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I have an idea. About my dead uncle. A chamber opera. Small ensemble, maybe some electronics. Four or five singers doing multiple roles. No, wait, hear me out. Uncle Larry went to China when I was five and never came back. We don't even know for sure that he's dead. It's a great story. Or would be, I imagine. If we actually knew what it was. I just have bits so far: a made-up narrative arc for the second act, a melody half-cribbed from some incidental music that I wrote about five years ago for a local theatre company. An ethereal harmonic progression that I'm sure I'll find a place for. It wants to happen. It nags me in the night, sends me creeping to the kitchen table with a notepad or some music paper just to empty out my head so I can sleep. Louisa never stirs, even if I'm up three or four times. We pretty much assume that he's dead, after twenty-five years. Or most of us do. He isn't even my uncle, really. He's Mama's cousin. Or was, if he's dead. Aunt Jasmine believes he's still alive, but then I guess a mother has to. If he is, though, you'd think he'd have contacted someone by now, no matter how hard it may have been to get letters out of China in the 70s. Or especially now, with the Internet. You'd think he'd have contacted Aunt Jasmine at least. I used to sneak over to her place sometimes for tea and pastries, and the occasional family story. Stories from Mama's side, that I wasn't supposed to want to know about. She makes these great little pastries called moon cakes. Mama never made moon cakes. Mama was never allowed to make anything Chinese. There were a lot of rules for Mama. I remember one day she was supposed to mow the lawn, but didn't. When Dad got home she was asleep on the kitchen floor. I had cleaned up the spills and put the empties under the sink, but I couldn't get her to wake up, to wash her face, to sit in a chair. I was probably six or seven. He twisted her arm up behind her back until she cried and pushed her out to the shed. She mowed the lawn one-handed, rocking the mower from side to side to turn it around at the end of each row. Her arm was in a sling for four days. Oh, for a while we sometimes went out for Chinese food, but only the same way that we sometimes went out for steak or spaghetti. When we got to go out at all. There was a little place with chrome and arborite tables in a strip mall on Macleod Trail that served "Chinese and Canadian Cuisine", the menu neatly segregated: egg rolls and chow mein on the left, burgers and club sandwiches on the right. I could always tell if Teresa was trying to suck up to Dad by which side she ordered from. Dad always had the roast beef sandwich au jus. I can still see him turning his head sideways to bite into the gristly folds of meat, into the darkened bun dripping with what he always called "the awe juice". Mama usually had coffee and rice. Plain white rice. It wasn't licenced, the Chinese food place. I was often the only one who ventured into the mysterious realms of chop suey and sweet and sour pork, or chicken balls in their sticky scarlet goo. For a while. But suppose he is still alive?

