Coogee to Bronte Walk

by Judy Rowley

My favorite translation of coogee, which is said to have come from the Bidigal word koo-jah, is the smell of seaweed drying. There are other Aboriginal translations, too, mainly about smell or seaweed, but the general consensus is that, nowadays, no one really knows the meaning of coogee. The Aborigines, who used to live in the area in the 18th century, have all gone, driven out by white man’s plans and diseases, well before we understood how precious indigenous knowledge could be.

Coogee is the Australian beach, about thirty minutes from downtown Sydney, where I spend my American winters in an apartment high above the cliffs, hoping to write about something that will be as important to you as it is to me. At the beginning, I say to myself, you have three months, hop to it. Most days I walk towards Bondi, about ten miles further north, past Clovelly to Bronte, and Tamarama, all patrolled by lifeguards, each unique in its own right. I keep an eye out for whales and dolphins, water rips and cloud patterns. I admire the skills of surfboarders and let my mind wander as it wants. I don’t listen to anything except the sea and snatches of conversation of passers-by. Because I wear hearing aids and lip-read this can be either extremely funny or totally frustrating.

In June 2016 the (almost new) two million dollar elevated boardwalk between Clovelly and Bronte was disabled in a storm and has been closed to the public ever since. It was built to keep walkers and joggers from taking short cuts through the nearby cemetery. Plans for its restoration are scheduled and will take nine to twelve months to complete. Meanwhile, there is no avoiding it, one has to take a detour through the cemetery, often claimed to be one of the world’s most beautiful. Anyone can see why—the view is mindboggling—on my right, ocean of the deepest blue, rolling surf, skimming the rocks or smashing against limestone cliffs and a sky that expands to the horizon, conveying a troupe of ever-changing clouds. To my left, elegant crypts and memorials, many of which are of Edwardian or Victorian design, cascade down the hillside toward the sea. Forty one acres of stone and marble, intersected by seams of grass, take your breath away. An eye feast in any direction, but, of course, the dead cannot share in any of it.

I’m a sucker for cemeteries, and even more so now, as I take the detour and reacquaint myself with poets who lie there. I long ago came across Dorothea Mackellar, the poet who shares a plot and plaque with her brother, Major Mackellar. One would expect that the most famous lines from one of her poems, “My Country,” might be inscribed on the white marble.

I love a sunburned country, a land of sweeping plains
Of rugged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains. 

But no, her name lies beneath her brother’s. She is not identified as a poet, and there is no reference to the poem that all Australian school children learn, which brings to the heart an identical sentimental lurch as the words of Samuel Francis Smith

My country tis of thee
Sweet Land of liberty
Of thee I sing 

The cemetery has been the location of many movies and television programs, and eleven American Civil War veterans are buried here. I don’t know why; maybe there’s a story there. I imagine they came in search of gold, which was discovered in the 1800s. Henry Kendall, who wrote poems about the bush and nature has an appropriate memorial, but Henry Lawson’s grave is low key. Still, the words Australian Poet and Story Writer are inscribed on a plaque above his ledger. He died a poor man but eventually the city recognized him with a bronze statue of himself with a swagman and dog. Today, Lawson is regarded as the most outstanding of Australian colonial writers. I checked out his stories, which he calls sketches. He claimed that sketches were the best way of telling a story. Yes, they’re short.

I don’t always continue to Bondi. That’s a story of itself. I turn back at Bronte, which is disappointingly named for Duke of Bronte, a foreign war hero, and not the Bronte sisters. Usually my walk inspires me to head to my desk and not the cookie jar, to make some sense of an overheard conversation or to work on a poem. A new idea can spring from the unshackled mind. That’s the plan.

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Rowley406612007-017Judy Rowley’s essays, which include “Light,” (AGNI Online), have been published in several journals. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Venus on a Ferris Wheel. Her memoir, Expected Home, is in the works and will be available early in 2018. She has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Manhattanville College, NY and an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars, VT. Judy lives in Connecticut, USA, but often visits Sydney, where she was born.


Between a Book and its Cover: Room for Conversation

by David Ebenbach

I feel for Joan Wong. It must have been intimidating, the prospect of designing a cover for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, a slim volume about the complicated relationship between books and their covers, and also about how much Lahiri dislikes the covers of her books. She calls them generally “upsetting.” She says, “They depress me, they confuse me, they infuriate me….There is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me almost a violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book.”

