, and then I imagine the kid and his three dozen
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classmates dancing barefoot across this motto, smearing themselves with organic poster paints and totally out of their minds with huffing said paints, and maybe also hasish. I’m exhausted, and uncomfortable, and thus unequivocally cruel). I am living in Wiecking Hall, also called Skidmore Hall, three stories of brick stacked into a horseshoe in the bottom-left corner of the parking lot. I drop off my bag. It’s 3:47pm. I am three hours and forty-seven minutes late, having promised the program director I would be in by noon so as not to miss my first class. This was during negotiations, when I bargained my way into arriving an entire day after we were instructed to (I didn’t want to miss a party for a roommate back home, though the emailed excuse was “family emergency”). I make my way back through the parking lot past the Case Center to the college green. I am looking for Palamountain Hall, where I will check in with the NYSWI, and it takes me a while to find it despite the fact that there are four (4) buildings to choose from. A sheet of ivy covers one side of the building, completely obscuring all of the giant iron nameplate except half of the A, the I, and the N. I make my way to the NYSWI offices, a shared suite also occupied by Salmagundi, one of the most respected institutional literary journals in America (later, I will find that one of my fellow interns in San Francisco is an editorial assistant at Salmagundi, but she’s not even in California anymore, having left for New York City to work in her cousin’s bathing suit showroom). In the offices I meet Marc Woodworth, a nice man in shorts and square-rimmed glasses. He hands me a yellow folder, which contains my schedule for the next two weeks. There are around three hundred students here, and we’re split up into fiction, poetry and nonfiction workshops that run two weeks each. We get individual conferences with institute faculty, private tutorials if we want them, plus readings. I’m here because I want to work with Campbell McGrath, a well-respected poet with a nononsense reputation, a formalist whose work I admire. I have some vague hope, like many of the other students, that my teacher will beat or scare some of my own poetry out of me. Then Marc and I are off down the hall to my classroom, where Campbell has
already been teaching for three hours. I can hear him through the door—and it’s a thick door. Marc asks if I want to go ahead and go in. “I think I’ll wait until he’s finished,” I tell him, assuming it won’t be long since Campbell’s supposed to have finished ten minutes ago. Marc smiles at me and wishes me well and disappears off again down the hall. I wander up and down the corridor. I notice the Coke machine takes credit cards. I wash my hands in the bathroom. I leaf through my folder—it contains a few poems and a schedule of the twenty-five readings to be held over the next thirty days, thirteen of which I’ll catch. When the door to Room 00382 (I wonder, and still have not verified, if there are ten thousand rooms in Skidmore’s four buildings) opens at last and a gingery sharpboned person emerges, followed by a flock of people with yellow folders. Campbell McGrath, I want to say, but the words die in my throat as the bunch of them pushes by me back toward the program offices. Campbell’s showing everyone where to turn in their assignments, the plywood boxes bolted to the walls. I join the crowd, without really knowing what else to do but as soon as he’s finished I stick out my hand and say my name. He’s already guessed why I latched on to his tour and motions me into the classroom to give me the day’s assignment and a rundown. Afterwards, I buy a salad at the Case Center and sit on the back porch to smoke and work on my stuff for Wednesday. Grade-schoolers, gifted students here through a Johns-Hopkins program, are arranged over fully half of the college green. They are reading, all forty or so of them, lying on their stomachs under the trees, and their silence is flabbergasting. They seem so serious, so earnest. As for me, fresh off a flight I pushed back a day because I wanted to get drunk and make fun of the other drunk people dancing in my apartment while sure as hell not dancing myself—well, serious I am probably not. I’ve been at my writing for about an hour when a friend wanders by. Steven, from school, who’s here to study fiction on the four-week program. Steven! I am happy to see him, and he sticks out one arm for a sidewise hug and drops down next to me. He introduces Alicia, another Stanford graduate in his
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workshop, and we shoot the breeze. After about an hour we head to the dining hall, where I buy yet another salad and steal Steven a piece of chicken because he’s living off campus and doesn’t pay board and can’t sneak past the sour woman who swipes our ID cards. Alicia brings him some pork and they have an in-depth conversation about the gravy. I mean, I think this is great and engaging and all, but I beg off after a while and go to my dorm to take a shower. I’ve been without sleep for about thirty-one hours, bounced from BART to red-eye to layover to the terrifying turbulent shudder of a miniscule commuter jet to the Adirondack Trailways to the cab (consulting a card now, that excellent one-man outfit is called Geyser Taxi) to campus.
IV. THE WORD I’M LOOKING FOR IS FAKER The New York Summer Writers Institute is run by the department of English at Skidmore—for the most part, its administrators are the editors of Salmagundi—and a program also called the NYSWI at the state university at Albany. I have already met Marc Woodworth, and I will not meet the other directors, Bob and Peggy Boyers, though I will see them a hundred times over the next two weeks. They seem indefatigable and energetic and surprisingly loving, which is maybe what makes me keep my distance. Clear-eyed people are dangerous, and what I am most afraid of at this moment is some smart person seeing through me. Though I long for the comfort of my Wiecking dorm bed, which earlier appeared to be a narrow slab unencumbered by any such thing as a mattress, plus one pillow, one thin blanket and sheets half a foot too short to cover the plastic beneath, there is a reading tonight. There’s a reading every night, in fact. So off to Davis Auditorium in Palamountain, where at first I attempt to sit next to a writer named Kathryn Harrison in the front row. She’ll be reading second tonight, and the idea of such sudden proximity to such relative celebrity lifts my heart. But then Kathryn Harrison looks me up and down and tells me to go sit somewhere else. My cheeks redden. Excuse me, I want to tell her. but the auditorium is full. I was motioned down here by the usher. Then Steven waves to
