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Philadelphia/Philadelphia

In Reports on December 11, 2013 at 7:00 am

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A Report from Amman

by Max Marin

I. Hotel/Memory

“There’s nothing called Philadelphia here.”

“The hotel. It’s the oldest one in Jordan.”

The juice vendor shakes his head again. He hands me my juice and hollers down from his mount of oranges at a younger man sweeping the sidewalk. The younger man lights up with an answer.

“Down this street here, keep going maybe a kilometer. On the left.”

It is a Thursday evening on the night of the Prophet Mohammad’s ascension. Some of the trinket shops and coffee stands are closing early in Wasat Al-Balad. There is a continuum of falling storefront shutters, of bodies milling towards the mosque.

I follow the streetsweeper’s directions down King Hussein Street towards the Roman Steps, swiveling my head for a glimpse of the building from the photograph. I had seen it in a glossy magazine. According to the article, the Philadelphia Hotel was the first of its kind in Jordan, a valve in the heart of Amman. It signaled an unseen standard of tourism in a country that now depends on the industry. Perhaps its founder, Anton Nazzal, saw the future coming, or perhaps he just saw a market for new visitors (regional dignitaries, Gulf kings, Peter O’Toole), people who were accustomed to Western amenities like cotton mattresses and flushable toilets.

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At the Ruins

In Reports on October 24, 2013 at 7:00 am

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A Report from Mesa Verde, Colorado

by Teow Lim Goh

The cities of stone are set into alcoves in the cliffs, ruins after centuries of abandonment. The walls are cemented from bricks chiseled from the sandstone. They rise a floor or two to a broken ceiling; they sink into the earth; their doorways open into dark chambers. Mesa Verde, green table, lies between the southern Rockies and the red rock desert beyond. It was named by the Spanish who sought a route from Santa Fe to the Pacific; to them, the sparse woodlands must have seemed lush after the desert scrub. Deep canyons cross the plateau, ancient rivers scoured the sandstone into cliffs and skirts, and wind and water eroded alcoves into the cliffs. A thousand years ago, people built these cities, accessible only by precarious hand and toe holds on the cliffs. They left in the late thirteenth century. Left to the elements, the cities disintegrated. The walls crumbled. The sandstone calved boulders and crushed the walls. Seven centuries later, the ruins stand as a testament to the mystique of absence.

In the late nineteenth century, American ranchers stumbled on these ruins while on the cattle trail and thought that the people who had built them had vanished. They asked the local Navajo about who had lived here, and the Navajo said the Anasazi, and for decades the word Anasazi came to mean the lost ones. No one knew where they went, or so the story went, a story that fit into the European narrative of America as an uninhabited continent that awaited their arrival. The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and similar ruins in this area are evidence of civilizations before Columbus. Their descendants, it turned out, are still around, living with the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. In the former story, time is discrete and history an isolated sequence of events; in the latter, time and landscape are joined by migrations and memories passed down over generations.

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Something About a Bitchy Fly

In Reports on August 21, 2013 at 7:00 am

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A Report from Sassari

by Malcolm Bates

At a certain point after I began working as a translator, I realized that we are the plumbers of the written word. Picture your standard bathroom. The full, white curves of porcelain; a chrome faucet over a sink that yawns like a birdbath; the opaque, almost pixilated shower door; a tile floor of wormy fake marble. Our bathrooms are our safe havens. They are the one room in the house where we know we won’t be bothered; where a closed door always means Do Not Disturb. There is no other place in a home where you feel as serene and meditative. But then the drain starts growling like there’s something living under the tub, your significant other’s hair is clogging the pipes, the chain in the toilet tank snaps and you have to remove the lid to flush, the sink starts oozing something like that black paste that collects in the bottom of your gutters, the grout in the tiling cracks and the perfectly opaque shower door is collecting mold in the one place your sponge won’t fit. So you call the plumber. He comes in and rips out the floor, pulls down the walls, removes the toilet completely, and suddenly you’re staring at miles of copper pipes that you never knew existed. He tightens something here, loosens something else there, rearranges, reconnects, removes, replaces, sees something that makes no sense to him and discards it, puts everything back together and paints over the blemishes. It looks like the same bathroom as before. Everything is in the same place, serves the same function, looks the way it did originally. Only now the handle is on the side of the toilet—not the front—and the base leans a bit to the left when you sit on it. And the holes in the showerhead are a little smaller so the water comes out differently. The tiles have changed color and dimension. The sink has two faucets instead of one… There’s nothing necessarily wrong with your bathroom, but there are a lot of things that could be more right. This is the fundamental problem with translation.

Alfred MacAdam addressed this problem in a brief note preceding his English version of Julio Cortázar’s, Final Exam:

In Final Exam, Cortázar employs a technique he uses throughout his career, the mixture of very vulgar Argentine street Spanish with high-flown esthetic concepts. This generates irony and humor, but is virtually impossible to replicate in English, where regional dialects lead inevitably to caricature. There is a great deal of Italian mixed in as well, because there were (and are) so many Italians living in Buenos Aires.

The old joke in language classrooms is that when the teacher can’t answer something, they say, “Well there’s really no good translation for that.” But it’s in situations such as this that we see the cruel truth buried in the humor. I kept my eye out for examples of MacAdam’s stated problem in the text and believe that I found one near the end of the first section. This is the protagonist, Juan, speaking to his wife, Clara, who has accused him of making her sound like a fly:

“On the eve of your exam you should remember that if Homer says something like that it practically becomes praise. And how about Lucian, my dear? I love flies, and it grieves me enormously when winter begins and they start dying on the windows and curtains. Flies are the chamber music of the fauna. You, really, are the bitchy fly of invective. Bitchy fly, that’s great!” And rocking his cauliflower he laughed like a madman… “Bitchy fly!” howled Juan doubling up with laughter. “That’s terrific!”

Now, of course I could just be missing the joke here completely because I’ve never read Lucian. Or, this could be one more example of Juan’s bizarre behavior—the cauliflower mentioned in the above quote is a kind of fetish object that Juan brings along with him throughout the narrative:

“Clara, in this bag you see here I have a prodigious cauliflower…It isn’t meant for eating…This cauliflower is for carrying around in a bag to admire it from time to time. I think the present moment is propitious for the admiration of the cauliflower…I couldn’t resist its beauty…It was more beautiful than an early Flemish painting.”

Or, it could even be that this “joke” about the bitchy fly was not meant to be particularly funny to the other characters of the book, to the reader, to anyone at all except Juan, who spends much of the story cracking himself up. The point being that these secondary and tertiary levels of doubt about the meaning of certain lines or jokes in a text appear simply by virtue of the text having been translated. To return to the plumbing metaphor, this is the doubt that you manufacture in your head the first time you use your renovated bathroom. You can’t tell exactly what’s wrong, but you convince yourself that something must be “wrong” simply because it’s been changed. You’re being forced to look at something fundamental that you take for granted and admit that beneath a very thin surface level it’s unfamiliar to you.

However, the idiosyncrasies associated with reading a translation, are not always the fault of the translator. The doubt I’ve just described is something as inherent to translation as it is to any act of faith. Moreover, the fact that—while reading a book—I, as a reader, have certain doubts that may stem from a misunderstanding of foreign cultural or social cues is more or less irrelevant to my enjoyment of the book. Lydia Davis, in an essay for The Paris Review, says that there are three important characteristics of a good translator: knowledge of language, history, and culture; the translator’s “conception of the task of translation”; and the translator’s writing ability. In her opinion, of these three criteria, the last is the most important:

…minor lapses in a knowledge of the language, history, and culture may result in mistakes that are, in a beautifully written, generally faithful version, fairly easily corrected, whereas a misconception of the task of the translator and, worse, an inability to write well will doom the entire book through its every sentence.

MacAdam’s translation of Final Exam was well-written, consistent, and—to my knowledge—loyal to the experimental, chaotic style and formatting of the original text. Cortázar often leaps wildly from line to line, idea to idea, leaving behind unresolved images or carefully sequenced descriptions whose edges bleed over one another. The sensory descriptions, especially, move in free association from one image to another in the wake of the characters’ interior monologues:

With the gust of wind came an underlying sweet smell, barely perceptible at first—like boiled glue, wet paper, humidity, reheated stew. Those smells from lower school, thought Andrés, shaking himself, that mysterious soapy smell that floated in the air of the classrooms, the playgrounds. Lost, but unforgettable. Was it the smell or the manner of smelling it? Some sounds, or colors of childhood, or substances so close to our faces, to anxiety…This one was a tired smell—a compound of smells—brought in by the air that moved the doors. Even the voices in the room, muted by the woodwork and the humidity, seemed part of the smell. Then it became clear that the smell had been there since they came in, that the gust of hot air did nothing more than bring out the lingering, super-sweet repugnance.

Cortázar slows the pace of the narrative and dialogue with a strong application of setting as character, encouraging interaction with the spaces. This creates a strange mixture of monologue and dialogue that produces glimpses of the honesty and insecurity that the figurative characters hide from one another when they instead are speaking with, e.g., an empty room in a library. The task for translating this style of writing—which MacAdam accomplishes with aplomb—is to convey not only the denotative meaning of the text, but also the metric that the author uses to give reason to his collection of esoteric, incomplete lines of thought. The prevailing characteristic of Cortázar’s absurdist metric in Final Exam is a strange, sticky fog that has descended on Buenos Aires and that grows gradually denser as the story progresses. As the fog thickens and more clues about the fate of the city appear, the characters grow more confused—confusion that manifests in the formatting of the text. Thought, dialogue and description fight for space on the page. Songs and signs written in all-caps drown out the exchanges of the main cast. And, all the while, the fog sags heavier and heavier over Buenos Aires, weighing it down, blotting it out.

I thought this fog was a slick metaphor for the feeling Cortázar expressed of no longer recognizing Buenos Aires when he left. It also reminded me of a real life translating issue I had here in Sassari with one of my students. We left the school together after class one night and noticed a fog similar to that of Final Exam hanging from the high, yellow streetlamps in the parking lot outside the school. The lights gave it an extra, congealed dimension, a yellow fullness like Bavarian cream. We stopped to admire it and chat for a little when my student asked me how to say “foggy” in English. Both the literal and figurative uses of the Italian word he’d said, nebbioso, translate pretty well into English…but was that the right word for this type of fog? Nebbioso is used somewhat interchangeably with nebuloso (nebulous; hazy) in Italian, so I could teach him that instead. But, the usage of nebuloso also overlaps with that of nuvoloso (cloudy) so then I’d have to explain the difference between “foggy” and “cloudy” as well as why “hazy” might be the best word to describe this particular variation of fog, even though the simple answer to his question was just “foggy.” But what is the difference between foggy and cloudy? I wondered, Is it just altitude? … This is only one example of the line-by-line potential for crisis in the practice of translation. It goes back to the point made by Davis and Grossman. To translate effectively, you must be able to capture not only the primary meaning of the word, but also the images and feelings we associate with that word. What my student and I were looking at had depth, movement, color, weight. It was both ominous and beautiful. To call it fog wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, but it could definitely be more right.

This is a situation I encounter pretty much every day. What’s the best word for _____ in English? For my students, the solution is typically whatever English word is closest to the original Italian. “Dental floss,” becomes “inter-dental file,” from filo interdentale. “To beg,” becomes “to supplicate,” from supplicare. Look at it another way. Have you ever noticed how when people want to imitate Italian they just add an –a or –o into a lilting speech pattern à la, “It’s-a spi-cy meat-a-ball-a?” Well, they do the opposite in Italy. The last vowel in every word is dropped and the pronunciation has two left feet. That same sentence would be something like, “It’s a piquant pulpit.” (In Italian, spicy = piccante and meatball = polpetta). This creates a translation problem that’s particular to the classroom. Specifically, teaching the word closest to the Italian even if it isn’t the best option. A good example of this would be “make up,” which has about ten unique uses in English. So when I want my students to work on a creative project in class, instead of confusing them by saying, “Make up a story,” I say, “Invent a story.” Or, a “make-up test” becomes a “recovery test.” The same goes for “false friends,” or words that sound like a word in your language but don’t share the same meaning. This would be something like “actually” in English and attualmente in Italian, the latter meaning “currently.” In class, I say, “in fact.” The result is that the students start speaking a kind of Venn Diagram English that’s rooted in the places where English and Italian intersect and neglects how native speakers actually speak.

Most of the other teachers here speak Italian, and one of the consequences of our daily exposure to this Italian-English mix is that we’ve developed a “dialect” bridging both languages. This isn’t so different from how Italian-American dialects developed in the United States around the turn of the 20th century, leading to words like bacous’, a mispronunciation of “backhouse,” meaning “bathroom.” One example from ours originated in the popularity of pay-as-you-go phones over here. Once a week I pay five euros for unlimited talking and like thirteen text messages. When I run out of credit, I get a text from my service provider saying that, “Il [tuo] credito è esaurito.” (Your credit is used up). However, esaurito also means, “exhausted,” so a typical way of saying, “Sorry I couldn’t call, I was out of credit,” would be, “Sorry I couldn’t call, my phone was exhausted.” Another common one is the word for “pocket change” in Italian, which is spiccioli (spee-cho-lee), or in our dialect, “speechols.” As in, “Could I borrow some speechols? All I have is a fifty.” That one is actually kind of interesting from an etymological standpoint because there is technically a cognate—albeit archaic—for spiccioli in English. It’s “specie” and it literally means, “money in the form of coins rather than paper.”

