September 20, 2015

A Ranking of the Romantic Poets via the Tiber

keats in italy

To me, Keats is the greatest of these poets because of “Ode on Melancholy:” “In the very temple of Delight,/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Once I understood, like Borges said, my life was forever changed. In suffering is redemptive power, the deepest moment of pain is the beginning of joy. I began not only to appreciate, but to seek, experiences that would take me through emotional extremes. Along with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats created some of the greatest English poems in 1819. The following year he came to Rome to better his health. By the time he arrived, he had missed the good weather due to his disastrously stormy voyage and the ten days of quarantine at Naples. It was another few weeks before he became settled in the Piazza di Spagna. Those sunny mornings when he’d walk to the Trevi fountain and shake his head sadly at the peasants asking him for money, maybe offering a few centessimi, watching as the caped old lady hobbles away on her cane were all he could stand. His stomach caused him agony; he found a respite of joy breathing in the sharp Italian air, watching the brighter light and clouds of the south, but he was too exhausted and weak to write. Within a few more weeks, he lay dead. The poet, a short, poor man beginning to taste success, felt he was living posthumously even before he died. Perhaps he had an inkling that his posthumous career would be better than his life.

A near-tie for first places Wordsworth behind Keats. Crowned Poet Laureate in old age, he made his successor, Tennyson, seem fusty and old-fashioned: “Lyrical Ballads” is the beginning of modern poetry: an exploration of individual consciousness in the words of ordinary men. I see Wordsworth as a direct predecessor of Whitman. Due to its experimental nature, it still reads simply two hundred years later. While these poems are autobiographical in content, Wordsworth searches for the origins of his feelings, obviating the puerility of most juvenile and sentimental writing. His definition of poetry (in which the second part is often forgotten): “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” remains relevant to the novel as it eclipses poetry as Primary Literary Form. Unfortunately, poetry no longer sheds a light on human subjectivity, it is mostly a search for new combinations of words and occasions that only appeal to other poets. Wordsworth’s ideal is that quiet moment of lonely reflection when one analyzes new feelings. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” he writes of that “inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” And when he visited Rome after decades of imagining one of the world’s finest cities, on an early afternoon when he hiked through the forest in what is today the Mario Montale Nature Reserve and glimpsed St. Peter’s dome in the distance, he delighted in the papacy’s sovereignty over those disunited lands and all the animals inhabiting them; a cock crowed, a fawn lay “couchant;” he resignedly admired his surroundings and returned to his earlier years, those hikes through the Alps and around Como, the frissons he felt as a young man exploring not just Italy, but life. He came here in his sixties to walk new mental trails, but for William memory was often more vibrant than the present. In this, he prepared me for Proust. If he was not as momentous to my personal philosophy as Keats, he was at least as helpful in understanding the importance of tradition and memory to literature in general, and my own poetic development in particular.

 byron in italy

Byron, Blake and Coleridge are all equally important, yet I award Byron the third spot because of his incredible life. Born club-footed, he published early and traveled widely, dying of fever in the Greek War of Independence. He swam the Dardanelles, a feat that always impressed me, and his poem written to honor and mock himself taught me how to pronounce the word “ague.” A life like this has brought into existence the phrase, “Byronic Hero,” the very definition of Romantic. Byron also, much to my chagrin, began the cult of celebrity. As opposed to Wordsworth, whose successor in style (Whitman) surpassed him; all of Byron’s fail to come close. To me, those who inspire a tradition or series of imitators less than themselves suffer from their lackluster followers. Capote, whose In Cold Blood is a masterpiece and which began the “New Journalism” tradition, suffers not from putting out another comparable work, but from those who followed in his wake, the Tom Wolfes whose writing judges and condemns like journalism, instead of presenting, as fiction. I would rather be surpassed and known as a credit to the one who needed me to create something greater. But enough of this; it is too tenuous to pinpoint strains of tradition to one lodestone. We can derive more tangible conclusions about an artist’s reputation by examining how their exploits and eccentricities affect their work’s reputation. An artist’s life is part of their work. It is inescapable, unless destined for the realms of myth or godliness, created by a Homer or Praxiteles, the art turns into dust any and all personal details, letting them blow away in the winds of time so that only the mass of the work remains. This, I wish, should be the intention of all artists; alas, ego too oft prevails. Byron’s life enhances his art. Not only a life of adventure can enhance literary status—Dickinson and Pessoa’s lives of tedium, loneliness and misery show the opposite manifestation of human genius. In Byron’s poetry, however, adventure and disillusion are compatible, almost requisite. The best of Byron’s writing imagines how historical suffering informs a place’s present. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage, Canto IV, takes us to the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Tivoli, Nemi, Albano, and makes me aspire to be more like this poet, who thirsted and eventually succeeded in joining that land’s history through love of it, imbuing his celebrity with that element rarely seen in those of today: the tragic death, by which I do not mean suicide or overdose, but the heroic, the epic, loss of life for a cause.

I rank Blake ahead of Coleridge because of his drawings, his mysticism, and his bizareness, inaugurating a tradition of his own. Blake’s work is difficult and there is much of it. As an engraver, painter and philosopher, his poetry defies simple classification. In “The Tyger,” perhaps his best known poem, we gain a sense of the divine mystery he knew so well: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” This simple line reveals and obscures—as do his other poems—the speaker’s knowledge of the ethereal and the earthly, as if to encourage the reader to wonder about God’s secrets. Blake was the only one on my list not to visit Italy. He, like many mystics, did not feel the need to leave his home in order to find inspiration. He could see it on the wharves, in the eyes of his countrymen, in his readings, even within himself, emerging from his fingertips. I own a volume of Blake’s collected works, which I hope to read entirely and know through the alchemy of old age.

coleridge in italy

Coleridge, perhaps the druggiest lord of non-twentieth century poets, was like Blake, a mystic, but tended to organize his thought like a German, rationally. When he traveled through Italy, the yellow sun glittered on the Tiber and showed him the meaning of Platonic aesthetics. Unity between the human spirit, the ideal, reality, and God was all around him—in two thousand-year-old fountains, toppled columns, broken steps. Coleridge was nearly crushed by life’s impermanence, wholeness, and instantaneous grandeur. So much paradox, such beauty and overwhelming quiddity is oppressive. Thus the release of opium. These paradoxical unities are later symbolized in the images of the albatross and Kublai Khan. In the latter’s poem, the mention of the Alph as river of mystery, both Edenic and dark, brings a unity of opposites into relief against the ephemeral figure of the cruel horde-master, another paradox in that he lives on through Coleridge’s caricature. Despite the incisive essays of Biographia Literaria, I wish Coleridge had left us more poetry to study, which is why I place him so low on this list.

Finally, though he share my birthday, is Shelley. It is uncertain how much he helped his wife write Frankenstein. Even if he didn’t, his essays are as poignant as his lyrics. For Shelley, life was opposition to the immoral and the unjust. Italy, to him, represented a land of possibility, a wild, poor land, rich with majesty, history and beauty. Yet with possibility and freedom comes danger, which Percy did not sufficiently account for, and which led to his drowning too soon in the Gulf of Spezia. Prometheus Unbound, while beautiful in many parts, takes on the old-fashionedness of Don Juan. Both are classic but hardly ever read cover-to-cover.