me from a higher row and pulls his jacket off the seat next to him. “Saved it,” he says, as I drop down into the chair. Our first reader is the Pulitzer prizewinning music critic and poet and public radio personality Lloyd Schwartz. Bob Boyers, long of skull and ponytail, reads a two-page introduction to the life and times of Lloyd Schwartz. It is a lovefest, an enthusiastic, intelligent if orgiastic torrent of praise. None of it registers. I am already half asleep. Schwartz reads a string of poems. He certainly is fun-loving, waving his arms about and brushing his wave of grayish hair off his forehead with gusto. He is unstinting with the anecdotes and the radio voice. I find most of his poems precious, especially one sestina—all far too twee, too skittish to stare down any real emotional truth. But he gives me one line I can’t shake out of my head: It’s like finding a needle in the eye of the beholder. Kathryn Harrison is next. She is a memoirist, and she has things to say about her father, but I am too exhausted to pay much attention, my head by this point lolling against my chest and against Steven’s shoulder. He jabs me twice in the ribcage to no effect—I am so tired it feels more like he is prodding me gently toward some soft land of sleep. I doze off and wake up and then most of the audience and the readers are off to the lounge in the Case Center for beer and plastic cups of wine and cheese cubes and broccoli with ranch dip and conversation about books. Here I meet Brendan, a wideeyed sophomore from the area who’s in workshop with Alicia and Steven. We sit at a table together. Brendan is sweet and wants to know why their group doesn’t talk more about plot construction, a subject on which he has read several books. Steven and I will laugh about this later, though in the moment I envy him and feel bad I haven’t read anything about plot and know that the problem with my stories is that nothing ever happens in them. This seemed like, at one point, a good reason to study poetry and to try and write that instead. Plus the other problem with my stories is that I can’t give up “poetic language.” Unfortunately, the poem I write for the second day of workshop earns me this response (though not from Campbell, not
quite yet): I was thinking about your debt to prosody. This stings me badly, even as I try to make the point that he has misused that last word. He has, but I know exactly what he meant. Who the hell do I think I am, I thought then, and think again at the table with Steven and Alicia and Brendan with his plot-talk. I am a person with dubious feelings about the study of creative writing who majors in fiction and then goes to poetry camp because she hasn’t done so well with fiction in the first place. I fold my hands on the tabletop and try to make some lighthearted chit-chat with my friends to make myself feel better. They seem happy to be here, after all. “Bob Boyers,” I say, “has his nose pretty close to some buttholes.” Oh my God what is this I have said! I am horrified at myself. Steven laughs a little, very politely, and Alicia follows suit. I try again. “I can’t believe we just talked about Chekhov.” (Which is in fact what we talked about on the way to cheese cubes and broccoli.) “I hate myself.” “Yeah,” says Alicia, “but I like Chekhov. That little dog lady story.” “Duh,” I say. “I mean, that’s his best one.” I’ve read this story, and I can’t remember when. And I’ve heard Francine Prose talk about this story, as have many other people in cities she hit on her book tour. I remember Francine very vividly, and how her fingers tensed on the edge of the podium as she talked about the old Russian master and his story. It is for sure a wonderful story. There’s a little dog, and a lady, who is maybe also little. On second thought, I haven’t read it, but I don’t bother to tell Alicia that. As I trudge back to Wiecking, I wonder—is there a word for people like me?
V. STUDENT PLATINUM VISA Two days later, a Wednesday, I find myself in Campbell’s class for the first time. Everyone else did introductions Monday, and Campbell asks me to say a bit about myself. Airwalks, I think at him, but the thought seems to misfire, missing him completely to float somewhere at the front of the classroom, distracting me while I
mumble my response—though there already are many things to be embarrassed about in Who I Am: 1) I go to Stanford, a tech school, an elite/elitist school, which means I’ve chosen to go somewhere that doesn’t value Art and creative expression, like, oh, say, Skidmore. 2) At Stanford I study creative writing, which sometimes feels really stupid because I’m taking workshop classes in lieu of learning as much as humanly possible about the history of my country or other people’s countries or reading Tolstoy or Levi-Strauss or how this miracle of a galaxy balances in its nothingness. 3) In the Stanford creative writing program my official emphasis is fiction and not poetry, the allegation being that I’m doing it because fiction writing is more glamorous and more profitable. I could go on, but I won’t, because honestly, I am tired and embarrassed again. Even as I write this I lose track of myself in my attempt to defend my curriculum vitae, to pick just the right details and say them just offhandedly enough to assure everyone that I’ve considered all the things I could be doing and have chosen something better than everyone else. And I’m never sure if I’m defending myself from others— whose allegations are these?—or from the convulsions of my own insecurity. As we read other students’ work over the next three hours I offer a sentence here and there, mostly nitpicking someone’s choice of words, a line break or something— easy criticism in the service of finding one’s place by being mean (and today I’m not even that tired). I look Campbell in the eye precisely once. Later that afternoon Steven and I head to town and seek out a used bookstore. I spend an hour in front of the wall of first editions. I buy my third copy of A Separate Peace, a second printing. A Separate Peace is one of my favorite novels. The narrator, Gene, attends a prep school during World War II. At school he suffers the death of his best friend, Phineas, a true golden boy, an athlete, a tree-climber, etc. What wrings my heart in the book is not the idea or fact of death but that unto death Gene cannot negotiate friendship and ambition, jealously, self-consciousness, even platonic love. That for Phineas and Gene want and doubt and youthfulness can slay so much.
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The second copy of A Separate Piece I bought cost me two dollars in a Half-Price Books in Dallas. It was a great find, inscribed on the flyleaf by Knowles to a boy named Warren: “I bet you are just like Phineas.” My heart thrilled for Warren, and I wanted to know him, though he was probably an oldish man by then. You know, Warren, I’ve always thought I was just like Gene. One of the blurbs on my new copy, from a magazine I’ve never heard of, reads, “Is he the successor to Salinger for whom we have been waiting so long?” Knowles didn’t ever quite live up to that, at least not to most critics. He did for me. And anyway, that kind of yearning—for the real stories and their tellers, does infect, me, and it’s partially Knowles’s fault. Maybe it’s more intense here because I feel hollow, and have always felt a little hollow around writers. But oh my God it is wonderful, this shimmering shifting hunger. As usual, today I combine that hunger with the need to consume, and I take out my Bank of America Student Platinum Visa and think about stacking this book with all my others. But as I hold it in my hand, even as I know it is not good to buy things to make yourself feel better, especially books, since they are Art, and I am cheapening them, I also know that if I can think I am just like Gene, like Someone—well, at least that isn’t No One, and that can numb the doubt for a while.
