so much pain . . .

and it never ends.

chapter two of camilo josé cela’s the family of pascual duarte

"the truth is that life in my family had little to recommend it. But since we are not given a choice, but rather are destined—even from before birth—to go some of us one way, some the other, I did my best to accept my fate, which was the only way to avoid desperation."

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MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES are not exactly pleasant. My father’s name was Esteban Duarte Diniz. He was Portuguese, in his forties when I was a child, and tall and huge as a hill. His skin was tanned by the sun and he wore a great black mustache which turned down. They said that when he was younger this splen­did handlebar mustache had turned up. But after a stretch in prison, he lost his jaunty air, the force went out of his mustache, and hewore it fallen down forever into the tomb. I had great respect for him, but even more fear, and whenever I could, I ducked out and tried not to run into him. He was curt and guff in speech, and brooked no contradiction, a mania I also respected because it was to my advantage to do so. When he got into a rage, which he did more often than need be, he set upon my mother and me and gave us a good drubbing for the least little thing. My mother would do her best to pay him back in kind, to see if she could break his habit, but at my age there was nothing for me but resignation. A child’s flesh is such a tender thing!


I never ventured to ask either him or my mother about the time he was locked up, for it seemed to me that it was the better part of prudence to let sleeping dogs lie, especially since they woke up of their own ac­cord more often than was desirable. The truth is that I didn’t really need to ask any questions because there are always charitable souls about, even more than aver­age in such a small town, people who couldn’t wait to tell everything. He had been put away for running con­traband. Apparently this had been his work for many years, but just as the jug that goes to the fountain too often gets broken at last, and since there is no work without drawbacks, nor shortcut without strain, one fine day, doubtless when he was least expecting it-for self-confidence betrays the brave-the border guards followed him, uncovered the booty, and locked him up. All this must have happened a long time before, for I remembered none of it. Perhaps I was not yet born.


My mother was quite different from my father. She was not at all heavy, though quite tall. In fact, she was long and gaunt, and never looked as if she were well. She had a sallow complexion, sunken cheeks, and looked consumptive, or not far from it. She was also violent-tempered and surly, and grew furious at any­thing at all. Her mouth was filled with language that only God could forgive, for she used the worst blas­phemy every other moment. She was always dressed in the black of mourning, and she was no friend of water. In fact she cared for it so little that if truth be told, in all the years of her life I saw her wash herself only once, when my father called her a drunkard and she tried to prove to him that water didn’t frighten her any more than wine. In point of fact, wine did not half displease her, and whenever she got together a few coins, or found some in her husband’s vest pockets, she would send me to the tavern to fetch a jug, which she would slip under the bed to keep it out of my father’s reach. There was a bit of gray mustache at the corners of her mouth, and she wore thethin and wiry nest of her tangled hair in a small bun on top of her head. Also in the vicinity of her mouth were, some visible scars or marks, small rosy holes like buckshot wounds, which were, it seems, the leftovers of some youthful buboes. Sometimes, in the summer, a bit of life stirred in the scars. Their color deepened and they would form festering pinpricks of pus. The fall would wipe them out, and winter would bury them again.


My father and mother didn’t get along at all. They had been badly brought up, were endowed with no special virtues, and could not resign themselves to their lot. And their defects, all of them, I inherited, to my misfortune. They were little disposed to think in terms of principles or to put reins on their instincts. So that any circumstance, anything whatever, however small, brought on a storm, which would rage for days, with no end ever in sight. In general I never took either one’s side. The truth was that it was all the same to me whether one or the other got thrashed. Sometimes I was glad to see my mother get it, sometimes my father, but I was never asked for my vote either way.


My mother could neither read nor write. My father could, and he made an issue of it and never missed a chance to rub it in at every turn, and often, though it might have nothing to do with the matter in hand, he would call her an ignoramus, a word which cut my mother to the quick, sent her into a towering rage, and made her hiss like a basilisk. Sometimes of an evening my father would come home with a newspaper in his hand and, whether we liked it or not, he would sit us both down in the kitchen and would read us out the news. Next would come the commentaries, and the moment they began I would begin to tremble, for they were always the beginning of a brawl. My mother, by way of starting ‘him off, would say that there was nothin­g in the paper resembling what he had read out, and that everything he’d said had come out of his head. This view of things would send my father off his rocker. He’d yell like a madman, call her an ignorant witch, and always end up by shouting that if he really did know how to invent such things as were in the paper he would scarcely have thought of marrying he likes of her. Now the battle was joined. She’d call him a hairy ape, and denounce him for a starving Por­tuguee. He seemed to have been waiting for this very word to begin pounding her, and when the word came he’d rip off his belt and chase her around the kitchen until he was exhausted. At first I used to come in for a few chance swipes, but after a bit of experience I learned that the only way not to get wet is to get in out of the rain and so as soon as I saw things getting bad, I left them to themselves and took off. It was their funeral!


The truth is that life in my family had little to rec­ommend it. But since we are not given a choice, but rather are destined—even from before birth—to go some of us one way, some the other, I did my best to accept my fate, which was the only way to avoid desperation. When I was very young, which is the age when one’s mind is most manageable, they sent me to school for a short spell. My father said the struggle for life was very grim, and that it was necessary to prepare to face up to it with the only arms useful in the battle, the weapons of the intellect. He reeled off this advice as if he had learned it by heart. At such times his voice seemed less gruff, almost veiled, and it would take on intonations completely new to me . . . Afterwards, as if repenting of what he had just said, he would burst into a loud laugh. He always ended up by telling me, almost affec­tionately:


"Don’t pay me any heed, boy … I’m getting old!"


And he’d stay lost in thought for a bit, repeating under his breath, "I’m getting old! … I’m getting old!"


My schooling was of short duration. My father, who had violent and bullying temper in some things, as I’ve shown, was weak-minded in others. It was plain to see that he exercised his will only in trifling matters, and that, whether from fear or from some other reason, he rarely took a film stand in matters of larger impor­tance. My mother did not want me in school, and whenever she had the opportunity, and often even when she had to force the issue, would tell me that it was no use learning anything if I was never to rise out of poverty anyway. She sowed in a fertile field, for I wasn’t a bit amused by the idea of attending classes. Be­tween the two of us, and with the help of a little time, we finally convinced my father, who cast the deciding vote in favor ofmy giving up my studies. I had already learned how to read and write, and how to add and subtract, so that in reality I had enough knowledge to take care of myself. I was twelve when I quit school. But I’d better not go so fast in my story, for all things want their order, and no matter how early one gets up, dawn doesn’t come any sooner.


