Join Superstition Review in congratulating past contributor John Nieves on his new poetry collection, Curio, out now. Winner of the 13th Annual Elixir Press Poetry Award, Curio, with a lens of curiosity, explores a wide range of topics, including the significance of humans and the traces we leave behind.
“Augury— ‘the bones’/ can only reveal what is asked of them,’ John A. Nieves writes in this stunning first book. Part scientist, part shaman, Nieves is unswervingly intelligent and deftly imaginative at knowing what to ask of the world. Human-scale, empathetic, and far-reaching, these poems engage the full range of the curiosity at the root of curio: the epistemological work of a mind turning/returning. From a father’s machine work to Schrodinger’s cat, archeology, bloodwork, and language, Nieves reminds us of the ‘magic / in the artifact’ and ‘in the making.”
Alexandra Teague, author of The Principles Behind Flotation
To order your copy of Curio click here. Be sure to also check out John’s website as well as his past work in Issue 9 and 15.
Recently a friend showed me the pleasure that can be had in not knowing something. Something a younger and far less patient version of myself would have been very insistent about “knowing.”
My friend’s name is Dean, and we were standing in his kitchen sharing a meal of barbecue and potato salad when the subject of our parents came up. “God bless America,” he said (what Dean means when he says “God bless America” is “by the grace of God”). Then he added, “my mother saved me. I love her. She’s gone now but I carry her with me all the time.” In that hour at the dinner table we spoke about our mothers. We shared their strengths and resilience and the blessings they’d brought into our lives — how they might have been aloof or maybe drank a lot or beaten us or shamed us, but were still our mothers and therefore part of us.
Later, when Dean said good night, I saw an old man of French and Cherokee descent who’d led a tough and volatile life, but also a deeply fulfilling one. And he ended our conversation with a word or phrase in an unfamiliar tongue that sounded beautiful to me. “Oh-shee-tay, my friend,” he said as he shook my hand. “And you will never find out what that means, because my father made me swear never to tell anybody, just like his father before him, and his father before that.”
This of course greatly roused my indignation. And my imagination. And because I’m a writer, and it’s my nature to get swept up by language and its myriad hidden treasures, I went to find out what “Oh-shee-tay” meant. I’m now ashamed to admit that I tried to look it up online, and when that yielded nothing, I guilted and begged Dean a little, and when he still wouldn’t tell me, I resorted to eliminating possible meanings by carefully noting down the context every time he said it. I didn’t get far. The most I was able to gather was that it did not mean “f*ck you” or “go to hell.”
Mystified, I found myself driven progressively deeper into a place of search and puzzlement — which, looking back, I now suspect was the kernel of a lesson I think Dean was trying, consciously or not, to impart to me. And the lesson I found in that deep dark forest of not-knowing was that language at its richest, contrary to the uses civilization would have for it, wants one thing more than anything: to be relational more than rational.
I bring this up because we live in a time of distancing, due in no small part to how we use or abuse language, and the stories we tell ourselves. Most of us are acquainted through essays like Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” with the corrosive effects of language on public opinion and social freedom when we don’t pay enough attention. Yet I’d go even further than Orwell to suggest that by naming or needing to name everything that exists in our world, we abstract ourselves from it and thereby impoverish our sense of its possibility. Rather than a genocide in Rwanda because one group dehumanizes another, it’s now about our states of mind. Steeped as we are in a hyper-Cartesian outlook on science and culture, it doesn’t matter whether what we seek is the name of a secret admirer or the suspect responsible for the latest bombing or shooting; our insistence on clarity and certainty has colonized us. Patience, deliberation, and awe and wonder and mystery have all been replaced by a growing feeling of alienation, loneliness, and above all, fear — that we will flunk the exam, not land the plum job, fail in our witch hunt; be on the losing side of a game or an election or a war.
To explain what relational language sounds like, a friend once described to me two possible ways one might give somebody directions to a place. How do you get to Grandpa’s new house? One version of the answer, he said, has us taking a left onto Latona Avenue from 50th Street in Seattle, going three blocks and then looking for the yellow house with the big red door. The relational version would sound something more like, that place where you got your first tattoo? His house is two blocks from there, kitty corner across from the burrito truck where we had breakfast last Saturday. Look for the watering can you gave him, it’ll be just outside the fence.
Why is it useful to think in this way? Because it’s inherently creative and intimate instead of distancing and static. The one approach favors efficiency and saves us time, but lost in that is our inborn capacity to envision the world as a place of possibility, alive with not one but many stories.
Perhaps this is why I so love the petroglyphs of my southwest desert home, with their wordless multitudes of possible meanings; why my appreciation continues to grow for those who chafe at binary and nondualistic views regarding gender and politics and who choose an infinitely circular way of thinking instead of the tyranny of the linear or the square. One of my favorite short stories by Ursula K. LeGuin, “She Unnames Them,” suggests what can happen when we take the things we love out of their limiting conceptual boxes. How would the world change, LeGuin seems to ask, if we came to understand a dolphin or whale not by the letters that make up its name but by its clicks or songs over the vast distances of an infinite ocean?
William Stafford, in his poem “Cutting Loose”:
Arbitrary, sound comes, a reminder
that a steady center is holding
all else. If you listen, that sound
will tell you where it is…
And could this be what Dean was trying to tell me, in his own way, when he said, “Oh-shee-tay?”
Today we are pleased to feature poet Brandon Amico as our Authors Talk series contributor.
Brandon Amico has a conversation with his friend Kylie Brown, a musician and music instructor at the Asheville Music School, on his poems “If You Like This Poem,” “Occupational Hazard,” and “Housing Complex” featured in Issue 21.
Amico and Brown discuss connection and disconnection in the modern world, perspectives, and the uses of language in his poems. Amico ends the conversation by expanding on the theme of “incompleteness” found in all three poems and the concept of “framing with words” seen in “Housing Complex.”
