Run Away from Me Now

Recently I wrote a post, titled “Mapping the Invisible,” about how a single map represents its terrain no better than the word “self” represents the multiple voices of our various internal selves.

In that post, I displayed two maps of Australia, one showing the modern political borders of the country, and the other ignoring that and instead displaying the hundreds of Australian aboriginal homelands. These two maps, together, add needed depth to a single place.

I also included a third map, revealing the historical instances of physical violence between aboriginals and colonists—mainly a record of massacres against indigenous people. This map is interactive, and clicking on a dot will call up the story of the massacre it locates.

Here is another pair of contrasting maps. The first simply represents the border between Mexico and the US.

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 6-29-18 12.20.32 PM

The second map, below (click for greater detail), records the 3,244 deaths that have occurred on the US side of the border from 1999 to 2018, numerous red dots that have been called “clearly marked ghosts.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 6-29-18 1.51.03 PM

This map, which was created by the organization Humane Borders, is also interactive. As the noted fiction and nonfiction writer Valeria Luiselli reports, in her remarkable book Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Humane Borders has created

“an online search mechanism that matches names of deceased migrants to the specific geographical coordinates where their remains were found. That way, family members of the missing can type a name into a search bar and either confirm their worst fears, when the map zooms in on a red dot in the desert, or continue to wait and hope.”

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 6-29-18 1.52.23 PM

These deaths in the US, however, pale in the face of additional statistics.

First, the majority of migrants attempting to enter the US are not from Mexico. Instead, they come from three countries to the south of Mexico: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 6-29-18 1.21.54 PM

And the journey north across Mexico is deadly. According to Luiselli:

“though it’s impossible to establish an actual number, some sources estimate that, since 2006, around 120,000 migrants have disappeared in their transit through Mexico.” Migrants are abducted, raped, beaten, killed. Hundreds of mass graves have been discovered in Mexico, with new ones being uncovered on a monthly basis.

So, if the path seeking a new life is fraught with such chilling danger, why would anyone attempt to do so?

Here, I would like to quote from the poem “Home,” by Warsan Shire (a poem I quoted from in my most recent post, “No One Leaves Home Unless”):

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Again, you can find the entire poem at this website.

Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are dysfunctional, nearly failed states that are largely ruled by gang violence. Families leave home because they are protecting their children: protecting their sons from either being killed by a gang or being forced to join one, and protecting their daughters from being raped by gang members and then being forced into a life of prostitution within the gang.

Migrants seeking asylum in the US are risking hell to escape the hell their home has become.

Valeria Luiselli knows this all too well. Her book recounts her experiences serving as a translator for children who have, against all odds, made it across the US border and are now seeking asylum. She sits across from them at a table and writes down the stories of these young survivors, stories that will determine whether the children can remain in the US.

Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 6-29-18 1.18.08 PM

One boy says, The gang followed me after school, and I ran, with my eyes closed I ran. So I write all that down, and then, in the margin, make a note: Persecution? He says more: And they followed me to school and later they followed me home with a gun. So I write that down, too, and then make a note: Death Threats? Then he says, They kicked my door open and shot my little brother. So I write that down, too, but then I’m not sure what note to make in the margin: Home country poses life threatening danger? Not in the child’s best interests to return? What words are the most precise ones? All too often I find myself not wanting to write anymore, wanting to just sit there, quietly listening, wishing that the story I’m hearing had a better ending. I listen, hoping that the bullet shot at this boy’s little brother had missed. But it didn’t. The little brother was killed, and the boy fled. And now he is being screened, by me. Later, his screening, like many others, is filed and sent away to a lawyer: a snapshot of a life that will wait in the dark until maybe someone finds it and decides to make it a case.

Luiselli worked as a translator beginning in 2015, in an immigration system that was already under deep stress. Trump’s willful, unprincipled, and immoral decisions have only made it worse. And it will not improve, that is not what this current president is all about. So we must protest, volunteer, and above all, vote, vote this November as if your life, and the lives of many others, depended on it.

And here is Luiselli, from her brave and necessary book, with a final thought:

“being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we can all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.”

 Go to post page

June 29th, 2018 by admin

No One Leaves Home Unless

Perhaps you harbor a memory like this, one that may have taken place on a busy street, or down a crowded mall concourse, in the maze of a department store or even a park: you walked with your child by your side, but something grabbed your attention and when you next looked down, your son or daughter was nowhere to be seen. Had your child simply wandered off, or been grabbed by a stranger? Do you remember the chilling fear of that moment, those anxious minutes before you found each other again?

Or maybe you have this memory lurking within: you were a small child at the mall with your parents. Something in a store caught your eye, and when you looked up, your mother and father were gone. Can you still recall, relive, the terror of that distant moment, when you were all alone, a lost child, even if only for a minute?

Imagine if that separation had lasted an hour, a day, a week, a month, forever.

What misery must thousands of men, women and children be going through right now on the southern border of our country? Asylum seekers have been forcibly separated from their children, their children live in fear and terror without their parents, and some of them are already effectively orphaned, because they will likely never be returned to their families.

Yesterday morning I found myself struggling with a mixture of anger and tears, as I read that infants and toddlers have been shipped to a small town in Texas, these children to be housed 20 to a tent. The temperature in the town that day was 106 degrees.

These tears of rage continued when I read that thousands of children will likely never be reunited with their parents, due to the chaotic and shambolic policy of our disgraceful government. Then I gave in to a “What-Has-Become-of-Our-Country” cry, followed by angry phone calls to the Department of Justice, the White House, and my two US senators. Later that day, my wife Alma and I attended a rally at the Rhode Island State House sponsored by March for Racial Justice RI, protesting the separation of migrant children from their parents.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 6-21-18 10.20.12 AM

Surrounded by hundreds of angry people, we listened to outraged speeches, joined chants of solidarity, shouted “Boo!” or “No!” whenever needed, all of this a part of the necessary work of citizenship, because at times like this, we need to feel that we are not alone. Then one of the speakers read “Home,” a poem by Warsan Shire, and those same hundreds of people grew quiet.

Here is an excerpt:


no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land . . .

Just as with all those speeches and our call-and-response shouting, once again we in the crowd felt united, but this was a different connection we shared. We were together as we listened, but also united in our individual responses to the impact of powerful art. The asylum seekers we had come to support were now far more than a political abstraction (however deeply felt), they had become living breathing people reacting to the horror of their lives exactly as we would respond, were we in the same situation.

You can read the entire text of this magnificent, moving poem here.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 6-20-18 9.46.11 PM

Warsan Shire

Partisan passion is important in these times, we won’t survive this despicable Trump era without it, but art can deliver a deeper punch, one that weds understanding and empathy with political dedication. Listening to Shire’s poem I was reminded of another powerful work of art I’d recently read, the novel Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid.

Screen Shot 2018-06-20 at 6-20-18 9.48.21 PM

The novel begins in an unnamed Middle Eastern city, one that could be located in perhaps either Iraq or Syria. It’s an increasingly failed city in an increasingly failed state, a city that has daily become more and more dangerous to live in. A young couple, Nadia and Saeed, don’t know how they can remain any longer, and then they hear rumors of “portals” dotted about the city, a circle of escape that will instantly deliver a person to another and safer country.

They manage to locate people in the know, they pay the price, and Nadia is the first to step through:

“It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat.”

Nadia and Saed’s rebirth, however, takes far longer than that brief passage. Leaving one’s country, it seems, entails finding the undiscovered country of oneself. And the world itself changes, as those portals proliferate across the globe, and the notion of borders begins to erase.