LahiriLahiri is not likely talking about Wong’s design—in which the book is made to resemble a cartoon denim jacket—if only because she didn’t seem to know what the cover would look like when she wrote the text. Late in the book she just says, “The American edition will wear its cover, the Italian another.” Nothing beyond that. And so maybe all Wong can do is wonder what Lahiri thinks of her work.

I’ll admit it: my sympathies incline toward Wong on this, because Lahiri’s testiness sometimes comes off as unchecked privilege. Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of author whose name sells zillions of books all by itself, no matter what else is on the cover (or underneath it). As evidence, consider the fact that I paid money for The Clothing of Books, which a book that only reaches seventy-one pages, and only gets there because of very small pages, a great big font, and generous spacing. It’s basically a longform essay—the kind of thing you might read in an issue of the Atlantic—packaged as a book. You get to do that when you’re Jhumpa Lahiri. And so when she writes, “I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike,” I don’t find myself crying lots of rivers on her behalf.

On the other hand, I am a fan of Lahiri’s fiction, and she also makes some good points in this essay. For one thing, there’s the ugly way in which her work is sometimes covered in visual stereotypes—either saris or American flags, depending on what aspect of her identity is being targeted. And of course her work is not alone in receiving this treatment. A Korean-American friend of mine points out how Asian writers’ books always seem to feature a picture of an Asian woman from behind, so that you can look at some shiny, black hair—or they feature an Asian person’s eye. For Jewish books, it’s got to be bagels, six-pointed stars, or black hats. For African writers it’s all acacia trees and setting suns. So, that’s a place where Lahiri’s word “upsetting” describes my reaction, too.

At a more general level, there’s the fact that a cover’s “function is much more commercial than aesthetic….if it doesn’t sell the book, it has no value.” If stereotypes end up on covers, in other words, that must mean that stereotypes sell; anything that ends up on a big-publisher-book must be there in order to sell copies. Lahiri publishes with big publishers, of course, and their focus on the bottom line means they probably do put a lot of pressure on her to accept commercially-appealing jackets. And what gets lost is the possibility of an image that simply “reflect[s] the sense and style of the book.” Or, also lost, the possibility that the text and the cover could end up in an interesting creative conversation with one another.

All of my personal experience has been with small presses, places that may not have a marketing person, let alone a marketing department. They don’t have the staff to sit around a conference table and debate the commercial potential of various images. In fact, the process usually begins with an editor asking the author, “Hey—do you have any ideas for what you want on the cover?”

People Who Moved front cover jpgThis is, then, one of the advantages of working with small presses: if you want there to be an interesting conversation between the cover and the book, you have some say in that. Three of my books, for example, feature paintings by artist David Guinn on the front, because I was able to suggest those paintings to my editors. David is a very close friend—a creative brother—and we have been in an ongoing creative conversation with one another for almost three decades now. We’ve talked about the purpose of creativity, about the way our emotional lives inform what we do and vice versa, and about so many other things. When I look at those three books on my shelf, I see the continuation of that long, wandering dialogue. And I see that my writing changes his paintings and that his paintings change my writing, in ways neither of us could have predicted when we separately set out to do our work, not anticipating that it would end up literally bound together.

Miss Portland -- cover -- front jpgOr there’s my novel, Miss Portland, set in Maine, and inspired in part by my mother and her approach to life. The image on that book’s cover is a photo by my mother, who was, among other things, a talented amateur photographer. She died three years ago, and there is something deeply wonderful about the experience of her work and my work talking to each other, including talking about things that she and I were never quite able to say to each other as people, things about the challenges of making your way through a world equipped only with your small collection of skills and aspirations and courage.

Cover (front) -- The Artist's TorahOr take the cover to my non-fiction book The Artist’s Torah. I didn’t have any say in this design choice, actually, though probably only because I didn’t assert myself; Wipf and Stock probably would have listened to me if I had made a suggestion. But now here was a book that was almost demanding a stereotype—bagels, black hats, etc.—and yet the publishing house came up with a cover of fire, like the whole book was fire. Well, Torah, in mystical literature, has been referred to as black fire on white fire, so it was a tremendously thoughtful and beautiful choice, and it put my work into deeper dialogue with mystical tradition.

