Saturday, 29 May 2010

Two Stories - Sarah Smith

Down & Out

I ventured through the cobbled streets desperately gasping for breath as the acrid stench of stale urine lingered in the air, apparently you get used to the smell but in the blistering heat it was magnified to beyond bearable. Unable to take anymore of the rancid stink, I found solace in a local store and whilst giving my senses a much needed break I browsed through the shelves that were jam-packed with all sorts of worldly goods.

As I reached for a loaf of bread, a family of cockroaches scurried towards me probably angry that I had disturbed them. I quickly decided to leave the bread where it was and picked up three bottles of water, a newspaper and a packet of foreign cigarettes. The shopkeeper didn’t speak a word to me, instead he held out his hand for an automatic payment while gesturing with his other hand to keep on paying. Finally content that I had paid him enough, he raised a slight smile and I took that as my cue to leave.

I wandered aimlessly for another hour or so before turning into an alleyway that provided a quicker if slightly dodgier route to my hotel. Dusk was setting in and I desperately wanted to be in the comfort of my hotel room.

Despite my relaxed stroll up until this point, I hastily made my way down the alley but stopped when I saw a young boy slumped in the doorway of a disused warehouse. He looked no older than 14 and was clothed in what can only be described as rags.

Beside him was a small tin with a few odds and bobs of money thrown in and a half-empty bottle of whiskey. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at him, his sleeping face looked so innocent, surely his parents must be worried about him. My mind raced full of reasons as to why he was here, on the streets, alone. As I watched him, he opened his eyes and stared at me. His eyebrows arched down and he let out a disgruntled sigh, I was suddenly aware that he didn’t know me and yet here I was, a complete stranger, standing over him like he was on show.

Reaching into my purse, I pulled out a handful of money and offered it to him but he didn’t accept it, instead he glared at me with a look of confusion. I slowly put the money into his tin and backed away from him. He stared at the money and then stared back at me. His face had a distinct lack of emotion.

Unsure as to what I should do, I started to walk away. As I neared the end of the alley, I turned and saw him counting the money I had left. He stood up and faced me for a few seconds before picking up his things and walking in the opposite direction. I watched him for a few moments until he disappeared out of sight then I carried on with my original journey and didn’t look back.

The Girl

She walked through the haze towards us, moving slowly, timidly. She was a young child with big brown eyes and no smile. Dirt covered her face and her hair was knotted.

We knew why she was approaching us but we couldn’t move, we were entranced by her slow ascent.

As she got closer we saw the explosives that had been tied to her waist by her radical father. They were live and ready to destroy.

We were armed and ready for combat but her face made us stop; our duty would mean hurting an innocent child with no place in war but our emotions meant letting her father hurt her, us and the civilians around us. When an adult threatens humanity, we know what we must do and we rarely give them a second thought before pulling the trigger; an adult can make their own mind up, they are choosing to enter a war, they know the risks. But she, she looked so innocent, so unwilling.

Some 30 meters from us, her father stood on a rooftop jeering and shouting for her to keep moving forward.

Seconds passed whilst we simply stared at her, the surrounding noises were muted and passer's by became blurs. She had our attention and seeing our guns, we certainly had hers.

She stared at us silently begging for help, hoping for us to take her away from somewhere she didn’t want to belong but as her teary eyes met ours she knew it was too late.

Bio: Sarah Smith is 27 and lives in Manchester. Occasionally she will write something happy, but only occasionally. She blogs here:

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Voice Recognition, Part One

I will be going through the poets in Voice Recognition in chronological order, three by three, in the most part for practical purposes, before looking back over them as a whole at the end. The first trio consists of: Jay Bernard (b. 1988), Emily Berry (b. 1981) and Amy Blakemore (b. 1991).

Unsurprisingly, Berry’s is probably the most comfortable, the most effortless of the three, and she’s by far my favourite, though not without her flaws. She has mastered a completely unself-conscious colloquial register, and it is instantly likeable and immediately engaging. Her best poems, all of which deploy it, I will label ‘postcard poetry’, which is not the insult it may initially seem. They are address poems, deliberate yet conversational in tone. The first of these is the most literally postcardesque: ‘I ♥ NY’. It is fittingly reminiscent of O’Hara in Lunch Poems, a walkabout of mundane detail, addressed to one of the people the narrator spent time with in New York, excited and excitable. It makes no judgments. There’s no real point to it, as far as I can tell, beyond conveying the kind of frantic energy the narrator felt in the city, and the excitement and energy are perfectly reflected by the poem’s form and diction. At one point the Hudson is described as cracking up “so gorgeously” (27), and it is testament to Berry’s ability that this doesn’t jar. The imagery is controlled, mostly observational, tangibly descriptive rather than grandiose in order to reflect the immediacy of the observations, the ceaseless pace of city stimuli. The strongest image in the piece, wryly placed next to that Hudson description, shows her to be restrained enough in her lyricism to stray away from melodrama: “the clouds seemed to send down/light like spaceships marking where to land.” She even manages to insert meta elements, masking (and functioning) as social comment: “You can buy non-sequiturs in bundles now/from international supermarkets. And guilt,/where is that sold?” (28). In a poem largely made up of non-sequiturs.

Elsewhere, though, this self-referential awareness is lacking. ‘The Incredible History of Patient M.’ and ‘My Perpendicular Daughter’, while utterly enjoyable, are derivative of the post-Luke Kennard school of absurd, ironic, jeu poems that have swamped pretty much every journal since Kennard’s brilliant The Harbour Beyond The Movie. Bastard ruined it for the rest of us. Still, the latter Berry piece includes this: “I asked for milk/and tipped its long white screech right down” (30).

‘What I Did On My Summer Holidays’ succeeds due to its visceral, subtle shift from ‘I’ to ‘She’ as the poem’s narrator addresses her father’s suicide, skipping from lost child to an older and more detached, isolated narration . And ‘Questions I Wanted to Ask You in the Swimming Pool’ creates an affecting and unique extended metaphor from the titular pool: “how many times did we drift together, tired,/regret tautening over the bones of us the way skin does as it dries” (29).

