Saturday, October 22, 2016

On saying goodbye (when does death arrive?)

The morning arrives still, grey, humid.  Offshore the sea blusters with a coming storm, but here the water is a claude glass, the air full of black flies.  We swat them away as we walk out past the woodpile, up the slight incline to the barn, then along what used to be a fence line to the apple orchard.  The apples aren't any sweeter, but they are redder, and some have begun to fall on the ground.

Past the weedy patch and the mound where the rhubarb grows, past the gangling burr oak with its few clinging brown leaves and then we are there beneath a birch and some spruces: our own private pet cemetery. We stop there briefly to speak to all our gone ones: in 17 years, the litany of names has become very long.  Four dogs and now three cats and the ghost of a fourth haunt this grove, this section of stony earth. Enya, the new dog, who is almost two, sniffs the spot worriedly and then moves on, quickly, down the path to the pond. It is not a good place for living dogs to linger.

We buried our cat Dante there last week, after taking her to the vet for an overdose of sedative. In seconds, her poor stricken body, her paralyzed bent paws and stiff legs, the blind eyes and nictitating membranes that would not close relaxed. She bowed her head as if in sleep and all of the tension drained from her body. Her heart stopped and she was dead.

Sad as we were, as we watched her unfurl into death, we were also relieved, for her pain had become unbearable; despite her paralysis, she had tried again and again to run from what ailed her, only to fall, and her misery to worsen.

We'd had 17 years with her, our "big cat" as I called her, although she had always been small. Still, in the last year, as her kidneys failed, she had become tiny; two weeks ago, her legs weakened and began to stiffen. When I said goodbye to her on my way out the door to work that week, I thought it might be the last time I saw her.

She stopped drinking and eating that day, and because she kept falling, Marike took to carrying her around on a blanket or in her basket. She held Dante all night the Tuesday that I was in Halifax, and then when I came home Wednesday I did the same. We thought she died quite a bit that night, but was clearly still in pain.  Mostly blind, mostly paralyzed, organs failing, her extremities--paws and ears--cold, only her tail still lively, impatient, expressive, switching and twitching, we bundled her in a blanket and took her to the vet, where a needle full of sedative slowly stilled her heart.

But is that when death arrives, when the heart stops or the autonomic nervous system ceases? Or does it settle in by degrees,  as we who are living also let go, and the beloved body cools and stiffens?

I held Dante in my arms and petted her all the way home, speaking softly into that near space where it seemed her spirit, her particular character and being still hovered, touchable, keeping us company. We had not yet released our hold on her singular life, but what had been so lively and so alive without us now remained and shifted inward, circulating as memory and sensation and drifts of kitty fur, sewn through the cushions and corners of our lives.

In this way, she is not yet gone, but nestled into the forms of our gestures and habits. At night, in the dark, I still step carefully, as if she might be nearby, unseen, underfoot--as, in a way, she is. When I wake, I listen for her, sure I'll hear the drop of her paws on the floorboards, her soft purr as she climbs up on the bed, glad to have conscious company in the middle of the night. I put out my hand, curl my fingers around empty space.  Likewise the dog curls on the bench by the fire, nuzzling a stuffed toy, sniffing at it as she did Dante, clearly missing her animal companion.

How does Rilke put it, the character of such missing and the way it shapes our lives? In the Eighth Duino Elegy he writes:

                         Here all is distance;
there it was breath. After that first home,
the second seems ambiguous and drafty...

Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops lingers------,
so we live here, forever taking leave.

So we live here, forever taking leave of our loves--until the days that we, too, will die.

Unlike Rilke, I do not think that we live or die differently from other animals, although he might be right that we tend to busy ourselves with preoccupations, with objects, as he puts it, rather than "that pure space into which flowers endlessly open." But now and then, as death creases us, we too may turn or wake and look, not at life, but at something like being, as its wings beat by our heads. These too are gifts, as if from the dead to the living: look here; see; and hasten not your mourning.

