The Pistol Sign Pointed Right at Me

by Peter LaSalle

It’s happened to me twice recently. And in light of the ongoing and always loud controversy about gun control turning louder now with our utter political polarization, it seems to haunt me even more.

The first time was in Istanbul, where I’d traveled to meet with the translator and also with the Turkish publisher of one of my books of fiction, a short story collection. I’d set myself up in small family-run hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, a yellow-stuccoed place on a quiet dead-end street thick with flowers blooming and not far from the almost bluer-than-blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. The spot proved perfect for my blending some taking in of the nearby sights of Istanbul’s landmark mosques and the ancient Grand Bazaar, as well as conducting my literary business via a short walk across the Galata Bridge to the city’s commercial center.

There was a shop, the equivalent of a corner deli, in Sultanahmet that sold cold beer. At the end of one day of much walking, heading to the hotel, I stopped by. I figured I would take the can back to my room and relax for a bit, sip a refreshing beer and read some before dinner.

Mustached, toothily smiling, the guy behind the counter asked me with what little English he had where in America I was from. While I am, in fact, from Rhode Island and usually spend summer months in the state, I’ve lived a good part of my adult life in Austin, where I teach creative writing. To make things easy, I replied, “Texas,” as in many years of traveling I’ve learned that to say Rhode Island will only elicit bafflement from most people abroad.

Handing the blue can of Efes Pilsner in a plastic sack to me, the guy grinned, just looked at me with a larger smile; he said “Texas,” nodding, then offered me the universally understood pistol sign with his hand—thumb cocked for the hammer and forefinger out straight for the barrel, nodding some more.

And then, just last summer, I was in Lisbon. I was on another literary errand. This time it was to match up some of the places in that true gem of a city of steep hills, endless red-tiled roofs, and such impressive imperial architecture on the wide Tagus River with the work of Portugal’s giant of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa, who died relatively young in 1936 and near thoroughly unknown then. I planned to write an essay for a literary magazine of the sort I have been writing lately on going to a place where a favorite author’s books are set, to see, through exploration of the setting, if I can better experience the work that way.

With Pessoa proudly honored by Portugal today, he has emerged as perhaps the defining cultural image for Lisbon itself, site of much of his poetry as well as the eerie, posthumously published prose ruminations of a fictitious Lisbon office worker, his acknowledged masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet. There’s now a much-photographed life-size bronze statue of Pessoa seated amid the umbrella tables outside the popular Café A Brasileira. Pessoa had been a regular there, often discussing literature with friends at the ornately classic place in the heart of the city’s Chiado district, today a busy pocket of trendy shops and usually clogged with tourists.

In my reading about Pessoa, an odd fact I came across was that the Café A Brasileira, famous for its literary ties, once had also been frequented by members of Portugal’s feared secret police. During the repressive 36-year rule of the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, they operated under different names, the most notorious acronym being PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado); their headquarters had been only a street or so away, back then known as “The House of Torture.” After some checking around online, it was easy enough to find the exact location of that former headquarters on Rua António Maria Cardoso, a narrow street with gleaming rails for the yellow Lisbon trolleys, sloping steeply down toward the city’s extensively redeveloped dockside.

As I stood in front of the building on this hot and deserted summer Sunday late afternoon, I took notes on the look of the place, thinking I might use such details in my future writing. The four-story stone edifice—impeccably sandblasted and with fine, iron-railed balconies—was now, after complete remodeling, the home to (and this is pretty ironic) very chic central-Lisbon condos; an upscale designer furniture store occupied the ground level. Which was when a barrel-chested guy approached me, seemingly of African ancestry and thirty-five or so, in shorts, T-shirt, and sandals. Friendly, quite animated, he asked in his melodically bellowing voice if he could help me, maybe answer any questions.

Bic and little red-marbleized notebook in hand, I said I was just looking at the building, checking the plaque now affixed there by the government, which, with proper repudiation, does fully own up to a most tragic chapter in the nation’s past.

“Yes, yes,” he said, “this is it, and this is where people were locked up in cells, where they were tortured in all sorts of ways for too long, even murdered, and now look at it”—he histrionically waved his hand as if to take in the whole street—”a home for the rich.”

We casually chatted. He explained that his mother was Portuguese and his father from Angola, the former Portuguese colony that suffered in the 1960-70s through a drawn-out war of independence, a foreign conflict unpopular at home and for many the equivalent of our painful Vietnam episode. He said he’d learned most of his English, very good, from TV, and he offered more of his opinion on how the rich were indeed ruining the world, how his dear Lisbon itself was being bought up by the rich, and “Money, money, money!” Eventually he introduced himself as João; I gave him my name. And when he asked me where I was from in the U.S., I again, without thinking, simply said, “Texas.”

And with that it did happen again, more or less an automatic response on his part. He pronounced “Texas” slowly, as if tasting the syllables on his palate, and, yes, slowly he raised his hand to make the pistol sign, now not with a nod but just a rather hopeless, apparently pitying shaking of the head.

I really didn’t know how to answer, to be honest. Or, to put it another way, in Lisbon on such a pristine sunny Sunday afternoon and in Istanbul that other day, both times the exchanges left me embarrassed, if not a little depressed.

OK, here’s where I am going with all of this.

I don’t think that what appears an automatic reaction from people abroad linking guns and Texas can be summarily dismissed and just pegged to the influence of Hollywood’s Western movies over the years, though that obviously is part of it. Still, in a larger sense, it could be more that Texas, loud and brash as it is sometimes seen, does become for many outside our country an icon for much of what they consider wrong in America in general. (It’s a recurring trope in movies and literature, admittedly a cliché, to portray a noisy American buying up artifacts of old world culture, with no understanding of that culture, as a drawling, ten-gallon-topped Texas oil millionaire). And I suppose there is a certain sadness in the way that frequently when those abroad do think of America in general, easily tagged with that stock image of Texas, they readily associate it with guns.

