Friday, September 29, 2017

Borges on the Couch


David Foster Wallace

There's an unhappy paradox about literary biographies. The majority of readers who will be interested in a writer's bio, especially one as long and exhaustive as Edwin Williamson's ''Borges: A Life,'' will be admirers of the writer's work. They will therefore usually be idealizers of that writer and perpetrators (consciously or not) of the intentional fallacy. Part of the appeal of the writer's work for these fans will be the distinctive stamp of that writer's personality, predilections, style, particular tics and obsessions -- the sense that these stories were written by this author and could have been done by no other.* And yet it often seems that the person we encounter in the literary biography could not possibly have written the works we admire. And the more intimate and thorough the bio, the stronger this feeling usually is. In the present case, the Jorge Luis Borges who emerges in Williamson's book -- a vain, timid, pompous mama's boy, given for much of his life to dithery romantic obsessions -- is about as different as one can get from the limpid, witty, pansophical, profoundly adult writer we know from his stories. Rightly or no, anyone who reveres Borges as one of the best and most important fiction writers of the last century will resist this dissonance, and will look, as a way to explain and mitigate it, for obvious defects in Williamson's life study. The book won't disappoint them.

Edwin Williamson is an Oxford don and esteemed Hispanist whose ''Penguin History of Latin America'' is a small masterpiece of lucidity and triage. It is therefore unsurprising that his ''Borges'' starts strong, with a fascinating sketch of Argentine history and the Borges family's place within it. For Williamson, the great conflict in the Argentine national character is that between the ''sword'' of civilizing European liberalism and the ''dagger'' of romantic gaucho individualism, and he argues that Borges's life and work can be properly understood only in reference to this conflict, particularly as it plays out in his childhood. In the 19th century, grandfathers on both sides of his family distinguished themselves in important battles for South American independence from Spain and the establishment of a centralized Argentine government, and Borges's mother was obsessed with the family's historical glory. Borges's father, a man stunted by the heroic paternal shadow in which he lived, evidently did things like give his son an actual dagger to use on bullies at school, and later sent him to a brothel for devirgination. The young Borges failed both these ''tests,'' the scars of which marked him forever and show up all over the place in his fiction, Williamson thinks.

It is in these claims about personal stuff encoded in the writer's art that the book's real defect lies. In fairness, it's just a pronounced case of a syndrome that seems common to literary biographies, so common that it might point to a design flaw in the whole enterprise. The big problem with ''Borges: A Life'' is that Williamson is an atrocious reader of Borges's work; his interpretations amount to a simplistic, dishonest kind of psychological criticism. You can see why this problem might be intrinsic to the genre. A biographer wants his story to be not only interesting but literarily valuable.

In order to ensure this, the bio has to make the writer's personal life and psychic travails seem vital to his work. The idea is that we can't correctly interpret a piece of verbal art unless we know the personal and/or psychological circumstances surrounding its creation. That this is simply assumed as an axiom by many biographers is one problem; another is that the approach works a lot better on some writers than on others. It works well on Kafka -- Borges's only modern equal as an allegorist, with whom he's often compared -- because Kafka's fictions are expressionist, projective, and personal; they make artistic sense only as manifestations of Kafka's psyche. But Borges's stories are very different. They are designed primarily as metaphysical arguments†; they are dense, self-enclosed, with their own deviant logics. Above all, they are meant to be impersonal, to transcend individual consciousness -- ''to be incorporated,'' as Borges puts it, ''like the fables of Theseus or Ahasuerus, into the general memory of the species and even transcend the fame of their creator or the extinction of the language in which they were written.'' One reason for this is that Borges is a mystic, or at least a sort of radical Neoplatonist -- human thought, behavior and history are all the product of one big Mind, or are elements of an immense cabalistic Book that includes its own decoding. Biography-wise, then, we have a strange situation in which Borges's individual personality and circumstances matter only insofar as they lead him to create artworks in which such personal facts are held to be unreal.

''Borges: A Life,'' which is strongest in its treatments of Argentine history and politics, is at its very worst when Williamson is discussing specific pieces in light of Borges's personal life. Unfortunately, he discusses just about everything Borges ever wrote. Williamson's critical thesis is clear: ''Bereft of a key to their autobiographical context, no one could have grasped the vivid significance these pieces actually had for their author.'' And in case after case, the resultant readings are shallow, forced and distorted -- as indeed they must be if the biographer's project is to be justified. Random example: ''The Wait,'' a marvelous short-short that appears in the 1949 story collection ''The Aleph,'' takes the form of a layered homage to Hemingway, gangster movies and the Buenos Aires underworld. An Argentine mobster, in hiding from another mobster and living under the pursuer's name, dreams so often of his killers' appearance in his bedroom that, when the assassins finally come for him, he ''gestured at them to wait, and he turned over and faced the wall, as though going back to sleep. Did he do that to awaken the pity of the men that killed him, or because it's easier to endure a terrifying event than to imagine it, wait for it endlessly -- or (and this is perhaps the most likely possibility) so that his murderers would become a dream, as they had already been so many times, in that same place, at that same hour?''

The distant interrogative ending -- a Borges trademark -- becomes an inquisition into dreams, reality, guilt, augury and mortal terror. For Williamson, though, the real key to the story's significance appears to be that ''Borges had failed to win the love of Estela Canto. . . . With Estela gone, there seemed nothing to live for,'' and he represents the story's ending all and only as a depressed whimper: ''When his killers finally track him down, he just rolls over meekly to face the wall and resigns himself to the inevitable.''