The conversations we have in this dialect are light-hearted and intended to poke minor fun at some of the errors we hear in class. Those errors usually become the newest additions to the dialect. This brings me back to the point that MacAdam raised in his warning to the reader at the beginning of Final Exam. In English, regional dialects inevitably lead to caricature. In our case, the dialect began as caricature. Unlike other languages, English dialects differ mostly on a basis of accent and idiom and are mutually intelligible. For contrast, there are 46 unique regional dialects of Italian. If you go village to village, that number explodes. In the northeast of Sardinia there are two regions divided by a creek that have separate, unique dialects. If you take someone from Logudoro and someone from Gallura and put them in a room together, they won’t understand each other if they only speak their local dialects. They might have grown up within twenty miles of one another. We understand all English speakers, it’s just that some of us say “apartment” and some of us say “flat.” This is precisely why regional dialect leads to caricature in English and also why Americans who use “bloody” as an intensifier are so irritating. The type of English someone uses automatically saddles that person with all the stereotypes about people from that region.

Something I find interesting is that when I ask my colleagues to do their impersonation of a Philadelphia accent or dialect, they all inflect a goombah-ish Italian accent and start talking about prosciutt’ and gabbagool. Same goes for New Jersey and Long Island accents. I think that’s pretty significant. We all probably know a few words like muzzarel’ or pasta fajool, but Italian immigrants contributed more than just food terms to our dialect. You might have heard someone called a “mook,” which comes from giamoke, meaning “idiot,” which in turn—probably—comes from the Italian mucca or “cow.” Even a word like “yous,” which is used in Philly, Jersey, and parts of New York, likely comes from Italian immigrants who were used to separate pronouns distinguishing second-person singular from second-person plural. These are the by-products of immigrant families spending two, three, even four generations adapting to their surroundings, and have since become an indelible characteristic of Philly culture.

I bring this up because this is extremely similar to the language profile of Buenos Aires. There’s this underlying Italian influence that, while minor, pops up in conversation from time to time. One of the things that I appreciated about MacAdam’s translation was that he let these terms stand, rather than translating them along with the Spanish. This is one of the mixtures of higher thinking and lower diction that he was talking about. The Italian the characters use is slangy, vulgar—street vernacular, the way people really speak. If he had translated the terms as they were on the page, I don’t think it would have read as well. Every character would have transformed into the caricatures I’ve just described, be it the tongue-in-cheek mocking of lexical sets or the East Coast Italian that my colleagues envisioned.

Rather than giving the reader exactly what’s on the page, MacAdam had the foresight to translate it stylistically as an English text. It may not be a facsimile of the original, but it reads with authenticity because it appeals to our tastes in and experiences with literature. It’s not necessarily right or wrong, but it works. This is the probably the best endorsement a translator or plumber can hope to receive.

*

Malcolm Bates is a writer who teaches English in Sardinia.

Illustration: Making Fog, an Argent cigarette card

Footsteps on the Sea

In Reports on August 19, 2013 at 7:00 am

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A Report from Alcatraz

by Teow Lim Goh

Some years ago, I wanted to visit Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, where Chinese immigrants were detained under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But my friend Amy and I missed the only ferry that morning from Fisherman’s Wharf and we went to the other prison island in the bay instead. On the boat to Alcatraz, I looked at the sea from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge. The sky was blue, without a trace of fog, and the water shimmered all the way to the Pacific. I looked at Angel Island in the distance, a peak in the turquoise bay, its grasses still the light green of early spring.

From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station was the main port of entry for immigrants from China. The Chinese Exclusion Act was intended to ban the entry of laborers, who the whites believed were taking away jobs. Exceptions were made for merchants, diplomats, teachers, students, tourists, U.S. citizens, and their immediate families. But the interviews were stringent and many Chinese waited on Angel Island for weeks, months, and even years as they tried to prove that they met the criteria for admission.  Some of them, no doubt bored, frustrated, and afraid, wrote poems on the barrack walls.

Alcatraz is a rock outcrop infamous for the penitentiary it housed from 1934 to 1963. It was meant to be a prison of last resort as well as for the most violent and high profile criminals of the time. The mob boss Al Capone, who the federal government brought down on charges of tax evasion, was one of the first inmates on Alcatraz. The Birdman Robert Stroud, nicknamed for his obsession with birds, was transferred to solitary confinement on the island after he stabbed an orderly on McNeil Island and killed a guard at Leavenworth. Alcatraz is known for its high security, but geography provided the ultimate fence: it was believed that no one could cross the bay.

Maybe it is the force of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers flowing into the Pacific. Maybe it is our lurid fascination with law and order, violence and control. But the prison continues to captivate our usually fickle popular imagination. In 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin chiseled a hole in the walls with spoons over a year. They left dummies fashioned out of papier-mâché in their cells and climbed an air vent. The figures fooled the guards and bought them a few hours to scale the fences and build a makeshift raft out of stolen raincoats. The next day, the police found the remains of the raft on Angel Island. Though it is widely believed that the men drowned in the bay, whether they made it to shore is still the subject of speculation in books and movies.

I looked at the prison block as we got off the ferry. The uniform rows of windows reflected the homogeneity of prison life, the inmates stripped of their identities and turned into numbers. Alcatraz was designed to be a fortress, with an aura of hard edges, a place beyond forgiveness and redemption. But the walls were also crumbling, the ruin quickened by the wind and salt off the bay, and I imagined the island shrouded in sepia, the memory of violence abandoned to nature. We walked on a path of broken concrete lined with pink and yellow flowers. They gave off a sweet scent that wafted in the breeze. Alcatraz, I thought, could be a garden. Then I stepped inside the prison.

Inside the prison the air was still. I knew I was but a visitor, free to come and go as I wished, but I felt as if I had been cut off from the world outside. The walls were a hard grey and the windows shut out the breeze. Rows of disused showerheads lined up on overhead bars. I imagined the ghosts of inmates past, watching one another with wary eyes, without privacy even in this most intimate of routines. I shuddered.

The cells are stacked three stories high. None are next to an exterior wall. Most measure nine by five feet. Each contains a bed, a small desk, a sink, and a toilet. In solitary, the doors are solid with a tiny window. In the regular cells, the opening is barricaded with metal grates. There are four cell blocks, A through D. At the end of each block is a gun gallery, from which armed guards kept the prisoners under surveillance. As we walked around the cells, a park ranger – Alcatraz is now under the purview of the National Park Service – rolled the metal grates open and shut, ostensibly to simulate the cacophony of prison life. Steel clashed on steel. The walls amplified the noise.

I wanted to escape. I reached for the door to the recreational yard. Outside, the sun was a blast of light and relief. Here, prisoners with privileges could play sports on the weekends. For many, it was their only opportunity to socialize and exercise. I stood at the top of the stairs and looked beyond the barbed wire to San Francisco. The skyscrapers and hills and Victorian homes with vast bay windows appeared as if they had risen from the sea towards the sky. From Alcatraz, the city looked like freedom. But I was leaving later in the day. For the prisoners whose sentences seemed infinite, this view may have intensified their isolation, the city only an apparition in the fog.

*

Despite the change in plans, I still had the Angel Island poems in mind. Most of them were brushed or carved onto the wooden walls. The verses spoke of homesickness, uncertain futures, and fears of disappointing the family. Some expressed a desire to return to China while others affirmed a determination to succeed in America. Some called the Americans barbaric while others berated China for being weak in the face of American strength. In writing these poems, the detainees gave voice to their experiences and created a vestige of hope and beauty in a prison.

I thought of the Angel Island poems as Amy and I walked in the Alcatraz gardens. Geraniums and honeysuckles, irises and roses, white yarrow and poppies bloomed in the hillsides around the prison. The flowers are large and bright and colorful, rivaling the best botanical gardens in the world. They invited us into beauty in a prison better known for its cruelties and atrocities. Alcatraz was a fort during the Civil War. The soil is rocky and barren, but during this time, military families planted the first gardens. When the island became a penitentiary, the warden James Johnston allowed some inmates to work in the gardens and tend to life and soil.

Elliott Michener was one of these gardeners. Imprisoned for counterfeiting, he was transferred to Alcatraz after he attempted to escape from Leavenworth. After he returned a dropped key to a guard, he was given the privilege to work in the gardens. He built terraces, a toolshed, and even a greenhouse. He composted kitchen scraps. He was also authorized to order seed catalogs and choose the flowers and bulbs he wanted. The experience changed him. After his release, he made a living as a landscaper. He said, “The hillsides provided a refuge from the disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession, the one thing I would do well.”

*

The Spanish naval officer Juan de Ayala arrived in the San Francisco Bay in 1775 and named Alcatraz for the multitude of seabirds he found on the island. I saw the birds everywhere too, perched on the ruins of the warden’s house, floating on the surf, nestled in the grasses and gardens. They could fly. They could escape from Alcatraz. As I watched them I wanted to fly too, but I remembered that one of the Angel Island poems begins:

The seascape resembles lichen twisting and turning for a thousand li.

There is no shore to land and it is difficult to walk.

*

Teow Lim Goh is a writer and critic living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The RumpusOpen Letters MonthlyFull Stop, and The Common Online, among other publications.

Illustration:  Alcatraz and Golden Gate, Detroit Publishing Company

The Rules of Divination

In Reports on May 9, 2013 at 7:00 am

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A Report from Sassari

by Malcolm Bates

It’s a summer morning twenty years ago. My friend Valeria[1] is six or seven years old. She doesn’t remember exactly, now that she’s nearly thirty. Her grandfather, a burly fruit vendor from the village of Ozieri, hands her a forked twig and tells her to go outside and play. She grins, the dimple under her left nostril showing. What fantasy will her child’s imagination concoct this time? Will the stick be a sword, a broomstick, a magic wand? She grips it and runs into the field outside her family’s home, laughter tinkling like the sheep’s bells in the pastures. Her grandfather comes outside to watch her sprint in aimless circles, her black curls bouncing on her shoulders. And then she stops; sucked out of whatever world she had created. The stick bends back on itself into coils tight as a snail’s shell, but doesn’t break. The action is violent, lewd—adult. Valeria pitches the twig and sits down crying in the middle of the field. Her grandfather comes to collect her. She’s all knees and elbows and tears when he picks her up. He tells her he knew this would happen.

Valeria, an atheist and generally logical person, herself cannot explain the phenomenon to me. I teach her the English word “diviner” and she says that’s exactly what she is. She gives me some of the rules and details. She can’t accept money, but she can take gifts. Once, she helped two brothers who owned a grocery store find water in the back pastures of their family farm. They heaped so many free groceries on her mother that she changed shops out of embarrassment. Valeria can sense how much water is in the ground, how deep down it is, which direction it’s flowing…Her grandfather and great-grandfather both had this talent. Apparently, her great-grandfather was recruited to locate landmines during World War I. He returned to Ozieri unharmed at the war’s end. She says her father is disappointed that the gift took a pass on him.

I ask her if she thinks there’s a scientific explanation and she shrugs. I ask her boyfriend, Massimo, if he’s seen her do this and he says yes. I ask if she’ll show me and she agrees. I ask if I can film it and they both laugh, but acquiesce. As of this writing we have yet to go spring-hunting together, but I’m optimistic.

What gets me on the day that we have this conversation is that she tells me the story the same way she might tell me about her first day of school, learning to swim, her baptism… She’s almost indifferent. None of the bright-eyed enthusiasm of the ghost stories I shared with friends as a kid, no knowing grin to show that it’s all in good fun. This was just another developmental point in her life. No more or less important than any of the other things I listed.

This casual approach to the supernatural is something I’ve been noticing more and more in the books I’m reading as well. Ghosts, demons, boogeymen, magic…These are books valued for their supposedly mimetic qualities, and yet that seems to beg the question: does including the supernatural improve a book that is trying to imitate the human experience? Three novels I’ve recently read suggest the answer is yes.

Fumiko Enchi’s 1958 novel Masks is an exquisitely crafted story of adultery, mourning, manipulation, and female power. Despite being published fifty-five years ago, the book reads with a subtlety that refuses to be pinned to any time period. The characters defy stereotypes of gender and class, the descriptions are clear and character-driven, the accessories of modernity ignored, and the original themes shuffled neatly together with the ancient text it draws on, The Tale of the Genji. On a fundamental level it is a book that addresses a particular set of sinister characteristics to which most readers can relate. And the major theme linking all of the characters is spirit possession.

The literal masks of the novel are from the Japanese Nō play tradition dating back to the fourteenth century. Several masks in particular are chosen to represent the female characters of the novel because of their supernatural significance and the way they figure into classic Japanese literature. Enchi’s use of these masks as symbols is an incredibly effective form of characterization. Take, for example, the matriarchal schemer Mieko Toganō. Much of the narrative arc is dictated by the way she manipulates the other characters into a series of illicit and secretive relationships. Nearly all the other characters are referred to at some point as her “puppets.” She sends her widowed daughter-in-law on a train ride back to Kyoto with a married man, intending to tempt him into doing something rash. In fact, he spontaneously disembarks from the train with the daughter-in-law, Yasuko, in a resort town, where they enjoy a night of extramarital pleasure. My first thought on reading this passage was, “Wow, Mieko really is just like the Ryō no onna.[2]” In other words, by relating her characters to the spirit figures of the Nō masks, Enchi is able to keep characters emotionally and psychically present in scenes where they are physically absent. What’s even more astounding is that this style of characterization does not make the book seem any less verisimilar. Instead, it makes the characters more relatable by literalizing that feeling we’ve all had of being watched while doing something we shouldn’t.

Further, by “naturalizing” these supernatural aspects of the book very quickly—as early as page seven we see the characters participating in a séance—Enchi has more freedom to exaggerate these same aspects as the narrative continues. For example, the antihero, Mikamé, goes to bed with Yasuko. Mid-coitus, she somehow changes places with another woman, then switches back before morning without Mikamé noticing. I didn’t bat an eyelash when this happened. Different Nō masks represent both women. In the end, the masks reveal more than they hide.