I mean, concerning gun control in general, it wasn’t just these instances. And how often I have found myself with friends in France, where I have taught at universities on faculty exchanges, or in Brazil, where I have gone a couple of times to do research for my writing and give lectures, and when the subject of life in America came up, it was soon accompanied by amazement, or incredulity, about a situation that to those in other countries can be the sheer absurdity of the full availability of firearms here—anything from the cheap Saturday-night specials used to bloodily resolve family arguments to high-tech, military-style assault weapons capable of wiping out entire classrooms of school children in mere minutes. It does little good to attempt to explain the enormous power of lobbies in America, also to say how a good number of my faculty colleagues and I have vocally opposed the Texas legislature’s enthusiastic recent decision to allow “campus carry” at my own university: explanations—or outright excuses—fail.

So, as grateful as I am to a state that has provided me with a fulfilling university job that has allowed me exposure to bright, wonderful students in a long teaching career, plus the so many good people I’ve known throughout Texas and the countless other undeniably fine things about the state, too, I think I’ve learned my lesson—in travel abroad from now on I don’t need an accusatory pistol finger pointed directly at me anymore. When somebody asks me where I am from, I will always say emphatically “Rhode Island,” granting that experience has taught me that my very small New England native state will more than likely be confused with—if recognized at all—New York and, well, Long Island.

Further, and maybe more seriously, I will keep trying, both as a writer—with whatever outlets for words are at my disposal—and merely as an everyday citizen, to take a stand the best I can against the madness of present gun laws, or shameful lack of them, as the effort clearly does become increasingly challenging amid this current political rockiness.

agni blog logo smaller

lasalle-photo-for-usp-brazil-visiting-lecture-1Peter LaSalle’s most recent books are a story collection, Sleeping Mask: Fictions (Bellevue Literary Press, 2017), and a collection of travel essays, The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling (Dzanc Books, 2015). A longtime AGNI contributor, he has a short story, “Where I Was When My Older Brother Died,” in the current issue (84), and his essay “Walking: An Essay on Writing,” which appeared in AGNI 70, was selected for The Best American Travel Writing 2010. He teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, both in the English department and the Michener Center for Writers. See all of what he’s published in AGNI here.


Inspiration: Waltzing with Twain

by Phong Nguyen

It’s a dimension of writing we often ignore because it is something we cannot control. As writers, we often remind ourselves that all we can control is the number of hours we spend at our desks, composing or editing. Dwelling on inspiration is counter-productive, because it is outside of our control—a matter of mere chemistry, or luck.

Yet we can control what we read, what writers influence us, and to some degree we can control our own attitudes about that influence. We can partake in what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence”: an agon between the genius of our predecessors and our own original vision, where we painstakingly separate ourselves from the works and authors that have inspired us. Or we can embrace Jonathan Lethem’s “the ecstasy of influence”: partaking in the stream of creative afflatus, embracing the syncretistic nature of art-making, accessing the same spirit of play that animated our earliest encounters with story. This means ceding our claim to radical individualism—the notion that you or I represent an unprecedented unique vision that is divorced from all the voices that have come before it—and accepting a communal identity as writers who see themselves as a part of a continuum of language, of generations of tale-tellers, of an ongoing patchwork quilt of stories.

I used to make a habit of reading only the most non-intrusive literary voices while writing: Hemingway as opposed to Faulkner; Carver instead of Cather; Proulx instead of Proust. If a writer’s language is too distinctive, the theory goes, then their style will overwhelm the readers’, and the result will be a pale imitation of its source, rather than a sui generis “voice.” It’s cheating, in other words, to draw inspiration from the voice of others. Or worse, it’s a doomed enterprise from the start, because it will be the dreaded “D” word: derivative.

My first novel The Adventures of Joe Harper is a literary spin-off from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The relationship to its source material is shameless. The nature of the project is such that I could not wage a war in which I emerged triumphant over my influences (a la Harold Bloom), so by necessity, I warmed to my influences instead. I started out wrestling with Twain, and ended up waltzing with him. I read Twain copiously while I wrote The Adventures of Joe Harper, and I let his voice in.

My discovery in writing this novel was that inhabiting another writer’s voice was liberating, enthralling, and ultimately conducive to inspiration. But I soon found that dwelling in the author’s voice was not enough—for the purposes of this novel, I had to take possession of an individual character, one that was a hybrid invention of Twain’s and my own. I lived as Joe Harper for the duration of the writing, and frequently did not let the character go after the day’s writing was done. His voice and my voice fused to the point where I frequently felt as though I were channeling the story more than authoring it.

Several different authors seem to have simultaneously happened upon this revelation on their own: that “Method Acting” has a fruitful and useful analogue in writing. Earlier this year, The Independent featured an article by Thomas Hodgkinson citing Thomas Fink and Alexander Fiske-Harrison as the precursors to “Method Writing.” Also this year, the BBC did a write-up on Hodgkinson himself, whose novel Memoirs of a Stalker was written immersively. At least two writing teachers, Dick Bentley and Jack Grapes, maintain websites that promise writing results from what they independently title “Method Writing.” The earliest reference I came across to “Method Writing” was from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who in a 1998 interview with Creative Screenwriting wrote, “I joke about it, but I’m very much a method writer. I really become the characters when I’m writing them. I’ll become one or two of them more than others, I’m consistent that way. I become all of them when I’m writing, but I’ll become one or two when I’m not writing.”

