Sunday, May 31, 2009

So long!

Leaving Banff this morning, though probably not done posting about Banff. If you see me on the airporter do give a wave.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

John W. MacDonald

Again and again that guy from Ottawa nails it! For your viewing pleasure, Monsieur Bök. You can check out John's photostream at Flickr.
Christian Bök

Friday, May 29, 2009

How to Smoke: Danny Bonaduce

I agree with JWD, who is cooler, photographer or aging actor? It's impossible to choose...


The shot is here.


Thanks John.

Night in the Forest

Several night hikes sweetened with resin from the Firs. At night they don't fold in but the higher one goes the more they sway, and at the very top they are dwarfed by the elements, grow sideways, or squat and thick, or in a circular way, the bark twisting slowly over years.
The air at this altitude is still quite cool and dips even lower after dark. Though the dark takes some time to descend, when it does it seems sudden, almost heavy, and sweet.
Is it possible trees are more comfortable at night?
It was in Banff that I came to know the second blue hour, that of the 4 am variety. Up and around as plates shift deep under the earth, resonating up one's spine.

And in the marshy land to the west of town Elk gather, ducks can be heard, if not seen, landing somewhere amidst the grasses.
I really need to get my hands on Christopher Dewdney's Acquainted With the Night. Though I prefer to chart my own way through the unknown, a tip every now and then is helpful.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thank you Globe & Mail

For another wee trip down the Expressway.
And thanks again to Evan Munday for the awesome book trailer. The Hound is a lucky poet.

Everything has been done for you

Why did you leave early?
Where are you now?
Who are you?
Listen, let's have a talk.
Did you leave early?
Proven remedy for growth
and happiness.
Should I book 2 places?
Would you like two blouses?
Weekend park meeting.
Or miracle thought.

Sometimes the spam file can be alarming.

Monday, May 25, 2009

All the qs from a certain novel

No question, it was the quality of the quad, the quadrangles quailed with queer queues that no queen—queer or not—would have sufficient qualities to (quarter or no) quarrel her way through. Though quarrelling might be thought common, a quest among quirky and quizzical quartets….it was quite uncommon. Quietly she quivered in the quicksilver quality of a quarto of quoits. She was quickest, at least quicker, she quarrelled, quenched and in quotations, finally, quizzically quit.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

from A Mark on the Wall

No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known. And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really—what shall we say?--the head of a gigantic old nail, driven in two hundred years ago, which has now, owing to the patient attrition of many generations of housemaids, revealed its head above the coat of paint, and is taking its first view of modern life in the sight of a white-walled fire-lit room, what should I gain?--Knowledge? Matter for further speculation? I can think sitting still as well as standing up. And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars? And the less we honour them as our superstitions dwindle and our respect for beauty and health of mind increases. . . Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one's thought as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water-lilies, hanging suspended over nests of white sea eggs. . . How peaceful it is down here, rooted in the centre of the world and gazing up through the grey waters, with their sudden gleams of light, and their reflections--if it were not for Whitaker's Almanack--if it were not for the Table of Precedency!
Yes, it beckons. The bark, the green, the air, life.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Soaking up the Green

Can't quite get enough greens...inside or out. Wishing that, like Jeff wall, I had a large format digital and could take about 36 small images of both scenes below and knit them together. Well not small actually, the bigger the better, but each image say, of a 12 x 12 inch space. The problem with trying to technically represent all of the nuances of green here is the inability to fix an aperture on any one area. Shooting many close ups allows Wall to control all of those various squares of light and detail. Another reason why his work has such an absorptive quality.

What if how we got to a poem was suddenly only the beginning of the poem? What if, like Wall, we looked at things for longer periods of time, and then imagined the process of writing as a series of stages? What does it mean to try and represent a moment of illumination so deeply?

Also the sense of depth. And textures, the drama of the contrast and all that is happening in and out of the frame.

More on this...

A.F. Moritz


A.F. Moritz, originally uploaded by johnwmacdonald.

Another of the three Canadian poets up for the Griffin Prize and another great shot by John W. MacdDonald. This is a well-deserved nomination for a poet with a consistent voice and style and a long apprenticeship. He isn't a poet that speaks to me personally, but I can appreciate the craft and I can see why so many younger Canadian poets find him an elegant role model. There are few poems of Moritz' online, but the Griffin site has one.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Windy day, Tunnel Mountain


Meanwhile the jazz musicians have arrived. So far Turtleboy is the band to beat. Boys gotta get their online house together--nothing to link to. But they are hot: covers of radio head and Johnny Cash (you can find their cover of Hurt here). Oh and yes, new flower on the mountain. Be yellow.

Feminist poetics

Under discussion all over the place right now...branching out from Delirious Hem

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Fragments of Samuel Beckett

Not new of course, but scintillating nonetheless. I have been under the spell of Beckett's production notes, which I assure you, are more interesting than Twitter feed.

Peep under H's handkerchief.
_____

Ladder business simplified
max.
_____

At bins: 1st Nell. Deep
stoop. From H.
stet.
_____

Speech: move to door
killed after 'I can't be
punished any more.' Cf.
8 after '...dying of their
wounds.'
_____

[erasure] Clove gone most of
ex. trailing sheets
_____

Red faces: cut.
or later
Pain killer [erasure]
I'll leave you [erasure]
No more [erasure]
Taking its course
Well, great writing makes for great note taking and ephemera and marginalia. Never happier than discovering marginalia. How do, how do. What is cut? What is noted? Has Benjamin really suggested there is no better start for thinking than laughter?

still later
Move from earth to sea:
no business? After, 2
steps back for ladder

prepare back of chair
for thumps-dust

....the shivers...

