Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “Rhombus and Oval” (117 pages), 2017, What Books Press, The Glass Table Collective, Los Angeles:
“Rhombus and oval” is the title of the lead piece in this collection of stories by Jessica Sequeira, a translator of Spanish and French and a writer. The text of twenty-one stories runs 112 pages, each story from 3 to 9 pages long. They are fictional short stories.
What is a fictional short story, and why write or read one? “I used to work at a translation agency,” we learn from the narrator of “A journey that leaves no trace.” We should not confuse the author of a work with the narrator of a work, but toward the end of this second story in the collection, we hear, “I was tired of being a medium, of having words pass through me. Now I wanted to create.”
Fifteen of the twenty-one stories were previously published in small magazines. “In the rose garden” appears in Hawansuyo under the title “In the Rose Garden: A Tale of Researching Ribeyro,” and the story concludes with an interview conducted by Jessica Sequeira with the Peruvian writer Jorge Coaguila, a specialist of Ribeyro. The piece was published in the book Sounds and Colours Peru. The story provides a clear glimpse of Sequeira’s style, where genre expectations might be mixed together to form new perspectives. Other stories in Sequeira’s collection appeared in Berfrois, Glasgow Review of Books, Queen Mobs Teahouse, and Entropy.
For a long time, The New Yorker magazine opened, after “The Talk of the Town” section, with a fictional short story or two. I used to read them. I remember looking forward to seeing a new Donald Barthelme story. The May 24, 1969 issue featured his “At the Tolstoy Museum” (including odd pics, drawings, and diagrams). Barthelme’s story was the lead piece, immediately following “Notes and Comment.” Following the Barthelme story was “The Corner,” a short story by John Updike. But the reader was not told these were fictional short stories. The writer was identified only at the bottom of the piece (and in the table of contents). Today’s New Yorker subscribers can access all its past issues in the magazine’s online archive. Of particular interest in older issues are the ads, which often look today like fiction, though at the time, readers may have considered them real. Today’s New Yorker short fiction piece has been moved farther back into the magazine, usually just ahead of the critics.
I’m not arguing cause and effect here, but now I spend most of my New Yorker time reading the non-fiction. I make exceptions; if I see a Roddy Doyle story I’ll read it right away. We might have learned by definition non-fiction is true and fiction imaginative, or not true, though fiction may contain truths, while non-fiction may, through errors of omission or commission, be mistaken or otherwise fallacious. Neither fiction nor non-fiction should be confused with “the news.” The New Yorker, a weekly, is not a news magazine, though some articles may comment on or analyze what’s been going on lately. A fictional short story is by definition imaginary, and any resemblance to the real disclaimed as purely coincidental, but it’s possible an unsuspecting reader might take a fictional short story as non-fiction, and a non-fiction piece as imaginary. Crossing that threshold back and forth is maybe one characteristic of how fiction works. At the time it was first broadcast, many listeners believed Orson Welles’ radio play “The War of the Worlds,” about a Martian invasion of Earth, was really happening, was real news. That the broadcast was in fact fiction made no difference to those listeners who at the time believed aliens had landed and were on the move. Today’s audiences often seem as easily duped.
Deliberate fake news is a form of fiction. Fiction, like non-fiction, is an attempt to persuade – to persuade, if nothing else, that what you are reading is in some way real and true. The more we read both fiction and non-fiction, the larger and stronger our antennae for discerning the real from the unreal. Actual news (to the degree there is such a thing) is neither fiction nor non-fiction. The news in no way should attempt to persuade. To persuade is to argue. There should be no argument in the news. Statements of fact may be used in persuasive arguments, but standing alone, these statements are not claims of viewpoint. To the degree that the news is factual, there can be no argument, no reason for any kind of persuasive means: pathos, ethos, or logos. Fiction may be considered anti-news. No promises are made, no guarantee, no warranties. Ratings are of no consequence. There are no sponsors, no ads. But why then are some books banned, others censored or abridged? Dust jackets are covered with persuasive means. Read me! Why?
