The Ant, 1998 (transl. 2021)

The Ant is a nickname for Delia Del Carril, second of Pablo Neruda’s three wives, and the title of her biography, by Fernando Saez, translated into English by Jessica Sequeira and published by Fiction Advocate, a small alternative press producing e-books and excellent quality paperbacks. As an enthusiastic follower of Jessica Sequeira’s work, I early ordered and read The Ant and considered a long reflective review comparing Delia to Joyce’s Nora, whose fictional biography I read and reviewed back in April (Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial). There’s almost no basis for comparison. Delia was a wealthy and influential scion world’s away from poor Nora, and she would be cast aside by Pablo, her junior by two decades, for the younger Matilde. But Delia and Nora were born the same year, 1884, and both married men who grew to gigantic proportion in the country of books. Both were dedicated to and sacrificed for their husbands, who, it might be argued, scarcely deserved their affection. But that is love. That Pablo was no saint should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his poetry or his Memoirs. Likewise, Joyce was no saint, at least not one likely to be canonized in the eyes of Holy Mother Church. Yet both Pablo and Joyce seemed to possess boundless capabilities (some might say disabilities) for love and love’s expressions. Time is the great canceller of the postage stamp that is literature. “Neruda participated in a bohemia of bars and poverty” (86) – places from where Joyce also drew a good amount of inspiration. “Could there have been two people any more different [than Pablo and The Ant]? It’s difficult and risky to explain the origins of an interest, the unthinkable reasons that bring a couple together and make love possible. The mystery of why him, and why her, can lead to a number of questions without answer, in which there is surely more absurdity than logic” (89). “More absurdity than logic” – how’s that for a definition of literature? But don’t we go to literature to find the logic that might displace the absurdity of our lives? In any case, apart from the absurdity of the love story, there are good, practical reasons for reading Saez’s The Ant: to further our understanding and appreciation of 20th Century thought and expression; for an inside view of the history of politics, art, economics, and the geography of Chile and Argentina; and it details the ins and outs of the lives of artists and the families and friends they choose to live and correspond with. It’s possible that Delia and Nora might have met one another. They may have both been in Paris at the same time, where circles of expatriates, artists, and bohemians of both wealth and poverty often overlapped. If they did meet, would they have recognized one another? What would their talk have been about?

“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:


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.

Jessica Sequeira’s “A Luminous History of the Palm”

“As I sit under the lamplights, I feel happy, I laugh, I talk to myself, I talk to the books. I talk to the trees, and in my mind the palms form a swaying jungle of stories” (57).

So ends Jessica Sequeira’s beautiful book, “A Luminous History of the Palm” (Sublunary Editions, 2020), twenty-four short stories in which the author “imagine[s herself] in other lives” (1). The stories range from around 500 to 2,000 words, and are organized in triplets, set off by short notes that illuminate the form of the work; for example,

“To be luminous is not the same as to be enlightened. Enlightenment comes from the outside and implies progress. To be luminous is to generate affections and affiliations from the heart, belly and bowels of a situation in time, and form part of an organic system that is possibly infinite. It is to avoid abstraction, at least at the start, to prefer the concrete and sensual, the soft light forged by the bodies of stories as they crush together in violence or embrace” (29).

The concept, of occupying different characters over time, works using the human tool of empathy. What is known? What can be known, and how? How does one get to know? Where and how does the engine of cognition get started? This is not appropriation. It is a sharing of thought and experience. As argument, it is pathos, grounded in the emotional with passion. The reader becomes detached from any kind of narcissistic rendering, from identifying with, relating to, finding relevance to one’s own life. One disappears into another. One’s own interests are subsumed by history, and what emerges are anthropological vignettes, finds.

The vocabulary is exquisite: “Chinoisierie”; “crassulas, euphorbias, stapelias and aloes.” The words used in each piece form a brilliant cover, the style fitted to the personality of the character: a “Healer, [from] Yemen”; a “Housewife, [from] New Zealand”; a “Surfer, [from] California” – and that surfer dispels and defies stereotype to get to the heart of the new and original. The vocabulary is natural to the character. “I’ve got my shortboard, bright orange, and a new haircut.” That new hairdo – foreshadows a surprising identity, personality, transfixed and transposed by expectations and breaking away from the confines of one’s predicament.

“We get through the book in about an hour, silently noting its patterns” (53). But why hurry? The Sublunary Editions copy is professionally bound, recognizable as a series, and “A Sublunary Object,” a form that enshrines the short work in a book the reader will want to keep and save and, most importantly, reread and share.

