We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.

Mercutio: I talk of dreams,
Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy,
Which is as thin of substance as the air
And more inconstant than the wind

Romeo & Juliet, Act 1, Scene 4

Verona

I will never forget the first time I saw Romeo & Juliet. I was young and despite knowing the outcome of the tragic love story I was utterly unprepared for the blunt realness of the characters, the utter truth of their emotions and intentions, and the stark, gut-wrenching sadness of the climactic scene which left me breathless, shaken to my core, unearthing emotions that I had never known in my short life but were curiously understandable and resoundingly authentic.

Since then I have performed, directed, taught, and studied the play in many different forms and each time, without fail, the work reveals further shades of beauty, paradox, irony and consequence. And each time I am left astonished by the power and truth of this most ubiquitous of tales.

One of the great geniuses of Shakespeare is his acute awareness of narrative timing: when to reveal certain information and to whom, making the audience an unwitting and unwilling party to circumstances the characters are unaware of until it is too late, positioning the viewers in that torturous realm of bearing too much knowledge while possessing too little power, and with nothing to do but watch helplessly as events hurtle toward their inevitable conclusions. And with this very deliberate tactic Shakespeare masterfully underpins the ever-present power of fate that the characters observe in the throes of their helplessness throughout the play.

Fate and premonition feature large in Shakespeare’s work, and the audience is constantly challenged to consider the play of cause and effect in each character’s arc, the agony of thwarted plans and mislaid intentions. Shakespeare uses this powerful form of character-sympathy to great effect, causing us to align ourselves not only with Romeo and Juliet, but with the entire cast, the good and the bad. We find ourselves in admiration of Tybalt, entranced by his unflinching honor and prowess, qualities even the cynical Mercutio is forced to respect in his appraisement of Tybalt’s character. We are ever grateful for the presence of the able but peace-loving Benvolio, loyal and caring to a fault, but a man’s man when the occasion calls. The Nurse and Friar Lawrence play stable, wise adults amidst the tumultuous broil of youthful passion, but are real enough to make mistakes and to accept their own powerlessness in the face of the all-consuming hatred between the two households.

But above all it is Mercutio who steals the play. From the moment he first appears we feel the tangible pull of his tragic fate as strong as that of Romeo’s. Yet in a way his story surpasses even his friend’s in the depths of its heart-wrenching sadness because he is the only one who is ultimately faultless and can see the entire charade for what it is: “nothing but vain fantasy, which is as thin of substance as the air and more inconstant than the wind.”

Mercutio is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s ‘fool’ characters whose mocking humor betrays his insight into the reality of circumstances; the futile struggle against the pride and inconstancy of man. His death is among the most telling and tragic moments of the stage, because with him dies the truest of all loyal, wise and innocent spirits.

For even up until his death Mercutio truly wants to believe in the invincibility of his friendships, he wants to believe in the love that Romeo proclaims, he wants to believe in the innocence of their youthful rebellions, he wants to believe in the honor and nobility of Tybalt’s pride, and yet he knows that it is all doomed. This, as much as his defence of Romeo’s honor, is what drives him in anger to challenge Tybalt, knowing as he does that underneath their boyish tussling death waits concrete and inevitable.

John McEnery’s portrayal of the character in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film interpretation is one of the truest renditions yet. From the madness of the Queen Mab speech through to his untimely death, the sheer mortality of the character quivers beneath McEnery’s every mocking phrase and slapstick outburst. Never once does he misinterpret or let slip the intensity of Mercutio’s loyalty to Romeo, even in the throes of death. McEnery’s Mercutio knows the imminence of his fate, and yet when he meets it, he wrestles still with the senselessness of the loss of his young life at the hands of an ancient, baseless feud. This is what makes his famous curse so much the fullness of despair and fatality: “A plague on both your houses!”

Mercutio

Taking us far beyond a simple, tragic love story, in Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare captures completely the beauty and violence of young male friendship, rivalry and loyalty, and through each new interpretation it is those scenes, full of hot-blooded mateship and mischief, that are most savoured, that enthral our emotion and attention: the lewd and tempestuous fight scene at the opening of Act 1; the bizarre yet insurmountably potent Queen Mab speech; the verbal jousting between Romeo and Mercutio in Act 2; and finally the catalytic opening of Act 3 which brings about the death of Mercutio and Tybalt and the banishment of Romeo, and which, some would argue, is the truest climax of the story, packing as much emotional significance as even the lover’s tomb scene.

Romeo & Juliet is more than a tale of ill-fated love and the impotence of pure intentions amidst an ancient vendetta of hate; it is the embodiment of the nobility and beauty of friendship and loyalty, never so strong as in the emotional upheaval of blind youth.

