Saying farewell to 2021 with some of the books I loved and best wishes for the future

If 2020 was the year that my ability to read and write felt the numbing impact of a medicated mind, 2021 was the year I had to decide what was really important. My mind is still medicated, but with a drug that does not leave me mentally spongy like the one that I lived on for more than a year. There are pros and cons with any maintenance drug, but I realized that, all things considered, I was better off with the devil I know than the one that was pulling me under. So, by mid-September I began to feel a welcoming release from the haze I’d been struggling against and it became easier to engage fully with literature once again. My reading never stopped, of course, it only slowed, and as I gather my thoughts on my favourite books of 2021, I can see that half of the works I remember most fondly were read in the first two-thirds of the year. But I will admit that every review I wrote during that time was painful, as if pulling my own words together to talk about the words of others was a huge task. In the end, reading only feels like a complete activity if I can articulate a response to each book, regardless of whether it comes out in a “review” of some sort. It is only now that my capacity to read has been restored do I realize how truly impaired it was.

With 2021 and all its global and personal challenges slipping into the rear view mirror, I wanted to take a moment to consider my favourites of the books I read this year. I skipped this readerly ritual last year and, as ever, I am troubled by the fact that each such list necessarily leaves out so many excellent works because, quite honestly, if I am not enjoying a book I rarely feel inclined to finish it, let alone write about it here. So with that in mind, but sticking to a strict ten titles, here’s my contribution to the discussion.

First, my top three. One will be no surprise to anyone who follows my blog: The Last Days of Mandelstam by Vénus Khoury-Ghatta (tr. by Teresa Lavendar-Fagan). Probably the last book I read before transitioning off the troublesome medication, this imagining of the final moments of Osip Mandelstam against a tight, poetic flight back through his life thrilled me with its confident sense that sometimes less truly is more. In the reading I would regularly stop to think: How did she say so much with so few words? This is the work of an accomplished, mature writer. Apart from singing this book’s praises at every opportunity on Twitter, I spoke about it about on this video and recommended it in the December issue of The Bangalore Review.

The Book of Sleep by Haytham El Wardany (tr. by Robin Moger) is one of those books that defies classification—standing somewhere between fiction and nonfiction, it can best be considered an imaginative meditation on sleep and the sleeper that leans toward the philosophical in its grounding, but is unbound in its scope. Thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring.

Finally, I read some amazing poetry this year and as usual I found my limited formal understanding of the literary form a barrier to confident articulation of a response, but with Lost, Hurt, and in Transit Beautiful by Nepali-Indian Anglophone poet, Rohan Chhetri, I just wanted to scream READ THIS BOOK! It has disappointed me to see that this collection seems to have been under-appreciated in its US release (it was published simultaneously in India) because it is not only accessible, but gorgeous, and shockingly violent. Stunning.

The balance of my top ten (in the order that stacked best for the sake of a photograph) are:

If You Kept a Record of Sins by Andrea Bajani (tr. by Elizabeth Harris), is the story of a young Italian man who travels to Romania to attend to the affairs of his deceased mother from whom he has been long estranged. It presents a simmering, spare narrative—the kind of read that I responded to especially well with reduced focus and concentration—that resists the need for any tight resolution.

Outgoing Vessel by experimental Danish poet Ursula Andkjær Olsen (tr. Katrine Ogaard Jensen) is perhaps a little more brittle and restrained than Third-Millenium Heart but once again her work takes you on an operatic post-human, yet humane, adventure. Excellent.

Slipping by Mohamed Kheir (tr. by Robin Moger) offers a different kind of adventure into an otherworldly Egypt that is very much informed by a fragmented post-Arab Spring reality. Hard to follow at first, yet fun to read, with much uncertain resolution.

The Desert of Lop by Raoul Schrott (tr. by Karen Leeder). I had been saving this dreamy little volume, knowing that little of this Austrian poet’s work is available in English. The tale of one man’s relationships with three women, it is also a meditation on deserts and the search for home. Exactly the kind of undefinable book I treasure.

Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Interim (tr. by Isabel Fargo Cole) was an unexpected surprise. I’ve read almost all of his work available in translation, and was a little apprehensive about this novel, knowing that he is perhaps at his best in his meandering, surreal shorter works. But this much more conventional narrative featuring another iteration of the classic Hilbig protagonist felt somehow closer to the man himself—a hard drinking, socially awkward, reluctant literary “star” who cannot find a home on either side of the Wall.

With The Promise, South African writer Damon Galgut has finally won the Booker Prize after three nominations and somehow I fear that certain readers might eschew this book because he won this prize (yes we literary folk are a fickle lot). I have long been a fan, and although this book will never replace some of his smaller, quieter efforts in my heart, The Promise is a sweeping portrait of four decades of South African history through the lens of a mischievous high modernist narrator who is by turns, funny, caustic and clever.

And last, but not least, I was offered an opportunity to read a couple of fascinating MIT Press titles by virtue of ending up on a publicist list, and without that I would never have stumbled across Sandfuture by Justin Beal. This is one of those unlikely hybrid essays—a biography of Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-American architect who designed the World Trade Centre that is also a reflection on art, illness, urban planning and more—and it works remarkably well. I had so much fun reading and writing about this book that I can only hope that it comes to the attention of the audience it deserves.

For the New Year, I have no specific reading intentions, aside from a small winter project to read some Norwegian literature—no particular reason, I just have a few things piling up and it seems a suitable goal for the cold, dark  months ahead. I’m also hoping to ease back into writing again after a dry spell. Ideas are starting to trickle to the surface, I’ll see if they lead me anywhere. And otherwise I will probably continue my idiosyncratic literary meanderings and savour the ability to read at a faster, yet deeper pace than I was at this time last year.

Oh yeah, and if travel feels feasible again, I hope I might be able to pack my bags and catch up with distant friends by the time this old earth makes its way around the sun once more.  May you be warm, well, and have plenty of light to read by.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

Retracing a snowy path into the past: Twelve Nights by Urs Faes

It seemed to him that a story told, a story from the past, would never truly fade once it had moved someone. The act of remembering, of reading, was like a return, a homecoming into a story. He was never closer to himself than in the remembered and read.

When I made note of this book last year, I imagined it making a nice pleasant read to fill some of that melancholy time around Christmas and I was not wrong. However, there were several things I had not anticipated. This year, as the holiday drew near, with my cat recovering from surgery, my son started drinking heavily, and all of our modest plans started to unravel. Then, once I started reading, the book itself suddenly seemed more timely than I had expected—I was unaware of the superstition, central to the narrative, that the days between Christmas and Epiphany were traditionally seen as a time of hauntings by evil spirits in parts of Europe, nor was I prepared for the bitter darkness that lay at the heart of this simple tale of a man returning to the Black Forest valley, to the home he had fled decades earlier. Thus, while snow fell outside and temperatures plummeted into the minus thirties Celsius, Twelve Nights, by Swiss writer Urs Faes, became a suitably sombre companion for a holiday more sombre than I’d hoped for.

At a scant 84 pages, this novella moves with the economy and steadily building tension of a well-crafted short story. As Manfred, back home after years in an unnamed distant land, wanders through the winter landscape of his youth, his ruminations gradually reveal what he thinks he knows and what he doesn’t want to face. The snow falls and a cold wind blows. Travelling back through a remembered past, the scenery and weather frame his musings. He has long been estranged from his younger brother Sebastian who, for reasons Manfred can neither understand nor accept, was chosen to inherit the family farm and, in doing so, won the hand of the woman he had loved. Now, so many years later, his parents and his beloved Minna are all dead and Sebastian lives the life of a recluse, while the self-exiled son still carries vestiges of his grief and rage that no amount of time can heal:

He had thought he could hear a humming, wings beating, a whimper drifting up from the valley across the treetops, into this frosty stillness which became entangled in his clothes, penetrating his skin; freezing what was inside him, as though even his heart were turning to ice.

