Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The lake

For a while after I retired from teaching one of my former colleagues invited me back once a year to give a guest lecture at a summer seminar he ran. I had moved to the city by then, but as it was an afternoon class and I was an early riser I usually took back roads because they were quieter and because I liked the drive along the Housatonic. When my talk was over my host would invite me to dinner -- we were both widowers and I at least was past the age where I thought there was much likelihood of my marrying again -- and we would reminisce for a while over a stew and a glass of wine before I headed home.

It was on one of these evenings that I took a wrong turn in the dark somewhere on the way back to the city. The students had seemed a bit unresponsive earlier in the day and I was mulling over the question of whether they were the ones to blame – as any academic can tell you, some crops of incoming students are more promising than others -- or whether I had just been doing this for so long that other people were catching on to the fact that I was maybe getting a bit tired of it by now. My colleague had seemed a bit subdued as well; he hadn’t mentioned retirement but I suspected that the eventuality probably wasn’t far from his mind. There had been rain as I drove up but it had ended by late morning; the sun had steamed the moisture off the lawns but a few puddles still remained in the low places. I don’t know how I mistook my course, a moment’s inattention I suppose, as I knew the roads in that part of the Berkshires well and made a point of never drinking enough to affect my judgment. It was a darker night than usual, with no moonlight and little traffic, and maybe a sign had been knocked down or removed since the last time I drove that way. There aren’t many landmarks on the back roads, just miles of green woods broken by cornfields and the occasional mailbox, and so it was a while before I realized that I had gotten off my regular route. I was a little annoyed at myself but not alarmed; I had a full tank and I figured that eventually I’d come to a town or an intersection I recognized.

I was only doing about forty-five at this point. There were a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs in the road, and there was always the chance of a deer blundering out of the woods. After five miles or a bit more the gloom of the overhanging woods began to thin out on my left side, and I realized that I was driving along the edge of a body of water – not just a pond but a good-sized lake from the look of it. My headlights picked up the brown rippling of waves along the surface. I vaguely remembered there being a lake on the map in the area – it had a long Indian name I couldn’t come up with -- though it was off the main drag and I didn’t think I'd ever actually seen it before. I knew it was long but quite narrow from east to west, and that if I just skirted its shore I would come out into familiar territory in due time. I passed a tiny hamlet – really just a gas station and bait shop, set in a cluster of four or five clapboard houses, all with darkened windows -- and a mile beyond that the road split. There were no signs; the apparently less traveled thoroughfare – I was no Frost fan but the inevitable allusion popped into my head nonetheless – lay off to the right and up an incline, and I quickly dismissed it as a secondary road and bore to the left, keeping to the shore. It was only after driving another three or four miles, as the roadway seemed to narrow and the weeds on the shoulder grew more and more obviously untended, that I suspected I had been mistaken, and that the road I chosen led out to some uninhabited peninsula I didn’t remember from the map.

The barrier appeared suddenly, just around a bend. Luckily I had just slowed, having that moment determined to turn around and backtrack to the fork in the road, or I might have struck it. It was just a couple of wooden crosspieces, painted with black and yellow stripes and set on steel posts sunk in concrete disks; there was a single dangling battery-operated lantern, not that it cast much light. The road surface beyond seemed drivable enough, though creepers had begun to encroach on the edges and a few weeds poked through. I suspected there might be a bridge further on that had been dismantled or condemned as unsafe, never to be rebuilt for lack of funds or just because it was no longer deemed to be worth the trouble. It struck me there was something about the scene I didn’t like. It seemed to resuscitate memories from an impressionable period of my childhood, of watching war movies with roadblocks manned by grim helmeted soldiers who rode motorcycles with sidecars, things like that. I stopped the car and got out – the truth was that at this point I needed to empty my bladder – but left the engine running and the lights on, figuring that since I hadn’t seen another car for at least twenty minutes there was little danger of being rear-ended.

I stepped around the barrier and saw that there was a little path leading down to the shore of the lake, which I had lost sight of in the woods moments before but which now lay just twenty paces off. Above the lake there was a patch of lawn on an artificial embankment, though there was no sign of a house or any other building nearby, and I rested there for a moment. The air was warm and calm; on the far side of the lake there were some distant lights, but not many. A bullfrog bellowed not far away, then another, and I heard what sounded like falling water a little further down the shore. I picked my way in that direction, climbing over dead branches, mossy stones, and brambles, until I could get a better view. A few yards further out the lake's edge was bordered with a crescent of neatly dressed stone. Glowing faintly in the night, it topped a spillway through which the lake overflowed; to my great surprise I saw a lone human figure – it was a man, I could see, in spite of the darkness -- standing at the exact center of the crescent, his back turned toward me. He was about my height and I thought about my age, and wore a fedora and a brown coat that was much too heavy for the time of year, even at this hour. He was staring down into the stream that flowed out of the bottom of the chute some twenty feet or so below him. He hadn’t noticed my approach – or gave no sign of having done so – but just as I saw him begin to lean – too far for safety – over the edge of the spillway I shouted at him and he started and turned in my direction.

