A Writer Speaks from the Grave

In recent years, my long-time admiration for the work of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996) has steadily increased, perhaps even more so since her death in 2012. She is, in some ways, a Metaphysical poet like John Donne or George Herbert—through the intimate speaking voice that she adopts, the logic of her poetry unfolds with a special clarity, humanity, and a surprising wit, as she almost always thinks outside of the box on any subject.

One of my favorite Szymborska books, Nonrequired Reading, however, is not poetry but a collection of book reviews that are actually short essays. She wrote these essays as a newspaper column. I know that in the Portuguese-speaking world this is an established literary genre called cronicas. It’s a great way for writers to make a little extra income, and write about pretty much whatever in the world they feel like writing about—real artistic freedom, there, in the unlikely location of a newspaper column. José Saramago and Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal) and Clarisse Lispector (Brazil), to name a few, have written highly regarded columns, which were then published in book form. I wonder if Poland has its own, similar tradition, or if there are other examples across other European countries. Perhaps some blogs and podcasts can be regarded as the new versions of cronicas.

In any case, Szymborska’s “book reviews” are a marvel. The books she picked to review were as wide ranging as you can imagine, books on gladiators, caves, hugs, the childhood of animals, the Chinese alphabet, or the memoirs of Napoleon’s valet. In each case, she will begin with the book in question, and then quickly shift to elaborate on some odd and incisive thought the book has inspired in her. Her review of Wallpapering Your Home, for example, becomes a harrowing compendium of how daily domestic tasks and projects can pile up to devour one’s life.

I read two thirds of Nonrequired Reading over the course of about six years. The book always sat on my desk somewhere, and when I felt the urge, I’d pick it up and savor another short essay (the longest are three pages). The best kind of literary bonbon. Yet last month I felt the need to read that last third in one steady gulp. Something about the doldrums of the year, politically, as the fate of our nation seems to be held, at least temporarily, in suspension, made me want more of Szymborska’s curiosity and honesty. Her wit would be a plus, too, a balm, perhaps, for my worries.

Which is mostly what I received, until I came to her review of A Fantastic Zoology, by Jan Gondowicz. In this book, which expands on Jorge Luis Borges’ encyclopedia of imaginary beings, we get further examples of unusual creatures from fairy tales, travel accounts, and so forth. But Szymborska notes that the most common beast is not imaginary at all, and can be seen regularly on TV, and “sometimes this entity takes the shape of someone’s talking head and sometimes of a whole triumphant human figure in snapshots from current wars.”

She then gives a more detailed description, and remember that Syzmborska wrote the following in 1995, a mere three years after Poland threw off the yoke of Soviet domination. And, I might add, twenty-four years from the present day. As I read on, I felt the increasing horror of my familiarity with this particular kind of monster:

“Known since time immemorial. He doesn’t change; only the methods change that he employs in gaining his end. Moderately ominous when he acts in isolation, which, however, rarely occurs, as he is contagious. He spits. He spreads chaos in the conviction that he is creating order . . . He departs from the truth in the name of some higher order. He is devoid of wit, but God save us from his jokes. He is not curious about the world; in particular he does not wish to know those whom he has singled out as enemies, rightfully considering that this might weaken him. As a rule, he sees his brutal actions as being provoked by others. He doesn’t have doubts of his own and doesn’t want the doubts of others. He specializes, either individually or, preferably, en masse, in nationalism, anti-Semitism, fundamentalism, class warfare, generational conflict, and various personal phobias, to which he must give public expression. His skull contains a brain, but this doesn’t discourage him . . . .”

And with this paragraph, Szymborska’s voice from the grave pulled me out of my depression about the threat to our country today, and energized me in ways I haven’t felt in months. That’s the ultimate power of literature, isn’t it? The best writing doesn’t die, its power is always worthy of the present tense, and simply waits for the arrival of readers in the future. In my case, I knew this Polish poet had something to give me this summer, but I didn’t know quite what. When her gift arrived it surprised me and yet seemed inevitable.

Since then, I’ve renewed my political engagement. I’ve attended a lively town hall by Rhode Island Congressional Representative David Cicilline, continued to push for Senators Reed and Whitehouse to hold similar town halls for a broad range of their constituents, picked my Democratic candidate—Elizabeth Warren–and am now contributing to Stacy Abrams’ voter protection initiative, Fair Fight 2020. And there’s much more to do.

