Lygia Fagundes Telles - a delirious and complicated story of feminine affection seen, as one of the friends puts it, in “profile in the misted-over mirror”

Lygia Fagundes Telles, The Girl in the Photograph, Trans. by Margaret A. Neves, Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.

Complex and hauntingly beautiful, Lygia Fagundes Telles’s most acclaimed novel is a journey into the inner lives of three young women, each revealing her secrets and loves, each awaiting a destiny tied to the colorful and violent world of modern Brazil. Sensual and wealthy Lorena dreams of a tryst with a married man. Unhappy Lia burns with a frantic desire to free her imprisoned fiancé. Glamorous Ana Clara, unable to escape her past, falls toward a tragedy of drugs and obsession. Intimate and unforgettable, The Girl in the Photograph creates an extraordinary picture of the wonder and the darkness that come to possess a woman’s mind, and stands as one of the greatest novels to come out of Brazil in the late twentieth century.

This popular Brazilian novel examines the friendship of three young women during the country’s military dictatorship, in the nineteen-sixties. At first, the friends seem almost frivolous, but amid the gauzy daydreams that make up their inner lives there are painful undercurrents—drug addiction, an imprisoned lover, the fallout from a violent incident in childhood. The great strength of the novel is the way that it balances an atmosphere of political repression—one woman meets with a revolutionary cohort in secret—with alertness to the more quotidian desires of its characters. The result is a delirious and complicated story of feminine affection seen, as one of the friends puts it, in “profile in the misted-over mirror.”

Despite its title, Lygia Fagundes Telles’s The Girl in The Photograph is really about three young women. They are Lia, Ana Clara, and Lorena—college girls who live in a Catholic boarding house somewhere in Brazil. The trio is bound by an intense friendship. Although Lia, Ana Clara, and Lorena can’t help thinking uncharitable things about one another from time to time, when they’re together, their connection is electric. They borrow each other’s handkerchiefs, cars, and money. They share jokes, verbal tics (“money,” is always “yenom”—Lorena thinks saying it backwards brings luck), clothes, and intimacies. They even tuck in each other’s shirttails. Theirs is a world of drugs, secrets, run-ins with the law and trysts with older men, but there’s a bright innocence about them too. The book takes its title from a snapshot of three girls, described fleetingly:
“Ana Clara, don’t squint!” said Sister Clotilde, about to snap the photo. “Quick Lia, tuck in your blouse! And don’t make faces, Lorena, you’re making faces!” The pyramid.
The backdrop to this triangular friendship is the historic political upheaval set in motion by Brazil’s 1964 coup. First published in 1973 at the height of the country’s military dictatorship, the book uses the girls’ contrasting personal dramas and diaphanous inner monologues to tease out a pointed critique of the country’s political repression. The daughter of a reformed Nazi father and a Brazilian mother, Lia is the stubborn, politically minded one of the trio. It’s a desire for liberty and justice that motivates her, rather than the lure of wealth or beauty driving her friends. And though she’s not without refined inclinations (and vanity), she has little time for frivolous pursuits. There are political assignations to keep secret identities to wear and discard, reports of torture to follow up on. She moves across the page in a rush. Her boyfriend Miguel has been locked up and she doesn’t know what it will take to secure his release. She writes a novel but then tears it up.
In sharp contrast with Lia is gorgeous, vulnerable Ana Clara. The perfect face and slender, flawless limbs that have propelled her out of the favelas and onto magazine covers are a blessing and a curse. Her modeling career leaves her exposed and unfulfilled; she’s tortured by unhappy memories of her childhood and the sense that she will never truly leave her past behind. Women mock her poor background; men take advantage of her unsteadiness. Telles presents Ana Clara’s monologues through a haze of alcohol, or drugs, or both (“my head rotten sober” as she describes it at one point). All she wants is to escape herself—to forget the painful recollections of childhood abuse and squalor:
Next year I’ll start over, it will all be OK and I’ll be able to live as if I didn’t have that background behind me. But sometimes I hear so plainly the beatings he gave her, putting the ring on his little finger to work. 
There’s little solace to be found in “analysis” (“I keep talking about the things that hurt me most, rubbing salt in the wounds, remembering what I did and didn’t do. And paying in gold for the self-torture”), or in the arms of her lover, Max, who is just as broke and drug-addled as she is. Ana Clara’s best chance for reinvention (and redemption), she’s sure, is to marry her rich fiancé, a wealthy man she neither likes, respects nor loves, and refers to simply as “the scaly one”:
Next year. I’ll open my registration and have a brilliant academic career I’m very smart. A fashionable house on the beach I’ll entertain, invite everyone, they can live there I’m not selfish I’ll share it with you all. I want jewels, everything glittering.
It’s clear she’s not convinced of this herself, though. Her relationship with “the scaly one” proceeds in a fog of substance abuse and excuses. Ana Clara’s spiraling deterioration plays out at a remove from Lorena and Lia’s; her room is just down the hall, but her burdens and drugs push her far out of reach. She is a symbol of the country’s deepest failings. Her friends love her helplessly; what more can they do?
The real apex of the pyramid is Lorena. There’s much Ana Clara and Lia find exasperating about her—her fragility (“I am the delicate type. Sensitive. Cousin to that little lizard spread out on the windowpane”) and aversion to physicality (faced with a runny nose, she thinks, “Too many holes, too many secretions”), her compulsive cleanliness, precious wardrobe, privileged lineage, dainty perfume, mints, and of course, her virginity. Alone in her room, Lorena writes long letters to M. N., the married doctor she’s convinced she’s in love with: “I wrote that my whole life converged in him and that from now on I would only radiate outward from him.” She knows her friends judge her convoluted, tortured approach to the opposite sex (“I’m the complicated type, with me things just can’t be resolved so fast”), an approach that seems emblematic of her aversion to life itself. But is M. N.’s unattainability so different from Max’s or Miguel’s? The physical and emotional distance of these men only further cements the girls’ friendship.
If Ana Clara and Lia’s lives are a swirl of plots and subplots, by contrast, pristine, daydreaming Lorena is a rock of reliability. She is the one who has the most time—and capacity—for friendship. With Lorena, everything is slow, steady, clean, and lofty. A day, or an hour with Lorena passes slowly, as she lingers inside, basking in the incandescence of daily pleasures:
I pause to admire the graceful pattern of the tablecloth with its big leaves in a hot green tone, through which, half-hidden, peers the Asiatic eye of an occasional orange. The pleasure I take in this simple ritual of preparing tea is almost as intense as that I take in hearing music. Or reading poetry. Or taking a bath. Or or or.
Beneath Lorena’s dreamy self-absorption, however, lies a depth of kindness. The other girls can’t help but forgive her airs because she’s such a generous friend. They know, also, that Lorena has demons of her own, too. Lorena’s widowed mother has somewhat scandalously taken up with a much younger man. And then, there’s the matter of her brothers. Lorena tells her friends she was just a little girl when she saw her brother Remo accidentally shoot and kill his twin Romulo in a game. The death plays over and over again in her mind. It hardly matters that Lorena’s mother casts doubt on her daughter’s version of events, (“She never knew her brother, she’s the youngest… She was still a little girl when she started to invent this”). The gash left by Lorena’s childhood is too large to ignore, and yet she gives and gives.
Margaret Neves’s translation from the Portuguese sparkles with the energy, colloquialisms and inflections of youth (as when, for example, Lorena describes death as having “pickled eyes”). Since its publication nearly forty years ago, the book has gone through eleven editions in Brazil, and been translated into dozens of languages. Yet nearly four decades after its original release, the concerns of The Girl in the Photograph are no less pressing. What power—or responsibility—does one have to one’s peers, or to one’s countrymen? What does it mean for a woman to be truly liberated? To what extent can one transcend ones past? As the currents of life pull the girls’ dramas forward to the novel’s cataclysmic end, these questions are hardly resolved. They remain a provocation, an invitation to look beyond the surface.- Mythili G. Rao

Lygia Fagundes Telles and Manuel Alegre


Lisa Ciccarello - Vulnerable in the darkness as the dead watch behind salt-lined windows, we are led to explore a world of simple objects through a complex fog of cruelty and longing, strength and feebleness, folklore and familial traditions.

Lisa Ciccarello, At Night, Black Ocean, 2015.