Covers can go wrong, obviously. I was once looking at some possibilities for a short story collection of mine that was all about parenting, and one of those possibilities—not a painting by David Guinn—elicited this response from a friend: “When I see this, I think ‘child murder.’” Which is to say that not all creative conversations are good ones (e.g., between a book about parenting and a cover that suggests “Maybe somebody should kill our kids”). So again I was lucky that I had a say and could move things in a different direction.

For her part, in The Clothing of Books Lahiri expresses a longing for “the naked book”—the book with a blank cover or no cover—so that the text might be appreciated and understood for itself, and only itself. And I understand that longing. But I also like the fact that a book is a multimedia object, that its full expression is not entirely verbal. Even ebooks, which Lahiri seems to relish for the way they deemphasize their covers, are full of visual choices, in terms of font, spacing, size, and so on. Books are inescapably multimedia; the only way to consume the book without any visual input is either to hear it read aloud or to read it in braille, which are both sensory experiences of their own.

Again, this multimedia collaboration can go wrong, but we cannot avoid the collaboration. And so why not embrace it, and get actively involved in it? Granted, it’s complicated; instead of a writer and visual artist working directly together, there’s a publisher in the middle, and often that publisher has an understandable profit motive. But lots and lots of good things happen, too. And they do become part of the work, whether we want them to or not. As Lahiri herself says, “Even when I don’t particularly like one of my jackets, I end up feeling some affinity for it. Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them.”

Late in the essay, Lahiri asks, “What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist.” And of course she’s right, which is why I think we should change the question, should stop looking for perfection and start looking for conversation.

The first step, in any case, is a conversation about the conversation, which gets jump-started by Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books—and which is in the rest of our hands to pursue further.

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2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at

What Really Happened? Making Life Into Literature

by Alisa Wolf

I should be working on my memoir today. There’s no reason I can’t pick up where I left off yesterday, with my teenage self, in the woods, at night. The toes of a hiking boot—and then the toes of the other boot—are lit in the beam of a flashlight, as I walk from the staff cabin at the wilderness camp to the bathrooms. That walk happened, but the boot in the beam of the flashlight—as probable as it is—is not, strictly speaking, remembered. I made that part up. Chances are I stumbled through the woods thinking thoughts that had nothing to do with whatever my feet were up to.

Then why did I write it that way, and why do I think it’s important to keep it? The short answer to both questions is: it serves a literary purpose. As I sat with the scene yesterday, the story needed slowing down, to be grounded. I can’t fully explain what happens when I’m writing and I follow an impulse that feels right. I don’t always understand why a story makes its demands, but when it does, I’ve learned to go with it.

In the scheme of things, it’s a minor fiction. I’m not making flagrant claims, like Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments did, in his memoir about a Polish, Jewish boy who survives a Nazi death camp. It turned out he isn’t Jewish, or even Polish, let alone a Holocaust survivor. I was, without a doubt, the girl in the woods, taking a break from the staff cabin and its roaring fire, the cigarettes and marijuana, and a jug of wine being passed around. No one is going to argue about whether I noticed that my flashlight lit up the toe of my boot. Yet something still bothers me. I’m feeling nervous about the liberty I’ve taken with “what really happened.”

Is it dishonest to tinker, in however a minor way, with the stuff of my life? I recreate conversations I can’t possibly remember verbatim, change names, and rely on memories I’ve gone over and over again, surely distorting them in the process. On the other hand, it’s no use worrying about how people will receive a book that may never see print. But what I’m more afraid of than being caught out is that the bit of wisdom I’m trying to uncover is actually self-deception.

Vivian Gornick, author of the mother-daughter memoir, Fierce Attachments, and the well-loved memoir-writing book, The Situation and the Story, sees deviations from what actually happened as memoirists’ prerogative. “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters,” she wrote in an essay, defending her use of composite characters. She cites memoirs acknowledged to be masterpieces by authors as diverse as Edmund Gosse, who recounted conversations that supposedly took place when he was eight years old, to George Orwell, who was denounced for inaccuracies in his account of his school days in “Such, Such Were the Joys.”

