A poetic Pentecost: At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann

I am not certain what has become of the person who first alerted me to the poetry of Georg Trakl, but it wasn’t very long ago and came backward through an interest in Celan. Then, over the last few years, Seagull Books released three volumes containing all of Trakl’s poems including significant variants and early versions, in new translations by James Reidel. I read and wrote about them all even though I had no particular confidence in myself as a reviewer of poetry. I’ve also explored other translations and biographical accounts of the troubled Austrian poet’s short life. So when I became aware of At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem by Franz Fühmann, my interest was piqued. Finally, to be fully prepared, I recently read Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, The Jew Car.

I thought I was ready.

But no, nothing could have fully prepared me for the experience of experiencing At the Burning Abyss.

Fühmann was an important literary figure in postwar East Germany; a gifted, versatile writer who was no stranger to either reading poetry or fledgling efforts to write it when he first encountered Trakl. It was early May, 1945, just prior to the surrender of the Wehrmacht. As a young soldier in the German army, Fühmann had been granted a few days sick-leave following a stay in the hospital, and was taking advantage of the opportunity to visit his family. As bleak as things looked for Germany at the time, a reckless hope was still smoldering. Sitting with his father after dinner on the evening before he was due to leave for Dresden, he opened the volume he’d chanced to pick up in a used bookstore on his way home. One poem in particular, ominously titled “Downfall,” resonated:

Over the white pond
The wild birds have taken flight.
In the evening an icy wind blows from our stars.

Over our graves
The night bends its broken brow.
Under oak trees we sway on a silver barge.

The city’s white walls ring for ever.
Under vaults of thorns
O my brother we blind clock-hands climb towards midnight.

He knew nothing of Trakl but a conversation with his father that night revealed that the latter had served alongside “daft old Georgie” in the early days of the First World War. But beyond recollections of an eccentric character, Fühmann learned no more about the poet for many years. He would never see his father again, and his poetry book would be abandoned along with his coat and backpack a few days later. But the verse had worked its way into his consciousness and would keep him company and inspire his own desperate scribblings during his years in a Soviet POW camp in the Caucasus.

The Franz Fühmann who emerged from captivity in 1949 was a born again Socialist. He had seen the error of his ways, faced the reality of the horrors of Aushwitz, and rejected the false tenants of Nazi ideology on which he had been raised and indoctrinated. The final story in The Jew Car depicts the arrival of his fictional alter-ego in East Germany, his train journey into a new homeland marked with the composition of a suitably ambitious piece of Socialist-inspired realist poetry. However, his reunion with the decidedly anti-realist imagery of Trakl would soon occur.

Slowly, and steadily, the poems will challenge everything that he thinks he knows about reading and writing poetry, ultimately challenging his Socialist idealism and his own self-awareness.

At several points in At the Burning Abyss, Fühmann reminds his reader that the he is not writing an autobiography, insisting that he is engaged in a meditation on the experience of reading Trakl. However, this experience acts as a fundamental force within his own biography and cannot be read apart from it. His account of his personal response to Trakl is presented in first person singular against a broader examination of how a poem, and a couple of select pieces in particular, can and should be understood. This second thread is conducted as an extended first person plural conversation with the reader. His questions and concerns become our questions and concerns, we are invited to seek answers together.

He wants to know how the poem works on the unconscious, what gives it meaning, and what allows it to work across time and place. At the core of his examination is a conviction that the experience of a poem is necessarily subjective; that:

… a poem does not become a poem because it fulfils certain formal rules, but because a reader constitutes it. Until then it merely appears to belong to the genre of poetry, a dead form, interesting only once the interest in the poem as an artwork awakens.

The reader may take decades or even a century to appear, but if he does not, the poem does not come into being as poetry: there is no objective poetic form that legitimizes something a priori as a poem in the sense of an artwork.

This is then, a highly idiosyncratic engagement with the Trakl poem, but one that assures the reader that his own personal engagement with a poem, any poem, has its own validity. One should not be afraid of understanding wrong, or relating to something others eschew as unworthy. For, as he quotes Rilke in the opening sentence of the book: “poems are not feelings…they are experiences.”

For Fühmann, “Downfall” is the first Trakl poem that strikes him, across two decades from the time of composition, to capture the very moment in which he came to it. The blind clock-hands toward midnight climbing recur and echo throughout the text, joined in time, by other lines from other poems that become refrains, driving and troubling the attempt to resolve the dissonance that grows the further he explores Trakl’s poetry and life.

In his reading, an indication that the Trakl poem might reflect Decadence triggers his initial crisis of faith, if you will. Anxiously, Fühmann opens his text and lands, randomly on a poem filled with shocking imagery—“Night Romance.” He finds a “dreaming boy” with a “face decaying in the moon,” a murderer, a dead man, and a “nun with lacerated flesh” praying “naked before Christ’s travails.” All the features of decadence assembled and yet, somehow, the verses hold an undeniable appeal. Thinking of other poems, Fühmann’s anxiety increases:

What was this morass on which I’d lost my way?

And so it goes. The discussion turns to meaning. How literally can images be understood? Much of the focus turns on the poem “Decay,” but Fühmann insists that Trakl’s entire oeuvre can be seen as one great poem, so the discussion has broad application. Images of decay in all its aspects frequent his poetry, as do “autumn, “evening,” and “garden.” What weight can be applied to the startling images that appear, and to what extent is an exact explanation—a resolution of poetic riddles—possible or even desirable? If a mystery can be answered, is it answerable universally or for the reader alone? And, what role does the poet have in relation to the misery he or she records?

Of course, the questions, Fühmann raises are directly related to the threat Trakl poses to his schooling in the Socialist poetic form encouraged within the GDR. There is no place for mystery—a poem should be understood “at first go.” To rid himself of this contrary influence, Fühmann tries to destroy his Trakl books, but find himself unable to do so. He looks for comfort elsewhere, translating Vitězslav Nezval into German, for example, and finds himself sliding headlong in Surrealism! He seeks refuge in alcohol. For a long while, he struggles to mediate the conflict between the literature (and the grounding ideology) to which he is committed and this Austrian poet about whom, apart from his father’s cryptic recollections, he knows little. Having long professed to having little interest in the writer’s life, he suddenly desires to know all he can.

Shocked by his first encounter with Trakl’s awkward visage inside the covers of the slender biography he finds, Fühmann makes his way through the book in a single, fevered night. He is drawn into the account of “an unliveable life: an existence that fell to poetry.—An existence that fell to drugs and incest; a fall into decay, a plunge into suicide; a life at the zenith of European poetry.” What follows then, is a biography within this memoir, which includes the complete text of the sole eyewitness account of Trakl’s final days in a Krakow hospital.

Continuing to alternate between the analysis of what poetry can tell us about its author and, more critically, what it reveals about ourselves, Fühmann’s personal journey of self-discovery moves forward with an intensity that is powerful, irresistible and fundamentally human. The experience of the Trakl poem changes him and allows him to heal in a way doctrine never could. The reader can feel his pain and his passion, appreciate his conflicts and share his exhilaration when everything finally falls into place. “I believe in poetry,” he says, “because it works like fate—provided you stand within its magic circle.”