Hamid’s novel echoed in me as I later read yet another powerful work of art, Border, by Kapka Kassabova, who says this: “A crossroads appears twice in the mythical mind: when you travel and when you die. In both cases, you must make a choice that shapes your next destination.” In this nonfiction masterwork, Kassabova travels back and forth across the contemporary borders of Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, borders that have morphed and altered innumerable times over the course of millennia, borders whose ancient (and not so ancient) wounds of displacement are still raw. And as she travels, she encounters people who could be Nadia and Saeed, ordinary yet desperate seekers of a better life, who are trying to cross the borders of Europe that are increasingly closed to them.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 6-21-18 1.08.51 PM

Here in the US, we are struggling along our southern border to contend with people trying to escape the chaos of dysfunctional states in Central America. But we are doing so without the guidance of our better angels. What our government has decided upon is State-sponsored terrorism, conducted against families and targeting children. This crisis is hardly the first horror bestowed upon us by this monstrous administration, and it surely won’t be the last. Political action has become essential these days, exercising our right to vote is a necessity, and art can help frame and illuminate our commitment. In this way we might redeem our country’s promise, protect the traumatized lives of children from neighboring countries we’ve never met, and safeguard the future lives of the children we do know, in this country of ours that must not become completely unrecognizable.

 Go to post page

June 21st, 2018 by admin

Mapping the Invisible

For the past two years I have been haunted by the memory of my first viewing of an unusual map, its PowerPoint image shining from the wall of a lecture room.

In the fall of 2015, I had the great privilege of participating in a month-long writing residency with fourteen other writers from around the world, sponsored by Sun Yat-sen University in China. During the residency I attended a talk by one of my fellow invitees, the Wiradjuri aboriginal writer and scholar Jeanine Leane. On the wall behind her, she’d projected a map of Australia that looked both familiar and unfamiliar. It almost appeared to be a map showing geographical features— there were lots of color-coded areas, their internal borders quite fluid in shape—but that wasn’t quite right.

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 4-17-18 9.18.42 AM

What Leane displayed was a map depicting the many Aboriginal homelands on the continent we know of as Australia, homelands that are rendered invisible on the standard westernized map.

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 4-17-18 9.21.06 AM

This was a map that insisted on a viewer seeing what is usually suppressed, thereby in turn rendering invisible the six territories of the modern Australian state that are normally depicted carving up the continent.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 12-9-17 5.00.21 PM

This map of Australia that I was more familiar with displays a grid of the six states or territories (seven if you include the island of Tasmania), most of them employing straight lines, a little like the state lines in the mid-and far west of the US. The sort of map you’d find in an atlas, or on a globe, outlining the country’s modern administrative provinces.

Each map is the other’s dark matter.

The gravitational pull of these two maps doesn’t include a third type of map, one that shows the historic clash between cultures, the colonizers against the colonized. In her New Yorker article, “The Mapping of Massacres,” the excellent Australian Writer Ceridwen Dovey (author of Only the Animals) tells us of a third map that is still in the process of being developed, an interactive map that reveals where these two different cultures have met, and clashed, in history. Unfortunately it’s a story of one massacre after another, mostly European settlers slaughtering indigenous peoples.

Dovey tells of Judy Watson, an aboriginal artist of the Waanyi people, and the historian Lyndall Ryan, who are, with painstaking research, putting together separate interactive maps of these massacres, the memories of which have been largely forgotten by one side, and kept alive by the other. It all adds up to 500 attacks against indigenous people, and less than ten against European settlers. On these maps, one can press a geographical point, and the hidden story rises as a digital tab. Which, with Watson’s map, you can do by clicking here.


There is a secret to the overlay of these three maps of Australia that contradict and strangely complement each other, because together they create a fourth map that only exists in the mind, a map that cannot exist without the gravitational pull of its three parts.

Here is another map I keep returning to, one of the African continent that immediately alters one’s perceptions because the map is “upside-down.” Northern Africa is now where we expect South Africa to be. “North” and “south” are of course cartographic conventions, and a map may be oriented any way one likes.

But that’s not the end of the challenge of this map. Like Jeanine Leane’s map of the continent we know of as Australia, this map too asserts a different reality: here we see well-established empires, sultanates, and countries across the African continent that were disrupted or destroyed by the arrival of Western colonization and the slave trade.

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 4-17-18 9.26.48 AM

No country is a quiet place, though individual maps seem to urge that interpretation. Perhaps maps should never be published singly, but in conjunction with a family of related maps, an unruly collection of contradictory landscapes. Maps need other maps that are partners, rivals, skeptics, whistle-blowers, maps that improve by filling in each others’ blanks, maps of weather patterns, of population distribution, of political voting records, of economic activity, road maps, topographical maps, maps revealing the distribution of diseases, or the seasonal flight patterns of birds, or the historical expansion and contraction of borders.

A single map will never give you the whole story.

The grouping of those maps of Australia is a stark example of recovered history, and their combination allows the dead, the forgotten, and the unseen to rise from their hidden graves and the cultural invisibility that has been imposed upon them. But there’s another truth these maps point to, a more personal, inner truth: they are not unlike the maps that we make within ourselves, of ourselves, of the formal face we present to the world, and the myriad unruly energies that simmer beneath that, and the points where hidden and public fight for primacy. To make a truly accurate map of all these aspects of the self is an impossible task, and we are always on the verge of being lost.

The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa created a series of “maps” within him: he created (primarily) four other poets of his imagination–Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares (labeled by Pessoa as his “heteronyms”)–who each wrote a different style of poetry. They were invented poets who together became his private literary salon. He didn’t believe in the “self,” only “selves.”


Here, in a poem attributed to Pessoa himself, untitled except for the notation that it was written on the 5th of June 1917, he asks,

What destiny in me keeps on marching in the darkness?
What part of me that I don’t know is my guide?

And later in the poem, he poses this question:

What soul besides mine inhabits my soul?

Peter Turchi, the author of the marvelous book Maps of the Imagination—which finds countless parallels between the writing of literature and map making—observes, “All writing imposes order, eventually, in the same way that we impose order on our thoughts every day so as to get things done and to hold conversations . . . In the course of daily interactions we constantly edit, revise, suppress. We make sense.”

Screen Shot 2018-04-17 at 4-17-18 9.32.53 AM

We create and cross internal borders constantly. In my novel-in-progress, Invisible Country, I recount the interweaving afterlives of ten ghosts in one small American city; one of them, Carmen Sanchez-Schwartz, has a lot to say about borders:

“Where was the border I passed when I listened to a Mozart sonata, when I ate an eggroll, drank Italian wine, wore a dress with an African print, or when I read a book written by a man? Was there an exact crossing point, a speed bump, or a tollbooth that announced: You’re someplace else now, you’re no longer where you were?

“Where is the line across my heart that binds my father and mother together? How do you divide my Latina from my Jewish genes? Where are the ethnic borders inside every one of my cells, and how do you separate the English from the Spanish words that make up my thoughts? Where is the Solomon in this or any world who could solve such a conundrum?

“Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I married a musician, so I could listen to Carl’s two hands travel from key to key and create a single breathing thing.”

Every private, personal border suggests not only where to go, but also where we may have been, and one’s evolving inner border crossings can explore territory that otherwise might have been ignored or avoided, and rearrange it, revise it, contract or expand it, translate the past for the present, or translate one hidden self to another..

Into English, a recently published anthology of translations, does a very smart thing: one poem in the original language (by poets such as Sappho, Rilke, and Transtromer) is chosen, and then not one but three different translations of that poem are offered, followed by a short essay written by a fourth translator about the various hits and misses of each translation. One of the anthology’s editors, Martha Collins, writes, “you can experience a lot of pleasure by making your own comparisons among the translations of any given poem: the more you look and read, the more you’re apt to discover. Whether you are a reader or writer or translator, we welcome you to experience what George Kalogeris, quoting Virgil, describes as a process of “song replying to song replying to song.”

Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 1-26-18 5.18.13 PM

Just as three or more maps can be used to give a fuller understanding of a geographic space, Into English does this for the translation of poetry. There is no single perfect translation. To give an example, here are the first two lines, in the original Spanish, of a poem by Frederico García Lorca: Gracela de la terrible presencia.

