Monday, January 15, 2018

Poems for Peace

Philip Metres

In May 2009, in a backyard in Portland, Oregon, a few poets and artists found themselves possessed by what appeared to be a simple question: if we were to suggest that bookstores have a “peace shelf” of books, what should it carry? We were in Portland for “Another World Instead: William Stafford Peace Symposium,” and Kim Stafford, the poet’s son, posed the question.

I began scribbling furiously as Kim and Jeff Gundy, Fred Marchant, Paul Merchant, Haydn Reiss, and I widened the imagined shelf until it was a whole bookcase, and then it seemed that we’d need a whole store; as dusk fell, and later on e-mail (when Sarah Gridley joined the conversation for our panel at Split This Rock 2010), we probed a concept that teeters between immensely practical and dangerously amorphous: how to canonize a list of books and other resources that would envision a more just and peaceful world—for bookstores, for teachers, for interested readers—without turning it into Jorge Luis Borges’s famous “Library of Babel,” which contains every book ever written?

And how to overcome—in ourselves, in the poetry world, and in all the wider communities in which we situate ourselves—our own resistances to an engaged poetry that stakes specific claims about the world, a poetry that could be partisan and provocative and even utopian? After all, many of us feel as John Keats did, despite his friendship with the partisan poet Leigh Hunt: “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.”

And if the poetry that presses “palpable design upon us” were not challenge enough, then what to do about poetry that proposes something about peace, the very word of which veers into a kind of New Age ganja haze and evades the pungency of real life; or, to let Keats muse on the subject, “for axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses.” Ezra Pound’s Imagiste manifesto similarly exhorted poets to avoid fuzzy abstractions: “Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Yet we Americans live in the most powerful country in the world, whose adaptably postmodern empire is marked by what William James calls Pure War, a state in which the real war is the constant preparation for war. Though our poetry has ably represented the traumatic and unmaking operations of war—from the rage of Achilles on to our present day—it has also often unwittingly glorified and perpetuated a culture of war. We have yet to give adequate attention to how our poetry also contains the seeds of other ways of dealing with conflict, oppression, and injustice, and how it may advance our thinking into what a future without war might look like.

How to imagine peace, how to make peace? In our conversations on the Peace Shelf, three general subcategories emerged, though these were full of overlap and contradiction: Sorrows, Resistance, and Alternative Visions. It’s simple enough: we need to witness and chronicle the horrors of war, we need to resist and find models of resistance, and we need to imagine and build another world. Even if modern poetry has been marked by a resistance to the glorification of war, vividly shown by the World War I soldier poets and many others, the important work of poetic dissent has been, too often, via negativa—resistance to the dominant narrative, rather than offering another way.

Even Denise Levertov—one of the self-consciously anti-war poets on any Peace Shelf—found herself at a loss for words at a panel in the 1980s, when Virginia Satir called upon Levertov and other poets to “present to the world images of peace, not only of war; everyone needed to be able to imagine peace if we were going to achieve it.” In her response, “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” (1989), Levertov argues that “peace as a positive condition of society, not merely as an interim between wars, is something so unknown that it casts no images on the mind’s screen.” But she does proceed further: “if a poetry of peace is ever to be written, there must first be this stage we are just entering—the poetry of preparation for peace, a poetry of protest, of lament, of praise for the living earth; a poetry that demands justice, renounces violence, reveres mystery.” That Levertov lays out succinctly what we ourselves, the Peace Shelf collective, took some weeks to arrive at, illuminates the challenge of the peace movement and of the literature that engages it; our conversations, our living history and past, are scattered, marginal, unfunded, and all too easily forgotten.

Come Together: Imagine Peace  provides a foretaste of the larger feast, which could begin with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s laments against war, with Sappho’s erotic lyrics, or with Archilochus’s anti-heroic epigrams. Yet this feast isn’t mere sweetness and light. “Peace” is no mere cloud-bound dream, but a dynamic of living amid conflict, oppression, and hatred without either resigning ourselves to violence or seizing into our own violent response; peace poems vividly and demonstrably articulate and embody such a way. At their best, peace poems, as John Milton did in “Aereopagitica,” argue against “a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary.” If, in Milton’s words, “that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary,” then peace poetry must also interrogate the easy pieties of the peace movement and its own ideological blind spots. And indeed, Michael True’s exploration of nonviolent literature confirms that “although writings in [the nonviolent] tradition resemble conventional proclamations recommending peace reform, their tone and attitude tend to be provocative, even disputatious, rather than conciliatory.”

Perhaps peace poetry is not quite a tradition but a tendency, a thematic undertow, within poetry, and within culture. Yet it has been with us as long as we have been writing. Peace poetry, such as it may be—like the peace movement that it anticipates, reflects, and argues with—is part of a larger human conversation about the possibility of a more just and pacific system of social and ecological relations.

This article has been slightly modified for the sake of coherency.  The full article can be found here: Poetry Foundation

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book of the Times

John Leonard

IN his last novel, “Slapstick” (1976), Kurt Vonnegut told us that he believed in the Bill of Rights, Robert's Rules of Order and the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. In his new novel, “Jailbird” — his best, in my opinion, since “Mother Night” (1961) and “Cat's Cradle” (1963) — he adds another sacred document. It is the Sermon on the Mount.

Walter F. Starbuck is asked by Richard M. Nixon at a Congressional hearing in 1949 why, “as the son of immigrants who have been treated so well by Americans, as a man who had been treated like a son and been sent to Harvard by an American capitalist,” he had been so ungrateful to the American economic system as to join the Communist Party. Starbuck replies: “Why? The Sermon on the Mount, sir.”

Harvard and Mr. Nixon, the Holocaust and Watergate, Sacco and Vanzetti, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers, trade unionism and conglomerate capitalism, not to mention Roy M. Cohn — these are the obsessions of “Jailbird,” a fable of evil and inadvertence. Strong stuff, Starbuck would say, because strong stuff is the latest in a long line of Vonnegut semaphores, verbal kiss‐offs: so it goes, hum, I had to laugh, small world, strong stuff.

What has this stuff to do with Starbuck or the Sermon on the Mount? Starbuck is the son of a millionaire's chauffeur. Because he plays chess with the millionaire, the millionaire sends him to Harvard, where he has an affair with a radical young Irishwoman and joins the Communist Party. He is off, then, to join Roosevelt's New Deal. He quits the party on the occasion of the Nazi-Stalin pact. In Germany during and after World War II he meets and marries a death‐camp survivor and has dealings at Nuremberg.