I was still very young when my sister Rosario was . born. My memory of that time is confused and vague, and so I don’t know how faithfully my recollection will be but I will try to relate what happened, nevertheless, for even if my narrative comes out rather uncertainly, it will still be closer to reality than anything your imagination or your guesswork could produce for itself. I remember that it was hot the afternoon Rosario was born. A day in midsummer. The fields were parched and still and the crickets seemed bent on cutting the earth’s bones with their rasping saws. Men and beasts were in out of the heat, and the sun, up there in the sky, lord and master of everything was throwing light on everything, burning everything … My mother’s childbed labor was always very difficult and painful. She was half barren and a bit withered and the pain in her was superior to her strength. Since the poor woman had never been a model of virtue or of dignity, and had not learned to suffer in silence, even as I had, she resolved all questions by screaming. She had been howling for several hours when Rosario was born. To make matters worse, she always had a slow delivery. As the proverb has it: A mustached woman who’s slow to bear … (I don’t give the second part, out of respect for the high person to whom these pages are addressed.) My mother was attended by a midwife from the village, Señora Engracia, from the Hill, who specialized in births and burials. She was something of a witch, full of mystery, and she had brought along some concoctions which she applied to my mother’s belly to ease the pain. But since my mother, with or without concoctions on her belly, went on howling her lungs out, Señora Engracia could think of nothing better than to call her an unbeliever and a bad Christian. Just then my mother’s howls rose to the proportions of a tempest, and I began to wonder if she really wasn’t bedeviled after all. But I was not left wondering long, for it soon became apparent that the gale of screams had been caused by the coming forth of my new sister.           


My father had been pacing about the kitchen in great, strides for some time. As soon as Rosario was born, he came up to my mother’s bed and, without the least re­gard for her situation, began to call her a hussy and a slut and to slash at her with the buckle-end of his belt with such violence that to this day I am surprised he did not finish her off thenand there. Then he marched out and was gone for two days. When he did come home, he was drunk as a skunk. He staggered to my mother’s bed and kissed her. She let him kiss her. Then he made for the stable to sleep it off.


against magic realism: chilean writer alberto fuguet’s cinematic obsession

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 Alberto Fuguet



In a country full of missing people, disappearing is easy. All the efforts are concentrated on the dead, so those of us who are among the living can fade quickly away. They won’t come looking; they won’t even realize you’re gone. If I’ve seen you before, I don’t remember. You see, everyone down there has bad memories. Either they don’t remember, or they simply don’t want to.

A professor once told me that I was lost. I replied that in order to lose yourself, first you’d have to know where you are.

Then I thought: What if it’s the reverse?

I was erased for fifteen years. I abandoned everything, including myself. There was a quiz I never took. My girlfriend was having a birthday party and I never showed up. I got on a bus bound for Los Vilos. I didn’t have a plan; it just happened. It was what had to happen, and there was no turning back.

At first I felt guilty. Then pursued. Would they be after me? Would they find me? What if I run into someone?

But Ididn’t run into anybody.

They say that the world is a handkerchief. It’s not. People who say that don’t know what the world is like. It’s huge and—above all—strange and foreign. You can roam far and wide and nobody will care.

Now I’m an adult. In some ways. I’ve got hair on my back, and sometimes the zipper doesn’t zip. I’ve been to a lot of places and done things I never thought I’d do. But you survive. You get used to things. Nothing is so bad. Nothing.

I’ve been to a lot of places. Have you been to Tumbes? To the port of Buenaventura?  Or San Pedro Sula? What about Memphis?

Like a puppy, I followed a Kmart checkout girl as far as El Centro, California, a town that smelled of fertilizer. The relationship started off better than it ended. Then I went to work in the casinos in Laughlin, Nevada, that lined the Colorado River. I lived in a house  cross the way in Bullhead City with a woman named Frances and a guy named Frank, but we never saw each other. We left each other notes. Both of them were bad spellers.

Once, in a diner in Tulsa, a woman told me that I reminded her of her son who’d never come home. “Why do you think he left?” she asked. I said I didn’t know, but maybe I did.

Or maybe not.

Without wanting to, I ended up teaching English to Hispanic children in Galveston. The Texas flag looks a lot like Chile’s. One of the girls died in my arms. She fell off the swing set: I’d pushed too hard and she flew out of her seat. It seemed like she flew for two minutes through the hazy Gulf sky. I didn’t want to hurt her, but nevertheless I did. So . . . what?

What can you do?

Have you been to Mérida, on the Yucatán? In the summer there it hits 108 degrees, and they close off the downtown area on Sundays so the people can dance. Sometimes I find a girl and join in.

Last year I decided to Google my own name. Maybe they were searching for me. But even I couldn’t find myself. Just a guy with the same name as me who lives in “Barquisimeto, Venezuela,” and has a dental practice. He has three children and believes in God.

Sometimes I dream about living in Barquisimeto, having three children, and believing in God. Sometimes I even dream that they have found me.

—from Alberto Fuguet’s Shorts, 2005. Translated by Ezra E. Fitz.

Born in Santiago de Chile, Alberto Fuguet spent his early childhood in California. He is one of the most prominent Latin American authors of his generation and one of the leaders of the literary movement known as McOndo, which proclaims the end of magical realism. He has been a film critic and a police reporter. He lives in Santiago.

Continuing the cinematic obsession which informed his novel The Movies of My Life (2003), in Shorts Fuguet offers eight filmic "shorts"—each of which is prefaced by a black-and-white photograph—which range from the two-page story “Lost” (about a suffering existentialist) to a 100-page novella—stories with a movie-like realism and which are shot through with the authentic feeling of cinéma vérité.



camilo josé cela’s the family of pascual duarte—chapter one


The Family of Pascual Duarte


Camilo José Cela

From the Dalkey Archive:

The Family of Pascual Duarte is the story of Pascual Duarte—a Spanish peasant born into a brutal world of poverty, hatred, and depravity—as told from his prison cell, where he awaits execution for the murders he’s committed throughout his lifetime. Despite his savage and cruel impulses, Pascual retains a childlike sense of the world and a groping desire to understand the blows of fate that led him down his bloody path.


Originally published in the same year as Camus’s The Stranger—to which it has been compared—The Family of Pascual Duarte is closer in tone to the works of Curzio Malaparte and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

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I AM NOT, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax. Then, we are all sent down various paths to the same end: death. Some men are ordered down a path lined with flowers, others are asked to advance along a road sown with thistles and prickly pears. The first gaze about serenely and in the aroma of their joyfulness they smile the smile of the innocent, while the latter writhe under the violent sun of the plain and knit their brows like varmints at bay. There is a world of difference between adorning one’s flesh with rouge and eau-de-cologne and doing it with tattoos that later will never wear off . . .


I was born a great many years ago, a good fifty-five at least, in a small village lost in the province of Badajoz. It lay, that village, some two leagues from Almendralejo, squatting athwart a road as empty and endless as a day without bread, as empty and endless — an emptiness and endlessness that you, luckily for you, cannot even imagine — as the days of a man condemned to death.