The supernatural tradition in Masks is based on performance and ritual and is codified into a complex group of archetypes and mythos. Virtually all of our superstitious rituals in Philadelphia, on the other hand, have to do with either sports or gambling. Take, for example, the so-called Curse of Billy Penn. When One Liberty Place went up in 1987—surpassing the height of the William Penn statue on City Hall—Philadelphia sports teams had a twenty-year dry spell. Then, upon completing construction of the Comcast Center in 2007, a statue of William Penn was placed atop the final beam. The Phillies won the World Series a year later. If you doubt the significance of this event to Philadelphian culture, I might add that this story made national news. Not just that the Phils won the World Series, but that they did it after paying tribute to our local mythology.

Compare that to the superstitious tradition here in Sardinia. The ritual of the mamuthones dates back about 2000 years and persists to this day in several different festivals. Twelve men from the town of Mamoiada dress themselves in black or brown sheepskins and hoist sixty pounds of cowbells onto their backs, dotting the pelts like ladybug wings. However, as in the Nō plays, the most striking part of the costume is the hand-carved, wooden mask. The broad, flat brow encroaches on the eyes, which push out to the side in apparent concentration. The nose is pugilistic: fat and long and distended to one side or the other. The mouth is a tragic warrior’s grimace, thick-lipped and roughly hewn. The mamuthones perform a shuffling dance through the streets, the bells clanging on their backs, their shouts billowing out of the masks like storm clouds rolling in off the sea. This festival is intended to frighten evil spirits and small children into the countryside surrounding Mamoiada.

Why does the ritualistic engagement with the supernatural improve mimetic literature? Because it is in and of itself a creative process. Because it accesses our faith, the most bizarre and challenging aspect of our character. Because it recalls and strengthens our ties to our ancestors, whom we mythologize in textbooks and deify in museums. Because to future societies our current ritualistic practices will be as ridiculous as spirit possession and shaking bells at evil spirits are to us. Good mimetic fiction includes the unreal characteristics of real life.

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke, the supernatural element is scaled back from cultural practice to individual experience. Rather than putting on the mask of a middle-aged lover spurned in an ancient fable, Life is the mask that we constantly wear, removing it only upon death. Incidentally, of the millions of words penned on the subject of death, Malte’s are the most interesting I’ve yet to encounter:

When I think of home, where no one is any longer, I believe that earlier it must have been different. Earlier one knew (or perhaps surmised) that one had death within oneself, like fruit the seed. Children had a small death in themselves and grownups a big one. Women had it in their wombs and men in their chests. One had it, and that gave one a special dignity and a quiet pride. (6; author’s emphasis)

Death is a kernel that lives inside us from our conception. Picture it growing inside you your entire life, blossoming out through your mouth with your final breath like a day lily at first light. Malte’s fixation on death—it is the subject or leading metaphor of most of his notes—is totally alien to Sardinian mythology and culture. Death is something that happens to other people—to my enemies, to people in other countries, to people who leave the island. Perhaps it is this attitude that explains their longevity: they have the most male centenarians in the world despite a robust culture of cigarettes, red wine, rich food, and pollution. The attitude I’ve noticed in Philly is closer to a mixture of these two perspectives. We joke about cancer, but in our private moments we think, “It won’t happen to me.” We talk about the tragedy of living in a city with nearly 400 murders a year without being able to separate the real, personal, human tragedy of each and every one of these murders from the featureless, ageless statistic in the newspaper. For Malte, every death is a flashbulb memory. Early in the book, he describes the death of a character called the chamberlain who passed while Malte was still a child. He recalls the way the dogs quivered looking at the door to the chamberlain’s bedroom, the deafening struggle against Death personified that lasted ten weeks, the resentment of the villagers robbed of their sleep by his tortured howls. Malte even remembers the obscure dying words of a Danish king that his father kept scribbled on a piece of paper in his wallet. His ability to look at death with such equanimity is at first astounding, but it’s more understandable when a ghost walks into the room. After all, death is a lot less intimidating when it isn’t final.

The scene takes place in his father’s family’s castle, during dinner. Malte is seated with his father, uncle, and grandfather at the table when the entrance of some distant, female relative—who happens to be deceased—interrupts the conversation. The manner in which he reports this incident is completely absurd. No white sheets or chains or moaning. The ghost walks in one door and out the other and no one is frightened. His uncle laughs it off and his father gets angry, inexplicably. This scene repeats itself several times before the chapter ends, each time reported in an unfazed, journalistic voice. In other words, it’s totally normal for a ghost to show up every now and then. What’s more, these apparitions aren’t limited to people. While describing a visit to a family called the Schulins, Malte mentions that, “[their] big old castle had burned down several years before, and now they lived in the two narrow side-wings,” (102). Despite this misfortune, when the Brigge family sleigh arrives to the Schulin residence, Malte remarks that a ghost-presence of the castle remains:

But suddenly there was the outline of the grounds, high, almost above one, and one found oneself in the long drive. The sound no longer fell away entirely; it was as if it were hanging in clusters on the trees left and right. Then one swung around and drove around something and past something on the right and stopped in the middle…Georg had completely forgotten that the big house was not there, and for all of us at that moment it was there. (103)

It’s interesting that while it is not only the child Malte who sees the ghost-house, he is the only one who refuses to let go of what he saw. On the next page the Brigge family is discovered by the Schulins and invited inside. Malte’s father remarks, “We’re wandering around here like ghosts,” and his mother adds, “But there was a house there just now,” and then they are caught up in the visit with old friends and forget all about it. Meanwhile, Malte continuously tries to get away from the company to explore the ghost-house. His hosts, noticing his agitation, think he needs to use the bathroom and poke fun at him when he refuses to be shown where it is. He comments that he can sense the other house there and that he pities the others for ignoring that which they surely must also feel.

Moreover, ghosts are not the only supernatural figures in Rilke’s novel. While the vestiges of people and places past play a major role in the development of Malte’s character, just as important is the following interaction in the middle of the novel. Malte recounts an experience he had as a child drawing a knight at the writing desk in his bedroom:

I looked at my hand, I still remember, almost curiously; it seemed as if it could do things I had not taught it as it tapped around down there so independently, with motions I had never seen it make. I pursued it as it pressed forward, it interested me, I was prepared for anything. But how could I have prepared for another hand suddenly coming out of the wall toward mine, a bigger, uncommonly skinny hand of a kind I had never seen. (69)

This is one of the most compelling scenes in the book. Though Malte is twenty-eight years old at the time in which he’s writing the notebooks, he frequently intersperses scenes of his childhood and adolescence with a familiar, convincing tone. This really is fiction mimicking real life, and the way Rilke writes children is pitch perfect. Though Malte escapes the dangers of the bodiless hand, he notes that his governess was worried about his pale appearance when she put him to bed that night. He remarks that, “If there were words for this event I was too small to find them. And suddenly I was seized by the fear that they could, beyond my age, suddenly be there, these words, and it seemed to me more terrible than anything to have to utter them,” (70).

It’s worth noting that all of Malte’s interactions with the supernatural seem to occur while he is still a child. This is not a trivial detail. In Masks, we see a group of adults with a communal superstition that is only ever implied. The presence of Mieko Toganō in the bedroom with the lovers is psychic; spirit possession is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. In Rilke’s novel, his character interacts with the spirits on an introverted, physical basis. I’m not saying that Malte didn’t see a ghost, or a ghost-house, or a disembodied hand underneath his writing desk. But I am saying that at a certain age Malte seems to grow out of his belief in the boogeyman.

From a modern American perspective, I think this type of encounter with the supernatural is slightly more relatable than that of Masks. We may not have the rituals that they have in Japan or Sardinia, but we most certainly have the ghost stories, the boogeyman, the baffling experiences that we futilely try to relate to our friends and family. I remember that as a child I would leap into bed while still a few paces away from the mattress rather than climbing in from the side. I was always afraid that at the last moment a monster’s hand would shoot out from underneath the bed frame and drag me by the ankle into its gaping maw. Of course, looking back, that’s a ridiculous phobia to entertain. And yet, when I think about it, I can still feel a cold, anxious prickling in my left foot when I’m lying down at night. I know there’s no monster under the bed, but simply by virtue of remembering this, the idea of a monster becomes more imposing. This is the way I read Malte’s childhood interactions with the supernatural. They are the uncomprehending, stubborn, naïve projections of a child with a powerful imagination. This variation of supernatural imagery in realistic fiction is successful foremost because we can all relate to a child like Malte who feels helpless in the face of concepts he can’t understand, but also because his adult perspective on these childhood memories can enrich our own comprehension of the child’s mind.

In one of my English classes we got onto the topic of these kinds of ghost stories. We’d been talking about children and I mentioned that one way American parents get their kids to eat their vegetables is by threatening to call the boogeyman. They told me that the Sardinian equivalent of the boogeyman was a figure known only as “l’uomo nero,” literally, “the Black Man.” My students were divided on whether or not this name had any racial basis,[3] but in the popular literature it says that the moniker is derived from the image of a black, gaseous, ghost-like figure with no legs. At least one of my students, who is a parent, said she had used the threat of the Black Man to get her children to go to sleep, which to me sounds like a recipe for a nightmare. I find it interesting that these supernatural images are so universally effective in coercing children to act right. It’s not just that they believe such figures as the boogeyman could exist, but also that these figures would exist to enforce the arbitrary rules decided upon by their parents.

Apparently, just one boogeyman wasn’t enough for the Sardinians. Even more disturbing than the Black Man is sa Mama ‘e su Sole (in Italian: la Madre del Sole; English: The Sun’s Mother/Mother Sun). One of my students from the region of Gallura—not too far from Sassari—explained to me that this folkloric creature was used to keep children from playing outside during the summer afternoons, when they’re at risk of heat exhaustion. The story goes that the Mother Sun floats through the streets when the sun is at its hottest, looking for children who have disobeyed their parents and gone out to play. When she finds one, the Mother Sun chases them until they are out of breath, marks them on the forehead, and leaves them with an intense fever that will last for days. Less popular variations of this character are the Mother Cold, Mother Fire, and Mother Wind, which suggests that Sardinian children live in a constant state of panicked awareness and may also help to explain the outrageous fear of the elements that so many of them develop later in life. Like Malte Laurids Brigge, the Italians ditch the boogeyman at a certain age. And unlike Malte, they replace him with invented illnesses like la cervicale.

La cervicale—which has no English equivalent whether linguistic or medical—is an illness that affects the bones in the back of your neck, causing acute pain and uncontrollable complaining. The most common cause is walking outside with wet hair, but according to one Italian health website the causes and symptoms are quite numerous. There’s also the “colpo d’aria,” or, “hit of air.” This is when the cold air—perhaps Mother Wind—gets into your jacket and launches an attack on specific parts of your body. That is, you don’t suffer from a hit of air in general, as with the flu. Instead, you suffer in one place. You can take a hit of air to the abdomen or in your ear canal or even in your throat—exacerbating that nasty case of la cervicale you got the day before when you were late for work and didn’t have time to towel off completely. These kinds of psychosomatic ailments reflect a deep fear of exposure to the elements. In my opinion, this fear begins with the stories about Nature in the form of a vindictive spirit that punishes lapses in caution. As serious as they make their pain sound, however, I find it curious that one of the most helpful remedies for both of these maladies is to be let to the front of the line at the post office or supermarket.[4]

The same day that Valeria told me about her skills as a diviner, we talked about another strange aspect of Sardinian superstition: healing women. Though Italy has public healthcare, some Sardinians still choose to go to what I can only call witch doctors for their ailments. Using a mixture of home remedies, prayer, and spells, these women successfully cure warts, fevers, sore throats, and a whole host of other minor illnesses. Some of them, according to Valeria, are endowed with a sort of contagious positive energy that they spread through touch. She told me about one woman—short, rotund, rosy-cheeked—who worked in a daycare and had this power. She said the woman was always smiling, always hugging people, and that all it took was for the woman to lay her hand on your face and you would feel “warm and happy” for the rest of the day. The rules of divination apply here as well, with some variation: no money but gifts are okay, Valeria’s mom tends to run the rotund woman’s clothes down to the Laundromat; the talent is hereditary, but can be developed only if you believe; the study of a witch doctor’s remedies can only be pursued when the moon is in a certain phase; and so on, and so on. What really interested me about this was that apparently the Italian pharmaceutical companies have tried to purchase the remedies these women use and have been flat out denied.

While certain incarnations of Sardinian superstition persist today, there is one member notoriously missing from the modern cast of characters: the soothsayer, such as can be found in rural areas of Campania and Sicily. These figures were once common in every region of the country. Conscious of this, Jeanette Winterson revives the soothsayer in her novel about Venice, The Passion. This book, set in the Napoleonic era, employs the supernatural in a more varied and unbelievable manner than Masks or The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The boatmen of Venice have webbed feet, for example, or an ex-priest from Ireland is capable of seeing great distances without the aid of a telescope, or a woman literally steals her lover’s heart and weaves it into a tapestry in a ceremony resembling voodoo…These elements of the novel are like anecdotes passed down through oral tradition, and create the same sense of extravagant reality that you might expect in a fairy tale. In the case of the soothsayer, she is a woman described as an exile from the city of Venice, living in squalor and hidden in a place known only to boatmen:

One woman who kept a fleet of boats and a string of cats and dealt in spices lives here now, in the silent city. I cannot tell how old she may be, her hair is green with slime from the walls of the nook she lives in. She feeds on vegetable matter that snags against the stones when the tide is sluggish. She has no teeth. She has no need of teeth. (54)

When approached by a boat, she asks the pilot what time it is and then gives her mystic advice. To the protagonist—Villanelle, an employee in a casino—she says, “Beware the dice and games of chance.” Later, when introduced to Villanelle’s love interest, Henri, the soothsayer tells him to, “Beware of old enemies in new disguises,” (115). Though this seems somewhat tacky when separated from the world of Winterson’s book, these warnings are actually strong narrative devices that mimic the style of folklore. The reader is given a partial clue that borders on—but doesn’t cross into—dramatic irony, which makes the story all the more intriguing.