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Told in an age we can't quite put our finger on, the poems in Lisa Ciccarello's debut collection twist up from tales of witchcraft and the punishing morals of the Newgate Calendar. Vulnerable in the darkness as the dead watch behind salt-lined windows, we are led to explore a world of simple objects through a complex fog of cruelty and longing, strength and feebleness, folklore and familial traditions. Violence, love, death, jealousy, sex, and shadows fill the pages of AT NIGHT. If you seek comfort, you will find none here.

Incantatory, ruthless, and seductive, the poems in Ciccarello's debut roam a vast and timeless dark. More than a time of day, night represents the environment, mood, and the aesthetic and emotional qualities around which each poem coalesces. Beginning with action spun from intimacy and violence, where "I show you the back of my neck & you spit in your hand," Ciccarello deals in clear, forceful declarations that turn vulnerable and mysterious as they accrue. Duplicity and concealment govern the transactions both between people and within them: "I got an eye that speaks its mind but a body that does what it's told." This variance extends to the nature of description in the poems—which often outline a single thing, be it the moon, a house, a crime, an experience of desire, or nighttime itself—such that description has not pinned its object but made it multiple and shape-shifting. Even darkness, abiding and total throughout the book, takes on endlessly varied sounds, whether "like being underwater" or "the warble & the scrape of feather on bark" or "the sound of a man talking low, of a shoe going on, the sound of a heel in the street." From traditions of the folkloric and the lyric, Ciccarello offers a strange and commanding poetry of atmosphere. - Publishers Weekly

My tumultuous affair with poetry began in high school (where it does for most melodramatic folk) when I first stumbled upon the confessional, suicidal poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Admittedly, it was the fact that they had both caused their own ends that drew me to their work, but over time, these tragedies faded into the background, allowing their visceral, beautiful/grotesque & firercely raw poems to burn inside me. I wanted to be one of these women; I was already haunted by death in the romantic way young, sensitive people are often inflicted with. I wanted to write a small thing that took up barely a full page but that could sear a reader by the images conjured, by the uncanny use of normal words. I didn't succeed at poetry, but I wrote my undergrad thesis on Anne's work the same year I tattooed her initials inside my 'writing' wrist. I felt her ghost would linger if I gave my skin the power of her name.
Anne's book over time has become a sacred text to me as a writer. I always turn to her poems when in despair. My reading tastes, like everyone's have changed over time and after reading experimental garbage as well as being introduced to writers I still read such as Gary Lutz & Brian Evenson in graduate school, poetry fell from my reading habits. I returned to poetry this year after I attended AWP for the first time since it seemingly magically coincided with one of my trips out here to the Mid-West. I had known about Black Ocean Books vaguely as I had already owned a book by poet Zachary Schomburg, so I was happy when I stumbled upon their booth in a vast sea of presses I knew nothing about. 
Admittedly, when I'm 'cold' searching for a book in a store, I'm often drawn to their covers unless looking for something specific. Lisa's cover art drew me instantly, 'At Night' has a strange symbol akin to a voodoo veve, which are beautifully drawn symbols that are sacred to the voodoo religion and are used in ritual as representations of the loa, or the spirits that are the intermediaries between realms. These symbols, when used in ritual, act as astral beacons, drawing these spirits down to where the symbol is being used. Though I don't know much about voodoo, several trips to New Orleans have taught me a little about these symbols, as well as a deep respect for them....(or perhaps, in not using them. Many people get these designs tattooed on them because they are indeed intricate and beautiful (yikes) )
 I digress. The symbol on Lisa's book is not a reve, and only vaguely resembles one, as it also vaguely resembles other magical and old symbols.  The book itself has a butter soft cover that strangely makes it feel almost made of baby skin, and the back cover reads ' If you seek comfort, you will find none here.' I was immediately sold. This had my name written all over it before I even flipped the cover open. As the ether would have it, Lisa happened to be standing nearby and when I held her book in my hands, the kind folks manning the booth suggested I say hi. Ordinarily I shy away from unsolicited conversation, especially with other writers. I even had a giant pair of head phones on as I navigated the book fair. But meeting Lisa felt like meeting someone I already knew in the way that kindred ilk sometimes recognize one another, and I asked for her to sign the book, which she did so thusly ' I hope it makes you the right kind of miserable.'
With that I fell completely under the spell of the book and have carried its thin body tucked inside my journal with me nearly everywhere. 
Because I love this book so much, I wanted other people to read it to, especially since I feel people often don't seek out poetry or think they will 'understand it.' Because I love this book so much, I feel hesitant to write about it (hence my tardiness.) This may be why I'm continuing to digress, so here goes:
Here are some ideas that snared me:
* Immediately when flipping through or beginning to read the book, you'll notice none of the works are titled. In this way, it seems that all the poems are titled with the collective title 'At Night.' This decision may have limited Lisa when she was writing the book, but perhaps that drove the linked 'narrative' together so successfully. Although billed as poetry and often structured thusly ( despite the one liners from time to time), these writings feel more to me like secret conversations or confessions I'm not supposed to be privy to but am. Bearing witness to strangeness or mystery always makes me feel transcendent as a reader. It elevates the experience for me. I feel a bit haunted, in a similar way that Sleep No More makes me feel; an experience where I feel I'm in a place 'out of time', where I am a ghost in the company of other ghosts who cannot see me. We know the other is there, but there is no direct contact.
* Much like how the symbol on the cover suggests magic, so does the way these poems feel in the mouth when my eye moves over them. When reading them, their repetitions make me feel like I am invoking something beyond the page or preparing ingredients for a spell of protection or violence. This protection feels precarious however, the spirits looming within the pages are very real and present. Salt holds them at bay. Or tries to anyway.
* In the afterward, Lisa mentions how some of the "poems are inspired by and borrow lines from "The Newgate Calendar," a publication which gave " a full and satisfactory Account of the Crimes, Behaviors, Discourses in Prison and last Words" of criminals executed at Tyburn and Newgate Prison from the mid-sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century." I don't think this book needed this, I feel it stands alone perfectly, but when something like this is added to a text successfully, it makes my heart a swarm. These poems carry Lisa's voice as the creator, the voice of the 'imagined dead' as well as the truly dead, their words woven through her own seamlessly. The voices of the past echo into the future, into the book that sits in your hand.
* Perhaps what I was drawn most to is how important the body is in these works. Black eyes are constantly referenced, fingers in mouths, strands of hair, a binding of the body, a burning of the body, intrusions of the female body. If death has already come for these narrators, I don't imagine it was an easy leaving. Death by fire is hinted at quite often, which immediately makes me think of witch burnings. This subtly plays out like an unseen thread of anxiety stitched in the background. 
* Objects are often reassigned. The moon is all manner of things, a splinter, an axe, a shovel a tooth. Knives are pearls. The violence is both tender and not. It is asked for, and it is not. There is a lack of blood, instead there is salt and soil, death by curse. The longest poem in the book was one of my favorite, a tale of a murderous wife who seeks revenge on the favored wife. This proximity of intimacy and violence interests me, a kind of push and pull between Eros and Thanatos. 
There is more to say and hopefully there will be some discussion elsewhere. In closing, as much as this is a book of poems, it also feels like the recordings of a medium from another time. Lisa seems to be a conduit of a kind, channeling the night and its inhabitants into the constraints of a small book. I hope my thoughts will make you read it.  - bloodmilk

“You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead.”
Most of us fear the dead. We fear their reach from beyond, their spectral presence in the dark, looming over us while we sleep, the awful things they might do. After reading Lisa Ciccarello’s prize winning chapbook, At night, the dead, published by Blood Pudding Press, it becomes clear that, though the dead are most certainly here, they are not here to do us harm. Rather, they love us, “the dead whose love is just a little series of letters.” They would like to be remembered, and maybe to have a voice.

“We are supposed to house the dead in our mouths, but we let them stay in our throats when we sing.”
The dead, it seems, seek a voice. In the dual role of poet and medium, Ciccarello chooses not only to house the dead in her mouth, but to sing:
“I am the dead I am the dead
I am the dead. The song I know.”

