What have we done to our planet? Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change by Vinita Agrawal (ed)

The green recedes like a hairline,
blue, blue is our future. And the rains
come like an ominous doorbell. And the fire
comes like a lion devouring, and the earth’s despaired-rumble
in her belly. Under muted breath, Hindus mutter pralaya,
a continent slips through an orifice,
glaciers slide innocently into the sea like a friendly
handshake, and we leave the seventh cause of
climate change nameless.

– Usha Akella, “Adam Walking Backward”

It is either coincidental or inevitable that I started reading Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change on the same day the collapse of a Himalayan glacier and subsequent deadly flooding in Uttarakhand, India, made international news. I finished it to reports of the exceptional winter weather and power outages that left many Texans dead. Accounts of disappearing sea ice, habitat loss, raging fires, too much or too little moisture, extended tropical storm seasons and more have become a constant soundtrack, humming along beneath the chorus of a global pandemic, too insistent to ignore. Of course, countless industries and governments are doing their best to do just that, thus the importance of responses from a multitude of disciplines, including art and literature.

Open Your Eyes is one such effort. Edited by poet Vinita Agrawal and published in India, this attractive volume gathers poetic and prose reflections from a wide range of writers, from India and from around the world including Ranjit Hoskote, Ruth Padel, Abhay K, Anjali Purohit, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Barnali Ray Shukla, Esther Vincent Xueming, Indira Chandrasekhar, Kiriti Sengupta, Longbir Terang, Nabina Das, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sophia Naz and many, many more. For a concern so commonly associated with young western activists, this anthology offers a broader, more diverse response to the threats facing our planet, something that is by no means the province of the young. The oldest contributor here is ninety-two year-old Jayanta Mahapatra who offers a new poem, the mournful “I Am Today,” to the project. He joins sixty-two others raising their voices to call attention to the reality and risks of climate change.

It is November.
You know it from the susurration of light –
unclotted light, its guest-like tone
On my nephew’s face
the light is like a muscle,
quickening as he pedals.
The sweat still a secret –
armpits fold of private skin.

He’s seven,
as old as the ancient duration of exile.
The world’s grown warmer since his birth.
That is all I’m able to say
when he points to graffiti on the way –
‘What is Global Warming?’

– Sumana Roy, “’Global Warming’”

Concern about the health of our planet and its inhabitants is hardly new. When I was growing up in Canada, during the 1960s and 70s and on into my university years, we fretted about overpopulation and starvation, pollution, acid rain and holes in the ozone. Today, as manmade threats to the earth are increasingly urgent, governments such as the provincial one I live under are almost hostile to the notion of “Global Warming” as if it is a notion dreamed up yesterday by nefarious enemies of Capitalism and the Economy. It’s not that simple.

Given the theme of this anthology, it is hardly surprising that natural imagery runs a strong course through many of the poems and stories that comprise this book—birds and insects, rivers and forests, floods and drought, violent storms and heavy silence. The gathered offerings are strong; these themes are explored with fresh energy, rarely slipping toward the cliched or the overly sentimental. Sorrow crossed with anger tends to be the driving force; an inclination to preach gives way to the power of the image. In Rohan Chhetri’s “Fish Cross the River in the Rain” for instance, the speaker and his father go down to a river where electrofishing is being practiced:

To stand on the wave-nipped bank as shoal
after stunned shoal heave their nets. The fish
wake older, dreaming brief new lives huddled
in a foreign prison gasping at each other’s
gills blinded like a sack of mirrors.

The poets and writers contributing their work to Open Your Eyes bring, along with love of language, a lived wisdom that informs their varied approaches to the theme. Theirs is a passionate and often surprising engagement with the crisis at hand—a willingness to engage with the past, speak to the present and envision the all-too-likely future, as Sudeep Sen illustrates in his striking “Disembodied” which opens:

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
.                                      from minaret shards of an old mosque
.           from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
                          from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly       as they should—
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
.                            patches and etch-corrects my orientation—
magnetic pulses prove potent.

 

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
.                                                        blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by the brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
.                         echo asthmatic, a new vinyl dub-remix.

His poem ends with a portrait of an ominous near future, or nearly present. The prose pieces which close out the book take, for the most part, a more explicit glance into a possible world to come, employing elements magic and speculative fiction to imagine more anxious allegories of what could lie ahead. Open Your Eyes is an important contribution to the growing literature addressing the reality of climate change, yet one has to ask, is a project like this a call to arms, or evidence that, in the wilderness, a chorus of voices were shouting even if we refused to listen? I know what it should be.

Walking along the beach in Kochi with a friend we watched dogs searching among the refuse, trash and plastic washed upon the shore.

*

Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change is edited by Vinita Agrawal and published by Hawakal Publishers. I will confess that I ordered this book (which appears to be readily available outside India) because a number of my friends have work included within its pages, but that, in the end, turned out to be a welcome door to discovering many writers I might not have encountered otherwise.

An island to hold in the palm of your hand: Purple Perilla by Can Xue

Imagine. Islands of words, small self-contained worlds of ideas, stories, exploration. Points of reference in a sea that is increasingly uneasy, uncertain to navigate. This is the vision of isolarii, a project designed to revive the notion of “island books”—collections of literature and art united on a singular idea and bound into a single volume—that first appeared during the Renaissance, but was lost as other literary forms began to take precedence. Now, under a bimonthly subscription model, the tradition has been reborn in miniature.

Purple Perilla by Chinese experimental writer Can Xue is the third offering in this series. Beautifully presented, complete with a translucent dust jacket, this tiny book is about the size of a deck of cards and contains, in just under 150 pages, three delightful short stories: “An Affair,” “Mountain Ants,” and “Purple Perilla.” Xue offers these tales, which move from an urban to a wild setting, as a lyrical reaction to our contemporary condition. Her trademark measure of unreality permeates each piece.

