VOLUME 28, NUMBER 1, SPRING 2023 (#109)

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Christine Sneed: Please Be Advised  |  by Justin Courter
Zack Kopp: A Guide to Happiness, Aliens, False Spiritualism, Brain Drugs, and Punk  |  by Hillary Leftwich


Grand Prix: A Memory of Russell Banks  |  by Madison Smartt Bell
James Weldon Johnson: The Poet-Bureaucrat  |  by Richard Kostelanetz


If and Only If  |  by Scott F. Parker
The New Life  |  a comic by Gary Sullivan

PLUS: cover art by David Amdur


Headless World or The Problem of Time  |  Ascher/Straus  |  by Alvin Lu
Ex-Members  |  Tobias Carroll  |  by Jesi Buell
The Beloved of the Dawn  |  Franz Fühmann  |  by Greg Bem
Revenge of the Scapegoat  |  Caren Beilin  |  by Zoe Berkovitz
It Falls Gently All Around  |  Ramona Reeves  |  by Nick Hilbourn
Brother Alive  |  Zain Khalid  |  by Brian Watson
At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf  |  Tara Ison  |  by Eleanor J. Bader
No Excuses  |  Stephen L. Harris  |  by George Longenecker


The Cricket: Black Music in Evolution, 1968–69  |  by Chris Funkhouser
Under My Bed and Other Essays  |  Jody Keisner  |  by Sandra Hager Eliason
We’re Not OK: Black Faculty Experiences and Higher Education Strategies  |  Antija M. Allen and Justin T. Stewart, eds.  |  by George Longenecker
Groundglass  |  Kathryn Savage  |  by Evan Youngs
The Literary Mafia: Jews, Publishing, and Postwar American Literature  |  Josh Lambert  |  by Richard Kostelanetz
The Dylan Tapes: Friends, Players, and Lovers Talkin’ Early Bob Dylan  |  Anthony Scaduto  |  by Scott F. Parker
A Horse At Night: On Writing  |  Amina Cain  |  by Garin Cycholl
Joe Brainard: The Art of the Personal  |  John Yau  |  by W. C. Bamberger


[To] The Last [Be] Human  |  Jorie Graham  |  by Walter Holland
How To Communicate  |  John Lee Clark  |  by Stephanie Burt
|  Zeina Hashem Beck  |  by Tara Ballard
Summer  |  Johannes Göransson  |  by K. Blasco Solér
The Collected Poems  |  Marguerite Young  |  by Zachary Tanner
The Sky Watched: Poems of Ojibwe Lives  |  Linda LeGarde Grover  |  by Warren Woessner
Translation of the Lilies Back Into Lists  |  Laynie Brown  |  by John Bradley
No Farther Than the End of the Street  |  Benjamin Niespodziany  |  by Justin Lacour
Damage  |  Mark Scroggins  |  by Joe Safdie


Regarding the Matter of Oswald’s Body  |  Christopher Cantwell and Luca Casalanguida  |  by Chris Barsanti

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MayDay Parade 3
Acrylic on panel, 18” wide x 14” tall

Even before the pandemic, our culture was beset with isolation and conflict. In reaction, I have chosen to use my art to reach out to my community by depicting people coming together through music, art, festivals and social justice actions.

This painting represents the MayDay Parade, a community celebration which was organized annually for 45 years in South Minneapolis  by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre. Each April (before the pandemic), the community was invited to create hand-built puppets and masks for the parade— some over 15 feet tall. On the first Sunday of May, more than 50,000 diverse participants and spectators filed the streets in this celebration of local culture. 

David Amdur

Minor Secrets

Billie Chernicoff
Black Square Editions ($20)

by Joe Safdie

What does it take to write a great love poem?

We let each other be
or not, a little tea
slops over the rim

of your cup or mine
and the other
takes it personally.

We forget to kiss then kiss,
we marry for love,
agreeing to the sky also

These lines from Billie Chernicoff’s poem “As It Is in Heaven,” which is contained in her luminous new book Minor Secrets, start to give an answer: a total acceptance of otherness, the capacity to write in the first-person plural without any sort of appropriation, “Each of us the whole world, / naked and afraid” (“Next Morning in a Holy City”). Rather than provoking anxiety, however, this fear sometimes manifests as a charming awkwardness and incapacity: “I rove, arriving / at neither moon nor sonnet / nor any answer whatsoever” (“Letters from a Holy City”).

Chernicoff’s use of the almost archaic word “rove” suggests that she doesn’t ignore the playfulness of love either; it sometimes seems as if she’s engaging her readers in a game of language—“Bring me your ruse, a rose, / your news, / a more charismatic water”—which, if we don’t play along, can doom us to separation or isolation. But she welcomes us into the dance, giving us confidence we can participate: “I pray you too catch a wave.”

These are unabashedly lyric poems; indeed, they constitute new discoveries in that mode. The work of Charles Olson would seem to have little to do with lyric, yet Chernicoff, in a final section of the book called “Luminous Failures” that explores and distills some of her working principles, cites Olson as one of her poetic vectors: “I would place my work in the context of Olson’s compositional field, where I place myself out in the Open and breathe whatever comes into being.” Yet even in these reflections on her work, a playfulness is ever present: “I would like to confess poetry, though nothing I can confess or propose would be as true as a poem itself. And for sure a poem is a better liar.” On occasion, these poetics echo the effect of Chernicoff’s poems: “A good poem does not make you feel virtuous, it makes you feel terribly human—tender, doubtful, sometimes fearful and sometimes brave, sorrowful or mirthful, maybe prayerful, in love, full of longing, or just being—lost in the wild, an ecstatic nobody.”

