Category: Issue 10

Fordlândia

The “Island of Innocence” only a short paddle away,

with its girls in dark rooms and the one place for a strong

drink, the nightclub with the pulsing music to push

hipbones against, the bruise formed the next morning

and the pleasure in pressing a thumb back down into it

as a reminder that not every town is prefabricated

and that the smell of rubber can fade when a face

is shoved into the L-shaped space of a young woman’s

neck. Sweet-sour residue of tobacco still stuck

on the corners of lips—a place to dip the tongue

when the sun gets too hot and the shade from

the rubber trees too sparse for so many shirtless

bodies. Force-fed hamburgers. Heat stroke. The itch

below the pants. The machete carried in the pocket

before revolt was decided on. Always, the premeditated

weapon—the body knows before the mind what it

wants. The hand knows before the eyes what it sees—

a reflex. Branches from a rubber tree can still

snap when pushed too far. Packed together so tight,

insects, the tree blight, all the bodies together working

beneath them, that heat, those trees and the disease

that seemed almost a human thing eating them away.

 

***

 

Corey Van Landingham is a Wallace C. Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, and the author of Antidote (Ohio State University Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Best American Poetry 2014, Best New Poets 2012, Kenyon Review, Narrative, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

Landscape without Apology

Think how the boys might appear on an evening without
wind, coats unbuttoned. Think of the perspective
of the fig tree, branching out, the cityscape
in its metal armor. The invisible drone.

Every hand sometimes fights itself,
clenched in the springtime, trying not to destroy
the yellow roses. Think of what this struggle looks like
from above. The remove, the refraction,

the mathematics of horizons.
That there can be multiple horizons.
That there can be multiple
selves. Inside a body. And so all the selves inside

each boy walking outside the city. They are
a city in themselves.
They are the numerous seeds
inside the fruit, the figs gathering heavy.

Or they are the birds waiting, waiting with
their mouths. Unbuttoning
their stomachs. Think what instances of want
the drone must see. How the lizard jumps

from the garage to digest the cricket. From the air,
life looks pretend. The drone could push the boys around
into toys. Arrange them into a Brueghel scene.
Think about how someone would paint the boys around

the girl. Think how their selves rise up
in their chests, trying to escape. Yes, think
about the girl. One has to think about
the girl. One has to think about the girl

without the boys above her. On, in.
She is creating a room in her mind. She digs
a place for herself outside of her body. The drone
observes her, is thus complicit in all things skin.

It could hook her, lift her up on little puppet strings.
It could cut them off, make nooses. It could
get closer. Nothing wants to get any closer.
Think how it is easy to apologize for

evil. How moving one’s lips
makes one feel less lonely. When, tired
of all the things a body can do,
one wants to unlearn. Forgive.

One builds devices to get farther
from landscapes, farther from human
on human. One says we are saved
by these technologies of distance.

One does not want the girl to be a girl
with a body. One wants her to be a stump, a doll
with her head ripped off, no distinguishing
features. No mouth to be filled again, again.

But one must think of the girl. Without the boys,
or the long blackness of a cricket’s final note.
Without the mockingbird mimicking
the neighborhood cat in heat. Without its blood

that’s been on the doorsteps. Blood, unnoticed,
on the hoods of cars warming up for a brief commute.
Without all that, think how she turns into something
else, holds rocks in her palm to hold her down.

 

***

 

Corey Van Landingham is a Wallace C. Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, and the author of Antidote (Ohio State University Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Best American Poetry 2014, Best New Poets 2012, Kenyon Review, Narrative, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.

To the Touch: Emmanuel Levinas’s ‘Dark Light’ in the Poetry of Paul Celan

There can likely be no un-historical reading of Paul Celan’s poetry. He is often recognized as the greatest European poet of the second half of the twentieth century, and it is hard to separate the recognition of his poetic achievement from that temporal break in the century. He is writing after the Holocaust, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He is writing through a period in which conceptions of the human subject were dramatically altered. Bodies were atomized, evaporated instantly. Bodies were fused to the ground, grafted to one another. Bodies were systematically starved and beaten, worked to skeletons, then incinerated and used as fertilizer. If the modern era is identified by the violent speed of industrialization and the fracturing of the subjective experience, then these are the peak events of that dissolution. As a Jew and native German speaker who lost both parents to the Nazi genocide, and who was interned in labor camps, Celan confronted these limit-experiences of being. Human as animal, human as mineral, elemental, human as ghost—what boundaries does the human form offer or impose? How are interiority and exteriority differentiated, and where is an inscribable surface located?

Celan encountered language as something that surpasses subjectivity. Marjorie Perloff suggests that this is a notion typical of late Modernist poetry. Poetry of this era, she says, “is characterized by such condensation and reduction of its symbolist base, its dissolution of the speaking subject into the fragmented world it inhabits.” Certainly for Celan the task of moving behind language’s symbolist base, of moving beyond the signifying tendencies of his German language, was amplified by its degradation into Nazi rhetoric. Nazi sensibility occupied the language, a language that Germany had already worked to territorialize, excluding Jews linguistically well before it began to physically eliminate them from the citizenry (Seeba). The German narrative arranged history as a foreground for the destined ascendance of the Third Reich. Even after Hitler’s regime, the values governing this proposed ascension still haunted the language.

Though Celan was a polyglot he had no interest in abandoning what he considered his mother tongue. He wanted to reckon with German, to dispel Nazism from the language. This wrestling with language was crucial to the country’s cultural recovery, but, to Celan’s understanding, perfunctorily addressed. In his account of Celan’s life and poetry John Felstiner writes, “Celan felt used within Germany’s cultural recovery after the Third Reich. With a nascent vocation in the early 1950’s, but sensitive to the costs of recognition, he forged his poetry partly in response to an audience that threatened to skew the past” (Felstiner, 79). For Celan, language that continued beholden to a subjective orientation inevitably retained traces of the Nazi project. Re-presenting those violent expressions and, equally, failing to account for them would be, as Theodor Adorno suggested, barbaric.

This equation would seem to impose silence. And while silence may allow for a thing to mostly die away, or for grief to exhaust itself, it does not necessarily answer for bitterness or resentment. Or if one is so abundant of perspective as to be immune from those appeals, then silence does not necessarily answer for the assertion of survival. Celan’s speech is predicated on the gravity of these historical circumstances. Celan cannot otherwise be but in his time. However, his immersion into language (as opposed to sensibility) can be studied with some release from its historical conditioning. By extracting the human subjectivity he has, in some sense, also removed the temporality inscribed by human action. “[T]he poem does speak! It remains mindful of its dates—but it speaks,” wrote Celan (Fóti). While mindful of dates, I would like to examine the materiality of Celan’s language. How does his poetry ‘free’ the language? And what does it mean to ‘approach’ speech? In a medium of its own, what does language look like, how does it behave?

~

In 1954, two years after publishing his first full collection, Poppy And Memory, Celan wrote in a letter that a poet can only hope “to overhear the word becoming free, to catch it in the act…yet the word lays claim to uniqueness, lives and sometimes evens feeds off this claim, this arrogance, still believing it can represent the whole of language, can give check to the whole of reality” (Felstiner, 78, 79). For Celan, the word is not fixed to signification and language does not signify for all of reality; it, the word, can exist without its signifying functions. Celan’s conception of language is companionable with the idea of art forwarded by Emmanuel Levinas, who emerged as a leading European intellectual in the 1950s.

Levinas claimed that in art the image substitutes for the object. The image cuts off the relationship between the object and its concept. In this gap, sensation is instantiated, or resides. “Instead of arriving at the object, the intention gets lost in the sensation itself… . Sensation is not the way that leads to an object but the obstacle that keeps one from it… . In art, sensation figures as a new element. Or better, it returns to the impersonality of elements” (Levinas, Existence 47).  For Levinas, modern art disrupts the distinctions between a ‘within’ and a ‘without’. It eliminates surfaces—or, it scuttles the dimensional references that a surface is expected to imply. This “world of the elemental,” explains Edith Wyschogrod in her essay, “Language and alterity in the thought of Levinas,” “is that of the faceless gods who do not speak.” Modern art is established by this opening, by its intervalence and not by its visibility. The images, like words for Celan, exist in “a terrain that is fundamentally non-possessable, ‘nobody’s,’ earth, sea, light, city,” describes Levinas (Wyschogrod, 198).

