Food, Memory and Loss in the Works of Aleksandar Hemon by Ann Henry

In the middle of Catastrophe, the Hemons managed to scrounge up some makeshift joy.  Aleksander Hemon, “Sound and Vision”

Aleksandar Hemon, a young Bosnian journalist, found himself in accidental exile in 1992, having accepted a fellowship in the U.S. just as the war broke out. Cut off from his beloved Sarajevo, he had to reinvent himself as a writer in a different language, and as a person in a different context. He has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius grant,” and the PEN/ W.G. Sebald Award. His fiction is and is not autobiographical, so that it is easy to slip and call his narrators “Hemon.”  Though details may be shifted, arranged, and wholly invented, the central persona of his fiction and essays always remains himself.

            His tragicomic flights of language often reference his memories of home, a love poem to a lost Sarajevo. He is enamoured of the vibrant, sensual surfaces of life, and he uses narrative as a way of “making up the losses.” Hemon’s nostalgia is often passionately gustatory, from his mother’s feasts, detailed in essays such as “Family Dining” and stories such as “The Noble Truths of Suffering,” the peasant simplicity of borscht, and the meals at a favorite Ascinica (an informal restaurant in which food is cooked rather than roasted or baked, where “everyone is equal before a shallow stainless steel bowl.” He evokes the essence of Bosnian cuisine:  “Unsophisticated dishes designed for ever hungry people, of the loss that flickered in everything we did or did not do.”[1]

 Good food, in Hemon’s homes of Bosnia and Chicago, represents family, cultural identity, survival, abundance, continuity, and love. In his descriptions of bad food, army chow, American fast food, etc., the opposite is evoked: scarcity, rootlessness, and alienation.

Bosnia, even before the war, was the poorest of the Yugoslav Republics, a land of long harsh winters and limited arable land, thus hardship created the cultural preoccupation with abundance, and inclusivity. The hardship was not only a result of terrain and climate: the blending and adaptation of multiple culinary traditions was the result of multiple invasions and colonizations.  Bosnian dining might be compared to what is said to be the essential root of all Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us; we’re still here; let’s eat. The eating habits of the rural poor and the urban middle class did not differ markedly in Bosnia: a mélange of Turkish and Central European food traditions, with an emphasis on hearty simplicity. The Sarajevo office worker needed the same physical and spiritual sustenance as the rural farmer.

For holiday and weekend meals, the main meal, rucak, begins in the afternoon and ends when the last guest, stupefied with repletion, “descends from the mountains of meat to the lowlands of sleep.”[2]

There is little conversation at a Bosnian table; eating is serious business. “We ate in silence, as though the meal were a job to be done,” [3] the narrator of “The Noble Truths of Suffering” tells a teetotalling vegan American guest.

Simpler, work week meals are frequently a large soup or stew, which Hemon lovingly describes in his essay “Family Dining,” detailing his family “recipe” for borscht, a food tradition they imported from Ukraine. There is, of course, no real recipe-it is “a song you learn by singing it, containing whatever vegetables were available in the garden at the time,” meat, vinegar, dill, and of course beets. The amounts and proportions change, “just as a song and a singer” it is, writes Hemon, “…poor people’s food. It was designed-if indeed it ever was designed, not to delight the sophisticated senses but to insure survival… a perfect borscht is a utopian dish: ideally, it contains everything: it is produced and consumed collectively: ” …a perfect borscht is what life should be and never is.” [4]

Hemon’s attempt to make “solitary borscht” for himself in Chicago was a failure.  It must be “consumed in a ritual of indelible togetherness. “The crucial ingredient of the perfect borscht is a large, hungry family.” (Note that in Bosnia, “family” is often expanded from nuclear, to extended, to whoever stops by at mealtimes.)

In The Lazarus Project, Hemon’s narrator opens by detailing his double life as a ‘reasonably loyal citizen of a couple of countries”[5] who loyally celebrates Bosnian Independence Day in Chicago with a “ceremonious dinner” on February 28. (Bosnian Independence Day actually falls on February 29, but one ceremonious dinner every four years seems stingy.)  It is the one day a year he and his fellow Bosnians feel “solidly Bosnian.” Driven by “poor people’s affliction that plenty never seems enough for all” they “…make disparaging remarks about the food, which they then turn into contemptuous contemplation of American obesity,” indignantly explaining to the uncomprehending wait staff that Bosnians “…eat their salad with the main dish, not before it.”[6] “And pretty soon whatever meagre Americaness has been accrued in the past decade or so entirely evaporates for the night…everybody has an instructive story about cultural differences between them and us.”[7]

 In his essay “Who is That?” Hemon describes his parents and sister arriving in Hamilton, Ontario as refugees, and his sister finding a job at what she termed “Taco Hell.” His parents began “…cataloguing the differences between us and them,” and the essential difference being, of course food. “…We like to simmer our food for a long time, while they just dip it in extremely hot oil and cook it in a blink. Our simmering proclivities were reflective of our love of eating and, by extension and obviously, of our love of life.” [8]  That his  “life loving” country is embroiled in a vicious civil war that drove his family into exile to peaceable,  “Soulless” Canada is an irony not lost on Hemon. Identity, for a Sarajevan, is also geographic-

In Sarajevo, one possessed a personal infrastructure: your kafana, your barber, your butcher; the streets where people recognized you, the space that identified you; because anonymity is well nigh impossible and privacy incomprehensible, (there is no word for privacy in Bosnian) your fellow Sarajevans knew you as well as you knew them…your sense of who you were, your deepest identity, was determined by your position in a human network, whose physical collar was the architecture of the city.  [9]

            This sense of self as prototypical Sarajevan, (and thus forever hungry) is manifested in his description of his favorite Asnicia, Hadzizbarjrics, and is the subject of one of his first published writings. “One of the urban legends about the Hadzbajarics claimed that, back in the seventies, during the shooting of The Battle of Sutjeska, a state-produced world war two spectacle starring Richard Burton as Tito, a Yugoslav People’s Army helicopter was frequently deployed to the set deep in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, to transport Hadzizbajrics’ buredzici (meat pies in sour cream) for Elizabeth Taylor’s gastronomic enjoyment.” [10]

Hadzibajric’s represents, to Hemon, food infused with what can only be described as Bosnian love of continuity. It has been owned by the same family for eight generations, “…the secrets of preparation have been passed on from generation to generation, until the dishes have been so perfected that it’s hard to imagine how they could get any better.”  Whether, as Hemon writes, Hadzbajaric’s supplied “some of the fat in Purple Eyes’ ass,” the restaurant served both royalty (King Juan Carlos) and neighbourhood workers with inexpensive, lovingly prepared food. Its cooking fires, he writes, is what “warms my heart when I return home.” [11]

Prior to the latest catastrophe, most Bosnians sense of identity was not based on “ethnicity,” but on what Hemon calls the raja-a Sarajevan child’s gang. The family, of course, is everyone’s primary raja, and food evokes in Hemon powerful memories of parental love, most notably in the essay “Family Dining.” 

In “Stairway to Heaven,” the narrator’s dangerous adolescent rebellion (fueled by a drug addled madman named Spinelli) is quelled, and fear consoled by “…my sister picking the green beans off father’s plate; father slicing his steak, still wearing his pith helmet despite mother’s nagging; mother parting the mashed potato and carrots on sister’s plate because Sister never wanted them to touch.” [12] The quotidian comfort of family life, for Hemon, is love manifested by food. The opposite of Spinelli’s cynicism and lies is the simple truth of familial love.

The story “Everything” concerns the seventeen year old’s comic foray into adulthood, traveling alone and staying overnight in a hotel to buy his family a freezer: His father informs him that “The well being of our family requires new investments…abundance requires more storage.[13] His parents thought the errand would teach him “banal, quotidian” responsibilities. “They wanted me to join the great community of people who made food collection and storage the central organizing principle of their life.” [14] The narrator, who responds to his parents’ inquiries about his future with quotes from Rimbaud, is more inclined to view the errand as a possibility for sexual debauchery, to which end he has obtained a single contraceptive pill. He encounters frightening Serbian convicts on the train, and forgets about his mother’s lovingly prepared chicken and pepper sandwich. He considers simply forgetting about the freezer and absconding with the money, traveling aimlessly forever.

In Murska Subota, his destination, he gets drunk with a crazed stranger in a bar, gives his spending money to a kindly waitress, stalks two women, and awkwardly propositions a married American tourist at his hotel, only to be beaten up by Franc, the hotel receptionist. Only then does he remember his chicken sandwich, which had gone “mushy and stale.” The narrator dutifully buys the freezer. Without money for food, he relives the beauty of Mom’s chicken sandwich. He returns home, where breakfast, of course, is waiting.  Hemon’s black comedy keeps the story from bathos. Food serves as a metaphor for family, safety, and abundance; the freezer arrives and is “filled to the brim with “veal and pork, lamb and beef, chicken and peppers.” [15] to feed the ever expanding circle of family and friends.  Hemon, whose funniest works are imbued with tragedy, notes, “When the war began in spring of 1992, and electricity in the city of Sarajevo was cut, everything in the freezer chest thawed, rotted in less than a week, and then finally perished.”[16] Abundance, communion, and love are, in Hemon’s world, fragile, evanescent, and contingent, unless recreated in memory and language. 

In “Sound and Vision,” he writes of an ill-fated family migration-enroute to his father’s new post in Zaire, the family’s travel funds are robbed in Rome. His mother, preparer of feasts and woman of great resourcefulness, takes charge of the situation and sells her gold necklace.  The family takes a walk on the Lido: “…the Hemons leisurely strolled along the Lido, as if on vacation, the parents holding hands as if in love, the children licking gelato paid for with the family gold.” [17]

Hemon writes of the immigrant experience of alienation, often using food as a metaphor. In “Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls” he describes working briefly on the graveyard shift at White Castle, “…stealing the small burgers and taking them home to eat them cold, his pockets reeking of rotting processed meat and dissolving minced onion.” [18] His other experiences as a Food Service employee, images of American consumption juxtaposed with images of Sarajevan suffering and starvation, are equally infelicitous he is fired from a Mexican restaurant for dropping a pitcher of  “…sky blue Margaritas into the lap of a local cop…” [19] He works at Boudin Bakery, a pretentious faux French chain that requires him to wear a beret, “…manically filling up the bins with eviscerated bread bowls, shrivelled croissants, jagged watermelon slices, salad tidbits, slimy non-fat yogurt, jumbo gumbo slough” until he is fired for refusing to show proper deference and sympathy to a customer disgruntled by the presence of iceberg rather than romaine lettuce on his turkey Dijon croissant. “Romaine, iceberg, what’s the difference?”[20]

 The hero manifests his anxiety over the fate of his fellow Sarajevans by “…devouring Snickers, and Baby Ruths and Cheetos and Doritos and burritos and everything he could put into his mouth, so he gained thirty flabby pounds.” [21]

The protagonist of The Lazarus Project, the more acculturated Vladimir Brik, and encounters the globalized alienation of MC Donald’s in Chisinau, Moldova, the building “ …shiny and sovereign and structurally optimistic.”  As he consumes his Big Mac, Large Fries, and Coke, he reflects that “This is no comfort food; it was food that implied that there had been and never would be any need for comfort.” [22]

Hemon’s “mildly troubled” adolescence is evoked again in his essay “Family Dining.” He describes the banality of the family meal.  Rucak was invariably served at 4, accompanied by the radio news. Hemon and his sister never allowed to “eat in silence, let alone read or watch television.”  His ideal adolescent dining experience involved Cevapci (grilled sausages in somun, a pocket bread, and until the recent advent of McDonald’s, Bosnia’s primary fast food) accompanied by “comic books, loud music, television, and the absence of our parents and weather forecasting.”  This changes when Hemon enters the army. The lushness of his evocation of good meals- “roast lamb, ham and cheese crepes, or my mother’s spinach pie” [23] is only equalled by his blackly gleeful description of army food: “Dry bread…rancid margarine…a thick bean soup –complete with tiny sprouts that looked like maggots…a greasy cup of prune based bowel movement potion…And those were the good meals.” [24]

Family dining, which, despite his adolescent restlessness creates a bond, is the antithesis of what happens in the army: deprivation creates competition and dishonesty.

