Mabel Yu

NER Digital

Laws of Motion

White on WhiteIt was supposed to be part of a revolution, he said. The Suprematists weren’t just looking to create art—they sought a universal connection and a new way of thinking for society. Utopia. Transcendence. To that end, Kazimir Malevich stripped realism from his canvases and instead inserted simple shapes, geometric abstraction meant to undress representation until all that remained was pure feeling. His Suprematist Composition: White on White was a prime example of this concept—a white square tilted on a white background of a slightly warmer tone. An almost monochromatic scene. Almost nothingness.

But what made me look up was when the professor broke from his notes and described the effect that the painting had had on some viewers. After staring at the piece for several minutes, it was not uncommon for museum-goers to begin swaying. Without the traditional depth and perspective that pulled the eye into the painting, the focused viewer could observe the white square dissolving into the surrounding white, which branched into infinite space. The professor smiled as he commented that this untethered visual resulted in viewers wobbling, even occasionally falling. Here was a work that could so move you spiritually that it would move you literally. Something that could so lift your mind from overbearing consciousness that it eschewed gravity for a moment.

It was just what I needed. I was in a rut. An upperclassman at a large state university, I was timid and lonely, smart but naïve, eager to be a legend but lacking know-how, experience, and authority (yes, everything a legend requires). An English major, I cherished my books but feared post-collegiate penury. And I was in love (well, fine. At least in serious, earnest like) with a brooding boy, a classmate, who, if he thought about my existence at all, only did so in a trivially amused manner, the way one might about a clever windup toy. My bus departed from a slightly seedy lot just north of downtown DC. The five hour journey included plenty of time for doubt. What if nothing happened? What if I didn’t have the proper constitution to be moved, if something inside me was anchored to fact rather than belief? Nothing but silence answered. The strangers around me napped and snacked.

It was my first visit to the modernist sanctuary of MOMA, and I indulged in the chairs, the teapots, and the canvases of my favorite artistic period. I took my time, out of both delight and apprehension. No longer relegated to the dull heft of an art history book or the dim screen of a slideshow, Brancusi’s Bird in Space shone before me, and Magritte’s The False Mirror winked. Finally, on the fifth floor, I spotted it.

There weren’t crowds here as there were for the popular post-impressionist paintings or the catchy pop art. I stepped straight in front of White on White, cautiously, carefully, looking at the floor as if it might hint at the optimal viewing distance. Arms limp at my sides, I shut my eyes for a second, took a deep breath, and opened.

Seconds passed. A minute. People walked around me, pausing briefly, continuing on. Two minutes. I squinted my eyes and tried to cross them. Three minutes. I tried to focus through the painting instead of staring at its surface, the way you do with a magic eye image. Four minutes. Five. Step forward. Six minutes. I could be moved. I would be moved. Seven minutes. Closer still. Eight. Step backwards, halfway across the room. Stop. Concentrate.

One arch of my foot to another, slowly, almost imperceptibly, left to right and back, I could have begun to shift my weight. I could tell you, with the confidence of someone decoding messages from a Ouija board, that I glimpsed the infinite. That my body broke from the ground, and as Malevich intended, I floated, soaring into a liberated space of higher feeling, leaving behind the earthly concern of my body. Of my life.

But no.

In truth, I stood there, stock still, all weight and no wonder, dumbstruck, forlorn, my feet heavy on the hardwood, and seeming, to the museum patrons that passed by me, to be staring at nothing. Deflated, I made my way downstairs.

The Suprematist movement was eradicated after Stalin and his Soviet government took hold. Creativity, much less abstraction, was forced out to make room for representational art depicting the “common people”—happy, robust workers and schoolchildren, dedicated to the revolutionary romanticism. Malevich was arrested and questioned about his art. Later, denied permission to go abroad and seek medical treatment, Malevich died of cancer in 1935 in Leningrad. His grave is marked by a white cube, on which is painted a large black square.

