Archives: January 2018

A Double Room

A short story by Ann Quin
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Ann Quin’s tale of a failed affair, ‘A Double Room’ – featured in the newly released collection of Quin’s writings, Another Country, published by & Other Stories – introduced by Danielle Dutton for Electric Lit.

They had arranged to meet at 11 a.m. She arrived at 10:30. I know I must be there early or I won’t go at all. Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time. It drizzled now as she looked out of the station. Cabs swished by. People rushed through barriers. Escape. Escape with my lover. But he isn’t even that. In her small room. On her single bed they had gone so far. Fully clothed. No we’ll wait it wouldn’t be fair I have to leave you soon. Now the weekend he would prove to be

She clutched her bag. Glanced at the clock. And there he was. His hat cuckoo-perched on an unfinished nest. Dressed in a new suit. Mac just cleaned over his arm. Hullo love. If people stopped to look they would think we were father and daughter on our way to an aunt’s funeral. They don’t look. But think dirty old man. As he takes my arm. My bag.

The train. Carriages with long seats. Without divisions. Seats that make one aware of sagging shoulders. She straightened up. Straightened her skirt. Haven’t seen that dress before love — new? He removed his hat. It nestled beside him. He had washed his hair. Had a bad shave. Without adding the bits of cotton wool. The train shuttled forward. Stopped. Now I could say I’ve changed my mind I can’t go on with it I feel ill. Well how are things sweet? OK had a row with the wife oh some trivial domestic thing anyway makes it easier. Looks as if it might clear up. Brighter in the west — forecast said it would. How long does it take? About two hours love should be there in time for a beer and brunch in a nice pub somewhere. The rest of the carriage empty. Maybe someone will get in at the next stop. Pray that someone gets in. Ininininininin the train chugged on over the bridge. Children threw stones into the river. He had on the green shirt. She remarked once how nice he looked in green. Matches your eyes. Eyes now stared directly at her. Was he thinking of the night. Nights ahead. Nights he had saved up for. Relishing in cosy domestic mornings. Reading the papers together. Quietly sipping tea. Quietly satisfied. Three. Four mornings ahead of them. Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might. But no one got in at the next station. He leaned over and took her hand. She looked out of the window. Looked back at him. Cigarette? Her hand released. She dived into her bag. They lit up. He sank back. She took out a paperback. Looked at the words lumped together. Spaces between paragraphs.

The train stopped. A woman with a child got in. The child held a blue teddy bear nearly bigger than herself. They sat opposite. The woman looked across once. The child more than once. Giggling she approached. Adjusted the bear’s arms. What’s his name then? Tethy. He’s nice isn’t he? She passed the bear over. He took it and balanced it on his knees. The child started crying gimmee back gimmee gimmee Tethy gimmee. Judy come here don’t disturb the gentleman there’s a good girl. He smiled and handed the bear over. It growled. The child giggled and passed it over to me. Do you want to hold Tethy it’s his burfday. She sucked her thumb and watched. Watching. He watched.

The houses crammed together. Back yards where men leaned on spades. Women in doorways dried their hands on aprons. Fields where boys played football. In small parks girls paused over prams. The sky strips of blue. Houses spread out. Fields. Cows. Sheep. Away from civilisation. Away from the little rituals they had been going through. Manipulated. Meetings in pubs. Fish and chips afterwards. Parties where she danced. Flirted. While he looked on. Hurried fumblings. Kisses. In a cab. Long talks by the gas fire. Holding hands in the cinema. Being shown off to his friends at dinner parties. I’m so glad he’s found you he does need someone bless him and you seem so suited his wife as you probably know is

The child bounced the bear on the seat. I looked at the paperback. This autobiographical novel is a brazen confession of rebellion, trespass and blatant sexual exploitation in a world of intellectual despair and moral chaos. She closed the book. He looked up from the newspaper. His shoes highly polished. Crease in trousers nicely creased. Oh so nicely creased. Creases under his eyes. Around his mouth. Anticipation anticipation anti anti antiantiantiantiantianti. The train rattled on. The child talked to the bear. Tethy Tethy my Tethy is a naughty Tethy. The woman put away her knitting. They got out. He leaned over. It’s going to be great just great love I know it will. Pressure on my knee. Only another half hour to go love. A dozen hours to come. No. Perhaps he will want to in the afternoon. An after lunch doze. I closed my eyes. Opened. More fields. More boys kicking in an orgy of mud. Men tinkered with cars. Station after station. Signals. Tunnels. Hedges. Then the sea. Flat grey. Flat washed green land on the left. Well this is it love — here I’ll take your case. The hat flew on.