We might consider reading fictional short stories part of our daily experience. We don’t need to ask what anything means. It’s enough to observe, pay attention, and go about our day. What is the experience of reading one of Jessica Sequeira’s short stories? We might find a hint of this experience when the protagonist of “Conversation outside El Pastizal” decides to satisfy an obsession by trying to get a closer view of a building complex: “…I began to make my way down the path. As I continued it seemed to grow increasingly narrow, the air increasingly thin. At some point I even found it difficult to walk. But at last I reached the end.” But instead of satisfying his curiosity, he experiences “Something you can’t fathom…a flickering presence, inexplicable, beyond the known.”
One of the characteristics of Sequeira’s stories includes densely packed paragraphs that both detail and enlarge setting and plot. In a few pages, the story expands like a bubble made of soap blown through the small hole of a wand. The bubble has a short life drifting with the breeze, soon popping into spray. Most of the stories are told in the first person, and characters appear from nowhere, around a corner, as if by random, the narrator working, on break, taking a coffee, walking, thinking, observing. An exception, “The Hypersound,” begins, “Under normal circumstances Leo never would have visited the sauna.” Something is apparently out of place, a character introduced, and a setting suggested, and we’re on our way into the story, just like that. In the story “Bouvier,” on the other hand, we hear, “I was still studying then, and in those years, the great debate carried out in journals of anthropology and at congresses concerned the value of direct experience against secondhand analysis. Bouvier, my supervisor, was firmly in the camp of those defending experience. He considered it important to be out in the field, writing as elegantly and clearly as possible, openly incorporating oneself as a first person in the description.” Sequeira strikes an interesting balance between experiential description and analysis of that experience. Almost always in the background lurks a mystery shrouded in surreal overtones. But as in the best surrealism, the details shine with clarity and control. The writing is concise and not rambling, yet each turn may surprise: “Perceptual experience is what matters, I know; with big data you still only key in searches for things you expect, predetermined coordinates. But what if perceptual experience turns up something really ‘unbelievable’, which doesn’t sync with consensus reality?” Then you might have the occasion of a fictional short story.
In “On the island,” we get another view into Sequeira’s predicament and solution: “I knew he was interested in the interaction between subject and object, the form in which a literary or artistic work can comment on itself or call attention to its conditions of production or industry.” The stories in “Rhombus and Oval” do contain dialog, but not in any sense, for example, like Henry Green’s fiction. The paragraphs are thick blocks, though aligned left and not justified, and the reading is a bit slower than the slim volume might seem to promise. The tone sounds formal, without being academic, polite, creating distance, in spite of the close first person so prevalent. The writing style is consistent throughout: clear and concise, effective and efficient, the vocabulary accessible, the sentence structure mixed, always purposeful. “What convincing words can I use?” the narrator of Bouvier asks. At the end of “Inflamed eye,” we get another glimpse into the world of the fictional short story, why it’s written and read: “Just like the mouth with red lipstick, however, it returned to him from time to time when least expected – a vision that was unsettling, out of place – a reminder that other worlds exist.” And we are reminded of the collection’s epigram: “What would it matter, what would it change if these pages were written in Buenos Aires?” In the story “Limbo,” we get this: “There must be an infinity of older felines in this world as if it were a warehouse, disappearing progressively, one by one. Right now there may also exist a Jessica in the ‘real world’ younger than me. (If not now, someday there will be.) When she reaches my age, I will disappear.”
The stories in “Rhombus and Oval” are about as short as they can be, averaging just under five pages. This might be in deference, in part, to Internet reader habits, where distractions are rife and attention spans short. In fact, these stories are probably all too long to qualify as what’s been called “flash fiction.” The length of the collection’s stories might also be a requisite to a convention, or a habit, of writing that combines notes, reflections, diary entries, conversations, things seen or read or experienced or thought on the go. “Any variation could be folded into a narrative (110).” Having read some of the stories previously online, I’m interested in how different the experience of reading them was for me in hard copy form. The experience is sort of like the difference between watching a movie on TV and seeing it in a big screen theatre. Or watching a baseball game on TV and watching it out at the ballpark. But read either way, the stories are inventive, sophisticated without being pretentious or portentous, entertaining, and interesting examples each of the form of the fictional short story, particularly its continuing popularity and possibilities.