The plot alternates between two points of view: Villanelle’s experiences in the underworld of Venice and Europe at large, and Henri’s time as a soldier in Napoleon’s Russian campaign. While the former storyline is told with the complex embroidery of the supernatural, the latter is an unembellished account of a poor man starving to death while serving as the emperor’s personal waiter. In one sense, the mysticism of Venice softens the blow of Henri’s suffering. However, the most enthralling sections of the plot are the places in which these two storylines intersect, and further, from what perspective. For example, when Henri encounters Villanelle for the first time in the frozen wastelands of Russia—the villages burned down around him, the bodies of his comrades dotting the landscape—the supernatural elements of her character are crushed by Henri’s despair. And then, when they reach Venice, the story returns to Villanelle’s point of view and the magic returns, even increases in intensity. In sequences that recall Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the pair navigates the canals of Venice, which are described as shifting shape and course, rendering maps useless.

Winterson’s novel is short—only 160 pages—and yet she very quickly manages to establish the functions of a sophisticated supernatural mechanism. Even the most extraordinary elements of the novel are believable and real because they read like embellishments of true events. To put it another way, the book is a sophisticated version of the fish story. Every detail is taken to an extreme level and is subject to spontaneous changes. Individual characters play separate, exclusive roles in the narratives.

I think it’s obvious how the supernatural elements of this novel improve its version of the human experience. They represent life as we wish it was, and sometimes feel it is. When I read descriptions of the winding Venetian canals that open onto secret places that only the locals know, it reminds me of sweaty, summer nights spent whirring through different neighborhoods of Philadelphia on my bicycle, finding tucked-away cantinas and gardens that glowed like paper lanterns in a lagoon. Having your heart stolen, bewitched, and later recovered is a cycle that we all know well. The magic of Sassari is in palm trees draped with string lights that twitch like silk worms, winds that carry the sands of North Africa, wild dogs sunning themselves under the statue of a king. A child runs up to me in the piazza and calls me “poppa” and suddenly I am a shape shifter. I don’t want to walk through life without seeing the supernatural beauty in these otherwise ordinary moments. The point that Winterson makes with her novel is that we don’t have to.

David Foster Wallace remarked that “…fiction that isn’t exploring what it means to be a human today isn’t art.” And yet, his work is filled with the same forms of the supernatural as Enchi’s, Rilke’s, and Winterson’s. Wraiths and poltergeists, out-of-body experiences, giant, radioactive babies… We can draw two conclusions from this. 1. He was a hypocrite, or 2. He believed that the inclusion of the supernatural was preferable, maybe even necessary, for a book that wanted to explore the human condition. We as humans are fascinated by and obsessed with the supernatural, and this includes those of us who don’t believe any of it is real. We can use these extraordinary, bewildering concepts as vehicles to address the mundane. We can satirize our most sacred institutions. We can cast spells on things that we might otherwise not look at twice, all while tacitly admitting that none of it is real. And that’s the beauty of fiction: it’s telling the lie that you think most resembles the truth.

 *

For Josephine DiMaria

*

Malcolm Bates is a writer who teaches English in Sardinia.

Photograph by SehLax


[1] Not her real name.

[2] “Literally, ‘spirit woman.’ Said to represent the vengeful spirit of an older woman tormented beyond the grave by an unrequited love.” (Translator Juliet Winters Carpenter’s note)

[3] This is not completely out of the question, considering the traditional Sardinian flag: a Saint George Cross adorned with the blindfolded and severed heads of four Moors. The design was amended to something slightly less controversial in 1999. Meaning the Moors’ heads were turned to face the other direction and the blindfolds slid up to their foreheads.

[4] For a more in-depth look at this subject, read Dany Mitzman’s piece on the BBC website, “How to Avoid Getting Hit By Air in Italy.”

I Have No Notes In My Pocket

In Reports on March 27, 2013 at 7:00 am

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Jen Bervin and “The Letter As It Was Found.”

A Report from the 2nd Annual DuPlessis Lecture

by Christopher Schaeffer

One of the iconic moments of Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, the landmark study of Dickinson as proto-experimentalist, is the account of Howe’s visit to Harvard’s Dickinson manuscripts. As Howe examines Dickinson’s handwriting, the material facts of her text, she’s constantly aware of operating under the institutional and curatorial gaze of a fiercely protective academic apparatus that has, for decades, kept the collection close to its chest. The school’s famous guardedness of the poet’s papers and the difficulty researchers have in talking their way into the collection is, by now, as much a part of the popular image of Dickinson as guarded and distant as the quasi-Gothic biographical sketches offered up by her first generation of editors and critics. Contemporary Dickinson scholars like Victoria Jackson, Alexandra Socarides, and Marta Werner are keenly aware of the troubled knot of distinct difficulties in approaching her work—the often ambiguous, tantalizingly gnomic elements of the texts as we’ve received them (most often through Ralph Franklin’s thorough editions), the fraught material history of the fascicles, letters, scraps, and sheets that editors are left to work with, and, finally, the bureaucratic and academic barriers surrounding those originary textual artifacts. If readers of Dickinson are asked to contend with irresolvable issues of appearance, disclosure, and scale, then Dickinson scholars are pressed with the task of taking those irresolvable issues, translating them into practical problems of reading and assembling, and then, impossibly, resolving them. As critical practices catch up to Dickinson’s diffuse, elusive poetics, our methods of reading them grow equivalently unstable and slippery.

Poet Jen Bervin is no stranger to the fragmentary, disappearing text. Her most well-known book, Nets, performs erasures on Shakespeare’s sonnets in order to create spare, elliptic poems girded by the faint grey text of the original visible behind the erasure’s bolder script. Her recent talk at Temple University’s second annual DuPlessis Lecture in Poetry & Poetics, “The Letter As It Was Found,” focused on a trio of just-completed or in-progress projects that similarly explore issues of the text’s invisible historical and material background, the boundaries of genre, text, and textile.

Two of Bervin’s projects engage directly with the textual condition of Dickinson as we encounter her, but they take drastically different approaches towards the material aporia facing any critical reader of her texts. “The Dickinson Composites” takes these gaps and vacancies as aesthetic—citing Dickinson’s own definitions of “nothing” as “the force that renovates the world,” and “no” as “the wildest word we consign to language.” It’s a startlingly affirmative framing of a linguistic negative that invites readers/viewers to embrace the ambiguities of interpretation and re-orient their attention on the tactile and material valences of the text. Bervin examined several of Dickinson’s fascicles, the hand-bound paper pamphlets in which many of her poems have survived, and digitally removed the text qua text that a reader might find in a reading edition—leaving a blank page dotted with the small “X” marks Dickinson inserted throughout each piece to indicate alternatives or variations. Bervin then exactingly translated these page-artifacts onto 6×8 foot fabric quilts, with the variation marks then stitched onto this batting with red silk thread. The end result—originally exhibited hung from the walls of a gallery—is haunting and provoking; without the possibility of a lyric reading of Dickinson’s words, the surface of her page is transformed into a minimalistic, ominous landscape. At the same time, the new tactile horizon of Bervin’s thick white batting, red silk, and blue thread, evokes the lexicon of domesticity that still clings to the popular image of Dickinson, bed-bound, matronly, and supremely interior. Of course, the thick, contoured material of the quilting and the raised surface of the dashes points discomfortingly to a more organic, breathing surface than either the fine paper of Dickinson’s original fascicles or the hyper-flattened, hyper-translated surface of her poems as they exist in the marketplace of letters. Bervin’s key metaphor for this project is atomic, describing the dashes scattered across the surface of the batting as electrons in the galaxy of the crossmarks, indications of motion and activity that, without the nominally stable referent of the poems themselves, assume a mysterious and mutable significance. Yet, as with all of the pieces she discussed, “The Dickinson Composites” ultimately leads us back to the text and the inadequacies of its current critical availability—as our eyes linger on her quilts, outsized and compelling, we become acutely aware of the absence of this materiality in more conventionally type-set and curated editions of Dickinson’s poems.

If “The Dickinson Composites” magnified the miniature, effaced marks of a manuscript in order to draw attention to their lack in widely available editions of Dickinson, “The Gorgeous Nothings” performs a parallel operation, aimed, instead of at highlighting a void in our understanding of Dickinson, at filling such a void. One of the problems facing Dickinson editors is precisely the indeterminate qualities of each poem, not only as it exists in, often, multiple editions and forms, but as it functions on the level of the individual fascicle page, letter, or scrap. How should an editor interpret competing versions of a single poem, word variations and sometimes ambiguous scriptural indications within each poem, or even the barrier between what, among her letters, should be cut out and framed as a poem and what should be framed as purely epistolary? A straight-forward transcription that incorporates all possible combinations of Dickinson’s variations and revisions would be impractically lengthy and tangled, even with the horizon of digital publication; editions like Franklin’s Variorum or The Master Letters, which pair photo reproductions of Dickinson’s manuscript pages with type-set transcription, inevitably must take liberties in that setting, and risk overshadowing her original script; and even the most conscientious editor must eventually decide on some rubric of distinguishing what should be or could be read as poetry, thereby imposing an arbitrary formal decision on a large body of text often ambiguous in its system of lineation and genre-engagement. Consider for example, Howe’s famous clash with R.W. Franklin over issues of lineation—should some of Dickinson’s letters, per Howe, be read on the level of the line? Or, per Franklin, should we think about the stanza/paragraph as her basic unit of composition? Or, as several critics following in Howe’s footpaths ask, do both interpretations impose an arbitrary heuristic that distorts “the letter as it was found”?

Although Bervin gestures only briefly at these interpretive challenges, this is the background that “The Gorgeous Nothing” exists in the context of, and Bervin’s hyper-acute curatorial-cum-archaeological approach as well as her focus on those Dickinson poems which exist, literally, on the margins of her archive, stand as an implicit challenge to the problems of canonicity that at once make the critical apparatus surrounding Dickinson possible, and stand in the way of potentially radical ways of cutting through the restrictive elements of that apparatus.

“The Gorgeous Nothings,” completed in partnership with Dickinson scholar Marta Warner, is essentially an attempt to isolate a small corner of Dickinson’s over 3,500 manuscripts and perform, with exacting fidelity to the text, some sort of textual object which provides a resource towards understanding and historicizing the manuscript text without obfuscating or effacing it—a “diplomatic transcript,” that, she claims, are a key into, rather than a replacement of, Dickinson’s hand and materials.

The artist book, a copy of which was available to be perused after the reading, is a collection of 48 individual, double-sided facsimiles of Dickinson’s envelope fragments, accompanied by smaller, visually marginalized “visual transcriptions” that utilize a special typeface to locate the more readable “copy” of Dickinson’s text in such a way that her usage of space and container is faithfully reproduced. The textual fragments that Bervin and Warner work with here are, for the most part, the “envelope poems” of the 1870s and 80s, written on the interior surfaces of envelopes, blurring the distinction of the epistolary vocabulary and working bivalently as poems-as-letters, poems-in-letters, and poems floating on the outskirts of the semiotic landscape of the letter.

Bervin’s dictum for this project can be condensed as “scrap has value here”—and, as part of her doggedly materialist approach, the visual orientation of the reproductions goes far in reuniting the gesturally fragmented elements of these texts with their more literally fragmented origin—tucked at angles in the corners of envelops, scribed in the torn apart interiors of them, functioning as texts that swarm and fill surfaces that, unfolded and defaced, are always-already distorted by their unsuspecting reclamation as surfaces of poetic production rather than prosaic circulation. The formal and material history of these texts abut uncomfortably with the comfortably canonical stature given to them by the formal modes of anthologization and the “reading copy”—but in restoring them to a position as fleeting, improvised, aggressively “minor” texts, Bervin is not so much diminishing the poems as much as performing a reparative reading of the minor and the provisional as legitimate modes of composition. “When we say small,” she says, “we mean less. When Dickinson says ‘small,’ she means ‘fabric,’ ‘atoms,’ the North Star.” That is, spaces which, although initially apparent as infinitesimal and uniform, expand to disclose a whole discursive universe of surfaces, contours, and sites of activity—a radical reframing of scale, a fractal expansion of domestic space, an investigative cracking that unleashes pent up forces of interpretation and production. We, like Dickinson, gain full access to the living surfaces of these texts by splitting open the contours of materials like the envelope as objects-of-use—by detourning their dimensions and forms in such a way to explode normative spaces of writing and inscribing our poetic and critical approaches in the inaccessible corners and on the margins of tiny tears and rips.

Bervin foregrounds her desire to use this project as a means of reframing these particular texts as gestural, unstable, epistolary and essentially mobile, and describes the process of reshaping her manuscript material as “reshaping light”—that is, perhaps, traversing the invisible medium through which we perform even our most naïve readings. This attempt to restore visibility, if not to the aetheric medium through which we as readers engage with the site of the text, then at least to the historical and editorial issues of manuscript scholarship and the textual condition, is the most compelling dimension of “The Gorgeous Nothing,” and the element which could be the most instrumental to future Dickinson scholars. In producing an edition which places primary importance on the ways in which Dickinson uses the page, and, in some cases, transgressively misuses the intended purposes of her surfaces, we return to the texts as heterogeneous, dispersed across multiple modes of address and transmission, and always bound to specific and conditional methods of production. “Sometimes Dickinson fills a space like water fills a vessel,” Bervin notes. Although, as a limited edition, $3,500 artist’s book, the current capacity for “The Gorgeous Nothings” to widely impact the way Dickinson scholars approach the relationship between water and vessel is indeed limited, a forthcoming mass-market edition through New Directions (along the lines, perhaps, of their recent edition of Walser’s similarly minute Microscripts) promises to make largely accessible an edition that offers a rigorously manuscript-oriented Dickinson resource to an audience potentially unable to access Franklin’s authoritative but problematic Variorum edition, and even less likely to have access to Harvard’s manuscript collection (although, in a nice piece of synchronicity, Bervin’s talk followed only weeks on the heels of Amherst College Library’s public release, in digital form, of their own substantial collection of Dickinson poems and letters).

