Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mary Johnston, author of 1492 in 1922: "Not demanding trumpets, but serviceable."

Mary Johnston

While searching on Project Gutenberg I came across 1492, a fascinating novel, written in the 1920s by then very popular Southern US author, Mary Johnston. The novel is a historical fiction about Columbus and is narrated by a man of Jewish heritage who is running from the Inquisition. The language is amazing. The text alternates, sometimes paragraph by paragraph between first person and third person. The third person sections are really just extended places where the narrator refers to himself in third person, but the effect is striking. Also, Johnston uses very florid language, often with unusual or at least vivid word order. Much of the language uses juicy musical poetic devices -- alliteration, rhyme, assonance -- and surprising metaphors. In the opening chapter, Johnston uses repetition and fascinating poetic almost stream-of-consciousness, a patterning of recurrences and returns of language, image, and sound. Throughout, the narrator experiences mystical and poetic visions.

The style and content surprised me. I didn't expect this in a popular (non-experimental) writer. She was, after all, a best seller, and was able to be financially independent, and I think, quite wealthy as a result of her writing.

Here's the first chapter.


By Mary Johnston


THE morning was gray and I sat by the sea near Palos in a gray mood. I was Jayme de Marchena, and that was a good,  old Christian name. But my grandmother was Jewess, and in corners they said that she never truly recanted, and I had been much with her as a child. She was dead, but still they talked of her. Jayme de Marchena, looking back from the hillside of forty-six, saw some service done for the Queen and the folk.

This thing and that thing. Not demanding trumpets, but serviceable. It would be neither counted nor weighed beside and against that which Don Pedro and the Dominican found to say. What they found to say they made, not found. They took clay of misrepresentation, and in the field of falsehood sat them down, and consulting the parchment of malice, proceeded to create. But false as was all they set up, the time would cry it true.

It was reasonable that I should find the day gray.

Study and study and study, year on year, and at last image a great thing, just under the rim of the mind's ocean, sending up for those who will look streamers above horizon, streamers of colored and wonderful light! Study and reason and with awe and delight take light from above. Dream of good news for one and all, of life given depth and brought into music, dream of giving the given, never holding it back, which would be avarice and betraying! Write, and give men and women to read what you have written, and believe--poor Deluded!--that they also feel inner warmth and light and rejoice.

Oh, gray the sea and gray the shore!

But some did feel it.

The Dominican, when it fell into his hands, called it perdition. A Jewess for grandmother, and Don Pedro for enemy. And now the Dominican--the Dominicans! The Queen and the King made edict against the Jews, and there sat the Inquisition.

I was--I am--Christian. It is a wide and deep and high word. When you ask, "What is it--Christian?" then must each of us answer as it is given to him to answer. I and thou--and the True, the Universal Christ give us light!

To-day all Andalusia, all Castile and all Spain to me seemed gray, and gray the utter Ocean that stretched no man knew where. The gray was the gray of fetters and of ashes.

The tide made, and as the waves came nearer, eating the sand before me, they uttered a low crying. _In danger--danger--in danger, Jayme de Marchena!_

I had been in danger before. Who is not often and always in danger, in life? But this was a danger to daunt.

Mine were no powerful friends. I had only that which was within me. I was only son of only son, and my parents and grandparents were dead, and my distant kindred cold, seeing naught of good in so much study and thinking of that old, dark, beautiful, questionable one, my grandmother.
I had indeed a remote kinsman, head of a convent in this neighborhood, and he was a wise man and a kindly. But not he either could do aught here!

All the Jews to be banished, and Don Pedro with a steady forefinger,"That man--take him, too! Who does not know that his grandmother was Jewess, and that he lived with her and drank poison?" But the Dominican,
"No! The Holy Office will take him. You have but to read--only you must not read--what he has written to see why!"

Gray Ocean, stretching endlessly and now coming close, were it not well if I drowned myself this gray morning while I can choose the death I shall die? Now the great murmur sang _Well_, and now it sang Not well.

Low cliff and heaped sand and a solitary bird wide-winging toward the mountains of Portugal, and the Ocean gray-blue and salt! The salt savor entered me, and an inner zest came forward and said No, to being craven. In banishment certainly, in the House of the Inquisition more doubtfully, the immortal man might yet find market from which to buy! If the mind could surmount, the eternal quest need not be interrupted—even there!

