Jack Gilbert’s masterful poem “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” ends with lines that remind us of the very limits of language: “What we feel most has / no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.” Hard Damage, Aria Aber’s debut poetry collection, pushes against those same limits, asking a great deal from the reader—emotionally as well as intellectually—while also allowing for comprehension and, ultimately, meaning. Aber’s work here is often about the very notion of what language can do when faced with a shifting geography that requires us to describe both the self and the world: Berlin, Afghanistan, Wisconsin, the gods of Olympus, the guitarist John Frusciante, the German language, the mujahideen, and, during a particularly striking section, Rainer Maria Rilke. Aber is not afraid of erudition or the hard labor of crafting poems that peel open in layers; at times, reading her work reminded me of poets who have worked across similarly broad linguistic topographies: Carolyn Forché, Frank Bidart, Paul Celan, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and others. But Aber’s work here is hardly derivative of those masters. She is her own poet, her own voice, and her debut is my favorite volume of poetry this year. —Christian Kiefer Read More
Imagine that you’re a sullen, sheltered kid from Manila who thinks she knows everything there is to know about the United States of America. But as soon as you and your broken family land in San Francisco, life slaps you hard in the face. Did you emigrate or immigrate? You don’t know. Are you mestiza or brown? You don’t know. In fact, you realize you don’t know anything.
Your first year in America, John F. Kennedy is assassinated. Five years later, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. War rages in Vietnam and on television. You are reminded of the Philippines every time you see footage of Vietnam in flames. The universe is shrinking right before your very eyes. Marvin Gaye croons “What’s Going On” and breaks your heart.
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
KSOL! KSAN! KJAZ! It’s funky, glorious, scary, druggy 1972. Martial law has been declared in the Philippines, Angela Davis has finally been released from prison, and Salvador Allende has not yet been assassinated in Chile.
Who and what and where are your people? Read More
In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
Today, the words “written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger” are considered a stamp of genius. The mid-twentieth-century creative partnership between the son of a Kentish hop farmer and a Hungarian-born Jewish émigré is the stuff of legend. Powell and Pressburger met in 1938, when Alexander Korda, then the owner of London Films, hired Pressburger to rewrite the script for The Spy in Black, which was being directed by Powell. The chemistry between the two men was immediate. “I was not going to let him get away in any hurry,” Powell recalled. “I had always dreamt of this phenomenon: a screenwriter with the heart and mind of a novelist, who would be interested in the medium of film, and who would have wonderful ideas, which I would turn into even more wonderful images.” Theirs was a unique collaboration, not least because Pressburger should have been Powell’s subordinate; “in the 1930s,” the director (and Pressburger’s grandson) Kevin Macdonald explains in the biography he wrote of his grandfather, Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of a Screenwriter, “the scriptwriter had about the same status as the electrician—the foreign scriptwriter even less so.” Instead, the two worked together on equal terms. When, in 1943, they formalized their relationship—what Powell called their “marriage without sex”—creating their production company, The Archers, “their separate creative identities” were, according to Macdonald, fully “submerged.” The two men shared equally both the financial rewards and the creative responsibility for the films they made together. The movies that followed in the forties, such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (“which may be the greatest English film ever made,” surmised The New Yorker in the mid-’90s), A Matter of Life and Death, and Black Narcissus, are today beloved and admired the world over. Yet mention the The Glass Pearls, and the title is unlikely to ring a bell.
