Suburban elegies: Bone Ink by Rico Craig

I have been drawn to poetry more than ever this year. A sign of the times. Poetry offers an antidote, a distillation of imagery and emotion, in a world that assaults our senses through the 24-hour news cycle and social media. But, it is also a reflection of my own evolution as a reader and a writer. I want to immerse myself in language, structure, and form. Poetry opens knots in my prose.

But writing about poetry tends to intimidate the non-poet, or the person who has not been trained to read it. But I write about prose without any special training. My intention is typically to attempt to write through the experience of reading a work, a process that, in itself, feeds a deeper reading. So why can’t I apply the same logic to writing about poetry? No reason at all.

Which brings me to Bone Ink, the debut collection, from Australian poet Rico Craig. I bought this book when I was in Sydney earlier this year, and had the good fortune to connect with Rico a few days later. I have often read the work of writers I have come to know online, but this is a rare instance in which I am writing about the work of someone I have actually met in person. So I allowed myself a little space before giving this collection a proper read. And my response is simply: Wow!

This book is divided into two sections: “Bone Ink” and “The Upper Room.” The first part opens with “Angelo,” a gut-level elegy for a dead friend, fueled with adolescent spite and spinning tires:

On the day he died we drove stolen cars
through the suburbs, spray cans knocking like eggs
in a swaying nest. I melted the dash and flicked

matches through the window.
From Parra Rd to Blacktown, our sweat mixed,
desperate, with the stink of scorched plastic;

& we sprayed mourning consonants on every
archway we found. Cops killed Tsakos
& dash lights were our campfire, & in the fretful

lustre we might’ve been mistaken for men.

The poems that follow continue in this vein, marked by visceral imagery, faded nostalgia, and gritty settings peopled with reckless youth and hardscrabble characters. Intimate dramas are played out in bedrooms, on oil rigs, along hospital corridors—childhoods lost, friends misplaced, loves not quite forgotten. These are stories boiled down to their most essential elements, the bare bones and sinew, nerves and raw energy. No word is wasted, every image evoked tells a larger tale. “Hamburg,” for example, begins:

If anyone asks I will say, you are oceans away,
afloat in the ventricles of a great city’s heart,
your fractious brain pecking the afternoon press,

your relentless devices compelling you toward
a smoky eyelet. I will say there is nothing left
to summon. The Rathaus must be dripping

ice, rock salt strewn on our streets of Sternschnaze.

To end, a handfull of stanzas later:

. . . If we meet again
it will be unexpected, as will-less shoppers,
caught lingering in front of a cheese cabinet,

shocked, seeking salvation in a slab of brie.
We’ll both be empty handed, shoeless,
one sock lost in the tide and the breaths we share

will be stained with the silt of industrial cities,
the taste of places bright enough to burn sand into glass.

Upon finishing this book, I returned to an interview conducted by my friend and fellow blogger, Tony Messenger, at the time of the release of Bone Ink. It was no surprise to see Craig explain that he “started as a prose writer trying to write ridiculously long and complex stories, it didn’t go well, but I kept trying, maybe for too long. I finally clicked with poetry as a form when I understood that it gave me a way to tell a fragment from a longer story, but tell it in a way that was satisfyingly rich.” I had forgotten this comment, but it resonated with and reinforced my own reading.

The second part, “The Upper Room,” is more abstract, featuring primal, vivid imagery drawn from art and nature, and woven into stories and urbanized folktales. There is a more mature allegorical quality to these pieces. This section opens with “With Chris Ofili in The Upper Room,” a magical visit to an exhibit of the British painter’s artwork that turns surreal when monkeys slide off their canvases and lead the narrator on an escapade across the city. It closes with the wonderful six-part “Lampedo,” a sequence of taut poems that forge a febrile romance between a contemporary urban dweller and his mythical Amazonian queen.

Here, as in the first section, several of the poems employ shape and form to work in concert with the content to affect a heightened sense of melancholy as in the couple’s bus ride through London re-imagined in “Hand in Glove”:

flex a fist          blow your mist of winter words
into a leather glove                we’ve set course

for the sun-scribed cloud        our bus ride mapped in fine
nibbed biro             a pattern of ley-lines inked

on the surface of your gloves         you trace capillary
streets across threadbare fingers

check off monuments marked on the pleated palm
out the window gulls          unveil    euphoric from ledges

and totter against wind          plunging in great Trafalgic arcs
across the span of our window

This collection, in the span of less than sixty pages, offers a finely tuned series of condensed narratives—indelible portrayals of passion, heartache, and loss that linger in the imagination. Rico Craig’s Bone Ink is a poetic testament to the instinctual urgency of being alive.