Among their many virtues, Chernicoff’s poems never let us forget the joys and fascinations of living in the physical world:

Let me start again.
I want you the way the sea
wants herself, returns to herself
the way rivers find their way through marshes
the way one rows through marshes
and tires, and drifts, and dreams of the lover
while hours go by between her thighs
and books write themselves

That’s just one section from a longer poem called “Letters from a Holy City,” and it takes my breath away. What’s finally to say about this book, these poems? Perhaps these lines from “Next Morning”: “They lingered here as long as they could. / Now the whole world sways a little.”

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Matthew Cole Levine
Unsolicited Press ($18)

by Joseph Houlihan

Hollow, the new horror novel by Matthew Cole Levine, lives in the tenuous space between the safety of the hearth and the darkest parts of the Wisconsin woods, where the wind screams like a howl. It tells the story of a small town, Grange, where all is not well. When Ben, a punch-drunk cop from Milwaukee, encounters a woman sprinting through a clearing across a forest highway, he is brought into a mystery that spans a century and crosses between this life and the next.

Quick and smart. Hollow draws on the traditions of tough cop noir and American folk horror, thereby setting up a classic trope: There is something in the woods, and it preys on the innocent. The novel contains spooky descriptions of cursed places:

He was drifting over a barren terrain, an endless canyon with towering cliffs of red sand, its basin littered with jagged rocks and a narrow, bubbling river. The light here was different, specked with clouds of dust and ash, and the sun did not emit warmth.

And hardboiled action as well:

The second devastating swing of the bat came a moment later, plummeting into the pit of Ben’s stomach as he collapsed. His gut lunged upward into his throat. A flood of water washed over him, turning everything into a liquid blur.

Levine follows that simple dictum from Raymond Chandler—“down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean”—to produce a genre novel with literary flair. As Ben interrogates small town characters (a shifty sheriff, a hotel clerk, the local minister) in a race against time, Levine does a great job of moving through other kinds of heartbreak: the disappointment of moving away from loved ones, the resentments that smother our lives of best intention, the suffering through grief and addiction.

One of the most compelling scenes involves an improbable small-town library. Amid a vast, uncatalogued archive of pioneer materials in the basement, Ben finds old diaries and geological surveys, revealing a horror hidden in plain sight. Levine nods towards the possibility of ancient horror and devils on unceded lands, giving the novel a tenor that’s tongue in cheek enough to be scary and fun at the same time.

Smart, sad, and genuinely scary—as well as lyrical and heartbreakingly familiar—Hollow will make for dangerous company on long nights in the Upper Midwest.

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Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

Shigeru Mizuki
Translated by Jocelyne Allen

Drawn & Quarterly ($29.95)

by Nicholas Burman          

“We’re prob’ly going for a reason,” a private depicted in Shigeru Mizuki’s legendary war manga Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths says as his platoon is transferred from one part of New Britain (an island in Papua New Guinea) to another. Earlier, the lieutenant-colonel tries to inspire the troops by reminding them of Dai-Nanko, a 14th-century samurai who sacrificed his life on behalf of the Emperor. Such nationalist overtures, however, don’t quell the fear and hopelessness of the rank and file. This is during Japan’s New Guinea campaign in 1943, which in real life took the lives of over 200,000 Japanese soldiers by the end of World War II.

Throughout Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, “a reason” is always out of reach. The concerns of Japan’s political establishment are never discussed, and the “clash of civilizations” discourse that dominates documentaries on the war are non-existent. Hunger, malaria, and dying a virgin are the topics that preoccupy these men—boys, really. Throughout the book, they sing lines from a song called the “Prostitute’s Lament” popular among Japanese troops at the time: “Why am I stuck working this shitty job/no way out/all for my parents.”

This is a 50th-anniversary reprint of a work only first translated into English in 2011. Mizuki was one of the first manga artists—really one of the first contemporary comics artists worldwide—to use the medium to discuss “adult” topics on this scale. Long before Maus made comics serious business in the U.S., this book and Showa, Mizuki’s four-part history of Japan covering 1926-1989, demonstrated the power and potential of the medium.

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths isn’t interesting solely because of its historical significance, though; it remains an emotionally impactful and heartbreaking work. More Paths of Glory than Saving Private Ryan, the book draws on Mizuki’s own experiences in the War—he lost an arm in combat and was one of the few survivors of a campaign similar to the one depicted here—and his pacifist leanings are evident. The book draws plenty of attention to the inhumanity of Japan's military culture, including one devastating sequence in which soldiers, having survived an attack by Allied troops, are punished to the extreme by their own compatriots.

From the presence of “comfort women” (enslaved sex workers) to the repeated physical and verbal abuses the privates suffer at the hands of lieutenants, Mizuki includes various elements that demonstrate the absurdity, evil, and meanness of the military life he experienced, though these elements are often infused with a dark sense of humor as well. There’s also the tropical weather, which keeps the men warm and often very wet. Malaria makes people crazy, and they’re reduced to scavenging food from the forest. The privates often talk about rumors of Japan being bombed, and try to figure out ways for their families to be told they died heroic deaths.

Mizuki’s landscapes are gorgeous. Papua New Guinea’s lush vegetation and intense skies are rendered in expressionistic and nearly photorealistic detail. Many shadows and silhouettes appear in the panels; they haunt the men in the same way the enemy does. As is typical in much Japanese cartooning, the people themselves are more cartoonish than their surroundings, allowing the artist to lean on cartooning’s shorthand to depict emotions effectively. The looseness of Mizuki’s lines can sometimes make it hard to recognize characters, but this doesn’t create a barrier to enjoying the story overall.