Yo Quiero que el agua quede sin cauce.
Yo quiero que el viento se quede sin valles.

The anthology’s commentator for this poem, Rebecca Seiferle, notes that these two lines of Lorca’s poem say, literally:

I want the water left without a channel.
I want the wind left without valleys.

As translated by W.S. Merwin, this becomes:

I want the water reft from its bed,
I want the wind left without valleys.

And as translated by Catherine Brown:

I want there to be no channel for the water.
I want there to be no valleys for the wind.

And here is Michael Smith’s version:

I want the stream to lose its banks.
I want no slopes to cradle the wind.

Commentator Seiferle notes, “Each of these translators adds to the poem at the beginning, striking certain notes that bring in associations, emotional nuances, shifts away from Lorca’s original. Because those notes are struck in the opening lines, they are like a tuning key for the choices that follow.”

The rich language of poetry creates possibilities upon possibilities, and what is implied in one language can’t necessarily be captured in another, at least not completely. Oddly enough, the pull of three side-by-side translations of the same poem, each one imperfect, seems, at least to me, to give a fuller sense of the always elusive original.

The novelist Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “The author must know his [or her] countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his [her] hand.” Yet even with a layering of translations, or a raft of related maps, or the construction of a self into several different poets, or a declaration at seemingly infinite internal border crossings, how can any “countryside” ever be fully known?


Translation of the Fernando Pessoa poem is by Richard Zenith, from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems.

Excerpt from the Invisible Country chapter, “My Miracle,” was first published in Western Humanities Review.

The interactive map of massacres of Australian aboriginal peoples, by historian Lyndall Ryan, can be accessed by clicking here.

For a larger, closer look at the maps of Australia and Africa displayed above in this craft post, simply click on them.

Illustration of Fernando Pessoa by Catarina Inácio.

For those who may be further interested in reading multiple translations of a single poem, run, don’t walk, to Eliot Weinberger’s masterly 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei.

 Go to post page

April 17th, 2018 by admin

Icelandic Sagas and Spirit Companions

For a time back in the 1970s I couldn’t stop reading medieval Icelandic sagas. I can’t remember how this interest began, but if I were to guess through memory’s haze, I’d say it was probably while facing a wall of Penguin Classics paperbacks in some bookstore, those black or orange spines of the series promising some new literary discovery. Anyway, the reading of one saga hooked me for the rest. Considered the glory of medieval European literature, Icelandic sagas are strange books, their narratives fueled by Viking feuds that last for years or even decades until settled at an annual parliamentary and legal gathering (the first of its kind in Europe) called the Althing. Every now and then a little burst of the supernatural erupts in the sagas: a character with second sight, a dream that accurately predicts the future, a bit of shape-shifting. And love spells (and curses) are often cast—and quite expertly—by powerful women.

Most of the Icelandic Sagas were written two or three hundred years after historical events that took place in the ninth and tenth centuries. Like Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, the sagas were passed down through the years orally, before finally being codified into written versions. The people of the sagas, though actual figures from history, became literary characters.

These written versions contain a certain romantic nostalgia for a lost world of heroes, where death wasn’t feared but instead welcomed—if honor was at stake. The attraction for me in plunging into these books (I read five of them in short order) was watching the dramatic logic of a very different culture spool itself out, with individuals or entire families sometimes heading open-eyed to their doom. It seemed like not such a bad idea to bring a couple of them with me to West Africa, where I lived in a small rural village among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire with my wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, for sixteen months, from 1979-1981.

Early on during our stay in the Beng village of Kossangbé I read Njal’s Saga, which many critics consider the greatest of all the sagas, for its long tragic arcs of narrative, wide cast of characters, and spare yet evocative writing.


I remember sitting on a reclining palm frond chair and closing the book when finally done, sitting there in the late afternoon of an African village, filled with the sight of women returning from the forest with firewood for cooking the evening meal, children chasing each other in play, and the thatched roofs of mud houses forming a gray pattern into the distance. Yet I was also filled with the competing, interior sights of Vikings on horseback heading into an ambush, or the tense moments of judgment during the annual Althing, when violent feuds and festering grudges were settled peacefully, though expensively.

As I sat there, the presence of Africa won out—not only because of the immediacy of my surroundings, but also because of the onset of a chill that signaled an approaching bout of malaria. This would be my second attack in as many months.

That evening, in our mud brick house, Alma recorded my temperature periodically, and for an alarming stretch of four hours I remained stuck at the 106 degrees fever mark. Unable to hold down sips of water, exhausted and dehydrated, I could barely speak, barely maintain consciousness. Consulting a book we’d brought along with the sobering title Where There Is No Doctor, Alma found the recipe for a “rehydration drink,” and she hurried to the kitchen. As I wrote in Parallel Worlds, the memoir Alma and I co-authored:

Then I heard Alma, so far away, stirring something in the kitchen: the faintest sound of a spoon scraping rhythmically inside of an enamel cup. It went on and on forever, until I felt it would pull me out of myself. Struggling with the heavy weight of my lids, I finally opened my eyes.

I saw, just outside the mosquito netting, two huge armored and bearded warriors, the outlines of their bodies faint, like ghosts. They were Vikings, visions straight out of my Icelandic saga. They pulled out their swords and slashed away at each other, and the odd, almost dispassionate sweep of their blades temporarily distracted me from my fever and the terrible dryness in my throat. I gaped at this slow-motion battle and listened to the Vikings’ shields echoing from each blow like footsteps.

“Alma,” I called out, and there she was, alone before me.

That rehydration drink clearly worked, or I wouldn’t be writing this today. From then on Iceland became for me a land of haunted shapes. Yet there was another possible significance that would take me decades to discover.

You can probably imagine my excitement when I heard that the 2017 NonfictionNow conference would be held in Iceland. Alma wanted to come along too (who could shrug off a possible trip to a location like that?). When we searched online for an AirBnB apartment in Reykjavik and discovered one on Njalsgata (Njal’s Street!), there was no question where we’d be staying.

It turned out that there are many, many streets in Reykjavik that are named after saga heroes, and many museums throughout Iceland devoted to a celebration of specific sagas. Before and after the conference, Alma and I traveled to various parts of Iceland’s remarkably austere, often otherworldly countryside. In the town of Borgarnes (at the southern base of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula), we visited the Settlement Center Museum. There, an exhibition devoted to Egil’s Saga will take you through the major plot points.

Egil was a confounding combination of trickster, warrior, poet and sorcerer. The Icelandic word for poet is skald, and Egil was a renowned skald, because after getting into some terrible scrapes he often saved himself by reciting his verse, which was seemingly invented on the spot. Vikings like poetry. Here’s one example of Egil’s spontaneous creations:

I made a mockery of
Their Majesties’ mastery,
I don’t deceive myself
As to what I dare;
A trio of true
And trusty royal servants
Have I hacked and hurled
Down to Hell eternal.

I should add that Vikings liked their poetry pretty rough.

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 10-1-17 8.58.36 PM

Near the Settlement Museum in Borgarnes you can walk to the edge of the Brákin strait, a body of water named after Thorgerd Brák, Egil’s childhood nurse. Thorgerd, having saved Egil from his murderous father, Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, jumped into the water in an attempt to swim away from the father’s wrath. Skallagrímur, however, “hurled a great piece of rock after her that caught her between the shoulder-blades, and neither she nor the rock ever came to the surface again.”

I think probably everyone in Iceland knows where this strait is, and the story behind it. The people of the sagas, long dead these past one thousand years, remain as vibrant as the living. The site of the Althing, for instance, is a kind of shrine, not just a tourist attraction. Located 50 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik, the summer parliamentary councils and legal hearings of the Althing took place beside a waterfall, on a flat section of a river valley formed between two separating tectonic plates.

