Nathanaël - From out of agile and Celinian ellipses, Nathalie Stephens creates an asynchronous, transnational ‘discordance…in time,’ a hugely amplified recent past whose familiarity haunts us not as nostalgia but as trauma. The human body is facing a crisis” and “sex is immersed in hermaphrodism

Image result for Nathanaël, Feder, Night Boat,
Nathanaël, Feder, Night Boat, 2016. 

A singularly adventurous contribution to the worlds of mystery fiction, philosophy, and photography
With an English as ebullient as it is macabre, Nathanaël’s novel plunges its reader into a filmic world redolent of unsolved crime and suspicion. Part noir, part philosophical investigation, part literary subterfuge, Feder tenders image over evidence as it exfoliates the inside-out life of its protagonist Feder, at once aloof and queerly omniscient, with a propulsive intimacy that all but breeds a sense of the narrator’s complicity in the narrative’s central travesty. In this reality, municipal sewer systems are brimming with bodies drifted in with the tides, the last century’s architectures have gone unpeopled, and a minor mishap on a tram can cause the sudden death of a stranger across a continent. Feder offers no simple set of problems and solutions, but the texture of an electric curiosity at play in language.

Somewhere between philosophical treatise and pastiche of a high-modern novella, Nathanaël’s Feder: A Scenario marks the author’s tenth volume with Nightboat Books. Beautifully designed, Feder follows its eponymous main character through his mundane life of steady bureaucratic labor in a highly regulated dystopian society, “a world of silence” not altogether dissimilar from the contemporary United States. The narrative, stylistically broken and spliced, follows Feder to the moment that this mundanity is broken through linguistic and temporal revelation. “Tomorrow is not a word that had occurred to Feder before. The whole mechanism grinds to a halt.” Unfortunately for Feder, these revelations have lethal consequences.The book is invested in the traditions of authors like Albert Camus, Anne Carson, Julio Cortazar, and Maggie Nelson with its intellectual rigor and theoretical underpinnings (sharing, with Nelson for instance, a great respect for Wittgenstein). Decidedly cerebral, Feder doesn’t just involve the mind, it takes place there; the associative, disembodied voice of a narrator is quite nearly pure intellect. So much of what we are allowed to see of this world, just in snatches, is architectural, the manipulation of light and space acting as a kind of structural inspiration for the narrative. What’s more, the philosophical mode has poetic qualities and both of these are dressed up in the façade of prose. This was a mode of many the philosophers in Feder’s pages: the fictional scenario to illustrate a point. While the prose is occasionally opaque in intention, the book finds its denouement in a remarkably beautiful lyric section entitled “Topography of a Bird.”
“The bubonic hour is reserved for everyone,” the Delphic narrator says in this final section. Perhaps “Topography of a Bird” appeals to the reader as a kind of rich foil for the relatively stark syntax of the rest of Feder. The section itself is concerned with a certain kind of revolution after the death of Feder, even if only a personal revolution in the thought processes of the two characters, Anders and Sterne, who reside in these lush sentences
Carson has her deft humor and Nelson a lively messiness, even Camus and Cortazar have the weight of sheer weirdness to balance out some of the denser portions of their texts. Nathanaël uses the immaculate structural intricacies of pretense and simulation as a counterweight for Feder’s density. There are so many gestures toward recognizable narrative and familiar structures. The art in these gestures lies in that fact that they rarely resolve, instead often getting purposefully obscured in technical jargon or minutiae. These gestures are laid atop one another until, to borrow an image from the book, like so many images on a single piece of film they lose all sense of immediacy, “a thick amassment of detail, so intricate as to be indiscernible. . . . The surface fallen from itself, as it were; a strange luminescence.”
So often these narrative structures imitate riddles, or games. “For a moment Feder believes he is being watched. It is a game he likes to play with himself.” This comes, again, from the philosophers’ scenario method of explanation: If we have someone named Feder with y and z qualities and we understand that the world in which he lives has a and b conditions and he is put in whatever situation, what happens? In this way revelations can be thought of as parallel to punchlines. The thing about this book is it never reaches a punchline or revelation, instead exploring scenarios via non sequitur and collaged narrative structure.
“We have made ourselves manifest. Now, there is no one left to see.” When Feder manifests himself as a temporal being, one with a past, present, and future (or put in a more classical context a beginning, middle, and end, therefore manifesting as a dramatic being, as well), he comes to his end. In much this way, the book itself defies understanding, glancing off direct appeals to meaning. Its genre is amorphous, its style at turns deeply engaging then coldly exclusive. Feder is a puzzle, a dramatized mental game, some rules of which readers might feel like they are missing. But, this reader is certainly ready to hear the riddle again; maybe next time I’ll catch on. - Trevor Ketner

Writer and translator Nathanaël’s (The Middle Notebooks) latest is a slim, obscure “scenario” in which philosophical musings on architecture, the photographic image, and epistemology are layered atop a bare-bones narrative foundation. History, this elliptical book seems to imply, is too violent, chaotic, and vast to perceive in all its complexity; rather, the historical record is like a photograph left “to macerate too long in the developer... [a] thick amassment of detail, so intricate as to be indiscernible.” The enigmatic protagonist is Feder, “a man, who is no man, in a time, which is no time.” He is a creature of habit, marching up the same stairs to the same desk in a soulless architectural complex, where he works as a functionary assigned various vague tasks. Feder investigates an unidentified corpse languishing at the bottom of a stairwell, only to be eventually deemed guilty for some unspecified offense. The cipher-like Feder is at once vital to the smooth operation of the state mechanism and utterly replaceable, a body as expendable as the ones constantly washing ashore and onto the city streets. Thick, theory-heavy prose abounds—“The coincidence of reflectivity and transparency provokes an unresolvable somatic contradiction which is most apparent at a building’s flexion”—but Nathanaël’s idiosyncratic vision and patches of desert-dry absurdist humor add a pleasurable element to the reader’s book-length bafflement. - Publishers Weekly

There are some works in literature that attempt to express the ineffable. Kafka was one of the practitioners of this dark art. Joyce, Beckett. The Modernist canon contains some of these heroic attempts to make intelligible a sense of the absurd that has crept into the consciousness and conception of human history, of human existence itself. Some writers, like the existentialists of the mid-20th century, used almost conventional narrative devices to convey to the reader what is being attempted. I think of Camus’ “The Stranger” or “The Fall”, or Sartre’s “Nausea”.
Within this tradition of Modernity is an oft-neglected strain of narrative and writing that arises with the early 20th century avant-garde. Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism; spanning countries as diverse as Russia, Italy, and France, these three movements of the avant-garde brought (amongst other artistic accomplishments) written works like those of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Emilio Settimelli, Daniel Burliuk, Daniil Kharms, and Velimir Khlebnikov.
The tradition of the experimental novel has far from been abandoned. Some writers have even gone on to have some success (or at least a succès d’éstime) with mild experimentation (such as Donald Barthelme, William Gass, or Flann O’Brien among many others).
But what is experimental literature? An easy definition is that it is written work that emphasizes innovation and technique. If this is the case, most experimental literature fails to interest because it is not interested in deeper subjects or themes.
In “Feder”, the latest book by Nathanaël, experimental literature achieves a certain kind of apotheosis as technique is merged with a philosophical sensibility that creates a poetic vision of darkness that is both mesmerizing and aesthetically beautiful.
Nathanaël, author of over twenty books including translations of experimental writers, has been tracing an interesting path in literature that deserves to be followed. Her work is usually presented as essays, but they are more than that. I have seen where they are described as “intergenre”. And this, I believe is accurate. The limit of any definition is in our attempts to describe her work using conventional descriptors, not in the work itself.
“Feder” is a self-described “scenario”, but perhaps the word is used in English (where it exists with one meaning) but meant in French (where it exists but has a different meaning). Since Nathanaël is both a French and English writer, she uses the English language much like Nabakov, using certain words as in the above example, words that may have multiple meanings in either language, or words that may be neologisms but when read in context, they are immediately understood. This suppleness, this plasticity demonstrates an ability to view and use the English language in ways perhaps a unilingual English writer is not capable of.  
This is not a novel, but it isn’t poetry, either. Indeed, to me it reads more like a “screenplay” of an imaginary movie that can never be made due to the impossibility of realizing mise-en-scenes that could not be reproduced on celluloid, oneiric imagery of the type found in one of the hermetically-packed paragraphs such as this: “The water was brought to a very high temperature according to custom and the people moved around on their knees. In moments when the structure was overturned, the people appeared to be suspended from a sky of concrete.” 
And yet the book is poetic. Poetry abounds here in dazzling fragments that are beautiful, breathtaking. One key here, I think, is to understand that the writer is using a very compact language that is purposely freighted with symbolic meaning. The use of the English language is clear but also dense, like a solid block of crystal – or ice. There is no narrative, unless it exists in a fragmented state, individual lines delivered within the book that are sparkling, evocative.
And a narrative does emerge, a nightmarish one. The structure is deceptively simple, but contains hints, references to other works, to historical reality. Simplicity such as that is evidenced by e.e. cummings, a poet whose work many see as “easy” to replicate but when attempted, isn’t so easy.
This density presupposes both intelligence on the part of the reader as well as a willingness to follow the shimmering labyrinth of language that Nathanaël deploys in the book.
Examples abound of the richness of the poetic language: “A body scarcely visible runs from the camera. One imagines it victorious in flight, over the hill and into oblivion. Or else ligatured to a horizon of hope.” “The human instinct is distinctly cannibal.” “A body propels itself now through a revolving door, spinning with the centuries.” “To be cast as the last of the last is to bequeath oneself to a fastidious past.”
There are echoes – perhaps shadows is a better word – of other works; Kafka, certainly, but others as well, such as Beckett’s novels (“Malone Dies” for example). In the final section -- which, in a frenzied coda that spouts an avalanche of images, where the language breaks down to an almost dizzying train of aphorisms or non sequiturs which remind one of Cioran or even Nietzsche -- there is a personage named Sterne, perhaps a reference to the grandfather of all experimental writers?
The mention of other artists and writers are oblique and abstract. Since the over-arching structure of the book, like a crystalline spider-web flecked with dew, is barely visible and implies some kind of dystopic reality, I was stunned to find (what I believe to be) a reference to “Nunca Más”, the title of two books (one in Brazil, “Nunca mais”, and one in Argentina, “Nunca Más”) that were exposés of the inhuman abuses suffered by prisoners during the military dictatorships that brutalized two South American countries in the 60’s and 70’s. These documents were gathered by activists and released as books with those titles.
This supposition was furthered by a direct mention of “Guerra Sucia”, a term which was first used in the context of the horrors unleashed by the Argentine military in that country against the populace, in particular young radicals and activists.
It is only vaguely implied in its setting, perhaps like a fragment of a bone found in a boulder field, an inexplicable fossil. My inference is only further suggested because of a “character” named Argentina, who seems to be doomed like many of the young people who were brutally tortured and murdered by these authoritarian regimes.
But again, the suggestions, the hints are purely imagination – or perhaps real? Section II of the book is entitled, in Italian, “Prigioniere”: Prisoners. Are Feder and Argentina prisoners, as all citizens are in a repressive military regime? Again, the subtlety could be misleading or simply my own hallucination.
There are mentions of the Jugendstil, Antonioni’s process of latensification; quotes from Hobbes, Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Georges Didi-Huberman that preface sequences, like bars of gold placed before the entrance to a dungeon cell… but these quotes or references don’t strike me as needless or random. Rather, they appear to be placed strategically in an arcane, occult manner, like a spread of tarot cards. Seemingly random at first read, they are there for a reason.
If there is one criticism, then, of “Feder”, it would be that annotations, tracing some of the references, implied or inferred, real or imaginary might be of use. Like Joyce’s “Ulysses” or the “Cantos” of Pound, works that benefited from companions to, or annotations of, those works, annotations to “Feder” might increase the enjoyment of the book, or certainly help to confuse more with an even further layer of symbols and meanings inferred by the reader of the text.
Ultimately, this book is enjoyment. This might not seem the case, dealing as it does with dark, foreboding themes and symbols that deal with what appears to be the unrelenting horror of a man living in a totalitarian, dystopic state. The book’s poetry, its struggle to express that ineffability mentioned earlier, to watch a writer intentionally write with both aesthetic beauty and technical difficulty is marvelous, and awe-some--in the original meaning of the word--makes this work, for me, one of joy and pleasure of a highly distilled literary kind.  
What is an experimental literature? Unlike the description mentioned above, I think that an experiment is an attempt to create something outside of consensual complacency or accommodation, to provoke emotion, visions, to realize the potential of what literature can achieve.
In a world of so much hyper-commodified palaver, of sterile and uninspired writing that is as nourishing to the soul as fast food is to the body, of unimaginative literature barely worthy of the term that re-treads tired stories and plots, "Feder" experiments and ends in a victory of the resistive power of literature.
Reading works like that by Nathanaël changes you in a subtle, almost imperceptible way. - Manuel Morales y Méndez

Nathanaël, The Horses That Come Out of Our Heads

Continuous movement coupled with the inability or unwillingness to settle down in one place or another is not exactly something that most people are accustomed to grasp without harsh judgment (acknowledged or not), especially when the subject of movement is perceived as a “woman” expected to embody domesticity, or more accurately, docility. On such adverse terms, experiencing an acute sense of displacement and alienation comes as no surprise, and eventually, the force of gravity inflicted by the reality might force one’s thoughts to materialize into words on paper, even if the paper might very well be shredded to pieces later.
Registering rituals of migration similar to the ones performed by non-humans while also trying to wipe out distances of various nature, Nathanaël’s The Horses That Come Out of Our Heads is forwarded as a chapbook that folds and unfolds according to its own invisible maps, in the same way non-humans (particularly birds) use landmarks to chart their territories and movement patterns, landmarks that are most likely to stay imperceptible to the human eyesight and logic. It is a sequence of arrivals and departures, all marked by the dreary feeling that there is actually no escape from constant surveillance, internal or external — in fact, all animals see to be living under a totalitarian regime of some sort and humans are no exception.
There are shelters along the way, spaces inhabited by silences and ambiguity that are safe as long as they preserve their anonymity. They are spaces that also function as places of passing and mourning. But the defensive, even murderous architecture, with structures and patterns that refuse comfort to the homeless while also erasing the brutality of colonial past and enslaved labor, is still here, a reminder that “natural” flows have been interfered with and manipulated by humans in a narcissistic endeavor to reflect their own image. One might choose to look at such buildings in awe, but this would also mean that the gaze has been tamed as well — to naturalize murder by erasing any evidence of it.
The French, as much as the Americans, are more or less dissimulated arms dealers; even though it is said that hunting grounds are better managed in the United States — but this relativism is already suspect to me — I question this word management which is nothing more than a permission to kill, which cloaks itself, then, in the force of the law in order to exonerate itself both of its malicious intent, and its wile.

