“A Provisional Epilogue” By Eduardo Milán, translated by Helena Miguélez, Part 3 of 3

This text comes courtesy of Antonio Ochoa, the editor of a new collection of Milán’s essays in translation, forthcoming from Shearsman Press in Bristol. Ochoa also edited a translation of selected poetry by Milan in 2012.

Milán’s essay addresses the role of the poet as witness in historicity, both in the present time, and in conversation with the radical aesthetic independence of poetry from politics.

     I believe this is a knowledge acquired through writing, that is, in this case, bearing testimony. And bearing testimony, offering it, leaving it as the inheritance of memory for those to come, rectifying it ourselves. In this sense, writing’s testimony exceeds the historical specificity and is transformed into something more than that compromise with the present, which is also our own recognition. This way, writing’s testimony becomes hope, affirmation, a there must be that is not just another repetition, a necessity of necessity, to see if through this double invocation we will succeed in defeating it and not be subdued by it.

     For the writer who works with poetry as matter, as creation, the issue can become more complex. That poetry is an art that should not give account to any discipline other than poetic writing itself is still a debate repeatedly engaged. And it must be properly situated, this is a direct resonance of the victory for art’s autonomy in the eighteenth century. In fact, within art this is a revolution that parallels, even perhaps surpasses, the French Revolution in transcendence.

     Since the Enlightenment, art has been concerned exclusively with what it can or must know, matters related to its own trade. It does not have to reflect any precept coming from religion, society or history. Art and poetry will aesthetically be concerned with themselves. Interestingly, in historical terms, this particularly self-reflective position was refuted almost immediately both by the Romantic movement and the Symbolist school. The former took the road of a complimentary and totalising exaltation of poetic discourse, and the latter took one of a devastating critique aimed at any attempted conciliation, even one with art itself. Baudelaire and Rimbaud are here primary examples. It could also be argued that Mallarmé is a radical defender of autonomous art. I rather see him as the one who ventured to rescue poetic language from the claws of a worn-out, ultra-canonical language whose significance—if it had any in 1897 when Un coup de dés was published—acted out of preconceptions more than consciousness.

     An art that frees itself from the straitjacket of doctrine or mimetic spasm in order to create what it deems advantageous—the autonomous art that had the upper hand during the Enlightenment— is not the same as an art absorbed in its own signs, that bites its tail just to differentiate itself from other languages. However, a context that produces such an important concept in aesthetic history as art’s autonomy is a liberating one, emancipating in the spheres of thought and human life, regardless of the deserved criticisms of the project of the Enlightenment. In any case, this is no longer our context. Only indifference and navel-gazing, I believe, can produce art that does not attend, or listen, to people’s voices, to any person who suffers the reality that our societies suffer today. Such attention and understanding seem to be filtered through an ethical determination.

Fin.

Miguélez.

Helena Miguélez is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies Bangor University in Wales.

Eduardo Milán is the author of over thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. Born in Uruguay in the border city of Rivera in 1952, he shared the geographical and cultural closeness of Brazil and through his mother he inherited its language also. In the late 1970s he left Uruguay due to the repressive political climate and the incarceration of this father. He settled in Mexico City where he still lives.

Born in Mexico City, Antonio Ochoa is a poet, essay writer, and translator. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“A Provisional Epilogue” By Eduardo Milán, translated by Helena Miguélez, Part 2 of 3

This text comes courtesy of Antonio Ochoa, the editor of a new collection of Milán’s essays in translation, forthcoming from Shearsman Press in Bristol. Ochoa also edited a translation of selected poetry by Milan in 2012.

Milán’s essay addresses the role of the poet as witness in historicity, both in the present time, and in conversation with the radical aesthetic independence of poetry from politics.

The ‘now’ of Testimony

     Without a doubt poetic writing is a specific language, not an exclusive one, as it does not need to limit itself to pre-established themes or forms. It is specific because it needs, once more and always, to identify itself before the reader’s eyes as what it is. Not for fear of producing a misunderstanding of genres but, rather, for the necessity of not incurring in any ethical omissions. Poetry is poetry—like that, tautologically—and not out of convention that dictates that the thing in front of us with a certain intentional linguistic arrangement is poetry. Poetry is not convention. It is a deep necessity. We know what convention is.

     For the whole of the twentieth century true poetry was also poetry. But it had to systematically face the constant interference of history. In the century of extermination and massacres, of decentralised ceaseless wars, of extreme manipulation of conscience—symbols of a century which, everything seems to indicate, will be perpetuated in the present one unless we try from now on to do something to prevent it—the poetry that survived did it by reminding itself that it was poetry. That memory, a resistance against forgetting its own being, rescued poetry from the persistent dragging of history. That was part of the rescue of poetry, the proper rescue by its being a specific language.

     There was another part that already impregnated poetry with a kind of irreversible pneuma: its consciousness of being made by a historical man and not just ‘by man’, a category that, almost like ‘poetry’, presents itself as a given. It is not only that, in incorporating that human condition that has been put into question, poetry would remember punctually and through its specific attributes that it is a manmade language. Vallejo, who was aware of this problem, even in his most ‘human’ poems took some distance from the demanding and insistent humanisation which reclaims what it persistently tries to forget and that emotionally blackmails when it is not mediated by man’s critical consciousness. In the same way that poetic writing emotionally blackmails when it is its own mediating role between man and the world.

     It happens, however, that the present time, today, is radically threatened in its ability to become—this is how I understand it—a time in which human life—not to speak of life in general—can manifest itself without fear. I’m not talking about insinuations or indirect manifestations here, but of concrete evidences and emergencies. Of course, it is not about sudden bursts of dread or epiphanies of fear. No, this matter has a history behind it. And it has a history as long as we remain aware of the presence of history. And then, this awareness of history not only as a more or less coherent relation of events, but also as the planned hegemonic discourse that includes the denial of history itself and the consideration of the present time as perpetual, as a straitjacket or a grid to our conscience before which only an abnegated acceptance is possible, as an already open game of interests and political, geopolitical, economic, social and mental dominance or control; and artistic and aesthetic as well.

     I am speaking of a project, not of a fatality. I am speaking of an intention—an extraordinarily well-orchestrated one, of course, as became clear after the criminal assaults of September 11, 2001, in New York. Yet I am not speaking of a commandment. Any particular game of economic and political interests can acquire an aura of sacredness, as we know too well. Over the last three or four decades there have been insistent discussions in the cultural milieu about man’s necessity to re-encounter the sacred, so why not again, and why not now, ‘sacred’ being a term that can lend itself to any interpretation and any manipulation? Everything can be considered sacred; and above all the use of the concept, the use of the sacred for the sake of projects of control, and especially when the concept is placed in lieu of a consciousness, that cannot be discerned from concrete events.

     But the proposed topic was, once more, the testimony and creativity from the writer’s point of view, not from the agents of control— even if the agents’ point of view is dominant and if their discourse seems like a fable. It is due to this, due to impregnation, due to the aura of fable with which the dominant discourse pretends to coat an abominable reality, that testimony, as a corroboration of a truth that is genuinely at stake, and at the same time as a parcel sent to a future memory, becomes unavoidable.

     Yet testimony cannot just be the neutral retelling of events but must be also an attempt to transform horror into narrative, like a translation for the children of all this ignominy. How to bear that testimony in literature? What must each genre do in order not to become a mere imaginary resonance? How should this conscious writing—aware of itself and of historical reality, this historical reality—be written? What must a writer do in order to bear testimony yet not disappear within it or right after it? How can language stand up in the face of the facts— without ‘dampening’ the facts through a methodical and safe distance from its own language—and not only save itself as language but also avoid the historical fault of not having been sufficiently explicit, a well-known offence which, unless it gets transformed, like in Kafka, into prophetic imagination, is pure and simple submission to fear? And there is too much fear already. I could not answer all these questions.

To be continued…

Helena Miguélez is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies Bangor University in Wales.

Eduardo Milán is the author of over thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. Born in Uruguay in the border city of Rivera in 1952, he shared the geographical and cultural closeness of Brazil and through his mother he inherited its language also. In the late 1970s he left Uruguay due to the repressive political climate and the incarceration of this father. He settled in Mexico City where he still lives.

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Ochoa.

Born in Mexico City, Antonio Ochoa is a poet, essay writer, and translator. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“A Provisional Epilogue” By Eduardo Milán, translated by Helena Miguélez, Part 1 of 3

This text comes courtesy of Antonio Ochoa, the editor of a new collection of Milán’s essays in translation, forthcoming from Shearsman Press in Bristol. Ochoa also edited a translation of selected poetry by Milan in 2012.

Milán’s essay addresses the role of the poet as witness in historicity, both in the present time, and in conversation with the radical aesthetic independence of poetry from politics. In this passage, he begins from an analysis of testimony inherited from Derrida & Ricoeur.

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     A witness is the one who sees, the one who sees and speaks out, who leaves testimony and inscribes what he sees to the future. But he also says it in the present. Here saying and writing seem momentarily to drift apart. To ‘say in the present’, to not remain silent in the face of an event that demands to be spoken of is, in principle, to speak of a ‘today’, for today. But later that present ceases to be: what was said turns into memory. It becomes memory in two ways. First, it corroborates the present, it bears testimony to the events. Second, it prepares the times, it proposes a model, a ‘should be’. Writing, at this point, without necessarily being exemplary, encounters, begins a dialogue, or questions history. This will depend, specifically, on who is writing.

    In our time to bear testimony seems to respond to an imperative character, an urgency, an immediacy. It is not the act of a writer who is positioned at the margins of time that writes a memory for times to come; time here as what could or will be. It is not about ‘transporting’, of shipping from this side of time to another that lies further ahead. There is no such space for a witness today. Therefore, the means for transportation that writing can be for someone’s testimony should not be delayed. Our conception of testimony stems from imminence, from a here and now that must be presented here and now, even though their addressee or destination may receive them later on. Immediacy, here, now. Something terrible is happening, the government of the State of Israel is slaughtering the Palestinian people; there is a threat hanging over all those suspected of not agreeing with the workings of the Empire, those who criticise or those who—according to the Empire’s own paranoid logic—attempt to topple it. To discern the different degrees of dangerousness is also up to the Empire. And when empires feel threatened they are not very competent at discerning.

    To bear testimony is to say this, right here, even if it’s not enough, even if it’s not partial enough. I write ‘partial’ in order to exclude the word ‘objectivity’ from the get-go, an aggregate, not a value, I believe, traditionally assigned to a testimony as a token of authenticity. The meaning is not the same for a witness at a wedding than for the witness of a massacre, a legal witness is not the same as a religious one. We are simply talking about the human witness, who sees and observes, and knows what has been seen and observed; one that knows what may or may not be done with that, that may or may not write about that. In the latter case, to have seen, to know, and yet not to speak out when the act witnessed was an act against humanity cannot be compared to the silent attitude so dear to the mystics. Such silence cannot be compared to that ‘understanding without understanding’ so close to San Juan de la Cruz; an understanding that we are here not to see but to not-see. Our interlocutor now is not God—as noted by Hölderlin when he asks: ‘and who wants poets at all in lean years?’ Our interlocutor is man, the concrete historical man, precisely this man that we are now. Yet the answer to this question seems to point to the writer. That is, the one who handles words in accord with his imagination, and not only in accordance with the reality of the world and the register of specific events that point to reality. An operative discernment becomes necessary, because, in my opinion, it is impossible to write today without bearing testimony to our burning historical time.