Bervin’s final piece, The Silk Poems, is a work in progress that, although not explicitly based in Dickinson, extends many of Bervin’s Dickinsonian interrogations of the miniature spaces and concealed materiality of poetic production. Drawing on contemporary research on nano-patterning and optical reading as much as on centuries old traditions of silk-typography in Chinese and Arabic fiber-art, The Silk Poems takes the titular material as both its subject and its form. Bervin envisions the final horizon of the project as a single, tiny sheet of optically patterned silk nano-fibers which, acting as a lens for a beam of fiber-optic light, could contain or project the entire project-worth of lyric text—treating the minutely grooved, glossy silk-surface as a medium suspended somewhere between the grooves of a DVD or CD and the inverted, improvisational surfaces of Dickinson’s split envelopes. This piece, which seems, at this point, to waver in a point of fruitful tension with archaic and cutting-edge material practices, offers a potential reversal of the way contemporary poetics regards the issues of disclosure, opacity, and the minute both in Dickinson studies and in general. Unlike “The Dickinson Composites,” which took the formal coordinates of erasure and the material conditions of access and legibility as starting points to new, hybrid pieces of textual/textural art, or “The Gorgeous Nothings,” which hew closer to Dickinson and offer to amend issues visible in the manuscripts rather than appending matter onto them, The Silk Poems seems to shrewdly refuse to frame the diminishing visibility or accessibility of a textual originality as a site of crisis at all.

Rather than framing the material facts of the The Silk Poems as problematic, the fragility, small size, and demand for a technologically mediated reading implicit in their vessel is bound insolubly with the content of the poems themselves—an invitation or provocation to consider the text of the poem in intimate conversation with the bibliographical history of its coming into being, with the tactile facts of the legible field it rests against. As with her Dickinson pieces, Bervin’s call is, essentially, to work amidst a new mode of reading, one which advocates for access and disclosure without effacing the necessary difficulty or resistance of locating text in its proper context. Just as “The Gorgeous Nothing” proposes a bridge between the flattened, homogenized poems of widely available reading editions and the difficult (to read and to access) manuscripts, and “The Dickinson Composites” creates a new artifact in precisely the void between those two poles, The Silk Poems adamantly refuses to concede itself to established norms of reading or encountering text—in simultaneously re-examining and re-deploying the material archive of historical creators (citing a recent TED Talk on silk nano-sheet, Bervin asks “how do we reinvent a 5,000 year old material?”) and pointing to provisional paths forward, Bervin’s projects enact a poetics that is passionately committed to a model of radical and avowedly material contemporaneity.

*

Christopher Schaeffer is currently a student at Temple’s MFA program, and will be entering their PhD program in the Fall. He lives in Philadelphia with his fiance.

Photo: cartwheelgalaxy.tumblr.com

Precious Cargo

In Reports on March 6, 2013 at 7:00 am

doorsSRDNIA

A Report from Sassari

by Malcolm Bates

Before the ink had dried on my diploma I came to Sardinia to be an English teacher, that perennial job of disgruntled ex-pats. For the month of September I lived in a small city called Alghero on the western coast while I earned my certification. Then, right around the time my meager savings ran out, I was offered a teaching position in Sassari, a larger city about forty minutes to the east by car.

I’ve never been good at leaving. It’s just that I don’t like to think about it. There are certain things that are impossible to prepare for, including moving to a new country. I’d prefer to just end up at the airport one day with a ticket and bag, almost by surprise. So the day before I left for Sardinia, I threw some clothes and toiletries into a black duffel and held a protracted single-elimination tournament to decide which books would be coming with me. The final list looked like this:

           Ways of Seeing, John Berger

           Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges

           Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

           Final Exam, Julio Cortazar

           The Recognitions, William Gaddis

           The Hemingway Reader, Ernest Hemingway (Charles Poore, Editor)

           Sea and Sardinia, D.H. Lawrence

I also brought one of those books of writer’s devotionals called Walking On Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy and a short story collection called Seven Contemporary Chinese Women Writers whose title page offered no editor, no publishing house, no translator, and essentially only said that it had been printed in 1982 in the People’s Republic of China.

I was spending nine hours a day studying English grammar in a cramped room with ten other students, so my reading mostly coincided with my meals. Rising in the dark with the fishermen and feral cats, I’d take my coffee and pastry al fresco at the café across the street from my school and spray crumbs across the pages of a paperback. In the afternoon, I’d walk to the park and share my bagged lunch with one of the many stray dogs in the city – which all, mysteriously, wear collars – and the bookmark would shift a few millimeters toward The End. But the majority of my reading took place at night, at the dinner table with a bottle of red wine and a plate of pasta, the door open onto the terrace, rogue grains of sand skating in on the warm autumn wind.

I started with Sea and Sardinia, a gift from my brother in anticipation of my departure. Having never read Lawrence before, I was totally unprepared for his writing style, which oscillates between sentences attenuated like post-it-note reminders and maximalist descriptive paragraphs that bury the reader in an avalanche of modifiers. It was the perfect book to begin with: the protagonist is himself an ex-pat on a journey through Sardinia, he speaks Italian well and combines the local mythology of the different cities with the distance and curiosity of an outsider, and the book’s opening line, “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move,” was easily appropriated as my own impetus to relocate. Though I had spent very little time outside of Alghero or Sassari, I felt that I somehow knew the island better after finishing this book. His descriptions of inns, bus rides, crowds of men throwing elbows in front of a ticket booth are told as if to someone who already knows how the story ends—who was there when it all happened. When a student or a friend mentioned places like Nuoro and Cagliari, it felt good to have a picture of them in my mind, even if the pictures weren’t real.

More importantly, it showed me how relatively little has changed here over the last century. Sure, the Sardinians have kept up with the same innovations as the rest of the world—smartphones, air conditioning, supermarkets, —but there’s something intransigent about this society. The Sardinians of Lawrence’s novel are completely convincing; they could be the parents or grandparents of some of my students. The way the Sassaresi men brag to the protagonist about the particularity of their dialect – which, I confess, is Greek to me – the observations about unlocked doors and personal belongings left unattended in the streets, even the absurdly high incidence of hypochondria are all characteristics of Sardinia that persist today.

About a month after I moved to Sassari, a man I had met exactly one time before invited me to dinner. He took me to his friend’s apartment, where I ate and drank with him and six people he had known his entire life. The hospitality here is legendary. After dinner, I indulged my repulsive habit of seeing what people keep on their bookshelves. Wedged into a beautiful, wall-mounted spiral bookcase, what should I find but Il Mare e la Sardegna. The hostess caught me looking and asked if I’d read it. I told her I had, in Alghero. She said she’d never managed to get through it, and asked if it ended happily.

“More or less. He goes back to Sicily,” I said.

She frowned thoughtfully and said, “It could be worse.”

When I’d finished Sea and Sardinia I picked up a book I’d been waiting to read for months: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Apart from being one of my favorite authors, Calvino is probably the most important Italian writer since Dante (sorry, Pirandello). Like most of his books, Invisible Cities is short and ruminative, valuing description and philosophy over narrative. It alternates between scenes of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan conversing in the Khan’s palace and Polo’s accounts of the cities he has seen in his travels. Even more than Sea and Sardinia, this book stoked the flames of restlessness that had led me to the island. Polo’s stories about the cities he’s known read like fairy tales, and evoke Escher-like structures: narcissistic cities of gigantic mirrors, fatalistic cities suspended from ropes, static cities with no negative space – where for every flight of stairs there is a counter-flight completing a perfect square – cities entirely paradoxical where to enter is to leave and where you would not recognize your own reflection. His gift for imagination and style places you in town squares filled with women wearing bronze necklaces and clay jars full of mustard seeds. I grew impatient as we neared breaks from class, eager to get back to the peculiar geography Calvino had mapped.

Just like the best fairy tales, Invisible Cities hides an instructive secret—a moral of sorts—that he hints at about fifty pages in, first saying, “There is no language without deceit,” and then, several pages later:

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else. (page 48)

In the end, Polo reveals that all the cities he’s described are contained in Venice, his hometown. Reading this, I realized how much of my home I still carried with me, little pieces of fantasies, fragmentary and deceitful as all memories are. Even now, when I walk the streets of Sassari, I find myself imposing Philadelphia on my surroundings. I see a young man who looks just like my friend Josh, or I think that the historic center is somewhat like Kensington, or else it’s something as trivial as my bus running late. Or sometimes Philadelphia imposes itself on me: a pyramid of familiar cream cheese in the supermarket mixed in with the Bel Paese and the pecorino, a Canadian ex-pat telling me that her favorite band is The Roots, one of my students revealing that her son studies at UPenn… After reading Invisible Cities, I understood that by leaving Philly I was entering it more deeply, seeing the city as I never could have if I had stayed.

I’d made a friend through the certification program named Andrew and every now and then we’d talk about books. One time he needed some reading material for an upper-intermediate level class and asked me if I had anything. I lent him The Hemingway Reader indefinitely and in return he let me borrow The Passion by Jeanette Winterson and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. While The Passion still sits gathering dust on my bookshelf (I promise I’ll read it next, Andrew), I finished the Calvino in three days.

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is Calvino’s contribution to the “Books About Books” genre as well as being maybe the closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect novel. The sensation of being included in the narrative that I felt while reading Invisible Cities was only heightened in this book, as it opens with the protagonist (i.e. you, the Reader) going to a bookstore to purchase a copy of Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. If only I could have bought the book myself! I’d love to see someone’s reaction to page one after picking it up from the shop.

One of the things that I find so captivating about Calvino’s work is that, no matter what the subject matter, he writes the story as though he were sitting at your bedside, reading you a fable before you go to sleep. In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler in particular, the fables are tailored to the kind of generic Modern Reader archetype that Calvino uses as his protagonist—his Everyman. He taps into the reader’s secret desires, the afternoon daydreams he has sitting on a park bench in the sun, taking a break from reading a book to insert himself into the plot. There is a love interest and a mystery to be solved and a Bad Guy to defeat and all in the name of Literature—which is the only sort of mystery a chronic reader might ever solve. Consider, for example, the sheer dopamine of being planted in this scenario:

In a roofed garden, among the bergamots and the lyrebirds and the jets of fountains, she came toward me, cloaked in indigo, a mask on her face, green silk dotted with white gold, a strand of aquamarines on her brow… (page 123)

I saw myself clad like Lawrence of Arabia on the terrace of a Persian palace, the Bookworm Princess walking toward me one foot in line with the other as if on a tightrope, the agitated water of the fountains glittering in her jewels and eyes—and her eyes! the only exposed part of her face, and these outlined with charcoal and smoldering with desire. This is a book that begs to be read and reread, each time offering something new.

Again, Calvino ends the book with a lesson that he has dangled in front of you the entire time and to which I, again, was totally blind. Rather than ruining the endings of three books in one essay, let me just say that after finishing I felt as though Calvino had written the book as much for other writers as for other readers. It was as though he was trying to show you one step at a time how he created the worlds in which his books take place, the characters that populate them, the emotions that fuel them. While the other books I’d been reading justified my decision to move to the island, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler validated my desire to use my experiences here to the benefit of my own writing.

Next, I began reading Labyrinths. Jorge Luis Borges is the kind of writer that I heard mentioned in every English class I took in college and whom I had, until now, never read. In fact, until a couple years ago I pronounced his name in such a way that it sort of rhymed with “borscht.” About ten pages into Labyrinths I realized what all the fuss was about. His ability to take stories that could have filled libraries and reduce them to ten or twenty pages, the way the stories sort of overlapped but also really didn’t – making you question the influence of a certain character’s death in one story on the decisions of a different character in another – the way “Borges” hangs around in his stories sometimes like a modern-day Dante, the noir-type elements and style—two men in fedoras and overcoats chasing each other through 1940s Germany, murderers that leave coded messages with the bodies—but also the ancient mythology of jungles and deserts, pyramids, slaves, fetish objects, ritual sacrifice, magic, and above all infinity. At times it felt like reading a newspaper. That is, he was so well-read, his sources so convincing, his characters so alive on the page that the possibility of a man rewriting Don Quixote word for word and somehow improving it seemed not only plausible but banal.

Labyrinths was the first book I read when I moved to Sassari. I had found a five-bedroom apartment for very cheap and was living alone with no television, no Internet, and no hot water in the kitchen. Some of my students said I lived in “the immigrant neighborhood.” I told them that this was fine, considering that I was an immigrant. And they would smile in that twisted way that told me they wanted to say, “No, it’s different,” but couldn’t. This idea of place, and especially place within place – my apartment within the immigrant neighborhood within Sassari ad infinitum – is very important to Borges’ writing, as I understood it. Like Calvino said of his invisible cities, everything concealed something else; every country and city and neighborhood was a passage leading deeper into the labyrinth. In Argentina, in Buenos Aires, in a poor neighborhood, in a bedroom looking out onto a courtyard with a budding tree, there is a crippled boy with a perfect memory. Or replace Argentina with an alternate dimension, Buenos Aires with an unknown place and time, the poor neighborhood with an infinite library, and the crippled boy with an old man writing histories. I liked to take Labyrinths with me to the park in my neighborhood, and after reading would invariably go for a walk. The streets are cobbled and narrow, twisting and folding back on themselves, lined with sprays of uneven windows that give out from rooms of every variety. From one house you can smell garbanzo beans and canned tomatoes simmering with saffron, from another comes a father scolding his child and sharp smacks and tears, through the hole in a wooden gate you see flocks of young boys lighting firecrackers and kicking a soccer ball. I wondered where Borges had gone on his walks, what he’d thought about, how many anonymous boys playing in a gated courtyard had made appearances in his stories. What I took away from his book was that there is no need to find the end of the labyrinth, if such an ending exists. It seems more likely that at the end of any one labyrinth there would be a portal leading to another. The important thing is to explore.