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Itzel I

A Tlatelolco Awakening
edition:Paperback
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Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. That is how I will always start. Whether I am in Oaxaca eating grasshoppers or in Cacaxtla drinking pulque, or just surveying one or the other city or even Puerto Escondido on Google Earth, that is how I will begin: Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. Over and over. Thinking one day I will do it: write that story. Get it down. Until it will once more make me go to Mexico to try to retrace our route--our many routes--and become a refrain: Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. And yet not a single word will be written.Even if I have already let the fiction begin in my mind. Already changed her name. Even if I know it would have satisfied her, the real her, when I let her speak it. Laugh at how it seems so strange that an Auschwitz survivor should bear the name of a Maya goddess. But of course such a name would already have to appear strange to me, the me who will be the author, because she was so very blonde. As I suppose the Auschwitz survivor part will too, almost devolving into one of the New York jokes of my Brooklyn childhood, always a punch line for something: Funny, you don't look Jewish. Except that there is nothing funny about it. Which may be the reason, now, in front of my keyboard with Google Earth in another window, I will decide at last to write it this way: that it can be written this way. As this impossible hybrid. Because I want you to know this: everything I say here about the camps was said to me. That part was real.And so was she. This woman so very briefly my best friend. The first person to befriend me in Mexico, or whom I will befriend. And betray so badly. I still think that. Even if most might think from a superficial look at the circumstances that it was the other way around. So that a great deal more of all this is true too, certainly the part of Mexico I will be there for, in the making of its history, even the exact minute of the green flare falling from the army helicopter to begin the massacre at 6:10 in the afternoon of October 2nd, 1968. When I will see Itzel begin to run. True as something of fiction always is. Though you can work out what yourself in the storyline, with its names changed to protect innocent or guilty, the details recombined mostly, only occasionally imagined. The way I will often do, in my head if not on the page: just to let me find the moral centre of my tale. But the specifics, the historical specifics: I will vouch for them.I will start to use that line early on: Itzel was an Auschwitz survivor. Even if I will use her real name then. And change it only when on Cozumel one year I will be reading so much about the Maya goddess whose shrine stands at the island's centre that it will become a way into the story, one that preserves the rhythm of the original as well as its unusual features, not like Vera or Elena or other names I'd thought of that can be easily pronounced in Spanish as well as English, when always I would like her own far too much before finding that one: the Maya goddess of medicine and midwifery, which will finally birth my tale, and be a gift not just to the goddess but to her, what with that sound, that 'ts' sound contained in that 'tz' so common in her own Hungarian and in the indigenous languages of Mexico, still intact. Eetsell: She would love it.As perhaps she did. Which is what will let me see it as the name she'll take when she joins the underground cell with us, I will hear her laughter in it and that will jog my memory because Cozumel's shrine to Ix Chel--another version of Itzel most say, though controversy surrounds that too--will once more bring her and her code name to mind, how in her own way she will be midwife to us all. Because she will join the group with us. That too, is true. So that Itzel, that central voiceless hissing whisper in it, can seem both assertion and subterfuge, and so come to mirror her most salient characteristic. And I will keep it singular, one characteristic: assertion and subterfuge. Because one will never be present without the other. It will be easy to use that line to try to frame her. To put her in the frame. Better said a frame. Like a portrait. The better to see her. That's what I will tell myself at the start. Though I do like that other phrase: put her in the frame. That British police procedural phrase. Even if the American use of frame might work better. That I am trying to set her up. It is easy enough to think that in trying to get a grip on her I might be trying to trap her inside some sort of misdemeanour if not felony which I have come to think her guilty of. Or that Basta might, just to get out of the picture himself. To leave us to it. Because there is a third character here. Of course there is. There has to be. The third point of the triangle. Or the outsider. Or both. The one who arrives late into town or mind. Or perhaps someone else will play at least one of those roles. I'll leave it to you.And besides, we will meet at art school, Itzel and I. And that's part of what we'll be learning to do. Compose the design within its limits: its frame. And we will paint each other.

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Falconi's Tractor
Excerpt

Dom knocked on my door and asked me to come downstairs. It was the first time I'd heard him speak that day. He led me downstairs to the showroom, but I almost tripped on the last stair because the overhead lights had been turned off; only the red tractor in the window had light on it (and I noticed that the blinds had been drawn, something I'd never seen before) and there was candlelight coming from the middle of the showroom. Both desks had been pushed to the walls to make room for the four of us to gather around the candles. I thought we were going to say some prayers for mom, but that's not what happened."Dom and Gina, you already know about this, but Freddy, we wanted you to be part of this ceremony too," Small Carm said, his voice steady despite the flickering light giving him two sets of fish-lips. "Well, it was Dom, actually, who said you are old enough to take part and understand how serious this is." Dom nodded gently, like he was in church. "Today has been a real test for our family," he continued, "but I know we are strong enough to get through it." He then pulled out four items: a pin, a small paring knife, a wooden handle with three beaded strings attached to it, and an odd, rawhide necklace with two brown squares on either end. One square had old-looking script on it, and the other had a picture of what looked like a saint. He placed the necklace around himself so that one square was on his chest and the other was on his back, and then said to me: "You ever have a friend that you liked so much you pricked each other's fingers and became blood brothers, Freddy? Well that's what we're going to do here, and then we're going to promise something to each other, okay?"I just nodded dumbly.He then took the paring knife and cut X's into the palms of both his hands. He flinched but didn't say anything. Almost immediately, a little string of red pearls appeared on the clean tile floor, which soon turned into a puddle. Dom then held out his hands, but Small Carm cut an X into only one of his palms. He must've gone deeper, however, since Dom quickly sucked in some air as he watched the blood quickly curl around his forearm. Before I could protest on Gina's behalf, Small Carm switched to the pin and produced a tiny dome of red on one of her palms. He did the same to me: one little prick right in the centre."Now hold hands, everyone," he said, scanning all of our faces. He took Dom's bloody hand with his dripping right hand, and Dom took Gina's, and Gina took mine, but it was what he did with his left that was really weird. He picked up the wooden handle with the beaded strings and began striking himself on the back with quite a bit of force. Droplets of blood from his open wound were flinging through the air, hitting walls, windows and furniture."Our mother, Rosabella Falconi, is gone," he said in the same kind of tone I'd seen in horror movie séances. "But her love lives inside all of us, and we must protect and cherish that love. There has been scandal, and disrespect, but we must protect our proud family name. FALCONI."Thankfully, his voice then changed back to something more normal. "And the way to do this is by keeping her death a secret. Dom, Gina, again you already know this," he said, then turned his gaze to me, "Freddy, if anyone asks about our mother, you tell them that she has gone missing, and we are doing everything we can to find her....capisce?"