An easy way to misunderstand Celan’s relationship to language would be to respond as many early critics did, construing his poems as surviving on metaphor, somehow subjectless. Reviewers frequently pointed to the dream-like quality of his work. Felstiner provides us with several responses to Poppy and Memory from German reviewers. Poet Heinz Piontek wrote: “His lyrics are poésie pure, magical montage, comparable to Marc Chagall’s paintings. They have French sheen and Balkan glitter, the suggestiveness of the chanson and the modulations of melancholy. They exist wholly on metaphor.” Piontek ventured to suggest that Celan publish only when “he has something to say that is really pressing him—but not his études and finger exercises” (Felstiner, 71). Poppy and Memory includes “Todesfugue,” a poem that has become one of Celan’s most noted, and a poem that is generally considered one of the most haunting renditions of Holocaust memory. One reviewer particularly cited “Todesfugue” for its “removal of everything concrete” (Felstiner, 71).

But it is not that Celan’s poems survive on metaphor, or are somehow subjectless. This would make for vapid poetry indeed. We could say he is allusive, that his language is figurative (perhaps we will say that for now), but “Todesfugue,” for instance, is full of the concrete. In “Deathfugue,” as Felstiner translates it, the German commander is alluded to by description as “[a] man who lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes/ he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta/ he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to stay close/ he whistles his Jews into rows…” (Celan, 30). When shovels dig into the earth the commander demands a song. He grabs for his rod and demands others play on for the dancing. There is plenty that is concrete here.

Certainly, however, a reader might not expect something like graves dug in the air (“we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped”) to be literal. And “Todesfugue”’s famous refrain, “[b]lack milk of daybreak” (“we drink it at evening/ we drink it at midday and morning/ we drink it at night/ we drink and we drink”), must of course be figurative? But these moments which seem impossible can also be read more literally. Where a body, its bones, has become ash rising from the incinerators, inhaled, imbibed. Where the ash discolors the skies, the days overcast as evening, as night. Where graves are particulate matter suspended in the air—and, especially because cremation is disallowed by Jewish tradition, we might read Celan as pulling the ground up around these bodies, providing burial. While reading black milk as a provocateur of exhaustion and spoilage would be justified, Celan is describing a very actual event. If there is metaphor, it may also be seen as inherent to the metamorphic reality of his subject, bodies performing as other than bodies.

Felstiner wonders how audible a poem like “Todesfugue” was in 1953. Celan, by his own account, moved away from metaphor in 1957. No one thing is like another thing, he was certain—and there is no inseparable union, not between people. His words gained another increment of autonomy. The language was not as intent on affecting the reader, or at least in transmitting an affect that originated in Celan. Rather, the reader’s experience becomes of the words emerging into the world and their responses to the material atmosphere. Language does not provide closure; it is not determinate. Celan conveyed in a letter that he wanted to render “at least excerpts from the spectrum-analysis of things, to show them, as it were, simultaneously in several aspects and interpenetrations […] because unfortunately I am unable to show the things from all sides” (Fóti).

It would be reductive to imply that Celan entertains a poetics of indeterminancy. Celan experimented with and absorbed Surrealist principles, but he does not abandon the physicality of the world, just as he does not abandon the German language. He establishes a register of language that operates in a realm of silence. But here silence does not mean ‘not speaking’. His becomes a voice speaking, but away from language. For Adorno, Celan provided a model for language’s renewal, a language always burning at its core—and we might suspect that there was no choice for Celan, nowhere to retreat to, as his own language had been mobilized against him. It had gone through “muting” and “darkness” and, in order to speak, Celan was meeting the language where it still had life, or a memory of life, or the possibility of life.

In his collection From Threshold to Threshold, in the poem “Speak You Too,” Celan addresses a positionality residing in this muteness:

 

Speak you too,

speak as the last,

say out your say.

 

Speak—

But don’t split off No from Yes.

Give your say this meaning too:

give it the shadow.

 

Give it shadow enough,

give it as much

as you see spread round you from

midnight to midday and midnight.

 

Look around:

see how things all come alive—

By death! Alive!

Speaks true who speaks shadows.

(Celan, 76)

 

I say that Celan ‘addresses’ the positionality that resides in this muteness, rather than saying that he ‘inhabits’ the positionality because it seems that his speakers do not reside in this muteness—how could they as speakers?—yet somehow that silence is dislodged for them, their prompting comes from within the silence.

Let us dispense with explanations of Celan’s language as figurative, or even disfiguring. Figuration implies that meaning arrives by stating a resemblance. And for Celan each word exists autonomously in a realm of silence, of alterity (“speech given shadow”). This shadow that Celan invokes, this flooding, overflowing shadow (“as much/ as you see spread round you from / midnight to midday and midnight. // Look around: / see how things all come alive—”), may find description in what Levinas calls a ‘dark light’. Wyschogrod, speaking of this alterity, explains that

 

[i]f there is a content whose excessiveness overflows the capacity of consciousness to contain it, one that cannot become the aim of cognitive intention…this must be the object of a desire that precludes satiety. Such an excess is the human face whose exposure is prior to thematization. Although beyond discursive formulation, the face discloses itself as language. (Wyschogrod, 191)

 

The shadow is a contiguous multiplicity, a grid, traceable to, but not revealing of, an origin. The words, residing in alterity, in a dark light, are the premonition of otherness, of a relationship from which the self will be introduced. These words are what Jacques Derrida calls ‘revenants’, kin perhaps to the “faceless gods who do not speak” in that “non-possessable terrain.” These revenants allow for a human experience to be illuminated; in their autonomous existence these revenants stimulate a screen of consciousness, a contrast against which Being can authenticate itself.

In this material darkness, there is the recognition of the un-vocalized—it is, in fact, the un-vocalized that makes the darkness material. Here, there is longing, a burgeoning awareness of forthcoming distinction. This is an urge, a pulse. The pulse identifies, as it defines, a singularity. Which is to say, also, that an awareness of a beyond is created. And this is to say, an awareness of the distance from which otherness streams. In that interval, from within that openness—that is where Paul Celan’s poetry is aroused.

Celan apprehends language “in that sphere which a being is able to traverse, but in which its shadow is immobilized,” as Levinas observes this place of encounter (Bruns, The concepts of art 216). Across the distance, the face comes into view as speech whose first word implies obligation to the other. The dark light obscures the self that an “I” might assume to stand in for. Levinas explains Celan’s poetry as a solicitation to the other, situated “at the moment of pure touching, pure contact, grasping, squeezing—which is perhaps a way of giving, right up to and including the hand that gives” (Wyschogrod, 200).

Levinas describes the face as something that does not destroy what it signifies. We also may say this of Celan’s poems. Celan performs a darkening. We do not know, specifically, what his poems refer to. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we do not know what his words refer to. For we have been describing what his poems refer to—to the Holocaust, “that which happened,” as he named it, and quite directly to the boundary of Being, where language is shot through with light and the self thematizes. Perhaps most obviously we would say that we do not know what Celan’s images represent, because he is not, after all, making a visible poetry.

~

The consciousness in Celan’s poetry is like a reconvening instrument, able to draw its encounter across otherness back into singularity, back into silence, yet it leaves evidence of the encounter. Celan sends back words that are still emanating their desire to signify. In this way, he manages to confront otherness without the violence that confrontation implies. “[W]hichever word you speak— you owe to / destruction,” writes Celan in “Whichever Stone You Lift” (Celan, 70). Speech is a risk; to signify is to initiate and to hasten mortality. Could the self be summoned from the otherness, in relation to an other, without violating the silence of its originary, unintentional being? If the attending language can be issued without authority, then, yes, Celan seems to indicate.

Derrida describes Celan’s poetic language as a “ciphered singularity: irreducible to any concept, to any knowledge,” a “singularity which gathers a multiplicity in eins, and through whose grid a poem remains readable…. The poem speaks, even should none of its references be intelligible, none other than the Other, the one to whom it addresses itself…. Even if it does not reach and leave its mark on, at least it calls to, the Other. Address takes place.” (Perloff).

Address takes place in this “existence without existents,” as Levinas titled an early work theorizing this site of encounter). As an audience, we might wonder, what is our role? Are we merely witnesses, trespassing, even, on some ritual of language? Yet through our interactions with the poems, we are moved, informed, vexed, absorbed—they mean something to us. They speak to us. “Though the British and American versions lacked a fine ear for Celan’s rhythm and tone,” Felstiner reports about an initial English translation, “the poem’s uncanny force came through” (Felstiner, 95). “Speak You Too” concludes with this stanza.

 

 

But now the place shrinks, where you stand:

Where now, shadow-stripped, where?

Climb. Grope upwards.

Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer!

Finer: a thread

the star wants to descend on:

so as to swim down below, down here

where it sees itself shimmer: in the swell

of wandering words.

(Celan, 76)

 

Adorno said that the language in Celan’s poems is “beneath all organic language: It is that of the dead speaking of stones and stars” (Perloff). Indeed, objects are subterranean and astral, elemental. We are estranged from them, yet they are familiar; Celan lifts us into their terrain, holds us near his encounter with otherness, within feeling distance of its radiance, “where sensation figures as a new element” (Levinas, Existence 47).