About four days after beginning Labyrinths, I decided to start The Recognitions as well. It’s been my experience that reading one or two short books in concert with a big book eases the weight of the need to finish the latter at all costs. Besides—and I don’t know if this has happened to you—looking at that brick of a book lounging on my desk, spine uncracked, gathering dust, felt pathetic to the point of indignity. I had to read it sooner or later.

“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.”

Some books give you an idea on the very first page of what they will contain. This is one of them. I feel that this first sentence could be expanded to encompass most of the major themes that Gaddis addresses in his swirling, night-black narrative. On a fundamental level, it is a book talking about Christianity. But, in reality, it is a book about people talking about people talking about Christianity and filtering it through myriad other tangential subjects. Christianity itself, at this distance, is practically irrelevant. This separation between the topic of discussion and those discussing it permeates the book. Whether it be Flemish painters, Mediterranean cathedrals, classic compositions for organ, or counterfeit money, the reader receives all the information second-, third-, fourth-hand. Everything and everyone is a reproduction of a reproduction.

In a way, this stylistic trait of Gaddis bled over into the way I absorbed my surroundings. My family came to visit me, and together we went to some “Nuraghic” ruins on the coast. They were under restoration at the time, and I found myself wandering through the ancient compound, dragging my fingers along the stones, and wondering if this had really been a prehistoric city at all. How many of these stones were original? What exaggerations had been added since their discovery? And, the omnipresent question in Gaddis’ novel, what did someone stand to gain from this marvel?

One of the central themes in The Recognitions is that of classic artwork—what we see when we look at a painting, the philosophy of forgery, Art as status symbol. For this reason, Ways of Seeing by John Berger was an ideal companion to the novel. This collection of seven essays—short but full of protein—seemed to always answer the questions that lingered with me after reading twenty, fifty, one hundred pages of The Recognitions. What is the role of oil painting in advertising? How do the female figure and gaze empower a masculine art-owner? The first essay in particular, borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” helped to clarify the abstract arguments in favor of forgery made by Gaddis’ characters Recktall Brown and Basil Valentine.

As of this writing I’ve still got about 200 pages to go in The Recognitions. Because of this, and because I could write an entire book of reactions to what I’ve already read, I should continue to the last few books I’ve finished during my time here.

I mentioned before that my family came to visit me. With them, they brought two jars of peanut butter, four cans of baked beans, a block of sharp cheddar, a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, and the following books:

           Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version

           Molloy, Mallone Dies, and The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett

           Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

           Masks, Fumiko Enchi

           Peter Caminzind, Herman Hesse

           Novel Without a Name, Duong Thu Huong

           The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Franz Kafka

           A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch, Danilo Kis

           Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

           Moby Dick, Herman Melville

           Essays of the Masters, Ed. Neider

           Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell

           Swann’s WayMarcel Proust

           The Notebooks of Malte Laurids BriggeRainer Maria Rilke

           Both Flesh and NotDavid Foster Wallace

Of these, I’ve finished Kis, Marquez, and Orwell. Over one weekend—wanting a break from the at-times crushing cynicism of The Recognitions—I managed to read them all in a literary fit that, thankfully, did not result in bedsores.

The first time I heard of Danilo Kis was in the Book Barn in West Chester, PA. I’d just bought a copy of Vollmann’s Europe Central, and was flipping through the introduction in front of the store. When he mentioned that A Tomb for Boris Davidovich had been at his elbow the entire time he’d been writing his novel, I went back inside and unsuccessfully searched for a copy. Several months later, biking past 12th and Spring Garden, I saw a pile of books on the sidewalk outside my old apartment building. Among these, I happened to find a battered, paperback Boris Davidovitch. I rode away with the Kis in addition to twenty other volumes.

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich , like The Rite of Spring or Salò, caused public uproar upon its debut. Kis, a native of a pro-Stalinist country, sets his stories in various totalitarian states, illuminating individual life in places collectivized through violence. While reading it, I constantly feared the scuffle of boots outside my apartment, sharp raps on the door, requests for my papers. And yet, though Kis’s situations are chilling, he approaches them with a bizarre and comic style. I laughed, often uncomfortably, at a character who had just witnessed or committed murder, scenes of torture and unsettling doublethink, the triviality of an offense against the state that received a sentence of hard labor or capital punishment.

It’s difficult to express what effect this book had on me. In one sense, it was almost inaccessible. The societies portrayed in his stories were as foreign to my experience as the Martian scenes in The Sirens of Titan, for example. They fascinated me, but I had no personal framework with which to process them. The best I could do was to contrast the absurd, theatrical societies of Kis’s characters with mine—namely, modern youth in the United States, in which basic freedoms have become uninspiring, even uncool. Take, for example, the Occupy protests, which were roundly lambasted as being counterproductive, misrepresentative, misled. Are we so self-satisfied now that to assemble—to vote, even—is square? The problem may be that many in our society would consider the very real situations addressed in Kis’s stories unthinkable. All the more reason to read his work.

On a purely literary level, A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch was exemplary. But how often do we judge a book based solely on its literary merit? On a deeper level, it reminds the reader of what society looks like when you strip away all the endowments in our founding documents—when the people in power stop pretending that “rights” are anything more than privileges.

From Kis I went to Marquez and Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Topping out at just over 100 pages in a nice, large typeface, this book can be started and finished in one marathon trip to the bathroom. The protagonist, an old school newspaperman (e.g. he insists on writing all his columns long-hand) turns ninety and goes to a bordello in search of love. Honestly, there’s not much else to say about the novella, for me. While full of Marquez’s typical elegant sensory descriptions, it lacked the intrigue and fantasy that endear his other books. If you’re looking for something in the vein of Chronicle of a Death Foretold or One-Hundred Years of Solitude, this is not the book for you. Apart from being sentimental to the point of mawkishness, it was also a very particular reminder of one’s own mortality. That is, while reading Kis I feared a “premature” death: facing down a firing squad, being spirited away to a salt mine in Siberia, and so on. Reading Marquez, on the other hand, and the protagonist’s descriptions of life at ninety, how he looks at death as a sort of permanent narcoleptic incident, almost made the firing squad seem preferable.

And then there was Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London is a first-person account of poverty and life in the service industry without many of the harsher elements of Orwell’s later work. Orwell, living in the Paris slums and teaching English, describes with dry humor and satisfied indifference the sensation of having only two or three francs left, knowing that he will not eat that night and will possibly sleep outside, and knowing yet that tomorrow will be the same or worse. At its happiest moments, the narrator is living in conditions that seem nearly impossible. He works fifteen hours a day washing dishes and running food in a swanky hotel, with barely enough time to sleep in between shifts. Interspersed with his caricatures of Parisian waiters, charismatic tramps, and proselytizing do-gooders, Orwell makes a series of simple pleas to the disinterested public for small concessions that would improve the lives of those who have not.

One of the more interesting sequences for me was his explanation of the different jobs tramps take up in London. While begging is illegal, busking, selling trinkets on the sidewalk, “glimming” – holding parking spaces – and so on are all considered perfectly legitimate professions in the eyes of the law, if not the remunerated public. This caught my attention because of the elevated presence of people earning their money this way in Sassari as well as Italy in general. It is virtually impossible to have a drink or sit in a park or, realistically, walk down a sidewalk without someone trying to sell you a rose, an alarm clock, a refrigerator magnet…In fact, as I write this, in a café, a man has just tried to sell me a lighter, a flashlight, and a cap. In Alghero, these people are treated—appropriately—like merchants. The city gives them a long stretch of sidewalk along one of the more popular parks to set up an open-air market, and they receive the same deference as any of the local shopkeepers. Here, they are all but ignored by the majority of the public. They are treated like an inconvenience, and often shooed away like pigeons or stray dogs. It is exactly this dismissal of people who struggle for their livelihood that Orwell debunks by giving faces and personalities to those whom we normally overlook or avoid. Since finishing the book – and in spite of the lousy return policy – I’m much more open to buying the wares on sale in the street. Unfortunately for my friend today, however, I already had a cap and lighter and had bought a flashlight from someone else over the weekend.

This, again, brought back memories of Philadelphia and the down and out people I’d known there. While waiting for the 3 bus at Huntingdon Street, I listened to stories about dealers who wait outside of methadone clinics, groups of people sleeping next to abandoned train tracks, which types of metal yield the most money at the scrap yard. One man in particular liked to hang around the café where I worked and I got to know him pretty well. Now and again I’d buy him a beer and he’d tell me about Florida, where he’d come from. Then one night, when it was slow at the café, he came by and we had a cup of coffee outside. It was a cool, clear night and he was relaxed. Good weather means more when you sleep outside. In the middle of our conversation, a security guard came over and asked him to leave. The café was in a well-known, expensive apartment complex on the site of an old brewery. I told the guard that he was with me, that he wasn’t begging. I even tried to invoke my nonexistent authority as the manager of the café, which had a staff of four people. The guard would have none of it and led him off by the arm. He didn’t come around again after that.

The memory of that night burned behind my eyes when I finished Down and Out. What do we gain by taking away from those who already have nothing? What do we leave behind in someone when we tell them that a cup of coffee, a casual conversation, a seat outside during summer are too valuable to be wasted on them? The owners and tenants of that well-known apartment complex are so obsessed with visible, enviable luxury that they hide the blemishes of poverty and struggle that surround them. Orwell’s point is that our own lives stand to improve when we ease the burden on those around us.

*

It seems to me that reading habits are as good a metric as any for measuring time. I can just as easily look at the years in terms of books I was reading as I can in terms of months, or weeks, or days passing. Here, especially, so far from home, the stories—in place of my friends and family—denote places along the path where I can return later in my mind, like mile markers. I remember days on the hidden beach, Maria Pia, in terms of Calvino’s cities. Nights spent alone in my apartment become nights spent with my old friends Otto, Wyatt, and Basil. With all the transient lessons I have learned from books while here, this one—I hope—will last.

*

Malcolm Bates is a writer who teaches English in Sardinia.

Photograph by Madeline Bates

The Brain on My Mind

In Reports on December 19, 2012 at 7:00 am

lansdale

A Report from the Franklin and the Mütter

by Tony Brown

Whether by coincidence, heightened awareness or simple fate, I cannot help but run into and read about all things brain-related in Philadelphia this month. It started when I read about Your Brain, the upcoming exhibit at the Franklin Institute. The exhibit will be housed in a new 53,000 square foot building addition built especially for it.  To think that it all came about because Athena Karabots and her husband Nicholas were visiting the Franklin Institute one day and noticed how a group of kids from a visiting school responded so favorably to the science-oriented, interactive educational displays.  The couple was so inspired they went home and pledged a ten million dollar check to the Institute from their Karabots Foundation the same day. The Karabots stress that they have a great desire  “to attract youth in our more troubled and underserved communities with areas of interest that will, with the proper programs and support, lead to continuing levels of interest….”[i]  The Karabots’ statement reminds me of another made about how we should use our brains.

  “Knowledge without action is a waste of learning.  Action without knowledge is a waste of effort.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Philadelphia’s College of Physicians’ Mütter Museum recently came to possess 46 pathology slides from the brain of Dr. Albert Einstein for its new exhibition.  Dr. Einstein died on April 18, 1955 of a ruptured aortic aneurysm in New Jersey’s Princeton Hospital. That same day, a pathologist named Thomas Harvey performed the autopsy, separated the brain into 240 blocks and prepared somewhere between 5 and 12 sets of pathology slides from the tissue, each set containing 100-200 slides. The exact numbers are unknown since the autopsy report is missing. Dr. Albert’s son Hans had consented to the scientific study of his father’s tissue on the condition that the reports were to be published in a reputable journal of science. Dr. Harvey however, refused all sample requests from other institutions and instead took the organ home where he stored it in beer coolers and cookie jars.  Harvey was eventually fired from the hospital over the matter and subsequently moved from New Jersey to Wichita, Kansas where he opened another practice and as late as the 1970s still had the tissue stored in glass jars in his office, placed inside of a box labeled “Costa cider.”  In 1979 Dr. Harvey informed reporters that he was about one year away from completing a study of the brain.[ii]

A study published on November 16, 2012 in the journal Brain confirmed that no fewer than “18 investigators received brain tissue or photographs from Dr. Harvey,” which have served as the subject of six peer-reviewed publications.[iii]  For example, in the 1980s Dr. Harvey gave samples of the brain to professor Mariam C. Diamond at the University of California, Berkeley, who based a study on them and to the British Museum which also exhibits two slices through a loan agreement.[iv].  The study continues:

The University Medical Centre at Princeton, and the largest known aggregation of microscope slides (n=567) is at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. With the exception of a few scattered blocks of tissue in Ontario, California, Alabama, Argentina, Japan, Hawaii and Philadelphia, the location(s) of the remaining portions of Einstein’s brain are unknown. Similarly, the majority of the microscope slides are unaccounted for. The largest collection of Dr. Harvey’s photographs of Einstein’s brain (last seen intact in 1955), a subset of the histological slides, and the road map that identifies the locations in the brain of the specific blocks that yielded the slides were donated by Dr. Harvey’s Estate and curated by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in 2010. Except for those mentioned in the report by Witelson et al. (1999b), the location of other extant photographs is unknown or unacknowledged.

