About Nora

Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.

Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.

But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.

Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.

But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.

Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.

Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.

There’s No Place Like Home

“Homeless in Space” brought a thoughtful, if aphoristic, response from Ashen, heroic reader and writer over at Course of Mirrors:

“Your post sparked a thought. Some people don’t experience their early home as a safe place to root and grow. Frustrated expectations may foster a sometimes unconscious element of resistance, not to fit in, as it were, like… being homed can mean being owned
being holed can mean being controlled
being placed can mean being traced
being named can mean being framed or tamed”

Thoughts, too, of home, whatever the experience, I was reminded of the end of the film The Wizard of Oz, when the good witch Glinda tells Dorothy she’s always had the capability of going home, and tells her to tap her heels together three times while saying: “There’s no place like home.”

Indeed, there is no place, existentially speaking, like home. Home is an idea, often reduced to an ideology, that doesn’t necessarily match what’s really happening (growing equity, capital). Also I was reminded of the song from “Inventories,” new book (from the serial novel started here last July as a pandemic quarantine exercise), in which the word home appears 38 times:

“Back Home Again”
What I know about love,
I wrote on a postage stamp,
mailed myself halfway to the moon.
I’m in stardust singing I do, I do, adieu,
and I can’t go home again.
Born in the back of a beach bum shack,
I sailed the seven seas.
Never made it back home again.
Adieu, adieu. You can’t go home again.
Born in a corral of a rodeo,
off a road they call Route 66.
Between the cowboy and the clown she broke free.
Goodbye, goodbye. She won’t be back again.
The moral of this story, the point of this tale,
when you leave home, you can’t go back again,
because you won’t be there when you arrive.
Goodbye, my love, goodbye my love, goodbye.
And it’s home again, I want to go back to you,
see my family and my old friends too,
but I can’t go home again.
Goodbye, my love, goodbye my love, adieu.

“Inventories” is a journey book about a semi-god (a type, allegorical, character, an oligarch on the run) who wants out (to escape his life of privilege and its human costs), to leave home, only to find himself engaged in any number of other homes along his way.

There’s no place like home, and no way to escape.

Homeless in Space

Part of research aims at joining a conversation to discover what’s being said or has been said about your topic or ideas, as you develop your own statement about which there’s going to be disagreement, your own claims, your argument. It won’t take much Googling to find out most of your ideas are old hat – someone’s already been there, done that.

So it came as no surprise when I began thinking of the Mars rover “Perseverance,” now roaming the atmosphere of the red planet like a Samuel Beckett character in familiar forlorn surroundings, that when I searched for “Homeless on Mars” and “Homeless in Space,” Google instantly brought me 100,000 or so links to peruse.

What had happened was an old friend had called and our country’s ubiquitous homeless predicament came up, and I think I caught that he thought at least one of the local cause and effect issues might involve theft, that the homeless in his area were thieves, substantiated by his having seen a local police cruiser pulled over at a homeless camp under a bridge. Not adequate backing if one is building a credible causal argument, but I didn’t want to join, so I let it go for the nonce.

But I later found myself wondering, what is homelessness? What is theft? If I live in a tent on a patch of public property, is that not my home? This quickly becomes an argument of definition. What is a home? What characteristics of one’s living situation are necessary to call a dwelling a home? A telephone? An address the mail carrier will be able to locate? Indoor plumbing? A landlord or mortgagee? Bricks and mortar? A deed of some sort? A contract? Neighbors?

And having been somewhat preoccupied with and still thinking about the latest NASA enterprise, I thought it might be possible to consider the rover Perseverance homeless. And it also appears likely that NASA’s plans include stealing a few rocks from the red planet and bringing them back to Earth. Whose rocks are they?

In any case, my research into the idea of a homeless space, a homeless universe, where all housing is ultimately temporary, brought forth two interesting finds: “The Orphan Ship,” a trilogy about homeless children living in poverty in a Mars space station (Sterling R. Walker, 2013), and “The Ethics of Space: Homelessness and Squatting in Urban England” (Steph Grohmann, HAU, 2020). From the preface to Grohmann’s book, the predicament is clearly laid out:

“Through their struggles for housing, squatters initiate a more fundamental struggle to inhabit and take hold of social space, and thus to make modest but no less daring efforts to remake the world through very localized but determined measures to change their immediate, everyday lived realities. In doing so, they challenge the larger social and political order of neoliberal capitalism, and in working to transform life, they also transform themselves and their relations with the wider society, and engage in new and creative experiments with how we might begin to reorganize all of our collective social life” (Nicholas De Genova, xii).

