About the Author

Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. He is the author of numerous books and chapbooks of poetry and fiction including the poetry collections frogments from the frag pool: haiku after basho (written with derek beaulieu) and Raising Eyebrows and Outside the Hat (Coach House Books) and the fiction collections Doctor Weep and other strange teeth, Big Red Baby (The Mercury Press), and Cruelty to Fabulous Animals (Moonstone Press). He is the author of The Mud Game, a novel written with Stuart Ross (The Mercury Press). Barwin is also the author of several books for children including Seeing Stars, a young adult novel (Stoddart Kids) nominated for an Arthur Ellis Award and the CLA YA Book of the Year, and Killer Poodle Made Me Island King (Fox Meadow), co-winner of the Muskoka Novel Marathon 2003. Barwin received a PhD in Music Composition and currently teaches music at Hillfield-Strathallan College and creative writing at McMaster University. Barwin lives in Hamilton, where he has cultivated vague but colourful illusions about his writing. Please don’t tell him.

Books by this Author
Franzlations

Franzlations

The Imaginary Kafka Parables
edition:Paperback
tagged : canadian
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I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457

I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457

edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted

Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted

The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

1
VILNIUS (VILNA)
July 1941

Motl. Jewish cowpoke. Brisket Boy. My grandfather.

As usual, he was bent over the kitchen table, his mottled and hairy nose deep in the pale valley of a book, half-finished plate of herring beside his elbow, half-eaten egg bread slumped beside a Shabbos candlestick. His old mother was out shopping for food while she still could.

So, this Motl, was he a reader?

If the world was ending, he would keep reading.

The world was ending. He was still reading.

So, what was this book he had to read despite everything?

One of the great westerns of the American frontier, of course. Even though he knew that Hitler adored them.

“The master race should be brave as Indianers,” Der Führer had said, and sent boxes of Karl May’s Winnetou noble savage novels to the eastern front to inspire his troops—those same manifest destiny soldiers crossing the country with orders to kill Motl, his mother and all the other Jews.

Did Motl intend to do something about this?

Yes. He would sit at the table, his shlumpy jacket turned up at the collar, his hat like a shroud of mice askew on his sallow head, and read.

Was Motl a man of action?

“If parking his tuches all day and all night on a chair doing nothing but reading is action,” his mother would say, “he’s a man of action. Action, sure. Every day he gets older and more in my way.”

Why was he still reading this western?

Because Motl, this Litvak, this Lithuanian Jew, this inconceivable zaidy, my grandfather, this citizen of the Wild East—that brave old world of ever-present sorrow, a sorrow that had just gotten worse—had chosen the life of the cowboy.

He would be that hombre who sits on his chair and imagines being calm and steady and manly, speaking only the fewest of well-chosen words, doing only what he wanted and what he must under that vast, unpatented western sky.

“And why not?” he would say. “Should my life be nothing but the minced despair and boiled hope of an aging Jew, too thin to be anything but borscht made by Nazis? I choose to think myself a Paleface chuck line rider of the doleful countenance, a Quixotic Ashkenazi of the bronco, riding the Ostland trail. Like my mother said when I told her I wanted to be a doctor, ‘Mazel tov, Motl. Nothing is impossible when it’s an illusion.’”

He would say, “What’s the difference between a Jewish cowpoke and beef jerky? It’s the hat. And feeling empty as a broken barrel. Jerky don’t never feel such hollowness, least not by the time it’s jerky. But the cowboy, the cowboy keeps riding. He don’t look back. Eventually, if he’s lucky, he too becomes leathern and feels only what jerky feels.”

Motl. Citizen of Vilna. Saddlebag of pain. Feedbag of regret.

At forty-five, he had a history. As a Lithuanian Jew, he was pickled in it.

But though neither he nor his mother knew it at the time, something had changed. Somewhere, deep down in the overworked mine shaft of his imagination, it had been determined that he would set out on a perilous adventure, this time of his own choosing. He would get up on his horse and ride.

And he would have a child.

At his age.

And avoid being killed. Sometimes you have to save your own bacon, when you’re a Jew.

The next day, he went to the barber’s. Even a grown man will cave in to his mother’s demands that he groom if she won’t make food for him. Eyes closed, a Texas reverie floating through his mind like the scent of campfire, Motl lay back in the red chair and awaited his shave.

But then:

“Under a hot towel, a cowpoke can think big thoughts, but to act he must stand up,” he said.

He stood up.

For a moment, the towel hung from his jowls, the Santabeard of a Hebrew god. Then it fell away.

“Barber,” Motl said. “I must seize these last days while the possibility of life remains.”

The barber said nothing, wet blade held between trembling fingers.

“The kabbalists speak of repairing the world, healing what is broken. It’s my time,” Motl said, looking round that hair-strewn palace of strop and whisker, that little shop of Hebrews. “Barber, I thank you, for I have learned much under your towel.”

Shave and a haircut.

—Did the barber, Shmuel, expect payment?—

Two bits.

Did Motl toss him these two coins before his impromptu departure?

Having had neither shave nor haircut, he only waved, then hightailed it into the bright sun of Shnipishok, that region of Vilna whose name sounds like scissor blades. He ran through its streets, feeling open to possibility and getaway.

Did Shmuel chase him with his blade?

Let’s say it was a close shave.

This day, as the towel fell from his bristly chins, Motl saw beyond his scraggy self and straight into his crimpled yet resilient heart. He understood that it could become pink and new as the callow fundament of a child. How? He recalled that there remained a means by which he could become procreator and thus begetter. In this time of murder and loss, to make new life would be to make life new. It would be a salve for the broken world. He could say, both to his child and to himself, “It is worth being born into this world. It is worth being born.”

