The poet who learned to fly: The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli

In the years when written words were indecipherable signs, entrusted to a world that I couldn’t even reach on tiptoes, a book would be opened only for its illustrations or because my father’s voice was passing through it, over completely unknown roads, although his index finger seemed to trace them out, leaving short trails in which black letters, like objects in a magical night, came to life, silently spelling out in unison the same story which, open and ready to shift and change its pictures, my father was holding on his chest. It was his voice that brought the stories to us as we three were half-lying in the big bed where my little brother was staying up late, with his tiny ears that would soon close, containing a trail of sound and sense in the warm silence.

– from “The Enchantment of Death: Briar Rose”

If the first books read to us as children opened a world of strange symbols, hypnotic rhythms, and elliptical meanings, translations from foreign languages similarly open a doorway to landscapes and experiences at once distant and familiar. They introduce us to the images and words of writers we might not hear otherwise. Their stories. Their ideas. Their poetry.

The work of Italian poet Franca Mancinelli was first formally made available to English-speaking audiences through a small dual language collection of enigmatic, fragmentary prose poems, The Little Book of Passage, translated by John Taylor and published in 2018. These brief pieces which first appear to explore the vagaries of transit, packing, leaving, travel, soon begin to slide toward the examination of an existential space between internal and external reality—seeking form in that wordless, restless terrain of perception and experience. It was, and remains, a book that speaks to so much of my own sense of groundlessness. A collection containing Mancinelli’s two earlier volumes of poetry, At An Hour’s Sleep From Here: Poems (2007-2019), followed a year later. Once again her work is presented in a dual language format. Like her prose poems, her verses tend to be brief, spare, with an openness and space framing  unanswerable questions of identity, self and the insufficience of our connections with other beings.

Her newly released collection, The Butterfly Cemetery: Selected Prose (2008 – 2021), stands as an illuminating counterpoint and companion to Mancinelli’s poetic work. Her most important stories, personal essays and writings about the poetic spirit are gathered here, including several pieces which have not yet appeared in print in Italian, presented, as before in both languages, and completed with a comprehensive assessment of her work written by Taylor, her long-time translator. For someone who has read her poetry, this collection offers further insight into the creative heart and soul of the poet herself—and that is not to imply that she gives herself away, for Mancinelli is a poet who manages to address the intimate and the universal, by speaking from the essential boundaries of experience—because, in her prose, one can begin to feel how her poetic sensibilities were born and nurtured and share in her vision of where poetry comes from.

Of course, it is not necessary to be previously acquainted with her poetry to appreciate the stories and essays contained in The Butterfly Cemetery (although it may well inspire a reader to seek them out), because this work offers its own rich rewards. If Mancinelli’s poems tend to be very open and spare, in her prose there is a profound lyric intensity. Her writing breathes, deeply and slowly, as her images, ideas and reflections rise, disappear and surface again. The book opens with stories and essays that strike a personal note, evoking memories of childhood and early adulthood, some sentimental, some gently fictionalized, and others tinged with aching and longing. In many of these early pieces, one encounters a sensitive, wistful dreamer, as in the title story about a young child fascinated by butterflies who does not realize her desire to touch their wings will kill them, or the exquisitely simple “How the Fire Loves,” a fable of a little girl who escapes to the comfort of the fireplace after supper:

She had curled up alone on the sofa. The television was turned off, and she was watching the fire in the fireplace, shivering as if it were cold. The fire cannot be caressed by anyone. It is always a little distant from the others, in its own space, alongside newspapers and pieces of wood; they will be in its arms, until they become ashes. This is how the fire loves.

The second section moves further away from the childhood home and the confused pain of first love, to explore the self in relation to natural landscapes and urban environments. Mancinelli wanders, on foot, by ferry and by train, observing and meditating on the landscape and communities that have formed and influenced her. There is a branching out and a cycling back to the people and places of her homeland—the hills, fields, and the waters that have cradled her family for generations. The tension between the desire to leave, the pull to return and the attempt to delineate the fragile borders of a personal geography are recurring themes. One senses that the weight of existence in a land with such a long historical, artistic and intellectual legacy both grounds and troubles the questions of identity and belonging that emerge from the shadows cast by her words. She is ever aware, in her prose as in her poetry, of the importance of darkness as a fundamental source of growth and understanding.

And that brings us to the third and final section of The Butterfly Cemetery. Here, Mancinelli the writer turns her focus to the nature of her own personal, creative relationship with words, and, more specifically, with the existential origins of poetic expression. She writes about the absolute urgency with which she first turned to writing, beginning in adolescence, as a means of “speaking” that which she could not find a way to voice, isolated and alone on the edge of her circle of friends. Feeling she was yielding her words to others, she reclaimed them with her pen:

I wrote within myself, on my body so deeply that ever since, I have taken the road on which I now walk. If had brought that sentence to my mouth, today I would be another person. The part of my life that I have spent up to now would have been different. This is why for me, everything continues to be staked on words. With words I have an unsettled account. (“Yielding Words”)

She speaks about the process of writing poetry with honesty, from the tentative beginnings to the frustrated failures—the lines that will never take flight—in “A Line is a Lap and Other Notes on Poetry” and talks about being mistaken for a traffic policewoman as she stands on a street taking notes in the notebook she always has close at hand. But it is the vital connection to poetry as a “practice of daily salvation” that comes through in the most powerful of these essays. Mancinelli is attuned the essential quality of poetic language, tracing its existence to the moment before it comes into being. In the wonderful piece “Poetry, Mother Tongue” she suggest that writing is the act of trying to translate what is already written within us, of looking into the empty space between “the unknown and nothingness”:

I believe that poetry is a voice that passes through us. For this reason I always begin with a lowercase letter when I write. I’m not beginning anything. I’ve only caught something that I stammer into this broken language, which crumbles and breaks in silence.

Before the words there is a rhythm: a cadence that suddenly reaches us, in silence through a hollow space that we carry inside us.

There is a strong sense in Mancinelli’s view of poetics that writing itself is a dangerous act, one that calls us to face the dark and the difficult, one that takes us into our own “darkroom,” that place where we are most vulnerable. “Writing,” she tells us, “is a soul surgery that calls for a steady hand, and a deep place to which uncertainty and tremor can be convoked. It is an act of internal self-surgery.” And yet in the writing, there is a possibility of decentring and being set free. Poetry (and prose) that arises from within, although grounded in direct experience and observation, allows for space and a measure of abstractedness to guide writer, and reader, from the individual toward the universal.

But, to return, once more, to the ability of translation to open doors to those who lack the fluency to read a writer’s work in its original language, John Taylor’s collaboration with Franca Mancinelli, has brought one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Italian poetry to a wider audience. Unexpectedly that has also come to have a special resonance for me. Shortly after I read and reviewed The Little Book of Passage, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with the poet in Kolkata when a visit I made happened to overlap with her poetry residency in the city. Her English far outpaced my non-existent Italian and although I felt no lack in our conversations, all of the subsequent interviews, poetry and prose that has become available in English has only deepened my appreciation and affection for her sensitivity and vision. Translation truly expands the world as we know it.

