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New NER Digital | Rachel Richardson

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

On Kara Walkers Narratives of a Negress” | Rachel Richardson

karawalkergone1

My sister had been living in New York that fall, trying out dance school, renting a room in an illegal apartment with plywood walls, across the street from the train station in Queens. We wandered Manhattan by day, unsure of what to do with a city this dense and wide with possibility. It was 2002; I was studying poetry and living in little, idyllic Ann Arbor—in other words, my daily geographical radius was only a couple of miles.

She wanted to take me to the Guggenheim, and I resisted, thinking it was just another hallowed building, like the university: a shrine to the mind. Why not stay out here among the stench of human sweat, spices, and pretzels, the honks and shouting, bikes weaving the lanes, the exhilarating buzz of urban life? But she insisted, and soon we stood in a long line flanking the cylindrical white colossus, Frank Lloyd Wright’s “temple of the spirit.” My mood improved—just the scale of such endeavor was refreshing after my months spent curled on a bed looking at a single page.

Inside, we ascended the spiral stairs. I recall the encompassing whiteness, the sense of air and light. On a high floor, we wandered into a panorama of gorgeous, lively silhouettes; they were black on the white wall, mysterious in their lack of physicality. More a narrative than a physical art, they seemed to me. Yet more powerful than shadow. Shifting shadows loomed behind them, gray limbs of weeping willows and grand windows of mansions seemingly lit from within. I approached, mesmerized by the glory and simplicity of the contrast, wanting to understand the materials.

The figures were smaller than life-sized, a standing woman maybe four feet high. They were cut from black paper, painstakingly detailed into expressive human figures. One by one, the details emerged: the exaggerated lips and flouncy locks of the African-American woman carrying the basket; the lascivious look of the white slave owner, perfectly clear even in the simplicity of profile. Babies tumbled out from the bottom of a slave woman’s dress, cartoonishly, their hair already bound in springy braids. There were horses and dogs, too, in various states of alarm and disregard. One was being violated by a man. From under a woman’s huge hoop skirt, two large bare feet protruded next to her own booted and buttoned pair. There were whips and jewels and genitalia, and baskets, and crops. Many of the details now escape me; the grotesque fecundity remains. Tufts of grass sprang up here and there; a wagon rolled calmly along toward market.

These absurdly stereotyped and comical details resolved only as you approached. So too did this disturbing fact: the panorama was created in its stark relief by floor lighting, around which the Guggenheim’s stationed guards carefully steered viewers. And as you walked beyond the lights, your own body was backlit, and your shadow—a lighter gray shade, elongated—projected into the scene. There I was next to the rotund grinning planter, with his gold watch chain swinging heavily between his vest and pocket, as he cradled the perky behind of a house slave in his meaty hand. The antebellum grotesque, in stark relief—literally—against my body. My mouth hung slack as I took in the horrific story around my own shape, and the way the lights darkened me, filled in my part, the closer I stepped. Moving along the storyline, I occupied different spaces, my body aligning itself with different parts of the narrative. There was no neutral part. There was no way to view the full story without seeing your own body become part of it.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” says William Faulkner. In that moment the fact of New York City in 2002 was a layer on top of the simultaneous fact of 1852 antebellum brutality. Or perhaps there were other layers within those two historical moments, as well—say, 1872 in the war-destroyed landscapes of Southern cities, or 1952 entrenched segregation, or 1972 race riots. Because the story of the Kara Walker installation was not the story of American slavery, exactly, not the story of the South as it was. It was the story of our stubbornly insistent romance of the South, the ways we retell it: the grotesquely exaggerated fecundity of the fields and the enslaved woman’s body; the wealth and entitlement of the landholders; the bony sadness and arch resentment of the frail white wife; the exertion of brutal custom upon the exuberant, chubby bodies of unsuspecting children.

It’s the myth and not the thing itself, to invert Adrienne Rich’s phrase. And does this mean it’s not real? Does this mean it’s just a story—you can walk away? Your shadow leaves with you, it’s true; you can remove yourself from that wall of images. And what she drew there didn’t happen, not quite. The proportions are wrong; it’s cartoonishly blunt. But for me, it’s a decade later, and I’m still there. In the image in my head, I’m the blurred shadow between a woman and a man with a dog. I’m horrified to be found there, participating in such cruelty, witnessing in silence. I bring my hand up to my face, I gasp, and then I have to see my limb suspended there, that charade. I’m claiming my innocence, my shock, as if I hadn’t known I was part of this story all along.