Last week, my wife Alma and I joined a march on a Rhode Island detention center, which is holding immigrants rounded up by ICE. The march and protest was organized by Never Again Action, a Jewish political youth organization dedicated to sounding the alarm about what our government is doing, and where it might lead if something isn’t done to counter it. The protest march drew over 400 people, people of all faiths and backgrounds.

We shouted and sang the usual stirring slogans, and when we arrived at the barbed-wired Wyatt Detention Center we listened to fiery speeches while people waved to us from the narrow windows of the prison.

Alma and I then left for home as it grew dark, and missed by fifteen minutes the awful spectacle of a detention center captain driving his truck into protesters. A few people were hospitalized, the incident made national news, that captain has resigned, and I’m sure more than a few lawsuits will be headed his way.

If this violence was meant to intimidate, it failed. We’re already planning on attending the next march against that detention center. As I mentioned, there’s much more to do.

So thank you, Wislawa Szymborska, for the ever-living power of your voice. Heard.

 Go to post page

August 21st, 2019 by admin

I Believe in Ghosts

I believe in ghosts, though not necessarily the kind that floats through the air. I believe in the ghosts that live in our minds: personal ghosts, historical ghosts, ghosts of all possible persuasions. I believe that every person’s life story contains within it a series of hauntings. Sometimes it can take years for us to realize how deeply we have been affected.

Here is one of my ghost stories.

My wife Alma and I have just settled into the train at Providence station; soon we’ll be setting off to visit our daughter in New York City. When the conductor arrives, Alma hands her our two folded tickets and then returns to checking email on her phone.

The conductor carefully, awkwardly separates the tickets while trying to scan their bar codes, and already I’m apologizing for not having first unfolded them for her. The conductor assures me it’s no problem, but I’m not quite convinced and regard her face for any barely concealed annoyance.

A few minutes later, finally underway, I half-worry that maybe we’re on the wrong train, not heading toward New York but instead barreling along in the opposite direction, to Boston, and that the conductor would have warned us about this, if only we’d properly unfolded our tickets for her. Should I say something? Of course not. We must be going the right way. Meanwhile, Alma continues checking her email.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 12-2-18 4.00.01 PM

At moments like this, I envy my wife’s ability not to worry. She will walk into a store expecting straightforward transactions, while I’m always looking to appease. When shopping, I don’t like calling attention to myself. It’s a low-level feeling of dread that I’ve become so used to that I barely notice it, and yet nearly every day it guides my actions.

All this, because of a stranger who has quietly haunted me for 60 years.

It began in the narrow space of a soda fountain shop, where on one side ranged a long lunch counter with its circular stools for customers.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 12-2-18 4.00.38 PM

On the other side stretched a wall filled with displays of magazines, newspapers, and comic books. I remember staring at all those comics. I was seven-years old, and beside me stood my four-year old brother, also entranced.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 11-30-18 11.18.37 PM

One comic book especially attracted my brother, and he held it tightly in his hands. We had no money, but our mother was buying yarn in the sewing shop next door. She had parked us here in the front of the comic books, probably to give herself some peace.

“You wait here,” I told my brother. “I’ll get the money from Mom and be right back.” I should have known not to leave him alone.

I hurried to the sewing shop and wrangled from our mother the necessary dime, but when I turned to leave there stood my brother, comic book in hand. He had followed me, too young to understand you can’t leave a store without paying.

The soda fountain’s short order cook standing behind the counter watched us return, his broad face angry. He seemed huge, and I can still see his dark hair and thick arms, his white apron tight over a white t-shirt as he pointed a knife straight at us. To me, that knife looked as large as a machete.

He shouted, “Don’t you ever, ever do that again!”

Too furious to listen, our explanations and protests of innocence meant nothing to him. At least they didn’t until our mother finally arrived on the scene.

That short order cook has likely long since passed away, but still he lives in me. Although I almost never thought about him, he lurked within, hidden and yet able to spark my anxiety. Haunted without knowing that I was, perhaps my greatest secret source of disquiet wasn’t that I’d be falsely accused, but that my defense wouldn’t be heard or accepted, no matter what I said. When this feeling comes upon me, I might as well be lost in the recurring drama of a bad dream.