Dante cat died on Thursday 13 October 2016.  She had come to live with us when just a kitten sometime in the fall of 1999, a gift of Nicole Moser, who had heard we needed a mouser. We had two large black dogs at the time, Negrita, a black lab, and Binky, our three-legged wolfdog stray. Dante spent her first three days in the house on top of the kitchen cupboards; on the fourth day she descended, having somehow mesmerized the dogs, and despite her tiny size, whipped them into respect and obedience without ever extending a claw. In fact, that's how she got her name, for as Marike said, she was little, and needed a big name that was easy to hear and to call. Who better than after an exiled poet, who mapped heaven and hell and all of the regions between?

She was wise, scrappy, playful and clever--gave birth to five kittens, instructed Binky how to care for them rather than to eat them, and survived a neighbour's hate and traps, as well as an attack by roaming huskies that killed her daughter and wounded Elisabeth. Until a year ago, she kept the house free of mice and other small critters; she trained all of our dogs to be good to cats, and figured out that if she came and rubbed herself on our computers as we worked, she could be sure of nearly endless petting. She could play good jokes, sticking her paw in our water glasses, or dropping pellets of food in our shoes, and then watching to see how we'd react. And sometimes, when we played ball with a dog, she'd run interference, as if she could catch, but really to interrupt the dog's concentration, and make the ball drop. We'll not soon see her like again.

The Rilke I cite here is from Stephen Mitchell's translation and bilingual edition, Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Random House, 1982): 195, 197.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Public Stories: On Doubt and Debt

These days we write public stories not private ones.

What is the difference?
I say, what is the difference?

A public story is not a private one.
A private story is not a public one.

A public story is when someone wishes to believe--but you withhold, withal, some doubts.
You do not share them.

In other words,
a public story is when debts make doubts unutterable.

A private story is when when doubts are spoken softly,
as if inside a closed book.

Eyes shut, like in a dream.
Perhaps you believe wishes, but will not share them.

In other words,
a private story is when doubts make debts unutterable.

Doubts, debts, what is the difference?

These days we write private stories in public
and bury the public in private, tamping down its grave.


In searching my old journals for some ships' log notes, I came across a short dialogue written in southern Mexico in February of 2006 that began "these days we write public stories not private ones." I'm not sure to what I was referring (how quickly memory fails us!), but I can tell from other nearby entries that all the ship's company were very ill then with salmonella poisoning, and we had not in fact communicated the extent of that to our friends and relatives, so perhaps that's what I was writing about. In any case, I felt a sudden urge, once I had stumbled across these words, to seize and remotivate them, to do something with them.  It seemed as if my 2006 lament was a prefiguration of the crazy mixed-up media and political landscape of the present, in which, at once, both privacy and the commons have become radically eroded, facts a matter of opinion,  public debt irrelevant (and private debt increasingly crippling).

Public, private, what is the difference? So many of us no longer clearly know, and yet this boundary feels crucial, even sustaining, particularly in private, if not in public. Although perhaps it should be.

I reflect that a personal blog, like this one, sits sometimes oddly on the boundary between public and private; it represents a space of limited publication, but within a potentially unlimited public,  like so much of whatever we who post do post on the internet. How limited? How unlimited? How can we know? No wonder we're confused, and cannot keep our accounts straight, our debts and doubts either separated or aligned.

Why have I stopped writing so frequently here? In part because I am publishing in other venues more and they do not like to be scooped by my own blog; in part because I have been working in other media and on other projects; in part because I keep several teaching blogs when I am teaching and just cannot bear to spend too much more time on the computer. Everything seems to flow through these narrow portals, and some days I spend far too many hours sitting at a desk and staring at a screen. In fact I must ask what are you doing here now, peering into that the odd doorway/ mirror of your computer screen? Hurry, get up, push back your chair, step outside and go for a walk! Get your your private in the public, where no one can see you!

Images from a walk at Taylor Head Provincial Park, Nova Scotia, October 15, 2016.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Where we tread

Fog. We are immersed in an unending fog that drifts in and out with the tides. Sometimes the air is warm and still and the water like glass, beaming back reflections of trees and stone with greater clarity and definition than the atmosphere. But then the wind blows, rifling and darkening the surface of the water.  

Dried grasses and lichens loom up out of the mist as if aglow; fiddleheads unfurl, swallows swoop in graceful arcs over the yard, Sometimes, when we're out walking, they bomb by so near and so quick, I feel the air around my face stir. 

