Reading: William H. Gass

6th Annual UND Writers Conference:
"Spirit of Place"
March 21, 1975

© 1975 William H. Gass and the University of North Dakota

[Audio of this reading is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Speaker: [inaudible] introduce the speaker this afternoon. I think they were looking for a native North Dakotan on the faculty, and I'm one of the few of them. Because Bill, William Gass, I guess is a native North Dakotan, and I'm not positive that he is. I know we have one thing in common. We were both born in North Dakota. I left after twenty-four years, the first time. Mr. Gass left after six weeks. So, he was only six weeks really in North Dakota. To start with, however, he did come back during the summers to visit his family and relatives in Larimore and Devils Lake. And he's not the only famous member of his family; his father was second basemen for the old St. Louis Bruins, but Mr. Gass did not follow in his father's footsteps and become a baseball player, as you know. He went to Kenyon College, and then got his Ph.D. degree from Cornell University. And he teaches philosophy, now, at Washington University in St. Louis, and he tells me that his, one of his main philosophical interests and teaching areas in ethics, excuse me, aesthetics. There's a difference.

[Audience laughter]

Many in this audience, I know, have read Mr. Gass because it's been required reading. [Audience laughter] And that's not the main reason for reading him, but I know that's why some of you got to know him, it was required reading for a while in the freshmen humanities program. It's been taught in the Honors Program, his work, particularly In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and also in the English department. I sometimes think that In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, particularly "The Pedersen Kid," is rapidly replacing Ole Rølvaag's Giants in the Earth [a]s our epic for North Dakota, at least we've claimed it, South Dakota, too, for that matter, even though it's a short story. It gives me great pleasure to introduce the man who I've enjoyed reading and teaching, Mr. William Gass.

[Audience Applause]

William H. Gass: Thank you. I want to read today from a novel that I've been working on for many, many, many, many, many years. It's called The Tunnel and I just want to say a word or two about the structure of the book, of the occasion, I should say, for it. The first, this book is the construction of a narrative voice, and the narrative voice belongs to a professor of history in a Midwestern, [let's] say, Indiana University, and he is specializing on the German history of modern times, particularly Nazi Germany. And he has just finished a work, not his first, but he is sure his most famous work on that period. Having finished the work, however, he is overcome with a psychological conflict, and in order to solve the dilemmas [in] which he finds himself, he begins to write the book that I've written, or will someday have written, maybe. [Audience laughter] And the section that I want to read to you, I think the reason I've chosen to read it here will be obvious very quickly and may recall a few things to at least some of the old folks, here about how things were, once. The piece is entitled "WE HAVE NOT LIVED THE RIGHT LIFE." I should say, I shouldn't have to but I better because people keep thinking that the narrative voice has something to do with me, and since the narrator in this work will eventually prove to be quite monstrous, I hope, I don't wanna be too identified with his opinions.

[Break in audio]

Atoms, motion, and the void, Democritus has written are the three imperishable things.

So dust silted up in slow corners, devising little dunes in vacant lots, piling everywhere the snow did during winter—the wind picturing itself in lines like those which waves draw, draining from the beach. Paint was scoured cruelly from buildings, naked metal burnished, windows scratched. Such storms were really hard to believe in; it was as though thunderheads had become substantial, as if the earth were inexplicably sky, grain after grain of it raining away into space. Dawn was a vulgar announcement, an ad for a frightening movie (as Time sped away out of downspouts), and sunsets were displayed in the deepest colors of catastrophe, the dark discordant tones of the Last Trump.

From earth, air, fire, and water. None of the early philosophers chose dirt.

Crow—O crow—
don't cross my path,
so my life lasts
a little longer.

