Robert Ashley - A comic opera libretto, a novel about a temporary bank heist, a blurb-billed epic poem ranging through small town Midwestern vernacular and Eastern metaphysics...

Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives, Dalkey Archive Press, 2011. (Reprint)

"For those who don’t already know about him, Robert Ashley is one of the most intriguing and significant American composers of the past forty years. (Peter Greenaway devoted one fourth of his Four American Composers miniseries to him, along with John Cage, Philip Glass, and Meredith Month; you can watch all four parts at UbuWeb.) Ashley is also a talking artist, akin to David Antin, Eric Bogosian, Laurie Anderson, and Spalding Gray. He also hosted a short-lived TV program entitled Music with Roots in the Aether (1975), which featured appearances by David Behrman, Philip Glass, Alvin Lucier, Gordon Mumma, Pauline Oliveros, and Terry Riley. (And you can watch and listen to those episodes, and read more about them, at UbuWeb.)
Perfect Lives is the libretto of Ashley’s opera-for-television of the same name, which he wrote and developed and premiered in the late 1970s / early 1980s in collaboration with several other artists—”Blue” Gene Tyranny, John Sanborn, and Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem (the couple on the cover of the Dalkey edition).
It’s one of my favorite artworks ever made. Indeed, despite my already owning the libretto, I take time to transcribe the opera’s final movement, “The Backyard,” once every year (usually around the summer solstice); it is one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry I’ve ever read. An excerpt (from my transcription, which I carry around on my thumb drive, and peek at often):
She thinks about her father’s age.
She does the calculations one more time.
She remembers sixty-two.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
She remembers forty-two.
“Remembers” is the wrong word.
She dwells on forty-two.
She turns and faces it.
She watches.
She studies it.
It is the key.
The mystery of the balances is there.
The masonic secret lies there.
The church forbids its angels entry there.
The gypsies camp there.
Blood is exchanged there.
Mothers weep there.
It is night there.
Thirty and some number is sixty-two.
And that number with ten is forty-two.
That number translates now to then.
That number is the answer, in the way that numbers answer.
That simple notion, a coincidence among coincidences, is all one needs to know.
My mind turns to my breath.
My mind watches my breath.
My mind turns and watches my breath.
My mind turns and faces my breath.
My mind faces my breath.
My mind studies my breath.
My mind sees every aspect of the beauty of my breath.
My mind watches my breath soothing itself.
My mind sees every part of my breath.
My breath is not indifferent to itself.
(Now I have Robert Ashley’s voice reverberating in my head—a thoroughly pleasant experience! Once you’ve heard him perform this piece, it’s impossible to read it without echoing his cadence.)
A description of Perfect Lives from the Dalkey site:
Raoul de Noget, an over-the-hill singer, and his younger pal Buddy (“The World’s Greatest Piano Player”), find themselves in a small town in the Midwest. They become friends with the son and daughter of the local sheriff, and the four hatch a plan to do something that, if they are caught, will be seen as a crime, but if they are not, will be art: they will rob the town bank, take the money over the border into Indiana, and then return it all the next day. With this story at its center, Robert Ashley’s inimitable Perfect Lives goes on to demolish every narrative convention in the book, taking in conflicting perspectives, texts, tones, narrators, formal constraints, and philosophies, roping in Midwestern ennui, theosophy, road trips, pop songs, self-help tapes, daytime television, heist movies, the lost city of Atlantis, preachers, dirty jokes, the history of American immigration, the preternatural flatness of Illinois, rhythms from the avant-garde to boogie-woogie, the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, and, finally, an elegy for thought itself. Perfect Lives is as much a summation of American thought as All in the Family or Patterson, and is every bit as essential.“ – AD Jameson

„Premiering on television in 1984 and first published in book form in 1991, Perfect Lives is several texts at once: a comic opera libretto, a novel about a temporary bank heist, a blurb-billed epic poem ranging through small town Midwestern vernacular and Eastern metaphysics, and a kind of textual final resting place for the titular performance in the form of notes, a preface, a synopsis, some notation from the score, and an edited conversation with writer, composer and director Ashley during which he explains the genesis and outcome of the project. (Ashley: “I had this practice: I’d go into a room, close the door, and start singing.”) It’s a good thing that the book is several texts, because while it’s a success as an engaging epic (experimental) poem, it would be a stretch to call it a novel and as a libretto it leaves you having missed out on the three-hour television program that it became with no idea of what it sounded like unless you’re familiar with Ashley’s work and no idea what it looked like except for a still of the production on the cover of the book and a frontispiece featuring Ashley himself playing narrator. Ultimately the loss of context doesn’t make the text suffer because as a set of eight experimental poems obliquely describing a bank heist and an elopement among more metaphysical things it wins at being an engrossing read and at capturing small town Midwestern vernacular and widescreen philosophy in very crisp but entertainingly malformed ways.
You get all your diegetic heavy lifting done up front with a four page synopsis and then, minus the transcriptions and notes and prefaces, you’re left with the non-chronological text itself, seven sections, each of which are sung by a different narrator—maybe, and I’ll get back to this—with an italicized chorus that either comments upon or completes the narrator’s sung stories and meditations. The way Ashley went about voicing his elusive narratorial figures (it’s hard to call them narrators or characters) varies greatly but is often reductive and repetitive in a flatly reportorial way that kept reminding me of Leslie Scalapino’s early work (or Hannah Weiner if you replace clairvoyance with a Greek chorus) and reads in part like this, from section two, during which an unknown narrator mentally surveys a field while also gazing at elderly lovers in a supermarket:
looking for something interesting
now turn left still on the inside still
looking for something interesting
now turn left the fence is still there keep looking
keep looking for something interesting
now turn left again still looking still
looking we are looking for food
time to go
friendly shoe
friendly sole
The drift and repetition here continues in many styles throughout the book and is the only real textual constant once it becomes clear early on that there’s no intra-book indication of transfer between characters and narrators and becomes clear across the width of the poem there’s no main storyteller, and while some sections have a more clearly defined narrator than others those sections still imbue said narrator with more information than he or she, as a character, could possibly know. So it’s incredibly confusing who’s voicing what but that twists the clipped flatness into a sidelong blur that never really ceases the entire book. The specific lines you’re reading might be clean and simple, but the bewilderment that comes from quick fades between narrators who exist either inside or outside the story is a more entertaining mystery than the oblique bank heist and its lack of consequence.
What’s also disorienting about the narratorial drift is that in a few places video camera movements are inserted seamlessly into that drift, movements that might have literal counterparts, placing the libretto in a weird situation in which song might narrate what you the TV opera viewer are seeing vs. what the character/narrator is seeing. The moves are so seamless though they don’t interrupt but rather just shift the real heft of what gets narrated, which is an assortment of landscapes real and imagined, literal and metaphysical, particular to Ashley when writing the libretto and loosely universal, from the back of a car headed toward Indiana at dawn to a repeatedly referenced fiery evening sky and from a household view of a horizon to rocks that live and create living bruises. These visions of different kinds of plains of existence that culminate in a vision of a backyard picnic in the final section move first through bars and hotels and parks and even a family home (in the opera’s only feint toward characters acknowledging and singing to each other) and in especially oblique form during the marriage of elopers Gwyn and Ed, narrated (we’re told in notes beneath each section heading in the opera-proper contents page) by the Justice of the Peace performing the ceremony. Here the text completely frees itself from the responsibility of narration and instead circles the abstraction of a spread of language itself via defining marriage and across the passage of a few eons:
Language has sense built in. It’s easy to
Make sense. To not make sense is possible,
But hard. Language does not have truth built in.
It’s hard to make truth, which is to stop the search.
Such generalities and the unknown source they’re coming from are a constant across the book, but rather than coming off cloying or meaningless they instead have an additive effect, a kind of plain-talk philosophizing voiced by most of the narrators in one form or another and touching on all the regular clichés of metaphysics: truth, language, the self, light, the passage of time, etc. Again, this doesn’t bug but in the nonlinear smear has a reaching quality as if the narrators are pushing toward something beyond them, something epic just beyond the edges of the set of songs as epic poem.
Getting lost in all of this though is exactly how great in particular the language is even as it constructs a flat, loose metaphysics; one of the themes in the work is performance itself, and in minute particulars we get delivered great passages like the following, recalling the attempt of a bartender’s wife to learn to play boogie-woogie piano by watching TV tapes:
Some got it and some don’t,
She says at night.
I got it.
Poor Rodney. Art Widower.
He lost it to the left hand memories,
The structure.
He lost it to the right hand
Blue notes.
The book roams as freely from poetic particular to dreamy generality as easily as it drifts between narrators and the cumulative effect is that the drift of voice forms a plural that’s both particular to the midwestern landscape it occupies and given over to what’s far beyond the particulars of a bank heist or backyard. The cumulative effect of reading Perfect Lives is one of being overwhelmed by an outpouring of language, completely adrift in the best way possible.“ - Nicholas Grider

