The tree bore the efflorescence of October apples
like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.

The wind blew in cold sweet gusts,
and the burning taste of fresh snow came with the gradual dark

down through the goldenrod. The blue and scarlet sky
was gently losing its color,

as if from use.
The towers and telephone poles rose in the distance.

And a decline
of spirit, hearing, all senses; where the mind no longer rests,

dwells, intrigue; and Satan’s quick perspective of what lies
was foretold by the springing back of a bough.

— We’ll never know the all of it: nature’s manifesto,
the sleight-of-hand in God’s light, the invisible,

visible, sinned against, absolved, no matter the enormity
of trying, and Eve’s help.

But come just before sunrise and see and taste again
the apple tree coming into fire

— shadow-glyphs on the crystallized grasses,
geese surging above the loblolly pine, the smell of sap —

as if willingly through its long life
it held on to one unclarified passion and grew and regretted

—Carol Frost


Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 3:40 PM  Comments (2)  
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Secrets of the wood

FROM The Woods by Harlan Coben



There are tears streaming down his face. An awful, guttural sob forces its way up from deep in his lungs and out through his lips. He raises the shovel up and strikes the ground. The blade rips into the earth like it’s wet flesh.

I am eighteen years old, and this is my most vivid memory of my father him, in the woods, with that shovel. He doesn’t know I’m watching. I hide behind a tree while he digs. He does it with a fury, as though the ground has angered him and he is seeking vengeance.

I have never seen my father cry before not when his own father died, not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first heard about my sister, Camille. But he is crying now. He is crying with out shame. The tears cascade down his face in a freefall. The sobs echo through the trees.

This is the first time I’ve spied on him like this. Most Saturdays he would pretend to be going on fishing trips, but I never really believed that. I think I always knew that this place, this horrible place, was his secret destination.

Because, sometimes, it is mine too.

I stand behind the tree and watch him. I will do this eight more times. I never interrupt him. I never reveal myself. I think he doesn’t know that I am there. I am sure of it, in fact. And then one day, as he heads to his car, my father looks at me with dry eyes and says, “Not to day, Paul. Today I go alone.”

I watch him drive off. He goes to those woods for the last time.

On his deathbed nearly two decades later, my father takes my hand.

He is heavily medicated. His hands are rough and calloused. He used them his whole life, even in the flusher years in a country that no longer exists. He has one of those tough exteriors where all the skin looks baked and hard, almost like his own tortoise shell. He has been in immense physical pain, but there are no tears.

He just closes his eyes and rides it out.

My father has always made me feel safe, even now, even though I am now an adult with a child of my own. We went to a bar three months ago, when he was still strong enough. A fight broke out. My father stood in front of me, readying to take on anyone who came near me. Still. That is how it is. I look at him in the bed. I think about those days in the woods. I think about how he dug, how he finally stopped, how I thought he had given up after my mother left.


My father is suddenly agitated.

I want to beg him not to die, but that wouldn’t be right. I had been here before. It doesn’t get better, not for anyone.

“Its okay, Dad,” I tell him. “It’s all going to be okay.”

He does not calm down. He tries to sit up. I want to help him, but he shakes me off. He looks deep into my eyes and I see clarity, or maybe that is one of those things that we make ourselves believe at the end. A final false comfort.

One tear escapes his eye. I watch it slowly slide down his cheek.

“Paul,” my father says to me, his voice still thick with a Russian accent. “We still need to find her.”

“We will, Dad.”

He checks my face again. I nod, assure him. But I don’t think that he is looking for assurance. I think, for the first time, he is looking for guilt.

“Did you know?” he asks, his voice barely audible.

I feel my entire body quake, but I don’t blink, don’t look away. I wonder what he sees, what he believes. But I will never know. Because then, right then, my father closes his eyes and dies.


Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 12:19 PM  Comments (2)  
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In Memory of W B Yeats

The death of the  poet was kept from his poems.

Down by the Salley Gardens

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;

She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.

She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;

But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,

And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.

She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;

But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.


Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 11:26 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Open Arms

FROM Fields Of Fire by James Webb

A wounded sapper dangled in the wire wrapped up in the concertina where the NVA had first broken into the compound. He was clearly visible under the illumination flares, thirty meters out, dressed in shorts and banded with strings of ropes on his arms and legs that isolated his blood in eight-inch instant tourniquets.

Snake studied him. His left leg was off above the knee and his midsection had been pierced. Snake wondered absently what had hit him. They were inside the compound before anybody had a chance, he mused. Stupid shit prob’ly got in the way of his own bangalore torpedo.

The sapper appeared comfortable, not attempting to disengage himself from the jags of metal, occasionally wiggling an arm to ponder it movement, now and again lifting his head to examine the bunkers full of Marines who peered back at him.

And every now and then he implored the shadows, almost comically, “Chieu hoi,” uttering those magic words of surrender as if he had ventured all the way to that barbed stopping point in order to defect. As if he had been wrongly demolished while crossing the wired threshold over to the Other Side.

Chieu hoi!

Snake shook his head, laughing at Chieu Hoi on the wire. On the far side of the perimeter Chieu Hoi’s comrades fought fiercely, still controlling several artillery bunkers. There were booms, scattered bursts of weapons in the tent section; 106s and artillery boomed at clumps outside the wire; the 12.7 tore angry, ragged holes in the air.

Chieu-u-u-u-u hoi. Chieu-u-u-u-u hoi.” Illumination flareds dangled over him and he hung delicately from his bed of wire, the banded stump of leg quivering. Chieu Hoi managed a smile. To his right another fierce eruption as a reaction squad attemped to root his comrades from their bunkers.

Chieu hoi,” he said, with urgent logic.

Finally Snake could endure it no longer. He screamed over to Cat Man’s bunker. “Cannonball, shut that fucker up.” Thunk boom. Blooper. The explosion sprinkled the sapper with new holes. He rocked slightly on his bed of concertina.

He moaned now. It was worse. He began a mumbling argument with himself, perhaps cursing the lying pamphleteer who taught him the magic phrase that did not work. He decided to try again. He looked toward the bunkers, smiling hopefully, and instructed them once again. “Chieu hoi.” Then very quickly: “Chieuhoi.

“Shut u-u-u-u-p!” It was unclear who yelled it. Someone shot Chieu Hoi. Another rifle joined. Another. Finally they stopped. Down the perimeter the reaction squad still fought fiercely.


[Chieu hoi (Vietnamese for “open arms”): A program whereby enemy soldiers could surrender without penalty; an enemy soldier who so surrendered.]


Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 9:41 AM  Leave a Comment  
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One Filament Against the Firmament

Most days Group V. practiced on seeing through

Prisms because of the way they bend the light

They are considered the first marker of advanced

Sight tests had been conducted on them all as

Children these ones could examine a dewdrop

Perched on a furred leaf & not cry when it fell to

The ground had no more data to give though later

The books would be buried to give us something new

To discover God could not be a matter of spaceships

The way must be found through the mind &

The eyes are distractible as the Leader discovered one night

In a stairwell when one lightbulb overhead managed

To distract him from the sky outside he decided

That finding beauty pointless might actually be the

Point at something & then see past it became

The first lesson to lessen attachment to things put

Here to distract us of course there were detractors

Who thought the fingers or tongue would work just

Fine lines of personality scar the fingertips though

& tastebuds cannot belie their bias only the mind

& the eyes could absorb indefinitely pupils practiced

Not shrinking at the sun it was an honor to go blind

Trying to ignore the tiny creatures that float across

Our eyes was a task that drove hundreds crazy because

It didn’t make sense that something tiny & see-through

Could lure the gaze away from the Taj Majal or a Monet

Which they practiced in front of because of the lovely

Colors & affection for them were eliminated later as were

All forms of luxury like being able to see your family

Across the breakfast table they all disappeared one by

One day everybody woke up alone & couldn’t find

Each other & they all would have died from standing

Still there was one girl who hadn’t been able to stop loving

The word marshmallow & one boy who still had a favorite

Color slowly seeped back into the world & a new group

Formed to research why it had left but it never became clear

Matthea Harvey


Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 10:43 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Four Masks

The mask I see in the mirror:

A woman who has come to love silence,

who sees life through prisms, hexagonal

planes like the vision

of flying insects, so much color

breaking against reason. Thin

eyebrows. Nose off center.

The mask I wore for my mother:

Bright in the way of silk roses,

more than once it threw dinner

crashing to the floor and yet

was afraid to disobey.

At night it stood at the top of the long stairs

just to hear her talking.

The mask I swore my mother wore:

Small clouds like lace

on the brow. Eyepieces

I couldn’t see through.

Even her small shoulders

would make me cry. When she died

I saw her face.

The mask I passed on to my children:

Comes late for dinner

and leaves early, clears the dishes quickly.

This mask

is all relatives alive or dead,

drunk, sober, or beautiful. Oh God, yes,

at least beautiful.

Everyone at the table finds a window,

stares intently through.

—Cortney Davis


Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 10:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Listeners

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveler,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveler’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveler;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head —
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

—Walter De La Mare


Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 10:09 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Final Sorrow

FROM East Of Eden by John Steinbeck

OF ALL THE CHILDREN Una had the least humor. She met and married an intense dark man—a man whose fingers were stained with chemicals, mostly silver nitrate. He was one of those men who live in poverty so that their lines of questioning may continue. His question was about photography. He believed that the exterior world could be transferred to paper—not in the ghost shadings of black and white but in the colors the human eye perceives.

His name was Anderson and he had little gift for communication. Like most technicians, he had a terror and a contempt for speculation. The inductive leap was not for him. He dug a step and pulled himself up one single step, the way a man climbs the last shoulder of a mountain. He had great contempt, born of fear, for the Hamiltons, for they all half believed they had wings—and they got some bad falls that way.

Anderson never fell, never slipped back, never flew. His steps moved slowly, slowly upward, and in the end, it is said, he found what he wanted—color film. He married Una, perhaps, because she had little humor, and this reassured him. And because her family frightened and embarrassed him, he took her away to the north, and it was black and lost where he went—somewhere on the borders of Oregon. He must have lived a very primitive life with his bottles and papers.

Una wrote bleak letters without joy but also without self-?pity. She was well and she hoped her family was well. Her husband was near to his discovery.

And then she died and her body was shipped home.

I never knew Una. She was dead before I remember, but George Hamilton told me about it many years later and his eyes filled with tears and his voice croaked in the telling.

“Una was not a beautiful girl like Mollie,” he said. “But she had the loveliest hands and feet. Her ankles were as slender as grass and she moved like grass. Her fingers were long and the nails narrow and shaped like almonds. And Una had lovely skin too, translucent, even glowing.

“She didn’t laugh and play like the rest of us. There was something set apart about her. She seemed always to be listening. When she was reading, her face would be like the face of one listening to music. And when we asked her any question, why, she gave the answer, if she knew it—not pointed up and full of color and ‘maybes’ and ‘it-?might-?bes’ the way the rest of us would. We were always full of bull. There was some pure simple thing in Una,” George said.

“And then they brought her home. Her nails were broken to the quick and her fingers cracked and all worn out. And her poor, dear feet—” George could not go on for a while, and then he said with the fierceness of a man trying to control himself, “Her feet were broken and gravel-?cut and briar-?cut. Her dear feet had not worn shoes for a long time. And her skin was rough as rawhide.

“We think it was an accident,” he said. “So many chemicals around. We think it was.”

But Samuel thought and mourned in the thought that the accident was pain and despair.

Una’s death struck Samuel like a silent earthquake. He said no brave and reassuring words, he simply sat alone and rocked himself. He felt that it was his neglect had done it.

And now his tissue, which had fought joyously against time, gave up a little. His young skin turned old, his clear eyes dulled, and a little stoop came to his great shoulders. Liza with her acceptance could take care of tragedy; she had no real hope this side of Heaven. But Samuel had put up a laughing wall against natural laws, and Una’s death breached his battlements. He became an old man.


Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 2:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking

FROM Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden

IN ORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES, as close to the first crash as they were, the convoy would have just barreled over to it, running over and shooting through anything in its path. But with all the help overhead, Task Force Ranger was about to demonstrate how too much information can hurt soldiers on a battlefield.

High in the C2 Black Hawk, Harrell and Matthews could see one group of about fifteen gunmen racing along streets that paralleled the eight-vehicle convoy. The running Somalis could keep pace with the vehicles because the trucks and Humvees stacked up at every intersection. Each driver waited until the vehicle in front completely cleared the cross fire before sprinting through it himself. To get stuck in the open was suicidal. Every time the convoy stalled, it gave the bands of shooters time to reach the next street and set up an ambush for each vehicle as it gunned through. The convoy was getting riddled. From above, Harrell and Matthews could see roadblocks and places where Somalis had massed to ambush. So they steered the convoy away from those places.

There was an added complication. Flying about a thousand feet over the C2 helicopter was the navy Orion spy plane, which had surveillance cameras that gave them a clear picture of the convoy’s predicament. But the Orion pilots were handicapped. They were not allowed to communicate directly with the convoy. Their directions were relayed to the commander at the JOC, who would then radio Harrell in the command bird. Only then was the plane’s advice relayed down to the convoy. This built in a maddening delay. The Orion pilots would see a direct line to the crash site. They’d say, “Turn left!” But by the time that instruction reached McKnight in the lead Humvee, he had passed the turn. Heeding the belated direction, they’d then turn down the wrong street. High above the fight, commanders watching out their windows or on screens couldn’t hear the gunfire and screaming of wounded men, or feel the impact of the explosions. From above, the convoy’s progress seemed orderly. The visual image didn’t always convey how desperate the situation really was.

Eversmann, still lying helplessly on his back toward the rear of the column, had felt the vehicle turn right after leaving his blocking position, which he expected, He knew the crash site was just a few blocks that way. But when the Humvee made the second right-hand turn, it surprised him. Why were they headed south? It was easy to get lost in Mog. The streets weren’t laid out like some urban planner’s neat grid. Roads you thought were taking you one place would suddenly slant off in a different direction. There were more turns. Soon, the crash site that had been close enough for Eversmann to see from his spot on Hawlwadig Road was lost somewhere back in the hornets’ nest.

The convoy was bearing south when Durant’s helicopter crashed. Up in the lead Humvee, McKnight got the word on the radio from Lieutenant Colonel Harrell.

–Danny, we just had another Hawk go down to RPG fire south of the Olympic Hotel. We need you to get everybody in that first crash site. Need QRF to give us some help, over.

–This is Uniform. Understand. Aircraft down south of Olympic Hotel. Recon and see what we can do after that.

–We are going to try to get the QRF to give us some help. Try to get everyone off that crash site (Super Six One] and let’s get out of here down to the other Hawk and secure it, over.

It wasn’t going to be easy. McKnight was supposed to take this convoy, with the prisoners and the wounded, move to the first crash site, and link up with the bulk of the force there. There was not enough room on the packed Humvees and trucks for the men he already had. Yet the immediate plan called for the convoy to load everyone and proceed south to the second crash site, covering the same treacherous ground they were rolling through now. They pushed on.

Heavy fire and mounting casualties took their toll on the men in the vehicles. Some of the slightly wounded men in Eversmann’s vehicle seemed to be in varying degrees of paralysis, as if their role in the mission had ended. Others were moaning and crying with pain. They were still a long way from the base.

The state of things infuriated Sergeant Matt Rierson, leader of the Delta team that had taken the prisoners. Rierson’s team was with the prisoners on the second truck. Rierson didn’t know where the convoy was going. It was standard operating procedure for every vehicle in a convoy to know its destination. That way, if the lead vehicle got hit, or took a wrong turn, the whole convoy could continue. But McKnight, a lieutenant colonel more used to commending a battalion than a line of vehicles, hadn’t told anyone! Rierson watched as inexperienced Ranger Humvee drivers would stop after crossing an intersection, trapping the vehicles behind them in the cross fire. Whenever the convoy stopped, Rierson would hop down and move from vehicle to vehicle, trying to square things away.

As they passed back behind the target house, an RPG scored a direct hit on the third Humvee in the column, the one McLaughlin had squeezed into. Private Carlson, who had moved over to make room for the sergeant, heard the pop of a grenade being launched nearby. Then came a blinding flash and ear-shattering BOOM! The inside of the Humvee filled with black smoke. The goggles Carlson had pinned to the top of his helmet were blown off.

The grenade had cut straight through the steel skin of the vehicle in front of the gas cap and gone off inside, blowing the three men in back right out to the street. It tore the hand guards off McLaughlin’s weapon and pierced his left forearm with a chunk of shrapnel. He felt no pain, just some numbness in his hand. He told himself to wait until the smoke cleared to check it out. The shrapnel had fractured a bone in his forearm, severed a tendon, and broken a bone in his hand. It wasn’t bleeding much and he could still shoot.

Holding his breath in the dark cloud, his ears ringing, Carlson felt himself for wet spots. His left arm was bloody. Shrapnel had pierced it in several places. His boots were on fire. A drum of .50-cal ammo had been hit, and he heard people screaming for him to kick it out, kick it out!, which he did, then stooped to pat out the flames on his feet.

Two of the three men blown out the back were severely injured. One, Delta Master Sergeant Tim “Griz” Martin, had absorbed the brunt of the blast. The grenade had poked a football-sized hole right through the skin of the Humvee, blew on through the sandbags, through Martin, and penetrated the ammo can. It had blown off the lower half of Martin’s body. The explosion also tore off the back end of one of Private Adalberto Rodriguez’s thighs. Rodriguez had tumbled about ten yards before coming to rest. His legs were a mass of blood and gore. He began struggling to his feet, only to see one of the five-ton trucks bearing straight for him. Its driver, Private Maddox, momentarily disoriented by another grenade blast, rolled the truck right over him.

The convoy stopped and soldiers scrambled to pick up the wounded. Medics did what they could for Rodriguez and Martin, who both looked mortally wounded. The wounded were lifted back into the vehicles, while Rangers spilled out to cover the surrounding streets and alleys. At one, Specialist Aaron Hand and Sergeant Casey Joyce became engaged in a furious firefight. They were positioned at opposite sides of an alley. From just outside his truck, Spalding watched rounds shatter the wall over Hand’s head.

Hand was shooting down the alley, too preoccupied to notice that shots were now coming at him from a different angle. Spalding screamed for Hand to get back to the vehicles but there was too much noise for him to be heard. From where Spalding stood, it looked like Hand was going to be shot for sure. He was doing everything wrong. He was fighting bravely, but he had not sought cover and he was changing magazines with his back exposed. Spalding knew he should go help cover him and pull him back, but it meant crossing the alley where all the load was flying. He hesitated. Hell no, I’m not going to cross that alley. As he debated with himself, SEAL John Gay ran out to help; Gay was still limping from where his knife had deflected an AK-47 round at his hip. He put several rounds up the alley and herded Hand back to the convoy.

Across the alley, Joyce was on one knee facing north, doing things right. He had found cover and was returning disciplined fire, just the way he’d been taught, when a gun barrel poked from a window above and behind him and let off a quick burst. Carlson saw it happen. There wasn’t even time to shout a warning, even if Joyce had been able to hear him. There was just a blaaaap! and a spurt of fire from the barrel and the sergeant went straight down in the dirt on his face.

One of the .50 cals promptly blasted gaping holes in the wall around the window where the gun had appeared, and Sergeant Jim Telscher, ignoring the heavy fire, sprinted out

to Joyce, grabbed him by the shirt and vest, and without even slowing down, dragged him back to the column.

Joyce’s skin was already gray and his eyes were open wide and rolled back so you could only see the whites. He had been hit in the upper back where the Rangers’ new Kevlar flak vests had no protective plate. The round had pierced his heart and passed through his torso, exiting and lodging in the vest’s frontispiece, which did have an armored plate. They loaded him in on the back of Gay’s Humvee, where Delta medic went to work on him frantically, holding an IV bag up high with one hand, despairing, “We’ve got to get him back in a hurry! We’ve got to get him back in a hurry or he’s gonna die!”

The convoy lurched forward again, turning left (bearing east) and then left again, so they were now heading back toward the north. They were moving up a road one block west of the crash site. To get there, all they had to do was drive two blocks north and turn right. But the gunfire was relentless. Up in the lead Humvee, Lieutenant Colonel McKnight was hit. Shrapnel cut into his right arm and the left side of his neck.

At the rear of the convoy, Sergeant Lorenzo Ruiz, the tough little boxer from El Paso who had taken over Private Clay Othic’s .50-caliber machine gun after Othic had been hit in the arm, slumped and slid down limp, into the laps of the men inside the Humvee.

“He got shot! He got shot!” shouted the driver, who raced the Humvee frantically up the column with the .50 cal just spinning in the empty turret.

“Get the fifty up!” screamed one of the sergeants. “Get the fifty up ASAP!”

Packed in the way they were, with Ruiz now slumped in on top of them, no one could climb into the turret from inside, so Specialist Dave Ritchie got out and jumped up on the turret from the outside. He couldn’t lower himself into it because Ruiz’s limp body was blocking it, so he leaned in from the outside as they began moving again, swiveling and shooting the big gun, hanging on to avoid being thrown to the street.

Inside, they pulled Ruiz down to let Ritchie get behind the gun. Staff Sergeant John Burns tore off the wounded man’s vest and shirt.

“I’m hit! I’m hit!” Ruiz gasped and then began to cough up blood.

Burns found an entrance wound under Ruiz’s right arm, but couldn’t locate an exit wound. They propped him against a radio and a Delta medic went to work. Ruiz was in shock. Like many of the men in the vehicles, he had taken the ceramic plate out of his flak vest.

Up in a Humvee turret behind a Mark-19, a machine gun-like grenade launcher, Corporal Jim Cavaco was pumping one 40-mm round after another into the windows of a building from which they were taking fire. Cavaco was dropping grenades neatly into the second-story windows One after another–Bang! … Bang! … Bang!

From his seat in the second truck, Spalding shouted, “Yeah! Get ’em, Vaco!” and then saw his friend slump forward. Cavaco had been hit by a round in the back of his head and killed instantly. The convoy stopped again, and Spalding leapt out to help pull Cavaco out of the turret. They carried him to the back of Spalding’s truck and swung his body in. It landed on the legs of an injured Ranger who shrieked with pain.

The volume of fire was terrifying. Yet Somalis seemed to be darting across streets everywhere. Up in the lead Humvee, Schilling watched the runners with bewilderment. Why would anybody be running around on the streets with all this lead flying? He found that by rolling grenades down the alley it kept the shooters from sticking their weapons out. He tried to conserve ammo by shooting only at the Somalis who were closest. When he ran out of ammo, a wounded Ranger in back fed Schilling magazines from his own pouches.

Over the radio came a hopeful inquiry from the command helicopter, which didn’t seem to understand how desperate the convoy’s plight had become.

–Uniform Six Four, you got everybody out of the crash site, over?

–We have no positive contact with them yet. McKnight answered. We took a lot of rounds as we were clearing out of the areas. Quite a few wounded, including me, over.

–Roger, want you to try to go to the first crash site and consolidate on that. Once we get everybody out of there we’ll go to the second crash site and try to do an exfil, over.

This was, of course, out of the question, but McKnight wasn’t giving up.

–Roger, understand. Can you give me some … we just need directions and distance from where I’m at, over.

There was no answer at first. The radio net was filled with calls related to Durant’s crash. When he did hear from his commanders again, McKnight was asked to report the number of Rangers he had picked up from Eversmann’s Chalk Four. He ignored that request.

–Romeo Six Four [Harrell], this is Uniform Six Four. From the crash site, where am I now? How far over?

–Stand by. Have good visual on you now … Danny, are you still on that main hardball [paved road]?

–I’m on the exfil road. Down toward National.

Harrell apparently misunderstood. He gave McKnight directions as if he were still on Hawlwadig Road, out in front of the target house.

–Turn east. Go about three blocks east and two blocks north. They’re popping smoke, over.

–Understand. From my location I have to go east farther about three blocks and then head north, over.

–Roger, that’s from the hardball road the Olympic Hotel is on, over.

But McKnight was already three blocks east of that road.

–I’m at the hardball road east of the Olympic Hotel. Do I just need to turn around on it and head north?

-Negative. They are about three blocks east, one block north of building one [the target building], over.

In the convoy’s second-to-last Humvee, where Ruiz was fighting for his life, Sergeant Burns couldn’t get through to McKnight on the radio so he took off on foot. He feared if they didn’t get Ruiz back to base immediately the young Texan was going to die. Burns noticed that the gunfire that had hurt his ears initially now sounded muffled, distant. His ears had adjusted to it. As he neared the front of the line he saw Joyce stretched out bloody and pale, with a medic working over him furiously on the back of a crowded Humvee. He was about to reach the front when a D-boy grabbed him.

“You’ve been hit,” the Delta operator said.

“No I haven’t.”

Burns hadn’t felt a thing. The D-boy slid his hand inside Burns’s vest at his right shoulder and the sergeant felt a vicious stab of pain.

“Having trouble breathing?” the D-boy asked.


“Any tightness in your chest?”

“I feel all right,” Burns said, “I didn’t even know I was hit.”

“You keep an eye on it,” the D-boy said.

Burns made it up to McKnight, who was also bloody, and busy on the radio. So Burns told Sergeant Bob Gallagher about Ruiz. Burns thought they should allow a Humvee or two to speed right back to the base with Ruiz, as they had done earlier with Blackburn. But Gallagher knew the convoy could not afford to lose any more vehicles and firepower now. They still had roughly a hundred men waiting for them around the first crash site, then there was the second crash site . . . Gallagher was already kicking himself for sending those three vehicles back with Blackburn. While he knew this might be a death sentence for Ruiz, he told Burns there was no way anybody was leaving.

“We have to move to the crash site and consolidate forces,” he said.

Disgusted, Burns began to make his way back down the column to his vehicle. He had gone only a few steps when the convoy started rolling again. He jumped on the back of a Humvee. It was already jammed. The rear of the vehicle was slick and sticky with blood. Moaning rose from the pile of Rangers. Beside him, Joyce looked dead, even though a medic was still working on him. Sergeant Galentine was screaming, “My thumb’s shot off!” Burns did not want to be on that Humvee.

They were still pointed north. Some of the men were at the breaking point. In the same Humvee with Burns, Private Jason Moore saw some of his Ranger buddies just burying their heads behind the sandbags. Some of the unit’s most boisterous chest-beaters were among them. A burly kid from Princeton, New Jersey, Moore had a dip of snuff stuffed under his lower lip and brown spittle on his unshaved chin. He was sweating and terrified. One RPG had passed over the vehicle and exploded with an ear-smarting crack against a wall alongside. Bullets were snapping around him. He fought the urge to lie down. Either way I’m going to get shot.

Moore figured if he stayed up and kept on shooting, at least he’d get shot trying to save himself and the guys. It was a defining moment for him, a point of clarity in the midst of chaos. He would go down fighting. He would not consider lying down again.


Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 1:43 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Fatal Affection

FROM Killed At Resaca by Ambrose Bierce

Lieutenant Brayle was more than six feet in height and of splendid proportions, with the light hair and gray-blue eyes which men so gifted usually find associated with a high order of courage. As he was commonly in full uniform, especially in action, when most officers are content to be less flamboyantly attired, he was a very striking and conspicuous figure. As to the rest, he had a gentleman’s manners, a scholar’s head, and a lion’s heart. His age was about thirty. We all soon came to like Brayle as much as we admired him, and it was with sincere concern that in the engagement at Stone’s River – our first action after he joined us – we observed that he had one most objectionable and unsoldierly quality: he was vain of his courage. During all the vicissitudes and mutations of that hideous encounter, whether our troops were fighting in the open cotton fields, in the cedar thickets, or behind the railway embankment, he did not once take cover, except when sternly commanded to do so by the general, who usually had other things to think of than the lives of his staff officers – or those of his men, for that matter.

In every later engagement while Brayle was with us it was the same way. He would sit his horse like an equestrian statue, in a storm of bullets and grape, in the most exposed places – wherever, in fact, duty, requiring him to go, permitted him to remain – when, without trouble and with distinct advantage to his reputation for common sense, he might have been in such security as it possible on a battlefield in the brief intervals of personal inaction.

On foot, from necessity or in deference to his dismounted commander or associates, his conduct was the same. He would stand like a rock in the open when officers and men alike had taken cover; while men older in service and years, higher in rank and of unquestionable intrepidity, were loyally preserving behind the crest of a hill lives infinitely precious to their country, this fellow would stand, equally idle, on the ridge, facing in the direction of the sharpest fire.

When battles are going on in open ground it frequently occurs that the opposing lines, confronting each other within a stone’s throw for hours, hug the earth as closely as if they loved it. The line officers in their proper places flatten themselves no less, and the field officers, their horses all killed or sent to the rear, crouch beneath the infernal canopy of hissing lead and screaming iron without a thought of personal dignity.

In such circumstances the life of a staff officer of a brigade is distinctly “not a happy one”, mainly because of its precarious tenure and the unnerving alternations of emotion to which he is exposed. From a position of that comparative security from which a civilian would ascribe his escape to a “miracle”, he may he despatched with an order to some commander of a prone regiment in the front line – a person for the moment inconspicuous and not always easy to find without a deal of search among men somewhat preoccupied, and in a din in which question and answer alike must be imparted in the sign language. It is customary in such cases to duck the head and scuttle away on a keen run, an object of lively interest to some thousands of admiring marksmen. In returning – well, it is not customary to return.

Brayle’s practice was different. He would consign his horse to the care of an orderly, – he loved his horse, – and walk quietly away on his perilous errand with never a stoop of the back, his splendid figure, accentuated by his uniform, holding the eye with a strange fascination. We watched him with suspended breath, our hearts in our mouths. On one occasion of this kind, indeed, one of our number, an impetuous stammerer, was so possessed by his emotion that he shouted at me: “I’ll b-b-bet you t-two d-d-dollars they d-drop him b-b-before he g-gets to that d-d-ditch!”

I did not accept the brutal wager; I thought they would. Let me do justice to a brave man’s memory; in all these needless exposures of life there was no visible bravado nor subsequent narration. In the few instances when some of us had ventured to remonstrate, Brayle had smiled pleasantly and made some light reply, which, however, had not encouraged a further pursuit of the subject. Once he said:

“Captain, if ever I come to grief by forgetting your advice, I hope my last moments will be cheered by the sound of your beloved voice breathing into my ear the blessed words, ‘I told you so.'” We laughed at the captain – just why we could probably not have explained – and that afternoon when he was shot to rags from an ambuscade Brayle remained by the body for some time, adjusting the limbs with needless care – there in the middle of a road swept by gusts of grape and canister! It is easy to condemn this kind of thing, and not very difficult to refrain from imitation, but it is impossible not to respect, and Brayle was liked none the less for the weakness which had so heroic an expression. We wished he were not a fool, but he went on that way to the end, sometimes hard hit, but always returning to duty about as good as new.

Of course, it came at last; he who ignores the law of probabilities challenges an adversary that is seldom beaten. It was at Resaca, in Georgia, during the movement that resulted in the taking of Atlanta. In front of our brigade the enemy’s line of earthworks ran through open fields along a slight crest. At each end of this open ground we were close up to him in the woods, but the clear ground we could not hope to occupy until night, when darkness would enable us to burrow like moles and throw up earth. At this point our line was a quarter-mile away in the edge of a wood. Roughly, we formed a semicircle, the enemy’s fortified line being the chord of the arc.

“Lieutenant, go tell Colonel Ward to work up as close as he can get cover, and not to waste much ammunition in unnecessary firing. You may leave your horse.”

When the general gave this direction we were in the fringe of the forest, near the extremity of the arc. Colonel Ward was at the left. The suggestion to leave the horse obviously meant that Brayle was to take the longer line, through the woods and among the men. Indeed, the suggestion was needless; to go by the shout route meant absolutely certain failure to deliver the message. Before anybody could interpose, Brayle had cantered lightly into the field and the enemy’s works were in crackling conflagration.

“Stop that damned fool!” shouted the general. A private of the escort, with more ambition than brains, spurred forward to obey, and within ten yards left himself and his horse dead on the field of honor.

Brayle was beyond recall, galloping easily along, parallel to the enemy and less than two hundred yards distant. He was a picture to see! His hat had been blown or shot from his head, and his long, blond hair rose and fell with the motion of his horse. He sat erect in the saddle, holding the reins lightly in his left hand, his right hanging carelessly at his side. An occasional glimpse of his handsome profile as he turned his head one way or the other proved that the interest which he took in what was going on was natural and without affectation.

The picture was intensely dramatic, but in no degree theatrical. Successive scores of rifles spat at him viciously as he came within range, and our own line in the edge of the timber broke out in visible and audible defense. No longer regardful of themselves or their orders, our fellows sprang to their feet, and swarming into the open sent broad sheets of bullets against the blazing crest of the offending works, which poured an answering fire into their unprotected groups with deadly effect. The artillery on both sides joined the battle, punctuating the rattle and roar with deep, earth-shaking explosions and tearing the air with storms of screaming grape, which from the enemy’s side splintered the trees and spattered them with blood, and from ours defiled the smoke of his arms with banks and clouds of dust from his parapet.

My attention had been for a moment drawn to the general combat, but now, glancing down the unobscured avenue between these two thunderclouds, I saw Brayle, the cause of the carnage. Invisible now from either side, and equally doomed by friend and foe, he stood in the shot-swept space, motionless, his face toward the enemy. At some little distance lay his horse. I instantly saw what had stopped him. As topographical engineer I had, early in the day, made a hasty examination of the ground, and now remembered that at that point was a deep and sinuous gully, crossing half the field from the enemy’s line, its general course at right angles to it. From where we now were it was invisible, and Brayle had evidently not known about it. Clearly, it was impassable. Its salient angles would have affored him absolute security if he had chosen to be satisfied with the miracle already wrought in his favor and leapt into it. He could not go forward, he would not turn back; he stood awaiting death. It did not keep him long waiting. By some mysterious coincidence, almost instantaneously as he fell, the firing ceased, a few desultory shots at long intervals serving rather to accentuate than break the silence. It was as if both sides had suddenly repented of their profitless crime. Four stretcher-bearers of ours, following a sergeant with a white flag, soon afterward moved unmolested into the field, and made straight for Brayle’s body. Several Confederate officers and men came out to meet them, and with uncovered heads assisted them to take up their sacred burden. As it was borne toward us we heard beyond the hostile works fifes and a muffled drum – a dirge. A generous enemy honored the fallen brave. Amongst the dead man’s effects was a soiled Russia-leather pocketbook. In the distribution of mementos of our friend, which the general, as administrator, decreed, this fell to me.

A year after the close of the war, on my way to California, I opened and idly inspected it. Out of an overlooked compartment fell a letter without envelope or address. It was in a woman’s handwriting, and began with words of endearment, but no name.

It had the following date line: “San Francisco, Cal, July 9, 1862.” The signature was “Darling”, in marks of quotation. Incidentally, in the body of the text, the writer’s full name was given – Marian Mendenhall.

The letter showed evidence of cultivation and good breeding, but it was an ordinary love letter, if a love letter can be ordinary. There was not much in it, but there was something. It was this:

“Mr Winters, whom I shall always hate for it, has been telling
that at some battle in Virginia, where he got his hurt, you were
seen crouching behind a tree. I think he wants to injure you in my
regard, which he knows the story would do if I believed it. I could
bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.”

These were the words which on that sunny afternoon, in a distant region, had slain a hundred men.


Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 4:10 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

—Elizabeth Bishop


Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911, but spent part of her childhood with her Canadian grandparents after her father’s death and mother’s hospitalization. Of her childhood she noted, “My relatives all felt so sorry for this child that they tried to do their very best. And I think they did. I lived with my grandparents in Nova Scotia, then with the ones in Worcester, in Massachusetts, very briefly and got terribly sick. This was when I was six and seven…. Then I lived with my mother’s older sister in Boston, she was devoted to me — she had no children. My relationship with my relatives — I was always sort of a guest, and I think I’ve always felt like that.”

Elizabeth Bishop won virtually every poetry prize in the country although she insisted, “They don’t mean too much.” Her first book, North & South, won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award for 1946. In 1955, she received the Pulitzer Prize for a volume containing North & South and A Cold Spring. Her next book of poetry, Questions of Travel (1965), won the National Book Award and was followed by The Complete Poems in 1969. Geography III (1976) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1976, Miss Bishop became both the first American and the first woman to win the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize for Literature.

Elizabeth Bishop died on October 6, 1979. A new edition of her poems, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, was published in early 1983, and The Collected Prose was published in 1984.

Of her work, Robert Lowell remarked, “Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that I admire most …. There’s a beautiful completeness to all of Bishop’s poetry. I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she had: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers.”


Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 2:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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At ninety, the piano plays him.
He’s like a man by the sea
the wind knows it must wear down,
sculpt to a profile,
then fill out again,
billowing his sleeves and trouser legs
into a younger musculature.
Over and again, the music grays
then reddens, the part
in its hair shifting left to center
until those few blades of sea grass
are all that’s left to be
combed over the rocks,
and the thin fingers skitter,
leaving impressions in the keyboard
that waves wash level,
cleansing its audience of shell halves,
now glistening, now scoured dry.
And the house, the house just outside
this sonata’s frame,
begs him to turn around
to pick his way back
along the stony runner,
his hands stopping his ears.
But, at ninety, the music plays the piano,
which plays the man, who finally, fearlessly,
plays himself, which is the landscape,
which is everything that ends.

—Mark Cox


Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 1:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Straggler

FROM The Luftwaffe War Diaries by Cajus Bekker

Still over Holland the Americans changed course to the south, and crossed Belgium at 20,000 feet. Then, shortly before reaching the German frontier the escort had to turn back. It was the moment the Focke-Wulfs had been waiting for. Setting on the bombers from head-on and slightly above, they let fly. Then, sweeping close beneath the formation, they climbed up and turned to repeat the attack.

The first Boeings caught fire. Four dived with black smoke-plumes down into the Eifel country, the next three into the Hunsrück. And now the sky was alive with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. As soon as one Gruppe exhausted its ammunition, it was replaced by another.

The battle went on for a full ninety minutes without let-up. The Americans lost fourteen aircraft, leaving 132 to bomb the target—the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg-Prüfening. Meanwhile German fighter control got ready to deal out similar punishment on the return flight. Usually this was the same course in reciprocal, but this time the Americans turned south, and demonstrated their enormous radius of action by crossing Italy and the Mediterranean to land in North Africa. Even so, another ten bombers were shot down by Luftflotte 1 in that area, so that this formation altogether lost twenty-four B-17s, with many more damaged.

But the zenith of the August 17th battle was still to come. In the early afternoon a still larger formation, numbering 229 aircraft, crossed the mouth of the Scheldt on its way to bomb the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. It was given a still warmer reception than the first. This time the German fighters did not wait till the escort had turned back. While one Gruppe engaged the Thunderbolts, a second went for the bombers.

Amongst the first assailants was again JG 11’s 5 Squadron, which had previously carried out experiments with bombs. Today its Messerschmitts had two 21-cm rockets slung under their wings. Creeping up behind, they sent these sizzling off from a range of 800 yards. The enemy formation was well staggered, and most of the rockets fell short. But two hit their targets, and these bombers literally burst asunder in the air. After this introduction the Americans did not enjoy a moment of peace during the whole remainder of their flight to Schweinfurt, or on their return. Over 300 German fighters were airborne.

From this mission thirty-six Fortresses failed to return, representing a total loss for the day of sixty, plus over a hundred damaged. Once again it had been demonstrated that relatively slow bombers in daylight were vulnerable to resolute fighter attack. It applied even to Flying Fortresses—so called because of their massive defensive armament. After this reverse they failed to appear again over the Reich for over five weeks. They avenged themselves by attacking Luftwaffe airfields in the western occupied countries under strong fighter escort.

Thus it was not until October that the U.S. 8th Air Force risked further ventures beyond the range of their own fighters, and then the lesson was rammed home even more firmly than it was in August. During one week, “from October 8th to 14th in which Bremen, Marienburg, Danzig, Münster, and once again Schweinfurt, were attacked, the Americans lost 148 machines. It meant the loss, within only a few days, of nearly 1,500 airmen. Even the Americans could not replace so many. About the second Schweinfurt raid the official American historian records that the German reaction was “unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed.”


Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Comments (4)  
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Lament of the Irish Emigrant

I’m sittin’ on the stile, Mary,
Where we sat side by side
On a bright May mornin’ long ago,
When first you were my bride;
The corn was springin’ fresh and green,
And the lark sang loud and high;
And the red was on your lip, Mary,
And the love-light in your eye.

The place is little changed, Mary;
The day is bright as then;
The lark’s loud song is in my ear,
And the corn is green again;
But I miss the soft clasp of your hand,
And your breath, warm on my cheek;
And I still keep list’nin’ for the words
You nevermore will speak.

‘Tis but a step down yonder lane,
And the little church stands near,–
The church where we were wed, Mary;
I see the spire from here.
But the graveyard lies between, Mary,
And my step might break your rest,–
For I’ve laid you, darling, down to sleep,
With your baby on your breast.

I’m very lonely now, Mary,
For the poor make no new friends;
But, O, they love the better still
The few our Father sends!
And you were all I had, Mary,–
My blessin’ and my pride;
There’s nothing left to care for now,
Since my poor Mary died.

Yours was the good, brave heart, Mary,
That still kept hoping on,
When the trust in God had left my soul,
And my arm’s young strength was gone;
There was comfort ever on your lip,
And the kind look on your brow,–
I bless you, Mary, for that same,
Though you cannot hear me now.

I thank you for the patient smile
When your heart was fit to break,–
When the hunger pain was gnawin’ there,
And you hid it for my sake;
I bless you for the pleasant word,
When your heart was sad and sore,–
O, I’m thankful you are gone, Mary,
Where grief can’t reach you more!

I’m biddin’ you a long farewell,
My Mary–kind and true!
But I’ll not forget you, darling,
In the land I’m goin’ to;
They say there’s bread and work for all,
And the sun shines always there,–
But I’ll not forget old Ireland,
Were it fifty times as fair!

And often in those grand old woods
I’ll sit, and shut my eyes,
And my heart will travel back again
To the place where Mary lies;
And I’ll think I see the little stile
Where we sat side by side,
And the springin’ corn, and the bright May morn,
When first you were my bride.

—Lady Dufferin


Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 11:39 AM  Comments (2)  
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Musings of Balthazar

FROM The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The maddest aberrations of the city now come boldly forward under the protection of the invisible lords of Misrule who preside at this season. No sooner has darkness fallen than the maskers begin to appear in the streets — first in ones and twos then in small companies, often with musical instruments or drums, laughing and singing their way to some great house or to some night-club where already the frosty air is bathed in the nigger warmth of jazz — the cloying grunting intercourse of saxophones and drums. Every- where they spring up in the pale moonlight, cowled like monks. The disguise gives them all a gloomy fanatical uniformity of outline which startles the white-robed Egyptians and fills them with alarm — the thrill of a fear which spices the wild laughter pouring out of the houses, carried by the light offshore winds towards the cafés on the sea-front; a gaiety which by its very shrillness seems to tremble always upon the edge of madness.

Slowly the bluish spring moon climbs the houses, sliding up the minarets into the clicking palm-trees, and with it the city seems to uncurl like some hibernating animal dug out of its winter earth, to stretch and begin to drink in the music of the three-day festival. The jazz pouring up from the cellars displaces the tranquil winter air in the parks and thoroughfares, mingling as it reaches the sealine with the drumming perhaps of a liner’s screws in the deepwater reaches of the estuary. Or you may hear and see for a brief moment the rip and slither of fireworks against a sky which for a moment curls up at the edges and blushes, like a sheet of burning carbon paper: wild laughter which mixes with the hoarse mooing of an old ship outside the harbour bar — like a cow locked outside a gate.

‘The lover fears the carnival’ says the proverb. And with the emergence of these black-robed creatures of the night everywhere, all is subtly altered. The whole temperature of life in the city alters, grows warm with the subtle intimations of spring. Carni vale — the flesh’s farewell to the year, unwinding its mummy wrappings of sex, identity and name, and stepping forward naked into the futurity of the dream.

All the great houses have thrown open their doors upon fabulous interiors warm with a firelight which bristles upon china and marble, brass and copper, and upon the blackleaded faces of the servants as they go about their duties. And down every street now, glittering in the moonlit gloaming, lounge the great limousines of the brokers and gamblers, like liners in dock, the patient and im- pressive symbols of a wealth which is powerless to bring true leisure or peace of mind for it demands everything of the human soul. They lie webbed in a winter light, expressing only the silence and power of all machinery which waits for the fall of man, looking on at the maskers as they cross and recross the lighted windows of the great houses, clutching each other like black bears, dancing to the throb of nigger music, the white man’s solace. Snatches of music and laughter must rise to Clea’s window where she sits with a board on her knees, patiently drawing while her little cat sleeps in its basket at her feet. Or perhaps in some sudden lull the chords of a guitar may be plucked to stay and wallow in the darkness of the open street until they are joined by a voice raised in remote song, as if from the bottom of a well. Or screams, cries for help.