 ♦♦♦

Rachel Richardson is the author of two poetry collections, Copperhead (2011) and Hundred-Year Wave (2016), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her prose and poetry have appeared recently in Guernica, Kenyon Review Online, Literary Imagination, and on the Poetry Foundation website. A former Stegner and NEA Fellow, she currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines

New NER Digital | Corinne Purtill

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

A Snail’s Pace | Corinne Purtill

The Snail, Henri Matisse

In January 1941, after a lifetime of abdominal pains, Henri Matisse readied himself for an operation to remove fourteen inches of his ruined colon. Prudently, given the risks of radical surgery in prewar France, he also prepared to die. Amid the letters and bequests, he expressed to his doctors a wish for three more years of life—the time needed, he believed, “to bring my work to a conclusion.”

Matisse did not die. He lived for thirteen more years, and this “second life,” as he called it, birthed one of his most creative periods. Unable to stand at an easel to paint, Matisse began experimenting with paper cutouts, a technique he’d used to map out drafts of his canvases. From his bed or wooden wheelchair, Matisse guided surgically sharp scissors through painted paper: not with snip-snips, but the seamless, satisfying shrrrr of shears running through lamination.

The result was the most joyful and powerful work of his career—the kinetic vibrance of Creole Dancer, the zaftig aquanaut of The Swimmer in the Tank, Icarus’s suspended flight. And he knew it. “I feel as if I had come back from the dead,” Matisse wrote to his son. “It changes everything. Time present and time future are an unexpected bonus.”

Expecting to die, and then not dying, is one of humanity’s great experiences. There is a sense of peeking behind a curtain one wasn’t supposed to lift, of brushing past God in a backstage corridor and seeing Him in curlers and robe. It recasts the time that comes after it, bestowing with a magician’s flourish all the amazing hours there are in a day that isn’t consumed with pain, or fear, or the intolerable dullness of waiting for a body to heal.

I read Alastair Sooke’s book on Matisse’s late renaissance after buying a ticket to the Tate Modern’s exhibit of the cutouts in London, where I live. In Matisse’s breathless dispatches from his second chance, I recognized a fellow traveler in what the doctor and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee calls “the kingdom of the ill.”

Two months earlier, on a flight from London to Los Angeles, I went to the airplane bathroom and the toilet filled with my blood. This surprised me. I felt no pain. I was thirty-three years old and in good health. Bleeding to death felt nothing like I thought it would, which is why I refused to go to the hospital until the next morning, after several more bowlsful of my innards had flushed away and my overcompensating heart was beating insistently.

I spent nine days in the hospital. I remember it as a beige prison accented with red: the sleek coil of a transfusion line, and the uninhibited, algae-like forms blood takes as it spills from a body into a bowl, or onto a sheet, or sometimes—when leaving a person with the frenzy of a crowd exiting a burning theater—splattered against a wall. I received twelve blood transfusions, enough to replace all the blood in my body at least once, before doctors decided that this was not the beginning of my final illness but a continuation of an old one.

I have Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that will slowly rot my intestines over the course of my life. Months or years of normalcy pass, and then a messy, ugly flare of pain, blood, and gastrointestinal havoc lay me low. It is a persistent and insidious little bastard. If I am a typical patient, the fancy new drugs will staunch the tide of blood for a few years, and then they won’t. Then I’ll take a newer drug, until that stops working, and then they’ll start to cut away the parts of my intestine the disease has turned to bloody lace (shrrr, the satisfaction of scissors moving through a yielding medium). Until then I will love every hour of my life that belongs to me and not to illness, with intensity I didn’t know before death crossed my path, smirked, and waved me on.

History seems not to have preserved Matisse’s official diagnosis, but the end was not all that different from the fate that may await my gut. And so I arrived at the museum on the Thames with a ticket and far more interest in a Fauvist master’s digestive history than anyone should have.

Admirers have praised Matisse’s cutouts for their pioneering expression of movement, color, and three-dimensional energy in a two-dimensional medium. That’s all true, I’m sure, but what I saw on the walls was gratitude. The pictures—exuberant, joyful, unapologetic pictures—validated something I’d felt since the renewal of my own lease on life, that the gift is not just the time but the recognition of how precious it is. Maybe things become special once we’ve seen their limits defined—health, time, a sheet of gouache-painted paper. Would Matisse’s last years have been as productive had he viewed them as an entitlement instead of a bonus? Would the colors on those walls be as brilliant to me, were I not aware of how nearly I’d never seen them? I wandered the exhibit dopily, happily, hearing the same song in every frame: thank you, thank you, I’m here, I’m here.

I lingered in front of The Snail, a vague spiral of asymmetric colored blocks that looks nothing like a snail to me. People settled against the walls to watch it like a street performer. In the crowded room I allowed myself to imagine a winking moment of connection with the old man across years and space: two people in their fragile shells, reveling in time.

 

Corinne Purtill is a journalist. She lives with her family in London.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.