„‘These are songs about the Corn Belt, and some of the people in it … or on it.’1 That’s what the man in the Perfect Lives Lounge says as you sit down with your drink, served in ‘a fluted plastic glass, sans ice’. Maybe he says it in Spanish, but you’re not sure. After all, even if you don’t speak a language, you can catch its drift if it’s sung.
The Perfect Lives Lounge – let’s just call it The Bar – is sparse, but elegantly decorated. Colour scheme: hints of neon against inky black infinitude, here and there a blush of pink and baby blue. Seven vertical neon strips form The Bar’s sign. As your eyes adjust to the light, everything looks soft-edged, like a 1980s video or television broadcast, occasionally flecked with static. Come to think of it, from a certain angle, The Bar looks like a television studio set. Exact dimensions are uncertain; windows between interior and exterior dissolve rhythmically into one another. The man – Corn Belt Guy – is standing in the middle of the room. He has a full head of fine white hair, dusted with glitter, which is neatly parted down one side. His lips shine with gloss. He wears big tan-tinted glasses. Round his neck hangs a dapper navy blue scarf, smoothed neatly onto the lapels of his grey silk suit. Occasionally he swaps the scarf for an orange or pink number. A red light-bulb hanging from the ceiling hovers right next to his face. He looks debonair, although perhaps sleazy from some angles. The music in the bar has a Latin swing – simple drum-machine rhythms with soft jazzy chords from a piano drifting over the top. You order another round from Rodney, the Bartender, who looks a lot like Corn Belt Guy. ‘He says, right off, we don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy.’
In The Bar, Corn Belt – we must stop calling him that now – is better known as Raoul de Noget, or ‘R’. ‘R’ is a singer and he’s here with his friend Buddy, ‘The World’s Greatest Piano Player’. They’re supposed to be taking the day off from making music, but that was Buddy you heard teasing out those soft, jazzy chords earlier. Check out his look: black fedora, shades, royal blue shirt with blousy sleeves garlanded in rhinestones. There’s a ring with a big ruby rock on his little finger and constellations of sequins stuck on his hands – and it’s mostly his hands we’re interested in looking at. Now he’s ripping up that keyboard with explosive boogie-woogie improvisations, playing like he’s … ‘The World’s Greatest Piano Player’. Rodney reminds us: ‘We don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy / Is the sound of God.’
Outside The Bar, beyond the unnamed Midwest town in which it sits, ‘R’ is better known as the composer Robert Ashley. Ashley – now aged 81, and one of the most important living exponents of opera in America, or, more precisely, the most important living exponent of American opera – created Raoul, Buddy, Rodney and The Bar for Perfect Lives, an opera originally conceived and developed for TV between 1978–83. Produced by Ashley, Carlota Schoolman and The Kitchen in New York, Perfect Lives evolved through a number of live iterations before being broadcast in the UK by Channel Four in 1983, back in the day when the broadcaster’s schedules supported radical art and minority-interest audiences.
Perfect Lives is an opera about... Jeez, where shall I begin? Well, not at the beginning, because Perfect Lives is about digressions. As Ashley says, ‘No story has a beginning, it’s all digression […] It’s digression what everybody does, every time. The trick of performing that piece is that we literally never know what we’re going to do until we hear the first note.’2 Like talking, it’s about being in the moment; we don’t know what we’re going to say until we say it. ‘Composing music’, Ashley holds, ‘is the process of constantly making a decision about when you’re going to update what you’ve just done.’3 Perfect Lives consists of digressions about the US landscape and American lives, performed in American vernacular language. ‘I’m trying hard, in Perfect Lives, to reproduce the music of the way people talk. It’s not poetry, it’s song. It’s song in the same way that, I suppose, The Iliad was a song. It’s just a song. If you read any one line, it’s not that interesting in itself, but if you read a hundred they start to make sense.’4 John Cage once said of it: ‘What about the Bible? And the Koran? It doesn’t matter. We have Perfect Lives.’

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Digressing. ‘If I were from the big town, I would be calm and debonair. The big town doesn’t send its riff-raff out.’ The drink must be going to my head, buddy. To get back to the point, it’s been said that Ashley is a great American writer disguised as a composer. (‘A little knowledge dot dot dot.’) You could also say that Perfect Lives – with its future-retro animated title sequences, complex fusions of internal and external locations, wild video effects and outlandish costuming – is a great work of experimental television drama disguised as performance art disguised as video art disguised as an opera. It was originally conceived of as the second work in a trilogy, bookended by Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982–91) and Now Eleanor’s Idea (1993), each work using progressively smaller and more fragmented units of narrative, and each concerning itself with different stages of the American story – from its links to the old world in Atalanta (Acts of God), passing through the Midwest for Perfect Lives to life at its most western edge in Now Eleanor’s Idea. The works use aspects of language that have long interested Ashley: dialect patterns, chanting, ultrafast speech, ecstatic religious preaching, Renaissance philosophy, involuntary speech (also explored in his 1979 work Automatic Writing), understanding the world verbally as opposed to physically, or even metaphysically (an idea he first touched upon in his 1967 opera That Morning Thing). Some parts of the trilogy share the same characters. Like a human heartbeat, they all have a pulse of 72 beats per minute.
A thumbnail sketch of the narrative that Ashley – or, if you prefer, ‘R’ – tells in Perfect Lives looks something like this. The story is divided into seven episodes, each set in a different location in a Midwest town: ‘The Park (Privacy Rules)’; ‘The Supermarket (Famous People)’; ‘The Bank (Victimless Crime)’; ‘The Bar (Differences)’; ‘The Living Room (The Solutions)’; ‘The Church (After the Fact)’; and ‘The Backyard (T’Be Continued)’. Raoul and Buddy are itinerant musicians playing a residency at the Perfect Lives Lounge. They befriend Isolde and ‘D’ (‘The Captain of the Football Team’) and together hatch a plot ‘to remove a sizeable amount of money from The Bank for one day (and one day only) and let the whole world know that it was missing’. If they get caught, it’s a crime, but it’s Art with a capital ‘A’ if they get away with it. ‘D’ works at The Bank, where one of the clerks, Gwyn, is planning to elope with his friend Ed. A plan is made to use the lovers’ car to take the money across the border to Indiana and then return it the next day. That, at the very least, is the kernel of the dizzying story. As the opera unfolds, we also meet characters such as Rodney The Bartender, Lucille, Snowdrift, Will and Ida – The Sheriff and his wife, also ‘D’ and Isolde’s parents – Helen and John (innocent bystanders from a local old people’s home), Dwayne (who has problems making his speech understood), and the bank clerks Jennifer, Kate, Linda, Susie and Eleanor (who falls in love with Buddy, and whose later religious experiences are explored in Now Eleanor’s Idea).
As living and breathing musicology in practice, Perfect Lives explores how story­telling creates music and – tangentially – how American social models grew in tandem with musical forms from Europe and Africa. Built into the very structures of how it was written and is performed – there is no definitive score, only the libretto, some diacritic and harmonic indications, and a set of intricate time signatures to follow – Perfect Lives is about the sociability of music. Ashley realized Perfect Lives over a period of years with a number of close collaborators. (‘I only work with geniuses,’ he says. ‘In the end it pays off.’5) In a documentary made by Peter Greenaway in 1983, as part of his ‘Four American Composers’ series, Ashley said he wanted to ‘allow the performers to make musical statements as unpremeditated as speech itself’. Rehearsal allows performance to become habitual, in the way that speech is habitual, but Perfect Lives’s realization is largely in the moment. It’s about the musical commons that being in a band grants access to. Buddy’s virtuosic piano playing – which, over the course of the opera, wraps cocktail jazz inside pop inside boogie-woogie inside classical – was by ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, who developed the harmonic structures used in the opera. Composer Peter Gordon was the music’s producer and in charge of electronics and mixing, while musicians Jill Kroesen and David Van Tieghem evolved the singing parts for the various characters that make up the chorus – Isolde, ‘D’, Gwyn, Ed and so on. Musically, the result is unique, of no school of postwar US music other than its own: steady, loping drum patterns, washes of synthesized strings, Buddy’s almost stream-of-consciousness piano – all somehow harmonically smooth and easy on the ear yet packed with complexity and detail. And throughout it all, there is Ashley’s voice: a sing-song patter with the soft-spoken intimacy of a late-night radio DJ.
Perfect Lives found its visual form through John Sanborn, who directed the opera for television. Dean Winkler was responsible for staging, video editing, animations and graphics, while Jacqueline Humbert designed the opera’s audacious lounge lizard and ’80s high-fashion-meets-sci-fi costuming and make-up. Templates for the camera movements in the opera were mapped out by Sanborn, who divided the screen into a series of vertical and horizontal bands: ‘The Park’ is represented by the low, tracking shot of a horizon, for instance, and ‘The Supermarket’ uses the baseline of ‘The Park’s horizon from which it shoots two converging lines to form a triangular pattern – like an aggressive zoom shot. ‘The Bank’ is a grid and ‘The Bar’ just the vertical lines from the grid. These are subtly echoed by ‘R’s hand-gestures – sometimes side-to-side, other times up-and-down – or Buddy’s hands dancing across the keyboard. Perfect Lives is opera for the screen age, not the crumbling theatres of 19th-century operatic form.
Identities in Perfect Lives are fluid representations. Robert is Raoul, Rodney and The Justice of the Peace. Jill plays Isolde and Ida and Gwyn. (‘When I work in someone else’s work it’s more helpful to me to know what they want me to do, and I think I realized what he [Ashley] wanted me to do was to find out what I’m supposed to do myself,’ says Van Tiegham – or ‘D’, Will, Ed – in Greenaway’s film.) That’s an easy enough idea to understand, but then you get carried away listening to Buddy, take your eyes off ‘R’ to look down at your drink – sans ice – glance up again and ‘R’ is no longer Robert. Ned Sublette is now ‘R’ and ‘R’ is Cuban – grew up north of the US/Mexico border. Elio Villafranca has swapped places with ‘Blue’ Gene to become Buddy; also Cuban but grew up south of the border. The Bar has been rechristened La Vidas Perfectas Lounge.
‘Whoa, Lucille!’ How’d that happen? Well, the end of 2011 saw a number of revivals of Ashley’s work. That Morning Thing was restaged at The Kitchen in a production directed by Fast Forward, curated as part of Performa 11 by Mark Beasley. Varispeed produced Perfect Lives Manhattan and Perfect Lives Brooklyn; new arrangements of the piece performed in site-specific locations around New York City. Vidas Perfectas – with ‘R’ and Buddy now in residency in La Vidas Perfectas Lounge – is an ambitious new Spanish-language version of Perfect Lives, directed by Alex Waterman (who, with Will Holder, is currently working on a study of Ashley’s practice, due to be published at the end of this year) from a translation by Javier Sainz de Robles. Produced under the auspices of ISSUE Project Room and Ballroom Marfa, Vidas Perfectas is, like the original Perfect Lives, designed for television, and will grow steadily in phases over the course of the next two years. Three episodes were staged in December 2011 at the Irondale Theater in Brooklyn – ‘El Parque’ (The Park), ‘La Iglesia’ (The Church) and ‘El Patio de Atrás’ (The Backyard) – with further episodes to be produced in Marfa, Texas, this summer, and a pilot version planned for the end of the year. It is a slow, carefully evolving project, because: ‘we don’t serve fine wine in half-pints, buddy.’
Vidas Perfectas relocates the action to west Texas, on the US/Mexico border. For Ashley, opera is characters in a landscape telling stories musically, and he’s been telling stories in Spanish since 1979. Spanish is the second language of the US, first arriving in the 16th century, and today spoken by some 35 million people. Jean-Luc Godard observed in Notre Musique (Our Music, 2004) that America is a country that has no name – there’s a US, which is in the Americas, but there are many other Americas too, and the US story has been one of looking for self-hood, along the way erasing other cultures that share the same territory. Vidas Perfectas is about the literal and psychological borders between the different Americas, so stories about the US are probably just as well told in Spanish as they are in English.
If, musically speaking – and Ashley’s work is nothing if not about musically speaking – Perfect Lives refracts US lives through jazz, boogie-woogie and pop, then Vidas Perfectas looks at the Cuban and Cajun strains that run through the culture: rock’n’roll, Caribbean music, mambo, salsa. Villafranca, the award-winning Cuban jazz pianist, takes on the role of Buddy, resplendent in a spangled customized mariachi jacket. Sublette – a Spanish-speaking gringo from west Texas whose musical experiences span ’80s downtown avant-garde rock, Afro-Caribbean music, and country and western, and who is a noted scholar of Cuban music and the musical cultures of New Orleans – cuts an imposing figure as ‘R’; Ashley’s silk scarves and shiny suits replaced with a black stetson, laredo tie and cowboy boots. Abraham Gomez-Delgado (a composer of Peruvian and Puerto Rican descent) and Elisa Santiago (a dancer, designer and performer whose Spanish is classical Castellano) play the chorus roles. Waterman has built Vidas Perfectas along the same lines as Ashley’s productions of Perfect Lives: with Gordon back on board as producer, and artist Sarah Crowner designing the sets, Vidas Perfectas ‘uses the social relations that were involved in making the music as the model for its remaking’6, embracing conversation, improvisation and process to tint and colour the production in new ways. ‘Experimental music’, Waterman suggests, ‘is about doing what you don’t know how to do.’7 Vidas Perfectas is not a slavish replication of Perfect Lives. The sets and costuming evoke the south; Sublette’s black-clad southern gent look, for instance, or the elegant way in which Crowner’s sets seem to evoke both early Modernist abstraction and Mexican traditional design. Waterman and his collaborators delicately transform Ashley’s music; it remains unmistakably Ashley, but Latin influences are teased out and foregrounded, by both Villafranca’s piano and by new shifts of rhythmic emphasis in the pre-recorded drum patterns. The performances in Spanish put Ashley’s libretto into motion in new ways: Sublette’s rich voice plays down the beguiling casualness of Ashley’s intimate patter, infusing the role of ‘R’ with a more brooding intensity. Even if you do not speak Spanish, surrendering yourself to the musicality of the overall sound still, somehow, allows access to the mystery of Perfect Lives’s libretto.
John Cage once said: ‘Qué pasa con la Biblia? Y el Corán? No importa. Tenemos Vidas Perfectas.’ In the world of Perfect Lives – Manhattan, the Midwest or Texas – people ‘come to talk. They pass the time. They soothe their thoughts with lemonade. They say things like: She never had a stitch that she could call her own, poor thing. And, Carl’s still president over at the bank, ain’t he? […] They are the planets in this scheme of things.’ - Dan Fox