It’s probable that former local vagrancy laws kept homeless populations from growing in the US (to the extent they exist today), or at least confined to “skid rows.” Most of those laws have been struck down as unconstitutional, often replaced by loitering laws, also mostly struck down. But today’s lack of affordable housing, endemic unemployment and job losses, generational poverty, education detrimental reliance traps, and a growing acceptance of inequality and change – all contribute to our current imbroglio.

Absurdly, as both Buckminster Fuller and Marshall Mcluhan showed, typewriters (or their replacements) asleep under cover for the night in high rise office buildings still fair better than their daytime users commuting home, wherever that might be.

Nothing but the Oldies

“nothing but the music” (2020, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn) is a kind of compilation, a box set, of pieces composed by Thulani Davis over the years 1974 to 1992, lines written while listening to live music or reflecting on the experience of an avant garde art form as it’s happening, and before it might be neutered by mainstream commercialization too influenced by those with control of the means of production. Most of the Davis pieces appeared in poetic form in alternative press issues over the years and some were set to music. The scores are informed, and may be read with reference to, performance and theatre, jazz and punk, R&B, and mixed forms or art form synesthesia, the courage and risks found in the places music is born, but the rewards too of achievement, however much that success may appear to some as failure. The music’s codification (its reliability, approvals, its aesthetic argument) might be seen in the cost for a ticket to get in: $20 – for a 63 page paperback, made possible in part by support from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Is the music now artifact? The oral argument, written or recorded, becomes a document. What the music feels like, in words, what it stands for, and stands against. The importance of the work, these pieces, these entries, is found in the subtitle: “Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar.” Or, in the words of the book’s epigraph:

“to the artists
& dharma guides
who coax us
minute by minute
from retold pasts
& possible futures
ever
to the present
moment”

Each piece is sourced at its end with a date and location and often the names of the musicians. For example: “1982, CBGB, New York”; “April 27, 1977, The Rogue & Jar, Washington, DC. The players: David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Charles “Bobo” Shaw, Fred Hopkins. The poet: Ntozake Shange”; “April 15, 1975. Five Spot, New York. The Cecil Taylor Unit: Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Lyons, Andrew Cyrille.” That last piece just cited, “C. T. At The Five Spot,” begins:

“this is not about romance & dream
it’s about a terrible command performance of the facts
of time & space & air”

…and moves on:

“ripple stamp & beat/ripple peddlin’
stomps taps of feet slick poundin’ out
tonal distinctions between/keys & sticks”

…and ends:

“I have heard this music
ever since I can remember/I have heard this music”

(22-23)

If music is a cultural argument, an aesthetic fight, it must come complete with a thesis statement about which some will disagree, backed with claims with examples, illustrations, supported with evidence and sources. It’s not enough to dress the part and go punk for an evening; one must want to be hardcore punk, and harder still. The wall does not give way so easily. It’s not enough to listen to the radio or buy the recording; one must enter the mosh pit. Who can survive it?

“the punks jumped on the stage
and dove into their friends
let their chains beat their thighs
the crowd thought death
in two-minute intervals
heavy metal duos and creaming murder

the band of twelve year-old rockers
wished they could do it
come like that on the refuse
of somebody else’s youth”

from “Bad Brains: A Band”: 1982, CBGB, New York

We find, in “nothing but the music,” in addition to the music itself, criticism, analysis, reaction, conclusions, as well as questions for further research. What happens when the avant garde becomes tradition?

“Not just history not just Trane
No not what we heard about
What we heard
Just what we hear
It always being night
We’ll still be there
Dancing the dissonant logic
The loneness
Just playing music
He speaking to himself
Really paying us no rabbitass mind
Digging what himself was doing
T-monius and ‘al-reet'”

from “T-Monius”: February 17, 1982, 122nd Street, New York (50-51).