Back on the streets of midtown, cold air sheared my cheeks and cacophonous traffic assaulted my ears. No longer restricted by the museum’s stringent order and hushed rooms, I was relieved to be part of the discord of the every day. Joining the pedestrians, I moved with the crowd, a small dot on the city’s extensive grid.

Small, but moving.

 

 

Mabel Yu is a writer and editor in the Washington, DC area.

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.

Alex McElroy

NER Digital

Try Going Home Unchanged by This Painting

TitiansCrowning_1Ivan taught me how to look at paintings. We met in line at the Louvre. It was my final day in Paris, my final city, concluding thirty days traveling alone. When the man who turned out to be Ivan touched my shoulder I softened, relieved by an unthreatening hand, expecting to turn and find someone I knew. But there was Ivan, a stranger, chubby and balding, his olive shirt unbuttoned to the fur on his chest. “I need to get in front of you,” he said, his English knotted by a Romanian accent. “I have someone important to see.”

I let him cut. The people before me did not. Ivan and I spoke to each other, hasty and vacant at first, until he asked what I had come to the museum to see. Titian. “Give me,” he said, meaning my map. He penned a route right to the Salle des Etats, the room Titian shared with that “most overrated attraction,” the Mona Lisa. He advised me to give it a glance—only a glance. Then he flashed a card at the ticket window and dashed into a crowd of flashbulbs and faces.

A motley, silent congestion dammed the entrance of the Salle des Etats. Inside, the Mona Lisa hung on an island, roped off and defended by gray-eyed guards cleaning their nails and shaming photographers. I advanced to the back of the room, to Titian’s The Entombment of Christ, where I stood for thirty-five minutes, my arms dutifully crossed.

I had spent the last month in museums, in front of Velásquez, Bosch, Goya, Vermeer, in a state of awe and confusion, but I could not say that I learned more than how to be silent, awaiting aesthetic vibrations. I was twenty-two, working through a thousand dollars of savings, tracing some nebulous path toward becoming an artist. The day I left, my mother wrote and advised me to not be shy. Her message startled me. We were never that close and reading her message I felt humiliated, exposed. Abroad, I did not heed her warnings. And now, near the end of my trip, I saw my shyness as an uncorrectable artistic flaw. How could I create if I could not even talk?

As I stood before The Entombment, a French voice sliced through the reverent hush. Across the room, Ivan discussed Tintoretto with a man in a suit. He led the man into an adjacent room but abandoned him and returned to me, already complaining about the idiocy of his client. “I am the best,” he said, “but sometimes they cannot see, whatever I do, they just cannot see.” Ivan spoke with the confident, knowing rapport of a sibling. His tone comforted me. This was the closest to intimacy I had gotten in months.

“Museum directors pay me to show them their museums,” he boasted. “The director at the Met never knew how to look at her paintings.” He pointed at The Entombment. “Do you see this?” He hovered his finger over Christ’s knee and slid it up to the corner, then the same to Christ’s arm, exposing the obvious parallel. “No, no,” he said, interrupting himself, and dragged me to Tintoretto’s The Coronation of the Virgin, which we studied for two prompt minutes before returning to The Entombment. “Now do you see?” Ivan asked. Color flooded the painting. How had I missed it? The blue glimmer of Mary’s shawl bridged to Nicodemus’s orange tunic by the bone-colored shroud carrying Christ.

Ivan believed one only saw art by returning to art, refreshing the eyes. Docents, historians, the quacks who stood stiff as boards, they tried to gaze their way into paintings, thinking the work might reveal itself with the extra-dimensional flare of a stereogram. He chattered before the paintings, distracting me, guiding my eyes away from the canvas so that I could view it anew. Finally, he led me to “Titian’s finest,” The Crowning with Thorns. The color astounded me. In the painting, Christ stands weak-legged on darkened stone steps, four men binding the crown of thorns to his head. Christ wears a robe cherry in color; the others in golds, sumptuous greens, chainmail armor so finely depicted it practically chings.