Interview by  Jeremy M. Davies and A D Jameson

"A flock of young musicians has been gravitating toward octogenarian composer Robert Ashley, indicating that his truly original artistic voice is finally settling into its rightful place in history. This week, an unprecedented outpouring of Ashley’s music starts with four nights of chamber works at Incubator Arts Project, including an impressive lineup of old and new collaborators as well as a new live version of his seminal electronic work Automatic Writing.
The groundswell continues with the New York premiere (and first performance in 40 years) of his 1967 opera, That Morning Thing, at the Kitchen and a pair of new interpretations of his “television opera” Perfect Lives. One, an itinerant live version, will be performed at sites around the East Village by music collective Varispeed. The other, an ambitious new Spanish-language adaptation, Vidas Perfectas, directed by cellist Alex Waterman, will screen at the Irondale Center in December.
“Robert Ashley didn’t just reinvent opera—he has reimagined the American musical landscape,” says Waterman. “He brings us a totally new form of opera that makes sung speech sound like talk, synthetic orchestration sound like unconscious thought and the performance feel like a dream that we can’t wake from.”
Ashley finds the youthful enthusiasm for his work invigorating, but is unsurprised by the timing. “There’s a sort of time lag that’s constant,” he explains. “You get an idea, and then 30 or 40 years later that idea suddenly becomes more important and moves forward.”
In the case of That Morning Thing, Ashley’s first opera to abandon linear narrative, the political climate when it was written seems uncannily similar to today’s. “People get interested in this piece, and then all of a sudden there’s Occupy Wall Street!” says Ashley. “That’s a real 1960s idea, but it’s our idea too.”
Regarding the opera’s revival, which is part of the visual art performance biennial Performa ’11, Ashley is careful to avoid nostalgia, insisting, “I don’t want to make it like 1967 brought back.” This would prove difficult anyway, as very little of it was ever written down. So with director Fast Forward and a 17-person cast of dancers and musicians, Ashley has been re-creating the three-act opera scene-by-scene from a score that exists mostly in his mind.
“Writing music down on paper is an important idea and it led us to the orchestra, which is amazing,” says Ashley. “But it eclipsed the other idea, which is, ‘this is the way to do it, and I tell you and you tell her.’ That’s a different way of communicating, and That Morning Thing is in that tradition.”
For multitalented musician Dave Ruder, who will be appearing in That Morning Thing, the Incubator series and Perfect Lives Manhattan, this way of collaborating has been essential to getting inside Ashley’s work. “If you were just handed the page and told to perform [these works], you’d probably end up with something pretty flat,” he explains. “But having Bob’s guidance helps find the musicality in it, and the avenues along which musical investigation will be most fruitful. They’re not always obvious. For me, performing starts with making a decision that it can be beautiful to just listen to yourself tell a story.”
Sometimes that story is downright peculiar, as in Perfect Lives, a seven-episode opera that juxtaposes the surreal exploits of the narrator, R, and Buddy (“the greatest piano player in the world”), including a symbolic bank robbery. It was recorded for television in 1983, with Ashley as R and long-time collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny as Buddy.
“When it was done for TV, the idea was that it’s cooked; that’s the way it was done,” says Ashley. “Then these young people come along and say, ‘It’s not cooked! We have another idea about it.’ ”
Far from being protective of the original, Ashley welcomes the fresh approaches, explaining, “There’s not an ideal Perfect Lives, only the idea. The form of the piece is just seven dialogues, and the way those dialogues are framed in music becomes a pattern for all the other ingredients in the opera—the instrumental music, the location, the costumes. There can be other versions as long as people are interested in that text.” – Interview by Amanda MacBlane


Ark Codex ±0 - An authorless book object of art & text inked on pre-existing book pages & reformulated to induce an abstracted retelling of Noah’s fabled tale

 Ark Codex, Calamari Press, 2012.

ARK CODEX ±0 is an authorless book object of art & text inked on pre-existing book pages & reformulated to induce an abstracted retelling of Noah’s fabled tale.
Ark Codex ±0 speaks for itself—a self-organizing & self-contained archeological archive of language for the sake of language, an artifact collaged of image & text mined from unspecified or unknown origins; deconstructed, replicated, reappropriated, cut up, traced, erased, distressed, deterritorialized, rubbed, stained, repurposed, then reconsituted & expressed in a feedback loop driven by the same chance operations that guide natural selection. To define the meaning or intent of the assemblage that is Ark Codex ±0 would extinguish the very nature it sets out to describe or inscribe (which, in any event, is only an architected articulation of the very ark (vessel, book object, apocalyptic seed bank) that it is).
Not only is the Ark Codex project an affront to the everyday abuses of language for telling stories or writing 'poetry,' but it challenges accepted notions of authorship—the vain compulsion to attach a name to an object to ease coping with one's own mortality. We are all in the same boat & ever in need of a bigger one. It is the readers role to attribute meaning—Ark Codex is merely a rorschach sounding board to project the viewer’s potential, a reader who (like Ark Codex itself) is but a mere embedded fragment of our collective unconsciousness, but in a holographic sense mirrors the whole & takes on a life of its own, becoming a Deleuzian «Body without Organs», a passenger on the ark. If there is an intended audience, Ark Codex is for any conscious being that comes after the fact—after the deluge, the mounting accumulation, the suicidal flood of information that will extinguish us, we living beings that spawned this language to dig its own mass grave in the first place, leaving only the original intent to communicate to effervesce in the aftermath.