New NER Digital | Jeff Staiger

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

Fifth Down: Reading Don DeLillo’s End Zone | Jeff Staiger

It was a thin paperback novel, creased, softened by wear, part of the Penguin series of Contemporary American Fiction, dirty white with big letters hard-shadowed in red: DON DELILLO and below, bigger yet, END ZONE. This was on a gray Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, where I had landed not long before at the end of the 1990s. In my free time during those first months in that city, when I didn’t really know anybody, I would often find myself divided between a sense of being able to do anything and the feeling that doing it alone would be insipid. The morning had been cold and rain seemed imminent, but I needed to get some activity. The form that took was a walk leading to the upstairs “literature and fiction” room of a converted house in a small patch of residential neighborhood squeezed on two sides by universities. And there was a tattered, smudged copy of End Zone. The novel was from the early 1970s, and I guessed it would harbor some of the free-wheeling absurdity that was familiar to me from that era, when I was growing up and the world seemed so much more open and honest.

I got home just ahead of the rain and, now feeling sickness coming on, got into my bed, which was in the far back of my attic apartment, in an old converted Victorian whose sharply pitched ceilings gave it the feel of a garret, a good foil for furtive intellectual flights. Thus I embarked on what was to be a kind of controlled experiment in which, all extraneous variables removed, I could test the chemistry among three primary reagents: the stillness, the book, and my mind—the only thing stirring in that little tucked-away pocket of world. There I alternately read and dozed and sometimes peered into the gray silence until there was nothing for it but to read some more, traversing in this manner the vast expanse of the afternoon all the way into evening.

It was a stripped-down chassis of a novel, about a college football team, without much plot or development or investigation of character, which nevertheless moved along just fine on the witty scuffle of words with meaning and the rhythm of the shapely vignettes of which it was composed. The characters are skimpy, slivers of people defined by the quirky obsessions they circle around, à la the damaged menagerie in Catch 22. Mostly the action consists of their skewed speeches and rapid exchanges in which big ideas are undercut by well-timed non sequiturs: Gary Harkness, the narrator, and the team’s running back, is fascinated by repellent accounts of nuclear war and mass death; his occasional companion, Myna Corbett, keeps herself chubby in order to evade “the responsibilities of beauty”; the head coach, Emmett Creed, preaches discipline and self-abnegation with religious fervor. Their motives seem arbitrary, bereft of higher rationales, just as the terminologies they brandish have come free of the reasons that once sanctioned them.

End Zone takes place at Logos College, somewhere in the blasted, rock-strewn landscape of West Texas, apt setting for a meditation on nuclear destruction. Logos: word, logic, reason, except in this illogical world, the world of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the logos has come to a kind of blithering end, gone to scruffy seed.

In the emptiness, the result of my own strange self-abnegation, I read on and on, letting the gray patter of words steadily rain through my head. Reading this way was like being home all day from school when I was sick, doing a puzzle on the floor of my room, only vaguely conscious of the songs coming and going on the AM radio and then coming round again. I discover now that I know the words to many of those songs, some of them preposterously banal. What have I retained from my mingling with that book on that day, a book that I have remembered ever since as one that sank into me deeply? The book had, and has, its sportiveness, a kind of scrambled absurdity I would now say—an absurdity mixed with psychic murk, an absurdity not hoisted as a theme but already assumed, intrinsic to the author’s vision of a world awry, and therefore more unsettling even while comic. The novel has a loose, broken-down form that seems to say things are too far gone for the ambition and purpose that would go into amply bodying forth a world.

I don’t know whether a work such as End Zone would see the light of day if it were submitted to agents and publishers now. Maybe not—though I like to think that the novel’s consistent, perverse wit would see it through. But I don’t think that such a work would have been created now anyway. For End Zone gives me a reference point—one of many, actually, but one that is particularly distinct—for my sense that today’s generally more “finished” novels, with more narrative arrangement and more observance of the traditional obligations of the novelist, are a falling off of the truth available at that more casual, more reckless, moment in time. That moment, that mood, conducive to the emergence of a work of such compelling and somehow encouraging oddity, is now long past. But a dose of it is decanted in the pages of DeLillo’s slim novel.

 

Jeff Staiger has a PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley. His critical writings, on such topics as Harold Brodkey, Thomas Pynchon, and Homer, have appeared in recent years in various literary reviews. He is writing a book on the plight of the contemporary novel and also, naturally, a novel. He is the Literature Librarian at the University of Oregon.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

 

New NER Digital from Matthew Lippman

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

THE BIG BEAUTIFUL BARBEQUE THAT IS MANHOOD: Jay Nebel’s poem “Men” | Matthew Lippman

Jay Nebel drives a fruit-juice truck. I don’t even know what that means. He puts citrusy liquids in coolers and delivers them to places. I imagine restaurants, bodegas, supermarkets. He’s been driving this truck for years and writing poems for years and being a father and a good husband for years. I know this from his poems, from the way he talks with me about his struggle and joy, his forgiveness and his mercy. Today, I have this quiet image of him writing poems in the back of that van during his lunch break, the back doors open, his feet propped up on one of his coolers, the Portland rain laying its off-the-beat bounce for the noonday hour.

