sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
At seven o'clock this morning, a noise of hammering and construction began outside our bedroom window. [ profile] derspatchel and I stopped sleeping and remained that way for the rest of this story.

At eight-twenty, the property manager called to say that electricians were coming to do some minor work and the power would go out in an hour, for about an hour, and not to worry. The hammering and other noises continued.

At about eight-thirty the power went out. It stayed that way until approximately eleven forty-five. As I was checking the appliances throughout the apartment, I realized that although the router was broadcasting the correct wireless network, we had no connection to the actual internet. I left a note for Rob to contact Verizon if it did not come back of its own accord. "The electricians may have disrupted something," I wrote.

At eleven fifty-five, my cousins called for me to come downstairs (we had a lunch engagement) and the electricians, who were still on the scene, asked me on my way out if the power had come back all right. Yes, I said, except for the internet. Could they think of anything they had done which might have accidentally interfered with it? Which is how I found out that we did not have internet because the electricians had cut the Verizon cable.

Apparently it had looked like it did not belong to any of the cable boxes and was in the way. Rob said in some amazement, "I thought the first rule of being an electrician was, 'Do not cut any wires that are not yours!'" Then he gallantly spent some time on the phone with Verizon customer service while I had lunch with [ profile] gaudior and [ profile] rushthatspeaks and the latter's parents, at the end of which we had a ticket for repair on a completely unclear timeline. One of the electricians came upstairs with a voltmeter and went away again.

At four-fifteen this afternoon, I called Verizon customer service back and determined that no one from tech support would be coming out today. They are slated to arrive no earlier than eight o'clock tomorrow and no later than two in the afternoon. Till that nebulous date, at home, no internet.

At five-thirty, I made a sandwich. The cats who had been somewhat traumatized by the arrival of the electricians cautiously began to converge on the kitchen and attempt to persuade me that roast beef was the ideal recovery food for traumatized cats.

At five fifty-five, the landlord's father and two handymen showed up to replace the knob on the apartment's front door, which had not been working as such. (It spun if you tried to turn it and had no perceptible effect on the door.) The landlord's father talked to me about Greek history and showed me pictures of his family and maps of his home town in the southwestern Peloponnese, where he has a yard full of pear trees, pomegranates, and figs. They replaced the entire lock, which was great, and left me with one key, which meant Rob had no way of letting himself in or out unless I got some copies made stat. Autolycus crept out from the carrier where he had been re-hiding to give me a plaintive look. Hestia stayed under the bed and probably fumed.

At seven-twenty this evening, the next-door neighbors who usually blast objectionable talk radio started blasting Ace of Base's "Beautiful Life," which I had not heard since my senior year of high school at the latest. I was confused.

At seven-thirty, I actually left the house and hightailed it to Tags, where the very courteous, silvery clerk who copied the new key five minutes before they closed noted that I was humming "Maggie Pickens," agreed it was an earworm, and suggested as alternatives "Whisky in the Jar" and "Brennan on the Moor." My brain being what it is, I left humming Dylan's "Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie," which differs from the latter only in the lyrics.

Just now, I bought an herbal chai latte from Porter Square Books, logged on to their wifi, and wrote this.

How was your day, Mrs. Lincoln?
sovay: (Rotwang)
Delightful surprise of the week: visiting the brick-and-mortar office of Červená Barva Press in the basement of the Somerville Armory and discovering that not only do they sell their own books, like the chapbook of Aleksei Kruchonykh's libretto for the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (1913, trans. Larissa Shmailo 1980/2014) I had originally contacted the publisher about, they are a really lovely tiny used book store. My mother left with Gene Stratton-Porter's The Harvester (1911), Inez Haynes Irwin's Maida's Little School (1926), and Frances Hodgson Burnett's Robin (1922), all first editions—jacketless, but in otherwise quite respectable condition; the first two are books from her childhood and the third neither of us had ever heard of, so fingers crossed it's not terrible. I walked out with Barbara Helfgott Hyett's In Evidence: Poems of the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps (1986) and the Signet paperback of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly (1952), which I did not buy solely for its cover, but you must admit it helps. I am enjoying Victory Over the Sun. [personal profile] skygiants showed me the first three episodes of Underground (2016–) last night and I want a soundtrack album. I have returned unhappily to a state of not so much sleeping, but being awake is always better with good art.
sovay: (I Claudius)
Warning: juvenilia ahoy.

Ten years ago, I discovered a cache of printouts of unfinished middle and high school stories. Re-reading them was an amazing refresher course on the state of my id aged twelve to sixteen. I didn't think any of them existed in electronic form anymore, at least not on a machine I had access to; I didn't get a computer of my own until I left for college.

I just found one on my hard drive. I can't be sure it's the same version as the printout, but it is definitely the same story: I described it to [ profile] nineweaving as "the purest high school Babylon 5/I, Claudius juvenilia imaginable." Like, there are some lines in here I am letting stand for the sake of the historical record, but I was barely bothering to file the serial numbers off. Looking at it by daylight, there may be some badly ripped-off McKillip or Hodgell in here as well. From source materials, my best guess for my age at the time is sixteen. It's all fragments of scenes. I have no idea how it was supposed to end. I had no style to speak of; I had not yet figured out how to create convincing fictional names, never mind governmental systems; I really wanted to write emotionally-politically complex science fantasy and I had no talent for any of these attributes. I wrote a story when I was thirteen that is much, much better. I still think it's neat that this one survives. It was very obviously written by me.