There are times when people are depicted more realistically: This tends to happen whenever dead bodies appear. The change in visual tone befits the somberness of these moments. Mizuki also employs this technique when the men approach their “noble deaths.” In one famous half-page panel toward the end of the book, as what remains of the platoon embarks on its ultimate suicide mission, the men morph from their cartoon selves to more realistic ones; their clothes gain weight and texture, and their naturalistic faces become engulfed by darkness.

Much of the violence Mizuki portrays would be too much to endure if this book were a film. The emotional distance in a drawn image allows Mizuki to depict horror without it feeling exploitative. He returns to the photorealist aesthetic for the very final pages, where we are presented with piles of bones and corpses left amongst the undergrowth. These pages are drawn with great precision and humanity, a necessary salve for a situation that is so thoroughly inhumane.

The title Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths suggests a tragic inevitability. Since the events depicted here, it has remained a tragic inevitability that the young have continued to be sent to fight wars for reasons they don’t understand by people who don’t care for their well-being. This book, like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and other anti-war literature written by those who have experienced combat, will stay relevant for as long as that sad fact remains a part of our reality.

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Young Americans

Jackqueline Frost
Pamenar Press (£14)

by Nadira Clare Wallace

Jackqueline Frost’s book-length project, Young Americans, is a good example of bildungsroman in poem form. Like Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018) and Stephanie Sy-Quia’s Amnion (Granta Poetry, 2021), it is intense, intricate, lyrical, and lengthy, tracking the progress of a mind from young adult to not-so-young adult.

The collection is divided into two parts. The first, “YOUNG AMERICANS,” is a sequence made up of six sections varying between five and eighteen pages in length. The second part, “YOU HAVE THE EYES OF A MARTYR,” is a little shorter. Most pages display a single, justified block of text, frequently short and linked to previous and following stanzas by through lines of theme and tone. The theme, announced at the outset, is bearing the disappointment of an unreformed society. Frost’s tone is austere, elusive, and scholarly.

Young Americans is highly speculative. The point-of-view is typically zoomed out, regions or aspects of society distilled to one or two images. You won’t find much unprocessed passion in the text (at one point the word “meta-hysterics” is used) and landscapes appear theoretical rather concrete: “I walked / in the river of crises / toward the real.” There is a wonderful, vertiginous beauty about all of this, a sense of extreme induction––the mind forming general laws from particular instances which have, more often than not, not made it on to the page.

Content-wise, the first part of Frost’s poem gives us outcast (“forgettable”) teenagers selling their blood, navigating a fallen world––“passed / through sapped utopias”––hungry for freedom. There are lovely, angular paeans to anarchists who “sing / barricades in the morning” and moving salutes to youth: “We were certain of nothing except this acute / resilience, and thus were diaphanous, at times teeming, / and for a long time mystical.” The book’s second half is more solemn: People are sentenced, taken ominously away, beaten. It contains some extraordinary, aphoristic lines, such as “Let / each deliver themselves from their helical place, / with filth among love, love among machination” and “we will have survived our own mistakes.”

Readers may, at times, find themselves wanting things unpacked further. Take, for example, this intriguing passage from “YOUNG AMERICANS”:

This meritocracy keeps me
in the attention of great trusts

        since as hierophants, they
believe in a kingdom
        without limit.

So each day I go
        with the others
to the dark boundary

of the good.

The powerful ideas in this stanza strike me as stubbornly enigmatic; “the dark boundary / of the good,” for example, is a gorgeous, suggestive line, but what connects it with the preceding sentence? Are we talking about where good turns to bad? If so, is the implication that a society “without limit” goes beyond goodness or morality?

One of the most admirable things about Young Americans is Frost’s determination to deal with big topics like morality and revolution without falling into generalizing or sententiousness. In an unflinching book that is about enduring––bearing disillusionment––the poet has given us a challenging and finely-tuned sequence of clashes between the visionary gleam of youthful people and the United States’ apparent “brutality of neglect.”

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Tangled Hologram

James Cushing
Cahuenga Press ($20)

by Lee Rossi

In his latest volume of poetry, enticingly titled Tangled Hologram, James Cushing sees distress all around, but he offers his readers an alternative—not nihilism, but its sunnier cousin, anti-nihilism.

Like Joyce and Ashbery before him, Cushing celebrates the ability of dreams to interrupt our conscious reveries. His images are highly specific; he sees so clearly and yet explains nothing. For example, in “The Maze of Mercy,” he tells how “I tried to find the father-trees / inside my chest and announce them in trousers and shirt.” The search for the father(s) is a recurrent concern. How are we supposed to feel after reading one of his dream poems—satisfied, perplexed, delighted, frustrated? As Cushing cryptically declares:

          Let me shape for you a sentence that balances
the sadness you have neglected to sweep up with
an overload of love.

In Tangled Hologram, human relationships operate like logic gates, oscillating between too much and not enough. Cushing also plays with ideas about destiny and expectation. In “Protracted Farewell,” a mini-epic surrealist bildungsroman, he observes:

I have only my story to tell, but it may also be yours, and so
I tell it, again and again. I tell it because we are footfalls
and our path through the world is divided into nature
and falsehood.

Near the beginning of the poem, we find the young speaker hiding behind his parents’ bedroom “where I hear / my parents talking about me as if I weren’t anywhere around.” This sense of exclusion, of adult conspiracy, haunts the poem. Elaborating on this sense of sinister forces shaping his destiny, he declares: “I felt I had been invaded by a shadow-company of slightly / embodied ideals,” which “had been written years / before any of us were born.”

