Reading and writing my way through uncertain times

These are anxious times. It is easy, if you think too much, to wonder about the value of putting pen to paper with an atmosphere of doubt lingering so heavily in the air. But then, if you think a little further, wavering gives way to urgency. Reading and writing become acts of resistance, distraction, and revitalization. Or, that is what I remind myself.

I don’t want to venture too far into politics, but it would be naïve to pretend that we are not facing an unpredictable future. This uneasiness has been heightened for me over the past few weeks by an unproductive job search and increasing concern about my financial security as I’ve watched my cash buffer dwindle. The truth is though, with a will awaiting grant of probate, I stand to eventually find myself in a much better financial position than I had ever could have imagined. It doesn’t mean I won’t have to secure some outside income, hopefully some of that ultimately coming from writing related services, but I do dare to dream of finally having more freedom after years of struggling with identity, mental illness, and the challenges of a state of single parenthood that has extended far beyond my expectations.

2015-08-09 17.37.38So, world affairs aside, what right do I have to be anxious and insecure about writing? I suppose it’s enough that I am human, but I am also plagued by the unshakable feeling that I’m an impostor. All my life, the only thing I ever really wanted to be was a writer. And no matter how difficult writing is (and always has been), I still feel deliriously guilty to have been afforded, over the past two years of stress leave, the time and space to connect with writers, readers, translators, and publishers. It is a gift I am not ready to give up, rather I want to mould a life that will allow me to continue to read, write, edit, and grow.

And yet, every time I sit down with a pen and paper, or open a blank Word document the same fear that I will never write another solid review or creative essay sets in. Impostor.

I have two longer term projects—an extended personal essay/memoir and a constraint-driven experimental piece—in the early formative stages. Consequently, much of my present reading is directed towards exploring the ways ideas can be developed and stories can be told.  But every now and again I come up against a work that triggers my insecurity.

loiteringCase in point: I am slowly making my way through Loitering by American essayist and short story writer, Charles D’Ambrosio, and after each essay I feel temporarily overwhelmed. I can easily see why the friend who kindly sent me this book speaks of it so highly. Rather than attempting to review the entire collection at once, I want to pull out and look at some of the individual pieces along the way. They are that good.

First of all, D’Ambrosio notes in his Preface that, for him, the right to doubt is essential to the successful personal essay. “Loitering,” the title piece, is a perfect illustration of how and why this works. The setting: The middle of the night, outside a residential complex in the Belltown district of Seattle. Yellow police tape cordons off several blocks, while a large contingent of policemen and a cluster of journalists and TV news reporters wait in the rain. D’Ambrosio arrives at the scene around 2:00 AM, drawn by the reports of domestic violence and a possible hostage taking. With a Hollywood-tinged sarcastic romanticism, he imagines the scenario:

This guy—the Bad Guy—apparently thought he was just going to drink a few beers and bounce his girlfriend against the walls and go to sleep, but instead of a little quiet and intimate abuse before bed he’s now got major civic apparatus marshaling for a siege outside his window. No sleep for him tonight, and no more secrets, either, not at this unholy intersection of anomie and big-time news.

The clichés he arrived with quickly fall away as he joins the vigil. Quite frankly he is in rough shape himself. One of the key drawing cards for D’Ambrosio on this night is simple lack of human contact. A recent fishing trip has left him with severe atopic dermatitis due to contact with neoprene and he’s just spent a week isolated at home—his fingers, neck, feet, and legs swollen and covered with weeping sores.  Medication and the constant tingling sensation prevents him from sleeping, crackheads have stolen his duffle bag from his truck leaving him without a belt or a raincoat and now, armed with file cards and a pen lest he find a story, he is standing in the dark, soaking wet with his pants falling down. Nothing like setting a memorable scene.

As the night wears on he spots a man, angry, looking a reporter, someone to listen to his story. He makes his way through the crowd of journalists but no one wants to hear him out—a wretched resident displaced by the hostilities unfolding in his building, he is not on their agenda:

He’s now caught in between, trapped in some place I recognize as life itself. It’s obvious he hasn’t been sober in hours and maybe years. If it could be said that these big-deal journalists have control of the story… then this guy is the anti-journalist, because in his case the story is steering him, shoving him around and blowing him willy-nilly down the street. The truth is just fucking with him and he’s suffering narrative problems. He began the night with no intention of standing in this rain, and his exposure to it is pitiful. As he moves unheeded like the Ancient Mariner through the journalists I feel a certain brotherly sympathy for him, and I’m enamoured of his utter lack of dignity.