Blue Ocean sang to me.

A vision--it came to me at times, vision--set itself in air. I saw A People who persecuted neither Jew nor thinker. It rose one Figure, formed of an infinite number of small figures, but all their edges met in one glow. The figure stood upon the sea and held apart the clouds, and was free and fair and mighty, and was man and woman melted together, and it took all colors and made of them a sun for its brow. I did not know when it would live, but I knew that it should live. Perhaps it was the whole world.

It vanished, leaving sky and ocean and Andalusia. But great visions leave great peace. After it, for this day, it seemed not worth while to grieve and miserably to forebode. Through the hours that I lay there by the sea, airs from that land or that earth blew about me and faint songs visited my ears, and the gray day was only gray like a dove's breast.

Jayme de Marchena stayed by the lonely sea because that seemed the safest place to stay. At hand was the small port of Palos that might not know what was breeding in Seville, and going thither at nightfall I found lodging and supper in a still corner where all night I heard the Tinto flowing by.

I had wandered to Palos because of the Franciscan convent of Santa Maria de la Rabida and my very distant kins-man, Fray Juan Perez. The day after the gray day by the shore I walked half a league of sandy road and came to convent gate. The porter let me in, and I waited in a little court with doves about me and a swinging bell above until the brother whom he had called returned and took me to Prior's room. At first Fray Juan Perez was stiff and cold, but by littles this changed and he became a good man, large-minded and with a sense for kindred. Clearly he thought that I should not have had a Jewish grandmother, nor have lived with her from my third to my tenth birthday, and most clearly that I should not have written that which I had written. But his God was an energetic, enterprising, kindly Prince, rather bold himself and tolerant of heathen. Fray Juan Perez even intimated a doubt if God wanted the Inquisition. "But that's going rather far!" he said hastily and sat drumming the table and pursing his lips. Presently he brought out, "But you know I can't do anything!"

I did know it. What could he do? I suppose I had had a half-hope of something. I knew not what. Without a hope I would not have come to La Rabida. But it was maimed from the first, and now it died. I made a gesture of relinquishment. "No, I suppose you cannot--"

He said after a moment that he was glad to see that I had let my beard grow and was very plainly dressed, though I had never been elaborate there, and especially was he glad that I was come to Palos not as Jayme de Marchena, but under a plain and simple name, Juan Lepe, to wit. His advice was to flee from the wrath to come. He would not say flee from the Holy Office--that would be heinous!--but he would say absent myself, abscond, be banished, Jayme de Marchena by Jayme de Marchena. There were barques in Palos and rude seamen who asked no question when gold just enough, and never more than enough, was shown. He hesitated a moment and then asked if I had funds. If not--

I thanked him and said that I had made provision.

"Then," said he, "go to Barbary, Don Jayme! An intelligent and prudent man may prosper at Ercilla or at Fez. If you must study, study there."

"You also study," I said.

"In fair trodden highways--never in thick forest and mere fog!" he answered. "Now if you were like one who has been here and is now before Granada, at Santa Fe, sent for thither by the Queen! That one hath indeed studied to benefit Spain--Spain, Christendom, and the world!"

I asked who was that great one, but before he could tell me came interruption. A visitor entered, a strong-lipped, bold-eyed man named Martin Pinzon. I was to meet him again and often, but at this time I did not know that. Fray Juan Perez evidently desiring that I should go, I thought it right to oblige him who would have done me kindness had he known how. I went without intimate word of parting and after only a casual stare from Martin Pinzon.

But without, my kinsman came after me. "I want to say, Don Jayme, that if I am asked for testimony I shall hold to it that you are as good Christian as any--"

It was kinsman's part and all that truly I could have hoped for, and I told him so. About us was quiet, vacant cloister, and we parted more warmly than we had done within.

The white convent of La Rabida is set on a headland among vineyards and pine trees. It regards the ocean and, afar, the mountains of Portugal, and below it runs a small river, going out to sea through sands with the Tinto and the Odiel. Again the day was gray and the pine trees sighing. The porter let me out at gate.

I walked back toward Palos through the sandy ways. I did not wish to go to Africa.

