Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Sir Echo (on Tom La Farge's Echo Alternators)

Tom La Farge Echo Alternators: 13 Writhing Machines, No. 3 (Brooklyn, New York: Proteotypes, 2010)
by Douglas Messerli

La Farge begins his third volume of “13 Writhing Machines,” the beautiful pamphlets on various oulipian and other devices to create formal constraints that liberate the writing of fiction and poetry, with the following words:

Rhyme—the echo, shadow, twin, mirror-image—fascinates me. In a world of differences, identity, or similarity pushed close to identity, seems to suggest less chaos, or a different chaos, than we’re aware of. Rhyme is used in magic. Rhyme is also a compositional constraint for writers.

La Farge, however, is not talking here, basically, of standard end rhyme, but of numerous poetic devices, games, and challenges which echo or mirror the words and ideas of creative texts. I will not speak of all of the devices La Farge suggests; I encourage everyone who’s interested in language to read the original text, but I will name a few of the author’s suggestions, while readily admitting that I am not sure that every one of them would work for me to create a interesting text.

Certainly La Farge demonstrates through several of his own examples, that he is not only a skilled fiction writer—he is the author of three works of fiction—but is also a skilled poet. For years he and his writer wife, Wendy Walker, have made the argument that excellent narrativists and fiction writers must also—or, at least, should—be skilled poets, connoisseurs of language.

La Farge begins with “Homophonism,” a process whereby an author takes a larger text, his example from the back of a cable company’s bill, and, rhyming with the same sequence of syllables, creates a new text. It is a difficult process, and La Farge points out that, in his example, liberties were taken. Here’s my example, a somewhat literal rhyming of the first thirteen lines of a longer poem, “A Lecture upon the Shadow,” by John Donne:

A Vector of the Straddle

Sandhill & lye still need the sea.
Conjecture, dove, above theosophy.
Trees, the flower at bee, salve scent
Stalking dear through meadow’s dent
A song, mythos: hitched knee, lower calves seduced
Put low the one his lust love t’ward bed.
(See—through clothes addle thread).
Man to save Eros falls, sings arias to soothe
Though guiles sour & pant above his bow. The skies have hid, land rattles, grows
Dumb, blustering, tears; glut rots blisses’ grotto.

Fat plovers at the rotted grain fly free
O’er ditches, rills indigent, best mothers be.*

Although there are a few variations from the original in the above (“That love hath,” for example becomes, in my version, “Fat plovers”) these are minor examples of clinamen, what La Farge defines for the reader as “a swerving,” that is essential to much oulipian writing. As the author points out, the clinamen often allows for greater aesthetic possibilities than do the “consequences of a restriction.”

La Farge’s discussion of the differences between polysyllabic rhymes (“rime riche”), often used in French but sounding clumsy and, at times, absolutely silly in English (he points to the example of the operettas of W. S. Gilbert) is elucidating. While in French the alexandrine form is still possible, in English we tend to rhyme in one or two syllables at most. But he does suggest an interesting or difficult experiment that English writers might attempt, the holorhyme, a series of identical sequences of letters that do necessarily parallel the sound. His example from Howard Bergerson is interesting:

Flamingo: pale, scenting a latent shark!
Flaming, opalescent in gala tents – hark!

One of the most wonderful things about La Farge’s series of “Writhing Machine” is his recountings of historical figures and texts. For any serious reader of oulipian-like writing, it is crucial to know the works of Raymond Roussel, which in eight pages of this small text La Farge describes, sharing some of the various devices and their relationships with other texts of Roussel’s novels Impressions of Africa (1910) and Locus Solus (1914). This short disquisition alone is worth the publication of volume 3, and reiterates how useful these books would be in the classroom. More and more I feel these texts should be used in every creative writing class across the country. Who better to take poets and fiction writers, young or old, through various and sundry literary forms as “the Rebus,” “Echo Poems,” “Punkwatrain,” “The Strasbourg Tramway,” “La GuaGua,” “the Brazzle,” “Pig-Language,” “Anguish Languish,” “Literary Homophonic translations,” the “Zukofskan Translation,” and even the absurd “Poems for Dogs?”