(…)

To Be, or Not to Be

Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books
Masha Gessen at her apartment in Moscow in the early 1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties

Masha Gessen’s essay – which was adapted and given as the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library in December 2017 – on identity and the politics of choice-making.

1.

Fetus

The topic of my talk was determined by today’s date. Thirty-nine years ago my parents took a package of documents to an office in Moscow. This was our application for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union. More than two years would pass before the visa was granted, but from that day on I have felt a sense of precariousness wherever I have been, along with a sense of opportunity. They are a pair.

I have emigrated again as an adult. I was even named a “great immigrant” in 2016, which I took to be an affirmation of my skill, attained through practice—though this was hardly what the honor was meant to convey. I have also raised kids of my own. If anything, with every new step I have taken, I have marveled more at the courage it would have required for my parents to step into the abyss. I remember seeing them in the kitchen, poring over a copy of an atlas of the world. For them, America was an outline on a page, a web of thin purplish lines. They’d read a few American books, had seen a handful of Hollywood movies. A friend was fond of asking them, jokingly, whether they could really be sure that the West even existed.

Truthfully, they couldn’t know. They did know that if they left the Soviet Union, they would never be able to return (like many things we accept as rare certainties, this one turned out to be wrong). They would have to make a home elsewhere. I think that worked for them: as Jews, they never felt at home in the Soviet Union—and when home is not where you are born, nothing is predetermined. Anything can be. So my parents always maintained that they viewed their leap into the unknown as an adventure.

I wasn’t so sure. After all, no one had asked me.

2. 

Vulnerable

As a thirteen-year-old, I found myself in a clearing in a wood outside of Moscow, at a secret—one might say underground, though it was out in the open—gathering of Jewish cultural activists. People went up in front of the crowd, one, two, or several at a time, with guitars and without, and sang from a limited repertoire of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. That is, they sang the same three or four songs over and over. The tunes scraped something inside of me, making an organ I didn’t know I had—located just above the breastbone—tingle with a sense of belonging. I was surrounded by strangers, sitting, as we were, on logs laid across the grass, and I remember their faces to this day. I looked at them and thought, This is who I am. The “this” in this was “Jewish.” From my perch thirty-seven years later, I’d add “in a secular cultural community” and “in the Soviet Union,” but back then space was too small to require elaboration. Everything about it seemed self-evident—once I knew what I was, I would just be it. In fact, the people in front of me, singing those songs, were trying to figure out how to be Jewish in a country that had erased Jewishness. Now I’d like to think that it was watching people learning to inhabit an identity that made me tingle.

Some months later, we left the Soviet Union.

In autobiographical books written by exiles, the moment of emigration is often addressed in the first few pages—regardless of where it fell in a writer’s life. I went to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory to look for the relevant quote in its familiar place. This took a while because the phrase was actually on page 250 out of 310. Here it is: “The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.”

This is an often-quoted phrase in a book full of quotable sentences. The cultural critic and my late friend Svetlana Boym analyzed Nabokov’s application of the word “syncope,” which has three distinct uses: in linguistics it’s the shortening of a word by omission of a sound or syllable from its middle; in music it is a change of rhythm and shift of accent when a normally weak beat is stressed; and in medicine it is a brief loss of consciousness. “Syncope,” wrote Svetlana, “is the opposite of symbol and synthesis.”

Suketu Mehta, in his Maximum City, wrote:

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to.

Mehta didn’t let me down: this assertion appears in the very first pages of his magnificent book; also, he moved to America at the same age that I did. And while I think he might be wrong about everyone, I am certain he is right about émigrés: the break colors everything that came before and after.

Svetlana Boym had a private theory: an émigré’s life continues in the land left behind. It’s a parallel story. In an unpublished piece, she tried to imagine the parallel lives her Soviet/Russian/Jewish left-behind self was leading. Toward the end of her life, this retracing and reimagining became something of an obsession. She also had a theory about me: that I had gone back to reclaim a life that had been interrupted. In any case, there are many stories to be told about a single life.