Well said, indeed.

At the Burning Abyss by Franz Fühmann, is translated with great dedication and affection by Isabel Fargo Cole, and published by Seagull Books.

The seduction of ideological extremes: The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann

For months The Jew Car, Franz Fühmann’s autobiographical story cycle, sat on my shelf unread. I had bought it in anticipation of the recent release, in translation, of his last major work, At the Burning Abyss: Experiencing the Georg Trakl Poem. However, for some reason, I could not bring myself to read it. I have never been especially attracted to World War II literature, and with the current resurgence of neo-Nazi sentiments and far-right movements in North America and Europe, I was uncertain if I wanted to venture into a series of stories in which an East German writer traces a path from his enthusiastic adoption of fascist rhetoric as a youth, on through his experiences as a German soldier during the war, to his eventual rejection of Nazi ideology and acceptance of socialism in a Soviet POW camp. I wondered if I had the heart for it, and yet the translator of both volumes, Isabel Fargo Cole, advised me that Fühmann’s personal reflections in At the Burning Abyss would have greater impact and resonance with the background afforded by The Jew Car.

Born in 1922, Fühmann grew up in the predominantly German Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, the son of an apothecary who encouraged the development of a strong German nationalism. From the age of ten to fourteen, he attended a Jesuit boarding school in Kalksburg but found the atmosphere stifling. In 1936, he transferred to a school in Reichenberg, where he lived on his own for the first time and became involved in the Sudeten Fascist movement. After the annexation of Sudetenland in 1938, he joined the SA. 1941, he was assigned to the signal corps serving in various locations in the Ukraine before being moved to Greece as Germany’s fortunes declined. He was captured by Soviet forces in 1945. During his years spent as a POW, he would embrace socialism and upon his release in 1949, he finally found himself on German soil for the first time, settling in the GDR where he would spend the rest of his life.

Originally published in 1962, the stories in The Jew Car, which is subtitled Fourteen Days from Two Decades, follow the trajectory of Fühmann’s life between the ages of seven and twenty-seven. Presented with dramatic colour, they offer an attempt to explore the progression of his ideological development during this period. Through an engaging, often ironic voice and well-framed narratives, we watch Fühmann’s fictional alter-ego confront the psychological seduction of the persistent propaganda machine and engage in the mental gymnastics required to continually readjust to accommodate or explain away any evidence that failed to fit with what he has been led to believe.

The title story opens the collection. Set in 1929, the seven year-old narrator is caught up in a wave of rumours sweeping through his grade school. The children listen with a mixture of rapture and fear, to breathless tales of a four Jews in a yellow car who are said to have been travelling through the surrounding countryside, snatching and murdering innocent young girls. When our hero happens to spy a brown car carrying three people one afternoon, it becomes, in his imagination, vividly transformed into the feared mysterious vehicle exactly as described. At school the next day, he is the centre of attention, holding his classmates in thrall until the one person he dearly wishes to impress the most, the girl “with the short, fair hair” neatly puts him in his place. Yet rather than causing him to question his hasty assumptions about the car he actually saw, his humiliation is turned into an increased, abstracted hatred of Jews.

And so the process begins.

Fühmann manages to capture the mixture of naïve enthusiasm, patriotic fervour, and boredom that he and his friends regularly encounter as the tides of history are building around them. He is young, the air is charged with excitement mingled with fear of the dreaded Commune and the anticipation of liberation. At times his young narrator is surprised to catch the worried looks on the faces of his parents and other adults. His faith in the Führer is unshakable and he believes that the German Reich will not abandon the Sudeten German population to murderous cutthroats. This conviction is well captured in the story “The Defense of the Reichenberg Gymnasium.” (September, 1938) Although no violence has yet occurred in his corner of the region at this point, when an alarm summons him and his comrades from the Gymnastic Society to defend the Reichenberg gymnasium from imminent attack, he is ready and eager:

I was excited: I’d never been in a battle like this; the occasional school scuffles didn’t count, the scouting games and the stupid provocations of the police in which I and all the others indulged; now it would turn serious, a real battle with real weapons, and I felt my heart beating, and wondered suddenly how it feels when a knife slips between the ribs. My steps faltered; I didn’t think about the knife, I saw it, and as I passed Ferdl, a sausage vendor who stood not far from the gymnasium, I even thought of stealing off down an alley, but then I scolded myself and walked quickly into the building.

But, as uneventful hours begin to stretch well past lunch time, boredom and hunger start to set in. Ultimately it is decided to send forth a series of provisioning parties to remedy the situation. Young Fühmann is assigned to the third group:

It was a puerile game we were playing, childish antics, and yet murderous, and the awful thing was that we felt neither the puerility no the murderousness. We were in action, under orders, advancing through enemy territory, and so, the five-man shopping commando in the middle and the three-man protective flanks to the left and right, we casually strolled up the street, turned off without incident, made our way back down the parallel street through the tide of workers, Germans and Czechs coming from the morning shift, cut through the arcade, side by side, and at discreet intervals each bought twenty pairs of sausages with rolls and beer.

Fühmann is a gifted storyteller whose poetic prose and ironic tone are pitch perfect, especially in the earlier stories. He creates a portrait of his younger self that is not sentimental or idealized. His moments of empathy for individuals otherwise thought to be inferior are quickly reframed with racist convictions. He does not speak too much about his involvement in direct anti-Semitic actions (though he will in later works). What comes through most strikingly in The Jew Car is the sense of rational isolation that surrounds the individual. Information is strictly mediated, so that otherwise intelligent individuals lose any frame of reference or develop extreme responses to the continual routine of work and deprivation. His steadfast devotion to the military structure will start to weaken as he discovers poetry, although his first published efforts during the war are very much on message. Fühmann will not become a dissident poet until much later, long after the war is over.

The tone of the later stories is soberer, more contained. The narrator describes his conversion to Socialism in terms that border on the religious. He talks about having “scales fall from his eyes” during his training, describes reading Marx, encountered before but now understood in a new light. But he never provides detailed justification—he believes with conviction and is not ready to be swayed. The final tale which describes his arrival in East Germany after his release from imprisonment to join his mother and sister who have been relocated there, is forced and marked by Soviet style melodrama.

In his afterword to the 1979 reissue of The Jew Car, which aimed to address some of the editorial changes made to the original publication, Fühmann noted a shift in tone that impacted the overall flow of the collection:

Probably even while writing I began to sense the inconsistency in this work, expression of a fractured mindset, a switch from self-irony to affirmative pathos that had to lead to a decline in literary quality such as that between the first and last story…

However, although they are autobiographical in nature, these stories are essentially fictionalized—this is not an essay or memoir. That lends the collection a particular power and energy. Yet, there is a clear sense that the ending is idealized and incomplete, as indeed it is. As Isabel Cole’s Afterword goes on to explain, Fühmann’s infatuation with the socialist vision of the GDR will fade as he chafes against the rigid restrictions imposed on individual and creative expression. He will, nonetheless, remain in East Germany for the rest of his life. In 1982, two years before his death, he will publish an in-depth exploration of his personal evolution through his discovery of and affection for the poetry of Georg Trakl. To that work, At the Burning Abyss, my attention can now turn…

The Jew Car by Franz Fühmann is translated by Isabel Fargo Cole and published by Seagull Books.