My study smokes like a singsong cellar. All such places are alike. It must be the books which make it seem crowded. Where is the band? I used to sit alone in a fold of the room, at a small square table, dunced, one tip touching, soliciting, my stomach, my stein of beer at the prow, my elbows riding the other corners when I hunched, and I hunched often, pursuing unfamiliar shoes across the floor, and the tracks of angrily shoved stools. I came to hear skinny Susu sing in her low, throaty Sprechstimme, which was nevertheless French, a song about the carrion crow. It had innumerable verses and she never sang them all. How her voice reached me through the noise and bulk of those bodies, belly to belly like the bottles on the bar, was a mystery belonging more to magic than to science. Her sounds were hesitant, shy, as though regretting they had come, and hardly strong as the waitresses who, dressed in costumes purportedly Bavarian, elbowed everyone aside to slop down drinks. Perhaps it was drawn to me that song, as sucking insects are, and became devious. Certainly that song was thirsty for my blood, and I never really heard any other. Perhaps I shouldn't smoke so much. Perhaps the roses will freeze. In the camps a cigarette was often hard to come by. We often smoked together, you and I, toes exquisitely touching, once at the hips, again at the elbows, the smoke going off toward the ceiling in a lazy curl the way our bodies seemed to burn off after loving. I've one window, like the Cyclops—facing east—and a cold pink purely decorative sun is rising over the snow now; a freezing fog has dampened its blaze and made it rounder than the moon gets. The pond smokes and I worry about the roses, wrapped in straw and twine like shocked wheat. So there was something special about that song; it was attracted to me, trapped there in my little corner between indifferently squeezing walls. Crow—O crow—don't cross my path . . . It was an immense journey. Immense. . . so my life lasts a little longer. Susu would sing it once every evening; she would sing it with blank black doll's eyes and a fixed sad smile she wore the way she wore her clothing—absently—scarcely moving her mouth. Her dresses were cut in a deep V like the style you see in Lautrec's posters of Yvette Guilbert. Sometimes yellow, mostly green, they were stretched so tight across her boyish braless chest, the nipples leaped out from the fabric like bumps on pebbled water. The song could have come from her eyes just as well. They never blinked. I had a passion for that woman. Immense. Now I can't bear to have a table touch me. In this house I avoid chairs with arms, and sit in the middle of couches—and then only on the yielding edge. I am impressed by what the world will swallow. Mouths, too, I must confess, no longer please me. A friend of my mother's could not sleep near cats because he feared they would suck his breath. Culp, my colleague, Culp sings too—his little rhymes—invents tunes for his limerickal history of the human race. He has an infinite number about nuns, each with the same first line. One's ears are also helpless. What can you do? Sounds like cruel fish cruise the air in schools. Mouths yammer at you. Small and fast and aimlessly as boys with 22's until you are assassinated. You could taste the Brown Shirt drums. Rows of flags like the instruments of bands played soldier tunes. So Culp, my colleague, climbs. His voice has little sticky tendrils (Culp [...] has, and you're also hair nosed), little sticky tendrils like collegiate vines.

I once went to bed with a nun
who had a remarkable one,
but I'd just got inside her,
when God came to bride her,
and I lost the position I'd won.

[Audience laughter]

I hate all soft fat pillows just as much; they close over you like soft fat walls. Some I've seen were satin, hung with mirrors, buttoned down. Susu, I love you. A little like the mantis, I remember, since her head would swivel slowly in the hard inhuman manner of the mantis, and her face was blunted at its points like a slightly damaged triangle. Not you, Lou. You stood straight; yet every curve was languorous, smoothly moving like a line drawn through the unobstructed space of sleep. They fell, when shot, in all the ways open. One could have made a study of such falling bodies: the stance, the weight, the tension of the limbs, the impact of the bullet. I love you, Susu—anyway. Even your a horse's head-stall. Later, when I saw your name and story in a stack of brutal documents...I loved you still. At least I'm present for the dawn. Not everyone is. The students will crown the corridors today, out of the cold, and I will lecture, fast asleep.

Crow—O crow—
each time you pass,
my sickness grows a little stronger.

The dust then. It slid through crevices no ant could crawl through, sifting under doors to wedge them shut. It appeared like the sudden hush on polished tables, it threw gloom in mirrors, begrimed the beds and grayed the linen, clung to drapes and curtains, filmed milk, sanded flour and sugar, and coated all uncovered food with its special form of granular dismay. On the other hand, the sky on hot dustless days would leap with light, nails would wink in their boards, pails blaze like beacons, and the glass of the several stores would shout the sun at you, empty your head through your ears with whistling sunshine.

It was a disease, this dust, a plague, a fall of evil, one of the many punishments God placed upon the people—of which life itself, in Grand, often seemed the longest, most unremitting, and the worst. Year after year summer blew from April like a sabbatical disaster. The storms darkened in the creases in faces and etched their crude graffiti of confusion, sorrow, bitterness, defeat. Crow—O crow—each time you pass...On hatless heads dust settles so thickly that hair seemed a new grainless crop. Your friends complained of their eyes a lot, and there was alarming increase in every sort of respiratory ailment. Cattle died, sheep died, dogs, cats, horses, chickens, died; crops failed, gardens suffocated, tree leaves grew heavy, gray, and then died while still growing as the grass had; birds left the air to the dust, flopping through helpless circles in the road sometimes (but after all, where was the air when everything was earth?), butterflies became extinct, though beetles thrived; there were no flowers, no fruit on tress or grapes in arbors; hedges filled with dirt, thistles were prized and even cultivated; lakes contracted, sometimes disappearing altogether; certainly the ponds did, and where they'd lain the ground grinned mockingly, as if in death it too had a human rictus. Stones bleached in dry rivers, a, the few fish vanished forever, carcasses of all kinds returned to dust just as we had been warned they would; and men moved away on those railroads to the city, and the soft and lazily settling smoke and soot.

There was a good deal of praying and preaching. People had held extra sessions, special meetings. Some sought symbolic places: shallow depressions which were especially barren, or low mounds dust would plume from like the snow from Everest; and there they would stand in small lost groups for hours, forlorn, soon nearly mute, trying to call attention to themselves, deliberately facing the brown wind which was slowly killing them, uttering no more musical a cry than the crows did, their beaks choked with carrion and grit. We have not lived the right life, the Methodist minister said, and I agreed.