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A detail from Otto Dix’s Stormtroops Advancing Under a Gas Attack, from his 1924 set of first world war drawings, Der Kreig. Photograph: British Museum/DACS

    After the Holocaust Adorno distrusted the effectiveness of poetic writing in a time like ours. He demanded a ‘negativity’ from writing, which only Paul Celan or Samuel Beckett were able to incorporate in their writing. And due to Celan’s writing, Adorno rectifies those claims. Adorno wanted the trail, the memory of impossibility as an indelible mark upon the body of writing, as if the sign of the terrible, or of what is not known how to say besides the driving breath of writing itself turning that memory into an active textual present. Or simply, ‘in order not to forget.’ But forget what? Not the impossibility, which has always been present in writing—at least since the Baroque in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, so we don’t forget our insistence on that impossibility.

    Such insistence on the impossibility is an ethical condition in order to be able to formulate the question of writing. This determining ethics is the bedrock of a testimonial act, a ritually testimonial act. Or the ritual of a permanent testimony that writing has not been able to abandon since the mid-twentieth century. But next to that ethical condition Adorno asked for another one, that of a writing fully aware of itself, a writing that would not dare forget that it is precisely just that: writing. This double condition, memory as ethics and self-awareness, has been fundamental for the profound transformation of contemporary writing. Above all, these are conditions counteract any effect of complicity between poetic writing and an established, pernicious order, which poetry could ‘naively’ manifest. Writing, then, should be considered as a body, at the same time it should not be considered as memory. That is, writing should not have any consideration as a registry, for what it evokes runs above and through writing.

To be continued…

Helena Miguélez is Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies Bangor University in Wales.

Eduardo Milán is the author of over thirty books of poetry, essays, and translations. Born in Uruguay in the border city of Rivera in 1952, he shared the geographical and cultural closeness of Brazil and through his mother he inherited its language also. In the late 1970s he left Uruguay due to the repressive political climate and the incarceration of this father. He settled in Mexico City where he still lives.

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Born in Mexico City, Antonio Ochoa is a poet, essay writer, and translator. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Review: The Essential Anne Wilkinson edited by Ingrid Ruthig

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Selecteds are the Best Of albums of poetry. You can see why they exist, but from another, perhaps purist point-of-view, they’re a limited exercise. The real problem with Canadian selected poetry volumes is that their intended audience is vanishingly small. Perhaps I don’t care enough about Post-Punk to listen to The Cure–The Head on the Door, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, Pornography, The Cure, and Disintegration–so I choose, yes, freely choose The Greatest Hits. This is an aesthetically suspect consumer move. Albeit, not worth apologizing for. If by the same token however, I have decided that I want to read Anne Wilkinson, and more than just an anthology selection’s worth of her work, enough to learn her themes and way of treating things–if I freely choose to read about fifty pages’ worth of poems & call it a day, I certainly deserve to be put out in the beaver-lodge for the night. What self-respecting poetry reader seeking Wilkinson in the first place is also satisfied with a junior chapbook’s worth of material? It is not enough to satisfy the rabid, over-sensitive, bleary-eyed, dull Canadian Content fanatic.

The edition is pretty and the editing is handy, though not groundbreaking. Porcupine’s Quill, more than other Canadian small presses–here’s looking at you, Invisible–has nice production values. In this case almost too nice, as the custom paper has horizontal variations in thickness that irk brittle myopics like myself. The endpapers are a tasteful gray and the font is maybe a crisp, possibly Bembo? Drizzled with a rosemary reduction and served on a bed of underdeveloped Anglo midcentury modernism. It’s a nice book. Like everything else that’s primarily nice, you do end up wanting contrast. Less cloying correctness, less fearful inner searching.

Wilkinson has an archetypal reputation as a chronically underappreciated, classic Canadian poet. See also P.K. Page, W.W.E. Ross, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. I don’t think the record is really straight, there. Wilkinson is read.

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The original Collected Poems of Anne Wilkinson and a Prose Memoir was edited and very capably introduced by AJM Smith in 1968. Though Wilkinson died at age fifty of cancer, she was anthologized and well-received in her time. Wilkinson also founded and helped fund The Tamarack Review. No fewer than three collected editions of her work have appeared. First, the Smith book with Macmillan, then Joan Coldwell’s 1990 The Poetry of Anne Wilkinson and a Prose Memoir with Toronto’s Exile Editions, and finally Dean Irvine’s 2003 The Complete Poems of Anne Wilkinson with Signal Editions out of Montreal. There’s also an essay by Dr. Robert “Delicious” Lecker in Studies in Canadian Literature Volume 3, Number 1, 1978. Coldwell in particular is a thoughtful scholar of Wilkinson, whose temperament seems to fit. Her The Tightrope Walker, Wilkinson’s journals, provides context for Wilkinson’s poems that, for indulgers in biographical or zeitgeist-based readings, is indispensable. Irvine, crucial as he may be to Canlit’s transition to the internet, writes badly and did something doubly redundant.

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Ruthig’s The Essential Anne Wilkinson, then, is only essential if you are committed to experiencing Wilkinson in fifty pages or not at all. There may be those for whom this is appealing. Wilkinson’s work has been compared to Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. She felt a deep affinity with Virginia Woolf. Unfortunately, Wilkinson is not as original as they are. Her preoccupations are idiosyncratic, related to close and thorough readings of Greek philosophy, English modernism, Russian novels, Proust, Jane Austen, and Rebecca West, to name a few. Wilkinson was a dedicated reader whose poetry was nourished by her reading, and by an almost tactile familiarity with inherited language whether in the form of nursery rhymes or English balladry as Ruthig explains more eloquently than I have. For example, “After the Ballad ‘Lord Randall, my son’” is a welcome take on Lord Randall, a poisoning ballad taxonomised by Francis Child in 1882, which may be the story of Ranulf, sixth Earl of Chester, who kicked it in 1232 AD. One gets the feeling from Wilkinson’s poems and her  agitating at her life, however, that she was nearing a moral transformation that didn’t occur, at least not on the page.

Wilkinson is preoccupied with the sounds of the natural world and with sensations, emotional and bodily, as she moved seasonally between family estates. In that sense she falls into a broad North American transcendentalism that has sometimes waxed old or ill-advised, but that in the main is a testament to the earnestness and intellectual probity of writers of the new world, establishing a badly-informed subschool of post-Kantian Romanticism, in which piety is expressed in an aesthetic relationship with nature. Her sense of the primacy of the living world is also grafted onto Greek natural philosophy, where one can find both the root of the search for a supreme god in nature, and the preoccupation with questions of nutrition, change, and metaphysical essence as matter cycles through living and organic states.

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Anne Wilkinson, from Coldwell’s The Tightrope Walker.

Ruthig’s new volume begins with a well-researched, beautifully written introduction to Wilkinson’s work. “For her, it was always imperative to capture by way of the senses ‘the quick and the dead’; that is, the actual living moment, as well as tradition, memory and death.” AJM Smith’s introduction to Wilkinson’s work, however, includes deeper readings of individual poems, from the privileged perspective of an admiring contemporary. “My blood sings green: this is one aspect of her poetry–it’s intimate sensuous identification with life as a growth out of the earth; and it implies a Pan-ish or Lawrencian forgetfulness of the non-living, dry, essentially irrelevant intellection of much of our routine living” Smith writes. The reference to Lawrence is especially remarkable, as her freedom of expression about gendered sexuality is indebted to Lawrence & his cultural currency at the time. Smith’s remark about intellection, on the other hand, is blind to a weakness of Montreal Modernists in general–their predilection for stacking abstract metaphors, repeatedly banging on the door of the sublime with no idea what the purpose of their visit is. Village explaining that’s good if one is a village, if not, not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.

My casual annotation of Smith’s edition for poems that seemed, I suppose, essential matches Ruthig’s almost exactly. Which is to say, The Essential Anne Wilkinson, like Best Of albums, really does represent Wilkinson’s best work. And you may not miss anything really exceptional if the only Wilkinson you read is Ruthig’s new volume. I would like to pause, however, on the third stanza of “Falconry”, which didn’t make the cut:  It’s a response to T.H. White’s The Goshawk, since reprinted by The New York Review of Books. 

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White is best known as the author of The Once and Future King, an interpretation of Mallory’s Arthur cycle, and as the subject of a fairly sad biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner. By way of introduction, here’s Wilkinson’s epigraph.

The Boke of St. Albans had laid down precisely the classes of people to whom any proper-minded member of the Falconidae might belong… the list had defined itself meticulously downward to the kestrel, and he, as a crowning insult, was allowed to belong to a mere knave–because he was useless to be trained.’

“Rather bating kestrel, I,

Than mind the fist beneath the glove.

I, a kestrel, God, the Knave–

And I will bate until I die,

And bite the leather of my jesses,

And starve before I eat His messes.

Can I do more? Sweet Knave, I’ll try.”

Wilkinson on bating: “To beat the wings impatiently and flutter away from the fist or pouch”. Bating is when a hawk on the fist tries to take off, falls, and hangs by its jesses. It’s how hawks resist domestication.

Elisabeth Gill is the editor of Encore. 

An Interview with Richard Outram, Part 1

Encore will be reprinting sections of Michael Carbert’s 2001 interview with the late Richard Outram, originally published in Guernica’s Writer Series’ “Richard Outram, Essays on his Works”, edited by Ingrid Ruthig. This is the first installment. The interview was conducted in November, at the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.

Carbert: How did you first begin to write? When did you realize this was to be your vocation?

Outram: Well, I have to go back a little. I graduated from Victoria College in the University of Toronto in the old Honours course,  philosophy with an option in english literature, and it had never occurred to me that I would be a writer, at least not while I was an undergraduate. Most of the other people of my year were scribbling frantically, trying to get things into Acta Victoriana. I never did. There’s no point point looking for juvenilia in the university records because there isn’t any. I didn’t write any. I didn’t try to write. I had enough trouble writing essays and getting them in on time. However, as things worked out, I ended up living in London, England in 1954. I graduated in 1953 and then decided that some time spent abroad might be in order. So I worked for a year to pay off some small debts and save some money, and then I bought a one-way ticked on a freighter put everything I owned into two small suitcases and went off to the UK. In February of 1955 I was sitting in a large virtually empty restaurant area in Brighton, Brighton is a crowded seaside resort in the holiday season, but in February it was bitterly cold and there was almost no one there.

However, I was there, sitting, looking at the English Channel, and I had taken to carrying a notebook, and, suddenly, I wrote a poem. It occurred to me, virtually fully formed and I wrote it down and it was small and slight, but it was an actual poem. I was astonished. Absolutely astonished. It had never occurred to me that such a thing might happen. So it was that abrupt. It would be wrong to call it a conversion experience. It was just a sudden act of realization and no one was taken aback more than myself. Call it love at first sight.

