Immortal For Quite Some Time

The manuscript I began writing after my brother John died of AIDS in 1991 has just been  accepted officially for publication by the University of Utah Press.

What kind of book is it? Here are my early thoughts on the matter:

This is not a memoir.

The story is uncertain.

The characters are in flux.

The voices are plural.

The photographs are as troubled as the prose.

This is not a memoir.

*

What is it then?

Fraternal meditations?

Personal autopsy?

An answer to the question “Are we friends, my brother?”

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A Dairyman’s Lament: Braden Hepner’s PALE HARVEST

When I was in junior high school my family traveled from our home in Farmington, New Mexico to visit my mother’s sister, Marilyn Israelsen. Marilyn and her husband Earl Israelsen lived just north of Logan, Utah. Marilyn was a painter of some note and Earl was a professor at Utah State University. Earl had grown up working with his numerous siblings on the family dairy farm, the Buttercup Dairy. When we visited he drove us over to the farm to introduce us to life on a dairy. I was fascinated by everything I saw and smelled and tasted. Even now, whenever I think about milk and dairies, the images I experienced that day come flooding back.

Today, however, after reading Braden Hepner’s novel Pale Harvest (Torrey House Press, 2014), I have a new and contrary set of images in mind.

In the novel, 21-year-old Jack Selvedge has returned to the dairy farm his father left. His work is crucial for the success of the dairy and he hopes to inherit the farm from his grandparents. It is incessant, backbreaking labor, fraught with danger, financially risky as milk prices rise and fall and nature favors or disdains them. Jack savors it all. He thinks about the land like he thinks about the body and soul of a troubled young woman who has returned to the little town after having lived in Salt Lake City.

IMG_6592The entire landscape testified of a simple existence. Here it seemed a man could live a good life in simplicity and purity, where his considerations held meaning and substance each and were therefore fewer and less wearisome, and a man sought to stay rather than to leave. . . .

He believed in the living God and in good and evil but he believed also in her, in her warm and ample body, in her mind—her body because of its power and beauty, and her mind because only it could be kept until she wished to give it. She could give him of her spirit, her body, her life. She could give him of her substance. . . .

He was on the ground tangled up in the disc plow, replacing bent discs and thinking about the long acres of soil he would work with them. Discing and plowing were the best tractor work of all, to feel the earth pull back as he took the heavy implement over it and laid its soil open.

This novel is as brilliant an evocation of the textures and details of complex labor as any I have ever read. In different hands, this could be a romantic back-to-the land story with a happy ending for cows and people alike.

In Braden Hepner’s exploration of human existence in the contexts of a small town and the workings of a dairy, however, Jack’s hopes and desires and plans and struggles to be a good and whole person are countered by familial perfidy, exploitative greed, sexual violence, and troubling aspects of his own character. The evil is no more absolute than is the good, but the interplay between good and evil would make a mockery of any possible happy end or of any harvest other than a pale one.

It is a profound novel, I think.

When I look at Hepner’s website for the book, I find that he grew up in Cache Valley, Utah and that his grandfather had a small dairy farm where he worked as a child and young man. His grandfather would have known my uncle Earl’s father (hell, his grandfather may have been Earl’s father!).

There is a wonderful set of photos at the website as well, fields and cows and landscapes as gritty and beautiful and real as the novel itself.

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X-ing the Calendar by A. F. Caldiero . . . or “From the Abyss”

I’ve been reading Alex’s book X-ing the Calendar, concieved in 1989 and 1990 and published in 2014. The book was written at a difficult time, so difficult that crossing off the days on the calendar as they passed was a desperate attempt at structuring a life. The book is painful and made up of pain. The poem “Pain (I),” for instance, ends with this stanza:

But something’s gone wrong –

Instead of talking

I’m singin’ a song –

And when I try to tell it,

Enunciate & yell it,

I start to sing –

And I don’ say a thing –

I start to sing –

And I don’ say a thing —-

Stanza four of “Pain (II):

the whole body

too tight to fit

into & walk about

wearing my face

my

hands are gloves for my hands

my feet are shoes for my

feet & I’m all dressed

to kill (no one but myself)

Thoughts of suicide lead the poet to John Berryman, to the biography of his end, and then to a poem in his memory in which Alex becomes Edgar and Berryman becomes Henry (click on the pages for larger images): berryman berryman2 I use Alex’s “biographies of suicides” for my own examination of pain after my brother John died — Immortal For Quite Some Time. And in lines “From the Life of Edgar” I find my life lived because of a death remembered: “Between the pages of the book / written / and the pages of the book / being written, there’s a life lived / and a death remembered.” Coincidentally, I also ran into John Berryman in the company of Zarko Radakovic:

We walk on through the sweltering city. Zarko wants to introduce me to the poet Srba Mitrovic “He was the librarian at our gymnasium in Zemun,” Zarko explains. He told us what books to read. We met with him weekly for discussions. Several of us from that class became writers. With our encouragement, he began to publish his poems. He has won several major prizes.