The loon calls from an invisible space, and all around songbirds trill. A yellow finch gleams from the upper branches of an apple tree, then flutters away into the mist. Now you see it; now you don't, but the dip of its looping flight resounds in the air.

Water beads tender greens unfurling on every tree, drips from the pines, puddles in the centers of lupin leaves, illuminates spidery filaments webbing the grass. Everywhere the long view is obscured, but whatever is close, tiny, near to the ground, is magnified.

Here the sweet scent of spruce bud, flowering maple, smashed violets smeared where we tread.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Rereading or Practicing Surrealism? Method: short poems from novels. First trial: Andre Breton

If you block out most of the words on the famous first page of Breton's Nadja, you get a question transposed into a statement:

"I am who(m) I haunt."

All of Nadja could be summed up in this phrase, Breton's ode to himself, or to the power to drive an ill woman mad. --At least, that's one possible reading of the story.

One is not inclined to imagine that such a reading is incorrect when face to face with the last image in the book, or rather, its revision:

In the caption to this self-portrait, Breton writes as one who envies himself--and in this way becomes, at once, himself and himself-as-someone else, Nadja, a man of record, a public figure, a writer.

No wonder it also always feels like a trick. "I must admit this last word is misleading." And so, too, those that precede it.

The Fine Print 

I should explain what has occasioned this short excursus on Breton, yet another one, for I've written about him--and Nadja--here before, although arguably stopped just short of the insight that the exercise of literally blocking out bits of his text finally offered me--that when Breton writes, he writes for and of himself; he haunts himself; every other is just a foil. You can judge for yourself: see

This time, which is to say, yesterday, I was thinking about a course that I will teach again in the fall, something I've called Strategic Fictions.  The course is designed to expose visual artists who want to make use of fiction in their work to the techniques of fiction as writers think about them, as well as to a number of contemporary artists and artworks (sometimes called "Superfictions") that make use of various aspects of fiction: for example, Sophie Calle, Joan Fontcuberta, Iris Haeussler, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, and so on. 

I have previously, with many misgivings, made use of Nadja as precursor text in this course, as a way of visibly linking the strategies of the artists we consider back to various modernist exercises, including (auto)biography-as-illustrated-novel (Calle, Haeussler, Fontcuberta, Cardiff and Miller and Duke and Battersby all enact variations on this theme). In fact, my previous piece on Breton and Nadja, "'Something Wrong': Women Who Crash," began as an effort to engage the image-using and citational strategies of Nadja to new ends, and was first drafted as a lecture for the Strategic Fictions class.  

Yesterday, however, I was wondering if I could engage my students in a more direct project of handling Breton's text.  I'd been looking at and thinking about poet Mary Ruefle's "erasure" books--works where she takes an earlier text and blocks out sections of it to make a new text.  See for example, a page from the poem/book, A Little White Shadow, itself constructed from a novella published by Emily Malbone Morgan in 1889 also entitled A Little White Shadow:

Such works-by-erasure are common in poetry, especially contemporary poetry, and repeatedly and knowingly give the lie to various claims to "originality." Poets are constantly writing in the style of, or "after" various others by borrowing from and reworking earlier poetry, often tongue-in-cheek, or building poems from excision, concision and mistranslation.  A cento is, for example, a poem entirely composed from fragments found elsewhere, heretical verse, taking one sort of text and making it say something else. This form, named and exercised by Roman poets of the second or third century, is all about the generative power of mistakes or, more particularly, the capacity of heretics to re-author the Gospels simply by citing select bits of them.  The Latin word harks back to the Greek verb kentron, "to plant slips of trees," as well as, or so the dictionary and various commentators claim, to a later Greek formation, kentrone, or "patchwork garment."  We are all born from someone and somewhere else; little or nothing is new. 

