Broadside #34 – (Spring2014 / 14.8)

Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series

Broadside #33 (Winter 2014 / 14.8)

James Claffey 

I Named the Stars for You

The Huguenot cemetery where we kissed for the first time. Crouched in the shade of a broken gravestone, I brushed the hair from in front of your eyes and let our lips meet. Packed hard, the ground felt cold through the knees of my trousers and your skin had a bluish hue, a shade between the clear sky and the thin striped color of my school scarf. “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game…” I sang silent as the buses passed on their way out of town. House sparrows picked frozen seed from the ground, and your cheek next to mine threatened to solidify into a fleshy ice.

Frozen pizza. Crinkled plastic. Birdseye’s best. Yours was the first house I ever knew with a microwave. My old lady wouldn’t have one…

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“Brothers and Sisters Around the World” by Andrea Lee, Excerpted from The New Yorker

Untitled, Gauguin

Islands are what Michel prefers: in Asia, Oceania, Africa, the Caribbean, it doesn’t matter. Any place where the people are the color of different grades of coffee, and mangoes plop in mushy heaps on the ground, and the reef fish are as brilliant as a box of new crayons.

I discovered Andrea Lee, an American writer living in Turin, ten years ago. I read a profile on her published in ‘W’ magazine. There had been an incredible amount of publicity around the publication of a book of short stories she’d written called INTERESTING WOMEN. The stories, each of which take place in a variety of cosmopolitan settings, have been described as: “American brio confronts European sophistication… where diverse cultures collide with surprising results in brilliant sometimes outrageous stories of seduction and self discovery.”

Lee’s protagonists are often ‘intelligent and self-possessed’, each grappling with questions of identity, race and what it means to be a foreigner. Without further ado, here is an excerpt from the Andrea Lee short story: “Brothers and Sisters Around the World”.

I took them around the point toward Dzamandzar,” Michel tells me. “Those two little whores. Just ten minutes. They asked me for a ride when I was down on the beach bailing out the Zodiac. It was rough and I went too fast on purpose. You should have seen their titties bounce!”

He tells me this in French, but with a carefree lewdness that could be Roman. He is, in fact, half Italian, product of the officially French no man’s land where the Ligurian Alps touch the Massif Central. In love, like so many of his Mediterranean compatriots, with boats, with hot blue seas, with dusky women, with the steamy belt of tropics that girdles the earth. We live above Cannes, in Mougins, where it is always sunny, but on vacation we travel the world to get hotter and wilder. Islands are what Michel prefers: in Asia, Oceania, Africa, the Caribbean, it doesn’t matter. Any place where the people are the color of different grades of coffee, and mangoes plop in mushy heaps on the ground, and the reef fish are brilliant as a box of new crayons. On vacation Michel sheds his manicured ad-man image and with innocent glee sets about turning himself into a Eurotrash version of Tarzan. Bronzed muscles well in evidence, shark’s tooth on a leather thong, fishing knife stuck into the waist of a threadbare pareu, and a wispy sun-streaked ponytail that he tends painstakingly along with a chin crop of Hollywood stubble.

He loves me for a number of wrong reasons connected with his dreams of hot islands. It makes no difference to him that I grew up in Massachusetts, wearing L. L. Bean boots more often than sandals; after eight years of marriage, he doesn’t seem to see that what gives strength to the spine of an American black woman, however exotic she appears, is a steely Protestant core. A core that in its absolutism is curiously cold and Nordic. The fact is that I’m not crazy about the tropics, but Michel doesn’t want to acknowledge that. Mysteriously, we continue to get along. In fact, our marriage is surprisingly robust, though at the time of our wedding, my mother, my sister, and my girlfriends all gave it a year. I sometimes think the secret is that we don’t know each other and never will. Both of us are lazy by nature, and that makes it convenient to hang on to the fantasies we conjured up back when we met in Milan: mine of the French gentleman-adventurer, and his of a pliant black goddess whose feelings accord with his. It’s no surprise to me when Michel tries to share the ribald thoughts that run through the labyrinth of his Roman Catholic mind. He doubtless thought that I would get a kick out of hearing about his boat ride with a pair of African sluts.

Those girls have been sitting around watching us from under the mango tree since the day we rolled up from the airport to spend August in the house we borrowed from our friend Jean-Claude. Michel was driving Jean-Claude’s car, a Citroën so rump-sprung from the unpaved roads that it moves like a tractor. Our four-year-old son, Lele, can drag his sneakers in red dust through the holes in the floor. The car smells of failure, like the house, which is built on an island off the northern coast of Madagascar, on a beach where a wide scalloped bay spreads like two blue wings, melting into the sky and the wild archipelago of lemur islands beyond. Behind the garden stretch fields of sugar cane and groves of silvery, arthritic-looking ylang-ylang trees, whose flowers lend a tang of Africa to French perfume.