So I set about trying to figure out how to write poetry, and consequently it took a very long time, since I hadn’t bothered to do most of the rudimentary work while I was in the comfortable bosom of the university for four years. I had to start from scratch and out in the cold cruel world, in which I shortly had to earn a living, but I knew nothing of the craft, for instance, just enough to know that one had to learn the craft. You didn’t just do this, contrary to contemporary practice, so, consequently, my first real book wasn’t published until 1966. That was Exsultate, Jubilate, which is my first commercial publication and it took me eleven years to produce it. And it n many ways i’m pleased that it did, because there’s s sense in which I don’t have juvenilia. Generally speaking, many writers are rather embarrassed by their first outpouring and their first books. I’ve been saved that.

Carbert: You are quoted by Peter Sanger regarding your experience as a student of Northrop Frye, at the University of Toronto, that Frye communicated to you the sense that your “ignorance was, with diligence and grace, somehow reparable…” How did Frye communicate this idea to you?

Outram: Well, first of all Frye was not the only one. Emil Fackenheim was an extraordinary exemplar, and there were others. But what Frye was able to do was to demonstrate, conclusively, that I had a heritage of thought and language available to me and it was my right and moral obligation to attempt to become capable of using it as a motive for living a responsible and reasoned life. Like most undergraduates of that time–I can’t speak for undergraduates of today–I had all the anxieties of uncertainty.

As students, we really hadn’t much of a notion as to where we were going or how we were going to there. We did have a strong sense of our own inadequacies, especially in comparison to our professors who were so obviously and zestfully possessed of  vast bodies of erudition and insight and powers of articulation that left us slack-jawed. Fackenheim, for instance, seemed to have all of Plotinus and Maimonides by heart. Well, I couldn’t spell them. And the fourth-year lectures he gave us in the philosophy of history are as crucial to my intellectual life as anything I ever picked up from Frye at that stage, though it was a remarkable event to sit in a Frye lecture, I can assure you.

It was an extraordinarily rich environment in which to overcome one’s sense of being a callow youth. And we greatly respected our professors because they so very evidently respected their field of inquiry. In this sense they were exemplars.

And it was a very tough course. In some ways you suffered for it. i’m seventy-one years old and I still suffer from final examination nightmares. And I can assure you I’m not alone in this. You see, if you failed any one of your honor courses, you had to repeat the entire year. So, everything hinged on these two-and-a-half-hour final examinations written under intense pressure. I had the terrible experience of watching a fellow student in first year have a complete breakdown within the first twenty minutes of an examination on Greek & Roman history. And we never saw her again. As far as we knew, she just cracked completely. I remember I didn’t do very well on that examination. I was trembling. They had to half-carry her sobbing out of the classroom. These were terrible pressures frankly. That’s the way the system worked.

Richard Outram was born in Oshawa, Ontario in 1930 and educated at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. He published more than a dozen books of poetry and won the City of Toronto Book Award for his 1999 collection Benedict Abroad. Outram’s other poetry collections include Exsultate, Jubilate (1966), Turns and Other Poems (1975), The Promise of Light (1979), Man in Love (1985), Hiram and Jenny (1988), Mogul Recollected (1993), and Dove Legend (2001). Outram died in 2005 in Port Hope, Ontario.

Michael Carbert is a past editor of Carousel magazine and currently a contributing editor to  Canadian Notes & Queries. His articles, reviews and interviews have been featured in various publications including Books in Canada, The New Quarterly,  CNQ, The Montreal Review of Books, Maisonneuve and The Montreal Gazette.

St. Valentine by Funari Okonoro

Romeo & Juliet

The tomb scene, act 5, scene 2, artist and date unknown, from

the Folger Shakespeare Library

, via

The Public Domain Review

Decommissioned Dietrich and Bernhardt are nazi astronauts who just got back to earth for the inverted surprise party. Imagine having to explain it to them from the beginning or teaching them about love, it being Valentine’s Day and all, even in that sub-basement under Area 51.

I would tell them about the man bitten in half by a shark, who married Siamese twins. His two halves walked down the aisle in the top and bottom of the same tuxedo flanking the bride crabwise, her single torso in the medically-tailored wedding gown. The violently disjointed and the arbitrarily compounded together at last.

How gauche to pique their fascination with conjoined relations, I know, but I would need something jarring to tickle their dehydrated nazi hearts in the sub-basement under Area 51 by way of the Geneva Convention: a prisoner of war has the right to celebrate Valentine’s Day and, in the case of cultural blank spots, to have it explained to them by the first person they find.

I would tell them that when the nine hundred pound man and the three foot tall woman had a baby, I was in the minority of those unconcerned with the logistical trajectories of undercarriage fixed and implied and the ensuing clown car ratios of the birth, but empathized with those disparate pieces fixed jigsaw-like because that is how I have often made things work and I wished them well in their improbability.

But the nazi astronauts wouldn’t buy it. They would say that Valentine’s Day is just commercialized pap for the masses. They would have a point.

I would mention the lumberjacks who fell in love with Bigfoot and found unlikely happiness in the thickets of a half-man on a full moon because I’ve been half-man myself and are half-men not deserving of love?

After the shock of re-entry subsides on the afternoon of Valentine’s, I would tell the nazi astronauts about the secret ceremony when Batboy married Dogface, how the bride’s canines were glowing, how the dashing groom dashed to and fro on all fours, about beauty standards, how a lover’s cheek will eventually turn to an elephant’s ear and how our dry and gray eventuality should not preclude our long-term affection and self-worth. Pinhead and Babyface made it work, so did the Chupacabra and his human bride.

But the nazi astronauts still wouldn’t buy it.

“How could you live on the moon for 80 years and not be sentimental,” I would yell into their cold German faces. Then I would ask aloud, to no one in particular, in exasperation, “Why am I trying to teach nazi astronauts about love?” Because they did not age a day in those 80 years on the moon, due to lack of gravity, and everyone they know is dead and part of me felt sorry for them after reading about it in the paper on the thirteenth, the day when their spacecraft crash-landed outside of Phoenix. The same way I read about the woman with the tumor that weighed as much as she did and then some, the tumor her bridesmaid, giving her companionship and making her look better by comparison as bridesmaids do, but could I comprehend her loss of alien tissue in miasmic constellations. Could I know her relief looking into the obsidian storefront of her life, bags of medical waste lining the curb. I too have woken up bewildered and I find myself on Valentine’s Day looking at the moon where the nazi astronauts lived for eighty years, feeling like the woman and her tumor post-op, a heft to the empty place beside me.

A couple of last ditch efforts would be made before our hypothetical tête-à-tête came to an end: I would tell them about the skeletons of Adam and Ed—recently discovered—the first two humans were gay.

“Could you believe it,” I would ask the nazis. I bet they’d be surprised. Slumped into each other’s collar bones in the bygone Eden of the prehistoric wedding photo, Adam and Ed’s jack-o-lantern toothy smiles are maniacal and the invisible hearts implied in each rib cage make me teary-eyed and senseless with irrational devotion to the woman who lives across the street. I would tell the nazi astronauts how the woman across the street does not date any man because of her religion, and some time ago I chose to interpret this as a question rather than an answer.

I would tell the nazi astronauts to read Milton Acorn, the poet who called the heart “a furred sharp-toothed thing,” like the five days’ frozen hamster in Wyoming that re-animated and spun its wheel to the bewilderment of onlookers, fueled by an inability to comprehend its second chance.

Then I would give up; I would admit to the CIA and FBI personnel present and the two nazi astronauts held at Area 51 that I’ve spent my life pretending to know what people mean when they say the word love and that I’ve masked my lack of knowing with a sampling of the grotesque, having given up on being respectable a long time ago. I’d tell them that the business of relationships is a mixed bag even on a good day but there, more clichés, and then I’d give up and then I would wish them a happy Valentine’s Day.

At this point, I would steal a gun from one of the government agents and, taking one of the agents hostage, get the nazi astronauts out of the sub-basement of Area 51 and above ground and, with my gun still pressed to the FBI agent’s head, I would demand a vehicle and I would take them to a secret location in Colorado and get them stoned and adorn them with headphones playing the music of the islands of Hawaii and shower them with warm laundry and get a kitten to lick their faces to demonstrate what I mean when I say “warm and fuzzy,” like when I say the woman across the street makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

But the Germans still wouldn’t buy it and I’d end up leaving them in a McDonald’s parking lot in Denver with enough money for a single milkshake and two straws and say, “Valentine’s Day is over, I am relieved of my duty,” and I would call the cops from a payphone and tell them where they were, then go home and to the woman across the street, to ask her the question I’ve been meaning to ask.♥

Funari Okonoro is a writer from Montreal.

We Need War With the Islamic State on Our Own Soil

by Marko Sijan

image

It’s a dangerous and exciting time to live in Canada. We’re at war with barbarians bent on delivering evil through our gate. The other day the Islamic State launched a new agitprop video of one of its respawned Canadian jihadists threatening to “indiscriminately” slaughter us on our home and native land. The threat comes just after two other homegrown terrorist attacks, one in Québec and one on Parliament Hill. So we know the threat is real. And I’m terrified.

I’m also thrilled. Thrilled because the imminent reality of more attacks will unite all Canadians from coast to coast, Canadians of every culture, class and brand. United under our flag with its blood-red maple leaf, we’ll let our government do whatever it takes to keep us true north strong and free. War games waged across the country will ignite our glowing hearts with true patriot love. The walls of Tim Hortons will run red with the blood of dead jihadists.

And so we’ll answer our call of duty to stand on guard for democracy and help Western civilization’s struggle to spread freedom to the peoples sitting in darkness in the Middle East.

The terror the immediate future will bring is cause to rejoice for many reasons. For instance, as a typical urban professional consumer living vicariously through fake heroes in mass entertainment, I endure a life of constant comfort, security and boredom. I’ve never seen bodies get shredded by bombs or piles of headless corpses floating downriver, except in the tens of thousands of movies and games I’ve consumed. But now I await the onslaught of real-life violent fun. Lately I wonder how it would feel to be shuffling down the street to the soundtrack of my life on my iPod and to suddenly see a homegrown jihadist chop off someone’s head and scream, “God is great! Death to the infidel!”

Soon such visions of gore will be a routine facet of our lives. Then the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, our Master of Games, will declare martial law and we’ll rally around the flag. Mr. Harper will lead us to victory over the savages. To immortalize his heroic leadership, we’ll build him a monument.

During the first eight years of his leadership, I wasn’t sure if I liked Mr. Harper’s authoritarianism, but given the terrible events of recent weeks, now I’m certain he’s the fearless strongman we need. Plus he works tirelessly to secure our national interests abroad. He knows we’ll be fighting an ever-growing legion of homegrown jihadists across the nation. He knows we have a moral and economic stake in the wider geopolitical Great Game of advanced warfare. And he knows we’ll prove not only our mettle, but also our spotless moral integrity by playing a part to protect the things we love most: our friends and family, our freedom and democracy, our PlayStations and Timbits.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, our war machine has joined the West’s two-hundred-year-old battle to sustain our limitless need for energy to power our markets, businesses and entertainment industries. Our CF-18s arebombing Islamic State targets in Iraq, and while thousands of innocent people will have their heads and limbs ripped apart, that will be an accident. Our enlightened moral principle on this matter, though not stated explicitly but rather trumpeted around the world through our actions, is this: better a thousand innocent people die than one guilty beast go free.