This review, together with my review of Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann represents my contribution to this year’s German Literature Month. Also related: See my recent interview with translator Isabel Cole, primarily regarding Wolfgang Hilbig, but also touching on Fühmann, which was published at 3:AM Magazine this past month.

The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this month I wrote about the fact that I had not been writing much, despite my pledge to focus on my own work for a year.  Well since that time I haven’t been reading much either, but I have been busy with writing related activity and, fortunately, I have more work written earlier in the year that I am now able to share.

Today my contributor’s copy of the latest edition of the elegant and engaging Seagull Books Catalogue arrived.  I have only just begun to glance through it—this 428-page masterpiece begs to be savoured slowly and carefully—and, for the second year, I am honoured to have a piece of writing included.

My brief prose poem/essay, “The Cost of Words,” was written upon my return from the trip I made to central Australia in May of this year, to participate in a charity walk on the Larapinta Trail west of Alice Springs.  Thank you, as ever, to Naveen Kishore and the entire team at Seagull Books for this beautiful creation and for once again inviting me to take part.

THE COST OF WORDS

It starts, not with a shout, but with a whisper, a tightening at the back of the throat.

 Sadness was an opened door, an invitation, across the globe, to an ancient place where, for a time, the world might stop swaying, where I could focus on the moment, freightless after years of pushing against this cage of flesh and bone. Traverse a vast terrain of sound and sand and stone. I arrived empty, expectant. In my head, I had fashioned a journey of healing, imagined an ordeal to open a conduit to choked and buried grief. I longed to release the words that had ceased to flow. Unleash emotions untold.

Nature defies a narrative directive; life sets its own course. Streams flood, rivers run dry. We are not what we think we are. We are whole, we are broken. Fragile and durable in turns.

 On my first day out, my head closed in, my voice grew strained and raw. Over rockbound passages, rising ridges, jagged ground, I began to fear that a different script was being dreamed for me. My challenge would be to submit. I fought it, pressing against weakness and illness and fatigue until one day I dropped from the trail into a circle of needles and stone.

The wisdom of the desert holds you humble. Reminds you when failure, not triumph, will unleash the tears you cannot cry. Water is precious. A gift not easily spared.

In the end, I will never know, how long I could have walked in perfect health. Whether heat or blisters or skeletal complaints would have slowed me all the same. But I do know that the outback is not just rock and rust-red dust and sand. It is explosive greens, the pallid beauty of the ghost gum, the sacred promise of the waterhole, and the wisdom of the women whose ancestors walked this land for millennia.

And the possibility of redemption from ruin. Again and again.

The cost of writing is not simply the loneliness and isolation a writer’s life affords; it is the cost of the life lived, the pain, wreckage, and devastation endured to be able write at all. Words are not free.

 What might a perfect life dream forth? Nothing worth the ink that blood can bear. I am not what I think I am. I am broken, I am whole. I seek the words, the notes that bind this song I write. In my heart, after two weeks in the desert, I have carried it home. How long can this self-sufficient refrain echo before it fades to hollow silence?

Long enough if one remembers the cost of words and is prepared to pay the price.

Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM

It’s no secret to my literary friends that I have been somewhat obsessed with French writer Michel Leiris this year. I will address this fact further at a later date, but essentially, it is his autobiographical writing that fascinates me—it’s a very internalized, yet sharply observant form of writing about language, memory, and experience. In his epic journal project, Phantom Africa, a detailed, personal record of his experience as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition in the early 1930s, one see him develop as a writer as the weeks and months past. With a background as a Surrealist poet and an essayist, he was a strong writer at the outset; what evolves over the course of the journey is an uncanny ability to lay himself open on the page with a distinct, idiosyncratic honesty. A discussion of this development forms the primary thread of my review of this critical work, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine.

However, the publication of this valuable document  in English, at this point in the ongoing post-colonial narrative, holds an importance that I only allude to in my critique. Leiris’ primary role on the expedition was as secretary-archivist. Ethnographic study was, for all intents and purposes, a mechanism of colonial control and exploitation. Thousands of artifacts, many with profound cultural and spiritual meaning, were collected for display in museums back in France. Some items were purchased, others taken by force or deceit, but in the end, it was all facilitated by an exercise of the power of the colonizer over the colonized. Leiris is not unaware of this fundamental inequity and he does express considerable concern and discontent with the ethics of the entire colonial enterprise, but he also admits to enjoying the thrill of the raid. Of course, it is not appropriate to measure a man outside the context of his times. Leiris’ true gift here lies in is his candid, unedited, record of the events he knows of or takes part in. It forms a vital contribution to the argument in favour of the repatriation of lost art and artifacts to Africa.

Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, is published by Seagull Books. My 3:AM review can be found here.

Silence, silence! A Skeleton Plays Violin: Book Three of Our Trakl — Georg Trakl

Listen carefully, what do you see?

Clouds expose their unyielding breasts,
And bedecked by leaves and berries
You see grinning in the dark pines
A skeleton play violin.

When Book One of Our Trakl emerged two years ago, attentive readers and lovers of beautiful books sensed the beginning of a very special project dedicated to the work of the Austrian poet who continues to intrigue and enthrall us more than one hundred years after his untimely death in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven. Translator James Reidel was introduced to Georg Trakl in the late 1970s, when he was himself beginning to write poetry. Early on he was made aware of the difficulty and importance of translating Trakl’s work. As the years went on, he would make his way back to Trakl through reading, and translating, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachman and Franz Werfel. In the meantime, new Trakl translations had emerged and so, with this series published by Seagull Books, he has added his own contribution—his own approach to this ever elusive and enigmatic writer.

The first two volumes of Our Trakl represent complete collections of poems, as selected and prepared by the poet: Poems (Gedichte, 1913) and Sebastian Dreaming (Sebastian im Traum, published posthumously in 1915). The third and final part, A Skeleton Plays Violin, gathers Trakl’s early and late published works, unpublished pieces, and significant variants and derivations, in yet another beautifully designed edition. Through the poems and prose collected here, presented chronologically and woven together with a sensitive biographical essay, we can trace his development as a poet, and see potential indications of where he might have gone had he survived the war and his own demons. With Poems and Sebastian Dreaming close at hand, reading can become a truly immersive experience.

Immediately one notices a strong youthful, romantic quality to Trakl’s earliest creative efforts which include prose, plays, and poetry. Religious and classical Greek themes recur, as do sombre images of suffering and neglect. Born in 1887, he began writing and publishing in his late teens when he was working as an apprentice pharmacist in Salzburg—a job that afforded him access to the drugs he had been sampling seriously from the age of fourteen and that would continue to play a significant role in his life. The intensity that is said to have marked his personal demeanour comes through in his early work, granting it an eerie maturity.