It was a hot and sunlit village, rich enough in olive trees, and (begging your pardon) hogs, its houses so bright with whitewash that the memory of them still makes me blink, a plaza all paved with cobblestone, and a fine three-spouted fountain in the middle of the plaza. No water had flowed from the three mouths of the fountain for some years before I left the village, and yet it was elegant, and a proud symbol in our eyes; its crest was topped with the figure of a naked boy, and the basin was scalloped around the edges like the shells of the pilgrims from Santiago de Compostela. The town hall stood at one side of the plaza; it was shaped like a cigar box, with a tower in the middle, and a clock in the tower; the face of the clock was as white as the Host raised during Mass, and its hands were stopped forever at nine o’clock, as if the town had no need of its services but only wanted it for decoration.


As was only natural, the village contained good houses and bad, the bad far outnumbering, as is usual, the good. There was one house, two stories high, belonging to Don Jesús, which was a pleasure to see, with its entranceway faced with tile and lined with flowerpots. Don Jesús had always been a strong believer in plants, and I suppose he kept after the housekeeper to watch over the geraniums, the heliotropes, the palms and the mint with the same loving care she might have given children. In any case, the old woman was always walking up and down with a kettle in her hand, watering the pots and pampering them with an attention they must have appreciated, to judge by the look of the shoots, so fresh and green. Don Jesús’ house faced the plaza, and yet it was different from all the other houses, not only in its several points of superiority, but also in one aspect where it seemed less than the rest: though its owner was wealthy and did not stint, its front was completely plain, its color was the natural color of the stone, and it was not whitewashed, as even the poorest houses were. Don Jesús must have had his reasons for leaving it that way. A stone shield was carved and fixed in the wall over the door; the carving was said to be of great value; the top part represented the heads of two ancient warriors wearing headpieces decorated with plumes; one warrior looked to the east and the other toward the west, as if they were keeping watch against any threat from either direction.


Behind the plaza, on the same side as the house of Don Jesús, lay the parish church, with its stone bell tower and the bell which was like a hand bell and sounded in a strange way I could never describe, but which I can hear at this moment as if it were clanging around the corner . . .


The bell tower was the same height as the clock tower, and in the summertime, when the storks came to nest, some went to one tower and some to the other, each of them remembering which of the two towers it had used the year before. One little lame stork, which managed to last through two winters, belonged to the church nest, from which it had fallen while still very young, when pursued by a hawk.


My house lay outside the village, a good two hundred paces from the last cluster of houses. It was a cramped one-story house: narrow quarters, befitting my station in life. I came to feel affection for the place, and there were even times when I was proud of it. In actual fact the kitchen was the only room that was really decent; it was the first room as you entered the house, and it was always clean and kept whitewashed. True enough, the floor was earthen, but it was so well trodden down and the small paving stones were set in such nice patterns and designs that it was in no way inferior to many other floors where the owner had laid down cement in order to be modern. The hearth was roomy and clear; a shelf ran around the chimneypiece, which was in the semicircular shape of a funnel, and on the shelf we had ornamental crockery, jugs with mottoes painted in blue, and plates with blue and orange drawings. Some of the plates were decorated with a face, others with a flower, others with a name, and others with a fish.


The walls were hung with a variety of objects. A very pretty calendar showed a young girl fanning herself in a boat and beneath her there was a line of letters which seemed like silver dust and read MODESTO RODRÍGUEZ. FINE FOODS FROM OVERSEAS. MÉRIDA, BADAJOZ, PROVINCE. Then there was a portrait of the bullfighter Espartero in his bullfighting costume, in full color. There were three or four photographs, some small and some medium-sized, of various unknown faces; I had always seen them there, and so it never occurred to me to ask who they were. An alarm clock hung on the wall, and, though it isn’t much to say for it, the thing always worked perfectly. And there was a scarlet plush pincushion, with a number of pretty little glass-headed pins stuck into it, all the heads of a different color. The furniture in the kitchen was as sparse as it was simple: three chairs, one of which was quite delicate and fine, with curved back and legs and a wicker bottom, and a pinewood table with a drawer of its own, somewhat low for the chairs to slip under, but which served its purpose. It was a nice kitchen: there was plenty of room, and in the summertime, before we had to light the autumn fires, it was cool to sit on the hearthstone at the end of the day with the doors wide open. In the wintertime we were warmed by the fire, and oftentimes, if the embers were well enough tended, they would give off a bit of heat all through the night. We used to watch our shadows on the wall when the small flames were dancing in the grate. They came and went, sometimes slowly and then again in little playful leaps. When I was very young I remember that I was frightened by the shadows; I feel a shiver even now when I think of how afraid I used to be.


The rest of the house scarcely deserves describing, it was so ordinary. We had two other rooms, if they can be called that merely because they were in the form of rooms and were used to live in. And there was a stable, though I wonder, too, why we called it that, since it was in reality empty and deserted and going to rot. One of the rooms eventually served as a bedroom for my wife and me. My father always slept in the other room, until God—or perhaps it was the Devil­—wished to carry him off, and then it stayed empty most of the time, first ‘because there was no one who would sleep there, and later, when it could have been used, because the kitchen was always preferred since it was not only lighter but also free from drafts. My sister, for example, always slept there whenever she came to visit us. The truth is that the rooms were not very clean or well built, but neither was there much cause for complaint. They could be lived in, which is the principal thing, and they offered protection from the wet winds of Christmastide, and a refuge—as much as one had a right to expect—from the asphyxiation in the dry days of the August Virgin.* The stable was in the worst state. It was dark and dank, and its walls reeked with the same stench of dead beasts as rose from the ravine in the month of May, when the carcasses down below began to turn’ to carrion while the crows swooped to feed.


It is a strange thing, but if as a child I was taken out of range of that stench I felt the anguish of death. I remember a trip I made to the capital of the province to see about my military service. I spent the whole damn day wandering about as if I had lost my bear­ings, sniffing the wind like a game dog. When I went to bed back at the inn, I caught a whiff of my corduroy pants, and that brought me back to my senses. My blood began to run again and it warmed the heart of me. I pushed the pillow away and laid my head on the folded pants and slept like a log that night.


We kept a sorry little burro in the stable, skinny and covered with sores, to help us in the work. When we had a run of luck-which to tell the truth was not very often-we also kept a pair of hogs (begging your pardon) or even as many as three. Behind the house there was a kind of corral, not very large but which served its purpose, and a well. Eventually I had to seal off the well because the water became polluted.


Beyond the corral ran a stream, sometimes half dry and never very full, always dirty and stinking like a troop of gypsies. Still, sometimes, when I wanted to kill an afternoon, I’d catch some fine eels there. My wife used to say, and despite everything, what she said was humorous enough, that the eels were so fat because they ate the same as Don Jésus—only a day later. When the mood to fish was on me the hours slipped away like shadows, without my noticing them, so that it was always dark by the time I went to pack up my gear. Far off in the distance, like a fat squat turtle, like a snake hugging the ground and afraid to move, Almendralejo lay in the dusk, its lights begining to flicker.


No one in Almendralejo knew or cared that I had been fishing, that at that moment I was watching the lights in their houses come on, that I was guessing what they said and imagining in my mind the subjects of their conversations. The inhabitants of cities live with their backs to the truth, and oftentimes they are not even aware that only a couple of leagues away, in the middle of the plain, a country man may be think­ing about them while he packs up his gear, folds his fishing rod and picks up his little wicker basket with its six or seven eels inside.


