Monthly Archives: December 2008

Let there be words like frost on leaves,
Too tentative etchings that melt
As fingers pass, accumulate
In veins of leaves, and in creases
Of pages; let them dampen tips
On fingers, be touched onto tongues,
Tasting all of fragility
And liquidness; let them be moist
Breath in air, fingers of mist, fog
That leaves the air breathful, until
They caress the trees like lovers,
And cling again to leaves like frost.

She appeared in the light of a streetlamp across the darkened parking lot and approached him obliquely, as if slipping into the wake of a ship, closing the distance between them until he could see her in the periphery of his vision, matching his pace a few steps behind him and to his left. She looked unremarkable, though underdressed for the cold of a spring night, wearing only a light blouse and a pair of dirty jeans against a temperature that made fog of her breath and kept her hands buried in her pockets, arms pressed to her sides. In her eyes and mouth their was a kind of prettiness, but her cheeks and chin were sagging and heavy, as were the breasts and belly that dominated her figure unpleasantly, disproportionate with her narrow hips, her thin legs and arms.

She began speaking to him suddenly, without introduction, looking fixedly ahead of her, avoiding his eyes, even when he turned his head to the sound of her voice. Her words were quick, delivered in short, emotionless bursts. “My boyfriend took off,” she said, “with all my stuff. I need some money, to get back east, where I’m from, ’cause I just have what I’m wearing, and I don’t really need to eat or anything, but I can’t get home.” She paused, glanced briefly at him, gaging his response, then continued in the same tone, “Is there any way I could make forty bucks with you tonight?”

Both she and he had continued walking, as if stopping would be to admit the embarrassment of their exchange. “I have no money,” he replied at last, but her footsteps continued to match his expectantly. “I have a car,” he said then, after a moment. “I could give you a ride somewhere, but I really don’t have any money.” Even still she followed, and they were approaching his car very quickly.

He stopped, turning to face her, his eye catching hers for a moment. “I don’t need a ride,” she said, then ducked her head. “I need money, just forty bucks. I’ll do whatever.”

He was held there by her somehow, though he could find in himself no desire to buy from her what she offered, would not have followed the desire even if he had found it, but there seemed to be no response that would release him from her. She raised her eyes to him again, and he instinctively looked away. “Sorry, I have no money,” he said a third time, and he turned to his car, opened the door, and bent to enter it.

She suddenly spoke again, her voice no longer empty but touching lightly a kind of sadness. “I hope you don’t think I’m a whore. I’m not. I just need to get home, you know?” He closed the door and drove past her through the streetlamps and the darkness.

All of us are subject to our capitalisms and our democracies, our legalities and our governmentalities, our educations and our medications, our communications and our entertainments, our scientisms and our technocracies, our humanisms and our humanitarianisms, but we do not all endure this subjection in the same way.  Those who are even able to recognize it variously endorse, exploit, resist, or capitulate, but none of these responses are acceptable.  They only reinforce our subjection in any case.  The only acceptable response, though it is always tenuous and unguaranteed, is otherly concern.

To be otherwise concerned in this sense is to refuse to be primarily concerned with the structures of subjection themselves, neither in resistance nor in acquiescence, but to show oneself to be concerned precisely with those things that the structures of subjection do not recognize.  This act of concern may sometimes appear to be oppositional and sometimes to be affirmative, but it is never primarily either of these things.  It is an act whose appearance in relation to the structures of subjection is only ever a provisional appearance, an appearance that is only the remainder of its true concern, which is with something other and something otherwise.

This is not to say that the act of otherly concern does not recognize the structures of subjection.  It does certainly see these things, and its response is always a response to them.  It sees them, and it gives them their due.  It renders to them what was theirs already.  It does so, however, as if it is concerned, not with them, but only with something beyond them, only with something that they can not recognize, something that might be called justice or ethics or hospitality.

Otherly concern, therefore, is never provisional, but it always appears this way.  It is neither strategic nor tactical, though it may appear as either or both.  It may vote, for example, or it may refrain from voting, but in neither case will it put faith in this activity.  Its faith will always be in something other, something to which this activity can only hope to gesture.  It will never have faith in the conditional choice of a political system or a party or a candidate, but only in the unconditional something other that these things fail always to recognize.