History also records that before Dr. Harvey left for Kansas, he gifted one of the five prepared pathology slides sets to Dr. William Ehrich, Chief of Pathology at the Philadelphia General Hospital, who directed the laboratory in which the slides had been prepared. Twelve years later, Dr. Ehrich died and his widow presented the slides to Dr. Allen Steinberg. After receiving the slides from Dr. Steinberg, a Senior Neuropathologist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia named Dr. Lucy Rorke-Adams decided to donate them to the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum in 2011.[v]

When I visited the Mütter I discovered that the specimen from Albert Einstein’s brain was not the only one on exhibit in the assemblage of historical and medically anomalous human specimens. The collection also includes a sample from the brain of U.S. President James Garfield’s assassin Charles J. Guiteau. Mütter’s interest in Guiteau’s brain has to do with his murder trial. Guiteau’s lawyer utilized the insanity defense, based on his client’s supposed congenital brain malformation.  However, since Guiteau as an author, preacher and licensed lawyer had demonstrated at least some past mental ability, the plea was arguable. Guiteau–ever the lawyer–complicated things by challenging his lawyer’s intentions, claiming that he was legally, but not medically insane. Surgeon General William A. Hammond attempted a compromise by asserting that Guiteau was merely morally insane, i.e., a “reasoning maniac.” [vi]  Finally, the expert witness Dr. Edward Spitzka stated “that it was clear “Guiteau is not only now insane, but that he was never anything else.”[vii]  Based on the great number of books written about the psychiatry, neurology and psychology of the case, Guiteau’s brain was certainly of great interest to the society of his time—and now to the Mütter. It is ironic that Guiteau is reported to have chosen the pearl handled revolver he used instead of the wooden handled alternative because pearl would look better in a museum exhibition when the gun became famous after the assassination. I guess he could never have anticipated that authorities would lose his revolver and display his brain instead.

Tony Brown, M.D.,PhD,MBA (candidate) serves as the Director of the Albert Einstein Virtual Brain Repository at the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation.  A Harvard University graduate, he is completing his MBA at The Johns Hopkins University, Carey School of Business.  His PhD thesis is titled “Anatomical correlates of consciousness.”

Photo Credit: lansdaledaytrippin.blogspot.com

This report originally appeared at GNIF.org in a slightly different form.

Pheidippides at the Battle of Horror-thon

In Reports on November 29, 2012 at 7:00 am

A Report from the International House

by Mark R. Rinker

The guy standing in front of me sold an extra ticket to a scrawny kid walking down the line looking for extras.  Surprising he had one.  The marathon sold out in record time, the International House’s theater limited to 400 seats; if I hadn’t gotten a ticket back in August, when they sold out, I wouldn’t even attempt it the day of.  The guy with the extra ticket said he had a friend bail on him.  That’s something else I can’t imagine: going to this thing alone.  Twenty-four hours is a long time to sit in a seat watching horror films; at some point, the need to get outside and inhale some fresh air and have a conversation with another human is overwhelming.

Mike’s standing next to me, wearing his Friday the 13th shirt.  Despite being the biggest horror movie nerd I know, it’s one of just two horror shirts he owns, the other his Demons shirt he wore the night before at Dom’s Halloween party.

Jesus Christ, Dom’s party.  I promised myself—and made sure my friends and girlfriend were very aware—I was leaving before eleven, and not drinking much.  I managed to stick to my self-imposed time restraint (almost), departing from the party at about quarter of midnight, but failed miserably in regards to the drinking, waking up this morning with an ugly hangover.  Not the best way to start a noon-to-noon movie fest.

Despite being more knowledgeable about these films than most anyone here, Mike has a tendency to look down at a lot of other horror nerds.  To be fair, there are some pretty slobbish-looking folks here; you see some of them and pray they don’t get a seat near you.  In a few cases you can almost see the body odor pouring off them.  Last year, I thought Mike might snap and say something to the two geeks behind us in line, one of whom was loudly demonstrating his cinematic knowledge, mixing up John Carpenter and Wes Craven, causing Mike’s face to turn red.

God, I’m tired.  I figure there’s no way I’m staying awake through the entirety of the marathon.  Each of the last two years I attended Exhumed Films’ all-day/all-night fest and fell asleep for entire movies in the early hours of the morning.  My goal this year was to stay up the whole time, but with this headache and drooping eyelids, I don’t see that happening.

And I waited all year for this too.

I couldn’t be more disappointed with myself.

They let us into the theater just after eleven.  Mike and I arrived a little later than we’d planned, having had to make a quick vomit stop for me on the way, and as a result, we don’t get to sit in the same section as the previous two years – towards the front, left section, aisle seat and next.  Instead we find seats in the center section, still close to the front, still aisle and next.  Could be worse.  Mike thinks one of the guys sitting in front of us is a writer for Fangoria Magazine.

We’ve got at least a half hour till they do the opening announcements, so I get up and walk down the street to the Wawa, to get some coffee and soda and a breakfast sandwich, since my stomach, thankfully, is starting to feel normal again.  The walk down to Wawa isn’t too bad; the temperature is mild compared to last year, when the heavens rained down on Halloween, ultimately burying much of the East Coast in snow.

I was disappointed to see the International House closed down their deli/coffee shop.  The Exhumed crew have various food vendors come through during the day, but I don’t dig on hot dogs or hamburgers, and the vegan ice cream isn’t exactly what I’m looking for, so I figure I’ll eat a lot of Wawa in the next twenty-four hours.  Which is fine by me.  I don’t have expensive tastes, and their veggie sandwiches and fountain soda fit the bill.  The last couple years, Mike and I ate at an Italian restaurant down the street, but the service was slow on both occasions, and I don’t need the temptation of beer.  It only takes about two beers to put me to sleep in an empty theater.

This year it’s my turn for the aisle seat.  Unfortunate for Mike, who ends up sitting next to a skinny kid with horrendous body odor.  I wonder, if he smells this bad at the start of the marathon, what’s he gonna smell like in twelve hours?  At least I’ve got Mike blocking him somewhat; I can only smell the guy when he needs me to move so he can get out of the row.

The opening of the marathon is a ritual that changes little each year.  The guys who run the show stand up front, thank everyone for being there, advertise their upcoming film screenings, and then lay down the rules for the show.  It’s nice to go to the movies knowing the people in charge have no tolerance for cell phone usage, and that they’re going to be sitting in the room with the audience for nearly every minute of the event.

As it turns out, there are some talkers.  Right behind me.  I can’t believe it.  They don’t start till around Movie #7, but from then through Movie #9, they carry on a quiet conversation.  Not quiet enough, though.  I ask them to please stop talking.  Somehow this trick works, making this quite possibly the first time I’ve ever requested someone stop talking in a theater and been rewarded with silence.

Fangoria Dude is talking too.  I can’t hear him or his friends as well I could the two behind us, but what the hell, am I the only one in this section who can sit through fifteen movies with my mouth shut?

I continue to down buckets of soda and coffee, determined to stay awake through this thing, despite my rough start.

The film programming is unknown to the audience; we find out which movies are showing as they begin to roll.  The fest starts on a high note, as usual, with a popular film most in the audience have seen before.  The Gate is a good opener, and while I’m not exactly thrilled about seeing The Driller Killer, later on, in the early hours of the next morning, I’ll get on my knees and beg the gods for something approaching Driller Killer quality.

A movie like Larry Cohen’s exciting and hilarious Q: the Winged Serpent deserves to be seen on the big screen, in a gloriously shitty thirty-year-old print, with an appreciative audience.  Vampires’ Night Orgy, on the other hand, probably shouldn’t be seen by anyone, anywhere, ever.

Same goes for Rene Cardona Jr.’s shit-fest The Night of a Thousand Cats.  This sixty-three minute piece of garbage gets a better reaction than just about any other film screened, due to unintentionally awful writing and acting, and a slow-motion shot of a man tossing a cat in the air by its tail, the camera following the animal as it hits the ground.  Hilarious, right?  I hate this movie as soon as Cardona’s name shows up in the credits, followed by lead actor Hugo Stiglitz.  Neither name would mean a damn thing to me if I hadn’t happened to catch another Cardona/Stiglitz effort, Tintorera: the Killer Shark, a week earlier, on Netflix.  Thousand Cats follows that film’s formula of combining terrible actors, a non-existent story, and footage of animals being abused and killed.

But, oh, to behold the low-budget glories of X-Tro and The Hidden in wonderful, scratchy prints, with an appreciative, (mostly) quiet audience.  A strange feeling sets in after six or seven of these movies.  I know that’s why the Exhumed programmers schedule the strangest films for the three and four AM spots.  When something as bizarre and virtually unknown as Tom Thumb vs. the Monsters begins to play, I wonder many things at once, like, Is this a real movie? and, How long is it?  Can’t possibly be more than eighty minutes, if we’re lucky.

The Exhumed crew has cereal lined up on tables outside the theater around seven in the morning.  Captain Crunch and Frosted Flakes are, of course, accompanied by Frankenberry and his friends.  I don’t usually eat chocolate cereal, but have always enjoyed Count Chocula.

Fangoria Guy and his friends were drinking before the first film even began, but they’ve mostly kept awake.  I don’t know how people do it.  I require buckets of caffeine in order to barely stay awake all night; I can’t imagine staying awake with the body-and-mind-slowing effects of alcohol working on my system.

Mike doesn’t want to stay for the last movie.  The year before, he drove, and I agreed to leave early.  This year I figure, I’ve stayed up the entire night, minus a few minutes’ sleep here and there; why not stay till the very end?  I’m also hoping the last film, Dr. Butcher, MD, will make up in quality for the last four or five movies I’ve just seen.

And it is better than Humongous or The Incredible Melting Man, but not by much.  Mike falls asleep.  I watch the movie, then we get up, have the I-House attendant validate our parking ticket, and walk over to the garage.

My car, of course, is still decorated.  When I woke up the morning before, to leave for the marathon, I found my grey Corolla decorated for the big game.  Apparently someone named Kelsey was to be involved in a big match against Liberty High School.  Her friends decorated with yellow removable paint, covering the back and side windows: “Go #41!” and “Kelsey, we’re so proud of you!” and “Beat LHS!”  Those friends couldn’t have been too close with Kelsey, or they would’ve recognized that she doesn’t drive an ’03 grey Corolla with a Mind Control Squids sticker on one side window.

I laughed when I saw it yesterday morning, but was too tired and hungover to bother cleaning it up.  A storm is coming soon, they say, and I don’t worry that it won’t wash the rest of the yellow paint off my vehicle.  I laugh again when I see it now, but quickly turn serious when I realize I left the driver’s side window all the way down the entire time we were at the International  House.  And with my GPS and various other items right there for the taking.  Glad no one noticed.

On the way home, Mike falls asleep, as he promised he wouldn’t, and I blast Gallows’ new album, my foot tapping along to the music, window down, singing along.  I can’t believe I’m still not tired.

 

Mark R. Rinker is the author of the YA novel Evil Ambulance.  He also plays bass guitar for the Mind Control Squids.

The Exhumed Films 24 Hour Horror-thon took place this year from noon on October 27 to noon on October 28 at the International House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

Robbing the Pillars

In Reports on August 9, 2012 at 7:00 am

A Report from Anthracite Coal Country

by Michael Buozis

“There’s the trapper, sleeping as usual.”

The guide for this mid-July morning’s tour points to a plastic mannequin slumped on a stool over an aluminum lunchbox, in a chamber flanked by two heavy oak doors on huge iron hinges.  When the guide asked the heavy Italian-American woman from New York, the last one through the first door, to shut it behind her, she said, “Are you serious?”  She’s the only person in the group of more than a dozen visitors to show any signs of claustrophobia.

“This boy had to listen very closely for oncoming cars full of coal, cause if he hopped up just a second too late, the loaded car would crash through the door, knock it off its hinges and two tons of oak, iron and coal would crush the boy dead, instantly.”

The white-haired guide, who has a lean muscularity and casual posture, speaks generously when he calls the trapper a boy.  No more than three feet tall, with a small carbide lamp strapped to his head, the mannequin looks more like a toddler, a little kid at most, not yet into boyhood.

In another room, we see a bigger plastic boy standing in front of a plastic donkey.

“Here’s the mule boy, about ten to fourteen years old, skinny as hell.  Now this animal behind him is not quite right.  As long as the curators here at the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour looked, they couldn’t find a mule for the display, so you’re looking at a donkey boy.  The mules in Pennsylvania during the heyday of anthracite coal mining stood about seven feet high.  You have those mules to thank for these spacious ceilings.  Once the operator brought a mule down here, they’d often never see the light of day again.”

The guide speaks with a mild Irish brogue, though his grandfather worked the very mine we stand in, so he’s at least a third generation Scrantonian.

“The lamp on the mule boy’s head would give off about eight birthday candles of light.  On either side of the tracks the boy led the mule and his loaded cart down, there’d be ditches one to two feet deep full of muck and water.”

He shows how if the colliery car got away from the mule boy, he’d have to throw a long piece of wood called a sprag under the wheels of the half ton car.

“Dangerous job, being a spragger.”

Our descent into the shaft takes us past the Rock Bed, Big Bed, New County Bed, Clark Bed and the No. 1 Dunmore Bed, into the No. 2 Dunmore Bed, 500 feet under McDade Park on the West Mountain of the Wyoming Valley where Scranton stretches out into Old Forge, Moosic, Pittston and finally Wilkes-Barre, a massive swath of suburbs and decaying urban centers once supported by the anthracite industry in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  On the big flat screen of the theater in the visitor’s center up on the surface, a grainy video documenting the Knox Mine Disaster runs on a loop.  Fifty empty 110-ton coal hoppers spin and disappear into a whirlpool on the banks of the Susquehanna River, like children’s toys sucked into a drain.

In January of 1959, the roof of the Knox Coal Company’s River Slope Mine in Pittston collapsed, opening a 150 foot hole and draining 10 million gallons of water and ice from the river into the mines.  Twelve of the forty miners trapped never escaped the flooded shafts.  In the documentary, the rescued miners emerge wrapped in wool blankets.  Their wives sit in the breaker office.  The frumpy coats and sweaty coal bosses make the footage look decades older than it is. This disaster effectively ended anthracite coal mining in the Wyoming Valley.