Have you shrunk?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Afterword, Pasha Malla

Increasingly I am turning to the National Post for book coverage. Yes indeed. Ironically I have a subscription to the G&M, not the NP. (I know, I know, writers aren't supposed to talk about this. It's all hush, hush, don't draw the ire of the reviewers down upon ye and subject yourself to the possibility of endless bad reviews!)

But the pulse, is the pulse, and at the moment it seems like the NP has its finger on it. At least in terms of the book world. Today a wee Q&A with Pasha Malla. Here's the last response:
Q: Kurt Vonnegut advised that every short story should have one character the reader can root for. Agree or disagree?
A: Disagree. I don't even think every short story has to have any characters at all.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat continues to intrigue but I find myself unable to formulate an opinion. Have you seen this video up at the Walker website. It's quite moving. Moving where I'm not sure...it feels a little like Maya Deren. Some of the images just seem too glossed, too commercially composed,
as with the shot above. Refreshing as it is to see the images, that's one of my hesitations. You can see a slide show of more photographs like the one above over at the New Yorker.
Other images and series, and videos such as the one below, are much more compelling, but still, there is something lacking for me. And it may be the dense narrative underpinnings I have grown accustomed to in Wall's work, which is unfair because she isn't doing the same thing at all.
Shirin Neshat, Rapture, 1999, video still. Images courtesy of the artist and Barbara Gladstone Gallery.
Apparently she has turned to film making. Full on. Bringing an Iranian novel to the screen. I am definitely going to see that. I'm very intrigued, and very happy to have the images and discussions her work brings. While I'm not totally won over, I want to be. Interview with the artist here.
Cold, cold and more cold. But I'll take cold if it means fresh, which in this instance it does.

"And yet we all yearn for childhood, revel in our own version of it. The dappled clouds, the scent of our father's labor, our mother's decadence, our siblings' discoveries, intellectual, sexual, our childhood in the woods, stretched out in a field of Trout Lily or Box Ferns, our childhood in malls, pining..."
And now back to work.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Growing

Like most things in Alberta, the Banff Centre is growing.

Behind the screens. The old is torn down.
Bye, bye, birches.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Insertions


With apologies to Jin-Me Yoon. This image (below) from her "Souvenirs of Self," hanging right now in the Banff Centre. “Is it your sky/mountains/land or ours too?” I love how the artist inserts herself into these iconic images and asks so many things in such a simple gesture.
Of the photograph:
Contemporary Canadian artist Jin-me Yoon (1960 - ) takes a post-colonial deconstructivist approach in Souvenirs of Self: Lake Louise (1991), a large Ektacolour – Supra photograph of a solemn-looking Korean-born artist wearing a Scandinavian sweater and brown oxfords standing in front of the traditionally cherished Canadian scene of Lake Louise and Victoria Glacier. Yoon takes on multiple personae of Asian, Asian – Canadian, woman, tourist and artist. Noting “I am interested in appropriating the genre of landscape photography to question the constructed ‘nature’ of Canadian identity”, she asks: “Imaged in the heroic setting of the Canadian Rockies, can I as a non-Western woman enjoy a ‘naturalized’ relationship to this landscape?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A few of my favorite tweets

So my current favorite Twitter dude is...

christianbok

Why? Great one liners:
  1. Copyright is dead—because you cannot sign a pixel.
Ongoing updates about wacky intersections between poetics, science and technology:
  1. They compose serenades and lullabies, using six German sirens: http://is.gd/zzom
  2. They translate mathematical proofs into fugues for toy pianos: http://is.gd/z3Ql
He makes me think about sound differently:
  1. Listen to numerous audioclips of failing hard-drives: http://is.gd/7iei
  2. They record the sound of ambient magnetic fields in the cityscape: http://is.gd/wZWz
  3. They compose a symphony using dot-matrix printers: http://is.gd/kOWD
  4. They compose a symphony out of dialtones in the attending audience: http://is.gd/wJ7n
And he is of course, a poet:
  1. A poem should be a ringing phone inside a solid, crystal cube.
I think Christian has found his online medium.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kevin Connolly


Kevin Connolly, originally uploaded by johnwmacdonald.

One of the three poets up for the Griffin Prize, and my editor for Expressway. You can read an interview with Connolly here. Good luck all.

Great photo by the way. John W. Macdonald strikes again.

Another day over at the Globe & Mail

One wouldn't believe that this was the national newspaper of such a diverse country now would one? I capture the list of columnists regularly and it's always surprising.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Scale

Not quite back in the province of my youth, but close. Such a different scale.
Thinking more about Jeff Wall and now this Vancouver born photographer, who graduated from Emily Carr. Karin Bubas series Studies in Landscape and Wardrobe reminds me a little too much of those 70s fashion spreads mimicking that ubiquitous photographer--soft focus, near nude--was it David Hamilton? Interesting, but no sense of the absorption found in Wall, or in Nan Goldin, or Cindy Sherman (referenced here clearly) for that matter. To the extent that the photograph may or may not suggest a narrative seems essential to its power. I've just made that distinction and now I'll have to grapple with that thought for a while. Wall says he think of his images as prose poems, which is in fact, fabulous. Not in the Crewdson sense of the film still which does not, to my mind, have the same quality as a prose poem. All compression, turn, and sprung, or about to spring. Coiled in any case.