(…)

I am dark, I am forest

Jennifer Givhan in Poetry Magazine
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Jennifer Givhan’s poem ‘I am dark, I am forest’, featured in this month’s Poetry Magazine.

After Rilke

I carried a bowl of menudo into the forest / I carried my bisabuela’s tripas not daring ask whose intestines I carried / con cilantro y radish y cebolla chopped fine / I carried the sewing machine they’d chained her to in the garment district downtown I carried the forest crackling against asphalt where her chanclas burnt & melted so I carried her too / I wore no red / I bore no basket / there was no forest but an avocado tree in the backyard of the house they made her sell to get her Medicare for her diabetes shots / I carried her sugarwater / a hummingbird great-granddaughter I carried her flickering / her black- 
& white-screened / I carried her face / the scars her warped esposo left her granddaughter / carried those wounds through the womb / not wolf but blue-eyed man / I stirred the menudo / my belly the pot / & scalding into the forest I carried / & that tree I chopped down chopped into a boat & carried my mother & my bisabuela across the chile-red sopa the blood-water broth / named her daughter / what forest have we made for her I cannot see / I carried darkness into the forest & sliced it out.

On Female Rage

Leslie Jamison for NY Times
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Leslie Jamison’s piece on cultural and personal responses to female rage, featured in the New York Times.

(…)

The phenomenon of female anger has often been turned against itself, the figure of the angry woman reframed as threat — not the one who has been harmed, but the one bent on harming. She conjures a lineage of threatening archetypes: the harpy and her talons, the witch and her spells, the medusa and her writhing locks. The notion that female anger is unnatural or destructive is learned young; children report perceiving displays of anger as more acceptable from boys than from girls. According to a review of studies of gender and anger written in 2000 by Ann M. Kring, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, men and women self-report “anger episodes” with comparable degrees of frequency, but women report experiencing more shame and embarrassment in their aftermath. People are more likely to use words like “bitchy” and “hostile” to describe female anger, while male anger is more likely to be described as “strong.” Kring reported that men are more likely to express their anger by physically assaulting objects or verbally attacking other people, while women are more likely to cry when they get angry, as if their bodies are forcibly returning them to the appearance of the emotion — sadness — with which they are most commonly associated.

A 2016 study found that it took longer for people to correctly identify the gender of female faces displaying an angry expression, as if the emotion had wandered out of its natural habitat by finding its way to their features. A 1990 study conducted by the psychologists Ulf Dimberg and L.O. Lundquist found that when female faces are recognized as angry, their expressions are rated as more hostile than comparable expressions on the faces of men — as if their violation of social expectations had already made their anger seem more extreme, increasing its volume beyond what could be tolerated.

In “What Happened,” her account of the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton describes the pressure not to come across as angry during the course of her entire political career — “a lot of people recoil from an angry woman,” she writes — as well as her own desire not to be consumed by anger after she lost the race, “so that the rest of my life wouldn’t be spent like Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations,’ rattling around my house obsessing over what might have been.” The specter of Dickens’s ranting spinster — spurned and embittered in her crumbling wedding dress, plotting her elaborate revenge — casts a long shadow over every woman who dares to get mad.

If an angry woman makes people uneasy, then her more palatable counterpart, the sad woman, summons sympathy more readily. She often looks beautiful in her suffering: ennobled, transfigured, elegant. Angry women are messier. Their pain threatens to cause more collateral damage. It’s as if the prospect of a woman’s anger harming other people threatens to rob her of the social capital she has gained by being wronged. We are most comfortable with female anger when it promises to regulate itself, to refrain from recklessness, to stay civilized.

Consider the red-carpet clip of Uma Thurman that went viral in November, during the initial swell of sexual-harassment accusations. The clip doesn’t actually show Thurman’s getting angry. It shows her very conspicuously refusing to get angry. After commending the Hollywood women who had spoken out about their experiences of sexual assault, she said that she was “waiting to feel less angry” before she spoke herself. It was curious that Thurman’s public declarations were lauded as a triumphant vision of female anger, because the clip offered precisely the version of female anger that we’ve long been socialized to produce and accept: not the spectacle of female anger unleashed, but the spectacle of female anger restrained, sharpened to a photogenic point. By withholding the specific story of whatever made her angry, Thurman made her anger itself the story — and the raw force of her struggle not to get angry on that red carpet summoned the force of her anger even more powerfully than its full explosion would have, just as the monster in a movie is most frightening when it only appears offscreen.