I love the kind of writing found in “A Luminous History of the Palm.” The design, the ideas, the language, the brevity, the characters, the places and descriptions, how easily they seem to change, the reader entering a new land, country, weather. And the book is encyclopedic, the way Borges can be, and full of mystery, the way Lispector wrote – brief, compressed. As each story opens, the reader feels a kind of petrichor of a particular place and time and the close smell of a person suddenly near and unexpected. The palm trees spread and growing throughout the book are also very cool.

A Luminous History of the Palm, by Jessica Sequeira, 2020, Sublunary Editions, Seattle, WA,

Photo: Lisa at Refugio, 1976, Joe Linker.

Paintings and Poems: City on a Hill

“You are the light
of the world.
A city
set upon a hill
cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).

Not to mention something you’ve put up online. What’s posted online can’t be deleted or hidden. That is the poet’s dilemma, who craves publication but still has changes, or will have. But that is only a matter or problem of print. Oral poetry, or song, allows, invites, indeed wants variations. Covers. Over time, cities get covered up. The earth rises, and falls.

I assumed the Queen Mob’s Teahouse poetry editor position back in April, taking over from Erik Kennedy, Queen Mob’s second poetry editor, from May, 2015, who followed Laura A. Warman. The gig is volunteer work, of course, as befits any true poetic enterprise.

I first put up, on April 19, three poems by Jax NTP. It was then the idea came to me to use my own paintings as the header images over the poet’s work. I was struck by Jax NTP’s atmospheric, impressionistic poetry. The poems are packed with energetic images changing with the speed of “Highway 61 Revisited”:

“there’s a giant temple on hazard and new hope street
blue reptile and green mazing skeletons, keepers of time
how long can you sit there with the pain before you try to fix it?”

from “how to pivot when you’re paralyzed,” by Jax NTP

And I had just finished a painting, the impressions of which, the symbols within, the colors, the shapes, I thought might complement Jax NTP’s poetry. I don’t mean to suggest any of the paintings necessarily align with the poetry in any literal way. In any case, I continued to look for images within my collection of painting pic selfies for complementary impressions.

Reading and reflecting on Jessica Sequeira’s poems, and later looking for a painting to go with the posting on QMT, I again felt the suggestion with impressions that seems the essence of poetry, particularly of poetical delight:

“The heavens have promised rain for so many days.
I think of waiting for torrents from the white sky.
But it might be a long time. Or this could be a dream.
Taking your hand, I guide it below, to my cloud.”

from “Eastern Variations, style of Ikkyū Sōjun,” by Jessica Sequeira

I selected for Jessica’s poems a painting from last year, “City on a Hill,” a large painting that had taken some time to complete. Again, the setting of the poems and the painting seemed harmonious:

“lakes shine like mirrors
reflecting tall mountains

rainfalls are unpredictable
innocent changes in the divine mood

birds sing into great holy spaces
the wind whistles its reply

icy glaciers plunge towards sky
green valleys dive into earth”

from “My South,” by Jessica Sequeira

I had taken numerous pics of “City on a Hill” when a work in progress in the basement studio:

And I used an early draft of “City on a Hill” to go with Ashen Venema’s poetry:

I sit still, watch him thin the oil
and restore his long gone love
on canvas, standing in
as the young skin
by the window, sunlit among
lilies, fresh cut, and Persian rugs
casually flung across seats.

from “My Painter,” by Ashen Venema

Well, the setting of Ashen’s “My Painter,” “sunlit among / lilies,” doesn’t quite align with the basement studio, though things are there too “casually flung.”

All my paintings I eventually give away, to family, friends, colleagues, who show an interest and enthusiasm. “City on a Hill” is hanging in my daughter’s den, looking out upon the backyard. The light in the room is perfect. I just want or hope the paintings have a life outside my basement, where, as Ashen puts it in “My Painter”:

“A blaze of light rims his white hair
from under his thick swirl of brows
black humour hides, and surprise”

After all the work on a painting, which isn’t really work, of course, but play, like the work of much poetry, we just might find a true work of art in what we’ve mostly ignored, in the mess we left behind. That tablecloth, for example, now that’s a work of art!

Fourth Notes: AWP19, Berfrois10

That title isn’t meant to sound like a sports score. The 19th annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention (AWP19) coincides with the 10th anniversary of the online site Berfrois, celebrated these last ten years for its “Literature, Ideas, and Tea.” Berfrois will be at the AWP convention with copies of its recently published books: “Berfrois: The Book,” and “Queen Mob’s Teahouse: Teh Book,” both published under the Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals imprint of the British publisher Dostoyevsky Wannabe.