In a life of disenfranchisement, art may be the only place to find certain freedoms: of expression and voice, enjoyment and creativity, play and work coming together in a spirit of desire and interests, not of servitude or boredom, and where one may object to a status quo in a statement with examples of new possibilities. And beauty, where beauty may come to rest, looking tired and worn out, where she can mix with the crowd and feel at home and dig the music. And truth hangs out in the rhythm section. Some hep young cat might ask, “What was it like?” And the answer is important, how we answer, what we say, what we hold back. We are old now, and passing, older than we ever imagined. You can’t breakdance at 70 like you could at 17, Cornel West said in his ten minute section of Astra Taylor’s Examined Life: “Time is real.” Yes, and you can find it in the music:

“giving a spring to the dance
of who we are/unexpected beauty
beauty we have known ourselves to be
like reaching old age & infancy in a breath
of this is the music
knowing we can’t be us
& be afraid of who we are”

X-75-Vol. 1, Henry Threadgill “Side B (Air Song/Fe Fi Fo Fum)” (31-32).

What to Read

“She aspires to write literary fiction,” Elaine tells Mercer of Leigh, all three characters in John Grisham’s Camino Island (2017), “really impenetrable stuff that the stores can’t give away” (112). Literary fiction there is shorthand for critical analysis of the obscure, a kind of stereotype that avoids ambiguity. Mercer is also a stereotype: adjunct instructor deep in college loan debt who has just lost her teaching position to budget cutbacks at a state college, her two books, a novel and short stories, already out of print. But the loss of her teaching job might provide a way for her to do what she really wants to do, which is, well, to write literary fiction. But not the impossible stuff, but books that when signed by the author in first edition hardback copies with covers in fine condition become collector’s items worth thousands of dollars, and might even wind up on a clandestine market. Books like Catch-22; The Naked and the Dead; Rabbit, Run; Invisible Man; The Moviegoer; Goodbye, Columbus; The Confessions of Nat Turner; The Maltese Falcon; In Cold Blood; The Catcher in the Rye; The Sound and the Fury; Cup of Gold; This Side of Paradise; A Farewell to Arms – all listed on page 52 of Camino Island, and are, in a sense, what Grisham’s book is about – the illicit market for such books, that is, not their value as literary fiction, other than to suggest, in an argument of proposal, that these are the kinds of books we should be reading. And to make a search for them easier, Grisham provides, MLA Style, the author’s name and year of publication.

I was going to say I did not have to resort to a black market to obtain my paperback copy of Camino Island (Dell Mass Market Edition, 2018, unsigned, but in good condition), but it might be argued that I did: Susan had pulled it out of the neighborhood free library share box located in the vacant lot near the Line 15 stop down around the corner from our place, had me read the back cover, adding the counsel, “I think you might like this.” Certainly not impenetrable – I read to page 116 last night before putting out the light. And I do like it.

One thing I liked about Camino Island, placed rudely on top of the stack of reading in progress books and magazines on the bedside table, is that it assuaged my guilt over leaving my recently legally purchased copy of the 50th Anniversary edition of Dune so early, in the middle of Chapter Two. The plan was to read Dune along with one of my out-of-town brothers, another Pandemic exercise, and we would compare notes and reactions over the phone. Dune appears to be a book that involves, as the Baron tells Feyd: “‘Listen carefully, Feyd,’ the Baron said. ‘Observe the plans within plans within plans'” (23). I thought I might get a leg up on Dune by watching the 1984 David Lynch film, but I only got about the same distance as I had in the book, although recognizing not much from the book’s opening, before giving up. But my problem with Dune was not that it is impenetrable. So what is the problem?

Meantime, a reading friend wrote in an email to ask me why I read what I read, and even spend time talking and writing about that reading. The occasion of his question was my putting up here at the Toads those recent posts, one on the new quarterly journal “Firmament,” the other on the two stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini, both published in small book, small press format, both just out this month from Sublunary Editions (Seattle), and both, as Grisham might have it, some form of impenetrable. The question stirs the pond of paranoia in the pit of my stomach. For the act of reading is subversive; yet, paradoxically, reading is mostly considered a virtuous activity. To learn to read, to know how to read, these are valued as good activities. Knowing what to read is a different matter.