Celan kept copious notebooks, beginning in his youth, of plant names, even across several languages during his relocations. I am tempted to say he understood plants themselves as translations of light, “speaking” from the same realm of silence where language designs its edges and begins to flicker. “Your leaves glance white into the dark,” he writes in “Aspen Tree” (Celan, 20). His language often feels like minerals shuffling their properties. Marjorie Perloff writes that “the difficulty of Celan’s lyric has less to do with word choice or even word order than with the absence of any and all connective tissue, whether causal, temporal, or even paratactic, in his poetic discourse. What is missing, for starters, are the pronouns.” This is always a fundamental question around Celan’s poetry, attribution. But if we are reading Celan as constructing a poetics that is non-subjective, pre-thematized, then this act of effacement follows naturally.

The objects, elemental and what might often be categorized as inanimate, are not inert. They acquire the qualities of lightness and darkness, speech and silence. In the poem, “The bright stones,” look how the stones are unearthed, lightened, and levitated toward the “you”:

 

The bright

stones ride through the air, bright

white, the light-

bringers.

 

They want to

not sink, not fall,

not collide. They rise

up,

like slender

dog roses they break open,

they float

toward you, my gentle one,

you, my true one—:

(Celan, 176)

 

Emblematic of mass and matter, stones begin to refuse their own properties. Celan resets the laws of gravity, of grave-ness. “Stone in the air” Celan writes in “Blume” (written about his son’s first word, fleur, which Celan translated to the German), and “Todesfugue”’s grave in the air—again and again, mass is lightened, matter is made less material, able to be passed through. “There was earth inside them, and they dug” Celan begins a poem in 1963’s The No-One’s Rose (Celan, 134). Perhaps this work of lofting is reflexive, muscle memory from his internment in Romanian labor camps. It was the only explanation he gave to friends who had asked what he did during that period: he shoveled rocks.

And just as objects shed their weight or disregard their materiality, words thicken. They become as much an object as stones can be. Stones can be “light-bringers” and stars shimmer in “the swell of wandering words.” A word inherits a physical role, as it must if it is to be rehabilitated, if it is to rehabilitate German language. The word must grow from the extra-territorial encounter, from within that pre-thematized space, in order to dispossess any clinging metaphors. “Word” itself appears more often than any noun except “eye” in Celan’s work (Zobel). It acquires attributes of action and intention.

The stone, the word, the eye—Celan’s objects are brought into a mid-air conversation. The darkness of the perceived underground, that which buries, is really just a viscosity; the darkness is not a lack, but a congestion of light. In “I Heard It Said” Celan writes, “I heard it said, there is / a stone in the water and a circle / and over the water a word / that lays around the stone. / […] I picked from the soil that crumb / which has your eye’s shape and stature…” (Celan, 52). Writing for “The California Journal of Poetics,” Monika Zobel offers that “[t]he eyes and perception are a recurrent theme in Celan’s poetry, which is not surprising considering that Celan is attempting to open up language.” His objects cooperate with the syntax to keep us suspended. He keeps the textual substrate from congealing. His neologisms, the rhythm of his repetitions, his lines with only a single word, with even a single word hung, hyphenated and enjambed, across lines—we never settle into a relationship with referents. “[O]verpunctuation becomes a Celan signature,” says Perloff. Celan keeps us in the substrate, in the pulsing mesh of ‘to-be’. The reader is absorbed as one more anonymous object in the terrain of “pure exteriority of being without appearance” (Bruns, The concept of art, 211). And in this intermittence, everything is vulnerable to rhythm.

Rhythm, like image, Levinas claims,

 

represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away by it…. It is a mode of being to which applies neither the form of consciousness, since the I is there stripped of its prerogative to assume, …nor the form of unconsciousness, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light, present. (Bruns, The concepts of art 214)

 

Celan conspires to sustain that vulnerability, the responsible encounter with the other. “Whichever stone you lift—/ you lay bare / those who need the protection of stones” (Celan, 70). Sheathed in shadow, cushioned by silence, the language that Celan discovers preserves the anonymity of those who need the protection. One might venture that Celan’s genius was to traverse “that sphere which a being is able to traverse, but in which its shadow is immobilized” without his shadow becoming immobilized. Levinas famously diagnosed Celan with “insomnia in the bed of Being.” Though perhaps Celan was always seeing, his poetry is not for the sighted; it is received by contact.

~

Away from Celan’s poetry, when I am with it from memory, there is so much shining and flickering in the poems, as if they will have dissolved from their pages before I return. The poems’ language seems to shimmer up. Or the words appear so precisely as to be razor-thin flecks that, if turned sideways, might become imperceptible. Celan maintains that while one must not be mute in response to atrocity, one must be intimate with muteness. The “black milk of daybreak” is the rupturing of an Enlightenment epistemology. It is a spillage of the ink that has bureaucratized modernity, that has, a-morally at best, ordered our ‘civilizing’ agencies. Celan recruits poetry to a mission beyond aesthetic contemplation. He makes us consider where the words will be felt—what of the language will leave marks? He makes us consider the weight of inscription. His own language is a pressed shadow that could also be used to pare away or scrape down the screen of its registry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Consulted:

 

Bruns, Gerald L. “The concepts of art and poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’s writings,” The

Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 206-233. Print.

—. “On Difficulty: Steiner, Heidegger, and Paul Celan,” Reading George Steiner. Ed.

Nathan A. Scott, Jr. and Ronald A. Sharp. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 134-150. Print.

Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press,

  1. Print.

Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan. Trans. John Felstiner. New York

and London: W.W. Norton, 2001. Print.

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven and London: Yale

University Press, 1995. Print.

Fóti, Véronique M. “‘Speak, you also’: On Derrida’s Readings of Paul Celan,” Mosaic: A

Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 39.3, 2006. 77-90. Online.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Ed. Adrian Peperzak, Simon

Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996. Print.

—. Existence & Existents. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press,

  1. Print.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis and London:

University of Minnesota Press, 2005. Print.

Perloff, Marjorie. “Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice,” Reading

for Form. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006. 177-202. Web.

Seeba, Hinrich C. “The Rhetoric of Origin: Language and Exclusion in Historical

Perspective,” TRANSIT, 1.1, 2004. Web.

Sherwood, Jonathan. “Otherwise Than Testimony,” The Journal of the Society for

Textual Reasoning, Vol. 9, 2000. Web.

Steiner, George. “Silence and the Poet,” Language & Silence: Essays on Language,

Literature and the Inhuman. New York: Atheneum. 36-54. Print.

Wyschogrod, Edith. “Language and alterity in the thought of Levinas,” The Cambridge

Companion to Levinas. Ed. Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 188-205.  Print.

Zobel, Monika. “Paul Celan Revisited: Moving from Silence to Speech.” The California

Journal of Poetics. 16 May 2011. Web. 20 April 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Least I Can Do

Antoine lived in Ontario, an awful place. Despite this, he’d never left. “I just like it here,” was what he said whenever anyone asked. Some people criticized him for not ever leaving town, not even on a day trip; they called Antoine a dirty, dirty chimp but they were just goosing him he knew.

Regardless, way up there, Antoine spent a good part of each morning at the Ontario Public Library, sounding his way through the words in one of its books. Today the book was called The Wishy-Washy Walrus. It opened like this: “Once upon a time there was a wishy-washy walrus.” After that, things got pretty complex pretty fast. It seems that the walrus, whose name was Washburn, was wishy-washy. To elaborate further, on certain days Washburn wished to be washed, and on other days Washburn wished not to be washed. You can see how that would be a problem.

Antoine finished reading, closed the book. And you’ve probably already formed a negative opinion of Antoine but it’s not becoming to make fun of adult illiteracy.

Antoine couldn’t decide how he felt about the book. He went to a Starbucks to ruminate on the matter. The woman in front of him in the line was a mummy—Antoine could just tell—because she was carrying a toddler—and this mummy ordered a crème brulee latte. But she asked the barista to replace the espresso portion of the drink with additional crème. Antoine thought that disgusting and would have said so except for the toddler, a little blond girl who turned and smiled at Antoine with wide green eyes. Feeling sick, Antoine went to the loo.

I know, I know, what’s a loo? Loo’s just another word for toilet, which is another word for restroom. Antoine went to the men’s loo and tried the door handle but it was locked. He pressed his ear against the door. The faucet was running, forcefully and loudly. It sounded like someone was using the sink to bathe himself. Antoine didn’t know what to do. He needed to use a bathroom urgently; he thought he might really throw up. He considered using the women’s restroom and decided that was OK, so long as he sang Tori Amos while he did it.