But what stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino — conferring upon its wearers the disguise which each man in his secret heart desires above all. To become anonymous in an anonymous crowd, revealing neither sex nor relationship nor even facial expression — for the mask of this de- mented friar’s habit leaves only two eyes, glowing like the eyes of a Moslem woman or a bear. Nothing else to distinguish one by; the thick folds of the blackness conceal even the contours of the body. Everyone becomes hipless, breastless, faceless. And concealed beneath the carnival habit (like a criminal desire in the heart, a temptation impossible to resist, an impulse which seems pre- ordained) lie the germs of something: of a freedom which man has seldom dared to imagine for himself. One feels free in this disguise to do whatever one likes without prohibition. All the best murdersin the city, all the most tragic cases of mistaken identity, are the fruit of the yearly carnival; while most love affairs begin or end during these three days and nights during which we are delivered from the thrall of personality, from the bondage of ourselves. Once inside that velvet cape and hood, and wife loses husband, husband wife, lover the beloved. The air becomes crisp with the saltpetre of feuds and follies, the fury of battles, of agonizing night-long searches, of despairs. You cannot tell whether you are dancing with a man or a woman. The dark tides of Eros, which demand full secrecy if they are to overflow the human soul, burst out during carnival like something long dammed up and raise the forms of strange primeval creatures — the perversions which are, I suppose, the psyche’s ailment — in forms which you would think belonged to the Brocken or to Eblis. Now hidden satyr and maenad can rediscover each other and unite. Yes, who can help but love carnival when in it all debts are paid, all crimes expiated or committed, all illicit desires sated — without guilt or premeditation, without the penalties which conscience or society exact?

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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They waited for the music on the radio
to stop and it did, though somehow a few
seconds passed before they noticed,
much the way a day ends with a silvering
gone gray, darkness a hand on the shoulder,
a hug: it sits with you filling the room
with its silence. The message that followed
was meant to soothe as it shocked, like
the end of a fairy tale whispered
to a child at the edge of sleep: Now.
And even for them, enlisted to a duty
they were old enough to love, even they
felt the feather blows of a dream, that hush
of breath that arrives like a breeze
through a window, a dry kiss, the ghost
already closing the door behind him.
She retrieved the small pistol from its
velvet sack in the bread box. He
fit barrel to stock and oiled
his grandfather’s rifle. There was time,
though quickly, to lick each other’s
closed eyes, a ritual of sorts, his sweat
on her tongue, the bitter taste of mascara
across his gums, a cocaine freeze.
Offshore, beyond the breakwater,
the pirate station ended its broadcast
and released a single horn blast, as if
entering a slender bank of fog: a decorative
blast for a quickly passing vapor.
And what followed was the rumble
of a thousand shoes on concrete.
He paused to let the cat in as she filled its dish
an extra inch, enough for days or forever:
who knew? Simply put, the long wait was over.
And as they began to run with half the town
toward the harbor and the congregation site,
he saw the bright dome of the capitol
ignite with sunset, its copper tiles aflame.
And he remembered four children long ago
on the municipal beach, his brother’s foot bandaged
in strands of jelly fish, one sister screaming
as the other continued digging, her plastic pail
filled with wet sand to drip into spires. The horizon
had seemed a botched watercolor of sun
over sea, a stain of orange that made the sky
a tissue torn with fire. He had run
for his mother with a joyful panic, knowing
his mission was of mercy, his brother’s pain as vast
and distant as the execution of innocents
witnessed from afar, a television flickering
in a peaceful land. As now he ran with his wife,
the rifle easy in his arms, their pockets
jingling with keys and coins, skeletons,
quarters and dimes they would melt into bullets.

—James Harms


James Harms was born in 1960 in Pasadena, California, where he lived for most of the first twenty-five years of his life. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Redlands then received an M.F.A. from Indiana University. He has taught at Denison University, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and West Virginia University, where he is currently Professor of English and director of the creative writing program.

His first book of poems, Modern Ocean, was published in 1992 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He was awarded the PEN/Revson Fellowship for his second book, The Joy Addict, also published by Carnegie Mellon University Press (1998). A letterpress, limited edition book of poems, East of Avalon, was issued by Caddis Case Press in 2000, and a third full-length collection, Quarters, appeared in 2001 (Carnegie Mellon UP).

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 10:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Fields of Gold

You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold

So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold

Will you stay with me, will you be my love
Among the fields of barley
We’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in the fields of gold

See the west wind move like a lover so
Upon the fields of barley
Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth
Among the fields of gold
I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I’ve broken
But I swear in the days still left
We’ll walk in the fields of gold
We’ll walk in the fields of gold

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold
You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in the fields of gold
When we walked in the fields of gold
When we walked in the fields of gold



Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 2:53 PM  Comments (3)  
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Coney Island by Paul Cadmus

FROM A Companion To 20th-Century America

Edited by Stephen Whitfield

For working people in general, commercial leisure and amusements offered a critical terrain in which to claim independence from supervision and control from either political elites or their own bosses, who often sought to control not only conditions of their work but also the rest of their lives. Amusement parks and resorts such as Coney Island or Euclid Beach offered crowds of patrons a whole series of pleasurable diversions that brought together men and women in a physical proximity that would have been embarrassing or forbidden in conventional society. Dance halls and beer gardens allowed crowds of young patrons to dance physically close and to engage in courtship, flirting, and sexual experimenting away from the watchful eyes of chaperones.

—Charles McGovern


Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 2:36 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

—C.S. Lewis


Published in: on April 27, 2010 at 8:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Inner Darkness

FROM Down River by John Hart

We rode back to the farm, and I listened to the hard slap of wipers on the old truck. He killed the engine and we sat in the drive. Rain beat itself to mist on the roof. “Are you sure about this, son?”

I didn’t answer the question; I was thinking of Danny. Not only had I refused his request, but I’d doubted him, too. It was the ring found with Grace. It made everything so clear. He’d changed, gone dark for the money. His father wanted mine to sell and Danny had played along. Damn! I was so ready to believe it. I forgot the times that he’d stood up for me, forgot the man I knew him to be. In all of the ways that mattered, that was the greatest injustice I had done to him. But he was dead. I had to think of the living.

“This is going to kill Grace,” I said.

“She’s strong.”

“Nobody’s that strong. You should call the hospital. It’ll hit the papers. Maybe they can keep it from her, at least for a day or two. She should hear about this from us.”

He seemed uncertain. “Maybe until she’s better.” He nodded. “A day or two.”

“I’ve got to go,” I said, but my father stopped me with a hand on my arm. My door was open and water cascaded into the cab of the truck. He didn’t care.

“Dolf is my best friend, Adam. He’s been that for longer than you’ve been alive; since before I met your mother, since we were kids. Don’t think that this is easy for me.”

“Then you should feel like I do. We need to get him out.”

“Friendship is also about trust.”

I waited for a long second. “So is family,” I finally said.

“Adam . . .”

I climbed out, leaned in as water thrummed on my back. “Do you think I killed Gray Wilson? Right here, right now . . . do you think I did it?”

He leaned forward and the dome light struck his face. “No, son. I don’t think you did it.”

Something snapped in my chest, a strap loosened. “Saying that doesn’t mean that I forgive you. We have a long way to go, you and me.”

“Yes, we do.”

I didn’t plan to say what came next; it just welled out of me. “I want to come home,” I said. “That’s the real reason I’m back.” His eyes widened, but I wasn’t ready to talk further. I slammed the door, splashed through puddles, and slipped into my car. My father climbed onto his porch and turned to face me. His clothes hung wetly from his frame. Water ran down his face. He raised a hand above shadow-filled eyes, and kept it up until I pulled away.

I went to Dolf’s house; it was empty and dark. I stripped off wet clothes and flung myself down onto his couch. Thoughts churned through my mind; speculation, theories, despair. Fifteen miles away Dolf would be lying on a hard, narrow bunk. Probably awake. Probably afraid. The cancer would be chewing through him, looking for that last vital bit. How long until it took him? Six months? Two months? One? I had no idea. But when my mother died, and my father, for years, had been lost to me in mourning, it was Dolf Shepherd who made the difference. I could still feel the strength of that heavy hand on my shoulder. Long years. Hard years. And it was Dolf Shepherd who got me through.

If he was going to die, it should be with sunlight on his face.

I thought of the postcard in my glove compartment. If I was right, and Dolf had not killed Danny, then the card could possibly set him free. But who might it implicate? Someone with a reason to want Danny dead. Someone strong enough to conceal his body in the crack at the top of the knob. Maybe it was time to give it to Robin. But Dad was right about one thing: Dolf must have his reasons, and we had no idea what they might be. I closed my eyes and tried to not think of what Parks had said. Maybe he wanted the body found. And then Dolf’s voice, again: Sinners usually pay for their sins. Dark thoughts came with the sound of thunder. If Dolf killed Danny, he would have needed a damn good reason. But could he have? Was it even possible? I’d been gone for a long time. What things had changed in five years? What people?

I chewed on that thought until I fell asleep, and for once, I did not dream of my mother or of blood. Instead, I dreamt of teeth, of the cancer that was eating a good man down.

I woke before six, feeling as if I had not slept at all. Coffee was in the cupboard, so I set it to brew and walked outside to watery, gray light. It was thirty minutes before dawn, silent, still. Leaves drooped under dark beads and the grass was beaten flat. Puddles shone on the drive, as black and smooth as poured oil.

It was a perfect, quiet morning; and then I heard it, the multithroated wail of dogs on the hunt. The ululation of the pack. It was a primal sound that made my skin prickle. It rose above the hills and then faded. Rose and fell, like crazy men speaking in tongues. Then shots crashed out in quick succession, and I knew that my father, too, was restless.


Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 2:37 PM  Leave a Comment  
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What The Cleaning Lady Knows

Cleanliness is not and never has been next to godliness.

White carpets are hell.

You can get by without Comet, Spic and Span or lemon oil,
but Windex is mandatory.

Ammonia can cause pneumonia.

People who pay to have clean houses cleaned are lonely.

Children whose parents work full-time will fall in love with

Rich people splatter diarrhea
on the inside rim of their toilet seats, just like the rest of

Cleaning rags should always be washed separately with bleach.

Cash is better than checks.

—Ginger Andrews


Ginger Andrews

Ginger Andrews was born in North Bend, Oregon in 1956. Her poems have recently appeared in The Hudson Review, Poetry, River Sedge,Fireweed, and The American Voice. In 1997, she received the Mary Schierman Award at the Coos Bay Writers Conference. She is the winner of the 1999 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize from Story Line Press, which will publish her book An Honest Answer in the fall. She cleans houses for a living, and is a janitor and Sunday school teacher at North Bend Church of Christ.

Image: Lucian Freud: Girl in a Dark Dress
Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 1:54 PM  Comments (2)  
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Rituals in Silence

FROM A Book Of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

ONE IMAGINES A SWEET INDOLENT GIRL, SOFT WITH BABY fat, her attention span low and her range of interests limited. Marin approved of infants and puppies. Marin dis approved of “meanness” and “showing off.” She appeared to approve equally of Leonard and Warren, and tailored her performance to please each of them. When Warren came to San Francisco she would appear instinctively in the navy-blue blazer no longer required by the progressive Episcopal day school she attended. For Leonard and his friends she would wear blue jeans, and adashiki which scratched her skin. On principle she “adored madly” the presents Warren occasionally sent, although by her fif teenth birthday these presents still ran to the sporadic stuffed animal in a box bearing the charge-plate stamp of whatever woman he was living with at the time. In princi ple she was tolerant of Leonard’s efforts on the behalf of social justice, although in practice she often found the bene ficiaries of these efforts “weird” and their predicaments “unnecessary.” That Episcopal day school Marin attended from the age of four until she entered Berkeley had as its aim “the development of a realistic but optimistic attitude,” and it was characteristic of Charlotte that whenever the phrase “realistic but optimistic” appeared in a school com muniqué she read it as “realistic and optimistic.”

That was Charlotte.

Not Marin.

Marin would never bother changing a phrase to suit herself because she perceived the meanings of words only dimly, and without interest. Perhaps because of her realistic but optimistic attitude Marin was easily confused by such moral questions as were raised by the sight of someone dis figured (would a good God make ugly people?) or the problem of dividing her Halloween candy with the Epis copal orphans (do six licorice balls for the orphans equal one Almond Hershey for Marin, if Marin dislikes licorice?), and when confused could turn sulky, and withdrawn.

What else do I know about Marin.

I know that her posture toward all adult women was agreeably patronizing.

I know that her posture toward all adult men, toward Leonard and toward Warren and toward any man at all who was not disfigured, was uncomplicatedly seductive. I fer mind was empty of grudges and hurts and family malice. Her energies were simple and physical and in the summertime her blond hair had the cast of pale verdigris from the chlorine in swimming pools. Charlotte adored her, brushed her pale hair and licked the tears from her cheeks, held her hand crossing streets and wanted never to let go, believed that when she walked through the valley of the shadow she would be sustained by the taste of Marin’s salt tears, her body and blood. The night Charlotte was inter rogated in the Estadio Nacional she cried not for God but for Marin. Gerardo told me that. I prefer not to know who told Gerardo.


“I SEE,” LEONARD KEPT SAYING FROM WHEREVER HE WAS on the day the FBI first came to the house on California Street. “I see.”

“I don’t see,” Charlotte said. “Frankly I don’t see at all.”

There was a silence. “You’re calling from the house.”

“What difference does it make.”

Charlotte could hear only the faint crackle on the cable. Actually she had forgotten that she was never sup posed to call Leonard from the house if she had anything important to tell him. She was supposed to lose any pos sible surveillance and place the call on what Leonard called a neutral line. During the Mendoza trial in Cleveland she had called Leonard every day from a pay phone in Magnin’s and once she had taken a room in a motel on Van Ness just to call London and tell Leonard that she missed him, but now that she had to tell him that Marin was said to have bombed the Transamerica Building she was calling from the white Princess phone in Marin’s room.

“I mean what difference could it possibly make if they’re listening, since I’m only telling you what they told me in the first place.”

Still Leonard said nothing.

“I mean,” Charlotte said, “I can’t leave the house.”

“I want you to leave the house. I want you to stay with Polly Orben in Sausalito. I want you to call Polly Orben right away—”

“I don’t want to stay with Polly Orben.” Polly Orben had been Leonard’s analyst for eight years. Charlotte did not know what Polly Orben and Leonard had been talking about for eight years but Polly Orben frequently reported that they were within a year or so of “terminating,” or “ending.” She seemed to mean finishing the analysis. “I don’t want to leave the house.”

“It’s Wednesday, Polly counsels at Glide on Wednes day, call her at Glide—”

“I have to be here when Marin calls.”

“My point is this.” Leonard spoke very carefully. “You don’t know where Marin is.”

“That’s exactly why I have to be here.”

“And if you don’t know where Marin is, then you can’t tell anyone where Marin is. Under oath. Can you.”

Charlotte said nothing.

“If you see my point.”

Still Charlotte said nothing.

“Get in touch with Warren. Tell him exactly what I just told you. Tell him he doesn’t want to hear from her.”

“I guess I’ll just wait here and perjure myself,” Charlotte said finally. “And then hire you.”

Charlotte did not call Polly Orben at Glide. Charlotte did not get in touch with Warren. For the rest of that day Charlotte only lay on Marin’s bed, staring at the black-button eyes of the Raggedy Ann Warren had sent for Marin’s twelfth birthday. Charlotte did not see how Marin could have played any useful role in flying an L-1011 to Wendover, Utah. Marin could not even drive a car with a manual transmission.

Marin could not fly an L-1011 so Marin must be skiing at Squaw Valley.

Marin had called her great-grandmother’s wedding bracelet dead metal.

Marin had been in bed with the flu on her twelfth birthday and as if she were four instead of twelve had slept all night with Warren’s Raggedy Ann in her arms.

When it began to rain at six o’clock Charlotte wrapped herself in Marin’s blanket but did not close the windows. She went downstairs only once, when two of the FBI men came back to ask if she had a recent photograph of Marin.

“I don’t know.” In a drawer upstairs she had three recent photographs that Marin had overlooked but there was some quite definite reason why she did not want . the FBI men to have them. She could not put her finger on the reason but she knew that there was one. “I’d have to look.”

She made no move to look.

She realized suddenly that she was still holding the Raggedy Ann, with its dress pulled up to show the red heart that said I LOVE YOU.

One of the FBI men cleared his throat.

“I don’t suppose you’ve heard from her,” he said finally.

“I’m sure you’d tell us if you had,” the other said.

She wanted to slide the Raggedy Ann behind a pillow but she was sitting in one of Leonard’s Barcelona chairs and there were no pillows.

“Actually I wouldn’t,” she said finally.

“Mrs. Douglas—”

“Actually I’d lie. I’d lie to you and I’d perjure myself in court. You know that. You heard me tell my husband that on the telephone.”

The two FBI men looked away from each other.

“Or if you didn’t hear me someone in your office cer tainly did, you should compare notes down there.” She did not want to talk to the FBI this way but she could hear her own voice and it sounded bright and social and it did not stop. “Someone down there’s been listening to me on the telephone for at least five years, you should know me by now. I’d lie.”

“I’m sure you know that under the law a parent has no special—”

The other FBI man held up his hand as if to silence his partner.

“Maybe you’d like someone to stay with you tonight, Mrs. Douglas. Keep an eye on things.”

“I have someone keeping an eye on things. I have all those people you moved into the apartment across the street. Haven’t I. I mean I didn’t see you move them in, but I know how you operate.” She could not seem to stop herself. It was the Raggedy Ann. She resented their catching her with the Raggedy Ann. “One thing I don’t know. I don’t know if you kept tapes of all those telephone calls.”

Neither man spoke.

“I mean it could be very useful if you did. If you could sit down now and listen to those telephone calls you’d probably know more about Marin and me and Leonard and Warren than I even remember. You could probably figure the whole thing out.”

One of the men closed his briefcase. The other reached for his raincoat.

“You must have six or seven hundred hours on Marin and Lisa Harper alone. Doing their algebra.” Charlotte smoothed the Raggedy Ann’s dress over its red heart and (lid not look at the FBI men. “Lisa’s at Stanford this year. In case you missed the installment when Lisa got into Stanford and Marin didn’t.”

“We’re not on opposing sides, Mrs. Douglas.”

“Marin cried when the letter came from Stanford. You probably remember that. Marin crying.”

The next morning when Charlotte woke in Marin’s bed the rain was streaming down Marin’s organdy curtains and puddling on the parquet floor. Charlotte knew as she woke why she could not give the FBI a recent photograph of Marin. She could not give the FBI a recent photograph of Marin because any photograph useful to them would show Marin’s eyes, and then Marin’s eyes would stare back at her from newspapers and television screens, and she was not yet ready to deliver her child to history.


Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 9:25 PM  Leave a Comment  

When My Car Broke Down

I was somewhere in Utah or Wyoming,
somewhere in the high inhuman deserts,
in the thin blue flame of wavering air,
bluffs of red earth scorched and

stratified on the horizon. I had stopped
to admire the desolation, to smoke
a cigarette and consider that ten thousand
years ago this was all under water,

that strange fish would have swum
through the space my eyes now occupied;
before that ice, and before that
something else again, unimaginably alien.

The Buddhists say first thought best thought,
but my first thought when I saw the steam
billowing up from under my car was:
if I just keep driving, maybe it will go away.

After all, I was moving three thousand miles
not to “escape” my problems but to put
a nice distance between them and me.
A problem has to be fierce to travel that far.

My second thought was to stare at the engine
for a while. I leaned over and looked
down into it as into the bowels of a ship
or the cranium of some fantastic beast.

And recalled how my father tried to teach me
about cars. Mostly he had me hold
the light for hours and mostly I studied
the back of his head, turning over the words

he said and knowing even then I’d never
understand. The blood would drain
from my arm and I’d prop it up
with my one free hand to keep from

caving in or betraying my halfheartedness.
Even then I was hopelessly afflicted
with the disease of the Wandering Mind.
Even then I was dreaming myself

across magical landscapes, just like this,
and learning all he had to teach me
about standing rooted to one spot,
wishing I were somewhere else.

—John Brehm


John Brehm

John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and educated at the University of Nebraska and Cornell University. He is the author of Sea of Faith, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize and was published by The University of Wisconsin Press. In the Georgia Review, Judith Kitchen praised Sea of Faith for its “unified consistency of tone and sophistication of approach,” remarking that the “voice is urbane, humorous, and amused—distanced just enough to poke fun at the world and itself alike, to be able to see the ironies in every predicament.” Kitchen finds that Brehm’s poems give “voice to the complexities of being, handing us back to ourselves through the surety of his craft.”


Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:42 PM  Comments (2)  
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The Fourth Nabokov Interview

This is the fourth installment in SLP’s ongoing coverage of the public life of Vladimir Nabokov.


Nabokov’s Life Magazine Interview, 1964

On August 18, 1964, Jane Howard of Life magazine sent me eleven questions. I have kept the typescript of my replies. In mid-September she arrived in Montreux with the photographer Henry Grossman. Text and pictures appeared in the November 20 issue of Life.

What writers and persons and places have influenced you most?

Vladimir Nabokov

In my boyhood I was an extraordinarily avid reader. By the age of 14 or 15 I had read or re- read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French– besides hundreds of other books. Today I can always tell when a sentence I compose happens to resemble in cut and intonation that of any of the writers I loved or detested half a century ago; but I do not believe that any particular writer has had any definite influence upon me. As to the influence of places and persons, I owe many metaphors and sensuous associations to the North Russian landscape of my boyhood, and I am also aware that my father was responsible for my appreciating very early in life the thrill of a great poem.

Have you ever seriously contemplated a career other than in letters?

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime– but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

Which of your writings has pleased you most?

I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow– perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings. Well-wishers have tried to translate Lolita into Russian, but with such execrable results that I’m now doing a translation myself. The word “jeans,” for example, is translated in Russian dictionaries as “wide, short trousers”– a totally unsatisfactory definition.

In the foreword to The Defense you allude to psychiatry. Do you think the dependence of analyzed on analysts is a great danger?

I cannot conceive bow anybody in his right mind should go to a psychoanalyst, but of course if one’s mind is deranged one might try anything; after all, quacks and cranks, shamans and holy men, kings and hypnotists have cured people– especially hysterical people. Our grandsons no doubt will regard today’s psychoanalysts with the same amused contempt as we do astrology and phrenology. One of the greatest pieces of charlatanic, and satanic, nonsense imposed on a gullible public is the Freudian interpretation of dreams. I take gleeful pleasure every morning in refuting the Viennese quack by recalling and explaining the details of my dreams without using one single reference to sexual symbols or mythical complexes. I urge my potential patients to do likewise.

How do your views on politics and religion affect what you write?

I have never belonged to any political party but have always loathed and despised dictatorships and police states, as well as any sort of oppression. This goes for regimentation of thought, governmental censorship, racial or religious persecution, and all the rest of it. Whether or not my simple credo affects my writing does not interest me. I suppose that my indifference to religion is of the same nature as my dislike of group activities in the domain of political or civic commitments. I have allowed some of my creatures in some of my novels to be restless freethinkers but here again I do not care one bit what kind of faith or brand of non-faith my reader may assign to their maker.

Would you have liked to have lived at a time other than this?

My choice of “when” would be influenced by that of “where.” As a matter of fact, I would have to construct a mosaic of time and space to suit my desires and demands. It would be too complicated to tabulate all the elements of this combination. But I know pretty well what it should include. It should include a warm climate, daily baths, an absence of radio music and traffic noise, the honey of ancient Persia, a complete microfilm library, and the unique and indescribable rapture of learning more and more about the moon and the planets. In other words, I think I would like my head to be in the United States of the nineteen-sixties, but would not mind distributing some of my other organs and limbs through various centuries and countries.

With what living writers do you feel a particular sympathy?

When Mr. N. learns from an interview that Mr. X., another writer, has named as his favorites Mr. A., Mr. B. and Mr. N., this inclusion may puzzle Mr. N. who considers, say, Mr. A.’s work to be primitive and trite. I would not like to puzzle Mr. C., Mr. D., or Mr. X., all of whom I like.

Do you anticipate that more of your works will be made into films? On the basis of Lolita, does the prospect please you?

I greatly admired the film Lolita as a film– but was sorry not to have been given an opportunity to collaborate in its actual making. People who liked my novel said the film was too reticent and incomplete. If, however, all the next pictures based on my books are as charming as Kubrick’s, I shall not grumble too much.

Which of the languages you speak do you consider the most beautiful?

My head says English, my heart, Russian, my ear, French.

Why do you prefer Montreux as a headquarters? Do you in any way miss the America you parodied so exquisitely in Lolita^ Do you find that Europe and the US are coming to resemble each other to a discouraging degree?

I think I am trying to develop, in this rosy exile, the same fertile nostalgia in regard to America, my new country, as I evolved for Russia, my old one, in the first post-revolution years of West-European expatriation. Of course, I miss America– even Miss America. If Europe and America are coming to resemble each other more and more– why should I be discouraged? Amusing, perhaps, and, perhaps, not quite true, but certainly not discouraging in any sense I can think of. My wife and I are very fond of Montreux, the scenery of which I needed for Pale Fire, and still need for another book. There are also family reasons for our living in this part of Europe. I have a sister in Geneva and a son in Milan. He is a graduate of Harvard who came to Italy to complete his operatic training, which he combines with racing an Italian car in major events and translating the early works of his father from Russian into English.

What is your prognosis for the health of Russian letters?

There is no plain answer to your question. The trouble is that no government however intelligent or humane is capable of generating great artists, although a bad government certainly can pester, thwart, and suppress them. We must also remember– and this is very important– that the only people who flourish under all types of government are the Philistines. In the aura of mild regimes there is exactly as rare a chance of a great artist’s appearing on the scene as there is in the less happy times of despicable dictatorships. Therefore I cannot predict anything though I certainly hope that under the influence of the West, and especially under that of America, the Soviet police state will gradually wither away. Incidentally, I deplore the attitude of foolish or dishonest people who ridiculously equate Stalin with McCarthy, Auschwitz with the atom bomb, and the ruthless imperialism of the USSR with the earnest and unselfish assistance extended by the USA to nations in distress.


Dear Miss Howard, allow me to add the following three points:

1) My answers must be published accurately and completely: verbatim, if quoted; in a faithful version, if not.

2) I must see the proofs of the interview– semifinal and final.

3) I have the right to correct therein all factual errors and specific slips (“Mr. Nabokov is a small man with long hair,” etc.)


Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:18 PM  Leave a Comment  

Ganges, the Eternal

FROM A Passage To India by E M Forster

Their attention was diverted. Below them a radiance had suddenly appeared. It belonged neither to water nor moonlight, but stood like a luminous sheaf upon the fields of darkness. He told them that it was where the new sand-bank was forming, and that the dark ravelled bit at the top was the sand, and that the dead bodies floated down that way from Benares, or would if the crocodiles let them. “It’s not much of a dead body that gets down to Chandrapore.”

“Crocodiles down in it too, how terrible!” his mother murmured. The young people glanced at each other and smiled; it amused them when the old lady got these gentle creeps, and harmony was restored between them consequently. She continued: “What a terrible river! what a wonderful river! “and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness and the mare shivered. On her account they did not wait, but drove on to the City Magistrate’s bungalow, where Miss Quested went to bed, and Mrs. Moore had a short interview with her son.

He wanted to enquire about the Mohammedan doctor in the mosque. It was his duty to report suspicious characters and conceivably it was some disreputable hakirn who had prowled up from the bazaar. When she told him that it was someone connected with the Minto Hospital, he was relieved, and said that the fellow’s name must be Aziz, and that he was quite all right, nothing against him at all.

“Aziz! what a charming name!”

“So you and he had a talk. Did you gather he was well disposed?”

Ignorant of the force of this question, she replied, “Yes, quite, after the first moment.”

“I meant, generally. Did he seem to tolerate us—the brutal conqueror, the sundried bureaucrat, that sort of thing?”

“Oh, yes, I think so, except the Callendars—he doesn’t care for the Callendars at all.”

“Oh. So he told you that, did he? The Major will be interested. I wonder what was the aim of the remark.”

“Ronny, Ronny! you’re never going to pass it on to Major Callendar?”

“Yes, rather. I must, in fact!”

“But, my dear boy—”

“If the Major heard I was disliked by any native subordinate of mine, I should expect him to pass it on to me.”

“But, my dear boy—a private conversation!”

“Nothing’s private in India. Aziz knew that when he spoke out, so don’t you worry. He had some motive in what he said. My personal belief is that the remark wasn’t true.”

“How not true?”

“He abused the Major in order to impress you.”

“I don’t know what you mean, dear.”

“It’s the educated native’s latest dodge. They used to cringe, but the younger generation believe in a show of manly independence. They think it will pay better with the itinerant M.P. But whether the native swaggers or cringes, there’s always something behind every remark he makes, always something, and if nothing else he’s trying to increase his izzat—in plain knglo-Saxon, to score. Of course there are exceptions.”

“You never used to judge people like this at home.”

“India isn’t home,” he retorted, rather rudely, but in order to silence her he had been using phrases and arguments that he had picked up from older officials, and he did not feel quite sure of himself. When he said “of course there are exceptions” he was quoting Mr. Turton, while “ increasing the izzat” was Major Callendar’s own. The phrases worked and were in current use at the club, but she was rather clever at detecting the first from the second hand, and might press him for definite examples.

She only said, “I can’t deny that what you say sounds very sensible, but you really must not hand on to Major Callendar anything I have told you about Doctor Aziz.”

He felt disloyal to his caste, but he promised, adding, “In return please don’t talk about Aziz to Adela.”

“Not talk about him? Why?”

“There you go again, mother—I really can’t explain every thing. I don’t want Adela to be worried, that’s the fact; she’ll begin wondering whether we treat the natives properly, and all that sort of nonsense.”

“But she came out to be worried—that’s exactly why she’s here. She discussed it all on the boat. We had a long talk when we went on shore at Aden. She knows you in play, as she put it, but not in work, and she felt she must come and look round, before she decided—and before you decided. She is very, very fair-minded.”

“I know,” he said dejectedly.

The note of anxiety in his voice made her feel that he was still a little boy, who must have what he liked, so she promised to do as he wished, and they kissed good night. He had not forbidden her to think about Aziz, however, and she did this when she retired to her room. In the light of her son’s comment she reconsidered the scene at the mosque, to see whose impression was correct. Yes, it could be worked into quite an unpleasant scene. The doctor had begun by bullying her, had said Mrs. Callendar was nice, and then—finding the ground safe—had changed; he had alternately whined over his grievances and patronized her, had run a dozen ways in a single sentence, had been unreliable, inquisitive, vain. Yes, it was all true, but how false as a summary of the man; the essential life of him had been slain.

Going to hang up her cloak, she found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew. Perhaps he mistook the peg for a branch—no Indian animal has any sense of an interior. Bats, rats, birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle, which alternately produces houses trees, houses trees. There he clung, asleep, while jackals in the plain bayed their desires and mingled with the percussion of drums.

“Pretty dear,” said Mrs. Moore to the wasp. He did not wake, but her voice floated out, to swell the night’s uneasiness.


Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 11:08 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Every morning a delight

FROM Islands In The Stream by Ernest Hemingway

He watched Serafín pour the drink from the shaker into the tall glass and saw the top of it curl over the edge and onto the bar. Serafín pushed the base of the glass into the slit in a cardboard protector and Thomas Hudson lifted it, heavy and cold above the thin stem he held in his ringers, and took a long sip and held it in his mouth, cold against his tongue and teeth, before he swallowed it.

“All right,” he said. “The happiest day I ever had was any day when I woke in the morning when I was a boy and I did not have to go to school or to work. In the morning I was always hungry when I woke and I could smell the dew in the grass and hear the wind in the high branches of the hemlock trees, if there was a wind, and if there was no wind I could hear the quietness of the forest and the calmness of the lake and I would listen for the first noises of morning. Sometimes the first noise would be a kingfisher flying over the water that was so calm it mirrored his reflection and he made a clattering cry as he flew. Sometimes it would be a squirrel chittering in one of the trees outside the house, his tail jerking each time he made a noise. Often it would be the plover calling on the hillside. But whenever I woke and heard the first morning noises and felt hungry and knew I would not have to go to school nor have to work, I was happier than I have ever been.”

“Even than with women?”

“I’ve been very happy with women. Desperately happy. Unbearably happy. So happy that I could not believe it; that it was like being drunk or crazy. But never as happy as with my children when we were all happy together or the way I was early in the morning.”

“But how could you be as happy by yourself as with someone?” “This is all silly. You asked me to tell you whatever came in my mind.” “No, I didn’t. I said to tell me a happy story about the happiest time you remember.

That wasn’t a story. You just woke up and were happy. Tell me a real story.” “What about?” “Put some love in it.” “What kind of love? Sacred or profane?”

“No. Just good love with fun.” “I know a good story about that.” “Tell it to me then. Do you want another drink?” “Not till I finish this one. All right. At this time I was in Hong Kong which is a very

wonderful city where I was very happy and had a crazy life. There is a beautiful bay and on the mainland side of the bay is the city of Kowloon. Hong Kong itself is on a hilly island that is beautifully wooded and there are winding roads up to the top of the hills and houses built high up in the hills and the city is at the base of the hills facing Kowloon. You go back and forth by fast, modern ferryboats. This Kowloon is a fine city and you would like it very much. It is clean and well laid-out and the forest comes to the edge of the city and there is very fine wood pigeon shooting just outside of the compound of the Women’s Prison. We used to shoot the pigeons, which were large and handsome with lovely purple shading feathers on their necks, and a strong swift way of flying, when they would come in to roost just at twilight in a huge laurel tree that grew just outside the white-washed wall of the prison compound. Sometimes I would take a high incomer, coming very fast with the wind behind him, directly overhead and the pigeon would fall inside the compound of the prison and you would hear the women shouting and squealing with delight as they fought over the bird and then squealing and shrieking as the Sikh guard drove them off and retrieved the bird which he then brought dutifully out to us through the sentry’s gate of the prison.

“The mainland around Kowloon was called the New Territories and it was hilly and forested and there were many wood pigeons, and in the evening you could hear them calling to each other. There were often women and children digging the earth from the side of the roads and putting it into baskets. When they saw you with a shotgun, they ran and hid in the woods. I found out that they dug the earth because it had wolfram, the ore of tungsten, in it. This was very saleable then.”

Es un poco pesada esta historia.”

“No, Honest Lil. It isn’t really a dull story. Wait and see. Wolfram itself is pesado. But it is a very strange business. Where it exists it is the easiest thing there is to mine. You simply dig up the dirt and haul it away. Or you pick up the stones and carry them off. There are whole villages in Extremadura in Spain that are built of rock that has very high grade wolfram ore and the stone fences of the peasant’s field are all made of this ore. Yet the peasants are very poor. At this time it was so valuable that we were using DC-2’s, transport planes such as fly from here to Miami, to fly it over from a field at Nam Yung in Free China to Kai Tak airport at Kowloon. From there it was shipped to the States. It was considered very scarce and of vital importance in our preparations for war since it was needed for hardening steel, yet anyone could go out and dig up as much of it in the hills of the New Territories as he or she could carry on a flat basket balanced on the head to the big shed where it was bought clandestinely. I found this out when I was hunting wood pigeons and I brought it to the attention of people purchasing wolfram in the interior. No one was very interested and I kept bringing it to the attention of people of higher rank until one day a very high officer who was not at all interested that wolfram was there free to be dug up in the New Territories said to me, ‘But after all, old boy, the Nam Yung set-up is functioning you know.’ But when we shot in the evenings outside the women’s prison and would see an old Douglas twin-motor plane come in over the hills and slide down toward the airfield, and you knew it was loaded with sacked wolfram and had just flown over the Jap lines, it was strange to know that many of the women in the women’s prison were there for having been caught digging wolfram illicitly.”

Sí, es raro,” Honest Lil said. “But when does the love come in?”

“Any time you want it,” Thomas Hudson said. “But you’ll like it better if you know the sort of place it happened in.

“There are many islands and bays around Hong Kong and the water is clear and beautiful. The New Territories was really a wooded and hilly peninsula that extended out from the mainland and the island Hong Kong was built on is in the great, blue, deep bay that runs from the South China Sea all the way up to Canton. In the winter the climate was much as it is today when there is a norther blowing, with rain and blustery weather and it was cool for sleeping.

“I would wake in the mornings and even if it were raining I would walk to the fish market. Their fish are almost the same as ours and the basic food fish is the red grouper. But they had very fat and shining pompano and huge prawns, the biggest I have ever seen. The fish market was wonderful in the early morning when the fish were brought in shining and fresh caught and there were quite a few fish I did not know, but not many and there were also wild ducks for sale that had been trapped. You could see pintails, teal, widgeon, both males and females in winter plumage, and there were wild ducks that I had never seen with plumage as delicate and complicated as our wood ducks. I would look at them and their unbelievable plumage and their beautiful eyes and see the shining, fat, new-caught fish and the beautiful vegetables all manured in the truck gardens by human excrement, they called it ‘night-soil’ there, and the vegetables were as beautiful as snakes. I went to the market every morning, and every morning it was a delight.


Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 6:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Memories and Rain

Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis
One Afternoon in Late May

Rainy Saturday, Larry dead
almost three weeks now,
Rain starting to pool in the low spots
And creases along the drive.
Between showers, the saying goes,
Roses and rhododendron wax glint
Through dogwood and locust leaves,
Flesh-colored, flesh-destined, spring in false flower, good-bye.

The world was born when the devil yawned,
the legend goes,
And who’s to say it’s not true,
Color of flesh, some inner and hidden bloom of flesh.
Rain back again, then back off,
Sunlight suffused like a chest pain across the tree limbs.
God, the gathering night, assumes it.

We haven’t a clue as to what counts
In the secret landscape behind the landscape we look at here.
We just don’t know what matters,
May dull and death-distanced,
Sky half-lit and grackle-ganged —
It’s all the same dark, it’s all the same absence of dark.
Part of the rain has now fallen, the rest still to fall.

—Charles Wright


Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 5:45 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Yalu Crossing

Chinese troops crossing Yalu

FROM War Trash by Ha Jin

On the night of March 17 we crossed the Yalu. Every infantryman carried a submachine gun, two hundred rounds of ammunition, four grenades, a canteen of water, a pair of rubber sneakers and a short shovel on the back of his bedroll, and a tubed sack of parched wheat flour weighing thirteen pounds. We walked gingerly on the eastern bridge, because the western one was partly damaged. Each man kept ten feet from the one in front of him. The water below was dark, hissing and plunging. Now and then someone would cry out, his foot having fallen through a hole. A tall mule, drawing a cart, got its hind leg stuck in a rift and couldn’t dislodge it no matter how madly the driver thrashed its hindquarters. The moment I passed the tilted cart, it shook, then keeled over and fell into the river together with the helpless animal. There was a great splash, followed by an elongated whirlpool in the shimmering current, and then the entire load of medical supplies vanished.

Having left behind our insignias and IDs, from now on we called ourselves the Chinese Peoples Volunteers. This was to differentiate us from the army back home, so that China, nominally having not sent its regular troops to Korea, might avoid a full-blown war with the United States. We were ordered to reach, within fourteen days, a town called Yichun, very close to the Thirty-eighth Parallel. The distance was about four hundred miles, and we would have to walk all the way. It was early spring, the air still chilly; the roads were muddy, soaked by thawing ice and snow, hard for us to trudge through. The divisional headquarters had two jeeps that transported the leaders and their staff. Sometimes the jeeps would drop off the officers and turn back to collect some limping men and those who could no longer march thanks to blisters on their feet. I walked the whole time except for once, when Commissar Pei wanted me to get on his jeep so that I could figure out the meaning of the English words on a folded handbill someone had picked up on the way. It turned out to be the menu of a restaurant in Seoul, which must have served Americans mainly, because the menu was only in English. I couldn’t understand all the words, but could roughly describe the dishes and soups to Pei Shan. The entrees included broiled flounder filet, beef steak, fried chicken, meat loaf.

Besides the commissars orderly, a clerical officer named Chang Ming, who edited our division’s bulletin, often boarded the jeep. I envied him for that. Whenever we stopped somewhere for the night, Chang Ming would be busy interviewing people and writing articles.

Commissar Pei seemed a born optimist. He often laughed heartily, jutting his chin and showing his buckteeth. He looked more like a warrior than a political officer. By contrast, our division commander, Niu Jinping, was a wisp of a man, who had once been the vice director of the Political Department of the Sixty-second Army. I often saw a cunning light in Niu’s round eyes; in his presence I was always cautious about what I said. When he smiled he seldom opened his lips, chuckling through his nose as if his mouth were stuffed with food. He was a chain-smoker, and his orderly carried a whole bag of brand-name cigarettes for him. Both the commander and the commissar were in their early thirties, and neither was experienced in directing battle operations.

Back in Dandong City, I hadn’t been able to imagine the magnitude of the war’s destruction. Now, to my horror, I saw that most villages east of the Yalu lay in ruins. The land looked empty, with at least four-fifths of the houses leveled to the ground. The standing ones were mostly deserted. Most of the Korean houses were shabby, with thatched hip roofs and walls made of mud plastered to bundles of cornstalks. Many of them were mere huts that had gaping holes as windows. It must have been hard to farm this rugged land, where boulders and rocks stuck out of the ground everywhere; yet it seemed every scrap of tillable soil was used, and even low hills were terraced with small patches of cropland. We came across Korean civilians from time to time. Most of them were in rags, women in white dresses that had faded into yellow, and old men wearing black top hats with chin straps, reminding me of Chinese men of ancient times. Here and there roads had been cratered, and teams of Chinese laborers were busy filling the holes, carrying earth and stones with wicker baskets affixed to A-frames. The farther south we went, the fewer houses remained intact, and as a result most of us had to sleep in the open air.

Generally, during the day it wasn’t safe for us to march, because American planes would come in droves to attack us. So only after nightfall could we move forward. After Shandeng, a rural town, the air raids were constant and sometimes even took place at night. Every infantryman carried at least sixty pounds while each horse was loaded with five times more. Without enough sleep and rest, the troops were soon footsore and exhausted. On the fifth day heavy rain set in and made it impossible for us to lie on the ground to sleep. Some officers in our Political Department clustered together with a piece of tarpaulin over their heads. Many men, too tired to care about the downpour, simply put their bedrolls on the ground, sat on them, and tried to doze that way. Some, staying in a chestnut grove, tied themselves to the trees with ropes so that they could catnap while remaining on their feet. The rain continued in the afternoon, and because we couldn’t sleep and the enemy bombers were unlikely to come in such weather, we ate our lunchowhich was parched flour mixed with water, as sticky as batteroand went on our way.

The following night, as the divisional staff was about to enter a canyon, suddenly three green signal flares whooshed up ahead of us. At first I thought they must have been fired by our vanguard, but then some officers began to whisper that someone on the mountain was signaling our whereabouts to the enemy. I had heard that a good number of Korean agents worked for the Americans on the sly, but I hadn’t expected to encounter something like this in the wilderness. As we were talking about the possible meanings of those signals, four planes appeared in the southeast, roaring toward us.

“Take cover!” a voice ordered.

Some of us rushed into the nearby bushes and some lay down in the roadside ditches. The planes dropped a few flash bombs, a shower of light illuminating the entire area; our troops and vehicles at once became visible. Then bombs rained down and machine guns began raking us. Some horses and mules were startled and vaulted over the prostrate men, dashing away into the darkness. A bomb exploded in front of me and tossed half a pine sapling into the sky. I lay facedown on the slope of a gully, not daring to lift my head to the scorching air, and keeping my mouth open so that the explosions wouldn’t pop my eardrums. Around me, men hollered and moaned, and some were twisting on the ground screaming for help. Some, though dead or unconscious, were still clutching their submachine guns.

The bombardment lasted only five minutes but killed about a hundred men and wounded many more. Along the road, flames and smoke were rising from shattered carts and disabled mountain guns. As I looked for Chang Ming, I saw two orderlies coming my way, supporting an officer. I recognized the officer, Tang Jing, the quartermaster of our divisional staff. He looked all right, though one of the orderlies kept shouting, “Doctor, doctor! We need a doctor here!” But all the medical personnel were busy helping the seriously wounded, assembling them for shipment back to our rear base. Division commander Niu ordered an engineering company to dig a large grave at the edge of a birch wood to bury the dead.


Ha Jin

Most Americans have never heard of Ha Jin, yet he is among the most accomplished of today’s novelists. Jin sets many of his stories and novels in China, in the fictional Muji City. He has won the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, Waiting (1999). He has received three Pushcart Prizes for fiction and a Kenyon Review Prize. Many of his short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories anthologies. His collection Under The Red Flag (1997) won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, while Ocean of Words (1996) has been awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award. The novel I’ve excerpted here,  War Trash (2004), set during the Korean War, won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 12:24 PM  Comments (2)  

The Faucet

The sink is costing me precious
concentration. Poet      poet      poet
it mocks, mating call for a plumber.
My friends suggest I should write more
toward the impossible, around the unreal.
I tell them my theme’s America,
what’s the diff? Water’s expensive
and money’s supposed to trickle,
the national pastime’s a diamond
made of dirt. It’s difficult not
to write satire, an old spout spurted.
He’s right: bills pop up, sense flies out,
a pitcher’s catching the faucet’s fluent
language. I myself don’t spicket.

*  *  *

The plumber does, thank God,
know his pipes. Chit-chatting a little,
we try to jive our slippery jargons.
“Long as you’re here, could you snake
the commode?” I ask (with a blue-collar
coyness — I might’ve called it “the throne”).
By accent, I’d trace this plumber to Pittsburgh —
the way he says “toilet” (twirl-it), the way
he says “faucet” (force-it). He asks what I do
(my skin crawls) and I tell him, saying poetry’s
like his business: if the job’s done right,
you never need see the pipes — just know
they’re flowing. His look says I’m full
of shit. Twirl it, I think, don’t force it.

—Kevin McFadden


Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 8:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Caligula, God

Derek Jacobi as Caligula

FROM I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Caligula fell ill and for a whole month his life was despaired of. The doctors called it brain-fever. The popular consternation at Rome was so great that a crowd of not less than ten thousand people stood day and night around the Palace, waiting for a favourable bulletin. They kept up a quiet muttering and whispering together; the noise, as it reached my window, was like that of a distant stream running over pebbles. There were a number of most remarkable manifestations ‘ of anxiety. Some men even pasted up placards on their house-doors, to say that if Death held his hand and spared the Emperor, they vowed to give him their own lives in compensation. By universal consent all traffic noises and street cries and music ceased within half a mile or more of the Palace. That had never happened before, even during Augustus’s illness, the one of which Musa was supposed to have cured him. The bulletins always read: “No change.”