However, to offer a fair and balanced critique, let’s give some credit to the Islamic State. Reports indicate that many of their recruitment videos are “gamified” to look like Call of Duty. Thousands of Islamic State mujahideen love playing COD. Spawned and bred in the West, here they were victimized by abusive families, bullying peers and a tough job market. As a result they chose to respawn themselves as mentally ill jihadists. They also love raping, beheading and crucifying their enemies apparently because such play is a “real-life evocation of a video-game fantasy.” Millions of us still loyal to the West live in that same fantasy. The first day it went on sale in 2012, Call of Duty: Black Ops: Declassifiedgrossed over $500M and remained the “largest entertainment launch of all time” for almost a year. So the depraved ground we and our enemy stand on is not uncommon.

Nonetheless, while we approve of the Islamic State’s taste for the grisly violence of Western mass entertainment, our resolve to bomb them into the Pleistocene will magnify once they bring the battle to Canada. Our commitment to helping our Western allies secure an eternal supply of energy while spreading freedom, democracy and fun to the Middle East is proved by media reports stating that today patriotism and support for our military “is overflowing.” To fuel our economy we need an interminable war in which our land becomes a small part of the global battlefield pitting the enlightened bearers of civilization against the subliterate respawns of barbarism.

As realistic as battles in games like 

Call of Duty

 are, seasoned soldiers 

claim

 their “real-life experiences” on the battlefield are “vastly different” and the “feeling of real-life danger isn’t [in these games].” Apparently there’s “no way [they] will help anyone prepare for war.”

 So to satisfy our consumer demand for realism we need to play war games that are real and not play.

Anyway, the war games we support and help finance in the Middle East continue the legacy of the Great Game our cultural ancestors started playing over two centuries ago. Soon we’ll all be playing it for real and that’s exciting. ✠

Distant Fires

 Galerie Luz presents

Distant Fires: Holograms and Paintings by Mary Harman

“In my art I interweave reality and illusion, truth and lie. I favour the illogical, the primitive, and the mysterious - facets of our existence that are in opposition to the rational and the material.

The holographic image is for me a sculptural entity, a volume of light that occupies space. It is fragile, fleeting, transparent, and weightless; it embodies both the physical reality of the original object and its altered, transcendent state. The hologram is, in effect, simultaneously the real and the abstract, both the body and the soul.”

September 3rd to 27th

Vernissage: Saturday, September 6th, 2 to 5 pm

Galerie Luz : 372 Ste-Catherine Ouest, local 418, Montréal          www.galerieluz.com                                              

An Immodest Proposal

The CEO of Nestlé believes water ought to be commodified. Every liberal-minded citizen knew instantly this was pure evil. I, however, rejecting reactionary impulses, thought it through. What if it isn’t evil? What if commodifying water were a way of saving it from pollution and abuse? So I looked into his statements on the matter to see if he might make such an argument. No. Not a word to that effect.


     But that got me thinking. If water is a right, then shouldn’t food be too? And what about shelter? That would mean the commodification of land might well be entirely wrong-headed. If I believed that, then I would be a Communist. If I believed that, I’d have to change my life. It would mean I was against the whole western European Liberalist program. It would mean I’d have to reject Humanist ideologies and my bourgeois aspirations.

      This of course is out of the question. I have no intention of going to live in Russia or China. Why would I give up the life that princes and kings had for centuries only longed for? Not only do I have more than what they had, but I also enjoy privacy.

     Nevertheless, this water issue has been haunting me. Without a doubt, any self-respecting society that would call itself civilized must ensure that food, water, clothing and shelter are available to all its denizens. There has also been talk lately of ensuring a guaranteed minimum yearly income to eliminate poverty and alleviate stress and stress-related illness both mental and physical. Excellent! The Kingdom of Heaven would be upon us. Surely such a society would stand at the apex of civilization.

     There is, however, one essential need, which keeps getting overlooked in our bashful society, and that’s pussy. You heard me: pussy. Even Marx and Engels address the issue in the second chapter of their manifesto:

Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.


     In other words, bourgeois marriage is a form of privatizing pussy. We privatize, we market, we get prostitutes. Marx and Engels also imply that women who marry for money are whores. Never mind that Communism failed to actually end prostitution. It’s the utopian ideal I’m after here. If our society hopes to make any headway, it must come to understand pussy as a human right as essential to human health and happiness as clean air and potable water.

     How is pussy like water? Well, linguistically speaking, the two are singular plurals whereby the individual unit stands for the many. We say, I’m thirsty. I need some water. Likewise, we say, I’m horny. I need some pussy. In both cases, the measure is ambiguous. This syntax, you’ll notice, resembles our treatment of the word money. They are all currencies: water, pussy, money, music, alcohol and drugs. Remark the root current in currency. This is how we treat words signifying things that flow… like fish and luck. That’s how pussy is like water.

     It is unlike water in that it can’t be contained. You can’t get a glass of pussy. You can, however, get a measure and a quality, as in, I got a lot of good (or sweet) pussy last night.

     How we measure it is what distinguishes pussy most from its linguistic relatives. Unlike penises, the pussy is not measured with a tape. Much like light, however, which is counted as both a particle and a wave, pussy is measured differently according to the circumstances. When it behaves like a wave, a lot signifies a measure of time. When it behaves like a particle, a lot signifies many instances of coition perhaps including several spatial displacements.

     Another area of comparison is how we despise those who trade in these areas. If your trade is fish, you’re a fishmonger. If your trade is luck, you’re a bookie. If your trade is money, you’re a loan shark. If your trade is music, you’re a vagrant. If your trade is pussy, you’re a prostitute (or pimp). If your trade is water, you’re scum of the earth.

     That’s how pussy is like water. But it is also like light (which should be a human right too). And it’s like fish and food and luck and money and music and drugs and bounty and honey.

     But back to our subject: this civilization will unfortunately never reach its zenith until pussy is declared a human right. Pussy, like herbs and drugs, has restorative and curative powers. It is known globally to bestow goodwill and good cheer, ease of heart and ease of mind, and most especially the post-coital glow of bliss. Pussy delivers all manner of healthy physical effects like reducing blood pressure, boosting the immune system and general liveliness. Google it if you don’t believe me.

     Guaranteed, the number of suicides would decline if there were a pussy hotline instead of a suicide hotline. I mean if you’re serious about suicide, let’s face it, you’re not likely to call the suicide hotline, but if there were a pussy hotline? Now we’re talking. How many more might make it through the longest, most lonely winter nights?

     I sense now I have lost some of you, my women readers and perhaps some gay folk too, but I urge you to stick with me just a moment longer. In all seriousness, I trust you’ll agree that a pussy hotline would likely serve you better than a penis hotline, right? I mean, there’s just no solace in a penis. (Those of you who are fed up with me may now exit.)

     Also guaranteed, we’d forestall the actions of sociopathic crazies like that kid in Santa Barbara, Elliot Rodger, who murdered a whole slew of folk because he couldn’t get laid. With a pussy hotline, I bet 90% of our spree killers and half our serial killers would never develop. They’d make that call and book that pussy long before the semen backed up to their brains and sent them on a postal rampage.

     In short, many of the same arguments recommending a guaranteed minimum income and subsidized healthcare apply to the issue of universal pussy. In the spirit of the venerable and reverend Dr. Swift, I hasten to add “in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavouring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country” (A Modest Proposal, 1729).

     Whether by amendment to the Bill of Rights or to the constitution an Access to Pussy Act ought to be drafted by thoughtful and compassionate practitioners in the fields of medicine and law (if any of those can be found).

     Upon embarking on this essay, I thought that the section on implementation would cause me to trespass upon some taboo territory. I seriously pondered Babulal Gaur’s recent comments in Madhya Pradesh, India where he is the home minister responsible for law and order. In response to a brutal gang rape and hanging of two barely pubescent girls, he said, “Sometimes it’s [rape is] right, sometimes it’s wrong.”

     As I mentioned earlier, reactionism is a hobgoblin of mine. Whenever I hear something that strikes me as asinine (especially if it’s taboo), I stop myself lest I fail to observe some fundamental truth. So when I heard that rape was sometimes right, I got to wondering under what circumstances that might be true. Role-playing came to mind, and maybe raping Mr. Gaur would be a kind of poetic justice. And then I remembered a passage from the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, about institutionalised, culturally ritualised and sanctioned rape in Babylonian culture:

There is a custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite and there give herself to a strange man. Many of the rich women, who are too proud to mix with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages with a whole host of servants following behind, and there wait; most, however, sit in the precinct of the temple with a band of plaited string round their heads—and a great crowd they are, what with some sitting there, others arriving, others going away—and through them all gangways are marked off running in every direction for the men to pass along and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her. As he throws the coin, the man has to say, ‘In the name of the goddess Mylitta’—that being the Assyrian name for Aphrodite. The value of the coin is of no consequence; once thrown it becomes sacred, and the law forbids that it should ever be refused. The woman has no privilege of choice—she must go with the first man who throws her the money. When she has lain with him, her duty to the goddess is discharged and she may go home, after which it will be impossible to seduce her by any offer, however large. Tall, handsome women soon manage to get home again, but the ugly ones stay a long time before they can fulfill the condition which the law demands, some of them, indeed, as much as three or four years. There is a custom similar to this in parts of Cyprus.


     I think it’s clear that India must either introduce a Temple of Mylitta or an Access to Pussy Act immediately and set up pussy hotlines across the country because going out to rape and murder helpless girls seems to be a pastime there as common as coon hunting is in the Hillbilly States of America.

       As you might imagine, I was relieved to realize I wouldn’t have to burden my readers with such horrors. So with a lighter heart I considered that the state might provide accredited and subsidized prostitution. The same way a minimum income might be guaranteed by the state, imagine if a certain amount of pussy were also guaranteed.

      To my dismay, the whole affair seemed mired in the complications entailed by the wave/particle problem of measurement. I mean, how do we measure what minimum is necessary? And wouldn’t it potentially vary, and in some cases be harmful? The Economist and the various statistical institutes would have to introduce a new annual table called the Pussy to Labour Index, which tracks the average number of hours worked to the amount of pussy enjoyed (which, if truth be told, they should have been tracking all along because who really puts fiduciary matters above sex?). Health and psychiatric reports galore would have to be produced and organized and summarized before we could ever hope to draft a bill. We’re talking at least twenty years of commitment to this issue if we wish to table a valid law.

      And then it occurred to me: we wouldn’t need an Access to Pussy Act if a Minimum Income Act were introduced first.

Asa Boxer

Women May Rule Over Men ... Again?

Ancient Europe had no gods. The Great Goddess was regarded as immortal,
changeless, and omnipotent; and the concept of fatherhood had not been
introduced into religious thought … Men feared, adored, and obeyed the
matriarch; the hearth which she tended in a cave or hut being their earliest
social centre, and motherhood their prime mystery.

—Robert Graves, from his introduction to The Greek Myths

Author Hanna Rosin believes our world has entered an era spelling The End of Men and the Rise of Women, a postindustrial society open more to the professional success of women than of men. The information economy prizes skills attributed to women: “social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus.”

