10 stories poetry interviews essays & such
structo ÂŁ5 / â‚Ź6.5 / $8
issue ten for autumn & winter 2013
You want to tell your story until a tear appears in the corner of this tough fishermanâ€™s eye, and until he brings one large tin of coffee for the two of you to share, which, eventually, is exactly what happens. christine stroik stocke, In a Foreign Town
Structo is a uk-based independent literary magazine. It is published twice a year, operates on a not-for-profit basis and receives no external funding. Subscription information and details of our stockists can be found at our website: structomagazine.co.uk editor / designer: Euan Monaghan fiction editor: Keir Pratt poetry editor: Matthew Landrum copy editor: Elaine Monaghan proofreader: Heather Stallard staff: Tim Leng, Will Burns & Dave Schofield issn: 2044-8244 (print) & 2044-8252 (digital)
All text, the Structo logo and all original photos/illustrations are protected by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 uk: England & Wales licence. The illustration on page 35 was made by Jade They (jadethey.com). Nothing in this Creative Commons licence impairs or restricts the individual authorâ€™s moral rights. The cover photo was taken by Terence S. Jones (terencesjones.wordpress.com) and is protected by a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence. Structo is largely set in MrsEaves, an update to the classic typeface Baskerville, and is printed by Cambrian Printers of Aberystwyth This issue was powered by Belgian beer, experiments with cold brew coffee and Explosions in the Sky
web: structomagazine.co.uk email: firstname.lastname@example.org twitter: @structomagazine
fter a record number of submissions, lots of reading and some tough decisions, we are very happy to finally share the following hundred or so pages of stories, poems, interviews and other writing which make up our tenth issue. The concept of isolation—mental or physical, deliberate or unexplained—runs through a number of the stories here, and our interview with the author/poet/translator/editor David Constantine is an interesting angle on this accidental theme. He speaks passionately about the dangers of cultural and linguistic isolation, and also reminds us that it’s through fictions that we get even near the truth. There might not be a theme to this issue, but each of its stories contain a small piece of that truth. The other interview this time is with the author Evie Wyld. Evie read at our first ever ‘vaguely literary’ event a few years ago, and at the time of the interview had just been named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The interview is an amusing read, especially if you have any preconceptions about the author after reading her beautiful, powerful novels. Finally, regular columnist Keir Pratt has been bumped up from contributing editor to fiction editor this time around. Titles are a bit meaningless at Structo, as we generally do a bit of everything, but Keir has more than proved his worth. He doesn’t get an editorial, but if you head to the middle of the magazine you can find the latest essay in his ‘Incidental’ series. It’s a thoughtful, heartfelt piece, and will have to do until the coup is complete. — Euan Monaghan
edit poetry from a distance of 6,000 kilometers using SÂpe, Gmail, and our online submissions platform Submittable to communicate with the rest of the Structo team. We have recently added Spenser Davis, another American, from California (8,500 km away from Structo headquarters), to our staff. In the past three issues we have published poetry from ten countries. A poem from issue eight recently appeared in BeÌ New Zealand PÈms. Sales in the United States are up sharply. We regularly receive submissions from countries as diverse as India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. A bookstore in the Netherlands will soon be selling Structo, adding to stores in England, Germany, and France. We are truly an international magazine. So it seems right that this issue contains two poetic postcards, one from Israel and another from the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Postcards are, after all, a way to bridge distance. But unlike the typical postcard, these say things like God forgot / to change trains or accidentally / killed the conduÀor and I worry about the weak valve, half / agape, failing your heart. Not pleasantries, but anxiety, fragility, and anticipation, this poetry doesn’t just span vast gulfs, it makes them disappear, joining the reader and author – not I wish you were here but here you are, you are here with me now. — Matthew Landrum
Crown fikret pajalic
amo could no longer remember his wife’s face, save the pinkness of her cheeks, unless he looked at her picture. The skin of his fingertips could recall the smallest imperfection on her grave marker that he chiselled out of limestone. And when he tried to remember her face his hand instinctively went to his chest where the bullet wound that never healed properly made a mosaic out of his skin in the shape of a cloverleaf. Like the trunk of a plum tree that hasn’t been painted with whitewash, left exposed to beetles, fungus and rust mites eating the core, Ramo felt weakness and melancholy overcome his body. His was the affliction of a man whose roots were torn by war and who had no interest growing new ones in a new country. It caused his eyelids to blink less than normal and he walked around with ‘possum-in-the-night’ eyes, wide and unflickering, as if he found the world more than he could comprehend. The night terrors returned. Men with long black beards cloaked in robes darker than night would sit on his chest suffocating him slowly. They held double-edged daggers in their lipless mouths and through their noses hummed church liturgies in an old Slavic language. He screamed for help, in vain. There was no one to call when light came. He started sleeping with the night lamp on and soon the night terrors turned into sleepless nights. Wakefulness smeared his eye sockets like mud. He turned into a guard dog, alert to the smallest creaks of the night, never fully at rest. He reckoned he was like a solitary Rottweiler and for nearly a decade he knew or wanted nothing else. In his forty-second year of life Ramo went to see his doctor complaining about a persistent discomfort in the right side of his abdomen that lingered like words which shouldn’t have been said out loud. “It keeps vibrating.” He pointed to his side, where the doctor later confirmed his suspicion it was where his liver resided. “It’s like a child blowing bubbles with a straw, except it hurts,” Ramo elaborated while the doctor took notes. He hadn’t any confidence in his doctor, a stubborn man with bad hearing. At home he called him a quack and good only for a sick certificate. As soon as he thought this, he scolded himself for being unfair. He went to this doctor because he could talk his own language. They would recollect their childhood memories, even though they were born miles away and decades apart. They talked about grilled écevapi, eating plums until they vomited and playing soccer on dirt roads where cars ven-
tured rarely, and when they did, village children would chase after them until they collapsed in the dirt, their eyes full of dust. An ultrasound showed a moderately fatty liver, a condition caused by eating too much bad food, and – shockingly to Ramo – revealed six large stones in his gallbladder. The biggest was nearly three centimetres in diameter. The stones had been sitting hidden inside him for years. Quiet and patient they slowly got bigger, pressing on the walls of the gallbladder, stopping the bile escaping through some ducts connected to his liver. Or something like that. On the way home he cried while he drove. Tears ran down his cheeks and hid in his beard. Later, back in his house, he could not understand why he cried. No one would cry for him if things became sinister. The doctor told him removing gallstones was a routine operation nowadays. “Keyhole surgery, you’ll be out the next day.” Ramo said he didn’t like being put under, he was scared of not waking up. The doctor waved off his fears. “That’s the safest part of the procedure.” Ramo was curious, but asked no further question. It is better not to know, he decided. Ramo was dressed in a white hospital gown, and tight white socks that prevented blood clots were pulled up to his knees. The AuÌralian Outback magazine was on the table in the waiting room. A cute little black and tan dog with bright blue eyes and an Akubra hat was on the cover. The pup’s floppy ears protruded under the rim. The issue was dedicated to a trueblue Aussie hero. The Kelpie. Ramo picked up the magazine and read about these amazing dogs, which helped build this vast land into what it is today. The more he read the more he was astounded. If only half the stories were true, these dogs were really something. When he was growing up he wanted to have a dog, but even when he had space and means he never got one. There was always something more pressing. Sitting across from Ramo was a bulky man sleeping upright. The man, roughly Ramo’s age, had a thick neck and droopy cheeks, and a black beanie on his head. Like the rest of the patients he was dressed in a white gown and white socks. A cigarette, which had broken in half while he was sleeping, was tucked into the rim of his beanie. Tobacco peppered Beanie-man’s face and neck. The patient next to Ramo had a large heat pack taped to his chest. The liquid inside moved like a lava lamp when the man pressed on it. He was reading a Harry Potter book. On the opposite side, a man who looked more than a hundred years old was filling in the pre-admission questionnaire with the help of his family. They spoke Spanish, and half a dozen people with concerned faces surrounded him. A woman – his daughter, Ramo figured – read the questions slowly,
while the old man just nodded or stayed quiet. At certain points the family members conferred between themselves, not knowing what to put down when the old man didn’t respond. Soon a man in the group took the clipboard out of the daughter’s hands. The daughter stood up, raised the pen to the sky and spoke. Her voice quickly reached a ferocious crescendo. Ramo understood the words “madre de dios” and “diablo”. A nurse came quickly and managed to calm them down. The nurse also spoke Spanish, and when she was done she took most members of the family out of the waiting room, leaving only the daughter and another woman. The second woman leaned into the old man and kissed him on the forehead. The doctor, dressed in blue and with a surgeon’s hat on his head, walked into the waiting room. He took a look at the thick file in his hands and called out a name. No one replied. He called out again, this time louder. Beanie-man snorted and lifted his head, heavy from sleep. “Here,” he grunted. His eyes and mouth moved rapidly and he wiped his face with both hands like he was washing it. Pieces of tobacco stuck to his fingers and he looked at them incredulously. The doctor, old but with a smooth face and hands, had piercing blue eyes that were accentuated by his blue surgical scrubs. He pulled up a chair and sat next to Beanie-man, introduced himself, and asked Beanie-man if it was all right to ask him some questions. The questions were the same as on the pre-admission questionnaire. Do you wear lenses? Are you diabetic? Do you have high blood pressure? Have you been under general anaesthetic before? When the doctor asked him: “Do you have any metal plates, pins or screws in your body?” Beanieman sighed with annoyance, but said nothing. The doctor waited patiently for a few moments and asked him if he was all right. Beanie-man nodded. “I’ve provided the list.” He exhaled the words as if someone had tortured him for the information. “The list?” The doctor was perplexed. “So I don’t have to repeat myself. I gave it to one of the nurses.” He waved in the general direction of the nurses’ station. This time the doctor remained silent for longer. Beanie-man began reciting the list. He had screws in his left shoulder due to a broken collar bone, pins in the right elbow, plates in both knees, more metal in his jaw, hips, wrists. The doctor struggled to write all of it down. When Beanie-man stopped, the doctor kept writing. When he finished he lifted his head and looked at Beanie-man. After an uncomfortably long period staring into Beanie-man’s eyes the doctor said:
“You’re a genuine daredevil, mate.” A trace of amazement coloured his voice. “No, doc, I just like my bikes.” The cool, indifferent one-liner that Steve McQueen would have been proud of rolled off Beanie-man’s lips. The doctor stood up, tapped him on the shoulder he was going to operate on, and walked away. Before he was out of the waiting room, Beanieman yelled after him. “I’ve got this too, doc.” He pulled out his front two teeth and made a wide grin. In the place of teeth there were two round metal pins coming out of his gums. The doctor moved his head to Beanie-man’s face and took a better look. “A dental crown.” The doctor nodded. “It’s got to come out while you’re under, we don’t want you choking on it.” He made further notes on his clipboard. “It’s my first and favourite injury. I got it fighting for my woman,” Beanie-man offered proudly. “Is she still with you?” the doctor asked, unable to contain his curiosity. “Nah.” Beanie-man waved his hand. “But it was great while it lasted.” The doctor smiled, said he would see him in a short while, and left. Beanie-man turned to Ramo and winked at him. “She was something, mate. Yes, she was. You know what I’m saying,” and winked at him again. This time he cocked his head to the side while he was winking and snapped his fingers. He looked like a pirate from a children’s programme. Ramo raised his shoulders and quickly dropped them, feigning disinterest. “Sure you do, mate. I can tell. Women like Jools come into a man’s life only once. Julie was her name. Is her name, I suppose. She’s still alive. Julie Stillwater. Can you imagine? Stillwater? There was nothing still about my Jools, I tell you that mate. Oh, I’d let them break every bone in my body just to be with her again. “Beanie-man’s words carried an electric charge. His eyes sparkled while he talked about his Jools. Next, he pulled his crown out of his mouth and spoke with a lisp. “You see this,” he extended his arm toward Ramo, spittle flying. “They call it a crown, and crown it is. Jools’ crown. She’s my princess, mate. One of those women that appear at night when you close your eyes.” He put his crown back in. “The pins are meant to be replaced. They’re loose. They say I need a new crown.” There was a shadow of sadness in his voice. When Ramo opened his eyes he saw the room as if looking through a fogged window. Loud groans filled with pain came from his right. Slowly
the fuzziness cleared and people lying in hospital beds came into focus. A chirpy voice came from his left and told him the procedure had gone well, and that he would be in the recovery room until he came to fully. After a time he turned his head toward the groaning man in the bed beside him and he recognised Beanie-man. Their eyes met, and lisped words came out of the Beanie-man’s mouth. “Bloody hurts, mate. You?” Ramo tried to move upward, but pain cut across his abdomen. It felt like he had done too many sit-ups. His legs felt floppy and his chest was on fire. They were the classic symptoms of a long-distance runner, jelly legs and burning chest. Except, he didn’t run. He was out and he was poked and probed and they cut and moved things inside him. There was nothingness and then he came back. That’s how it must be when you’re dead, he thought. Just nothing. He wondered if how he felt was normal. He turned his head toward Beanie-man and nodded. Ramo was put into a room with an old German called Helmut, who was a severe diabetic waiting for both his feet to be amputated. Helmut had been in hospital for seventeen days while the doctors and nurses tried to stabilise him enough for the operation. Helmut refused to cooperate. They fed him through tubes and he mostly slept. When awake he screamed “Ich möchte sterben,” and when one of the nurses said “I don’t know what you are saying, Helmut,” Ramo pulled the curtain that divided the room and said, “He’s saying he wants to die.” The nurse measured Helmut’s vitals, made sure the feeding tubes were in, and then she turned to Ramo. She asked him if he needed anything. He told her he was having trouble falling asleep and if she would be so kind as to go to the waiting room and bring him the Outback magazine, the one with a pup on the cover. She touched his hand gently and said, “Sure dear.” She glanced one more time at Helmut. “Some old people sleep a lot before they die. Isn’t that silly?” she said, her voice fading into the distance. Ramo didn’t know what to make of that. He knew that to be true. His grandfather slept twenty hours a day for weeks before he died, and ended up departing in his sleep. Did she expect Helmut to go partying or bungy jumping in his condition? Ramo remained silent and the old man from the waiting room came into his head. Was he with his “Dios” now? Was it time to say goodbye instead of goodnight? He spent one night in hospital recovering. “Merely a precaution, the operation was text book,” his surgeon reassured him when visiting earlier in the afternoon, closing his forefinger and thumb
and making an ‘all ok’ sign. In that time, Ramo fell in love with the hospital bed. He liked the remote control that lifted his back or dropped his legs. Afterward, in the small hours of the night, when nurses finished their rounds and the corridor lights were dimmed, the ward started humming and he imagined himself in one of the hospital beds at home. His mind raced for the first time in many months and this caught him by surprise. He envisioned searching the classifieds for a second-hand hospital bed. He wondered how much would it cost and how he would get it to his home and whether he’d be up to the task of installing it himself. He pictured the bed in his bedroom, fresh white sheets smelling of lavender, a bottle of water, a notepad and pen and magazines and books on the nightstand. His mind transported him to his place and he was reading until his eyelids got heavy, propped up the way he liked. His body didn’t slip any more and he didn’t need half a dozen pillows. He wondered if the hospital bed would help his insomnia. A misty image of his wife’s face appeared briefly, but Ramo drifted off before he registered it. The next morning after he received his final check-up, Ramo was released. With deliberate steps he walked out with his overnight bag on his shoulder, the magazine in his hand and tightness in his stomach. He trudged down the ward corridor when he heard a loud: “Oi, mate, over here.” Beanie-man was waving for him to come into his room. He was propped up on the bed and his right arm was suspended in the air with cords. His right shoulder was bandaged and he was naked from the waist up. There was a tattoo on each side of his woolly chest. One was the logo of the Harley Davidson with a motorcycle underneath, the other was the word “Thunderstruck” written in gothic font. Ramo recalled a hard-rock song with the same name, and the screeching riff of the solo guitar went through his head, but could not remember the name of the band at that moment. Ramo asked him how he was doing and Beanie-man answered, “Good mate, good.” There was no lisp in his words. His crown was back in his jaw. They exchanged a few courtesies. “What’s that?” Beanie-man pointed at the magazine in Ramo’s hand. “I’m getting a dog,” Ramo pronounced and pointed at the cover, “a Kelpie.” As he talked he rubbed the cloverleaf on his chest. “They’re too active, mate. A Kelpie will run you ragged.” Ramo rolled up the magazine, touched the side of his forehead with it, as if saluting. “Good, mate,” he said. “Good.”
Birdsong in the May-Wood tim keane a victory at the pond with an aristocratic assistant, and a creel, and gaze at its gills cool as church walls as complicated as a capillary-scheme and the lamellae that living fish rely upon look around at the sacred impurities like the rusty spigot of the fountain and the soiled edge of the bridal train take it all in beneath the bell take it all within the vessel in the hawthorn-mysteries in the darkness of the basket in the complicated smell of inseparable leaves on a littered altar utilize the fallen water the pump and holy stone see something cross the roof and pass along the rakers and attend the ground as a buried profusion germinating and generating entangled roots toward gnarled trunks and crooked branches to rise and shelter and throw shade and sun patterns on wandering descendants whoâ€™ve forgotten us yet reenact us in hair and inherited gait
in the odd turn of the head upward at the invisible birdâ€™s sustained single note that resists a silence pressing on it from all sides, and prolongs that note, arresting, as if eternally, the moment its song had tried to accelerate.
AÓer the Fire, Sinÿng an interview with evie wyld
ack in 2011, Evie Wyld read at Structo’s very first event. She had just won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for her debut novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and we were captivated by her work. Her new novel, All the Birds, Singing, was released earlier in the year and comes only a few months after she was included in the fourth Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. I caught up with her in the Review Bookshop in Peckham, which she runs. — Keir Pratt structo: Congratulations on the new book and for making the Granta list.
wyld: Thank you. Yes... a busy year. structo: Of course you read for us years ago, so we’ll claim all the credit. [Laughter] What do you think it means, now you are in the club with Rushdie and McEwan and Amis? Is it pressure? wyld: It’s funny. It’s obviously really good, I don’t know how the pressure thing could change much; I mean, you just write what you write and you hope it does well. It’s not like it’s made me go right, I must sit down now and write a best-selling novel. It just doesn’t work like that. I wish it did. But, no, there’s no aggressive pressure from my publishers or anything like that. They’re pleased with my books, pleased for me; so we’re just carrying on at the same pace. There are a lot more articles, and time is difficult because I work here four days a week at the minute and I run it as well. When I was writing the first one I was just here two days a week and I wasn’t running it so I had a lot more time. It’s all got a bit mad now. [Laughs] structo: Did you put pressure on yourself? wyld: I suppose yes, more than the Granta thing, just the pressure of writing the second novel. I mean, it’s a lovely pressure to have, that the first one did well, but it is frightening, the idea that you would write something that people don’t like after liking the first one. And it’s bound to happen, because you have two things and people will like one thing more than the other thing. But yes, it was quite nerve-wracking, but you just have to write what you are going to write, and do it as well as you can, and keep your fingers crossed. [Laughs] structo: Resist writing a twist!
wyld: [Laughs] Yeah. structo: In your new book, there are some similarities to your characters in After the Fire, in the sense that they isolate themselves and become a bit paranoid. Is that something you realised you always wanted to write about? wyld: Yeah, I think I’m really interested in people on their own; how they relate to their landscape and how they interact with it. I think one of the reasons I wrote the first book, which I started in Australia, was that I was interested in the idea that you could be totally alone in a country like that. Over here, there are certain places you can get to where if you shout no one will hear you, but there is always the possibility that there’s someone around the corner. I’ve started to get interested in family settings and how you have a veneer of how you are with your family, and then there’s the real stuff that’s going on inside which is just as lonely and isolating as being in a landscape on your own. I think large empty landscapes— structo: Often brutal ones as well. wyld: Yeah. In the second one, I like the melancholy of the English landscape and that kind of sad, pelted-with-rain feeling you get. structo: [Laughter] Yeah, pretty much everywhere here. wyld: A lot of Australians come over here and can’t cope with the winters, because they’re so harsh, even though they’re harsh in a different way. They’re harsh in a way that makes you want to just go to bed for a month. structo: And the first book was quite heavily based on your family, on your uncle, am I right? wyld: Well, it was not based on him, but I took points from my grandfather, my uncle and my cousin. Their lifetimes. The characters I wrote are nothing like my family, but some of the things they did were similar. Like my grandfather owned a pie shop and he fought in Korea, and then my uncle was drafted into Vietnam. My cousin—I’m quite close with him—is an interesting and intelligent man but there’s this kind of quite strong... I would say veneer, but it’s thicker than that… half of him is this masculine kind of roaring male, and half of him is this sensitive thing. If he hadn’t grown up with a father who had been brutalised on
a farm in Australia, then I think he would be a very different person, maybe be a little bit artistic, although he would punch me in the eye for saying that. [Laughter] structo: Is it the same with the new book? wyld: No, not really. I guess because Jake is female that there is more connection with me in it. I mean I didn’t [major plot point deleted], but there are parts of my experience in there, in her younger years and also the strange depressions. Although it’s far less exciting in my life, I drew on that to get her personality, I suppose. And the silence, and the enjoying not talking to people for months. It’s one of the reasons I work here, otherwise I’d go mad. structo: Here is my attempt at deconstruction: Jake has become defeminised, in the sense that everyone describes her as very masculine—she’s got big hands and broad shoulders—and I thought, as I was reading it, that it was because of all the things that had happened to her she’d had to ‘manup’ to. And then afterwards when I was thinking about it, I thought well that is a very male opinion, it could have been she was defeminised by [some bad things that had happened]. So I was wondering, which it was? Or am I totally wrong? wyld: The first book is in a male voice. I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly strange by writing in a male voice, it was the voice that came out. It seems to be something that people pick up on, saying that’s really strange, a woman writing as a man, that’s really weird, and for me it’s totally natural and for me it’s also totally natural that a young woman would be unfeminine because she’s just a person; she has grown up with three brothers, she has grown up on a farm, and yes, she has a burgeoning sexuality, but she doesn’t quite know what to do with it, because she’s not sexually mature like her peers, the bullying ones, the people who mature sexually earlier than she does. I think that’s a very strange place to be in, it’s like a lanky or broad girl, it’s that feeling of I want to show off to this guy, but I’m not quite sure how or why, so I might just do a terrible cartwheel or slap him in the face or something. And I certainly recognise that as a problem. [Laughter] She’s always not been the ideal of feminine grace and I think that there is something really interesting about people who are the ideal of feminine grace, because there must be so much weird shit going on inside. But I suppose she is just much more oblivious to how to do that stuff. Being oblivious to sexual maturity is
something that I was interested in for that part of the book, and then making her way in a very sexual lifestyle after that and how to fake it, really.