“Devastating,” said Ivan. Great art, he proposed, devastates. It destroys the world you thought you knew. “Titian devastates,” he said. He pointed over his shoulder, toward the crowd leaning against a rope, squinting at the Mona Lisa. “That you can look at and return to your life. But try,” he pleaded, “try going home unchanged by this painting.”

We must have stood there for two hours, our voices increasingly animated. Soon there was no one to bother but guards. Ivan gave me his card. He lived in San Francisco—a modest drive from Oregon, where I lived—and suggested I visit for an upcoming Van Gogh exhibit. I promised I would. Ivan departed abruptly.

Back in Oregon, my story of Ivan was met with unflinching cynicism. He was a kook, I was told. An aging romantic. A scam artist. I Googled his name and learned that he typically charged three hundred dollars an hour to lead someone through a museum. For some time, this hurt me. I felt exploited, manipulated. But let’s say Ivan had wanted nothing but money. So what? With him, I learned how to let art manipulate me. If Ivan preyed on my lonely, vulnerable nature, he did what any great work must do. To be affected by art requires we enter the work vulnerable, pliable, ready to let it absorb and change who we are.

This, I think, is what Ivan meant by devastation. The work alone doesn’t devastate. We must approach the work ready to be devastated, the way I finally did that evening in Paris, a young man fragile and quiet, awaiting a hand on my shoulder.

♦♦♦

Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, the Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, and Music & Literature. More work can be found at alexmcelroy.org. He currently lives in Bulgaria.

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.

Lauren Acampora

NER Digital

 

Clair de Lune | Lauren Acampora

Johan_Jongkind_-_Clair_de_lune_à_OverschieThese vibrant May mornings, the half-moon lingers low in the sky as if the night has forgotten to take it away. It’s pale and gentle behind a watery scrim, a sleek creature arching from the sea.

The moon, my father’s pale blue eyes during his last days. The lids wavered as he drifted in and out of morphine dreams, in and out of the wood-paneled room where we’d put the hospital bed, the dark paintings on the walls, the glow of the computer screen like something from another planet.

Through that computer, I played music for him. I believed that it could reach him whether he slept or woke—that it could occupy and calm him, wend through his consciousness with pattern and purpose, the things about life I felt unable to articulate myself. He would sleep, and I would sit with him, watching the drooping eyelids, the half-moons of blue drifting below.

He loved Chopin, but Debussy’s Clair De Lune was his favorite piece.

The third movement of Suite Bergamasque is arguably the most recognizable of Debussy’s work. It was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name, with lines such as:

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
that sets the birds dreaming in the trees

Debussy’s musical rendering has a wandering, reluctant cadence that demands stillness, patience. The pause between notes is held just longer than expected, that additional moment containing a truth, an almost unbearable beauty that speaks of holding closely and letting go.

It’s as if the music is the moonlight—the sonic equivalent of that calm, wondering quiet.

It’s the moonlight on the streets of Venice in winter. My father, nineteen years old, AWOL from his post in Trieste in 1946, seeing the city for the first time. Walking the nearly deserted alleys in these days after the war, hearing only his own boot steps on the pavement.

It’s the peace of painting with my father in the basement, two bare light bulbs hanging over our heads. Breathing in the sweet, citrus smell of turpentine. Chiaro e scuro, he tells me. Make your darks dark and your lights light.

It’s the serenity amid the chaos in the lobby of the cancer hospital. A young man at a grand piano playing Clair de Lune beside a waterfall—a floor-to-ceiling slab of black granite with water rippling down its length, sheer and supple over the hard fact of mortality.

There is a flourish at one point in the piece, an ascension of notes like birds suddenly inspired toward flight, one after the other. Then, it’s back to the give-and-take of longing and resignation. Acceptance, and, finally, reverence.