For those unfamiliar with her work, Can Xue is a very idiosyncratic writer. She allows her fiction to spill forth in what will be its finished state—she writes, one hour a day, without rereading or edits. As a result, her stories and novels have a wandering quality, with a real, yet unreal atmosphere. Much like a dream. The best way to approach such work is to read as Xue writes, one word at a time. This is against an attentive reader’s natural instincts, but looking for patterns and clues will not help. However, this is not to say there is no form, no direction, no meaning—only that one is forced to be patient, to listen and see where the story takes you, not worrying if it seems to tumble along freely at times. Reader and author are essentially on a journey together. As Can Xue says:

Reading my fiction requires a certain creativity. This particular way of reading has to be more than just gazing at the accepted meanings of the text on a literal level, because you are reading messages sent out by the soul, and your reading is awakening your soul into communication with the author’s.

“An Affair” tells the story of Fay, a thirty-six year old teacher, living in a city, who receives a most unusual love letter from a man who claims he has seen her on the bus. He neither reveals his name nor provides a return address, admitting he does not expect she would want to write back. This odd, enigmatic correspondence haunts Fay, leading her to wonder what kind of hold this mysterious man has on her imagination. Eventually she sets out to find him, or find out more about him, by travelling to the far end of the city where he told her he works at a cigarette factory. What she discovers on her strange, convoluted mission seems to tell her more about herself than any mysterious suitor.

The second tale, “Mountain Ants,” is set in a small city surrounded by mountains. Lin Mai lives with his parents in a mansion which is oddly isolated despite being surrounded by buildings. Visitors are rare. The boy spends much of his free time interacting with a large nest of ants in his yard. One day an old man appears at his gate. He tells Lin Mai that he lives in the mountains and has followed the ants to his home. This man, who is called Grandpa Wu, shares some knowledge about the ants and promises that one day he will take Lin Mai up a mountain. As this magical story unfolds, Lin Mai learns some curious information about his parents, the beggar known as Grandpa Wu, and the importance of tending to his own and several other mountain ant colonies in the city.

The final story “Purple Perilla,” the most dreamlike and magical of the three, ultimately carries the narrator into the wilderness, where a friend and his grandma have gone to live among the wolves. To young Chickadee this friend, a boy he has long admired, has uncanny qualities:

Unwittingly, I followed Nigu. He was so profound that he wasn’t like a child, but like … what was he like?

“I’m my grandfather’s grandfather.” Nigu turned around and spoke to me. I was stunned—he actually knew what I was thinking!

“I’m really like my grandfather’s grandfather. I think I am. Chickadee, don’t be afraid of me; I won’t hurt anyone…”

Read as a cycle, these short stories walk headfirst into the unknown. Here, questions are transformative in themselves—it’s less a matter of securing answers than of finding comfort in mystery. Bound together in this portable format, they offer a direct engagement with the magic and vision of one of China’s most inventive writers.

Each volume in the isolarii series is accompanied by several forewords. Presently, Scholastique Mukasonga’s prose riffing in response to a sentence or two from each of Can Xue’s stories is available online. It can be found here. Reading this small volume is a uniquely pleasurable experience. And, it’s worth noting that although the book is small in size, the font is not nor do the stories feel compressed or compromised in any way. It has been a while since I last wandered in Can Xue’s world and my first encounter with her short fiction, but I am now keen to return, before long, to her dreamscapes in a longer work or collection.

Purple Perilla by Can Xue is translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. It is the third volume in the isolarii series published by Common Era Inc.

Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health—a few words about a new anthology and my own contribution

One of my most precious possessions is a still from the
classic 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, created for me
four decades ago by a besotted admirer, the oddly effete son
of a burly local sportscaster. It is a close up from the final
scene at the asylum, of Cesare, the mad doctor’s imagined
murderous somnambulist, peacefully examining a flower. It
is my favourite moment in the film, a counterpoint to my
own greatest childhood nightmare. Here, the monster is, in
reality, a gentle soul. I had always feared the opposite, that
someone would one day see the monster lurking inside me.
But what I couldn’t possibly know at the time I fell in love
with that image was that, like Cesare, I too would one day
be committed to a psychiatric unit.

This is the opening paragraph of my essay, “Unravelling the Self”, which is included in the newly released volume from Dodo Ink, Trauma: Essays on Art and Mental Health. Contributors include Neil Griffiths, Kirsty Logan, Sophie Mackintosh, Monique Roffey, Alex Pheby, Marina Benjamin, Juliet Jacques, Susanna Crossman, Tomoé Hill, Emma Jane Unsworth, Yvonne Conza, Rachel Genn, the film-maker David Lynch and many more. Mental health is a topic that is drawing a growing audience, but with this anthology editors Thom Cuell and Sam Mills, hope to reach a more literary readership who wish to reflect on the issue at a greater depth.

Trauma approaches its title subject from a wide range of perspectives: psychological or  physical, intimate or public, buried in childhood or immediate—triggered by the pandemic or politics or the messy business of living. There are deeply personal accounts of childbirth, relationships with fathers, with lovers, with sexual violence. Some essays engage with history, others with literature or current affairs or potential means of healing the pain. Moving through a PDF of the collection I am struck by the extraordinary variety of essays. I have only read a few, but I hardly know where to turn next. There is so much to chose from and until I have a hard copy in my hands I will wander the detached landscape of the typeset file and read at will.

In her thoughtful introduction, Jenn Ashworth places the collection in a timely context—after all, many of the essays, including my own, were written long before the arrival of 2020 and Covid-19. She brings my essay into the discussion as follows:

In ‘Unravelling the Self’ Joseph Schreiber provocatively returns
to previous diagnoses and the gender assigned to him at
birth in an attempt to construct a present free from the
constructions of others. ‘Do we ever know who we really
are? What does a diagnosis truly hold? How much does it
form your identity, become something to cling to define and
explain the strange and uneven way your life has unfolded?’

I have resisted writing about my experiences with mental illness at any length. There is, to this day, much unresolved trauma. My essay here traces the intersection between bipolar disorder and gender dysphoria. Both are an essential part of who I am, but I no more identify as “trans” than I identify as “bipolar.” To say identify implies choice. And choice triggers guilt. Guilt longs for absolution, absolution that may be beyond reach—as it proved to be for me. In this piece I write about madness, gender, grief and the trauma I am still trying to articulate.