“The best way of telling this story was this kind of patchwork of memory” structo: And there are two threads of the story, one in Jake’s present going forward and her remembering her past, going backwards. And each chapter of Jake in the present seemed to relate to the Jake of the past, was that intentional? wyld: No, that came quite late in the writing of it. I didn’t write one strand and then write the other one or anything like that, I just sort of wrote around the subject for a long time and then just sort of squashed it all together. But one of the things I really like about having two different strands is how they create this other space in-between them when you put them next to each other. It wasn’t like I started out thinking I’m going to write this quite complicated structure; it just seemed to me, at the point where I had written about three-quarters of it, that actually the best way of telling this story was this kind of patchwork of memory of how a person remembers back to a large event in their life. I started in the middle and then worked outward and… It was fairly hectic. structo: If I’d had to do it, it would just be a big mess. [Laughter] wyld: Well at points it did sort of turn into a weird mathematical equation and I had charts everywhere, and for some reason it was very difficult to get my head around. I think I’m very bad at maths, I’m sure that has something to do with it. structo: Changing tack slightly now. What is a Chicken Crimpie? wyld: [Laughs] It’s a ridged cross between a crisp and a biscuit. They just make me laugh, because it’s such a specific name. structo: I imagined it as a Findus Crispy Pancake.
wyld: [In mock disgust] Oh no, they’re not heated. I guess they’re a bit like a Ritz cracker, but chicken flavoured. They’re pretty disgusting. It’s what I used to eat with my cousin; we used to go shooting kangaroos, and he would bring a spliff and a packet of Chicken Crimpies. structo: Let’s talk about your book shop a little bit. How is running a bookshop and writing books that go in bookshops? Do you ever find yourself thinking, ‘well these things sell quite well, perhaps I should write something like those’? wyld: I wish I could do that, but I only write what I can write. I mean, I don’t know how you would set out to do that, other than pinching other people’s story lines which is fairly obvious. I dunno. I suppose there was probably a time when I should have thought, put Tiger in the title. [Laughs]. But, no not really, I think it’s quite nice to work here and see debut work come in. And if something is slightly disappearing you kind of want to big it up and make an extra effort with it. From where I’ve come from, I maybe approach books slightly differently in the bookshop. structo: There’s no temptation to put a big ‘New Book by Evie’ sign in the window? wyld: Well, a slight temptation. I had a party with the last book and I’ll probably have another one. Because the local people—I make it sound like we’re in a village in the middle of nowhere!—they’re excited and proud. And I get a load of waves walking down the street. structo: A local celebrity! wyld: Yeah, very local, literally just this street. [Laughter] structo: Your front covers are really beautiful. Do you have any input? wyld: Yes, I have a lot, because I’m lucky enough that one of my best friends is a graphic designer, and he used to be the head of Faber & Faber design. We met at university and we had this long-running joke, because I was studying writing and he was studying design, that I would write a book and he would do the front cover. So I get to trawl around bookshops with him and look at what we like. structo: So there’s actually a lot of control in that process?
wyld: Yeah. Well, I trust him and I know that he reads my book and that he takes elements from it and he knows what I like. But it’s very much a process between me and my publicist and editor and Darren [the graphic designer]. Because it’s no good if the sales team don’t like it, if they don’t think it will sell... structo: They don’t push you to have a big knife with blood dripping off it on the front? wyld: No, with the hardback you can have a lot more artistic licence than with the paperback. The paperback of the first one is still nice; it’s actually [a photo of] Staffan Gnosspelius, who is an illustrator who works in Brixton, on my grandparents’ sugar cane farm. So it is quite specific. I take lots of pictures when I can and that one happened to fit quite well. I have had an unusual amount of input, and I do remember the first time I approached my editor about the cover, and her face dropped. You get a lot of authors going, I’ll just knock up my own in Photoshop. Ultimately I go with what my sales team would want, because they’re the people who have to sell it.
“What I really wanted to write was a big aÀion thriller, something with Arnold Schwarzenegger and machine guns and blood and explosions” structo: I listened to an interesting interview with you where you had talked about what you had read when you were growing up. You mentioned Point Horror, then you moved onto Stephen King and then you mentioned Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers particularly. All quite dark reads. wyld: I did set out to try and write something a bit frightening. It’s not as frightening as I wanted it to be. Before I wrote the first book, when I was studying at Goldsmiths, I got really frustrated because what I really wanted to write was a big action thriller, something with Ar-
nold Schwarzenegger and machine guns and blood and explosions. And I remember talking to my tutor and saying, I’m trying really hard to write this amazing Arnold Schwarzenegger book and I just can’t, I just keep writing really quiet little paragraphs about Dads. [Laughs] And he just pointed out, If you could write what you chose then everyone would write bestsellers and we’d all be rich and happy and it would be amazing. But actually you write what you can write. I really like dark stuff and I think that’s perhaps because of the reading that I have always done, that’s the stuff that’s really thrilling to me. Like Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark, where there’s a something and you don’t really find out what the something is, but it kills stuff... I love that. I love not explaining stuff. I hate it when... like in [Stephen King’s] IT, when it’s incredibly frightening and it’s the most horrifying thing ever, and then it turns into a big spider that you have to tip over and it loses everything and it just all goes down the drain... structo: Literally down the drain in the case of IT. [Laughter] wyld: Yeah, exactly. I much prefer it to go like it is in real life, if something terrifying happens, you don’t get some sort of amazing closure on it, to go, oh actually the clown was a spider... structo: From outer space. wyld: Yeah! And you don’t have to grapple with the why would they bother? If they’re a clown from outer space, why do they care about some kids... oh he feeds off fear... Oh does he! I much prefer the idea that you’ve got no idea why this malevolent thing is happening and you’re probably mad and it’s probably your own fault. That’s what I like. [Laughter] structo: You mentioned your ma, and I was going to ask about it. Occasionally people ask us whether they’re of any use, and we have no idea because we’ve never done one. wyld: I think it’s different for lots of people. For me it was great. I also did my ba at Bath Spa, which was modular with creative writing in there. And for me it was the perfect thing, not because they teach you how to write, but because you get the time to take your work seriously. I think there are very different ways of approaching it. I think the American ones are perhaps a bit more specific, you’re shown a type of voice that’s considered to be good; from what I hear there’s a lot more direction
about what tone your work should take. Whereas my experience of the Goldsmiths course was an eclectic and broad and interesting reading list that I would never have approached—I would have just carried on with the horror—and a year to take yourself very seriously and to put your writing above other things and a chance to discuss it with people. I think there is a real idea that it takes some of the creativity out of it or something—and there were a lot of people on the course who I know didn’t get anything out of it and said well I could have just done that at home—but I don’t think they would have done it at home. structo: You also do the Peckham Literary Festival. wyld: Yes, it will be the seventh one this year. We’ve been going for a long time, well it feels like a long time. There’ll be one in November. We haven’t got the dates sorted out yet, or… anybody booked. [Laughs] structo: Headliner: Evie Wyld! wyld: Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs] Supporter: Evie Wyld! But yeah it’s quite nice. It’s got to the stage now where I’ve got a lot of friends who have written books that I can call on and we have been doing quite a lot of talks with slideshows which are quite interesting. Trying to find ways of making readings less boring, because they can be quite... everyone switches off when you have six on the trot. The idea is to try and have people in conversation; a well-known author with a lesser-known author so the crowd are introduced to new work. At this point Wyld receives a text message and has to quickly nip up the road. Foolishly, she leaves me in charge of the shop. If I’d had the foresight to bring a van, all those lovely books would have been gone in no time. While she’s away a mysterious man comes in, who turns out to be collaborating with Wyld on a graphic novel. Wyld herself returns a moment later. wyld: It’s a bit of a memoir about growing up with a shark phobia and my childhood in Australia. structo: Sharks crop up in both of your books. wyld: Yeah, I like a shark. I had a really embarrassing interview for Granta on a stage where I, for some reason, said I would never write a book without a shark in it and it turned into a kind of what’s your shark kind of horrible embarrassing thing... people were like cupcakes!
structo: Oh I see, like a bad motivational thing. wyld: Yeah. structo: [To the mysterious man, whose name turns out to be Joe] Are you illustrating or writing or... joe: It’s sort of adapted. It wasn’t written as a graphic novel, it was kind of a short story. I’m just drawing the pictures. wyld: It’s a bit of work that I did a while ago. We’re just getting a first draft together. structo: You cut out a lot of sharks from All the Birds, Singing didn’t you? wyld: Yeah. structo: Stuck them in this? Just bung that together! Sell that! wyld: [Laughs] Yeah. I always cut out a lot of sharks. They always feel more important than they end up being. It’s a shame. I have to tell myself that I will write a book entirely about a shark attack at some point.
72 øystein orten translated from the norwegian to the shetlandic by christine de luca men ein dag skal nokon tale elegisk over emissærane ferdatalarane med dei vibrerande malmtungene og dei forsteina sanningane godt løynte inne i amerikakoffertane attast på rutebåten skrive brennande nekrologar i djupe septemberkveldar når folk sankar sauer i brattfjellet og sparkar brunbitne eple på bålet for slik startar innhaustinga for levande og for døde ein forenklar og legg til for å kunne leve her
but ee day someen ’ll röd on aboot da messengers da traivellin preachers wi der vimmerin tongues an da steiney sainins hiddled awa i da kyists packit for America i da far hold o da Nort boat scrieve skooderin obituaries i da mirky djubs o September whin fock is caain sheep i da steepest hills an keekin hairy-möldit aipples atil da bonfire for dis is lik da start o da hairst o da livin an da dead we simplify, add tae da truth sae we can bide here
ee: one; someen: somebody; röd on: make elegiac speeches; da: the; vimmerin: vibrating; steiney: petrified; sainins: blessings, truths; hiddled awa: well hidden; kyists: travelling cases; scrieve: write; skooderin: scorching; mirky djubs; dark depths; fock: people; caain: gathering in; keekin: kicking; hairy-möldit: mouldy; atil: into; dis: this; hairst: harveÌing; bide: Ìay
Leiden Heim / Da Gaet Haem adalsteinn ásberg sigurdsson translated from the icelandic to the shetlandic by christine de luca
Leiðin heim liggur ekki eftir holóttum vegi yfir horfna brú eða brotna hliðgrind Leiðin liggur hiklaust inn í hlyjar í minningar undir heygrænu þaki bakvið bylgjótt gler gegnum suð fiskiflugunnar sem finnur á sér að þú ert þegar kominn á sporið.
Da gaet haem dusna lie alang a rukkly rodd owre a brig at’s gien or a brukkit grind. Da gaet haem aye leads ta waarm memories anunder a strae-tekkit röf ahint mirlin gless trowe da buzz o a fishie-flech dat can tell du’s already on dy wye.
da: the; gaet: path; haem: home; rukkly: uneven; rodd: road; brig: bridge; gien: vanished; brukkit: broken; grind: gate; anunder: underneath; strae-taekkit: turf and thatched; röf: roof; ahint: behind; mirlin: diÌorting; trowe: through; fishie-flech: blue-bottle; dy: your (familiar); wye: way
Lunch in Ars en RĂŠ lucy furlong
A hot-cool bike ride criss-cross salt marsh cycle paths, to this strange-spired town. Hollyhocks against white walls splayed in symbiosis. De Chirico meets Clint Eastwood at high noon over a plate of langoustines, a carafe of rose and doubt; sunburn and a chewed cheroot. There are ghosts here circled in crystal, unable to form in the bleach-light; handprints leave dewdrops on cool shaded walls.
÷e Happiness of Water laura mccullough
he crawlspace was dry, a fortunate turn, and there was some light from the narrow window in the far wall, but one corner had a wide dark stain, the compacted soil and sand almost black, as if once there had been an oil spill, and perhaps there had been, back before the underground oil tank outside the house’s foundation had been removed, back before people knew about contamination, back before remediation cost so much. The man stayed away from that corner out of instinct, but in another corner, the one that reeked of urine, the fox lay as if in a low bowl, one it had dug for itself, its head on its tail, and stared at the man from this relative safety out of its one good eye, and the man watched the fox, as well, with its little sharp teeth, its feral odors, and because of the gaping wound of the missing right eye waited for the fox to succumb to death. It had already been days, and the man didn’t know now when he’d eaten last, was existing only on water, having poked a small hole in the dehumidifier line to suck on periodically, barely keeping him alive, and it wasn’t lost on him that he was swallowing the gathered sweat and exhaled breaths of his family upstairs along with the million other particles of the world born on the air and claimed in condensation. How the fox had come to be in the crawlspace, the man didn’t know, but he was afraid of it. Wounded animals are dangerous, he understood, and so when he’d turned around that first day and found it snarling at him, he’d gone still, and now he waited, not moving much, unable to stand, not even to get on hands and knees, lying there on his belly and chest like a trapped snow angel, moving his arms and legs horizontally for exercise, tensing and untensing muscles, urinating to the side away from the fox; in fact, he’d defecated twice on that side, until he had no more to expel, and so the odors of the crawlspace contained his own excretions including his sweat and tears. He had cried, a lot, especially after yelling periodically and giving in to the fear, and wondering why his family couldn’t hear him screaming for help, wondered why no one was looking for him, wondered how his wife didn’t think to check everywhere. Hadn’t she even called the police? Wouldn’t they search the house? Someone would find him, yet this had gone on so long, and his fear of the fox had become a kind of strange duty. How had it lost the eye? He didn’t know, though he spent a good deal of time wondering. It was a disgusting hole, that side of the face ravaged,
really, bloody-crusted and weepy yellow down its muzzle. Surely it was infected? And it hadn’t left, hadn’t had any water nor food as long as the man had been there; surely it would die soon. Soon, he would be able to leave, if the fox would just die. Please, he thought, I will be its witness. I will watch it die, and I will then take it out and give it a proper burial. I will mourn it. I will make a headÌone. JuÌ let it die. The man knew this was crazy. He left off looking at the fox and looked instead at the window hoping he might see feet going by, in which case, he would begin yelling again. He was sure this window was at the front of the house behind a low shrub, but had realized he’d never known for certain, and in fact wasn’t even clear about the four directions. Which way did the front of the house face? East? South? He knew he should know, but understood now that he really had no directional sense. Before, he would have sworn his home had faced east, but the light coming and going didn’t bear this out, and if the house did face east, and this was the window in the front behind the row of bushes, then shouldn’t that mean the kids and his wife would come and go in front of it on their way to and from school and jobs? Shouldn’t he see their feet? Or that of the mail carrier? FedEx? ups? My god, the kid who dropped off the NY Times, at least on Saturday and Sunday? But he couldn’t recall now what day it was, and didn’t know where his family was, but the fox was here and had never left, and it must be dying then. Mustn’t it? It hadn’t eaten. It hadn’t had water. In fact, he realized now, that in the last several hours it hadn’t gotten up again, as it had before. Before, it had rested and then gotten back up menacingly, coming close to him, backing off, snarling and hissing a little like a snake, though it didn’t sound like that at all, but not like what he’d thought a trapped fox would have sounded like, so he didn’t know what to think. But now, if his thinking was right, though he wasn’t sure it was, wasn’t sure he was even lucid anymore, he thought it had been an extra long time now, and maybe the fox was on its last legs, so to speak, and maybe, maybe he should crawl close, maybe fast, he wasn’t sure, but get to it, grab hold of it with both hands, and throttle it, and then it would be over, and he could crawl out. And yes, he would bury it, just like he’d promised in his mind. But throttling something, strangling even a dying thing is harder to do than to contemplate, and the missing eye frightened him to his core in a way he could not rationalize, and also it was a sorry living being, sorrier even than the man felt himself to be, and here they both were and wasn’t that kind of, in a strange way, miraculous? The thought of that made the man think he was now heading round a kind of bend himself, and he touched his face, which was matted and his
beard felt ragged and starting to go beyond the prickliness of first growth to the softer feel of multiple days’ growth, but gritty with dirt and drool and the dried minerals of his own sweat. His teeth felt gummy and slimy and he ran his tongue over them with disgust. He needed a sip of water. He checked the fox. The one eye closed. Then the man shimmied his body a bit to reach for the dehumidifier tube where it was tacked to the structural beam running along the underside of the house’s main floor. He pulled it from the plastic brackets, and reaching his other arm around and up and at an angle over his head, and using his index and middle finger like a pair of tweezers pulled out the broken pen tip he’d used to stop the hole he’d made, then with the first hand, brought it to his mouth, his lips secure around the thick plastic line, and sucked until he felt the water start to back up from the machine down the hose and into his mouth. Not much, but enough. It was supremely satisfying, pushing all other discomforts momentarily to the side, the feel of water on the membranes of his mouth, under his tongue, the sudden clarity of it, and he felt the muscles in his body ease, and he sighed through his nose with the happiness of water. Then the eye opened. He must have disturbed the fox. The man fought inside to stay calm as he kept one eye on the fox’s eye while bringing his far arm back up to replug the hole, which he did, and then replace the hose, and then shimmy backwards slowly. All the while, the fox and man held each other in their gaze, and the man felt afraid, terrified, yet the fox muÌ be dying; it muÌ be, he thought. This is it. Today I will kill the fox and free myself. That is exactly how the man thought, in a kind of existential stand-off, as if his life depended on it, which, absurd though it all was, he realized it did, his life really did depend on it, as his family was nowhere, hadn’t even seemed to know he was gone, unless something had happened to them, which he couldn’t imagine, but was worried about, but also realized that he was trapped, and no one had come for him, how could that be? How could no one be coming to save him? Unless they just didn’t care, unless they knew he was down there holding up the house in a way, the way he always fixed what was broken, and somehow they’d forgotten he even existed, and so he would have to save himself. This was it. The fox was staring, the wound oozing, but it had started to pull its legs underneath it, the tail shifting out from under its chin, and it was wobbling and trembling, and the man began to shimmy again, slowing for a second, which he realized in his gut was the wrong move; if one was to do this it would have to be fast, so he gathered his strength, he gath-
ered his muscles into themselves as if he were coiling like a snake which is the image he held now of himself in his mind, that he was a coiled and cornered snake, and he was a thing of instinct now and watching steadily his wounded prey, and he was so hungry, so certain that life and death were right there in the crawlspace with him, and the fox and he were only these two things, these two states of being, life and death, and either the man would live or the fox would, and if the fox did, then they would both die, and someday someone would find their two sets of bones, and would anyone care that the man was missing? He didnâ€™t feel like a man, he felt like a snake, and he pulled in and he tightened, and he steadied and calmed himself into a steely scaled version of himself, tightening and waiting for the moment when it would reach fullness in him, and then he let the propulsion happen, and his body bolted with the explosion inside him, and, his arms ahead of him like an open maw, his feet skuttering in the soil and shuttering him forward, his hands snapped with the force of a hinged trap upon the foxâ€™s head.