One evening Drusilla knocked at my door and said, “Uncle Claudius! The Emperor wants to see you urgently. Come at once. Don’t stop for anything.”

“What does he want me for?”

“I don’t know. But for Heaven’s sake humour him. He’s got a sword there. He’ll kill you if you don’t say what he wants you to say. He had the point at my throat this morning. He told me that I didn’t love him. I had to swear and swear that I did love him. ‘Kill me, if you like, my darling,’ I said. O Uncle Claudius, why was I ever born? He’s mad. He always was. But he’s worse than mad now.

He’s possessed.“

I went along to Caligula’s bedroom, which was heavily curtained and thickly carpeted. One feeble oil-lamp was burning by the bedside. The air smelt stale. His querulous voice greeted me. “Late again? I told you to hurry,” He didn’t look ill, only unhealthy. Two powerful deaf-mutes with axes stood as guards, one on each side of his bed.

I said, saluting him, “Oh, how I hurried! If I hadn’t had a lame leg I’d have been here almost before I started. What joy to see you alive and to hear your voice again, Caesar! Can I dare to hope that you’re better?”

“I have never really been ill. Only resting. And undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the most important religious event in history. No wonder the City keeps so quiet.”

I felt that he expected me to be sympathetic, nevertheless. “Has the metamorphosis been painful, Emperor? I trust not.”

“As painful as if I were my own mother. I had a very difficult delivery. Mercifully, I have forgotten all about it. Or nearly all. For I was a very precocious child and distinctly remember the midwives’ faces of admiration as they washed me after my emergence into this world, and the taste of the wine they put between my lips to refresh me after my struggles.”

“An astounding memory. Emperor. But may I humbly enquire precisely what is the character of this glorious change that has come over you?”

“Isn’t it immediately apparent?” he asked angrily.

Drusilla’s word “possessed” and the conversation I had had with my grandmother Livia as she lay dying gave me the clue. I fell on my face and adored him as a God.

After a minute or two I asked from the floor whether I was the first man privileged to worship him. He said that I was and I burst out into gratitude. He was thoughtfully prodding me with the point of his sword in the back of my neck. I thought I was done for.

He said: “I admit I am still in mortal disguise, so it is not remarkable that you did not notice my Divinity at once.”

“I don’t know how I could have been so blind. Your face shines in this dim light like a lamp.”

“Does it?” he asked with interest. “Get up and give me that mirror.” I handed him a polished steel mirror and he agreed that it shone very brightly. In this fit of good humour he began to tell me a good deal about himself.

“I always knew that it would happen,” he said. *T never felt anything but Divine. Think of it. At two years old I put down a mutiny of my father’s army and so saved Rome. That was prodigious, like the stories told about the God Mercury when a child, or about Hercules who strangled the snakes in his cradle.“

“And Mercury only stole a few oxen,” I said, “and twanged a note or two on the lyre. That was nothing by comparison.”

“And what’s more, by the age of eight I had killed, my father. Jove himself never did that. He merely banished the old fellow.”

I took this as raving on the same level, but I asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “Why did you do that?”‘

“He stood in my way. He tried to discipline me-me, a young God, imagine it. So I frightened him to death. I smuggled dead things into our house at Antioch and hid them under loose tiles; and I scrawled charms, on the walls; and I got a cock in my bedroom to give him his marching orders. And I robbed him of his Hecate. Look, here she is! I always keep her under my pillow*” He held up the green jasper charm. My heart went as cold as ice when I recognized it. I said in a horrified voice: “You were the one then? And it was you who climbed into the bolted room by that tiny window and drew your devices there too?”

He nodded proudly and went rattling on: “Not only did I kill my natural father but I killed my father by adoption too-Tiberius, you know. And whereas Jupiter only lay with one sister of his, Juno, I have lain with all three of mine. Martina told me it was the right thing to do if I wanted to be like Jove.”

“You knew Martina well then?”

“Indeed I did. When my parents were in Egypt I used to visit her every night. She was a very wise woman, I’ll tell you another thing, Drusilla’s Divine too. I’m going to announce it at the same time as I make the announcement about myself. How I love Drusilla! Almost as much as she loves me.”

“May I ask what are your sacred intentions? This metamorphosis will surely affect Rome profoundly.”

“Certainly. First, I’m going to put the whole world in awe of me. I won’t allow myself to be governed by a lot of fussy old men any longer. I’m going to show… but you remember your old grandmother, Livia? That was a joke. Somehow she had got the notion that it was she who was to be the everlasting God about whom everyone has been prophesying in the East for the last thousand years. I think it was Thrasyllus who tricked her into believing that she was meant. Thrasyllus never told lies but he loved misleading people. You see, Livia didn’t know the precise terms of the prophecy. The God is to be a man not a woman, and not born in Rome, though he is to reign at Rome (I was born at Antium), and born at a time of profound peace (as I was), but destined to be the cause of innumerable wars after his death. He is to die young and to be at first loved by his people and then hated, and finally to die miserably, forsaken of all. ”His servants shall drink his blood.“ Then after his death he is to rule over all the other Gods of the world, in lands not yet known to us. That can only be myself. Maitina told me that many prodigies had been seen lately in the near East which proved conclusively that the God had been born at last. The Jews were the most excited. They somehow felt themselves peculiarly concerned. I suppose that this was because I once visited their city Jerusalem with my father and gave my first divine manifestation there.” He paused.

“It would greatly interest me to know about that,” I said.

“Oh, it was nothing much. Just for a joke I went into a house where some of their priests and doctors were talking theology together and suddenly shouted out: ‘You’re a lot of ignorant old frauds. You know nothing at all about it.’ That caused a great sensation and one old white-bearded man said: ‘Oh? And who are you. Child? Are you the prophesied one?* *Yes,’ I answered boldly. He said, weeping for rapture: ‘Then teach us,” I answered: ’Certainly not! It’s beneath my dignity,‘ and ran out again. You should have seen their faces! No, Livia was a clever and capable woman in her way-a female Ulysses, as I called her once to her face-and one day perhaps I shall deify her as I promised, but there’s no hurry about that. She will never make an important deity. Perhaps we’ll make her the patron goddess of clerks and accountants, because she had a good head for figures. Yes, and we’ll add poisoners, as Mercury has thieves under his protection as well as merchants and travellers.“

“That’s only justice,” I said. “But what I am anxious to know at once is this: in what name am I to adore you? Is it incorrect, for instance, to call you Jove? Aren’t you someone greater than Jove?”

He said: “Oh” greater than Jove, certainly, but anonymous as yet. For the moment, I think though, I’ll call myself Jove-the Latin Jove to distinguish myself from that Greek fellow. I’ll have to settle with him one of these days. He’s had his own way too long.“

I asked: “How does it happen that your father wasn’t a God too? I never heard of a God without a divine father.”

“That’s simple. The God Augustus was my father.”

“But he never adopted you, did he? He only adopted your elder brothers and left you to carry on your father’s line.”

“I don’t mean that he was my father by adoption, I mean that I am his son by his incest with Julia. I must be. That’s the only possible solution. I’m certainly no son of Agrippina: her father was a nobody. It’s ridiculous.”

I was not such a fool as to point out that in this case Germanicus wasn’t his father and therefore his sisters were only his nieces. I humoured him as Drusilla advised and said: “This is the most glorious hour of my life. Allow me to retire and sacrifice to you at once, with my remaining strength. The divine air you exhale is too strong for my mortal nostrils. I am nearly fainting,” The room was dreadfully stuffy. Caligula hadn’t allowed the windows to be opened ever since he took to his bed.

He said: “Go in peace. I thought of killing you, but I won’t now. Tell the Scouts about my being a God and about my face shining, but don’t tell them any more. I impose holy silence on you for the rest.”

I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”

“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip, I’ll pass it on to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? No? Then I’ll tell her.”

“Tell her that she’s a Goddess too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”

Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Ken Kesey

FROM The Demon Box by Ken Kesey

I check in at the SM County facilities dressed in my usual leather jacket, striped pants and shoes, silver whistle hanging around my neck. They allow you to wear street business up at camp. The bulls here at County Slam hate the policy. Lt. Gerder looks up from his typewriter sees my outfit and his already stone-cold face freezes even harder.

“All right, Deboree. Give me everything.”

“Everything?” Usually they let the Honor Camp prisoners check through, trust them to give up their watches, pocketknives, etc.

“Everything. We don’t want you blowing your whistle at midnight.”

“Make me out a complete property slip, then.”

He gives me an unwavering stare through the mesh as he takes a triplicate form from a waiting stack and rolls it into the typewriter.

“One whistle,” I say, pulling the chain over my head. “With a silver crucifix soldered to the side.”

He doesn’t type.

“One blues harp, E flat.”

He continues to look at me over the keys.

“Come on, Gerder; you want everything, I want a property slip for everything — whistles, harps, and all.”

We both know what I’m really worried about are my two Honor Camp notebooks.

“You just slide everything into the trough,” he says. “In fact, I want you out of that Davy Crockett costume, Jackoff. Peel it.”

He comes out of the cage while I take off the fringed jacket Behema made me from the hide we skinned off the cow elk Houlihan ran over coming down off Seven Devils Pass that All Souls’ Eve with the brakes gone and the headlights blown.

“Stuff it in the trough. Now, hands on the wall feet on the line. Spread ’em.” He gives the inside of my ankle a kick. “Deputy Rhack, back me while I examine this prisoner.”

They frisk me. The whole shot, flashlight and all. Taking sunglasses, handkerchief, fingernail clippers, ballpoint pens and everything. My two notebooks are wrapped in the big farewell card Fastinaux drew for me on butcher paper. Gerder rips it off and stuffs it in the wastebasket. He tosses the notebooks on top of the other stuff.

“I get a property slip for this stuff, Gerder. That’s the law.”

“While you’re in my tanks,” Lt. Gerder lets me know, “you go by my law.”

No malice in his voice. No anger. Just information.

“Okay then” — I take my two notebooks out of the trough and hold them up — “witness these.” Showing them to Deputy Rhack and the rest of the men waiting in the receiving room. “Everybody? Two notebooks.”

Then hand them to Gerder. He carries them around into his cage and sets them next to his typewriter. He hammers at the keys, ignoring the roomful of rancor across the counter from him. Rhack isn’t so cool; a lot of these guys will be back up at camp with him for many months yet, where he’s a guard without a gun. First he tries to oil us all with a wink, then he turns to me, smiling his sincerest man-to-man smile.

“So, Devlin. . . you think you got a book outta these six months with us?”

“I think so.”

“How do you think it’ll come out; in weekly installments in the Chronicle?”

“I hope not.” Bonehead move, giving those three pages of notes to that Sunday supplement reporter — pulled my own covers. “It should make a book on its own.”

“You’ll have to change a lot, I’ll bet. . . like the names.”

“I’ll bet a carton I don’t. Sergeant Rhack? Lieutenant Gerder? Where can you come up with better names than those?”

Before Rhack can think up an answer Gerder jerks the papers out and slides them under the mesh. “Sign all three, Deputy.”

Rhack has to use one of the pens from my pile. When Gerder gets the signed forms back he scoops all the little stuff out of the trough into a pasteboard property box with a numbered lid. He puts my wadded jacket on top.

“Okay, Deboree.” He swivels to the panel of remote switches. “Zip up your pants and step to the gate.”

“What about my notebooks?”

“You’ll find stationery in Detain. Next.”

Rhack hands me my ballpoint as I pass, and Gerder’s right: there is paper in D Tank. Sixo is still here, too, after coming down for his kickout more than a week ago. In blues now instead of the flashy slacks and sportjacket, but still trying to keep up the cocky front, combing his greasy pomp, talking tough: “Good deal! The pussy wagon has arrived.”

One by one the other guys that rode down on Rhack’s shuttle show up. Gerder has had to give them each the same treatment, taking cigarettes, paperbacks, everything.

“Sorry about that,” I tell them.

“Steer clear of Deboree,” Sixo advises them. “He’s a heat magnet.”

Just then keys jangle. “Deboree! Duggs is here to see you.”

Door slides open. I follow the turnkey down the row of cells to a room with a desk. Probation Officer Duggs is sitting behind it. My two notebooks are on the desk beside my rapsheets. Duggs looks up from the records.

“I see you made it without getting any more Bad Time tacked on,” Duggs says.

“I was good.”

Duggs closes the folder. “Think anybody’ll be here for you at midnight?”

“One of my family, probably.”

“Down all the way from Oregon?”

“I hope so.”

“Some family.” He looks at me: caseworker look, conditioned sincere. Sympathetic. “Sorry about the report on your father.”


“That’s why Judge Rilling waived that Bad Time, you know?”

“I know.”

He lectures me awhile on the evils of blah blah blah. I let him run out his string. Finally he stands up, comes round the desk, sticks out his hand. “Okay, Short-timer. But don’t miss the ten-thirty hearing Monday morning if you want to get released to an Oregon PO.”

“I’ll be here.”

“I’ll walk you back.”

On the walk back to D Tank he asks what about this Jail Book; when will it be coming out? When it’s over, I tell him. When might that be? When it stops happening. Will this talk tonight be in it? Yes. . . tonight, Monday morning, last week — everything will be in it.

“Deboree!” Sixo calls through the bars. “Put this in your fucking book: a guy — me — a guy shuns his comrades, plays pinochle five months with the motherfucking brass up there — five and a half months! When he musters down, one of those bulls misses a pack of Winstons and calls down and asks, ‘What brand of cigarettes did Sixo check in with? Winstons? Slap a hold on him!’ I mean is that cold or what, man? Is that a ballbusting bitch? But, what the fuck; Sixo will survive,” he crows. “Angelo Sixo is Sir Vivor!”

Some dudes can snivel so it sounds like they’re crowing.

They lock me in and Duggs leaves. Sixo sits back down. He’s doing Double Time, on hold like this — Now Time along with Street-to-come Time. You can even be made to serve Triple Time, which adds on Street-gone-by Time and that is called Guilt. A man waiting for his kickout is on what’s called Short Time. Short Time is known for being Hard Time. Lots of Short-timers go nuts or fuck up or try a run. Short is often harder than Long.

The best is Straight Time. That’s what the notebooks are about.

More guys check in. Weekenders. D-Tankers. Some Blood hollers from the shadows, “Mercy, Deputy Dawg. . . we done already got motherfuckers wall to wall. . .”

Drunk tank full to overflowing
Motherfuckers wall to wall
Coming twice as fast as going
Time gets big; tank gets small.

Dominoes slap on the table
Bloods play bones in tank next door
Bust a bone, if you be able
Red Death stick it good some more.

Three days past my kickout time
Ask to phone; don’t get the juice —
Crime times crime just equals more crime
Cut the motherfuckers loose.

Will I make the Christmas kickout?
Will commissary come today?
Will they take my blood for Good Time
Or just take my guts away?

Some snitch found my homemade outfit!
They’ve staked a bull up at the still!
They’ve scoped the pot plants we were sprouting
At the bottom of the hill.

They punched my button, pulled my covers
Blew my cool, ruint my ruse
They’ve rehabilitated this boy
Cut this motherfucker loose.

The fish that nibbles on the wishing
Let him off his heavy rod
The gowned gavel-bangers fishing
Cut them loose from playing God.

Back off Johnson, back off peacefreaks
From vendettas, from Vietnam
Cut loose the squares, cut loose the hippies
Cut loose the dove, cut loose the bomb.

You, the finger on the trigger
You, the hand that weaves the noose
You hold the blade of brutal freedom —
Cut all the motherfuckers loose.

Eleven forty they take me out give me my clothes, whistle and harp put me in this room with a bench and one other Short-timer, gray-pated mahogany-hued old dude of sixty years or so.

“Oh, am I one Ready Freddy. Am I ever!”


Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 10:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Kind Gods

A Short Story by Carolyn Kephart

They rode light, for these had long been times of peace, yet still they rode armed from old habit, in steel-studded leather many times mended, battered greaves over scuffed boots, vambraces scored from years of sword-blows. Still, the metal gleamed, and the tough hide was supple, and from a distance they seemed young men, straight and easy in the saddle. Only a closer look would note their greyed hair, and faces as weathered as their gear.

Emerging from the forest, the four soldiers entered a wide field where tall pale grasses glowed in the crisp light of a fine fall afternoon. In the midst of the field rose an abrupt little hill, their destination. They had been friends since boyhood, and later comrades in war, always ready with a jest to lighten harsh odds or to add more merriment to a victory; but their mood this day was quiet. One of them began a song that the others joined in, and its cadences meshed with the jingling of harness, the clinking of steel, the grass-softened thud of cantering hooves―not a full-throated war-cry, but the kind of ballad sung after a battle around embered fires of quiet camps, meant to soothe wounds and weariness and sorrow.

They halted at the foot of the hillock, and the leader of the company dismounted with grace only a little stiff, moving with just a hint of a limp as he began to climb the slight slope. His companions hastened to aid him, but he waved away their help. For a moment he was silent, looking from one comrade’s face to the next; and then he smiled faintly as he turned to gaze around him at the field, ending at the mound’s rise. “Rest awhile. I won’t be long.”

He turned and went alone upward, his breath laboring harder with every step he took. When he at last reached the summit, he removed his helm as he slowly fell to his knees, his chest heaving awhile before he ungloved to caress the grass with a battle-scarred hand.

“I told you I’d return,” he said, and his damp gray braids brushed the grass as he bowed his head in greeting. “I didn’t think it’d take me thirty years. Remember when all this field was flat? Perfect for a fight it was. Many an arrowhead and blade-shard they struck that wrought this mound at my order, for your sake.”

He lifted his eyes, and squinted far, over the wide meadow and into the past. Memory made him grimace, sharpening his face’s lines and seams, as his fingers slid over a deep crease in his brow. “It was almost me under this earth, not you. I’ve never fought that hard before or since. The bards still sing of you and me, when the priests aren’t around to stop them.”

He took a flask from his belt, removed its stopper and lifted it to the sun now slipping down toward the trees, murmuring words of ancient prayer. Then he poured a drop of its contents on the ground.

“Here. Drink with me. It can’t harm you.”

His thoughts drifted to the day of that battle, when he and all his friends were alive and young and strong, fighting to the death for a world in peril. Slitting his eyes against the keen radiance of the cloudless sunset, he again saw the field’s tall grasses trampled into blood-muck, churning and darkening with battle, heard the stray sweet birdsongs twisted into clamors and yells. Again he heard the shouts, and the clash of swords. His heart raced, awakening his body’s sickness, and he clenched his teeth to quiet a groan of pain lest his men hear. A slight sip of the flask eased him, and he was able to speak again, although haltingly.

“I don’t have long. I’m rotting inside. My sons wish me gone, and I’m going—but I’m dreading it. In my prime I never feared dying, but it’s different now. There’s a new god now since you and I fought, that’s killed off all the ones you and I knew. There’s a new heaven too, but no one fights or drinks there; all they do is sing. The new hell’s all torture, and that’s where most people end up, it seems. Not much to look forward to, either way.”

He sighed, and murmured an oath now obsolete. “It’s a better world now, but I don’t belong in it. You were lucky, to die while the old gods still lived. I’ve broken all of the new god’s laws in my time, and I won’t be up in the clouds howling hymns, oh no. I’ll be deep in what those smooth-faced priests call the Pit, frying in flames. And you’ll never get your revenge…”

As he said those last words a long fierce growl of thunder seemed to make indignant answer, strange in a cool autumn sky without a single cloud. The thane blinked, for though the potion in the flask was strong, he knew he hadn’t taken enough of it to mislead his senses. After a long moment he put his hand to the ground again as if testing for a heartbeat, his scarred fingers quivering.

“Did they die indeed, the old gods?” he whispered. “Tell me.”

Something lightly tapped his shoulder as soon as he spoke, and he looked around to find a fallen leaf in the grass, red as blood, shaped like a spear-head. No wind had blown it there. He took it up by the stem, and it quivered in his fingers as his heartbeat quickened until he barely had breath to speak again.

“I’ve missed you,” he whispered, his eyes on the last of the sun now vanishing amid the grasses. “I’ve missed the world we had. The gods that forgave us…”

All the wounds he had known in all his life seemed to ache anew, and he shivered. But then the sharp air of the oncoming night seemed to warm around him, and some unseen presence bade him turn around. There in the deep blue of the cloudless sky he saw the full moon rising like a great shield of gold, dented by countless blows; and he understood.

A long while he watched the radiant orb as he listened to the voices of his friends, who waited for him at the foot of the mound.

“Soon, lads,” he whispered. “Soon.” And he lifted high the silver flask in honor of his buried enemy before drinking it empty.


As night came on, the old warrior’s lieutenant climbed the barrow, and found his lord lying as if asleep. Seeking a pulse, he found none; and taking up the flask he scented what it had held, and nodded in resignation. He called the others to the mound’s top, and they came with lighted torches to bear witness to the thane’s passing.

“The new god was kind to him,” one of them said at last, who had been his lord’s messenger during the wars. “A quiet death, without suffering. He deserved it.”

The lieutenant gently placed the red leaf on the thane’s unbreathing breast, and spoke in a voice unsteadied by sorrow, and by anger too. “No. He should have died fighting sword against sword with he that lies below, while he was young. While the old gods yet lived.”

The thane’s standard-bearer bowed his head in assent, and his reply was bitter. “We all should have.”

A long silence followed those words. But then youngest of the three, who had been the chief’s squire since boyhood and whose hair was not yet wholly gray, made a swift silencing gesture. “Wait. Listen.”

The noise came again: a faint rattling, very close.

“A viper,” the lieutenant said, scanning the grass as he drew his dagger.

The standard-bearer shook his head. “No. It’s…under the ground.”

Each man froze, listening to the strange rippling clatter deep in the barrow, and the squire spoke again, barely a whisper. “Bones…”

It sounded like a skeleton slowing coming to life. The thane’s body lay motionless and silent, but the red leaf quivered as two muffled voices issued from deep within the mound, both of them taut and harsh with anger; both the voices of young men in the prime of their strength. Then the clash of edged steel mingled with the curses and taunts and yells, and the noise went on for the space of several breaths before ebbing into the darkness.

Slowly the thane’s men looked around at one another, at first in disbelief, then in wonder, then in joy. All that night they kept vigil with their lord, their eyes and weaponry glinting by moonlight and firelight as they recalled his deeds with glad laughter, and drank to the gods still among them.


The mound was opened in days to come, so that the old warrior might be laid to rest next to his enemy, as he had wished. The priests noted in their chronicles that within the crypt was found a trove of precious goods, and the remains of a tall well-shaped warrior clad in magnificent armor, his skull still covered with skeins of long yellow hair. But only the bards told of how all the treasures seemed disordered and scattered, and how the skeleton seemed to be rising, clutching its great sword two-handed as if parrying a hard slash, and how it seemed to grin in fierce delight.

The thane’s men restored the treasures to their places, and reverently arrayed the remains so they lay at rest once more. As they covered their lord’s body with a rich grave-cloth, they observed that his lips seemed to shape a smile at the last; and they smiled as well.

When the tomb was sealed once more, the priests of the new god placed a solemn curse upon the barrow and the land about it, and no one dared come near the place thereafter. In time, forest claimed the grass, and thicket grew to cover the grave; but old believers knew that ever afterward on the first full moon of autumn, one might hear the wild din of battle, buried deep beneath the thorn-clad mound.



Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:50 PM  Leave a Comment  

Social Security

No one is safe. The streets are unsafe.
Even in the safety zones, it’s not safe.
Even safe sex is not safe.
Even things you lock in a safe
are not safe. Never deposit anything
in a safe-deposit box, because it
won’t be safe there. Nobody is safe
at home during baseball games anymore.

At night I go around in the dark
locking everything, returning
a few minutes later
to make sure I locked
everything. It’s not safe here.
It’s not safe and they know it.
People get hurt using safety pins.

It was not always this way.
Long ago, everyone felt safe. Aristotle
never felt danger. Herodotus felt danger
only when Xerxes was around. Young women
were afraid of wingèd dragons, but felt
relaxed otherwise. Timotheus, however,
was terrified of storms until he played
one on the flute. After that, everyone
was more afraid of him than of the violent
west wind, which was fine with Timotheus.
Euclid, full of music himself, believed only
that there was safety in numbers.

—Terence Winch


Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:33 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Folks on the Hill

FROM The End Of The Line: The Siege of Khe Sanh by Robert L Pisor

The FIRST HOURS of Tet brought a thick, wet fog to Khe Sanh—but no rockets, no dac cong, no screaming waves of North Vietnamese infantrymen. The sun burned away the mists in the afternoon, but the grey veils began to rise again from the creek beds an hour before the dark.

Colonel Lownds tucked an extra M-16 clip into his shirt pocket, and every Marine settled a little deeper in the firing pits and sandbagged trenchlines. Grenades, their pins straightened for quick pulling, were stacked in small piles near at hand. Still, no attack came.

Cries of grief rose from the forward lines held by the 37th ARVN Rangers. Word had arrived that the Rangers’ wives and children were caught in heavy fighting in the town of Phu Loc; until three days ago, the Rangers had been stationed at Phu Loc.

On February 2, an enemy rocket hurtled in from Hill 881 North and plunged through the door of the U.S. Army Signal Corps bunker. The explosion killed four soldiers instantly— and cut the communication link to the outside world. Contact was quickly reestablished, but not before palms went moist in Da Nang and Saigon.

Blinded by the fog, the Marines struggled to make better use of the new sensor devices. The secret sound / tremor detectors had been sown so hurriedly January 18 that their precise location was unknown. Sensor #23, for example, might pick up strange sounds and broadcast them to a circling aircraft for relay to the computers in Thailand, but when the analysis came back—with solid information that the sounds were truck engines, or troop movements, or heavy digging noises—the Air Force intelligence people could not say exactly where to fire for maximum effect.

The Marines resorted to area fire. Fire coordinators at the combat base would arrange for the Marine and Army artillery to fire on a timed schedule so that every shell arrived on target at the same instant. By assigning each gun a slightly different map coordinate, it was possible to rain shrapnel on a wide area. With practice, the artillerymen could produce a “micro-Arc light”—for a target five hundred meters square—in just ten or fifteen minutes; it took closer to an hour to ready the guns for a “mini-Arc Light,” which concentrated explosive airbursts on a target a half mile long by five hundred meters wide.

Even with the sensors, much of the targeting was guesswork. So much time elapsed between the sensor report and the big guns’ readiness that fire control officers had to estimate the speed and direction of enemy marches—or risk shooting shells into the past.

In the early hours of February 4, several sensors northwest of the combat base started broadcasting urgent signals. A large body of men—soldiers, or perhaps porters—was moving toward Hill 881 South.

That night the sensors came alive again. Marine Captain Mirza M. Baig, sitting in the bunker that housed the Fire Support Control Center at the combat base, decided to believe what the sensors appeared to be saying: that hundreds of enemy soldiers were moving into positions to attack India Company. Baig pictured several NVA assault battalions crossing the border from Laos under cover of dark, then moving in a two-stage march to jumpoff points west and south of Hill 881 South. Officers in the Fire Support Control Center figured out how fast a North Vietnamese soldier might be able to move in the dark in this terrain, how the attackers were most likely to line up for the assault, and where the reserves were most likely to wait. Poring over their maps, the FSCC planners picked a five hundred meter by three hundred meter target box and, on signal, fired five hundred high explosive shells into it.

Nothing happened. No terrified shouts were heard on the sidebands of the radio. No secondary explosions marked a hit on ammunition supplies. Still, Baig thought the preemptive artillery strike had disrupted enemy plans.

When the hands on the bunker clock moved past 3 a.m., Baig and other officers in the Fire Support Control Center cheered, then applauded themselves. The prime hour for enemy attack had come and gone; the artillery strike must have scattered the assault forces.

Five minutes later, enemy artillery, rockets, and mortars pounded the combat base and hilltop outposts. More than 6,000 Marines squinted into the thick mists for the first thickenings that would herald the enemy attack.

At five minutes after four, dac cong slipped bangalore torpédos into the barbed wire barricades on Hill 861 Alpha—and blasted pathways into the interior of the Marines’ newest hilltop position. The hill was covered with tall, coarse grass but bald of trees, and the 201 men of E Company had been forced to improvise overhead cover. Seven Marines died in the opening mortar barrage.

North Vietnamese soldiers crept through gaps in the wire. Rocket-propelled grenades—fired in volley at single targets— knocked out the Marines’ machine guns and recoilless rifles. When the platoon that received the brunt of the assault began to fall back, Captain Earle G. Breeding ordered his men to don gas masks. Seconds later, the hilltop was shrouded in choking clouds of CS gas—but still the North Vietnamese pressed the attack. All of the heavy weapons at the combat base were now firing shells in a tight ring around Breeding’s embattled company, but by 5:08 a.m. the enemy had taken one-fourth of the hilltop.

Captain Breeding was now coordinating supporting fires from the 175mm guns at Camp Carroll, the artillery and heavy mortars at the combat base, “radar-guided jet bombers, and mortars and recoilless rifles from Hill 558, Hill 861, and Hill 881 South—which alone fired eleven hundred rounds from just three heavy mortars. When the tubes began to glow in the dark, Dabney’s mortarmen poured precious drinking water on them, then cans of fruit juice; finally, they stood in tight little circles urinating on the metal to keep it cool.

Breeding fed three-man fire teams into the flanks of the enemy penetration, then launched a counterattack. Shouting Marines followed a shower of grenades into the captured trenches—and discovered the North Vietnamese had stopped to look at magazines and paperback books. One Marine nearly tore the head off a slightly built NVA soldier with a roundhouse right, then leaped in to finish him off with a knife. Another Marine saw his buddy grabbed from behind; he jammed his M-I6 rifle between the combatants and fired a whole magazine on full automatic—ripping chunks from his friend’s flak jacket but cutting the enemy soldier in half. Using knives, rifle butts, and fists, and fighting short-range grenade duels in the swirling fog and lingering clouds of tear gas, the Marines threw the North Vietnamese off the hill.


Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:15 PM  Leave a Comment  
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There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights.

—Smedley Butler, MajGen, USMC

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 8:20 PM  Leave a Comment  


FROM First Love, Last Rights by Ian McEwan

I CAN SEE NOW our cramped, overlit bathroom and Connie with a towel draped round her shoulders, sitting on the edge of the bath weeping, while I filled the sink with warm water and whistled – such was my elation – ‘Teddy Bear’ by Elvis Presley, I can remember, I have always been able to remember, fluff from the candlewick bedspread swirling on the surface of the water, but only lately have I fully realised that if this was the end of a particular episode, in so far as real-life episodes may be said to have an end, it was Raymond who occupied, so to speak, the beginning and middle, and if in human affairs there are no such things as episodes then I should really insist that this story is about Raymond and not about virginity, coitus, incest and self- abuse. So let me begin by telling you that it was ironic, for reasons which will become apparent only very much later – and you must be patient – it was ironic that Raymond of all people should want to make me aware of my virginity.

On Finsbury Park one day Raymond approached me, and steering me across to some laurel bushes bent and unbent his finger mysteriously before my face and watched me intently as he did so. I looked on blankly. Then I bent and unbent my finger too and saw that it was the right thing to do because Raymond beamed.

‘You get it?’ he said. ‘You get it!’ Driven by his exhilaration I said yes, hoping then that Raymond would leave me alone now to bend and unbend my finger, to come at some understanding of his bewildering digital allegory in solitude. Raymond grasped my lapels with unusual intensity.

‘What about it, then?’ he gasped. Playing for time, I crooked my forefinger again and slowly straightened it, cool and sure, in fact so cool and sure that Raymond held his breath and stiffened with its motion. I looked at my erect finger and said, ‘That depends,’ wondering if I was to discover today what it was we were talking of.

Raymond was fifteen then, a year older than I was, and though I counted myself his intellectual superior – which was why I had to pretend to understand the significance of his finger – it was Raymond who knew things, it was Raymond who conducted my education. It was Raymond who initiated me into the secrets of adult life which he understood himself intuitively but never totally. The world he showed me, all its fascinating detail, lore and sin, the world for which he was a kind of standing master of ceremonies, never really suited Raymond. He knew that world well enough, but it – so to speak – did not want to know him. So when Raymond produced cigarettes, it was I who learned to inhale the smoke deeply, to blow smoke- rings and to cup my hands round the match like a film star, while Raymond choked and fumbled; and later on when Raymond first got hold of some marihuana, of which I had never heard, it was I who finally got stoned into euphoria while Raymond admitted – something I would never have done myself – that he felt nothing at all. And again, while it was Raymond with his deep voice and wisp of beard who got us into horror films, he would sit through the show with his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut. And that was remarkable in view of the fact that in one month alone we saw twenty-two horror films. When Raymond stole a bottle of whisky from a supermarket in order to introduce me to alcohol, I giggled drunkenly for two hours at Raymond’s convulsive fits of vomiting. My first pair of long trousers were a pair belonging to Raymond which he had given to me as a present on my thirteenth birthday.

On Raymond they had, like all his clothes, stopped four inches short of his ankles, bulged at the thigh, bagged at the groin and now, as if a parable for our friendship, they fitted me like tailor-mades, in fact so well did they fit me, so comfortable did they feel, that I wore no other trousers for a year. And then there were the thrills of shoplifting.

The idea as explained to me by Raymond was quite simple. You walked into Foyle’s bookshop, crammed your pockets with books and took them to a dealer on the Mile End Road who was pleased to give you half their cost price. For the very first occasion I borrowed my father’s overcoat which trailed the pavement magnificently as I swept along. I met Raymond outside the shop. He was in shirtsleeves because he had left his coat on the Under- ground but he was certain he could manage without one anyway, so we went into the shop. While I stuffed into my many pockets a selection of slim volumes of prestigious verse, Raymond was concealing on his person the seven volumes of the Variorum Edition of the Works of Edmund Spenser. For anyone else the boldness of the act might have offered some chance of success, but Raymond’s bold- ness had a precarious quality, closer in fact to a complete detachment from the realities of the situation. The under- manager stood behind Raymond as he plucked the books from the shelf. The two of them were standing by the door as I brushed by with my own load, and I gave Raymond, who still clasped the tomes about him, a conspiratorial smile, and thanked the under-manager who automatically held the door open for me. Fortunately, so hopeless was Raymond’s attempt at shoplifting, so idiotic and trans- parent his excuses, that the manager finally let him go, liberally assuming him to be, I suppose, mentally deranged.

And finally, and perhaps most significantly, Raymond acquainted me with the dubious pleasures of mastur- bation. At the time I was twelve, the dawn of my sexual day. We were exploring a cellar on a bomb site, poking around to see what the dossers had left behind, when Raymond, having lowered his trousers as if to have a piss, began to rub his prick with a coruscating vigour, inviting me to do the same. I did and soon became suffused with a warm, indistinct pleasure which intensified to a floating, melting sensation as if my guts might at any time drift away to nothing. And all this time our hands pumped furiously. I was beginning to congratulate Raymond on his discovery of such a simple, inexpensive yet pleasurable way of passing the time, and at the same time wondering if I could not dedicate my whole life to this glorious sensation – and I suppose looking back now in many respects I have – I was about to express all manner of things when I was lifted by the scruff of the neck, my arms, my legs, my insides, haled, twisted, racked, and producing for all this two dollops of sperm which flipped over Raymond’s Sunday jacket – it was Sunday – and dribbled into his breast pocket.

‘Hey,’ he said, breaking with his action, ‘what did you do that for?’ Still recovering from this devastating experience I said nothing, I could not say anything.

‘I show you how to do this,’ harangued Raymond, dabbing delicately at the glistening jissom on his dark jacket, ‘and all you can do is spit.’

And so by the age of fourteen I had acquired, with Raymond’s guidance, a variety of pleasures which I rightly associated with the adult world. I smoked about ten cigarettes a day, I drank whisky when it was available, I had a connoisseur’s taste for violence and obscenity, I had smoked the heady resin of cannabis sativa and I was aware of my own sexual precocity, though oddly it never occurred to me to find any use for it, my imagination as yet unnourished by longings or private fantasies. And all these pastimes were financed by the dealer in the Mile End Road. For these acquired tastes Raymond was my Mephistopheles, he was a clumsy Virgil to my Dante, showing me the way to a Paradiso where he himself could not tread. He could not smoke because it made him cough, the whisky made him ill, the films frightened or bored him, the cannabis did not affect him, and while I made stalactites on the ceiling of the bomb-site cellar, he made nothing at all.

‘Perhaps,’ he said mournfully as we were leaving the site one afternoon, ‘perhaps I’m a little too old for that sort of thing.’

So when Raymond stood before me now intently crooking and straightening his finger I sensed that here was yet another fur-lined chamber of that vast, gloomy and delectable mansion, adulthood, and that if I only held back a little, concealing, for pride’s sake, my ignorance, then shortly Raymond would reveal and then shortly I would excel.

‘Well, that depends.’ We walked across Finsbury Park where once Raymond, in his earlier, delinquent days had fed glass splinters to the pigeons, where together, in innocent bliss worthy of the ‘Prelude’, we had roasted alive Sheila Harcourt’s budgerigar while she swooned on the grass nearby, where as young boys we had crept behind bushes to hurl rocks at the couples fucking in the arbour; across Finsbury Park then, and Raymond saying, ‘Who do you know?’ Who did I know? I was still blundering, and this could be a change of subject, for Raymond had an imprecise mind. So I said, ‘Who do you know?’ to which Raymond replied, ‘Lulu Smith,’ and made everything clear – or at least the subject matter, for my innocence was remarkable. Lulu Smith! Dinky Lulu! the very name curls a chilly hand round my balls. Lulu Lamour, of whom it was said she would do anything, and that she had done everything. There were Jewish jokes, elephant jokes and there were Lulu jokes, and these were mainly responsible for the extravagant legend. Lulu Slim – but how my mind reels – whose physical enormity was matched only by the enormity of her reputed sexual appetite and prowess, her grossness only by the grossness she inspired, the legend only by the reality. Zulu Lulu! who – so fame had it – had laid a trail across north London of frothing idiots, a desolation row of broken minds and pricks spanning Shepherds Bush to Holloway, Ongar to Islington. Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh who had, so reputation insisted, had it with a giraffe, a humming-bird, a man in an iron lung (who had subsequently died), a yak, Cassius Clay, a marmoset, a Mars Bar and the gear stick of her grandfather’s Morris Minor (and subsequently a traffic warden).

Finsbury Park was filled with the spirit of Lulu Smith and I felt for the first time ill-defined longings as well as mere curiosity. I knew approximately what was to be done, for had I not seen heaped couples in all corners of the park during the long summer evenings, and had I not thrown stones and water bombs? – something I now superstitiously regretted. And suddenly there in Finsbury Park, as we threaded our way through the pert piles of dog shit, I was made aware of and resented my virginity; I knew it to be the last room in the mansion, I knew it to be for certain the most luxurious, its furnishings more elaborate than any other room, its attractions more deadly, and the fact that I had never had it, made it, done it, was a total anathema, my malodorous albatross, and I looked to Raymond, who still held his forefinger stiff before him, to reveal what I must do. Raymond was bound to know…

After school Raymond and I went to a cafe near Finsbury Park Odeon. While others of our age picked their noses over their stamp collections or homework, Raymond and I spent many hours here, discussing mostly easy ways of making money, and drinking large mugs of tea. Sometimes we got talking to the workmen who came there. Millais should have been there to paint us as we listened transfixed to their unintelligible fantasies and exploits, of deals with lorry drivers, lead from church roofs, fuel missing from the City Engineer’s department, and then of cunts, bits, skirt, of strokings, beatings, fuckings, suckings, of arses and tits, behind, above, below, in front, with, without, of scratching and tearing, licking and shitting, of juiced cunts streaming, warm and infinite, of others cold and arid but worth a try, of pricks old and limp, or young and ebullient, of coming, too soon, too late or not at all, of how many times a day, of attendant diseases, of pus and swellings, cankers and regrets, of poisoned ovaries and destitute testicles; we listened to who and how the dustmen fucked, how the Co-op milkmen fitted it in, what the coalmen could hump, what the carpet-fitter could lay, what the builders could erect, what the meter man could inspect, what the bread man could deliver, the gas man sniff out, the plumber plumb, the electrician connect, the doctor inject, the lawyer solicit, the furniture man instal – and so on, in an unreal complex of timeworn puns and innuendo, formulas, slogans, folklore and bravado. I listened without understanding, remembering and filing away anecdotes which I would one day use myself, putting by histories of perversions and sexual manners – in fact a whole sexual morality, so that when finally I began to understand, from my own experience, what it was all about, I had on tap a complete education which, augmented by a quick reading of the more interesting parts of Havelock Ellis and Henry Miller, earned me the reputation of being the juvenile connoisseur of coitus to whom dozens of males – and fortunately females, too – came to seek advice. And all this, a reputation which followed me into art college and enlivened my career there, all this after only one fuck – the subject of this story.


Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 8:06 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Art History, Chicago

Paris Street, A Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

It’s not so much a *Sunday Afternoon
on the Island of La Grande Jatte* as the point
of order according to Seurat —
that bits of light and color, oil paints
aligned in dots become the moment caught,
verbs slowed to a standstill, the life examined.
We step back wide-eyed for a better look:
an assemblage of Parisian suburbanites
in Sunday dress, top hats and parasols,
are there among the trees beside the river.
There are girls and women, men and dogs
in random attitudes of ease and leisure.
A stretch of beach, boats in the blue water,
a woman with a monkey on a leash,
a stiff man beside her, a mother and daughter,
that little faceless girl who seems to look at us.
And everyone is slightly overdressed except
for a boatman stretched out in the shade.
He smokes his pipe and waits for passengers.
But I have never been to Paris.
I’ve never holidayed beside the Seine
nor strolled with a French girl in the gray morning
as in this *Paris Street, A Rainy Day* —
Gustave Caillebotte’s earlier masterpiece
three galleries down in this collection.
So I do not know these cobblestones, this street,
this corner this couple seems intent on turning.
But I’ve walked with a woman arm in arm
holding an umbrella in a distant city,
and felt the moment quicken, yearning for
rainfall or a breeze off the river or
the glistening flesh of her body in water
the way this woman’s is about to be
that Degas has painted in *The Morning Bath*.
She rises from her bed, removes her camisole
and steps into the tub a hundred years ago.

History’s a list of lovers and cities,
a mention of the weather, names and dates
of meetings in libraries and museums
of walks by the sea, or through a city,
late luncheons, long conversations, memories
of what happened or what didn’t happen.
But art is the brush of a body on your body,
the permanent impression that the flesh
retains of courtesies turned intimate;
the image and likeness, the record kept
of figures emergent in oil or water
by the river, in the rain or in the bath
when, luminous with love and its approval,
that face, which you hardly ever see,
turns its welcome towards you yet again.

—Thomas Lynch


Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 7:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me –
Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud one night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we –
Of many far wiser than we –
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling -my darling -my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea –
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

—Edgar Allan Poe


Read by John Lithgow


Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 11:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Snow Queen Explains

Hey, I didn’t start out like this.
I enjoyed corned beef sandwiches,
good vodka. It started with sparkle—
one broken splinter in my foot, another in my finger.

Then I lived so far South the only snow
I’d seen was the shedding of magnolia,
a petal coat of white on the ground so thick
you had to kick through it.

I didn’t notice how sounds had dampened,
how the summers with you became intolerable, sticky.
I lay in ice water baths, peeled off blankets,
nightgowns. You always complained
my hands were too cold anyway.

I moved North, started keeping pets with fur.
I enjoyed the way my new stilettos
pierced the fine layer of ice outside my door.
My Southern manners melted in the blank
face of so much snow.

A glassy film grew over my skin, perfecting.
My hair grew lighter without the touch
of sun. I built a palace from the remnants
of our life together—white car doors,
blocks of ice, mirrors, polished surfaces.

I dressed in white satin, white fox.
I carved swans in ice for company. After thirty,
I started wanting one boy after another—
Perhaps their girlfriends’ tiny fists bang
on my palace door. I cannot hear them.

I don’t think of you at all,
here, while my skin grows smoother
each year, while my hands and feet
become idols for the dead.

—Jeannine Hall Gailey


Jeannine Hall Gailey was born at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. in English from the University of Cincinnati, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Pacific University. Her first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books in 2006. Poems from the book were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and onVerse Daily; two were included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She recently taught with the Young Artist Project at Centrum.  In 2007 she received a Washington State Artist Trust GAP Grant and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review, writes book reviews, and teaches at National University’s MFA Program.


Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 10:58 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Happy Game

FROM The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

AS I APPROACHED the  house of which I now knew every crack and fissure in its grey-green plaster, I heard the tune whistled of a little song or dance, a popular tune, coming from the upper window. I did not know anything yet, but I listened. The tune stirred my memory and some dormant recollections came to the fore. The music was banal but the whistling was wonderfully sweet, with soft and pleasing notes, unusually pure, as happy and as natural as the songs of birds. I stood and listened, enchanted, and at the same time strangely moved without, however, having any kind of accompanying thoughts. Or if I did, it was perhaps that it must be a very happy and amiable man who could whistle like that. For several minutes I stood there rooted to the spot and listened. An old man with a sick, sunken face went by. He saw me standing and listened too, just for a moment, then smiled at me with understanding as he went on. His beautiful, far-seeing old man’s look seemed to say: “You stay there, one does not hear whistling like that every day.” The old man’s glance cheered me. I was sorry when he went past. At the same moment, however, I immediately realized that this whistling was the fulfillment of all my wishes, that the whistler must be Leo.

