Sunday, March 22, 2015

Standing Next to a Corpse - Anthony Lock

Standing Next to a Corpse

By Anthony Lock

I will always remember well the day I almost died. We probably measure the biggest things in life by contrast. Poverty and wealth; love and hate; beauty and ugliness. I’ve only done it for a couple of minutes, but nothing makes one feel more intensely and disgustingly alive than standing next to a corpse when it was you or them. It’s an internal injection of sickness and shameful relief, and it repeats with varying strength in moments in the days and years afterward. On television, in newspapers, all you see is a corpse. Next to one, you see yourself.

I have seen many tragedies, and in the years since being in the CBD during the 2011 earthquake that hit the city of Christchurch, I continue to witness many tragedies. So does everyone else. These tragedies, things many people experience around the world daily, are a continual feed of highly consumed entertainment, whether you like it or not.

It’s condescending and pointless to tell people “you have to experience it to understand”. Scores of people continue to watch Amitabh’s Sikandar die before Raakhee’s Kaamna after a lifetime of distant adoration; to see Puccini’s Butterfly arranged as Kim’s ultimate sacrifice for her son Tam. Soap opera or classic novel, you transfer with characters. It’s why we love art. If you didn’t experience the emotional plateaus of Muqaddar Ka Sikander or Miss Saigon, you wouldn’t bother watching them. What matters about standing next to a corpse after concrete rain ceases, is not so much that it almost happened to you, either. It’s that a part of you really was hair-breaths from termination.

The lesson it’s taken me years to learn is that if one is to discover things from a near-death experience, you cannot “move on” from it. Rather, it is something that you keep near, advice written, and re-written continually, to yourself. It’s probably the same with any deep moment in life. Close shaves don’t always make a wound that can return. Unless you knew a loved one who perished, one can begin to see the tragedy one was present at like any other of the hundreds of horrors that the planet plays stage to each revolution of its axis. See enough disasters in repeated digital image, tweeted with what feels like practically everyone’s comments and journalistic gusto, pile on time, and it becomes like a sports event. One went to the arena to see this one, that’s all. This is a corpse of its own.

The sky was a wonderful summer blue, a couple of hours earlier I had been informed that the building I was in had been rebuilt some decades earlier and could bear force if there was “another big quake”, a 7.1 magnitude quake having occurred outside the city less than six months before during the night. I nodded, as did others; I scoffed privately, because any aftershock wasn’t going to be as large as the first quake. Outside for food, I sat next to a man I had met that day, and we began talking. A minute passed, and during a silence between us, admiration of the still was broken by a tremendous roar. I was puzzled for the half-second before the rumbling reached where we were. Then I realized that the noise was the crash of something that could cross kilometers in seconds, like a giant running over the country at the speed of sound. Screams erupted in the shopping street and people started to run and cower.

On my left, the man next to me – amazing how vivid and formative an experience this is, and has been, to me, and yet I cannot remember his name – put his hand on my shoulder. During all this time I believed it would fade in seconds. After about ten seconds, the shaking softened. My new companion took his hand away, and I turned to him and uttered stupidly “it’s okay, don’t worry”. In the instant it took to turn around to the right to investigate the newly expected calm I saw part of the building in which I had spent most of the morning in mid-freefall. The pause I felt was like the few seconds of calm before a storm. The energy release was just beginning of what was although a “smaller” quake at 6.3 on the Richter scale, to date the strongest quake ever recorded for shaking intensity, recording the highest peak ground acceleration, measurement of force against gravity.

I learned later that the people I had left conversing in that room were still there when the outside walls collapsed, though they were in the half of the room which did not collapse. I saw this fall onto people, though like the distinctiveness of such an experience, this is a unique statement. I discovered quickly that although one can watch this happen to people – one has to because one has to monitor the surroundings in order to not suffer the same fate, and one has no control over what happens with what you see far away – an inbuilt psychological state can kick in. Although I saw this horror occur, I only observed the dead bodies after the dust cleared a minute later. Whether such delayed acknowledgment of what one saw is something humans do unconsciously to better cope, or in these circumstances you really cannot see, I don’t know.

It was only when about three buildings had either fully or partially decayed that I understood this was far worse than the previous earthquake. I realized quickly that I was in a safe place in the center of the street. Rubble reached a meter to me on either side, not from falling but rolling – only after did I become conscious that the tree behind me could have toppled and that there was a larger danger in that spot than I had known. My thoughts were I’d always said in such a situation I would “meet the test”, though as I looked around, grappling with the realization that such an event was happening, I understood that I couldn’t rescue anyone from where I was until the shaking stopped. If I had tried, I would have run into the masses fleeing the buildings and the adjacent rock fall. As I saw the whole street collapsing, I felt those time-honored notions about family and friends, but my first main thought was understanding I was at the center of what would now be the top news story around the world for the coming days. I feel this exposes something deep in my character, as I’m certain that isn’t a thought that occurs to many people in those circumstances. Again, what exactly, I know not.

As distant viewer, an emotional reaction that connects fully with all of the tragedies that occur in the world would drive you insane. Truly understanding what these situations are like for those who suffer takes an act of placing oneself somewhere in the scenario that is similar to watching or reading an emotional drama. This takes time to both think and feel, and time, as one learns from entering the mortal danger-zone, is, contradictorily, the most precious thing, and the thing we have in most abundance. It makes sense that someone who hasn’t been almost killed becomes desensitized to the torrent of tragic news forced upon us every day – we have to because we cannot cope if we become transfixed for too long to this news, and it can distract us from thinking about and doing other things we need to contemplate. The same goes for someone who has been near death. But strangely, I have found that those who have experienced events like these firsthand become desensitized to their near-miss experience with their own untimely death. Is this moving on, or forgetting what should be so life-provoking to them?

What the pictures of earthquake devastation don’t usually show is the dust that accumulates. About half-way through the quake it had become difficult to see and I couldn’t discern the casualties, though I knew they were there. When I could finally move, I was greeted with a coughing fit from breathing the dust. It’s one of the things you don’t think about, even if you see it. I had to unbutton my shirt to cover my mouth. Once the dust moved, I could see the destruction more clearly and the bodies of the dead. I wandered through the street seeing if there was anyone I could help, and shouted into buildings trying to listen for voices. I tried to phone emergency services to give specific information about where to find the injured, but the phones were out. I found no one who was unattended, so with a lack of need for me, I headed for Christchurch’s Cathedral Square, the city’s main open space and cultural meeting point, to see if my friend who worked nearby was there. Somehow, despite the chaos with the phones, I received a text from her when I arrived. It was only when I got there that the first aftershock happened. It brought down further debris and I realized for the first time that there would be many more aftershocks and that they would be dangerous. And it was only when I got home that I discovered the cathedral’s steeple had come down. I hadn’t registered its collapse despite being right next to it, nor that I hadn’t seen the man next to me since I had asininely told him “not to worry”. I pondered what had happened to him until I saw him again some months later and he told me he had run away as soon as the shaking stopped.

When speaking of the dead, everyone always says it’s such a waste, such a shame. I’ve seen this directly. Standing next to a corpse is to stand next to thousands of corpses. They had thousands of different things to do, thousands of different things they could have done. Then and now, even though I know the greatest horror was the loss of life, I felt the greatest evil – even if nature is not conscious, its tragedies are still evil – was that those who died got no warning. In paying the ultimate price for living on a crust of broken tectonic plates, as people with families and friends, smiles they can share, stories and laughs and games and the joys of life before them, the sorrow I felt standing next to them was feeling that they should have been told. They deserved to at least know before their time came. But they did not. Without this, the event seemed to dismiss them as individuals. People who had the supreme expression of which I know within each one of their bodies: their lives, and the time to mix their potentials and wonder into these lives. Like everyone, as someone who has lost family and friends unexpectedly, I know that the deepest sadness of the loss is that your loved one had countless threads before them, theirs to half-choose and half-be-given, to use the analogy from Chinese literature. At the feet of someone who has just perished without warning, however, thinking of the thousand things that they could have been and done didn’t seem to go far enough in treating them rightly, even though it is just as integral a part of the disaster. Standing there, I felt at least letting them know what was going to happen would have given them some of the respect they deserved. Of course, how would an earthquake do that? Such feelings mean little when they are afterthoughts, and afterthoughts from the fortunate.