The Butterfly Cemetery by Franca Mancinelli is translated by John Taylor and published by Bitter Oleander Press.

Each to his own “green truth”: Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies is more than a simple tribute to French poet and essayist Francis Ponge by fellow poet Philippe Jaccottet, it is a deeper examination of the way creative influences sift through a writer’s own process of literary development. The two men first met in 1946, when the latter was barely twenty years-old and, as Jaccottet recounts, he imagines that, though he said nothing, the older man likely had his reservations about his youthful lyric enthusiasms. Nonetheless, a friendship between them would form and continue for over forty years. When Ponge died in 1988 at the age of 89, Jaccottet was among the mourners at his funeral in a rustic graveyard in Nîmes. It is with his reflections that day—a piece intended to stand alone—that this small, special book has its origin.

The funeral was a modest affair on a bright summer day, but it was not one without qualities that seem to Jaccottet oddly fitting for his friend. The pastor arrived quietly by bicycle and chose to recite the 23rd Psalm beside the family vault, “because the deceased was a poet.” King David’s ode to his heavenly shepherd and “green pastures” was followed by a simple reading of Ponge’s “The Meadow” by actor Christian Rist:

“Carried away suddenly by a sort of peaceful enthusiasm / In favor of a truth, today, which is green. . .” This kind of albeit distorted echo, over some thirty centuries, was thus perhaps even stranger and more striking than the rest (the vast, noble, abandoned cemetery and this burial, as if for an unknown person, of a writer so legitimately famous).

This juxtaposition sets the scene for Jaccottet’s homage to Ponge—a poet whose domain was the minute examination of the everyday—calling attention to his commitment to a “green truth” and the remarkable vigour with which he defended it. A sketch of a strong character, given to both “excessive intolerance” and “most generous enthusiasms” emerges, composed in the emotion of the moment of loss. It is not surprising, then, that despite the many formal arguments he had offered in praise of his friend over the years, Jaccottet felt a personal need to articulate what essentially separated him from Ponge’s work. So he started to write a follow up.

However, the expansion of this text into its final form was not an immediate or obvious project. In his Postface, written in 2013 when he was preparing for the original French publication, Jaccottet admits that he was not inclined to work his sentiments through to a natural end. Others encouraged him to think otherwise, but still he delayed, out of laziness or, perhaps, out of fear that entertaining his reservations might be disrespectful to a man he had continued to admire and think of with great affection. But this recognition of the complex interplay of influence and divergence, explored with a perspective stretching over more than two decades lends depth to this slender volume.

Jaccottet begins with a consideration of two of Ponges’ heroes: François de Malherbe (1555-1628), the French poet and critic who insisted on strict form, restraint and purity of expression, and composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) whom Ponge proclaimed as the artist who interested him more than any other with a style “of the kind that awakens: male, energetic, and  ardent.” If these men spoke to the inspiration that charged his friend, Jaccottet takes care to look at how his own response and tendencies diverge. As he moves on to discuss the way their approaches to writing start from contrasting points of view or ways of looking—one precise and object-oriented, the other lyrical trial-and error experimentation open to the “fleeting impression.” However, even if the origin and ends differ, he can acknowledge that his thinking on questions, such as the “enigma of purity” has been influenced by Ponge’s concern with that which is “pure” or “true.” One’s questing can be furthered, after all, in discourse with those whose creative inclinations deviate from one’s own. And throughout this text, Jaccottet is careful to reiterate his respect and fondness for Ponge, a feeling that he is assured in reviewing the volume of correspondence they exchanged over the years, was returned.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies offers a tribute and a uniquely honest, yet sensitive critique. Jaccottet writes very thoughtfully, entertaining ideas about poetry, death, and the particular dynamics of the relationship between himself and Ponge in a manner that does not require a deep familiarity with the work of either man. In this regard, the extensive footnotes, based on Jaccottet’s own but expanded by translator John Taylor, are helpful and informative. I will confess that I have acquired more than a few volumes of Jaccottet’s work over the years, but until this time I’ve not seriously engaged with any, feeling, perhaps, a little intimidated or uncertain where to start. This book has ignited my interest and opened the door or, as Jacottet might say, a crack in that wall.

Ponge, Pastures, Prairies by Philippe Jaccottet is translated by John Taylor and published by Black Square Editions.

A special type of perception: Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář

I first encountered the work of Jiří Kolář (1914-2002), one of the most important poet/visual artists in post-war Europe—a man for whom the two descriptors very often went hand in hand—through A User’s Manual, first published in English translation in 2019. This intentional pairing of his so-called “action poems” written in the 1950s and 60s with collages from the series “Weekly 1967” was originally published together in 1969 and reproduced handsomely by excellent Prague-based indie press Twisted Spoon. Now, with the release of Responses · Kafka’s Prague, another of the Czech artist‘s idiosyncratic pairings, an intriguing overview of his opinions and reflections on the intersection of literature and art is set against a collection of his distinct “crumplages.” Again it makes for an unusual yet beautifully presented volume which also speaks to his creative processing as displayed in both this and A User’s Manual.

Responses is a sort of one-sided investigation, or what Kolář called an “imaginary interview,” a set of seventy-one answers without questions. Compiled in Prague and Paris in 1973, the topics covered include the development of his artistic sensibility, the writers, artists and movements that had an influence on him, and a discussion of technique. It has a thoughtful, conversational, musing-out-loud sort of feel and a sense of direction that is not explicit or artificial but gives the work a natural flow.

From the outset,  Kolář makes it clear that he sees art as part of the “general drive toward universal knowledge” and as such there can be nothing extrinsically new that is not a departure from that which is already innate to the practice. Art and literature are disciplines that do not create anything new so much as they create new ways of looking at (and using) what is already there, a “special type of perception.” As in science, artists are engaged in exploration and investigation, and those he admires, such as Mallarmé and those who followed in his footsteps, are those who become dissatisfied with the status quo. For Kolář this leads him to analyze and reflect upon what various poets were doing with language, and ultimately realize he had to dismantle language itself:

For me the destruction of poetic language followed the same path and the same type of perception as did a new and different perception in other disciplines. As I’ve already said, this is primarily the case in [modern] music and the visual arts. I was speaking about a type of perception — what I mean is that I couldn’t keep seeking poetry in the written word. I had to go beyond the written word. It meant finding another, living language.

