Out on the streets of Kolkata: A little exploration

While my first twenty-four hours or so in the City of Joy were intense—a mixture of everything and nothing I’d imagined—I now, just over halfway through my stay, greet each day with a blend of ease and exhilaration. How quickly one slips into the rhythms, growing accustomed to the roar of traffic and bleating horns. With each venture out, I have found myself fitting into the flow, making my way through the congestion to explore the city. Every time I emerge from my residence out onto Sarat Bose Road, I am filled with a sense of enthusiasm about where my wandering will take me. I have kicked around by myself in strange towns and cities, from Alice Springs to Cape Town, but none as intensely engaging as Kolkata.

Of course, this is a city that refuses to stand by idly. It commands a degree of attention whenever you step out on to the streets, and I do mean on to the streets; one navigates the roadways on and off the sidewalks as need be, and crosses any significant intersection with caution. In some places, smartly dressed traffic controllers aid the safe passage across busy thoroughfares, but only to some effect. I’ve learned to line myself up with other pedestrians and rely on their instincts. But even those only go so far. I’ve seen one man so busy on his cellphone that a van backed up into him. Only slightly startled, he quickly regained his balance and continued both his journey up the side of the road and his conversation without skipping a beat.

Some seem to engage with the roadways with uncanny confidence. Naveen Kishore, the esteemed publisher of Seagull Books, for example, appears to command the unceasing stream of traffic on S.P Mukerghee like Moses parting the Red Sea. Making the same crossing on route between the Seagull School of Publishing and the offices with their newest editor, a recent arrival from Goa, is a more tenuous exercise. We get half way across and crouch in the middle until an opening appears. On my own, I’ve been known to go out of my way to effect an easier passage, perhaps with lights, which is, even then, not a guaranteed free pass.

On my first weekend in Kolkata I began to explore. On Saturday, after a day spent mostly indoors working, I took the advice of one of the three men who tend to affairs at the residence where I’m staying that I should go to Minto Park. A little oasis in the middle of a noisy city, with a hectic corridor and a high level overpass running along one end, this space, maintained by the adjacent Belle Vue Hospital, is dominated by a large rectangular pond, lined with palm trees, a pathway and shallow green space. Once inside, all thoughts and memory of the boisterous mayhem of the roadways is, I want to say, not simply forgotten, but almost erased. One remembers the solitude and serenity, not the noise. Returning again almost a week later I noticed that, although the city sounds are acute when you first enter the park, they are all quickly reduced to a distant background murmur once you begin to walk around the pond. Or so it seems. In memory, only stillness remains.

The following day’s random explorations led me to the Victoria Memorial Hall, the grand marble edifice and surrounding gardens constructed in the early 1900s to honour the memory of the Queen. On a Sunday, the building and grounds were overflowing with visitors—local families out for the day, others bussed in from afar—squeezing through the passageways of the hall and spilling out onto the grounds. The colourful splash of bright saris added to the spectacle played out amid such formal colonial sensibilities. Hardly a day for actually absorbing any of the contents of the museum itself, I found it the perfect space for people watching. The relaxed mood of the milling crowds caused me to reflect on how much more fractious such a mass of human beings might be at home. (Mind you, this observation preceded my rush our ride on the Metro.) I have since returned to the Victoria Memorial for a very different evening event on the premises, one with entirely different intention and tone.

But that’s for another post.

Monday was the day for a couple of classic Calcutta experiences. I met up with a fellow book blogger, Chelsea McGill who has lived in the city for five years now and is a passionate defender of its charms, at the famous Flury’s—the tea shop and bakery dating from the 1920s that endeavours to maintain all the elements of Imperial elegance. The location, Park Street, is for the reluctant tourist, the most comforting of spaces I’ve encountered so far, where colonial meets modern architecture and business establishments are opened by courteous doormen. But it does blunt a measure of the in-your-face experience that, for me, makes this city so unique. Until, that is, one slips into the South Park Street Cemetery.

No more than a mark on a map for me before I entered the lush, high-walled enclosure, the place caught me completely off guard. Beneath a tall canopy of greenery, rows of aged-darkened, weather-beaten graves, crypts, mausoleums and obelisks mark the final destination of the British officials, traders, and civil servants drawn to the city in the early years of the East India Company. The inscriptions speak to the men, women and children whose sojourns were cut short by illness and other inclemencies of the tropical environment, as well as those who survived to make the mark in the expanding empire. The grandiosity of the structures is almost overpowering. The weight of the souls resting so far from their home shores is tangible in the hot spring air. The history contained in these stones is palpable. And lingering behind it all, the ghosts of more recent years: the criminals who once used the cemetery as a hideout and the homeless who sought refuge from the elements in the columned structures before the area became a protected heritage site. On the day we were there, I’d say that romance was in the air, evidenced by the many couples making out behind the sepulchres.