…The army was supposed to be one big family, a manly community bound by loyalty and comradeship, sharing everything. As a matter of fact, at no time did we practice anything close to sharing, unless you count the farts. You never, ever offered to anybody your goodie-laden package from home, nor did you leave any food in your locker…if you had any food left after stuffing yourself, you bartered it for clean socks and shirts, for an extra shower or a daytime fire-watch shift. Food wasn’t meant to be shared, because it was a survival commodity. I had no trouble imagining heroically facing the foreign enemy only to die for the can of tuna in my pocket. [25]

In “Family Dining,” His mother visits him from Sarajevo:

Mother had dragged heavy bags of food on the many trains from Sarajevo and had brought along a feast: veal schnitzel, fried chicken, spinach pie, even a custard cake…the first bite into spinach pie brought tears to my eyes and I silently swore that that from thereon in I would always respect the sanctity of our family meals. I wouldn’t entirely keep my promise, needless to say, but as the perfectly mixed spinach and filo dough melted in my mouth, I felt all the love that could be felt by a boy of nineteen.[26]

The last essay in his collection, The Book of my Livesis entitled “The Aquarium.” It concerns the death of his infant daughter from a brain tumour, the most harrowing and affecting narrative he has he has ever written. It is both about loss, and the use of language to, as Hemon has said, make up the losses, of “narrative imagination,” which, like food, is a means of survival.   Hemon and his older daughter, on a break from the hospital, stop by a pastry shop and pick up cannoli. He receives a call that his daughter’s tumour is haemorrhaging. He is struck by the incongruity of the cannoli still in his hands, and puts the cannoli in the hospital refrigerator. The “selfish lucidity” of the act causes him to feel guilty.  “Only later would I understand that that absurd act as related to some form of desperate hope: the cannoli might be necessary for our future survival.”[27] This action underscores the role of food in Hemon’s writing: survival contingent on desperate hope and makeshift joy.


    

About the Author:

Ann Henry has lived all over the world, including, for some years, Bosnia. She is a teacher and writer. Currently, she is living, working, and writing in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

[1]            Aleksandar Hemon,  “Aleksander Hemon’s Ottoman Era Hole in the Wall Fit for a Yugoslav King” (The Daily Beast; 5/11); [www.dailybeast.com].

[2]              Aleksandar Hemon, “The Question of Bruno” (New York: Random House, 2001), chapter “An Exchange of Pleasant Words”

[3]             Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “The Noble Truths of Suffering” p.202.

[4]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives, (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “Family Dining” p. 36.

[5]  Aleksandar Hemon,        The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 11.

[6]              Ibid, p. 11

[7]              Ibid, p.12

[8]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives )New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013) “Who is That?” p. 56

[9]              Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013)  “Lives of a Flaneur” p. 117

[10]  Ibid, 112

[11]  Aleksandar Hemon, “Aleksander Hemon’s Ottoman Era Hole-in the Wall is Fit for a Yugoslav King”, The Daily Beast, 5/2011, p. 2

[12]  Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “Stairway to Heaven” p. 35

[13]   Aleksandar Hemon, Love and Obstacles (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009), “Everything” p. 39

[14]              Ibid, p. 45

[15]              Ibid, p. 59

[16]    Ibid, p. 59

[17] Aleksandar Hemon, The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “Sound and Vision” p.29.

[18]   Aleksandar Hemon, The Question of Bruno (New York: Vintage, 2001), “Blind Jozef Pronek and the Dead Souls” p. 192

[19]   Ibid. p. 195

[20]  Ibid, p. 187

[21] Ibid, p. 189

[22]  Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p.207

[23] Aleksandar Hemon,  The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013),  “Family Dining” p. 33

[24] Ibid, p. 33-34

[25] Ibid, p. 35

[26]   Ibid, p.35

[27]   Aleksandar Hemon,  The Book of My Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), “The Aquarium” p. 191

Exile as Bearing Witness by Bronislava Volková

This text is an excerpt from Forms of Exile in Jewish Literature and Thought Twentieth-Century Central Europe and Movement to America by Professor Bronislava Volková, Indiana University, Bloomington. The book is published by Academic Studies Press in 2021 (www.academicstudiespress.com).

While Weiss’s play (The Investigation, 1965) is written as a mixture of documentary and fiction and is clearly a major avant-garde literary achievement portraying a loss of humanity and the absence of conscience in the face of it, there are a number of intimate documentary accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust by survivors. To name a few: the Italian fighter for humanism Primo Levi; the tireless Galician Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal; the German-language Romanian poet Paul Celan; and the Hungarian Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész. They all belong to the genre of Holocaust literature, which portrays a form of exile as bearing witness in the most general sense of the word—yet each brings their own special emphasis and insight. Each portrayal of the Holocaust is individual. There are as many Holocausts as there are people.

In order to bear witness, one must consciously remove oneself from being an actor or victim in life, to step aside, so to speak, in the interest of an objective portrayal of what happened. Wiesel, Levi, and Wiesenthal, whom we shall devote the next studies to, are not writers whose main ambition is to bring a new form of literary achievement into the world; rather, they are autobiographical, documentary writers, whose main goal it is to share with the world their shattering experiences and interpretations. They are writers on a personal mission. They are the authors of a number of works on the topic, yet we shall focus only on selected ones.

The most well known of these works is Elie Wiesel’s (b. 1928, Sighet, Romania, d. 2016 in New York City) famous memoir Night. The French original was published in 1958, after the first printing of the novel appeared in Yiddish in Buenos Aires under the title Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent, 1954). The English translation, which followed four years later in the US, sold eventually ten million copies and was translated into thirty languages.

Wiesel was born in Romanian Transylvania and received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He also received many other prestigious prizes and honorary doctorates. He spent the latter part of his life (from 1955 onwards) in New York and Boston as a professor at the City University of New York and at the Boston University. He was a prolific political activist and a founder of the New York Human Rights Foundation. He is a foremost example of a major European literary and intellectual figure moving to the US and later on becoming obliterated by the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, whose countries moved from one harsh persecution and oppression to another, even more long lasting. Authors are often required to leave their mother tongue behind and adopt a new language. Jewish writers are the most frequent examples of this, as they are often the ones who have the courage to leave their country and start a new life in a totally different environment. There, they are able to truly and fully express their talent and ideas and bring a new perspective to the world with an authenticity often lacking in national, narrowly conceived literatures.

Wiesel was the author of fifty-seven books, among which his memoir Night, describing his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, takes a special place. His family spoke Yiddish, but also German, Hungarian, and Romanian. Two of his sisters survived the war and were reunited with Wiesel at a French orphanage. His parents and younger sister perished. Wiesel’s father was, according to Wiesel, beaten to death in front of his own eyes by a Nazi for suffering from dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion just a few months before the liberation of Buchenwald, where he and his son had ended up after a death march. After the war, Wiesel became a journalist and wrote for Israeli and French newspapers.

Night was originally turned down by fifteen publishers, even though it was proposed to them by the great French Catholic writer and journalist François Mauriac, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, before the small firm Hill and Wang finally accepted it. Night is a case study in how a book can create a genre, how a writer becomes an icon, and how the Holocaust was absorbed into the American experience. Night was one of the first books to raise the question: “Where was God in Auschwitz?” This question does not, however, receive a satisfactory answer. Some critics of Wiesel’s work feel that he even failed on this issue, in order to appeal to the largely Christian world around him and under the influence of his catholic helper François Mauriac. They argue that he sublimated his rage at the perpetrators, and thus at God, for allowing such bestialities to be committed. By casting himself as a suffering, but not raging, victim, he was able to be less offensive to his readers.1

A similar reading emerges from Naomi Seidman’s comparison of the original Yiddish, Buenos Aires version of Night and the French one that found such fame: “What remains outside this proliferating discourse on the un-sayable is not what cannot be spoken but what cannot be spoken in French. And this is not the ‘silence of the dead’ but rather the scandal of the living, the scandal of Jewish rage and unwillingness to embody suffering and victimization.”2 According to Seidman, in order to reach larger audiences, Wiesel sacrificed the anger of the Yiddish boy and became the personification of suffering silence acceptable to the Christian world.

Auschwitz has become more than just a place: it has become a shorthand for the Shoah, a common metaphor for uncommon evil, the almost platitudinous sign for hell on earth. Night is exquisitely constructed. Every sentence feels weighted and deliberate, every episode carefully chosen and delineated. It is also shockingly brief; a story as fundamentally brutal as this one would become grotesque if cluttered by embellishments. It is also devoid of rational explanations or cynicism. It reads as the innocent narration of a young boy, who had no idea of what was coming. It compels the reader to become a witness to the unthinkable and absorb it inwardly.

Night is not a novel and it is not exactly a memoir either. It has a hybrid form, which balances fidelity to events and literariness. The facts depicted are stranger than fiction. The English title itself was changed from the original Yiddish in order to capture the darkness of the camp as well as the spiritual darkness of the world during and after WWII. The original version of the book was more than 800 pages, while the French publication was only 121 pages. Wiesel took out all the parts where he expressed his feelings about the Holocaust in the face of its denial, as well as any moralizing. Wiesel’s memoir is a genuine artistic achievement and as such it is naturally not a simply a literal description of facts, but is also austerely poetic. It simplifies the story into a kind of parable. It succeeds in individualizing the existential, depersonalized experience of the Holocaust, which made it possible for so many readers to start empathizing. In this way it is like The Diary of Anne Frank,3 which is easier to relate to, as it is the diary of a young girl in a chamber awaiting hell and thus does not force the reader to face the absolute horror of what succeeded.

The power of Night comes from the dramatic contrast between the thoughts and fears of the victims and their apathy in response. It offers not only a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but also an eloquent personal and philosophical treatise about what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be. It is interesting to note that the book omits to tell us about Wiesel’s sisters and mother or what happened in the immediate aftermath of the liberation.

The book clearly invites many questions. In the first place, whether the Enlightenment came to an end with the Shoah. Was it the result of totalitarianism or mass society, where the individual has become depersonalized, colonized, and alienated by huge forces that escape our understanding and control? Could anything have been done to prevent the genocide? Did the perpetrators have options or were they forced to simply follow orders? Similar questions were asked at the end of the Communist era and are still debated today. Is there personal responsibility? What is its extent? Is the victim to be blamed? Could the Jews foresee what was coming and could they have prevented it by an escape? Whom are we obliged to help? It has been proved that indifference is complicity, yet there are genocides happening all over the world today and we remain largely indifferent to them as long as they do not touch us personally.

The US often positions itself as the protector of law and security around the world, but it has no consistent policy or ability to prevent the horrors of lawlessness. Genocide and war crimes are clearly defined nowadays, but we fail to respond in effective ways. I feel that we must study what produces the authoritarian personality and what produces prejudice. We have known for a long time that prejudice against Jews is based predominantly on Jews being presented as God killers, as Zionist conspirators who want to take over the world (as purported in the fake document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), as contaminators of pure Aryan blood, as the chosen nation, and so forth. Yet, Jews are not the only ones currently being subjected to extermination.

The mechanization of the complete destruction of an entire race organized and carried out by a state, shows how reason is something that can be abused in a vile way. It can be twisted and then used to defend bestiality. The Soviet gulags and the Nazi camps had many similarities.