It is not merely that Williamson reads every last thing in Borges's oeuvre as a correlative of the author's emotional state. It is that he tends to reduce all of Borges's psychic conflicts and personal problems to the pursuit of women. Williamson's theory here involves two big elements: Borges's inability to stand up to his domineering mother,and his belief, codified in a starry-eyed reading of Dante, that ''it was the love of a woman that alone could deliver him from the hellish unreality he shared with his father and inspire him to write a masterpiece that would justify his life.'' Story after story is thus interpreted by Williamson as a coded dispatch on Borges's amorous career, which turns out to be sad, timorous, puerile, moony and (like most people's) extremely boring. The formula is applied equally to famous pieces, such as '' 'The Aleph' (1945), whose autobiographical subtext alludes to his thwarted love for Norah Lange,'' and to lesser-known stories like ''The Zahir'':

''The torments described by Borges in this story . . . are, of course, displaced confessions of the extremity of his plight. Estela [Canto, who'd just broken up with him] was to have been the 'new Beatrice,' inspiring him to create a work that would be 'the Rose without purpose, the Platonic, intemporal Rose,' but here he was again, sunk in the unreality of the labyrinthine self, with no prospect now of contemplating the mystic Rose of love.''

Thin though this kind of explication is, it's preferable to the reverse process by which Williamson sometimes presents Borges's stories and poems as ''evidence'' that he was in emotional extremities. Williamson's claim, for instance, that in 1934, ''after his definitive rejection by Norah Lange, Borges . . . came to the brink of killing himself'' is based entirely on two tiny pieces of contemporaneous fiction in which the protagonists struggle with suicide. Not only is this a bizarre way to read and reason -- was the Flaubert who wrote ''Madame Bovary'' eo ipso suicidal? -- but Williamson seems to believe that it licenses him to make all sorts of dubious, humiliating claims about Borges's interior life: ''A poem called 'The Cyclical Night' . . . which he published in La Nacion on October 6, reveals him to be in the throes of a personal crisis''; ''In the extracts from this unfinished poem . . . we can see that the reason for wishing to commit suicide was literary failure, stemming ultimately from sexual self-doubt.'' 

Again, it is primarily because of Borges's short stories that anyone will care enough to read about his life. And while Williamson spends a lot of time detailing the explosive success that Borges enjoyed in middle age, after the 1961 International Publishers' Prize (shared with Samuel Beckett) introduced his work to audiences in the United States and Europe, there is little in his book about just why Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) is an important enough fiction writer to deserve such a microscopic bio. The truth, briefly stated, is that Borges is arguably the great bridge between modernism and post-modernism in world literature. He is modernist in that his fiction shows a first-rate human mind stripped of all foundations in religious or ideological certainty -- a mind turned thus wholly in on itself.

His stories are inbent and hermetic, with the oblique terror of a game whose rules are unknown and its stakes everything.And the mind of those stories is nearly always a mind that lives in and through books. This is because Borges the writer is, fundamentally, a reader. The dense, obscure allusiveness of his fiction is not a tic, or even really a style; and it is no accident that his best stories are often fake essays, or reviews of fictitious books, or have texts at their plots' centers, or have as protagonists Homer or Dante or Averroes. Whether for seminal artistic reasons or neurotic personal ones or both, Borges collapses reader and writer into a new kind of aesthetic agent, one who makes stories out of stories, one for whom reading is essentially -- consciously -- a creative act. This is not, however, because Borges is a metafictionist or a cleverly disguised critic. It is because he knows that there's finally no difference -- that murderer and victim, detective and fugitive, performer and audience are the same. Obviously, this has postmodern implications (hence the pontine claim above), but Borges's is really a mystical insight, and a profound one. It's also frightening, since the line between monism and solipsism is thin and porous, more to do with spirit than with mind per se. And, as an artistic program, this kind of collapse/transcendence of individual identity is also paradoxical, requiring a grotesque self-obsession combined with an almost total effacement of self and personality. Tics and obsessions aside, what makes a Borges story Borgesian is the odd, ineluctable sense you get that no one and everyone did it. This is why, for instance, it is so irksome to see Williamson describe ''The Immortal'' and ''The Writing of the God'' -- two of the greatest, most scalp-crinkling mystical stories ever, next to which the epiphanies of Joyce or redemptions of O'Connor seem pallid and crude -- as respective products of Borges's ''many-layered distress'' and ''indifference to his fate'' after various idealized girlfriends dump him. Stuff like this misses the whole point. Even if Williamson's claims are true, the stories so completely transcend their motive cause that the biographical facts become, in the deepest and most literal way, irrelevant.

Of course, Borges's famous ''Pierre Menard, Author of the 'Quixote' '' makes sport of this very conviction, just as his later ''Borges and I'' anticipates and refutes the whole idea of a literary biography. The fact that his fiction is always several steps ahead of its interpreters is one of the things that make Borges so great, and so modern.

Actually, these two agendas dovetail, since the only reason anybody's interested in a writer's life is because of his literary importance. (Think about it -- the personal lives of most people who spend 14 hours a day sitting there alone, reading and writing, are not going to be thrill rides to hear about.)

This is part of what gives Borges's stories their mythic, precognitive quality (all cultures' earliest, most vital metaphysics is mythopoetic), which quality in turn helps explain how they can be at once so abstract and so moving.

The biography is probably most valuable in its account of Borges's political evolution. A common bit of literary gossip about Borges is that the reason he wasn't awarded a Nobel Prize was his supposed support for Argentina's ghastly authoritarian juntas of the 1960's and 70's. From Williamson, though, we learn that Borges's politics were actually far more complex and tragic. The child of an old liberal family, and an unabashed leftist in his youth, Borges was one of the first and bravest public opponents of European fascism and the rightist nationalism it spawned in Argentina. What changed him was Peron, whose creepy right-wing populist dictatorship aroused such loathing in Borges that he allied himself with the repressively anti-Peron Revolucion Libertadora. Borges's situation following Peron's first ouster in 1955 is full of unsettling parallels for American readers. Because Peronism still had great popularity with Argentina's working poor, the exiled dictator retained enormous political power, and would have won any democratic national election held in the 1950's. This placed believers in liberal democracy (such as J. L. Borges) in the same sort of bind that the United States faced in South Vietnam a few years later -- how do you promote democracy when you know that a majority of people will, if given the chance, vote for an end to democratic voting? In essence, Borges decided that the Argentine masses had been so hoodwinked by Peron and his wife that a return to democracy was possible only after the nation had been cleansed of Peronism. Williamson's analysis of the slippery slope this decision put Borges on, and his account of the hatchet job that Argentina's leftists did on Borges's political reputation in retaliation for his defection (such that by 1967, when the writer came to Harvard to lecture, the students practically expected him to have epaulettes and a riding crop), make for his book's best chapters.

Be warned that much of the mom-based psychologizing seems right out of ''Oprah'': e.g., ''However, by urging her son to realize the ambitions she had defined for herself, she unwittingly induced a sense of unworthiness in him that became the chief obstacle to his self-assertion.''

Williamson's chapters on Borges's sudden world fame will be of special interest to those American readers who weren't yet alive or reading in the mid-1960's. I was lucky enough to discover Borges as a child, but only because I happened to find ''Labyrinths,'' an early English-language collection of his most famous stories, on my father's bookshelves in 1974. I believed that the book was there only because of my parents' unusually fine taste and discernment -- which verily they do possess -- but what I didn't know was that by 1974 ''Labyrinths'' was also on tens of thousands of other homes' shelves in this country, that Borges had actually been a sensation on the order of Tolkien and Gibran among hip readers of the previous decade.

Labyrinths, mirrors, dreams, doubles -- so many of the elements that appear over and over in Borges's fiction are symbols of the psyche turned inward.

Credits: originally published in New York Times Sunday Book Review

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Interview with Goirick Brahmachari

TLY: We are happy to welcome Goirick Brahmachari. Goirick is a prolific poet and one of the founders of The Sunflower Collective.

Let’s begin by asking the following: Allen Ginsberg once wrote, “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” When I read this advice, I ask myself if Ginsberg isn’t what you might call a “poet of the night.” Dark. What are your thoughts?

Goirick: Madness is a virtue - as far as poetry and other forms of art are concerned. However, it is evil when it comes to interpersonal skills and relationships. I have understood it the hard way. Yet, never could I learn the etiquette to ensure a good rapport among peers. Artists like Syd Barrett, Freddie Mercury, Dylan, Ginsberg and Ritwik Ghatak have inspired me immensely since I was a child until this day to live and write whatever I write and however I have been living. I think none of them were just “poets of the night.” They lived their lives.

TLY: I have read that your grandparents migrated from East Bengal to the Barak Valley in the northeast of India. Could you give our readers a sense of the history behind these migrations? Why did people leave East Bengal?

Goirick: Yes, my grandparents from either side were from East Bengal (or East Pakistan, as the region was known, just after the partition of India). The partition occurred just before the British left India and they divided us into two separate sovereign nations based on religious divisions, India and Pakistan. There were mass scale riots, and religious killings on either side that forced migration. Pakistan had two geographical frontiers, East and West. While Hindus from East and West Pakistan migrated to India to save their lives, Muslims from India went to Pakistan in order to save their lives. A lot of literature, academic or otherwise is available online for those who want to read about it more.

After a linguistic revolution in the eastern part of Pakistan and a bloody war between the two partitioned nations, India and Pakistan, in 1971, the country of Bangladesh was carved out of East Pakistan, one of the first nations to be born out of linguistic identity.

TLY: Your first collection, For the Love of Pork, came out in 2016. How are readers to take the title?

Goirick: The right wing Hindu Nationalist BJP government had come to power in 2014. Hindus, especially, North Indians, worship cow and see it as their god. There were killings in India in the name of beef. Muslims who were suspected of eating beef were lynched by mobs. There was a lot of talk from the government and their supporters about vegetarianism. In addition, in the Indian English poetry scene, where upper class, elite, communists have always dominated, many poems and books in favour of beef were written. Coming from North Eastern part of India, growing up with tribal, Christian friends who ate both beef and pork (forbidden for the Muslims), I thought it was an apt name to scandalize all the above-mentioned stakeholders. Further, the book is a tribute to northeast and its people, especially the state of Meghalaya, where pork remains the most favorite meat.

TLY: You have also published the chapbook Joining the Dots. It is a book of poems primarily about places and passing through. But why “dots?”

Goirick: I am from the Northeast, specifically from lower Assam, the first part of Pork is also a journey from the plains of Assam to the hills of Meghalaya. There is a lot of historical antagonism between the people of hills and plains in Northeast India. These can be attributed to ownership of land and resource, level of exposure, jobs, and historical blunders. In that sense dots appear as no man’s land between the plains and hills in Pork. Geographical coordinates without a name or an identity where I intentionally try to work on the changing landscape and fusing ethnicity, coexistence.

Joining the dots appeared out of one of my many trips to Himalayas, specifically Himachal Pradesh, a state known for its peace and beauty. Unlike the gore, ethnic tensions and multiple identity crises in the hills of North East India, these hills were higher and stranger, forlorn. They gave me new horizons to forget reality. It was an escape of sorts, a hallucination of mathematical coordinates and horizons, directions. Dots was about the ice and the river, the distance the moon has travelled, and a measure of how much I was able to forget my human self.

TLY: In Japanese culture, there is a tradition of traveling poets—one of the most well-known being Matsuo Basho. Is there a similar tradition in India?

Goirick: There are many. Being a Bengali, I would start with Bauls, the wandering minstrels. They sing of Allah and Krishna in the same song, just like the Sufis from the western borders of India. Both folk, religious movements, if I may call them so, sects that were born during the time of Bhakti Movement. Further, almost every tribal group in India, be it be from the eight north eastern Indian states or from Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa have their own travelling poets who sing their poems. Besides, in every state in India, there are various versions of folk songs and travelling singer-songwriters. Most of it is in the oral tradition and like blues is covered from generation after generation with some changes in the lyrics.

TLY: As mentioned, you are one of the founders of The Sunflower Collective. How did the collective come about?

Goirick: I grew up listening to a lot of American Rock, Blues and Jazz music. North Eastern part of India, probably because of its access to Christianity was always high on what we would call “Western Music”.

During my teens, I would listen to a lot of Led Zep, Deep Purple, Beatles, Rainbow, Queen, Clapton, Simon and Garfunkel, Tom Petty et al. Back home my mom would make sure I would eventually listen to enough Indian classical. That made me interested in fusion acts like John Mclaughlin’s Shakti and eventually to Mclaughlin’s gurus: Miles, Coltrane and Evans… onto Bird and others.

Dylan was always there. We always heard him on the Shillong Radio. Only when I took Economics as my major in Grads did I understand what he was singing about. Gradually I figured out Robert Johnson and Lead Belly and the entire delta blues/ragtime gang. I have been writing lyrics and singing with a band since college.

Later, I heard Ginsberg and Kerouac in Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home and was blown away. They seemed to me, talking and writing like Miles and Charlie Parker, if not Coltrane.

Since then, I digged all of the poets associated with the Beat Generation, and later around 2009, I found there were groups of poets, The Hungry Generation writers (Beats’ counterparts) from Bengal. I started reading their work too. I did not know much about them and could not write or read Bengali, my mother tongue. So, I asked some of my friends to read some of the poems for me. They read a few, but denied to read further since most of them seemed very obscene.

I met Abhimanyu in 2014 at a local bar over drinks. We knew each other since we were both published in an Indian magazine, I was volunteering for. Both of us bonded over Beats and decided to start the collective. Then Uttaran, who was already translating the Hungrys joined us, and then I asked you and Kevin to join in.

TLY: Wet Radio, your most recent collection of poems, has just been released. The title poem begins, “Rain has no gender.” In what sense?

Goirick: I think I have a lot of feminine traits. Though I will not exactly call myself a bisexual, I do try to exchange gender roles with my wife often at home. Rain in this poem though signifies tears. I was, across my school life, called a girl for being the crybaby. I was questioning the masculinity of men who do not cry in this poem.

TLY: Music is a continuous theme throughout your work. You have many influences. Would you care to share them?

Goirick: I think I have already shared them above. I love most styles of music, from Metal to Jazz to Blues, country, folk, Indian Classical, various Indian folk, to even intelligent electronica. I am a bit averse to Bollywood music and glittery pop since childhood.

TLY: You refer to poetry as an owl in one of the poems in Wet Radio. It’s a complex poem in which poetry stalks and hunts, but also goes through transformations—becomes other things. Could you talk about how the poem came to be?

Goirick: It is a political poem. It is about thinkers under a fundamentalist Hindu or Muslim-Nazi rule. The poem is a part of a series ‘Red is the colour of a poem’ dedicated to the famous Pakistani poet ‘Faiz Ahmed Faiz’.

TLY: Thank you so much, Goirick, for sharing your poetry and giving us time so we can learn more about you. We here at TLY have always been great admirers of your poetry. Your work is beautiful and startling. Congratulation on the new book!

Goirick: Thanks for the opportunity.

More about the poet

Originally from Silchar, Assam, Goirick Brahmachari’s debut collection of poems, For the Love of Pork (Les Editions du Zaporogue, Denmark) won the Muse India – Satish Verma Young Writer Award(Poetry) 2016. He is the winner of prestigious Srinivas Rayaprol Poetry Prize, 2016. His poems have appeared in Berfrois, The Missing Slate, Nether, and The Four Quarters Magazine, among others. He co-edits The Sunflower Collective’s blog:The Sunflower Collective.

Monday, September 25, 2017

And the Helicopter Said: "We Have You Surrounded."

Jackie Lopez

And, the helicopter said, “We have you surrounded.”
And, mi gente (my people) on the bus have blank faces;
afraid to give a message.
However, amid them is a one
with ear buds,  a smile, long hair, and her head shaking to and fro
kind of like my dances. 
She is not blank. 
She is colored.

The dark and wise and crazy shaman woman
looked at me at the bus stop and said,
“Ya viene el autobus.” (Here comes the bus.)

The insurance man said nothing of Covered California,
but he said it would all be alright.
He was thin, Chicano, and worked in an office with bullet proof plastic.

The Mesopotamian priest outside the liquor store had a smoke with a friend.
He is rich and white and colored.
He said, “We are one.”

My brother said, “Eminem has a new song for you.”

The bird in the tree said, “It is time.”

The market paper said, “Chorizo is on sale.”

My mother said, “Thank you.”

I took to dancing on the train.
But they would not let me be.
They said, “We are watching you.”

The music said, “We are urban.”

The neighbor lady who sells flowers said, “You are invited to another party.”

Brandon, my 5 year old nephew, said, “It’s all a mystery to me.”

They say that Spiderman doesn’t make house calls.
But he came to my house and sang me songs.

In the morning the fake church bells ring
and the ocean blocked by the Navy base sends its salty scent.

Children’s laughter at the local school is drowned out by the school’s nerve racking rings.
I have PTSD from teaching there.

The ex-drug addict man turned Christian says, “Hi.”

I say, “Mix-Master go faster.”
Shell Town is the place to be.
It’s up the street from Coney Island
and 16 blocks away from Chicano Park.
I have a poem mural there.
We should edit.

And, the helicopter said,
“We have you surrounded.”
Good afternoon, everyone.

Friday, September 22, 2017


Catherine LaBella 


I was a parent to felines for years before I had a human child. When my son Lucius arrived, I was surprised by how similar raising an infant is to taking care of a cat. They both pretend they have NEVER EATEN EVER when food is in view. They both respond to “pprrrrsssshhh! Come here!” when I need them to come over. They both require all my attention all the time… or so they believe. They both know when they are doing something they shouldn’t, but pretend they didn’t hear you anyway. Lucius has since grown out of this last habit. Hatshepsut has not, and Uxia never did before her passing.

Royal pythons, however, require an entirely different approach. For the past three years, I have owned two: Gaia, a black pastel, and Bane, a banana pastel. So, when Gaia laid a clutch of six eggs and four of them hatched, I knew I had my work cut out for me. “The Noodles” are three weeks old and have yet to eat. They don’t care about food. Offering them live pinkies are akin to offering them snuggle buddies: they just curl up next to the squirming baby mice and go back to sleep. They also don’t want your attention. There is so much going on in their tank already, attention from a human is simply too overwhelming. “There’s a rock! And dirt! And a tub of water! Shit!!! There’s a huge snake! Wow, she’s fun to climb on!”

I tried taking The Noodles to a pet store to be sexed and get some tips on how to get them to eat. Since royal pythons can’t really be given away or sold until they have eaten twice, I’m stuck with these guys until they have accomplished this. We tried frozen thawed mice; these were babies but still had some fuzz. Here in the pet store, the differences between managing infant snakes and managing infant humans were most noticeable. In one moment, I am encouraging The Noodles to put warm, dead mice in their mouths and swallow. In the next, every other word out of my mouth was “NO!!” Not “no”, “No!” or even “NO”. All caps two exclamation points. Lucius wanted to eat the fish in the aquatic section and kept reaching into the tanks to put them in his mouth. These were cold, living, exotic creatures that cost more money than I made in a week. But my snakes couldn’t be bothered to eat a cheap dead mouse. Next, Lucius decided he wanted to move in with a twenty-foot yellow anaconda. He tried desperately to undo the latch and get in his tank with him. More “NO!!s” scared him off of that idea. So he tried licking the glass to see if that would somehow impress the anaconda enough to open the tank for him. That was when I packed up Lucius and The Noodles and we went home. Very different, indeed.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

BS Johnson Remembered (and Read)

Kathryn A. Kopple
            What are we to make of a novelist who rejects his chosen art form, his inherited traditions, and – with even greater contempt – rejects those who like to read novels?   What are we to make of this novelist, the one who claims to hate the very idea of the novel?  Do we banish him?  Or make him our hero?  More precisely, our anti-hero.  Because readers do need reminding that novel writing is a literary art.  Is it by chance that Emma Bovary is an ardent but untutored fan of Sir Walter Scott?  Or a coincidence that Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises, savages Robert Cohn, who happens to be a popular novelist?  And need we be reminded of the pernicious effect that books of chivalry had on the errant Don Quixote?  Ironically, Cervantes thought he'd make some money off his comedy.  Little did he know that he started a rebellion.   
Which brings us around to Jonathon Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant (Continuum, 2005), one of the most the most courageous biographies written about Johnson.  Coe is not one of our anti-novelists but his subject, B.S. Johnson, was.  And it was Johnson's struggle against the novel that makes Jonathon Coe's biography worth reading.  Or rather, I should say two books worth reading, for Coe's biography is a double book:  a highly self-conscious experiment in which the life of the novelist is reflected in the work of the biographer, who is also a novelist, and who frets about what it means to write a biography while giving us the facts, many of them damn depressing, about the larger than life, though largely unknown, B.S. Johnson.  Here is Coe, in the introduction to Like a Fiery Elephant, outlining the work ahead of him (and us):
My strategy will be this.  Many people picking up this book will not (regrettably) have read anything by B.S. Johnson before.  Revered though he is by a few, he is unknown nowadays to most British readers under forty.  So I shall begin by explaining, in a little more detail, what it was that he wrote and that I think he achieved.  After that, pace Milan Kundera, I shall have to bring myself to knock down the walls of his house and we shall take a wander through the rubble, perhaps shaking our heads in awe and wonderment at the melancholy grandeur of the ruins we find there… And last of all, a short coda.  In which I shall attempt to put forward my own highly personal – and, yes, speculative – thoughts about the forces that may have been driving him in his last days and hours:  a 'transcursion into his mind' – to use Johnson's language – or even (the phrase is from his fifth novel, House Mother Normal) 'a diagram of certain aspects of the inside of his skull', as he gets ready to compose his final message to the world; to write his very last word.
What was Coe thinking?  This is not what we expect when we pick up the story of a life that we hope will be a lot more exciting than our own.  But Coe has not written that kind of biography, any more than B.S. Johnson wrote that kind of novel.  Not that we will have to work as hard as one might imagine, for Coe is a self-confessed traditionalist; he will not risk alienating his readers.  Instead, he does everything in his considerable powers to charm, entertain, and persuade in the hopes that readers will stick with his long and unwieldy tract to "the very last word."  Because Jonathon Coe believes that novels really do matter, that our lives would be irrevocably diminished without them.  And that may very well be something that he learned from the torturous search for art in the novel making of B.S. Johnson.
            Bryan Stanley William Johnson was born in Hammersmith, England to a working-class family in 1933.  His early life was defined by the trauma of wartime evacuation, a prolonged separation from his family, and his struggles to gain entrance to the university.  During his teens, he worked as an accountant in various low-level positions, an experience that provided him with the experience and skills for his sixth novel, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry:  a send-up of capitalism done in high modernist style.  Johnson found inspiration for the book in the life of Luca Bartolomeo Pacioli, a Tuscan monk and friend of Leonardo Di Vinci, who in a paper penned in 1494 laid down the science of double entry bookkeeping.  Paying homage to this exceptional accountant, Christie Malry's Own Double Entry proceeds according to the kind of logical madness that one would expect from an author who defended against great odds his belief that it is not the author's job to tell a story.  Instead of a story, Johnson offers us the shifting viewpoint that we associate with James Joyce; instead of plot, he gives us experiments with time, death and decay - showing how these forces affect the structure of the novel; in place of conflict, Johnson focuses on personal trauma, memory, and loss; and where we expect resolution, Johnson offers no consolation for the fact that life is not a story and it does not always end happily.

            Nor did Johnson's.  Depressed, manic, alcoholic, and finally suicidal, Johnson was a man beset by many demons.  He made friends but he made even more enemies, and there were times in his life when he seemed determined to destroy his own career out of sheer spitefulness.  Coe makes excellent drama of the numerous letters Johnson wrote lambasting his agents and publishers for failing to understand the extent of his achievement.  He approached his work with grim seriousness, all the more so because his books cost so much to produce.  He liked to cut up his novels, put them in boxes, slice holes through them, and, when he tired of that, abandon them entirely.  When publishers balked at this, he flew into a rage.   A letter to Thomas Wallace of Holt, Rinehart and Winston begins "You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke," and it goes on to state that "Your letter makes it clear to me why it is that America has never produced a great writer:  and you won't recognize him even when he comes."  Indeed!  With this sort of behavior, it is a wonder that he was published at all.
            He was the recipient of some notable prizes, and earned the respect of prominent writers, among them Samuel Beckett.  Cut-ups may not appeal to everyone but Johnson could write beautifully. If he lacked the sedate elegance of most modernists, it wasn't because he was full of himself or too delusional to know better.  Coe thinks so, but then he admits he doesn't understand his subject completely.  Johnson didn't want to be loved. He wanted respect.  His tribute to the late Sylvia Plath is most appropriate in this sense:  "Many misleading and unnecessary claims have been made for her work… which have made true assessment impossible for years yet; but the important thing is that she should be read."

Monday, September 18, 2017

Every Day I Write in Love's Book

Jackie Lopez



Samba queen,


It all took its toll on me.

I take care to not damage anyone’s reputation, but love harnessed me.

Love took me by my hair and led me to the dance floor.

I shook in perspiration and the thrill of it all.

I announced to all that love has come and found me.

I am the predecessor of my nonchalance with the wine makers.

I have no shame in what I share with God.

He tells me to point to the arrow of despondency.

I claim the Universe Supreme.

I count my many stars.

I have been anointed and disappointed to no end.

I dwell well in large spaces.

I know no other recourse but to be in love.

I have my mischievous ways.

Love is a power.

It is the power that fuels my misguidedness.

It is meaningful and ordinary.

It is magnificent and merciful.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Dreaming and Surviving

Jackie Lopez

I take my pen and dip it into my heart
because it is so hard to live without beauty.
Dreaming is surviving  because there is no other road for me.
I caught you with the poppies, and you caught me with the red shoes.
I dance to bring the sun up for the world.
I sing to wash dishes.
And write  poems for emancipations.
I think I have got a lot of menial work to do.
That is why I hide in my writing.
Thinking is freeing and so is love.
I have both in abundance and seek out olives.
Transcendence is just a pickle away.
Dreaming is surviving, that is why I think they have raised the minimum wage
and put out want-ads for poets.
Blue is the color of my skin.
Red is the color of my rose.
Soon I will speak to the melancholy who write prose

Friday, September 8, 2017

Three Poems by Catherine LaBella

For Sean, The Patron Saint of Heroin Addicts, Fire Victims and Blue-eyed Boys

Whenever I pray to you
I can see your death,
As if the bullets had cameras,
As if the eyes of the needles that pierced
Your veins were my eyes.

I can feel you inhale me,
Snorting me up with your last breath.
You lean back, allowing me to
Break you down, to poison you slowly.

Tucked away in a dark closet,
We slip off together, into those dreams
That I had as a girl (after you died).
I can count the moments you found me.

Whenever I am lost in nightmares
I pray to the boy I murdered,
And he comes to protect me.
He's forgiven everything from his old life.
He's forgotten everything
Except the ones he loved.

The Prophet from the City of Doves

Just who the hell are you anyway?
The wife of a man I love and hate
In equal measure, as I lay at his feet
The sacrifice of my childhood
A crumpled, bleeding carcass
Stoned by his followers, per instructions in Leviticus.

You were the interpreter, the Magdalene.
How did you become the whore?
How did your magician become a god?
Nobody understood your translation!

Now, every Christian woman
Thinks to herself “what if?” as she prays
For forgiveness from your imagined sins
Never daring to admit she knows she is not guilty.

Just what was all that about, anyway?
Your mission with your husband,
A man I love and hate in equal measure,
A man stripped of his humanity by the church he birthed.

But it’s easier than admitting…
I love and hate being a woman.
After all, I still have to live with myself.
I still have to live.
While he is long dead, forgotten by his followers.
May he return as a woman, or return not at all.

Dionysus Christ

You come through my backyard while I am meditating
In your leopard print skirt, long dark hair flowing, crowned with grape leaves.
You look like a fool and I’m glad no one else can see you.
You pluck untold thoughts from my medulla oblongata
And string them up on the wind.
The melody makes me weep
For I hear the voice of the Divine within me.

I saw the thorns under those leaves in your crown.
I’m not fooled anymore.
You’re the same guy who everyone in church
Said will save us.
If they saw you in that outfit
Maybe they’d decide to save themselves.

You’re the same guy who sits in the Sundance Tree
And watches men dance their prayers into reality.
Bleeding, sweating and singing,
The movement makes them weep,
As they feel the Divine within them walking.

You’re even the same guy I used to be scared of,
The one who sits in darkness,
Forever asking what if--
Missing your father, his beloved,
The memories make him weep,
As he thinks of the touch of the Divine upon him.

About the Author

Catherine LaBella is a shaman by trade and poet by circumstance. The majority of her teenage years, she was persecuted for her visionary abilities by her family, who are also deeply religious. She could not control what she was experiencing, and this scared many people, including Catherine. It also made her depressed to know that half of the world she saw was obscured from the view of her loved ones. Eventually, Catherine's parents took her to a doctor, who erroneously diagnosed her with schizophrenia. At 13, Catherine was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility for almost 7 years, where she spent much of that time in solitary confinement. To keep herself from actually going insane, she would sing show tunes. Catherine writes to express the experiences of years of solitude and her understanding of spirituality. She has written two chapbooks, Back to the Garden: Prayers and Love Letters of Persephone, and Bluebeard's Last Wife, and been published in Danse Macabre. To read more of her work and purchase her books, visit:

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TLY: Today, we are excited and pleased to have Charles Coe as our guest. Charles is a poet, jazz vocalist, and teacher. 

Thanks so much, Charles, for being here. You are an eclectic person and artist, both a writer and a jazz singer. Did you come from a family of musicians and storytellers?

CHARLES:  My mother and father dabbled in the arts when they were young. My father played clarinet with a little dance band in high school and my mother liked to sing and was always singing around the house. But by the time I came along neither one was really doing anything in the arts.

TLY: You grew up in Indiana but now live on the east coast. What took you from the mid-west to the north east?

CHARLES:  Wanderlust. I’d dropped out of Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana to be lead singer for a rock band based in Nashville. We didn’t do original music; we were a cover band that played night clubs and road houses and such. After the band broke up I went back to Richmond for a few months but soon realized that hanging out in the town of the college you dropped out of was the Mother of Nowhere Scenes. I had some contacts in the New York metropolitan area so I spent a couple of years there, and then pretty much on a whim came to visit some folks in Boston with the idea of doing music. That was in ’75 and I’m still here!

TLY: Do you ever get back to Indiana?

CHARLES:  My parents and my sister have passed. My sister’s son Bryan lives there still with his girlfriend and their three young kids. I get back every year or so to hang out with them.

TLY: Your essay “Hill of Dreams” appears in the anthology Inspired Journeys: Travel Writers in Search of a Muse, you write about your trip to the Soviet Union in 1988. What muse do you think you were chasing when you signed on to the trip?

CHARLES:  That was before I shifted my focus from music to writing. In 1988 I was invited to be part of an artist exchange program that brought bring Soviet artists to the states one year and take American artists to the Soviet Union the next. I wound up singing jazz with pick-up bands in the three cities we visited: Moscow, Tbilisi in Georgia, and Baku in Azerbaijan— about 150 miles from the Iranian border.

TLY: In “Hill of Dreams,” you write about a sense of being “blind” or lost as a traveler, although you traveled with a guide and according to an itinerary. In what sense were you “blind?”

CHARLES: Blind in the sense that there were a lot of political undercurrents I wasn’t aware of at the time, largely conflict between ethnic populations that the Soviet government pretty much kept under control because people were more afraid of the government and the army than they hated each other. But a few years later as the union was collapsing and the economy started to get in really bad shape, a lot of violence erupted. I was also “blind” in the sense that anytime you visit a place for a week or so you only have a series of snapshots based on what you experienced and saw. Like the old story about the blind man trying to describe an elephant on the basis of what he can touch.

TLY: There’s a lot of humor and irony in your stories. “Moonglow,” which appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, comes to mind. It’s about a group of guys who can’t quite figure out the distance from earth to the moon, and are even less convinced when the narrator supplies them with solid data. Do you think much has changed since you wrote the story?

CHARLES:  That question makes me laugh…I’d sort of forgotten about that. That was back in the ‘70s when the guys were hanging out and having the kind of argument you could settle with a smart phone in about twenty seconds. What’s obviously different is that we now take for granted that about every piece of factual info you’d ever want is available instantly on that little chunk of plastic in your pocket. What’s obviously the same is that guys hanging around arguing about something innocuous are usually still a bunch of knuckleheads.

TLY: Your book, All Sins Forgiven, Poems for My Parents, has been described by reviewers as intimate, tender and wise. E. Ethelbert Ebert Miller has written about the collection, “Coe is a witness to black life and black love. His book will outlive much of the poetry being written today.” What are your thoughts?

CHARLES:  Of course, I’m delighted when an American master like Ethelbert says that about my work. But I’m most gratified when people who don’t necessarily read a lot of poetry send me a note or come up to me after a reading to say how a particular poem made them think about their own parents, or helped them understand or make peace with something about their own past.

TLY: “Fortress” is a poem about your mother, which is included in All Sins Forgiven. It is a beautiful, poignant piece of writing. Could you tell us about it?

CHARLES:  When I was a kid, the shades in our house were always drawn. I could never have a pet, I could never have friends over. Last year when I had a gig in Atlanta I stayed a couple of days with my best buddy from high school, whom I hadn’t seen or heard from for more than forty years. We’d reconnected when he sent me a friend request on Facebook. He’d read that poem, and when we were having coffee in his kitchen one morning he said that he’d always wondered why I’d never invited him over to my house; he thought my mother didn’t like him. But when he read the poem he understood for the first time that it was nothing personal.

I didn’t realize as a kid that my mother was mentally ill. I think that’s true for a lot of people; all the odd things your parents did…well…that’s just the way things were. That poem and a number of the other poems in “All Sins Forgiven” are a way of talking about this, I hope with sympathy and without judgment.

TLY: Roberto Mighty uses “Fortress” as the inspiration for his film Peach Pie. You’ve had many poems adapted to music. Was this the first time a poem has been adapted for film? What changes does the poem undergo in the movie that may have surprised you?

CHARLES:  Yes, this was my first piece of writing that’s been adapted for film, and it was quite an education for me. When Roberto put out a casting call he copied me on the announcement, and he described the character of my mother as a widowed working woman trying to raise a child alone. I emailed him back to say, “Actually, my father was still living and my mother never worked a day in her adult life.”

His response was basically, “Thanks for sharing.” Then I got it; once an artist in another medium decides to use your work as the basis for another project, unless your advice or insight is requested, your job is to keep you mouth shut and stay the hell out of the way. The filmmaker wasn’t “filming my poem”; he was using it as a frame of reference, a point of departure for his OWN vision. When I saw the film, which is an absolute stunner, there was a moment of grace that never actually occurred in my mother’s life but fit the film perfectly.

TLY: Charles, thank you so much for your time. It Is greatly appreciated. Your work is amazing, and TLY thinks the world of it. Before we let you go, could you tell us about any future projects that you might have simmering?

CHARLES:  For the last year I’ve been an Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston collecting oral histories in the Mission Hill neighborhood. I’m wrapping that up in the next month or so. Then I’ll continue on a third volume of poetry in progress, and later this fall I’ll get to work on a prose memoir about my family that will focus on my sister Carol, who died of liver cancer five years ago. I play and teach the didgeridoo, and had planned to be in Australia last February studying with aboriginal musicians, but when I got the Boston residency I had to postpone that trip. But I’m looking to go maybe next March or April.


Poet and writer Charles Coe is author of two books of poetry: All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents and Picnic on the Moon, both published by Leapfrog Press. He is author of Spin Cycles, a novella published by Gemma Media. His essay Hill of Dreams, about his travels through the Soviet Union in 1988, appears in Inspired Journeys: Travels with the Muse (University of Wisconsin Press 2016). Peach Pie, a short film by filmmaker Roberto Mighty based on his poem "Fortress," is currently showing in film festivals nationwide.

Charles is the winner of a fellowship in poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He was selected by the Associates of the Boston Public Library as a “Boston Literary Light for 2014.” He in the second year of a three-year term as an Artist Fellow for the St. Botolph Club, an organization that supports arts and the humanities in Greater Boston. He has also been chosen as an Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston for 2017. He taught poetry recently in Dingle, Ireland for the Bay Path University MFA study abroad program


For purchase All Sins Forgiven

For purchase Picnic on the Moon

For purchase Spin Cycles

Monday, September 4, 2017

A Puente over Troubled Water

Jackie Lopez

I think that magic has filleted me on the stove.

I think that justice has surprised me with a stone.

I think that I shall yell at the dresser and cling to my shoes of despair.

I know how to hold out my hand in prayer.

I never give an orgasm without permission.

I find a place to call my own on the moon of my intentions.

I must continue my education in the house of the rising winds.

I have accosted a young and innocent man.

He must lick his wounds and have his orgasms.

When I was thunder and lightning, I watered the garden of other’s discontent.

I will be stealing the show on the oceanographer’s school of emancipation.

I have learned my lessons in the back alleys of my troubadour tears.

I have learned to keep my mouth shut in front of alien forces.

I took the avenue of disbelief and became a believer.

You have wrapped your strings around my heart and your drum in my bracelets.

I think that I will punish your grievances.

I take to matrimony like an anointment on a flower.

You shall remain my secret in the secret houses of my fornications.

I promise to clean your teeth with a prophet’s toothbrush.

Your songs are the weapons of the angels.

I am the devil in your gospel choir.

Please don’t give me away to the thousand horses on my leash.

You can call me wetback, but I will never let you down.

I love you very much!

Poem to the guitarist from the Gypsy in love.

So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles?

by Hisham Aidi  In the mid-1990s, I used to lead literary walking tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier” for friends or literary pilgrims visitin...