Of course Alma and I visited.


It’s here that the Viking hero Gunnar of Hlidarend first met his future wife, the hard-hearted Hallgerd, here where the families of Njal and Flossi settled (temporarily, alas) the fines arising from the death of Hoskuld. Here artisans and merchants met, here storytelling skalds entertained the gathered clans of every far-flung corner of Iceland.


Besides the Egil’s Saga Exhibition in Borgarnes, there is an entire museum devoted to Njal’s Saga in the town of Hvolsvollur. This town is located near the landscapes where the dramas of the saga once took place, such as the river Markar (or Markarfljot), whose waters meander across a flat plain after arriving from a glacial mountain in the distance. This river is the site of one of the great, gory moments in Icelandic literature, the climactic battle between Njal’s outnumbered sons and the despicable Thrain and his clan:

Skarp-Hedin [Njal’s son] raced down straight towards the river, which was much too deep to be forded anywhere along that stretch. A huge sheet of ice had formed a low hump on the other side of the channel. It was as smooth as glass, and Thrain and his men had stopped in the middle of this hump. Skarp-Hedin made a leap and cleared the channel between the ice banks, steadied himself, and at once went into a slide: the ice was glassy-smooth, and he skimmed as fast as a bird.

Thrain was then about to put on his helmet. Skarp-Hedin came swooping down on him and swung at him with his ax. The ax crashed down on his head and split it down to the jaw-bone, spilling the back-teeth on to the ice. It all happened so quickly that no one had time to land a blow on Skarp-Hedin as he skimmed past at great speed. Tjorvi threw a shield into his path, but Skarp-Hedin cleared it with a jump without losing his balance and slid to the other side of the sheet-ice.

Kari and the others came running up.

“That was man’s work,” said Kari.


Yes, there is a Skarp-Hedin Street in Reykjavik.

I have to confess, though, that by the time I’d made my pilgrimage to Iceland, eager to follow the trails of the sagas, I’d had my vision altered by a novel, Wayward Heroes, written by the modern Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955, Laxness designed his novel to deflate any reader’s budding (or established) nostalgia for the Viking days. Though written in the style of the old sagas, Wayward Heroes remains far from their spirit. Laxness makes clear that there was nothing romantic or uncomplicated about the raiding parties of the Vikings along the coasts of Scotland, Ireland and England. The Vikings were brutal pirates, pillaging, raping and enslaving the people of the seaside towns they encountered.


Laxness’ novel tells the story of Thorgeir and Thormod, fatherless young men that were, as children, raised by their mothers on the stories of the sagas. They grew up loving a world that no longer existed, and they tried to live by that world’s values. As Thorgeir said, “A hero is one who fears neither man nor god nor beast, neither sorcerer nor ogre, neither himself nor his fate, and challenges one and all to fight until he is laid out in the grass by his enemies’ weapons. And only he is a skald who swells such a man’s praise.”

In the times that Thorgeir and Thormod lived in, most Icelanders had little interest in the Viking codes of honor: newly Christianized, they were mostly interested in peace and commerce. Part of the grim humor of the novel is that while everyone around them realizes they are anomalies, living ghosts of a lost world, Thorgeir and Thormod cannot see this as they create havoc and misery. The scorn of others, the setbacks they continually encounter never seem to deter them from their slowly approaching, inglorious deaths.

I’d also begun rereading Njal’s Saga before our trip, was still rereading it as Alma and I made our way through saga territory. But Laxness’ novel had dampened some of my enthusiasm for Njal’s grim tale. So as I walked through that museum in Hvolsvollur, which lovingly led a visitor through the magisterial unfolding of the saga, with the P.A. system playing a recording of horses hooves and clanging swords in the background, I felt I was both there and not there, both a fan and critic of a book I’d long loved. Alma came upon a wooden bin of plastic Viking helmets and set one on my head, camera drawn, but I agreed to the picture only if she promised to never, ever post it on any social media page.

My mood in the museum was further complicated by a footnote in Njal’s Saga that I’d recently come upon, a footnote whose contents I’d utterly forgotten from my first reading 38 years ago. It concerned the concept of something called a fylgja (also known as a “fetch”), which is: “the personification of a person’s spirit, perceptible to those with second sight or magic powers. Fetches often manifested themselves at times of crisis.” Reading this footnote, I thought it might have something to do with those Viking apparitions I’d seen during a malarial fever.

When Alma and I approached the end of the Njal museum, of course the last room—as in every museum—was a gift shop. Lots of overpriced sweaters, stuffed toys of Vikings, medieval chachkas of all sorts. And among all the touristy books was one titled Museum of Hidden Beings, by Arngrímur Sigurdsson.


This was just the book for me. Apparently, Icelandic folklore contains a wide panoply of hidden creatures, including air spirits, milk worms, tide mice, elves, dwarves, sea cows, night trolls, shell monsters and more. Sigurdsson’s book takes you through the entire pantheon, one page of text and his own artist’s rendering on the facing page for each imagined creature.

As I paged through the book I came upon the two-page chapter devoted to the fylgja.

“Folklore,” Sigurdsson writes, “claims that when a baby is born, part of its soul remains, as a unique being, in the membrane that surrounds it in the womb and which later emerges as the afterbirth. This being is called a fylgja and will become the baby’s leader and, most likely, protector. It was referred to as sacred and may have been associated with destiny and fortune.”

Fylgja are shape-shifting spirit companions who can assume a metaphoric guise of what most troubles a person—like a chunk of the unconscious that rises up with a warning or alert.


Those two Vikings I’d hallucinated outside the mosquito netting now had another possible explanation. Perhaps they were a manifestation of my fylgja. Perhaps my spirit companion split itself in two and the sword fight, echoing Alma’s scraping of the metal spoon against the enamel cup as she made the rehydration drink, was meant to keep me amazed and awake, was meant to prevent me from slipping into a dangerous unconsciousness before my wife returned to me.

I’m willing to consider it. As a child I was raised a Catholic, attuned to the mysterious presence of a personal guardian angel. I’ve lived in small villages in West Africa where people organize their lives around the belief in spirits and invisible ancestors and sorcery. There are more than a few Beng people that will tell you a bicycle accident I once had actually was an attack by hill spirits. And I’m the kind of writer who believes that the code of what is invisible in the world might be cracked–even if only a little–by short stories, novels, poetry and essays.

I walked to the museum shop’s cash register and paid for Sigurdsson’s book, all the while regarding his image of the smoky transforming face of a fylgja, its wide-open eye staring back at me. This trip to Iceland had somehow brought me full circle, revealing a possibility to my 65 year-old self that my 28 year-old self hadn’t guessed at, and I wondered: how many stories in my life contain a hidden coda?

Then Alma and I left the museum, started the car, and drove off for the Markar River, where ghosts still reigned, where Skarp-Hedin once slid across the ice to split open the skull of the unfortunate Thrain.

 Go to post page

October 2nd, 2017 by admin

Where Words and Music Meet

I’ll be teaching in the Sozopol Nonfiction Writing Seminar in Bulgaria this summer, and there’s little I love more than preparing for a trip to a country I’ve never visited before. For me, one of the most rewarding anticipations is exploring that country’s literature, history, and music. So I’ve been poring through books, discovering Bulgarian writers such as Georgi Gospodinov, Nikolai Grozni, and Kapka Kassabova, and the English writer who traveled through Bulgaria in 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor. And then there’s the music.

Years ago, back in 1987, I discovered a CD of women’s choral music of Bulgaria, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. The keening solo voices and the tight, eerie harmonies of the chorus created an otherworldly atmosphere, and while this music is often called “angelic,” it also has both feet firmly in the soil. Over the years I’ve returned again and again to the earthy, uncanny grace of this album.

Recently I’ve found a cache of videos on the web of Bulgarian choral music, and one of my favorites is this performance of “Malka Moma,” with the Philip Koutev Choir and solo singer Neli Andreeva.