The house is low and long around a grandiose veranda, and was once whitewashed into an emblem of colonial vainglory; now the walls are the indeterminate color of damp, and the thinning palm thatch on the roof swarms with mice and geckos. It has a queenly housekeeper named Hadijah, whose perfect pommes frites and plates of crudités, like the dead bidet and dried-up tubes of Bain de Soleil in the bathroom, are monuments to Jean-Claude’s ex-wife, who went back to Toulon after seeing a series of projects—a frozen-fish plant, a perfume company, a small luxury hotel—swallowed up in the calm fireworks of the sunsets. Madagascar is the perfect place for a white fool to lose his money, Michel says. He and I enjoy the scent of dissolution in our borrowed house, fuck inventively in the big mildewed ironwood bed, sit in happiness in the sad, bottomed-out canvas chairs on the veranda after a day of spear-fishing, watching our son race in and out of herds of humpbacked zebu cattle on the beach. The only problem for me has been those girls. They’re not really whores, just local girls who dance at Bar Kariboo on Thursday nights and hang around the few French and Italian tourists, hoping to trade sex for a T-shirt, a hair clip. They don’t know to want Ray-Bans yet; this is not the Caribbean. I’m used to the women from the Comoros Islands who crowd onto the beach near the house, dressed up in gold bangles and earrings and their best lace-trimmed blouses. They clap and sing in circles for hours, jumping up to dance in pairs, wagging their backsides in tiny precise jerks, laughing and flashing gold teeth. They wrap themselves up in their good time in a way that intimidates me. And I’ve come to an understanding with the older women of the village, who come by to bring us our morning ration of zebu milk (we drink it boiled in coffee) or to barter with rideaux Richelieu, the beautiful muslin cutwork curtains that they embroider. They are intensely curious about me, l’Américaine, who looks not unlike one of them, but who dresses and speaks and acts like a foreign madame, and is clearly married to the white man, not just a casual concubine.

To read more of this story in the New Yorker, click here.

Blue Five Notebook – (April 2014 / 14.7)

The latest from Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series.

Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series

Blue Five Notebook – (April 2014 / 14.7)

Langa Township Hostel by Martyn FerryLanga Township Hostel by Martyn Ferry

Artist, Martyn Ferry, was born in London but grew up in the peaceful climes of Hertfordshire. After studying art and photography in Cambridge he moved back to London and spent a few years working as a commercial photographer, which put him off photography for a while, until he spent two and a half years travelling throughout Australasia and Asia where he well and truly got the bug again. Since then he has specialized in landscape and nature photography of all kinds. He lives and works in the Cotswolds. More at his photography website.

Langa Township was taken when Martyn visited South Africa in 2012. Martyn writes, “Langa was established in 1927 as part of the Urban Areas Act, and is one of the many areas in South Africa designated for Black Africans before the apartheid era…

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Convince Me to Follow Your Blog

The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I’ve reached 20,000 followers, and although that makes my blog seem “big,” the truth is that my stats and actual page views are much lower. I get an average of 300 to 400 views a day, with slightly fewer unique visitors. All 20,000 of you are not reading or visiting my blog, but that’s okay. It is gratifying to know that I’ve reached 20,000 people in some small way over the last two years.

Over those years, I’ve followed blogs myself. I have some favorites. Some of you are WordPressers and we converse regularly through my blog and yours. Some of my favorites don’t know that I exist, but I enjoy seeing their work in my inbox. As I’ve followed these blogs, I’ve tried to follow those who follow me. I care about building community through blogging, and I appreciate those of you who are kind enough to read my…

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Herve Guibert’s GHOST IMAGE – Part 2

Herve Guibert, circa 1988

     Several weeks ago, I blogged about the French writer and photographer Herve Guibert. Below, I have published a remarkable essay he wrote which chronicles image, memory, immortality and the fundamental desire of men to both capture and control the images of women. Guibert’s writing style is characterized by parentheses which give a curious sense of the very informed afterthought. His writing is highly cinematic and evocative. The writer artfully captures the universal sense of loss all human beings rather continuously battle. The fact that this talented and highly original writer died so young is particularly resonant given the focus of this essay. 

I took her picture. At that moment, she was at the height of her beauty, her face completely smooth and relaxed. She didn’t speak as I moved around her, and there was an imperceptible smile on her lips, undefinable, of peace, of happiness, as if she were being bathed by the light, as if this whirlwind circling around her, at a distance were the most gentle caress.

     PHOTOGRAPHY is also an act of love. Once, when my parents were still living in La Rochelle, in that large bright apartment entirely surrounded by a balcony overlooking the trees in the park, and a little further off, the sea, I decided to take a picture of my mother. I must have been eighteen years old, and I had returned home for the weekend. I suppose it was May or June, a sunny day, a day of fresh, cool, and gentle sunshine.

     I had already photographed her on vacation with my father, without giving it much thought. They were quite ordinary pictures that said nothing of the relationship we may have had, of the attachment I may have felt for her, pictures that stubbornly revealed only a part of her, physiognomy. Besides, most of the time my mother refused to be photographed, pretending that she was not photogenic, that the situation immediately put her one edge.