Bone Ink is published by Guillotine Press.

All is riddle: The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth by Dana Todorović

At the heart of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, is a series of riddles which the ice princess presents to Prince Calaf, her eager suitor. Any wrong answer would mean death. When his successful solutions fail to win her affection, he counters with a riddle of his own. And his is a wager with an equally high risk. He tells her that if she can correctly discover his name by the following day, he will die at daybreak. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth, a novel in which Turandot plays a pivotal role, seems to unfold as a number of riddles—or situations that are difficult to explain—that serve to lead and mislead the characters, and the reader, along the way. 

This short but ambitious novel by Serbian writer Dana Todorović, is one of the new titles in the third round of the Peter Owen World Series, published in collaboration with Istros Books. By employing two stylistically different, but interconnected storylines, Todorović crafts an accessible, inventive exploration of a number of classic literary themes: the nature of good and evil, predestination versus freewill, the redemptive power of art, and the soullessness of modern bureaucratic society. The result is an entertaining, thoughtful read, with a twist that few are likely to see coming.

The titular Moritz Tóth narrates his own story. He is a former punk rocker with a tendency to moody melodrama, at a loss following the death of a woman he had loved. He has been though some rough stretches and his past will leak out in erratic confessions over time, but at the outset he is simply in need of a job. When the employment agency calls, he has little option but to answer. And so this most unlikely candidate ends up as a prompter for a forgetful Calaf in a run of Turandot at the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. However, Moritz’s first exposure to opera reawakens in him a long forgotten passion for the violin. As a child he had fiddled Gypsy tunes with his musician grandfather until, in the throes of adolescent rebellion, he had traded his violin for an electric guitar and turned his attention to punk.

The second storyline, narrated in third person, has a more directly fantastical and allegorical quality. Tobias Keller, Adviser for Moral Issues with the Office of the Great Overseer has been summoned to appear before a Disciplinary Committee. Against the codified regulations of this bureaucratic version of heaven, Tobias has been charged with engaging his own freewill in an attempt to influence the circumstances of an individual whose activities he was monitoring. To have acted without following protocol and obtaining permission from above, may well cost him his job. He is accused of triggering a sequence of events designed to involve an intermediary to exert an influence on his subject—one Moritz Tóth. But Tobias has no regrets. He is proud of the outcome, even if, in the end, it actually meant following his own beliefs and defying the norms of the celestial bureaucracy in which he was expected to function. He tells the committee:

‘In my youth, while on a perpetual search for new knowledge and insight, I would often wonder if there was a straw we humans could grasp at to give meaning to our lives, considering that we are deprived of the ability to penetrate the truths of our existence.

‘Then I realized that it all comes down to conviction, or faith, if you will, with which methods of reason share no common ground. And my convictions tell me that if we exclude factors over which humans clearly have no influence, such as the laws of nature, if we exclude situations in which the human being is physically prevented from acting upon their will, then it would be far more beneficial for the human race if each of its members carried within themselves the awareness of the freedom to choose as a birthright, or if they prefer, an inherited burden on their shoulders.’

The two narratives alternate, chapter by chapter Tobias faces repeated challenges against his impulsive action in a system in which honourable intentions appear to have no value, while Moritz becomes aware of a strange character who seems to be following him. This creature’s presence and the appearance of a number of signs that seem to hold prophetic significance, deepen his paranoia and anxiety. As he attempts to solve the chain of riddles confronting him, he begins to suspect he’s the victim of a diabolical plot of Biblical proportions. His wild imagination gets the better of him, threatening his rational judgement altogether. But, what is the true connection, if any, between Tobias’ action and the increasingly strange circumstances in which our hapless former punk has found himself?

The exact nature of the connection remains unclear until the closing pages. Todorović manages to build a complex plot that raises some very profound questions, and present them in an original context. This is, however, a first novel and translated by the author herself. It is impossible to know how much the language might be, in such a circumstance, altered for an English speaking audience. It is worth noting that the narrative can, at times, get weighed down by awkward transitions and clichéd metaphors and similes. It is not enough to detract from what is a highly engaging tale, but it can occasionally strike a sour note.

Ultimately, the real charm of The Tragic Fate of Mortiz Tóth lies in the riddles posed, reminding us, as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously advised: “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle.”

The Tragic Fate of Mortiz Tóth by Dana Todorović is translated by the author and published as part of the Peter Owen World Series: Serbia, a collaboration between Peter Owen Publishers and Istros Books.