The lyrics (in English translation, of course) add further depth to this gorgeous song:

A young woman asks God:
Give me, God, dove eyes,
Give me, God, falcon wings
To fly over the white Danube river
To find a young man who is a match for me.

In the second stanza God, happily, grants her wish.

There’s a video of another song, “Koji Lyo,” by the same chorus and also fronted by Andreeva, that’s even more entrancing. Unfortunately the “embed” feature is disabled. But if you like the video above, then you should make your way here, and pronto.

Exploring these videos has reminded me of how important music is to my life. It’s like a second home within the home in which I live. I listen to whatever I can, every day, any kind of music, no matter how obscure, just so long as it is transporting in surprising ways, just so long as it grows the mind through the ears.

Yet when I first read this quote by Heinrich Heine,

“Where words leave off, music begins,”

I was not pleased.

Why this dis of literature? Writing isn’t a helicopter pad for music’s takeoff, it flies too. Though I may be a writer only (I merely listen: I can’t play a musical instrument, and even on a kazoo I barely manage elementary kazoo noises), my life has long been fueled by a mixture of literature and music.

Bill Holmes, in his book The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland, in describing the use of dramatic silence in the music of Hayden and Bruckner, says, “What Pound said of literature can also be said of music: that it is ‘news that stays news.’”

Exactly. The headlines may be expressed differently, the who-what-where-when-why may be arrived at through other paths and by different means, but they share an urgency of revelation. Composers may express narrative tension out of musical notes, but writers are somehow able to create music out of words.


And writers write beautifully about music. Holmes’ passages about specific works by Haydn and Bruckner are among the most affecting moments in his excellent memoir. Here’s a memorable quote: “Bruckner does not write music for gazelles or butterflies, but rather for mountains dancing. They move with the slow inexorableness of glaciers, and, when icebergs fall, the listener has been aurally prepared for the great crashing into the sea.”

Music may be beyond language (at least music without lyrics), but we think in words, and as we listen we often shape what we hear into metaphor, images, narratives. It’s a form of translation, from one genre to another. As has often been observed, all translations are imperfect. But all translations are necessary as well.

And superb examples abound in fiction. The novel Wunderkind, by the (Bulgarian!) writer Nikolai Grozni, is set in a state-sponsored music school in Sofia during the last year or so of communist rule.


In this novel the best musicians are also the worst-behaved students, always chaffing at the smothering strictures of an authoritarian school and society. The teenaged and supremely talented pianist Konstantin is perhaps the most difficult case. In the scene that follows, Konstantin has lost a bet with fellow student Irina that her violin playing cannot make him cry. Soon after his first tears it’s pay up time. The price? Konstantin has to take off his pants, walk on the narrow fifth floor ledge and enter his next class through the window before the teacher arrives. A daunting enough task, but then his concentration is undermined by the distant sound of a piano:

From where I stood I could hear the high-register notes of the Yamaha in Chamber Hall No. 2, five stories below. Someone was rehearsing Chopin’s Prélude in A Minor with unabashed barbarism, exaggerating the inherent ugliness in the chord progression. Balancing on the ledge of the building with nothing to hold onto except my will, I thought back to my twelfth birthday, when Ladybug had given me the sheet music of the complete preludes and instructed me to spend a night reading the A-minor prelude, without touching the piano. In this way, before I ever heard this prelude played, I’d heard it in my mind. I’d heard the raw chromaticism in the left hand and the bleak, determined voice in the right. I’d heard the voice and the accompaniment drifting apart until the voice was completely alone, a quiet monologue going nowhere, saying nothing. What I hadn’t heard while reading the sheet music was the left-hand groove, evoking the sound of a broken barrel organ in the streets of Paris, or Warsaw, in the middle of winter, an eternal winter with gray skies and chandeliers of ice and stray dogs sleeping on steaming manhole covers. On the bottom staff—the taste of earth, worms, and dust; the smell of dead leaves and frankincense. On the top—the luminosity of awareness making sense of transience and predestination. Three quiet major chords marked the moment of death, because death was sweet. It was our true home, the home we’d left and been trying to get back to. It’s what we passed through before and would pass through again, a moment of truth that suspended the weight of thought, the weight of the will to inhabit a dead universe.

The third bell rang just as I reached the corner and edged myself toward the window of my classroom . . .

In The Friends of Freeland, by poet and novelist Brad Leithauser, a parable is presented: God is pleased with you, and offers to grant you a wish. You ask to hear some of the music Mozart has been composing in heaven, and voila!–here you sit in an auditorium, facing an orchestra of angels, with Mozart himself conducting.


Mozart, Leithauser tells us, has been busy in the afterlife, having written 27,272 symphonies, so what follows promises to be a long concert:

The concert begins, Mozart’s Symphony no. 77 in A Minor, “The More than Everlasting,” K. 1027 . . . so ravishing is this music, your body becomes an instrument, infinitely subtler in its vibrating niceties than any Steinway or Stradivarius. This is music whose every demi-semi-quaver is both indispensible and independently fulfilling; music that reconfigures the topography of your brain, opening sectors wherein thoughts have never penetrated and into which they now go surging with all the breathtaking agility of a flock of helical-horned gazelles bounding down a green savannah; this is music that evokes the word ineffable and dismantles it—in a fable—and eventually explodes it, sending sky-high, in a glittering alphabetic strew, a’s and i’s and f’s and b’s, for language is no longer of any use to us here.

The symphony concludes.

The second symphony, Mozart’s Symphony no. 727 in G Sharp Major, “Ascending Orders of the Infinite,” K. 2500, commences. And it is far more beautiful still, you perch in your chair like a fern beside the perpetually sliding crest of Victoria Falls, absorbing the rainbow-filtered solar harmonies through your every cell. These melodies are aliment, they are Life Itself; indeed, they are more than Life, having as they do their origin in a zone beyond all questions of mutability, mortality.

The second symphony concludes.

Commences now the third performance, Mozart’s Symphony no. 1779 in A Flat Minor and D Sharp Major, “The Borderless Beyond,” K. 5339 . . .

The music Leithauser describes is glorious, perhaps too glorious, because after a few more symphonies the seat starts feeling lumpy and the grateful listener begins to long for the lobby, where snacks are being served. Leithauser continues for three more paragraphs about the difficulties, in any art form, of keeping the attention of an audience:

And is the moral of my fable clear? Art is willing, but the flesh is weak . . . Poor Mozart: he conducts so raptly he fails to notice how the amphitheater behind him empties . . .

Even so, even so, what is another composer—a thoroughly earth-bound composer—to do but compose? What else but fill the trellis of his clef with grapelike clusters of notes—hoping that, years hence, the vintage will prove noble?

What is the struggling painter to do but clean his brushes and attempt another waterfall, another impossible sunset? And the writer? Fill the page, and hope some reader turns the page.

Finally, we come to “Sonny’s Blues,” a short story by James Baldwin, which contains perhaps the greatest literary passage on the power of music to deliver revelation.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator, an African-American schoolteacher who feels trapped in Harlem but can’t quite face the source of his entrapment. His brother Sonny, an aspiring jazz musician whose struggles with drugs are fueled by his defiance of the racially imposed limitations of his world, has recently been released from prison. The two brothers are estranged, yet the death of the narrator’s young daughter has opened a wound inside him that finally allows him to truly hear the music his brother plays. When Sonny’s band plays their version of “Am I Blue,” the narrator hears not merely the notes but what the music strives against and seeks to transcend:


Then [the bass player] Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filed the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause, and some of it was real.

Yes indeed, as in Baldwin’s story, the best music moves through time and takes us to places we need to travel, to places we might arrive at by no other means than by music. But words, words can describe that place we unexpectedly find ourselves, tell its unspoken story (or stories, because we all hear differently), and give shape and contour to shifting, complex feelings that might otherwise be beyond our grasp.