This otherly concern is, therefore, the only acceptable response to the things that subject us, because it responds, not in ways that the structures of our subjection might recuperate, but in ways that continually call to what is essentially beyond recuperation.  This kind of response opens itself to the possibility of responding to the uniqueness of its subjection, to the unsubstitutability of this subjection, but in such a way that it cannot be reduced to the response that it makes to these things.

All this comes at the cost, however, of being beyond any guarantee.  There will never be any guarantee of the other with which I am concerned, or of the concern that I have with the other, or of the activity that comes from my concern.  Indeed, unless the other itself intervenes, it is always guaranteed that my concern and my activity will be faulty and insufficient.  More practically, it will always remain possible, even likely, that the structures of my subjection will not recognize the otherly concern that I am showing. Though my concern will be elsewhere, I will always remain physically imperilled by the things to which I am subject.

The hope that otherly concern offers, then, is only the most tenuous hope.  It is the hope that my concern for the other will somehow be justified by the other itself, though this possibility remains radically unguaranteed.  It is the hope that, as I am concerned with the other that is justice and ethics and hospitality and love, this other will in fact come, quite apart from anything that my concern might deserve, but merely because it condescends to come.  It is a hope that is barely a hope. It is hope that finds its place only among faith and love.  It is a hope that, in my mouth, says only and continually, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come.”

I had an apple turnover this morning, handmade from local ingredients and still warm from the oven.

I can, of course, buy an apple turnover almost anytime and almost anywhere.  There is a cafe or a doughnut shop or a grocery store or a supermarket within a few minutes walk of any point in the city, many of them open early and late, some open almost every hour of the year.  If this does not suffice, I can even order groceries to be delivered right to my house.  I never have to be without an apple turnover if I do not want to be.

If I want to buy an apple turnover that is made from local apples, however, and if I want the pastry to be handmade, and if I want to eat it when it is still warm, I cannot choose the time and the place.  I need to be at my local bakery just as it opens on Monday and Thursday mornings.  No other time or place will do.

This phenomenon is true in almost every case: quality demands its time and its place.  If I want a quality butcher who will sell me hormone free cuts of meat to order, I will have to wait until the next time an animal is slaughtered, maybe even until the next season that an animal should be slaughtered.  If I want to buy quality local organic produce, I will have to wait for it to come in its season and make do without the things that simply will not grow in my climate.

The demand that things be here and now, that time be money, that success be about location, location, location: these things are the enemy of quality.  To find quality, I must always look for it in its own time and its own place.  No other time and place will do.

My brother Andrew’s band, The Yage Letters, has released their new album, and I am quite enjoying it, though it is actively designed not to be a commercial success in the traditional music industry.  The songs are far too long.  They have no lyrics.  Their sound does not consist of a single musical hook that appears in the first few seconds.  None of it would work on the radio, but it does permit a much greater freedom for experimentation and creativity.  The multiple guitars and the broad range of dynamics produce a very layered sound, and the heavier sections, where the time signature is sometimes changed quite aggressively, lead musically from the quieter parts rather than just contrasting with them.  I am not by any means an expert on music, but there is much that I appreciate in the album, and my sons seem to like it also.

The album has also reminded me of how difficult a relationship I have with lyrics generally.  Whereas Andrew would argue that popular music is bad because of its predictable chord progressions, unimaginative verse-chorus structures, uninteresting melodies, and any number of other musical reasons, my dislike of popular music has to do primarily with its horribly cliche and insipid lyrics.  There are certainly examples of music with interesting lyrics, of course.  Anything by Bob Dylan will be good.  There is a joint album by Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet called The Juliet Letters that I think is quite original lyrically.  Simon and Garfunkel are usually good as well, though they tend to be overly romantic for my taste.  There are others, certainly, but far too few.

I have coped with this lack in two ways.  First, I have chosen genres where the lyrics are so established by tradition or are so secondary to the music that they are almost meant to be ignored in any case.  This is a large part of my attraction to the blues.  There are only so many times that you can hear the same lyrics sung before you stop listening to them as lyrics at all and start listening to them as mere vocalizations, something akin to scat.  There is also a humour and a lack of polish to these kinds of lyrics that indicate clearly how seriously they are meant to be taken, a quality that much folk music has also.  A certain amount of the musical interest in these genres is to be found precisely in seeing how different artists treat the same lyrics, in seeing how Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters sing the songs of Leadbelly or Robert Johnson or Mississippi John Hurt.