VI. DINING HALLS, AND AN ANALOGY The Johns-Hopkins kids are always wandering around talking about unified field theory. On my second day, several of them are dressed in drag, though at first I don’t notice so much that the girls are doing it. They look like I looked when I was a Gifted Kid, shapeless jean shorts and baggy t-shirts, sneakers and crew socks. I walk behind a handful of little boys on my way to dinner one evening. One boy ventures an opinion on what sounds to me like “a burrito-shaped infinite galaxy.” One of his friends shakes his head. “I don’t want to say anything is impossible, but that?” He is wearing a beautiful red bra strapped across his skinny ribcage. I eat all my meals in the Skidmore
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Dining Hall. The Johns-Hopkins kids are always everywhere, clamoring at the pizza counter and throwing saltshakers at each other in the booths. Sylphs, their hair drawn up buns and doughnuts and even what seem to be croissants atop their heads, spill waffle batter at the do-it-yourself breakfast stand. They’re ballerinas, aged six to seventeen; Skidmore has a summer dance camp, the Briansky Saratoga Ballet. Instructors are here from the Kirov, from the New York City Ballet, and from the Paris Opera. In four days a principal from the New York company, which has its summer home in Saratoga, will be busted for cocaine possession in a parking lot on Broadway. I eat all my meals alone, always at the same booth by the window, sometimes with a book by Milan Füst and sometimes with my laptop. One morning, I overhear a tenyear-old say, “Oh yeah? I went to sleep at like twelve. I was texting this girl.” (Should I digress at this moment to discuss the surge of indignation and mild disgust I feel overhearing this little boy talk about his texting? To have my concentration broken yet again by the chatter of preadolescents—bragging, arguing, circling each other on their socio-sexual training wheels— when I’m trying to work on a poem I know will be shitty if I don’t spend every minute I have on it? Should I then make a little analogy, to the way the writing students here circle each other, how one woman, maybe thirty, has already established herself as queen of our class and is always holding the hand of a mildly cute MFA student and sharing his cigarettes, and how she complains that Campbell doesn’t listen to her because she’s a woman, and how she’s written one mean poem for workshop already, one that chastised other people in our class for “walking about like they’s hot soup” and informed them that she hoped that the “door does hit them on the ass on their way out” (lines 2, 13). Should I say, in my analogy, that I actually felt excluded when Caroline read that, being acutely aware of my status as f*ker, like her door was aimed at my ass, and that maybe I resent the texting kid because if I had had a cellphone at age ten there would have been no little boy to send me messages on it, except for maybe wee Thomas Weatherford, who only wanted to
be my friend and I mean wee when I say it because the only thing I remember him ever talking about was how it felt super to pee in the pool. Could I then extend that analogy, to the way that Kathryn Harrison eats in the cafeteria, like me, though I rarely ever see another instructor or even adult students here, and that she always sits alone, like me? Is life that simple? Probably not.) The food in the cafeteria is actually pretty good.
VII. THE PREDICAMENT, AND THE GRACE More readings, more receptions. Frank Bidart, who thumps his chest and gestures up to the last row and beyond that to an empty heaven somewhere above, on the other side of the Palamountain ceiling. Michael Ondaatje—another of my heroes— who has a lot of funny hairs growing out of his face. Russell Banks, who wears a little diamond earring and boots and loses his car keys. At the reception for Mary Gordon, Alicia flashes a polite smile at Matt, who is carrying an empty Heineken bottle and a nearly full Michelob Ultra. He seats himself at our table, slumping over it and placing his chin in his hands. He’s in Steven and Alicia’s workshop. He has a buzz, coarse skin, round glasses and a flat nose, the knuckles of a bruiser and a big thick build. The conversation runs the usual course— what’d you think of Mary Gordon, wasn’t it crowded, where are you from. Matt says, Good, yes, from Salt Lake, where I’m in an MFA program. I tune out immediately, already having proven myself as no good at conversation. I stick my face in Pax Atomica, Campbell’s latest book. How else to convey a sense of the predicament? How else to envision grace? After Matt leaves the table, Alicia tells me Matt used to be a Mormon but he left the flock when he was accused of homosexuality and told to stop spending time with his Scout Troop to avoid the unnatural temptations of sleeping bag and sing-a-long. Campbell wanders by. He has a sort of speedy slouch and ducks his head frequently, but when he says, “Hi, Annie,” I’m pretty sure he’s ducked that head at me.
LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007 MIKE FLEMING
“Hi.” “How are you doing?” “I’m reading your book.” This last pops out of my mouth as if I’ve just been heimliched. “Good,” says Campbell, and slouches off sideways into the crowd, the collar of his windbreaker pulled up tight against his neck. After the receptions Steven and Alicia and Brendan and I sometimes go back to Steven’s apartment to watch a movie. He’s renting a place, since he’ll be here a whole month, and it’s a nice break to leave campus, to have Oreos instead of cubes of cheese on toothpicks. One night we watch Short Bus and then Alicia gives me a ride back. For whatever reason, we started the movie late, and now it’s almost one in the morning. I hop out of the car. There is a woman sitting on the one dry bench below the side entrance to Wiecking Hall. As my luck would have it, she is smoking, and as Alicia’s Beamer pulls away I ask her for a light. “Well, sure,” she says. Her voice is low and her neck very thick. “I was just hoping someone else would be up.” She reaches out a sluggish arm and offers me a matchbook. It’s unfair to say that an unmodulated voice is frightening, inhuman, that monotone speech puts one in mind of the disassociated and then, a heartbeat later, the psychopathic. It is indeed unfair, but in this moment, hearing this woman speak, I am very, very frightened. “Yeah,” I say, taking her matchbook and striking one. I slip my foot out of my sandal and pat it around on the cement. This is a nervous habit, and usually it keeps me from running away from people. “I’m Jean,” says the woman, and slicks back a strip of bang that has fallen across her forehead. “Yeah,” I say. I don’t even think to offer my name but instead hold a mouthful of smoke on my tongue, patting my foot, nodding, anything to keep my cool—and fortunately Jean keeps talking, in that low, rolling Buffalo Bill tone of hers. Jean, I learn, is in Frank Bidart’s master class. Three days a week they—the elite seventeen—workshop a poem each. Their sessions can last five hours. Jean has a poem due at eleven tomorrow and she is