Finally, after enjoying my first experience of tea served by a street vendor in a tiny clay cup, I made my way back to my residence. Feeling the heat and the grime settling into my pores, and facing an endless steam of rush hour traffic—cars, buses, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles, the occasional rickshaw driver, and even a horse—I discovered that the streets are elastic. They shrink and stretch with one’s energy and fatigue accordingly.The street I’ve walked the most and know the best, serviceable more than spectacular for the experience, can seem absolutely endless at the end of a good, but tiring day.

So, that was Monday. The flavour of my time in Kolkata  again shifted greatly over the next few days. I had the most remarkable and inspiring opportunity to meet and listen to one of the preeminent literary greats of our time, an experience made even more powerful by its placement here, and now, in the City of Joy.

But more about that later. My notebooks are filling up faster than my ability to transform my observations into posts (and fight with the vagaries of composing on an iPad). More soon.

First days in India: This is the real thing

In the lead-up to my trip to India, I imagined that I would have the time to compose a reflective post about writing and all the anxiety and excitement I feel about having almost two weeks away from home to read, explore a new city, take photographs and, of course, write. As fate would have it, I didn’t have any time for such careful reflection. Coming into the final stretch, in the days preceding my flight, I was beset with the sudden demise of two MacBooks, the second less than twenty-four hours after I brought it home, in the middle of all the work that had to be completed before I could leave.

Just as well, because I had no real idea how the arrival in such a strange, vibrant, and somewhat overwhelming environment would impact me.

I arrived in Kolkata on Wednesday evening after two eight or nine hour flights, separated by a nine hour layover in London during which I met with up Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless force behind Istros Books, and a further two hour flight from Delhi. I’d been travelling for nearly two full days. I emerged from the airport to noise and sweltering heat and a line up of waiting drivers, none of whom carried the sign I was looking for. A cab driver insisted, repeatedly, that he could take me to any hotel I wanted. I’m sure he saw me as his mark. I tried to make a phone call but could hear nothing, yet when I tried to go back into the building to find a quiet corner, the soldier with the AK-47 across his lap had other ideas.

Finally united with my driver who had been waiting at another gate, I made my way into the city. A ride on a river of noise—horns blaring, vehicles squeezing into any space available, lane or not, candy-striped light standards wrapped in strings of lavender and royal blue lights, and clusters of weary men lining the route. Here and there one of the city’s ubiquitous dogs eased its diseased frame to the ground. Every time the traffic flow slowed to a stop, people appeared from behind posts or over low cement barricades to pick their way across the sea of cars, buses and motorcycles. Enterprising street merchants arose to snake between the lanes. To conserve gas the driver would cut the engine until everything began to inch forward again.

It occurred to me, as if I hadn’t quite registered the fact, that I am well and truly in India. This is not a picture postcard. This is real life.

And now, on my third full day in the city, I have barely read a word, no less finished any one of the books I so ambitiously packed, but every morning I have written for several hours. No, I’m not deeply engrossed in the project I planned to devote my energies to, but there is still time. More than a week yet. Rather, I am simply absorbing and transcribing the sounds, smells, tastes and sights I’ve encountered so far. The incessant stream of traffic, punctuated by car horns, that roars up and down the busy street outside the heritage home where I am staying has become a comforting backdrop—an urbanized antidote to those recordings of babbling brooks.

No empty shelves at the Seagull office—if not books than beasts and birds..

On the first morning, in a somewhat quieter locale, I gathered my earliest impressions, mostly aural, of my initial encounter with Kolkata. Later that day I made my first trip to Seagull Books—my first opportunity to meet the staff and tour the nearby school and headquarters of their Peaceworks project. It was all a little overpowering to finally be present in a place I’d long seen captured in photographs. But the real shock if you like, the disconnect I failed to anticipate, was the street level reality of the area in which they are based. In my western naivety I had imagined something, well, less “heart of Calcutta.” But no, this is the real thing. The road on which they are located is a busy thoroughfare lined with sidewalk vendors, beggars, and homeless men, women and children. As I quickly discovered, one rarely actually walks on the sidewalks in this city—they are either crowded with people and structures, or in a continual state of disrepair. I have, in very short order, become accustomed to walking along the edge of the roads, having vehicles pass within an inch of my life, and being, to date, the only obvious foreigner—non ethnically South Asian person if you like—that I have seen.