Poetry calisthenics: Chain words together so that the end part of one word becomes the first part of the next, ad infinitum: zippercentralalalandscapersonarrowboat… (zipper; percent; central; tralala; lalaland; landscape; caper; persona; sonar; narrow/arrow; rowboat…)
Even better is to link words and idioms of common speech such that one bleeds into the next upon contextual shifts of the words’ meaning: “…everlovin’ blue-eyed hurricane to witness God’s will leaving you for dead wrong.” Hurricanes do have blue “eyes.” Eyes witness. A last-will-&-testament needs a witness. The will leaves something to the beneficiary, but God’s will, ever contrariwise, abandons Its beneficiary, leaving her for dead, and dead wrong to boot (from my poem Invocation: Monkey Lightning, Tupelo Press, 2010).
Write your list of rhyme words first, then decide where to put them. Not today at the ends of lines. Maybe at the beginnings? Maybe in the middles? Let the placement of those rhyme words provoke and determine the rest of what you say.
Collect fifteen of your fragments many years old and never used. Put them on the table in random order. Change the order. Cut each fragment in half and repeat. Fill in the blanks until they’ve made you say something you never would have thought of in a million years—but which you will recognize.
For a period of fifteen years I wasn’t able to write anything. I did try. I sat on the floor and thought about subject matter: what do I love and why? Memories? Gratitudes? Consolations? Convictions? Some wisdom I might convey? Jeezalu, can’t you just describe something out the window, anything? Nope.
People ask, where do you get your ideas? What inspires you? Nope. Not a thing.
I did find some support. A local group of the then-national organization No Limits for Women Artists took me in, a writer, though all the others were visual, paintings and pottery. Meetings consisted of our glorious leader calling up each person, one by one, to an individual standing interrogation: What is your vision? (Answer.) What is your vision for the next three weeks? (Answer.) What’s the next step? (Answer.) What makes it hard? (Answer.) Then the leader guided the woman-on-the-spot along to develop a personal affirmation addressing the difficulty. (Affirm!) Next-and-last, What help do you need? Any answer OK– Nothing. Babysitting. An item to borrow. Most popular: send me a postcard of encouragement. No guarantee that anyone would do anything. But—how hard is a postcard? I loved it. Each local group ended after 6 sessions. Good, it didn’t go on long enough to turn phony.
At some point language personified itself to me: it was royally pissed, all these years I’d spent whining and hadn’t made any poems! Eff you, language. I’ve had a hard time! We circled and growled for a while. I’d offended language expecting it to conform itself to my power-point agendas of blah-blah subject matter. Meanwhile it had all these words to spill out wanting to play and do mischief, wanting to surprise me!
An only child, I grew up in white suburbia in the talk of a doctor father who orotunded like Shakespeare and/or the King James Bible. “Pontificating!” my mother hissed. She romped about in her own astonishing range of diction, mixing high elegance with gutter-demotic expletive sometimes in a single sentence. She dubbed the hospital where my father worked the “horse-pittle.”
Formative years of such yackity-yack? Who could ask for more? Thunderstruck still, I invoke loops of language as Higher Power flapping around out there like a pterodactyl, so indiscriminate in its associations that it may, from time to time, descend to build a nest in my hair. I woo language. I scavenge words. When I have nothing to say, I start with words. One word leads to another. They rough-and-tumble noisily, dragging me into their brawl and peeling out living bits of (who knew?) my own soul stinging and giggling.
How do I know what I think til I hear what I say?
Lugging groceries up the lengthy path to my house, I mutter to myself, “Krakatoa; asterisk; flip…” Bits of more or less and pinch of something else.
Today we are pleased to feature poet Rose Knapp as our Authors Talk series contributor. Rose talks about how her poems deal with language and translation.
She asks what actual differences exist between common speech and poetic language. Also, is translation possible even within the same language? Finally, how do answers to these questions affect relationships?
You can read and listen to Rose’s poetry in Superstition Review, Issue 19.
As an English instructor often tasked with teaching rhetoric and argumentation to beginning college students, I spend a lot of time thinking about my relationship with language. Language, to me, is a superpower. But my students don’t believe me. ESL struggles and the under-education afforded by “no child left behind” schools trap them within the need to translate their world, from one language to another, or from vernacular idiolects to academic prose. They tend to see the need to translate as a handicap.
But I see it—and hope to make them see it—as a potential asset.
The old Italian saying goes, traduttore, traditore¹. One can only approximate, not render perfectly, the meaning of something from one language into another, and thus “betrays” the original. But that isn’t any different from language itself, which translates, imperfectly, referent into sign, as Saussure’s famous diagram shows us. We can approach truth only asymptotically. But effective use of language—of translation in one form or another—is a muscle that, when worked out regularly, becomes supple, capable, powerful: a superpower.
Here are three brief meditations on the building of the language muscle, which, gleaned from my own life, all involve translation.
Meditation 1: The Noble Gases
My parents spoke French in front of us when they didn’t want us to understand. Consequently, we learned to pay attention when it was being spoken, for usually something of great significance was being discussed, and something was about to happen that directly concerned us. For instance, sometimes, when our stomachs were sore, my mother would wave a hand in front of her nose and say to my father, “Mauvais gaz.“
This must have been important, since it was only occasionally, and only when we were in a state of discomfort, that the phrase was used. It often portended the application of soothing and sometimes sleep-inducing medicines. Important, weighty, mysterious, the words niggled into my consciousness.
My mother reports, when I was around four years old, passing by my room and hiding, watching me play with my stuffies. The animals had a leader, a lion that my parents had optimistically named Aslan. I renamed him. “Aslan” didn’t mean anything to me yet, and I wanted the lion’s name to mean something. He was a wise and just leader, who was sought out for advice and counsel by the other animals in his peerage. My mother, a psychologist, was watching for my early-stage sense of hierarchy and justice, but she noticed, too, that the animal supplicants were petitioning Moh-Vay-Gahz the lion, sage leader of his animal subjects. Moh-Vay-Gahz spoke in as deep and sonorous a tone as my four-year- old voice could render, and made only the wisest of judgments, presiding with munificence over his stuffed animal realm.
Meditation 2: Creative Mistranslation
My graduate program offered a supplementary degree in translation. For years I was steeped in translation theory and praxis, and it was a watershed experience for me. Translating and workshopping my translations had the unintended consequence of improving my writing in English, most especially the revision process, because I began to unconsciously think of revising as “translating” my work into clearer, prettier English. The mot juste, not just the meaning, became the thing. So effective was this approach at improving my regular writing that to this day I build a bit of translation theory into the composition courses I teach, and watch my students apply these techniques to their revisions and peer reviews.