If asked I would say that I have never regretted my decision
to transition; it was, for me, after decades of unnamed
gender insecurity, the only thing I could do. Once I realized
testosterone would allow me shed my skin, metaphorically
speaking, I could see no other path.

I had never thought about grief, or rather that grieving was
something I would be allowed to do. To assert a transgender
identity, to transition and leave one’s birth gender behind
is supposed to be an act of affirmation. It’s something for
others to grieve. But, if I am completely honest, there are
moments when I do wish I had never had to transition at all.

If you are interested in this multifaceted anthology, it should fairly easy to obtain in the UK, beyond that Book Depository might be a good option or Kindle if you prefer an ebook.

Love is at the heart of everything. Everything except for love itself: The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović

“We only know their story as they told it. Like in books. The only way their story can be told is the way they want to tell it. Isn’t that beautiful? Like a fairy tale. The only pictures we’re left with are the ones our minds created, as we listened to their storytelling.”

The back cover of Slovenian writer Goran Vojnović’s award winning novel, The Fig Tree, promises a “multigenerational family saga…spanning three generations”—exactly the type of description that typically has me thinking twice if not turning away altogether. However, trusting on the strength of Vojnović’s Yugoslavia, My Fatherland—a tightly woven tale of a young man who discovers that his father, long thought dead in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s, is not only alive, but a fugitive war criminal—I had no hesitation to take on this newer (2016) work, recently released from Istros Books in a translation by Olivia Hellewell.

The Fig Tree is an ambitious undertaking. It is multigenerational in the sense that we all exist within the framework of those who came before us and those who will follow. Here the central concern is that of the narrator, Jadran Dizdar, a man in his 30s who is, it seems, adrift within his own life. His grandfather has just died, perhaps under curious circumstances, his father has been gone for many years, his mother is bitter and resentful, and his wife has just walked out on him and their young son. He is trying to make sense of himself by coming to understand the decisions and actions of those around him. But is he avoiding asking the questions only he can answer?

The story begins in 1955, in Buje, Croatia, close to the Slovenian border where a young Aleksandar Đorđević is due to take up a post as forest warden. Arriving from Ljubljana in Slovenia, the newcomer bears a Serbian name and birthplace, but his heritage is complicated and uncertain. He soon takes a fancy to the nearby village of Momjan where, against the concerns of his pregnant wife, Jana, he decides to build a home—the house where they will raise their two daughters, and where one day the garden will be graced by a huge fig tree. It is also where the very next chapter opens. Moving ahead to the present time, Jana is gone, having faded away in a steady loss of memory, and now Aleksandar, Jadran’s Grandad, has also died. That event and its consequences—his daughters’ differing reactions, his grandson’s suspicion that he may have taken his own life, and his cremation and burial—form the backbone upon which will Jadran flesh out the story of his family’s near and distant history.

As a novel focused on family dynamics, it is natural that relationships—especially those between husbands and wives, parents and children—should be the primary focus of The Fig Tree. And so it is. This is a novel about all the complicated facets of love. Jadran is intent on retracing his parents’ early romance, his own love affair with Anya, and the factors that shaped his grandparents’ final years. But his connection to his father, Safet, who has made himself so strangely absent, is possibly the most nebulous element of all, one that haunts both him and his mother. When Safet disappears to Bosnia in 1992, my immediate thought was that he would get caught up in the war. However, his existence in Otoka where he assumes residence in his grandmother’s empty house, is at once mundane and mildly eccentric. He is perhaps trying to connect with his own family’s past, while escaping the family and life of his present. Five years after his departure, his son comes to visit. In his father’s absence, Jadran had created a Bosnian dad fantasy that Safet could not even begin to live up to. He has to come to terms with the truth of the man who is not an idealized hero but:

just like the person who was waiting for me at the bus station in Bihać: scrawny and greying, oddly dressed, the sort of person who offered his hand and asked how my journey was, and whether I was hungry, the sort who, after I replied that I was, glanced around confusedly, not knowing where to take me to get something to eat; unprepared, lost.

Their brief reunion is awkward and strained, both parties are uncomfortable, but the reader may well wonder if there is discomfort in the son finding an unwelcome reflection of himself in the father.

Some of the most powerful passages of The Fig Tree trace the gradual decline of Jadran’s grandmother Jana following a likely stroke. Aleksandar’s complicated reactions as his wife gradually slips away from him—loss, guilt, frustration, redefined love—is wonderfully imagined. It is also one of the spaces in which the wars which tore apart the Balkans enter the narrative:

I know who that is, she said to him, turning away. It was of no interest to her that the country was collapsing, because that was beyond her comprehension. And what she didn’t understand didn’t interest her. The present became increasingly demanding, and one evening she got up, said that she couldn’t watch any more of it, and left the present behind.

Her world no longer extended beyond the walls of their house, and Aleksandar was left alone with the impending times, with a sense of dread, alone with everything that was happening on the outside.

The conflict and its implications are echoed in personal concerns about ethnic identity and nationality. Jadran’s family is rooted in Slovenia, but he and some of the characters have a complicated heritage—something which always matters on some level but holds greater relevance as the former Yugoslavia comes apart and borders take on new importance. The arc of this story may extend beyond the war, before and after, but underlying tensions and repercussions cross into the everyday throughout.

The Fig Tree is a deeply immersive, highly rewarding novel. However, I would suggest that it might take a little time to find one’s footing within the narrative flow. This is, perhaps, because Jadran can be a somewhat difficult narrator to warm to. At times he seems colourless, willing to slip into the background or even slip offstage altogether, allowing accounts drawn from his parents’ and grandparents’ lives to be told from afar. At other times, when he is front and centre, he can get bogged down in his own mix of blame, bitterness, and limited self-awareness, on occasion even falling into unbroken passages of running thoughts, a near stream of consciousness. Early on, shifts in the storyline seem a little odd, characters and situations are often introduced in a sideways fashion, with explanations and clarifications arriving only in time. Yet, once one gets accustomed to the manner of telling, the characters and their stories become increasingly compelling. And if there is a strong current of uncertainty running through Jadran’s account, it is not surprising, there is so much he is trying to resolve, so much that may never be known:

The coffin is no longer visible. The cranking of the mechanism that lowered it down has stopped. The sound of the furnace, however, grows louder. I hear the last of Grandad’s secrets burning, I hear it all disappear. All that remains is doubt, for doubt is the only thing that’s eternal.