All of these seem to me paths towards inspiration. Call them shortcuts if you would. If you remain open to its influence, dwelling for a while in another author’s voice can sometimes be the spark that fires the engine of inspiration. But inhabiting a character and letting him or her take control of the wheel is, for some, a necessary point of departure, after which one knows for sure that the story’s work is truly begun. There is still the hard work of laying words down on the page, but that work feels much more like just living your life when your character is, like the author herself, embodied and animate.

agni blog logo smaller

phong-04c-1Phong Nguyen is the author of the novel The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016) and two story collections: Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014) and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011). He teaches fiction-writing at the University of Central Missouri, where he currently serves as editor of Pleiades. His own stories have been published in more than 40 national literary journals, including Agni, Boulevard, Iowa Review, Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

The Business of Observing the World: Annemarie Schwarzenbach in 1940

by Padraig Rooney

Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s third and final visit to America in the summer and fall of 1940 quickly raised old demons. This time the woman in her life was Margot von Opel, a Baroness married to Fritz, a wealthy car manufacturer. When Germany invaded the Low Countries on 10 May, the three of them were mid-Atlantic on the Manhattan bound for New York. On 10 June Mussolini brought Italy into the war and on 14 June Paris fell to the Germans. In the first of her articles written at this time, Annemarie reported on American preparations for war and her own misgivings. She shuttled between the lavish world of the Von Opels at the Plaza and Klaus and Erika Mann at the Bedford Hotel (now the Renwick) on East 40th Street—a bolthole for German and Jewish refugees of the “better sort.” There was more “tuna,” her and Klaus’s code word for morphine.  She had been a user since the early Thirties.

Carson McCullers in 1941

It was through the Mann siblings that she met the twenty-three year-old writer Carson McCullers, quickly smitten by Annemarie: “She had the face of a Donatello, her soft blond hair cut like a boy’s; her deep blue eyes examined you closely; her mouth was child-like and soft.”[i] This encounter led Annemarie to review McCullers’ prize-winning The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and the two writers exchanged letters over the next couple of years. Her meeting with Annemarie precipitated McCullers’ split with her husband and her move to the infamous rooming house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, in the company of W. H. Auden, the stripper Gypsy Lee Rose, Benjamin Brittan and his partner Peter Pears, the poet Louis MacNeice and a host of other luminaries. Writing to Annemarie in June 1942, McCullers looked back on their emotional encounter:

“I am glad you are going back to Switzerland. I wonder if you ever remember any of our talks in New York. You told me once about Sils, the house with the trap door and the ladder leading up to your bedroom, the room with the great stove. I never forget anything. Or at least I never forget anything about you. Let us try to believe in the world after this war. I feel so close to you. It is true that in the past I asked of you more than you were able to give. But all that is over, thank God. Remember only that I do love you.”[ii]

New York was awash with war refugees. Annemarie thought she might make a go of becoming a journalist in English, and drafted a typescript about Afghanistan on Nantucket in July-August 1940. As early as January 1937 she had had prints made of her negatives by the Black Star Agency that supplied magazines such as Life, Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1940 she acquired a New York literary agent and was beginning to sell her photos and articles to reputable outlets.

She followed Margot von Opel to the Vesper Country Club in Lowell, Massachusetts, in June 1940, where she wrote the piece on Carson McCullers that I translated (AGNI Issue 84). A couple of summer months on Nantucket brought matters to a head. Photos of Annemarie show her emaciated, blue under the eyes, wearing a natty blazer at the wheel of a Ford coupé. She took to the bottle and relations with Margot deteriorated. Annemarie liked causing scenes, indulging her own suffering and self-involvement at the expense of present company. Erika Mann’s letters suggest that ‘Princess Miro’ or ‘The Princess,’ as she referred to Annemarie, could be hard work.

Annemarie Schwartzenbach on Nantucket 1940

The Thirties were ‘a mixed-up and foreboding time,’ as the writer Sybille Bedford puts it. Much of that foreboding, and a punchy quality, make their way into Annemarie’s view of American democracy. As a Swiss woman—Swiss women had to wait until the 1970s and later for full voting rights—she is in a position to compare democracies, large and small.

Here she is in Pittsburgh describing those who have done well out of the Depression:

“On an early evening in January, under mizzling rain, we drove along Fifth Avenue where all the wealth of the city is concentrated: the Carnegie Museum, the Greek temple-style Mellon Library, all Parian marble and hewn stone. The soulless décor of the Webster Hall Hotel reverberated with the sound of several competing orchestras. Negroes manned the bar, heaving with commercial travelers, rich sons of good family, students, women in showy evening dress, accessorized with artificial nosegays and costume jewelry.”

By the second half of 1940 her personal demons and addiction had begun to take center stage. There was a noisy scene with alcohol and drugs at the Plaza Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue. An attempt to strangle Margot von Opel in her sleep, the death of Annemarie’s father in November, and a suicide attempt all played their part in unhinging a mind already bewildered by addiction. A sanatorium in Topeka, Kansas, was mooted. In December, after three days in a psychiatric clinic in Greenwich, Connecticut, she smashed the windows with her feet and had to be restrained in a straitjacket. At Christmas she escaped to New York, where the Mann family cold-shouldered her. In January 1941 she called up Carson McCullers who immediately took the train from Columbus to New York, where Annemarie attempted suicide again. She was taken in a straitjacket to Bellevue, the United States’ oldest public hospital, and after three days was committed for treatment to a private clinic in White Plains, Westchester County, New York. Her doctors, however, declared her insane, perhaps as a way of having her deported from the United States with no possibility of return. On 1 February 1941 she sailed for Lisbon.

A year and a half after she had been deported the United States, following travels in Portugal and the Congo, she returned to Switzerland. The “devastated angel,” as Thomas Mann called her, was seriously injured in a fall from her bicycle in Sils-Maria, and died on 15 November 1942 at the age of thirty-four.

Schwarzenbach’s writing and a fascination with her nomadic life revived in the nineteen-eighties with the emergence of gender politics. Her star continues to rise, and she is in print in German, French and Italian. Photogenic looks, cross-dressing, and a rock-star’s early death make of her a lesbian icon. The druggy traveling, the sharp suits and cars, seem contemporary. Posthumous fame is scant reassurance for writers, but she was able to get on with the business of observing her world in a range of formats.

