Published in sync with the release of the inaugural episode of the Asymptote Podcast—whose producer Emma Jacobs says that the mythical stories we tell ourselves are really signs of “our inability to map our own minds”—the October 2014 issue of Asymptote sets the reader afloat through a tesseract, among the interlinked dimensions of spacetime, to browse the stacks of a library of the imagination.
That mapless place, for Shi Tiesheng, in “The Year of Being Twenty-One,” his reminiscence of the onset of paraparesis translated here by Dave Haysom, masquerades in public life as a monotheistic deity: “I did see God, one day—but he went by a different name, and that name was the mind,” Tiesheng writes. “In the hazy patches of science; in the chaos of destiny; you can only turn to your own mind. Everything we believe in—no matter what that might be—comes from the promptings and the guidance of our minds.” If the Almighty and the psyche are indeed a match, or if the Omnipotent is an apt personification of our mental apparatus, or, to use the contemporary term, if the god of gods is a psychic avatar, then the character Aram Kugiungian, in an eponymous short story by J. Rodolfo Wilcock translated here by Lawrence Venuti, looks at that Person askance, for causing him to notice, “one April evening in 1949, on the sidewalk of a dirty street heading toward Lake Ontario,” that “he was also someone else or, indeed, several others.” In Wilcock’s droll tale, poor Aram lacks the means, presumably artistic, to interpret his (in fact quire normal, even universal) condition any way except literally: “although in recent years he has multiplied himself exponentially, he has never wishes to meet any of his incarnations in person,” the story concludes. “Many of them do not speak English, others seem to be very busy, and, to tell the truth, he wouldn’t know what to say to himself.” Telecommunications are the means by which an unattractive and isolated young man spends a season in heaven, in Sabrina Huang’s short story “The Girl of his Dreams,” translated here by Jeremy Tiang: “He’d somehow got up each night, walked into the living room, turned on his computer, registered another identity on hotmail and the dating website, written himself a letter saying ‘Hey, I think we’d get along,’ then returned to bed, waking up the next day with no memory of doing any of these things, for a whole hundred and thirteen days.” This anonymous fast food worker transforms himself into a hunk, as his waist contracts and his skin clears, until, since “he still couldn’t understand why he would do something like this to himself,” he swiftly reassumes his former appearance and “his original nature, the resilience of a dog or ox.” In these works, the Other Mind is an entity that doubles and reflects its counterparts in a plurality of forms.
Also evident in the October 2014 issue is a strange conjunction of strife and mystery. Gregorz Wróblewski’s poem “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” translated by Piotr Gwiazda, emphasizes the corporate character of the contemporary global culture industry, in its function as a channel for propagandistic messaging intended to normalize imperialist violence. The poem likens the widespread use of euphemism in mass media to the prevalence of undernourishment and cosmetic surgery among a bourgeoisified international upper class. It leaves untranslated from the original Polish the items on a list of torture techniques, to trenchant effect: “Tom Cruise decided only at the age of 39 to straighten his front teeth and / have them centered! / Later the CIA used additional “enhanced interrogation techniques” / which included: długotrwała nagość (prolonged nudity), manipulacje żywieniowe / (dietary manipulation), uderzanie po brzuchu (abdominal slap).” Similarly, discussing the poems of Serhiy Zhadan in her essay “The Word in a Time of War,” Mayhill Fowler considers the lines “long ago fragments of hot lexemes / grew cold in mouths filled with fear / and the man with the serious expression / with his dark notebook and lead pencil / left behind only silence / that fell like a dead bird,” and she asks on behalf of a Ukraine torn by internal conflict, “What can poetry do in such times?” Fowler concludes that Zhadan’s poems “show the power of the word in a time of war,” and explains that the poems “say the unsayable, by not saying who is in which category, who is guilty and who is innocent; they speak to the larger human tragedy of war.” The presence of ambiguity and the unknown in everyday life is also the theme of “If Even the Spirit Child” by Mohammed Said Abdulla, beloved author of a popular series of novels about the exploits of “the Sherlock Holmes of Unguja,” the detective Bwana Msa—a story excerpted here and translated by Nathalie S. Koenings, set on the deck of the Dar Es Salaam / Unguja ferry, where our hero, “an observer of human goings-on who takes an interest, one who considers the matter for his own satisfaction,” differentiates himself from his distinguished British predecessor by “observing a situation with care and steady effort, together with discretion and attentiveness, in order to find out the truth of the matter—so that you can understand how something came to be, and for what reason,” and affirms to his interlocutor, a young man whose dream has come true, that “there’s something to our dreams, that dreams aren’t a foolishness at all, as so many of us imagine.” Likewise, from a different kind of dream—one that possesses an element of the metatexutal—Klaus Rothstein, in “Flannery O’Connor’s Kiss of Death,” translated here by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, details a friendship and would-be romance with the great writer, which the Asymptote editorial team, frustrated in their efforts to obtain publication rights, found themselves unable to substantiate, beyond reference to scholarly notices of the correspondence mentioned in the piece: “Although Flannery was both conventional and religious, we eventually became so close that she, while the car was parked, allowed me to kiss her,” Rothstein writes. “When I later read one of Flannery’s short stories, ‘Good Country People,’ I noticed that the main character was a travelling Bible salesman. I didn’t sell bibles, but I used to call my binder with the records of the publishing firm ‘my bible.’ Also, the salesman in the story is named Manley Pointer, which has an obvious erotic connotation.” In these pieces, what cannot be known is nonetheless found to connect, by way of a myth, to what is known all too well.