The mouth is the entryway, the tunnel through which the dead find their voice. Ciccarello’s haunting lyrics–surreal, pensive, often mysterious– linger in our psyche, long after they have provided the release the dead are seeking.Just as mortals, having seen a ghost, will question their own vision, so readers of At night, the dead may question what is real and what is Ciccarello’s fantastic imagination. “The dead put their fingers in your mouth,” the narrator asserts. Despite the next line, “You are dreaming,” you will soon question whether you, the reader, are awake or asleep, whether there are fingers in your mouth or not. Ciccarello’s stream of consciousness prose poems lull you into a sort of waking sleep-walk. In time, we (readers) take on a spectral form, hovering over each poem, studying it as the dead study the living when “you are asleep & inside the dream the dead rise up & their bodies are gone but their love has a form & they come to love you but it isn’t a dream…”
Like the dead, we become ghosts, floating through each piece, accepting it’s improbability for ethereal truth.
“I want to keep telling you about the dead,” the narrator says. “They write the same word over and over again.” Ciccarello does not write the same word over and over again, though there is a ghostly echo to the repeating clues she gives us in each of these sixteen poems.
Indeed, taken as a whole, the collection is a tightly woven tapestry of encounters with the dead, stitched together by recurring threads: salt on widow sills, luminous coins, burned paper, house and home. Comprised mostly of prose poems, each piece links almost imperceptibly to the next, most often through these cleverly repeated images.
Coupled with Ciccarello’s skill at crafting poems that read like small prayers or incantations, such repetition serves not to keep the dead at bay, but to welcome them, honor and invite them into “the house they remember” and give them “Everything they ever wanted: the window view, soap that floats, someone pressing down hard. Lips made out of paper. A smile that shines (just a flame at his mouth & so what).” 
We want to remember what was so close to our faces,” the narrator tells us. Too, “the dead/ remember;/ yea & it is not enough.” As Ciccarello’s haunting narrative continues in its melodic refrain, such surreal reasoning begins to make sense. “Our home is full of beautiful boy & come on girl.” The dead “have a home in the ground, but they forget.” Is it possible the dead are us? You and I, questing readers?
Without doubt, the dead are a metaphor for something. Just what is elusive, so we must continue to read and look for clues. In providing such mysterious little gems, Ciccarello—poet, medium, mouth-piece for the dead–does not disappoint. The sheer lyricism of her language can make a clue out of a seemingly irrelevant detail. Take for instance, this gorgeous morsel of truth: “Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought sparkling behind the next. In the patient necklace each will be touched.”
Overall, At night, the dead is a haunting collection, though not in the traditional sense of ghosts and fear. Instead, it is a series of surreal linked vignettes, brief but memorable encounters with the elusive dead (who may or may not be you and I), ferrying a message that may or may not come clear as the final poem exhales its last syllable.
Do not be surprised, when, after you have finished that last poem, you find yourself going about your own days and nights trying to discover your own dead and what they are asking for. Do not be afraid “when the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth.” -
Jill Crammond Wickham

I imagine Lisa Ciccarello a sort of Nick Cave from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, walking up to the microphone: I’m not going to tell them about the dead. I’m not going to tell them about the dead.
“I want to keep telling you about the dead.”
Ciccarello read in Seattle in August, a sufficiently special occasion to warrant me leaving my apartment, and I recreate her voice in my head as I turn the pages. In the back bar of art gallery and event space Vermillion, Ciccarello’s voice was soft with intention. Hers is the best reading of the night. Hers is the best reading I have ever been to. A book of spells is good, but a spell said aloud is magic. When you read At Night, whisper it out the window. Intone it down a narrow hall. Chant it to the sheets, the curtains, whatever billows. It is an incredible book.
Excerpt from At Night:
You lock the door. You lock the window. You dream of the dead. You salt the sills from the inside. You are going to dream. You check the window. You burn a piece of paper. You burn a piece of hair. You check the door. You put a root beneath your pillow. You put the candle out. You bite the root before you put it beneath your pillow. You dream of the dead. You keep a candle burning. You bite the root. The dead put their fingers in your mouth. You are dreaming. You draw the dead & burn the paper. The dead have no doors. They have no salt. Each one takes a grain of salt. There are more dead than salt. You bolt the door. You are dreaming. When the salt is gone the dead touch your mouth. When the salt is gone you buy more salt. When the salt is gone the root does nothing. The salt does nothing.
Ciccarello’s first full-length poetry collection, At Night had been on my to-read list since its debut this past April. From the runic cover hinting at secrets within to Ciccarello’s twitter handle and my own obsession with salt, I knew it was only a matter of time, and in August the book found me by surfacing as one of two selections for the Blood Milk Book Club. Blood Milk is a renowned independent jewelry line I have long adored, hand-forged by a woman with a background in literature and an aesthetic to die for. Seeing two of my loves – poetry & talismans – paired thusly was a unique sort of joy. Please, please, more cross-craft collaborations and promotions!
My own background is in linguistics, which also lends itself to a heightened appreciation of Ciccarello’s work. Many of her poems read like prose – if prose were poured into an alembic and distilled into its most powerful essence. Her syntax is frequently atypical but never jarring – “Even & inside; against cry against bite down. What was not tender.” Her sentences hum with a rolling velocity – “The bowls are the color of bone & the bone is shaped like an egg. To make the bowl you must break the shell. / My mouth is a bowl: shell & yolk. I know the difference between full & filled” – and are punctuated with a deft hand, each period deliberately inviting a pause, each “and” instead an ampersand rushing the reader onward.
At Night is a pleasure to read, and re-read. The form and content are inseparable and so doubly powerful. Repetition of words and themes puts each poem hand in hand with the next: night, moon, mirror, black. The setting is unknown, the century irrelevant. And yet… is the setting our house? Is the century our century? It’s a potent, dark little maelstrom of a book, fit for sages and fools, acolytes and heretics, the living and the dead. And though poetry is so often enjoyed only by editors of journals or those who are poets themselves, At Night can and should ensnare anyone who picks it up. Reader, beware. - Sonya Vatomsky

Synopsis: The poems concern themselves with what happens at night.
What do you think makes your book (or any book) a “project book”?
I think there are many ways to approach the “project” aspect of a project book, but as far as my book goes, the poems adhere to very clear guidelines — they were all titled “At night,” the action in them takes place at night & I tried very hard not to give them an easily definable location or time — which makes their origins a little more considered.
Why this subject (or constraint)?
I love the danger & intimacy & imagination inherent in darkness. At first it started out as a kind of mini challenge (of the sort I give myself often) — just write about things that happen at night! — but I could see that I had plenty of interest in the possibilities there & kept on writing. As far as the timeless/placeless constraint, that tends to be a relatively consistent personal preference, in that I’d rather not mention things that weren’t around in, say, 1880. I like to leave those parts undefined because I don’t think they’re essential to what’s going on in the poems.
How important was it for you that each poem could “stand on its own” or that the poems should rely on other poems in the book, or on the premise of the project itself, to succeed? What challenges did this present for you when writing single poems or structuring the book overall?
It was very important to me that the majority of the poems would stand alone. I don’t like to make something that feels inherently incomplete. I think they can be better when read in groups, in that they tell a more complete story or the fear & desire in the individual poems congeals into something even more compelling. I like to think that the pieces on their own aren’t fragments so much as facets that reveal a fuller picture when connected & acquire power through accumulation & repetition. As I wrote, certain objects or themes would recur & those tied the book together even more tightly, but it was challenging to arrange them in such a way that they spoke to each other without clustering together too heavily or seeming to cover the same ground.
Did you fully immerse yourself in writing this project book, or did you allow yourself to work on other things?
I don’t think it’s possible to fully immerse myself in one thing at a time, at least not for long stretches. I can get really caught up in something for a short burst, but I find it’s better for me to have a few things to work on at any given time, so that all my creative effort doesn’t fall on one project (because that might make it seem like a burden, which I never want to feel towards anything I’m working on). While I was writing the poems that would become this book, I worked on plenty of other writing projects, even some collaborative ones, because I think that any time you’re doing creative work, you’re doing the right work.
Have you abandoned other project attempts? How did you know it was time to let go? What happens to project poems that never amass a full-length book?
I have a project that I care deeply about that has currently been back-burnered because I’m unsure whether it’s complete (& not long enough for a full length) or whether I’m going to have another round of energy for it or whether it will blend into the poems I’m writing now (because they share certain elements). It takes me a long time to know (I hadn’t written a new “At night” poem in almost 2 years before I was sure the project was done!) but I also don’t feel much pressure to let unfinished or undecided things go out into the world. If things absolutely stand alone as a complete project (or make a great grouping on the way to something larger) I love to send them out as chapbooks. Because often a project that’s really exciting for 10-25 pages wouldn’t necessarily be better (or even bearable) if it were allowed (or forced) to grow into a full length. & chapbooks are incredible for allowing smaller projects to still find their readers.
After completing a project, how did you transition into writing something new? What are you working on now? Another project?
At first I wasn’t even sure I was done. I just wasn’t writing as many of them & I found myself drifting to other themes & not re-entering the emotional space that had created those poems. I started a number of other projects, mostly small, some large. Some of them were “successful” in that they found publication as chapbooks, some of them became less interesting to me & were put aside, some of them grew & are still growing. It’s hard to explain exactly, but once I figured out that I didn’t need what the “At night” poems had previously offered me, I knew I was ready to close that project down & give my full attention to other things. Now that the book is finished, I’m working on another project! Projects, I should say. I can’t help myself — it’s just the way I work. Some of them will stay small & I hope they’ll be published as chapbooks, but one of them I hope will grow into my second book.
What advice can you offer other writers, particularly emerging writers or poetry students who may be using the project book as a guiding principle for their own work?
I firmly believe that as a writer you should never struggle. Things can be challenging or complex or daunting, but beneath all of that should be a feeling of compulsion, of energy, of desire. You should always want to be writing what you’re writing. Having a guiding idea or some basic rules for a poem (or series of poems) can be encouraging. I tend to work this way because when I sit down to write, I don’t have to fear the empty page or endless options. I have an idea of what I might be working on & I get to explore a space I’m already familiar with. I think that if you’re working with a project or constraint in mind, it should be like a ladder, helping you to reach more & more of what you wanted to say, rather than some kind of fence that you have to stay behind. If you find the project is more limiting than propelling, widen it or change it or abandon it all together. - www.thecloudyhouse.com/2015/06/03/lisa-ciccarello-on-at-night/