Her America—post-Depression, racially divided, split along Civil War lines, exploitative—has come round again in our own time, if it ever really went away. In the year of Sanders, Trump, and Hilary, it is salutary to remember that a strong American left once fought for rights. Labor rights were a matter of survival—for the worker, the union member, and the Black underclass. Schwarzenbach had few illusions about the American Dream. She is an eternal Leftie commenting on dog-eat-dog capitalism, and as such deserves to have her voice heard in English in the land she came to observe with acuity and sympathy.

It has been a delight to return to the translating life—the translated life—begun a half century ago cribbing Latin into English and English into dog Latin, Irish into English and visa versa. That kind of multi-lingual education has gone by the wayside, but its translator’s joys returned to me in the small hours of the morning while working on this project—homework done in the nick of time before homeroom.

agni blog logo smaller

rooney3 Padraig Rooney is an award-winning Irish poet and journalist who lives in Basel, Switzerland. The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland (Nicholas Brealey, 2015) was described by Edmund White as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland.” Rooney is translating Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s American journalism from the 1930s.

[i] Carson McCullers, unpublished essay quoted by Josyane Savigneau in Carson McCullers, un coeur de jeune fille, Stock, 1995, p. 95-96.

[ii] Carson McCullers letter in the Swiss Literary Archives, Bern.

The Role of Place in Creating Suspense

by Sheila Kohler

We had just arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia: my daughter Cybele, my granddaughter Masha, and I. I had not seen Cybele, who lives in Berlin, or Masha, who is at university in England, for a year, and was very fearful of missing them at the airport in St. Petersburg. I had to fly from New York to Paris to change planes there, and I was afraid of delays, strikes, or simply summer crowds. When I stood in the hall of the airport in St. Petersburg and saw neither one of them or even the man who was supposed to pick us up, I was in an extreme state of anxiety. With what joy I heard a glad cry, “Gogo!”—the name my granddaughter calls me—and saw a beautiful girl with pink cheeks and brown curls come flying through the crowd. Soon we were all embracing happily.

There was a fourth person present, however, at our reunion: the ghost of Dostoevsky. I am here, thanks to the university where I teach, with the intention of walking in Dostoevsky’s footsteps. I’m in the process of writing a book much inspired by his Crime and Punishment. (I don’t want to give too much away, so I won’t tell you more than that.) We’re even staying at the Sonya Radisson hotel. You will remember the saintly prostitute in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Sonya Marmeladov, who will save Raskolnikov, the murderer, with her love. There’s a quote from one of Dostoevsky’s books up outside of every room in the hotel.

The three of us—or should I say the four—will take a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow and on from Moscow to Omsk in Siberia, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, after his mock execution in 1849.

On December 22, the members of what was known as the Petrashevsky Circle, a Russian intellectual literary group, were taken from their cells in the fortress of Saint Peter and Paul and sent to Semyonov Square. With the soldiers lined up and pointing their rifles, fingers resting on the trigger, the first three prisoners were tied to a stake, black hoods over their heads. They waited for imminent death. When a messenger rode up waving a white flag, they were told that, in a “show of mercy,” Tsar Nicholas I had supposedly spared the men. This was actually a means of fostering terror, and gratitude, something Dostoevsky would use in various ways in his subsequent great novels, including Crime and Punishment. He would always remember that moment of terror and how precious life suddenly seemed to him.

What struck me, though, on arriving here, after the first moment of great elation at the airport—is how different the city seems to me from Dostoevsky’s dark description in Crime and Punishment.

I will admit we have only been in this city built by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century for less than a week, and all has been colored by our joyous reunion and exceptional sunshine. Together we have taken a boat on the canals, admired the great works of art in the Hermitage, and visited the fortress where Dostoevsky was imprisoned. We have seen the houses where he lived and the one Raskolnikov was supposed to inhabit and the place where he was to murder the pawnbroker.

Obviously, St. Petersburg has changed much since 1866 when Dostoevsky wrote his famous book. It was then, as he describes it, flooded with the newly freed serfs who flocked here in search of work in the factories and the budding industries of the great city. Yet, the wide boulevards, the orderly layout of the city, and the baroque buildings which line the Neva, as well as many of the churches with their glittering onion-shaped domes, date from the eighteenth century, and must have looked much as they do today, and surely the weather has not changed that much.

In the book, which starts in the summer, like our visit, the city is dusty, filled with dank odors which rise from the polluted water of the canals; drunkards, who stagger down the sweltering narrow streets, or youthful prostitutes who wander precariously, half-clad in the summer heat followed by dangerous predators. Dostoevsky writes, “It was terribly hot out and moreover it was close, crowded, lime scaffolding and bricks, dust everywhere and that special summer stench known so well to every Petersburger who cannot afford to rent a summer house.”

Obviously, like the history portrayed in the fortress of Saint Peter and Paul, where Dostoevsky was imprisoned, the city can be seen in many different guises and disguises, and the way it appears in Crime and Punishment serves the author’s purpose. He uses the place to skillfully echo and evoke concretely the emotions of his troubled and conflicted hero as well as to provide motivation for his crime, and ultimately to create suspense.

Though our hotel room is certainly not palatial, it has large deep windows, and the sun continues to stream in until late at night. I am writing this at eight-thirty without one light lit in the room. The enamel basin and bath shine with cleanliness, and the towels are fluffy and white, whereas poor Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky’s murderer, in Crime and Punishment lingers on in a stifling closet of a room that Dostoevsky likens to a “coffin.” It has yellowing wall paper (all the rooms seem to have yellowing wallpaper) and an accumulation of dust on the books which he can no longer bring himself to read, sunk so deeply in the lethargy of his depression.

It is at least partly this dire poverty which drives Raskolnikov to stumble down the stairs and slink past his landlady’s quarters (he owes the rent) and out into the stifling streets in the first pages of the novel in a sort of “rehearsal” of the crime he will ultimately commit.