“Moving on” can be taken at least two ways. Usually, it’s interpreted as “getting over” something. However, unless you carry with you the moments of brushing death, you don’t “move on”. You can revert to who you were. Moving on can be either forgetting a painful episode or using it to deepen one’s experiences and enrichment of the masterpiece each day is, or at least should be. What would you do, if you were there, time froze and a crackly voice somewhere in the distance said “Sorry, but today is not your day. Five seconds after I resume time, falling debris, currently poised thirty meters from your head, will end your life. You have a minute to reflect on what you would have done.” At any other point in most of your existence, you would probably give a restrained answer. Even the most ambitious plans are still restrained to a large degree by practicality. In this moment of last minute, everything becomes an ever expanding balloon of opportunities, the entirety of which you could never do because time is too short and doing one thing excludes others. But that doesn’t matter when the possibility of at least having a chance at life’s countless opportunities and wonders is, or was, going to be taken from you. It’s what I call choosing your paths when your thoughts are always larger. The months after the earthquake transformed me in this sense, and only recently has the fever it lit within me become tempered. This only occurred when I understood that the things I had attempted to juggle within my twenty-four hours were always seven too many and always left me with many I would have rather done.

As I said earlier, it can be pointless to make arguments that require a “you should have been there” component, let alone how patronizing such arguments can be. I have tried with furious editing to scrub unintended haughtiness from this entry. It remains, impossible to erase fully. I try to not lecture those who, time since, have wanted to hear what I felt. It’s none of my business to lecture people. Besides, I’m one person; I’ve seen how people react differently to events. I just tell those who ask what it was like for me. If they haven’t experienced it firsthand, like an artwork, I try to let them experience secondhand what it was like. How has it been for me? After standing next to corpses, I now see corpses everywhere. They are the possible futures missed. That, for me, in my random luckiness, is the worst I’ve dealt with personally from the episode, and in dealing with these sights of paths ahead, I am led more every day to my favorite line from Shakespeare, when Coriolanus’ mother says that “in such business, action is eloquence”. It’s a futile wish when the world is filled with catastrophes we cannot control, but I still hope no one experiences what I went through. I have seen those who die, and even if you had no responsibility for or influence over nature’s actions, indifferent to humanity’s presence, you cannot help but feel guilty that you live. On television, there is a body, its message diluted by numbers. Next to the body, in a private meeting, it tells you of the possible futures it had, before it leaves with them forever. The person you never met, yet whom you meet so intimately in that moment, then leaves you alone, alone to see those possibilities deep in yourself.

Copyright©2015 by Anthony Lock – All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poetry of Caroline Hagood Reviewed by Nina Tassi

Caroline Hagood, Making Maxine’s Baby. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 2015. 70 pages, paper. $18U.S. ISBN 978-1-934909-46-1.

This is a daring book, an odyssey written from within the consciousness of Maxine, a resident of New York City subway tunnels and survivor of repeated sexual abuse from the age of six. In tracing Maxine’s struggles to free herself from the horrors of her own mind, Hagood calls up poetic antecedents from Homer’s Odyssey to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Yet Maxine is very much a contemporary woman, so Hagood’s metaphors are drawn mainly from the world of American pop culture—from horror movies to media accounts of real killers in movie theaters and shopping malls. The mental wanderings of her heroine are marked by punishing setbacks and fresh tries, a journey often as harrowing for the reader as for Maxine.

The challenge Hagood has set herself is to follow a seriously disturbed mind through violent images that mimic its chaos while constructing a compelling poetic structure. She achieves this goal through language which is continuously inventive and cognizant of form. Almost every line startles the reader with complex images conveying the double vision of both Maxine and the poet.

In one sequence of nine poems, “How Mermaids Save the Drowning,a stanza begins, “When she was six, he started to confetti/ her skin, and night after night he found other ways/ of making verbs of nouns, saying/ there’s a new sheriff in town.” And then, in a following poem, the chilling effects of her violation are recorded:  “After he touched it, she wanted to remove her flesh,/ just bulldoze it and build a mall there.”

Maxine careens from near-suicide to matter-of-fact acceptance of her plight to hope for a viable future. Occasional glimpses of connectedness vie with images of splitting, ugly slashes, fragmentation, surgery, dissection, and details of autopsies.

Using one of the vocabularies taken from pop culture, Hagood shows Maxine steeping herself in violent films because she has been told it is a way to work through trauma: “A night without the living dead/ is not a night at all. When she can’t rest, she works on a stolen Slurpee/ in the back row of Rocky Horror.

This is no poetry for the faint of heart or weak of stomach: “Maxine knows she was put here to mother/ even the rats who creep beside her bed at night/ to have their babies. She hears them heaving, reaches out,/ lets her fingers rest on their sweated backs/ as they make their birthing sounds,/ so much like train whistles.”

Along the path toward survival, Maxine tries to analyze her own mind, striving for images of connection and coherence. Memories come into play, good and bad, as she apprehends glimmers of possible recovery: “tangled chords/ someday she will make a rope out of them.”

Healing begins when “Maxine pictures her psyche as a Lower East Side/ tenement,” a wry image of wholeness, even during a period when she is engaged in self-destructive sexual behavior.

Well into her journey, Maxine falls in love with Marvin, a street person and kindred soul: “Marvin fancies himself a piece of city/ sea glass, shaped by the stroke of eyes/ averted, tumbled by all the words/ spoken, but not to him, tinning on his ears.”

With Marvin, Maxine begins to emerge from the morass she lives in. Not that Hagood offers any vision of a return to conventional middle class life. Rather, the poet views Maxine as moving to stable ground, based on love and a will to live, although still on the street. Pregnant with Marvin’s child, she coos to the baby in her womb with these words: “When you start imagining/ absurd things, like giant cockroaches/ dancing behind people who are screaming/ at you, don’t be alarmed, it/ runs in the family.

A notable achievement of this collection is Hagood’s ability to keep the reader steadily engaged with the mind of Maxine and her tortured drive toward freedom. This is a deeply-imagined, credible character who awakens the sympathy of readers as well as admiration for the cool tone and highly poetic language of her creator.

Hagood, a teaching fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Fordham University, published her first poetry collection, Lunatic Speaks, in 2012. She has also written on film and literature for the Guardian and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.

- Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Kevin Brown's Liturgical Days by Nina Tassi

Kevin Brown, Liturgical Calendar. Eugene, OR: RESOURCE Publications (An Imprint of Wipf and Stock ), 2014. 100 pages, paper. $14U.S.  ISBN 13: 978-1-4982-0375-3.
In his new book, Kevin Brown does not write overtly religious poems, as the title of the collection, Liturgical Calendar, and of many individual poems would suggest. His strategy is more cagey—subversive even. He situates his poems squarely in the everyday world of the present, his lines and stanzas short, images focused largely on the commonplace. Most of the pieces are written in the first person in a tone of wry or ironic humor. The language is colloquial, matter-of-fact, occasionally meditative. Thus the voice of the poet flows along in an easy rhythm, like a conversation with oneself, mulling over mundane worries, wounds suffered in childhood, or embarrassing personality flaws not usually confided to friends and relatives.
But there is more to it. Each poem, either by title or subtitle, references a sacred event or a saint, leading the reader to suppose that the poem will be literally about Ash Wednesday or St. Hilarion. But no, the poem concerns people down the street. And yet, while taking a stroll in Brown’s neighborhood, the reader is surprised into an encounter with the Christian universe—where one’s own moral life is implicated. A married couple’s ordinary supper of spaghetti, bread and wine suggests comparison with the Last Supper and the Eucharist. Brown reminds the reader that the sacred lurks just beyond the kitchen—or within it.
He invites the reader to consider the ways in which a betrayal at the supper table, seemingly confined to such a tiny space and moment, might have universal significance. It might have to do with Judas and the reason why Jesus died, something the poet wants the reader to question rather than saying it himself.
The loss of love is a major subject of Liturgical Calendar. One striking sequence considers the Easter cycle, opening with “Palm Sunday,when Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem a week before his death. In this poem, a man describes retrospectively a young married couple’s happiness,  “celebrating successes/we have not yet had,” while foretelling disappointment: “ahead of us, only dusk.”  In  “Maundy Thursday,”  Jesus’s foreknowledge of betrayal is implicitly compared to a more mundane betrayal, when a husband realizes his wife will betray him,  “a future only I could foresee.”  At the end of this revelatory supper, the husband sees nothing left “but a pile of plates/in the sink, pieces/of pasta clinging/to them tenaciously.”
Is the difference in betrayals so vast as to not yield a valid comparison, or does the poet wish us to realize that betrayal is a monumental human experience?
“Good Friday” implicitly connects Christ’s crucifixion to the death of a marriage:  “Nothing left but the suffering”—small words for a large reality. “Holy Saturday” offers a poignant image of loss in a husband’s cry to his wife who has abandoned him:  “I sit in your study, the emptiness echoing like a tomb.”  Finally, “Easter Sunday” raises hope for the estranged couple, comparing  reconciliation to resurrection, in that both “are made out to be miracles.” 
In his “Notes” at the end of the book, Brown provides a liturgical or Gospel reference to every poem. Some of these notes require a little extra effort on the reader’s part—well worth it—to understand exactly what Brown was thinking as regards a Biblical passage or saintly anecdote. One such poem, “Dry Mouth,” is about loss from a “what if” perspective. A man reflects on all the times he found himself unable to communicate verbally with his wife as she wanted; the marriage might have endured if he had found the words. The Gospel reference is to Jesus curing the deaf mute, a sad admission that no miracle occurred in this case.
Brown can be openly passionate. “People Said It Was the Best Show They Had Ever Seen,” which takes place on the Fourth of July, addresses a woman who finds freedom from her husband’s  abuse only in his death. Here Brown reveals deep empathy with the woman and her suffering.
Liturgical Calendar is an accomplished work which can be enjoyed as lightly or as deeply as the reader wishes to take it.
Brown, a professor at Lee University, has published two previous books of poetry, A Lexicon of Lost Words and Exit Lines, as well as a memoir, Another Way, and a scholarly study, They Love to Tell the Stories.
Nina Tassi has published three books: Urgency Addiction (nonfiction), The Jeremiah Tree, and Antarctic Visions; she is completing a new collection of poems, Spirit Ascending. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Letter from a Poet