The above photograph taken with a $50 Fujipix camera, just before nightfall on Tunnel Mountain Road. Still hoping to replace my digital.

Freaked out about the future?

One thing you can do to help secure an intelligent future is to subscribe to a Canadian magazine. Now. Right now.

Worried about the future of print journals and newspapers? Again, subscribe. Right now.

The world is what we make it. I don't know about you, but I like going to a book store and buying a magazine. Or having one arrive in the mail. Really, if you want the experience to continue. Make it so. Here's a plea from The Walrus

Support The Walrus! from The Walrus Magazine on Vimeo.

Subscribe to something. If you care about Canada you should probably have a subscription or two to This Magazine, or Geist, or Border Crossings...or literary journals like The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, Open Letter...whatever you prefer, just support it.

That means you too my American friends. Come on, subscribe.

Oh, and if you already have a few subscriptions what about giving gift subscriptions? I'm all over that one.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Random thoughts

Hearing vowels. Hardening consonants. Laying about in post card settings. "Sometimes I feel the world desperate; then walk among the downs," (Woolf August 15, 1931).

Why are Rodney Graham's trees upside down?
The Vancouver School...
Over the past two decades Vancouver has become internationally renowned for contemporary photo-based work, particularly the "Vancouver School" of photoconceptualism that includes artists Roy Arden, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and others.
...still has no women. They are in the periphery, making sandwiches, posing, writing critically about the men. I am being cheeky, I know. Really they make up the dots in the composition, the many strokes of the trees and ground, the foundation of thought.

I am claiming Robert Smithson as a woman.

Photoconceptualism makes sense in a city like Vancouver. What doesn't make sense is the lack of women. Justine Kurland I discover over at Monte Clark. I like "Raft Expedition" very much. Why do we not hear of her? What about Allyson Clay? Where is the net of women referencing each other compositionaly and textually and otherwise.

Not that any of this makes me love Arden, Douglas, Graham, or Wall any less than I already do. I just wish the space would open a little more.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Morning Cleaning

"It's more interesting to look at the picture as a representation than to look at the event as an event." Jeff Wall

Certainly if the average person were to describe the event recreated in Wall's "Morning Cleaning" below courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, it most likely would not evoke anywhere near the response the photograph does. Seeing it so small, on a blog, really does it a disservice since the beauty of the photograph is in the depth of the shadows and light, barely discernible here on the chair legs, in the drops of soapy water on the window in the shade. But Wall's ability to bring the quotidian, the domestic, and the banal to life is no small part of his appeal I suspect. As is his ability to include so much of the various depths available to the eye at a given moment, as he does here. This is one of my favourite Wall photos, but yes, there are many in that category.

What makes the photograph work? Or, what gives me pleasure in viewing it? First of all it's an exquisite location. The marble wall inside contrasts so beautifully with the wall outside. There appears to be a reflecting pool outside, and the black carpet on the inside also seems to be a pool. The luscious red curtains, the irregularly placed chairs--a style that seems to sum up the last decade of conspicuous design consumption.

There is then, the beauty of composition and the sense of spontaneity that seems to inhabit all Wall photographs, or at least the ones he stages. Like all good writers, or artists, his work seems to be "carrying on" now, to exist in a kind of continuous present. The work is framed mid-action so there is immediately a sense of narrative, a bracket of questions that lead to an extended viewing. Really, what one notices when one is in a gallery of Wall's work is how long people stand, staring.

This quality translates to narrative and poetry as well. One thinks of the work of Lisa Robertson for example, the layers of compression, the intensely knit images. The fact that one is abstract and one is, well, what? Is it hyper-realism? In any case, it's not the aesthetic practice under scrutiny here it is the quality of absorption as Michael Fried has noted, the percentage of thought and visual intensity that creates a visual or literary event one can sink into.

There is mystery too. Fried points out the degree to which the human figure in this image is immersed in his work. This is not confined to "Morning Cleaning" by any means, all of Wall's images reflect an intense level of emotion that seems impossible to stop. The work then, even when it is still as it seems to be here, is always forward moving.

This aspect, doubled with the sense of intellectual depth apparent in the composition and attention of the work, creates, as does the work of poets such as Erin Moure or Lisa Robertson, a sense of walking into a space that has been and will be and is available for you to inhabit as well. Fried is right, it is absorptive, but it's also inhabitable. We are all ready inside the frame.
Too much work I encounter forgets this. One wants to engage, one wants to be teased, one wants to find something new when he or she returns to the work. The figure in the garden, for example, only seemed obvious to me after several encounters. The patterns in the marble, they too teased themselves out over time. As did the contrast between the opulent setting and the rather rudimentary, poorly designed cleaning bucket, the rag on the floor beside it. These are key features of the Wall photograph. The bit of ugly, the glitch, the torn, the sweeper, the tender, the constant reminder that things are being made, unmade and tended is always an aspect of his work, even in the more conventional photographs such as "Diagonal Composition no. 3," 2000, which features a bucket, a mop, a floor that will never be cleaned, and again in "Volunteer, 1996," which may in fact feature the same bucket and mop, this time in a community center.