Though I couldn’t quite make out the man's features, what I did see filled me with terror. I won’t attempt to describe the lifeless, inhuman horror that peered out from under the brim of that dark felt hat, but I can see it in front of me now as clearly as I did at that moment, and will bear that awful memory to my grave. The figure took first a tentative step then several determined strides towards where I stood. I backed away, shaking with fear, and was about to turn and make a run for it when something called out of the dark waters of the lake.

When I say that it called I don’t mean to say that I heard it; there was no sound, at most there was only the opening of a hollow in the silence where a sound might have been, but the figure bearing down on me heard the summons, as if beckoned by a lover, and instantly froze in his tracks. He cocked his head towards the lake and listened; the call was repeated and he turned sharply and walked down to the water’s edge. To my astonishment, instead of stopping there he kept going, striding forward at the same pace, until the water rose up around him and he leaned into it and began to swim. For a moment or two, as he swam out towards the deepest part of the lake, I could make out the sound of his limbs breaking the surface; then there was utter stillness except for the burping of the frogs.

I don’t know why I didn’t immediately run back to my car, but somehow I knew the danger was past. I stood on the shore for a while, staring out into the blackness above the lake, until I thought I heard something moving at my feet. I knelt down; it was the man’s fedora, being gently nudged ashore by the lapping of the waves. I left it where it lay.

I turned my car around, eventually found the main road, and returned home without further incident. That winter my colleague passed away unexpectedly after a brief illness. His replacement was a younger man I had never met, and I was never invited back to campus to speak to his class.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Things Gone & Things Still Here

The pieces in this little volume have all been republished in subsequent collections of Bowles's stories, but I still prefer to read them as they first appeared, in an edition published by Black Sparrow Press in 1977. Four of the stories -- "Allal," "Mejdoub," "The Fqih," and "The Waters of Izli," form a natural group, both in style and setting. "Istikahara, Anaya, Medagan and the Medaganat" and the title story, though also set in North Africa, stand somewhat apart as they take the form of historical anecdotes rather than fiction. All take place in a Moslem Maghreb in which European influence is felt only distantly, if at all. Women are hardly present, and when they are they're generally up to no good. "Afternoon with Antaeus" is a mythological jeu d'esprit, and only in "Reminders of Bouselham" do Europeans share the stage with Maghrebis. "You Have Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus," a description of an outing with some Buddhist monks in Thailand which may be either fiction or travelogue, is the only piece not set in North Africa.

The narratives are not much concerned with interior states, and descriptive detail is kept to a minimum; the unraveling of the tale is all, with each step provoking the next by inexorable fate -- "everything is decided by Allah." If the stories convey anything beyond fatalism, it's a sense of the impossibility of penetrating the consciousness of another, especially across cultures. This is so even in the one story, "Allal," where identities are literally exchanged, in this case between a young Maghrebi and a snake, under the influence of kif paste; the transaction ends in the destruction of both parties.

I miss John Martin's Black Sparrow Press. Back in its heyday, in the '70s and '80s, these colorful, matte-surfaced books were a refreshing alternative to the glossy trade paperbacks that were the standard in the publishing world. (There were also hardcover editions with acetate jackets and paper spine labels, but I could never afford them.) A lot of bookstores wouldn't touch them -- I'm not sure Martin really pushed their distribution all that much -- but they were always on prominent display in places like the Gotham Book Mart.

Much of the Black Sparrow list was devoted to writers like Charles Bukowski and lesser-known Beat poets I wasn't all that interested in, but it also included people like Bowles who had kind of fallen between the cracks of the publishing business at the time. (Bowles, by the way, firmly disavowed Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno's statement that he had complained of never being paid royalties for the Black Sparrow editions of his work.) Martin also put out a series of numbered pamphlets, entitled Sparrow, usually showcasing excerpts from the full-length books. He sold the bulk of his list to David Godine when he retired in 2002, the balance (Bowles, Bukowski, and John Fante) going to Dan Halpern's Ecco Press, which also had a long relationship with Bowles.