Profile of poet Milorad Pejić

Dear Gregory:

"What are poets for in a destitute time?" This remarkable line by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin has for two hundred years been peddled in literary circles as a collective metaphor about the meaning (or lack thereof) of poetry. Since Hölderlin's query is its own answer, my relationship with this paradoxical question in our time of total moral civilizational collapse is essentially of an esthetic nature. In the consummate disintegration of our system of values (need I cite examples? what are examples for in a destitute time?), the poetic word seems to me like the last "democratic chance" of the person sentenced to death to speak once more, before execution, without calculation or profit or loss, about the "case."

Poetry for me is the only possible way to express myself regarding this case, but at the same time it does not exclude my assuming "civil risk" in this. That deeply intimate compulsion to take a stand comes to me, despite everything, like setting down a heavy weight, a relief from remorse that I'm unable do something more concrete to save the honor of humankind. On the other hand, in my early youth, poetry was a kind of spiritual refuge for me, a bunker of freedom. In it I felt at ease, without an urge to enter the "occupied territory" and get involved in such small matters as defending humanism, but, like all young poets of my generation in those student years long ago in Sarajevo, I was searching for the essence. That time of dealing with "higher things" resulted in 1985 in my first poetry book, The Vase for the Lily Plant (Svjetlost, Sarajevo).

The poems from this first collection had taken more than ten years to write, slowly and painstakingly, but the second book, The Eyes of Keyholes, didn't go any faster either. This latter book was originally published in 2001. The same goes for the collection of poems Hyperborea, which was first published by the Czech company Aula (Prague) in 2011, and also later, after it had received the Slovo Makovo – Mak Dizdar Award for best poetry book in 2012 in the region of former Yugoslavia, by the Mak Dizdar Foundation (Sarajevo, 2013). So, I wrote on average three to four poems a year, resurrecting as a poet every ten years with a small book that found its way into the slender library of some anonymous reader. The poems from my latest, fourth collection entitled The Third Life, which is being readied for publication as we speak, had been coming to me infrequently and ardously in a trickle in moments of weakness, or rather only when I had something to say.

In my physical isolation from literary people, having moved to the north of Sweden in the early nineties of the already last century, I had separated myself voluntarily, and psychologically, from all kinds of associations, organizations, interests, and rivalries. As it turned out, by a happy or unhappy chance, I do not live by the pen to this day but in my "real" life as an ordinary man (like Kafka) I try not to show off the symptoms of my disease. Pressured by a few friends (Adin Ljuca, Saša Skenderija) who "terrorized" me from time to time with their plans to have me publish my third book (Hyperborea), I left my bunker only in 2011.

What Omer Hadžiselimović subsequently did by translating and "advertising" my poems in the U.S.A. during the last couple of years has been incomparably more than anything I myself have done for the promotion of my poetry for an entire three decades. For example, Gloria Mindock, publisher and editor of the Červená Barva Press (Somerville, MA), in reply to an email from Omer, agreed to publish my book Oči ključaonica (The Eyes of Keyholes) in English and thus open one of American doors for me "without inquiring about our acquaintance" (from the poem "The House of H. Lundbohm"). And you, Gregory, are a rare bird as a man of literary taste for having granted me space on your website without asking for any additional references and recommendations.

You ask when and how I first recognized a "literary trait" in me. Where does the poet in me come from? That question posed itself most specifically as early as 1978 in Tuzla, where I lived, when I had to decide what to study after high school. I wanted to study in Sarajevo to become a writer, but my father gave me this ultimatum: Either study economics or nothing! You can't make a living as a writer, he said, and I don't have the means—after the four years of your Sarajevo studies—to support a poet by training.

It was then in fact that I realized for the first time in my life that I wanted to be a poet, and I agreed to study economics. Today's supermodern technology using a routine DNA test could probably establish easily whose poetic gene I inherited, but that is completely unnecessary since I had found the answer to that question in a closet more than forty years ago. Just as adolescents hide pornographic magazines between winter coats, that same father of mine had, stowed away among some rags, a set of twenty or so pocket books by the most notable Yugoslav poets bought with his first miserable salary of a rail worker. Many years later he gave us an "unpleasant" surprise by bringing home one evening a small mechanical typewriter he bought in six installments with his modest salary as an Institute of Social Work employee.

There was also other "evidence" of an earlier date that could be used against my father, but it had been destroyed (or forbidden) with the entry of my mother into his life. I heard, in fact, that as a young man he had a tamburitza he played on and sang at village get-togethers, not only on his home ground but also in "enemy territory," where in sundry brawls with this riotous troubadour taking part even knives are known to have been drawn.

In parts of my poems that have reached you, you surely can recognize the ambiance of such lives. Almost all places, persons, and events mentioned in these poems have existed or still exist in reality. My poems are true stories, Gregory, and each of them is based on a separate and deep life experience. I sometimes thought that I should write short stories instead of poems, but I have somehow become dependent on the hard, strict, and brutal form of a poem. Not only that—in time I have also established firm "technical principles" inside the poem itself, which I could most easily explain using Einstein's well-known comparison of life and bicycle riding, where only by moving can we maintain the balance. Writing a poem is the same as riding a bicycle. First we pedal on flat ground, like being on an outing, passing by forests, pastures, lakes, houses, road works…Then comes a hill where you have to strain with all your might to keep the machinery from stopping, after which you go downhill, which is the most exciting of all but also the most dangerous. Just like in life itself! The only difference is in the way you come to a stop, which, unlike in life, you don't perform by using the brakes, but in full possible speed and at the height of elation your entire rushing equipage goes for and crashes into a concrete wall.

Many of these endpoints originated in that same way and on specific trips, but these were never calculated trips, where I would actively seek ideas and inspiration in order to write down something and return home with "material." It was rather that each of those poems actively waited at each of those described places to crash into me as if into a concrete wall when I accidentally stumbled on it. It was such "unprofessional" involvement with literature that helped me stay away from that depression Hemingway fell into: "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed." I bleed, my dear Gregory, only when I'm writing—fortunately very rarely, and only when I have something to say. "To sing is the same as to die," wrote the great Yugoslav poet Branko Miljković, and I have always felt myself that inexplicable masochism of poetry, that marvelous and horribly unbearable pain of birthing a poem.

I've noticed that the poems from my collection Hyperborea have been best received by my Bosnian readers, I suppose because that book deals with the phenomenon of "reserve homelands." Specifically, many recognized themselves in it—those who, like me, have been displaced around the world during the Balkan wars of the 1990s and who found their new homes in foreign countries, made new friends, and learned new languages. At the same time, strong, unbreakable ties with the country they were born in keep their original identity in motion, which stirs internal conflict between two homelands, on the one hand, while on the other the process of reconciliation continues.

I think that through the poems in Hyperborea I myself reached some sort of awareness. Today, when I step back and I read them through a stranger's eyes, my opinion that the notion of a homeland is directly associated, and with good reason, with the word patriotism, which is nothing else but a business idea used by powerful interest groups in every society and every homeland to mobilize cannon fodder for their own goals, often even the most wicked ones. Pondering this phenomenon of reserve homelands for a long time, I became cured of all variants of sick patriotism, saying to myself that "I would not die under any flag" (from the poem "Hyperborea II," Hyperborea). Later, I explained that position differently in the poem "The National Anthem" (The Third Life):

          We moved a lot. In the waters of countries
          and cities, our fingerprints have washed away;
          in alcohol, our blood group has evaporated.
          We no longer belong to anyone. Any national
          anthem I hear, I stand stiff like at a closed
          railroad-crossing gate, till the train passes.