A move to Vienna to continue his pharmaceutical studies in 1908, led to periods of depression and anxiety. While his reputation as a poet grew, he was unsatisfied and critical of his work. His unhappiness in the capital, worsened in part by the complications of having his beloved sister present for a time, is reflected in his published poetry from this period. It is possible to feeling the aching in his words, as in the first two stanza of “Twilight”:

You are dishevelled, wracked by every pain
And shake from every jarring melody,
You a broken harp—a wretched heart,
From which blossom misery’s sick flowers.

Who bid your adversary, your killer,
The one who stole the last spark of your soul,
The way he degodded this barren world
Into a whore foul, sick, pale with decay!

In 1910, Trakl’s sister to whom he had always been close—perhaps too close—left Vienna to return to Salzburg. Two months later, in June, his father died, an event which had a major impact on the entire family, economically and functionally. However, his corpse and ghost would provide inspiration for his son’s poetry which, at this time, began to shake loose a nostalgia for the past, and the influence of the Symbolists and German Romantics, to find its own distinct voice. Sexual tension is increasingly sublimated and Trakl’s lines become “ever more discrete, simple and painterly.” His imagery also shifts:

Liminal beings begin to populate the poems—angels, demons, dead gods, nymphs, fawns and statues of dead nobles, hunted animals, skeletons, corpses and the ever-shape-shifting presence of the poet and the figure of the sister. And this figure may be more of a composite than we know, for Trakl adored his older sisters too.

A persistent presence in Trakl’s life and poetry is his younger sister Grete. The rumoured incestuous nature—or at least longings— that bound the two is a subject of measured discussion in the biographical segments, Reidel preferring, ultimately, to leave the poetry to speak for itself, as it will.

Toward the end of 1910, with a need to support himself, Trakl joined the army. He was assigned to the Garrison Hospital in Vienna where his commanding officer would later describe him as hardworking and friendly. Mid-1911 saw him return to Salzburg where he worked as a civilian pharmacist until the spring of 1912 when he was promoted to Garrison Hospital 10 in Innsbruck. Initially unimpressed with his new location in spite of its glorious forested and mountainous setting, he soon became involved with a new literary circle, and made connections that would prove critical to his career and lead to the publication of his first book. Thus he made peace with the surrounding landscape which also begins to make its way into his poetry. However, as his poetic soul flourishes, his work life suffers. Ultimately, unable to hold a job, he surrenders himself to writing, and the increasingly reckless life of a poet.

The extensive central sections of A Skeleton Plays Violin, which feature unpublished poems and versions of published pieces, offer a window into the refining of Trakl’s imagination and craft. We see him spinning, again and again, the phrases, imagery, and themes he wishes to perfect—the crimson mouth, the screaming faun, the turn of the season, the quality of light—and watch the tightening of his language as the final version is formed. Reidel’s selection covers a wide terrain, yet is careful to bring together those variants and completed works that highlight Trakl’s growth and maturity over time. It is impossible though, not to notice that his work only seems to grow darker.

For Trakl, periods of depression and panic attacks marked the second half of 1913. He continued to consume alcohol and drugs, cocaine and morphine, at a remarkable rate. He saw himself as a doomed soul, even as his star was steadily rising in German poetry. He held to his writing to see him through that winter. He continued to attract impressive admirers, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, and plans were made for a second volume of poetry. However, with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in June of 1914, Trakl’s world was upended. With the advent of what would become the First World War, he was assigned as a medic to a frontline infantry unit heading east. The conditions soon took a toll on his mental and emotional health. He was hospitalized in Krakow following a suicide threat, and was found, in his room, on November 3, dead from an apparent cocaine overdose.

His later published poems show that a deep melancholy had long settled into his work. “Evening Reel,” for instance, published in October of 1913 opens with playful natural imagery, albeit a little grim:

Fields of asters brown and blue,
Children play there by the grave vaults,
In the open skies of evening,
Blown into the clear skies,
Seagulls hover silver-grey.
Horns call in the flood meadow.

To end, even gloomier, three stanzas later:

The candles’ glow weaves dreamlike,
Paints this youthful flesh decaying,
Cling-clang! Hear in the fog,
Ring in time with the violins,
And bones dance along naked,
Long does the moon peer inside.

Trakl’s final published poems are stormy and dramatic. The wistful beauty is gone; the imagery is now steeped with darkness—war is at hand. “The Despair” captures the scene:

Then the black horses leap
On a pasture in fog.
You soldiers!
From the hill where the sun wheels dying
The laughing blood rushes
Amid oaks
Speechless! O the grumbling despair
Of the army, a steel helmet
Dropped clattering from a crimson brow.

Until the end, Trakl held fast to poetry. It has been suggested that the news that the publication of Sebastian Dreaming would have to be put off until the war ended played a pivotal role in his final desperation. We will never know exactly what finally tipped the scales for a man whose scales tipped so heavily to dark side so often in his short life. Nonetheless, his last creative efforts form a rousing crescendo to the third and closing volume of this ambitious poetic project.

Wisely and appropriately, the final words are perhaps best left to Trakl himself, from “Revelation and Perdition,” the grim, haunting prose piece which closes out this powerful testament to a troubled poet, lost too soon:

When I walked into the garden in twilight, and the black figure of evil had yielded to me, the hyacinthine stillness of the night surrounded me; and I sailed in a crescent-shaped boat across the stagnant pond and a sweet peace touched me on the brow turned to stone; and when I died in witness, fear and that pain deepest inside me died; and the blue shadow of the boy rose lightning the darkness, a soft singing; on lunar wings, above the greening treetops, crystal cliffs, rose the white face of the sister.

A Skeleton Plays Violin: The Early, Unpublished and Last Works of Georg Trakl is translated by James Reidel and published by Seagull Books.

For World Poetry Day, excerpts from a few books on my bedside table

In honour of World Poetry Day (which at the moment, in my time zone, is still happening), I thought I would take a moment to look at some of the poetry currently on my bedside table. I sometimes write about the poetry I read, but do not feel equipped to formally review it. That doesn’t keep me from enjoying it, of course.

I read a lot of poetry in translation. It can, perhaps, be a challenge to capture the spirit of a poem in another language, but that’s not a reason to deny its worth. Poetry opens up worlds of experience in a way prose typically cannot. And when competing (or rather, complementary) translations emerge, I like to think of that as an opportunity to re-experience a piece of literature reflected through a somewhat different prism.

I have a fondness for collections, complete or selected, that allow me to sample a poet’s work across their career, and delight in the magic of opening a book randomly, finding words that strike home. The following pieces are taken from the works I have been spending time with lately:

Water binds me to your name.
Nothings is left of me except you.
Nothing is left of you except me—
a stranger caressing the thighs of a stranger.
O stranger, what will we do with what is left
of the stillness and the brief sleep between two myths?
Nothing carries us: neither path nor home.
Was this the same path from the beginning?
Or did our dreams find a Mongolian horse on a hill
and exchange us for him?
What shall we do?
What shall we do without exile?