How, then, is one to live authentically? Are we all doomed to live lives mapped out by our family, tribe, and nation? Cushing offers the possibility of finding respite and inspiration in imagination. Consider “Dream of Women,” his canny reworking of Tennyson’s “A Dream of Fair Women” and Chaucer’s “The Legend of Good Women.” According to those earlier poets, beauty brings not happiness but tragedy. Cushing takes a different tack, celebrating all the women who have brought not just beauty but meaning and insight into his life. It is a lengthy and unabashedly humorous list, beginning with Memphis Minnie and Joan Didion and continuing with Marianne Moore, Patricia Highsmith, Bettie Page, and dozens of others before concluding with Sappho, who “takes her Martin acoustic guitar out of its case and starts tuning up.” “Is it right or wrong,” he asks, “to want to live inside this dream as long as I can?” You might have a different answer, but like Cushing I want a dreamscape that includes all these charmers, heartthrobs, and witches.

Cushing is not a strict formalist, but he likes to flirt with form, as he does most charmingly in the two pantoums included in this volume. “Falling Asleep Listening to Billie Holiday,” for instance, offers slapstick desperation:

You’d think I had grown up over the years, gotten past that fear and shame,
but watch me stumble down the stairs of years into my childhood and get up
inside that house—my mother’s perfume, her detergent, her bacon grease.

The speaker’s frustration, his awareness that he had not outgrown his childhood, invites the reader to deconstruct his own precious adulthood.

“For David Trinidad and Tiela Garnett,” the other pantoum, is a wildly erotic re-enactment of the classic film noir, “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Toward the end of the poem (and the movie) we encounter the following:

A dark pool of doom opens up around Lana and John, an ocean of lust and hate
they run into near the end of the picture, she in her tight white bathing suit.
They killed the old man because they needed a crime to relieve their tension,
and their last kiss leads with insolent ease to her violent death . . .

Not the happiest of romantic endings, but after all this is film noir, the unmarked sedan of middle-class morality. And yet, in its own lurid way, it is also a celebration of passion and youth, aspects of life which emerge from that “dark pool of doom” like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Of course, the Creature eventually retreats into the swamp, but only until the next time a couple of hot-blooded kids get a whiff of one another.

Cushing’s phantasms are uniquely his own, but we lucky readers can join them in this Tangled Hologram as we seek refuge from the humdrum, the lifeless, the oppressive, and the painful in our day-to-day existence. What a book!

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The Missing Lover

Summer Brenner
Collages by Lewis Warsh

Spuyten Duyvil ($20)

by Evan Burkin

In step with the kaleidoscopic effect of Lewis Warsh’s illustrations that muddle sex and identity each time they appear, Summer Brenner captures and releases varying emotional states in every line of The Missing Lover. Her prose is endearing, fast-paced, and unwilling to let the concept of love settle into a single qualitative experience. Love is commitment. Love is editing a resume. Love is not there, which is a critical part of the three novellas that make up The Missing Lover. Brenner consistently defines love by its absence and the interjection of feelings that run contrary to it: hate, indifference, defeat. “I tried to use one of those emotional exercises where you distance yourself from the reality of another person. In this case, you.”

Two primary threads weave the novellas of this book together: love and war. While it is impossible to take a book with those leading topics and not consider the adage that all is fair, Brenner does not deploy any tropes or engage heavily with that topic. Instead, she is concerned with how the connotations of love and war communicate under different situations. Does the passion for action, rebellious or humanitarian, spur or interfere with a relationship? Is love a type of war? The faces of war and love are always donning new masks.

One shared mask in the first two novellas, The Missing Lover and A Love Story No, War, is war as a struggle between others, a conflict between groups. Sarah and Laurie, the respective protagonists, are peripheral to the events that cause large-scale discord. While Sarah has a more complex relationship with this version of war than Laurie, it is their husbands during the time of unrest who choose to partake directly in the throes of violence. And because of their significant others’ obsession, the idea of the couple becomes unstable, if not unsustainable. The cause worth dying for is always there, permeating the relationship and effectively shutting down communication: “When their room reeked of vinegar and ammonia and she asked . . . he told her to stop pestering him.”

Brenner’s depictions of love are not so one-dimensional as to say that a breakdown in communication will dissolve a relationship, nor do the similarities in the plot create redundancy. Starting with The Missing Lover’s Sarah, who “looks tucked inside [Nash] like an origami dove,” Brenner consistently delivers dynamic characters capable of navigating and determining their desires from the experiences crashing into them. Her characters are not mere instruments to compound misfortune upon to make a point. They react to their environments; they act upon their wants; they have a voice. The characters give each novella a distinct impression that is enhanced by Brenner’s ability to nurture the tone of each novella with subtle stylistic choices.

In each novella, Brenner skirts past clichés to drop readers into visceral moments that rely on punctuation: “The nurse offered her a sedative. Penance or pride, she chose to suffer. She lay on the exam table, her feet in the cold stirrups, under a blanket and shaking with cold. Beside her was the vacuum machine.” But Brenner is not walled in by violent scenes and curt sentences. Her words can also soothe and place us in “a perpetual garden of flowers in bloom and finches pecking at the thistle sacks outside the window.”

Back and forth between tenderness and violence, the reader is volleyed into the untenable circumstances of the female protagonists. And with most chapters manicured down to two pages, Brenner caters to the resounding impact of each page and allows the emotional draw of each novella to keep a strong pulse from start to finish.