It's dreadful when there's no one to moan to. The sky would rise spotted and ringed with purple, the sun—I'm sorry—the sun would rise spotted and ringed with purple; the sky hadn't seen, hadn't listened, although it lidded everything, was everywhere so plainly, and was so plainly infinite (even though eloquent pictures, gray and white with pity, had been printed in national magazines); no, the distant ground was rising just the same, dust drawn up like water by the sun. It was now an unclean yellow, or again a raw orange; there was another storm coming, then another and another, so that tons of topsoil blew out of Iowa and Kansas; in North Dakota the earth, as though souled, rose whining toward hell in its new location. And in the Midwest, that's where hell is, if there's any—outside the inside of its inhabitants, I mean; but why shouldn't they be stiff and sour sometimes, suspicious, stingy, shut in, both murderous and catatonic. They can be friendly, too, when the sky's not falling; but look at what lives over them, at what they must endure.

Crow—O crow—
don't cross my path,
so my life lasts
a little longer.

Crow—O crow—
each time you pass,
my sickness grows a little stronger.

I love you so—
who would believe it?
But there's no death
that I don't breathe it.

I'm carrion, crow—
how well you know me:
my head and chest,
the parts below me,

So go then—go—
sup on my body,
wipe dry my plate
of any bloody;

And even though
that piece you've taken
is all my heart
hate hasn't eaten,

You're welcome—no—
I don't begrudge it.
Quick with your beak
so teeth won't touch it,

And let me show
the honest of my bones,
my jaw, its laughter;
joy as never—
whatever's after.

Now it is another day. Rain is speaking gently to the terrace. I speak gently, sometimes, to myself.

Though things have taken a strange turn. I put years—my life—in this work: Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. I have labored long tedious hours to get there; I have suffered stuffy light and bad air, rooms as lonely as I was, cornered in them; I have endured much weary journeying, scenery postered onto moving windows, twilights in bleak towns, German snowfalls, heavy food, uneasy sleep. I have come down with both flu and nightmare, given my nose nothing, pawned my ears for a bit more vision, yet watched my sight, once so acute, become as scooped out as a doorsill or a stair, as though everything I've seen and tried to learn had stepped upon my eyes in coming to me. I've wrapped wet galoshes in newspapers, read Nazi periodicals in parks, had my privates handled by a boy in Prague who told me, Mister, you're no bigger here than I am. I've had clothing stolen (three balled socks, some underwear, two shirts), and I have taken from the German swans fistfuls of feathers to mail home in my letters, mementos which did not add a penny to the postage and enabled me to dissolve the sweeter of my lies on my tongue. I have given up—and given up—and given up—to get there. It was always the work, the work, the Great Work. And now things have taken a strange turn. I've dug patiently through documents, examined testimonies, also taken them, gathered facts and sifted evidence—data swept in endless drifts like snowed clouds—seeking support for my theories, seeking support for me, or as that question simply wordage.

Why [don't] friends feel I was trying to unconvict the guilty? Then perhaps I will absorb my present insanity from all the books, films, papers, callous lists, and neutral figures I have hunted up, compilations which contain everything but the sufferings they number.

Now I'm done. This is the moment of release. I should dedicate and christen my chef-d'oeuvre and float it forth to flags and bands, waterspouts and whistles, cheering crowds, and yet I find I cannot break a bottle on its prow or waste a drop. Why not, for god's sake? Why not?

Certainly I'm sensitive to the quality of my own work. It cannot bring me less than fame. I also know I shall be cursed. For both, my fat wife waits.

Yes, why hold back? The publisher is eager. Thousand of Jews will be offended. Thousands will not. Most must read it; some will even buy it; there'll be talk. Surely it will have to dress itself in French and German, come out in England. It will interest the Japanese, though the Russians won't touch it. It will harrow hearts, and even fascinate philosophers who have none. And the politicians...caught in the complicities of fellow historians...staring down those fissures I have opened at their feet...poets...literary people...for them a drama on a scale before undreamed of...a style which murder made, and murderers recite. Why wait?

Don't hold back, Lou used to say. Bill, don't hold back.

After this lengthy effort to reach the line perhaps I'm nearly panting like a runner and walking the same track one more time to cool. But anxiety chews on the walls of my stomach, walls I'm afraid I've written on. From time to time my heart leaps in my chest like a captured animal and my muscles tense against it. It hasn't reached my head yet, this brawl in my body, but to who are the brawlers? Whom shall I cheer for? Which one is winning? And when for a moment the struggle subsides are they nearly resting up between rounds...has this punch out been organized? These pains in my back. The alarms which ring in my neck this sickness in my belly. I try never to remember. Remembrance is a noose closing my throat. Past happiness has long light fingers threatening hands.