After listening to Clair de Lune in that wood-paneled room, it has become an unending loop in my mind. But thinking of it now, I find that can’t remember the way it ends. The last notes escape me.

♦♦♦

Lauren Acampora is the author of The Wonder Garden, a collection of linked stories (Grove Atlantic, 2015). Her short fiction has appeared in New England Review, as well as Paris Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Antioch Review, and elsewhere.

Translation from the French courtesy of Chris Routledge.

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.

NER Digital | Douglas J. Penick

TWO AMERICAN PORTRAITS

JOHN FREDERICK PETO

"Help Yourself," John Frederick PetoIt is one of the small paintings he makes for the summer tourists who visit the seaside, or who are drawn to the tent revival services where he plays the cornet. It is already hot and muggy. He is finishing a picture that shows a crumpled paper bag on its side, spilling out pastel taffy, red and white peppermint sticks, divinity fudge, golden caramel squares, hard fruit candy. They pour out on a surface of black polished wood. They seem to float above their reflection

As a boy, he often went with his father to a store owned by a kindly widow who always gave him a piece of candy. When she turned her back, when his father also couldn’t see, he’d steal another piece or two, shoving them quickly into his pocket. He felt ashamed almost immediately. He is still ashamed. He cannot understand why he did it and did it often.

He looks at the picture. He is sweaty. His back burns with pain, but he is pleased. The miniature haphazard world of sweets is bathed in a silky silver light like that of Vermeer’s View of Delft. It is a veiled, silent seaside light where things may be themselves, isolated in their own secrets.

CHARLES IVES

All around him was the night. Stars coursed silently in the depth of the sky. Below he could sense the dark fragrant cloud-forms of elms and maples. Scattered among them were a few windows still lit by sleepless watchers, readers nodding. Summer winds, scented with leaves and drying grass, moving across the stillness.

The dusty plank floor of the belfry creaked, just as it had when he stood there with his father long ago. The steeple below had a faint white glow. He remembered the excitement. The bands were arranged around the town, waiting for the sunrise. His father was tense and gleeful.

The sun rose, a shy pale red touched the treetops, the steeple was lit up, his father made the downbeat. Four bands in four parts of town began to play. A sudden brilliant gold brass, bright reed and rat-a-tat snare drum: not-quite-cacophony, brought all the atoms in the air to life.

2. It is in the night where, behind paler clouds, the ambient light of stars and moon appears and vanishes into a greater depth. It is from the depth and darkness that the subtle pulse emerges, a strengthening pulse that becomes a rhythm, deep and slow, subdividing into many rhythms, each beginning and sustained by many timbres, some thudding and almost inaudible, like the distant sea, some deep and round like iron being struck, or like the quick tapping of wood on stretched skin, a tree branch scraping a window pane, a man tapping his foot, thunder rumbling, a bell in the wind, an infinity of tempi like an infinity of colors and lights, all dwelling in the vast night and waiting to emerge, waiting but unhurried, ready to manifest into the brightness of day, pouring through the body’s veins as sound and bliss and elation and pain and heat. All the rhythms, coursing through the body, heart and soul, into full consciousness, as the immensity of harmony adored and sought and never, never, never final.

He knew that and never didn’t know it ever again. He found himself as an instrument, a lyre, a trumpet, a piano, a voice. He strained himself to the finest tunings, those most unimaginable tunings. The lilac clouds pervading night.

3. Now he was holding onto the banister and thumping down the stairs from his attic studio. She knew something was wrong, or different anyhow. He came into the dark paneled sitting room where she sat near the window, holding a book as if she were reading. When she looked up, she could see he was crying. Not sobbing, of course. He was too stoic for that. But tears were pouring down his cheeks, and he made odd hiccoughing sounds. In two hours he had aged a decade. He was an old man now. She waited. Finally he looked at her.

“It’s over.” The look of anguish was terrible, but she made herself stay still. Finally he came and took her hand. “I can’t do it anymore. It’s finished.”

He was a harp unstrung, a silence in the night.