stuck. I manage to ask her some questions. Jean started writing five years ago, she says, when she was thirty-five. One of her astrologers in Tucson, or Scottsdale, she doesn’t remember, told her to announce herself as a poet. “So I wrote one poem, you know, a year, for like five years, and then I came here, and that’s how it all started.” But how, I ask her. “It came to me as a gift. I took a pen and I had a piece of paper and it just came out.” She makes a noise like a gentle fart with her mouth, which must be the sound of poems just coming out. We talk a little bit about where I’m from. Texas, I say, but I live in San Francisco. I want to stay there and write. I went to New York and I didn’t like it so much. Jean is from Greenwich, Connecticut, but now she lives somewhere further south than that, with her boyfriend, and doesn’t specify where. She asks me for one of my cigarettes, angling her chin at the shiny red package poking out of my bag. “I haven’t had a Dunhill since I was in London,” says Jean, “because I couldn’t get Marlboros. I haven’t had a Dunhill since 1975, since before you were born.” I am infinitely pleased by this, the way she says it, that she’s been to London. Me, too! I want to say. And recently! I lie to Jean about having Dunhills because a friend gave them to me as a special treat. I bought myself these Dunhills because other people like them. Because they want them, and because they act impressed when I have them. “What sort of poetry do you write?” I ask, looking her in the eyes. She is wearing black liner on her lower lids, and despite the late hour she looks fresh. Her hair is cut very short. I am no longer frightened, and even approving—because I can convince myself that she approves of me. “I’m working towards a sort of prophetic poetry,” Jean says. “I have this sense of an ominous future coming. I write about political things, too—stuff that I have first hand experience of. Immigration. That kind of political stuff. Addiction. Violence.” She peers at me from under her bangs. “Miami,” she says. It seems she has remembered where she is now living, a few minutes after that question has passed. I nod, like it’s nothing, like this is
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every night of my life. I’m shivering—the long sweater I’m wearing, one that zips up at the neck, still leaves my legs bare under my dress and my sandals as I flex my feet under the straps are damp from the grass. It’s the Fourth of July and it was rainy all day. “I can do deep mediation. I can just do it, and I write about what I see in a planetary way. It’s my background in philosophy and theology, you know, I went to McGill. It’s the way I have of seeing.” I tell her I am hesitating, that I can’t figure out what I’m doing, that I’m used to writing stories and that I am shocked as shit that people can declare themselves as poets. That I admire that more than anything in the world and that the word poet is the one I want more than any other word. Jean tilts her head. “If you go to France, and you say, I’m a poet they say, read me something. Not here. They want to know if you’re published. Do you have a professorship.” I borrow another match. A Skidmore campus security SUV inches up out of the trees to the curb. “Oh, here he comes,” says Jean. “Does this guy want to chat?” Of course he wants to chat. Jean makes incredibly adept small talk with the man, and before I can finish another smoke he is gone. An hour later, I leave Jean on the stairs—she’s on the second floor of Wiecking, while I am on the third—and she tells me, “Usually, I can pray myself to sleep. But even that, I mean—tonight even that isn’t working.”
VIII. HIS VOICE IN MY EAR ON A BUSY CITY STREET Oh my God I have to get out of here. On Saturday morning I leave for New York City. A weekend trip! Though my mood is black, in workshop I’ve been doing better, since a burgeoning but mostly unacknowledged fear of Campbell—you could also call it respect—has had me up until three each morning. This one, he told me, in a one-on-one meeting, pointing at a poem I thought was my strongest. I don’t even get what this one is. What is this? I blush and squirm. Inside, I am angry and ashamed. I don’t know, Campbell. You’re the MacArthur Fellow. You write wonderful books. I think about my shoes a lot.
But pressure is one way to make the words come, pressure and the fear of embarrassment, and sometimes that’s what I need—an audience to perform for, to make me sit up straight and write. Maybe that’s what workshop is good for, especially programs like this one—“the gulag,” Jean called it, with its impossible deadlines and the kind of fellow students who sometimes bellow, “NEVER USE THE WORD BECAUSE IN A POEM.” But for now I need a break because my head is going to explode. The man from Geyser Taxi takes me to the Saratoga Amtrak station. My train is half an hour late, which is fine since I can buy a Pepsi and sit in the sunshine and just chill out for the first time in one hundred and thirty-three hours. My train takes me along the Hudson, the stumpy New England foliage and the mud of the river interrupted by dying industrial towns and streaks of obscenely red berries in the underbrush. When we slow, pulling into Schenectady and Poughkeepsie, I find these berries grow in horrible fat cones, the only color in the landscape clustered crudely into what I can only describe as the botanical incarnation of a thousand middle fingers, a thousand protruding tongues—oh my God poetry is
ruining me I have to get out of here. I have plans to meet up with a friend from high school. At Penn Station I transfer to the subway. I get off the F at Second and Bowery, emerging at last from beneath the city. I shake my head in the warm evening air. Manhattan! Lower East Side! This is better than fancy cigarettes. I know this neighborhood. I used to worry about the streetslime crawling up the hems of my jeans as I walked through the Asian market on my way to work just up the block—oh, that ubiquitous Grand Street goo, redolent of lychee and fisheye, pounded into the asphalt by twenty-four-hour pedestrian traffic. I make a phone call and wait on the sidewalk, my face pointed in the direction from which I think my friend will come. “Well, hi.” He’s snuck up from behind me. I fling my arms around him, despite my bags, despite my sweat and his, and find my check stuck against the side of his head, my eyelashes touching the upper rim of his ear. His hair is blond and tufted and its smell is familiar, a lemoniness that cuts through even the Lower East Side’s metropolitan reek.