Big Country todd outcalt
he first rule of the road is to drive safely. The second rule is—don’t ask questions. That’s what the guy in the sunglasses told me when I first started trucking for Jimmy Poppa. And for the better part of thirty years, I’ve lived by those rules. That is, up until last Tuesday. Back in my rookie days, I trucked for a cattle line out of Cheyenne and I picked up alternate jobs for firms like Westinghouse and General Electric in between the steer runs to places like Detroit, Boston and Baton Rouge. But I was young then, and it was amazing how far a bottle of NoDoz and a handful of bennies could take me. Once, coming out of Denver, I drove all the way to Charleston non-stop (not even to take a whiz) and after docking and unloading, I drove all the way back on two quarts of black coffee and a bag of trail mix. The secret, of course, was knowing the route—not the straightest line, mind you, not the interstates— but the back roads, the out-of-the-way two-laners that jogged around the weigh stations and the toll roads and the checkpoints that were part and parcel of the tax system, not to mention the unseasonably warm realities of being overweight or carrying a load that wasn’t properly registered and accounted for. I knew routes that most truckers could only dream about in their sleep. But I suppose that’s how Jimmy Poppa heard about me and why he sent the guy in the sunglasses all the way from Miami to Cheyenne to enlist me in the business. “Only two rules you gotta remember,” Benji told me. “Drive safe and don’t ask any questions.” How was I going to argue when Benji was dangling a set of keys in front of my face. He pointed to the rig outside—a new 18-wheeler that glistened metallic in the sun. “A little something from the boss,” he said. “Just like that?” I asked. “Remember rule number two,” Benji reminded me. Those first years went by in a blur. I’d roll out of Miami playing Jerry Reed on the eight-track and bounce off i-95 toward Okeechobee and all points north. Back then I made routine runs to Chicago and New York— light loads that wouldn’t have even roused the suspicions of the feds or the state troopers if I’d been stopped. I’d dock in dark places during dark hours—dilapidated warehouses and chicken ranches at two or three in the
morning. I never knew what I was hauling. I sat in the cab with the engine running while guys with shotguns unloaded the truck in the wee hours before daybreak and I’d watch my haul disappear into the shadows. Whatever Mr Poppa was running worked like a well-oiled machine and he had the connections to make it happen. I never asked questions. But the mystery paid well. I remember running two loads out of Miami one week in ’83—both times feeling that I was being followed. I spent more time checking the rearview mirror than I did watching the road. Another time, Benji took me aside in his slick Italian suit, sat me down in the back seat of his white limo, and handed me two thousand in cash. “A bonus,” he said, “from Jimmy.” Then he handed me another five grand and said, “And make sure you give this to the cop at toll booth nine when you make the run to Chicago tomorrow. He’ll give you an escort to the pier. Just unhitch and leave the load outside of the Navy wharf.” I did as I was told. Drove safely. Didn’t ask any questions. Later, I started making runs to the west coast. San Francisco in the early ’90s. A few to l.a. One to Sacramento, as I recall. One of the loads was so light I nearly lost the rig in high winds driving across Texas. I even thought about taking on some sandbags for ballast, but Benji was adamant that I keep my nose out of Jimmy’s business. “Never look in the back,” he told me. “Just drive.” And another time he told me, “Anyone stop you, even a cop—and they want to look in the back, you use this. No questions asked.” He handed me a snub-nosed revolver. I kept it taped to the bottom of the seat. It wasn’t a rule, but I got the idea that I wasn’t supposed to stop for any reason. I just rolled on—down those two-lane highways, down gravel roads, across dirt roads that weren’t even drawn on maps. I committed the Rand-McNally atlas to memory. I knew locals by sight. And when my prostate started shrinking, I whizzed in plastic jugs and kept my foot pressed tightly to the accelerator. I made more runs to Seattle. Houston. Salt Lake City. And once, in ’98, I even made a run to Toronto, which was tricky as hell. Cold day in January. Brass monkeys shivering in the wind. Border patrol sticky and eager to take an inventory. Fortunately, I was carrying everything of consequence in the cab that day and no one bothered to look under the seat cushion. Benji handed me six grand for that one when I returned. I never went back. And I never knew what I was hauling. I’d seen Niagara Falls on my first and last honeymoon and had no desire to visit again. There were more loads to Detroit in ’01—far more than I can count.
A few to Chicago. One to New York. I was bounding on and off of i-65, i-70, i-75, darting around the weigh stations with ease. The boss provided new rigs every five years or so. Beautiful, plush wonders that seemed to run on air and would have slept a family of four—had I been allowed to sleep. But I pressed on throughout the night. Some of my loads were light. Others were packed to the hilt. Once, I made a run into the vast region of desert west of Amarillo and another load ended up in the deep drink of the Pacific. Then, last Tuesday, something snapped. Call it insanity. Greed. Maybe a death wish. But when a guy turns sixty and has been on the road most of his life he eventually gets the urge to settle down—or at least make a plan for retirement. That’s what happened to me. “Here’s five grand,” Benji told me as he forked over a heap of large bills and adjusted his sunglasses. “The usual run to Chicago. And, hey, Jimmy wants me to thank you.” That’s when it hit me. I’d never met the boss. Never shook his hand. Never seen his face. He was as mysterious and invisible as the loads I’d been carrying for thirty years. “One thing, Benji,” I said matter-of-factly. “We’re friends, right?” “Are we?” “Tell me about Jimmy. Who’s Mr Poppa? You can tell me about the boss, right?” Benji rubbed the pocket on his new pinstriped suit. Adjusted his silk hankie. He stared up at the bright Miami sun, his sideburns melting in the heat. “I’ve never met him myself,” he said. I didn’t ask any more questions. That’s rule number two. And he’d already told me what I wanted to know. That’s when I decided. Last Tuesday, driving out of Atlanta, I swept onto the back roads littered with peach trees and pecan groves and eased the rig down a dirt corridor that was invisible to any human eye. Only the government satellites floating high above the stratosphere could have seen me. I parked the rig under a majestic oak, slid out of the cab, and for the first time in my illustrious career opened the back door to get a peek at what I was hauling. The trailer was empty—save for a few small boxes and a casket-sized crate. I slid a crowbar under the lip of the crate and pried up the lid. And there he was. Some guy in a three-piece with a bullet wound in his head. Neatly done. Like clockwork. Packaged in dry ice. I opened one of the boxes.
I didn’t count it, but there were bundles totaling in the millions. More cash than I’d seen in my life. I flipped through one of the bundles just to get a sense of it, but quit counting after I hit three hundred grand. Now, there are some things I know, and more that I don’t understand— but I can guarantee that no one will find the body I buried under the oak. He’s out there in a Georgia field, adding to the landscape—beautiful in its own way. He’ll be there beside that dirt path long after my days on the road have ended, long after guys like Jimmy Poppa have had their way with the world. But I doubt he’ll care. And I doubt Jimmy will ever find the rig, parked inside a shipping crate bound for the sea lanes of Saudi Arabia. And, most certainly, Jimmy Poppa—whoever he is—will never find his money, or me. I’ll be on the road in some unmarked car, bound for the outback destinations I’d driven by a thousand times but could never stop to visit. Places not on any map. Roads they don’t talk about in town. Greasy spoons inhabited by people who wave at truckers and welcome them home with bottomless cups of coffee and warm conversation. People who don’t care where you come from, or where you are going—only that you are there for the moment before taking to the road again. I should know. I’ve been there. I drive safely. I don’t ask questions. It’s a big country.
÷e Incidental: LoÓ of Hidden Dreams keir john pratt
In each issue, with tongue firmly in cheek, Keir examines the absurdities of a literary life. This time however he tells a more personal story: one of books, fathers and lofts.
must have been a baby, or at least very young, but I remember my father’s foot coming through my bedroom ceiling. From that I can imagine the rest, the swearing and anger directed at the inanimate ceiling joists, and then the realisation that it must be fixed and he would be the one that had to fix it. It was on this day of plaster dust and protruding feet that my father had decided to floor our loft with chipboard. Even at this time the rot must have already set in. But growing up surrounded by it, seeing it every day, how was I to know it was strange? I’m not talking about structural problems with our roof; I talk simply of my father’s addiction: books.
Twenty-five years after a foot came through a ceiling I find myself sat in a hospital waiting room. It’s cold, and opposite me is my father, now a 62 year old cancer patient, here for another dose of radiation. It’s my first trip to the cancer ward and instead of talking about radiotherapy, we are talking about books. “My first book was Thunderball. Paperback books were fairly new then, but the main collection started off when I was at school,” my father says. “Me and another lad pooled our collection and would rent out books to the other boys for a couple of pennies at a time, mainly the ones with the dirty bits. There was no tv then like there is now and remember
this is a time when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned. A Cold Wind in AuguÌ was probably our bestseller, a good money spinner, it certainly did the rounds. Anyway, when that stopped, I seemed to inherit them all.” And of course that’s how it starts, something benign, unnoticeable. My father grew up in the space age. When every other little boy had a cowboy outfit, he had a spaceman one. He had seen Neil Armstrong step out of Apollo 11 when he was 19, and the sci-fi novel had been his passion. It remained his passion during those first few decades, clinging on as the genre’s edge was lost in the apathy of the 80s. Three weeks before the dawn of this new decade, my parents moved from Manchester to the Lake District. When my mother, heavily pregnant and staying at my grandparents, went into labour, my father was getting the new house ready. He missed my sister’s birth, but at least most of the house had carpet when it was time to bring bouncing baby back from the hospital. Stepping into what would end up being the family home, this new father’s collection remained packed away in boxes, for the moment forgotten. The first stage of his cancer treatment was surgery. Here in the hospital waiting room I can see the scar which runs up his neck and around his chin where they peeled his face back to cut out the tumour. “I was doing an Open University course at
the time we moved from Manchester and I had the front bedroom as a workroom. I put up this white melamine shelving that we had, and put all my books on them in alphabetical order, and when I’d read one I would turn the book round so the spine was facing up. At that time, all the books fit on that shelving, pretty much. That was probably the last time I saw all my books in alphabetical order, 30 years ago.” The front bedroom was the collection’s first real home, where it stayed for a while, growing ever larger. Because let’s face it, a collection isn’t really a collection until it has a specific home and an obsession isn’t really an obsession until it takes over that home, and spills out across everything else. As the collection grew, so did the family. My sister had a little room between the front and back bedroom, but with the arrival of a second child (me) five years later, she had to move, and so did the books. In 1984, the year of my birth, the collection had become a living breathing thing. A foot went through a ceiling, half a loft was boarded, and the melamine shelving was moved from the bedroom to nestle beneath the rafters. And for the moment, the collection was happy, up there in the warmth, close to the sun, the glue sweating slightly and yellowing. The three tea chests that my grandfather had given my parents to help them move their crockery up from Manchester were
up there too, another storage space for books. As the collection continued to grow soon the tea chests had to be given a specific purpose: they were for the books he’d read. a-i in one, j-q in another and r-z in the third. I have another clear memory: myself at 12-years-old with a friend, a future editor, creeping through the empty house and climbing the squeaky ladder to the thick humidity above. Books piled as high as even the tallest 12-year-old and the three tea chests, seemingly a hundred books deep. You can only ever get a feeling for what is on the surface, the rest is hidden, veiled by their association with every book that has come after and before them. “Oh my god,” the future editor exclaimed, “he’s got an original Star Wars.” I suppose many of us discovered that my father had a problem with books at different times, but I’m not sure when I discovered it myself. Was it when the pile of books by his bed, each with their little green square of notepaper marking his place, was high enough to obscure the bedside table? When this pile became three books deep? When my mum got angry that she couldn’t vacuum on his side? Was it when I was a little older, when I mentioned an author… or a movie… or some obscure person from history, and his immediate response would be “I have that book” or “I have all their books” or “I have quite a few biographies about them”. Perhaps it was
The colleÀion was happy, up there in the warmth, close to the sun, the glue sweating slightly and yellowing
when he started giving books to me, “I didn’t realise I already had a copy of this,” he would say. “You can have it; it’s a double. “There is a very specific way of stacking books,” my father tells me, back in the ward. We are the next ones in the queue. “There is a way of making the most of the space. I actually have a book on the best way of stacking books. And it’s not just books up there, there are magazines as well. I used to get Analog but I finally cancelled the subscription when I got ten years behind on reading them.” If you were to go into the loft now you would struggle to move. There is a small but clearly defined maze of walkways through the precarious towers of tomes. I have my own little section, books I left behind, slowly being consumed by those around them, becoming part of the wider collection. That’s when the disease eventually becomes undeniable. You can either cut it out or live with it and wait for it to consume you. My father’s name is called and the two nurses ask me whether I’ve been before – as if it’s some kind of activity day – and I say I haven’t. My father is lying down on a slab and they start to screw a mask over his face. I pretend to listen to the nurses explain what they are doing, giving them encouraging sounds that I am paying attention. But I’m not. My father won’t get the opportunity to finish reading all of his books (he
never read his first, Thunderball), but that was a truth he came to accept long before masks and radiotherapy. He has read 1,900 but owns 6,250, with 800 marked as ‘in progress’. This is his best estimate. But that day of reckoning is far in the future, because this time the radiotherapy works. So to my father, the final tally remains a mystery, and so the loft does to me. But one day, I will have to climb the ladder again and navigate those walkways and avoid putting my foot through the ceiling. When the host dies, so does the tumour, but the legacy is left behind, the genetic predisposition. Cancer runs in the family, and maybe so does the addiction.
Half Loaf gary percesepe The gueÌs arrived at the summer house. —pushkin This snowy morning I’m soothing myself with bacon, which I haven’t tried in years. Hot chocolate, china. Why not? And this wee bread I found at Kroger packaged in half a loaf for single men. No woman to remove my bandana, or point her fork at me. No one to ask, after a violent fall on black ice bounced my head off the pavement: Baby, do I need a Cat Scan? Ha! she’d say, picking at her pale lipstick You def need a brain scan. No seriously, I’d say, do you think I should go to the emergency room? And she’d reach over in bed, take my hand, and say firmly, I’m your emergency, baby. I’m it. Right here.
Kiss, Me vicki jarrett
ou poor things never cease to amaze me. Watching you struggle like this breaks my heart. Or it would, if I had one. All this constant, desperate straining to communicate, it’s painful to watch. And still you mostly confine your efforts to words. Ugly, blundering, primitive things. Have you never, even once, considered you’d be better off without them? Take this pair. Michelle and Ray. They’re both convinced that nobody has ever really, truly understood them. Although they should know better, they allow themselves to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this person could be the exception. All evening they’ve been talking at each other, imagining they’re getting to know one another. But all the time they’ve been exhaling a fog of words, throwing up clouds into the space that separates them, and using it as a blank screen upon which to project an image of the person they want the other to be. You don’t need me to tell you that this is bound to end in tears. Or maybe you do. You probably have the same puppy-eyed faith in language as the rest of your kind. I do understand that it’s the most complicated thing you’ve ever managed to do with your funny little monkey brains. But don’t you think it’s time to move on? You’re pretty much going round in circles now. ‘Is that the time?’ says Michelle, looking at her watch. The hands show five to midnight. ‘I really should get going.’ ‘Me too,’ says Ray. ‘Hang on. I’ll come with you.’ The prospect of extra time together pleases them. They pull on coats and leave together, shoulders touching as they move from light into darkness.
For my kind, communication takes place through vibration. That’s the best way to describe it to you. It’s not technically accurate, but, trust me, you wouldn’t be able to grasp the real truth of the matter if I tried to explain it. Not that you’ll accept that. Never good with accepting your own limitations. Even now you’re protesting, aren’t you? JuÌ tell me! I’ll underÌand! Try me, go on, I might surprise you. Well, you do surprise me, darlings. You really do. Just not in the ways you’d like to think.