     If I was eighteen, it must have been 1973, and my mother, who was born in 1928, must have been forty-five, an age when she was still quite beautiful, but a desperate age, when I felt that she was at the threshold of old age, of sadness. I should mention that until then I had refused to photograph her because I didn’t like her hairstyle, which was artificially curled and lacquered into one of those terrible hairdos that my mother wore, alternating it with her permanents, and that encumbered her face, framed it inappropriately, hid it, falsified it. My mother was one of those women who take pride in resembling some actress, Michelle Morgan in this case, and who go out to their hairdresser with a picture taken from some magazine, so that the stylist, with the picture as his guide, re-creates for her the identical hairstyle. So my mother had her hair done almost like Michelle Morgan, whom I obviously began to hate. My father forbade my mother to wear makeup or dye her hair, and when he photographed her he ordered her to smile, or he took the picture against her will while pretending to adjust the camera, so she had no control over her image.

     The first thing I did was to remove my father from the room where the picture was to be taken, to chase him away so her image would no longer pass through the one he had created of her, through his need to keep up appearances, so that she was thus temporarily freed of all the pressure that had built up over more than twenty years, so that there was nothing left but our own complicity, free of husband and father, just a mother and son. (Wasn’t it in fact my father’s death that I wanted to stage?)

     The second thing was to rescue her face from that mess of a hairdo. As she crouched in the bathroom, I put her head under the faucet myself so that her hair would uncurl, and placed a towel over her head to keep her shoulders from getting wet. She was wearing a white slip. I had her try on several old dresses (I remembered them from my childhood), for example, the blue dress with the flounces and white polka dots, which I associate with Sunday, with festivity, with summer, with pleasure; but either my mother could no longer “get into the dress”, or the dress seemed too much to me, it assumed too much importance, was too loud, and ended up “hiding” my mother again, but in an entirely different way than my father had, although in retrospect, all of our efforts only served to reveal her further. I combed her blonde shoulder-length hair for a long time so that it would hang absolutely straight on either side of her face, without volume, without form, letting the purity of her features show: her long straight nose, her narrow jaw, her high cheekbones, and – why not, even if the photograph would be in black and white, her blue eyes. I put a little powder on her – very pale powder, almost white.

      Then I led her into the living room, which was bathed in light, a gentle warm light, the enveloping and restful light of the summer’s beginning. I placed one of the white armchairs among the green plants, the fig tree, the rubber tree, angled so the light would fall more gently upon it, and I lowered the blind a little to soften the light’s intensity, which threatened to obliterate and flatten her face. I then removed anything “distracting” from the field of view, like the plexiglass table where the TV guides lay. My mother was sitting straight up in that armchair in her slip with the towel on her shoulders, waiting, but without any sign of stiffness, for me to finish my preparations. I noticed that her features had already relaxed, and that the little wrinkles that threatened to pinch her mouth completely disappeared. (For a moment I was able to stop time and old age. Through my love for my mother, I turned back.) There she sat, majestic, like a queen before an execution. (I wonder now if it wasn’t her own execution she was expecting, for once the picture was taken, the image fixed, the process of aging would continue, and this time at a dizzying speed, and at an age between forty-five and fifty, when it so brutally takes hold of a woman. I knew that once the shutter was released she would let herself go with detachment, with serenity, with an absolute resignation, and that she would continue to live with this deteriorating image without trying to recapture it in front of a mirror with beauty creams and masks…)

     I took her picture. A that moment, she was at the height of her beauty, her face completely smooth and relaxed. She didn’t speak as I moved around her, and there was an imperceptible smile on her lips, undefinable, of peace, of happiness, as if she were being bathed by the light, as if this whirlwind circling slowly around her, at a distance were the most gentle caress. I believe that at that moment she was happy with the image that I, her son allowed her to have and that I was capturing without my father’s knowledge. In fact, it’s that: the image of a woman who had been criticized by her husband, enjoying what she would never have, a forbidden image, and the pleasure between us was even greater as the forbidden burst into pieces. It was a suspended moment, a moment of peace, serene. In some of the pictures, I had her put on a big straw hat folded back, which was for me the young boy’s hat in Death in Venice and which I occasionally wore. In addition, I may have been projecting my own image onto my mother’s; wasn’t the image of my adolescent desire also a confidence I made her assume?

     The session was over. My father returned. My mother put her dress back on and quickly redid her hair with the help of curlers and a hair dryer. She became once again her husband’s wife, the woman of forty-five, while the photograph, instantaneously, as if by magic, had suspended age, had made it only an absurd social convention. At that moment, my mother had been beautiful, more beautiful that than she had ever been as a young woman. That is what I wanted to believe. I no longer recognized her, I wanted to forget her, to stop seeing her, to remain forever with the image we were going to extract from the developer.

     My father had just bought a camera, a Rollei 35, and it was the first time I had used it. He had also bought a developing kit, which he set up in the bathroom. We decided to process the film right away, and the time it took to process it corresponded to the time it took my mother to remove the powder from her face, dry her hair, and restore her earlier image.That earlier image had been totally, irrevocably reconstructed as we tried to create the chance image, the subversive image of the photograph. But that image didn’t exist. Looking at through the film against the bluish light of the bathroom, we saw the entire roll of film was unexposed, blank from one end to the other…

Correction: 3 April 2014

Since this complete essay can’t be posted without permission, readers will have to settle for an excerpt of Guibert’s Ghost Image, finely translated by Robert Bononno.