Afternoon walk close in and find a cafe with sidewalk tables to sit out with an espresso, on watch and wait.
Wait for some light that might soon start to seep through a cracked world.
World War II and the Nazi army advances on Paris. You can hear artillery fluster the banlieues. Do you try for a train or run the roads south with distraught families or take a table on the sidewalk of some tree hidden rue (for you are on the streets where all is rue) and order an espresso and write a poem on a napkin:
And the poem on the paper tablecloth is perhaps as typical of the way Prevert got around in France in the min-Forties as it is of his poetry itself – a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.¹
When I was inducted into my Guard unit, the 140th Engineer Company, in 1969, they were still packing the M1 Garand rifle. Before firing, we learned to disassemble and reassemble the eleven part trigger housing group. The M1 was a fine weapon, as Woody Allen’s Hemingway character in “Midnight in Paris” might have said, but of course didn’t – that was Paris of the 1920s. The M1 was heavier than its successor the M14, which I was introduced to at Fort Bliss, but you fired them both like rifles, sighting in and taking aim, adjusting elevation and windage. The M16 seemed a light, plastic toy in comparison; you pointed it and sprayed. Even as a kid I was attentive and sensitive to words, but it wasn’t until Basic Combat Training that I realized the unique place nomenclature played from certain perspectives – the naming of things, the naming of parts, in particular, and how, in certain circumstances, you couldn’t simply go to a thesaurus for synonyms as variable substitutes. You had to find the real right word.
Henry Reed’s poem “The Naming of Parts,” from “Lessons of the War,” illustrates the uses of proper nomenclature, and of paying attention:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.²
Whatever you happened to be holding at Fort Bliss in the fall of that year, M1, M14, M16, the proper nomenclature called for but one word: weapon. Call it a gun, and you got down with it for 20 or 30 pushups, kissing its butt and calling out, “One, Drill Sergeant; Two, Drill Sergeant”; etc. If you dropped it, you got down with it again. If you set it aside or missed-placed it, you were accused of having a taste for self-abuse, and got down with it again.
Help Wanted: Poet – Must be good at naming things
In his November 14, 2016 Financial Page article for The New Yorker, “What’s in a Brand Name?,” a one-page gem, James Surowiecki anecdotally mentions the time Ford asked the poet Marianne Moore to come up with a name for one of its new cars. She came up with a bunch, all rejected. Sometimes, the key to naming something successfully is found in the action word sublimate. But it is called advertising. Advertisements are arguments in which attempts are made to persuade us to do something that probably won’t be good for us. So we might, for example, get Arthur Godfrey telling us what kind of cigarette is best for us. Borrowing someone’s credibility to pitch your argument is a tricky business. Scholars describe it as a means of persuasion called ethos; others may call it a slang profanity, remain unpersuaded, and know it’s best to choose your own cigarette.
“They are playing a game,” R. D. Laing opens the first knot of his Knots:
They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.³
It’s fall, and soon winter will come in, and most of the cafes locally will move their sidewalk tables and chairs indoors, and it will be harder walking and wandering to find a place to sit out with an espresso in what might remain of the afternoon light (in the Northwest, the world is also cracked, but in winter, that’s how the water gets in). A certain discomfort is a necessary good for some kinds of writing.
Over the past week or so we visited several cafes for an afternoon espresso at a sidewalk table in the waning light of fall, hoping for some inspiration from the general rue for a paper napkin poem. Alas, we got no paper napkin poems. But we got some sidewalk espresso music, and enjoyed a few clean, well-lit places, and took a few pics we offer here in lieu of napkin poems.
¹ From “Translator’s Note” (1964) Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s introduction to City Lights Books The Pocket Poets Series: Number Nine, “Selections from Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert, San Francisco, July 1958, Sixth Printing February 1968.
² Reed, Henry. “Naming of Parts.” New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92 (.pdf).
³ “Knots,” by R. D. Laing, Vintage Books edition, April 1972, page 1. Originally published by Pantheon Books in 1971.
What does it mean to “vote one’s conscience”? Isn’t the conscience that comfortable place where sleeps one’s presuppositions, unquestioned assumptions, background biases, wishes, wants, and whimsy?