—Mahmoud Darwish, from “Who Am I, without Exile?”, translated from Arabic by Sinan Antoon, collected in Unfortunately, it was Paradise: Selected Poems (University of California Press)

* * *

I’m a Child of this Century

I’m a child of this dreary century
a child who never grew up
Doubts that set my tongue on fire
burned my wings
I learned to walk
then I unlearned it
I grew weary of oases
and camels eager for ruins
My head turned to the East
I lie in the middle of the road
And wait for the caravan of the mad

—Abdellatif Laâbi, from Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated from French by André Naffi-Sahely (Caranet Press)

* * *

Every day wakes up to some abuse
in my monologue is
embedded the legend of my sorrow,
with thousand year-old grief
I prevailed over my dirty life,
but not over the rationality of the winter cold . . .

In taprooms you rip off
the tattered shreds of your tragedy,
no forest, no merit, no archangel . . .

Above your poetry a swarm of birds mows
mows and mows a life imploring . . .
nothing for anyone
in the proximity of this dream,
nothing for worldly lovers . . .

Fruit of rottenness,
a wicked sun . . .
Temple ruins, broken pieces gathering
on the rediscovered shore . . .
in gloomy courtyards books opening . . .
Verses on abandoned walls . . .

. . . not the perfect one,
not the dead man, who drove you into the cities . . .
Trust in your song.
You plough the earth with your fragments,
cold begot you . . .
You, left behind by your creators . . .

—Thomas Bernhard, from Collected Poems, translated from German by James Reidel (forthcoming from Seagull Books)

Ever returning: Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan

She is my loss and she knows this. She is my absence and knows this too.

From the earliest passages, there is an abiding transience to the narrative flow of Ghassan Zaqtan’s novella, Describing the Past. The language is delicate, the imagery fragile and dream-like. The world his characters inhabit has an eerie timelessness. The past—immediate or distant—is tangible. Ghosts wander the streets, and memories are brought into being as ethereal images or objects that hold a vital presence in the room, breathe, come alive at night. We are among people who have been uprooted once and will be uprooted again; their dreams and recollections sustain them, give them something to hold on to.

ghassan_zaqtanZaqtan, a Palestinian poet, was born a refugee. In 1961, at the age of seven, his family was relocated (for the second time since 1948) from Beit Jala, in the West Bank, to the Karameh refugee camp across from Jericho, in the Jordan River Valley. But, as Fady Joudah indicates in his Foreword, the camp would be burned with the Israeli invasion in 1968. Zaqtan’s tale is set in this community, yet re-imagined and filtered through the chimerical memory of a place, like childhood itself, that no longer exists.

The narrative is carried by three separate voices—designated I, He, and She—each speaking in first person. The central narrator is nicknamed Christian (his mother was Christian, his father Muslim), and his friend, the other young man, is known as the Iraqi’s son after an uncle who identified himself as Iraqi due to his brief role helping the Iraqi Army at the end of the 1948 war, an experience he built into a sustaining myth that coloured his entire family’s identity. The young woman who holds their attention is, at the outset, married to an elderly man who takes her and her mother into his home. When he dies, she will marry the Iraqi’s son and bear him a child before he drowns, leaving her alone. As such, the outline of the plot is simple, much of it alluded to in the first chapter. However, the story is unwrapped slowly, moving back and forth in time, and relying on poetic imagery and the vagaries of memory to sketch out the spaces that exist between these three individuals.

And that is where the magic lies. In the opening section Christian inadvertently chances to see “her”, the young wife of the old man, naked in her room. He had come seeking some tea leaves for his mother and had not realized she was home. Transfixed by the sight of her body he watches her in hiding until she begins to sob and he runs away, terrified and exhilarated by what he has seen. Of course he must tell his friend, who beautifully describes the vividness of the account:

At first I didn’t believe it, it was not his voice. There was a strand of fantasy that glimmered in his words, some current of rash hunger and desire, of fear and fraud. Little by little, like dust growing slowly and insistently into heaps, she started to gather there in the voice toward the point of completion. She became clear and close. I saw her in his voice reclining nude and whole. Her knee flashed at a distance. At the centre of her figure a dark spot of light amassed, turning and breathing. I was there. I saw her in his voice with a clarity that did not exist for him; she was clearer and more complete in his voice than anything he had looked at and beheld.

The narrative glances forward and retreats in time. The voice of the Iraqi’s son who meets an early demise, disappears from the discourse about halfway through. But the dead are never gone. They are greeted in the street. They emerge from photographs. One has the sense of a world crowded with memories, individuals weighed down by what they have lost. The level, steadily-paced poetry of the language enhances this sensation. This novella, only 84 pages long, is best if savoured slowly, allowing the words to be absorbed.

As each of the narrators picks up the pieces of their own stories, the temporal distortion, shifting from chapter to chapter, can be disorienting. “Here” and “now” are terms without a fixed frame of reference. This is intensified because Christian, as the central narrator, rather than providing structure, is the most abstract and philosophical in his manner of being in the world. He is most sensitive to a past that extends beyond his experience. To ghosts. At one point his father had crept into forbidden territory in search of his village, only to find it in ruins, home now to a curtain of cacti and one remaining pomegranate tree. Stuffing his pockets with pomegranates he arrived home covered in juice, clutching one whole fruit:

He placed it on our only table, and the fruit stayed there. We were unable to wound it. We were afraid to cause it, or him, pain. It was in front of us—breathing and remembering—on that squat table, next the knife that my youngest sister had brought and about which we quickly forgot. It was impossible for us to go beyond that. The fruit was completely alive and necessary for him, his only means to make us believe him, to make us believe all those stories he had brought to us—of his house, his village and his land.

Our house, our village, our land.

There is a sense that the three young characters at the centre of Describing the Past are trapped, suspended in lives they cannot control. It is not clear how much time passes. Hopes and ambitions are fleeting when you face an uncertain future in a refugee camp—when the land you live on is shared with ghosts, haunted by memories, and liable to turn to dust without warning. Yet, circular, the dream-like narrative returns, in the end, to complete the fragmentary images that the set up by central narrator in the opening passages. The mood is gently haunting, beautiful and sad.

And it leaves you with chills.

Describing the Past by Ghassan Zaqtan is translated by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books.

Another winter solstice is upon us: 2016 – The year in review

Winter solstice. The longest night of the year.

Moving forward, the days grow steadily longer and, in less than two weeks, we will leave a dark, disturbing year behind us.

But it would be reckless to imagine that 2017 will be brighter. However, with luck, we can be forewarned, forearmed, and determined not to relax our guard. We can stand together against the rising tides of hatred, and remember what is truly at stake.

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Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, winter solstice has become my annual check-in point. Last December, I reflected on the key elements of a year that began with a move to writing seriously about books and culminated with my first review for Numéro Cinq. Against that trajectory, I wrote about my trip to South Africa, and the pulmonary embolism and cardiac arrest that followed within a few weeks of my return. I imagined that the eventful year I had experienced would not likely, for better or worse, be exceeded this year.

Cue 2016.

This has been a year of heartache, anger, and dismay. Around the world and close to home. I watched the violence in Syria, the outcome of the Brexit vote, and the spectacle of the American election, among the other tragic and unexpected events that have unfolded. And as economic uncertainty and anxiety has grown in my own hometown—a city that lives and dies with the price of oil—the crime and homicide rate has risen sharply this year. It does not feel like the same community any more.