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Cat Brushing

Jane Campbell
Grove Press ($26)

by J. Van

People rarely suspect that an older woman is capable of power, desire, and transgression, mistakenly believing her identity centers on the simple fact of her age. When perpetually reduced this way, how does a woman respond?

Jane Campbell’s Cat Brushing offers a possible answer. Instead of being relegated to the periphery of culture, the elder women characters in the story collection are rendered visible and vital, with longing made dire by its proximity to death. Isolation from themselves and others, even in company, is an undercurrent.

All thirteen stories remind the reader that pity is condescension. The women in Cat Brushing are superficially regarded or otherwise infantilized, while internally experiencing the depth they have always known: “As though with the advent of wrinkles and a certain uncertainty in their balance went an erasure of all thought, all significance, all hope, all ambition, all . . . passion.” We see that the young often oust the old under the guise of kindness, all while denying them basic recognition—maybe in an unconscious attempt to disassociate from death—and how this aversion can color attempts at connection.

Campbell also explores the murkiness or sharpness of memory. Her characters experience the way certain memories can crystallize with age, the mind’s selective retention, or the slipping away of memory into a kind of grasping that manifests as mysterious and sensory. Memory also figures in the characters’ feelings of grief: “The uselessness, the hopelessness, the blankness of the terrible nature of unyielding loss; and yet also the agonizingly indestructible hope, the raw bleeding anguish of perpetual longing.”

As the best literature does, these stories feed empathy, ask uneasy questions, and jilt the denial of mortality. Though reading about challenging topics isn’t always fun, it is immensely pleasurable to delve into the aliveness and subtle surprise of Campbell’s language and to live alongside the authenticity of her characters. And these stories go further by taking pleasure as their topic, confronting taboos of older women’s sexuality and treating eroticism as commonplace—though often accessed in unexpected ways, particularly when desire has been undiscovered or repressed.

There is beauty and desperation within the questions Cat Brushing poses (what does it look like to self-actualize at the end of one’s life? What does it mean to fail?), questions that directly confront the vulnerability of our shared humanity and what it looks like when life’s potential is thwarted. These stories do not grab hold of binary sentiments and are not seduced by the neatness of placing emotions in discreet packaging. Instead, they look carefully at the knots, the disquieting mess of resolution.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore:

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History and Story: Madison Smartt Bell and Jane Delury In Conversation

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (Viking, 1983), Doctor Sleep (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991), and Soldier’s Joy (Ticknor & Fields, 1989), which received the Lillian Smith Award. His eighth novel, All Souls’ Rising (Pantheon, 1995), won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and is collected with the second and third books of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. In 2020 Bell published Child of Light: A Biography of Robert Stone (Doubleday) and The Eye You See With: Selected Nonfiction of Robert Stone (Ecco). His most recent publication is the novel The Witch of Matongé, published by Concord Free Press in 2022; a limited number of free copies are available at www.concordfreepress.com in exchange for generosity to a charity or someone in need. Born and raised in Tennessee, Bell lived in New York, Haiti, Paris, and London before settling in Baltimore, Maryland. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. 

Jane Delury is the author of The Balcony (Little, Brown, 2018), a novel-in-stories that won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a second novel, Hedge, will be published by Zibby Books in June 2023. Her short stories have been published in Granta, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, Glimmer TrainNarrative, and other journals. Her awards include a PEN/O. Henry Prize, a Pushcart Special Mention, and grants from the Maryland State Arts Council. Her essays have appeared in Real Simple, LitHub, and Poets & Writers.  She holds a BA in English and French literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, a maîtrise from the University of Grenoble, and an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. A professor at the University of Baltimore, she teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts and directs the BA in English. She lives in Baltimore with her daughters and her husband, the fiction writer Don Lee.

Bell and Delury met in Baltimore at the turn of the century, in an abandoned thread mill on the Jones Falls, then in temporary use as a venue for a literary cabaret fundraiser for the Associated Writing Programs.  Later, Bell read a couple of the stories eventually incorporated into The Balcony, of which he is an ardent admirer, and Jane used his book Narrative Design in her writing classes. They presently discovered that they were both Francophones and to some extent Francophiles, which is one source from which the following conversation flows.

Madison Smartt Bell: I want to ask, do you sometimes have a thought that presents itself in a language other than your firstQuelque chose qui te saut dans l’esprit comme ça? And then, what is your mother tongue?

My own first language is English, or as the French would say, American, in a Southern variation with slightly different manners of speaking used by the gentry, Black folk, and country white people.  And in very early childhood I heard Gullah spoken by Black people in the South Carolina barrier islands, and could speak it a little myself, though presently those people mostly disappeared and the beautiful language with them.

More recently I speak Haitian Kreyol in my sleep (so I’m told) and when feverish (weirdly), Spanish.  Waking, my Kreyol is sharply limited, and I have next to no Spanish at all. Still, I think a mother tongue may sometimes be other than one’s first—something one has a sense of coming home to—unexpectedly, perhaps. Et toi?

Jane Delury: My mother tongue (la langue de ma mère—I love literal translations) is English, flavored by the pronunciation tics passed down to my parents by their Irish parents. We lived in a suburb of Sacramento, California, without much linguistic diversity, but we traveled to Europe quite a bit, and my father spoke and wrote in French and German. He hired a French tutor for me when I was seven. My main memory of those lessons is that my tutor served me madeleines and water with grenadine syrup. I’d say I grew up with the flavor of other languages and cultures. Friday nights, while other kids were watching Gremlins with their families, I was watching The Tin Drum and Picnic at Hanging Rock. And during my teenage years, Les Misérables was my favorite novel. I read it in the original in college and felt as if I were discovering it all over again.

