Where There Are Monsters by Breanne McIvor: Some thoughts and a link to my review at 3:AM

With my editing responsibilities at 3:AM Magazine occupying more of my time in recent months, I have not been able to find the time or energy to pitch or submit reviews to publications, preferring to rely on my blog for critical writing. However, this past week saw the publication of an off-site review at—of all places—3:AM. We have collaborated with the Republic of Consciousness Prize to publish a monthly review of their corresponding Book of the Month Club. I was invited to contribute a review for the May title.

Where There Are Monsters, the debut collection of short stories by Trinidadian writer Breanne McIvor was a very pleasant surprise that I might not have heard of save for this opportunity. Published by UK-based Peepal Tree Press, who specialize in promoting the work of Caribbean and Black British writers, McIvor presents a bold contemporary vision of her native country where wealth and poverty co-exist; crafting memorable tales that feature characters from both sides of the social and economic divide.  However, woven into this modern landscape are myths and monsters drawn from traditional folklore—often where one least expects them—lending her stories a distinctly gothic feel.

The opening passage of my review is reproduced below. You can read the rest of it here:

In an era when the happy ending may seem elusive, naive or, at the very least, ill-suited to the realm of serious literature, it is natural to long for a conclusion that, if not exactly happily-ever-after, is happier than expected. To that end, perhaps the most memorable feature of Breanne McIvor’s debut collection of short stories Where There Are Monsters is that, even if a shadowy quality simmers throughout, so many of her stories feature characters who are intrinsically kind and good, or capable of rising above the difficulties or legacies bequeathed them. Those who cannot are most often quite literally, well, monsters — beings possessed by a darkness deeply rooted in the folklore of Trinidad — and even then, the desire to override the evil impulses buried inside flickers with a desperate, if inadequate, humanity.

From both sides now: A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

There is a glow, a particular confidence that emanates from the poetry of German essayist and writer, Hans Mangus Enzensberger. It is manifested in his uncanny ability to take the smallest, even mundane, observations and transform them into poems that catch one unaware. I want to call it an earnestness, but it is more than that, it is the  capacity to reflect with equal humility and humour on both the simple and the profound  moments, an ability  that can only come with time and a long, full life. The second of the ninety-nine poems or meditations that comprise his collection, A History of Clouds, is an early example. “Sins of Omission” is a confession of sorts—a list of presumed shortcomings that begins with the aging narrator admitting to being absent, not hurrying over “when the need was greatest,” but closes with a wide range of “sins”:

Forgot to confess,
shied away
from improving the world,
never dropped out or in at the right time,
failed to take my pills
three times a day.

Yes, I abstained from
killing people. Yes,
I didn’t call.
For the time being I have even
refrained from dying.
Forgive me, if you can.

Or just let it be.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

From the outset then, the appeal of his clear uncomplicated verse and his gently sarcastic tone is clearly evident; making it easy to see why he is generally considered to be Germany’s most important living poet.

Born in Bavaria in 1929, Enzensberger’s poetry covers a vast range of subject matter, and he is also an editor, translator, and  a vital, often controversial, essayist. This collection was published in its original German in 2003, in the early years of a new century, when the poet was in his seventies. The opening section frequently touches on private moments and emotion, and includes some wonderful images of the simple intimacies of long-term relationships, of shared beds and lives—the wonder of a breath, a touch, proximity—while the second turns its attention to the lives of others, conjuring portraits that are historical, political or literary.  A particularly poignant piece is the haunting elegy to fellow countryman WG Sebald “Who touched us, / who seemed to have come from afar / to the sinister, unhomely homeland. / Little kept him here. / Nothing but the search for traces / with a divining rod of words / which twitched in his hand.” (From “For Max Sebald”, trans. by Martin Chalmers)

Enzensberger’s curiosity for the world, his far flung interests and experiences provide fertile backdrops for his wry commentaries on life. In later sections, he often appeals to science, philosophy and cosmology to illustrate an idea, making his poems them feel at once timely and out of time. One of my favourite pieces is the rather beautifully blunt “At Times” which begins:

When you meet someone
who is smarter or more stupid than you—
don’t make too much of it.
The ants and the gods,
believe me, feel just the same.

And goes on to remind us of our humble place in nature, insisting we are all relatively average in the grand scheme of things, insisting that is good, because:

Somewhere or other you’re always discovering
an even more radiant beauty,
someone even more worse off.
You’re mediocre,
luckily. Accept it!
Seven degrees centigrade more
or less on the thermometer—
and you would be beyond saving.

(trans. by Martin Chalmers)

Unassuming, but delightfully perceptive, it is possibly the single entry I return to more than any other. But this book is filled with many such everyday wisdoms. An appreciation of irony is, perhaps essential for the full impact of Enzensberger’s poetry, however, I have come, over the years, to believe such an appreciation is almost a basic life skill.