It is my belief that that larger Self whom they will call protecting Saint or heavenly Guardian takes hand in affairs oftener than we think! Leaving the Palos road, I went to the sea as I had done yesterday and again sat under heaped sand with about me a sere grass through which the wind whined. At first it whined and then it sang in a thin, outlandish voice. Sitting thus, I might have looked toward Africa, but I knew now that I was not going to Africa. Often, perhaps, in the unremembered past I had been in Africa; often, doubtless, in ages to come its soil would be under my foot, but now I was not going there! To-day I looked westward over River-Ocean, unknown to our fathers and unknown to ourselves. It was unknown as the future of the world.

Ocean piled before me. From where I lay it seemed to run uphill to one pale line, nor blue nor white, set beneath the solid gray. Over that hilltop, what? Only other hills and plains, water, endlessly water, until the waves, so much mightier than waves of that blue sea we knew best, should beat at last against Asia shore! So high, so deep, so vast, so real, yet so empty-seeming save for strange dangers! No sails over the hilltop; no sails in all that Vast save close at hand where mariners held to the skirts of Mother. Europe. Ocean vast, Ocean black, Ocean unknown. Yet there, too, life and the knowing of life ran somehow continuous.

It wiled me from my smaller self. How had we all suffered, we the whole earth! But we were moving, we the world with none left out, moving toward That which held worlds, which was conscious above worlds. Long the journey, long the adventure, but it was not worth while fearing, it was not worth while whining! I was not alone Jayme de Marchena, nor Juan Lepe, nor this name nor that nor the other.

There was now a great space of quiet in my mind. Suddenly formed there the face and figure of Don Enrique de Cerda whose life I had had the good hap to save. He was far away with the Queen and King who beleaguered Granada. I had not seen him for ten years. A moment before he had rested among the host of figures in the unevenly lighted land of memory. Now he stood forth plainly and seemed to smile.

I took the leading. With the inner eye I have seen lines of light like subtle shining cords running between persons. Such a thread stretched now between me and Enrique de Cerda. I determined to make my way, as Juan Lepe, through the mountains and over the plain of Granada to Santa Fe.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mahoney Lonesome: On Wrestling and Viruses


The victorious wrestler is an oiled rhinoceros in a green Speedo, stomping the ground with his delicate feet. His funeral barge arms are ceremonially poised above the golden sheaves of his mullet, shorn and curled like an offering in a rite of vegetative fertility. His muscles are burial mounds beneath the roiling prairie of his taut and blushing skin. His is the roar of a locomotive in pain, an avalanche of rocks crushing the family car.

His broad box-spring torso is a queen bed of slats, sleek and lumpy as after the coitus of mammoths. And the crowd, furious with enthusiasm, creating a broadband hiss like the white noise rush of the universe collapsing at the end of time, has filled the air with the reckless sacrifice of their larynxes and tongues, an exuberant abattoir of joy and rage.

But let’s talk about viruses. The tiny Whoville network of viruses on the wrestler’s tight trunks. Or one single virus, living at the end of a cellular cul-de-sac, attempting to seek life and to flourish, to find meaning and satisfaction, here on the brief green earth. The virus is a single word in the great wiki of hope and information, a mortal sleeperhold in spacetime, an earnest Tonga deathgrip on life. In the big world, there may be the end-of-days tectonic supernovae of bodyslams, the torque of tiger feint crucifix armbars on the topology of subspace, but the virus perseveres in its ardent intracellular replications, its ontological infections, its almost-endless epistemology of transmission.

They call our virus, Mahoney Lonesome, and it works its covert operations in the crawlspace beneath the organic stairs, a childlike and surreptitious spectator between parents in the interstellar parade of microscopic communication. It is both mail carrier and letter, firefighter and fire, gravity and galaxy.

It is a long and a short story. The klieg lights of the ring have been silenced, night achieved by a switch, and the wrestler returns home. Another human, child or lover, rushes to greet him. The Red Sea parts in an exodus of blood or memory, and the virus takes its plagues wandering into the desert of the other. Mahoney Lonesome, this virus, a shadow, a spirit, the jubilation of souls in contact, enters the other, a certain knowledge, a chinlock, the sun shining into night, a cobra clutch, a front chancery of love, forgetfulness, immunity, or chance. There is a vacant region in spacetime, bounded by ropes or string theory, which remains vacant but which will always remember. If the crowd believed it could exist in twenty-two dimensions, there’d be cheering. This virus, life and all its violence, a bite of the dragon, its springtime, its poison.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nostalgia in the Nine Year Old; H.L. Hix's In Quire project.