Manfred wants to see his brother again, hoping for what, he isn’t sure—reconciliation, perhaps? There is, as we learn, more to this desired and uncertain reunion. A motivation that drives the returning brother, and an act of violence, buried in the past, that may not be forgivable. These facts are revealed, with only the required detail and much open space, yet it is impossible not to recognize one’s own complicated and conflicted holiday emotions in the longing, sadness, anger and guilt that haunt the protagonist. This is a season that carries a lot of weight for many of us. Twelve Nights captures that mood, but does so with solemn beauty and hope. An ideal read for a stressful time.

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes is translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle and published by Harvill Secker.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber

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.

Changes: Ever in search of balance – A reflection

I don’t know when I ceased to exist, or how I fell off the face of the earth. 

I wrote this line in my journal on July 15 of this year. I’d been plagued by a persistent emotional heaviness for months, but over the summer that weight seemed to intensify. I began to look to the future with anxiety, to wonder how to find the will to keep existing. I had not written a single creative piece in the better part of the year. I struggled to read. I had given up editing because the necessary focus was gone. The only thing I could manage consistently was to put on my shoes, head out the door, and walk and run.

I have not missed a day.

Calgary, Alberta: Bow River Pathway

Of course, these days everything  is tinted by the pandemic. Normal is a nebulous concept. Where I live, our fourth wave is rising fast, we are once again leading the country in all metrics except vaccinations. Hospitals are beyond capacity and those who work the frontlines are exhausted and demoralized. All for lack of political will. The situation fuels stress, anger and concern. But I’m not alone in my reaction—in fact to feel less would be worrying.

My own condition has held firm no matter.

Calgary, Alberta: Bow River Pathway

A few weeks ago I made two decisions. One after extensive consideration, the other under relentless pressure. First I decided to go back onto the medication I went off a year ago last July following a diagnosis with bone loss. I’d taken that drug for twenty years and it seemed that a change might be good. But the transition onto the new (to me) treatment was extended, difficult, and, as I discovered, cost a vital aspect of my creative spirit.

Second, the day after beginning to add the target med, I agreed to take on a supervisor role at our unnecessary federal election—on the first day of confusing new COVID restrictions. When I expressed my concern about side effects and a sixteen hour day requiring some ability to focus, my worries were waved off. I made it through the day but it was blur. Somehow it seems that if you have a mental illness but can still tie your own shoes and drive a car, your symptoms are disregarded either at the beginning or during treatment. And it seems like this medication change is shaping up to be another. I was so excited when I finally decided to return to my old treatment. I was looking forward to catching up on reading and reviews. I had not factored in letters that would appear to dance across the page  or the associated nausea and instability.

I sure hope I can still read when I get to the other side. And run too.

Calgary, Alberta: Douglas Fir Trail

Meanwhile autumn has settled in around here. There’s a chill in the air and the trees are bursting with colour but a certain sadness lurks in the vibrant leaves. All those branches will soon be bare. Life is but one change after another, seasons tumbling down the years.

All photos by Joseph Schreiber

Seven years of roughghosts, now on to the eighth

May 31st, 2021. roughghosts is seven years old today. This space did not begin as a book blog, as I’ve said many times. I’m not sure what it began as other than a wildly impulsive fit of increasing mania. About three weeks after I posted my first sketchy musings, I crashed out completely, bipolar disorder effectively destroying my professional career and reputation. Much has passed since that time—cardiac arrest, my parents’ deaths, a dear friend’s suicide, travel to South Africa, Australia and India, depression, mixed moods, and diagnosis of bone loss. Oh yeah, and a global pandemic.

The only constant is the existence of this little blog which seems to sputter along and even grow in followers and visitors regardless of whether I add regular fuel to the fire.

I will confess that the creation of this space seemed to offer me an avenue to writing. I wrote poetry and stories all through my teens, but as I reached my twenties I became aware that I had little to say. I needed to live a little first. Then as I got older, I accumulated life experiences as we all do, yet the more I lived, the less I could channel any of it into writing. I could no more steal from my clients who all had fascinating stories than I could draw on my own. I discovered that I am not the kind of person who can violate the boundaries of others for the sake of writing, nor could I afford to push my own limits. By my forties I had found myself a closeted single parent whose gendered past had to remain a secret. It was not a space my twenty year-old self would ever have expected to be in, but I had a job, two children to support and no way out.