“The Morning” & “Just Write Anything!”

Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini, translated by Jessica Sequeria, just out from Sublunary Editions (Seattle), measures a mere 80 pages (4 and ½” by 7” by ¼”) and contains the pieces “The Morning” and “Just Write Anything!” and also an introduction (by Cesar Aira, translated by Adrian Nathan West), an acknowledgements page, a 4 page translator’s note, and 62 endnotes (in a font size so small this reader’s used eyes required over-the-counter reading glasses of +3.50 strength), almost as long as either story – indeed, a third story – as well as a Parental Advisory warning label (suitable for bookmark use), modified to read:

P A R E N T A L
A D V I S O R Y
OSVALDO LAMBORGHINI

One is tempted to form a review as response in a supposed style of the stories:

In the beginning was the word. And the ice dam(n) broke, the word escaped, and all hell broke loose, as in a Blow-up. A devil’s drool (“Las Babas del Diablo,” Cortazar). It was all done on a typewriter. That tin bell kept us awake. Its tintinnabulations. And he had to send his only son, or daughter, as the case may arise, to supply some endnotes, but he didn’t explain to what end. And the notes musical, in a sense, pleasant. One confessed to eating the plums. Bless me Father, for I have eaten the plums. They were purple. And the season Lent. We had given up meaning for the season, without reason. And the church filled with words, every pew stuffed end to end. And every word related. In each word all the genetic material of the language, of all the languages, of the uttered universe. Prokaryotic flagellum. To allow word movement. The words stood, knelt, sat, stood, and filed out, one by one, pew after pew, line after line. Some disappeared. Through the blank pages of the cosmos, along the gaucho trails along the green rivers in the gorged valleys below the ghastly ghostly mountains, seeping through the pampas and the full drainage basins, out to sea. The sea, the sea! Wordomics. This is my body, a comics: “To ourselves … new paganism … omphalos” (Joyce, Ulysses).

Of the two stories, “The Morning” and “Just Write Anything!,” the latter is perhaps the more accessible, comprehendible if not understandable, than the former, but the first, “The Morning,” one might find more enjoyable. The two stories might have been written for two different audiences (although Aira’s introduction suggests Lamborghini didn’t write to any particular audience), but neither seems within the purview of the common reader. But what is within the purview of the common reader? Slogans? Well, slogans are comprehendible, but rarely understood. They become like magic words, spells. In the US today, MAGA might serve as an example; an argument of proposal in no need of backing, it is not an argument at all, but an order, a command. Authoritarian. Enter, sex, and why we need a parental advisory. Sex, like politics, manipulative, special interest, you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. For the working class, sex is one thing, for the middle class, something else. The middle class wants relief from guilt, a guilt the working class does not feel. The middle class wants to enjoy, to experience pleasure, guilty it has benefits others don’t, but not enough that it can’t also enjoy envy of those who have more. Thus the middle class craves perfumes and brands, must have fantasy and escape, ritual that includes punishments and rewards. The working class has not time nor appetite for values which can’t readily be seen, measured, felt. As for Peronism and whether or not readers need a background in Argentine history to appreciate Lamborghini, Peronism might not be substantially different from any other ism around the world seeking to exploit one class by numbing another class for the enrichment of a third class, except that Peron started out wanting to make all of the people happy all of the time. But of course there are always those who don’t want to be happy, or don’t care to be made happy. Politics is sex without love.

In other words, for the working class, the word innuendo means exactly what it sounds like, while for the middle class, it can only suggest what cannot in what is sometimes called polite society (on the endangered species list) be directly talked about, and must be submersed in ambiguity, doubt, and mistrust. Enter Peron, that is to say, to wit, an imputation that what is valued most in each class can somehow be conjoined, but the ballroom can’t hold everyone.

Click here, on the belly button, where you were tied to your mother, treading water in the salt marsh. You were still nullifidian then. All gills and fins. Your mother’s voice coming muffled through the cloudy water. And then your cry, and then your sucking, and then your sleep, and then the tin bell, and the rhythm rolling. The next time you awake, you are swaddled in the bottom of a dory, your father at the oars, your mother tending a fishing line, all against a muddy current in coastal waters.