As a book object, ARK CODEX ±0 contains 144 color images (& 5 additional intersitials), each with a running footnote/caption, bound by a narrative thread & organized recursively into 5 series (each with a textual «abstract»)

Texts & images from ARK CODEX ±0 appeared in various early incarnations on/in:
Word For/Word
Dark Sky
Everyday Genius
Mimeo Mimeo (print)
Her Royal Majesty (print)
New Post Literate
• jmww [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]
Black Warrior Review (print)
Faultline (print)
& contextually (with background theory & «making of» methodology) on the 5cense blog that spawned the project:
• 5 leafs from folio 0:0 (w/text)
• 6 leafs from folio 0:1
• 8 leafs from folio 0:2
• 3 leafs from folio 0:3
• 6 leafs from folio 0:5


Alan Ramón Clinton – Technology and spirituality formed uncanny alliances in countless manifestations of automatism. From Victorian mediums, the psychiatrists who studied them, Fordist assembly line, Hollywood studios to Surrealism, Futurism and Vorticism

Alan Ramon Clinton, Mechanical Occult, Peter Lang Publishing, 2004.

„In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, technology and spirituality formed uncanny alliances in countless manifestations of automatism. From Victorian mediums to the psychiatrists who studied them, from the Fordist assembly line to the Hollywood studios that adopted its practices, from Surrealism on the left to Futurism and Vorticism on the right, the unpredictable paths of automatic practice and ideology present a means by which to explore both the utopian and dystopian possibilities of technological and cultural innovation. Focusing on the poetry of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and William Butler Yeats, Alan Ramon Clinton argues that, given the wide-reaching influence of automatism, as much can be learned from these writers' means of production as from their finished products. At a time when criticism has grown polarized between political and aesthetic approaches to high modernism, this book provocatively develops its own automatic procedures to explore the works of these writers as fields rich in potential choices, some more spectral than others.“

Read it at Google Books

Alan Ramón Clinton, Necropsy In E Minor: A Novel, Kindle Edition, 2011.

„Shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize, Necropsy in E Minor is the tale of a young college professor who sits down to write what he calls a “memoir,” but which really only records the past six months of his life (with numerous digressions), and ends, with the last line, after a richly devastating encounter, at the moment of writing.
Who is this person? That is kept a secret, despite the fact that he is writing for no audience other than himself. His name does not appear, but those of others do, necessary to ensure the accuracy of the anagrams and puns that have helped map his universe since he found “The Note.” Given his disposal to interpret this anonymous confessional/fantasy story, an endeavor undertaken with the firm belief that it was written for him, by someone he knows, and purposefully left for him to find.
Having abandoned the scholarly methodologies and subjects that would actually allow him to attain tenure, our professor on the lam performs all manner of linguistic analyses of the note, drives around the rim of Florida (the pilgrimage method, fittingly circular), desperately uses inkblots, the I Ching, and tarot cards for practical advice, adopts a cat named Sanity, becomes an amateur ornithologist, develops a theory of “instantaneous architecture,” endures a shamanic experience, and eggs himself on with the hope that, no matter what happens, his “memoir” might one day be found by archaeologists and thereby provide a key to human life at the close of the twentieth century.“

Alan Ramón Clinton, Curtain Call: A Metaphorical Memoir, Kindle Edition, 2010.

"Stalking academia, re-ordering double prints and rewriting the autobiography of Buster Keaton, Clinton's hapless and sophomoric intellectual narrator offers his poignant and very, very funny insights on modern-day culture in a series of slapstick misadventures.“


Alan Ramón Clinton, Horatio Alger's Keys, BlazeVOX

Read it  (pdf)

Not Sure Where I’m Buried (excerpt)

Greek gods, which ones, watch over
the mill workers in the floor.
My grandmother gave them to me
before everything started getting stolen.
A paper city watches over me.
Not sure where I’m buried.
Or if the trains can get there.
Someone else’s Fedex exploding in my living room
Francis Bacon automatism—Contributors
We’ve invented a lot of different ways to poison ourselves.
The owl and Thoth made friends with Wellbutryn, with Paul Muldoon.
I saw Miranda again, those are pearls that were her lips.
Sprung from jail, Baudrillard chose spaghetti.
Such large mirrors for sensory deprivation
the holes in the wall that are the wall.
A familiar spirit lives in each one.
Only Bacchus is well taken care of these days
but he still calls in the middle of the night
refused at intake, to barter with despair.
My health insurance is sculpted (e.g. Maze),
everyone’s preoccupied with Daedalus.
I’m preoccupied with depositions,
the disintegration of letters
alluding to the layers of drowning.
Practical Joker under the pressure of phenomenology
gluon card one of the last additions
his pietà now the palace of tribulation.
Rustication that bends inwards, stone drapery rising
from concave spectacles, frame the U.S. scene.
Burden on the roof of a Volkswagen
vertical melancholy
graver in contact with Boltraffio
his mystic industrialism.
Subdued fragments of Unit I.
Specialized in scenes of the underworld.
A prisoner of war. A distinguished children’s book.
Eighteen pieces of lava. Rhymed.
Hunting scenes. Huge tomb of advice
representing the head.
I do want the moths to come inside.

Le Corbusier was a leach, fucked mass
(slight of hand), the city in 1919.
He was nearing abstraction.
His discoveries of working man.
He was a professor.
Smoked glass you can’t see through.
You’re not allowed to tap on it.
Not the best choice for a mental health clinic.
Shocked by his nurse he committed suicide.
Label realism.
His house is now a museum.
Probably born in early hesitation
necessitated setting up a workshop.
This grew larger and control diminished,
as did his name.
He was where he painted and rain destroyed the Revolution.
It is difficult to distinguish between them.
Peasants in their surroundings.
Back his rocks, more important than anything else,
his credit is known.
Under the light, until the Fall, only a prostitute
spoke to me, only a beggar touched me.
You’re here, while I’m waiting, to peddle
psychiatric wonders.
I just wanted to go fast, while the blade
was in my hand.
Not sure where I’m buried and some say
I am risen.
A man that thinks well will live well.
All my friends are suicidal.
Make the doors apologize.
Stopping the radios.
Autobiography in the form of a blank image.
The tempest again so practical, it’s all good
as a military engineer, the scientific rendering of depth,
of optical universities.
Tell the exquisite corpse to piss off.

Clinton as as guest editor for a volume of 2nd Ave Poetry entitled New Poetics of Magic

Gary J. Shipley pushes the limits of both human expression and that which can be assimilated in terms of socially-sanctioned pattern-recognition

Gary J. Shipley, Theoretical Animals, BlazeVOX, 2010.

"Shipley demonstrates what can and ought to be done when even the most mundane subject phrasings are charged with meaningful expression. These densely crafted aphoristic vignettes are prose specimens, like key slides to the biologist or perplexing curia to the relic-collector and alchemist. Each of these dislocated cryptozoological fragments follows its own transverse evolution, a sensuous realism that conducts its own exploration without constraining appeal to genesis or end goal. — Kane X. Faucher

"A work of exceptional quality." — E. Elias Merhige
"Beggars, fortune tellers, barge captains, bloated corpses, and the ominous tolling of church bells hover anachronistically over a bleakly existential world whose once-physically-present signs have been reduced to html code, rss feeds and online ad campaigns. Such is the dark side of our celebrity technotopia explored in the densely lyrical prose comprising Gary J. Shipley's Theoretical Animals, a tour de force of historical and philosophical meditation on a world teetering at the brink of its own disappearance." —Michael Kelleher

"Shipley’s writing is important because it’s a fearless attempt to advance the art of literature, to force us to breathe something, to drown in something, to bloody our hands. It’s an unforgettable experience." — 3:AM Magazine

"Like floating down a divinely limitless fluvial junkyard, like knowing in ever more concrete and literal ways that life is a corpsy dream from which you do not wake, like moving along an opium-stream of deathly imagining towards some sea that only invisibly and never arrives, like some gnostic conspiracy in which certain favorite authors (maybe Baudelaire, Lovecraft, Lautréamont, McCarthy, Rimbaud – “Si je désire une eau d'Europe, c'est la flache / Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé / Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche / Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai”) would be only indigent fellow informants . . . reading Theoretical Animals places one in a terrifyingly vexed position – traumatic and unspeakably hopeful – of being singular witness to the diurnal drama of cosmic crime. To ‘review’ it would be wrong, a violence to the kaleidoscopy of a truth that is prismatically evident in each opening of the page: “I can’t believe I’m still waiting to get out” (102). I cannot read the book in modern, serial fashion, but must only consult it oracularly, like a sepulchral tome of inverted koans. And this haptic relation is continually mirrored in its murderous mudlark world: “Half an arm, cleanly severed at the elbow lays hidden in a riverbank slagheap. On the inside of the wrist is a skull with coded teeth. . . . One is led to suspect that this is not an isolated instance, that this has happened before and will happen again” (64). There is no end to the consultation, to the violence of our freshly wanting to know what it is all about. Proving the magic, this is what the text now says about its use: “Sticky patrons wriggling from the waist down discuss the importance of hermetic precautions. At specific intervals each reads aloud from one of the many instruction manuals fastened to the walls with thin blue ropes” (59). A philosophical consolation, but one in which, around the flabby gravity of bodies, philosophy and consolation are only mutual, manual laminates.
The reason why the work is called Theoretical Animals is that its visions, whatever beauty or horror they happen to be of, always restore one to the beauty-horror of vision itself, to the fact of being something chained alive in the grotto of seeing in all its senses. And this is a fact that Shipley’s scenes often dramatize and refract: “A sliver of sunlight found its way into that grim basement, and I saw on the faces of my fellow players the look that was my own I saw lust free of restraint; I saw hunger thriving in its processes, a hunger that had made a mirage of every forseeable end. I found myself digging down into their blank eyes for company and finding nothing but endless reflections chasing their source” (54). Or: “I looked and the mirror infected me. I did not recognize my contamination” (114). Which suggests a good way of grasping the book as whole, as a kind of decaying, nigredic transmutation of Plato’s cave parable into a dream-river awash with objects whose truncated incompleteness proves that they are but will never only be shadows. There is another way out behind and below the puppet show, a dark stream running through the earth. The current, co-extensive with pathetic human consciousness itself, is suffused, like water electrified with broken machinery, with the divine shock of citation: the power of seeing anything to break free from the false world: “A stumbled montage of mutilated words and open mouths shield us from irrelevant friends” (116)." - Nicola Masciandaro