It is through her refined colloquial style and inspired use of the second-person that her writing stands out and allows tried and tested themes and ideas to be freshly explored. However, and if such a thing is quantifiable, the objective best piece in her sequence is ‘A Short Guide to Corseting’. While on the surface, like ‘...Swimming Pool’ and so many other contemporary poems, it simply takes an individual metaphor and extends it, it also embodies so much of what is good about her writing at the same times as differing from the rest. Love comes “sideways, like a crab” (30). The narrator wants “to agree with be carried off in its claws”, and the poem conveys humour at the same time as intense claustrophobia as the narrator crafts the smallest possible life, the most edited and honed one she can. “I’ve realised how little we need” (31). Whether we are supposed to agree with this or not is left ambiguous.

Bernard and Blakemore are for the most part far less developed. There are numerous shoddy line breaks that simply infuriate, the beginning of Bernard’s ‘Eight’ being a prime example. While both of their selections are clearly decent, promising even, I can’t help but yearn for something more refined and controlled. Blakemore, for instance, tries on a number of voices, and the furthest she gets from herself the greater they fail. ‘Making Money’ , for example, sounds artificial. There is no detectable voice attributable to the poet beyond a similar phrasing to the rest of her poems, and yet no believable representation of “the perplexing republic of drunken city traders” (36). It’s finely written enough, but it’s a transitional piece, an individual’s experiment in writing, part of the process of discovering one’s own voice and prevailing themes. Which is fine, just not what I’d expect to be offered by a leading collection of the “best young poets” of the day. She has more success elsewhere, though. ‘The Guests’ is an affectionate and convincing portrayal of childhood, “squint[ing] at guests”, wanting to know “who these strangers are” (34). ‘Achievement’, while not exactly a masterpiece, is probably the most enjoyable of her poems. It is believable and unaffected, a love poem of sorts that accepts and makes use of its limitations. The ‘you’ of the poem is “a God”, the “only thing” the narrator has “achieved in school”, and it quite beautifully conveys teenage longing without making the melodrama seem melodramatic. There is cynicism as N surveys the end of year celebrations: “This is a precursor to our future Christmas office parties” (35), and it is this dry narration, coupled with the kind expressions quoted above, that make the poem convincing.

Many of the same flaws can be carried over to Bernard. They too often read like transitional pieces, steps towards what she will eventually create. However, her opening poem, ‘Cadence’, is magnificent. Sure, there are lines and phrasings that could have been tightened just a tad, but it doesn’t really matter. The poem deconstructs contemporary black identity, but its simultaneous acceptance of the past and disregarding of it is universal. It is a powerful and convincing argument for oneself and one’s subjectivity:

‘Being young is an oxymoron –
are genes are old and as gnarled as the moon.
They are genes only: we’re columns of blood biding time,
caught by the delicate cadence that binds us, yes,
but that doesn’t mean I owe a thing to you.’

Equally, it describes perfectly the kind of attitude all aspiring young writers should have going forward: the awareness of the importance of all that has preceded, and the confidence to move on. It is by far my favourite poem so far in the anthology, the perfect place from which to begin reading and the perfect place to end this review.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Three Poems - Howie Good


Other people inhabit the house where I grew up. The country my grandparents deserted no longer exists. Chinese hermit monks regard accumulation as deficiency. That’s why cups break. I’m surrounded even in sleep by anxious objects, souvenirs overgrown with dust. A pink beam of light transmits information. The forest retreats further. Streets collapse. Oh, darken the heart, the bomb maker urges, so it doesn’t think.


I was only 14
and didn’t know

what you meant.
You meant

how it blooms
hatless and in all

shades of green
and without ever

saying please.


Step inside. Meet the strongman with the shaved head and tender heart who can quote Kafka. “It’s enough for the arrow to exactly fit the wound,” he assures the midget clown, while the bareback rider runs stumbling around the center ring after her runaway horse. And look! The lion tamer has his fist drawn back. He’s also encountered an unexpected impasse for which gun and whip are of no use. As for the ringmaster, I fade in and out like suicidal thoughts, the crying red eyes of disappearing taillights.

BIO: Howie Good, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the author of 18 print and digital poetry chapbooks. His full-length collection of poetry, Lovesick , was published in 2009 by Press Americana. His second full-length collection, Heart With a Dirty Windshield, will be published by BeWrite Books.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Three Poems - Colin Herd

A Touch of Love (aka thank you all very much)

thick-lensed, sexless and romantic
ised, you keep shaking imaginary
dust off your sweater but it's real, and
infectious because i start too, suc
cumbing to the pressure.

i realize i'm going to struggle, that
i have never been alone for a long
duration with someone so lyophiliz
ingly handsome, someone in

dungarees no less, and willing to eat
peanut m&ms all evening, and giggle
to the sound of my nervous tickle
of a cough.

this movie stars sandy dennis, not
sandy denny. william butler yeats is
generally considered one of the only
writers to have written his best work
after he won the nobel prize. well, be
that as it may, it's a murmurous gloom
we, whatever, cultivate beside ourselves,
and a groovy pincushion we sit on as
we suppose: is that a sofa-bed or am i
getting carried away?

Nobody Tucks

Lucas still has his green harness on,
which digs in a bit as he cranes his
neck to the port hole. His baggy white
t-shirt says "I heart Debra Winger". It
is untucked, of course, because nobody
tucks a t-shirt into blue cycling shorts.
I'm still nervous so as I eat handfuls
of jelly-babies, powdered sugar coats
my hands.

I feign choking slightly and gently blow
feathery clouds that descend over the
green lines and blue curves and it's not
that light so I can almost pretend I am
staring at the Earth as we rocket further
away. Lucas is. Fixedly. My baggy white
T-Shirt says "I heart Erich Fromm".
I haven't unveiled it because it seems a
little coy now he went down that route.