Still and all I never thought fishing much of an oc­cupation for men, and I always preferred to devote my spare time to hunting. I had a certain fame in the vil­lage for being not altogether a bad hand at it, and, modesty apart, I must say in all sincerity that the man who started the rumor was not mistaken. I had a setter bitch called Chispa, half mongrel and half wild; the two of us got along well together. I used to go with her often of a morning to the pond, a league and a half from the village, toward the Portuguese border. We never came home empty-handed. On the way back, the bitch used to run on ahead and wait for me at the crossroads, There was a round flat rock at that spot, like a low seat, and I remember it as fondly as I remember any person, or really, more fondly than many persons I have known. It was broad and hollowed out, and when I sat down there I could fit my arse (begging your pardon) nicely into the groove, and I felt so comfortable that I hated to leave. I would sit there at the crossroads for a long time, whistling to myself, my gun between my knees, looking at whatever there was to look at and smoking cigarettes. The bitch would sit in front of me, back on her haunches, and gaze at me with her head to one side, from a pair of wide-awake brown eyes. I would talk to her, and she would prick up her ears, as if she were trying to get the full meaning of every word. When I fell silent, she took ad­vantage of the lull to run around chasing grasshoppers, or maybe she would just shift her position a bit. When it was time to leave and I had to start off, for some reason I would always glance back over my shoulder at the stone, as if to bid it goodbye.


One day the stone must have seemed, somehow, so sad at my leaving that I could not fight against the urge to go back and sit down. The bitch trotted back with me and lay there gazing into my face again. I realize now that her eyes were like those of a priest listening to confession, that she had the look of a con­fessor, coldly scrutinizing, the eyes of a lynx, the look they say a lynx fixes on you . . . Suddenly a shudder ran through my whole body. It was like an electric current that was trying to discharge itself through my arms and ground itself in the earth. My cigarette had gone out. My gun, a single-barreled piece, was between my knees and I was stroking it. The bitch went on peering at me with a fixed stare,’ as if she had never seen me before, as if she were on the point of accus­ing me of something terrible at any moment, and her scrutiny roused the blood in my veins to such a pitch that I knew the moment was near when I would have to give in. It was hot, the heat was stifling, and my eyes began to close under the animal’s stare, which was sharp as flint.


I picked up my gun and fired. I reloaded, and fired again. The bitch’s blood was dark and sticky and it spread slowly along the dry earth.


*The canicular Virgin: Mary’s Assumption to Heaven, cele­brated August 15.

the last jew in east harlem: edward lewis wallant’s the pawnbroker

“the thought crossed his mind that the figure of Christ should have been that of a Negro”


From Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961):

You begin with several thousand years during which you have nothing except a great, bearded legend, nothing else. You have no land to grow food on, no land on which to hunt, not enough time in one place to have a geography or an army or a land-myth. Only you have a little brain in your head and this bearded legend to sustain you and convince you that there is something special about you, even in your poverty. But this little brain, that is the real key. With it you obtain a small piece of cloth—wool, silk, cotton—it doesn’t matter. You take this cloth and you cut it in two and sell the two pieces for a penny or two more than you paid for the one. With this money, then, you buy a slightly larger piece of cloth, which perhaps may he cut into three pieces and sold for three pennies’ profit. You must never succumb to buying an extra piece of bread at this point, a luxury like a toy for your child. Immediately you must go out and buy a still-larger cloth, or two large cloths, and repeat the process. And so you continue until there is no longer any temptation to dig in the earth and grow food, no longer any desire to gaze at limitless land which is in your name. You repeat this process over and over for approximately twenty centuries. And then, voilá—you have a mercantile heritage, you are known as a merchant, a man with secret resources, usurer, pawnbroker, witch, and what have you. But then it is instinct. Is it not simple? My whole formula for success.

Thus the protagonist Sol Nazerman explains to his Puerto Rican employee the "success story" of the Jewish people (p. 22).

Later, Sol takes upon himself the burden of the sins of the world (p 176; p. 189):

The thought crossed his mind that the figure of Christ should have been that of a Negro. . . . And He was a Jew, too, just like the Pawnbroker; there’s a laugh for you. He tried to imagine the pawnbroker in a position like that, nailed upon a cross, the heavy, graceless body broken and naked. . . .

They looked around at the stock of the store and saw it as a tremendous weight on him. And that seemed to awe them, too, for as they added their own small item it was as though they piled on weight to prove his immense power, so that some of them even went out laughing, having left him a piece of their pain.

the time of man: the forgotten masterpiece by elizabeth madox roberts

There is so much more to a woman than there is to a man. More complication. A woman is more closely identified with the earth, more real because deeper gifted with pain, danger, and a briefer life. More intense, richer in memory and feeling. A man’s machinery is all outside himself. A woman’s deeply and dangerously inside. Amen.


—from Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ preparatory notes for The Time of Man (in the introduction to the novel’s 1982 University Press of Kentucky edition)


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The novel’s opening lines:


Ellen wrote her name in the air with her finger, Ellen Chesser, leaning forward and writing on the horizontal plane. Beside her in the wagon her mother huddled under an old shawl to keep herself from the damp, complaining, We ought to be a-goen on. If I had all the money there is in the world, Ellen said, slowly, I’d go along in a big red wagon and I wouldn’t care if it taken twenty horses to pull it along. Such a wagon as would never break down. She wrote her name again in the horizontal of the air.



The novel’s protagonist, Ellen, is alert to the beauty and detail of the life around her:


great show stallion which only the trainer was let to ride. They looked at his sleek brown flesh that so throbbed with life that every morsel of it seemed a separate living thing. A stable man was leading him before the door, letting him drink at the smooth concrete watering trough where a jet of water fell, cool and leisured. Jasper stood before the great beast with pride and joy in his eyes . . . . (329)


At fourteen, Ellen is disgusted by the adult world of sex and childbirth:


This woman was carrying a child and Ellen praised her coldly, listening to her speech with the knowledge in her mind.. ..Why did she let herself be like that? Ellen would ask herself with an inner contempt, for she knew all the externals of child-getting. She had pitied her father and mother for their futile effort toward secrecy… .Night, dark, filth, sweat, great bodies, what for? She pitied them with a great pity, the pity of a child for adults. (40)


Then, as an adult, and after her fourth pregnancy, Ellen feels trapped by her body, sensing yet more unwanted children will be born:


One day she saw the children, the three born and the one unborn, as men and women, as they would be, and more beside them, all standing about the cabin door until they darkened the path with their shadows, all asking beyond what she had to give, always demanding, always wanting more of her and more of them always wanting to be.. ."Out of me come people forever, forever . . . . (333)


A recent essay on Roberts:


The ‘Time’ of Elizabeth Madox Roberts


By Katherine Dalton


In 1926 Elizabeth Madox Roberts, a 45-year-old former schoolteacher from Springfield, Kentucky, published her first novel. The Time of Man came out to great acclaim; it was reviewed widely, admired here and abroad by writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Glenway Wescott, and Sherwood Anderson, and became a bestseller. Her second novel was also a success, and as Robert Penn Warren wrote in a 1963 appreciation of her, “By 1930, with the appearance of The Great Meadow, her fourth novel, it was impossible to discuss American fiction without referring to Elizabeth Madox Roberts.”