According to Primo Levi, the death rate in the gulags was about thirty percent, while in the Nazi camps it was ninety to ninety-eight percent. The aim of the death camps was pure annihilation of a certain race, not only of individuals opposing a certain ideology or state form. So there is both a great similarity as well as difference between the two systems. Writers bearing personal witness have had a great impact helping people attempt to understand something that is almost unimaginable.

Elie Wiesel created a purpose for his life as a survivor:

My universe is the universe of the survivor. Writing is a duty for me as a survivor. I entered literature through silence; I seek the role of witness, and I am duty bound to justify each moment of my life as a survivor. Not to transmit my experience is to betray that experience. Words can never express the inexpressible; language is finally inadequate, but we do know of the beauty of literature. We must give truth a name, force man to look. The fear that man will forget, that I will forget, that is my obsession. Literature is the presence of the absence. Since I live, I must be faithful to the memory. Though I want to celebrate the sun, to sing of love, I must be the emissary of the dead, even though the role is painful.4

Bearing witness prevents mankind from forgetting and this must not be left undone, according to Elie Wiesel.

Marie Cedars writes that “silence is the language of Wiesel’s first book, Night, as it documents the camp experience that killed his faith ‘forever.’” Such is the claim in her article from 1986. She continues: “Its neutral tone is the language of the witness. Silence as a mood, silence as a mysterious presence, remains in Wiesel’s books, even while he moves from despair to affirmation of literature and life and as he continues to probe the unanswered questions of human cruelty and God’s silence.”5

Peter Manseau recapitulates the differences between the Wiesel’s original Yiddish book, written immediately at the end of the Holocaust, and the translation of Night presented to the world more than a decade later. He believes that rather than suppress the Jewish rage (as claimed by Seidman), Wiesel imposes “a theological frame on the story.”6 He goes on: “Wiesel has created a mouthpiece for his theology. It is a unique Holocaust theology, a theology of questions without answers: one that equates knowledge of the depths of man’s depravity with knowledge of the heights of man’s wisdom.” Thus, the main message of the book is shifted from man’s depravity to God’s silence interpreted as wisdom. Manseau believes that this is shortchanging the meaning that can be found in the excruciating experience: “If we continue to speak of atrocity in religious terms we will never take full responsibility for it. And so we will never learn. And so it will continue to be denied. And so it will happen again.”7

Another way in which the pain of what happened has been circumvented is by predominantly focusing on children as survivors or witnesses of the Holocaust. Mark Anderson proposes that this “allowed for mainstream, Christian identification with the Jewish victims, thus facilitating a crucial breakthrough in public recognition of the Jewish tragedy. But it also depoliticized and sacralized the Holocaust, filed off the rough edges of the Jewish protagonists, and sought reconciliation rather than confrontation with the gentile world that had assisted Hitler’s genocidal plan by remaining silent.”8

The question remains as to whether Wiesel’s masterpiece can continue to have an effect on future generations, those who will be far removed from the historical environment described by him.

Notes: 1 See Ron Rosenbaum,” “Elie Wiesel’s Secret,” Tablet, September 28, 2018, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/elie-wiesels-secret. 2 Naomi Seidman, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Jewish Social Studies 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1996): 8. 3 First published in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in Dutch in 1947, the English translation—Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, trans. Valentine Mitchell (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1952) received widespread critical and popular attention. It was translated into sixty languages. 4 Heidi Ann Walker, and Elie Wiesel, “Why and How I Write: An Interview with Elie Wiesel,” Journal of Education 162, no. 2 (Spring 1980): 58. 5 Marie M. Cedars, review of Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, by Irwing Abrahamson, Cross Currents 36, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 258-9. 6 Peter Manseau, “Revising Night: Elie Wiesel and the Hazards of Holocaust Theology,” Cross Currents 56, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 396. 7 Ibid.: 399. 8 Mark M. Anderson, “The Child Victim as Witness to the Holocaust: An American Story?,” Jewish Social Studies 14, no. 1 (Fall 2007), pp. 1–22.

About the Author

Bronislava Volková is a bilingual poet, semiotician, translator, collagist, essayist and Professor Emerita of Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, where she was a Director of the Czech Program at the Slavic Department for thirty years. She is a member of Czech and American PEN Club. She went into exile in 1974, taught at the Universities of Cologne and Marburg and subsequently at Harvard and University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She has published eleven books of existential and metaphysical poetry in Czech and seven bilingual editions illustrated with her own collages. She is also the author of two books on linguistic and literary semiotics (Emotive Signs in Language, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 1987 and A Feminist’s Semiotic Odyssey through Czech Literature, Edwin Mellen Press, N.Y., 1997), as well as the leading co-author of a large anthology of Czech poetry translations Up The Devil’s Back: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Czech Poetry (with Clarice Cloutier), Slavica Publishers, 2008. Her scholarly publications include topics of Czech poetry, Czech popular culture, issues of exile, gender, implied author values and emotive signs. Her poetry has been translated into twelve languages and her selected poems appeared in book form in six of them. She has also received a number of international literary and cultural awards. Currently, she is publishing abook Forms of Exile in Jewish Literature and Thought (Twentieth-Century Central Europe and Migration to America).

More at www.bronislavavolkova.com

THE GIBETTING OF WILLIAM JOBLING by Tom Kelly

As a child I used to play by Jarrow Slake, or ‘Jarra Slacks’ as we would say. It was near to Saint Pauls’ Church, Jarrow at mouth of the Tyne. It was there I heard stories of a man being hung. It was enough to terrify me, even though I knew nothing of the man that had apparently been hung.

I did not know William Jobling had been tried and hung in 1832 at Durham Assizes, for the murder of South Shields magistrate Nicholas Fairles. And that his body was then escorted by one hundred soldiers from Durham to Jarrow Slake where he was placed upon a gibbet twenty-one foot high.

Then in 1972 I became immersed in William Jobling when I researched the Jobling story for an exhibition ‘The Gibbetting of William Jobling’ at the Bede Gallery in Jarrow, held in October of that year, I wrote the chapbook ‘The Gibbeting of Wm. Jobling’ which accompanied the exhibition. Prior to that the doyen of north-east writing, Sid Chaplin, had written an article for the Jarrow Festival programme in 1971 which had prompted Vincent Rea, curator of the Bede Gallery, to organise the Jobling exhibition that went on to successfully tour the U.K.

I also discovered Professor Norman McCord of Newcastle University had written a paper in 1958 for the South Shields Archaeological and Historical Society, entitled, ‘The Murder of Nicholas Fairles, Esq., J.P., at Jarrow Slake, on June, 11th 1832’. Professor McCord kindly sent me a copy in 1972. That said the Jobling story had remained largely untold, although does feature in Fynes and Richardson’s Local History Table Books.

Incidentally when carrying out the research I unearthed Jobling’s gibbet which was in the Newcastle Keep. It had been given to the Newcastle Society of Antiquities in 1856 when Tyne Dock was developed. The gibbet was a key piece in the Bede Gallery exhibition. The gibbet was a derrick which would have been used to discharge cargo from ships on the Tyne. It was extended to a height of twenty-one and was secured in a cement base. It can now be found in South Shields Museum.  

In 2010 Filmmaker Gary Wilkinson and myself produced a short film,’ The ‘Jarrow Voices’ looking at the Jarrow Crusade and Jobling at which features Saint Mary’s churchyard at Heworth in Gateshead. I find this particularly poignant and important as there is a memorial stone dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1812 Felling Colliery disaster. It underlines the conditions in collieries in the nineteenth century in the north-east.

Now when I pass Saint Mary’s churchyard at Heworth in Gateshead, and see the stone dedicated to those who lost their lives in the 1812 Felling Colliery disaster when entire families from eight years of age. In that same cemetery lies the grave of Thomas Hepburn, who founded the Northern Union of Pitmen in 1831. His gravestone reads, “This stone was erected by the miners of Northumberland and Durham and other friends.” It’s the ‘other friends’ that has, for me, such power.

A cursory glance at colliery records reveals a frightening death toll. Jarrow’s Pit was no exception: January 25th. 1817, forty-two men and boys killed and in a near duplication of events in August 1830, a further forty-two lost their lives, leaving, on that occasion, twenty-one widows and sixty-six fatherless children.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, miners had voiced their dissatisfaction with working conditions and their annual bonds and in 1810 they eventually went on strike. Mineworkers had to sign an annual contract known as a ‘bond’, which meant they had to stay at a particular colliery for a year and a day. As most pitmen were illiterate, they would make their cross on the bond and the viewer or manager of the colliery would add the man’s name.

No permanent union organisation existed, however, until the establishment of the Northern Union of Pitmen of Tyne and Wear, led by Thomas Hepburn. He was a Wesleyan Methodist, as were many pitmen. He was also a lay preacher and learnt to read and write through classes organised by the Methodists.

In April, 1831, he led the pitmen on strike. He wanted boys to work only a twelve-hour day as they had been working sixteen hours. He also sought the abolition of the ‘Tommy Shop’ system. This was a system whereby pitmen were paid in ‘Tommy checks,’ vouchers that could only be used in company stores at prices greatly unfavourable to the pitmen.

This strike led to battles between pitmen and the militia. Hepburn, at his meetings, pleaded with his men to keep a peaceful strike. These meetings were held at Black Fell, Boldon Colliery and Friars Goose, Gateshead and on one occasion, twenty thousand pitmen met on Newcastle’s Town Moor.

The strike lasted until September 1831. Some concessions were gained: Hepburn was made a full-time official but there was still bitter opposition to the unions.

In April 1832 there was another strike among pitmen of Northumberland and Durham, when they refused to sign their annual bonds. Once again there was violence and Cuthbert Skipsey, a miners’ leader in North Shields was shot and killed by a constable. Cuthbert was Joseph Skipsey’s father. The judge recommended leniency and the constable was given a six-month sentence with hard labour.

On June 11th. 1832 at 5.00 p.m. Jarrow pitmen, Ralph Armstrong and William Jobling were drinking in Turners pub in South Shields. On the road near the toll-bar gate, near Jarrow slake Jobling begged from Nicholas Fairles, a seventy-one-year-old well-known local magistrate. He refused. Armstrong, who had followed Jobling, attacked Fairles with a stick and a stone. Both men ran away leaving Fairles’ seriously injured on the road. Two hours later Jobling was arrested on South Shields beach where horse racing was taking place. Armstrong, an ex-seaman, apparently returned to sea.

After his arrest Jobling was taken to Fairles home and was identified as having been present but that he had not been the main assailant. Jobling was taken to Durham Jail and when Fairles died of his injuries on June 21st, was charged with murder. Jobling was tried at Durham Assizes on Wednesday, August 1st. The jury took fifteen minutes in reaching their guilty verdict.

Judge Parke, in his summing-up attacked the unions, “Combinations which are alike injurious to the public interest and to the interests of those persons concerned in them…I trust that death will deter them following your example”. The sentence was that Jobling be publicly executed and his body be hung from a gibbet erected in Jarrow Slake, near the scene of the attack. The judge continued, “I trust that the sight of that will have some affect upon those, who are to a certain extent, your companions in guilt and your companions in these ‘illegal proceedings’, which have disgraced the county. May they take warning by your fate”. Jobling was the last man gibbeted in the North and the last man gibbeted had been some forty years previously.

Jobling was hanged on August 3rd. Hepburn asked his men not to attend the hanging and held a meeting on Boldon Fell. After Jobling was taken from the scaffold his clothes were removed and his body covered in pitch. He was then riveted into an iron cage, made of flat iron bars two and a half inches wide. His feet were placed in stirrups from which bars of iron went each side of his head and ended in a ring, which suspended his cage. Jobling’s hands hung by his sides, and his head was covered with a white cloth.

