‘the traces of our dreams’

If we cannot see the traces of our dreams it is because we tend to look for them by day or with a lamp. At night, when we glide through black absence, their phosphorescence betrays them.

Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions: Volume I

2017 in books and music

Snow Bunting at North Point State Park, Maryland, USA. © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Snow Bunting at North Point State Park, Maryland, USA. © 2016 S. D. Stewart

Following surgery to repair a pelvic fracture in January I was unable to put weight on my left leg for three months. One might think this would have resulted in a higher read count than usual for the year, but in fact my total fell short of my average over the past few years. Part of this was actually due to a concerted effort to slow down and read more leisurely. However, another reason was that once I was fully mobile I simply did not want to sit around reading, so I ended up reading much less in the second half of the year, though toward the end as bird migration tapered off and the weather grew colder my pace did pick up again.

Below is the list of books I assigned 5-star ratings on Goodreads in 2017. A number of books I rated 4 stars probably deserve a place here, too, but I had to draw the line somewhere. In the 4-star category I will mention the two Julien Gracq novels I read as being particularly noteworthy (The Castle of Argol and The Opposing Shore). Regrettably I believe both of these are out of print in English translation. However, I’m happy to report that NYRB has just reissued Gracq’s moodily atmospheric novel A Balcony in the Forest, so there’s hope now for future republication of his singular work in English.

In general this year was a good one for reissues of some of my favorite buried writers. Mid-20th century British avant-garde women writers fared especially well in 2017. Much of Leonora Carrington’s writing finally came back into print as part of the centennial celebration of her birth year, including short fiction collections in both U.S. and British editions, as well as her harrowing memoir Down Below and her children’s book The Milk of Dreams. A biography by Joanna Moorhead also appeared in the spring.

A 50th anniversary edition of Anna Kavan’s novel Ice came out from Penguin in the U.S. this fall. As the 50th anniverary of Kavan’s death approaches there has been a small surge of interest around her work. For example, the journal Women: A Cultural Review devotes its entire current issue to exploring various themes in Kavan’s work. Hopefully this new scholarship will help prompt Peter Owen to finally reprint Kavan’s mysterious novel Eagles’ Nest and the kaleidoscopic short fiction collection  A Bright Green Field, both of which have inexplicably been languishing out of print for years. (For more on Anna Kavan visit the House of Sleep).

Finally, the brief but bright shooting star of Ann Quin’s literary career received a much-deserved coda when the subscription-based UK publisher And Other Stories released a collection of her unpublished stories and fragments, which includes the powerful (though incomplete) manuscript The Unmapped Country. This fragment had previously appeared in shorter form in the long out-of-print Beyond the Words anthology. (Note that non-subscribers will need to wait until mid-January 2018 for the official publication of this volume). While the publication of this book is a boon for Quin fans, it’s probably not the best place to start with her writing. In fact, her four published novels are all quite different, so it’s tough to suggest a starting point with Quin. On an initial recommendation, I began with Tripticks and actually did not care for it but still sensed there was something drawing me to Quin. I found that in Passages, which I consider to be her masterwork. Three comes in second place, followed by her debut, Berg. Thankfully, all of Quin’s novels remain in print courtesy of Dalkey Archive Press, bless their dedicated hearts.

I will just mention one other reissue of note, tangential to Ann Quin. In April, the micro press Verbivoracious Press (VP) published the first volume of an omnibus edition of Alan Burns’ novels. Burns was part of a loosely connected band of British avant-garde writers in the 1960s that included Ann Quin, as well as B.S. Johnson, Eva Figes, Rayner Heppenstall, and others. His novel Europe After the Rain draws interesting parallels to Kavan’s Ice and the relationship between the two novels is investigated in an article by Leigh Wilson in the previously mentioned issue of Women: A Cultural Review. In the past, VP, which specializes in reprinting ‘exploratory literature from Europe and beyond,’ also reissued a volume collecting two of Heppenstall’s novels (review), and many other experimental gems, including much of Christine Brooke-Rose‘s output.

2017 5-star books (in order read):

Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts / Reb Anderson
The Passion of New Eve / Angela Carter (Review)
The Poor Mouth / Flann O’Brien (Review)
The Plains / Gerald Murnane (Review)
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Review)
When the Time Comes / Maurice Blanchot (Review)
Snow Part / Paul Celan (Review)
S.S. Proleterka / Fleur Jaeggy (Review)
The Way of Chuang Tzu / Thomas Merton (Review)
The Rings of Saturn / W. G. Sebald (Review)
Alejandra Pizarnik: A Profile / Alejandra Pizarnik (Review)
Old Rendering Plant / Wolfgang Hilbig (Review)

Full list of books read in 2017 can be found here.

