Friday, December 15, 2017

The Spy who Like to Stay Out in the Cold

Patrick Marnham

Semi-Invisible Man is a biography by someone who dislikes biography about someone who disliked exposure,' declares Julian Evans in his preface, adding that he wrote this book only to stop anyone else doing so.

From such an unpromising start, he has nonetheless written an excellent literary biography about one of the truly outstanding writers of our time — a man described frequently as a travel writer but who defies categorisation.

Norman Lewis's 14 novels have been likened to those by Graham Greene and his non-fiction shows him to have been a great reporter and a contemporary historian.

Evans was Lewis's friend and publisher, and he has diligently gathered a wealth of material from family papers and interviews with Lewis's childhood sweetheart, his third wife, his six children and many others.

Born in 1908, Lewis was clever, though badly bullied at school. At one point, he was sent away to live with his Welsh aunts, an episode he describes vividly in his memoir, Jackdaw Cake.

His parents were eccentric almost to the doors of the asylum. After losing three of her four young sons, his mother turned to spiritualism. His father — a gloomy Welsh alcoholic — considered their home in Enfield, Middlesex, a foreign country.

Gwen Nicholls, who grew up with Norman Lewis and who stoutly resisted his persistent attempts on her virtue, remembers 'the Arab of Enfield', a 14-year-old boy who was determined to set himself apart.

Lewis was outraged when Gwen decided to marry someone else and, though uninvited, he attended her wedding so that he could interrupt the service at the appropriate moment. Gwen admitted to finding this 'incredibly flattering'.

To teach Gwen a lesson, Lewis married Ernestina Corvaja, an enigmatic Sicilian beauty whose father, banished from Mussolini's Italy after committing a serious crime, became an admired figure in Norman's life for 'his implacable loyalty and sense of fatalistic irony'.

Lewis was attracted to the Corvaja family because of their openness of mind, and lack of religious belief, classconsciousness and national pride.

All this was contrasted strongly with Enfield and an England that was beginning to give him asthma. Lewis started out as a small businessman with a specialist camera shop in Holborn, central London.

The business did well and he raced his own Bugattis — but he was bored and he started to travel with Ernestina. Once he stepped abroad, the asthma disappeared.

The embarrassment of Norman Lewis's childhood shaped a personality that was extremely wary. He once said that he was the only person he knew who could enter a room, sum up the situation and leave it without anyone knowing he had been there — a helpful attribute for someone who worked as a part-time British spy.

In the modern world of literary festivals and me-and-myfamous-life promotions, Lewis would have been a publisher's nightmare. In fact, he was pretty much a publisher's nightmare anyway, twice abandoning his career as a novelist, refusing to be categorised as a travel writer and capable of passing an entire business lunch in silence.

There was nothing to be done with Norman except publish him — and insist on the exceptional quality of his work.

Despite early critical acclaim, this was not the way forward and in the Seventies Lewis said he had given up going into bookshops because he became so depressed when he saw that his titles were never in stock.

He turned to journalism and wrote a famous article in The Sunday Times Magazine about the genocide of the Brazilian Indians. This piece led to the creation of Survival International.

Working with Colin Jones and Don McCullin, he contributed a celebrated series of foreign reports from around the world, frequently battling American foreign policy.

Evans includes a wonderful account of a farcical trip Norman made to Peru in search of the Senderosa Luminosa guerillas.

Unfortunately, McCullin had been replaced by Lord Snowdon, who tried to treat Norman as his valet, while insisting on 'No publicity'.

Norman said it was the worst trip he had ever made and opened his account of his misadventures by asking: 'Have you ever heard of a man called Lord Snowdon?' During 1982, Lewis was reinvented by the energetic young publisher John Hatt who reprinted A Dragon Apparent, Lewis's account of Indo-China during France's war with the Viet Minh.

Hatt followed this with four other titles, including Naples '44 — which American writer Martha Gellhorn chose as her best travel book of all time.

Lewis had gathered the material in his wartime capacity as a field intelligence officer. Much of the information came from the office wastepaper basket.

Semi-Invisible Man is a sensitive and perceptive record of a very difficult subject and deserves every success. Evans deals with Lewis's three marriages fairly, and is scrupulous about confessing when he has no information.

Many of Lewis's titles are back in print, but two of the best of his early novels, The Day Of The Fox and The Volcanoes Above Us, currently await a publisher.

Norman Lewis died in 2003 aged 94, cared for by his third wife, Lesley. Shortly before he 'made himself scarce' for the last time, he called out for 'Monty' — the beloved older brother he had lost when he just seven.