In the aftermath of the dissolution of Pressburger and Powell’s partnership in the late fifties, Pressburger turned to novels. The first, Killing a Mouse on a Sunday, published in 1961, is set during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War and tells the story of a once notorious bandit, now a tired old man living in exile in France who resolves to cross the border back into Spain, despite the danger to his life, to visit his dying mother. In an interview published in the Daily Mail at the time, Pressburger explained that after years of “communal” creativity in the world of film, he wanted to “prove I could do something on my own.” The novel met with favorable reviews, was quickly translated into a dozen languages, and adapted for the big screen in 1964 as Behold a Pale Horse, directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, and Anthony Quinn. (That the film itself died a quick death didn’t really matter.) Everything was set for Pressburger’s second novel to build on this success. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be. The Glass Pearls, published in 1966, was a much darker, grittier tale about a Nazi war criminal hiding in plain sight in the dingy streets of London’s Pimlico. It garnered one lone review, a damning write-up in the Times Literary Supplement. The book barely sold its initial print run of four thousand copies, immediately sinking without a trace. And yet, despite the reception it received at the time, The Glass Pearls is a truly remarkable work. It deserves to be recognized both for its own virtuosity, and as an important addition to the genre of Holocaust literature. Indeed, I’d go as far as to declare it a master class in rendering the banality of evil. In the same way that the brilliance of Powell and Pressburger’s very best films wasn’t recognized until the seventies, when critics like Ian Christie and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese began to champion the work, the audiences of the mid-’60s simply weren’t ready for the disturbing complexity of The Glass Pearls. The novel’s reissue in 2015 by the Faber Finds imprint—with a new preface by Macdonald and an introduction by the film scholar Caitlin McDonald—has gone some way to righting its place in the canon, yet it still sadly remains largely unknown and unread.
Set in the summer of 1965, The Glass Pearls opens on the morning of the first Saturday in June, when Karl Braun, a piano tuner, moves into new lodgings in southwest London. Described as “hatless, with a bow-tie, greying hair, slight in build,” Braun is introduced as a rather unremarkable specimen, the kind of man who fits right in to the drab world of communal living and nosey landladies; just the latest in the line of “countless tenants” who’ve “left behind coffee-stains and hair-grease as pockmarks of their private worlds by which to be remembered.” Given the literary preoccupations of the period, namely kitchen-sink realism, this is an immediately recognizable milieu. (Indeed, interestingly, when Pressburger decided to turn his hand to novel writing, it was authors Bill Hopkins and Colin Wilson to whom he turned to for advice, both associated with the Angry Young Men set.) Pressburger, however, is lulling his readers into a false sense of security. Well before the end of the first chapter, it’s revealed that the rather meek Mr. Braun is really the infamous Dr. Otto Reitmüller, a brain surgeon–turned–Nazi war criminal who’s been in hiding for twenty years, and one of “the biggest fish” sought by those in pursuit of justice, wanted for crimes against humanity in the form of the inhumane surgical experiments he carried out on concentration camp inmates.
The central complaint of the disparaging TLS review was that the “twist” in Pressburger’s tale is revealed too soon. The reviewer’s take, unfortunately, is a gross misunderstanding of how the novel works. The horror of the story isn’t in the revelation of Reitmüller’s real identity, nor in the details of the experiments the doctor carried out, though they are undoubtedly horrific: “He put a person under hypnosis, bid him tell his personal story in great detail and then he operated. As soon as the patient recovered, he heard his story once again, noted the discrepancies and operated again, cutting out another minute colony of cells. Ad infinitum. Or, rather: ad finitum. The end came soon enough.” The true horror of Pressburger’s story is in the way in which he forces his readers to sympathize with Braun; it’s in our slow acknowledgement that this “cultured man, a fine musician, an accomplished violinist,” a man who spends his evenings frequenting concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, who chivalrously wines and dines a young woman called Helen, and who still, after two decades, keenly mourns the deaths of his wife and child (killed in the war during a bombing raid on Hamburg), is also a morally bankrupt, cold-hearted killer, who never for one second expresses any regret or guilt for what he’s done.