Since the shit my bowels have moved through fifty years has been flushed off daily and forgotten, why not the rest: Mad Meg, mother, father, Marty, me, the dirty Jews, the dirtier Nazis, Susu, Lou, Culp, Planmantee . . .? I have tried hard not to bear malice for all I've been put through, for all I've been denied, for all I've done to others, for every moment of my life I've not enjoyed—and yet I do.

Now, in fact, I molest myself. Hate has given force and purpose to my life. I've studied it. It's studied me. Love, when I've allowed it—no, no, no—when it's been permitted me, has nearly destroyed it...with visions, like a slut, of what might be. I'm just an infant's prick it has amused itself by teaching wobbly standups. Where the willow loops, the sky is lazy. I dream of your body, blue as a star. With that light in me, I think foolishly, I'd be a heaven, and close in my arms whole towns while sleeping. My heart leaps as uselessly as these sentiments do, and though there's a war in me, nothing remains to be seen, everything has been decided, including the arrival of my death, for my future's simply what, tomorrow, I shall think about my past.

Will there be novelty? No. My great wife avalanching me. When she smiles she shows a pale gray upper gum like chewed pork. Grinning, she rolls off her panties. What a crowd of hair has gathered under! Is something happening? there's been an accident? where are police? Her nipples rise from broadly wrinkled paddies. Aroused, the wrinkles stiffen, harden to a tree's bark. Those nipples were so pink once, now they're grimy. Smudged cloth-covered buttons, they button down her belly. If my eyes stray beyond this window won't the snow fall? It would seem so. I shout out pitiful head shouts. I want to learn as I am I cry. Blue as a star. Oh, my friend you fool, that's what you're doing, complaining in stead that you don't want to be what you are, old clothes, hangered in a closet.

Should I begin when I was born as history would have me—a child of time—to come between two ticks into the world with only tocks to follow? Yet I did not begin when I was born, but later; then just once, in love, I was where nothing was before, or after.

Professor Kohler to lecture on the Nazis. Professor William Frederick Kohler of this campus, a leading authority on Hitler's Germany will speak at 8:00 Friday evening in room 212 of the History building on the sexual significance of Tyranny. Professor Kohler has written widely also well known for...many books and papers, Nuremberg... proposed the controversial Kohler thesis...became...while a Guggenheim follow...research on...the study of...notable contributions to...received from the Ford Foundation...poetry...Jews...then in 1957 he....lost you forever.

In some ways the grasshoppers were worse, for they were their own wind, and a living dust, a dust winged, each grain with a chewing mouth. God had breathed, breathed life into clay again, and was distributing it differently this time—by means of the sky—over the whole earth. The dust howled and hissed, or otherwise moved with a harsh shush, but the grasshoppers had a dry whirr and rustle, a toy chirp, a click almost mechanical, a stridulation which became a scream. This was new speech; this was greed made manifest and multiplied like man, greed given a body appropriate to it, with long hind-leaping legs and feet, motive wings, tireless jaws, and no nervous tics about food. They would eat the fur from cats, some said. And so they came in wide flat covering clouds, in enormous flooding sheets—millions and millions of swallowing mouths. I never saw a cyclone clean the ground as they could clean it. Fields went up in minutes—as though in flames, in smokeless hunger. Where they settled down the land seethed. Streets rained their color (a yellow brown green), sidewalks crawled, your feet could not avoid them, so wherever you went (and you went nowhere if possible) you heard and dimly felt the crunch of soft shells. They were often packed so closely, clambering indifferently over one another (you would also find them stacked sometimes like plates), they seemed one monstrous animal with exposed cells, a model made to please, instruct, amaze, and thoroughly mislead the third grade; a scientific demonstration of the wee workers of the body, all those hidden inner bees, each with that small but vital task he carried out so faithfully. This was an illusion, for within the mass, movement was a matter of chance. They did not carry water for one another. There was no surrender of powers, and they composed no true Leviathan. Vast and protean, unimaginably hungry, obeying simple principles of want and motion, one supposed somewhat as Hobbes had dreamed, the swarm was nevertheless a monster of chaos, Führerless. There were simply too many for life to have any individual importance; each one was utterly careless of it, and supremely unintelligent. They had only two aims: to feed and breed; and they relied on numbers to make up for their stupidity. Don't tell me mere addition can't accomplish qualitative change, it can—with frightening ease. They came out of Canada, some said, from the slopes of the Rockies; others muttered darkly: Asia. But this was not, was the pure, the primeval horde. The Great Khan certainly could not have loosed it. Still, I was constantly compelled to see them as versions of us, just as the dust was a version: Nature representing on its several planes the same serene and universal forms by means of massive, blind, and automatic spasms. I'd recently returned from my first visit to Germany then, in a thoroughly Nazi mood, bewildering my friends with my talk, and I clearly remember reflecting, as I watched the hoppers browse: there are more of these grass-chewing jaws in Iowa than there are Jews in Germany.

And Heraclitus said that everything was fire.

I don't know how tall the tales were that were told of their voraciousness, but observing that insatiable mob prepared me for anything. I understand they would eat themselves if the eaten one were dead.