A further note on this level of absorption. It can't be added "after the fact." The thinking of a piece of art is not tonal. No matter how emphatically one reads a poem that does not have intellectual or emotional depth, it will not magically appear. And why would one want to do that? One thing that artists such as Wall make very clear is that it is in the layers of preparation and in many ways, the daily labour, that the stunning is laid into a work.

Not to say that the stunning can't be captured in an instant. I'm sure it can. Particularly after the kind of dedication that we see in a process such as Walls. How many hours have gone into each of these photos? Is there some kind of exponential payback for both artist and viewer? Consider the light in "Morning Cleaning," exquisite, and perhaps perfected in "After 'Spring Snow' by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34, 2000-2003," which I have already posted on here. Each time Wall takes a run at a particular aspect of his work he finds something new in it, a new revelation of light of composition, and of presenting his work to the public. The latter of course an important consideration for Wall who turned the banal advertising light box on its head.

But none of these images are best viewed on the net, alas. The above image, courtesy of the Tate, is a much lighter version of the one included in Schaulager Catalgoue Raisonne 1978-2004. The version printed in a New York Times slide show is equally light. One really needs to see the work on the wall, in a gallery to sink into the moment as fully as Wall has made it possible for us to do.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Bow Valley



The more I went into it, the more unknown there was.

Roni Horn

What does a feminist look like? Over at Delirious Hem they have quite a variety.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Speaking to the future by speaking to the now

The continuous present eludes us. Gertrude Stein knew this. Thich Nhat Hahn talks about this. The present, all around us, seems the very thing we are least likely to observe, least like to appreciate. To make it more difficult, finding ways to keep humans from being aware of "the present" remains the largest growth industry--diverse as that category would be. But what kind of present are we interested in? And how would we like to encounter representations of it? Accumulations? Accretions?

In Steve McQueen's show "Once Upon a Time" at the Walter Philip Gallery at the Banff Centre, we contemplate the present, visually, and from a humanitarian consciousness. The context is the "Golden Record," a time capsule of sorts created by Nasa and Carl Sagan that contains images and recordings of humans and human presence. How odd to think of selecting ephemera that will encapsulate human experience and history, explaining it to some unimaginable entity. Crafting a work of art is difficult enough, but what might one choose to "explain" what we humans have done?

We are told that to "make Once upon a Time McQueen appropriated and digitized the 116 archival images but displaced the original audio track of natural sounds, music, and spoken greetings in 55 languages with the recording of people 'speaking in tongues'.” I have no idea how the images are presented in this golden record, but in McQueen's hands we see the way things reach out for each other, fit into, mirror, are connected, measured, weighted, how they express; we see human figures, illustrated organs (reproductive imagery from Grey's Anatomy) and all of this fading in and out of each other in ways that emphasize the complexity, the compelling way in which lines--animate and inanimate--seem wont to complete each other.

Everything may not fit, but it reaches out, which these images don't quite illustrate the way the show does.
The languages that provide the soundtrack become, as the promotional material suggests, like prayer or chant, and one is, in the end, urged into the present, simply to see the present, granular and delicate and cheesy as it may be, with a renewed sense of hope even as it is morphing before your eyes--it's impossible to be separate.
You can, at the Nasa site, hear sounds from earth--very scratchy sounds--such as wind and rain, or a horse and buggy. I would rather watch/listen to the eagle cam for sounds, particularly since sounds themselves are also dated, and it's more than a little depressing to hear those echoes of echoes of echoes. Of course, I would rather wake to the sound of birds outside my window more than any of the above.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

More Twitter Verse

Twitter verse expands in its way. Poetry Foundation posts lines from poets:

poetrymagazine The shoes are at the bottom. / They are afraid of a beetle / On the way out, / Of a penny on the way back —Günter Grass
about 1 hour ago from web

And here is a selection of posts from a Norwegian conceptual poet who searches the internet for phrases of a certain origin. Mindful of Goldsmith's No. 111 2.7.93-10.20.96, in which the text, created entirely with found material, begins with "A" and works up to the final section, a "single 'phrase' 7228 syllables long and just happens to be the entire text of D.H. Lawrence's 'The Rocking Horse Winner.'" Andersen's project is not as complicated as Goldsmith's, and as I ask with my own little Twitter verse project, one wonders what these echoes of Goldsmith's oeuvre really have to offer the literary world. They do show us something about the language circulating to be sure. With Andersen we get a sampling of the self-assured. Just what is it we feel worth stating the facts about? What is the level of writing on the net? The constraint--the rules Andersen applies to the already existing Twitter constraint, do offer up some interesting results.