We use sub-harmonic vibrations of infinite subtlety and depth. Running through an octave, using relative stellar positioning and the broad chromatic spectrum as enhancements, we can communicate more in a second than you lot can manage in a lifetime of hooting around with your ape noises, blabbing with your fleshy faces, tongues lolloping all over the place. Or scratching your little marks on every available surface. You poor dears. Evolution is the very bugger isn’t it? Takes an absolute age! You are persistent though, I’ll give you that. Even when words have once again demonstrated their inadequacy and your nascent dreams of mutual comprehension are shattered, you won’t give up on them. Still there you go, dragging your words along behind you, wrapped in old sheets like the contents of bombed-out houses. Broken, second-hand and insufficient. Your personal collection of rickety consonants and squashy, unreliable vowels which you’ll rake into piles and clamber on top of time and again, hoping to be seen and understood. Battered but relentless, like a child who keeps looking for love from the worst kind of parent. I’m not mocking, though. You do have my sympathy. After all, if you lacked any redeeming features, I wouldn’t bother hanging around so much. This one street could keep me occupied for hours, riding the currents of alcohol-enhanced emotion rising from the pavements like thermals. Blasts of anger, humid bolts of lust, the chill whistle of despair. Like a fairground ride. I travel unseen, of course. I’m quite invisible to the human eye. Technically, I’m working. But I do enjoy it as well, just best not to let on about that. Close association with humans is discouraged. If The Powers even knew I was talking to you, and in your own atavistic language, what’s more, I’d be in serious trouble. They could revoke my privileges, or worse. Our official mission here is to research energy, in all its forms. The orthodox reason for all this study is to expand our knowledge and abilities; to ready ourselves for the next Great Leap. As a species, we evolved long ago, attaining what a few of your more advanced thinkers and scribblers have hypothesised – a plane of existence beyond the limitations of the merely physical. It didn’t happen overnight though, I can tell you. You’ll have to be patient. If it’s any consolation, you appear to be on the right track, or at least the same track as we were on, once upon a time. Millennia ago, we advanced our technology, decanted more and more of our thoughts and dreams into light and energy. We could travel faster,
do more, be more. The need for physical contact with each other was marginalised until eventually it became no more than an evolutionary spare part. And then it was gone. We were suddenly free, able to communicate by thought, to travel in both space and time. We left our bodies where they lay, looking surprised and a little hurt at our departure. But we were ready to go; it was time. That was our first Great Leap. Something to bear in mind, should you continue to follow this path – it only goes one way. You can’t go back. We cannot return to the physical, temporal plane any more than you can return your atoms to the stars. Exactly what the next Great Leap will involve is hotly debated, but everyone agrees there will be one, and that we must be ready for it. We all have our own specialism, our particular field of expertise. Huge amounts of research have been conducted into phenomena like cosmic string and black holes. Personally, they leave me cold. My metier is the kiss. My experiments have attracted a certain amount of disapproval from The Powers. They have accused me of displaying an unseemly amount of interest in primitive organics. But I have a theory. I can’t quite prove it yet, but if I’m right then it changes everything. The evidence so far points towards the specific instance of the first kiss, that tipping point when thought becomes deed, for the first time. It is unique and unrepeatable. There is an energy produced at the precise moment of a particular sort of kiss which eludes scientific proof, preferring to remain hypothetical, rather like your gravitons and dilatons. But I know it’s there. Fortunately for me, I don’t have to build a seventeenmile round tunnel six-hundred feet under the Franco-Swiss border in order to conduct my experiments. All I require is two live human beings; age and gender are unimportant. The only prerequisite is the impulse. I can do the rest. Which brings us back to our subjects, Michelle and Ray. They may well end up locked at the lips without my help. They’re already standing closer to each other than two people with no desire for intimacy should stand. Michelle. Bless her. If you found her at a jumble sale she’d be a velveteen picture of Julie Andrews gamely paddling a tiny abalone coracle through heaving waves. Hypnotically kitsch, but quite useless. She has the look of a woman who has been hungry, trudging through the wilderness for so long that when she does see the all-night supermarket on the horizon, she wearily assumes it is simply not for her. And when the doors fly open, the outside lights blaze on, a brass band marches out playing triumphantly while a choir sings her name in sixteen languages and furiously happy children dance and wave brightly coloured posters with her
face and name printed in glowing colours – then she shrugs and thinks, surely some miÌake. But here is Ray. Ray, unlike a drop of golden sun, is allowing his thought processes to be clouded by some minor physical disturbance in the trouser department. If there is anything more ridiculous than your attachment to words, then it has to be your compulsion to pound your material bodies together. You must know by now that’s not going to work. No matter how much of it you press against each other, your skin can contain only one of you at a time. Two cannot ‘become one’. Despite the many implausible ways you dream up of inserting bits of them into each other, your bodies will remain stubbornly distinct. It’s really time you faced that. I don’t blame you though, if I was trapped in a meat bag like that I’d be fooling around with it as well. But honestly, how can you do it without laughing? Just thinking about it gives me a ticklish sensation a little to the right and a few light years in from a Venetian red a sharp. The pair of them are so delightfully unsuspecting. But underneath, everything is online, circuits glowing, lights flashing, sirens going off. Inside they’re lit up like Christmas trees. So there’s already a tremendous amount of energy there. That’s what caught my attention. A perfect setup for one of my experiments. All I have to do is get between them at the crucial moment and do my party piece – lend a little vibration, a touch of magnetism, and there you go. Lift-off. Such a simple thing. See them now, standing in the yellow streetlight, staring into each other’s eyes like the rest of the world has just stopped. It hasn’t, but they have bent it a tiny bit. The energy from that first kiss creates a little private island in time and space, causing the rest of the street, the night, the world and everything in it to rearrange itself, ever so slightly, and flow around them, just for a moment. As soon as they start talking again, using words, the moment will be lost forever. No matter what follows from there, none or ten thousand tender, passionate, angry, pleading kisses; that first unique energy will be gone, forever. Before that moment comes, Michelle looks up, and if I didn’t know better I’d swear she smiles at me. I can look inside and see that she has stumbled close to a level of perception I don’t encounter very often. Unfortunately her kaleidoscopic thought processes distract me just at the wrong moment and the energy created by their kiss escapes. Michelle is thinking that their kiss exists in its own right, as an entity
that is even now flying away from them, like a firefly spiralling into the darkness. But I linger, as I always do, to chart the repercussions. It never gets boring, not least because so far no reliably repeatable pattern has emerged. You could call it my life’s work, if I possessed a life as you understand it, which I don’t, but let’s not go there again. ‘Are you okay?’ says Ray. ‘Mmm.’ She smiles and sighs, reluctant to begin interrogating the moment, pinning it against the wall and asking where it’s going, demanding to know what it means. She wants to linger on the island just a little longer. But Ray, the intrepid explorer, is shouldering his pack, eager to be off. He puts his hand on her chin and brings her gaze round to meet his. His eyes are not quite entirely green. She hadn’t noticed that before. She’s known him for years but now she thinks they are the most beautiful eyes she has ever seen. She wishes he’d kiss her again. ‘What are you thinking?’ he asks. The great, dumb ape. Michelle feels the sickening lurch of dislocation as the street, the night and this man with the ordinary eyes all snap back into alignment. She has a sudden desire to punch Ray full in the face and walk away without a word. It somehow feels like the right answer. I certainly wouldn’t argue with her at this point. If only he had stayed a little longer in that moment, undisturbed and complete. But that’s not how you lot work, is it? Insatiable monkey minds taking everything to pieces to see how it works, trying to put it back together, breaking stuff. Clever-stupid hairy-brains. Now, across both their lives, a checked pattern spirals out with crisses of connections, crosses of misunderstandings, joy and incomprehension, love and crushing disappointment so complex it will take them, by my calculations, approximately six years from which to disentangle themselves. All from one kiss. It’s a fair cop. Mea culpa. Perhaps I should have left them alone and maybe none of it would have happened. But I can’t; I’m so close to cracking this energy problem that I can’t halt my research now. I firmly believe, and I’ll be making my case to the full Symphonic Powers when my trial comes up, that there is a particular frequency, a special shade of vibration at play within the kiss that we, all of us, have missed. Now that I’m aware of it, communication with my own kind, nuanced and penetrating though it is, sounds slightly off-key. Like when you notice an annoying squeak in your car, a rattle in your fridge, the hideous slurping noises made while eating by someone you no longer love. Those sounds push themselves forward and become all you can hear. It’s like that for me – the lack of a note I’ve never heard, a silence I can’t stop hearing.
There’s a colour absent from the spectrum, a tiny hole in our perception which renders the whole picture imperfect. Until I isolate that missing piece I can’t, in all conscience, agree that we’re ready to move forward. We still have so much to learn. This is not a popular theory, to say the least. The Powers, so I gather from the pentatonic, slate-grey rumblings coming my way, plan to make an example of me. They intend to silence me, which naturally only convinces me further that I am on to something significant. I do not relish my position. Believe me, if I could pretend everything was as The Powers insist, ever onward, never looking back, then I would stop my experiments and join the Chorus of Approval. But I have nowhere to hide from my own thoughts. They are all that I am. Michelle’s anger with Ray has subsided, but a recklessness remains and she tells him, just for the hell of it, exactly what she is thinking. ‘I was thinking about ghosts. About what they are. And I think ghosts are created when people die of loneliness. That’s why they hang around, for company, because they’re still lonely.’ Ray searches for something to say and mercifully finds nothing so kisses her again, and doesn’t stop for a long time. Still I linger, and watch, and ache in a midnight-blue d minor, dissipating over endless space.
Postcards Ïom the Northwest caitlin mackenzie
to my father
I worry about the weak valve, half agape, failing your heart. I worry about your asthma in December, then again in May, and the guilt that suppresses breath and pulse. Tell me again it’s ok, though I know it’s my turn to speak.
to my mother
I’m fine. I have enough money to drink soda with dinner. Stars can be seen from the downtown center. I came for mystery, to alight into the unknown. Please don’t take it to mean I reject the familiar, the familial. The heart is just so fragile around its own.
to my brother
We both settled on the easterly arm of the pacific ring of fire. Do you think it’s a coincidence? What you call liberation, I call abandonment. We fell from the paternal spine into sand licked clean by salt waves.
AĂ“er Basho caitlin mackenzie Beginning today, in this moment of unease call me vagabond or wanderer, lover leaving on an angled path under humidity and thunder. I will sleep each night among the fir and aspen needles of restless ancestries.
÷e Man Ïom Juneau dominic dudley
ender pulled on his longjohns and tugged his thermal vest over his head. A thick pair of trousers followed, as did two pairs of socks, one over the other. Then a shirt and a jumper. Heavy boots. He walked towards the door and took the winter coat off the peg and enveloped himself within. He looked around for his hat and scarf but couldn’t find them. He cursed and, after pulling on his gloves, decided to brave it and head out without them. He stepped through the door and into the street. It was 26 degrees Celsius, the warmest day for months. Every other man he could see was wearing a t-shirt or a short-sleeved shirt; the women were all in skirts or summer dresses. He shivered a little, drew his coat even more tightly around himself and ran across the street to where his car was parked. As soon as he got inside, he turned on the ignition and fired up the heating. While he waited for the car to warm up he gazed blankly at the pairs of flags strung up across the road into the distance. He recognised the city’s coat of arms on one, but the other was a mystery. Red, with a strange cityscape inside a badge in the top right corner; he had never seen it before. The steering wheel still felt slightly chill as he swung the car out into a gap in the traffic. He wished he was in a country where he had to turn off the air conditioning rather than turn on the heating; where rain came only to break through the humidity rather than as an almost constant drab, damp blanket. The radio blurted out something about the start of a mild, early heat wave, but he knew that wouldn’t amount to much and certainly not enough. His job that day, as every day, consisted of replacing some road signs, restoring others to their proper upright position and cleaning up defaced signs so that they read as they should. It wasn’t a great job, not least because it meant being out in the freezing cold all the time, and Fender thought the task was gradually whittling away his intelligence. He was forgetting more than he had ever learnt, but he also got some pleasure from dreaming of being in those other places the signs pointed to, and that was almost enough. The problem with living on an island was that those other places weren’t all that far away and most days they were just as damp and cold as where he was. On four days of the week he left the office to go to a different compass point of the city. That day it was to the west, where there were few options
for motorists except to turn around and head back towards the centre. The coast was only a few miles out from the city and the small village of Mote was the only thing that lay between the two. At least once a month someone would scrawl a prefix of “Re” in front of the village’s name on any one of a dozen signposts, and it would be Fender’s task to clean it off. This time he came across slightly more inventive graffiti, though. Someone had changed the “e” to an “o” and added “-rway” as a suffix. Fender assumed it to be a sarcastic complaint about the poor road conditions and set to restoring the sign to its original state. Three other road signs in the area were defaced that day. The first turned the town of Pales into something unreadable and the second the suburb of Cartgate into Cartagena. And that week, as every other, the main sign pointing towards Landsend had been replaced with its more commonly used nickname of Landfill. Fender had never heard of Cartagena before. With his tour completed by early afternoon he decided to use the remaining hours back in the office to find out where it was. What he found made him pine even more for another place. Whether it was the Spanish or the Colombian version made little difference, either would be a substantial improvement on Cartgate, Landsend or indeed the city itself. The heat and the humidity of either were welcome thoughts on their own, but the exoticism of the Caribbean coast and the stories of pirates and privateers, or the history that must lie inside every Roman brick of the Mediterranean ruins added far greater depth. Fender sat back in his chair and thought about living a contented life travelling between the two. The Spanish city was the nearer, but he was slightly more drawn to the Latin American version, even if it was five thousand miles further away. After half an hour someone came in to knock him out of his reverie and, discovering they had walked into the wrong room, promptly left again. Fender got up and headed to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee to wake himself up properly. While he waited for the kettle to boil he looked at the local paper that had been abandoned on the counter top. The front page was mostly taken up with a story about the city being twinned with somewhere called Skopje, in Macedonia apparently. Fender had never heard of that either, but the description of a small landlocked state didn’t really appeal. Why there? Why not pick a partner from somewhere more exciting, somewhere warmer, somewhere that might lend a fresh air to the place, a warm breeze to fend off the chills. The next day he went about his rounds to the east of the city and he fell back to these thoughts, dreaming up places to pair with the suburbs and villages he was travelling through. He put St Petersburg with one, Ven-
ice with another, Johannesburg with a third. How far away were all these places? He tried to estimate the distances but gave up when he realised that he could only guess within a range of a few thousand miles. After abandoning that thought, he instead fell to thinking about directions to those cities which, with the pallid, weak sun in the sky above as a guide, were easier to work out. From there it was only a short mental distance that Fender himself had to travel before he came to the one thing that would define him, to take the action which would arch over anything he had attempted before. But it still took a week for him to resolve it in his mind. He first broached the subject with his girlfriend, who laughed. Then she pursed her lips and suggested it would be a rash act which could lead to his dismissal. A friend laughed even more and said it would definitely see him thrown out of his job. These objections and observations were met by others in his own mind, but they were outweighed by the romanticism of the move. He started small to see what impact he might have. While out on his rounds one day he simply added a line to the bottom of an existing sign which pointed the way to Farrow and St Justice Junction. To these two unrewarding destinations he added Cap Bon, which lay in the same direction, albeit rather more distant. Another week went by before Fender had built up enough courage to do it again. In that time not a single complaint had been made about his first intervention, which fortified his resolve and pushed him to be more ambitious. This time, instead of a simple direction sign, he did a bit of research on his target city and decided to go for distance as well. Towards the end of his shift, while pretending to clean off some graffiti on a sign to the south of the city, he put down the name of Ipiales, along with a rounded-up number of the distance that it lay from there in miles. Once again he didnâ€™t hear of any complaints, and as the days went by and he passed to and from work, his portfolio of new direction markers grew. Alongside the prosaic signs for the ferry and the bridge, the capital, the outlying suburbs and the coastal towns were added the names of cities and landmarks which many locals had never heard of before, places that Fender hadnâ€™t been aware of before his research: Salta and Segovia, Montenegro and Nouakchott. Each evening he would pore over an atlas and the internet. Starting with a local road junction, he would extend a line until it hit a foreign city, preferably in the tropics for the sake of his own climatic aspirations. The next time he covered the relevant territory on one of his rounds he would augment the existing signs as necessary.
His work became easier with the lengthening of the days. As the evenings extended he no longer had to rush to finish his normal work and allow time for his hobby – there seemed enough daylight hours for both. The unusually dry weather helped too – Fender was able to paint the signs without the disruption of regular showers that was the norm. While he drove around, the car radio in the background boasted of the ever-improving climate. The signs seemed to provoke no public complaints, but Fender’s manager did at times comment on the profusion of illegal signs that were appearing, urging him to work additional hours if at all possible to combat the plague. Fender happily acquiesced. It gave him more time to devote to his task, and at overtime rates of pay. The manager did not see that the problem worsened with the more hours Fender worked and was merely thankful that he had such a devoted employee. Despite his long-standing scepticism, Fender began to think there might be something to the continual exhortations by the media to enjoy the heat wave. For the first time in years he began to feel warm, to the extent that he left the house one day without his thick winter coat. The warmth seemed particularly marked in the corridor to the south of the city, where he had spent much of the previous week planting signposts to Luanda, Asmara and Riyadh. Oddly, he thought he had perceived a light dusting of sand close to one sign as he drove past. And there were other, more troublesome developments. Car drivers began to complain about getting lost, and bus drivers were being harried to take passengers to destinations which lay well beyond their usual route, well beyond the limits of their buses’ endurance. The buses which worked the road now pointing to Karachi were more overcrowded than ever; several chickens and one goat (all live) were smuggled on to some of the Bamako-bound ones; and there were complaints from distraught school children about a suspected case of a guinea pig being eaten close to a turn-off marked for Lima. In other parts of the city things were worse. There was at least one instance of someone trying to ride on the top of a train heading in the general direction of Bangalore, who met with an unfortunate end courtesy of a low-slung power cable overhead. One of the drivers on the Prague route was sacked for persistently seeking extra, illegal payments from passengers with luggage. But as long as the weather continued to improve, Fender was willing to overlook such difficulties. In any case, there were also improvements to some routes. The quality of cooking in the cafés on the way to Cap Bon seemed to improve markedly, and no-one objected to the empanadas that were now on sale by roadside vendors close to the junction for Bogota.
And so Fender began to experiment. One day he added the name Tromsø to a sign. The next day the radio reported a freak hail storm in that part of town. But it could still all be coincidence, he told himself, it just needed further study. He decided to set up more experiments. He began placing some signs on a more random basis, not necessarily pointing in the direction of the destination they mentioned. He bought some small weather kits which could measure rainfall, hours of sunshine and wind speeds, and installed them close to the signs so he could gather his own data. The initial results were inconclusive He wondered if different signs might be cancelling each other out, or perhaps the direction really was the key. Further experimentation and record-keeping would be needed, but after just two weeks his ability to track what was happening was disrupted by the weather itself. One day torrential rain started to fall in his part of the city, causing flooding which prevented him getting beyond the end of his road. It was dry on the far side of the city, but impromptu streams and rivers were making channels for themselves all around his house, and he was trapped. Some elderly neighbours were evacuated but those who wanted to stay were allowed to. Fender, mindful of someone discovering his hoard of signage equipment while he was absent – equipment that his girlfriend asked ever more penetrating questions about whenever she visited – decided to stay put. After the rain gave way to some dry days he was able to get back out, return to his job and restart his tours of the city’s road signs. He had been absent for just a few days, but he found that the usual graffiti had returned in abundance and his signs seemed to have provoked even greater creativity in others. A marker pointing to Rhodes was appended with “to nowhere”, Oslo had been turned into sOslow and the capital of the Comoros Islands, Moroni, had been altered to Moronic. The roads were still dangerous with so much standing water, and Fender even skidded off the road at one point, knocking into a sign close to his house that pointed to Juneau in Alaska. That put him off driving for the day and, given that there were too many signs for him to deal with in one day, he decided to give up for the evening. That night the snow started to fall around his house. It piled up over his car and up to his windows in the space of just one night. The next day he went out with a shovel and dug out a path to the road, but the road itself had been buried deep under the white. The path could take him to the road, but if he couldn’t get anywhere beyond that there was no value in having reached it, so he stopped shovelling and retreated into his house.
Again he was trapped, but unlike the rain which had stopped after just a few days, the snow kept coming day after day. It reached up past the first storey of his house to the second floor. His food supplies began to drop and he took to eating sparingly. The pipes around his house froze, cutting off the supply of water, the phone lines crashed down under the weight of snow. He took to wearing his entire wardrobe of clothes, but still he felt cold. If he had managed to carry on digging the path from his house and gone past his car to the end of the road, he would have realised that the sign he had crashed into was no longer pointing in the direction of Juneau as he had thought, but straight at his house.