The two hard copy books are anthologies. They include writing by various writers that have written for either Berfrois or Queen Mob’s over the years and more. But the writing in these book print anthologies is new, entirely original, previously unpublished in any form. The writing has not been seen online, nor will it be (except of course for quoted material in reviews, etc.). The books represent a new effort by Berfrois editor Russell Bennetts to engage print, a formidable challenge in this age of Ewriting and Ereading in an Eworld.


“Berfrois: The Book” opens with an interview with Eley Williams. A tone of humor amid chaos is established. There is something new about a Bennetts interview. The questions are creative and often playful and invite similar response.

A greener piccalilli, You must understand?

The greater the pucker caused by a pickle
The greater a succour becomes hot-tongue-tickled (21).

Speaking of green, author and translator Jessica Sequeira is included in “Berfrois: The Book” with “The Green Pickup: In honour of ST. ALBERTO HURTADO, lay brother of the Society of Jesus & his truck.”

As I wrote, the anecdotes of Hurtado’s story and his writings and my thoughts about him began to condense into the form of an object, the green pickup belonging to the Padre (78).

This is how I imagine an AWP book fair browser might engage with the books that will be exhibited at the Berfrois table, paging through, stopping here and there to take a closer look.

Probably some will stop at the very last piece, a short poem by Daniel Bosch, “Our Apps Demanded: after Hemingway” (387). I wonder if they will pick up on the original, published not quite a hundred years ago.

Imagine a hundred years of Berfrois, of AWP, and you begin to realize the importance of such things to our times and places and persons. Now think of a hundred years without them, a world barren of literary enterprise of any kind.

berfrois tote bag and Seattle Mariners 1977 baseball cap

This is the fourth in a series with notes on AWP19 and the concurrent publication of the Berfrois and QM’sT books. I’m reading through the Berfrois anthologies this week and commenting on the writing and the conference as the week wears on.

The Fall is into Technology: Notes with Index and Keywords for “Other Paradises,” Essays by Jessica Sequeira

“How to be silent….The fall is into language” (Love’s Body, Norman O. Brown, 256:257).

Is language a technology?

“Henri Bergson, the French Philosopher, lived and wrote in a tradition of thought in which it was and is considered that language is a human technology that has impaired and diminished the values of the collective unconscious. It is the extension of man in speech that enables the intellect to detach itself from the vastly wider reality. Without language, Bergson suggests, human intelligence would have remained totally involved in the objects of its attention. Language does for intelligence what the wheel does for the feet and body. It enables them to move from thing to thing with greater ease and speed and ever less involvement. Language extends and amplifies man but it also divides his faculties. His collective consciousness or intuitive awareness is diminished by this technical extension of consciousness that is speech” (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 83).

The fall is into technology.

Jessica Sequeira understands silence, and silence, the language of the ghost, is a necessary part of conversations and connections. “Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age” (Zero Books, 2018) collects essays Sequeira previously placed in various online venues, including Berfrois, Drunken Boat, Entropy, Gauss PDF, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, The Missing Slate, and 3:AM. The collected essays in hardcopy creates a reading emergence opportunity, where the whole is unpredicted by any one of the individual parts. Fragments are conjoined, scholastic and playful, connections clarified and augmented, and an original style, a way of being within the writing, emerges.

When I think of technology, of thinking about technology, I recall Norman O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, R. Buckminster Fuller, and John Cage. In “Other Paradises,” Jessica mentions none of them. Yet she asks, “Why do people deliberately choose to play with ideas considered antiquated?” (Other Paradises, 1). Both O. Brown and McLuhan made startling discoveries rereading old texts and discovering or inventing new interpretations applicable to contemporary concerns.

Jessica begins with the fax machine (from a far different generation, I might have begun with the mimeograph machine). The fax machine requires sender and receiver, at odd ends. The confirmation “fax received” in no way implies fax read. So much for inference.

Melville’s Bartleby was a scrivener. Prior to that, he had worked at the dead letter office. A scrivener was a human copy machine. Bartleby works (and lives, as it turns out) in a law office, where his job is to handwrite copies of documents and proofread them aloud with the other scriveners. Bartleby winds up in the yard at the New York Tombs, where he “prefers not” to go on living, let alone copying. Bartleby’s ghost haunts today’s every copy and paste. Unlike the Sacramento writer William T. Vollman (who wrote his first book nights hunkered under an office desk in the insurance firm he worked at), Bartleby has nothing original to say, or maybe he does, but he “prefers not” to say it. Enter Kinko, University of Santa Barbara, I’ll bring the technology to ya, on the sidewalk, a copy food cart.

Inherited technology. Ibsen’s Ghosts. Oswald has inherited syphilis from his promiscuous father, now dead, the technology of euthanasia now Oswald’s only hope.