Likewise, Canadian poet Gregory Betts has made much of what he calls "plunderverse"; as with Ruefle's work, he takes a source text and, preserving the order of the words and letters, strikes out until the old text speaks differently, anew.  "We are born into language but a language not our own," Betts writes.  "We can only speak a language not our own." (See Betts' Plunderverse Manifesto here: and a review of his aptly named The Others Raisd in Me, a work of plunderverse here:   

Similarly, artist Tom Phillips makes use of such dadaist-become-surrealist technique in his 1987 A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, one page of which is reproduced here:

Such contemporary poetic or painterly projects are, for the most part, descendants of techniques like those spelled out in Tristan Tzara's 1920 "Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love," where he instructs readers to cut words from the newspaper, put them in a bag, shake, and pull them out, one by one, writing them down in the order in which they appear. The resulting "poem will resemble you," Tzara promises.  Still another example may be found in the recyclings of Max Ernst's "collage-novels" of the 1930s, for example La femme 100 tetes or Une semaine de bonte, where Ernst combines drawings on Victorian illustrations into long wordless and surreal tales--as in this weird and textured plate from Une semaine de bonte/ A week of kindness:

 With such examples on my mind then, and wondering about possible exercises I might assign to students grappling with Nadja for the first time (or, as also happens, falling in or out of love with it--what is it about the power of the surrealists to command us with their mad loves and hates?), I opened my copy of Nadja, trans., Richard Howard  ***with this phrase, "trans. Richard Howard," I have been echoing or writing "after" Frank O'Hara's wonderful and breathless poem "The Day Lady Died"*** and began mentally blocking out text, rewriting the first page, and thereby writing a short poem from a novel--if this little exercise can be called a poem. Or perhaps all of these words and every one of these citations is the poem, which can only invite further plunder.

But wait; there is more.

One final note. As I am finishing this text, I open my copy of Breton's L'Amour fou, a(nother) book in his trilogy of novels dedicated to the unfolding of unexpected encounters and coincidences. A ticket falls out on which is printed the following command: "Please read carefully." I do. Or rather, I read that line several times, since I don't have my reading glasses with me, and what follows it is printed in type so painfully small that it devolves into wavering black squiggles, a drawing perhaps, another block of excised text. Definitely not words.  

Everything repeats itself; nothing is new; what is the difference between altering and misreading, and simply not reading? This is not a minor question in an era when Donald Trump is touted as a viable US presidential candidate.

Oddly enough, I have been reading this morning the text of lecture by Mary Ruefle entitled "Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World." There she recounts one day when she was in her forties, "an ordinary day, neither sunny nor overcast," when she could no longer read; the words would simply no longer compose themselves in any sort of sensible order. Ruefle writes:

[T]he words that existed so I might read them sailed away, and I was stranded on a quay while everything I loved was leaving. And then it was I who was leaving: a terror seized me and took me so high up in its talons that I was looking helplessly down on a tiny, unrecognizable city, a city I had loved and lived in but would never see again."

She explains that really, she needed reading glasses, but "before I knew that, I was far far away." The train had left the station. Everything was fraudulent; the landscape had shifted; her sense of reading as some sort of orderly practice in the world had come completely undone. 

But in fact, although we usually don't recognize it, this is where we are when we are reading--on edge, overtaken, helplessly hopelessly behind. We've missed the train; we're on the wrong train, or simply find that where we thought we were is elsewhere. Or nowhere. There is no there there (says Gertrude Stein in the 1930s as she is touring the United States).

Please read carefully. 
We do. And we cannot.

And so we begin again.

We sit and we read and then we set out...reaching town as evening [begins] to fall.*

*These are last words of the English translation of W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, a book about reading, lost memory, extirpation, transportation and death

Reading. Writing.
We think these activities will save us, but really they carry us ever closer to death--even as they put off--still another hour!-- the arrival of that day. 

Maybe this piece should have been called "Someone reading a book is a sign of disorder in the world."

Monday, January 18, 2016

Spadework: On Poetry, Empire and the Commons

I have been reading, back to back, Richard Flanagan's marvelous novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Stephen Collis's book of incantatory poems, The Commons.  In his now quite famous essay, "Of Blackberries and the Poetic Commons," Collis argues that
Poetry and blackberries are homologous in their relation to capital--marginal, fringe, ignored by investment, sprouting in the gaps profitability and privatization leave everywhere...Because capital does not accumulate around poetry, it is allowed to exist--as it always has--as a putative commons (135).
 This is an appealing argument, and in many ways it feels true.  Poetry is the language of the interstitial; it works the gaps between sense and nonsense, ordinary language and arcana, generating out of what looks like nothing pure surplus. 