The entrance of a stranger into strange surroundings, and the interactions that ensue, is the burden of several pieces in this issue, notably Euphrase Kezilahabi’s “Welcome Inside,” a poem that depicts the poet rejecting the invocation of tradition as an excuse to avoid the truth, and calling upon the archaic instead—a stance he depicts as meeting with the favor of “the old folks,” while he writes of resolution and interdependence: “In possession of my harp, I’ll elaborate new songs. / I’ll use my native character to find my direction— / meaning I’ve never thrown my beaded necklace away. // And what sort of hut is this, at once in front of me!” Whereas the speaker of Kezilahabi’s poem encounters a donnée of which he was unaware because of its proximity, K, the protagonist of Another Man’s City, the novel by Ch’oe In-ho excerpted here in a translation by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, finds himself plucked out of everything familiar and set down in a life that would be perfectly ordinary in every particular, except that it belongs to someone else. When his chance acquaintance Olenka, alias P, departs down a crowded street, for example, having taken K shopping for lingerie after transforming himself, via a change from men’s to women’s clothes on a bathroom break, so that she is almost unrecognizable, “He saw the bobbing head of a giant in spike heels, holding her own in the surging human tide, straight and tall as a poplar.” The poem “Hemispheres” by María do Cebreiro, by contrast, portrays a connection between two people that is curiously both oblique and profound: “—He was in a hurry and I was hungry. / We’d been out all day. // —You said you didn’t like him. / —I said he was difficult. // To really listen to her, you had to / interrupt. // Sometimes she closes her eyes. // —Do you find difficultness seductive? / —I find distance seductive.” Finally, scrutinizing the fraught conditions of sustained interpersonal engagement in three poems excerpted from the sequence “Against the Current” and translated here by Wendy Burk, Tedi López Mills poses the question—to an addressee known only as the speaker’s “brother”—”what empty mold for a barely expected defeat precedes / this strife between beasts, this calculation of routines midway through a feeling,” and, in a long series of paratactic clauses, whose cumulative effect is one of complexity and intricacy, answers her own query by elaborating upon it:
why when I read do I lose hold of the game, foreground the facts
without experience, reading as if I’ve got it right just because I understand
the words, weighing subtleties between the lines, settling on a punishment for all this
false landscape, it’s true I made it, but you took it further, threshold brother,
diffusely, all of those clashing colors, column of yours
so broken by its red, by its blue, no one in their right mind would commune
with that clarity, the maimed law of intimation knows nothing empirically,
slips away on a shortcut, mythical prowess, dressing the gods, pandemonium,
once there was a forest where today the barbed wire chokes on its own rust,
false, my melancholy brother, devotee of an unpolluted past, always longing
for yesterday, eating away at its portrait, its submerged parasite of briefest
utopia, water’s face in the water, give it weight, I won’t say the name, fury
of the multitude that demands a destination when they’re barely wandering the hillside
one opinion after another, pasturing where they may, paltry symbol, bony cow
of what I think, unimpeded gap, dry plain, no place persists beyond,
shall we say, the blessed monarchy of my eyes, searching for something to save,
some crust of bread, my brother in absurdity, descending on that road
I refuse to retouch
The word “retouch,” in the last line quoted above, cognate in the original Spanish, recapitulates the poem’s themes at the lexical level, reminding us that to retouch something is both to touch it again and to alter its appearance, commingling repugnance with vanity, ethical integrity with guilt by implication.
The October 2014 issue of Asymptote demonstrates an exceptional thematic cohesion across genre, language, geographic location, and time. Not only does this unity hold up well, after the four years that have elapsed since publication, it recommends the theme to our readers—for the urgency that remains a potent element of myth in our lives, and for the diversion, edification and transport that a myth can provide.