SwÕt Old Men karen runge
weet old men smell like pipe tobacco, mothballs, wool. Sometimes soap. The bristle on their cheeks and chins is sharp and shock-white, patterned by old scars, blemishes. The skin that hangs from their necks is pliant and loose as new leather, beaten soft. Their faces dragged and hanging limp with the weight of time and memory. Old men fasten their belts high above their hips. They comb their fine, frail strands of hair into shiny-white wisps that web across their spreading bald spots. They do this to hide the vulnerable stretches of scalp that are worn so thin, shaded red, mottled with marks. They don’t care if you laugh at them for this, because they know something about vanity. They live every day trapped in the bodies that are slowly degrading them. They know that this is already happening to you, too. Only your denial of it is still convincing. Some old men crave attention. They sit straining on their chairs with blankets rumpled over their knees, reaching out to you, their movements jerking and slow. Their tirades fall delirious, their bodies are infirm. They wail for lost wives and absent children. In their eyes, you can glimpse their desperation. You can smell death floating around them, hovering like a halo on the surface of their skin. Old men know all the worst kinds of jokes and stories. Sexist, racist, sick. It’s our own fault that the ones we tend to love a little more are the ones who like to shock us the most. They pull small children up onto their laps, offering secret sips of whisky, and with bleary eyes they begin to recite those stories of the sexist, the racist, the sick. It’s only the stronger old men we can still find ways to love. They comb their white hair and scratch their rough chins, speaking in steady, drawling tones when they tell stories about all the things the younger ones missed. Tell, and tell again. Repeat, and then twist. They don’t care how many times you’ve heard it, and you never seem to mind listening again. It’s too reassuring to the newer generations, to see such character burning bright in the hearts of dying old men. When you were young, your own sweet old man used to sit you on his lap and pinch your knees. With your head on his shoulder, your ear so close to his thinly beating heart, you could smell pipe tobacco, mothballs, soap. He’d grab your hand and pretend to want to eat it – pulling your plump, pink fist toward that gaping black hole of pale white
gums and cracked red tongue; that open maw lined with long, yellow teeth. And you would laugh and squeal and try to tug your hand back, surprised and helpless at how much strength still hid inside those frailbending arms. When the games were over he’d take another sip of whisky and begin drawling rude jokes in your ear, telling you all the things your parents would say were sexist, racist, sick. These were always your happiest memories of him. Your heart beating hard, your head dizzy on his whisky; your ear burning at his brutal honesty. Now he’s in a box underground. The house where you used to visit him as a child has been dismantled into a chaos of cardboard boxes and upturned furniture, pieces of lost order now laid out in chaos and stacked in the corners, piled against the walls, blocking all the doorways. There are a few more stories waiting to be told – only now your sweet old man is not the one who will be telling them. So you sit at the battered kitchen table where your family used to drink coffee, play cards. You keep your back to the boxes that crowd against the walls. And your father takes your hand. i. sexist “My father,” your father says, chaining your brain over the generation gap, “could undo a woman’s bra without her even noticing.” You see your grandfather, younger, his presence magnified by the good looks you sometimes glimpsed in his older face. His hair is thick and dark, greased back; he wears a cheeky smile. You know he was like this, once. You’ve seen the photographs. “He and my mother used to go to the Country Club every Friday night for drinks and dancing. He’d sit at the bar while my mother was busy with her friends, and start buying the pretty young girls martinis. Everyone knew he was a wonderful dancer, and they never said no when he asked.” You can see those girls, dressed in black cocktail dresses and slingbacks, ropes of pearls chained around their necks. They’re all little old ladies, now. They smell like talcum powder, vanilla. They bake cakes and walk with shuffle-steps. Their pearls are locked away in antique jewellery boxes, or pawned. Maybe lost. You wonder if they remember dancing with your grandfather. “He danced very steadily, with one hand on his partner’s back. And then at just the right moment – during a dip, or a turn – he’d twist his fingers and undo the catch in one movement. They often didn’t realise
what had happened until the dance was over, and they were walking back to the bar.” You know, of course, that this can’t really be true. You know because you understand how girls of any era like to make this kind of scene. Sexual, light-hearted; grabbing their chests and laughing indignation with lipstick-brilliant squeals. This is what they call ‘horseplay’. This is what they call ‘harmless fun’. Your grandmother would have been expected to understand this. Women back then; vaults of tolerance. And even as you think this, you know you are idealising. “My father,” your father says, “could smell when a woman was menstruating. No matter how clean she was or how much perfume she wore, he always knew. He said it was like their every movement was wrapped in the stench of blood. He could even tell how many days it had been.” This makes you uncomfortable; it feels brutal, somehow. Unfair. “No-one else could do this,” your father says, quickly, maybe reading your mind. “It was a… skill of his. His sense of smell was incredibly acute. Even though he smoked.” You see him turning away as your younger grandmother enters the room, cigarette smoke peeling out between his lips as he sneers at her, disgusted. You see her cheeks, burning flame. “Was it his sense of smell in general,” you ask, “or just the smell of a woman’s blood?” “He said,” your father answers you without answering, “that it was like the smell of a dying baby. If that makes any sense.” You want to ask more, but you know it would be a mistake right now. Your father has gone pale, and he won’t look at you. His jaw is edging, grinding his teeth. ii. racist “My father,” your father says, “was a grand old racist.” And you feel a burst of shame as the voice in your head works to soothe over the images that flash in at you. You see wire fences, separate queues. You sense the eyes that did not see. You sense the eyes that saw too much. “But in those days, everyone talked like that. A racist at that time was not the same thing as a racist is now. Racists now might really mean it. But for average folks, back then in our town, it was mostly just empty words.” You work hard for a moment to balance this. You wonder how much of it is true. You understand that you will never really know. “My father liked to talk like he was a racist, but his actions were more
the opposite. He made jokes with the shop girls. When vagrants stopped at our gate, he would give them food. Most especially, there was that little coloured girl who used to hang out at the supermarket in town on the weekends, begging at the entrance. She was always dressed in the same blue floral dress, and when she smiled, she had two of the deepest, loveliest dimples in her cheeks.” “Did she smile like that at my grandfather?” you ask, and your father lets go of your hand to rub his knee. “Every time,” he says. “Because she knew he was always going to give her sweets.” In your mind she shuffles forward, smiling up at the sweet old man as he digs into his pocket, and with a dramatic tip of his hat, fills her palms with lollipops, coils of liquorice, silver-wrapped chocolates. “People,” your father sighs, “people used to try and tell him not to do that. They said he was encouraging her too much. And he used to say… she’s just a child. He said every child should get sweets on a Sunday.” The words, ‘That’s nice,’ start, and then stammer on your lips. You’re not sure, of course, if that was really nice. You know your father isn’t, either. “He always seemed really fond of that little girl. Something about her innocence, maybe, in spite of her situation. He used to say it was a shame she would have to grow up.” And you see for a moment what your grandfather, your sweet old man, must have been imagining when he had said those words. Little girl lost inside a body turned woman, that blue floral dress stretched tight across curves, over breasts. Her smile lipstick-scarred in the night streetlights. Those dimples lost forever as she grins, empty-eyed, at the men who slow their cars, open their doors, close their fists. Of course it hurts, conjuring these thoughts. “He was a grand old racist, in all his words,” your father says, maybe to himself. You reach your hand out for him to take it. You feel the tremble in his grip; you rub your fingers over the tight-white of his knuckles. His jaw is edging, grinding his teeth. He lets go of you again, and drops his head into his hands. iii. sick “Your grandfather,” your father says, “used to collect old bones. Animal bones. Roadkill. Dead strays. It didn’t matter what state the body was in when he found it. How broken; how torn. Rotten, decayed; stink-
ing of grey cheese and rotten meat; wet as muddy water, dripping worms. Those smells never seemed to bother him. He’d take the corpses and strip them down to what he called the ‘pure places’. He meant bone. Dry, pure white. Clean. He’d spend every Saturday in his shed working on his latest project; stripping and polishing the different pieces until they shone perfect ivory. ” You see your grandfather hunched at his old work bench. He’s dressed in a white singlet, the worn fabric stained with rust-red smears of old blood. He smells of sweat and chemicals. He stinks of the dead. His jaw is clenched in concentration, his eyes are bloodshot, his face unshaved. There’s an open bottle of beer, maybe whisky, resting on the floor at his feet. He’s drilling holes into bones, he’s clipping them together. Needle-thread of wire. His eyes are fixed. His hands don’t shake, no matter how fast his heart beats. You try to see into his mind. Hissing white. “You remember those bones, don’t you, baby?” your father suddenly leans toward you. There is something almost accusing in his tone, and you find yourself flinching back. You remember them; of course you do. Mouse skulls with bird wing spires, lining the mantelpiece. Dog toes dotting tail bones in careful links, coiled around the lamps. Hollow eye sockets staring, bare teeth leering out at you from the bookshelves. Nameless joints and broken pieces filling the bowl on the hall table, cluttered among the spare keys. “Everyone said he was an eccentric man. Some people liked that about him… others didn’t.” You want to ask, ‘Did you?’ It wouldn’t be fair, and now at last the nausea has come – hot and hurting in your throat. For a moment you want to take your father’s hand again; in the moment after you want to take the hand of the man to your right. That gentle stranger in his clean dark uniform, with his steady eyes. Scratching down the words your father says. “We didn’t know until this morning,” your father says to the man, and his tone is different, now. There is no nostalgia left in it. It falls out of him sounding dry, stripped; pure and hissing white. “We called you right away.” Your father reaches out his hand, as though wanting to touch the thing that sits in the centre of the table. His fingers tremble, and you see that your own hands are shaking too. “She must have just turned twelve…” your father is saying behind you. “He must have smelled her….” At last you allow yourself to look at the thing that called in this stranger, this chaos, this hissing-white. It’s filthy in dust and faded time,
but the curve of the cheekbones shine perfect ivory beneath the bloodstained rags of a blue floral dress.
Serene Inside v. hansmann Rowing into the wind On a pond in Kansas The oars are too short I’m winded but I won’t show it The great blue heaven Beguiles this golden arena Of approving prairie grass And glistens back at itself Five acres of applause A small dog glints on the shore Following the boat’s Progress with intention I row like a sonofabitch Like a swan inverted
Modal Verb SeleÀion tam blaxter Sidestepping what should occupy my mind (a mass for the dead, requiem peace of mourning backdrop), I instead begin to amass should nots—until this fleeting piece of morningcalm welling up mid-afternoon is cast in overlapping panics: lessons, sins and sins imagined are ordered by caste of allowability. Of course, as the light lessens so too distress: I make coffees and teas, allow my interest to be piqued by passing publications (b&w nudes tease next to wordy undergrad outpourings). These peaked summits of graphed unsettledness have become my rite— the headlines of myself-as-tabloid (for which I write).
A View of the Moon Ïom the Moon matthew l. kabik
he weirdest thing was the humming. Everywhere he went—no matter if it was to the power grid just behind the living quarters or to the bathroom—there it was, somewhere between a small engine and a woman clearing her throat. The company was concerned at first about how much the humming would bother them. They ran some tests—pointless, considering that they were already on site—but found the hum became familiar and wanted. Now the company was concerned about what it would be like when they came back to Earth. Three years of humming and then nothing. Nevin imagined it’d be the same agitation as when he had to give up cigarettes. Maybe a little worse, as he’d need to listen to a recording of the hum to go to sleep, probably. The mission itself was routine: travel to the Moon, run a series of simple, repeatable tests for a few universities, and come home. Nevin got the job because of who he knew in the company. It paid well, and it wasn’t like he could spend anything until the end—which worked out wonderfully. The tests involved two things: how simple welding and jointing was done and held up when performed in microgravity, and the long-term effects of exposure to alternate environments on people. They said humans but Nevin preferred saying people. It made the tests seem friendlier. The first tests on material generally took four or five hours a day, and the human tests occurred once every two weeks. The majority of Nevin’s days remained open. They did make it a point to test Nevin’s ability to entertain himself. For six months before the trip scientists from the company locked him in with the other two employees to go up. The room was in a warehouse they could also venture into, but doing so required them to put on spacesuits. They had to share two spacesuits between the three of them, and someone in the group had a habit of spitting in the helmet, which was irritating. Nevin tried to talk to the other two about it, but neither wanted to admit the habit and it led to no-one wanting to go out for imaginary space walks unless the company scientists called on the telecom and told them they had to. Four months into the test, one of the three lost it. Nevin watched him
throw open the hatch door to the room and scream about killing everyone “on board”. They had to replace that person with a younger man from Kentucky. The company scientists did a few months’ study on whether his drawl would frustrate Nevin and the other employee. Turns out, it decreased blood pressure—like the humming. The launch and trip to the Moon seemed horrifically boring. Nevin guessed it was supposed to be boring, that was the whole point of training. He and the other two employees were treated like stock: put in place, latched in, and checked on during the trip up. While Nevin didn’t see it, one of the other two employees said the astronauts controlling the ship were assholes. Alexander told the other two how this wasn’t his first trip up. He’d been on the space station for six months a few years ago. He said the astronauts always treated research teams badly. Instead of just dealing with central command the astronauts had to deal with whatever group the researchers came from, too. Most times, Alexander explained, the groups made everything difficult. Immediately after they landed and were unloaded, the astronauts left and the tests began. The three spent the first 24 hours on the Moon talking, which made the company, the universities, and the employees very excited to see what would come of three years. Jonathan was the team lead in the experiment concerning microgravity, with Nevin recording the data and Alexander assisting Jonathan. It was obvious Nevin was there because someone got him the job—but nobody mentioned it. Instead he helped where he could and tried to take meticulous notes. “You ever think you’d be welding on the Moon?” Nevin asked Jonathan. “Well I’ll tell you—my cousin did a lot of work near Marinara Trench—” “Mariana,” Alexander corrected. “Right, Mariana Trench—that’s 14.3 Nevin—so he did a lot of work welding in that research station they build next to that. Pretty much the same thing as this, right?” Nevin marked 14.3 on the research documentation and nodded at the comparison. This was like being in the ocean. “That’s interesting. You notice how the heat of that weld-gun moved itself around the brace there,” Alexander said, “make a note of that would you, Nevin?” Nevin smiled and wrote down the observation. When they finished the test they walked back silently to the main base, the humming from their helmet speakers accompanying them.
Nevin watched as the other two employees began developing cabin fever. The scientists called it “space fatigue” but he didn’t like the way that sounded. For the most part the tics they had were harmless: Jonathan saw things when he went out for tests, Alexander spent hours staring at the surface hatch. Nevin had begun, 250 days into the experiment, talking in his sleep. Full conversations—complete thoughts and monologues. It was enough to bring another department from another university in on the experiment. Alexander—the medical technician of the group—performed some tests they wanted on Nevin. That meant more take-home money for the three employees. That made Nevin very popular with Jonathan and Alexander for a few weeks. He wanted to know what he was saying, but the university students didn’t want to tell him—knowing might change what he said. They asked the other two employees to not tell Nevin either, but they did anyway. It was mostly about Earth things. About the way leaves felt crunching under car tires, and fresh milk. About how the Halloween parade in Hummelstown was better than any other in Pennsylvania. One night he talked for thirty minutes about the right way of mowing a lawn. The other two employees admitted it was like TV, which wasn’t allowed. They’d then tell Nevin what he said, and then it was more like radio, which was also not allowed. It made Nevin feel good about what he was providing to the group. On day 730, they started noticing how used-up everything looked. Every floor panel was scuffed and every glass had fingerprints. The gray walls seemed to be getting dusty, which was more or less impossible. The brightly colored kitchen table and hatch handles lost color every day. Everything looked the same. The three looked into the recessed lights just to have bursts of color when they looked away. The outside started blending with the surface, which made Nevin panic when he turned away from an experiment and couldn’t immediately find the familiar, squat structure. He’d panic and see only rocks and mountain ranges and nothing else. Their clothing smelled oily, which was nice somehow, but didn’t feel comfortable on the skin and made the cloth seem darker and heavier. It was immediate between the three of them—they needed something new. It didn’t matter what. It could be a new shirt or a new pair of space boots—a new flavor for the three years’ worth of dinner. It was the first time they felt like something might be wrong. Alexander told the company about it, and the company told the psy-
chologists. They talked to each of the employees individually and then as a group. The talking made them want something new even more, which frustrated Nevin and excited the psychologists. The psychologists explained that a marketing firm wanted to utilize their findings on human desire for new things, and that meant the three would be getting a little more on their paychecks at the end of the experiment. But the thought of money made them think of buying, and that made them angry. The psychologists wrote it all down. The three employees searched the small building for something new— something they hadn’t touched. Alexander looked under each floor panel, Jonathan opened every container. Nevin went through the supply room. They found a pack of toothbrushes. Alexander decided to put it in the middle of the dining-room table. It was beautiful, and they felt perfectly fine after that. On day 787, Jonathan lost his Tennessee accent. When he said goodnight to the other two employees it was there, thick and comforting. In the morning it was gone. The company checked to make sure it wasn’t something wrong in his brain, which it wasn’t. After two days of refusing to talk and one week of trying to fake the accent, he decided to live with it. Nevin and Alexander were just as upset as he was—now all they had was the humming to calm them down. The employees became so quick at doing the physics experiments they had almost 20 hours each day to themselves. They knew what tools to grab, what measurements to pronounce through the walkie-talkie sounding microphones. Somebody said the company might make them do more experiments to fill up the day, but that never happened. The employees tried to fill the extra time by playing cards, but they all knew when the others were bluffing, or when they wanted to fold. They knew when the others needed a card or what cards they already had. None of them told the psychologists about that. Space makes bones go funny. The company and the universities already knew that, but when people live on the Moon their bones go even funnier. The three were supposed to work out for three hours each day to keep their muscles aware they were there, but it was hard to convince themselves to work out when they weren’t really going anywhere. Nevin—while taking a spectrometer out of its case and handing it to Jonathan—broke his wrist. He heard the small pop echo through his suit, travelling from his wrist up his arm into his ears. It was such a foreign
sound that he was scared his suit had torn, because he didn’t feel anything. He took the medicine Alexander gave him and let the wrist stay wrapped until healed, but he felt nothing other than the inconvenience of having a bandage on. On day 1004, the employees were checking on a test concerning the oxidation of welded material in the Moon’s environment. Alexander said he needed to step away from the experiment to stretch his legs. When he was far enough away that he looked like a toy, Alexander waved to the other two. They waved back. Jonathan clicked on his microphone and told Alexander that he’d better come back to finish the experiment. Alexander didn’t respond, he just waved again and continued hopping away from Jonathan and Nevin. They thought about calling out to him, but as Alexander hopped away his microphone began humming into their helmet speakers. It was loud and surrounding and perfect, so they finished the test and went back to base. It was comforting to them—like the other humming but better. On day 1005 the company’s psychologists and the universities called the employees for the tests on exposure of long-term environments on people. The employees took their places for the beginning test: overall feelings, concerns, and observations. When the camera clicked on and the employees saw the two miniature images that the company psychologists and universities were seeing, Nevin realized something was wrong. “Where is Alexander?” “He went for a walk,” they said. “What?” “He went for a walk, but he came back.” “Who came back?” “He did.” “Well, where is Alexander then? We don’t see him on any of the cameras.” “Oh,” Jonathan said. “I guess he didn’t come back,” Nevin said. “You left Alexander out there? When? How long ago?” “Yesterday before we went to bed.” A company psychologist covered their camera and the university’s camera turned off completely. When the company’s camera was uncovered the employees’ managers and managers’ manager were there. The manager’s manager asked Nevin to explain what happened. So Nevin explained what happened, and after another pause the employees were told the experiments were over, and that they were going to
be picked up and brought back to Earth within a week. The employees were excited about this, and Nevin stood up to go organize his things. Jonathan asked if he should let Alexander know, but the company didn’t answer him. Instead they said they’d be in touch in a few days to let them know final arrangements. When Nevin packed his jeans into the single backpack of personal items they were each allowed to bring, he realized Alexander was dead. He repeated Alexander’s broad wave in his mind, his hopping away, and the humming static of the microphone. Nevin wondered if Jonathan was realizing the same thing—or if he should tell him that Alexander was dead somewhere on the surface of the Moon. He decided it best to wait until they were on the ship with the astronauts. On day 1010 Jonathan asked Nevin if they should open up the package of toothbrushes. Jonathan handed Nevin one, and held two more in his hand. “Oh God,” he said, his hand beginning to shake, “Oh God.” Jonathan and Nevin sat in the dining room looking at the outside hatch. Jonathan said something about getting a cheeseburger as soon as he landed on Earth, and when he said it, Nevin heard the long drawl of a man from Nashville. It made them both very happy.
Wooden Nickels michael mcglade
991. Last chance living. Where the forgotten slum it. When you’ve got nowhere left to go. That’s the gist of my article for the Daily News – ‘New York’s Picture Paper’. Bet you’ve seen them hanging around soup kitchens and blood banks and derelict missions. Dead beats socializing on discarded sofas on street corners. Has-beens hunched over burning barrels beneath flyovers. Losers, right? Hard to get yourself into a situation like that, huh? “Can it,” the man wheezed. “Can’t you just can it, just for one guddamned minute? Can’t sleep with that racket.” Near midday. Same complaint each day since I’ve been here. His television flickered on the nicotine-stained ceiling above the row of cubicles. Canned laughter from a rerun of Sergeant Bilko. Reek of Mentholatum and turpentine. The man banged the partition that separated our cubicles, fell on his cot, wheezed. Metal odor of stale sweat. Each rented cubicle contained a cot, four windowless walls, a door with a lock, and no ceiling. I sat my Olivetti Lettera on the oily cement floor of my cubicle. It hurt to type. I gulped some scotch and glanced at the newspapers tangled upon each other on the floor, reading them, and as I did the papers moved and danced and stormed, memories I’d care to forget. Drink it all away.
The door latch rattled, opened. The man entered. He wore a xxl Giants jersey. I stayed on my cot. The empty scotch bottle near the pillow, I could use it. “You been here two weeks, got your arm all busted to shit, and already a week behind with the rent,” he said. “I ain’t running no charity,” he said. He picked up his foot and scraped the newspaper off it like it was gum. “I read the papers for entertainment,” he said. “Entertain me, I might not break your face,” he said. “Like your lips to look like squashed plums?” “Then we’d both have a matching set,” I said.
He choked. I think it was strangled laughter. “How did you get here?” “Strike action.” “You don’t strike me as the typical irate proletariat.” “Oh, well, I guess I had a run of bad luck, too.” “Figured it as such.” “Figured would suggest you can count,” I said. The big man moved like a boxer, meaty hand gripped my neck, pinned me to the thin partitioning wall. He smelled of boiled bratwurst. Man next door yapped like a teacup dog. “I know you.” He glanced at my newspaper rug. “You’re some big shot reporter. What are you doing here? Think you’re gonna make changes with some big shot exposé? “An exposé won’t change much. Better with gasoline and a match.” “You’re cute,” he said. “Don’t assume my pleasant demeanor as me giving a shit. What … are … you … doing … here?” “Two months of strike action. I got bored.” “Newspaper strike’s still on, but I hear you been typing all-hours. Tell it so as I don’t have to pitch you out a window.” “I spent a week on the picket line at the Daily News building. Nothing’s going to change. I got bored. Had too much time on my hands.” “Lay it on thick, kid. You owe me a week’s money. Charm me, Bukowski. Sing.” “Give me a quarter, I’ll sing.” “Look at you, kid. Still in your twenties and a broke loser,” he said. “I’m starting to like you,” he said. “I don’t swing that way.” He choked. I think he was gargling gravel. “I’m gonna do you a favor. You’re gonna work for me, Charlie. Earn a little money. Pay your rent. But mainly, I’m gonna keep you round just to see you blow up.” “You get off on that?” He leaned closer. Oily sauerkraut sweat and hair tonic. “Down to the front desk at nine p.m.,” he said, “You’re the new night porter.” “What’s the pay?” “Wooden nickels.” “I’m gonna need more than that.” “You a Jew or something?” “I need cash.” “Fifty bucks. End of the week.”