Lamborghini’s writing is probably not egalitarian, not as evidenced by these two stories or the three poems appearing in Firmament No. 1 (Sublunary Editions, Winter 2021), not that it needs to be, yet it contains all the characteristics readers generally value. Humor surrounded by horror. The sweets and sours and bitters and salts of life. It is a writing of associative addition, one image conjuring up or giving way to another, the narrative like a bus ride, the bus stopping at the end of every sentence to let someone off and to take on another rider. Though these riders are not necessarily characters – they may be ideas, or props. Repetition is therefore valued, and memory encouraged. So that at the end of “The Morning,” if asked what it is about, we can say it is about a character savaged. But the common reader wants her back scratched, not whipped.

The form (forms) of these two short stories appears very different in each, the one on the open sea, the other back and forth where the rivers spread in the tidal marsh. Jessica Sequeira’s “endnotes” are indispensable, and actually a pleasure. For one thing, it’s comforting as a reader to know you’re in the same boat as other readers, translators, critics. That is to say, the difficulty is not yours alone, not yours at all. You are now able to read. And while the endnotes clarify, elucidate, inform, they also project, surmise, guess.

Sublunary Editions is an independent press out of Seattle. You can find a copy of Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini here.

A New Modernist Journal

One of the characteristics of the small press literary journal is its short shelf life, if it makes it to a shelf at all. But its practitioners blast away nevertheless, their voices barely audible rising from the bottom rungs of the literary ladder. Another of its characteristics is the constancy of its myriad rebirths, even if in limited print runs, the first 30 signed and numbered by – someone. Another of its characteristics is its often assumed lack of what in academic argument is called ethos, by which is meant credentials, credibility, reliability, experience, imprimatur. A lack of ethos may fail to persuade even a cursory glance or worse garner a quick list of lit-snub snarks. The local librarian will probably file the journal with a few other self-published efforts on the free books and discards shelf. But the serious critic is always looking for the exception to assumptions and presuppositions, even if his leaning is hierarchical. Peter Molin’s blog, Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature, provides a recent example of the critic wrestling with the ladders and scaffolding: “Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?).” But Molin has already somewhat equitably posited, “The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.” More of course could be said about that divide, a literary no man’s land. The small press literary journal can only exist on one side of the divide. When it crosses over, it becomes something else; when it dies, it awaits discovery, or recovery, or rebirth.

Consider what is now called the Modernist Journal, indie starts from around 1890 through the first quarter of the 20th Century, most of which survived but briefly, but contained writing by contributors now considered influential if often still controversial, journals full of now canonical writers who at the time were experimenting with new ideas and forms, and many other writers who were mostly unknown and remain so. Readers can research, browse, discover these journals in the Modernist Journal Project, now housed at Brown and the University of Tulsa. Examples include Blast, Des Imagistes, The Egoist, The Little Review, The Masses.

All by way of introducing another new indie journal on the literary block, its first issue, Winter 2021, now in circulation – Firmament: A magazine of considered miscellany from Sublunary Editions. I received a print copy because last year I subscribed to the full suite of Sublunary publications via the annual subscription. Monthly and 6-month subscriptions are also available – all include the quarterly magazine, Firmament. The Sublunary productions, called “objects,” are thin (Firmament No. 1 is 63 pages), with extreme care taken with design – typeset, layout, arrangement, presentation. Monthly, I get something from Sublunary in the snail mail.

Firmament is edited by Jessica Sequeira, a translator of Spanish texts who has also written a few original books, one of which, “A Luminous History of the Palm,” was published in April, 2020 by Sublunary. I put up a short review of that book here at the Toads back in July. In her “Editor’s Note” to Firmament No. 1, Jessica mentions several journals as examples of like, and liked, precursors, including Sur, 291, Der Sturm, and Claridad. The first issue of Firmament contains poetry, short fiction and excerpts, interviews, and nonfiction and columns – from an international cast of writers and translators. I count 23 contributors, 14 sections, in the 63 pages. I find that remarkable (and so I remarked on it). There is also a page devoted to drawings of a cat creature (tyger?), but it’s uncredited (but it appears to be from the cover of the forthcoming Chevillard book). Another page is devoted to a preview of the upcoming April, Spring 2021 issue of Firmament, and another page listing more Sublunary objects forthcoming for 2021. And a page of “Endnotes.” The issue contains a striking color scheme of red, white, and black. Clearly the editors are serious and professional, busy, planning ahead, with dedicated resources and action plans.