Someone will see it on a T.V. camera
before I get changed for bed. I seem to
be distracting him. We can still hear
cheers from the launch area through
the system, and interviews and chats.
I draw a love-heart with my sugared finger
on a camera and get told off. I write
"I'm sorry" and wipe the whole thing.

Carol Ann Duffy is reading while my thoughts
wander, not lonely but nasty, embittered and
silly and sexy and they turn on innuendo to write
a shortish poem. I make a paper swan following
the method of the handsome boy in Skins, and
allow it to float merrily merrily from where I am
(the Gods). It gets tangled in a man's curly hair I
guess (I'm too frightened and embarrassed to look).
The words fight free of the swan (they're meant to),
are about to tickle a nose when of course they
sweep clean away. It does not take a syllable,
much much less.
                               The words disperse; I notice
a man get 'slap', a beautiful woman get
'tummy' and a phrase surging past Kathleen
Jamie on the way to Douglas Dunn: 'we have it
in common that we both need food shelter sex
books and love'.

Bio: Colin Herd lives, works and writes poems in Edinburgh, Scotland. Some of the poems have recently appeared in print and online, in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo and Streetcake. He edits print journal Anything Anymore Anywhere.

Monday, 10 May 2010

One Story - C.J. Opperthauser

Tempest, Maine

The kid woke up to a spray of saltwater. His nose clogged with it and his eyes burned. His hair was grimy, his teeth yellow, and his hands brown with dirt. The boathouse he had stayed in overnight was being sliced delicately by bright rays of sunshine. The ocean roared a lulling hum behind a chorus of seagulls outside the doors of the boathouse. He was hungry, but the thick stench of dead fish helped to deter it for at least the morning.

The kid got up, wiped bits of seaweed from his torn jeans, and pushed the doors open. The outside was fresher than the inside of the boathouse. He walked down the shoreline to Mr. Halpovich’s place. On the old man’s doorstep was a small pile of hash browns on a paper plate.
The kid ate heartily. Hal was just about the only friend the kid had in town. Hal and his dog, Caesar.

The kid trekked into town to wander the streets and steal what he needed. He made his way to the gas station on the corner of Ocean and Tenth, and bee-lined right to the beer aisle. The pockets of his jeans held just enough room for two Miller High Lifes, three blueberry lollipops and a small bag of peanuts. The bell over the door binged on his way out.

He sat on a bench down the street from the gas station. The occasional cough of a car mixed with the ever-present screeching of seagulls. The kid had been doing this same routine for years now. Sure, this town was a bit new, maybe three months, but it was the same old game. He didn’t even know the name of the town. He didn’t care. He didn’t care about his own name, either. Didn’t need one. If nobody is around to call you by anything, you don’t need to be called anything. He figured it that way, at least.

As he sat on the bench gulping down two frothy warm cans of beer, he thought of how nice it would be to have money. He liked the constant move from boathouse to boathouse and the thrill of stealing food when he needed it, but it had been growing dull. Too dull to continue with. The kid thought of getting a job. Something to help the days go away a little faster.

Though he couldn’t read, the kid walked into any shop that looked like a restaurant and told them he wanted a job. They had been handing him applications as a response, after which the kid simply left the building. After a handful of wasted questions, he came across a pizza shop. The outside walls were nothing but crumbling bricks and the sign was a bit crooked. The inside smelled like old cheese.

“A job, huh?” said the hairy fat man behind the counter.

“Yeah. A job,” said the kid. The fat man looked him dead in the eyes, one cheek squinching up a bit.

“Well what the hell do you want to do here? Huh? Cook? Clean? Manage? The hell are we supposed to hire you for?”

The kid shrugged.

The man sighed. “How does cleaning up sound? Mopping, scrubbing, that kind of shit. Uh, stuff. That kind of stuff. Sound good there, kid?”


“Alright, great. We’ll have you come in tomorrow morning to learn about scrubs and mops and sponges and soap and all that kind of shit.”



The fat man reached out to shake the kid’s hand but the kid was already heading towards the
door. “I didn’t catch your name there, kid,” the man yelled.

The kid stopped and turned around. Name?

“Um… it’s, uh… August.”

“August? Like the month?”

“I guess so.”

“You guess so. Okay, then. And how old are ya?”

August thought for a few seconds. He added up the amount of times he'd been on summer vacation in school and the amount of times his toes had frozen inside boathouses.

“I said how old are ya, August?”


“Fifteen, eh? Hm. You kinda look more like you're... well, it doesn't matter. See you tomorrow morning. Seven sharp.” The fat man waddled back to the kitchen.

August was the only month the kid could still remember learning about in school, back when he was still enrolled. That was back when his parents were alive to make him go. He remembered that, too. He didn’t miss them much. He didn’t need them. The kid walked back to the beach, spotting the same boathouse he had slept in the night before. He thought it’d make a good place to spend the night for at least a few more days, until whatever family who owned it came back into town. He sat down on a rock and watched the waves. A few kids were playing Frisbee down the way. He watched them instead. Among them was a blonde girl, about August’s age. He watched her scamper over to the disc, bobbing in the waves against the shore. Her white beach skirt flowed and whipped in the wind. She glanced his way before prancing back to her friends.
He couldn’t stop staring. He wanted to be with her. He had to.

Later that day August sat on the back porch of Hal’s house with Caesar. Hal came out with two glasses of water. They sat in perfect silence for a while.

“Fishing was good today,” Hal said, chewing on an ice cube.

“That’s good.”“Caught a bunch of cod.”

The dog growled at something on the beach.

“Easy, Ceasar,” Hal said. He looked at the kid. His hair needed to be cut. His clothes needed to be washed. His skinny frame needed food. “How about some smoked salmon?”