 Go to post page

May 25th, 2017 by admin

Menace and Ambiguity: Bob Dylan’s “Cold Irons Bound”

At the literary website The Millions you can read “Stuck Inside of Stockholm with the Nobel Blues Again,” my essay on Bob Dylan winning the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature. In this essay, I make the case that the literary genre of songwriting is similar to playwriting, a literary form that has been honored by the Nobel committee fourteen times in the past century.

Both forms begin with a text—lyrics, script—that depends on the collaboration of others to become fully embodied as an artistic experience. A play needs actors, a director and more, while a song lyric needs music and performers. Each initiating literary text depends on the collaboration of others, who in turn can transform the material into something the author didn’t perhaps originally envision. If the Nobel committee was looking to finally honor songwriting, as it has multiple times with playwriting, as a genre worthy of literary attention, then Bob Dylan was perhaps the likeliest candidate.

To see the longer argument in The Millions, you can click here.

For this blog post I’d like to accompany that Millions essay with a close look at one Dylan song, “Cold Irons Bound.” This song, which won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, is part of 1997’s Time Out of Mind, the first of a trio of albums that marked Dylan’s late resurgence as a songwriter and performer, continuing into the 21st century with Love & Theft (2002) and Modern Times (2006).

Time Out of Mind album cover

Dylan first wrote the lyrics for Time Out of Mind on his Minnesota farm during the winter of 1996, and though he and his touring band then made demos of the songs, he continued revising the words until initial sessions began in early 1997, and even then he reportedly continued to make changes.

So let’s start with the lyrics, which are what Dylan started with when he first began creating “Cold Irons Bound.” It’s a song of menace and the hard ache of longing, the record of a mind struggling against a kind of madness brought on by ruined love.

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around
Now I’m all used up and I feel so turned-around
I went to church on Sunday and she passed by
And my love for her is taking such a long time to die
God, I’m waist deep, waist deep in the mist
It’s almost like, almost like I don’t exist

I’m 20 miles out of town, and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

There’s a wall of pride high and wide
Can’t see over to the other side
It’s such a sad thing to see beauty decay
It’s sadder still to feel your heart torn away
One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole

I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

There’s too many people, too many to recall
I thought some of ’em were friends of mine
I was wrong about ’em all
Well, the road is rocky and the hillside’s mud
Up over my head nothing but clouds of blood
I found my own, I found my one in you
But your love just hasn’t proved true

I’m 20 miles out of town, and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town, and cold irons bound

Well the winds in Chicago have turned me to shreds
Reality has always had too many heads
Some things last longer than you think they will
Some kind of things you can never kill
It’s you and you only I’m thinking about
But you can’t see in, and it’s hard looking out

I’m 20 miles out of town, cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

Well the fat’s in the fire, and the water’s in the tank
And the whiskey’s in the jar, and the money’s in the bank
I tried to love and protect you because I cared
I’m gonna remember forever the joy we’ve shared
Looking at you and I’m on my bended knee
You have no idea what you do to me

I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound
20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

When the lyrics and music were largely set, Dylan then picked Daniel Lanois to produce the album (they’d worked together for 1987’s Oh Mercy), and they both brought in extra musicians to fill out the sound of Dylan’s touring band. Lanois is known for his particular production style, a spacious, almost ambient sound, while Dylan wanted the production to recreate the straightforward approach of his favorite records of the 1950s, and from the tension of those two conflicting visions comes the distinctive, gritty echoing aura of the songs.

On the album, there are between eight and ten musicians accompanying Dylan on “Cold Irons Bound.” But the version I’d like to focus on is a live performance recorded in 2003, with his long-time touring band, for the soundtrack of the movie Masked and Anonymous. It’s as if Dylan had chosen from among the possibilities of the original recorded version, which is perhaps a little too busy with all those instruments, and finally shaped an arrangement that best embodied both words and music.

The sound here is streamlined and sleek, three electric guitars, bass and drums, roaring at a slightly faster pace than the album version. The guitars shimmer with broad chords that are both beautiful and yet scratch like exposed nerves, the syncopated rhythms of the drums both propel the music and make it seem to lurch back and forth, and the electric bass repeats a doom-laden descending riff that shifts between five and three notes just before each chorus and seems to echo the desperate fate of the raspy-voiced singer. Throughout the song, Dylan leans on the lyrics to give them more power. My favorite example here is

One look at you and I’m out of control
Like the universe has swallowed me whole

On the page, this is powerful enough, but in performance, Dylan amps it up with his phrasing: “Like the universe . . . has swallowed me whole.” That pause sets up a certain anticipation, and then the swift honesty of the last four words, painfully wrung out of the singer’s voice in a cross between a croak and growl, shears through you, offers a deeper window into the man’s anguish.

And this is just the music—there’s also the performance. Dylan casts a remarkable presence, a grizzled figure with a pencil-thin mustache, slight in stature and yet in absolute control of the band, moving things along with a nod of his head or a shifting of a shoulder, sometimes facing the camera with a world-weary stare. Wearing a crisp Nudie Cohn-style embroidered country suit and a dashing cowboy gentleman hat, Dylan of course is not the character singing—he’s certainly not bound in chains after committing a heinous crime, and yet through his phrasing he inhabits this tormented fellow who has seen much and is not impressed with much of what he’s seen, who has loved and been loved badly and yet still can’t let go. It’s a first person narrative, the author hiding behind the guise of an invented character, and yet it’s also Dylan the performer (another character, of course), wearing a snazzy Country Western outfit and telling a tale.

So let’s return to the story of those lyrics, specifically the ambiguities of the song’s refrain, the last three words of which make up the song’s title:

I’m 20 miles out of town and cold irons bound

The singer is bound to this woman, can’t escape her, and even though he’s 20 miles out of town he might as well be bound in cold irons, because his shackles are emotional. It seems as if the song’s chorus takes place in the present moment as he’s travelling out of town, while the rest of the song between that refrain takes place in the character’s mind, memories racing through him of the unhappy life he has left behind and yet can’t escape.

Or—and here’s the brilliance of the song—perhaps he’s speaking in his mind to this woman he can no longer emotionally reach and he’s already 20 miles out of town and certain that his anguish will result in his doing something stupid and violent out in the wider world that is bound to land him in prison.

Or—and here the implications of the song turn stranger—maybe he has murdered this woman he loves. These chilling lines suggest it:

Some things last longer than you think they will
Some kind of things you can never kill

Which is followed by

It’s you and you only I’m thinking about

He could be trying to justify his despair and regret to the dead woman’s ghost, while he’s bound in chains and 20 miles along the journey to the nearest prison.

On the other hand, he could be returning to town, which is now only 20 miles away, and the closer he gets the more he knows that, against his better judgment, in his misery he’s bound to do something terrible, perhaps to this woman who haunts him, perhaps to someone else, some crime that will land him in jail, still without peace.

So much of the ambiguity here emanates from one word, “bound.” Does “bound” mean being restrained, in chains either literal or metaphorical (or both at once)? Or does “bound” mean destined, or compelled?

“Cold Irons Bound” is a song that can be listened to again and again, for the bracing electricity of the music, which captures the unsettling menace and torment of the lyrics, and for the multiple ways the words can be interpreted. Did Dylan begin the conception of his song with those three charged words that became the title? Did the developing music and arrangements shape the lyrics’ unfolding further, encouraging additional revision? Whatever the answers to those questions, we have here a concise literary text, a desperate love ballad that follows the simple structure of traditional songwriting and transforms it into at least four possible scenarios for the reader—or listener—to contemplate.

Plus, the music truly kicks ass.