Everyone’s a monster: Gnome by Robert Lunday

We’re accountable for our boundaries, and for an indeterminate space just beyond—though we share that space with others, also accountable. Society’s a jostling. (“Medusa’s Head”)

In high school I worked, for a while, as a cashier at a sporting goods shop. One evening, in the middle of a busy end-of-season sale, I looked up at the mother and son standing at my till, and saw, where the boy’s face should have been, what I remember as a gaping black hole. Horrified, I completed the transaction without lifting my eyes again. As soon as it was possible I feigned illness and went home. To this day, I have no idea what manner of abnormality might have distorted his visage. I’d always been exceptionally squeamish, with a limited tolerance for the grotesque and gruesome, so there was no question that I would have chanced a second look to, as I imagine was a common reaction, stare at this oddity, even re-evaluate my initial response. Unexpected encounters with damaged or deformed faces still tend to trigger in me an aftershock, a need to find a reassurance in the ordinary:

The only thing more warped than freakishness, however, is the revulsion it engenders in the rest of us. We’re all chance images: faces in crowds, doors, wood grain or fabric bunching, the duck-rabbit or left-old/right-young lady; what if you were nothing but an optical illusion, and not a very amusing one at that? There’s a time-gravity, a pull this way or the other, such that we see only through desire or regret. Everyone’s a monster, made from looming disaster less than the real flaws that spun us into moving objects, searchers for the missing piece: the shadow-line, the peculiar mark, the curving strangeness. A lost knowledge: but beauty, specifically the remembered beauty of the Medusa, lets one inside. (“Cloverleaf”)

The face is the gateway, the focal point, and the fertile plain of Gnome by American poet Robert Lunday. But what, exactly is Gnome? Drawing on and incorporating literary, philosophical, and biological sources, it is a personal exploration—at once introspective and heuristic—of “face” in its multitude of meanings and implications. An existential physiognomy. Prose poetry pushing into meditative essay and back again.

The first, and to date only, book published by the inimitable Black Sun Lit, Gnome is a collection of intertextual ruminations that incorporate the words and ideas of writers and thinkers as diverse as Max Picard, Laurence Hutton, Elaine Scarry, Rilke, Yeats, Witold Gombrowicz, Kōbō Abe, and many more. Precise and considered, but never forced, the result is a series of reflections that wander from classical Greek history to psychology, from art theory to embryology. The prose shimmers with lyrical immediacy and aphoristic wisdom.

The magic of a work like this, fusing essay and poetry as it does, is the capacity to appeal to readers who might not expect to like either. But we all have faces, exist behind them, and interact with a sea of faces, real and perceived in the world around us. As such it is the ideal fundamentally human substratum through which to consider what it means to be human, to be alive in the world, and remembered in time.

The face is written by glancing phrases into a paragraph, an essay. The phrases are numerous, but much the same, after all. The face doesn’t have much to say except “I am,” “you are,” “it is” when reduced to a stare. And yet, as the world breathes around it, refracts it, ravages it, loves it, a face figures countless versions of itself into the life framed out of the mirror. I gather these figurations, save them, dissect them, arrange them in a grand monument to the fleeting visage they mark. Study the face from every angle, it becomes a cheering crowd, a thousand faces, all inklings of one face: it’s not me but my charioteer, steering one horse upwards, one down. (“The Corinthian Maid”)

Lunday’s project is essentially an open-ended phenomenological exercise, albeit with a strong Platonic edge. His task is to question—to test the instability of the lines we draw between memory and identity, internal and external reality, the embodied and the imagined. He draws on his own personal experience and observation, and builds on and around the thoughts of others, to offer reflections that we intuitively recognize ourselves.

“The atmosphere is of itself adapted to gather up instantaneously and to leave behind it every image and likeness of whatever body it sees.” (Leonardo da Vinci) The face is most often a retrospect: someone new reminds us of someone we knew before, a former friend, a type we’ve discovered in our various travels and meetings. Familiarity gradually unfolds, and the new and old faces form intersections of doubt and trust. (“Gyges’ Ring”)

Endlessly thought provoking, Gnome explores the myriad ways that “face” can be understood, but it is not prescriptive. It invites engagement. As I read it, I not only remembered that long-ago encounter with the “faceless boy;” I also thought about the way my own face—and more critically its role as mediator between myself and society—has changed over the past few decades. And I’m not referring to the inevitable effects of gravity and time. My once-feminine past is only vestigial now in the bald, bearded, unequivocally male face I see in the mirror. But which version is the mask? It depends on how you look at it.