In the streets he will come across the young girl who seems destined for prostitution in her drunken and disorderly state. Someone, Raskolnikov fears, has taken advantage of an innocent girl and a predator who follows her will bring about her ruin. This chance encounter in the streets of the city echoes Raskolnikov’s inner dilemma: his own loving sister Dunya is contemplating a disastrous marriage with a pompous and dastardly man, Luzhin, in order to obtain the money her brother needs for his education—surely a prostitution of a respectable kind.

Dostoevsky gives us precise details which serve the author’s purposes exactly. The reader sees, tastes, and smells this concrete world and feels, with increasing terror, for this young man with his generous impulses to help the Marmeladov family, as well as to rise above the circumstances of his life. We fear he will commit murder, and then we tremble that he may confess and be caught. We are brought by the verisimilitude of the descriptions of place to believe this young student could kill the old, avaricious, and cruel pawnbroker brutally with an axe and steal her money. The reader both understands rationally and also feels emotionally that this young man with his impulses to both give away all he has and to grasp what is not rightfully his own might actually strike not only a defenseless elderly woman with an axe but her innocent step-sister who happens to walk in on the crime.

St. Petersburg, with its crowded and claustrophobic atmosphere, its courtyards and dank back staircases, the police office which smells mysteriously of new paint, all of this drives the murderer onward first to commit his absurd and senseless crime and finally, thanks to Sonya Marmeladov’s love and devotion and the detective Porfiry’s skillful questioning, to confess to what he has done, and ultimately to redemption. The inner conflict, the split in his mind—the reasonable thoughts about his family, his relationship with Sonya, and the irrational desire to rise above the law—is echoed by the world outside of him: good and evil abounds around him. In this place where I have come to find my darling daughter and my dearest granddaughter, a place so filled with light and, it seems, love, I have found a new understanding of Dostoevsky’s art and mind.

agni blog logo smaller

Kohler,SheilaSheila Kohler is the author of fourteen books, and 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.

If you killed it, was it really your darling?

by Chad Parmenter

For a little while now, I’ve had a mental argument going on against that commandment, “kill your darlings,” that goes from what the title of this essay says to “whoever said that must have been frustrated away from writing,” to “maybe Hemingway said it,” then to blaming Hemingway, then to wondering if I just have envy for whoever got famous enough to say that and have people notice. It can’t be that last one, I’m relieved to say, because I finally found out that, according to Slate, the quote got traced back to Arthur Quiller-Crouch. And I’m pretty sure I don’t have Quiller-Crouch envy. Yet.

It makes absolute sense, definitely, to me, when I parse it and try to get what everyone seems to mean by repeating it: if I’m writing something that I have a strong sense of attachment to, and it’s not working, I shouldn’t act like it’s working. Of course I shouldn’t. Shouldn’t I? It might not only get out as bad writing, and be seen by readers who will identify it as bad writing, polluting the stream of writing for everybody and possibly persuading people to not read any more of my writing, because it might be bad, but I might send a message to whatever sinful part of my subconscious cranked that crap out: bad writing is what I do now. Let all the darlings come swarming. Right?

Well, I don’t know. When I was doing a journal purge a few years ago, in the name of downsizing that really had this idea behind it, now that I look back, I went ahead and got rid of a set of sestinas that had come out during some journaling in 2004, in a library in Ireland. They were pretty incoherent, would probably not even yield linked pairs of words that I’d put anywhere else, since I hadn’t ever gotten into that mode, and the fact that I remembered one phrase from them—“pirogues of fog”—just made them seem potentially embarrassing. Really, that’s bad. No, it’s okay, that’s just bad writing. But, as I started to look back, maybe the day after the trash containing those journals went out, I wondered where that phrase came from. Somewhere. But I couldn’t read where anymore.

My high school English teacher was no Arthur Quiller-Crouch, but when I showed him a poem I wrote, he helped me tremendously, more than I could see until recently, by saying absolutely nothing to evaluate it, but simply telling me, “save everything you write.” That gets trickier since I’m a journaller, and a migrant one these days, but it still is doable, thankfully, and it’s one of my new goals—to hold onto all of these things, not out of hoarding or even for the possibility that some of them, someday, might be publishable though I don’t know it now. It’s that, well, any darlings in there are my darlings for a reason. So, I aspire to a no kill darling sanctuary.

Which begs the question (was that a darling way to put it?), what really makes that darling distinction? If I’m going to take a strict attitude with my writing, enough that I do cut a lot, revise repeatedly, and let only the best get into print, then what determines that? Am I really qualified to judge that? There’s an intuitive sense that comes, sometimes, with the writing, of what’s working and what’s not, but there are also things that come completely undone from that, and they may simply be pointing the way toward something new. And that urge to cut might come from fear, not even of what readers might see, but what I might see. So it goes back to the question, what does my writing have to say to me?

According to Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare was a darling-killer, in spite of his reputation for just writing perfect first drafts. And he would have taken my “pirogues of fog” journal right out of that Irish library and hurled it into Galway Bay, probably. But the different versions of Hamlet that have somehow been saved show changes like “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her” becoming “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba.” And there’s the fact that he chose to rewrite a play already done with a fairly similar plot, not long before, with the title character’s name so closely resembling the name of his son, who had died not so long before. And not for any of his audience members, but with some tenderness toward himself, what if he had let messy drafts pile up, then gone back to see what came from his grief, what different directions his writing took, away from the project, and maybe toward their own?

Maybe he did; I don’t know. Maybe he wrote a lot, grieved a lot, let even the darling parts of his grieving out on paper, and then got rid of it along with everything else autobiographical, except the will. Maybe I’m just lately coming to this idea that my writing has something to say to me, and everybody else knows that about their own, if it’s true for them. But if some part of my writing seems too precious, too sentimental, or too just plain something undefinably bad, maybe it needs to be asked, “Darling,” or, better, “darlin’, what’s going on with you?”

agni blog logo smaller

chad04bwcr Chad Parmenter’s poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, AGNI, and Black Warrior Review, where one won the Third Ever Poetry Contest. His chapbook, Weston’s Unsent Letters to Modotti, won Tupelo’s Snowbound Chapbook Contest, and was published at the end of 2015. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

On Rainer Maria Rilke, William Gass, Stumbling Across My Younger Self, and the Pleasures and Perils of Translating Poetry

by Kai Maristed

This past spring, at AGNI’s Issue 83 launch, I had the chance to chat with David Daniel, whose atmospheric, heart-moving poetry I had just discovered in the way you discover something you’ve missed before knowing it exists.