They ate, and Caesar got what they couldn’t finish. August thanked Hal and walked back to the boathouse to sleep. He couldn’t. The girl from the beach was stuck in his head. When the sun came up he made his way into town, back to the pizza place.

“Alright, August, here’s the deal. You gotta wear this, first of all.” The fat man tossed a red polo to August, who immediately put it on. “Okay, and, what else here… oh yeah, let’s get you rigged up with some cleaning shit.”

They walked back to the storage closet and fished out a mop, a bucket, some bottles of various cleaning liquids, and a scrub.

“There y’are, kid. Have a blast.” The man walked back into the kitchen. August stood, staring at this pile of plastic junk. He picked up a few things and made his way to the bathroom. He scrubbed and mopped and wiped at all the dirty spots on the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and the counters. He did a fine job.

“Not bad, kid! Shit, I should have hired you years ago. Go ahead and mop up the floor in the kitchen and take care of the tables out there and you’ll be done for the day.”

August did what the fat man told him. As he was wiping down his last table the girl from the beach came in with her friends. All of them were boys. As she ordered, August stared at her, making circles with his cloth in the same part of the table. Her blonde hair swished as she looked back to her friends, giggling, and then back to the fat man, who was bringing out her pizza. After she paid and was leaving, August said “Hi.” She didn’t notice.

The next morning August didn’t come to work. He had gotten drunk with Hal after leaving work the night before, and was too hung over to scrub anything. For a young boy, he could hold his whiskey. Hal’s fishing stories always helped the alcohol flow down a little smoother. The soft roar of the ocean always helped the bed spins to slow down a little smoother. His small frame always helped him to get drunk a little better.

Once his hangover had subsided, he went to work. The fat man hadn’t even noticed.

“How’s the cleaning going, kid?” he asked, scratching his belly.


After work, August saw the beach girl eating an ice cream cone on a bench outside. She was beautiful. He walked up to her, fearless.


She looked up at him, forcing a smile. “Um, hi.” She looked at her feet, then back at August.
“Sorry, do I know you?”

“Yeah, we met at the beach. And at that pizza place. My name is… shit, what is it... August. My name’s August.”

She looked at him, her perfect blonde eyebrows furrowing. “Oh. Hi, August. I’m, um… I’m just getting going.” She stood up and walked briskly down the sidewalk. August watched her leave.
He loved her. He could tell that she loved him, too.

The next day, August showed up to work on time. He didn’t go to the storage closet for his cleaning supplies. He didn’t answer the fat man when he asked him where the fuck he was going. He went straight to the kitchen and grabbed all the ready-for-pick-up food on the counters. He carried the piping hot breads and pizzas in his arms and ran out the door. He ignored the fat man as he yelled after him with every curse word a sailor ever learned.

August walked quickly down the street, turning corners whenever he could. He looked around for the beach girl. He wandered street after street, double-checking every blonde head of hair he saw. He walked for hours. He walked until the sun was replaced by street lights. He walked until the pizzas and breads were stale and cold. He placed the food outside the door from which Caesar liked to watch the seagulls and headed back to the boathouse.

The fishing stories were good that night. Hal had tried out lobster fishing and it had gone well. Caesar was in a good mood. The whiskey went down smoothly. The next morning, the kid would be heading north along the beach to find another town. The kid needed to find another boathouse to sleep in. This town had run its course.

Bio: C.J. Opperthauser is a student of English at Central Michigan University. He finds inspiration in people, rivers and music. He enjoys running and fishing in his spare time.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

One Review

Thoughts on Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy (1987)

The New York Trilogy is a perplexing, violently engaging and ultimately frustrating work. It fails as much as it succeeds, and this is, in a sense, its most pertinent success. It is a novel of floating signifiers, of dead-end symbols, of almost-but-not-quite, and when it does tie things up it does so as loosely as possible.

The most demanding and compelling of the three is ‘City of Glass’, a metafictional labyrinth actively engaged with some of the biggest theoretical concerns of the 20th Century. Perhaps because of my own theoretical interests, it is hard not to view the novel, and this part in particular, as simply being a fictional equivalent of all the best poststructuralism that preceded it. Still, Auster is a talented novelist and no matter how derivative it may or may not be of what post-1968 Theory has long made evident, his abilities as a writer never allow the novel to be anything less than intriguing.

Identities blur and fade, origins fall to pieces and language itself is exposed as inherently riddled with failure. Language, and thus we, are in a post-Fall state. The Fall from Eden “not only records the fall of man, but the fall of language”. As much as it is a clever, scriptible detective story, The New York Trilogy is a brutal evocation of madness, isolation and disintegration. The characters are all involved in arbitrary, de(con)structive situations they could simply walk away from. That they don’t is essential: their realisations of the necessity and impossibility of language, always preceding their personal Falls, take over their unfulfilled, monotonous and often miserable existences.

Auster’s writing is flawless – clean, clear and refined, meticulous in its descriptive clarity, essentially contrasting with the elusive stories it tells. I have no desire to write a proper review of The New York Trilogy, nor to examine its content too explicitly (for fear of ruining someone’s reading of it). What I am interested in is how it wears its Theory like a massive glimmering badge, blissfully pointing out what it is doing and what you should be looking for in order to ‘solve’ it, only to step back at the last minute; how despite its overt postmodern gameplaying, the most lingering thing I have taken from it is its more humanistic concerns. For example, when Peter Stillman, Jnr. is babbling away in his beautifully garbled English (“I am Peter Stillman. That is not my name. Thank you very much.”), one primarily begins to question why he is speaking this way and what this tells us about language via Theoretical concerns and abstract notions. Eventually the abuse that made him what he is is revealed and we are forced to confront the primacy of our intellectual, academic fascination with our moral disgust at what happened to him in the name of intellectual experimentation.

