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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.  

NER Digital | The Movie Inside the Movie | Erica Ehrenberg

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

The Movie Inside the Movie:
Variations on Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

In Fanny and Alexander there is a season that doesn’t exist. It’s an endless winter. Interiors even in their warmth emit the same white glare as the air outside. In the outdoor scenes, in the streets of Uppsala, I hear the same creaking in the trees as I hear in the floors of the living rooms, the bedrooms where people sleep.

The camera sees like a remembering mind—every snow-drift, every glass glinting in the light belongs to the same person, to the same memory, the same dream. The camera is searching the places inside a mind: Bergman’s mind? Alexander’s? Now mine?

The winter moves in waves underneath the houses in summer. It is the ringing when the mother undoes her hair while her husband sleeps; it is the wailing that pierces her when he dies; later, it is the silent room in the new husband’s house the children must pass through without being heard or detected.

In my memory of the movie there is another movie—the movie that has no beginning or end—the movie that changes as I grow and remember it differently. I can access the winter in that movie at will. It’s not even strange that the children are dressed in white gowns, or that someone is cruel to them. There is a thaw—a rushing river, another winter.

I first saw Fanny and Alexander as a child and I’m still haunted by it. The children’s fears felt like my own fears. To think of it is to access a certain time in my childhood, when I could hear the sounds of my father watching a movie on the other side of the wall.

In some part of my mind it is Bergman’s Sweden in summer. I hold my hand out the window and mosquitoes come. The mother is in the house. I can hear the way the faucet runs. I can hear but I can’t see her children.

What is important is not to remember the movie but to return to it—to return to it as one would return to a house whose walls may have shifted or begun to lean more deeply into one another, while the movement of your body through it has also changed. Sometimes what you recognize is a place you have been, and sometimes what you recognize is the memory you have visited many times since. The actors walk through rooms like visitors, like people remembered after their deaths.

My father walks into the living room acting out the scene when the uncle farts up the stairs. I can’t stop laughing, but the uncle’s laughter is already the laughter of a ghost. The staircase will go blank; the child alone on the staircase after the death of his father will disappear into the landing where the winter air is bright but sealed inside a window. Is that window really there? How many times have I walked into the living room and the movie was on—my father there in the afternoon, some moment in the movie out of order—and even when I see the movie again all the way through—that scene is not there.

I don’t know what drops in my stomach when someone in a movie dies. This time I think it’s the child understanding that he dies.

Even in the longest movies everything is condensed. It’s a relief that life isn’t like that, that we don’t see things change that quickly. Sometimes I don’t want to be aware.

Winter is hanging over the children’s bed as if the ceiling of the house in Sweden was suddenly pliant, suddenly made of cloth. Why can’t we see the mother? Why can’t we lie against her?

In the stepfather’s house, the breath has been knocked out of the furniture.

While the mother is berated behind the locked door, the anger in the boy turns his mother into snow to protect her. Snow, the raging river, the glass of oil on the table, the cracking ice.

Erica Ehrenberg’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Slate, Octopus, jubilat, the New Republic, CURA, the St. Ann’s Review, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series (Knopf 2008), and Guernica. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and at the Vermont Studio Center, a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and will be a resident this summer at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and at Yaddo. At Fordham University she teaches writing and creative writing courses that often focus on the connections between literature, architecture, sculpture, film, painting, and photography. She has also given talks at the Storm King Sculpture Center on poetry and sculpture.  

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.  

NER DIGITAL | La Sagrada Familia: Spires | Alexandra Teague

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

SagradaFamiliaMy husband, his parents, and I stand at the top of La Sagrada Familia, spires spiking and tilting around us like great stone ocean waves, as if we are on the crow’s nest of a ship that is simultaneously pitching into sky and sinking. I’m usually scared of heights, but up here, even fear is under construction. After a century, only eight of the eighteen spires. After a century, the first stones of the Glory Façade: its roads to God and Hell both equally unbuilt.