MSB: Were you upset by a bad translation?

JD: The one that comes to mind isn’t literary. It was on a menu in Grenoble, France, where I spent my junior year abroad.  The dish was “salad de crab avec avocat haché” and the English translation was “crab salad with diced lawyer.”

What’s your number one translation trauma?

MSB: Traduire c’est trahir is another French phrase that doesn’t work very well in translation.  Still, I admire translators (and interpreters).  I can’t begin to do what they do and have seldom tried.  There was one occasion soon after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when I was asked by the New York Times to consult on a sampler of literary writing by Haitians or about Haiti, published as “Haiti in Ink and Tears.”  It was a twenty-four-hour turnaround, and our daughter, then in high school, stayed up late with me picking clips and translating.  I remember she and I were both unhappy with the existing translation of Lyonel Trouillot’s beautiful, poetic, and thus near-impossible-to-translate novel, Rue des Pas Perdus.  I think it was Celia who produced a to-us acceptable version of the passage that was used in the piece.

But you were saying!

JD: I ended up spending almost five years in Grenoble after college, and you might say that during the first year or so, I was living in a state of bad translation, as I tried to interpret day-to-day life in a new culture. But a couple years in, a switch flipped. My thoughts came first in French. My dreams were in French.  In fact, I didn’t feel at home in the US when I visited summers.   Everything was too big and too loud and too colorful.

Have you had that experience of going away and seeing your home differently afterward?

MSB: Most def.  I felt it most sharply the first few times I went to Haiti, where a person can spend all day looking for a box of matches, things like that.  Back in Baltimore I’d go to the grocery and freeze in front of fifteen different kinds of orange juice.  On one such occasion the police came to… assist me.  I learned to wait a few days after a return from Haiti before attempting to shop.

JD:  Yes, we Americans do like our endless choices.

MSB: Under those circumstances I found them fairly terrifying.

JD: Has that experience of alienation and confusion affected your fiction?

MSB: I’m not sure how much I’ve used that dislocation of place in fiction, although I think you have, in The Balcony.  During editorial work on The Witch of Matongé I realized how much that story turns on points of linguistic slash cultural dislocation, which in turn has a bearing on personal identity—thus, in fiction’s craft terms, character.

Certain Paul Bowles stories, “A Distant Episode” in particular, started me thinking that identity is really a linguistic construct, and so more fragile than we are usually inclined to realize.  Later experience has reinforced that idea considerably.

I think we are both interested in different kinds of liminal states, when one is neither here nor there, with respect to language, or place, or any number of other conditions.  Your story/chapter “Between” seems to get into that.

JD: Agreed. In The Witch of Matongé, you narrate from inside the French language, in the heads of Francophones. I do the same in The Balcony for the stories told from the points of view of French characters, who were all were based on people I knew from my life in France. As I drafted their stories, I was often translating unconsciously from French to English, certainly with the dialogue.

When I collected my stories into a novel-in-stories, I had to unify the voice of the book. I hadn’t lived in France for years and no longer spoke French much at home. The narrator of the novel is American and twenty-first century, even if they are comfortable in the head of a Frenchman in 1911, as is the case in one story/chapter. But I don’t know if I’d feel the narrative authority to write that original story now.

As for “Between,” that story/chapter is told from the perspective of an American expatriate. And yes, absolutely, even in its structure of direct address to two different men (you, the husband, and you, the lover), that story hovers in a liminal space. The husband is American, and the lover is French. I think many of the chapter/stories (another liminal space) in The Balcony explore the contrasting charms of exoticism and of familiarity. The familiar becomes exotic again when you’ve been away from it long enough. You yourself become more exotic in my experience. Who is the Jane Delury in English, in Baltimore, versus the Jane Delury in French, in Grenoble? I’m much older now, granted, but I also think there are also cultural differences.  If, as you say, identity is a linguistic construct, how does yours change in French?

MSB:  There were attempts to teach me French in grammar school, and more serious and successful ones in high school.  I came away with an ability to read nineteenth and up to mid twentieth century French literature with reasonable facility, and to write the language poorly.  In college I took French literature courses, but I had no real grasp of the spoken language outside a lecture hall.  After college I made a couple of Francophone friends but was too awkward and shy to make much progress.

In 1995 as All Souls’ Rising was coming out, I made my first trip to Haiti and did my first book tour in France.  In Haiti I traveled with one of my Francophone friends, which was a huge help. I spoke only French with him, and began to pick up some Kreyol. We did not meet many Haitians who spoke American or English, especially outside the capital.  We drove north to Cap Haïtien, and by the time we returned to Port-au-Prince, my Anglophone identity had been pretty well erased. The mental effect was sort of like jet lag but much stronger.  It can be refreshing to inhabit a consciousness that doesn’t have many words in it, right?

JD: Yes! And to feel that other identity expand as you adopt expressions that don’t exist in your own language. My favorite is “On n'a pas gardé les moutons ensemble” (we’ve never kept sheep together) when someone is being too familiar.

MSB: Love that.

JD:  I’m going to Paris this fall for the first time in years, and I wonder if I’ll find my French double waiting for me on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries.

MSB:  On that first trip to Haiti I had a sort of journalistic cover, writing about a Misik Rasins group, Boukman Eksperyans.  During an intermission in one of their concerts I joined a prayer circle with them, and I was dislocated to the point that when I caught sight of my face in a small mirror that had been propped on the wall, my first thought was, Mais c’est un blanc—qu’est-ce qu’il fabrique ici?

In the beginning I was a much nicer person in French, because I wanted so very much to please.  In the same period, I realized that if I was ever to gain any sort of fluency, I would have to accept looking like a real buffoon a lot of the time.  I don’t think I had what it takes for that part when I was younger.

JD: You fake it well, though. You seem comfortable speaking French. Is that an illusion?

MSB: I am comfortable speaking it, though the truth is je ne sais que jeter des fautes françaises à grande vitesse.  That falls a little short of fluency. But I got through the clown phase eventually.  I do remember that on my first book tour in France, two women from my publisher listened to me for a bit, looked at each other, and said Oui, c’est un espèce de Créole.

More seriously, I think that so much of a culture is embedded in its language that in adopting the language you take on much of the culture as well—your mind has to bend to it (or break, which does sometimes happen).  What you can say controls what you can be, with others, and if you begin to think in the language, it controls what you can say in that interior monologue, which changes who you are with your self.  Oh wait—what self?

JD: Yes, and for me, my main connection to French and to France was through my ex-husband’s family. The France I knew well involved soixante-huitards, jazz, and women who smoked pipes. I had a French editor proofread The Balcony, and she came back with notes about the French not doing this or that. In my ex-husband’s family, for instance, the kids call the parents by their first names, instead of “Maman” et “Papa.” Not typical, but true of the French people I knew best.

MSB: Right.  Not all codes are linguistic codes.  And the French are not entirely a monolith either, despite the best efforts of l’Académie Française and l’Abbé Gregoire.

Losing one’s sense of self between languages can be a trippy sort of thing till you get used to it.  When it first happened, I remembered reading Kipling’s Kim a few times as a boy. I reread it recently and it holds up much better than I expected-- it may be the first English novel entirely about code-switching. Practically the only thing I remembered about it was a moment where Kim thinks in English (actually there are several instances of that), and the reader sees it as part of the process of his becoming a member of the British Raj—a Sahib, as he would put it.  I had recently read Kim when as a boy I noticed myself having some rudimentary thoughts in French, and I thought of that scene in the novel then, and many times after.

From 1995 to around 2007, I went to France for some book junket almost every year and went to Haiti a couple of times a year, researching later volumes of the trilogy and a biography of Toussaint Louverture I wrote after.  I carried a notebook, and at the beginning of my stay, I would write proper notes in American, later in kind of funky French, then Kreyol, and finally there would be no more words, only diagrams.  My Kreyol is still pretty limited so I can’t think very complicated thoughts in that language, which reminds me that the linguistic construction of self is not one’s whole being. I think it is mainly the ego that’s wont to seize language as an instrument of domination and control.

JD: Do you ever wish you could be creatively inspired by the Towson shopping mall or a McDonald’s off I-83? I do. My writing seems to feed off other places, other times. I try to write what I know, but I get quickly bored.

MSB:  Well, there’s this Burger King in the northernmost service area of the Garden State Parkway, on the way to the Tappan Zee bridge.  When I first stopped there, it seemed that everyone working in the place was speaking Haitian Kreyol.  I assumed that was delusional on my part, that I’d slipped into another fugue state, like in front of all that orange juice. I do sometimes have auditory hallucinations, though not so elaborate, more like roosters that aren’t really there, things like that.

So I slunk away without saying anything, but the next year, same place, same phenomenon—I addressed the burger workers a few words in Kreyol and got slightly startled replies in the same language… so yeah, it turned to be part of ordinary reality.

There are writers who specialize in rhetorical savorings of the banal, but I don’t think you and I are them.

JD: You’ve made me think of something else. When I lived in France, I taught English, British English. My students knew apartments as flats and eggplants as aubergines, and to make life easy for them, I adopted their English. My native tongue morphed in those years teaching English. I stopped spelling like an American. Humor was humour. Color was colour. That lingered for years after I’d moved back here.   In my next novel, Hedge, the protagonist is a garden historian who trained in England. Now she’s back in the States, but she still explores otherness by looking back in time. That’s how I most relate to her.

What about the past for you? Your novel is so now, but it also feels haunted.

MSB:  You must know how dangerous it is to ask a Southerner about the past.  I’m a white Southerner, so there are layers.  Stuff that really happened that we remember and the Yankees don’t.  Delusions we fed ourselves, for generations, as truths about the past.  Stuff that we completely repressed for generations, much of which is returning to consciousness only now.  So, you know, we can go on about it all for a very long time.

The first literary fiction I read was from the Southern Renascence: Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, of course Faulkner.  This work was entirely by white folks for white folks, although I have always thought that Black writers of the period, like James Baldwin and Ernest Gaines, ought to be included.

Mais pour revenir à nos moutons… The backstory of the Witch has some specialized elements.  A conceit is that the American was with one of the Special Forces A Teams that operated in the North of Haiti during the UN/American “intervasion” of the mid-1990s, hence the knowledge he has of the language and the culture. He also had a Haitian wife and a child with her (nobody in the story knows about them except the American’s erstwhile Special Forces teammate who comes in briefly at the end) who both died in the cholera epidemic following the 2010 earthquake that knocked down much of Port-au-Prince.  The American’s familiarity with Haiti and his ability to speak some Kreyol as well as French gives him a rapport with the Haitian aristocrat Jean-Robert, but there’s an edge there because the American is not only a blan but a blan militaire Americain, which evokes the first American occupation of Haiti beginning back in the First World War, when, not to put too fine a point on it, the Americans usurped Haiti’s sovereignty, introduced Jim Crow social practices, and recreated a form of slavery known as the corvée.