Sometimes I wonder if I have in turn haunted that short order cook. Did the shock and fear on the face of a boy ever appear to him at odd moments? In later years did he feel regret for his behavior? Or maybe there had been a raft of shoplifting and he was on the alert, and the memory shaped him into a hero, because hadn’t he caught two budding thieves in the act and taught them a lesson?

And what of the others sitting at the lunch counter? Did that incident ever haunt them, did they question their silence at the cook’s fury, ever regret the missed opportunity to confront a bully who frightened two children?

These speculations are the stuff of fiction, because I can’t know what went on in their minds, at that moment or after. I can only imagine.

Yet sometimes in our lives we do encounter a person that we have haunted.

We perhaps too often emphasize how we are haunted, by people whose names we’ve never known, or by people whose names we’ve forgotten, or by people whose names we’ll never forget. But we are all accomplished at the haunting of others. Every living person doubles as a kind of ghost, and not just merely one ghost, but multiple ghosts, because we live, disembodied, in the minds and memories of those we live with, or have lived with, or those we have merely met. The richness of the material world too often dazzles and deceives us. We are far more than our physical borders. We park our presence in others.

Here is another of my ghost stories.

Two years ago, during my last semester teaching at the University of Illinois before retiring, I received an email from a former student I could just barely remember. Her name was vaguely familiar, and my only remembrance, more a feeling than a certainty, was that she had been a good student. I’ll call her here Dana. She was taking her two young daughters on a road trip during their spring break, and would be in the Urbana-Champaign area for a day. Would it be possible to meet?

A week later we sat at a popular campus café, her two adolescent daughters politely incurious about their mother’s old professor. We went through some quick how-have-you-beens covering Dana’s past 25 years and mine. She had published a few essays during that time, she told me, but always wanted to write more. Then Dana took a manila folder from her large bag and opened it to reveal all the short stories she had written for my two classes, copies that included my hand-written comments.

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 12-2-18 4.01.16 PM

“I have a couple questions,” she said, paging through a story. She stopped and pointed to one of my comments in the margins, and asked, “Could you explain what you meant by this?”

I was almost afraid to look. What had I possibly written that could have caused her to keep these stories all these years? As I began reading the comment by my 39 year old self, strangely resurrected through my familiar awkward scribble, I remembered her writing, the incipient strength of it. Though a freshman at the time, she knew how to access the minds of her fictional characters’ interior lives. Their thoughts interested her as much as their actions, and that’s what I’d praised in my long-ago comment. She just needed to further explore this vast territory she had discovered.

Sitting there in the coffee shop, I told her this again.

“Did you mean it?” she asked.

Perhaps surprised by the surprise on my face, Dana explained that she’d taken a third creative writing class, with a colleague of mine who had discouraged her and caused her to doubt herself as a writer.

“I’ve always regretted not getting an MFA,” Dana said in a quiet voice that couldn’t quite disguise the emotion she held back.

Now I understood why we were meeting. For a quarter of a century, she had wondered who was right, had been haunted by the disparity between my praise and my former colleague’s discouragement. Whenever she sat down to write, two contradictory voices spoke to her. This meeting with one of her ghosts was an act of bravery on Dana’s part. She’d taken the risk of offering me an opportunity to break that tie within her, and give her permission to proceed.

I should say that Dana now haunts me, because in that last semester of my teaching I realized more than ever how easily a mentor could haunt a student. Our words matter more, perhaps, than we think, they sound louder and resonate more than we can imagine. How easy it is for our presence to haunt others and then to be haunted in turn by them. It’s almost second nature for our physical bodies to echo with ghosts of the past and present, ghosts vivid to us, or those we need to uncover.

I believe in ghosts. I believe that, in all their varied incarnations, they offer paths that might lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, if only we can learn how to better see them, if only we can better locate our own ghostly presences alive in others.


“I Believe in Ghosts” was first presented on the panel “Hauntings in Nonfiction,” on November 1 (the Day of the Dead!), at the 2018 NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix, Arizona. My fellow panelists Kate McCahill, Michele Morano, Audrey Petty and Mimi Schwartz shared with the audience their own personal landscape of ghosts. You can find an Assay journal blog of the panel here.

 Go to post page

December 2nd, 2018 by admin

The Ambush

I was once ambushed by a right-wing radio host.

And it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my current politically active life.