Name Paal Bjelke Andersen
Location Oslo, Norway
Bio Google search for the phrases /It's a fact that I/you/he/she/it/we/they/ the last 24 hour
It's a fact that you're gay.
about 3 hours ago from web

It's a fact that you only get one chance to make a first impression.
about 3 hours ago from web

It's a fact that I usually stop reading after the first mistake I see (usually your first line).
about 3 hours ago from web

It's a fact that I tend to be honest with anyone I am getting into a relationship with.
about 3 hours ago from web

It's a fact that we are all one – parts of the whole.
about 15 hours ago from web

It's a fact that she has won the Best Actress.
about 15 hours ago from web

It's a fact that you exist.
about 22 hours ago from web

It's a fact that he knows me better than I know myself.
about 22 hours ago from web

It's a fact that you may be wrong.
about 22 hours ago from web

It's a fact that they are awakening from their comatose state because I interfered with their thoughts.
about 22 hours ago from
As with Flarf, it's all about the search terms. That really narrows the results and hence the text one has to work with. Andersen's lines can't exceed 140 characters--or perhaps they would then exist over more than one post? Not sure. Does it matter? Not sure either.

Jim Behrle has started a Twitter Magazine of sorts. Behrle's Twitterary Magazine is called baby trotsky and can be found here. He is inviting people to post their Twitter Verse collectively. The latest post:
Once, under a huge tree in Central Park, Toni and I watched and listened to the rain. Lots of storms have come and gone but this one stayed.
6:11 PM May 1st from web

--Nick Piombino
6:11 PM May 1st from web
That post illustrates a bit of a Twitter conundrum. If one truly works with the 140 character constraint--as I do with my little offerings--one can neither sign one's work, nor leave enough room for it to be forwarded, which is apparently one of the goals of Twitter. Expansion. Forward and get more Followers. But the post itself is also quite a unified little story. It echoes the fable, it has character, event, an arc, a wonderful sense of foreboding. Like Arjun Basu's little Twitter stories, I think this one is quite coherent. Here's one from Carol Mirakove
sidewalk heartbreak triumvirate complete / tomorrow I tape / my body parts & pray / for dirt I thank you / thump--Carol Mirakove
9:11 PM Apr 28th from web
Mirakove doesn't adhere to the count, as you can see, in creating her poem. Is she using found text? Is there another constraint going on?

This guy thinks of Twitter as a collective writing exercise.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Writing from the Contact Zone: Posthumanism in literature and theory

An essay review of:

When Species Meet. By Donna Haraway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 423 pp. $24.95.

The Lazarus Project. By Aleksandar Hemon. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 294 pp. $24.95.

By Marianne Apostolides

If God is dead and postmodernism has partied itself into Virtual exhaustion, where does that leave us in the twenty-first century? What is our moment in history — the dynamics that drive our interaction with self and society, technology and nature? Now, as we power into the twenty-first century, what is our metaphysical terrain — the space through which we move and ‘surf’ and slide, dipping into knowledge, held by lust or law, guided by data into unimaginable death?

This is the ‘contact zone,’ treacherous landscape where we’re obligated to carve our own meaning without any guarantee of redemption or success.

Welcome, refugees of postmodernism! You have been preceded by various writers and theorists; their discoveries are surprisingly joyful.

Posthumanism Arises: The Lazarus Project

The Lazarus Project is the latest book by Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-born, Chicago-based writer and recipient of several prestigious literary fellowships. This novel alternates between two main stories: the violent death of Lazarus Averbach, a young Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant who was killed by Chicago’s Police Chief in 1908; and Vladimir Brik, the Bosnian-born, Chicago-based writer and recipient of a prestigious literary fellowship (…sound familiar…?) who travels to eastern Europe, attempting to write the story of… Lazarus Averbach.

Right from the start, the reader can feel himself sucked inside related stories, where reality and fiction tangle into tense, inextricable snarls.

The book opens with the spectacular scene of Averbach’s death. Chief Shippy, ‘protecting’ his lavish home from Averbach, an unkempt alien wielding a pistol, kills the boy in a colossal overuse of violence. Shippy’s bullet-fire unleashes clouds of smoke that forever obscure Averbach’s intention in arriving at Shippy’s house.

Hemon revives this minor historical incident. Through his prose, he conveys the multiple injustices that intersected in the body of Averbach: the pervasive racism against Jews in Chicago; the anarchists’ blatant cooptation of Lazarus’ death for their own political ends; the classism that pitted wealthy Jews against those who, like Lazarus, were impoverished; and, more remotely, the assaults against the Averbachs during anti-Semitic pogroms in Ukraine — pogroms that put Lazarus on-the-run, fleeing his homeland for America, a country that promised opportunity, safety, democracy.

The scenes of historical fiction alternate with those of Vladimir Brik as he embarks on his journey eastward, attempting to complete his own Lazarus project. He has argued — to himself and the grant-giving foundations — that he can’t construct Lazarus’s story unless he returns to that man’s homeland. He must enter the origin of this story, he says. And so, upon receiving the grant, Brik heads east with his childhood friend Rora, another immigrant from Sarajevo; Brik’s American wife remains at home.

Unlike Brik, Rora had remained in Bosnia during the war; he’d witnessed the sniperfire and starvation, documenting it calmly with his camera.

Rora’s presence gives The Lazarus Project its third narrative element. At the beginning of each chapter is a single black-and-white photograph. Historical photos of the real Lazarus Averbach are interspersed with anonymous images from turn-of-the-century Chicago (e.g., the faces of two jaunty young men, or the masculine visage of a bespectacled woman in a long dress) which are themselves interspersed with contemporary photos of landscapes or prostitutes — photos (it is suggested) that were taken by Rora. None of these images are contextualized, nor do they directly relate to the chapter that follows. Their unexplained appearance forces the reader to pause, contemplating this alien mode of information.

