Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Marina Colasanti | "The Girl Weaver," trans. by Adria Frizzi

The Girl Weaver

by Marina Colasanti

Translated from the Portuguese by Adria Frizzi

She woke when it was still dark, as if she heard the sun coming from behind the edge of night.

And she immediately sat down at the loom

A light-colored yarn, to start off the day.

A delicate thread the color of light, which she wove through the warp, while outside the morning glow outlined the horizon.

Later, brighter yarns, hot yarns, wove themselves away, hour by hour, in a long never-ending rug.

If the sun was too hot, and the petals drooped in the garden, the girl put thick grey yarns of the softest cotton in her shuttle. Shortly after, in the shadows brought on by the clouds, she chose a silver thread and embroidered long stitches across the fabric.

A light rain came to greet her at the window.

But if the wind and the cold quarreled with the leaves andscared the birds away for days, all the girl had to do was weave with her beautiful golden threads for the sun to return and quiet nature down.

Thus the girl spent her days, throwing the shuttle from one side to the other and beating the large reeds back and forth.

She lacked for nothing. When she was hungry she wove a beautiful fish complete with scales. And there was the fish, on the table, ready to be eaten. If thirst came, soft was the milk-colored wool that ran through the rug.

And at night, after casting her thread of darkness, she slept peacefully. Weaving was all she did. Weaving was all she wanted to do.

But as she wove away, she herself brought about a time when she felt lonely, and for the first time she thought how nice it would be to have a husband by her side.

She did not wait another day.

With the care of someone attempting something never before experienced, she began to weave through the rug the yarns and colors that would give her company.

And little by little her desire began to emerge, plumed hat, bearded face, proud stance, polished boot. She was about to weave the last thread through the tip of his boots when there was a knock on the door.

She did not even need to open it. The youth put his hand on the knob, took off his plumed hat and walked right into her life.

That night, as she lay against his shoulder, the girl thought about the beautiful children she would weave to increase her happiness even more.

And happy she was, for a time. But if the man had thought about children, he soon forgot them. Because, after discovering the power of the loom, he thought of nothing else but all the things she could give him.

--A better house is in order—he told his wife. And it did seem to make sense, now that there were two of them. He demanded the most beautiful brick-colored yarns, green threads for the shutters, and haste for the house to happen.

But when the house was ready, it no longer seemed enough to him. –Why have a house when we can have a palace?—he asked.

 Without waiting for an answer, he immediately ordered that it be made of stone with silver trim.

Day after day, week and month the girl toiled, weaving roofs and doors, and courtyards and staircases, and halls and wells. Outside the snow was falling, and she did not have time to call the sun. Night fell, and she did not have time to cast off the day. She’d weave and grieve, as the reeds beat ceaselessly to the rhythm of the shuttle.

At last the palace was ready. And, from among so many rooms, the husband chose for her and her loom the highest room in the highest tower.

--So no one will know about the rug—he said.

And before locking the door, he warned her:

--You have yet to make the stables. And don’t forget the horses!

The wife wove her husband’s every whim without pause, filling the palace with luxury, the coffers with coins, the halls with servants. Weaving was all she did. Weaving was all she wanted to do.

And as she wove she herself brought about a time when her sadness seemed to her greater than the palace with all its treasures.

And for the first time she thought how nice it would be if she were on her own again.

She waited just until nightfall. She got up while her husband slept, dreaming of fresh demands. And barefoot, not to make any noise, she climbed the long staircase leading to the tower and sat down at the loom.

This time she did not need to choose a yarn. She grasped the shuttle backwards and, throwing it quickly from one side to the other, she began to undo her weaving.  She unwove the horses, the carriages, the stables, the gardens.

Next she unwove the servants and the palace and all the wonders it held.

And once again she found herself in her little house and smiled at the garden beyond the window.

The night was coming to an end when the husband, wondering at the hard bed, awoke and looked around, bewildered.  He did not have time to get up. She was already undoing the dark outline of his boots, and he watched his feet disappear, his legs vanish. Swiftly, nothingness crept up his body and took his proud chest, his plumed hat.

Then, as if she heard the sun coming, the girl chose a light-colored yarn. And slowly wove it through the threads, a delicate streak of light which the morning repeated in the line of the horizon.