There is a distinct restlessness to Kolář’s self-described poetic and artistic evolution, accentuated by the casual style of this particular discourse, but then he was working in trying times. Deemed publicly undesirable by the Communist government in Czechoslovakia he spent time in prison, saw the publication of much of his work delayed, and would eventually end up living in exile. Responses, however, is not concerned with political revolution, but rather with his artistic interests and endeavours, past and current. As translator Ryan Scott points out in his Translator’s Note, this work “should not be read as Kolář’s final word but as capturing a particular moment in time amid his creative flux.” Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting look into an original creative mind.

Kolář’s international reputation rests largely on his innovative collage techniques. He is so fond of printed materials—newspapers, letters, tickets, receipts—not only as raw materials but for the moment-in-timeness captured in them that one wonders how he would have adapted artistically to our increasingly digital environment. The present volume contains a series of “cumplages” constructed from photographs of buildings and landmarks in Prague, paired with brief quotes from Kafka’s writings. In these images, the shapes and angles of the structures are distorted, twisted and bent out of shape. The effect is quite striking and perfectly “Kafkaesque.” The process follows a specific routine, starting with moistened paper:

Crumpling must be done fast and carefully, and it’s difficult to predict results with this technique because it’s always the brother of chance. Because the moist paper is crumpled and the work has to be finished fast, hardly any adjusting can be done.

Later on he mentions that his “best crumplages were created from reproductions that readers had coloured themselves.” He delights in the touches human hands have left behind coming through in his art. Among the thirty-four images employed in Kafka’s Prague are buildings directly associated with the writer’s life, and other structures Kafka would have known well. (You can get a sense of the book here.) To have this work so beautifully reproduced in this book is a treat in itself, together with Responses it is an enriched experience.

Responses · Kafka’s Prague by Jiří Kolář is translated from the Czech by Ryan Scott and published by Twisted Spoon Press.

We mourn us: Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza

I don’t quite know where to begin to attempt to write about this book. The historical roots and global and economic crosscurrents that course through the so-called War on Drugs that has openly threatened the fabric of Mexican society since 2006 go back much further. Yet, as I understand it, when President Felipe Calderón sent troops to his home state in a bid to end the longstanding drug violence there, the action initiated the ongoing conflict between the government and the drug cartels, that has effectively brought an unspeakable brutality out of the margins and into the daily lives of the country’s citizens. It has become a war against the Mexican people, and a war against women.

Cristina Rivera Garza’s hybrid essay collection Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country gathers twenty-eight pieces—some personal, some journalistic, some literary—as a tribute to the power of language in the face of unrelenting fear and violence, and at times her words leave you gasping for breath. It is not a comfortable read. She writes about the barrage of visceral attacks that reduce human beings to unrecognizable bodies, tortured and mutilated, and of the killings, targeted and incidental, that rob mothers of their children, communities of their respected members, families of loved ones. And she writes about femicide, the murder of women, that too often goes unpunished. Like that of her own sister.

But what to do? How to address this accumulating pain, the pain of an entire people? Grieving in this context is not a mere process of coming to terms, to peace with a loss. There is no peace, the losing is relentless, the grief exponential. In Rivera Garza’s passionate, gut wrenching Introduction she speaks of the importance of recognizing the shared experience, the shared voice:

When everything falls silent, when the gravity of the facts far surpasses our understanding and even our imagination, then there it is—ready, open, stammering, injured, babbling—the language of pain, the pain we share with others.

And this is the importance of suffering, for where suffering lies, so, too, does grieving: the deep sorrow that binds us within emotional communities willing and able to face life anew, even if it means, or especially when it means, radically revising and altering the world we share. There, where suffering lies, so, too, does the political imperative to say, You pain me, I suffer with you, I grieve myself with you. We mourn us.

The texts that follow include published and unpublished essays, poems and crónicas, Spanish pieces translated Sarah Booker along with some originally written in English. For admirers of her enigmatic, dark novels like The Iliac Crest and the Taiga Syndrome, Grieving offers an opportunity to hear the acclaimed Mexican author speak directly to the tragic state of her country with painful honesty, strength and hope.

The works that comprise this collection are varied and relatively short, but the intensity of the material may be best processed and appreciated by taking a few pieces at a time. As someone with little understanding of the political reality of present day Mexico—awareness of the gruesome violence and the dangers to citizens and, at times, visitors, yes, but limited comprehension of the dynamics at play—I was continually faced with my own instinctive reaction to the idea of living under the conditions in which so many Mexicans find themselves on a daily basis. Rivera Garza’s language is powerful, poetic, but so much of what she touches on is grim, raw and heartbreaking. A central unifying construct is her notion of The Visceraless State—one that lacks political acknowledgement of the human body and its individual subjectivity—arguing that by engaging in this mis-named Drug War, the Mexican government has placed maximum profits above its obligations and responsibilities to its own citizens.

Essay collections are sometimes weighed down by a degree of sameness, a feeling that the same or similar themes are being rehashed, rather than viewed anew as the work progresses. Although Grieving is an attempt to articulate the present situation in Mexico, it is not an explicitly historical or journalistic effort. It is, rather, a human response, from a woman who is not just a reader and a writer, but  “a mother and a daughter and a sister. A grieving sister.” Rivera Garza is writing from within her personal experiences, offering astute intellectual observances only as needed. The result is an eclectic, thematically focused exploration, yet one that picks up refrains, images and stories, calling on them again and again through the course of the book.

This is, then, a work that cannot be easily summarized. I was fascinated by several of the pieces that spoke about books not yet translated into English and their authors’ perspectives and contributions to an understanding of forces at play—not just in Mexico but in other analogous situations in social and political history. Cruelty and inhumanity is not the sole domain of any particular time or place. But there are a few key pieces that I found especially powerful. “I Won’t Let Anyone Say Those Are the Best Years of Your Life” examines the impact of drug based violence on youth through testimonies contained in a volume called Estos últimos años en Ciudad Juárez (2020) which looks at the recent period in Ciudad Juarez, a city on the Rio Grande, south of El Paso, Texas, and the price paid by the people there. Rivera Garza frames the lived reality:

No survives a war unscathed. Just as rivers feed nearby land by virtue of their mere existence, wounds run deep and pain seeps through every inch of the body. No action, no word, no gesture is unconnected to war. Similarly, actions and words and gestures remain linked to a growing alertness, a critical consciousness, about the sources of tragedy and loss. There are laments in the book, but they are never disassociated from the rage and indignation against a Visceraless State and the profit-making cartels. Wounded and on their toes at the same time, the people who remember their youth in a war-ravaged Ciudad Juárez, while still, in many cases, confronting the damage brought upon them by forces larger than their own, speak directly and to the point: We were robbed, many testify. They robbed us of our youth, indeed, but more importantly, they robbed us of our future.