Then there is the lengthy roll call of the writers, artists, and performers who have left us. But to be honest, I cannot say that I have felt these losses as acutely as many others… I’ve been distracted by the immediate, personal losses that marked this year. My mother, my father, and one of my closest friends, all gone within the span of two months. And my grief—that most fundamental human emotion—is complicated, inarticulate, and wearing.

It will take time.

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But, 2016 has also been a time of amazing growth and opportunity for me as a writer. I don’t know how often I resolved, with the dawn of a new year that: This year I will write. Last December, with that first critical review under my belt, I could not have imagined that I would have, in addition to regular contributions to Numéro Cinq, published reviews at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and The Rusty Toque. And I would not have dared to dream that I would see my essays and prose pieces published on line and in print, or that I would be invited to join the editorial team of The Scofield. As 2017 approaches, I have a handful of reviews scheduled and several prose projects underway. I’m also feeling inspired to return to photography after a lengthy hiatus, and to see how I can incorporate photos into my written work.

I have much to look forward to, in spite of, or rather, against the new darkness that threatens.

Art and literature are more important than ever at times like this.

So, this seems to be an appropriate time to look back over this year’s reading, and highlight the books that stand out for me.

I’ve read about 50 books to date, a little more than half of what I read in 2015. I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to how many books I bought, received as review copies, or brought home from the library. I feel, as usual, like I fell short of my intentions. However, I have to remember that I was writing, working on critical reviews, and dealing with considerable life stresses over the past twelve months.

More than ever before, I read like a writer this year. That is, I was especially attuned to voice, structure and approach to storytelling. Consequently, the books that made my year-end list tend to reflect this focus. Of course, any “best-of list” leaves out many excellent books. I’ve managed a baker’s dozen here, and it’s probably a reflection of the increased number of off-blog reviews I wrote that this year’s list is predominately composed of new releases. I was surprised to see that once I’d made my selection.

In reverse chronological order, my top reads of 2016 include the following:

Story of Love in Solitude by Roger Lewinter (France), translated by Rachel Careau
I will write about this collection of three short stories once I have completed The Attraction of Things. My verdict is still out on that title, but this tiny book is simply wonderful.

The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves (UK)
Fragmentary, cross genre writing that works fascinates me. Billed as a “memoir by other means”, it is Eaves’ unique tone that makes this blend of memoir, literary criticism, and poetry so compelling. His thoughtful reflections on reading and writing made this an ideal meditation to turn to after a year of reading critically and exploring my own literary voice.

gravediggerThe Absolute Gravedigger by Vítěslav Nezval (Czech Republic), translated by Stephan Delbos & Tereza Novická)
I have found myself turning to poetry more and more as the world seems increasingly unstable and, well, surreal. This newly translated collection of poetry by one of the best known Czech Surrealists should be essential reading at this time. Originally published in 1937, the darkness he could see on the horizon are all too familiar once again.

The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (Swiss), translated by Kurt Beals
I read this collection of short stories when I was in a very low mood. But in the spare, sombre prose of these tales I found a beauty that, rather than deepening my depression, brought strange comfort. Admired, in her lifetime, by the likes of Rilke, Mann, and Musil, Ullmann’s work is mostly forgotten today. This volume, released in English translation in 2015, is a rare treasure—one that I encountered at just the right moment.

panorama-coverPanorama by Dušan Šarotar (Slovenia), translated by Rawley Grau
For me, as a reader and a writer, one of the most important books I read this year is this literary meditation on migration, language, landscape, and loss. This novel finally broke through my own stubborn determination to hold to a sharp delineation between fiction and nonfiction, and has made me re-evaluate potential approaches to themes I wish to examine. What Šarotar achieves here with his own unique take on what might be deemed a “Sebaldian” approach, is the creation of an atmospheric, captivating, and intelligent work.

The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (Brazil), translated by Idra Novey
Oh wow! In a way, I am glad I didn’t read Lispector before writing and publishing my essay “Your Body Will Betray You,” because she is exploring the process of coming into being so beautifully that I might not have been able to write at all after reading this. Employing an unconventional narrative, Lispector’s G.H. experiences a vivid, metaphysical crisis triggered by the sight of a cockroach. The result is a remarkable, thoroughly engaging read. I have at least three more of her books waiting for the new year.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield (US)
I bought a number of essay collections this year and currently have several on the go. This collection impressed me not only for the way the essays were composed—written without consulting outside sources—but for some of the ideas explored, and for reinforcing the value and possibilities of the personal essay/memoir form. I also greatly appreciated his guiding caveat: Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.

SergioSergio Y. by Alexandre Vidal Porto (Brazil), translated by Alex Ladd
This book is significant and important for dealing with gender identity and transition in a sensitive and original way. I am, as a transgender person, critical of much of what passes as literary writing on this subject. This is a most impressive work with a startling and unique approach. As I noted in my review, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. That is the book’s greatest strength.

surrThe Surrender by Scott Esposito (US)
This book was on my radar from the moment I first heard of it. Again, despite my typical gender related skepticism, I was drawn to this transgender-themed memoir/film critique/literary diary. I wanted to know how Scott would present his story—one that is not commonly heard. Although his journey is very different than mine, we share a certain sensibility. This is a brave and most wonderful book by a man who has long been one of my heroes. He has since become one of the many literary friends I have come to know and cherish this year.

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Atlas of an Anxious Man by Christoph Ransmayr (Austria), translated by Simon Pare
This book was a total surprise when it arrived courtesy of the good people at Seagull Books. This most unusual travelogue, a series of brief “encounters” across the globe, contains some of the most stunning descriptive language I have ever read. Each episode begins with the words “I saw…” and ends with a wise, evocative observation. From the North Pole, to South America, from deep inside the mountains of New Zealand, to a parking lot in San Diego, this is a journey that will not be easily forgotten. Highly recommended.

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (Brazil), translated by Adam Morris
My third Brazilian book on this list is this enigmatic novella that led to one of the most entertaining literary discussions of the year. What is it about? Well that is the challenge. I had to read it three times before I could begin to get a handle on it. The narrator, a young man who finds himself in a strange situation that is rapidly growing stranger, is, in his oddly passive tone, almost more disturbing than whatever might be happening. Opaque and surreal, this book gets under your skin.

The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha (Egypt), translated by Robin Moger
This novel still holds fast in my memory although I read it back in February. It is, as I described it in my review, a prose poem of simmering power, unwinding across 405 numbered paragraphs, tracing a torturous path from the first stirrings of poetic assurance within a trio of young men in the 1990s to the doomed protests of the Arab Spring. It is a dark, intense exploration of youthful political idealism, that builds on repeated images, themes and refrains to create a compelling narrative force as it moves toward its stunning conclusion. Again, this is another work that is increasingly relevant in today’s world.