Hemon sets all three narrative elements into motion. He commands the material while, simultaneously, releasing it into its own movement; this is both exhilarating and uncommon. It is also essential to his literary project.

Beyond Nabokov: Hemon as Posthuman

As a philosophical and funny writer from eastern Europe, Hemon has often been compared to Vladimir Nabokov. Although I find these comparisons limiting, I can understand them. Both men are emigrant authors composing (or translating) in English; both write about immigrant men living inside the foreign American world; and both command an unusual vocabulary palette. This last element is striking: because Hemon and Nabokov came to English as adults, they don’t assign significance to words through common usage and the untaught acquisition. Instead, significance is determined by the words’ denotative precision, as well as their aural and rhythmic properties.

Whereupon a gigantic Toyota Cherokee, or Toyota Apache, or Toyota Some Other Exterminated People, drove up on the pavement, the tinted windows throbbing with concussive fuck-music. The red doors flew open and there emerged a pair of legs stretched long between the high heels and the flashing groin, over which a pair of bejeweled hands pulled an insufficient skirt. Somewhere up above the legs there appeared a pair of bulbous silicone protuberances, and then a head with a lot of dark, shampoo-commercial hair. [p 209]

‘Concussive’ paired with ‘fuck-music’: that is not the descriptive vocabulary we’d likely hear from a native English-speaker.

These stylistic similarities have been highlighted before, recently by James Wood, the influential literary critic and professor of criticism at Harvard. In his somewhat perplexing review in The New Yorker, Wood praises Hemon’s earlier books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man; he admires Hemon’s ambition and “Nabokovian bloom.” But when he speaks directly of The Lazarus Project, Wood’s praise quickly wilts.

In his review, Wood identifies two main problems: first, the book is too “argumentative” because Brik is “so angry.” (Brik “could use some… bumbling, Pnin-like charm,” he advises.) The second problem concerns the book’s scope. The Lazarus Project, writes Wood, is overstuffed with too many narrative “projects.”

These criticisms seem to come from one central notion: Wood seems stuck on seeing Hemon as the new Nabokov, another Eastern European genius who has chosen to live amongst us. By taking this perspective, Wood has failed to see Hemon as his own author. He has failed, in turn, to understand Hemon’s overarching literary project — one that fits within a posthumanist framework.

Wood is right: Brik is angry.

But Hemon’s handling of anger points toward the novel’s deeper questions about reality, history, and fiction.

The novel’s contemporary narrative is shot through with rage directed mainly at Mary, Brik’s profoundly American wife. Mary is a brain surgeon who deals cleanly, antiseptically in the grey matter of the soul. Her complexities are only hinted at; her inner life is hidden, largely because Brik doesn’t allow himself to imagine it: “You never knew me,” Brik thinks, “nothing about me, what died inside me, what lived invisibly” [234-5]. Only later does he reverse this phrase, making himself the subject.

For Brik, personal and political anger are fed by one vital pool. Mary’s ethical framework, Brik reports, is constructed around her belief in “good intentions.” Mary can maintain this belief because she’s never fully felt — or even imagined — the temptation of violence, the pressure of history pinning her down, limiting her very possibility. She’s never investigated her blasé moral pronouncements, forcing herself to ask fundamental ethical questions about terrorism, state-sanctioned violence, citizens’ obligations during wartime. Brik, steeped in stories about snipers in his homeland and Jewish pogroms in turn-of-the-century Europe — pogroms survived by Lazarus Averbach, who was then shot dead by Chicago’s chief of police — can’t forgive his American wife’s innocence.

The coincidence of personal and political rage is best portrayed when Brik and Mary argue about the photos from Abu Ghraib:
what she saw was essentially decent American kids acting upon a misguided belief they were protecting freedom, their good intentions gone astray. What I saw was young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death. They loved being alive and righteous by virtue of having good American intentions. [188]
In the midst of this political discussion, Mary suggests that Brik would understand America better if he “went to work every day and met normal people” rather than attempt to write a book; Brik responds by “smash[ing] the family china.”

Yes, Brik is angry. But this evident anger serves Hemon’s literary purpose by contrasting with the historical narrative.

In the Averbach story, the constant injustice never burns into angry conflagration. It is made, rather, to smolder. Olga Averbach, Lazarus’ sister, is stoic. She encounters authority from all directions: the police who want to nab Lazarus’ anarchist accomplices, the journalist who wants the scoop, the wealthy Jews who don’t want to be tarnished by association. Olga negotiates all these figures. She proceeds with steadfast restraint, singularly focused on giving her brother a proper burial. Olga desires, above all, to preserve a space of sanctity within this voracious tragedy; as such, she becomes a space of sanctity within the narrative.