The revolutionaries marched through the capital on the first day of the new year. )

What's really interesting to me all these years later is not just that I can see what went into this story (because it's screaming at me), but that I can see in my published fiction since some of the same ideas or emotions I was trying to get at with these fragments. I wasn't conscious of revisiting anything. I managed to forget twice in twenty years that this file even existed. Some part of my brain just kept trying to get something tricky right. Spoiler: it wasn't the complex science fantasy politics. But I think "The Boatman's Cure" has a lot more to do with these idtastic eight thousand words than I would have said if you'd asked me a week ago.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
As a kind of postscript to the previous: I was just reminded that since the latest issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone has become available, the previous issue is now free to read online. As well as fantastic work by Gwynne Garfinkle and Neile Graham, it contains my poem "Men Who Aren't Crazy," written for Dwight Frye, Helen Chandler, and Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). I will never cease to be entertained that it was accepted just in time for Frye's hundred-and-seventeenth birthday.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I slept almost nine hours last night. The night before that, almost eight. Following a week of staggering exhaustion, it feels somewhat miraculous. Then of course I spent almost all of today out of the house and away from my computer, therefore have written nothing on any of the topics I was holding off until I had more brain for.

My poems "A Death of Hippolytos" and "The Other Lives" are now available in the latest issue of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. The first was a consequence of Jules Dassin's Phaedra (1962); the second was written for [ profile] rose_lemberg after a discussion of different reactions to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). I am delighted that they appear alongside a poem of [ profile] gwynnega's about Una O'Connor and an article in praise of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding.

Speaking of, I am really enjoying these collected novels of Ross Macdonald. I didn't know until I saw his non-pseudonymous last name that he was married to Margaret Millar, whom I already knew I found interesting. It's just as well that I have set aside an entire set of shelves for pulp, noir, and suspense fiction. I don't foresee this interest diminishing any time soon.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My poem "At the Meyerhold Theatre" is now online at Through the Gate. This is the ghost poem I wrote in February after discovering what is now my favorite picture of Dmitri Shostakovich:

I would not have said until then that he was the sort of historical figure for whom I wrote ghost poems, although I owned a book of his published letters, loved two of his operas and one of his film scores, and his Suite for Variety Orchestra (formerly misidentified as the Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 2, under which name I have the recording I am currently listening to) supplied the soundtrack for a significant period of my life in college; I was looking for a photo of Mayakovsky at the time. But about a week after the poem, I discovered Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time (2016), and shortly after that my mother spontaneously presented me with a copy of M.T. Anderson's Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad (2015) which she had been holding on to for the right occasion, so I think this was just a case of nonlinear inspiration. The flexatone made a huge impression on me when I saw the New England premiere of The Nose at the Boston Lyric Opera in 2009. So did the actor who played the young composer himself, gravely surveying the chaos from a safe distance of metafiction. He could be recognized by his horn-rims and his stoneface, a score stamped нос under his arm just in case. I don't know that he got into this poem more than the real Shostakovich, but I suspect he's in there somewhere. I hope both of them would appreciate it.
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I got up very early this morning on an hour's sleep to accompany my mother to a doctor's appointment and stayed surprisingly awake until four in the afternoon, when I finished Ross Macdonald's The Way Some People Die (1951), started The Barbarous Coast (1956), passed out for another hour with Hestia curled behind my knees, and had a solid narrative block of nightmare of the kind that looks stupid when written down, but was vividly disorienting and upsetting even as I was waking from it. I was badly overheating. I lay on my back trying to feel real. Hestia was gone by then, but Autolycus leaped onto the bed and instantly molded himself to my side, purring so that I could feel it vibrating through my ribs. Earlier he had been prowling around the top of the dresser while vocally speculating about leaping onto the top of the bedroom door (I am pleased to say he did not go for it) and for some time after that I'd heard him playing with the jingly feather on a stick, but he stayed beside me, dedicatedly purring, until the dream started to drain off and I could think about getting up and making dinner. After I had made a baked potato with goat cheese and was still not feeling fantastic, he arranged himself on my lap and employed more purring along with a judicious grooming of my hands. He is a very empathetic little cat. Everything else I wanted to write about today needs more sleep first.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My short story "The Creeping Influences" has been accepted by Shimmer. This is the one with the genderqueer narrator and the bog body in 1930's Ireland; it was accepted earlier this year by another market, but the sale fell through about a month later in one of the weirder experiences I have had in publishing. I am very, very glad it has found a new home and I am glad that home is Shimmer. They are a new market for me; publication is slated for early 2017 and I'm looking forward. They do illustrations. The story is my longest successful attempt at historical fiction to date; it takes its title from Seamus Heaney's "Bog Queen," the second of the six poems collected in North (1975) which describe and contemplate Irish and Danish bog bodies. I was scared by one of them as a child. Years later, this sort of thing happens.
sovay: (I Claudius)
We saw my father off at the airport tonight. He is going to Greece with Maria, to help her settle her parents' affairs in Sparta. (Her mother came from Xirokambi, where they say the bridge is the same one Telemachos drove over with Peisistratos, coming to see Menelaos and Helen; the family's olive groves are there. Her father was born in Pylos.) Since it was not feasible for me to stow away in his suitcase, I have submitted a strongly worded request for photographs and travel stories. I am home with new books and cats, one of whom is still freaking out over the hot air vents while the other now lies down beside them and rolls over to have his belly petted in warmth. We lit the candles before leaving the house.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
So seeing John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) on a big screen was great. It was a digital projection, which still allowed me to perceive details and contrasts that had not been apparent from television or DVD; someday I'll see it in 35 mm and it'll be even better. It remains one of my favorite movies and the reason my feelings toward Lawrence Harvey gravitate in the direction of wanting to give him a hug, even though everything I have ever read about him as a person suggests that he was almost as difficult to get close to as Raymond Shaw. I like Sinatra in it, even if I like him more in the otherwise disposable Suddenly (1954). Angela Lansbury is iconic, immortal, and terrifying. Having seen Frankenheimer's Seconds (1964) and The Comedian (1957) since my last experience of The Manchurian Candidate, I paid a lot more attention to the cinematography this time around and it is a register-shifting blend of noirish deep focus, three-camera staging, handheld disorientation, and inclusions of live video feed overlapping, doubling, confounding the action. The tone is much the same: it adds up to a tight, touching, nightmarish movie I love.