The Punkwatrain—what Robert Rapilly calls a katrainbour (a cross between a quatrain and a calembour, the French word for pun)—is a particularly fascinating form, wherein one takes a name (La Farge uses “Gowanus Canal”), which is then translated into a homophonic equivalent (La Farge’s is “Go on askin’, Al”). Then one takes the new phrase as the “moral” of a short fable or riddle in a verse quatrain which obliquely makes reference to the original phrase. The rhyme scheme and meter are left up to the poet. La Farge’s hilarious, and quite excellent, example is:

Gore takes the global view: “Go Green!”
Well, carry on, but there’s a spot
Of brown in Brooklyn Al’s not seen.
A waterway it’s not.

Go on askin’, Al.
(Gowanus Canal)

What fun! I can’t wait for the next volume.

Los Angeles, May 24, 2011

*Reprinted from Douglas Messerli, Maxims from My Mother’s Milk (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1988). The first thirteen lines of the original John Donne poem are:

A Lecture upon the Shadow

Stand still, and I will read to thee
A Lecture, love, in Loves philosophy.
These three houres that we have spent,
Walking here, Two shadowes went
Along with us, which we our selves produc’d;
But, now the Sunne is just above our head,
We doe those shadowes tread;
And to brave clearness all things are reduc’d.
So whilst our infant loves did grow,
Disguises did, and shadowes, flow,
From us, and our cares; but, now ‘tis not so.

That love hath not attain’d the high’st degree,
Which is still diligent lest others see.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Douglas Messerli | A Gap in the Wall (on Cesar Aira's How I Became a Nun)

Douglas Messerli

César Aira How I Became a Nun, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2007)

Although Argentinean author César Aira has the potential of becoming a very popular writer in English, some of his work, such as this 2007 translation of Cómo me hice monja, is an acquired taste.

That is perhaps rather strange way to begin writing on a fiction that itself starts with the idea of "taste." A young boy (more often referred to in this self-narrated tale, as a young girl) is taken by his father for an ice cream treat, the first apparently of his life, since they have recently moved from the more isolated Coronel Pringles to the large city of Rosario. With great anticipation of his son's delight, the father awaits the child's lick of the strawberry ice cream, but the over-reactive child immediately spits it out in disgust. As the child observes, "...that horrendous taste, having descended into my throat, rose again like a backlash and sent a sudden shock through my body." The dismayed and somewhat appalled father insists the boy eat it, which results in a verbal battle between the two and ends with the boy's bending over in a series of retchings. When the father finally tastes the substance, which his son argues is "bitter" to the father's repeated insistence that it's "sweet," he realizes that there is indeed something terribly wrong with it. Insisting that the manager that he has sold him something rotten, the father reacts to the vendor's placid denial by stuffing his face into a drum of the strawberry substance, ultimately killing him.

This almost absurdist situation might be hilariously funny except for the fact that the father is sentenced to eight years of imprisonment, and the boy-girl who has consumed substance, contaminated with cyanide, is sickened for several months.

As the narrator—who shares the name of the author of the book—tells us, the child's life begins with this series of events, which soon leads to his entering school months later than his peers, finding himself intellectually behind his fellow students; in the mere few months that he has missed, they have all learned to read.

A minor mishap at the school to which the boy-girl's mother overreacts leads to even greater isolation for the child, as the teacher refuses to even recognize his/her existence. This, in turn, leads to the creation of an imaginary world for the child, who, in Oulipo-like structures, creates a private world for each of his classmates, suffering in the young César's imagination from various learning disabilities, which he must overcome in order to be able to teach them. His father's absence also brings him closer to his over-protective mother, and together the two enter another imaginary world where they daily encounter radio plays, one devoted to the childhood of Jesus Christ, one to historical events told through the voice of an elderly grandmother, and the third to the complex adult-like situations inherent in any soap opera.