And yet, perhaps this view of poetry is too alluring. Is it always so revolutionary?  Elsewhere in his essay, Collis speaks of the blackberry bush as "virtually the negative image of European colonization" (134).  Blackberries thus occupy "the junk spaces capital has used up or forgotten or left as underdeveloped pockets" (134), Collis writes; they are fruitful, and give their bounty from these "wastelands" for nothing.  Nevertheless the blackberry of which he writes, Rubus armeniacus,  more commonly known as the Himalayan Blackberry, is, as Collis acknowledges, also itself an interloper, a settler, an introduced fruit given to taking over "disturbed sites." First cultivated in North America in 1885 by Luther Burbank--a real seed entrepreneur, among other things developer of the Shasta daisy and the Burbank Russet, the most widely cultivated and consumed potato in the world--the Himalayan Blackberry has thoroughly colonized West Coast byways. What has this once Persian fruit replaced? Harvested trees? Salmonberries? Thimbleberries? Currants? Who can now remember?

We don't care about such details when it is hot and we are thirsty and the berries hang, delicious and ripe, along the roads and trails where we walk. But we do care whether such public spaces will be gobbled up by the real estate boom on the West Coast--indeed, we sometimes find the paths to coastal rights of way by following where those blackberry bushes lead. But how many more years will we be able to sit on such scraps of beach, framed on  either side, as they always are, by multi-million dollar properties? Sooner or later, if the boom continues, these blackberries will be uprooted; this beach and then that one, along with the right of way, closed off and overshadowed. 

I seem to agree with Collis then, that blackberries are space-holders; as figures for the commons, they also stand in, at once, for past and future losses.  They are the surpluses, the marginal life forms that capital will ultimately overrun.  Collis writes,
The blackberry commons (as a social space and relation) is not so much a holdover from the past as it is a by-product of capital's speculative aims in the present and future. What shreds of commons we now have are more often than not gaps and lesions in capital's ever expanding body....breaches that will later be filled with investment, once devaluation has proceeded far enough to be profitable (135).
But--and this is the crucial question--does poetry work as blackberries do, opposing capital, but nevertheless also functioning as its forward and rear guards? Flanagan's tale suggests a weirder and less comfortable scenario.  In it, twentieth-century Anglo-American and Japanese empires are shown to be mirror figures; each reserves and exalts its poetic tradition (Catullus, Tennyson, Kipling; Basho, Issa, Shisui); each commits its wartime atrocities; each has its idea of glory, of perfection, of worthiness. Here, poetry is at once diversion and finest expression of national belonging; history; anthem; the body of the emperor, of right; and prelude to slaughter. Here, poetry is hope, death, and an idea of order so demanding that it does not admit of incompletion. How can this be?

Here our arguments converge.

Because it is worth nothing, poetry may also be exalted; it can be affiliated with absolute rule and absolute butchery, with nobility, hopefulness, handwashing and death--precisely because it is not aligned with capital.  In Flanagan's account then, poetry is exactly what is limned by empire, and not simply the wild force at its ragged edge that speaks other truths. And this too is true.

Flanagan takes as his epigraph a line from Celan's Wolfsbohne (Wolf's-bean) that gives the lie to Adorno's claim that after Auschwitz there can be no more poetry: "Mother, they write poems." We might say then that radical critique is a matter of blackberries--like us, as carelessly wandering blackberry pickers, it feasts on the succulence of the by-ways; meanwhile, poetry does its awful double-duty, playing at profligacy, at waste riches, at little nothings--and the very names of power or empire itself.

On either side then, for its memory can be very long, poetry reminds capital that it too will amount to nothing. Someday. 

his head cut off and all the vowels
and consonants taken out one by one
Stephen Collis, from "Clear as Clare," The Commons (33).