In Gornick’s view, the problem is not with the memoirists but with readers’ expectations. “Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism.” She doesn’t go so far as to condone memoirists like Wilkomirski, who invent pasts they never had. She makes a distinction between inventing a narrative out of whole cloth, as Wilkomirski did, and composing, which is what she did when working with, as she says, “a narrative drawn entirely from the materials of my own experience.”

Other memoirists, too, are unapologetic about shaping narratives out of the raw materials of their lives. David Sedaris was trashed in The New Republic for making stuff up about ten years ago, around the time James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair were being publicly shamed for doing what appeared, to his critics, to be the same thing. Did the fact that he survived where the others fell have to do with being a humor writer, which makes us more forgiving? Or was it because his exaggerations were more along the lines of what Gornick calls “composing” from experience versus inventing a past that wasn’t what really happened?

There’s that phrase again, “what really happened,” the idea that keeps stopping me when I’m feeling most connected to my work. I’m haunted by Margo Jefferson, who in her memoir, Negroland, writes: “I think it’s too easy to recount your unhappy memories when you write about yourself. You bask in your own innocence. You revere your grief. You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.”

Am I doing that?

How can I not? My temperament, ego, and self-image are all part of the story. And my life is not a story until I find what the story is. Like Hansel and Gretel, I wander in the woods, pausing to shine a light on my childhood and adolescence while taking stock of the world around me and my place in it, then and now.

To avoid confusion, I could call what I’m writing “realish,” as Sedaris does, or “based on a true story,” as they say in the movies. Or I could continue to keep Vivian Gornick nearby and remind myself of what a memoirist owes the reader, which, as she writes, “is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

I don’t know why I’m a memoirist and not a fiction writer—I often wish it were otherwise. But that’s the way it is. If I want whatever bit of truth I have achieved in my work to reach a reader, I have to be faithful to the story I’m telling. Ironically, the demands of literature—for drama, narrative drive, and conflict—are what stop me from being wholly self-serving in the way Jefferson derides. Self-pity makes for a boring read.

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AlisaWolf_MayAlisa Wolf’s work has appeared in AGNI Online, The Billfold, Calyx, Cimarron Review, Concho River Review, Fjords Review, Pisgah Review, Red Cedar Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Sojourner, and The Legendary, as well as the Prentice Hall Reader, 11th and 12th editions. She lives in Medford, Mass. and is a member of the Writers Room of Boston. Find out what she’s published on AGNI here.

October Light

by Christopher Benfey

The poet Richard Wilbur died on October 14, at age 96. Almost exactly two years earlier, on another beautiful October day, I had attended a lunch in Wilbur’s honor, in the venerable Western Massachusetts hill town of Ashfield. Hosting the gathering, in their 18th-century farmhouse in the woods, were Susan and Richard Todd, old friends of Wilbur’s, who lived nearby in Cummington. I had mentioned to Susan that I was writing a book about Kipling and America, and that Kipling had, in the company of his father, visited Charles Eliot Norton at his summer place in Ashfield. Soon after, Susan heard Wilbur mention his own fondness for Kipling. Hence the lunch. Among the other guests were Mary and Robert Bagg, Wilbur’s biographers, and David Sofield, who taught a verse-writing class at Amherst College with Wilbur, a 1942 Amherst graduate. The next day, a friend asked me for an account of the occasion. I sent him the following email:

A big calm presence, eyes awake but more inscrutably blue than twinkling, the way I imagine Emerson late in life, when the big empty spaces had moved into parts of his brain. Wilbur seems all there, but where there is isn’t always entirely clear. “Dick, how is your cat?” “You mean Leo?” “Yes.” “He’s fine.” “What kind of cat is he?” “Asiatic.” “Siamese?” “No.” “What’s he like?” “Well, what sort of attributes does one look for in a cat?” (I did like this last question of Wilbur’s.) At which point our host, Dick Todd, said, “Yes, how would a cat on the prowl advertise himself in the Cat Personals?”