Our hapless would-be reporter knows the man will be back and knows that he alone will listen to him. And so he meets Dennis, a vet, and his friend Tom, a Native American man. Through them he will learn more, in so much as anyone knows anything about the armed man holed up inside in one of the sparse low-income units, and the story, through the eyes and words of this most astute and sensitive observer becomes one of the tragedy of the poor and dispossessed rather than a dramatic shootout and fodder for the six o’clock news. After years of working in human services, the tableau D’Ambrosio paints of the evacuated residents relocated to a city bus to wait out the proceedings rings true—a scene that could easily be played out in my city, or any other North American centre for that matter:

Inside this bus what you see is pretty much a jackpot of social and psychic collapse, a demographic of bad news. Everybody in there’s fucked up in some heavy way, dragged out of history by alcohol, drugs, mental illness, physical decrepitude, crime, old age, poverty, whatever. Riding this bus in your dreams would give you the heebie-jeebies big-time. There are maybe ten or fifteen people on the bus but between them if you counted you’d probably come up with only sixty teeth. In addition to dental trouble, there are people leaning on canes, people twitching and barefoot with yellow toenails curled like talons, gray-skinned people shivering in gauzy nightgowns, others who just tremble and stare. They’ve been ripped out of their bedrooms and are dressed mostly in nightwear, which is something to see—not because I have any fashion ideas or big thesis about nighties and pj’s, but rather because, this surreal dawn, the harsh, isolated privacy of these people is literally being paraded in public. The falling rain, the bus going nowhere, the wrecked up passengers dressed for sleep, the man with the gun—these are the wild and disparate components of a dream, and I haven’t slept, and it’s just weird.

This passage, in fact the entire essay, left me breathless. This is not beautiful. It is raw, honest and real. In telling the story D’Ambrosio allows himself to be vulnerable and despite flashes of humour, one senses he is defeated by the sheer sadness of the whole affair. The reporters will head off to other stories, but he will be left on hold, filled with doubt, open to questions. Upon first reading I felt a sense of writerly inadequacy descend on me; returning to write about it and copy out significant passages I feel re-invigorated, inspired even.

I don’t know when this essay was originally published but it doesn’t matter. It contains a certain urban timelessness that stretches back through the twentieth century, yet is especially relevant today, with the pending threats to affordable healthcare and Medicaid in the US under the new administration. And so, I’m back where I’m started… uncertain times…

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio is published by Tin House Books.

A meditation on life and death: Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman

Once I became aware that this book existed, I knew I had to have it. So I ordered it immediately.

When it arrived and I went down to the bookstore to retrieve it (that is, release it from the bookseller who could not refrain from glancing through it as if he was regretting having to let it go), trusting some odd intuition that it might hint at something I was looking for. But, to be fair, I had little idea what to expect.

J’Lyn Chapman’s Beastlife is very small, fitting into the palm of the hand, or better yet, a pocket. An ideal companion for a walk in a park or natural area. I bought it with the idea that it might offer an unconventional provocation for a process of loosening, prying open, the closed window between my loss and the grief that I cannot begin to touch yet. At this point, in the first months following my parents’ deaths, mourning feels more like an empty space. Written of the body, mine and theirs. Confused. Contorted. Corporeal.

2016-08-21 19.53.09Not everyone would look to a book containing photographs of dead birds (albeit small, grainy black and white images), to find a voice for sorrow. For me it makes a strange sort of sense. It sounds morbid, but hopefully, if I manage to put to word the images that haunt my memories of my mother’s last month and days, I will be able to illustrate the beauty. If I have learned anything yet in these early days following the first significant losses of my life, it is that making sense of the death of those closest to us is at once universal and specific. And I lost both parents. Two very different relationships, two different circumstances, two separate yet entwined experiences of grief.

Of course, there is much more to Beastlife than photographs of birds.

This collection of essays—poetic meditations—on life and death, birds and beasts, and our human interaction with the natural world offers evocative, yet insistent reminders that we should strive to observe, engage with, and exist in this world with grace and compassion. Not that we, as humans, always succeed. Sometimes we are careless. And sometimes we are unthinkably cruel—inhuman even.