Meanwhile in the reproductive sweepstakes, mothers around the world from America to China now prefer having girls to boys, viewing daughters as future monuments of maternal glory. Rosin hails a dawning “worldwide role reversal” in which “the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success.” American women outnumber and outperform men in university and hold more than half of managerial positions, leading the “broad, striving middle class” that feeds the economy. Granted, Rosin admits “women account for only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.” Women may “hold the cards,” but men own the casino. Still it’s only a matter of time before we correct perhaps the most repugnant feature of human history: “Man has been the dominant sex since, well, since the dawn of mankind.”

Maybe he hasn’t. Though written off today by academe, some nineteenth and twentieth century writers enjoyed a brief surge of interest in their theory of the existence of prehistoric matriarchies. Some of their arguments remain compelling. In Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903), classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison illustrates how certain myths are aetiological and “mirror the shift from matriarchy to patriarchy” that must have taken place in a preliterate past. She quotes St. Augustine, who, in City of God, recounts the myth of the quarrel between Athene and Poseidon over who controlled Athens. When Athenians voted in favour of the goddess, Poseidon threw a fit and punished all female citizens, “who were to lose the vote, their children were no longer to be called by their mother’s name and they themselves were no longer to be called after their goddess, Athenians.”

In Harrison’s view, the triple punishment reveals how the new patriarchal order, sacralised in Poseidon, demolishes the old matriarchal one, borne as it was by the Great Goddess, who bore herself too in the three phases of Sun and Moon: Maiden, Mother, Crone. She ruled both the world and the afterworld, giving life or death as she pleased. Thus prehistoric men feared and obeyed her mortal avatars, the tribal queens; that is, until Cecrops, mythical ‘first king of Athens’, converts Poseidon’s edict into law, instituting patriarchal marriage. Now descent is traced through the father, the goddess and her queens stripped of their former moral, religious and political authority. The conflict between Athene and Poseidon “mirrors surely some shift in the social organisation of Athens … a necessary outcome” of the death of women’s dominion. In The Greek Myths (1955), Robert Graves claims that men conquered women only after “the patriarchal Hellenes invaded Greece and Asia Minor early in the second millennium BC.”

Harrison thinks we must have taken ages to outgrow the superstition that women were incarnations of an ur-Mother, only to conjure up a new one that “the physical was a sacrament of the spiritual.” In other words, over time man’s superior physical strength came to be seen as symbolic of his stronger soul; then gods and kings seized power. While she builds a persuasive argument, Harrison admits that social and religious development through prehistory is “always a mystery, the outcome of manifold causes of which we have lost count.”

In Mothers and Amazons (1965), historian Helen Diner shares Harrison’s caution, though trusts that matriarchies were widespread, even the dominant primitive social order. Drawing on the work of anthropologist J.J. Bachofen, Diner concludes that during the Neolithic era, in regions as diverse as Palestine, Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, India, and among Native tribes in pre-contact North America, women reigned over men. Descent was traced through the mother; tribal queens delegated to males roles such as fisherman and hunter, and “deputized them in time of war.” Only mothers owned property and passed them on to daughters, while sons inherited nothing, leaving the “uterine clan” to marry into another. Hence the term ‘matrimony’.

Similarly, in The Golden Bough (1890), anthropologist James Frazer affirms that early agricultural societies established female ownership of land because women “were the first to farm it.” They believed only women knew “how to make the seed bring forth.” Men lacked the divine skill to grow and so adored their maternal masters.

Robert Graves imagines a prehistoric age oblivious to men’s role in reproduction. Plumbing the aetiology of Greek myth, he muses about what might have happened on certain nights in a Neolithic past when women were thought to be impregnated by winds and rivers. At the end of summer, the Moon exuding her moist, dark light, a tribal queen and her priestesses would decapitate a ceremonial king, praying for the blood spraying from his neck to “fructify trees, crops and flocks.”

Then they raped his headless body and tore his flesh and ate it, all to appease Mother Earth, the ‘Lady of the Wild Things’.

Marko Sijan

Un Québec Errant by Asa Boxer

The Undynamic Duo: Karl Péladeau and Pauline Marois

Cynicism and Quebec Elections 2014

I have only seen a campaign as cynical as the Parti Québécois is currently running in stories and films depicting evil villains (like Dr. Drainville, Mr. Slea-zay and the arch-villain known only by his initials) who ultimately need to be defeated by the likes of Batman, Superman or James Bond. House of Cards is an example, depicting a menacing main character whose every word is calculated and steeped in ulterior motives. In short, I have never actually witnessed this shameless a level of disinformation in real life.

The PQ party is supposed to deliver the citizens of Quebec a vision of what it means to be Québécois, and all they’ve been able to come up with after 60 years or so of agitation and winning privileges and transfer payments within the Dominion of Canada is a recidivistic nationalism that resembles the reign of Ahmadinejad in Iran when pictures of men’s acceptable haircuts were issued by the government; and even that was a more positive approach than the PQ’s so-called Charter of Values, which is more interested in prohibitions.

Ms. Marois and Charter architect Bernard Drainville

The PQ leadership doesn’t care about Quebec. They just want power. Every choice the party makes is clearly to that end. And the leadership will do anything to achieve that end: it will encourage anger and every base emotion it can bring to a boil. It will stir up xenophobia, set the population against itself and create the necessary conditions under which a nationalist party will be elected with a full mandate. Fuck community. Who cares that things have settled down and people like each other and are getting along since the last referendum? Let’s look around the world and take a survey of how nationalist parties get elected. Hmmm.

The PQ party doesn’t care about democracy either. It confuses majoritarianism (in which the will of the majority has uncurtailed power: see fascism)—which is a far cry from democracy—with democracy. Not once has there been mention of wanting to make Quebec a true and proper republic. This concept is such a no-brainer, it demonstrates how little thought has gone into what Quebec nationalism might actually entail in a positive sense. In fact, positivity is the main feature lacking in the PQ psyche. This party perceives its people as wretched and leaves them with no alternative. (I shall return to this issue shortly.)

Most important, and everybody who isn’t completely delusional knows this, the so-called Charter of Values has nothing to do with religion in general, it’s just a ploy to stir up nationalist sentiment. Those who say otherwise, and I’ve met them, are ignorant and uninformed in the extreme. They do not have time or the inclination to consider what is on the table, and their political consciousnesses are mostly influenced by watching Hollywood action films. They know that some Muslim spectre is afoot and that’s about all. Also people are prone to accepting excuses for their ugliest beliefs, especially this kind where an implicit wink is involved: it would after all be ridiculous to remove the crosses from all the mountains in Quebec because they have historical value. Ditto for all the saints’ names of all the towns in the Laurentians, not to mention the street names. In fact Christianity has historical value here period, so that’s not going to be upset any more than it already has been. The true Québécois are of course historically Catholic. All the charter was designed to do was remind everybody of that. For the truly stubborn, all I can say is, well, at least that was its final result, to remind everyone who is pur laine and who is other. Nobody who was religious beforehand is going to become less religious afterward, right? So it’s just repression. Even more cynical, the perpetrators of this hoax are fully aware that it violates Canadian as well as international law. It could never stick and they knew it when they drafted it. It was not made to change anything, only to upset people and polarise them for political gain.

At every turn, it’s another form of fear-mongering. The latest was accusing full-time students and residents of Quebec who came from another province of perpetrating electoral fraud by registering to vote. Talk about getting things backwards! We’re talking about Canadian civil servants taking it upon themselves and taking the law in their own hands on behalf of a single political party. If that’s not an egregious and punishable crime against democracy, I don’t know what is. When the PQ started its minority mandate, some patriotic transit personnel got into physical altercations with travellers who didn’t speak to them in French. Ever since the PQ lied its way into power by making promises to the student movement it had no intentions of keeping, it has bred racial tension and revived linguistic intolerance. We are seeing humanity creep ever closer toward its worst wherever the PQ finds traction. They haven’t had a Kristallnacht or perpetrated a holocaust, but that said, at least Hitler believed in what he proposed. These folk are far more cynical and not accidentally hypocritical; they know they’re being hypocrites; to them, it’s just politics for the sake of power.

Now back to the wretched Québécois, the exiled victims of Canadian history: “Banni de ses foyers” and “Parcourait en pleurant” les pauvres; “Si tu vois mon pays,” goes the song, “Mon pays malheureux, / Va, dis à mes amis / Que je me souviens d’eux.” Yes, “je me souviens” like the license plate says. And that’s about where Québécois identity has ceased to develop. The song “Un Canadien Errant” was written in 1842 and you’ll notice is not entitled “Un Québécois Errant.”

The fact is, though, Quebec does have a separate and distinct culture. My question is, with such a rich history and so many things to be proud of, why do the Québécois not celebrate their culture with “eux autres”? Why, after all these years, hasn’t some group come along and realised that coercive measures like language police are not the way to go. Basic human psychology and historical example dictate that if you want to encourage people to learn about your culture, you make it look attractive. You certainly don’t make it a chore. And you definitely don’t make laws to force people to like it. You want to make the language attractive? Umm, how about assemble a canon of literature and folk songs? And tales of folk heroes! And … let’s see, how about translate them and disseminate them and get people to want to read them in the original French? That’s worked for a whole shitload of cultures. All of a sudden the rest of Canada would be intrigued with this unique part of their identity and they would desire to know more about it. Or if Quebec were to secede, it would be respected instead of despised.

The Québécois Intelligentsia has let its people down because clearly it hasn’t been doing the business of codifying the culture. At this point, we should have passed the first wave of codification and moved on to the self-conscious stage of self-recrimination and revisionism whereby the Québécois see they are not only not victims but guilty of destroying their native populations, denying their English heritage, unaware of how the Scots and the Irish have informed their architecture and history, insensitive to how the Portuguese, Greek, Italian and Jewish communities have contributed to creating the peculiar cultural texture that characterises Quebec. As a result of not taking the initial steps to celebrate its culture, the Québécois who identify with the current PQ party have remained a wretched bunch of disenfranchised cultureless barbarians with cynical motives like the aptly named Drainville.

As far as a charter or declaration of values goes: that’s a great idea. It would be wonderful if some folk were to piece something like that together and get a discussion going. The world is changing very quickly these days and we could use the conversation. But that is not the domain of the executive and certainly not the domain of the legislative branch. It might be a party charter I suppose, but far better still, it could simply be a project surveying what different communities value. Thing is, this has to happen in earnest. The values we have to question are those that are destructive, materialist and consumerist. We need to consider what role people want education to actually play in the community. We need to figure out what sacrifices we are prepared to make in one domain to improve another.

If a nationalist party showed me how valuable its culture was and how I might fit in to that culture. If it took responsibility for its complete sordid history. If it promised a true republic. If it were able to stare down internationalist economics and guarantee my sense of community. If it showed enough maturity to conduct a real discourse on values. If if if… then, by God, I would vote for it. And I might even be convinced to vote for separation. Because let’s face it, at that point, we’d be the most beautiful place on earth!

A new poem by Brian Stanley


Bindings

If Livres d’occasion suggests you rent
these books to mark a singular event
or mood—to garnish an important speech,
to court with Ronsard, brood with Baudelaire—
before returning them and all they teach
about perception, passion and despair,
that is not so, of course. They are for sale.
The clerk who takes me through the wooden stacks
is slender, formal and austerely pale,
a Gallic governess with gemstone eyes.
The spines are paler too as we go back
and as the colours fade the prices rise,
the irony not lost on her or me
that the monastic look commands a fee.