Pressburger shrewdly invokes the reader’s sympathy for Braun from the very moment our protagonist’s true identity is revealed. He describes the news that the Bundestag has extended the statute of limitation for the prosecution of alleged Nazi criminals (originally it was only twenty years from the war’s end) as dealing Braun a blow of “cruel ferocity.” A limited ordeal, however lengthy, is one thing, Pressburger points out: “Only if the suffering imposed upon them appears to be limitless do they go to pieces.” To set Braun up as the one who’s being subjected to cruelty and suffering is an audacious move, but it works. An unexpected visit from an old partner-in-crime—a man who tries to convince Braun to join “the Brotherhood” in South America—instills a new fear in Braun that the net is closing in around him. He is a man of reason—“Anybody could make mountains out of molehills. He, a scientist, who prided himself on his logical mind, he should know better,” he thinks. “The natural function of a logical mind was to reduce mountains to molehills, not the other way round.” Yet fears increasingly “crawled like ants all over his mind,” and his actions become rash. Although narrated in the third person, Pressburger is so tightly focused on Braun’s internal, unraveling psychological state the reader can’t help but become enmeshed in his “terror.” For the majority of the novel, for example, it’s actually impossible to tell whether Braun is really being followed, or whether his suspicions are simply the result of his overactive, terrified imagination. To describe the text as cinematic sounds rather unimaginative, but Braun’s deteriorating psychological state is rendered visually on the page—“Another spark lit another warning light in his mind”—and the tension ratchets up, as in the very best thrillers. The whole novel is something of an extended chase sequence in the same vein as Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant film 49th Parallel.
It takes some knowledge of the details of Pressburger’s life to fully grasp the murky agitation of The Glass Pearls. In the same way that his films spoke, Macdonald declares, “for his personal life,” so too this novel has strong autobiographical elements. As part of his new identity as Braun, Reitmüller passes off the memories of one of his patient, gleaned during the course of his barbaric experiments, as his own. And yet those memories—of fleeing Germany aboard a night train, hands “trembling” when the Gestapo officer examined his passport; of queuing at the Prefecture in Paris to be issued a resident permit as a foreigner, and the disabled Frenchman who helped him; of the murder in the house where he thereafter rented an apartment on the rue Quentin Bauchart; and of the parties he threw there, where he served small green oysters known as portugaises, within which he and his friends placed worthless glass pearls in order to trick guests—are Pressburger’s own. Already disturbing enough within the reality of the novel, the revelation that these memories are real coats them with an additional sheen of darkness.
Born Imre József Pressburger, into a middle-class Jewish family in Miskolc, Hungary, in 1902, Pressburger studied in Prague before his life as a student came to an abrupt end when his father died suddenly in 1926. Forced to get a job to support himself and his widowed mother, he wound up in Berlin, where he began his literary career writing short stories for newspapers, after which he got a job as a scriptwriter at UFA (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft), then the most powerful film company in Europe. When, with the rise of the Nazi Party in 1933, Pressburger lost his job as part of the state-sanctioned purge of Jewish employees, he fled to Paris (as detailed in The Glass Pearls). Two years later, he relocated again, this time to London with its booming British film industry. Pressburger met Korda via mutual friends in 1936, and two years later, Korda introduced him to Powell. The rest, as they say, is history.
It isn’t just that Braun’s borrowed memories are those of the author. Pressburger gives his doctor other significant personal characteristics: he’s a gifted violinist and music lover, as Pressburger was, and he loves a down duvet, as did Pressburger (still a rarity in England in those days). Why, one wonders, would someone who narrowly escaped the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where many of his closest family members—including his mother—met their deaths, go on to write a novel in which he mapped so closely his own identity onto that of his oppressor? “Could it be that as a survivor he somehow felt implicated in the crimes,” Macdonald wonders, “felt that he had not done all that he could to stop them?” Pressburger never forgave himself for his mother’s death, for not having been able to take her with him when he fled Germany. As he grew older, he was prone to increasing bouts of melancholia; it would make sense to attribute these to survivor’s guilt and the potential associated self-loathing.