The pretext for the lunch, which went on for four hours, with lots of good wine, was a brief conversation, at some party in the summer, between me and Susan Todd. Susan had said that Wilbur reads Kipling every night. So, there I was to pop the question. But Wilbur had about as much to say about Kipling as about Leo. “Yes, Kipling, he does have force, doesn’t he? He’s a good writer for children…. I wouldn’t say I read him every night. But Sofield says Kipling is all right.” Sofield happened to be at the lunch, too. He winced at my mispronunciation of “ignominy.” But I’m not sure how I pronounced it or how he did. Also, Chris Wilbur, a vague large friendly man of maybe 70 who lives in Arlington and has retired from “coding for Lotus” to work on Kabbalah and Tarot. My ears perked up. Turns out he’s a huge Alistair Crowley fan. I couldn’t follow him there, no sirree. Do you know Dick Todd? Tracy Kidder’s editor and close friend. They just put out a book together, Good Prose. Very nice guy. At the end of the lunch, we all went outside to right the steel trash container tipped over by bears.

So ends the email. Actually, at the end of the lunch there were toasts and tributes. When it was my turn, I told a brief story about my father-in-law, an Amherst classmate of Wilbur’s. Wilbur had heard that Duffy was quite the wag. When they were first introduced, Wilbur said, “So, I hear you’re supposed to be clever, Rathbun. Say something funny.” I told the gathering that after my mother-in-law died, Duffy named a racehorse he had bred “June Light,” since Wilbur’s sonnet of that title (in memory of his own wife, Charlee) reminded him of Sheilah. I then read the poem aloud, with its lovely opening: “Your voice, with clear location of June days,/ Called me—outside the window. You were there.” I’m always tempted to misread “location” as “locution.” And I hear Wilbur’s clear, slow voice and see his face, “as legible as pearskin’s fleck and trace.”

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benfey7Christopher Benfey teaches at Mount Holyoke. He has published five books about the American Gilded Age along with a family memoir, Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Way It Went

by Nance Van Winckel

For me alone the book had been waiting untouched on its shelf since 1976. Forty-one years. The last time anyone checked it out—a certain Cheryl Mason—was in March of that year, the 19th to be exact. (Ah, to be as exact again as a day in ‘76!) Here was Miss Mason’s faded blue name on a card in the book’s back pocket.

I turn a page, read a few passages from the book, and tumble unexpectedly into love. A man is lonely; he walks around Paris all the way to page 63, where I blink, turn to the card again, and touch the neatly scripted one nine seven six beside Cheryl’s name. I wonder if she too lingered upon page 63 or at least felt a smile arise unbidden after its last paragraph’s perfect black period.

I put my nose deep in the book’s musk, its ivory pages with brown edges. Certainly the neighboring books on the shelf had tried but failed first to embrace and then to smother what ticks between the copyright page and dear Miss Mason’s “return by” date. I read and feel her eyelashes flutter. Maybe Cheryl had been a girl when she entered this book, but no doubt by April, a mature young woman walked the book uphill to return it to eternity.

Halfway through, I go backward in time and forward in space, feeling my way across the inky black ridges. My pencil tries not to but can’t help but put an asterisk on page 209 by that bit about the wee doves. Oh, oh, just…here. Dearest Mister Beckett! I drift asleep with you, my cheek upon page 222. Perhaps after the book resumes its crotchety life alone, my black asterisk will wink once to the very cursive Miss Cheryl. Or such is my brief thought on page 282, where I linger in the sudden icy chill of a swift breeze of words wildly blowing open the blah beige drapes.

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nance pixNance Van Winckel is the author of eight books of poetry, most recently Our Foreigner, winner of the Pacific Coast Poetry Prize (Beyond Baroque Press, 2017) and Book of No Ledge (Pleiades Press Visual Poetry Series, 2016). Ever Yrs, a scrapbook (Twisted Road Publications, 2014), is her most recent book of fiction. The recipient of two NEA poetry fellowships, the Paterson Fiction Prize, a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship, and three Pushcart Prizes, Nance teaches in the MFA Programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Blogging, Tweeting, Networking, and their Virtual Discontents

by Stephen Kessler

The Web is too much with us. Blogging and tweeting, Googling and Facebooking, we lay waste our powers—that’s why I’m writing this draft by hand in ink on paper, unplugged from any device but a roller gel pen whose brand I will not even name so as to remain unlinked from commercial clicks and animated ads and all the distractions of a pixilated screen.

The white paper with its faint gray lines is peaceful and passively inviting, not pulsating with the impatient rhythm of a black hole of self-expression demanding to be filled with endless blather. I don’t want to be part of the relentless assault on sensibility, the constant stream of so-called information and opinion and commentary and argument and images and likes and dislikes that constitute what passes for public discourse and community, a virtual conversation that might be better conducted in a café, between two people, face to actual face.