I have a feeling that in five hundred years the canon will shift to include more women, focus on a different era, or place some of these men in obscurer realms only known to poets and writers. Perhaps it already has. 

August 10, 2015

Six Poems From Toronto


The morning sun shone and rain seemed less likely. Maple tree boughs blew, greenish-blue waters emerged in the distance. Tall, glass-faced towers flanked our right, beyond the tracks.

The New Yacht Club held a small marina of sailboats, whose bells clanged in the lake breeze. We sat at a bench behind the bike trail. A blond child followed her father, became distracted, and opened her fist for the breeze to take the grass from her hands. The leaves fell to the quay’s edge. The girl looked down, displeased. She turned and plucked two more handfuls of grass, suede sneakers clapping the macadam path. She stuck her little fists through the chain-link fence and opened them again, and this time the wind carried the leaves into the deep.

“Kids are so weird with what they’re into,” said Genna.

“That’s because everything is new to them.” This little girl had lived a few hundred days, each one was so long to her, and short to me, getting shorter for both of us.

Genna read. I stared at the towers that stood on the mainland that curled south into the lake. The breeze blew against my forehead and I was happy to not have to do anything I did not want to do. “Come on,” I said.

“Let me finish this chapter.” 


Locally, Niagara Falls is known as an armpit because of the tourists: Amish, Muslim, Chinese, Korean, African, French-Canadian, American, between fourteen and twenty million each year. Even though the falls aren’t the largest or highest or the greatest annual flow, they may be the world’s best known. Others, like the Khone on the Mekong, have more water but a less impressive drop; what’s sixty feet to a hundred and sixty? Niagara is only exceeded by Iguazu and Victoria. It is Lake Erie emptying into Lake Ontario. The mist rises and cools. Above, clouds expand and contract like nebulae. People distract from the scene, as crowds generally do, but to turn one’s attention to them can be almost as interesting.

Everyone said, “The falls are great, but you’re there for twenty minutes and that’s it.” A longer stay would make it more worth the twenty dollars we paid in parking and prove that we appreciated it more. We watched the water swirl and fall and mist but we had things to do. Away from the crowded view I was so tired and relaxed that I lay on the grass between the road and the parking lot, and the thunder of the crashing water was like a breeze. Genna was next to me, and I was thinking about my life on the completion of my twenty-seventh year, from middle school and the people I used to know, to the experiences I had traveling, to my more recent friendships. The wind slowly blew the leaves on the maple tree we lay beneath; white cumulus clouds lingered above, a black stormcloud held off in the distance. 


This morning I woke in the soft glamor of ivied windows. Our sheets were white and the ceiling groaned with footfall from the floor above. The dogs’ collars rattled through the French doors. A shaft of blue sky glowed gold through the open door to the patio. I was fifteen again, traveling with my father to Vancouver for my birthday, walking, shopping for music, enjoying and wishing we could keep it going this way forever, the impending doom of school and routine far enough away that this morning suspension of light and softness was enough.


Cruising along the lake I was in a video game, through the wide, empty boulevards, setting out west, west, following signs and going a little too far west on the open highway, cruising through the morning sun like I was headed north through the grassy plateau for a thousand miles to Nunavuk, and this was just the beginning.

As I drove the perimeter of the lake, rain pounded the car. I slowed, heeding the red glow of taillights ahead. The Great Lake spanned, the outline of the towers thirty miles beyond hazy under the clearing sky. The rain came again. Genna slept, I listened to Bizet. Twenty minutes later, we cruised into the city under clear skies. A hip-hop mix played on the radio.


We entered the low diner with the open kitchen and bar of stools opposing empty shelves sectioned off by a short wall with posters of Greece. I asked the Vietnamese man, whose hair was slicked back, who Mickey told me was named Lee, if we could sit outside. He was five foot two and he surveyed his kitchen proudly, hands akimbo. His wallet left an imprint in his back pocket, its corners had bore through the soft denim. A woman I took to be his wife, about a head taller than him, stood over the griddle.

“I think someone there,” he said. “You can sit with him if you want. You ready to order?”

“I’ll take the Eggs Benedict.”

“And I’ll take a coffee with two eggs, bacon and brown toast.”

He brought me our coffees while Genna was in the bathroom. I checked outside and saw the greasy back of a man’s head at the table I’d wanted. Lee looked at me, smiling.

“I think we’ll sit in here.”

He laughed.

Genna walked right past me.


We sipped our coffees gingerly. 

The Asian man took the orders; his wife did the cooking. A man next to us asked for a bowl of soup, hot.

“It’s hot already,” said Lee, hands on his hips.

“I want it hotter.”

Lee stood thinking, his forehead furrowed as he faced his kitchen. “I microwave it?”

“Yeah, microwave it.”

Lee nodded, clearly glad to have resolved this issue without losing a customer. After he placed the hot barley soup in front of the brown-skinned man, he walked outside and came back in, asking us, “You want to sit outside?”

“Yeah!” I stood with my coffee. “We came from very far away to visit your restaurant. UFO is world famous.”

“Oh, thank you,” said Lee.

We sat in the shade, the breeze soft and quiet. A woman behind us was saying, “…she had lung cancer and bought an around-the-world ticket, kept smoking and didn’t get any treatment. What do you think of that?”

Her heavy blond friend said after thinking for a moment, “It’s selfish.”


Lying on the beach where the water is too cold to swim, seagulls screech, a chopper dopplers, wavelets break. A couple calls their dachshund, “Chilly!” Or Chili? Chile?

What kind of life did I want as a child, a young man? Was it the same as what I want now?—my footfall on the flagstones of a Tuscan village, views to the Mediterranean, Matterhorn rising above a green valley, the throaty whisper of love before an expensive dinner…Are these images culled from desire or do they surface from imagination mixed with memory?

I want to go further east before I return west, to ride a motorcycle along the autobahn, to take a canoe down the Mekong, to dance through the streets of Perth on the way to the Indian Ocean; I want to do all of that before I return to be a cook on a fishing boat out of New Orleans, a lumberjack in the great North Woods, a writer who’s built his own cabin in the forest. Life right now is a fragment of what I’ve wanted, and if it remained this way forever I would be happy. But nothing is.

Was it this? Or was this only part of it—a moment I can use my memory to generalize as what my life is, to broaden and expand into definition. Memory is good for this. When I look back on life, I have lived a good third of it.

Hard lines are in fashion now, so soft moves will be better next season.

Who says that you can’t do things younger people are used to doing when you’re a few years older.

People live in nice communities on the water and are happy. Will I be like that?

“Can we go soon?”

I held my hand out to her. She lay on it. Time passed.

“I want to go to a cafe.”

I pulled myself up and opened my eyes. The sky was still blue, my forearms warm. She stood.

“What did you want your life to be when you were a girl?”

“I wanted to own a fashion label in Paris and get married in Del Mar. I wanted lavishness.”

I shook my head and folded the blanket. An oval circle of granite glittered. I picked it up. “This is a piece of granite formed during the last ice age. It is over a hundred million years old.”

“Take it. I know you like rocks.”

“It’s a stone. Stones have energy. In the Roman era, travelers anointed stones that were supposed to be good luck. They felt the good energy and wanted to take it with them.”

She affected a stoner voice, “Good energy, man.”

I put on a Jamaican accent, “You got to keep da stone wit de good energy. You no wan de stone wit de bad energy.” I put the granite in a side pocket of my bag, where water bottles go, and we crossed the boardwalk to sit on a bench where I dusted off the sand on my feet with my socks and put on my shoes.

July 30, 2015

The Yoke of Freedom


In the morning, even before I woke up, my chains were freedom. I was paralyzed in a casserole of unconsciousness. My coffee turned to grounds, my face was bloated and angry, everyone around me was mean, and I wanted to go to work. All day the rain was building, growing in the sky like rye on a steppe. When it was harvest time I wished for Noah, I wanted water entering my back door, an unfamiliar panic as runlets seeped into my kitchen. A puddle grew, stretching, but not close enough. For consolation, I smelled the rain. I wanted to strip naked but knew I would only have to dress again. I ate a too-ripe peach and thought of what I’d wished for, considered beginning a number of new books, trying four pages from each and amassing a pile on my bed, leaning against a husband pillow, listening to music like a boy, congratulating myself on what I could do. A void opened inside me; I sought a constraint. I thought of the man I’d met earlier, his nicotine-stained teeth, baggy eyes like raisins, selling a painting that was not his own on the cafe’s corner. He invited me to a party and I considered attending, not to have fun, but to see how badly I fit in amongst people who ate weekly dinners together and shared a bathroom with more than three others. Live music, cheap beer that’s given to me, granular titties, I eschewed all of it. Better to wonder about Bosons and philosophical maths. Better to have only myself as my restriction.

July 14, 2015

Paestum: Home to The Best-Preserved Greek Temples in the World


About an hour south of Naples are the ruins of a twenty five hundred year old city called PaestumHumans have inhabited this region for more than 250,000 years, living in caves along the seashore until the discovery of agriculture and iron brought warriors and traders to the region. From these cliffs the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey sung their song. By the 7th century BC the Greeks had colonized a city known as Poseidonia. 

When Pyrrhus invaded Italy in 280 B.C. Poseidonia, Rome was beginning to establish itself as an expanding empire, thanks to its powerful army. Instead of calling for Greek aide, the Roman army defended the Italian peninsula by itself. Unfortunately for Poseidonia, their ally was the loser Pyrrhus. The Roman victory showed that Greece was no longer the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Soon thereafter, Latin tribes from the north conquered this small city, renaming it Paestum.

Building continued under Roman rule as the Italian religion blended the imperial cult of the north with aspects of the traditional Greek pantheon. But by the second century BC, the city had stopped expanding and its status was reduced to provincial outpost as northern cities such as Neapolis and Kyme grew along the highways of the new Roman empire. After Christ the formerly Greek temples took on a Christian purpose, and by Rome’s fall this sleepy seaside town was largely forgotten, its remoteness contributing to its relative obscurity.

Since 1998, Paestum has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a relic of the ancient communication network between the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas. As gift shop prints depict, the moss-covered temples here were re-discovered by eighteenth century English travelers, around the same time as Pompeii and Herculaneum. These noblemen marveled at the dilapidated temples ignored by peasants who lived among the toppled columns and ancient houses.

Its three extant temples are dedicated to Hera, Ceres and Poseidon, the city’s patron gods. While the friezes and metopes fell long ago, the columns still stand erect, having withstood seismic activity, volcanic eruptions and centuries of bad weather. Today they are some of the best preserved Greek temples in the world.

The archeological museum onsite holds some of the treasures found here during the mid-20th century excavation, and aside from the three temples, points of interest include the remains of an agora, a once-open-air market now an empty field bordered by colonnades; ancient homes whose mosaic floors and marble cisterns indicate the riches of an extinct empire; and a small amphitheater, once the site of votes pertaining to the ancient city’s fate. This amphitheater was partially destroyed by the architect who built the nearby road; in 1936, he was convicted for his crime and jailed for eight years. On the western periphery of the site, uneven Greek flagstones lead to smaller floor plans spaced closer together, a reminder of the eternal disparity between rich and poor.

After working up an appetite surveying the grounds, lunch at a nearby restaurant. Pizza is never a bad idea in Southern Italy, but for more diverse local fare, order a caprese salad with the buffalo mozzarella that this part of Campania has made world famous. Being so close to the Mediterranean is ideal for seafood-lovers: linguine con vongole is made with clams caught offshore and mixed in a sauce of olive oil and white wine. Spada, or swordfish, is also a local favorite, often cooked with cloves, lemon and more olive oil. Pair it with a lacrima christi, made from grapes grown in the rich soil of Vesuvius, and for dessert, add a macchiato and biscotto.

If it’s warm, stop at the nearby beaches, renowned throughout Southern Italy for their sprawling, clean sands. And if you have time, head north to appreciate the medieval beauty of towns like Ravello, Amalfi and Positano. 

Paestum and environs have been inhabited for almost as long as human civilization has existed, but treading the ground that two and a half thousand years ago was a bustling city is more than toppled marble and a history lesson. For any visitor to these once-holy ruins, a belief in ghosts isn’t necessary to feel the reverence of the living and the dead.

June 17, 2015

Three Year Old Journal Entry

Based on the facts, today was a great day. I woke up late, got to work on time, got taken out for a $20 meal, wasn’t bothered by anyone, left when I had completed my seven hours, had an appointment cancelled, thereby freeing up an hour of my time, and sat down to write.

In my brain, however, I wanted to scream, turn up my desk, and walk out the door. Where did this feeling come from? This incredible dissatisfaction that stirred within me, why was it there? Especially when everyone else can simply go through their lives and feel happy?

I told my father my qualms and asked him the same question. He said, “Because you have other interests,” and proceeded to tell me that I should save up for the next year at my well-paying job and ask for full-time work in order to live abroad. But what if, as I read once in a mysticism store, I treated my father as if he were dead? Then what would I do?

I wonder if something is wrong with me, if I can’t simply turn my thought radio to the happiness dial, if I don’t meditate enough. Was I happier in the past? Am I fated to always have this horror of complacence?

I came across a document today as I was cleaning out my Google Drive, entitled, “internet journal.” I opened it up, trying to find an answer, to diagnose my past self, and found this:



There is something we need to feel happy and that is freedom. We need to feel that we have a place, and respect, that if we are working on something hard, we get what we deserve. We are made to feel like we earn our keep, and as Bob Dylan says, you gotta serve somebody. But if you gotta, you gotta feel good about doing it.

That’s orange and green. The blues and reds are more along the lines of comforts and friends. When it comes to those, you gotta feel like you’re living the way you want. What makes you happy? Can you get it? What makes you sad? Can you avoid it? And if you can answer yes to those “Can” questions, then you’re doing pretty well. And if you know the answers to those odd questions then you’re doing even better. Because then you probably will have friends, or at least love.

Thing about love is, it’s often treated too little like freedom. True love is true freedom, we all know that. Give and you get, that bag. But when we shackle what we love it weakens it and makes it harder to pin down. It’s like how do you get an elephant to come? You don’t grab it by the trunk. You tickle the little hairs on the top of its head. Coax it.

Like a beautiful woman. Women like seduction, which is what you do to the elephant, pretty much. And when you seduce you are ready to drop it at any second– because you’re entirely free and you don’t get weighed down to no action.

You are hands off on keeping things. You know ephemera. Zeno’s paradoxes, Heraclitus’ river. You’ve seen some Vishnu the Destroyer shit in the eyes of a beggar woman and beheld her whole life from the extinction of the dinosaurs in the glint of an eye. So you know when to hold on and when to let go. And letting go is what it really means to be free. Whether that’s your words, or your actions, or your faith. Because if it comes back to you it’s that much stronger.

So I guess I have some questions to answer. Thank you, younger Daniel.

May 9, 2015

My 500th Post!

sacrifice of isaacThe man woke the boy early, while the mother was still in bed. “Where are we going?” the boy asked, his voice unfamiliar from sleep. “We have a meeting, said the father. “Get dressed and come downstairs.” The boy groaned and rolled over. The father left the room.

The boy lay there for another few minutes before something inside him made him throw back his covers and swing his legs onto the floor. His bones ached. He was growing. He stretched his arms over his head and yawned, smacking his mouth. Then he picked up the rumpled pants he left at the foot of his bed the night before. He put yesterday’s t-shirt on one arm at a time and walked downstairs, floorboards groaning.

The father stood over the stove. Two eggs spat, a bowl of oatmeal steamed on the table. The father spatulaed an egg from the pan, slid it onto a plate and brought it to the boy. He moved the spoon from his oatmeal and punctured the yolk, letting it run. “We have a long day,” said the father. “Where are we going?” asked the boy. “You’ll see,” said the father.

Once finished the boy followed his father into the car. The morning sky was still purple. In his light coat the boy shivered as he sat in the car’s ringing silence. The father buckled his seatbelt, blew on his hands, and put the key into the ignition. The father put the car into reverse, and with a hand behind the headrest of the passenger’s seat, looked over his right shoulder into the rear windshield, backing out the drive and onto the road. Down the hill, he made a right at the first stop sign, a left at McGuiness Street, and a right at the school, down Kramer Boulevard. He stopped at the light before the entrance ramp. The boy reached forward to turn on the radio. “No music,” said the father. “It’s too early.” The light turned green, the car lunged forward and did not stop accelerating until the sound of the road was passing underneath the wheels at seventy miles an hour. The boy closed his eyes.

The father drove on and on, away from the city to the west. The trees became fewer. The sun rose in the sky. By the time the boy woke again, the outline of mountains could be seen on the horizon, large shrubs had replaced the forest, and the father’s window was cracked, the wind whipping. “We’re going to the desert?” the boy asked.

The father shifted his grip on the steering wheel. He held on with both hands, one at eleven o’clock, the other at two. “No.” The father kept looking straight ahead. The boy stared at his father, his mouth ajar. Then he closed his mouth and looked out his window. Two birds circled above, off the road, to the north.

The father drove until they reached the mountains and then they began to ascend. When the boy looked out his window he could see the desert beneath them, and in the distance, the green from whence they came. The car moved along the switchbacks, ascending. Soon they saw snow. The sky turned gray. Patches of white became fields, and then, almost as suddenly, the snow was gone, and the sun re-emerged in a sky of blue.

The car slowed and crunched gravel as it rolled onto the shoulder. The father turned the keys in the ignition and unclicked his seatbelt. “Come on,” he said, and opened the car door. The boy unclicked his seatbelt too, opened the door, and stepped out. He inhaled the mountain air and looked over the roof of the car at his father, who walked forward and around the front of the vehicle. “Go ahead,” the father said. The boy galloped to the top of the bluff and looked down at the backside of the mountain, a landscape of granite and hardy plants that gave way to forest. He recalled an image of a goat, standing this way on a mountain in Europe or farther West. Then he turned. His father was thirty paces away, pointing a handgun at him.

“Trust me,” he said. “I had a dream. God came to me and said, ‘Take your boy into the mountains and sacrifice him to me. And if he believes, if he really believes, then you can point the gun at him and pull the trigger and everything will be as it shall. I will come to your aid and fix everything in the name of Hallelujah. And you won’t have to worry about money or love or anything any more, because I will provide for you and your wife and your son with plenty, so that whatever you want you shall have and your descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky, or grains of sand upon the shore. Don’t cry. Don’t be afraid. Just believe. Believe that everything will be all right. That it will be okay, that if I pull the trigger nothing will happen because God or whoever came to me in my dream will step in and make it all better. Do you know how hard it is for me and your mother right now? We’re being run into the ground in debt. Every month the bills come and we don’t have enough money to pay them. We pay on credit and then the bills on the statement are even higher. It’s not getting better. I’m on my last hope.”

The boy began to cry. He whimpered, “What does that have to do with me?”

“What does it have to do with you?! Everything! How can we keep feeding you? How can we buy you clothes? How can we live? Don’t you see? It has everything to do with you! But if you believe, if you really believe, then it can all be better. Believe that it will get better.”

From the road, a crow cawed. The boy backed up.

“I’m going to come closer so that when I pull this trigger that person who came to me in my dream will have no objection. He won’t be able to say that I didn’t believe it could happen. I’m not going to let anyone tell me that I wasn’t doing it the right way. Please, son. Stop. Just trust me. Trust that you’ll be okay. I have to. We have to. It’s the only way things will get better. Think about it. Do you really want to go on living this way? Do you want to grow up and watch your mother and I die only to take on our debt? Do you think that’s an existence worth living? Do you?”

Tears streamed down the boy’s face. “I don’t know,” whispered the boy. “I don’t know,” he repeated, this time louder.

“It’s not.” The father pulled back the hammer. “Make it easier. Get down on your knees and let me put it to your temple. Trust me.” The boy backed away, but behind him was no where to go but down. “Nothing bad will happen if you trust me. I swear.”

The boy looked up into the sky. Wisps of cloud bedecked the blue-white sky. He looked at his father, who was a few paces away, the gun at his side. His eyes were wet. “Please,” whispered the father. “It’s for your own good. It’s for our good.”

The boy gulped. Tears fell down his cheeks and he wiped them with the back of his hand. “Okay,” he said. He took a knee. The stone was sharp through his jeans.

The father sighed. He put the gun on the boy’s right temple and the boy felt the steel cold through his hair. “Now I’m going to count to three. Nothing is going to happen, I need you to believe that. Because if you don’t…”

The boy could not control his tears. His body quivered lightly, like a lamb’s.

“Say it,” said the father. “Say I believe. Say, ‘I believe that nothing is going to happen to me and everything is going to be all right.’ I’ll say it with you—“

“I believe,” said the boy, “nothing is going to happen and everything will be all right.”

“Nothing is going to happen and everything will be all right,” chanted the father and the boy at the same time.

“Nothing is going to happen and everything will be all right,” they said for the third time.

Then the father pulled the trigger and the gun exploded in a ball of light.

March 28, 2015

The Real And The Unreal—How Are We To Write?



The Norwegian novel, My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard is the most famous autobiographical work in recent memory. His honest portraits of reality help us reflect on our own deep secrets and forgotten memories. However, this does not change the fact that Knausgaard’s life is painfully banal. Yet this is the beautiful truth of his story, that modern life is average. This notion is complicated by later volumes not yet translated into English, wherein the author writes about how his life was warped by celebrity. But based on the first few novels in the series, we must consider a pressing issue: this 3,000 page blog post has immersed autobiographical writing in literary fiction; after this, how are we to write?

David Foster Wallace, an oft-too-technical postmodernist but a genius nonetheless, anticipated the reaction that would follow his own literary output, which in his later career he himself began to define. In 1993’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” he wrote:

“The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”

The “New Sincerity,” which was inaugurated in literature by A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was easy to conflate with much of the juvenilia that became hip in New York poetry circles after the turn of the century. More refined practitioners created tedious yet modern, “comedies of manners,” which, while well-written, were better suited for TV than the novel.

But the next literary rebels will eschew this sentimental, over-credulous fiction. They will take what has been done and try to make it better, as all artists do; they will refract what has come before through their own consciousness. They will risk overindulgence, grandiosity, absurdity, bizarreness, mannerism, a too-deep descent into the fantastic and “the unreal.” The next “dangerous” literature will elevate the everyday out of banality into a higher realm.

As Knausgaard points out in My Struggle, when life slows down enough for us to really live it, and for it to become totally real, we often say the opposite: that was unreal. Knausgaard defines this sense of unreality in oh-so-real terms. His description of mundane events become mythical in their universality. But his fiction hovers over the bland. Far more interesting it would be to depict reality in terms of the unreal, so that a flash of sun, a fly buzzing against a window pane, or the smile of a loved one launches the reader into the realm of the imaginary and the mythical. Only in the unreal—in the incredible—can the real really exist. Reality, the ordinary bits of life, are in fact unreal; quotidian routines fade into oblivion while that time we fell in love is a slow-motion sequence that seems hours long. Anyone who has spent months or years in front of a computer screen would agree; an entire life lived as such is an essence of seasons and motions, a mere shadow on the wall of life’s cave.

That written in Knausgaard’s style after Knausgaard will be forgotten. It has been done. It is too ordinary. The next literary rebels will hearken to a more modernist notion: that only in the mind does the real exist. This has been forgotten; it is an idea a hundred years old, already revolted against two or three times. It is natural that we return to it, since all art is one circle drawn over another, spiraling upward and outward in a pattern of human consciousness.

The average person may relate to a story about another average person, but great literature entertains and teaches. It is easier to learn from another’s failures, oddities, and derangements when they are so sunk in their own reality as to believe that they are right no matter what. The next literary rebels will define those pivotal moments in which habit shatters and forward movement occurs. These writers will remove us from banality and show us the immortal within ourselves—the heights of achievement, the nadirs of failure. In this, divinity exists, a painting of Picasso or a cantata by Bach is proof enough. This is what those next rebels will seek to recreate. Any less would only be average.

March 23, 2015

Stuck in Another’s Apartment

death moth

The other morning I was in the first apartment I’d ever shown. Including the open house the day before, it was my fourth time showing it. I was waiting for an Israeli mother who had to okay her husband and son’s decision to put in an offer for the place. She was going straight to her agent’s office from JFK. The agent, Gil, called me after I arrived, apologizing that they would be fifteen more minutes late. So I was alone, and though tempted to break out my computer and write a little, instead I walked over the cherry tone wooden floors and familiarized myself with my surroundings, which indicated the lifestyle and personality of the current tenants.

On the wooden block island, next to the purple hyacinths that provided the place with a welcoming fragrance, was a facedown volume of Bukowski’s, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. I picked it up, and as is often the case in life, the first poem I opened to left me feeling like I had experienced the best one in the whole book. I don’t remember the name, perhaps it was “Train to San Diego,” or something like that, and in it, it’s clear that despite the speaker—who I imagined as Bukowski—despite his feeling like shit—smoking a dime cigar and needing eight teeth pulled and wearing his dead father’s pants after he’d died more than a decade ago, despite all that, here he was hopping on this train to San Diego or wherever and when the conductor asked him how he was doing, he responded, “Great.” I thumbed through some other poems, including one about Beethoven playing football, which was rather funny, but none of them carried the same import to me as that first one, and I soon lost interest in the collection, considering the importance of Bukowski as a novelist and as a poet.

I closed the book and looked at the titles on the dark shelves—big books, sketchbooks and design books became books on esoteric Spanish painting and novels in English, so that down the shelf the books became smaller. The couple who lived here were Colombian, I’d met them the day before as well as on the way up, coming out of the elevator. The man was a tattoo artist; his girlfriend was blue-eyed, very pretty. On the opposite wall was a work table on which lay a pocket-sized book of arcane symbols. Flipping through it and seeing what signified ‘overcoming knowledge’ and ‘the rise of Mercury,’ I wanted briefly to get a tattoo. I imagined having one of these symbols tattooed on my shoulder and emerging from a cool bed in a dark room with a beautiful woman between the sheets, her asking about its significance and me sitting on the bed’s edge while I put on socks and say, (thinking how cool I am for having a tattoo that she’d never seen before and would never see again) ‘That’s a symbol of the final stage of the alchemical process.’

Then I closed the book and put it the way I’d found it. I looked at my phone. Fifteen minutes had passed, the amount of time the agent said it would take for him to arrive. I looked up his name and found that he was coming from Manhattan, mentally estimated how long it would take to cruise down Lexington Avenue and across the Williamsburg bridge and pocketed my phone, figuring I had at least ten minutes more alone.

I studied the death moth, Acherontia atropos, framed on the wall, the umber patterns on its wings, its hideous thorax. I looked at another frame that held four butterflies, wondered briefly about how the transcendent blues on the wings could exist in nature and what purpose they served.

Shifting my attention back to wall with the bookshelf, which stood before another desk, I looked more closely at a small clay figure which I had noticed the day before. It was sculpted into a bent-over position, its hands and feet hooks. More hooks sat in a small dish nearby, on a rectangular piece of white, brick-like stone about an inch thick. What the hell, I wondered. Is this what it is to be a tattoo artist?

I read the two pieces of content on the wall: an Anti-100 Years of Cinema Manifesto, and wondered if the tenant had written it, decided he hadn’t and looked up who did to find the name of an avant-garde Lithuanian film director, dubbed the godfather of experimental American film. I was happy for that, for learning the word ‘triolet’ and the name of this director, not that I had any great urge to watch one of his films. The other piece was about punk and MTV and Fugazi, which I didn’t bother reading, since I’m not a big Fugazi fan, and it seemed less important since it was smaller and placed closer to the dark bookshelf, rather than high above the table like the Manifesto on a piece of 8 1/2 x 11.

At the counter I smelled the hyacinth again, enjoying its rich, gardeny scent. I opened the drawer and saw the box of an herb vaporizer and a long tube which seemed to be an accessory to it. I wondered where he kept his weed and wondered if I could find it. I lifted the towels toward the back of the drawer, noticed the tank cleaning supplies for the maintenance of the beta fish, whose filter bubbled pleasantly near the bedroom. I squeezed a black film case, and remembered my friend who kept his weed in a similar case. To my delight, it was full of light-green buds.

At that moment the door buzzed. I jumped, placed the film case back the way I’d found it and closed the drawer, walking to buzz in the agent and his client, momentarily considering the immorality of taking a small bud for myself, and deciding that I liked the couple and that to do so would be to violate their trust. And when I heard the knock on the door and said, ‘Come in,’ I forgot all about that and prepared to do my job.

March 5, 2015

Nights in Cuadra Picha

cuadra picha
Michael’s weekend doesn’t really begin until eight or nine, after thoughts of selling phones recede in his mind and he’s on the bus all the way to the south of the city, about an hour away. When he gets there, walking down the street, greeters grab his arm, spinning him around in a dreamlike haze of faces and male scents, natural and cheap.
He covers his wallet and phone with his hands in his pockets, shakes them off and walks on, eyes high, rising to the familiar names of the discoteques and pootyclubs. Sometimes a guy grabs him before he goes into one, bearing no influence on his decision, and sounds the bell as he walks up the stairs, music getting louder. On the dance floor it is ear-ringingly loud, and in a lot of the more popular clubs, naked or thonged girls bounce on the laps of guys, gyrating or kissing.
The worst ones are stuffy, the air soured by lusty men, sighing alcoholic breaths between sips of cheap beer and the fruity perfume of whores. Those girls not working turn and smile weakly, their lazy eyes perceiving the gold graphic skull on his t-shirt, his dark jeans, sensitive eyes, broad nose, and in better light, the acne-scars on his face. The fat ones light up, wink, hiss and cock their heads toward the back, purring, “Mi amor.” He leaves.
Back on the street, smells of grilled carne and sausage float in the air. Men fan their coal barbecues and ash floats like snow through the smoke of meat and cigarettes.
Michael goes into Guadalajara, Texas, Poseidon, Titanic. Security pats him down and he enters, pink and green lights flashing so it’s hard to see the girls. He walks into the backs of these clubs, doesn’t see anything he likes and leaves. In Becker Lady is in a halter top bouncing on some guy with spiky black hair, her blond curls catching the blue lights and throwing them tauntingly at him. He considers waiting for her to finish this guy’s show and splurging on a bottle of aguardiente to get her drunk, to set something up for tomorrow night. But he doesn’t like waiting.
He decides to watch some girls in Paco’s. He figures if he’s going to get a beer tonight, it might as well be here, where he can relax and watch the girls prance up and down the stage. He watches a nice one with big breasts and a striped bikini that matches the lights. She’s got her cell phone in her undies, rocking her hips forward and back. He can see the stubble around her groin. The next girl is a shorter, smiling, green-eyed morena. After her is a black girl with blue eyes.
Soon his beer is gone. He deliberates having another, but it would undo his gym work earlier that week. He imagines a near-future as a Miami cop, his biceps bulging from gripping his forty-five as he leans against an apartment door in Little Haiti until he gets the signal and turns to kick down the door, ready to pull the trigger in the dust, scanning for the dealer…
He goes in and out of the clubs just beyond, up stairs, circling the floor, watching the rumbas, dancing couples, little bouncers, the places he knows are good, not wasting time on the casas where girls are missing teeth or pregnant, hoping to see someone new, someone gorgeous.
Outside of Troya he hears English. It’s a gringo his height with short black hair, a long nose and a peeling red forehead talking to a couple of flat-faced Indian-looking girls.
“Hey do you need help translating?” he asks.
The girls look at him, then back at the gringo, who says, “Uh, yeah. How do you say, ‘Indigenous treasure?’
Michael says it and the gringo butchers the pronunciation. Even so, the girls laugh.
“Where are you from?” Michael asks.
He tells the guy how he’s an American too, doubling back quickly over his story in Spanish for the girls’ sake. The gringo’s name is Ben, and he came here to whore. But after taking one, he found these two girls on the street, ordinary Friday-night partygoers. Michael smiles at the girls, who weakly smile back. They can’t be more than nineteen.
“Well,” says Ben, licking his lips and looking back and forth between the two girls. He speaks slowly, pointing first at them and then at himself, “Quieren comer?”
The girls look at each other and nod. They start off down the street.
Ben is duck-footed, talking to the fatter one with bigger breasts. Michael asks the taller of the two, “What kind of food do you want?”
“Chicken sandwich,” she replies.
They walk aimlessly for five minutes before Ben stops and asks the girls where they should go. “McDonald’s,” his girl says. Instead of going the way they came and having to encounter the many club-greeters on the strip, they take the back roads under the half-moon, past puddles and low, dark apartments, the car and tractor tires lying on the sidewalk that serve as makeshift trash cans.
When they arrive, McDonald’s is being mopped, chairs on tables, so they cross the street to a chicken broaster. Ben buys the girls a pechuga de pollo. They douse it in ketchup and honey. Michael isn’t hungry. He asks the other girl, “Do you work?”
She shakes her head.
She shakes her head.
“What do you do?”
She smiles and shakes her head again. Michael holds his cheek and runs his index finger over an emerging pustule. He brings his thumb to it and pinches, looks between his fingers but there’s nothing there.
After she’s eaten the last of the rice, Ben’s girl suggests dancing. They walk, looking for a bar that’s not too loud. A greeter grabs Ben’s arm, pointing up another set of pink-and-green-lit stairs. Ben looks at Michael and shrugs.
He buys the girls beers, asks Michael if he wants one. Michael says no. They sit. Ben shouts over the music to his girl, “Do you know indigenous magic?” he asks.
She shakes her head.
Another shake.
Michael realizes they’re across the street from Punto del Oro and that tonight Daniela is working. “Hey,” he says, “I’m going across the street to check something.” He stands, “I’m leaving my jacket here. Be right back.”
Ben licks his lips, nodding, and shifts his gaze to rest on the high cleavage of his girl. Downstairs Michael runs across the street to the median and waits for the traffic to pass before crossing to the other side. He doesn’t see Daniela, figures she may be in the back with someone. He’s tempted to wait for her to ask if she wants to get a drink afterwards. But he doesn’t know if he wants to be out till five.
He runs back across the street. Ben is standing outside of the bar, Michael’s hoodie in his arms. “They went to bring more girls.” He shrugged. “I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“I know a really hot girl who’s working right now but,” Michael pulled out his phone and showed Ben a picture of her in jean shorts and a halter-top. “I made out with her once, but the last time I hung out with her she and her friend made pot brownies at my apartment and I kicked them out because I thought they had slipped me a ruffie. I thought they wanted to rob me but then I realized it was just the drugs. But I can call her tomorrow and we can all hang out together.”
“When did that happen?”
“Two days ago.”
The street is more crowded in the gay area. A six foot tall tranny stands outside a club, a boy supports his friend who staggers, recovering before he nearly crashes into a wall. Three girls hover over a little bag of white powder, pinky fingers near their noses. One is his height, in a beanie over brown hair that covers perky breasts, a cut tee that exposes a pierced navel. He’s struck, momentarily in love.
“Are they doing blow?” asks Ben. “I’m in Colombia, I figure I should try some.” He approaches the girls and asks if he can buy a bump.
They screw up their faces at him. Michael translates. “We bought it from this guy,” they point at a security guard standing in front of a club doorway.
Michael asks him for some. “It’s two bucks,” Michael tells Ben. “It’s perico.”
Ben shrugs, hands the guard a ten, and seconds later receives eight back with a little baggy of white powder.
The girls ask Ben for a bump and he asks Michael for a key. He digs in his pocket and stares at the lesbian with the beanie. Ben takes two for himself and gives two to the girl with the blue hair.
“You have a great energy,” she says in English. The cops pull up in front of the club and the girl pulls on the arm of her friend with the beanie. “Come on,” she says, “let’s go. Bye guys.”
Ben and Michael walk on. “That girl in the beanie was so hot,” Michael says. “I wish I had stopped her and offered her a hundred bucks to sleep with me. I would’ve given her more, she would’ve done it. She’s a lesbian but if I offered her more than whatever she’s got in her bank account she would’ve done it. I know she would’ve.”
“I feel a shit coming on. No wonder it was so cheap, it was probably cut with baby laxative,” said Ben. “Come on, let’s get a cab.”
They hailed the first one they saw. Michael gave the driver Ben’s hotel address. Ben held the handle above the window, white-knuckled, grinding his teeth.
“You all right, man?” Michael asked.
“Yeah, except my bladder and bowels are exploding.”
They drove along the highway, past car dealers and supermarkets, one of the only cars, the road loud beneath the tires.
“You want me to call those girls tomorrow?” Michael asked.
“Give me your Facebook and I can message you in the afternoon.”
Ben agreed and told him his last name: ‘Freebowitz’. His profile picture was of him smiling smugly into the camera, arms crossed, wearing the same black t-shirt he was wearing right now.
As the taxi slowed before the well-lit entrance of his hotel, Ben handed Michael twenty-thousand pesos to cover his part of the ride. Michael mentally calculated how much more he’d probably wind up owing, how much more it was than the bus he would’ve taken in a few hours if he had never met Ben. “I’ll message you in the afternoon,” he said.
“All right,” said Ben. “I gotta go.” He licked his lips and got out of the cab, jogging duck-footed to the high glass doors. A little bald man came running from behind the front desk to let him in and without turning around, Ben walked rapidly through the lobby and disappeared.
Fifty blocks farther on, Michael paid ten thousand pesos and slammed the cab door behind him, inhaling the night air. The cab idled while he walked up the steps to his apartment and pulled out his keys, driving them into the lock as the taxi accelerated away, leaving him in silence.
He washes his face, brushes his teeth, and imagines having Daniela and her friend over with Ben tomorrow. He thinks of Daniela naked, Ben with her chubby friend. His hand pulls back the sheet to masturbate and soon he falls asleep, his last conscious thought what time would be best to call the girls.

February 20, 2015

Borysthene (Dnieper)

As I crossed the Dnieper, I wondered if Putin really did have a claim to Ukraine, if, like Crimea, this river and its drainage basin were “part of the Russian fatherland,” and if so, notwithstanding, it deserved a chance to define itself anew.

I decided to find an answer based on the river system that runs through this city. I crossed the Darnyts’kyi Bridge and imagined the Sarmatians who lived here two thousand years ago; the Roman campaigns of Trajan that led his cousin, the future emperor Hadrian, to wage war in this taiga; horsemen being swept downriver around chunks of ice; heads stuck on poles; the barbarian chieftains whose language was a blend of Old Iranian, Sanskrit, and Greek, whose modern descendent is Ossetian, today spoken in the highlands of the Caucasus. Ukraine is a wild land filled with a history of virgin warrior women and koumiss, a drink of fermented mare’s milk, and breastplates made from the horse hooves.

Entering, the Vernadsky National Library I considered its imposing facade, a remnant of the stark Soviet yoke of the USSR. My research was limited to English books only, so the overwhelming number which I otherwise would have encountered was immediately reduced to a small fraction, a stack of books about waist-high.

Ukraine’s Early History

I began my research before the founding of Kiev, in the fourth century, when Constantine killed a hundred thousand Goths in his campaign in Sarmatia. The Sarmatians formed an alliance with the Romans against the Huns, and dispersed after their decisive win against Attila at Chalons, the last major battle of the Western Roman Empire. It was during this era that Kiev is said to have been founded.

Over the next few centuries a mix of Finnic, Norse, Turkic, Baltic, Slavic and Hungarian tribes lived around the Dnieper. They wore furs to defend themselves from the cold. They slept in earthen huts. They had no luxuries and their diet was without excesses. They were a hardy, rugged people, who enjoyed no bodily comforts or delicacies. They were distant subjects of the eastern Kingdom of Khazara. To the west was the Byzantine Empire, to the south the Umayyad Caliphate. From the north came the Vikings, the Varangians, who by the mid-9th century, came to rule much of Europe largely through trade.

The Vikings

The Viking Age began during Charlemagne’s Europe at a time when Christians traded fairly only with their fellows and took advantage of pagans. The Vikings’ culture strongly relied upon trade and principles of honor, and some scholars hypothesize that to experience injustice from Christians for their beliefs was reason enough to raid and pillage neighboring lands in revenge.

So came their ships, nearly a hundred feet long, rowed by scores of strongmen. Of oak, bows sealed with walrus fat, prows of fire-gilded dragon heads, scenes from Njaal’s Saga…Thud and bump, the boat has run aground in shallows. The sails are adjusted for stem to become stern as oarsmen jump into the water and pull the barque to deeper waters, splashing carelessly as they vault themselves back into rowing position…

We have relatively few records of what happened during Viking conquests in Eastern Europe compared to the conquests of France and Germany. This is due to the fact that both Vikings and Slavs were non-literate peoples. Those records we do have come from Muslims such as Ibn Rustah, an Iraqi sent on a delegation to the north in 913:

These men, tall in stature and ruddy in appearance, come ashore with onions, meat, milk and beer, and leave their boats to tie these offerings to a stake planted onshore. Here they prostrate themselves on the muddy banks and say, ‘O Lord, I have come from afar with these offerings, let these foreign peoples value my gifts and buy them without much bartering. For this I shall be grateful.’ Then he goes to market and if he does not find a ready buyer, he will return to the stake and present more gifts and offerings, saying, ‘I have brought all of these gifts in thy name, O Lord, please find me a willing trader so that I can return to my homeland with honor.’ Often trade improved and the Viking returned to his boat in the evening to sacrifice goats or cattle and distribute them as alms. The heads of these animals he staked upon poles dedicated to minor gods and the remaining carcasses he left for dogs and birds. The next morning, when the remains were gone he said, ‘My Lord is pleased with me, for he has devoured my offerings.’
Their women come with them, their fair hair tied in braids over their shoulders. They bear necklaces and rings of gold and silver, and the wealth of their men are indicated by how many rings the women have. Above all Northmen value green clay beads. Who knows why? They wear clothing that is clean and valuable, often lined with fur. They are good to their slaves, but are best to their king. He sits high upon a throne with a harem of forty beneath him and four hundred men below. These men are ready to give their lives for him. When he wants to go riding, his men bring him his horse, and when he is done he rides to his throne and makes love to his women.

From this record, a clear picture emerges of the people we know as Vikings, who came to rule over the Slavs. For them, the Dneiper was a primary trade route, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. They crossed the Euxine to arrive in Byzantium with precious amber, gold of the north, to trade in the spice markets of Constantinople.

How big they are! Their red or fair hair differentiates them from the smaller, darker natives. Like the coasts of Normandy and Sicily provided wine, the spice markets held Persian and Chinese delicacies. Also like the way they did in France, the Vikings assimilated readily into this culture, the best becoming Byzantine emperors’ bodyguards. Though they sometimes battled those with whom they traded, it was usually for control of the waters, and for tithing principles.

We don’t know exactly why, but by 880 the tribes in Kiev refused to pay tribute to the Varangian Rus, driving them back across the sea, seeking to govern themselves. Soon thereafter, civil war erupted. The tribes’ internecine rivalries were insurmountable. Soon they sought intercession from their former rulers. It was then that Rurik came to Novgorod, initiating his eponymous dynasty. His successor Oleg moved the Slavic capital to the more strategic position of Kiev to better protect his kingdom from Khazar raids.

The Rise of Vladimir

Alliances between Kievan Rus, Byzantines and Khazars shifted constantly. At this time, the Khazars’ power was waning, despite the tributes they exacted as dominant power in the east. Their culture was very diverse, composed of Turkic nomads, Jews, Christians, Muslims and pagans. For about three hundred years they had control over the area once known as Scythia, between the Caspian and Black Seas, extending north into the Urals. The Khazars must have feared the Rus people for their raids, especially after the Rus pillaged the Muslims of the Volga. That river too was an important artery, leading the Vikings all the way to Baghdad. But when the Khazars prevented the Rus from sailing down the Volga, they effectively declared war.

In the 940s Byzantium was also at war with the Khazars, at the same time seeking an entente with the Rus people of the north. Rurik’s descendent, Sviatoslav I, battered the Khazar Crimean fortresses of Sarkel and Tamatarkha. By 968, he had sacked the Khazar capital, Atil.

Sviatoslav remained faithful to the Slavic pantheon—copper-bearded Perun, whose hammer always returned to him no matter how many evil spirits he threw it at, seemed a stronger divinity than the merciful Christ-figure. What sort of god was that for a warrior?

Sviatoslav headed east to fight the Bulgars next, but was killed. His son Yaropolk inherited the throne. Yaropolk had one natural brother, who he slew immediately after finding out his father’s death, and Vladimir, an illegitimate half-brother through Sviatoslav’s housemaid Malusha. Legend has it that she was a prophetess who was born in a cave and lived to be a hundred. Vladimir knew that if his brother Yaropolk found him, he would have him beheaded, so he fled to Scandinavia, where he stayed with his distant relation, the king of Sweden. In secret he planned a return to Kiev to reclaim the throne from his evil brother.

Years passed. When Vladimir returned, he was accompanied by Varingian mercenaries, who he had ask Yaropolk for a private meeting between himself as Prince of Sweden, and the King of Kievan Rus. Yaropolk flatly refused.

The next day, Vladimir wore his mercenaries’ costume and led them to Yaropolk bearing a message. As soon as his brother unfurled the paper, the mercenaries attacked Yaropolk’s guards and he revealed himself, stabbing his brother.

Christianization of the Rus People

At this time, Anatolia rose up against Emperor Basil II of Constantinople. For help, he turned to the King of Rus, whose territory stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, and the Vistula to the Volga. Vladimir knew what an alliance with Byzantium would yield, but he knew also that to make a true alliance he would have to convert to the Emperor’s religion.

Vladimir was a devout pagan. He erected statues of thunder-god Perun and kept eight hundred concubines. Most of his people followed his decrees, though Christianity was on the rise. When a mob killed two Christians for disrespecting their idols, Vladimir sent his boyars abroad to survey the religions of the world. When they returned they told him about the Muslim Bulgars and their prohibitions against alcohol, which Vladimir rejected, knowing that he could not prevent his people from giving into one of life’s greatest joys. They told him of the Jews from fallen Khazar and Jerusalem. Vladimir replied that their God must have deserted them if they could not even control their ancient capital. “But the Christians,” one of the boyars said, “have Hagia Sophia, and in it are all the mysteries of the world. I thought I was in heaven on earth when I saw this temple, such that now I have not even the words to describe it.”

Upon hearing this, Vladimir pledged the Byzantines six thousand men and assured the emperor that he would take on his religion on the condition that Basil II offer the hand of his sister. The Byzantines considered all northerners barbarians. It was unheard of for an imperial marriage to one of these tribes. Yet Basil II knew that he needed help and so he begged his sister to go, assuring her that she would be rewarded.

When Anna crossed the Black Sea, Vladimir met her in the Crimea for his baptism and marriage. Upon his return to Kiev, Vladimir exhorted all of his citizens, rich and poor, to bathe in the Dnieper and become Christians. Following this mass baptism, he hacked to pieces the statues of Perun and the other Slavic dieties, which he had erected a decade before, throwing them into the river and formally beginning the Christian era of the Slavic people.

It was another hundred years until the founding of Moscow.

I was distracted by a loudspeaker call that the library was closing. I decided to end my studies here, before I became overburdened with information, unable to digest what I had learned. I decided to return to the library tomorrow, to learn more about the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Mongol yoke, and the territorial gains that led to Peter’s Russian Empire.

As I stepped outside, it was already dark. My seventh day in Ukraine was concluded, and in a sudden change of heart, I decided not to return to the library tomorrow, but to leave Kiev and proceed east. It seemed that the Slavs owed much to the Germanic Vikings who ruled them in the ninth century, and as I crossed that wide river again, this time to return to my hotel for the night, I felt justified in knowing that Putin’s fatherland did not have a historical claim to the Dnieper, that if anything, the Dnieper had a historical claim on Putin.