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:

A few thoughts about reviewing Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson for 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.

So, without further ado, here is a link to my attempt to review Imaginary Cities. I wrote it back in early January—I think it took about two weeks, and even then I still felt I was sending Scott Esposito a bundle of superlatives at the end of the day.

And while you’re over there, have a look around, there are some great articles and reviews to check out!

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!