One strangely fruitful technique is the homophonic or homographic translation, a form of creative mistranslation. Anyone can do it, even if the writers don’t know the original language. They find the words in the target language that match the sounds of the words in the original. Homophonic translations are surreal and rich in surprise. Here is Baudelaire’s “Spleen” in its original French, a language over which I have very little mastery:
Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière,
De son urne à grands flots verse un froid ténébreux
Aux pâles habitants du voisin cimetière
Et la mortalité sur les faubourgs brumeux.
Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux;
L’âme d’un vieux poète erre dans la gouttière
Avec la triste voix d’un fantôme frileux.
Le bourdon se lamente, et la bûche enfumée
Accompagne en fausset la pendule enrhumée
Cependant qu’en un jeu plein de sales parfums,
Héritage fatal d’une vieille hydropique,
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.²
I experimented a lot with translating this poem, but where it really got interesting was when I let myself go, with no faith to the original meaning of the poem, remaining faithful only to the sounds of the French. Here is my homophonic translation:
Flu-voice, you irritate the country-label entry
A son’s great float earns verses and food: tender, bro!
Opal habitués of the facing cemetery
Sir Mortality lies in a full-bore bromide.
Mount Shot, carousing with a church-tune, litters
The sheets with the sun’s reposing corpse from May gallows;
Lame dunes view poetry and donate booty to the air
A wreck of twists vie for the phantom freeloader.
The bourbon laments, ailing fish food maid,
Accompanied by her false-eyed pen, she duels her roommate
Dependent kin complain of on-sale perfumes,
The fatal heritage of the violet hydroponic
Labors for the valet of the car and this damned pique
Causing sinister delight among the fonts.
No one would call this translation “good,” but homophonic translations—sure-fire writer’s block cures—yield some startling imagery that can often be recycled in other formats and other genres. “Sir Mortality” became a character in a short story. “Opal Habitués,” have become denizens of poems. Many of these images have found their way into my writing. My students love this exercise, too, because it gives them a taste of the often-accidental alchemy that can occur when one writes without needing to make sense.
Meditation 3: Natural Language Processing and Me
When my son was eighteen months we had a Christmas tree (a “Cha-Choo- Chee:” his words). His favorite ornaments (the unbreakable ones at the bottom of the tree that we let him play with), were carved safari animals we bought on our Tanzanian honeymoon. Rough, approximate, they were simple, undetailed shapes. That holiday, he received a deck of alphabet cards with highly abstract images of animals on one side. Our son’s favorite was the “bee-bah” (zebra). After looking at the card once, he toddled to the tree and found the carved zebra, removed it, and placed them side by side. Something in his mind had conflated—correctly—these two unlike signs denoting a referent he’d never experienced. They weren’t the same color, material, or medium. I was delighted and proud, but my son’s father—who owns a Silicon Valley start-up that works with artificial intelligence—was astonished because a computer needs to be introduced to hundreds of thousands of samples to draw meaningful connections between images and text, while our human son’s brain could interpret the image and word with a sample set of one.
Learning—making connections between unlike things—is hard-wired into the human brain, and that brain is more powerful than any computer. Why do we lose the ability to trust in our own experiments, our own creative mistranslations? Why do my students feel so crippled by language? The answer, I think, is that we need not.
We just might need to trick ourselves into a child-like state.
As a writer straddling continents, I am fascinated by authors who inject foreign words and phrases into their English fiction. These international words and phrases, I believe, are helpful in lending credibility to a story. They embellish the narrative, bring authenticity and help transport the reader.
Some writers explain the meanings of such words, either in-text or in a glossary. At times, foreign expressions are used sparingly; at other times more generously. Some authors repeat phrases for consistency, or as a matter of style. No matter. When expressions from another language are used in description or in dialog, they leap out at me.
Take the case of the inimitable Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s enduring Belgian detective. When I was in high school, he taught me French expressions like mon ami and mon cher. Of course, I had no knowledge of French; still, uttering the words made me feel clever and witty.
Agatha Christie expertly used foreign expressions in creating Hercule Poirot. The detective is overlooked and dismissed because of being foreign, and she used his manner of speaking as a tool to tell us about him.
‘Mon cher, am I tonight the fortune-teller who reads the palm and tells the character?’
‘You could do it better than most,’ I rejoined.
‘It is a very pretty faith that you have in me, Hastings. It touches me. Do you not know, my friend, that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desires and attitudes? Mais oui, c’est vrai. One makes one’s little judgments – but nine times out of ten one is wrong.’ (Agatha Christie, Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot, Series #9)
Appropriate dialog is a powerful instrument to lend fiction the flavor of a culture or a place. Using the right words makes dialog sing. There’s no big to-do in the way E. M. Forster, in his book A Passage to India, makes use of Indian words.
The first who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away
“Mrs Lesley, it is a tonga,” she cried.
“Ours?” enquired the second, also seeing Aziz and doing likewise.
“Take the gifts the gods provide, anyhow,” she screeched, and both jumped in. “O Tonga wallah, club, club. Why doesn’t the fool go?”
“Go, I will pay you tomorrow,” said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off, he called courteously, “You are most welcome, ladies.” They did not reply being full of their own affairs. (chapter 11)
We may gather from the dialog that a tonga is a vehicle, a tonga wallah is one who drives the vehicle. A subtle power play also reveals itself here. The last name reveals that the ladies are English, and Aziz is not. All this from a short piece of dialog.
Not everyone espouses the use of words from another language when writing fiction in English. In his article, Say ‘Non’ to Phrasebook Foreign Language in Fiction, Daniel Kalder writes,
“Either you render the language in English, or you render it in French. And if your readers are English speakers, then, I dunno, you should probably render it in English. Chucking in a few phrases of first year French adds nothing in terms of meaning and is just daft.” ( theguardian.com, July 13, 2011)
Granted, Agatha Christie was not Belgian and E. M. Forster was not Indian. But what if the author writing in English is reflecting a part of their heritage, representing who they are as a people and as a culture?