Another especially powerful entry that again takes us back to Ciudad Juárez is “The Longest Sunday.” This essay recounts, in 13 brief numbered segments or chapters, a day Rivera Garza spent in the city. She is heading there to meet a woman whose testimony was included in the volume discussed in the piece mentioned above (which appears in any earlier part of Grieving). Luz Mariá Dávila had lost her only two sons in a violent massacre in 2010. Their meeting is sensitively portrayed. But this visit also brings to the surface the author’s own anxiety before arriving in a city that occupies “a sadly privileged place in our geographies of contemporary horror” to which increasing reports of femicides had also been added:

I remember the wide streets, empty of people, the string of abandoned houses that lined the road all the way from the airport to the hotel. A black hole in the very heart of the city. An immovable immobility. That way of repeatedly looking over your shoulder like you were expecting the worst, sure it would come at any second.

Her account unfolds under the quiet burden of grief, of pain, carried not simply in the story of one grieving mother’s sorrow and stubborn resolve, but in the complex emotions that Rivera Garza wrestles with under the “overwhelmingly blue sky” on that Sunday in Ciudad Juárez.

This is just a very brief sampling of this vital collection. For a taste of the intensity and insight, Rivera Garza brings to her essay writing, I can point you to a slightly different edit of the second last piece in this work which I had the great honour to publish in the spring of 2020 when I was an editor with 3:AM Magazine. Written in the early days of the pandemic when Trump was still President, “Touching is a Verb: The Hands of the Pandemic and Its Inescapable Questions” is not only an ever relevant meditation on the impact of COVID-19 on our relationships but a cautiously optimistic look ahead to the possibility of a Visceral State. It can be found here. Only time will tell what more questions and answers the pandemic will bring, but hope must be maintained, against all odds.

Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza is translated by Sarah Booker and published by Feminist Press.

Departure is Liberation: All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach

On a journey the face of reality changes with the mountains and rivers, with the architecture of the buildings, the layout of the gardens, with the language, the skin colour. And yesterday’s reality burns on in the pain of parting; the day before yesterday’s is a finished episode, never to return; what happened a month ago is a dream, a past life. (“The Steppe”)

Swiss writer, photographer and journalist, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, remains, coming up on eighty years after her untimely death at the age of thirty-four, an enigma. A striking androgynous beauty, she grew up in luxury, and was dressed as a boy by her bisexual mother with whom her relationship remained complex and codependent.  Yet, a certain estrangement with her family began when she befriended Thomas Mann’s children, Erika and Klaus, both of whom were homosexual and politically engaged in anti-fascist movements. They introduced her to an intellectual environment in which she could express her own attraction to women, but they also introduced her to morphine, leading to an addiction that would haunt the rest of her life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Annemarie began to travel, frequently on her own, through the countries of the Middle East, forays that would establish her career as a photojournalist. Over the course of her lifetime she would make return trips to Persia, two trips to America, travels through the Baltic States and up to Moscow, but it is perhaps her journey in a Ford, overland from Geneva to Afghanistan in 1939, with ethnologist and filmmaker Ella Maillart, that has become synonymous with the reputation as an adventurous early  LGBT icon that she has acquired since her relatively recent “rediscovery.”

Ella Maillart’s account of their trip, The Cruel Way, was published in 1947, five years after Schwarzenbach’s death from a brain injury caused by a fall from her bicycle. It is considered a classic of travel literature, but the name of her troubled and transcendent companion was changed to Christina, presumably at the intervention of Annemarie’s family. Although Schwarzenbach herself was a widely published author in her time and did manage to place some of her own Afghan-related material while the Second World War consumed journalistic attention, it was not until a curated selection of her essays and reflections on the experience was published in Germany in 2000, that her own version of their journey was given full voice. All the Roads Are Open: An Afghan Journey 1939 – 1940, published in 2011 by Seagull Books, in Isabel Fargo Cole’s lucid translation, offers a mix of automotive adventure and a lyrical, passionate account of a land and the people that enchanted her.

Although I didn’t realize it when I started reading, All the Roads Are Open is not intended as a single cohesive piece, but as a thematic, roughly chronological assemblage of short pieces written largely as Schwarzenbach made her way by steamship back to Europe from Bombay. As such the “chapters” have a quality not seen in more typical travel writing—these are descriptive passages tied to communities, encounters, and landscapes, and the images which hold most vividly in her memory drive her account and are revisited in several pieces. Thus it is clear which experiences had a profound impact on her. At the same time, there is little about the deterioration of her relationship with Maillart, and no mention of her romantic attractions or resumed drug use (if such material exists at all as much of her work was destroyed by her mother after her death), but a kind of sadness and isolation does rest beneath the surface in some passages. As well, certain described episodes seem to be the possible product of poetic license, but none of this matters; Schwarzenbach leaves us with a memorable, exciting and insightful look at a way of life in Afghanistan that was on the verge of disappearing—in more profound ways that she could have imagined.

The journey, two women travelling alone across a rugged, lonely terrain on roads that could fade into rough tracks, was met with concern and skepticism by many. Schwarzenbach revelled in the independence and their decisions to take the more challenging routes—confident in her ability to make basic repairs on the road or, if needed, secure assistance from the rare individuals in the communities they passed through who might have any experience with cars. Her description of Mount Ararat is moving, her evocation of desolate landscapes graphic, her account of three passages over the Hindu Kush invigorating, and her remembered belief that they never had to worry where they would stay, or how they manage is admirable. She speaks regularly of the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people, be they nomads on the plains, or leaders in towns and villages. It is, again and again, her most cherished memory. Her writing, at times punctuated with a plethora of exclamation marks, is neither idealistic nor romanticized, nor condescending. But, by contrast, she has a few choice comments for some of the British and European expats they live among in Kabul or others who display their prejudice:

Recently, a Swiss man asked me whether the natives’ food was even edible and whether I hadn’t been afraid to sleep in these people’s midst without any protection. The good man really had no idea of Afghan hospitality! Despite the various mentions here of rich, spicy pilaf meals, it must be said that by far not all the inhabitants are able to afford rice and mutton. In the nomads’ tents, there is often nothing but sour milk and a little bread. And in many villages the poor people don’t even have that. In Turkistan, where the gardens and bazaar stalls brim with fruits in the summer, a few months later I saw the relentless winter loom. Then the same landscape was reduced to a wasteland scourged by the icy wind and cloaked in dense swaths of dust, and life in the farmers’ clay huts was quite spartan. But despite these worries, it was at this very time that laughing, waving women met me in the last village on the desert’s edge. (“Two Women Alone”)

One thing that does regularly concern Schwarzenbach, however, is the life of the girls and women in the communities they pass through. As an emancipated woman, the sight of another woman encased from head to toe in some regions is disturbing. But even in other towns and villages, a visible absence of women is noted—they are not seen. However, when invited into the inner garden of one home where their host’s wife and daughters greet them without head coverings, the travellers are able to enjoy a precious interaction afforded to them because they themselves are female. For Schwarzenbach there seems to be great satisfaction in engaging with women and, at the same time, being included with the men on hunting outings, as she is during a period when she works temporarily on an archaeological dig.