The poet, H. L. Hix, has an interesting online project. He asks people to write about an object (not people or pets) that is important to them, but was not bought and then he posted the writing and a picture of the object on his blog.

Recently, through my writer friend, Jenny Hill, Hix invited me to contribute. Here is my In Quire contribution. I wrote about language, and specifically, the comma.

Really, if I was being straightforward about it, I should have written about the picture posted above. It is a painting by my childhood next-door-neighbour / surrogate grandmother, Molly Gordon. My family shared the holiday cottage pictured above with Molly, and her husband, Jack (known to us children as Papa Gordon). It was in the entirely numinous Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland, near the village of Annalong.

I remember climbing the mountains in the background (Big Ben and Little Ben, though most the mountains' names were prefixed with 'Slieve', from the Irish sliabh, meaning mountain.) I remember the huge iron stove, the brass bed, the washing jug and basin, the Alice-in-Wonderland wallpaper that my parents put up in the little part of the cottage that we children slept in. I remember waking in that bedroom, early, to the sound of birdsong in the brambles out the window. I also remember the stone walls, the cows of the adjacent farm, and the cow patties. I should include my eight-year-old self playing doctor with a neighbour girl and my parents walking in. This kind of thing happened a lot, if I recall correctly.

On trips back to Ireland, I've never been able to find the cottage, though I have driven through the mountains. This landscape is one of the iconic landscapes of my childhood and I mythologized it even when leaving for North America at age 9. (Though my last memory of Ireland is of my parents playing tennis sometime before we were set to emigrate. It was late afternoon and the sun, low in the sky, sent honey-coloured nostalgia beams across the tennis court. I remember saying to my nine-year old self, "Ah, but I shall ne'er see this, my native land, no more, as I am soon to leave." Actually, in something like those words. I was nine-years old and my nostalgia gland -- and my taste for Romantic poetry and Irish song lyrics -- was fully operational.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Inside Sky

night from
the inside of a blackbird is
a blackbird

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Sleep of Elephants

for Melanie Drane
On its side, half-covered in blanket, the elephant fills the bed, its slow breathing the surrender of lungs, a confession. The elephant is a form of twilight, its shadow skin, cobweb-coloured. The road, grey and endless, leading out from the fog-bound house, is an elephant also, if only in solidarity. World, the road says, your parking meters and slate roofs, your storm clouds and uncertainties, pencil leads and the rain. You have always been elephantine, winding through the half-lit maze, your baleful trumpeting and subaudible song. Mouse, you whale of the wainscot, bat, you whale of dusk, you are elephants seen through the multifaceted eyes of insects. All roads are elephants, all bathtubs, laundromats, and reference texts. What is plural is elephant. What is singular. A rural road, I fly alone in the night sky, itself a dark road with no border but the horizon and the rich elephantine earth, a constellation of shadows.

I find a pillow, half-buried beneath the vast foreleg of the elephant. I wash my hands, my face. I lie down beside the elephant which is dying. I do not hear, but feel the elephant’s murmuring, the worlds it speaks in consolation, time, a kind of twilight articulated in sound. I sleep beside its universe, its inhalations and outbreaths, a slow expansion and contraction of the rolling curves of its body. If there are stars, they have closed their eyes, they are past shining outward.

Elephant, old man, old woman, what is beyond old man and woman. Landscape, helium, dust; settlement, spacetime, nest. Let us be governed by twilight, or the twilight of twilight which is a shadow in the mirror.   Elephant, there are others, too, who will find you, who will bring you the consolation of sleep. The somnolent rest with you, march beside you into night. And when you turn, deep in your dream, our crushed bones will become, like a comet’s dust, a radiant trail of loss and return, an elephant.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Red Wheelbarrow; semicolon; lungs

so much depends

a semi

if not every
thing then two



so much depends

a semi

first one

an other

Friday, December 03, 2010

What is a Book?: The Frozen Pirate

Blank page from THE FROZEN PIRATE
"Blank page" after importation to Photoshop.