At some point I confided to David that, not being a published poet, I had recently experienced twinges of self-doubt, of feeling like a trespasser, while translating Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan and others. At the same time, the doing itself was exhilarating, and seemed, well…if not exactly easy, to flow toward rightness and resolution. Or was I being grossly naive, to believe I could simply listen closely to the German words and verses, immerse myself in the worlds they made, twirl them through my ear and mind and have them emerge as lines of English, lucid and faithful to original meaning while carrying as much of the original music as possible?

Shouldn’t there be more hard labor involved, more agony and frustration? Isn’t that why so many modern poetry translations appear to have been composed by a duo of Established Poet and her/his trusty sidekick, the Native Speaker? Like high level military brass going into the battlefields guided by, well, local translators. Didn’t William Gass, in his 1999 book-length essay, Reading Rilke, Reflections on the Problems of Translation, assert that, compared to having fluency in both languages, “it is more important that the translator have native-like possession of the language into which he is trying to put his chosen poem”? (‘Native-like possession’ being in context a strikingly awkward euphemism for ‘should be a skilled poet or literary eminence, capable of wrestling with the intransigency of the task.’)

David listened patiently to my questions, then answered with a single one of his own: “Well, and aren’t Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies really terrible?” Nothing like a baldly-stated truth to make you burst out laughing.

I was able to cite Gass’s point because I’d reviewed his book back in the day, for the Globe, although I’d no memory of what I might have written. But recently, by chance, the seventeen-year-old, dog-eared advance copy of Reflections fell into my hands again. I opened it and the chase was on. On nearly every page, scrawled comments in various colors of ink in a rounder handwriting than mine is now. Excited exclamation points and double-underlines. “Crux!” “Nope.” “Huh?” “Use!” “How awfully pat.” “Once again, a religious, near-ecstatic moment.” (Evidence for my argument that RMR was not the absolute atheist Gass maintained.) “God-awful similes!” “Revolting, but sorta works!” Even a quiet, “I like this.” Traces of my younger self, preserved in the pages like the rose petals Rilke wrote of in so many poems, and himself liked to press.

The marginalia and responses were new to me. Not one struck a bell. But it was heartening to find myself mostly in agreement with that younger reviewer and even enlightened by her in places, while wishing she’d had the gumption to be more critical in her finished piece. (Also exhumed from the dustbin, thanks to the power of the World Wide Web.)

Has any other German poet been so often and variously translated into English as Rilke? What is the abiding appeal of the work, why does it and its insecure, social-climbing creator inspire such passion and possessiveness, and why do so many who fall under the spell—me included—feeling that all previous efforts somehow miss the marrow, embrace the temptation to try their own hand?

Is it the sheer beauty of how in Rilke image giving way to image forms meaning, paired with surficial accessibility? Because despite Gass’s lamentations, Rilke is not dauntingly difficult to translate. More challenging than classic stylists such as Goethe or Schiller, but he’s not in the same league as, say, Paul Celan. Or Bert Brecht, for that matter, the tart flavor of whose Berliner colloquialisms is devilishly difficult to redistill in any other language.

I told David Daniel that I too would like to try to translate Rilke, but heck, there were up to twenty versions of most of his poems out there already. “Don’t let that stop you,” he said. But truth is, I was lying. I’d already done it, and would continue. The marginalia in the Advance Copy include my own stabs at rendering Rilke, attempts at a simpler, more direct reflection. Gass quotes multiple predecessors (only to find them wanting, naturally) including such big guns as Spender, Leishman, and Stephen Mitchell. All of these authors worked in ‘duo’ mode as far as I can tell. It is beyond strange that he doesn’t mention Michael Hamburger, a native speaker and sensitive translator. And did Gass know that in the same year that Reflections appeared, Galway Kinnell would publish The Essential Rilke, in collaboration with Hannah Lieberman? Unlike Gass with Heide Ziegler, Kinnell gave his ‘native’ assistant jacket billing.

We speak of a ‘mother tongue’, and what more is there to say, the infant-mother bond being a universally shared human experience? But having a close second language is something else, a uniquely personal relationship. No matter how fluent one becomes in two languages, the rudiments of one came first. The second begins with an encounter, voluntary or not, and develops from there, a story as individual as a love affair. My German story started in high school, where I was given a no-brainer choice between that language and chemistry. At the outset I came to class with the too-common expectation of a silly-sounding, even ugly language, and a leery curiosity about the country, given its track record in the twentieth century. All that changed to fascination thanks to an inspiring, unconventional, demanding teacher. There followed a year of gymnasium in Berlin, then university in Berlin and Munich. Jobs. A marriage. A child who spoke no English until age eight, when we came to the States. I was, as they say, ‘eingedeutscht.’ My first publications (radio plays, reviews, political essays) were all in German. Later, I made a deliberate decision to write henceforth in English. A mistake, looking back?

Whenever I go back to in Germany (recently that’s been a few times a year) it’s an emotional homecoming: to the deep greens of forests and city gardens, the thick-walled houses, clanging street-cars, thronged bookstores, enormous dogs, waves of freshly baked bread and broetchen, and the language in my throat again, malleable as sculptor’s clay.