In a four-wheeled wagon, drawn by two horses, on Monday, August 6th, his body was taken to Jarrow Slake escorted by a troop of Hussars and two companies of Infantry. The gibbet was fixed upon a stone weighing one and half tons that was sunk into the Slake, and the heavy wooden uprights were reinforced with steel bars to prevent it being sawn through. At high tide the water covered four to five feet of the gibbet leaving a further sixteen to seventeen feet visible.

Isabella, Jobling’s wife, had a cottage near the Slake and would have been able to see her husband clearly for the three weeks he was displayed. On August 31st, when the guard was removed, Jobling’s friends stole the body. His whereabouts have never been discovered.

By September 1832, the strike had petered out and the union was almost non-existent and did revive but not for some years and the annual bonds were not abolished until some forty years later.

When the union died, Hepburn tried to sell tea from door-to-door, but anyone buying from him risked losing his job. Eventually, starving, Hepburn went to Felling Colliery and asked for work. He was offered employment provided he had no further dealings with the unions.

He conformed and devoted the remainder of his life to educating pitmen and became involved with the Chartist movement. In April 1891 Isabella Jobling went into South Shields Work House, and died there, too senile to recall her husband.  Jarrow’s colliery closed in 1852 and now there is no indication of where it stood, and a school stands near its former site. Much of Jarrow’s Slake has been reclaimed.

Attempts have also been made to discover Jobling’s body but to no avail. Jobling’s body was stolen by his friends, after three weeks, when the guards were removed. They risked seven years transportation in doing so.

I am not defending Jobling’s involvement in the killing of Nicholas Fairles, a 71-year-old man, he was, an accomplice to the murder, carried-out by Ralph Armstrong. Armstrong was never apprehended. It is what the authorities did with Jobling’s body and why which particularly interests me.

What effect did Jobling have? What power did the image of his cage swinging on Jarrow slake invoke? It is a powerful image. It underlined the ruthlessness of the government of the day. Were the pitmen of Tyne and Wear bowed by its power?  Perhaps the French Revolution was too near and it was felt that the working class should be treated harshly at any sign of insurrection.

I suggest Judge Parke, the judge at Jobling’s trial and Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne and company made Jobling a symbol, a battering ram, butting the pitmen of 1832 back to work to break the union and it had the desired effect.

What would have happened if the unions had become successful and a working-class revolt had become a reality? What if there had been a more cohesive and organised revolt on a national scale? What if Jobling and the Peterloo massacres of 1819 and other attempts at working class rebellion during this period had brought about change? Shelley, after the Peterloo massacre, asked that we use this bludgeoning as a means of change:

Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

About the Author

Tom Kelly is a Tyneside writer who has had a great deal of his stage work produced by the Customs House, South Shields.

His ninth poetry collection This Small Patch has recently been published and re-printed by Red Squirrel Press who also published his short story collection Behind the Wall.

His stories have appeared in a number of UK magazines and on Radio Four.

www.tomkelly.org.uk

Impressions from the Land of Vanished Beautiful Things by Stephen Mead

When Alice fell down the rabbit hole on her way to Wonderland it was not an ordinary tunnel of dirt and plant roots through which she plunged. I know this by remembering the childhood copy of the book our family had. On the cover of this book Alice is wearing some sort of light blue pinafore over a blouse with white puffy sleeves and a matching white band in her blonde hair. Her arms and legs are bent at their joints and a little bit spread-eagle but Alice looks more surprised than worried, and in the brown background are shelves upon shelves of leather bound books. Apparently this white rabbit is scholarly and has a library to be proud of. The tomes in this rabbit’s bookcases seem to be as treasured as the copy of “Alice in Wonderland” which opened in my small childhood hands.
In good moments this is how my memories come: clear, distinct, without underlying psychological baggage. In such an instance I can, for example, remember the Christmas angel made by my father’s sister which was the last ornament to top the trees of our family’s holidays for more than a decade. The angel’s body was made of a cardboard dowel, hollow of course so as to fit over the apex of pine just right, but over this dowel was the top torso of a doll’s body with elegant shoulders, a pearlescent gown and hands clasped to hold either a piece of sheet music or a candle. The more I concentrate the more I’m pretty sure that the held scroll was choral for the lips of the angel’s haloed china head formed an “oh”. Light silver mesh covered the gown while a veil of small gold leaf stars decorated the angel’s head, her dark hair cut in a bob of Snow White meets Prince Valiant. From photos I know that this was how my Aunt, who died young of rheumatic fever, wore her hair as well, thus I always associated the angel with the spirit of my Aunt, a tender vigilant presence among the Christmas tree lights.
Other memories seem to come a long way over the hills and valleys of my cerebrum and cerebellum. Some of these ghosts of gray matter are like war-weathered soldiers, others, vagabond-like and occasionally ragamuffin. These waifs are less Dickensian but more like the sort out of Hans Christian Anderson, rather forlorn from vague travails I can’t quite put my finger on. I try but they shift, pop up and down here, now there, in some cerebral game of whack-a-mole.
This essential illusory quality of memory, of living itself, by organic osmosis, has formed a large core of my art. I have filled so much paper and canvass with the outlines of beings superimposed. These beings may be lovers, friends, family members or related by an indirect kind of intimacy, a struggle against racism or homophobia or some other underlying connecting bond of emotional commonality. The symbolic integrity is in the details of how colors may blend together or how what goes on, collage-like, under, over, between the outlines, creates different ways of viewing, even feeling, the whole. Writing of memory is also a piecemeal way of understanding life, trying to grasp what is apparently transparent but often intensely visceral while experienced. After all, in the midst of remembering something a person may not be in that place, and certainly not in that time, any more. A person may be looking out a window at quite some other scene, an ocean, or a busy city street for instance, while the memory is a film, a slideshow, a chrysalis of sensations going on simultaneously throughout the interior landscape.
When I think of the room which served as a living space for more than one family member, just at different times, this is what occurs: an overlapping. This overlapping, like the slowly twisted body of a kaleidoscope blurring to a lens of clarity, is especially true when some of the objects and furnishings in the room remained the same though different family members made use of them on the timelines of heritage, perspective, change and mortality. Specifically I am thinking about the room above the living room in the farmhouse I grew up in, a room that in some households may have served as an attic, but for my grandmother, then my parents, and then for my brother, was actually a bedroom, the size perhaps of a studio flat.
Gray stairs led to this chamber, behind a wooden door of cracking molasses-brown varnish. The interior of that door had a crackling-effect to its off-white patina too, and as one climbed the sturdy steps an air of dusty pink opened up; pink even over the slight slant mid-way up the stairwell where sheet metal of an old wide heating vent was covered in plaster. I don’t recall a handrail so much as a pink walls used for balance and guidance, pink like the color of ventricles to a heart and walls which were like cave drawings for the repeated millions of fingerprints from the people who came up and down those stairs. At the top of the right wall was a gray painted hinged circular lid, a lid which was like a ship’s portal whose interior was filled with insulation since this hole had been part of the stovepipe inner sanctum once used to heat the farmhouse. This hole matched another one higher in the center of the slightly slanted piece of sheet metal midway up the stairs, and a third in the wooden floor right next to the white banisters.
This network of vanished heating pipes created a different sort of portal for my siblings and I while growing up, for of course we did view these holes as something nautical, that they had the function of periscopes or large barometers for invisible submarines perhaps. We’d find some way to pop the hinged lids open, remove the circular dry wall cut-outs, and call messages through these flue-passages, messages of danger danger, be on the alert, messages of novice Morse code. My daredevil brother was even able to stand with legs spread on either side of stairwell cavity, disregarding the distance to stairs beneath in order to reach that mid-wall second chimney stopper, though of course my parents were less than impressed by such risks. Just one more way to fall, break a neck and see how you like it pretty much sums up their reaction to his acrobatics.
At the very top of the stairs, across from the loop of string which turned the ceiling light on, was a solid dark wooden chest. If this was meant to be a hope chest than its thick black lacquer suggested my grandmother’s prospects must have run towards the gothic if not downright bleak. Even in its lid was not hinged but a heavy slab that slid to the side like an opening to a mausoleum casket. In hindsight I’m relieved that this chest never entered my nightmares, its Pandora lid slowly inching to reveal body parts of Blue Beard’s brides, for I’m fairly certain my brother encouraged such bump-in-the-night fancies. Mainly what I remember it holding was the dense scent of its own woodsy heat and blanket piled upon blanket; many of these quilts of course being hand-stitched in traditional star patterns. From the scraps of old clothes, triangles of flannel joined up with squares of printed cotton, these traces of bunting backed by the durable cloth used to tuck ancestry up under one’s chin on long winter nights. The chest also had a couple of side compartments. One held a Parcheesi board crafted from maple coasters, and the other a mother-of-pearl pair of opera glasses in a purple beaded bag with a golden snap. I believe we played games of espionage with these miniature binoculars as opposed to Evenings of Madame Butterfly Live from the Met.
The ceiling of this room was more than trapezoidal; having at least seven angles bending to match the shingled roof above, though right down the center a full grown adult could stand up straight without banging his head. In retrospect I see this bubblegum pink painted room as being shaped like the interior of a barn and, like a barn, its temperature was either very hot in the summer or very cold November through March. It also only had three white-trimmed windows, two squat horizontal rectangular ones in the front and one regular-sized vertical rectangle to their left. This created a dimness in the room that was ideal for private sojourns of refreshing rest unless one’s temperament was more maudlin and claustrophobic in which case the front windows seemed like steely eyes. Luckily the former was the case for my grandmother and most likely my parents, (though they only took the bedroom for a very short time while my grandmother lived in their bedroom during her last illness), whereas since my brother had the bedroom under the hormonal pendulum of teenage years, any Heathcliff broodiness was naturally par for the course. Even I feel a great sense of lassitude mixed with the forbidden, keep out, for the years he dwelled there, but that comes from his typical stance of independence in the necessity of finally having a room of one’s own versus the thoroughfare of the one he shared with me.
Given the angles of the ceiling the placement of furnishings was fairly consistent no matter who slept up there, even if the actual pieces of furniture changed with each occupant. There was always someone’s wooden antique dresser with its hinged oval mirror next to the stair banisters on the left-hand side of the room, an antique wooden wardrobe in the center of the windowless right wall, and always a bed with some sort of antique headboard in the middle of the room. Actually, though my brother and I have had more time on earth together than either of us had with my grandmother, even if it feels as though he had squatter’s rights on the bedroom the longest, since that was pretty much an off-limits place to me during that time, my clearest memories of the bedroom fall under grandma’s reign and thus have greater warmth. (Either that or given my age and how Alzheimer’s works that is the real basis for these oldest memories being the stronger.)
The head and footboard of my grandmother’s bed were a green-tinged brass and rose like the steeples and turrets of some medieval castle. They even had the elegant arabesques between the four-poster poles at each end. I was allergic to the pillows and mattress, all made of down, but loved being able to feel the occasional spine and quill squeezed through fabric between fingers. The bed was also great for napping, being small and getting lost in the depths of its queen sized contours. Between the front windows there was a hard backed love seat with thick fuchsia cushions great for curling up in and peering out the rear slats like a monkey, or lying the full length of, poking skinny arms and legs out of the holes made by armrests, and singing row, row, row your boat as gently down the stream grandma merrily joined in as a resonant echo. Beside the loveseat was a round piano stool whose seat had the circles of a tree and could be screwed up and down. This stool had three curved legs carved like lion’s feet at the tips and she placed her Christmas cactus on it with a lace doily beneath. The cactus bloomed from having been in the sun under the front Catalpa throughout the summer.
I remember the red-tinged waxen curls of the blossoms falling on the thin Oriental rug when placed back upstairs. I remember my grandmother going back and forth with her carpet sweeper, the thick beige nylon of her legs, her house dresses which came below the knees and, against that, either an apron or a cardigan sweater or both. The twin doors of her pine wardrobe painted with something green and floral in design, had hooks on their insides where other such frocks and sweaters hung, while on the higher shelf and top were hatboxes filled with creations of elaborate feathers, ribbons, beads or veils. I think one was even covered with miniature dove nests completed by eggs of pearl.
Next to this was a washstand with a faux marble top and rods on the sides for a washcloth and towel. The front of this washstand also had double wooden doors, cedar stained with keyholes under the gold knobs that clicked them in place. On the faux marble top, made of milk white china, was grandma’s pitcher and bowl. Before pulling up her slip for the day grandma would pour the silvery water out and sponge-bathe, lifting each breast natural and innocent as if before the eyes of her Lord. Then there was the powder with its puff of vanilla or lilies of the valley. Along with the pitcher and bowl was the round dish for bobby pins, the caramel square of beeswax she polished with, the matching tortoiseshell-backed brush, mirror and comb.
Sometimes, on holidays or before church, Dutch reformed, grandma wore a little bit of make-up. There was mainly a small compact for powdering the nose and a pot of rouge that might serve as lipstick too. I don’t think she had the fancy roll-out kind Mom had, but the rouge was ruby and the little circles on lips and cheeks easily smoothed in. Occasionally grandma let me try a little on lips and cheeks as well and together we looked beautiful, especially with the costume jewelry accessories, the necklaces of beads long enough to be looped double or the earrings like ruby teardrops which screwed in to the lobes. If my brother saw me like this he would say I was a fairy-nice-fellow and asked if I took a Fem-iron vitamin like the tired housewives in the TV commercials.
Later, older, the few times he let me up in his room he had it decorated with purple lights, glow-in-the-dark posters and a glowing plastic skull. He listened to Rush, Pink Floyd, and grew mary-jew-wanna behind the barn until mom found out. On some summer nights he’d take the screens out of the front and we’d crawl past where the windows, like stiff mirrored wings, swung into the room. Sometimes our sister joined us. It would be late, dark, quiet, and we knew we could not let our parents know. Often the quiet was punctuated by the clank, metallic squeals, whistles and clangs of the railroad over the hill. Over that same hill was often a greenish glow from the plastics plant which changed that part of the sky into Emerald City fog.
The shingles of the roof would be cool, leaving little bits of rough grit against our palms, forearms, knees and feet as we shuffled around, occasionally being brave enough to stand, our silhouettes matching the tallness of the surrounding trees. The leaves of these whispered of calm, of peace, as did the rustling of the lilac bush on one side, the wisteria on the other. Sometimes those scents rose in the air’s fading mugginess while lightning bugs flickered in the outlying fields below.
Still waters running deep, I don’t think we reminisced aloud much about grandma, her daughter who died young, or even her husband who also died before we came on the scene but who built this house whose roof we scampered upon. Our waters resembled the streams of dad’s in that respect, a reticence in the bloodline which did not stem from lacking reserves of sorrow. We know these people were still honored by their photos on the downstairs mantel or the books of yellowing sheet music piled in rooms for a piano no one now living in the house knew how to play. We ruminated in silent reverie about these beings through the things they left behind when done with living in the rooms we who came after now occupied.
Above and beyond us the stars would go on with their wondrous performance as more cosmos seemed to open up further the longer that we gazed. Occasionally there was the distraction of passing planes and vapor trails to follow, the good distant drone of engines, the tiny flashing of red and blue lights, and the hope for a U.F.O. to really liven things up. Hazy overcast nights were mellowing but of course we preferred skies of cirrus against onyx and full blood orange moons slowly turning to polar craters we would look for a face in. Even then we knew how small we were yet could take comfort in the infinitesimal scope of it all. Our spirits were more enormous than we realized, maybe finding some kind of faith in the night before crawling back in through the windows, the protective solitude of our sensitive selves tested again and again every time we ventured, homesick and shy, into the wide unknowable world.