The admiration that a cathedral or some ancient construction can incite should at least be mitigated by just as vast a sentiment of horror as to what its construction entailed in slavery, and brought about as mortality (murder).
More often than not, voyages stand for mere escapism — immersing oneself in trendy scenery but without really listening or paying attention to the newly emerging contexts. These are also the kind of voyages that one takes without leaving preconceived ideas behind and which do little more than reaffirming the human expansion at the expense of everything else while compassion gets directed only at oneself, leaving no room for empathy towards other persons and getting replaced by narcissism in no time.
But with its sketches of blurred geographies and doses of memories and writing that collide against instances of biting loneliness and self doubt, The Horses That Come Out of Our Heads does more than simply defying conventional genres, particularly the linear, chronological storytelling avowed by the memoir genre. It also refuses any kind of closure or nostalgia despite being assembled from memories that might stand for a subtle attempt at surviving banalities and disturbing realities without using journeys as an easy way out. One’s body might find rest in self-imposed solitude and the spaces between things without limiting them, either by defining them in human terms or perceiving them exclusively through normative lens only to modify them later. Writing attempts that are not committed to recalling anything can even obscure this body, but not its desires.
The most atrocious orgasm is the one that arises in sleep. The wound of what sleeps, and sleeping, breaks against the body, the very rock of the capsized, all drowned, off the shore of that unhabituated desire.

I sleep and I come. You are waiting for me there as ever you have awaited me, younger, alive. There are no ghosts, only the extension of a cruelty which belongs to oblivion. You come out of oblivion and you say: You love me. More than anything and anyone.
The Middle Notebookes

Nathanaël, The Middle Notebookes, Nightboat Books, 2015.

Winner of the Publishing Triangle Award for Trans and Gender Variant Literature
Nathanaël’s philosophical notebooks propose a poetics of intimate engagement with mortality. The Middle Notebookes began in French, as three carnets, written in keeping with three stages of an illness: an onset and remission, a recurrence and further recurrence, a death and the after of that death. But the narrative only became evident subsequently; the malady identified by these texts was foremost a literary one, fastened to a body whose concealment had become, not only untenable, but perhaps, in a sense, murderous. It is possible, then, that more than anything, these Notebookes attest both to the commitment, and the eventual, though unlikely, prevention of, a murder
All of Nathanaël’s prose seeks the terminal poem, the poem that passes into action, that passes through the window, invents the outwards of being, which is not being but becoming, innocently. There is no more prosaic poem than what today Nathanaël’s writing attempts. For this poet narrative speaks of nothing, it doesn’t evoke, nor does it convoke: this writing is in movement toward the new man, the origin and the end of all philosophy as of all literature. In hatred of the novel and in hatred of the cinema, Nathanaël invents a new manner of registering and of representing the humanized living. Let us name this an erotic pictogrammatology. Alain Jugnon

Nathanaël, Sisyphus, Outdone. Nightboat, 2012.

Here, Nathanaël engages the catastrophal—photographic, translative, architectural—calling to the scene a discrepant combinatory of voices including Ingeborg Bachmann, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Dmitri Shostakovich, to insist on the relational and seismic state of language and the image.

“Troubling borders separating disciplines, dividing countries, and distinguishing words, Nathanaël’s texts borrow meticulously and programmatically from other authors, literalizing the Barthesian ‘tissue of quotations’ as they also draw incestuously from, and thus plicate, her own oeuvre. Each writing is thus in itself, and in relation to Nathanaël’s larger corpus, beset by the calculated vertigo of écriture, as Nathanaël enacts obsessive returns to a cluster of characteristic concerns, each time with a change of lens that profoundly informs her renewed scrutiny and its consequences.” —Judith Goldman

Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal, by Nathanaël, was launched into the world at the Corpse Space on Milwaukee Avenue last Wednesday evening, in the presence of the author and Daniel Borzutsky (my discussants in open conversation), and a sizeable yet intimate crowd.
This is one of a score of books recently issued by Nathanaël, who writes between genres: that word genre referring to both genre and gender, in the French sense—in what is much more than a pun transgressing tongues, but instead a primary aperture onto the unflaggingly, unapologetically seismic, fracturing and yet twinning, hermaphroditic terrain of this author’s mind. I was asked to open the space to a voicing of this latest text, which is in conversation with all of the prior, and whose very body models the reconception of the self as, to cite Nathanaël, “in seism.”
I’ll transcribe here my opening remarks as moderator about the text as counterboulevard:
The work is clearly related to Nathanaël’s earlier texts in being composed as from within a thicket of discussants, both living and on paper, and including herself. However, formally speaking, Sisyphus, Outdone pulls itself apart to a greater extent. It is as though the threads in what Judith Goldman justly calls Nathanaël’s “tissue of citations” had been yanked convulsively to make the threshold/voids between voices more palpable—as in translation. The frontispiece in fact features the formula for the “equation of dynamic crack growth,” courtesy of Michael O’Leary.
I think of course of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, since Benjamin was the one who said of translation that “if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade”: literalness being a structure of innumerable, unapologetic thresholds.
In the open thresholds signaled by white space on the page we are subjected to the difficulty, and silent undertaking, of advancing from one voice or citation to the next in “disappointed bridges” (cited from Joyce on page 53), “Bawling by architecture’s apertures” (68).
And in fact, the status of the “advance” is thrown into question by this work, which is constantly doubling doors, seeing the threshold of text and abode as both exit and entryway, a text that can reverse, repeat, revise, the “instant cast backwards.” And this itself has to do with the “repetition at the heart of catastrophe” that Cathy Caruth theorizes and Nathanaël reperforms.

Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content: [ extract ]
§ "Ways of dying also include crimes."
§ I feel myself of another time, as though there were other time.
§ Side by side or superimposed, Paul Virilio's Tilting bunker and Michal Rovner's Outside #2 exacerbate - they reiterate - the time of decay : Rovner's over-exposures bring to the surface of the Bedouin house its temporal degradation, granting it oblique equivalency with the bunker sinking into the sand. Rovner slows time, measuring its imprint, extruding from the house in the desert the implanted time of accelerated degradation. What Virilio's bunker exposes (documents) Rovner's anticipates by ennervation. There is the subjective disclosure of the subject's disintegration in time, in a frame. What I see, in each instance, is not a house nor a bunker, but the work of time, the anticipation and accomplishment of death's (de)composition.
§ Un événement de lumière.
§ An event of light which is or might be a storm. Light storming the house in the desert. Light, which in this instance, is, has the potential to be, catastrophal. Bringing about. Standing the house more still.
§ The photograph lacks definition. A world (worlds) undefined.
§ The photograph does not lack definition. It draws out that which by definition is undefined. Undiscerned by instrument. Absent of designation.
§ Do I kiss it back.
§ Death's (de)composition is (also) a theatre of war.
§ What are we waiting for.
§ In Guy Hocquenghem's aspiration to objectless desire and Hervé Guibert's consideration of subjectless photography there is the intimation of the removal of a self in order to unburden a context of its context. A voice without language or touch without touch.
§ "La sexualité indépendante de tout objet ... sujet et rejet même."
§ In the last of language, language is subjectless. It ruins itself against an embarrassing hope for more. Its perversion is less than this. Less than its desire for itself.
§ Its rejection.
§ A ruined language is a language with neither subject nor object. It says nothing (or too much) of where it has been. Intimacy is, in this instance, intimation: "La ruine nous conduit à une expérience qui est celle du sujet dessaisi, et paradoxalement il n'y a pas d'objet à cette expérience."
§ Who was there in the first place.
§ The door is always open. This might be History's proviso. An inhospitable hospitality. Suspect and ill at ease.
§ The I might be a catastrophist. Taking turns. Turning out.
§ Seismically speaking, a split self is rendered unavowably speechless. Self without self. Irreferent.
§ Is it for lack of place.
§ Or: a siteless retort, pronounced out of place. The site ridded of seeing may be a way away from pronouncement. Built or borne.
§ This is Heidegger's declaration: "The proper sense of bauen, namely dwelling, falls into oblivion." This is the case, also, of the proper senses. Undwelled, obliviated.
§ The impropriety with which, for example, we are secluded.
§ For example: we bereave the sense of our freedoms.
§ A house which is built into its destruction.
§ RY King's photographic dissolve marks the paper immutable. (Figure 1) Immutable in that it is always imbricated in a mechanism of deterioration. In this improper sense, the image is not separable from its degradation. Its substances are both paper and light. Thus they are neither, as they run into each other.
§ The bird, in this instance, which is scarcely discernible, is in a field of apparent surfaces. It comprises the surface by which it becomes visible, an irregularity on a structure of hay bales in a field of depleted colour. The photograph misdirects its intention. It intends for me to fall in.
§ In to America.
§ The identification of a site is improper in...