Last year I accidentally ran into a very concrete confirmation of my belief. The French mystic and theologian Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1141) went even further when he explained the phenomenon of patriotism and homelands this way:

          The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner;
          he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong;
          but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.
          The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world;
          the strong man has extended his love to all places;
          the perfect man has extinguished his.

I would not have paid much attention to Hugh's thousand-year-old record in 1992, when I first left my first homeland (Bosnia), but I fully comprehend these words today after having lived for over twenty years in Sweden which, cured of patriotism, I affectionately call my "reserve homeland." So I find that in my old age I have come dangerously close to becoming the perfect man, one who has extinguished his love for any place in the world and is no longer hostage of any one homeland.

I am only a hostage of language and books, especially the unread ones. But not those flaunted in the media. I am fed up with the unbearable torture on the part of the cultural elite which, in the service of the mass consumption of "bestsellers" without taste or smell maintains an inflation of kitsch. I wish, on the recommendation of a genuine reader, to have some of those "private" little books drop into my mail box every weekend, books that are not bought but are passed from hand to hand like some compromising material.

Yet there are still genuine readers (a dying breed everywhere), believe me, even in Sweden, where the production of kitsch is one of the most important industries. A couple of weeks ago I was invited to read my poems for the first time at a festival of poetry. So, after twenty years I was again taking part in an evening of poetry, before a demanding audience. Before those people I felt at first like the straying Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmerin his superb poem "From an African Diary" (1963):

          A young man found a foreigner lost among the huts.
          Didn't know whether to take him for a friend or a subject
          for extortion. His doubt disturbed him. They parted in confusion.

Yes, we parted in confusion late that night, going back through a chestnut-lined street to our small lives. I do not know if they had accepted me as a friend, but not for a moment did I feel as an object of extortion. All in all, it was a pleasant evening in which I had an opportunity to state the "case" without any calculation.

Lately I have been "assisting" Omer Hadžiselimović with translation of my poems into English and working a little with Jorik Otterbjörk on polishing some of my own translations into Swedish. With neither of them did I "contract" the job. Both fell into the trap willingly and enthusiastically, without putting up any conditions. That is why I try not to split hairs. Only from time to time I like to remind them that the translations shouldn't be better than the originals.

So, I can say only the best about the translations. The passion of translating one's own poems into a foreign language can only be compared with that masochistic passion of giving birth to them in the original. In many poems I have discovered some new aspects only in translation, and only in translation was I able to "view them with objective eyes . . . as someone else" (from the poem "Fr. Omer," The Third Life).

It feels good when now and then I send a new poem into the world, and when it suddenly comes out in a magazine or materializes on a website, but I've felt for some time now that "only memories are news my tired friends are still curious about" (from the poem "Friends in the Universe," Hyperborea). And so the circle is slowly closing and I inevitably return to that time of long ago when I was seeking the higher things. When on Saturdays I step out to pick up the morning paper I wish I'd find in my mailbox some old unread book sent as a recommendation by a genuine reader. I even catch myself in sinful thoughts of wishing to plant there, the evening before, my first book of poems from 1985.




Dragi Gregory!

Čemu pjesnici u oskudno vrijeme? Ovaj izvanredni stih njemačkog pjesnika Friedricha Hölderlina "troši" se već dvjesto godina u književnim krugovima kao kolektivna metafora pitanja o smislu i besmislu poezije. Budući da je Hölderlinova dilema istovremeno sama sebi i odgovor, moj odnos prema ovoj paradoksalnoj pitalici u današnje vrijeme totalnog moralnog kolapsa civilizacije u suštini je isključivo estetske prirode. U potpunom raspadu sistema vrijednosti (treba li da navodim primjere? čemu primjeri u oskudno vrijeme?) pjesnička riječ mi izgleda kao posljednja "demokratska prilika" na smrt osuđenog da se još jednom, neposredno prije smaknuća, bez ikakve računice, dobitka ili gubitka, izjasni o "slučaju".

Poezija je za mene znači jedini mogući način da se estetski izjasnim o "slučaju" ali ne isključuje pri tom ni preuzimanje "civilnog rizika". Taj duboko intimni poriv da zauzmem stav dolazi mi uprkos svemu kao spuštanje tereta, oslobađanje od griže savjesti zbog toga što za spas časti čovječanstva nisam kadar učiniti nešto konkretnije. U ranoj mladosti poezija mi je, međutim, bila neka vrsta duhovnog pribježišta, bunker slobode. U njemu sam se osjećao komotno, bez potrebe da izlazim na "okupiranu teritoriju" i da se bavim takvim sitnicama kao što je odbrana humanizma nego sam, kao i svi mladi pjesnici iz moje generacije onih davnih studentskih godina u Sarajevu, tragao za suštinom. To vrijeme bavljenja "višim stvarima" rezultiralo je 1985. godine prvom knjigom pjesama Vaza za biljku krin (Svjetlost, Sarajevo).

Pjesme iz ove prve zbirke pisane su preko deset godina, sporo i mukotrpno, ali ništa brže nije išlo ni kasnije sa drugom knjigom Oči ključaonica koja je izašla iz štampe prvi put 2001 (Bosanska riječ, Tuzla Wuppertal; drugo izdanje 2012) niti sa zbirkom pjesama Hyperborea koja je po prvi put publicirana 2011 u češkoj izdavaćkoj kući Aula (Prag) a potom (nakon nagrade Slovo Makovo – Mak Dizdar za najbolju knjigu poezije za 2012 na prostorima bivše Jugoslavije) i u izdanju Fondacije Mak Dizdar 2013 (Sarajevo). Pisao sam, dakle, u prosjeku 3-4 pjesme godišnje, vaskrsavajući kao pjesnik svake desete godine sa po jednom knjižicom u maloj biblioteci nekog nepoznatog čitaoca. Pjesme iz najnovije, četvrte zbirke pod naslovom Treći život koja je upravo u pripremi za štampu, kapale su takođe rijetko i teretno, u momentima slabosti ili bolje rečeno samo onda kada sam imao šta kazati.

U svojoj fizičkoj izolovanosti od književnih ljudi, preseljenjem na sjever Švedske početkom devedesetih godina onog već prošlog vijeka, dobrovoljno sam se udaljio i mentalno od svekolikih udruženja, organizacija, konkurencija i interesa. Sticajem sretnih i nesretnih okolnosti ne živim ni danas od pera nego gledam da se u svom "stvarnom životu" običnog činovnika (poput Kafke), ne razmećem simptomima svoje bolesti. Pod pritiskom nekolicine prijatelja (Adin Ljuca, Saša Skenderija) koji su me s vremena na vrijeme "terorisali" svojim planovima o publiciranju moje treće knige (Hyperborea) izašao sam tek 2011 iz bunkera.

Ono što je potom Omer Hadžiselimović učinio na prevođenju i "reklami" mojih pjesama u USA posljednjih par godina neuporedivo je više od svega što sam uradio sâm na planu promovisanja vlastite poezije tokom cijele tri decenije. Tako će se na primjer Gloria Mindock, vlasnica i urednik izdavačke kuće ČERVENÁ BARVA PRESS (Somerville), kao odgovor na jedan Omerov mail, prihvatiti publiciranja knjige Oči ključaonica na engleskom i time otvoriti za me jedna od američkih vrata bez raspitivanja o našem poznanstvu (iz pjesme Kuća H. Lundbohma, Oči ključaonica). A i ti si rijetka ptičica, Gregory, kad si me, kao čovjek od književnog ukusa, upustio na svoj sajt ne pitajući ni za kakve reference i preporuke.

Pitaš me kad sam i kako po prvi put prepoznao tu "književnu crtu" kod sebe. Otkud pjesnik u meni? Pitanje se najkonkretnije samo od sebe postavilo još 1978 godine kada sam se, nakon srednje škole u Tuzli gdje sam živio, trebao odlučiti za daljnje studije. Htio sam učiti za književnika u Sarajevu ali mi je otac postavio ultimatum: ili studij ekonomije ili ništa! Od književnosti se, veli, ne živi i ja nemam sredstava da poslije četiri godine tvojih sarajevskih univerziteta izdržavam školovanog pjesnika.