Uneasy ground / Afterthoughts

Having written these reflections on poetry, empire and the commons, I went to sleep. I dreamed that I had gone down into the basement to investigate a strange sound, and found an unfamiliar child there, an 8 or 9 year old boy.  Upon seeing me, he fled upstairs. I wondered what he was doing, and worried vaguely about my father, who in the dream was on an upper floor.  But when I turned around, the child was coming back downstairs, wielding a shovel.  I could see that he was going to swing it at my head. Panicked, I reached beside me for the fire rake, picked it up, put it down, lost it, searched again, all the while thinking no, I cannot do this: I cannot hit a child in the head.  I am going to have to take this beating, even if it kills me.  And then I remembered that I had a voice--would my father, who is quite deaf, hear me? --And if he did, what good would it do? He's also quite frail now, and crippled by arthritis. Still, with great effort, as the boy swung his shovel at my head, I cried out, waking both myself and the dog, who slept beside me.

Spadework. Poetry: if ever I thought it might help me or prove me innocent, I was wrong. Clarity (and not too much of that!),  not moral superiority, are all that one can hope for in its fields and laneways. A citizen of privilege in this most destructive and self-righteous of empires, I too do murderous harm, and will also die. Poetry may look as if it will ennoble me, but it cannot absolve me. And my father will neither hear me nor save me as we sit on both sides of this ditch, slaughterers and slaughtered:  
Mother, they write poems.
Mother, how much
most alien of ploughland bears your fruit.
Bears it and nourishes
those who kill!


Images of wild grasses, thistles, raspberry canes, broken bulrushes and lichens ("weeds") were taken in December 2015 on our (thoroughly surveyed, partially fenced and containing a right of way to a launch slip) property in West Quoddy, Nova Scotia. If we are being truthful about such borders, we must also acknowledge that this property is located in Mi'kma'ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi'kmaq People. Although this territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725, the treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources. Instead, these treaties recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations, rules repeatedly and continually disrespected, breached and broached from then until now by settlers, as our putative legal title to this bit of land suggests.

All citations from Stephen Collis are from The Commons (Second Edition). Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014.

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North shares its title with Basho's prose and verse travel journal from 1689, Oko no Hosomichi.  One of the best books I've read in a very long time, Flanagan's novel won the Man Booker Prize in 2014. In North America, it is published by Alfred K. Knopf.

I've cited Michael Hamburger's translation of Celan's 1959 draft of Wolfsbohne from Poems of Paul Celan (Revised and Expanded), New York: Persea Books, 2002, p. 345.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Snow: On the Peculiar Politics of Whiteness in Carol

Three days ago we went to see the British-American romantic film Carol, winner of the 2015 Queer Palm at Cannes.  It's rare that we hurry out to see a new mainstream theatrical release, and rarer still that we rush out to see a romance, although some films (the Bond franchise comes to mind) are truly only worth seeing on the big screen.  We went, however, because we'd been persuaded to take a neighbour who had  lived and loved, one foot and both elbows in the closet, in Southern Ontario in the bad old days of the sixties, a full decade or so after the action depicted in Carol.

Directed by Todd Haynes in a Cincinnati, Ohio made over to look like New York and its suburbs in the early 1950s, Carol is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith's happily ever after 1952 lesbian romance, The Price of Salt.  Published under the pseudonym "Claire Morgan," and one of scores of lesbian pulp fictions available at the time from Bantam Books, The Price of Salt was and remains notable for its happy ending; this is because love stories involving gender non-conforming people tend, still, toward tragic plots involving suicide, insanity and murder. Indeed, so accustomed have I become to such plot devices that I was unprepared for denouement of the film: the moment where the lovers catch each others' eyes across a crowded bar, and you know that their relationship will continue. That's it? I think I asked aloud. I was sure that one of the protagonists would have to die, be committed, or go to jail.

The story seems a sweet one, if you go for that kind of thing.  Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a mink coat wearing wealthy suburbanite, unhappy in her marriage and her big house, but deeply attached to her daughter and her best friend and former lover, Abby. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer. The two meet in the Christmas rush at the department store where Therese works; their relationship unfolds slowly as mutual fascination over martinis and cigarettes in enclosed spaces--the interiors of cars, restaurants and houses, their faces often in shadow, the camera peering at them through soft focus, rain-spatter and around and across thresholds--not quite voyeuristic, but dreamlike, a bit out of the world, despite overheard occasional chatter and radio broadcasts that refer to Senator McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In the midst of a nasty divorce in which it looks as if she will lose her daughter, Aird (in whose name you would be right to hear "erred") invites Belivet ("good living") to go for a car trip "west"--the two become lovers in a small motel west of Chicago, and then part when they discover that Aird's husband has had them tailed and taped by a private eye. Such evidence allows him, on the basis of an "amorality" charge to sue for exclusive custody of his daughter--historically a not uncommon event in the lives of North American lesbian mothers.