So that’s what he did. Beyond that I won’t say any more; let’s afford Antoine some privacy. You should calm down some. They make pills that help you relax; that’s why doctors keep offering them to you. Why do you refuse them? Every throat in the kingdom’s tasted pills; why should your throat be any different?

A funny thing about pills: they’re always white. They don’t make pills in different colors. They could; they have dyes. They could make pills red, or green, or black. But white’s all they do and why’s that? While we’re waiting, mull that over. And if you can whip up an explanation, I’d love to hear it; I’ll give you a star.

Antoine stepped out of the loo, his hands clean and dripping. He picked up his own crème brulee latte, frantically cooling at the bar. He took an unoccupied table and thought a bit more about the book. But already his memory of the wishy-washy walrus was fading, and in any case Antoine found it difficult to concentrate. Something about the table bothered him, although he couldn’t articulate what.

Antoine, like Washburn, was a complicated guy. He’d gone to the library to read. That much I’ve already told you; that part should be perfectly clear. But consider what I omitted from that account—what a library is, for instance. We glossed right over that crucial detail.

A library is a cultural institution that houses books and other media, both print and electronic, and allows random strangers to just come in off the street and examine those things. Sometimes a person can even take a few of those items with them when they leave. If so, then that library’s called a “lending library”; such institutions were invented in Philadelphia by Mr. Benjamin Franklin and they are but one of the many reasons why we are indebted to that man.

Antoine read a book. That is a pastime I shan’t take the trouble to explain. Presumably reading is something that you already know about, and can do. We will take that article on faith.

Antoine read a book. We know that. He struggled with it, yes, but consider his circumstances. He sat the whole time in a wooden chair, horrifically uncomfortable, designed to improve a person’s posture. Antoine had terrible posture; he needed that chair. Despite the pain he was in, he should have stolen it, smuggled it home with him somehow. The fact that he didn’t turned out to be (as we shall see) a big mistake, but it was but the first of many big mistakes.

(Choose a different chair, Antoine! Choose a more comfortable chair!)

Antoine lived his whole life up in Ontario, which is a province or providence or state or estate or estuary in Canada, that Great White Country to the North. I’ve already told you that, but no doubt you’ve already forgotten. Don’t worry. I will be happy to keep reminding you.

Ontario, of course, is no longer with us. It was, in its time, a pleasant enough place, with all of the modern amenities, but, sadly, Ontario was plagued by extreme geological instability. Fault lines caused magma geysers to erupt periodically and unexpectedly, and also caused shards of rock to rain down on people’s heads. Still people lived there, and loved there, and did their best to go about their simple lives. And many succeeded. Someday you and I can maybe reconstruct the place from written records, including this story.

What about Antoine? When last we left him, the young man was sitting in a semi-comfortable chair, and sipping a latte in a Starbucks. Well, that was some time ago, I fear. Time passes quickly up in Ontario, or used to. Let’s peek at the table where he was sitting, to see if he’s still there…. Oh my God, where on earth did he get to? In a panic we rush outside and scan the surrounding sidewalks and streets. And just in time, we spy Antoine’s left leather boot disappearing around the building, at the far end of the block.

Doing that funny little loping run that you do, we manage to catch up. Antoine was loping along himself, and talking; that was something he found entertaining while out walking. Some might have called it “shooting his mouth off,” or even “mouthing off,” but Antoine didn’t think of it that way. It was just a pleasant activity that he found fun (muttering quietly to himself). He liked making funny noises, and coming up with peculiar voices. “Ha, ha, ha,” he was presently laughing, cackling with gusto. He maniacally brimmed with a maniac glee, not unlike a maniac would, or might do. After with every third laugh, he hissed “Cackling Witch!” He also repeatedly whispered, “H-O-R-S-E; that spells ‘horse.’” Which was true; it did. Antoine was excellent at spelling (unlike some).

Whenever another person approached him, Antoine bottled up this boisterous set of behaviors. He didn’t want others to think that that he was crazy (which he was; he just didn’t want other people to think it). So when he passed another person, he clammed up; he zippered his mouth up. He fell as silent as a grave, as mum as a mummy.

Antoine need not have bothered; each person who passed him was preoccupied with their own colossal problems. For instance, the first one who passed him, a woman, was in fact a teenaged pregnant person. She was on her way to purchase, in order, an abortion and a handgun—heavy business. And the second person who passed him, also a woman, was on the run from the military, though that was due to a misunderstanding. Her overweight housecat, seeking warmth, had laid down on her open laptop, on the keypad, and thereby accidentally typed out and emailed a death threat to the president of the US. (Or, at least, that was her explanation.)

Antoine walked on, oblivious to all of this. He thought he was the only one with problems. He hunkered down, taking long drags from the cigarette he was smoking. Which was another thing that he did (smoke); he was into that kind of scene, enjoyed smoking culture.

What Antoine smoked were cigarettes, and pray that you don’t ever develop a taste for those infernal things. They are hard to find now, but back in the day they were as common as overweight housecats. You can look them up in your reader, where you’ll find a special section dedicated to them. And there were all different kinds, but to generalize they were rolled-up pieces of paper filled with tobacco and tar and additives and other components; who knows now what got stuffed inside the blasted contraptions, legal or otherwise (i.e., they sometimes contained a substance or two that was less than legal). People put them in their mouths and set them on fire and sucked away greedily at the resulting noxious fumes. This had the effect of making their hair smell bad, and staining their teeth, which later came loose. And it gave them all sorts of cancers, and put burn marks in all of their clothes. But still they persisted, rather obstinately and rudely, in this behavior. What’s more, they paid pretty pennies for the privilege.

But let it be said that smoking was hardly Antoine’s worst offense. And smoking is hardly the dumbest thing that humans have ever done. Humanity, I fear, is at heart a bottomless sea of stupid. There are some very terrible things that humans still do, horrific behaviors they love to get up to, and if I have the free time later on I’ll put them all down in a book, because you certainly won’t get far if you don’t ever hear about them.

And it’s always been thus. You and I might pride ourselves on being clever, and we are very clever, it’s true, we can do times tables in our heads and we know scads and reams of useful data about nutrition and exercise and aeronautics, but still, in the final analysis, we’re effectively trilobites, or troglodytes, or lobotomized trolls who’ve stood up too suddenly too often in their homes beneath wooden bridges, and cracked their heads a few too many times against those wooden bridges, and who as a logical result have not much to contribute to the culture, except (perhaps) some novel way of saying “Ouch.”

(But for now let’s learn what little we can from Antoine.)

 

Antoine didn’t just read children’s books. He was also a cartoonist; he made cartoons for a biweekly alt-weekly called Spite. They paid him $25 per cartoon. That was big money in those days.

What did Antoine look like? God almighty! He looked like a doofus! His hair flopped all over the place. Gnats plagued him, buzzing and whizzing about his ears, as did Frisbees. He was always getting bitten and bonked in the head. Parking lots he got lost in, and everywhere he went, he wore a black KISS T-shirt. That’s all he owned; he prized them. He looked like someone in need of a spanking. Secretly, or not so secretly, he craved attention all the time—unlike you or me.

Antoine got home just as night was coming on. A friend of his texted him on the way, asked him to go see a movie with him, but Antoine declined. He didn’t like being outside after dusk.

Why was that? The man was a fool, but he had his reasons. For one thing, Cackling Witch was real. She wasn’t some figment of Antoine’s imagination. She was the revenant of a dead baby, a ghost who occasionally haunted Antoine. Several years ago, when she was still alive and a toddler, just over three, she rolled away in an unattended shopping cart straight out of a Big K parking lot and into a busy intersection, where she collided with a bus. Antoine hadn’t been responsible for that calamity, but he had been there, crossing the street, and he saw it happen. And in the sickening violence of the stomach-churning moment, the baby’s spirit psychically “latched on” to Antoine’s own soul; the world is mysterious in its lengths and depths, and no one alive or dead, then or now, can explain satisfactorily how these incidents sometimes occur. The end result was that Cackling Witch was back from the grave and thirsty for human companionship.

You may have read about ghosts in your extracurricular activities, in newspaper exposes and on websites. Cackling Witch, being a ghost, was exactly identical to a ghost. She came and she went exactly the way a ghost does. Mostly she kept away from Antoine, left him alone, hovering at a distance of almost 4.95 kilometers away, but in moments of stress or great need she swooped in and hovered in greater proximity to his head. Only Antoine could see her, and she was a terrible sight to behold: her round little infant face was mangled and blood flowed continuously from the left side of her head, a steady trickle, intermixed with little white knobby chunks that we have to surmise were brain matter. And, worse, she would be like that for all of eternity. I’m very glad she wasn’t haunting me and I’m sure you feel similarly.

Lord, what a fright!