This was a question I began to consider quite frequently as the slew of news stories accrued last fall: How much female anger has been lurking offscreen? How much anger has been biding its time and biting its tongue, wary of being pathologized as hysteria or dismissed as paranoia? And what of my own vexed feelings about all this female anger? Why were they even vexed? It seemed a failure of moral sentiment or a betrayal of feminism, as if I were somehow siding with the patriarchy, or had internalized it so thoroughly I couldn’t even spot the edges of its toxic residue. I intuitively embraced and supported other women’s anger but struggled to claim my own. Some of this had to do with the ways I’d been lucky — I had experienced all kinds of gendered aggression, but nothing equivalent to the horror stories so many other women have lived through. But it also had to do with an abiding aversion to anger that still festered like rot inside me. In what I had always understood as self-awareness — I don’t get angry. I get sad — I came to see my own complicity in the same logic that has trained women to bury their anger or perform its absence.

(…)

The Poet and the Jailer: Cracking the US Prison System

Steven Zultanski on Jackie Wang for frieze
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For frieze, Steven Zultanski reviews Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, forthcoming from Semiotext(e).

Neither a straightforward scholarly book nor a squarely literary experiment, Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, forthcoming from Semiotext(e) in February, confronts mass incarceration in the US by delving into the processes that feed into and maintain the prison system: anti-black racism, predatory lending, algorithmic policing, privatized prisons, credit scams, data analytics and histories of exclusion. Its argument is trenchant, but it’s also beautifully written; it slides between topics with conceptual agility and stylistic flair, tying histories together without conflating them. In this way, Wang is able to build a complex portrait of systemic violence while avoiding overwhelming paranoia. The result is a book that moves between bleak but clear-eyed analyses and, occasionally, surprising moments of hope.

Today, Wang argues, supposedly ‘race-neutral’ technologies (credit scoring, data mining, law enforcement software) justify and continue long-standing racist policies, providing them with a veneer of scientific legitimacy. Moreover, such faux-objective, technocratic practices are a means of rationalizing expropriation: states, cities and municipalities attempt to solve their budgetary dilemmas by extracting money from residents – in the form of fines – and building their local economies around policing and jails (while the budgets for infrastructure and services are cut). Along with an ideology that holds up the computational as disinterested and unbiased, these policies are buffered by dominant discourses that frame poverty and incarceration as matters of personal responsibility. The burden of recurrent capitalist crises is thus recast in moral and rational terms and shifted onto the shoulders of the poor:

‘Having a bad credit score is seen as a moral failing rather than merely an index of structural inequality … I hold that risk is a new colour-blind racism, for it enshrines already-existing social and economic inequalities under the guise of equality of opportunity … Furthermore, risk scoring is a practice that fractures the population into the categories of deserving and undeserving.’

While this analysis goes a long way toward examining the social logics that uphold mass incarceration, Wang takes the argument further; she continually spins her inquiry in new directions. Through parallel discussions of credit scores, which don’t simply record one’s economic history, but supposedly anticipate one’s future behaviour, and algorithmic policing, which forecasts future crimes based on the location of past crimes, resulting in the increased policing of certain areas, Carceral Capitalism forefronts how technocracy is not merely analytical, but predictive: criminality and poverty are self-fulfilling prophecies of capitalist rationality.

(…)

Falling in Love with an Empty Man: The Work of José Leonilson

Elisa Wouk Almino for The Paris Review
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Elisa Wouk Almino on José Leonilson: Empty Man, the Brazilian artist’s first solo exhibition in the US, currently running at the Americas Society in New York.

(…)

In Brazil, Leonilson is considered one of the most important artists of his generation. Born in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, he came of age in the 1980s, in the years immediately following Brazil’s twenty-year dictatorship. Emerging from oppressive times, he and his peers embraced the pleasures of painting, and they made bright and figurative work. But Leonilson’s art was also uniquely personal and literary; words float alone or in poetic arrangements (“here comes your man / full of numbers and words”). His presence looms over almost everything he left behind.