Gary J. Shipley is not for everyone, yet those of us – aficionados of the grotesque and macabre, who come upon his work realize right off the bat this is the real deal. Few can travel into these perilous waters without getting burned, much less scorched by the forces below the threshold. Shipley makes it seem simple, as if he were born of this dark carnival, complicit in its revealing and its apocalypse. Thing is about Shipley he’s been mutating ahead of us for a while now, going where most of us only envision nightmares never realizing the truth of our waking lives was staring us in the face all the time. Gary strips us of our filters, strips us of our protective Human Security Systems, lays bare the world around us that for the most part we would rather lock away. A world that is both vital and full of forces unregistered in the hinterlands of our psyche.
Gary inhabits this interstitial zone for us, brings us to the limit, to the brink and opens our eyes to the monstrous beauty of the earth we for the most part are blind too. Gary lives there, a modern day shaman whose travels in transit, voyage into an infernal paradise by way of an updated mapping of the old Tibetan Bardol. Given his temperament and tendencies toward a completed nihilism, one may need to short list his discoveries, catalogue the secret ruins he’s uncovering to understand the itinerary of his travelogue journals.
Take a recent adventure, Theoretical Animals. Set in a near future graveyard of our world, a London in post-Apocalyptic demise. Here he wanders the shadowlands of its extreme collapse forging from secretive and forgotten knowledge the collective memories we can only hint at: those compositions and decompositions of a collapsing thought world, the detritus of a thousand lives spent forgetting time and history only to be resurrected in a realm this side of reality – a place some philosopher’s used to term the Real. Shipley conceives this fantastic zone within a conceptual framework of visionary materialism that rewires the very nerves to adapt the wary intruder into a world no longer human, or much rather – in excess of humanity, a world at once disconnected from our very past, yet barely composed within the meta-instability of its darker catastrophes. Here what remains of the human lives out its meager existence in a woven semblance of a locked-in prison house of decaying security systems, inhuman algorithms, manufactured relays between rhizomatic labyrinths – cold, cruel, icy worlds of pure vitality.
In this realm a mother and son seem to drift upon future Thames in a post-Apocalyptic London like children of warped time-world. Within the mother’s gaze “floated a boat of matted blood, with no London appliance beyond a rope”.1 This is a haptic sensuality of an exposed realm of death in extremity, the visceral meshing of bodies in vibrant ecstasy on the edge of an impossible future. Her son appears to speak, to be telling a tale that he himself almost disbelieves: “I’m wearing the look of the covered, to a short time with things off your face”. Language is spliced, it dances among ruins of verbs and nouns, the structure of language like the ruins through which they seem to wander has been corrupted and is corrupting. The son’s only friends appear as “the faces of dead sailors, their water-logged torsos bobbing, plaintive jewels in rotten marrow-bled riverways.”
Each paragraph is set off typographically with bold typeset, set adrift on the blank sea of the page like a prose poem stretched across an abyss, each word lost among its distempered fragments like members of a lost tribe seeking a key to open the imprisoning cell they’ve been tossed into. This is prose at the breaking point of intelligibility, a carefully crafted enactment where words inhabit the thing they reveal, live the life of the blackness they perform. Hyperstitional habitations of linguistic models from a future that is already collapsing within our brains, revealing the threads of a supernal world of rich and lavish pain where the sacred violence of our secular wastelands gives way once again to the dark gods of old. An atheistic paradise where the constructions of material excess reveal the darkness to be alive, a welcoming to the horrors and terrors we’ve all been seeking under the cover of reason. Children of the Enlightenment we’ve come a long way to die at the hands of our own progeny, become victims of our own complicity in creation – a creation that is at once catastrophe and apocalypse.
In the distance unseen “mothers wail from the shore, the robbed stares of their loss hidden, aural guests coiling hair-brushed poison to our table”. One imagines Dante’s Inferno, but that would be to spare the reality for a fantasy which Shipley will not let you do. No. You will be entreated to no longer turn your head away, assume it is all a matter of tropes, allegories of some future punishment; instead you are living through the truth of your own future, a future that is full of terror and beauty, of death and decay. A place that fascinates and repels at once.
This is a place where even a “sentence of diluted intensity and common violence” washes up and washes out among the dark contours of your mind like presentiments of world that surrounds you already in the shadows of each step you take. A world that peers back at you in the innocent gesture of a young girl reaching out to you for a dime or nickel, or from the alleyway where you see an old man digging through the trash bins for bottles or who-knows-what. Yes, this is the world we are all constructing together, the ruins of our civilization at last revealing what lay there in the tumbling stones all along. A world where “numb voyeurs adorned and physical / crumpled memories stored for cold future” lay there silently in the dustbins of the future like broken toys gathering dust in a forlorn attic.
Shipley reveals nothing more nor nothing less than our own world seen askew, to one side of us; a realm where the actual traverses the fantasy, the schizflows wander through sidereal time bringing us the revelations of civilization’s final chapters, the swan songs of an eclipsed humanity giving way to a monstrous progeny. A place where the “Green ghosts of little girls dance free of the fire”. Where lonely “things hiding behind withered nostalgia passed slowly through the cries, and time cornered into days, and time…” This is the place where things neither rest nor end. A place where there “are no new shows, and no new stages on which to perform them. There are only museums and freshly branded fools making marks in the dust.”
Welcome to Shipley’s world. A dark place where the “dank ruin of the world’s immortal toys” discover the wreck of the impossible, where memorized “silence details the transfer of everything,” and the “[n]egation of action is the most courageous of mutations”. A final warning is given:
“Wait! Heed this at least: underlying this threat are the infected books of a cagy group of deranged dreamers.”
You have been warned!!! - socialecologies.wordpress.com/2016/06/28/gary-j-shipley-theoretical-animals/

Gary J. Shipley & Kenji Siratori, Necrology, CreateSpace, 2010.

"An exercise in sensory overload from the minds of Kenji Siratori (Blood Electric, Acidhuman Project, Mind Virus, etc) and Gary J Shipley (Theoretical Animals) that pushes the limits of both human expression and that which can be assimilated in terms of socially-sanctioned pattern-recognition. Self-referring, auto-cannibalistic texts that hover and shimmer around the borders of the asemic, yet still retain a vivid relevance to the current post-human cultural landscape. A cyberpunk katabasis beyond Burroughs or Guyotat. With an Appendix by Reza Negarestani Published by Paraphilia Books."

