Monday, April 30, 2012

AFFLICTION FICTION: Brian Evenson's Work

The Open Letters Monthly has just published its May edition. It includes my review of two new works by Brian Evenson in the context of his earlier work.

Click HERE to read it.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Wildflowers #10 + Blue the Botanizer

scrub-oak pollen

Indian paintbrush / Castilleja linariaefolia

Astragalus, not sure which species, different from the one in the earlier post / milk vetch

Blue the Botanizer

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pictures of Softness

The new leaves of the scrub oak and the maples are as soft as a baby's bottom. Walking through them this morning, touching and marveling at their tenderness, I wondered if I could photograph softness. So I tried.

scrub oak



our little meadow with arrowleaf balsamroot blossoming

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Creatures of the Day and Night: Wildflowers #9

some kind of composite, just open today

ant + scrub oak, Quercus gambelii

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Brian Evenson's Dark Property

On May 1, Open Letters Monthly will publish an essay of mine called "Affliction Fiction." In it I review Brian Evenson's two new books in the context of the rest of his work.

As the essay developed, I cut pieces and added other pieces. A few of the cut sections here:

I watch eagerly for new books and stories by Brian Evenson. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, on display recently in the stories “Bon Scott: The Choir Years” and “Niue.” Imagine the awkwardness that ensues after AC/DC singer Bon Scott is found singing surreptitiously with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or the comic possibilities in a story named after a tiny Pacific island nation that opens with this question: “And how is it that the brooding Johnny Hellspider, long having restricted his posts to two-word comments such as “You rock!” or “Satan lives!”, has suddenly become so loquacious?”
Evenson’s quickly expanding body of work has a darker side as well. When “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” arrived in the mail, for instance, the chapbook lay on my shelf unread. It requires a certain resolve and a reasonably stable state of mind to read Evenson’s more unsettling texts; and something about the title and the cover illustration destabilized my resolve. A few years later, I had no such trouble with Evenson’s Baby Leg, despite a white linen cover marked by blood-red prints from the author’s own hands. By that time I had also read and enjoyed “The Brotherhood of Mutilation,” expanded between handsome noir covers as the novel Last Days (winner of the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009).
Given my sometimes conflicted relationship with these books, I’m left to wonder about my fascination with what I have come to think of as Evenson’s “dark property” (the title of one of his best and most disturbing books). The reasons I read and return to these books are multiple; but they generally have to do with questions of who I am as a creature of language. Brian Evenson’s work explores and plays with and sometimes eviscerates that creature.
. . .

Lest the notions I have perpetrated here about Evenson’s grim epistemology discourage prospective readers, I should note again that he is a superb humorist. “The Prophets” is an excellent example, a story surprisingly relevant today as Tea Party readers return to texts by Mormon Cleon Skousen and ideas advocated by Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture and later Mormon prophet Ezra Taft Benson. The story is told by a Mormon named Verl who decides his Church has abandoned Ezra Taft Benson’s teachings and fallen prey to liberal ideas that threaten the whole country:
The way it was laid out to me, Ezra Taft was the last real President of the Church worth his salt. All the ones since him were liberals, people who the Lord had inflicted upon the Church for its wickedness. Ezra Taft, though, he was a good John Bircher who saw with a clear eye the importance of our Founding Fathers’ Constitution, not to mention the evils of the Federal Government. He saw like it was in broad daylight the conspiracy of the New World Order, and to top it off he supported gardening and self-sufficiency.”
So what to do? Verl drives to Idaho, steals a backhoe and digs up Benson’s corpse. Back in Utah, he tries to revivify the dead prophet, first with cosmetics and then with electricity. Insistent on the religiously constructed world he prefers to reality, Verl reads the subsequent disastrous events as meaning exactly what he wants them to mean and remains hilariously triumphant even as the physical laws of the universe run their relentless course.

Finally, a somewhat embarrassing personal revelation. I see myself as a sharp-eyed literary critic. I discovered the source for the Freemasonic conversations in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and I was the first to notice that Rilke’s ten Duino Elegies hinge on an “ineffable site” preceded by 423 lines and followed by 423 lines. So when I realized that a one-eyed character in Evenson’s Last Days gazes at Kline’s missing hand with “eyes dilating,” I figured out I was on to something important. My musings on that singular/plural paradox can be found here ( ). 

More recently, rereading Evenson’s short-story collection The Wavering Knife, I stumbled on a mistake in “Moran’s Mexico: A Refutation, by C. Stelzmann” and began to congratulate myself again. “The only reference to a so-called Rodriguez in my grandfather’s original,” C. Stelzmann writes, “comes underneath a photograph entitled Tortilla bereiteren.” Aha! I thought. This should read Tortillabereiterin—the “in” means woman. I made a note in the margin, ready to send on the correction for the author’s next edition. Then I turned back to the story.