Leonilson died in 1993, at the age of thirty-six, of AIDs. He had learned of his illness only two years prior. As his health rapidly deteriorated, he shifted from painting to making small embroideries on pockets, bags, and bits of canvas. The Americas Society exhibition begins with these later, quietly beautiful works, and is framed around a quote by T. S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning.” An early 1975 self-portrait, made from denim jeans and with buttons for eyes, presages the introspective works Leonilson made in the last years of his life.

“I don’t make impersonal things,” he once said. He liked to paint the body: the brain, the lungs, and the heart. One painting from 1988 delineates human organs, with words flowing through and around them, including the phrase “the streets of the city.” The names of cities he visited—Madrid, Basel, Bordeaux—often appear in his art; but he was more a wanderer than a traveler.

“I am searching for something,” he said, “but I don’t know what I’m looking for.” Leonilson recorded these thoughts in his audio diaries, which he kept on tape cassettes from 1990 until his death three years later. He talks about the time he watched the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas, and how lost the main character appears as he aimlessly walks the desert. Leonilson breaks down into tears, recognizing himself.

His audiotapes weren’t discovered until after he died. In 2015, Carlos Nader, a friend of Leonilson’s, made them into a film titled The Passion of JL. The incredibly moving project, which screened this Thursday at the New School in New York, is narrated solely by Leonilson’s voice, while images of his art flash on the screen. The tapes reveal someone full of feeling and desperately in search of love. “Why am I so alone? Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” he asks. “I am needy.”

Leonilson’s friends remember him as warm and gregarious. Many people, including Carlos Nader, have said the voice of the audiotapes is not the one they knew, but one that, in retrospect, illuminates his art.

*

I went to the Americas Society exhibition after I saw The Passion of JL. As I walked through the galleries, I heard the disembodied voice of Leonilson’s tapes (“love is the best thing there is”; “I think I will live long”; “I’m not afraid of dying, but of suffering”). I imagined his wounds as I counted the thirty-four tallies that look like stitches in the piece 34 with scars. I wondered if he had cheated or been the one betrayed as I read the word “traitor,” sewn above a sea of crystals. I figured he had cobbled these works together in utter silence, and likely alone.

In 1991, the year Leonilson was diagnosed with HIV, he made the work Empty Man. He used a found piece of linen depicting the children’s tale of the tortoise and the hare racing in a field. Beneath the scene, he stitched the words “salt. blood. salive,” and below that, a man’s torso surrounded by the broken-up phrase, “empty man / lone / ready.” Echoes of this empty, lone man appear elsewhere: the name José stitched in the corner of a faded green rectangle, a single figure labeled as an “island,” and most poetically, the word nobody, sewn on the edge of a pink pillow.

(…)

Dear Rose

Ocean Vuong for Harper's
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From Ocean Vuong’s new poem ‘Dear Rose’, featured in Harper’s with an introduction by Ben Lerner:

DEAR ROSE

if you’re reading this then you survived
my life into this one this one with
my name crossed out then found
halfway in your mouth if you’re reading this
then the bullet does not know you
yet but I know mom you can’t
read napalm fallen on your schoolhouse
at six & that was it they say

a word is only what it signifies
that’s how I know the arrow
-head in my back means
I’m beautiful a word like bullet
hovers in an amber afternoon on its way
to meaning the book opens like a door
but the only one you ever read
was a coffin its hinges swung

shut on lush descriptions
of a brother & the bullet still
the fastest finger pointing
to life I point to you to me to
-day a Thursday I took a long walk
alone it didn’t work kept stopping
to touch my shadow just in case
feeling is the only truth

I’m capable of & there down
there between thumb & forefinger
an ant racing in circles then zigzags
I wanted significance but think
it was just the load he was bearing
that unhinged him: another ant
curled & cold lifted on
his shoulders they looked like a set

of quotations missing speech it’s said
they can carry over 5,000x their mass
but it’s often bread crumbs
not brothers that get carried
home but maybe going too far
is to admit the day ends anywhere
but here no no mom this
is your name I say pointing

to Hong on the birth certificate thin
as dust Hong I say which means
rose I place your finger on a flower so
familiar it’s almost synthetic red
plastic petals dewed with glue I leave
it out of my poems I turn from
its face — clichéd oversized
head frayed at the edges

like something ruptured
by a bullet seeking language
a kind of person which is to say
I was born because you
were starving but how can anything
be found with only two hands
with only two hands you dumped
a garbage bag of anchovies into the glass jar