Eric Chevillard, French experimental author, is featured in Firmament No. 1, translated by Chris Clarke – both come with awards and previous publishing successes. “Chronology” (pgs 4-10) is a biographical summary of the life of one Thomas Jean-Julien Pilaster, compiled by one Marc-Antoine Marson, both fictional characters created by Chevillard. All three are writers, real and imagined, at least they live the lives one imagines a writer might live, born, perhaps, to lose (that is to say, live on the wrong side of the divide), as they are artists by temperament.

A poem by J. A. Pak follows, “Love Tattoo,” and, yes, isn’t a tattoo often a poem, often one of love penned on skin, though love can be removed.

Tony Messenger’s “Fragments 1, 2 and 5,” reflections on the divisions language may create (there’s that theme of divide again), read like journal entries, notes, ponderings. I liked them enough to find Tony’s blog, Messenger’s Booker – the beauty of quick links. The name Tony Messenger was familiar, but the Firmament Tony Messenger is not the Tony Messenger who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not unless we’re back in Chevillard territory.

If Firmament No. 1 were a syllabus, it would have to be for a year long course. “Lamborghiniana,” an interview/conversation between Agustina Perez and Jessica Sequeira, about Osvaldo Lamborghini, makes this clear. But that is yet another characteristic of the small press literary journal – to suggest new directions of writing and reading, thought, expression, translation, literary virtual travel. Three Lamborghini poems are included, translated by Louis Chitarroni.

So, Firmament appears to be concerned with experimental and international writing. Yet, in Joshua Rothes’s (founder and publisher of Sublunary Editions) column, “Pith & Self-Defeating,” he says: “What I aim to propose in this inaugural column is that 1) most writing done with a specific set of aims is, after Parfit, ultimately self-defeating, 2) this process of undermining our stated aims is the most important part of the creative process” (38). Paradox, paradox, paradox, Thoreau might have epizeuxisly said. And Vic Shirley, another of the Sublunary editors, follows with this, in “Commitment to Chush”: “Chush is Russian for nonsense,” beginning a bit of a rant that seems both nonsensical and right on simultaneously (40).

I was glad to see comics represented, even if sans cartoons or drawings, with Maurizio Salabelle, translated by Jamie Richards, who has apparently translated some cartoonists. This I’ve yet to follow up on, but it’s on my list of things to do.

And more, including two poems by Rilke, translated by Kristofor Minta, and fiction by Anna de Nosailles, translated by Christina Tudor-Sideri, and Carol Rodrigues, translated by Adrian Minckley, and poetry by Tim MacGabhann.

On the back cover, we find this brief description: “Sublunary Editions is an independent press dedicated to publishing brief volumes of innovative texts from authors past and present.” True that, if Firmanent No. 1 is any example.