Credits:  This article has been published here with slight changes for clarity.  The review originally appeared in Mail Online (June 2008).

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

TLY:  Today’s guest is Peter Cowlam, a writer of numerous gifts and author of Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? and Across the Rebel Network.

Peter, always a pleasure!  Thank you for talking to us.  You grew up in England.  Would you tell us a bit about your background? 

PETER: My family can trace its roots to Lincolnshire, a county in eastern England that extends along the North Sea coast from the Humber estuary to the Wash. There are still lots of Cowlams there, and variants of that name. Peripheral to family mythology is the ancestor who, thanks to Thomas Edison, was the first person in Lincolnshire to have the electric light, and thanks to someone else had his own silver band. The imagination swims at the combination of that imagery. By the time my grandmother was born, her family fortune had been drunk away, and she, when still very young, was obliged to seek work in service in the West Midlands, which at that time still resounded with the hammer blows and anvil of the Industrial Revolution. Her husband-to-be followed her down from Lincolnshire, and found work as a coach-builder. My father was born in Birmingham, as was my mother. The two of them met in the drawing office – my father an engineer, my mother secretarial – where both of them worked. By the time I was born they had moved to the East Midlands, though I was christened in St Germain’s, Edgbaston, where my father had grown up. But I also spent part of my childhood in Switzerland. My father had work with an American firm whose European HQ was in Zürich, and whose contracts were bound up with German post-war reconstruction after the Marshall Plan. His part in it was in the restoration of industrial production in the German-speaking world, in the design of factory plant. The rest of my childhood was spent in the English Southeast, where my father had work with engineering firms in Frant (not far from Tunbridge Wells) and latterly in Greenwich. As well for me, as the English Midlands, long after its industrial boon, suffers as one of the worst regions for social mobility, while disproportionate opportunity is centered on London and the Southeast, the powerhouse of finance and its related service industries. My time in that part of the world took me into IT, an industry I finished with soon after I was assigned projects working on algorithms, before the internet had really got going, for the global transfer of money, institution to institution.

TLY:  Have you lived in other countries?  Traveled?  Any war stories?

PETER: Apart from Zürich above, and that as a result of parental migration, Sarah and I and our two children lived for six months in New Zealand, in the late 1990s. Good friends of ours had emigrated there, and made us promise to visit before too long. We didn’t think a flying visit to a location halfway round the world was the best plan, so we opted for six months. We lived on the Marua Road, in Ellerslie, which is a town in Auckland famous for its race course, and a short drive along Highway 1 to the city centre. NZ is a country of enormous diversity: volcanoes, limestone caves, glacier lakes, kauri forests, fjords, long sandy beaches, the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps, and it retains a strong Maori presence, culturally, architecturally, with meetinghouses everywhere. We travelled the length and breadth of both the North and South Islands, in an ancient Nissan Bluebird, bought at auction on Ellerslie Racecourse. In its thousands of kilometres up and down mountains, along highways and unmade roads, it broke down only once, a blessing, given these were the days before the prevalence of mobile phones. Then one day I read in our local paper in Ellerslie of someone surname Coulam who had just published a book. His was a variant on my own name I had never seen before. There were plenty of Coulans, Cowlands and Coulands – but never a Coulam. The paper’s editorial department gave me his phone number. I congratulated him on his book. He told me his family traced its ancestry to Lincolnshire, though he was not a bit interested, he said, in genealogy. His brother was, and that’s where he’d got his information. I thanked him very much, and made a note. After New Zealand it was two months touring round Australia. As to ‘war stories’, I have thrown away my shield.

TLY:  What genres do you most enjoy as a reader?

PETER: I am not a systematic reader, and I don’t read as much fiction as I used to – picking up whatever takes my fancy. At the moment I am reading essays by Thorstein Veblen, Browning’s The Ring and the Book, and a generously plump volume of essays on physics, astronomy and maths. Whichever one of those it is depends on the time of day (I have three reading slots: morning, evening, night). Veblen was a nineteenth-century Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, who has had an influence on non-Marxist critique of capitalism and technological determinism. His jumping-off point in the essays I am reading is the Physiocrats, a school of economists founded in Enlightenment France. Its central idea was that government shouldn’t interfere with natural economic laws, and that the wealth of nations was derived from productive work on the land and the value of its agriculture. That is in contrast to earlier schools, in particular that of Mercantilism, whose focus was on ownership, the owner’s wealth, the accumulation of capital, and trade. You begin to see whose spell we are under now, centuries later.