My second way of responding to bad lyrics has been a gravitation toward instrumental music.  My first musical discovery was Jeff Becks’ Guitar Shop, which I stole from my Uncle Jack, and which I still play frequently, though it now sounds a little dated.  This was my introduction to instrumental rock, a genre which was never as fully developed as it could have been, mostly because removing the vocals from most rock music would just reveal how musically inept it actually is.

In any case, Andrew’s new album has motivated me to see what other instrumental music there might be.  I have already emailed Andrew about it, and he has sent me a list of post-rock artists that might be quiet enough for my delicate sensibilities.  I have sent a similar email to several of my other musical friends, and I am interested to see what they might have to offer. So, I may as well make the question an open one.  What are the essential instrumental albums in your opinion?  My Christmas money awaits your suggestions.

The dune was taller, more fixed, more permanent than the others. Its arms formed an almost complete circle, a broad hollow that opened onto the woods that bordered the beach. Snake grass grew along the dune’s crest, creeping even some ways down its sides, trapping earth in its roots and supporting small trees that sprouted like bristles down its spine. Along one arm, as it approached the woods, three larger cedars had taken hold in the thin earth so that they cast their shadows into the hollow of the dune, further and further as the sun declined in the afternoon.

Below the tufting snake grass and the creeping sand plants and the tenacious cedars, there was a strip of clean white sand, like a band, below which the sand darkened suddenly, became mixed with larger pebbles, bits of driftwood, decaying leaves and grass. This dark, earthy sand ran along the bottom of the dune, melding, at the tips of its arms, with the vegetation on its crest, so that the white sand between them formed a smooth curve, arching broadly where the dune itself was broad and narrowing to nothing as the dune’s arms descended to meet the level sand, as they curved to form a hollow between them.

In this rounded hollow pooled the creek that marked the border between beach and woods before breaking for the lake, circuitously, weaving through the dunes, cutting and recutting its banks daily. The pool in the hollow, in the almost round arms of the dune, seemed perfect to me, fed with enough fresh water that it smelled clean and looked clear, but slow enough that water plants grew along its edges and fingerlings played among the branches that had been carried this far by the momentum of the stream and then been caught by the slowness of the pool, as the water gathered itself toward the lake.

I came to this place daily, to the rounded arms and the broad hollow and the gathering pool and the cedars casting their shadows into the heat of the afternoon. The curve of the white sand, in the place where it was first shaded by the cedars and where I could see the stream curling around the far arm of the dune, became to me a refuge. It was a place between places, between beach and forest, between earth and sky, between sand and water, between sun and shade, and so it was also a place of solitude, because it was not a place at all, because it was only between places.

I felt that the solitude of the dune was somehow necessary to it, so my habitual visits were habitually solitary. I would approach most often from the beach, following the bed of the stream toward the forest, exploring the new path that it had carved through the sand since last I had walked it. The water, coming from the hollow to which I was going, seemed always to have something of its memory with it, so that I came with a feeling of expectation, an expectation already fulfilled before I even reached its fulfilment, a knowing in advance, like a taste of something familiar in the air. For me, the familiar taste was of silence and aloneness, and the stream bore it, since it too had passed alone through that place, had found no one there to hear its whispering or to welcome its visitation, and so it spoke to me as it passed, promised me the smell of cedar in the afternoon sun, covenanted that a blue pool was waiting for me in a hollow of dark earth below an arc of white sand.

Only once did the stream break its covenant with me, betray the promise that it made of a silent and sacred hollow. Once, as the stream approached the fixed and permanent dune, its circling and hollowed arms, there appeared a path in the sand, its trajectory gradually nearing that of the stream until they ran side by side, two sets of footprints, a purposeful path, moving unerringly toward the dune that held the pool in the hollow between its arms. I paused in the stream, in the midst of its still whispered assurances, and I looked to where the path in the sand had climbed the dune, crushing a patch of snake grass on its crest, before disappearing beyond it. The line of the dune seemed stark. The green of its trees and grass stood against the deeper shade of the forest behind it, a border that had been violated.