Hotel Julian Lobby Lending Library

I returned to the fallout shelter to retrieve the books, carrying out several full boxes through the tunnel. I also carried up the bookcase, recruiting Cajetan’s help, our second Right On Moving Company job. I was living now in a monthly room on the 3rd floor of Hotel Julian, Seattle and Walter and my Risk Management career receding like a Ship of Fools in a bottle on an outgoing tide. Sylvie was preoccupied, occupied, post occupied, and will have been occupied with her baseball team and league business commitments. She enjoyed the game: the travel, the players, the games from the press box, the scouting, the trades, the score and stats keeping, the smells of the locker rooms, bats and balls and gloves and towels, the lighted ballparks – oasis in the urban night, where she arrived early and stayed late. I set up a self help lending library in the lobby of Hotel Julian with the books from the fallout shelter. I didn’t bother organizing the books but filled the shelves hodgepodge, figuring they’d just get all messed up anyway. I made a card catalog using some 3 by 5 cards I’d found in Rosella’s. I pasted an envelope on the inside flap of the back of each book. In the envelope I placed a 3 by 5 card, cut to size for some of the smaller paperbacks. On the card I wrote the name of the book and drew a table with three columns: name, date checked out, and date checked back in. On the wall above the bookshelves I affixed a card rack and posted instructions: patrons are encouraged to take a book, one at a time, sign your name and your checkout date, place card in rack, return book when finished, find the book’s card, write in check in date, and return book to shelves. Inside the front cover of each book, I wrote: Property of Hotel Julian Lobby Lending Library. I made an index of the books in a spiral notebook that sat on top of the shelves, and took a simple count. At the launch of the library, celebrated with Dawn and Eve and other members of the hotel staff, and also Rosella and Ramon and their four girls, and Cajetan and Minerva, the following books were available for checkout: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Letter, The Voyage of the Beagle, Experiments on Plant Hybridization, A Tale of Two Cities, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Vanity Fair, Lorna Doone, The Red Badge of Courage, Trilby, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Madame Bovary, Heart of Darkness, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, Principles of Geology, King Solomon’s Mines, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Works of Li Po The Chinese Poet: Done into English Verse, Chinese Military Dictionary (War Department Technical Manual), Flatland, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Time Machine, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dracula, Not Without Laughter, The Turn of the Screw, Moby-Dick, McTeague, On the Origin of Species, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, Banjo, Speeches of Abraham Lincoln, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Experiments with Alternate Currents of High Potential and High Frequency, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, Mansfield Park, Ulysses, The Last of the Mohicans, The Plays of William Shakespeare, The Holy Bible, The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, The Call of the Wild, Winesburg Ohio, At the Mountains of Madness, and Wuthering Heights. Also, Webster’s New International Dictionary (second edition, 1934). Thus the library consisted of 58 books.

“Hotel Julian Lobby Lending Library” is episode 36 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Rosella’s Market

Rosella’s, the neighborhood grocery in the space on the northwest corner of the ground floor of Hotel Julien, was open, more or less, 24 hours a day, year round. Occasionally, Rosella’s might close, without notice or explanation, for an hour or two or more, or for an entire day, and would reopen unceremoniously as if it had never been closed. Rosella’s specialty was not-quite-fresh fruits, vegetables, and breads she sold past their sell-by or best-by dates: day old breads and pastries, bruised fruits, withering vegetables. Her suppliers included the large supermarkets located not too far away but throughout the Southland, and local bakeries, and truck farmers in from the valleys. Her buyers (or collectors, for they usually hauled off the food without cost) included a family of 12, including 6 boys and 4 girls, and her husband, Ramon, though he and his oldest sons spent most of their time busy with the family bricklaying business – Ramon’s specialty was brick patios, walkways, outdoor fireplaces, walls. I found it hard to go into Rosella’s, even if just to buy an apple for an afternoon snack, without wandering around considering the diverse displays of other things for sale: hats, tshirts, and flip-flops; guitar strings (but only one kind – Augustine Red Label Classical); magazines and newspapers (English and Spanish), and used paperback and comic books; kites and windsocks; plastic bats and balls, kazoos, hula hoops. Also beer and wine; candy; canned goods (most past their sell-by date); beef jerky; bubblegum (the kind with the cartoon prizes); pizza by the slice cooked in a microwave and hot dogs from a table top machine with bun warmer (several tables with chairs and umbrellas provided sidewalk sit out space for eating); cereals and nuts; cat and dog food; flowers, dried and almost fresh; peanut butter and oatmeal. Rosella also sold postage stamps. You could purchase a money order. You could pay your utility bills. Milk, pop, juice. Single, double, triple A batteries. Cookies, spices, pastas. And the bins of fruits and vegetables: lemons and limes, apples, oranges, bananas, garlic, mushrooms, potatoes, peaches, onions, tomatoes, avocados. And the breads: como, sourdough, brioche, baguette, rye, pita, bagels, tortillas, biscuits. Surfmats and swim fins. From the shelves, walls, floor, and ceiling of Rosella’s, was stacked, hung, crated, or boxed, something for anyone.