 

Whenever Cackling Witch showed up, Antonie tried his best to ignore her, to not stare at her mangled face. But Cackling Witch babbled, and Cackling Witch cried, and Antoine found it hard not to look. Baby’s have that effect on us. He’d peek and although he had gotten used to her presence to some degree, her appearance would still unnerve him. “Strawberry vomit” was what he called her facial condition; he’d gotten sick once from salmonella-infected strawberries, and the puke that his body made then had been bright red and contained large strawberry chunks.

Cackling Witch wasn’t haunting him right at the moment. His repeating her name had kept her away, or so Antoine liked to believe. He was wrong about that. Saying her name had no discernable effect—on her, on him, on anything. But let’s allow him his delusions. Antoine went inside his home, put on a movie, got drunk. His life was intolerable, he knew. He had to overcome his fears. He had to go out when his buddies texted, go watch films in theaters with them. He knew what had to be done, but Antoine didn’t feel strong enough to do it.

I sympathize with Antoine. Just like Antoine, I never go out. Despite the restaurants that I could eat at, all the rock concerts I could attend, the art exhibits awaiting my peepers—I sit at home, in my own small apartment in Chicago. Despite the wonders that surround me, the people I know. (Did you know that the finest asshole in Chicago lives just two blocks down the street from me? A very fine asshole.) I stay inside, making my living by conducting distance learning. That’s how I became your teacher, and why I’ve never shown you my face. I’m shy. That’s why I correspond only through email, and web chats, and communicate with you only through written words, electronically, each week. To what end, I wonder. Let’s continue our lesson.

I don’t know how exciting it is to watch a man sleep, especially Antoine. He tossed and turned for several hours, sobering up and upset. It was too much to process mentally. He wanted to fall back asleep, but his thoughts were bound up in an ugly container. He was a nice guy, but that Cackling Witch was too much. Cackling Witch reduced his reading level to a little child’s level. He had a psychic ghost baby dangling about his ears. He read children’s books to appease her.

Worst was the fear that she’d show up while he slept. He woke up sometime, needing to pee, and she’d be lying next to him, or hovering over his face, dripping phantasmal fluids on his blankets and on his sheets. He’d scream and Cackling Witch would scream, and they’d scream back and forth for a while, a couple of minutes. This wasn’t entirely awful; they worked out a lot of aggression that way. They really worked through some of their issues, respectively.

He knew Cackling Witch was waiting for him to have a baby, so she could enter that baby’s body, could inhabit that body and hang out inside it. He didn’t know how he felt about that desire. On the one hand, he felt tremendous sympathy for Cackling Witch. Her young life had been cut tragically short. But on the other hand, he didn’t want to have his future daughter, his beautiful darling baby girl, have to put up with having a ghost baby inside her brain. He didn’t want to look up at her playing in her playpen, or be feeding her strained peas, only to see strawberry ectoplasm suddenly start leaking out of her cute little left ear. Because Cackling Witch, mind you, no matter how cute you think she was, she was dripping with snot, with ghostly blood, with ectoplasm. Remember, her face was all mashed in. She got run over by a bus. That wasn’t fair, I admit, but sometimes that’s just the way it is.

You can die so very easily. People die. They die all the time. They are soft and they die. Metal things enter them and kill them. Or else a virus gets inside. What makes you think that you are so special that you will avoid such a fate? Huh? Hmm? All of the things you have ever heard, those things are true. Those things will come true. You are an antiquated doll.

The world is totally against us, horrifically against us. Humankind can obscure that fact, can build shopping malls and websites, and governments, but the truth is, the galaxies do not care. The whole contraption is against us. A comet could bang into us any second, and what then of your plans to go to the mall and meet a cutie and kiss and get laid? They’d all come to naught. You know this fact, in the back of your brain. It all comes to naught. “I’m carrying on, though,” you tell yourself, “as though the worst will never happen. As though that comet will never happen, or nuclear war, or outbreak of plague, or zombie infection, or alien invasion, or any or all of the horrible things predicted in science-fiction.” Which of course are just metaphors for death—your own death, and mine.

 

The next morning, Antoine felt better. The sun rose, shining brightly, just like a star. Antoine set out early, as the sun rose. He didn’t like to waste even a single second of sunlight. His agenda that morning was pretty much the same: the library, then a coffee. We don’t have to pay him such close attention this time around, since we’ve already seen him do all that once. Just assume that, today, it all went pretty much the same. Oh, there was one change, though: this time, while at the library, he read a book about a mythical animal, something they once used to have, but now no longer have. Those animals had fur and came when called and wagged their tails and said “arf.” Except when they said “woof.” Some said they were tamer versions of monsters, domesticated versions of a shaggier, feral species. Who has time though to believe in such utter nonsense?

Another difference: this time, while at Starbucks, Antoine didn’t see a mummy. Mummies are present only at certain times of the year, for instance, during the Mummy Equinox, which is a secret one that you’ve probably never heard of. Don’t believe me? Consult the Web! Margaret Atwood wrote a novel about this once. The rest of the time, the mummies are kept in silos out on the farm, in “Mummy Silos.” But except for the absence of the mummy, Antoine’s day was exactly the same. If you like, you can go back and review your notes from before.

You may be wondering what Antoine did, besides making cartoons, and how he was able to spend so much time loafing around. The truth is that Antoine was working this entire time. His job was to wear boots, see just how dirty he could get them. He could do anything he thought of: step on cow patties, walk through mud, splash through puddles—those things were OK. In this way he wandered around, thoughts and prayers spilling out of his head

The fact that he never went anywhere at nighttime conflicted with his job of dirtying boots. The earth becomes filthy after sunset, and were Antoine willing to go out, he could have gotten his boots very dirty. Then he would have earned a better salary, and a higher quality of living. Also, he would have been able to have a girlfriend. He knew that when he found the right girl, he’d fall in love and then nothing would stop him from wanting to see her. His fears would fall away, and he would become fearless. That’s what love would do to him.

 

Antoine had an affective disorder. What’s more, he knew the name for that disorder. He’d looked it up. Which I advise you to do yourself; if you don’t know what a word means, then you should look it up, you dork. They make books for that, you know; they’re called “dictionaries” and they sell them even at service stations; go buy one. Antoine went to a service station; he spent all day at the service station, eating candy and reading about the different affective disorders. Thus he could tell you, if you asked him, what “nyctohylophobia” meant (fear of dark wooded areas or of forests at night), as well as “nephophobia” (fear of clouds). Antoine didn’t have either of those fears, though he might have had nyctohylophobia; his being afraid of the nighttime kept him indoors, which put the kibosh on his discovering other fears.

First and foremost, though, Antoine suffered from “nyctophobia,” which is the fear of (you can guess this?) the dark, or the night. He disliked going out at night. The whole world then seemed dark and cold. Well, it was dark and cold. Antoine’s fears, then, were justified. But he knew they were irrationally exaggerated. Just cause the sun has gone away, there are still reasons to go out—there are, for instance, still friendly girls out having a good time, and that thought enticed him. Antoine liked girls. But Antoine also worried that the girls out during the nighttime might be vampires. He saw them during the day, and had no qualms about them then; he was happy to meet them for coffee, or for lunch. But at night, all people seemed transformed. He had his doubts about meeting anyone, male or female, for dinner and a movie. It was a quandary. Also, Antoine feared horses, which in his estimation roamed the streets freely after dark, stumbling about, looking for humans they could feed on. Horses were carnivorous, Antoine knew. He was the only one who knew that.

Antoine’s fear was so great that every night he stayed home and watched a movie. He’d seen a lot of movies in this way. If he ever went out, ever met a girl, made a friend, and that person liked movies, she and Antoine would have a great deal to talk about.

The summer was over, and winter was coming. The hours of sunlight kept getting shorter, and Antoine kept coming home earlier and earlier. Look, he’s already home again, the sweetheart. He’s sipping a beer and starting his laptop, putting on a film.

That night Antoine watched a slightly older one, about a man who (unwittingly) trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States. The dolphin had been trained to use its nose to put an explosive on the hull of a yacht that the President was on. It nearly succeeded. Also, the dolphin could talk.

Antoine thoroughly enjoyed the movie. He hated politics, hated the US President, whoever it was. (He wasn’t sure because there had recently been an election. And you may think Antoine ignorant and dumb, but can you name the Canadian president?) He figured the President, whoever it was, would be dumb enough to get blown up by a dolphin.

 

Truth be told, Antoine was feeling lonely. He texted himself so he’d receive at least one text. He liked that, and did it again. He couldn’t discern why he was behaving in such a stupid fashion. What Antoine didn’t know was that he was under the sway of an evil star. A wicked comet was winging about up in outer space, and he, Antoine, had fallen prey to its evil influences. It was tragic, as well as very, very, very, very stupid.