"Gary J. Shipley, Kenji Siratori & Reza Negarestani interviewed by David F. Hoenigman.
3:AM: Necrology (Paraphilia Books) has been referred to as a “cyberpunk katabasis beyond Burroughs or Guyotat,” but how do you see it?
Gary J. Shipley: Two freshly spliced entities – joint terminals of biocapturism – united in carnal bonds eradicating the binary presuppositions of their former corpse incarcerations, those old emotions reduced to catabolism, human tissue into gas – skin traumas shaped like the beyond of flesh.
Kenji Siratori: Just like the soul of the cadaver that fills the thin placenta of the stratosphere that is split to the human body of anonymity in the earth of before dawn.
Reza Negarestani: An undead machine imbued with the chemistry of putrefaction and nigredo.
3:AM: The use of two-column pages is an effective way of uniting and blending the main bodies of text. Can you say something about how the layout relates to the book’s subject matter?
GJS: In both I see mechanized deformities fused and serialized in medieval warrens – prophylactic dreams shrieking summer’s dazzling geometry all worm-eaten – bouquets of snapped bones growing up chamber walls, nigredo bodies looped malignant, coffined in phases like excrement. I see two corpses tangoing in bonds of blended tissue and fat.
KS: Notified to the counterclockwise brain of the fatalities: blood gets thirsty….the brain of the twin raped mutual soul: the brain of the drug mechanism of the ant that the DIGITAL_placenta of the paradise faints in agony to the milligram tears of the rapture.
RN: If the intelligibility of the world must thus imply a ‘face to face’ coupling of the soul with the body qua dead, then intelligibility is the epiphenomenon of a necrophilic intimacy, a problematic collusion with the rotting double which brings about the possibility of intelligibility within an inert cosmos.
3:AM: Death and decay haunt every page. Would it be fair to call this a horror novel?
GJS: Whoever concocted the world did so under the influence of monsters, incarnations sired from states of self-reflexive revulsion. Reality is horror – it eats people like a carnivorous fog – a construct so diabolical that man has been unwittingly cajoled into adorning the effervescence of his dreams and his fantasies with costumes of malleable terror: ghouls, hybrid creatures, fused entities, seditious organs and limbs, malignant slimes, mythic decapitations, supernatural possession, psychotropic pestilence, brains worm-eaten with paranoia (insanities of truth)… myriad extremities of man’s dull fug.
KS: The horror-show of the hells of the various mode cells of the bodies of myself which her cold machine erodes in sponge form heaven.
RN: Horror stories are inherently concerned with decay even if they deal with other themes and dabble in other affairs.
3:AM: Can you say something about your writing practices?
GJS: I go eavesdropping on the polluted organs of mangy wolfmen, on the toxic urges of a skeleton’s lower brain un-policed, all the while mouthing flat graphomania fertilized by nihil rains of incoherence.
KS: I love/cut the play projects the narcissistic blood of the larva that ocean creature send back out the storage that was turned different violently to the eye of the DIGITAL*rhinoceros of the sun on the mirror of chaos.
RN: A pact with putrefaction must be made; the moment of nucleation with nigredo, as we must call it.
3:AM: What do you see in the black slime that these bodies of text are destined to become?
GJS: Cloistered hollows of dog cadavers, flies drinking, vomiting internal shadows. A vampire’s bitter dreams shadowed by children looking to do in a soul before tea. Sprung carcasses rooted in death and flowering in the despair of inevitable absorption.
KS: The lung of the centipede that turned with the space of the filament of the blackhole and tear so tokage revolves and secretes to body outside so the machine of the drug atom dream of the virus that regresses to the face of the black apocalypse of the sun.
RN: The two necroses of the soul upon which the universe and intellect are fixed bringing about the possibility of ontology as a great chain of corpses whose arrangement is determined by their explicit and implicit indulgence in necrophilia.
3:AM: What might the reader find if he/she reads down the middle?
GJS: What the mechanics of paradise looks like to something that is not only born to die, but cannot prove to itself that it wasn’t born dead, that all fetuses don’t fall dead from the womb, their faces fat with autolysis, and that all the psychological trappings of adulthood aren’t just the nightmarish symptoms of protracted decomposition.
KS: Like the womb skin of the chameleon there I attached twice and zero=not to inhabit to the nightmare=lung ball. … The wave machine of hell alternates.
RN: By virtue of this distance, openness and survival, the first and the second necroses negatively reinforce and contribute to each other.
3:AM: How would you suggest the reader approach this book? Or is there something to keep in mind as one reads?
GJS: Like some sentient mildew on the dead flesh of life.
KS: With a brain to the impregnation system that velocity of light was transmitted/to the image in the night that the unknown quantity comes flying nonexistent outlook that is the butterfly that was folded up the eyeball that falls****. that lost the focus hangs space in the deep sea of the drug and the sun or the larva of the comedy.
RN: What is itself consumed cannot sufficiently guarantee the exhaustion of that which correlatively succeeds it.
3:AM: The dead, the half-dead and the living all seem to merge into one. How do we tell them apart?
GJS: The dead only speak of death as of a dream; whereas the shared insanity of human kind is always to live death and only dream life, and then only to dream it dead, unyielding, rigor mortised. The alchemy of self-reflexive decomposition: souls cooked black as shadow and smeared on the walls in the shape of men.
KS: I broke make nonexistent I am mad with joy the one that erodes death and at the lightness of the suicide that cadaver invaded a certain membrane there and hell of striking the insincerity without the limit of the naked body.
RN: To stave off the realism of the dead which follows from its coupling with the body, the soul disguises its putrefaction as survival; that is to say, reformulates the problem of decay according to new correlations with its own Ideals and reasons. However, in distracting the dead, the soul is exposed to problems whose concerns belong neither to the living nor to the dead." - 3:am Magazine

Gary J. Shipley, The Death of Conrad Unger: Some Conjectures Regarding Parasitosis and Associated Suicide Behavior, Punctum Books, 2012.

"The death by suicide of Gary J Shipley’s close friend, Conrad Unger (writer, theorist and amateur entomologist), has prompted him to confront not only the cold machinery of self-erasure, but also its connections to the literary life and notions surrounding psychological bewitchment, to revaluate in both fictional and entomological terms just what it is that drives writers like Unger to take their own lives as a matter of course, as if that end had been there all along, knowing, waiting. Like Gérard de Nerval, David Foster Wallace, Ann Quin and Virginia Woolf before him, Unger was not merely a writer who chose to end his life, but a writer whose work appeared forged from the knowledge of that event’s temporary postponement. And while to the uninitiated these literary suicides would most likely appear completely unrelated to the suicide behaviors of insects parasitized by entomopathogenic fungi or nematomorpha, within the pages of this short study we are frequently presented with details that allow us to see the parallels between their terminal choreographies. He investigates what he believes are the essentially binary and contradictory motivations of his suicide case studies: where their self-dispatch becomes an instance of necro-autonomy (death as solution to an external thraldom, or the zombification of everyday life as something requiring the most extreme form of emancipation), while in addition being an instance of necro-equipoise (death as solution to an internal thraldom, or the anguish of no longer being able to slip back comfortably inside that very everydayness). The deadening claustrophobia of human life and achieving a stance outside of it: both barbs on the lines that can only ever detail the sickness, never cure it. Through extracts and synopses of Unger’s books, marginalia and underscorings selected from his extensive library, and a brief itinerary of his movements in that last month of exile, a picture of the writer’s suicidal obsession begins to form, and it forms at the expense of the man, the idea eating through his brain like a fungal parasite, disinterring the waking corpse to flesh its words."

DISPATCH FROM THE HOLLOW BELT (Excerpt from the novel Dreams of Amputation)


Two Poems

Rat Code

Four Poems

Two Poems

Continuum of wiped bodies

Bomb Caviar - excerpt from Spook Nutrition, a novel-in-progress

Shipley's blog

Leper Creativity – Symposium on Reza Negarestani's novel Cyclonopedia, a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods

Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium, Ed. By Keller, Nicola Masciandaro & Eugene Thacker, Punctum Books, 2012.

“Anything can happen for some weird reason; yet also, without any reason, nothing at all can happen.” — Reza Negarestani

"Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.

CONTENTS: Robin Mackay, “A Brief History of Geotrauma” – McKenzie Wark, “An Inhuman Fiction of Forces” – Benjamin H. Bratton, “Root the Earth: On Peak Oil Apophenia” – Alisa Andrasek, “Dustism” – Zach Blas, “Queerness, Openness” – Melanie Doherty, “Non-Oedipal Networks and the Inorganic Unconscious” – Anthony Sciscione, “Symptomatic Horror: Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour Out of Space’” – Kate Marshall, “Cyclonopedia as Novel (a meditation on complicity as inauthenticity)” – Alexander R. Galloway, “What is a Hermeneutic Light?” – Eugene Thacker, “Black Infinity; or, Oil Discovers Humans” – Nicola Masciandaro, “Gourmandized in the Abattoir of Openness” – Dan Mellamphy & Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, “Phileas Fogg, or the Cyclonic Passepartout: On the Alchemical Elements of War” – Ben Woodard, “The Untimely (and Unshapely) Decomposition of Onto-Epistemological Solidity: Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia as Metaphysics” – Ed Keller, “. . .Or, Speaking with the Alien, a Refrain. . .” – Lionel Maunz, “Receipt of Malice” – Öykü Tekten, “Symposium Photographs” – Reza Negarestani, “Notes on the Figure of the Cyclone”

Download it  (pdf)

Leper Creativity Symposium Videos


Sarah Goldstein constructs a world defined by small betrayals, transformations, and brutality amid its animaland human inhabitants.

Sarah Goldstein, Fables, Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2011

"Departing from the Brothers Grimm to approach our own economically and socially fractured present, Sarah Goldstein’s Fables constructs a world defined by small betrayals, transformations, and brutality amid its animal and human inhabitants. We hear the fragment-voices of ghosts and foxes, captors and captives, stable boys and schoolgirls in the woods and fields and cities of these tales. Anxious townsfolk abandon their orphan children to the nightingales in the forest, a bear deploys a tragic maneuver to avoid his hunters, and a disordered economy results in new kinds of retirements and relocations. Goldstein weaves together familiar and contemporary allegories creating a series of vibrant, and vital, tales for our time."

“In the meadow of fairy tale, Goldstein unrolls ribbons of story that fly gamely and snap with brilliance. Truly worth gazing at.” — DebOlin Unferth

“Sarah Goldstein’s fables make me happy, and they'll make you happy too. They’re delightfully unnerving: small animals fare poorly; we’re bounced to what feel like the settings of the tales of the Brothers Grimm—huntsmen and witches wander the landscapes, a magic needle runs away, a finch mends lace—and then, wonderfully, there’s talk of retirement accounts and urban decay and the sad tale of a dude crushed under his truck whilst fixing its axle. And ghosts! And my favorite: the captives. One captor tells his captive, “you ought to put that voice of yours in a pillow.” Thank goodness Sarah Goldstein put her voice into Fables. Honestly, I’ve never read a debut this stunning.” —Josh Russell

"The title of Sarah Goldstein’s debut collection from Tarpaulin Sky Press, Fables, is deceptively simple. Even the cover, featuring artwork by Goldstein, is spare and unadorned. However, the compression and fusion that this story collection inflicts on the ancient form of the fable results in a world where the “dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath,” advice comes in the form of “[h]ide your lover in a bale of straw. Cut her breath with a scythe and hang her in wire,” and any expected moral clarity is distorted in the “insensible forest” of Goldstein’s imagination. Indeed, the fables of Fables are anything but simple: Pastoral scenes are corrupted by cursed transformations, home and identity become sites of violence and confusion, and the line between the human and the nonhuman, marked by magic and brutality, is continually in flux, being realigned.
Arranged in five sections, the first and last acting as prologue and epilogue, Fables oscillates between stories, typically less than a page long, which may or may not take place in the same time, or even in the same world. This ontological haziness serves Fables, elegantly jolting the reader between realities and thwarting spatial and linear expectations. However, because each story is so brief and so much takes place from story to story, Fables is perhaps best read without discretion for beginning or end. Regardless, these stories illuminate themselves through their common interest in exploring the liminal spaces between human and nonhuman, natural and supernatural, and ripping open the differences to see what bleeds out.
In one story, a young couple fears some unnamed darkness in their home. The situation becomes dire as the woman “rubs her temples until the bone appears.” Then,
They throw poisoned bread up into the attic and quickly shut the door. They hear something trashing, moaning, spitting in agony, so violent that cracks appear in the ceiling. Dragging it out to the backyard the next night proves difficult. Doorways are sawed apart, every piece of linen in the house is enlisted to wrap and sop. Outside, they see curious raccoons and deer gathered in the brief sweep of the flashlights – drawn by what, she can’t imagine. Her bandaged head is throbbing. Their garage fills with smoke.