What was not so great was the lengthy introduction by the series programmer in which, presumably taking attendance at tonight's showing to equal having already seen the movie, she described the entire plot. I'm not just talking about the premise, although I wouldn't have been pleased if she had given it and nothing else away. Major points of revelation, scenes with shocking emotional impact. She read out passages of dialogue. I was suddenly and furiously reminded of the reasons we never renewed our membership to the Coolidge Corner Theatre. "What if someone had come to see it for the first time?" I text-fumed at [ profile] derspatchel. "This is the kind of analysis you do after the fact!" It was not even very analytical. I appreciated her situating the film in context of other political thrillers like Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent (1962), Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), and Frankenheimer's Seven Days in May (1964), all with some paranoid, chaotic spirit and all at least loosely based on novels of the time; I was glad she talked a little about the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, although not about the part where Condon plagiarized passages from Robert Graves' I, Claudius (1934).1 Otherwise she was mostly, merely narrating the film in advance. She made one very good point that I hadn't noticed for myself: she finds The Manchurian Candidate an incredibly weird film and thinks it's because no matter how perverse, preposterous, or bleak the action becomes, the film always presents it straight-faced, never winking to the audience or offering a reassuring check-in with reality as we believe we know it. That makes sense to me. It's how nightmares work. A perfectly ordinary interaction, object, landscape can be charged with unspeakable dread. Ladies showing off their prize hydrangeas at a meeting of a garden club in New Jersey. A game of solitaire. A man taking a long walk off a short pier. The sequences the film presents as the craziest, scariest, and most out of control are expressions of the American political process: a televised press conference that turns into Red-baiting pandemonium, the confetti-and-flashbulbs frenzy of a political party's nominating convention at Madison Square Garden. The fight scenes in this movie inflict less damage than quiet, measured conversation. And then, because the film doesn't push its weirdness stylistically, it can offer a surreal image like a heart-shot man appearing to bleed milk from the carton he was holding when the bullet drilled both it and him—a gouting, visceral moment without a drop of gore—and it lands with the force of the other side of nightmares, the things that in waking or dreaming life are just wrong. The speaker did not offer examples like these in support of an argument, where I would have considered them more fair game, if still kind of premature. She just made the observation and moved on to another plot description. That is not the way to do it for people who have never seen the film.

Look: I am indifferent to spoilers. I enjoy discovering books and movies cold and it can be very rewarding, but I have never lost enjoyment in a work because someone told me something about it in advance. Traditionally I chalk it up to a background in classics—nobody goes to see Oedipus for the shocking twist ending—but more realistically I imagine it is something about the ways in which I process narrative and which elements of it I prioritize. Suspense is rarely the top of the list. I am much less interested in shows that hang their audience investment on some central mystery than in shows that work out the nth-order consequences of their premise all the way down. I don't want to be told some climactic revelation just to spoil it for me, but that's an objection on the grounds of jerkassery, not information. In general, I really don't care. I am not the norm in our current media culture. There were people in that audience who hadn't seen The Manchurian Candidate before; I heard a couple of them enthusing on their way out of the theater and I wondered if others stuck their fingers in their ears and hummed through the introduction or if they were just faintly sorry that they watched the pre-credits sequence for the first time already knowing not just the first-act bombshell but the third-act twist. I think it annoys me not just because it's unkind to viewers who might have wanted to discover the story on their own terms, but because it's unnecessary. You don't need to lay out a story's entire plot in order to prime an audience's interest. You can truthfully say that The Manchurian Candidate is a movie which warped its topical references to such a pitch of hallucinogeny that it inspired conspiracy theories about its script and urban legends about its release; you can suggest its destabilizing spell by noting that flirting in this movie sounds like numbers station shortwave while its most fervent gesture of parental devotion is the one that will make most of the audience's skin crawl. You can talk about the ways in which it sensitizes its audience to suspect even normal social conditioning, like the soldier who can't refuse friendly advice when it's restated as performative speech—"What I've just told you is not a suggestion, Major. It's an order"—and the absurd respect with which everyone holds in place for the national anthem even in the middle of a suspected assassination attempt. You probably should mention that it's funny, in both the outrageousness of its ultimate conceit and the patriotic satire that is almost too raw to laugh at, especially this election year, but the ketchup joke got a huge laugh tonight and it deserves to. You may appreciate how constantly the very modern questions of media spin and manufactured identity are at the center of the story. I already said something about the painful sympathy this film draws out for a character initially and accurately encapsulated with the line "It isn't as if [he's] hard to like—he's impossible to like!" so you don't have to bring it up. If you want to talk about the deliberate genre-slippage, though, go for it. That The Manchurian Candidate is both a satire and a tragedy is a neat, jagged trick. It may be one of the movies I find so interesting that I am not as emotionally upset by it in toto as I am by some of its separate scenes. Your mileage and your audience's may vary. I hope I have communicated a little of the interest it holds for me, however, and if I have done this at all successfully, I have done so while saying almost jack about the plot.