He dragged me to the floor, clamped my mouth shut and pinned my left arm. I could have swung my right, caught him with the plaster cast, but it would’ve ended worse. He stomped a shoe heel into my left hand. “You’re late with the rent,” he said. “Don’t let it happen again,” he said. The front desk was protected by a pockmarked screen and a door made of quarter-inch steel. Dried blood splatters peeled off the bulletproof glass screen like a scab. “You’ll get used to it,” he said. “The graveyard shift is simple. Don’t buzz in nobody hasn’t paid. Two dollars a night. No exceptions.” I sat on the only chair. A notebook dropped from my pocket. He scooped it up and opened it. I ripped it from him and stuffed the notebook in my pocket. “You got secrets,” he said. “Everybody’s the right to their secrets,” he said. “Keep showing the teeth you’ve just shown me, you’ll make it through the night A-Okay. Might even make a permanent replacement.” “You pay me at the end of shift on Friday,” I said. “Fifty dollars for four nights’ work.” “Sounds like you already spent the money.” He left the building. I latched the door. Nine o’clock in the evening. The wall clock clacked like a woodpecker boring into my skull. Fifty bucks. Nowhere near enough money to pry me out of Bowery. But it’ll keep me alive. I can get out of here, if I make a little wiggle room. The cast on my right forearm pinched, fingers on my left hand were swollen like fat earthworms. Noise never ceased. Couples screamed. Babies shrieked. Dogs scrapped. Bottles smashed. Sirens wailed. I read the Racing Form and circled the winning horse in tomorrow’s two-thirty. I re-read the paper. I read it again. I had two nickels, all the money I had left. I deposited a nickel in the lobby payphone and dialed a number. The call connected. I hung up. I went to my cubicle on the seventh floor, fetched my typewriter and returned to the front desk. I opened my notebook and proceeded to transcribe the shorthand notation: ‘Two hundred residents squeezed into single-occupancy cubicles that lined dank submarine-like hallways. Waltham House is anorexic: ten stories high and twenty-two feet wide. Night was when this place came to life. The residents were like cockroaches, only active when the lights went off. A raft of voices in the cubicles crying and half-crazy talking to themselves the moment the sun dipped behind the skyline…’
The door to Waltham House buzzed. The man confirmed his name and cubicle number. I allowed him inside. He approached the front desk. His ragged face, marked like a well-worn cowhide, appeared familiar, like the face of someone I knew, but so aged it made it difficult to recognize. “You like the view?” he asked. “See the Empire State building from the doorstop.” “I don’t look up any more,” I said. “That’s skid rows for you,” he said. “Right next to the rich places. I guess we’re the equivalent of a rich lady shitting her lace panties.” Gray hair hung limply across his forehead and the fringe was tinged yellow from cigarette smoke. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I’m holding out.” “Holding out’s the hardest, son.” “I’ve got patience,” I said. “Luck always changes. It’s like the direction of the wind. Can’t always stay the same.” “Some things do,” he said. “Year after year, I’ve saw seasoned bug men flee from Waltham House with handkerchiefs clamped to their mouths,” he said. “Why you really here?” “A whole mess of near misses,” I said. The old man sipped from a beaker of gin. “That’s what I live for,” he said. “Not the winning – it’s the losing, losing by a miniscule amount, a near miss. And I got to keep going ’cause I was so close, so close to winning, and if I had one more chance I know I’d make it, and I’d keep going, trying to make it and every near miss made me want to win more.” He sipped from his beaker, spilled gin down his beard like dewy spider web. “What’d I win?” He glanced around the lobby. “This,” he said and allowed his eyes to linger on my face, and he studied me like he was recalling me from some distant memory. I smelt it then. He had soiled himself. He limped toward the stairs. Caterwauls and drunken brawls punctuated the second night. From midnight until three I had barred the entry of eight men, two of whom were penniless, looking for a free room. I typed at the front desk, reading from my notebook: ‘Waltham House, a 97-year-old cubicle hotel, is a few blocks from Greenwich Village, SoHo and Chinatown. Urban renewal in Bowery is not just stagnating but festering. Capitalism’s great big loser. Bulletproof windows on Chinese take-outs and corner delis. Fly-by-night stores. New York’s premier skid row, 1991. The men living here had money,
not much but enough to pay for accommodation. The single thing they seemed to desire above all else was anonymity. Waltham House, and by extension Bowery, provided rooms with no questions asked. Increasing numbers of people flood the area. An unending churn. All on hard times. Cheap accommodation and decreasing levels of available unskilled work mix a bad cocktail. Factories have become mechanized, and industry has changed, modernized…’ The plaster cast on my right arm constricted like a tourniquet. Made it difficult to type. Left hand still contained the stigmata of my boss’s heel. I picked up the notebook and thumbed through the pages until I came to the photo of Christine. Grand piano smile. Eyes the color of waterfalls. Christine. My Christine. I traced my finger around the digits of the telephone number printed on the notebook page. I deposited a nickel in the lobby payphone and dialed. The call connected. I hung up. “You working for wooden nickels?” he asked. It was the old man from last night. He had come down from his cubicle. His yellow skin appeared as translucent as rice paper. Had tried to sleep off a hard drunk. “They used to take wooden nickels when there was no money,” he said. “Used them as Depression script. A body could exchange one for a drink. Printed them with expiration dates. You missed turning them back in before that date you got stuck.” “Expiration date?” “We all got expiration dates, you, me, everything.” “Do you always talk about death?” I asked. “When I expire,” he said, “I pray it’s with my boots on. I have walked this whole country, and when I’m dead I plan to continue.” I went behind the front desk and locked the steel door. “What brought you here?” he asked. “Money,” I said. “Same as us all.” “Yeah, but I don’t plan to stay long.” “Yup,” he said. “Same as us all. When I come here, would’ve been your age,” he said. “Don’t you got some friends you can stay with?” “Outstayed my welcome,” I said. “What’d you do to burn that bridge?” “I burnt more than just one bridge.” “What’d you do?” “Twenty dollars lying in Jay’s apartment. I put it on, and lost, but I was close, so very close.”
“Same as us all,” he said. The old man went outside to socialize. It was five o’clock in the morning. I opened the Racing Form. I’d come out a winner on yesterday’s race. Only problem was I hadn’t the money to lay a bet. I studied today’s race statistics. I circled four horses. I had picked four winners. I glanced at the payphone and felt the weight in my pocket of the last two nickels I owned. The third night was slow. People had gotten to know me. I had gotten to know them. I recognized the faces of the residents and their voices and I no longer needed to check their credentials. Half the people were regular users, while the others were blow-ins or rummies who had gotten lucky begging and made enough to afford a bed. He left late again, the old man. Didn’t enter the lobby until after one o’clock. He appeared at the front desk screen like a vapor, a translucent apparition. Eyes ringed like coffee stains. “Gambling’s for mugs,” he said. “Unless you got a system.” “A system,” he repeated and glanced at the Racing Form, which I had haloed with red ink in almost half the available races. I’d won in all four races I had chosen from yesterday. “Well, if you got a system, then you can’t go wrong,” he said. He dropped his head, turned toward the exit and shuffled off. “Is murder rare here?” I asked. “You’d think with the air of lawlessness that it would be common, well, it’s common as shit,” he said. “Never walk around here alone, son. They’d turn on an educated boy like you, but that’ll just be for sport,” he said. “You ever do something bad, they’ll make you hurt. The other day, this child molester came to Bowery. Thought he could hide from the authorities. Dead eight hours later. Naked, strapped to a fire hydrant, stuff done to him would make your toes curl. Men come to the Bowery to hide from themselves – and that’s ok – but you can’t never hide from the Bowery.” I studied his face. “Do I know you from somewhere?” He didn’t answer. I opened the metal door, brought him behind the front desk, deposited him on the chair. He glanced at the typewriter, the article I had been working on, and my notebook. “Why have you quit working?” he asked. “I didn’t quit work: it quit me. When it comes to gambling, I’m ir-
responsible. But writing – I’ve always got my writing. It’s the only time I can be honest.” “You clackety-clack on that typewriter everything you done wrong with your life?” “Everything is self-inflicted. I make no bones about that. But this newspaper strike, left me with no income. If I could just make a little, I could dig my way out of this pit.” “Maybe it’s the best thing happened to you.” “What?” “Rot set in long before you noticed it.” “You don’t know me.” “What’s to know? You’ll never change. You’re where you belong, now.” “Get out of here.” He picked up the notebook. It fell open to Christine’s photo. He ran his tongue on the inside of his lips. “What’s this number here?” he asked. “It’s her number.” “Why don’t you call it?” “She doesn’t know me anymore. Probably wouldn’t even recognize me.” “Can’t you make yourself recognizable?” I ripped the notebook from his hand. I pushed him out of reception. I shut the door. He slouched off, dragging his right leg like it were dead wood. I gripped the notebook tight. My shattered right forearm burned. The healing process was slow as glacial movement. The bone knitted together in painfully perceptible increments. I opened the notebook to the photograph of Christine. I traced a finger around the digits of her telephone number. I glanced at the payphone. I put the notebook in my pocket. On my fourth night at the desk I studied the Racing Form. Every horse I had picked came in a winner. I grew tired of the game. I stuffed the Racing Form in the garbage receptacle. I watched for the old man. Time trickled away. I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t write. I opened my notebook and studied the photo of Christine. The photo, notebook and typewriter: the sole remnants of my previous life. At the end of this shift, come nine o’clock, I’d have fifty bucks. I’d be ahead for the first time in weeks. I traced the digits of Christine’s telephone number with my finger. I went to the payphone and deposited a nickel. The call connected. No one spoke. The line hummed. “Who is this?” the man asked.
“It’s me.” “What do you want?” “Fifty bucks on Maverick in the two-thirty.” “You got the money?” “Sure.” “Ok, then.” “Ok, see you at two-thirty.” The man on the other end of the line took a sharp inhale to speak. The call disconnected and the phone went dead. I returned to the front desk. I waited. I counted time. I watched for the old man. Outside it brightened in increments. Nighttime howls became daytime hustle. Nine o’clock arrived. My final shift ended. At half-two, when my horse came in, I’d have five hundred dollars. Mr Carter, wispy gray hair and thin as a spoke, rapped the screen. “Got ourselves another decomp.” “Someone’s dead?” “That’s what he smelt like.” “You’re sure he’s dead?” “Check for yourself.” “What happened?” “Same thing happens us all,” he said. “I believe natural causes got the better of this one.” He laughed like he heard some great joke. “What am I supposed to do?” “Rake him out,” he said. “Room next to mine. Number six-oh-five.” I bent forward with my head between my knees and heaved and bile like salt-melted slugs escaped me and I went onto my knees and I stayed there for I don’t know how long. I went to 605 and opened the door with a skeleton key. He was on the floor, naked. The old man had died in agony, face twisted like wrought iron. Yet in that gruesome rictus of a face I felt like I was staring at my own reflection. Mr Carter had climbed onto his cot and now peered over the dividing wall. I took the old man’s boots and placed them on his cold, stiff feet, and laced them up, and went outside of the room and locked the door. I deposited my last nickel in the payphone and called the police. “We’ll send an officer around shortly.” “When?” “When one’s available. We’re busy, might not be till late afternoon.” “I have to be somewhere before then.” “Buddy, the only place you better be is in Waltham House for when the officer arrives, y’hear?”
The nickel dropped. The phone cut out. I scanned the street outside for my boss’s car. The street contained blood banks, liquor stores, flophouses, derelict missions, soup kitchens and shelters, and above it all the Empire State Building a shining beacon. Men drank openly and in plain sight, huddled around burning oil drums. A cop car stopped across the street from one group of men. A cop got out of the passenger side, the engine still idling. He approached the group from the blindside. The cop came up behind the men and sent a hard right boot at the biggest of the asses, dropping the man on his ruddy face like a punchdrunk boxer. The cop jumped back in the cruiser and they laughed and drove off. I waited at the front desk. Hours passed. Noon arrived. No one came or left. It was daylight and the residents slept. I opened my notebook and transcribed some notes. Each keystroke of the typewriter ricocheted like a gunshot: ‘Two men shared a bottle of Listerine. They stood around an oil drum that smoldered and puffed like a dragon. One man pulled out his pecker, peed and said, “Start digging. I hear there’s gold at the end of dem dar rainbows.” A cop approached, noted the men’s alcohol containers. The other man said, “Can’t get arrested for drinking nothing,” and downed the booze in one…’ A hand yanked the sheet of paper out of my typewriter. My boss was stood before me. He studied the page and said, “The men traded insults and downed short dogs.’” He looked me in the eyes, stared. “Why, you’re a regular Ernie Hemingway!” He chuckled like a draining bath tub. He crumpled the page into a ball, tossed it away. “How’d you get here?” “My legs.” “You think you’re a journalist?” He swiped the typewriter off the desk. It impacted the floor with the dull thunk of a stove skull. “You and me gonna be real good friends,” he said. “Fresh fish, just what I like to see.” He closed the distance between us. “What really happened your right arm?” “Domestic issue,” I said. “Should see what my fiancée does when I leave the toilet seat up.” A kernel of pain exploded in my stomach. His strike was so fast I didn’t see him hit me, just the fist drawing back after the incident. Pain flared in my side and his fist drew back for the second time. I slumped to the floor. I think I was muttering something. He slapped my face hard enough to peel my eyes back so far I thought they’d pop right out of my head like a couple of marbles. “You’re so good at the nightshift, I’m gonna offer you a permanent
position, Ernie.” He took my broken arm and struck the plaster cast against the floor until it cracked and splintered. “You’re mine now, Ernie,” he said. “Ernie, you’re mine until the day I don’t need you no more,” he said. “You’re my Ernie, now,” he said. He took my notebook off the desk and opened it to Christine’s photo. I came at him. He beat me down. “Good, you got some fight in you still. Some hustle. Good,” he said. “I like to see some spirit. You’ll be a decent earner if you can last the distance, Ernie.” He put the notebook in his pocket and beat me until I blacked out. When I awoke, he had gone. I had nothing left. Broken. Well, ok, then, I’m a sap, I’ll just lay here and die. Feet shuffled past, old men, boots worn ragged. No one stopped to help, too busy chasing their losses. The clock said it was almost two-thirty. My horse would be running soon. I already knew I had lost. I was always chasing my losses. Light blinked off a nickel beneath the reception desk. A single nickel, shiny and new. It winked. I deposited the nickel in the lobby payphone and dialed the number from memory. I thought about Christine and what I’d say if I had one last chance, I’d say I need your help and I know I messed up last time but I need your help and she’ll say I can’t trust you, not after last time, but I’ll say, I’ll say… The call connected. Neither of us spoke.
Remade in Translation an interview with david constantine
s with one of last issue’s interviewees Stella Duffy, I first saw David Constantine read at the Word Factory, a spoken word night held at The Society Club in London. In an interview with host Cathy Galvin, Constantine gave a powerful argument for the importance of translating foreign verse into English. I felt like marching on Whitehall by the time he was done. The fact that we can devote almost the entirety of the following interview to discussions of the art and craft of translating poetry, and then a couple of weeks later learn that Constantine won the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for his collection Tea at the Midland and Other Stories, should give you an idea of the sheer quality of this man’s writing. I talked to Constantine at his home in East Oxford. — Euan Monaghan structo: Why is it so important to bring non-native voices into English? constantine: In some ways it’s self-evident. There’s the misapprehension that if you’ve got English that is enough. Britain – and England more than Scotland or Wales – is lamentably bad at learning foreign languages and it’s been on the slide for a long time in the state schools, which is terribly bad, because whenever they decide that it is a bad thing, it’s very difficult to recover. You lose an entire generation of language teachers, and obviously the effect of that is hard to rectify. And I think that it’s because there is a perception that we don’t really need foreign languages, which is, even on the most basic or mercenary level, just not true. If you talk to any business people they know that you are at a disadvantage, in the eu especially, if you’ve only got English. And that’s my least concern. It’s also in complete contradiction to the fact of the United Kingdom, which is multicultural and multilingual. There are three hundred-plus languages spoken at home in London, and the primary school in east Oxford where my granddaughter goes has got forty or fifty languages. Which doesn’t mean the school’s a mess; it’s terribly well run and they teach in English, but the mix of kids, their parents and grandparents and the mix of cultural activity, is completely astonishing. Last night we were at what used to be Oxford School – now Oxford Spires, it’s been forced to become an Academy – at a creative writing event there. Our daughterin-law teaches there. The kids were all reading in English, they’d all written in English, and it was very, very good. Phillip Pullman was there too and he said it was one of the best events he’d ever been to. These are 14 or 15 year-old boys and girls, and their ethnic origins were manifestly various. Not just from the Indian subcontinent or black Africa, but also from Poland and so on. And that’s the fact of the matter. And yet that fact
of the matter seems to coexist with an insularity of view which is frankly at times xenophobic, and is reflected in a whole lot of the recent success of ukip and in the Daily Mail and anything that the Tory Party get pushed into against their better interests. You do need something to relativise your position as an English-speaking person, particularly if you’re a writer, because English as spoken in England is now a tiny minority language [in the world]. It’s just one variety of English, and it’s massively outnumbered by the English of the Indian subcontinent, by the English of America, and these varieties of English are drifting further and further apart. There is a social and geopolitical reason to be open to foreign cultures generally and to the expression of that: the language. In particular, when Helen [Constantine, his wife – Ed.] and I took over from Danny Weissbort on Modern Poetry in Translation in 2003… Danny had been running it since it was founded with Ted Hughes in 1965 (Hughes pulled out fairly quickly, but it was his idea) – their stated aim and ambition in founding the magazine was that it should serve as a sort of airport; it was their image of traffic coming in from abroad, and it was intended as a twoway benefit. Some of it was a pragmatic need to get writers out from behind the Iron Curtain who had no access to an English-speaking journal and an English-speaking audience, but the other equally important one, stated from the start, and emphasised by Helen and me was that it’s a necessary addition and contribution to your own writing and your own language – you need to be continually confronted with the foreign. So there’s that dual thing. When we took over there was no Iron Curtain, the hallmark of the times was people on the road who didn’t want to be on the road. Millions and millions of people who were not where they wanted to be. So the fact of forced emigration, the fact of asylum seeking, the fact of exile. Any number of people who were living abroad and who needed English to have any kind of currency but who wanted to continue asserting the culture that their mother tongue comes from. It’s very broad idea really, and it seemed to us self-evident, but clearly it isn’t. [Laughs] structo: So specifically for literature and poetry, has it ever been the case that there was more of an appreciation for non-English language work? At the time of recording this interview there’s still a vogue for Scandinavian crime fiction. constantine: It’s not wholly bad by any means. But if I think particularly of poetry, I am a great traditionalist, and in the Renaissance you were not even supposed to start until you had at your disposal the other languages and partly that’s the historical fact that the vernacular language was felt at a
disadvantage to Latin and Greek and had to, as it were, assert itself against them. I’ve been writing about this for this Literary Agenda I mentioned that evening [at The Society Club] – there’s a whole chapter on translations, and the sonnet comes into English from Petrach though Wyatt and Surrey. The iambic pentameter is made up by Surrey as a way of translating Virgil’s Aeneid. So that line, which is the standard line of English verse by the time it reaches Shakespeare, is an import, an equivalent of the Latin hexameter. It’s unrhyming. Chaucer had used rhyming iambic pentameters, but Surrey was the first to use unrhyming iambic pentameters: blank verse. It’s his way of arriving at a line which will have the sonority and variety of the Latin hexameter. So that’s something that came in through translation, and there are countless examples. Lots of forms are imports from abroad. Major poets fetch them in, starting with Chaucer and all the way through actually. If you look at the work of very substantial German writers like Paul Celan and Rilke, a massive part of their poetic oeuvre is translation. So if you take the five volumes of [Celan’s collected works], two or three are translations from Shakespeare, from Mandelstam, from the contemporary French surrealist poets and so forth. Rilke translated the whole of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and they were not doing this for the money, these were things that they felt would benefit their own writing and it did, quite clearly. Hölderlin, the poet I know most about – the German Romantic and Classical poet – he translated Pindar in the most extraordinarily literal fashion, syllable by syllable, to see how close he could get to Greek, in order to come at a language of his own, which is then like nobody else’s, but ghosted by Greek. And he did two thousand lines, in fair copy, of this immensely difficult poet fracturing the German language. Where the Greek broke at the line endings he broke the German, to see if he could do the same. There was a thesis that German was like Greek in that it’s a agglutinative kind of language – you add bits – and so he was trying to do it literally syllable by syllable. And it was a completely solitary exercise; he showed it to nobody. It was his way of coming into his own language. He said very famously, ‘one’s own has to be learned as much as the foreign’. Through the foreign you come into what he called der freie Gebrauch des Eigenen, or the free use of one’s own, which is a wonderful phrase really. So you come into the free use of your own via this – the image he uses is the journeyman going abroad, staying abroad, steeping himself in abroad, and then coming back, because you can’t stay abroad forever otherwise you lose your own tongue – but you come into the free use of your own by this sojourning abroad in a foreign tongue. That used to be absolutely standard, I don’t say everyone practised it, but it was understood [to be valuable]. If you look at manuals of poetics in the
Renaissance they’ve all got stuff on translation. In fact German literature of the 17th century is practically made of translation because it was in such a bad state. After, or in the midst of, the Thirty Years War everything comes in. The novel comes in from Spain, from Italy, from France and from England. The sonnet comes in from Italy. Drama comes in from Seneca. The alexandrine line comes out of France through Dutch into German and stays there until Goethe’s day. These are people who realised there was nothing in their tongue, in their own literature, that was good enough, and they translate as a way of making a literature. Now that’s extreme – it was in a really bad state – and that was at the national level, but really every individual writer of that period, until some way into the late 18th century or early 19th, felt that unless you continued to go abroad in that way then you were denying yourself a huge reward. structo: It seems obvious when you put it like that! Just what are you missing out on? What was the strategy with MPT? constantine: It is a magazine of translation. We did start publishing original poetry, and we were sort of warned off by the Arts Council, which was quite right, because the peculiarity of MPT is that it’s a translation magazine. So whether the translators were British or American or whatever, they had to have English really as a mother tongue. In some cases there were near bi-lingual people who could manage. We had a wonderful, extraordinary translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins by a German woman living in Finland called Dorothea Grünzweig. We counted the Modern in the title as just being the modernity of the translation, so there were lots of translations from Classical Latin and Greek and from Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, from Medieval French, Medieval German and so forth, as well as epics from the Indian subcontinent of about the same period. structo: Your background is, in terms of languages, German? constantine: French and German. [The result of] an extraordinary grammar school education where I did nothing apart from French, German and English, effectively, after the age of about 13 or 14. Which was disgraceful [laughs] but it did at least give me that! structo: Which led you into your own translations – constantine: Well, it led me into doing French and German and English at A-Level, and then at university doing German and French, at more or
less the same level, then doing a PhD in Hölderlin. And I started translating at university myself, just to get closer to some texts. structo: For a deeper understanding? constantine: Yeah, I thought of it as close reading. The closest form of close reading. I had a very close friend at Cambridge who was brought up in the English School there, in the I.A. Richards practical criticism close reading kind of stuff, where you don’t know the author and you don’t know the date, you just look at the text. Translation works rather like that. structo: You write a huge variety of poetry, as well as translations, and short stories. And you mentioned The Literary Agenda? constantine: The Literary Agenda was by no means my idea. The Oxford University Press are doing a series called The Literary Agenda, and my friend and editor Phil Davis, who was professor of English at Liverpool – I can’t remember his current title – he is vastly interested in what reading does to the brain [more about this shortly – Ed.]. His wife is Jane Davis, who used to edit the magazine The Reader. Phil does now. And she set up this organisation called Getting Into Reading, which is founded on the belief that reading helps. She works with groups from battered wives’ homes and psychiatric hospitals, and gets big commissions from the nhs, because it is a proven fact that if you get people sitting around a table who have never spoken properly, never mind read aloud, it’s enormously liberating in some ways. So that’s what Phil’s interested in, and he then is the general editor of this series called The Literary Agenda and I’ve just finished – it’s coming out in November – the poetry one. It’s kind of a polemical series because of the wretched state of the humanities in British universities and in British culture. It’s a sort of fight-back to assert the value of what it is that literature offers – an entirely different way of being in the world, and thinking. And it’s getting shoved right out to the periphery and into extinction. It’s increasingly not recognised as a value. We always have this trouble with the Arts Council, they were very good to us, but you can see the way it’s gone because in all speeches about the arts, it’s all about how much money you make; what contribution you make to the economy. Obviously if you’re the Royal Ballet, then doubtless you do make a bob or two, but there’s absolutely no way that poetry all together, or Modern Poetry in Translation in particular, could ever actually want to… well, we want to survive, as you do, but…
structo: It’s not a money-making exercise. constantine: They effectively stopped public funding for the humanities [in universities]. The attitude is now well if you think it’s valuable, then you fund it… It’s bad. It’s a deep philistinism actually. [The Literary Agenda] forced me to write, all in one place, things that I had been saying, and sometimes writing, all over; just trying to define and simultaneously assert the value of poetry in particular, but literature all together.
