I came across this 1976 first edition paperback of Angela Carter’s collection Fireworks two weeks ago and couldn’t pass it up, even though all of Fireworks is collected in Burning Your Boats, which I already own. I love the hornyassed cover by Bob Foulke. I cannot find anything else by Foulke on the internet.
Here is the opening of “The Executioner’s Beautiful Daughter”:
Here, we are high in the uplands.
A baleful almost-music, that of the tuneless cadences of an untutored orchestra repercussing in an ecstatic agony of echoes against the sounding boards of the mountains, lured us into the village square where we discover them twanging, plucking and abusing with horsehair bows a wide variety of crude stringed instruments. Our feet crunch upon dryly whispering shifting sawdust freshly scattered over impacted surfaces of years of sawdust clotted, here and there, with blood shed so long ago it has, with age, acquired the colour and texture of rust . . . sad, ominous stains, a threat, a menace, memorials of pain.
There is no brightness in the air. Today the sun will not irradiate the heroes of the dark spectacle to which accident and disharmony combined to invite us. Here, where the air is choked all day with diffuse moisture tremulously, endlessly the point of becoming rain, light falls as if filtered through muslin so at all hours a crepuscular gloaming prevails; the sky looks as though it is about to weep and so, gloomily illuminated through unshed tears, the tableau vivant before us is suffused with the sepia tints of an old photograph and nothing within it moves. The intent immobility of the spectators, wholly absorbed as they are in the performance of their hieratic ritual, is scarcely that of living things and this tableau vivant might be better termed a nature morte for the mirthless carnival is a celebration of a death. Their eyes, the whites of which are yellowish, are all fixed, as if attached by taut, invisible strings upon a wooden block lacquered black with the spilt dews of a millennia of victims.
And now the rustic bandsmen suspend their unmclodious music. This death must be concluded in the most dramatic silence. The wild mountain-dwellers are gathered together to watch a public execution; that is the only entertainment the country offers.
Time, suspended like the rain, begins again in silence, slowly.
This celestial seascape, with white herons got up as angels,
flying high as they want and as far as they want sidewise
in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections;
the whole region, from the highest heron
down to the weightless mangrove island
with bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings
like illumination in silver,
and down to the suggestively Gothic arches of the mangrove roots
and the beautiful pea-green back-pasture
where occasionally a fish jumps, like a wildflower
in an ornamental spray of spray;
this cartoon by Raphael for a tapestry for a Pope:
it does look like heaven.
But a skeletal lighthouse standing there
in black and white clerical dress,
who lives on his nerves, thinks he knows better.
He thinks that hell rages below his iron feet,
that that is why the shallow water is so warm,
and he knows that heaven is not like this.
Heaven is not like flying or swimming,
but has something to do with blackness and a strong glare
and when it gets dark he will remember something
strongly worded to say on the subject.
Perhaps history this century, thought Eigenvalue, is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated, as Stencil seemed to be, at the bottom of a fold, it’s impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off into sinuous cycles each of which comes to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroys any continuity. Thus it is that we are charmed by the funny-looking automobiles of the ’30s, the curious fashions of the ’20s, the peculiar moral habits of our grandparents. We produce and attend musical comedies about them and are conned into a false memory, a phony nostalgia about what they were. We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.
The nice people at Contra Mundum continue to put out new Charles Baudelaire translations. Paris Spleen is out in a new translation from Rainer J. Hanshe. A little taste:
I wish I could get drunk on virtue. I’ll settle for wine.
Here’s Contra Mundum’s blurb:
In the 1850s, ancien and Haussmannian Paris clash, giving birth to a violent disjunction. At that moment in time, an other present is born, a new history, like Baudelaire’s poet freely abandoning his halo on the macadam. The laurel crown has been discarded; the pastoral poet is dead; classical lyric poetry is dead. The steam-driven, gaslit, electrically-charged poet is born. “Retreat Academic Muse!,” Baudelaire commands, “I don’t care about that old stutterer.”
With Paris Spleen, we move toward a new rhythm, a rhythm born of the pace, speed, and reality of a metropolis hitherto never seen or experienced. It is the rhythm of the street, of the swift-moving eye, of overloaded senses and hyper-perception, of newspapers and optical devices. Baudelaire’s life spans the essential birth of whole new forms of technology, including steam locomotives, gas light, and electricity, not to speak of the typewriter and the Daguerreotype. The dandy sees and moves with the coming speed of light. His life is one lived in the midst of illumination, mechanics, and simulacra.
Baudelaire’s Paris is a place of experience, a metropolis that spawns unique and particular realities, a kaleidoscope of visions and mirror of alternative societies. The grist of his poems is not ancient Greece or the Renaissance. As he stated in the so-called preface to Paris Spleen, it is especially from frequenting great cities, from the crossroads of their innumerable relations, that the haunting ideal of the prose poem was born. Our flâneur wanders swiftly through crowds, in contact, but anonymous, extracting from the city material to forge his new ars poetica, like a bricolage artist.