I may write what I consider an actual review of The Manchurian Candidate at some later date. Right now, I'm going to read more Le Guin and go to bed. This exercise in apophasis brought to you by my loveable backers at Patreon.

1. Mostly pertaining to the relationship between Eleanor Shaw Iselin and her second husband Johnny; Condon adapted it from Claudius' assessment of Livia and Augustus' marriage. I have no trouble seeing how Graves' Livia would inspire Condon's Eleanor; it makes me a little wistful for a Lansbury Livia. You want to rewrite Roman history with American senators, I can think of worse ideas. Just don't steal immediately recognizable chunks of phrasing from the British writer who already did the retelling. Your audiences aren't so divergent that someone won't notice someday.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
I don't know what it expresses about my relationship to musicals or my relationship to housework that as soon as I start vaccuming, I find myself humming "It's a Hard-Knock Life" from Annie, but here we are.

(I just tried turning on the heat for the first time. It is forced air. I have only ever lived with radiators before. I understood it was unlikely that anyone had turned on the heat since last winter, but I had not taken into account that heavy construction was done in this apartment in the first half of September. I tapped the thermostat a half-degree Celsius up. The heat clicked on, the blowers started up, a fountain of paint flakes, sawdust, and other unnameable crud erupted into the air from the depths of the century-old house, I vacuumed. The cats freaked throughout.)

I had a nice birthday. There was a distressing catbox incident just as we were leaving the house that led to Autolycus being briefly known as "Emperor Poopfoot IV of Commodiana," and my treasured box set of pioneering African-American film got rained on, but the latter did not stop me and [ profile] derspatchel from watching two fascinating short films after dinner—the mini-golfing comedy Hot Biskits (1931) and the evangelist Hell-Bound Train (1930)—and the former purred his way to sleep while curled against my stomach later that night, so it was all right. We had dinner with my family at home, including little tournedos of beef wrapped in bacon and a Queen Mother's cake with whipped cream and sour cherries. Colin and Randi gave me a silver-wire mermaid, who now lives in the glass-fronted cabinet alongside the seventeenth-century onion bottle and an assortment of beachcombed shells; my parents gave me books. I have Le Guin's The Complete Orsinia (2016), W. F. Morris' Bretherton: Khaki or Field Grey? (1929), Anna Lawton and Herbert Eagle's Words in Revolution: Russian Futurist Manifestoes 1912–1928 (2005). I am looking forward to all of them except for the two new Orsinian folksongs which I have already read, immediately, at the dinner table last night. They are in the Orsinian language, which the end notes (which do not provide a translation) confirm works exactly the way I thought it did from the names and place-names, i.e., rather like Romanian. I have been listening to Barney Kessel: Live at the Jazz Mill 1954. My parents watched the debate. That was when we watched Hell-Bound Train.

I slept with cats and husband and managed to wake in time to enjoy lunch with [ profile] rushthatspeaks, [ profile] gaudior, and B. before he caught his flight home. I am about to abandon this computer in an attempt to catch The Manchurian Candidate (1962) at the Coolidge. So far, not a bad year at all.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
It is autumn and raining. I am thirty-five years old. I woke with one cat on my feet and my husband beside me and another cat on the far side of him. The present from my parents on the end of the bed was the box set of Pioneers of African-American Cinema, which I am so much looking forward to. [personal profile] yhlee has sent me a year's worth of mermaids, currently propped on top of the glass-fronted cabinet while we find them frames. The fragile things are slowly being unpacked. There are plans for dinner and cake. Usually, my mother says, she wishes people sunny days for their birthday, but this rain is probably keeping Rosabella—the salmon-pink, late-blooming dogwood who grows in the side yard of my parents' house; she is eight years younger than I am—alive. She's right that I consider that a better gift than sun. I will have to find out which character I am measuring this year by.
sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
It is the ghost-season of the Gregorian calendar and the middle of the Days of Awe. I have been wanting to write about Marcin Wrona's Demon (2015) ever since I saw it in May as part of the National Center for Jewish Film's annual festival at the MFA. Now seems as good a time as any. It's the best dybbuk film made in any country since 1937.

Loosely adapted from Piotr Rowicki's stage play Adherence/The Clinging (Przylgnięcie, 2008) and taking cues from Jewish folklore as well as An-sky's seminal play, Demon is, like every effective possession, more than one thing at once, encompassing a poignant ghost story, a romantic tragedy, a black comedy, and a scalding indictment of the failure of historical memory, specifically in the director's native Poland. Pay attention to the opening image—a front loader trundling through the misty, empty streets of an antique-looking town is an obvious symbol of excavation and construction, but it can be used just as easily for covering up and tearing down. One does not preclude the other. Building can be a form of erasure, depending on what's under the foundations. Everything in the film will be this ambivalent, its protagonist included.

The action begins with a ferry rounding the bend of a wide, flat river, a young man leaning on the rail. This is Piotr (Itay Tiran, giving a powerhouse performance), nicknamed "Python." He has a clever, slightly clownish, youthfully leonine face, something of a tough air in his black leather jacket and jeans and boots, his dark hair cropped tight. He drives a Range Rover. He could be anyone. He's an engineer from London, come to Poland to marry his girlfriend in her rural home town; he knows his way around the loader left on the grounds of the ramshackle farmhouse he and his bride-to-be are inheriting as a fixer-upper gift from her father. The day before the wedding, the place looks like a derelict memory palace, its rain-faded walls still hung with clouded mirrors and glass-cracked photographs, its doorways scratched with heights and ages that Żaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska) assumes must have belonged to her grandfather's family, though she's puzzled not to recognize all the names. They are a modern, international couple—they did most of their falling in love over Skype—but the Catholic blowout of the wedding is more than just a concession to her parochial parents (Andrzej Grabowski and Katarzyna Gniewkowska) who'd rather have seen her marry a nice homegrown Polish boy; tradition seems important to them, too, the past, roots, family. Żaneta's enthusiasm as she shows him around the property causes Piotr to tease that she's "more in love with this place than she is with me." She kisses him passionately in rebuttal while her brother Jasny (Tomasz Schuchardt) wraps them both in an affectionate embrace, two fair-haired kinfolk welcoming the dark stranger into their midst. When he fires up the loader to break ground on an ambitiously proposed swimming pool, already as confident as a homeowner, they leave him to it. They shouldn't have: in the next scoop of earth are bones. They look human. A troubled Piotr immediately drives over to tell his imminent in-laws, but the wedding preparations are so busy and so joyful—and his position as the groom from away still so contingent—that he can't bring himself to interrupt. He keeps the secret to himself, going out after dark with a flashlight to look again for the gravesite. He sees rain, trees, a human figure moving beyond the windows of the old house, kneeling with its back to him or standing somehow to its knees in the dark wet field; he's lured by its vagueness, drawn off into his own rain-scattered circle of light when he comes suddenly face-to-face with a dark-haired girl in white (Maria Dębska). For a moment he sees her clearly—her pale face, her antique wedding dress, her mouth and eyes as heavily shadowed as theatrical makeup—and then the earth liquefies beneath his feet. Black, depthless, it swallows him up.

He flails awake in the back seat of his car with his groomsmen banging on the windows, laughing at him for almost oversleeping his own wedding. He's a little disoriented, a little groggy, but Jasny greeted him yesterday with a bottle in hand and today they're getting started on the booze well ahead of the wedding celebrations. Flanked by the glowering but obedient Ronaldo (Tomasz Zietek), Jasny gives a toast in farewell to his wild London friend and greeting of the husband who's going to make his sister happy: "Python has died and in his place is born Piotr." The groom dresses distractedly—staring at his own hands, starting at a string of small children who seem to run from and to nowhere—but for the ceremony itself he is clear, focused, committed, sliding the ring onto Żaneta's finger and lifting her joyously in a swirl of white-blond hair and whiter veil. Arriving early at the barn out back of the farmhouse where the reception is to take place, the newlyweds even sneak off into a bedroom to consummate their marriage in a giggly, adolescent moment of stolen privacy before the hours of revelry and congratulation to come. Everyone who is familiar with the Ashkenazi post-wedding ritual of the yichud, please start your wondering. It is at the reception, however, that things really begin to derange. Żaneta flings her glass over her shoulder after a traditional toast; Piotr stamps on his, sharp and gleeful as a dancer, then seems puzzled both by his own reflex action and the crowd's lack of appropriate response. Making his first toast as a married man, he stumbles over Żaneta's name, substitutes the unfamiliar "Hana" instead. He dizzies in the dancing, finds himself spinning in the arms of the same dark-haired girl from last night's vision, who by the electric glare of the barn's bulb-hung rafters looks even less alive than she did standing over her own grave. He stammers. He faints. As his body convulses and his voice whoops through registers, the frantic parents of the bride blame vodka, food poisoning, epilepsy, schizophrenia, God knows what freakish foreign ailment, finally bundle him out of sight into the basement to give themselves time to think how best to salvage this scandalous disaster. Half-naked, his breast beating like a bird's, Piotr struggles against his bonds, glossolaling an eerie nonsense—unless, like the elderly teacher Szymon Wentz (Włodzimierz Press) whose erudite, self-deprecating, pointedly disregarded toast told the audience everything they needed to know about his token status in this community, the listener has some knowledge of other languages common in Poland before 1939–45. Piotr's body language is trembling, defiant, protective of its modesty. His voice lightens in his throat, his words catch farther back in it. Even his gold chain lies differently around his neck. He says his name is Hana; he says she lives in this house. Where is her family? Isn't this her wedding? Piotr is the man she was promised, her basherter. Szymon blinks back tears, addresses another question to this familiar spirit in strange flesh in a language he hasn't shared with anyone in seventy years. He knew her when she was alive—"Little Szymon," she recalls him, the tagalong younger brother of a boy she ran with. He remembers when she was going to be married; he remembers when she disappeared. He remembers when there was a synagogue instead of a butcher's shop, when it would not have been difficult to find the nine other adults necessary to form a minyan and perform an exorcism. She's speaking Yiddish. They are the last surviving Jews of their village and one of them is dead.

I assume it is obvious why I love this premise. It plays like a dream cross between a genderswapped Dybbuk and the sixteenth-century folktale retold by Howard Schwartz as "The Finger" and repurposed by Tim Burton for The Corpse Bride (2005)—both stories not only of romantic entanglement between the living and the dead, but of the insistence of the past on coming to light. The dead bride who clawed her way out of the earth with joking Reuven's ring on her skeletal finger died before her wedding and was forgotten so completely that no one even knew the riverbank contained her grave, but now she stands before the assembled guests at Reuven's wedding, insisting on her rights to the married life she was promised, the happiness she was denied. The dybbuk in An-sky's play both springs from and exposes a failure of memory—the convenient forgetting of wealthy Sender that he once made a vow with his beloved friend Nisn concerning the futures of their unborn children, so that now he can ignore the brilliant, penniless student with a strange affinity for his daughter in favor of a match more advantageous to his business. Demon's screenplay, co-authored by Wrona and Paweł Maślona, both broadens and sharpens this theme: in the shadow of the Holocaust, it is Jewish memory itself that is the persistent, inconvenient ghost. The war is only shallowly buried. It's darkly funny to watch Żaneta's parents scramble to contain the chaos of the reception with no help whatsoever from any of the spiritual or temporal institutions that are supposed to rise to the occasion of something like demonic possession. The Catholic priest (Cezary Kosiński) backs hastily away from the whole mess, practically disclaiming his faith in the process; the alcoholic doctor (Adam Woronowicz) philosophizes and psychoanalyzes to no one in particular and dissolves into mysticism as the night wears on; and the marginalized professor is too busy tenderly singing "Rozhinkes mit Mandlen" to the dybbuk in the cellar to spare a thought for helping the neighbors save face. When Zygmunt and Zofia decide that the best course of action is to get all the guests blackout drunk and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary is going on, that's funny, too, in an increasingly manic and disintegrating way. It is not so funny to see that their ideas of restoring order include physically dragging their weeping, protesting daughter away from her possessed husband and buttonholing the priest about an annulment, and it is not funny at all to realize that their willingness to make Piotr and his dybbuk disappear in a wave of vodka is merely the latest layer of the self-protective denial that has been going on in this town since the Germans blew up the bridge. Nothing bad is happening underneath this house, just as nothing bad happened here during the war. This land always belonged to Żaneta's grandfather. I guess there were maybe some Jews here once. Maybe? Not like it had anything to do with us if there were. Or weren't.

In the old days it was simple. Everyone was Polish. )

"We must forget what we didn't see here," Zygmunt intones to his wrecked, exhausted guests at the end of the hellish night, a magician of negation carefully replacing the scales on his audience's eyes. "There never was a wedding . . . Neither is there a groom. And there never was." Some of the audience with which I saw it faulted Demon for ending without resolution, but that seemed to me almost the entire point of the film. There is no ending something that no one will acknowledge started in the first place. You cannot have an exorcism unless you first admit there is a ghost. You cannot heal a trauma if you deny there was ever a wound. The film's last shot shows the ferry pulling away around the river's bend, like a reverse of its initial entrance; on its deck stands a figure in a black leather jacket, her pale hair flagging in the wind. She is the script's one grace note of hope, a woman walking away from Omelas. Everything she leaves behind is trapped in a timelessness between atrocity and denial, a "whole country . . . built on corpses" resolutely refusing to look under its feet. Or it is in the past already, where history has already happened to it. There's nothing for that but memory.

It's a beautiful movie. The cinematography by Paweł Flis is full of near-tableaux that break up vividly and messily, everything so warmly shot that it feels—without being desaturated—like paging through an album of old photographs, with some of the same curious lacunae. There are no special effects that I could see. Hana is a hollow-eyed girl in an anachronistic dress, passing among the wedding guests in the theatrical understanding that she is invisible to everyone but the audience and the basherter who found her bones. Piotr's possession is conveyed as it would have been onstage—Tiran's contorting body, his husky falsetto voice coloring to its new language as if it had never spoken anything else. The most uncanny images in the production are the ones that feel like allegories with the key missing: a woman struggling from a man's arms into the river, the front loader moving as if self-willed, the juxtaposition of a funeral procession crossing paths with the wedding party the morning after. Altogether it possesses the quality I associate with the best fiction of the weird, the sense that everything should fit together in some kind of pattern, but nothing quite does. It's not dreamlike; it has too many sharp edges. I would call it unheimlich, except the supernatural element is the one that has the most right to call itself at home.1

The previous best dybbuk film made in any country was also Polish: Michał Waszyński's masterwork of Yiddish cinema The Dybbuk (דער דיבוק). Watching it, as with many other Yiddish-language movies made before World War II, is a double act of haunting: An-sky set his play in a world that was disappearing even as he documented it and the industry in which Waszyński worked—not to mention much of his intended audience—would be gone within a few years of filming. Marcin Wrona committed suicide in 2015, a few days after Demon's premiere. I don't know his reasons; neither did Antony Polonsky, who spoke briefly after the screening at the MFA. It was his third and last film. It is appropriate to hear a dead voice tell a dybbuk story, but I don't think it should be compulsory. Nonetheless, this one is worth listening to. It's a worthy successor to Waszyński's film and has set me listening to the Klezmatics' Possessed (1997) on repeat; more recently I was reminded of Robert Eggers' The Witch (2015), another movie like things I have read and dreamed of seeing for a long, long time. This unearthing brought to you by my mindful backers at Patreon.

1. The other main contributor to the uncanny feel of Demon is its out-of-focus specificity, by which I mean that some of its incidental details are very clear and some very important ones blur the closer you try to look at them. Piotr is one of the latter. His personality is forthright; his origins are not. Polish is not his first language, although he insists on speaking it with his prospective in-laws; they address him naturally in English and have to be reminded not to call him "Peter." He met Żaneta in London, but we don't know what he was doing there. The likeliest explanation is that he's the UK-born/raised child of Polish immigrants, but the fact that the film never offers evidence either way gives him an ambiguous, unsettled status, half outsider, half countryman. There is an almost subliminal question of whether he's Jewish: his actor is. After a while, the uncertainty of his identity extends even as far as time.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
My schedule is hopelessly off kilter. These last few days I have gotten up very early and been nearly passing out by noon; last night I slept from about four in the morning until a quarter of two in the afternoon, which was objectively more sleep than I've had in weeks put together, and it still leaves me feeling as glazed and vacant as if I'd stayed awake all night. Autolycus curled up in a sort of mid-blanket hammock between me and [ profile] derspatchel. Hestia reads under his knees until we turn the light out and then she resettles herself at my feet, where I always find her in the morning like a birthday present of yawning rose-tongued black fur. I am reading Howard Jacobson's Shylock Is My Name (2016) and assorted books of poetry that are no longer in storage.

The moving and unpacking of books is a continuing process, but as of last night I have a glass-fronted cabinet for putting fragile things in. It came from Maria's parents; her mother picked it up on the Cape in the '70's and it's at least a hundred years old. It locks with a very antique key. We have put the tool chest in the bottom cabinet for weight, tablecloths and napkins in the drawer, the plates on the bottom shelf because the unvarying small size of the kitchen cabinets meant we'd been storing them awkwardly over the sink. The really important thing is the upper shelves, which now hold the wooden catwings from [ profile] nineweaving, the green glass fishing float that used to hang in my window in New Haven, and the seventeenth-century ocean-green glass onion bottle that is one of the most precious things I own. I discovered it in 2006 in the window of the China Sea Marine Trading Company when they were still on Fore Street in Portland; it came from the mouth of a Caribbean river in the last quarter of the 1600's and it wasn't for sale, but I must have looked at it with a great sea-hunger in my eyes, because about two weeks later I got a call from the proprietors who had changed their minds and carefully extricated it from the window display that looked like someone had dumped out Davy Jones' locker and I drove up with a friend and met a sixty-year-old scarlet macaw named Singapore and brought the bottle home to Boston wrapped in a strawberry-pink J.C. Penney bag and a lot of newspaper. It became a central piece of my story "The Salt House" (Sirenia Digest #22, 2007). For the last year it has languished in a cardboard box and layers on layers of bubble wrap. Now it has a home and I can see it daily and I will surround it with other treasures and talismans, because there are many. We relocated the Banner of the Cat to the wall between the front door and the first bookcase. Next up for furniture, a couch.

The glass-fronted cabinet at home. )
sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
I just realized that Laura Veirs' "Sleeper in the Valley" (July Flame, 2010) chills me for the exact same reasons as Bulgakov's "The Red Crown" (1922). It is not so much that they are both narratives about death, in war, too young: it is the way death in both stories serves as a kind of doom, confirming the transformation into something the characters never knew they had made the decision to be. The title character of Veirs' song is not alive, although the listener might be briefly fooled by the dreamy images of a green hollow and the music of bluebells and streams; the crows that gather to "the two red holes in his right side" know better. The second verse clicks it into place:

Sleeping in the sun, his hand on his breast
The nape of his neck in the blue watercress
He was just a kid and he never knew
He would be the sleeper in the valley so soon

The kid and the sleeper in the valley are not the same person; one was always fated to turn into the other, even if he didn't know the dead identity that was waiting for him when he signed up to fight. Just so the narrator of "The Red Crown," haunted by the apparition of the blind, blood-crowned, nameless "horseman" who was once the younger brother he tried only too late to rescue from the war, dreams once of Kolya as he was in life, a piano-playing student with bright eyes and tousled hair instead of the faceless "red crown" that is the emblem of his death, and imagines in that moment that his brother "had never gone away and had never been a horseman." The sleeper in the valley, the horseman are the things people become when they are dead; their selves are past tense, even when their presence—bodies, ghosts—remains. Those two red holes do not belong on a living body, however youthfully resting. Bulgakov's narrator can see the horseman every night, but Kolya's not coming back.