The questions I was left with upon finishing: what happens when what was becomes what is? Falls, losses – growth? Or nothing? What is an origin? Is an origin even anything? Who am I? What am I? Where am I? Ow. None of these questions are answered. As Auster’s characters fall away from certainties about themselves and who they are, mirroring language’s fall from full to empty, they realise “words do not necessarily work, that it is possible for them to obscure the things they are trying to say”. They hide in themselves, stuck in their own individual isolations. “No one can cross the boundary into another – for the simple reason that no one can gain access to himself”. But still they write, still they try and find truth, still they interpret, even though “life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose”, they know they can lose themselves in fiction, in stories, and that, even if it achieves or fixes nothing, is at least something, and it is no less ‘real’ than life itself.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Laughing in the Wreckage: epistemological collapse, ontology and humour in Kafka and Borges

Both Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges are generally, and in my opinion correctly, hailed as two of the most important and influential writers of the 20th Century. Their fiction changed and revolutionised the way one could write, inspiring and informing whole generations of authors both philosophically and stylistically, not to mention the elucidating effect they had on the theoretical concerns of the second half of the century, post-1968 Theory in particular. Neither author’s work totally fits under the heading ‘modernism’ but, despite the fact their work is replete with many of the hallmarks of postmodernism, it would be incorrect to simply label them as postmodernists. My aim in this piece is to analyse their work through its humour, for I believe their humour is one of the most interesting ways in to exploring what exactly their work is ‘doing’, using Brian McHale’s epistemological/ontological shift thesis as a backbone.

In Postmodernist Fictions, Brian McHale set out to distinguish the traits of postmodernist writing from all else, specifically modernist fiction, and to create an encompassing poetics of the movement. In doing so, he based his argument on Roman Jakobson’s idea of the dominant; or rather he based his argument on a deconstruction of Jakobson’s theory. According to Jakobson, “the dominant may be defined as the focusing component of a work of art: it rules, determines, and transforms the remaining components”[1]. McHale, unable to abide by the ‘either-or’ nature of the theory in light of the deconstructive approach emblematised by Derrida and the poststructuralists, picks it apart somewhat:

'There are many dominants...depending on the level, scope, and focus of the analysis. Furthermore...the same text will yield different dominants depending on what aspect of it we are analysing...Different dominants emerge depending on which questions we ask of the text' [my italics].[2]

In acknowledging this he dispels potential criticism that could be directed towards his own binary, in the process informing us what questions he will be asking, essentially summarisable as: what literary devices are commonplace in modernist texts, compared with postmodernist texts? From this he draws his interpretation of the dominants of both movements and the shift between them, namely that “the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological”, compared with the ontological dominant of postmodernist fiction[3]. My own understanding of the epistemological/ontological shift in relation to the fictions of Kafka and Borges will become apparent. Before this, an understanding of McHale’s terminology is essential, and it is perhaps best explicable through Dick Higgins, who McHale cites as an influence. The epistemological, or modernist, foregrounds questions such as “How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?”[4] and “What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of reliability?...What are the limits of the knowable?”[5], whereas the ontological, or postmodernist, foregrounds questions like “Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?”[6] and, bearing either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on that of the fictional world it projects, “What is a world?...What is the mode of existence in a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured?”[7] Of course, he accepts that epistemology cannot be considered separately from ontology and vice-versa; his argument merely hinges on which of the two is primary, or which, literally, comes first: one has to, even in objection, “mention one of these sets of questions before the other set...Literary discourse, in effect, only specifies which set of questions ought to be asked first of a particular text”[8]. Thus McHale skirts the problem of the binary, clarifying his theory in the process.

To return to Borges and Kafka, what I propose to demonstrate is how their work exists in a kind of between state, situated on the line between modernist/postmodernist, epistemological/ontological; they are both at the same time as well as neither. In a sense, they are the ‘/’ that separates the two. And in doing so, it should become clear that this is possible in large part due to the humour contained in their writing. However, it is now essential that I somewhat define what is meant by ‘humour’, and a brief excursion into the criticism of James Wood is necessary.

In Wood’s introductory essay to The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, another binary (not that dissimilar upon closer inspection to McHale’s) is constructed. Wood argues that, broadly speaking, we can filter humour into two categories: the comedy of correction and the comedy of forgiveness, while acknowledging that this can only be done “a little roughly”[9]. “The latter is a way of laughing at; the former a way of laughing with”[10]. It is also worth pointing out that the former is more prevalent in pre-modernist, if not modern, literature. For now this definition of Wood’s terminology should suffice, as it will, along with and alongside McHale’s, be further elucidated and applied in the following paragraphs. With these necessary definitions out of the way, I can now properly begin and bring the focus back to the main subjects of this essay, the fictions of Franz Kafka and of Jorge Luis Borges.

There are two Borges stories, both from Fictions, which I will look at: ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ and ‘Funes, His Memory’. Through both of these stories one can gather a reasonably complete understanding of what exactly Borges’ fiction ‘does’, especially in relation to the topics raised by this essay. As for Kafka, I will be considering The Trial.

‘The Lottery in Babylon’ is set in a wholly artificial, appropriated Babylon; it is Babylon in name only. Immediately we enter a null realm, an other place, the kind of unlocation that likely influenced in some sense Calvino’s later Invisible Cities and other such non-locatable postmodern worlds[11]. Equally immediately, we learn that the ‘reality’ of this Babylon is not important. It doesn’t matter where or when it is set. Not only would we not be able to situate it convincingly in any historical period, but to try and do so would be misguided and superfluous. The story exists out of time in a fictional world, a metaphysical world, situated only within itself and its ideas. It implies as much itself: “I have known that thing the Greeks knew not – uncertainty”[12]. It is shunning the safe absolutes of logocentric thought and embracing otherness, embracing that which cannot be fully known. The narrator, before delivering his history and description of the Lottery run by the shadowy Company, points out that about the Lottery’s/Company’s “mighty purposes I know as much as a man untutored in astrology might know about the moon”[13]. It is unclear who our narrator is, who he is addressing – all we know is that he no longer lives in Babylon but once did – or how true any of what he is saying is. He depicts how a lottery which started as mere entertainment for the common-folk gradually became the driving force of Babylonian society, how the lives of all its inhabitants became dictated by chance lottery drawings. As the Company grew, their sway on the functioning of Babylon became more obscure. No-one knew what was ‘natural’ and what was as a result of the Company. Some claimed “the company has never existed, and never will”, others questioned whether or not “the drunken man who blurts out an absurd comment, the sleeping man who suddenly awakes and chokes to death the woman sleeping by his side”[14] is acting on his own or at the behest of a drawing by the Company.