And then there are, of course, the clouds. In various of incarnations, clouds pass through many of these poems, often unexpected, but in the twelve-part title piece that closes out the collection, their presence is rendered more explicit:

Their wanderings high up
are quiet and inexorable.
Nothing bothers them.
Probably they believe
in resurrection, thoughtlessly
happy like me,
lying on my back and
watching them for a while.

(trans. by Esther Kinsky)

This meditation on clouds, or an “Archaeology of clouds—a science for the angels,” explores the wonder, the wanderings, and human response these meteorological phenomenon, cursed and loved for both their presence and their absence, one that is ultimately “A separate species, transient, but older than our kind.” A fitting end to a book that begins with the most essential and down-to earth aspects of life, and through ninety-nine short poems, reminds us that we are bound to this planet, and then leaves us, in the end, quite literally  hanging in the air.

A History of Clouds: 99 Meditations by Hans Magnus Enzensberger is translated by Martin Chalmers and Esther Kinsky, and published by Seagull Books.

A second-hand melancholy: Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos

At the beginning of Argentinian writer Mariana Dimópulos’ unsettling novel Imminence, it is immediately evident that there is something oddly off-balance here—a softly-hued disconnect that instantly sets the tone for one of the most finely realized representations of what it feels like to be oddly out of step with the world around you. The narrator, alone for the first time with her infant son awkwardly reaches out to touch him. She strokes a foot and waits for something to stir inside her chest as she had been assured it would. Nothing. Her partner Ivan comes into the room and, for the moment, rescues her from any further responsibility. Relief.

She was, we soon learn, hospitalized for a month with a serious infection following the baby’s birth, so young Isaac has been attended to by Ivan, her sister, and the nurses up until this point when she is deemed well enough to venture home. She does not even know her child has been named until that first night in the apartment.  His Russian father has chosen his own grandfather’s name, an appellation sadly devoid of Spanish musicality. But that’s okay.

The story that unfolds—or to be more precise, unwinds—belongs to that first evening home from the hospital, and to another evening with strong and increasingly ominous echoes—the last with her pervious lover, Pedro. Woven in and out of her careful accounts of those two evenings, are a flow of memories tied to her past and a number of key people in her life. There is Celeste, the relative she comes to stay with when she moves into Buenos Aires from the smaller rural community of Los Flores in her teens, and her friends, Mara the actress, and Ludmilla who was tragically killed young. These are the women she tries to measure her own insecure sense of womanhood against. And then there are the men: Ivan and Pedro, of course, and the Cousin, a mysterious distant relative with whom she has an occasional sexual relationship—a manipulative, distasteful character with an uncanny sense of timing.

Her account is not chronological, she foreshadows and repeats herself as if slowly filling in a fluid, watery tapestry. There is a dreamlike quality to her stories that bounce off one another, gradually taking on greater shape and form. Her observations are strange, often almost mechanical as if existing in the world is not something that comes naturally. She tries to take her cues from others. Mara and Ludmilla are especially important as early role models:

They were masters of subtlety, and both possessed a scathing wit. And as the stars of the night I would feel a great admiration for the two of them, and I would swear alongside them the sacred oaths of their master plan: I would never get married; I would never cry a single tear over a man who didn’t deserve it; I would never have children, nor would I attend to any other such calls of nature, if indeed nature were ever to call.

As her story is gradually fleshed out, her differences become more explicit, and more intriguing. Socially she struggles. She is, it appears, truly unable to interact with reality, if there is such a thing, with the same ease others seem to demonstrate. Aware of this shortcoming, she has learned, as she puts it, to disappear “inside the parenthesis”. She cannot even recall when it first happened—as a child or as an adult in response to loss perhaps—but either way she has found a refuge, first in the comfort of numbers and if that fails, in a private ritual:

In order to pull off the trick, all I had to do was imagine a beautiful derivative. If that didn’t work, I would make a little ball out of a stocking or a scarf and place it where I imagined my stomach to be, then spin around on the floor or the bed and wait for a few seconds, and soon enough it would start working, and any feeling remotely like an emotion was swiftly eliminated.

This ability to push emotion aside, one that could well be deeply embedded in the narrator’s personality, is a double-edged sword. If it eased the trauma of Ludmilla’s death, or Celeste’s difficult final years; it impairs her resistance to the Cousin’s inappropriate attentions, and undoes her relationship with Pedro, an academic who had visions of a future she could not share. In close proximity to others, her capacity to “perform herself” tends to fall apart and she becomes the architect and the audience of her own misfortune, watching from the impassive default position she continues to fall back into.