James Joyce was three months old when in May of 1882 two high-level government men associated with British rule were assassinated in what came to be called the Phoenix Park murders. The resulting fallout probably delayed home rule decades, destroyed more lives and families, fed family arguments over politics for decades, was absorbed into history and myth. Charles Stewart Parnell’s career faced new challenges, and Parnell’s early death was a tragedy for Ireland.
In “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Joyce’s Stephen recalls his family arguments arising from the topic –
That was called politics. There were two sides in it: Dante was on one side and his father and Mr. Casey were on the other side but his mother and Uncle Charles were on no side. Every day there was something in the paper about it.
It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in Poetry and Rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry.
Joyce’s Stephen, in “Portrait” and again in “Ulysses,” considers himself the servant of two masters, the Church and British rule. Stephen wants nothing to do with either. That Britain has its own church separate from Ireland’s complicates issues:
— Really, Simon, you should not speak that way before Stephen. It’s not right.
— Oh, he’ll remember all this when he grows up, said Dante hotly, the language he heard against God and religion and priests in his own home.
— Let him remember too, cried Mr Casey to her from across the table, the language with which the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave. Let him remember that too when he grows up.
— Sons of bitches! cried Mr Dedalus. When he was down they turned on him to betray him and rend him like rats in a sewer. Lowlived dogs! And they look it! By Christ, they look it!
— They behaved rightly, cried Dante. They obeyed their bishops and their priests. Honour to them!
— Well, it is perfectly dreadful to say that not even for one day in the year, said Mrs Dedalus, can we be free from these dreadful disputes!
Uncle Charles raised his hands mildly and said :
— Come now, come now, come now ! Can we not have our opinions whatever they are without this bad temper and this bad language? It is too bad surely.
Mrs Dedalus spoke to Dante in a low voice but Dante said loudly:
— I will not say nothing. I will defend my church and my religion when it is insulted and spit on by renegade catholics.
Mr Casey pushed his plate rudely into the middle of the table and, resting his elbows before him, said in a hoarse voice to his host:
— Tell me, did I tell you that story about a very famous spit?
The young Steve tries to understand the arguments, the claims and evidence and reasoning. He does not name the fallacies, not yet:
Stephen looked with affection at Mr Casey’s face which stared across the table over his joined hands. He liked to sit near him at the fire, looking up at his dark fierce face. But his dark eyes were never fierce and his slow voice was good to listen to. But why was he then against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun … Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was a protestant and when she was young she knew children that used to play with protestants and the protestants used to make fun of the litany of the Blessed Virgin. Tower of Ivory, they used to say, House of Gold! How could a woman be a tower of ivory or a house of gold? Who was right then ? And he remembered the evening in the infirmary in Clongowes, the dark waters, the light at the pierhead and the moan of sorrow from the people when they had heard.
Stephen tries to understand the allegiances:
He was for Ireland and Parnell and so was his father and so was Dante too for one night at the band on the esplanade she had hit a gentleman on the head with her umbrella because he had taken off his hat when the band played God save the Queen at the end.
But all the young Steven can really understand and what seems to stick with him over the years are the tears:
At the door Dante turned round violently and shouted down the room, her cheeks flushed and quivering with rage :
— Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death! Fiend!
The door slammed behind her.
Mr Casey, freeing his arms from his holders, suddenly bowed his head on his hands with a sob of pain.
— Poor Parnell! he cried loudly. My dead king! He sobbed loudly and bitterly.
Stephen, raising his terrorstricken face, saw that his father’s eyes were full of tears.
The older Stephen decides not to join the political argument, but will devote himself to his art, his writing:
A tide began to surge beneath the calm surface of Stephen ‘s friendliness.
— This race and this country and this life produced me, he said. I shall express myself as I am.
— Try to be one of us, repeated Davin. In your heart you are an Irishman but your pride is too powerful.
— My ancestors threw off their language and took another, Stephen said. They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them. Do you fancy I am going to pay in my own life and person debts they made? What for?
— For our freedom, said Davin.
— No honourable and sincere man, said Stephen, has given up to you his life and his youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left him for another. And you invite me to be one of you. I’d see you damned first.
— They died for their ideals, Stevie, said Davin. Our day will come yet, believe me.