Masks carry the bodies toward and away from one another. Spaces of association border one another; gaze and gawk interpenetrate, and meaning forms from our spontaneous, physical responsiveness to each other. The limit-experiences: insomnia, fatigue, erotic life, birth and death, wisdom.

In my face, my life as a theatre of one.

Silence, silence! A Skeleton Plays Violin: Book Three of Our Trakl — Georg Trakl

Listen carefully, what do you see?

Clouds expose their unyielding breasts,
And bedecked by leaves and berries
You see grinning in the dark pines
A skeleton play violin.

When Book One of Our Trakl emerged two years ago, attentive readers and lovers of beautiful books sensed the beginning of a very special project dedicated to the work of the Austrian poet who continues to intrigue and enthrall us more than one hundred years after his untimely death in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven. Translator James Reidel was introduced to Georg Trakl in the late 1970s, when he was himself beginning to write poetry. Early on he was made aware of the difficulty and importance of translating Trakl’s work. As the years went on, he would make his way back to Trakl through reading, and translating, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachman and Franz Werfel. In the meantime, new Trakl translations had emerged and so, with this series published by Seagull Books, he has added his own contribution—his own approach to this ever elusive and enigmatic writer.

The first two volumes of Our Trakl represent complete collections of poems, as selected and prepared by the poet: Poems (Gedichte, 1913) and Sebastian Dreaming (Sebastian im Traum, published posthumously in 1915). The third and final part, A Skeleton Plays Violin, gathers Trakl’s early and late published works, unpublished pieces, and significant variants and derivations, in yet another beautifully designed edition. Through the poems and prose collected here, presented chronologically and woven together with a sensitive biographical essay, we can trace his development as a poet, and see potential indications of where he might have gone had he survived the war and his own demons. With Poems and Sebastian Dreaming close at hand, reading can become a truly immersive experience.

Immediately one notices a strong youthful, romantic quality to Trakl’s earliest creative efforts which include prose, plays, and poetry. Religious and classical Greek themes recur, as do sombre images of suffering and neglect. Born in 1887, he began writing and publishing in his late teens when he was working as an apprentice pharmacist in Salzburg—a job that afforded him access to the drugs he had been sampling seriously from the age of fourteen and that would continue to play a significant role in his life. The intensity that is said to have marked his personal demeanour comes through in his early work, granting it an eerie maturity.

A move to Vienna to continue his pharmaceutical studies in 1908, led to periods of depression and anxiety. While his reputation as a poet grew, he was unsatisfied and critical of his work. His unhappiness in the capital, worsened in part by the complications of having his beloved sister present for a time, is reflected in his published poetry from this period. It is possible to feeling the aching in his words, as in the first two stanza of “Twilight”:

You are dishevelled, wracked by every pain
And shake from every jarring melody,
You a broken harp—a wretched heart,
From which blossom misery’s sick flowers.

Who bid your adversary, your killer,
The one who stole the last spark of your soul,
The way he degodded this barren world
Into a whore foul, sick, pale with decay!

In 1910, Trakl’s sister to whom he had always been close—perhaps too close—left Vienna to return to Salzburg. Two months later, in June, his father died, an event which had a major impact on the entire family, economically and functionally. However, his corpse and ghost would provide inspiration for his son’s poetry which, at this time, began to shake loose a nostalgia for the past, and the influence of the Symbolists and German Romantics, to find its own distinct voice. Sexual tension is increasingly sublimated and Trakl’s lines become “ever more discrete, simple and painterly.” His imagery also shifts:

Liminal beings begin to populate the poems—angels, demons, dead gods, nymphs, fawns and statues of dead nobles, hunted animals, skeletons, corpses and the ever-shape-shifting presence of the poet and the figure of the sister. And this figure may be more of a composite than we know, for Trakl adored his older sisters too.

A persistent presence in Trakl’s life and poetry is his younger sister Grete. The rumoured incestuous nature—or at least longings— that bound the two is a subject of measured discussion in the biographical segments, Reidel preferring, ultimately, to leave the poetry to speak for itself, as it will.

Toward the end of 1910, with a need to support himself, Trakl joined the army. He was assigned to the Garrison Hospital in Vienna where his commanding officer would later describe him as hardworking and friendly. Mid-1911 saw him return to Salzburg where he worked as a civilian pharmacist until the spring of 1912 when he was promoted to Garrison Hospital 10 in Innsbruck. Initially unimpressed with his new location in spite of its glorious forested and mountainous setting, he soon became involved with a new literary circle, and made connections that would prove critical to his career and lead to the publication of his first book. Thus he made peace with the surrounding landscape which also begins to make its way into his poetry. However, as his poetic soul flourishes, his work life suffers. Ultimately, unable to hold a job, he surrenders himself to writing, and the increasingly reckless life of a poet.