But when Ivan unexpectedly comes into her life, the ground suddenly shits beneath her feet. She feels. Unprepared, she is secretly pleased at this thing stirring inside. However, he is a doctor, called back to Minsk at least temporarily, and she has to act fast on this rising tide:

I was triumphant: I made promises, I sent signals, I invested all my energy into calculating what Ivan was really trying to tell me, rummaging for the hidden meaning beneath every sentence, in a feverish kind of hermeneutics, trying to enthrall him, letting myself become enthralled.

Ivan does return, their relationship blossoms, and ultimately they are sitting over soup on this first night together as a family while their child sleeps in his cot. She and Pedro likewise had had soup for dinner on the night their relationship ended. Is the stage set for another repetition, like the many coincidental duplications our number-obsessed narrator has previously noted? As the trajectories of the two accounts at the core of this tale threaten to converge, the tone becomes increasingly measured, disturbed. Tensions rise.

Imminence is an exceptionally well crafted novel. The narrative winds forward and back in time, but never loses its focus. The compelling voice of the narrator is the key, the magic that pulls this work together. Translator Alice Whitmore allows the full beauty and the strangeness of her reminisces and reflections to come through. Lyrical, but odd, the narrative strikies a tone somewhere between that of  Fleur Jaeggy’s SS Prolterka and Max Frisch’s Homo Faber. Some may find her detachment difficult to forgive, but she herself is aware of a lack, a disconnect—a something that sets her apart from other people, especially women. She will frequently assert that she is not a woman, but this is not an indication of an inherent gender insecurity, so much as a failure to play by the normal rules of human engagement which, because she is female, she assumes are those of a woman. Yet, with less of a record to set straight than Jaeggy or Frisch’s protagonists, her story is one with many more undefined edges. This is not just a confession, but a sombre self-examination, a mess of complicated emotions muted, repressed and viewed through a haze of time and physical fatigue. And it is a narrative that holds you in its spell until the very end.

Imminence by Mariana Dimópulos is translated from the Spanish by Alice Whitmore, is published by Giramondo.

Chanelling memories through verse: Edwardsville by Heart by Kólá Túbòsún

So memory returns
of the many demons from
which hope had sprung
that brought me here,
for which the journey
into this promise of a life
was some act of fleeing,
to which America
was both a saving grace
and distance a respite
in shawl and shield.

— from “Stepping Out: at Cougar Village”

When a Fulbright Scholarship brought a young Nigerian student to the American Midwest in 2009, the culture (not to mention climate) shock must have been considerable. But linguist and writer Kólá Túbòsún survived his first winter and returned to the University of Southern Illinois Edwardsville to complete graduate studies between 2010 and 2012. The town, as he advises in the Preface to his first collection of poetry, was a place which was, in the time he lived there, an open and tolerant community, welcoming to refugees and immigrants from distant shores. However, the scars of colonial expansion and the after-effects of slavery were not that far behind, and, now, with a mistrust of the other on the rise, one can only wonder how that mood is shifting. But that is not the immediate concern of Edwardsville by Heart. This book is one man’s poetic journey back through a particular period in place and time, mediated by memory.

Although Túbòsún does describe his process of composition in the introduction, in the reading I had the impression that the experiences he recounts in this memoir/travelogue were recorded during his time Stateside. The poems, which cover early encounters with a strange environment, visits to local historical sites, and tales of friends, lovers and mentors all have the feel of a diary, a recording of events as they happened. But in truth only one or two were actually composed in America although the idea of somehow capturing his time there did percolate. These poems were written over a six-week period in 2017, while the poet’s wife was away and he was at home chasing after their toddler.  At last the memories he had carried with him could be sorted, developed, and given voice.

There is a sense in which this collection speaks to a very specific place, experienced with an outsider’s eye, and a student’s youthful enthusiasm. The image of America that comes through is a remarkably positive one. Did Túbòsún arrive at a sweet point, or is this an effect of the nostalgia of youth? The poems of the first section, “The Visitor” capture a sense of wide-eyed openness to a new environment and, as the quote above suggests, to the freedom—romantic and academic—that distance from home affords. But as the poet recalls his first months in the US, and his first encounters with winter cold (recalling practicing with a freezer back home in Nigeria) he does not shy away from the reality of the racial profiling he encounters, accepting it with a disarmingly casual tone.

When his circle of experience widens to encompass cities like St. Louis (the first visit being a visit to a hospital ER as unlicensed driver transporting an injured friend) the tension and threats of violence become more of a concern. Friends warn him to avoid the city, but it is difficult to deny a peculiar pull:

But E.B.R. lived there,
I thought. Redmond the poet
shuttled poetry from here,
black as Ethiopian coffee beans,
to Lagos and Ìbàdàn
in my undergraduate days, with
a smile on his oak-hued face,
a deep crack in the velvet
voice in which his verses rolled
into colours that rhymed
with grace, Civil Rights lore
in quartets of memory.