It was growing dark but there was still no light in any window. The tune, with its simple variations, was finished. There was silence. “He will now make a light up there,” I thought, but everything remained in darkness. Then I heard a door being opened upstairs and soon I also heard footsteps on the stairs. The door of the house was opened and someone came out, and his walk was like his whistling, light and jolly, but steady, healthy and youthful. It was a very slim, hatless man, not very tall, who walked there, and now my feelings was changed to certainty. It was Leo; not only the Leo from the directory, it was Leo himself, our dear traveling companion and servant Leo, whose disappearance ten or more years ago had brought us so much sadness and confusion. I nearly addressed him in the moment of my initial joy and surprise. Then I only just remembered that I had also often heard him whistling during the Journey to the East. They were the same strains of previous times, and yet how strangely different they sounded to me! A feeling of sadness came over me like a stab in the heart: oh, how different everything had become since then, the sky, the air, the seasons, dreams, sleep, day and night! How greatly and terribly everything had changed for me when, through memory of the past alone, a whistle and the rhythm of a known step could affect me so deeply and give me so much pleasure and pain!

The man went close by me, his bare head, supple and serene on his bare neck, appeared above his blue open-neck shirt. The figure moved easily and gaily along the darkening lane, hardly audible in thin sandals or gym shoes. I followed him without any particular intention. How could I help but follow him! He walked down the lane, and although his step was light, effortless and youthful, it was also in keeping with the evening; it was of the same quality as the twilight, it was friendly and at one with the hour, with the subdued sounds from the center of the town, with the half-light of the first lamps which were just beginning to appear.

He turned into the small park at St. Paul’s Gate, disappeared amongst the tall round bushes, and I hurried so that I should not lose him. There he was again; he was sauntering slowly alongside the lilac bushes and the acacia. The path divided into two through the little wood. There were a couple of benches at the edge of the sward. Here under the trees it was already dark. Leo went past the first bench; a pair of lovers were sitting on it. The next bench was empty. He sat down, leaned against the bench, pressed his head back and for a time looked up at the foliage and the clouds. Then he took a small round white metal box out of his coat pocket, put it by his side on the bench, unscrewed the lid and slowly began to take somediing out of the box which he put into his mouth and ate with enjoyment. Meantime I walked to and from the entrance to the wood; I then went up to his bench and sat down at the other end. He looked up, gazed at me with clear grey eyes and went on eating. He was eating dried fruits, a few prunes and half apricots. He took them one after the other between two fingers, pressed and fingered each one a little, put them in his mouth and chewed them for a long time with enjoyment. It took a long time before he came to the last one and ate it. He then closed the box again and put it away, leaned back and stretched out his legs. I now saw that his cloth shoes had soles of plaited rope.

“It will rain tonight,” he said suddenly, I knew not whether to me or to himself.

“Yes, it looks like it,” I said, somewhat embarrassed, for as he had not yet recognized my figure and walk, it was possible and I was almost certain that he would now recognize me by my voice.

But no, he did not recognize me at all, not even by my voice, and although that had been my first wish, it nevertheless gave me a feeling of great disappointment. He did not recognize me. While he had remained the same after ten years and had apparently not aged at all, it was quite different with me, sadly different.

“You whistle very well,” I said. “I heard you earlier on in Seilergraben. It gave me very much pleasure. I used to be a musician.”

“Oh, were you!” he said in a friendly manner. “It’s a great profession. Have you given it up?”

“Yes, for the time being. I have even sold my violin.”

“Have you? What a pity! Are you in difficulties — that is to say, are you hungry? There is still some food at my house. I also have a little money in my purse.”

“Oh, no,” I said quickly, “I did not mean that. I am in quite good circumstances. I have more than I need. But thank you very much; it was very kind of you to make the offer. One does not often meet such kind people.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, maybe! People are often very strange. You are a strange person, too.”

“Am I? Why?”

“Well, because you have enough money and yet you sell your violin. Don’t you like music any more?”

“Oh, yes, but sometimes a man no longer finds pleasure in something he previously loved. Sometimes a man sells his violin or throws it against the wall, or a painter burns all his pictures. Have you never heard of such a thing?”

“Oh, yes. That comes from despair. It does happen. I even knew two people who committed suicide. Such people are stupid and can be dangerous. One just cannot help some people. But what do you do now that you no longer have your violin?”

“Oh, this, that and the other. I do not really do much. I am no longer young and I am also often ill. But why do you keep on talking about this violin? It is not really so important.”

“The violin? It made me think of King David.”

“King David? What has he to do with it?”

“He was also a musician. When he was quite young he used to play for King Saul and sometimes dispelled his bad moods with music. Later he became a king himself, a great king full of cares, having all sorts of moods and vexations. He wore a crown and conducted wars and all that kind of thing, and he also did many really wicked things and became very famous. But when I think of his life, the most beautiful part of it all is about the young David with his harp playing music to poor Saul, and it seems a pity to me that he later became a king. He was a much happier and better person when he was a musician.”

“Of course he was!” I cried rather passionately. “Of course, he was younger then and more handsome and happier. But one does not always remain young; your David would in time have grown older and uglier and would have been full of cares even if he had remained a musician. So he became the great David, performed his deeds and composed his psalms. Life is not just a game!”

Leo then rose and bowed. “It is growing dark,” he said, “and it will rain soon. I do not know a great deal more about the deeds that David performed, and whether they were really great. To be quite frank, I do not know very much more about his psalms either, but I should not like to say anything against them. But no account of David can prove to me that life is not just a game. That is just what life is when it is beautiful and happy — a game! Naturally, one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier. Good-bye, pleased to have met you!”


Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 9:58 AM  Leave a Comment  
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It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand; it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.

—Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 9:14 AM  Leave a Comment  

Thunder on the Mountain

FROM Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

At midday Paul Berlin spotted Cacciato. He was half a mile up, bent low and moving patiently against the steep grade. A smudged, lonely-looking figure. It was Cacciato, no question. Legs much too short for the broad back, a shiny pink spot at the crown of the skull. Paul Berlin spotted him, but it was Stink Harris who spoke up.

Lieutenant Corson took out the binoculars.

“Him, sir?”

The lieutenant watched Cacciato climb toward the clouds.

“That him?”

“Oh, yes. Yes.”

Stink laughed. “Dumb-dumb. Right, sir? Dumb as a dink.”

The lieutenant shrugged. He watched until Cacciato was lost in the higher clouds, then he mumbled something and put the glasses away and motioned for them to move out.

“It’s folly,” Oscar said. “That’s all it is. Foolish folly.”

Staying in the old order, they climbed slowly: Stink at point, then the lieutenant, then Eddie and Oscar, then Harold Murphy, then Doc Peret. At the rear of the column, Spec Four Paul Berlin walked with his head down. He had nothing against Cacciato. The whole thing was silly, of course, immature and dumb, but even so, he had nothing against the kid. It was just too bad. A waste among infinitely wider wastes.

Climbing, he tried to picture Cacciato’s face. He tried hard, but the image came out fuzzy. “It’s the Mongol influence,” Doc Peret had once said. “I mean, hey, just take a close look at him. See how the eyes slant? Pigeon toes, domed head? My theory is that the guy missed Mongolian idiocy by the breadth of a genetic hair. Could’ve gone either way.”

And maybe Doc was right. There was something curiously unfinished about Cacciato. Open-faced and naive and plump, Cacciato lacked the fine detail, the refinements and final touches, that maturity ordinarily marks on a boy of seventeen years. The result was blurred and uncolored and bland. You could look at him then look away and not remember what you’d seen. All this, Stink said, added up to a case of gross stupidity. The way he whistled on guard, the funny little trick he had of saving mouthwash by spitting it back into the bottle, fishing for walleyes up in Lake Country. It was all part of a strange, boyish simplicity that the men tolerated the way they might tolerate a frisky pup.

Humping to Paris, it was one of those crazy things Cacciato might try. Paul Berlin remembered how the kid had spent hours thumbing through an old world atlas, studying the maps, asking odd questions: How steep were these mountains, how wide was this river, how thick were these jungles? It was just too bad. A real pity. Like winning the Bronze Star for shooting out a dink’s front teeth. Whistling in the dark, always whistling, chewing Black Jack, always chewing and whistling and smiling his frozen white smile. It was silly. It had always been silly, even during the good times, but now the silliness was sad. It couldn’t be done. It just wasn’t possible, and it was silly and sad.

The rain made it a hard climb. They did not reach the top of the first mountain until late afternoon.

After radioing in position coordinates, they moved along the summit to a cluster of granite boulders that overlooked the Quang Ngai plain. Below, clouds hid the paddies and the war. Above, in more clouds, were more mountains.

It was Eddie Lazzutti who found the spot where Cacciato had spent the night, a gently recessed rock formation roofed by a slate ledge. Inside was a pile of matted grass, a can of burnt-out Sterno, two chocolate wrappers, and a partly burned map. Paul Berlin recognized the map from Cacciato’s atlas.

“Cozy,” Stink said. “A real nest for our pigeon.”

The lieutenant bent down to examine the map. Most of it was burned away, crumbling as the old man picked it up, but parts could still be made out. In the left-hand corner a red dotted line ran through paddyland and up through the first small mountains of the Annamese Cordillera. The line ended there, apparently to be continued on a second map.

Lieutenant Corson held the map carefully, as if afraid it might break apart. “Impossible,” he said softly.

“True enough.”

“Absolutely impossible.”

They rested in Cacciato’s rock grotto. Tucked away, looking out over the wetly moving mountains to the west, the men were quiet. Eddie and Harold Murphy opened rations and ate slowly, using their fingers. Doc Peret seemed to sleep. Paul Berlin laid out a game of solitaire. For a long while they rested, no one speaking, then at last Oscar Johnson took out his pouch of makings, rolled a joint, inhaled, and passed it along. Things were peaceful. They smoked and watched the rain and clouds and wilderness. Cacciato’s den was snug and dry.

No one spoke until the ritual was ended.

Then, very softly, Doc said, “Maybe we should just turn back. Call an end to it.”

“Affirmative,” Murphy said. He gazed into the rain. “When the kid gets wet enough, cold enough, he’ll see how ridiculous it is. He’ll come back.”


“So why not?” Doc turned to the lieutenant. “Why not pack it up, sir? Head back and call it a bummer.”

Stink Harris made a light tittering sound, not quite mocking.

“Seriously,” Doc kept on. “Let him go … MIA, strayed in battle. Sooner or later he’ll wake up, you know, and he’ll see how nutty it is and he’ll–”

The lieutenant stared into the rain. His face was yellow except for webs of shattered veins.

“So what say you, sir? Let him go?”

“Dumber than marbles,” Stink giggled. “Dumber than Friar Tuck.”

“And smarter than Stink Harris.”

“You know what, Murph?”

“Pickle it.”

“Ha! Who’s saying to pickle it?”

“Just stick it in vinegar,” said Harold Murphy. “That’s what.”

Stink giggled again but he shut up. Murphy was a big man.

“So what’s the verdict, sir? Turn around?”

The lieutenant was quiet. At last he shivered and crawled out into the rain with a wad of toilet paper. Paul Berlin sat alone, playing solitaire in the style of Las Vegas. Pretending ways to spend his earnings. Travel, expensive hotels, tips for everyone. Wine and song on white terraces, fountains blowing colored water. Pretending was his best trick to forget the war.

When the lieutenant returned he told them to saddle up.

“Turning back?” Murphy said.

The lieutenant shook his head. He looked sick.

“I knew it,” Stink crowed. “Can’t just waddle away from a war, ain’t that right, sir? Dummy’s got to be taught you can’t hump your way home.” Stink grinned and flicked his eyebrows at Harold Murphy. “Damn straight, I knew it.”

Cacciato had reached the top of the second mountain. Bareheaded, hands loosely at his sides, he looked down on them through a mix of fog and drizzle. Lieutenant Corson had the binoculars on him.

“Maybe he don’t see us,” Oscar said. “Maybe he’s lost.”

The old man made a vague, dismissive gesture. “He sees us. Sees us real fine.”

“Pop smoke, sir?”

“Why not? Sure, why not throw out some pretty smoke?” The lieutenant watched through the glasses while Oscar took out the smoke and pulled the pin and tossed it onto a level ledge along the trail. The smoke fizzled for a moment and then puffed up in a heavy cloud of lavender. “Oh, yes, he sees us. Sees us fine.”

“Bastard’s waving.”

“Isn’t he? Yes, I can see that, thank you.”

“Will you–?”

“Mother of Mercy.”

High up on the mountain, partly lost in the drizzle, Cacciato was waving at them with both arms. Not quite waving. The arms were flapping.

“Sick,” the lieutenant murmured. He sat down, handed the glasses to Paul Berlin, then began to rock himself as the purple smoke climbed the face of the mountain. “I tell you, I’m a sick, sick man.”

“Should I shout up to him?”

“Sick,” the lieutenant moaned. He kept rocking.

Oscar cupped his hands and hollered, and Paul Berlin watched through the glasses. Cacciato stopped waving. His head was huge through the binoculars. He was smiling. Very slowly, deliberately, Cacciato was spreading his arms out as if to show them empty, opening them up like wings, palms down. The kid’s face was fuzzy, bobbing in and out of mist, but it was a happy face. Then his mouth opened, and in the mountains there was thunder.


Published in: on March 9, 2010 at 1:28 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Beloved, Let Us Once More Praise The Rain

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone…
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.

—Conrad Aiken

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM  Leave a Comment  
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A Rigidity, an Arrogance, and an Obstinacy

John Adams

FROM John Adams by David McCullough

A HARD NORTH SEA WINTER set in to match Adams’s mood. Days were bitterly cold and raw, with darkness descending at four in the afternoon and the air of Amsterdam thick with chimney smoke. With the canals frozen, thousands of skaters took to the ice, a spectacle that provided what little cheer Adams found in life.

His health was suffering. He worried about his sons. At the Latin School, because he spoke no Dutch, John Quincy had been placed with elementary students. The boy grew restless and disheartened. The rector of the school thought him impertinent and merited a thrashing, as he informed his father. Adams’s response was exactly what his own father’s would have been. “Send the boys to me this evening,” he answered. He had no wish to see his children subjected to such “littleness of soul,” he explained to Abigail in a letter in which he gave vent not only to his indignation at the schoolmaster, but at what he had come to see as a decidedly unattractive side to the Dutch character that he had no desire to see rub off on his sons. “The masters are mean-spirited wretches, punching, kicking, and boxing the children upon every turn,” he wrote.

No longer did he see the Dutch as “examples to the world,” but perceived now, bitterly, “a general littleness arising from the incessant contemplation of stivers and doits [pennies and nickels], which pervades the whole people.” Frugality and industry were virtues everywhere, but avarice and stinginess were not frugality.

The Dutch say that without a habit of thinking of every doit before you spend it, no man can be a good merchant or conduct trade with success. This I believe is a just maxim in general. But I would never wish to see a son of mine govern himself by it. It is the sure and certain way for an industrious man to be rich. It is the only possible way for a merchant to become the first merchant or the richest man in the place. But this is an object that I hope none of my children will ever aim at.

Through a young American named Benjamin Waterhouse, a student of medicine at the University of Leyden, Adams arranged for tutors for the two boys, and the opportunity for them to attend lectures at the university.

Such was the turmoil of Amsterdam that Adams now found it impossible even to arrange meetings. “Very few dare to see me,” he reported. Searching desperately for a sign that all was not lost, the best he could come up with was the popularity of new songs full of patriotic resentment toward the English. A woman who sang one such song on an Amsterdam street corner sold six hundred copies in an hour, he informed Congress. But the hard truth was that after five months in the Dutch Republic, Adams had yet to meet a single government official of any importance.

In December, the veteran British ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Joseph Yorke, began openly threatening the Dutch, setting off something very like panic. “War is to a Dutchman the greatest of evils,” Adams wrote. “Yorke is so sensible of this that he keeps alive a continual fear of it.” At year’s end, “the high and mighty” Yorke abruptly departed and Britain commenced an undeclared war on Dutch shipping.

Convinced he must now gain recognition of American independence and arrange a Dutch-American alliance—and thus only, he had concluded, could he obtain a loan—Adams pressed Congress for greater authority. As winter progressed, his new commission arrived; Congress had designated him minister plenipotentiary to the Dutch Republic, which provided all the authority to be wished for.

Through February and March, despite the weather, Adams kept on the move, traveling back and forth between Amsterdam, Leyden, and The Hague, conferring with as many of his Dutch friends and contacts as possible. Again, as at Paris, the question was the timing of a formal announcement of his new powers.

Advised that his Amsterdam lodgings were too “obscure” for his new position, and that his effectiveness was being hurt by talk of this, Adams arranged for an American firm in Amsterdam to “hire” a suitable house—“the best house that is to be had at as cheap a rate as may be,” he wrote—and to have it furnished “decent enough for any character in Europe to dine in with a republican citizen.” In lengthy correspondence on the matter, he specified that the house be “large, roomy, and handsome, fit for the Hôtel des États-Unis d’Amérique.” He would need two manservants and a “good cook” (whether male or female he did not care). A “genteel carriage” would be required, as well as a coachman, and Adams was particular that the livery be in the Paris mode: deep blue coat and breeches, scarlet cape and waistcoats. (He also wanted the clothes returned when the time came for the servants to leave.) This was “new work” for him, he added, having never set up housekeeping before.

At Versailles, meanwhile, the Comte de Vergennes was writing to his ambassador at Philadelphia to say that Adams, in his role in the Netherlands, had become an embarrassment, an observation that La Luzerne was expected to pass along to his numerous friends in Congress. Especially distressing to Vergennes was the thought of Adams ever having any say in a peace settlement. “[He] has a rigidity, an arrogance, and an obstinacy that will cause him to foment a thousand unfortunate incidents…”


Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 10:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Musee des Beaux Arts

Fall of Icarus" by Breughel

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—W H Auden


Recited by Jodie Foster


Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 11:49 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Third Nabokov Interview


Nabokov’s Playboy Interview, 1964

This exchange with Alvin Toffler appeared in Playboy for January, 1964. Great trouble was taken on both sides to achieve the illusion of a spontaneous conversation. Actually, my contribution as printed conforms meticulously to the answers, every word of which I had written in longhand before having them typed for submission to Toffler when he came to Montreux in mid-March, 1963. The present text takes into account the order of my interviewer’s questions as well as the fact that a couple of consecutive pages of my typescript were apparently lost in transit. Egreto perambis doribus!

With the American publication of Lolita in 1958, your fame and fortune mushroomed almost overnight from high repute among the literary cognoscenti—which you bad enjoyed for more than 30 years—to both acclaim and abuse as the world-renowned author of a sensational bestseller. In the aftermath of this cause celebre, do you ever regret having written Lolita?

On the contrary, I shudder retrospectively when I recall that there was a moment, in 1950, and again in 1951, when I was on the point of burning Humbert Humbert’s little black diary. No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.

Though many readers and reviewers would disagree that her charm is tender, few would deny that it is queer—so much so that when director Stanley Kubrick proposed his plan to make a movie of Lolita, you were quoted as saying, “Of course they’ll have to change the plot. Perhaps they will make Lolita a dwarfess. Or they will make her 16 and Humbert 26. ” Though you finally wrote the screenplay yourself, several reviewers took the film to task for watering down the central relationship. Were you satisfied with the final product?

I thought the movie was absolutely first-rate. The four main actors deserve the very highest praise. Sue Lyon bringing that breakfast tray or childishly pulling on her sweater in the car—these are moments of unforgettable acting and directing. The killing of Quilty is a masterpiece, and so is the death of Mrs. Haze. I must point out, though, that I had nothing to do with the actual production. If I had, I might have insisted on stressing certain things that were not stressed—for example, the different motels at which they stayed. All I did was write the

10screenplay, a preponderating portion of which was used by Kubrick. The “watering down,” if any, did not come from my aspergillum.

Do you feel that Lolita’s twofold success has affected your life for the better or for the worse?

I gave up teaching—that’s about all in the way of change. Mind you, I loved teaching, I loved Cornell, I loved composing and delivering my lectures on Russian writers and European great books. But around 60, and especially in winter, one begins to find hard the physical process of teaching, the getting up at a fixed hour every other morning, the struggle with the snow in the driveway, the march through long corridors to the classroom, the effort of drawing on the blackboard a map of James Joyce’s Dublin or the arrangement of the semi-sleeping car of the St. Petersburg-Moscow express in the early 1870s—without an understanding of which neither Ulysses nor Anna Karenin, respectively, makes sense. For some reason my most vivid memories concern examinations. Big amphitheater in Goldwin Smith. Exam from 8 a.m. to 10:30. About 150 students—unwashed, unshaven young males and reasonably well-groomed young females. A general sense of tedium and disaster. Half-past eight. Little coughs, the clearing of nervous throats, coming in clusters of sound, rustling of pages. Some of the martyrs plunged in meditation, their arms locked behind their heads. I meet a dull gaze directed at me, seeing in me w^ith hope and hate the source of forbidden knowledge. Girl in glasses comes up to my desk to ask: “Professor Kafka, do you want us to say that . . . ? Or do you want us to answer only the first part of the question?” The great fraternity of C-minus, backbone of the nation, steadily scribbling on. A rustle arising simultaneously, the majority turning a page in their bluebooks, good teamwork. The shaking of a cramped wrist, the failing ink, the deodorant that breaks down. When I catch eyes directed at me, they are forthwith raised to the ceiling in pious meditation. Windowpanes getting misty. Boys peeling off sweaters. Girls chewing gum in rapid cadence. Ten minutes, five, three, time’s up.

Citing in Lolita the same kind of acid-etched scene you’ve just described, many critics have called the book a masterful satiric social commentary on America. Are they right?

Well, I can only repeat that I have neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist. Whether or not critics think that in Lolita I am ridiculing human folly leaves me supremely indifferent. But I am annoyed when the glad news is spread that I am ridiculing America.

But haven’t you written yourself that there is “nothing more exhilarating than American Philistine vulgarity”?

No, I did not say that. That phrase has been lifted out of context, and, like a round, deep-sea fish, has burst in the process. If you look up my little after-piece, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which I appended to the novel, you will see that what I really said was that in regard to Philistine vulgarity—which I do feel is most exhilarating—no difference exists between American and European manners. I go on to say that a proletarian from Chicago can be just as Philistine as an English duke.

Many readers have concluded that the Philistinism you seem to find the most exhilarating is that of America’s sexual mores.

Sex as an institution, sex as a general notion, sex as a problem, sex as a platitude—all this is something I find too tedious for words. Let us skip sex.

Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?

Have I been what? Subjected to psychoanalytical examination. Why, good God?

In order to see how it is done. Some critics have felt that your barbed comments about the fashionability of Freudianism, as practiced by American analysts, suggest a contempt based upon familiarity.

Bookish familiarity only. The ordeal itself is much too silly and disgusting to be contemplated even as a joke. Freudism and all it has tainted with its grotesque implications and methods appears to me to be one of the vilest deceits practiced by people on themselves and on others. I reject it utterly, along with a few other medieval items still adored by the ignorant, the conventional, or the very sick.

Speaking of the very sick, you suggested in Lolita that Humbert Humbert’s appetite for nymphets is the result of an unrequited childhood love affair; in Invitation to a Beheading you wrote about a 12-year-old girl, Emmie, who is erotically interested in a man twice her age; and in Bend Sinister your protagonist dreams that he is “surreptitiously enjoying Mariette (his maid) while she sat, wincing a little, in his lap during the rehearsal of a play in which she was supposed to be his daughter. ” Some critics, in poring over your works for clues to your personality, have pointed to this recurrent theme as evidence of an unwholesome preoccupation on your part with the subject of sexual attraction between pubescent girls and middle-aged men. Do you feel that there may be some truth in this charge?

I think it would be more correct to say that had I not written Lolita, readers would not have started finding nymphets in my other works and in their own households. I find it very amusing when a friendly, polite person says to me—probably just in order to be friendly and polite—”Mr. Naborkov,” or “Mr. Nabahkov,” or “Mr. Nabkov” or “Mr. Nabohkov,” depending on his linguistic abilities, “I have a little daughter who is a regular Lolita.” People tend to underestimate the power of my imagination and my capacity of evolving serial selves in my writings. And then, of course, there is that special type of critic, the ferrety, human-interest fiend, the jolly vulgarian. Someone, for instance, discovered telltale affinities between Humbert’s boyhood romance on the Riviera and my own recollections about little Colette, with whom I built damp sand castles in Biarritz when I was ten. Somber Humbert was, of course, thirteen and in the throes of a pretty extravagant sexual excitement, whereas my own romance with Colette had no trace of erotic desire and indeed was perfectly common-place and normal. And, of course, at nine and ten years of age, in that set, in those times, we knew nothing whatsoever about the false facts of life that are imparted nowadays to infants by progressive parents.

Why false?

Because the imagination of a small child—especially a town child—at once distorts, stylizes, or otherwise alters the bizarre things he is told about the busy bee, which neither he nor his parents can distinguish from a bum-blebee, anyway.

What one critic has termed your “almost obsessive attention to the phrasing, rhythm, cadence and connotation of words” is evident even in the selection of names for your own celebrated bee and bumblebee—Lolita and Humbert Humbert. How did they occur to you?

For my nymphet I needed a diminutive with a lyrical lilt to it. One of the most limpid and luminous letters is “L”. The suffix “-ita” has a lot of Latin tenderness, and this I required too. Hence: Lolita. However, it should not be pronounced as you and most Americans pronounce it: Low-lee-ta, with a heavy, clammy “L” and a long “o”. No, the first syllable should be as in “lollipop”, the “L” liquid and delicate, the “lee” not too sharp. Spaniards and Italians pronounce it, of course, with exactly the necessary note of archness and caress. Another consideration was the welcome murmur of its source name, the fountain name: those roses and tears in “Dolores.” My little girl’s heartrending fate had to be taken into account together with the cuteness and limpidity. Dolores also provided her with another, plainer, more familiar and infantile diminutive: Dolly, which went nicely with the surname “Haze,” where Irish mists blend with a German bunny—1 mean, a small German hare.

You’re making a word-playful reference, of course, to the German term for rabbit—Hase. But what inspired you to dub Lolita’s aging inamorato with such engaging redundancy?

That, too, was easy. The double rumble is, I think, very nasty, very suggestive. It is a hateful name for a hateful person. It is also a kingly name, and I did need a royal vibration for Humbert the Fierce and Humbert the Humble. Lends itself also to a number of puns. And the execrable diminutive “Hum” is on a par, socially and emotionally, with “Lo,” as her mother calls her.

Another critic has written of you that “the task of sifting and selecting just the right succession of words from that multilingual memory, and of arranging their many-mirrored nuances into the proper juxtapositions, must be psychically exhausting work. ” Which of all your books, in this sense, would you say was the most difficult to write?

Oh, Lolita, naturally. I lacked the necessary information—that was the initial difficulty. I did not know any American 12-year-old girls, and I did not know America; I had to invent America and Lolita. It had taken me some forty years to invent Russia and Western Europe, and now I was faced by a similar task, with a lesser amount of time at my disposal. The obtaining of such local ingredients as would allow me to inject average “reality” into the brew of individual fancy proved, at fifty, a much more difficult process than it had been in the Europe of my youth.

Though born in Russia, you have lived and worked for many years in America as well as in Europe. Do you feel any strong sense of national identity?

I am an American writer, born in Russia and educated in England where I studied French literature, before spending fifteen years in Germany. I came to America in 1940 and decided to become an American citizen, and make America my home. It so happened that I was immediately exposed to the very best in America, to its rich intellectual life and to its easygoing, good-natured atmosphere. I immersed myself in its great libraries and its Grand Canyon. I worked in the laboratories of its zoological museums. I acquired more friends than I ever had in Europe, My books—old books and new ones—found some admirable readers. I became as stout as Cortez—mainly because I quit smoking and started to munch molasses candy instead, with the result that my weight went up from my usual 140 to a monumental and cheerful 200. In consequence, I am one-third American—good American flesh keeping me warm and safe.

You spent 20 years in America, and yet you never owned a home or had a really settled establishment there. Your friends report that you camped impermanently in motels, cabins, furnished apartments and the rented homes of professors away on leave. Did you feel so restless or so alien that the idea of settling down anywhere disturbed you?

The main reason, the background reason, is, I suppose, that nothing short of a replica of my childhood surroundings would have satisfied me. I would never manage to match my memories correctly—so why trouble with hopeless approximations? Then there are some special considerations: for instance, the question of impetus, the habit of impetus. I propelled myself out of Russia so vigorously, with such indignant force, that I have been rolling on and on ever since. True, I have rolled and lived to become that appetizing thing, a “full professor,” but at heart I have always remained a lean “visiting lecturer.” The few times I said to myself anywhere: “Now, that’s a nice spot for a permanent home,” I would immediately hear in my mind the thunder of an avalanche carrying away the hundreds of far places which I would destroy by the very act of settling in one particular nook of the earth. And finally, I don’t much care for furniture, for tables and chairs and lamps and rugs and things—perhaps because in my opulent childhood I was taught to regard with amused contempt any too-earnest attachment to material wealth, which is why I felt no regret and no bitterness when the Revolution abolished that wealth.

You lived in Russia for twenty years, in West Europe for 20 years, and in America for twenty years. But in 1960, after the success of Lolita, you moved to France and Switzerland and have not returned to the U. S. since. Does this mean, despite your self-identification as an American writer, that you consider your American period over?

I am living in Switzerland for purely private reasons—family reasons and certain professional ones too, such as some special research for a special book. I hope to return very soon to America—back to its library stacks and mountain passes. An ideal arrangement would be an absolutely soundproofed flat in New York, on a top floor—no feet walking above, no soft music anywhere—and a bungalow in the Southwest. Sometimes I think it might be fun to adorn a university again, residing and writing there, not teaching, or at least not teaching regularly.

Meanwhile you remain secluded—and somewhat sedentary, from all reports—in your hotel suite. How do you spend your time?

I awake around seven in winter: my alarm clock is an Alpine chough—big, glossy, black thing with big yellow beak—which visits the balcony and emits a most melodious chuckle. For a while I lie in bed mentally revising and planning things. Around eight: shave, breakfast, enthroned meditation, and bath—in that order. Then I work till lunch in my study, taking time out for a short stroll with my wife along the lake. Practically all the famous Russian writers of the nineteenth century have rambled here at one time or another. Zhukovski, Gogol, Dostoevski, Tolstoy—who courted the hotel chambermaids to the detriment of his health—and many Russian poets. But then, as much could be said of Nice or Rome. We lunch around one p.m., and I am back at my desk by half-past one and work steadily till half-past six. Then a stroll to a newsstand for the English papers, and dinner at seven. No work after dinner. And bed around nine. I read till half-past eleven, and then tussle with insomnia till one a.m. about twice a week I have a good, long nightmare with unpleasant characters imported from earlier dreams, appearing in more or less iterative surroundings—kaleidoscopic arrangements of broken impressions, fragments of day thoughts, and irresponsible mechanical images, utterly lacking any possible Freudian implication or explication, but singularly akin to the procession of changing figures that one usually sees on the inner palpebral screen when closing one’s weary eyes.

Funny that witch doctors and their patients have never hit on that simple and absolutely satisfying explanation of dreaming. Is it true that you write standing up, and that you write in longhand rather than on a typewriter?

Yes. I never learned to type. I generally start the day at a lovely old-fashioned lectern I have in my study. Later on, when I feel gravity nibbling at my calves, I settle down in a comfortable armchair alongside an ordinary writing desk; and finally, when gravity begins climbing up my spine, I lie down on a couch in a corner of my small study. It is a pleasant solar routine. But when I was young, in my twenties and early thirties, I would often stay all day in bed, smoking and writing. Now things have changed. Horizontal prose, vertical verse, and sedent scholia keep swapping qualifiers and spoiling the alliteration.

Can you tell us something more about the actual creative process involved in the germination of a book—perhaps by reading a few random notes for or excerpts from a work in progress?

Certainly not. No fetus should undergo an exploratory operation. But I can do something else. This box contains index cards with some notes I made at various times more or less recently and discarded when writing Pale Fire. It’s a little batch of rejects. Help yourself. “Selene, the moon. Selenginsk, an old town in Siberia: moon-rocket town” . . . “Berry: the black knob on the bill of the mute swan” . . . “Dropworm: a small caterpillar hanging on a thread” . . . “In The New Bon Ton Magazine, volume five, 1820, page 312, prostitutes are termed ‘girls of the town’ “… “Youth dreams: forgot pants; old man dreams: forgot dentures” , . . “Student explains that when reading a novel he likes to skip passages ‘so as to get his own idea about the book and not be influenced by the author'”. . . “Naprapathy: the ugliest word in the language.”

“And after rain, on beaded wires, one bird, two birds, three birds, and none. Muddy tires, sun” . . . “Time without consciousness—lower animal world; time with consciousness—man; consciousness without time—some still higher state” . . . “We think not in words but in shadows of words. James Joyce’s mistake in those otherwise mar-velous mental soliloquies of his consists in that he gives too much verbal body to thoughts” . . . “Parody of politeness: That inimitable ‘Please’ —’Please send me your beautiful—’ which firms idiotically address to themselves in printed forms meant for people ordering their product.” . . . “Naive, nonstop, peep-peep twitter of chicks in dismal crates late, late at night, on a desolate frost-bedimmed station platform” . . . “The tabloid headline TORSO KILLER MAY BEAT CHAIR might be translated: ‘Celui qui tw an buste peat bien battre une chaise” . . . “Newspaper vendor, handing me a magazine with my story: 1 see you made the slicks.’ ” “Snow falling, young father out with tiny child, nose like a pink cherry. Why does a parent immediately say something to his or her child if a stranger smiles at the latter? ‘Sure,’ said the father to the infant’s interrogatory gurgle, which had been going on for some time, and would have been left to go on in the quiet falling snow, had I not smiled in passing”. . . “Inter-columniation: dark-blue sky between two white columns.” . . . “Place-name in the Orkneys: Papilio” . . . “Not 1, too, lived in Arcadia,’ but ‘I,’ says Death, even am in Arcadia’—legend on a shepherd’s tomb (Notes and Queries, June 13, 1868, p. 561)” . . . “Marat collected butterflies” . . . “From the aesthetic point of view, the tapeworm is certainly an undesirable boarder. The gravid segments frequently crawl out of a person’s anal canal, sometimes in chains, and have been reported a source of social embarrassment.” (Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 48:558).

What inspires you to record and collect such disconnected impressions and quotations?

All I know is that at a very early stage of the novel’s development I get this urge to garner bits of straw and fluff, and eat pebbles. Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it. When I remember afterwards the force that made me jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure. After the first shock of recognition—a sudden sense of “this is what I’m going to write”—the novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has reached at any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of every exact phrase. I feel a kind of gentle development, an uncurling inside, and I know that the details are there already, that in fact I would see them plainly if I looked closer, if I stopped the machine and opened its inner compartment; but I prefer to wait until what is loosely called inspiration has completed the task for me. There comes a moment when I am informed from within that the entire structure is finished. All I have to do now is take it down in pencil or pen. Since this entire structure, dimly illumined in one’s mind, can be compared to a painting, and since you do not have to work gradually from left to right for its proper perception, I may direct my flashlight at any part or particle of the picture when setting it down in writing. I do not begin my novel at the beginning. I do not reach chapter three before I reach chapter four, I do not go dutifully from one page to the next, in consecutive order; no, I pick out a bit here and a bit there, till I have filled all the gaps on paper. This is why I like writing my stories and novels on index cards, numbering them later when the whole set is complete. Every card is rewritten many times. About three cards make one typewritten page, and when finally I feel that the conceived picture has been copied by me as faithfully as physically possible—a few vacant lots always remain, alas—then I dictate the novel to my wife who types it out in triplicate.

In what sense do you copy “the conceived picture” of a novel?

A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty. He must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world. In order to do this adequately, avoiding duplication of labor, the artist should know the given world. Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the back yard of primitive art, the child’s scrawl on the fence, and the crank’s message in the market place. Art is never simple. To return to my lecturing days: I automatically gave low marks when a student used the dreadful phrase “sincere and simple”—”Flaubert writes with a style which is always simple and sincere”—under the impression that this was the greatest compliment payable to prose or poetry. When I struck the phrase out, which I did with such rage in my pencil that it ripped the paper, the student complained that this was what teachers had always taught him: “Art is simple, art is sincere.” Someday I must trace this vulgar absurdity to its source. A schoolmarm in Ohio? A progressive ass in New York? Because, of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.

In terms of modern art, critical opinion is divided about the sincerity or deceitfulness, simplicity or complexity, of contemporary abstract painting. What is your own opinion?

I do not see any essential difference between abstract and primitive art. Both are simple and sincere. Naturally, we should not generalize in these matters: it is the individual artist that counts. But if we accept for a moment the general notion of “modern art,” then we must admit that the trouble with it is that it is so commonplace, imitative, and academic. Blurs and blotches have merely replaced the mass prettiness of a hundred years ago, pictures of Italian girls, handsome beggars, romantic ruins, and so forth. But just as among those corny oils there might occur the work of a true artist with a richer play of light and shade, with some original streak of violence or tenderness, so among th” corn of primitive and abstract art one may come across a flash of great talent. Only talent interests me in paintings and books. Not general ideas, but the individual contribution.

A contribution to society?

A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me. I don’t give a damn for the group, the community, the masses, and so forth. Although I do not care for the slogan “art for art’s sake”—because unfortunately such promoters of it as, for instance, Oscar Wilde and various dainty poets, were in reality rank moralists and didacticists—there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.

What do you want to accomplish or leave behind—or should this be of no concern to the writer?

Well, in this matter of accomplishment, of course, I don’t have a 35-year plan or program, but I have a fair inkling of my literary afterlife. I have sensed certain hints, I have felt the breeze of certain promises. No doubt there will be ups and downs, long periods of slump. With the Devil’s connivance, I open a newspaper of 2063 and in some article on the books page I find: “Nobody reads Nabokov or Fulmerford today.” Awful question: Who is this unfortunate Fulmerford?

While we’re on the subject of self-appraisal, what do you regard as your principal failing as a writer—apart from forgetability?

Lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts, third thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk.

You’re doing rather well at the moment, if we may say so.

It’s an illusion.

Your reply might be taken as confirmation of critical comments that you are “an incorrigible leg puller, ” “a mystificator, ” and “a literary agent provocateur. ” How do you view yourself?

I think my favorite fact about myself is that I have never been dismayed by a critic’s bilge or bile, and have never once in my life asked or thanked a reviewer for a review. My second favorite fact—or shall I stop at one?

No, please go on.

The fact that since my youth—1 was 19 when I left Russia—my political creed has remained as bleak and changeless as an old gray rock. It is classical to the point of triteness. Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones, or played in theaters.

Why no music?

I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert—which happens about once in five years—1 endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad, so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family—my own son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the promise of a splendid career—all this affects me deeply, and I fee] a fool during a technical conversation among musicians. I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess—more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.

Another substitute, surely, has been your own euphonious prose and poetry. As one of few authors who have written with. eloquence in more than one language, how would you characterize the textural differences between Russian and English, in which you are regarded as equally facile?

In sheer number of words, English is far richer than Russian. This is especially noticeable in nouns and adjectives. A very bothersome feature that Russian presents is the dearth, vagueness, and clumsiness of technical terms.

For example, the simple phrase “to park a car” comes out—if translated back from the Russian—as “to leave an automobile standing for a long time.” Russian, at least polite Russian, is more formal than polite English. Thus, the Russian word for “sexual”—polovoy—is slightly indecent and not to be bandied around. The same applies to Russian terms rendering various anatomical and biological notions that are frequently and familiarly expressed in English conversation. On the other hand, there are words rendering certain nuances of motion and gesture and emotion in which Russian excels. Thus by changing the head of a verb, for which one may have a dozen different prefixes to choose from, one is able to make Russian express extremely fine shades of duration and intensity. English is, syntactically, an extremely flexible medium, but Russian can be given even more subtle twists and turns. Translating Russian into English is a little easier than translating English into Russian, and 10 times easier than translating English into French.

You have said you will never write another novel in Russian. Why?

During the great, and still unsung, era of Russian intellectual expatriation—roughly between 1920 and 1940—books written in Russian by emigre Russians and published by emigre firms abroad were eagerly bought or borrowed by emigre readers but were absolutely banned in Soviet Russia—as they still are (except in the case of a few dead authors such as Kuprin and Bunin, whose heavily censored works have been recently reprinted there), no matter the theme of the story or poem. An emigre novel, published, say, in Paris and sold over all free Europe, might have, in those years, a total sale of 1,000 or 2,000 copies—that would be a best seller—but every copy would also pass from hand to hand and be read by at least 20 persons, and at least 50 annually if stocked by Russian lending libraries, of which there were hundreds in West Europe alone. The era of expatriation can be said to have ended during World War II. Old writers died, Russian publishers also vanished, and worst of all, the general atmosphere of exile culture, with its splendor, and vigor, and purity, and reverberative force, dwindled to a sprinkle of Russian- language periodicals, anemic in talent and provincial in tone. Now to take my own case: It was not the financial side that really mattered; I don’t think my Russian writings ever brought me more than a few hundred dollars per year, and I am all for the ivory tower, and for writing to please one reader alone—one’s own self. But one also needs some reverberation, if not response, and a moderate multiplication of one’s self throughout a country or countries; and if there be nothing but a void around one’s desk, one would expect it to be at least a sonorous void, and not circumscribed by the walls of a padded cell. With the passing of years I grew less and less interested in Russia and more and more indifferent to the once-harrowing thought that my books would remain banned there as long as my contempt for the police state and political oppression prevented me from entertaining the vaguest thought of return. No, I will not write another novel in Russian, though I do allow myself a very few short poems now and then. I wrote my last Russian novel a quarter of a century ago. But today, in compensation, in a spirit of justice to my little American muse, I am doing something else. But perhaps I should not talk about it at this early stage.

Please do.

Well, it occurred to me one day—while I was glancing at the varicolored spines of Lolita translations into languages I do not read, such as Japanese, Finnish or Arabic—that the list of unavoidable blunders in these fifteen or twenty versions would probably make, if collected, a fatter volume than any of them. I had checked the French translation, which was basically very good yet would have bristled with unavoidable errors had I not corrected them. But what could I do with Portuguese or Hebrew or Danish? Then I imagined something else. I imagined that in some distant future somebody might produce a Russian version of Lolita. I trained my inner telescope upon that particular point in the distant future and I saw that every paragraph, pock- marked as it is with pitfalls, could lend itself to hideous mistranslation. In the hands of a harmful drudge, the Russian version of Lolita would be entirely degraded and botched by vulgar paraphrases or blunders. So I decided to translate it myself. Up to now I have about sixty pages ready.

Are you presently at work on any new project?

Good question, as they say on the lesser screen. I have just finished correcting the last proofs of my work on Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin—four fat little volumes which are to appear this year in the Bollingen Series; the actual translation of the poem occupies a small section of volume one. The rest of the volume and volumes two, three and four contain copious notes on the subject. This opus owes its birth to a casual remark my wife made in 1950—in response to my disgust with rhymed paraphrases of Eugene Onegin, every line of which I had to revise for my students—”Why don’t you translate it yourself?” This is the result. It has taken some ten years of labor. The index alone runs to 5,000 cards in three long shoe boxes; you see them over there on that shelf. My translation is, of course, a literal one, a crib, a pony. And to the fidelity of transposal I have sacrificed everything: elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar.

In view of these admitted flaws, are you looking forward to reading the reviews of the book?

I really don’t read reviews about myself with any special eagerness or attention unless they are masterpieces of wit and acumen—which does happen now and then. And I never reread them, though my wife collects the stuff, and though maybe I shall use a spatter of the more hilarious Lolita items to write someday a brief history of the nymphet’s tribulations. I remember, however, quite vividly, certain attacks by Russian emigre critics who wrote about my first novels 30 years ago; not that I was more vulnerable then, but my memory was certainly more retentive and enterprising, and I was a reviewer myself. In the nineteen-twenties I was clawed at by a certain Mochulski who could never stomach my utter indifference to organized mysticism, to religion, to the church—any church. There were other critics who could not forgive me for keeping aloof from literary “movements,” for not airing the “angoisse” that they wanted poets to feel, and for not belonging to any of those groups of poets that held sessions of common inspiration in the back rooms of Parisian cafes. There was also the amusing case of Georgiy lvanov, a good poet but a scurrilous critic. I never met him or his literary wife Irina Odoevtsev; but one day in the late nineteen-twenties or early nineteen-thirties, at a time when I regularly reviewed books for an emigre newspaper in Berlin, she sent me from Paris a copy of a novel of hers with the wily inscription “Spasibo za Korolya, damn, valeta” (thanks for King, Queen, Knave)—which I was free to understand as “Thanks for writing that book,” but which might also provide her with the alibi: “Thanks for sending me your book,” though I never sent her anything. Her book proved to be pitifully trite, and I said so in a brief and nasty review, lvanov retaliated with a grossly personal article about me and my stuff. The possibility of venting or distilling friendly or unfriendly feelings through the medium of literary criticism is what makes that art such a skewy one.

You have been quoted as saying: My pleasures are the most intense known to man: butterfly hunting and writing. Are they in any way comparable?