Theatres of the Catastrophal: A Conversation with Nathanaël
By Geneviève Robichaud
On the occasion of the release of her most recent book, Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal (Nightboat Books, 2012), Nathanaël and I shared a conversation.
Lemon Hound
Geneviève Robichaud: It is the impact of the fragment, the assemblage, the collaborative element of your new book, Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal, that interests me at this juncture and that compels me to gesture to certain parts of my traversée (not fully articulated as a réplique, per se, but as an experience nonetheless). I will begin with your own beginning, the one after the epigraphs, before the first series of tableaux begin. Je suis au seuil de la porte. It is the place where, in Sisyphus, “Someone carries a door through a door. | This is demonstrable.” Is there such a place as an in between space?
Nathanaël: It is unclear to me that one can speak of beginnings with Sisyphus. It seems to me that with this work’s concern with belatedness, there is a refutation (possibly) of anything resembling an advent. To be perhaps too literal with it, the epigraphs are wrested from the midsts of works, the equation included with the epigraphs is extracted from a much more complex calculus, itself tied to an undisclosed conversation, and even the frontispiece, with its mathematical deliberations, is only part of a much larger problem. Sispyhus itself, by which I mean the book, is residual at its very beginnings. One could, I suppose, make this claim of any text, since it is organised with elements of language that are themselves, of necessity, and by design, belated: they come after. Here, however, there is no assurance given that any beginning is without suspicion as to its instigation. Does the text begin where you have indicated (with, what might be treated as a further epigraph, or else a mathematical problem), or with the lone word “Still” with its semantic instabilities. If I am placing so much emphasis on the question of beginning, it is because of its eventual relationship to the between you have chosen to question. In Sisyphus, I think the question is quickly dispensed with; this work is concerned with reiterative endings, moments just past the last, as it were, too late. As for me, if I granted as much attention as I did to a so-called between space, in prior works, it was, I think, in error; a temporal error that allowed for bracketings. Here, everything is at once gaping and violently contained.
GR: The idea of “the gaping and violently contained” is provocative, as is your method of culling citations from a large repertoire of works and authors, meticulously re-staging them to create a conversation between passages. I use the word “passage” here deliberately – not only to gesture to the textual fragments that are assembled in Sisyphus but also in regards to my own experience reading the work as a kind of traversée. What is the connection, if any, between the idea of a “passage” (especially if we consider the work of the passage or fragment as an invitation to move from one site to another) and the catastrophal, or is it the arrangement of the fragments, like a musical score, that results in the feeling that one is passing through something that re-emerges as the same, yet-not-quite-the-same? Another manner of posing the question would be to ask: to what extent has the idea of a false in-between, “a temporal error that allowed for bracketings” in your older works, made possible a kind of reification of time and perhaps even of space in Sisyphus?
N: I might hazard, in return, that the traversals in question with their temporal inclination toward desuetude – the passager, who is both, in French, passenger, and passing (transitory), substantive and epithet, which is to say, outdone, or overstepped, convokes the very threshold which is surmised at the outset of Sisyphus, with the figure of the double door; though this is imprecise, it is two doors, most likely, one inside another, evidently a material impossibility, because this would imply the simultaneous occupation of a single point in space of more than one door. And here, I have elided the figure of the someone carrying the door. What you identify as “the same, yet-not-quite-the-same” may already be indicative of the movement you ask after. I could say, for example, that for a time, I imagined translation as a movement between texts; in this case, the traversals are many; only the boundary across which the text must be carried, if we are to follow the by now much-abused etymology of the term translate, reveals itself to be disintegrative, friable. Which amounts to the destruction of all identifiable coordinates – temporal or otherwise. In translation, I have come to understand that what is most ignored, in conversations about translation, is the moment at which the texts come to pieces; the boundary, amplified, is extenuated, it ceases to exist. The catastrophal, in this sense, disallows the convenience, the privilege, of an interimary moment, because the reprisals are all driven into one another, with equal vigor and violence. I have no interest in making a theory out of this, but of thinking it through its own thinking – the most telling indicator for me, is in the misapprehension of language, and in its misconstrual of the mind, the body, whichever and however they contraverse one another. The various instances of this which arrive at Sisyphus are already broken in the ways they reveal themselves to be. In a sense, this evidences the destruction of pasts, which are active in the time of the work as it is alluded to. An example of this might be Shostakovich’s decision to dedicate a quartet to himself (not incidentally the eighth). The composer anticipates the pall which has already fallen upon his work. To imagine himself dead, thus, and without a reciprocal text, compels him to determine it, to determine, in effect, his own post-mortem, a posteriori, from out of his vital course. What happens, in language, and with this decision, is the confounding of times, and the belying, precisely, of Sisyphus’s traversals. But it would be an error to place excessive emphasis on the citations collected into Sisyphus. They arrive, fragmentary, and punctual, in the midst of a text that is otherwise concerned with its own indeterminate elaboration: which is to say it is a written thing.
GR: Can you elaborate on what you mean by “the moment [in translation] at which the texts come to pieces” (I love that idea) and what Sisyphus or the orchestration of the “theatres of the catastrophal” has illuminated for you?
N: Translation’s disintegrative states have become something of a preoccupation; what I mean – and I’m still thinking this through – is that the instabilities instigated by translational acts are written into the text. Photographic processes have proven very instructive in relation to this. For example, Antonioni writes of the endless inscription onto photographic film of visual, material information that escapes the eye’s scrutiny. Prolonged development processes will reveal the ostensibly endless latent images contained in a single frame of film. In theory, one could expose an image ad infinitum, culling from the celluloid more and more infinite detail. But we know from a photographer such a Josef Koudelka, who practices a very sensitive relationship to time, that excessive development will produce a pitch black photograph – one could imagine this as the absolute, the most complete photograph, in which the intricate detail produces a solid, impenetrable mesh of opacity. In which everything is inscribed and nothing is legible. A corollary exists in translation, and it is the moment at which the texts – foregoing the bilateral language of source and target texts (with its tidy between, and problematic direction) – the texts, with their languages, enter into disintegrative states. It has something to do with proximities and loss of intelligibility. It has something also to do with vigilation. The moment at which one is most focused might be the moment one must close one’s eyes out of sheer intensity. Something is, of necessity, eradicated, in one’s apprehension of — disaster, say. Absolute vigil does not, can not, exist. The senses cannot abide such demand.
A friend recently directed me to a photograph of the Chernobyl disaster – this photograph of ejected graphite from the Chernobyl core – literalises the exact problem I am referring to. The radioactivity is visible as a disturbance in the photographic field. And the photographer, uncredited, though likely a Soviet authority, died as the photograph was taken; the cause of his (?) death is both the photograph and the radiation. The two become indistinct and determining for one another. In this, it might be useful to return to several of the acceptions of catastrophe, which are crucial to Sisyphus, namely, a “final event,” “a sudden and violent change in the physical order of things” (in Sisyphus, it is the seism, or earthquake, which functions as principle exemplar), and “the change […] which produces the conclusion of a dramatic piece,” all of which with their connotations of calamity. As I was writing Sisyphus, I had in mind Genet’s text “L’étrange mot d’…” in which the morbid necessity for a particular kind of architecture of the theatre is argued. Fixity, the very phantasm of photography, becomes an ethical injunction – against the unsituatable fantasy of post-modern subjectivity. To respond to both fixity and disintegration as equally incumbent forces, rewrites ethics against a different acception of time. In my thinking, it has something to do with a way of thinking anteriority. Catastrophe theory is interested in precisely this sort of discontinuity; its apprehensions of imminent material change, for example, are predicated on an already foregone anterior state of flux.
GR: I am thinking about something you said earlier about not wanting to create a theory but instead thinking through the writing. Looking at your list of publications, I cannot help but notice how prolific you are, but also the degree to which a set of recurring preoccupations is worked out in each text. While I do not get the sense that these concerns are reiterated (in fact, I think your work is characteristic of movement and redefinition), I wonder to what extent each work opens up the possibility of another (or is it perhaps too simplistic to say that each work creates channels into the next)? Where has the process of thinking through the writing brought you this time? What’s next?
N: It’s very possible (in fact arguable) that these channels exist, though they tend to reveal themselves (to me) after the fact. I can think of several prior, perhaps more determined examples of this, though they’re likely too tedious to narrate. Certainly the channels are not necessarily linear, in that there has been increasing enmeshment from one project to another, and the relays between works is rarely unilateral; one of the more complex examples of this might be the concurrent writing of Carnet de désaccords, against an unfinished manuscript in French, and at least two other pieces of writing, one of which was the talk, ALEA, on Algerian rooftops, as well as extracts from my end of various correspondences; the textual contaminations were multifarious and at this point, likely untraceable to an origin. In the case of Sisyphus, Outdone., the conduit is made explicit in the epilogue to We Press Ourselves Plainly, the last line of which is: “Sisyphus, outdone.” And for some time, while I imagined Sisyphus, Outdone. as a translation of the Press text, that consideration disappeared into other more immediate concerns tied to the actual writing of the piece. It’s probably safe to say that to recover that conduit would require a fair bit of excavation, and by that time it will have assumed another shape, bitten as it will have been by forms of decay. In the sense that the Press text is concerned with a voice in a room, Sisyphus, Outdone. is equally concerned with the parameters of a (the) room; or perhaps with the impossible autopsying of the destruction(s) evident in the Press text (impossible for the exact reasons rendered in Morendo, in which a body, on the verge of autopsy, and presumed to be dead, then discovered not to be, though already in a state of decomposition, is then subjected to the injunction to carry through with the morbid operation – in keeping with the portentous photographs on the wall). I would caution against too great a literalisation of this intention, though, since it is by now subsumed into something which, I hope, exceeds this aspiration (by now somewhat banal, and certainly of little interest if carried out with exactitude). If I make rules for myself, or if my work presents me with rules, as is often the case, I have no loyalty to them, nor to following them à la lettre. There is thus a necessity of disloyalty to myself in all of this – this being that which escapes me in text. I wish to underscore this because of the dismaying conceptual fervor which seems to have taken hold of the century – not out of disdain for conceptualism per se, but for its limitations and the self-congratulatory effort that accompanies what amounts at times (and at its worse) to the simple carrying out of orders (one’s own or otherwise) with martial rigidity. There’s an ethical complaint in what I’m saying, but I won’t go into it here, though it may have something to do with the problem of vigilation which I discussed earlier.
”By now it is considered a truism that translation is the closest form of reading. I’d like to dispute this claim; not merely as a provocation, but precisely for reasons pertaining to the problem of vigilation, in which exacerbated attention provokes a kind of (I would say, necessary, however devastating) capsize, and what reveals itself at that moment of misalignment is of greater interest to me than the obvious concordances.”
As for what’s next, if you are asking after chronology, last year and the year before I reinscribed the triptych of French language Carnets into English, the most recent of which is Carnet de somme. It became imperative out of a concern for concordance (of place, time, nomination, language…); these will comprise a single volume in English, under the title The Middle Notebookes. If you are asking after questions I haven’t quite been able to formulate for myself, they are induced by some of what I was alluding to above, that is, elements of film, the photographic inflection of translation, and an irritable impasse vis-à-vis anteriority.
GR: This morning, while on the bus and reading from Sisyphus, Outdone, at random, a passage stuck out to me, which I read over and over: “what gives way is given away…this is what I understand of translatability…The point at which there is nothing left, nothing to motion over, nothing to speak for” (28). To me, this passage not only illuminates something about translation, it also points to something inherent in the reading act. How or where do the task of the translator and the reader align?
N: I wonder whether they do. I’ve given some thought to this of late, and am still sorting through it. By now it is considered a truism that translation is the closest form of reading. I’d like to dispute this claim; not merely as a provocation, but precisely for reasons pertaining to the problem of vigilation, in which exacerbated attention provokes a kind of (I would say, necessary, however devastating) capsize, and what reveals itself at that moment of misalignment is of greater interest to me than the obvious concordances. I’ve written about this elsewhere – in relation to intimacy and more recently to extinction – the ‘this’ being the lack of reciprocity that occurs in the midst of what might be idealized as absolute reciprocity (with the ‘absolute’ ever called into question). The first failed reciprocal relationship is that of the translated version of a text and the text being translated. Each bears the mark of that catastrophe. To take an example from Sisyphus, with its preoccupation with doors, Paul Virilio’s “trap doors open in a cement floor” translates the French “des trappes s’ouvrent dans le sol de ciment”. In French the doors disappear. But this is incorrect. It is in English that the door is made explicit; it appears, arguably, from nothing in the French sentence. The English makes manifest what is subsumed into the French trappes at the moment of repetition (bearing in mind the French acception of répétition which means to rehearse). The practised implications, then, for Sisyphus are many, not the least of which the derailment of the text – without the doors, the sense is thwarted, the thinking cannot take place as before. One can also look away from the so-called original to concurrent versions of a work, for evidence of further forms of disjunction. The implications, for example, in Buber’s Ich und Du (the very title of which incriminates the determined disjunction between the familiar Du in German to the officialised formal Thou in English), for an English reader of Kaufmann’s translation is radically altered in Bianqui’s French translation of a single line from the same text: Kaufmann’s ‘it does not help you to survive’ contradicts the intent of Bianqui’s ‘il ne fait rien pour te conserver en vie’. In my desire to come closer to German, I rerouted my thinking through French translations of the German; the multiplication of versions, rather than elucidating my reading of the text, further complicated it, interrupting the imagined proximities I might have written into my lecture. These are hazards, accidents of translation that inhibit reading. But what a formidable inhibition.
GR: “Formidable inhibition,” the title of a future project perhaps?   Speaking of projects, you recently received a PEN Translation Fund fellowship for your translation of Hervé Guibert’s journals, Le mausolée des amants, which is due in 2014 as The Mausoleum of Lovers (Nightboat Books). So far, we’ve talked about translation in terms of transience (like photography’s misleading truth claim, especially as it pertains to fixity), disintegration and even the act of reading. But what about the incommunicable? (I am moved every time I reread the passage in Sisyphus where you cite Guibert: “j’ai besoin de catastrophes, de coups de théâtre”). Has translating Guibert’s Le mausolée des amants revealed or given you access to otherwise incommunicable realms of experience? Much has been written on the subject of haunted media, but what about the idea of a haunted sentence? What have you learned about Hervé Guibert that you didn’t know before you embarked on this project? What have your experiences as his translator revealed to you?
N: The haunted sentence seems particularly fitting in light of an earlier work of Guibert’s, L’image fantôme, in which the text bears the trace of absent photographs which form the armature of the work (a failed photograph of his mother, without which, according to the author, the book would not have existed). Guibert calls this le désespoir de l’image. Transposed, one might speak, in effect of le désespoir de la phrase; this may be the very plight a translator is beset with. The scale of Le mausolée des amants (560 pages in the Folio edition) demanded, that at a practical level, I alter the way I usually work with a text – scoring the pace of translation versus revision differently – employing alternation rather than relying on momentum (this is aided also by the fact that the work is divided into a series of separate entries). But perhaps more strikingly, the intimacies that, as a reader, Le mausolée des amants afforded me, all but disappear in the course of translation. “For if the sentence is the wall”, writes Benjamin – and in this instance, Guibert’s language is not visceral to me, in the way, for example, Collobert’s is – I translated a first feverish draft of Meurtre in less than a week, and this has everything to do with the proximities that exist for me in relation to Collobert’s language – translating her, she is, in a sense, writing me, and perhaps even, with all due modesty, there is something of my own language that I find in hers; her language is intimate, visceral, her topographies familiar, and in that instance the boundaries tended to want to disappear – that was one of the dangers posed by that particular task: a willingness to go. With Guibert, it is otherwise, the distances are steadfastly maintained; there is never a moment at which Guibert ceases to be manifest in his own work, which is reflective of the kind of control he waged over himself, his photographs and his texts, even his film, during his lifetime. Translating Catherine Mavrikakis opened the way, not only to Guibert, but to this kind of demand, which requires the concurrent porosity (vulnerability) necessary for being thus penetrated by a text, and the vigilance necessary to resist conflating oneself with it. The violences committed by a text, even in such convivial circumstances, can be terrible. It is humbling to be so altered.
GR: Nathanaël, it has been a true pleasure and a privilege exchanging words, thoughts, ideas with you. You have been so generous. There is one more thing…with two new books out, (Sisyphus, Outdone. Theatres of the Catastrophal. Nigthboat, 2012. and Carnet de somme. Le Quartanier, 2012) are there readings that we (or our lucky friends across the border) should look out for? In Montreal?
N: I thank you for your very engaging – and demanding – questions, Geneviève.
As for events, in the immediate, I am scheduled to give a couple of readings and a talk at SUNY Buffalo’s Poetics program (February 7 and 8). And the following month, in New York (March 10), I’ll contribute to a panel hosted by Nightboat Books at Poets House with Rob Halpern, Martha Ronk and Susan Gevirtz. As for Montréal, the city left me with its key. I would welcome the occasion.

We Press Ourselves Plainly by Nathanaël

Nathanaël, We Press Ourselves Plainly, Nightboat Books, 2010.

Nathanaël's blog

We Press Ourselves Plainly is a particularly affecting development in an already virtuosic, Ovidian body of work because it renews and makes newly visible crucial continuities: between Continental and North American Postmodernism, the Nouveau Roman and New Narrative, WWII and Operation Enduring Freedom. From out of agile and Celinian ellipses, Nathalie Stephens creates an asynchronous, transnational ‘discordance…in time,’ a hugely amplified recent past whose familiarity haunts us not as nostalgia but as trauma. Among ‘immaculate and catastrophic’ ruins and lacunae, having forgotten ‘the sentence for behaving,’ the narrator embarks upon an ‘adverse and objectionable’ litany of a history whose abjections yield a kind of nihilistic courage: ‘Hope is for martyrs.’ Given that now ‘even the fictions are fictions,’ Nathalie Stephens puts ‘holes…where there were none’ as a way of underscoring that there’s nothing inevitable about gender or genre or violence, just as ‘What is inevitable is not the war but the language that determines the war.’ As grim as Beckett, as moral as Genet, as seductive as Duras—yet this book moves me like no other.” — Brian Teare

Nathalie Stephens' latest prose-poetry book, We Press Ourselves Plainly (Nightboat, 2010), presents itself as a continuous disaster (the disaster of incommunicability, of divided labor, of global warfare, of meaninglessness,"The whole of it") whose continuity prevents the disaster from reaching its apotheosis: the abolition of the text via its totalization.
The disaster around which the text orchestrates goes unnamed, unspecified; it is Blanchot's disaster, an engagement with the experience of death whose impending doom is postponed by the space literature creates. Such a space is typographically represented by ellipses being the sole form of punctuation, which act as a metaphor for an undecidedness, an intervention in time that recalls poet Tyrone Williams' line in The Hero Project of the Centurymeanwhile means dissent.
The language, divided into incomplete sentences or complete sentences with referentially open pronouns, cannot be utilized (cannot, that is, integrate into an entirety, with each part an instrument of the sum). If we take it that the sentence is to language as the single commodity is to capitalism (both being the smallest utilizable unit), then such syntactic ruptures are a way of evading the specter of referentiality, wherein language would be exchanged 1:1 for the world it represents, absent any critical capacity, whereas here, without such a quantitative abstraction, we gaze at the language's quality, its material presence. A sample:

Parcelled out the small formations into smaller ones... Tiny little disasters... Handled carefully and placed gingerly onto small metal trays... Then labelled... We make these manifestations into ourselves... What happens when... Shorn and emaciated... I forget all of it... The disordered remembrances... There is knocking... It comes from inside... A strangulation... The tripes pulled up into the ribcage... A thick elastic band... Not breathing... Heat in the skin of the face... The faces... Hands flipped back... A plasticity... It was touching... A hardness... Twist of a straight bone... Close to snapping... It releases... Leveraged... What do you suppose.... Does she mark time anymore... There is no sense... In the end the...It doesn't

What we notice about the text's material presence is also its absence. Composed of subordinate clauses, it's frequently written in the subjunctive mood (a verb mood used to express various states of irreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred). This is significant because it implies counterfactual times of action, such as reformulating the present in light of an imagined one, wherein "The projection declare[s] a form of disappearance..." (29) at odds with the society of the spectacle whereby the modern spectacle (as in the image of the real concealing the system of labor producing it) "expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible" (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 25). 
The subjunctive then is an expression of the contingent, referring to displaced times not crystallized in the "totalitarian management of the conditions of existence." Thus we're in an asynchronous tense the breaks from the objectified present in which our world is usually communicated to us. For example "What happens when" questions the future while "I forget all of it" disables any such active contemplation. So the language wars with itself. Just when we think a plot is developing outside the development of the text itself ("There is knocking") we find "It comes from inside," bringing us back to the zero point. 