C. Stelzmann is the grandson of the author of a travel book about Mexico that has been appropriated by its translator Moran, a man C. Stelzmann calls a postmodernesco and whose intertextual “translations” he decries. By the second page, a reader discovers that the grandson’s refutation of Moran has been translated from the original German by a translator present in copious footnotes that systematically undermine the claims and abilities and even the sanity of C. Stelzmann. For instance: “C. Stelzmann, who seems to have no knowledge of animal husbandry, does not realize the animal photographed is a cow, a female, and thus not likely to search for a wife”. Even as I chuckled at what unfolds as a literary-critical parody, I still plied my critic’s tools, counting up the degrees of linguistic remove from the original Mexico: 1) A. Stelzmann’s account, 2) Moran’s “translation,” 3) C. Stelzmann’s refutation, 4) the translator’s text and notes, 5) my notes on the mistakes in the German. Number five brought me up short. C. Stelzmann and the translator are both laughable characters, all too certain of their certainties. And so am I. Evenson has sprung the trap.

Brian Evenson, Director of Brown University’s Literary Arts Program, has produced a remarkable body of work over the course of fifteen years. There are novels and separately published novellas: Father of Lies (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998), Dark Property (Black Square Editions, 2002), The Brotherhood of Mutilation (Earthling, 2003), The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006), Last Days (Underland Press, 2009), Baby Leg (Tyrant Books, 2010), and Immobility (Tor Books, 2012). There are three science fiction novels published under the name B. K. Evenson: Aliens: No Exit (Dark Horse Books, 2008), Dead Space: Martyr (Tor, 2010), and Dead Space: Catalyst (forthcoming from Tor, July 2012). There are books of short fiction: Altmann’s Tongue (Knopf, 1994; reprinted with the addition of an O. Henry-winning story by Bison Books, 2004), The Din of Celestial Birds (Wordcraft of Oregon, 1997), Prophets and Brothers (Rodent Press, 1997), Contagion (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2000), The Wavering Knife (Fiction Collective 2, 2004), Fugue State (Coffee House Press, 2009), and Windeye (Coffee House Press, 2012). There are translations: Rafael Cadenas’ The Space of Silence (with Trenton Hickman, Pyx Press, 1995), Jacques Dupin’s Giacometti: Three Essays (with John Ashbery, Black Square Editions, 2003), Jacques Jouet’s Mountain ® (Dalkey Archive Press, 2004), Cristian Gailly’s Red Haze (with David Beus, Bison Books, 2005), Claro’s Electric Flesh (Soft Skull Press, 2006), Jules Romains’ Donogoo Tonka (FORuM Project, 2009), and Manuela Draeger's In the Time of the Blue Ball (Dorothy Project, 2011). And there are introductions to books, essays, and even a literary-critical book, Understanding Robert Coover (University of South Carolina Press, 2003). Evenson’s work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Slovenian.

Wildflowers #8: FLAX

FLAX follows PHLOX.

Blue sky, blue flower.

Blue Flax / Linum perenne

Saturday, April 21, 2012

PHLOX! Wildflowers #7

PHLOX. The word calls for caps. Such a tasty word, I guess, due to the three erect consonants jammed together at the front and then the ultimate X after that big fat O.

PHLOX. Fire, in Greek. And there it was flaming this morning just east of the driveway.

Long-Leaf Phlox, Phlox longifolia

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Evening Panorama: On a Difficult Evening

Why is it that beauty can add to AND subtract from despair?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Wildflowers #6: An Explosion of New Blossoms

Hydrophyllum capitatum/ballhead waterleaf

Balsamorhiza sagittata arrowleaf balsamroot

not sure about this one

Quercus gambelii/scrub oak catkins

maple greening up in the scrub oak

tasty breakfast for the deer

Astragalus, but what genus? milk vetch

not sure about this one either

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tom's Jazzy Clarinet -- bottom right

Back from heart surgery, winter turns to spring, Tom in the Times.

click on the image for a larger version


Over the last couple of days I devoured Terry Tempest Williams' new book When Women Were Birds.

Devoured is the right word. The meditative form of the book was, as my friend Alex Caldiero has said, "the food that fits the hunger": "Fifty-Four Variations on Voice."

Devoured is the right word because I was hungry for this women's voice: "I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. . . . 'I am leaving you all my journals,' she said, . . . 'But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.'" She looks at them a month after her mother's death and they are all blank, empty, untouched. 