“Rosella’s Market” is episode 35 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Bingo at Xavier

Xavier Roman Catholic Church was within walking distance from Hotel Julian. Hearing they hosted bingo every Monday night, I walked over to play a few cards. About 20 players sat at tables in the church hall, Father Juan calling the numbers from a podium on a stage. I bought half a dozen cards at 50 cents each at a table set up at the entrance, took a paper cup of coffee, and found a seat at a table where sat a couple of ancient nuns wearing simple blue scarves, rosary necklaces, short black smocks, and Jack Purcell canvas shoes, white with the navy blue stripe on the toes. The night was hot out but the hall was cooled by three electric fans dropping from the ceiling. At one table was a family of seven: father, mother, grandmother, and four children aged about 6 to 12, three girls and a boy. They were all attentively playing multiple cards but occasionally one of the kids pointed to another’s card where a call otherwise might have been missed. A new game began, and I paid attention to my own card, intending to play but one card per game, in no hurry. I would drop my winnings, if any, into the donation box on my way out. The room was quiet, Father Juan calling the numbers in a sonorous, serious voice. The night passed on peacefully. If one of the kids shouted Bingo! a polite applause ensued, and the nuns smiled their approval. I sipped my coffee, unused to late evening caffeine, and after a couple of cups began to feel more alert to the musty smell of the hall, the noises – shuffling of cards, shoes, chairs scraping as someone got up for a trip to the refreshment table or restroom – and in the quiet between calls I could hear the soft whir of the big fans slowly turning above.

“Bingo at Xavier” is episode 34 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Walter and the Panhandler

The gods and one's nature. Metamorphosis. Unhuman. Inhuman. Panhandling. Gold. Plutocracy.

Most gods have little choice but to follow their nature. It’s not so much that they are bound to, but that they want to. It’s what fulfills them, brings them happiness, even if its taste is bitter. It’s true though, that with a lot of hard work, one may achieve a kind of metamorphosis of one’s nature, changing, over time, but then that very change has always been a part of one’s nature, waiting in the wings, as it were. Metamorphosis is different from mutation or mistake or accident. The snail wants to be a snail, slipping and sliding slowly along its trail to and fro its eats. The seal is at home in her wavy salt water coves, climbing the rocks to dry in the sun after a meal of fish. So too the human can not be unhuman. Inhumanity is a different matter. One follows a slippery slope toward inhuman behavior, landing in the pond of selfishness, fed by streams of stinginess and hoarding. If you are happy, you will hand over some change to the panhandler on the corner, and not think twice about it. His cardboard sign may be filled with lies (veteran, three hungry kids and no place to call home, need money for ticket back home); so what, of these lies? Doesn’t all advertising fib? Appeals to the emotive, the passions. So when Walter and I reached the corner where sat the fellow with his sign (can’t work – groin injury), and Walter scoffed what was he, an NFL quarterback? I gave the fellow a greenback. Why Walter should care, Ray having just recovered the missing transaction of $300 million, is a story not of metamorphosis but of one’s nature. Walter is a miser. And, one of the wealthiest men in the world, he is, by nature, a panhandler who advertises by pandering to the base desires of a soft audience he detests. The language of the gods is not made of words. The best prayer, as Thomas Merton has told us, is wordless. As a flight of birds. As a sea breeze. As a flight of bills falling into a hat sitting on a sidewalk between two wretched legs. Words are seeds in bloom, flowers and weeds, wanted and unwanted. The bee is on your lips, her long tongue slipping through for the nectar of your words. It will take many bees to change these words to honey. The panhandler is working, similar to Walter, sifting his investment pan for gold nuggets, panning for gold. As an enterprise, it’s one of the most efficient. Surely, I told Walter, even you must appreciate at least that much. Money in one’s pockets, like gold, does nothing. It’s a dead weight. It must be circulated. This wretched state of affairs is part of human nature. Zeus blinded Plutus so that the god of money could freely pour the goods of his cornucopia without regard for worthiness. Thus we arrive at our current plutocracy, which affords sans philosophy, sans religion, sans love, sans hope, sans charity.

“Walter and the Panhandler”
is episode 13 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)