Once war is declared, the political climate in the world starts to shift, and Schwarzenbach’s restlessness grows. As the end of 1939 draws closer she prepares  for another departure, anticipating climbing the Khyber Pass in her beloved Ford and passing into India, on the first stage of a journey home. But, even as the steamer pulls out of Bombay, it is evident that Afghanistan has touched her deeply. More than she anticipated, perhaps. One of the most poetic essays, placed at the end of the penultimate section of the book, is “Chehel Sotum,” in which she recalls an experience years earlier at a small palace in the Persian city of Isfahan.

The palace, whose name means “Forty Pillars”—a reference to its twenty pillars and their corresponding reflections in its pool—inspires an Afghan friend to inform her that in his homeland there are forty kinds of grapes:

Overcome by memory and homesickness, he spoke of nothing but the bewitching forty-fold profusion of the grapes of Herat and Kandahar. But though I listened to him and these words about the forty kinds of grapes lingered in my mind, tied to the vision of a promised land, at the time I did not even desire to set foot there. You cannot love what you have not embraced and seen with your own eyes; longing itself is never anything but loneliness surging and bleeding away.

Once she had herself embraced Afghanistan, she understood. One can only imagine how she would be heartbroken by the tragic condition of the country today.

All the Roads Are Open by Annemarie Schwarzenbach is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

Towers rise, towers fall: Sandfuture by Justin Beal

The World Trade Center must have been climbing its way toward the heavens when I first visited New York City, my mother’s hometown, in 1969. However, at the age of nine, the tall building that caught my fancy was the Empire State. It made no impression on me that its record height was soon to be overshadowed—I best remember the imposing measures taken to keep visitors from plunging to their deaths from the observation deck. Being terrified of heights I was struck by the twin existential shock and thrill that such a risk could even be a concern. Somehow, it’s a strange, small comfort to know that Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Center shared the same fear, allowing his own sense of comfort to influence his proposal for narrower, deep-set windows on his famed—and infamous—creation. Although he would be convinced to open up the view in several ways, the Twin Towers sealed his reputation for better and worse, because even though he did not live to witness the events of 9/11, his life and career cannot be abstracted from the dramatic destruction of not one, but two, fated architectural projects.

Until now. A sensitive, humane account of Yamasaki’s life and work lies at the core of Sandfuture, an ambitious work of literary nonfiction by artist and writer Justin Beal recently released from MIT Press. Not explicitly a biography nor a treatise on the collapse of architectural modernism (literally or figuratively), it is rather a far-ranging, inventive hybrid essay. Woven around the central biographical narrative is a fascinating stream of memoir, architectural history, and reflection on the myriad ways bodies, buildings and cities mirror one another in sickness and health. Beal draws on his own experience as an artist and as a student and admirer of architecture, and as a partner and a new parent, but he never gets in the way or loses the key focus of the interconnected ideas he wants to pull together.

Throughout Sandfuture it becomes clear that in so many things in life and art, fate and design are inextricably bound. On the morning of September 11, 2001, Justin Beal happened to be sharing an apartment with a couple of friends just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, so he was personally caught up in the rush and panic that followed the collapse of the two buildings. That event, because we all know it so well, looms in the background, a ghost of future tragedy that haunts Yamasaki’s entire life and career and beyond, but the event itself plays a peripheral role in this book. There are many other forces and factors at play when disaster strikes. In fact, Beal had recently relocated to Manhattan from Los Angeles on October 29, 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard hard and that natural disaster is where his account begins with a vivid depiction of the force of water pushing down on the lower lying areas of New York, bringing destruction and flooding and exposing the socioeconomic distinctions that drive urban development and decline. Meanwhile, closer to home, countless pieces of artwork stored beneath the gallery his girlfriend co-owns are damaged beyond recognition. In the drama of this opening section, some of the key threads that will loop through so much of the material to follow make their first appearance.

Minoru Yamasaki was born in Seattle on December 1, 1912, the son of Japanese immigrants. Inspired to pursue architecture by a visit from an uncle, he entered University in 1929—just before the Stock Market Crash, an event that forced him to earn money for his tuition by working in Alaskan salmon canneries over the following summers. It was an experience that helped forge his personal mythology yet it also signals a trajectory marked by unfortunate timing. He arrived in New York in 1934 with $40 to his name, just as the Great Depression was taking hold. But the city gave him his start, and over the next decade he gained valuable experience, made important connections, and met his first wife.

In 1945, he was recruited to join a firm in Detroit. The city would become his long-time base, but when he first arrived racist sentiments fueled by the war kept him from buying a house in a desired neighbourhood. Curiously, more significant racial tensions would become synonymous with the legacy of his first major project in his new position—the design of a landmark public housing project in St. Louis named Pruitt-Ioge. The goal was ambitious: replace densely-packed slums with a massive complex comprised of thirty-three buildings and almost three thousand apartments. Guided by a vision he hoped would foster community building, Yamasaki’s design incorporated a number of design features intended to encourage interaction, some of which would, over time, prove not only counterproductive but dangerous. The buildings deteriorated, crime rose, discontent escalated, and conditions fell into a state beyond repair. Finally, in the spring of 1972, the first explosions detonated on the now abandoned buildings were broadcast on live television. While the World Trade Center rose, Pruitt-Ioge was systematically reduced to rubble. As Beal demonstrates, the factors contributing the project’s failure are multifaceted beginning with strict cost-cutting measures from the outset, but in the public eye the architect would publicly and unfairly wear the blame.

The architect is so often imagined as hero, gracing the pages of novels or commanding the silver screen, projecting an impossible romantic ideal. He is also a figure who makes a regular appearance throughout the course of Sandfuture. Standing against it all, is the real, very human character of a man who casts a somewhat shadowy presence even in his own archives. Yet it is Yamasaki who gives this story its soul. He was an architect who challenged conventions with varying success, often hobbled by the constraints placed upon him by the confluences of forces and interests driving any major project. Drawing on influences from time spent in Japan, India, the Middle East, and elsewhere, he wanted to promote a movement away from modernism which he saw as overwhelmingly monotonous and lacking “delight.” He persisted, dedicated to his craft and vision, but the pressure took an early toll on his health. He drank heavily, married several times, eventually reuniting with his first wife, and waged a battle with ongoing stomach troubles—ulcers and, finally, cancer. He comes across as a conflicted figure, as prone to bouts of both despair and overconfidence as any other driven professional, lauded, then slipping out of favour, only to be awarded the most prestigious project on the planet. But as ever, so much rides on the final product. Each design is, in the end, a structure that has a life of its own—bound to a vicious cycle of critical reception, practical and public utility, repurposing, and ultimately neglect and decline by which point the architect has already moved on.