—from “East St. Louis”

Moving through poems that recall his times in the classroom, at house parties, on road trips with friends, Túbòsún negotiates a balance between African and American classmates and friends and there is a sharp sense that being away from home is part of a necessary process of coming into an ability to understand and articulate his own language and identity. As a student of linguistics it is only natural that this otherness shapes and informs his academic experiences. This process colours the third section “Teacher, Student,” witnessed for instance in a poem like “Being Yorùbá”:

How do you teach a state of being?
You don’t. You teach instead tone,
do-re-mi like music on the tongue,
and greetings and norms; clothing,
and where caps bend on the head;
dance moves to restless beats that
skilled bàtá drummers replay
when you taunt them with
a semblance of competence.

Later, as his travels and adventures take him further from his temporary American home, he finds that his Nigerianness not only informs his encounters, but cannot be escaped. He is always a visitor.

Edwardsville by Heart is a quiet, reflective book. The fact that this collection was, for the most part, birthed through the filter of temporal and geographic distance, the clarity of the memories preserved and presented is remarkable. Rather than muted details or blurred recollections, we are offered an uncluttered vision—emotionally contained and all the more powerful as a consequence. Strongly grounded in place, time and experience, these poems do not shy away from the brewing politics and social dynamics at play in the part of the American Midwest where the poet found himself. But above all it is, as Túbòsún himself admits, his Edwardsville. And he freely opens it to us with this, his first book.

Edwardsville by Heart by Kólá Túbòsún is published by Wisdom’s Bottom Press. 

All that I am, all that I will ever be: Sorting through my complicated emotions on Mother’s Day

This Mother’s Day marks the third that I have faced alone since my mother’s passing in 2016. Last year was painful; this year, the passage between her birthday on May 2nd and today has been even more difficult. I have been angry, frustrated, agitated, depressed. Beset with a loneliness that is bone-deep, existential, wordless. I debated whether I should even attempt to express it because my specific pain is coloured not only by my loss of a beloved parent, my own mother, but because, although I face the world as a male person, understood as a man even to those who know otherwise, I am also a mother. Mother’s Day opens itself to women who have longed for motherhood (including those born male) or taken on motherlike roles in a wide variety of contexts, but holds no space for a mother like me. Even my own children tend to overlook my desire for just a moment’s recognition.

The only person who fully understood, honoured and respected this incongruous aspect of my being in the world was my own mother. And she is gone.

Up until the week she died, my mother called me, like clockwork, every Saturday night at 7:00 pm. I’m not sure when this pattern was established, but it extended back for decades. We were so very close. I listened to her joys and trials; she listened to mine. But there was never a exchange more difficult than my call, almost twenty years ago, to tell her that, after nearly forty years of trying to make myself into the woman she naturally assumed I was, I could no longer fight a persistent agonizing sense that I was not really female. My thirties had been, she was well aware, a decade of peculiar turmoil; that behind the birth of two children and a dutiful effort to craft a home that resembled the one I’d grown up in, something darker was brewing. I was increasingly, obviously miserable. I had experienced a serious manic psychosis and spent the better part of a month on the psychiatric ward. But nothing could have prepared her for my revelation. I had never shown the slightest masculine tendencies or interests and “transgender” was only just beginning to become a topic of conversation. However if gender roles and experiences—including pregnancy and childbirth— could a woman make, I could have managed to quell the dysphoria. I could not.

My mother, bless her, responded to the news that I was planning to divorce and transition to a life as male, with the promise that she would always love me unconditionally. She asked for no more than a few weeks to adjust to the idea. She became my advocate, quietly, faithfully, unstintingly. If she had her own doubts and grief over the loss of her daughter, she never let me know. And I never got the chance to ask. It was a subject left unaddressed in death.

My mother died from complications of osteoporosis and, as we learned in the final days of her life, post-polio syndrome. In eighty-two years the markers of exposure to that disease had never been detected, but together these conditions had gradually reduced her body to a hunched, frail, crippled cage. Until the very last month, when the lack of adequate oxygen exchange began to impair her thinking processes, she remained alert, intelligent and fresh. When I spoke to her, her age was ambiguous, eternal. Every time I saw her in person, I would be shocked anew. She spent her final years trapped in a delicate, fragile frame that constrained the spirit of a woman who had been so active and physically vital most of her life.

Her body betrayed her.