All of these imaginative situations, in the hands of a lesser fabulist, would seem to be perfect fodder for a surrealist or absurdist work. But as strange as these stories may seem, Aira transforms them into tales with psychological possibilities so that we are almost stunned by their impossible results.

Another game the child begins to play is something experienced by many children growing up. It might be described as "losing mother," wherein the object, on shopping trips with his mother, is to keep several steps behind her, slightly hiding behind various trees, individuals, and signs until she loses sight of her offspring, and later, loses him/her entirely. On one such outing, César is picked up by a woman claiming to be an old friend of the family from Coronel Pringles, and offers the girl/boy an ice cream. Despite the child's knowledge that this woman is lying, she politely goes along with the series of events, which ends with the woman admitting that she is the wife of the murdered ice cream vendor and is seeing revenge. Almost as suddenly, she throws the child into a drum of strawberry ice cream, like some madly possessed witch, suffocating him/her to death.

For the logic-oriented reader, this is the last straw in what seems now to be a series of tall-tales by an oversensitive child. How could the story have been told by a dead girl/boy? And what on earth does any of this have to do with "becoming a nun?"

On one level, of course, nothing does have anything to do with the other. Instead of presenting us with a tale bound to the psychological realism he has pretended, the author has shown us the logic of storytelling, given us a glimpse of a world created by the written word instead of natural events. Aira writes of the moment César, the child, first discovers that difference:

The drama started later on....The drama was triggered for me by the
realization that the mute scene I was witnessing, the teacher's and
pupils' abstract mimicry, affected me vitally. It was my story, not someone
else's. ....I was and was not involved in it; I was present, but not
a participant, or participating only by my refusal, like a gap in the
performance, but that gap was me! At least I had finally realized
(and for this I should have been grateful) why I was missing out on
the mental soundtrack: I couldn't read. My little classmates could.
By some sort of miracle, they had learned how to in those first three
months; an abyss had opened between them and me. An inexplicable
abyss, a void, precisely because there was no way to account for the

Some time after this event, however, César discovers that he too can now read. But for him the experience of that gap will remain forever, and the written word of his fellow students' assignments are transferred through his imagination into acts. On a visit to his father at the prison, César soon finds "a gap in the wall," entering the prison itself and becoming lost until the following day. In a sense, all his stories exist in a "gap," in a void where reality cannot enter.
Such a world, of course, is, like a nunnery, an isolated world, a world in which the novitiate or novice removes herself from the world, dedicating her life to a higher being. Aira's dedication is to language, to the magical world of fiction that necessarily, at least temporarily, estranges one from the world at large, the world we know as "reality." An utter faith in his fabulous tales is all this author can offer—but that is everything to those who love, as I do, such marvelous fantasies which become more real in the mind that everyday life.

Los Angeles, June 11, 2008

Douglas Messerli | Looking Down (on Nivaria Tejera's The Ravine)

by Douglas Messerli

Nivaria Tejera The Ravine, translated from the Spanish by Carol Maier (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008)

The ravine of the title of Cuban-born, Canary Island writer Nivaria Tejera’s 1958 book is not only a literal barranco into which the bodies of Republican supporters were tossed by Franco supporters, but the vast gap between the young narrator’s childhood comprehension of the events taking place at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the realities faced by the adults surrounding her. It is, moreover, the gaping hole between the reality of the past and the nightmare of all Spanish citizens during Franco’s bloody struggle to dictatorship.

For the seven-year-old girl in the Canary Island city of La Laguna, “the war started today,” an indeterminate now which radically changes her life and allows her no return to the normality of the past where the daily joys of childhood were determined by the comings and goings of her beloved father. In fact, the Spanish Civil War did begin at the very center of her existence, in the Canary and Balearic Islands to which General Francesco Franco and General Manuel Goded Llopis had been exiled. On July 18, 1936 both quickly took control of these islands before moving on to Spanish Morocco and back into Spain itself.

