Friday, June 24, 2011
by Douglas Messerli
Wendy Walker Blue Fire (Brooklyn: Proteotypes [Proteus Gowanus], 2009)
Sometimes the revenant is discovered because his grave is visible, usually by either a blue fire of blue glow.... The blue glow, in European tradition, is frequently interpreted as the soul, and it is seen as an indicator of buried treasure through much of Europe, apparently because its shows where a body is buried, and bodies were frequently buried with valuable grave goods.
—Paul Barber, Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality as quoted in Blue Fire
Wendy Walker describes her new book, Blue Fire, as "a poetic nonfiction." This book concerns the great 19th century child murder of Savill Kent, which was thought by many at the time to have been committed by his nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, and Savill's father, Samuel, on account of the boy's having awakened during the night and witnessed them in a sexual embrace. The Road Murder, as it was named, was one of the most sensational events in England of the late 19th century, resulting in an explosion of media coverage and inspiring at least two fictions of the day, Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone and, created out of events revealed at the inquest, Charles Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood; there were also two prose recountings, John Rhode's 1928 book The Case of Constance Kent and Joseph Stapleton's 1861 book The Great Crime of 1860, the latter book attempting to remove any blame from Stapleton's friend, Samuel Kent. Indeed, Walker found the "rhetoric, marked by the easy confidence of an educated man," so repellent that she had difficulty in reading it.
The inquest, which also focused on the possible guilt of Savill's sister, Constance Kent, ended, because of lack of evidence in an investigation that was badly bungled, in the conclusion that Savill had been "murdered by persons unknown."
After the trial, Constance was sent away to France to the Convent de la Sagesse. In 1863 she returned to England to enter St. Mary's Convent in Brighton as a nurse trainee. There she met and came under the influence of Rev. Arthur D. Wagner, a member of the Oxford Movement, who wanted to return the practices of Anglicanism closer to the Roman Church, and was a particular enthusiast of confession.
What occurred between the young woman and her confessor is unknown, but two years later Constance traveled to London in his company to confess to the Road Murder. Her detailed description of how she had committed this crime was, as Walker describes it, "A tissue of fiction, contradicting forensic evidence and important testimony." Yet Constance was tried by a judge who sentenced her to death. For the next twenty years Constance Kent was remanded to penal service in five national prisons: Millbank Prison in London, Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, Brixton, Woking, and Fulham. Her sentence of death having been commuted, in 1885 she was released, moving to Australia under the name Ruth Emilie Kay to live with her brother William. At the age of 46 Constance began nursing studies with a woman who had trained under Florence Nightingale, and over the rest of her life she served in several Hospitals, becoming matron of the Paramatta Industrial School for Girls before serving at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Mittagong and, at the age of 66, opening an old age home for nurses. Constance Kent lived to 100 years of age.
As anyone who has read the circumstances around this murder has wondered, why did Constance Kent admit to a crime—refusing to deny her testimony for the rest of her life—that she most probably did not commit? How can one come to any understanding of a figure seeking and achieving so much good after, at least her own mind, committing such an atrocious act? The child, after all, was not just smothered, but cut with a knife before its body was thrown into the privy!
The problem here, as Walker recognizes it, is how to "tell" this story without making further assumptions about the young woman's life or simply throwing a web of one's own imaginative desires across the almost obliterated truth of the circumstances.
To "trick" herself into reading the biased Stapleton book, Walker employed a method used by John Cage, the mesostic, in which she selected "one word from each line of Stapleton's book, proceeding line by line but never choosing two words that followed consecutively." This she poses as a "poetic" revelation of the now-liberated text on the left-hand side of each page, while on the right she selected extant passages from texts about the murder, including Constance's own "Sydney Document," written in response to Stapleton's book, and selections from other works in the Kent library. Walker also traveled to the houses and graveyards of the Kent family and to churches known to contain mosaic works done by Constance during her imprisonment, representing those visits with photographs.
The result is an amazing work of erudition that not only asks important questions about Constance and her family, but reveals the cultural context surrounding a young, somewhat bored and occasionally rebellious girl, haunted, perhaps, by the familial relationships between her own mother, who lived in one part of the house, and her father, who lived with the nanny, Mary Pratt (who later became the second Mrs. Kent) in the other. Constance's mother, perhaps always a frail woman—several of her children died in childbirth—was also rumored, mostly by the father, to be mentally unstable.