It is a celebration of the colour, life and passion of human relationships, a message that Mercutio sings loud throughout the play and which will never ring dull on the ears of a contemporary audience, not in the past, not now and certainly not into the future.

 

Elise Janes

 

One More Day

Frozen faces, brittle like ice
thawing gently in the sun,
how tentative smiles break,
lapping gently at thin lips.

Sunset Image

The first snow marks the true passing of fall; when those last few tenacious leaves are finally torn from their desperate perches and left to the wind’s mercy.

The man stood silent and alone, the dying sun sinking behind the Blackthorn Stronghold. Every day he stood on the same grassy knoll to watch the sunset and every day his breath fogged in the air just a little more clearly. Flags snapped in the chilled air behind him and he knew that if he were to turn he would see tents so numerous as to be impossible to count. And yet despite the vast numbers, his army had yet to breach the walls to which they had spent a season laying siege.

Now the cold crept slowly in, spreading delicate webs of frost and misting one’s breath in the mornings and nights. The man ran scarred hands over the creaking leather straps of his armour, his blade heavy at his side.

Just one more day. Please. Just give us one more day. It was a prayer the soldier had made every evening of the last week. As though if he willed it strongly enough it would ward away the snow and the season of gold and orange would remain eternally.

For he knew as soon as the snow set in, those gathered outside the stronghold would be far more vulnerable than those trapped inside. For even the hardened people who had lived and grown here fear the white of winter and struggle to survive it. Left exposed to the elements in naught but tents, his men would slowly fall. Much like the wind whittling away at a cliff face, chipping away at stone until it all collapses. The man took a breath and felt the weight on his shoulders as though it were a cliff. To win the campaign would be at the cost of most of his men, and the wealth waiting inside would do little to comfort the dead.

The gentle crunch of browning grass being crushed beneath booted feet, drew him from his thoughts. They were far too light to belong to any of his men.

“Remus.”

He does not turn as his wife approaches and settles at his side. Nor does he look at the small figure standing to her left or the bundled one he knows she carries in her arms. When he speaks he looks still towards the fading sun. “You should not be here.”

“And yet here I stand.”

“Gisele. The children—”

“Winter is not yet upon us. They will keep.”

“They will catch their deaths.”

Gisele shifts at his side. “Soon so will we all.”

Remus turns to her and thinks there is little difference from the sight he just turned from and the one he looks upon now. Her fiery hair weaved in intricate braids had once blended with the leaves of the trees, all a ruby so brilliant that the entire forest looked as if it was aflame. Now the red locks stand out against the stark nothing that coats bare branches. Gisele meets his gaze with firm eyes, one hand resting on the curls of their older sons’ head, the other cradling their new son to her chest. The hem of her dress is damp and the fur mantle of her cloak engulfs the delicate arch of her shapely neck. They are so beautiful. Alive and breathing. And Remus fears. He has seen too much death and he doesn’t think he can bear to witness theirs.

This was always a war of attrition. If those inside the keep could last until winter, then those outside would be doomed. It was always unsure what manner of supplies Blackthorn possessed. They could be days away from starving, or could still be weeks from it. Remus had no way of knowing and because of that was stuck.

At his feet Julien moves from his mother to pluck the grass from the ground, tearing it apart as children are wont to do. Remus wishes it were as easy to keep his son safe as to entertain him.

Gisele must read something of his thoughts on his face and speaks. “I have thought of a name.”

“A name for what?” Remus asks, though he knows already.

“For our son of course.”

“It is too soon.”

“It is a good name.”

“A good name will do no service to the dead. It is too soon.”

Remus is not wrong. There are too many dangers that could steal children from the world – sickness, cold and hunger. Many parents would wait at least two seasons before naming so as to not get attached only to have the babe die. His youngest son came into the world just as the leaves started turning gold, and only now did the last of them fall. It was too soon.

Gisele huffed, but let the subject go. Remus thought she feared their son dying without a name. But Remus was responsible for more lives than those of his sons.

“If I order these men to stay I sign their death warrants.”

“Great men are rarely good ones.”

“Perhaps I only wish to be a happy one.”

Remus gestures Julien over, face already pink from the cold. Remus sweeps his son up so Julien is hanging from his throat like a necklace. Julien buries his cold face in Remus’s neck as Remus wraps Gisele and the baby both in his arms and breathes them in. There is great wealth waiting inside Blackthorn that is true. But gold was cold and gemstones were sharp and his wife and children were warm in his arms.

Just one more day, he prayed.

Please just one more day.

 

Jayde Taylor

 

Ronan & Julia

 

I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars.

– Romeo & Juliet,  Act 1, Scene 4

Image 3

Ronan rubs his fingers against his eyelids, scrunching his eyebrows towards the top of his nose.

‘Mm hmm, sounds good,’ he says.

‘Not finished,’ says Julia, ‘we then go to Malawi Beach, to Chipata, Chipata to Lusaka, Lusaka to Livingstone.’

Ronan sighs.

‘Julia?’

‘What?’ she snaps, scratching at her scalp.

‘It’s off,’ he says.

Julia pulls at her white harem pants and bites her lip.

‘Us or the trip?’ she says, quietly.

Ronan raises his eyebrows, wide-eyed.

‘The trip.’


Ronan taps a shiny, black lace-up boot against the linoleum and plants his hands on his hips.

‘Time to be a real adult,’ he says.

‘Yeah, you’ll kill it,’ Julia says, wiping a dollop of yoghurt off her night-shirt.

Ronan chuckles, shuffling towards Julia. He leans in close to her and plants a warm kiss on her lips.

‘I’ve got to go, Grub,’ he says.

His keys jangle sharply as he shoves his phone into a trouser pocket. He leans in to the mirror, running pale fingers through his hair, before standing back to pout, ever so slightly.

‘Bye,’ he says, unsmiling, picking up his leather briefcase.

When she hears his footsteps disappear down the hallway, Julia rubs at her scalp and lets out a shaken sigh. Balancing her tub of yoghurt against her leg, she carefully reaches for her notebook on the bed-side table. She curls her lips thoughtfully and begins to write.


She’s swirling a Rose and French Vanilla tea bag around in a mug when Ronan walks through the door.

‘We need to talk,’ she says.

‘My day was good thanks, how was yours?’ Ronan says, winking.

Julia stands, letting her white dressing gown hang open, loose on her shoulders. She plants her palms on Ronan’s upper arms and squeezes, hard.

‘I’ve decided I’m not going to wait, Ronan. I’m going, with or without you.’

Ronan’s face remains smooth as silk.

‘Ok,’ he says, shrugging his shoulders.

Julia’s heart suddenly thumps hard in her chest. Her ears burn.

‘What the hell, Ronan. You’ve always known how much this meant to me. I’m staying here for you and your dumb, new job and you’re telling me now, that this whole time, it was fine?’

‘Don’t freak out, Julia. I’m just tired of having this same old conversation. You’re not a baby. You can do what you want.’

Julia stomps backwards, gripping her mug tightly, a sound, like a growl, emanating from her mouth. Ronan watches as she smashes the mug onto the floor. Hot liquid spreads across the linoleum.

Ronan darts for the door. Julia pounds at the tea nd broken china with the palm of her hand.


Ronan is on his lunch break when he gets the call from Julia’s mum.

His palms slide against the steering wheel. His heartbeat pounds against his temple.

He twists his head every few seconds to glance at his phone on the passenger seat.

The phone soon fades into sleep-mode. His chest aches as the seat belt presses hard into his body.

Approaching the intersection, he forgets to check the traffic lights.


‘We’d like to know why you did it, Miss Capulong.’

Julia rubs at the acne on her cheek.

‘I want to go to Africa,’ she says.

‘What do you mean?’

Julia giggles.

‘He should have known it wasn’t Mum.’

‘He never met her, Miss Capulong. How could he have known?’

‘I dunno.’

‘Miss Capulong, you know you’re not supposed to use the phone without a nurse’s supervision.’

Julia picks at her fingernails. Her forehead creases.

‘I wanted him to how it felt to live without me. I thought, maybe, after the joke, he’d find it easier to let me go again?’

She bites her lip and scratches at her scalp.

‘He stole my passport,’ she mutters, ‘so, I’m not crazy.’

The nurse sighs.

‘Ok, Miss Capulong.’

‘Travel is my life,’ Julia says. ‘He knew that. Travel’s my life and he made me think I had to stay.’

‘Well, Miss Capulong. You’re going to stay with us now,’ the nurse says.

Julia ignores this.

‘Malawi Beach,’ she whispers, eyes wide and unfocussed. ‘To Chipata, Chipata to Lusaka, Lusaka to Livingstone.’

‘Sorry, Miss Capulong?’ the nurse asks.

Julia growls, pounding her fist into the hospital bed.

‘Chipata, Chipata to Lusaka, Lusaka to Livingstone,’ she says. ‘I’m not crazy. I’m not!’

 

Carmel Purcell

 

Narcotics, love, and Colombia: An interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee (2014 IPPY Gold Medal Award winner) talks to Heather Vasquez from the University of Central Florida about her new novel, Juventud.

Juventud tells the story of young Mercedes Martinez, who seeks the truth about her father, Deigo, a wealthy Colombian sugarcane plantation owner with narcotrafficking ties. When she falls in love with Manuel, a fiery young activist with a passion for his faith and his country, she awakens to the suffering of the desplazados who share her land. Following one tragic night, Mercedes flees Colombia for the United States to a life she never could have imagined. Fifteen years later, she returns to Colombia seeking the truth, but discovers that only more questions await.

Headshot_Vanessa Blakeslee

In the acknowledgments, you mention that the story of Juventud began at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. What inspired you to place the story in that specific time period in those places?

Fiction isn’t born in a vacuum. The initial inspiration for Juventud had struck me in college. One night I sat among a group of young women, all of us sharing stories about our first loves. One of them, an international student from Colombia, told us that her first boyfriend had been killed—shot to death by a masked gunman in a nightclub. We listened, riveted, as she described how he died in her arms at sixteen. But even more disturbing was her admission that she couldn’t be sure, but she suspected her father might have arranged for the young man to be killed—the father hadn’t approved of their relationship, and was determined for his daughter to leave Colombia and finish her education in the United States. Oddly enough, she admitted that in time she’d come to see how her father’s reasoning was correct even if his methods were not. Had she stayed in Colombia, married the young man and not sought a higher degree at a well-reputed school, her life would have turned out much differently—her opportunities and worldview greatly limited.

The student and I didn’t stay in touch. But her story haunted me—the lover’s bloody end on the nightclub floor, the father’s insistence that she find a better life in the US. For her to even suspect her father of carrying out such a ghastly deed—what must this man be like, and how did she maintain a relationship with her father, if at all? For years the questions simmered in my imagination before I put a word to paper. But I finally did, in my first semester at Vermont College, and a voice emerged. My professor urged me to explore where it might lead. That voice belonged to Mercedes.

 

How did the place and time influence the story?

In studying the sociopolitical events of 1990s Colombia, a certain period of tumultuous unrest in early 1999 caught my attention, in the southern city of Santiago de Cali. This, then, was the backdrop that I inevitably had to set the dramatic questions against, for the personal conflicts of the characters to emerge from place and resound thematically. So from early on I had a distinct vision that I was striving to capture.

At first, Google searches and Wikipedia sufficed to lay the broad strokes. I chose Santiago de Cali as a backdrop—a lesser-known, southern city and hotbed of violence in the late 1990s. As I turned up more websites about human rights, guerilla activity, and so forth, I uncovered a series of events in early 1999 that ideally worked as a backdrop to propel the characters’ motivations—the ELN’s hijacking of an Avianca passenger plane, the surge in threats, bombings, and assassinations of public figures and peace advocates including humorist Jaime Garzón and later, Archbishop Duarte. I ended up condensing the timeline of Part One to a specific five months.

From early on in the process, I understood that I had to include the Church if I was going to be true to the time and place. Colombia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country; the very philosophy behind the guerilla movements in South America is that of Marxist Liberation theology. This ideology interprets the Christian faith from the perspective of the poor, and in the early days of the guerilla movements, the 1950s and 60s, the members adopted Marxist teachings in their advocacy for social justice. When I came across the ELN revolutionaries kidnapping the congregation of La Maria Church in a wealthy district of Cali, I knew this had to affect my characters somehow. La Maria Juventud and its leaders, Emilio and his impassioned brother Manuel, were born.

 

Juventud_CoverThere are specific details about Colombia, FARC, and the ELN. You mention sources you used to in your acknowledgements. While you were researching, what information and facts were you most surprised to learn about?

The most surprising and disturbing facts I learned concerned the paramilitary atrocities of the 90s and early 2000s. In the US, we have been led to believe that the FARC and ELN guerillas were the most brutal forces to contend with, the “enemy” so to speak – when in fact the “paras” carried out just as many terrorist tactics, if not the majority. Yet the mainstream media remains silent on these privately-funded, unofficial “armies” who carry out the dirty work of politicians, the wealthy and multinational corporations against the poor. I was also keenly aware that many Americans have a cursory, if erroneous, understanding of the conflict in Colombia, gleaned from sound bites they’ve picked up about the drug war, cartels, maybe the FARC, but little else. In Juventud, even though the characters are fictitious, Manuel’s idealism, Diego’s protectiveness, and Mercedes’ suspicions are all informed by real events.

 

What else did you do to learn more about Colombia? Did this influence you on a personal level? For example, do you now have a favorite Colombian food?

In addition to academic texts, I consulted primary resources: online footage of peace marches in Colombia in 1999, news articles from that year, archived interviews with notorious paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño Gil from before his death in 2004. These placed me even more fully in 1990s Colombia. On a personal level, I was also in the midst of shifting away from the fervent Catholicism I’d been practicing in my mid-twenties because I couldn’t reconcile my personal stance on women’s and gay rights with the Church’s doctrine, but found myself reluctant when it came to Catholicism’s stance on social justice—a cornerstone that I believe Christianity, but especially Catholicism, very much gets right. I’m a huge proponent of “faith in action,” in that respect—the only way spiritual principles make sense to me is if they are lived out in practice. Otherwise, what’s the point?

When the time came to title the book, the editors and I decided on Juventud, which translates to “youth” in Spanish. “Juventud” speaks to our tendency in youth to see the world in black-and-white rather than shades of grey. But it also captures the ongoing humanitarian crises in South and Central America—the tens of thousands of children illegally crossing the US border and the drug-related massacre of 43 students in Mexico in 2014, even as the Colombian government and the FARC move toward a lasting peace. Fiction can show readers how events effect people like Mercedes, Manuel, and Diego, in ways that a news article can’t.

As for food, you can’t beat a homemade arepa.

 

How did your research influence the story? Did you make changes to what you had planned as your learned more about Colombia?

Research largely shaped the story, especially early on, and while I don’t feel that I over-researched, there was a lot of material that ended up getting cut. For instance, I knew Diego Martinez had to be complex and not just a one-dimensional villain, so I needed him to have a legitimate occupation but with room for some shady activities to go on. I guessed he might own a plantation, and I researched the agriculture of the Valle de Cauca region. Growing sugarcane was a perfect fit. In research, some of what you learn informs the narrative directly—for instance, in the scene when Mercedes first accompanies Diego to their cane fields and he partly confesses; there she briefly describes his farming operation. But often, a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. I’ve spent more hours than I like to admit watching YouTube videos of alpaca shearing, only to have scrapped those sections.

At one point, in trying to figuring out what would lure an adult Mercedes back to confront the individuals from her past, and mainly Papi, I tried to write a parallel plotline of her as an FBI agent. I read the official FBI training manual, researched different possible career paths for her—embassy police, DEA—all of which felt out of my purview and ability to pull off convincingly. I wrote about a hundred pages, all of them horribly weak. And in the end my research revealed that for someone with Mercedes’ background, having any ties at all to a family member who’d been involved in narco-trafficking, even if she wasn’t herself, would have eliminated the possibility of her having any kind of U.S. government career with top-secret clearance. So that steered me toward making her more of a scholarly expert and researcher who ends up doing more of what I’ll dub, “the D.C. bounce-around”—working in government for a time and then the private sector, in this case, finding her way into journalism.

But that failure wasn’t for naught—I ended up mentioning that this was why she didn’t end up someplace like the FBI, and the research on top secret agencies and their joint task force operations with other nations’ special forces units certainly helped when it came time to build Asaf’s character swiftly and effectively. So I’m afraid mostly the alpacas lost out!

 

There are influences of the Catholic and Jewish faith in Mercedes’ life. How would the story have changed if she didn’t have those? 

The novel would be enormously different, absent of the religious context—I suppose I might have invented a way for Manuel to lead a secular human rights’ organization. I imagine I’d have mined the thread of the desplazados more, or the narcotrafficking, rather than touch on the sexual coming-of-age and women’s rights subplot. But leaving out the Catholicism, certainly, wouldn’t feel true to the culture nor historical fact. The Church has very much been involved in all facets of Colombia’s civil war—civilian and guerilla.

The Catholicism created a conduit for me to bring in the Jewish thread to the book—I’m always looking how to complicate threads further to create more contrast and meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if her mother is not only American but Jewish, and if her mother is on an identity-quest of her own, and if Mercedes eventually goes to visit her in Israel? And then we have the contrast between another decades-long conflict, that of Israel and Palestine, and the Colombian civil war. So in the latter half the book expands outward to reflect not just the issues of social justice and violence in South America, but the global conflicts still raging today. The common ground between Judaism and Christianity is unearthed, but also the divide between the religious and secular. Not to mention the resonance of what Mercedes has escaped from, after she learns the history of her maternal Jewish family prior to World War II.