Then, as the novel nears a close, Jadran makes a confession that I did not see coming, but one that reveals what I had already sensed. It’s a twist that brilliantly reframes everything—not only the text that has just been read, but the notion of writing a family history at all.

The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović is translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell and published by Istros Books.

A city no one ever sees unveiled: Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland by Sarah M. Miller

When the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Queens, New York, its motto, “The World of Tomorrow,” invited visitors to look to the future, to embrace the wonders that technology was expected to deliver in the coming years. Of course, with the Second World War still in its early days, the horrors that technology would make possible could not yet be envisioned. Building on a theme conceived at the height of the Great Depression, the Fair’s forward-looking mission was focused on a dazzling world of exciting possibilities.

As one might imagine, a bevy of brochures and books were published to celebrate the event and tie into its theme. Of these, one of the best known is Changing New York, a stunning collection of photographs by Berenice Abbott paired with captions by her life partner, esteemed art critic Elizabeth McCausland.  It would serve as Abbott’s career defining work. However, the book that met the public was a faint echo of the project the women had proposed. Their visionary design, a visual documentary of the city’s changing face in image and text had, against their protests, been reworked to conform to the format of a conventional guidebook.

The fact that the publisher, EP Dutton, along with the Federal Arts Project, had interfered with Abbott and McCausland’s intentions was not a secret, but until now the original manuscript has never been released in full. Over eighty years after Changing New York was first published, art historian Sarah M. Miller has restored the women’s intended text and image selection, presenting it together with a thorough exploration of the motivations behind Abbott’s extensive and impressive photographic project and an examination of the factors that lay behind its ultimate fate. The resulting book, Documentary in Dispute, a co-publication of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and MIT Press, is a detailed and fascinating work of artistic reclamation.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott (1898 –1991) moved to New York to study sculpture in 1918. There she met important members of the American avant-garde such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. These connections proved critical. In 1921, she headed across the Atlantic to continue her studies and would remain in Europe for the better of the decade. Here she made the artistic shift to photography while working as Man Ray’s assistant at his Paris studio from 1923 – 1926. Although she learned her craft there, she absorbed the foundations of her own creative philosophy from the Surrealist artists to whom she was exposed. However, it was in the work of French architectural photographer, Eugène Atget, that she discovered an understanding of documentary that would shape her vision and become the driving force behind her landmark study of New York—a city that was, during the 1930s, in a state of flux and change. MoMA has an good online collection of 75 of Abbott’s photographs, from early portraits (such as James Joyce) taken in the mid-1920s through to her abstracts of the late 1950s. The bulk of the images on the site feature her signature subject and include many of the photographs that appear in Changing New York and in the much more expansive, text at hand. (Note: I will link to images in collections rather than reproducing images that may be copyright protected.)

Documentary in Dispute is the latest addition to RIC Books’ series on the history and theory of photography. As a work of scholarly research, however, it is engaging and fully accessible for anyone interested in photography, social history or the politics of publishing. The book opens with a brief Preface wherein Miller outlines the fraught publishing history of Changing New York and the intentions and objectives of the current photographic project and the essays that comprise the study. Central to the reading experience is, of course, the reconstructed manuscript—the images of Berenice Abbott and the words of Elizabeth McCausland are presented as they proposed, made all the more fascinating and frustrating by the inclusion of the published captions, final book placement and, in certain cases, the point at which a photograph was eliminated.

Abbott’s approach to documenting the urban landscape is evident from the very first image in the intended manuscript, a photograph that holds its place essentially by virtue of its title, Brooklyn Bridge, Water and New Dock Streets, Brooklyn. Abbott insisted on ordering her work alphabetically by title within broader subject categories. This unusual practice introduces a certain randomness and avoids a tendency to fall into a contrived order. An immediate contrast to the desired guidebookishness that would ultimately transform the finished book where this same image is number 87. However McCausland’s text also speaks to the photographer’s vision. In the photograph the skyscrapers of the distant city skyline are framed by an older building, a segment of the bridge, and a construction project. The caption reads:

The taut cables of the first bridge to link Manhattan with Brooklyn visibly soar above the brick warehouse. Every molecule of steel in the fine-woven strands and in the interlacing girders and beams contributes to the perfect equilibrium of the suspension. At the same time, this tension (invisible to the eye, which scientists have been able to photograph at speeds of one-millionth of a second) is a living element in the picture. Between the power of steel and the pull of gravitation, the photograph achieves its own equilibrium, powerful and dynamic.

Here McCausland paints an unexpected organic image of steel—a material that fascinates again and again—while calling attention to the subject and to the energy within the photograph itself. What an opening! By contrast, in the published volume (where the image appears toward the end), the text begins with an accounting of the date and costs of the bridge construction—dollar and dates are detailed wherever possible—and then goes on:

Brooklyn Bridge is the technological ancestor of all the great steel cable suspension bridges which connect Manhattan Island with the world. The Roebling’s success in devising a steel cable strong enough to support the strain of its mighty spans opened the way for the Williamsburg, Manhattan and George Washington Bridges.

And that’s just the beginning. The original manuscript of Changing New York featured 100 photographs. Drawing on her interest in book design, Elizabeth McCausland offered a proposed layout that challenged the time-honoured conventions of photographic publications—one photograph per two-page spread with the caption on the facing page. In the end, of course, tradition won out over innovation. Some images were replaced; several others were removed in the final stage without replacement. It’s interesting to speculate about just what it was that inspired the publisher to pull an image. Too controversial, too political, too abstract?