“Every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization” (McLuhan, Guttenberg Galaxy, 187). McLuhan quotes from Curt Buhler’s “The Fifteenth Century Book: the Scribes; the Printers; the Decorators”: “What, then, became of the book-scribes? What happened to the various categories of writers of literary works, who practiced their trade prior to 1450, once the printing press was established?” (187).

Every technology absorbed and relied upon without adequate disaster plans creates potential detrimental reliance. We rely on the technology to our detriment once we abandon what we now perceive to be an antiquated technology. McLuhan considered technologies extensions of one of the five senses: eyeglasses extensions of the eyes, clothes extensions of the skin, etc. The computer was an extension of the central nervous system. Sequeira proposes that the abandoned technologies inhabit as ghosts the new machines.

The fall is into detrimental reliance. We want to get back to Paradise, any paradise will do, but we’ve lost the instructions, the skills, the magic prescriptions.

The Paradise, the one we apparently lost a long time ago, was probably a mosaic. It was not linear; it was not lineal; it was not literary. It was not sequential. It did not follow MLA, APA, or any other prescriptive styles. It was not an argument. There were no statements about which there would certainly be some disagreement. It was, in short, a paradise. But that’s not to say nights in paradise were not separate from days, not to say there were not ghosts (of angels, of devils), or that we were not part of a great food chain on land and at sea. I wrote a poem awhile back, which illustrates:

Cadmean Victory

They do not want for something to say
They run around and play all day
Syllabicating back and forth
No one asks what another is worth

At night they climb trees to sleep
They dream of mouths of lips and teeth
And breath of a land where speech
Is silly and fluid and free

Having no bowels they don’t see
The lithe ape thinking in a tree
Who would trap them in a man
And call himself can

So what and where are these “Other Paradises” Jessica Sequeira takes us to? How do we get there? I wasn’t long into her book when I wished for an index of some kind. An index would collect the extensive reading list now scattered throughout the text. “Other Paradises” is a mosaic, another reason McLuhan and O. Brown come to mind, and full of anecdotes and stories, and packed with references, but each essay contains a structure and harmony that informs the whole work (as does the work of Fuller). And all of that reminded me of John Cage, whose work is littered with anecdote, references, and playful asides. And an index would give some insight into the breadth of Sequeira’s reading, research, and interview experience, and it would illustrate how “Other Paradises” is a rich resource work. And, well, I wanted an index. Here following then, as introduction and review of Jessica’s new book, is a kind of index (a page number follows each entry, usually just the first reference, though many appear only once, and I’ve not listed them all):

Annotated Index to Jessica Sequeira’s “Other Paradises”

  1. David Hockney: 1. Foreshadows California. With Pacific Ocean beaches easy drives away, still, backyard swimming pools are popular, or a Hockney print of a swimming pool, which is almost the same thing, since the pools are usually empty, anyway.


  1. Lafcadio Hearn: 5, 9. “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.” The ghost, or the idea of ghosts, is a keyword throughout “Other Paradises.” Says Sequeira, “Ghosts are everywhere, busy laughing, crying, loving, plotting, dancing and sleeping just like humans….Technology left behind takes on a phantom presence” 6.


  1. Bancho Sarayashiki: 6. Some spirits are restless, for one reason or another.


  1. Fukagawa Hidetoshi and Tony Rothman: 7. “Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry.” Sequeira is interested in forms, shapes, lines that intersect, cross. Her essays assume geometrical shapes that can be described as poetic.


  1. “Japanese temple geometry problems: Sangaku” (Charles Babbage Research Centre), 7.


  1. Charles Babbage: 7-10. “Passages in the Life of a Philosopher.”


  1. Ada Lovelace: 8, 12.


  1. Commodore Matthew Perry: 10.


  1. Hank Mobley: 11. “Soul Station.”


  1. Banana Yoshimoto: 12. I read Banana’s novel “Kitchen” some years ago. Though it takes place in Japan, it contains a wonderful reference to Disneyland. I don’t know why I remember this. I’m not sure I do, accurately. I can’t remember if Banana had been to Disneyland, and it had made an impression upon her, or if one of her characters had gone there, or wanted to go there. I browsed quickly through “Kitchen” just now looking for Disneyland. I found only one small reference, to the Jungle Cruise.


  1. Musil: 13, 21.


  1. J. Gordon Faylor: 13, 20. “Registration Caspar.” I’m not sure about so-called “conceptual writing.” Words are like the seven daughters of Eve, each containing a mitochondrial genome.