It is when pausing with her over glass,
inches apart as other people pass,
to view a postwar letter signed Camus
—a plea for aid, Algerian relief—
and sharing sadness, intimate and brief,
to think of good men dying in their prime
that I sense how, in quite another time,
I might have built the moment into more,
begun the pilgrimage from vous to tu.
My choices made, I pay and leave the store.

Outside with Vigny, Verne and Mérimée,
my collar up in homage to Albert,
a taste of winter sharpening the air,
I smile, remembering I knew her once,
or one like her, in classrooms far away.
Seated between the lush pubescent glow
of girls named Margot, Jeanne and Isabelle
and, farther back, the jesters and the dunce,
she knows her grammar, French and Latin, well.
Her hair is long, her head is turned my way,
her eyes appear to frame a thought, or no,
a question,
which hangs, then rises in a spiral dance
into the cloud dispensary of chance
before descending, now again, like snow.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Spake

A royally adorned black eagle, its talons grasping a sword and a scepter, once graced the flag of the Kingdom of Prussia, where Friedrich Nietzsche was born in the village of Röcken some 180 years ago. It is a commanding image, its spirit one of rule and accomplishment, its tone implicitly merciless. The dominant Germanic power of the nineteenth century whose self-perception was indivisible from its military success, Prussia had reason to trumpet its authority and this was doubtlessly not lost on the young intellectual who was, at heart, a fighter. However, this anthropomorphized image of supremacy is only superficially emblematic of Nietzsche’s writings. Despite the conception perpetrated by chauvinists and charlatans of Nietzsche as a hawk bent on annihilating the weak, the nationalistic eagle symbolizes everything he loathed. Nietzsche, the great individualist, was more bar-headed goose than bird of prey, soaring over philosophical mountains in pursuit of the clearest visions.

In 1883 Nietzsche published the first and second parts of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the treatise from which his philosophical legacy would be most forcibly shaped. Written in the aphoristic style characteristic of his later work, when ill-health and myopia precluded sustained bouts of writing, it is not a text that lends itself to casual reading. Each of his lofty pronouncements demands further inspection, as if, underneath the syllables that constitute each phrase, there are more meaningful reverberations to sound. The book’s biblical tone is also its weakness. Several times during my own reading, weary of its grandiose style and opacity, I exhaled and quietly seethed to myself, “Get to the goddamn point.”

zarathustra

In spite of its weighty tone, the forcefulness and originality of Nietzsche’s style makes Zarathustra an exciting read, and one ripe for misinterpretation. Early on, its protagonist, a solitary prophet named Zarathustra, descends from his mountainous retreat to prepare the way for the coming Ubermensch, or Overman—Nietzsche’s human apotheosis whose very existence would lend meaning to a godless universe. “God is dead,” Zarathustra announces in a market square, perplexing its locals. “The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the Overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”

The Overman, which Nietzsche conceived as the endpoint on the continuum of human evolution, was more about self-mastery than the subjugation of others, but tragically it was an idea that lent itself to contortion in a time when Europe was a veritable powder-keg. Taken to its most simplistic conclusion, the concept of the Ubermensch as the ‘blond beast’ whose unsparing treatment of others is the acceptable byproduct of one’s will to power, saw its most sinister human realization in Nazi henchman Reinhard Heydrich, whose ruthlessness and physical looks personified what many misconstrued Nietzsche to be championing. Herein lies the misinterpretation. Heydrich’s inhumanity was anathema to the writer’s ideal, and the disservice done in linking his philosophy to the twentieth century’s most loathsome political movement is one of the great damages visited on any man of letters, although it’s one that wouldn’t have surprised him.

Nietzsche’s discomfort in Thus Spoke Zarathustra is not so much for human weakness as it is for the illusion of strength. After Zarathustra introduces the Overman, he talks of the ‘Ultimate Man’, or the mediocre final man whose unthinking belief in the comforts of his bourgeois lifestyle satiates him, thereby precluding introspection and subsequent growth. “The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself. Behold! I shall show you the Ultimate Man.”

thus-spoke-zarathustra-book-for-all-none-friedrich-nietzsche-hardcover-cover-art

Nietzsche’s contempt was for the self-assured, whose identity is derived from how symbiotic their lifestyles are with the petty values of society. (A testament to Nietzsche’s brilliance is his recognition that in the absence of God, humans would idolize lifestyle.) One can never be great, Nietzsche warns, if one cannot first recognize one’s incompleteness and then, through ceaseless introspection and reevaluation, create highly personal meaning out of existence that’s distinct from the pressures of society. This sort of development is only possible in the most noble man (women in Nietzsche’s writing are either objects of scorn or afterthoughts), and only through this process can he transcend his nihilism and extract meaning from an ambivalent world that no longer can be understood through the prism of Christianity.

It is this emphasis on individualism that places Zarathustra in opposition to the fascist movements that soiled Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The philosopher had no appreciation for the state or its contrived set of values, since its effect was inherently insidious: to make human beings expendable by denying them their individuality. He writes: “Only there, where the state ceases, does the man who is not superfluous begin: does the song of the necessary man, the unique and irreplaceable melody begin.” A human being, as an infinitely complex organism in which instinctual drives feud with irreconcilable intellectual impulses, becomes further muddled when the social and legal exigencies of the state impose themselves. The state is so nefarious, Nietzsche says, because it is inherently opposed to individuality: to retain its strength as the primary social force it requires conformity to its manufactured values. Uninterested in society’s contrivances, the Overman gives himself entirely to his spirit, within which the potential for personal development is limitless.

large_waxkeep-nietzsche-thus-spoke-zarathustra

Nazi ideology ran counter to Nietzsche’s brand of forceful individualism. Its platitudes, ludicrous theories of racial privilege, and exhortations of state power in no way echo the perspectives the philosopher voiced in his books. He despised submission to mass movements, and prized, above all else, revelation through introspection. “I love the great despisers” he writes, “for they are the great venerators and arrows of longing for the other bank.” Self-mastery is impossible if one is in ideological service to the state, regardless of whether the overarching structure prizes racial extremism or demands more banal forms of conformity. Original meaning and true power can proceed only from an individual’s investigations of self. Put another way, power in the Nietzschen paradigm is never the brutal leverage SS guards exercised over concentration camp inmates, nor can it be found in the barrel of a gun or at the end of a bayonet.  Rather, it is the experience of original, highly personal revelation. In this sense, one’s will to power is indivisible from Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, in which only moments of individual supremacy have the privilege of returning, forever and ever in the universe’s mysterious orbit, as they alone justify one’s existence.

Who did Nietzsche consider the Overman, and how can this concept be synthesized within his larger philosophical system? The Overman wasn’t Heydrich or Hitler, but neither was it Napoleon, who to Nietszche represented the unsublimated will to power. The closest approximation to this highest ideal is Goethe, the German polymath Nietzsche venerates in Expeditions of an Untimely Man. Goethe wasn’t exceptional because he embraced violence, but through his commitment to personal development, artistic expression, and eventually scientific discovery. The dramatist that ascended to continent-wide fame as a young man, who friend Friedrich Schiller called an “egoist to an unusual degree”, Goethe was not an entirely benevolent spirit but a remarkably intelligent man who fashioned enduring art from the bright lights and black holes of his internal universe. He learned to temper his passions in the service of creation, and the scope of his achievements makes him the Nietzschen barometer against which other men are judged.

Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

For Nietzsche, Goethe’s lifelong commitment to artistic creation and independent thought allowed him to transcend the provincialism of his rural German milieu. While Nietzsche is nihilistic to a degree, and keenly aware of suffering and the temporal limitations on human life, he is ardent in his belief that one can overcome through creativity the confines of a society ruled by mountebanks and mediocre souls. “Creation—that is the great redemption from suffering, and life’s easement. But that the creator may exist, that itself requires suffering and much transformation.”

One must first come to understand the amorality of the world before true creation can occur—a painful process as it forces the artist to face the ruthless meaninglessness of life in order to appreciate its worth. This existential confrontation prompts a search for meaning through which the artist may arrive at a more nuanced understanding of his or herself by deriving personal worth from their worldly experience. Such an engagement is necessarily idiosyncratic, because the artist must locate aesthetic elements in the world that resonate with his or her personality. Once identified, these elements function sequentially. In the first instance, their recognition allows the artist to place his or herself within the world as someone with a specific attunement to something beautiful. In the second instance, after their recognition has ensured the artist’s individualism, the veneration of and identification with these elements affirms the artist’s existence. The artist is left with the complex task of creation, but he or she is finally ready, only now, to transform their particular aesthetic experience into something original. Suffering thus leads to introspection, understanding, and then creation, and this progression encapsulates the transformative process of self-overcoming by which human life is redeemed.

fred wolf

Nietzsche is not an egalitarian, however inspiring his message might be. It takes a person of considerable intelligence and richness of personality to fulfill the monumental process of self-overcoming necessary to create lasting art. This sort of personality is one that’s inclusive of humanity’s best and worst behaviours, for to produce work that’s representative of life the artist must have a visceral and intellectual understanding of both its poles. In Book II Nietzsche says “In truth, I have often laughed at the weaklings who think themselves good because their claws are blunt!”

The philosopher dismisses those who believe in their rectitude because they are not intellectually or emotionally equipped to be anything but conventionally ‘good’, as their weakness prevents them from indulging their basest passions. The highest man is no less depraved, but he’s equipped, crucially, with the intellect and will to understand and then sublimate his depravity in the service of his creation. The artistic dilettante, however commercially successful he might be, has no such sublimated strength or deep understanding of human life, and creates only platitudinous, superficial work that doesn’t – or, more specifically, can never—synthesize beauty with original insight, because he hasn’t looked into himself or at the world with the unflinching depth and courage of the true artist. The dilettante is a mere actor, who reproduces the illusion of originality and understanding but who is never original.

There are obvious shortcomings in Zarathustra. As any female reader would identify, there is no reason why a woman is any less capable of original creation than a man. Moreover, the era of an aristocracy ruled by artistic Overmen hasn’t arrived, nor will it ever, because human beings, the majority of whom aren’t constantly preoccupied with abstract questions about their place in the world, must live in a stable society, however suffocating its influence is on individuality. While societies introduce inauthenticity to people’s lives, the alternative is more insidious.  An absence of formal laws or social rules won’t liberate the oppressed genius, only people’s worst, most competitive tendencies.

fred

It’s foolish to dwell on the grandiose Overman as a human possibility, but the development which precedes him can teach us what a person might achieve if they are brave enough to look inward. Nietzsche’s ideas are effective inspiration for overcoming one’s nihilism in a world devoid of objective meaning. By freeing one’s self from ideological servitude to engage idiosyncratically with the world, one can create original meaning and identity and thus transcend the depressing banality of life. Power by personal development, not by force or social coercion, confers significance on human existence. This is how Nietzsche affirms life in Zarathustra, and this, to me, is the book’s greatest philosophical contribution.    — Eliott McCormick

Mavis Gallant: 1922-2014

“I worked on a newspaper—The Standard in Montreal, which disappeared a long time ago—and I wrote fiction at home. That is how I spent six years and three months of my twenties. It was my apprenticeship. I liked the work and I liked the life, but it wasn’t the life I wanted. I wanted to live in Paris and write nothing but fiction and be perfectly free. I had decided all this had to be settled by the time I was thirty, and so I gave up my job and moved to Paris at twenty-eight. I just held my breath and jumped. I didn’t even look to see if there was water in the pool.”