And this fathering, would it involve the usual squirming ministrations known since our ancestors first began to beget?

It would not.

But first, he had to retrieve his old saddle of a kvetching mother and get them both the galloping Gehenna out of the Einsatzgruppening hell that Vilna would soon be.

The cavalry were coming, or—raised as they were on Karl May—they’d more likely imagine themselves Aryan elves of the plains, Rhineland braves with bellies like six-packs of strudel.

Noble cabbages.

Coming to lead their band of Lithuanian Lakota against the godless yellowstars, locals happy to have the excuse for an anti-Semitic whoop-up.

Besides, if a boychik cowpoke was going to ride off in quest of new life, who else to bring but his mama?

But first, before he even retrieved this mama, we must go back nearly twenty years and speak of the family jewels because, in the end, that’s where all roads begin.

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Yiddish for Pirates
Excerpt

Chapter One

Moishe as a child. He told me stories. Some were true. 
   At fourteen, he left the shtetl near Vilnius for the sea. How? First one leg out the window then the other. Like anyone else. Before first light. Before the wailing of his mother. 
   A boychik with big ideas, his kop—his head—bigger than his body. He would travel beyond the scrawny map of himself, and beyond the shtetl. He’d travel the ocean. There were Jews—he’d heard stories—that were something. Not rag-and-bones shmatte-men like his father, Chaim, always following the dreck of their nag around the same small world. Doctors. Court astronomers. Spanish lords. Tax farmers. Learned men of the world. The mapmakers of Majorca. They were Jews. Rich and powerful, they were respected by everyone. They could read the sky. They knew what was on the horizon and what was over the horizon. Jews had trickled through the cracks of the world and had rained upon the lands. 
   He’d travel the globe. He’d travel to the unknown edges of the maps, to where the lost tribes had built their golden cities, where they knew the secrets of the waters and of the sky. 
   And nu, perhaps along the way there might be a zaftik maideleh or two, or his true love, who knew secrets also. 
   So this Moishe put the cartographer before the horse and left. 
   Luftmensch, they say. Someone who lives on air, someone whose head floats in the clouds of a sky whose only use is to make the sea blue.
The world is wide because the ocean is wide. So, nu, he’d had his Bar Mitzvah, why shouldn’t the boychik sail west on a merchant ship, some kind of cabin boy, learning not to be sick with the waves? A one-way Odyssey away from home, his mother weaving only tears. 
   And where had he heard the stories? On the shmatte cart, making the rounds with his father. The sun rising, they travelled from home. They didn’t fall off the edge of their world, they circled around it, until by nightfall they were home again. Moishe’s old father, the bent and childless man who had taken in the drownedling, spoke to him of the great world that they shared. Moishe’s father, grey beard, wide black hat, stooped back. The world, he said, was a book. A great scroll. Like the Torah, when it ended, it began again. 
   Everything began again. Each week with its Shabbos of silver candlesticks and braided challah. Each year with its seasons, festivals, Torah readings. Child, father, child. It was a Moebius strip. At the end of the story, the story begins again and so we live forever, his father said. His father was a mensch. His mother also. Good people. But though they spoke of it, they never tried to find out "and then what happened?" They knew. Second verse same as the first, a little bit more oysgemutshet worn out, a little bit worse. 
   Before he climbed out the window, Moishe left a letter for his parents. 
   If the world is a book, I must read it all. 
   He had packed only his few clothes, some food, a knife, a book he had often examined when alone, and two silver coins that he took from where his mother had hidden them behind a stone of the hearth. He sewed these into the waist of his pants. 
   He had come across the book by accident, this book that had a beginning and an end. Playing at a game of catch-and-wrestle with his friend Pinchas, Moishe had slid under his parents’ bed and pushed himself against the wall where he hoped he would be invisible behind the curtain of the embroidered bedspread. Breathing hard, attempting to remain quiet and undetected, Moishe felt its shape beneath his hip. When he was eventually discovered—after he’d deliberately released a prodigious and satisfying greps, a gaseous shofar-call alerting his friend to his location—he left whatever-it-was beneath the bed to be disinterred and examined later. He knew it was somehow important and secret, so better to wait until he was alone and his mother out at the mikveh.
   When he unwrapped the old tallis—a prayer shawl—that surrounded it, Moishe was surprised to discover a book. An ancient book. Grainy brown leather with faded gold lettering and pages the colour of an old man’s hands. The script looked like Hebrew but it was the language of some parallel world, gibberish or the writing of a sorcerer. 
   Most intriguing were the strange drawings. Charts that seemed to diagram the architecture of heavenly palaces or the dance steps of ten-footed angels. Mysterious arrays of letters, the unspeakable and obsidian incantations of demons. And, most captivating of all, what appeared to be maps of the parallel world itself, filled with ring upon ring of concentric circles, rippling out from the beginning of creation and the centre of everything, as if one fine morning God had cannonballed down from everywhere and nowhere and into the exact middle of the primordial sea.
   But perhaps, Moishe wondered, these maps represented the actual earth, the alef-beys of cryptic markings, boats floating upon the waves of a vast ocean, searching for the edges of hidden knowledge. 
   It was as if Adam and his wife, Eve, had found a map instead of an apple, there in the centre of the garden. Instead of good and evil, they had discovered a map of Eden, the geography, the secrets, the true limits of Paradise and the Paradise that lies beyond.
Maybe that is why his father kept this book hidden where no one—not the rabbis or the shammes or the other men—could find it. 
   So Moishe took the book and left.

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Sonosyntactics

Sonosyntactics

Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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