Twelve blank, white pages follow before variation II begins: My mother's journals are paper tombstones.

Devoured is the right word because Williams describes a life hungry for voice, a voice silenced by male politicians and by male church leaders and even by a crazy man intent on sacrificing a supposed virgin Williams with an ax.

I'd like to quote the entire book.

From Variation XXV:

[In the Mormon temple experiencing a ritual "endowment"]

"As I listened to this biblical text being read on the eve of marriage, the only word inhabiting my mind was fuck. I blushed. This was not a word within my vocabulary as a chaste nineteen-year-old woman. Shocked by the betrayal of my own imagination, I tried to clear my thoughts, keep my countenance clean and pure. But the word kept pressing me, fuck, fuck, a word I had never spoken out loud. . . . 'In the beginning was the Word.' Nobody warned me about which one."

Devoured is the right word because Williams' experience here is my own. The last time I entered a Mormon temple, there for the marriage of my oldest son, I was asked to be one one of two official witnesses to the ceremony. The man performing the ceremony began with something like "before Gods, angels, and these witnesses. . . ." My mind flooded with profanities of the worst (or best) sort, uninvited, disturbing, and revelatory of what my subconscious already knew: this place and this ritual was antithetical to the person I wanted to be.

From Variation XXVII:

"My body is my compass, and it does not lie. As women, we are quiet about our personal lives, especially when it comes to sex. We are quiet because there is a history of abuse and harm committed toward those who tell the truth."

. . .

"When we were children, we visited Mother in the hospital. We were told she was having 'corrective surgery.' Later I learned she made the decision to have her tubes tied, not a common practice among her peers. 'Freedom,' she said.

"Birth control gave me my voice. It is perhaps the only thing in my life about which I have been utterly responsible."

. . .

"If a man knew what a woman never forgets, he would love her differently.

"What a woman never forgets is when she allows a man to make love to her, she enters a pact with angels that should a child be conceived in that moment, she holds the life of another. A man can come and go, he pulls out and walks away. But a woman stays. . . . Until she bleeds, she imagines every possibility from pleasure to pain to birth to death and how she will do what she needs to do, and until she bleeds, she will worry endlessly, until she bleeds."

My mother's journals tell me nothing.

My mother's journals tell me everything.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Wildflowers #5 + taxonomy

glacier lilies and wasatch bluebells

Taraxacum officinale + Artemesia tridentata

18 March 1999, Great Western Trail, Mt. Timpanogos

            A velvety, blue-spotted mourning cloak flits across our path. I chased these as a child at my grandparents’ farm in Windsor, Colorado. Some childhood experiences never leave us.

            When I decided to move from Tennessee to Utah, the Dean of Vanderbilt’s School of Arts and Sciences asked if BYU, where I had been an undergraduate, was offering me more money. “No,” I said, “I miss the smell of sage.” In my case, at that point, for complex reasons, visceral memory trumped academic prestige.

Another insect flashes past, a brilliant scarlet-orange patch under its wings.

            “Box elder bug,” Sam says, “Boisea trivittata.” Named by Thomas Say, an American entomologist who was part of an expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819 and 1820. He was the first to classify and name the coyote and the lazuli bunting.

            Up the trail, a panzered lady bug splits its orange shell to reveal black wings. Small spiders dodge our tires. And when I think I have found the first tender green leaf on the still barren oakbrush, it turns out to be a lime-green stinkbug.

            At the top of the hill, Sam points to a tiny low plant with small red leaves: “Some plants use this red coloring to protect themselves from the bright sunlight that bleaches out their chlorophyl. It’s called anthocyanin, the same substance that, along with tannin, may make red wine good for the heart and that causes the red coloring in leaves in the fall.”

            “Thanks for the lecture,” I tell Sam, “Glad to be out with a botanist. Let me ask the expert a question. Last night I looked up death camus in both of my field guides to wildflowers. The one lists only meadow death camus, Zigadenus venenosus, and doesn’t mention any other variants. The other book describes mountain death-camus, Zigadenus elegans, and notes the existence and characteristics of Zigadenus gramineus, Zigadenus venenosus, and Zigadenus paniculatus. What’s the deal?”

            “You’re on to something interesting here,” Sam says. “You’ve discovered the war between the lumpers and the splitters. Your second guide was written by splitters and your first by lumpers. Lumpers see splitters as scientists who proliferate species designations endlessly on the basis of insubstantial differences. Splitters see lumpers as scientists who are too lazy to pay attention to detail.

            “Dandelions, for example, are a great source of tension between splitters and lumpers. They grow from Alaska to Patagonia and lumpers call all of them Taraxacum officinale. Because dandelions are self-fertilizing, mutations tend to stick and splitters distinguish hundreds of species. Check your guides and see what you find.”