Jay Nebel is a man. Not a dude or a brother, though he is all of those things, but mostly, he is a man.

I have never met him but love him like a brother from the other coast. His poems speak to me in my own struggle with manliness-manhood. We eat the same produce, drink the same tonic, and attend barbeques with our boys. Whether these late afternoon happenings of beef and beer are his or mine does not matter. What matters is the struggle between poethood and manhood and how to find the balance, the comfort, in both, together, in an America that doesn’t give a shit about poets but loves a strong man. We want both—that tenderness and that fortitude—and work hard for both. Then, when the quiet moments come, we get to write our poems to show the world how and why our hearts bounce the way they bounce. It is because we are men.

When I came across Nebel’s poem “Men” sitting on my deck chair overlooking my tomato plant, grass, and grill, I was instantly transported to the party—hanging there with him and his fellas, whooping it up. There were no women and the dream of other women was everywhere. We were stupid for that, but that is what being a man is, perhaps, a married one, with kids, knowing deep into the “basalt cliffs” of my mind and heart that my wife is the only one in a world of many. Devotion, loyalty, and buckling down go a long way in my book; the barbeque in Nebel’s poem, the one in my mind, is always the loneliest place on the planet without the kids and the wife because it reminds us of what we were and what we are at the same time. The madness of a middle-aged man is trying to somersault back into boyhood knowing you will never actually get there. It’s a fragile tumble with a beer in one hand and a burger in the other, everything getting spilled, and broken, but that’s why we do it, the point, precisely.

And so as it is with Nebel it is with me—we’re “paper bag” men because we are paper thin and tough, simultaneously, writing our poems, paying the mortgage, worrying about the balance between loving and not loving, and wanting nothing more than for there to be only love—for the kids, for the women we share the world with—for that struggle. Whether it is in the dunes or the forest or the cockpit of the Apache helicopter, the steak on the grill is always ours—poet or banker or construction worker or gardener. It is what we know, as we stand in the hickory smoke with our tongs and spatula, working the T-bone, laughing away the insanity of our words knowing they are the best sustenance, invisible almost, and will keep us alive no matter how much potato salad gets in our eyes. Each night we wipe them clean, we take out the trash, we tell bedtime tales of goblins and rainbows to our children, we write our poems, and then we go upstairs to our women, stinky and greasy, and hold them soft and strong, hoping that this is enough, that we have done enough.

 

Men | Jay Nebel
Jay Nebel’s poem “Men” was originally published in Ploughshares Vol. 39, No. 1, edited by Major Jackson.

We’re in the middle of it, in the middle
of the backyard barbecuing steak
and chicken. Telling stories

with our wives and girlfriends away,
red and blue psychedelics, Coors Light
and breasts falling into our mouths again

like basalt cliffs into the sea.
Jeremy says, I did CPR on a gorilla once.
A girl gorilla, a big one.

I kept thinking, she’s going to wake up
and she’s going to fucking kill me.
But she just peed all over the floor

before dying on her back
in a room full of humans.
What do you think happens

to the male gorilla back in the cages
somewhere waiting for her?
Do they give him the news?

Slide her body into the cage
so he can smell her dead hand?
Zookeepers, Bill says. We should grow

mustaches. And we’re gone,
the Apache helicopter of our middle
age flying out over the dunes.

It’s not the gorilla that scares me.
It’s waking up alone. And I’m not a man
anymore but a paper bag someone’s blowing

into to keep from hyperventilating,
the camels long since sunk down
into their kneecaps, the sand everywhere.

 

Matthew Lippman’s three poetry collections are American Chew (Burnside Review Press, 2013), winner of the Burnside Review Book Prize; Monkey Bars (Typecast Publishing, 2010); and The New Year of Yellow (Sarabande Books, 2007), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize. He is the recipient of the 2014 Georgetown Review Magazine Prize and the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from American Poetry Review. 

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

 

 

 

The Spirit of the Beehive | Sally Keith

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital


http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070040/Most of the village is sitting in this one room, dark except for the lines of cigarette smoke that twist in the projector’s pale white cone. James Whale’s Frankenstein is playing. It’s 1940 on the Castilian plain. The Spanish Civil War has just ended. Two sisters are watching as a man in a tuxedo warns the moviegoers that the story they are watching is not to be taken too seriously. Now there is a man’s face in concentration, just visible behind the grid of his beekeeper mask, as he pumps smoke into his hive. The hum of the bees replaces the clicking projector wheel.