No, they belong essentially to quite different types of enjoyment. Neither is easy to describe to a person who has not experienced it, and each is so obvious to the one who has that a description would sound crude and redundant. In the case of butterfly hunting I think I can distinguish four main elements. First, the hope of capturing—or the actual capturing—of the first specimen of a species unknown to science: this is the dream at the back of every lepidopterist’s mind, whether he be climbing a mountain in New Guinea or crossing a bog in Maine. Secondly, there is the capture of a very rare or very local butterfly—things you have gloated over in books, in obscure scientific reviews, on the splendid plates of famous works, and that you now see on the wing, in their natural surroundings, among plants and minerals that acquire a mysterious magic through the intimate association with the rarities they produce and support, so that a given landscape lives twice: as a delightful wilderness in its own right and as the haunt of a certain butterfly or moth. Thirdly, there is the naturalist’s interest in disentangling the life histories of little-known insects, in learning about their habits and structure, and in determining their position in the scheme of classification—a scheme which can be sometimes pleasurably exploded in a dazzling display of polemical fireworks when a new discovery upsets the old scheme and confounds its obtuse champions. And fourthly, one should not ignore the element of sport, of luck, of brisk motion and robust achievement, of an ardent and arduous quest ending in the silky triangle of a folded butterfly lying on the palm of one’s hand.

What about the pleasures of writing?

They correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading, the bliss, the felicity of a phrase is shared by writer and reader: by the satisfied writer and the grateful reader, or—which is the same thing—by the artist grateful to the unknown force in his mind that has suggested a combination of images and by the artistic reader whom this combination satisfies.

Every good reader has enjoyed a few good books in his life so why analyze delights that both sides know? I write mainly for artists, fellow-artists and follow-artists. However, I could never explain adequately to certain students in my literature classes, the aspects of good reading—the fact that you read an artist’s book not with your heart (the heart is a remarkably stupid reader), and not with your brain alone, but with your brain and spine. “Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel.” I wonder if I shall ever measure again with happy hands the breadth of a lectern and plunge into my notes before the sympathetic abyss of a college audience.

What is your reaction to the mixed feelings vented by one critic in a review which characterized you as having a fine and original mind, but “not much trace of a generalizing intellect, “and as “the typical artist who distrusts ideas”?

In much the same solemn spirit, certain crusty lepidopterists have criticized my works on the classification of butterflies, accusing me of being more interested in the subspecies and the subgenus than in the genus and the family. This kind of attitude is a matter of mental temperament, I suppose. The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas. Oh, I know the type, the dreary type! He likes a good yarn spiced with social comment; he likes to recognize his own thoughts and throes in those of the author; he wants at least one of the characters to be the author’s stooge. If

American, he has a dash of Marxist blood, and if British, he is acutely and ridiculously class- conscious; he finds it so much easier to write about ideas than about words; he does not realize that perhaps the reason he does not find general ideas in a particular writer is that the particular ideas of that writer have not yet become general.

Dostoevski, who dealt with themes accepted by most readers as universal in both scope and significance, is considered one of the world’s great authors. Yet you have described him as “a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. ” Why?

Non-Russian readers do not realize two things: that not all Russians love Dostoevski as much as Americans do, and that most of those Russians who do, venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian. I admit that some of his scenes, some of his tremendous, farcical rows are extraordinarily amusing. But his sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway.

Is it true that you have called Hemingway and Conrad “writers of books for boys”?

That’s exactly what they are. Hemingway is certainly the better of the two; he has at least a voice of his own and is responsible for that delightful, highly artistic short story, “The Killers.” And the description of the iridescent fish and rhythmic urination in his famous fish story is superb. But I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches. In neither of those two writers can I find anything that I would care to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile, and the same can be said of some other beloved authors, the pets of the common room, the consolation and support of graduate students, such as—but some are still alive, and I hate to hurt living old boys while the dead ones are not yet buried.

What did you read when you were a boy?

Between the ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersburg, I must have read more fiction and poetry—English, Russian and French—than in any other five-year period of my life. I relished especially the works of Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. On another level, my heroes were the Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes. In other words, I was a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library. At a later period, in Western Europe, between the ages of 20 and 40, my favorites were Housman, Rupert Brooke, Norman Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top favorites, several—Poe, Jules Verne, Emmuska Orezy, Conan Doyle, and Rupert Brooke—have lost the glamour and thrill they held for me. The others remain intact and by now are probably beyond change as far as I am concerned. I was never exposed in the twenties and thirties, as so many of my coevals have been, to the poetry of the not quite first-rate Eliot and of definitely second-rate Pound. I read them late in the season, around 1945, in the guest room of an American friend’s house, and not only remained completely indifferent to them, but could not understand why anybody should bother about them. But I suppose that they preserve some sentimental value for such readers as discovered them at an earlier age than I did.

What are your reading habits today?

Usually I read several books at a time—old books, new books, fiction, nonfiction, verse,

anything—and when the bedside heap of a dozen volumes or so has dwindled to two or three, which generally happens by the end of one week, I accumulate another pile. There are some varieties of fiction that I never touch—mystery stories, for instance, which I abhor, and historical novels. I also detest the so-called “powerful” novel—full of commonplace obscenities and torrents of dialogue—in fact, when I receive a new novel from a hopeful publisher—”hoping that I like the hook as much as he does”—1 check first of all how much dialogue there is, and if it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with a bang and ban it from my bed.

Are there any contemporary authors you do enjoy reading?

I do have a few favorites—for example, Robbe-Grillet and Borges. How freely and gratefully one breathes in their marvelous labyrinths! I love their lucidity of thought, the purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror.

Many critics feel that this description applies no less aptly to your own prose. To what extent do you feel that prose and poetry intermingle as art forms?

Except that I started earlier—that’s the answer to the first part of your question. As to the second: Well, poetry, of course, includes all creative writing; I have never been able to see any generic difference between poetry and artistic prose. As a matter of fact, I would be inclined to define a good poem of any length as a concentrate of good prose, with or without the addition of recurrent rhythm and rhyme. The magic of prosody may improve upon w^hat we call prose by bringing out the full flavor of meaning, but in plain prose there are also certain rhythmic patterns, the music of precise phrasing, the beat of thought rendered by recurrent peculiarities of idiom and intonation. As in today’s scientific classifications, there is a lot of overlapping in our concept of poetry and prose today. The bamboo bridge between them is the metaphor.

You have also written that poetry represents “the mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words. ” But many feel that the “irrational” has little place in an age when the exact knowledge of science has begun to plumb the most profound mysteries of existence. Do you agree?

This appearance is very deceptive. It is a journalistic illusion. In point of fact, the greater one’s science, the deeper the sense of mystery. Moreover, I don’t believe that any science today has pierced any mystery. We, as newspaper readers, are inclined to call “science” the cleverness of an electrician or a psychiatrist’s mumbo jumbo. This, at best, is applied science, and one of the characteristics of applied science is that yesterday’s neutron or today’s truth dies tomorrow. But even in a better sense of “science”—as the study of visible and palpable nature, or the poetry of pure mathematics and pure philosophy—the situation remains as hopeless as ever. We shall never know the origin of life, or the meaning of life, or the nature of space and time, or the nature of nature, or the nature of thought.

Man’s understanding of these mysteries is embodied in his concept of a Divine Being. As a final question, do you believe in God?

To be quite candid—and what I am going to say now is something I never said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill—I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.


Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 3:23 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Compass for the Mutant Rain Forest


Along the dense extremities of the forest north
that advance across the Panamanian isthmus,
ancient bridge for mustang, panther, and bear,
the trunks of towering andirobas intertwine
interminably in unfettered mahogany abandon.
Their barks are host to a protean foxfire that
radiates iconographic images in a flowing
expressionist relief of mythic proportions.
Travelers who venture this trek witness
these mutations and are soon transfixed.
Denied hopes coalesce, enrapture the weary.
Anguished women cradle the luminous souls
of dead babies and old friends half forgotten
in this swirling meccano of empires and loves.
The wasted alternatives of life are unveiled.
Though indios and neobiologists urge them
to flee the hypnotic force of such coercions,
these errant pilgrims prostrate themselves in
a mad chorus of wails and call the forest wall
Mural del Dios Verde, Mural of the Green God.


Along the avaricious trail of the forest south,
to the steep windswept cliffs of Patagonia
that rise ragged above rock-strewn beaches,
the emerald hunger stretches farther still
to taint the freezing waters off Cape Horn.
The winds that rake these seas now blow
from the north, warm, fragrant with pollen,
as if the forest could root on the icy cap.
Glassine flounder and neon frogs rain down
to pummel the decks of passing steamers.
But the gun-crack calving of melting bergs
and the slow thaw that extends the seas’ reach
expose no sure foothold for the forest to claim.
Even the shapeshifting woohli has yet to adapt
to the rough hibernal currents of this ocean.
The polar mariners who sail this route watch
the skies, cross themselves, shake their heads,
wonder if the next storm will be even stranger.
Beneath their breaths they curse the forest as
El Diluvio del Diablo, The Deluge of the Devil.


Along the clawing tendrils of the forest east
that cloak the Amazon and its serpentine
tributaries—Madeira, Jacunda, Japurá—
once thriving passages for trade and travel,
only the most bestial of tribes now survive.
At dusk from the hills of Macapá and Belém
you can see the flicker of their campfires
against the gravid green of a dark horizon.
In less than a generation they have morphed
with the forest and are no longer human.
Forging a symbiosis with the force that
rules their world, some are viridescent,
mimicking the foliage that surrounds them.
Others, covered with bony plates, often
prey on all fours like porcine armadillos.
From Caracas in the North to the ramshackle
slums of Rio and São Paulo and Buenos Aires,
those who remain in the coastal enclaves call
the forest Creación Oscura, Dark Creation,
El Enfermo, Diseased One, Salvaje, Savage.


Along the sweltering frontiers of the forest west,
striping the Andean foothills with wide shadows
and blanketing their no longer snowy heights,
the spikes of thousand-meter bromeliads sway
like the minarets of an organic metropolis.
The great reaches of flora that line these
slopes seem to roar in their rushing before
opening the cores of their inflorescence and
clasping entire settlements in a snap embrace.
A tenderizing mucilage bathes their spoils.
Those who flee this furious onslaught take
refuge in the lightless swamplands below and
return to pay homage, seeing these carnivorous
plants as rampant evolution running in reverse,
mankind succoring and serving the landscape.
The pathetic pageantry of their stark display
culminates in a sacramental sharing of pulcre,
an hallucinogen brewed from this succulent.
Stray revelers whisper the forest’s name as
La Bestia Caprichosa, The Capricious Beast.


In the impermeable fortress of the forest depths,
where each generation of growth destroys the last,
where each generation of fauna devours the last,
a sentience amoral and earthly dreams that the
only word for forest is el Mundo, the World.

—Bruce Boston and Robert Frazier


Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Comments (2)  
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There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.


Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 10:59 AM  Leave a Comment  

Manhattan in Big Sur

FROM Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

A big axe chopping contest began after breakfast, some of us sitting watching on the porch and the performers down below hacking away at the tree trunk which was over a foot thick’- They were chopping off two foot chunks, no easy job — I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood — Monsanto an old lumberman up in Maine as I say now showed us how he conducted his whole life in fact by the way he took neat little short handled chops from both left and right angles getting his work done in reasonably short time without too much sweat — But his strokes were rapid — Whereas old Fagan pipe-in-mouth slogged away I guess the way he learned in Oregon and in the Northwest fire schools, also getting his job done, silently, not a word — But Cody’s fantastic fiery character showed in the way he went at the log with horrible force, when he brought down the axe with all his might and holding it far at the end you could hear the whole treetrunk groaning the whole length inside, runk, sometimes you could hear a lengthwise cracking going on, he is really very strong and he brought that axe down so hard his feet left the earth when it hit — He chopped off his log with the fury of a Greek god — nevertheless it took him longer and much more sweat than Monsanto

“Used to do this in a workgang in southern Arizony” he said, whopping one down that made the whole treetrunk dance off the ground — But it was like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody’s life and in a sense my own — I too chopped with all my might and got madder and went faster and raked the log but took more time than Monsanto who watched us smiling — Little Arthur thereupon tried his luck but gave up after five strokes… The axe was like to carry him away anyway… Then Dave Wain demonstrated with big easy strokes and in no time we had five huge logs to use — But now it was time to get in the cars (McLear had re-arrived) and go driving south down the coast highway to a hot springs bath house down there, which sounded good to me at first. But the new Big Sur Autumn was now all winey sparkling blue which made the terribleness and giantness of the coast all the more clear to see in all its gruesome splendor, miles and miles of it snaking away south, our three jeeps twisting and turning the increasing curves, sheer drops at our sides, further ghostly high bridges to cross with smashings below — Tho all the boys are wowing to see it — To me it’s just an inhospitable madhouse of the earth, I’ve seen it enough and even swallowed it in that deep breath — The boys reassure me the hot springs bath will do me good (they see I’m gloomy now hungover for good) but when we arrive my heart sinks again as McLear points out to sea from the balcony of the outdoor pools: “Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter! ” — And sure enough it is a dead otter I guess, a big brown pale lump floating up and down mournfully with the swells and ghastly weeds, my otter, my dear otter, my dear otter I’d written poems about

“Why did he die? ” I ask myself in despair — “Why do they do that? ” — “What’s the sense of all this? ” — All the fellows are shading their eyes to get a better look at the big peaceful tortured hunk of seacow out there as tho it’s something of passing interest while tome it’s a blow across the eyes and down into my heart — The hot water pools are steaming, Fagan and Monsanto and the others are all sitting peacefully up to their necks, they’re all naked, but there’s a gang of fairies also there naked all standing around in various bath house postures that make me hesitate to take my clothes off just on general principles — In fact Cody doesnt even bother to do anything but lie down with his clothes on in the sun, on the balcony table, and just smoke — But I borrow McLear’s yellow bathingsuit and get in — “What ya wearing a bathingsuit in a hot springs pool for boy? ” says Fagan chuckling — With horror I realize there’s spermatazoa floating in the hot water… I look and I see the other men (the fairies) all taking good long looks at Ron Blake who stands there facing the sea with his arse for all to behold, not to mention McLear and Dave Wain too — But it’s very typical of me and Cody that we wont undress in this situation (we were both raised Catholics? ) — Supposedly the big sex heroes of our generation, in fact — You might think — But the combination of the strange silent watching fairy-men, and the dead otter out there, and the spermatazoa in the pools makes me sick, not to mention that when somebody informs me this bath house is owned by the young writer Kevin Cudahy whom I knew very well in New York and I ask one of the younger strangers where’s Kevin Cudahy he doesnt even deign to reply — Thinking he hasnt heard me I ask again, no reply, no notice, I ask a third time, this time he gets up and stalks out angrily to the locker rooms — It all adds up to the confusion that’s beginning to pile up in my battered drinking brain anyway, the constant reminders of death not the least of which was the death of my peaceful love of Raton Canyon now suddenly becoming a horror.

From the baths we go to Nepenthe which is a beautiful cliff top restaurant with vast outdoor patio, with excellent food, excellent waiters and management, good drinks, chess tables, chairs and tables to just sit in the sun and look at the grand coast — Here we all sit at various tables and Cody starts playing chess with everybody will join while he’s chomping away at those marvelous hamburgers called Heavenburgers (huge with all the side works) — Cody doesn’t like to just sit around and lightly chat away, he’s the kind of guy if he’s going to talk he has to do all the talking himself for hours till everything is exhaustedly explained, sans that he just wants to bend over a chessboard and say “He he heh, old Scrooge is saving up a pawn hey? cak! I got ya! ” — But while I’m sitting there discussing literature with McLear and Monsanto suddenly a strange couple of gentlemen nearby strike up an acquaintance — One of them is a youngster who says he is a lieutenant in the Army — I instantly (drunk on fifth Manhattan by now) go into my theory of guerilla warfare based on my observations the night before when it did seriously occur to me that if Monsanto, Arthur, Cody, Dave, Ben, Ron Blake and I were all members of one fighting unit (and all carrying canteens of booze on our belts) it would be very difficult for the enemy to hurt any of us because we’d be, as dear friends, watching so desperately closely over one another, which I tell the first lieutenant, which attracts the interest of the older man who admits that he’s a GENERAL in the Army — There are also some further homosexuals at a separate table which prompts Dave Wain to look up from the chess game at one quiet drowsy point and announce in his dry twang “Under redwood beams, people talking about homosexuality and war… call it my Nepenthe Haiku” — “Yass” says Cody checkmating him “see what you can ku about that m’boy and get out of there and I’ll noose you with my queen, dear. ” I mention the general only because there is also some-thing sinister about the fact that during this long binge I came across him and another general, two strange generals, and I’d never met any generals in my life — This first general was strange because he seemed too polite and yet there was something sinister about his steely eyes behind goof darkglasses — Something sinister too about the first lieutenant who guessed who we were (the San Francisco poets, a major nucleus of them indeed) and didn’t seem at all pleased tho the general seemed amused — Nevertheless in a sinister way the general seemed to take great interest in my theory about buddy units for guerilla warfare and when President Kennedy about a year later ordered just such a new scheme for part of our armed forces I wondered (still crazy even then but for new reasons) if the general had got an idea from me… The second general, even stranger, coming up, occurred when I was even more far gone.

Manhattans and more Manhattans and finally when we got back to the cabin in late afternoon I was feeling good but realized I was going to be finished tomorrow — But poor young Ron Blake asked me if he could stay with me in the cabin, the others were all going back to the city in the three cars, I couldn’t think of any way to reject his request in a harmless way so said yes… So when they all left suddenly I was alone with this mad beatnik kid singing me songs and all I wanta do is sleep — But I’ve got to make the best of it and not disappoint his believing heart. Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do any more — My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing — Like those pathetic live highschool kids who all came to my door in Long Island one night wearing jackets that said “Dharma Bums” on them, all expecting me to be 25 years old according to a mistake on a book jacket and here I am old enough to be their father — But no, hep swinging young jazzy Ron wants to dig everything, go to the beach, run and romp and sing, talk, write tunes, write stories, climb mountains, go hiking, see everything, do everything with everybody But having one last quart of port with me I agree to follow him to the beach.

We go down the old sad path of the bhikku and suddenly I see a dead mouse in the grass — “A wee dead mousie” I say cleverly poetically but suddenly I realize and remember now for the first time how I’ve left the cover off the rat poison in Monsanto’s shelf and so this is my mouse — It’s lying there dead — Like the otter in the sea — It’s my own personal mouse that I’ve carefully fed chocolate and cheese all summer but once again I’ve unconsciously sabotaged all these great plans of mine to be kind to living beings even bugs, once again I’ve murdered a mouse one way or the other — And on top of that when we come to the place where the garter snake usually lie; sunning itself, and I bring it to Ron’s attention, he suddenly yells “LOOKOUT! you never can tell what kind of snake it is! ” which really scares me, my heart pounds with horroi — My little friend the garter snake turns therefore with my head from a living being with a long green body into the evil serpent of Big Sur.


Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 10:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”

—Richard Wilbur


Recited by the Poet Richard Wilbur


Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 10:09 PM  Comments (2)  
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A political war is one in which everyone shoots from the lip.
—Raymond Moley
Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 6:12 PM  Leave a Comment  

Four Masks

The mask I see in the mirror:

A woman who has come to love silence,
who sees life through prisms, hexagonal
planes like the vision
of flying insects, so much color
breaking against reason. Thin
eyebrows. Nose off center.

The mask I wore for my mother:

Bright in the way of silk roses,
more than once it threw dinner
crashing to the floor and yet
was afraid to disobey.
At night it stood at the top of the long stairs
just to hear her talking.

The mask I swore my mother wore:

Small clouds like lace
on the brow. Eyepieces
I couldn’t see through.
Even her small shoulders
would make me cry. When she died
I saw her face.

The mask I passed on to my children:

Comes late for dinner
and leaves early, clears the dishes quickly.
This mask
is all relatives alive or dead,
drunk, sober, or beautiful. Oh God, yes,
at least beautiful.
Everyone at the table finds a window,
stares intently through.

—Cortney Davis


Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 6:01 PM  Leave a Comment  
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An unguarded moment

FROM A Soldier Of The Great War by Mark Helprin

Alessandro’s pack was too heavy. He had to carry 150 rounds of ammunition, probably far more than he would need, heavy clothing, enough food to last for a few days, and water. This, combined with the weight of boots, belts, clips, leather pouches, rifle, bayonet and sheath, pistol, pistol ammunition, and the many miscellaneous items that had accumulated in his pack and pockets, weighed almost as much as he did.

At four in the afternoon he halted in a clearing of young chestnut trees. Even before summer was over, the leaves were beginning to yellow—not, as elsewhere, from the heat, but from the cold at high altitude. At several thousand meters, the gradually receding forest seemed more appropriate to Northern Europe than to Sicily, and so dark and well watered that it looked like a wood in medieval France, or the Villa Borghese at the beginning of December. In their sweet alarmed chatter, the birds seemed to be saying that they had never before seen a man, although that could not have been true, because the peasants came to Aetna to gather chestnuts. Perhaps the birds had never seen a soldier.

Alessandro dropped his pack and rifle, and without the weight on his shoulders he felt like an angel drawn skyward. He sat down. For many hours he had labored up the mountainside, through forest, scrub, vineyard, field, and over black lava runs that scuffed his boots and bruised his ankles. His uniform had darkened with his own sweat, and the part of the pack that rested against his back was wringing wet.

Twice he had passed Guariglia, though no one else, and they had remarked that they would never find anyone, because with their eyes stinging and their heads bent forward with the weight on their shoulders, they did not have the freedom to observe.

“Undoubtedly,” Guariglia had said, “they hear us and they see us.”

An ice-cold stream in the middle of the clearing was just deep enough to flow over Alessandro as he pushed himself down in the middle of it. The breeze was cool and he knew that the night would be frigid, but he would find Guariglia, hunt for the first time, and they would roast their dinner over a fire.

He emerged from the stream, shook off the water, dressed, and went to sit on his pack. A long way in the distance, the sea as illuminated by the hot afternoon light. Something about the color blue, placid and cool, far away, in a silent dazzling band below the horizon, allowed Alessandro to give up all care and let the moment have its way.

He leaned over, grasped his rifle near the base of the bayonet, and pivoted it around to rest it against the fork of a sapling, ready and within his sight. At sea a ship moved slowly across the strip of blue, the white speck of its wake becoming a thread that eventually disappeared.  Alessandro picked up a chestnut and smelled it. It made him think of Rome in autumn, of lookin down the Via Condotti from the Piazza Trinità dei Monti at dusk when the fires began to blaze in restaurants along the Tiber and a darkening orange sky silhouetted the royal palms on the Giani-colo. He regretted not having taken his mother to see the views of Rome that he had come to know as he was growing up. Never would she see them again, and never had they seen them together, because she walked slowly, and he had not had the patience to walk slowly with her.

Suddenly, he was thrown forward as if he had been butted from behind by a bull. He flew over half the clearing and was about to smash headlong into a fallen log when he was turned in the air away from it. Whatever had launched him was clinging to him still, and for its own convenience had rotated him belly up so that he now saw nothing but blue.

As they landed, and as all the air left Alessandro’s lungs, he received a tremendous blow to the face. He had no chance to move, no opportunity to respond. In split seconds, he tried to comprehend. Then an enormous, balding, blue-eyed man pulled back, left him, and casually walked over to the rifle. After he took it from the forked sapling and removed the sheath from the bayonet so forcefully that it flew into the air, he twirled around and came at Alessandro.

His own bayonet, with which he himself had killed a man, was moving toward him like a routing hound, but more swiftly and more surely. The man guiding it seemed unperturbed, as if he were about to stick a shovel in a pile of earth before sitting down to have his lunch.

Alessandro watched the oiled silver point and sucked in his breath. He had a choice. He could think, now I’m going to die, and this is the last thing I’m going to see, or he could find himself a tenth of a second to one side of the blade, just having escaped and not knowing quite how.

Though he had no balance or strength, his muscles exploded and he flew to the side. The bayonet went into the soft forest floor and cut a clay-colored gash in the underside of the fallen log-Alessandro somersaulted backward into the brush and rolled down the hill, his flesh torn by rocks and branches. To encourage gravity, he pushed with his legs and arms whenever he touched anything, windmilling recklessly down the slope until he found himself, breathing like a whore, at the bottom of a little grassy knoll.

He had a clear line of sight all the way up to where he had been, miraculously far away, and he cocked his head to see if he were being pursued. The breeze didn’t even move the leaves, and the balding blond man was disappearing straight up a lava run at disheartening speed, carrying Alessandro’s pack and rifle.

Without thinking, without at first even standing up, Alessandro set out after him.


Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 5:15 PM  Leave a Comment  

War, like any other racket, pays high dividends to the very few. . . . The cost of operations is always transferred to the people who do not profit.

—General Smedley Butler

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM  Leave a Comment  


Sometimes I have wanted to go to war.
The stories are always good — Thermopylae
Was good, the Gallic campaigns were as good
As you could get against barbarians,
The Crusades were outright inspirational.

Everyone ought to go off to a war
Before he is too old to have the good
Of it. The people we call pacifist
Forget (or never learned) the power of it,
The sense of godliness killing provides.

Who would not want to be an angel, high
Over the enemy’s cities with wings
Broad as the foreshadow of death? What boy
Cannot recall from his pitiless dreams
That carnage laid about him in his bed

Of adults and girls? War is for the young
And keeps them young; war is to make a man
Immortal; war is to subvert boredom
And all the dull authority of states.
Who favors war knows what liberty is.

Think about us. War would spare us the vice
Of guilt, the curse of inadequate love,
The remorse of aimlessness. War transforms;
It is a place to start from, props up pride,
Writes history. Out of war, art makes itself.

Sometimes I have wanted to go to war,
To turn flame in anyone’s heart. Old names
Dazzle me: Alexander, Genghis Khan,
Caesar, Napoleon — will any man
Shrink from riding such fame to his grave?

Are you the one gone soft now over peace?
Nonsense. Woman has always profited
From men at war. Since time began, if you
Camp-followed any conqueror, you too
Could count a hundred lovers on the sand.

—Robley Wilson


Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 4:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Gallows, the Curse and the Cock

FROM The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

On the night of 25 November 1120 the White Ship set out for England and foundered off Barfleur with all hands save one. … The vessel was the latest thing in marine transport, fitted with all the devices known to the shipbuilder of the time. … The notoriety of this wreck is due to the very large number of distinguished persons on board; beside the king’s son and heir, there were two royal bastards, several earls and barons, and most of the royal household … its historical significance is that it left Henry without an obvious heir … its ultimate result was the disputed succession and the period of anarchy which followed Henry’s death.

—A. L. Poole,

From Domesday Book to Magna Carta




THE SMALL BOYS came early to the hanging.

It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.

The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.

One of the boys piddled on the base of the scaffold. Another mounted the steps, put his thumbs to his throat and slumped, twisting his face into a grisly parody of strangulation: the others whooped in admiration, and two dogs came running into the marketplace, barking. A very young boy recklessly began to eat an apple, and one of the older ones punched his nose and took his apple. The young boy relieved his feelings by throwing a sharp stone at a dog, sending the animal howling home. Then there was nothing else to do, so they all squatted on the dry pavement in the porch of the big church, waiting for something to happen.

Candlelight flickered behind the shutters of the substantial wood and stone houses around the square, the homes of prosperous craftsmen and traders, as scullery maids and apprentice boys lit fires and heated water and made porridge. The color of the sky turned from black to gray. The townspeople came ducking out of their low doorways, swathed in heavy cloaks of coarse wool, and went shivering down to the river to fetch water.

Soon a group of young men, grooms and laborers and apprentices, swaggered into the marketplace. They turned the small boys out of the church porch with cuffs and kicks, then leaned against the carved stone arches, scratching themselves and spitting on the ground and talking with studied confidence about death by hanging. If he’s lucky, said one, his neck breaks as soon as he falls, a quick death, and painless; but if not he hangs there turning red, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish out of water, until he chokes to death; and another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile; and a third said it could be worse than that, he had seen one where by the time the man died his neck was a foot long.

The old women formed a group on the opposite side of the marketplace, as far as possible from the young men, who were liable to shout vulgar remarks at their grandmothers. They always woke up early, the old women, even though they no longer had babies and children to worry over; and they were the first to get their fires lit and their hearths swept. Their acknowledged leader, the muscular Widow Brewster, joined them, rolling a barrel of beer as easily as a child rolls a hoop. Before she could get the lid off there was a small crowd of customers waiting with jugs and buckets.

The sheriffs bailiff opened the main gate, admitting the peasants who lived in the suburb, in the lean-to houses against the town wall. Some brought eggs and milk and fresh butter to sell, some came to buy beer or bread, and some stood in the marketplace and waited for the hanging.

Every now and again people would cock their heads, like wary sparrows, and glance up at the castle on the hilltop above the town. They saw smoke rising steadily from the kitchen, and the occasional flare of a torch behind the arrow-slit windows of the stone keep. Then, at about the time the sun must have started to rise behind the thick gray cloud, the mighty wooden doors opened in the gatehouse and a small group came out. The sheriff was first, riding a fine black courser, followed by an ox cart carrying the bound prisoner. Behind the cart rode three men, and although their faces could not be seen at that distance, their clothes revealed that they were a knight, a priest and a monk. Two men-at-arms brought up the rear of the procession.

They had all been at the shire court, held in the nave of the church, the day before. The priest had caught the thief red-handed; the monk had identified the silver chalice as belonging to the monastery; the knight was the thief’s lord, and had identified him as a runaway; and the sheriff had condemned him to death.

While they came slowly down the hill, the rest of the town gathered around the gallows. Among the last to arrive were the leading citizens: the butcher, the baker, two leather tanners, two smiths, the cutler and the fletcher, all with their wives.

The mood of the crowd was odd. Normally they enjoyed a hanging. The prisoner was usually a thief, and they hated thieves with the passion of people whose possessions are hard-earned. But this thief was different. Nobody knew who he was or where he came from. He had not stolen from them, but from a monastery twenty miles away. And he had stolen a jeweled chalice, something whose value was so great that it would be virtually impossible to sell—which was not like stealing a ham or a new knife or a good belt, the loss of which would hurt someone. They could not hate a man for a crime so pointless. There were a few jeers and catcalls as the prisoner entered the marketplace, but the abuse was half-hearted, and only the small boys mocked him with any enthusiasm.

Most of the townspeople had not been in court, for court days were not holidays and they all had to make a living, so this was the first time they had seen the thief. He was quite young, somewhere between twenty and thirty years of age, and of normal height and build, but otherwise his appearance was strange. His skin was as white as the snow on the roofs, he had protuberant eyes of startling bright green, and his hair was the color of a peeled carrot. The maids thought he was ugly; the old women felt sorry for him; and the small boys laughed until they fell down.

The sheriff was a familiar figure, but the other three men who had sealed the thief’s doom were strangers. The knight, a fleshy man with yellow hair, was clearly a person of some importance, for he rode a war-horse, a huge beast that cost as much as a carpenter earned in ten years. The monk was much older, perhaps fifty or more, a tall, thin man who sat slumped in his saddle as if life were a wearisome burden to him. Most striking was the priest, a young man with a sharp nose and lank black hair, wearing black robes and riding a chestnut stallion. He had an alert, dangerous look, like a black cat that could smell a nest of baby mice.

A small boy took careful aim and spat at the prisoner. It was a good shot and caught him between the eyes. He snarled a curse and lunged at the spitter, but he was restrained by the ropes attaching him to the sides of the cart. The incident was not remarkable except that the words he spoke were Norman French, the language of the lords. Was he high-born, then? Or just a long way from home? Nobody knew.

The ox cart stopped beneath the gallows. The sheriff’s bailiff climbed onto the flatbed of the cart with the noose in his hand. The prisoner started to struggle. The boys cheered—they would have been disappointed if the prisoner had remained calm. The man’s movements were restricted by the ropes tied to his wrists and ankles, but he jerked his head from side to side, evading the noose. After a moment the bailiff, a huge man, stepped back and punched the prisoner in the stomach. The man doubled over, winded, and the bailiff slipped the rope over his head and tightened the knot. Then he jumped down to the ground and pulled the rope taut, securing its other end to a hook in the base of the gallows.

This was the turning point. If the prisoner struggled now, he would only die sooner.

The men-at-arms untied the prisoner’s legs and left him standing alone on the bed of the cart, his hands bound behind his back. A hush fell on the crowd.

There was often a disturbance at this point: the prisoner’s mother would have a screaming fit, or his wife would pull out a knife and rush the platform in a last-minute attempt to rescue him. Sometimes the prisoner called upon God for forgiveness or pronounced blood-curdling curses on his executioners. The men-at-arms now stationed themselves on either side of the scaffold, ready to deal with any incident.

That was when the prisoner began to sing.

He had a high tenor voice, very pure. The words were French, but even those who could not understand the language could tell by its plaintive melody that it was a song of sadness and loss.

A lark, caught in a hunter’s net

Sang sweeter then than ever,

As if the falling melody

Might wing and net dissever.

As he sang he looked directly at someone in the crowd. Gradually a space formed around the person, and everyone could see her.

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long dark-brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point on her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden color, so luminous and penetrating that when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

The driver of the cart looked expectantly at the bailiff. The bailiff looked at the sheriff, waiting for the nod. The young priest with the sinister air nudged the sheriff impatiently, but the sheriff took no notice. He let the thief carry on singing. There was a dreadful pause while the ugly man’s lovely voice held death at bay.

At dusk the hunter took his prey,

The lark his freedom never.

All birds and men are sure to die

But songs may live forever.

When the song ended the sheriff looked at the bailiff and nodded. The bailiff shouted “Hup!” and lashed the ox’s flank with a length of rope. The carter cracked his whip at the same time. The ox stepped forward, the prisoner standing in the cart staggered, the ox pulled the cart away, and the prisoner dropped into midair. The rope straightened and the thief’s neck broke with a snap.

There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl.

It was not she who had screamed, but the cutler’s wife beside her. But the girl was the cause of the scream. She had sunk to her knees in front of the gallows, with her arm! stretched out in front of her, the position adopted to utter a curse. The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that some thing was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.

The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest; and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: “I curse you with sickness and sorrow, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony. …” As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out a live cockerel. A knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.

While the blood was still spurting from the severed neck she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either side of him. The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.

The girl turned and ran.

The crowd opened in front of her and closed behind her. For a few moments there was pandemonium. At last the sheriff caught the attention of his men-at-arms and angrily told them to chase her. They began to struggle through the crowd, roughly pushing men and women and children out of the way, but the girl was out of sight in a twinkling, and though the sheriff would search for her, he knew he would not find her.

He turned away in disgust. The knight, the monk and the priest had not watched the flight of the girl. They were still staring at the gallows. The sheriff followed their gaze. The dead thief hung at the end of the rope, his pale young face already turning bluish, while beneath his gently swinging corpse the cock, headless but not quite dead, ran around in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.


Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 3:20 PM  Comments (2)  
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Good minds discuss ideas,
mediocre minds discuss things,
and poor minds discuss each other.
Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 6:26 PM  Leave a Comment  

Strange Interview

FROM Tai-Pan by James Clavell

The village of Aberdeen lay dark and humid and silent under the full moon. The streets were deserted and the doors of the huts barred tight. Hundreds of sampans were moored in the still, muddy waters. And though they were as jam-packed as the huts, there was neither sound nor movement aboard.

Struan was standing at the prearranged place, at the fork in the path just outside the village, beside the well. The well was rock-lipped and Struan had hung three lanterns on it. He was alone and his gold fob watch told him it was almost time. He wondered if Wu Kwok and his men would come from the village or from the sampans or from the desolate hills. Or from the sea.

He studied the sea. Nothing moved but the waves. Somewhere out in the darkness, sailing close-hauled, was China Cloud, her men at action stations. Too far for those aboard to observe him closely, but near enough to see the light of the lanterns. Struan’s orders were that if the lanterns were abruptly extinguished, the men were to take to the boats and come ashore with musket and cutlass.

The muted voices of the handful of men he had brought along wafted up faintly from the beach. They were waiting beside the two cutters, armed and ready, also watching the lanterns’ light. He listened intently but could not distinguish what they were saying. I’d be safer to be completely alone, he told himself. I want no prying eyes in this. But to be ashore alone wi’out guards’d be foolish. Worse, it’d be testing my joss. Aye.

He stiffened as a dog snarled in the quiet of the village. He listened intently and watched for moving shadows. But he saw none and knew that the dog was only scavenging. He leaned back against the well and began to relax, content to be back on the island. Content that May-may and the children were safe in the house that had been built for them in Happy Valley.

Robb and Culum had handled expertly all that had to be done while he was away. The small house, with surrounding walls and strong gates, had been completed. Two hundred and fifty men had worked on it day and night.

There were still many details to be finished and all of the garden yet to be planted, but the house itself was habitable and mostly furnished. It was built of bricks and had a fireplace and wooden roof. The rooms were beamed. Many of the walls were paper-covered, but a few were painted, and all had glass windows.

The house faced the sea and contained a master suite and dining room and large living room. And, to the west, a latticed haven around a garden, private from the rest of the house. Here were May-may’s quarters and the children’s rooms, and beyond them the servants’ quarters.

Struan had brought May-may and the children and Ah Sam, the amah, with him into the house the day before yesterday and had settled them there. A trusted cook boy named Lim Din and a wash amah and makee-learnee—as apprentice scullion maids were called—had come back with him from Canton.

And though no Europeans had seen May-may, most of them were sure that the Tai-Pan had brought his mistress into the first permanent habitation on Hong Kong. They chuckled among themselves, or denounced him through their jealousy. But they said nothing to their wives. In due course they would want to bring their own mistresses and the less said the better. The wives who suspected held their peace. There was nothing they could do.

Struan had been very pleased with his house and with the progress on the warehouses and factory. And also with the results of his public coldness toward Culum. Culum had told him covertly that already he had had the first tentative probe from Brock, and that Wilf Tillman had invited him aboard Cooper-Tillman’s expensive opium hulk and had entertained him lavishly.

Culum had said that trade was discussed—how the future of Asia depended vitally on cooperation, particularly between the Anglo-Saxon races. He had said that Shevaun had been at dinner and that she had been very beautiful and vivacious.

A fish leaped out of the water, hung for a moment in the air, and fell back again. Struan watched for a moment, listening. Then he relaxed again and let his mind roam.

Shevaun’d make a good match for Culum, Struan thought dispassionately. Or for yoursel’. Aye. She’d make a fine hostess and an interesting addition to the banquets you’ll be giving in London. To the lords and ladies and members of Parliament. And Cabinet ministers. Will you buy yoursel’ a baronetcy? You could afford to ten times over. If Blue Cloud’s home first. Or second, even third—so long as she’s safe. If the season’s trade is safely concluded, then you can buy yoursel’ an earldom.

Shevaun’s young enough. She’d bring a useful dowry and interesting political connections. What about Jeff Cooper? He’s head over heels in love with her. If she says no to him, that’s his problem.

What about May-may? Would a Chinese wife bar you from the inner sanctum? Certainly. She would weigh the dice heavily against you. Out of the question.

Wi’out the right sort of wife English social life will be impossible. Diplomacy is mostly settled in private drawing rooms, in luxury. Perhaps the daughter, of a lord, or earl or Cabinet minister? Wait till you’re home, eh? There’s plenty of time.

Is there?

A dog barked shrilly among the sampans and then shrieked as others fell on it. The sounds of the death battle rose and fell, then ceased. Silence again but for the furtive growling, scuffling, ripping in the darkness as the victors began to feed.

Struan was watching the sampans, his back to the lanterns. He saw a shadow move, and another, and soon a silent press of Chinese was leaving the floating village and grouping on the shore. He saw Scragger.

Struan held his pistol loosely and waited calmly, searching the darkness for Wu Kwok. The men came up with the path noiselessly, Scragger cautiously in the middle. They stopped near the well and stared at Struan. All were young, in their early twenties, all dressed in black tunics and black trousers, thonged sandals on their feet, large coolie hats masking their faces.

“Top of the evening, Tai-Pan,” Scragger said softly, on guard and readying for instant retreat.

“Where’s Wu Kwok?”

“He asks your pardon, like, but he be powerful busy. Here be the ’undred. Take the pick and let’s be off, hey?”

“Tell them to split themsel’ into tens and to strip.”

“Strip, did y’say?”

“Aye. Strip, by God!”

Scragger blinked at Struan. Then he shrugged and went back to the men and spoke in soft singsong. The Chinese chattered quietly, then sorted themselves into separate tens and took off their clothes.

Struan beckoned to the first ten and they walked into the light. From some of the groups he picked one, from others two or three, from a few, none. He chose with utmost care. He knew he was assembling a task force which would spearhead his advance into the heart of China. If he could bend them to his will. The men who would not meet his eye he excluded immediately. Those whose queues were ratty and unkempt he passed over. Those with weak physiques were not considered. Those whose faces were dotted with smallpox marks had a point in their favor—for Struan knew that smallpox ravaged ships in all the seas, and that a man who had had the disease and had recovered was a man immune and strong and one who knew the value of life. Those with well-healed knife wounds he favored. Those who bore their nakedness carelessly he approved. Those who bore their nakedness with hostility he scrutinized painstakingly, knowing that violence and the sea are shipmates. Some he picked for the hatred in their eyes and some only because of a hunch he had when he looked into their faces.

Scragger watched the selecting with growing impatience. He drew his knife and repeatedly threw it into the dirt.

At last Struan had finished. “These are the men I want. They can all dress now.”

Scragger barked an order and the men dressed. Struan took out a sheaf of papers and handed one to Scragger.

“You can read this out to them.”

“Wot be it?”

“A regulation indenture. Rates of pay and terms of five years’ service. They’re all to sign one.”

“I doan read. An’ wot’s paper for, eh? Wu Fang Choi’s tol’ them they be yorn for five year.”

Struan gave him another sheet covered with Chinese characters. “Give this to someone who can read. They’ll each sign or I will na accept them and the deal is off.”

“Doings things ri’ht proper, baint you?” Scragger took the paper and called out to a short, pockmarked Chinese who had been selected. The man came forward, and taking the paper, studied it under the lantern’s light. Scragger jerked a thumb at those who had been rejected and they disappeared into the sampans.

The man began to read.

“What’s his name?”


“Fong what?”

“Fong wot you likes. Who’s t’know wot name these monkeys run under?”

The Chinese were listening intently to Fong. At one point a muted, nervous gust of laughter wafted from them. “Wot’s funny?” Scragger asked in Cantonese. Fong took a long time to explain.

Scragger turned on Struan. “Wot’s all this about, eh? They’s to promise not to fornicate and not to marry for the five year? That baint proper. Wot d’you think they be?”

“That’s just the normal clause, Scragger. All indentures have the same.”

“Not seamen’s papers, by God.”

“They’re to be captains and officers, so they must have indenture papers. To make it legal.”

“Very unproper, if you asks me. You mean they can’t bed a doxy for five years?”

“It’s only a formality. But they canna marry.”

Scragger turned and made a short speech. Again there was laughter. “I sayed they’s to obey you like God all-bloody-mighty. ’Cepting in fornication.” He wiped the sweat off his face. “Wu Fang’s tol’ ’em they be yors for five year. So there be no need to worry.”

“Why’re you so nervous, eh?”

“Nothing. Nothing, I tells you.”

Fong continued to read. There was a hush and someone asked for a clause to be repeated. Scragger’s interest increased. It was about their pay. Potential captains were to be paid fifty pounds for the first year, seventy the second and the third, a hundred when they had a first mate’s ticket and a hundred and fifty with their master’s. A sixtieth share of profits for any ships they captained. A bonus of twenty pounds if they learned English in three months.

“A hundred and fifty nicker be more’n they be earning in ten years,” Scragger said.

“You want a job?”

“I be happy with me present employ, thankee kindly.” He screwed up his face as a thought struck him. “Wu Fang won’t be paying all that nicker,” he said cagily.

“He will na be asked. These men’ll earn every penny, you can be sure of that. Or they’ll be beached.”

“So long as me guv’s not to pay, you pays ’em wot you likes and wastes yor own money.”

After Fong had finished reading the document, Struan made each man write his name in characters on a copy. Every man could write. And he made each man daub his left palm with chop ink and imprint the palm on the back of the paper.

“Wot be that for?”

“Every hand palm’s different. Now I know each man—whatever his name. Where’re the boys?”

“You want the men t’ the boats?”

“Aye.” Struan gave Fong a lantern and motioned him to the beach. The other men followed silently.

“The picking and papering were clever, Tai-Pan. Yo’re right smart.” Scragger sucked the end of his knife pensively. “I heared you one-upped Brock right proper. Over the bullion too.”

Struan glanced back at Scragger, abruptly suspicious. “There were Europeans in that attack, so Brock said. Were you one of them?”

“If I’d been ordered in by Wu Fang, Tai-Pan, there beed no failure. Wu Fang Choi doan like failure. Musta beed some poxy locals. Terrible.” Scragger peered around the darkness. When he’d made sure they were quite alone, he spoke conspiratorially. “Wu Kwok be Fukienese. He come from Quemoy, up the coast, eh? You know the island?”


“Midsummer Night there be a festival. Wu Kwok be there for sure. Something to do with his ancestors.” Scragger’s eyes took on a malevolent glitter. “If a frigate or two was cruising there, why, he be caught like a poxy gutter rat in a barrel.”

Struan smiled scornfully. “That he would!”

“It be th’ truth I tells you, by God. You’ve me oath, by God. That bugger tricked me into giving you me oath when it were lie and I’ll not forgive that. Scragger’s oath be as good as yorn!”

“Aye. Of course. Do you think I’d trust a man who’d sell his master like a rat?”

“He baint my master. Wu Fang Choi’s me guv’, no one else. I swore ’legiance to him, no other. You’ve me oath.”

Struan contemplated Scragger. “I’ll think about Midsummer Night.”

“You’ve me oath. I want him deaded, by God. A man’s oath be all he’s got twixt hisself and damnation. That swine took mine, God curse him, so I wants him deaded to pay.”

“Where’re the boys?”

“They’s to be toffs, like you sayed?”

“Hurry it up, I want to be off.”