I'm currently writing a novel that involves pirates and so I've been reading explorer, pirate and nautical narratives from the 16th to the 19th century. Some of the books include Defoe (The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of Captain Singleton), de las Casas (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies), Stevenson (Treasure Island), Exquemelin (The Pirates of Panama), and The Frozen Pirate by W. Clark Russell.

Because it is the 21st century, much of my reading has been downloaded from and has been accomplished on my iPhone (using the Stanza app.) Some has been derived from which I often listen to while walking my dog. (I use the Audiobooks app for this.) There's a particularly great reading of Treasure Island replete with fantastic pirate and stuffy English gentlemen voices by  Adrian Praetzelis. He even multitracks his seadog singing of the "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!" choruses. has scanned reproductions of some old publications, for example, The Frozen Pirate by W. Clark Russell. I've only read/listened to the opening chapter, which is a brilliantly vivid description of a massive storm at sea which results in the ship being blown south to the Antarctic. Looking at the PDFs of the scans, I noted the reproduced blank pages. They were beautiful yellowed, stained and cloudy fields of paper. I thought that I might do something with these pages. The ultimate in erasure texts? A negative erasure text -- adding some text to the blankness? Perhaps my conceptual translation of the original would involve only blank pages. I hadn't decided. Another thing that was fascinating was that the PDFs of pages of text had a 'removable background' which meant that I could click and eliminate the yellowed pages and leave just the text. A strange ghoul of a book remained, a text printed upon the spirit of a pages only.

I downloaded the copy of the scanned book, thinking to begin seeing what I could do. Loading the pages into Photoshop, I discovered that, due to some kind of glitch, the blank pages turned into a grey-violet sea/storm wash of watercolour. I've posted one image above and one below.

Below, I've also posted the first page. Copy and pasting from the PDF doesn't preserve the font or indeed the font size. I've posted the raw Photoshop of that, too, inverted in color for legibility., not only to give a sense of some of the writing, but also because I think it highlights how we receive text, these days.

Here is a 19th tale that I listen to via the crowd-sourced readings of Librivox, or read via a non-descript txt file on my iPhone that was downloaded from a free archival resource ( I also examine a scan of the produced published book on my laptop. Sometimes I attempt to migrate formats, platforms, or programs.

What is the book? Is it pixels? The text? The sum of its language and technology (whether print, book, alphabet, sound file, etc.)? Is the 'book' a vector of semantic forms? Of data? Is it a cultural vector to which, like barnacles, meaning accrues? A meme? Is the book some kind of frozen pirate, the said pirate having stolen fire from the word horde only to be frozen into fixed form?

One thing for certain, though. All this playing around hasn't resulted in me finishing my book, whatever it turns out to be.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Music for Writers: Luciano Berio

Luciano Berio - Sequenza III (for Woman Voice)                                                            

I hope to post, from time to time,  brief introductions to music which might be of particular interest to my writing colleagues, music which engages with text, the voice, and techniques which seem related to the concerns of contemporary writers.

Luciano Berio was one of the preeminent Italian composers of the 20th century. His compositions were noted for exploring extended instrumental and especially vocal techniques. They often drew their inspiration--and incorporated text and other elements from--literary works. Many of his works incorporated collage, appropriation, or quotation and as such, he is considered a 'post-modern' composer. There a good article about Berio here.

Perhaps Berio's most famous piece is the extraordinary Sinfonia for orchestra and eight amplified voices. The voices sing, speak, whisper, shout, and use other vocal sounds.

The third movement incorporates “found” music from Mahler, Alban Berg, as well as text from Beckett’s  novel The Unnameable, text from Claude Lévi-Strauss, and much self-referential text. It is a witty, self-referential, metaphysical romp. Many of Berio's work incorporated 'collaged' text from multiple sources. For example A-Ronne (which I write about below) features text from the Bible,  T.S. Eliot and Karl Marx.

The second movement was originally the independent composition O King written for Martin Luther King. The vocal music begins with first the vowels and then the consonants of MLK's name, only in the end, combining them into his name. It is a beautiful, moving deconstruction and reconstruction of this iconic name.