Browning’s dramatic monologues I have long admired, but The Ring and the Book has been on my shelves for over a decade. I have only now had a chance to open it. The town where I live had four antiquarian and remainder bookshops when I first moved to it (it now has only one), so I spent my first few years here buying more books than I could possibly read.

The Ring and the Book, a long narrative poem written in blank verse, is divided into twelve books. Each of the twelve is a dramatic monologue supposedly delivered by one of the characters in the story. The story is based on an actual murder trial in Rome in 1698, where Pompilia, a young woman, is unhappy in her marriage – an arranged marriage – to the cruel Count Franceschini, an older man, who is titled but insolvent. When she asks a young priest to help her return to her parents, the count discovers the plot and finds them. He has Pompilia sent to a convent, and banishes the priest. Nevertheless Pompilia returns to her parents, whereupon the count arranges for the assassination of both her and her parents. The count is arrested, and a trial commences. Browning came across an account of that trial in the market in Florence, and used it as the basis of his poem—

‘Do you see this square old yellow Book, I toss
I’ the air, and catch again, and twirl about
By the crumpled vellum covers,—pure crude fact
Secreted from man’s life when hearts beat hard,
And brains, high-blooded, ticked two centuries since?
Examine it yourselves! I found this book,
Gave a lira for it, eightpence English just,
(Mark the predestination!) when a Hand,
Always above my shoulder, pushed me once,
One day still fierce ’mid many a day struck calm,
Across a Square in Florence, crammed with booths,
Buzzing and blaze, noontide and market-time,
Toward Baccio’s marble….’

The third on my list of current reading – a cornucopia of physics, astronomy and maths – is aimed at a lay readership, though it cannot help enter into complexities that are vastly beyond my scope. It ranges from the realm of the atom, to time and space, to AI and computers, to science philosophy. One of my good friends once reminded me that the universe is quite indifferent to me. True, but it doesn’t stop me wanting to know about it. I would really like to get it straight, just what it is all of us have got ourselves into. I asked Professor of Physics Jim Al-Khalili if what dark matter really amounts to is tiny particles that undergo stretching as the fabric of the universe expands, to the point that rather like cell division they divide. He was polite in his dismissal, pointing out that (and I paraphrase)—

Expansion of the universe takes place only in the vast gaps between galaxies. At the level of particles, the forces between them, even the very weakest of the four forces, are enough to stop space expanding. Although at the quantum level particles and their antimatter partners do, out of nowhere, pop into existence (cp. my idea of multiplication or cell division) this can only happen if the energy books are kept balanced. There either has to be enough energy in the vacuum to create them in the first place, or they must disappear again very quickly to repay their debt to the universe.

I am chastened: a little knowledge leads one up a cul-de-sac.

TLY:  What aspect of the writing process do you find most difficult?

PETER: The word count. Anthony Burgess would have wondered what I get up to all day, it is so pathetically low.

TLY:  What inspired you to write Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize?

PETER: In my last few years living and working in London I subscribed to various literary journals and assiduously read the review pages in the weekend broadsheets. I began to get uneasy with this when I soon saw it was the same small cluster of writers lavishly attended on and held up as paradigms. This didn’t fit with my experience, when I was reading writers and poets who barely rated a mention, serious artists no less accomplished than the cabal I was under instruction to admire. That raises the prickly matter of assessment. If you are being offered an expert view, and it’s a view you don’t agree with, you are entitled to ask who the experts are, what is their expertise exactly, by what authority do they exercise that expertise, and how has that authority been granted to them (and not to someone else, for example). And what is an expert? I like Niels Bohr’s definition—

‘Many people will tell you that an expert is someone who knows a great deal about his subject. To this I would object that no one can ever know very much about any subject. I would much prefer the following definition: an expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.’

Of course, when we’re being offered paradigms, the person making the offer, and the paradigms themselves, cannot be shown to have, as a raison d’être, the avoidance of mistakes, pottering along, making careful assays, and anxious not to get into too much trouble. We have been taught to expect brilliance, genius even. It’s this brilliance, this genius, that I wished to turn upside down in Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? It’s a novel, a satire that in the spirit of Horace aims to ‘tell the truth with a laugh’, where all characters are inventions, that’s to say not based on actual persons. At its centre is Marshall Zob, a mediocre novelist who nevertheless expects to win all the major prizes. His agent, Cornelius Snell, has no interest in literature, but has a stable of successful authors nevertheless. Alistair Wye, Zob’s newly appointed amanuensis, has stumbled in on this in all innocence, and through the diary he keeps shows us the tarnished coin circulating in the Republic of Letters. And that is it, to its Christmas Day dénouement, bearing Bohr in mind, where I kept the thing at a good safe distance, with 1994 as Alistair Wye’s diary year (though I can’t now remember what great books were being touted at that time).