IX. LUXURIOUS ASS-PRINT, OR, “I’M NOT AFRAID OF WHO I
AM.” After a few minutes of chit-chat in Gardner’s apartment, his roommates arrive. They’re huffing and puffing, and they haul up the stairs between them four or so square feet of plasma flatscreen television. They pause to shake my hand—Parry, who works at Morgan Stanley, and Ian, who is Credit Suisse (Gardner is Citigroup, infrastructure and bonds)—and then the three of them slip the sleek dark thing from its cardboard sheath, from its Styrofoam and bubblewrap. We ooh-and-ahh together, though I find time to mention to that, you know, I don’t really watch TV. We don’t have one in my apartment, never needed it, what can I say. Plasma flatscreen hi-def?—doesn’t mean anything to me. Still I move in for a closer investigation. My reflection hangs in the bright surface of the screen and I am relieved to see that my hair looks—this is unbelievable—great! I nod approvingly at myself, though Parry and Ian and Gardner assume I am nodding approvingly at their TV—which maybe I am. It will look nice above their fireplace, with the leather sofas and the oak table and and the oil paintings and all the other nicelooking things Harvard-summa-cum-laudecum-i-banker boys have that I wouldn’t
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notice if they didn’t really mean anything to me. Would I look nice here, Gardner? I could certainly try. “You should hang out for dinner,” he says. “Well, I have a thing. But I’m not sure my thing is set yet, you know, I have to see. I have to call my friend, who is kind of a flake?” “We have pasta and sausages. We have new pots. Nonstick stainless titanium alloy Teflon copper-bottom.” He waves his arm at a stack of boxes on the marble kitchen countertop. “Parry’s mom went to Pottery Barn.” Parry’s shirt is open two buttons, revealing a broad field of handsome curls. He is still glistening ever-so-slightly from the journey with the flatscreen, and when he greeted me a few minutes ago his voice was downright velvety. Now he is standing at the bar in the kitchen, and now he is on the couch with a bottle in his hand before I can blink. Its cap disappears with a soft, beery poof. “A/C up,” he tells Gardner, who takes the remote from its wall brackets and dials down the temp from 75 to 60. I tell Gardner all about Skidmore, and I drop the name John Updike for no reason, really, as if I had a right to, and Parry says, “Yes. I live by him.” He rises from the couch—the leather retains a luxurious Parry-shaped ass-print— and motions me over to the bookshelf. It’s hidden by the door, but sure enough, it’s big, more than maybe two hundred volumes. He’s got his Updike—Rabbit, Run through Rabbit at Rest, four collections of essays, plus Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Richard Ford. Even poetry, mostly Robert Lowell. All the wise white dons of American lit, more than I’ve ever read and ever will and wish I could—and wouldn’t you know it, half a shelf of Chekhov. Passing back by the kitchen to the living room, I notice a tattered square of paper magneted to the fridge. It’s a cut-out from Glamour magazine, a little sidebar entitled What Makes a Real Man Sexy? Parry’s headshot is in the corner, and next to it is his quote: I’m not afraid of who I am. I’ve got a little chest hair, and I like to show it. I’d actually like to hang around, but I have to leave, to meet up with my friend Devin, whom I haven’t seen in at least six
months. We have dinner in Nolita. Corn with mayonnaise and cayenne, mojitos while we wait an hour for a table, and by an hour after that I am drunk and we have both have smears of Cuban cheese in the corners of our mouths and couldn’t care less. An hour after that Gardner comes to join us at a party for a bunch of Columbia film school grad students a few blocks away. I know one person, and he, like everyone else who has one, is completely preoccupied with showing off his iPhone for most of the party. So I spend my time with my old friend and my older friend, and when Devin leaves to catch his bus back to Boston I curl up on Gardner’s bed, which he has surrendered in favor of the couch. Before I fall asleep, he leans over me and says, “Just so you’re comfortable, if you want you can change the temp,” and waves the A/C remote at me like a magic wand. Then he tiptoes out into the living room and claps his hands twice. The sliver of light at the doorjamb winks out.
X. BLUE, OR GREEN The next morning, Gardner tells me, “I have two towels. The white one has stains. You might want use to the green one, is all I’m saying.” In the bathroom, the towels indeed number two. One is white and has stains, and the other one is blue. I start to call, What green one? to Gardner through the door, but I smile instead and press my fingers to my lips. I have forgotten my friend is colorblind. A fleet, feathery something twines up my ribcage and for the sake of shorthand here I’ll call it love. In an instant I know, definitively, why people keep old friends around: to be ambushed by a love like this, a love that risks no disappointment. Do Parry and Ian help him pick out his polos, the way I know his mother used to, laying them at the edge of his quilt in the morning while he brushes his teeth and puts in his contacts, which I know he wears day in, day out, even though they hurt his eyes terribly and everyone says he looks better in his glasses? I love you, I think at him. I can hear him banging dishes around the marble kitchen. Parry and Ian are listening to a tennis match on the radio, since they haven’t installed the television yet.
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Sooner or later, I’ll tell you, Gardner, that what I apprehend now (as I laugh into your towel so that you can’t hear me in your fancy kitchen) is the texture of a friendship I thought had worn too thin, stretched over four years and four thousand miles of near-silence, and now is here, so close to me, the way it wasn’t even when I heard your voice in my ear on a busy city street. It isn’t green! It’s blue—and isn’t such error the language of our friendship—the wrong words the right ones? Weren’t we always misplaced objects, misplaced hours, the loose threads of distance and misspent days? Small slippages and small repairs. And isn’t that beautiful? Because in all the little errors we’ve made, something is held— is comprehended—between us. So maybe you couldn’t call such things errors at all. How could there be any better word for us than green, when green is actually blue, and blue, you know, is actually green? That is more than enough poetry for two weeks in New York. In the kitchen, he hands me a cup of coffee. I watch him tie his shoes at the door and I think at him, Thanks. I spend my last night in the city on a sofa in the Marriott ExecuSuites, where yet another i-banker—he’s thirty blocks closer to Penn Station, and I’ve got to be up at seven—has lent me a toothbrush and a towel. In the morning, a crick in my neck and a sweet, enlarging sense of relief spreading somewhere beneath my ribcage, I walk six blocks to the station, buy a bagel and board a train back to the gulag. The berries stick their tongues out as the Amtrak rattles by.
XI. A VERY BAD IDEA Days pass back at Skidmore the way they passed before I left, except that I am happier. I stay up late exchanging text messages with a boy far past midnight and I write my poetry and I smoke too much. I’ve thought more and more reasonably about myself and my writing after seeing Gardner, after gently disapproving of his corporate existence and enjoying his lovely apartment and allowing him to buy me drinks—and buying him some drinks in turn, and allowing him to gently disapprove of my semi-translucent bohemianism. I had nothing lovely to offer him other than my haircut, but I think it was enough. The Friday before I leave, Joyce Carol Oates, the elfin grand dame of American
fiction, with more than a hundred and fifty books under her belt in a dozen different genres, comes to read. Joyce Carol Oates is wearing a lavender bucket hat, which is wonderful because we were discussing them earlier today—bucket hats, in fact, were my first experience of second grade, when my family moved from Colorado to Texas. All the girls had denim bucket hats with big sunflowers and blouses with little roses on them and I had purple jean shorts and a t-shirt with Garfield on it and on the front of this t-shirt he was dressed as an artist and was making a big mess with some paints and the back of this t-shirt read All The Greats are Misunderstood, which was as little comfort then as now. Feeling misunderstood, I know, is no sign of greatness but in large part a function of insecurity and pridefulness. Of loneliness, of want. Maybe it will fade as I age. At the same time, it’s the one great subject of the poetry and the novels that splinter my heart, like Knowles’s—and teach me that for every chasm, there is a bridge somebody somewhere can think into being. Maybe we should all just be friends. Maybe not such a bad idea, even in its flabby unsubtle naiveté. Maybe I could rewrite it this way: Maybe we should all try to tell each other what it is to live as who we are. Oates reads a story about the last days of the life of Ernest Hemingway. “We all have an equal right to him,” she says, leaning forward over the podium before she starts to read. “We are all equidistant from him. After all I think that we are all brothers and sisters, all the same in some way—we have certain longings, the same rages.” Then she says, “Do not make your writing your life. I think this is a very bad idea.”