♦♦♦

Douglas Penick has written libretti for two operas, King Gesar (Sony CD) and Ashoka’s Dream (Santa Fe Opera), with composer Peter Lieberson. On a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, Penick wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic (Crossings on a Bridge of LightWarrior Song of King Gesar, and The Brilliance of Naked Mind). He is also the author of the novel A Journey of The North Star (Publerati, 2012), as well as Dreamers and Their Shadows (Mountain Treasury Press, 2013). Penick’s short fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Tricycle, Parabola, Porte Des Singes, Publishers Weekly, Agni, Descant, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal and elsewhere. He has written novels on the third Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), the adventures of spiritual seekers (Dreamers and Their Shadows) and, most recently, From the Empire of Fragments, a collection about cultural displacement.

NER Digital | Sean Warren

 

Rondanini Pietá | Sean Warren

In Milan, the travel books direct us first to Leonardo’s Last Supper, the opulent fresco of high Renaissance color faded by moisture and rattled by Allied bombs during World War II. Contrary to Michelin, Lonely Planet, and the rest, however, I recommend—no appointment necessary, as with the Last Supper—a visit to the Sforza Castle, where there stands in splendid isolation a sculpture of such muted mystery and power that it is liable to alter your perception of reality, and of life and death, in a way that Da Vinci’s masterpiece will not: Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietá.

I saw the sculpture in person for the first time several years ago, while on a bus tour of northern Italy whose trajectory ran from Venice to Turin. But more than a decade before, I had gazed upon a black and white photograph of the Rondanini in the last pages of the profusely illustrated biography of Michelangelo from the ’60s Time-Life series of artists’ lives, which I had picked up second hand at a bookstore in Van Nuys, California. Not only did the sculpture in the photograph look so much more diminutive than the artist’s David and two previous Pietás, but its otherworldly detachment seemed like a repudiation of the sublime athleticism and anguish of those more celebrated works.

Cut to Milan, day three of the four-day bus tour. Willi, our German guide, had arranged for lunch, followed by a little shopping, and then to see the The Last Supper. When I told Willi that I would be spending my time instead at the Sforza Castle and asked him how to get there, he answered by saying he wouldn’t hold the bus if I weren’t back in time, and walked away.

Although I had a city map, I had no idea what the Castle looked like, got lost riding the street cars and, having forsaken lunch, began to suffer the desperation of the hungry, dehydrated, bladder-challenged tourist searching under a severe time constraint an object of profound personal pilgrimage. Eventually, I found myself standing before the imposing, crenellated walls of a medieval fortress. Along with the Bargello in Florence, the Sforza Castle is the most un-museum like of buildings. After finding the entrance and purchasing my ticket, I speed-walked through centuries of Lombardian armor and pennants and statuary and comparatively unrenowned paintings—and then, in the last space before the museum shop, there it was.

The Rondanini Pietá was not diminutive as I had imagined, appearing slightly larger than life. The dead Christ’s smooth, bare legs rise from the base of the statue in a finished state; his knees are particularly well-articulated. But as the legs rise into the hips and the hips into the torso, the marble becomes rougher and the chiseling more visible until, from the shoulders up, Christ and Mary, who is supporting his corpse from behind, look to be, at first glance, almost featureless. Gradually, however, I was drawn into the ostensibly hollow gazes of the two figures and their anguish, loss, and tenderness. What makes these emotions more compelling for me than in Michelangelo’s more realistic Pietás is that the Rondanini seems on the verge of succumbing, like the bodily Christ, to the physical dissolution of death: This is not merely a scene of death, but of death becoming, which reminds us that death, like life, is an organic state. And yet, in the midst of death’s dynamic crumbling, mother and son’s eyes, only three of them, remain open. There is something inextinguishable at the back of their gazes, perhaps a light transcending human emotion and decomposition that Michelangelo saw as an old man standing on the brink of death himself.