            At home I open Carl Schreier’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountains. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is listed as a single species. Craighead/Craighead/Davis’s Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, however, lists the names of three dandelions that occur in the Rockies, and then states that “close to 1000 species of Taraxacum have been described, but conservative botanists now recognize around 50.” Schreier is a lumper, Craighead and friends splitters. It’s that simple. Once Sam points it out.

            I bought these guides expecting scientific facts. Instead, I get judgments, assessments, interpretations built on biases. “Truth,” Nietzsche wrote, “is a mobile army of metaphors.” I’m fifty years old and have known this for decades. Now I know it again.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Günter Grass: What Must Be Said

Quick translation of the poem published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on April 4, 2012

What must be said

Why am I silent, silent for too long about
what is plainly evident, about what is drilled
in war games at the end of which we
survivors are, in any case, footnotes.

It is the asserted right to a first strike
that could eliminate the Iranian people
enslaved and made into organized celebrants
by a mouthy hero because in his realm an
atombomb is supposed to be in construction.   

But why do I not allow myself
to name that other country by name
in which, for years — although kept secret —
a growing nuclear potential lies ready
but not monitored because there is no access
for investigators?  

The general silence about this state of affairs
in deference to which my silence exists,
I experience as a burdensome lie
and constraint with punishment implied
the moment it is disregarded;
the verdict "antisemitism" is understood.

Now however, because my country,
a land of ancient characteristic crimes
without comparison,
again and again taken to task and called to explain,
once again and as a business transaction, if also
claimed cavalierly as reparation,
is to deliver an additional submarine
to Israel, whose specialty
is to have the capability of directing annihilating warheads
to where the existence of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
though fear wants to provide the proof,
I say what must be said.

Why, however, was I silent until now?
Because I thought my ancestry,
afflicted by a never-to-be-overcome stain,
requires that this fact never be spoken as truth
about the land of Israel to which I am bound
and want to remain bound.

Why say only now,
aged and with my last ink:
The atomic power of Israel endangers
world peace, delicate in any case?
Because what could be too late as early as tomorrow
must be said;
also because we — as Germans burdened enough—
could be contributors to a crime
that can be foreseen, with the consequence that our complicity
could be overcome by none of
the usual excuses.

Admittedly: I remain silent no longer
because I have had enough of the hypocrisy 
of the West; in addition, one might hope 
that many might free themselves from silence,
challenging those responsible for the predictable danger
to renounce violence and
also to require
that unhindered and permanent oversight
of the Israeli atomic potential
and of the Iranian atomic facilities
by an international court
be allowed by the rulers of both countries.

Only thus can all find succor, the Israelis and Palestinians,
and even more, all people who live densely packed together 
as enemies in these 
regions occupied by insanity
and in the end we too.


. . . a response today (20 April) from poet Alex Caldiero:

What must be said after Gunter Grass’ What Must Be Said

You say what must be said with such
delicacy and consideration for the inevitable
feelings of those who would rather not hear
what you have to say, and who would prefer
to gag you even as you hesitate and carefully
craft your words so that they should not offend
which makes them that much  more offensive,
an inevitable outcome, bigger that language
almost, if it were not for words themselves
by nature divested of any invested meanings
but one: what ever must be said must not be
said in any way that would put the situation
into question, that is, what must be said must
not be said at all, and so I would turn it into
a question thus: What must be said? and
How must it be said? And I would ask that
of the only one who could possible answer:
Oh Israel! Tell us! What words must we use
to override any misunderstandings? Tell
us, how should we word or describe and allay
any kind of disapproval which you may
feel by words only superficially couched in
criticism, but which are cripples on rough
terrain. – Have we said it yet? And How will
we know that we have said it? There, getting
close, too close for comfort, so we must be
saying it right now. The submarine, oh
Israel! You know the one? The one for
your self-defense, that which no one
should deny you, self-defense, which
is indefensible for any one to question
your right to it, it’s just that…that…and
this much must be said, but cannot be
said, even by far better writers than
I, who am using the English language,
Or, to be more exact, the American
Language, which is so quick to hide
and fog the glass of clear conscience
in past decades of indiscretions,
language at the service of politically
constructed thoughtfeelings never
to sound out its liberty bell with
clapper in hand of some one or
other and Whitman himself would
have been tongue tied in the
middle of his rhap-sody, and
which should I hope otherwise
for any of us who even dare to
think what must be said and
must leave it unsaid, even
at the risk of seeming
to betray conscience
and good sense
and ideals
d &