I cannot now recall my emotions in that moment. My memories return to me only the sight of the dune grown huge in my imagination, sacred and inviolable, and yet violated. The dune, the barrier, seems to have been entirely saturated, overexposed by recollection, leaving nothing but its solidity and its impossible violation, one laid paradoxically over the other.

I climbed the dune on my hands and knees, felt the sun, standing very high in the sky, weighing very heavily on my back and head. I followed the path, the traces in the sand, raised my head above the crest where the snake grass had been broken. In the hollow, a couple was lying on the dune, on the white strip of sand in the middle of the dune, lying almost across from where the three tall cedars had just began to advance their shadows toward the pool.

The woman lay on her back, her eyes closed, her hair disarranged, strands covering her face, left undisturbed where the occasional breeze had placed them. On her bathing suit there were embroidered butterflies, orange and green, blue and yellow, one perched on each breast, so that the arm she had thrown over her eyes seemed to ward against them as much as the sun.

Her lover lay on his side, close to her. His skin was white, not delicately but sickly white, so that even the white sand seemed dark where it clung to him. He had raised himself on one elbow, leaning his head on his hand, and the darkness of his hair hung starkly against the whiteness of his hand and of his body and of the sand. He was almost absent in his whiteness, as if only his hair and his black shorts were keeping him from disappearing altogether.

With his free hand, he was fondling the woman beside him, though his body hid this mostly from me, and he was saying something softly to her, something that needed to be said softly despite their seclusion. The woman responded neither to his touch or to his voice, not moving even to brush away the hair that was increasingly covering her face. She seemed impassive, not from languor, but from indifference, even as he became increasingly insistent, pulling roughly at her flesh, misshaping her butterfly breasts, half-encircling her neck, then returning his hand swiftly beyond my sight.

She gave no recognition of his touch, neither moving nor speaking, though his hand was importunate, unremitting. Then, abruptly, violently, he rolled himself onto her, removing neither his clothes nor hers, fumbling between them, his eyes closed, his hips thrusting convulsively forward. The woman’s head tilted sharply backward, her only outward acknowledgement of his assault on her unsurrendered aloneness, her unrelinquished silence. She remained otherwise unmoved, her hand still thrown across her face, now seeming to ward against him rather than the butterflies or the sun. Even her eyes lay motionless beneath their closed lids.

He fell forward onto her, so that his face was pressed to the sand as he thrust against her, white grains blending with his white skin, marking his dark hair and lashes. His pale lips moved silently, his words as absent as he was, pale, translucent, and insubstantial words. Perhaps, I thought, his flesh is as insubstantial as his words. Perhaps she is not indifferent, just unaware of his too ephemeral, too incorporeal, too tenuous touch. Perhaps her separateness and her silence and her stillness simply do not recognize him.

When he had finished, he raised himself on his hands above her, his face turned from hers. He adjusted their clothing awkwardly and rolled away from her, leaving a space of white sand between them. He raised his arm across his eyes, unconsciously mimicking his lover, and they lay in this way, their poses and their immobility exactly parallel, and his stillness erased still further the line between his skin and the sand.

I am guilty, I think, of wanting to put writing in its place.  At least, I am guilty of wanting to put it into the places that the literary world has traditionally tended to put it.  Though I find myself comfortable with publishing certain modes of writing though the medium of the blog, for example, there are other modes that I have assumed to be out of place in this medium.  The short essay seems a natural fit for the blog, of course, as does the news article, the personal reflection, and even the poem.  Longer prose, however, especially book-length works that would need to be serialized, do not obviously lend themselves to the restrictions of a blog, and I have always assumed that their place was elsewhere.

I recently had this assumption challenged, however, when I was mentioning to a friend of mine that I wanted to post some of my longer prose on the web but that I was not looking forward to the hassle of maintaining yet another webspace.  She asked, innocently enough, why I did not just post this stuff on my blog.  When I tried to argue that it was too long, she pointed out the very long history of serialized writing in English literature.  When I reminded her that I found most of this tradition tedious and verbose, she told me that my prose style seemed a perfect match.  I submitted, as I almost always do, to her superior force of argument.