Scragger turned and whistled into the darkness. Three small shadows moved out of the sampans. The boys walked cautiously down the rickety gangplank onto the ground and hurried up the path. Struan’s eyes widened as the boys came into the light. One was Chinese. One was Eurasian. And the last was a grubby little English urchin. The Chinese boy was richly gowned, his queue thick and well plaited. He carried a bag. The other two were pathetically dressed in grimy pseudo-English boys’ clothes—their frock coats homespun, their little top hats battered, and their trousers and shoes homemade and crudely stitched. Over the shoulders each carried a stick with a bundle dangling from the end.

All the boys tried desperately—and unsuccessfully—to cover their anxiety.

“This be Wu Pak Chuk,” Scragger said. The Chinese boy bowed nervously. “He be Wu Fang Choi’s grandson. One of ’em, but not from Wu Kwok. And these be me own lads.” He pointed proudly at the little urchin, who flinched involuntarily. “This be Fred. He be six. And this’n’s Bert, seven.”

He made a slight motion and both boys doffed their hats and bowed and mumbled something through their panic and looked back at their father to see if they had done it right. Bert, the Eurasian boy, had had his queue coiled under his hat, but now, from all the fidgeting, the queue hung down his back. The urchin’s hair was filthy and, like his father’s, tied with a piece of tarred hemp at the nape of his neck.

“Come over here, lads,” Struan said compassionately.

The urchin took his half brother’s hand and the two came slowly forward. They stopped, barely breathing. The English boy wiped a dribble of mucus from his nose with the back of his hand.

“You’re Fred?”

“Yus, Yor Worship,” he whispered, scarcely audible.

“Speak up, lad,” Scragger said, and the boy blurted out, “Yus, Yor Worship, I be Fred.”

“I be Bert, Yor Worship.” The Eurasian quailed as Struan looked at him. He was a tall, handsome lad with beautiful teeth and golden skin. He was the tallest of the three.

Struan glanced at Wu Pak. The boy lowered his eyes and scuffed at the earth.

“He does na speak English?”

“No. But Bert here speaks his tongue. An’ Fred some words. Bert’s ma be Fukienese.” Scragger’s discomfort worsened.

“Where’s your mother, Fred?”

“Dead, Yor Worship,” the urchin choked out. “She be dead, sirr.”

“She be deaded two year back. Scurvy got her,” Scragger said.

“You’ve Englishwomen with your fleet?”

“Some has. Back over there, lads,” he said, and his sons fled to where he was pointing and stood rock-still, out of hearing. Wu Pak hesitated, then ran back and stood close beside them.

Scragger dropped his voice. “Fred’s ma were convict. Transported ten year for stealing coal in the depth of winter. We was married by a priest in Australia but he were renegade so maybe it weren’t proper. We was married anyways. I give her me oath afore she deaded to do right by the lad.”

Struan took out more papers. “These give me guardianship of the boys. Until they’re twenty-one. You can sign for your sons but what about Wu Pak? Should be a relation.”

“I’ll put me mark on all. You got one for me to show Wu Fang? Wot I signeded?”

“Aye. You can take one.”

Struan began to fill in the names, but Scragger stopped him. “Tai-Pan, doan put Scragger on the boys. Put another name. Any you likes—no, doan tell me wot,” he added quickly. “Any name. You think of a good one.” The sweat was beading his forehead. His fingers trembled as he took the pencil and made his mark. “Fred’s to forget me. An’ his ma. Do yor best with Bert, eh? His ma’s still me woman and she bain’t bad, for a heathen. Do yor best for ’em and you’ve a friend for life. Me oath on’t. They both beed taught to say their prayers proper.” He blew his nose in his fingers and wiped them on his trousers. “Wu Pak’s got to write once a month to Jin-qua. Oh yus, and yor t’bill Jin-qua for the schooling and wot. Once a year. They’s all to go to the same school and vittle together.”

He beckoned to the Chinese boy. Wu Pak came forward reluctantly. Scragger jerked a thumb toward the boats and the boy left obediently. Then he beckoned his sons.

“I be off now, lads.”

The boys ran to him and clung to him and begged him not to send them away, their tears streaming and terror overwhelming them. But he pushed them off and forced his voice hard. “Be off with you now. Obey the Tai-Pan here. He’s t’be like a dad to yer.”

“Doan send us’n off, Dad,” Fred said piteously. “I beed a good boy. Bert’n me be good boys, Dad, doan send us’n off.”

They stood in the enormousness of their grief, their shoulders heaving.

Scragger cleared his throat noisily and spat. After a second’s hesitation, he jerked out his knife and seized Bert’s queue. The Eurasian squealed with horror and tried to fight free. But Scragger chopped off the queue and cuffed the hysterical boy hard enough to bring him out of shock, but no harder.

“Oh, Dad,” Fred said tremulously in his little piping voice, “you knowed Bert promised his mum to keep his hair proper.”

“Better I do’s it, Fred, afore another,” Scragger said, his voice breaking. “Bert doan need it now. He’s t’be toff like you.”

“I doan want to be toff, I want t’ stay home.”

Scragger tousled Bert’s head a last time. And Fred’s.

“ ’Bye, my sons,” he said. He rushed away and the night swallowed him.


Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 5:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyes on the ‘Bird

FROM Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion


WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory answer to such questions.

Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened. (Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate. What I play for here is Kate. Carter put Kate in there and I am going to get her out.) They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.

Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells. He had bought it or won it or maybe his father left it to him, I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter to you. We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody’s second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that, but I am telling you how it was. What we had in Silver Wells was three hundred acres of mesquite and some houses and a Flying A and a zinc mine and a Tonopah & Tidewater RR siding and a trinket shop and later, after my father and his partner Benny Austin hit on the idea that Silver Wells was a natural tourist attraction, a midget golf course and a reptile museum and a restaurant with some slots and two crap tables. The slots were not exactly moneymakers because the only person who played them was Paulette, with nickels from the cashbox. Paulette ran the restaurant and (I see now) balled my father and sometimes let me pretend to cashier after school. I say “pretend” because there were no customers. As it happened the highway my father counted on came nowhere near and the money ran out and my mother got sick and Benny Austin went back to Vegas, I ran into him in the Flamingo a few years ago. “Your father’s only Waterloo was he was a man always twenty years before his time,” Benny advised me that night in the Flamingo. ‘The ghost-town scheme, the midget golf, the automatic blackjack concept, what do you see today? Harry Wyeth could be a Rockefeller in Silver Wells today.”

“There isn’t any Silver Wells today,” I said. “It’s in the middle of a missile range.”

“I’m speaking about then, Maria. As it was.”

Benny called for a round of Cuba Libres, a drink I have never known anyone but my mother and father and Benny Austin to order, and I gave him some chips to play for me and went to the ladies’ room and never came back. I told myself it was because I didn’t want Benny to see the kind of man I was with, I was with a man who was playing baccarat with hundred-dollar bills behind the rope, but that wasn’t all of it. I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.

I mean it leads nowhere. Benny Austin, my mother sitting in Paulette’s empty restaurant when it was 120° outside looking through her magazines for contests we could enter (Waikiki, Paris France, Roman Holiday, my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas, cross the ocean in a silver plane, she would croon to herself and mean it, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain), the three of us driving down to Vegas in the pickup and then driving home again in the clear night, a hundred miles down and a hundred back and nobody on the highway either way, just the snakes stretched on the warm asphalt and my mother with a willted gardenia in her dark hair and my father keeping a fifth of Jim Beam on the floorboard and talking about his plans, he always had a lot of plans, I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.

New York: what sense did that make? An eighteen-year-old girl from Silver Wells, Nevada, graduates from the Consolidated Union High School in Tonopah and goes to New York to take acting lessons, how do you figure it? My mother thought being an actress was a nice idea, she used to cut my hair in bangs to look like Margaret Sullavan, and my father said not to be afraid to go because if certain deals worked out as anticipated he and my mother would be regular airline passengers between Las Vegas and New York City, so I went. As it turned out, the last time but once I ever saw my mother was sitting in the Vegas airport drinking a Cuba Libre, but there you are. Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. I watch a hummingbird, throw the I Ching but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now. New York. Let me stick to certain facts. What happened was this: I looked all right (I’m not telling you I was blessed or cursed, I’m telling a fact, I know it from all the pictures) and somebody photographed me and before long I was getting $100 an hour from the agencies and $50 from the magazines which in those days was not bad and I knew a lot of Southerners and faggots and rich boys and that was how I spent my days and nights. The night my mother ran the car off the highway outside Tonopah I was with a drunk rich boy at the old Morocco, as close as I could figure later: I didn’t know about it for a couple of weeks because the coyotes tore her up before anybody found her and my father couldn’t tell me. (‘Jesus but we had ‘a good thing going in Silver Wells,” Benny Austin said that night in the Flamingo, and maybe they did, maybe I did, maybe I never should have left, but that line of thinking leads nowhere because as I told Benny there is no Silver Wells. The last I heard of Paulette she was living in a Sun City. Think that one over.) My father’s letter was mailed to an old address and forwarded, I read it in a taxi one morning when I was late for a sitting and when I hit the f act in the middle of the second paragraph I began to scream and did not work for a month after. The letter is still in my makeup box but I am careful not to read it unless I am drunk, which in my current situation is never. “This is a bad hand but God if there is one, and Honey I sincerely believe there must be ‘Something, never meant it to set you back in your Plans,” is how it ends. “Don’t let them bluff you back there because you’re holding all the aces.”

Easy aces. I am not sure what year it was because I have this problem with as it was, but after a while I had a bad time. (There, you will say now, she believed her sins were unpardonable, but I told you, nothing applies.) The tulips on Park Avenue looked dirty and I was sent twice to Montego Bay to get some color back in my face but I could not sleep alone and stayed up late and it was falling apart with Ivan Costello and everything showed in the camera by then. Of course I did not get back to Nevada that year because that was the year I screamed at Ivan and married Carter, and the next was the year we came here and Carter put me in a couple of little pictures (one you may have seen, a doctor here claims to have seen it but he will say anything to make me talk, the other never distributed) and I don’t know what happened the year after that and then I started getting to Nevada quite a bit, but by then my father was dead and I was not married any more.

Those are the facts. Now I lie in the sun and play solitaire and listen to the sea (the sea is down the cliff but I am not allowed to swim, only on Sundays when we are accompanied) and watch a hummingbird. I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 9:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The strongest words are often used in the weakest arguments.
Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 8:37 AM  Leave a Comment  


I walked away with your face
stolen from a crowded room,
& the sting of requited memory
lived beneath my skin. A name
raw on my tongue, in my brain, a glimpse
nestled years later like a red bird
among wet leaves on a dull day.

A face. The tilt of a head. Dark
lipstick. Aletheia. The unknown
marked on a shoulder, night
weather in our heads.
I pushed out of this half-stunned
yes, begging light, beyond the caul’s
shadow, dangling the lifeline of Oh.

I took seven roads to get here
& almost died three times.
How many near misses before
new days slouched into the left corner
pocket, before the hanging fruit
made me kneel? I crossed
five times in the blood to see

the plots against the future —
descendent of a house that knows
all my strong & weak points.
No bounty of love apples glistened
with sweat, a pear-shaped lute
plucked in the valley of the tuber rose
& Madonna lily. Your name untied

every knot in my body, a honey-eating
animal reflected in shop windows
& twinned against this underworld.
Out of tide-lull & upwash
a perfect hunger slipped in
tooled by an eye, & this morning
makes us the oldest song in any god’s throat.

We had gone back walking
on our hands. Opened by a kiss,
by fingertips on the Abyssinian
stem & nape, we bloomed
from underneath stone. Moon-pulled
fish skirted the gangplank,
a dung-scented ark of gopherwood.

Now, you are on my skin, in my mouth
& hair as if you were always
woven in my walk, a rib
unearthed like a necklace of sand dollars
out of black hush. You are a call
& response going back to the first
praise-lament, the old wish

made flesh. The two of us
a third voice, an incantation
sweet-talked & grunted out of The Hawk’s
midnight horn. I have you inside
a hard question, & it won’t let go,
hooked through the gills & strung up
to the western horizon. We are one,

burning with belief till the thing
inside the cage whimpers
& everything crazes out to a flash
of silver. Begged into the fat juice
of promises, our embrace is a naked
wing lifting us into premonition
worked down to a sigh & plea.

—Yusef Komunyakaa


Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 8:34 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Quick, Now, Always

We would like to linger here even longer,
especially when the sun lays gold
over lawns, some so white-fenced, idyllic, and sexy
they obsess us with what? — Ourselves? — That recurring
wilderness within? All night the rain
gently sucking leaves till morning. And here
are the flowers that put out our eyes. We should throw
our bodies onto the earth, just as we throw

them onto each other. Reyes and I walked long,
talking of love in a place with no people. We could feel
its absence burning within. First at twilight
in the cow boneyard. Then next morning
beside the birthing pen. The way the heifer licked
the wet calf up, then mooed

life into its bones. This, when nature is
only itself, when love is
sheer will. But still, the mother’s eyes bulging
toward the birth, and the mooing that goes down
into the glistening body, down into the soft hooves,
and down into the earth. This mooing
that goes on and on and will not stop, up to
the final sucking ass and carcass of death. This,

what we would, but lack. We choose instead
such sheer reprehensible and pansexual
delights, vogueing us beyond our shirted longing,
incomprehensible despite. Quiet fools we move
and are moved by movings until staring
through the glass eye of pleasure, we feel its palace

collapse. Oh how we long to feel that muscled
abandon for which there is no height,
an expanse whose taste is
salt, and whose hearing is all underwater,
all struggle, all breathing, one ocean, one
night. Everywhere now new leaves are ungluing, their green encased
with light. What we give changes us into something more
airy, something to last.

—Mark Irwin


Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 11:39 AM  Leave a Comment  
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FROM Hyperion by Dan Simmons

For the hundredth time Rachel wondered who had built the Tombs and for what purpose. Dating of the construction materials had been useless because of the effect of the anti-entropic field. Only analysis of the Tombs in relation to the erosion of the canyon and other surrounding geological features had suggested an age of at least half a million years. The feeling was that the architects of the Time Tombs had been humanoid, even though nothing but the gross scale of the structures suggested such a thing. Certainly the passageways in the Sphinxrevealed little: some were human enough in size and shape, but then meters farther along the same corridor might dwindle to a tube the size of a sewer pipe and then transform itself into something larger and more random than a natural cavern. Doorways, if they could be called such since they opened to nothing in particular, might be triangular or trapezoidal or ten-sided as commonly as rectangular.

Rachel crawled the last twenty meters down a steep slope, sliding her backpack ahead of her. The heatless glow-globes gave the rock and her flesh a bluish, bloodless cast. The ‘basement,’ when she reached it, seemed a haven of human clutter and smells. Several folding chairs filled the center of the small space while detectors, oscilloscopes, and other paraphernalia lined the narrow table against the north wall. A plank on sawhorses along the opposite wall held coffee cups, a chess set, a half-eaten doughnut, two paperbacks, and a plastic toy of some sort of dog in a grass skirt.

Rachel settled in, set her coffee therm next to the toy, and checked the cosmic ray detectors. The data appeared to be the same: no hidden rooms or passages, just a few niches even the deep radar had missed. In the morning Melio and Stefan would set a deep probe working, getting an imager filament in and sampling the air before digging further with a micro-manipulator. So far a dozen such niches had turned up nothing of interest. The joke at camp was that the next hole, no bigger than a fist, would reveal miniature sarcophagi, undersized urns, a petite mummy, or—as Melio put it— ‘a teeny-tiny Tutankhamen.”

Out of habit, Rachel tried the comm links on her comlog. Nothing. Forty meters of stone tended to do that. They had talked of stringing telephone wire from the basement to the surface, but there had been no pressing need and now their time was almost up. Rachel adjusted the input channels on her cornlog to monitor the detector data and then settled back for a long, boring night.

There. was the wonderful story of the Old Earth pharaoh- was it Cheops?- who authorized his huge pyramid, agreed to the burial chamber being deep under the center of the thing, and then lay awake nights for years in a claustrophobic panic, thinking of all those tons of stone above him for all eternity. Eventually the pharaoh ordered the burial chamber repositioned two thirds the way up the great pyramid. Most unorthodox.

Rachel could understand the king’s position. She hoped that – wherever he was – he slept better now.

Rachel was almost dozing herself when – at 0215 -her comlog chirped, the detectors screamed, and she jumped to her feet. According to the sensors, the Sphinx had suddenly grown a dozen new chambers, some larger than the total structure. Rachel keyed displays and the air misted with models that changed as she watched.

Corridor schematics twisted back on themselves like rotating MObius strips. The external sensors indicated the upper structure twisting and bending like polyfiex in the wind – or like wings.

Rachel knew that it was some type of multiple malfunction, but even as she tried to recalibrate she called data and impressions into hercomlog. Then several things happened at once. She heard the drag of feet in the corridor above her. All of the displays went dead simultaneously. Somewhere in the maze of corridors a time-tide alarm began to blare. All of the lights went off.

This final event made no sense. The instrument packages held their own power supplies and would have stayed lit through a nuclear attack. The lamp they used in the basement had a new ten-year power cell. The glow-globes in the corridors were bioluminescent and needed no power.

Nonetheless, the lights were out. Rachel pulled a flashlight laser out of the knee pocket of her jumpsuit and triggered it. Nothing happened.

For the first time in her life, terror closed on Rachel Weintraub like a hand on her heart. She could not breathe. For ten seconds she willed herself to be absolutely still, not even listening, merely waiting for the panic to recede. When it had subsided enough for her to breathe without gasping, she felt her way to the instruments and keyed them. They did not respond. She lifted her comlog and thumbed the diskey. Nothing… which was impossible, of course, given the solid-state invul-nerability and power-cell reliability of the thing. Still, nothing.

Rachel could hear her pulse pounding now but she again fought back the panic and began feeling her way toward the only exit. The thought of finding her way through the maze in absolute darkness made her want to scream but she could think of no other alternatives.

Wait. There had been old lights throughout the Sphinx maze but the research team had strung the glow-globes.

Strung them. There was a perIon line connecting them all the way to the surface.

Fine. Rachel groped her way toward the exit, feeling the cold stone under her fingers. Was it this cold before?

There came the clear sound of something sharp scraping its way down the access shaft.

‘Melio?” called Rachel into the blackness. ‘Tanya?


The scraping sounded very close. Rachel backed away, knocking over an instrument and chair in the blackness. Something touched her hair and she gasped, raised her hand.

The ceiling was lower. The solid block of stone, five meters square, slid lower even as she raised her other hand to touch it. The opening to the corridor was halfway up the wall. Rachel staggered toward it, swinging her hands in front of her like a blind person. She tripped over a folding chair, found the instrument table, followed it to the far wall, felt the bottom of the corridor shaft disappearing as the ceiling came lower. She pulled back her fingers a second before they were sliced off.

Rachel sat down in the darkness. An oscilloscope scraped against the ceiling until the table cracked and collapsed under it. Rachel moved her head in short, desperate arcs. There was a metallic rasp—almost a breathing sound—less than a meter from her. She began to back away, sliding across a floor suddenly filled with broken equipment. The breathing grew louder.

Something sharp and infinitely cold grasped her wrist.

Rachel screamed at last.


Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 11:02 AM  Leave a Comment  

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom —
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

—Stephen Crane


Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 4:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Tobacco Laureate

FROM The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

What with every military advantage—arms, numbers, and absolute surprise—the strange war party of Indians was not long in attaining its objective, which seemed to be the capture of the sloop with all hands. Bertrand and the Captain were wakened with spearheads at their throats and brought forward, the former inarticulate with fright, the latter bellowing and sputtering—first at his captors, then at Ebenezer for not sounding some alarm, and finally and most violently, when he grasped the situation, at the treacherous members of his crew.

“I’ll see ye drawn to the scaffold and quartered!” he declared but the Negroes only smiled and turned their eyes as if embarrassed by his threats. The leader of the party spoke sharply in an incomprehensible tongue to one of his lieutenants, who relayed it in another, equally strange language to the Negro sailors, and was answered in the same manner; during their colloquy Ebenezer observed that, though the boarders were dressed almost identically in deerskin match-coats and hats of beaver, racoon, or muskrat, nearly half their number were not Indians at all, but Negroes. The Captain remarked this fact as well and began at once to rail at them for fugitives and poltroons, but his audience gave no sign of understanding. Apparently satisfied that there were no more passengers aboard the sloop and no more vessels in the cove, the raiders then bound their captives at wrist and ankle, handed them bodily over the rail, and obliged them to lie face-down, one to a canoe, throughout a brief but circuitous passage into the marsh, which, like the earlier phases of the coup, was executed in total silence. Presently the canoes were secured to a clump of wax myrtles, the ropes around the prisoners’ ankles were exchanged for a longer one that tethered them by the neck in a line, and the party proceeded on foot down a path as meandering as the waterway, and so narrow that even single file it was hard to avoid misstepping into the muck on either side.

“This is outrageous!” Ebenezer complained. “I never dreamed such things still happened in 1694, in the very bosom of the Province!”

“Nor I,” the Captain replied, from his post in the van of the prisoners. “Nor e’er heard tell of an Indian town on Bloodsworth Island. I’Christ, ’tis naught but marsh from stem to stern, and not dry ground enough to stand on.”

“God save us!” Bertrand groaned—his first words since he’d fallen asleep some hours before. “They’ll scalp our heads and burn us at the stake!”

“Whatever for?” the poet inquired. “We’ve done ’em no injury, that I can see.”

” ‘Tis e’er the salvages’ wont,” his valet insisted. “Ye’ve but to run afoul of one in your evening stroll, and bang! he’ll skin your pate as ye’d skin a peach! Why, ’tis still the talk in Vansweringen’s how a wench named Kersley was set upon by Indians in Charles County, year before last: she was crossing a field of sot-weed ‘twixt her own house and her father’s, with the sun still shining and a babe on her arm besides, but ere she reached her husband’s door she had been scalped, stuck with a knife, and swived from whipple to Whitsuntide! And again, not far from Bohemia Manor –”

“Be still,” the Captain snapped, “ere your own tales beshit ye.”

” ‘Tis all quite well for you to take your scalping without a word,” Bertrand replied undaunted. ” ‘Twas you steered us hither in the first place –”

“I! ‘Sblood and ‘sbody, sir, ’tis thy good fortune the salvage hath belayed my two hands, else I’d have thy scalp myself!”

“Gentlemen!” Ebenezer interposed. “Our case is grave enough without such talk! ‘Twas I that hired the passage; you may hold me answerable for everything if ’twill ease your minds to do so, though it strikes me we’d do better to give over wondering who got us into this pickle and bend our minds instead to getting out.”

“Amen,” the Captain grunted.

“Still and all,” Bertrand said disconsolately, “I must hold Betsy Birdsall to some account, for had she not rescued me last March in such a deuced clever manner, I’d not be trussed up here like a trout on a gill string.”

“Really!” the Captain cried. “Thou’rt unhinged!”

“Stay, prithee stay,” Ebenezer pleaded. Since the Captain’s first sharp words to Bertrand, the poet’s brow had been knitting, and his admonitions were made distractedly. Now he asked the Captain, “Was’t not the Straits of Limbo we entered yonder cove from, or did I mishear you?”

“That was my guess, sir,” the older man said, “unless the tide fetched us down as low as Holland or Kedge’s Straits, which I doubt.”

“But if not, the name of the strait is Limbo? And is there a river mouth not far hence, with an Indian name?”

“A hatchful of ’em,” the Captain replied, not greatly interested, “and they all have salvage names: Honga, Nanticoke, Wicomico, Manokin, Annamessex, Pocomoke –”

“Wicomico! Aye, Wicomico—’tis the name Smith mentioned in his Historie!”

The Captain muttered something exasperated, and to avoid being thought deranged by fear like his servant, Ebenezer explained in the simplest way possible what he had been grasping for since the first mention of Limbo Straits and had recalled only with the help of the word beshit: that Captain John Smith of Virginia, almost ninety years previously, had discovered those same straits during his voyage of exploration up the Chesapeake; had, like themselves, encountered a furious storm therein and suffered the additional discomforts of a diarrhetic company; had in consequence of his ordeal bestowed the name Limbo on the place; and finally had been made prisoner, with all his party, by a band of warlike Indians—perhaps the grandfathers of their present captors!

“Ye don’t tell me,” the Captain said. Neither did Bertrand appear to be overwhelmed by the coincidence, for when to his single inquiry, “Prithee, what came of ’em?” his master confessed that he had not the slightest idea, the valet relapsed into gloom.

But once Ebenezer had wrested the Secret Historie from his memory he could not but marvel at the parallel between John Smith’s experience and their own. Moreover, the existence of the Historie itself attested that Smith and at least some of his party had escaped or been freed by their captors. His reflections were interrupted at this point by their arrival at the Indians’ town, an assemblage of mean little huts arranged in a thick circle upon an island of relatively high ground. There seemed to be well over a hundred in all, dome-shaped affairs of small logs and thatched twigs; surrounded as they were by the marsh, they resembled nothing so much as a colony of muskrat houses, the more since their occupants were cloaked and capped with fur. The citizenry appeared to be sleeping: except for a single hidden sentry who challenged their approach with a “Too-hoo!” from his post in a nearby brush clump, and was answered in kind, the town was as still as one deserted.

” ‘Tis passing queer,” the Captain grumbled. “Never saw an Indian town without a pack o’ curs about.”

But if the silence of the village was disconcerting, what broke it a few moments later was nothing less than extraordinary: they had passed through the ring of dwellings to a clearing or open court in the center of the town, and during a whispered colloquy between the leader and his black lieutenant there came from a hut not far away a sudden wailing that raised the poet’s hackles. Through his fancy, in half a second, passed the various Indian cruelties he had learned of from Henry Burlingame: how they bit the nails from their victims’ fingers, twisted the fingers themselves from the hands, drove skewers into the remaining stumps, pulled sinews from the arms, tore out the hair and beard, hung hot hatchets around the neck, and poured hot sand on scalped heads.

“Marry come up!” breathed the Captain, and Bertrand’s teeth began to chatter. The wail changed pitch and tone and changed again a moment afterwards, and again, but not until the wailer drew fresh breath and recommenced did the prisoners grasp the nature of the sound.


Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 12:14 PM  Comments (2)  

Lilies on an Ocean Wave

FROM Iron Coffins by Herbert A Werner


There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,

No lilies on an ocean wave.

The only tribute is the seagulls’ sweeps,

And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.

—German song



An Appreciation by an American Contemporary

IT IS UNUSUAL fore someone to have the opportunity, as I have, to write an introduction to a book by a member of a foreign and once enemy service whose personal history is so nearly a carbon copy of his own. Both of us were members of our naval academy classes of 1939; both of us finished submarine training and reported to our first submarines in 1941. Both of us served on board submarines throughout World War II, beginning in subordinate capacities and finally concluding the war in command of our own boats. Each of us has heard depth charges detonate alongside our boats, but not so successfully as others aimed at some of our good friends; and it is evident that depth charges sound surprisingly similar whether they be British, American, or Japanese. We have both participated in attacks on warships and merchantmen, and we have each seen great ships sink, sometimes gracefully and sometimes ignominiously, after the bottom-ripping burst of our warheads. The German submariners employed what I now recognize as nearly identical tactics to our own and both Werner and I have hurled futile imprecations upon our enemy for only doing his duty as well as he was able. So Herbert Werner and I have a close bond in common, even though I had never heard of him until I read his story. But granting all this, there are two traps to be avoided in any objective evaluation. The first is the trap of shared professionalism which may obscure important differences stemming from contrasting environment and objectives. The second is that the inevitable intrusion of feelings and attitudes from the war could, if unrecognized, influence the objective attitude we should seek today. A fine line of demarcation ensues, for we can admire the men who fought for Germany even as we must condemn Hitler and his Nazis. It is important for the proper appreciation of this book that this divergence of feelings be kept in mind and maintained in its proper place on both counts.

In his own preface, Werner tells why he felt impelled to write Iron Coffins. It has been an obligation of long standing, he says, and he wants to honor the thousands of his comrades who lie forever entombed in their steel graves at the bottom of the sea. The political passions of the war have no place in either his narrative or his professed objective; he does not indulge in invective against his enemies, even thought it is clear that he, like all of us, had his moments of vituperation. What he does say, however, merely by the telling of it, carries deep dramatic force, and the brutalization of all life touched by the war stands out in his book. It may sound strange, but ponder on this: the periods at sea—cramped in mold-ridden, diesel-hammering, oxygen-lacking, urine-reeking, excrement-laden, food-rotting, salt encrusted steel cockleshells, firing torpedoes in exultation, searching for convoys in frustration or receiving depth charges in stoic fear—these periods were the wholly admirable ones, regardless of who received the torpedoes or the depth charges, our side or theirs.

On the other hand, the times ashore were the times of degradation, and Werner does not spare us these. The picture of Germany in the spasm of defeat, infected with the moral destruction produced by war, appears ever more starkly as the ruin wrought by Hitler and his crew is played out to an inescapable and bitter end. Indeed, not the least contribution that Werner makes to the history of the second world-wide war is the personal picture of what war—total war—must inevitably mean to the decent men and women caught up in it.

None of this was totally unknown to the Allied side, even though we won the war and they lost it; but it was heightened in Germany. Through Werner we see lovely girls giving freely because men might soon die; we see civilians cowering in bunkers, afraid and hesitant to extend the hand of help to persons in worse condition than they; we see the profiteers—whatever the commodity, be it sex or food—and the hierarchy of superior staff echelons, protected from battles, having the best food and the prettiest girls, and giving desperate, unrealistic orders to an ever-dwindling cadre of fighting men.

But the war on the home front is not wnat this book is about. Its theme is a life of incredible hardships, terrifying warfare, absolutely fantastic determination, and unceasing dedication on the part of the German submariners. At the end of the book one can only survey their losses —fully ninety percent of those actively at sea (as compared to the usual count which included those in shore billets)—and one must lift one’s hat in tribute. One thing stands out clearly; toward the close of the war, when only two out of ten submarines leaving port were expected to return, they still went out in accordance with orders, and with high morale, knowing that most of them would not return.

It is the sad, terribly ironic truth, movingly faced by Werner, that toward the end most of them knew that their cause was lost. The heroism of the warrior, who is generally naïve, young, honorable and incorruptible, can never make up for a bad cause. Yet, in reviewing the post-war decades, it is manifest that this indomitability has been one of the assets upon which Germany has rebuilt her national honor.

Allied records for the submarine war in the Atlantic state that the turning point came about March 1943; the full weight of the escort aircraft carrier, improved radar, and new weapons were then thrown against the U-boats. Nowhere have I read a more dramatic account of how this all-out effort must have seemed to the men who were on the receiving end of it than in Werner’s story. The story is told without heroics. It can be fully appreciated only by another submariner of the war, but anyone can get the message. Take this passage: “Despite the dye marking our submergence, the Captain ordered an attack on the convoy before the escort could attack us. Chirping Asdic pings, bellowing detonations (of depth charges) and the grinding roar of a hundred engines provided grim background music for our assault.”

Tenacity was the strong point of these men, perhaps tenacity beyond logic or reasonable return for the risks taken—not that they individually had much choice in the matter—and the book ends, as it had to, on a note of demoralization and despair. But we have seen Werner grow into a tough-minded, cool, confident skipper. His was the last submarine to leave France during the retreat after the Allied invasion of 1944. Half a dozen predecessors died in the attempt, but he dared the gauntlet and brought his boat out safely with a load of people and equipment saved for a Germany which was too far gone to know or care. With his world cracking all around him, he was no longer the boy who went to sea five years before. He was now a man, although only twenty-five years old, able to see and record the breakdown all about him, note and yet stay above the danse macabre; recognize what had happened when the only reality left to him and his crew at the end was the reality of the leaky, obsolescent, damaged submarine to which they returned in relief from a shore leave too tragic to bear.

“Madness!” cries Werner from every page of the latter part of this book where he begins to question his country’s policies. He still records his amorous affairs between patrols, but it is worthy of remark that as the danse macabre became worse, the amours became less important to him. It was not that there was greater reticence, nor that the demands of a young fighting man were any the less compelling. He was simply drained far more than he is able to tell, drained soul and body, nearing the limit of his life-force. There was no more Germany as he had known it—it had vanished long before, something he had begun to understand when his father was imprisoned for befriending a Jewish girl. There was no more German Navy; that part of it, the sea-going part, which had held value for him was all destroyed. Only a gargoyle remained, a façade around headquarters by day, drinking and womanizing at night.

“Madness!” cries Werner, and it was madness. But there were heroes, too, who deserve admiration even though their cause was wrong and, therefore, their sacrifice was worthless. No one can fault the warrior who believes in his country so strongly that he dies for it.

This ought to permit these brave spirits to lie in peace, secure in the world’s regard for them and their memory. Madness though it was, these were the flower of young German manhood, unfortunately—but not to thek own discredit—early imbued with a warped ideal of how to achieve German destiny. They ought not to bear too harsh criticism, considering that the Treaty of Versailles is now hardly considered an ideal document. Furthermore, they were as a group unsullied by the cancer which afflicted the leading body politic. Because thek leaders told them so, they believed that if they fought desperately, they might save their country from the disaster plainly grinding in from every side. They expected death, and most of them found it; but they fought hard all the same, and they carpeted the ocean floor with thek bodies.

Edward L. Beach

Captain, U. S. Navy (Ret.)

U. S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island

15 February, 1969



THIS BOOK, which tells of my personal experiences in the German U-boat Force in World War II, fulfills an obligation of long standing. Since the end of that destructive war, the role of the U-boat Force has at times been distorted and underestimated, even by military historians who should have known better. Because I was one of the few U-boat commanders who fought through most of the war and who managed to survive, I felt it was my duty to my fallen comrades to set the record straight. Very much to the point, duty was the first and last word in the lexicon of the U-boat men; and, remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, we did our duty with a correct gallantry unsurpassed in any branch of service on either side. We were soldiers and patriots, no more and no less, and in our dedication to our lost cause we died in appalling numbers. But the great tragedy of the U-boat Force was not merely that so many good men perished; it was also that so many of our lives were squandered on inadequate equipment and by the unconscionable policies of U-boat Headquarters.

In retrospect, the crucial importance of the U-boat Force is unmistakably clear. Whether or not Germany could have won the war, she was certain to lose it if the gigantic production of American factories reached England in sufficient quantity. On this proposition the lines were drawn for the epic “Battle of the Atlantic,” in which the U-boats served as the vanguards of Germany’s defense. No less an authority than Winston Churchill declared, “The battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with apprehension.” It is significant that Churchill, who knew all too well the ravages of the Luftwaffe and of Germany’s V-l and V-2 rockets, also wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” As viewed from the other side, Germany’s fortunes in the war closely paralleled the rise and fall of the U-boat Force. The connection grew ever more obvious to me each time I came ashore after a long patrol.

The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 surprised the German Navy; the U-boat Force in particular was caught fully unprepared. This state of affairs was dictated by a treaty, entered into between Germany and Great Britain in 1935, which limited German naval strength to 35 per cent of Britain’s in order to maintain the tenuous balance of power that existed at the time. Germany in 1939 had just 57 commissioned U-boats, of which 52 were of small displacement and capable of only short coastal missions. The other five U-boats were larger craft designed for long-range patrols lasting eight weeks. Out of the total of 57, however, 18 U-boats were set aside for the training of new crews. Thus only 39 operational U-boats were available to take on the mighty British Navy, the huge British merchant fleet, the navies and merchant fleets of England’s Allies, and an inexhaustible number of neutral ships that sailed under contract to the Allies.

Nonetheless, the first year of the U-boat war was extremely rewarding for Germany. Though the Force lost 28 boats, it destroyed one British aircraft carrier, one battleship, five cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines and 438 merchant vessels totaling 2.3 million gross-weight tons. Moreover, in the summer of 1940, after the surrender of France, our U-boats were gradually relocated southward to French ports on the Bay of Biscay. This move shortened our routes to and from the Atlantic and signaled a new phase of the war at sea—the great battles of the convoys.

Simultaneously Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat Force as of 1935, launched an ambitious program to construct the largest fleet of submersibles that the world had even seen. The most advanced U-boat of that time, Type VII, became the standard Atlantic U-boat; it had a displacement of 770 tons and a cruising range of 9,000 nautical miles. In the course of the war, 694 boats of this type were built and up-dated periodically with new improvements; they accounted for some 90 per cent of Allied shipping losses. In addition, more than 200 larger U-boats were constructed to lay mines, to transport critical war materials and, most important, to resupply the combat U-boats at sea with fuel oil, torpedoes, and provisions.

Great Britain soon felt the sting of this stepped-up building program. Unrestricted U-boat warfare against the North Atlantic convoy routes resulted in the destruction of 310,000 tons of shipping in one four-week period in the fall of 1940. Allied losses rose to 142 vessels totaling 815,000 tons in a two-month period in the spring of 1941, and a year and a half of U-boat warfare cost the Allies more than 700 ships totaling 3.4 million tons. Churchill wrote of England’s darkest hour: “The pressure grew increasingly, and our shipping losses were fearfully above our construction. . . . Meanwhile the new ‘wolf-pack’ tactics . . . were rigorously applied by the redoubtable Prien and other tip-top U-boat commanders.”

In May 1941, when I saw the first of my U-boat battles, our attacks on the shipping lanes were one-sided triumphs; Allied countermeasures—the use of radar, aircraft surveillance and new-type destroyers and convoy escorts— were still in their infancy and posed no serious threat to our raiders. This situation was not changed by the addition of 50 U.S. destroyers to the British fleet as part of the Anglo-American lend-lease agreement. By the end of 1941, our confident assumption of total victory seemed to lie within easy reach: Allied losses that year alone amounted to 750 merchant vessels totaling almost 3 million tons.

Shortly after the United States entered the war, the U-boats extended their activities to the American east coast and raided shipping there with devastating results. During the first six months of hostilities against the United States, our boats sank 495 vessels totaling 2.5 million tons. Besides patrolling our North Atlantic and Caribbean hunting grounds, U-boats prowled the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, and a few even showed up in the Pacific. In 1942, the most successful year in U-boat history, more than 1,200 Allied ships—nearly 7 million tons—were sent to the bottom.

But March of 1943, which brought the U-boat war to the peak of success, also heralded disaster. That month the U-boat Force sank over 750,000 tons of Allied shipping—and suffered a sharp and puzzling increase in losses. This unexpected turn of events was the opening gun of a carefully prepared Allied counteroffensive. The Allies had developed many new weapons, including fast escort vessels, small aircraft carriers, and a much-improved radar device. They had produced and assembled great numbers of escorts, carrier-based attack aircraft, and long-range land-based bombers. Bringing all of these elements into conjunction in April, the Allies struck back with such overwhelming numerical and technical superiority that fully 40 per cent of our U-boat force was destroyed within a few weeks. The Allied counteroffensive permanently reversed the tide of battle. Almost overnight, the hunters had become the hunted, and through the rest of the war our boats were slaughtered at a fearful rate.

The U-boat Force tried desperately to counter the counteroffensive, but to no avail. In 1943, when I was Executive Officer of U-230, we were losing boats faster than we could replace them. By the summer of 1943, our toll of Allied shipping had fallen to a monthly average of 150,000 tons—this at a tune when the Allies’ shipbuilding capacity reached 1 million tons per month.

The plain fact of the matter was that the U-boat had become obsolete. Too long she had remained essentially a surface vessel that submerged only occasionally to remain unseen while launching an attack or escaping a pursuer. Headquarters did develop the Schnorkel, a device that permitted the U-boat to gape for air and recharge her batteries while staying submerged throughout her patrol. But the Schnorkel did not come into general use until March 1944, 10 fatal months after the Allied counteroffensive; and five more months passed before the life-preserving device was installed in all older U-boats. It was not until August 1944, when I sailed on my fifth U-boat, the second under my command, that a Schnorkel relieved me of the constant life-or-death game of surfacing for air, only to crash-dive minutes later before sophisticated attacks by Allied airplanes and destroyers. Moreover, the Schnorkel alone was far from an adequate answer to the Allied aircraft and hunter-killer groups. The U-boat was still dangerously slow and highly vulnerable in general, and deaf and defenseless in particular while using the Schnorkel.

The only real solution was a radically new U-boat. Several such types had been on German drawing boards for years: they were designed to sail submerged for hours at higher speeds than a destroyer, to shoot from a safe depth, and to carry twice as many torpedoes as the conventional U-boat. These underwater wonders were constantly promised to the Force. But they were not put into production until the collapse of the U-boat war, and very few of them were commissioned in time to see action.

So the U-boat Force fought with what it had and, in the last year of the war, it accomplished little but self-destruction. One by one, our crews sailed out obediently, even optimistically, on ludicrous missions that ended in death. The few veteran commanders still in action were decimated despite their experience in the arts of survival. New captains, even with veteran crews, stood virtually no chance of returning from their first patrols.

When hostilities finally ceased in May 1945, the ocean floor was littered with the wreckage of the U-boat war. Our boats had destroyed 2,882 merchant vessels totaling 14.4 million grossweight tons; in addition, U-boats had sunk 175 Allied warships and damaged 264 merchant ships totaling 1.9 million tons. In return, we had paid an incredible price. Our total of 1,150 commissioned U-boats met the following fate: 779 were sunk, two were captured, and the rest were either scuttled or surrendered as ordered at war’s end. Out of a total enlistment of 39,000 men, the U-boat Force lost 28,000 men killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. This represents 85 per cent casualties.

Yet even these figures do not reveal the full extent of the U-boat disaster. Since only 842 U-boats saw battle duty, and since 781 of these were lost, 93 per cent of the operational U-boat Force was wiped out. In concrete terms, the toll seems even more shocking. Our tremendous U-boat Force on the Atlantic Front was reduced to a mere 68 operational boats by the time that the Allies invaded France in June 1944, and only three of these boats were still afloat at war’s end. One of the three survivors was U-953, which I commanded as her last captain.

My account of the U-boat struggle was written with the aid of notes I took during the war, along with photographs and letters that I managed to save from the holocaust on the Continent and the disaster at sea. Though I relied heavily on memory, my recollections are still uncomfortably vivid and will remain so, I am afraid, until their pressure is lifted by my demise. In addition, I insured the proper sequence of events by referring to a brochure published by Heidenheimer Druckerei und Verlag GMBH, which lists the fate of every U-boat. All boats are referred to here by the actual U-number. The dates and hours of events are very close to correct and sometimes accurate to the minute. The radio messages, including signals sent by Headquarters as well as by U-boats, have been reconstructed with care. The three lengthy transmissions from Admiral Doenitz are exact translations.

No less authentic are certain startling episodes in the book—episodes which are little known or which have been long suppressed. More than a few American naval officers can attest to the fact that U.S. warships, including the destroyers Greer, Reuben James, and Kearney, made attacks on U-boats as early as the summer of 1941, thus waging an undeclared war on Germany. I have yet to see any published reference to a shocking order issued by U-boat Headquarters just before the Allied invasion of Normandy. It ordered the commanders of 15 U-boats to attack the vast invasion fleet and, after their torpedoes were spent, to destroy a ship by ramming—i.e., by committing suicide.

Every individual mentioned in the book was a real person. The two commanders under whom I was privileged to serve are called by their actual names. So are other U-boat captains and distinguished flotilla officers, many of whom I knew as friends. So, too, are my closest comrades in the battles at sea and the escapades in port; sadly, almost all of them are dead. To protect the living, I have changed a few names; it would have been less than gentlemanly to reveal women I knew who have long since become the faithful wives of other men. But this book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget—that war is evil, that it murders men—then I consider this my most constructive deed.

January 1969

Herbert A. Werner


Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 12:52 PM  Comments (2)  
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Little Porch at Night

Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise longue.
Tell me the empty dark will fill with voices
And talk to me before I end my song.

A summer night, and something has gone wrong
To rob the mild air of familiar faces.
Pull up a porch chair. Next to this chaise longue

A mother should be standing with her long
Hair tucked into a bun. Unwind those tresses
And talk to me before I end my song.

That vacant angle where a hammock hung
Adopts the whole moon in its loneliness.
Pull up a porch chair. Next to this chaise longue.

Summon the fireflies, matches struck and gone,
The Morse code of the stars who’ve lost their places,
And talk to me before I end my song,

For down there in the shallows should be strung
A taut line from a father to the sea he fishes.
Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise longue
And talk to me before I end my song.

—Gibbons Ruark


Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 9:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Second Nabokov Interview

Vladimir Nabokov—Lepidopterist

Nabokov’s interview, BBC Television [1962]

In mid-July, 1962, Peter Duval-Smith and Christopher Burstall came for a BBC television interview to Zermatt where I happened to be collecting that summer. The lepidoptera lived up to the occasion, so did the weather. My visitors and their crew had never paid much attention to those insects and I was touched and flattered by the childish wonderment with which they viewed the crowds of butterflies imbibing moisture on brookside mud at various spots of the mountain trail. Pictures were taken of the swarms that arose at my passage, and other hours of the day were devoted to the reproduction of the interview proper. It eventually appeared on the Bookstand program and was published in The Listener (November 22, 1962). I have mislaid the cards on which I had written my answers. I suspect that the published text was taken straight from the tape for it teems with inaccuracies. These I have tried to weed out ten years later but was forced to strike out a few sentences here and there when memory refused to restore the sense flawed by defective or improperly mended speech.

The poem I quote (with metrical accents added) will be found translated into English in Chapter Two of The Gift, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1963.

Would you ever go back to Russia?

I will never go back, for the simple reason that all the Russia I need is always with me: literature, language, and my own Russian childhood. I will never return. I will never surrender. And anyway, the grotesque shadow of a police state will not be dispelled in my lifetime. I don’t think they know my works there—oh, perhaps a number of readers exist there in my special secret service, but let us not forget that Russia has grown tremendously provincial during these forty years, apart from the fact that people there are told what to read, what to think. In America I’m happier than in any other country. It is in America that I found my best readers, minds that are closest to mine. I feel intellectually at home in America. It is a second home in the true sense of the word.