Stephens' provocative endnote gives a glimpse of their poetics: 

"The text operates a form of confinement, manifest as a continuous block of text from end to end. If one of the active functions of this work is compression, it is the compression not just of a body in a carefully controlled space, but of all possible spaces pressed into that body, upon which the pressures of historical violence and its attendant catastrophes come to bear” (103).

Thus the text writes thru the structure in which the voices are "always already embedded in the structure they would escape" (Moten, Resistance of the Object, pg 2), performing one's enslavement as liberation as submission, where to read is to redress. - Nicky Tiso

“I should like,” the narrator declares in We Press Ourselves Plainly “for my own name made illegible…” Indeed, we never learn the identity of the devastating speaker whose body and mind is the landscape on which violence unfolds. It is not a pleasant voice nor is it necessarily appealing, yet it enthralls in its immediacy, a distinctive intonation which begs the reader to devour it in its singular attempt to articulate the tragedy of history.
A 97-page book-length poem in the form of continuous blocks of text separated only by ellipses, Stephens endeavors neither to elucidate the source of violence nor to expose a chronological representation, therefore the fragments—some of which are complete sentences and others only partial slivers thereof—have the aesthetic of immutability and timelessness, a voice existing in the present moment yet also in the dredges of the past. “There is a room and there is a war” the speaker declares, yet the poem exists also outside of a room and concurrently in various locations: Berry Head (a coastal headland in the English Riviera), Paris, Hyde Park, Fallujah and Donostia (the Basque region of Spain). Perhaps there has been a war or there will be one. “The wars become one war” and “The wars are indistinguishable” Stephens writes, adding to the atemporality of the poem and the omnipresence of violence. The book opens with a quote by Franz Kafka: “Everyone carries a room about inside him.” which further puts forward that the location is the body itself which bears the carnage. The post-script furthers this idea of the body as an object of compression and cruelty, stating that one of “the active functions of this work is compression...of all the possible spaces pressed into that body, upon which the pressures of historical violence and its attendant catastrophes come to bear.”
This notion of compression, most prominently set forth in the book’s title, stems from the root of the word press, which harks from the early thirteenth century Old French noun presse which means “crowd, multitude.” The verb form also dates from the same century: preser, “push against”. Though Stephen’s book is titled “We Press Ourselves Plainly” (italics mine) the speaker in the book is a very convincing “I”; seldom does the “we” come into view, yet the overall sensation one derives from reading is a collective sense of calamity, as if the voice is representative for a multitude or nation, even if the experiences cited sound at once both ubiquitous and painfully intimate. “There was one country in particular…It became the particularity of every country...” Stephens writes. In other sections the voice seems to shuttle back and forth between a collective and the sentiments of a lover: “The bodies that fall unheld into the next day…I would like to kiss you…The field of vision narrows with the century…We stand on one side or another of the century”.
Notably, when the “we” comes to the forefront it is often in this context of being on one side or another. “We stand on one side or other of the glass”, “We stand each on one side or other of the crossing line”, “We stand each on one side or other of the monument and it is the same monument.” This motive repeats itself with the “we” being on one side or the other of violence (p.47), a door (p. 55), skin (p. 75), name (p. 81). The last time this motif appears is on p. 87, but the object is modified in the latter half of the sentence: “We stand each on one side or other of a pleasure and it is the same pressure” (italics mine). Here the word pressure takes on an agreeable, if not sexual connotation. This “being on one side or the other” subtly presents a type of political counterbalance which seems to be at threat throughout the entire text. The “We” seems to refer to a group of people on different but not necessarily opposing sides. Other times the “we” becomes the pronoun signaling a sexual relationship or perhaps the bond of two individuals forced into close confinement. “We slept in a single bed” (p. 11) or “We are naked for the moment…I grant you this one torment” (p. 15) and “We bear.. Bury…Heart spilling blood into the weakened parts…Vomit it into me..” (p. 39).
This dichotomy between singularity and plurality, while rampant in Stephens’ book, neither weakens or undermines the integrity of the speaker, though rectitude seems to be the least of his/her concerns. Rather this contrariety points to the existential dilemma of identity and the self. “A book is less the appearance of a self than the disappearance, a grievance against self,” Stephens wrote in her 2007 book “The Sorrow and the Fast of It.” The brokenness of the language in “We Press Ourselves Plainly” insinuates a further fragmentation of the self:
…All the buried things arise…The rivers with the bodies of everyone…Each save the first one…It crawls over me…There was one language and this was the son…I refuse the offerings…There are flowers in a vase…I throw them down…We wake and are watchful…The bodies accrue and we name them…Small rashes that spread over the skins…Our languages become enlarged with the grief…
The body, in Stephen’s book, is continuously beaten, cut out or scourged by mysterious malaise like the “small rashes” in the above excerpt. Not only that, but the speaker is perpetually vomiting, as if in an attempt to purge itself of the trauma it has been subjected to. What happens to a speaker which is surrounded and inflicted with excruciating emotional and physical torture? The result for the reader is an erasure of the speaker and the self, so that the excess of remembrance that the speaker endures becomes a longing for blank space, an insistent forgetting or “a compression layered of other moments just like it.” (p. 23)
…Shorn and emaciated…I forget all of it…The disordered remembrances…There is knocking…It comes from inside…A strangulation…The tripes pulled up into the ribcage…A thick elastic band…Not breathing…
Stephens has been compared, and understandable so, with Jean Genet and Hélène Cixous, yet for me Stephens manipulation of language and form is heir to a long tradition of French (though Stephens is French-Canadian) poetic innovation that goes back to Francois Villon and makes itself manifest in contemporary writers such as Edmond Jabès and Claude Royet-Journoud. The form of “We Press Ourselves Plainly”, simultaneously litany and lament, brings to mind Alice Notley’s “The Descent of Alette” in its aesthetic and also its use of punctuation (Notley used quotation marks to separate fragments in much the same way as Stephens utilizes the ellipses). For me, however, the most obvious predecessor of the form that Stephens has chosen is the short dramatic monologue “Not I” by Samuel Beckett which features the same block text separated by ellipsis. “Not I” explores the emotional upheaval experienced by a woman after an unspecified traumatic event. In the performance of “Not I” a black space is illuminated only by a bright light focused on a human mouth, which utters in a frenetic tempo a logorrhea of angst-ridden sentences and sentence fragments, quite in the vein of an audible inner scream. This inner scream is what Stephens has articulated so skillfully. - J. Mae Barizo

In a review of Touch to Affliction, Meg Hurtado describes Nathalie Stephens as “a tragic poet, in the word’s truest sense.” Stephens’ most recent book, We Press Ourselves Plainly, asks what happens to a body, a mind, a landscape that has absorbed the history of tragedy and then manifests that history within itself. It’s not a comfortable question, nor an easy one, and the speaker offers few answers, but rather attempts to embody that tragedy in a speaker’s voice. From the book’s brief post-script:
If one of the active functions of this work is compression, it is the compression not just of a body in a carefully controlled space, but of all the possible spaces pressed into that body, upon which the pressures of historical violence and its attendant catastrophes come to bear.
I’m honesty not sure I can say what it means to have “all possible spaces pressed into th[e] body” of the text (an ambitious project), but one feels in the voice of this text the “pressures of historical violence,” in the mind and body of the speaker, which are then pressed into the body of the text.
The book is composed as one 97-page continuous prose block, fragments of thoughts delineated by ellipses reminiscent most famously of Celine (also recently employed by Chelsey Minnis, though with sparser text and more abundant ellipses, and perhaps others I am forgetting or are unaware of). The effect of the ellipses is very much one of atemporality, by which I mean that the fragments feel snatched out of time and atmosphere; there is no feeling of progression in the prose, or consistent context, which NS’s* post-script indicates is part of the book’s theoretical design:
Spacially, the room is finite. But what enters, through the body of the speaking voice, orients thought away from its confines toward an exacerbated awareness of endlessly forming breaches.
One of the confines of thought is temporal relation to other thought, disrupted here by non-sequitur and repetition. NS’s employment of the word breach implies the intent to transgress—here, both time and space. Technically prose but not narrative, assuming many of the liberties we associate with poetry, this book slips between and out of generic expectations, another breach.
The world of We Press Ourselves Plainly is one in which the seeming whole of humanity’s history of violence has come to bear in one traumatized voice; “we stand on one side of violence and it is the same violence,” NS writes, succinctly. Also: “We stand on one side of history and it is the same history.” The collective pronoun “we” feels expansive and inclusive—who is on the other side of violence and history? Someone with a different relationship to both, I’d imagine, but the author seems to implicate a whole swath of humanity in the “movement” of violence, which is the “movement” of history. Just as the “I” of this text is anachronistic and geographically un-pin-down-able, so is the “we,” so that the reader feels included in this history and its attendant traumas.
The feeling of apocalypse that pervades the book is not a promise of some future demise but the fact of our own insistent violence in this time and this place. It’s not coming, it’s been here all along. The evidence is all around us.
It is the same warning… The same war… I attend the funeral in Fallujah and in Hyde Park… Nothing happens and it is written down… There are manifestations… The regional differences are deprecated… I prepare for it clumsily… The groans rise off the moors and out of the hospital beds…
The notion that all the wars are tantamount to one long war is iterated again as the speaker announces, “For the sake of simplicity the wars become one war” and “The wars are indistinguishable” (an astute and timely observation, as the rhetoric of any warring country tends to try to justify its war by distinguishing it from the other wars). As the text moves through time and space with its elliptical fragments, the speaker also invokes Chernobyl and Charonne,* as if to assure us that we cannot pin violence to one single geography, one time, one place. If the catastrophes of violence are “compressed” (to use NS’s own language) into one physical space (the book) and mental space (the speaker), the effect is dramatic and heartbreaking. What mind is strong enough to endure that much horror and not break? And then, as the semi-concrete artifact of the mind, what happens to language?
We stand each on one side of other of a violence and it is the same violence… In the mouth… The mouth foremost… I make a signature of it… A fount of praises and they are immaculate… Immaculate and catastrophic…
So language itself becomes broken, as is both formally and substantively enacted by this work, but it also perpetuates violence, becomes an artifact and instrument of it. (Et quel dommage.) It is perhaps for this reason that the speaker pleads, “… Stop speaking… Just for a time…”
Here, there is nowhere the trauma of violence doesn’t reach. The body, the singular, human proxy for the physicality of the world in general, continuously vomits, as if in a constant state of rejection (rejection of that which poisons us). It is overwhelmed by toxicity:
A small overburdened liver… A mangled spleen… We bear… Bury… Heart spilling blood into the weakened parts… Vomit it into me… []… How many times bereft… And swollen… Lumped grievously together… Striated and torn… It spreads indiscriminately to other parts…
The notion of contagion is an important one, the idea that sickness spreads: from one part of the body to another, from one body to another body. This is clearly writ politically and geographically as well: it is said that violence begets violence, contagion on a global scale. NS represents the body as macrocosmic proof of this. (As I will suggest more fully below, it is possible the reverse is true as well; if shadow is contagious, why not light?)
A small promotional insert in the book declares that the project of this book yields “a kind of nihilistic courage.” The books insistent nihilism is perhaps most succinctly articulated in the final words of NS’s post-script: “Sisyphus, outdone.” A feeling of futility underlies much of the text, and for understandable reason. To flatten the time and space of history so that the totality of its atrocities feels immediate would indeed “overwhelm the spleen.” And yet, as the speaker comments, “if only it were otherwise.” It’s a lament that reads as if our suffering were absolute; but I can’t help but read the desire for a different world as the promise of it, or at least the promise of its possibility. Not that I think the speaker of NS’s book would be so optimistic; this is a philosophy exclusive of hope: “I make some progress… You blow on it and it goes out…” At the same time, I can’t help but think that the attempt to make art (like poetry, like this book), even out of the most egregious suffering, is always, in itself, a hopeful act, an act of endurance and an affirmation of applied intelligence, those things which have the capacity to change a damaged world.
It’s well understood that when we write, we choose our focus. And because our focus is finite, something is necessarily excluded (if I choose to write about Medieval London, I am probably not therefore writing about globalization in India). A few reviews ago, I wrote about the romantic pastoral as critically problematized simply by virtue of all that it excludes about the natural world (it prettifies that which is not always pretty); reading this book, I wonder if the reverse is also true, and what its implications are. What I mean is, if the pastoral is felt to be problematic because it excludes the ugly, is work which makes its focus catastrophe, disease, etc., problematic because it excludes the beautiful or wonderful or sublime? And if not, why not? Can we say that one exclusion is truly to be preferred over the other? Or that one is more responsible?
Here is a probably woefully poor analogy: let’s say there is a terrible car accident. Twisted metal, mangled bodies, blood, injury, death; the bodies are in distress, there is fear and unimaginable pain (you could insert a scene of bloody violence here if the car accident analogy isn’t working for you). Now let’s say that people gather around this car accident holding large mirrors in front of their bodies. For those inside the accident, their whole world becomes a scene of horror. Everywhere they look around, there is only suffering. I wonder if the world we find ourselves in isn’t a bit like that—there are scenes of unimaginable horror; but what we hold a mirror up to multiplies the original horror manifold.* As NS writes, “It is the same violence… in the mouth.” I am not saying we shouldn’t hold up these mirrors, but I am saying it’s interesting to consider the implications of them, and whether the imperative to witness might include bearing witness to those things that help us endure the historical and personal traumas we are compelled to endure.
* The front matter of the book uses “NS” for Nathalie Stephens, which I have preserved here.
* Known for the Paris Massacre of 1961, in which at least 40 (and as many as 200) Algerians were slaughtered.
* This seems especially the case given how many different kinds of mirrors we have available to us via television, internet, poetry, art, photography, film, journalism, etc., etc. - Christina Mengert

(Self-)Translation: An Expropriation of Intimacies, in Phati'tude, ed. Timothy Liu

The Sorrow and the Fast of It by Nathanaël

Nathanaël, The Sorrow and the Fast of It, Nightboat Books, 2007.