XII. JOYCE CAROL OATES, I DISAGREE WITH THAT LAST THING On the last day of our workshop, we go around the circle and have a little reading of our own. A man named Jason knocks it out of the park. His final poem re-imagines a village at Gardanne, chastising Cezanne for leaving without finishing his painting of its likeness. I mean, frou-frou, but through his syllables rises a pure note of dependency and longing that reminds me of Rilke:
Often a star was waiting for you to notice it. And that, right now, reminds me of old Lloyd Schwartz. Like finding a needle in the eye of the beholder. Which of course reminds me of Gardner, the sharpness of a sudden perception of love, which reminds me of home, which brings with it all of my childhood, and bobbing along in that murky river is a pair of near-pristine skateboarder’s shoes. What am I looking for? What is this sublime hurt? Why is it in Jason’s poem? Can I thread it through a poem of my own? How is all of this related to finding my place alongside other human beings? Is a beautiful poem as simple as tricking out your loneliness? Why did I come to Skidmore? Somewhere in the prosodical traffic jam above, I lined up the reasons why I feel a little shitty about what I study, and where I study it, and what I’m losing. I’ve barely addressed what it is that I gain in creatively writing, writing creatively, whatever, especially when I take the time and money to travel all the way across the country to study poetry when I might instead be able to tell people that I spent a summer working for urban sustainability (I could probably tell that lie convincingly, since I know one person who is, God bless her) or for Credit Suisse (I could probably do that one even better, since I know like forty people who are, bless them too but only provisionally and with a stern promise to check back when they’re thirty)? I came to Skidmore to study poetry, and be scared, and I did and I was. I wrote some poetry I liked. But why make poetry a part of myself when I can’t call myself a poet? When I can’t help but find a thousand contradictions in the impulse and the action? Why did I buy the fucking shoes? When even then the idea of them ripped me up inside? Here is something: everything rips me up inside. It’s hard for me to get through a poem (or a conversation) because I think too much and say (or write) too little. My words drop out from under me. I cannot overestimate how often this happens to me, how often I am lost from hour to hour to each day. This is the death of intellect and the plummet of the heart, the dissolution of all the arches and the spans, and this is it—here
it comes—this is what I find in despair and isolation—the impulse to speak, to write. The urge, as I fall, with no material at hand, is to reconstruct. It is blind and it is painful and it happens a hundred times a day. I thrash about for words and I find one—sometimes f*ck!—and suddenly I cannot have enough of them, collecting them, ordering them, making them into a sense. It’s better than buying shoes, and even buying books—it’s higher and deeper, but it’s certainly related. Call it insecurity. It is a blessing. This is how I recognize that no true emotion is ever self-assured. That the bottom will fall out again and that despair is not an ending. This is how I can question my loathing, my discomfort, my exhaustion, and my cruelty— and encourage my love and my happiness, even as they falter. This is how I know to reconstruct. To connect. To be borne up. I thrive in the difficulty. I don’t want to say I am a poet because for me that would be the end of poetry. This is how I realize that contradictions and doubt are a chance to reach across impossibility and fear. I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning that. The predicament, and the grace, is in stringing together all the separate pieces, in realizing that struggling does not imply loneliness but is hope itself— the chance to find a word and make it a language, and with it friendship, love and an identity. There are metaphors to be made here, transport mechanisms, vehicles, sentences, weave. Bridges or sutures related to the way meaning is threaded wirelike through the matrical grammar of thought and word. The way the nerves are threaded along all of my bones though the more solid mesh of my body. I won’t make those metaphors now. One word after another, I can stitch myself back together. One word after another—the vague hopes and unhappiness, the blue and the green, the Dunhills, the F*CK U 2s and bucket hats. A constellation of words on the page can comprehend a friendship or an emotion, weave them all together to make a thing of beauty, a marvelous accounting that speaks in the language I chose to give it. I would be ecstatic to call that beautiful thing my life. So let me just say one more thing, and I’m finished, rest assured. You’ve read it all now, read some part of me, and that’s poetry enough. L
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LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007 51 “STEAM “STEAM TUNNEL,” TUNNEL,” SUSAN SUSAN NOURSE NOURSE
that would be available to me after graduating from them, so I decided to take chances and change course. It wasn’t an easy decision. It was the beginning of the end of my marriage for one thing. However, for me it was the right choice, I do not regret it, not at all. I am a better artist than the economist I could have been.
In Conversation with
Enrique Chagoya Enrique Chagoya is a professor of Art at Stanford University. His work ranges many media, and is currently in the collections of the country’s most major museums. The exhibition “Borderlandia” which surveys his work of the past twenty five years will be visiting the Berkeley Art Museum from February 13 - May 18, 2008. LELAND QUARTERLY: I was hoping you would start by describing your childhood and how you first began your artistic pursuits?
ERIQUE CHAGOYA: Yes well, I grew up in Mexico City throughout the late fifties and early sixties. During these years, my father was definitely the greatest influence on me. He gave me my first paint set and my first art lessons when I was seven years old. He studied art quite a bit, but he never made it as an artist, though I think that’s what he would have wanted—he ended up working at the Central Bank in Mexico. It allowed him to pay the bills, to feed us—we had a large family—and to send us to school. But he would paint at night, landscape paintings and some architectural drawings; I wanted to do the same as a little kid but I don’t think my father wanted to encourage my artistic instincts too much because he saw no future in it. It was only because I was so persistent in bothering him that he decided to teach me. He had no choice, I was in love with art, and I knew I was in love with art, even before I was old enough to know anything about what that meant.
What art was it that inspired you besides your father’s work?
Primarily cartoons and comics actually; some Mexican ones and the famous American ones like Batman and Superman. I began to make comics and I also sold my old comic books at my home door; it allowed me to get new comics. I also liked to get the forbidden “underground” comics; occasionally they could be found in the record sleeves of risqué American vinyls like Janis Joplin. Some of my friends in elementary school and high school shared the same interest, so often we would make caricatures of each other and our teachers—it got me into trouble more than once, I can tell you that. But we would spend most of our free time drawing and painting, or at least I would; it was never a chore, always something that I reveled in and waited for when I wasn’t making art. Nevertheless though, you chose not to Q. pursue art during college?