Berio wrote numerous pieces entitled Sequenza, all which featured solo (i.e. unaccompanied) instruments or the voice. These short pieces explore new techniques for their performers. Sequenza III for extended voice is perhaps the most famous. Berio wrote the piece for the remarkable voice and vocal abilities of his then wife, Cathy Berberian. The score incorporates a wide range of vocal sounds not usually associated with 'voice,' but rather with the wide range of human vocal behaviours.

Finally, there is Berio's chamber vocal tour-de-force, A Ronne,  a larger piece for eight voices—this is brilliant sound poetry and vocal music. The voice is a theatre in the round and you don't know what character or sound will show up. By the way, the title refers to the A to Z of the old Italian alphabet.

Berio was a prolific composer. He wrote many kinds of work -- from solo to large orchestral works, vocal works, and some operas. Coro a large work for vocalists and orchestra is a particular favourite of mine.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

My "Hometown" Book Launch and a Literary Wake for Kerry Schooley

Greg Betts, John Abrams, Beth Bromberg, & Gary Barwin (Photo: K. Garneau, The Spec.)

The Hamilton Spectator did a nice article about my book launch. (I'm after the discussion of moustaches, a speaking mouth below the 'stache's hairy slash.) Jeff Mahoney wrote that the book was
classic Barwin, effervescent with wit, startling imagery and delightful strangeness.
 If I'd shaved and become moustache resplendent, one can only imagine what he might have written.

When Little Red Riding Hood wrote a book, she didn't have to travel with a basket full of nibblies through those nasty woods all the way to Grandma's House. She had the launch at her own house. Grandma read about it in the paper and the wolf took the shortcut and read about it on a Twitter feed.

Well, last Tuesday, the local independent bookseller of record, Bryan Prince, Bookseller, held a "hometown" book launch for my The Porcupinity of the Stars James St. N., and, as I mentioned above, the Hamilton Spectator covered it--as part of their "Scene and Heard" beat. The Three Bears weren't able to come -- they texted me their regrets but the place (the Mulberry St. Coffeehouse -- part of the new artsy urban resurgence--surgence?--on James) was packed with friends, neighbours, family, and other fairytale characters such as some of the local writerati.

The launch was lovely. Bryan Prince, the eponymous bookseller of Bryan Prince, Bookseller, and a tremendous supporter of writers, local, live, and reading-willing, introduced me. After having seen the trailer for the book where I do something of a Subterranean Homesick Blues word-on-a-sign rendition of a poem, he decided to introduce me in this Dylanesque manner, holding up cards of a poem of mine and then adding some very flattering descriptors of me. The audience as a chorus, read out the words on the cards as he held them up. Bob-like, Bryan dropped each card after it was read. My friend Anne, sitting in the front row, had to dodge the falling cards. "I've often been struck by your good qualities," she quipped, "but not quite like this.

I was delighted that the parent of one of my former students, brought that student, now in Grade 8, and his little sister. Good thing I only mentioned two kinds of genitals during the reading.

As the article mentions, the next day, we held a memorial performance for our late friend, Kerry Schooley, at the fantastic Pearl Company. (And thanks to Barbara Milne and Gary Santucci for donating the space for the event.) It was a marvellous thing. A whole bunch of writers read from Kerry's work, as well as reading some other things of their own, in tribute to him. They also shared some memories--funny stories and touching anecdotes.

We read some of his crime fiction (where he wrote as John Swan), and some of his poetry (where he wrote as Slim Volumes.) Kerry's wife and daughters were there, and one of his daughters spoke very movingly at the end. She was always, she said, "proud to be a Schooley," as, indeed, we were proud to be his friend, colleague, and to be part of the vibrant community of which he was a catalyst, enabler, facilitator, and supporter. I was struck how the writers in Hamilton, a diverse group of people, came together to celebrate Kerry. How they appeared to appreciate each other. Readers included Chris Pannell (who was the eloquent MC), Bob Megans, Susan Evans Shaw, Bernadette Rule, Jeff Seffinga, Klyde Broox, John Terpstra, and Eleanore Kosydar. I only remembered to take photos toward the end and I've posted them below.

Chris Pannell

Klyde Broox

Susan Evans Shaw

Jeff Seffinga