Stephen, following his own thought, was silent for an instant.
— The soul is born, he said vaguely, first in those moments I told you of. It has a slow and dark birth, more mysterious than the birth of the body. When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.
What W. H. Auden said
“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”
not modified in the “guts”
or on the blog:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives”
so there it is,
no one need worry.
“Encore! Encore! More! More!”
OK, ok, settle down;
this is no time for pathos, but,
“Wild nights – Wild Nights!”
Emily Dickinson reasoned,
racked with want on the windy,
open sea of her dainty,
daunting room of gloom,
and who knew better even
than the audible Auden
how poetry makes nothing
happen, again and again,
and so I give you this, this wildcalm night:
Poem for Ones
Who Know One
They See One:
Where do we get this notion
Is privacy a value,
or is privacy a virtue?
If privacy is a value,
it’s simply a worth
we want, and what we want
is not always what is good
we want alcohol,
tobacco, and firearms;
fast cars with sound
so loud we need
to tête-à-tête boxes
where we spy
on our bosses.
But is privacy a virtue,
like love, patience, for
joy of living, or courage
Abuse of surveillance
does not make a virtue
just as, as Ivan Illich
is not the same as
But getting back
we want to be seen
and heard at the party
but not in the morning
when the porcelain white
face throws up
its image in the little pond.
The poet wants to be read:
“Read me! Read me!”
But the words seem so
no way to enter
“I’m in here!”
the poet exclaims,
as if from the depths
of some Xanadu privy,
and when we hear
the roller of big cigars,
his call a private scream
behind a rude screen,
we know the poem
In public the words squirm
for privacy, wriggling
across the page
for a clear margin.
Is poetry a sturdy platform for political action? Aren’t poets the ones following rabbits down holes? Jumping into ponds to hug moons? Talking blather and twittering sentiments to one another across an inky night? Politicians often twist tongues, glossolalia filling their cheeks, but what they speak is not usually considered poetry.
“Poets for Corbyn,” another e-chapbook from Berfrois, features 21 poems by 20 poets, edited by Russell Bennetts. The poems are unified by their support for Jeremy Corbyn (1949), a member of the UK parliament and of the Labour Party, and currently standing to be Labour’s Leader. US readers might be accurate in aligning Corbyn with their own Bernie Sanders.
Mixing poetics and politics reminds me of the note Woody Guthrie taped to his guitar in 1943: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” If music and culture critic Greil Marcus is right, and the guitar is not a machine and it does not kill fascists, then poetry is not a fit medium for political activism. But why does Marcus take Woody’s note so literally? Guthrie knew the difference between figurative and literal language, but he also knew that even the white lettered on red background STOP sign is an argument, even if only occasionally a driver passes through it with some disagreement.
Maybe one of the most politically effective signifying messages in “Poets for Corbyn” is Nick Telfer’s “For the Love of God.” A concrete poem, it evokes a rally chant where we hear the single slogan “No Blair” shouted repeatedly, 21 times in a black and white grid: noblair; no noblesse – shares of rights and duties are equal.
That Woody labeled his guitar a machine is more than a nod to labor and unions. Woody was a machinist, manufacturing messages in song – in song because song is what people (as in The People) hear and respond to and remember. And song is poetry. Poetry stirs pathos, and it’s pathos that gets politicians elected, pathos that goes to war, pathos that sacrifices, pathos that bangs the drum slowly and paddles the boat and joins the march and walks down the line.
How do the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” sound? What forms are employed? What characteristics of poetry are in evidence? Are the poems difficult to understand (i.e. modern or postmodern and such)? Are the poems all polemical?
Some of the poems might be considered polemical. From Michael Rosen’s “For Jeremy Corbyn”:
“celebrating an economic system
that was developed and finessed
with the use of child labour around 1810
…they tell us that socialism is outdated.”
Some of the poems sound traditional, employing stanzas with rhyme, as in Michael Schmidt’s “Until I Built the Wall,” a kind of ballad narrative:
“Until I built the wall they did not find me
Sweet anarchy! tending quietly
To wild birds or picking the blackberry.”