I’m watching Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). A woman, not yet seen before, is writing a letter, presumably to a lost lover: “Something tells me perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest.” She leaves the house for the plain, turns the wheels of her bike down a road and into the sound of the train’s steady approach. It intersects her path. When she turns to walk alongside the train, she moves through the steam it has produced and momentarily disappears. She posts her plaintive letter to a slot on the train, full of soldiers, and then she departs. Now, we watch the man whose face we’ve seen before—beekeeper, poet, husband, father—return to the empty house. We watch him thinking, in his study, as the words from the Frankenstein script overlay the scene: “Haven’t you ever wanted to take a chance … What if we went beyond the limits of the known? Have you never wished to see beyond the clouds and stars or to know what makes trees grow and changes shadow to light?”

He opens the sun-drenched windows, made of pentagonal panes, remaking the hive in the house. The sisters keep watching the movie. Now the monster meets the young Maria and they float flowers at the edge of the lake. That night as the girls go to bed, Ana whispers the three long syllables of her sister’s name, “Is-a-bel.” She asks, “Why did he kill the girl and why did they kill him after that?” But Isabel won’t answer right away, she is falling asleep. When finally she relents, she explains the monster as a spirit you can access pronouncing your own name in the dark. “I’m Ana, I’m Ana,” Isabel whispers to demonstrate. We hear the sound of the father’s footsteps above them, as if offering a response.

The words the father writes in his notebook, like the sound of the hive in his head, describe his glass beehive “with its movement like the main gearwheel of a clock.” Now the woman, again, who cannot sleep. There is no containment—neither night, nor book, nor hive, nor house—that will suffice. In The Life of the Bee (1901), Maurice Maeterlinck describes an “invisible ailment,” as necessary to the bees as honey, that is derived from a bee when it leaves the hive and results in a craving that might “explain the spirit of the laws of the hive.” This movie is like that—like strokes of paint not quite connecting one part of the composition to the next. Eerie flute melodies turn on and off. Wanting to see more, you watch and watch and watch.

 
Sally Keith is author of the forthcoming River House (Milkweed) as well as three previous collections of poetry. She teaches at George Mason University.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

 

 

 

On Hal Hartley’s “Trust” | Stacey Swann

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

Trust PhotoIn broad strokes, Hal Hartley’s 1990 film Trust looks like melodrama—Maria, a pregnant seventeen-year-old, is dumped by her boyfriend. Her future love interest, Matthew, lives with his physically and mentally abusive father, meek at home but volatile and violent out in the world. There are multiple fistfights and a stolen baby.

Melodrama tends towards stereotypes, but Hartley subverts expected outcomes. Following Matthew’s impulsive marriage proposal, instead of Maria’s happy acceptance or crushing refusal, we get a decidedly unmelodramatic conversation about the definition of love. Maria asks Matthew why he would want to marry her. (She is, after all, melodramatically carrying someone else’s child.)

MATTHEW: Because I want to.

MARIA: Not because you love me or anything like that, huh?

MATTHEW: I respect and admire you.

MARIA: Isn’t that love?

MATTHEW: No, that’s respect and admiration.

When I first saw Trust, the film felt both familiar and like nothing I had ever seen. I loved the shot composition, the palette of blues and grays, the soundtrack. But more than anything, I loved the dialogue. Perhaps I was connecting it to other films I loved; the deadpan delivery and comedic timing of Golden Age screwball comedies like The Philadelphia Story and classic noir like The Maltese Falcon were here brought into a contemporary setting. After Matthew returns to a job he hates (to get benefits for Maria and the baby), she finds him watching TV, something he never does.

MARIA: Can you stop watching TV for a moment?

MATTHEW: No.

MARIA: Why?

MATTHEW: I had a bad day. I had to subvert my principles and kowtow to an idiot. Television makes these daily sacrifices possible. It deadens the inner core of my being.

MARIA: Let’s move away, then.

MATTHEW: They have television everywhere. There’s no escape. [. . .]

MATTHEW: I’m just trying to be practical. Levelheaded.

MARIA: What’s so practical about being levelheaded?

Also like many masterpieces of screwball comedy and noir, Trust (as well as most of Hartley’s films) conveys multiple tones at once, forming unexpected chords. The movie is both serious and funny, often at the same time. When Matthew’s intense father tracks him down at Maria’s house, their conversation escalates into a fistfight. Matthew, never before able to stand up to his father, now pushes back. The resulting fight is cathartic, and yet Hartley also combines elements of slapstick—a head slammed in by the refrigerator door, a hand crushed in a drawer—both funny and flinch-inducing.