My mother’s death, followed eleven days later by my father’s death from the complications of a head-on collision, unravelled my reality in ways I am only beginning to fully appreciate. My parents spent their final years in a cottage in the woods outside a small village about two hours northwest of the city I live in. It was the final destination of lives that had started in large urban centres—New York and Toronto—and ended in a place in which they had few, if any connections. To everyone who knew them in this ultimate location, I was the oldest son. To most of the distant and scattered friends and relations I was tasked with notifying of their passing, I was their only daughter. For my brothers, never entirely at ease navigating the decade and a half between my two opposed public identities, I will always be a sister.

My parents’ final home.

For my own two children, I am the parent who transcends and defies gender, who struggled to raise them alone from the ages of eight and eleven, with little financial and emotional support, with one identity at home, but hidden, vague and uncertainly defined to the outside world. I referred to myself as their parent, only explicitly defining the biological reality when medical or educational situations commanded more specific terms. To do so was to invite the question of how much my issues were or were not impacting my son or daughter who each had their own challenges. No one ever asked how the practical emotional distance of their father played a role. I looked like a father and it is difficult for others, even if they are fully aware of my past to hold mother as a reality in the existence and life of someone who looks like a man. I was, more often than not, reduced to that oddity that, even today, is poorly appreciated—a single male parent.

I would be asked: Where is their real parent? Who? Their mother? What could I say? She’s dead? And yet, I resisted revealing my identity unnecessarily. I have long known single fathers, not widowed but left with the care and responsibility while mothers moved on, and I felt it was important to call attention to the fact that not all single parents are women. I also feared negative fallout. As a closeted transgender person I stood in isolation.

Yet raising children through their difficult adolescent years gave my life meaning, value. My own parents stood by me, pitched in, built strong and vital relationships with their grandchildren while the other side of their family, maintained a distance. Only their stepmother, their father’s new wife, made an effort. As I built a new identity and a new history as a man in the world, my children and my parents provided essential continuity. They allowed me to feel whole, to carry motherhood and manhood as part of who I was.

Who I was.

The last few years have not been so easy. The artificiality of this assumed completeness was shattered when I became ill and lost my job. The scaffolding provided by my short-lived career, the years I spent working in social services fully and completely accepted as male, was stripped away leaving me defenseless. By this time, my children were in their twenties, both dealing with their own serious issues, and I had no friends, community or support to fall back on.

In retrospect, the sharp jolt into recognition of the limitations of transition to address the longstanding dislocation of gender dysphoria, has been a blessing. I could have continued to imagine that my artificial existence was sufficient for some time, but in truth, cracks in my carefully tended armour were showing long before the tentacles of mania pried them open. Career success was only a passing indication of achievement. My failure to make friends or forge a sexual identity spoke much more acutely to the truth that I could live as a man, but would never really be a man. Yet, as transgender, my own experience—past and present—is never echoed in the endless stream of gender different narratives that have become so ubiquitous in queer and public discourse. My personal efforts to find comfort, community or safety in LGBTQ space have been a dismal tribute to the heartache of finding oneself doubly alienated among the alienated. I sometimes feel like I have never fit in anywhere.

So I sought to find myself where I had no reason or expectation of fitting in. Where I once sought to ensure protection by building walls between myself and the world, I now seek escape. Through reading, writing , and travel. South Africa. Australia. India.

And again, India.

My mother only lived to know of the first of these journeys, one that in my complete ignorance about the risks of long haul sedentary travel, very nearly cost me my life—blood clot to pulmonary embolism to cardiac arrest—saved against incredible odds, by my son who found me and started CPR. But I know she would never have discouraged my continued travel. In her lifetime she managed to visit Cairo with a friend and Russia and New Zealand with my father, but had she not been constrained by an increasingly brittle body and an increasingly eccentric and intransigent husband, she would have travelled longer and farther. Perhaps I have inherited some of my restlessness from her.

That restlessness is growing. I have never felt “at home” in the city where I have lived for most of my life. I was not born here. I have no roots or connections here. Both of my brothers are married to women with deep histories in this part of the country. But my ex was of the first generation born to migrants, refugees. My own mother was a migrant and, back only two generations of a family of refugees herself. I feel this eternal disconnect enhanced by the embodied dislocation I feel as someone who has navigated womanhood and manhood, but belonged to neither. In this present #MeToo era I am even more adrift. I am torn between a genuine empathy for men—informed by living as a male person in society keenly aware of the ways testosterone has altered my mental and emotional engagement with the world—and the feeling that my own experiences as a girl and woman have lost their currency. I look like a middle-aged white man and that is all that I am allowed to speak to. There isn’t even a language which can adequately address my dual life and my role as a parent. Transgender men who opt to have a child at the beginning of the transitional process engage a queer parenthood that is unlikely to ever be labelled “motherhood” as language now tends to be gender neutralized, distorted. Which is fine for them, but it silences and disowns the reality of my, admittedly less common, hybridized experience.