Well not immediately. Yes, that’s true. During my undergraduate years I studied an array of subjects—anthropology, sociology, history. I finally settled on political science and economics. I was offered a job before the end of my last year; I went to work as an economist in the countryside. Not strictly an economist in the American sense of the word, it was social work. The rural class was extremely poor and I was involved in a program to help bolster their
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When you say you that you realized how difficult it is to effect real change, is it that sentiment that catalyzed a shift in your work towards content which was socially and politically motivated?
incomes. The world and capitalism was speeding forward and they were being left behind, so I tried to facilitate the development of low income business cooperatives. But you stopped that work in order to Q. come to the San Francisco Art Institute. What kind of a change was this for you?
Yes, that’s right. It was an enormous change. I felt a huge sense of guilt at the beginning. My wife at the time, an American sociologist, didn’t want me to go to art school; I’d met her in Mexico, and she was doing the same kind of work that I was in the countryside—so when I mentioned the idea she was not very encouraging. In Mexico she had gotten very sick, because we’d been living in such harsh conditions in the villages in which we worked. She contracted a parasite that nearly killed her. So moving was less the issue, we had to for her health, but my choice to switch careers only happened after we got to California—I think she thought it was selfish of me, or that I’d stopped caring. And to be honest there was a part of me that agreed with her. I couldn’t help feeling the whole thing was somehow frivolous. But the schools of economics in the Bay Area were not as exciting to me nor the kind of work
Actually, I think 1971 really caused that shift. I was taking part in a demonstration with other students from my university in Mexico; we wanted changes in the curriculum, and we were contesting a set of new fees the university had recently put forward. Our protests happened to coalesce with the electric workers’ strike and it turned into a kind of social outpouring—something much bigger than we expected. The army came to quell the disturbance, and I remember being chased by paramilitaries dressed in civilian clothes, armed with bamboo sticks that had long blades at the ends, and hand guns. About seventy people were killed. It was a real massacre. That’s the first time I can remember feeling that I could die for my ideas, and it changed my understanding of society, my artistic ideas as well. So you came to the San Francisco Q. Art Institute with political and social motivations?
Yes and no. One of the earliest series at the SF Art Institute was for a group of Salvadorian poets who were touring the country protesting the invasion of Central America by the Reagan Administration, and I made a couple of drawings for their show. The greatest reward of the experience was that I would not be killed, I would not even be threatened, for my ideas—art was a kind of exorcism for me, an excavation of the
anxiety that had formed inside of me during my time in Mexico about the state of the world and my powerlessness to change it all. So it wasn’t with a sense of empowerment that I took to my graduate education in art. I was in need of a therapeutic outlet; it takes a very tough spirit to do social work— to not become overwhelmed by the grandness and intricacy of the world, the underlying sensation that one is barely, if at all, significant. So while my work was politically and socially motivated in terms of the content, I was really making art for myself—exercising my freedom of expression. Occasionally I feel a bit guilty about the selfindulgence of it, but I think we must be self-indulgent in exercising our rights, our political and social voice. And I welcome others to be self-indulgent in that regard as well. Vive la difference! How did these feelings Q. themselves in your work?
Well very early on the notion of words and language was under attack in my work, because I’d become so suspicious of rhetoric in my youth and even more so upon arriving in America. Words like justice, equality etc. when spoken by politicians, in any country, more often than not conceal manifestations of their opposites; and the greater the injustice in a country the more fervently these buzz words are used. The words freedom or democracy, for instance, may mean something different for, ancient Greeks, for the forefathers of this country who owned slaves, for Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, or in the statements of George W. Bush. The same word may have different meanings in different times and places. I always had a feeling of how ambiguous words are and consequently I felt the need to address the falsity of language, and satirize it. I think the very visual mural-based art of the pre-Columbian books by the Mayans and the Aztecs were a great influence on me; if we look at the art of
these cultures we can appreciate how they invested visual representation with exact meanings; its so easy to forget how insufficient words often are for describing the world around us; I think my art, though socially and politically critical, also seeks to remind people of this more basic fact. What did you do after leaving the SF Art Q. Institute?
First I went to the San Francisco county jail to teach art to prisoners for about three years. They were mainly low crime criminals; but they weren’t really criminals for me, they were just students. The experience made me realize, and would make anyone realize, that these people were sufferers of poor circumstance. They’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and it was extremely sad to see, because so many of them were smart, or talented, but they had more opportunities to go to jail than to go to school, falling into a cycle they couldn’t lift themselves out of. To see their hunger for education and the arts awakened me to the short distance between normal citizens and those that have slid to the margins, the collateral damage of a society’s structure, those for whom it doesn’t work out. We often believe they are to blame; but eighty or ninety percent of those who take any educational classes while in jail do not return (except for those with life sentences, or in death row). Many learn how to make an honest living thanks to the classes they take while in prison: gardening, art, creative writing, drama, computer programming, etc. Given the opportunity to learn from an interested teacher they really revel in it—ever since, I’ve felt we need fewer prisons and more schools; but I think its going in the opposite direction. And after working at the prison? Q.
After leaving the jail, I was offered the curatorship at the Galeria de la Raza,
LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007
How did you get to Stanford? Q.
Well I was at Cal State for five years, and I truly loved it there; my students were amazing and wonderful people, my schedule wasn’t too burdensome, and I could support myself comfortably; so I was totally happy there and never even thought of leaving. But then I received a call from David Hannah in the art department here asking me to try out for the tenured track position. 54
I turned the invitation down immediately, that’s how uninterested I was in moving and how much I loved Cal State. But then I said to myself, “maybe I should have asked what they were offering at the least” [chuckle]. So I called back a week later, I figured I might as well see if I’d get the job and then make a decision. Sure enough I became a finalist and got the position, even though deep down throughout the process I was thinking how relieving it would be not to get the job, and not to have to face my students and colleagues at Cal State that I’d grown so close with. What clinched it was the studio space Stanford offered, I couldn’t afford anything like it in the Bay Area and their offer was just hard to refuse. So, when I got the job offer I left Cal State with a little bit of a heavy heart, but everyone there understood and supported me, and I managed to keep in touch with them. Around that time your work began to Q. undergo a somewhat meteoric rise in the commercial art world and the museum world. When was your first watershed exhibition?