On-the-edgeOn the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (Spain), translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Finally, the very first book I read in 2016 is probably my favourite book of the year. I wrote about this novel at length for Numéro Cinq and I regret that it has not generated more discussion. In what is essentially an extended monologue with brief cameos from other characters, Chirbes creates a memorable, engaging, and tragic character in seventy-year-old Esteban, a man who has lost absolutely everything in the economic collapse of 2008.  Thoroughly human in his wisdom, his resolve, his shortcomings, and his despair; this is a powerful and important book that deals frankly with many of the critical issues—including migration, xenophobia, and economic decline—that are more vital than ever as we step into 2017.

When you fall out of reality: Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge & Gerhard Richter

As we witness an unprecedented assault on the integrity and role of journalists and the news media, fueled by recent events in the US—and, let’s be fair, in many other nations in our current climate of political unease—this collaborative effort to re-imagine an alternative approach to capturing reality is ever more timely and precious. The genesis of Dispatches from Moments of Calm (Seagull Books, 2016) lies in an unusual experiment. For one day, October 5, 2012, all of the noisy and distressing political reportage evaporated from the pages of the German national newspaper, Die Welt. In its place? Thirty pages of photographs capturing the simplicity of the everyday—a quiet interlude in restless times, created and directed by renowned artist Gerhard Richter.

calmInspired by this singular attempt to create a “moment of calm,” writer and film maker, Alexander Kluge, started to work on a collection of small stories to accompany the images. Richter responded in turn with the proposal of a collaboration. He added more photos; Kluge wrote more stories. The resulting book—a continuation of their first successful joint publication, December (2010/2012)is an important, and given the mood of the current times and the circumstances of the project’s origin, a more meditative and philosophical work.

The photographs scattered throughout the text isolate the ordinary instant. The atmosphere is placid, low-key. We see a dog sleeping in the sun, the blurred image of a family at a meal, a deserted downtown street, images of nature, children at play, a moody seascape, and more. But each image exists in a space apart from time and the world. And Kluge’s fictions, taking off as they so frequently do, from real life people, events, and ideas, offer the ideal counterpoint. Many of the stories explicitly explore the intersection between art, music and reality:

László Moholy-Nagy was asked whether a photograph reproduces a piece of reality. He denied the claim. He replied that a photograph is constituted by the fact that it concentrates on an actual moment and records it, becoming a textual addition existing outside the world. He knew, the Bauhaus man continued, series and networks of such photographs, which relate to reality or current events like a mirror (including the gaps in that reality, to a silence or to a nothingness), but which, when cut off from the rapidly receding stratification of time, would form themselves into their own republic, one that would superimpose itself (like an El Niño mudslide) onto the original impression that caused the photograph, which itself would have disappeared from the participants’ memory, had they never had the impression to begin with.

Dispatches comprises 89 stories and 64 pictures. Some of the stories—which range from a paragraph or two to a couple of pages—were composed to accompany, after the fact, specific images from the original Die Welt project. Both Kluge and Richter added more contributions on their own. In the resulting book, the confluence between images seems to be accidental, rather than exacting. Where a connection exists, the image is unlikely to occur near the corresponding story. This arrangement adds to the incidental flow of the work. There is, however a thematic structuring at play.

2016-11-30-22-39-33The book is divided into five parts. The stories in first section turn on the element of chance. With narratives featuring real figures from science, music, and history, alongside parables drawn from nature and from everyday life, Kluge explores the vagaries of fate and circumstance. The consequences, happy or unhappy, have the effect of promoting a sense of disequilibrium—an awareness of the fleeting quality of those moments of calm that we experience.

The second part takes us into the city starting with stories set in modern urban spaces, moving back in time to vignettes that speculate on the Mesopotamian origins of the city-state and ruminations on the nature of the concept “city.” This section closes with a story featuring sociologist Richard Sennett:

The city that we carry around inside ourselves, he said, is visible. But when you see a city destroyed by bombs, one which you do not know and means nothing to you, and you nevertheless feel sad, then you can see from this reaction that we carry around inside ourselves just such an invisible city. You see the city only when it has been lost.

These words seamlessly lead into a collection of stories set in the Middle East—Beirut, Lebanon, Syria, Israel—engaging current events, history and even opera to reflect, in words, the very instants Moholy-Nagy imagined captured in the mirror of a photograph.

2016-11-30-22-29-25The final two sections sharpen the focus on questions of reality—how we report it, record it, place ourselves in relation to it. The philosophical musings Kluge entertains in these brief stories offer so much to contemplate. His ability to exploit the fluid intersection between what we, especially in English language literature, want to divide into fact and fiction, lends his stories the sense that these should be considered fragmentary pieces of nonfiction. The influence that his work had on W. G. Sebald is evidenced in this regard. These stories, parables, and reflections are, in themselves, narrative truths—regardless of whether they describe events as they really occurred, or if they even occurred at all. Kluge wants to make you stop, in the moment, and think. Here, as an illustration, is one of my favourite stories, in its entirety to provide a taste of Kluge at work:

For many centuries, thousands of monks in monasteries between Ireland and Byzantium, dotted like islands across the barbaric land, were writing out the holy texts. Their zeal and their great efforts produced mistakes. The result was that the texts imperceptibly expanded. One learned monk in Samanca was delighted to find a text by Ovid on the back of a copy of the apocryphal LOGION OF ST JOHN. The copyist on the island of Reichenau could not resist including this interpolation. In this way, a text was expanded in a distinctly “unholy” manner.

A transcription of texts (just as if evolution had been tinkering with their DNA texts) doesn’t only create lines to new future texts. It can also be reconstructed in the direction of paradise. The way there leads through indeterminacies. ‘Nearer, my God to Thee’ was the music played by the orchestra on board the Titanic as the ship went down. But it is also the working instructions to copyists of all countries, who are driven from the omphalos of experience into the parallel world (heterotopia), the pre-world history and the future world (the world of our children, who are so attached to life). For copyists, all images are NOW-TIME.

I don’t know if it is the nature of the project from which this collaboration arose, that is, as an attempt to visually introduce an element of calm to the daily news cycle, that gives this book its impact, but in contrast to December, which I read at the end of last year (my review is here), Dispatches from Moments of Calm is a more powerful, comprehensive work. But then it may be a question of timing. Originally published in German in 2013, the driving forces against which Richter’s photographic interlude at Die Welt was superimposed, have not slowed. Uncertainty has increased and continues to grow. But as Kluge and Richter, two of the most influential and respected artists of their generation stand to remind us, art is more critical than ever at times like the one we find ourselves in at the end of 2016.

Like the dome of lights over a great city, the STATE OF THE NEWS forms an aura in which a general notion of what matters in the world coalesces.

It is out of such NEWS VALUES and not out of the facts themselves that the daily image of the reality of our world is put together. The products of poetry form an antithesis to this daily fluctuation. In painted images, and in the narratives of short stories and novels, time outside stands still.

Dispatches from Moments of Calm by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter is translated by Nathaniel McBride and published by Seagull Books. A second edition of their earlier collaboration, December (translated by Martin Chalmers) will be published, also by Seagull, in paperback, in Spring 2017.