As Walker demonstrates, the role of a young English girl of this period was to live out life of such overwhelming sacrifice that it might lead even to invisibility. What women represented was more important than their reality: they were emblems of perfection, even saintliness.
Constance was none of these. She was an intelligent and highly curious child who was punished, time and again, for the smallest of infractions or inability to learn her school lessons by Pratt. She had seen her mother, moreover, ousted from her own life in a manner not unlike the wife of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. So unhappy was she that, at one point, she convinced her younger brother to escape with her to sea, with the hope of joining their elder brother, Edward, who had joined the Merchant Marines. She cut her hair, dressing as a young boy, and the two escaped to Bath where they were uncovered by a hotelier and returned to their father.
By quoting from various reports of the murder (including newspaper clippings of the time, Rhode's and Stapleton's books, and Constance's own writing) and Victorian writings as varied as Dickens, Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Kingsley, John Ruskin, Florence Nightingale, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Darwin, and numerous others, the author recreates the tenor of the period with the reader beginning to comprehend the psychological aura of this young, rather plain-faced, slightly obstinate child. Walker does not "explain" or answer anything, but through her choices of texts conjectures, convincingly it seems to me, that if Constance did not commit the crime, she felt, in her sense of failure and out of her confused emotional responses to family life, that she was nonetheless guilty—guilty of something. Her own disposition was to give of herself, to sacrifice, and the only way she knew how to accomplish that for her own family, whether or not she realized the truth of the situation, was to take on what was perhaps her father's guilt, to become the scapegoat that might salvage the others' beings. Given her outsider role within family life, perhaps she had no other possibility.
My only quibble with Walker's work—and even that word is perhaps too strong since it is apparent that Walker is purposely bringing up these issues—is the book's subtitle. Blue Fire is indeed "poetic," but not simply because of Walker's application of the mesostic method. As Walker and I have discussed previously, all great fiction writers are also excellent poets. Walker herself has proven that in all of her fictions, and major fiction writer-poets such as Herman Melville, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, and William Faulkner have often done their best poetry writing in their fiction rather than in their books described as poetry. Walker's word choices in the mesostic construction, lines such as "strides of blood among questions / those consequences of narrative," "insinuation of screen in truth / to conduct criticism," "any English simplicity of negligence can say / reading this after usual murder son feelings / will question truthfulness of women," (I could quote from almost any page) is more emphatically prose-oriented, in that it reveals possible "truths," rather than attending primarily to language. I am not suggesting that these passages are not poetically compelling or linguistically challenging, but positing the idea that, perhaps because of the source material, the mesostic work syntactically suggests a prose coherency.
Her "non-fiction" passages, on the other hand, although all representing material from extant works, are more fictional in their careful arrangement than some so-called novels. Prose, it seems to me, pretends, at its heart, to a sense of "truthfulness," however slippery we know it to be. Whether the prose writing be autobiographical, historical, philosophical, sociological, political, reportorial, whatever, we expect in reading it to be the truth, even though we recognize that truth in all these fields is a nearly impossible thing. That is why, when we discover a work described as prose such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (touted as prose by Oprah Winfrey) is actually fiction, there is a public outcry.
But that is just the problem. It is our presumption that there can be an objective reality that falsely separates prose writing from fiction, that misleads us time and again, the reason, in fact, that Walker had such difficulty reading Stapleton's prose. All prose is equally imbued with the writer's desires, imagination, miscomprehensions, and personal views, immediately transforming what is presented as "truth" into a kind of fiction. Perhaps only in a purposeful fiction can we really speak the truth.
In Blue Fire Walker is less interested in discerning any one "truth," than in questioning the multiple possibilities; and in that sense, it is not directed in the same way as "nonfiction," but represents an extremely artful construction of texts not at all unlike original fiction.
I read the book, accordingly, by using the mesostic passages as poetically-charged prose that stood alongside and against the reportage and writings of the period, the one overlaying the other ricocheting into new realities. (Indeed, I attempted to do something similar in one of my own works, Along Without, in which I used short passages of other writers' fictions to create the "story" for a film, in which the characters spoke in a highly poeticized diction.)
