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.

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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.

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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

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March 6th, 2017 by admin

Book Stew

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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







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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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January 7th, 2017 by admin

Everywhere a Book Is Waiting

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

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

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


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

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

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

From Korea:

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

From Burma:

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

From China:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Some bite off the others’
Arm or leg or whatever

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

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

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

The game goes on briskly

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

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

Ten Thousand Years’ Play

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


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

Enough mosquitos
Sound like thunder

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November 22nd, 2016 by admin

Think Good Thoughts

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

But that’s not true at all.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, I kid you not.


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

So, only a TV show, only a novel?

Think good thoughts.

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November 17th, 2016 by admin

The Country We Want Our Country To Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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November 10th, 2016 by admin

The Difference Between an Artist and a Performer

What makes some art memorable, and other art merely pleasurable? It’s a question I’ve thought about a lot during my career as a writer and reader, teacher and editor, and much more so now this past year, when my wife Alma and I have moved from Illinois to Rhode Island, as part of the reshaping of our lives that is called retirement but that we prefer to redefine as rewirement. As part of the move I had to cull my professional library, contained in both a home and university office. Over the course of nearly a year, I kept chipping away at my book collection, filling bag after bag for donations to our local public library. I must have shed 60% of the books that had found their way to me for over forty years.

And now I sit in my new and cozy home office, surrounded by my favorite books, the ones I loved when reading them and still love when remembering them. And then there are the books I haven’t yet read, but brought along because I can’t wait to delve into them, now that I have the time. These shelves in my new office feel more personal than any others in my life.


But how did I know which books to bring and which to leave behind? Was it simply personal preference, choice by choice by choice, or was some principle involved, even if only intuited?

One way to answer this question is to take a different, though related tack: my CD collection. I love music, of all kinds, and have always possessed an oversized collection (I have a lot of music downloads too—yay, Bandcamp!—but that’s another issue). Here too, I had to cull, and now in the living room and sun room are shelves filled with my favorite music.

One decision was easy: the music of John Martyn. A British folk/blues/rock/jazz master, Martyn produced consistently excellent records, from 1967 until his death in 2009. He was a brilliant and often tortured soul, capable of expressing deep passion unusual for popular music, yet he was equally adept at writing and performing songs of sweet, even transcendent beauty.


The essence of why all of Martyn’s albums made the cut, however, boils down to one song: “Lookin’ On.” It’s from Grace and Danger, released in 1980, an album that recounts the breakup of his marriage to the folksinger Beverly Kuttner, arguably the love of his life.

The first stanza of the lyrics of “Lookin’ On” sets the scene: a post-coital moment, two lovers lying on their backs in bed, but all is not right:

What kind of love is this
Concealed behind your kiss
What kind of love would try
Behind a silent cry
To come stealing in, with an innocent grin
To leave you staring
At the empty ceiling, feeling nothing
Lookin’ on
I’m just lookin’ on.

The song develops this portrait of physical intimacy no longer able to sustain emotional intimacy. It’s deeply sad, and the combination of electric piano and acoustic guitar, layering minor chords, perfectly echoes the lyrics.

But it’s a ferocious and disturbing rock ‘n’ roll version of “Lookin’ On,” recorded live in 1983 at The Bottom Line in New York, that turns this artful song into something remarkable. It’s clear from the performance that Martyn still hasn’t moved on from the hurt of the breakup. As he sings the angry fatalistic lyric “I’m just lookin’ on,” he improvises a verbal riff not present in the original version of the song, words that underline his deep ambivalence. “I’m just lookin’ on” becomes “I can’t look at you anymore, I can’t stop looking at you, I don’t want to watch you anymore, don’t make me watch you” and so on in helpless rage, until finally he’s whispering into the microphone his reluctant resignation. Martyn isn’t singing only to the audience at The Bottom Line, he’s singing to his absent ex-wife, revealing his conflicted feelings, how hard it is to let her go. She might as well be in the room and the audience is simply eavesdropping.

And here, I think, is the difference between an artist and a performer. A mere performer sings directly to the audience, the relationship resembles a straight line. The performer is A, the audience is B. Very direct, nothing complicated about it.


But an artist does something different, creates not a line but a triangle. In Martyn’s case, he is singing to his absent ex-wife. He is A, and she is B, and the audience is C.


Only the audience can physically hear him, of course. She isn’t there. And yet, in a way she is, she’s the reason for the song being sung, the message of his still conflicted feelings is for her. The fact that she’s not there to receive this message is another part of the drama that the audience overhears.