After a decade, my husband still sleeping nightly on a pillowcase speckled with blood from his brother’s death, still angry at his father for, in the hours immediately after, disassembling his brother’s cage of finches, giving them all to somewhere. The sky. The ground. The noise his brother made gurgling blood into tubes because he had AIDS and no one had yet drawn the plans for pills to save him.

Gaudi wanted the Passion Façade to strike the onlooker with fear, the guidebook tells us. We are supposed to feel Christ’s sacrifice, to believe in death with high purpose. Forgiveness. But nothing is finished. The spire for Mary isn’t started yet; her body only more air.

My husband believed—does he still believe?—he would betray his brother’s life if he let grief go. He carried what he had—the fading stain on a pillowcase, the space where finches once rustled in the corner of a California apartment—like stone for a medieval cathedral. That blood:  brown into blue into white. He hated the inevitable washing. “Color is life,” Gaudi said. Also:  “My client is not in a hurry.”

Everything is possible in God’s time, but nothing is for sure, an Irish singer we love tells us. My husband’s family is Irish and Mexican Catholic. Mine, Irish Protestant. My husband and I are atheists. We believe in suffering for love. My mother is three years dead. We travel everywhere as a family. We play Quiddler and drink sidra and take pictures leaning into the blue between stones.

Asked why he’d lavished painstaking care on the tips of the pinnacles no one could get to, Gaudi answered, “The angels will see them.” My mother-in-law believed when her oldest son first came out he was a sinner. He died knowing she loved him. She still wouldn’t forgive herself for having to build backwards from faith to love.

My father-in-law never talked, in the six years I knew him, about the cage of finches. That hammering. The way the finches belonged to no one. I never talked about what I feared: that I could not go on carrying, around the world, the same unchanging stone.

Still: only eight apostles. Still no Virgin or Jesus. The guidebook says not even Gaudi drew plans for the whole basilica. He couldn’t know how others would need to complete it. A new subway tunnel shakes beneath now, like jackhammers, like heartbeats. The engineers say this is threatening the foundation. The engineers say this is threatening nothing. The angels say nothing. They roost, invisible on invisible spires.

 

Alexandra Teague is the author of Mortal Geography, winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and 2010 California Book Award, and The Wise and Foolish Builders (Persea 2015). She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at University of Idaho and an editor for Broadsided 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. 

 

 

NER DIGITAL | On Dostoevsky | Emma Lieber

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

 

000600 Two Boys - BarcelonaI have been in love with The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, but for a long time I was unable to write about it. Dostoevsky’s last novel is about many important things—sin and salvation and crime and justice and neighborly love—but, to me, it has always been mostly about the death of a child. Dostoevsky dedicated it to his wife; their son had died at age three two years before it was published, and every page of it screams their shared anguish and their passion.

There is beauty here in the death of innocents. At the end of the book, when Ilyusha, dead at age ten of tuberculosis, is lying in his grave, flowers are blooming, and a crowd of his schoolmates has gathered; they promise to love and remember each other, and they are full of grace and lust for life and boyish exuberance and appetite for the funeral feast and in their excitement they shout “Hurrah!” The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is taken from the same lines in the Gospel of John that, a year after the novel’s publication, would become the author’s own epitaph: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” There is a fellowship and a flourishing to be found in death; a single death can feed a multitude. Yet Dostoevsky offers no easy assurances, and The Brothers Karamazov is equally about Ivan Karamazov, who hates God for letting children suffer. If God’s kingdom is one in which even one child dies, then Ivan will return his entrance ticket, and while his nauseous rebellion is the flipside of the novel’s concluding picture, it is equally as passionate and true. The most haunting figures in the book are the mothers of dead children, women who cannot be consoled.