He knew he should go out, dirty some footwear, get something done. There sure were some friendly girls out there. There were also some delicious soups. There were girls and soups aplenty. At the same time, however, he hated the sounds of people all around him, their animal cries, the way they shouted themselves hoarse—and there was that word again! Good God! His nemesis. How he hated horses: their dead eyes, their oversized teeth, their dingy smells. So he stayed in, watched another film. Antoine didn’t like that film; he found it mawkish and fake and embarrassing. “I love you,” they kept saying to one another, and Antoine disliked that. People didn’t really talk that way, not ever, not never ever.

You may have formed an opinion of Antoine by now, decided that you dislike him. But there were some good things about the man. He didn’t believe, for instance, that people should be able to slaughter chickens so indiscriminately. He was willing to stick up for his beliefs. I knew him well, and thought him a fine man. Who are you, to judge someone like him?

Don’t think for a second that Antoine wasn’t doing something to overcome those fears! For instance, he posted about his condition on a blog or in a forum designed specifically for people who, like him, suffered from nyctophobia. And Antoine checked back regularly to read the responses to his post. And people responded. For instance, somebody responded:

 

maybe that is the illusion in your heart;

maybe you can open yourself to the night, again and again;

maybe there’s a surprise in wait for you!

 

don’t maybe. just do it!

 

Antoine smiled when he read that; the other person’s genuine concern warmed all four chambers of his heart.

Listen, buckwheat. Just because your own life is dandy and free of pain doesn’t mean you can mock other people with genuine afflictions. Your specialness and uniqueness are not as special and unique as you think. Prepare for difficult times ahead! You will become a meal for wealthy individuals. I’m not joking. We all know that by now all the wealth has been concentrated in the hands of cannibals. Prepare yourself to be eaten.

What’s more, nyctophobia’s much more common than you might believe. Me, I sympathize with Antoine. I go anywhere at nighttime; nighttime’s the worst. I know you will want to know this and so I am telling you this.

Life is so awful. I live with so much fear. There is no way to communicate this to you, unless you get hit by a bus.

 

You may have noticed there are a lot of animals in this story. Well, there were more of those things back then. I haven’t even mentioned half of the critters I could mention; I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you. For instance, Antoine had a “to do” list, and on that to do list was this task: “Look for the animal I saw.” One week prior, he thought he might have seen a Sasquatch. In reality, it was a skunk, just making its rounds, doing skunky things. Let’s hope Antoine doesn’t find it.

Since we’ve stumbled onto this topic, let’s see if we can name the animal Antoine most reminds us of. Is it a snail? A guppie? A sloth? A panda, trapped in a horrible zoo and afraid to mate? Is it a camel? Is it a Carvel ice cream birthday cake? Cookie Puss? Fudgy the Whale? What, you’ve never heard of those animals? Rest assured that they once roamed the earth, once terrorized civilization. They gobbled down children in roller skating rinks in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Connecticut, among other places.

 

The sun rose again. Antoine felt much improved. The sun rose brightly, shining brightly, shining exactly like a star. Just as before, Antoine set out early, as it was rising. You know why that was. But this day, you don’t know where Antoine was going. Because this day, the third day, was different than the two previous. Third days always are.

This morning, Antoine skipped the library. Instead, he went to the museum, the Free Ontario Art Museum, or FOAM, as people called it. They did so because if you take just the first letter of every word—the ones that are capitalized—it forms a new word, FOAM. See it now? And that’s called an anachronism, because we don’t do it any more; we’ve progressed beyond such wordplay.

Antoine went into the museum. FOAM was free that day, thanks to a generous financial contribution from a generous major corporation. That corporation is less generous these days, so I’ll decline to name it. Also, museums no longer exist. But you already know that.

Antoine wandered the corridors, contemplating the artworks. He saw paintings and he saw sculptures. He saw performance art. A Klingon stood in the hallway, daring passersby to bite his finger. Nobody bit the Klingon’s finger. Probably also it was someone dressed up as a Klingon, not a real Klingon. Either way, Antoine passed without comment, and without biting.

Antoine was just killing time. He’d actually come to see his friend, who happened to be a seismologist. Ontario used to have lots of them, due to the geological instability &c. The state’s tectonics were on the fritz.

This seismologist friend of Antoine’s was giving a lecture. The lecture was free and open to the public. Even a Klingon could go, if she wanted to go (even though it’s well known that Klingons hate lectures).

Antoine arrived in the auditorium early, took a seat. Other people arrived, and the lecture started. Antoine’s friend presented her lecture, a thesis she comprised on Virginia Woolf. Her lecture was that everyone adores Virginia Woolf, so much so that no one ever says anything bad about her. This was unusual because usually people will say at least one bad thing about an author—make some criticism, however minor. But Virginia Woolf was unique in this regard. Antoine’s friend had spent some time thinking about why this was, and she’d concluded that it all came down to four facts:

1.) Virginia Woolf was a feminist pioneer;

2.) Virginia Woolf founded a small press;

3.) Virginia Woolf killed herself;

4.) Virginia Woolf wrote exquisitely.

Antoine listened attentively but, truth be told, he didn’t follow the lecture. He didn’t grasp his friend’s thesis, and even if he had, Antoine wouldn’t have known what it meant. As far as he was concerned, his friend’s lecture didn’t mean anything. He didn’t see much point in seismology.

Once again, I see where Antoine is coming from. I’ll confess that I don’t understand seismology myself. If you’re a seismologist yourself, if you’re part of that noble profession, then I’m sorry, but I totally don’t understand your profession. Don’t misunderstand me; I like seismologists fine. They just always leave me feeling rather bewildered. Nonetheless, I want to meet one. I would do anything to meet one; I’m working night and day trying to figure out where I can go. I work all day, right from the moment when I wake up, until when it starts to get dark outside, when the sun starts to set, and I have to get up to turn the artificial lights on. And I can feel my heart beating fast in my chest, because of so much fear. I just have so much fear all the time. But I have to fight it, in order to get my first kiss. I will now make seven (horrible) observations:

1.) The earth is full of filth; it has always been full of filth, both then and now. And so shall it always be; the best we can do, you and I, is pray for a better filth. I can’t prove this or anything, mind you; you will just have to take my word for it.

2.) Most people are dumb, terrifically dumb, so dumb, they’d kiss milk cartons filled with their own shit.

3.) Most people are oh-so-pitifully dumb, they’d jump off a boat out at open sea—for no good reason! They’d just do it!

4.) Things don’t just fall out of the sky for your amusement.

5.) Our misery will be endless.

6.) Antoine had ambiguous genitalia. I saw it once, on accident. It caused him a great deal of grief. He wasn’t sure what he was, or who would want it.

7.) Other people can’t tell what you are thinking unless they can somehow tell what you are thinking. This is something you understand, and that I understand, but that Antoine did not understand.

8.) Everything seems kinda stupid.

9.) I am a psychic alien from space.

 

Antoine spent the lecture musing about the events of the past few days. He understood them about as much as he did his friend’s lecture—that is to say, hardly at all. Still Antoine thought he was making progress. He thought his life was going to improve. What a dunce.

After the lecture, Antoine congratulated his friend, told her it was the most excellent lecture ever, etc. Antoine’s friend beamed. Her name was Isabella, and she beamed. It was obvious to everyone that Isabella liked Antoine, thought very highly of his opinion. I knew; I could tell, and I often told Antoine that he was a fool. But Antoine’s obliviousness was in fact a large part of his charm.

Antoine was feeling his oats that day, thanks to it being a third day. Plus it was still very early, and light outside. So he suggested that he and Isabella go out for lunch, and get a drink. Isabella agreed. She liked to get drinks. She suggested a nearby restaurant/bar and Antoine agreed. He’d heard some rumors about that bar. Hell, I’ve heard some rumors about this bar; perhaps you’ve heard them, too? It had a cat that roamed the place freely, as well as bowls of peanuts set out on each of the tables. Patrons could eat all the peanuts that they wanted to, and throw the peanut shells on the floor. What’s more, this bar supposedly served “the greatest cocktails in the world,” a consequence of its employing “the greatest bartenders in the world.”

Which might be true. Think about it. Some place has to be the best. You and I, we are not the best. We wouldn’t dare give voice to that claim. And the cavemen, in olden times, they probably didn’t have bars, or very skillful bartenders. So. We’ve established that a concerned party can narrow down the range of time in which bartenders existed, and in which (therefore) bartenders exhibited skill. This turns out to be pretty logical, when one applies some logic to it, don’t you agree?