  1. Kathy Acker and Tan Lin: 15.


  1. Beckett: 15, 17.


  1. Dante, Beatrice: 15.


  1. Wittgenstein: 15.


  1. Franco Moretti: 16.


  1. Proust: 17, 88. Must one go out?


  1. Martin Ramirez: 19.


  1. Jess Collins: 19. “Narkissos” (a large drawing). I was happy to see this section on Collins, references to the Beats and San Francisco. The Beats brought poetry back to earth (after which Bukowski ran it into the ground).


  1. George MacDonald, Pythagoras, Goethe, Joyce, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Jack Spicer, James Broughton: 19-20.


  1. King Ubu Gallery: 19.


  1. Manhattan Project: 19. Where Jess Collins had worked for a time. He apparently exchanged plutonium for poetry.


  1. Robert Duncan: 22. Poem, “Just Seeing.” Duncan lived with Collins. Missing from the conversation is Charles Olson.


  1. “The Macabre Trunk”: 1936 Mexican film, 24.


  1. Richard Lower: 26. “Tractatus de code item de motu et colore sanguinis.” Title apparently does not tell all.


  1. Mark Zuckerberg: 26.


  1. “Teche” (dance song): 27. An original song by Jessica: “Bad-a-bing-be-boom-ba!”.


  1. Schrodinger’s Cat: 28.


  1. Pascal: 29.


  1. Liliana Colanzi: 34. “Our Dead World.”


  1. Edmundo Paz Soldan: 35.


  1. Roberto Bolano, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Philip K. Dick: 35.


  1. Juan Terranova: 35. “The Flesh.”


  1. Alison Spedding: 36-38. “Wachu Wachu”; “Cultivation of coca and identity in the Yungas of La Paz”; “Kausachun-Coca”; “Manuel and Fortunato”; “The Wind in the Mountain Range”; “Saturnia from time to time.”


  1. King’s College: 37. A lovely, lyrical description on page 41. Sir John Wastell, 43.


  1. “Downtown Abbey”: 37.


  1. Alexander the Great: 37. And introducing Alexandra the Great.


  1. Gaganendranath Tagore: 48.


  1. Partha Matter: 48.


  1. Henri Bergson: 49. Book on Laughter.


  1. Whistler: 50.


  1. “Resurrection”: 50. Painting.


  1. George Meredith: 52.


  1. Gonul Akkar: 54. “Silemezler Gonlumden,” pop song.


  1. Zeynep Karagoz: 54. (Maker).


  1. Zbigniew Herbert: 58. “The Bitter Smell of Tulips” in “Still Life with a Bridle.”


  1. The Flying Pigeon: 61.


  1. Chloe Aridjis: 61-63. “Topographia de lo insolito” (Robert-Houdin); “The Child Poet,” “Book of Clouds,” “Assunder.”


  1. Mary Richardson: 69. “Rokeby Venus.”


  1. Leonora Carrington: 70. “The Oral Lady,” “The Hearing Trumpet.”


  1. Arthur Eddington: 75. “Science and the Unseen World.”


  1. Richard Pearse: 75.


  1. Talleyrand: 78.


  1. Olivia Caramello: 80.


  1. Louis-Eustache Audot: 84. “La Cuisiniere de la Campagne et de la Ville, ou nouvelle cuisine economique” (recipes).


  1. Jean Lorrain: 85. “Monsieur de Bougrelon.”


  1. Willem Claeszoon Heda: 87. “Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie” (painting, 1631).


  1. Svetlana Alpers: 90. “The Art of Describing.”


  1. Eva Richter: 90.


  1. Barbara Payton: 91. “I Am Not Ashamed.”


  1. Henri Roorda: 91. “My Suicide.”


  1. “Spontaneity: A History in 12 Volumes”: 92.


  1. Billy Caryll and Hilda Mundy: 94. “Scenes of Domestic Bliss” (radio sketch, 1934). The Hilda Mundy here is the performer, not the Bolivian poet. This section of “Other Paradises” is laugh out loud funny.


  1. Laura Villanueva Rocabado: 96. The Bolivian writer whose best known pen name is “Hilda Mundy” (see note 64, above). Jessica unravels the connection between the performer and the poet. Mundy’s “Pirotecnia,” page 98.


  1. “Bambolla bambolla”: Hilda Mundy’s journalism, 96. Phrase < Gongora, 97. Sequeira translates “Bambolla bambolla” as “look at me look at me,” a kind of ostentatious selfie.


  1. “Dum Dum”: 96.