The sheer inconclusiveness of who the narrator is, who he is addressing, and where and when the story is set, coupled with the philosophically inclined thought experiment of a world dictated primarily by chance (the kind of chance of which the people whom it affects do not necessarily even know is chance), intentionally creates humour. Borges is playing with the idea of fiction and epistemological certainty. He has written, seriously but with a charmingly playful, ironic tone, that it is best to “pretend that [the imaginary books and worlds in his fiction] already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them”[15]. The logistics, the fictional reality of his stories and their content, revel in their own uncertainty, make you laugh along with them, forgiving their elusiveness (as if it needs forgiveness) and not so much suspending but disregarding any notion of your disbelief and following their absurdly cogent/cogently absurd depictions of worlds and ideas, the humour very much being derived from their lack of care for basic epistemological ‘necessities’ such as who is speaking this story and whether or not they are supposed to be reliable or unreliable.

Similar things can be read into ‘Funes, His Memory’, and one can also take from it a general, if effective, structural explanation of how Borges’ stories work in Fictions. It, like so many of his best stories, is a kind of teasing comedy. It presents a fantastical idea rendered via the anecdotal evidence of another (who is upfront about his unreliability), explores the idea and disturbs it by pointing out the impossibility of ever being able to understand or know it with epistemological certainty, then ends enigmatically. The point of the stories seems to be to play with, to riff on, fantastical ideas, generally philosophically informed, while refusing to elucidate them or even remove them from the level of anecdote. The inconclusiveness and elusiveness seems to be the point: we are fascinated by the ideas and want to know them, but, as is implied by Borges, we never can know them, we never can know anything for sure, no matter how much we want to, and this is the point and purpose of his stories, his revolt against the impossibility of truth and transcendental knowledge. After the narrator tells us of Funes’ infinite capacity for memory and how he encountered it just once, for one night, many years ago, he is himself forced to accept epistemological impossibility:

'I come now to the most difficult part of my story, a story whose only raison d’ê that dialogue half a century ago. I will not attempt to reproduce the words of it, which are now forever irrecoverable. Instead I will summarise, faithfully...[and ask] my readers to try to hear in their imagination the broken and staccato periods that astounded me that night.'[16]

We readers, like the narrator, are seeking clarity, seeing truth. But the moment has passed, the ‘original presence’ has gone, and we are left only with stand-ins, deferrals; we must accept the text as such and hope that the narrator’s ‘faithful’ attempts to accurately render what happened are as close to epistemological certainty as they can be, at the same time as acknowledging such certainty does not exist. We are left with a humorous absurdity, an essential paradox, deconstructive in nature – for is a deconstruction not, at its core, simply a pointing out of the impossible at the same time as believing, impossibly, in possibility? It brings to mind Socrates’ thoughts on knowledge: “Socrates consistently maintains that he knows nothing, and is only wiser than others in knowing that he knows nothing...[yet] he thinks the search for knowledge of the utmost importance”[17]. Borges’ stories fascinate us with the fantastic, deconstruct themselves and, in engaging us, forgive the absurdity of us expecting something more conclusive from them just as we forgive them for not giving us more; we sideline what we can know about them and focus on what they are, on their being, on their ontological world and its relations to and with our own individual ontological realms. They make no attempt to correct us, as in Wood’s first form of comedy; the only certainty in them, their only judgments, are of their own being and, in the process, our being becomes connected with theirs’. The most corrective they get is in perhaps inspiring us to reconsider our own ideas of truth, epistemology and knowability. They debunk epistemological notions by pointing out their fallacies, by working within them, leaving their ontological state the ‘realest’ or most tangible thing we as readers and critics can consider, and can take from them what we will.

Kafka’s work does similar things as Borges’, and many of the analyses above can be fairly uniformly applied to it. As such, I will look primarily at the aspects of his work which differ from Borges’, even if the aspects I wish to consider differ in the same vein. As Camus famously said of The Trial, “it is the fate and perhaps the greatness of that work that it offers everything and confirms nothing”[18]. I concur. In fact, the entirety of this essay could be spent listing the possible ‘meanings’ of The Trial and all the vague ideas, signifiers and symbols contained within it that imply, but never confirm, its meaning. Instead, I would like to hone in on what I consider to be its overarching purpose, which is arguably also one of the overarching purposes of many, if not most, of his other works: the dismantling of any grand, objective notion of truth and knowability or, expressed differently, a deconstruction of epistemology. And, like Borges, he succeeds in doing this through humour.

Kafka’s entire oeuvre can be reasonably comprehensively summarised by Camus, who draws on an absurd story/amusing anecdote:

"You know the story of the crazy man who was fishing in a bathtub. A doctor...asked him ‘if they were biting’, to which he received the harsh reply: ‘Of course not, you fool, since this is in a bathtub’"[19].