Too Quick for its Own Good


Quick Question by John Ashbery (Ecco Press, 2013)

John Ashbery’s latest collection of poetry lives up to its title, prompting a number of quick questions: How difficult should poetry be? Where is the line between complex and incomprehensible? And what should readers do when poets cross it? The questions may be quick, but the answers are complicated. After all, readers will respond differently to any given text, depending on their interests, background, and general temperament, just as they will have their own definition of “difficult,” not to mention their own idea of “poetry.” To this reader, however, Ashbery’s recent work seems more concerned with being difficult than being poetic.

Difficulty, in itself, is not a bad thing, but difficulty for its own sake is problematic, especially when it supersedes (or nullifies) meaning. Ashbery has always been known as a difficult poet, but until recently his poetry has been worth the effort. Earlier classics like The Double Dream of Spring, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and Flow Chart are consistently challenging but still enjoyable, experimental yet oddly accessible. They remain genuine spectacles in the poetic landscape, in part because they avoid quick questions that provoke quick answers. Ashbery’s latest series of questions, on the other hand, is a bit too quick for its own good.

The opening lines of the opening poem, “Words To That Effect,” foreshadow the essence of the book: “The drive down was smooth/ but after we arrived things started to go haywire,/ first one thing and then another.” Not only do these lines encapsulate the experience of reading Quick Question as a whole, but they also describe (for better or worse) the process of reading any Ashbery poem. Typically, his poetry lulls the reader into a false sense of security with deceptively simple, direct language, and then jumps playfully from one idea to the next, until the poem becomes a linguistic labyrinth, a maze of meanings. Of course, his formal randomness has its own brand of order, just as his disparate strands of thought connect in strange, untidy ways. Thirty years ago, Ashbery’s technique was revolutionary; now, it feels stagnant, bordering on self-parody.

His signature eloquence and witty wisdom have been largely traded for self-deprecating clichés and bizarre jokes, making his poems feel deliberately obscure and, at times, even cynical. Irony can be healthy in small doses, but if a joke has too many layers, the punch line will be confused with the setup. (The more there is to “get,” the less there is to understand.) Ashbery’s ironies are so heavily compounded that his poems tend to lose their anchor and drift away from anything resembling reality. “It can’t be anything too obvious,” begins a poem entitled “Unlike the Camelopard,” echoing the prescription of Wallace Stevens in his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”: “It must give pleasure.” Throughout Quick Question, Ashbery follows his own advice (to a fault) but seems to ignore Stevens’ crucial injunction. Going forward, he should amend his motto: It can’t be anything too opaque.          

— Chris Gilmore

Journey Through Southern Italy

The Pulpit Rock
Caravaggio, David Holding the Head of Goliath. 1606-1607. Oil on canvas. Rome, Museo e Galleria Borghese.

Marko Sijan spent the month of September 2013 exploring the southern Italian cities of Rome, Naples, Palermo, Agrigento, Syracuse, Taormina, Reggio di Calabria and Lecce. He recorded his experiences in a daily journal. The following is an excerpt:

Rome, Day 3

We spent the morning at Central Station trying to buy train tickets for Naples from a row of machines and a row of live agents.

First Marilou tried a machine, but she couldn’t figure out how to use it. Scruffy dark-haired men, one after another, kept coming up to us and offering to help but, certain they were hustlers, we declined. The agents sat behind a wall of glass with an entrance in the middle where a crowd had swarmed around a mysterious black panel with rows of spinning letters and numbers in constant flux. I saw a free agent and pushed my way through to him and he asked for my ‘ticket’. I said I hadn’t bought one yet. “No, no,” he said with scorn and pity and explained that each customer gets a ticket from a machine below the panel, showing his place in an order. A905. I waited for our number to come up while Marilou tried another machine. Fearing our number would appear as fast as it would disappear, I stood halfway between the machines and the agents. When our number arrived I wanted her to run to an agent because I didn’t want to deal with him myself. Unlike Marilou I don’t speak Italian and by day 3 had grown tired of being treated as the contemptible anglo tourist. A905 spun up in a row and I yelled to her and just before she reached an agent our number vanished. Eventually she figured out how to use a machine and bought Naples tickets.

We stepped outside into bright humid heat and I wandered carelessly among cars and vespas tearing around pell-mell in front of the station. Marilou asked me to be careful lest one of them run me over. “Well,” I said, ”then I guess I’ll get killed.” Or something like that. I was being an ass again and that made her sad. She knew I was hungry and asked at several points if I wanted to stop at this or that caffè, but I kept saying no.

Later we stopped in a caffè and experienced what by now had become a familiar motif in Rome: sighs of exasperation from clerks when they didn’t get exact change. Was this an entrenched Roman habit or a sign of desperate economic times? I had read that Romans believe life hasn’t changed much for them since the time of the Caesars. Apparently they see themselves as the same plebeian majority exploited by corrupt patricians, which may help explain why it pains them so to part with change. Marilou and I sat at a sidewalk table with cornets and cappuccinos and she asked what was wrong. It took me a while to spit it out but I said my foolish behaviour in the station had brought on a bout of self-loathing. I apologised and she hugged me and I cried and all was well.

We made our way into the neighbourhood of Tridente, passing posh boutiques and patricians and it was here I first noticed that in southern Italy men of wealth and style tend to sculpt their eyebrows and facial hair in thin lines and wear foundation and eyeliner. They zap off their body hair with lasers and wear surgically-implanted shirts and slacks. They look like effete androids. I thought, To be rich one has to look and think like a machine.

We met Marilou’s parents in front of the Keats-Shelley House. Keats’s bedroom overlooks the Piazza di Spagna and Bernini’s Fontana della Barcaccia, named for its shape of a wrecked ship with overflowing bows. I had read that the sound of the fountain soothed Keats on his deathbed and inspired his epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Beside his tiny bed hangs an ink portrait by his friend Severn, made hours before his death, of his pale face on a pillow as he slept, behind him his shadow blotting the wall. Hours later he awoke and with tubercular lungs worn to paper, gasped, “Severn – I – lift me up for I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened – thank god it has come.” Severn held him until he died and later wrote: “the phlegm seemed boiling in his throat.” It must have been an excruciating death. Through the window I watched the bubbling fountain and thought about Keats’s boiling phlegm. Like a fool I wept. I don’t know why. I’m not especially drawn to his poetry, though his letters contain some great statements about art. He wrote that “momentous depth of speculation” is its essential ingredient: “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty and Truth.” There needs to be no discussion as to what truth and beauty mean. Today they can mean anything, even nothing. Perhaps I wept over Keats because I had blundered into thinking he lived in a time when one could use a word like transcendence and mean it.

We left the Keats-Shelley House and climbed up to Villa Borghese, part of a sprawling cloistered garden-park once owned by one of Italy’s oldest and richest families. Inside the villa brimmed with tourists sparing no effort not to make eye contact with one another. In such a confined space, it seemed we were performing one of those grant-funded dance installations exploring the theme of atomisation, bodies bobbing and weaving with blank faces almost touching but not seeing each other.

Our ticket gave us two hours with the villa’s collection of hundreds of paintings and sculptures spread over three floors and dozens of rooms. In Caravaggio’s “David with the head of Goliath,” blood drips from veins and sinews dangling from Goliath’s neck; in fact his head is a self-portrait of the artist with dead eyes and gaping mouth. It was one of the last paintings Caravaggio did, not long after he had finished “Judith and Holofernes.” Both paintings depict men beheaded by their own swords. They may reveal the artist’s conviction that he would soon be murdered by his own wickedness. He had a lot of enemies. Years earlier authorities had banished him from Rome for stabbing and killing his friend during an argument over the result of a tennis match they were playing. I wondered how such a representative specimen of common humanity could make art of such beauty and truth? I spent a long time staring at Caravaggio’s rotting head, at the row of grey teeth like tombstones behind his bloated lower lip.

Later, my patience kept thinning as I tried to observe various other paintings and sculptures while tourists’ heads slid in and out of my line of sight, spending only the few moments on each work the audio guides pressed to their ears would allow, snapping an iPhone pic of one and dashing off to the next.

Our two hours being up, an attendant whistled and herded us into the stairwell and then we waited a half hour in line to get our bags back. Outside I lit a cigarette. The bag check clerk approached me and said something in Italian, lifting his fingers to his mouth as if to smoke. Ashamed I said, “‘Scusa!” and put out my cigarette on the ground. He looked puzzled and went away. Marilou’s father informed me that actually the clerk had been asking for a cigarette. I caught up to him and said, “Sorry! I thought you were telling me to put out my cigarette.” I offered him one, which he took without stopping or looking me in the eye or saying thank you. I wanted to punch in his teeth. I rejoined Marilou and her parents as I shrugged and waved my arms about and told myself, ‘Simmer down!’ Marilou gave me a queer look and asked what I was thinking about. “Nothing.”

A new poem by Greg Santos

At the Room of Extinct Species on my Daughter’s Six-Month Birthday

Save for the luminescence
bleeding from behind taxidermied
specimens evermore entombed
in their glass and wood display cases,
the room is kindly dark.

Over there, a colossal egg
from the elephant bird of Madagascar.

Holding my daughter close, I notice
her head is twice as small as the egg,
and I feel an overwhelming ache
that goes back millions of years.

My daughter chirps in the darkness.
I want to coddle the egg, hug its insides.

- The National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France

Negative Reviews vs. Cultural Repression

Yeah! And while you’re thinking about it, think about this:
equality is unfair! – That’s right! What’s the point of a man
working hard all his life, trying to get some place, if all he’s
going to do is wind up equal?
                                                           —Archie Bunker

 
I’m staying with a friend for the weekend. He has a child who’s being potty trained and every time the kid successfully aims his butt at the miniature toilet, the whole house applauds in celebration. The child cannot fail. Any caca he makes is a glorious performance. I clap and turn to my buddy, smile broadly and say, “This is Canada’s poetry scene in a nutshell.”

Undeniably, there is a period in the acquisition of any skill or in the development of a work of art during which it would be destructive to apply negative criticism. As an English language teacher working with non-native speakers, I practice building confidence through encouragement, allowing a great number of errors to pass, and slowly attending to each area of trouble. In the environment of the poetry workshop, I also lean toward gradual skill-building whilst nurturing the delicate interest that keeps the workshop participants writing and sharing their work. Indeed it is the teacher’s moral imperative to stimulate what degree of confidence and creativity he can in these environments. During the potty stage, we must employ appreciative observation.

The principle of encouragement is true of the individual as well as of the group: the local community, the province and the nation. There is a period in the growth of a culture during which it is more useful to encourage any cultural production rather than stifle what little there is.

On the train ride home, I come across another one of these silly online bloggersations regarding the duty of the poetry critic. There are a number of poets in this country who would have us all abide in a Kumbaya garden of the appreciative intellect. To maintain this blissfully peaceful state however requires that no hooligan toss stones into the pond. We wouldn’t want a ripple to spoil the perfect heaven reflected in its surface. The problem with this approach is that it promotes censorship and sees no value in negative criticism. If you didn’t like it, they say, don’t review it. Live and let live.