A triangle is richer than a single line. That’s the art the best writers (and artists and musicians) strive for. Perhaps art needs to speak to someone, to an actual someone whether present or absent, alive or dead, a someone in an artist’s life who has fueled the need for art making. In the case of writers, an abstract readership is a dull target. Readers, I believe, are most drawn to work that wasn’t written for them and yet still speaks to them. We long, whether we know it or not, to be the C in the A, B and C of an invisible triangle, we want a more complex geometry in art than a simple straight line. We want to eavesdrop on a drama, not to be merely told about it. Whomever James Baldwin, Dostoevsky, José Saramago, Flannery O’Connor or Wistawa Szymborska is speaking to, I want to listen.

And that, I think, must have been the guiding principle in my decisions of what to keep, and which of my books to let go of (often reluctantly), in preparing for a cross-country move. And now my shelves are filled with books and CDs that are secret triangles, waiting for me to take my place in their equation.

There is no video of the John Martyn performance I describe above, unfortunately, but this video of a performance of “Lookin’ On” from 1985 comes close.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also include a video of one of Martyn’s most graceful songs, “Small Hours,” from a 1978 performance. A single voice, a single guitar multiplied by an echoplex tape delay that is manipulated by his foot, and a gentle and timeless sonic world is created.

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September 15th, 2016 by admin

Between Before and After

I’ve recently returned from a month-long trip to Europe—first Oxford (to visit our daughter, who’s studying art history at the university there for her junior year abroad), then London (to give a reading at University College London), and then to Hungary, to explore a city—Budapest—that my wife and I had never been to before. Before the First World War, Budapest was then a capital of one of the largest and most powerful countries in Europe: the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two parts of this beautiful city—Buda and Pest—are divided by the Danube River, and are joined by a series of magnificent bridges and by tragic history.

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 1-11-16    3.38.24 PM

Just before arriving in Budapest and also while exploring there, I read two works of Hungarian literature, both first-rate in their own different ways: The Door, a novel by Magda Szabo, and The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914, by the artist Béla Zombory-Moldován.

Different—novel, memoir—and yet united in their stunning opening pages. Each engenders in a reader an unsettling dread that at the same time piques curiosity.

In the case of The Burning of the World, the dread begins with the introduction of the translator, Peter Zombory-Moldován (a grandson of the author). He begins by describing a photo (a partial version of which serves as the book’s cover) that was taken of his grandfather vacationing with friends at an Adriatic beach resort:

“The beach is at Novi Vinodolksi, on the Adriatic. The confident man of twenty-nine sitting at the bottom of the photograph is my grandfather Béla Zombory-Moldován, a young artist oblivious to the fact that his carefree holiday is about to be cut short. In three days his country, Austria-Hungary, will be at war. A week from now he will be in uniform, and in just over a month he will be a thousand kilometers away, watching in horror as his comrades are torn apart by Russian artillery in the forests of Galicia.”

The Burning of the World

The translator/grandson continues:

“Béla’s birthplace, on April 20, 1885, was the small and ancient city of Munkács, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It lay in the east of what was then the Kingdom of Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy ruled by Franz Joseph I, the emperor of Austria and holy apostolic king of Hungary.

“The Carpathians are still there. All the rest is gone.”

When the memoir proper begins, we soon see Béla receiving word of the declaration of war and the announcement that he has been called up to serve in the military. The reader knows that terrible, terrible events will soon follow, but can also assume that Béla will somehow survive them in order to write his memoir. So how can a reader with an ounce of curiosity not turn the page?

Magda Szabo’s novel The Door is set many decades later in the 20th century, after all that hadn’t yet been lost in Zombory-Moldován’s memoir has been lost, and a dreary post-World War II Soviet-puppet government in Hungary has settled in place. But politics and history are mostly vague presences in this novel.

The Door

It begins with a dream.

“I seldom dream. When I do, I wake up with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and a young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors of my past, all the more dismaying because, compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.

“My dreams are always the same, down to the finest detail, a vision that returns again and again. In this never-changing dream I am standing in our entrance hall at the foot of the stairs, facing the steel frame and reinforced shatterproof window of the outer door, and I am struggling to turn the lock. Outside in the street is an ambulance. Through the glass I can make out the shimmering silhouettes of the paramedics, distorted to unnatural size, their swollen faces haloed like moons. The key turns, but my efforts are in vain: I cannot open the door. But I must let the rescuers in, or they’ll be too late to save my patient. The lock refuses to budge, the door remains solid, as if welded to its steel frame. I shout for help, but none of the residents of our three-story building responds; and they cannot because—I am suddenly aware—I’m mouthing vacantly, like a fish, and the horror of the dream reaches new depths as I realize that not only am I unable to open the door to the rescuers but I have also lost the power of speech.”