The music kicks ass


For those interested, here are more essays by Philip Graham on music:

The Pleasures of Saudade

The Difference Between an Artist and a Performer

Welcome to a Hidden World

 Go to post page

March 6th, 2017 by admin

Book Stew

I’m reading a bunch of books together these days—five, to be exact. I simply jump or slip from one to the other, and slowly I make my way forward through them all. It’s not because any of the individual books don’t engage me—far from it. In some ways, it’s serendipity: I simply came upon five books I really want to enjoy immediately, and I don’t want any of them to stand in line and wait. I want to read them all NOW.

I’m in a mood to look through more than one window in the House of Reading.

Or perhaps here’s a better metaphor: in my mind I’m creating a kind of book stew, or sauce, or soup. Each book is another ingredient in something larger, their contrasts (and hidden similarities) creating a distinctive literary meal.

That’s the way it works with making a sauce, a soup—it’s the contrast of ingredients that blend into something extra: in a sauce you add sweet to savory, or balance different textures. For instance, in a red wine sauce for a lamb stew, I like to sneak in a few pieces of dark chocolate, and in a soup I’ll add, say, chunks of roasted cauliflower to an otherwise creamy vegetable soup.

So here’s the recipe of what I’m currently reading:

The Physics of Sorrow, a rather wild novel by the Bulgarian writer Georgi Gospodinov. I began it tentatively, mainly as a way to prepare for a literary conference in Bulgaria, where I’ll be teaching this summer at the Sozopol Creative Nonfiction Seminar. But this novel quickly morphed from Homework to something far richer—an unusual retelling in a modern setting of the mythological tale of the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, with a main character who suffers from (and is enriched by) an excess of empathy.


The novel’s narrative jumps around in sometimes surprising ways, as in this rewarding side trip to a cemetery:

I learned the alphabet from the cemetery in that town languishing in the sun. I could put it this way—death was my first primer. The dead taught me to read. This statement should be taken absolutely literally. We went there every Thursday and Saturday. I stood reverentially before the hot stone crosses. I was as tall as they were. With a certain dread, I dragged my finger along the grooves, reading more through my skin, I memorized the half-moon of C, the door of H, and the hut of A. Language seemed warm and hard. It had a crumbling body. Only a bit of dust and fine sand remained on my fingers from the stone. The first words I learned were:







After a passage like this, the urge to move forward is balanced by the urge to catch my breath, and I’ll often dip into something else.

Like Sawako Nakayasu’s The Ants. It’s a collection of sharply witty prose poems centered around the various adventures of ant-like creatures—they’re small and shaped like ants, and they exhibit antly behavior, but just as often they seem more than a little human. They appear to serve as alternately charming or haunting little bits of her imagination. Here’s a brief excerpt from “Sufficient Gravity 3”:

Once every summer in a nondescript beach town in Southern California, a contest is held. On a smooth, very smooth surface, a puddle, very large puddle is formed. Local ants are invited to the puddle, all with the awareness that the ant who breaks the surface tension, and thus the puddle, shall be the winner of a brand new Chrysler Crossfire Limited.

Reading these prose poems, filled with surprise bombs, a couple at a time is just about right—so as to let the complexities hidden within the seemingly straightforward prose slowly simmer in the mind.


So, perhaps an easy pause after Nakayasu’s work would be a few pages more of The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman, a nonfiction account of the alien mental complexities of a wide range of birds. The brains of many birds (the corvid family—crows, ravens—are one example) are packed with neural connections that rival those of primates. Which explains their sometime astonishing feats of memory, musical language, and navigational skill:

If a migrating lapwing or reed warbler is blown halfway across the country by a storm, perhaps the information her senses gather from all her sources—from the scents of land and sea, from magnetic signatures and anomalies, from the slant of sunlight and the starry pattern of night skies—all funnels into the connective core in her brain, where it’s integrated and then fans out to the brain regions that will help guide her to her natal ground. In a bird brain, then, a small-world network may create a big-world map.


I live near a small and beautiful cove facing Narragansett Bay. During my daily walks there I see the flocking of swans, geese, terns, ducks and other birds I haven’t yet identified, and Ackerman’s book has focused and enriched my budding curiosity about their lives.

And when I think of that nearby stretch of Narragansett Bay, I’m reminded that I now live in Rhode Island, whose European-American history goes back to the 1630s (when Providence—and the small town I live near, Pawtuxet Village—were first incorporated). So, another chapter of A History of the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, by Robert A. Geake, is in order, to help me build an inner map of local history.


I’m about halfway through, and so far it’s a sad tale of the mendacity of European settlers, who slowly sucked the land and political power from the indigenous peoples of this part of the country. The Narragansett, at first adopting a tactic of passive resistance against increasing territorial encroachments, only resorted to active resistance when it was too late, beginning with the Pequot War. In a presage of the over three further centuries of brutality to come, in one engagement the English surrounded a native settlement and, “fearing a costly battle, set fire to the wigwams; the English merely had to shoot any native who attempted to escape the flames.” Outnumbered and outgunned in one uprising after another, by 1709 the Narragansett became no longer masters of their land but second-class citizens at best.

Weaving among these four books (which now, in the writing of this post, seem not so disparate after all) is one more: Absolutely on Music, a book-length account of the conversations between the conductor Seiji Ozawa and the writer Haruki Murakami.


I’ve learned so much about the making and interpreting of classical music in these pages, from the micro-tactics of a conductor using an orchestra to shape his vision of a Brahms symphony, to the mystical moment when four players in a string quartet hover on the cusp of finally making a more fluid music. As Ozawa observes:

When you’re playing in an ensemble—as opposed to when you’re performing by yourself—your ears are open in all directions. This is very important for a musician. It’s the same when you’re playing in an orchestra, of course, in the sense that you have to keep listening to what others are doing. But in a string quartet, you can have more intimate communication among the instruments. While you play, you listen to the others. You think, ‘Hey, that’s very nice, what the cello is doing now,’ or ‘My sound doesn’t quite match the viola’s.’ Also, the musicians are able to speak to each other and exchange their personal opinions. You can’t have that in an orchestra; there are just too many people. But when there are just four of you, you can voice your opinions to each other directly. You have that kind of easy interaction. And so the musicians are able to listen to each other’s playing very closely, as a result of which you can hear their music getting better and better.

I guess you could say that the various ingredients of a simmering stew, like musicians in a string quartet, listen to each other, creating a distinctive taste and aroma. A simmering stew of five books can do much the same, creating angles of attention (and perhaps otherwise muted harmonies?) that simply reading a single book at a time cannot quite manage.

 Go to post page

January 7th, 2017 by admin

Everywhere a Book Is Waiting

The new issue of World Literature Today arrived in the mail this past week, and just in time—swinging back and forth as I am from sadness to despair to a cold anger that needs to be fed by increased political engagement, I find I need literature more than ever to help ground me.

So what a gift, to read this passage from an interview with the Macedonian novelist Lidija Dimkovska:

“In my school the teachers preferred to say that books were our best friends. Not dogs, but books. As a child, even if I loved books more than everything else, I considered this a facile phrase. But over the years I realized that it is true: people in our life come and leave, relationships change, even best friends sometimes don’t have time for us. Human beings, being flexible, dynamic, and busy, cannot stay with us all the time. But books can. Always and everywhere a book is waiting for me.”


I both agree and disagree with Dimkovska. I think she underestimates how friends and family stay with us as interior presences, whether they’re near or far (or for good or ill). But books, yes, books wait for us. In my study I’m surrounded by them: walls of what I’ve read and what I want to.

Among those waiting books are the ones I’ve kept returning to over the years, and these days I find myself especially drawn to books of poetry. One such book, as dog-eared and binding-cracked as can be, is (Asian Figures), a collection of proverbs and aphorisms from seven Asian countries, translated by the American poet W.S. Merwin.

These proverbs and such, presented by Merwin as poems never more than three lines long, are little nuggets of often cynical wisdom. Some land like a punchline, others reward lingering for a deeper unfolding.