At the time of her death eleven years later, however, she had lived “past her reputation and her popularity,” he adds, and she remains little read today. She has fallen into the slough of Regional Writer, a term generally used for someone of ability but not genius, someone most appreciated by the people whose region and history he depicts. With rare exceptions it is only in Kentucky that Roberts is still remembered and still read, but here at least we are preserving the memory of a novelist and poet who is no less extraordinary for being obscure.


The Time of Man is the story of Ellen Chesser, the daughter of itinerant white sharecroppers, whom we first meet as a girl of 14. She works hard, has little education, owns almost nothing and knows very few people. “Things to put in drawers and drawers to put things in, she would like, and people to say things to,” Roberts writes.


What Ellen possesses lies within her. She has a strong sense of herself, and a strengthening conviction that she is alive and vital in this world. It is this innate assurance of her own value, however small that value may be or narrow in scope, that sustains her through heartbreaks of one kind and another. This is a novel with a plot, but the book is chiefly the story of the soul of this one good woman. Its focus is narrow. The secondary characters are memorable but are not portrayed at any length; with some telling details we get a line drawing of them, uncolored. Ellen’s world is small, because it is the world of a poor woman whose transportation is generally her own two feet. But we are given all the expanse of Ellen’s mind and spirit, as she grows up and matures in understanding, and all in a book written in a beautiful style, studded here and there with the vivid speech of rural Kentucky from the turn of the twentieth century.


While far-reaching books can have their own genius, the best portrayals of character often come from writers saturated with the knowledge and love of a specific place and its people-—Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Missouri; Wendell Berry’s Port Royal, Kentucky; William Faulkner’s Oxford, Mississippi (now there are some regional writers for you). Rooted books, if they are any good, contain a record of a place’s speech and folkways that is valuable in and of itself. They are the fictional counterpart to heirloom seeds, because they contain a historically important record of a people whose lives and language might otherwise be lost to memory. If The Time of Man were less beautiful than it is, it would still be valuable as one of these records, being full of the rhythm of farmwork as it was once done without gasoline, and of the social mores of its characters, who look so much more than they speak. And when they do talk, Roberts has distilled and preserved some of their iambic, natively poetic speech.


Locally rooted as the book is, like all first-class pieces of fiction it transcends its character and setting with the universality of its appeal. We can understand Ellen because we recognize part of ourselves in her, whether or not we have ever been poor, ever farmed, or ever been female. To give one example: Roberts understands (or remembers) very well the ebb and flow of mood in a young person’s mind and recalls beautifully the ages-old loneliness that only the very young feel. Other stages of life have their own depressions, but no one ever again feels as ancient as he did as a teenager.


Roberts writes beautifully, too, of the quick expansions of spirit Ellen feels from time to time, moments of gratitude for a bird’s song, a neighbor’s friendship, even the conviction she could draw her own strength from the hard rocks she is resting upon. Ellen never permanently loses her capacity for joy, and this is part of her attractiveness both to her fellow characters and to the reader. This quality in her makes this often tragic story an essentially happy one.


So, if this is such a good book, why have you never heard of it? I can only guess. Except for her college years in Chicago, Roberts never lived in a big city or taught at a well-known university. She was not part of any literary circle; though the Southern Agrarians admiredher, she preceded them (I’ll Take My Stand appeared in 1930, and most of its contributors were a good bit younger than she).


Penn Warren believed Roberts fell out of fashion so soon after her success because she wasn’t political in the thirties’ fashion. In The Time of Man she writes about a sharecropper in as un-Marxian or un-Rooseveltean a manner as possible. The struggle in this book is between Ellen and Life (as Roberts described it elsewhere), not Ellen and The Man, or Ellen and The Company. Roberts is not interested here in the wider world of political or economic injustice, or even social injustice, though the book has its moments of social cruelty. That men and women will treat each other unjustly is something she takes for granted. She occupies herself instead with what Ellen makes of the life she is dealt—the kind of life she can wrest from the stones she is sometimes given for bread.


I would guess that for similar reasons Roberts was not rediscovered by the woman’s movement in the 1970s (or later). Ellen is too true to her traditional life and her flawed husband, and while she is victimized she is too assuredly loyal and self-sufficient ever to be a victim. She is instead one of the great Everymen of fiction, like Ulysses or Kim or Huckleberry Finn, and while I would not compare any writer to Homer, Roberts stands up very well to Twain. If she had written nothing else—and despite a lifetime of illness and an early death, she published 12 volumes of poetry and fiction—for this book alone she deserves to be read and remembered.




more from jerzy kosinski’s steps (parts six to 11)
















When I was in the army, many of the soldiers used to play a game in which about twenty or twenty-five men would sit around a table, each of them with a long string tied to his organ. The players were known as the "Knights of the Round Table.” One man,


At intervals King Arthur would select a string and pull it, inch by inch, over the notched markings on the table top. The soldiers scanned each other’s faces, aware that one of them was suffering. The victim would do all he could to conceal his pain and maintain his normal posture. It was said that the few men who were circumcised could not play the game as well as those who were not circumcised, whose shaft was protected by a foreskin. Bets would be made to see how many notches the string would pass over before the torture victim would cry out. Some soldiers ruined themselves for life by sitting out the game just to win the prize money.


I remember the occasion when the soldiers discovered that King Arthur had conspired with one of the men by tying the string around his leg. Naturally, this soldier was able to endure more pain than the others, and thus King Arthur and he succeeded in pocketing large sums of money. The cheated knights secretly selected the punishment they thought fitting. The guilty men were grabbed from behind, blindfolded, and taken into the forest There they were stripped and tied to trees. The knights, one after another, slowly crushed each of the victim’s parts between two rocks until the flesh became an unrecognizable pulp.





Later, in the army, there was a group of twelve of us, and at night in our tent we used to talk about women. One of the men griped that he could never really do all he wanted to do—or at least, never for long enough—while making love to his woman. Some of the others seemed to have similar problems. I wasn’t sure I understood, but it struck me that they might all be suffering from something curable, so I advised them to see a doctor. They assured me that no doctor could help—it was nature’s verdict, they believed. All that could be done, they maintained, was to hold oneself in while making love, to avoid thinking about the woman, to avoid concentrating on what one was doing, feeling or wanting to feel.


They complained that a woman seldom if ever tells a man how he compares with other men with whom she has been intimate; she fears revealing herself. This is a barrier, they argued. A man is condemned never to know himself as a lover.