This bar was called Monk’s, and they did make good cocktails The best, I don’t know. The jury’s still out. Mainly, they served a drink pretty popular in those days: chocolate martinis.  They even put a Hershey’s kiss in it, on a toothpick, in lieu of an olive, or slice of lemon peel. I know, I know, it sounds repulsive. I agree. The martini’s a classic drink that’s not improved by adding chocolate. But just try telling Antoine that; the guy liked crème brulee lattes. People like what they like.

You disagree. You disagree vehemently. You’re making the ugliest face you can make. So you’re a fan of chocolate martinis? Quel surprise. I bet you like to eat Cheerios, also. I bet you eat handfuls of Special K, alone at night, standing in the pantry. So you don’t drink dairy. So you don’t have dark rings under your eyes. So you don’t have a javelin stuck in your throat. What of it? Do you expect a prize for that? A surprise birthday party? Or more? Victoria’s Secret gift card? Or a body part stolen from one of the 20th century’s numerous disposed dictators, frozen with liquid nitrogen, and stored in a box? Is that what you want? Is that what you’ve come here for?

If so, I suggest you go climb up a rope. Chocolate martinis violate the natural order. Which people violate at their own risk. Nature is watching. Nature will have a response to make. Nature is musing over the best way to make that response. Nature doesn’t like you.

 

Not that it matters. We’ll all be dead someday. There’s no getting around that, sister. Or brother. Sibling. You and I, we shall lie in our coffins, stiff, in suits or beautiful dresses. How can we live with such an awareness? And so we block it out each day, focusing on pleasures in the here and now: our next meal. Fresh air. Alcohol. Sex.

Antoine and Isabella took a table, scrutinized the menu. Besides the martinis, this restaurant was famous for its sandwiches. “Handcrafted sandwiches” is what they called them, but aren’t all sandwiches handcrafted? I mean, it’s not like there’s a machine that can craft a sandwich—some robot that slices beef, another robot that slathers on mustard. We don’t have to use nanites to slap together some bread and cheese and meats. The “handcrafted sandwiches” claim—that was just a scheme, I tell you, to separate the patrons from their dollars. I don’t think we’d fall for such a scheme, you and I. But Antoine and Isabella, the sappy simplistic fools, they fell for it readily. Each one ordered a sandwich, several sandwiches. Every sandwich.

They also ordered drinks and sipped their drinks while waiting for their food. Antoine, like I said, was feeling his oats, and making chitchat with Isabella. Isabella was being especially charming that day, laughing at anything Antoine said, and blushing. She was also doing this thing she did, this adorably charming thing. How to do describe it? Hm. No, I don’t think I can; my apologies.

The world, Antoine thought, was getting better. It used to be one couldn’t use a telephone during a thunderstorm but now, thanks to mobile phones and satellites, one could call people during a storm without any fear of lightning.

Antoine was totally truly idiotic to think that. The truth was the opposite of what he thought. The world was in fact getting worse, much worse. Antoine was in fact living in the end times, the last remaining good days on earth. Which has by now gotten nigh unbearable, as I know you very well know. (Our misery will be endless.)

 

After a long while, Antoine realized the sun had set. His panic at once returned. He couldn’t leave the bar now, go out into the widespread cold and dark. Unsure of what to do, he ordered another cocktail. So, too, did Isabella.

Isabella, Isabella, Isabella. Now she was an interesting gal. I went out with her a few times myself, spent a weekend with her in Madison, Wisconsin. No, nothing happened; get your mind out of the gutter. Nothing went down, not because she isn’t “that kind of girl” but because I am not “that kind of man.” Or something like that; something about me turns women away. She didn’t come at me with her tentacles and suckers.

Isabella hailed from Absaroka. Her hands always smelled like garlic. Her primary hobby was washing her hands. Her secondary hobby was running hurdles. She had strong calves and killer thighs. There was no way you could’ve kept up with her. She was fleet of foot and mind. Also, she was good at imitations. She could make two different kinds of faces:

1.) Asian face;

2.) Not-so-Asian face.

She had a slight stutter and subsisted almost entirely on salad. She belonged to a quilting club; she was part of the quilting craze. What else do you want to know about her?

She blew up a barge once. It wasn’t her finest moment. She regretted it even before it happened. No one was killed, but she worried that children might have died—this despite the fact that children are rarely present on barges. Still, the thought plagued her. She couldn’t shake it.

Her part in the plot was minimal, but she felt full responsibility. She hadn’t meant for her idealism to come to anything like that. She went to the police, turned herself in, confessed. She cooperated fully. She did prison time, one year, but then made parole. Her record was clean now, I think.

One chocolate martini led to another. Antoine looked around, smiling. Everyone was smiling at him. Isabella was smiling at him. They were all proud of Antoine for coming out, for overcoming his nyctophobia. Everyone knew about his phobia, had been reading the message boards. They’d been the ones posting encouraging advice. Everyone liked Antoine, you see, wanted the best for him. Plus, everyone in the place was totally drunk. Even the kitty was slightly tipsy.

Antoine had at some point taken Isabella’s hand, which was soft and warm. Isabella scooted over, leaned up against him, lowered her head upon his shoulder.

Where was baby ghost in all of this? Where was Cackling Witch? After all, we made a big deal about her earlier, saw how she terrorized Antoine. Well, it turns out Cackling Witch couldn’t follow Antoine into the bar. She was only a baby, remember; she wasn’t old enough to step inside. What’s more, ghosts don’t care all that much for drinking. They don’t like to drink. They don’t like to do anything; that’s their problem. They can’t stand the sight of humans doing anything fun. Vaguely, they remember that life was a time of activities: growing one’s first tooth, going to elementary school, kissing other people. They just can’t remember why they attached a value to those things, why they enjoyed them. They float around, bereft of any values.

Ghosts could, if they wanted to, go eat a massive steak. They could, if they wanted to, go play Skeeball. They could, if they wanted to, read Anna Karenina, backwards, in Esperanto. They had the time. But they don’t. Because behind any single ghost stands the Almighty Infrastructure of Ghosts. It’s not like a ghost can do what it wants. If it could, nine times out of ten, it would no longer be a ghost. This is simple arithmetic. I’ll assume that you can’t count.

 

Antoine ended up going home with Isabella. She lived only one block away, and Antoine closed his eyes while they walked, shutting out the dark and the cold and his fears. He let Isabella take the lead, guide him up the stairs to her place. Once inside he relaxed and they sat on the sofa and sighed and kissed and succumbed to the intimacies of their pent-up passions.

Or, if you prefer, they got down to some truly filthy business. None of which I’ll describe; if you want to read that kind of story, I suggest you go read it elsewhere. It’s certainly out there. Meanwhile, let’s you and I respect Antoine and Isabella’s privacy. Need I remind you that Antoine and I have been respecting yours all this time? So don’t be a perv.

Remember Washburn? Man, that walrus was finicky, which is another word for persnickety (which can also be spelled pernickety). I’m not going to define it any more than that; if you’re so keen to know what it means, then you will have to look it up, or figure it out from the “context clues.”

I’ll try saying more about Isabella. Isabella was sweet but all screwed up. That woman had problems of her own. She paid too much for everything—designer jeans, rutabagas, pots and pans, you name it. She paid too much for her apartment; she paid an arm and a leg for her apartment. But she didn’t trust anyone to share her apartment with her. Some time back, she’d had a roommate who did something terrible to her; she baked her cats in a casserole while she was away at work. Or, at least, Isabella had feared at all times that her roommate would do that thing.

I knew her, some. I had a crush on her, I will confess. This despite the fact she was often in a bad way. Proteins leaked from her arm, for instance, leaked from under her armpit, long, stringy substances. Also, she was an addict. She was addicted to caffeine. She was always looking to score, going around on a mad hunt for more and more caffeine. She’d drink it anywhere she found it, e.g., lying on the sidewalk. She’d get this look in her eyes and when you saw it you knew she was dying to put more caffeine molecules inside her body. What’s more, her hair was—bizarre! Also, she was like five feet high. But all that said she was very intelligent, able to reach almost ancient Greek levels of intelligence.

That is not all we can say about poor Isabella. Her lifestyle, for instance, gave her cookie cancer. Then, on top of everything else, she had deal with that, try finding a cure. She tried everything. Nothing worked. She awoke every morning still suffering from cookie cancer. (Cookie cancer is a cancer they used to have, and you can ask your grandparents more about it. Meanwhile, you should thank your lucky stars that it’s been cured. Pray that it never comes back.)

Isabella wasn’t Antoine’s girlfriend but from that day forward, he served as her darling, living love toy. He was happy to do so. You might be happy about it, too. You might, indeed, go so far as to decide that you like Isabella, are grateful for her presence in Antoine’s life. You may even decide that you like her, but I wouldn’t get too hung up on her. For one thing, she’s dead. Her energy has dissipated, disassembled, and won’t ever come back, will never be arranged in that fashion again. Nature drank her up, like a chocolate martini.