The narrator goes on to confess that this dream is a vivid though distorted return to the past and a door she once did open, and should never have. The novel then goes back in time, and who she betrayed, and how, and why, slowly unfurls. The reader, filled with terrible knowledge of a predicted doom, understands more than any of the characters–including the self-justifying narrator–and yet the pages turn, in this case for, I think, two reasons. One, the nature of that inevitable and yet unplanned betrayal isn’t clear until it finally occurs, and two, the reader comes to care so much about the two main characters that he/she continues reading with the frail, foolish and yet utterly human hope that what will happen will somehow be averted.

Why does the fuel of conflicted emotion drive us forward?

When I read the first page of Zombory-Moldován’s memoir, I found the description of his friends at the resort, who cannot see the future awaiting them, nearly unbearable to read, and yet I kept returning to and rereading the passage:

“The usual group of us had gone on an outing to Bribir. Knoll, who was a county magistrate, had planned the itinerary . . . Judge Kriegl’s two daughters were lively young women, and easy company. Antal Hajnal, from the Franklin publishing house, was there; his factotum, Jankoviusz, flirted outrageously with one of the Kriegl girls. There was much eating and drinking of vino nero, and almost childlike high spirits . . .”

And soon, all to be altered! I couldn’t help being reminded that everyone has some sort of life-altering event, whether caused by an unexpected historical crisis or a family drama, that scorches the past into an eternal before. Though Zombory-Moldován’s memoir takes place over a century ago, and in a country far from my experience until my visit, it haunts because we are all haunted by at least one border between before and after.

The narrator of The Door is haunted by a similar border: a door remains closed, that door is opened, and all is changed. And no manner of regret will undo what was done. And no reader is a stranger to that regret, however personal and secret his or hers might be. Thus does the “local” of a book expand to the “global” of the memories of every potential reader. The best books give us the guise of ourselves, their time and place become our own, as we relive what has been irrevocably lived.

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January 11th, 2016 by admin

A Writing Residency on Steroids

In just a few days, I’ll be flying off for a month in China, to take part in Sun Yat-sen University’s first International Writers’ Residency. I’ve been preparing for months, reading book after book of Chinese fiction, and nonfiction books on Chinese history and culture. This residency will be the first of its kind in contemporary China, and will be a gathering of fourteen writers and two documentary filmmakers, hailing from Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Egypt, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada, China and the U.S.

I couldn’t be more excited, especially since I’ve also been reading extraordinary work by some of my fellow residency participants: so far, the poetry of George Szirtes and Ricardo de Ungria, the fiction of Khaled Khamissi and Madeleine Thien, and the nonfiction of Patricia Foster and Lieve Joris. I’m looking forward to discovering the work of the other writers as well.

This residency is sponsored by the Creative Writing in English program at Sun Yat-sen University (the only such program in mainland China), in the city of Guangzhou. My many thanks to Dai Fan, the program’s director, for the invitation!

Screen Shot Sun Yat-sen

We won’t be spending that much time in Guangzhou, though. Most of the residency’s month will be devoted to giving us all a place to write in two idyllic settings. First, we’ll be ensconced for two weeks in the almost fairy tale-like landscape of the karst mountains of Yangshuo.

Screen Shot Yangshuo

After that, we’ll spend nine days near the hot springs of Jiangmen for more writing time. Basically, this international residency will be like a McDowell Artists’ Colony residency on steroids.

Screen Shot  Jiangmen

Besides all this writing time (I’ll be wrapping up the last nagging revisions of my novel, Invisible Country), we’ll also spend a few days of our residency by each giving a reading, a lecture, and leading a short writing workshop. We’ll meet with Chinese writers, and with translators who will be reading through our work with an eye toward translating it into Chinese. My head spins. Bless the Writing Gods who sent this adventure my way.


I’m back! Curious how this residency played out? You can find out here.

And here you can find a Ninth Letter special web issue featuring the work of all my fellow residency writers, “Opening the River Up to the Sky,” which I had the great pleasure of curating and editing.

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October 12th, 2015 by admin