You’re a professional lepidopterist?

Yes, I’m interested in the classification, variation, evolution, structure, distribution, habits, of lepidoptera: this sounds very grand, but actually I’m an expert in only a very small group of butterflies. I have contributed several works on butterflies to the various scientific journals—but I want to repeat that my interest in butterflies is exclusively scientific.

Is there any connection with your writing?

There is in a general way, because I think that in a work of art there is a kind of merging between the two things, between the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science.

In your new novel, Pale Fire, one of the characters says that reality is neither the subject nor the object of real art, which creates its own reality. What is that reality?

Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects—that machine, there, for instance. It’s a complete ghost to me—I don’t understand a thing about it and, well, it’s a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron.

You say that reality is an intensely subjective matter, but in your books it seems to me that y ou seem to take an almost perverse delight in literary deception.

The fake move in a chess problem, the illusion of a solution or the conjuror’s magic: I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy. I loved doing simple tricks—turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I’m in good company because all art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation. Do you know how poetry started? I always think that it started when a cave boy came running back to the cave, through the tall grass, shouting as he ran, “Wolf, wolf,” and there was no wolf. His baboon-like parents, great sticklers for the truth, gave him a hiding, no doubt, but poetry had been born—the tall story had been born in the tall grass.

You talk about games of deception, like chess and conjuring. Are you, in fact, fond of them yourself?

I am fond of chess but deception in chess, as in art, is only part of the game; it’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception.

You spoke about conjuring in Russia, as a child, and one remembers that some of the most intense passages in a number of your books are concerned with the memories of your lost childhood. What is the importance of memory to you?

Memory is, really, in itself, a tool, one of the many tools that an artist uses; and some recollections, perhaps intellectual rather than emotional, are very brittle and sometimes apt to lose the flavor of reality when they are immersed by the novelist in his book, when they are given away to characters.

Do you mean that you lose the sense of a memory once you have written it down?

Sometimes, but that only refers to a certain type of intellectual memory. But, for instance—oh, I don’t know, the freshness of the flowers being arranged by the undergardener in the cool drawing-room of our country house, as I was running downstairs with my butterfly net on a summer day half a century ago: that kind of thing is absolutely permanent, immortal, it can never change, no matter how many times I farm it out to my characters, it is always there with me; there’s the red sand, the white garden bench, the black fir trees, everything, a permanent possession. I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is. I think it’s natural that I have a more passionate affection for my old memories, the memories of my childhood, than I have for later ones, so that Cambridge in England or Cambridge in New England is less vivid in my mind and in my self than some kind of nook in the park on our country estate in Russia.

Do you think that such an intense power of memory as yours has inhibited your desire to invent in your books?

No, I don’t think so.

The same sort of incident turns up again and again, sometimes in slightly different forms.

That depends on my characters.

Do you still feel Russian, in spite of so many years in America?

I do feel Russian and I think that my Russian works, the various novels and poems and short stories that I have written during these years, are a kind of tribute to Russia. And I might define them as the waves and ripples of the shock caused by the disappearance of the Russia of my childhood. And recently I have paid tribute to her in an English work on Pushkin.

Why are you so passionately concerned with Pushkin?

It started with a translation, a literal translation. T thought it was very difficult and the more difficult it was, the more exciting it seemed. So it’s not so much caring about Pushkin—I love him dearly of course, he is the greatest Russian poet, there is no doubt about that– but it was again the combination of the excitement of finding the right way of doing things and a certain approach to reality, to the reality of Pushkin, through my own translations. As a matter of fact I am very much concerned with things Russian and I have just finished revising a good translation of my novel, The Gift, which I wrote about thirty years ago. It is the longest, I think the best, and the most nostalgic of my Russian novels. It portrays the adventures, literary and romantic, of a young Russian expatriate in Berlin, in the twenties; but he’s not myself. I am very careful to keep my characters beyond the limits of my own identity. Only the background of the novel can be said to contain some biographical touches. And there is another thing about it that pleases me: probably my favorite Russian poem is one that I happened to give to my main character in that novel.

Written by yourself?

Which I wrote myself, of course; and now I’m wondering whether I might be able to recite it in Russian. Let me explain it: there are two persons involved, a boy and a girl, standing on a bridge above the reflected sunset, and there are swallows skimming by, and the boy turns to the girl and says to her, “Tell me, will you always remember that swallow?– not any kind of swallow, not those swallows, there, but that particular swallow that skimmed by?” And she says, “Of course I will,” and they both burst into tears.

Odnazhdy my pod-vecher oba

Stoyali na starom mostu.

Skazhi mne, sprosil ya, do groba

Zapomnish’ von lastochku tu?

I ty otvechala: eshchyo by!

I kak my zaplakali oba,

Kak vskriknula zhizn’ na letu!

Do zavtra, naveki, do groba,

Odnazhdy na starom mostu . . .

What language do you think in?

I don’t think in any language. I think in images. I don’t believe that people think in languages. They don’t move their lips when they think. It is only a certain type of illiterate person who moves his lips as he reads or ruminates. No, I think in images, and now and then a Russian phrase or an English phrase will form with the foam of the brainwave, but that’s about all.

You started writing in Russian and then you switched to English, didn’t you?

Yes, that was a very difficult kind of switch. My private tragedy, which cannot, indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English.

You have written a shelf of books in English as well as your books in Russian. And of them only Lolita is well known. Does it annoy you to be the Lolita man?

No, I wouldn’t say that, because Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book– the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.

Were you surprised at the wild success when it came?

I was surprised that the book was published at all.

Did you, in fact, have any doubts about whether Lolita ought to be printed, considering its subject matter?

No; after all, when you write a book you generally envisage its publication, in some far future. But I was pleased that the book was published.

What was the genesis of Lolita?

She was born a long time ago, it must have been in 1939, in Paris; the first little throb of Lolita went through me in Paris in ’39, or perhaps early in ’40, at a time when I was laid up with a fierce attack of intercostal neuralgia which is a very painful complaint—rather like the fabulous stitch in Adam’s side. As far as I can recall the first shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted in a rather mysterious way by a newspaper story, I think it was in Paris Soir, about an ape in the Paris Zoo, who after months of coaxing by scientists produced finally the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal, and this sketch, reproduced in the paper, showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.

Did Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged seducer, have any original?

No. He’s a man I devised, a man with an obsession, and I think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different kinds of obsessions; but he never existed. He did exist after I had written the book. While I was writing the book, here and there in a newspaper I would read all sorts of accounts about elderly gentlemen who pursued little girls: a kind of interesting coincidence but that’s about all.

Did Lolita herself have an original?

No, Lolita didn’t have any original. She was born in my own mind. She never existed. As a matter of fact, I don’t know little girls very well. When I consider this subject, I don’t think I know a single little girl. I’ve met them socially now and then, but Lolita is a figment of my imagination.

Why did you write Lolita?

It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions.

How do you write? What are your methods?

I find now that index cards are really the best kind of paper that I can use for the purpose. I don’t write consecutively from the beginning to the next chapter and so on to the end. I just fill in the gaps of the picture, of this jigsaw puzzle which is quite clear in my mind, picking out a piece here and a piece there and filling out part of the sky and part of the landscape and part of the—I don’t know, the carousing hunters.

Another aspect of your not entirely usual consciousness is the extraordinary importance you attach to color.

Color. I think I was born a painter—really!—and up to my fourteenth year, perhaps, I used to spend most of the day drawing and painting and I was supposed to become a painter in due time. But I don’t think I had any real talent there. However, the sense of color, the love of color, I’ve had all my life: and also I have this rather freakish gift of seeing letters in color. It’s called color hearing. Perhaps one in a thousand has that. But I’m told by psychologists that most children have it, that later they lose that aptitude when they are told by stupid parents that it’s all nonsense, an A isn’t black, a B isn’t brown—now don’t be absurd.

What colors are your own initials, VN?

V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish- yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different. It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time—I think he was ten or eleven—sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that color, this is this color,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.

Whom do you write for? What audience?

I don’t think that an artist should bother about his audience. His best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning. I think that the audience an artist imagines, when he imagines that kind of a thing, is a room filled with people wearing his own mask.

In your books there is an almost extravagant concern with masks and disguises: almost as if you were trying to hide yourself behind something, as if you’d lost yourself.

Oh, no. I think I’m always there; there’s no difficulty about that. Of course there is a certain type of critic who when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i’s with the author’s head. Recently one anonymous clown, writing on Pale Fire in a New York book review, mistook all the declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own. It is also true that some of my more responsible characters are given some of my own ideas. There is John Shade in Pale Fire, the poet. He does borrow some of my own opinions. There is one passage in his poem, which is part of the book, where he says something I think I can endorse. He says—let me quote it, if I can remember; yes, I think I can do it: “I loathe such things as jazz, the white-hosed moron torturing a black bull, rayed with red, abstractist bric-a-brac, primitivist folk masks, progressive schools, music in supermarkets, swimming pools, brutes, bores, class-conscious philistines, Freud, Marx, fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.” That’s how it goes.

It is obvious that neither John Shade nor his creator are very clubbable men.

I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co- sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take part in demonstrations.

It sometimes seems to me that in your novels—in Laughter in the Dark for instance—there is a strain of perversity amounting to cruelty.

I don’t know. Maybe. Some of my characters are, no doubt, pretty beastly, but I really don’t care, they are outside my inner self like the mournful monsters of a cathedral façade—demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out. Actually, I’m a mild old gentleman who loathes cruelty.


Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 3:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Ebbing Tide

FROM Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson

Hunter S Thompson

“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened . . . There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning . . . And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”


Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 3:11 PM  Leave a Comment  

Dark Encounter

FROM To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, floundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots. Someone rolled against me and I felt Jem. He was up like lightning and pulling me with him but, though my head and shoulders were free, I was so entangled we didn’t get very far.

We were nearly to the road when I felt Jem’s hand leave me, felt him jerk backwards to the ground. More scuffling, and there came a dull crunching sound and Jem screamed.

I ran in the direction of Jem’s scream and sank into a flabby male stomach. Its owner said, “Uff!” and tried to catch my arms, but they were tightly pinioned. His stomach was soft but his arms were like steel. He slowly squeezed the breath out of me. I could not move. Suddenly he was jerked backwards and flung on the ground, almost carrying me with him. I thought, Jem’s up.

One’s mind works very slowly at times. Stunned, I stood there dumbly. The scuffling noises were dying; someone wheezed and the night was still again.

Still but for a man breathing heavily, breathing heavily and staggering. I thought he went to the tree and leaned against it. He coughed violently, a sobbing, bone-shaking cough.


There was no answer but the man’s heavy breathing.


Jem didn’t answer.

The man began moving around, as if searching for something. I heard him groan and pull something heavy along the ground. It was slowly coming to me that there were now four people under the tree.


The man was walking heavily and unsteadily toward the road.

I went to where I thought he had been and felt frantically along the ground, reaching out with my toes. Presently I touched someone.


My toes touched trousers, a belt buckle, buttons, something I could not identify, a collar, and a face. A prickly stubble on the face told me it was not Jem’s. I smelled stale whiskey.

I made my way along in what I thought was the direction of the road. I was not sure, because I had been turned around so many times. But I found it and looked down to the street light. A man was passing under it. The man was walking with the staccato steps of someone carrying a load too heavy for him. He was going around the corner. He was carrying Jem. Jem’s arm was dangling crazily in front of him.

By the time I reached the corner the man was crossing our front yard. Light from our front door framed Atticus for an instant; he ran down the steps, and together, he and the man took Jem inside.

I was at the front door when they were going down the hall. Aunt Alexandra was running to meet me. “Call Dr. Reynolds!” Atticus’s voice came sharply from Jem’s room. “Where’s Scout?”

“Here she is,” Aunt Alexandra called, pulling me along with her to the telephone. She tugged at me anxiously. “I’m all right, Aunty,” I said, “you better call.”

She pulled the receiver from the hook and said, “Eula May, get Dr. Reynolds, quick!”

“Agnes, is your father home? Oh God, where is he? Please tell him to come over here as soon as he comes in. Please, it’s urgent!”

There was no need for Aunt Alexandra to identify herself, people in Maycomb knew each other’s voices.

Atticus came out of Jem’s room. The moment Aunt Alexandra broke the connection, Atticus took the receiver from her. He rattled the hook, then said, “Eula May, get me the sheriff, please.”

“Heck? Atticus Finch. Someone’s been after my children. Jem’s hurt. Between here and the schoolhouse. I can’t leave my boy. Run out there for me, please, and see if he’s still around. Doubt if you’ll find him now, but I’d like to see him if you do. Got to go now. Thanks, Heck.”

“Atticus, is Jem dead?”

“No, Scout. Look after her, sister,” he called, as he went down the hall.

Aunt Alexandra’s fingers trembled as she unwound the crushed fabric and wire from around me. “Are you all right, darling?” she asked over and over as she worked me free.

It was a relief to be out. My arms were beginning to tingle, and they were red with small hexagonal marks. I rubbed them, and they felt better.

“Aunty, is Jem dead?”

“No—no, darling, he’s unconscious. We won’t know how badly he’s hurt until Dr. Reynolds gets here. Jean Louise, what happened?”

“I don’t know.”

She left it at that. She brought me something to put on, and had I thought about it then, I would have never let her forget it: in her distraction, Aunty brought me my overalls. “Put these on, darling,” she said, handing me the garments she most despised.

She rushed back to Jem’s room, then came to me in the hall. She patted me vaguely, and went back to Jem’s room.

A car stopped in front of the house. I knew Dr. Reynolds’s step almost as well as my father’s. He had brought Jem and me into the world, had led us through every childhood disease known to man including the time Jem fell out of the treehouse, and he had never lost our friendship. Dr. Reynolds said if we had been boil-prone things would have been different, but we doubted it.

He came in the door and said, “Good Lord.” He walked toward me, said, “You’re still standing,” and changed his course. He knew every room in the house. He also knew that if I was in bad shape, so was Jem.

After ten forevers Dr. Reynolds returned. “Is Jem dead?” I asked.

“Far from it,” he said, squatting down to me. “He’s got a bump on the head just like yours, and a broken arm. Scout, look that way—no, don’t turn your head, roll your eyes. Now look over yonder. He’s got a bad break, so far as I can tell now it’s in the elbow. Like somebody tried to wring his arm off… Now look at me.”

“Then he’s not dead?”

“No-o!” Dr. Reynolds got to his feet. “We can’t do much tonight,” he said, “except try to make him as comfortable as we can. We’ll have to X-ray his arm—looks like he’ll be wearing his arm ‘way out by his side for a while. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be as good as new. Boys his age bounce.”

While he was talking, Dr. Reynolds had been looking keenly at me, lightly fingering the bump that was coming on my forehead. “You don’t feel broke anywhere, do you?”

Dr. Reynolds’s small joke made me smile. “Then you don’t think he’s dead, then?”

He put on his hat. “Now I may be wrong, of course, but I think he’s very alive. Shows all the symptoms of it. Go have a look at him, and when I come back we’ll get together and decide.”

Dr. Reynolds’s step was young and brisk. Mr. Heck Tate’s was not. His heavy boots punished the porch and he opened the door awkwardly, but he said the same thing Dr. Reynolds said when he came in. “You all right, Scout?” he added.

“Yes sir, I’m goin‘ in to see Jem. Atticus’n’them’s in there.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Mr. Tate.

Aunt Alexandra had shaded Jem’s reading light with a towel, and his room was dim. Jem was lying on his back. There was an ugly mark along one side of his face. His left arm lay out from his body; his elbow was bent slightly, but in the wrong direction. Jem was frowning.


Atticus spoke. “He can’t hear you, Scout, he’s out like a light. He was coming around, but Dr. Reynolds put him out again.”

“Yes sir.” I retreated. Jem’s room was large and square. Aunt Alexandra was sitting in a rocking-chair by the fireplace. The man who brought Jem in was standing in a corner, leaning against the wall. He was some countryman I did not know. He had probably been at the pageant, and was in the vicinity when it happened. He must have heard our screams and come running.

Atticus was standing by Jem’s bed.

Mr. Heck Tate stood in the doorway. His hat was in his hand, and a flashlight bulged from his pants pocket. He was in his working clothes.

“Come in, Heck,” said Atticus. “Did you find anything? I can’t conceive of anyone low-down enough to do a thing like this, but I hope you found him.”

Mr. Tate sniffed. He glanced sharply at the man in the corner, nodded to him, then looked around the room—at Jem, at Aunt Alexandra, then at Atticus.

“Sit down, Mr. Finch,” he said pleasantly.

Atticus said, “Let’s all sit down. Have that chair, Heck. I’ll get another one from the livingroom.”

Mr. Tate sat in Jem’s desk chair. He waited until Atticus returned and settled himself. I wondered why Atticus had not brought a chair for the man in the corner, but Atticus knew the ways of country people far better than I. Some of his rural clients would park their long-eared steeds under the chinaberry trees in the back yard, and Atticus would often keep appointments on the back steps. This one was probably more comfortable where he was.

“Mr. Finch,” said Mr. Tate, “tell you what I found. I found a little girl’s dress—it’s out there in my car. That your dress, Scout?”

“Yes sir, if it’s a pink one with smockin‘,” I said. Mr. Tate was behaving as if he were on the witness stand. He liked to tell things his own way, untrammeled by state or defense, and sometimes it took him a while.

“I found some funny-looking pieces of muddy-colored cloth—”

“That’s m’costume, Mr. Tate.”

Mr. Tate ran his hands down his thighs. He rubbed his left arm and investigated Jem’s mantelpiece, then he seemed to be interested in the fireplace. His fingers sought his long nose.

“What is it, Heck?” said Atticus.

Mr. Tate found his neck and rubbed it. “Bob Ewell’s lyin‘ on the ground under that tree down yonder with a kitchen knife stuck up under his ribs. He’s dead, Mr. Finch.”


Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 2:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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While we are postponing, life speeds by.  —Seneca

Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 8:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Modern Greek for “Nightmare” Is “Ephialtes”

I think, what brought you to this pass?
Heroes lie thick, anonymous,

Blurred with honorable mention
In mass graves of fine intention,

And yet even now dreams yield
On their unequal battlefield

Betrayal’s still familiar face,
The name that nothing can erase,

Not even final victory.
Sleep has no sense of history:

Even now I lose the day,
Always look the other way,

While old treachery awaits
The heart’s warm springs, its hot gates.

—A. E. Stallings

[Ephialtes: the Greek who betrayed the Spartans to the Persians at Thermopylae]


Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 7:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.

—Isaac Asimov

Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 7:16 PM  Leave a Comment  

Nabokov Recalls a Joint Interview

On the morning of June 5, 1962, the Queen Elizabeth brought my wife and me from Cherbourg to New York for the film premiere of Lolita. On the day of our arrival three or four journalists interviewed me at the St. Regis hotel. I have a little cluster of names jotted down in my pocket diary but am not sure which, if any, refers to that group. The questions and answers were typed from my notes immediately after the interview.

Interviewers do not find you a particularly stimulating person. Why is that so?

I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk in my life. I never use schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent.

Still there must be things that move you—likes and dislikes.

My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music. My pleasures are the most intense known to man: writing and butterfly hunting.

You write everything in longhand, don’t you?

Yes. I cannot type.

Would you agree to show us a sample of your rough drafts?

I’m afraid I must refuse. Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts. It is like passing around samples of one’s sputum.

Do you read many new novels? Why do you laugh?

I laugh because well-meaning publishers keep sending me—with “hope-you-will-like-it-as- much-as-we-do” letters—only one kind of fiction: novels truffled with obscenities, fancy words, and would-be weird incidents. They seem to be all by one and the same writer—who is not even the shadow of my shadow.

What is your opinion of the so-called “anti-novel” in France?

I am not interested in groups, movements, schools of writing and so forth. I am interested only in the individual artist. This “anti-novel” does not really exist; but there does exist one great French writer, Robbe-Grillet; his work is grotesquely imitated by a number of banal scribblers whom a phony label assists commercially.

I notice you “haw” and “er”a great deal. Is it a sign of approaching senility?

Not at all. I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a

1miracle. I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.

What about TV appearances?

Well (you always begin with “well” on TV), after one such appearance in London a couple of years ago I was accused by a naive critic of squirming and avoiding the camera. The interview, of course, had been carefully rehearsed. I had carefully written out all my answers (and most of the questions), and because I am such a helpless speaker, I had my notes (mislaid since) on index cards arranged before me—ambushed behind various innocent props; hence I could neither stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner.

Yet you have lectured extensively-

In 1940, before launching on my academic career in America, I fortunately took the trouble of writing one hundred lectures—about 2,000 pages—on Russian literature, and later another hundred lectures on great novelists from Jane Austen to James Joyce. This kept me happy at Wellesley and Cornell for twenty academic years. Although, at the lectern, I evolved a subtle up and down movement of my eyes, there was never any doubt in the minds of alert students that I was reading, not speaking.

When did you start writing in English?

I was bilingual as a baby (Russian and English) and added French at five years of age. In my early boyhood all the notes I made on the butterflies I collected were in English, with various terms borrowed from that most delightful magazine The Entomologist. It published my first paper (on Crimean butterflies) in 1920. The same year I contributed a poem in English to the Trinity Magazine, Cambridge, while I was a student there (1919-1922). After that in Berlin and in Paris I wrote my Russian books—poems, stories, eight novels. They were read by a reasonable percentage of the three million Russian emigres, and were of course absolutely banned and ignored in Soviet Russia. In the middle thirties I translated for publication in English two of my Russian novels, Despair and Camera Obscura (retitled Laughter in the Dark in America). The first novel that I wrote directly in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in 1939 in Paris. After moving to America in 1940, I contributed poems and stories to The Atlantic and The New Yorkerand wrote four novels. Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957) and Pale Fire (1962). I have also published an autobiography, Speak, Memory (1951), and several scientific papers on the taxonomy of butterflies.

Would you like to talk about Lolita?

Well, no. I said everything I wanted to say about the book in the Afterword appended to its American and British editions.

Did you find it hard to write the script of Lolita?

The hardest part was taking the plunge—deciding to undertake the task. In 1959 I was invited to Hollywood by Harris and Kubrick, but after several consultations with them I decided I did not want to do it. A year later, in Lugano, I received a telegram from them urging me to reconsider my decision. In the meantime a kind of script had somehow taken shape in my imagination so that actually I was glad they had repeated their offer. I traveled once more to Hollywood and there, under the jacarandas, worked for six months on the thing. Turning one’s novel into a movie script is rather like making a series of sketches for a painting that has long ago been finished and framed. I composed new scenes and speeches in an effort to safeguard a Lolita acceptable to me. I knew that if I did not write the script somebody else would, and I also knew that at best the end product in such cases is less of a blend than a collision of interpretations. I have not yet seen the picture. It may turn out to be a lovely morning mist as perceived through mosquito netting, or it may turn out to be the swerves of a scenic drive as felt by the horizontal passenger of an ambulance. From my seven or eight sessions with Kubrick during the writing of the script I derived the impression that he was an artist, and it is on this impression that I base my hopes of seeing a plausible Lolita on June 13th in New York.

What are you working at now?

I am reading the proofs of my translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse which, with a huge commentary, will be brought out by the Bollingen Foundation in four handsome volumes of more than five hundred pages each.

Could you describe this work?

During my years of teaching literature at Cornell and elsewhere I demanded of my students the passion of science and the patience of poetry. As an artist and scholar I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam.

And so you preserved the fruit?

Yes. My tastes and disgusts have influenced my ten-yearlong work on Eugene Onegin. In translating its 5500 lines into English I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason. My only ambition has been to provide a crib, a pony, an absolutely literal translation of the thing, with copious and pedantic notes whose bulk far exceeds the text of the poem. Only a paraphrase “reads well”; my translation does not; it is honest and clumsy, ponderous and slavishly faithful. I have several notes to every stanza (of which there are more than 400, counting the variants). This commentary contains a discussion of the original melody and a complete explication of the text.

Do you like being interviewed?

Well, the luxury of speaking on one theme—oneself—is a sensation not to be despised. But the result is sometimes puzzling. Recently the Paris paper Candide had me spout wild nonsense in an idiotic setting. But I have also often met with considerable fair play. Thus Esquire printed all my corrections to the account of an interview that I found full of errors. Gossip writers are harder to keep track of, and they are apt to be very careless. Leonard Lyons made me explain why I let my wife handle motion picture transactions by the absurd and tasteless remark: “Anyone who can handle a butcher can handle a producer.”

Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 6:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Death is that after which nothing is of interest.  —Rozinov
Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 5:20 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Eye of the Beholder

FROM The Ship by C S Forester [Published 1943]

Presteign was the right-handed loader of the pompom, his duty being to replace regularly the short heavy belts of shells on that side, a job he carried out accurately and unfailingly; that goes without saying, for if he had not he would never have remained entrusted with it, Harris’s friendship notwithstanding. It was odd that he and Harris were such devoted friends. It was odd that Presteign was so quick and efficient at his work. For Presteign was a poet.

Not many people knew that. Jerningham did-one evening in the wardroom the Gunnery Lieutenant had tossed over to him one of the letters he was censoring, with a brief introduction.

‘Here, Jerningham, you’re a literary man. This ought to be in your line.’

Jerningham glanced over the sheet. It was a piece of verse, written in the typical uneducated scrawl of the lower deck, and Jerningham smiled pityingly as he first observed the shortness of the lines which revealed it to be lower-deck poetry. He nearly tossed it back again unread, for it went against the grain a little to laugh at someone’s ineffective soul-stirrings. It was a little like laughing at a cripple; there are strange things to be read occasionally in the correspondence of six hundred men. But to oblige the Gunnery Lieutenant, Jerningham looked through the thing, reluctantly-he did not want to have to smile at crude rhymes and weak scansion. The rhymes were correct, he noted with surprise, and something in the sequence of them caught his notice so that he looked again. The verse was a sonnet in the Shakespearian form, perfectly correct, and for the first time he read it through with attention. It was a thing of beauty, of loveliness, exquisitely sweet, with a honeyed rhythm; as he read it the rhymes rang in his mental ear like the chiming of a distant church bell across a beautiful landscape. He looked up at the Gunnery Lieutenant.

‘This is all right,’ he said, with the misleading understatement of all the wardrooms of the British Navy. ‘It’s the real thing.’

The Gunnery Lieutenant smiled sceptically.

‘Yes it is,’ persisted Jerningham. He looked at the signature. ‘Who’s this A.B. Presteign?’

‘Nobody special. Nice-looking kid. Curly, they call him. Came to us from Excellent.’

‘Hostilities only?’

‘No. Joined the Navy as a boy in 1938. Orphanage boy.’

‘So that he’s twenty now?’

‘About that.’

Jerningham looked through the poem again, with the same intense pleasure. There was genius, not talent, here–genius at twenty. Unless-Jerningham went back through his mind in search of any earlier recollection of that sonnet. The man might easily have borrowed another man’s work for his own. But Jerningham could not place it; he was sure that if ever it had been published it would be known to him.

‘Who’s it addressed to?’

‘Oh, some girl or other.’ The Gunnery Lieutenant picked out the envelope from the letters before him. ‘Barmaid, I fancy.’

The envelope was addressed to Miss Jean Wardell, The Somerset Arms, Page Street, Gravesend; most likely a barmaid, as the Gunnery Lieutenant said.

‘Well, let’s have it back,’ said the Gunnery Lieutenant. ‘I can’t spend all night over these dam’ letters.’

There had been three other sonnets after that, each as lovely as the first, and each addressed to the same public house. Jerningham had wondered often about the unknown Keats on board Artemis and made a point of identifying him, but it was some time before he encountered him in person; it was not until much later that this happened, when they found themselves together on the pier waiting for the ship’s boat with no one else present. Jerningham was a little drunk.

‘I’ve seen some of your poetry, Presteign,’ he said, ‘it’s pretty good.’

Presteign flushed slightly.

‘Thank you, sir,’ he said.

‘What started you writing sonnets?’ asked Jerningham.

‘Well, sir–’

Presteign talked with a restrained fluency, handicapped by the fact that he was addressing an officer; also it was a subject he had never discussed before with anyone, never with anyone. He had read Shakespeare, borrowing the copy of the complete works from the ship’s library; he gave Jerningham the impression of having revelled in Shakespeare during some weeks of debauch, like some other sailor on a drinking bout.

‘And at the end of the book, sir–’

‘There were the sonnets, of course.’

‘Yes, sir. I never read anything like them before. They showed me something new.’

‘“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies,”‘ quoted Jerningham, ‘“When a new planet swims into his ken.”‘

‘Yes, sir,’ said Presteign respectfully, but with no other reaction that Jerningham’s sharp glance could observe.

‘That’s Keats. Do you know Keats?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Come to my cabin and I’ll lend you a copy.’

There was something strangely dramatic about introducing Presteign to Keats. If ever there were two poets with everything in common, it was those two. In one way Jerningham regretted having made the introduction; he would have been interested to discover if Presteign would evolve for himself the classical sonnet form of octet and sextet. Presteign had undoubtedly been moving towards it already. But on the other hand there had been Presteign’s enchanted enthusiasm over the ‘Odes’, his appreciation of the rich colour of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. There was something fantastically odd about the boy’s beauty (there was no other word for it) in the strange setting of a sailor’s uniform; his enthusiasm brought more colour to his cheeks and far more sparkle to his eyes. From the way his cropped fair hair curled over his head it was obvious how he came by his nickname.

And it was basically odd, too, to be talking about the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to a man whose duty it was to feed shells into a pompom, when England was fighting for her life and the world was in flames; and when Jerningham himself was in danger. Yet it was charming to listen to Presteign’s intuitive yet subtle criticism of the Spenserian stanza as used by Keats in ‘St Agnes’.

It was all intuitive, of course. The boy had never been educated; Jerningham ascertained the bald facts of his life partly from his own lips, partly from the ship’s papers. He was a foundling (Jerningham guessed that his name of Presteign was given him after that of the Herefordshire village), a mere orphanage child. Institution life might have killed talent, but it could not kill genius; nothing could do that, not even the bleak routine, the ordered timetable, the wearisome drill, the uninspired food, the colourless life, the drab clothing, the poor teaching, the not-unkind guardianship. Sixteen years in an institution, and then the Navy, and then the war. The boy could not write an ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, he had never read an ode nor seen a Grecian urn. He had never heard a nightingale, and the stained glass in the institution chapel could never have suggested to him nor to Keats the rose-bloom falling on Madeline’s hands.

He wrote about the beauties he knew of–the following gull; the blue and silver stern wave which curved so exquisitely above the stern of a fast-moving cruiser, as lovely as any Grecian urn; the ensign whipping stiffly from the staff; and he wrote about them in the vocabularies of the institution and the Navy, gaunt, exact words, transmuted by him into glowing jewels. Keats would have done the same, thought Jerningham, save that Milton and Byron had given him a freer choice.

And it is humanly possible that Navy discipline-Whale Island discipline-played its part in forming that disciplined poetic style. Jerningham formed the opinion that it had done so. That interested Jerningham enormously. Outwardly Presteign-save for his handsome face-was as typical a matelot as ever Jerningham had seen; if the institution had not taught him how to live in a crowded community the Navy certainly had done so. There was nothing of the rebel against society about Presteign; he had never come into conflict with rules and regulations-he wandered unharmed through them like a sleepwalker through bodily perils, carrying his supreme lyrical gift with him.

Yet in addition Jerningham came to realize that much of Presteign’s immunity from trouble was due to his friendship with Harris–a strange friendship between the poet and the hard-headed sailor, but very real and intense for all that. Harris watched over and guarded Presteign like a big brother, and had done so ever since they first came into touch with each other at Whale Island-it was a fortunate chance that had transferred the pair of them simultaneously to Artemis. It was Harris who fought the battles for him that Presteign disdained to fight, and Harris who planned the breaches of the regulations that smoothed Presteign’s path, and who did the necessary lying to save him from the consequences; Harris saw to it that Presteign’s kit was complete and his hammock lashed up and stowed, reminded him of duties for which he had to report, and shielded him from the harsher contacts with his fellow men. Presteign’s poetic gifts were something for Harris to wonder at, to admire without understanding; something which played no part in their friendship, something that Harris accepted unquestioning as part of his friend’s make-up, on a par with the fact that his hair curled. And it may have been Presteign’s exquisite sense of timing and rhythm which made him an efficient loader at the portside pompom, and that was the only return Harris wanted.

Up to the present moment Jerningham had only had three interviews with Presteign–not very long in which to gather all these facts about him, especially considering that he had spoilt the last interview rather badly.

‘And who is Miss Jean Wardell?’ asked Jerningham, as casually as he could–casually, but a sullen frown closed down over Presteign’s sunny face when he heard the words.

‘A girl I know,’ he said, and then, as Jerningham looked further questions, ‘a barmaid. In Gravesend.’

That sullenness told Jerningham much of what he wanted to know. He could picture the type, shopworn and a little overblown, uneducated and insensitive. Jerningham could picture the way a girl like that would receive Presteign’s poems–the raised eyebrows, the puzzlement, the pretended interest for fear lest she should be suspected of a lack of culture. Now that they came by post they would be laid aside pettishly with no more than a glance-thrown away, probably. And Presteign knew all this about her, as that sullen glance of his disclosed; he was aware of her blowsiness and yet remained in thrall to her, the flesh warring with the spirit. The boy was probably doomed for the rest of his life to hopeless love for women older and more experienced than him-Jerningham saw that with crystal clearness at that very moment, at the same time as he realized that his rash question had, at least temporarily, upset the delicate relationship existing between officer and seaman, poet and patron. He had to postpone indefinitely the request he was going to put forward for a complete collection of Presteign’s poetical works; and he had to terminate the interview as speedily as he decently could. After Presteign had left him he told himself again that poetry was something that did not matter, that a torpedo into a German submarine’s side was worth more than all the sonnets in the world; and more bitterly he told himself that he would give all Presteign’s poetry, written and to come, in exchange for a promise of personal immunity for himself during this war.

‘How’re you getting on, Curly?’ asked Leading Seaman Harris, swinging his legs in the gunlayer’s seat.

‘All right,’ said Presteign.

Something was forming in his mind; it was like the elaborate gold framework of a carefully designed and beautiful piece of jewellery, before the enamels and the gems are worked into it. It was the formula of a sonnet; the rhymes were grouping themselves together, with an overflow at the fifth line that would carry the sense on more vividly. That falling bomber, with the smoke pouring from it and the pilot dead at the controls, was the inspiration of that sonnet; Presteign could feel the poem forming itself, and knew it to be lovely. And farther back still in his mind there were other frameworks, other settings, constituting themselves, more shadowy as yet, and yet of a promise equally lovely. Presteign knew himself to be on the verge of a great outburst of poetry; a sequence of sonnets; the falling bomber, the Italian Navy ranged along the horizon, the Italian destroyer bursting into flames to split the night, the German submarine rising tortured to the surface; these were what he was going to write about. Presteign did not know whether ever before naval warfare had been made the subject of a sonnet-cycle, neither did he care. He was sure of himself with the perfect certainty of the artist as the words aligned themselves in his mind. The happiness of creation was upon him as he stood there beside the pompom with the wind napping his clothes, and the stern wave curling gracefully behind the ship; grey water and white wake and blue sky; and the black smoke screen behind him. The chatter of his friends was faint in his ears as the first of the sonnet-cycle grew ever more and more definite in his mind.

“Ere we go again,’ said Nibs.

Artemis was heeling over on the turn as she plunged back into the smoke screen to seek out her enemies once more.


Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 8:05 AM  Leave a Comment  

A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.
—Bertrand Russell
Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 10:31 PM  Leave a Comment  


My dream was of writing into the afternoon, free of constraint, cleansed
To a schist-like immediacy. It was after a sickness, slight but troublesome,
From which I had returned to the world with a new violence
To my ideas. Foremost among them was the decision
To write, to be writing, and the notion that writing’s separateness
Was needed. That to be alone was preferable; not simply
Away from people, but to dwell in a singleness,
To explore it from the inside, no matter how repetitive or dim,
With the seriousness and dedication of a child whose world
Opens exponentially from inside an old refrigerator carton.

My second idea was that one’s life, when viewed in this way,
Was still-life, sharing more with canvases of the old masters,
And their radiant stasis, as though a hand were reaching
For a silver goblet, and would, as soon as we took
Our eyes away, raise it to a set of lips just outside
The frame. I wanted to return to the parts of myself,
And place them carefully in meaningful light. I
Wanted this arrangement to be studied yet human, static
Though in full possession of time, with the resonance
Of an inner rightness which had little to do with expediency.

Lastly, and it is no mistake that all of this occurred to me
As trilogy, my afternoons and their consequences would be an arrival
Through formal application at structures which were closer
To music than to statement, but avoided the self-conscious obliquity of art-
Prose, and above all avoided its mimicry of ideals and jaded exclusivity;
That it was the formality of doing this thing which was redeeming,
Devotional, good. Destinations, like glades in a forest, seemed, above all,
Rhythmically determined, where light might enter and seep back,
Drawing us out from beneath darkened canopies, where we talk
To ourselves, cutting paths, or rest like Tarzan and Jane.

The clarity, which, the more I wrote, seemed to usher itself in
In waves, and cause the objects about me to implode with
Their own sense of self, would, I could see, be mistaken
For melancholy, or worse, the abstract and wistful tone
Of the neo-romantic, a nostalgia softened by distance,
Borne across meadow and copse like the sound
Of hunting horns. Yes, there was a danger. As in any endeavor
Which skirts the precious, one’s critics should be listened to,
And indeed a bit of their uninvested acumen held up
By the writer himself, like a match struck in a cave.

But the writer, I told myself, would not be hampered
By too many considerations beyond the immediacy
Of his own calculus. After all, the half-completed poem,
Like the tesselated patterns — half revealed — on the floors
Of those Roman villas, is a kind of reference
By which one’s movement through time is substantiated
And given not only weight, but also a sense of the fanciful;
The former to mark and perpetuate, the latter to encourage
And propel. For even the writer, as cleansed and critical
As he must become, would not do away with his gods.

Thus invested, he would make promises for the good of no-one.
For as the world hurled itself into war and starved its children,
He would concentrate on the shape and dimension of his own mortality,
See it stretched before him, ethically, like an afternoon.
I charged myself with giving back to what I saw as
“The pillaged,” namely, my own spirit, whose windows stood broken
And gaping like a bakery in a war zone. I saw this
As a kind of reinvestment whose morality hinged upon the implicit
Danger of the operation. This was the most excruciating form
Of selflessness, that which would reconstruct the self.

I would need an idea which could stress the casual dependence
Of things in their arrived-at contexts and nothing more.
But that would at the same time not bury them beneath
The churchish requisites of the poem as it has come down to us,
A history of sorrow. I am not speaking of the so-called
Attempt at naturalness. In fact if anything I would highlight
Artifice, allow it to draw its own lines, to segregate the writing
From all the more quotidian marshallings that cause the days
To bridge and furrow, toneless in their hours,
Secular in their terrible waiting for something to conclude.

There were practical considerations, not the least of which was
How to make a living. I thought of the money I would need
To sustain a type of research based as it is on an avoidance of the facts,
And always shy of results, a kind of dinner conversation without the food.
It was like getting to know your wife after a long day apart,
The ambivalence you feel at having to give up once again
The storied inwardness, the whole history of silence. I watched her
Lifting packages, lining the shelves with provisions, how patiently
She culled the dying greens from the scullery bins, and I was
Tempted to say: “Of course none of this is for me . . .” For truly it wasn’t.

In the room I chose the walls are as quiet as silk.
The pressed butterfly distracts me from time. To look at the image
Of ending in the fanned wings as delicate as powder beneath their glass,
Almost in flight above the black velvet bed as though clocking the night,
Reminds me of my search for an idea which might draw beneath it
All order of experience; it left me even more scattered
Than I already was, for it was too much like the wind
Searching for something lost in the forest. Now I am content
Finding myself in a certain weather, rain say, to measure
The fold of limb-light, as though the old symbols still pertained.

For sometimes there is a strain of music broken by distance,
As though it had risen out of a valley, and followed the flank
Of a stone-clad hill to where a tree, its sole audience,
Stands — on the tree’s typical Jericho — training all its branches to the task
Of assembling it anew. Though the melody is distorted,
Fragmented by the acid breeze and asphyxiated bird song,
The lumbering of heavy guns — the world as usual taking no
Notice of the tree’s difficulty — it thinks it can still follow
The line of the violin, as it dips, and weaves, courting the half-forgotten
Melody, as though tracing the crisp belly of a leaf, lost, though still dear.

Though it is never too soon to admit that such models
Of apprehension, thrown up, as it were, by the correlative force
Of nature belong already to an older way of perceiving,
And so can be of little practical use in our present endeavor.
They are like the suit of clothes given to the prisoner
Upon his return to the so-called polite world. Of dubious quality,
And ill-fitting, their effect is more to exaggerate a difference
Than to promote any blending. So as he buys his first pack
Of cigarettes and stands at the bar with his first glass, he is marked
For what he is. He stands alone amidst a flurry of whispers.

—Martin Earl


Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 10:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Our enduring nature

FROM The Road by Cormac McCarthy

It makes no difference what men think of war. . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him.    —Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian


In that long ago somewhere very near this place he’d watched a falcon fall down the long blue wall of the mountain and break with the keel of its breastbone the midmost from a flight of cranes and take it to the river below all gangly and wrecked and trailing its loose and blowsy plumage in the still autumn air.

The grainy air. The taste of it never left your mouth. They stood in the rain like farm animals. Then they went on, holding the tarp over them in the dull drizzle. Their feet were wet and cold and their shoes were being ruined. On the hillsides old crops dead and flattened. The barren ridgeline trees raw and black in the rain.

And the dreams so rich in color. How else would death call you? Waking in the cold dawn it all turned to ash instantly. Like certain ancient frescoes entombed for centuries suddenly exposed to the day.

The weather lifted and the cold and they came at last into the broad lowland river valley, the pieced farmland still visible, everything dead to the root along the barren bottomlands. They trucked on along the blacktop. Tall clapboard houses. Machinerolled metal roofs. A log barn in a field with an advertisement in faded ten-foot letters across the roofslope. See Rock City.

The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. No sign of life. He left the boy standing in the road holding the pistol while he climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse shading his eyes and peering in the windows. He let himself in through the kitchen. Trash in the floor, old newsprint. China in a breakfront, cups hanging from their hooks. He went down the hallway and stood in the door to the parlor. There was an antique pumporgan in the corner. A television set. Cheap stuffed furniture together with an old handmade cherrywood chifforobe. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. A child’s room with a stuffed dog on the windowsill looking out at the garden. He went through the closets. He stripped back the beds and came away with two good woolen blankets and went back down the stairs. In the pantry were three jars of homecanned tomatoes. He blew the dust from the lids and studied them. Someone before him had not trusted them and in the end neither did he and he walked out with the blankets over his shoulder and they set off along the road again.

On the outskirts of the city they came to a supermarket. A few old cars in the trashstrewn parking lot. They left the cart in the lot and walked the littered aisles. In the produce section in the bottom of the bins they found a few ancient runner beans and what looked to have once been apricots, long dried to wrinkled effigies of themselves. The boy followed behind. They pushed out through the rear door. In the alleyway behind the store a few shopping carts, all badly rusted. They went back through the store again looking for another cart but there were none. By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar. Coins everywhere in the ash. He sat and ran his hand around in the works of the gutted machines and in the second one it closed over a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Coca Cola.

What is it, Papa?

It’s a treat. For you.

What is it?

Here. Sit down.

He slipped the boy’s knapsack straps loose and set the pack on the floor behind him and he put his thumbnail under the aluminum clip on the top of the can and opened it. He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said. The boy took the can.

It’s bubbly, he said.

Go ahead.

He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.

Yes. It is.

You have some, Papa.

I want you to drink it.

You have some.

He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let’s just sit here.

It’s because I wont ever get to drink another one, isnt it?

Ever’s a long time.

Okay, the boy said.

By dusk of the day following they were at the city. The long concrete sweeps of the interstate exchanges like the ruins of a vast funhouse against the distant murk. He carried the revolver in his belt at the front and wore his parka unzipped. The mummied dead everywhere. The flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug and taut as wires. Shriveled and drawn like latterday bogfolk, their faces of boiled sheeting, the yellowed palings of their teeth. They were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for all their shoes were long since stolen.

They went on. He kept constant watch behind him in the mirror. The only thing that moved in the streets was the blowing ash. They crossed the high concrete bridge over the river. A dock below. Small pleasure boats half sunken in the gray water. Tall stacks downriver dim in the soot.

The day following some few miles south of the city at a bend in the road and half lost in the dead brambles they came upon an old frame house with chimneys and gables and a stone wall. The man stopped. Then he pushed the cart up the drive.

What is this place, Papa?

It’s the house where I grew up.

The boy stood looking at it. The peeling wooden clapboards were largely gone from the lower walls for firewood leaving the studs and the insulation exposed. The rotted screening from the back porch lay on the concrete terrace.

Are we going in?

Why not?

I’m scared.

Dont you want to see where I used to live?


It’ll be okay.

There could be somebody here.

I dont think so.

But suppose there is?

He stood looking up at the gable to his old room. He looked at the boy. Do you want to wait here?

No. You always say that.

I’m sorry.

I know. But you do.