English language translation ©2015 by Adria Frizzi. Original copyright by Marina Colasanti

Marina Colasanti (1937) is a writer, journalist, and artist. Born in Eritrea, she has lived in Libya, Italy, and Brazil, where she moved in 1948. She writes short stories, poetry, essays, and children’s literature, with over fifty books published in Brazil and abroad. In addition to her work as writer and journalist, she is a translator and illustrator of her own books. Her work has been translated into several languages and recognized with numerous awards, most recently the prestigious Jabuti Dourado prize for best work of fiction of 2014.

Translator Adria Frizzi has published Nine, Novena by Osman Lins (Green Integer) and has completed a book of fairytales by Colasanti, Uma idéia toda azul (A True Blue Idea), which is available for publication.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "The Dissipating Poem" (on Christopher Middleton's Loose Cannons: Selected Prose)

the dissipating poem
by Douglas Messerli

Christopher Middleton Loose Cannons: Selected Prose (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2014)

In his brief Prologue to this new selection of Middleton’s significant contributions of literature, the writer argues that Loose Cannons should be recognized as a short prose work different from both the short story and the prose poem—elements of which these works outwardly share. Alluding to the writings of John Earle, Ben Jonson, Pascal, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Franz Kafka, and Kenneth Patchen (Borges and Robert Walser also come to mind), British writer and German translator Middleton suggests that his work belongs to a genre that displays “a resistance to the tendency of written prose to prolong itself, to expand.” For him, his writing process relates to what he calls an “antigram,” “a variety of imaginative writing which revolts against and may reverse the programmatic.” What interests him, he makes clear, is “something not-said, a hiatus, a vestige of mystery,” as opposed, presumably, to prose fiction’s thrust to delineate meaning through accumulation, if nothing else.
     “The antigram calls for (and should arouse),” Middleton asserts, “the most scrupulous thrift, panache, and refinement in writing as such.” 
      As a lover of genres, I’m always willing to accept the notion that an author is attempting to mine new territory, is exploring boundaries of what we think we know or, more importantly, how we read something that, simply because of its surface appearance, we think we recognize but does not necessarily conform to what we have experienced in the past. Any knowledgeable reader can cite numerous instances of significant authors’ works being dismissed simply because they didn’t seem to fit into the confines of more normative perceptions of a particular genre. I have often repeated in these My Year volumes just such occurrences in connection with writings by Djuna Barnes, Wyndham Lewis, and numerous others. And even as the publisher of two books from which nine of these 33 prose works were selected—In the Mirror of the Eighth King (1999) and Depictions of Blaff (2010)—I must admit that I originally had difficulty, despite my immediate appreciation of the writing, defining their genres. The works of the former volume I simply ascribed to be very personal prose meditations, and the works of Depictions of Blaff I suggested to myself and to others as being an unusual kind of short prose fiction. And I must admit, that rereading those works in the context of the others, I more thoroughly enjoyed them as being cryptic and mysterious prose works with no narrative solution to their meanings.
     Middleton is also one of the well-read and informed academics (without being an academic writer) I know, and some of his remarkable prose works read somewhat like satires of pedants discoursing on esoteric information—a bit like Raymond Queneau’s OULIPO-inspired writings—ramblings of a charming madman. Certainly all of the Blaff works might fall into that category, as well as pieces such as “From the Alexandria Library Gazette,” “Manuscript in a Lead Casket,” the frightfully futuristic “A Memorial to Room-Collectors,” and “The Turkish Rooftops.” 
     Other works focus their attention on intense observation, revealing what is clearly Middleton’s art-critical facilities, often featuring a work or a series of works of art—prose works such as “Louis Moillon’s Apricots (1635),”  “The Execution of Maximilian,” “Le Déjeuner,” “A Polka in the Evening of Time,” or, on a more enigmantic  level, often involving what is not seen or is only somewhat visible in “Balzac’s Face” and “The Gaze of the Turkish Mona Lisa.”
      Still others appear almost to be meditations on history or, more specifically, the possibilities of history or, at least, recreating what might soon become history: “The Birth of a Smile,” “A Bachelor,” “Nine Biplanes,” “Or Else,” “Cliff’s Dwarf,” and “In the Mirror of the Eighth King."
     But all do share what the Introducer of this work, August Kleinzahler, describes as forces of that are “subversive” and “ludic,” “liminal” and “disruptive,” in favor of any pre-conceived or determinative experience. Time and again, what might at first seem narrative, is transformed through metaphor into an animistic or even spiritual moment which one might describe as dissipating any plot- or character-based evocation. Although “Nine Biplanes,” for example begins with what seems to be a very specific time and narrator, an “I” located in 1940, the author redirects the reader’s attention throughout until what began as a concrete image has been miraculously transformed into a grotesquely unseen world, invisible from the eyes of the work’s original seemingly narrative voice. The work begins:

                    Summer 1940: I opened the double glass front door of the
                    rambling country mansion, school, and saw nine biplanes
                    flying low, in close formation, and slow; the lower edge
                    of what I saw is a ruffled green mass of trees.

What immediately declares itself to be a story in which any seasoned reader can predict will be a tale of the discovery of evil in an seemingly innocent world, a tale of gradual recognition of the child-like narrator that within the “beauty” of what he first excitingly glimpses, there is all the horror of destructive hate. In a sense, Middleton’s prose work, indeed, is about just such issues, but the way he reveals that is radically different from what we might expect. By constantly shifting viewpoints after that introductory paragraph to other scenes within the school, moving in and out of different adult and child perspectives, and by placing events is a shifting time that jumps from place to place—from Hué, An Loc, Barcelona, Norfolk, a French road, a certain Moscow elevator in 1937, etc.—Middleton pulls us out of a limited here and now to a surrealist perspective that questions our very assumptions. Yes, by work’s end, we do indeed encounter an evil world, but it surely is not the like one we first expected:


                    A child, instead of looking downward, now looks outward,
                    and still cannot awake, the inability to awake being, like an
                    arm’s reach or the tilting of a head, part of his condition.
                    With hacked-off hands he constructs for himself someone
                    else, old, scribbling. Amid the droning clatter of the motors,
                    a bell of pink fire suddenly sounds. …he listens to the flying
                    metal blare and does not see the girl’s head rolling across the
                    gravel to his toecaps.

As if this brutal image—all the more horrific because it goes unnoticed—were not enough, Middleton moves away from the purely visual human-based perceptions, to the aural and aromatic sensations of the now horrific landscape overseen by the animals who, with the destruction of human beings, continue to inhabit it alone:

                    The sounds are people running in plimsolls, knock of the
                    red leather ball on the willow cricket bat. A smell of linseed
                    oil in the thatched pavilion. But the pilot’s head is wrapped
                    in leather: the pilots are going to knock the Germans for
                    six, if they can find them, behind the pavilion, between
                    the pavilion and the woods, where you could hear the
                    cock pheasant scream before any thunderstorm, or, in
                    the evening twilight, quietly see rabbits feeding, their ears
                    laid back along their little skulls.

 I think no series of passages can better depict what Middleton, himself, has characterized of his work as being “the animular miniaturism of short prose.” He continues, apropos the work described above, “In the pregnancy of these antigrams, a naïve attention of curiosities of nature, as to outlandish freaks of behavior…has been interiorized and subtilized into crystalline intelligence fathoming its language at outer limits of the imaginable.”
     Accordingly, I’ll gladly go along with Middleton’s definitions of his own writing. Call these works “antigrams” if you want, a stunningly original genre that I hope others might emulate
     Yet, I can’t help feeling that part of the author’s insistence on our refraining from describing these works as “short short narratives” or “prose poems” has to do with Middleton’s somewhat old fashioned notions of the borders between prose and poetry. I’d be willing to describe all of Middleton’s writings, just like those of Gertrude Stein, as being variations of poetic expression. For it is, as Kleinzahler perhaps unintentionally argues, Middleton’s imaginatively lyrical approach to experience (what Kleinzahler calls the author’s “primal and unpredictable sources of lyrical expression”) that most characterizes his art, whether it be these short “prose”-oriented works or his more straight-forward “poems.” several volumes of which Middleton has published described as such.
     One cannot read the works of Serpentine, for example, without recognizing just how completely immersed in the linguistic as opposed to the narrative his writing is. The opening paragraph from “This Is Lavender,” for example, reads:

                This is lavender and how it grows large blue caterpillars
                run parallel up their slopes and down in convex furors never
                stop following contours a whole field of ripples flows in
                large blue caterpillars lavender caterpillars large and blue
                running and flowing up and down and whole blue ajoining
                fields are solid blue until you move and then the whole
                sold blue lavender field swishes open like a fan.