“It’s through ctions that we get even near the truth” structo: You’ve called it a ‘radical act’, doing this for little to no money. constantine: And I do think that. It might seem far-fetched, but it becomes radical due to the circumstances, because everything you do in that line, whether you like it or not, is actually a riposte or a revolt against something which is there all the time. The risk of that is that you become merely reactive; you define literature negatively as ‘not the market’, which is not good enough. But you don’t exist in a vacuum, you do exist in a context of not total, but quite large, contempt for that way of apprehending things. One of the chapters of the book is called ‘The Office of Poetry’. It struck me very forcibly recently that even quite decent people get into politics thinking that they might help, and you see what happens: there’s this terrible narrowing by virtue of office, because the office doesn’t permit you to be a whole human being. It practically requires of you a kind of déformation professionnelle by virtue of being a politician. I don’t mean that poets by their nature are honourable people, any more than anyone else is, but the office of poetry, the poem, the act of doing it, whatever you’re like personally, it’s not a poem unless you’ve established an area of autonomy in which you’re not only free to tell the truth, but it is actually incumbent on you to try to do it. Whereas in the office of politics, almost the antithesis takes place. By virtue of office you are required to take decisions which are largely one-sided, decisions which are trimmed to particular parties. And heaven knows, when they come to the point where they have to utter these things publicly… it’s shameful really. structo: So it’s by nature radical, rather than by design?
constantine: It is intrinsically a radical act. If taken seriously, it’s a radical act of opposition. And that’s a negative way of doing it, because if you’re in opposition then there’s this thing there to which you’re always paying regard, more or less consciously. But it’s almost unimaginable to us, a society in which it were taken for granted that this all matters. There have been societies, there probably still are, but England isn’t one of them. structo: And the same is true for fiction? constantine: Yes. structo: You’re in a good position to comment on this as you write fiction, short stories and novels, as well as poetry. Do they come from the same wellspring? constantine: I can’t do both at the same time, so in that sense they’re rather different, but the kind of short stories I write are the kind of short stories people would write if they mainly wrote poetry. But the same applies, that it’s through fictions that we get even near the truth nowadays. It’s very sad, but you don’t really expect [politicians] to be telling you the truth any more. And it is quite sad, because it just breeds a whole deeply sceptical, not to say cynical, electorate who are not even going to want to vote if it always ends up as just liars chopping the place up for their own advantage. There are other societies where it’s heaps worse of course, here corruption on the whole gets found out and is thought not to be tolerable, but I honestly think that the making of stories – although not the same as scientific fact – is another way of inducing people to think truthfully about the world they live in and about their place in it, through fiction. structo: When you have a spark of an idea, do you know what form it’s eventually going to take? constantine: There have been three or four occasions when I’ve done both, not at the same time, but I’ve written a story or a poem first and then I’ve felt that there’s enough [for both]. They both start in the same way, that is to say that they come about as images, as very concrete situations, and for the stories, and to a certain extent the poems, as a tone of voice. If it’s quite obvious at the outset that it’s going to be something quite large, which will need speaking voices, then it [becomes a story]. structo: Coming back to the translations for a little while: how do you
begin to judge the worth of a translation when you don’t know the original language? constantine: Well, we don’t really. Helen has got modern Greek and very good French. I’ve got French and German and some Italian, but effectively the rule-of-thumb was: is this readable with pleasure as English verse? structo: Oh good. Was hoping you’d say that. constantine: Every now and then if there was a worry we’ve asked other people, but by and large you take it on trust. An awful lot of poetry in translation is a worthy thing to do and a worthy thing to read, but it doesn’t actually affect you as much as does poetry written in your own tongue, in a language you know terribly well. As everyone knows who does it, effectively when you translate a poem you have to write a poem. There’s an interesting paradox in that because in order to write an interesting poem you need that complete autonomy, and in order to do a translation you are serving a foreign text, so there is a fight between service and autonomy. structo: Does it help if the original poet is long dead? constantine:[Laughter] This sounds rather awful, but I don’t really like translating, and I’ve done very little translation of, people who can answer back. But I am not of the school that thinks that it would be better if you don’t know the language, I don’t feel that in the least, and in fact it makes me a bit cross really because I spend countless years trying to get better at German or better at French, and I do think I translate better because I know the language and because, in the case of Hölderlin and Brecht, I’ve spent many years reading them. structo: In the case of German and French poetry, but particularly German, when you read the original and then you read translations – your own or somebody else’s – of something you know very well, do you get any sense of devaluation or is it just change? constantine: It’s just change, and an inevitable one. I don’t believe that the translator should be invisible. I don’t believe you’re there just to be the medium through which [the foreign text] passes because, as I just said, in order to do it properly you have effectively to be writing a poem, and to do that you need to have all the resources of your own language, and the understanding of how that language is used. I hope that my translations would be distinct from anybody else’s just by virtue of the fact that I did
them. It’s not a question of whether they are better or worse, people have completely different views. That’s not really a theory, that’s just a fact of practice. I know that’s how I do it, and that’s the only way I could do it. structo: In terms of translations, there’s everything from the syllable by syllable translation – which sounds remarkable by the way – through to very loose translation. Do you aim for anywhere on that scale, or is it completely dependent on the text?
“÷e shock of reading a pœm which is really e◊eÀive is really the shock of something foreign” constantine: It depends solely on the text. When Hölderlin did Pindar like that he would have had in mind, almost certainly, an extraordinary version of the Bible in German. There was quite a bit of so-called interlinear translation of holy scripture, and there it was a religious matter since this was believed to be the word of God, then logically speaking the word of God is contained within every syllable of the Hebrew or in every syllable of the New Testament Greek. So you had to do it syllable by syllable and interlinear; as it were a translation of a physical thing, a handing over from one language to the other, with nothing flowing away through the holes. Since [Hölderlin] had an almost religious veneration for the poets of Greece then it’s similar in his case, except he also had, I think, what all poet translators have at the back of their mind, which is what’s in this for me? That way is extreme, and in both of these cases – Hölderlin’s Pindar and the interlinear versions of the Bible – without the original it makes no sense really. The German makes a bit more sense than if you’d done it in English, because German is more like Greek in the way that its syntax works and the way it makes up words, than English. What I wouldn’t ever want to do is produce something which carried nothing of the foreign with it. I’m not a deliberate foreigniser. The premise is that poetry itself is like a foreign language within the vernacular. The shock of reading a poem which is really effective is really the shock of something foreign. Translation is more than a bit like that in that it’s literally foreign, and if you want to get anywhere near even something analogous to the shock [of the original] it has to ring foreign in some way, but not so foreign that it just sounds as though you
didn’t know the words or couldn’t do any better. Hölderlin seems to have almost thought – you know when things refract in water – it’s almost as though he thought there was a calculable angle of poetic language from the original. That in your own practice you would try to arrive at something which parted company from whatever everyday speech is; that it would be at an angle to ordinary domestic practice. Robert Graves talked about the language of poetry as ‘otherwhereish’ and that’s quite a good image of it really because it’s using words that are at the free disposal of anybody, it is using them in a way which is odd. structo: Does your background as a translator affect your own original writing? There seems to be a definite ‘Englishness’ there. constantine: Yeah, I think I’m very English, but I could quite easily indicate what I’ve learned from Hölderlin particularly, and Brecht. Well, the politics of both were sympathetic to me, at least at the start – he was born in 1770, the same as Wordsworth, and he’s full of that revolutionary hope, until it all goes to the bad. And Brecht, I’m a great admirer of his politics as well. But more than that, in this particular poetological sense, what I got from Hölderlin particularly is just how much you can ask of the reading mind. He has sentences which go on for 18 lines, and because in German subordinate clauses the verb goes towards the end, the German reading mind is used to waiting for sense to be completed. There’s an extraordinary tension. Any German speaker will do it, and it won’t feel particularly tense, but Hölderlin makes a great virtue of this deferral of sense and therefore an increasing tension. The musical equivalent would be – I’m not a musician in the least – the point of resolution in a passage of music. Well, it’s a bit like waiting for that. An almost physical relief. English doesn’t have the same possibilities, but it does have kindred possibilities. You can ask more of the reading mind. And this thing that Phil Davis is asking is what happens to the brain. Different areas of the brain light up. If you’re expecting a verb and a verb turns up used as a noun, then for a minute nanosecond the brain is flummoxed. The brain works predictively, it’s like lip reading, so it’s always waiting for things to fall into place in a way to which it’s accustomed, because that’s how you function. Whereas poetic language continually thwarts that, and that’s very productive, because it alerts you, it keeps you agile, and it doesn’t allow the world just to drop into the shape you’re familiar with. Some kinds of syntax are more likely to disturb that predictive apprehension of the world, which is very necessary, it’s a pragmatically necessary ability of the brain, but it has to be subverted by poetry otherwise you’re
just continuing… Now Brecht, a first-rate dramatist, but an even better poet, he just moves up and down the register, and that’s what I like. He was a classicist, a good Latinist, some of his German sounds very Latinate, and at the same time he was a great fan of Rudyard Kipling – not his politics, but the vernacular language of soldiers. He’s got every idiom and within a single poem moves from very complex syntax to absolutely straightforward syntax; he has a way of using lineation which means that in a lot of his verse he does not allow the unit of sense to coincide with the unit of verse, so that as you come to the end of the line very often the last word will be ‘but’. As you’re going along you think that you’ve got it, and then the last word will be ‘but’ and then the next line relativises the one [before]. Now these are a) observable, if you read closely enough, and b) more importantly they’re transferrable as poetic strategies. Because if you don’t rhyme, and you don’t scan, in your poem, then the chief poetic means at your disposal is lineation, it’s where you break the line. I’ve learnt a lot from Brecht about where most advantageously to break lines. They’re quite specific things, and those are a couple: the syntax of deferral and the other, which English does very well, is move up and down the registers. structo: A nice example of bringing something in from doing translation. constantine: And it’s something that is fun to do. It’s quite solitary, usually learning by doing, and that’s why I get a bit impatient when— I’ve done Arvon courses as tutor where people have candidly admitted that not only are they not translating, but they just don’t read. And I wonder just what they think they’re doing. Whether they think it all just starts with them. There’s 1,500 years of English poetry, and they just… I’m not saying that you can’t start until you’ve read it all, that would be absurd, but you can’t really do it without continually reading in some way or another. When I stopped teaching in 2000, I suddenly had a bit more time and, although I’d read most of it before, I read the whole of Chaucer. I wanted to devote some time to it. And extraordinary it was as well. structo: There are resources to take advantage of. constantine: It’s a kind of axiom of mine that poetic forms don’t actually ever lapse, they go out of use for a time, but they’re there if the language once used them. Two or three years ago there were several translations of Gawain and the Green Knight – one by Bernard [O’Donoghue], who lives across the road, one by Simon Armitage and there was already one in circulation – and they were very different. The poetic forms of Gawain are transferrable. You
don’t have to do the same, there are other ways of structuring it. English has shown itself capable of that. structo: So it’s bringing in both technical and cultural aspects through translation. constantine: Yes. And what’s happening – it’s regrettable, but I’m not sure whether there’s anything we can do about it – is that our own past literature is becoming increasingly foreign. Already Shakespeare is quite hard for an awful lot of school kids. That’s a pity, but not enough [of a problem] that someone determined enough couldn’t make the effort. There have been translations of Chaucer for a long time. It is actually fun going back to read Chaucer, to see what you can make of it. The idea that – and this isn’t a contradiction of what we talked about earlier – as a writer, and as a poet particularly, you’re addressing anything like unitary culture any more is a nonsense. You’re just not. If you look down the poetry lists of Bloodaxe [Books] for example, it’s blown wide open. There’s every vernacular, there’s no one to say this is canonical and this is marginal, nobody thinks like that seriously now. structo: Bloodaxe in particular seem to be very on top of that. constantine: Yes. For a start [Bloodaxe editor] Neil Astley’s got 50% men and 50% women, which is as it should be, but it’s taken so long to get to that equality of voice. There is a lot of overlapping experience, but there are areas in which men and women have radically different experiences, and that’s terribly valuable. MPT was on the whole ok because there are an awful lot of women translators. It used to be something that was felt to be fit for women, the service of the text, you know? And certainly in the 19th century, a lot of translators were women. You’d get a male author and a female translator. Odd. structo: It’s good that that is now seen as odd. constantine: It is thought to be very odd indeed now, but is still the case that there are an awful lot of absolutely excellent women translators. If you looked at MPT from the point of view of author and then point of view of translator, then we would have been doing less well in terms of author because it went right back to Homer. [Laughter] One of the embarrassing things about this Literary Agenda was that when I went for all the instances that I grew up with, then of course they’re mostly male actually, because
of the canon of people that deeply affected me, right up to Owen and Lawrence and Graves and all the rest of it. And it is largely still, within poetry particularly, it’s not the case in the novel. Now it’s being rectified, and very radically rectified. If I were now to say which poets I read with the most pleasure, there would probably be more women than men among my contemporaries. structo: Are you in a poetry frame of mind at the moment? constantine: I’ve managed to do two, three poems latterly. We’ve just been to Greece. I find it increasingly difficult, displacing. Helen’s very good at saying off we go! But the actual business of being displaced is obviously very good for me, and I did write two or three poems then. I’m in the middle of a longer fiction too, which has been interrupted for one reason or another.
In a Foreign Town christine stroik stocke
n a foreign town it’s difficult for a stranger to know you’re just tired, not crazy. Especially if, at the moment he meets you, you’re nearly naked and snoring loudly in the bottom of his flat-backed canoe. It’s four a.m., and he intends right then to set off fishing. The sun is already painting the eastern sky pink over dark peaks of many mountains when he grabs your shoulder and says, Señorita, no puede estar aquí. You say Sí but do not move. And so he says again, Señorita, your person, your body, you must move it. Sí, you respond. He says he will call la policía and you nod. He doesn’t know it hasn’t been your strong healthy body for weeks, as he does not know many things about you. Some, however, he senses. He will only hear your story, this man, if he finds you to be crazy. Hear it and indeed call the policía. But that is not what you want. You want him to listen. You want to tell your story until a tear appears in the corner of this tough fisherman’s eye, and until he brings one large tin of coffee for the two of you to share, which, eventually, is exactly what happens. You begin the story in a way you think he’ll understand, something of the Latin magic that hangs in the fog about your head this morning. My abuela, you say, es de Argentina. It is a lie, but the old man nods. He knows Argentine women. Your grandmother, however, is not that woman. It was the same day, you continue, that a thousand red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky. Ah, he says, I see. Por su puesto. He leaves to go get the coffee. You stare at the water as you put on your only sweater and wait for the man to return. All lakes are the same. Picture any you know. Not so small that swimming its length would be comfortable nor so large that one would never try, but of a manageable size, such that your legs and shoulders numb with cold water and exhaustion stop moving just seveneighths the way to the other side. A buzzing white commuter boat in the distance carries twenty passengers and a big brown crate of baby chickens on its roof and throws a wake of water that catches your open mouth. You can see that the old man returns with a large tin wrapped in a yellow towel. Runs with them both to the end of the pier. He screams that you are loca and then softens. That the water is cold, he says, that there is no way you can swim to the other side. As you sit on shore in your only sweater and shorts, soaking wet, he does not speak at first but supports the tin’s bottom so that you can drink
from the top. I’m not crazy, you say. Quizás, says the man. Maybe. No química, he says, hay azúcar, claro, pero no química, to indicate that his wife made the coffee from beans in their backyard. Beans simply set out in the sun to dry and then roasted in their tiny wood oven. He shows the height of the oven from the ground with his free hand. The coffee is so good it almost does not taste like coffee, and it certainly doesn’t bring the slight sense of suffering one should always have when drinking any coffee at all. You don’t own quite as many Spanish words as you’ll need to tell the story, but the lapses will be made up in something the man must already know. Por su puesto, you think. When the coffee is finished, he rinses the tin at the shore. You climb into the canoe once more to retrieve your backpack and pair of shoes. The man carries up a small bucket of bait and says me voy. Nods. He is going fishing now but does not ask you to leave his boat. The canoe is small, and so you’re happy when he continues to stand. You take off your shirt and sweater, which are heavy now, and wring them into the water. The man does not once look down. When he finishes paddling, however, he sits, and the two of you are closer than you would choose on any dry land. Knees nearly touching. He smells darkly of coffee and does not seem at all uncomfortable. You know enough about fishing to understand that it is about fishing and not much at all about talking. But in this early morning moment childhood questions become again your own. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say you become her, as much as a twenty-something young woman can again become a curious six-year-old. The fish, you ask, what do they like around here? And so, the voice is not exactly yours. In the eloquence of early Spanish lessons, the girl would have said, Abuelo, que comen los peces para el desayuno? Que les gustan mucho mucho, Abuelo? And she would have said it quicker than you and with much brighter eyes than yours in this moment, but the man responds anyway. The fish, they eat anything, he says.