This is the suffering part

All night I dreamed it:
the dream was bad.
I saw the holes open up in their faces
when they looked at me.
They said the curved hand is a sign
meant for something to go into.
They said in this village the dead
& I broke the sign
so people could not go there easily.
In this village the dead
murdered themselves & rose themselves
from where they lay.
They killed themselves & became themselves
& that was their revenge.
In this village the dead break the sign
so death can not find them again.

The Tower

My daughter lies down on the ground.
I cannot stop her.
Look, she says,
pointing to her teeth,
the keeper of bells.
There is no tomorrow for this.
I saw the tower
like a steeple or a tusk
or a mast in calm waters
like a lightning rod like a lone tree
standing in a field.
My heart is turning to ashes.
It casts no shadow.

At night, by marriage:

Here is how I control my heart: I string each thought one behind the next, like beads.
I wear the answers I am waiting to give. The jewelry becomes heavy as soil.
My long blink is a scream & a yes. There are things I have to say, but they do not yet know the questions they must ask. & a blink is no word; if they misunderstand—
A heart is just soil. Ask anyone. A heartbeat is a blink. A long blink is a scream. A longer blink is sleep. All night I am screaming.

At night:
above the town      moon      a candle over a map      lit, the streets,
animal pounding woods-shape     stick cut for the center     you smell
her so I trail you
from above     fire where the blade meant-for     I am going to have
her     hear me
carnelian bead up inside she knows not     & grow it there a sickness
have you out
to have you back
At night, the dark has a sound:
of light slipping back, of becoming absent before you; your hands are
too small to catch it-sound of the step & of the slip; though the way
it lands you can hold it, in its name, the whole of it in your
fingers: move.
At night, the dead:
the dead are sitting up in their narrow huts. At night they moan & try
to uncross their legs. In the day they pretend they chose this
The dead have different problems-salt spills & they are blocked from
the water; the bell is found & someone pulls the string.
In the dark the string is dark thread & in the day, light. In the dark
a line of salt is a string & also in the light.
At night we salt the dead to staunch the moan. I hear the string. Stop

3 poems

She’s the author of eight chapbooks: "I only thought of the farm" (forthcoming from DoubleCross Press, 2015) "Chief!" (Ink Press, 2014), Worth is the Wrong Word (Black Cake Records, 2014), & if I die, make me how you are (The New Megaphone, 2014), (the shore in parts) (Greying Ghost Press, 2013), Sometimes there are travails (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013), At night (Scantily Clad Press, 2009), and At night, the dead (Blood Pudding Press, 2009).


Rosalyn Drexler plunges into the emerging zeitgeist (of the 1970s) with ferocious intelligence & transgressive wit

Rosalyn Drexler, One or Another, Dell Books, 1971.

The LA Times quote on the cover of "One or Another" says, "An infinite variety of sexual roles, a taboo area that most men would rather sweep under the carpet, the darkest dreams of wish-fulfillment and eroticism -- from voyeurism to group sex." And while this is accurate, it also sounds like a blurb for a typical early 1970s novel, deliberately "shocking" & gleefully hedonistic -- and while that's also accurate to an extent, it's so much more than that. A couple of years before Erica Jong's justly lauded "Fear of Flying", Rosalyn Drexler was exploring some of the same territory -- women & desire, fantasy, sexuality, politics, race, culture -- and in an even more fascinating, acerbic, stunning way.

Miss Drexler made a startling starlet debut with I Am the Beautiful Stranger (1965) and this is a second showy, hip, ingenue performance even though her first person heroine Melissa is 39. In short notations which reveal her indolent if hypermotor instability as she thinks (fantasizes) about M., her redbearded husband-teacher (in the New York City Public School system during its troubles) and J., one of his students. She's understandably bored with the cloddish, proprietary M. who writes letters persecuting black colleagues signed by a member of the National Rifle Association. She's equally un-understandably overcome by J. who is not only naive and reluctant, latently homosexual and schizoid, but has ""melancholy, glossy lips"" and ""genitals like the sego lily."" Miss Drexler brings all kinds of modish, liberated instant perceptions to this but one is impressed with very little except her heroine's sexual appetence. . . . One or Another. . . neither nor. - Kirkus Reviews

She had begun that exploration in her earlier "I am the Beautiful Stranger' -- also vital reading, I might add -- but in these pages, Drexler plunges into the emerging zeitgeist with ferocious intelligence & transgressive wit. Her narrator Melissa speaks in the present tense, writing in short bursts of prose that are both poetic & pungent, weaving her thoughts & feelings through the public & deeply personal events of the day, offering a dazzling, multi-faceted portrait of both mind & body determined to be whole & free -- to be a woman utterly unashamed -- and even more urgently, undefined by anyone but herself.
In a short 149 pages, Drexler encompasses a world changing by the second, bursting with new ideas & hungers & ambitions so long denied to half the human population ... and yet Melissa is always, before anything else, an individual, a distinct & singular person with her specific & particular life. Her story is a vibrant melding of flesh & philosophy, told in a complex but clear voice that demands to be heard. I haven't read a novel with this much immediacy, passion, and brains in a long time -- a striking accomplishment, most highly recommended! -  William Timothy Lukeman  @ amazon.com

Rosalyn Drexler, To Smithereens, New American Library, 1972.

When TO SMITHEREENS was originally published in 1972, the New York Review of Books said of it, "There's hope for literature yet." The novel, based on Drexler's life, chronicles the adventures of a lady wrestler named Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire. Rosalyn Drexler was born in 1926 and her creative career has been long and varied, as she has written novels, essays, and plays as well as painted explosive images that rival the best work of the Pop-art generation.