Another passage, this from his fractured fairy-tale, “From Earth Myriad Robed,” reads:

                Rope sole of a razouteur. Dust beaten out of it. A puff of
                dust beaten out of a rope sole in a small French hotel, old oak
                beams overhead. In the puff of dust, vestiges of a village
                dancing floor. A dancing floor in the dust in a land soaked
                in blood. The features of Elif: mop of tight black curls,
                dolphin eyebrows, immense dark eyes, small straight nose,
                her breath from lips parting. Elif in her satin dress, pale
                golden satin with a blue sash. And the pounding of the music,
                in the village dust, the puff of dust gone, Elif gone, into the

A moment later the female figure speaks in a language that might put the Russian Trans-rationalists to shame (after all, Middleton is also a brilliant translator):

                —Tais da efendim (so she said, standing near)
                    bu ghejeh
                    ti thelis ti theleis efendim
                    surieyebilir musunuz yakoondala
                —oosa ana tanta asnula kyriye
                    ishmek ishki inghiliz tek ort poro
                    tek ort poro yabanchuh…ti theleis?

                    [This goes on for another half page and into the next.]

I’ll grant, there may be more Turkish and even other European root-words in here than I can fathom. But it is clear, nonetheless, as I previously argued for the so-called fiction writer, Ronald Firbank (see My Year 2012), that any meanings we glean from these passages arise not from rational recognition of the signs, but from an emotional and perhaps irrational sensations of its semantics.
     Perhaps there is no other work that better describes Middleton’s poetic aspirations in all this new collection than the “prose” piece he titles “A Postcript of the Great Poem of Time.” In this work he speaks of a poem just as he does of the “antigram,” as a kind of spore that combines with other spores to become globules, which then collide with others of their kind to briefly articulate a kind of “rotary syntax” (like sestinas, or anagrams, or even the “speech of the dead”). The poet’s “spores” bounce (creating rhythm), smell (like “coffee…pinewoods, the iodine sea-coast, cordite, and many smells that exist, like ghosts, only in the memory”), and voice themselves. But their most notable quality, like nearly all of this poet’s works, is their “trailing off,” their transformation into “snippets”—something close to what I described earlier as the sensation of the work dissipating into space: 

                  Into each snippet, however, are built the outlines, now
                  marked, now fading, now gone again, of a waiting room.
                  Over the heads of the multitude inside, stiff in sedimenta-
                  tions or moving about as the travellers strike their
                  antiquated attitudes, the roof lifts majestically and on
                  every side the walls expand, roof and walls perform an 
                  immense and constant inhalation, constantly (in the illusion
                  of this idiom, rotary or anagrammic) the space expands, the
                  furniture dwindles, and it is less and less like that any transport
                  will ever arrive, for the waiting room is coming to encompass,
                  inescapably, whatever journey might have imagined itself into
                  these multitudinous heads.

    Whether you want to describe such a work as a antigram or simply as a very effective poem, I don’t care, but I will certainly join the writer in that “waiting room” in order to encounter his work, as he puts it, “at random,” as I get ready to “pass it by reading again.”

Los Angeles, February 15, 2015

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Writer's Nose" (on Anne Gédéon Lafitte, Marqius de Pelleport's The Bohemians)

by Douglas Messerli

Anne Gédéon Lafitte, Marqius de Pelleport The Bohemians, trans. from the French by Vivian Folkenflik, with an Introduction by Robert Darnton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010)

http://www.kb.nl/nieuws/2006/pelleport.jpgIn the late 1780s the marquis de Sade sat, before his transfer to the insane asylum at Charenton, imprisoned in the Bastille, writing his memorable “erotic” fiction, Les 120 Journées de Sodome. What we are told in this newly rediscovered fiction, Les Bohémiens, is at the very same moment, another marquis, the Marquis de Pelleport, was sitting in a nearby cell penning his own erotic and sometimes slanderous work, as strongly dedicated to open and libertine sexuality and anti-church sentiment as de Sade’s notorious fiction.

     Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in English for the first time since its original 1790 publication, The Bohemians was nearly lost to history. As Robert Darnton, in a substantial introduction writes, “Only a half-dozen copies are available in libraries throughout the world” of the work which “opens a window into the world of garret poets, literary adventurers, down-and-out philosophers, and Grub Street hacks” that might never again have been available.
     Pelleport was himself, as the final chapters titled “The Pilgrim’s Narrative” reveals, just such a figure. Like many others of the day, he wrote what might now be compared to the popular tabloid newspapers, gossip of famous people that was so scandalous that, on occasion, the wealthy paid to squelch its publication. Moreover, Pelleport got involved with numerous other scams, including the attempt to transport of wine for which he had not paid, and other petty criminal acts.
    In the fiction’s numerous digressions—Darnton suggests among the author’s influences are Don Quioxte and Tristam Shandy—many of these autobiographical elements are hidden, but are unimportant in the flow of the narrative. The author himself mocks his own digressions, often taking the part of the reader to argue for and against the loose narrative structure he has chosen. It is apparent, however, that that structure—despite the editor’s or publisher’s assertion that the work is a “Novel” on the front cover—are perfectly at home in the picaresque genre which the work follows, a structure in which the characters are constantly on the move, awaiting each day for a new adventure. 
     A great deal of the fun of this writing issues from the authorial voice questioning, justifying, and simply playing with the reader’s expectations. For the reader unfriendly with pre- and post-modern literary techniques, this book will surely appear as a self-conscious parody of fictional tropes. Chapter Seven, for example, joyfully begins:

Have you ever been to Saint-Malo? I know nothing of the
place, to tell the truth, and for once my ignorance proves
my good faith; for you are not someone I would fib to, like
travelers who lie with more imprudence if they their
listeners have never been within a hundred leagues of the
place in question. Ah well! Take me as I am: a man who
has crossed the equator twice.

     Similarly, Chapter Thirteen takes on the possible impatience of the readers for all the narrative intrusions:

You grow impatient, dear reader, you seem annoyed to see
the heavy curtain of rational discourse lowered onto the stage.
If I took your word for it, my actors would have no interval
to catch their breathes. I am thrilled to hear the stamping of
your feet and your neighbors’ canes in interruption the
orchestra, while provincials in the audience call: “Begin!

The “put-down” of the reader continues for a few more paragraphs.
      Moreover, The Bohemians, like many works of its day, contains no coherent narrative. A band of would-be philosophers wander about the countryside, all arguing their ridiculous philosophical positions with one another when they are not busy stealing livestock and vegetables from nearby peasants or giving themselves up to the sexual pleasures of the women who accompany them. 
     If the work of gay-artist David Wojnarowicz so severely shocks the sensibilities of some American viewers that the Smithsonian Museum can be made to remove his work, A Fire in My Belly, then the Marquis de Pelleport will thoroughly offend conservative readers in his hilariously over-the-top depiction of an orgy held by the Bohemian troupe accompanied by a group of Capuchin monks and even a donkey. Despite the narrator’s outrageously overblown metaphors of chivalric love with which he describes all the possible combinations of sexual acts, de Pelleport allows us to almost smell the sweat of lust and dust which permeate his tribe of absurd thinkers, leading a convent head later in the book to insist he can literally smell the Capuchin upon them.
     As I have mentioned, the last chapters concern Pelleport’s life itself, a sad tale of woe he blames on his career as a writer. His adventures, however, also focus upon a rope bequeathed to him by monk which, with a quick pull, suddenly enlarges his nose, thereby attracting all women to him immediately—presumably since the protuberance hints at the size of his sexual organ. He is, at first, quite delighted, until this writer’s nose leads him further and further into danger before he becomes so utterly impoverished and entrapped that he ends up—well, we already know where—in a cell neighboring the great sexual sado-masochist.
      In all, de Pelleport’s tale is a true treat for the ears. The only problem is that, at times, it is so literate, so embedded with literary metaphors, classical stories, and references to obscure texts that the editor and translator found the need to include some 44 pages of small-print footnotes, explaining their meaning to the modern reader. These are highly useful; but the flip back and forth between text and its academic trappings leads to a somewhat arduous and laborious trip through de Pelleport’s sassy satire. 

Los Angeles, December 19, 2010
Reprinted from Rain Taxi, XVI, No. (Spring 2011).