Author Justin Beal, as an artist with a deep fascination with architecture, brings a unique perspective to this multi-stranded biographical effort. Having studied the subject, he enters into his serious engagement with Yamasaki’s work and ideals burdened by an architectural education that was inclined to deride the architect’s value to the field. He has to relearn what he thinks he knows. As he scours library documents, architectural journals, news reports and, of course, the many buildings Yamasaki designed during his long career, the sense of a genuine desire to interact with and understand the difficult, maybe misunderstood man behind the designs never wanes.

So, if Yamasaki is the soul of Sandfuture, Beal is the heart. He, his partner, and his daughter are a measured presence, their adventures adding a novelistic quality to transitional passages that, if at first unclear, lend new, relevant dimensions as the work progresses. Prominent among these “memoirish” side threads is a recurring discussion of migraines. Beal’s girlfriend, Nina as she is named here, suffers from crippling migraine headaches. At one point she is even hospitalized. The exploration of this topic sets the foundation for discussions of the history of sanitariums, interconnected notions of bodies and buildings, Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, and the concept of sick building syndrome. After all, whether one is constructing a house, a temple or a skyscraper, the mechanical is as essential as the organic. Or so it should be.

The construction of the World Trade Center is, of course, an essential feature in this book as it is in the career of its designer. Structural dilemmas and decisions are explained with just the right amount of detail and tension. Woven around this element are two other key architectural projects: Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Ioge, its televised fate foreshadowing that of the Twin Towers, and at the extreme opposite end of the residential income spectrum, 432 Park Avenue, the luxury condominium project towering over Central Park. This, rather than One World Trade Center is Beal’s post 9/11 counterpoint. This striking triangulation of structures is telling—none of these buildings is, or was, able to meet the reality of its intended (or desired) tenants. They reflect the motives of developers and urban planners, fueled by ego, money and ambition. They have all come up hard against practical, social and economic pressures, greater threats to any architectural project than gravity itself.

Sandfuture is one of those books that is so full of interesting ideas and information that, in the end, it is almost impossible to succinctly describe what it is about. With such projects there is always the temptation to throw in too many sidenotes, too many literary references, too much personal information. It’s a balancing act and yet somehow in this whirlwind it all manages to come together seamlessly. At one point my editorial instincts questioned the layout—one 250 page effort broken only by small section breaks—leading me to wonder if this hybrid effort was too ambitious to succeed, but that concern soon faded. Intelligent and entertaining, Beal maintains a tight pace throughout, turning in unexpected directions and connecting everything back to his main themes and to give his rather unfortunate hero his due.

Sandfuture by Justin Beal is published by MIT Press. It is a handsomely presented paperback featuring a centre section of black and white (and one colour) photographs and a detailed source note on materials used.

Coming out elsewhere: Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall

Pride Month is typically a difficult time for me; it was worst in the years when I was trying to find a space within the LGBTQ “community.” For many, no matter what label(s) one lines up under, it can be an uneasy fit. Definitions are at once elastic and exclusionary and today, more than two decades after I first recognized myself as a trans man, I find myself drifting away from identities (in all aspects of my life) and exercising caution with language I do use to talk about who I am. However, there was a time—in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when self-identification was critical and a “queer” network (print, virtual and face-to-face) helped me come out, make the decision to transition, and cope with the fallout. Although my location and circumstances were far from those detailed in this book, it brought that time back to me all the same.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by activist and writer Pawan Dhall, traces the challenges, achievements and evolution of a fledgling  queer initiative in West Bengal and Odisha, one that was  driven by a need to provide connection, support, and sexual health resources to a variety of individuals who otherwise faced isolation, stigma, discrimination and physical threat. To read this account, one senses a time of darkness, concern and excitement, yet, although much has changed for queer people in India, especially in recent years, significant challenges still exist.

This slender, illustrated and referenced volume, part of Seagull Books’ Pride List series, presents a sort of textual and visual documentary of the early queer movement that began in Kolkata, eventually spreading out into rural areas and across state lines. As such it is a part of a broader story of queer life in India and across the globe, a story that in many countries still remains to be lived, let alone told. The author is a journalist with an archivist’s calling, and his intention is neither to explain nor justify the need for a queer movement; his focus is on the how, not the why. He relies on research into the archives of some of the earliest support forums in the area, and introduces many of the individuals who were involved with these groups or who sought their assistance at a time when resources were few and far between.  Where possible follow-up interviews were conducted in 2017. Allowing this story to unfold through real-life experiences, framed historically and in the present day, makes for a remarkably engaging read.

Central to the early queer mobilization as explored in Out of Line and Offline, is a support group called Kolkata Counsel Club, formed in 1993 by a small number of gay and bisexual men including the author. Dhall had already started publishing a queer themed newsletter on his own and it soon became the house journal of Counsel Club and a beacon for countless isolated, uncertain and questioning queer people who wrote letters seeking advice, validation or contact. As Dhall says, “This was the pre-Internet era; even acquiring a telephone connection was a tough task.” Younger folk coming out in the age of social media and a ubiquitous online world likely have little understanding of how vital books, photographs, and newsletters could be to people desperate to come to terms with feeling different, uncertain if anyone else like them exists. I remember it well.

In time, the group would grow and its sphere of influence would expand beyond that of men who have sex with men. Two female university students wrote to them, wishing to find a way to be together away from their families’ objections, so arrangements were made to help them “escape” to Delhi, a success that would not always be feasible for other such young women, sometimes with tragic consequences. Transgender women (often, but not always, hijras) would also find a place the queer movement, as well as representing an important target of sexual health advocacy, especially in poorer, rural communities. Of particular interest to me was the account of a young student who wrote to Counsel Club in 1999 from the small state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. An article on “women in love” had drawn their attention and through it they found the group’s mailing address. This individual (called “Ryan” in the book) claimed that although born a girl, they had the attitude and behaviour of a boy. Ryan was seeking help to have a sex-change. Dhall was struck by the absolute helplessness expressed and wrote two letters in response offering what empathy he could, albeit with a clarification that article that inspired the exchange had been about lesbians. Ryan did not write back, leaving much unresolved. Today Dhall is careful not to assign any label to his troubled correspondent—his own understanding has evolved with the changing awareness of a range sexualities and gender identities. This sensitivity is the mark of someone who has spent many years directly involved with the expanding queer community in India:

But I have also experienced the pitfalls of activist enthusiasm to get the terms right at the expense of the priorities of the person across me. Many of us have come around to believe (through day-to-day interactions, research and training) that there is no one way to be a man, woman, gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual, Hindu, Muslim, Indian or anything else. Thus it should not have been my place to ‘correct’ Ryan if they somehow felt kinship with the women in love portrayed in the magazine.

Of course, Ryan’s sense of kinship makes perfect sense to me and, like Dhall, I hope they found a way to reach their goals. But I also wish more activists were similarly open rather than dictatorial in their approach.