The New York that Abbott uncovers is, intentionally, not the one most tourists, and many residents, never see. She captures humble businesses, vendors, neighbourhoods, many of which are on borrowed time. Modern skyscrapers soar above the city skyline, the point of interest is typically an older structure in the foreground or a feature in the distance. Statues survey their domains, in contrast with their backgrounds or, in one deleted image, stand shrouded, awaiting reveal. Simple scenes come alive through the play of light and shadow, seemingly insignificant architectural details are highlighted, storefronts are packed with goods, roads are often curiously quiet and, of course, bridges and elevated train tracks are approached from unexpected angles. If a bridge detail could be granted life, Abbott in her choice of subjects and McCausland in her captions did not shy away from social commentary or from expressing a sense of loss as architecture of the past (and the history it represented) was disappearing from the urban landscape.

However, the documentary imperative in Changing New York was not restricted to tracing a mutable city alone—the viewer was to be encouraged to see and understand what that might mean. Abbott, together with McCausland, imagined a work that would not only invite the viewer to observe locations they might not have ventured into, from perspectives unnoticed or unavailable, they wanted to illuminate the limitations, challenges and possibilities facing the photographer and her camera. Consider, for example, Broadway to the Battery: Manhattan, which looks down on the road from on high. The caption talks about how “20th century steel frame construction, skyscrapers” allowed a new elevated view of the city:

The human eye is more flexible than a camera eye, it makes an accommodation (psychological) which the lens cannot in this new vision, in this new range of sight, the 20th century artist—specifically the photographer—has a new world to conquer. Broadway to the Battery, by its inhuman perspective, distorts the scale of human life. The ant-like people in the street, the liner in midstream dwarfed to a fictitious tininess, the almost infinitesimal dots of human beings in Battery Park—these are the humanistic equivalents of the lens’ distortion imposed on the artist by the new morphology of the city.

This type of conversation elevates the manuscript, as intended, beyond what the viewers photographic books in the 1930s would have anticipated. The photographer’s dialogue with her subject, and the writer’s dialogue with her reader, would have promised an interactive experience sadly lost as the publisher stripped and shoehorned the envisioned project into the shape of an acceptable guidebook for the World’s Fair visitor. Apparently, “The World of Tomorrow” was not to apply to textual material.

The reconstructed presentation of Changing New York, is followed by a presentation of archival materials that shine light on the publication that Abbott and McCausland had envisioned, from the photographer’s 1935 pitch to the Federal Arts Project to sample commentaries prepared for the publisher, to a document that reveals the extent of the conflict over the design changes. Finally, the third part of the book is comprised of two generously illustrated essays. The first, “Archiving Abbott” by Julie Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante offers a look into the extensive amount of material Abbott collected and organized documenting herself. “She archived nearly every aspect of her career, from newspaper notices and reviews to drafts of talks and magazine articles, ideas for projects and inventions, and her business correspondence.” She was, it would seem, preparing for future biographers. She did not doubt her own worth. The second essay, Sarah M. Miller’s “Documentary in Dispute” is an in depth examination of Abbott’s artistic and philosophical development, the vision and aims behind the manuscript as originally proposed, and the editorial process that ultimately produced a volume deemed to meet the interests of the publisher and the FAP.

A slow, careful engagement with Abbott’s images of a shifting New York together with both the intended captions and the reduced, revised replacements is the best way to entertain this book. The essays that follow will then enhance one’s appreciation of Abbott as an artist and understanding of how and why Changing New York was itself changed in the process of publication. The final book was, it must be noted, met with great critical acclaim and stands as an important photographic text. Now, however, its creators original project can be appreciated, and full power of Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland’s documentary vision can be understood.

The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’: Porcelain by Durs Grünbein

In the winter when cupola and dome are white with snow,
the ravaged city fills my soul with shame, simply shame.
Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael—then nothing more to show…
Your downfall is the stuff of trashy melodrama.
How long ago was that? Don’t ask me, I can’t say.
The only word I know for ‘gone forever’ is ‘today’. (8)

The German city of Dresden, once known as Florence on the Elba, was long renowned for its Baroque architecture and pleasant climate. The Allied air raids that began on February 13, 1945 rapidly reduced this jewel to an eerie landscape of hollow structural supports rising out of a sea of rubble. 25,000 souls were lost in the firestorm and it would take decades to clean up and restore the damaged structures.

Buildings can be rebuilt, but the legacy of the bombing of Dresden is complex. The action was met with controversy among Allied forces, the losses exaggerated for effect by the Nazis, and the destruction doubly symbolic—first of German suffering in the war, second of lingering guilt. So, there is no one black-and-white way to understand this event, a reality that German poet Durs Grünbein explores in his book-length cycle, Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City. What began in 1992 as an annual ritual to mark the anniversary of the bombing, would eventually be published in 2005 as a sequence of forty-nine ten-line poems, rhymed and classical in form. Now, seventy-five years after the fateful air raids, the first English edition has been released with extensive notes, extra images and an additional, newly composed poem, translated and introduced by Karen Leeder.

Born in Dresden in 1962, Grünbein grew up amid the physical and psychological ruins of his hometown, surrounded by the historical and symbolic weight it carried, but without claim to any direct experience of the devastation. This temporal and emotional distance colours his poetic reflections while offering a double-edged sword to his critics—he was accused of both daring to intrude on the suffering of others and failing to do justice to the true horrors the city endured. In anticipation of this, the opening lines of the first poem in his sequence read:

Why complain, Johnny-come-lately? Dresden was long gone
when your little light first appeared on the scene.
Moist eyes are not the same as grey hair, son. (1)

Right away he is giving space to his would-be detractors and the lines that follow set the tone for what will not be a straightforward elegiac exercise.

As Grünbein strives to make sense of the bombing of Dresden—poem by poem, across the span of more than a decade—he allows multiple voices, angles and perspectives to appear, shifting moods and tones to rise and fall. However, his concern with the role of the poet as “a keeper and creator of memories” remains his central focus. For too long, mourning for the shattered city had been coloured by the motivations of political interests—Porcelain can be seen as an effort to challenge and release that grief.