The retired librarian and active poet lives several floors up in an aged but once splendid apartment house. The elevator rises reluctantly through an open iron-work cage and delivers us to a landing where a short, solid, bald man dressed in half-slippers, shorts, and a purple cotton shirt greets us.

On the table in the front room, a game of solitaire is laid out next to a tabloid newspaper with a naked woman on the cover.

The poet introduces me to Milan Djordjevic, a younger man, bearded, slight, with whom he has translated English and American poetry.

We sit, four translators, around the table. The poet brings out a bottle of amber-colored rakija. A black oak cross floats in the aged brandy. Zarko proclaims the smooth-biting liquid a wonder of the art.

The poet’s bald head glistens with sweat. Behind thick glasses, his eyes shine brightly. “It was at this table,” he says, “that Milan Djordjevic and I translated John Berryman.”

Djordjevic remembers the table heaped with dictionaries and grows ecstatic as he describes the quantities of rakija imbibed in the process.

Zarko asks if we can’t see the poet’s study. It is a spacious room, or was once spacious. Lined with books floor to ceiling, a bed tucked into one corner, a big desk into another, the room is navigable only by means of a pathway snaking through piles of books and boxes. “Here,” the poet points out, “is my unmade bed. There, my desk. There my literary prize. And hanging from the bookshelf, my pants.”

Back at the front-room table, I ask about the other persons we have seen in the apartment, several of whom are watching TV in a closed-off end of the front room.

Refugees, the poet says, relatives, three families of them, Serb refugees from Bosnia.

Zarko mentions our trip along the Drina River. The poet says an acquaintance of his recently ran into trouble there, a Serb who had owned an inn in Gorazda before the war. Emboldened by the agreements in Dayton, he drove back to see what was left. He parked his car and went in. Having a drink with several people he had known, he heard glass crashing outside. He went out and found his car being demolished. The crowd grabbed him and might have demolished him as well if SFOR soldiers hadn’t appeared on the scene.

He opens the newspaper with the naked woman and shows us a photo of the man.

“I was in the United States last month,” he says. “I went to Minnesota to visit a family member at the Mayo Clinic. While I was at the clinic, I had an examination. The doctor told me I had several physical problems, that I drink too much, that I eat too much, and that I don’t exercise enough. I told him that far from being physical problems, those were signs of a good life. The real reason I went to Minnesota, however, was to find the bridge John Berryman jumped from. I asked several people which bridge it was, but none of them had heard of Berryman.”

We exchange books. The poet receives Zarko’s and my Ponavljanja (Repetitions), which I inscribe “from one translator to another.” I receive Snapshots for a Panorama (From the Abyss), published in 1996 in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Alex, I wrote inside the copy of Zarko’s and my Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary (which includes this visit with Srba Mitrovic), you and Zarko are present in every sentence I write. As is pain.

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before the storm / after the storm

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Double Consciousness: Two Books by David Albahari

The new edition of Open Letters Monthly (December 1) has my review of Albhari’s two new books in English. The review ends with my realization that I have immigrated into Albahari’s books:

The characters in this and the other fine stories by David Albahari are all—humorously and gently and each with his or her quirks—miserably away from home. Which leaves me sad as well in the early darkness of this November afternoon. All readers are immigrants.

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Preparing for a Review of David Albahari’s Two New Books in English

I’m just about done with a review I’ve been working on for over a year. Here is how it will begin:

Double Consciousness

David Albahari

Globetrotter

Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać

Yale, 2014

Learning Cyrillic

Translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

Dalkey Archive, 2014

“Translated” or “Translated from the Serbian”? These two new books by David Albahari pose a more difficult question than one might think. Yale has decided to avoid the “Serbian,” leaving it to the book flap to describe Albahari as a “Serbian writer and translator” who “has published eleven short-story collections and thirteen novels in Serbian.” Dalkey Archive highlights “the Serbian” and calls Albahari “a Serbian master” on the back cover. Ellen Elias-Bursać, who has translated several of Albahari’s books, including Words Are Something Else, Götz and Meyer, Snow Man, and Leeches, is listed variously as translating from “the Serbian,” from “Serbo-Croat,” and from “Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian.”

The language once spoken on the “Highway of Brotherhood and Unity” that connected Zagreb and Belgrade was officially Serbo-Croatian, a unified and unifying language taught and spoken and used in all the republics of Yugoslavia. Books translated into English during the time the highway acted as a hyphen between the two cities, like Ivo Andrić’s Nobel-Prize-winning The Bridge on the Drina, routinely included a hyphen of their own: “translated from the Serbo-Croat.”

But since the brutal wars of the 1990’s that separated the republics into sovereign states and that shattered multicultural Yugoslav identities forged over five decades, publishers have struggled with how to designate the language of books coming out of the former Yugoslavia. . . .