Death is a theme throughout, up close and afar. And violence too. Chapman explores the ways we intersect with nature—as hunters, naturalists, observers of atrocities, and, most fundamentally perhaps, bearers of new life. This tiny volume challenges the readers to reflect on our place in the cycle of life, in the beauty and the pain.

For me, at this time, when death is very much on my mind, there is an odd comfort in these pages.

The volume opens with “Bear Stories,” a series of very short pieces; raw, visceral prose poems that draw on the intimate complexity of our connection to the natural world. Bound with water, blood, fur, and feather the beauty is shocking, brutal, sublime. Drawn from an earlier longer form chapbook, these “stories” invite us to consider the world at gut level.

In the dark, a body is a pond. The night birds make hollow sounds, and then there is a sound of the mouth, pulled back, curled out. And so on. Fur catches the moon as it comes out barbed and dark. A vertical cut whines under the ribs, and the long grass keeps it from you.

The micro essays and meditations that comprise the central portion of  Beastlife are remarkably rich, drawing on a range of literary and critical resources. “A Catalogue and Brief Comments on the Archive Compiled and Written by the Ministry of Sorrow to Birds,” for instance, takes inspiration from Ovid, Heidegger, Barthes, Sebald, Tennyson and more. Despite its seemingly whimsical name, this is a more explicit meditation on death and dying framed against images, photographic and descriptive, of dead birds. The ministry of the title is an imagined institution dedicated to a form of archival lamentation, an understanding of death and mourning through the collection of photographic specimens. They seek and gather images into a growing chronicle of sorrow:

We were stopped, and looked down, in the walk by the bird, flies, cigarette, glint of coin. We saw the futility in keeping—the ornaments in hydriotaphia and their obsidian speaking something of its keeper. But the detritus we die alongside or do not die alongside, the litter jettisoned from our death and dying bodies or we die too quickly to regard, utter the currency of living things.

And there is this discomfort: the spectacle. Its hard edges. We have bodies too, we say, and we want them wrapped in webby husk, a film, a membrane huddled into self. But our bodies are still over-looked by our own flânerie, in which the world, and its subtle schism of that which is alive and that which is dead, becomes our final coup for all we have lost in the leaving. All the unmeasured ether, it flames with our light.

In death we are confronted with the fragility of the body—the body of the one who has died and, in reflection, our own. In her next essay, “We Continue to Unskin: On Taxidermy,” following Truth’s advice to Petrarch to constantly meditate upon his own mortality, Chapman contemplates mortality and the miracle of immortality which, paradoxically involves an engagement with death. Structured along lines from a poem by Paul Celan, this journey takes us through the a more familiar archive of natural history. From the delicate art of the taxidermist, preserving the form and imitation of natural life in the animal’s natural habitat, to the narrator’s own relentless search to find her place in the urban spaces she inhabits, the promise of immortality lies, of course, in language.

And yet every sentence has its beginnings and each animal, posed as it is in flight or in fright has its past-tense. Beauty, eternal gesture. I want to write sentences that stretch on toward desperation, as in the fugal voices that become discordant but still lovely, then recollected in harmony. At the apotheosis of the desperation, the line would break into clause or new sentence and the break would be the point of discord rather than calm, and still the dissolution would be reprieve, as when the healthy mind refuses any more annihilation and in its descent decides to rest. But there must be sentences that travel toward the desperate one. There must be travel.

The last entry, “Our Final Days,” echoes in form the contained short prose pieces of “Bear Stories,” but here the brutality is decidedly human—dispatches of cruelty, violence, and injury are played against the hope that some semblance of beauty in nature may preserve us. It’s a faint hope, a lament of an entirely different order. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in the disheartening news that floods our lives through our TVs and news feeds. Sometimes I find myself relieved that my parents will not see any more of the potential darkness that seems to ever loom on the horizon. But then I remember that I have two children. Life goes on. I reorient myself to the future again.

There is a woeful inadequacy that washes over me when I read more conventional memoirs of loss and explorations of grief. I keep peeking into odd corners, turning over rocks to see what crawls out. Reading books like Beastlife.

I keep the other poetic evocations of grief, the books I am amassing, close at hand. I read them to stir up and open the gates that are still secured against the flood of choked tears, the barricades of numbed sadness, that do not seem to be able to allow more than a slow leak in occasional shuddered gasps. At the moment mourning feels more like emptiness. I feel a need to find a starting point with death, with these particular deaths, with watching each one on their deathbeds, before I can find and begin to work through the grief.