Today it’s common for authors to play with reality, memory, and fiction in their writing, but it wasn’t always that way. In the genre of memoir, which evolved from autobiography, writers found refuge from nonfiction’s more inflexible building blocks—facts, for example. But the publishing industry hasn’t always allowed such shenanigans. In the past, memoirists who strayed too far into imagination—through composite characters, recreated events, or multiple points of view—found their books sidelined as fiction. Usually, writers had good reasons for taking that hit and did so to make an artistic point. Sometimes the point was well-founded; other times, ill-conceived. A good example of the latter is Rosalyn Drexler’s 1972 novel To Smithereens, which loosely chronicles the author’s adventures as a lady wrestler: Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire.
Republished this fall by Brooklyn Rail Books and Black Square Editions, Drexler’s novel opens in a darkened movie theatre as Rosa crushes the fingers of a man who is groping her thigh. The man, Paul, reveals himself as an art critic and lady wrestling enthusiast; before long, he and Rosa start a relationship. The opening scenes act out themes that become the novel’s central concerns: sex and sexism, eroticism and domination, play, curiosity, and violence. Perhaps most strikingly, these scenes begin a pattern of intimate moments acted out in communal spaces. This private-public dichotomy speaks to wrestling as a performance, or to any kind of art and its corresponding business. Plus, the trope gives the story some of its stranger moments, as when Paul allows several sets of disembodied hands to pleasure him during a public art exhibition:
My bare buttocks were swarmed upon with kisses and pinches. One hand…a human hand, free to grope me from the opening at the bottom of the box, snaked around and took my sex in its bare fist! I was terrified…what if there were hidden cameras?…what if the hand belonged to the male gender?…what if I enjoyed it?…I rigidly opposed the flood of pleasurable sensations which threatened to overcome me. I grabbed the loving hand to stop it…but found that I was helping it instead.
As disturbing as some of the book’s incidents appear, Drexler keeps the writing light-hearted throughout. Before long, Rosa and Paul decide to break into the wrestling industry—Rosa as a performer, Paul as a journalist who writes for Boots Jackson, a sleazy editor and publisher. Vivid personalities circle these two characters, waiting for their chance to join in the action. This ragtag bunch reads like realistic cartoons, and calls to mind other writers working in the 1970s (such as John Gardner or James Tillotson Whitehead); however, their over-the-top behavior doesn’t preclude Drexler from sometimes pivoting to show a more human, emotional side, as when Bobby Fox recounts the death of his daughter, a wrestler who died during a match against the fearsome Tommy J. Jukes.
You would have liked her, Rosa. She wasn’t anything like Verne Vavoom. She wasn’t wild. She didn’t have a mean streak in her. She was a sweetie pie, but that didn’t save her, because she didn’t pay attention to the health and safety rules of wrestling. Her name…Jane Bart Fox. Her age…eighteen. Cause of death…ruptured stomach. That’s what they told me, and I believed it, because she stuffed herself like a pig.
Bobby Fox’s voice, though, is just one of many. In the end, To Smithereens assaults readers with many voices and styles—letters, limericks, film transcripts, faux journalism, and multiple first-person narrators—but in most cases the disparate forms don’t seem to serve the story. No conceit binds the techniques or pins the book together thematically; no logic dictates whether an event is told one way or another. The fragments do offer some insight into Rosa and Paul’s relationship, but the novel as a whole ends up lacking a cohesive structure. Despite these problems, To Smithereens contains plenty of stiffs, squashes, and spots that bring the novel in for a clean finish. Drexler has written hundreds of beautiful sentences and detailed many unique situations; she’s an accomplished writer. However, it remains unclear why To Smithereens has to exist as a novel and not, say, as true nonfiction. What does make-believe offer that’s more strange or terrifying than real life? The answer may be nothing at all, because there’s no formula for telling exactly how much of Drexler’s life experience translates to the page in To Smithereens. It’s possible, if she had tried to sell the book as a fact-based autobiography, no one would have believed in the authenticity of the world she brings to life. - Ben Pfeiffer

Visiting an old friend you haven’t seen in years can be fraught with trepidation. Is she still cogent? Has she grown lethargic and obese? Do you still have anything in common? Do her eyes still twinkle with mischief?
I’m happy to report Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire, is still in fighting trim, and every bit as relevant as she was in 1972 when Rosalyn Drexler introduced her. A new edition of To Smithereens, the novel where we met Rosa and a startling cast of other fighting women who were known as lady wrestlers back then has been published by Brooklyn Rail/Black Square Editions. The vivid cover is from one of Rosalyn’s paintings.
It may enhance your enjoyment of the novel—and appreciation of its astoundingly accomplished author—to know Rosalyn Drexler actually wrestled professionally as Rosa Carlo the Mexican Spitfire for a short time. It may further amp up the author’s awesome factor for you to know she hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Tom Wesselmann and though less famous than her male counterparts, is considered among the top Pop Artists. As if that weren’t enough, she is also a well-regarded playwright, and award-winning writer on many fronts. She earned an Emmy for her contributions to a Lily Tomlin television special, Obies for three of her plays, and has written several novelizations, including Stallone’s Rocky (as Julia Sorel), in addition to her many novels. And the wonder woman isn’t done! At 85, she continues to paint, write, and struggle to find time for her relentless creativity.
At the time of first release of To Smithereens, the New York Times put Drexler in the company of Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, Sue Kaufman (of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, and author of Diary of a Mad Housewife), and Lois Gould, who also wrote about women’s lives.
Rosa was touted by critics as a female Holden Caulfield, but I doubt anyone would make that analogy today. Rosa is more street smart, for starters, less concerned with phonies, more certain of her pronouncements. And despite her tentative longing for someone who loves her, her strength transcends physicality. She’s brazen and outspoken; readers rarely have to guess what she’s feeling. There’s a matter-of-factly-observed severed penis in the book’s second paragraph; we find out early on that Rosa prefers the term cunt (“a hard word of one syllable: mean and sexy [it means business]”) to pussy (“a cutesy-pie way of relating to a part of the body that is neither feline nor filled with stewed fruit . . . and it sustains a childish attitude toward sex”), and that she doesn’t “like the word allowed! Not even the word privileged.” Beyond the fearless raunch, and frequently inextricably tied to it, is an underlying humor, a quizzical shrug at the human condition. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in the New York Times, once called Drexler the first Marx Sister.
Rosa’s gloriously named art critic boyfriend Paul Partch still alternately endears and reviles. Knowing now what I didn’t know my first reading about the multi-talented Drexler’s painting, and her own relationship with critics, Rosa’s complex involvement with Paul illuminates more than a dominatrix fantasy. You have to assume the author enjoyed writing Rosa’s limerick for Paul:
“There was a young man in the arts
Whose comments exploded like farts
When he turned to the West
People liked him the best
For improving the air in the arts.”
The only obstacles that threatened my complete immersion in the story this time around were the references that jerked me back to the seventies. But what’s an occasional groovy or fink or a few hangups and vibes when everything else is so au courant? As playwright, novelist, and visual artist, Drexler has consistently been twenty years—or more—ahead of her time, creating characters and images on the leading edge of feminism. And you can bet she didn’t ask permission whenever she switched point of view mid-chapter. She just did it. And it worked.
It’s easy to imagine a new generation of young Rosas haunting the gritty movie houses and fast food dives of Manhattan, gargling Cokes, frequenting office buildings where the admonition, “Don’t use the elevator” doesn’t give them pause, carrying rolled up Newsweeks to swat roaches in public toilets, and domesticating bare-bulb flats while they wait for life to swoop them up.
They may be sporting tats and piercings their older sisters didn’t, and be perpetually plugged in to devices that hadn’t yet been invented back then, but in magnitude of conflicting impulses—insecurity and moxie, aggression and timidity, spirituality and agnosticism, death and sex—Rosa and her successors could be twins.  A few might even recite “Howl” together.
From Rosa’s opening depression, through her tangles with awakening intellect, to the brink of stardom and back, readers’ expectations will be blown to smithereens, much as a “big explosion . . . God was the first Weatherman . . . from the big bang which blew everything to smithereens new planets formed.” We’re left with a constellation of unforgettable supporting characters in orbit around a resilient Rosa figuratively—and literally—flexing her muscles. - Cheryl Olsen   

Rosalyn Drexler

Rosalyn Drexler, Three Novels, Verbivoracious Press, 2014.

Rosalyn Drexler embarked upon a vibrant career as a pop artist, playwright, screenwriter, pseudonymous author, short-lived Mexican wrestler, and a writer of surreal, satirical, and beguiling comedic fictions, three of which are collected in this volume. Highly regarded by Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Stanley Elkin, and Donald Barthelme, Drexler’s short fragmented novels have faded into relative obscurity alongside numerous postmodern or “avant-pop” writers, deserving of a fresh audience and to be read for their brilliant comedic energy and sharp satirical eye. I am the Beautiful Stranger is a bold novel of teenage sexuality, familial dysfunction, and knotty self-awakening; One or Another the darkly comic tale of collapsing marriage, infidelity, and racial unrest; and The Cosmopolitan Girl explores the unlikely romance between a style-obsessed woman and her talking dog. These three novels represent Drexler’s exuberant and thoughtful prose style at its finest.
Rosalyn cites the following authors and individual works as among her formative influences: Nathanael West—Miss Lonelyhearts, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, A Cool Millions, The Day of the Locust; Franz Kafka—Complete Stories; Machado De Assis—Dom Casmurro; Terry Southern—The Magic Christian; Eugéne Ionesco; Honore de Balzac—Droll Tales; Maxim Gorky—My Childhood; S.J. Perelman; William Saroyan; Colette—Cheri and The Last of Cheri; Jack London—Call of the Wild, White Fang; Lewis Carroll; Nikolai Gogol—Collected Stories; Italo Svevo—As a Man Grows Older; Charles Dickens; Mark Twain; D.H. Lawrence; Mary Chesnut—A Diary From Dixie; Stanley Elkin; Edmund Wilson—The Twenties; Mikhail Sholokhov—Quiet Flows the Don; Camilo Jose Cela—Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son.