Gass deplores the ‘mean-spirited’ nature of the translating biz, full of jealousy and mutual put-downs. He must have reasons for saying so, but for me it’s hard to imagine the world of translation as a snake-pit. My own motive for venturing into the territory, apart from the excitement and illumination of the exceptionally interior reading translation demands, was a notion of giving back. Putting to use a gift that has transformed my life, that of having plural languages, of being two or three different people in one—or my own twin or triplet—relating to people, dreaming, and grasping life through the prism of different grammars, cadences, and vocabularies: Wortschaetze in German. Wordhord, in Old English. ‘Word treasure.’

Besides, what would anyone be fighting over? The pay is modest, and where’s the glory in such an intrinsically humble endeavor? One is the handmaiden of the author, and the less visible the better, I should think.

Not everyone thinks so. Gass writes, approvingly, about “the temptation to push past Rilke’s German into the Platonic poem itself, the poem no one can write without resorting to some inevitably distorting language…” And here is where I abruptly part ways with him and his like-minded colleagues. The Platonic poem? What beast is that? An abstract essence the translator perceives beyond the poet’s own language? Worse than hubris, this smacks of abuse, of the translator’s ego antsy to improve upon a poor, language-limited text. Not surprisingly, the results of said distortion are often clumsy, over-complicated, risible, or downright ugly. I leave it to the reader to consider these examples:


Rilke (from The First Elegy):

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hoerte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? Und gesetzt selbst, es naehme
einer mich ploetzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
staerkeren Dasein.

Maristed (close translation):

Who, were I to cry out, would hear me from within the angels’
array? And even if one should take me
suddenly to his heart: I would be annihilated by his
stronger being.

Gass (‘improving’ translation):

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?
And even if one of them suddenly held me against his heart:
I would fade in the grip of that completer existence. [pp 57-58]


Rilke (from Archaic Torso of Apollo):

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhoertes Haupt
darin die Augenaepfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glueht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurueckgeschraubt,

Sich haelt und glaenzt.


We did not know his unimaginable head
where the eye-apples ripened. But
his torso glows still like a candelabra
in which his seeing, merely less bright,

persists and shines.


Never will we know his legendary head
Where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
His torso glows as if his look were set
Above it in suspended globes that shed

A street’s light down.

Even when done by writers with a more gifted ear—Gass points to Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound as his illustrious predecessors in reaching for the Platonic ideal—I would maintain that veering from the text in pursuit of the ‘Platonic poem’ is a breach of the contract between original work and eventual reader. At best, the result is a third sort of oeuvre. Not a translation.

Lest I appear to be meanly picking on Gass (rather than taking him as an apposite and self-declared example), here is a 2010 ‘loose’ translation of the above, ueber-famous opening lines, by Sarah Stutt (a native speaker) as quoted and lauded in The Guardian:

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth—
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,
incandescent light radiates
from his torso, (etc.)

Of course we want from the translator more sensitivity and intuition than Google’s service is likely to provide. But is it the translator’s task or prerogative to offer a text that strays radically from the original, no matter how pleasing the new imagery and versification? Is the poet well-served? Is the reader respected?

In my short review for the Globe I wrote that there are two axes in the matrix of translation problems: “the question of whether native proficiency is required” and “literal fidelity versus taking liberties.” Seventeen years ago I didn’t quite come down on one side or the other. I’m able to do so now, and also to see where the two axes are linked at origin. My recent exploration of translation might be called trans-positioning—one finds oneself in two places at once, listening to the nuances and double-entendres and historical undertones of words and phrases play in both languages, both worlds. Choosing, discarding, choosing, trying out the sound, the rhythm, the music, the stated intent and veiled allusions until something coalesces that rings true. Something that you feel the poet him/herself would accept as limning the intent, as keeping the heft of word-choice and images more or less intact.

Accept without flinching too much, that would be more than enough. Because no translation can be right, or definitive; questions and doubt must remain. We are all inadequate to our desires, translators and poets alike; the ultimate vision dances out of reach. Rilke expressed his own life-long struggle in this later poem:

Die Wende (Auszug)

Wenn er, ein Wartender, saß in der Fremde; des Gasthofs
zerstreutes abgewendetes Zimmer
mürrisch um sich, und im vermiedenen Spiegel
wieder das Zimmer
und später vom quälenden Bett aus
da beriets in der Luft,
unfaßbar beriet es
über sein fühlbares Herz,
über sein durch den schmerzhaft verschütteten Körper
dennoch fühlbares Herz
beriet es und richtete:
daß er der Liebe nicht habe.
(Und verwehrte ihm weitere Weihen.)

The Turning (extract)

When he, the waiting one, sat in a foreign place; the inn’s
distracted, turned-away room
sulking to itself, and in the avoided mirror
again the room
and later from the torturing bed
there it took counsel in the air
Incredibly took counsel
over his palpable heart
over his, despite the painfully shaken body
palpable heart
Took counsel and pronounced:
That he had no love.
(And denied him further sacraments.)

agni blog logo smaller

MaristedAfter starting as a journalist and playwright in Germany, Kai Maristed published the novels Out After Dark (a Pen/Hemingway finalist) Fall, and Broken Ground, and the story collection Belong to Me. She’s taught at Emerson, Warren Wilson MFA and Harvard Extension School. Her stories, essays and translations have appeared in, e.g., The Kenyon Review, StoryQuarterly, The American Scholar, Zoetrope, and The Anchor Essay Annual, and most recently in AGNI, Epiphany, Consequence and Southwest Review. Kai lives in Paris and Massachusetts. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Finding Daryl Hine

by James Pollock

My first encounter with Daryl Hine’s poetry came in the pages of Margaret Atwood’s 1983 anthology, The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. I see by a faded sticker on the back that I must have bought my copy at a Lichtman’s Books in Toronto while I was a student at York University in the early 90s, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when I was a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Houston, that I felt the urgent need, not to browse, but to read it straight through.