Nayomi Munaweera’s novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is set in Sri Lanka. She uses terms contextually, a natural exclamation here, a term there, which means the reader connects with the cultural milieu even as the story advances. The two Tamil words she uses in the lines below lend authenticity and adorn the dialog.
Nishan must watch his friends being sent to squat at the back of the schoolroom, arms crossed to grasp opposite ears. As they walk home together, these boys say, “Aiyo, she has two eyes in the back of her head.” And only filial devotion keeps him from replying,” Machang, you should see her at home.” (Part One, Chapter 1)
Foreign expressions are used in descriptive text as well. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who uses Igbo words in her narrative. She brings Nigeria to us, her skill making the prose come refreshingly alive.
The goats wandered a lot around the yard, they wandered in, too, while we cousins bathed, scrubbing with ogbo that my grandmother made from sun-dried coconut husks, scooping water from a meal bucket. We bathed near the vegetable garden, in the space enclosed with zinc left over from the last house refurbishing. Mama Nnukwu would shoo the goats away from the vines of ugu and beans that crept up those zinc walls, clucking, clapping her hands. (Recaptured Spirits, Notre Dame Review, Number 18, 2004)
The reader doesn’t need to know exactly what ogbo is, or ugu. We comprehend the scene. The author has sprinkled in just Igbo two words into the paragraph to make it shine.
Junot Diaz takes it a step forward, knitting dialog and text and sprinkling his Spanish into it. He mixes the ingredients as if tossing a salad, the sweet and the sour, the crunchy and tangy, the veggies and the berries. His scenes come alive, because of the use of his Spanish terms. The reader is instantly drawn into the vividness of his narrative.
You had to be careful with her because she had a habit of sitting down without even checking if there was anything remotely chairlike underneath her, and twice already she’d missed the couch and busted her ass—the last time hollering Dios mío, qué me has hecho?—and I had to drag myself out of the basement to help her to her feet. These viejas were my mother’s only friends—even our relatives had gotten scarce after year two—and when they were over was the only time Mami seemed somewhat like her old self. Loved to tell her stupid campo jokes. Wouldn’t serve them coffee until she was sure each tácita contained the exact same amount. And when one of the Four was fooling herself she let her know it with a simple extended Bueeeeennnnoooo. ( The Pura Principle, New Yorker, Mar 22, 2010)
Foreign expressions are connectors. But more than that, they enrich us. Through them, the English language elevates itself, becoming a vehicle to understand other people and cultures—helping us accept differences and celebrate similarities. To authors who incorporate them I say, may you continue to do so.
“All of my stories are true, but this one really happened.”
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the dementia ward of late. To get to where I’m going, I pass through the large common room, where some two dozen men and women sit at long tables, all alone, every single one of them, many slumped over, foreheads nearly grazing the formica. The sight makes me marvel at humans’ capacity to curve inward, forming thereby something infinite.
High up on the wall, images flicker. Something mid-century is playing on mute, starring a woman with broad shoulders and marcelled hair who is bantering, apparently, with some square-jawed man of few words. They’re in a dim, cramped office, playing at being reporters, probably, or maybe he’s a hard-boiled private investigator and she’s his glamorous, distraught client. They wave their cigarettes around. It is a scene—smoking indoors, for heaven’s sake—that is now the purest fiction.
In the room, a man points at me and says, “Hey, look, a muchacha!”
“A girl!” he then explains, though no one is paying attention. (I’m past 50, but if a man likes muchachas, he will see them everywhere.)
In the corner, a woman, her head crowned with white braids, calls out over and over, “Pomogeetye!” which is Russian for “Help!”
My knowledge of languages, which got me hired as a translator at a large international organization, is useful in this place, too. Each time I hear the woman with the braided crown—which is often, because she’s always calling out, every single time I come here, her powers of speech worn down to this nub of a single word that succinctly expresses all she has left to say—I think that I should go over and address her in her language, which I also speak, briefly breaking her isolation, or joining her in it. I see no sign that there is anyone else on the ward, resident, staff or visitor, who could do that.
I think now of a character in Un roman russe by Emmanuel Carrère. (In the English edition, three words have been added at the beginning of the title for some reason, expanding it to My Life is a Russian Novel.) The story is a true one, so the character is a person as well as a character, but the French are nonchalant about the non/fiction distinction, and so in France, Carrère is a novelist.
I don’t have the book at hand, and it’s been a while, so I’ll just recount it as I recall it. Feel free to fact-check, should the urge strike.
As World War II is coming to a close, a Hungarian prisoner of war washes up in a remote Soviet town. Because he speaks a language that no one in the vicinity can identify, let alone understand, and the townspeople conclude, not unreasonably, that he’s speaking gibberish, it follows that he ends up in an insane asylum. Where he remains for about half a century.
And maybe he actually is a touch insane, because during all of those decades surrounded by the Russian language, completely immersed, he learns not one single word, not one single expression—not ‘hello,’ not ‘thank you’ and not even ‘fuck your mother.’
I mention ‘fuck your mother’ because it’s nearly as frequent—in Russian, I mean—as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ especially in god-forsaken provincial towns soaked in vodka and despair. You will say that this cannot be true, that no Chekhov character ever says “fuck your mother,” no matter how much despair is swirling about, but the reason for this omission should be blindingly clear: Chekhov wrote fiction.
At last the error somehow emerges, and our Magyar protagonist, no longer a prisoner of war, but of something else, is returned to what remains of his family, in Buda, or Pest, or perhaps further afield. Fanfare greets the prodigal son. Through an interpreter, an official Russian delegation that has traveled to Hungary to attend the welcome-home event proffers apologies for the lost decades.
The mayor gives a speech—in Hungarian, of course, which everyone there understands, not counting the Russians. It’s remarkable what a change of scene will do; restored to his native surroundings, the man is no longer a lunatic.
But if reading good books is supposed to make you a bigger, better person, then in my case it has failed; in the dementia ward, I do not cast off my disguise as a monolingual person—I do not step forward to speak Russian. If I were to approach the pomogeetye lady and address a few Russian words to her, she would surely cling to me and make impossible demands—I’ve experienced this with Russians who are not in dementia wards—taking me away from my mother, who I have come to see.