Later in the movie, Maria tells another character she likes Matthew the way he is: “Dangerous. But sincere.” The woman replies, “Sincerely dangerous,” but Maria counters with this remarkable line: “No, dangerous because he’s sincere.” This may have been what I was really tapping into twenty years ago when I first saw Trust. Just as the snappy comebacks of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart mixed the jaded with the sincere, Hartley showed me that dialogue could be funny, dark, and smart while also being heartfelt. Sincerity isn’t melodrama. As a writer in a culture that often defaults to flimsy irony, I still need to remember this.

 

Stacey Swann’s fiction has appeared in Epoch, Memorious, Versal, and other journals. A former Stegner Fellow, she teaches with Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

 

 

 

Marat and Sade in Las Vegas | Stefany Anne Golberg

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

By Antony Stanley from Gloucester, UK (A line in the sand  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsIn the days before personal computers, when Xeroxing books was a punishable crime, I hand-typed the entirety of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade for my personal collection, as such a book was not generally available in 1980s Las Vegas. I’d borrowed a copy from the UNLV library. Marat/Sade is a play written by the German postwar playwright Peter Weiss. Weiss incorporates a play within the play, one written by de Sade, to be performed by his fellow inmates at the Charenton asylum. So Weiss’s actors play lunatics staging de Sade’s play, and also act as various historical figures with whom de Sade has philosophical dialogues.

What was the appeal, for a fifteen-year-old girl, of a story about a nihilistic and lecherous Revolution-era Frenchman—portrayed by a postwar German avant-gardist—who writes and directs a play in an insane asylum? In Marat/Sade, an actress plays a somnambulist who plays the part of Charlotte Corday, assassin of the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, as he lay in the bathtub. Marat is played by a paranoid schizophrenic. The radical priest Jacques Roux, who stabbed himself to death in prison, is played by an inmate in a straightjacket. These characters felt very true to me, their concerns urgent ones. They screamed for freedom, and for justice, and then broke into ecstatic singing, and laughed until the asylum staff beat them back into the corners.

The passage that affected me most was a conversation between the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Marat on the nature of life and death. Peter Weiss wrote this dialogue between the two historical figures—who had never met in real life—as a playing-out of the psychological motivations behind the French Revolution, about which I knew very little at that time.

MARAT:
I read in your books de Sade
in one of your immortal works
that the basis of all life is death

SADE:
Correct, Marat
But man has given a false importance to death
Any animal plant or man who dies
adds to Nature’s compost heap
becomes the manure without which
nothing could grow nothing could be created
Death is simply part of the process
Every death even the cruelest death
drowns in the total indifference of Nature . . .

The Marquis goes on like that, and Marat counters:

Against Nature’s silence I use action
In the vast indifference I invent a meaning
I don’t watch unmoved I intervene
and say that this and this are wrong
and I work to alter them and improve them . . .

It was always important to intervene and say this and this are wrong—Marat’s argument here was solid. I couldn’t understand what he meant, though, about inventing meaning against nature’s silence. Meaning was not something you could paste onto death. It was like the Marquis de Sade said, death was important only insofar as it made way for new life, and nature didn’t care about either.

I hadn’t really thought about nature until then—I lived in Las Vegas and didn’t think deserts counted as nature. Though often I would stand in my backyard at night and look up at the stars. They were indifferent to me. The vast treeless sand-scape of Vegas, the mountains that dwarfed the casinos in the valley—all unmoved by my small, individual experience. Surely, it mattered little to the stars or trees whether I lived or died. The house next door looked as calm as it ever did, even though our neighbor Mark had died only the year before. I eventually decided that the Marquis de Sade also meant human nature, because he realized that the heart of man was fundamentally apathetic and all acts of kindness manipulation and façade.

I spent a year’s worth of evenings in my father’s office typing up Marat/Sade. I did not know how to type properly and did not intend to learn. I typed and retyped the words until I had a complete manuscript. I had never been so close to anything in my life as I became to that text. I learned its message letter by letter, and when I was finished, I never read the play again.

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and artist located in Schwenksville, PA. She is a columnist for the Smart Set magazine and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

 

 

 

I’m Gonna Cry | Rita Mae Reese

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

ImGonnaCryWhen I was a little girl, my mother would play George Jones and Tammy Wynette on the 8-track player. The only radio stations in Charleston, West Virginia, played country music, or so it seemed. My older sisters were fine with this arrangement. I was not. I hated the crying-in-your-moonshine misery of it all, the endless stream of women leaving their men, of men not coming home, of jobs that broke you and then left you. One evening when Jones was crooning between the heavy thumps of the 8-track, I sat beneath the kitchen table and began crooning my own country song, about my job leaving, my woman leaving, my damned dog leaving. My sister laughed at first, but when I wouldn’t stop she warned me that one day, when I was older, I would like country music. I stopped singing and sat under the table, contemplating the grim future. My sister went off to another room and after some time I tracked her down, begging her to be more specific—when exactly would this terrible thing happen? She wouldn’t say.