I suppose I also could have structured the narrative differently—say, three third-person narratives, one following Mercedes, the others following Manuel and Diego—but I was more interested in Mercedes as an embodiment of the global citizen of today, the highly-educated Millennial who inhabits several different identities and cultures, and how she navigates the paths available to her. Education and access to birth control are enabling women around the world to make strides and command their destinies for the first time in human history; I found myself more invested in giving a female protagonist full rein, seeing how her roots in a conflicted country leave their imprint on her emotionally as she otherwise achieves success.

Mercedes’ story is ultimately about how our perceptions very much shape our desires and decisions, not always to our own best interest. Inevitably we are molded and driven by what happens to us in our youth and how we perceive those events, a perspective which is limited and therefore flawed, yet unbeknownst to us at the time, and often for many years afterward. Through Mercedes, the novel reveals how we grapple to make sense of these formative individual experiences – and how as adults, we have the opportunity and means to gain clarity, responsibility, and forgiveness, and ultimately understand and transcend our past even if it will always remain part of us.

 

Vanessa Blakeslee’s debut story collection, Train Shots, won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction, was long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and has been optioned for a feature film. Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in the Green Mountains ReviewSouthern Review, the Paris Review Daily, the Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among others.

Juventud is available for purchase from Curbside Splendor Publishing.

 

 

Poetry

Molly parked her walker up under the window of the dayroom and took the last place at the table. The poet was sitting on one of the long sides; he’d set up plates of cream biscuits down the centre as if this was a kitchen table and it was going to be some chatty morning. Molly tried to pull her chair in so she could reach the complimentary paper.

First thing, before mention of the biscuits, they went round the table listing favourite poets. Keats, Browning, Wordsworth, a nod to Shakespeare and even God with the Psalms. As the latecomer, the visiting poet – whose name she couldn’t recall – came to Molly last. She said she liked Sylvia Plath. Not that she’d read anything beyond the sensational newspaper reports at the time, she just wanted to be different; she’d never been one to conform and wasn’t about to start. The poet nodded sagely.

‘Wasn’t she the one who killed herself?’ asked Arthur, the only male resident to turn up to the poetry workshop.

sylvia plath

The woman beside Molly leaned over and whispered for her alone: ‘that’s where poetry gets you.’ She smelled of Yardley lavender talc. Molly recognised her as she breathed her in, and was instantly glad Patience was here. She reached into her low slung cleavage to fetch out her glasses – that way she could see what was going on too.

‘So you are all fond of a poem with a rhyme, Plath fans excepted,’ said the poet with a tiny bit of acid in his voice. ‘Do you want to see if you can write something without rhyme?’ The enthusiasm was not returned unconditionally. The idea of a three line form poem seemed okay though. ‘None of us are likely to die before we finish,’ murmured Patience. Molly couldn’t help sticking her glasses back on her nose and glancing across at Joyce just to make sure. Joyce’s chin was resting on her chest and her baldness was exposed: a naval gazing slump.

Molly was still muttering out strict syllable patterns for her haiku about a muddy pond when Patience shoved her own bit of poetry-paper over for her to see.

Blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah blah blah
blah blah blah blah blah

Molly put her hand over the paper and started a reply, feeling like she was at school again, sharing secrets with a girlfriend, living in the light of her smiles and approval.

Ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
ha ha ha ha ha

Patience gurgled and spluttered and sprayed a bit of spit and Molly lost sight of her as her own eyes crinkled into slits.

‘Would you like to share your poems?’ the poet asked. Molly opened her eyes to see him looking straight at her. The poor thing, what disappointments he must have had to end up doing poetry in an Aged Care Hostel.

‘No, it’s a bit personal,’ Patience interrupted boldly. She reached over and patted Molly’s goanna-skin hand. Molly felt electricity shoot up her arm. The hostel’s nylon carpet was a bugger for static. And she’d been in love with Patience from the moment her son admitted her. She missed Nancy every day – who wouldn’t after forty-three years together – but Nancy was dead and Patience lived in a room in the same corridor.

‘A love poem next,’ announced the poet. ‘Maybe we can extend ourselves to ten lines.’

Molly didn’t hear the instructions; she was composing a love letter she’d never send. She knew every metaphor she could come up with was a cliché because love was a cliché no matter the age. A nipple still stood up like a rose bud, tides still rose too, and a storm wave still crashed through secret caverns.

The room went silent around her except for the scratch of pens negotiating their way across paper and Joyce’s soft snoring. Molly did try to put some of her thoughts down but they were always one step ahead of her arthritic joints. Arthur was quicker. He read out an ode to a woman who was ‘the prettiest rose in the garden’ and ‘the twinkliest star in the sky.’ He wasn’t the only one in the workshop to tear up as he read, though his face remained a continent of dry creek beds and no tears fell. They all needed a break and an orange cream. A trolley of teacups chattered in. Patience poured more electricity into Molly as she touched her.

‘I was thinking about all those years at boarding school,’ Patience confessed. The left side of Patience’s face sagged a little even when she smiled. A stroke was not always as gentle a thing as the movement of Patience’s hand down Molly’s arm.

‘It is like school,’ agreed Molly, hoping to recapture the collusive intimacy of their haiku laughter.

‘I had a thing with one of the girls in the dorm.’ Patience stopped. Picked up Molly’s hand. Stroked the loose skin on the back into gullies before travelling the length of her index finger. ‘I always wondered if it counted and whether it meant I was a virgin on my wedding night. Can I get you a cup of tea? Two sugars isn’t it?’

 

Jane Downing

 

Passionate Prosings

To avoid dwelling on the release of a certain movie adaptation this month let’s turn our attention instead to some of the truly great novels of passion to have been penned. Whether it’s passion for vengeance, ideology, a relationship, or a quest to reclaim what was lost, these novels will stir your sanguine emotions in as many ways as Valentine’s Day.

 

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseELIC, Jonathan Safran Foer
A solitary young boy on a citywide quest of NYC to uncover a secret his father left behind after he perished in the World Trade Centre disaster. Less fairytale than his other novel, Everything Is Illuminated, Safran Foer brings the same childlike beauty and wisdom to an otherwise tragic story of determination, loss and yearning.

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
A war narrative about fighting for ideology beyond national identity that presents concepts rather pertinent to our times. The hero Robert Jordan struggles between conflicting pulls of duty and new love, raising questions about the heroism of wartime death versus the loss such death leaves behind.

 

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
A vast and detailed portrait of a bygone way of life that was swept away in the carnage of America’s Civil War. Though the anti-slavery revolution was a long-overdue event, one can’t help feeling some Old South nostalgia while reading about the idyllic Tara plantation. What makes the novel truly enduring, though, is the brutal depiction of Scarlett and Rhett’s selfish, tumultuous relationship.

 

Les Liasons Dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
An epistolary novel about seduction, manipulation and degradation, it was said to have been written in order to undermine the illusive virtue of the Ancien Régime in the decades leading up to the French Revolution. Whether or not this is true, the deception and debauchery of the two central characters would shock even the writers of The Bold and the Beautiful.

 

Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Disdained by critics in its day, this epic went on to become one of the most popular tomes of all time. Spanning more than a decade and a vast array of characters and personal tales, Les Misérables is as much about obsessive duty, loyalty and personal justice as it is about love and loss.

 

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
This novel scarce needs introduction. The tale of a sexually stunted man falling for a much younger girl and the pedophilic scenes that ensue are shocking on their own but the tragicomic irony, pathos and cultural observations that construct its clever frame make this novel one of the greatest literary accomplishments of the 20th century.

 

220px-MusicAndSilenceMusic & Silence, Rose Tremain
A beautifully written and lushly depicted novel set in the 17th century court of Denmark’s King Christian IV. Far from being historical, the novel undulates between various time periods and points-of-view to weave several narratives into a fascinating and semi-fantastical Reformation world. Obsession with music and the elusive ‘perfect’ melody form the driving tension and strongest character thread.

 

Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
A story of sexuality and young love in 1960s Japan, it is the novel that made Murakami a household name. Exploring the protagonist’s nostalgic reminiscences on his relationships with two vastly different women, the novel pointedly depicts the Tokyo student protests as ill-aimed and listless.

 

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
Dumas’s ridiculously famous novel of injustice and revenge, complete with escapes from island dungeons, discovered fortunes, assumed identities, daring deceptions, and classic sword fights. What takes this beyond a simple adventure story is Dumas’s exploration of the wide-reaching effects of one man’s obsessive quest for vengeance.

 

The Godfather, Mario Puzo
The notorious ruthlessness of the Sicilian mafia is distilled and brought violently to life in Puzo’s Corleone family epic. Eccentric characters, short fuses and familial pride lead to fatal power struggles across the five families of New York City. Again, it is the human element that makes this story so good, as we watch the slow mutation of Michael into the Don he never wanted to be.

 

The Graduate, Charles Webb
An interesting and ironic examination of youthful aimlessness particularly relevant to the new college culture of 1960s America. The protagonist is equal parts aggravating and charming as he wavers unemotionally between pleasurable past-times and trying to decide what to do with his life. It is more the lack of passion that sets this novel apart and makes its climax that much more complete.