Blue Fire uses poetry and prose, but in a manner that is closer to fiction, I would argue, than most works describing themselves as such. For the soul beating at the heart of Walker's work, is, like blue fire, a hotter evidence of warmth and desire, a buried treasure hidden in the actions of a young girl who gave up her soul in order to enrich others' existences—a truth that was not to be comprehended in Constance's real life.
Los Angeles, December 14, 2009
Reprinted from Or (No. 4, April 2010).
Thursday, June 23, 2011
From Strange Twins
by Eugene Lim
How I got the job is an interesting story. Like all her hires, I was recruited. It was when my twin brother invited me to a party.
A self-help book my brother had secretly ghost-written was having a launch party in the old-fashioned pomp and gilt of the Hotel Europa downtown. Its publisher was projecting tremendous sales so had spared no expense. I’d no idea what I was walking into (my brother had called a few days prior, surprising me with an invite), and so when I arrived and saw that I’d misjudged the event’s size and glitter by several orders of magnitude, I realized it was going to be difficult to get any time at all with my brother, the epicenter of the maelstrom, whose tuxedo’d point from the mezzanine balcony I could amusedly observe drawing the aim of scheming vectors and incurring trails of vaporous gossip. Also, I was painfully underdressed. So I was both relieved and delighted when, twenty minutes later, he spotted me and instead of waving or just blowing me a kiss, immediately made his way over.
My brother said, “I only have a moment and then I’ve got to go back to making this whole shit-wheel turn, but I wanted to tell you about mom and dad. Did you know they died last month? No? Well I’d no idea either, but I received a reminder from the lawyer that the inheritance had been direct-deposited. I haven’t thought of them in years. No offense, but I barely have time to think of you. Ha ha ha. Ever since I found out I’ve been trying to remember things about our childhood. I think I remember some things, maybe a shape or a locale… Of course I remember being outcasts. That’s practically all I remember. Did we play games? Were we good at school? Tell me, because I’ve forgotten, what did mom and dad look like? I can’t remember. Just general facts: were they thin or plump? Tall or short? Do you remember their hair cuts? No? Drat. I think we should get together and talk about this. We lived with them for our entire childhoods, we should be able to at least recall their names, don’t you think? Look around your place. Maybe there will be a photograph or some other clue. Oh and I have to give you your half of the money.”
Someone, one of his handlers, urgently began calling his name and an arm appeared to guide him away. “Let’s meet next week!” my brother cried out while being whisked away. “Call my secretary and we’ll have lunch!”
Then he was too far away, and I no longer could make out what he was saying. The crowd had spontaneously lifted him off his feet and was now passing him over their heads back to the center of the party. He no longer was trying to shout anything at me but smiled a big grin and waved as he was shuttled in that odd way back down the stairs and back toward the deep and charismatic voices of wealth and power. I was happy to have gotten the promise of a date out of him, even if there was only slight chance he would keep it.
After that interchange, I remember planning to only gawk at the trendy crowd of lusters and confidence artists for the duration of a glass of free Riesling, hoping to then go home to a cup of chamomile and my police procedural, when someone tapped me lightly on the shoulder.
I turned to see a woman with long grey hair that she wore noticeably and elegantly loose. She had on a silver evening gown with an ingenious cut that seemed to jut out of her muscular frame by mesmerizingly clear, spindly cantilevers. A strong and beautiful woman, I thought. She said, “When I’m in a situation like this and I see all this individuated extravagance I—maybe it’s the mark of a perverse nature—but I, I think how, simply, each of us will die. But not only that. Which in itself is just a kind of morbidity, but also that the humble or swollen, generous or rapacious egos so displayed, that each of these was born through an unlikely yet destined chain of events and so could, on one hand, be seen as simply one particular facet of a constantly changing shape.”
“Huh?” I said.
And then she turned toward me, the captain, for it was she, the woman with whom I now sail. And it was as if my exact response had been the password to begin a very necessary, dangerous, and confidential exchange between dumb agents. We were vessels being used by listening-in and remote-controlling darker forces. She took a finger and rubbed the side of her nose three times in a particular way. I touched each of my earlobes, almost involuntarily.