♦♦♦

There have been country songs since then that I have enjoyed. I’ve monitored them anxiously like symptoms of something fatal, or at least disfiguring, but they’ve been few and far between. I live in Wisconsin now. I drive a mini van. I have an English degree. What I’m trying to say is, I have enough problems. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to a concert at the Stoughton Opera House. The Opera House has been lovingly restored to a glory that startles me every time I see it. It seems more like a cathedral than a concert hall, an oversized grotto where what is worshipped is sound and tradition. The act has to be spectacular to distract from the beauty of the walls and the hardness of the old wooden seats. My expectations were low. I would have happily sat with a numb butt just gazing at the gilded, giddy fleurs de lis while not doing laundry or listening to knock-knock jokes. But the Sweetback Sisters came out and started singing “I’m Gonna Cry.” It’s a bouncy, funny song about pleading for mercy from a boss, a landlord, and repo men, all met with the same refrain—“I’m gonna cry, cry, cry, lay right down and die, ball my little hands up, rub my eyes.” All of the good things about country music hit home at once—the humor, the honesty about life being more than a romantic endeavor, failed or otherwise, but being that too. And it had been there all along. By the end of concert, when they played a couple of moonshine songs from West Virginia, I knew that my sister’s prediction had finally come true. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna lay right down and cry.

 

Rita Mae Reese, author of The Alphabet Conspiracy, is a recipient of numerous awards, including a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation award. Visit her at www.ritamaereese.com.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits in Black and White | Maud Casey

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

The ones I like best are the ones where she isn’t even there. A shadow on a lawn, a shimmer in the shiny head of a sprinkler. A shadow sliver of her wide-brimmed hat and her broad shoulders on the sidewalk at the feet of two women, creamy legs crossed on a bench, leaning in to conversation. A shadow puppet, dancing on the side of a Chicago building. She is several shadows at the beach. In one, trees grow out of her shadow head; in another, possibly my favorite, the shadow brim of her hat almost touches the hair-rollered head of a sunbathing woman.

I wanted to figure out who she was, says John Malouf in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-written and co-directed with Charlie Siskel. Malouf’s the intrepid, endearing guy who discovered the treasure trove of Maier’s undeveloped photographs—over 100,000 negatives!—at a thrift auction house in Chicago and made them public after her death. Why is a nanny taking all these photos? Malouf asks. The only unimaginative part of the movie involves those peculiar questions (Why is she childless? Why is she unmarried?) occasionally discernible in the subtext of interviews conducted with her employers and the children in her care.There was also her stubborn eccentricity. Why does she speak with a possibly fake French accent? The woman with the twin-lens Rolleiflex camera was a mystery.

I keep misremembering the movie’s title. It should be called In Search of Vivian Maier, I keep insisting. Maier was a mystery fascinated by the mystery of the self. She understood there’s only ever in search of, never finding. No pinning the butterfly—its roving expansive wanderings, the poignant flapping against its cage. Maier took lots of photographs—intimate, wonderfully strange street photographs on par with Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. But it is the self-portraits in stark black and white, the color of the world bled out, their smoky elusivity, that I can’t stop looking at (http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/). Maybe it’s because I’ve recently spent time looking at 19th century forensic photography—women diagnosed as hysterics, alleged criminals. Proof. See? That’s what crazy looks like. That’s what criminal looks like. Maier’s self-portraits (the black and white, in particular, because of their liminal, dreamlike quality) are questions. Am I her? Her? Am I here?

The self-portraits are dated, 1953 to 1971, except for those with no date at all. She is not always a shadow. There she is, tall, startling, beautiful, reflected in a silver platter in an antique store, in a hubcap, in a bathroom whose mirrors extend her into infinity. There, reflected in a store window, a little girl (her charge?) hamming it up beside her; there, in another store window, the reflection of two women in her skirt, as though they’ve taken refuge there. There’s only one where she’s smiling, reflected in a full-length mirror hoisted out of a dumpster by a man whose face you cannot see. There is no getting to the bottom of her.

Maud Casey is the author of three novels, including most recently The Man Who Walked Away, and a collection of stories, Drastic. Her essays and criticism have appeared in A Public SpaceLiterary Imagination, the New York Times Book ReviewOxford American, and Salon.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.  