Fragmented and lyrical, the work is infused with historical figures and references. The city’s character is often evoked, sometimes personified, sometimes in imagined vignettes, while the fine porcelain for which Dresden is famous is a recurring motif—intact and shattered.

Swans adorned the dinner service made for Count von Brühl—
flawless just like them you were: proud, curvaceous pin-up girl.
But it almost struck you dumb with shock when the fish,
the shells and dolphins shattered into smithereens,
sinking into the depths where no word could reach.
Who would hide munitions in porcelain tureens? (45)

Grünbein also draws on his literary forbears throughout these poetic illuminations, but by far his closest companion is Paul Celan. The ghost of the Holocaust poet haunts this cycle, directly and indirectly.

The forty-nine (plus one) poems that comprise Porcelain explore the complex layers of loss, meaning and memory and together form a rich meditation on war, destruction and the question of who owns suffering. It is not a dirge but a human reckoning. The presentation of this anniversary edition is both handsome and sombre, while Karen Leeder’s translation gives the poetry an immediate, grounded feel and the detailed glossary and notes provide context, as required, to enhance the reading experience.

Porcelain: Poem on the Downfall of My City by Durs Grünbein is translated by Karen Leeder and published by Seagull Books.

Weights and measures: 2020 draws to a close

Slippery section ahead, December 31, 2020

At the end of a year that redefined most of our goals and aspirations, I find myself in a strange space. This was, for me, a year of challenge, adaptation and growth. I had imagined I would mark a milestone birthday—one I was anxious about—with a special trip of some sort. I did not even have a destination in mind but it had to be important. Of course, travel of any sort was not to be. Instead, I find myself here, three months after turning sixty, in better physical shape than I’ve ever been, with about 1,000 kilometres clocked for the year, mostly on the trails, roads and pathways close to home.

In 2020 I became a runner. A trail runner.

The year began with a diagnosis of osteoporosis. It’s a condition that led to the death of my mother and one of my great aunts, but I my case, it turns out that a medication I took for twenty years to control bipolar disorder had been blocking the absorption of vitamin D. I immediately started supplements and monitored my calcium intake and made an appointment with a physiotherapist. But I was afraid that running, something I had flirted with, would have to be avoided. Strangely that—something I had never even had—was my greatest sense of loss and my greatest motivation.

Progress was slow. Through the winter I worked on flexibility and core body strength, developing, with my therapist,  a weight and resistance training routine. For aerobic exercise, I walked up and down the embankment I live above. As the trails started to clear, I was given the green light to start running. Initial efforts were choppy, but I would aim to cover longer sections of pathway before stopping to catch my breath.

At the same time, as early lock down restrictions began to ease, my psychiatrist and I discussed switching meds. Over the summer I started taking lithium, a drug I feared a little, but the potential side effects with other options sounded more concerning. The switch has not been smooth, but it has only enhanced my running. Or rather, in going off the original medication I quickly lost twelve pounds. Turns out less of me goes further! In mid-September I messaged a runner friend to tell him that, for the very first time, I started to run a familiar trail and I just kept running until I ran out of road.

I’m no marathoner, that is not my intention, and some of the trails I love are a challenge, but the buzz of feeling myself grow stronger has not left, especially as I push out over longer and longer stretches of the steepest inclines. There’s a healthy degree of caution too because I don’t want to fall, but I love the personal focus of this activity. My goals, distance and pace, are my own, but there is still a connection. The runners you meet on the trail are generally ready with a smile and a nod—a friendly acknowledgement. I may be going three kilometres to their ten, but it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the medication has had a less positive impact on other areas of my life. Through August and September I struggled with the books I managed to read. I found it difficult to get through more than one or two pages at a time. From mid-September to early December I accumulated a pile of half-finished books, writing was impossible, editing agonizingly slow. I figured that lithium was affecting my focus and concentration. I could remember a similar problem with the same med years earlier. I started to strategize ways to make reading and writing work in this new zone. I also made the decision to step away from my volunteer editing commitment, something which was very heavy this year, thanks to the pandemic.

However, hiking and running continued without any concern until I began to find myself dizzy and oddly fatigued on the trail one day. I felt like I hadn’t had a decent sleep in months and, in fact, I hadn’t. It wasn’t until I began to notice a marked loss of energy and significant muscle weakness that I finally realized about how often I would find myself thinking about  how much I was looking forward to going to sleep. All along my fitness tracker had been rating my sleep quality poorly but I had assumed it was an issue with my Fitbit, not me.

Over the past month or so I have made a number of adjustments to my sleeping environment that, if not perfect, have greatly improved my sleep. My focus, energy and mood are so much better. So, living well on this new med means extra attention to sleep. I can handle that. Mind you, there’s more. My blood work recently showed an elevated calcium level—not great given the osteoporosis—but another possible side effect of lithium. So in January I see an endocrinologist to rule out serious problems, but in the meantime I intend to read, run and write my way into the new year!

Wishing you all the best of the year ahead. We’ve gotten this far!

Tell stories and let stories be told: Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz

Venturing into the fictional territory defined by Swiss writer Klaus Merz, one immediately notices the lightness of his imagery and the marked economy of his language. His narratives are slowly and carefully crafted, allowed to form one brushstroke at a time. Anchored in a lush landscape mirroring his native canton of Aargau in northern Switzerland, his characters and the lives they live are at once simple and exceptional. Sensitively translated from the German by Tess Lewis, the present volume, Stigmata of Bliss, gathers together three of Merz’s best known novellas, and, as such, offers a fine introduction to his distinctive restrained poetic prose.

The collection begins with Jacob Asleep (Jakob schläft). Originally published in 1997 with the curious subtitle Eigentlich ein Roman—Actually a Novel—this tale of an ill-starred but strangely resilient family won several prominent awards including the Hermann Hesse Prize for Literature. The story opens at the graveside of the eponymous Jacob, the narrator’s older brother, who died at birth and as such was officially named “Child Renz”. Although he is gone, in the heart and imagination of the protagonist, Jacob is ever present as a sleeping angel of sorts to be called upon in times of need. And there will be plenty of those.