TLY: Vladimir Nabokov once said, “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”  What do you think he meant?

PETER: Nabokov’s almost allergic reaction to novels of social intent is very well documented. Of Thomas Mann he wanted to issue everyone with lump hammers, in order to chip away – bit by bit – at the plinth he perceived that Nobel laureate to have been planted on. Under strain of serious myopia Borges he once dismissed as a ‘trite miniaturist’, though may later have modified that view. Orwell he was scathing of, but couldn’t have read, or had forgotten, the range of Orwell’s essays, their depth of analysis and the clarity of writing. He did not like Constance Garnett’s translations into English of Dostoyevsky. Of Dostoyevsky himself he was less than complimentary. In Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature he begins his summary of The Idiot in good neutral academic tone. But then, just a few paragraphs in, he is powerless to resist that mirthful diktat he was often prone to, to comic effect. Of Nabokov himself as novelist we do not imagine he created a character like Humbert Humbert in order to stimulate public debate on paedophilia. His long list of frauds and shams included Pound and Eliot. It has been suggested (by Brian Boyd, I think) that John Shade’s extended poem ‘Pale Fire’, from the novel of that name, is a smack at them both, in that it consists of four cantos (Pound’s Cantos, Eliot’s Four Quartets). His friend (and later his estranged friend) Edmund Wilson chastised him for not taking an interest in, or showing enough understanding of, politics, though perhaps with Bend Sinister we should take issue with that evaluation. In that book there’s plenty of parody, for parody is among Nabokov’s favourite pastimes. There isn’t much satire, because satire belongs in the realms of social and political instruction, and Nabokov’s is a different order of didacticism. I can sympathise with his position, though I do not approve of debunking other writers. America had taken him in as a Russian émigré, fleeing first the October Revolution, then the rise of fascism in Western Europe. From the 1940s Nabokov was an American novelist, but I wonder how difficult it would have been, as a welcome outsider, to commentate on domestic affairs, both social and political. And anyway, the world is awash with social and political journalism, much of it masquerading as literature. The Vladimir Nabokovs are of a rare species of butterfly, and light up our summers just once in a while.

TLY: Across the Rebel Network came out in 2015.  The novel is set in a “federated Europe in an uncertain, and not-to-distant future.”  What is the rebel network?

PETER: There’s a certain symmetry about it, the book being published in 2015, though its setting is 2051. Much of it was written, however, while I was in New Zealand, in 1998. At that time public use of the internet was still a novelty. Therefore my conception of a dystopian 2051 rested on a prediction as to what that digital infrastructure might become, especially in the hands of governments and media corporations, whose interests are in the dissemination of self-serving propaganda. In Across the Rebel Network governments and media corporations have fused, and might as well be unitary wholes. From our one-third-acre plot in Ellerslie I was not only projecting forward to 2051 (or really 2015), I was looking back to the continent I’d left behind, Europe. Its federal ambitions, its designs after a single flag, a single currency, a standing army, a central bank, a definable border, a judiciary, were issues that had split the major political parties in the UK for decades, though I did not envisage that my own country would be the first to secede from the Union, or that it would ever have a Prime Minister willing to offer a remain-leave referendum (and run a lacklustre campaign on the remain side). In the Rebel Network of 2051 it is the smallest member states that – for social and economic reasons – start to break up the Union, and in so doing spawn well organised digital guerilla groups (today we’d call them hackers) able to infiltrate the federation’s IT infrastructure, for the purpose of disseminating counter-propaganda. It’s a risky business, writing novels that are set in the future. There’s a lot I got wrong, and there is much that has come about, though not in the way I envisaged. See Niels Bohr’s definition of an expert, above.

TLY:  Recently, you published Laurel, a book of poems about love, loss and rivalry.  The poems are spare and telling, and often poignant; one senses they came about through a long evolution despite the brevity of the poems.  Would that be the case?

PETER: ‘Evolution’ probably isn’t quite the word. Most of the poems were written in the 1980s, when I was working for a huge, impersonal IT company, a behemoth. My role was in the writing or reading of voluminous reports, which was excruciating. These little poems started to appear in the margins of those reports, when – rebelling all forms of enslavement – my mind began to wander. I transcribed them all into a notebook at the end of each day, and after a few weeks of this resigned my job, left London, and forgot about them. They resurfaced again this year, and after a retouch are now in print.

TLY:  Are you currently working on any new projects? 

PETER: I began writing a blog novel, on the basis that unlike my other fiction I would not plan it in advance. I’d just see what transpired. But. Unexpectedly, after three chapters, I began to see possibilities, so nothing will now be added until I do have a plan. Instead I’m revising a novel that did have a blueprint, about a poet, of a provenance you’d not normally associate with poetry. He is terminally ill, and the novel records conversations he has with his chosen obituarist.

TLY:  Once more, we’d like to thank you for your time.  We have long been fans of your work, and pleased beyond measure to have had this chance to talk.

PETER: I am very pleased to have been invited. Thank you

About the Author

Peter Cowlam’s brief stint as a commissioning editor saw two issues of The Finger, a journal of politics, literature and culture. His novel Who’s Afraid of the Booker Prize? won the 2015 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction. His latest novels are New King Palmers and Across the Rebel Network, the latter being longlisted for the Guardian 2015 Not the Booker Prize. Poems forthcoming in Fulcrum. Poems and short stories have appeared in The Battersea Review, Literary Matters, The Galway Review, Easy StreetValparaiso Fiction Review, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Liberal, and others. Further details at

For Purchase

Monday, December 11, 2017

Georges Perec: Essay

Tom Payne

Georges Perec was 75 last month. It needs to be said that he died in 1982; but there are many ways in which he is still alive. Shortly after his death, a planet was named after him (a small one, admittedly).

He is still a member of a literary movement called OuLiPo: the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop for potential literature) does not see death as an obstacle to membership. His love of writing work in eccentric, apparently impossible forms continues to inspire. But can a work written by such crazy systems ever be a masterpiece?

In Life: a User’s Manual (1978), composed with a tight mathematical structure, and tricked out with puzzles, Perec proved it could be: this is a novel that manages to distil a vision of the world into a tour of an imagined building of apartments and, although the building is soon to be demolished, Perec’s own monument to it shows how his work can last longer than stone. It is surely among the world’s greatest novels.

As if to de monstrate  that Perec can still be productive, Vintage Classics is publishing The Art and  Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise. The book was written in 1968, but appears only now in a completed English version.

This delay tells us two things. One is that it has been hard to convince anglophone readers that Perec is anything more than quirky and to persuade new audiences of the seriousness that lies behind his work. The other is that he wrote so much that, like a distant planet, news of all his creative energy has yet to reach us.

The quirkiness is hard to refute. Much of Perec’s work comes from game-playing. OuLiPo is devoted to creating texts using extreme constraints. Perec produced an entire novel without using the letter “e”, although he also offered a text whose only vowel is “e”, and a palindrome that’s 500 words long.

How, we might ask, could anything written with so many obstacles be worth reading? Do these things even make sense? Aren’t these works just whimsical – parlour games, as one member of OuLiPo put it?

The Art and Craft gives us another chance to consider this. To write a whole novel on the theme of approaching your boss might seem like stretching a point; and those who fear that OuLiPo exists to generate texts for the sake of it would have their worries confirmed by the information that this story exists in flowchart form.

But what a flowchart it is. When you look at it, you don’t really know where the process starts. You go to see the boss. Is he in his office? No. Is the secretary in? Yes. Is she in a good mood? Yes. Can you see the boss? Yes. Does he ask you to be seated? No. When you ask about his daughters, do one or more of them have measles? And so on.

Wherever this procedure leads you, you can’t fail to notice that the arrows either send you round and round the chart, or else point to a waste-paper basket, as if it’s the ninth circle of hell.

David Bellos, an expert on one of the world’s tricksiest writers, is also Perec’s finest translator and has rendered the tale into English. In his biography, Georges Perec: a Life in Words, Bellos quotes the author’s assessment of the journey the story took from flowchart to prose: “I have followed ONE BY ONE all the steps of the route chosen, going back to the start every time an arrow sent me back there… the end result is a text of 57 pages built entirely on redundancy.”

The result isn’t redundant; indeed, in a world where bonuses at one end of the pay-scale lead to redundancies at the other, the satire behind The Art and Craft becomes all the more trenchant. But the question remains – why would a writer put such care into projects that are ultimately self- defeating and futile?

Perec is a great storyteller and a wry humorist. There is always a point in reading his work. But the sense that these narratives are going nowhere, or chasing themselves around into oblivion, is the aesthetic that lies behind almost everything he wrote.

This appears to be a 20th-century malaise, of a piece with those Samuel Beckett characters who chunter inventively into the void, and of a piece with Beckett himself, who, having established that he had nothing to say, went on to consider how to say it. It appears to be a modern frustration that the world is incoherent and nothing really means anything any more.

But Perec’s case of this malady is acute. The central horror of the century was his. He was Jewish. Neither of his parents survived the war. His father died in battle as the Germans swept towards Paris; his mother was murdered in Auschwitz.

It is almost shocking to think that a novel without using the letter “e” is a response to this.

The title of the book is a clue, though: in French, it is La Disparition. A document of disparition – disappearance – was the closest thing Perec could have to a death certificate for his mother. In the novel, a detective, Anton Voyl, must work out what is missing from a world facing disaster.

It is “e”. As an end note, Perec reflects, not for the last time, on how a loss in language can mirror a human loss: “The language of the Papuans is very impoverished; each tribe has its own language, and its vocabulary is ceaselessly diminished because, after every death, a few words are eliminated as a sign of mourning.”

Seen this way, a 500-word palindrome becomes a text that undoes itself; a memoir with deliberate mistakes becomes a document that undermines its own reliability.

In Life: A User's Manual is the Bible of the form. Not only is it set in a building that is doomed, but its central character has committed himself to a lifelong project that he knows will come to nothing: he will paint seascapes that will become jigsaw puzzles that he will eventually take back to the sea and send back, whitened, in the waves.

The irony of this is that Perec could undertake such work with ferocious energy. He wrote compulsively, determined to produce something every day. A list he gave his publisher, of books he still longed to write, showed how much literature we lost with Perec’s early death.

Sometimes, it’s true, he was goaded by the puzzles he had set himself. La Disparition was a response, on one level, to intense grief; but Bellos is surely right to say that it was also a way out of writer’s block.

However, here comes the real puzzle: Perec’s effort to create worlds that destroyed themselves ended up preserving them. Although it’s hard to finish Life: a User’s Manual without tears, the delicacy, the detail and the delight of the book make you glad to be alive.

No, Georges Perec is not alive. But for as long as people write by his rules, or read his work anew, his contribution to literature and to life will remain loving and vital.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2011 in The Telegraph.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Variations on Lao Tzu's The Tao Te Ching by Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles

Verse 8

All that's best is like water.
Free of struggle,
it nourishes
the Ten Thousand Things.
Free of strife,
it flows into places
neglected by multitudes,
thus resembling the Tao.

In living, stay grounded.
In contemplation,
dive deep in the heart.
With others,
be gentle, try kindness.
In words, keep true.
Summon justice
when ruling others.
Honor competence in the daily.
Each action knows
its time and season.

Lessen struggle: weaken grief.


Verse 9

Fill a bowl past its brim
it spills over;

keep whetting a blade,
it turns dull;

keep grasping for money
or security,
your fingers clench.

Desire approval from others,
their prisoner you'll become.

Do your work, step back:
Serenity's way.


Verse 11

Thirty spokes form 'round a wheel's hub.
Its center of nothing makes the wheel useful.

Kneaded clay smoothly folded 'round a space,
it is in that space a pot becomes useful.

Punched out room for a window or door,
where each isn't is where it's most useful.

Put everything, then, to its appropriate use,
knowing, at once, its nothing is useful.


Verse 12

The five colors obscure our vision.
The five notes deafen our hearing.
The five tastes dull our palate.
Coveting and pursuit invite distraction.
Wanting the precious slows our progress.
The wise, therefore,
are for the stomach, not the eye.
Leaving without, keeping within.


Verse 22

Give in and win; make space
and be complete; work to a finish
and be renewed; working small
makes for accomplishment;
at large, working crafts confusion;

so the wise embrace the One,
becoming a model for the many:
not gaudy, they are luminous;
not pushy, they are known;
not boastful, they are valuable;
not belligerent, they endure.

Because the wise do not compete,
there's nobody to defeat them.
When the Elders said, "Bow your heads
and carry on," they weren't being flip.
This is the true and lasting way.


Verse 24

No one can stand long
straining on tip-toes
nor walk afar easily
if hurrying by.

The obvious is overlooked,
the over-wrought ignored,
the arrogant or braggart
will never grow
nor be truly believed.

Avoid all these
as one should avoid
excess food
or tired, mindless actions.
Follow the Way.


Verse 33

Understanding others: intelligence.
Understanding oneself: wisdom.
Subduing others: strength.
Subduing oneself: greatness
Pushing blindly forward takes will,
though keeping grounded guards position.
To embrace life, accepting all, even death,
is to live the truth: enough’s enough.


Verse 43

The softest things
embrace and erode
the hardest things.

The subtle
the dense.

is also power.

Chatterless teaching,
unhurried doing:
the Path of the Masters.


Verse 44

Renown or integrity,
which is nearer?
Integrity or wealth,
which is dearer?
Lightness or heaviness,
which proves a hindrance?
Wanting is exhausting.
Amassing ends in heavy loss.

The grateful avoid disgrace.
Those who know their worth
are not endangered.
Those who live this way endure.


Verse 47

Not venturing out,
one can still know the world.
Not peeping through windows,
one can still see the ways of heaven.
The farther one trudges,
the less one comes to know.

So the wise
stay put, yet know;
aren't into peeping, yet see;
via inaction, still get things done.


Verse 68

A thoughtful leader does not force.
An able fighter keeps his temper.
A great competitor does not compete.
A wise leader is also meek.
This is the power of non-competing.
This is the ablest use of strategy.
To follow Nature’s lead
is always the surest way.


Verse 70

Though simple to comprehend
and easy to imitate,
few under the heavens
follow my words and example.

Words, though, carry an ancient lineage;
doings, too, their very long practice.
When both remain unknown,
I remain a mystery.

Yet in mystery,
known to few,
abused by many,
true worth increases.

Thus the wise go about in jade,
though dressed in common clothing.


Verse 71

Discerning ignorance is strength.
Passing up wisdom is disease.

To be sick of disease
is to posses vitality.
Thus the wise remain robust
because they call disease disease.

About the translator

Jorge Rodriguez-Miralles is a teacher, poet, translator and literary critic who lives and works in Miami, Florida. He received his B.A. in English from St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida and his MFA in Creative Writing/Poetics from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. He is the author of one collection of poems, Everything, Nothing (2014), and has published poems, reviews and translations in Ragazine, The Cimarron Review, Danse Macabre, TheThePoetry, Big Bridge, Osiris Poetry Review, Ashville Poetry Review, El Colloquio De Los Perros and La Galla Ciencia.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017



Fierce heat. The forests were afire. Time
Dragged on dully. At the neighbor’s dacha
A rooster crowed. I went out of the gate.
There, on a bench, leaning against the fence,
A Serb, a drifter, dozed, black and skinny.
A heavy silver cross hung
On his half-bare breast. Drops of sweat
Rolled down it. Above him on the fence
A monkey, clad in a red skirt, sat
Chewing greedily on dusty leaves of lilac.
A leathern collar, pulled back by a heavy chain,
Choked her. The Serb, hearing me,
Came to, wiped off his sweat and asked me
For some water. But hardly tasting it —
Is it too cold — he put the saucer
On the bench, and instantly the monkey,
Dipping her fingers in the water, grabbed
The dish with both hands.
She drank, standing on all fours,
Elbows on the bench.
Her chin almost touched the boards,
Her back arched high above her
Balding pate. It must have been like this
That Darius crouched long ago, his lips to
A roadside puddle, on the day he fled
From Alexander’s inexorable phalange.
The water drunk, the monkey swept
The saucer off the bench, rose slightly
And — will I ever forget this moment? — reached
Out to me with her black, calloused hand,
Still cool with moisture…

I have pressed hands with beauties, poets,
Chiefs of people – not one hand
Presented such nobility of shape!
No hand touched mine in such fraternity!
God is my witness, no one looked
Into my eyes so deeply, with such wisdom,
In truth – to the bottom of my soul.
This impoverished beast brought back
To life within my heart the sweetest tales
Of deeply ancient eras,
And in that moment life in full revealed
Itself to me, and it seemed – a choir of lights
And ocean waves, winds and spheres burst
Upon my ears, thundered, like so long
Ago, in other, immemorial days.
And the Serb left, tapping his tambourine.
Perched on his left shoulder,
The monkey swayed in step,
An Indian maharaja on his elephant.
The huge magenta sun,
Deprived of rays,
Hung in the hazy smoke. Unrelenting
Heat poured over the scrawny wheat.
That very day war was declared.




Была жара. Леса горели. Нудно

Тянулось время. На соседней даче

Кричал петух. Я вышел за калитку.

Там, прислонясь к забору, на скамейке

Дремал бродячий серб, худой и черный.

Серебряный тяжелый крест висел

На груди полуголой. Капли пота

По ней катились. Выше, на заборе,

Сидела обезьяна в красной юбке

И пыльные листы сирени

Жевала жадно. Кожаный ошейник,

Оттянутый назад тяжелой цепью,

Давил ей горло. Серб, меня заслышав,

Очнулся, вытер пот и попросил, чтоб дал я

Воды ему. Но, чуть ее пригубив,-

Не холодна ли,- блюдце на скамейку

Поставил он, и тотчас обезьяна,

Макая пальцы в воду, ухватила

Двумя руками блюдце.

Она пила, на четвереньках стоя,

Локтями опираясь на скамью.

Досок почти касался подбородок,

Над теменем лысеющим спина

Высоко выгибалась. Так, должно быть,

Стоял когда-то Дарий, припадая

К дорожной луже, в день, когда бежал он

Пред мощною фалангой Александра.

Всю воду выпив, обезьяна блюдце

Долой смахнула со скамьи, привстала

Translated, from the Russian, by Ellen Orner (2010)
Vladislav Khodasevich

Monday, December 4, 2017

Владислав Ходасевич
Vladislav Khodasevich

from Heavy Lyre

To a Guest

Coming to see me, bring a dream,
Or beauty with the Devil’s gleam,
Or God, if you yourself are godly.
But your small kindnesses, do please,
Just like your hat, leave by the entry.
Here, on earth the size of a pea,
An angel be, or else a demon.
But mere man – could  his use be
For us to be able to forget him?

Berlin 1921

Входя ко мне, неси мечту,
Иль дьявольскую красоту,
Иль Бога, если сам ты Божий.
А маленькую доброту,
Как шляпу, оставляй в прихожей.
Здесь, на горошине земли,
Будь или ангел, или демон.

Translation by Ellen Orner

Friday, December 1, 2017

Three poems by Rex Ybañez


Living in Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

Where there is consciousness
a fourth wall accompanies:

does the soliloquy or the aside
provide the cubism needed to break on

through to the other side? Here
we have a cognitive problem

in this reality where we’re taught to
shove emotions into boxes and call it

compartmentalization. I feel the last 
few years of my life, I’ve been

living out of boxes, and there’s 
something grammatically incorrect

with this claim. Typically, we all live
in a space—a house, an alleyway, the world—

and to live out of something seems
to logically denote that space is

no longer enclosed: there’s freedom,
the cardboard flaps are undone.

Essentially, parts of my life live in boxes
whereas the “I” does not; however

if Pardora’s box was actually a pithos
does a box necessarily need to be rectangular?

This is a tangent beyond trigonometry,
and if a point were on a graph

its coordinates would posit an error:
life is encased in a Russian doll complex

where we may talk about freedom
or thinking outside the box while

people can’t see that Earth is
a kind of container, different sections

for different things. When do houses
become homes? I don’t know,

but maybe I’m not alone in
thinking everyone lives out of boxes

and transcendence is required to slip
out of the dimensional sandwich. 

Heavy Change (Right Here)


              coming view
              soon near you
              we’ll fold back
              & backlash

              with this match


             your ill luck

             jazz drum kits

            le mot juste


           now you may

          turn the page


        classic mood
        velvet song

          all week long


In the origin story, whichever
one to fit within a sleepless puzzle,
where does it say you
& I remain friends? In the stillness,
displaced, out of time,
our earthly remains
lounge in a layered parquetry.
May we stay as
ammonites, shelled
upon shale & stone like
names carved unto
trees. Here is our paralysis,
petrified in a nexus
among the sediment:
what is rudiment provides
our quiet parliament
to clear the obscure.
If all of history is
summed up
as a perpetual echo,
we must tell the present
loudly, It is your turn
to live forever
let us go then and
shout up ahead
this story together. 

About the author:

Rex Ybañez is a substitute teacher in Missouri who also works with adults with developmental disabilities. He has earned his Bachelor of Arts in English at Southwest Baptist University and is a former member of the Missouri State Poetry Society as well as a former Pushcart Prize nominee. His works have been published among magazines and journals in the US and in the UK such as Peculiar Mormyrid, Haverthorn, Noctua Review, Prism Review, YARN, Potluck Mag, DANSE MACABRE, and many others.

The Spy who Like to Stay Out in the Cold

By Patrick Marnham Semi-Invisible Man is a biography by someone who dislikes biography about someone who disliked exposure,'...