The extensive central sections of A Skeleton Plays Violin, which feature unpublished poems and versions of published pieces, offer a window into the refining of Trakl’s imagination and craft. We see him spinning, again and again, the phrases, imagery, and themes he wishes to perfect—the crimson mouth, the screaming faun, the turn of the season, the quality of light—and watch the tightening of his language as the final version is formed. Reidel’s selection covers a wide terrain, yet is careful to bring together those variants and completed works that highlight Trakl’s growth and maturity over time. It is impossible though, not to notice that his work only seems to grow darker.

For Trakl, periods of depression and panic attacks marked the second half of 1913. He continued to consume alcohol and drugs, cocaine and morphine, at a remarkable rate. He saw himself as a doomed soul, even as his star was steadily rising in German poetry. He held to his writing to see him through that winter. He continued to attract impressive admirers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, and plans were made for a second volume of poetry. However, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914, Trakl’s world was upended. With the advent of what would become the First World War, he was assigned as a medic to a frontline infantry unit heading east. The conditions soon took a toll on his mental and emotional health. He was hospitalized in Krakow following a suicide threat, and was found, in his room, on November 3, dead from an apparent cocaine overdose.

His later published poems show that a deep melancholy had long settled into his work. “Evening Reel,” for instance, published in October of 1913 opens with playful natural imagery, albeit a little grim:

Fields of asters brown and blue,
Children play there by the grave vaults,
In the open skies of evening,
Blown into the clear skies,
Seagulls hover silver-grey.
Horns call in the flood meadow.

To end, even gloomier, three stanzas later:

The candles’ glow weaves dreamlike,
Paints this youthful flesh decaying,
Cling-clang! Hear in the fog,
Ring in time with the violins,
And bones dance along naked,
Long does the moon peer inside.

Trakl’s final published poems are stormy and dramatic. The wistful beauty is gone; the imagery is now steeped with darkness—war is at hand. “The Despair” captures the scene:

Then the black horses leap
On a pasture in fog.
You soldiers!
From the hill where the sun wheels dying
The laughing blood rushes
Amid oaks
Speechless! O the grumbling despair
Of the army, a steel helmet
Dropped clattering from a crimson brow.

Until the end, Trakl held fast to poetry. It has been suggested that the news that the publication of Sebastian Dreaming would have to be put off until the war ended played a pivotal role in his final desperation. We will never know exactly what finally tipped the scales for a man whose scales tipped so heavily to dark side so often in his short life. Nonetheless, his last creative efforts form a rousing crescendo to the third and closing volume of this ambitious poetic project.

Wisely and appropriately, the final words are perhaps best left to Trakl himself, from “Revelation and Perdition,” the grim, haunting prose piece which closes out this powerful testament to a troubled poet, lost too soon:

When I walked into the garden in twilight, and the black figure of evil had yielded to me, the hyacinthine stillness of the night surrounded me; and I sailed in a crescent-shaped boat across the stagnant pond and a sweet peace touched me on the brow turned to stone; and when I died in witness, fear and that pain deepest inside me died; and the blue shadow of the boy rose lightning the darkness, a soft singing; on lunar wings, above the greening treetops, crystal cliffs, rose the white face of the sister.

A Skeleton Plays Violin: The Early, Unpublished and Last Works of Georg Trakl is translated by James Reidel and published by Seagull Books.

Thirty-seven journeys from French to English: I Never Talk About It by Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon

We all have our secrets; the habits, hopes, histories, and horrors that we keep to ourselves. We all hold something inside that we never talk about. It may be painful; it might be embarrassing. It can be major, it can be insignificant, but either way we all have a truth to guard.

This is the concept behind an inventive collaboration between Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon, two Quebecois writers, actors and directors who created thirty-seven short confessional monologues to be performed live, and then gathered into a book titled Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir. However, a unique and daring thing happened as this collection made its way from French into English. Thirty-seven different translators were invited along for the ride. The result, I Never Talk About It, is the latest release from QC Fiction, and further evidence of this ambitious young publisher’s determination to offer Canadian and international audiences original, exciting new work from Quebec.

The prose pieces that comprise this book demonstrate a wide range in structure and voice from unsophisticated and straightforward, to quirky stream of consciousness, to stylized and experimental. This variety creates the perfect environment in which to explore the considerations and decisions a translator faces in guiding a text from one language to another.