But look around most cafés and what you see are solitary people staring at their laptops or bent over their phones, essentially being elsewhere than where they are. With only a notebook as my portable device, I feel pleasantly unreachable, calm in the knowledge that I’m out of touch, free to reflect without distraction, or with the inspiring distraction of physical human behavior in a public place, overheard conversations or, outdoors, in a park or by the ocean, the immersive presence of natural phenomena that Wordsworth found restorative and grounding.

When he wrote, in the 1790s, that the world is too much with us, the Industrial Revolution was accelerating the pace of technological change in a way that gave him the jitters. He had to go walking in the Lake District to gather his sensitive wits in a setting that any British aristocrat could appreciate. Here in the States our natural landscapes are not so tame. In California, where I live, the four seasons are fire, flood, drought and earthquake. Silicon Valley’s virtual alternatives may comfort some, but could Wordsworth even have imagined the all-pervasive onslaught of the hyperconnected media storm constantly thrashing us with its agitated weather?

The option exists to take a break and look around at the world and listen to whatever ambient sounds that might suggest the rhythm of a song. Almost fifty years ago, when I studied poetry—reading it and thinking about it, not writing it in a workshop—with Robert Duncan at UC Santa Cruz, one of several profoundly simple things he said was that poets aren’t factories. The drive to publish, to advance one’s career, so central to the industrial culture of the MFA, for Duncan was nowhere near as fundamental as what he called, in his Statement on Poetics for Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry 1945-1960, “song and the reality of romance.”

That’s what I sense is missing from the swarming, teeming, blogging, networking, conference-attending, workshopping, tweeting, competing-for-so-little-that-it-seems-more-important-than-it-is social universe of senseless activity that is the naturally illusory atmosphere of the literary environment most contemporary American poets inhabit. They are driven not by myth or tradition or Beauty or spirit or imagination but by an irrational and probably counterproductive need for “followers” and “likes” and “viral” exposure and other forms of virtual and meaningless attention and approval and popularity, just as high-school students crave acceptance by way of mindless conformism.

This demand for attention, this compulsion to buzz in the virtual hive, this craving to be noticed strikes me as antithetical to imaginative integrity, to true creativity, to deep artistic gratification, which in my experience happens first of all between the writer and the blank page.

The tools we use are a matter of personal choice, and ambition varies from one writer to another, and our social instincts are highly individual, but before we automatically adopt prevailing trends in techno-connectedness, it is worth asking why and for whom we are writing, and whether our habits are enriching and enabling our highest practice, or burning us out with an overdose of artificial and irrelevant stimulation.

Log off and look around. The real, unmediated world is astonishing and, as Denise Levertov once noticed while riding the subway, not enough with us.

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stephen kessler by chip scheuer 2MBStephen Kessler’s eleventh book of poetry, Garage Elegies, is due out in 2018 from Black Widow Press. His translations of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award, and the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His version of Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar received a 2017 Northern California Book Award. He lives in Santa Cruz, California, where he writes a weekly opinion column for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Survivor’s Guilt

by Sheila Kohler

One of the questions I have been asked most frequently, since publication of a recent memoir, is if this book has brought closure, if the writing of it has enabled me to go on with my life. Have I put the tragic event of an older sister’s death and possible murder behind me? My sister died at thirty nine in a car crash on a dry night, no other car in sight, her husband, a heart surgeon, who had beaten both her and their six children for years, at the wheel. Why had I not been able to stop this tragedy, knowing how dangerous this man was? How responsible was I? Could writing down this trauma enable me to forget? Does writing ever enable one to overcome what might be called survivor’s guilt?

Certainly this kind of material occurs again and again all through literature. “Beowulf,” the Anglo-Saxon poem, is one of the earliest examples where fratricide is closely woven into the text: Unferth, the Danish thane, kills his brothers, we are told; Haethcyn, the Geat, son of Hrethel, kills Herebeald and Grendel, himself, the monster, is the descendant of Cain who has killed Abel.