About the Author:

Stephen Mead is an Outsider multi-media artist and writer. Since the 1990s he’s been grateful to many editors for publishing his work in print zines and eventually online. He is also grateful to have managed to keep various day jobs for the Health Insurance. Currently he is resident artist/curator for The Chroma Museum, artistic renderings of LGBTQI historical figures, organizations and allies predominantly before Stonewall, The Chroma Museum

The Other Coleridge by Alan Price

Samuel Taylor Coleridge; source: Google Images

If a fortnight ago, you’d have asked me who Hartley Coleridge was I would have said he was the baby that his proud father, Samuel Coleridge, eloquently wrote about in his great poem Frost at Midnight.

“My babe so beautiful! It thrills my heart

With tender gladness, thus to kook at thee,

And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,

And in other scenes!”

If pressed I would have added that Hartley grew up to be a writer to produce work that was now completely forgotten. Yet a chance find of a paperback in an Oxfam shop proved me wrong. Here was Bricks Without Mortar: The Selected Poems of Hartley Coleridge (Picador books) edited by Lisa Gee (2000). Whilst researching work for an anthology the poet Don Paterson was attracted to Coleridge’s poetry, and then showed it to Lisa Gee. Her selection is drawn from the 1833 volume of Hartley’s poetry edited by his brother Derwent.

One of Hartley’s unpublished manuscripts is Bricks Without Mortar from the Tower of Babel. This seductive title sounds like a fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, there’s an indirect link to Borges, for in his fiction Coleridge’s Flower Borges remarks on the “perfect fancy” of a notebook entry by S.T. Coleridge.

“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to

him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in

his hand when he awoke – Ay! – and what then?”

Borges perceives this as “a final goal.” Correct from a poet who wrote such visionary works as The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. Yet what would this have meant to his eldest son, Hartley? Coleridge Snr. wrote big, expansive poems with a philosophic charge. Coleridge Jnr. wrote small poems with a gentler inner exploration of the self and observations of the natural world that were imbued by a feminised awareness. It’s been said that Hartley Coleridge had more in common with his great friend the poet William Wordsworth (I would also include a similarity with John Clare.)  Hartley was often a quietist who spoke (at his best) of the minutiae of life with acute sensitivity.

“The insect birds that suck nectareous juice

From straightest tubes of curly-petaled flowers,

Or catch the honey-dew that falls profuse

Through the soft air, distill’d in viewless

Whose colours seem the very souls of gems,

Or parting rays of fading diadems:-

S.T.  Coleridge may have yearned for some ideal Platonic essence of a flower in Paradise to be realised in material form, whereas for Hartley the ordinary was always extraordinary. The overlooked had to be looked at with a feminine sensibility and wonderful stillness. It’s very apparent in his beautiful poem, Night.

The crackling embers on the hearth are dead;

The indoor note of industry is still;

The small birds wait not for their daily bread;

The voiceless flowers-how quietly they shed

Their nightly odours: – and the household rill,

Murmers continuous dulcet sounds that fill

The vacant expectation, and the dread

Of listening night. And haply now she sleeps:

For all the garrulous noises of the air

Are hush’d in peace; the soft dew silent weeps,

Like hopeless lovers for a maid so fair-

Oh! That I were the happy dream that creeps

To her soft heart, to find my image there.”

Hartley was known to be an egalitarian fellow mixing comfortably with the high and low of society. A great conversationalist who delighted his listeners and wrote a lot of poetry: quite a bit composed within ten minutes and regarded as pretty bad (Though the 19th century yeoman of the dales considered him “A powitt, iviry inch of ‘im.”)  yet when it’s good, it can also be outstanding and sometimes great. According to scholar Andrew Keanie, Hartley very much lived in the moment greatly aided by alcohol – no doubt at the local inn where he was considered a kindly gentleman. His brother Derwent observed that Coleridge was greatly loved.

“Among his friends we must count men, women, and children, of every rank and every age…In the farmhouse or the cottage, not alone at times of rustic festivity at a sheep-shearing, a wedding, or a christening, but by the ingle side, with the grandmother or the ‘bairns’, he was made, and felt himself, at home…He would nurse an infant by the hour. A like overflowing of his affectionate nature was seen in his fondness for animals – for anything that would love him in return – simply, and for its

own sake, rather than his.”

Hartley loved cats. And in his poem To a Cat, he brings a ruthless rhyme ending when his consciousness of mortality sharply distinguishes him from an animal.

“Nelly, methinks,’wixt thee and me,

There is a kind of sympathy;

And could we interchange our nature,-

If I were cat, thou human creature,-

I should, like me, no great mouser,

And thou, like me, no great composer;

For, like thy plaintive mews, my muse,

With villainous whine doth fate abuse,

Because it has not made me sleek

As golden down on Cupid’s cheek;

And yet thou canst upon the rug lie,

Stretch’s out like snail, or curl’s up snugly,

As if thou wert not lean or ugly;

And I, who in poetic flights

Sometimes complain of sleepless nights

Regardless of the sun in heaven,

Am apt to dose till past eleven.

The world would just the same go round

If I were hang’d and thou wert drown’d;

There is one difference, tis true,-

Thou dost not know it, and I do.”

Hartley also wrote notebooks, essays and biographical pieces on other poets – Milton, Spenser and Marvell. He tried to earn his living as a teacher but wasn’t any good at it because he constantly felt intimidated by his pupils. Hartley feared they might physically assault him. (This must have fed into Hartley’s own childhood. For he was a dreamy boy who didn’t readily mix with other children; preferring his own company and his imaginary world. He even invented Ejuxira – a kingdom that had its own laws, language and customs.)

Apart from his writing any other means to earn a living seemed not to interest him. Eventually Hartley was given money by his family; his needs were modest and he got by. Despite his many friendships Hartley was lonely and unfulfilled. For Hartley was self-denigrating and considered himself unattractive to women. His childlike vulnerability and over-sensitivity was channelled into a confident poetic talent: whilst Hartley’s great social affability and his need to be a free spirit probably wasn’t grounded enough in realism.

As a poet of the 19th century he remains a major-minor voice, with a sensibility that greatly differs from either the Romantic utterances of his father or Shelley. Hartley isn’t a writer of grandiloquence or revelation. Yet his verse shines with a modesty, introspection and insight. Hartley is a democratic poet of great integrity and directedness. Both a poet of his time and yet hinting at a later Victorian period of uncertainty and doubt. Hartley’s haunting poem It Were a State Too Terrible… has an elegiac quality that reminds me of the grief of Tennyson’s In Memoriam  blended with the darkness of a 20th century philosophical despair.

It were a state too terrible for man,

Too terrible and strange, and most unmeet,

To look into himself, his state to scan,

And find no precedent, no chart, or plan,

But think himself an embryo incomplete,

Else a remnant of a world effete,

Some by-blow of the universal Pan,

Great nature’s waif, that must by law escheat

To the liege-lord Corruption. Sad the case

Of man, who knows not wherefore he was made:

But he that knows the limits of his race

Not runs, but flies with prosperous winds to aid;

Or if he limps, he knows his path was trod

By saints of old, who knew their way to God.

Hartley’s great range of moods and skill is impressive. Another of his voices was of the praising kind. In the sonnet form he brilliantly praised Donne, Marvell and Shakespeare. Hartley’s remarkable and moving To Shakespeare ought to be much better known.