Tada sam u stvari po prvi put shvatio da želim biti pjesnik i pristao da studiram ekonomiju. Današnja supermoderna tehnologija vjerovatno bi putem običnog DNA-testa lako utvrdila od koga sam naslijedio taj pjesnički gen ali je to potpuno nepotrebno pošto sam odgovor na to pitanje našao još prije više od četrdeset godina u ormaru. Kao što pubertetlije kriju pornografske novine među zimskim kaputima onaj isti moj otac imao je u krpama komplet od dvadesetak knjiga džepnog formata najpoznatijih jugoslovenskih pjesnika, kupljen od svoje prve, bijedne plate pružnog radnika. Mnogo godina kasnije još nas je jednom "neprijatno" iznedaio donoseći kući jedne večeri malu, mehaničku pisaću mašinu kupljenu na šest rata od svoje skromne plate činovnika u Zavodu za socijalni rad.

Bilo je još "dokaznog materijala" starijeg datuma koji bi se mogao upotrijebiti protiv mog oca ali je uništen (ili zabranjen) ulaskom moje majke u njegov život. Čuo sam, naime, da je kao momak imao tamburicu na kojoj je svirao i pjevao po seoskim sijelima i to ne samo na domaćem terenu nego čak i na "neprijateljskim teritorijama" zbog čega su se, u prepirkama sa buntovnim trubadurom, znali potezati čak i noževi.

U jednom dijelu mojih pjesama koje su dospjele do tebe prepoznaješ sigurno atmosferu iz takvih života. Gotovo sva mjesta, lica i događaji koja se u njima pominju postojali su ili još uvijek postoje i u stvarnosti. Moje su pjesme istinite priče, Gregory, i za svaku od njih imam zasebno i duboko životno iskustvo. Pomišljao sam ponekad da umjesto pjesama pišem priče ali sam nekako postao ovisan o tvrdu, strogu i surovu formu pjesme.

I ne samo to – uspostavio sam vremenom i čvrste "tehničke principe" unutar same pjesme koje bih najlakše mogao objasniti uz pomoć poznate Einsteinove usporedbe života sa vožnjom bicikla u kojoj se jedino u kretanju održava ravnoteža. I pisanje pjesme je isto što i vožnja biciklom. Prvo se mota po ravnom, kao na izletu, pored šuma, pašnjaka, jezera, kuća, radova na putu... Zatim dolazi brdo gdje se mora zapeti iz petnih žila da se mašinerija ne zaustavi a nakon toga silazi se nizbrdicom što je od svega najuzbudljivije ali zato i najopasnije. Baš kao i u životu! Jedina je razlika u načinu zaustavljanja koje se, za razliku od života, ne postiže upotrebom kočnica nego se u najvećoj mogućoj brzini i pri najjačem zanosu cijela ekipaža usmjeri i razmrska o betonski zid.

Mnoge od tih poenti nastale su upravo na taj način i na konkretnim putovanjima ali nikada nisam putovao iz računice, tražeći aktivno ideje i inspiraciju da bih šta-god zabilježio i vratio se kući sa "materijalom". Prije će biti da je svaka od tih pjesama aktivno čekala na svakom od tih opisanih mjesta i smrskala se o mene kao o betonski zid kada sam slučajno naišao. Zahvaljujući takvom "neprofesionalnom" bavljenju književnošću nije mi se dešavalo da padnem u onu Hemingwayevu depresiju: "Nema šta da se piše. Jedino što možeš jeste da sjediš iznad pisaće mašine i krvariš". Ja krvarim, moj Gregory, jedino kad pišem - srećom rijetko, samo onda kad imam šta da kažem. "Isto je pjevati i umirati", rekao bi veliki jugoslovenski pjesnik Branko Miljković i uvijek sam i sâm osjećao taj neobjašnjivi mazohizam poezije, tu divnu i užasno neizdrživu bol porađanja pjesme.

Primijetio sam da su pjesme iz knjige Hyperborea naišle na najviše razumijevanja kod mojih bosanskih čitalaca. Pretpostavljam da je to zato što se ta knjiga bavi fenomenom "rezervnih domovina". U njoj su se, naime, prepoznali mnogi koji su se, kao i ja, tokom posljednjih balkanskih ratova devedesetih godina prošlog vijeka raselili po svijetu i našli svoje nove domovine u stranim zemljama, stekli nove prijatelje i naučili nove jezike. Istovremeno, jake i neraskidive veze sa zemljom u kojoj su rođeni održavaju prvobitni identitet u kretanju čime se stalno s jedne strane raspiruje unutrašnji konflikt između dvije domovine a s druge traje proces pomirenja.

Mislim da sam kroz pjesme u knjizi Hyperborea i sâm prošao kroz neku vrstu osviješćenja. Danas kad ih čitam sa distance, kao neko drugi, učvršćuju me u stavu da pojam domovina asocira direktno i ne bez razloga na riječ patriotizam koja je opet ništa drugo do poslovna ideja na kojoj jake interesne grupe u svakom društvu i u svakoj domovini prikupljaju topovsko meso za dostizanje svojih, često čak i najperverznijih ciljeva. Sazrijevajići nad fenomenom rezervnih domovina izliječio sam se od svih varijanti bolesnog patriotizma konstatujući da ne bih ginuo ni pod kojom zastavom (iz pjesme Hyperborea II, Hyperborea). Kasnije ću taj stav obrazložiti na drugi način u pjesmi Himna (Treći život):

          Mnogo smo se selili. U vodama zemalja
          i gradova isprali se otisci prstiju, u alkoholu
          izlapila krvna grupa. Nikom više ne pripadamo.
          Koju god himnu čujem stanem ukočen kao
          ispred spuštene željezničke rampe, dok voz
          ne prođe.

Prošle godine slučajno sam naišao na jednu veoma konkretnu potvrdu svog uvjerenja. Francuski mistik i teolog Hugh of Saint Victor (1096 - 1141) otišao je još dalje objašnjavajući pedagoški fenomen patriotizma i domovina na sljedeći način:

          Taj kojem je njegova domovina ljupka neiskusan je početnik;
          onaj kome je svako tlo kao njegovo rodno već je jak;
          ali savršen onaj je čovjek kojem je cijeli svijet strana zemlja.
          Neiskusna duša vezala je svoju ljubav za jednu tačku na svijetu;
          jaka osoba raširila ju je na sva mjesta;
          savršen čovjek ugasio je svoju.

Njegovom hiljadu godina starom zapisu ne bih možda pridavao značaj 1992. godine, u vrijeme kad sam napuštao svoju prvu domovinu (Bosna), ali te riječi sasvim razumijem danas nakon preko dvadeset godina života u Švedskoj koju, izliječen od patriotizma, od milja zovem mojom "rezervnom domovinom". Primjećujem zato da sam opasno blizu da pod stare dane postanem savršen čovjek, onaj što je ugasio svoju ljubav za svako mjesto na svijetu i nije više talac ni jedne domovine.

Talac sam još jedino jezika i knjiga, posebno onih nepročitanih. Ali ne tih o kojima trube u medijima. Sit sam neizdržive torture od strane kulturne elite koja, u službi masovne konzumacije bestsellera bez ukusa i mirisa, održava inflaciju kiča. Volio bih da mi, po preporuci istinskog čitača, svakog vikenda upadne u poštansko sanduče neka od onih "privatnih" knjižica koje se ne kupuju nego predaju iz ruke u ruku kao kompromitujući materijal.

A istinskih čitača (koji su svagdje vrsta koja izumire) ima, vjeruj mi, još uvijek čak i u Švedskoj u kojoj je industrija kiča jedna od najvažnijih privrednih grana. Prije par nedjelja pozvan sam, naime, po prvi put da na jednom festivalu poezije čitam svoje pjesme. Nakon skoro dvadeset godina učestvovao sam praktično ponovo na jednoj pravoj večeri poezije, pred zahtjevnom publikom. Osjećao sam se u početku pred tim ljudima kao zalutali švedski pjesnik Tomas Tranströmer u svojoj sjajnoj pjesmi Iz jednog afričkog dnevnika (1963):

          Mladić opazi stranca zalutalog među kolibama.
          Nije mogao da prelomi da l bi ga htio za prijatelja
          ili kao predmet ucjenjivanja. Neodlučnost ga učini
          očajnim. Raziđoše se zbunjeni.

Jeste, razišli smo se zbunjeni vraćajući se kasno u noć kroz aleju kestenova u svoje male živote. Ne znam da li su me prihvatili kao prijatelja ali ni jednog momenta nisam se osjećao kao predmet ucjenjivanja. Sve u svemu prijatno jedno veče u kojem sam dobio priliku da se, bez ikakve računice, izjasnim o "slučaju".

U posljednje vrijeme "pomažem" Omeru Hadžiselimoviću oko prevođenja mojih pjesama na engleski a radim pomalo i sa Jorik Otterbjörk na dotjerivanju jednog dijela mojih vlastitih prevoda na švedski. Ni sa jednim ni s drugim nisam ugovarao "posao". Obojica su u zamku upali svojom voljom i sa vlastitim entuzijazmom ne postavljajući nikakve uslove. Zato gledam da ne cjepidlačim. Jedino ih s vremena na vrijeme podsjećam na to da prevodi ne smiju biti bolji od originala.

O prevođenju, dakle, sve najbolje! Sa strašću prevođenja vlastitih pjesama na strani jezik jedino se može mjeriti ona mazohistička strast njihovog porađanja u originalu. U mnogima sam otkrio tek u prevodu neke nove dimenzije i tek u prevodu mogao sam se odmaći od svojih pjesama i sagledati ih očima objektivnim...kao neko drugi (iz pjesme Fra Omer, Treći život).

Prijatno je kad ponekad pošaljem u svijet poneku novu pjesmu i kad poneka od njih izađe iznenada u kakvom časopisu ili osvane na nekom sajtu ali primjećujem u posljednje vrijeme da su jedino uspomene novost za koju još imaju radoznalosti moji umorni prijatelji (iz pjesme Prijatelji u svemiru, Hyperborea). Krug se time polako zatvara i vraćam se neizbježno onom davnom vremenu traganja za višim stvarima. Kad izlazim subotom da uzmem jutarnje novine radije bih da nađem u poštanskom sandučetu neku staru, nepročitanu knjigu poslanu kao preporuka od nekog istinskog čitača. Uhvatim se čak i u grešnim mislima da veče ranije poturim samome sebi svoju prvu knjigu pjesama iz 1985.

S poštovanjem!

Copyright©2014 by Milorad Pejić – All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Bibliotekos is honored to be the first publisher of Tongariro in the original Bosnian by Milorad Pejić, translated into English by Omer Hadžiselimović.

The English translation first appeared in Guernica on 2 June 2014 and can be found here, with biographical information about the poet and translator.


O oblak okačena kabanica Vulkana Tongariro
zakopčana je uz vrat jednim jedinim okruglim
dugmetom: Plavim Jezerom. Na dnu jezera,
u visini srca, kuca paklena mašina. Pokušavamo
da ne mislimo, pokušavamo da ne znamo ali
nam njeni damari ko žmarci uzlaze uz kičmu
i znoje se.

U plavom jezeru na vrhu Vulkana Tongariro
nema ništa za jelo, sâm kamen. To znaju
čudne ptice dugih vratova ali ipak, na svom
putu preko okeana, slijeću na njega. One su,
leteći visoko, nadživjele svoje neprijatelje
pa sada odmaraju krila na valovima kao na

I mi smo, ti i ja, čudne ptice dugih vratova
koje su nadživjele sve svoje neprijatelje.
Dolazeći izdaleka spuštamo rance i zalazimo
u mrtvu vodu Vulkana Tongariro. Odmaramo
se od svoje hrabrosti.

Copyright©2014 by Milorad Pejić, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

O'Neill's Strange Interlude - Review by Tim Dugan

Used with Permission
STRANGE INTERLUDE by Eugene O’Neill; National Theatre/Lyttelton[i]; Southbank, London; July 2013, closed September 1, 2013; directed by Simon Godwin.

Strange Interlude is an implausible play that somehow manages to reach believability by its final tableau. The convoluted story of a mother-in-law haranguing her pregnant daughter-in-law (protagonist, Nina Leeds) to abort her baby in order to impede the hereditary madness in her family ascendency, and, following that abortion, be impregnated by a clandestine surrogate—with the upshot of weaving a new life with her unwitting puerile husband and their out-of-marriage baby, seems so far beyond any believable consideration as “story” that for the first hour or so the event at the National Theater (NT) has no real basis in reality. Then the controlled, heavy-handed dramaturgical engineering of Eugene O’Neill starts to disengage and the play—the Pulitzer prize-winning play—alights. Across this redacted production on the Lyttelton Theater’s neo-Greek-proscenium stage, the play finds a creaking momentum that teases out the particularly craven aspects of the drama including promiscuity and nymphomania, celibacy, paternity, illegitimacy, and congenital family insanity, among a few other O’Neill standards. Eventually the Interlude “plot” delivers steady, unremitting levels of shock and awe, genuinely lyrical romance, and cleverness and jocularity; there’s even uproarious hilarity in this forbiddingly gothic drama. Beyond the slightly clumsy effects of quotidian dramatic exposition at the onset of the play, the story ultimately reveals itself as a “noir” tragicomedy of power if somewhat unwieldy proportion. Strange Interlude is a mammoth 5 hour, 9-act play, boxed and compressed by director Simon Godwin to 3 hours and 20 minutes at the Lyttelton; but regardless of the show’s abridged length, the information load is onerous.

As we learn of the tragic death of Nina’s heartthrob, Gordon, a “doughboy”[ii] in the trenches of World War I (Anne-Marie Duff as Nina) and her ensuing sexual proclivities with a slew of wounded-warrior lovers, the coil around this confused Yankee girl’s heart begins to tighten. In her enduring grieving for her dead, but eternally lingering fiancé (a spiritual doppelganger of sorts) Nina’s emotional state deteriorates to what is amateurishly diagnosed by her father as clinically-defined anti-social levels. Nina, fundamentally, has the debilitating symptoms of classic, heart-broken, disconsolate youth: she’s neighbor hostile, belligerent, loud, weepy, and on certain occasions at her infirmary work-site, sexually explicit and even predatory; and sadly, her well-meaning, but somewhat conniving bookish father (Patrick Drury as Prof. Henry Leeds) plans for her rehabilitation with the honest, but equally unfulfilled and sexually inhibited suitor, Charles Marsden (Charles Edwards). Slowly, weirdly, the nexus of pious academic father, the dutiful suitor, Marsden, and (eventually) a slightly sinister, but incongruously funny family physician, Dr. Edmund “Ned” Darrell (Darren Pettie) bring meaning and reparation to the wobbly and spiritually mangled Nina. And collaterally, with the successful execution of Nina’s fetal-switching ruse, her doltish, toe-headed, piddling future husband “Sam (Jason Watkins) is snared from crippling insanity and spiritual calamity as well. As always, O’Neill’s persistent leitmotifs of awesome but verboten sex, underground abortion, medical ethics, and psychologically violent parental bullying vanish and resurface throughout the play until the exhaustive drama is spun-out over the three decade period between, and immediately after, the World Wars. Now, ironically, the euphonious title, Strange Interlude, has two connotations: the tumultuous years between the Armistice and Pearl Harbor; and the inner-voices that conjoin characters and audience in O’Neill’s sluggish, but eventually transcendent play.

Strange Interlude, as revived at The NT, and cautiously, painstakingly directed by Simon Godwin, is a fulsome event that takes us from a leathery office-study in the Leeds family’s upscale college-town home to a depressing New England summer house (with a deranged, Jane Eyre-type relative squirreled away in the attic) and, eventually, to an elegant pre-war Park Avenue apartment replete with nouveau fixtures, pristine accoutrements, a fascinating, if scene-stealing translucent tubular staircase, and Nina and Ned’s toy-smashing, pre-pubescent,  biologically engineered child.

Fortuitously, the emotionally healthy “kid” is named after Nina’s deceased boyfriend and preternatural countenance—“Gordon.” The symbolism of a new and resurrected Gordon is a tad obvious, but O’Neill, an inelegant poet at times, would have it no other way—Gordon is now amongst the living. The intermittent scenes of Strange Interlude are set on the aft’ deck of a sea-worthy cruiser where family and friends drink, fight, shriek and rally at the finish line of the now grown-up Gordon’s prep-school regatta, and (lastly) Sam’s post-funeral gathering at a harbor terrace that calls to mind the final wrenching tableau of Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. I was mystified by the ethereal mood and location of this final scene so I returned to the Interlude text for clarification. In his Act 9 stage notes O’Neill identifies the location of this scene as “a terrace on the Evans’ estate on Long Island,” and further: “In the rear the terrace overlooks a small harbor with the ocean beyond”.[iii] This design choice probably had tremendous significance for O’Neill in his inception of the final tableau, but I can only respond to what I see on the stage, not (necessarily) what the author directs me to see. For me, the locus—the “feeling”—of this quixotic long-goodbye scene is a small, private airfield or dockland—a hidden highway, so to speak, for the mobile rich. I had no sense that the “terrace” was proprietary and felt that it was much too airy and commodious for what O’Neill defines as a “pretentious villa”. Ultimately, the final frenetic scene involving Nina, Ned, Charlie, Gordon and Madeline (Gordon’s girlfriend) is quite rousing, but with an aftershock: Gordon (now a “sun bronzed” and “extremely handsome ‘collegian’,”  “with the figure of a trained athlete”) bitch-slaps the cuckolding Ned for his lifetime of boorish behavior and exits from his life—forever. Effectively, with the dissolution of Gordon and Ned’s detestable and suspicious bastard/father relationship, Nina’s gnawing paternal secret is buried forever. Now, with her husband committed to the grave, her cloying boyfriend beyond Gordon’s reach, and her sexless life with Charlie imminent, Nina is free to kick back and enjoy the empty moment. Ms. Duff’s rendering of this pitiably restored Nina is credible and quite compelling. And design quandary aside, Eugene O’Neill was (and remains) the seminal modern-American set designer.

Strange Interlude is somewhat of a Jungian theatrical experiment. Embedded in the action are innumerable stream-of-conscious asides that comment-on, paraphrase or interrogate the motives, needs and passions of the relevant characters. These “inner-moments” are the context of the play’s mellifluous title and are proffered as secretive interpersonal consultations that allow the characters to continually second guess one-another as well as update the audience. Occasionally they’re delivered in various circumstances as afterthoughts, epiphanies and mini-soliloquies. At the time of the original 1928 production these “asides” probably seemed au currant or even daring, but now, in an electronic storytelling era, are graceless narrative devices. As a separate dramatic formula the asides are funny, dream-like, informative and even gossipy; and in certain places they offer the performers a ballsy panache—a kind of impulsive directorial authority that allows them to step out of the O’Neill box and pontificate on a given or developing situation. And weirdly, with certain asides, it seems as if a given performer just decided on impulse to stop the play and recite O’Neill’s stage directions or rehash the play’s subtext. Sporadically, the Strange Interlude performers seem secure and self-possessed with O’Neill’s method of paraphrasing and commenting on-the-fly, but overall, they’re never completely relaxed or in charge of the moments; and the audience isn’t always sure if the asides are intrapersonal or reciprocal. The plays “asides,” as textual commentary, are showstoppers—curious persisting showstoppers, but not enormously vital to the moment or the event; and as an adjunct to an already hulking stage play, O’Neill’s “interludes” become formulaic and redundant.

The sets by Soutra Gilmore are spot-on to the time and circumstance of each new scene and decade, and the costumes are impeccably chosen right down to the laughable argyle socks of the cuckolded husband, Sam, and the nifty leather grenadier jacket of the duplicitous, but again, eminently funny Dr. Edmund Darrell. Every care has been taken by The NT design team to find historical authenticity in the production values and the effort has paid-off in visually coherent ideas. Even the arching stern of the cruiser in the very shrill regatta scene is credible in both design and purpose; as such, we believe that the characters at some point actually inhabit the boat rather than just “act” on it; and with the exception of an over-orchestrated transition scene near the end of the production, the mood, atmosphere and setting of Strange Interlude is enhanced by drifting melodies, odd sonic effects, gothic lighting and a turn-table installation for quantum scene changes. And as striking and choreographed as the awesome set changes are, it’s never a high-tech show. As a matter of fact, considering the reach of the play’s geography (New England library, New England cottage, a Jersey shore summer home, Park Avenue apartment, cruise deck, and ocean harbor terrace) it’s somewhat of a measured and deliberate, low tech show. In all aspects, the production values of Strange Interlude never exceed the dramatic values.

The National’s  Nina Leeds is carefully rendered by Ms. Duff; she suffers and almost cracks early on, then lapses into a ghostly despondency as her genderless, erotically- dispossessed marriage, creeps by; in her eye-popping, abortion-plotting scene with her mother-in-law, Ms. Duff is appropriately dumbfounded as she learns of the terrifying congenital psychosis in the Leeds family tree, then near comatose as she accepts and acquiesces in her mother-in-law’s very bizarre fetal-engineering strategy. O’Neill demands a gamut of bewilderment and hysteria in the “Nina” role and Ms. Duff unpacks and interrogates every nuance in her character’s border-line lunacy. Paradoxically, as things get worse for Nina, things also start to get better, and we see this struggle in Ms. Duff’s watery eyes, her sorrowful mask, and her nervous, reed-thin hands and arms. Gradually Nina’s mood swings are less fraught and the arc of her “craziness” is (seemingly) less hysterical. Here’s how O’Neill describes her unsettling serenity in his Act 5 preamble: “one gets no impression of neurotic strain from her now, she seems nerveless and calm”). Ms. Duff not only inhabits and anchors O’Neill’s “nerveless and calm” Nina, but nails the instable role to the floor.

Beyond the deep denial of her bogus housewife role, the prognosis for a reasonably sensible home life seems to be “improving” for Nina. Now, with her Faustian fetal-bargain fulfilled, Nina can rest easy and move on with her restructured and secretly extended family. Equilibrium settles in until Ned, recovering from a serious bout of Euro-wanderlust, resurfaces, and a whole new set of erogenous circumstances kick in. When Ned morphs on the doorstep of Nina’s suburban summer home, she hears his mating call and responds with vigor. Unabashedly, Ms. Duff, in her indelicate, Shameless[iv] television-acting mode, quickly and laughably flips Nina’s disposition from smiley-face and wispy-“Mom” to hot flashes and then sexual beggary; she baldly dishes-up Nina’s erotic impulses through horny billing and cooing, panting, whimpering, and then weepy-hysteria. (This ecstasy-dance all happens with Nina’s cipher-husband, Sam—under direct orders from Nina—shaving upstairs.) As Ms. Duff construes the sexually thirsty Nina, any assignation with Ned, be it a wistful night at home with Sam and Charlie, or a birthday party for their son, Gordon, can trip her insatiable appetite for the leering, philandering, part-time micro-biologist  who “scientifically” fucked her as a favor—a moral imperative—to her unknowing husband and mother-in-law.

Unraveling and rewinding “Nina” is a roller-coaster ride for Miss Duff; and how she sustains her quirky emotional beats for three hours-plus is mind-numbing. O’Neill demands an unmanageable expedition for his volatile character, but Ms. Duff, a luminary and workhorse at The National Theater is a faultless choice for this unremitting and draining role. Equally, Ms. Duff has a risk-taking supporting cast that provides a few deft, howling turns by Darren Pettie (particularly in his interludes with the audience); a repressed and slyly fay performance by Charles Edwards, and a blubbering, baby-Huey performance by Jason Watkins as the witless husband, “Sam.” (As a measuring-stick of Sam’s early arrested development, in his first entrance in the play his trousers are hiked up under his arm pits and he wears a nappy varsity sweater tucked into his waistband.) This is the man that wants to remake the world with the melancholic, passively suicidal Nina? Again, as is his proclivity, O’Neill demands an inhuman performance from his performer and he gets it.

“Sam Evans,” as interpreted by director and performer, is not an easy character for actor or audience to get a handle on, but Godin and Watkins put their imprimatur on the bumbling role and the audience responds to his goofiness and his hidden frustration with measured sympathy. And thanks to Mr. Watkins’ unswerving focus in this unattractive and debilitated role, he is not a weak link in the cast when he undoubtedly could have been. The artistic choice to interpose Sam as a juvenile bumpkin was a sticking point for a few critics of this NT production, but, to their credit, director and actor made a deep-rooted, uncompromising decision with this complicated (but hardly complex) character and saw it through. With Watkins’ and Duff’s impressive character-work the performances could have shouted “tour-de-force,” but fortunately they never rise above the ensemble. The jittery, skittish performance of Miss Duff, the fresh-faced character of Watkins’, the urbane snootiness of Edwards (an Oscar Wilde prototype), and the very funny blustering and waffling of the blow-hard Pettie are honest, consistent and thoroughly in synch with director Godwin’s melancholic, but humoring vision.

As the surreptitious scheme of Strange Interlude coils and uncoils, the needy “claim” that Nina and Ned have on each other becomes obsessive and then overt. The sexually thirsty Nina and the ne’er do well Ned begin to “act-out” their proclivities in plain sight until the intellectually curious (and suspicious) Gordon makes a shocking discovery: “Sam,” his ham-fisted and hopelessly gullible “Dad” might not be his biological father; and Ned, the cloying, overstepping, so-called family friend is every bit the cuckolding prick Gordon thought him to be. When this discovery happens (he catches Nina and Ned purring and kissing at the warm-up to his birthday party) the old Gordon, the spectral Gordon that we only knew as Nina’s spiritual countenance, is vanquished, and the new Gordon, the covertly conceived, in-your-face Gordon, is activated.  And like his namesake, the new and wily Gordon has liminal power over the indivisible troika of Sam, Nina, and greasy lover “Ned.” Uncannily, the consummate dramatist and story-weaver, Eugene O’Neill, by way of this abbreviated, precautious and clearly delineated NT production, has flipped the primeval tale of paternal discovery on its head. That is, instead of the cuckolding mother concealing the devastating secret of false paternity from her cherished son—the son (Gordon) will forever conceal from his naïve, bungling father, the devastating secret that he might be his best-friend’s bastard kid. Slowly, miraculously, this elephantine production of Strange Interlude, under the watchful, controlled stewardship of director, Simon Godwin, is lifting its large, ungainly splayed feet and lumbering forward. And the flabbergasted, almost disbelieving National Theatre audience, are too wide-eyed and incredulous to look away.