As McDonald suggests, however, we can also read The Glass Pearls as “the culmination of Pressburger’s attempt to understand the Nazi mentality.” Anyone familiar with his and Powell’s canon already knows he’d long been preoccupied with the figure of the “good German”: think of Hardt in The Spy in Black, the German U-boat captain who’s reluctant to be a spy; Vogel, the baker-turned-Nazi soldier in 49th Parallel; and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Even the “bad” Nazis Pressburger wrote were never one-dimensional. Take the six Nazis in 49th Parallel, for example, each of whom is “humanized,” Macdonald reminds us. “Clearly Pressburger is not interested in perpetuating the stereotype of Nazis as inhuman monsters,” McDonald agrees. “On the contrary, he wants to humanize his protagonists as much as possible, in order to show that the rise of the Nazi Party and the Holocaust are not historical aberrations and that evil exists in us all.” When, in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the now aging, ex-German Army officer Kretschmar-Schuldorff laments the loss of his sons to the Nazi Party, it’s exactly this potential that Pressburger is illustrating. Take Hannah Arendt’s famous pronouncement about the notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” Exactly the same could be said for Reitmüller/Braun, but the trouble with this, as Arendt continues, is that “[f]rom the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this morality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.” Today, Arendt’s theories about the banality of evil have been digested and understood by the culture, but back when Pressburger published The Glass Pearls—only three years after Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1963—many people still struggled to grasp the concept. As Arendt herself acknowledged, “the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explodes our ordinary conceptions and presents the true enigma of the trial.” Bearing this in mind, McDonald closes her introduction with an apt comparison between Pressburger’s disconcerting novel and Powell’s different but equally distressing Peeping Tom. Although this film about a voyeuristic serial killer was met with universal disgust and outrage on its original release, it has since been hailed as a masterpiece. “[I]t was simply too shocking for the audiences of the time,” McDonald surmises. It’s a claim that could equally be applied to Pressburger’s magnificent but unquestionably disturbing novel.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, The Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications.
When I lived in New York many years ago, I used to go to the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. It was his studio, and now is a series of rooms full of sculptures and drawings, short films, the akari lanterns for which he is probably most famous. There are polished stones inside the museum as well as out in the garden. It’s one of my favorite places. Even describing it now I can feel what it was like to be there, the cool darkness and occasional brightly colored shapes. I miss it intensely.
I had the idea to go repeatedly and take notes and write a long poem. It turned out to be terrible. I see now, looking at that old document, that I took a lot of it and repurposed it for a long poem I eventually wrote later that year, “Brooklyn with a New Beginning.” In that newer poem, I was writing from a lonely place. I was coming out of a deep and debilitating depression, and felt that I was freeing myself of certain negative relationships to the world and to people that had led me to the same bad places over and over. I did not know exactly how, but things were changing.
Part of the problem with the original poem was that it transcribed what I saw in a way that wanted to be symbolic or resonant, but was just reporting. One time when I went to the museum, I saw three women standing together talking about one of the sculptures outside in the garden. In the original version of the poem this is how they appear:
Four middle-aged women
ghosts draped in furs
walk among the gardens.
They are standing before the fountain
that collects in the east,
but here disperses.
They are discussing which contemptible akari
(sculpture of light)
would look best on the piano.
This is not only boring, but mean. It’s also a complete projection, because I myself had one of those lanterns in my room, and I love buying postcards and other mementos in museum gift shops. Sometimes it’s hard for me to resist doing so before I see the actual show.
In other places, the poem is just pointlessly weird. I’m trying to find the right tone, but I oscillate between forced lyricism, a willed profundity that often veers into what now seems like a parody of fake haiku “wisdom,” and a pretend kind of understatement, often in the space of a few lines. The poem is basically a catalog of poetic failure, and extremely painful to reread. And yet, I will quote sections from it now, in full mortification:
LOOKING FOR NOGUCHI
I went with my brothers to look for Noguchi.
It had rained many years
since shoulder to shoulder
in California with axes composed
of music resistance and concern.
And I had learned so much about other things.
Weeping cherry, smiling katsuro.
It’s so hard to find
a way into the mind.
Noguchi says he’s in the obsidian.
But that looks like me
in the obsidian.
cast by shadows
the floor is a sculpture
of overwrought solitude
in the chapel
Overwrought solitude indeed. The problem with this poem, as with so many poems, is not that it needs to be more “creative” or “imagistic,” but that the poem’s consciousness in relation to the poem’s content is not genuine. It’s more or less all stance, and lying. In other words, I was not ready to write this poem.