Several years ago, I was in the middle of a long dissertation, the last chapter of which was supposed to be on The Brothers Karamazov. That year, we also wanted a child, and I found that I could not start writing the Dostoevsky chapter until I was pregnant. By the end of our son’s first year I understood why I had been saving the book for so long. With the birth of any child, parents are confronted, in their very joy, with the fact of mortality, the “Hurrah” of life always echoing with the murmurings of death: the dangers of childbirth, the pitfalls of infancy, the simple fact that all children are born to die. Amongst all of the triumphs of modern medicine, which assures us that so very many of our babies will survive childhood, one of the few drawbacks is how infrequently parents are able to avow their fears. We have been left unable to mourn the births of our children, and the anguished cries that would have been so familiar in Dostoevsky’s era have been muted into an underground melancholia, or a free-floating anxiety. I think I was saving The Brothers Karamazov until I had a child of my own as a way of making me confront head-on my horror at my baby’s mortality. What I couldn’t have known was that my son would have made me do that anyway, and that the intensity of my need for Dostoevsky’s novel was more profound than I had imagined.

He was born on December 30, in the evening. It was a difficult and strange time. The doctors put him in the NICU, and once, as my husband and I entered the room to visit him, we heard shouting and panicked; we were relieved to realize that it was the sound of New Year congratulation, a few moments of well-wishing, the only celebration the staff allowed themselves. We were able to leave the hospital within a few days, though over the course of the next year we were back often, twice for long and complicated surgeries, the first longer and more complicated but the second—because he was older and, when the mask descended to put him to sleep, knew something scary was happening—more harrowing. After it was over someone asked me whether at any point during those hours in the waiting room I thought he might die, and I responded that I didn’t know what “think” meant in that context, although I do remember one day, shortly before the first operation—the one that changed his face most visibly, took away the gaps in his upper lip and smoothed the skin under his nose and corrected the beautiful defect that made his smile preternaturally wide and joyful, my baby—when the weather was stunning and we played outside nearly all day and I only brought him in when it was time for a late-afternoon nap, planning on heading out again once he was awake to walk our “loop”—a route in Central Park that I used to amble with him in the Snugli, the first times in my life that I have felt things to be as they should—and as the nap went on and on, and five o’clock turned to six and six to seven, I realized he was down for the night, and in the hollow of his unplanned absence I felt horribly and mutely bereft. In that moment, perhaps, I dimly thought the unthinkable.

Readers often cry at the scene in which Ilyusha’s father, having just lost the boy, notices his child-sized boots still standing in the corner and is overwhelmed by hysterical pity: for his dead son, for himself, for the shoes that are too small to go forever unworn. The year that my son was born I was surprised to find myself crying at an earlier scene in which Alyosha Karamazov, Ivan’s brother, approaches the group of schoolboys—Dostoevsky has no illusions about children, they are seething with childhood perversity, tormenting the already sickly Ilyusha, no sublime brotherhood yet—and, by way of intervention, starts making conversation with them about their school bags: “I used to carry a bag just like yours, but we always wore it on the left side,” for easy access. Just the right way to speak to a child, practical and kind. In my imagination, when Alyosha walks up to the boys their brows unfurl and they begin to smile. It is Alyosha who, along with Ilyusha, will teach the children to love each other better.

My dissertation adviser was the mother of two now-grown sons and once told me that when her boys were little and they lived in California she always had to send them to their first day of school with two backpacks each: the one that they would use all year, to carry snacks and number two pencils and maybe a calculator when they were big enough, and one red one, with meaningful trinkets and a note, to be stored away in a special locker, in case at some point during a school day an earthquake were to sunder parents and child. I thought that if I could paint I would paint a child, back facing the viewer, walking away, wearing a red backpack, taking with him his things, the instruments for his life. My son starts school this year; just preschool, so maybe too early for a backpack, although maybe not. He may need to carry snacks, and I think he will enjoy the feeling of independence and responsibility. I hope people talk to him in just the right way, and that they make him smile. I hope he will have everything that he needs.

Emma Lieber teaches Russian literature at Rutgers University.  Her work has appeared in New England Review, her essay Realism’s Housewives” in 33.4The Massachusetts ReviewSlavic ReviewSlavic and East European Journal, and Nabokov Studies Journal.

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.