It is late morning when Olga limps into the Central Police Station, past a couple of policemen sniggering and exchanging lewd jokes about this disheveled tart, one shoe heel missing. Olga announces to Deputy Sergeant Mulligan that she wishes to speak to Assistant Chief Schuettler. The sergeant laughs and says: “And who might you be, lassie?” But Willim P. Miller, lingering at the station in hope of a scoop, immediately recognize sshe is dramatically distraught; her Semitic features emanate fathomless suffering, her olive skin has a tragic quality — one day, her people will sing songs about her. He whispers something into Mulligan’s ear, and Mulligan shakes his large, cubical head dominated by a broken nose. Olga insists she must see Assistant Chief Schuettler, and Miller is already opening his notebook, pulling a open, like a comb, out of his inside pocket. Olga Averbuch — strong-headed Jewess, suffering tragedienne — contains multitudes and stories. He puts on a charming grin and offers to walk her to Scheuttler’s office, but she does not even look at him. “You must consider having a bath, ma/am,” Mulligan says to her back. “You smell like shit.”

When a brief aside reveals that she likely “perished” in Auschwitz, readers absorb this incidental information as a body-blow — the physical impact of horror.

Hemon’s use of anger highlights a fundamental difference between the two literary narratives. In the Averbach story, the world is fully illuminated. Readers don’t grapple with this narrative. Instead, we relax into observation. We are shown the objects and actors, the causes and consequences; we trust this narrative, assured that the truth will be revealed by the all-knowing, unaffected author.

Brik’s first-person narrative couldn’t be more different. Here the reader must actively engage, questioning the ‘truth’ as written. Brik withholds details and knowledge from himself — and therefore from us; we must read into the information given, seeking the secrets, constructing histories from hints. Brik isn’t manipulating the reader; instead, he’s communicating as a fallible author. Any contradictions and revisions — additions and reinterpretations — are the result of man’s inherent limitations, and the limitations of language.

This contrast between narratives is intensified as Hemon brings them into contact with each other and with the photographic narrative.

Rora’s photography — as discussed in language and presented in image — isn’t an attempt to document historical truth, but rather to experience personal truth. This is something Brik can’t understand, despite Rora’s attempt at explanation:

What you see is what you see, but that is never everything. Sarajevo is Sarajevo whatever you see or don’t see. America is America. The past and the future exist without you. And what you don’t know about me is still my life…. Nothing at all depends on you seeing it or not seeing it. I mean, who are you? You don’t have to see or know everything.

But what do I get to see, then? How do I get to know?...

Hemon’s book seems to suggest an answer — not through its explicit content, but through its form. By entangling the narrative threads, Hemon forces the figures of author and narrator — reality and fiction — to become looped inside each other. Hemon slips inside Brik, who slips inside Hemon. The author isn’t being PoMo-ironic, winking alongside the reader. No, Hemon’s eyes are wide open. He sees the ethical imperatives demanded within this literary space — a space where we are obligated to respond to the stories and histories that connect with our own. This is where Hemon’s book enters the framework of posthumanism.

Defining Posthumanism

The term, ‘posthumanism’ conjures sci-fi fantasias of apocalyptic landscapes and gorgeous, creepy hybrid people ‘perfected’ by technology. This is unfortunate, because the theory itself poses a uniquely human challenge: the challenge to make ethical decisions by engaging in the creation of story and history.

Posthumanism urges us, now, to calm the constant talk — the babble of the internet, the search for information about experience, the performance of ourselves on laptop screens — and enter deeply into a smaller space guided by passion. We are brought back to the physical — to touch — with all its necessary danger.

The theory of posthumanism is introduced in a generous, expansive book When Species Meet by Donna Haraway. This book helped inaugurate the Posthumanities Series of the trend-setting University of Minnesota Press, a series founded on the premise that humanism is “no longer adequate” for understanding humans’ relationship to animals, the environment and technology.

Posthumanism begins by dismissing the “fantasy” of human exceptionalism. Mankind is not alone, standing upright and elect between God and beast, working toward perfectibility through our unique capacity for conscious, rational thought. Instead, we are who we are because of our interrelation with creatures and technologies. “If we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism,” Haraway writes, “then we know that becoming is always becoming with — in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake” [244].

With every action, we are folded into natural and technological cultures. Scroll through these words on your computer. In the low electric hum beneath your fingers, sense the oil extracted from the earth, transported through pipelines that cut through caribou migratory routes, sent to refineries that pollute the air in distant cities, causing childhood asthma which can, thankfully, be treated through modern medicine but only due to laboratory testing on primates.…

In a postmodern age, we would’ve shut down when confronted by this onslaught of information; we would’ve become benumbed by the destructive forces in which we’re directly — but remotely — implicated. You can’t see the shrinking herds of caribou; you can’t hear the asthmatic child as he gasps. But you are connected to them.

When we can’t physically sense the consequences of our ‘innocent’ actions, information becomes bundles of data that stream alongside other bundles of data, all of which form a Virtual Reality that’s disconnected from any physical knowledge. As Jean Baudrillard has persuasively argued, the ‘Real’ has been replaced by the ‘Virtual,’ primarily because the space for imagination — the non-stimulated, silent darkness for quiet contemplation and seduction — has been excised from our internet-era lives. We can’t form a conception of Reality without our own, physical act of imagining into word and scene and image — the personal act of constructing a reality by bringing together disparate thematic strands with our own minds.

In this Virtual Reality, we live atop a surface of signs and symbols. This has resulted in slick, frictionless literature. Words surf in two dimensions — objects and phrases ping across discourses — ideas and characters hypertext through our minds — narratives spread across the vast web of associations. These books are fast-paced and clever. They also feel sophomoric and irrelevant now that we’ve entered the posthuman age, when the towers have come down and the temperature’s going up.