Literature as Liberator: My contribution to the 2016-17 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this year I was invited by Naveen Kishore, the publisher of Seagull Books, to write a contribution for their 2016-2017 catalogue. Now the Seagull catalogue is never an ordinary publication. It is a lavishly illustrated volume featuring the stunning artwork of Sunandini Banerjee, and contributions from a wide range of writers, translators, and this year, a handful of humble book bloggers, myself included. When I agreed to try to put something together, Naveen sent me this year’s “Provocation”:

Soul he said. Soul as the prison of the body. Soul I asked? What about the ones who don’t believe? In soul. Or God. Or religion. The ones that understand the body for what it is. Accept its one-way journey towards the inevitable. The body as decay. Gradual ruin. Eventual crumbling. We all know this. Or those that think the ‘inner core’, or what I presume is a ‘substitute’ for the notion of ‘soul’, is actually just an ever changing, evolving, fermenting mass of literature that grows. And grows. And knows freedom. And fear. And emotion. And love. And death. And every kind of existential angst that any soul worth its weight in gold would know! What about me? I asked. Or you for that matter. We who write and read and write and continue to both read and write while our bodies grow old and tired. But the mind. The mind remains in a state of excitement. Constantly radiant. Its brilliance grows with every new thought. What if we substitute ‘literature’ for ‘soul’ in your proud statement so that it now reads ‘Literature as the prison of the body’. Thing is that this doesn’t hold. Literature cannot be a space that restricts movement. Or freedom. At least it shouldn’t be. It is meant to be a liberating presence. Like its close companion. The dark. For me the dark is important. The dark as a substitute for soul? Maybe. Darkness is essential for literature of meaning to grow and take root.

The body. The soul. Literature.

2016-11-09-17-33-54I knew immediately what I would write. I took themes that were spinning through my head, scratched out on notepads—unformed, but increasingly urgent ideas that I wanted to find a way to address in words—and placed them within the framework of an analogy I have long used to describe my experience of feeling that I did not belong in the body I was born in. This piece represents the first creative expression of the self, of my self, that I dared to offer for publication. Although I had addressed my gender-different history, my queerness, in the occasional blog post and review, I had never sought to open some of the deeper elements of being that have come to define—and trouble—my long-term experience of living in the world as a gay transgender man.

2016-11-09-17-28-08In the meantime, between writing and submitting my Seagull “response” and finally holding the published catalogue in my hands earlier this month, I published two critical pieces of writing. Your Body Will Betray You (Minor Literature[s] May 6, 2016) explores the body and being, while A Reader’s Journey Through Transition (Literary Hub October 25, 2016) takes a look at the urgency with which I attempted to read myself to a place of self understanding. I’m proud of both of these essays, but I must confess, there is a certain weariness that comes with writing so honestly about oneself, not to mention a creeping discomfort with being laid bare, as such. This is a reflection of my ongoing personal struggle with the value and efficacy of being out, and with the inevitable fatigue that comes with constantly having to come out, again and again.

If I had thought writing myself out in the world would help, I’m not sure it has. But then again, we are constantly reading and writing ourselves into being. It is a process, not an end. Like transition.

So, after a little consideration, I’m ready to reproduce my Seagull Books contribution here. Rest assured this is not an excuse not to request a copy of this amazing catalogue for yourself. A Seagull Books catalogue is a work of art and celebration of literature.

The seeds of both of my later essays are evident in the following parable, but this piece attempts to articulate my own experience of feeling “wrongly gendered.” You will note that it is not a question of outward expression—being differently gendered, as I know it, comes from inside, not from wanting to play with the toys or wear the clothing of the other “sex.”

Here, then is my contribution to the 2016-17 Seagull Catalogue, with endless gratitude to Naveen Kishore:

Literature as liberator, you suggest.

I am, I want to reply, inclined to agree.

But I would caution you that words can confine us, as readily as they can set us free. We can become entangled in meanings, lose ourselves in definitions, search in circles for explanations when all we know is that the words we hear don’t seem touch the heart of what or whom we seem to be. False trails can mislead, lead away from understanding, especially if the destination you seek is not marked on any of the maps you can find. You wander blind.

And, you speak of the transience of the body, its trajectory toward decline, deterioration and decay.

I would argue the body cannot be so easily discarded.

Let me reframe the imagery.

Accept, for the sake of argument that the body is the fragile housing of the mind and the mind is the intersection of the heart and the brain; and, as such, both are essential to the experience of being in the world. The soul then, or that spark by which we know we are alive, can be thought of as being-in-motion. And literature—the stories we tell, the stories we turn to—is an essential element of the process of understanding ourselves in the world.

We are reading and writing ourselves into being.  Always.

Let me tell you a story.

Imagine, for moment, a darkened room. The sole illumination is a candle burning against the insistent gloom.

A boy inhabits this space; it is the only space he has ever known. And he has known, for almost as long as he can remember that everyone he encounters, every person who stands at the threshold and beckons, is expecting someone else, someone he can only pretend to be. He decorates his room, he carries his candle into the corners to try to understand what secrets they might contain, he worries that his insecurities might be exposed. But, of course, it’s dark, and others tend to see only what they want to see.

As the boy grows, his room becomes a more distorted, distressing, disorienting place. He wonders what lessons he missed, why he is unable to learn to exist comfortably in this strange space.

He assumes he is at fault.

If only his candle burned brighter. If only his room was not so dark.

He continues to decorate and redecorate his room. He scours the books that line the shelves, listens to the music that fills the hollows. Somewhere, somewhere far away he senses there is an answer to his otherness but its truth escapes him. He seems to fall off the axis the wrong way. So he puts away the stories of his childhood, the ones he tried to emulate with his own tales of ordinary boys on heroic journeys to fight dragons, and tries to draw a new character, the one he is supposed to be. If he can tell this character’s story, find her voice, perhaps he can write himself into the woman everyone else anticipates, the woman everyone else sees.

But he cannot find the voice.

He puts down his pen, files the unfinished stories and poems. Or throws them away.

He goes to university. He reads more books. The unease intensifies, the books can only take him so far—he continually reaches a place where the road ends, where the bridge is washed out, where the trail fades away into the underbrush. And then he falls in love. If he can’t fix the persistent otherness, perhaps he can hide—in plain sight.

The years pass. And still his room is an alien space.

He plays by every rule he can imagine. Marriage. Children.

Until, one day, he finds a book. It’s not the answer, but it shatters something deep within, it whispers in the darkness, and the candle flickers briefly. So he reads more. He encounters words that catch him up, that lead him on. He reads more. The words, the words threaten to tear apart his world. He tries on stories; wonders if they fit, if they’ll finally help him understand the room that has, over the years, come to feel more like a prison than a body.

He longs to make his way home to a place he’s never been.

He reads more.

And at last he comes to understand that the only way to make sense of himself in the world—to touch the centre of his very own being-in-motion—is not to deny the man inside but to renovate the room. To step out of the shadows and acknowledge the person he has always been, celebrate him and let him live. The candle still burns, but the room is now bathed in natural light.

So yes, literature can illuminate the corners, crack the walls, break down the door to bring the essential being—the soul, if you like—into the light.

I know this in my bones. The story I just told you is mine.