  1. Brenda Lee: 97.


  1. La Mariposa Mundial: 96. Mano maravillosas: 97. Pagina Siete: 97 (Rocio Zavala Virreira). Jessica quotes Virreira who says that, “to speak of Hilda Mundy is to leave the path, change direction, try out new things. It is to think not in terms of books, but magazines. Not complete sets, but clippings or incomplete collections” 97. Something like that might be said of Jessica Sequeira’s work.


  1. “Impresiones de la Guerra del Chaco”: 98. Hilda Mundy text (“journalistic poetry”).


  1. “Decision”: 103. Poem by Jessica Sequeira.


  1. Srini Vasa Ramanujan: 104.


  1. Duchamp: 104.


  1. Carlos Fonseca, “Colonel Lagrimas,” 104. Sequeira quotes an interesting section from Fonseca’s text: “At one point, the colonel writes a postcard to his character Maximiliano: You know, Maximiliano, that this Ronald Reagan, man of a thousand facets and a dapper walk, illustrious president of the United States, had the most interesting job before he found success as an actor: he was an announcer for American football games. The strange thing, the magnificent thing, Maximilian – and here is the point of this anecdote – is that this future president didn’t watch what he was narrating: he simply received bits of information, strung like rosary beads, whose whole he never saw, loose bits of information about a spectacle he didn’t see, but whose tone he imagined in a kind of blind broadcasting. Our project is a bit like that. Broadcasting for an age without witnesses, a kind of blind narration of this dance of crazies. So, learn to tell without seeing, ”107. I wondered what McLuhan might have made of “learn to tell without seeing.” McLuhan thought with the advent of text we exchanged an ear for an eye. Hearing would have been the paramount sense in paradise, not seeing. Sight has come to dominate the senses, according to McLuhan, because of print, another example of detrimental reliance. But for Sequeria, the interest in the quote has to do with connections. She writes: “An obvious displacement exists everywhere, between mind and behavior, event and interpretation, fact and memory.” Just so, McLuhan said football was a more intuitive sport for television than baseball, more mosaic, less specialized. Television, it’s mosaic screen full of dots of which we only see a few and fill in for the rest, can not cover the specialized positions of baseball all at once. That all-at-once-ness becomes the value (what we want, even if what we want is not good for us) of social media programs. Baseball is a game of continuous lines, football of fragments. And learning without seeing is having the text before us, the illuminated manuscript – what is it that is illumined? The reader of “Other Paradises” may feel a bit like the narrator of a blind broadcast.


  1. Ricardo Piglia: 110.


  1. Horizontal: 110.


  1. Borges. His ghost is everywhere.


  1. Gabriel Josipovici: 112.


  1. J. L. Austin: 113.


  1. Christopher Priest: 114. “The Inverted World.”


  1. Rion Amilcar Scott, “Insurrections,” 116. “Satire doesn’t just mean ‘being funny’; it’s an existential mode that allows one to take on both joyful and painful subjects from inventive, oblique angles, allowing one to make almost anything one’s subject with good humor, precision and grace” says Sequeira, page 116. Scott is the satire editor at Queen Mob’s Tea House. When I was an English teacher, I was struck by how often my adult learners were slow to pick up on or were offended by satire. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was occasionally even taken literally. That is the power of the authority of text, as McLuhan explained, and it’s why “fake news” is so prevalent today. “Oh. Irony. See, we don’t get that here. We haven’t had any irony up here since ’83, when I was the only practitioner of it. I stopped doing it because I was tired of being stared at” (Steve Martin’s character, C. D., in the film “Roxanne”).


  1. Maggie Nelson, “Bluets,” 122.


  1. Janice Lee, “essays,” 122. Lee, the founder of the on-line “Entropy.” Says Sequeira of Lee’s essays: “…it’s the accumulated effect of phrases that’s of value here, not any individual quote.” The same might be said of the accumulated effect of my footnotes to “Other Paradises.”


  1. Fernando Diez Medina, 127.


  1. Roberto Prudencio Romecin, 127; “On books and authors,” 128.


  1. Jaime Saenz, 128. (Yes, I know, my format has changed. I got tired of the extra effort required of typing a colon where a comma will do. Consistency is another detrimental reliance phenom resulting from the printing press.)