If it’s no longer interesting to write — or live — inside a Virtual Reality of signs and symbols, how can writers respond? And how can their work lead us to rethink ethics in our noisy, busy, interconnected world?

Haraway’s book starts to an answer those questions. She, and posthumanism, provide a framework for rethinking ourselves in our world. This framework ought to be applied to some of our best contemporary writers, including Hemon, who are already writing in a posthumanist context. 1 This theory allows a more precise analysis of how their work moves beyond postmodernism.

Posthuman Love

Haraway understands that we can’t respond to everything in this interconnected information age. She urges us, instead, to find the single issue that compels us as individuals. Through that topic — indeed, through the love we feel toward that topic — we fall deep inside other histories, cultures, landscapes, and creatures. “To be in love means to be worldly, to be in connection with significant otherness and signifying others, on many scales, in layers of locals and globals, in ramifying webs…. Once one has been in touch, obligations and possibilities for response change” [97].

These obligations are weighty, requiring fundamental changes in our behavior. As we connect through these “ramifying webs,” we recognize the extent to which our lives affect others: animals, environments, people. Our lives — like all life — necessitate destruction: we must consume in order to live. Haraway challenges us to possess that fact — to be humble and grateful in the face of such awful power; to be responsible without guilt:
Human beings must learn to kill responsibly. And to be killed responsibly, yearning for the capacity to respond and to recognize response, always with reasons but knowing there will never be sufficient reason…. I do not think we can nurture living until we get better at facing killing. But also get better at dying instead of killing. [81]
In our posthuman age, the apocalypse has all but happened, not just through the capacity for nuclear holocaust, but through the rapid depletion of natural resources. Released from humanism’s false progression toward transcendence, mankind — in its glorious non-exceptionalism — can proceed with the business of acting ethically now, without the assurance of success or the guilt for failure.

Now we must “deepen responsibility to get on together, without the dream of past, present, or future peace” [106].

Now. This is our time.

Posthumanism in Literature: The Contact Zone

The imperatives of posthumanism, as outlined by Haraway, essentially describe Brik’s search for Lazarus’ story — a search that’s driven by his need to understand the current Bosnian conflict that directly affected his own life (and, of course, directly affected Hemon’s life, too). But this fact wouldn’t constitute adequate reason to identify Hemon’s book as an example of a new trend in literature. The real shift concerns the narrative space that Hemon creates — a space that forces the reader to engage with the story in a distinctly posthumanist way.

Hemon’s main narratives — the three “projects” that Wood finds problematic — augment each other through their thematic correspondences and stylistic contrast. As the reader progresses through the book, the narratives seep into each other, uncontained by discrete categories. History, reality, author, narrator, fiction, image, language: all are put in play. The reader is compelled to shape a relationship to the book’s content and themes, working from the uncomfortable — and necessary — space of uncertainty.

That narrative space is one I call the “contact zone.” I’ve taken this term from posthumanist theory, using it to describe a place where truth is not illuminated but is, instead, created through the messy, physical exchange of language and image. This type of writing isn’t aggressive in its destruction of walls and boundaries — a mode that was adopted, effectively, by early postmodernists. Instead, the writing is suspended inside uncertainty, a potent place where regard, response, and responsibility are imperative and unregulated. In this contact zone, the author removes all signposts that might guide the reader, indicating how to approach the work. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Speculative or realistic? Poetry or prose? Creative or critical? Readers, here, must grapple with the narrative as we read; we must adjust, respond, interpret the narrative’s meaning inside the unknown.

Hemon is among a group of writers, including W.G. Sebald, David Albahari, and George Saunders, who have written from this zone. Their commonality isn’t stylistic: posthumanist writing isn’t, by nature, ironic or sincere or speculative. It can be any (or all) of these. Nor is posthumanist literature classified by its content. It would be wrong to assume that this writing must directly address environmental destruction, technology-driven changes in consciousness, or man’s relationship to animals and machines. In other words, posthumanist analysis must examine how the structuring of narrative through language and image is reshaping our engagement with story, and is therefore reshaping our conception of ethics, erotics, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century.

There is much work to be done in this area. And that’s part of the fun: after decades of postmodernism, our writers, readers, and critics seem ready to accept the challenge of joyful, meaningful reengagement.

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic whose novel, Swim, explores the eroticism of language, food and family. It was published by BookThug earlier this year. Her first book was published by W.W. Norton and translated into Spanish and Swedish. Her current writing explores the ‘contact zone’ between genres — poetry vs. prose, fiction vs. non-fiction, creative vs. critical. She lives in Toronto with her two children. For a brief review of Swim, check out The Underground Book Club.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Expressway, Tunnel Mountain

Heading up Tunnel Mountain on the first springish day here in Banff.

The view yes...but the path itself is awesome.

Details from the road, Tunnel Mountain

I thought this was a kind of crocus. It's Pasqueflower (pulsatilla patens), and never having been in the Rockies in May, I have never encountered it along the trails. You too could be here. Check out the Banff Centre for the Arts.


Love the crazy sworling hairs, like a clematis gone to seed.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Nostalgic for snails

Reposting these photos, originally posted in the summer of 2005, simply because I was feeling nostalgic for grass, and pink nails, Vancouver and having a decent camera...