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman is published by Calamari Archive.

Honouring the unwritten: The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić

“Not writing is always a relief and sometimes a pleasure. Writing about what cannot be written, by contrast, is the devil’s own job. Yet words on a page make all things possible.”

Central to this collection of brief odes to the fictional inspirations that once planted, failed to germinate, refused to take root and grow, or died off before even hitting the soil; is one full and essentially complete story – the magical titular “The Loss Library”. Surrounding this tale, to either side on the book shelf of South African author Ivan Vladislavić’s imagination lie a selection of meditations on the curious nature of the creative process and the many ways that an intriguing idea can lose its way on the path to realization, finding itself shelved in the place of the might-have-been, filed away in a writer’s own personal loss library. Looking back at the notes and outlines he explored during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the unsettling years of transition from apartheid to a democratic state, Vladislavić notes that his inspirations tended to arise from documentary sources – the past perhaps seeming more sound than the bloody history being made on the streets of his country at the time. Moving forward, within the scope of the “case studies” selected for this book, the pieces and fragments he gathers turn to dictionaries, reference materials and the “means to read and write – or not read and not write – books.”

2015-12-09 15.08.34But let us begin in the middle, at “The Loss Library”. With a clear nod to Borges, the master of the library of the imagination, a young man arrives at a most unusual archive, a repository of the all of the unfinished works, possible and impossible of all the writers who have ever lived. He is greeted by an attractive librarian. Fit and tanned she is the antitheses of what he expects. As she guides him into the library she first steps into slippers and advises him to do the same. They literally glide across the polished floors of the rooms and corridors as she directs his personal tour of the premises. The first room contains a single glassed in cabinet containing the books that would have been written had their would-be authors not chanced to die young:

“‘Arranged alphabetically and classified by cause of death.’ A wave of her slender hand. ‘Accidental death. Booze, of course. Disease – those old standbys, consumption and syphilis, and the new one, AIDS, a growing collection. Duels – little sign of growth there. Motor accidents. Murder. Suicide. A disproportionate number of Russians and Japanese, as you’d expect, and quite a few of your countrymen and women too.’”

As our protagonist leans in for a closer look, he can recognize no words on the spines. He tells the librarian he is looking for Bruno Schulz. Filed down with the war dead, six little volumes are found but he is not allowed to see them… after all, opening such a book could have consequences in all the others, in essence I suppose, the way fiddling with the future given access to a time machine might. In this library of potential works, one can’t risk having people “talk them into being.”

2015-12-09 15.02.54Together they encounter a room filled with books that remain unwritten because their authors lost faith in them, and he is shown a collection of the books that lost their way or were talked out of existence before they had a chance to be realized. They pass through a room containing books that were destroyed, stop at a shelf of books that comes into being by evocation of the proper author’s name (any guesses?) and, finally, enter a room of floating, ghostly, ethereal books – those that presented themselves to their would-be writers in dreams. In the end, is this excursion through the Loss Library a fantasy, the beginning of book that the young man himself will write into being, or another story that might have been, relegated to the back of a notebook, the bottom of a drawer or, in this day and age, lost somewhere on a hard drive?

Returning now to the startling opening essay, Vladislavić describes his attraction to the famous photograph of Robert Walser lying dead in the snow on Christmas Day, 1956, and reflects upon the way that the isolated image fueled his imagination before had even read any of Walser’s work. He contemplates writing a story about the writer’s last days, about that fateful final walk, the curious absence of footsteps or bystanders around the body, the precision the photographer must have employed to capture this solemn record, and with particular fascination, the dead man’s hat lying in the snow. However, before he sits down to write, Vladislavić engages in a little research and finds another photograph, taken from a different angle. From this vantage point he can now see many footprints in the snow, two men off to the side, and realizes that even the hat has fallen differently than he imagined. The curious, romantic and uncomfortable questions – the necessary elements of the creative process – are shattered.

