My friend John Jantunen launched his new book last night, a novel called Cipher, well worth a read, and there were quite a few people there to celebrate with him.  I was particularly enjoying myself, because I had no responsibilities for the event, so I could just have a couple $2 pints and chat with the other guests.

At one point I had a chance to talk at length with an established publisher who was kind enough to answer some questions for me and to take an interest in what we’re doing at Vocamus Press.  Then, as our conversation was finishing, two young men came to introduce themselves and ask about what was involved with Vocamus, and I found myself abruptly switching my role from student to mentor in the time it took me to turn from one conversation to the next.

On my way home after the event, I had a chance to reflect on the evening, and it struck me that this moment of being both student and mentor embodied a principle that is essential to the formation of a strong and developing community.  When we become too proud and isolated to learn from each other, when we become too arrogant and protective to teach each other, our community ceases to grow.  In order for us to develop as individuals and as communities, we must constantly be teaching and learning, encouraging and challenging.  If it can happen naturally, over a pint or two, so much the better.

I’ve just finished reading Granma Nineteen and the Soviet’s Secret by Ondjaki, translated by my friend Stephen Henighan, and it’s a remarkable little book, the best I’ve read by an African writer not named Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and it has a human quality to it that even Ngugi rarely attains.  Go buy, borrow, or steal a copy wherever you can get one.

The book also has several examples of those long, eddying sentences that I love so much.  I’ll share one to go you a taste of what Ondjaki does.

“and in this way, with naked bodies feeling a soft breeze, looking at the kites that flew over our square in Bishop’s Beach, I, Charlita and Pi, better known as Comrade 3.14, jumped the shells and the holes of crabs that fled in fear of us, we who sought the experience of the salt water on our bodies, hungry for white surf in the dark sea at that moment of partying and laughter, we were there, in search of where our bodies were able to dance gently on the air in our lungs that had been spared by our shouts, and I remembered the elders who I had met and who sometimes weren’t capable of believing in the simple secrets of children, the elders who thought that the cries of the birds were those we heard in the morning or in the late afternoon, when birds are in a hurry to get somewhere and shout for other birds to get out of their way, but those cries, in spite of being shouted, aren’t very true, since birds are like children, they need to be beneath the water to give a true shout, it wasn’t a child who told me that, it was a bird, Charlita and Pi know it, we all heard the birds shouting beneath the water of the sea of Bishop’s Beach, but not that night”

 

This poem was written to appear on a sculpture by Guelph artist Ben McCarl called Tower of Dreams.

Dreams

Dreams tower only through accretion, one
laid thin atop another, always too slight,
too insubstantial, like drops of limestone
water that find their height only by course
of millennia, raising delicate
stalagmite fingers into the cave-dark,
trusting that there are other fingers too
reaching down to touch our towering dreams.

This is one of the philosophy poems that I am writing for the Thought || Language || Poetry project. It is based on a passage from God, Death, Time by Emmanuel Levinas.

Happiness of the End

Love is possible
only through the infinite
placed in me,
through the more
that devastates and awakens
the less,
diverting theology,
destroying the fortune
and happiness of the end.

Man Walking
There was a man walking the shoulder of the highway. I don’t remember where exactly, one of those not quite rural roads, still flanked by cornfields but the farmhouses all severed and sold to people from the city just a few miles farther on. He wasn’t hitching, just walking, his back to me, the dust of the road climbing almost to his knees, powdering his black pants in gradations of whiteness, and I couldn’t leave him behind, was constrained by something, his tattered straw hat perhaps, or the way his shoulders rounded beneath his suspenders, constrained to stop, roll down the window, ask if he needed a ride, but he turned to a voice not my own, one I could not hear, and his eyes passed through me like a ghost.

Amnesia
These roads are nostalgia, lined with grandfatherly trees and slack electrical wire, awaiting the amnesia of cookie-cutter subdivision mansions, their carefully formulated tiers of upgrades — stainless steel fixtures, granite countertops, travertine floors — to cover over the remembrances of the raspberry canes and chokecherry bushes that crowd these gravel shoulders.

So Small A Place
The road changes if you kill the engine, or better yet, if you drive until the gas runs out, and you abandon the car, its door left open as a metaphor of some unspecified emancipation, changes if you are brought to the pace of your feet, the gravel grinding beneath the heels of shoes that are too fashionable and delicate for comfort, the sun clinging to the roof of the sky, and the summer insects climbing the colt’s foot and the burdock, changes the whole of the world, settling into the line of asphalt between your feet and the next landmark — the distant height of a tree, a grey-boarded barn falling into the crest of a hill — the new limits of the universe, a few miles of cornfield and woodlot, the grassy slip along the road left to go wild in chokecherry and milkweed.