2017 soundtrack:

Barn Owl (and solo work by Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti)
Belgrado
Drab Majesty
Emma Ruth Rundle
Gate
Goat
Grails
Grouper
ISIS
Keluar
Kodiak
Marriages
Nadja
Neurosis
Portion Control
Scorn
Tim Hecker
Yellow Swans
…and too much post-punk to list (mostly by way of this finding aid)

fiat lux

I remember. They said I wouldn’t but I do. I don’t remember everything, but enough.

Dawn is now breaking—through the window pink sky appears, followed by a spray of golden light. From close overhead a lone crow utters a single drawn-out caw. Silence follows.

The silence only spreads itself so far. I stretch out its thin covering and fold myself inside it.

This is neither a beginning nor an end. I know how I arrived. I can turn and see a faint trail threading back to the fields of my youth. There are burn marks where attempts at erasure have been made.

I wanted to help, in this one way, this very simple way. They said my ‘self-limiting naiveté’ would destroy me. They were wrong. Instead their rigid framework destroyed me.

The air was cold, like it is today. And these stretched and endless limbs were no more suited to it then than now.

What strange form of life it was. How grew the light late in winter daysspreading across fields, streaming out over the river. How the darkness hid our fears.

Holy songs and rituals haloed material desires. Now far offnow beyondnow tinny at the end of this dying line.

Sudden harmonics ring out like hinges from one wall of noise to the next. Awash in reverb, notes soar to the forbidding sky.

I am underneath them. They enter my bones. The fullness of sound enters me, expanding at speed to the point of fracture.

The rending leaves two tottering halves, headless and forlorn. Push one down the hill while the other spins and spins. Rotate or roll away, makes no difference.

Yet still the light remains, ever-present, flashing in our eyes. It illuminates the new but it is the same light, and from the same sources. Even with our backs turned it warms us.

As we return to plaster together the beginning of another day.

 

[Text extracted from several years’ worth of abandoned drafts and reassembled, with minimal edits, to form a new whole]

drab majesty • not just a name

more impostors

Fake Egrets

Fake egrets try to act nonchalant at Masonville Cove, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. [See also: Fake Heron]

old rendering plant by wolfgang hilbig

New review of this brilliant, tangled web of words posted on the Book Reviews tab. For more information on the book, visit Two Lines Press.

rare bird visits u.s., gets killed by car

It sounds like it could be a headline from The Onion, except that it’s true.

This past week, an ultra-rare Corn Crake, a field-dwelling bird elusive even its usual Eurasian range, showed up on Long Island in New York State, where there have been only two records of this species in the past 129 years, the last one in 1963. Two days later the bird was found dead, having been hit by a car, with fractures in both hind limbs and pelvis.

In America, where we live by the car and die by the car, no one is safe on the roads, no matter how unusual or rare you are.

Last week, partly in response to the recent terrorist act in New York City where a man drove a truck onto a popular bike path, killing 8 people and injuring 12 others, BikeSnobNYC author Eben Weiss penned an editorial for The Washington Post. His primary point is that an act like this will not scare NYC cyclists off the road because they already risk their lives in the face of vehicular violence every single day. He then goes on to name-check several NYC cyclists who have died on the road in recent years. While Weiss is speaking in particular on behalf of NYC cyclists, his point applies across the country. In 2015 alone, 818 U.S. cyclists were killed by vehicular violence. And it’s worse for pedestrians: in that same year 5,376 pedestrians died in motor vehicle crashes.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a cyclist, a pedestrian, or a rare bird. When people get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, whether intentionally or not, they weaponize themselves. In the wake of this most recent terrorist attack, discussions have arisen in New York about whether to ban motor vehicles altogether in high pedestrian and cyclist traffic areas such as Central Park. And while it’s unfortunate that it takes extreme acts like the one that happened in NYC for civic leaders to sit up and consider taking steps toward better protecting pedestrians and cyclists from automotive danger, at least they are now paying better attention. Let’s hope that it moves beyond just talk.

small poems in prose [alejandra pizarnik]

The sun closed, the sense of the sun closed, the sense of the closing was illuminated.

*

A day arrives in which poetry is made without language, day in which the great and small desires scattered in the verses are called together, suddenly gathered in two eyes, the same ones I praised so much in the frantic absence of the blank page.

*

In love with the words that create small nights in the uncreated part of day and its fierce emptiness.

 

[Alejandra Pizarnik, Texts of Shadow and Last Poems (1982)]

(The Unstoppable Myth of Alejandra Pizarnik by Enrique Vila-Matas)

bob sloth’s one-man show

Vinyl siding salesman Bob Sloth was starring in a nowhere-near-Broadway production of a play he’d written called ‘My Life Feels Like a One-Man Show.’ One night he wasn’t feeling well enough to go on so he called his understudy, also named Bob, better known as Bob the Sloth, for he was indeed an actual sloth. Bob the Sloth (or BTS, for short) had been waiting for (and dreading) this call ever since he first agreed to help Bob out. He answered the phone is his usual slow manner.

Hello, Bob speaking.

Bob, this is Bob.

Oh, hi.

Look, I’m not feeling myself today, so I need you to play me in the show tonight.

Uh, okay, sure…

C’mon, man, I need you to muster some enthusiasm. I need you to convince me you can play me. That you can be Bob.

Well, I am Bob.

I know, I know. But you’re Bob the Sloth. I need to know you can be Bob Sloth.

I can do it, man. I won’t let you down.

Great! I’m glad to hear it. Break a leg tonight.

BTS hung up the phone with a heavy sigh. It had taken all of his remaining energy to convince Bob he could do a good job. Consequently, he decided that a nap was in order. A nap would replenish his energy and he would still have plenty of time to practice his lines and get down to the theatre. The theatre was in the town of Largest, not to be confused with Largesse, which is the town where both he and Bob lived.

While BTS took his nap he dreamed of his ancestral birthplace—the Land of the Sloths. It was a pleasant dream and he awoke with a tinge of sadness that it was now over. To sweep this feeling away, he rehearsed his lines for the play.

Hi, I’m Bob, he intoned. But the intonation was off. That was not how Bob spoke at all. BTS went through a few more lines—all of them fell flat. He grew discouraged and soon fell asleep curled in a ball on the floor.

When he woke up it was late. He only just had time to get dressed before he had to rush out the door and hustle down to the theatre. From behind the curtain he stared out at the audience. It was a big crowd. The word had spread about Bob’s show and the reviews were good. ‘Bob really nails the role’ screamed the headline on this week’s issue of Variety. The review goes on to rave about how it almost seemed as if Bob was born to play this role. ‘The most genuine performance we’ve ever seen from Bob Sloth,’ it triumphantly concluded. Well, thought BTS, those people out there won’t be seeing Bob Sloth tonight. They are stuck with me. So here goes nothing.

It’s really best not to belabor the specifics of what happened next. Suffice it to say, BTS did not kill it. In fact he was booed off the stage. He couldn’t remember any of the lines, for he had not learned a single one of them.

The next day Bob Sloth called up his understudy but there was no answer. He’d heard the reviews and wanted to make sure BTS was holding up okay. After trying him a few more times he went down to the theatre for rehearsal. On stage practicing his lines he heard a faint snoring sound coming from below his feet. He peeked down into the orchestra pit and there was Bob the Sloth sound asleep, curled in a ball on the floor.

Bob…Bob!!

Hnrrh??

Bob, wake up. It’s me.

Oh, hi Bob.

Look, man, I know things didn’t go well last night, but I just want you to know that it’s okay. You’re not me, I get it. So how can you be expected to play me in my own one-man show?

Well, I didn’t want to let you down, Bob. No one ever asks me to do anything responsible like this, so I felt like I couldn’t say no, like it was a big opportunity for me. And then I blew it.

Don’t worry about it. Tell you what—let’s go and get some ice cream. I bet that’ll make you feel better.

Thanks, Bob. That sounds real nice.

On the way out the door, BTS turned back and looked down at the stage. Maybe one day I’ll have my own one-man show, he thought. If I ever do, I think I’ll call it, ‘My Life Feels like Bob Sloth’s One-Man Show.’

a pilgrimage together

If we could take a journey, make a pilgrimage together without any intent or purpose, without seeking anything, perhaps on returning we might find that our hearts had unknowingly been changed. I think it worth trying. Any intent or purpose, any motive or goal implies effort—a conscious or unconscious endeavour to arrive, to achieve. I would like to suggest that we take a journey together in which none of these elements exist. If we can take such a journey, and if we are alert enough to observe what lies along the way, perhaps when we return, as all pilgrims must, we shall find that there has been a change of heart; and I think this would be much more significant than inundating the mind with ideas, because ideas do not fundamentally change human beings at all. Beliefs, ideas, influences may cause the mind superficially to adjust itself to a pattern, but if we can take the journey together without any purpose, and simply observe as we go along the extraordinary width and depth and beauty of life, then out of this observation may come a love that is not merely social, environmental, a love in which there is not the giver and the taker, but which is a state of being, free of all demand. So, in taking this journey together, perhaps we shall be awakened to something far more significant than the boredom and frustration, the emptiness and despair of our daily lives.

Krishnamurti, The Collected Works vol XI, p 243

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