He returns to Washington to betray, by accident, a friend. Years of joblessness follow until Mr. Nixon makes him his special adviser on “youth affairs.” Some of the Watergate money is stashed in his windowless office, and so he goes to jail with the big boys. Let out in 1977, he arrives in New York and falls into the clutches of a conglomerate that seems to own most of the world.

Starbuck is clearly one of those characters to whom history is always happening like an accident. His old girlfriend tells him: “You can't help it but you were born without a heart. At least you tried to believe what the people with hearts believed — so you were a good man just the same.” As good as most of us, anyway, and soon to be back in jail.

Not once in “Jailbird” does Mr. Mr. Vonnegut nod off, go vague. His people bite into their lives. Kindnesses, as inexplicable as history, are collected, like saving remnants. New York, with catacombs under Grand Central Terminal and harps on top of the Chrysler Building, is wonderfully evoked. The prose has sinew. Mr. Nixon's “unhappy little smile,” for instance “looked to me like a rosebud that had just been smashed by a hammer.” Or: “There was a withered old man . . . hunched over his food, hiding it with his arms. Sarah whispered that he ate as though his meal were a royal flush.”

And when you think about it, the Sermon on ,the Mount is a radical document, promising that the meek shall inherit the earth. Shall they, indeed? Mr. Vonnegut has his doubts. It is the fashion these days for young academics, fresh from bravely grappling with the archetypes of modernism at a graduate seminar, to dismiss Mr. Vonnegut as simplistic. He is insufficiently obscure; he is not loud enough about the ambiguities. Well, as he would say, listen. The simple — courtesy and decency—is hardest.

In “The Sirens of Titan,” the problem was how to cause “less rather than more pain,” how to “love whoever is around to be loved.” The message in “Mother Night” was “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” asked, “How to love people who have no use?” Laurel and Hardy were admired in “Slapstick” because, although they were not “really very good at life,” at least they “never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies.”

To be sure, his characters are given to dreaming of an escape hatch out of history, a secret village, a tropical island, a neutral zone, an alternative reality. But he doesn't let them get away with it. Everything isn't beautiful, and many things hurt, and neither technology nor organized religion is much help, nor “granfalloons” like the Communist Party and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Even play, as in “Cat's Cradle,” can be monstrous, and art itself is a lie. Billy Pilgrim in “Slaughterhouse‐Five” overhears Eliot Rosewater say to his psychiatrist, “I think you guys are going to have to come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren't going to want to go on living.”

Simple? Mr. Vonnegut brought all his characters along for Billy Pilgrim's ride in “Slaughterhouse.” In “Breakfast of Champions,” he cut them loose, set them free. One returns in “Jailbird,” a man who writes science fiction novels under the name of, naturally, Kilgore Trout, who is in jail, naturally, for treason. These days, the Sermon on the Mount is treason. Mr. Vonnegut has exactly what Constant pined for in “Sirens”: “a single message that was sufficiently dignified and important to merit his carrying it between two points.” We read his novels the way that Mary Kathleen reads Starbuck's college books: “the way a young cannibal might eat the hearts of brave old enemies. Their magic would become hers.” Ours.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 1979 in The New York Times.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Interview with poet and artist LaWanda Walters

TLY: We welcome poet LaWanda Walters, author of Light Is the Odalisque, a beauty of a collection, and one we at the blog enjoyed immeasurably. LaWanda is originally from Mississippi and North Carolina. Her poetry has been widely published, and one of her poems, “Goodness in Mississippi,” was chosen by Sherman Alexie for Best American Poetry 2015. LaWanda is also an accomplished painter.

LaWanda, to what extent does the city inform your poetry? How does it inspire you?

LaWanda: I think that “place” is important in poetry, but I have moved around a lot in my life and was in my 30’s when I came, with my late husband, David Weinberg, to Cincinnati. So my style and interests were pretty much formed when I arrived. Because my children were born in Cincinnati and their dad died, from complications of a brain tumor, in Cincinnati, my greatest joys and most painful days have happened here.  I do have a few poems that are set in the city. “Demeter’s Escape” is rooted in local places—Johnny’s Toys, Good Samaritan hospital, the original La Rosa’s restaurant, and a doctor’s office.

TLY: In an interview with Brian Brodeur—when asked about your readers—you responded, “I write for people who, like myself, find both order and honesty in poems in this chaotic world.” Would you share with us a bit more about the importance of order and honesty in poetry?

LaWanda: By “order” and “honesty” I do not mean that a poem should be about expressing an idea straightforwardly. The new dislike of “sincerity” and the interest in “elliptical” poetry seems to be a reaction against much great poetry in the interest of pushing forth just another style. Poetry is made of signifiers, and to avoid all significance is to discard the raw material of the art. Ideas, in poetry, are put to a kind of test—the test of music, of expression, of being a part of what has been called a “machine.” We know when we get to the end of Larkin’s “High Windows” that something has happened in the poem. The speaker of the poem (ostensibly not Larkin, although this is the voice he uses in his poems—cynical, ready to paint the sordid truth) becomes different, transformed in the making of the poem and during the reading of it.

I have trouble with Larkin because of how he was as a person. He was probably pretty racist, and I have half-Jewish children, about whom I am a tiger mother. But I have come around to admitting that how I saw “High Windows” first (while working on the circulation desk at the Emory Library) is how I still experience it now. I read the most amazing essay in The New Yorker by Stephen Greenblatt, “Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia,” explaining how he was able to love certain novels and art regardless of the meanness or sickness or anti-Semitism of the maker of that art.

I believe there’s a harmony that can be achieved in spite of gritty, unfair, Pinball-machine life. I was influenced, early on, by John Donne’s poetry with its metaphysical or “strained” conceit, with the struggle inherent in his poems between doubt and faith, body and soul. I read Suzanne Langer’s “Feeling and Form” and Frank Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending,” which helped me love Wallace Stevens’s poetry. “The nicer knowledge of / Belief, that what one believes is not true” became a meaning in life for me. Art’s artifice is “the necessary angel” in times of great chaos. For me the only way to talk about my pain and love is often through a traditional form—in the case of “Demeter’s Escape,” the pantoum. Telling the story of how a diagnosis changed our lives into chaos required a music to express not just the misery but also my soul’s journey. The repetitions in the form walked me through it.

What gives a poem its force and its longevity is its own tangling with its ideas, its finding a way to put the ideas in a way that is neither self-conscious nor political—of working until the unconscious “better angel,” perhaps, starts working along with the conscious writer. Writing poems is a mysterious process in which language becomes not simply a statement but a thing made, fired like a pot in a kiln. The political, the significant, and the desired dance with each other. This seems to come from the combination of intent and the practice of art—a practice that makes intent or “sincerity” an element of the poem, not the point of it. Art is a little miracle, a little machine of the mind. Examples of amazing transcendence, for me, include Anthony Hecht’s sestina, “The Book of Yolek,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Philip Larkin’s “High Windows,” and Rita Dove’s “The Great Palaces of Versailles.”

TLY: Music figures widely in your poems. “Mysterious Barricades,” for example, is a tribute to François Couperin’s piece for harpsichord, Les Barricades Mystérieuses. Could you tell us about the poem and how it aligns itself with Couperin?

LaWanda: I love Bach and many classical composers as much as I love any art. Couperin, in that piece, makes you feel so balanced. There is a momentum he achieves in which you can hear the moving from one place to another like a bicycle ride. At the same time there is a counter-melody which is exquisitely part of the forward movement. I got this natural high from listening to it one day, and so I wrote that little poem. And my poem is one of many. There is a website dedicated to works of art inspired by Couperin’s mysterious and transcendent “Mysterious Barricades.” My friend, Simon Evnine, put together a kind of online anthology of works about that piece of music: Magritte has a painting with that title—clearly based on the mystery of why we are drawn to music, to twilight, to what we do not know.

TLY: You write with a lot candor about girls and what becomes of them as they age into women. Readers might be inclined to politicize this aspect of your work. Would you?

LaWanda: In the sense that political comes from the word “polis,” which has to do with people, yes. I often write poems because I have been touched by someone’s act of love or courage, or in which I have been horrified by how people treat each other. My poems are a way to put those subjects in a context which is bearable. Adrienne Rich’s “asbestos gloves” image is not just for using traditional forms. The act of writing a poem which works (which speaks with as little vanity as possible and with as much force as possible) is my aim.

TLY: You have a poem dedicated to Flannery O’Connor called “Piano Legs” and which begins: “Her plots were engineered by God./So naturally she wrote like hell.” The choice of “hell” could be taken in a number of ways. What are your thoughts?

LaWanda: Writing “like hell” means writing brilliantly, as in Gould’s playing of the piano, but it’s also a pun. Because of her absolute belief in the Catholic framework (St. Augustine and Teilhard de Chardin), Flannery O’Connor had her plots pre-designed by that doctrine. She could use her brilliant talent for puncturing detail, for comically drawn characters. But the plot—the inevitable exposure and destruction of those unenlightened, prideful people—is a pre-ordained going to hell. The death of the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is, without knowing about her absolute belief that “grace” could befall a person without that person’s inner change of character, nothing but pure violence. In her view the grandmother is changed. In mine she just got confused because the misfit had her son’s shirt on. But this kind of “magic” was how O’Connor was able to describe her characters with such gusto and have them end up dead but comic. Her art is great in a way, but it is dependent on the eternal schema which she believes in. I am not convinced, reading that story, that the grandmother has changed into a good woman. It seems mechanical to me. And I am reminded of the brilliant pianist, Glenn Gould, who could pour his meaning in life into interpreting Bach. Both O’Connor and Gould exhibit an astonishing technique and a sense of life because, for one, there is God, and for the other there is Bach.

TLY: “Goodness in Mississippi,” a poem that has been widely read, is ostensibly about anorexia. There is also the experience of “we white girls,” as you put it in the poem. What is the connection of one to the other?

LaWanda: The word “machine” is helpful in explaining how this poem seems to mean one thing but is about something more tragic, huger than even the death of my friend. I think of it as a two-part invention, helped by the form Terrance Hayes invented after Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “We Real Cool.” By using Brooks’s end-words as a kind of knitting frame, I could tell the story of my friend’s dangerous perfectionism and at the same time, because of the deeper story of racism that is in Brooks’s poem and is expressed through Hayes’s invention of the form in “The Golden Shovel,” I felt able to weave my story of two girls.

The connection, for me, is the overriding tragedy of a place where “goodness” is dangerous. My friend’s “goodness,” while based partly on the norms of being a good girl in our blanked-out, all-white landscape (like the segregated landscape of the film, Steel Magnolias), was also a kind of asceticism, her resistance to that landscape. She really did try to be the best person she could be. She fit the profile (see my interview in The Georgia Review) of the kind of girl who was susceptible to anorexia nervosa at the time. I find the parallels between her life and the life of Karen Carpenter amazing, even down to a beloved brother, in each case, who teased his sister about being “plump.” So she tried to be perfect, just as Karen Carpenter did. It was deadly.

When I was a kid, the license plates said, “Home of the Miss Americas.” The conceit of likening my friend’s position (trying to be good in a place so trite, limited, and callous) to the civil rights hero, Vernon Dahmer, is as stretched, perhaps, as John Donne’s metaphysical conceits. But Vernon Dahmer tried his best to proceed as though the world were fair. So talented and brilliant and hard-working that he owned a lumber business and a general store in the “black” section of Hattiesburg (known as “Ellisville”), he was also a farmer who had a much fancier tractor than my grandfather could have ever have afforded on his little farm.

Vernon Dahmer was in a position to get his clients and friends to vote. If you saw the film Selma, in which Oprah plays the part of a woman who has to face the registrar to be able to vote, it was this scene that Dahmer tried to bypass for his clients by bringing one of the registry books to his store. He spoke on the radio to get people to come to his store and register to vote.  The day after that radio show he was dead. He died shooting back at the cars throwing lit bottles of gasoline into his family’s house so that his family could escape through a window in back to the barn.

The equation I came up with was that being good (in Dahmer’s case, a hero—there is now a statue of him in Hattiesburg—and in my friend’s case, by starving herself and also by taking on too much as the oldest sister after her mother was killed by a drunk driver) is more dangerous in some places than in others. Mississippi was lethal if you were a person of color. It was not a great place, though, even for white girls who wanted to be very, very good and not to cause harm.

The poem is really a double elegy for my friend and for Vernon Dahmer.

TLY: The title of your collection, Light is the Odalisque, is striking. It makes one think (at least this reader) of a levitating woman. How did the title come to you?

LaWanda: The title comes from my poem about John Singer Sargent’s painting of his bedroom. Clearly, although Sargent painted people and scenes, his real subject was light. The idea of light—as in enlightenment, which we need more of now, or as in painters like Sargent and Hopper—is a muse of mine. To me, Matisse’s “Pink Nude” and Hockney’s nude men are possible because of light, both in terms of color and northern-facing windows and because of the love of the enlightenment that art can bring.

TLY: LaWanda, this has been a true joy for us. Your poetry is tremendous, and you have all our respect.  Thank you so much.

About the Author

LaWanda Walters earned her M.F.A. from Indiana University, where she won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her first book of poems, Light Is the Odalisque, was published in 2016 by Press 53 in its Silver Concho Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in Alligator JuniperAntioch Review, Cincinnati Review, Georgia Review, Laurel Review, North American Review, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Southern Poetry Review, and several anthologies, including Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century and Best American Poetry 2015. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband, poet John Philip Drury.


“Mississippi Daze,” a backstory about “Goodness in Mississippi,” originally published on The Georgia Review Online (April 4, 2014), downloadable text in DOCX:

“How a Poem Can Staunch a Wound” and LaWanda’s interview about her poem in Brian Brodeur’s How A Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of Poems: (Friday, September 8, 2017):

“Her Art” in Rebecca Foust’s Women’s Voices for Change (July 24, 2016):

for purchase Light is the Odalisque

Friday, January 5, 2018

One Kind Word

Kathryn A. Kopple


There is a Japanese saying that goes:  “One kind word can warm three winter months.”  As with many Westerners, I am typical in my love of Japanese culture:  Basho and Issa, bonsai and Zen, sushi and sticky rice, wasabi and Saki.  Recently, I discovered Mirin and now I splash it on everything from salad to fish to saltines.  Japanese food is one of life’s great joys.  When I was a grad student in New York, poor as the church mice (well, rats really) that took refuge at the bizarre and beautiful cathedral of St. John the Divine, I could afford just one meal a day.  I sustained myself by eating a giant bowl of Udon noodle soup, along with a steaming cup of green tea.  I was never hungry.  When kind words are in short supply, a bowl of Udon goes a long way.

I smell winter in the air come November 1st.  I suppose I am a feral creature to a certain extent, but I know winter is coming because the air changes—cold has a smell, a snap, almost like peppermint.  It makes my nostrils tingle.  And then, after the trees have been stripped bare, the heavy boots come on, the puffy coat, the hat and scarf—and then, at last, bundled to the hilt, the season of trudging and shoveling and opaque skies begins in earnest.

Philadelphia, where I abide, is a gray place in winter.  In 2003, over 80 straight gray days were counted.  After about twenty of those bleak days, you begin to go a bit pub blind.  We do suffer here from a lack of sun—but those of us who are lucky have our cozy houses, festivals of lights, and snow angels.  It’s a gentle sort of suffering—far removed from chaos, deprivation, devastation.  There are fires to be built, and eggnog to be drunk (heavily laced with cognac, of course), and marathon Scrabble games to be played.  In our house, we take our Scrabble very seriously.  It’s blood sport. 

So much art has been dedicated to winter—so many Nutcracker Suites.  All those jingle bells.  I am infatuated with that scene, from Les enfants terrible, where Cocteau writes:  “Gleaming with soft effulgence of a luminous dial, the snow’s incandescence, self-engendered, reached inward to probe the very soul of luxury and draw it forth through stone till it was visible, till it was that fabric magically upholstering the Cite, shrinking it and transforming into a phantom drawing room.”  Here Conteau allows us a moment to be wonder-struck children once more.  He also reminds us that snow season can be a cruel master.  The poetry above is followed in the book by the immortal snowball fight, when poor Dargelos is knocked unconscious.

I am also infatuated with another scene, also lyrical but in a very different spirit.  It’s a print of a boy seated in the crook of a Japanese willow, with a water bucket at his side.  For reasons that may be personal—or entirely and intentionally universal—that scene is inextricably linked to winter for me.  We never see the boy’s face (his back is turned to the viewer), although he is obviously transfixed, suspended in the air, meditating on a mountain in the distance.  It’s Hokusai’s Boy Viewing Mt. Fuji.  The boy seems to be at perfect rest, or is he?  The path before him is rutted, the only verdant color is the green of the willow and parts of sky.   It’s a subdued green, gray in tone, as is the entire composition.  Above Mt. Fuji swirls the blackest of clouds.  Contrasts of this sort are so typical of Hokusai, whose fantastically simple lines seem to have no beginning or end, where everything meets up with everything else.  I find myself returning again and again to that print—a lonely image that never makes me lonely.  Only happy to be alive—yes, even in winter.

It is my great hope that you, dear readers, will find something to sustain you through the winter—even if, as they say in Japan, it may be simply a kind word.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Five Transitional Spaces: A Journey Through Time

Ed Coonce

Chicago, 1921

     It was October, the beginning of the Années Folles. They met at the Art Institute Gallery while viewing the Hiroshige print collection. He stared forever at the Great Wave, imagining it as a symbol of humanity and culture crashing into our existential oceans, with nothing to stop it.

     Her attention moved from the print to his face.

      “I love this,” she said, watching his eyes. He noticed her then, for the first time. She wore a flower in her hair. They talked about art, the beginning of that crazy year, and the new car he had just purchased. 

     He offered her a ride. “It’s Syncopation Week at the Balaban and Katz,” he told her. They went, and danced till dawn, kissed, and walked to the car. The light of the universe surrounding them flickered, then darkened. 
Paris, 1966

     They were the only two patrons at the Cafe du Dôme. It was late and summer had heated the streets well into the night. The bustle outside had settled down. He decided it wasn’t really right to eat alone. He asked her gently, “Is this seat taken?”

     She looked up from her writing, lips parted, and whispered “No.” 

     “Are you a writer?” he inquired. “Your familiar.” 

     “Yes,” was the reply. “Oh. May I introduce myself?” 

     “Are you a surrealist?” she asked, upon learning of his art.

     “Yes, in the style of Yves Tanguy. But...this is the end of Surrealism.”

     “What comes next?” she asked.

     The food arrived, their glasses clinked, and reality shifted. 

Edmond, Oklahoma, 1932

     “Sorry, missy, we’re out o’ produce. Got some canned peaches. Damned drought’s eatin’ up all the farms around Oklahoma County.” He dried his hands on his shopworn apron.

     “How much are the peaches?” she asked.

     “Eighty cents a can,” was the reply.

     “That’s more than I have.”

     She broke down then, crying. The whole county was shut down, choked by dry dust, the farm her father had left her was nothing but barren dirt fields.

     “I can’t afford to stay no more,” she sobbed.

      He thought a minute.

     “Look, missy, my cousin up in Osage County is packin’ up and leavin’ for California Sunday morning. I’ll see if he’ll let you ride along. Here, this can’s on me.”

     The yellow Buick pulled up in front of the old farmhouse. The driver came to the front door, removing his hat on the way. She answered his knock and he introduced himself.

     “Goin to California, eh?” He had soft eyes and a workman’s hands. He loaded up her two suitcases, while she, with a heavy heart, opened the gates to the pasture. Those few cows left would have to fend for themselves somehow. 

     “We’re goin’ Route 66,” he told her. “You got kin in California?”

     “No, she replied, and the tears came once again.
     “Don’t worry about it then,” he told her, then wrapped his strong arms around her. “Somehow I have the impression we met somewhere before. Did we?”

     She said she wasn’t sure. At the end of the driveway, when the Buick pulled out onto the main road, the storm hit. They stopped, and held hands as the earth and sky turned inside out.

Los Angeles, 1998

     The bus stop at East Pico and Maple was a good place to get a little money, she thought. When you’ve lost everything you ever had or loved or worked for because of this insidious addiction, this is where you ended up, not that nice house in the suburbs, not that condo in the Fashion District. You end up nowhere, that’s where. She could hardly keep her balance, her grip was weakening. Too much. Too much.

     She wished she could wash her hair, that’s all. Maybe, just maybe, today would be that day. She dragged her small suitcase up to the bench and sat down, exhausted. A million “ifs” crowded her brain, all at once. “No wonder they think I’m crazy,” she thought.

      The bus came to the stop and a young man got off, briefcase in hand, suit and tie. She held up her sign.

      “Can you help?” she asked, voice trembling. He looked her way, then walked away. A brief moment later, he turned around, and came to where she sat, a look of recognition on his face. He removed his sunglasses. 

     “Don’t I know you?” he asked her. 

     She looked at him then, his eyes especially. It was the eyes. She had fleeting glimpses of a long ago party night. The kid’s parents were out of town. The drugs were served up like candy. He didn’t seem interested in anything but her then, while she was there to get high. Her hands shook

     “Yeah,” she answered. “Did you go to San Gabriel High School?”


     She couldn’t answer, she nodded and looked away, ashamed of what she had become. He sat on the bench with her for awhile, silent. There was so much to say and no way to say it all.

     “I want to help you,” he finally told her. “I know a place where you’ll be safe. Will you let me?” 

     She struggled to find words, just got up off the bench, clutching her suitcase. He gently took it from her. “Let’s go.” He held her hand as they walked. Was she dreaming? she asked herself. Maybe, just maybe there was hope. A second chance. Maybe.

     As they rounded the corner onto Maple, the landscape dissolved around them. Or perhaps, she later thought, it was just the end and beginning of new dreams.

 Portland 2021 

     The young couple sat among moving boxes and general clutter. The tiny apartment had suddenly become smaller, with the arrival of their firstborn, and they had found a new place. She was introduced to the world a bit early and her parents had to hold on and just pray for a couple of weeks. She grew stronger. When she whimpered, whomever was nearest picked her up and comforted her. She was ravenous all day long, and growing. Daddy held his infant and talked to her. She was only three months old, and he was certain she understood every word. 

     “You’re my little angel, my little angel girl,” he whispered.

     Mommy came then, hair wet from the shower and took the infant. “I’ll take over now,” she told Daddy. "Time for lunch.” 

     Daddy had to continue packing, they had to be moved out in three days. Daddy was doing it all himself, he never asked anyone for help unless he absolutely had to. He was funny that way. He’d load up the old pickup and drive the twenty-some miles by himself, unload, then hurry back to his precious angels. Mommy suckled their child and Daddy held her tight, marveling at it all, them, the baby, the new job.

     “She’s got that red hair and such blue eyes. I think she’s going to look just like her namesake, your Aunt Karen,” he told Mommy.

     “I believe so,” she said.  Funny how kids picked up these family traits. It seemed to be completely random, like the universe was picking and choosing. She wondered aloud how Aunt Karen was doing these days.

     “After we get settled in, we’ll go visit her,” Daddy replied.

About the Author

Ed Coonce is an artist, actor, poet, and writer living in Encinitas, California. He studied fine art at Indiana University after serving two tours as a Marine in Vietnam, and transferred to the Coronado School of Fine Art, studying printmaking and painting under Monty Lewis, a Depression Era muralist who participated in the New Deal’s Public Works Art Project. Ed writes short satire and humor, and his current art frequently reflects the topical nature of his stories. Hie is a past board member of the Oceanside Cultural Arts Foundation, where he worked on annual events such as the Oceanside International Film Festival, The Art Festival, And Write On, Oceanside, an annual literary event. He hosts East Hell Writers and Phantom Poets, and is the creative director for Theatre Arts West. He is currently acting, singing, and dancing in a new musical comedy and writing the screenplay for two others.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Borges: Is History Repeating Itself?

Robert J. Clements

BUENOS AIRES “A dictatorship is good for writers. Censorship challenges them to make their points with ever greater care and subtlety.”

When Jorge Luis Borges voiced this aphorism to student questioners at New York University a few years ago, the students, aware of his misfortunes under Juan and Eva Perón, thought it was black humor. They didn't realize it was precisely the acceptance of this challenge that had enabled him to survive and had honed his ironical wit.

Borges's words return to me as I walk from San Martin Square to the National Library. The harbingers of Perón's return are ever present. No wall stands without Perlin posted seriatim. Posters of Perón (as civilian and as lieutenant general), posters of Perón and Isabel (“the formula of the people”), ditto with Isabelita's face scratched away, and posters of Eva Perón rediviva (“Evita lives”). Everyone remembers how Perón, before his flight in 1955, removed Borges from his directorship of the National Library and designated him a poultry inspector. Now we are apparently to see a confrontation between the 77‐year‐old demagogue and his 73‐year‐old scourge.

The National Library at 11 A. M. is chilly inside. Shortly Borges appears on the scene, leaning on an aide's arm. He looks older now, and his eyes no longer focus on you. Yet the keen wit, the graciousness and the quiet dignity have not changed. Borges explains in a whisper the holdings in the main reading hall. “We must not disturb the readers.” He is proud of the 800,000 volumes. “Good for a South American library, although not to compare with the two or three millions in small American universities.” Borges refuses my gambit of Spanish, clinging to his precise English. A heritage, he explains, from his father, whose yellowing English dictionary he proudly exhibits on his bare desk.

I voice my approval of the Spanish custom of appointing the nation's most distinguished literary figure to head its national library, recalling the case of Menéndez y Pelayo.

“No, no. He was a great man.”

It is appropriate to talk literature for a while before getting to the topic on both our minds. I propose that his best story is still “Averroese's Quest,” that ironic version of the great Arabic scholar at work on his translation of the “Poetics” of Aristotle. In Borges's recreation Averroese (Ibn Rushd) is familiar with all the literary terms in Aristotle except “comedy” and “tragedy.” I mention that I tell this story often to classes. Borges agrees that it may be his own favorite.

At length we arrive at the topic of Perón's return to power.

“Is history going to repeat itself, Borges?”

“History may well repeat itself.” He is referring to his own dilemma as well as that of his country. He speaks at length and with frankness about the character of Perón and of the cynicism of the Peronists. “If you call Perón a rascal, they do not mind. They mind only if you call him a fool.”

He talks of the deteriorating intellectual climate in Argentina, already anticipating as inevitable a new Perónism. Of the new political appointments at the University, a scandalous dilution of prestige.

“The only liberal element left is the P.E.N. Club.”

He then explains how the “great funk” already involves him as an individual and a writer. “Editors who have invited me to do an article for their journal now write back to suggest that I hold off. Friends who have asked me to give a lecture now suggest that it is not the proper time.” As elections approach, a universal mutism takes over. In a matter-of‐fact voice he concludes, “I am the only one who speaks out.”

Naturally Watergate comes up, with the inevitable comparison of Nixon's and Perón's techniques of centralizing power. Borges feels that the United States cannot succumb to a corrupt autarchy. “You are protected by your own Protestant background. Here, the ingrained Catholic love of form and ritual attracts people to the hierarchical.”

Friends try to rationalize that Borges could not again fall victim to Perón. Has not Borges been twice a nominee for the Nobel Prize? Has not Perón now stated that Argentina needs all talented men of whatever party? Borges does not share this optimism. Would Borges accept something like the Norton Lectureship he held at Harvard, a foundation grant—or a post as writer‐in‐residence? Just in case the cycle of history did start to revolve.

“I should not only accept it, but be grateful for it.” Yet, he qualifies, he could not at this moment leave his 97‐year‐old mother, who has served so long as his reader and secretary and who is ill. “Then, too, an offer to come to the States would have to provide for an assistant because of my sight problem.”

After a pause, he adds, as if debating it within himself, “If my mother passed away, I think I might leave this city, which has so many memories for me.”

Eventually he walks me out the door to the broad stone stair, waiting courteously, cane in hand, until I reach the first floor. His farewell, or perhaps it was a goodbye, leaves me sad. I am told that a recent poem in the Nación touches upon his own death.

Later that day the distinguished writer Susan Bombal asks me to come to tea with Borges at her home. I am very tempted, but decline, reluctant to intrude further into his labyrinth. What can be done for Argentina's greatest writer, past or present? One solution might be for the Swedish Academy, instead of making an accessit of Borges once again, to award him the deserved laurel which has harassed and embarrassed despots through the choice of laureates: Hitler through Jensen, Stalin through Sillanpää, Bulganin and Khrushchev through Pasternak, Franco through Juan Ramón Jiménez, Brezhnev through Solzhenitsyn.

It might be the very mechanism to save Borges from Perón.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 1973 in The New York Times.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Madness of Queen Jane

Negar Azimi

The Hotel de las Palmas, in Jane Bowles’s conspicuously strange novel “Two Serious Ladies,” is a gnatty pension where pimps and winos lie about. It is here, in a rundown Panamanian port town called Colon, a place “full of nothing but half breeds and monkeys,” that Frieda Copperfield, a fine lady of early middle age and of respectable provenance, decides to jettison her handsome but square husband to find warmth and gin-soaked comfort in the arms of a teen-age prostitute named Pacifica. Lying in leonine Pacifica’s tiny bed, her cheek resting on the girl’s breast, Mrs. Copperfield feels that she has finally found the sort of love that she has always looked for. “I wouldn’t live anywhere else for the world,” she says, a little later, about the inn that will soon become her adopted home.

The passionate pursuit of elusive happiness is the major preoccupation and drama for the heroines of “Two Serious Ladies,” Bowles’s only novel, born of many years of writing and many more of worrying over her inability to do so. Few people have had more legendary writers block—Bowles spent decades agonizing over works she would never complete—which is, at least in part, why “Two Serious Ladies” is required reading when it comes to understanding the writer’s enigmatic and crooked world. The recent reissue of the novel by HarperCollins, the second since Bowles’s collected works were released in 1967, provides an occasion to revisit the underknown half of a famous couple—she was married to the considerably more prolific and ultimately more celebrated Paul Bowles. Hard drinking, hard living, and neurotic, the outlines of Jane’s exhaustingly dramatic persona very often overshadowed her art. At forty, while living in Tangier, she suffered a debilitating stroke that would send her into premature convalescence. She died sixteen years later, alone, in a Spanish convent. And yet her literary output, small but perfect, puts her on a stylistic planet all her own.

As “Two Serious Ladies” opens, we meet Cristina Goering, an acquaintance of Frieda Copperfield’s, whom we are told is the daughter of a powerful American industrialist. From here, Bowles relates each woman’s separate story, until the two, who are friendly but not intimate, cross paths at the book’s unforgettable end. Both women—they are referred to as Miss and Mrs., like the good librarian types they appear to be—are of bourgeois bearing. Both, too, astonish, perplex, and offend just about everyone they meet, willfully straying from the straight path set before them and descending into debaucherous excess. Dipsomaniacal uptown girls—one is never far from a drink in this tale—these serious ladies find pleasure downtown, in the company of lunatics, clowns, and misfits.

As a young person, Miss Goering was disliked by other children. Out of touch and out of fashion, she was marked by the “look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.” As an adult, she sent people running with her eccentrically too-red cheeks, dark heavy clothing, and verbal non sequiturs. Once, trying to engage in a friendly conversation with another woman on a train, she is told by the conductor to stop molesting the passengers. Heroically unaware of her strangeness, or indifferent to its effects, Miss Goering seems to do everything she can to reject the life that is expected of her. Accompanied by a female companion and a male hanger-on, she abandons her stately Victorian home outside of New York City and relocates to a gloomy little house on an island (we can presume it is Staten Island). After squeezing all she can out of that strange milieu, she travels to a neighboring town; there, she halfheartedly has an affair with a sulky hobo who, in spite of the hospitable weather, keeps his blinds drawn at all times. After eight days, she leaves him for a burly, steak-eating gangster lothario who mostly speaks in single syllables and mistakes her for a prostitute. She loves him more for his mistake and, in fact, it marks the beginning of their “relationship.”