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Philipovna

Philipovna

Daughter of Sorrow
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
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I started down the path toward the orchard. I was so involved in my mind's wanderings that I almost bumped into the stooped, old man who was walking up the path toward me."Good day Uncle," said Xenkovna from behind me. "What can I do for you this morning?""Xenkovna, don't you recognize me?" he asked.Then it dawned on me."Uncle Paulo?" I asked. "Is that you, really?" "Philipovna, mind your manners." Xenkovna stepped up on the path beside me.We stared at him as if we'd never seen him before. This once solid well-built, robust man with ruddy cheeks and kind eyes looked as if he'd emerged from a grave. His gray skin hung in bags from his cheeks and chin and his eyes had lost their brown lustre. It looked as if every step would be his last."Is that really you?" Xenkovna, who usually could control her composure as well as Auntie, wept openly. "Come in, come in. Mama will be glad to see you. I'm sure we'll find a cup of tea - or something for you."We turned back into the house and found Auntie praying before the icon."For the love of God, what have they done to you?" she exclaimed upon recognizing Uncle Paulo. She stopped and took a long look too."I haven't got much strength left," he said. "Is Misha around here somewhere? I'd like to say what I have to say to the both of you.""No, he's not. The Comrades came and collected the men to bring in wood today," said Auntie. She proceeded to tell Uncle Paulo what happened over the last winter since he had been here for his chess game."Dear God," he sighed and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "How wrong I was. Please tell Misha that he's right. Though these devils have broken our spirit and taken our land, by the Cross, Misha is right and has been right all along. They will surely defeat us and I say by the Name of our Saviour, they will be worse than any Czar we've ever known. They preach well-being and prosperity but they'll take everything we have and all we stand for."The tears flowed freely over his sunken cheeks."But we know all of that," he continued. "I guess Misha doesn't really need to hear it again. Would you please tell him that I came to ask for his forgiveness? I doubt I'll see the end of this week. I couldn't go to my precious Maria without asking you to pardon me. I should have never given them my land. My heart broke in two when I watched them chase your Children out of my cherries. I used to love to see the joy on all of the faces that my orchard blessed. My dear neighbour, by the Grace of God, I ask for your forgiveness too." He reached for Auntie's hand and kissed it.Xenkovna and I stared at him in silence."I have one more thing to tell you," he went on. "Take Philipovna away from here. Take her as far away as you can, so that Ivan can't get his hands on her. After he and Simon found out what she said to Asimov, they've been looking for pay back. I won't say what he threatened as she is so young and still innocent but you must get her away - at all costs or death will be the least of her trials."He wiped the sweat off his forehead and finished his tea while we three women sat with our mouths gaping."Where should I take her?" Auntie was the first to speak. "Where? Do you have any ideas?""But I don't want to go anywhere," I protested."What you want, Child, is irrelevant," said Uncle Paulo. "What we all want doesn't matter. We want you to survive. That's what matters. If you young ones don't make it, our lives are worth nothing. Our history, our culture, it'll all surely die. I won't make it; but you must! You must. For the love of God, for the love of our land and for the love of our ancestors, you must."He said goodbye and went on his way. We didn't get up to see him to the door. We were so stunned by what he had come to say. We knew that we would never see him again. His words rang in our ears. Each one of us knew that the others were playing them over and over in our minds but we didn't have the energy to speak or move for a very long time."Come along," Auntie, finally said. She got up from her chair and went into the room where Mama's sewing machine was. She pulled out her trunk and started rifling through its contents."We have to find something that we can wrap around you under your clothes," she said. "I don't imagine that they keep a good fire at the orphanage. Now put on this shirt under your blouse. It's old but it will keep you warm." She handed me one of the boy cousins under garments."Orphanage!" I screamed at her. "I don't want to go. I won't go. I'll run away the first chance I get." I stamped my foot."Settle down Child. Today isn't the first time I've thought of taking you there," Auntie admitted. "I promised your mother, on her bible - see. It's right here. I look at it often and remember. If no one else survives, you have to - you must. I promised."Her tears flowed and she clutched the bible in the same way as I remembered her doing on the day that Godfather decided that I should go with her. She put her arms around me with Mama's bible between our chests."Do it for your precious Mama, if you can't do it for me," she whispered. "God has set you aside for something. I don't know what it is, but I'm sure there is something special that you are being prepared for. Please, Child, do it for your Mama if you can't for me. I promised your Mama and Godfather...there is no other way. You must survive." I put on two layers of clothing under my regular blouse; I wrapped my feet with extra rags and stuffed them into a pair of felt boots. Auntie took a small bundle of poppy tea and told me to keep it under my inner clothing."Don't use this all of the time," she said. "Save it for those nights that you absolutely can't sleep or when you really can't tolerate the pain. It will stand you in good stead if you can manage it. And, for the love of our Blessed Jesus, don't let any grownup find you with it. You're smart enough to do this."She tucked some raw carrots into another small bundle. She found the Unravelled One's coat that she had almost frozen to death in last winter. She put ashes into her dark brown hair, although she didn't have to use as many as last time. She kissed Xenkovna goodbye and waited while Xenkovna hugged me with her tears falling all over my face."Tell the men what happened," she said. "I'll be back as soon as I can. At least I won't freeze my hands and feet off this time."