(…)

The Miscarriage

Dorothea Lasky’s new poem ‘The Miscarriage’, featured on Poets.org:

The doctor says it’s an empty room in there

And it is

A pale sack with no visitors
I have made it and surrounded it with my skin
To invite the baby in

But he did not enter
And dissolved himself into the sea so many moons ago

I wait to see
Will the giant bean be in there another day

The women of the world say
Work harder!

The men in the world say
Work harder!

I work and work but I am an empty sack
Until I bleed the food all over the floor

Then I am once again with everything
Until the gods say, you’ve done well, good sir
You may die now

And the people who were asking me for favors all along
Knock on the coffin door
But I am gone, gone

An Extract: River

Fitz Amazon River

An excerpt from Esther Kinsky’s River (tr. Iain Galbraith), published today:

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My flat was not far from Abney Park Cemetery. Had I leaned out of the bay window in my front room I would have been able to see the cemetery gate whose defiant grandeur stood out from everything else in the area, even from the cemetery behind it. On a walk some years earlier, I had taken a detour through the cemetery. It was springtime, and there were small clumps of yellow and white blooming daffodils everywhere. Although I had not been alone at the time and was given all kinds of explanations about the history of the graves, the cemetery had seemed like a deep forest to me, a dank and musty island, half-wild, drifting in the river of the city. At the time I should not have been surprised to stumble out through one of the two gates into a London that was wholly different from the one I had previously entered from. Now that I was so near to this forest full of graves, I rarely visited it. It was autumn. Poisonous flowers blossomed in the shade of the tall trees and brushwood; the leaves rustled after a dry summer, but had retained their tired green instead of turning yellow. The cemetery seemed like an incongruous counter to the wilderness beyond the river Lea, which lay in the opposite direction. The cemetery belonged to the city; it was a small outgrowth from it, not an island in a river. There was no surprise for me to look forward to on leaving the gate at the other end of the cemetery; in fact, that way led towards my old London life, whose familiarity I wished to slough off. I confined myself to short tours between the graves, trees, flowers and undergrowth. I avoided little groups of drug dealers and their customers, and the dreamy visitors sitting on graves in the few patches of sunlight.

One day, in the middle of the cemetery, I came across a young girl and her boyfriend in a clearing. She had a pale, drained face, and was looking up with a timid, rapt expression at her companion, a large black man sitting very upright on a tree trunk or gravestone. He was staring into the bushes, but his gaze was so earnest and lofty that he seemed to be looking over the tops of the trees, into some uncharted yonder. The girl reminded me of a sepulchral angel, its face worn by wind and weather; her skin was like porous stone, and her features had a certain flatness, as if they had been sandpapered to erase severity. But she had lovely long red hair, and I secretly called her Sonja because she reminded me of a character in Chekhov. A few days later I saw Sonja in the cemetery by herself; she was sitting in a different part of the clearing, where she had set up a pinhole camera to take a picture. I asked her about the camera, which she had balanced with some difficulty on a tree trunk, and she explained its simple construction. On windless days the pictures can look like delicate sketches, she said. And sometimes they show angels.

Sonja was a firm believer in the pinhole camera. She showed me all kinds of wondrous phenomena made possible by the device: the reproduction of images; bringing to light the invisible. She went on to explain how leaves also acted as a kind of pinhole camera; the spots of light observable under foliage on a sunny day were countless tiny suns. Countless tiny suns, she repeated. It was a chilly, whitish-grey day, and I thought of the three suns seen by members of an expedition to the ice-wastes of the North Pole four centuries ago. 