  1. Sequeira is a reader and advocate for Bolivian poetry: Monica Velasquez Guzman; Oscar Cerruto; Edmundo Camargo; Raul Otero Reiche; Blanca Wiethuchter; Humberto Quino; Emma Villazon; Julio Barriga; Hilda Mundy; Edmundo Paz Soldan; Liliana Colanzi; Paola Senseve; Sergio Gareca; Pedro Shimose: 129-131. Says Sequeira: “Bolivia is an increasingly prosperous country with a growing middle class, widespread Internet connection even in the tiniest pueblos, and a population of educated and mobile young people with academic scholarships and international travel experiences. Traditional geographical and ethnic distinctions have begun to blur. A writer may fill page after page alone in her room, then take that notebook to a bar for a reading, one she will perhaps repeat later on in New York, Santiago, or Moscow. Perhaps – is this just a fantasy? – the poets of Bolivia form one small part of a world wide movement in which nations as we know them disappear, along with progressive ‘developmentalist’ thinking, to leave only the pure flow of cash, art and ideas,” 134. McLuhan did not think it fantasy. According to McLuhan, the printing press was responsible for nationalism, boundaries, margins, and the marginal man. But we may have to let go of text to realize the “blur.” We must wander (essay, assay) outside the margins, off the page.


  1. Pierre Bonnard, 134.


  1. Walter Benjamin, 139.


  1. David Winters, “Infinite Fictions,” 139.


  1. Escher, “Belvedere,” 1958 print, 139.


  1. Goethe, 135.


I will now add a list of “keywords” or short phrases I noted as particularly relevant to “Other Paradises,” and end with a few quotes:

Keywords to “Other Paradises” (in no particular order, but arranged as a mosaic):

arcadia, disappearing, antiquated machines, ghosts, slowness, loss of use, machine, prose, lyrical, satire, UFO’s, damage, violence, fiction, narrator, suburb (132), language as technology (113), questions and questioning (throughout), reading list (113), Snakes and Ladders, theory, comedy (53), Los Angeles, disconnectednesses, poetry, past, social realism, symbol, pop, irony, whimsical, play, playful, invention, language, food, text as horizontal ladder, paintings, hand (54-55), style example (56), sentence structure (shadow play), joke (57), tulip (58), modesty (58), guild, basic needs (59), writing like a lathe (59), a good example of Sequeira’s overall writing process (60), transitions (as unit of composition), interstices, intersections, interruptions, parentheticals, technique (62), first robot (61), Chloe Aridjis interview (61-64), defamiliarization (64), notebook (65), French poets (67), “eyes darting back and forth” (68) – this reminded me of Vonnegut’s Bokononism, technology (72), fragmented, linear (79), Mulberry flag (82), cherry jam (84), preserve, preservation, save, value, paradise of decay (92-3), ostentation (102), observing, questions (104), impossible connections (105), “seemingly disparate concepts, link (108), intelligence (109), reading, utopian, political action (110), metafiction (111), emergence lit (112), reading list (113), non-linear (113), magic (114), theory of everything (115 – but no mention of Lisi), hills, goodness, Highway 1 (19), language as technology, change, literature, words (113).

And here is something Sequeira says on page 71 I made note of because I think it speaks to her writing as well as Carrington’s 92-year-old woman: “Curious and open-minded, with a sense of humor, she can get away with being a little bit crazy, connecting everyday things in odd ways, and discovering the weird links and hidden situational puns fusing different tectonic plates of experience.”

“At what point does a multiplication of anecdotes transform into the unified vision of a book?” (112). Or of a book review, for that matter?

Another quote where Jessica could be talking about her own work: “…a means of creating a fictional life for oneself that is whimsical yet self-interrogating, sustaining argument but with soul breathed into it through humor and a healthy does of silliness” (122).

“What it’s about is an attitude, the creation of an atmosphere” (125).

“But recurring to lines of narrative history to ‘explain’ a style often has little to do with the way actual poets write” (128).

“Thinking in lateral, non-positivist, indirect ways, one can begin to engage with the ghosts of an occasion, starting with its imagined resonances and effects. Even as one enjoys the present, one can remain attuned to traces and echoes, histories and premonitions” (139).

Sequeira, Jessica. Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age. Zero Books. 2018.











Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster”

20180916_100653I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.

I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:

“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”

Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:

“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”

That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.

There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?

Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.

All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.

A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.

“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).

The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.

Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).

“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.

Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”

Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “Rhombus and Oval”

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.

Some Readings

Course of Mirrors (Ashen Venema); Beer in the Snooker Club (Waguih Ghali); Southeaster (Haroldo Conti); Envoy and Ward’s Fool (Caleb Crain)

I was cured a couple of years ago of making unsolicited reading recommendations. Having pushed a couple of suggestions into the hands of a suspecting neighbor, who initially faked appreciation but later made me realize he despised being told what to read, I decided to relax into my own reading and leave well enough alone when it came to the reading or non-reading of others.

I remind myself there are books I once loved and re-loved I’ve since dropped into the free library share box on the corner, always full of suggestions of what we might read. Likewise, there are books I once started reading but could not “get into,” as the old reading saying goes, but on a later look did fall incomprehensibly in love with, which is to say reading is not always placed before, but sometimes after. Before or after what? Something draws us to a text – what? why?