The translators invited into this intriguing exercise come from around the world and include seasoned professionals alongside first-timers without any specialized training or experience. Some are Francophones more accustomed to moving from English to French, while others have little or no familiarity with Quebecois usage and culture. There are teachers, students, and authors.  Each story is followed by a brief biography of the translator along with his or her comments about the challenges they faced and the approach they employed. Because, as editor and translator Peter McCambridge indicates in his introduction:

…there’s always an approach, always a slant, always a distortion or deviation from the original, however slight or well-intentioned. Often it makes for a smoother reading experience in English. But it’s nice to know it’s there, all the same…. Because there are few wrong answers. Because any translation is a question and then an answer.

And yes, there may be few wrong answers, but as a reader with a special fondness for translated and international literature, there are certainly approaches that, in the reading, seem to work better than others. However, unless we hear about the choices that are made we cannot know what we might be missing, or why some books leave us wondering: Is it the original or the translation that seems off?

 The greatest reward offered by a book like I Never Talk About It is a space to explore one’s own reaction to concise pieces, first on their own and then in the light of the translator’s reflections.

Because the original works are essentially performative, with variations in tone and flow, many translators mention the challenge of maintaining the energy of the French text. Often the chosen approach involves an intensive engagement with the text. Pablo Strauss describes translating as:

…a slow, unscientific process of writing and rewriting until you can’t look at the piece any more. Experience has taught me that translation has no rules; the translations I love are at once loose and careful.

Later on, Lori Saint-Martin admits that:

I read the piece about 786 times, a couple of times out loud, mentally thinking of avenues without writing anything down; then I did a really fast, intuitive draft as if writing it creatively myself…put it aside, and rewrote it three more times, pulling it closer to the original sometimes, sometimes a bit further away to boomerang it back closer.

It’s probably a coincidence but the stories they translated, “Nightmares” and “Constellation” were among my favourites.

One of my pet peeves when it comes to translated or even international literature originally written in English, is that decisions are sometimes made to make the work more palatable to an American or British audience. In this collection two translators chose to relocate the specifics and tone of their pieces—one to the US, the other to the UK—removing the Quebec (which were also essentially Canadian) references. To my ear, the results were out of place and disappointing. As a frequent reader of South African literature I have seen this tendency too, whether English originals or translations from Afrikaans, all the bakkies are turned into pick-up trucks and so on. For me it amounts to unfortunate accommodation and contributes to the homogenization of international literature lest any local flavour be off-putting.

In the end, I Never Talk About It is more than an enlightening glimpse into the myriad of ways that texts can be approached by a translator; it is an entertaining, and often deeply moving, look into the private anxieties, obsessions, confessions, and passions of a diverse cast of characters.

To be an outsider who is at home everywhere: The Oblivion Seekers by Isabelle Eberhardt

Long and white, the road twists like a snake toward the far-off places, toward the bright edges of the earth. It burns in the sunlight, a dusty stripe between the wheat’s dull gold on one side, and the shimmering red hills and grey-green scrub on the other. In the distance, prosperous farms, ruined mud walls, a few huts. Everything seems asleep, stricken by the heat of the day. A chanting comes up from the plain, a sound as long as the unsheltered road, or as poverty without the hope of change tomorrow, or as weeping that goes unheard. The Kabyl farmers are singing as they work. The pale wheat, the brown barley, lie piled on the earth’s flanks, and the earth herself lies back, exhausted by her labor pains. (“Outside”)

For Isabelle Eberhardt, the open road was the ultimate image of freedom—a symbol of liberty that called to her again and again. As such, she had a special affinity for vagrants or wayfarers. They feature regularly in her collection of short stories and vignettes, The Oblivion Seekers. To be confined—by physical walls, by obligations, or by the restraints of fin de siècle European society—is unbearable. Her characters give up comfort, security, even love, to find a place where they belong. Quite often it is a life of solitary independence they choose. Singular in her defiance, her passion, and her determination to set her own course, it is impossible to appreciate her writing without at least a cursory look at the remarkable life from which it emerged.

Born in Geneva in 1877, the illegitimate daughter of a Russian Nihilist, Eberhardt was an unconventional free spirit who lived a charmed, if short, life filled with drama and adventure. Her father set the groundwork, insisting she labour alongside her brothers when she was young, learn to handle a horse properly, and appear regularly in public dressed in men’s clothing. He was inadvertently preparing her for the rigors of life in the deserts of North Africa, while his demanding expectations likely fueled her longing to escape. By the time she was twenty, she had already made her first trip to Algeria and converted to Islam.