I carom from room to room in this house, from wall to wall, bruised by pillows, whipped by curtains, bitten by rugs; and I know that men are capable of anything; that all of the things possible to men are therefore possible for me. There is no final safety from oneself. It is something we often say, but only the mad believe it, the consequences are so awesome, and so infinite. In that sense Hitler's been the only God. But must I always live in Germany?

That same year I remember wandering idly into a patch of high grass, probably because it was so rare to find luxury of any kind in Grand I had to have it, and they started up like quail, in a whirring rush of thousands, all around me the way the air jet in a fun house will blow a lady's skirt about her head while her arms flail at it. They did not go off in a single burst which might have cleared them from me. They continued up like thick smoke; I was caught in a stifling funnel. Grasshoppers do not spiral like flies or bees, but leap in a gale, so the feeling of whirlwind I had, of their coming straight from my feet and circling round me, was hopelessly unfactual, and even that sensation was one I had afterward, when I tried to save a little of my sanity by sorting my impressions and systematically swallowing them, draining my sickness from my head and putting my past in my belly. I ran as they rose, tripped instantly, and stumbled—wailing. Grasshoppers flew in my mouth: one? three? thousand? I was on the ground, insects crushed under me, gushing vomit. They were caught in my hair, leaping at my ears and eyes. I began to choke, trying to cry out, thrashing and rolling in utter panic. A grown man, I was being consumed by terror in a patch of knee-high grass, not four feet from safety.

Back at the house I had to have a bath. I'd also shave, and use new lotions. That crawling sensation is common (your sweat's a running ant), but I half expected to see something horrible happening; not quite in Kafka's sense: antennae sprouting, fine barbs showing along the inner hinges of my arms; absurdly, I did not feel my metamorphosis, but theirs—their modulation into me. I thought I'd find my skin look emptied like a grocery sack, my tan the wadding surface of the paper. The grasshoppers had got what they came for—a humanity. Wasn't that why they fed so furiously, ate away at everything? In that field they'd overcome me like a thousand shouts. And hadn't I mated with them now? hadn't I taken them, leaping, in my mouth? and hadn't I been sick in the same way the first lady who loved me in an oral fashion had, returning my seed and herself to my organ: spasm for spasm, love for love, revenge for revenge, in perfect proportion? How futile a bath had been. What could I wash? Lovely lady, splendid mouth, she did not do as she intended, but only as she wanted. Nevertheless, I had to have a bath, and my new lotions. As I threw my shirt off, cursing and still in a panic, one of the little yellowish devils dropped with a light rap on the table. He'd lain hidden in my hair. He'd been in a pocket. I'd spoken him. There he sat. He was so prehistoric, so reptilian, with his saurian skull, those carefully articulated plates on his body, that blank watchfulness which Susu had so much of, a watchfulness—a mirror's you knew there was no consciousness behind...something is watching, something is watchful, but what? On the back of Susu's eyes, of course, there was plenty; there was Hieronymus Bosch, there were my life lasts a little longer...I struck at him with my shoe (I was going to inlay the table with the lines in his wings) (the first cunt I tasted was stale), but a shoe is a poor swatter, it has no whip, so naturally I missed, and missed, and missed—while he shot off in senseless leaps which brought him crashing against a window, into a mirror, onto a wall, at the foot, base, sill of which he'd drop, stunned, while my shoe fell on him. Yet he always managed to get off ahead of the heel, and for a time I could hear him ringing frantically on the exposed springs of my bed. Let's try again sweetie; let's try again. I have drunk ale from the country of the young...Sweet Christ, why? It's, it's sweet; it's soupy, but sweet; I won't throw up again. But Marty, it's nothing. It's sort of flat and slimy. Her lips drew startled from her evened teeth. Her fine face rosied. How do you know what it tastes like, she said. Yes. How did I know? Like grasshoppers which are fried in China, hung on acrid strings? like those the Mexicans coat with chocolate, or do they dip bees? I though there might be more of them on me (there, in the patching of my pubic hair, there'd be one, nesting), so as I was hitting about with one shoe, or throwing the other, I was trying to remove the rest of my clothing. Then it would come again toward me like triggered spring. I was going to scream and run from the room (I had already roused the house with the sound of my whacking) when he dropped with a clang into a wastebasket I, as a schoolchild, had decorated, and I quickly stuffed a pillow in the opening. Nearly naked, sitting on the floor by the basket, giggling as I tugged at the toes of my socks, I thought of "The Tell-Tale Heart," for as he jumped and fell back, and in a moment jumped and fell back again, the metal dinged, chiming in erratic seconds, night long hours. I stepped on the pillow—slowly—till it bore my weight.

We have not lived the right life.

If I could piss as perfectly as Lord George speaks,
said Clemenceau,
I wouldn't do wee-wee for weeks,
then in Rabelais' way
I'd make Wilson all day,
till the seams of the entente sprang leaks.