Strange Interlude, like many erstwhile O’Neill prize-winning “blockbuster” plays, has a vainglorious production history on the New York stage and in Hollywood. The central role of Nina was made famous by none other than Lynne Fontaine on Broadway[v], and the roles of the Nina and Ned were recreated by Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in an incredibly redacted Hollywood scrunching of the play[vi]. Hollywood marquee names and adulterated script aside, O’Neill couldn’t have cared less. He just wasn’t terribly impressed with movie stars or the movie industry in general. Considering the illustrious if troubled O’Neill family history on the American stage it’s not totally surprising that a future Nobel Laureate[vii] would be indifferent to truncated rehabilitations of his plays for the still emerging tinsel-town. Essentially, the screen adaptation of Strange Interlude, as O’Neill rehabs go, is interesting but not provocative or impassioned. And with the exception of John Ford and Dudley Nichols’ wraithlike screen adaptation of O’Neill’s short sea plays, The Long Voyage Home (which O’Neill consulted on) the O’Neill oeuvre in Hollywood is underwhelming. Yes, in a few places, the O’Neill film archive offers hauntingly beautiful and indomitable performances: Sophia Loren in Desire Under the Elms; Rosalind Russell in Mourning Becomes Electra; and a dapper, suspendered, silver-haired, Shakespeare-quoting, card-playing, heavy-drinking Laurence Olivier as James Tyrone in a small-screen, production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night[viii]. Inarguably, O’Neill is in the pantheon of Hollywood film lore, but compared to his artistry on the stage, the O’Neill film oeuvre is canned mediocrity.

My only struggle with the gargantuan Strange Interlude is the idea (or gist) of the play itself, namely, the fetal-engineering trickery that sets the stealth events in motion. This “text” bashing is, perhaps, an unfair and unsurprising assessment considering that O’Neill’s work is forever judged against his seminal masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night. His earlier, less mature writing suffers under the strain of comparison and, essentially, is read and discussed by O’Neill doyens, but rarely produced by O’Neill “doers.”

As a result of that comparison Long Day’s Journey has become an extraordinary one-play canon much like Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, and Our Town, are one-play archives for Williams, Miller, and Thornton Wilder (in my careful opinion). But regardless of its girth, its insensible premise, its dormant production status, its rickety critical reception, and its middling place in the O’Neill compendium, the largesse of this NT production of Strange Interlude—by sheer fuerza bruta will augment the O’Neill canon in the lending library, countless acting classes and auditions rooms, Barnes and Noble, and

The National Theater’s production of Strange Interlude is approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes long; at the final curtain there is heavy applause, a partial-standing ovation and two curtain calls. The ovation of the elderly, theater savvy, matinee audience is generous and heartfelt, and the actors reciprocate with subtle, un-rehearsed, bowing and glad-handing. Obviously there is a formidably high benchmark for standing ovations at The NT considering that founding member and artistic director Laurence Olivier has a resume that is titled and matchless. As Steven Berkhoff[ix] (a Shakespearean director and actor, a great admirer of Olivier, but a bellicose critic of the Olivier-as-Hamlet statue at Theatre Square[x]) so aptly and unwittingly understates him: “He [Olivier] is the greatest messenger of Shakespeare of his generation.” “Generation”?—how about his millennium? With the august theater lore of Eugene O’Neill and Laurence Olivier weighed equally, by the final bell of Strange Interlude—by the final lap through the NT lobby, café, wine bar, archive and website—it almost feels as if we’ve survived Olivier/O’Neill boot camp. Lastly, the decision by the artistic elders at The National Theatre to produce this inimitable, but leaden American classic was a plucky, but manageable project, and exactly what an austere, royally endowed theater is built for.

Following their production of Strange Interlude, The National Theater of England produced a quasi-musical production of the early and obscure Pirandello play, Liolà. The NT house literature boasted of a native-Irish cast, tinker music (Irish gypsies) and an olive-grove folktale setting. For me, a Pirandello devotee, the musicalized tale of a wandering Latin lothario who sells his numberless children as if they were exchangeable car parts sounds like a very brassy venture, perhaps an Oliver! or Annie waiting to happen. Arguably, you won’t find this level of theatrical provocation in contemporary American repertoire because contemporary American playwrights are immersed in “character revealing” plays which address incessant family “issues” and intramural squabbling; hence, over the last half of the 20th century, American repertory has been stocked with plays about “relationships” and “conflict.” Antithetic to this prevailing logic are iconic artists such as Eugene O’Neill and Luigi Pirandello (and de facto, the National Theatre of England) who are driven by cultural memory and reparation. Accordingly, as an instructor in a Communication Arts department in a Brooklyn/Franciscan setting that offers all aspect of performance, it’s my right and responsibility to witness this monolithic, prize-winning, three or four hour O’Neill production (or alternatively)  musicalized tales of rustic Italian olive farmers, and bring their prevailing logic back to my students.

[i] The Lyttelton Theater is the second largest of three theaters at the NT and has a capacity of 890 seats which qualifies it as a legitimate, but smaller, “Broadway” sized venue. The other venues at the NT are the Olivier and The Shed. The Olivier, named after the NT’s founding member and artistic director Laurence Olivier, is, essentially, the main stage at the NT with a capacity of 1125 seats. The Olivier is comparable in size to large capacity theaters in New York such as The Majestic Theater or The Winter Garden Theater on Broadway. The Shed, the smallest and most intimate of the three venues is an experimental theater that can be defined in theater vernacular as a “black box” theater or simply an “empty space.” The NT web site defines and explains The Shed as a “temporary” space that produces projects that are “original, ambitious and unexpected.” Lastly, as a performing complex The NT can be compared in size and artistic temperament to Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City which houses numerous venues such as The Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater; Avery Fisher Hall; the Vivian Beaumont Theater, and their flagship venue, The Metropolitan Opera House. For more on the NT facility and artistic mission go to
[ii] “Doughboy” is the moniker for the hoard of boyish American soldiers that fought in France in World War I. O’Neill’s youthful character, “Gordon,” is a classic doughboy. I think the idiom is clarifying and appropriate in this context because it very accurately defines Gordon’s status in the America military.
[iii] Strange Interlude, Second Part, Act V. For all stage notes and line quotations from Strange Interlude I consulted the Boni and Liveright Trade Edition as posted on Project Gutenberg Australia.
[iv] Shameless is an explicit, vulgar British television production that follows a dysfunctional and decrepit borderline lower-working class family day to day, moment to moment. Ms. Duff plays a brash, sexually casual “sister” who is a central character on the show. Shameless has been reinvented for an American cable audience with a grimy Chicago-Irish family that is equally “shameless” in their slovenliness.
[v] Strange Interlude opened on Broadway on January 30, 1928, at the John Golden Theater with Lynn Fontaine in the role of “Nina.” O’Neill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (one of four) for this play.
[vi] Strange Interlude, MGM, 1932: directed by Robert Z. Leonard, with Norma Shearer and Clark Cable. O’Neill and Bess Meredyth are credited on the International Movie Database (IMDb) as “Writers.” Meredyth is credited as “dialogue continuity”. O’Neill is credited as: “from the play by.”
[vii] The 1930’s was an august decade for dramatists. The Italian novelist, playwright and scholar, Luigi Pirandello was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1934. On November 13, 1936, The New York Times reported that there was no prize awarded in 1935; accordingly, when O’Neill won the prize in 1936, he received financial remuneration for both the 1935 and 1936 awards. The Times noted that the sum total of both prizes was a windfall “$45 000 dollars.” For more on this see the official website of the Nobel Prize:
[viii] For a cursory look at the O’Neill filmography see the International Movie Data Base/IMDb. For a thorough discussion of the entire O’Neill canon see the Gelb or Sheaffer biographies.  
[ix] Berkhoff was a very vocal and acerbic critic of the recently erected memorial statue of Olivier in an area adjacent to the National Theater known as Theater Square. The London Telegraph reported that Berkhoff ranted that the statue was a “… load of crap.” Olivier’s son, Tarquin Olivier, an advocate and fundraiser for the statue, led a counter-attack against Berkhoff’s pedestrian criticism.
[x] Olivier-as-Hamlet: bronze statue, Southbank, London, by Angela Conner. Unveiled September, 2007.

Timothy Dugan, D.Litt.
Associate Professor
Department of Communication Arts
St. Francis College