The young narrator, a figure based, in part, upon the author, is suddenly forced to come face to face with Franco’s squads as they search her family’s home; her father, a Republican supporter, has gone into hiding and is soon after arrested and imprisoned in Faife, the local prison created from warehouses formerly owned by a British trading company. Later exonerated of criminal behavior, her father briefly returns home only to be arrested again and ultimately placed in an unnamed prison where the family has no possibility of discovering him. And so this middle class family of workers—an extended family that includes uncles, aunts and grandparents—is suddenly reduced to complete poverty, while they face the fact that they may never see their son, lover, papa, breadwinner again.

Tejera’s tale, however, is not about the civil war nor the struggles of the surrounding adults, but is centered firmly on the young girl trying to suddenly understand not only events conspiring against her family but the larger events of world war and human morality. Embarrassed by her sudden poverty and daily assignment to beg for groceries from a nearby shopkeeper, confused by the new passivity and depression of the adults around her, and lonely, the girl is transformed from a normal child into a stumbling, bumbling beast of contrary feelings whom her former friends now taunt and openly despise. With a younger child to care for, her mother thrusts upon the girl responsibilities that only exacerbate her difficulties. As she retreats to her internal thoughts, so too does Tejera’s writing, ultimately turning what might have been a somewhat painful but perhaps maudlin story of hardship into a surreal portrayal of the effects of war not unlike Mohammed Dib’s great wartime story of Algeria, Who Remembers the Sea.

For the most part Tejera succeeds in convincing us of the narrator’s point of view, in part because of what she describes as “a dialogue between past and present,” the voice of the little girl ambivalently fusing with the later adult voice of the author herself.

Translator Carol Maier spends a great deal of her afterword accounting for and justifying what may seem as inconsistencies between the voice; indeed she admits to attempting, a first, to correct in English for those moments of adult knowledge that creep into the childhood narrative. For me, this seems beside the point. There can never be a truly childhood voice in a fiction written by an adult, simply because if one were miraculously to accomplish the transformation into childhood it would cease being of interest to the adult. Children can express wondrously beautiful and fanciful images of reality which we can enjoy, but they cannot embrace the realities of that beauty and the meaning of the images they have portrayed. Frankly, I prefer the kind of childhood characters created by Ivy Compton-Burnett, children who speak more intelligent and impeccably stylized sentences than their adult counterparts. Yet Tejera succeeds in convincing us that the world she portrays is skewed toward a child-like vision. And particularly in the final last visionary dreamscape of the fiction, the reader can only be touched by that world evoked. Insistent that she will go to search for her father in the ravine, the young narrator imagines the following dialogue:

“Niñaniña, don’t you suspect? It’s still the zinc rain and the sound from the canyon still whistles through the planted fields. Aren’t you going to make little stripes, aren’t you coming to the planet?” I’ll go, I will definitely go, Mama. It’s at the bend beside where I think, in the puppet pit, I’ll go on the wounded train, in the mirror. It’s winter now, the roads are riddled with puddles and it’s nice to travel through the dirty trees toward the sky. …I see him already, first he’ll lift up the dry hard bones that will be hitting me. I already feel them hitting me. The rain’s softened them and they don’t hurt. In the fog, they seem like insects, they’re wet and they stick to your body. They do. Don’t you hear? Someone’s calling me from further away. It’s the custodian, his garbage, the great wind beside the ravine covering, covering the putrid place of the peloton, where I liked to think Papa would never lie dead.

I’ll go and the great wind will come whirling from the bottom.
And I’ll be there looking down.

For both her young narrator and the author herself, looking down with humility—like Alice, looking into the Rabbit Hole—is the only possibility, for there is no way to “look back.” The father will never again be found for that little girl. By the time Tereja’s father was released in 1944 and the family was able to return to Cuba, she was a fifteen year-old adolescent, a young woman inevitably aged by her childhood experiences. In 1954 Tejera moved to Paris, serving the Cuban government for a period as a cultural attaché in Rome before breaking political ties with Cuba in 1965. Today she lives in Paris, writing poetry and fiction.

Orange, California, April 17, 2008
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XIII (Summer 2008).

(c) Copyright Douglas Messerli, 2008.