As he continues to rifle through the pages of his notebooks, Vladislavić explores a variety of mislaid ventures, the inspiration or ideas behind them and the reasons they fell off the rails or, perhaps, only flickered for a moment or two. “Gross”, an intended venture into the land of the OuLiPo in which he set for himself a series mathematical constraints within which he would construct a novel, proves unsuccessful. Along the way, the character he was creating to take centre stage, morphed into someone else who would, ultimately wander off to join the cast of another novel,The Restless Supermarket, but more critically, he found himself completely overwhelmed by the prospect of the challenge he had set and decided that this type of approach was best left to Perec, et al.

In a later example, he describes his fascination with an unassuming sign on the side of a building in his Johannesburg neighbourhood that simply reads “Gravity Addict” with a phone number. He begins to wonder what a gravity addict is and how that might be imagined in a story. He thinks about the post 9/11 performance artist in Don Delillo’s The Falling Man, contemplates the structural format of that novel, and eventually imagines a woman, an aspiring writer, sitting on her sofa watching endless episodes of old cartoons – the ones where characters repeatedly chase each other off the edge of cliffs – and then, when one day the innocuous meaning behind the mysterious appellation “gravity artist” is revealed to him, his interest in the story instantly dissolves and he can go no further.

Finally, in light of the recent re-release of Vladislavić’s first novel, The Folly, the story “The Acrobats” special attention. In this outline for a story we see a man in a library reading a book. At some point he closes that book and retrieves a copy of Tristram Shandy from the stacks. He seeks out a particular passage which in turn, is a lengthy quotation from Gragntua and Pantagruel by Rabelais, so he stops and wanders off to fetch that text and goes on to read from the original, or rather a translation of the original, the same quoted passage describing the wild acrobatic exploits of Gymnaste, performed on horseback, as he faces down an enemy combatant. As such, Vladislavić envisions a post-modern inversion of a book within a book within a book, the initial level being, of course, at once the book that both the man and his reader are reading. However, the idea is set aside, in part due to the complication of modern versus contemporary translations of the nested passages.

Several years later, in the writing of The Folly, Vladislavić sees his character Nieuwenhuizen, the eccentric stranger who arrives out of nowhere to take ownership of and build a house on a vacant lot, as a direct descendant of Gymnaste. As he marks out the foundation of the ephemeral house that he will ultimately construct out of imagination and thin air, Nieuwenhuizen engages in his own acrobatic measurements, leaping, somersaulting, and throwing himself around the lot. Could the earlier story now be revived, with The Folly as the third book in the line, he wonders, could he develop the idea that his “ostensibly post-modern novel stood in a pre-modern tradition”? Ah, but for the paradox that his outline for “The Acrobats” was written three to four years before The Folly, how could a story refer to a book that had yet to be written?

Yet Vladislavić was, it would seem, not quite done with his potential story. Several years later he encountered the 18th century French writer, Diderot, who was a contemporary of and acquainted with Laurence Sterne. Although the publication of Rameau’s Nephew would arise through a circuitous route, there was an indication apparently, that Diderot’s initial sketches for the eccentric, rambling character who engages the narrator of his novel could have roughly coincided with the publication of Tristram Shandy. Now he wants to fictionally trace the lineage of Nieuwenhuizen from Sterne via Rameau… except for a new paradox that arises. The Folly was written before his discovery of Rameau’s Nephew. How could his own novel be influenced by a work he had not read?

In his note at the end of this account of the stubborn death of a story idea, Vladislavić can look back and recognize that, as a young writer, he demonstrated too great a concern with precedent. Wiser now, he remarks:

“Every writer belongs to one bastard bloodline or another, and laying claim to one can be a liberating lesson in perspective. But standing on the shoulders of giants is a skill that comes from long practice. When you start out, you are more likely to get under their feet. Don’t be surprised if the giants – or their legitimate progeny – come stomping after you in the playground: ‘We walk straight so you better get out of the way!’”

And herein lies the true gift of this slender collection of artistic musings,and inspirational dead ends – the insertion throughout of the author’s updated reflections on his varied false starts. There is no writer or would-be writer who does not have an accumulated hoard of ideas, outlines and abandoned projects. If they don’t, one ought to be suspicious.

Wandering through The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories is a rare privilege to spend time in the company of a thoughtful, gifted writer who truly appears to be without pretensions. This journey, contained within the covers of a finely crafted hardcover from the singular Seagull Books and accompanied by the original collages of Sunandini Banerjee, is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and treasure to return to time and again. After all, there may well be, within these pages, the inspirational seeds of other stories just waiting for the right gardener to plant them and bring them to fruition.