I would sometimes meet Sonja on the street, or in the second-hand clothes shop a few houses away from my flat. The shop was managed by a thin-lipped Croat, who professed to be running the place on behalf of a Bosnian charity. It was chock-a-block with stuff: clothes, suitcases, toys, shoes. I ran into Sonja a couple of times there trying on shoes. She didn’t like them, or they didn’t fit her, and on one of these occasions the thin-lipped man went to the back of the shop and reappeared with a large rubbish bag full of shoes, which he proceeded to empty onto the floor in front of Sonja. At last she found one that suited and fitted her, whooping with joy at how lovely it was as she rummaged in the shoe-heap; its other half was nowhere to be found. Sonja left the shop without purchasing anything. The Croat calmly picked up the dumped shoes, including the single one, and put them back in the bag.

To avoid having to search my house-moving boxes for crockery I bought some tea glasses from the Croat, and a metal teapot tarnished by constant scrubbing during its years of service in some canteen or cheap roadside café. The Croat stood behind his makeshift shop counter, where some pieces of jewellery were displayed. This was a motley jumble of brooches and rings, which the donors may have overlooked on lapels or in pockets as they hurried to stuff the clothes into bags. The Croat gave me the odd bit of advice as I studied the jewellery. This brooch was very becoming, or that ring showed off my hand very nicely, but I was not persuaded. 

Sonja worked in a small grocer’s next to the charity for Bosnian refugees. I sometimes met her there. On one occasion I wanted to tell her about my instant pictures, indeed I had even prepared a little talk in my head about the relationship between these pictures and memory, but the talk went awry, my words sounded muddled, and she regarded me with disbelief. I mistrust memory, she said. The next time we met, she mentioned that she had started work on a photographic study. She mumbled an attempt to explain the study to me. You know, she said, beauty, light, reality, that sort of thing. A kind of law. Her voice became ever quieter, and I could barely understand what she was saying, but when I gave her a quizzical look, she shrugged her shoulders. A kind of law, she repeated, craning her face so far forward that it almost came up against my own. What is actually beautiful in what we see? she asked so suddenly and loudly that the few other customers in the shop turned to look. Following this conversation I stayed away from the shop, but a few weeks later Sonja came to see me. She was pregnant. Her features had become sharper; the weather-worn stone angel was no more, while her red hair, plaited into a braid, hung down in front of her shoulder. She lowered her eyes and soft bluish eyelids; she was no longer Sonja but a pre-Raphaelite vignette. That day at the grocer’s she had handed in her notice; she intended to move to a houseboat on the Lea. As a farewell gift she had brought me two photographs she had taken with her pinhole camera. On one of them I recognized a view of the garden behind where I lived: the flat gravel-strewn roof, the sycamore, the window of my small room, where I had so often stood. For a moment I was taken aback; I felt watched, and caught at trying to memorize things. The window of the little room looked empty, however; there was no sign of any figure.

The other picture showed Sonja’s clearing at Abney Park Cemetery: the trees, grass, half-overgrown gravestones, the deserted tree stump where she had sat with her friend. It really did look like a drawing.

An angel! she said, pointing to a thin, apparently hovering white shape in the bottom corner of the picture of the clearing. It was a blot of the kind that had occasionally appeared in the photos I took with my old instant camera: white shadows, caused by light penetrating the primitive casing. 

Thank you, I said. It’s very beautiful.

Sonja, who since her metamorphosis may have been called Gabriella, took her leave. She walked slowly and ponderously, not towards the Abney Park Cemetery, but in the other direction. I began to imagine her in Springfield Park, where, who knows, she might cross paths with the King, but then I saw her turning down the lane that ran along between my back garden and the embankment above the train station. The moment she vanished I was no longer certain I would recognize her if I saw her again in a different place. 

I gave the two pinhole photographs a place in my flat. And there they stood, one at either end of the series I had taken of the Lea, like two distant relatives from a branch of the family thought to have withered away.

(…)

Best Book of 1996: The Lost Lunar Baedeker

Natalie Eilbert for Granta
9780374525071

Natalie Eilbert on The Lost Lunar Baedeker: a collection of Mina Loy’s poems published in 1996.

There is a habit in poetry to call poets of a certain opacity, ‘difficult’. Poets like Mina Loy often get unfairly categorized this way, which only demonstrates the failure of imagination presided over by vogue trends in poetry. If you are looking for a narrative-lyric, follow the strain of Plath. Mina Loy is an entirely different descendent, a distillation of Dickinson, a rogue sibling of Apollinaire. It isn’t that she is difficult so much as our minds have been trained toward the center, and hence, more narrative throughlines. It is as Loy tells us in the first poem of her book, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, ‘tame things / Have no immensity’.