One of the most moving moments in Beowulf, a poem that comes to us from the 9th century or perhaps even earlier, is what is called “the father’s lament” (ll 2444-62), when a father confronts the death of a son killed by his own brother. Haethcyn, the younger boy, accidentally kills his brother, Herebeald, shooting him with an arrow. The father is left to lament an act without any means of redress or revenge. The poet writes:

“Morning after morning he wakes to remember
That his child is gone; he has no interest
In living on until another heir
Is born in the hall, now that his first-born
Has entered death’s dominion forever.
He gazes sorrowfully at his son’s dwelling,
The banquet hall bereft of all delight,
The windswept hearthstone; the horsemen are sleeping,
The warriors are under ground; what was is no more.
No tunes from the harp, no cheer raised in the yard.
Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
And sings a lament; everything seems too large,
The steadings and the fields.

The Beowulf poet, whose references to religion are mostly from the Old Testament, mentions the killing of Abel by his brother Cain, which results in the birth of a race of ogres, elves, evil phantoms and giants, banished monsters. Amongst them is Grendel, a “fiend from hell” whose nightly vicious attacks become the scourge of the Danish king, King Hrothgar’s hall. This brother-killing, Cain killing Abel, results in a race of banished monsters, amongst them Grendel and Grendel’s mother, both of whom Beowulf fights.

Grendel, of course, is also the well-known novel where John Gardner gives voice to this monster who has emerged from the darkness of the misty marshes so mysteriously and frighteningly in Beowulf and is killed by Beowulf in the first part of the poem. Why, we might wonder, does this writer, writing in the 70’s, want to take up an ancient monster from an old poem and describe the world seen through his eyes? How does he get us to identify sufficiently with a monstrous, man-eating creature? And why would he try something so difficult?

Gardner, who knew the poem well, teaching it for many years, had, perhaps, a particular interest in this story because of his own life. As a young boy, growing up on a farm, he had accidentally backed a tractor into his young brother and killed him, a traumatic event he describes beautifully in a story called “Redemption.” Did he in some way identify with this monster, descendant of Cain, the brother killer, and so desire to give him a voice, to speak for him in the first person? Did he, himself, feel like a monster and perhaps even act like one at times, savaging his fellow writers so aggressively? He is reputed to have spoken disparagingly of Saul Bellow and Donald Barthelme, to mention two. Was he simply suffering from survivor’s guilt and was this his way of going on with his troubled life?

Another example that comes to mind is John Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize winner, in his historical novel The Master of Saint Petersburg. This is ostensibly a novel about Dostoevsky, who returns to Saint Petersburg after the death of his step-son, Pavel Isaev, who has died in mysterious circumstances. The book is extremely well-researched and contains many erudite and exact references to Dostoevsky’s life (his epilepsy, his debts, his gambling, his first and second wives, the revolutionary Sergei Nechayev). But there is one glaring example where the novel alters the known facts of Dostoevsky’s life. In reality this step-son—who seems to have been something of a black sheep—does not die at all during Dostoevsky’s life but long after Dostoevsky is dead. Why then does the book center on the famous father’s great grief? Why do we have a scene when he prostrates himself on his grave? Why does he, in the act of making love to his housekeeper, find his dead son in her embrace? Is this then perhaps rather a father (John Coetzee) writing in this form to express his own survivor’s guilt, his own great sorrow at losing a son so young and so tragically?

These are questions we cannot answer, of course, but are interesting to us in considering how and why a writer takes reality and transforms it. Whether the act of writing of these tragedies even indirectly was of help to these writers in their lives we cannot know. We do know John Gardner died young and tragically in a motorbike accident at forty nine, whereas John Coetzee is still living and writing successfully today. Certainly, we can say in both cases that the ability to access this traumatic material and give it distance by transforming it into a structured form, ultimately made art.

All I can say as a writer myself is that certainly the writing down of my sister’s life and death in fictional or non-fictional form, which I have done again and again, though it may have enabled me to go on with my own life, has not helped me to forget. On the contrary, it has helped me to remember, to preserve precious memories in written form, memories which I can only hope to share with others who might find something of themselves in my words.

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Kohler,SheilaSheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, including, most recently, the memoir Once We Were Sisters, and she is the winner of the Willa Cather Award and two O. Henry Prizes for her fiction. Born and raised in South Africa, she has lived in the U.S. for many years and teaches at Princeton University. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.