Except madness.

When I lost my job, my kids were in their twenties and I was in my fifties, I had this internet space and, well, I no longer had an excuse. On one level, writing was easy enough. My blog evolved into a bookish space rather quickly, my first essay submission for a queer themed book was accepted, and eventually I was writing critical reviews, occasional essays, and had been invited (recruited?) to edit for online publications. A scant few of these literary ventures paid but I didn’t care. I was writing.

And I was as out as possible under the circumstances.

Over the years I’ve chronicled my attempts to find a space within an LGBTQ identity and my increasing frustrations with the effort. During that period I became increasingly aware that I was stale dated. The trans man I know myself to be is not welcome by today’s trans community. Too old. Too old school. The essays and work I was creating fell on uncomfortably deafened ears when I shared them with people I had assumed were my peers. Not so when I reached beyond the LGBTQ world, but my fear of being either censored or misinterpreted has impacted my freedom to write. It’s like being closeted on the outside. I have, over time, shed all manner of identification with a space where I only nominally belong.

So, over the past few years, my literary ambitions have withered. My critical energies have, under the weight of intense editing responsibilities, all but disappeared. A medication change last summer affected my physical ability to read, a situation which is now slowly recovering. And although this blog has, in recent years, expanded my world and led to wonderful travel opportunities, the pandemic has taken its toll on my hopes for the future.

Now, having run myself into the ground on this, the beginning of the eighth year of roughghosts, there is probably nothing better to do than to start afresh. Find out, once again, where this blog might take me. Coincidentally, this is also the beginning of Pride Month. Something that no longer fills me with guilt and anxiety. It simply is.

So, going forward, I will set no goals, make no promises, and simply see where the next year takes me. Thank you to everyone who has kept me company thus far.

* All the images taken today on the Douglas Fir Trail, my favourite space.

Vernal Equinox 2021: Spring at last, let the thaw begin

According to the calendar, spring is here. It will be some time before leaves bud, blossoms appear and migrating birds return from their winter retreats. In the meantime, the trails are a mix of dry ground, thick mud, slushy snow and dangerous stretches of ice, their surfaces slick with the wet promise of passages opening up once again. But not yet. Yesterday on the Bow River pathway I was forced to turn back. Ahead of me I could see a couple, clinging to a tree, clearly considering their options. Through the forest rising behind them, I counted no less than three frozen streams inching their way downward. I called to them to find out how far this temporary glacial formation extended. Too far. I don’t remember ever seeing so many ice flows on the upper and lower trails. All along the escarpment underground streams emerge and make their way down to the river. In the summer most of them are little more than muddy passages to cross on logs or stones. In the winter, expanding, shifting patches of ice are common. This year it seems that all the water—like time itself—had seized and slowed to an icy crawl.

Today, on the Vernal Equinox, one of two days each year when day matches night for length, I am again surprised to see how much the trails have transformed themselves. Less snow and more mud here, less mud and more dry ground there. I look forward to the time when I run along the pathways with ease, watching only for roots and rocks and the usual tricky passages because, well, there are always a few rough spots. Kind of like life. The anticipation of spring is, this year more than ever, an analogy for the anticipation of a return to some measure of normal—here at home and across the globe. Of course, where only the tiniest buds are beginning to dot the bare winter branches of the pandemic scarred trees, blooms are yet a long way off.

On Monday I am due to have my first shot of a Covid vaccine. In my Canadian province I would not be eligible for vaccination until May but the country acquired a shipment of the AstraZeneca vaccine with a looming expiry date. Where I live it was decided to offer it to those aged 60-64 and I signed up in spite of the recent flurry of concern about side effects, efficacy and general lack of sexiness relative to the vanguard mRNA doses. Frankly I would rather be a step toward full immunization now rather than wait… an ounce of prevention and all that. Besides, the vials on hand are the Covishield vaccine manufactured in India and I’m just fine with that.