I have been more engaged than ever before during this crazy time in our country’s history. Since December of 2016, along with my wife Alma Gottlieb, I have participated in more protests and rallies than I can count, including a march on Trump Tower and one at the White House, the two Women’s Marches so far, a march against gun violence, a march against family separation at the border, and more. I’ve attended protests against neo-Nazi violence and against the Republican tax bill; I’ve been to a ripsnorter of a town hall, and joined weekly demonstrations at the offices of my state’s congressional Representative and two Senators. I’ve given public speeches at demonstrations and on local TV, hosted Postcards to Voters parties, done phone bank canvassing and voter protection poll inspecting. I know all the liberal protest cheers by heart.

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 11-10-18 11.26.40 AM

All of this political activism can be tiring. But my occasional exhaustion also comes from a private place. My protesting has become so obsessive it threatens the worlds I try to create as a writer. It’s difficult to call up the imagined or remembered worlds of my fiction and nonfiction when this world seems on fire.

When I’m at a political gathering, I KNOW I’m right about the threat of Trump. I’m certain of that. But all my training as a writer, and the influence of everything I understand about the making of art, tells me that life is complicated, not simple, and that the best art can reveal the hidden complexity of oneself and others. Writers struggle to achieve what is rounded, we attempt to bend the straight line.

Sometimes, when I’m in a crowd of protesters and shouting with gusto, a part of me separates and tries to turn my self-righteous knob down to a reasonable level. So last March, when I was invited to do an interview—as a board member of Indivisible Rhode Island—at a radio station just across the border in Massachusetts, I was of two minds when I accepted. It would probably be a call-in show of like-minded individuals grousing together. The comfy prospect almost bored me.

When the day came and I arrived at the radio station, Tony, the program host, introduced himself and said, “Hello, Professor.”

“Hey, you can just call me Phil,” I replied.

“Anything you say, Professor.” Tony grinned. “You should know, by the way, that I’m a pretty conservative guy.” I wasn’t sure if he was joking, until we entered the studio, and the previous program’s host, clearing out, smiled at me and said, “Ah, the Bolshevik is here!”

This interview invitation, I realized, was really an ambush.

Well. What to do, now that I had entered the conservative information bubble? I certainly wasn’t going to back out. And to tell the truth, a part of me was guardedly pleased. How many times, after reading some crazy right-wing letter to the editor, had I fantasized about sitting that lost soul down at a coffee shop and challenging the logic of his arguments? I knew how to hold my own. Of course, in these imaginary scenarios, I always triumphed. But this interview would be no fantasy. Tony, and his radio studio, were real.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 11-9-18 6.53.14 PM

As I settled in the guest’s chair and adjusted the microphone, I said, though not entirely convinced of my own bravado, “I’m looking forward to this. I never get a chance to talk to conservatives.”

Tony wasn’t sure how to reply, perhaps because, at least as far as he could see, his ambush hadn’t spooked me. He concentrated on adjusting knobs and dials, getting ready for the show. Then he pressed a button for his show’s intro music, a hard rock song that sounded vaguely familiar. What was it, and why, at this moment of all moments, should I even care? Then I finally placed the tune: it was performed by a group whose music my younger brother, a zillion years ago, used to play day and night.

“Isn’t that Grand Funk Railroad?” I asked Tony.

He paused, only able to nod at this second time in less than two minutes that I’d surprised him. I mentioned that this Grand Funk song reminded me a little of Novum, the latest album by Procol Harum (one of my favorite bands from the 1960s). I’d actually been listening to it during my drive to the radio station. And so, Tony’s right-wing political talk show began in the middle of our conversation about classic rock.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 11-9-18 6.51.34 PM

Here I began to see the path I might be able to take in this interview, but Tony had already turned to politics. He handed me across the table a hefty stack of articles and charts he’d collected that he said proved climate change was a hoax.

He’d certainly come prepared! But I barely glanced at his reams of so-called evidence. Engaging with this stuff would only lead to a fruitless argument. “Look,” I said, moving it aside, “you’re never going to convince me that climate change doesn’t exist, and I’m never going to convince you it does. So for the moment, why don’t I concede your point and agree that all the scientific evidence is wrong, there is no climate change. Maybe it really is a hoax.”