I have read and read and read — books written since the wars by authors from the former Yugoslavia, books in English and German translation, and most importantly, books by David Albahari.

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Here is what they look like on my shelf.

Although I have read them all, only three or four of them are actually mentioned in the essay about Albahari’s books (of which I have read eleven).

It is, however, a remarkable collection of books, a record of displacement and exile and immigration and language and identity and the human spirit.

Not a single one of these books, not a single one!, is about the enemy Serb or Croat or Bosniak. Every single one of them is about the true enemies—war, nationalism, misuse of language.

That shouldn’t surprise me, knowing these books are all the progeny, in one way or another, of that extraordinarily wise and  peace-loving book The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric’s Nobel-Prize-winning novel from 1945.

The two books written by Zarko Radakovic and myself — Repetitions and Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary — are certainly progeny of that fine book as well as of Peter Handke’s Repetition. They too protest war, nationalism, and misuse of language.

(more about Zarko’s and my books under the tab at the top of this blog)

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Snow Clumps/Piles/Huddles

A very light powder snow yesterday left the snow oddly bunched around single stems of grass. snow

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Family

Yesterday we reburied Dad’s bones, brought from Farmington, New Mexico to American Fork, Utah.

As opposed to the funeral, this was a happy occasion with Mom and all my living siblings.

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Jeff (Gainesville, Florida), Carol (Delores, Colorado), Mom (American Fork, Utah), Paul (Bend, Oregon), Jill (Jerome, Idaho), I (Woodland Hills, Utah), and Christy (Salt Lake City).

John is buried just up the hill from this. We walked up and stood around his grave telling stories about our brother, as we had about our father.

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Tom Abbott with The New Wonders and Endangered Species

tomandbari

My son Tom has been making a living with his horns for well over a decade. A couple of recent links to work he is doing:

The New Wonders at the NY Hot Jazz Festival:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N58Pw6IMU3Y

The trio Endangered Species introduces itself:

http://www.emilyasher.com/p/endangered-species-trio.html

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Recurring Nightmare

About a decade after returning from my Mormon mission to Germany in 1970 I began having nightmares—one or two a year—in which I was, inexplicably, required to serve another two years as a missionary. The shock each time was palpable. I always tried to explain (although the responsible party was never present or even evident in any way) that I had done my duty. As the years went on my explanation began to include the fact that I no longer believed Mormon doctrine, that I didn’t even believe in god. All to no avail. I was simply required to serve another mission. I consoled myself, mostly, by noting that since I would be in Bulgaria (or wherever it was) I would at least learn Bulgarian.

Last month I read Craig Harline’s new book Way Lower than the Angels, a sometimes funny but mostly harrowing account of his own mission in Belgium. Craig reports being caught in the three-legged conundrum of (1) knowing he should convert lots of Belgians, (2) seeing that no one was really interested, and (3) believing that if he kept mission rules perfectly, really perfectly!, God would reward him with lots of converts. That circle went round and round, beating the hell out of him psychologically.

Although I wasn’t nearly as rule-obsessed as a missionary, I still recognized plenty of the horror.

And then I had a new dream, one that shifts from nightmare to discovery, a therapeutic nightmare, I think:

I’m in a big city in Turkey. I am a missionary. My companion and I walk from door to door, trying to engage people in religious discussion. They have no patience with us, no interest, and I understand why. For one thing, I don’t understand a word of their language. The task is endless and fruitless.

The scene shifts to the inside of an apartment (how did we get inside? I wonder). While we stand there a man comes in carrying a small child. He sees us and starts to say something. I mumble something about a religious discussion and that sets him off: I’ve got a sick child! Get out! Get out!

We quickly retreat, stopping to think for a moment outside the front door of the building. We stand on the busy street. After a few minutes, the man steps through the door. He speaks English with me and we begin an interesting, non-religious discussion. My companion grows antsy. I tell him this is better than our door-to-door futility.

While we talk, I watch four or five homeless people lounge against the wall of the next building. They look ill and gaunt and perhaps stoned. Children who live in that building torment the defenseless people with stones they shoot from a platform at close range. I wonder how they can do that with such impunity. Why don’t the gaunt people attack them? The fusillade grows intense and the homeless people disappear.

My companion too has disappeared, gone to join other missionaries who continue their tracting while I continue the interesting conversation. I ask the man where to find the city’s best bookstore. I want to buy a Turkish-English dictionary. The conversation ends. I step away from the building as the man goes inside. The old apartment building looks different. I notice for the first time that it is next to a busy harbour, a vibrant scene in which working lights create a beauty that astonishes me. The building, I can now see, is really a remarkable boat crafted out of beautiful dark timbers. I stand admiring its lines and the man reappears with a small bag. He hands it to me. Inside is a Turkish-English dictionary. The first word I look up is FRIEND.

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