Next, I pick my way through the jetsam piled up near the far end of the hall: a bed frame, a scale with a platform for weighing the wheelchair-bound, a stack of walkers, a few chairs, and I see now that there is a wheelchair stranded amidst the debris, and in it, a woman, who must have miscalculated the width of passage she needed to get through.
With some words intended to soothe, I pry her loose, turn her chair around and set her on another path I think should satisfy her equally well.
“Bastard!” she howls after me.
But I’m leaving the hallway now, and entering my mother’s room. Velcro screeches as I pull away the cloth barrier stretched across the doorframe. Placed there by the staff, the barrier has a big red stop sign on it, to deter those residents who have a tendency to wander.
The woman I freed from the debris is still cursing as I step inside.
I used to own a tattered paperback by Elie Wiesel called Legends of Our Time. Held together with a rubber band, it continually shed small scraps. The book had come to me in that state, I don’t remember how. When it became too dilapidated to keep, I relegated it to recycling, saving a single page from the introduction, a page that I sensed I would someday need.
On that page, which I keep attached to the refrigerator with a magnet, Wiesel refers to an old rabbi he’d known in the little Romanian town where they both lived, a town that was wiped off the map during World War II. Decades after the war, Wiesel, a New Yorker now, calls on the rabbi, who is ensconced in Tel Aviv. Nearly as old as time, and a man of God to boot, he is of course served up as some kind of sage.
Wiesel tells the old man that he’s become a writer.
“Is that all?” says the rabbi in reproachful disbelief.
Wiesel adds that he writes stories, true ones.
The rebbe asks, “About people you knew?”
Yes, about people he might have known.
“About things that happened?”
Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.
“But they did not?” presses the rebbe.
No, says Wiesel, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end.
“That means you’re writing lies!” says the rebbe.
Things aren’t so simple, says Wiesel. Some events do take place but are not true; others are true—although they never occurred.
She’s in palliative care, which is like hospice for people who aren’t dying yet. ‘Palliative care’ means they don’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to, so she gets to spend most of her time in her room, in bed, instead of at one of the formica tables by the TV, and when she’s not up to the ordeal of being put into clothes, she passes the day in a hospital gown.
She can no longer walk, or even stand. She has to be lifted into bed from the wheelchair and back again, and she sleeps almost all the time. She regularly forgets what a fork is for and that food is meant to be swallowed.
On her nightstand are a few books I brought in when she landed here, months ago: a volume of Thackeray, pages uncut, from the matched set she kept on top of her wardrobe, a spy novel about the French Resistance and a book on modern dance, with a chapter about a choreographer, largely forgotten now, who was her teacher and friend. She doesn’t dip into the books at all.
The drawer of the nightstand is crammed with chocolate—bags, boxes and bars. The chocolates get unwrapped and popped into her mouth by whoever happens to be at her bedside at any given time.
The large window frames a stunning view of the Hudson and, on the other side, the Palisades, but she’s largely unaware. She has some vision left, but she never turns to the window—she’s always been averse to the sunlight—and she’s probably lost some ability to process shapes and colors into recognizable objects and landscapes.
In fact, when I put my face close to hers, smack in the middle of what ought to be her field of vision, I’m never sure she knows it’s me. It’s my voice she responds to, and my name.
“Hello, Ma! It’s Laura.”
Her face softens. A smile dawns.
“Hi there, baby girl,” she says to me.
Wiesel wrote something we call fiction, and he called it true. I write things that I remember, have seen or lived—I think. I’m not making it up, but I cannot swear that it all happened.
From opposite sides of the divide, Wiesel and I agree: stories live according to their own logic. They are ungovernable and uncategorizable, like schools of fish that sometimes unwittingly straddle international borders as they swim about, swishing their tails to and fro—to whom do they belong, those tranquil creatures of the sea? Turgid international treaties have been negotiated in the attempt to pin this down. Stories are also this way: blithely unaware, as they navigate the depths, of transgressing the boundaries that humans draw.
I am not a reporter, and I am not a chronicler, and I am not beholden to the facts, which are merely raw materials in a random heap. I am beholden to story, which is sculpted, intentional. I fashion aesthetic objects from found materials, not reports that say: here is what happened. In fact, the nature of what I write may depend on not being fact-checked. It may depend, to an extent, on the vagaries of memory, on misremembrance. The refractions of memory are part of the story.
While I do not think that my life story holds exceptional interest, I am more drawn to the lived than to the made up; more drawn to observing and shaping than to imagining and concocting; and more drawn to speaking in an authentic first person voice than in an imagined third that I myself don’t really believe.
On the one hand, an opera production with ruffled costumes, powdered wigs, abundant avoirdupois, scrims sliding on tracks at the flip of a switch, smoke machines, choruses, a corps de ballet, a pit orchestra and a plot that involves interlocking love triangles, multiple suicide pacts, cross-dressing, pilfered letters, goblets of poison and a masquerade ball followed by a duel at midnight. On the other hand, a lone chanteuse in a small circle of light surrounded by a larger circle of darkness, confiding ballads of heartbreak to a rapt room.
Oh, those made-up characters with lines of dialogue distributed among them and placed in their mouths, like coins under the tongues of dead Greeks, to pay their passage to the far shore; the creaking scenery and mechanisms of plot; the godlike omniscient third, godlike, alas, only within the confines of a single, small story—I just cannot work with these materials any more. As the world skids further and further off into the unbelievable, they are less and less convincing.
She never, ever talked about her life before motherhood. When I was a child, my attempts to find out about her past were efficiently shut down. I knew her as morose yet playful, and slashingly witty, so that on her lips, bile often blurred into hilarity, so long as it was not discharged in my direction. And then sometimes she was more slashing than witty (‘gasbag’ her preferred epithet for the longwinded professors who dominated my parents’ dinner parties).
She was a rigorous housekeeper, upholder of etiquette and reader of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nabokov, Mrs. Gaskell and both Trollopes, especially Frances. She never wore makeup, only lipstick (and that on rare occasions), but she was the Imelda Marcos of sweaters. An aficionado of the afternoon nap, upon rising she would quaff a tumbler of something grapey sloshed from a jug, then tap dance nimbly about the kitchen in little canvas shoes, a shirtwaist and a striped butcher’s apron—she had studied under Martha Graham, that I had gleaned, and she was a mean dancer, no matter the style—accompanied by the drone of Huntley and Brinkley and the sizzle of onions on the stove, crooning a ditty of her own invention—“Twinkletoes,” she called it.