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 11-9-18 11.54.47 PM

Poor Tony. He’d expected to rile me into a red-faced angry response. And if I’d caved in so easily, all that research he’d done had been a waste of time. But I wasn’t finished. “Even if climate change really is some left-wing conspiracy,” I continued, “that’s still no reason not to invest in solar and wind. They’re both getting less and less expensive, and if we don’t develop cheap and clean energy technology, China and Europe will. Do we want to sell the energy of the future to them, or are we going to buy it from them? It’s a matter of smart economics.”

Tony reluctantly—and I do mean reluctantly—agreed. Here, finally, beckoned that path I’d initially intuited: abandon my ideological corner and employ a form of rhetorical rope-a-dope: gently agree to disagree, look for some sliver of possible common ground, offer an alternative way to look at a hot topic, keep my sense of humor, be my ordinary self.

Slowly, I began to wear Tony down. During commercial breaks and pauses for pre-recorded news and weather reports, I took the opportunity in those down times to tell Tony about my life, my family, my volunteer work, quietly refusing to embody the stereotype of a dreaded liberal and encouraging him to see my human face. I asked about his family, his life. When he said that he worked as an accounts manager for a bread company, I mentioned that my daughter did similar work for a PR company in New York.

Still, Tony kept identifying me over the air as “PROFESSOR Philip Graham,” really leaning into that professor part, because he was trying to rile up his listeners, goading them to call in. “Professor,” I realized, was quite a dirty word with this crowd. And what a crowd. One caller peddled a George Soros-conspiracy, another quoted from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion! I seemed to be getting through to Tony, though, because he actually winced, embarrassed that I was being subjected to their ranting. In spite of himself, Tony had come around to see me more as a guest and less as a threat. Together, we had begun the journey of becoming rounded, complex people to each other, rather than one-dimensional embodiments of fantasy and fear.

Our discussions became so civil that, at one point, he agreed that Trump is a horrible misogynist, and I agreed that Bill Clinton was terrible to women too. A couple of Tony’s listeners called in to complain that he wasn’t being mean enough to me.

By the end of the show I was finally, simply Phil, and Tony actually offered to have me back on the show. There was so much we hadn’t covered—hard topics like abortion and racism. I agreed, and we shook on it. But I never did receive that return invitation. Maybe his audience read him the riot act the following week, overruling that brief moment of connection.

The glorious 2018 Midterm election has come and gone, and a majority of Americans has risen up to repudiate the present version of the Republican Party. Every day, as new returns are reported of absentee ballots being counted, the Democratic victory deepens. Soon, despite recent and disturbing threats to his investigation, Robert Mueller will finally deliver the goods against the traitorous, racketeering Trump enterprise.

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 11-10-18 6.14.44 PM

What then do we do? Too many of our fellow citizens have been poisoned by the actual fake news of Fox and its various right-wing radio minions. Some, I believe, are simply lost souls at this point. But not all of them. Will it be possible for both sides to talk to each other again in this country, to see each other not as threats but fellow human beings? Or are our mental ecosystems now so rigid they can’t bear the force of counter-influence or contradiction? In my worst moments of political despair I remain skeptical, uncertain of what will rise from the ashes of our present political dilemma. But I’ve learned that, at least for two hours, it was possible to temper partisan anger. Two short hours.

An early version of this blog post was originally presented on the panel “ThreaTs of Influence,” at the NonfictioNow conference in Phoenix, Arizona, November 3, 2018. Hats off to my fellow panelists, Amy Benfer, Mary Cappello, Maria Tumarkin and Jean Walton, and to our friendly “hecklers”: Ames Hawkins, David Lazar, and Patrick Madden.

 Go to post page

November 10th, 2018 by admin

What a Writer Knows and Doesn’t Know

In all my years of teaching at the University of Illinois, I sometimes grappled with a bit of writing advice that seemed to hover in the air, always ready to be plucked and displayed for a classroom discussion about fiction: Write What You Know.

It’s an odd statement that can easily be reduced to justifying a lack of curiosity or advocating a safety of vision: only write about those things, people, events that you think you know well; this “knowing” will give you authority. While it is important to understand your subject to the best of your ability, the phrase seems to imply that one must not approach territory that is unknown to you.

I think that my former writing teacher and mentor Grace Paley offered a clear path out of this conundrum: “You write from what you know but you write into what you don’t know.” In other words, while you might start from a familiar place, you then use that as a base for exploring, for taking risks. What you know of yourself, for example, is a way to try to understand others, a method of developing empathy for your budding fictional characters.