This reminds me of Wallace Stevens describing the difference between mere reality (“things as they are”) and the reality in a poem. The poem is not an act of reportage, but an enactment of a relationship between consciousness and the world. That stance, that relationship, is something that can take a long time to uncover. It has to be discovered anew in each poem. It is also, mysteriously, all bound up in form and sound: the way the poem appears on the page, moves down the page, and sounds in the mind and bones of the person reading it … these musical factors are inextricable from the poem’s personality. Auden: a poem is a kind of pseudo-person.
Halfway through the original draft of the bad long poem, I wrote: “The garden looks out over the river/ facing west/ and in another direction/ on my apartment/ looking out on Brooklyn/ Brooklyn/ Brooklyn’s a row/ of dented Sundays.” Here is the glimmer of a strange and, therefore, authentic feeling. One good moment amid all the ridiculousness. So often, when writing a poem, the beginning, maybe even a large part of it, is just a warm up. The true imaginative space of the poem is entered through the process of writing. This is what Richard Hugo talks about in The Triggering Town, how he always has to think of some abandoned town in the midwest in order to get into the mood to make the music that will show him what his poem is truly about. The problem with so many poets is that they are unwilling to allow their poems to lead them to deeper meaning. They are too attached to the initial thought.
There’s also the basic problem that sitting in the museum and thinking about the experience of sitting in my apartment in Brooklyn, and the feelings in both places, is needlessly complicated. It requires a lot of directional language (in my apartment, back here in the museum) that is annoying and boring. It also asks the reader to do a lot of pointless separating and categorizing. Part of learning to write poetry is realizing that you are building a structure that a reader will enter.
I often tell my students to ask themselves what it is that they are asking the reader to do, and whether it’s worth doing. Readers are already in an unfamiliar place in your poem, and you as the poet need to be thoughtful. Don’t make them open up a spreadsheet to keep track of where you are. Yes, I know T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land and you are welcome to write it, too, but if you are not writing it, don’t write it.
The eventual poem, “Brooklyn with a New Beginning,” is much simpler in its basic mechanism (location, mood, et cetera), and also (or perhaps, therefore) has a much more coherent, considered stance toward the surrounding world and the internal weather of the speaker. In the final version, each moment of the poem has its own authenticity, and is not mixed up with other things. The dying brother has rented me this window. The elm runs its hand over the face of a brownstone. I walk among the furniture, thinking about living in Brooklyn, where all days feel like “dented Sundays.” The consciousness of the poem is moving with relative simplicity down the page.
The akari that appeared several times in the original version, both too literal and too strained toward a false profundity, sits much more easily in the final poem:
At night my ideas
a little and were manageable glowing units,
it was unclear whether
the glow was reflection
or like in a lantern made of white paper
came from within,
or if to continue such decipherment
or is itself the enactment of
the aesthetics of bioluminescence.
By the light of one paper lantern I’ve drunk
seltzer with lemon in the dark.
I’ve asked docent of night
of the sunken beneath the water cathedral
who knows where the sparrow falls?
Aloud I said sometimes a bomb
shows a certain
Let’s pass the night
discussing for whom.
There is still an echo of original poem’s tone—basically, the way a very lonely person with too much time and too many ideas might talk—but it’s been exponentially reduced. The person talking is there enough to keep things grounded, but not overwhelming, and there’s plenty of room for the elements to have their own reality, without being in the shadow of this very unhappy speaker. There were many docents in the original version, all of them laden with unearned significance. They have all now become one docent, albeit a docent of a strange cathedral sunk beneath the water. There’s room, in other words, for the poem to be weird and intuitive and to start to escape the realms of what I, or anyone else, could really paraphrase. But only because first, it’s been grounded.
Many years later, I was asked to write a poem about an artist, to be published in a German newspaper. I decided I wanted to revisit my love of Noguchi, and his museum. As soon as I started to work, so much about that place came flooding back to me: the gardens, the other sculptures, the drawings of playgrounds he had designed and which were never built. Also, so much of the material of that original, bad poem that didn’t make it into the final draft.