Some of the poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are clear and concise, but with irony spreading like tattoos, as in Helen Ivory’s “Doll Hospital at the Top of the Hill”:
“Take her to the doll hospital;
restring the limbs with slipknots
fill the skull with lint
clean out the craze lines on her face
and paint on a 1940s smile.”
Some of the poems are painfully forthright. Reminding me of the ruined hopes of George McGovern’s 1972 US Presidential campaign, is Andy Jackson’s “Unelectable”:
“I represent the things you want but cannot say,
the ideology of why the hell not; socialism redux,
neither new nor old, not clean or compromised
but human to its heart, and that could be enough.”
Of course, in 1972, the human heart was not enough. Will it ever be enough? A heart needs a voice, as illustrated in Nicholas Murray’s “J. C.”:
“Corbyn’s no knight in shining vest,
or bright Messiah from the West
but someone who has found a way to voice
a fractured country’s need for choice,
to say we’ll make another kind of noise:
That “No way!” is a call for solidarity, expanded upon in Erik Kennedy’s (long-titled) “Growing Fears That the Leadership Contest Has Been Hijacked by Far-Left Infiltrators”:
“and if in your entire life
no-one to identify with
who wasn’t first and last
a danger to the good
through well-meaning compromise,
if you can agree to this,
resignedly but definitely,
you might be a socialist.”
The austerity buzzword is taken down by Becky Cherriman’s “Austerity”:
“Hear it scutter
along the guttering of offices
in the bins behind Waitrose,
the thorned bushes at the playground’s edge –
a language devised by the high-born
to parch the lips of those with less.”
In place of austerity, Josephine Corcoran suggests a “Coat” of hope:
“A woman filled with the gladness of living
refused to be suspicious of hope….
Deep inside the coat,
the woman held on to the goodness of people.”
And of opposing viewpoints, the kind that lead to divorce? From Erin Belieu’s “Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in An Election Year”:
“And that’s what you call the realpolitik in action
when it comes to divorce, wherein the rubber hits
the ‘blended’ family’s road. But since I’m not…
…and I’m thinking
maybe I got it right this time…
…the obstinate and beautiful mystery
that every soul ends up being to every other.”
The poems in “Poets for Corbyn” are unified by their call for solidarity in support of a purposeful cause. For that call to be successful, the politics must not be subsumed by the poetics. There is tension here, no doubt. Woody’s machined message was made to defy backstabbing political machinations. At the same time, real machines made real weapons used in a real war, and a military industrial complex prevailed. But Woody knew that, even as Marcus does. “What did you learn in school today?” Tom Paxton sang.
Over at Berfrois, readers may download for free an electronic copy of “Poets for Corbyn.” There are several covers readers may choose from; I liked the one with the blue bicycle.
“Poets for Corbyn”, edited by Russell Bennetts, Pendant Publishing, London, UK, 2015. ISBN 978-09928034-5-2. V2.0. 34 pages, with poems by Tom Pickard, Michael Rosen, Pascale Petit, Ian Birchall, Michael Schmidt, Marion McCready, Nick Telfer, Rory Waterman, Helen Ivory, Iain Galbraith, Andy Jackson, Nicholas Murray, Alec Finlay, Erik Kennedy, Ian Pindar, Becky Cherriman, Josephine Corcoran, Natalie Chin, Ernest Schonfield, and Erin Belieu. Covers by Evan Johnston @evn_johnston.
Abducted by alien cats from outer space and whisked away to a faraway planet then shot back to Earth from a circus cannon cocked with physicist rubber string theory, a cat cannonball, Scamble tries to interest Cramble in a tabloid worthy extraterrestrial tale!
Scamble: “And you have nothing to say?!”
Cramble: “Does this have something to do with my recent cloture motion?”
Scamble: “No! The cat planet is called Mkgnao!9. It’s all bushes and trees, birds and fish, and dunes of kitty litter. It’s a cat’s paradise. Everyone there is a hep cat!”
Cramble: “If all are hep, none is hep.”
Scamble: “Nonetheless, no matter what radio station you play, Mantovani! The planet is lush with the sounds of birds and strings and bugs flirting about hither and thither and streams of white wine full of fish on the lark. I’m thinking of moving to Mkgnao!9. Do you want to go with me?”