What is this “knowing,” really? We are often foreign countries to ourselves, and our internal map is constantly changing. And yet examining this fluid state of selfhood is what is needed to construct the contradictions of the imagined people in our fictions.

And yet. Writing from what we know is important.

I remember a student in one of my introductory fiction writing classes from many years back, a student who was smart in his comments about his fellow students’ work, was ambitious about his writing, but was having trouble finding his voice. His first story for the class recounted the adventures of some urban vampires, and though earnest, it seemed as familiar as any movie or TV show featuring vitamin D-deprived, blood-sucking immortals. In workshop, the class and I suggested that perhaps the supernatural wasn’t his subject.

His next story followed the bloodletting of a serial killer, and again, the subject seemed as familiar as any movie or TV show featuring nightmarish loners with a collection of sharp knives. The student was clearly frustrated with the class reactions to his efforts, so after class, I asked if he might want to come see me in my office so we could discuss what he’d write for his next story.

And he did drop by, with a first draft of a new story, this one about the Mafia.

“Do you know anyone in the Mafia?” I asked.

“Well, no,” he replied.

“So where does your knowledge of the Mafia come from?”

“From the movies and TV.”

And that was the problem. He wrote from what he knew, but that knowledge was gleaned from television and film. He was trying to create stories out of narrative models he was familiar with, yet these models were far from his own life.

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 9-3-18 9.10.26 AM

I found myself asking a question that always made me uncomfortable, considering my conflicted relationship to the phrase Write What You Know. And yet the words came out: “What about your own life, why not write about some aspect of your own life?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” he replied.

“Why not?”

“Because I grew up on a farm.”

At first I didn’t know how to respond. He thought he’d grown up in a fiction-free zone. But then I recalled the writer Jane Smiley’s extraordinary novel, A Thousand Acres. The novel is a retelling of the King Lear story, set in the cornfields of Iowa, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. I suggested to my student that he walk across the street to the university bookstore, buy a copy, read it as soon as he could, and then come back to see me.

Three days later he returned. He’d read about one hundred pages of Smiley’s novel and already he was filled with ideas and enthusiasm. “I didn’t know you could write about this!” he said.

Two weeks later he turned into class a stunner of a story.

The story takes place in a farmhouse kitchen at dawn. The main character, a farmer in his early thirties, is having breakfast with his wife and ten year old son, and he is filled with conflicting feelings that he hides from his family. Because once breakfast is over, he’s going to take his young son out to the fields with him for the first time, to teach him how to farm, but for the moment he can’t stop thinking back to when he was young, when his own father introduced him to the harsh realities of farm life.

He had always loved his father dearly, but in the fields his father became a brutal teacher, demanding absolute attention to the smallest detail, and he was quick to punish.

Sitting there at the breakfast table, the farmer remembers how he began slowly loving his father less, how a distance grew between them that never quite erased. Yet he also remembers that his father had only seven fingers left on his two hands, permanent reminders of how dangerous farm work can be. Now the farmer thinks of that maimed hand and he regards his own two unscarred hands, and realizes that his father taught him well. And he knows that he has to teach his own son the same lessons, this son he dearly loves, this son who may eventually grow to love him less because of those necessary lessons.

The breakfast finally done, father and son leave together in the early morning for the fields.

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 9-3-18 9.15.39 AM

This was one of the finest stories a student ever wrote for any of my classes, and it has no “action” to speak of, it takes place entirely in the farmer’s mind, while breakfast is being served. No one else in the story knows what the farmer is thinking. Not his son. Not his wife. Only the reader. The reader who has been given the gift of listening in on another’s inner life. No plot tricks or cheap violence are needed to create a story of heightened tension and emotional truth.

That young writer had squared the circle. He dived into a world he’d grown up in, the farming life, and yet from there he ventured into imagining another person’s interior self. He wrote from what he knew and he wrote into what he didn’t yet know.

This, I think, is why we write stories, why we read stories. Not to be satisfied by the comforts of the familiar, but to be given passage to a new landscape, to be taken to a place where we might not otherwise go, a place where we might bridge the gap of solitude that divides us.

 Go to post page

September 3rd, 2018 by admin

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