She said, “If I had a twin, and I’m not saying that I do, I would say we grew up in a simple house, squatting on a hill that overlooked a debased island, one used only as a trash dump.”
“Go on,” I said.
“If this were the case and in no way am I admitting that it was, then I’d say our mother and father were examples of a kind of utopianist, a type of idealist or religious seeker. In short, they were drug addicts and debilitated. My twin and I (should those two referents signify any aspect of reality) raised ourselves eating handouts from the market women and making toys and tools out of the junkyard, which was an ocean that seemed to us then almost as infinite as the real, but was not, no not nearly.”
“I see,” I said.
“You see what?” the captain said.
“No, nothing. Please continue,” I said.
The captain touched the tip of her tongue with her pinkie. I took out a pair of zebra-patterned sunglasses and placed them on top of my head. She said, “If this happened to have happened, and please understand I deny and affirm nada, squat, zilchy-zilch, then it may have occurred that my twin and I began experimenting, playing, fooling around with at first electronic equipment then computational devices and then daisy-chained elements and then nets within and without other nets and then highly personalized and only occasionally brought-forth, never-uttered languages. With this expertise, if one is to believe such a tale, an action I neither endorse nor condemn, my twin and I might have begun reaching out from our trash island to stroke the belly of far away commodity exchanges, purring stock markets, and deeply dreaming arbitrage centers. Twins of this type, in this manner of story, may have taken odd numbers from that ambush of bewildered and half-sentient financial tigers, unliving or savage or mystical or deformed digits buried inside calculations and data and spreadsheets never actually handled but whose shadowy existences were made necessary by other gravitational events or other more obvious and prosaic numbers closer to the minds of drone bankers. Twins of this sort, though it isn’t in my nature to speculate on their existential possibility, may have corralled these iridescent integers into more worldly shapes so that they, the hypothetical twins, could, should they want to (should they exist to want to), purchase not only the entirety of their own debased island but fleets of archipelagos and pinwheels of peninsulas and infinite itineraries of isthmuses for, in short, these perhaps possible twins were now—had become—bandits of an extreme order and therefore godly rich.”
We had moved to a quieter nook, off-center from the party. Our voices were low and we simultaneously and craftily provided up easy-going, happy countenances to any potential uninvited observers. Underneath I was growing excited. This was the drop-off, no doubt, the hook.
That is: I’d, maybe we’d, decided it was.
“And finally,” the captain whispered, through smiling teeth, “these people in this terribly funny story I must have heard from who-knows-where, spent years looking into the infinitely resolving space of capitalist markets. They dove deep into pools made up of pure cipher. They danced on precipices made of solidified, special mush which pitched unquestioningly and perilously onto a galactic void. Such was their extraordinary adventure that these two—if such a two could be—lost their minds. Gradually their gray matter sprouted lesions and bunions and whorls and growths, an accelerated and spontaneous and unexpected response to what they’d seen and contemplated. A madness that allowed them each, for a time, to function, but a madness nonetheless. As proof note that one built a self-operating electric chair and died on that pessimistic throne listening to magnificent German opera stars skipping on a degraded disk, while the other, should this funny ha ha joke I’m passing on from something I must have hee hee have read somewhere be taken to its oh ho ho inevitable conclusion, this other twin ha ha, she must have bought an extravagant ship to wander, oh yes, just to wander—yes?” the captain concluded, turning suddenly somber, “Indeed, yes, just to wander.”
I burst out in a stage laugh, not as convincing an actress as I wanted to be. “Oh that’s a funny one,” I sputtered, “but tell me, ah this is cracking me up. But tell me, what became, I should really want to know, what became of the, of the twin’s, of their parents?”
The captain turned to the wall and hissed, “Long lost. Long long lost.”
I nodded soberly with tears in my eyes and told her I accepted the job on her ship. The captain and I then quickly left the party by separate exits.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Eugene Lim.
Eugene Lim is the author of Fog & Car recently published by Ellipis Press. Lim works as a librarian in Brooklyn, and has published fiction in The Brooklyn Rail, sonaweb, Sleeping Fish, and elsewhere.