I recalled the girl friend I had when I was in high school. We used to make love when my parents were out. One day the telephone rang during our love-making; since it stood on the night table, I answered it without interrupting our lovemaking and talked for a while to the friend who had called. When I hung up, the girl told me she would never make love with me again.


It upset her, she said, that I could have an erection purely through an act of willas though I had only to stretch my leg or bend a finger. She stressed the idea of spontaneity, claiming I should have a sense of wanting, of sudden desire. I told her it didn’t matter, but she insisted it did, claiming that if I made a conscious decision to have an erec­tion, it would reduce the act of making love to some­thing very mechanical and ordinary.





In the first days of the month the regiment started its preparations for the National Day parade, and several hundred of us, chosen for our uniform height and familiarity with parade-ground drill, began our daily rehearsals.


We used to muster at dawn on the packed, sun-baked earth of the parade ground, surrounded by forest. Despite the summer heat the drills lasted all day, and we marched up and down in a single column four abreast, goose-stepping along the whole length of the parade ground, all six units wheeling and turning, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks like so many shunting railroad cars.


After a month of this arduous training we had become a single entity, marching as one man. We breathed in unison and saluted with a single gesture; we swung our rifles that had become an extension of our bones and muscles. All that we could think of during those exhausting days was the pain of our swollen, burning feet, and our warm, coarse uniforms rubbing against our sweaty skins. It seemed we were forever marching toward the motionless forest, but invariably the column would turn about before reaching the shadow of the trees.


On National Day reveille came earlier than usual. The parade was to be held some distance from the camp. It was then I realized that I could miss the entire tedious day. If four of us, the three men who marched abreast of me andI, should quietly disappear and spend the rest of the day in the forest, it would be extremely unlikely that our overanxious officers would detect our absence. In the evening we could easily reenter the camp and lose ourselves among the returning soldiers.


I spoke to my fellow soldiers; they agreed to the plan and we decided to leave the camp before the first muster was called. Instead of going to breakfast in the canteen we marched over to the dumping ground, as though we were the men attached the sanitation detail. Then it was merely a matter of affecting the confidence to stand about at the loading platform and signal the trucks in and out, until a suitable moment would present itself to walk off into the forest. We were not challenged, and as soon as we had burst through the first bushes, we began to run, dragging our rifles. The jays screamed as we plunged ahead, and occasional squirrels leaped from bough to bough ahead of us. We were deep in the forest before stopping. We stripped and lay down.


As the sun climbed higher, the forest floor steamed. A single distant bugle call broke into the myriad sounds of chirping and buzzing that drifted into the clearing. We fell asleep.


When I awoke I felt heavy, my throat burned; I grew more alert and stood up. The sun touched the treetops, the light in the clearing was dim. My fellow absentees were still asleep, their uniforms hanging on the nearby bushes. A sound was approaching from the depths of the forest: it was getting louder and closer every second. Suddenly I realized that it was the band. I peered in the direction of the sound. What I saw shocked me: less than two hundred yards away our regimental band was marching through the trees toward us, the bandleader’s gilded staff flashing as it caught the light, the white leather aprons of the drummers standing out clearly against the green of the foliage.


I sprang to my uniform, for a moment thinking only of making a run for cover. Then I jumped over to my lazily stretched-out companions and shook them from their sleep as they mumbled abuse at me. When they finally grasped what was about to happen, the same panic hit them. They grabbed their uniforms, boots and rifles, and plunged into the tangle of bushes and trees.


Impulsively I threw myself forward, and was instantly gripped by an immobilizing tremor. Within seconds the seizure passed, but I still could not flee. I simply stood in the clearing, naked, my rifle and uniform at my feet, as though I had consciously decided to hold my ground and wait for the column to arrive.


The leading ranks were only yards away. They had now perceived me, for the band stopped playing and several mounted officers detached themselves from the body of the troops and galloped toward the clearing.


There was pandemonium in the column; some men had broken ranks and others were shouting and gesturing at me. The regimentalstandard swung into sight and I was possessed by the reflex to salute. I reached for my cap, drew myself to attention, and raised my hand to my brow. A derisive cry went up from the nearest soldiers, a single bugler raised his instrument and gave a hunting call, breaking the sequence of my movements. I stared down in horror at myself: there was nothing I could do—I was aroused.


Commands rang out: the column halted, and though the sergeants ordered the men to hold their ranks, they could not prevent them from laughing. Two soldiers advanced toward me, followed by a mounted officer. A second officer dismounted and bellowed that I was under arrest. Other commands were given: the column re-formed and marched off, continuing on its short cut through the glade to the camp. I dressed and was led away by the guards.


I was charged with absenting myself without leave and with deserting my place of duty. I was called upon to name my companions; but I stated I had acted entirely alone, maintaining they must have arrived in the clearing independently while I was asleep. I insisted that I was guilty only of the minor charge of not signing out of the camp, claiming that 1 had been released from the parade during a drill by one of the officers; and though he no longer chose to recall it, my absence should not be held against me. To the charge that my salute, when naked, was a studied, insult to the flag, I pointed out that there had been many occasions when soldiers who were caught naked by surprise attack had been compelled to fight in such a state.





Are you circumcised? I’ve always wondered. Not that I’m sure I would know the difference anyway.


Why didn’t you ask me before?


It’s really not that it’s important, and I was afraid to ask the question. You might have interpreted it as some sort of expectation on my part, even as disapproval. Aren’t men very sensitive about things like this?


I don’t know; men vary.


Is circumcision really necessary? Like having your appendix out, for instance?


No, it isn’t.


Today it seems so cruel and unnecessary; a part of an infant’s body is removed without his consent! Isn’t it possible that as a result of mutilating him, the man becomes less sensitive and responsive? After all, a delicate organ that nature intended to be covered and kept tender becomes exposed, and almost like one’s knees and elbows, is constantly chafed by the linen, wool, and cotton one wears . . .





I was ordered to camouflage myself in a forest several miles from any settlement. I selected a full-branched tree and prepared a comfortable perch, remaining there for several hours during the maneuvers. Scanning the surroundings with my field glasses, I noticed another camouflaged soldier from my regiment, positioned about half a mile away: Since I had been ordered not to reveal my position, I remained hidden, looking at him occasionally through my binoculars. Suddenly I was alerted by his movement and followed the arc of his rifle barrel: on the border of a distant field, just outside the boundaries of the regiment’s territory, two people were walking slowly. The soldier’s rifle kicked twice and muffled shots cut into the silence. When I looked at the couple again, they lay in the swaying grass like two surfers abruptly swept off their boards by an unpredictable wave.


I watched the sniper closely now. Though I could not see his face, it occurred to me that he might have seen and recognized me, and I felt my heart contract; but his rifle lay across his knees and he lolled peacefully against the boughs that gave with the drowsy sway of the forest. I peered at him cautiously until the bluish air drooped over the scraggly trees, and darkness rose as though born from the dew which covered the ground.


The next day the adjutant announced that two civilians had been killed by stray gunfire. The investigation did not produce any results, since we were all able to account for our allotted ammunition.