[Audience laughter]

Culp's next door, dear god, Culp. Oh the dirty Hun has all the fun. The Frenchman thrives on dirty wives, he sings. Here's one for you Culp. One I've made. And sing it while you, sing it to your pillow.

I knew a remarkable seagull
who followed the sleepwalks of people.
She would snap in her jaws
every dream they would toss,
> since the nightmare's a marvelous meal.

god's soda straw


The air itself this time—thick, silent, yellow light—with no help from anyone, becomes murderous and whimsical; runs counter to the clock, though as we all do, swallowing everything, driving slivers into posts like nails, running trains to Oz, and working other windy miracles, some of which resembled a rescue, by ascension, of the populace, a quite general apotheosis; and though umbilicaled to its cloud, dependent as a lamp string, quirky as a camp guard, this violent tunnel turning through the sky is really a swollen prick the earth, our Mother, spews on, and it covers its shame at this response with these other symbols; it forms from implausible figures plausible, phallus-saving lies.

NEXT: blizzards and deep frost, torrential rains, and those long empty days when there's nothing, when the country's becalmed, when Grand seems truly fixed to the earth, driven in like a stake, its circle frazzled by the sledge, and the trains labor in their own smoke, struggle to escape the smothering cloth, the hangman's hood they manufacture; when every car is noosed to the engine, each an act in the past which can't be shunted; and since I see the engine moving, I know the trap's been sprung; I see the straining motion of its slowing fall; it will be dead of its distance before the jerk which signals stop. So the people die here of their days. Only the nights are sometimes a wonder. Then, from limit to limit, the whole sky is lit, and if you want to think of the stars as watchful but unconscious eyes, they're no longer a menace. It's not a snow so high the flakes have yet to narrow in their fall together, as—from everywhere—a cloud, a crowd collects. And a scrubbed moon moves its shadows gently all through Grand. The loneliness, the isolation of everything is transfigured, run together in that light. And we look back like stars ourselves upon those tiny disconnected towns, and wonder who might live in them; what life is like in such remote stations, benevolent because they glow so, believing in the movement that it must be nice to hang around the moon as singly and as brilliantly as they do; and in all that, in these nice fine generous rare feelings, be utterly mistaken.

And what did I read about you, Susu, in those documents? Susu, my slender singer, whom I love? that you roasted the thumbs of a dozen Jews and ate them while they watched...those who had not fainted.

Is there any way of digesting facts like this—like this one—as Susu digested the handy phallic thumb-sticks of her Jews? Why she didn't have their cocks cut, I cannot imagine. Wasn't that what she was up to? Could she—my Susu—have shrunk at it? Hers certainly wasn't an anti-Semitic act, because it violated the Nazis' dietary laws. Could she have sucked such thumbs without the Reich's grand plans? could she have realized herself and come so splendidly upon her nature? She might have sung songs all her life and fingered milkless leather dildoes, who can tell? Susu, you at least became a true black queen; the evil you created was as close to you as you were; you confronted it; you took it on your mouth; added it, quite palpably, as weight, as measurable nutrition, to your hard flat-stomached self. In fact I always wondered just how much you were a woman. No. A man in drag, that kind of ersatz queen, would fashion for himself an ampler bosom—not so ample as my wife's perhaps, there is a limit. [Audience laughter] What did I find to admire—ever—in such flaps? The Germans executed my Susu themselves. Neither her exemplary performance as a commandant's whore, nor her sweetly twisted songs and whispered singing, could save her when they found she had some gypsy in her, though after her head was amputated, color photographs were taken, and kept as souvenirs in little folding cases covered neatly in blue cloth, with a small, though conventional, gold decoration.

I remove myself from my cousin's wedding celebration (for which I had bought a new blue suit), and amid hostile uncomprehending faces, angry arguments and explanations, coupled myself to one of those trains like a car crammed with refugees, and had myself drawn away toward history and other desperations.