 

Events are stupid. There’s little purpose or point in relating them. I’m about to give up on the whole fiasco. You wouldn’t believe who’s sleeping with whom if I laid it all out for you in a spreadsheet. But who really cares? We’ll all be dead, come next century. Do you think later generations will really care whose privates were pressed against whose?

Let’s you and I play a game. Let’s see who can drink nineteen beers in the next nineteen minutes or less. That will be our next lesson, researching liquor. Wouldn’t you like to know where martinis come from? As well as all the other alcohols and liquors and ales and cordials, the whole damn system? I bet you would!

The world was changing. Already the small farms were going out of business. Silos were no longer needed to house corn, and so they were bought by folks who wanted to house other things. Or make indoor climbing facilities.

Me, I really hate horses; I agree with Antoine completely on that point (albeit for slightly different reasons). I could set them down in a list here, but what would be the point in that? Big machines are on the way; terrifically monstrous machines are coming to slaughter us all. I have seen this, in a prophetic bowl of soup. Or in a prophetic bowl of cereal; I can’t remember which. But be sure to watch out! Watch out for your head, as well as the rest of your organic bits. They are fragile, fragile, I tell you! Soft to the touch.

Oh, what, wait, you say you’re confused about the horses? I haven’t taken the time to explain that part of the story properly? I guess I forgot them—there were once so many animals, you know. Well, Antoine didn’t care for horses. He didn’t like ghosts, and he didn’t like horses. “Never trust a horse,” was his motto. He once wrote a poem in which he tried to express his misgivings about the beasts:

 

i’d hate

to live like a horse

in a house

meant for a horse

and wearing a costume

meant for a horse

and eating

a horse’s food

“horse d’evours”

 

Luckily, his society had evolved past the used of the horse. Horses were no longer needed. But had Antoine been born prior to the promulgation of the automobile, he would have been s.o.l.

Like I said, I’ll give Antoine that point. I’m not fond of horses. For one thing, horses were pretty filthy. They dropped their dung in the streets. For another, the word “horse” looked and sounded similar to the word “hearse” (which was a car used to transport a dead body to the graveyard). Not coincidentally, dead bodies were once transported to the graveyard by means of (can you guess?) a carriage pulled by horses. What’s more, they were rather pompous creatures, prone to parading and prancing around. Sure, other people (human beings, their handlers) led them—their masters: they geared them up, harnessed them, saddled them, reined them, rehearsed them, put them through their paces—but you could tell that the horses enjoyed it, the way they whinnied and neighed, and tossed their heavy heads.

But I hate just about every animal. You might ask why, but that is neither here nor there. Suffice to say, I have my reasons, vast fleets of reasons. You may think you want to know them, but I would advise you to meditate on that desire. It may turn out that you don’t have a stomach for that kind of knowledge, the kind of secrets that I can reveal.

Also, while we’re waiting, I want to say that I think that people these days are too timid. This has nothing to do with Antoine per se, but it’s something I think should be said, and now seems like a good enough time to say it. Who has style these days? Who has the courage to look flamboyant? Who has the balls to run out in front of traffic? Who’s willing to pick up a stick, and put on a blindfold, and flail about, trying to split a piñata shaped like a big laughing demon that’s secretly full of acid? Who has such stones? Who wants to overcome their fears? Who wants to run a half-marathon in the nude except for a pair of rugby shorts and tarnished silver nose ring? You? Me? Don’t make me laugh.

And yet if not me or you … then who? No one, no one since Antoine.

 

Speaking of Antoine, what’s that guy up to? Turns out he’s pretty much right where left him, lying in Isabella’s bed. He woke up well after the sun had risen; the boy was exhausted. Isabella had already left. She had seismology to attend to. Ontario’s plates were coming loose, or something like that. But she’d left him an egg, a soft-boiled egg, for breakfast. One thing that Isabella was good at was soft-boiling eggs. And were she still alive, I’d encourage you to do that, to make one for you. She probably would. Isabella was wonderful, very kind.

Antoine got up and got dressed and he sat down and ate the egg. He felt wonderful. He was wondering fiercely and intensely and intently whether Isabella might not be the right girl for him, the “one.” Dear God in heaven, what can you do with such a dunce? That said, he was smarter than a nematode, smarter even than the smartest nematode that ever had existed. And he was a nice guy. He would be good for Isabella, had all the requisite sensory organs. The two of them made a nice couple, I think. I don’t know. I didn’t watch. Though, later, when they had a little girl, they had to solve the Cackling Witch problem, and I don’t know whether they did; I never asked them. I wonder sometimes about that now.

Antoine himself had a busy day planned. He had tryouts later, for a play or an athletic team, he was either an actor or an athlete, I’m not sure which. But I also doubt that precision in this matter will make much difference. What’s more, that’s everything that I happen to know about Antoine. If I ever remember more, I’ll put it down in its own little book that you can read, and send you an email, to let you know. And I will give you a coupon for it so you can purchase that book at a special price, and give it a real point of pride on your bookshelf, in your collection. And won’t that be a glorious day? Hot damn, I can barely stand my excitement. But if I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

***

A D Jameson is the author of three books: the story collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), the fantasy novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), and the inspirational volume 99 Things to Do When You Have the Time (Compendium, Inc., 2013). His fiction has appeared in ConjunctionsDenver Quarterly, Fiction International, Unstuck, Gigantic Ha Ha, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and dozens of other journals; critical writing has appeared at the blogs HTML Giant, Big Other, and Press Play. Since August 2011, he’s been a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Follow him on Twitter: @adjameson.

Opal

Opal TIFF Dec 14 2013

 

 

***

 

Bernadette Witzack holds a MFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan (2013), a MA in Public Service from Marquette University and a BA in Studio Art from Beloit College. Bernadette has apprenticed as a puppet designer for Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont and Skylark Productions in New York City.  

Bernadette’s artwork has been exhibited nationally at venues including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Museum of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Portrait Society (Milwaukee), Zhou B. Arts Center (Chicago), Gallery Project (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Wayne State University (Detroit).

Castle Devour

Castle Devour TIFF Dec 2013

***

Bernadette Witzack holds a MFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan (2013), a MA in Public Service from Marquette University and a BA in Studio Art from Beloit College. Bernadette has apprenticed as a puppet designer for Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont and Skylark Productions in New York City.  

Bernadette’s artwork has been exhibited nationally at venues including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Museum of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Portrait Society (Milwaukee), Zhou B. Arts Center (Chicago), Gallery Project (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Wayne State University (Detroit).

Blotch

Splotch Dec 2013 TIFF

 

 

***

Bernadette Witzack holds a MFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan (2013), a MA in Public Service from Marquette University and a BA in Studio Art from Beloit College. Bernadette has apprenticed as a puppet designer for Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont and Skylark Productions in New York City.  

Bernadette’s artwork has been exhibited nationally at venues including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Museum of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Portrait Society (Milwaukee), Zhou B. Arts Center (Chicago), Gallery Project (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Wayne State University (Detroit).

Rose Blotch

Rose Blotch TIFF Dec 2013

 

 

***

 

Bernadette Witzack holds a MFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan (2013), a MA in Public Service from Marquette University and a BA in Studio Art from Beloit College. Bernadette has apprenticed as a puppet designer for Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont and Skylark Productions in New York City.  

Bernadette’s artwork has been exhibited nationally at venues including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Museum of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Portrait Society (Milwaukee), Zhou B. Arts Center (Chicago), Gallery Project (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Wayne State University (Detroit).

Pin the Jelly

Pin the Jelly TIFF Dec 2013 two

 

 

***

 

Bernadette Witzack holds a MFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan (2013), a MA in Public Service from Marquette University and a BA in Studio Art from Beloit College. Bernadette has apprenticed as a puppet designer for Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont and Skylark Productions in New York City.  

Bernadette’s artwork has been exhibited nationally at venues including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Museum of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Portrait Society (Milwaukee), Zhou B. Arts Center (Chicago), Gallery Project (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Wayne State University (Detroit).

Sue Polka

Sue Polka TIFF Dec 2013

 

 

***

 

Bernadette Witzack holds a MFA in Art & Design from the University of Michigan (2013), a MA in Public Service from Marquette University and a BA in Studio Art from Beloit College. Bernadette has apprenticed as a puppet designer for Bread & Puppet Theater in Glover, Vermont and Skylark Productions in New York City.  

Bernadette’s artwork has been exhibited nationally at venues including the John Michael Kohler Art Center, Museum of Wisconsin Art, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Portrait Society (Milwaukee), Zhou B. Arts Center (Chicago), Gallery Project (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Wayne State University (Detroit).