The future is called forth. The street is the new Olympus; the phantasmagoric city is a big harlot whose infernal charm continually rejuvenates the poet. The ironic, infernal beacon is the totem of the new age: the age of dissonance, the age of artificial paradises. “I love you, O infamous capital!” the poet exults.
Here is Paris Spleen, an invitation to voyage, to have the entirety of Baudelaire’s Paris enter into our flesh and for us to undergo contagion, if our spleens can handle it.
I’ll admit I’d never heard of Norah Lange until the nice people at indie superpublisher And Other Stories alerted me to her memoir, Notes from Childhood.
Lange was an Argentinian writer, publishing poems and prose from the 1920s through the 1950s. She was part of the Florida Group, along with Jorge Luis Borges and his sister, the painter Norah Borges, as well as Victoria Ocampo and others, and first published her poems in ultraist magazines.
In her note at the end of Notes from Childhood, Lange’s translator Charlotte Whittle suggests that Lange’s memoir marked a break from the ultraist school, embracing a new style of prose—her own style. Whittle points out that Lange’s “approach to memory” trains its “gaze on domestic, family scenes.”
Far from being a linear autobiography or tale of coming of age, this narrative takes the form of a constellation of pieces of childhood, and these pieces provide Lange with ground for experimentation.
I read the first forty pages of Notes from Childhood this afternoon; the book showed up last week and I didn’t have a spare half hour to carve from a day to sink into it.
I didn’t have a spare half hour this afternoon, but I opened it, after moving a pile of books to another pile of books, and then I just kept reading.
Lange’s Notes feels subtly cinematic—in vivid flashes, brief vignettes, scenes of a page or two, she conjure the irreal reality of childhood. The memoir opens in a hotel, where, in the dining room, Lange and her sisters spy the “owner of the circus, and next to him the strongest woman in the world,” who, every night “lifts three men with her teeth.” They later light lamps in their new old house to “watch the spiders and kissing bugs all over the walls.”
A few pages later, Lange describes her mother riding sidesaddle horseback in nine succinct but powerful paragraphs. She frames the poetic photograph for her reader:
I see her framed with a gentleness no one could touch without taking something away, without adding more grace than that which was essential and true.
And our narrator riffs on her eldest sister, Irene, framed through a “third window” in one chapter: “I was always a little afraid and a little in awe of her. She was six years older than me. Sometimes, she was allowed to sit at the table in the large dining room during visits from family friends.” Irene at the big table! We get a trickle of information about whispers of Irene, who is growing up while our narrator remains a child:
Susana and I, the youngest two, weren’t shrewd enough to guess the reason for these long whispering sessions. One afternoon, I heard them speak of breasts. When I think back, I understand the fear she must have felt—the first sister, all alone—when she saw her body begin to curve, her rib cage lose its rigidity, her breasts start to ache and stir imperceptibly.
A few chapters later (there aren’t really chapters in Notes), sister Marta, convalescent, repeats, “God is evil. God is evil.” A few pages later, schoolbound, Little Lange is enchanted by typeface:
Words in capital letters, like TWILIGHT, DISCOVERY, DAGUERREOTYPE, LABYRINTH, and THERAPEUTIC, brought me a zeal and contentment all by themselves that now I would have to describe as aesthetic.
And then this wonderful weird episode. Scene: Lange and the sisters:
We had made big hats out of paper and the five of us stood before the mirror, each absorbed by the reflection of her own face, contemplating the effect of shadow over our eyes, the changing glimmer taken on by the light from the window as it fell on our hair against the newspaper.
The door opened suddenly, and a gust of air caused the hats to teeter on our heads.
One of my sisters said,
“The first one who loses her hat will die before the others…”
Transfixed before the mirror, arm in arm so no one could cheat, we gambled as to who would be the first to die.
They were entering Fairing’s Parish, named after a priest who’d lived topside years ago. During the Depression of the ’30s, in an hour of apocalyptic well-being, he had decided that the rats were going to take over after New York died. Lasting eighteen hours a day, his beat had covered the breadlines and missions, where he gave comfort, stitched up raggedy souls. He foresaw nothing but a city of starved corpses, covering the sidewalks and the grass of the parks, lying belly-up in the fountains, hanging wrynecked from the streetlamps. The city—maybe America, his horizons didn’t extend that far—would belong to the rats before the year was out. This being the case, Father Fairing thought it best for the rats to be given a head start—which meant conversion to the Roman Church. One night early in Roosevelt’s first term, he climbed downstairs through the nearest manhole, bringing a Baltimore Catechism, his breviary and, for reasons nobody found out, a copy of Knight’s Modern Seamanship. The first thing he did, according to his journals (discovered months after he died) was to put an eternal blessing and a few exorcisms on all the water flowing through the sewers between Lexington and the East River and between Eighty-sixth and Seventy-ninth Streets. This was the area which became Fairing’s Parish. These benisons made sure of an adequate supply of holy water; also eliminated the trouble of individual baptisms when he had finally converted all the rats in the parish. Too, he expected other rats to hear what was going on under the upper East Side, and come likewise to be converted. Before long he would be spiritual leader of the inheritors of the earth. He considered it small enough sacrifice on their part to provide three of their own per day for physical sustenance, in return for the spiritual nourishment he was giving them.