Rosalyn Drexler’s Noir Paintings

Rosalyn Drexler with John Yau

Rosalyn Drexler: Pop Artist, novelist, playwright and wrestler

Unwrapping a beautiful stranger : interview with and readings of Rosalyn Drexler

I am the Beautiful Stranger–Paintings of the ‘60s (review by John Yau)

Rosalyn Drexler
Rosalyn Drexler's books include I Am a Beautiful Stranger, Bad Guy, Art Does (Not!) Exist, VULGAR LIVES, TO SMITHEREENS, and the forthcoming Tree Man: A Tough Situation. Drexler has won countless awards including a Primetime Emmy award for Best Writing in Comedy-Variety, Variety or Music in 1974 for her work on Lily (1973), several Obies, and a Guggenheim fellowship. Her paintings are in major American museums, such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; she has showed at PaceWildenstein, and her work has been hailed across the world for its character and wit. Long before a younger generation began working in different mediums, Drexler painted and wrote with trenchant intelligence and insight.

Mustafa Mutabaruka - an intense tale of personal disintegration and the corrosive power of memory revolving around Ulysses Dove, a young African-American dancer struggling to escape the harrowing images of a past dominated by a brutal father, and a grandfather

Mustafa Mutabaruka, Seed, Akashic Books, 2002.

Written in a tense, halting style that mirrors the strained, unsettling urgency of the protagonist, SEED weaves its competing narratives together into a singular voice in which abrasive violence and lyric beauty frequently overlap, and in which violence and redemption converge toward a common destiny. "Mustafa Mutabaruka's exceptional debut novel SEED has the resonance of a Greek myth and the immediacy of a slashing noir mystery. Moving from a lonely American farmhouse to the bathhouses of Morocco, from a barbarous past tot he sweetness of erotic love, SEED is bleak, brilliant, powerfully hallucinatory"--Joseph Cummins

Memories of abuse and family violence follow young African-American dancer Ulysses Dove as he travels across the world performing, in Mustafa Mutabaruka's debut novel Seed, unsettling and sharp in spite of its familiar subject matter. Forced to bide his time in North Africa after a show is canceled, Dove becomes intimate with an American woman and confesses to her a startling act of violence and the guilt and numbness that alternately afflict him. Episodic, stark and sensuous, the book elegantly weaves Dove's memories of childhood and the recent past with the narrative of his North African sojourn and his family history. - Publishers Weekly

This violent, sexually charged novel is a narrative tango intellectual, visceral, and inebriated. From the dizzying chaos of the opening pages, the reader is led by the straightforward prose and intense action through the painful yet sometimes subtly humorous narrative. Initially, quick, unannounced shifts in narration (the first-person pronoun is shared by two characters, Toussaint Dove and his son, Ulysses Dove) merge the characters and create an ambiguous and violent history that is passed from father to son. From this allegro, Ulysses arises as the main narrator. The violence and sexual abuse inflicted by his grandfather and father cloud his mind as he travels through Northern Africa in an enigmatic quest to find himself a quest that includes sexual activity, acquaintances, meditation, and, ultimately, the murder of his father. Mutabaruka's deft maneuvering between past and present, Morocco and the United States, blurs distinctions and creates a mystical and frightening story. Yet plain prose and interesting characters keep this novel on its feet and make it dance. Recommended for all strong fiction collections. - Lyle D. Rosdahl

Graeme Gibson - the subversive tale of two guilt-ridden young men. Gibson captures both their mortifications and their spirited resistance to all things WASP, themselves included, in stream-of-consciousness prose that is at once fluid, disjointed, and hilarious

Graeme Gibson, Five Legs, House of Anansi Press; Second ed., 2013. [1969.]
read it at Google Books

First published by Anansi in 1969, Five Legs was a breakthrough for Canadian experimental fiction, selling 1,000 copies in its first week. At the time Scott Symons wrote that "Five Legs has more potent writing in it, page for page, than any other young Canadian novel that I can think of." Or indeed any young American novel — including Pynchon and Farina.

Five Legs is the subversive tale of two guilt-ridden young men, Lucan Crackell and Felix Oswald — one a professor, the other his student — caught in the grip of the North American Protestant ethic, with its emotional web-spinning and sexual torments. Gibson captures both their mortifications and their spirited resistance to all things WASP, themselves included, in stream-of-consciousness prose that is at once fluid, disjointed, and hilarious. Essential reading for any Canlit junkie, and quite a trip. This edition features a new introduction by Sean Kane.

Five Legs, perhaps surprisingly, is a novel of two — not five — parts.
The first is in the voice of Professor Lucan Crackell. Take “stymied creativity” and a “failed imagination”: an “amiable hypocrite who consoles himself with power in the institution, getting drunk with his students, and small-town Little Theatre”. Then, take the “fleeing trajectory of the creative spirit” which is embodied in Felix Oswald. Picture him: “tongue-tied and shaggy but with an x-ray vision that sees through every posture, including his own”. These summaries are drawn from Sean Kane’s introduction to the House of Anansi A List edition of Graeme Gibson’s classic novel. Now, put these two voices in a car together, travelling through a snowstorm on the backroads and city streets of Ontario, making their way to a classmate’s funeral. “Rough winter winds impatient at the window; rattling southward over evergreens and through the wretched branches of a thousand naked towns. Great, just great. As if this stinking morning and funeral aren’t enough.” Sean Kane’s introduction is tremendously helpful, as the bulk of Five Legs is not written with such a clear, direct style. For instance, a similar idea is later described as follows: “Wind and these driving clouds, Susanna Moodie longed for the formal world, for. London’s parlour light as desperately, foreign in a forest land, they cleared for sun. From the north, where the wild fish blow, and it tempted Louis Riel, it whispered to D’Arcy McGee. Strong and free. Gusting now against my car as I drive through layers of time to Stratford.” (Does it get much more Canadian than that? Moodie, fishing ballads, Riel, D’Arcy McGee? It’s as though one of my oversized history scrapbooks — if you studied history in a Canadian high school you’ll know what I mean — collided with my copy of Sound and Sense.) And far beyond this quintessential Canadian feel to it, the novel is considered “important”. (Quite likely the sort that appears on curricula, though it never appeared on those of my English classes.) The Canadian Encyclopedia describes Five Legs as a “complex, intertextual modernist work that exhibits Gibson’s thematic concerns with mortality and writing as it surveys the cultural malaise of its time”. (That is exactly the kind of description that sends me scurrying from a work, but the A List edition had already caught my attention before I understood its literary significance, and I do adore Gibson’s books on birds and beasts.) Anyhow, there are other sources, like Rob McLennan’s 2009 interview, 12 or 20 Questions, which offers another perspective, the sort which always piques my interest in a work:
Five Legs, which was my first book, changed my life because in desperation I had started another novel while it was being rejected in sequence by a Canadian, an English, and finally by an American publisher before the House of Anansi took it on. Then when Five Legs was published and sold out the first printing in less than two weeks, I experienced the seductive spasm that accompanies notoriety, and my fate was therefore sealed. I was going to be a writer.”
The novel does not let the reader coast through the prose; it’s a demanding experience, being inside the heads of these characters.
“Lucan Crackell drinks and stretches, rapidly blinking, staring. Got to assert the mind’s control! It’s a most, sip and swallow as he lights a cigarette, a most curious and a vulnerable situation. Yes indeed, oh yes. Ha! Calmly smoke in wreaths about his head. A superficial, but essential order. Yes, that’s the thing. I know she. Likes me. Yes she does! Perhaps she’d…”
Five Legs does have an essential order to it, but it’s not the sort of ordering that we expect to find between the covers of a novel. The characters indeed inhabit a “most curious and vulnerable situation” and readers might often find themselves blinking and staring (at least this reader did, though there was some snorting and smirking too, for there are certainly some humourous bits).
Have you read any of Graeme Gibson’s work?
Project Notes: 
Day 44 of 45: Were it not for reading projects and challenges, my brain could easily sink beneath the surface of the eggnog and settle in the bottom of the glass with the sweetest parts; books like Five Legs constantly give you a boot back to the surface, force you to view the world from another perspective, if only for 268 pages (though, sometimes, lastingly).
What’s the last book that you read which gave you a good kick out of your comfort zone (or drove you deeper into the drink)? - www.buriedinprint.com/?p=9402

Graeme Gibson, Communion, Anansi Digital, 2012. [1971.]