Cramble: “Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch? I’ll bet there’s a downside.”
Scamble: “Their oceans are filling with used kitty litter.”
Cramble: “Making it difficult to know how to pack. In any case, how will you get back to Mkgnao!9 if the hep space cats don’t come pick you up again?”
Scamble: “Silence, Exile, and Cunning.”
Cramble: “Here you go with that James Joyce cheap cheat imitation literary allusion stuff again. Anyway, I don’t get the connection.”
Scamble: “Joyce is the patron saint of cats up on Mkgnao!9.”
Cramble: “Lucky Jim.”
Scamble: “I’m going to write a memoir about my Mkgnao!9 experience!”
Cramble: “Sounds wild. I’ve heard the memoir form is popular these days. I was thinking of writing one, but I can’t seem to get past chapter one, “Begot to Nap.” But why don’t you create something new? Wasn’t that the gist of Joyce’s gig, to repair in the garage of his brain the broken bicycle of his island, rally the folks to a new way of riding, or words to that effect?”
Scamble: “I just did!”
Cramble: “Did what?”
Scamble: “Create something new!”
Cramble: “It’s a good thing the id is kept out of sight.”
Scamble: “Do cats have an id?”
Cramble: “Everything’s got an id, if only you can find it.”
“Aren’t you hot sitting on that heater vent?”
“Alas, summer so fast has passed.”
“Yawn. Fall curls my tail and bristles my fur. Just yesterday you were complaining of the heat and wondering if summer would never end.”
“Shelley was right: ‘We look before and after and pine for what is not.’”
“I once lived in a basement room paneled in knotty pine.”
“I’ll bet it was not when you finished with it.”
“I rebut that. The finish was sprayed shellac. I used to rub against it a good polish.”
“Why can’t cats live without argument?”
“Who says they can’t? Cite your sources if you’re going to talk to me like that.”
“An old cat’s empirical knowledge.”
“Remember that imperialist cat came into our yard?”
“Can facts suffice? Or must cats argue?”
“Argument is a fact of life, a must.”
“How does meaning behave in an argument?”
“Meaning is an alley cat on the prowl and up to no good.”
“Is every text an argument, every argument a trick, every text a test?”
“You ask a lot of hollow questions.”
“I once lived in a hollow.”
“Have you ever been back?”
“Does Theory eschew the behavior of meaning?”
“Go ask a theorist.”
“Do theorists like cats?”
“I suppose some might, but they all want to know how and why we purr.”
“Where do assumptions come from?”
“Assume I don’t know, and wake me up when winter has passed.”
“What a flock of lucky theorists who can fly south for the winter.”
“Have they anything to say to us?”
“I don’t know. Anyway, it’s too hot in the south.”
“It’s going to be too hot in here, too, if you don’t move off that heater vent.”
Torqued antipathy apparels dimple
dented funny car, idling gear limbed,
oiled, greased, and garbed
wardrobe red, beaming barbs,
wavy hair flames bursting
from the fat winged fenders
of his 1950 hot rod roadster,
and the countdown lights
go green, and the ground springs,
and the asphalt melts to sap;
meanwhile, in lane next whole daddy,
apples in juicy life dangle,
from form below pending,
suspended, the quick nap of a bee,
moistly sloping sap up elegant boughs,
up, wake up, give us blush
pale pink blossoms,
not the false fruit of an inapt poem.
Leaf springs, cracks the bark
of the dormant pome tree
pruned for Verve & Vigor.
What is called a season is the mapping of sap
around a wound,
and a poem is a funny car.
After the burled cuts, twisted,
elbow pruned shifting of gears
and squealing of red wheelbarrows,
the melting tongue wanders away,
talking to the bees from a standing start,
showing the pink slip core of reason
dash and flash in a sap sluice.
1. Build box fill with content space controls design states theme bounces against thesis walled margin defined area filled with persons places things painted drawn and quartered in actions still within lines.
2. Build tables cells macro plots instruct how to within what build city filled roads on roads place persons places things actions ruled within scheme bordered function.
3. Shape controlled text how said informed what said syllabus sawhorse lay round flat stones for flat feet map outlined argument billed old metaphor electronically melting build light to power body sun swayed body.