Accordingly, he built himself a small shelter on one bank of the sewer. His cassock for a bed, his breviary for a pillow. Each morning he’d make a small fire from driftwood collected and set out to dry the night before. Nearby was a depression in the concrete which sat beneath a downspout for rainwater. Here he drank and washed. After a breakfast of roast rat (“The livers,” he wrote, “are particularly succulent”) he set about his first task: learning to communicate with the rats. Presumably he succeeded. An entry for 23 November 1934 says:
Ignatius is proving a very difficult student indeed. He quarreled with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from with me today over the nature of indulgences. Bartholomew and Teresa supported him. I read them from the catechism: “The Church by means of indulgences remits the temporal punishment due to sin by applying to us from her spiritual treasury part of the infinite satisfaction of Jesus Christ and of the superabundant satisfaction of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints.”
“And what,” inquired Ignatius, “is this superabundant satisfaction?”
Again I read: “That which they gained during their lifetime but did not need, and which the Church applies to their fellow members of the communion of saints.”
“Aha,” crowed Ignatius, “then I cannot see how this differs from Marxist communism, which you told us is Godless. To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities.” I tried to explain that there were different sorts of communism: that the early Church, indeed, was based on a common charity and sharing of goods. Bartholomew chimed in at this point with the observation that perhaps this doctrine of a spiritual treasury arose from the economic and social conditions of the Church in her infancy. Teresa promptly accused Bartholomew of holding Marxist views himself, and a terrible fight broke out, in which poor Teresa had an eye scratched from the socket. To spare her further pain, I put her to sleep and made a delicious meal from her remains, shortly after sext. I have discovered the tails, if boiled long enough, are quite agreeable.
Evidently he converted at least one batch. There is no further mention in the journals of the skeptic Ignatius: perhaps he died in another fight, perhaps he left the community for the pagan reaches of Downtown. After the first conversion the entries begin to taper off: but all are optimistic, at times euphoric. They give a picture of the Parish as a little enclave of light in a howling Dark Age of ignorance and barbarity.
Rat meat didn’t agree with the Father, in the long run. Perhaps there was infection. Perhaps, too, the Marxist tendencies of his flock reminded him too much of what he had seen and heard above ground, on the breadlines, by sick and maternity beds, even in the confessional; and thus the cheerful heart reflected by his late entries was really only a necessary delusion to protect himself from the bleak truth that his pale and sinuous parishioners might turn out no better than the animals whose estate they were succeeding to. His last entry gives a hint of some such feeling:
When Augustine is mayor of the city (for he is a splendid fellow, and the others are devoted to him) will he, or his council, remember an old priest? Not with any sinecure or fat pension, but with true charity in their hearts? For though devotion to God is rewarded in Heaven and just as surely is not rewarded on this earth, some spiritual satisfaction, I trust, will be found in the New City whose foundations we lay here, in this Iona beneath the old foundations. If it cannot be, I shall nevertheless go to peace, at one with God. Of course that is the best reward. I have been the classical Old Priest—never particularly robust, never affluent—most of my life. Perhaps
The journal ends here. It is still preserved in an inaccessible region of the Vatican library, and in the minds of the few old-timers in the New York Sewer Department who got to see it when it was discovered. It lay on top of a brick, stone and stick cairn large enough to cover a human corpse, assembled in a stretch of 36-inch pipe near a frontier of the Parish. Next to it lay the breviary. There was no trace of the catechism or Knight’s Modern Seamanship.
“Maybe,” said Zeitsuss’s predecessor Manfred Katz after reading the journal, “maybe they are studying the best way to leave a sinking ship.”
The stories, by the time Profane heard them, were pretty much apocryphal and more fantasy than the record itself warranted. At no point in the twenty or so years the legend had been handed on did it occur to anyone to question the old priest’s sanity. It is this way with sewer stories. They just are. Truth or falsity don’t apply.
Being you, you cut your poetry from wood.
The boiling of an egg is heavy art.
You come upon it as an artist should,
With rich-eyed passion, and with straining heart.
We fools, we cut our poems out of air.
Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.
And sometimes weightlessness is much to bear.
You mock it, though, you name it Not Enough.
The egg, spooned gently to the avid pan,
And left the strick three minute, or the four,
Is your Enough and art for any man.
We fools give courteous ear—-then cut some more,
Shaping a gorgeous Nothingness from cloud.
You watch us, eat your egg, and laugh aloud.