I didn’t have to look at the old poem to remember what I had written and seen. In a way, the writing of that original failed poem helped me select, gather, and unconsciously treasure certain specific memories of the place. That was probably its main purpose. I don’t have a particularly good memory, so for me, it was unexpected to be able to call up exact visual details from the museum, something I would not otherwise have been able to do. That is one of the beneficial side effects of writing poetry: to cement things in my memory.
Even so, I was having a lot of trouble actually writing. So I ordered a book about the life of Noguchi, Listening to Stone. It arrived, and was dauntingly thick. I did not even open it. When the deadline for the German newspaper was nearly there, I put my hand on the book and silently prayed that some of its information would enter into me. I felt silly, but also hoped that it would help. This absurd and desperate moment became the beginning.
I only opened the book once, with the vow to myself that wherever I placed my finger, I would use that phrase somewhere in the poem. Luckily, I settled on “rare blue mountain flowers.” I showed the poem to my editor, Michael Wiegers. He had some line edits indicating moments when he got confused. And I thought, yes, I can see why.
I’m so glad Weigers told me where he was lost. I believe if there is confusion in the poem, it means there is a deeper resonance still unexplored. I never want anyone to feel lost, at least not in a boring way. I would like them to know exactly where they are, and maybe only then to feel lost, in a deeper way.
I realized that for a good reader, there was a basic imprecision with the you that is repeated toward the end. If, indeed, I were doing what my editor thought, which was switching the meaning of you from Noguchi to the speaker to back again, that would be unfair to the reader. How could they be expected to follow?
In poems, “you” is such a strange word. It can mean every single pronoun. We’ve all read the poems where a poet says you but means I. It’s a poetic convention I find annoying. That’s true for we as well, speaking to the collective through the use of you. Of course you can mean singular, though unspecified, as well as plural, y’all (or as they say in Pittsburgh, “yins”). It can even mean he, she, it, or they.
Surely this dizzying flexibility is why you is so difficult to employ. Often, when I feel a lack of precision in my student’s work, I go looking for the word “you.” I ask the writer, Who do you mean by you? If they can’t or won’t say, this is a problem (maybe a psychological block, in which case it is important to be gentle). Sometimes they do know, and when they say, it is clear to everyone that the word “you” is not appropriate as a substitute, or at least not a substitute that permits understanding for a reader.
I am sympathetic to this—it’s a problem I have myself. Often a floating unspecified you is the mark that I have not yet worked out what must be worked out. It’s a place holder, TK. Which is okay. But eventually, something needs to be explored, and maybe I’m just not yet prepared.
Reading the poem again a few more times, I see that actually, the problem began earlier: “in those stones the reflection/ of whatever about your shadow nature/ you need to discover with unstable/ certainty flickers.” It is clear to me that this “you” is a person visiting the museum, but in the poem, I don’t say that. It’s not at all clear that I am talking about both the stones that have been placed in the museum gardens, and a visitor walking among them. Oh. After thinking about who I really meant (a visitor to the museum, not Noguchi), and how I could be specific about it without breaking the mystery of the poem, I came up with a solution:
if you go there visitor you will see
in those stones the reflection
of whatever about your shadow nature
you need to discover with unstable
certainty flicker while outside
the wells in the garden ….
Such a small fix, really just adding visitor, as a direct address. And the invitational subjunctive, if, which provides a concrete possibility, an invitation, as opposed to a presumption that this is already happening. I very much prefer the idea that I am respectfully inviting someone rather than assuming. This was, come to think of it, surely part of the problem with the original, very bad poem I wrote, which was more interested in projecting some version of myself onto the mind of a reader, who would feel a combination of pity and admiration.
The use of direct address has the added benefit of drawing the reader in, potentially at least. It’s always better when you feel as if someone is talking to you directly, and acknowledging your presence, even if it is awkward. At least it’s honest.