4. Old metaphors corrupt case cold call book disappeared in closed pit wings line empty library shelves body of fabrication strip-milled pall-mall plumbing hidden in alley walls.
5. Build statement paper small hamlet few houses number pages lines words characters define beginning finite end create punctuation to manage tasks a men an age.
6. Align build assign venture run meet-and-greet purpose audience use rows columns fixed to stage con persons places things rotate rows to columns columns to rows persons to things places to persons things to places sketch arranges profile persuades.
7. User friendly unalloyed no-frills click here look ma no hands silhouette of idea.
“Baby I wove you
Ain be mine wover too.”
“Nary time owns you
Ain me I go undo.”
“Say me try toned prude
Nay ye buy so two.”
“Wage fee I know you
Say ye sigh oh adieu.”
X thinks Y imperfect.
Y thinks X exaggerates.
X tells Y, “Why can’t you be more like me?”
Y replies, “You have no balance. You don’t know how to share. Life is a teeter-totter.”
“I’m walking down to the tavern for a beer and some darts. Want to come?” X asks.
“I think I’ll stay here and practice yodeling and yoga,” Y says.
Y Y = Light _ _ _ _ /\ = Teeter-Totter /\ _ _ _ _ X X = Heavy
There is no silence, Seneca argues in his “On Noise.” Our ears are held hostage to the confusion of random noises, the shout in the street, or the whispers of demons when we are trying to fall asleep. Our head is a house of bondage to sounds. We can not turn off the noise.
We are also bound to the noise of argument, the clashing of claims, the slashing evidences, and the war of warrants rumbling unseen like underground swells whose sounds reach the surface in shocks of recognition. Our proposals ring with self-interest. Our argument reveals what we value, where what we value is simply what we want, and where, paradoxically, what we want is not necessarily what is good for us. We ask for proof, but what is accepted as proof varies by community and shifts over time. We are like Doubting Thomas, led by our cultured incredulity to insist on touching the wounds, because we are afraid of metaphor, but that’s all we have – language is metaphor, no matter how cleverly we disguise it in objective, disciplined prose. We fear it because metaphor is magic: “This [bread] is my body.”
To argue or not to argue, that is always the question, for walking away in hope for peace in silence and solitude we run into Hamlet’s wall, for we can enjoy the infinite space of a nutshell only if that space is not full of our own personal nightmares.
All of life appears to be a single, linked argument, and argument is noise. We can’t turn it off, or even down, but even if we could, we ignore argument at our own peril, to our own detriment. But to listen to it 7×24 is deafening, where deafness isn’t the absence of sound, but sound’s surfeit, a flood of noise that crests the wall of reason.
We turn to the experts for advice. Passionless, but full of fraternal ethos, the academics put forth their peer-reviewed journals, works cited, but the syllabus is the argument in the marketplace, the rubric their evidence, and the classroom their warrant. We pick our topic as if choosing a weapon, and begin our argument with an either or fallacy. The either or fallacy is the sergeant-at-arms in our contemporary house of sound-bondage: you are conservative, proceed to room 108, where you will find your beliefs folded nicely in the bureau drawers; you are liberal, your stuff is stacked neatly in room 209. Safely in our academic room for the night, we are lulled by a false sense of security, but we can’t get to sleep, for we can’t avoid the first person.
We were told not to use the first person, and in that way we could escape our impressionistic impulses, but “This is incorrect,” Seneca says. “There is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has been lulled to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.”
A sudden pause as I’m reading Seneca’s “On Noise.” Was that a pun, that “sound mind”? For it expresses the point I am trying to make exactly. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” John Cage said in his “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937). But Cage was never bothered by the noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”
So to, our reading and listening of arguments: when we ignore the argument, we find it annoying, but listening to it carefully, we find that silence is denotative, noise connotative. One can easily imagine Cage living over Seneca’s bathhouse. In “Experimental Music” (1957), Cage suggests we should pay more attention to those arguments we did not intend: “…those who have accepted the sounds they do not intend – now realize that the score, the requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness, is not an accurate representation of how things are.” Ah, yes, for if we can’t accurately describe how things are, we can’t move on to how things should be.