Exclusively available from Anansi Digital, Communion is one of the lost, great works by a Canadian literary titan.
Originally published in 1971, Communion continues the story of Felix Oswald that began in Five Legs. We meet Felix Oswald again, a self-mocking and obsessed hero, a voyeur, and all-time loser, after he graduates from school and accepts a job as a part-time veterinarian’s assistant.
A groundbreaking work of experimental fiction, Communion is a must-read for lovers of Canadian literature.
Featuring an introduction by Sean Kane

In COMMUNION, using a new clear, bone-spare prose, Gibson traces the ordeal of Felix Oswald. Felix is now working as a veterinarian's assistant in Toronto, where he becomes obsessed with a great white husky dying in one of the cages. His attempts to free the dog are interwoven with a series of possibilities for his own life, many sexual, some lyrical, and some nightmarish.
The narration proceeds in haunting rhythms which make it mesmerizing reading. By the end, they rise to a harrowing and purgative intensity.


Graeme Gibson, Perpetual Motion, New Canadian Library, 1997. [1982.]

Set in southern Ontario in the late nineteenth century, at a time when the machine age was coming into its own, Perpetual Motion chronicles the fortunes of settler Robert Fraser, a man obsessed with power and control. Driven by the idea of inventing a perpetual motion machine which will utilize natural energy, he neglects and destroys not only the nature around him but his own family too, as his overbearing rationality becomes a kind of tragic lunacy.
First published in 1982, Perpetual Motion is Graeme Gibson’s superb evocation of a time when faith in material progress is still challenged by superstition and a lingering belief in magic. It is an ironic yet compassionate examination of the painful consequences of human folly.

There is a wealth of detail in this well-researched, panoramic novel set in rural 19th century Ontario, where the doomed Robert Fraser is a reluctant farmer and inveterate dreamer. He spends his time trying to devise a perpetual-motion machine to relieve him of his labors in controlling nature. The novel begins as Fraser unearths a prehistoric skeleton with his horse-drawn plow. He soon determines to reap profits from the natural past (by exhibiting the specimen) to finance the construction of his toil-free future. His course of action over the ensuing 20 years yields only tragic consequences for him and his family and for nature itself. Gibson succeeds in implying an analogy between the folly of Fraser's project and contemporary environmental decimation through land speculation and development. Fictively, however, there is much lacking in character development and profluence of plot. Many physical descriptions are vivid, but Fraser and others remain as impenetrable as the forest that surrounds them. - Publishers Weekly

Graeme Gibson, Gentleman Death, Emblem Editions, 2002. [1993.]  

Meet novelist Robert Fraser as he comes face to face with creativity, his mortality, and the deaths of his father and brother. Set mainly in Toronto, the novel also takes us to London, Scotland, Germany, and New York as we follow the escapades of two of Fraser’s fictional characters. There is Simpson, called into service as an anonymous sperm donor, and Dunbar, an enigmatic tourist in Berlin just before the Chernobyl disaster, where he meets the captivating Lena, with whom he begins to sense an almost forgotten freedom and elation. But at the centre of Gentleman Death is Robert Fraser’s own compelling story. Gibson juxtaposes reality and fiction in this compassionate, sometimes outrageous, often very funny exploration of the absurdities and alarms of aging, the nature of fiction itself, and the maturity that grows from reconciliation.

Gentleman Death is a modern danse macabre. A wise and powerful chronicle of fathers and sons and brothers on a new voyage of discovery to the end of the night.”–Alberto Manguel

“In this engaging novel, Graeme Gibson uses the foibles of an aging novelist to address the unaccountable fears that obsess us all sometimes in the small hours of the morning.…His story steams along, effortlessly propelled by fine prose, wit, and insight.…Delightful.…”
Quill & Quire (starred review)

“An intense, passionate, deeply felt meditation on human mortality and mutability which speaks directly to the heart as well as to the mind.…[A] tour de force.…”–Kitchener-Waterloo Record
“Utterly involving.… An elegant, poignant novel and a repeatedly funny one.”–Financial Post
“An engaging exploration of memory and death. Complex yet accessible, it is an illuminating guide through the rich territory that W.B. Yeats called the “rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”–Maclean’s
“A richly mature book, which made me cackle with laughter and stare into the distance with recognition.…For me, Gibson’s free-wheeling and noble-spirited novel was a gift: one of those rare books which provide grown-up sustenance.”–Dennis Lee

“Gibson writes clean, hard prose and his literary sensibility seems tough and unflinching. His insights into the mellowing capacity of middle aged are particularly fine.”–Winnipeg Free Press
“Without a doubt, Gentleman Death is a courageously eccentric book.…Delicate and admirable.…”
Kingston Whig-Standard

“Right from the first page you know you’re in good hands.…The language and sensibility of this novel is both gritty and beautiful.…Gibson writes for a highly literate audience while remaining accessible to anyone interested in the power of language and storytelling.”–Calgary Herald
“With his hardy, no-frills style, Gibson adroitly shows how real life and fiction blend, how dreams and memories merge and how each of us makes what we can out of life–and death.”–Vancouver Sun
“Not every novelist dares as much and delivers as much as Graeme Gibson does in Gentleman Death.…This is serious stuff, but it is carried off in such exuberant language and with such memorable characters and incidents that reading the novel is like taking a ride on a roller coaster through comic and tragic neighbourhoods of life.”–Canadian Forum

Graeme Gibson was born in London, Ontario, in 1934 and educated at the University of Western Ontario, but he has lived most of his life in Toronto. Early in his career, he taught at the Ryerson Institute of Technology, now Ryerson University, and in the 1980s was writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo and the University of Ottawa.
Since first putting pen to paper, Graeme has lived the writing life. He has published four novels, roughly one per decade: Five Legs (1969), Communion (1971), Perpetual Motion (1982), and Gentleman Death (1993), as well as the short story “Pancho Villa’s Head.” He has also written for film, radio, and television, and in 1973, released a book of interviews, Eleven Canadian Novelists, including a conversation with his future wife, Margaret Atwood.
As well as a writer, Graeme is a lifelong birder. His twin obsessions came together in 2005 in the highly original The Bedside Book of Birds, a miscellany of avian representations in poetry, prose, and art throughout human history. A companion volume, The Bedside Book of Beasts (2009), explores relationships between predators and their prey. Graeme was instrumental in founding the Pelee Island Bird Observatory, he has been a council member of the World Wildlife Fund Canada, and is currently Joint Honorary President, with Margaret Atwood, of BirdLife International’s Rare Bird Club. He continues to lead birdwatching tours to Cuba.
An activist with a passion for the power of collective action, Graeme was a founding member and Chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada, as well as a founding member of The Writers’ Trust and PEN Canada. In 1973 he began a literary resource guide, concurrently developing the Book and Periodical Development Council, which he later chaired.
Graeme’s literary achievements have been recognized with the Toronto Arts Award (1990) and the Harbourfront Festival Prize (1993). He was induced as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1992 and as an honourary Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2007.
In 1991, The Writers’ Union recognized his service to Canadian writers by establishing the Graeme Gibson Award, given “for varied and remarkable contributions to improve the circumstances of writers in Canada.”– Merilyn Simonds

Ithell Colquhoun - the combination of obscure medieval occult references with highly lucid automatic writing techniques. At times the reader is in the dark as to whether Colquhoun is describing a stream-of-consciousness piece of surrealist abstraction or incanting a nefarious spell of sorts

Ithell Colquhoun, Goose of Hermogenes, Peter Owen Publishers, 2003. [1961.]                     

The heroine of this fascinating story (described only as ‘I’) is compelled to visit a mysterious uncle, a black magician who lords over a kind of Prospero’s island that exists out of time and space. Startled by his bizarre behaviour and odd nocturnal movements, she eventually learns that he is searching for the philosopher’s stone. When his sinister attentions fall upon the priceless jewel heirloom in her possession, bewilderment turns to stark terror. She realizes she must find a way off the island . . .
Goose of Hermogenes is an esoteric dreamworld fantasy composed of uncorrelated scenes and imagery mostly derived from medieval occult sources. That will repay several readings. Each chapter title in the book has a title relevant to a stage in alchemical progressions. However one wants to approach this obscure tale, it remains today as vividly unforgettable and disturbing as when it was first published by Peter Owen in 1961.