In Texas, I was surrounded by aspiring American poets with a strong sense of an American tradition in poetry, beginning in earnest with Whitman and Dickinson and growing exponentially up to the present. Much as I loved American poetry—indeed, one of the things I do now is teach modern and contemporary American poetry to undergraduates—I felt, as a Canadian, a terrible lack in myself of any comparable poetic tradition in my own country. The names of the few Canadian poets I both knew and liked—P.K. Page, Jay Macpherson, Irving Layton—drew nothing but blank looks from my classmates and extremely well-read professors. (To be sure, this was a few years before Anne Carson’s rise to fame in the United States; by the time I did my oral exam on her work in the late 90s, everyone knew who she was.) I determined to make a systematic search for Canadian poets I could admire, and plunged into Atwood’s anthology—only to find the first hundred pages a disheartening slog, relieved briefly by E.J. Pratt’s best poem, “The Truant.”

Out of my growing desperation I must have started skipping ahead, or skimming the table of contents for something interesting, and stumbled on the title of Hine’s poem, “A Bewilderment at the Entrance of the Fat Boy into Eden.” When I turned to the poem itself—in fact a sequence of four sonnets—I realized I had read the first sonnet before, in the same book, back in Toronto, and that I had liked it better than anything else I’d found in that anthology in my idle browsing; but that I had neglected to mark the page, and lost it, and couldn’t find it again, having forgotten the poet’s name and the title of the poem. So now I felt the excitement of rediscovery, and, as I read, the pleasure of reading a poet who was clearly in a higher league altogether, a poet with a much more interesting imagination and rhetorical and prosodic technique and range of diction than nearly all of the other poets I had encountered in that anthology:

Not knowing where he was or how he got there,
Led by the gentle sessions of his demons,
Now in the right and now in the left ear,
The fat boy trod ungarlanded in Eden.

Granted, the other three sonnets in what I later learned was a very early sequence weren’t as strong as the first, and the two other Hine poems Atwood had selected weren’t as good either; nevertheless, I was ready to explore this poet, if only I could get my hands—in that dark age before the internet—on his books.

Imagine my surprise and delight when, before long, I found two volumes of his poems in a used bookstore in Houston. Each had just been published a few years earlier, Postscripts in 1990 and In & Out: A Confessional Poem in 1987, and the publisher in each case was Alfred A. Knopf, no less. The books came with warm recommendations from the likes of Northrop Frye and James Merrill and Anthony Hecht, writers I admired. How could it be that there was this Canadian poet being published by what was, at the time, the foremost poetry publisher in the United States, and no one in Toronto where I had been studying creative writing had so much as mentioned his name? More surprises followed: to name just one among many, according to the author bio in those books, Hine had been the editor of Poetry magazine from 1968-78.

So, what had I found? Once I tracked down all his books of poems, and read them from cover to cover, I realized I had discovered the strongest Canadian poet of his generation, and one of the strongest Canadian poets of the twentieth century. Having just read, and been thoroughly persuaded by, Timothy Steele’s argument for the power of metrical verse in contemporary poetry— in his 1990 book Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter—I was excited to find a compatriot who was so much craftier in his prosody than any other Canadian poet I knew, even Jay Macpherson. And his knowledge of and engagement with such a wide range of poetic traditions—ancient Greek and Latin, Spanish baroque, Elizabethan, French, American—revealed him as a true cosmopolitan, a perfect antidote to the literary provincialism I’d winced at in so much Canadian poetry. It was true that some of his poems were better than others; and on the evidence of his 1981 volume of Selected Poems, he wasn’t an ideal chooser of his own best work. But that just meant he needed a good editor. I made careful note, as I read, of which poems of his I thought were best, on the chance that some day I’d get to edit a volume of his selected poems. And I’m immensely pleased, twenty years later, to say that I’ve edited such a book at last, The Essential Daryl Hine, and that it’s just been published.

Harold Bloom called Hine “a great, and greatly neglected, artist,” and it’s precisely his artistry that I admire. During the heyday of confessional poetry, when many poets were loyal to the facts of their own perception and experience—even, or especially, when such facts conflicted with the claims of art—Hine was a shameless, even ruthless, artist. For Hine, the purpose of poetry was not self-expression, or even self-fashioning, but pleasure. As he put it, “For me a poem is a verbal object capable of giving a specific kind of aesthetic pleasure in itself. As such it is like a painting or a sculpture.” This aestheticism manifested itself in a variety of ways, each of which tended to make him unfashionable: he was a classicist and translator with a preference for poets like Theocritus and Ovid; he had a polyglot and cosmopolitan literary sensibility; and he had, as I say, a highly sophisticated prosodic and rhetorical imagination—to call him a formalist is like calling a Ferrari an automobile.

Every difficult poet is difficult in a different way. What makes Hine challenging for many readers isn’t a private mythology, as in Blake or Yeats, or structural fragmentation as in Eliot or Pound, or philosophical abstraction as in the later Stevens, or elusive meaning as in a lot of Ashbery or Mallarmé. On the contrary, Hine’s myths are mainstream, his forms coherent (if spectacularly varied), his ideas commonplace, his meaning (usually) clear. What makes his poems difficult to appreciate for some readers is the dazzling sophistication of the rhetoric and prosody and syntax—all things that many modern readers haven’t really been taught to experience in poems, at least beyond noticing a few formal or prosodic facts. This helps explain why Hine has been critically acclaimed for six decades by the most erudite among the cognoscenti, and neglected by just about everyone else. But it doesn’t have to be that way. To learn to read Hine well is to get in touch in a deep way with the elements of verbal artistry, the sort of thing the educated members of Elizabethan audiences, for instance, were able to appreciate in Shakespeare’s language, not least because advanced grammar and rhetoric and prosody were central to an Elizabethan education. We can read Hine for the same reason we listen to Glenn Gould, or watch Wayne Gretzky: the pleasure of virtuoso performance.

agni blog logo smaller

331James Pollock’s book of poems, Sailing to Babylon, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry, runner-up for the Posner Poetry Book Award, and winner of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association. His book You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada was a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award for a collection of essays. His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, the National Post, and on CBC Radio. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Find out here what he’s published in AGNI.