The human animal in the room: The Grass Library by David Brooks

Central to Australian writer David Brooks’ meditation on the ethics and implications of existing in a truly honest and respectful relationship with the nonhuman creatures who share this planet with us, is the question of how one can properly write about animal experience at all without filtering it through a decidedly anthropocentric lens. Are words, as we know and employ them, even up to the task? These are neither easy nor straightforward questions, but the search for possible answers is a journey that Brooks stumbles into willingly, and frets about, fumbles through, marvels over, and shares with surprising humility in this engaging—and endearing—collection of interrelated essays.

It all begins with a sudden life shift when Brook’s partner, T., announces over dinner one night that she can no longer continue to consume meat. He takes it well, but when this declaration is soon further refined to exclude all food that comes from animals, he finds himself accepting, if at first a little mournfully, a vegan diet. Where this path will ultimately lead them he can hardly imagine at that moment, but within a few years they will have left their rented house in Sydney and moved—cautiously at first and with an intermediary purchase—to a small farm in the Blue Mountains where he, T. and  their dog Charlie will find themselves living with a growing “herd” of rescue sheep, not to mention the snake, ducks, rats, and all the other creatures that come and go. The resulting account is not a book about veganism or guilt but it is a book detailing one man’s ongoing effort to realign his values in accord with respect for animals. More importantly it is a lyrical philosophical tale of “discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.”

But first, to set the stage, there is the move. Reluctant to cut ties with the city cold turkey, so to speak, they buy a house in a mountain town, but continue to rent in Sydney. When they finally try to make a permanent move to their new home, a variety of factors prevent them from settling in and feeling at peace. So, when they hear about a farm on the edge of town, they check it out. Two sloping acres, an old farmhouse and a small cabin just begging to be converted into a library. It seems to be perfect given a number of circumstances and dreams that are beginning to colour their thoughts of the future, so they buy it, move in, and within a few months are joined by a couple of rescue sheep—Jonathan and Henry-Lee.

The genesis of the text that will become The Grass Library lies in a vegan friend’s challenge to Brooks that he should write about animals. However, if that was, at least for the friend, envisioned to be part of a grander exposé about animal cruelty, this book is smaller, more intimate and close to home, but it raises fundamental philosophical questions all the same. He draws, for example, on the writings of Kierkegaard and on Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am. But the true beauty lies in the self-reflective exploration of what it means to write on behalf of another creature with an openness to possibility of experience—ours and theirs. Uncertain how to start, Brooks decides to begin with their rescue dog, Charlie, and his curious dusk anxiety. A window on the life of another, a life that overlaps with but is not contained within those of his human companions. See the problem? “Owners” is a fraught term. Even writing this review echoes the challenges of writing about animals—what can we ever fully know about anyone who shares our lives with us, even if they are of the same species, let alone if they belong to another species or even order of being? Brooks struggles to tell Charlie’s story as Charlie might, an exercise, at best never more than approximate and subject to an endless double guessing that he will continue to practice as the group of nonhuman animals who become part of his life and narrative expands.

The true nature of the nervousness Charlie displays as the day comes to a close is never fully understood despite efforts to analyze or assuage it, but it seems that once his family relocates to the farm, where he quickly takes to his fleecy new friends, he finds a comfort zone of sorts. Once “the boys” arrive, followed in time by an orphaned lamb, little  Orpheus Pumpkin, Brooks’ creature considerations extend and, for much of the book revolve around sheep. Living with these characters (and they are definitely distinct individuals) offers countless opportunities for observation, contemplation and, on occasion, serious concern. As for example, when David and T. decide that it would be an act of complicated kindness to have Henry castrated. A ram who exhibits a desperate longing for the ladies whenever ewes are nearby, they worry that he will either injure himself trying to reach them or harass his poor companion Jonathan, a wether, to the point of distraction. But whose comfort is really on the line?

The surgery does not go well, prompting worry, guilt and doubt, though Henry eventually does recover and seem calmer and, dare one say, happier. But, of course, Brooks cannot be entirely certain they did the right thing:

We began this process of—I don’t even know what to call it: stewardship? protection? attempted redress?—so naïvely, despite all the thinking that had gone before. But of course that had been thinking about the animal, in the absence of the animal. No one told us—who was there to do so?—that we’d encounter, almost inevitably, these pitfalls, dark holes, perilous places. As we open up to these creatures, as we apprehend more and more of their Being, or think we do, we’re dealing more and more with lives no less complicated, painful, traumatised, or liable to trauma than our own—indeed we’re dealing in most cases with lives that have been much more traumatised than ours are ever likely to be.

There are, as one can see, more questions than answers, and throughout this book, among the accounts, humorous and tragic alike, of daily life on the farm, Brooks invites the reader into his internal queries and quandaries. The closer he aligns himself with the ethics and obligations of animal advocacy, the more he is forced to re-evaluate his own childhood interactions—the shovel to the head of a snake, for instance—and, perhaps even more painfully, his enthusiasm for some of the literature and authors he once loved as he comes to recognize aspects of their attitudes toward animals as debatable, even distasteful.

Of course, in his evolving effort to articulate this growing self-awareness, Brooks’ engagement is not limited to animals, birds or reptiles. One of my favourite chapters is “Cicada Summer.” Referring to the insects as his “almost-totem,” this piece which could easily be read as an elegant and thoughtful stand-alone essay, describes the emergence of one particular season’s generation of cicadas from their waiting larval refuges buried deep on the roots of trees. He marvels at the fragile beauty of discarded carapaces, and even finds, with sadness, a nymph that has died in a failed effort to free itself from its shell. The song of the insects is the soundtrack of the season, implying in its consistency, an ongoing eruption of these otherwise short lived creatures—short lived, that is, in this stage of their lives. But of course, the cicada offer more than an opportunity for a little speculative natural history. In their epic drama, lies a lesson for us: “If we think we are anything other than creature,” he warns,—have crawled very far beyond it—we are kidding ourselves.”