I want to speak for no one but myself. I do not regret the decision to transition, I am entirely comfortable with the face I see in the mirror. I am male and enjoy a hormonal rightness that grants me a certain completeness. The body, well that is another possibly unsolvable matter. However, of late I find myself wanting to claw back some sense of dignity for my early, pre-transition life. It isn’t easy. It is unsettling, even with my most generous and supportive friends— those who fully accept me but have only known me with this present name, this current appearance. And very often it angers transgender activists because it defies the accepted discourse. I can’t help but fear that the only person who might have ever come close to truly understanding, who might have been able to walk with me through this unending, evolving, shifting, and ever ill-defined journey is no longer here. My mother contained all that I am—all that I have ever been, and all that I ever will be. My absolute alpha and omega. Her love was whole, at times skeptical perhaps, but expansive and complete.

And for that reason, on this Mother’s Day, I miss her with all my heart and soul.

Opening space: Light Reading by Stephan Delbos

One of the pleasures of reading contemporary poetry is, for me, the varieties of experience allowed, and the ways each poet and each collection is unique. Most of the poets I read have come to my attention through social media, either via direct interaction, contact with translators, or as publications of publishers I trust. It is not that I don’t have time for classic poets, I have shelves full of poetry collections, but I’m most interested in calling attention, in my own modest way, to newer, short, single author volumes.

I came to know of Prague-based writer, Stephan Delbos several years ago when I read his co- translation of Czech surrealist poet Vítěslav Nezval’s The Absolute Gravedigger. But his first full-length collection, Light Reading is my first introduction to his own distinctive verse.

Delbos is a minimalist. Upon opening this handsomely presented volume, the first thing you notice is that placement is critical; words seem hang suspended in empty space. The word “light” in the title of the book and its first section, refers to both tone and openness. The poems are spare, often exceptionally so. One is simply a semi-colon, some a word or two, others a few scant stanzas, but in each instance, the words act in concert with a title set at the lower righthand corner of the page. It is the title that completes the image, renders the impact—offering insight, or humour, or both. Notes at the back of the book illuminate the sources of many of these pieces, adding another level of meaning. But to attempt reproduce any of these fleeting poems can be no more than an approximation given the limitations of  online space. Here are three:

 

.                                                                                 if only
.                                                                                 all life
.                                                                                 were so
.                                                                                 simple
                                                                               here
.                                                                                 hang
.                                                                                 your
                                                                               shells
                                                                               shadows
.                                                                                 shame

 

§.                                                                  §On Coatracks

*

.                                    impossibly

.                                                             yes

 

.                                                                                       §Luck

*

.                                                                              in tiny pieces
                                                                            tiny parts

.                                                                               i whose
.                                                                               bruises

.                                                                               broke pillows

.                                                                               sleep under
.                                                                               paper sheets

 

.                                                             §Fragments (Keepsake)

*

The poems of the second section, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” take the form of poetic riffs on the French term meaning a “trifle,” typically associated with short musical compositions. Dedicated to a variety of figures—political, literary, philosophical, musical—paired with an instrument or two, these poems have the widest sweep, but the imagery is still spare, restrained, and carefully modulated. Here the poet pays tribute to Václav Havel, slips through the streets of Prague, and explores avenues filled with memories, sounds and language. These are the longest pieces in the collection, and yet few fill more than a single page and physical arrangement and space—or silence—is, as in the earlier section, an essential element, imbuing each composition with its own volume and rhythmic energy. Delbos, who has written plays about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, demonstrates an inherent musicality in these poetic bagatelles. Take, for example, the opening of “Bagatelle for Throat Singers, Baton & Player Piano”:

I am a terrible Buddhist
.                                                  my love you are a magnificent adversary
on the anniversary of
.                                                   our first nervous kiss on a sidewalk where
garbage cans held fish
                                                 -bones, failed ficuses, Orangina bottles,
our alcohol the pilot
                                                  light of love; this was supposed to be
about enlightenment,
.                                                    the impossible tightrope possibility.

The third and final part of Light Reading, “Arrangements,” consists of a series of ten sets of ten poetry prompts. The first of these begins:

      1. A poem in terza rima
      2. A poem of 18 lines
      3. A poem containing the phrase coin slot
      4. A poem rhyming beguile and tinfoil
      5. A poem with two mirrored meanings

while another (<V>) prescribes:

      1. A poem that cannot hear itself think
      2. A poem getting on my last nerve
      3. A poem huffing oxygen
      4. A poem title is the last line
      5. A poem with seven monorhymed lines
      6. A poem curing emphysema

In reading this collection I had the feeling that these poems, these condensed, precise evocations of the possibilities—and limitations of language—seemed to be coming into being on the page, speaking to ghosts, alluding to the unutterable, to the moment captured in the empty spaces. Unconfined, open-ended and illuminating, Light Reading is a work that leaves plenty of room for exploration. And enjoyment.