Postcards Ïom Gethsemane sarah wetzel I Church Of The Holy Sepulchre It seems I’ve hardly arrived And another year has gone by. I send you this picture postcard: May the year and its curses end And may my river one day run full. May the unbelievable stop me when it strikes, As does the bowl of wonder. I should tell you that every dawn still there is Venus, Until little by little at the start, Larger and larger it advances. The red bowl of my redemption. I refuse to condition it. Soon I will be older. Soon I will have accumulated enough time. So that when I wake in the morning, I will undress. I will be as Samson, his tresses grown back. That which has been is that which shall be. Until when? Until when? you ask. Perhaps when another year has gone by.
II Central Train Station It’s years later. There’s still no sign of an End. The entire affair has to be buried. Along with those ugly angels in their ultramarine frocks. Ascend toward God, send word of our divine maÌer, someone joked to the priest. Perhaps something went wrong at the railroad station. God forgot to change trains or accidently killed the conductor. All the passengers
have vanished. The criminals have outlived their children and the saints, they’ve gone home too. I will be underÌood less and less, but a wind, the priest once said, is blowing in my favor. It’s years later. There’s no sign of an End. For the mayor it’s a scandal. For the innkeeper, it’s just someone’s hair in the salad. I’m afraid there’s no other paradise. This must be it.
III In The Garden Of Gethsemane And so it will happen, my Love, When the gift of light isn’t thrown away When it drops its full weight on us When the dog at last found could be our own When insanity will be the insistence that he’s not When the steel splint supporting the mythic olive tree finally snaps When Gethsemane’s statues are no longer taken for granted When the risk is to remain locked in the ground When the agony is more than it takes to grow out of it When between holm oak wood and box-tree hedge, a bower When the three marble men reach out their arms When they pull back their bows When insanity will be insistence that they’re nothing but stone When the revelation is our silence.
All Items of Value Have BĂ•n Removed jason gould
ately you have driven by this row of houses the same time each evening. Every door has over it a grey metal grill, all the windows are nailed shut and boarded, and a wash basin lies cracked in one of the gardens. An official has painted gas off, elec off on the front of each property, telephone wires hang disconnected, and a long time ago everything inside was taken away. It is an ending, this desolate little close, the last of a housing estate to be emptied and pulled apart and transferred to a place of forgetting. You stop by the roadside. Between yesterday and today more buildings have been pushed over, more sky unblocked. The sudden light hits you hard in the heart. This is how the world must have been in its infancy, brilliantly undimmed. For a while you stay in the car considering the scene. Then you walk to the nearest house and stand before it in the oncoming dusk and the flat dead grass and the silence. All else seems to fall away: the traffic at your back, the city, the circling gulls. The world empties but for this hollow shell lit along its roof by the diminishing sun, outlined in gold against the darkening sky. You are mesmerised. Since you were a child you have always believed in the secret life of buildings. You like to think that a house without an occupant might be inclined to dream. That it might recall its former days, reminisce. That in its loneliness it might live again the lives it held previously. How would it begin, such a dream? A silhouette flickering faintly in the living room? In then out, in then out, as if afraid to be. Laughter coming through on the landing, or a sigh at the kitchen table? Or would it be perfume lingering on the stairs, perhaps? You imagine yourself stepping inside, over the threshold and into the dream. Into the remembering. You see that the hallway is narrow and cluttered and busy with arrivals and departures. Shadows of people pass into and out of the house. Some seem glad to be home, some indifferent, while others walk out and they do not return. A boy of about sixteen and a girl of similar age embrace on the doorstep, each lost in the other. In the April night they speak quietly of love
and fatalism and the future. Everything they need is within their grasp. Each life has not set forth until now. They part with reluctance when a middle-aged man yells angrily from inside the house. You watch fresh November mud slowly arriving on the doormat. And then come the voices: “Take no notice of him. It’s his way of coping.” “I’ll write. I promise I’ll write. And I’ll call every day.” “He thinks he’s losing you. That’s all.” “I can’t live like this. I just can’t.” “I don’t expect you to.” “We’d better go.” A middle-aged woman sits at the small table beside the stairs, waiting for the telephone to ring. She speaks into it. She listens. She smiles and laughs. She listens. Then she sits exhausted on the bottom step staring at the front door and holding herself. She takes off her glasses to let out the tears. They fall most nights in this hallway. You enter the living room. It is decorated in shades of purple and red. Below the thin carpet you feel the wood of the floor. A sideboard is adorned with photographs recalling wedding days and relatives and the hopeful promenade of a seaside town glimmering weakly behind a sheet of never-ending rain. In a large frame a baby a few hours old wails as if at the recent removal of the warmth and the dark. On the ragged settee in the glow of a television the boy of about sixteen and the girl of similar age lie sleepily in each other’s arms. He runs a fingertip along the inside of her elbow and she smiles deeply. He drops a kiss on her chin, her cheek. He folds a lock of hair behind her left ear, and kisses that too. Into the half-light the middle-aged man suddenly stumbles. He has come in through the back of the house. He fills the doorway to the kitchen. He is a big undefined shape giving off cigarette smoke and ale and the fresh of the night. Slowly the boy of about sixteen and the girl of similar age unwrap their limbs. They edge from the sofa. They stand. To leave they must pass through the doorway, squeeze by. He won’t step aside, he will never step aside, and so it must be done face-to-face. When this happens, when they each stand before the man, first the boy, and then the girl, there is a moment of knowing. It is the knowledge that the river running between them is wide and has no place of crossing. It is a knowledge they all try to forget. In the kitchen in the white light of morning you find the middle-aged man standing at the sink in furious silence. Behind the seething and the rage you detect a faint, desperate futility. The woman – the middle-aged woman with loss rising in her throat – touches his shoulder reassuringly.
At the table the boy of about sixteen and the girl of similar age sit without expression. They each have by their side a suitcase. The boy has the address of a Camden squat tucked in his jeans. Under the table they hold hands tightly. Again, the voices. First, the man: “Why would you want to live in a shithole like that? I don’t get it.” And then the girl: “To see the world.” “I’ll tell you right now, the world is not a nice place. Not an easy place. I’ve been in it a lot longer than you.” In the street outside a taxi sounds its horn. The boy and the girl shuffle their feet. “You’ll get yourself beaten up. Stabbed, probably. Left half-dead for the change in your pocket. Kicked in the gutter. And don’t think that waste of space will protect you.” “Why do you say these things? Are they meant to make me stay?” “You don’t know what you’re doing.” “I’m an adult.” “You’ve a lot to learn.” “Am I not allowed to have feelings? Am I not allowed to be in love?” “Does it put food on the table? Does it pay the rent?” Again, the taxi outside. The boy and girl stand. The man turns his back. The woman stays silent, puts her hand to her lips. “I’ll write. At Christmas –” “Don’t bother.” You leave them to it. You walk upstairs. You go to the larger of two bedrooms. It is separated from the world outside by thick orange curtains and it smells of antiseptic and something chemical and sweet. The air slowed down some time ago, and it is all very still, and it is all very hot. In the bed a figure lies twisted by illness. He is vastly reduced and broken. Bones push out where they should not. His dry discoloured skin reminds you of a rag left out in the sun. His eyes roll unfixed in his head and you cannot tell if he is in there or if he is elsewhere in the room, floating along beside the discoloured wallpaper, gazing down from the ceiling. Sometimes he shivers in the heat and the pain. Sometimes he jumps suddenly. The woman who used to be middle-aged lowers a needle carefully onto a record. It crackles and scratches and then it draws into the room a softly played piano. A random classical recording left as a soothing suggestion by the district nurse. Its opening note eases elegantly from the tinny speaker like the first fall of rain in a drought. Others follow, soaring and sailing and rolling along and peaking steadily before tumbling back down. She sits by the window and drifts into another world. It has been such a
long time since she lost herself in music. Since she lost herself. She turns her attention to the bed, to her husband. He who went through middle age and then old age. He who did the best he could with the heart he’d been given. He who now lies thinned and wearily turning to stone. You bow your head. You raise it a moment later and the curtains are thrown open, the bed stripped and empty. And again the voices: “I tried to get here. I’m so sorry. The train from London…” “It’s all right. It was a rapid deterioration.” (Another voice, then, dryly authoritative, and saying: “It will be rapid. You must prepare yourself. If you have children…”.) “What will you do now?” “It’s going to be quiet without him. Who’s going to look after the garden?” “Come and live with us. We’ve plenty of room.” “All that way at my age?” “He always said it was the back of beyond.” “Anywhere but here was the back of beyond.” “They say you shouldn’t do anything rash at a time like this, but come and live with us.” “I can’t leave. It’s my home. Everyone is here.” You withdraw from this lonely hour. You cross the landing to the smaller bedroom. It has recently been painted in bright summery blue and a faint aroma is still about. It has little by way of furniture. Some drawers, a small desk. A bed for an infant. On the wall an old oval mirror hanging on a chain. A young woman quietly closes a thick book of fairytales. She looks upon the child with a depth of affection. Gently she strokes his brow. And once more the voices: “What happens next?” “Tomorrow. It’s a long story, and you’re tired.” “It’ll have a happy ending. Does it have a happy ending?” “I expect so.” “Do you like it here? I like it here. I like our old house but I like it here.” “I like it too. Not that mirror, though. I think we’ll get rid of that.” “Why?” “It’s not ours. And it looks like it belongs in a junkshop.” “Whose is it?” “The lady who lived here before.” “Is she still here?”
“It’s our house now. Come on, time to sleep.” “How long will it be our house?” “A long time.” “Forever?” “Forever is a long time. Do you want the light left on?” “How long is forever?” “A long time. A long, long time. I’ll put the light on low.” “OK.” You think about forever. You think about the hours and the days. You decide it is time to leave. You pass back through each room, each scene, the many moments combined into this single dreaming moment through which you have wandered half-lost, half-found. Outside you take a last look up at the house. You used to live in a house just like this. Everyone you knew lived somewhere similar. Across the road, right around the corner. Now it is boarded-up and empty, all the stuff gone. What about all the love and all that is not love and all that is love but shows itself differently? Where does all that go? You notice a half-moon of broken mirror glinting in the overgrown grass. You pick it up. You see a face in the tainted brown surface that is not your own. Podgy, lined. A sense of something absent. It’s almost as if you are made up for a film in which you play your older self. You throw it back, and as it turns in the air the world inside tips giddily. Everything slips to one side. You feel the ground falling away, your footing unreliable. You feel suddenly nauseous. Afraid. You blink, and you put your hand out to steady yourself. It takes a minute. Then you walk to the car in the low red light that burns truest at the end of the day.
Contributors a–z If one can be a poet with so few publications then Tam Blaxter is indeed a poet—one whose writing experiments with gently stretching language performance and competence. In addition, Tam is a linguist and philologist studying medieval Germanic languages at Oxford, likes overbrewed tea, and is afraid of raspberries that contain shieldbugs. You may contact him at tam.blaxter @gmail.com Christine De Luca (Pearson, 1947) was born and brought up in Shetland. She writes in both English and Shetlandic. Now retired, she worked in teaching and education. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently North End of Eden (Luath Press, 2010). As well as winning prizes in her native Shetland, she won the 2007 Prix du Livre Insulaire in France for a bilingual selected poems. Active in translation, she has also published poetry in many languages and attended festivals across the uk and around the world. Christine is also active in developing art and literature projects and children’s books in Orkney and Shetland. Her first novel And Then Forever was published by The Shetland Times in 2011. Her most recent project is a collaboration with three other Shetlanders—a writer/researcher, a traditional musician and a photographer—to tell the story of Havera, one of Shetland’s abandoned islands Dominic Dudley is a journalist and photographer. Most of the time he writes about the Middle East, with his photos occasionally appearing alongside. He was born in Dublin but lives in London and can be contacted via his website: domdudley.com Lucy Furlong is currently completing an mfa in creative writing at Kingston University. She had a poem included in English Pen’s Poems for Pussy Riot anthology, Catechism, and has a poem in the recent e-anthology Vile ProduÀs, published by Syndicate and Sad Press. Her poetry map, Amniotic City, can be found along with other writings at lucyfurlong.com Jason Gould lives in Kingston-upon-Hull, England, where he is studying a degree in Creative Writing. His short stories have been
published in magazines and anthologies including Beneath the Ground (Alchemy Press), Neon Lit: The Time Out Book of New Writing Vol. 1, and Crimewave, while a new story is forthcoming from Black Static (tta Press). ‘All Items of Value Have Been Removed’ was written during the regeneration of a housing estate in Hull, when it was possible to wander through the partly demolished streets and passageways. Jason can be contacted at facebook.com/jasongoulduk V. Hansmann was raised by wealthy people in suburban New Jersey, growing up to be neurotic, alcoholic, homosexual, and old. For thirty years he worked on Wall Street managing other people’s money until the office closed in 2008, when he decided to try his hand at poetry and nonfiction. V completed an mfa in creative writing from the Bennington Writing Seminars in June 2011. His publishing credits are slender, consisting of an anecdote in the Metropolitan Diary section of The New York Times about shopping for styrofoam with a nickel stuck to his forehead and, recently, an essay in the The Common online about therapeutic spelunking Vicki Jarrett is a novelist and short story writer from Edinburgh. Her first novel, Nothing is Heavy, was published in September 2012. Her short fiction has been published online and in print (including Gutter 04 and 08), broadcast by bbc Radio 4, Radio Scotland and Radio Somerset, and shortlisted for the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Bridport Prize, among others. She is currently working on a short story collection and a second novel. vickijarrett.com Matthew Kabik lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He graduated with an mfa from Arcadia University, and his work has most recently appeared in Five Quarterly, Apeiron Review, and Nib Magazine. You can find and follow him on twitter: @mlkabik Tim Keane’s poetry has appeared in Evergreen Review, Modern Painters, Shenandoah, AeÌhetica, PÈtry New Zealand and many other magazines. His first poetry collection is Alphabets of Elsewhere (Cinnamon Press, 2007). He frequently writes about art and music at the online journals EleÀronic Book Review and Hyperallergic Weekend and teaches writing and modernism at bmcc in the Tribeca neighborhood in New York City. He has just completed a second collection of poetry
Caitlin Mackenzie’s poetry and prose has appeared in Fugue, The Colorado Review, Books & Culture and CutBank among others. After graduating from the Bennington Writing Seminars she moved to Eugene, Oregon, where she currently works in book publishing Michael McGlade holds a master’s degree in English from Queen’s University in Northern Ireland. He’s the recipient of an Arts Council award. His competition-winning fiction appears in the book Powers Irish Short Story ColleÀion (2012) and in publications such as Green Door, Grain, omdb MyÌery Magazine and Calliope. He is editor-in-chief of music publication GigApe.com Øystein Orten (born 1962) is a Norwegian writer living in Hareid, Sunnmøre. He holds a master’s degree in the humanities from the University of Bergen, and teaches as a lecturer of history, language and literature at upper secondary level in Ulsteinvik. In addition to a documentary based on material from wwii, he has published three collections of poems (most recently Kjensla Av At Det Ikkje Regnar Andre Stader Enn Her), short stories (Sjabervik) and three novels (most recently Rabarbrakrigen) Todd Outcalt is the author of thirty books in six languages. His titles include The BeÌ Things in Life Are Free and Candles in the Dark. He has also written for such magazines as Morpheus Tales, Alpha Centauri, FiÀion Vortex and Rosebud. He lives in Brownsburg, Indiana with his wife and enjoys hiking, kayaking, and reading Fikret Pajalic came to Melbourne as a refugee, learnt English in his mid-twenties and started writing in his second language years later. He’s won and been placed in competitions, published in anthologies and literary magazines such as Mascara, Regime, Hypallage, Platform and Etchings. When not writing he reads books and watches movies Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at New World Writing (formerly Mississippi Review) and a contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of four books in philosophy, Percesepe’s fiction, poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in Story Quarterly, n+1, Salon, Mississippi Review, The Millions, Brevity, pank, The Brooklyner and other places. His collection of short stories, Why I Did the Grocery Girl, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books
Karen Runge is a South African who was born in France and now lives in China. She pays the bills by teaching English to adults, and spends the rest of her time writing and painting. Her short stories have appeared in several magazines and journals, both online and in print format (see karenrunge.wordpress.com). She is currently working on a novel Adalsteinn Ásberg Sigurdsson was born in Húsavík, Iceland. In 1977 he made his literary debut with the book of poetry Ósánar Lendur. Since then he has published 16 books of poetry and translated poetry, one novel and a dozen children’s books. He has produced many recordings of his lyrics and songs and his poems have been translated into numerous languages. His most recent books of poetry are Hús Eru Aldrei Ein and Sjálfsmyndir. Sigurdsson lives in Reykjavík as a full-time writer, songwriter and publisher Christine Stroik Stocke received her bachelor’s degree in English from Washington University in St. Louis and her master’s from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Other works by Christine can be found in Word, Rio Grande Review, Menu 971, Wisconsin People & Ideas, BeÌ New PÈts 2012, Verse Wisconsin and the 2013 Wisconsin PÈts’ Calendar. You can follow Christine on Facebook at facebook.com/christinepss. She currently lives and works in Holland Sarah Wetzel, poet and engineer, is the author of Bathsheba Transatlantic, which won the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and was published in 2010. After job-hopping across Europe and the Americas, Sarah currently divides time between Manhattan and Tel Aviv, Israel. Sarah holds an engineering degree from Georgia Tech and a mba from Berkeley. More importantly for her poetry, Sarah completed a mfa in Creative Writing at Bennington College in January 2009. Recent publications can be found in Nimrod, Ilanot Journal, Valparaiso, SuperÌition Review, Rattle and Calyx
Contents Editorial 2 Poetry preface 3 fikret pajalic Crown 4 tim keane Birdsong in the May-Wood 10 After the Fire, Singing: An interview with Evie Wyld 12 øystein orten 72 trans. by christine de luca 22 adalsteinn ásberg sigurdsson Leiden Heim trans. by christine de luca 24 lucy furlong Lunch in Ars en Ré 25 laura mccullough ÷e Happiness of Water 26 todd outcalt Big Country 30 The Incidental: Loft of Hidden Dreams 34 gary percesepe Half Loaf 39 vicki jarrett Kiss, Me 40 caitlin mackenzie Postcards from the Northwest 46 After Basho 47 dominic dudley The Man from Juneau 48 karen runge Sweet Old Men 54 v. hansmann Serene Inside 60 tam blaxter Modal Verb Selection 61 matthew l. kabik A View of the Moon from the Moon 62 michael mcglade Wooden Nickels 68 Remade in Translation: An interview with David Constantine 78 christine stroik stocke In a Foreign Town 92 sarah wetzel Postcards from Gethsemane 94 jason gould All Items of Value Have Been Removed 96 Contributors 102