So, does this season (at least in the Northern Hemisphere), one that arrives with a promise of hope and new life, offer something for a pandemic weary soul? I’d like to think so. I’ve found myself feeling reduced lately, disconnected from the world, growing old in isolation. I don’t think I have ever felt more anxious for green leaves and fields, early blooms, and fresh birdsong in the trees. I’m hungry for spring and everything that it means—practically and symbolically. I’ve found it too easy to dig down into the darkness these past few months. Bring back the light! Who knows, maybe I will finally be able to celebrate Christmas with my daughter by the time summer arrives. If Covid allows…

Happy Vernal Equinox.

What have we done to our planet? Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change by Vinita Agrawal (ed)

The green recedes like a hairline,
blue, blue is our future. And the rains
come like an ominous doorbell. And the fire
comes like a lion devouring, and the earth’s despaired-rumble
in her belly. Under muted breath, Hindus mutter pralaya,
a continent slips through an orifice,
glaciers slide innocently into the sea like a friendly
handshake, and we leave the seventh cause of
climate change nameless.

– Usha Akella, “Adam Walking Backward”

It is either coincidental or inevitable that I started reading Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change on the same day the collapse of a Himalayan glacier and subsequent deadly flooding in Uttarakhand, India, made international news. I finished it to reports of the exceptional winter weather and power outages that left many Texans dead. Accounts of disappearing sea ice, habitat loss, raging fires, too much or too little moisture, extended tropical storm seasons and more have become a constant soundtrack, humming along beneath the chorus of a global pandemic, too insistent to ignore. Of course, countless industries and governments are doing their best to do just that, thus the importance of responses from a multitude of disciplines, including art and literature.

Open Your Eyes is one such effort. Edited by poet Vinita Agrawal and published in India, this attractive volume gathers poetic and prose reflections from a wide range of writers, from India and from around the world including Ranjit Hoskote, Ruth Padel, Abhay K, Anjali Purohit, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Ayaz Rasool Nazki, Barnali Ray Shukla, Esther Vincent Xueming, Indira Chandrasekhar, Kiriti Sengupta, Longbir Terang, Nabina Das, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Sophia Naz and many, many more. For a concern so commonly associated with young western activists, this anthology offers a broader, more diverse response to the threats facing our planet, something that is by no means the province of the young. The oldest contributor here is ninety-two year-old Jayanta Mahapatra who offers a new poem, the mournful “I Am Today,” to the project. He joins sixty-two others raising their voices to call attention to the reality and risks of climate change.

It is November.
You know it from the susurration of light –
unclotted light, its guest-like tone
On my nephew’s face
the light is like a muscle,
quickening as he pedals.
The sweat still a secret –
armpits fold of private skin.

He’s seven,
as old as the ancient duration of exile.
The world’s grown warmer since his birth.
That is all I’m able to say
when he points to graffiti on the way –
‘What is Global Warming?’

– Sumana Roy, “’Global Warming’”

Concern about the health of our planet and its inhabitants is hardly new. When I was growing up in Canada, during the 1960s and 70s and on into my university years, we fretted about overpopulation and starvation, pollution, acid rain and holes in the ozone. Today, as manmade threats to the earth are increasingly urgent, governments such as the provincial one I live under are almost hostile to the notion of “Global Warming” as if it is a notion dreamed up yesterday by nefarious enemies of Capitalism and the Economy. It’s not that simple.

Given the theme of this anthology, it is hardly surprising that natural imagery runs a strong course through many of the poems and stories that comprise this book—birds and insects, rivers and forests, floods and drought, violent storms and heavy silence. The gathered offerings are strong; these themes are explored with fresh energy, rarely slipping toward the cliched or the overly sentimental. Sorrow crossed with anger tends to be the driving force; an inclination to preach gives way to the power of the image. In Rohan Chhetri’s “Fish Cross the River in the Rain” for instance, the speaker and his father go down to a river where electrofishing is being practiced:

To stand on the wave-nipped bank as shoal
after stunned shoal heave their nets. The fish
wake older, dreaming brief new lives huddled
in a foreign prison gasping at each other’s
gills blinded like a sack of mirrors.