 

The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The novel centres on Gatsby’s life-long obsession with Daisy Buchanan, but it is narrator Nick Carraway’s compulsive fascination with Gatsby and his lifestyle that keeps us reading and allows Fitzgerald to unpack the peculiar details of Jazz Age depravity that echo at once beautiful and vulgar, and ever so inviting.

 

the-red-and-the-blackThe Red and the Black, Stendhal
Another little-disguised satire on French culture in the 19th century, Stendhal’s Bildungsroman follows Julien Sorel from a peasant upbringing through his attempts at overcoming the social restrictions of the time. Littered with superficial love affairs, the narrative is distinct in its dealings with social hypocrisy and political manipulation.

 

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The immortal story of Heathcliff and Catherine set amidst the desolate moors of northern England is stark in its obsessive brutality and the almost animalistic behaviour of the central characters. A novel of painstaking vengeance and misery with a lost, twisted love story at the centre. Satisfying on so many levels.

 

Elise Janes

On “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”

If you distilled Baudrillard, Derrida, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky into a band, chances are you’d get Talking Heads. They weren’t the first band to sing about consumerism or the media or the meaninglessness of meaning but they did it like nobody else. More Songs About Buildings and Food. Fear Of Music. Talking Heads were a virtual New York of the imagination, all skyscrapers and horns and fast-talking street vendors and cabbies. Like New York, geographically located in the United States but not completely of it, Talking Heads may have been associated with Punk and the New Wave but they were always tuned to a slightly different frequency, David Byrne fronting the band like he was hooked up to an ECG machine telling listeners about a van loaded with weapons and the sound of gunfire in the distance and the diminishing shelf life of identity and possessions.

this must be the placeThen in 1983 they released their fifth and most commercially successful album to date, Speaking In Tongues, with the single “Burning Down the House” peaking at Number 9 in the American Billboard charts. Despite this mainstream popularity, Speaking In Tongues lacked none of the groundbreaking edge of previous albums, with the band trashing the traditional verse – chorus – verse conventions of the song for more hypnotic signatures and beats normally found in gospel or jazz. And no better is this illustrated than in the final track of the album, “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”.

“This Must Be the Place” is a love song. Its simplicity – the enchanting, happy, catchy riff played simultaneously by both guitar and bass providing no counterpoint to the melody – verges on an asylum soporific, or a lullaby, with David Byrne singing the word ‘home’ over and over again as a kind of refrain. But its simplicity is deceptive. There’s a bewilderment to the song, a constant reassuring that home is where we are, where we’re supposed to be, and nothing’s wrong because one thing means the other. But it doesn’t. Not always. Everything about “This Must Be the Place” is slightly uncertain, vulnerable, baffled, reaching out for something to grab on to as we guess we’re OK, we guess we’re at home, we guess nothing’s wrong but not sure. It’s a lullaby sung to a newborn, with all the puzzled fear and apprehension a newborn has gazing out at a world full of colours, shapes and sounds. Being told it’s safe. Whispered. And you’re holding this newborn. A child you’ve participated in creating. Their tiny body slung over your shoulder as you lull them to sleep, burp them, their little head attached to their neck by a ribbon, their diffident creaks and yelps, now looking up at you with deep olive eyes saying…

You got a face with a view

I’m just an animal looking for a home

And share the same space for a minute or two

And you love me till my heart stops

Love me till I’m dead…

Byrne with lamp 3There’s a beautiful moment in Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s concert film of Talking Heads live in LA, where the lights go down, and the band begins “This Must Be the Place”. David Byrne turns on a ‘50s-style floor lamp with a pull cord, as a bookcase is projected onto a screen behind the band. Home. As the song ends, David Byrne invites the lamp to dance, and at one point reaches out Byrne with lamp 1with both arms and takes the lamp into his embrace and holds it there for a moment before releasing it to topple precariously on its stand as if finding its feet. Which it does. And the song ends. But Byrne’s dance with the lamp remains. There’s something going on here, like a coda that both closes and accentuates the meaning of the song. This awkward dance with the lamp, this fragile song about love, is as simple and hard as it gets. You make it up as you go along. Like the newborn asleep in your arms. You’re their shelter, their food, their answers, their love, their laughter, their safety, their home. It’s bedtime. You swaddle them carefully in a white muslin wrap, as David Byrne sings:

Never for money, only for love

Cover up and say goodnight

Say goodnight…

   Sean Macgillicuddy

  • “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” (1983). Label: Sire. B-side Moon Rocks. Lyrics by David Byrne music by the band from the album Speaking In Tongues
  • Stop Making Sense (1984) concert movie directed by Jonathan Demme shot over the course of three nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater.

Harry

Sean has just welcomed his new son Harry into the world.