So, while I still have some reservations about the idea of posting longer prose in the medium of the blog, I will be experimenting with this possibility to a degree.  I will begin with some existing creative pieces that are fairly short in any case.  I will also try posting some chapters from a still incomplete children’s novel that I am writing, since its chapters are also quite short.  Depending on the success of these experiments, I might begin posting other things as well.

It may be, of course, that my assumptions will be justified and that a blog will not be convenient for these kinds of writing.  In the worst case, however, I need only to delete the experimental posts and pretend that they never existed.  I have never been beyond a little historical revisionism, particularly when my own pride is at stake, so I am prepared, for the moment, to be writing out of place.

I have had occasion lately to reflect on the idea of the theatre’s “fourth wall” and on how this concept might be applied to film, to video games, and to media of the monitor generally, so last Saturday’s Dinner and a Doc film, Simone Bitton’s Wall, was particularly timely for me.  The film takes for its subject the system of walls that Israel is building to separate Jews and Arabs in the occupied territories, and it uses at least two techniques to make the fourth wall of the screen function analogously to the physical wall that it is representing.

The first technique that Bitton employs is to conduct all the interviews with Palestinians offscreen.  While the screen is displaying some aspect of the wall’s construction or function, Bitton’s voice and the voices of those she is interviewing remain invisible and disembodied, seeming to come from behind the camera somewhere, from behind the fourth wall that marks the limit of its view.  Palestinians do appear in the film, but almost always from a distance, never intimately.  When they speak, they are always voices only, as if the film’s audience is hearing them from behind the physical wall in the same way that an Israeli man describes being able to hear but not see a Palestinian neighbour on the opposite side of the barrier that separates their communities.

Bitton’s second technique is to keep the camera frequently immobile.  Many of the film’s scenes are shot from an entirely static perspective.  The camera does not pan.  It does not tilt.  It does not zoom.  If movement is required, the scene merely cuts from one static shot to another.  There may be activity within each shot, as people go about their lives in relation to the wall, but the position of the camera, and therefore of the viewer also, often remains fixed, as though it has been immobilized.  These shots produce a sense of entrapment and enclosure.  The desire of the viewers to move their gaze from one object to another, the desire that it is film’s function to satisfy, is thwarted continually.  The gaze of the viewers is contained in the same way that the Palestinians have become contained, unable even to visit the neighbours they once knew and the land they still own.

Both of these techniques manipulate the position of the film’s viewers by manipulating the fourth wall of the screen, not by breaking it, but be drawing repeated attention to it and then pointedly refusing to break it.  In so doing, they allow the fourth wall to function metaphorically for the physical walls in Palestine, but they also comment more broadly on the way that the fourth wall of the screen constrains viewers of film in every case, constrains them not only to see what it does portray but also not to see what it can not or will not portray, raising the question, I think, of the extent to which film may actually immobilize and silence us as viewers, trapping us within its four walls.

The only one who can give absolutely, give truly, give without any regard to return, is the one who cannot receive, who has no need to receive, to whom receiving would add nothing. Only this giver would give essentially, would give as part of its nature. Any gift given in return to such a giver, even the gift of thanks, would be superfluous, would add nothing to the giver, would bear no essential relationship with the gift that was given. Indeed, if the giver were to receive this thanks, the receiving would only be the giving of another gift, because it would be the accepting of something that the giver did not and never would require.

The conditions last night were almost perfect for building snowmen, the ideal opportunity for my friend Dawn Matheson to conduct the inaugural operation of Project Snowman.  The target was the house of a neighbourhood woman who is fighting terminal cancer.  We assembled on her front lawn at about 8:30, armed with carrots, old clothing, and bits of asphalt gleaned from the newly paved road.  The snow was a little heavy, so we had to keep our snowmen small, but we made a dozen or so, raiding the funeral home across the street for sticks to make the arms.  The woman and her child watched us from the window, while her husband came and talked with us as we worked.

On the way home, my eldest son and I threw snowballs at every tree and telephone pole that dared to cross our path.  We arrived at the house far past the time when he should have been in bed, but we made some hot apple cider anyway. He did not get to sleep until the temperature started to drop again, freezing our snowmen into icemen on the front lawn down the block.  Good, I thought, as I got into bed myself, now they just might make it until spring.