Light Reading by Stephan Delbos is published by Blaze Vox Books.

For whom do we hold our memories? Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević

Early in the wonderfully original Singer in the Night, the narrator asks:

And what’s left for death if you forget everything before it? Is there anything left to die? When things turn the wrong way round and oblivion precedes death instead of death oblivion?

Although the protagonist is under forty, such oblivion is a serious concern, one that plagues her daily. But it fails to dampen her spirit or her resolve to complete the mission she has set for herself as her brain becomes increasingly clouded.

And what a story she has to share while she still can!

If Olja Savičević’s debut novel, Farewell Cowboy combined an effervescent protagonist, spaghetti Westerns, and an unresolved adolescent suicide to create a powerful portrait of a contemporary reality in her native Split not featured in tourist brochures, her most recent effort, newly released from Istros Books, is even more eccentric—with a wider, more devastating aim. Born in 1974, Savičević  is seen to be part of what is often called, in the region, a “lost generation.” Growing up in Yugoslavia, she was part of a cohort taught to believe they belonged to one united country that was theirs to live in and love, that war was something consigned to history lessons. The notion they would ever see such conditions in their own lifetimes was unimaginable. But by the time these children of the 1970s reached early adulthood they had witnessed the brutal destruction of their nation through years of bloody conflict. Many had fought, willingly or otherwise, lost friends, deserted, or ended up migrating in search of better fortunes abroad. As they waited for life to return to some kind of fabled normalcy, they would live and love and try to build lives in the newly defined, divided and demoralized reality unfolding around them.

Singer in the Night opens with a letter from a certain Nightingale, an open missive addressed to all of his neighbours. It is a passionate evocation of the wonders of the street, city and country they share—Dinko Šimunović Street in Split, Croatia—and in it he indicates that he will be leaving.  The narrative that follows begins in a rather disoriented fashion, it will take a little while to get your bearings, but what is even more evident from the outset, is that the narrator herself is having difficulty keeping track of events, of past and present, and of the passage of time. She is given to more than a little dramatic recapitulation and ever seems to be backtracking to catch up with her own story. But it’s best to just sit back and see where the ride takes you. As reader you are in the hands of—or rather in the passenger seat of a gold Mazda convertible with—the gloriously eccentric Clementine, who is, she will tell you, an orange blonde, all glamour on the outside, but, “a black orange, inside. Full of hell.” And the letter writer named Nightingale, commonly known as Gale, is the object of her pursuit.

Clementine’s search for this man—her former husband—begins properly on Šimunović, a street located in district 3, a borough of high rises raised and designed under socialism, as yet  untouched in a city that presents itself to the world as a commercial seaside holiday resort. She herself had been lured away from that place and her first marriage years earlier by the promise of a more exciting life in Zagreb. She was already becoming known as a soap opera scriptwriter and, although her reputation grew in the capital, a comradely second marriage failed to kindle the sparks of romance of the unrivaled youthful passion she had once experienced with Gale. They had kept in touch, but over time, their contact had been reduced to the occasional text message and then, finally, silence. Returning now after experiencing a serious physical trauma, with an urgent desire to try to track him down, she finds that he has been gone for over a year. Apparently he had attempted to address a period of loud lovemaking that was disturbing his nighttime work on a commissioned cartoon strip with a comic campaign of letters. His neighbours, however, were not amused. They gathered the offending materials and called the police. There was no charge that could be laid, but it seems that a defeated Gale had decided to retreat. But to where?

While Clementine had achieved fame and fortune in the unlikely career of soap opera scriptwriter, providing distraction for the masses if you like, Gale had chosen a more political and far less lucrative artistic avenue for personal expression. He was in his ex-wife’s view, a “street poet,” a lyricist who started in a fairly conventional manner but craved a broader canvas for his verse:

They were interesting poems, authentic, but he felt that he needed a new means of expression, for him paper was slow, dull and uncommunicative, while the Internet is garrulous, polluted and cacophonous, those are places that don’t offer space for development, that’s what he thought. He wrote poems with a felt-tip on walls, by night, on peeling façades, in lifts, toilets, on rubbish skips, in subways. He drew. He discovered spray paint. An excellent concept, always fashionable, he liked spray.

Her Nightingale had become a graffiti artist.