That was in 1989 in New York City; it was a solo exhibition at the Alternative Museum. And the experience of showing in New York at that time was so amazing. My reception there was astounding to me because I never expected to become a “popular” artist, only an underground artist or alternative artist. So when my work started to be purchased by the Metropolitan, Moma, the Whitney, I realized I’d been a bit too reticent in my expectations. But I think that was always a good thing. I was never working in order to become successful. You know the Taoist maxim: if you want something you should not want it or the less you look for something the more it comes to you. I think that’s sort of how things have happened to me. Now you are having a twenty five year Q.
LELAND QUARTERLY FALL 2007
survey at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa…
Yeah, to have my first major survey in the heart of the country is ironic and great; because I really first got notoriety in New York City and then in the Bay Area and have mainly been popular in those places. So to have it hosted in a state that’s perhaps more symbolic of middle America is fantastic for me—as someone who has always felt torn between two cultures and two countries—I feel exceptionally grateful. What would be your advice for young Q. artists out there who are experiencing doubts about pursuing what is often a very precarious future as an artist?
I would say trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s easy to say, but often it’s the hardest thing to do, and the biggest obstacle in our way. But if you are brave enough to trust yourself, and choose work that you love, you will get very good at it, and the rest tends to work itself out. L
A NOTE ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS BOB BOREK is a senior from Cincinnati, OH JOHN COLLINS is a senior from San Jose, CA JESSAMYN EDRA is a junior from Fremont, CA MIKE FLEMING is a recent graduate from Boston, MA MARLON FOOTRACER is a senior from Lupton, AZ REBECCA FRAIMOW is a senior from Philadelphia, PA RACHEL HAMBURG is a sophomore from South Bend, IN
W H AT ? WHERE? WHEN?
a Chicano gallery. And actually for my first show I displayed only work of inmates that I had taught. I negotiated with the jail to have the prisoners come over for the opening—accompanied by the sheriff of course—but nonetheless, they were overwhelmed to see their own work hanging in a real gallery and appreciated by people outside of prison; it was very rewarding for them, and for me. It was a great way to start, because it instilled in me a sense of always wanting to work with specific communities in my exhibitions; The Galeria de la Raza had a history of community oriented shows like the one on apartheid in South Africa right before I started. I did other shows like Puerto Rican political prisoner’s art , and organized an enormous and ever-growing annual Day of the Dead exhibition in the Mission, things like that. But I had also started to teach at UC Berkeley, and my job as a curator became overwhelmingly busy very fast. I decided to leave the Galeria de la Raza, after three years, just after starting the plans for a large Day of the Dead exhibition at the Smithsonian, which would have been a really major and wonderful exhibition—that was my only regret about leaving those years of work as a curator. Other than that show, I was thrilled to be done with it. So I left to teach full time at Berkeley in 1990, and it was soon after that that Cal State offered me a tenured track position; that gave much more time to make my art, and solidified my future in education.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007 When Languages Die: Tracking Global and Local Trends of Language Extinction - 4:15 PM - Bolivar House Conference Room, 582 Alvarado Row
Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Stein Visiting Writer: Colm Tóibín - Colm Tóibín will read from his work - 8:00 PM - Campbell Recital Hall
NICK HOY is a senior from Toronto, ON IRIS LAW is a senior from Moorestown, NJ OTTO MANFRED LEINSDORF is a junior from New York, NY BILL LOUNDY is a sophomore from Seaside Heights, NJ SUSAN NOURSE is a junior from Half Moon Bay, CA TAKEO RIVERA is a senior from East Bay, CA MIA SAKAI is a recent graduate from Palo Alto, CA SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN is a senior from Cleveland, OH ANNIE WYMAN is a senior from Dallas, TX
Wednesday and Thursday, January 16 and 17, 2008 Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd, Still Life with Commentator - Jazz composition and hip-hop poetry collaboration that confronts topics such as surveillance, television news, and the blogosphere. - 8:00 PM - $40 Adult / $20 Student - Pigott Theater
Monday, January 28, 2008 Images of Enrique Chagoya’s work shown on the back cover: Le Cannibale Moderniste 1999; Mixed media on paper on linen; 48 x 96 x 2 inches; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of NebraskaLincoln; Gift of Alexander Liberman and Frances Sheldon by exchange. Untitled (The Burden of Freedom) 2006; Charcoal and pastel on paper mounted on canvas; 60 x 60 inches; Hall Collection. Untitled (Road Map) 2004; Graphite and pastel on paper; 60 x 80 inches; Hall Collection. The Organic Cannibal (detail) 1996; Monoprint on amate paper; 8 x 120 inches; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Purchase, 2002.
Q: HOW CAN I SUBMIT TO LELAND?
– Leland publishes three times per year. We accept submissions on a rolling basis throughout the year. Submissions will be reviewed September through June, and we will do our best to respond within six to eight weeks.
Ludmila Ulitskaya reading - Bilingual reading with Writer in Residence in Stanford’s Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. - 7:00 PM - Building 260, Room 113
– All submissions to Leland must be original, unpublished work. Please mention if you are submitting to other magazines simultaneously or if your work has received or is being considered for an award.
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
– The editors of Leland are concerned first and foremost with the quality of expression exhibited in a work, and not in the genre of work itself. Our goal is to have quality content across a breadth of disciplines, so please do not be afraid to innovate in your submissions.
Monday, February,11, 2008
Jim Shepard Reading - Jim Shepard will read from his work - 7:00 PM – Leland accepts and encourages submissions in a wide range of disciplines, including: fiction, - Margaret Jacks Hall, Terrace Room poetry, art, creative nonfiction (e.g. memoir, campus culture, student life), reviews (books, movies, music) and political essays (full-length investigative pieces).
– There is no expectation in terms of length of essays, poems, or fiction. – Leland accepts submissions exclusively from current Stanford undergraduates. – We encourage multiple submissions for as many issues to which you would like to contribute. That said, we request that you send in no more than six poems at a time and a maximum of four longer pieces. – All submissions are judged anonymously by the editors. Submissions can be sent to LelandQuarterly@gmail.com Check out Lelandquarterly.stanford.edu for more details.
Lane Lecture Series: Lorrie Moore - Lorrie Moore will read from her work - 8:00 PM - Kresge Auditorium
Tuesday, February 12, 2008 Lane Lecture Series : Loorie Moore - Lorrie Moore will hold an informal colloquium - 11:00 AM - Margaret Jacks Hall, Terrace Room
BORDERLANDIA at Berkeley Art Museum February 13 to May 18, 2008
Volume 2, Issue 1 Copyright ÂŠ 2007 by Leland Quarterly, Stanford University http://Lelandquarterly.stanford.edu