The Sorrow And The Fast Of It exists in a middle place: an overlay of indistinct geographies and trajectories. Strained between the bodies of Nathalie and Nathanael, between dissolution and abjection, between the borders that limit the body in its built environment--the city and its name(s), the countries, the border crossings--the narrative, splintered and fractured, dislocates its own compulsion.
"The Sorrow And The Fast Of It is a severe and tender book in its 'incalculable' correspondence between ocean and ground; the one who writes, and the one who receives." —Bhanu Kapil

It exists in a middle place: an overlay of indistinct geographies and trajectories. Stephens writes strained between the bodies of Nathalie and Nathanael, between dissolution and abjection, between the borders that limit the body in its built environment--the narrative, splintered and fractured, dislocates its own compulsion. "Stephens is obsessed by breaking free, only to find herself brakeless" —Andrew Zawacki.

“Only the writer who astonishes language, who dares to tamper with it, is worthy of the epithet,” writes Nathalie Stephens, and she lives up to the challenge she sets—hers is a use of language that alters the language as she uses it. And in her case, this means two languages, as she writes in both English and French, often using one to infiltrate the other, to crack the other open. Often we sense the two languages passing each other, and as they do, a charge arcs from one to the other, making each stand out in sharp relief.” —Cole Swensen

“A voice,” Nathalie Stephens avows, “is an occurrence of madness.”  Indeed, the specter of la folie is rampant in her latest book, The Sorrow And The Fast Of It, and it happens under a damning, double sign: there is the going mad, and there is the consciousness of it.  The awareness is an intensification of the malady.  As Michel Foucault and several of his notable contemporaries elaborated, with their sights trained on Sade, Lautréamont, Nietzsche, et al., writing is subjection to madness, and madness means the shutting down of the subject.  Across the five untitled sections of an even hundred pages, Stephens struggles to negotiate what is precisely the impasse or impossibility of negotiation.  “I liken speaking to an epitaph,” her speaker admits, thereby succinctly enacting her own demise.  As she recollects, “I fancied myself the vestiges,” having suffered the onset of madness at age twelve.  “I was born in the midst of demolition,” then, both literally (a church was being torn down nearby) and figuratively, one self emerging, cauterized but charred, like a phoenix from the adolescent flames of the other.  Paradoxically, a “suicide begat me.”
Taking a cue from Shoshana Felman, “If madness is indeed an excess of remembrance,” Stephens avers, citing Writing and Madness in ghostly grayscale, “I have come to this embouchure to argue against remembering.”  For Stephens, while madness certainly involves extreme levels of distress, it is not because everything passes, although that is true.  Stephens is not haunted by la recherche du temps perdu, and her mode is far from elegiac.  What wracks her book is less separation or absence, be they physical or temporal, traditionally the harbingers of melancholy, and less the fading memory that, according to the Proustian paradigm, invites sadness.  To the contrary, Stephens revises the ventured thought that, “The distance was too great…,” by reversing it: “…Wasn’t great enough.”  Apartness is not a problem in this book—claustrophobia is.  Without sufficient remove, minus any fixed exterior point, life becomes infernal: “I went to Hell,” she recalls, where Cerberus guards the entrance to Lethe, river of oblivion.  Unremittingly in-fernal, living inside “A body overful of wanting to forget,” Stephens’s speaker is overwhelmed by the immanence of immediate experience.  “There is a fever that overcomes,” she says calmly, seeking the consolation forgetting might bring.  Her pain ushers not from desire for what’s been lost but from a hyperconsciousness of what she cannot lose.  Fascinated and frustrated by the “thing pushed away that remains,” Stephens commits to the quasi-mystical eviscerations that Simone Weil calls decreation: “we are the thing that needs removing,” we “[n]ot so much want as want not.”  Madness here is neither amnesia nor nostalgia, but the inverse incapacity to erase.  Freighted by the sheer limitlessness of a conscious mind without remainder, Stephens needs the opposite of anamnesis or analysis; it is exorcism she solicits, the via negativa, “Surrender me,” vomiting and cutting out and bleeding.
Hence the proposal that it is “possible,” as Stephens puts it, “a book is less the appearance of a self than the disappearance, a grievance against a self.”  The self already an unstable artifice chez Stephens, she does everything in her power to raze it further.  “I would want to be manifold,” she avows in the conditional tense, perhaps acknowledging a utopian aspect to that hope.  As her prose shuttles limpidly between “I” and “we,” the speaker, or speakers, cannot decide on her (or his, as we shall see shortly) or their identity or identities.  An interdiction against simultaneity comes into play: “When we go to speak,” Stephens observes, “only one of us survives.”  When I say “I,” that is, I am not “we,” and vice versa.  This dichotomy reigns in the book, tyrannically.  It becomes clear rather quickly that Stephens, however, is not interested whatsoever in discerning between singularity and plurality, let alone in choosing a side.  Disobedient, she has decided not to decide, for she wants the self, and all its categorical exclusions, excluded categorically from her writing.
The dilemma between unity and multiplicity is not, however, the only existential knot that Stephens endeavors to untie: singularity is itself bifurcated, above all by gender.  Intermittently in dialogue with ‘herself’ throughout the book, ‘Nathalie’ Stephens’s speaker is overheard talking to and about ‘Nathanaël.’  This alter ego, for lack of a better word—and the language’s lack of a better word says something about our failure to think the idea—is not new to Stephens’s repertoire, having shown up earlier in her 2003 volume Je Nathanaël (Book Thug, 2006).  When “I” is Nathanaël, male, the book complains, I am not the female Nathalie.  In this way, the self is both doubled and divided: “One of us is a wave,” claims Nathalie/ Nathanaël, “One of us is a shore.  It matters little which.”  That Stephens writes “l’entre-genre,” as her author’s note (or her authors’ note) specifies, is evident enough: not only is the obvious prose/ poetry overlap in effect, but deeper divisions, or non-divisions, within prose are also on display, as the essay, memoir, and even the récit take turns leading.  This fission or fusion of genres is characteristically French, of course, and in Stephens’s case recalls most forcefully Hélène Cixous, who is likewise her forerunner in geographical and sexual alienation.  So while Stephens does not share Dickinson’s famous restriction, “They shut me up in Prose,” she does express an excruciating aggravation about being incarcerated by femininity or masculinity.  (Stephens’s phrase, “There was a plank of wood and I laid my body on it,” also recalls Dickinson: a plank in Reason broke.)  Her entre-genre writing is thus explicitly inter-gender, too—genre is French for ‘genre’ and ‘gender’ alike—and her supplication to “Unletter me” is clearly related to the agony that surrounds being either Nathalie or Nathanaël; each is literally “Lettertorn” from the other, via the minimal difference between “-lie” and “-naël.”  (While she neglects to point it out, that ‘genre’ and ‘gender’ are separated by a mere letter is undoubtedly not lost on Stephens, who imbues her text with similar similarities, including “Sutured” and “Stuttering,” “slave (Salve!),” and the trill “cove,” “coveted,” and “Covered.”)
At times the speaker’s (or the speakers’) identity appears to be twofold.  The gray half-tones, for instance, install a type of double-talk, whereby the narrator courts or shadowboxes some prior or posthumous, in any case other, self.  The volume’s epigraph, from Derrida, sets up this rapport, one interlocutor replying to another, “You’re right, we are undoubtedly several, and I am not so alone as I sometimes say, when the complaint is torn from me and I devote myself, yet again, to seducing you.”  Stephens’s rhetoric is itself frequently doubled, such as when she reports that, “The drowned are drowning,” or asks, “Must I defend the maddened against the maddening?”  Questions like, “Who do the wounded wound?” open quietly onto problems of tragedy, agency, and abandonment, as in Celan’s lament that no one witnesses for the witness, or Luce Irigaray’s related criticism that in the Hegelian account of Polynices’s interment, no one is left to bury Antigone.  Moreover, occasional rhyme intervenes to offset the loss of reason: pairs such as “defeat” and “complete,” “retreat” and “replete,” project their ‘masculine’ status, while “city” and “seditiously” come closer to ‘feminine’ rhyme; the presence of both together furthers the book’s aspiration to partnership.  Repetition occurs in The Sorrow And The Fast Of It on the level of the individual letter, as well, reinforcing the broader drive toward coupling, identification.  In one early passage, no fewer than a dozen doublings of different letters (b, e, n, o, r, t) happen in about as many ‘lines,’ nearly half of them concerning ‘l’: collapse, billowing, ville, saillie, spiralling.  “Bodypart,” the text inveighs, reasserting the bond between corpus and corpus, “Letter by letter.  Remove what’s missing.”
That anxiety about removal is significant.  As ulterior selves, N and N cannot exist at once.  Like an incarnation of différance, a differing and deferral rendered visceral rather than verbal, one version is relegated to acting as the other’s latent, postponed alternative.  When Nathalie speaks, “Nathanaël has washed his hands of me.”  Such slang connotes familiarity, and indeed a disturbing family romance pervades the book, evasive but inescapable, once in a while recounted in Old Testamental tones.  The story, such as it is, begins with “the mother,” established as “the first place,” and involves an “unwelcome son” and “running daughters running.”  At one point the “brother’s voice” is said to have come “after me,” while elsewhere the phantom voice announces, “You are the daughter and the son.”  No matter the talismanic weight attending this prophecy of the first-person narrator’s duality, though, Stephens’s anguish resides in her normative reduction to a single—Simone de Beauvoir’s “second”—sex.  (Alongside the idea that woman is “second” in the sense of inferiority, we understand that she does not coincide, temporally, with the “first.”  Nathanaël, that is, then Nathalie—in that order.  The dream of what Stephens articulates as “The same name spoken twice” turns out to be a pair of names, each spoken once.)  “Whoever said Nathalie founded that trajectory…,” the speaker attests, asserting the legitimacy that the world accords a name, as well as the decisiveness that follows from it.  “…Threaded me l’aporie,” she continues, “Then said pointing an ugliness a discrepancy.  A girlness unremedied.”  The important word here is aporia: the irresolution of contraries, or mutual incompatibility—if mutuality does not already hint at a collaboration excluded from the aporetic, which is precisely non-cooperation, the side-by-side of different orders of measure.  “We divide into occurrences,” Stephens offers: the presence of Nathalie precludes that of Nathanaël, so The Sorrow And The Fast Of It becomes “the book of the boy many times displaced.”
The self is a de-centered site of possible, but never realized, contingencies, largely because the physical is determinate.  “This is the literal construction of the body,” Stephens reports, pointing not only to the ‘lettered’ deviation between two names beginning Natha-, but also to the biological difference separating them.  When Stephens writes of “Skin splitting plainly along two sides of a fine blade,” when she mentions “a long white scar from breastplate to groin,” that may well strike the reader as metaphorical.  “It was the heart,” after all, “wanted bisecting.”  But we might sense, too, a quite actual incision at issue.  To the same degree that the third-person “It” of Stephens’s title is neither masculine nor feminine in declension, and her sexual politics dedicated to exchanging genders for neutrality, it is tempting, if dangerous, to read the excisions thematized in her text, the “maim” and “scar of skin,” as a corporeal neutering.  Certainly her alternate allusions to a limp “sexe” and a “breach” encourage somatic focus.  (On this score, I am aware of the ambivalent status—whether appropriate or ironic—of the present review appearing in How2, designed to promote “innovative writing practices by women.”)  What Maurice Blanchot terms le neutre—existence as being exterior to oneself, impersonal toward one’s own ‘I,’ such that it is not one’s ‘own’ but precisely an ‘it’—here assumes an obliquely genital form, or deformation, exceeding the self-less condition always already attendant on being.  This volume’s horizon, then: to live not within, or even between, sexual norms, but outside them, less hetero- or homo- than asexual, hermaphroditic less than hors de la sexualité.
Stephens’s narrator strives to derogate, à la Jean Genet, the societal limits s/he finds imposed, even as madness is the incapacity to recognize, know, or successfully use any limiting case as a heuristic.  A perverted version of freedom, madness ends up enabling neither a liberation from stricture nor relief from omnipotent structure, but imprisonment.  “If I mark a spot X with intent to return it is very likely that I won’t,” Stephens writes.  “If I mark the same spot X with no intent to return it is still very likely that I won’t.”  The subject is centrifugal, and returning displaced by infinity sans reprieve.  In madness, the subject is deprived of her subjectivity; she becomes an object.  At that moment, she turns helpless witness to what keeps coming back, bland and indistinct, as an eternal return of the same.  Hence Stephens’s evocations, again and again, of “again and again.”  Hence her unvarying view of the lieu, “It was the same city all over again.”  Hence a temporal disruption—or distension—that stymies memory and desire by collapsing chronology, so that “Dusk comes at morning,” whatever the weather “It is the same season,” whatever happens “It is the same day. // It is the same day.”  In this timeless scenario, past and future past converge, “What was” merges with “Will have been,” and “Is it even plausible,” Stephens wonders, “to speak of after?”  The answer, of course, is no.  Even the prose is caught in a kind of maddening freefall, in which subject and object are conflated, tenor and vehicle untethered; literality becomes hard to sort from conceit, as all standards, centers, levers are dislodged.  As an account of the limit-experience, Stephens’s style encounters limits of its own: enacting sameness, at times her prose risks being samey itself.  We think of Shelley’s angel, beating its desperate wings against the void, and of the pathos that image provokes.
Madness is an inability to mark or differentiate, to secure firm footing in an ever-dissolving place, a context without context.  The mad know no telos, hence no progress.  Divested of any concept of forward or back, tautologically taut, they are condemned to the punishment leveled by the gods against Pentheus: interminable wandering between a pair of suns.  Having looked at what was forbidden to sight, Pentheus is consequently not blinded—the expected penalty, orthodox Greek myth frequently laying down an affliction equal and opposite to the crime—but rather visually saturated: he believes his city one direction, only to discover, partway there, it lies behind him; no sooner does he change course than the confusion repeats itself.  His impotence to arrive renders him literally Unheimlich: un-housed, not at home, uncanny, strange.  As someone who “gasp[s] for the foreigner.  I ask the foreigner to join me,” Nathalie Stephens, in her “much travelled body,” with a “box crammed full of boarding passes,” seems to suffer a similar fate.  Her warnings against the vagueness, the vagaries, the villainy of locale are so insistent that the reader wonders whether she isn’t reminding herself to beware.  “The first difficulty is location,” she postulates, “Place may very well be the first falsehood.”  The landscapes she enters and exits, like the languages at play in her book, are legion, nearly incommensurate.  Myriad cities rise up, seemingly simultaneously, as purveyors of pain and of passage, yet the setting is not always urban: for every cathedral a beach intervenes, for each hydro line a heron; alongside the métro are tar-paper gutters and a drive-through we’re likely to associate with smaller towns, not to mention the pampas even farther from the metropolitan core.  “A place name,” Stephens proffers, “is an occurrence of retreat,” and every locale in her book appears to be retreating from the others, if not from itself, even as its author is in flight.
This distancing from the center, existential as well as geographical, is acute.  Despite a professed “belief in astray,” Stephens’s speaker is not in happy or unhindered transit between languages (French and English) or locations (France and North America, the U.S. and Canada).  De-territorialized, exilic by nature, she is perennially adrift, yet she fails to ‘survive’ her myriad transitions and translations.  “The border is such that either way I cannot cross it,” she confesses.  “And here, on either side, does not exist.”  From Norwich to Guelph, Brnik to Ljubljana, Chicago to Montréal, it is not so much that Stephens traverses boundaries—she is divided by them.  She has set foot in Union Square and Montjuïc, Dartmoor and St. Denis, but they have reciprocally placed themselves in her, and their diversity, their divergence, has caused her to lose her way.  An external corollary to madness, and maybe one of its causes, this jarring juxtaposition of disparate places, each of them “une ville en vrac,” or a loosened, jumbled town, jams the compass needle, annulling any reliable sense of locus.  All coordinates become tangled, as “The cities fold over and over,” and there remains no stable site by which to measure her motion.  This is the existential recoding, for the ‘globalization’ age, of Saint Augustine’s lament, “Our hearts do not rest until they rest in You,” and of Jean-François Lyotard’s scientific concept of la condition postmoderne.  Stephens’s disorientation is, in turn, internalized, with the refugees, hunger, torture, and “bulleted stone” around her acting as real sources of worldly sorrow, not to be abstracted, yet spurring a recognition that her own inflictions are inflected by the world’s.  In parallel, the babble she hears becomes the Babel she speaks.  Her use of the Queen’s English, indicated by spellings such as “colour,” “grey,” and “meagre,” a tendency to use ‘s’ over ‘z,’ is constantly parried by French interpolations: “outre-mer,” “frontière,” “le chien claudique,” “Me voici.”  The latter are not signaled by italics, furthering the sense of a single, continuous language of discontinuities.  Nor is Stephens’s heteronomous linga franca a merely binary system, but is interrupted by Spanish phrases like “cabrón,” by the Slovenian “prosim,” equally unitalicized.  “Our languages,” she observes, “are bridges splintering.”  Connections are constantly crumbling to chasms, and if “The management of thresholds is an arduous practice,” Stephens is fatigued by that noble attempt.
The Sorrow And The Fast Of It is a strange, unsettling mix of encoded ontology, weariness and wariness, with blatant, emotive excess, occasionally pushing melodrama.  It is an uncomfortable, discomfiting book, theoretical and theatrical and bleeding from the heart.  While hardly ‘difficult,’ in terms of thought, style, or form, it is by no means easily assimilable, either, resisting not so much interpretation as accommodation.  The prose and the plot possess a sort of invasive, viral quality, one that puts the experience of trial on trial: c’est chiant, we might say, mais ça chante.  Our reluctant sense of the speaker is someone—or several someones, or no one—helplessly peripatetic but also pariah, fleeing even as she, or he, or they are fled from.  The son-daughter of Cixous and Genet, Stephens is obsessed by breaking free, only to find herself broken, brakeless.  Eroded by what she cannot erase, halved by a dual ‘I,’ she writes in a splayed metropolis of traces and of trauma, where “it is reductive to speak either of autonomy or a bind.  The madness disallows this.”- Andrew Zawacki

 Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book) by Nathanaël

Nathalie Stephens, Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), Nightboat Books, 2009.

 "In ABSENCE WHERE AS, Nathanael reads the unread book, 'the book that comes' to us nevertheless, that haunts and hovers unopened and dreamt, proceeding from the Ecrits of the visionary and revolutionary artist-activist Claude Cahun, to life's library. Through this constellatory essay in the faults of thought, in reading's flaw, Nathanael comes to know and know how, creating new epistemological and aesthetic territory in the radiant continuum between lyric and narrative, the text and the dream of text, which is literature itself"--John Keene

 At Alberta, Nathalie Stephens

Nathalie Stephens, At Alberta, BookThug/2008

 The talks collected in AT ALBERTA have as their ironic coincidence: place. Spatially concurrent, they were all delivered in Edmonton. They deliberately thwart the systematic treatment of genre, translation, desire, and territorialisation through reiterated displacement, subterfuge and irritation. Distrustful of genre delineation, Stephens pursues her work away from the usual generic safeguards, preferring instead the unexpected that arises from the arguably disreputable and misunderstood place where various lines cross. AT ALBERTA persues a new critical position in her delineation.

 Touch to Affliction, Nathalie Stephens

Nathalie Stephens, Touch to AfflictionCoach House Books, 2006.
 TOUCH TO AFFLICTION is a text of ruins: ruins of genre, of language, of the city, of the body, of the barbarism of the twentieth century. At once lament, accusation and elegy, this work articulates the crumbling of buildings, the evisceration of language, the inhumanity that arises from patrie.

Acclaimed poet Nathalie Stephens walks among these ruins, calling out to those before her who have contemplated atrocity: Martin Buber, Henryk Górecki, Simone Weil. In the end, this work considers what we are left with—indeed, what is left of us—as both participants in and heirs to the twentieth century.

TOUCH TO AFFLICTION is political but never polemical. It lives at the interstices of thought and the unnameable. It is a book for our times.
 With Touch to Affliction, Nathalie Stephens explores the poet-as-trespasser. Her speaker wanders through a world to which she clearly feels entitled (she intimately references the train stations and street corners of this poetically consecrated world). However, her cutting lyricism soon reveals that this city exudes not only loss but rapidly approaching danger, and her role within it is more than simply elegiac. Touch to Affliction strives to save what must endure, and Stephens’s speaker is responsible for this task. The poet plays both the elegant bard and the invincible journalist, leading the reader through a “city” that has fallen into the hands of its fate. Her double identity extends to a sense of double vision, which she manipulates gracefully through her awareness of language as song and system. Stephens conjures vibrant images and clarion scenes, but their beauty never compromises their full dimensionality. She has been assigned to search for both the inner and outer story of this “city.”

Her writing itself possesses the texture of light, revealing both what can and what cannot be seen. In one simple example, she says of “a dog lying heavily against a wall” that “It is or is not cold.” In many of the poems, Stephens dramatically expands this sense of double-sight. The fruits of this fearless expansion are several moments in which we know that the speaker is both living and dead. Such moments do not produce horror, nor any sense of a tortured, “ghostly” speaker. Rather, they comprise an achievement in clairvoyance just as serene as it is extraordinary.

The speaker of Touch to Affliction belongs to a world of transparency, a devastated city in which usual boundaries of culture, language, and survival have been removed. Even so, her awareness of such boundaries penetrates the text--constant references to the nature of language at first appear academic, but prove to be anything else. All of her linguistic theatrics eventually assert themselves as essential. Even the tiniest inversions of diction or unconventional, abstract syntax earn their place in this city.

The city could be Paris, to which she makes multiple references, but it could just as easily be 1945-Berlin, or 1917-Moscow, or any other city in time of strife. Fortunately, Stephens possesses such a miraculous intuition for and control of language that this breadth of subject does not damage her visceral nearness to the world of her creation. Though Stephens definitely conjures a visually and intellectually surreal landscape for this “city,” it is a surreality with which she is familiar. Such intimacy with the universal cannot help but impress and fascinate the reader, especially since she graphically describes the emergence of “the city” from her own thigh.

This image resurfaces many times in Touch to Affliction, as do several others, but the thoughts behind them remain ever-original and breathtaking. She identifies her city not only with all cities, but with all individuals. Furthermore, every individual is also a war, a tragedy. She asks, “What part of you is city? What part of you is famine?”

Stephens gives her speaker no immunity against this human-as-war identity. The speaker describes herself in blatantly geographical terms: “You identify me as a contested surface. A stripped margin of land.” Obviously, this gives rise to all kinds of existential questions, the answer to each of which is “yes.” Stephens’s ability to create double-realities seems unlimited--she has created a narrator both omniscient and completely subjective. This assessment also applies to the text itself. The reader may easily traverse half of Touch to Affliction before he or she notices its basic form. Stephens does not compromise between prose and poetry, but exploits language so well that her poems embody and transcend both mediums, just as “the city” must embody and transcend disaster and individuality.

With her view of every individual, including the speaker, as a war zone, Stephens appears “confessional” on many levels. Such a comfortable category feels long-lost and perhaps welcome to the reader, but Stephens boldly and bluntly refuses it, just as it seems to be most supported: “Not confessional. Evidence, rather, of the unspeakable. That thing toward which we move and we are an affront to the language we use to name it.”

She allows us no easy roads, but if one had to “bend [Stephens] into language,” one could call her a tragic poet, in the word’s truest sense--not only does she possess power over tragedy, but inimitable kinship with it. This is the “terrible beauty” of Yeats and the purity of contemporary European writers like Tomaz Salamun, sung by an earth-mother of humility and strength. Though Touch to Affliction waltzes with the tides of violence, Nathalie Stephens writes without fear or compromise, “brazen and stumbling.” Touch to Affliction is a clean, stone Madonna, buckled and rife with violence and the possibility of exultation.
 Meg Hurtado
 From Touch to Affliction
(excerpt 1)

I said City. I didn’t say keep.

City with its falaises.
City with its ruines.
City with its devises.


I prodded what wanted prodding. With my boneless fingers, with my temperamental voice, with my illegitimacy.
The body that wanted burying shattered against me. The reach that wanted collapsing disappeared from view. And the wistfulness in the dry branches of fallen trees dissuaded me from leaning into the thing that might appease.

City is stone, yes, but it is stone that is worn. It is skin that falls away from bone. It is the thing we go toward. It is the thing and that is all. We haven’t a name for it. It is that maddening. It is that forlorn.

What is city is remains and the slow river widens and the ruelles
become constricted and the bodies in their skins with their wide hands touch water that is sullied and drink it into them. __________
These are your dead.
They are the stone walls, the misshapen walkways, the insurmountable inclines, the moss-grown crevices, the stained brick, and the métro with its thin scream pulling over metal, its rattle of boxes from station to station, its injurious rail. What is city is vociferous and batters the body, your body and mine. It is the city in its body and it is very much alive. It pulls what it pushes. It lives against you. And it walks with you in your hobbled legs and your collapsing reach. City is here and it is the place where you have yet to go.
As for your language it is what empties from your mouth and that is all. It is what I mean by mutisme and folie at times. There is a word for incomplete and it begins inside.
(excerpt 2)
What part of you is city?

The mouth straying from speech. The hand from other hands. The hip from sleep. L’ahurissement.
The body you imagined keeping. The sentence, fourfold.
What part of you is famine?

The distance from the body is a sacrilege. It is a cleaner word for fall. It speaks the suddenness of dust. And what wings tear. And what skin splits. And what claims the viscera. I am in it with mes doigts. The small body on the windowsill. And the waiting sounds below. We are prohibition. Our skin strips. Our bloodless. And we are aghast at what we keep. What citystruck we keep. The wrought-iron bridges. The candied animals. The drone.
Night is vertiginous.

City is fosse commune.
« Et vous, vous ne m’embrassez pas? »

Juan Bourla is a voice recorded on paper. A room filled with smoke. History is provocation. His mouth is greedy for sleep. To Lise he is a body in shadow. To Simone de Beauvoir he is what remains unseen.
In Bourla’s Paris, it is always 1943. The rail lines anticipate stone.

This is as our languages recoil. This is what the mouth abhors. The fastening of suffering to the lettermost forlorn. Is this as madness is meant to be? The simple dislocation of city from bone. As though what was impassioned could not be borne. As though what was chaste was close enough to living. And touch reason enough for war.
There isn’t language enough for meaning. I want a mind sensorial. A figure awoken from sleep. The haze in waking is perhaps troublesome, deep. It certainly is burdensome and our mouths become slow. But if the city were wordless, if the pavement broke, what manner for walking, what need for breach?
JE NATHANAEL, Nathalie Stephens
 Nathalie Stephens, JE NATHANAELBookThug,  2006.
 JE NATHANAEL is an endangered text. Neither essay nor poem nor novel nor sex show, what it takes from language it gives back to the body. Through Nathanael, Andre Gide's absent, imagined and much desired apprentice in Les nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth), this text explores ways in which language constrains the body, shackles it to gender, and proposes instead an altogether different way of reading, where words are hermaphroditic and in turn transform desire (consequence). Suggesting that one body conceals another, JE NATHANAEL lends an ear to this other body and delights in the anxiety it provokes. Nathalie Stephens writes in English and French, and sometimes neither

Dis/locate, em/body

N. S., Nathalie Stephens, Nathanaël composes in English and French, sometimes separately, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in the permeable ache between, amidst multiple voiced and embodied pronouns, and in the space of in-between, which she calls l’entre genre. As preposition, entre, can mean between or among, as prefix, it can denote the idea of reciprocity or of being in the middle of two things, as verb, to enter, to go into, to begin. As well, genre does not only signify a category of artistic composition or literature, but also a general kind or type. Biologically it also refers to genus; linguistically to gender.  As such, Stephens enters this space of in-between-kind not to occupy what we may easily confuse at first as a binary (poetry/prose, English/French, female body/male body) but rather to explore the porosity between multiple genres, languages, bodies, voices. In the porosity, a dislocation; in the dislocation unease; in the unease a fruitful and unexpected altering.
In her work, Stephens troubles the idea of the singular mother tongue, singular body, singular place/home, singular desire. The tongue of her language is neither and both English and French, for her vocabulary may at times look like one but be syntactically the other, or sound like one but be the other, or behave like one but shadow the other.
“What is a fuckable text and is it only fuckable in English ? Is there such thing as a literary hard-on ? Who wants Nathanaël ? I do I do. Only he doesn’t exist. He is not kissing you. He leaves no fold on your mattress. He doesn’t break your heart. The tiled floor is cold and your feet are bare. Nathanaël is long gone he was never here not even once. He is a queer boy a loveable boy maybe even a fuckable boy and we are all wet or hard turning pages imagining his breath.” (from Je Nathanaël, published mostly in English by BookThug, 2006)
“Qui veut Nathanaël? I do I do. Seulement il n’existe pas. Il ne t’embrasse pas. Il ne laisse aucun pli sur ton matelas. Il ne te trahit pas. Le plancher carrelé est froid tu es pieds nus. Nathanaël est déjà loin il n’a jamais été ici pas une seule fois. C’est un garçon queer un garçon aimable maybe even a fuckable boy et on bande et on mouille en tournant les pages en imaginant son souffle.” (from Je Nathanaël, publié mostly en français par l’Hexagone, 2003)
In the contours between language, tongue, body and place, desire. A desire that is silent, voiced, enacted and translated.
Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) is the author of many books including We Press Ourselves Plainly (Nightboat, 2010), Carnet de désaccords (Le Quartanier, 2009), At Alberta (BookThug, 2008), ...s’arréte? Je (l’Hexagone, 2007) and Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006). Some of he work exists in Basque, Slovene, and Spanish with book-length translations in Bulgarian and Brazilian Portuguese. In addition to translating herself, Stephens has translated Catherine Mavrikakis, Gail Scott, John Keene, and Édouard Clissant.
 PAPER CITY, Nathalie Stephens
  Nathalie Stephens, PAPER CITY Coach House Books. 2003.
  "In a Paper City write nothing down." So commands this text, which dismantles itself as it charts its own admonished course, navigating the interstices between English and French, Stephens' own mother tongues. Through the disquieting absence of the letter characters "n" and "b," the narrator's attempt to uncover and record their lives, Stephens confronts and challenges human proscription through the untranslatability of experience, with ironic and apocalyptic consequences. Beneath this thin narrative runs an undercurrent of horror that decries the deliberate plunder of the City resulting from an absolute disregard for history's relationship to "the body's fictions"- what both "n" and "b" terms "art lost to numbers." 