A tension between the known and the unknown, charged with a menacing ambiguity, pulses through Goldstein’s language. Antiquated elements (“poisoned bread”) mix with contemporary moments of horror (“the brief sweep of the flashlights”) to create a wholly new kind of fable, one with implications that are discomforting and threatening in their lack of resolution. In the introduction to the new anthology of contemporary fairy tales and fables, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, Kate Bernheimer observes that “the proliferation of magical stories…is correlated to a growing awareness of human separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared.” Such “violence, suffering, and beauty” are everywhere present in Fables as Goldstein empathizes with and animates the nonhuman natural world, often to unsettling ends. The “curious” natural world appears to be on guard, judging human action, poised for retribution. Indeed, the nonhuman world is continually on the offense in Fables, desiring, if not celebrating, the destruction of the human, but it’s not as if such retribution isn’t due. Fables is full of characters, from hunters to children, who abuse, neglect, and defy their environments.
But don’t assume these stories all take place in the forest. One story sets itself in a hastily abandoned neighborhood after an unspoken disaster where minion-like “volunteers” go door-to-door dispensing false information and shooting people. Another takes place after some kind of accident while a girl “shudders along the roadside with her limbs deciphered.” There is a windshield, a sledgehammer, and a backbone. The last sentence of this short tale, “Her sightlines narrow to a dreary hallway of open doors with see-saw voices sobbing into amputated handkerchiefs,” exemplifies Goldstein’s ability to manipulate thin threads of narrative while employing language that is as dark and enchanted as the world it gives breath to.
It is testament to this book’s unique sensibility that these stories originate from sources as varied as Brothers Grimm, historical accounts, and Google searches, and its brave desire welds the old and the new into a contemporary fable that is both horrifying and humbling in its imaginative precision. Entering Goldstein’s Fables is good fodder for dreams and the conscience, but be sure not to leave this one laying out for the kids." - Nick Strum

I’ve been reading and re-reading Sarah Goldstein’s Fables before bed. I’m not one to do this: for me, my bed is for sleeping and sleeping only. I’ve never been a “read-before-I-go-to-sleep” person either as it’s too effective: the words start turning into absolute nonsense only a few minutes in and I will find myself reading the same page over and over again before I inevitably put the book down and forget everything that I just read. Yet this style of reading—under the covers with a pillow folded in half behind my back—seems appropriate for Fables, a gorgeous intertwining of allegorical stories presented in tiny fragments, dare I say breadcrumbs!, that display a horrifying yet beautiful world where mayors keep bones in boxes and ghosts enter through the beaks of birds.
In an interview with Avant-Women Writers, Kate Bernheimer, founder of Fairy Tale Review as well as the editor of a number of fairy tale anthologies discusses the importance of animals in fairy tales: “neither toad nor snake, bear nor hedgehog, is lower than a human on any scale of earthly significance.” There is a leveling in Goldstein’s stories as well: all things are equal—sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, birds, dogs. The fox conspires with the crows against the stag. The children, one day, decide to kill their father and burn him in the yard, yet they get in trouble for killing a toad and leaving it on their teacher’s chair. In dreaming there is leveling as well: all things are even, yet the fact that a fox can carry you in its mouth provides some sort of ordinary magic that is found in fairy tales, this matter-of-factness that permeates through the collection that makes you feel as if everything is all right even as the man with the melted face tells you to put olive oil in your ear to cure your sore throat. The world of Fables has this ordinary magic as well—at times I picture a forest with fireflies, other times I get images of rolling down car windows as students near the last few weeks of school before summer vacation. The language is reassuring, declarative: that we trust in whomever is telling us these fables, that the world that exists is a world that exists—that what happens here happens, that it will not disappear when someone wakes.
There is nothing romantic about the actual act of sleeping; sure, sleeping next to someone is interpreted as romance—to share a space that is considered private, to trust someone to the point that you are comfortable in being at your most vulnerable with them, that you are offering a slowed heart and soft breathing as a gift. Films make a huge deal about the act of “staying over”, something that seems to imply that the night was one thing, yet the beginning of the day is something else entirely. The moments before sleep and the moments after are the ones that stand a chance of meaning something—while it is impossible to remember the moment before you fall asleep, you remember the moments leading up to the moment: the checklist of things that need to be accomplished tomorrow, the assessment of what you did the day before, the random thoughts about loved ones, hated ones, lost ones, strange ones, and then nothing. There is little romance in these stories as well: not much room for love, yet there is something tender about it all. The ghost loves you while you are asleep, the farmer and his wife work only by moonlight. There is a longing in these words: a hope that things work out, that things return to the way that they once were, that things will continue to change as they always have. The ghosts don’t wish to be human, they simply wish.
There are times the collection has everything to do with watching: observing the people from across the river, looking down at one’s arms, rows of sacrifices left out for dead animals. These moments are quiet and powerful, coming from different sources: at one moment it could be the girls held captive by an unknown, another the voice of the one spinning the tale. In sleep, I see myself as if I were watching a film: the back of shoulders and overhead shots, like a ghost, perhaps. There’s something to simply watching, to taking notes for next time, yet being unable to affect anything: that all that is seen is all that has ever been known. In these stories we are placed in medias res, waking up somewhere new with no explanation as to why we are trudging through a swamp, why we are waiting in a field near a river. We are in, we observe, and then it ends, not in flying or a massive battle, but definitively—freed momentarily, yet still caught in what has happened.
The New World
is an ending. We fast forward to something unexpected like it were magic, and yet this is where the magic stops, with slick modernity and the recording of numbers into files. Whereas at the beginning things were being turned into other things, here we catalog what is left. The ghosts have all gone home, the children are at school, the foxes are resting. When you awaken, you won’t remember everything, but you’ll remember parts. At the end, it is all beautiful: a collage of images and voices that stick to your bones." - Brian Oliu

"Fables is a series of short and simply written insights about a fabled new world. Goldstein lightly treads up and down the spectrum of delightfully playful to hopelessly grim via vivacious and unsettling possibilities. Two of my favorite mini-tales: 1. three girls long to be and do become mermaids; 2. the narrator is hiding in a sunless, foggy swamp and sees a terrifying image, the narrator’s “jaw shakes to remember it.” An important glimpse into contemporary literature, which blends a new subtle style with both nature and the relatable subversive. For fans of Brothers Grimm, Angela Carter, and César Aira." - Hey, Small Press

"In 1902, W.B. Yeats—according to his unused preface for Ideas of Good and Evil—told James Joyce that he had based his recent plays “on emotions or stories that I had got out of folklore.”[i] Yeats also imbued the folk tradition in his Red Hanrahan stories in The Secret Rose, and collected Sligo County oral tales in Celtic Twilight. Joyce called Yeats’s practice “deteriorating” but borrowed and revised Irish myth himself, first in a short story, “Clay,” and most notably in Finnegans Wake.
Yeats’s Red Hanrahan character is an itinerant Gael poet, an amalgamation of historical precedent and folk legend. Hanrahan fits Maria Tymoczko’s concept of pseudotranslation: “a literary work that purports to be a translation but in fact has no original.”[ii] The malleability inherent to oral tradition and the subsequent coloring of character and description across generations makes fables particularly appropriate to such pseudotranslation.
Sarah Goldstein, in her appendix to Fables, notes inspiration from, and modification of, selected fairy tales, from the Brothers Grimm to selected European traditions. Regardless of the genesis of these prose poems and vignettes, Goldstein’s vision and approach is wholly new. Her work in this collection is more than translation and transcription: Fables contains poems that whisper tradition but fully stand on their own.
Goldstein resists the mere modernization of folklore that might mar a lesser book. The pieces are devoid of proper nouns, settings are clearly pastoral but not particular, and the supernatural background of the tales remains comfortably other. Think the pastoral-focused films of Ingmar Bergman: the ethereal Smultronstället, the haunting Jungfrukällan. The book begins with a one-poem “Grim” section, where metamorphoses abound, and the iconic animal of the collection, a bird, is introduced.
The title section of the book fills the bulk of the collection, with numbered, independent fables connected by recursive description and diction. Certain elements return, including sometimes orphaned, often displaced children; the supernatural, Hawthornian forest; and anthropomorphic animals. Goldstein leans into her narratives, leaving the reader convinced that matter has been chiseled away, likely to the benefit of cohesion. One piece begins: “The girl comes clambering up the hill from the meadow to the house, whispering the message into her hands.” Soft sentences for soft speech, and Goldstein counters with strange imagery: “Her mother is on the floor in the corner, curled with her fingers in her mouth. The rabbit her father tossed on the counter for stew has awakened, and they watch as it lurches toward the window.” The argument that Fables resides closer to poems than prose exists within these lines. Goldstein has clearly hoped the reader will savor these words, and that goal is reached. Well-placed commas turn the sentences, moving represented subject into action. The resurrected rabbit escapes, and cat-killed mice join in the rebirth, as they “now stagger across the rough-hewn floors.”
The appeal of fable has always been in these quick offerings, the possibility of magic without explanation, the uneven ending. Add to that mix a requisite darkness. A later poem begins: “After enduring many years of abuse, the children decide to do away with their father.” Fright is presented as commonplace, and a girl’s suggestion that “a burned corpse is harder to identify” is offered without emotion. A few poems forward, other girls “hold each other’s hands and wade into the shallowest part of the pond, shivering violently,” training their “underwater breathing.” Goldstein does not shy from surreal violence elsewhere: foxes and coyotes gain revenge on a boy for hanging a goat, and three other boys find a burned house, including “charred remains of two horses that were tied to a tree.”
Of the final sections, “Ghosts” is the most intriguing. Gems include the return of an avian touch: “Has a bird ever flown too close to you?” A close bird might be the result of its “warp and swerve around these restless forms,” the vague presence of spirits. Birds, so easy in flight, are also easy hosts for these ghosts, since “an animal has no means of self-analysis.” And humans? We are less attractive, since “our souls weigh so heavily upon” the foreign form. Goldstein is able to song her characters into possession, and even her direct sentences—“Wait for the crows over dark rows of corn”—are delivered with gentle consonance.
Fables is also noteworthy for its contributions to the organic conversation of narrative form. The collection might be considered a book of prose poems, but strict definitions only muddle the power of the stories. The works certainly build toward a final line, and yet the profluence of the narrative builds in epigrammatic snippets, crafted with laudable precision. Goldstein opts for the sideways glance, the unfocused focus. What is not told to the reader is enticing: when “dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath,” an entire architecture of apocalypse remains in the silent background. The power of fable, and Fables, has always been folks' ability to give blurry shapes to concrete fears, to convince the listener that the corners of the supernatural can be flushed with light just as easily as they have been shadowed dark." - Nick Ripatrazone