With the transparency of first-person narrators up for furious debate, it should be noted that Loy’s biography is somewhat irresistible. Sure, she palled around with Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes and the usual Paris suspects. With Duchamp, she orgied in Greenwich Village, according to editor Roger L. Conover; she also renounced the establishment by sewing her own clothes and disrupting the Futurism movement’s fascist momentum with her own feminist futurist manifesto, and in so doing, predicted a Weinstein-era violence for the future women of the world who followed status quo: ‘Professional & commercial careers are opening for you—Is that all you want?’ And so, as World War I cooked up, Mina Loy spent her time queering the Lady out of the body, flipping off mainstream politics, and presenting us grounds to abandon society in favor of the Loy Feminist Manifesto.

That is before we even encounter her poetry. Loy as persona and Loy as post-mortem text operate with enormous distinction. Whereas Loy famously proclaimed, ‘I was never a poet’, Loy is someone I consider a Super Poet, one whose bewilderment grew equally out of sui generis language as much as cultural disavowal. While T.S. Eliot had his lines segmented and preened by Ezra Pound, Mina Loy freely deployed words like ‘semieffigy’, ‘sialagogue’ and ‘agamogenesis’ with the whim of an un-lanterned genie. (In fact, in a letter to Marianne Moore, Pound wrote, ‘Is there anyone in America except you, Bill [William Carlos Williams], and Mina Loy who can write anything of interest in verse?’ Sorry about that, TS.) (Loy was English but her poetics make good prosaic sense when conceived of through the American canon.) It is in the selected work, The Lost Lunar Baedeker, that we chance to sit in the incubation chamber with Loy, if we dare.

It should be noted that in my back and forth with Granta editor Eleanor Chandler, part of the misfortunes of women in the arts reveals itself: It is hard to place editions and chronology with Loy’s collected and selected bodies of work. When Lunar Baedecker [sic] was published in its 1923 heyday in Paris, it existed only until it went out of print. As the editor terms it, her being ‘unassimilable by the canonists’ meant being fortressed into her era, as her work never cottoned to the zeitgeist. She ventured in our imagination more as a sorceress than a genius, as the mythopoetic experiment of woman is wont. Versions of the book have been republished as collected volumes in 1982 and 1991, but the editor of 1996’s The Lost Lunar Baedeker, Roger L. Conover, curated the poems in this volume with careful deliberation, changing the name to reflect his editorial quest for Mina Loy. On this point, he offers us some background into the publication history for us to chew through, ‘four minutes to the millennium’ that are still all-the-more poignant:

Loy has a chance to rise above neglect. But in order to read her, we not only have to get past neglect, we have to get past legend. And this may prove more difficult, for legend has a way of insinuating itself upon neglect. I first edited Loy’s work in 1982. At the time, publishing her work felt more like a cause than an editorial occasion. The Last Lunar Baedeker circulated like a secret handshake, and has since become part of the Loy myth . . . These stories should neither elevate nor diminish Loy’s stature as a poet. She should first be apprehended at poem-level.

The Lost Lunar Baedeker is divided into five sections – the first four are chronological of her life as a poet, and the fifth section is drenched in the kind of revolutionary prose that keeps a good radical from the middle. (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, another book I considered for this series, revolutionized the novel through her subversive, unorthodox structure.) Ensnared in this book, you encounter neologisms and Latinate medical components turned adjectival in use. ‘Being an incipience’, she writes in the winsome poem, ‘The Effectual Marriage, or THE INSIPID NARRATIVE of GINA AND MIOVANNI’,

a correlative
an instigation of the reaction of man
From the palpable to the transcendent
Mollescent irritant of his fantasy
Gina had her use   Being useful
contentedly conscious
She flowered in Empyrean
From which no well-mated woman ever returns.

It’s dizzying, dense and feminist as hell. She wrote this between 1914 and 1920. In ‘Apology of Genius’, she will tell us, on women suffering the passions of men, ‘Our wills are formed / by curious disciplines / beyond your laws.’

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions