It is in the Slovene character that… Fill in the blank with something negative. Yes, those Slovene fuckers. Only, as I have mentioned before, the Slovene telling me these things always exempts himself. So, it is in the Slovene character to…Say bad shit about Slovenes. Though I have to add that these people usually realize the incongruity of the formula and are not true hypocrites. As Greece continues to shame Slovenia by battling against the crime against humanity know as austerity economics, I actually marvel at the more flattering comparison between Slovenia and the United States. For instance, the most recent OECD data I could find showed Slovenia tied with Portugal for first place in high school graduation rate at 96%, with the US delivering an unimpressive 76% for 21st place. That’s a rather disgusting figure for a world leader in the year 2015, an utter embarrassment, and it stems largely from the endemic US problem of the extraordinary between the wealthiest and poorest, combined with the compression of wealth among a miniscule financial elite. Another, less surprising result, is the rankings in the Global Peace Index (there are 22 indices—it’s worth looking it up and reading a little about it). Slovenia ranks #14 in the world, 1 being the best ranking, while the US ranks #101, which means for one thing that it fails to live up to modern notions of peaceful behavior on a number of fronts. The index takes into consideration ‘number of internal and external conflicts abroad’ and if it counts them carefully it will be found that the US ranks worst in this category. But they also look at domestic safety, for instance at homicide rate. The US has 4.67 per 100,000; Slovenia has 0.7. (2010 statistics). It’s often remarked that the US rate is surprising low. But a richer comparison can be gained by a comparison of places the US has fucked with for centuries versus place that Russia fucked with for centuries: that is, Central America versus central Asia. The Stans averaged 7 per 100,000; Central American countries averaged about 36. A third, and very disturbing (we all know the US ranks poorly in militarization, so there is no need to go much into that), there is child abuse. The one study I found ranked the five worst countries in the world for children. The US ranked as fifth worst in the world. Slovenia, of course, was not on the list.
We aren’t in paradise here. People do get murdered, but Slovenia is more like one of the odder countrysides of the US, where things are peaceful until some visitation of the bizarre. Like when the dogs of Ljubljana went crazy and, well, what did they do? The story was hushed up pretty good, but people and dogs died, dogs and people were abused, mostly dogs, and important people (important on a scale of shame particularly, rich and influential people), important people who fucked dogs, malignant psychotics who, somehow, can do such things in a modern European nation without repercussions. Yikes! The thing is, though, shit that crazy happens in the US every day, one way or the other.
So, Slovene neighbors, please please please let us fight off this austerity torture and become a modestly successful small economic entity that can shiver at the thought of being on the same planet as the United States.
When the communists left, the suicides began; but that’s not the whole of it, not by a long shot into the head of a demagogue with a monkey on his shoulders. Conflicting truths plague a region long afflicted by that peculiar and mysterious ailment; suicide, I mean. Maybe: when the communists left, the suicides turned up dead younger: the sixty year old suicides were now forty, the forty year olds twenty, old age suicides now economic suicides, miner and alcoholic suicides now heroin addict suicides. Such a topic should be no less confusing than it is.
“On my street in Koper,” Zdravko said, “there was a suicide here, on this side of my house, and here on the other side the man killed himself, and then the man on this, around the corner.”
Arguably, the town where Zdravko was actually born, not Koper, rather a small village on the Slovene side of the Dragonja River called Bregova Vas, itself committed suicide. The inhabitants fled during various eruptions of turmoil, settling in Italy, America, even, the gods of Gorenjska forgive them, in Austria. Zdravko’s people moved him to Capodistira—that’s Koper with melody—when he was two; and it was here that Zdravko’s neighbors found such harsh means to allow him room to grow. No one committed suicide in Bregova Vas, the town vanished itself–?yet what is that if not suicide? Vasectomy, perhaps, or autovasectomy.
When the communists left—
“The communists never left. Slovenia left.” Zdravko again.
Slovenija leapt from Yugoslavia, and in that sense Slovenija is a suicide: self-slain the South Slav ideal.
“?How far back does the suicidal proclivity go?” Savo asks rhetorically.
Nataša answers, for there is always hereabouts a Nataša to answer. “They used to kill themselves with Italian Carbines. Now they have no use for the guns they must find another way.”
Other ways: Slovenija leapt from Yugoslavia and now Slovenes are leaping as free individuals to independent deaths from crags near Maribor, into Trbovlje gorges, out of ski lifts at Kranjska Gora, from the banks of the Soča, the Sava, the Bača, from the ruined bridge at Borovnica, the shoulders of the Kras, shrugging over quite typical Kras ravines, where in better days the corpses were just this side of reluctant.
When the communists left actuarialists rushed over from the northern hemisphere of the New World. Briefly the suicides came to a halt, these men of numbers were vanquished, the suicides resumed: inside Juliske cabins, slit wrists, wanderers into wastes of snow and dramatic dolomitic cliffs, aiming toward Triglav, that which was faulty in their optimism guiding them to the peak of their demise.
Triglav is the highest point in Slovenia. The lowest is somewhere in a Kras cavern or the crasser undersea cave ashore, perhaps, if Kras, beneath Cerknica, a suicidal lake that disappears with frightening speed after the rain stops, just like bloody bathwater down a drain; yet no natural spectacle is required for a suicide in a nation in the midst of an epidemic of suicides: the suicide off the flysch cliff in Strunjan is by no means superior to the suicide in the toilet of the tavern at the railway station at Šentjur, where the IC from Wien to Ljubljana refuses to stop.
“?When the communists left?” Plodnič asked Hauser rhetorically. “We did not leave.”
“No,” Hauser said, “it’s the suicides who leave.”
Yet suicide remains: river, cliff, spire, battlement, architrave, plastic bag/rope, blade, sedative, hallucinogen, liquor, antique Italian carbine, mauser, luger, rueger, axe, automobile (cliff, water), water…While just to the south of this scenic bewildered Slovenia, the much larger new country of Croatia was being plundered by its cryptofascist leaders, its economy was in ruins, populations were shifting in complexes of hatreds, but they weren’t killing themselves with any greater frequency than were, say, Spaniards, or Czechs, or the Dutch.
Experts were confounded. International conferences were held at resort hotels where sociopathologists and biomyrmidons briefly exchanged theoretical bafflement then went swimming at shallow beaches disarmed with lifeguards. More than one academic public and bold linked suicide to depression, but no more delectable results surfaced, not even a veritable cause/effect communists go/suicides come. Perhaps only the demographers held any kind of grasp of the situation. But, then again, perhaps not, for Dragan Dragatuš himself was a demographer before he disappeared from the coastal town of Piran on the same day that a 53 year old Borovnican woman named Špela Grbavec leapt to her death from the remainder of the bridge where two empires met (Roman bricks, American bombs)—two suicides that would appear to have nothing in common. To clarify, that Dragatuš’ death ended his appointment at the Ministry of Social Services by no means implies that he died in the line of duty.
Thus, for instance, the now retired Inspector Plodnič could be seen from upslope standing on the roof of Hotel Emona beginning from the 19th day of Dragatuš’s escape, scanning the water with binoculars, waiting for the gases of death to inflate the corpse to the surface, without speculating on the general phenomenon of suicide throughout Slovenija, despite his being a rather stolid representative of the transitional Slovene man, a heavy drinker thus prone to tavernal speculations when not swaying aloud that singular Slobaritone of such tight atomic structure. Drunk or sober, Plodnič knew his watery suicides.
“?Why are there so many suicides?” Branko speculated abstractedly to Hauser in the Theatre Bar a few days after Dragatuš surfaced. “Because Piran is the end of the world.”
Not another one, thought Hauser. But as he himself was a Piran suicide he was not yet sure whether he was in a position to argue.
“When the communists left—left power—the suicides began,” explained Plodnič a year before Dragatuš submerged. Plodnič had been chief of police from the coast to Postojna, including Ilirska Bistrica, a district in which even a river commits suicide—the Reka, poisoned by humans in the city of Ilirska Bistrica, offs itself in the cave at Škocjan (whether or not it revives alazarus in Italia as is claimed is beside the point). Thus Plodnič was in a position to argue. Still, he was not one to assign to the parted curtain of cause a Balkan of effect—except regarding the physical science of drowned corpses, the tides that moved them to the point off the Bernardin Hotel Complex and the gases that brought them to the surface. A year before Dragatuš, it had been another man, not a demographer, and unfortunately not an insurance man, just a clerk at a shipping agency who had disappeared.
His photo was posted up and down Obala, or, in Italian, Lungomare—which may as well have meant gill in Esperanto—the seaside road.
“?What do you think happened to him?” Hauser asked Plodnič.
They were having a drink al fresco at the Pirat Restaurant in Piran. Plodnič jerked his thumb toward the little harbor, meaning the big sea.
“Of course,” Hauser said.
The liquid was orange, viscous, and pulpy, like guts. Plodnič brought it down to the restaurant from his villa and called it brandy.
Hauser was paying for the drinks.
“?Why?” he asked the cop.
“For his family,” Plodnič said as if there weren’t an ambiguity in the world.
Hauser listened to the absent song of ancient absent mizzens.
“They’ll find his body after twenty days,” Plodnič continued, loquacious from the strange grog. “Off Bernardin.”
Gases inflate the corpse to the surface, ex-post-commie—Fine: a child, a frog, a tank, instinctual empirical miracle—but the particularity of that last phrase, off Bernardin, is itself gaseously inflated with an astonishment refracted from the essence of All Natural Mystery. The bay of Piran is a horizontal sac of water land lipped on a limn from the point of Piran in Slovenia to the point of Savudrija in Croatia, their two light houses natural knobs for to tie this waterbag. The bay is more or less divided by the stub of Seča Peninsula: on the Croatia side the Sečovlje salt pans, on the Slovene side the sub-bay of Portorož, Slovenia’s first and last resort. Bernardin is merely a bend near Piran where the sea begins its bayslide in earnest. As far as Hauser could figure, if Plodnič was to be trusted, the suck of the bay would slide the body slowly from Piran along the coast toward Bernardin, the pour of Piran water into the bay. There the outflow of water slapped against land and despatched from whence, would discourage the beaching of the body, which yet would resist escape to the deeps by again planing along the Piran pour—ad infinitum if not for gas. Of course, it could be that none of this is true.
Most recent OECD stats:
High School graduation rates: Slovenia tied for first with Portugal, 96%; US 21st at 76%
Math: Slovenia 20th …. US 35th………..Reading: US Below Average; Slovenia Farther Below Average
Science: Slovenia 17, US 27
Global Peace Index: Slovenia #14, US #101 (GPI: lower number, more peaceful)
Pollution index: Virtual tie
Health Care: Virtual tie, Expenditure per capita: US 1, Slovenia 29
Child Abuse US: 5th worst in world Slovenia: could find no mention of Sl.
Personal Safety Index: Slovenia #10 US not mentioned
OECD Gender Equality: Slovenia 5 of 36 US 28 of 36
Since I moved to Slovenia, the economy has hovered and then nosedived and as I watched the citizens of other countries protest austerity measures and other political idiocies I have seen slovenia do nothing visible. i hope greece provides an example, but so far it doesn’t seem so. Slovenes seem politically shellshocked–without having gone through a war! It’s a bizarre phenomenon that many of my slovene friends have theories for, none of which really explain it to me.
At any rate, we have mediterranean weather, and the Izola I love, and I ain’t leaving, though I may be virtually third world in living standard by now. No more view from the balkon–drying maching is broke. Can’t afford the wine very often, the beer even less. But the kids are happy and I still love slovenia
I hope some kind slovene translates this because I can’t express it properly in slovene.
‘I love watching the sunset into the Pacific, lo,’ Nordgaard remarked. ‘The worst days of my life were spent watching the sun set over jungle mountains.’
A rogue wave brought water up the sand to where it fringed into the light.
‘The worst was in 54.’
‘You were there in 54?’
‘Yes, Dien Bien Phu.’
‘You were at Dien Bien Phu?’
‘Of course—I led a unit of Montagnards…they were my size…more or less, mostly more, but not so much so.’
‘You fought for the French?’
‘Yes, though I hated the fucking French. They were the worst bastards I ever came across. But, yes, lo, I wound up on their side.’
Several waves met the sand without interdicting the silence formed by the last words.
‘Bastards, I tell you. During the worst of it, not that every day wasn’t the worst of it, they decided to charge an Algerian unit with cowardice. Well, I’ll tell you, those ‘cowards’ stood up to the French. Their platoon leader said, “Then you’ll have to shoot every one of us, because each man is as brave as the rest.” The French backed straight down. Worse yet, if you read about the battle—‘
‘–it’s the Algerians who get the worst of it time after time.
‘Maggots…there’s your story of Dien Bien Phu—maggots. There were maggots everywhere. Maggots are worse than lice, for they are bred on death—even if you could for a moment forget that you were absurdly trapped in a valley of death you would see a maggot waving up from some unexpected spot, directly out of the Nam Yum even, breaking the surface next to your foot, to be sure, to insist, lo, that you know where you are, that you are living utterly without reason and solely of maggoty providence, that before long you, too, would be sprouting maggots. Every trench was filled with body parts, I don’t care what you read about the crowded, unsanitary hospital—there was no way to collect all the corpses, all the pieces of corpses, all the enemy corpses, all the pieces of enemy corpses. A hand to hand fight, and there were dozens of them, corpses everywhere, you think the French cleared the hills of every corpse? Soon as they beat off an attack they were under artillery fire again, or white phosphorous and artillery, recoilless rifle fire…human flesh and organs rotted everywhere, and the maggots multiplied in biblical proportions. And the maggots were on the side of the locals. They never went crawling up the hills after the Viet Minh, they went after us. You could clear an area five feet in diameter before you slept, when you could sleep, and you’d wake up crawling with maggots who couldn’t wait til you were dead. There were in your ears, you mouth, your nostrils, your asshole, trying to burrow into your cockhole, lo. Day after fucking day, night after fucking night. Every other trench war, and this was trench warfare—the French had no fortress, lo, they conducted the battle underground and on the bare hills—you read about rats and lice. In this case it was maggots. Maggots running the battle, and maggots thriving on the dead and stupidity of the French. As for rats, I became one of them: that’s what they called us—the rats of the Nam Yum.
‘You have to understand. We knew war, jungle war. And we began to know modern war, disproportionate war, in which one side, in this case our side, had all the technological advantages, the airplanes, the splinter bombs, the napalm, the white phosphorous—we, or they, the French, used it first. They terrorized the enemy at every turn. And we mopped up. Or we marched into deadly jungle battles. But we risked our lives in ways we understood. We knew the jungle, the Viet Minh knew the jungle. It was a fair fight. An honest fight. Dien Bien Phu was a colossal idiocy that made of us a mockery. A mockery of maggots for the maggots to send to their deaths. I was a sniper. And my side in the battle of Dien Bien Phu was no side for a sniper. The enemy was in the jungle and we were on the open ground. Our landing field was in range of their artillery. It was like a game for them, blowing up our planes. And they had artillery they weren’t supposed to have—that’s what everybody knows about the battle—but, lo, what they also had was excellent air defense, flak and whatnot. The French could do nothing with their planes but drop supplies, and they had to drop a lot of supplies, too, because half of what they dropped went to the Viet Minh. The dropped men, too, and I watched some of the paratrooper drops: man after man floating like a clown, a target for gunners of every kind, riddled with bullets on the way down, landing dead in the branches of trees that had yet to be chopped down and used for firewood. The Viet Minh were invisible; their artillery was invisible. What use, lo, was I in such a case. I had virtually no where to hide and was supposed to shoot at an enemy that was perfectly camouflaged. On occasion I could shoot at flashes. But flashes are flashes and by definition they are extinguished before you can shoot them. I got a few. And that was always a pleasure. Picking out a spot a mile away, a hint of unnatural movement of foliage, sometimes hours of stillness, watching, and then the unmistakable appearance of skin, facial skin, between two leaves, skin that has no idea it has suddenly become exposed. And wasting no time I squeeze off a shot and I have another silent personal victory. No one on my side knows, and no noise carries the distance even should the enemy cry out—which would be rare, for near every shot meant instant death.
‘Instant death…but no maggots. They had the high ground. They had the jungle for hundreds of miles all around. Maybe they had a leach problem. We had those two. Especially when we became the rats. But leeches were a pleasure in comparison to the maggots; in fact, for me leeches were a pleasure of their own accord. I enjoyed pealing them off my body. I liked them, lo, for what they were trying to do to survive. They were honest bloodsuckers. Compare them to the French, notorious wasters of blood. Flinging man after man into pointless, hopeless battle, blood wasted. Blood and body for maggots, not leeches.
‘Of course “flinging man after man” was a tactic of the Viet Minh, the “human wave” assaults, which failed again and again by body count, yet succeeded again and again to terrify the French and if more Viet Minh were killed, a greater percentage, lo, of the French whole were killed, and the Viet dead did not take their maggots with them. The war of the maggots was a slaughter, a complete victory, lo. The French were brave, and so they sent their men to the hills for slaughter again and again, and every time the maggots were victorious.
‘It was perhaps a month before the final Viet Minh victory that I became a traitor. My men, the Montagnards, the Tai people of nearby mountains, they could have been on either side for all it mattered to them, they understood little of what was happening and they turned to me for explanation. Rational explanation was called for, lo. And what rational explanation was available to me. Who were the French? Why were they here? Begin there, lo, and see how far you get with mountain tribals. Airplanes were astonishing enough, veritable miracles. Why then did they drop hideous death bombs? Why did they, if they were French, drop so much materiel to the Viet Minh? Why were they left on the airstrip in plain sight so the Viet Minh could destroy them. Did they come all the way from France? They came from near Hanoi. We have heard of Hanoi, what are the French doing there? What is this white air? From where these bombs? These bullets? You want us to do what? That hill, and what is her name? We cannot even pronounce that name. A woman’s name? Huguette? That is not the name of that hill? When men go to that hill, the Viet Minh attack them in droves—leaving maggots ten-thousand fold for each body, lo. When they go to that hill they are hit by bombs that blow them apart, spreading the maggots far and wide, lo. Why would we go to that hill. We will not go to that hill. How was I to explain that they must go to that hill? By that time I was not inclined to. I was inclined to admit: we are stuck here, lads. What are we to do? We will not go to that hill. My boss became impatient with us and I slit his neck as he slept, careful to leave the maggots a wet, dank, inviting environment, lest we be followed. I slit his throat in his sleep and I led my men to join the rest of what are called interior deserters—and what the French were calling the rats of the Nam Yum. Most of us were on the banks of the Nam Yum as far north and very near to the air field, which initially provided us protection from the west because useless as the airfield was it was at least an open space and all eyes were on it. Up the hill on the other side were the Viet Minh, but they soon learned we were no longer meaningful targets, we were noncombatants, and in addition they could use us, for we were expert at obtaining supplies. With great courage, the disgusted French thought, we who had not the courage to draw maggots had the courage to venture into dangerous areas where supplies were dropped. But of course there was no danger, for the Viet Minh knew of every move we made. And we bartered materiel for food, by their mercy, or if it were food we ate it. We had everything a human sacrifice could want—food, relative safety from maggots—oh the maggots did come, lo, but found little on which to feast and few reproductive zones, no mountains of flesh for their orgies. They appeared, as I said, anywhere and everywhere, but only to remind us of what the humans were up to and how these follies made for them a paradise. And the rats—lo, those we ate. We were the rats of the Nam Yum! We had everything, yes, but of course, little shelter from the constant damp, the rain, but little, balled up in holes in the banks, heat—for it is cold, lo, in the high jungle when there is much rain, when the mud never dries. We even had fish. Why the fish had not high-finned it out of there I will never know. Perhaps they were victims of over-crowding, but it is a wonder, lo, to see what a handgrenade in a river pool will bring to the surface, and the taste of a giant catfish grilled in a carefully sheltered fire, perhaps the whiff of grilled delicacy advancing in drifts and coils like white phosphorous towards the nostrils of the starving besieged…And they were starving, towards the end they had nothing left, little ammunition, nothing but French courage, which I would define as akin to an automaton walking off a cliff. While all the time, we ate, well enough, slept…slept in discomfort, in fits, some in lunatic spasms, some to wake up dead—it was after all only a relative holiday…You are wondering if they were mountain people why did they not escape through enemy lines. Many did, many did. But to uncertainty. Our Viet Minh friends nearest may happily allow us to pass, but from there through dense hilly jungle and cordon after cordon of Viet Minh, what were the chances of gaining freedom? What were the chances of capture, torture, death? Better to wait to the end—it could not be far off and it was not far off. Though neither was death. I was burrowed in with a Moroccan one night, we had eaten, we were happy—considering, considering. We went to bed huddled together for warmth and I awoke in the morning to find him dead. Seemingly healthy the night before, he was now a corpse. A corpse will not keep a man warm for long. I took him across the Nam Yum and carried him up the bank and left him in the ditch that ran along the airfield. The day after, a rare sunny day, I sat on the bank, contemplating…what? Did I philosophize on the condition of man vis a vis hierarchy, animosity, murderous nature, the weak, the strong, the stupid? Perhaps, for long, lo, were the hours and many a time long were the days, the Viet Minh entrenching a strangulating circle about the French positions—if you could call them that. The French on the radios all day pleading, planning, for salvation from the air. More troops! More supplies! Such faith in technology that surely to the very end they believed their technology would save them. And as we now know, and believe me I suspected it then, the salvation was to take the form, some hoped, of nuclear weapons supplied by the Americans. This I feared and so put out of my mind. Already it was absurd. Not only Korea, but also the second World War had demonstrated the futility of air power against masses on the ground, yet for the French that was the key: air power versus masses on the ground. How could they lose? The same way the Americans had in Korea. By not winning, first, and at Dien Bien Phu, by humiliation they would lose, by elimination they would lose, by the triumph of maggots they would lose! What innumerable thoughts were available to me as a I sat on the bank that sunny day, gazing at the paradox of the ever flowing river, which the Greek said could not be stepped into to twice and be the same. Go tell that Spartan that if it is not the same, it is not much different. I sat on the bank and the sun glinting on the river and I looked just upstream and a glint caught something, a white patch far off, heading downriver, and I was lost in thought, and, lo, after some time I chanced to glance again, and what, lo, did I see, but a great white mass closer, approaching me, as I felt it then so that I now grew apprehensive. Understand, lo, that we were all insane in our own ways to our own degrees, or equally so, with but different means of persevering as if not completely out of our minds, perhaps because the environment itself was commensurately insane–and so the mass was come for me! Now when I looked away it was a deliberate act and I was immediately drawn back to the white mass, closer now, close enough I could see now that it was a thing alive, that it was writhing, and as I could see it writhing it had drawn much nearer and I could soon see it was writhing as a population of maggots writhe, and indeed it was a mass of swimming maggots, as I calculated come from the direction of that very, and very, dead Moroccan who had found his death in my proximity, and now was coming to take me back to his maggoty ditch, had sent his army of maggots for me! A hand grenade, lo! I scrambled up the bank in panic and snatched a grenade from an Algerian gangster, ran to the bank and tossed into the middle of the mass while it was yet fifteen meters off, and blew them apart, into the sky, which therefore became our nightmare, a rain of maggots, at the fringe of which was the fire where sat the Algerian gangster and within which was I, I with maggoty guts, and maggots enduring on my helmet on my clothes. I ran mad into the river, up river of the rain, and I stripped and clawed and scrubbed and wiped, and awoke some day or days later, that same Algerian gangster mopping my head in the rain.
‘”It’s over,” he said, “let’s head for the hills.”’
The waves had risen and by now all three were underwater, contemplating the vast distances and close proximity of event attenuate and immediate that sank neath these same waters.
I believe I can speak for all bad and mediocre chess players when I say that the loss of one’s queen generally brings about a specific miasmos best described as abject defeatism. Quite often, we merely resign. Greece, that gnatmost of all nations, has been playing against Germany–whose queen possesses legendary powers (some say she can even imitate a horse)—without a queen of their own for quite a long time now. But the trap has finally sprung: the queen is trapped. As often happens, he waded nipples-to-forehead into the fray, overconfident, all but all-powerful.
War reparations! Well played, Greece! Germany defeated on two fronts: one must pay one’s bills, eh Capitalista Merkel? Ja. But one must not overcharge as punishment, eh Adolph?
Up early in the morning leaving hours before the machine and the inevitability of looking in on The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas and Porta Mi la Testa di Italo Svevo, or, Bring Me the Head of Italo Svevo, to see if anything has changed, or is begging to. Something always is, some space right after the last words, or a word that needs repeating, like esurient, I just have to look it up again, and when I return to the two novels I will drop it into each, which will expand them both by a strong paragraph at the least.
I have a notebook the size of a desk that I started a novel in, I guess it was going to be an endless picaresque, called A Dwarf’s Progress. The idea was to start with his little mother, who would be a camp follower during the crusader’s catastrophe at Varna in 1944. At one time or another, a dwarf would be born, half Turk, and on his trek towards Predjamska grad, a castle at the mouth of a cave up a sheer cliff in Slovenia, he would survive by eating mushrooms, which I invented as numbering nearly 200 edible varieties in the Balkans, lower Bulgaria to mid-Slovenia. I have recently found out that, in fact, Slovenia alone has more than 800 varieties of edible mushrooms.
If you attend the Iowa Writers Workshop, you can’t lose in the literary world–but you can certainly endure two miserable, disappointing if not dispiriting years. For me, it was a blast. But I know many for whom the experience was a nightmare. I was lucky. I got the call from a certain capo named Connie Brothers, the director Frank Conroy’s henchwoman, while I was in a taxi in La Crosse, Wisconsin. ‘Is this Rick Harsch?’ I was dispatching from the car at the time, so all calls came to me. ‘Yes.’ ‘This is Connie Brothers of the Iowa Writers Workshop calling,’ and she went on to tell me I had been accepted and would receive enough financial aid to cover all expenses. Naturally I was going to have a blast for two years, regardless of any disappointments, of which there were a great number. Maybe I’ll get to some of those in time. For now, just one illustrative case. An author who has published a book of very fine short stories called A Brown Man, Prasenjit Gupta, who has also published some award winning translations, and who is indeed brown, early in our first year presented for devastation a short story that featured a clever turn from real to surreal. The story has survived and is now in A Brown Man. But the tsar of the workshop, Frank Conroy, author of three middling books, or one middling book, one attempt at literature, and one grand opus that turns on a surprise octaroonery at the end that made trade paperback status, a man who could exert a profound sense of authority with his legs wrapped five or six times around a chair leg like a pair of Indian rat snakes, told Prasenjit in class that one could not write a story that starts out real and becomes surreal. It must start out surreal. When I heard that I cited for Prasenjit several stories from an anthology that proved differently, but Prasenjit is a sensitive fellow and I believe it took him some time for his own confidence to surpass in his mind Frank’s trivial and stupid condemnation.
It was this same Gupta who attended with me my one and only poetry class (in my entire life, not just at the workshop), which we signed up for in order that a young poet named Kate Northrup would have some financial aid. She was teaching a class and not enough people had signed up. We got a few people who had no intention of attending to sign up and the class was then offered. Of some note, later that semester Kate took up with visiting reader and writer, Tim O’Brian, who came to town for one weekend and wound up, for love of Kate, visiting often and staying for weeks at a time. I thought this would be good news for me, as I lived next door and had a recently finished novel I thought perhaps she could get him to read and thrust upon an agent or publisher. But as Tim was a jealous, controlling maniac this would prove to be impossible. Kate would have to mention my name, a man’s name, and therefore an acquaintance of hers who was a potential rival, as all men who knew her or lived in Iowa City were. So nothing came of it for me, and little for Kate, but somewhat more for the nation, as on NPR late in the coming Spring, O’Brian mentioned her on the air, weeping over his loss of her.
As for the class, it was a silly affair, but fun, writing poems I didn’t care about–writing poems at all was a resumption of a partaking of literature I had no talent for and had given up a decade and a half previously–but for two, which were peasants in a battle of poems between a poet I had had an affair with, Hillary Gardner, some relative of Erle Stanley, and myself. Apparently we had a bad breakup, for she opened the year with a bitter salvo called Onion, a food I have trouble eating, that used the tired metaphor of an onion’s many layers peeling down to nothing. That was me–nothing. I fired back the following salvo:
O creature of elaborate habit
sing to me of
they know not what they are.
Call them fruit.
Thank god for the androgynes!
A tomato with thighs
like a soccer player
once gave me some anger–
the same as what do you need
with two toasters.
Think a little bit about toasters
(I could say, about toasters, toasters)
Do you miss me, my carrot?
My little can of tuna?
Did you duck into the pharmacy
to get away from me?
See how I said duck?
The crazy thing about ducks:
the most feathered of all vegetables
like being sent to the store
and she ducks out and
when I return
she never does
Her breasts: two pomegranates
Her breasts: two pomegranates
To be fair–just kidding. Why be fair in a forum like this? How fair was she? I’d love to have Hillary’s version of our affair. Mine is quite simply: she changed the rules in the middle of the game. During the affair, which occurred while I was married to my first wife and with her permission and at first with her help arranging it, apparently fellow workshop folk, or many of them, thought I was a swine…I heard that at a point when the tension was so great between me and both women that I was sleeping with neither–the moss is always greener in the other bed. But surely, a measure of fairness is due. I also wrote about her–I wrote her into my first published novel, The Driftless Zone. She had arrived to my back porch one day at my invitation–I planned a peace conference. I got Ariel Sharon with rabies (and knife-wielding rabbis). She let me have it good. I reproduced the rant as well as I could. The following excerpt, then, may be taken as a journalistically accurate enough account:
Beginning of Chapter 2
‘I spent last night with the police…It was their idea.’
—Marlowe, ‘Murder My Sweet’
Remember this, Spleen?
“Twenty-eight years old and you don’t have the courage to tell your friends – and that Japanese bitch – to leave so we can be alone. You’re so fucking weak. You want to be with me you have to show it, but you cared more about your ‘solitary friends’ and that woman who even after I told you what she said to me you let her in your house where you knew I was coming and humiliated me in front of her after what she said to me even though you knew – shit! I don’t even know—You’re weak!
“Look at me. You’re afraid even to look at me sure you look…You can’t even look me in the eye. A coward, that’s what you are, but that’s not the way you see it, no – you think it’s courage to refuse to work, such an act of rebellion. you’re such a rebel.
Well it IS an act. The truth is you’re weak and afraid, afraid to try to succeed at anything so you call it an act of rebellion against an unjust world – well it’s the same fucking world I live in – you think I like it? You’d don’t think I’d like to go without working half the time? But I’m not a coward, I’m not afraid of success, I don’t have a brother whose happiness and success and kindness frighten me, make me afraid to – shit! Why do I even fucking…”
Boy was she mad, remember?
“That’s what it was, isn’t it – your brother, the one with the talent and brains to leave this dump but who sticks around because you can’t be trusted to look after your father. You’re intimidated by your brother. There can only be one strong one and it’s obviously him so you have to be the weak one so you pretend to reject the whole system, as if you can claim a different birthright, as if you can be mister urban survivor, the urban rebel, the ultimate modern man, this false stance of yours that you do so well and now it’s true, here you are, modern fucking man, and look what he turns out to be: a ‘pathetic wreck’, to use one of the phrases you like to repeat till you make me want to puke…Modern man: Spleen, a jobless, directionless, dishonest, posing coward. You’re as modern as can be; you’re the end, the last man, the man afraid to create, afraid to exist, who rejects everything, even life, but is too hypocritical to commit suicide. But don’t think for a minute I expect you to see THAT contradiction, no, then you’d have to choose life or death, you’d have to have GUTS to make that choice, not…By the way, where is that Japanese bitch – is she here?”
You pulled a cigarette from the pack, put it between your lips. Then you removed it, held it before you, rolled it back and forth, set it down on the table.
“I hope she is. I really do. She’s perfect for you. God, to think I once was, thought I was…No, not now, not now that I know you – or don’t know you. More like don’t. What’s there to know? Yeah, she’s perfect. Fucking perfect…Disloyal prick…Some little geisha to wait on you, someone who cares so much for you you don’t have to care for me – remember telling me you cared for me? Maybe you did once or twice but you never acted like it. How many times did I cry and you think giving advice was comfort? It’s cause you don’t fucking care. I used to wonder – you worked wonders for my self-esteem…The worst kind of man…Only later I realized it was you and not me, you’re incapable of love, incapable of caring – especially if it means you have to change your plans, like the time you thought golfing was more important than seeing me when i was depressed when I needed your love most and and then I find out you never went golfing at all, you and Gerard went ‘hiking’. Bullshit! You can’t even be honest about not wanting me. You never even had the guts to say no I don’t want to see you -”
Now you were confused. There were matches in your hand, but the cigarette was gone.
” – tonight I’m doing this instead. It was always, I’d like to see you but I have to read…fucking bullshit, man, you want to read, go to school like your brother did – you know, the one who’s HAPPY, the one who’s exactly like you only HAPPY. But let’s not forget happiness is transient, let’s not forget we’re all gonna die, let’s not forget life is so meaningless all there is is freedom like yours to be a loser, freedom like yours and Roman’s and Gerard’s and especially that fucker Barlow’s – all your goddamn friends, all the free and lonely miserable men you sit around with having miserable discussions with so you don’t have to masturbate all day, talking about nothing but bullshit that ends up the same way every time, that life is meaningless so you all end up prefes- PERPETUATING your own goddamn misery that you blame on anything but yourself when all it is is…is covering up your fear which is so fucking obvious anyway to anybody but you -”
Where’d you put the matches? Now that you had the cigarette back between your lips, didn’t you have enough energy to check your shirt pocket? (That’s where you put them.)
“-yet the only good that ever comes out of it – even that you ruin – you ruin everything you touch; you…belabor things, to use your favorite word. Every time you say something interesting you remember it and repeat it over and over till I want to puke. An example? You want an example? That’s right, DON’T look at me, don’t look me in the face, don’t face anything. What a hypocrite. That’s what you hate people for most, isn’t it? Not facing things? A hypocrite and a coward, that’s what you are. When I quit smoking you never even thought about it because you didn’t have the guts to quit, you never thought about what I was going through. You think it was easy? I just didn’t complain, that’s all. You? You wouldn’t even try to quit…Christ, I don’t even know what I was saying – you and your friends, repeating yourselves, cows in a scrum – you thought that was so funny, well that’s what you and your friends are, cows in a scrum…you must have said that every fucking day. At least I had the sensitivity to overlook it. But whenever the slightest thing about me bothered you, no matter how petty, you had to comment on it until I was afraid to make a move for fear of appearing too normal, middle-class, conventional, conformist – you called me everything at one time or another. Well, fuck you! I’m through with that. I’ll be whatever you want me to be except pathetic like you – or pathetic with you -”
What if you were a dog? How long would a dog sit there stupefied before such excoriation? Would a dog turn and walk away? Or would he put his head on his paws and look up at her with his brown eyes?
“- like you wanted me to be, like you were so dishonest about trying to make me be, like you…you lied about it, you lied about everything. You abused me. Every time you fucked me it was abuse. It was worse than rape. It WAS rape. You misrepresented yourself: it was never you I made love to. i’d never open myself to someone like you. Now that I now you, you couldn’t even make me wet. Every time I see you now the very thought of sex makes me sick. I don’t want to fuck anybody anymore because I think of you and it makes me sick. It couldn’t be worse if I was raped on the street – oh God, you raped me! You’re a fucking rapist! Look at me! You raped me! And you don’t fucking care…well neither do I. You think I care, but I just want to tell you one last time: you’re a piece of shit. You can sit there and not feel a fucking thing. Because you’re so strong? No – because you’re nothing. You aren’t even there. There’s nothing to you. You have no self. You’ve been a goddamn fake for so long you don’t even have yourself. You know where it is? It’s your brother, that’s where your self went. Off to be a good man, someone people can look up to and trust and care about, someone who cares about others and can handle life with strength and courage and and – I don’t know what, anything but the fucking cipher you are…”
You looked up, not quite at her face, but up that way. You’d never heard her say the word ‘cipher’ before.
“- which is the whole thing right there: you’re nothing, a phony – whatever I see, whatever anyone sees, always and for the rest of your miserable life, is a lie, a fake, a pretense. You shave your beard and cut your hair and then you grow it all back, grow your hair long – why? Because you don’t know who the fuck you are. You’re empty, nothing – a fucking cipher. That’s why you have nothing to say right now. All you can do is react, but you can’t react to the truth, can you? There’s nothing there. Nothing at all. Well, I don’t have anything to say either. I’m not going to fill your life up anymore. I’d end up just like you. You drain me. You make me feel like nothing, like you, like I’m not with a man at all – I’m more alone than ever. How many times do I walk in here and you can’t even greet me, just stare at me like you’re stupid, like you don’t even see me? What the fuck was I doing here? You can’t even make me feel wanted. I never felt wanted, not after the first two months when you were acting – ACTING – like a real human being, which was all a goddamn lie, like you told me you were through with that bitch and when it comes down to it you choose her over me because you say she needs you and now I do – Christ! I don’t even know what I’m…”
And just like that she left and it was forever over. But another woman was bound to come along.
That’s the fun part, at least now it is. I had intended to flesh out the story of Kate and Tim, but I realize that I recall little detail, that he was jealous, and he acted like an ass, even a bit scary, but that’s all. My guess is that discrete or discreeter affairs took place, but mine was unhidden and Kate was well known and her story burst onto the scene in a weekend. Dennis Johnson was there for a semester while I was, but he appeared to avoid scandal, even if he and Frank liked to perpetuate the myth that they were high rollers, gamblers of means and slack. Frank was more constructed of pretense, but Johnson was only different in degree, as I saw it, not a bad guy, but not particularly generous of nature, not particularly engaged, and so, in the wild midwriting west, a mercenary figure. An easy 50 or 60 grand in four months. The next manly visiting writer was Thom Jones, fresh off the success of stories having something to do with boxing. Oddly, though, Jones was the one who connected with his students, who formed a following too big for its population to be a cult, but who never seemed to have his eye elsewhere. That’s probably why he’s fallen back off the map, while Johnson has managed to concurrently sell a lot of books and maintain his status as an outsider, or an outsider’s insider. (As I ramble, I realize that any writer who does not know me who hears me say anything about the workshop seems to assume I opine as a writer scorned. Yet I believe during my time there I was among the happiest, even the happiest few–whose writing was well regarded where it mattered–McPherson and Robinson–and even had a modicum of success with work finished while there.) This is indicative, the people mentioned above, the need for that parenthetical, all indicative of the perversion of an art form by its subjugation to a priesthood.
For some reason, I expected the workshop to be a rather close-knit group of extraordinary writers. The sheer numbers worked against that possibility. 50 fiction writers and 50 poets at one time. That’s too many for either expectation. Yet the competetive aspect of the workshop was generally dulled, perhaps suppressed, and though in each class I had people like Mull and Void, a couple who always looked like they had human shit on a plate before them as they sat in class, most were respectful at the very least, or, particularly in one class, frankly disinterested. That group consisted mainly of second year writers, on the way out, happy to be so, yet disillusioned with the two years that had passed, no doubt for a variety of reasons. One was Kirsten Bakis, who had just gotten a sizeable advance for the novel she was writing their called Lives of the Monster Dogs, a section of which I read and loved before she got the deal. As soon as she got the deal, she dropped out, which struck me as entirely sane, little as I knew her. I have no idea what other reasons might have led to her decision, but after getting an advance why stick around another three months–what good could come of it? A lot of aggravation was more likely. The rest in that class I believe were snakebit by Frank and simply not the rioting kind.
But competition lurked. Above-mentioned Hillary was expecting an award poets can get their first semester, I think three of the 25 of that year’s class got it, and she at first heard that she had not gotten it and she went absolutely apeshit. Turns out she got it. (To my relief, as I was seeing her at the time, and probably to the relief of Iowa high society in general, so volcanic was the reaction at first.) The fiction writers got seven of these awards–I heard that I was a favorite to receive one, but gave it little thought, and less so when word came out that seven others got it. I had my financial aid position and was happy with it. Perhaps the worst of this process is that of the 25, at least 15, maybe 21, were certain they would not get it, such was the abrasive effect of workshops, especially led by Conroy, and the pettiness of numerous writers. Most of us felt, I think, that there were chosen ones; I used to refer these as tapped by the wand–it happened early and could not be reversed. It was actually quite nice, though, when some alien who happened to write well and somehow managed to stand apart and behave kindly at the same time, someone like Chris Adrian, got tapped by the wand. Such good things did happen.
Oddly enough, the most disturbing, and the funniest, brush with loutish competition I had did not involve classes, not even fiction. Worse yet, it happened on a Friday night and kept me from going out and drinking. I was going to a bar with two people who had apartments in the same house I had mine. One, Pat Moran, was a poet, and I believe the only other person in the workshop besides myself who still used a typewriter; the other was Larry, one of those type who hang around writing circles, talk a lot about their own work, and generally remain blocked. Larry was blocked the whole two years I was there. We met in my apartment. First Pat came down, and in the course of discussion he used the word ‘sestina’, which was new to me as I was never well versed in matters poetic. He dashed up to his apartment to retrieve a famous sestina so he could show me what it was. Meantime Larry arrived. So I set about trying to get it, with their help. Seven stanzas, six of six lines. Each line ends with a word that will end a line in the next stanza. So you get six key words to work with. In the last stanza you use two of these words per line. As they explained this and that, I found both this and that seemed less difficult than certain other tasks in life and said, Oh, that–or this–doesn’t seem so hard, not meaning the whole writing of a sestina was not so hard, just that and this. Both times they responded with alarming aggression, saying, roughly Right, like you could do it. The situation had become very odd. To me the point was getting the rules, the formula, for the sestina, not to claim I could write a poem, least of all a sestina. But their aggression was so comic, a certain momentum had accrued toward that very end. I asked whether most sestinistas chose the words then wrote the first stanza or wrote the first stanza then chose the words. Stanza first, I was told. So I said, I’ll write a couple lines, but I’ll choose the words first. I chose ape, crap, swine, divine, desquamation, and Pat and quickly wrote the first two stanzas typed below, but not exactly. I was almost in iambic pentameter just from reading the famous sestina, but the fact is I didn’t even know what iambic pentameter was at the time (I was bare 34 years old!). But rather than just laugh at my quick and funny words the two laureates attacked the lack of iambicity to my penta-meter, which was off after decades of disuse. I said, oh, well, okay, then, I’ll fix that. But they sneered and went off to the bar. So then you get the triumphal first line of stanza three, when I decided to write the whole fucking thing. Here, then is
Aping the Crap of Swine Divine, Desquamations for Pat
- Whenever I must stop to take a crap
- to signify my canon of divine
- beliefs, I swipe and wipe before the swine
- and bow deliberately before the apes.
- If for no other reason than for Pat,
- whose can or cant or canons desquamate
- the same way apes and monkeys desquamate.
- But see, the Chimps when they must take a crap
- would like, but cannot place their faith in Pat,
- a man of whom it’s said there’s less divine
- except on filthy planets mad with apes
- and filthy, turgid, febrile troughs of swine.
- Oh planet come revolve around the swine!
- It’s not too late to stop and desquamate!
- (Or defecate a season for the apes.)
- Oh planet come devolve and take a crap
- on those mad preeners pruning thoughts divine:
- create a world that’s somewhat safe for Pat,
- or simulacrum of safety for Pat–
- so dangerously cast with priests of swine,
- so feverishly drunk with pigs divine,
- inordinately steeped with desquamat-
- ing beasts and fowl whose foul beaks peck the crap
- of all the low and lowliest of apes.
- Or can a planet stop, remove the apes,
- in hopes the swine will bow before their Pat,
- and still survive without the monkey’s crap?
- Or will the dirty whining of the swine
- bring down with squall a pall or desquamate
- a fate more evil even than the most divine?
- Considerations of the said divine
- remove the burden of the foresaid apes;
- they drip and dry and drop–they desquamate–
- and slip and slide off umbrage-covered Pat
- (who knows salvation breeds along with swine
- who slaver in the troughs of monkey crap).
- Oh help my friend, help Pat to take a crap.
- To desquamate itself may be divine,
- but one must dine with swine, not only apes.
That was fun. For years, more than 20 years now, that poem has just existed on a single typed page, other than two copies I made that night and slipped in the mailboxes of Larry and Pat, both of whom ungraciously avoided mention of the piece. Sorry I couldn’t single space it without them little black squares, but I couldn’t even figure a different way to get space between stanzas. I have been informed that there may be some automatic formatting at work. Well, but there you have the form of the sestina.