Apart from a few short trips back to Europe, Africa had claimed her soul. Yet for the French colonists, her lifestyle was nothing short of scandalous. Her preference for men’s clothing—and Arab styled at that—was looked on with suspicion. She adopted a male persona, although she rarely fooled anyone with respect to her gender, and could often be found in the café, smoking hashish, perhaps inviting a soldier home for the night. The colonial officials suspected she was a spy. Meanwhile, she bought a horse and headed off to explore the desert. On her travels she befriended other Muslims in the area including a young Algerian soldier named Sliman Ehnni, who would become her one great love.

Under her male name she joined the Qadriya, a secretive Sufi brotherhood that exercised considerable power over unconquered desert tribes. She subsequently became more openly political, writing articles and stories celebrating North African Arab culture and protesting the French colonial administration. This attracted further unwanted attention, now from rival religious cults as well as the government. In 1901, only a stroke of dumb luck saved her from a would-be assassin when her attacker’s sword bounced off a wire, missing her head but nearly removing her arm. Once she recovered, Eberhardt was ordered out of French North Africa, so she was forced to head to Marseilles. With luck, Sliman was able to join her and the two were married. In 1902, the couple returned to Algeria. They were destitute, but they experienced a few months of peaceful happiness there. It would not last, more challenges, risk and adventure awaited. However, by 1904, hard living, recurring illness, and probable syphilis began to take its toll. After a near fatal bout of malaria, she left the hospital against doctor’s orders to meet up with her husband. They enjoyed one last night together before a flash flood collapsed the mud hut they were staying in. Isabelle did not survive. She was twenty-seven years old.

At heart, writing was the only career Eberhardt had ever truly desired. Sadly, much of her work was destroyed in the flood that claimed her life, but several posthumous collections of her stories were published. And her incredible, unconventional life inspired a biography by Welsh author and explorer, Cecily Mackworth, which drew the attention of Paul Bowles, an ideal translator for the adventurous young writer if there ever was one. The Oblivion Seekers gathers eleven short prose pieces, a brief travel diary, and a defiant letter to the editor in which Eberhardt defends her life among the Arab population. The stories read like parables, feature primarily Muslim characters, and sensual, vivid descriptions of the North African landscape. Yet there is very little sentimentality here; the tone is measured and controlled.

Her characters are typically independent spirits, either restless or unwilling to be bound to the life that is expected of them. “Taalith” tells the tale of a young widow who chooses death over forced marriage to an older man, while “The Rival” paints the portrait of a vagrant who abandons the wandering life to settle with his beloved only to discover that his bliss cannot withstand the pull of the road; his desire for his other mistress, “tyrannical and drunk with sun” draws him back. Under the fragrant flowers of the Judas tree in his garden he looks at his sleeping lover:

Already she was no more than a vaporous vision, something without consistence that would soon be absorbed by the clear moonlight.

Her image was indistinct, very far away, scarcely visible. Then the vagrant, who still loved her, understood that at dawn he would be leaving, and his heart grew heavy.

He took one of the big flowers of the spicy camphor tree and pressed it to his lips to stifle a sob. (The Rival)

Considering the time and her background, Eberhardt’s stories are particularly striking. They reflect her deep connection to Arab populations of North Africa and mark her early contribution to a decolonial narrative. She is not a voyeur, her affections are honest, not romanticized. This is especially powerful in the title story, “The Oblivion Seekers,” one of the few first person narratives, which describes a setting she knew well personally—a kif den in Kenadsa in the Sahara Desert. She describes the patrons, the wanderers and the regular kif-smokers and the course of a typical evening:

The seekers of oblivion sing and clap their hands lazily; their dream-voices ring out late into the night, in the dim light of the mica-paned lantern. Then little by little the voices fall, grow muffled, the words are slower. Finally the smokers are quiet, and merely stare at the flowers in ecstasy. They are epicureans, voluptuaries; perhaps they are sages. Even in the darkest purlieu of Morocco’s underworld such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream-palaces of delight. (The Oblivion Seekers)

There is a mesmerizing quality to Eberhardt’s prose. Her life was marked hardship and poverty, mixed with turns of good fortune and great passion, but through it all she retained a self-contained humility and it is this quality that comes through in her prose. As Bowles notes in his Preface: “Her wisdom lay in knowing that what she sought was unreachable. ‘We are, all of us, poor wretches, and those who prefer not to understand this are even worse off than the rest of us.’”

Wise words still.

The Oblivion Seekers by Isabell Eberhardt is translated by Paul Bowles, and published by City Lights Books.