In fact, Pawan Dhall’s holistic, inclusive perspective is the greatest strength of this book. He accepts the choices others make without judgement even if they are not immediately easy to understand. He sees value in all the people who become involved in advocacy and activism, recognizing that no matter what their background or identity (several of the key figures here are straight, drawn into work with queer communities by virtue of their professional or academic interests). Recent events—the repeal of Section 377 which decriminalizes consensual same sex activity and the passing of the controversial Transgender Bill—point to significant, if complicated, progress. Class inequality is still a critical issue as many queer people are marginalized, in urban and rural settings alike. And, of course, the ubiquitous online world of dating apps, support groups and hyper-visibility is at once a blessing and a curse. So there is always more work to be done and more people who need to be reached.

Out of Line and Offline: Queer Mobilizations in 90s Eastern India by Pawan Dhall is published by Seagull Books.

A city no one ever sees unveiled: Documentary in Dispute: The Original Manuscript of Changing New York by Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland by Sarah M. Miller

When the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Queens, New York, its motto, “The World of Tomorrow,” invited visitors to look to the future, to embrace the wonders that technology was expected to deliver in the coming years. Of course, with the Second World War still in its early days, the horrors that technology would make possible could not yet be envisioned. Building on a theme conceived at the height of the Great Depression, the Fair’s forward-looking mission was focused on a dazzling world of exciting possibilities.

As one might imagine, a bevy of brochures and books were published to celebrate the event and tie into its theme. Of these, one of the best known is Changing New York, a stunning collection of photographs by Berenice Abbott paired with captions by her life partner, esteemed art critic Elizabeth McCausland.  It would serve as Abbott’s career defining work. However, the book that met the public was a faint echo of the project the women had proposed. Their visionary design, a visual documentary of the city’s changing face in image and text had, against their protests, been reworked to conform to the format of a conventional guidebook.

The fact that the publisher, EP Dutton, along with the Federal Arts Project, had interfered with Abbott and McCausland’s intentions was not a secret, but until now the original manuscript has never been released in full. Over eighty years after Changing New York was first published, art historian Sarah M. Miller has restored the women’s intended text and image selection, presenting it together with a thorough exploration of the motivations behind Abbott’s extensive and impressive photographic project and an examination of the factors that lay behind its ultimate fate. The resulting book, Documentary in Dispute, a co-publication of the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto and MIT Press, is a detailed and fascinating work of artistic reclamation.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Berenice Abbott (1898 –1991) moved to New York to study sculpture in 1918. There she met important members of the American avant-garde such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and others. These connections proved critical. In 1921, she headed across the Atlantic to continue her studies and would remain in Europe for the better of the decade. Here she made the artistic shift to photography while working as Man Ray’s assistant at his Paris studio from 1923 – 1926. Although she learned her craft there, she absorbed the foundations of her own creative philosophy from the Surrealist artists to whom she was exposed. However, it was in the work of French architectural photographer, Eugène Atget, that she discovered an understanding of documentary that would shape her vision and become the driving force behind her landmark study of New York—a city that was, during the 1930s, in a state of flux and change. MoMA has an good online collection of 75 of Abbott’s photographs, from early portraits (such as James Joyce) taken in the mid-1920s through to her abstracts of the late 1950s. The bulk of the images on the site feature her signature subject and include many of the photographs that appear in Changing New York and in the much more expansive, text at hand. (Note: I will link to images in collections rather than reproducing images that may be copyright protected.)

Documentary in Dispute is the latest addition to RIC Books’ series on the history and theory of photography. As a work of scholarly research, however, it is engaging and fully accessible for anyone interested in photography, social history or the politics of publishing. The book opens with a brief Preface wherein Miller outlines the fraught publishing history of Changing New York and the intentions and objectives of the current photographic project and the essays that comprise the study. Central to the reading experience is, of course, the reconstructed manuscript—the images of Berenice Abbott and the words of Elizabeth McCausland are presented as they proposed, made all the more fascinating and frustrating by the inclusion of the published captions, final book placement and, in certain cases, the point at which a photograph was eliminated.

Abbott’s approach to documenting the urban landscape is evident from the very first image in the intended manuscript, a photograph that holds its place essentially by virtue of its title, Brooklyn Bridge, Water and New Dock Streets, Brooklyn. Abbott insisted on ordering her work alphabetically by title within broader subject categories. This unusual practice introduces a certain randomness and avoids a tendency to fall into a contrived order. An immediate contrast to the desired guidebookishness that would ultimately transform the finished book where this same image is number 87. However McCausland’s text also speaks to the photographer’s vision. In the photograph the skyscrapers of the distant city skyline are framed by an older building, a segment of the bridge, and a construction project. The caption reads:

The taut cables of the first bridge to link Manhattan with Brooklyn visibly soar above the brick warehouse. Every molecule of steel in the fine-woven strands and in the interlacing girders and beams contributes to the perfect equilibrium of the suspension. At the same time, this tension (invisible to the eye, which scientists have been able to photograph at speeds of one-millionth of a second) is a living element in the picture. Between the power of steel and the pull of gravitation, the photograph achieves its own equilibrium, powerful and dynamic.

Here McCausland paints an unexpected organic image of steel—a material that fascinates again and again—while calling attention to the subject and to the energy within the photograph itself. What an opening! By contrast, in the published volume (where the image appears toward the end), the text begins with an accounting of the date and costs of the bridge construction—dollar and dates are detailed wherever possible—and then goes on:

Brooklyn Bridge is the technological ancestor of all the great steel cable suspension bridges which connect Manhattan Island with the world. The Roebling’s success in devising a steel cable strong enough to support the strain of its mighty spans opened the way for the Williamsburg, Manhattan and George Washington Bridges.

And that’s just the beginning. The original manuscript of Changing New York featured 100 photographs. Drawing on her interest in book design, Elizabeth McCausland offered a proposed layout that challenged the time-honoured conventions of photographic publications—one photograph per two-page spread with the caption on the facing page. In the end, of course, tradition won out over innovation. Some images were replaced; several others were removed in the final stage without replacement. It’s interesting to speculate about just what it was that inspired the publisher to pull an image. Too controversial, too political, too abstract?

The New York that Abbott uncovers is, intentionally, not the one most tourists, and many residents, never see. She captures humble businesses, vendors, neighbourhoods, many of which are on borrowed time. Modern skyscrapers soar above the city skyline, the point of interest is typically an older structure in the foreground or a feature in the distance. Statues survey their domains, in contrast with their backgrounds or, in one deleted image, stand shrouded, awaiting reveal. Simple scenes come alive through the play of light and shadow, seemingly insignificant architectural details are highlighted, storefronts are packed with goods, roads are often curiously quiet and, of course, bridges and elevated train tracks are approached from unexpected angles. If a bridge detail could be granted life, Abbott in her choice of subjects and McCausland in her captions did not shy away from social commentary or from expressing a sense of loss as architecture of the past (and the history it represented) was disappearing from the urban landscape.