Ponderous aunts and uncles, uncles lean as withered beans, aunts pale as piecrust, grandmamas, grandpapas with rheum and gout, cousins shrill as sirens, sounding themselves through the house like warnings of death from the air (later, in London, I heard them often), cousins who scratched you under the table, cousins who scooped up fists of mashed potato and let it slime over their wrists; aunts who wore hats in the house, aunts who starched irons and linens, aunts who stirred pots, flagellated rugs, opened doors for dogs, swatted flies, and reminisced fondly of deaths and diseases as if they were high school dances, former flames; uncles and great-uncles who, like the hoppers, spat long brown jets of chewing tobacco across the railings while they rocked; nieces and nephews, a few of those too, who peed in their pants, threw up, bawled, and beat you on the shins and ankles with alphabet blocks; relatives at every conceivable remove, but not removed, each noisily present; then friends of both the bride and groom who came to cry and nudge and slap and snicker, and all of the groom's loose connections—countless—no easier to bear, no simpler to ignore: Swedes, Danes, Germans, Germans mainly, mostly Lutheran, though a few were Catholic from the German south (even poorer, much despised); and uncles who argued and uncles who only grunted, and one who restrained the flow from his nose with sniffs like tearing paper; aunts who mended clothes like surgeons; nephews who instantly reinjured them; aunts with moist wads balled in moister hands who toiled up and down the daylong stairs on legs like fat raw sausages; many mothers, of course, and fathers, my own among them, not then crippled, not then yet drunken, mother hurt and father angry—always—and the aunts with the hats who sighed with such expression you'd have thought they were blowing kazoos, and those who took second helpings with a coy apologetic lurch, holding down the struggling meat with the flats of their knives; and the men who drank in the barn like small boys sneaking a smoke and told jokes about farmwives and stallions, farmboys and sheep, or bragged of the shitting prowess of their huge, brown, singularly boweled cows; the cousin who tried to climb drainpipes, the one who wanted me to kiss her warts and who wouldn't tell me where the warts were [Audience laughter], cousins who took out the slops; uncles who philosophized or otherwise explained things, creating, in the house, the noise of straining tractors, uncles who were proud they could piss like a horse, and who ingested certain liquids to permit them to continue to; gramps who burned their pockets with pipes and their absent minds with yearning; grams who were already laid out in their knitting baskets, needles crossed, who couldn't hear a word they were so far away, vacationing in death; aunts in aprons, uncles in knuckles and sun-wrinkles, wash-faded shirts, slack suspenders, bruised arms and metal-hooking high shoes with dirt-clogged laces, who lost their spectacles on their noses, as the aunts did, or on mantels, on tables, or failed to observe them caught like enormous dragonflies in the jaws of books, the lips of sofas—as here and there, scarcely noticed, in water glasses, softly leaning, sunken teeth set in sick pink gums; and there were many violet-brown photographs of babies held in heavy albums as though by Negro mammies, girls in high-necked blouses, men with shiny hair and youthful mustaches (no limper, certainly, than Rilke's), and the one which I particularly remember of my father, in smile, tie, button-sweater, cloth cap, pride, and knickers, standing on a dirt road and displaying by its tail, as you might a prize fish, a six-foot snake; there were reproductions, too, of moonlit canoes and falling water, squeezed in frames of unpeeled birch the tame Indians sold to the savage tourists, mottoes burned into slices of that same romantic wood, a finger-pointing figure of Jesus, heavy cut-glass fruit bowls which were always empty, bud vases which were tippy, pin cushions which were busy, stiff, and dangerous, a gramophone with horn and dog, some copies of The Delineator, sheet music, a many-volumed, richly pictured history of the Great War: the taxicabs at the Marne, Italians levering their own cannons off an Alpine cliff, impressive piles of something dead in pools of trenchy water, Spads and Fokkers in gentlemanly jousts, and the fearsome Boche parading in long lines, spikes on their hats, not a gentleman under them; hats which were, I'd thought (once upon that time), for butting: in close quarters, hand to hand, you lowered your head and wham! right in the belly! A novel called The Man Thou Gavest, Dana, Alcott, Henty, dresser scarves the purpling red of a blown rose, lamp glass shades like chambermaids' caps, pots of sick ivy, one hand-painted ashtray—from Baden—the shape of a softened triangle, like Susu's ferocious head, a heavy oval mirror looped with gilt cord, threadbearing rugs, something thick by Teddy Roosevelt, two tattered silver trays, shadowy with tarnish melacca cane, a cage without its parrot and perched on rails near the ceiling like mothy stuffed exotic birds, decorative plates in every shape but round, often with their edges gnawed just like the uncles were whom whole families had eaten from for years and bitten too—in haste, in need; all of them images and photos now—aunts, uncles, objects, the faded tracings of earlier ages—as were the many trinkets which had been carried from the old country, views of the Rhine seen through the stereopticon, paperweights with blizzards which could be shaken up inside them, dolls which had grown old remaining the same age—washed, not moved by time—wooden acrobats whose tights had flaked away leaving them nude but innocuous, since their genitals, having a greater affection for the cloth they were kept in than the crotches they hung from, were absent too; and I can imagine these patient aunts an their unfeeling needles mending the vaginal slits in bloomers, ironing out the dents put in blouses by the breasts which still fit in them, scrubbing the skin in shirts and dresses, for if I had a choice, and were their parts, I'd leave like the acrobats, preferring the fate of worn-out clothing to the fate of worn-out men. The land swallowed them, toil took them, wood-burning stoves and childbearing, pots, pans, curtains, livestock, gardens, all that sorry work upon the land, all that worry for the earth and its objects, the careful crops, the tireless and terrible tending they were broken to, as though the world around them were someone sick in a sickroom, breathing its last; so that even the preparations for the wedding, even the pies that were baked, the huge stews, soups, and kettles of beans, the barrels of sauerkraut, the strings of stool-like sausage, the hot hours of canning, deprived them of what they intended to sustain and were with these labors celebrating. Had a little of this time and this devotion been given to thought or to feeling, to the cultivation of some sense of themselves which went beyond the drayhorse, if some small effort had gone into renewing sensation, into a passion for beauty, the elevation of desire...into love (someone save the word, I am unable), then, perhaps, just possibly...but the load was too heavy, the sky too great an enemy, and they lived the lives they lived like hoe handles, as washerwomen, cooks, wombs, silos—as physical locations—and now they were grandpas and grandmas, aunts and uncles, tired and tiresome, victims of the bodies they had used like ploughs upon themselves, for they were prairies too, desiccated, windswept places, and the dust from their own dryness had come for them at last, had risen from their own abused bodies as that greater dust had risen from a dry abused land, and now, staining them as deeply as crazed plates, it settled back in answer to a cry from their birth for an end; and it was appropriate, only right, as a sign from God or from the selves they might have been, that occasionally the substance which made the symbol should multiply itself, seek something in hyperbole which otherwise could not be reached, and so (like an ash of mourning large as night) become monstrously manifest—in a whirling wind, a plague of locusts, or a storm of dust—until it finally caused the deaths it all along had been an emblem and a warning of.