From Korea:

Tree grows the way they want it to
that’s the one they cut first
blames the ditch
Even sideways
if it gets you there
Even on dog turds
the dew falls
shadow boxer

From Burma:

When you’ve died once
you know how
Telling a fish
about water
Eats all he wants
then upsets the dish

From China:

Before you beat a dog
find out whose he is
The rich
are never as ugly
After winning
Comes losing
Books don’t empty words
Words don’t empty thoughts

That last proverb would certainly start the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s head nodding. Pessoa was a poet who created a series of alternate personalities—heteronyms, he called them—who each wrote their own distinctive poetries. They all balanced inside him—Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, and Bernardo Soares, among many others. Pessoa spent his entire adult life juggling these various aspects of himself, creating his own internal literary salon.


The following untitled poem, one of the relatively rare poems written under Pessoa’s own name, is a kind of road map of his life’s work. And yet, as personal as it is, it speaks a truth we often ignore about the multiple possibilities within ourselves.

I’m a fugitive.
I was shut up in myself
As soon as I was born,
But I managed to flee.

If people get tired
Of being in the same place,
Why shouldn’t they tire
Of having the same self?

My soul seeks me out,
But I keep on the run
And sincerely hope
I’ll never be found.

Oneness is a prison.
To be myself is not to be.
I’ll live as a fugitive
But live really and fully.

(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, translated by Richard Zenith)

I can’t remember now what first led me, back in the late 1970s, to the work of the Serbian poet Vasko Popa—maybe an approving review by the poet Charles Simic, another favorite of mine? Popa wrote his main body of work when Serbia was still a part of the now-extinct country of Yugoslavia, and some of his poetry, as the years have passed, seem to be to be predictive of that break-up, of the flawed human urges that helped create the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.


One of the most powerful sections in his Collected Poems (translated by Anne Pennington), titled “Games,” uses the conceit of the structure of play to reveal an elemental something else that is not playful at all. This poem is perhaps my favorite in the sequence:

Some bite off the others’
Arm or leg or whatever

Take it between their teeth
Run off as quick as they can
Bury it in the earth

The others run in all directions
Sniff search sniff search
Turn up all the earth

If any are lucky enough to find their arm
Or leg or whatever
It’s their turn to bite

The game goes on briskly

As long as there are arms
As long as there are legs
As long as there is anything whatever

Perhaps this poem is a little too close to home these days. Let’s try another poem about play, written by an eleven-year old boy, Tozu Norio. It’s from the collection There are Two Lives: Poems by Children of Japan, edited by Richard Lewis. Torio’s poem offers us a glorious dizzy ride, bringing us back to the time in our lives when, even if only once, all we wanted was for recess to never, ever end.

Ten Thousand Years’ Play

I got into the ocean and played.
I played on the land too.
I also played in the sky.
I played with the devil’s children in the clouds.
I played with shooting stars in space.
I played too long and years passed.
I played even when I became a tottering old man.
My beard was fifteen feet long.
Still I played.
Even when I was resting, my dream was playing.
Finally I played with the sun, seeing which one of us could be redder.
I had already played for ten thousand years.
Even when I was dead, I still played.
I looked at children playing, from the sky.


It’s dark outside now, the sun sets much too early these days, which adds to my sour mood about the state of today’s politics, and what the future will bring come January. I’m ready for the defense of what I hold dear about the promise of my country, and I’ll be reading from my “best friends” on the shelves in my study, letting them help sustain me, borrowing from their strength. As the Chinese proverb says,

Enough mosquitos
Sound like thunder

 Go to post page

November 22nd, 2016 by admin

Think Good Thoughts

Now that we have elected a frightening man-baby to become the 45th President of the United States, many commentators have observed that we are entering “uncharted territory.”

But that’s not true at all.

The territory has already been charted, in an episode of Twilight Zone titled “It’s a Good Life.”

In this episode, all that is left of earth is the tiny town of Peaksville, Ohio. The rest of the world has been destroyed by a six-year old child, Anthony Freemont, who has unlimited mental powers. Anthony is pure, uncontrolled id, and he can create and destroy at will, though he mostly enjoys destroying. He can read minds, too, so you better think good thoughts. He terrorizes the few remaining adults in the world, including his mother and father. The only frail hope of reining him in is to praise whatever latest monstrous deed he has committed. “It’s good what you did, Anthony, real good,” is the episode’s common, fearful, fawning refrain.

Billy Mumy, the orange-haired (I kid you not) child actor, gives a chilling, memorable performance.


The episode first aired in November of 1961, and here are some of the highlights:

Already, the man-baby who will be president is sending out dead-of-the-night angry tweets about the New York Times and its election coverage. He has no respect for or understanding of the First Amendment, and that’s certainly just one small example of his vast store of ignorance. And as for his seemingly bottomless anger issues, two days before the election he actually threw out of one of his rallies a wheelchair-bound boy with cerebral palsy who had the temerity of raising a Hillary sign.

Remember, until January 20th, he’s still a private citizen. What will this man-baby do or say once he takes hold of the vast powers of the presidency? I can already imagine his aides tip-toeing around him, saying as gently as possible, “It’s good what you did, Mr. President, real good.”

“It’s a Good Life” is a deeply unsettling episode under any circumstances, but in light of the 70-year old monster-child who will soon be the most powerful human on earth, it’s almost unbearable to watch, a Coming Attractions for the worst possible nightmare of our future. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that our future “leader” doesn’t have super powers, and he can’t read minds.

If you can bear it, here’s the entire episode.

“It’s a Good Life” isn’t the only prescient warning from our past. In 1998, the great Octavia E. Butler published The Parable of the Talents, which imagined the end of the United States. In the beginning of the novel one of the main characters, Taylor Franklin Bankole, says,

“I have read that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as “the Apocalypse” or more commonly, more bitterly, “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030—a decade and a half of chaos. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.

“I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused those problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises. I have heard people deny this, but I was born in 1970. I have seen enough to know that it is true. I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people.”

By the way, the fictional and authoritarian American president of this novel has his own motto: Make American Great Again.

Again, I kid you not.


The literary critic Gerry Canavan offers an excellent overview of Butler’s book here.

So, only a TV show, only a novel?

Think good thoughts.

 Go to post page

November 17th, 2016 by admin

The Country We Want Our Country To Be

I don’t write much about politics directly on this website, probably because I assume my liberal sensibility pervades much of what I offer here about the art of writing and literature anyway.

Today will be different. After this long and monstrous election cycle and its unspeakably monstrous result, I feel flattened, and I know so many others who feel the same way. And so I offer “Parable,” a prose poem by the great Wislawa Szymborska (winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature):

Some fishermen pulled a bottle from the deep. It held a piece
of paper, with these words: “Somebody save me! I’m here. The
ocean cast me on this desert island. I am standing on the shore
waiting for help. Hurry! I’m here!”

“There’s no date. I bet it’s already too late anyway. It could
have been floating for years,” the first fisherman said.

“And he doesn’t say where. It’s not even clear which ocean,”
the second fisherman said.

“It’s not too late, or too far. The island Here is everywhere,”
the third fisherman said.

They all felt awkward. No one spoke. That’s how it goes with
universal truths.


So Here many of us are, crushed. Time to get up. Time to get angry and stay determined. I’m inspired by my daughter, Hannah, who yesterday walked out of her college literature class because her professor wouldn’t let the shell-shocked students speak at all about the election, or even take a short break to see Hillary’s concession speech (the class subject of the day was: Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady; what a missed teaching opportunity that was). Brave young woman! Later in the day she took part in a giant protest march in NYC from Union Square to Trump Tower.

The Obama years are over, unfortunately, and what is coming will look nothing like them. Yes, we are all separate souls, all in need of individual help, but we are also Here together, not alone at all, not distant, not lost, and it’s time, yet again, to stand up for the country we want our country to be.


 Go to post page

November 10th, 2016 by admin