Many of the people I interact with have no more English than I have Bengali. Uncertain tourists would likely feel ill at ease in these surroundings, but I am loving it! The house manager at this B&B fills me with multi-course Bengali meals at every opportunity. I used a fork for a day but now eat with my hands like everyone else and, knock on wood, I have had none of the usual traveller’s discontents I was fearing. And the bed, a firm 12cm mattress on a wooden platform suits me fine—I’m sleeping soundly. And now that I’ve finally worked out the vagaries of the limited water service, hey, it’s all good.

One of the coulorful side streets.

The opportunity to spend time at Seagull is a particular honour. Yesterday I managed the five minute walk there and back on my own without getting lost, and had time to sit by myself in the office and gather my preliminary impressions of the place, the groundwork for what I hope will be several articles and interviews to come out of this experience. Next week there are some really exciting things going on…

But for now, I think I ought to walk off a little of the special Bengali breakfast that was prepared here this morning (there is some kind of photo shoot taking place in the house today). So, back out into the noise, colour and congestion that is Kolkata.

The restless traveler in an imaginary world: Invisible Countries by Sylvia Brownrigg

Each edition to the Cahier Series, the joint project of the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions, is a short meditation that, like the gatefold illustrations within, opens up to encompass a larger, wider world of ideas, words, and meaning. Running to less than forty pages apiece, half typically given to specially selected images, these small volumes  invite the reader to slow down, take a little time, enjoy the journey. The reward is a story, fable, or essay that lingers in the imagination.

The latest Cahier, the thirtieth, is Invisible Countries by American novelist Sylvia Brownrigg, an author new to me. Evoking a mood reminiscent of Calvino’s guide to fantastic metropolises, this contemporary fable traces a female traveler’s visits to seven imaginary destinations. Each encounter is unsettling and unnerving in its own way; each locale hovers somewhere between the realistic and the impossible; and each country embodies a concern of our modern global existence. Samarkind, for example, is an island nation with boundaries that are shifting and threatened by rising ocean waters. It might seem counterintuitive, but the response to their shrinking land mass, has been to construct a tunnel under the waves to serve as a connection to the mainland, and that is how we see our traveler warily making her way to the island:

The train dips, a singsong announcement is made in a pair of languages – the distinctive Samarkind full of hiss-clicks and spirants spoken with native confidence; the other, romance-influenced but hesitant, uttered with deliberation, for profit – and then the visitor watches the world go dark. The moment gives an inkling of the planet’s approaching apocalypse; she shudders. She is in a lit moving bullet that penetrates the ground. Down, gradually, down; then level. Above the visitor’s head, though it hardly bears thinking about, is a tremendous body of water, alive with sea creatures, ocean vessels, corpses, aquatic plants, and debris – plastic bags, shipwrecks, messages in bottles that will never reach their intended shores.

We will learn that this far-seeing island state, once reticent about visitors, is planning to recreate themselves as a modern-day Atlantis in an inevitable underwater future.

Thanistan is, as its name implies, is a harsh, silent country that is likely more appealing to the dead (and philosophers seeking peaceful reflection), whereas Alluria, a land promoted with bright and inviting posters promising relaxation and fun in the sun, is but a façade, briefly enjoyed, of a dismal, impoverished world. The exact nature of the place is only hinted at. Lured there once, no one returns for a second visit. One can, of course, travel to a disadvantaged society and stay safely ensconced within the environment of an inclusive five-star resort. Isn’t that what “getting away from it all” promises?

These encounters with foreign spaces, fraught as they are with anticipation and disillusion, anxious border crossings, and concern about understanding and being understood communicating in foreign tongues within cultures with different mindsets (“as she mentally formulates her response, the visitor becomes uncertain whether the agent indeed said to her, ‘Don’t worry,’ or whether it might have been ‘You would worry, you could worry,’ or possibly even the command – ‘Worry!’”) are delivered with such a delicate touch that a strange, haunting beauty comes through. The allusions are offered and allowed to lie as they are, each trip only touches the surface of the visitor’s experience, leaving the reader to wonder how each adventure unfolds and reflect upon what these strange, evolving, troubled landscapes have to say to us now, travelers as we are, together on a finite planet.

Accompanying Brownrigg’s imaginary travelogue are a series of vivid chalk and charcoal illustrations by British artist Tacita Dean. Lush bright scenes alternate with grey, abstract, stormy images to reinforce a sense that this journey has taken us to places that, if nowhere, could be anywhere at all.

The beauty of bloody fists and broken bones: The Agonist by Shastra Deo

Once again, my attention turns to a work of contemporary Australian poetry, and this time it’s a remarkably gritty, often grisly, exploration beyond the raw edges of physical and emotional endurance. Embodiment. Disembodiment. Lyrical evisceration.

Evoking characters and imagery drawn from diverse, seemingly unlikely sources—anatomy textbooks, World War I poetry, a scout manual, boxing, entomology, ichthyology, divination, tarot cards—Shastra Deo’s debut collection, The Agonist, is an impressive, unforgettable experience. Like a sucker punch to the gut.

But in the best way possible.

Agonist: (n) one that is engaged in a struggle

The narrators that move through these poems—the voices Deo borrows or inhabits—cover terrain familiar to poetry. They speak to pain, love, loss, damage, healing. But they engage with the world at a visceral, cellular level. Their words work their way into and through the hollows of memory, exploring what slips though the passages of the brain, examining what the muscles retain and imagining the intersection between reading the past and foretelling the future.

So what does that entail? The Agonist is divided into three sections, each of which opens with an illustration from Gray’s Anatomy. Many of the poems in the first section deal with relationships, familial or romantic, employing surreal thaumaturgic, and anatomical imagery.

“Arrhythmia,” for example, details the painful, desperate emotions of the partner not ready to accept that a love affair is coming to an end:

             You count the notches of his spine.
His eyelashes flutter and he sighs, his breath
so warm that for a moment you can
pretend you aren’t cold. You want
to crack him open and hold
his heart in your hands, sink your fingers
into the thin membrane of his lungs.
You want to pull back his skin
and curl up inside his ribcage.
You want to know what he is inside.
Find the symptom, the sickness,
the anomaly that let him love you.
You want to be warm again.

Deo is adept at creating a surprising, brutal beauty in her romantic imagery. We see it again with “Cutman,” a graphic, meaty piece that opens the second section of the collection. Here the connection between a boxer and the attendant who cleans and cares for his wounds between rounds is reimagined in intensely intimate context:

He comes home each night with his hands soaked red,
and when he smiles it’s sharp and jagged and his teeth
quake in his wet mouth. You card your cold fingers
through his hair and lead him to bed, wait
for the weight of his arms around your neck, warm
and drowsy, the familiar shape of his bones and tendons
cradling the base of your skull…

In this part, Deo calls on themes drawn from war and boxing to engage in dialogue with other poets and experiment with poetic form. Included are three centos formed from the Index of Titles and First Lines in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Moving into the final section, inspiration is found in, among other things, a Boy Scout manual from 1914 and a deck of Tarot cards. Consider “XIII—Death”:

. . . I live in the present tense,
tensed and present at the wheel
of a car wreck. My name is re-
membered. I apologise too often
for my lack of biography. He
does not yet know what divinity
he belongs to, but he knows I was
not born for this. He takes the
sheets off the mirrors. He escapes
our mythology.

In my experience of this work, which is of course, all I can honestly speak to, The Agonist is a collection in which the sound of the words and the impact of images are central, the point from which a narrative emerges and takes form. These are not autobiographical poems, for the most part. Nor do they read like “stories” so much as they remind me of paintings or photographs out of which vignettes have been abstracted with vivid, scalpel-sculpted, incantatory language.

Reading this book has left me with the sense of having spent time in a gallery. Attending a deliriously disturbing exhibit.

Shastra Deo was born in Fiji and raised in Melbourne. She presently lives in Brisbane where she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing. The Agonist is published by University of Queensland Press and, as ever, the indefatigable Tony Messenger has a review and interview with Shastra on his website.

A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.

I thought I was ready.

But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.

Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:

Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.

Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.

The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.

He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would soon be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.

The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would occur before long.

Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.

At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.

He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:

… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.

The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.

This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”

For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.

In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:

What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?

And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?

Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.

Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.

Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”

Well said, indeed.

At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

A delicate madness: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

Jeanne d’Arc has been the subject of countless historical, literary and dramatic accounts, and it is likely that, at least in the western world, everyone has some image they associate most readily with the famed young woman who donned men’s clothing and led the army of France to a series of decisive victories against the English during the Middle Ages. The rough outline of her story is so ubiquitous in our culture that it is likely difficult to recall one’s first encounter. But I certainly remember my most intense moment of identification with the Maid. It was late May, just over twenty years ago. I was, at the time, at the height of an episode of psychotic mania that would lead to a bipolar diagnosis and, ultimately, to an understanding of the deep gender discomfort I had felt for as long as I could remember. At the time however, I was a mess. Female-born and married with two children, my ex and I had endured a few years of destructive soul searching on my part. My madness, complete with visions, was just one more thing we tried to survive in the desperate hope that it would all pass. In my experience I’d seen drag queens and butch lesbians but no one I identified with. Until May 30, when I suddenly realized—and to this day I don’t remember how or why I knew it—that it was the feast day of Joan of Arc. In this convergence I saw a message. I saw myself. In the state I was in, the timing was fortuitous and seemingly miraculous. In the end, the ultimate moment of self-understanding was still a number of months ahead, but I will ever think of Jeanne’s appearance on my journey toward belated manhood with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder.

When I first heard of the premise around which The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc , the recent novel from Australian author, Ali Alizadeh is constructed, I was skeptical. It triggered my frustration that, looking back in history, cross-dressing women are typically conflated with lesbians or “straight” transmale identities, in these days of heightened trans awareness. However, it’s not always accurate, historically or today. But that is another matter. My initial negative reaction quickly turned to curiosity the more I heard about the unusual, innovative approach taken in this account of a life that has been celebrated, and excoriated, in so many well-known renditions over the past six centuries.

For Alizadeh, who was born in Iran and emigrated to Australia in his teens, the fascination with Jeanne d’Arc is long standing. It goes back to his childhood years.  His enigmatic heroine was the subject of an epic poem he wrote for his PhD and it is this background—a comprehensive understanding of the historical material combined with the spare elegiac prose of a poet—that allows him to create a curious, sensitive, and deeply human portrait of a complex historical figure.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc, as the title implies, is structured around the final days of Jeanne’s life. After months of brutal interrogation, she has renounced her Voices and her actions by signing a letter of abjuration. She has saved herself from a charge of heresy, torture and execution, but now she is imprisoned in a cold, damp cell beneath the Treasury Tower of Rouen Castle. Forced to remove her male attire and put on a white gown, she feels vulnerable and alone. However, it seems that there is something more weighing on her, a sense that her passion runs deeper than a divinely inspired drive to serve her King and country—something much too fragile and painful to remember.

As Jeanne’s story is fleshed out, the narrative will return repeatedly to this dim prison, and each time we will know her a little better. But, Alizadeh, a skillful storyteller, takes his time, inviting the reader to remain open to possibility. Effectively employing an inventive style that weaves together a chorus of voices and shifting perspectives, The Last Days avoids falling into the morass of detail that can drag down more conventional historical novels. Narrated primarily in the present tense, from a third person perspective, the historical context and military conflicts are presented in a spare, dated, often time-stamped, documentary style echoing nonfiction prose poetry. It is blunt and remarkably effective:


In England, Henry V succeeds his father, the Lancastrian usurper of the English throne. Twenty-seven years old, a grotesquely scarred face. An extremely devout Christian, not at all the fun-loving, riotous youth of Shakespeare’s future play. Severe and frankly soulless. Muscular. Possibly a psychopath, probably a war criminal. Is never seen to smile. Must prove himself to the English nobility as their ruler, as a real, mighty man. Or else his dynasty may be toppled just like the dynasty his father toppled. Is keenly aware of the turmoils in France. Decides that the time has come to renew the claim to the throne of France…

Once Jeanne enters history and, in her first battles proves her value, the narrator gradually moves closer into her thoughts, letting the account slip back in time again, to meet our heroine as she hits adolescence. It is at this time that young Jeannette, as she is still called, has her first visionary encounters. It is also the when she begins to sense that the affection she has for her childhood girlfriend is of a somewhat different order. Before long she finds herself distanced from the other youth of her village. She is excessively pious and decidedly indifferent to the idea of dancing with boys, marrying and having babies—something her peers are well on their way toward achieving by their early teens. There is a soul wrenching loneliness in being set apart like this, by desire and, if her beloved Saint Catherine of Alexandria is to be believed, by divine destiny.