I got all the way through this post before thinking to look into Veirs' own thoughts on the song, at which point I learned that her "Sleeper in the Valley" is an adaptation of the Rimbaud poem of the same name. Which does not give me the same chill, because while it describes the dead young soldier in even more poignant detail, it does not distinguish between his two identities in the same way as Veirs' additional lyrics, nor does it return to the image of the two red holes with an underscore of interested crows that Veirs uses for a chorus. It's a very short song, but I find it as effective as a nightmare: it has the same terror of the things you can't see. I'm not surprised there's no actual connection to Bulgakov's story, but the fact that I find the technique so effective and unsettling in both cases means I should see if I've ever used it myself, or if I should start. It's October; I think of these things.
sovay: (Lord Peter Wimsey: passion)
My poem "The Ghost Marriage" is now online at Uncanny Magazine. It was directly inspired by Roy William Neil's Black Angel (1946), specifically by a line in my Patreon review: "Somewhere the ghost marriage is still going on." Even as I wrote it, I knew the image would stick with me until I did something else with it. I would have enjoyed something sunnier, but it's a bittersweet film: the same actions that open a space for the possibility of romance between the protagonists have already closed it even as their relationship plays itself out, a contrafactual clause from the beginning. They are a kind of half-flipped Orpheus and Eurydike, June Vincent's Cathy questing to recover her husband from death, Dan Duryea's Marty surprisedly finding a reason to come back into the light. From that perspective, it is even less surprising that the film ends as it does. When the underworld gets involved, someone always has to stay below. I seem to believe that is still not quite the same as gone.
sovay: (Default)
Tonight my family celebrated Rosh Hashanah not only with honeycake, but with the unexpected early birthday cake my mother baked for me and my cousin Tristen, who is now almost fourteen and already over six feet tall. I had not seen him since he was ten years old and about a foot shorter. He and [ profile] derspatchel bonded briefly over Christopher Durang's An Actor's Nightmare and the way that community theater spaces keep disappearing and shouldn't. I am unpacking the first six twelve boxes of my books onto the shelves I finally got onto my walls last week. Every time I clear a box, Hestia jumps into it, and then Autolycus takes the one she vacated. L'shanah tovah, all.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I need a new toothbrush. I just found Autolycus chewing on mine.

I appreciate and support his desire for healthy teeth, but I still don't want to share a toothbrush with a cat.
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
Rabbit, rabbit. Tomorrow is Erev Rosh Hashanah and a week after that is my thirty-fifth birthday. I want a better year. A better life in general would also be all right.

I always thought my grey-green tweed flat cap—the one I had repaired by Salmagundi in the spring—belonged originally to my grandfather. At the time of his death it was being stored with the black lamb astrakhan that belonged to my great-grandfather Noah (nobody of my generation wears it, but I couldn't give it up) and and the enormous shedding wolfskin hat that was very definitely my grandfather's, because my mother remembers him wearing it through Midwestern winters. I inherited all of them and have worn the flat cap ever since. But my aunt and my uncle who are in town for the New Year saw me in it, looked at each other in amazement, and unanimously identified it as "Grandpa Bernie's!"

This is my grandmother's father, my brother's namesake, the Brooklyn pharmacist Israel Bernard Madinek. He died in 1964. (His funeral was the site of the legendary exchange between the sententious rabbi who kept declaring, "Life depends on the liver," and the infuriated widow who finally burst out, "But he died of a heart attack!") He is supposed to have been born on January 25th, 1894, somewhere Russian that came down to me as "Padolia," which I think now must have been Podolia. According to the one story I heard growing up, he came over alone at age sixteen, never sent for any of his family, never allowed Russian to be spoken in his house: his father was a rabbi who had abandoned the family. My grandmother grew up speaking English and "Yiddish you could break a leg on." About six years ago, sorting some family documents, my mother discovered photocopies of a passport issued by the Russian Empire in the name of Ilsinik I. Myatinek—I thought at the time that the date on it was 1914, but now I want to double-check. A year or so after that, my mother handed me a document in Fraktur to translate. It turned out to be an original contract for passage on the Hamburg-Amerika Linie: Srul Meydanik, aged nineteen, previous residence starting with P, sailing to New York on the Pretoria on December 5th, 1913. I don't expect ever to fill in these gaps or discrepancies, to know which version of his age was the right one, if either, or whether the story about his father was true. I only know the year he graduated from Columbia University's College of Pharmacy of the City of New York—1919—because Google digitized the relevant publications a couple of years ago. It was easier in those days to make your past disappear. He was a difficult parent, a better grandparent. My 1928 contraband copy of Joyce's Ulysses came originally from him. My grandmother remembered him giving her mercury to play with as a small child, all the small shivering drops rolling back and forth and running together in her palm. Even if it dates back no further than the 1950's and was manufactured somewhere in New Jersey, I like knowing that I am wearing his hat.

[ profile] derspatchel informs me that today Massachusetts' transgender anti-discrimination law finally goes into effect. Good start, October. Keep it up. I am off to a birthday party.
sovay: (I Claudius)
And today, massive insomnia and being woken rather jarringly by the property manager knocking on the door to ask if now was a good time for her to fix the fan in the bathroom (it was not). My brain has felt like a cloudy chalkboard ever since. I really hope this fifth-century electrum stater from Kyzikos does portray Odysseus sacrificing a ram as part of the ritual of drawing up the dead in Book 11 of the Odyssey. I will never be able to own it, but its existence in the world will delight me.


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