“In order to work out my own little idea of salvation I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place,” Miss Goering says. Later, when she gives herself over to the gangster, she speaks of a “sickening compulsion” to do so, as if resisting the airless cage of convention and comfort has a kind of moral character of its own. Bowles very often marks these spiritual journeys with water. Miss Goering, after all, has relocated to an island. Her far more timid companion, Miss Gamelon, announces that she fears “crossing large bodies of water.”

Mrs. Copperfield is also immersed in baptismal water. Her affair with (aquatic) Pacifica begins in Panama. In one of the book’s most tender scenes, the teen-age prostitute teaches Mrs. Copperfield how to swim. Floating, finally, precariously, “Mrs. Copperfield felt happy and sick at once.” Afterward, trembling and exhausted, the reader senses that she has undergone an intense sexual experience. Here and elsewhere in Jane Bowles’s universe, sex—itself understood as a lascivious transgression—appears to be crucial for inching toward some as yet undefined and utterly necessary salvation. (Did Georges Bataille ever read young Jane?)

When it was first published, in 1943, “Two Serious Ladies” received lukewarm, even baffled, reviews. Edith Walton, writing in the Times Book Review, called the book senseless and silly: “To attempt to unravel the plot of ‘Two Serious Ladies’ would be to risk, I am sure, one’s own sanity.” Another reviewer said, simply, “The book is about nothing.” Jane’s family, in the meantime, found it unseemly in its stark depiction of lesbianism. Its characters, who have goals and motivations that are hard to grasp, were difficult to relate to. Yet another critic wrote, “The only shocking thing about this novel is that it ever managed to find its way to print.” Jane was only twenty-four.

But the early reviews seem to confirm what ardent fans of Jane Bowles have known all along: she is a neglected genius. Like most readers, I read Paul before Jane. His spooky short stories, set in North Africa and full of madness and magic and sex, thrilled me. Much later, I encountered “Two Serious Ladies” through a friend who had claimed Jane as a distinguished literary lesbian—thankfully, she has not yet been reduced to that caricature—and realized that Paul had somehow, through no fault of his own, sucked up all the air between them. Jane’s gift, perhaps above all, was her uncommon ear for dialogue. Her speech was as eccentric and abrupt as dada, but it was also painfully real. Here is Miss Goering: “I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.” She continues, matter of factly: “I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier.” Not entirely unlike the more disturbed members of J. D. Salinger’s Glass family, Jane’s characters are out of place, born at the wrong time, wearing the wrong dress, sexually unusual.

For those who actually knew her, the work may have been even more compelling because the line between her characters and Jane the person seemed so paper-thin. Born into an affluent Long Island Jewish family, Jane Auer was stained by difference from the beginning. Millicent Dillon, the author of an essential biography on the writer, notes that some local mothers referred to young Jane as a “terrible kid.” At least once, she and a friend went on a frenzied vandalism streak, defacing dozens of parked cars. Another time, she tried to swipe a sleeping woman’s wig (but was caught). A horse-riding accident at the age of fifteen, followed by a bout of tuberculosis, left her with a permanently bad leg. While being treated at a Swiss sanitarium, she became intimate with the works of André Gide, Marcel Proust, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In her early twenties—she was petite, with cropped hair and feline features—Jane was known to run around Greenwich Village salons with a cigar or a drink in hand, playfully referring to herself as Crippie, the Kike Dyke. (She harbored dramatic crushes on women. She was also very, very funny.) The composer Virgil Thomson said of her during this time, “People loved her. But what she cared about no one knew.” Like Mrs. Copperfield, who was scared stiff of elevators and of drowning, Jane suffered from phobias and indecision. As early as 1936, at the age of nineteen, she wrote to a friend, “The incapability of mine to ‘act’ is spreading. I stare at my corset for hours now before I put it on.”

And Jane, like both Mrs. Copperfield and Miss Goering, was consumed by the idea of sin. “There is nothing original about me except a little original sin,” she wrote to a friend, in 1929. It is no wonder, perhaps, that she was so taken by the ascetic Simone Weil, another writer who had a terribly vexed relationship with the world, and who also suffered from a tragic sense of sin. Dillon, the biographer, writes that, for a period of her youth, Jane would read Weil’s “Waiting for God” each night before falling asleep.

In 1937, Jane met Paul Bowles, a slight, handsome, waspish composer from New York. He was seven years older than she was and already gaining a reputation for his hypnotic musical compositions for the theatre. They married, and lived both together and separately in the Chelsea Hotel, on West Thirteenth Street, and in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone that they shared with W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, and others. They travelled, too—to Panama, Mexico, and Paris. In Paris, they visited Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas (Gertrude was very fond of Paul in particular; Alice later said of Jane that she was “not surprisingly like her novel”), Jane frequented a lesbian bar called the Monocle, and Henry Miller tried to go home with her. Jane, famously charming, was a flirt with both men and women, and in spite of her marriage to Paul—they were exceptionally devoted to each other until the end—she had affairs with women, many of them older, most of them inappropriate or somehow puzzlingly unattractive. In Mexico, Jane met Helvetia Perkins, a forty-four-year-old divorcée with whom she would live on and off for years (“Two Serious Ladies,” published in 1943, was dedicated to Paul, Mother, and Helvetia). Years later, in a letter to Paul, Jane writes, “Men are all on the outside, not interesting. They have no mystery. Women are profound and mysterious—and obscene.” Paul, in the meantime, had his own affairs, with men.

In 1947, upon Gertrude Stein’s suggestion, Paul settled in Tangier, a seedy port city where artists, pirates, picaros, philistines, homosexuals, lapsed aristocrats,real aristocrats, and paupers posing as kings had found refuge for centuries. Jane, true to her character, was wracked with indecision about whether to join him. She wrote this in a letter around the time of Paul’s move: “I’m sure Arab nightlife would interest me not the slightest. As you know I don’t consider those races voluptuous or exciting in any way.” And yet she went ahead, and stayed for the next two and a half decades. In Tangier, she and Paul presided over an enviable literary and artistic milieu that included William S. Burroughs, Truman Capote, Brion Gysin, Mohamed Mrabet, and others. Grumpy Susan Sontag came over and hated Tangier. Djuna Barnes typed up “Nightwood” there. Jane made a reputation out of being a sort of resident literary muse; Tennessee Williams, who visited a number of times, hailed her as “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters.” Capote referred to her as “that genius imp, that laughing, hilarious, tortured elf.” Gore Vidal said of both the Bowles, “They were famous among those who were famous.”

Although initially skeptical, Jane embraced her new life in North Africa. Unlike the kind of pathetic travelers who, as Mrs. Copperfield writes in her journal, are “so impressed with the importance and immutability of their own manner of living that they are capable of traveling through the most fantastic places without experiencing anything more than a visual reaction,” Jane was bent on penetrating the inaccessible world of Tangier. This desire manifested itself most vividly in the person of Cherifa, a gorgonish, hirsute grain seller with whom Jane fell madly in love. Dillon, in her biography, writes of the fantastic hold that Cherifa—“this wild creature, this illiterate but powerful peasant girl nineteen or twenty years old, a descendant of the patron saint of Tangier”—had over Jane. Their relationship was odd. Barely sexual, it was mostly built around mutual need: Jane’s for Cherifa’s acceptance and Cherifa for Jane’s cash. Jane strained to learn the difficult, guttural Moroccan dialect of Arabic, Derija, so that she might understand Cherifa better. In her collected letters, one gets a view of a woman desperate to gain entry to Cherifa’s world, desperate to be accepted by a culture that was so far removed from her own. In a photograph taken at the gates of the city’s medina, Jane, tanned, quite possibly wearing a wig, dressed in a stiff white dress and with a slightly stoned air about her, stands next to Cherifa, who is in turn dressed in a black niqab and wearing dark sunglasses. It is a stirring image and yet utterly creepy. “Perhaps I shall be perpetually on the edge of this civilization of theirs,” Jane wrote to Paul as early as 1948.

Janet Malcolm once wrote, “Writing is a fraught activity for everyone, of course, male or female, but women writers seem to have to take stronger measures, make more peculiar psychic arrangements, than men do to activate their imaginations.”* She might have especially been channelling Jane Bowles. Following the publication of “Two Serious Ladies,” Jane’s writing sputtered. When a play, “In the Summer House,” débuted in New York, in 1953, and closed only three weeks later, she was quoted in Vogue as saying, “There’s no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends.” No matter what encouragement she received from Paul and from others, she flailed. As if she were fulfilling the cliché that being well adjusted was somehow incompatible with an artistic temperament, every word she put to paper seemed to be torture. Jane, uncommonly dedicated to producing art that was unique, was her own harshest critic. Speaking about her process, Paul told Millicent Dillon that Jane couldn’t bring herself to “use the hammer and the nails that were there. She had to manufacture her own hammer and all the nails.” Somewhere along the way, her standards got in the way. So did booze. And so did Arabia.

“It was good for Paul, but not good for me,” Jane wrote of Tangier near the end of her life. Since having moved to Morocco, she had written a handful of short stories, a play, and many more unfinished sketches. With Paul’s midwifing, some of the material from “Two Serious Ladies”—for originally there were to be three serious ladies—was excised and reconfigured into the short stories “The Guatemalan Idyll” and “A Day in the Open.” In 1949, she published what might be her most magisterial short story, “Camp Cataract,” a tale of grotesquely dysfunctional sisters gone awry, in which Sadie, an overbearing spinster, meets an eerie end while trying to rescue Harriet, who has a nervous condition (she “practice[s] imagination” every morning), from the summer camp that she visits each summer. But by the nineteen-sixties, Paul’s rising literary star had dramatically eclipsed his wife’s. His first novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” which he later said he was inspired to write after the experience of helping Jane edit her “Ladies,” was widely praised and thought to be a classic. (Some years later, it would be made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci.) And yet, little attention has been paid to how Jane’s work and, perhaps, “Two Serious Ladies” in particular, set into motion a lifelong obsession and even an existential mode that came to mark not only Jane’s writing but also Paul’s for decades to come. “Two Serious Ladies,” published six years before “The Sheltering Sky,” appears to be cut from the same cloth. Both books take up travel and the situation of the foreigner in foreign lands. While Paul, in this work as well as in his short stories, captured how the East can break down men’s souls until they regress into a crazed primordial state, Jane saw in that same act of travel—uncomfortable, perilous, occasionally terrifying—her salvation. The Jane-like character in “The Sheltering Sky,” Kit, wanders deeper and deeper into the desert after her husband succumbs to typhoid, is repeatedly raped, and, finally, becomes the fourth wife and concubine of a Bedouin. Far from any trace of the civilized world and divested of reason, Kit goes completely mad.

Jane, too, eventually went mad. In 1957, at the age of forty, she suffered a massive stroke that left her vision impaired, making it painful to read or write. She depended wholly on Paul and assorted friends for care and supervision. The simplest decisions—what to wear, what to eat—would inspire hours of semi-theatrical vacillation. Although she was prohibited from mixing alcohol with her medicines, she very often drank herself into an incomprehensible stupor. A second stroke, frequent epileptic fits, and depression followed. When things got out of hand, Jane was treated in medical centers in the U.K., the United States, and Spain. By the end of her life, Jane, who had always been paranoid about money, was not only handing it out to American hippies and Moroccans in the bars of Tangier but also distributing her belongings to whoever would take them. Paul and others speculated that Cherifa might have cast a spell on her, a belief fuelled by the appearance of packets of pubic hair, finger nails, and menstrual blood that Cherifa had planted in the apartment that the two shared. In 1973, while staying at a Spanish convent in Malaga, Jane, who was never a practicing Jew, declared, as her childhood hero Simone Weil once did before her, that her last wish was to convert to Catholicism. She died not long after she was said to have danced “too wildly” at a birthday party for one of the other residents. She was fifty-six.

In the final scene of “Two Serious Ladies,” a slightly haggard Mrs. Copperfield, her sweet Pacifica in tow, joins Miss Goering at a New York City bar. Mrs. Copperfield, turning to her friend, says, “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years … but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.” Jane, too, had gone to pieces. She lived as she loved and drank: ravenously. But, if her sense of sin spelled her end, it was also what made her astounding art possible in the first place.

Today, little is left of the loose and louche Tangier that Jane left behind. Guitta’s, the bar where she drank every night and was known to have at least once stripped naked, is now a French bank. The labyrinthine medina in which she liked to wander at night has been transformed into a maze of posh Club Med-style bed-and-breakfasts for French tourists. Even the building in which she lived her last years—Paul lived upstairs—is run-down. To get there, Moroccan taxi drivers respond to the sound “pa-bo pa-bo.” Downstairs, a stone engraving reads, in both English and Arabic, “Paul Bowles, American writer and composer, lived here from 1960 to 1999.“ There is no trace of Jane.

Correction: In a previous version of this post, this quotation was misattributed to Elizabeth Hardwick.

Credits:  This article was originally published in 2014 in The New Yorker

Poems for Peace

By Philip Metres Jane LaFazio In May 2009, in a backyard in Portland, Oregon, a few poets and artists found themselves po...