The narrator is, from an early age, surrounded by eccentricity and illness. A younger brother, Sunny, is born with hydrocephalus; his father, a baker, develops epilepsy; and his mother grows increasingly despondent as the years pass. His grandfather takes a turn at raising birds and then fish before turning with passionate intensity to beekeeping, while his grandmother becomes a faith healer who is undeterred by any apparent lack of response to her charms. Finally, an uncle, Franz, is a reckless daredevil with an unfettered lust for adventure that takes him, fatefully, to Alaska. But, ever the pragmatist, our hero recounts his family’s tragedies and joys with calm resolve and no small measure of peculiar pride:

In our family, illness had priority over all else. After Grandmother walked barefoot through the snow in her religious frenzy and, weightless as old, brittle leaves, was carried out of the house with the first spring storms, my brother was once again the most seriously ill member of the family, so ill that people gladly came often to visit him. Out on the street, everyone, young and old, turned to stare. They tripped over kerbstones, caught their trousers and skirts on garden fences and knocked their gaping heads on telegraph poles when I pushed him along the road in his high-wheeled cart.

There were only a few television shows at the time and the tabloids were still restrained, so, live and in real time, we satisfied some of the local craving for entertainment.

Given the premise of this novella, there could easily be a tendency to slip into pathos, but such is not the case. The spare prose, vivid images filtered through memory, and the charismatic narrative voice facilitate smooth transitions between scenes of boyish bliss and accounts of loss and pain, between times of happiness and hardship. No moment is oversold. Only the most essential details are offered, often indirectly, set up in such a manner that ultimately a simple sentence is left to carry the weight of all that has been left unspoken. One of the most powerful episodes in the text occurs after the narrator and his father pick up his mother after a stay at a sanatorium. Nothing is explicitly said of her experience. It is not necessary:

The first thing Mother did at home was to get rid of the electric blanket that had always warmed her bed. And she adamantly refused to let us replace it with a better one.

For fear of electric shocks.

What remains, at the end of this finely honed tale, is a sense of the light that lingers in the memory assuring that in a life filled with many hardships, the darkness is not denied but it need not dominate.

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The second novella, A Man’s Fate (LOS. Eine Erzählung,2005), feels, perhaps, denser and heavier in tone. The style is still spare, but here the third person narrative takes the reader deep into the consciousness of a man, Thaler, who is at a crossroad in his life. A teacher, married with children, he is feeling cramped and constrained. He heads to the mountains hoping a hike will help clear his mind, allow him to figure out what he wants. Armed with his favourite snack—honey and lemons—he travels by train, on his way to a cabin where he plans to spend the night. At the same time his thoughts travel back, digging through his earlier adventures and affairs.

Thaler is a troubled man, weighed down by a certain nostalgia for his youth and a frustration with his present circumstances. Yet it is not clear what it is that he feels he has lost or what potentials he yearns for. The memories he keeps rifling through do not seem that exciting—but, then, mid-life tinges the past with regrets and what-if’s. His restlessness is echoed by the train:

His train gathers speed. Nowhere does he feel as secure as in a train. Surrounded only by chance companions. He finds them to be the most reliable and he feels closest to them.

Travelling divests one. Like a lover. Like a lover who leaves unnoticed after making  love to return to her own life, having washed up only cursorily yet unhurt. And safe elsewhere.

Thaler’s thoughts regularly swing back to women, leaving little wonder that his marriage is in trouble. He seems indifferent to his wife and children. However, there is, of course, more going on, and a chance mishap will upend everything.

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The final novella in this volume, The Argentine (Der Argentinier. Novelle, 2009) is an account of the life of the colourful “Argentine”, a man who, in his youth, left Switzerland for a life of adventure in the New World. In Argentina he became, so he claimed, a gaucho and a celebrated dancer. Yet, once the desire to escape cooled, he returned to Europe, married his sweetheart, Amelie, and devoted himself to teaching. But he maintained a larger-than-life aura, his tales fueling his own mythology and his assorted wisdoms enlightening both his family and generations of students.

The Argentine’s story, however, is not told directly. It is recounted by his granddaughter Lena to a primary-school friend, the narrator, during a gathering of former classmates. His own memories and observations, as well as brief conversations about his and Lena’s present lives, filter into the narrative which continually circles back story of the Argentine, or simply “Grandfather” as he is called. The result is a portrait conveyed in segments, coloured with multilayered memories. A story within a story within a story and at the centre one remarkable man.

After his return, Grandfather created a different climate in each of his classrooms: an African climate in one, icebergs as in Patagonia in another or the blooming spring of the Wachau Valley in another. He wanted his students to be prepared for any circumstances when they had to face reality—actual or perceived—whether at home, out shopping, before a screen, in Shanghai or in bed. They should have emergency resources that come from worlds described or worlds still waiting to be described. With such inner resources, they will never die alone or of hunger, he always said.

Although published separately, there is a wholeness that can be found in reading these three novellas together. The same spareness marks each one, though the narratives have a different texture and energy. No piece extends beyond 60 pages (including the drawings by Heinz Egger that grace the text), but each offers a rewarding and intimate experience that lingers long after the reading has ended.

Stigmata of Bliss by Klaus Merz is translated by Tess Lewis and published by Seagull Books.

Dust, dreams and destiny: An Archipelago in a Landlocked Country by Elisa Taber

In “Raising Angel”,  a story in Elisa Taber’s unique and original debut, a boy occupies himself creating a family with figures cut from a newspaper. He sets them into a cardboard box home and imagines conversations occurring within that space. He puts them to bed, lets them fall asleep. All the while his grandmother watches from the corner of the spare cement dwelling they call home.

There is something in young Angel’s play that is eerily similar to the way his tale and those of the other individuals and characters who grace this book are composed, set into action, viewed and reported. It is at once evocative and unnerving.