However, the documentary imperative in Changing New York was not restricted to tracing a mutable city alone—the viewer was to be encouraged to see and understand what that might mean. Abbott, together with McCausland, imagined a work that would not only invite the viewer to observe locations they might not have ventured into, from perspectives unnoticed or unavailable, they wanted to illuminate the limitations, challenges and possibilities facing the photographer and her camera. Consider, for example, Broadway to the Battery: Manhattan, which looks down on the road from on high. The caption talks about how “20th century steel frame construction, skyscrapers” allowed a new elevated view of the city:

The human eye is more flexible than a camera eye, it makes an accommodation (psychological) which the lens cannot in this new vision, in this new range of sight, the 20th century artist—specifically the photographer—has a new world to conquer. Broadway to the Battery, by its inhuman perspective, distorts the scale of human life. The ant-like people in the street, the liner in midstream dwarfed to a fictitious tininess, the almost infinitesimal dots of human beings in Battery Park—these are the humanistic equivalents of the lens’ distortion imposed on the artist by the new morphology of the city.

This type of conversation elevates the manuscript, as intended, beyond what the viewers photographic books in the 1930s would have anticipated. The photographer’s dialogue with her subject, and the writer’s dialogue with her reader, would have promised an interactive experience sadly lost as the publisher stripped and shoehorned the envisioned project into the shape of an acceptable guidebook for the World’s Fair visitor. Apparently, “The World of Tomorrow” was not to apply to textual material.

The reconstructed presentation of Changing New York, is followed by a presentation of archival materials that shine light on the publication that Abbott and McCausland had envisioned, from the photographer’s 1935 pitch to the Federal Arts Project to sample commentaries prepared for the publisher, to a document that reveals the extent of the conflict over the design changes. Finally, the third part of the book is comprised of two generously illustrated essays. The first, “Archiving Abbott” by Julie Van Haaften and Gary Van Zante offers a look into the extensive amount of material Abbott collected and organized documenting herself. “She archived nearly every aspect of her career, from newspaper notices and reviews to drafts of talks and magazine articles, ideas for projects and inventions, and her business correspondence.” She was, it would seem, preparing for future biographers. She did not doubt her own worth. The second essay, Sarah M. Miller’s “Documentary in Dispute” is an in depth examination of Abbott’s artistic and philosophical development, the vision and aims behind the manuscript as originally proposed, and the editorial process that ultimately produced a volume deemed to meet the interests of the publisher and the FAP.

A slow, careful engagement with Abbott’s images of a shifting New York together with both the intended captions and the reduced, revised replacements is the best way to entertain this book. The essays that follow will then enhance one’s appreciation of Abbott as an artist and understanding of how and why Changing New York was itself changed in the process of publication. The final book was, it must be noted, met with great critical acclaim and stands as an important photographic text. Now, however, its creators original project can be appreciated, and full power of Berenice Abbott and Elizabeth McCausland’s documentary vision can be understood.

Washing the wounds of time: Under the Sign of the Labyrinth by Christina Tudor-Sideri

Listen closely. If ever there was a book that reads as if the author is present, whispering over your shoulder, it is Under the Sign of the Labyrinth, recently released from the defiantly original independent publisher, Sublunary Editions. In this unclassifiable memoir/meditation Christina Tudor-Sideri carries her readers into an intimate, embodied anamnestic rumination on what it means to exist, exploring the myths and legends that form us, and the way our wounds shape who we become.

She begins with trauma, understood as something that “lives in the body of all things”—eternal, essential—and  proposes that to write trauma is to look deep into your inherited and personal histories, to examine your memories, to seek your self. A process that can, it seems, risk being traumatic itself:

Each word becomes a scream. Starving trains pass by my window with the heaviness of a dark eternity that cannot be erased once I travel back in search of what wounded me. Light becomes diseased. The genesis of poetry is expunged. Pain has a momentum of its own yet again, unceremoniously within the hollow and cold urn that entombs it.

A chill, a distinct darkness, and a slow pensive dawn colour this existential pilgrimage of a wounded poet philosopher as she allows her memories to guide her. It is a journey mapped in memory, literature, mythology—rendered visible in the blood coursing beneath the surface of her skin. Tudor-Sideri invites us back to the Romanian village where lived as a child, a formative world of forests, a river, and a place inhabited by the ghosts of wild mad men and women and the spirits of the children once housed in the local preventorium. She describes a childhood lived on the edge of ancient wisdom, magic and mystery. Drawing on traditions, images and lost historical practices she crafts an uncustomary quest in search of a way to understand and articulate the nature of being in the world.

The labyrinth, a symbol found widely in Eastern Europe and in Mediterranean cultures, is essential to this philosophical odyssey—imagined and reimagined as a physical embrace and as a metaphorical pathway toward the monsters that lie at the heart of memories, dreams, and lived experiences. Toward the self.

As I penetrate the labyrinth, touching the wall with my fingers, its outside becomes the silk fabric entombing my body—I become the pulsating core of the labyrinth inasmuch as it becomes the fabric shrouding me in my journey towards the center. I descend into the darkness of my being. I retreat from the world into the cavernous depths of memories that have blended with my viscera. In the dark, my mind dwells on the creature residing within—the monstrous I and the shadow it projects.

In following the lead of this powerful imagery, Tudor-Sideri calls on folklore, mythology and philosophy as she examines where self-reflection can take her—even if she does not wish to go—and explores the uncertain necessity of healing the wounds we bear.

Although Under the Sign of the Labyrinth contains some of the qualities of memoir and concerns itself with memory, it actually reveals little of the author’s life. Rather, she draws on her own sensory and emotional experience, because, after all, she can only speak to herself, but there is an intentional universality at heart. The “I” enwinds with “we.” The questions she is asking cannot be answered with what, but with how. Her fundamental inquiries—“What does it mean to write trauma/to write the self?”—are not directed at self-psychoanalysis. The bleeding out on the page is allegorical. This existential reflection, born of flesh and bone, extending beyond death and decay, is an extended dance between body and mind. For Tudor-Sideri:

Existence is always corporeal—we bleed, we ache, we become our wounds… The physical manifestations of our becomings and experiences leave traces on the world and on ourselves—the body marks the mind. We hold each other, and the mind marks the body.

In turn haunting, beautiful and gently macabre, the multiple threads of this essay are ultimately woven together as its poetic ramble reaches a thoughtful conclusion. Christina Tudor-Sideri’s work, according to her bio, examines “the absent body and its anonymous rhythms, myth, memory, narrative deferral, and the imprisonment of the mind within the time and space of its corporeal vessel.” There are many points at which these themes intersect with the kind of questions that trouble me, so I personally found this text to be filled with a wealth of ideas and inspiration. However, I have no doubt that anyone venturing into this intelligent, meditative prose poem will be richly rewarded.

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.