the end of the story

Nothing happens at the end of this story. Yes, it’s that kind of story. To get technical about it, though, it is possible that something happens outside of the reader’s sphere of awareness. Let’s face it: that’s always a possibility. Someone might die, perhaps. For example, there is this one character. Across his throat stretches a sinewy silver scar, relic of a botched beheading. So, you know, given the previous attempt on his life, there’s probably a greater chance of him being killed off-page than one of the other characters, of whose possible prior brushes with death the reader is unaware and therefore are less of a factor in stimulating conjecture in the reader about off-page deaths in general.

There’s a bit of character development. Skeletal, really, by conventional standards. For example, Scarneck (let’s just call him that for the sake of convenience) lives with another person and the clickety-clacking of their long narrow limbs during frequent midnight lovemaking sessions often wakes the neighbors, who have short fuses and don’t shy away from confrontation. So, you know, the two of them have to deal with that delicate situation. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a direct path to a denouement or anything, though. But it plays a role, it plays a role.

At some point Scarneck and his paramour part ways, as is wont to happen in these kinds of stories. Here the plot grows murky as the reader suddenly enters Scarneck’s consciousness, which is a tenebrous locale, even for one already familiar with its formations. The natural structure of time and space dissolves and the reader is left dangling, so to speak, limbs occasionally bumping up against objects of unknown substance. It is a dark time of uncertainty for the reader, who is all at once seized by a persistent horror similar to what one feels in that moment of stepping into an elevator only to find the empty shaft yawning below.

Eventually the reader emerges as one does from a 20-mile naked march through the Mojave Desert with just enough water to prevent death: seared, parched, and disoriented. In this naked vulnerable state the reader creeps at an agonizing pace toward that final sentence of the last paragraph. And it is there, upon reaching the full stop, that the reader will confront Scarneck once again, as he steps out from the void that exists beyond all ending punctuation on the last pages of all stories written since the beginning of written storytelling. As the reader looks up then, dry mouth agape, at this looming apocalyptic figure, Scarneck reaches down, plucks the full stop from its resting place next to the last word, pops it into his mouth and swallows, thus annihilating the ending of what the reader has to admit had been a rather frightening story.

doves depart

Thunder cracks
over doves of doom
perched on wire,
tails toward gray mass
tracking north,
a wet smudge to
wash our heat away.
What wonder sprung
from this shall pass
before doves depart,
folded feathers
now unfurled,
shedding rain
as voices sing
familiar words
in arcane bursts.

japanese death poems

Four-and-fifty years
I’ve hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through—
What shattering!

—Dogen Zenji, 1253

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going—
Two simple happenings
that got tangled.

—Kozan Ichikyo, 1360

Spitting blood
Clears up reality
And dreams alike.

—Sunao, 1926

Showing its back
And showing its front,
A maple leaf falling.

—Zen Master Ryokan, 1831

What legacy shall I
leave behind?
Flowers in spring.
Cuckoos in summer.
Maple leaves in autumn.

—Zen Master Ryokan, 1831

More on death poems here and here.

(Thank you: Dendo @ Baltimore Dharma Group)

‘what kind of writer am i…’

before the show begins

The translator’s communicator was malfunctioning so while she consulted with technical support about a repair or possible replacement I took the opportunity to whisper into the speaker’s ear. For many years, I said, I’ve been hoping for this moment, this interstitial space in which to build a wall of speech brick by brick in your ear, blocking the canal to keep out the sound of hundreds of millions of screaming humans on their deathbeds, each of them living in their own personalized squalor, sleeping under the stars winking out one by one, for isn’t that what you want, isn’t it what we all want, to not have to hear it, the sounds of our own world dying a slow strangled death—a pool of poison molasses creeping toward our personal boundaries at the edges of which we teeter, peering down and around, anywhere but at the death sludge soon to be upon us, enveloping us, drowning us. But wait, you said, what about the other ear, I can still hear out of that one. Ah, no worries, I replied, I have plenty of bricks stored upon my bowed back and a bucket of fresh mortar mixed up this morning after I arose against all odds what with the usual black fog in my head and rusted anvil sitting square on my chest. I feigned cheerfulness as I continued to whisper, now in the other ear, in case the speaker didn’t quite catch that last part about the other bricks and the fresh mortar. You see, I said, some of us have always known it was coming, maybe we were born under the wrong sign or something, that nonsense about carrying the weight of the world, even as infants (maybe that’s why we were so fat), then shedding pounds, stretching out, an entire planet’s worth of anxieties whittling away at us, stripping the flesh from our sides as the reality of what we’d been born into sank further in, spreading through our cells like a raging infection intent on nothing less than total destruction of life. However, I said…lucky for you, for those of us who know, who have always known, who will continue to know until the very moments of our very likely premature deaths, we are here to help the others, such as yourself, to block it all out, to keep you out of the know, so that you may continue to dwell in your blissful ignorance and follow your own self-serving interests. Well, you said, that’s all fine and good to hear and I appreciate your telling me all of it but you know I really must go now, I have a speech to give, I must reassure all these people in this great hall that it’s okay, the world’s not going to end, we’re all fine, it will be fine, stay calm and try not to think about it. Uh-huh, I said, sure, you go ahead, I’ve said what I came here to say and now it’s your turn to go out there and say what you came here to say, only just one second, just a moment, if you please, there is this one other bit of information I’d like to convey and that is, well, frankly, I think you’re a liar, I’ve always thought that, and it’s not just that you’re a liar, but you’re also a really bad liar, and I’m pretty certain that everyone out there in the great hall also thinks you’re a liar, they see through your ill-conceived, small-minded deception, and they’ve come here not to be reassured, as you think you’re about to do for them, but in fact they’ve come to bear witness to your final pack of lies because this is the end for you, it’s over, your time has now come and we’ll not be hearing your lies again, not here, not anywhere, it’s all been taken care of in advance you see. So goodbye, good luck, break a leg, enjoy the next few minutes, your last moments in the golden spotlight before your grand departure, before the darkness descends and your journey into the void begins …well, I won’t belabor the point…besides I really must go now, the translator is heading back this way and my friend is holding a seat for me in the front row. You’ll be fine, I said, smiling, and patted the speaker’s shoulder, who looked up at me with an expression that can only be described as blank. I slipped out around the curtain and down the steps into the darkened hall, where I took my seat and waited for the show to begin.

the infiltrator

The infiltrator had grown tired of infiltrating. Just once, said the infiltrator, I would like to be somewhere for a legitimate reason. No pretenses, no cover, just me at a place, any place, simply being myself, my real self, if such a self even exists anymore. I haven’t encountered it in so long, you see, that I fear it may have evaporated out of my false pores into an air that was already too heavy to hold me in all of my now free-floating particles.

Infiltration is demanding and wearying work. It wears on a body and on a mind. So much time living ‘in character’ to the point where the lines between self and character blur, the two ever beginning to merge in unpreventable ways. So much so that if you knew me outside my infiltrative self you might not know the difference. You might like me or not like me for the character that I am currently playing. You might never see beyond that character because what is beyond, as I have theorized above, may no longer exist.

I suppose the infiltration began in adolescence. More of a hobby at first, or rather a defense mechanism that grew into a habit once I discovered my aptitude for it. Adolescence being a time when personal identity is at its most fragile point—slippery and malleable—subject to change at a moment’s notice for a myriad of reasons. As time passed I grew to exploit this psychological state of development to its fullest potential, donning and discarding identities like so many flimsy drugstore Halloween costumes.

When I reached my late teens my skills were suddenly noticed by a recruiter and so it was that I turned professional. Since then it’s been one job after another—sometimes only for a few days, other times for months. I even did one gig that lasted for two years. The pay was phenomenal, but I shed so many layers of my identity that by the end I knew not who I was. I now live in fear that I never fully recovered from that experience, that I crossed a line every infiltrator knows well should never be crossed, the one that cannot be stepped back across, the one that strips away the last vestiges of one’s original identity like the husk of an overripe fruit, leaving behind a pulpy indeterminate mass.

And so now I exist in this liminal state where every direction leads to a potential new identity and not moving toward any of them means a sort of hovering in place, neither here nor there, nor really anywhere…said the infiltrator, to no one in particular, somewhere in between the empty moments of a forgotten day.

hatred of writing*

they were busy forming words out of letters while we wrung our hands in despair. there were noises coming through the wall and through the ceiling and no one knew what to make of it. then they took notes and formed them into phrases strung out on lined paper so we fumbled through the chords but there was no life in it. the words were the same, set neatly together in row after row, page after pageone could nestle down quite comfortably within them yet still feel a pea poking one’s back through the width of several paragraphs. no one felt compelled to point it out but it was still there and we all had a bad night’s sleep because of it. upon waking i stated ‘i don’t know how much more of this i can take’ staring out at the grey sheets of icy rain forever falling on the piles of rubble we used to call our world. so one of us picked up the busted banjo and plucked out a few notes because, really, there was nothing else to do about it. soon another raised a quavering voice in answer to the twang. i made coffee for the third time from old grounds and we all drank from our tin cups, choking down the bitter fluid and listening as it hit the hard pans of our empty stomachs. it was hard to believe it had come to this but at the same time it had happened over such a long expanse of time that it actually wasn’t that hard to believe after all. a certain percentage of us had left and these few had stayed behind. the decision to leave or stay felt arbitrary and so i failed to make it thus by default staying for it required the least effort. when it got cold we burned all the books and i grew giddy at their destruction. the liberation of all those free-floating letters wrangled into words, corralled onto pages, bound into covers and set to gather dust on shelves that we used to board up the windows. sure i used to read them but what was the point. there was never any point. they never told us anything we didn’t already know if we only looked close enough. that was the problem. it was just a way to fill the empty hours, a way to put off facing ourselves. at least burning them warmed our bodies for a night. and as we sat there with the one strumming the banjo and the other’s voice rising til it cracked and all our feet tapping without us even knowing i thought it was only ever this sort of thing that came anywhere close to describing what was scrawled across those inner walls and perhaps we do have what it takes to save ourselves. so i took another swig of that vile black liquid no one in their right mind could dare call coffee and raised my own broken voice to the roofless upper stories. sure i knew i couldn’t sing myself out of this nightmare but tomorrow in all likelihood i’d wake again and that was something. who knows it might not even be raining.

*with a nod to tim hecker

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]

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.

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