Described as a lyric ethnography, An Archipelago in Landlocked Country offers a unique three-part journey deep into the heart of Paraguay. The Mennonite colony where the author was born and its neighbouring Indigenous settlement provide the context and inspiration for a filmic travelogue, a collection of short stories, and a novella. Each section is separate and can be read in any desired order, but throughout there is an overriding interdependency that crosses the boundaries between careful observation, mythology and magical imagining to weave a sensual, sensitive portrait of this distant land.

The backdrop is the Gran Chaco, an isolated region of grassland and thorny forest that extends over the Paraguayan-Argentinian border. Home to the Nivaklé peoples for centuries, the area was opened up to outsiders in the early part of the twentieth century. Among the first newcomers were German-speaking Russian Mennonites from Canada who established two colonies, Menno and Fernheim. The author’s birthplace, Neuland, was settled somewhat later, in 1947, by Mennonites fleeing prosecution in the Soviet Union. The community was initially home exclusively to women and children. In 2016, Taber and her mother returned to spend a month in Neuland and the first part of this book, “Asunción to Neuland, via Filadelfia” unfolds as a set of tableaus, descriptions of a series of 30-second films that form a spare documentary of their journey.

This string of visual vignettes has a dreamy feel; passing and static images are captured with descriptions at once detailed and incomplete. Flora, photographs, places and people are observed, recorded and recounted. Short scenes are sketched.

A man in a cheap tuxedo, a waiter, I guess, steers a broom back. A raven mustache and a low hairline. It starts right above his eyebrows. Acne scars on his cheeks and deep wrinkles between his eyes. A face that transitioned straight from adolescence to old age. A transformation like that of the tight-pant-clad blond I mistook for a girlfriend in the dining room until his weathered and bearded face turned to meet mine, smiling oddly.

I prefer to start at the beginning, I confess, so when moving through this book’s sections in the order presented, this opening part serves as a perfect entry into the territory where Taber’s fictional expansion will play out.

“Cayim ô Clim” offers a collection of short stories set in the Nivaklé settlement. Each piece serves as an imagined window into the lives and mythologies of its residents—the young and the old and those caught in between. There is a striking precision to the way Taber’s stories are arranged and a tactile quality to their execution. The landscape is as essential as any circumstance that arises or event that occurs; the atmosphere is evoked in an insistent, poetic prose that seems to physically occupy the textual space. You can feel the wind blowing dust across the pages, grit settling into your pores.

It blows from the south. Dismembers the soil. Creates a thick, brown haze. Bodies that obstruct its path claim it feels like dry hail. A hard substance in the air. Sand gathers to occupy space. The grains are close but separate. They do not dissolve into each other.

Within this harsh environment her characters exhibit a calm resilience, sometimes skewed, with an ability to stretch resources, employ their imaginations, and improvise at work and play. Children and their games, mothers and daughters, curious loners—losses and absences run through their lives, but life goes on. All the while, the author watching, closely, occasionally slipping into their skins.

The third section, “La Paz del Chaco Street” is a novella tinged with magic, deeply rooted in . the overlapping and intersecting histories of the distinct peoples that have met, mingled and made this landlocked corner of the world their own. Central to the story is Agatha, an eccentric third-generation Mennonite woman who, at puberty, feels a growing discomfort around other people. She begins to wander further and further away from home each day. She cannot be contained by societal restrictions and norms; everything begins to disturb her—especially her body:

Her skin seems to tremble while seated at the table. It is not anger towards what those around her say. She does not hear them. But towards her body, once whole, now visibly penetrable where she bleeds. She wants to feel impenetrable.

She cannot jump out of her own skin so instead she alters how her body moves, the thoughts and feelings it betrays. It is odd how the suppression of her desires makes her actions precise. The less she understands what she wants, the more she can will herself to become someone else.

She soon retreats to live in the house that once belonged to her grandmother, a strange dwelling with a tree growing through it, bound to her ancestor though the enigma of her mother who drowned when Agatha was a child. The life she crafts for herself begins to take on mythical qualities, a granddaughter of Neuland creating herself anew, rising against the lives of those around her.

One could say that An Archipelago in Landlocked Country is a literary guidebook that invites you into a place of refuge that is at once exotic and shaped by tradition, two contrasting traditions in fact. Elisa Taber takes this world and tilts it on its axis, opening it up. She is an astute observer, ethnographer and artist, capable of capturing minute and surprising details while maintaining a deep respect for her characters. She demonstrates a personal appreciation for their histories and mythologies, and a gift for crafting wise contemporary fables. Her poetic sensibility and disarmingly precise prose combine to propel this vivid exploration of an existing territory as re-imagined in the present and into the future.

An Archipelago in Landlocked Country by Elisa Taber is published by 11:11 Press.

Art and poetry meet online: Ignite from with in the confines

In late September a wonderful artist friend of mine, Deepa Gopal, invited me to participate in an online exhibition featuring eight artists and eight poets. The past few months have  been rather dry for me creatively for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is this extended period of pandemic living. And that was the spark of inspiration for this unique show.

Each artist contributed five pieces of art inspired by, or in keeping with, the theme IGNITE-from within the confines. Each poet was then paired with an artist and asked to contribute five new or recent poems with at least one written in direct response to one or more of the pieces. I was immediately inspired by the work of my partner, Dubai based Peruvian artist German Fernandez and wrote four new poems, companions to specific images and added one more piece written earlier this year. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing our work together, as well as the contributions of my fellow artists and poets as the show rolls out over the following eight days.

I hope you will come and see this unique collaboration. Links for our blog, Instagram account and YouTube channel are below.

SCHEDULE – IGNITE-from within the confines-
5 NOV to 12 NOV 2020 – 4 pm (UAE time/GMT+4 hrs) every day

ARTIST and POET profile on official blog (2 blog posts)

ART & POEM on YouTube (one video)
– one artwork and one poem –

will be published on Facebook and Instagram too

As of today, November 10, my poetry can be found here.
German Fernandez’ profile and artwork can be found here.

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Official Blog: https://ignitefromwithintheconfines.blogspot.com/
Official Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ignite.fwtc.2020/
YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClJQhklsmPqHkaU6FmMmhEA/featured?view_as=subscriber