...nomme ici la philosophie : c’est l’anticipation soucieuse de la mort, le soin à apporter au mourir, la méditation sur la meilleure façon de recevoir, de donner ou de se donner la mort, l’expérience d’une veille de la mort possible, et de la mort possible comme impossibilité ; — Jacques Derrida

...explicitly names philosophy : it is the attentive anticipation of death, the care brought to bear upon dying, the meditation on the best way to receive, give, or give oneself death, the experience of a vigil over the possibility of death, and over the possibility of death as impossibility. — Jacques Derrida (tr. David Wills)
, that I have given (to) the form of an injunction : nomme ici la philosophie. Name it. Stripped of its nominative clause, handed to the immediate demand, the sentence, hanged. Thus curtailed, philosophy’s demonstrations are plied, executed, as it were, by a syntactical constriction. Already I am in the wrong, having wronged (a language). The English makes clear indication of my misdemeanour, disallowing the syncope that thwarted my initial reading. (I did not read the English translation, I referred to it). In the way that an unmemorable inscription – To the memory of – recently yielded the fantastical distortion, – too much memory – (a visual occlusion), the early moment of Derrida’s sentence
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VSK PROJECT: The Middle Notebookes [extract] by Nathanaël

[ … ]

If by liberation you intend the emancipation from reason, sure. If it’s the thing that wracks groans and torment from the body, if at the moment of sleeping and waking it is the thing that  transforms me into a howling cemetery, a blood-soaked battlefield. I have become the war and the malady, the face of the death of a person. I have envisioned these technologies. (…) You see, if it isn’t a liberation, it is nonetheless a thing detached against the thing that lays it bare. I am the residue of a self, the absence of relation: thing and thing.
Your name is discarded at the side of the road. After the months of deliberations. Thrown among the gravel and algae of the pavement. This abandoned name is barely a death. It will happen to you one day in the mouth of another. That side-road name that holds the shape of your already-body. Your body in disbelief at not having that name.
With him, my I-him, in body, I have no further language. He grants me this reprieve.
My mind stops at the Bar Kokhba revolt and the collective suicide of the Guadeloupean marrons in 1802, alongside the Mulâtresse Solitude. More than ever, I understand that gesture. At the end of a battle, where nothing is ever won, the evidence of the only possible act is to set fire to oneself. The enemy is nowhere visible, and the city, as it so often is in my thinking, is empty, abandoned. What remains of it, I have ingested, in structure, in discourse, in enmity. The thing against which we fight becomes us. To obliterate it, it must surely be necessary to obliterate it in – and with – oneself. I cannot know what meaning to grant this in a present of abandon, of resentment, confusion and sorrow, of perverse euphoria. There are the cats who ask to be fed, and a love that surely doesn’t intend for me, but toward which I go.
The absence of a witness is the beginning of a murder. It became clear to me at the crematorium when the howl, immediately swallowed by the roar of the furnaces, was wrenched from me.
Eyes open or closed, it’s the same screen, the same blood, the same smell.
Desire’s accusations are irrefutable. I come to you with judgement and morbidity. Against a theatre of moveable parts, Genet insists “the architecture of the theatre … must be fixed, immobilized, so that it can be recognized as responsible : it will be judged on its form”. This, then, is my injunction, that I bring with me, my “irreversible” theatre. Judge me.
The conditional is bereaved: tense, unappeased. It carries potentiality’s breach, boring into the undetermined with disbelief. The if then of me, constructed such that uncertainty, embedded in the causal palate of language’s misdeed, is militantly rejected by a structuring of sated need. It locks into place, but this does nothing for a body that falls from a sky. The contaminant is alive, it is vital, distressed; it disregards our posturings. “Nothing is true”, contends Édouard Glissant, “everything is alive”. It is this untrue-alive, which is the end of I (je) – its everlast. The insistence of Cahun’s intransigeant interrogation, speaking, alive: what want and to what end this accusation of endings? Each thing in ending, at the very start. It is sometimes called: onset. And we are its disease.
The bed expulses me. My head seized by a liquid burn.
We are in time. That, too, is unthinkable.
You arrive shortly after. Days, weeks. You say: N. You rid my names of their gravity, their fatality. N., this residue of me, this scrap. You open your mouth with mine, you gorge my cries, you pull my body under the weight of you, I bite into the soil of your shoulder, you cry the continent and the passing hour. You say nothing, you sleep and give me your rest, the livid days of tomorrows. You read to me out loud. You are my passeur, laid over my disappearance.
Who will wash the body of my death. Who will kiss my bloody mouth. Who will swallow my cries, my pain. Who will consume my passing. Who will speak me.
I am bereft, and unjust. Now I can speak to you of this, now that I’ve written you I don’t know what it will be with the telephone next time or the time after that, but it is ok now that I have told you and please be secretive with this, guard it like a wingless bird with no eyes, who never saw a thing and is afraid of loud noises. Make it precious that way and irrepressibly endangered, such that you have no desire to whisper it, not even to yourself.
Fistfully. Mouthfully. The place you take into you is an injury and my prints are all over you. This is your city. Your tawdry. As though speaking of seeing could correct calamity. Our limbs are not limber. And geography cringes at the encroachement of further geography. Find the text that granted permission, the book that wanted burning, the mouth that needed closing, the hand held before an expressionless face. Brazen and stumbling. (2006)
Death is long, terribly long, notwithstanding the unbearable remainder.
…and into your sleep, I swear it, into your death, I will follow you. (Bernard-Marie Koltès)
If it is true that “desire is dead, killed by an image”, it may be that this accusatively emphatic image bespeaks the murderous vigil; to watch, unbidden. To bring the body, unworn, to testify against itself, to responsibilise its enmity, build up the wall of its own figuration, severely, make what is seen visible against history’s rent screen – a black box of miserly misery. Speak into speaking, unlistened. // I go to where it happens. The door is a door that closes. A gate that scrapes shut against a forensic, vaulted compound. These are its barbed technologies, its unmitigated heat, a fire that doesn’t burn, a blood that doesn’t bleed: the smell of it. If desire is dead it is dead at the point of seeing, accused, beseeching. It dies undead, it sees unspoken, it works its asphyxiation into the endangered throat, stripped of its vital civility, mouth open on no sound, untold. The wither image may have killed desire, ineradicably. Death’s death as it were, remaindered at its skinned edge, its posthumous (re)iteration, end upon devastated end.
Through the window, the city demonstrates its refusal.
A. tells me that I am at the bottom of the pit. But it isn’t at all that. A pit wouldn’t be so bad. A bottom, an utterly agreeable thing. Even unbearably agreeable. But a bottom would be something. I wasn’t able to tell her no, there is neither a bottom, nor a pit, nor a darkness, nor anything of the nihilistic dreams of the living. It’s rather of the order of a blank. I think so. Vigilation is something like that. The attention granted to a thing to the point of the obliteration of looking and of the thing. That is where the voice is lost, touch evaporates, it burns for not being able to burn.
Saarbrücken: am in another language, as in a body of water that submerges me without touching me.
One must agree to be finished: to be here and nowhere else, to do this and no other thing, now and not never nor ever … to have this life alone. (André Gorz)
An overly-aggrieved body, a face that carries several deaths already, including mine, and the murder of the mother, the brother. Who will ever want this mouth?
Crossing the square, I feel an utter disgust toward all these humans, I tell myself that it’s everywhere the same people, that it’s no surprise we perpetuate the same violences, just look at us. It isn’t that we don’t love enough, I think perhaps it is that we don’t hate one another enough. The human being is a botched animal.
You dance because you are conscious of death. (Pippo Delbono)
I continue to scatter myself to the wind, I’m in shreds in these places that seem to come to pieces as I move through them, as though my presence alone conferred their disintegration.
Wien: An unthinkable world.
November (end). Today I would like to speak to you. I know that you would have something to say to me, to me and to all of this, and that you would take me somewhere on foot, that you would have a thing or two to show me. I can’t imagine going back, but remaining is just as improbable. As for me, I would like one day to kiss your mouth and wonder whether mine is even capable of such a thing. Love from a loveless city. N.
My words tonight before a Viennese public in an old hospital reconstituted as a Universität made my mouth into a crypt and purged the last vital energies from the room. Ending unspeaking unbreathing and the room unsound. It is a disconcerting shame that accompanies a death, for the person remaining, the vitally-residual, with her culpable vitality, a fistful of aschenglorie, a scattered self. And a face which must only signify this from now on.
Kafka: My love for you doesn’t love itself. (Gorz)
The body is seized, inert, beating, palpitating, an anguish in time. Is it me.
Deutschland: I go toward everything as though I were late, our late desires, yes. It isn’t a place I would have chosen for myself. But we don’t choose our self.
The narrative of the end of a certain time is told in a new time which retains that end – an end by which it presents itself as beginning. (Lyotard)
Between two places, in a despotic airport (Frankfurt), I write my hope for an inevitable outre mesure. Might it be, in the end, a matter of “that unforgottenness of forgetting that isn’t memory”? (Malraux).
From part to parting, to be summoned is to be attentive to the surf that founds and founders being, I mean the eventuality of one’s existere, of one’s situation.
Vienna is not a city.
RY King’s photographic dissolve marks the paper immutable. Immutable in that it is always imbricated in a mechanism of deterioration. In this improper sense, the image is not separable from its degradation. Its substances are both paper and light. Thus they are neither, as they run into each other. The bird, in this instance, which is scarcely discernible, is in a field of apparent surfaces. It comprises the surface by which it becomes visible, an irregularity on a structure of hay bales in a field of depleted colour. The photograph misdirects its intention. It intends for me to fall in. In to America.
It comes with a number, assigned to a calcined human body which is incommunicable:                . When it says “…I need catastrophes, coups de théâtre”, it abandons sense. The lake is up to my knees in November.
The time of the photograph is (always) after. This imprecision accommodates the numerous successions, the end upon seismic end. In a time without time, un(re)countable: still. In this, it is a perfect crime, “the annihilation annihilated, the end … deprived of itself.”
Are you the sum of your cities? What are your cities? Es-tu la somme de tes villes? Quelles sont tes villes? “Wounded mouths that gape onto the void”? (Lyotard)
I crossed over, I touched, I howled, I gave, I envisioned, I was afraid and I went toward everything that seemed to go against me. I said yes in spite of myself, while saying never again – not Germany, not Austria, not America, not anywhere ever, especially not me – and it’s this conjunction surely that makes that I exist in the rapacious non-existence of the delirious (mis)deed.
Pain and pain again. But it isn’t mine, in that it doesn’t belong.
This trip to Germany and Austria was by turns very exacting, and always very emotional; I learned a lot, about myself, about history, about the very violence of my hopes. Vienna especially plied me, with its architecture of pomp and excess, in that city I hardly slept. Presents and pasts combined and I was suffocating… I was suffocating and this didn’t prevent me from feeling just as intensely the warmth with which I was everywhere welcomed. I emerge from it shaken, my head shattered, my body plunged into that (for me) beginning conversation and I am moved by the openings – gentle and violent – that sought me out. There is no turning away from it. I go to that which exceeds comprehension, the furore of history, the aleatory encounters, the receptiveness of a present within voice’s reach.
Time goes on, how curious, one doesn’t imagine that it could at such an hour.
“for we say here: the time before the fire and time after it.” (in Senocak)
To bring a life into the world is to bring that world to its death.
…a stable, several rooms, bicycle rides in the countryside, a terrible parking lot, people coming and going, a threat, unnamed, an eventual art show, and the rapid deterioration of my body in the face of everyone. Lying down or standing, the liquefaction of my joints, my bones floating in my remains, gaping holes at my knees, waxen skin, saying to R. who is watching television with several others, kill me, have mercy, why won’t you kill me. A boy beneath a blanket, but nothing was fixed, it must have been the residual death imprinted in the body, my installation in that savagery, its imprint of undesirability, tear me from this sleep.
As for this end, attached to a death, I am the one now who is changed by it, and who rejects certain narratives which make me into something I don’t want to be.
I make the connection between these texts and the sprig of creosote in the mail, your wanderments and a detailed attention granted to the unsuspected details of a fragile narrative of seasons and their material. The documentation of this – burst and furling. A magistral museum, the one that isn’t edified. I admire your eye and that which is emptied from it, the residue of a gaze is a form of (formless) archive.
We could think of the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision. (Pallasmaa)
It’s 3:30pm, time for me to sleep. I’ve already had one nap, twice gone round the neighbourhood, made and unmade the bed, adored the cats, prepared inedible foods, drunk the remaining tea, written several letters, taken some notes and checked the mail that doesn’t come. It’s impossible to make these tasks into a day, the day being obstinately out of reach, the door being unrecognisable, one walks into it, face first, still there is some relief in the sensation.
The next text is a kind of suppuration. It must be the equivalent of rubbing gravel and glass into a wound, but I must do this violence to myself now. Press my whole face into the ambient abjection, hatred, rage. Perhaps remove a blistered skin, rendering myself raw and possibly more humane.
[ … ]

At some point in Je Nathanaël you write “the human body is facing a crisis” and “sex is immersed in hermaphrodism”. Well, this book seems to work in a tension between body and language, art and desire. Do you think that all these terms (and concepts) are in crisis? In what sense?
I certainly hope they are in crisis. The senses continue manifestly to be overriden by discourse in North America, even those that purport to challenge the restraint of the senses by academic (theoretical) and corporate (capitalist) structures. When I wrote Je Nathanaël, which is now over ten years ago, this crisis, for me, was most articulable through the notion of translatability — which bears an arguable relationship to hermaphrodism (in which the overlay and disruption of clearly delineated bodies and languages provokes disintegrative states impressed with desire) — which belies the possibility of origination. Je Nathanaël, like Nathanaël himself, can claim no origin, linguistic or otherwise, as the text grew out of at least two languages at once — French and English. When Nathanaël looks over his shoulder, there is nothing (recountable) to see; time is otherwise affected for him, and not construable according to the accepted linearity of Modernity. Other than the absence of a body that is on the verge always of constituting itself. This crisis is a guarantor of a kind of sensorial vigilance which we’ve relinquished in favour of a kind of systematic deadening of the senses, and of desire.