Then there is the witch herself, and her descendants, who are Roma people, who have a long and difficult history which I learned something about through research and stories people told me.

Then there’s Abu, the fatherless Muslim youth who vacillates between the benign (and majoritarian) versions of Islam represented in the story by the Sufi sheik and the violent jihadism of Daech and Al Quaeda, represented by Farouk.

Through a certain lens, my writing those last characters is an act of expropriation that these days would make me eligible to be burned at the stake.  In reply to that point I will quote Charles Johnson, possibly the last real humanist on the planet, who said from a Goucher podium a couple of years back: “If we’re going to have a diverse literature, we have to learn to write the Other.”

But, to return to our metaphorical sheep, my raising taught me that the past can sometimes be experienced as a sort of encysted wound.  That’s true for the American in his personal past, and for Jean-Robert in the relatively recent history of Haiti and Haitians, and in a deeper way for descendants of the long wanderjahr of the Roma people, and the history of clashes between the Islamic and Christian worlds, and in the descendance of African slavery wherever that took place, and so on. 

I’d like for you talk about the ways you deal with deep time in fiction, not only in Hedge, where your heroine shows up with her archeological tools in hand (though layers of time in that book are explored with several other instruments as well) and also in The Balcony, where the depth of the historical dimension comes close to making the place itself a protagonist.

JD: As I mentioned, I grew up on the edge of Sacramento, near the foothills of the Gold Country. The remnants of the nineteenth century were being scraped away during my childhood: subdivisions replacing orchards, shopping malls on the edge of dusty mining towns. That landscape, plus having a father older than all the other fathers and who’d wished to be a historian, colored my view of the world. I played pioneers way past a respectable age, dressing up in petticoats, hunting the cat, rafting over the pool to the other side. I was nostalgic at eight. I grieved the loss of those hills. Strip malls were antagonistic.

MSB:  That all sounds so much like the childhood of Joan Didion, as rendered in Tracy Daughtery’s wonderful biography.

JD:  I love Didion’s work. But she’s less of a romantic than I am. Actually, that’s one of the things I love about her work.  In The Balcony, I faced a double risk of romanticization: writing about the past and writing as an expatriate. Plus, I’m drawn to dramatic plotlines. “Au Pair” and “Plunder” both take potentially melodramatic subjects—a love affair, a death—and, I hope, illuminate them with unfiltered lights.

MSB: I would definitely give you that.

JD: The protagonist in “Au Pair” goes to France starry-eyed, and she grows up over the course of the story. This affects her view of the landscape itself. She also moves from country to the city. My fiction favors the country. I’m most creatively inspired with a view of a mountain or ocean. And, come to think of it, historic places often preserve original landscapes, so that’s another part of the draw in writing about them. As I child, I loved the image of covered wagons rolling over hills, but I loved the hills themselves as well: the endlessness, openness of space. Going back in time is also going back in landscape.

In Hedge, my protagonist uncovers buried gardens, testing the soil to find chemical traces of long-dead plants. I learned about this kind of work at Monticello, the perfect place to think about the problem of romanticizing history. In the end, Hedge didn’t take place at Monticello, but I learned so much there, especially from the archeological work being done on the mountain, away from [ZB1] Thomas Jefferson’s house.  Maud restores gardens in the Hudson Valley and San Francisco’s Presidio, and as she does so, she struggles to be clear eyed in beauty, to be more Didion than Hugo in the way she treats history.

MSB: Hmmm.  You think we can actually do that?  Seems tricky, particularly with the past, which we have to regard through our own eyes, not the eyes of the people who lived in it.  That’s a very different filter factor, I believe.  How fully at home can a twenty-first-century American be in the mind of a Frenchman in 1911?  There’s some interesting friction on that edge.

JD: We can’t. But I wish I could. The heat of that friction creates stories for me.

MSB:  Lately I’ve been thinking that history is just a story after all.  Ideally, it’s a story composed of facts, but nobody tries to use all the facts, because even if you could do that, what it would yield is what Hannah Arendt called “an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.”  So any coherent version of history leaves most of those happenings out, otherwise it would be shapeless.  That’s true of the conventional history of the U.S. which I imagine you and I both received in high school, and it’s true of Howard Zinn’s correction of that conventional history… and on we go.

JD: How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith is wonderful on this topic.

MSB: I think you worry about the risks of the romantic gaze more than I do.  I think I never think about that, which probably means I’m unconsciously wallowing in it all the time.  Maybe we are guilty of exoticism of a sort. But I do think that unfamiliar circumstances throw the self into a special sort of relief, and there’s an edge that can make a story interesting.

Certainly The Witch of Matongé is meant, in part, as a kiss blown to Paris: Ville Lumière! Ville de l’amour!  Have I just romanticized the place one more time?  It’s tempered by the American’s having a sort of fisheye on a lot of that stuff, like those troth-plighting padlocks on le Pont des Arts.  Then again, he’s not entirely immune, and the book wouldn’t be much fun if he were.

JD: And it is the Ville Lumière!The Ville de l’amour! As well as all the rest. I plan to see the sewers of Paris on my upcoming trip. I’ve always wanted to go and never have. Apparently, I’m still haunted by Les Misérables, all these years later. I’ll try to remind myself that Jean Valjean was running through shit.

 MSB:  I think the Disneyfication probably turned that into chocolate, right?  Me, I’ve only been in the catacombs.  Bones are remarkably clean.

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