All of these books have colored endpapers and all except Midnight Mass below (perhaps because my copy is a second edition) have colored title pages as well. The designer was Barbara Martin.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Boatmen, rowing on

Drive Somewhere: The Saga of the Vulgar Boatmen,
Fred Uhter's hour-long documentary about what Robert Christgau reportedly once called "the best band you'll never hear," is finally finished. For those who are unfamiliar with the story of the Boatmen, it's a rather complicated tale spanning 30 years and involving something like 28 band members, a more than ample amount of good music, and some typical record business screwery that torpedoed the group just as they appeared to be on the verge of breaking out. The group's two principal songwriting partners, Dale Lawrence and Robert Ray, neither of whom was involved in the band at its inception, lived and worked in different states and collaborated by exchanging cassettes (remember those?) through the mail. (Ray is a fairly well-known professor of film studies; Lawrence, in his pre-Boatmen days, was a member of the Indiana punk band the Gizmos) As for the music itself, think Buddy Holly filtered through the Velvet Underground and you'll be on the right track, though saying so doesn't give the group proper credit for how original they were. And did I mention the viola?

The Boatmen cut three records (not counting some limited-release cassettes and a compilation, Wide Awake), two of which, You and Your Sister and Please Panic, seem to be available; their final effort, Opposite Sex, has never been released in the US. Robert Ray and the Gainsville, Florida branch of the group threw in the towel years ago, but Dale Lawrence and the other members of the Bloomington, Indiana contingent continue to perform, at least occasionally. Fred Uhter's documentary, which has a nice mix of archival and concert footage and interviews, can be downloaded from NewFilmmakers Online.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Notes for a Commonplace Book (6)

According to several ancient accounts, in a temple on a remote peninsula on the Gulf of Messenia there once stood a statue that possessed the curious property of displaying more than one likeness depending on the vantage point of the viewer. Approached from the west, it bore the appearance of a girl entering the first flower of womanhood; seen from a few steps to the north, an indomitable warrior suddenly came into view; and so on as one proceeded around to the east: here a tyrant scowled severely down, only to be supplanted by a weathered crone with weary eyes — the authorities part company on exactly how many figures there were in all. The transformation from one likeness to the next was instantaneous and absolute, and no matter how closely one examined the contours of the stone it was impossible to determine through what means the illusion was effected.

Pausanias, who claims to have visited the site, reports that the statue sustained minor damage in an earthquake and thereafter lost its remarkable qualities, but he neglects to say which of its various forms — if any — was left frozen in the marble thereafter. The ruins of the temple have not been identified.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The lost army

It's been raining since morning. The day broke gray and cold, and the overnight mist off the lake, instead of burning off quickly as the sun gained strength, slowly but steadily gathered into a forlorn, gusting, incessant storm. It must be raining high in the mountains too, for the little streams that irrigate the fields on the city's edges, normally placid and clear, are swollen and lead-colored and seem to be straining ahead in their long transit to the sea. You'd think the city itself would break up and melt away, but it won't, and the wooden bridges, built by experienced hands for storms worse than this, arch securely over the swell, bearing pedestrians who cross the solid timbers without delay but with no shiver of fear.

I've been watching the streets from this high window. The inn must be half deserted, tonight; now and then I hear bustling below but no one seems to have taken the other rooms on this floor, and it's late enough that in all likelihood no more travelers are to be expected, unless the odd straggler, perhaps delayed by washouts along the road from the hills, makes it in time to the city gates. There's a faint smell of barley and vinegar coming from the kitchen, but the rain has dampened all of my senses and most of the time I scarcely notice. The ghosts are coming out, and are beginning to flow, unnoticed, into the current of pedestrians, keeping to the edges of the crowd when they can, their heads bowed, though not against the rain like the others, no, it's the shame that keeps their heads cast down, their faces concealed. No one around them sees them but I see them, I know their names, each of their names. They'll wander the streets all night, searching for a destination they won't find, and with the first touch of morning they'll withdraw once more into the crawlspaces below buildings, into the runnels between paving-stones, into stagnant pools left behind by the flood, into the weathered beams of sad houses soaked by the steam of boiling laundry and the sweat of endless, unendurable toil. They'll never emerge to see the stars or the moon that casts its milky light on the lake, no, only when it rains like this and all hope is lost, only when despair walks abroad, will they feel their way, tentatively at first, out of their hiding-places and dare to walk the streets, seen only by their general, their commander in iniquity, in this high room, from this window through which light never shines.