In any case, I’ve decided to talk a bit of some recent readings. A book review, mind you, is not the same as a book recommendation, nor is it the same as a kind of what “I’vebeenreadinglately.” Nick Hornby used to write a monthly column for the Believer magazine called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading.” At the top of each column he listed “books read,” followed by “books bought” [during the month], discussion following that may or may not cover all the books read in any kind of traditional review. It was a personal reading column. I enjoyed it, and always went to it first, to see what was there, even if I but rarely followed up with reading the books myself. The lists may or may not have matched, usually did not match exactly. Also in the Believer, Greil Marcus contributed a monthly column called “Real Life Rock Top Ten,” a personal Billboard of his monthly music experience, a perfect column, a ten paragraph countdown full of Greil’s unique style where Edmund Wilson takes over “At the Movies,” talking about popular music not as sub-culture but as the culture, which means it can be read into, in to, too. I don’t know if Hornby and Marcus are still writing for the Believer, my subscription of a few years having been let lapse. It now appears the old Believer, out of San Francisco, is giving way to a new life at Black Mountain Institute at UNLV.

My reading experience with Ashen Venema’s “Course of Mirrors,” a book of contemporary mythical fantasy, a coming of age story, a memoir disguised in allegory, was enjoyable. Sometimes, a reader must let go and simply read what’s there and stop underlining and marking up the text with marginal notes as if he too were going to write something brilliant in the Believer. That is called reading for enjoyment. I remember reading somewhere Harold Bloom saying he never underlined or marked up a book, he remembered everything, he “internalized” the text as he read it. I have to read up and down, back and forth, settle in and settle up, spend time in the dictionary, if not in the loo.

Maybe readers enjoy books most they discover on their own. Lists, which can be useful, lead to argument. Rely on the list in that link, for example, and you’ll miss Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac. There are lists and anti-lists, counter canons, counter intuitive lists. Good reading is often subversive to one’s own assumptions and preconceptions.

Youssef Rakha recently mentioned (in a tweet or at The Sultan’s Seal – I can’t find the reference now) “Beer in the Snooker Club,” which I bought and read. It’s a coming of age story of a mid-century Egyptian who is impoverished by the privilege he’s born into. It’s about identity, alienation, love, and the economic and intellectual frustration of compromise amid what Thoreau called in a different time and place the “quiet desperation” of the lives most men lead. It’s both heavy and light. The setting is Egypt and England around the time of the Suez Crisis. The first person narration is witty and sharp, literary and sarcastic, self-aware and penetrating. The characters are real, the events depicted clearly and with a detached empathy that brings world events close to home and headlines into one’s mailbox. The narration employs styles that mimic without becoming parody – the Hemingway set piece, for example. You see it coming, realize you’re there, but in case you missed it, are given his name. It’s a great book. I’m glad to have read it, and I’m going to turn around and read it again.

“Southeaster” I first heard about at the Boston Review, where Jessica Sequeira gave a thorough discussion of the book, its setting, author, and times, and with a focus on the translator, Jon Lindsay Miles, including an interview. I might be one of the North American readers Jessica refers to, though I read “Southeaster” not as exotic literature, although I did think of “The Old Man and the Sea” in more than one place, but also I thought of Steinbeck, but I read “Southeaster” as an old surfer might, aficionado of water flow, enjoying the very similar way of being on the water, though not, given the crowds these days, as solitary an experience as Haroldo Conti’s river. This book sat in a stack for over a year before I finally gave it a proper reading.

The summer issue of “The Paris Review’ arrived, with a story by Caleb Crain, “Envoy,” just a few pages, but an extraordinary narration by a first person who lies twice about his age and almost misses the epiphany of a flattery. The appearance of “Envoy” reminded me I had yet to properly finish Caleb’s story, “Ward’s Fool,” in the Winter 2017, n+1. “Ward’s Fool,” set in some non-specific future, appears to be a kind of phrase writer’s bureaucratese, until another epiphany slowly dawns across another river.

I enjoyed a beer yesterday late afternoon with a few colleagues from my past. Not fiction readers by vocation or avocation, they were nevertheless aware of my “Penina’s Letters,” and had even read the Amazon reviews, and had perhaps glanced through the “look inside” Amazon feature. I was not offended, but happy they had showed any kind of interest, shared any kind of mention. I thought of audience and occasion and the discipline of respecting both. Marketing can at times rival literature for its subversive practices. The marketing of literature might be doubly subversive.