These mysteries that I had first seen in a photo, were profoundly enriched by my in-person contemplation of the Rondanini. But I was completely unprepared for the startling momentum shift in the work that is visible only when viewing it in person from the side or back. From the front Mary appears to be supporting the body of her son in the convention of the genre. But walk to the right of the statue, stop at a ninety degree angle, and see how it changes: Instead of Mary supporting her son, Christ is lifting her in a surge of wave-like energy. This surge is further evident from the back of the sculpture where Mary, whose legs are merely sketched in the marble, seems to be wrapped around her son’s shoulders as he prepares to lift them both away.

At some point in absorbing myself in this last work of Michelangelo’s, so suffused with life and death and eternity, I looked at my watch. My tour bus had left for Turin. After the panic of missing it had subsided, I settled in to spend a little more time with my Rondanini. I recalled reading the comment by an American author of European guidebooks that the sculpture was unfinished, which seemed to ignore the fact that Michelangelo had labored over it for almost a decade before his death. Although I thought the guidebook author wrong, his mistake was perhaps excusable: After being overrun by the torrential vitality of the artist’s other work, would it not be natural for most observers of the Rondanini to conclude that the old man, then in his eighties, simply lacked the energy or focus to properly finish it?

In my view, however, the sculpture is not only finished, but its technique speaks to the obsessive and alienating materialism of our own times with the disorienting eloquence of Picasso or Matisse. The Rondanini’s dissolving forms, its blurred gazes, its startling, wave-like surge of energy that becomes apparent only after a prolonged, in-person viewing—all these are the hallmarks of a work that points toward the dissatisfaction with realistic representation that is perhaps the most significant aspect of our own modern art.

After immersing myself in the Rondanini for over two hours, drifting between reflection and an extra-rational state that some may call meditation and others prayer, I awakened to the challenge of having to train out of Milan and find my tour group in Turin. My last thought before leaving the sculpture behind was an incredulity at how not more than a handful of museum-goers had visited the Rondanini during my stay. But had the small room been thronged, my visit would have been much shorter and less intimate.

Therefore, instead of asking why the Rondanini remains so obscure, let us head to the Sforza Castle and, in the gratifying absence of the vast majority of art-going tourists who have chosen to gaze upon The Last Supper, witness for ourselves the magnitude of what they are missing.

♦♦♦

Sean Warren’s short story, “The Last Romantic,” appeared in NER 35.2, and is part of a novel, My University: The Early Life and Times of Tom Powers, United States Navy. He writes and teaches in Portland, 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. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.

NER Digital | Sofi Stambo

 

Florence | Sofi Stambo

The correct answer is, abandon everything in New York—the futon, the desk, the chair, and the dishes—and move here. I’d already abandoned Bulgaria, decades ago, along with the family, the books, and the bicycle. Biciclette in Italian. Also famiglia and libri. I am good at either decision-making or abandoning.

I will stay here in Florence and become the lady with the highlights working at the corner café, making cappuccini and selling cornetti to the same neighbors her entire life. They lean on the counter, sip the foam of the cappuccino, nibble the crumbs of the cornetto, and talk. Their voices go up and they laugh and I don’t catch any of the meaning, just the pleasure people get when they know each other for life and share good feelings—sentimenti. I want to be that woman, to know that language and these people, to invite them in to my apartment upstairs and to never have to leave.

It almost looks like a theater set, it is so well lit and glamorous. The actors are dressed well and are very polite. No one has anywhere else to go so they stay where they are, talk as much as they can, and laugh a lot. What the joke is is hard to tell when you don’t speak the language.