Nursing her broken heart, Belivet returns to New York, where she finds work as a clerk in the photo department at the New York Times--for to be paid to be a photographer, well, that's a man's job. After work, she develops her photographic practice, and wanders, unattached, in a sort of straight village bohemian scene.  After a time--Aird has settled some aspects of her divorce and moved to a swank Manhattan apartment--the two meet again for drinks. Aird confesses her love, but gives Belivet time to think about whether she wants to pick up their love affair again. Late that night, Belivet has her answer, and the lovers catch sight of one another across a crowded smoky bar. Fade to black from bright eyes. Riff of American songbook inspired jazz, Jo Stafford's 1953 hit, "No Other Love."

Innocuous at worst, right? Possibly even uplifting; a recovery, albeit partial, of some aspects of North American queer history. And yet, the film bothered me. A lot.

What do you think?  my partner Marike asked me.  Why was this film made now? We both knew it couldn't be because lesbian love is somehow now worthy of celebration--that remains an iffy proposition at best in mainstream cultural productions. The price of salt remains very high in the lives of most gender non-conforming people. We've not yet moved to a place where families don't frequently toss their queer children or commit them, and closets are simply places where you store your shoes and your extra tights or ties. Some other politics is at work in the revival of this particular version of the queer New York 1950s.  

Why so much vaseline and soft focus, the camera that caresses Blanchett's pale face, her tossing blond locks? For sure, this is a film about blond allure--as the enthusiastic road home commentary from our friend, who describes herself as "partial to blonds," amply testified. Even more than that, however, I'd say that this is a film about and in praise of whiteness.

Not only can you count the fleeting appearances of silent people of colour in the film on one hand--the walk on by a black couple in a Village street scene, the black maid at Airds' in-laws--the film works hard to abolish class and ethnic barriers among its principles, to subsume them in affluence, "local colour" and nostalgia, in order to create a seamlessly white world in which no barrier is truly insurmountable, provided we ignore any inconvenient historical chatter at the edges of the screen.

When, at their first meeting, Belivet begins to explain to Aird that her last name is Czech, but misspelled and corrupted by the immigration process, Aird cuts her off; she doesn't want to know even that much. Therese Belivet, she says; that's a lovely name. Likewise, the film gathers Belivet's friends, all of whom are male, and some number of whom might be Jewish or of Italian working class extraction, into its snowy fold.

Everything is possible in this hopeful world of affluence-polished upward mobility--provided you're not too leftist, too outspoken, too racialized, too poor. The soft focus and Carol's flipping blond curls, the close-ups, the peering at pale faces through darkened, rain streaked glass, the winter landscape as the couple flees west, the expanse of Therese's white skin as the two women at last begin to make love: these key tropes serve to establish a love affair between these two women as a love affair with whiteness.

As such, the film bleaches away history, political critique, class distinction, financial limits, even loss--it all comes (or promises to come) right between the protagonists in the end.  No matter lost custody or family recrimination; no matter the recently ended Nuremberg Trials, the Rosenberg Trial, or the McCarthy hearings; no matter job loss or gender limits, unequal distribution of wealth or sexual discrimination: Therese can come to live in Carol's luxurious apartment, and the two will continue to be served by nearly invisible servers, to drive at night along dimly lit streets, listening to nostalgic and mostly white--Billy Holiday is the only notable exception--crooners, in a world where checks on freedom of speech, assembly and political affiliation and long-running battles around integration at lunch counters, in the military, in schools (Brown-vs-the Board of Education will begin to mandate school desegregation in 1954), on voter's roles, and in sport are so far away as to be non-existent.

Thus, while the film seems to be about queerness, or even a principled and proactive stand--Carol's quite striking insistence, as she and her lawyers meet with her husband and his lawyers, that how she loves is not immoral, but any law that would sever her from her daughter is--such moments don't hold up against the cigarette saturated nostalgia and watery focus of the rest of the tale. In Carol, in short, the lesbian story is a whitewash,  a screen blocking out other contemporary and pressing concerns.