The poets and writers contributing their work to Open Your Eyes bring, along with love of language, a lived wisdom that informs their varied approaches to the theme. Theirs is a passionate and often surprising engagement with the crisis at hand—a willingness to engage with the past, speak to the present and envision the all-too-likely future, as Sudeep Sen illustrates in his striking “Disembodied” which opens:

My body carved from abandoned bricks of a ruined temple
.                                      from minaret shards of an old mosque
.           from slate-remnants of a medieval church apse,
                          from soil tilled by my ancestors.

My bones don’t fit together correctly       as they should—
the searing ultra-violet light from Aurora Borealis
.                            patches and etch-corrects my orientation—
magnetic pulses prove potent.

 

My flesh sculpted from fruits of the tropics,
.                                                        blood from coconut water,
skin coloured by the brown bark of Indian teak.

My lungs fuelled by Delhi’s insidious toxic air
.                         echo asthmatic, a new vinyl dub-remix.

His poem ends with a portrait of an ominous near future, or nearly present. The prose pieces which close out the book take, for the most part, a more explicit glance into a possible world to come, employing elements magic and speculative fiction to imagine more anxious allegories of what could lie ahead. Open Your Eyes is an important contribution to the growing literature addressing the reality of climate change, yet one has to ask, is a project like this a call to arms, or evidence that, in the wilderness, a chorus of voices were shouting even if we refused to listen? I know what it should be.

Walking along the beach in Kochi with a friend we watched dogs searching among the refuse, trash and plastic washed upon the shore.

*

Open Your Eyes: An Anthology on Climate Change is edited by Vinita Agrawal and published by Hawakal Publishers. I will confess that I ordered this book (which appears to be readily available outside India) because a number of my friends have work included within its pages, but that, in the end, turned out to be a welcome door to discovering many writers I might not have encountered otherwise.

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.

Weights and measures: 2020 draws to a close

Slippery section ahead, December 31, 2020

At the end of a year that redefined most of our goals and aspirations, I find myself in a strange space. This was, for me, a year of challenge, adaptation and growth. I had imagined I would mark a milestone birthday—one I was anxious about—with a special trip of some sort. I did not even have a destination in mind but it had to be important. Of course, travel of any sort was not to be. Instead, I find myself here, three months after turning sixty, in better physical shape than I’ve ever been, with about 1,000 kilometres clocked for the year, mostly on the trails, roads and pathways close to home.

In 2020 I became a runner. A trail runner.

The year began with a diagnosis of osteoporosis. It’s a condition that led to the death of my mother and one of my great aunts, but I my case, it turns out that a medication I took for twenty years to control bipolar disorder had been blocking the absorption of vitamin D. I immediately started supplements and monitored my calcium intake and made an appointment with a physiotherapist. But I was afraid that running, something I had flirted with, would have to be avoided. Strangely that—something I had never even had—was my greatest sense of loss and my greatest motivation.

Progress was slow. Through the winter I worked on flexibility and core body strength, developing, with my therapist,  a weight and resistance training routine. For aerobic exercise, I walked up and down the embankment I live above. As the trails started to clear, I was given the green light to start running. Initial efforts were choppy, but I would aim to cover longer sections of pathway before stopping to catch my breath.

At the same time, as early lock down restrictions began to ease, my psychiatrist and I discussed switching meds. Over the summer I started taking lithium, a drug I feared a little, but the potential side effects with other options sounded more concerning. The switch has not been smooth, but it has only enhanced my running. Or rather, in going off the original medication I quickly lost twelve pounds. Turns out less of me goes further! In mid-September I messaged a runner friend to tell him that, for the very first time, I started to run a familiar trail and I just kept running until I ran out of road.

I’m no marathoner, that is not my intention, and some of the trails I love are a challenge, but the buzz of feeling myself grow stronger has not left, especially as I push out over longer and longer stretches of the steepest inclines. There’s a healthy degree of caution too because I don’t want to fall, but I love the personal focus of this activity. My goals, distance and pace, are my own, but there is still a connection. The runners you meet on the trail are generally ready with a smile and a nod—a friendly acknowledgement. I may be going three kilometres to their ten, but it doesn’t matter.