Florence has the same careless aura that my childhood city of Varna had. A small tourist town, where people rent out rooms and have a small sandwich or crepe shop in their basement and money is not a problem. There are no problems, especially in the summer, when you only worry about burning on the beach or rainy days, or the ice cream melting before you eat it. It’s the carelessness of our grandparents, with their gold teeth and bracelets, their foreign hats and Italian slippers. We stay out late with them on long summer nights. They sit in front of the apartment building, talking to neighbors for what seems like days. People bring cherries or apricots or lilies, because they had too many in their orchard and they don’t want them to spoil. But they won’t go bad, nothing will. We somehow know that and run lighthearted around the building in the dark. It isn’t scary because of the laughing, motley crowd of our people right over there, under the porch light. The nights smell like garlic and dill and roasted peppers.

Arriving in Florence was like opening the lid of the jar where we keep happy younger summer versions of ourselves. I listened and looked and sniffed and licked and couldn’t get enough.

The streets are washed with soap and strewn with flower pots for the tourists. The buildings are freshly painted in warm yellow, orange, and cream. The gardens are watered, the lilies smell sweet, and swallows throw themselves in the air with the abandon of people dancing.

What I left in Bulgaria was peeling gray paint and broken sidewalks, homeless dogs and poor retired people begging you to buy a bunch of dill in front of the church. I bought everything from everyone just to see a smile on someone’s face. All I got was a heartbreaking “Thank you son” from toothless mouths. My grandma used to call us each “son,” regardless that we were all granddaughters. But she had gold teeth and silver bracelets, beautiful scarves and brooches and so many different smiles. We took walks and talked to neighbors. That’s all we ever did.

In Florence people live that way too. In the corner café I wait for the long conversation to finish so I can order a cappuccino. I would never wait in New York—I’d highjack the conversation, and rightfully so. You don’t get to have long conversations when people are late for work. Coffee is medicine and Starbucks is the ER. Speed in New York is a matter of life and death. In Florence speed does not exist, like a vegetable that simply doesn’t grow in that climate. You take life in small foamy sips and warm crispy bites. It’s all about good moods and the pleasure one gets from a good conversation. No need to hurry. All will be there a little later too. It has been there for two thousand years.

I wanted to buy a book by a poet of my childhood, Gianni Rodari, for my daughter to read. I waited in the bookstore where three girlfriends, class of 1950, with auburn hair, bracelets, and strong perfumes, talked to the young salesgirl about the new novellas she just got in. Sentimenti, emozioni, passioni, nodded everyone and each bought the new novella. They smiled and said their grazie and buona notte.

When my turn came I asked where the English books were. The young girl apologetically told me that they didn’t have novellas in English. What else would a woman look for but a novella with passioni?

I passed by a sign on the wall that read “La felicitá é a ridere di niente.” It looked important, because it was written in red. Growing up during Communism I was conditioned to react to signs in red. Felicitá. There was a song by Al Bano and Romina Power, “Felicitá, ta-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra, felicitá.” They sang it at the Golden Orpheus, the international song festival that happened in Varna. We took our children’s chairs and listened outside with half the town who couldn’t get tickets. Romina Power, in her white dress, was a gorgeous long-haired singer the entire Bulgarian population adored. Al Bano was a graceful older man. They eventually divorced and disbanded, because everything good ends, no exceptions apparently. “Felicitá, ta-ra-ra-ra-ra”—what did that mean?

The bookseller smiled at me and paused, trying to organize her thoughts in English. “It mean happiness is laughing . . . happiness is laughing about nothing.”

Grazie,” I say.

Va bene,” she says and gives me the novella I will not be able to read but will carry with me to make me look a little more Italian. Like a brooch. People will start talking to me and I will stay in the circle of neighbors in front of the light and absorb large amounts of human warmth and contact with the ten words I know. If it gets embarrassing I can always run away into the dark.

♦♦♦

Sofi Stambo is the recipient of the first prize in fiction in the 2015 SLS Disquiet literary contest. She holds a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Sofia University, St. Kliment, Ohridski, Bulgaria, and was a graduate student in Literature at City College. Sofi Stambo had been published by Promethean, Epiphany, Plamuk, and the Kenyon Review Online, among others. She lives in New York City.

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 | Rachel Richardson

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.