Later two truckloads of regimental soccer players took a short cut through a field reserved for artillery practice. The field was supposed to be marked as a danger area, but either the drivers did not see the warning signs or someone in the regiment had removed the signs; in any case, the soccer players never arrived. The trucks must have traveled halfway across the field when the artillery opened fire: all that was left was a pair of surprisingly clean white tennis shoes.






SUPPOSE HE WOULD BECOME my lover? To kill that thought you’d have to destroy him, wouldn’t you?


I don’t know. I’m not sure.


Once, when we were buying a coat for me, the salesman came over to help me try it on. When he put his hand on my neck to adjust the collar, you came up to him and without a word took his hand and removed it—just as though it were an object. You must have squeezed his hand terribly hard: he froze. His face was almost purple and his mouth opened as if he were going to cry out.


I took his hand off your neck because I didn’t want him to touch you.


He certainly didn’t mean to be personal.


I don’t know what he meant and you don’t either. I was thinking about what you might be feeling when he touched you.


To kill your thought you actually had to remove his hand from my neck?




Could you kill a man? I mean: for some important reason?


I don’t know.


whom we called King Arthur, held in his hand all the ends of the strings without knowing who was at the other end of each.

b.s. johnson’s house mother:”i disgust them in order that they may not be disgusted with themselves”

the disgust of b.s. johnson


B. S. Johnson’s fifth novel, House Mother Normal: A Geriatric Comedy, first published in 1971, takes place during a social evening at a nursing home. The evening’s action includes a game of “Pass the Parcel” for which the prize is a package of dog shit. The story, such as it is, is told by eight residents of the home—who run the spectrum from completely lucid to hopelessly mindless— and the nursing home’s “House Mother.”  Each resident gets precisely 21 pages to describe the evening’s events, a technique which produces a blurred picture which does not come intofocus until the psychopathic House Mother has her turn. As she notes: "I disgust them in order that they may not be disgusted with themselves." House Mother Normal is part experiment, part dirty joke, and wholly original. A sample:


What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?



From the Bloomsbury Dictionary of English Literature:


Johnson, B. S. (1933 – 1973)

Novelist, poet and dramatist.


His novels were highly experimental, taking as their main subject his own life as a novelist and the nature of the novel. He employed a whole range of postmodernist narrative devices for questioning the boundaries of fact and fiction. He claimed to write, not fiction, but `truth in the form of a novel’. Travelling People (1963) uses a different viewpoint or narrative mode for each chapter, including a film scenario, letters and typographical effects. In Alberto Angelo (1964) the `author’ breaks into the narrative to discuss his own techniques, aims and sources. The Unfortunates (1969) is a loose-leaf novel of 27 sections, 25 of which can be read in any order. Johnson committed suicide at the age of 40, soon after completing See the Old Lady Decently (1975), which is based around the death of his mother in 1971, and incorporates family documents and photographs. His other novels are: Trawl (1966); House Mother Normal (1971); Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry (1973). He also wrote plays, screenplays, television scripts and several collections of poems.

more poems for march: the rest of campbell mcgrath’s “civilization notebook”

From Campell McGrath’s Seven Notebooks:



To critique historicism in all its varieties is to unlearn

to think of history as a developmental process

in which that which is possible becomes actual by

tending to a future that is singular. Or, to put it differently,

it is to learn to think of the present—the

“now” that we inhabit as we speak—as irreducibly



The futures that “are” are plural, do not lend themselves

to being represented by a totalizing principle,

and are not even always amenable to the objectifying

procedures of history writing. For my “I am as having

been” includes pasts that exist in ways that I cannot

see or figure out—or can do so sometimes only retrospectively.

Pasts are there in taste, in practices of

embodiment, in the cultural training the senses have

received over generations. They are there in practices

I sometimes do not even know I engage in. This

is how the archaic comes into the modern, not as a

remnant of another time but as something constitutive

of the present.


—dipesh chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe








The future does not exist.


It is a wish, a dream, a ring of droplets sparkling in a spider’s

web after the clouds have passed.


It is rain, running water, the river that floods the valley, urging

the lilies to bloom and scouring gold from the beds of gravel

and driving the deer to the high mountain meadows where

the hunt is made complex by sublimity and spring snow.


The past does not exist.


It is a myth, a dream, a ring of ancient stones on the plain;

it is chert, granite, flint; it strikes a spark and the forest



But the trees remember their claim upon the land.


They grow tall and we hew them for timbers to build a

home not far from the river, with the mountains in view,

planting lilies, sketching clouds, panning for gold, praying

for rain, running from fire, fearful of flood, dreaming

of deer, wishing on stones.


It is the house of this moment.


We live in it now.



the past


You must surrender your teeth to it,

sign your candied eyes away,

deliver yourself in rings and butterflies

like dough to the baker’s oven.


Years of light gone tungsten-silver,

fidelity to a tune no longer heard,

sacks of onions, a toy pony or zebra,

stepping-stones inlaid with marbles,

with blue and yellow tiles in the garden

and the garden whispering,


Come back to the earth, little stones!


And they do. It gives them up.

They are released

from a weakening bond poured ages ago

and shaped in plastic forms.


In the kitchen, and in the shower,

tiles are missing everywhere,

apples taken by October wind.


Red skin, sweet flesh, the nave of the core

like a chalice, like a hidden chapel

and its secret parishioners—the pips, the seeds.


Beneath their mahogany armor, oh

what mischief the seeds have planned.






Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in

play and nourished on play; music and dancing were

pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression

in words and forms derived from religious contests.

The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living

were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude,

therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases,

played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching

itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and

never leaves it.

—johan huizinga, Homo Ludens





march 15


      In Flight, Seattle to Miami


Why pretend that we are blind to history, or it to us?

From 30,000 feet I can feel its metamorphic currents,

cars and trucks inching through workday traffic

along the boulevards and flyovers

of a mid-American city I do not recognize.

The river is green, carving its way among hills.

Low mountains in the distance, color of old grass cuttings.

Farms below with long aluminum-roofed outbuildings—

chicken houses or tobacco sheds—and now

a nest composed of mountains wrinkled as tobacco leaves,

green escarpment ancient and eroded, some Ozark

or Appalachian tier folding into winter-browned farmland,

rifts that read as emergent ribs of a long-buried leviathan

left to rot on the floor of an ancient sea,

wave after wave of ridgeline the roads align with

as the earth’s blueprint is accommodated and made real.

From here the continent flows outward in every direction,

a great scarred shield of rock no longer molten

but plastic, elemental, generative, telluric.


A larger river and a plume of steam from a power plant

at the bend below a dam which forms a licorice-black lake

like a jigsaw puzzle among jagged hillsides.

On the in-flight video soldiers are departing for war.


Sailors are tossing small children in the air

while a band plays classic rock aboard the USS George


a boy is wearing his father’s helmet,

a woman in desert camouflage beams at her smiling



Aggression: from the Latin aggredi, “to approach with


Ag —“out”—and gradi—“to step.”