Our uncertain stories: Immortal for Quite Some Time by Scott Abbott

There is a fortuitous intersection between my first, and to date, only attempt to capture a memoirish reflection on the page, and Scott Abbott’s memoirish reflection, Immortal for Quite Some Time. My Minor Literature[s] essay was published a year ago this past May, just as Scott was proofing his book. I followed that process via his blog, The Goalie’s Anxiety. We shared concerns about opening oneself to strangers. When my small piece went live, his reaction was so immediate and gut-level, that I returned to his positive words repeatedly in the weeks that followed. Now, my reading and my attempt to record my reaction to his finished book comes at a time when I am seriously beginning to build on the project that started with my initial essay and flesh out a life twice lived—my own. And although, on the surface, the circumstances driving our explorations would seem very different, both involve fundamental, human questions of identity, belief, and family. As a result, my reading of this work is decidedly idiosyncratic.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is, as Abbott states in his epilogue, a “fraternal meditation,” an attempt to answer a question posed by his brother John, who died of AIDS in 1991, at the age of forty. Estranged from his devout LDS family for several years prior to his death, John’s question is simple: “Are we friends, my brother?” Scott’s reply, complicated by his loss of faith, conflicts with the rigidity of the Mormon church, a loveless marriage, the demands of parenthood, and a deeply ingrained homophobia, is ultimately more than two decades in the articulation. Presented in the form of diary excerpts, highlighted with images, outtakes from John’s notebooks, and the input of a critical counter narrative voice, Abbott struggles to reach a place of comfort with the answer he so dearly wants to offer. Thus, we are warned, from outset, that this is not a memoir: “The story is uncertain, the characters are in flux, the voices are plural, the photographs as troubled as the prose.”

It is this disclaimer that promises an honesty that respects all the shadowed corners one encounters looking into a life lived—whether that is someone else’s life or one’s own.

Immortal opens in the morgue in Boise, Idaho. The image of John’s body on the examination table forms a stark pivot point that his brother’s thoughts return to again and again: “His feet are livid.” From there, the narrative swings back to Farmington, New Mexico, 1950, midpoint between the births of Scott and John, only fourteen months apart, and moves, with broad strides, through the 50s, 60s and into the 1970s. Scott’s missionary obligations and academic aspirations take him to Germany, where an intellectual infection will begin to work its way into the assumptions and presumptions of his strict Mormon upbringing. John will go to Italy and, for years, his family will speculate if that is where he was “corrupted,” or whether he was “lured” into homosexual behavior at some earlier point. One of Scott’s first steps to reconciliation and acceptance of John’s orientation will involve coming to understand that sexuality has a biological basis. Not that that understanding provides a desired comfort with his own, decidedly heterosexual, attractions for many years.

Scott’s belief in God slips away from him much more readily than his homophobia. However, he continues to uphold the expectations imposed on him by his background. He marries young and before long is supporting a brood of seven with a teaching position at Bringham Young University. John, despite strong grades and an interest in pre-med studies, ends up working as a cook in a series of cafés. His contact with his family is limited and strained. His notebooks reveal little about his personal life. Abbott is clearly troubled by his brother’s isolation and sadness. It was not easy to be gay in the 1970s and 80s, but coming from an uncompromising religious tradition made it much more difficult. It still is today.

Throughout this work, John is a memory, a ghost, as much as a loved and lost brother and son. As readers, we only hear his voice filtered through time. See him peering from old photographs. In that sense, Immortal for Quite Some Time, reads like a fraternal love letter, an apology, and a reckoning. Scott Abbott is wise enough to know that the only story he can really tell is his own. And it is a fascinating, raw, and honest exploration of the intellectual, emotional, and political conflicts that have made him the man he is today. As his story progresses, a critical voice intervenes to challenge his recorded recollections, forcing him to answer and clarify his statements. Toward the end John is also granted a greater presence. (The use of italics, bold type and font facilitates these imagined exchanges in a manner that is simple and effective.) This is more than stylistic device. It is a reminder that we can never and should never stop questioning ourselves even in telling our own stories. It is a good lesson for me to keep in mind too.

As I made my way through this book, I encountered many questions I need to ask myself in piecing together my story. I do not come from a rigid religious background, but in my case I am the outcast, the one set apart by sexuality and gender. I sought to conform to a different, but equally confining set of rules and expectations. I mourn the loss of a sibling, a stillborn sister I never had, and the imagined image of her that I could not be.

The person I have to answer is myself, finding the courage to ask the question is my goal. That will require a memoir of some kind. Just as, in spite of himself, Scott Abbott ended up with a memoir of sorts to answer his brother.

Immortal for Quite Some Time is published by The University of Utah Press.