Far More Purely

Gum, writes my son, skateboarding, friends –
a few things that could end with brown,
tied-with-string paper packages,
though his list reads much more purely,
written not to hold the bad at bay
but simply to say all his good,
a spasm of celebration.

Some of you will be aware of my fascination with literary portrayals of the moment of execution, a subject that arrested my attention first in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and then again in Alexandre Duma’s The Count of Monte Cristo, spiraling into something like an obsession through texts that are now too numerous for me to mention, the latest of which is Suson Sontag’s The Volcano Lover.

My history with Sontag is as follows: I was supposed to read several of her essays in university but didn’t, through sheer laziness, but I was left with the feeling, one that I associate with many of the books I passed over on university syllabi, that she was someone I really should eventually read. This is probably why I gradually purchased most of her books, not intentionally, just when I found them at garage sales and in discount bins, with the idea that I would get around to reading them when the inclination struck me, which it did a month or two ago, when I read her book of essays, At the Same Time. I really enjoyed it, so I thought I’d try a novel, The Volcano Lover, which I loved less but at least supplied me with the scenes I’m about to share with you. They’re long, and you might not find them as interesting as I do, but here they are.

The first is dreamed by the Queen of Naples as republican forces approach:

Portrait of a woman condemned to death. In the cart transporting her to this, this, this… machine, this new machine, her hands tied loosely behind her, her hair cropped short to expose her nape. Portrait of a martyr. She is all in white: a simple dress, coarse stockings, a shapeless bonnet on her head. Her face is old, tired, and drawn. The only trace of her former glory is her strict and upright posture.

She blinks her eyes. They sting because she has been so many months in prison. The cart wheels rattle and bump. The streets are strangely silent. The sun is shining. The cart arrives, she mounts the ten rough wooden steps. There is her chaplain murmuring prayers, staring at his crucifix, tears streaming down his face. And a voice, someone else’s voice, saying, It will not hurt, Your Majesty. It seems to come from the man with the hood. She averts her eyes form the ladder-like structure, some fourteen feet tall, with its ax-shaped blade rusty with blood, and she feels her shoulders being pushed down on both sides, making her lean over, no, lie down, her stomach and legs on the board, lie just so. Someone pulls her by the shoulders a little forward, so her throat rests in the trough of the bottom half of a wooden yoke, and then the upper part closes down on the back of her neck. She feels a strap squeezing her waist and another being affixed to her calves, binding her to the board. Her head is over the dark-brown plaited basket, the blood rushes forward to her face. She resisted the weight of her head pulling it down, held it out to see over the platform the bobbing heads of the crowd, lifted it up to lighten the painful contact of the edge of the board with her collarbone, the yoke against her gorge, which made her gag, which was starting to cut off her breath, saw a pair of large muddy boots advancing toward her and heard the bellowing of the mob go still louder, then go silent; here’s some kind of strange creaking: something rising, higher, higher; the sun getting brighter, so she shuts her eyes; the sound, higher still, stops –

The second is from the perspective of Eleonora de Fonesca Pimentel, a republican and a poet:

I spent my last night trying to master my fear.

First, I was afraid I would lose my dignity. I had heard that those about to be hanged often lose control of their bowels. I was afraid that my knees would buckle as I was led through the square to the platform on which the gallows and its ladder stood.  I feared a convulsion of unseemly terror at the sight of the hangman advancing toward me with the blindfold, and his assistant holding the long rope with a noose.  The crowd’s shouts of Long Live the King had provoked some of my friends to make their last words Long Live the Republic.  But I wanted to go to my death in silence.

Then, I was afraid of being choked before they hanged me.  For I knew that after the hangman tied a dirty rag around my head, he or his assistant would drop a heavy hairy ring  of rope over my head and onto my shoulders.  Unseen hands would pull it tighter, and where it tugged I must go, to the foot of the ladder, and then upward — I would have to follow the rope.  I imagined the ladder sagging with the weight of three.  The hangman above me, pulling me up by the head.  His assistant below me, holding my ankles and guiding, thrusting them from one rung up to the next.

Then, I was afraid I would not die after the hangman scrambled onto the crossbeam to make fast his end of the rope, and his assistant, tightening his grip on my ankles, pushed of into the air, taking me with him.  Could I still be alive when there were two of us swinging in the air, his weight stretching downward from my feet?  Still alive when the hangman leapt from the crossbeam to straddle my shoulders, and we became a dangling chain of three?

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