The soul of man is larger than the sky,

Deeper than ocean – or the abysmal dark

Of the unfathom’d centre. Like that Ark,

Which in its sacred hold uplifted high,

O’er the drown’d hills, the human family,

And stock reserved of every living kind,

So, in the compass of a single mind,

The seed and pregnant forms in essence lie,

That make all worlds. Great Poet ‘twas thy art,

To know thyself, and in thyself to be

Whate’er love, hate, ambition, destiny,

Or the firm, fatal purpose of the heart,

Can make of Man. Yet thou wert still the same,

Serene of thought, unhurt by thy own flame.

This poem recalls his father Samuel Taylor. The dramatic criticism of STC is probably not as read as much these days as his poetry. But it remains a landmark in the development of modern literary theory. In Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare we have father and son Hartley united in their insights.

“…that in his (Shakespeare’s) very first productions he projected his mind out of his   own particular being, and felt, and made others feel, on subjects no way connected   with himself, except by force of contemplation and that sublime faculty by which a great mind becomes that, on which it meditates.”

Shakespeare also brings my essay full circle via its earlier remarks on Borges’s fiction on STC and Kubla Khan. For Borges also wrote on Shakespeare and that great poet’s awareness of an insubstantial I, or empty sense of self. You’ll find this in the haunting Borges’s fiction Everything and Nothing and the essay A History of the Echoes of a Name. Here Borges mentions Parolles, of All’s Well that Ends Well who announces

“Captain I’ll no more,

But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft

As captain shall. Simply the thing I am

Shall make me live.”

for which Borges’s conclusion is:-

“Thus Parolles speaks, and suddenly ceases to be a conventional character in a comic farce and becomes a man and all mankind.”

With Hartley Coleridge, as with Shelley the’ legislator’ the Romantic poet takes on the job of representing humanity.

“Twere surely hard to toil without an aim.

Then shall the toil of an immortal mind

Spending its strength for good of human kind

Have no reward on earth but empty fame?”

Answering his own doleful question, Hartley concludes his poem ‘Twere Surely Hard…with this,

“Tis aught that acts, unconsciously revealing

To mortal man his immortality.

Then think, O Poet, think how bland, how healing.

The beauty though has taught thy fellow man to see.”

Like all good poets Hartley did teach us to see. And in the selection Bricks without Mortar we have his best seeing of humanity and nature. The other, unfairly passed over, Coleridge now deserves our attention and love.

I

About the Author:

Alan Price lives in London. He’s a poet, short story writer, book reviewer and film critic for Filmuforia.In 2012, OUTFOXING HYENAS, a collection of his poetry was published by Indigo Dreams. This has been followed by further pamphlets and collections. His latest book THE TRIO CONFESSIONS (The High Window Press) appeared in June 2020. Alan is currently writing a novel and also working on a series of prose poems based on films.

The Alchemy of Writing by Rue Collinge

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Writing by Kasia Grzelak, 2019

I miss the physical act of writing [ELLIPSIS]… The world has always made sense as soon as I have my notebook [COMMA], and I miss it with a belly-wrenching [INSERT DASH BEFORE WRENCHING END OF LINE COMMA], world-turned–sideways [INSERT DASH AFTER WORLD INSERT DASH AFTER TURNED END OF LINE] kind of hurt [FULL STOP]. There is no other part of my body I would notice missing more than my hands [COMMA], and now somehow I am on an awkward first date in a long-term relationship [INSERT DASH AFTER LONG END OF LINE COMMA], and I’ve forgotten how to do it all [FULL STOP].

6 September 2017, 8:17 AM

This is what’s left of one human being,

this thing on a slip of gauze;

but the rest of me, scattered across

continents, calls

screams for its face.

 

from the Japanese poem ‘Revelation’, Koichi Kihara, 1922[1]

 

If you had asked me what a writer looked like a few years ago, I would have spun you a tangled web of impressions. They wore glasses (probably). Their office was a coffee shop, or a cluttered library, or a tree trunk from which they could watch the world go by. My exposure to the writer’s process was also pretty shallow. I parroted editors such as Crowe and Oltermann who ‘wanted to tear down the invisible wall between us readers and them writers and see what’s really going on behind the page’[2], but was still secretly convinced that Book Was Always Better. Writing was a tangible act of creation. I felt a writer was more akin to a potter than anything else – unless they had their hands on the raw material, they couldn’t shape it.

My writing process is starkly different to that rosy image. Nearly three years ago, I was diagnosed with a health condition which severely limits the use of my hands and wrists, so I write with my hands in my lap, with a headset, and a computer bristling with dictation software. Writer’s cramp is no longer the issue – instead, it is the possibility of losing my voice! I can be speaking for up to ten hours a day, depending on the task at hand.

My relationship with the software has not been an easy one. Dictation is imperfect, but so is the person dictating. I struggled to translate what I was thinking into good content, punctuated as it was with the voice commands necessary to navigation and editing. It wasn’t possible to maintain a creative stream with this constant attention to the “nuts and bolts”. Words were reduced to building blocks. Vocalising my thoughts was a stilted, unnatural process. Before, I had been able to condense those first flashes of thought into a coherent sentence, with my keyboard or pen. Now, I was frustrated by their disconnected nature. They spilled onto the page and I tried – unsuccessfully – to connect the dots. In my inability to translate myself properly, I stopped trying to innovate. I did only as much as was required to complete my undergraduate degree, but I didn’t write outside of it. I was too busy grieving for what I had lost.

By the time I began my Masters degree, I had a better facility with the software, but there was still a yawning chasm between what was in my head, and what ended up on the page. Perhaps, as Brande put it, I hoped ‘to hear that there was some magic about writing, and to be initiated into the brotherhood of authors’[3]. She might have been writing in 1934, but her words resonated. I felt challenged. As we studied the different facets of creative process I realised that I needed to train if I were to better translate my thoughts. My difficulty was that I had yet to perceive dictation as anything more than a crude tool with which I could still approximate my old creative process.

As Hall points out, often ‘Our minds are musclebound, not by intellect, but by formulas of thought, by clichés of both phrase and organisation’[4]. I was constrained not only by the usual array of issues which plague us as writers, but also by my choice to suffer rather than celebrate the unique possibilities of dictation. I slowly became convinced that I could achieve as much, if not more, with this new technology as when I had used traditional methods. But how could I do so?

The same simple advice appeared wherever I looked: write often, in quantity, and without editing as you go. Brande compares the mechanism of writing to exercise, to which we can become better accustomed as long as we practice[5]. This stamina grows as writing becomes a habit which we cultivate. I was writing a journal at the time, and realised (with a tone of surprise) that:

It is brilliant and useful to write rubbish. Probably most of this is. Sifting through – mining for the gold – is part of the process. Writing for no one but myself is the goal here. I am not trying to find the shape of the finished product. I am not considering my audience. I am not writing for applause or adulation. I am writing because in order to get better, I must.[6]

I practised. I couldn’t just create nonsense, because the effort of editing it all later was too lengthy. I had to learn to distil it. Dictation has forced me to organise my thoughts differently, to know what I want to say before I speak it aloud. How can I best translate what I’m thinking? Which words will best capture the story I am telling?

I began to see parallels in the challenges of translation – of works from another language, especially those with a very different aesthetic. The anthology Japanese Poetry Now has been, according to the translator, ‘remade into English’[7], not translated. This choice of language is spot-on! The phonetic differences and its logographic nature alone are a huge contrast to any European language, and when cultural aesthetic is taken into account, the task is monumental. As Fitzsimmons approached each poem for the collection, he tussled with how ‘to preserve rather than reduce mystery’ whilst still trying ‘to make poems in English… with fidelity to pattern and whole, the human vision vibrant there’[8].

I wanted to remain faithful to the mental catalyst which inspired me, but wanted increasingly to render it in ways appropriate to the new language I was learning. And as I have bent my will to doing so, I have developed a greater precision with language. I have also developed a greater appreciation for the relationship between form and content, especially in poetry. As formatting my work must be achieved by voice commands, detail needs to be worth the time expenditure. A poet is less distracted by form for form’s sake, or gimmicky concrete aspirations, when it is painstakingly achieved.

I had previously experimented a little with form, but this growing awareness of sympathetic form led me to study other poets in a new way. As Knowles explores in her study, the visual element of poetry is hardly a new phenomenon[9], but we owe our modern inheritance to poets such as Mallarmé, who ‘turns spatial values… into a signifying force in their own right’[10]. He marshalled both the forces of ink and the white spaces between words with equal weight. It is this new understanding, a more imaginative wielding of dictation, and long hours of practice which have allowed me to develop a writing process which is far more robust than it ever was.

In this process of digging, I have found I am excavating self, piece by piece. I am coal-smudged, dirty and grinning with new callouses on my hands from this work mining words. Not all of my forays are successful or productive. I cannot pretend that I bring back gold with every trip, nor that I don’t sometimes groan from the strain or shrink from the labour, but I am learning the tunnels and trying new parts of the rock face.

I am mining for gold. Look – how it gleams in the dirt.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934)

Donald Hall, Writing Well, 6th edn. (Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown College Division, 1988) pp.18-23

Crowe, Dan, Philip Oltermann, eds., How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, (New York: Rizzoli, 2007)

Knowles, Kim, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ulrich Weger, & Andrew Michael Roberts, ‘Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives’, in Writing Technologies, 4 (2012), 75–106

Fitzsimmons, Thomas, ed. and trans. Japanese Poetry Now, (New York: Schocken Books, 1972)

[1] Koichi Kihara, Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p.36

[2] How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors, ed. by Dan Crowe & Philip Oltermann (New York: Rizzoli, 2007), p.4

[3] Brande, Dorothea, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), p.22

[4] Donald Hall, Writing Well, 6th edn. (Illinois: Scott, Foresman/Little Brown College Division, 1988) p.19

[5] Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934), p.71

[6] Process Creative Journal, 16/10/2018, Appendices p.2

[7] Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), p.iii

[8] Japanese Poetry Now, ed. and trans. by Thomas Fitzsimmons (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), pp.11-12

[9], 10 Knowles, Kim, Anna Katharina Schaffner, Ulrich Weger, & Andrew Michael Roberts, ‘Reading Space in Visual Poetry: New Cognitive Perspectives’, in Writing Technologies, 4 (2012), p.76

 

About the Author:

Rue Collinge is a linguist-turned-storyteller living in Gateshead, UK. She has performed across the North-East and on the radio, was  shortlisted for the Terry Kelly Prize in 2018 and has had her poetry published in several magazines and anthologies. 

The ‘Writer’ Aesthetic: Performative or Productive? by Jasmine Jade

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Artist and composer Vladimir Franz by Ida Saudkova, ca 2000

                     ‘Writing is writing. Everything else is everything else.’

–          Mark Siddens[1]

I spent most of my early childhood believing I was some sort of sorceress because I often found myself spinning verses about the moon and stars at silly hours on school nights. That was when I was able to write at all, other times I would be kept awake by some unnameable urge, pen poised above paper, literally without the words to express myself. I would later find solace in Clarice Lispector’s assertion that ‘one can have vocation and not talent; one can be called and not know how to go.’ I would read these rhyming verses aloud to my teddy bears and occasionally my parents and, eventually my mother, who had read little save for newspapers and quit smoking guides since school, took me to a poetry reading at our local library. The poet, whose name I cannot recall, was a bright new talent reading from her first collection. Sat in the dark of the back row, my eyes filled as the syllables fell from her tongue with an effortlessness I had only hitherto heard in the soft repetitions of a priest’s refrains, on the few occasions my grandmother had taken me to church. She seemed to photosynthesize the spotlight, gathering energy and gradually growing taller, sitting up straighter, transcending herself. I yearned in my childish egoism to supplant her; me, a child who still referred to English class as ‘literacy’ on occasion, with my insightful stanzas about moonlight and dreamscapes and my twenty-six—and counting—spiralbounds. That evening, feeling both entirely out of place and yet strangely at home amongst academics and artists, I discovered a dream. I went out a sorceress and came home a poet.

A narrative such as this one is not uncommon amongst writers. Indeed, most of us will treasure similar moments which printed writer on our brains with an imaginary click of typewriter keys and shaped our decisions thereafter to include anything which allowed us to put words on paper (or equivalent white-coloured square of arranged pixels.) David Almond has described these moments as ‘personal mythologies’, which rightfully indicates a gap between the reality of the experience and the recall of it.[2] The dream of writing is particularly prone to this kind of embellishment, due perhaps to the emphasis on meaning inherent in the craft and the romantic stereotypes associated with the profession. As well as harbouring ‘personal mythologies’ about how we came to write, there are more widely held mythologies surrounding the ostensibly enigmatic ‘writer’s lifestyle’. Born of these mythologies are two opposing ‘writer’ aesthetics. I aim to examine the productivity of these in practice, addressing the commercialisation of a distinctly middle-class writer aesthetic through social media and its consequences, as well as the poet-maudit-esque, impoverished writer aesthetic, and how the stereotypes arising from these differ from the reality of the productive and at least semi-sane full-time writer.

I detail the anecdote above firstly to introduce the romantic vs. reality dichotomy with which this essay is concerned, and also to demonstrate that while my child-self, despite my nocturnal scribblings, my enjoyment of and inherent easiness socializing with artists and general desire for the attention the spot-lighted poet garnered, was not a productive writer. She was, at this point, concerned with aesthetics: she did things she knew to be typical of writers; stayed up writing by streetlight, nestled, nose-in-a-book, under a tree, kept a journal like the red-wine-sipping academic beside mam at the poetry reading with the curly cursive. Writing is, however, a craft: it requires honing. That is to say, aesthetic does not equal productivity, nor talent, and where the two become muddled, issues arise.

Any lifestyle has the potential to become enmeshed with the regular consumption of particular services and goods, and thus, there is unsurprisingly a consumer aspect to what I term here a ‘middle class writer aesthetic’.[3]  At the time of writing, I sit with a steaming thimble of espresso in a certain green-logoed coffeehouse listening to indie bands and admiring the satisfyingly consistent circumferences of coffee rings some inattentive barista forgot to wipe from my table. I might as well add that among my favourite things in the world besides coffee, are new typewriters made to look vintage and the musk of old books I collect but will never read. I type ‘#writerlife’ into Instagram. Here is a list of what I see in the posts:

  • A chocolate-topped cappuccino beside a MacBook and folded jam-jar spectacles.
  • A plastic cup skewered with a green straw atop an open journal endowed with illegible cursive (link to fountain pen used in caption.)
  • A perspiring scotch on the rocks beside a book (this dedicated bookworm’s 30th read this year, the caption informs us, and there’s an affiliate link to Amazon Audible—your first book’s on me, guys!—but she just had to have a physical copy of this particular gem.)
  • An advertisement for an Indiegogo-funded new-fangled writer’s laptop that supposedly inhibits its user from procrastinating by having no functions other than typing and saving, to the tune of £267. Has anyone informed the hipsters that £1.49 notepads are also devoid of ‘distracting apps’?

Social media platforms are the new lifestyle magazines. Glossy screens have usurped glossy pages, but the intention is the same: to sell. Whatever your profession, interests or niche, there is a hashtag infested with influencers and advertisements, ready to endow you with all you need to be successful at it, for a price. We are being sold an idea of what it is to be a writer, and it is costing us.

    Where livelihood, identity and lifestyle become inseparable, a certain interdependence is produced between the three, one which is perhaps not particularly helpful or productive. ‘Lifestyles are creations of markets and media, mutually reinforcing each other through a cycle of advertising images that arouse consumptive desires to fashion a self compatible with a particular lifestyle.’[4] The question becomes, then, what is the result when both livelihood and identity become contingent upon a lifestyle which demands specific levels of social and economic capital in order to be maintained?[5] This is a particular issue for younger aspiring writers, especially those with working-class upbringings, whose lack of professional experience coupled with their exposure to these idealistic and consumerist portrayals of what it means to write might be enough to turn them away from the profession entirely. The internalisation by working-class writers of the false necessity of such writer ‘accessories’—audiobook subscriptions, particular pens, laptops and the regular consumption of extortionate coffee—as prerequisites to or the paraphernalia of success might well contribute to and perpetuate feelings of imposter-syndrome and self-doubt, and prevent already underrepresented voices from being heard.

The other issue inherent in this interdependence between lifestyle, livelihood and identity is our proclivity to decide on prerequisites to writing, these lifestyle ‘accessories’ we come to believe we require to write, which may or may not have anything to do with the act of writing itself. Coffee, perhaps, is one of my own. Another is being ‘out of the house’, which usually equates to being in a café. I once knew a very talented aspiring writer who would only write alone in a dimly lit room with a glass of red. I had to wonder how much more productive he might be if he could write on his morning commute to his day job, or at his desk between taking calls. There is something performative in this, an apparent need to play the part of what one suspects a writer to be, which may prohibit writing when access to such conditions is unattainable. Eliminate the obstacles you yourself impose. They are procrastination masquerading as productivity.

Ernest Hemingway boldly asserted, there is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ This quote introduces some of the main qualities of the second writer aesthetic I will examine in this essay—that of the tortured and impoverished writer. The quote, from the same writer who advised us to ‘write drunk, edit sober’, suggests that writing is a process for which one must suffer, but there is undeniably an element of self-indulgence inherent in the assertion. The language alone is romantic, and the suggestion that writing is merely an outpouring of one’s emotions which comes as freely as blood from an opened vein is of course a highly romanticised perspective on the craft. This indulgent, perhaps even hedonistic and excessively emotional ideology is typical of the poete maudit (that is, the ‘cursed poet’) for whom the craft of writing becomes bound up with a lifestyle characterised by drug and alcohol abuse, crime, insanity and generally living on the peripheries of society. One might hesitate to label this stereotype an ‘aesthetic’, but there is undoubtedly something performative about it, a certain pleasurable sadness inherent in projecting to the world the lengths to which one would go for their craft, irrespective of the suffering it causes to its creator. We see this in perhaps its plainest form in artwork created using the artist’s own bodily fluids. Take Rose-Lynn Fisher for instance, who, in her Topography of Tears, creates landscapes from her own true and onion-induced tears.[6] Or Gottfried Helnwein, who, confronting his country’s Nazi past in his youth, was expelled from university for painting a portrait of Hitler using his own blood.[7]

Poverty, mental illness and substance abuse are the three defining factors of this aesthetic, and it is important to note that the latter two are inextricably bound up with the former. The prevalence of both mental illness and substance abuse are highly correlated with poorer socio-economic circumstances.[8] Could it be then, that the existence of this aesthetic provides a counterpoint to the aforementioned consumerism-focused aesthetic to which less privileged writers might aspire? Personally, I have always gravitated more towards this aesthetic when trying to decipher my place in the world of writing, simply because it is closer to my own experiences external to my professional life: working-class parents and peers who drank and smoked, and suffered with depression among other mental illnesses.  Whether the perpetuation of this aesthetic through artists and writers whose work emerges from and perhaps romanticises these circumstances is validating or problematic for aspiring writers is a complex question. Perhaps both are so.

Mental illness is often associated with the creation of good art, and indeed, much enduring literature has been composed from such experiences, from the darkly poignant work of Sylvia Plath, to the scathing cynicism and black comedy of David Foster Wallace. It is true that both the process of developing and overcoming mental health issues can provide insight into the human condition, which makes for convincing, emotive and universally relevant writing. It is also worth noting that the creation of art, including writing, is often prompted by a desire for self-expression, and thus can be considered a therapeutic endeavour. There is, undeniably, a link between mental illness and artists: ‘In 1983, the psychologist Kay Jamison, herself bipolar, surveyed 47 British artists and writers and found that 38 percent had sought treatment for mood disorders — a percentage about 30 times the national average.’[9] According to Jamison, ‘poets had it worst of all: Half of those surveyed had been hospitalized for depression and/or mania’. Jamison attributed this to poets having the most ‘creative fire’, and Sarah Nicole Prickett in her article ‘A Woman Under the Influence’, addressing Jamison’s work, states ‘this seems a suspiciously convenient thing for poets to believe: It’s better to burn, burn, burn than to pay the heating bill.’[10] Again, there is this romantic and excessively emotive idea that one’s life and one’s art are mutually reinforcing entities, as if ‘burning’ with creativity could actually negate one’s survival-driven requirement for warmth.

The creation of particularly original and enduring writing has sometimes been attributed to the involvement of drugs such as alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, and LSD and other psychedelics, particularly that of the modernist period wherein the sharing of writing in bars and jazz clubs was common practice. Jack Kerouac once advised ‘if possible, write “without consciousness” in semi-trance’, an approach perhaps best facilitated by being under the influence.[11] Ginsberg yearned to transcribe his intoxicated nocturnal experiences in his generation-defining poem ‘Howl’, lamenting those ‘who scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish’.[12] Erik Mortenson suggested this desire to capture such experiences is also mirrored in the form of ‘Howl’, describing it as ‘benzedrine-inspired’.[13] During a panel discussing the association between artists and mental illness at Newcastle-held event New Art Social, the topic of writing under the influence of alcohol was raised. Several audience members attested to the suggestion that alcohol can be beneficial for the initial stages of writing, particularly for writers prone to perfectionistic thinking. This has been true of my experience also, as a writer who finds it difficult to begin new work with the unrealistic expectation and desire for the first draft to be flawless from the start. Drinking alcohol can certainly facilitate writing by lifting such expectations, which is possibly why it is touted for aiding creativity; it lowers inhibitions and thus we are more likely to explore ideas and write liberally.

Certainly, the use of substances in the creation of art, and channelling experiences of mental illness into art can be advantageous, but here we return to this issue of having prerequisites for writing. Enduring and esteemed writing has and can be produced without its creator having utilized drugs or suffered mental health issues. It is therefore my conviction that the tortured artist aesthetic can be considered a romanticisation of mental illness which can contribute to maladaptive behaviour in aspiring writers and at worst, ultimately result in the development of mental health issues and even addiction. With regards to mental illness and the creation of art, one need not look further than the symptoms of depression (including lack of motivation, disinterest in previously enjoyed activities, low mood and decreased self-esteem) to deduce that the mindset produced by such an illness is not a productive one. The insight attained from these experiences might be applied to writing productively post-hoc, but such insights may also be collated from interviews and other research, as well as first-hand experience. Where substance use is concerned, one might consider the consequences on productivity the following day, as well as the long-term consequences of substance use, including dependence, particularly if writing is one’s full-time profession.

We all come to writing with preconceptions about what it means to be a writer. The writer ‘aesthetics’ discussed here are two which I found to be particularly impactful whilst trying to discover what kind of writer I was aspiring to be. I have found, however, that whilst expensive accessories bolster motivation for a time, and a few whiskies can lubricate a creative block, it is imperative to rely on nothing save for words when it comes to writing. No amount of espressos, bleeding, depression, vodka or evenings spent shivering (even in the dazzling presence of one’s imperishable ‘creative fire’!) can ensure that one’s words reach the page—that is our work alone. ‘Writing is writing. Everything else is everything else.’[14]

 

 

 

[1] Mark Siddens, Introducing ‘Useless Suffering: Marina Tsvetaeva in Moscow‘, (Reading given at Ernest, Newcastle: 2019).

[2] David Almond, ‘David Almond on the Notebook’ (Lecture given on October 16th, 2018).

[3] Lynn D. Wenger, ‘Cigar Magazines: Using Tobacco to Sell a Lifestyle’ in Tobacco Control, Vol. 10, No. 3 (2001), pp. 279.

 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Mark Tomlinson, ‘Lifestyle and Social Class’ in European Sociological Review, Vol. 19, No. 1 (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 97-111.

[6] Rose-Lynn Fisher, The Topography of Tears, (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2013).

[7] Peter Selz ‘HELNWEIN: THE ARTIST AS PROVOCATEUR’ (1997) (Available online here: http://www.helnwein.com/artist/biography/article_3414-With-his-own-blood-Helnwein-paints-a-picture-of-Adolf-Hitler-Fuehrer_-The-Professors-are-discomposed-and-the-school-administration-confiscates-the-painting). [Accessed 16/05/2019].

[8] Iris Elliott, ‘Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy’ (London, 2016), p. 16.

[9] Sarah Nicole Prickett, ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ (2018) (Available online here: https://thenewinquiry.com/a-woman-under-the-influence/) [Accessed 16/05/19].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sarah Ramshaw, Justice as Improvisation: The Law of the Extempore (Abingdon: Routledge Publishing, 2013), p.70.

[12] Allen Ginsberg, ‘Howl’ in Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2009).

[13] Erik Mortenson, ‘High Off the Page, Representing the Drug Experience in the Work of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg’, (Wayne State University), Online PDF Access: < http://www.janushead.org/7-1/mortenson.pdf> [Accessed 16/05/2019].

 

[14] Mark Siddens, Introducing ‘Useless Suffering: Marina Tsvetaeva in Moscow‘.

 

About the Author:

Jasmine Jade is a poet from South Shields, Britain. She won the South Tyneside WRITE Festival Poetry Slam, was shortlisted for the Terry Kelly Poetry Prize 2018 and came second in the Mind Short Story Competition 2019. Last year, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the Newcastle University.

 

The Eye and the Needle by Malini Chaudhri

Maps
A New and Accurate Map by Stela Brix, 2018

Was this the place which witnessed Abel bleed that was recorded for eons on earth and Jesus was needed to incarnate with the vibration of love? Not vampires, or sorcerers could equal the torture on this disembodied soul. It seemed we were in such a place. Yet we were located in ignorance in the earth, following the skies and tempests as the great light arrived. And the news was to erase the troubles of humanity in unceasing toil. The horizons were to change like the spectrums of the rainbow to enhance the environmental health of the globe. The human brain was to adapt to stringent controls of a new age. If mystics and teachers as Christ had failed, science had succeeded.  Mind matrix technologies involving great genius of war intelligence supported the process. Even God had become a lesser instrument of fate in times of cyber modernization.

Rigorous scientific experiments of the past measured success for the laser to now direct the rocket. Focused beams of invisible infrared spectrum that segmented the earth, illuminated images on the moon, altered synapses, mobilized tissues and organized layers of the earth’s ether. Speckled geo-mapping of polarized beams created no illusion. The invisible strata of light were active. I mapped a pin which showed the first NASA laser physiotherapy unit mounted on the satellite. The hard pricks of electromagnetic radar were to give way to quantum sciences in therapy that we preferred. But this technique was invisible as was the higher layer of the bio magnetic spectrum of the rainbow that could be tolerated by human tissue.

Four years ago there was a vague haze of news of real people and notes shared on Klout which warned readers of lasers being pointed on the eyes of pilots, blinding them. Some in my family urgently resorted to eye surgery for the onset of blindness… both eyes. It was the same with someone important at work. Cause of blindness was unknown.

This vital record of silent weapons associated with NASA began flashing to me in my emails…. pin drums…. with statistics of views of laser physio images…. and also meridian sheets. The age of bloody war was over. Weapons were altogether more sophisticated, mocking the era of science and achievement. Now the radar on the ground collected to become an electromagnetic pulse, simulated by infrared, invisible laser radar that could prick acupuncture points when the victim was unaware. Over the weeks some undetected activity had progressed to pump intrusive radiation into the meridians and alter the neurological balance. My feet and ankles showed slow burns, dull brown spots on spleen 6 and kidney 4 points. These points triggered the DNA of the constitution. So the laser beam in incognito mode was arranged for physical therapy from mapped notes in my listed book. To endure and follow the Mysteries was my Key* in control to combat the unseen enemy.

My network arranged conspicuous pictures of eyes as the crisis began reaching a melting point. I noted the warning three hours before it happened. Eyes and flashes and repeat image postings on my social media precipitated concern. We were four years into the progression of time since the episodes of blinding eyes with lasers. Scientists had reversed technology adequately for the alarm to subside. But not completely.  Some subtle system remained. The war had returned. My bathroom light began blinking ferociously as another network started raising a threat alert.

Moses managed commandments and followed the guiding voice of Christ to emerge victorious from the pursuit of the Pharisees. Much mystical application was required to complete the project. Christ, the saviour, evenly combated the crowds but could not alter the human condition with messages and examples of love. The ages before Christ caused man’s spirit to bleed. The ages after Christ remained the same.

So it was not a surprise when out of the dark the attack came. When the light came on I witnessed the big black eye, a dark bruise swollen with fluids measuring one inch below the right eye. And the radiation spread to the left eye causing watering and discomfort. The feet were feeble with radiation bouts that numbed sensation. The radiation kept spreading though the face and into the frontal brain. This was new weaponry. The single shot could trigger a lifetime of unseen control to alter human tissue and functionality forever.  Over the weeks the eyes became swollen and puffy, the facial contours changed.

There is a Key to the Mysteries. This silent enemy was reigniting the cries of Abel. My hard working book on laser therapy contained the sciences for health which was evidently became an issue, a system of weapons. Around the world for years, I trailed this wonderful therapy in CAM, obtaining medical licenses for all its natural applications.  I introduced it in veterinary and medical hospitals to practitioner teams who devoured the grace. Alchemists connecting to mysteries arranged a new order for life, drawing and mobilizing the essence of god in man, tapping that solitary system that permitted perception of the physical realm. Scientists see and then believe. Mystics believe and then see. Scientists are challenged by the mystics, and the enemy makes use of the Key. Sciences maintain Commandments. The enemy crushes the Truth. God proposes. Man disposes.

The Eye and the Needle.  The single eye maintains the body in light. The light ceases to diverge and becomes a needle.  A laser needle. My documents and commandments in print on Amazon of this unique therapy was an act of love for all to prepare for this time. My pages were being sliced by a sword of enemy trail. Robbed by thieves with lesser intelligence and no Key to the Mystery.

 

Twenty years of hard scholarship of Acupuncture science from traditional and medical schools around the world faded away for a new world science of laser needling of medical category where several beams could simultaneously be applied on a patient. And today this faded away further for consideration of quantum applications. Needles could be directed on masses of humans in a simultaneous moment for their welfare or their destruction.

 

I returned to my handheld laser and laser acupuncture device at home for self-aided therapy. The point that had been attacked could be irradiated to control the electromagnetic pulse which defied healthy tissues. The great light had arrived but I was marked a victim, yet I refused to resign my science and my Key for the lesser work. The world showed surrender of faith and humane livelihood, of governments and courts. Yet the search was on, in dreams, in fantastic notions, of a dawn to come, in darkness or in light.

 

Reference:

*The key to the Mysteries.  Eliphas Levi. Internet Archives.

About the Author:

Malini Chaudhri is the author of five non fiction books, mainly based on wellness.  She submits creative non fiction pieces to lit mags and collections in books. Her stories have been nominated for awards.  She has been Academy manager of a British qualification in India, and has worked in South China Normal University as a foreign expert, in a Harvard affiliated English project. She has lived in India, China and USA.

 

http://malinichaudhri.wordpress.comhttp://amazon.com/author/malinichaudhri

http://malinichaudhri.wordpress.comhttp://amazon.com/author/malinichaudhri

Modern Forces and the Meaningful Metaphor by Mark Antony Rossi

 

'Above us'
Above Us by Amy McCartney, 2019

There are those convinced the fundamentals of writing hasn’t changed in a thousand years. An ink well, a parchment, an idea and quiet time are the essential ingredients of the literary endeavor. I don’t agree. My generation is the first to live through societal shifts in technology, economy and family structure that dramatically altered the fabric of daily life. These radical changes are so profound as to befuddle our parents who are lost to offer good counsel. I live in a time where both parents work, computers are carried in your pocket and the average adult has already had five jobs less than ten years out of college. The stability of homesteading a job, a home, even a cell phone is nonexistent. Everything is temporary and nothing is secure. Freedom forces adaptations in artistic lives during uncertain times. If you cannot truly care you cannot truly create meaningful metaphors in a day of mechanical conformity.

This is the reason I resist the denial of social changes in writing content, style, and length. There is an impact that should be acknowledged by the establishment. But I am saddened and perplexed by many academic publications who continue to push literary structure straight from the venue of Woodstock. I am amazed by journals endorsing vague ramblings of raconteurs heavy on academic published credits and light on anything resembling a connection with a current audience. Why should we ignore the information overload that is the Internet? Social platforms are more than communication tools they are also called boards for opportunities and back channels for active writers. The collective sea change of the 21st century has shorted our attention spans while simultaneously lengthening our life spans. And the internalization of this upheaval is reconstituting the perceptive viewpoint to varying degrees.

I noticed it is difficult to write past 600 words for my flash fiction and creative nonfiction. I am not consciously attempting to be rebellious or trendy. In a digital age of IM, Snapchat and Twitter I internally feel the drive to be more concise. Yesterday brevity was a dirty word describing an artist seeking a short cut. Today it is par for the course. Political and marketing campaigns have influenced our thinking to accept sloganeering as critical commentary. But bumper stickers and beer taverns are the bloody last places to find solutions to problems. The modern writer stands a chance to make a difference in this volatile environment if he merely stands up for something true in his life. Because most are sitting in silence often immobilized by political correctness, moral infancy or social apathy.

I am mortified when considering this age of instant information and communication has not produced greater peace, less divorce, more sobriety. How it is possible people persist in believing the worst about each other? How can we maintain free societies in the foreseeable future if we continue to abuse our freedoms, our families, and our friends? We have lost faith in Government and Religion because we recognize they cannot “give” freedom and happiness. At best these entities can only permit the conditions for a better life to exist. We are tasked with the enormous responsibility of discovering for ourselves how to live. This may be the price of Liberty but it is also the promise of Art to open launching points into creative expression and personal growth.

The connection between Government and Art figures frequently in my writings to remind the reader of the potential power of practical change in writing. Bad governments historically target the artist first by closing theatres, banning songs, burning books and destroying paintings. We are targets because Art matter in the daily lives of average people. Art is the eternal archive holding the memories of millions preserved as a vital source to support culture and history and dignify the voice of the governed. The very act of committing word to paper is a solemn ceremony worthy of respect and deserving as a real starting point on how to improve the world one community at a time. Your art may save a life. It may save your life. God, guns, and government have yet to fix our ailing planet. Maybe a short story on how to stop being a maggot would be a good start. You have the power. Wake up and use it.

 

About the Author:

Mark Antony Rossi’s poetry, criticism, fiction, creative nonfiction and photography have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Anak Sastra, Bareback Magazine, Black Heart Review, Brain of Forgetting, Deep Water Literary Journal, Dirty Chai, Enclave, Expound, Farther Stars Than, Flash Fiction, Gravel, Indian Periodical, Japanophile, Journal of Microliterature, Kulchur Creative Journal, Mad Swirl, On The Rusk, Purple Patch, Scrivener Creative Review, Snapdragon, Syzygy Poetry Journal, The Rye Whiskey Review, The Sacrificial, Toad Suck Review, Transnational, Wild Quarterly and Yellow Chair Review. His poetry was nominated for the Best of the Net 2019 Award. He is the Editor in Chief, Ariel Chart

http://arielchart.blogspot.com