Of course, the medication has had a less positive impact on other areas of my life. Through August and September I struggled with the books I managed to read. I found it difficult to get through more than one or two pages at a time. From mid-September to early December I accumulated a pile of half-finished books, writing was impossible, editing agonizingly slow. I figured that lithium was affecting my focus and concentration. I could remember a similar problem with the same med years earlier. I started to strategize ways to make reading and writing work in this new zone. I also made the decision to step away from my volunteer editing commitment, something which was very heavy this year, thanks to the pandemic.

However, hiking and running continued without any concern until I began to find myself dizzy and oddly fatigued on the trail one day. I felt like I hadn’t had a decent sleep in months and, in fact, I hadn’t. It wasn’t until I began to notice a marked loss of energy and significant muscle weakness that I finally realized about how often I would find myself thinking about  how much I was looking forward to going to sleep. All along my fitness tracker had been rating my sleep quality poorly but I had assumed it was an issue with my Fitbit, not me.

Over the past month or so I have made a number of adjustments to my sleeping environment that, if not perfect, have greatly improved my sleep. My focus, energy and mood are so much better. So, living well on this new med means extra attention to sleep. I can handle that. Mind you, there’s more. My blood work recently showed an elevated calcium level—not great given the osteoporosis—but another possible side effect of lithium. So in January I see an endocrinologist to rule out serious problems, but in the meantime I intend to read, run and write my way into the new year!

Wishing you all the best of the year ahead. We’ve gotten this far!

Entering the autumn of my life: A reflection

Here, where I live, autumn arrived with beauty, warmth and vibrant colour. I can only hope these past few weeks stand as a good omen for the coming year. A glimmer of light in the midst of a seemingly endless global pandemic.

Today marks a milestone for me, one I have dreaded, on and off, for the past year. It is my sixtieth birthday. It feels odd to say that. Without a long standing cohort of peers, friendships reaching back into high school or college, I have friends who are older and friends who are younger—some thirty years younger or more. There is a certain agelessness afforded by the way we reach out and make contact in the internet era.

I was late to open online engagement. I was guarded and relatively anonymous during my working years. I had to be. The sudden, unexpected end of my career opened a very different door. One without borders. One that has led me across the globe to places I never thought I’d ever see, meeting and making new friends along the way.

Yet, there have been great challenges, great joys, and many long, lonely nights.

Now, as I turn sixty, I am in better shape than I’ve been in years—a cranky right knee and diagnosed bone loss notwithstanding. In fact, it is the latter factor that has done more for my commitment to regular daily exercise than any other half baked New Year’s Resolution. I walk, hike, and  run at least four days a week, and complete a strength/weight training routine on alternate days. That’s why the fantastic weather we’ve enjoyed during this year of social distancing has been so welcome—there’s rarely been an excuse not to venture out. But I wonder if getting out onto the trails and disappearing into the forest for an hour or more, no matter how important for my physical health, has served as an escape from something else. Something I don’t want to face.

Reading and writing has been difficult. I’ve fought with blockages on both fronts. I realize I’m not alone in this during these exceptional times, however, when I’m out and on the move—especially running—I feel free. The focus on the body is a release from the weight of thinking about my life. To run rough trails your attention has to be on where your feet are. For a time you can forget your troubles.

But, back at home, I can’t help looking back. Measuring the challenges, the joys and the lonely nights and wonder what I have to show for sixty years. My life has led me down pathways and trails I could never have anticipated—I suppose everyone can say that when they stop along the way to take stock—and, especially during  this unique moment, the road ahead is less than certain. That’s the reality of being in the world.

So, on this first of October, 2020, I have to be glad that I am still here in the world, with so many friends and promises. I’m also very fortunate to have a network of pathways and trails that I do know intimately. I have, after all, been following them for almost half my life. They offer certainty and refuge in uncertain times.

And what could be more important than that as I enter a new decade?