Now it is another day. But this new day is like the last another day to die through tomorrow today will be tomorrow, and like today, will be a waste, unfelt and empty. It's criminal. I am an educated man. I have traveled, read, and studied. I know that there are worse ways of living, deeper, darker, damper dungeons than my own. I specialize in the ghetto and I've written on the Nazis. Who should know then if not I? And yet I hold my head and groan and wish these books had fallen in upon me years ago. It's a melodrama for mice. My feelings are a crime against all of those who suffered in that horrible Reich and against all of those who suffer like that now in every place. But a man brings his own walls with him, is in prison, and if his body walks the streets free he is all the more in prison for his suffering has no sanction, no outside cause which can receive the blame or guarantee to others the reality of his condition, without a bar he can be shut so far away, he cannot hear his jailers ring their keys and so invisible can be the instruments which torture him, he's forced to feel a fool. He has their pain.

We've not lived the right life. I agreed. I'm decades older. Dust is not the plague which plagues me any longer, even if heavens' still remorseless. And although there is no more unmedical a man, I watch the clouds for signals of the sky's demise. Why, in fact, last August we had the worst hail Indiana's had in thirty years, according to the papers, and I read how a baby was killed in its carriage, pummeled first, then tucked in under ice...(but where was mother?). Mine was gin-down on the sofa at one time or other, entertaining the breadman—on slime-green mohair—when I arrived as sibilant as a puncture; though late in the day the light through the fir trees put our picture window deep at sea, allowing me to stare as if protected by the glass at strange new spaces, oceans ferns and fish who sang among the needles. Peggy's flaps flew open as she started up, her gray hair came retangled. Must I perpetuate all that? Lou? What did it do to any of us for me to love you? These pea-green branches laced with twigs, for years I could not see another woman through them. The face I held so often mid my knees, the gaze it gave which made me for a change a stranger to my past—is past, and I am thoroughly familiar. As aspirin bottle kept her, the gin so clear the hand which trembled it seemed empty. For we've snow. Crisp slices have been served the starlings. Because I must remember, they hatefully refuse to pass...all these hangovers from history. Soiled and silver sofa'd hair, puddled eyes, my bloated mother, dear, your housecoat's come unbuttoned, here, I shall redo it. I'll unlimb father. Reconceive. Pick another cunt to come from. I shall lie myself as far as love will take me. Set fresh plates out. Make my new cock metal like a trumpet. And who shall scatter cracked corn for the birds? Since it is Sunday. Or hold my swelling penis calmly as my sweating hand? Or consecrate sensation? Or turn my tongue into a lollipop? Play tennis with a sparrow? Train savage dogs to sled a blinded cane? Or after love is over, linger? No one now. Heaven's for the hangman or the Hun. My god, to be a man as I am—smothered with women and children like a duck with onions. I'm so afraid. I'll calm my fingers down a glove. White ice plummets in my glass. Years of dry days flush up from my feet. The clink has startled them. I startled mother. History startled me. Melting one small Jew to keep the ovens cool. And then another...Schopenhauer, you old fool, this world was never my Idea. In crowds, the Persians say, death is a festival. In what warm square has my love made her mouth a fountain? Spruce limbs soft and separate as waves which have been stolen from the ocean wash across my glass, and the pale sky windows in the distance for me, even through September, though Lou had dark and holy eyes each time I loved her. I should never sneer at desolation. Such lips would take a life to understand. Ich bin ein regenloses Land. Can I forgive the plague I am? You'd powdered your naked forehead, and upon your shoulder, mother, you wore a breadman's bruise. Thus my sensations have been sieved. Window through window: I want to pass. For I have uncled youngsters too, by now. Yes. By now, I wonder. Perhaps there is no right life to be lived.

Thank you for your patience.

[Audience Applause]

[Transcribed by Emily Thielen; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 14 October 2012]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202