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Insult to the Brain
Excerpt

The Poet Bids Adieu to His Poems You are, as we know, turtles.The male has his moment,and is indifferent.The female fusses about in the sand,and is gone.The hatchlings are fully formed,no metamorphosis, no second chance.For the crippled and the unlucky,under the shrieking gulls,the sea is an infinity.from Upside DownStrange times, my dear,the executioner's walked off the job.The judge commuted the sentence to whatever the prisoner chooses,which is - can you believe it? a marriage proposal to the prosecutor,promptly accepted.In distant Madagascar a dodo rose from the sand and sang,though so far as we know these birds never sang before.At home the news briefs were equally distressing,the generals in their big hats and uniforms, and the CEOs in theirsconcluded a suicide pact - after breakfast, of course.The cleaners found the note in the afternoon.Such regrets, it reads, such regrets. The Queen and her minister, oldand accustomed to hedging, preferred exile.The ship sailed off at midnight, a sickle-blade moonunhooked from the cranes on the docks and followed her out.The Wall Street boys checked themselves in to the loony bin,they're out there on the lawn now,rolling joints and giggling at the cloudsand the coloured bits they pulled from their phones ...

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Dead Voices
Excerpt

In Hot Stove they'd forget they were teachers, fathers, husbands, compromisers, bullshit artists, or whatever else they normally functioned as, and became soldiers, predators, hunters, warriors - a bunch of old-timers who had seen their glory years long ago and still laced up the skates for the love of the game. Hot Stove was their way of keeping the embers warm after the season, keeping the dressing room spirit alive, shooting the shit - as real shit instead of pious shit - and swapping hockey lore, and cutting their ties to the world of fakery and compromise.

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Downtown Flirt
Excerpt

Off-whiteCity stimulus tweaks me.In Toronto, as in Montreal,I become surer of myself --a northern mouse aping urban wherewithal.But there's mania in my swaggerand hyperactivity on credit is a dangerous indulgence.So I devote days - and hours within days - to self-care.I read, watch movies, drink water, breathe deeply.I survey my sublet in plaid pajamas and striped sweater.Once, eating Chinese in the Dufferin Mall food court,the noise and the neon came like errand boys to collect their bill --The hordes! The hordes!I limped nestward and stared at the ceiling.Off-white.Perfect.

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Oulipo Challenge, The
Excerpt

The Oulipo, acronym for OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), is a small literary group dedicated to creating new possibilities for writing. When put into practice, their innovations have resulted in a fascinating, highly idiosyncratic body of literature. The starting point for each endeavour is the use or invention of a set of formal rules, called restrictions or constraints, which are then scrupulously adhered to in order to arrive at texts previously inconceivable or unimaginable. These trammels are invariably of great clarity, highly inventive and, often, fiendishly challenging - essential in forcing one's mind to the furthest reaches of its intelligence and creativity. The corpus of work is exceptionally wide-ranging, from tiny fragments, lists, sentence-series to poems, stories and full-out novels. All compositions belong to (at least) one in a lexicon of hundreds restriction-categories, each bearing its own charming, if not exactly illuminating, appellation: lipogram; perverse; heterosexual rhyme; N + 7; prisoner's restriction; pre-cooked language; asphyxiation; tautogram; corpuscular poem and Canada Dry.

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