Rachel Gontijo Araujo has said that you dare to think language as body. Thinking about that tension I’ve mentioned before, could you tell me what does it mean to you to deal with literature physically?
I suspect Rachel is in a better position than I am to answer such a question. I suppose it would be necessary first to question the distinction between the two and the assumptions that define them each individually. The blatancy of the Cartesian divide between body and mind might be instructive here; many so-called post-structuralist thinkers have resisted the notion of language as something incidental, an a-priori of sentience. Of course I disagree emphatically with this kind of facile interpretation which for me is a relinquishment of thought. But I don’t align myself with a particular school of thought nor any philosophical or poetic tendency. I’m wary of wholesale subscription to any system, and prefer something more ad hoc and aleatory. This means each time finding a way to the body in language, the very thing that foresaw the body in the first place. What it may mean in the physical sense of a text is best answered, I think, by the text itself.

How is this physicality related with punctuation (for example, the absence of commas) and with the way you place  the text on the page?
To this, I can only say that the disruption of syntactical authority accompanies the dismantlement of the gendered, sexed, body in this text. Je Nathanaël is a very different text in English than it is in French. And I’m curious to know what happens to it in Portuguese and Bulgarian — the other two languages into which it has been translated. Romance languages are so determined by gender that setting about this work to hermaphrodize French (one of the initial impulses of this project) required a very violent action against French grammatical strictures. This meant annihilating the subject, as in the section entitled La voix, in which the absence of pronouns rejects normative modes of address and inscription. The deception of The Voice is also the deception of language. But in English, something else happens. Suddenly, the work, like the English language, is less marked by gender, and so other strategies must be employed. None of it can be accounted for, I think, and the danger with parsing the text too closely, is that this kind of exercise strips the work of something essential: its sense.

In general terms, how well do you think sex is (re)presented in american literature?
I am afraid I cannot say much about this, as I have read relatively little of it — and besides, I don’t really know what American literature is. I’m not sure such a thing exists — anywhere; besides, there are many Americas. Still, my sense is that U.S. and Canadian literatures, while not nearly equivalent nor interchangeable suffer from both a strained prudishness and ostentatory obscenity. In North America, if we are not busy punishing the body for its excesses, then we are wanting to revolutionize it. Each extremity seems caught in a paradox of dependency. I’d rather think about something else.

You are working on the translation of Hilda Hilst’s “The Obscene Madame D”. What do you like about Hilst’s literature? Do you see any affinities between your own work and that of  Hilst?
Hilst, for me is a writer who truly writes the body — rather than most who theorize the writing of the body, and thus remain squarely in their fixed categories (and stroked by their respective academies). Hilst is brash, crude, elegant, aggrieved and grievous. I first read A Obscena Senhora D after having gone a long time without reading. I am an impatient reader, and as a result read relatively little. But it seemed to me that I could read this work for the rest of my life, and that Hilst was doing something others only claimed to be doing. Her work exceeds, for me, the work of Lispector, who is or was very popular in the U.S. and France because of Cixous’ championing of it. My first thought after reading Hilst was that this was a grave mistake. However much I like A hora da estrela, it doesn’t risk itself, nor lead me to risk myself as a reader the way Hilst does. Hilst is willing to destroy the thing she is making as she makes it. Paradoxically, this is what binds her text, and threatens to destroy her reader. As for affinities between our work, it would be presumptuous for me to measure such a thing. I am a great admirer of her.

I bet you don’t like to answer this question but tell me: who is Nathanaël for you?
You’re right, I don’t at all like this question. Besides, the answer is always changing. Who Nathanaëel was in 2003, 2006 and again in 2011 is different again and again. He began as an unrealized character in Les nourritures terrestres by André Gide. He entered me as a translation. He belonged to no one, certainly not the book. Now, who can say? Nathanaël is a name that is often unpronounceable. -
Nathalie Stephens (Nathanaël) writes l’entre-genre in English and French. She is the author of a dozen books including, The Sorrow And The Fast Of It (Nightboat (US), 2007), its French counterpart, …s’arrête? Je (L’Hexagone, 2007), Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006), Je Nathanaël (l’Hexagone, 2003) and L'Injure (l'Hexagone, 2004), a finalist for the 2005 Prix Alain-Grandbois and Prix Trillium. Je Nathanaël exists in English self-translation with BookThug (2006). Other work exists in Basque and Slovene with book-length translations in Bulgarian (Paradox, 2007). With Nota bene (Montréal, 2007), there is an essay of correspondence entitled L’absence au lieu (Claude Cahun et le livre inouvert), the self-translation of which is forthcoming with Nightboat (US): Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book). Stephens has guest lectured and performed her work internationally, notably in Sofia, Barcelona, Ljubljana, New York and Norwich. The recipient of a Chalmers Arts Fellowship and a British Centre for Literary Translation Residential Bursary, she was the keynote speaker at the 2006 edition of the University of Alberta's Annual Translation Conference. Stephens has translated Catherine Mavrikakis and François Turcot into English and Bhanu Kapil, Gail Scott and Andrew Zawacki into French, with a translation of work by Hélène Cixous forthcoming. Stephens presently teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It didn't. That was perhaps what was most sobering about it. The boundary between book and no book didn't enable me to cross it or any other boundary. There was no here to there, just the body registering further silences, I might sometimes say humiliations. It is maybe disingenuous to say so, now that there have been this many books. It is not, I think, an exaggeration to say that they were already there. Not as Jabès would say, that the body unfolds the book that is waiting to be written. It is not remotely that prophetic or determined. But that I moved toward the thing that was waiting; itself a form of movement. The movement enabled that encounter, the waiting that I anticipated, presumed, made possible the convergence there of what is arguably an impossibility.

2 - How long have you lived in Chicago, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I have lived with Chicago since 2002, though I entered the city proper as a resident two and a half years ago. I could measure time in deaths, disease; or else in encounter, friendship; gardens, architecture. The number of falls -- historical and communal. Geography is one way of measuring distance, the many encroachments, and yes, a form of inscription, a way of approaching textuality, of moving through text. But it is not ever limited to the place where I am. Rather, it is cumulative, and the madnesses emerge with those accretions. The littoral imitates the body's permeability -- is this gender? Yes, of course it is, but it transcends the body proper (body parts), the physiological body, making light of our theoretical lamentations, pushing thought past tissue and holding it there; there, being not ascribable to a single (singular) form or articulation. The holding patterns (nation, text) reveal our own subscriptions to nationalistic (genealogical) litany; this is not a call for dissidence, but a manifestation perhaps of the insidious overlap of lives and the constructs that seek to contain them in distinction.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

There are no poems anymore. There have not been for some time now. Not that form of encapsulation. I distrust what calls itself poetry -- any genre delineation. Genre pre- or proscription is territorially suspect, the germ of othering, faction. These arbitrary separations reinscribe -- or at very least suggest -- the implicit violences of imperialist, nationalist discourses, and carry with them the usual scourges of complicity and collaboration. Defined in this way, a text -- circumscribed by genre, in a language that reinforces these exclusions -- becomes (is) an occupied territory. Such a position, the positioning of genre, is ontologically untenable, and in my view dangerous.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Am I comfortable locating the questions in time? Pulling at the relational strands that belie the carapaced text? The affective dimension (dementia) of the unexpected. The arbitrary delineations of place. Darwish, for example: "Now where is my where"? A short list of questions reveals nothing, nothingness: absence, place, possibility. These may all be questionable questions, but none are answerable. And it is this exhaustive unanswerability, this positioning of subjectivity at the edge of multiple abysses that make of text (desire) an elusive gesture, anchored only to itself, and pulling whatever remains into its wake.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

The difficulties accrue. It is as though the self were pulled more and more thinly across the spine of each new book. The fragilities more visible, the implications multiplied. It is likely not so; the making of books hasn't changed, but my relationship to this process has, and with it my awareness of the compromises, the vulnerabilities, the surrender of a relationship to language in a context that withholds more than it offers. Art is not what it might have been; and whatever liberties or generosities I had first imagined I might find there are a veneer for the same filth that characterises most human endeavour. What was to have been a way of touching touches me now incontrovertibly, and not always reciprocally. This, perhaps is a kind of devastation; it is also the formulation of an ethics which is not ever separate from the painful questions from which it arises. Such that the binarism (harder-easier) does not apply. Simply the book is complicated by our relationships to it.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

This afternoon.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

The turn is inward. It is not so much a matter of going toward any one particular thing, but of inviting movement (back) into the body. Writing seems ironically to exist in direct contradiction with the movement (walking, for example) that enables it. In this respect, it is not a form of stillness, but a struggle with(in) the body's desire for reach. One winter, I walked up and down the shore of the Kantauri Itsasoa. This movement did not bring forward a book; it isn't causal in that way. It reminded the body of a thing it is always already forgetting. Language is in this way a form of treachery.

12 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Of the Cahun essay or Nightboat and recent Hexagone books (The Sorrow And The Fast Of It / ...s'arrête? Je), I can say this: that the membrane is ever more thin.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I want to say friendship. Which of course includes all of the above. It is a threshold become possible. The possibility of a threshold.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This is an impossible question. The obvious answers to which are explicit in some of the work. Still, at the moment (and the moment is never still): De l'évasion (Lévinas), Pour une morale de l'ambiguïté (de Beauvoir), L'Intention poétique (Glissant).

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Sit still.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

Forgive me for turning this question against itself, but as I read it, I am drawn away from it by the word occupation, in light especially of a new book about André Gide and WWII, the subtitle of which is A Writer's Occupation. This leads me again to the question of territoriality, and the ways in which we inhabit (occupy, claim, or possess) the spaces (such as language) that may very well be in control of us. The question thus reformulates itself in my mind as: What would you occupy, have you occupied (instead of this thing which you already occupy)?, the ethical tremor of which provokes a kind of terror. Because like it or not, we are all, to some degree, occupants. Occupying, and being occupied. And so driven by the circles we draw around ourselves.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

This is embarrassingly typical: L'étranger.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Nathanaël (formerly Nathalie Stephens) is the author of a score of books written in English or French, including We Press Ourselves Plainly, Carnet de délibérations, Paper City, and L'injure. Je Nathanaël exists in self-translation, as does the essay of correspondence, Absence Where As (Claude Cahun and the Unopened Book), first published in French as L'absence au lieu. There is a book of talks, At Alberta. Some texts exist in Basque, Slovene, and Spanish, with book-length translations in Bulgarian and Portuguese (Brazil). Nathanaël's work is repertoried in Constelación de poetas francófonas de cinco continentes (diez siglos) (Mexico). In addition to her self-translations, Nathanaël has translated Catherine Mavrikakis, Édouard Glissant and Hilda Hilst, the latter in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araújo. She lives in Chicago.

 In each issue of Capital Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, writer and video artist RM Vaughan recommends Nathalie Stephens’ Touch to Affliction (Coach House, 2006).

I distrust lists. And although this ongoing literary project by Capital Xtra — this creation of a “best queer books” recommendation list — is both laudable and vitally necessary (it’s not like the Canada Council or any other cultural agency under the Harper regime is going to do it for us queers), the project still smells a bit like a “top ten” — so I distrust the very enterprise. Lists, especially cultural compendiums, are inherently flawed, more notable for who and what they miss than whom or what they name.
I hope that Nathalie Stephens will forgive me then for plopping her mesmerizing talent into this big box of assorted chocolates. Especially since hers is a talent that lives and thrives well outside of any constructed canon. Nathalie is, by nature, averse to such conceits, as are the complex works Nathalie creates. But all my favourite writers exist beyond, and indeed resist, categorization.
To wit, let’s jump into Touch to Affliction, the best, in my not so humble opinion, of Nathalie’s recent works. I’ve chosen this book not just because I love it, but also because, as noted above, I distrust canon-building and this book easily defies canonization. That’s what makes it so queer.
Part meditation, part architectural study, part autobiography, part cultural study, part lament for the end of the world, and all, all, all pure gorgeous poetry (a word I apply to any piece of beautiful writing, no matter how it is formatted on the page), Touch to Affliction is a book that makes you feel like you are being led by a ghost through a maze, while hypnotized, after spending several hours spinning in circles with a gang of Sufi dancers. The book turns back on itself more often, and more flexibly, than a ferret with an itchy backside. You will never read it the same way twice.
If I had to testify about Touch to Affliction in court (a thrilling idea!), I would describe the book as a collection of prose poems inspired by various geographical settings. But, my heavens and hells, what a poor witness I would make! That description ain’t the half of it. Geographical settings, as Nathalie teaches us, include not just the rocks and trees, but also our minds, our sexualities, the whispers and songs our tongues cut into the air, our loves, and, most (and best and worst) of all, language itself. Don’t queers know this, in their hearts, that definitions and delineations are inherently untrustworthy, fluid?
Indeed, Touch to Affliction treats the very notion of “place” as if it were quicksilver (which it is), and then proceeds to follow the slippery, glistening idea “hellways and crooked,” as we say in my native New Brunswick. This is not a book “about,” it is a book that questions the reliability of “about,” of all tangible realities and, especially, our sense of self within space. Heavy-going, yes, but worth the weight.
Not that Nathalie will have anything to do with such cheap and fast analyses. I’m ashamed of myself already. As the narrator in Touch to Affliction warns us: “I am no landscape.”
Take that, Susanna Moodie!
RM Vaughan


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