'Lurks somewhere between the territory of Beardsley and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast . . . shudderingly enjoyable.' - Guardian

'The whole novel possesses a haunting, visionary quality most uncommon in present-day prose.' - Daily Telegraph

'An extraordinary book . . . the descriptions have a gripping hallucinogenic clarity... Part Gothic fantasy, part emblematic progress through a dream world where we are never sure we have the complete key to the meaning, we see the workings of a perceptive and curious painterly eye.’ - Snoo Wilson

Recently read, there is little I can add to 50 Watts’ enthusiasm (here) for Goose of Hermogenes,  one of those discards found in the dollar bin of my local bookstore, landing there because the casual browser failed to see its worth, a diamond in the dung. Steeped in surreal and occult imagery which seems to have come to Colquhoun as easily as breathing, it is a deceptively short text which calls for re-readings, a characteristic it shares with Gracq’s Chateau d’Argol and Kubin’s The Other Side (another work by a predominantly visual artist).
This is the relation of a young woman's trip to a dreamy and forbidding coastal island, a transitional space between the worlds, ruled by the narrator’s uncle. The uncle being an elusive but omniscient presence, an occult Prospero, the narrator is left to explore the secluded mansion and its environs.  There is a true sense of isolation and menace, broken by visions (a sea-Amazon arising, with an ancient underwater kingdom, from the waves; an arboreal bordello where her enslaved sisters service spirits of the netherworld), a tableaux of Tarot imagery, wherein her uncle has collected the symbols of the minor arcana, the “Museum of the Mosaico-Hermetic Science of Things Above and Things Below”, and the occasional presence of a mysterious anchorite who acts as her keeper and protector.
If your tastes run to the occult or surreal, watch the dollar bins for this little masterpiece, or order your own from a semi-reputable dealer. - makifat.blogspot.hr/

Steve Nichols, The Magical Writings of Ithell Colquhoun, Lulu Enterprises, 2007.

Many of Ithell's magical writings are collected and published here for the first time, nearly 20 years after her death in 1988. There are a series Tarot lectures that she gave to either the Golden Dawn, Masonic, OTO, Druidic or Gnostic Orders in which she was ordained. Also four essays on the Qabalah - "The Crown and The Kingdom". Other articles offer profound insights into Neoplatonic (Hermetic), Alchemical or Gnostic philosophy, The Cube of Space, Druidry, there is a Ma'at ritual, painted and hand-drawn illustrations, De Astris Interioribus - Western and Eastern Chakras, The Pilgrimage - a one-act play, Tattwas through the Day, Crowley - The Dying Kick of the Dying-God, Taro as Colour (surrealism & Yeatsian automatism), plus an Introduction by Steve Nichols, and Appendixes including Dion Fortune, impressions of Initiation Thoth-Hermes GD Temple, WB Yeats and Maud Gonne, and a brief Biography
Richard Shillitoe, Ithell Colquhoun: Magician Born Of Nature,

Ithell Colquhoun (1906 - 1988) was an important surrealist painter, writer and occultist. The author has used newly available archival material, personal papers and recently re-discovered art works to produce the first comprehensive analysis of her art and magic. The book also contains a detailed catalogue of her art works, an annotated bibliography of her writings, a full exhibition history and is illustrated with photographs of many little known paintings and drawings.This revised and greatly expanded second edition is an important source of information and reference for anyone wishing to know more about Colquhoun and her place in the history of art and the Western occult tradition.ix

Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquhoun (Peter Owen 1961),
from the collection of Craig Brownlie

Craig Brownlie*, a long-time reader of this blog, turned me on to the British painter and writer Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988). He kindly shared scans of his Colquhoun collection, along with some other goodies which I'll feature soon (his favorite publisher is Peter Owen, so our collections overlap nicely).
Craig says, "My most treasured book is a beautiful signed first edition of Goose of Hermogenes (which along with Kavan's Ice must be two of the wildest books ever written, and both by posh English ladies)."This grabbed my attention because I love Anna Kavan. I confessed my complete ignorance of Colquhoun and Goose of Hermogenes, and Craig soon sent a full description which I share here:
Distinctively, Ithell Colquhoun’s Goose of Hermogenes reads like a hermetic hybrid of The Wicker Man and Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain. Her two previous books, The Crying of the Wind: Ireland and The Living Stones: Cornwall, both intriguing works of 'travel writing' provide some indicators of her interests and concerns as a writer and an artist, which she explored to delirious effect with Goose of Hermogenes. Using her travels as a departure point, she places emphasis on the retelling of the folklore and mythology of particularly mystical areas. Her explorations also focus on the shifting relationships between the natural and the more elusive, spectral worlds. Scenes of great natural beauty are evoked and at the same time, the mystical and occult atmosphere is keenly captured. Indeed, at times, one is reminded of the paintings of mystical scenes by the great symbolist artist, Arnold Böcklin.
However, the defining feature to her writings is her deeply felt belief in the occult and the supernatural. Colquhoun speaks of the fantastical like it is ordinary and commonplace, simply part of the fabric of the everyday. From this position she commands a certain authority, as it is apparent from her life that she truly immersed herself in occult literature and practice. Colquhoun’s world is one definitely attuned to the ether, to the arcane realm of spirits and phantasmagoria. Therefore, it can be argued that her interests are not intended to serve as a mere literary device, rather they represent a matter-of-fact acceptance of the co-habitation of our world by the other, and it is this realisation of her scholarly pedigree, as well as her artistic preoccupations, that ultimately makes Goose of Hermogenes all the more extraordinarily and disarmingly strange
It truly is a fantastic concoction: the combination of obscure medieval occult references with highly lucid automatic writing techniques. At times the reader is in the dark as to whether Colquhoun is describing a stream-of-consciousness piece of surrealist abstraction or incanting a nefarious spell of sorts. Again, like in the travel works, there is a certain visionary and dream-like trance quality to her prose that only adds to the overall sensation of disquiet.
A second effect of this alchemical marriage between magick and surrealism is that when the book really takes flight it can be utterly baffling and cryptic, albeit in quite a spectacular way. Again there is a certain appeal in this -- I like to think that Colquhoun has concealed many incredible occultist secrets and images into the text which could be revealed through a lifetime of scholarly robe wearing. Alternatively, it’s just wild nonsense. Either way it will linger in the mind like an old dolmen in a field, collecting multiple interpretations like moss.

I naturally splurged on a first edition of Goose immediately.
Peter Owen's information from the 2003 Goose of Hermogenes reprint:
The heroine of this fascinating story (described only as ‘I’) is compelled to visit a mysterious uncle, a black magician who lords over a kind of Prospero’s island that exists out of time and space. Startled by his bizarre behaviour and odd nocturnal movements, she eventually learns that he is searching for the philosopher’s stone. When his sinister attentions fall upon the priceless jewel heirloom in her possession, bewilderment turns to stark terror. She realizes she must find a way off the island . . .

Goose of Hermogenes is an esoteric dreamworld fantasy composed of uncorrelated scenes and imagery mostly derived from medieval occult sources. That will repay several readings. Each chapter title in the book has a title relevant to a stage in alchemical progressions. However one wants to approach this obscure tale, it remains today as vividly unforgettable and disturbing as when it was first published by Peter Owen in 1961.

'Lurks somewhere between the territory of Beardsley and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast . . . shudderingly enjoyable.' - Guardian

'The whole novel possesses a haunting, visionary quality most uncommon in present-day prose.' - Daily Telegraph

'An extraordinary book . . . the descriptions have a gripping hallucinogenic clarity... Part Gothic fantasy, part emblematic progress through a dream world where we are never sure we have the complete key to the meaning, we see the workings of a perceptive and curious painterly eye.’ - Snoo Wilson, Mandrake Speaks

ITHELL COLQUHOUN (1906–1988) was a painter and writer who, along with Eileen Agar and Leonora Carrington, one of the best-known English women surrealists. A friend of André Breton, she was also associated with Aleister Crowley. Her writing has been compared to that of William Blake and Walter de la Mare -- the latter being a fan of her work.