He then goes on to draw a striking parallel between the discarded carapace of the larval cicada and the creative acts we human creatures engage in:

A book, a poem is like that: the shell of something that has emerged, gone. Writers work hard at those shells, but as soon as we finish them—a poem, a novel, an essay—there’s a sense in which we’re not there any longer. A cicada, I note, sheds multiple shells before the one we see clinging to the bark of a tree; and humans too—human animals—have to shed carapaces, create shells, whether they’re authors or not, if they are to mature. That can be agony, pulling oneself out of oneself.

The further Brooks’ effort to write about animals—and to write about writing about animals—takes him, the more it brings him write back to the human animal in the room: himself. And, for that matter, the rest of us too. As he recounts his and T.’s adventures with ducklings in the swimming pool, a persistent rat in the kitchen, or little Orpheus Pumpkin who spends his early weeks living in the house (and, like his fellow sheep, falling in love with T.), practical and philosophical musings and digressions are frequent. As such, the book has a sense of active construction—tentative, meditative, worked and reworked. Brooks is unafraid to confess to missteps, let the seams show, leave possibilities raised, but unresolved.

And then, through it all, there is the beautiful, poetic prose. It is as if all of Brooks’ years as a poet, essayist, novelist, and short story writer have been channelled into what has become a deeply personal life project. At the end, as he stands out in the paddock with Charlie, surrounded by all of “the boys”—Henry, Jonathan, Orpheus Pumpkin, and the latest arrival, Jason—there is a sense of a man at peace with the world. At least, perhaps, until the next, creature in need arrives on the scene.

The Grass Library is published in Australia by Brandl & Schlesinger and will be released in North America by Ashland Creek Press in June.

Ropes across the abyss: How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson

The opening pages of music broadcaster and composer Stephen Johnson’s How Shostakovich Changed My Mind detail what is clearly one of the most moving interview experiences of his career. He is in the St Petersburg apartment of Viktor Kozlov, one of the few surviving members of the orchestra that performed the triumphant debut of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in 1942. He describes, with the clarinetist’s assistance,  how that performance was pulled together against all odds. Leningrad, as it was known at the time, was under siege, and Stalin not only wanted an opportunity to galvanize the beleaguered citizens, he wanted to send a message to Hitler who was waiting within earshot to celebrate victory. As an artist within a system that could turn against him in a heartbeat, the burden on Shostakovich to deliver a suitable masterpiece was immense. In the end, it was a rousing success. He managed to speak directly to the people’s emotions, and give them a reason to feel united in a time of war. The invigorated audience responded with an ovation reported to have lasted over an hour.

But here was something else too: that puzzling conundrum I had noted so often when pondering the appeal of Shostakovich’s music, but which now struck me with heightened force. In the Leningrad Symphony, Shostakovich had held a mirror up to horror, and reflected that horror back to those whom it had all but destroyed—and in response they had roared their approval, their delight, their gratitude to the composer for giving form to their feelings.

When Kozlov’s account of the event was complete, Johnson asked him a most formulaic question. He wanted to know how that same music made him feel when he heard it today, completely unprepared for the response. Both the elderly musician and his wife burst into tears—it was a question beyond any possible answer.

It is this ineffable power of music to reach into the deep emotional spaces in our lives where words often prove ineffectual, to give voice to that which we ourselves cannot express—especially in times of anxiety and distress—that becomes the very personal focus of this most fascinating book. Part musical biography, part memoir, part psychology and philosophy, this book-length essay draws its greatest strength from Johnson’s passionate affection for and deep connection to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. His association with the composer’s repertoire reaches back to his own difficult adolescence when, ignorant of the world of rock ’n roll, he sought comfort in the Shostakovich’s thundering chords. Blessed with an acute musical memory, he was able to carry fully orchestrated movements in his mind in a manner he compares to a romantic teenage infatuation, during the times when his mercurial and unstable mother’s volatile behaviour made life otherwise unbearable. This uncanny musical aptitude serves him well as a writer. His ability to breathe life into complex orchestrated passages and open up the key elements at play in major works, is likely to inspire readers to download or stream the pieces under discussion, or pull dusty records or CDs from their shelves. It is not necessary to engage an aural experience in the reading, but it does tend to be difficult to resist the inclination to do so.

As one might imagine, given the unusual title, How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is an intimate account of the intersection of music with the personal drama, and trauma, of life lived. Johnson draws on literary, philosophical, neurological and psychological resources as he explores the connection between music and the brain, an area of growing interest and investigation, but he anchors his inquiry in the story of Shostakovich’s life and work during some of the most tumultuous events of the twentieth century—a thoroughly fascinating account in its own right—while tracing out his own particular relationship to this music and the role it played , not only in adolescence, but in his own adult challenges with bipolar disorder.

Shostakovich’s music can be wildly moody, shifting abruptly from lighthearted to savage to slow and achingly sombre. But it is not without structure. In listening carefully, Johnson became attuned, early on, to the thematic connections that he describes as ropes stretched across the composer’s own abyss, a bridge of sorts. It is a fundamentally important discovery for someone with a mood disorder—a condition I also understand too well:

As a bipolar sufferer, I know what it is to experience manic flight. At its worst it has been truly frightening, like a bad, drug-induced trip. Even when I’m not manic, I’m aware of how my conversation can go off on sudden tangents. Some of my friends have found it entertaining; others have found it bewildering, even alarming. It certainly alarmed my mother although she could be as dizzyingly tangential as anyone I’ve ever known. It was another aspect of my behaviour that provoked my father into panic-stricken attempts to close me down. I became seriously concerned about my own ‘intoxicating and leapfrogging’ thought processes—until, that is, I came to know Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony. As I found Shostakovich’s connecting ropes and pulled them taut, it was though he personally was reassuring me. The exhilaration I felt was not dangerous; it was controlled, expertly rounded off by this extraordinary music.

If Shostakovich reached one troubled and alienated youth, it is not this particular music alone that holds the key. Johnson muses if he had been exposed to rock music he might well have found similar comforts and a peer group to share it with as well. But it matters not. The magic, if you like, lies in a link between music and listener, through a mechanism folded into the evolutionary structure of our brains. One that has the power to ease isolation, to unify, and to move both the individual and the crowd from “the ‘I’ to the ‘we’” as witnessed on that August night in Leningrad in 1942.

Moving deftly between the artistic, the scientific, and the autobiographical, this extended essay, never gets bogged down or off track. It makes no effort to be exhaustive, after all, at the core of the book is the relationship between the music of one very enigmatic Russian composer and the author whose life has been influenced, possibly even saved by it. Johnson’s own story unfolds like a well-crafted symphony itself, building through layers, in and out of the various streams of his narrative, to reach the point at which he was caught at the opposite end of the bipolar dance—in such an agonizing state of despair that suicide seemed the only way out. Again, he captures well the reaction of others to this side of the manic-depressive experience. In his darkened, unreliable state of mind, he came to believe that ending his life would not only ease what had somehow become an unbearable emotional pain, but would free up his wife Kate to get on with her life without the burden he felt he was invariably placing on her:

Depressives can be immensely frustrating for those who live with them. They tend to go around in the same anxious, obsessive circles endlessly; to the worried onlooker, it can seem that they actually don’t want to be helped; and they can be horribly irritable. For my part, I had still to learn that exasperation is more often a sign of love than its absence.

It was, ultimately, a fortuitous sequence of events that led him to his therapist’s office when he had intended to cancel; a lucky mistake that enabled an emotional breakthrough—or breakdown—that would turn the tide. However, Johnson can’t help but wonder if Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet had played even a small role on his road to recovery.

A year earlier, he had been given an assignment to prepare liner notes for a new recording of the popular Quartet, a task that had necessitated close engagement with a work composed when Shostakovich himself had been suicidal. He wonders if the writing and playing of the piece in which the composer famously places himself—or notes corresponding to his initials—as the central motif, had made him change his mind about killing himself, or whether it was simply the fact that a friend had intervened and removed the vial of sleeping pills he’d had on hand. And there’s the challenge: Music can do many things in times of emotional distress—reaching us in our darkened state with an image that is more accurate than the bleak self-portrait we cling to. However:

it cannot, in the broader sense, ‘see’ us. It can prepare us for the moment when we are seen; it can function as a life-raft in the most terrifying seas—for years, if necessary. But the moment of salvage needs a real living other, to see us and to know us, to signal to us that we are still worthy of rescue. Music could not do that for me, not quite—but it brought me very close.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind is a rich account of the life and work of one of the most important composers of the twentieth century, a wide ranging discussion of the ability of music to provide expression and meaning in times of joy and sorrow, and, most importantly, a personal memoir of how music can serve as a means to navigate madness, especially in those times when, from inside, all one knows is that something is not right. This is a book for a wide audience, but for myself, as someone who also suffers from bipolar disorder, it has given me a lot to think about and reflect on looking back at my own relationship to music—and this illness—over the years.

How Shostakovich Changed My Mind by Stephen Johnson is published by Nottinghill Editions in the UK and distributed by NYRB in North America. Shostakovich: A Journey Into the Light, the 2011 BBC radio documentary that sets the groundwork for this book can be found online here.

 

Brief notes on returning home from travel and a link to my photo essay at RIC: Journal

Kolkata is not a place that inspires indifference. It has been almost exactly one month since I left it behind, and yet my thoughts and imagination are still occupied by the city, the people I met, and the experiences I had.

Now that I’m home, with the endless winter so very slowly melting away, I am once again confronting that familiar heaviness that weighs me down and reminds me how hollow and lonely life here can be. Perhaps it is this perennial inability to fit in that drives the restless traveller on. I don’t know.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a photo essay, just published at the wonderful RIC:Journal. This is, in words an images, an attempt to hold my first encounter with India close just a little longer.

You can find my piece here. With gratitude to Saudamini Deo.

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

Failure:

NOUN

  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!

To sing the song unsung: A personal answer to Singed by Daniela Cascella

The voice soundless and then, records unheard, song unsung, voice also unsung
dipped enshrouded ensheathed enlandscaped tongueless tongueless tied no story no record.

Daniela Cascella is a literary ecstatic. She engages with the word—written, spoken, sung, depicted—at an essential point of being, at that place where the spirit, soul, or daimon resides.

She listens into the silences, to the whispers and echoes, to the frayed edges of meaning. As a native Italian who writes in English, she attends to the spaces between languages, bending and folding her adopted tongue to affect fractured layers of intent. To open yourself to reading her is to be challenged to read and write with a new sensitivity to sound, voice and significance.

If I sound like an enthusiast, I am. Daniela (if this was a review rather than an answer I would refer to her by her last name—I will honour her instead, as Brazil honours Clarice) has been a vital friend and mentor over the past year and half since I first came to know her. As an essayist, my primary goal is to reach toward an articulation of the ineffable, to give voice to an existence, not between languages, but between gendered experience in a way that gets closer to an expression of being as I understand it than the common dialogue surrounding trans identity allows. I have no idea if that is an attainable goal, but Daniela’s essays and meditations thrill, inspire and ignite me.

Inspire and ignite me.

Ignite.

Her latest book, Singed, takes its title from permutations of sing: sing, singed, sung. It opens with the account of a fire. A few months ago the room at the top of our house caught fire. A large number of books and cds were lost to the flames. I first read of these burned books from a PDF of the text. I responded with horror; I felt wrenched with every title. Returning to this accounting on the printed page a few weeks later, I sensed an exaltation, a calling forth, a rising to a challenge, a refrain to be reclaimed amidst the losses. And that is what Singed is. As Daniela sifts through the ashes and embers, sings through the ashes and embers, she calls forward precious voices—Clarice Lispector, Teresa of Ávila, Laura (Riding) Jackson, Elfriede Jelinek, Marlene van Niekerk, Isak Dinesen, Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann and more—chanelling their words and their attempts to speak to otherness. Hers is a reading as inhabiting the spaces between words.  The observations she makes and questions she asks, hang in the air, inviting her reader to ponder the unspeakable and challenge the constraints placed on how we’ve been taught to read and to write.

Woven through her literary explorations, are reflections on music and art. These excursions help frame, and reframe, a multi-dimensional engagement with the written word. Hearing, seeing, and speaking are essential activities, as are silence, emptiness, and unfinished forms. A sigh, for example, Clarice’s in particular, which Cascella (at this moment, this feels like a review) first encounters listening to Lispector’s last recorded interview, inspires an intuitive and rhythmic engagement with the works of other writers, a series of echo and dub sessions on the page. The experience of reading and writing a review of Marlene van Niekerk’s The Swan Whisperer, a short tale in which a young student loses himself in his endeavour to transcribe the language of swans, leaves her spellbound, speechless and wordless, unable to write for months. Of that interlude she says:

Today I know that the silence I experienced was a deep working of the stuff that makes writing be. It was the encounter with the substance that eludes you and that causes such physical turmoil when you grasp it in other words, in words you read in a poem or hear in a song, and you recognize their subject as yours.

And the connections she draws when writing across languages are illuminating, especially for those of us who are unilingual. In an essay about Fleur Jaeggy’s as yet untranslated novel, Le statue d’acqua, Cascella writes:

Where did the spirit of the world hide that night its reservoir of dreamers?

The porous blank portions between the words in The Water Statues soak up Jaeggy’s discomfortable writing. They enfold the space of space, or as Gass wrote of Rilke’s Innerweltraum, the space made by Being’s breathing… Not just the space we call consciousness, but the space where we retire in order to avoid a feeling… These spaces are always palpable as though space were smoke, or the mountains of the heart where the last of the hamlet of feeling may be discerned. The blank spaces host echoes, speech where speech ends, the voices of ancestors. Jaeggy herself has acknowledged, in discussing herself hearing writing in between German and Italian, that German is the language of her dreams…

Voices and echoes, and echoes of voices.

Repetition of a refrain.

Call and answer.

If reading Daniela Cascella’s work—including her earlier books, En Abîme and F.M.R.L.— has nurtured in me an alertness to sound in language and imagery, and an awareness of voice, more explicitly a desire to voice what is known without words, Daniela, as a friend and fellow writer, has personally encouraged me to incorporate more photographs (or a photographic sensibility?) into the presentation of my writing—a process I am still just beginning to explore.

But take this image:

July, 2015, mid-winter in Cape Town. This is the Company’s Garden, with the iconic façade of Table Mountain looming in the background. On that white columned building in the distance, if you could see it, is a poster advertising William Kentridge’s multi-media installation, The Refusal of Time. That is the South African National Gallery and this is my last full day in the city. I made my way through the gallery in near isolation and as I passed into the room containing the Kentridge exhibit, the recorded rhythms of metronomes and bellows were triggered and seemed, in the moment, to be contained within this dark space where I experienced the entire presentation alone, surrounded by noise and images, free to wander and absorb the full sensory explosion unhindered. Later, as I explored the rest of the gallery, I realized that the sounds and rhythms of the exhibit resounded and echoed through the entire building, enhancing my sensory appreciation of every photograph, painting and artwork I saw. I cannot think back on that visit to the gallery without hearing and feeling, the steady cadence, the heartbeat, of The Refusal of Time.

But that’s not all, and this where I answer Daniela Cascella and Singed. When we first connected, we shared our mutual appreciation of Marlene van Niekerk—The Swan Whisperer and her monumental novel, Agaat. It is a trace of the latter work I carried with me during my stay in Cape Town. Every time I came into the bowl from my B&B in Sea Point and saw Table Mountain stretching out before me, I could not help but hear the awed voice of the young Agaat after a trip to the cape with her mistress: “I saw Table Mountain.”

I saw Table Mountain.

 That young girl’s voice echoed in my head. Agaat’s voice became my voice. The voice of a past part of myself.

I saw Table Mountain.

 That afternoon, I sat in the café in the Garden, with Kentridge’s metronomes and Agaat’s wonder punctuating every breath, and started to write. I was, I believed, at the beginning of a process of writing my way back through the year that had just passed, from the breaking point of a serious manic episode to the renewal of a sense of self identity and an clear understanding of the unfinished business of being differently gendered in the world. A neat, circular journey  that would, in the writing, lead to healing.

As if.

Life (and death) still held lessons I could not, in that moment, anticipate.

Today, the pen still hesitates on the page. Small forays have been made, but I am only beginning to learn to listen to the voices I am trying to transcribe, the voices of the selves I am and used to be—girl, woman, man.

Somewhere, in the distance, I am calling back the beat of the metronome and a child’s voice: I saw Table Mountain. That child is me. In Cape Town I believed I could rewind time, solstice to solstice, one year back to the day I left my job,  and move on from there.

No.

I need to go back farther. Back into my past and listen for that child’s voice, the child who had a feeling, but no words to express it. To gather what one can know in absence of language, to salvage words from the margins of memories. Attend to that distant silence.

So much has passed in the two and a half years since I took this photograph. I almost died, then both of my parents faded rapidly and were suddenly gone, and the friend who drew me to South Africa committed suicide.

Just when I thought I was ready to write, my life caught fire and burned for over a year. Now it is time to sift through the ashes and embers, re-enter the remembering, and embrace the discomfortable, pen to paper.

Singed by Daniela Cascella is published by Equus Press.

Reflections on the challenge of writing the self, and a link to my essay at RIC Journal

I was lonely child and adolescent. I lived in a rural area, outside a small, but growing, city. There were no children my age in my neighbourhood, and although I had two younger brothers, I spent countless hours alone. A misfit of sorts, I found comfort in the world of words, spending hours reading and writing stories and poems. It was a way of imagining myself elsewhere, fashioning a time or place that I might fit into. However, as I neared my late teens, I became increasingly aware of an inability to inhabit, in reality or in my imagination, the kind of person I wanted to be.

If I couldn’t find my own voice, how could I grant a voice to characters?

So I stopped writing, hopeful that with a little more experience, I would have more to draw from. Gather stories to build on. Live a little first.

But I had no idea how strange and complicated my life would become, so monstrous, too untidy to reduce to words. Ultimately I found my way out of one fiction—the one I was living trying to be the gendered person I was born—and constructed another fiction around myself so that I could exit with some semblance of an ordinary, coherent history.

And then, when my re-orchestrated life was blown apart a few years ago, I was determined that I could no longer afford to hide. Nor could I continue to put off writing. But by then, the only story I had to tell was not the stuff of fantasy or imagination. It was my own. Raw and simple.

For a while I clung to the idea that the only way I could talk about myself was to create a character to carry the weight, bare the secrets, share the pain I was not prepared to own. But every word I wrote circled right back to me. And sounded forced, hollow, and false.

It took me a while to come to a level of comfort with the idea of writing work that I still often refer to as memoirish. I consider everything I write—no matter what form it takes at the end—to be nonfiction because it originates from my experience. But if asked, I simply say I write essay/memoir. I write of the self. On the one hand, I am always afforded a subject. But on the other, it is the most dangerous, difficult, and draining form of writing to do well. Boundaries are critical. The challenge is to touch on the essential and temper the detail.

Because all of my work comes back, in the end, to a lifetime disconnect between body and identity that has shifted but never resolved, I tread a very fine line indeed.

Two days ago, my most recent personal essay was published at RIC Journal. It is a meditation on photography, the body, Barthes, and grief. I wrote it in January for a specific publication and panicked. It was too raw. I didn’t know if it was finished or meant to go further. The thought that it might be part of something larger terrified me. So I put it away.

A few months ago, with my renewed intention to work once again toward a larger memoir project, I pulled it out. With a little distance, I saw it as is complete if rather unclassifiable. Now it is out in the world, another step forward in the ongoing process of writing myself into being.

This piece had no title when I sent it to Saudamini Deo at RIC Journal. As it is presented the first line of the epigraph—my favourite quote from Barthes’ Mourning Diary—has become the title. And it feels perfect.

My essay, “I am either lacerated or ill at ease,” with my own original photographs, can be found here.

Into the redheaded night: From the Observatory by Julio Cortázar

Serendipity is one of the joys of bookstore browsing. Case in point, my discovery of From the Observatory, a book I’d never heard of, discovered amid a selection of Archipelago Books in a local indie bookshop. There was something in the confluence of text and images that instantly captured my imagination. I had to take it home.

Billed as perhaps the “most unconventional work” of Argentinean author Julio Cortázar, an author who was not exactly known for sticking to conventions, this slender volume is essentially a meandering essay that moves between poetic contemplation of the life cycle of the European eel and reveries inspired by the precise angles and arches of the observatories constructed by Sawai Jai Singh, in Jaipur and Dehli, during the 18th century. If that sounds like an unlikely basis for a meditative discourse, the relentless flow of dream-like imagery pulls one into a space reflected in the silvery passage of migrating eels through dark waters and in the movement of stars across the night sky—a space that opens to an exploration of the nature of humanity, morality and society. One simply has to be willing to let go and follow the unspooling sentences:

Lovely is the science, sweet the words that follow the course of the elvers [eels at this stage of their life cycle] and tell us their saga, lovely and sweet and hypnotic like the silvery terraces of Jaipur where an astronomer in his day wielded a vocabulary just as lovely and sweet to conjure the unnameable and pour it onto soothing parchments, inheritance for the species, school lesson, barbiturate for essential insomniacs, and comes the day when the elvers have entered into the deepest depths of their hydrographic copulation, planetary spermatozoa already inside the egg of the high pools, in the ponds where the rivers settle down and dream, and the winding phalluses of the vital night calm down, bed down, the black columns lose their lithe erection advancing and probing, the individuals are born of themselves, separate off from the common serpent, feel their own way and at their own risk along the dangerous edges of ponds, of life; the time begins, no one can know when, of the yellow eel, the youth of the species in its conquered territory, the finally friendly water compliantly encircling the bodies at rest there.

Punctuating this mesmerizing text is a series of photographs taken by Cortázar himself at the observatories, and converted with the assistance of Antonio Gálvez into coarse, grainy black and white images. They provide a stark, antiquated contrast to the winding, lyrical prose.

There is an inherent sensuality to the language throughout—from the detailed descriptions of the eel’s extended journey, to the imagined sentiments of an Indian prince viewing the night sky, to the predicament of man seeking to make sense of life:

Nevertheless there Lady Science and her cohorts, morality, the city, society position themselves for ambush again: barely has one reached the skin, the beautiful surface of the face and the breasts and the thighs, the revolution is a sea of wheat in the wind, a pole vault over history bought and sold, but the man who steps out in the open begins to suspect the old in the new, bumps into those who’re still seeing the ends in the means, he realizes that in this blind spot of the human bull’s eye lurks a false definition of the species, that idols persist beneath other identities, work and discipline, fervor and obedience, legislated love, education for A, B and C, free and compulsory; beneath, within, in the womb of the redheaded night, another revolution must bide its time like the eels beneath the sargassum.

We move back and forth from Jai Singh’s observatories, constructed with mathematical precision as a response to the tyranny of the stars which for centuries had dictated the fate of his lineage, declining as he measured the skies; to the masses of eels, subject to the tyranny of genetic forces, irresistibly drawn through a long fresh water migration to ultimately return, mate and die, in the waters of the ocean. Within its two primary threads, From the Observatory, invites questions about the destiny of humanity, caught between passion and logic, nature and science, dream and reality.

Thoughtful and refreshing, this short book—barely 80 pages, roughly half given over to images—is the perfect accompaniment to a hot summer afternoon.

From the Observatory is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and published by Archipelago Books.

Fans of Fleur Jaeggy rejoice: A link to my review of I Am the Brother of XX and These Possible Lives at Numéro Cinq

Any one who has fallen under the spell of the shimmering spare prose of Swiss-born Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy is well aware of her uncanny ability to evoke subtle shades of darkness and weave tales that linger in the imagination. However, for English speaking readers it has been a long wait for new work to emerge in translation. Fourteen years to be precise. That patience is finally rewarded, as this month sees the highly anticipated release of not one, but two recent collections: I Am the Brother of XX, a compilation of short stories, and These Possible Lives, a set of three hyper-condensed biographical essays.

These works, not surprisingly, reflect a more personal, reflective quality than her earlier fiction, directly featuring, at times, other writers with whom she became friends over the years. Familiar themes are also revisited, lines between light and dark are blurred. Her prose is, as ever, sharp, essential, charged with spine-tingling beauty. And applied to biographical subjects—De Quincey, Keats and Marcel Schwob—it is quite wonderful indeed.

I invite you to read my full review of these new releases at Numéro Cinq. Here is a taste. Please link through at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

Sacred Inertia | Review of I Am the Brother of XX & These Possible Lives by Fleur Jaeggy — Joseph Schreiber

One might argue that Fleur Jaeggy does not write so much as channel language, allowing her words to form imaginary spaces that exist on an altered plane of experience. To read her is to inhabit, for a moment, that space—one that exists in the shadows, one that contains, to borrow an expression from one of her earlier stories, a certain “sacred inertia.” You can almost feel it. There is an unmistakable current of brisk, melancholic foreboding that courses beneath the surface of her prose. The chill can make you shudder, the stark beauty of her terse sentences catch your breath. Atmospheric. Disconcerting. And strangely alluring. It is a rare author who manages to sustain an emotionally intense voice that is at once distinct, abstracted, and tightly restrained. However, anyone who has fallen under the spell of Jaeggy’s fiction will know its undefinable appeal.

Of Italian-speaking Swiss heritage, Jaeggy was born in Zurich in 1940. Raised and educated in Switzerland, she moved to Rome when her studies were complete. There she met Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. The latter would become an especially close friend. In 1968, she relocated to Milan to work with the famed publishing house, Adelphi Edizioni. She married writer and publisher Roberto Calasso, and established a reputation as a novelist and translator over the following years. But it was her masterful fourth novel, I beati anni del castigo (1989), translated as Sweet Days of Discipline (Tim Parks, 1991), that introduced her to an English speaking audience. Exquisitely spare, this subtly disturbing tale of obsession set in a boarding school in the Swiss Alps, examines themes that continue to resurface in her work: familial dysfunction, emotional detachment, and a preternatural obsession with sadness or, as her narrator so poignantly puts it, the “pleasure of disappointment.”

Continue reading here:

Read the story “The Black Lace Veil” here:

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson (originally published at TQC)

I’ve been busy reading and writing reviews lately, but everything seems to be directed at the future, scheduled for publication at online literary journals. It’s all good, but you put so much work in and then have to wait to share your thoughts and engage in conversation about the book. My review of Darran Anderson’s monumental Imaginary Cities, published earlier this week in the Spring 2017 issue of The Quarterly Conversation is a case in point. This extended essay on the idea of the city, in all of its possible and impossible incarnations, does not readily lend itself to the confines of a critical review… I know, I’ve had a look around. Originally published in the UK in 2015 (Influx Press), my piece has been written in anticipation of the North American release from University of Chicago Press next month. As I struggled to beat this essay into submission, I cast an eyeball at prior reviews. After all, it is already a well-known and well-loved work. And I was relieved to see that the best anyone can do is skim the surface of Anderson’s rambling, eclectic, and immensely readable tome.

The original publication where this review appeared seems to be offline or closed so my work is reproduced below:

Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson.  University of Chicago Press. $22.50, 576 pp.

Imagine a city that you cannot contain, a city that forms and reforms itself around you constantly, a city that continues to change while your memories remain lodged in a reality that moves further into the past every day. That is the city of a man with a ten-second memory. I know such a person. Severely injured in an accident more than thirty years ago, this man, a former client, is unable to lay down new memoires. He lives in the continual present, working from a frame of reference decades out of date. But in the moment he is a highly intelligent, logical thinker—he was a young lawyer at the time of his injury. To see him today, his memory impairment is not immediately apparent. He is meticulous about his appearance, well-spoken, and polite. He tries to cover for his confusion as much as possible.

For many years, this man has spent several hours a week volunteering at a downtown law firm. The purpose is to provide him with social stimulation, stave off boredom. He goes to “work” in a suit, briefcase in hand. A special needs taxi delivers him to and from his placement. One day, a storm slowed all traffic, and his ride was late to pick him up. In the driving snow he began to walk toward the last home he could remember. But he had not lived there in years, and downtown, with its signature landmarks, had shifted in the meantime. The city around him no longer conformed to the one he had known, but on its streets he was invisible, a business man like any other, lost in a truly imaginary city.

As one navigates the sprawling streets and avenues that spread out across the pages of Darran Anderson’s ambitious guidebook to the metropolitan ideal—past, present, and future—there is likely to be more than one occasion of disorientation, an invitation to entertain an entirely new way of understanding the possibilities of the urban reality. In this sense, Imaginary Cities is a map that encourages you to get lost. Subtitled A Tour of Dream Cities, Nightmare Cities, and Everywhere in Between, this journey is an open-ended inquiry into the myriad ways that the idea of the city has been conceived in history, art, literature, social theory, and architectural design—for better or worse.

Unlike the standard guidebook, Anderson offers his traveler no pictures, maps, or diagrams. This is intentional. Side trips are encouraged as the fancy strikes, and generous footnotes are provided for those who wish to follow up on quotes and references. (Of course, there is also the ease of stopping into Google for quick access to an image, biography, or further background material.) Anderson’s extended essay feels like spending time with an entertaining, well-read explorer who has traversed the cities of the imagination and returned with exotic tales that stretch back into pre-history and out into the solar system. We are in the presence of a modern-day Marco Polo who understands that “all cities can, and should be read.” His aim is to help us learn to trace these narratives ourselves.

Our guide is an Irish writer living in Scotland. He is neither an academic nor an architect, but his focus of attention lies in the intersection of culture, architecture, and technology. In a recent podcast, Anderson traced the genesis of this project to long-standing fascinations with cities and with the point at which reality and myth meet. As he became increasingly obsessed with architects and started looking through their plans, he found that beyond their iconic structures, each had drafted countless schemes and designs that would remain, for a variety of reasons, unrealized. With a different set of circumstances, then, the skylines and urban landscapes we know now could have been very different—as they once were in the past and will be in the future. The modern city is in flux and can perhaps best be understood only through a shifting kaleidoscope of angles and perspectives.

Dividing his book into seven sections, Anderson manages to pull together a wide range of interrelated ideas—from sources as diverse as myth, archaeology, art, film, urban studies, science fiction, architectural design, and many others—into a thematically structured, meandering discussion, at once densely packed and tangential. Yet the quality that makes this project so impressive also makes it very difficult to adequately capture in a review. It is a slippery beast. The themes explored are neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Amorphous, the content exceeds the boundary of the pages. Each section necessarily offers more, and less, than it promises—echoing so many of the architectural, community, and metropolitan schemes that come in and out of focus along the way. Dreams cannot be contained—in their fulfilment sacrifices must be made.

Nonetheless, it’s inspiring to see just how much Anderson manages to squeeze into his thematic discussions. For example, the section, “The Tower,” with its twenty-seven chapters, starts with the quixotic. We meet Tommaso Campanella, whose proposed “City of the Sun”—with its utopian vision of a center devoted to intellectual engagement and physical pleasures—landed him in a dungeon as a guest of the Church during the Inquisition. But his mind could not be confined and he continued to construct his designs in his imagination. He was not forgotten, and his ideas would continue to the inspire the civic utopias of his contemporary Francis Bacon and, later, Ivan Ilich Léonidiv, who dreamed up urban plans to try to save himself under Stalin. None of these imagined designs were realized, but that did not lessen their influence.

Subsequent chapters introduce Le Corbusier, the ambitious and eccentric pioneer of Modernism; stop by Mega-City One, the vast metropolis of the Judge Dredd comics; spend time contemplating the Ideal City in Renaissance art and philosophy; and spare a few minutes glancing at various attempts to envision a New Jerusalem before turning to the unfortunate, even tragic, communities founded by messianic leaders and madmen. And at this point, the journey is just getting started. From the ziggurat to the skyscraper, “The Tower” will examine the titular subject both on its own and as an integral part of the cityscape. In later sections, many of the projects and personalities met here will reappear in other contexts.

Ever avoiding the temptation to belabour a point with exhaustive detail, Anderson prefers to paint with broad strokes as he explores concepts and themes. But he continually manages to punctuate his narrative with pointed observations that bring us back, from wherever he has wandered, to moments and ideas we instantly recognize, tying his discursions back into the book’s multifaceted main thread. In the chapter, “Cinematic Dystopia of the Everyday,” for instance, he moves from the surreal silent cityscapes of Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari to the futuristic noir of Blade Runner, then to the soullessness of the consumer-driven society depicted by French director Jacques Tati in his ambitious film Playtime, for which he constructed a set to mimic a modern city:

Tati foresaw it all. Everywhere looks sedately impressive and like nowhere in particular. People are inherently lost. Traffic crawls in barbiturate carousels. The shocking thing watching it back now is not how contrived his sledgehammer and slapstick satire is, but how pertinent. The open plan office floors with their individual cubicles are rife now. The large glass facades, echoing the quiet desolation of Edward Hopper’s paintings, are everywhere. This is life as a glistening empty waiting room and it is a life we are increasingly forced to live all over the globe.

Here we are reminded that, as what once was presented as part of a dystopic (or, for that matter utopian) vision arrives, it soon becomes commonplace. It is easy to forget that the future is now, or rather, to quote William Gibson, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

The wide, eclectic sweep of Anderson’s project is fueled by an infectious sense of endless curiosity. One of the book’s greatest assets—perhaps the key to its success—lies in its author’s thoughtful, engaging tone. His lyrical, aphoristic prose offers a wealth of memorable lines. This is where his inner Marco Polo, channeled through Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, serves him well. He is an intelligent, witty, and consummate storyteller, never afraid to speculate, raise questions, and entertain ideas without the pressure to define and prove an overarching theory. But there is a persistent theme that runs through the book. It arises naturally from the earliest formations of human settlements and is so fundamental that it has essentially become part of the psycho-topography of the urban space, reflected in our mythologies, stories, and art. That is the endless tension between utopian aspiration and dystopian despair.

One might imagine that these are two opposite ends of the spectrum, but Anderson suggests that utopias and dystopias each imply the quality of the other, that is, every utopia contains its own dystopia and vice versa. Cities are fundamentally heterogeneous places. From their earliest incarnations, such as Uruk in Mesopotamia, they were marked by the production of an agricultural surplus and the development of social classes. Utopian visions with their idealistic, often philosophical or Puritanical agendas—the dream of a world without difference or inequity—tend to deny the very qualities that make city life possible, let alone vibrant and interesting. As a sort of heaven on earth, a utopia is rarely imagined for all, just as hell might be said to exist for those who want to imagine other people burning in it. And it is no question which scenario tends to capture the popular imagination. More visitors follow Dante and Virgil down into the depths of the Inferno than sign on for the subsequent treks through Purgatorio and Paradiso.

In the end, Imaginary Cities, is much more than a book. It is an ongoing project that invites participation. It opens conversations, challenges assumptions, exposes contradictions, and invites readers to lose themselves in the cities they live in, visit, and encounter in their dreams. And the discussion does not end when the final page is turned. Darran Anderson’s Twitter feed, @Oniropolis is a wonderful source of fascinating of images, links, and retweets guaranteed to keep the magic flowing.

 

 

On reading and writing and slowly going nowhere

I track the books I read, I have since I was in my early twenties—first in small hardcover journals, now on a spreadsheet. I’m not a spectacularly fast reader but in recent months my completion rate has fallen to a crawl. I have submitted a couple of reviews for publication elsewhere but my blog has seen few fresh posts. I’m probably reading half a dozen books, including several poetry and essay collections, but focus is hard to find and sustain. However, I am not a loss for the company of words. I have a couple of longer essays to edit for the upcoming Scofield, as well as final assignments for a copy editing course I’ve been taking; and I have to say that losing myself in the words of others from a perspective that draws from, and yet differs from, that of a reader or a writer, is proving to be exactly the distraction I needed.

These past few weeks have been difficult.

Thanksgiving was a trigger point; the first day where the magnitude of the recent losses—of my parents and one of my closest friends—hit home and hit hard. That aloneness that goes to the core. Rather than dissipating, the darkness grew, and despite some very positive events and occurrences in my life, it threatened to overwhelm. Within a week I was feeling seriously suicidal for the first time in more than twenty years. The only thing holding me back was the thought of all the work I would put my children and brothers through, something I know especially well as co-executor of my father’s will.

I have sought help. I have reached out.

It does not seem to be depression as much as grief; and it’s a multi-layered, complex grief. So although I still struggle, at times, against the feeling that I don’t want to keep on living; I am not feeling inclined to take matter into my own hands. Of course, none of this is aided by the fact that I have been fighting a vicious cold, hacking cough and all. Makes it very hard to find that spark, but I hope it’s rekindled soon. This is a hell of a way to live, but I’ll keep reading, sketching out ideas, and writing while I wait.

6412706291_3376c44b28_zThroughout all of this there has been goodness: A forthcoming review of a book that has, more than anything I have read for a long while, made me think about a way to approach some writing I have in mind (I will write about it when the review goes live); a long conversation with a Twitter friend who is still far away, but now close enough to call (a real treat because Twitter has been a little uncomfortable for me of late, but that’s another story); and the publication of an essay I wrote for Literary Hub. The essay is called A Reader’s Journey Through Transition, and I don’t know what was more exciting, publication day itself or seeing my name in the week-end review with other authors like Toni Morrison, Junot Diaz, Rabih Alameddine, and Marilynne Robinson!