They slipped out of their backpacks and left them on the terrace and kicked their way through the trash on the porch and pushed into the kitchen. The boy held on to his hand. All much as he’d remembered it. The rooms empty. In the small room off the diningroom there was a bare iron cot, a metal foldingtable. The same castiron coalgrate in the small fireplace. The pine paneling was gone from the walls leaving just the furring strips. He stood there. He felt with his thumb in the painted wood of the mantle the pinholes from tacks that had held stockings forty years ago. This is where we used to have Christmas when I was a boy. He turned and looked out at the waste of the yard. A tangle of dead lilac. The shape of a hedge. On cold winter nights when the electricity was out in a storm we would sit at the fire here, me and my sisters, doing our homework. The boy watched him. Watched shapes claiming him he could not see.

We should go, Papa, he said.

Yes, the man said. But he didnt.

They walked through the diningroom where the firebrick in the hearth was as yellow as the day it was laid because his mother could not bear to see it blackened. The floor buckled from the rainwater. In the livingroom the bones of a small animal dismembered and placed in a pile. Possibly a cat. A glass tumbler by the door. The boy gripped his hand. They went up the stairs and turned and went down the hallway. Small cones of damp plaster standing in the floor. The wooden lathes of the ceiling exposed. He stood in the doorway to his room. A small space under the eaves. This is where I used to sleep. My cot was against this wall. In the nights in their thousands to dream the dreams of a child’s imaginings, worlds rich or fearful such as might offer themselves but never the one to be. He pushed open the closet door half expecting to find his childhood things. Raw cold daylight fell through from the roof. Gray as his heart.

We should go, Papa. Can we go?

Yes. We can go.

I’m scared.

I know. I’m sorry.

I’m really scared.

It’s all right. We shouldnt have come.

Three nights later in the foothills of the eastern mountains he woke in the darkness to hear something coming. He lay with his hands at either side of him. The ground was trembling. It was coming toward them.


Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 4:18 PM  Leave a Comment  

The biblical account of Noah’s Ark and the Flood is perhaps the most implausible story for fundamentalists to defend. Where, for example, while loading his ark, did Noah find penguins and polar bears in Palestine?

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 7:50 PM  Leave a Comment  

Memoirs of a Primrose

Always the mornings
were miracles of delight
the soil moist with dew

Believing beauty
our destiny and purpose
gave us our great strength

Cast aside all care
Live in the eternal now
like Debbie Reynolds

Do not go gentle
But do not go rough either
Be like me: flower

Elegance so plain
cannot be vain. Elegance,
like dew, is just true

Flowers in a vase
or strewn in mad profusion
across a meadow. Choose

Green grow the rushes
Green grow my leaves and grew so
even as I bloomed

Happy the flower
whose petals spread to April light
Happiest in May

I have loved beauty
more than I have loved myself
But I love me too

June’s thirty days
are eternity enow
Then we pay the price

Kudzu, mildew, wilt
The problem of evil casts
its shadows here too

Life’s secret is this
Live often, live well, avoid
those who pick flowers

Mud: remember it?
Where we begin, where we wind up

noir, in a black nightie, Night
rises from her bed

Open!     Open wide
as irises receiving
particles of light

Pink has its place:
pink for ingenues, for pansies
not for a primrose

Quoth Cicero
O tempora!     O mores!
How fashions do change

Red is my color
So bold and yet so proper
Revlon’s Primrose Red

Scarlet O’Hara
wore red to the ball.     I wear
red everyday

Tissanes of phospate
take me back to infancy’s
sunlit nursery

Uniflower Inc.
where we neither toll nor spin
all the live-long day

Venus in Virgo
My astrologer predicts
spring sempiternal

What is winter when
one can be in Palm Springs at
the drop of a leaf

Xylem and phloem still
— excruciating pleasure! —
shiver my petals

Yes, youth is precious
but not more so than having
roots in the real world

Zen is so primrose
A breeze, a briefness, a burst
of rain.     Then     Amen

—Tom Disch

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 10:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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One of the maxims I’ve always tried to adhere to is that every scene in every book should always accomplish at least two things. The first is to allow the reader a window into whatever is happening on the surface, the “Now.”  The second is to allow the reader to either get a glimpse into the future, or the past. The “Then.”         —Jason Pinter

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 9:58 AM  Leave a Comment  

Yes, they really can

FROM The Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger

Except for a few pimpy-looking guys, and a few whory-looking blondes, the lobby was pretty empty. But you could hear the band playing in the Lavender Room, and so I went in there. It wasn’t very crowded, but they gave me a lousy table anyway—way in the back. I should’ve waved a buck under the head-waiter’s nose. In New York, boy, money really talks—I’m not kidding.

The band was putrid. Buddy Singer. Very brassy, but not good brassy—corny brassy. Also, there were very few people around my age in the place. In fact, nobody was around my age. They were mostly old, show-offy-looking guys with their dates. Except at the table right next to me. At the table right next to me, there were these three girls around thirty or so. The whole three of them were pretty ugly, and they all had on the kind of hats that you knew they didn’t really live in New York, but one of them, the blonde one, wasn’t too bad. She was sort of cute, the blonde one, and I started giving her the old eye a little bit, but just then the waiter came up for my order. I ordered a Scotch and soda, and told him not to mix it—I said it fast as hell, because if you hem and haw, they think you’re under twenty-one and won’t sell you any intoxicating liquor. I had trouble with him anyway, though. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but do you have some verification of your age? Your driver’s license, perhaps?”

I gave him this very cold stare, like he’d insulted the hell out of me, and asked him, “Do I look like I’m under twenty-one?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we have our—”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I figured the hell with it. “Bring me a Coke.” He started to go away, but I called him back. “Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?” I asked him. I asked him very nicely and all. “I can’t sit in a corny place like this cold sober. Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?”

“I’m very sorry, sir. . .” he said, and beat it on me. I didn’t hold it against him, though. They lose their jobs if they get caught selling to a minor. I’m a goddam minor.

I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again. That is, the blonde one. The other two were strictly from hunger. I didn’t do it crudely, though. I just gave all three of them this very cool glance and all. What they did, though, the three of them, when I did it, they started giggling like morons. They probably thought I was too young to give anybody the once-over. That annoyed hell out of me—you’d’ve thought I wanted to marry them or something. I should’ve given them the freeze, after they did that, but the trouble was, I really felt like dancing. I’m very fond of dancing, sometimes, and that was one of the times. So all of a sudden, I sort of leaned over and said, “Would any of you girls care to dance?” I didn’t ask them crudely or anything. Very suave, in fact. But God damn it, they thought that was a panic, too. They started giggling some more. I’m not kidding, they were three real morons. “C’mon,” I said. “I’ll dance with you one at a time. All right? How ’bout it? C’mon!” I really felt like dancing.

Finally, the blonde one got up to dance with me, because you could tell I was really talking to her, and we walked out to the dance floor. The other two grools nearly had hysterics when we did. I certainly must’ve been very hard up to even bother with any of them.

But it was worth it. The blonde was some dancer. She was one of the best dancers I ever danced with. I’m not kidding, some of these very stupid girls can really knock you out on a dance floor. You take a really smart girl, and half the time she’s trying to lead you around the dance floor, or else she’s such a lousy dancer, the best thing to do is stay at the table and just get drunk with her.

“You really can dance,” I told the blonde one. “You oughta be a pro. I mean it. I danced with a pro once, and you’re twice as good as she was. Did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?”

“What?” she said. She wasn’t even listening to me. She was looking all around the place.

“I said did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?”

“I don’t know. No. I don’t know.”

“Well, they’re dancers, she’s a dancer. She’s not too hot, though. She does everything she’s supposed to, but she’s not so hot anyway. You know when a girl’s really a terrific dancer?”

“Wudga say?” she said. She wasn’t listening to me, even. Her mind was wandering all over the place.

“I said do you know when a girl’s really a terrific dancer?”


“Well—where I have my hand on your back. If I think there isn’t anything underneath my hand–no can, no legs, no feet, no anything–then the girl’s really a terrific dancer.”

She wasn’t listening, though. So I ignored her for a while. We just danced. God, could that dopey girl dance. Buddy Singer and his stinking band was playing “Just One of Those Things” and even they couldn’t ruin it entirely. It’s a swell song. I didn’t try any trick stuff while we danced—I hate a guy that does a lot of show-off tricky stuff on the dance floor—but I was moving her around plenty, and she stayed with me. The funny thing is, I thought she was enjoying it, too, till all of a sudden she came out with this very dumb remark. “I and my girl friends saw Peter Lorre last night,” she said. “The movie actor. In person. He was buyin’ a newspaper. He’s cute.”

“You’re lucky,” I told her. “You’re really lucky. You know that?” She was really a moron. But what a dancer. I could hardly stop myself from sort of giving her a kiss on the top of her dopey head—you know—right where the part is, and all. She got sore when I did it.

“Hey! What’s the idea?”

“Nothing. No idea. You really can dance,” I said. “I have a kid sister that’s only in the goddam fourth grade. You’re about as good as she is, and she can dance better than anybody living or dead.”

“Watch your language, if you don’t mind.”

What a lady, boy. A queen, for Chrissake.

“Where you girls from?” I asked her.

She didn’t answer me, though. She was busy looking around for old Peter Lorre to show up, I guess.

“Where you girls from?” I asked her again.

“What?” she said.

“Where you girls from? Don’t answer if you don’t feel like it. I don’t want you to strain yourself.”

“Seattle, Washington,” she said. She was doing me a big favor to tell me.

“You’re a very good conversationalist,” I told her. “You know that?”


I let it drop. It was over her head, anyway. “Do you feel like jitterbugging a little bit, if they play a fast one? Not corny jitterbug, not jump or anything—just nice and easy. Everybody’ll all sit down when they play a fast one, except the old guys and the fat guys, and we’ll have plenty of room. Okay?”

“It’s immaterial to me,” she said. “Hey—how old are you, anyhow?”

That annoyed me, for some reason. “Oh, Christ. Don’t spoil it,” I said. “I’m twelve, for Chrissake. I’m big for my age.”

“Listen. I toleja about that. I don’t like that type language,” she said. “If you’re gonna use that type language, I can go sit down with my girl friends, you know.”

I apologized like a madman, because the band was starting a fast one. She started jitterbugging with me—but just very nice and easy, not corny. She was really good. All you had to do was touch her. And when she turned around, her pretty little butt twitched so nice and all. She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.

Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 9:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Great News!

George Willis’s Midnight Walk, (see Featured Author interview) is now an official nominee for the 2009 Bram Stoker Award in the category of Superior Achievement in an Anthology! I have high hopes for all our authors, and nothing satisfies me more than seeing one of our own succeed. Congratulations George!

Published in: on February 20, 2010 at 11:48 PM  Comments (2)  

The Impoverished Heart

FROM The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

We were passing a collection of shacks and log cabins now, bleached white and warped by the weather. Sun-tortured shingles lay on the roofs like decks of water-soaked cards spread out to dry. The houses consisted of two square rooms joined together by a common floor and roof with a porch in between. As we passed we could look through to the fields beyond. I stopped the car at his excited command in front of a house set off from the rest.

“Is that a log cabin?”

It was an old cabin with its chinks filled with chalk-white clay, with bright new shingles patching its roof. Suddenly I was sorry that I had blundered down this road. I recognized the place as soon as I saw the group of children in stiff new overalls who played near a rickety fence.

“Yes, sir. It is a log cabin,” I said.

It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community. Several months before he had caused quite a bit of outrage up at the school, and now his name was never mentioned above a whisper. Even before that he had seldom come near the campus but had been well liked as a hard worker who took good care of his family’s needs, and as one who told the old stories with a sense of humor and a magic that made them come alive. He was also a good tenor singer, and sometimes when special white guests visited the school he was brought up along with the members of a country quartet to sing what the officials called “their primitive spirituals” when we assembled in the chapel on Sunday evenings. We were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sang, but since the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet. That had all passed now with his disgrace, and what on the part of the school officials had been an attitude of contempt blunted by tolerance, had now become a contempt sharpened by hate. I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.

“It appears quite old,” Mr. Norton said, looking across the bare, hard stretch of yard where two women dressed in new blue-and-white checked ginghams were washing clothes in an iron pot. The pot was soot-black and the feeble flames that licked its sides showed pale pink and bordered with black, like flames in mourning. Both women moved with the weary, full-fronted motions of far-gone pregnancy.

“It is, sir,” I said. “That one and the other two like it were built during slavery times.”

“You don’t say! I would never have believed that they were so enduring. Since slavery times!”

“That’s true, sir. And the white family that owned the land when it was a big plantation still lives in town.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know that many of the old families still survive. And individuals too, the human stock goes on, even though it degenerates. But these cabinsl” He seemed surprised and confounded.

“Do you suppose those women know anything about the age and history of the place? The older one looks as though she might.”

“I doubt it, sir. They — they don’t seem very bright.”

“Bright?” he said, removing his cigar. “You mean that they wouldn’t talk with me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes, sir. That’s it.”

“Why not?”

I didn’t want to explain. It made me feel ashamed, but he sensed that I knew something and pressed me.

“It’s not very nice, sir. But I don’t think those women would talk to us.”

“We can explain that we’re from the school. Surely they’ll talk then. You may tell them who I am.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but they hate us up at the school. They never come there . . .”


“No, sir.”

“And those children along the fence down there?”

“They don’t either, sir.”

“But why?”

“I don’t really know, sir. Quite a few folks out this way don’t, though. I guess they’re too ignorant. They’re not interested.”

“But I can’t believe it.”

The children had stopped playing and now looked silently at the car, their arms behind their backs and their new over-sized overalls pulled tight over their little pot bellies as though they too were pregnant.

“What about their men folk?”

I hesitated. Why did he find this so strange?

“He hates us, sir,” I said.

“You say he; aren’t both the women married?”

I caught my breath. I’d made a mistake. “The old one is, sir,” I said reluctantly.

“What happened to the young woman’s husband?”

“She doesn’t have any — That is . . . I –”

“What is it, young man? Do you know these people?”

“Only a little, sir. There was some talk about them up on the campus a while back.”

“What talk?”

“Well, the young woman is the old woman’s daughter . . .”


“Well, sir, they say . . . you see . . . I mean they say the daughter doesn’t have a husband.”

“Oh, I see. But that shouldn’t be so strange. I understand that your people — Never mind! Is that all?”

“Well, sir . . .”

“Yes, what else?”

“They say that her father did it.”


“Yes, sir . . . that he gave her the baby.”

I heard the sharp intake of breath, like a toy balloon suddenly deflated. His face reddened. I was confused, feeling shame for the two women and fear that I had talked too much and offended his sensibilities.

“And did anyone from the school investigate this matter?” he asked at last.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What was discovered?”

“That it was true — they say.”

“But how does he explain his doing such a — a — such a monstrous thing?”

He sat back in the seat, his hands grasping his knees, his knuckles bloodless. I looked away, down the heat-dazzling concrete of the highway. I wished we were back on the other side of the white line, heading back to the quiet green stretch of the campus.

“It is said that the man took both his wife and his daughter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that he is the father of both their children?”

“Yes, sir.”

“No, no, no!”

He sounded as though he were in great pain. I looked at him anxiously. What had happened? What had I said?

“Not that! No . . .” he said, with something like horror.

I saw the sun blaze upon the new blue overalls as the man appeared around the cabin. His shoes were tan and new and he moved easily over the hot earth. He was a small man and he covered the yard with a familiarity that would have allowed him to walk in the blackest darkness with the same certainty. He came and said something to the women as he fanned himself with a blue bandanna handkerchief. But they appeared to regard him sullenly, barely speaking, and hardly looking in his direction.

“Would that be the man?” Mr. Norton asked.

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

“Get out!” he cried. “I must talk with him.”

I was unable to move. I felt surprise and a dread and resentment of what he might say to Trueblood and his women, the questions he might ask. Why couldn’t he leave them alone!



Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 10:30 PM  Leave a Comment  
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In time the fork my life took
as illness changed its course
will wander to the main stream
and there below the long waterfalls
and cataracts I will begin my rush
to the place I was going from the start.
I imagine looking back to see
the silted mass where a huge bend
holds sunlight in a net of evergreen
and the sky unable to bear its own
violet brilliance a moment longer.
Out of shadows where the channel
crumbles comes the raucous sound
a great blue heron makes when startled.
Scent of peppermint rides breezes
from the valley and I catch hints
of current beneath the surface
just as darkness unfurls.
There I imagine what was lost
coming together with what was gained
to pour itself at last into the sea.

—Floyd Skloot


Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 9:34 PM  Comments (1)  
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A beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain.

—Matthew Arnold on Percy Bysshe Shelley

Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 3:37 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Treatment

FROM As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner


It happened I am back of the prescription case, pouring up some chocolate sauce, when Jody comes back and says, “Say, Skeet, there’s a woman up front that wants to see the doctor and when I said What doctor you want to see, she said she wants to see the doctor that works here and when I said There aint any doctor works here, she just stood there, looking back this way.”

“What kind of a woman is it?” I says. “Tell her to go upstairs to Alford’s office.”

“Country woman,” he says.

“Send her to the courthouse,” I says. “Tell her all the doctors have gone to Memphis to a Barbers’ Convention.”

“All right,” he says, going away. “She looks pretty good for a country girl,” he says.

“Wait,” I says. He waited and I went and peeped through the crack. But I couldn’t tell nothing except she had a good leg against the light. “Is she young, you say?” I says.

“She looks like a pretty hot mamma, for a country girl,” he says.

“Take this,” I says, giving him the chocolate. I took off my apron and went up there. She looked pretty good. One of them black eyed ones that look like she’d as soon put a knife in you as not if you two-timed her. She looked pretty good. There wasn’t nobody else in the store; it was dinner time.

“What can I do for you?” I says.

“Are you the doctor?” she says.

“Sure,” I says. She quit looking at me and was kind of looking around.

“Can we go back yonder?” she says.

It was just a quarter past twelve, but I went and told Jody to kind of watch out and whistle if the old man come in sight, because he never got back before one.

“You better lay off of that,” Jody says. “He’ll fire your stern out of here so quick you cant wink.”

“He dont never get back before one,” I says. “You can see him go into the postoffice. You keep your eye peeled, now, and give me a whistle.”

“What you going to do?” he says.

“You keep your eye out. I’ll tell you later.”

“Aint you going to give me no seconds on it?” he says.

“What the hell do you think this is?” I says; “a studfarm? You watch out for him. I’m going into conference.”

So I go on to the back. I stopped at the glass and smoothed my hair, then I went behind the prescription case, where she was waiting. She is looking at the medicine cabinet, then she looks at me.

“Now, madam,” I says; “what is your trouble?”

“It’s the female trouble,” she says, watching me. “I got the money,” she says.

“Ah,” I says. “Have you got female troubles or do you want female troubles? If so, you come to the right doctor.” Them country people. Half the time they dont know what they want, and the balance of the time they cant tell it to you. The clock said twenty past twelve.

“No,” she says.

“No which?” I says.

“I aint had it,” she says. “That’s it.” She looked at me. “I got the money,” she says.

So I knew what she was talking about.

“Oh,” I says. “You got something in your belly you wish you didn’t have.” She looks at me. “You wish you had a little more or a little less, huh?”

“I got the money,” she says. “He said I could git something at the drugstore for hit,”

“Who said so?” I says.

“He did,” she says, looking at me.

“You dont want to call no names,” I says. “The one that put the acorn in your belly? He the one that told you?” She dont say nothing. “You aint married, are you?” I says. I never saw no ring. But Like as not, they aint heard yet out there that they use rings.

“I got the money,” she says. She showed it to me, tied up in her handkerchief: a ten spot.

“I’ll swear you have,” I says. “He give it to you?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Which one?” I says. She looks at me. “Which one of them give it to you?”

“It aint but one,” she says. She looks at me.

“Go on,” I says. She dont say nothing. The trouble about the cellar is, it aint but one way out and that’s back up the inside stairs. The clock says twenty-five to one. “A pretty girl like you,” I says.

She looks at me. She begins to tie the money back up in the handkerchief. “Excuse me a minute,” I says. I go around the prescription case. “Did you hear about that fellow sprained his ear?” I says. “After that he couldn’t even hear a belch.”

“You better get her out from back there before the old man comes,” Jody says.

“If you’ll stay up there in front where he pays you to stay, he wont catch nobody but me,” I says.

He goes on, slow, toward the front “What you doing to her, Skeet?” he says.

“I cant tell you,” I says. ‘It wouldn’t be ethical. You go on up there and watch.”

“Say, Skeet,” he says.

“Ah, go on,” I says. “I aint doing nothing but filling a prescription.”

“He may not do nothing about that woman back there, but if he finds you monkeying with that prescription case, he’ll kick your stern clean down them cellar stairs.”

“My stern has been kicked by bigger bastards than him,” I says. “Go back and watch out for him, now.”

So I come back. The clock said fifteen to one. She is tying the money in the handkerchief. “You aint the doctor,” she says.

“Sure I am,” I says. She watches me. “Is it because I look too young, or am I too handsome?” I says. “We used to have a bunch of old water-jointed doctors here,” I says; “Jefferson used to be a kind of Old Doctors’ Home for them. But business started falling off and folks stayed so well until one day they found out that the women wouldn’t never get sick at all. So they run all the old doctors out and got us young good-looking ones that the women would like and then the women begun to get sick again and so business picked up. They’re doing that all over the country. Hadn’t you heard about it? Maybe it’s because you aint never needed a doctor.”

“I need one now,” she says.

“And you come to the right one,” I says. “I already told you that.”

“Have you got something for it?” she says. “I got the money.”

“Well,” I says, “of course a doctor has to learn all sorts of things while he’s learning to roll calomel; he cant help himself. But I dont know about your trouble.”

“He told me I could get something. He told me I could get it at the drugstore.”

“Did he tell you the name of it?” I says. “You better go back and ask him.”

She quit looking at me, kind of turning the handkerchief in her hands. “I got to do something,” she says.

“How bad do you want to do something?” I says. She looks at me. “Of course, a doctor learns all sorts of things folks dont think he knows. But he aint supposed to tell all he knows. It’s against the law.”

Up front Jody says, “Skeet.”

“Excuse me a minute,” I says. I went up front. “Do you see him?” I says.

“Aint you done yet?” he says. “Maybe you better come up here and watch and let me do that consulting.”

“Maybe you’ll lay a egg,” I says. I come back. She is looking at me. “Of course you realise that I could be put in the penitentiary for doing what you want,” I says. “I would lose my license and then I’d have to go to work. You realise that?”

“I aint got but ten dollars,” she says. “I could bring the rest next month, maybe.”

“Pooh,” I says, “ten dollars? You see, I cant put no price on my knowledge and skill. Certainly not for no little paltry sawbuck.”

She looks at me. She dont even blink. “What you want, then?”

The clock said four to one. So I decided I better get her out. “You guess three times and then I’ll show you,” I says.

She dont even blink her eyes. ‘I got to do something,” she says. She looks behind her and around, then she looks toward the front. “Gimme the medicine first,” she says.

“You mean, you’re ready to right now?” I says. “Here?”

“Gimme the medicine first,” she says.

So I took a graduated glass and kind of turned my back to her and picked out a bottle that looked all right, because a man that would keep poison setting around in a unlabelled bottle ought to be in jail, anyway. It smelled like turpentine. I poured some into the glass and give it to her. She smelled it, looking at me across the glass.

“Hit smells like turpentine,” she says.

“Sure,” I says. “That’s just the beginning of the treatment. You come back at ten oclock tonight and I’ll give you the rest of it and perform the operation.”

“Operation?” she says.

“It wont hurt you. You’ve had the same operation before. Ever hear about the hair of the dog?”

She looks at me. “Will it work?” she says.

“Sure it’ll work. If you come back and get it.”

So she drunk whatever it was without batting a eye, and went out. I went up front.

“Didn’t you get it?” Jody says.

“Get what?” I says.

“Ah, come on,” he says. “I aint going to try to beat your time.”

“Oh, her,” I says. “She just wanted a little medicine. She’s got a bad case of dysentery and she’s a little ashamed about mentioning it with a stranger there.”

It was my night, anyway, so I helped the old bastard check up and I got his hat on him and got him out of the store by eight-thirty. I went as far as the corner with him and watched him until he passed under two street lamps and went on out of sight. Then I come back to the store and waited until nine-thirty and turned out the front lights and locked the door and left just one light burning at the back, and I went back and put some talcum powder into six capsules and land of cleared up the cellar and then I was all ready.

She come in just at ten, before the clock had done striking. I let her in and she come in, walking fast. I looked out the door, but there wasn’t nobody but a boy in overalls sitting on the curb. “You want something?” I says. He never said nothing, just looking at me. I locked the door and turned off the light and went on back. She was waiting. She didn’t look at me now.

“Where is it?” she said.

I gave her the box of capsules. She held the box in her hand, looking at the capsules.

“Are you sure it’ll work?” she says.

“Sure,” I says. “When you take the rest of the treatment.”

“Where do I take it?” she says.

“Down in the cellar,” I says.


Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 4:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Light in Our Bodies

After supper the children go out to play.
It is a holy truth.
Notice I did not say, “After supper
we go out to play.”
We went out to play, as we walked

back and forth to school,
full of the light in our bodies —
which the adult world didn’t know
what to do with.
Having lost their own,
they became teachers or irrelevant

to us behind their newspapers.
My parents’ love
was as holy as hide-and-seek,
but I couldn’t play with it.
So I cleaned my plate and ran away,

and came to this place where every night
after supper, the children go outside….

—Dennis Trudell


Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 3:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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An artist never really finishes his work; he merely abandons it. —Paul Valery
Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 2:58 PM  Leave a Comment  


Out of the debris of dying stars,
this rain of particles
that waters the waste with brightness…

The sea-wave of atoms hurrying home,
collapse of the giant,
unstable guest who cannot stay…

The sun’s heart reddens and expands,
his mighty aspiration is lasting,
as the shell of his substance
one day will be white with frost.

In the radiant field of Orion
great hordes of stars are forming,
just as we see every night,
fiery and faithful to the end.

Out of the cold and fleeing dust
that is never and always,
the silence and waste to come…

This arm, this hand,
my voice, your face, this love.

—John Haines


Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 4:24 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A million years from now the earth may be filled with creatures who stoutly deny that they ever descended from man.
Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 4:12 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Hitch to Oblivion

Dick Francis

FROM Driving Force by Dick Francis

The bell by the back door rang as I was heating up left-over beef stew for a fairly boring supper, consequence of living alone, and with barely a sigh and no premonition I switched off the hotplate, put the saucepan to one side and went to see who had come. Friends tended to enter at once while yelling my name, as the door was seldom locked. Employees mostly knocked first and entered next, still with little ceremony. Only strangers rang the bell and waited.

This time it was different. This time when I opened the door the light from inside the house fell yellowly on the stretched scared eyes of two of the men who worked for me, who stood uncomfortably on the doormat shifting from foot to foot, agonisedly and obviously expectant of wrath to come.

My own response to these clear signals of disaster was the familiar adrenaline rush of alarm that no amount of dealing with earlier crises could prevent. The old pump quickened. My voice came out high.

‘What’s the matter?’ I said. ‘What happened?’

I glanced over their shoulders. The bulk of one of the two largest in my fleet of horseboxes stood reassuringly in the shadows out on the tarmacked parking area, the house lights raising gleams along its silvery flank. At least they hadn’t run it into a ditch: at least they’d brought it home. All else had to be secondary.

‘Look, Freddie,’ Dave Yates said, a defensive whine developing, ‘it’s not our fault.’

‘What isn’t?’

‘This four-eyes we picked up—’

‘You what?’

The younger one said, ‘I told you we shouldn’t, Dave.’

In him the anxiety whine was already full-blown, since wriggling out of blame was his familiar habit. He, Brett Gardner, already on my list for the chop, had been hired for his muscles and his mechanical know-how, the whining nature at first unsuspected. His three months’ trial period was almost up, and I wouldn’t be making him permanent.

He was a competent watchful driver. I’d trusted him from the start with my biggest and most expensive wagons but I’d had requests from several good customers not to send him to transport their horses to the races, as he tended to sow his own dissatisfactions like a virus. Stable lads travelling with him went home incubating grouses, to their employers’ irritation.

‘It wasn’t as if we had any horses on board,’ Dave Yates was saying, trying to placate. ‘Just Brett and me.’

I’d told all the drivers over and over that picking up hitchhikers while there were horses on board invalidated the insurance. I told them I’d sack any of them instantly if they did that. I’d also told them never, ever, to give any lifts at all to anyone, even if the box was empty of horses, and even if they knew the lift-begger personally. No, Freddie, of course not, they’d said seriously; and now I wondered just how often they’d disobeyed me.

‘What about the four-eyes?’ I said, my annoyance obvious. ‘What’s actually the matter?’

Dave said desperately, ‘He’s dead.’


Mystery novelist and former jockey Dick Francis died leaving behind forty-one bestselling novels.

During his career as a jockey, Francis won 350 races. He began writing suspenseful crime novels set in the world of horse racing. The novelist won the Mystery Writer of America’s prestigious Edgar Award for Best Novel three times: for Forfeit in 1970, Whip Hand in 1981, and Come to Grief in 1996.

He will be sorely missed by mystery fans everywhere.


Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 11:41 AM  Leave a Comment  

EYEWITNESS: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, 8 February 1586

Wax Death Mask of Mary Queen of Scots

Robert Wynkfielde

Her prayers being ended, the executioners, kneeling, desired her Grace to forgive them her death: who answered, ‘I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.’ Then they, with her two women, helping her up, began to disrobe her of her apparel: then she, laying her crucifix upon the stool, one of the executioners took from her neck the Agnus Dei, which she, laying hands off it, gave to one of her women, and told the executioner he should be answered money for it. Then she suffered them, with her two women, to disrobe her of her chain of pomander beads and all other her apparel most willingly, and with joy rather than sorrow, helped to make unready herself, putting on a pair of sleeves with her own hands which they had pulled off, and that with some haste, as if she had longed to be gone.

All this time they were pulling off her apparel, she never changed her countenance, but with smiling cheer she uttered these words, ‘that she never had such grooms to make her unready, and that she never put off her clothes before such a company’.

Then she, being stripped of all her apparel saving her petticoat and kirtle, her two women beholding her made great lamentation, and crying and crossing themselves prayed in Latin. She, turning herself to them, embracing them, said these words in French, ‘Ne crie vous, j’ay prome pour vous’, and so crossing and kissing them, bad them pray for her and rejoice and not weep, for that now they should see an end of all their mistress’s troubles.

Then she, with a smiling countenance, turning to her men servants, as Melvin and the rest, standing upon a bench nigh the scaffold, who sometime weeping, sometime crying out aloud, and continually crossing themselves, prayed in Latin, crossing them with her hand bade them farewell, and wishing them to pray for her even until the last hour.

This done, one of the women having a Corpus Christi cloth lapped up three-comer-ways, kissing it, put it over the Queen of Scots’ face, and pinned it fast to the caule of her head. Then the two women departed from her, and she kneeling down upon the cushion most resolutely, and without any token or fear of death, she spake aloud this Psalm in Latin, In Te Domine confido, non confundar in eternam, etc. Then, groping for the block, she laid down her head, putting her chin over the block with both her hands, which, holding there still, had been cut off had they not been espied. Then lying upon the block most quietly, and stretching out her arms cried, In manus tuas, Domine, etc., three or four times. Then she, lying very still upon the block, one of the executioners holding her slightly with one of his hands, she endured two strokes of the other executioner with an axe, she making very small noise or none at all, and not stirring any part of her from the place where she lay: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle, which being cut asunder, he lift up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade God save the Queen. Then, her dress of lawn falling from off her head, it appeared as grey as one of threescore and ten years old, polled very short, her face in a moment being so much altered from the form she had when she was alive, as few could remember her by her dead face. Her lips stirred up and down a quarter of an hour after her head was cut off.

Then Mr Dean [Dr Fletcher, Dean of Peterborough] said with a loud voice, ‘So perish all the Queen’s enemies’, and afterwards the Earl of Kent came to the dead body, and standing over it, with a loud voice said, ‘Such end of all the Queen’s and the Gospel’s enemies. ‘

Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her clothes, which could not be gotten forth but by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having anyone thing that belonged unto her. And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her.


Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 12:45 PM  Leave a Comment  

A Fairly Sad Tale

Dorothy Parker

I think that I shall never know
Why I am thus, and I am so.
Around me, other girls inspire
In men the rush and roar of fire,
The sweet transparency of glass,
The tenderness of April grass,
The durability of granite;
But me- I don’t know how to plan it.
The lads I’ve met in Cupid’s deadlock
Were- shall we say?- born out of wedlock.
They broke my heart, they stilled my song,
And said they had to run along,
Explaining, so to sop my tears,
First came their parents or careers.
But ever does experience
Deny me wisdom, calm, and sense!
Though she’s a fool who seeks to capture
The twenty-first fine, careless rapture,
I must go on, till ends my rope,
Who from my birth was cursed with hope.
A heart in half is chaste, archaic;
But mine resembles a mosaic-
The thing’s become ridiculous!
Why am I so? Why am I thus?

—Dorothy Parker


Read by the Poet Dorothy Parker


Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 11:54 AM  Comments (1)  

Fiddle, n.:  An instrument to tickle human ears by friction of a horse’s tail on the entrails of a cat.
—Ambrose Bierce
The Devil’s Dictionary
Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 11:11 AM  Leave a Comment  

Hotel Forlorn

FROM Seize The Day by Saul Bellow

“Ah, Father, Father!” said Wilhelm. “It’s always the same thing with you. Look how you lead me on. You always start out to help me with my problems, and be sympathetic and so forth. It gets my hopes up and I begin to be grateful. But before we’re through I’m a hundred times more depressed than before. Why is that? You have no sympathy. You want to shift all the blame on to me. Maybe you’re wise to do it.” Wilhelm was beginning to lose himself. “All you seem to think about is your death. Well, I’m sorry. But I’m going to die too. And I’m your son. It isn’t my fault in the first place. There ought to be a right way to do this, and be fair to each other. But what I want to know is, why do you start up with me if you’re not going to help me? What do you want to know about my problems for, Father? So you can lay the whole responsibility on me—so that you won’t have to help me? D’you want me to comfort you for having such a son?” Wilhelm had a great knot of wrong tied tight within his chest, and tears approached, his eyes but he didn’t let them out. He looked shabby enough as it was. His voice was thick and hazy, and he was stammering and could not bring his awful feelings forth.

“You have some purpose of your own said the doctor, “in acting so unreasonable. What do you want from me? What do you expect?”

“What do I expect?” said Wilhelm. He felt as though he were unable to recover something. Like a ball in the surf, washed beyond reach, his self-control was going out. “I expect help!” The words escaped him in a loud, wild, frantic cry and startled the old man, and two or three breakfasters within hearing glanced their way. Wilhelm’s hair, the color of whitened honey, rose dense and tall with the expansion of his face, and he said, “When I suffer—you aren’t even sorry. That’s because you have no affection for me, and you don’t want any part of me.”

“Why must I like the way you behave? No, I don’t like it,” said Dr. Adler.

“All right. You want me to change myself. But suppose I could do it—what would I become? What could I? Let’s suppose that all my life I have had the wrong ideas about myself and wasn’t what I thought I was. And wasn’t even careful to take a few precautions, as most people do—like a woodchuck has a few exits to his tunnel. But what shall I do now? More than half my life is over. More than half. And now you tell me I’m not even normal.”

The old man too had lost his calm. “You cry about being helped,” he said. “When you thought you had to go into the service I sent a check to Margaret every month. As a family man you could have had an exemption. But no! The war couldn’t be fought without you and you had to get yourself drafted and be an office-boy in the Pacific theater. Any clerk could have done what you did. You could find nothing better to become than a G.I.”

Wilhelm was going to reply, and half raised his bearish figure from the chair, his fingers spread and whitened by their grip on the table, but the old man would not let him begin. He said, “I see other elderly people here with children who aren’t much good, and they keep backing them and holding them up at a great sacrifice. But I’m not going to make that mistake. It doesn’t enter your mind that when I die—a year, two years from now—you’ll still be here. I do think of it.”

He had intended to say that he had a right to be left in peace. Instead he gave Wilhelm the impression that hp. meant it was not fair for the better man of the two, the more useful, the more admired, to leave the world first. Perhaps he meant that, too—a little; but he would not under other circumstances have come out with it so flatly.

“Father,” said Wilhelm with an unusual openness of appeal. “Don’t you think I know how you feel? I have pity. I want you to live on and on. If you outlive me, that’s perfectly okay by me.” As his father did not answer this avowal and turned away his glance, Wilhelm suddenly burst out, “No, but you hate me. And if I had money you wouldn’t. By God, you have to admit it. The money makes the difference. Then we would be a fine father and son, if I was a credit to you—so you could boast and brag about me all over the hotel. But I’m not the right type of son. I’m too old, I’m too old and too unlucky.

His father said, “I can’t give you any money. There would be no end to it if I started. You and your sister would take every last buck from me. I’m still alive, not dead. I am still here. Life isn’t over yet. I am as much alive as you or anyone. And I want nobody on my back. Get off! And I give you the same advice, Wilky. Carry nobody on your back.”

“Just keep your money,” said Wilhelm miserably. “Keep it and enjoy it yourself. That’s the ticket!”


Published in: on February 15, 2010 at 11:06 AM  Leave a Comment  

Folk Tale

After a traditional Japanese story

He knows she must have been a bird,
the same white crane he saved,
returned to flight. And now she has returned to him.
As wife. At night, he brings his face
near hers to watch the unexpected sheen,
white on white, her skin against the pillow.
And when she slowly combs her tangled morning hair,
her lifted arms seem to him like wings.
Once he found a feather on the stair.

Her husband is to her the sea.
He tastes of salt, his unwashed hair
a net that holds an ancient, briny catch.
In sleep, she breathes him deep.
And flies. Again she sees the coast,
sees the way the sun breaks waves
to shards of purple, gold, and rose.
She sees the squares of planted rice
serene beneath a muted glaze.
She finds a perch within the darkness of the trees.

They love their simple life, their house.
A flowering branch. A lacquered box.
Life comes to life when juxtaposed.
Each meal they share seems an emblem of the past.
A bit of rosy fish curls shyly on a tray.
A boiled custard in a plain white cup
nearly overflows like the moon’s white light
inside a narrow room. They drink their tea
in somber bowls, neither green nor gray.
Like two old friends, they tell each other tales,
but never once their own —
the startled hunter, wedded to his prey,
the wounded bird, would-be wife . . .

But should a traveler someday pass
beyond their gate, the scene he’d see
could bring to mind a half-remembered song,
could bring to mind a Master’s inky wash
wherein a single tree, a stone, a stream
find a home within an emptiness.
The painting’s untold story feels like home.

—Margaret MacKinnon


Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 6:13 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Adventures in the Dumb Life

Hunter S Thompson

FROM The Curse Of Lono by Hunter S Thompson

My friend Gene Skinner met us at the airport in Honolulu, parking his black GTO convertible up on the sidewalk by the baggage carousel and fending off public complaints with a distracted wave of his hand and the speedy behavior of a man with serious business on his mind. He was pacing back and forth in front of his car, sipping from a brown bottle of Primo beer and ignoring the oriental woman wearing a meter maid’s uniform who was trying to get his attention as he scanned the baggage lobby.

I saw him from the top of the escalator and I knew we would have to be quick with the luggage transfer. Skinner was so accustomed to working in war zones that he would not see anything wrong with driving up on the sidewalk in the middle of an angry crowd to pick up whatever he’d come for. . . which was me, in this case, so I hurried toward him with a businesslike smile on my face. “Don’t worry,” he was saying. “We’ll be out of here in a minute.”

Most people seemed to believe him, or at least wanted to. Everything about him suggested a person who was better left alone. The black GTO had a menacing appearance, and Skinner looked meaner than the car. He was wearing a white linen reef jacket with at least thirteen custom-built pockets to fit everything from a phosphorous grenade to a waterproof pen. His blue silk slacks were sharply creased and he wore no socks, only cheap rubber sandals that slapped on the tile as he paced. He was a head taller than anyone else in the airport and his eyes were hidden behind blue-black Saigon-mirror sunglasses. The heavy, square-linked gold Bhat chain around his neck could only have been bought in some midnight jewelry store on a back street in Bangkok, and the watch on his wrist was a gold Rolex with a stainless steel band. His whole presence was out of place in a crowd of mainland tourists shuffling off an Aloha flight from San Francisco. Skinner was not on vacation.

He saw me as I approached, and held out his hand. “Hello, Doc,” he said with a curious smile. “I thought you quit this business.”

“I did,” I said. “But I got bored.”

“Me too,” he said. “I was on my way out of town when they called me. Somebody from the Marathon committee. They needed an official photographer, for a thousand dollars a day.”

He glanced down at a brace of new-looking Nikons on the front seat of the GTO. “I couldn’t turn them down,” he said. “It’s free money.”

“Jesus,” I said, “you’re a photographer now?”

He stared down at his feet for a moment, then pivoted slowly to face me, rolling his eyes and baring his teeth to the sun. “This is the Eighties, Doc. I’m whatever I need to be.”

Skinner was no stranger to money. Or to lying, either, for that matter. When I knew him in Saigon he was working for the CIA, flying helicopters for Air America and making what some people who knew him said was more than $20,000 a week in the opium business.

I never talked about money with him and he had a visceral hatred of journalists, but we soon became friends and I spent a lot of time during the last weeks of the war smoking opium with him on the floor of his room in the Continental Palace. Mr. Hee brought the pipe every afternoon around three — even on the day his house in Cholon was hit by a rocket — and the guests lay down in silence to receive the magic smoke.

That is still one of my clearest memories of Saigon — stretching out on the floor with my cheek on the cool white tile and the dreamy soprano babble of Mr. Hee in my ears as he slithered around the room with his long black pipe and his little bunsen burner, constantly refilling the bowl and chanting intensely in a language that none of us knew.

“Who are you working for these days?” Skinner asked.

“I’m covering the race for a medical journal,” I said.

“Wonderful,” he said quickly. “We can use a good medical connection. What kind of drugs are you carrying?”

“Nothing,” I said. “Absolutely nothing.”

He shrugged, then looked up as the carousel began moving and the bags started coming down the chute. “Whatever you say, Doc,” he said. “Let’s load your stuff in the car and get out of here before they grab me for felony menacing. I’m not in the mood to argue with these people.”

The crowd was getting restive and the oriental policewoman was writing a ticket. I lifted the beer bottle out of his hand and took a long swallow, then tossed my leather satchel in the back seat of his car and introduced him to my fiancée. “You must be crazy,” she said, “to park on a sidewalk like this.”

“That’s what I get paid for,” he said. “If I was sane we’d have to carry your bags all the way to the parking lot.”

She eyed him warily as we began loading luggage. “Stand aside!” he barked at a child who had wandered in front of the car. “Do you want to be killed?”

The crowd fell back at that point. Whatever we were doing was not worth getting killed for. The child disappeared as I trundled a big aluminum suitcase off the carousel, almost dropping it as I tossed it back to Skinner, who caught it before it could bounce and tucked it neatly into the back seat of the convertible.

The meter maid was writing another citation, our third in ten minutes, and I could see she was losing her grip. “I give you sixty seconds,” she screamed. “Then I have you towed away!”

He patted her affectionately on the shoulder, then got in the car and started the engine, which came suddenly alive with a harsh metallic roar. “You’re too pretty for this kind of chickenshit work,” he said, handing her a card that he’d picked off his dashboard. “Call me at the office,” he told her. “You should be posing for naked postcards.”

“What?” she yelled, as he eased the car into reverse.

The crowd parted sullenly, not happy to see us escape. “Call the police!” somebody shouted. The meter maid was yelling into her walkie-talkie as we moved into traffic, leaving our engine noise behind.

Skinner lifted another bottle of Primo out of a small plastic cooler on the floor of the front seat, then steered with his knees while he jerked off the top and lit a cigarette. “Where to, Doc?” he asked. “The Kahala Hilton?”

“Right,” I said. “How far is it?”

“Far,” he said. “We’ll have to stop for more beer.”

I leaned back on the hot leather seat and closed my eyes. There was a strange song about “hula hula boys” on the radio, a Warren Zevon tune:

. . . Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. . .

I saw her leave the luau

With the one who parked the cars

And the fat one from the swimming pool

They were swaying arm in arm. . .

Skinner stomped on the gas and we shot through a sudden opening to the inside, missing the tailgate of a slow-moving pineapple truck by six inches and swooping through a pack of mongrel dogs on their way across the highway. We hit gravel and the rear end started coming around, but Skinner straightened it out. The dogs held their ground for an instant, then scattered in panic as he leaned out of the car and smacked one of them on the side of the head with his beer bottle. He was a big yellow brute with scrawny flanks and the long dumb jaw of a tenth-generation cur; and he had charged the GTO with the back-alley dumbness of a bully that had been charging things all his life, and always seen them back off. He came straight at the left front wheel, yapping wildly, and his eyes got suddenly huge when he realized, too late, that Skinner was not going to swerve. He braced all four paws on the hot asphalt, but he was charging too fast to stop. The GTO was going about fifty in low gear. Skinner kept his foot on the accelerator and swung the bottle like a polo mallet. I heard a muffled smack, then a hideous yelping screech as the beast went tumbling across the highway and under the wheels of the pineapple truck, which crushed it.

“They’re a menace,” he said, tossing the neck of the bottle away. “Utterly vicious. They’ll jump right into your car at a stoplight. It’s one of the problems with driving a convertible.”

My fiancée was weeping hysterically and the warped tune was still coming out of the radio:

I could hear their ukeleles playing

Down by the sea. . .

She’s gone with the hula hula boys

She don’t care about me

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana

Ha’ina ‘ia mai ana ka puana. . .


Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 5:44 PM  Leave a Comment  

Edward G. Robinson told Samuel Goldwyn that his studio was going to make Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and that they wanted him to play Shylock. Did Goldwyn think he ought to accept the part? Goldwyn’s response: “Screw ’em—tell ’em you’ll only play the Merchant.”

Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 4:55 PM  Leave a Comment