Charles Hood | Song of the Angels

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

Song of the Angels and Other Middle-Class Compulsions

Hood imageFramed in faux-Gothic spires that look like badly cut organ pipes, Song of the Angels is one of Forest Lawn’s top crowd-pleasers. You know Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Museum, I suppose—Evelyn Waugh parodied it viciously and Jessica Mitford scalded it as well. As a proper lit major / knows-his-salad-fork-from-his-dessert-spoon art snob, my inclinations would run that way too, except my parents’ final nursing home was nearby in Glendale, as was the hospital they rotated through for two years.

In naive middle age I had once said that between cancer and divorce, my divorce had been worse. That was nothing like the sorrow of parenting my parents, who some days were not even coherent, let alone cooperative. To process the grief, before driving home I would go to Forest Lawn and stare at Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau, 1881. Proximity drove this more than preference: I could see Forest Lawn from the nursing home parking lot. They shared a brick wall. It was the closest refuge I could find.

Needing whatever it is art gives us, I would drive around the block, pass though the formal entrance with wrought iron gates and grand fountain, cross sections named Vale of Memory and Eventide, and end up at the museum. The grounds look like a page from The Watchtower: bucolically landscaped hills with implied hints of deer browsing and cherubs picnicking. Most people think of Forest Lawn in terms of Hollywood royalty, as last known locations of Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart and Lon Chaney and Michael Jackson. Walt Disney is here, assuming his head is not in cryogenic storage, awaiting medical resurrection; Errol Flynn and Clark Gable are here; many early studio moguls. Ronald Reagan got married here. Anybody remember Joan Blondell? She’s here. She said her ex-, Mike Todd, had held her by her ankles out of a hotel window. We assume he never did that to his next wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who’s also here—along with Sammy Davis and Sam Cooke and two of the Marx brothers.

Besides hosting traveling exhibits, Forest Lawn’s museum also owns a quirky, mostly cheesy permanent collection. One good name for this would be schmaltzy sentimental pseudo-Victoriana, but another would be, a manifestation of the American fear of death, and a third would be, stuff my mom would really, really like.

Bouguereau was a sincere, polished, salon favorite whose academic perfection epitomized everything Impressionists hated; his wistful peasant girls and bland, de-eroticized nudes display what Degas called a licked finish: all technique, no heart. Even so, I spent entranced hours. Everybody in this painting is so clean and white it feels like laundry day. Look at that hair, those feet: the Madonna has a good pedicure, that’s for sure. The cloth drapes convincingly; light falls with gentle, flattering radiance, as if from a China ball, to use the language of film sets. And the seemingly specific (yet still generic) vegetation—see, even the weeds quote Palm Sunday—matches the actual landscaping of Forest Lawn. True, the wings are a bit paltry, with hardly enough lifting surface to propel a duck, but you’ve got to admire how they direct the composition: the V of the violin angel’s wings guides us down to her face and bow arm, which point to sleeping Jesus. Even the French government collected Bouguereau; the Orsay owns twelve.

For most people, arrival into the middle class must feel like hunkering down under a wool blanket after a long night at sea in an open boat. My parents, for example—I would like to say they survived poverty and war and never looked back, but the fact is, no matter how much they squirreled away in their IRA, they never stopped looking back.

Can we escape our own longing? Maybe your family praised Rothko at dinner but in my house we were more about Mt. Rushmore placemats and Thomas Kinkade desk calendars. We went to John Wayne movies and drove Buicks. Sure, it was all easy promises, but then so is a Twinkie and we know what they go for on eBay. Is that why some small, lewd part of me now likes these angels the painter force-feeds us with sentimentality and too much sugar? Brush your teeth twice before leaving. If you had to look at just once piece of art every morning for the rest of your life, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud might provide more to think about, but once you got used to them, angels by Bouguereau might more often send you out the door whistling.

In a painting like this the lute is forever in tune, the air is always thermostatted at 72 degrees, and the demure headbands always double as halos. So be it. It’s not my heaven but it sure is somebody’s. Do I wish this were a Vermeer? Well, of course—but then I don’t live in London or Den Haag. I live where I live and my museums have the art that they have, and maybe my most middle-class secret of all is that I am fine with that.

I don’t expect more, and in fact, I know that to demand too much puts the whole damn ship in peril. Accept your lot in life: that’s one message of the American dream; even the lottery is more lower class than middle, though my mother had some secret tickets hidden away most weeks. If she had won, she would have bought my brother a car, something small and sensible, and written a quiet and probably anonymous check to the Presbyterians.

I would like to think she also would have treated herself to a framed print of Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau.

If so, what would I have done with it? After my folks passed I loaded almost everything on the Salvation Army truck.

This one, though—this one I think I would have kept.

 

Charles Hood is a Research Fellow with the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. His most recent book won the Hollis Summers Poetry Award from Ohio University Press.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.