Of her previous life I knew only the barest outlines. Now, though, she lives more in that past, gets lost in it, stuck amidst the clutter at the far end of the hall.
She often asks now about people long dead. Where is my mother? she demands. Why can’t I talk to her? she wants to know, her voice trembling slightly.
I remind her that my maternal grandmother—who we always thought she didn’t particularly care for, so why is she calling for her now?—departed this world in 1970.
“Of course!” She slaps her forehead. “I get mixed up about who’s alive and who’s dead.”
Then, “And what about my sisters? Are they alive?”
Dead, I tell her sadly.
“They died in a car accident, didn’t they?”
They died in bed, ten years apart.
She hesitates. But her need to know is greater than her embarrassment.
“And … what year is it now?”
As I get her unstuck and set her on another path, I see that barriers have fallen; I wander into rooms previously closed to me. I ask questions. It is my first opportunity to do so. Also, my last.
On this particular day, we’re talking about my Aunt Bea and her boyfriend Ed, who were an item in high school, during the Great Depression. (Bea was the oldest of the three sisters, my mother the youngest by many years, and, for a long, long time now, the only one still alive.)
“He was called Ed, but his real name was Isidore,” recalls my mother. “I mean, you can give your child a Jewish name, but does it have to be that Jewish?”
“The whole family loved Ed; he charmed us all. And, oh! He and his brothers were so handsome, they could all have gone straight to Hollywood.”
“Why did Aunt Bea break up with him?”
She looks at me in astonishment. This all happened decades before I was born, but it’s clear what she’s thinking: you mean you don’t know?
“Oh, she dumped him when she met Paul.” That would be my Uncle Paul, whom Aunt Bea later married.
“And then she went back and forth between them for a while. Whenever she was on the outs with Paul, she’d take up with Ed again, and then she’d go back to Paul. She used poor Ed terribly. Oh, the sweet young men who got mixed up with my sister Bea!”
Mirth bursts out of her again.
“Ed eventually married Viola, who was the director of a puppet theater.”
I’m trying to memorize every word, but she’s going very fast. I can’t retain it all.
“And then, years later, after Ed and Viola split, Ed got pally with Esther…”
Esther was the middle sister, glamorous yet earthy, a divorcée when that was still a pretty louche thing to be. Her I do remember—this was long, long ago—waving a cigarette around: outdoors, indoors, in bed, at all hours, in the shower, her back to the spray as she reached around the curtain to where an ashtray teetered on the edge of the sink.
“Ed used to drop by and visit Esther sometimes, in her apartment. Remember that view of Lake Michigan from the balcony?”
I do remember, very well. I used to strap on my roller skates, tighten them with the key, skate to the end of the block, then let the wind off the lake push me back up the street to where the liveried doorman stood, smiling benevolently.
But I’m trying not to breathe or make a sound. Keep going, Ma, I think. Just keep going.
“And one day, Ed and Esther fell into bed!”
My mother, talking about sex? About someone she was close to, having sex? Talking about it in a light-hearted tone? What is happening in the world?
“Afterward,” she presses forward, and it occurs to me that she’s racing to entrust the story to me before she loses it forever, “Ed came stumbling out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirttails and exclaiming, ‘I fell in love with the wrong sister!’”
I can see Ed, whom I never actually met, gorgeous in a fortyish way. So clearly do I see Ed, in fact, that at first I think my mother must have been sitting right there in Esther’s living room when he emerged from the bedroom, bowled over by midlife sexual revelation. Otherwise, how could she tell it so vividly?
Eventually, I will realize that no, she’s simply repeating the story as she heard it from Esther. Esther would never have seduced her older sister’s old boyfriend, or anyone else, with her younger sister, or anyone else, sitting in the next room. Of course not. But she wasn’t above bragging about taking a man to bed and making his toes curl with delight, especially if said man was her big sister’s old flame and the audience for her story was her baby sister, who was by then, I’m guessing, a grown-up, married lady.
I rush home to broadcast the tale of Ed and Esther. Family and close friends are delighted. My father claims a vague memory of it, but no one else in the family has ever heard the story.
To think that this might have been lost. As so much is.
Once upon a time, before Oprah, recall, nobody got all worked up about the whole fact/fiction distinction—except maybe ancient, very literal-minded rabbis.
Take Marcel Proust, a novelist who named his first-person narrator Marcel and based the eponymous Swann on an actual art connoisseur and collector, the scion of a Jewish merchant dynasty with branches in Paris, Vienna and Odessa.
Or novelist Thomas Wolfe, largely forgotten now, except as a character in a movie starring a fearsomely miscast Nicole Kidman as his zaftig, dark-haired mistress. Wolfe changed all the names, but still he couldn’t go home again, because the folks back home were personally acquainted with and recognized the characters who peopled his books, each and every one: the alcoholic doctor; the grasping woman speculating in real estate; her semi-estranged husband the semi-crazed stonecutter, also alcoholic; the stonecutter’s stone angel; the idlers at the soda fountain; the part-time prostitutes of Niggertown, as the wrong side of the tracks was then known.
Decades ago, I knew a woman who was from the same town as Wolfe. When Look Homeward, Angel came out, she told me, her parents penciled in the real names in the margins of their copy. Then someone borrowed the book and didn’t return it, so you can add that to the list of things that never made it home again.
Anyone who knows me (and many who do not) can identify my writing as sculpted from the unadulterated raw stuff of my biography, but the end product is actually more like that game Three Truths and a Lie: most of it’s true, I mean, ‘true’ as in ‘happened’ (pace Wiesel), but there’s some other stuff that creeps in, and after a while, I’m not always sure which is which.
I don’t quite know how that other stuff gets in, because it occurs in the white heat of creation, and little of what goes on in there survives in conscious memory. I start describing, in great detail, something I don’t remember all that well, and I go on, and on, losing track of time, growing short of breath—I get whipped up, the scene becomes overlaid with more and more detail that surges up from god knows where, and this is some of the best writing that I do.
That said, the section above, about the dementia ward, contains not a grain of the invented. It’s all real. Oh, except that the muchacha incident and the woman getting caught in the debris in her wheelchair did not in fact happen on the same day—I combined them, for maximum narrative density. Does that minor change make it fiction? Or is it still nonfiction, but a kind of unethical nonfiction?
It’s a mosaic; it’s a medley; it’s a mash-up.
I don’t worry too much. It’s writing; it’s a story, not reportage; not news, fake or otherwise. It’s mine; I wrote it; call it what you like, as long as reading it lifts you, however briefly, above the quotidian—or plunges you into it more deeply.
(Filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, who made both documentaries and feature films and believed that each genre contains elements of the other, said, “Once you frame the shot, it’s fiction.” This from a documentary about her work.)
The part about the pomogeetye lady is real, though, because that happens every single time. It happened on the muchacha day, and it happened on the wheelchair-getting-stuck day, and it happens on every other day as well. But lots of other things happened on all of those days, some that I cut or omitted, and many that simply washed through the memory sieve, floated downstream into increasingly murky waters and came gently to rest in the silt.
The following week, my mission is to find out more.
“Mom, remember that story you told me about Ed? In Esther’s apartment?”
I remind her about Isidore, known as Ed; his movie-star handsome brothers; Viola and the puppet theatre; Esther; the view of the lake; Ed stumbling out of the bedroom tucking in his shirt.
She looks at me blankly.
There’s a pause. Then, she stretches luxuriously as after a long nap and says, “I really must pull myself together one of these days and get over to the library.” It’s six months since she was last off the ward, one halcyon October afternoon when she allowed me to wheel her down to the river’s edge.
Why the library, why now?
“I need to lay my hands on a copy of Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb,” she says.
“I’ve been trying and trying,” she says with a weary air, “to remember the story lines of Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Can you tell me what happens in those plays?”
I regard her blankly.
Romeo and Juliet I could recount, maybe. Hamlet, in a pinch. But there would definitely be some gaps.
A passage in Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales has been rattling around in my brain this past month. The house next door (“at the bottom of the garden”) catches fire, and the bored children joyously race into the smoke armed with snowballs until the fire brigade shows up to put the fire out.
“And when the firemen turned off the hose and were standing in the wet, smoky room, Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, came downstairs and peered in at them. Jim and I waited, very quietly, to hear what she would say to them. She said the right thing, always. She looked at the three tall fireman in their shining helmets, standing among the smoke and cinders and dissolving snowballs, and she said, ‘Would you like anything to read?’”
Miss Prothero, blinking through the noise and mess, offered to make order of the crazy world. And it’s funny because human beings are absurd. But aren’t readers and writers order-makers of this ridiculous, unfathomable world?
November 9th dawned bitter cold here in Central Vermont’s stick season: a world of bare black-limbed trees, smoke gray skies, stubble fields. I walked downtown to have breakfast with a friend through streets the quiet of deep mourning. The restaurant was closed; my friend told me later the owner couldn’t open because her kitchen staff is all from other countries, and they were too panicked to work. She’d spent the day with them, listening, promising advocacy, reassuring.
I spent the rest of the day wrapping my trees and bushes for winter. Pounding garden staples into already hardened ground, a leaden sky reminded me that bad things happen all of the time. People get shot, people have been hung, people are herded into camps or prison under bright skies, under gray, on sweet spring days, and in blinding winter storms. Bad things happen and then the sun rips a hole in the clouds, as it did that afternoon. A fat blue hole rimmed with brilliant cloud. My fingers were frozen by that time, I’d used up all the staples and burlap, and had nothing left I could do to protect my tender garden. So, I leaned on a dirty shovel and watched the sky for awhile. I didn’t forget the election results, but for a moment, I forget my anger and my dread. Bad things happen and then something good happens and gives the courage to go on.
In college, I took logic, hoping, wrongly as it turned out, that it would meet the math requirement. Professor MacEwan made it abundantly clear we were lucky to be in his class and, if we got something out of it, that was on us. A dried up Scot who favored tweed sports jackets and starched shirts through all weather, he spent several weeks forcibly dragging us through syllogisms: “If P, then Q. . . and therefore . . .” He wrote each equation on the blackboard in squeaky chalk while we mostly lolled in our seats, drinking coffee or sleeping, this being well before the age of devices.
But, one day, he lit up like a prizefighter, and all but shouted at us, “I want someone to prove to me there is water in the gorge.” What gorge? What was he talking about? But suddenly, several of the lumpy guys who’d been slouching in their seats like corpses all semester, removed a couple of layers of sweatshirts and actually spoke, “There’s no water in the gorge!” cried one of the lumps, lifting a fist heavenward. Another lump shouted back, “I say there is!” And, with that, the fight was on. As the only woman in the class, I picked my battles in that male dominated world. This, I decided, was not my fight. I sat back, sipped my bad coffee, and watched the melee unfold.
The guys took sides and took them seriously. T-shirts cropped up all over campus emblazoned with either “There is no water in the gorge,” or “There is water in the gorge.” In class, Professor MacEwan, smiling his thin smile, whipped the arguments on each side into lathers of frenzied belief that teetered on rickety architectures of proof. Winter ebbed into spring and still there was no conclusion. When May came, we got our grades, and the arguments dissipated into the Sacramento heat, unresolved, irresolvable.
This fall, during and after the election, I thought back to that class, wondering about the problem of debating something largely imaginary. Of course, most of what we believe is based more on emotional logic than anything else. And that, perhaps, was Professor MacEwan’s point. At our core, the philosopher Iris Murdock wrote, “human beings are anxious, squirrelly creatures.” We’re a bundle of need with an ability to make swords out of what we pay attention to. The confluence of attention and desire creates the aperture for belief. And then we go about hurting each other with those swords made of words.
So what about the job of writers? Advocacy, a call I do embrace, is more than merely taking sides. Our charge, I think, is to speak about the world and our experience of it, at a deeper level of truth-telling. As our country, so torn right now by warring beliefs, struggles to make sense of, or find hope in, the results of this most contentious political year, where is our common humanity?
As a young person, I dreamed of that common language Adrienne Rich spoke of as something that might heal the world. I dreamed it could heal me. I dreamed, just as Professor MacEwan posited that gorge, because I needed to. I needed to imagine that, through evil, through grief, there is a ground of meaning. That the cracks, as Leonard Cohen wrote, let in the light.
Whatever the common language is, art is its voice. And it’s not about being saved or cheered up or things working out. If there is a gorge, sometimes there is water, and sometimes not. If we are all human beings, we need each other and we need art. Barry Lopez wrote, “sometimes we need a story, more than food and drink, to stay alive.” (from Crow and Weasel.) The story I want to tell invites the imperfect, the vulnerable, the tender, and the absurd.
For that reason, of Thomas’ unforgettably quirky characters, I think I would choose to be Aunt Hannah who shows up at the end of A Child’s Christmas, and who “got on to the parsnip wine and sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird’s Nest; and then everybody laughed again.” And then the author goes to bed.
We do the best we can to speak from our hearts and hope we’re received without acrimony, with some measure of forbearance, or kindness, or even love. So, let’s you and I read and read, and write and write. You let me know when you’re ready to speak. I’m listening.
Went to a cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago, it was nice, flowers, love, family, food, drinks, you know – nice. Well not all of it, that’s more of a cover, thing someone said in the cab on the way home because parts of it were, mmmm, not so nice. The vows, oh my god over the top and the dresses, I know the bride’s supposed to steal the show but come on, peach for your maids, looked like they all went shopping at the same week after junior prom yard sale. And then there was uncle Jean’s toast, roast, I mean toast. You know what I mean, you’ve been to a wedding with an open bar six months after someone got divorced before too right? Of course you have, well this is going to be a little like that, rough in places, but remember – free bar, so hang in there.
Gubul gubul, love that word, just the way it feels coming out of my mouth, try it … gubul gubul. Nice right? No you didn’t just say something naughty, but naughty of you to have thought you did. Means curly, in Korean. You had a feeling it did, didn’t you, just the way it sounds, I mean it sounds curly. Yes that’s a long winded way to introduce onomatopoeia, but that’s where we start this; the sound of a word mimicking its meaning – sound having meaning. However, words have other sounds in them too, we say them after all. They got their syllables, get them from their phonemes, morphemes and the like, those things we all stress through pretty much the same way. So yeah, sounds have meaning.
Almost ‘sounds’ like music, I mean, we’ve all heard this one right – music is a language, tickles some universal primitive reptilian leftover nub on our brain stems. Well it’s a can of worms I’ll keep my pinkie out of for now. No, well yes, but not all the way out, just let me dip in and get at the part about music being a sound that can express emotion. Express, convey, prompt – I can’t nail it down with one word. So you pick the one that works on you – just make it mean the way a particular piece of music can make you feel happy, or sad, or scared, or whatever, but pick a word that means that for you. Because the sounds of music can do that.
So here we are, a few premises deep, words are sounds that have meaning and the sounds of music can get at emotions. Sounds doing things, sending out information we can get things from. Okay, so far so good, and excuse the pedant in me but uncle Jean assumed he had us in the palm of his hand too and its right here that I need you with me. So let’s close up the bar for a few minutes and focus. Now, what if those strings of sound our words make are sending out the same kind of emotional meanings music does?
No, no, no, sit back down here, I’m serious. Okay, for sure the sounds that music produce are much more complex than those available to words. Music has tempo, mode, loudness, melody and rhythm, while words on the other hand only have access to tempo and rhythm. But don’t let that get you down, a lot can be done with tempo and rhythm. Let’s start with tempo or speed. Quick gets you happiness, excitement or anger, whereas if you slow it down it slips over to sadness or serenity. Mixed bag? I know, but all is not lost just yet because we still got rhythm. You get the rhythm smooth and consistent and it’ll spell happiness again. Easy enough way to double down on it, quick and smooth musics out happiness. However, if the rhythm was roughed up but you still kept the speed up then you’d get something closer to uneasiness.
Just think about this for a minute, the sounds of words being subvocalized in a reader’s head as they make their way through a paragraph, about say betrayal, wouldn’t it be something if the actual tempo and rhythm of their inner voice was producing a meaning synchronous to the combined lexical meaning of the words. Wow, you’re damn right wow, it would be devilish, the reader would have no idea it was happening, they’d just feel it, same way they feel emotions from music.
However, as with most things, the rub lives in the how. Tempo, speed, you can fiddle with that. Sure individual reading speeds will vary, enter a thousand variables you can’t control for and then throw them away. We’re looking big picture here and big picture tempo is in a writer’s hands. Lexical density, vocabulary sophistication and syntactic complexity, three puzzle pieces every single sentence or paragraph will have lurking inside of them. Ramp them up and the reader slows down and vice versa gets you on the flip-side. And its relative right, slow for me is fast for you, who cares, music’s playing in each individual head, this isn’t a concert after all. That’s the hard one, rhythm, or beat, is a much easier pulse to finger. Syllables, those things you used to count out on your digits when you were a kid, if that isn’t a rhythm I’ll never dance again. You want to get even finer, add in individual word stresses, that place where your voice rises inside a word. In between the words is another playground: punctuation, comma, slash, dash – a writer almost becomes a Lamaze coach for a reader’s respiration.
Now you might be thinking this is even worse than uncle Jean’s speech, but come on, I’m not saying the meaning being transmitting through subvocalized tempo and rhythm are primary. There’s no way they are going to make your love story come out horror show. Not at all, because if I’m right here, then this music is already inside everything you’ve ever written. What I’m thinking is, this ability of music to transmit emotional meaning can be used to supplement the lexical meaning of a sentence or paragraph. Or perhaps a passage could be written with opposite meanings, one where the lexical and the musical were polar to add a touch of doubt to the lexical, like an unreliable narrator.
There’s no need to work through all the different ways this can be kajiggered. If you think this is as bad as uncle Jean’s toast no worries, I’ll go sit in the back with him and watch the bride and groom dance to a love poem put to slow paced (serenity), smooth patterned (happiness) piece of music. But if you hear it too, you know where we are.