"My friend Zachary and I were talking about monsters a few months ago in relation to a research project I'm putting together and he said, "A day doesn't go by when people don't think of monsters. The threat is always present." In particular, the threat of harm is always lingering in edges of what we can't know. The ambiguity lacquered into shadows, the dripping voices around the corner; at the very least we must be weary of the unknown.
Sarah Goldstein's collection Fables, completes the aforementioned criteria, and then becomes fucking menacing. As with an fable or fairy tale, we choose to believe in the niceties of what Disney has provided us with; however, almost all of these stories were horrifically grim (or Grimm). Goldstein does not allow us to afford any hope that we will not be harmed. For instance, the second poem from her Fables section creeps into our viscera and won't let us breathe:
The girl comes clambering up the hill from the meadow to the house, whispering the message into her hands. Now the sheep in the field, the holes in the ground; and she stops, having entered the kitchen. Her mother is on the floor in the corner, curled with her fingers in her mouth. The rabbit her father tossed on the counter for stew has awakened, and they watch as it lurches towards the window. Outside, the dogs begin to howl and their father comes into the kitchen. He holds his shovel like a sword, breathing heavily. In the barn, the cats are stalking the mice they killed that morning, mice that now stagger across the rough-hewn floors. (8)
Something in these poems is twisting necks of chickens behind you. Something in these poems has a frightening smile. Then, you enter the poems and see what is menacing behind you.
The book is split up into 3 parts, and a prelude and epilogue (or at least I'd like to think it is that way). And all the while, the you and I slowly creep from the sweating pours of these poems and as a reader they become too close for comfort. The best comparison to this book, for me, is the German film White Ribbon. Suffice to say, this is a horrific and threatening film that never relents in its promise of violence:
Through the filter of this film, these poems have an all too real probability of menacing from under your tongue. There is an unsettling viscera being manipulated and probed; Goldstein's ambiguity does not judge what has or is about to happen: "If the ghost of your true love appears at your window, cover your eyes with cotton and stay still until dawn. But if the ghost comes again the next night, you must lead her back to her jagged body in the cellar where she lies." (48)
These poems beg the read to consider possibility, which is the most frightening after-gloaming our imaginations are able to task. This book is monstrous." - READ THIS AWESOME BOOK


Many old wives’ tales persist in town, such as: take an orphan child hunting, you will return with threefold the bounty. Although law forbids observing such advice, a hard winter is coming. Some adults decide to take a few of these unfortunate children into the woods. The hunt yields nothing. After several days the adults become frustrated, and the already grief-stricken children know something is wrong. Sunlight does not pass through the tree canopy, and the children see ever more owls and bats. They sneak away from the hunting party and wander the forest. Nightjars and swifts circle, alight on their arms, pinch them. Swallows dive and take tufts of their hair. Exhausted, the children crawl into the undergrowth. They feel safe and sleep, but wake without memory of themselves. When they cry it is the sounds of the whippoorwills. The nightingales become their mothers, and pheasants usher them to winter quarters. Meanwhile, the adults have returned to town to face the others. Everyone grimaces, hearing only what they decide to understand.

They call him hatchet-head, spoon-nose, moon-face. His friends are a worn-out bicycle and the family dog, who is graying and slow. They barely endure his talking at home and his mother frequently buries small talismans in the backyard after his father has gone to sleep. One night she nods off in the yard, waking to find her son holding a bouquet of fiddleheads, puffballs and sumac. She feels very hot, as though the sun is out. But it is only that the moon has risen to a brightness she no longer anticipates and she hears the river recede into its rocky bed. Her son’s face is nodding and difficult to see, yellow in a blurring glow.

The town is definitely cursed but some decide to stay there anyway. They watch their screens carefully to help figure out where to burn the leftover parts. They should not forget their protectors, they say to one another. They should remember to chlorinate the water and bathe every third day. The women can be assembled in one area to watch the food. It’ll work itself out once the clouds blow away to the east. The screens have a steady flickering pattern that interferes with live broadcasts of unsmiling wide-shouldered men in heavy suits. The dogs of the town lie in a heap and cough, shuddering with every breath.

One day in June all the baby starlings appeared, just like that: born of nothing but curses. Hurrh-hurrh-hurrh of their feeding throats drowns us out. Insect parts litter the streets, that white shit everywhere and dead robins too. The witches come out and stand on their front porches, clapping their hands to draw the starlings in for the night. Sickness has struck all over town, children falling one by one, their little organs gracefully shutting down, fevering away from consciousness. Mothers try clapping their hands but birds just hit the windows.

They have been banned from the local swimming pool and their parents complained about the trenches they dug in their backyards, so the three girls meet in the colorless dawn by the pond near the highway. People in the cars going by seem not to notice. The girls hold each other’s hands and wade into the shallowest part of the pond, shivering violently. They kneel down and take turns inhaling the stagnant, rusty-tasting wetness, the microbes and the dirt. Now they cannot be seen from the road at all. Each day they return to practice their underwater breathing. When it does flood the following month, they laugh and swim gloriously between the submerged houses like underage mermaids, lithe among bloated debris.

Not so long ago the crops were terrible, and the farmer came home each night worried and wondering how to keep going. Usually there were chickens and rabbits for his wife to cook, but not anymore: now they are almost out of everything. The wife opens her window and lays out a few crumbs of bread on the sill as she has every day for the past several years. The sparrows come, heads cocked. In return for the crumbs they have cleaned her bushes of centipedes, crickets, and biting spiders. They hear her whisper, see the trail laid out for them. That night the farmer returns to a better meal than usual, crunches down the stringy, bone-ridden bits in the stew. Strange, but satisfying, he tells her, before going to bed. She stays up a bit longer by the dying cinders, fingers tapping the rhythms of birdsong. Her insides are fluttering with the beats of tiny organs, there’s something stuck in her throat and her eyes are wide and barely blinking.

All the Birds of Finland. Smoke trapped in the attic. The boy holds illustrations up to the window and traces bird bodies onto sheets of paper towel. Corvus corax. Feral cats caught in traps, blood on canvas, mice in laundry baskets, passerines, tail feathers, sky without color. Grasping a pencil with his small hands, imagining the miles of territory they must cover. Paper towel birds lined neatly in rows, eyes sketched in with water drops.
His father dreams of chivalrous men dancing with beautiful women, slowly spinning. Empty light sockets on the front porch became clogged with nests, punched out with broom ends, all crap and feathers. The car’s backseat holds only empty soda cans never redeemed.

They have been planning the switch for months. The girls grow their hair and dye it the same pale blonde, start buying and wearing identical shapeless dresses, apply their makeup in the same technique and palette. Some kids think it’s cool, but others avoid them because it’s so strange. At first they swap places in a few of their classes to see if the teachers might notice, but none do. Soon afterwards they go to each other’s houses after school, eat dinner with the other’s equally chaotic family, and stay the night in the other’s bed. Each room has the other girl’s scent and pattern of disorder. Each lies awake in a strange house, unsure of the night noises and constituent conversations. At school the next day they congratulate each other on their deception. And so it continues and the two families, being so inconsistent and self-centered, never catch on. One day one of the girls does not show up at school. In fact she is never seen again, since the entire family has fled in the night to avoid their many debts. A letter finally arrives for the abandoned girl, postmarked from another country, with pictures of a new house, an ocean. “I love them and have left myself,” she reads, “I left myself so long ago, please, don’t be angry.”

Read it at Issuu

Interview at Open Letters Monthly

Oleg Woolf - Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, a vivid, surreal evocation of a liminal world. The characters follow the trajectories of elementary particles, disappearing in one dimension only to reappear in another.”

Oleg Woolf, Bessarabian Stamps: Stories , Trans. by Boris Dralyuk, Phoneme Media, 2015. Reminiscent of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocod...