Doppelgängers of Darkness and Light

In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, the novel’s characters, metaphors, and images mirror themselves into an infinity of doppelgängers—evil twins of innocence, fascists vs. members of the resistance, coal dust vs. orphans in a German mining town, and shining jewels vs. a jeweler corrupted by greed, stealing gems for the Nazis and stalking France for the most prized gem of all: the Sea of Flames he hopes to keep for himself. The bright jewel hiding in darkness is the novel’s center and title image. The treasure propagates both light and dark as a healing, mythical stone and a cold, impotent ember.

The novel’s two main characters are doppelgängers of each other: Marie-Laure, a blind Parisian girl, and Werner, a well-intentioned Hitler Youth whose father died in the mines. While Marie-Laure sees nothing and does much to subvert the Nazis, Werner sees too much and—over and over again—manages to do too little, despite his intelligence and his sought-after skill with radios. He allows his brilliant, birdwatching friend to be bullied into a severe state of disability, and, unlike his friend who refuses (before he is beaten up), Werner joins in torturing an old Jew as part of their Nazi training. While Werner manages to win the reader’s heart and sympathy, he falls far short of matching the character strength of Marie-Laure and his sister, Jutta—another doppelgänger—who is able to see right through fascism yet fails to convince her brother until it is too late. Werner is stuck, both physically and psychologically, inside Nazism—trapped so long in the dark beneath bombed rubble he is thirsting to death, and held captive so long by the mental trickery and oppression of those in authority he is unable, in the end, to escape Hitler’s long-armed candlesnuffer.

Darkness is the doppelgänger of light, often but not always sporting a swastika. Marie-Laure’s blindness is a universe of light inside her head. Her innocence—protected and nourished at first by her father’s love and then via her own intense imagination—gives her an uncanny ability to overcome the ever-present destruction of WWII. Her father, locksmith and woodworker, whittles little boxes into puzzles she has to solve before finding the tiny gifts inside. He builds a wooden model of Paris for her to memorize with her fingers and find her way around their neighborhood, and later, after they escape to the village of Saint-Malo, he carves a model of that ancient town as well, walled inside a peninsula jutting into the sea, where Marie-Laure eventually helps the resistance by carrying loaves of bread hiding small paper messages. Papa’s gifts of books in Braille foster her powers of imagination, most notably Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, its own world of symbolism correlating with the metaphors in Doerr’s novel.

Often, like the girl’s blindness, the images of darkness bring forth light—the night sky arching over Marie-Laure and Papa, stars shining down while the girl sleeps in his lap outside in an open field, during their long journey to escape the bombing. Doerr’s metaphors, while often disturbing, are as numerous and beautiful as the stars or the myriad snails covering the walls in the grotto where Marie-Laure loves to visit, the tide sometimes rising above her ankles. Note how Doerr writes in the present tense, keeping every image present and alive:

But the grotto itself comprises its own slick universe, and inside this universe spin countless galaxies: here, in the upturned half of a single mussel shell, lives a barnacle and a tiny spindle shell occupied by a still smaller hermit crab. And on the shell of the crab? A yet smaller barnacle. And on that barnacle?

Doerr’s portrayal of love between father and daughter is the novel’s most powerful light we “cannot see,” so beautiful it hurts. Even when Marie-Laure discovers the world outside her father’s arms, her memory of him buoys her joy:

She moves along the tide line, almost crawling at first, and imagines the beach stretching off in either direction, ringing the promontory, embracing the outer islands, the whole filigreed tracery of the Breton coastline with its wild capes and crumbling batteries and vine-choked ruins. She imagines the walled city behind her, its soaring ramparts, its puzzle of streets. All of it suddenly as small as Papa’s model. But what surrounds the model is not something her father conveyed to her; what’s beyond the model is the most compelling thing.

A flock of gulls squalls overhead. Each of the hundred thousand tiny grains of sand in her fists grinds against its neighbor. She feels her father pick her up and spin her around three times.

Doerr’s short chapters, sometimes less than a page long, alternate the points of view of both major and minor characters, and he often repeats the same image pages apart but with marked contrast in metaphorical connotation. While in Vienna looking for resistance radios with fellow Nazis, Werner notices a little girl swinging in the park. She has red hair and wears a maroon cape. Later that afternoon, Werner triangulates radio signals and thinks he sees an antenna wire (which turns out to be nothing more than a painted rod for a clothesline) on the side of an apartment building. He and his small team search the flat. One of them is spooked by the sound of residents hiding and shoots them all dead. Werner notices the maroon cape hanging on the mother’s doorknob. Inside a closet where the girl from the park had been hiding, she sits on the floor with a bullet hole in her forehead. “Her moon eyes are open and moist.” Twenty-five pages later, “God is only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, as the city is gradually pounded to dust.” A few pages more, Werner cannot forget the girl: “She passes through trees and road signs, veers around curves; she is as inescapable as a moon. . . . Dead girl in the sky, dead girl out the window, dead girl three inches away. Two wet eyes and that third eye of the bullet hole never blinking.” Moon, eye, blinking—each image works together to represent both innocence and death.

Werner’s innocence, while destroyed, remains intact like the ghost of the Viennese girl. Hitler cannot prevent this boy from experiencing the beauty of young love. Marie-Laure’s grandfather, before he died, broadcast in French the very same children’s radio show that reached all the way from Saint-Malo to Werner’s hometown in Germany, inspiring him as a child to learn everything he could about radios. The irony is potent, but so is Werner’s love:

Werner thinks of her, whether he wishes to or not. Girl with a cane, girl in a gray dress, girl made of mist. That air of otherworldliness in the snarls of her hair and the fearlessness of her step. She takes up residence inside him, a living doppelgänger to face down the dead Viennese girl who haunts him every night.

Who is she? Daughter of the broadcasting Frenchman? Granddaughter? Why would he endanger her so?


Brief notes on writing synchronicities and a new favorite author:

When I was young, I used to pretend to be blind in my big backyard, closing my eyes and making my way across the grass and around the shrubs. My little, humble-in-comparison novel Glassmusic was published in 2014, the same year as All the Light We Cannot See. Both books happen to feature the close relationship between a father and daughter, where one is blind and the other can see. Whereas in Doerr’s novel, the girl is blind and Papa can see, in my novel, Papa is blind and his daughter Ingrid, the main character, becomes his “seeing eyes.”

For the last twenty-five years, my favorite character in literature has been Sylvie, from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. She prefers to eat in the dark, and Robinson wrote some of the most lyrical scenes in near-darkness, in a room with one dim bulb in the back of a house in France while working on her PhD. I have finally found Sylvie’s equal in Marie-Laure, another character living both in darkness and incredible light and from, as it happens, the country where Robinson worked on her novel (set in Idaho). I have also discovered an American writer, though a bald white male, who writes at least as well as Robinson (and who lives, as it happens, in Idaho, where Robinson is from) and who also writes as well, I think, as another stellar favorite, Toni Morrison. Now I must read everything—short story or novel—by Anthony Doerr.

Bly vs. Fulton: Tranströmer’s Poem “Allegro”

Last year, after hearing the news of Tomas Tranströmer’s death, I renewed my effort to sneak poetry into my English composition classes. When the Swedish poet and psychologist finally won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011, I was thrilled. His poems linger with me in clear and powerful images. We focused as a class on one of my favorite Tranströmer poems, “Allegro,” and we made a quick comparison of two different translations.

We discussed Robert Bly’s translation first:

Allegro

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.1

One of my students from Africa gazed at the words projected on the screen with rapt attention. She nodded a little and smiled during the class discussion, in that wondrous moment when she understood a line of poetry in English, maybe for the first time—a turn of phrase, the juxtaposition and progression of imagery from stanza to stanza, a metaphor’s meaning and impact. This is when I really love teaching.

We discussed the way the poet gives sound the color green, contrasting the “black day” in the stanza above, and how “a little warmth in my hands” implies the poet was cold—both physically and emotionally—before he started to play.

Every time I teach a poem, I always learn something from the students—another reason I love to teach. One student said the “house of glass” was both music and the person playing the piano, at once—a mysterious juxtaposition of a human being merging with the music his fingers are playing, a surprising (physically impossible, yet emotionally real) metaphor of glass not breaking despite the rocks flying through it.

Sometimes we discover a literary moment together as a class, like the way Tranströmer leads us to believe he is raising a flag of surrender in the fifth stanza, but the “haydnflag” is instead a flag leading troops to battle—“We do not surrender”—and yet, at the same time, no battle—“we want peace.” We fight for peace without bloodshed, the nonviolent protest for freedom persisting in the best of human spirit throughout history, and persisting in music.

Regarding the fourth stanza, we discussed how acting calm, even though we are not calm, can help us be calm, just like smiling can help us feel happy when we’re not. One student gave a lovely example from his own life—how the glass house is like staying calm and quiet while a family member is trying to get you to argue.

From my own older and getting-wiser years, I pondered the fact that “someone pays no tax to Caesar” in the third stanza comes from a mature sensibility. Even though Tranströmer (or the narrator) may have to pay taxes, someone doesn’t, and this is something to celebrate. He has developed the ability to feel freedom just because it exists for someone else, even if not for himself—just as in my life, I am starting to discover the mysterious and liberating ability to feel joy because joy exists somewhere in the world, even if I myself am sad about things. Hey, if I’m not in love, at least love exists! At least two people are in rapturous joy together, somewhere, and that makes it easier for me to tolerate my solitude, instead of harder as it did in my less mature days (and still sometimes) when I felt jealous and bitter about it all.

Then we got to the poem’s sound and rhythm, comparing Bly’s translation above to Robin Fulton’s below:

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.”

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.2

We all seemed to agree, Bly’s is much better—both in sound and imagery. None of us knew Swedish fluently, so we couldn’t give a true analysis, but as far as the English translations go, Bly rocked and rolled American style without losing the poem’s literary and solemn flair. In the first line, Fulton is true to the word order in Swedish, beginning with the English version of “Jag spelar Haydn.” While this may work well in the original language, Bly makes it flow like we would say it in English, beginning with “After a black day, . . .” In the second line, “a little warmth in my hands” is more natural and less awkward than “a simple warmth in my hands,” and the two translations go on like this—Fulton making us think too much about it being a translation because of the stilted word choice, Bly making us unconscious that it’s a translation, but making us fully aware, at the same time, of the poem’s originality, power and grace.

Fulton fails, for example, to capture the powerful sound of Bly’s version of the last two stanzas. In Fulton’s English, “where the stones fly, the stones roll/And the stones roll right through,” the repetition of “stones roll” sounds to me like a kid writing a poem for third grade. Not that kids can’t write spectacular poetry, but there is an adult brilliance in Bly’s version, where “rocks” is repeated but not the verb form of “roll”—the variation of “rolling” and “roll” works a lot like an imperfect rhyme—less stilted, “rolling” with more movement, just like the literal image of the rocks, and with better music. So when we find the “glass is still whole,” it is more surprising, jolting, and beautiful. Or, one could argue, does “rocks” juxtaposed with “rolling” conjure up American rock-and-roll when we’re supposed to be hearing Haydn? It’s there in the background, like a subliminal metaphor for freedom (not that Sweden isn’t free, but you do have to pay high taxes in Scandinavia). The imagery and sound crash above the subliminal tone and make the rockslide work despite almost a tongue-in-cheek allusion.

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.

Readers of Tranströmer, what do you think of Fulton vs. Bly as translators of the poet? I am curious, now, to read the published correspondence between Bly and Tranströmer. Being close friends with Tranströmer must have helped Bly understand his sensibility, his poetic intent, and his soul, and to me Bly is just better at writing poetry in English (though my own sensibility there could have to do with the fact that Bly is American, which is more what I’m used to, whereas Fulton is a Scottish writer).

At the same time, I prefer Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rainer Maria Rilke to Bly’s, which I will try to write about in a future blog. What do you think of Bly vs. Fulton (or vs. Mitchell) as translators in general?

And have you read Bright Scythe: Selected Poems by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Patty Crane? World Literature Today touches on her translation of “Allegro” in the link above. The book is on my “read soon” list.

 

 1From The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations, trans. Robert Bly, Harper Collins, 2004.

2From Tomas Tranströmer, New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton, Bloodaxe Books, 1997/2011.

Praise for Snow’s debut novel

Glassmusic was shortlisted for the 2015 International Rubery Book Award.

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From the judges: “Glassmusic achieves a lot in a short space, successfully evoking the world of early twentieth century rural Norway and creating a rite of passage novel for Ingrid, the main character, and her blind father, who creates music from filled glasses of water. It explores in a thought-provoking way how religion can uplift or distort into disturbing behaviour. The writing is deceptively spare, creating its own beauty, which complements the simplicity of the farming setting.”

Like Ingmar Bergman’s films, Snow’s creation is a world unto itself.”
–Annie Dawid, author of And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family
Read Dawid’s full review here.

Links & Writerly Info

“Listen to Glassmusic. Its delicate beauty will resonate long after you close the cover on the final page.”
–William Haywood Henderson, author of Augusta Locke

Glassmusic explores the perils of childhood and the burden of holding dark secrets with prose as resonant as the music at the center of the story. Young Ingrid navigates chilling territory as she learns to make music alongside her father, and tries to make sense of a terrible incident she witnesses. The world through Ingrid’s eyes is fragile and fraught with danger. Snow’s debut novel is as beautiful as the frozen landscape she describes with such precision.”
–Tiffany Quay Tyson, author of Three Rivers

Glassmusic is as elegant and finely wrought a novel as the title suggests. Snow’s stunning prose evokes the Norwegian Fjordlands with the sensory impact of a lucid dream and delivers a symphonic combination of emotionally complex characters and immersive story that lingers in memory long after the pages have turned.”
–Doug Kurtz, author of Mosquito

“Rebecca Snow’s Glassmusic is a wonder of imagination and skill. Part coming-of-age story, part examination of faith and evil, part family portrait and a consideration of how young women become their truest selves, part tribute to both the creative spirit and the enduring bonds between sisters, the book unfolds with uncommon beauty, terror, grace and restraint. Rural, 1920’s Norway is evoked so vividly it becomes a character itself, an animate, spiritual landscape that makes us feel we are there, one with Ingrid’s developing awareness, as the story hurtles toward its startling – and satisfying – denouement. Luminously written, in language as precise and delicate as ‘the echoes of water and glass’ made by the magical musical instrument at its heart, this book has the authority and resonance of a fable. I read in one sitting, spellbound by its beauty, insights, and power.”
–Alison Townsend, author of Persephone in America

“The rural setting, community, and family dynamics create a powerful presence against which Ingrid must struggle to become her own person. Both good and evil play disturbing parts.”
Norwegian American Weekly

In the serene fjordlands of Norway in the early twentieth century, Ingrid has led a blissful childhood until, through no choice of her own, she becomes holder of her family’s secrets. Her father, a blind preacher who ministers through sacred music played on glassware, increasingly relies on Ingrid to see for him even as it threatens to tear apart his marriage. And after she witnesses an assault against her sister, Ingrid must decide when to speak and when to remain silent, whom to trust and when to run away. Glassmusic explores the sometimes devastating realities of loyalty and jealousy, with philosophy, music, and love serving as guides.

Links & Writerly Info

Header photo by Arnold Hoddevik

Quid Novi Book Fair

QuidNovi Spring flyer 201y.inddFeaturing

  • Presentations by active authors
  • Books by local writers
  • Business showcase exhibits related to creating, publishing and marketing books
  • Heavy appetizers
  • Beverages (beer, wine, soft drinks)
  • Live music

https://www.quidnoviinnovations.com/Spring-Innovation/

Red Canyon Falling on Churches, poetry, reviewed by Rebecca Snow

Loved reading Fatula’s poetry and enjoyed writing this review!

Women Write the Rockies

Red Canyon Falling on Churches, Juliana Aragón Fatula’s second collection of poetry, reviewed by Rebecca Snow

Conundrum Press, paper, 58 pp, $14.99

Laughing at Coyote, the Chicano/Chicana Trickster

In the preface to her second collection, Canyon City poet Juliana Aragón Fatula notes that “Náhuatl, language of the Aztecs, and Spanglish, language of the Chicano, flows like a river through the poems.” Just as English melds with the tongues of her heritage, Fatula’s poems weave together her experience as a contemporary American and the myths of her ancestors, in a voice meant to be heard out loud. As she also notes, “Creation stories reveal myths woven from feminism and rock’n’roll lava.”

She transforms, for example, the creation myth of Coyote, a creature that appears in indigenous stories throughout North America. In “Desert Creatures with Insomnia Waited for the Night,”

The trickster falls asleep,

the crazy creatures

tiptoe into the coyote’s…

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Seaside Writers Conference

My week in Seaside, Florida as a poetry fellow was spectacular! I would recommend this conference to all creative writers from beginning to advanced stages of your literary pursuits. I had such a memorable time swimming in the sea, reading the work of fellow writers on the beach, making wonderful new writer friends, and workshopping my poems. As an emerging poet and newly-published novelist, I was honored to read from Glassmusic at the local bookstore, help teach poetry in the local schools, and learn more (we can always learn more!) about the craft of writing from co-directors Seth Brady Tucker and Matt Bondurant.

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I really enjoyed teaching writing to students in the neighborhood schools. Wow–they were respectful and articulate! I taught a poem from RYPA 2014, Rattle‘s first youth anthology, to an 8th grade class, and one of the students said something like “This poem is an existential inquiry.” The youth poet, Savion Harris, should be proud that his poem, “Questions,” elicited such an intelligent response. And the teachers at Seaside Neighborhood School should be proud of such remarkable students. After the brief craft talk, they worked on writing their own poems, and some of them didn’t want to stop. Teaching at Seacoast Collegiate High School along with poetry fellow Kimberly O’Connor was so much fun as well. We taught poems including “Allegro” by Tomas Tranströmer and “The Black Snake” by Mary Oliver. The students listened, asked great questions, and wrote their own poems. It was especially rewarding to hear students from both schools read from their work the final night of the conference, followed by a reading by headliner author Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Cultural Arts student authors program

In the Seaside Academic Village, we got to stay in our own, adorable single-unit cottages. Local market, restaurants, and food trucks provided plenty of great food & drink–especially, of course, seafood & mojitos!

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Here are some additional photos, including ones of me reading and otherwise enjoying myself, from the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, a local sponsor of the conference along with Sundog Books.

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Cultural Arts Alliance me reading

Cultural Arts Alliance me & Rose

Cultural Arts Alliance book table

Cultural Arts Wine Bar photo

Links & Writerly Info

A review by Annie Dawid + a Poetry Fellowship award this week!

In her review of Glassmusic, Dawid brings up Ingmar Bergman’s films and T.S. Eliot!

And then to be awarded my first fellowship this week (in poetry!) is really making me feel honored as a writer. I get to write on the beach at Seaside Writers Conference, work with poet Seth Brady Tucker along with fellow Kim O’Connor and other writers, help teach the craft of writing at local schools, and meet with an agent! Check back after the conference (May 11th-17th) for a blog about my experience there.