Still moored at the marina in Split, Clementine finds the boat they had shared when they were together, and inside, a box containing copies of Gale’s letters. Each penned under a different, sometimes outrageous, identity, these missives will form the skeletal structure of the narrative that follows. They provide a series of cues to keep a narrator who is losing her memory on track. More or less. What is allowed to unfold is an unusual account of love, friendship and adventure that speaks volumes to the complicated dynamics of life in the former Yugoslavia. Savičević knows exactly what she is doing.

The former soap opera script writer records—and she is literally recording for fear of forgetting—her experiences and recollections in an idiosyncratic retrospective style, with frequent parenthetical asides and clarifications. The tone is quirky, conversational, and entertaining. After a brief stop at Gale’s mother’s home, Clementine’s journey into her uncertain future (and fading past) takes her to rural Bosnia, toward the home of Helanka, the striking completely hairless woman who was, for a time in youth, a close friend. They had met toward the end of the war when young people would gather, as young people do even in uneasy times, seeking fun and possible romance (or at least sex):

Today (twenty years ago) everyone is on the Quay and the Quay is everything. This is the first sun after the winter and every one avoids staying inside the town walls – the best cafés inside the walls are run by dykes, they hang together and get each other jobs – that’s the theory. They’ve found some way of coping with the half-people involved in protection rackets round the cafés. They are the only ones who can do that, survive, and they are probably used to everything in order to subsist, so thought Helanka, my friend who knew everything. (Everyone was a bit crazy for her and her freedom, and she also had an appearance that opened the doors of the marginalised and marginal groups to her.)

It through Helanka that she first meets Gale and, these two decades later, it is her hope that he may have passed by on his way to wherever he has gone.

When she arrives, it turns out that Helanka is away. Her daughters, nicknamed Billy Goat and Arrow, and the odd elderly couple keeping an eye on them, welcome her into their weird world while she waits for her friend’s return. As time goes on, it becomes unclear if our poor narrator has dropped the threads of her own story altogether.

The strength of this inventive novel lies its extraordinary characters and the opportunities they and their stories offer to speak to greater realities in the former Yugoslavia, sharply, but with wit and humour. Clementine sees her professional success against the issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. She notes the surprising benefit of soap operas to Croatian language preservation and promotion:

Without any ambition, we had achieved more for Croatian culture than the Ministry of Culture had over the previous twenty or so years. [Her producer] was truly triumphant. I was awarded a medal, the president presented it to me, there’s a photo. A critic in one of the daily newspapers, the same one who had coined ‘orangeade’, compared me to the great Croatian writer, Marija Jurić Zagorka, – he called me the serial Zagorka of our times. My saccharine passages became sentimental journeys, and pathos became the new emotionality.

Speaking through the characters—including a dog, God, and a ghost—to whom his letters are attributed, Gale is given the freedom to talk directly and bluntly. The lovers keeping the street awake at night are never his real target. They are his excuse. As a young man he fought in the war for a time and then, after a break to complete his schooling, deserted. Through the voice of  a veteran who remembers the ignominy of the war experience and vows to desert if another battle comes while he is still young enough to serve, he poetically sets forth a hope for the future:

At some stage, when school text books will contain the words There is nothing heroic about war, when newspapers publish headlines saying There is nothing heroic about war, when television announcers say There is nothing heroic about war, when generals come out in public with the military secret There is nothing heroic about war, when people proclaim from pulpits and minarets There is nothing heroic about war, when a war veteran whispers to his beloved as they lie naked as children There is nothing heroic, or romantic, about war, when directors produce a Hollywood film entitled There is nothing heroic about war (because a troop of fools in a real war come off better than a troop of wise men), then it really will be, after such a long time, important news.

And the soldiers will, willy-nilly, take off their boots and emerge from war, to carry on constructing a civilian life. Wherever they are.

The unusual occurrences that mark this journey toward oblivion, whether drawn from Clementine’s past or her slowly dissolving present, play out very different kind of drama on the page, one with echoes, often disturbing and surreal, of a past that can’t be buried or neatly laid to rest. By turns strange and exhilarating, tender and ultimately very sad, Singer in the Night is much more than an absurd adventure with a larger-than-life heroine desperately seeking her first husband as her memory is slipping into the distance behind her; it is a sharp, multi-faceted commentary on the world Olja Savičević and her contemporaries inherited. While the tale becomes increasingly distorted on one level, in Clementine’s account of the war, its immediate aftermath, and the confusions and divisions that persisted, a much deeper, darker reality sits. And the fact that she is losing her memory is more than a personal tragedy, it is symptomatic of a larger national and regional tragedy. For, in the words of George Santayana, so frequently paraphrased, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

 Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević is translated by Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.