Why this film now?  I think it is clear: we are living in a time when a certain part of (increasingly mainstreamed) American politics is all about whiteness: there are the birthers and truthers, who persist, against all evidence and reason, with the argument that Barack Hussein Obama is an illegitimate and ruinous president simply because he is black and has three non-European names; there's Trump's insane and all-too-popular demagogic vision, where what will make America great again involves ridding the country of immigrants, non-Christians, and people of colour; at this writing there is the band of armed white men who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregan, in protest against first nations and federal land management strategies that limit their (apparently divinely granted) use of park lands as cattle-grazing territory. And while it might be easy to dismiss all of these phenomena as the last stand ravings of an outrageous maniac white fringe, that's too easy.  Like them, Carol is all about the celebration of white privilege; we shouldn't let the lesbian theme or the lovely blond curls of Blanchett (more whiteness) blind us to such snow.

Carol enlists a new fringe (white middle class or affluent queers) to a new mainstream, to a history in which black and indigenous lives not only don't matter, they're virtually invisible. This is a dangerous message and an abuse of history, as well as a turn away from spaces of the present where we, as citizens and North Americans, are called to act.  Where #blacklivesmatter; where we look for and count murdered and missing Indigenous women; where unemployment and poverty are rampant; where access to clean water is not a given for all of our citizens, nor is healthcare or shelter; where more than one in five children are raised in poverty; where prisons are big business, and nonwhites are disproportionately arrested, detained and incarcerated; where corporate kleptcrats flout the law and do not pay their fair share; where the 1% continues to make more, while many of the rest do with less; where soft focus neoliberalism persuades us to cede more and more common spaces, not to mention our critical acuity.

The Price of Salt might have sold a million copies as "the novel of a love society forbids," but I'm not buying the that story today, as Carol tells it, where a love between women forbids not only most of society, but clear vision and nuanced contemporary conversation.

Why should Carol be the big queer tale of the year (and The Imitation Game last year's offering)? If we're going to hang about in the precincts of the queer mid-twentieth century, where is the film version of Audre Lorde's Zami? Or a life of Lorraine Hansberry--To Be Young, Gifted and Black? Where's the Marsha P. Johnson blockbuster, the smash biopic about Babe Bean/Jack Garland? What about a big film about Samuel Delaney? Or James Baldwin?  I tell you, it had better be The Fire Next Time!

Thursday, December 31, 2015

One horizon always hides another

I am speaking to my parents on Christmas day. It is unseasonably warm across much of the continent; storms brew over southern coasts.  My father wants my mother to tell me a story.  My mother has had a bad cold; such heat makes everyone sick my father says. And so my mother begins.  At the farmer's market she met an elderly African American woman.  They chewed over the weather, as everyone does, and how many were ill.  The woman told her how her grandmother used to say that a green winter brings many more stones to the graveyard. We hold this line as if it were a stone; we run it in and out of our mouths; we keep it, not as solace, but sooth, a telling insight.

One horizon always hides another--this too is not my line, but Kim Thuy's, from Ru. I like it because it reminds me of another, the title and key insight of a Kenneth Koch poem: One Train May Hide Another, a title inspired by a sign at a railroad crossing. Wise words from a fellow Ohioan at the cusp of the new year, when rain obscures our sense of winter, and passing events hide the days to come, the approaching trains we cannot yet see.  In his poem Koch advises watching, stillness, patience--good to remember on those days in between, when it sometimes feels as if nothing is happening:

It can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

The full poem below. 

One Train May Hide Another

Kenneth Koch, 1925 - 2002

(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person’s reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you’re not necessarily safe;
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia
     Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another--one colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath
     may hide another bath
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain.
One idea may hide another: Life is simple
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple--this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are in
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother’s bag and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter’s bag one finds oneself confronted by
     the mother’s
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide another and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love
     or the same love
As when “I love you” suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when “I’m full of doubts”
Hides “I’m certain about something and it is that”
And one dream may hide another as is well known, always, too. In the
     Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too: one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading 
    A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristram Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you’re asleep there, and
One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the
     foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It 
     can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.