Down in the Lackawanna Mine, a constant 53 degrees year round, in the thin light from lamps strung along the walls, we peer into a side chamber piled with coal fine.  A plastic miner stands atop a pile, his white eyes peering startled from a black face.  Two plastic hands stick up at his feet from the heap of fine.

“Maybe if the foreman liked you, he’d dig you out and bring your body into your house for your wife and lay it down on the couch in your parlor.  But just the same, if your wife couldn’t find somebody to replace you in the mines, she and your kids would be kicked out of that company house.  If the mining company men were feeling generous, they’d put the family’s belongings out on the curb.  Otherwise, they’d just change the locks on the doors.”

A compact woman with a nice camera slung over her neck asks if the miners were union here.

“They were union.”

“UMWA?”

“Yup.  As far as I know.  Now, I tell you the truth here.  I can’t change history.  I can only say what happened and hope in the future such bad practices don’t occur.”

A plastic fire boss sits with his feet up on a desk inside a white wooden structure at the entrance to the halls of another coal bed.  Next to the door, a chalk board hangs from a rusty nail.  The names seem authentic, in gothic script – Jack Hoffner, Tony Siatta, Louis Sebastinol, Len Fisher, Pete Rushi, Joe Yagajinski, Mike Rusnak, Merle Busek, Joe Murphy, Steve Kmetz, Mike Murancik, Mike Bizoc, Lee Hartski, Tom Supey.

“The last name, Tom Supey, we buried not more than two weeks ago.  He worked in this mine for fifty years and his son worked in it for twenty-five and then helped start this tour.”

He turned away from the board in tearful pride.

Before we leave and before the obligatory period of pitch darkness when he tells the claustrophe from New York to hold onto her daughter, the guide demonstrates the method used to dynamite the coal, blasting a seam from floor to ceiling.  When he pushes the plunger, an audio recording plays.

“How many blasts did you hear?”

A man in a camouflage jacket with a pink-bespectacled knee-high daughter no taller than the slumbering trapper clinging to him, says, “Ten blasts.”

“Eight.  You’ve got to count, cause if you hear less blasts than you should, you’ve got a problem.  Many miners died from exploding sleepers.”

On the surface, rusted machinery and rotting wood litters the yard over the entrance to Slope 190 – a track thrower, air hoses, chains, shaker chutes, blow fans, conveyor pans, mine timber, cap pieces, wedges, safety cable, barrel pulleys, shaker pans, stress arches, mine props, collars, rock loaders, dynamite magazines, and a cap house.

In the Anthracite Heritage Museum, further up West Mountain in McDade Park, the brief welcome video ends with a dated attempt by 1990s liberals to convince the sons and daughters of English, Welsh, Irish, German, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Italian immigrants to accept a new wave of immigrants flooding into the Wyoming Valley – Indian doctors, Chinese businessmen, Russian laborers.  The Coal Miners Strike of 1902, the Lattimer Massacre and the art of Charles Edgar Patience, a black sculptor who anthracite coal as a medium, live in detailed essays and images mounted to the walls and artifacts chockablock in the halls of this important safe-house for one of America’s most neglected unique regional cultures.

Comprising seven counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania, the four anthracite coal fields – the Northern, Eastern Middle, Western Middle, and Southern – the largest deposits in the United States, provided an economic boom for the region, and powered much of the burgeoning industry of the nation in the early 20th century.  The lower grade bituminous coal fields stretch across many mountainous states, but the mining operations there have always been different from those in anthracite coal country and the cultures have died slower outside of the Wyoming Valley, where the Knox Disaster forced a sudden turn away from deep mining practices.

The quick death might have served the Northern Field well.  In Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Old Forge and Pittston, many of the communities slowly adjusted to new economic models – establishing colleges and universities, big shopping malls and ski resorts.  Scranton’s Victorian county courthouse and brutal modernist U.S. circuit courthouse face each other across a well-maintained central square.  Around the corner, on Lackawanna Avenue, Pete and Bob Ventura serve the same Coney Island Texas Weiner recipe – a split Berks All-Beef Hot Dog, on a steamed National Bakery Roll, topped with Dusseldorf mustard, fresh chopped onions, and a homemade chili sauce – their grandfather started serving Scrantonians in 1923.  They prepare the food right in front of the customers and serve red cups of birch beer from behind a lunch counter decorated with Phillies and Yankees memorabilia.  Down in Old Forge, the “Pizza Capital of the World,” where they really do have more pizzerias per capita than anywhere else in the world, the tradition dates back to at least 1962 when Arcaro and Genell opened on South Main Street and popularized a regional pizza only a local could love – soft-doughy crust, plastic American cheese and ketchupy red sauce on a square pie called a “tray” served on plastic cafeteria trays.

The cheese, sometimes called brick cheese, from half a try sits just like a brick in my gut as I drive through the blasted mountains north to Lackawanna State Park, far enough away from Scranton’s lights to have the best night sky I’ve seen in years, with streaks of purplish Milky Way visible like a backbone arching over the trees.

The next morning on the way to the Eckley Miners’ Village, we drive past the site of the Stockton Mine Disaster, a wooden sign with newly painted gold letters hidden in the trees on the side of a country road.  Back in the woods a grave marker lists the names of six people, four Rouches and two Swanks.  Two of the Rouches were unbearably young when they died in 1869.  Three of them were female.

The Middle Fields feel different from the Northern Field, more abandoned and dirty with less of a path to the future.  My travelling companion, Cyrus Kleege, from Brooklyn, visiting the museums and markers of the labor movement in anthracite coal country as research for a novel about a Polish mining family in the early part of the 20th century, tells me that sections of Shenandoah were more densely populated in 1910 than any other part of the United States other than the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  When we drive through town, the windows on the storefronts stand shattered or shuttered and no one bothers to visit the Miner’s Memorial in Girard Park on a sunny Sunday morning.  Mahanoy City and Girardville, like the other towns we’ve passed through, spring up on the sides of blasted hills, but here in the Western Middle Field, the houses sit huddled tightly together along main streets.  Bars and general stores inhabit residential townhouses with dirty white aluminum siding and blind old men sit on their porches remembering when people filled the sidewalks.  A few hangers-on still live in Centralia, not far to the west, where an underground coal fire has burned since Memorial Day, 1962, when an exposed coal seam ignited from burning trash in the dump.  The weed-choked blocks, where houses were bulldozed and foundations filled in, harbors the most rich diversity and density of both flora and fauna of anywhere we visited in the coal region.  Grasshoppers and fritillaries skip from the brambles and mountain laurel underneath impressive oaks and hollies.  But up the backs of the stop signs at the corner of every street – presumably for sightseers and curiosity seekers – the coal fumes cling as black tar to each bolt and metal panel.  The baby blue Orthodox Church across the valley from the smoldering landfill nestles between the hemlocks and reminds me how beautiful this landscape is, if you blot out all the failed towns.

I feel guilty about the imagined blotting and also when the following thought springs to my mind.  “What the hell do these people do with themselves?”  I know the answer is similar to the answer for any locale in the United States.  They watch TV and drink and eat dinner with their families, but the decay here is sadder than most because it masks an old promise apparent in the over-large churches and the occasional well-kept Victorian mansion further up the hillsides.  My great-great-grandfather Francis Henry Pascoe preached to the coal miners at the First Congregational Church in Coaldale, another town dug into the side of a hill in the Eastern Middle Field.  His brother Albert, later a mine foreman, placed second with D. Griffith in the 100 yard three-legged race at the First Annual Outing of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company on August 30, 1913.  Not much of that history remains, in my family or in these communities.

But some of what the locals do now is continue mining, as attested by a large swath of black blasted coal fine from strip mines stretching six miles from Hazleton skirting the train tracks down the road from the Stockton Mine Disaster marker through Jeddo to the Eckley Miners’ Village.  The strip mines of the Hazleton Shaft Corporation hide behind berms of coal and rock, spindly birch and oak growing up along the roads.  This method of mining does not involve sending men hundreds of feet into the ground with pickaxes and headlamps, but instead uses heavy machinery to literally strip the earth over the coal leaving enormous swathes of devastated land.  Much of the destruction can only be seen from satellite images, unless you ignore the many menacing signs posted by Hazleton Shaft and other companies like it warning you away from the access roads.

More traditional, deep shaft anthracite coal mining operations required enormous structures called breakers where breaker boys (and girls) sorted the blasted coal into grades and removed rock from coal carts.  Two of these breakers still stand.  The Huber Breaker, in Ashley, sits moldering behind the offices of the Earth Conservancy across South Main Street from a storefront piled with junk and a plank of wood with the words “Redneck Windchime” carved in its face strung up on fishing line with three empty bottles of Budweiser and two spent shotgun shells hanging below.  The Saint Nicholas Breaker in Mahanoy City juts out of the hillside across route 54 from an old house with six broken down cars and an unhitched trailer with the words “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE, SOME GAVE ALL, ALL GAVE SOME” spray-painted across its roll door parked in the steep yard.  As hard as you may try to ignore the history of this region, you can not miss these breakers.

Signs posted along the empty road out to the Eckley Miners’ Village along the berm hiding the strip mines, announce Armed Forces Tribute Weekend on the grounds of the state-owned historic site.  Instead of rednecks who might show pride in the wind chimes in the Ashley storefront or spray-paint words about freedom across an abandoned trailer’s rear, enthusiasts and re-enactors of both World Wars and the Civil War, line Eckley Main Street.  Military jeeps and bicycles and a muscular olive drab motorcycle sit in the grass, while men and a few women in period uniform slumber and chat under canvas tents.  An old radio, probably a reproduction with an i-pod hooked into it, plays a slow lilting Tommy Dorsey song.  A white crossroads sign points in every direction, listing the distance in kilometers to Wiltz, St. Vith, Clervaux, Sibret and Schmidt.

Down the gravel road, nestled between the box houses with gray siding and black window frames, next to a blacksmith in a clapboard shed and behind a big iron stove with an eight foot chimney and massive cast iron pots and kettles dull black in the sun, one of three middle-aged ladies calls us back to another tent to hear a story.  Two chairs sit caddy corner around a wooden table with spindly legs.  An ashtray full of butts and an old root beer bottle filled with iced tea sit in the clutter of rags and dishes on the table.  One of the ladies, bigger than the others, sits away from the table, working a needlepoint hoop.  The folds of her ankle-length dress hide the chair beneath her.

“My grandfather was a mule boy in one of the mines not far from here,” another of the ladies tells us, after she explains what women did in the Civil War, keeping tenuously in character as she described the regiments sent from Eckley to fight for the Union.  She pretends to dry dishes as she talks.  The seated lady says, “My grandfather was a fire boss.”  The youngest of the women, wearing a clean white apron over a fancier dress than the others, says, “Mine was a foreman, we think, from the records we can find.  Sometimes these things are vague.”

The younger woman’s son, no more than thirteen years old, appears and takes a seat next to where his mother stands.  He dresses in Union blue, a fresh-faced little drummer boy.  When we ask about the Stockton Mine Disaster, which we can’t find in the books we consult, he speaks authoritatively, telling us about mine subsidence caused by robbing the support pillars of the seams, undermining houses where mining families lived.

“They were eating breakfast, and their house collapsed into the mine, killing the whole family, all cause of the greed of the company, stealing too much coal from the seams, mining too close to the surface.”  He talks excitedly about his trip into a mine operated by the Hazleton Shaft Corporation.  I can’t tell what the ladies think of the catastrophic strip mining all around Eckley, but the talkative one tells us about secret places, old patch towns like Eckley, prefabricated concrete housing, moldering in the woods.  They all know more about this region than books can tell and seem proud of the relative prestige and hardship of their grandfathers’ work.

A clip from the New York Times, Sunday, December 18, 1869, Hazleton, PA, reads, “Another terrible mining accident occurred at 5 o’clock this morning at Stockton, near this place. A coal mine caved in, filling the shaft and tunnel with enormous masses of earth, carrying two large houses down with it, and choking the entrance to the mine. There were several persons in the dwelling houses at the time of the accident, and those were carried down in the falling mass, buried in the ruins, and doubtless instantly killed. As yet it has been entirely impossible to reach their bodies. Some men were in the mine, it is reported, at the time of the terrible disaster, and they are supposed to have been killed instantly. Ten persons in all lost their lives, and efforts are now being made to extricate their bodies. The houses fell a distance of forty feet and were broken to fragments.”

Down the road from the Civil War ladies, in the 1880 house, Bob Zimmerman tells how people lived in Eckley 130 years ago, showing us the trundle bed and rope box spring where the expression “sleep tight” comes from.  He tears up when he talks about his own uncle who, 70 years later, couldn’t talk about D-Day on his death bed.  His mustache droops and he speaks in a voice like a muted trumpet, low and brassy.  He impressively recites the nationalities of all the miners and their descendants he grew up with.  “Any Slav was a Hunky.  We used to call their part of town Hunkeytown.”  But every time he expresses astonishment at the fact the miners came to Eckley for a better life than in Europe, he says, “I wish we knew more about what was going on in Europe at the time that might have made these people come over.  Must’ve been some bad stuff.”  In the company store, a remarkably sturdy 72-year-old woman with hair dyed jet-black, tells how glad she was when her mother bought a bigger washtub, so three kids, out of her six siblings, could fit in at once, reducing the times she had to fill the tub from three to two.  The woman, who spoke in the same brogue as the tour guide up in the Lackawanna Mine, never indicated whether the stories she told us were her own or those of some character from the past.

In Coaldale, on the way to Jim Thorpe to see the Carbon County Jail where seven Molly Maguires were hanged on June 22, 1877, we stop on East Ruddle Street outside the First Congregational Church, with rain coming down hard.  Here, my great-great-grandfather, Francis Henry Pascoe, preached for decades.  I do not take a picture.  The building, a one-story box with vinyl siding, is not impressive, and I’d like to know more about Francis Henry before I pass judgment.

Photo Credit:  Michael Buozis

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