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.

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.’

field report: bridges

For once the speakers outside Hard Rock Cafe are playing a song I want to hear so I stand leaning against the bricks and listen to the lengthy bridge from ‘How Soon Is Now?’ It’s the part of the song I have always particularly loved. Just as Morrissey starts to sing for the last time ‘I am human and I need to be loved’ a generic man in fancy slacks and blazer walks by mouthing the words. The song fades out and I walk to the suspension bridge that always buckles in the wind. As I reach the bridge a man visibly down on his luck addresses me. He asks me if there is a mission where he and his wife can get a hot meal and I tell him there is one on the Fallsway. He replies that it’s closed. So I say there’s also one on Gay Street. He responds that it too is closed. I have no money with me so I tell him I can’t help him and wish him luck. He says nothing and turns away. I continue across the bridge and then I walk across the map of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, sometimes cordoned off and sometimes not, that is etched into stone in front of the fish prison. I make a halfhearted attempt to look for birds in the habitat islands but I feel like I have experienced way too much in the past few minutes so I return to the office and read a few more pages of Konwicki.

at the border of writing

It was almost easy for him, there where he lived, to live almost without a sign, almost without a self, as if at the border of writing; close to this word, barely a word, rather a word too many, and in that nothing but a word from which, one day in the past, gently welcomed, he had received the salute that did not save, the summons that had awakened him. That could be told, even if, and especially if, nobody were there to hear it.

Maurice Blanchot, The Step Not Beyond [translated by Lycette Nelson]

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