The man “allows himself the tormenting luxury of fishing in a bathtub, knowing that nothing will come of it”[20]. Kafka’s work takes very much the same approach regarding epistemology: his narrators search for an understandable truth, an understandable meaning, an explanation and justification for what is happening to them – an explanation they will never find. Likewise, we readers will never find anything explicitly ‘true’ in Kafka, will never find any concrete ‘meaning’. With Kafka, it seems, there are no “final signifieds”[21]. The Trial is a prime example of this. Along with K., we do not know what he is being accused of nor, because we do not know the alleged crime, whether or not he is guilty. Furthermore, how much of what is being depicted is ‘real’? McHale points out that if it is possible to “recuperate [a text’s] internal contradictions by invoking the model of the ‘unreliable narrator’”[22] then the epistemological is still the text’s dominant. K.’s reliability is doubtable, but it would be incorrect to simply term him an unreliable narrator; nor does the story seem to indicate this as correct. Nonetheless, it is implied a number of times that the events following K.’s being informed of his arrest may only be happening because he is allowing them to. K. proclaims his innocence yet does not really know he is innocent – how could he? When he is told by Titorelli the painter that “since you’re would be possible to ground your case on your innocence alone”[23], K., instead of acknowledging the advice, merely argues with Titorelli’s lack of logic and contradictory pronouncements about the court: “You made the assertion earlier that the Court is impervious to proof, later you qualified that assertion by confining it to the public sessions of the Court, and now you actually say that an innocent man requires no help”[24]. It is characteristic of K., in that he needs to know, and nothing anyone tells him, no matter how pragmatic and beneficial, is taken on board. Essentially, he refuses to accept that he just needs to be, he doesn’t need to know, and this plays a part in his eventual murder.

As with Borges, Kafka is pointing out the absurdity of searching for truth, of expecting logocentric certainty, and he is doing it through epistemology. K.’s main goal is to find out information he doesn’t need to know, as he is told from the start (“the best thing now would be to bother no more about...justice or injustice”[25]). But still he searches. It takes over his life. He is, in a sense, building his life around an epistemological dominant, and in doing so he loses his life. The humour in the story is more prominent than in Borges’ work and somewhat different. The absurd is more pronounced. The way his characters react in a state of complete naturalness[26] to bizarre, extraordinary events, mirrored by the matter-of-fact prose, creates an atmosphere of heightened absurdity. There is comedy in our wanting to know things we will never know, and knowing we will never know them. But there is a more sinister humour at work in Kafka, one that is notably absent in Borges. Just as Kafka is using epistemology to point out the impossibility of objective truth and knowledge, implying that one’s primary concerns should be ontological, he is also using the comedy of correction to undermine the idea of judgment: for does a judgment not imply a knowledge secure and absolute enough from which to judge? Nearly everyone K. encounters tells him not to worry, to forget about the arrest and get on with his life (at least until he, arguably, turns it into more than it is and makes it a more present concern). He does not listen; he subscribes to the idea of justice and injustice; he opens himself up to judgment, to correction, and when he is finally judged (murdered), he still knows nothing, can only utter, ambiguously, “Like a dog”[27]. It appears to be advocating the comedy of forgiveness at the same time as compelling us to judge K., to laugh at him for allowing this to happen. As with everything about Kafka, there is then uncertainty as to whether judgment and correction are being directed at us, whether in all this ambiguity we, searching futilely for truth, are to be judged for doing so. The text could be said to be laughing at us for believing in it, for allowing ourselves to try and find something certain in it. K. dies unaware of why what has happened has happened; we finish the novel, we are severed from it, and nothing has been confirmed. K.’s search and our search are in a sense one and the same.

What, then, can we say conclusively about the epistemological/ontological divide, other than that Kafka and Borges rupture its efficacy, comprehensively distort its functionality? It is possible that the answer, or at least the response, to this question lies in the work that came after them, the postmodern writing from which McHale drew his binary. That, however, would be a different essay. What can be shown as conclusively as possible is the progression from Kafka’s destruction, his rupturing, of the epistemological via the epistemological, to Borges’ primarily ontological fiction depicted via the destroyed certainty of epistemological knowledge. Whereas in Kafka’s work the dominant is still epistemological, epistemology only comes to the fore in Borges when one asks the kind of questions which allow it to do so. It is the worlds and the characters that inhabit them that Borges is concerned with. The connection between the two authors is acknowledged obliquely in ‘The Lottery of Babylon’. Describing the Company’s obfuscations and attempts to prevent people ever reaching a state of complete knowing and understanding, he writes of mystical places in which it was rumoured one could gain “access to the Company”. One of these is “a sacred latrine called Quaphqa [Kafka]”[28]. It is obviously comedic and riddled with irony, but more importantly it establishes an understanding of Kafka’s subversive aims (none of the places described could realistically give access to anything, echoing everything this essay has discussed) and a commonality of expression between the two. Fittingly, neither of them tries to solve the problem of the epistemological dominant. They merely deconstruct it or play with its failure, and in Borges’ case make it a secondary, but still wholly present, concern. It is my belief that, to ‘solve’ the problem of needing to reach some form of conclusiveness from their work, beyond a mere appreciation of its (for want of a better word) intellectual aims, we must turn to their humour. It not only sweetens the heavy philosophic concerns of the two, but it helps create them. They appreciate the absurd, paradoxical nature of existence and, as much as they draw attention to it, they also find the comedy in it which, no matter how black, and, in the case of ever-elusive Kafka, how caught up it may or may not be in the comedy of correction, is ultimately forgiving and freeing. In the process they free themselves from themselves, from, at least to an extent, their academic context and historicity, and enable the reader to enjoy their innovations, their scriptible infinitudes, their unsolvability, lightened and deepened by their sophisticated understanding of the redeeming nature of the humorous. We may not find in Borges and Kafka an answer to the concerns they raise; what we instead find is forgiveness for what we cannot find. We can laugh with their circular, deconstructive logic and refusal/inability to be fully understood, and the finding and foregrounding of the humour their texts are rich with becomes an acceptable, if deeply (and essentially) imperfect, solution to the inability to solve anything through dated logocentric reasoning. The epistemological dominant has failed and here, amongst the wreckage, all we can do for certain is laugh.