From the Indo-European root: gredh, “to walk.”


To step out, to arise and go forth, to place one foot

in front of the other,

to walk into the world is to aggress upon it.






Civilization has to be defended against the individual,

and its regulations, institutions and commands

are directed to that task.

—sigmund freud, The Future of an Illusion





To say society is to speak of a history that is slow, mute

and complicated; a memory that obstinately repeats

known solutions, to avoid the difficulty and danger

of imagining something else.

—fernand braudel, Civilization and Capitalism





The life of civilization was for me like a dream from

which I tried to wake up in vain. Or—and this is also

true—my life was such a dream.

—czeslaw milosz, Unattainable Earth






march 18


      In Flight, Miami to Phoenix


Somewhere over the deep blasted desert.


Snowy mountains far off to the south, must be Mexico,

pinwheels of irrigators in the desolate lands,

a geometry of human desire and earthly intransigence.


Olduvai territory.

An Afghanistan of the soul.


Speaks of origins.


Speaks of deep time, warped striations, chthonic passage.

Speaks of ancient grasslands, the species evolving—

moments when it feels apprehensible.


Speaks of America.

Speaks of horses and thirst.


Speaks as one from whom a testimony

of absolute emptiness has been extracted

by the hoodless torturers of the sun.





Like toys from a box, shaken out,

bright cars and alphabet blocks

strewn across the floor of the desert.


Like cargo dumped from a plane by accident,

things left out in the sun too long,

grown up planless, and desolate, and ordinary.


Was it the same for the Egyptians,

for the anchorite

crying out in the wilderness,


O Lord, I have passed through the fire

of this life and survived?

Like a blade of grass in your wind, O Lord?


Like a blind man seeking to decipher

with his hands your words

inscribed on tablets of salt amid the downpour.


Amulet of chalk and circuitry,

a city burning

faintly green against the god-bone.





Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines

we have devised are possessed of a heart which is

slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times,

human civilization has been no more than a strange

luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of

which no one can say when it will begin to wane and

when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities

shine through the night, and the fires still spread.

—w. g. sebald, The Rings of Saturn







Even in that hour the knowledge

that our willful titanism cannot save us,

such prescient constructs no more

than ribbons time itself has braided

in our hair, courses of the river in flood

season after season rewritten

while bedrock glistens unperturbed.


Even chiseled, hawsered, sawn into blocks,

stacked, girdered, engineered, blessed,

it is no more than a division of spoils,

partitions of a hive which may yet

be thrown down from its perch

and burned in coils of scented smoke,

moonfall bitten blue and amoral

across the marmoreal sky

of a descent beyond reckoning,

baubles, buried treasure, canopic jars,

lost process by which we shall know

no home but eternity, no balm

but sweet water in the shade of date palms,

a ringing of earthenware bells,

small foundries forging ingots of tin,

oil lamps along the water where

boys on donkeys proffer cinnamon and figs

beside the granary of the Pharaoh.


Because it lives here, within us, has burned

its fingerprints into the fabric of stars

unspooled from the spinnerets of time

the spider, time the jackal, the ass,

time the healer, the embalmer, the annealer,

the annointer, the vain and destructive,

the intransigent, the incorporeal, the just,

the praiseworthy, the bereaving and bereft—


always the same, witness and vanishing,

ransacked, laid bare, scoured, thirsty,

incorruptible and transformed and always


the same.


We cannot touch it, halt it, name it.

It sails past, wind upon the Nile,

rowed by whom and bound for what shore?

another diary from roland barthes . . .

“They say . . . that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.”

The Private Barthes

Posthumous publication of the theorist’s journals draws disapproval


By Benjamin Ivry


Nearly three decades after he was hit and fatally injured by a laundry van in a Paris street, the French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes still enjoys rare prestige in his native land as well as in the English-speaking world. Generally considered the most readable of his generation of theoreticians, which also includes Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, Barthes has further benefited from being translated into English by the extremely able Richard Howard. Barthes titles that were Englished by Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as prolific translator, include Système de la mode (The Fashion System), L’Empire des signes (Empire of Signs), and Fragments d’un discours amoureux (A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments). To this rich legacy may be added two titles that appeared in France last month, amid some controversy: Journal de deuil (Bereavement Diary) and Carnets du voyage en Chine (China Travel Notebook).


Journal de deuil, out from Barthes’s longtime publisher Éditions du Seuil, consists of private notes he made after the death of his mother, Henriette, in 1977, at age 84. While neither text radically alters our understanding of Barthes, the Journal de deuil does add documentation about the writer’s deep attachment to his mother, from whose death, he told friends, he was never able to recover. Carnets du voyage en Chine, made also of impromptu jottings rather than the carefully worked out prose that readers of Barthes are accustomed to, is another unusually intimate glimpse into the writer’s daily life, even when bored and out of sorts.


Comparisons are inevitable between the Journal de deuil and La Chambre claire, Barthes’s 1980 book on photography, written as he mourned his mother and focusing on a childhood photo of the beloved Henriette. For almost two years, Barthes jotted down observations about his emotional distress, which, as he explains in the diary, he refuses to call bereavement because "that’s too psychoanalytical. I am not bereaved. I am in pain." As weeks go by, Barthes’s feelings remain as intense as ever, as these brief excerpts prove:


November 5th


Sad afternoon. Quick shopping. At the pastry shop (pointlessness) I buy an almond cake. Serving a customer, the little female employee says, "Voilà." That’s the word which I would say when I brought Mom something when I looked after her. Once, near the end, she half-unconsciously echoed, "Voilà" (I’m here, an expression which we used mutually during a whole lifetime). This employee’s remark brought tears to my eyes. I wept for a long time (after returning to the silent apartment).


November 19th


(Overturning of status) For months, I have been her mother. It’s as if I had lost my daughter (any greater suffering than that? I had never conceived it).


March 20th


They say (so Mrs. Panzera informs me) that Time lessens bereavement. No, Time makes nothing happen; it only washes down the emotivity of bereavement.


July 29


(Saw the Hitchcock film Under Capricorn) Ingrid Bergman (it was made around 1946). I don’t know why, and don’t know how to express it, but this actress, the body of this actress, moved me, has just touched something in me which reminds me of Mam. Her carnation, her lovely, utterly natural hands, an impression of freshness, a non-Narcissistic femininity.


Those intimate recollections, as well as others, were not only published last month but also read onstage during a special event at Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Odéon by that theater’s director, the actor Olivier Py. This exposure of personal grief angered Barthes’s longtime friend and former editor at Seuil, the philosopher François Wahl, who told Le Monde: "The publication of Journal de deuil would have positively revolted [Barthes] insofar as it violates his privacy." Wahl is no more enthused by the appearance of Carnets du voyage en Chine (published by Éditions Christian Bourgois), which he describes as "the epitome of an unwritten text, which in [Barthes’s] eyes was a veritable taboo. He possessed absolute respect for writing and its innate logic.". . .


—excerpted from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Friday, March 20, 2009

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