I like adding the word “visitor” here. It takes on a slight resonance beyond the ordinary. The reader is a visitor to the poem. The problem of the poem, which my editor pointed out, gave me the chance to deepen my engagement with it. It made me ask: Who is the audience? Who is listening? Who is the poem for? All poems are questions. Or maybe they are negations (a pushing away, an opening up of a space) followed by questions. There is a Jewish mystical idea that God once filled all the space in the universe, and then, in order to know Himself, He withdrew and created a space, which is our reality. Our job is to find holiness within ourselves and reflect it back to him. Maybe that, too, was a question: Can I be seen? Can you?
Read Zapruder’s poem “The Pledge” in our Summer 2019 issue.
Matthew Zapruder is the author, most recently, of Why Poetry (Ecco, 2017) and Father’s Day (Copper Canyon, fall 2019). He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California and is editor at large at Wave Books.
I’ve been gloriously wandering through Gail Scott’s Heroine for a month. I brought it with me to Norway where I created a temporary reading space in order to make my residency be something social. About twenty of us were seated in the beautiful room silently reading for a few hours. At the midpoint of our activity, about a thousand young people began marching right below us framed by a wall of windows that faced the lake in the middle of Bergen. Their cheers distracted us and we happily looked up at one another and then some of us actually got up from our chairs and looked out, standing by the window.
The spirit of that moment (and I knew it then) is the perfect flow through to Gail, whose writing is one you want to tell things to. The only way to read Heroine is to be in it. A few days later I was in London and I made a note to tell Gail (the book) about the people praying in the cafe this evening.
So what I mainly want to assert is that Heroine is more a work of reading than of writing, it is all studio, by which I mean it’s something fabulously risky and alive. It’s literature and the possibility of it. Though I might do better stating it in the more eloquent and humble way Gail Scott does:
Refusing to explain how I’m using this place for an experiment of living in the present. Existing on the minimum the better to savour every minute. For the sake of art. Soon I’ll write a novel.
And that is her character speaking, in the book. Read More
I have lived outside Iran, my home country, for almost a decade, and I am yet to know what to call myself.
Australia and the U.S. have been my hosts, so the labels I have at my disposal belong to the English vocabulary: immigrant, exilé, refugee, expatriate. The term “immigrant” derives from the Latin root migrare, which means “to change residence or condition.” In its contemporary usage it refers to someone who has left one nation or territory in order to take residence in another. Exilé, from exul, or “banished person,” is a term for those banished from their native country or community. Refugee, a compound of re and fugere, to flee, describes a person, often violently displaced, seeking shelter outside of their country of origin. Expatriate, literally out (ex-) of the native land (patria), suggests a willing abandonment of one’s homeland.
All these terms have one thing in common: an intrinsic connection to the state. You have immigrant or refugee status only when a state grants it, as though proffering a token of its magnanimity. They also imply that change of status is synonymous with change of nation-state, and takes place only when an established geopolitical border is crossed. So every time one is called an immigrant, a refugee, an exilé, one is thrown into a nexus of power at the center of which the state looms large.
No wonder that, if you are not qualified for any of those labels, in English you are called “stateless.” Also, it is no coincidence that, unlike most English words that have French and Danish and Old English roots, these terms all come from Latin, the language of the Roman empire, probably the first powerful state that excelled at the cruel art of systematic, state-sponsored xenophobia.
In English, the most technically correct description for me is immigrant. I got a visa stamped into my passport, boarded a gigantic Boeing 707, and crossed the ocean to New York City, where I now live and work. But the word doesn’t fit right. It is not capacious enough for what I see as the scope of my experience. I feel the same way about these other terms for people whose movement from one place to another is a central feature of who they are.
For a long time I thought it was my obsessive, sometimes pointlessly defiant mind at work, rejecting the characterizations most people accept without a fuss. But it has dawned on me recently that maybe my obstinacy has a point. Maybe something is wrong with this available vocabulary. Maybe English, the ultimate language of colonial settlers, can’t conceive of a word that could capture what people like me experience. So I went back to Persian, the other language I know, to see if that old tongue of fallen empires and sublime poets had a better name for me. Read More