[1] Roman Jakobson, ‘The dominant’ in Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska (eds.), Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), p. 105
[2] Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 6
[3] Ibid., p. 9
[4] Dick Higgins, A Dialectic of Centuries: Notes towards a Theory of the New Arts (New York: BOA Editions, 1978), p. 101
[5] Ibid. McHale, p. 9
[6] Ibid. Higgins
[7] Ibid. McHale, p. 10
[8] Ibid, p. 11
[9] James Wood, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (London: Pimlico, 2005), p. 4
[10] Ibid.
[11] ‘The influence of Borges is observed early in Invisible Cites...marking Calvino’s turn to a more compassionate postmodernism’, Constance Markey, Italo Calvino: a journey towards postmodernism (Florida: Florida University Press, 1999) p. 107
[12] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Lottery in Babylon’ in Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 51
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid, p. 57
[15] Ibid Borges, ‘Foreword’, p. 5
[16] Ibid Borges, ‘Funes, His Memory’, p. 95
[17] Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Oxon: Routledge, 2005), p. 97
[18] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 124
[19] Ibid Camus, p. 116
[20] Ibid, p. 117
[21] See Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp. 142-149
[22] Ibid McHale, p. 12
[23] Franz Kafka, The Trial, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (London: Vintage, 1999), p. 169
[24] Ibid, p. 170
[25] Ibid, p. 20
[26] Ibid Camus, pp. 113-4
[27] Ibid Kafka, p. 251
[28] Ibid Borges, p. 54

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Three Poems - Shannon McKeehen

Oakland, 1906

Sleeping through the chime of each birthday,
one is suddenly startled by the low whimper of mortality,
and the promise that Jesus was not born in December.
Thankfully, a tetanus shot stops you from grieving prematurely.
An ugly child with the face of an old man, you long to mourn anyway.
You paint the disappearance of your parents
in long strokes of hypotheticals, brushes dipped in whiskey.
We are the children of irresponsibility, irreversible damage,
a chip on each shoulder waxed over with daydreams.
We are the bruises mistaken for smudges, as someone continues
to try over and over to wipe us away. I remain hyperaware of time,
thinking of the children I will never birth. These are the hands
you will hold, and this is the face you will comfort.
I plan to meet you between mistakes, the whimper you try to ignore.

The Tempest

The wind is future oriented--
memorizing no moment,waiting for nobody.
Meanwhile, the spider lays her eggs
in dirty laundry, fashions
a nest within the seam
of a favorite shirt.
She considers no one but herself--
not the skeleton that dazzles
the window left behind,
not the danger of this new space.
Strong breath, wind that carries with it
a purpose no other wind has, or does it?
I blow, I evict this family, new and naive--
refugees left to wander, so many of them,
the wind immediately forgetting each one.

Buzz, Kill

Ideas, fermenting, isolated noises--
I pretend I'm caught off-guard, brain cells
evenly distributed, immersed in electric routine
instead of alight with new activity.
But I'm only kidding myself,
drunk all alone in a room half buzzed, half awkward.
By a show of hands, tell me who is soft and who is
ready to lay some goddamn plans on the table.
I know I'm ready. I'm dressed for the occasion,
combat boots laced tightly, cutting off my circulation,
but I know I'm ready. These ideas
are ready. Noises can only be translated when heard.

Bio: Shannon McKeehen is a fresh-faced, second-year creative writing MFA at Mills College, in Oakland, California, USA. She writes often in her poetry blog and otherwise enjoys reading and responding to the work of other writers, young and old. She also enjoys listening to music, painting and drawing, eating, and engaging in heated political debates.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Voice Recognition, Preamble

Whatever you think about it, it can’t be denied that Voice Recognition, published last year by the mighty Bloodaxe, is a good thing. That such a big (in poetry terms at least) press is not only publishing but actively celebrating the work of young (in some cases 17/18-year-old) poets is welcome evidence of the recent surge in popularity of poetry. The problem, of course, is that any attempt to compile “21 of the best young poets who have yet to publish a full collection” (10) is going to be controversial. There are so many talented young writers nowadays – any cursory perusal of the average journal will prove this. Equally, there are many average writers benefitting from the explosion of credible outlets showcasing new work. Any attempt to comprehensively collect ‘the best’ of them is in a sense doomed to fail: surely there are more than 21 young poets worthy of this level of attention. Some of the risks inherent in trying to do so are well-expressed in editors James Byrne’s and Clare Pollard’s succinct, if general, introduction: they wisely sought to avoid the “MA conveyor-belt”, the poets who conform “to archetypes of academic orderliness” (12). Nonetheless, and not wanting to criticise either institution unfoundedly, there is an undeniable Foyle Young Poet/Oxbridge bias in this collection. Again, the existence of the former regardless of your feelings about it is an irrefutable positive; I merely wish to point out the correlation between the two without probing it uneducatedly.

Pollard’s and Byrne’s intentions are admirable: to transcend the “mere recounting of anecdotes or minor stagings of epiphany” (13) and find the poets who escape “’general themes’ and [address] the particularity of being alive now...21st Century voices” (14). I can’t help feeling Scrooge-like expressing my caution at such an aim. I agree with it, completely; but there is undoubtedly a danger, as there is in all academic and critical discourses, of ignoring the quality of the work in and of itself in favour of ‘big themes’, desperately seeking to define the age, (re)construct and re-present the contemporary world, ignoring the danger of losing sight of the text itself in overplaying that which supposedly tackles ‘issues’ and ‘the now’. And whilst they rightly seek writers unafraid to take risks, explore as many voices as possible, I’d point out the obvious: that risk-taking and quality are not synonymous. I’d rather read a poet’s more refined work when they’re not as fresh and shiny and young than the exploratory attempts they made reaching said refinement – unless, of course, there is beauty in the flaws. There is a pervasive urge these days to get your poems published as soon as possible, preferably before turning 35, so you can be tagged a bright new thing, an urge that is both desirable and damaging.

Anyway, with angst thankfully aside and disclaimer begrudgingly made, I will over the next few weeks delve into the collection itself and offer some thoughts on and analyses of these 21 promising poets.

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