As the narrative turns to follow Jeanne’s life more directly, her Voices are allowed to speak, set apart in italics and indentation, appearing to float in the text. Jeanne’s own voice also enters, slipping in periodically either to comment on or clarify the account, or to address another, a “you” who remains, for a time, unnamed as in this passage, just prior to her first encounter with her Voices, where perspective and tense shifts several times:

She has never been caught in such a terrible storm and there is so much pain in her skinny body. I struggled to stand back up. The whole world flared up in the lashes of blinding lightning. The rain immersed my being. She is kneeling, paralysed by the mud. My tears merged with the rainfall. (Did I tell you, my love, how exactly it happened?) The thunder strikes harder and the rain is now a flood and it is in this cascade—why do historians insist it was a sunny day?—amid the fruits and plants being washed away by the storm that Jeanette clenches her fists. It is then that she howls back at the unforgiving sky. She rips off her scarf.

O God O angels O Saint Catherine.

Are you there?

Are you there?

 Allowing room for Jeanne’s voice to reflect back on her experience deepens the intimacy of the present tense narrative. This polyphonic quality will become more pronounced as other emphatic voices interrupt with curses and threats as the story progresses toward its inevitable and unfortunate end.

The portrait of Jeanne d’Arc that emerges over the course of this novel is one of a mix of vulnerability and determination. We see a young woman torn between her convictions and her doubts, conflicted by her desires, and isolated from others by gender, lack of education, and the unconventional role she plays. She is never entirely free from concern about the reality of her Voices and her own sanity, especially when her entreaties meet silence. And, while she becomes hardened to the violence and gore of the battlefield, she grows increasingly distracted by her love for another woman and all of the complex emotions that such a forbidden affection arouses. What comes across is a certain naivety. She is, after all, young (only nineteen at her death) and has, in a sense, been protected from the kind of demands of life that would have hardened and matured her peers who married early. So although she becomes an experienced soldier and commander of men, her romantic love affair has an idealized, almost adolescent intensity that betrays her youth.

Alizadeh does not offer this speculative image of Jeanne d’Arc as a lesbian woman lightly. He knows the relevant documentary material exceptionally well and is aware not only of the limitations but of the spaces where possibility resides. His narrator respects his heroine, balances the historical account with the personal, and situates his chronicle to the contemporary reader. His Jeanne is a medieval heroine for a modern imagination, his novel is an absorbing, lightly experimental, and human re-imagining of the life and death of a young woman who has never ceased to be the source of inspiration and intrigue.

As I can attest.

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh is published by Giramondo.

A few thoughts on falling short: On my contribution to A Catalogue of Failure



  1. Lack of success.

1.1    An unsuccessful person or thing.

  1. The neglect or omission of expected or required action.

2.1    A lack or deficiency of a desirable quality.

  1.  The action or state of not functioning.

When I saw Alice Furse’s call for submissions for a little handmade publication to be called A Catalogue of Failure, it was like an invitation with my name on it in bold print. Ah, failure, I know it well. Don’t we all? But, the consternation… what failure out of a life-time of well-earned examples would I turn to for the exercise of 500 words?

And so, the question that confronted me was: what does failure really mean and how can it be distinguished from regret? Surely we regret our failures. And so often we blame ourselves for falling short. But in truth success and failure are relative and complicated. Likewise, whether we respond to either, in the end, with regret or relief, or a measure of both, depends on so many circumstances.

Ultimately much of what happens in this life is beyond our control. Shit happens. And as the parable about the Chinese farmer reminds us: “Who is to say what is bad or good?” For example, nine years of success in a job I loved ended in spectacular failure. Was it my fault? No and yes. Was it a blessing (in so much as I believe in blessings) in disguise? Yes, and on a lonely bad day, no. Failure and success is sometimes very difficult to qualify.

So, I thought, I could write about my professional failure, my parental shortcomings, the opportunities I passed up, the endless years I spent trying to conform to a gendered existence that never fit, or the price paid in personal isolation in my decision to alter that existence. Should I go on? I’m certain the majority of people would, like me, have a harder time choosing from a multitude of failures (perceived or otherwise), than zeroing in on a couple of successes looking back over their lives.

At the eleventh hour, having agonized over the selection of a failure to write about (lest my inability to pull together a submission be yet another failure in itself), I turned, once again, to my recent experience in central Australia and my inability to hike the Larapinta Trail as I had hoped. Failure? Perhaps. Or a success that I managed to walk two and a half days out of eleven given how sick I was? It was, as I’ve said, a truly amazing opportunity to be out there, but at heart I can’t help harbouring a sense of dreaming big and falling short.

Which is, I suppose, what makes failure such a human experience. And those small success such a simple joy.

If you have ever known failure (come on, be honest now) and would like to find a little comfort and company in the stories, poems and experiences of others, copies of this limited edition handcrafted zine can be ordered here for a very modest price. Treat yourself or some miserable failure you know. Order a handful!