Trouble is, this idyllic order is an entirely cerebral fabrication that does not account for the life of the heart—which admits dissatisfaction and failure. I remember reading an article provided by Professor Kerry McSweeney during my graduate studies at McGill. The tenor of the piece was the problem of PhD candidates not being able to answer the question of whether they liked a certain literary work or not. After all their years of training they could not engage in a conversation regarding taste and aesthetics. It didn’t matter if they liked it or not, it was by some mystery called art and was to be appreciated. McSweeney spent that whole term making sure to ask each and every one of us, one by one, at the start of each class whether we liked or disliked (not simply appreciated) our weekly reading assignments and WHY. Though incomprehensible and seemingly arbitrary to some, he was teaching us that poetry (like all art) is to be appreciated both mentally and viscerally: the former interrogating and informing the latter and vice versa.

On the train I notice how slowly the distance rolls by while the old telephone poles near the tracks flit past. Our situation as historical or biographical beings moving through time by the second, minute, hour, day, or by the teaspoon, the chore, the poem, the novel, whatever the measure, is subject to a similar optical limitation. The closer a subject is to you, the more difficult it is to apprehend. Keeping your eye on the foreground induces nausea and vertigo. To right yourself you gaze into the more stable distance. In terms of poetry, it’s the prizes, laureates, reputations and fads that fly by, while in the background the canon (or poetry conversation) ponderously shifts, grows, recedes, gets blurred by the foreground and returns to view.

I’m thinking about my visit with my buddy and I find myself lamenting how our childhood haunts in the nearby gorge have been closed off with fences set up by the local nature authority. As is often the case in such circumstances, local home owners end up locked out of public land they’ve been using all their lives. For others, it was precisely the proximity and access to nature that enticed them to move to the place. The authority has to put up fences because they have become legally responsible for the maintenance and preservation of the area, and, well, a gorge is a dangerous place into which people, usually teenagers, have a tendency to fall from time to time when they get drunk and stoned. I suppose the thinking is that with the fences up, if someone falls, it’s because they jumped a fence taking their lives in their own hands and the authority is off the hook. The experience put me in mind of William Blake’s “The Garden of Love,” about a garden the speaker remembers from his youth, now fenced off with “‘Thou Shalt Not’ writ over the door.” The poem ends as follows: “And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys & desires.” It would be a shame if a poetry priesthood or poetry authority were to succeed in a campaign to fence off passionate territory for our own good: what a diabolical utopia!

There are several ways in which the negative review is useful. The most important is how it corroborates and articulates the feelings of certain readers. For those like myself, the moment of contact with a negative review with which one identifies can be at once a cathartic and inspiring aesthetic experience: it feels like one is no longer alone. This is especially positive for those who feel alienated from current writing trends and suspect that something mysterious and beyond their understanding is afoot, and who probably question their own sanity until they meet a kindred spirit in person or in print. The problem of trends, fashions and styles brings me to the next in order of the benefits provided by harsh, incisive reading. A well-executed and perceptive negative review can expose a trendy style dominating and hindering poetic culture. It can similarly challenge academic authority and the reputations it forges. For the poet as craftsman, the negative review is a method of purging from his own work the very qualities he despises in the work of others. For the acolyte, following such discourse helps him locate where he stands. One seeks and finds oneself in poetry after all. The poems we love and those that repel us tell us something about who we are. To censure and censor this activity is by no means a “live and let live” agenda. It is a “live our way or stifle” philosophy. It is parochial, prescriptive and destructive to the spirit and cultural action of poetry. And I can’t stress enough that it is anti-democratic in nature to do away with opposition. Unanimity is a sign of a repressive community.

By no means do I wish to suggest that negative reviews should be written thoughtlessly and out of moodiness. I despise lazy reviews that simply dismiss (or laud) a book without being clear about why, or if they are clear on this subject, do not quote to illustrate their meaning. There must be a reason to write a negative review, and the target should be worthy of the effort in the sense that the reviewer’s engagement with the text should be a fruitful act representing a genuine struggle with the poetry under review.

According to a Publisher’s Weekly article from March 29, 2010 by Craig Teicher entitled “What Poetry Reviews Are For (And Up Against),” Kevin Prufer, an editor, poet and reviewer in the US, upon conducting an informal poll, found that 92% of poetry reviews were positive with not a single negative remark. With that in mind, I’m led to speculate about what motivates attacks on negative reviews and their writers. With the Creative Writing Program producing as many critics as poets, there will always be someone to write a glowing review. Under such a regime, and I picture a carnival barker saying this, “E-e-everybody gets a book! And every book! gets a Sta-a-aggering review! No one can fail. Step right up!” This is potty culture. We need to collectively grow up and understand that we do not come to know ourselves exclusively through what pleases us. It is especially disturbing to consider whose talents such a drowsy climate might serve, for it must be those who have little talent and poor reading skills, and those who would see their name in print to satisfy their egotism. It certainly does not benefit the keen few who have dedicated their lives to poetry, have immersed themselves in a tradition for decades and work passionately at producing meaningful art. Whatever the potty party might believe, its adherents must understand that there is always a group of poets who need to know they can fail and who grow from perusing the occasional, well-wrought negative review. Moreover, the potty movement must consider the historical conversation, the record we leave for posterity. Surely it would be a disservice to hide our scepticism and present future readers with an unchallenged and unchallenging discourse of acceptance. It would represent an historical lie.

This topic touches on so many aspects of our society I feel like Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man trying to imagine eternity. I’m still on the train and all this brain-strain is making me sleepy. Luckily I’m in a window seat where I can, with the help of my folded jacket, find a comfortable position to nap. The guy behind me is playing a video game on his laptop. He’s wearing headphones but I can hear the sound effects. After a few minutes the noise grates on me and I ask him to turn down the volume. He politely obliges and I return to my nap position. I can still hear the sound effects though and I realise the guy has been doing this so long, he’s lost some hearing. Nevertheless, I ask once more if he might lower the volume. Raising his eyebrows, his response is, “Wow. You have really sensitive ears!” Perhaps I do. I also have a sensitive nose, and I smell bullshit. The basic orientation of a person is that they are normal and the “other” is somehow abnormal. Self-reflexive types, those who take a negative criticism to heart are few and far between. Instead people reverse the problem: it is not my deafness and the noise I’m making but your sensitive hearing. I note how closely this situation resembles my relationship with some of the most celebrated poetry today and settle my head back on my jacket.

I can’t sleep. Perhaps even more upsetting is that with all the time spent trying to quash negative criticism, no one seems to be reviewing the critics harshly enough. In a climate of poor reviewing, negative critiques are generally as poorly conceived as appreciative reviews. What irks a poet like me isn’t the so-called “bad” review but the poorly conceived, poorly written, incoherent, over-opinionated or opinionless, incompetent review. There seems to be no discourse on that topic. To my mind the most hideous thing that a reviewer can do is fail to quote enough of a book to allow readers to make up their own minds. Not to quote, or to quote too little (or too strategically) is a dereliction of the reviewer’s responsibility. If there is little room for an in-depth crit, then one must still work to make certain he does not turn the piece into an opportunity to have his name in print. Especially when poets are the ones writing the reviews, the review should be artful in its own right because each time a poet writes something, it becomes part of his oeuvre of thought. I’d rather be torn apart by an incisive, thoughtful and skilled poet than be appreciated by any number of Creative Writing students, graduates and teachers who are for the most part ignorant of the basic principles of close reading, have no sense of history, demonstrate no familiarity with the tradition with which a poet might be in conversation, and, as a result, resort to theory-driven, author-is-dead approaches, showing zero interest in the poet and what his work means to communicate. This kind of reading is ego-centric: Approaching a text as though it were theirs to largely invent, they read-into it rather than exercise their empathy, which is a worrisome trend and a real problem facing our culture.

I fish out a magazine in the mesh pocket fastened to the back of the seat in front of me. The feature article is about Karl Wallenda’s highwire crossing of Niagara Falls. There was some controversy over the idea of him wearing a safety harness. At first Wallenda rejected the notion but the TV network covering the event did not want to be in a position to film a death and refused to have it any other way. Wallenda conceded. I, at first, felt that the stakes were at once lowered. It was no longer a death-defying act. It was dare-devil lite. It was a video game with endless lives. I am reasonable, however, and I did come around. The feat was still enormous, and had he fallen, he’d have to face the humiliation and no doubt suffer the inevitable self-castigation that would ensue from failure. But he’d be alive to try again or become a motivational speaker, or open a restaurant as he pleased. Removing the sensationalism emphasises at once the extraordinary discipline of the funambulist and the human potential to achieve impossible aspirations. I can live with these values. And I feel that perhaps if I question my position vis a vis the negative review using the Wallenda case for mental leverage, I’ll have a better chance of dislodging the issue from my mind. The biggest difference of course is that poetry reviews are not a life and death situation, so the possibility of receiving a negative review is not at all like falling to one’s death. A negative review does not kill a book. In fact it can sell books, and history presents us with many ill-received poets who were later met with great recognition. Tennyson, for instance, was mocked for his florid language and Arthurian subject matter. And William Blake was relatively unheard of until W. B. Yeats popularised his work toward the end of the nineteenth century. But what the existence of negative reviewing does provide is some semblance of the possibility of a book of poetry failing. If you can’t fail there are no stakes. An issue that comes up time and again in poetry circles is how low the stakes are. It’s a statement that needles me because I don’t identify with it. In fact I think the stakes couldn’t be higher. Either your work is recurrently appealing or it’s not. Either it’s part of the conversation or it’s not. Among other things, poets try to span the chasm of historical and social relevance and the abyss of communication and translation. Plenty of poets don’t see the issue from an historical perspective and they are welcome to disagree, but they’re trading high stakes for potty culture.

I admit I understand the conundrum. It’s socially awkward for poets to walk around entertaining inflated ideas of their place in the poetry conversation. As a psychological defense, and keeping in mind the fact that the probabilities of recurrent admiration are very low, we tell ourselves, a sane person looking at this situation would say, “The stakes are low.” But there are three things wrong with this approach: (1) poets still do walk around with inflated notions of their place in the world, so, for these folk at least, the stakes-are-low attitude proves to be but a social façade; (2) it’s not so much that the stakes are low as that the chances of success are low, which means the opposite: I mean, think of the Bunker quotation I used as an epigraph to this essay, if you invest your whole life in poetry and your work never finds currency or never proves itself superior to all the other poetry being produced, you’ve lost your life’s work (them’s pretty high stakes in my books); and (3) it’s not a desirable perspective because it leads to a complacent and mediocre apprehension of poetry and what it means to be a poet, reducing it to something along the lines of social work.

Once a child outgrows the potty stage, he learns that the poop he makes will meet with a gurgle of plumbing instead of cries of aplomb. With the increased popularity of Creative Writing programs and the introduction of a PhD in Creative Writing, a greater number of poets enter the market each year. According to the Association of Writers & Creative Writing Programs Guide, since 2004, there has been a 22.5% increase in the number of CW programs in North America. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of students graduating from CW programs in the US increased by 19%.  Assuming a similar increase in Canada, surely our poetry culture can afford some healthy and honest critical engagement.

Asa Boxer