Monthly Archives: March 2013

Now online at Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics: 

“Fragments, Shards and Visions” — on the Swiss poet Erika Burkart

Introductory essay by Marc Vincenz and interview with Ernst Halter, Burkart’s widower.


The following prose by Erika Burkart is translated from the German by Andrea Scrima from Am Fenster, wo die Nacht einbricht. Erika Burkart, Aufzeichnungen, ed. Ernst Halter, Zürich: Limmat Verlag. 

Childhood / Ninepins and a Thunderstorm

Ninepins. They’re playing ninepins, said my father, as above us the sky’s protective vault shook with the muffled rumblings of thunder. Who dared to hold a game of ninepins in the House of Angels? They did, blithely unconcerned about turning the cathedral into a wooden heaven. Elfi, our waitress, said a wooden heaven was just a room full of drunken men.

The ninepin lane took up the northeast corner of the garden terrace: because of their finger holes, in which I saw eye sockets, the solid wooden balls reminded me of skulls as they rolled down a splintering, tree-length plank of fir. No one played on workdays; ninepins was a Sunday game. In the morning the bells rang out, in the afternoon the glasses clinked and the balls rolled. The men, made jolly by the beer, played with passion. They’d laid their dark Sunday vests, called smocks, on the backless wooden banks; they rolled up their white shirtsleeves. Starting in the meadow of the pub garden, their eyes fixed on the goal, they picked up speed before dropping to one knee and letting the ball leave their outstretched fist, letting it roll as they followed its course, still in a bent-over position. Rumbling, the ball shot down the lane; as the man stood up the pins fell down, nine of them, rapidly, one after another like dominos, or, if it was a champ shooting, all at the same time as the fellow wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.

After the ball bounced back from the low earthen wall surrounding the platform the pins were positioned on, I helped Hans, the pin boy, to set them up again, which had to happen quickly. It was already the next player’s turn, and his dismissive gesture signaled for us to stand aside.

Nearly every Sunday, unnoticed in the heat of the play, a thunderstorm that had been brewing all afternoon in the southwest put an end to the game of ninepins. Literally bowled over by the rumbling balls, the boastful cries, the cursing and swearing when a ball swerved out of the lane and strayed off into the grass, they hadn’t heard the faraway rolling thunder. It was a stroke of lightning that brought an abrupt end to the match; in no time, the players were gone, scattered up the garden steps and into the pub. One lightning bolt followed another, and the pin boy and I crept beneath the steps. Our chins propped on our bare knees, we crouched in the cave and listened, keeping our heads down and ducking at the claps of thunder, which were now coming in shorter and shorter intervals. The lightning’s flare reached all the way into our dark cavern; there was no time left to count the seconds in between. Hans, poking his head out, said that the strokes of lightning would tear the world apart. I drew closer to his side and saw, momentarily blinded, fiery zigzag snakes shooting straight down from the sky. The rain hadn’t yet begun to fall. Then, a capital peal of thunder knocked us into a heap and released the flood, which then pelted onto the slab of concrete in front of our bunker. After a time, which dissolved into a rushing, timeless sound, there came the rattling of machine guns. The clamorous clattering echoes sounded like the rumbling wheels of a hay wagon driven by trolls over a bridge in Hell. — We’d left the pins where they were. Twenty steps away, they lay there every which way, felled, fallen ones staring with a frozen gaze into the flashes of lightning as the rain trickled into their gaping mouths.

No one had looked for us in the excitement. From one moment to the next, the host and hostess were faced with the task of finding room for twenty new men flushed from the match, all of them crowded around the door with their jackets tossed over their shoulders; tables were pushed into place and chairs moved as Elfi balanced the serving board above their heads. The pub was small; lightning flashed in each of its four windows. They knew the situation, and feared it. Squeezed into a corner of the stairwell, both curious and anxious, they had been watching the events that recurred every Sunday in fair weather.

Removed from the chaos, in the smell of damp mortar, Hans and I waited for the thunderstorm to end. The white of my Sunday shoes radiated marvelously against the fresh green of the dripping grass in the meadow, where a pale gleam shone from the long wet planks of the tables. Sparkling behind the clouds, it found its way through the rifts and into the empty pub garden and, in the bush-enclosed northeastern corner, to the fallen ones, which in this light were nothing more than ordinary, rain-drenched pins that bore a strange resemblance to the beer bottles that had been left behind on the tables: these, too, were childhood plunder, the way it crawls out of the box of tricks at night when the summer lightning flashes in the east to rehearse a scene from the ghost game of a life whose images are pieced together differently in each epoch. Bewildering end game. Blindly, we relinquish.


Issue 7–1 of Hyperion: On the Future of Aesthetics. 

Senior Editors: Andrea Scrima and Carole Viers-Andronico.

To view the PDF: Hyperion Burkart 2013

Memory. Too much of it rather than too little, layers and layers of it. Peel one back and discover another: this year or that, compressed into a potent concentrate, like Gentian Violet. Try to describe the sensation that rekindles a particular period of time, and you find that it’s outside the boundaries of the tangible, the intelligible. It’s like opening a capsule and something flashes in the mind—not a smell or a sound, but a quicksilver essence that escapes into the air and just as quickly dissipates, too rash to apprehend any individual attributes. You glimpse a fundamental form, recognize it somewhere within yourself, as though the nerves in the body were retracing a geometric diagram for a moment, and then poof! The blackboard is erased, the sensation vanishes, and although you try to retrieve it, you know that its very nature is evanescent, that whatever secret it might be hiding is not to be understood in words.

How does the mind store things, and what is the label it puts on each box—is it a function of chance that the sound of my own breath inside a fur-lined hood becomes the emblem of an entire winter of shifting emotion? The uneasy look X. gave me when I reacted in dismay to a comment he’d made. We were at a writers’ residency; half of us were suffering from a recent loss of love, from the disjointed communication and delphic utterances we stayed up entire nights poring over, trying to glimpse some meaning in them, giving them not the benefit of the doubt but an extravagant advance of belief and credence, never considering for an instant that the respective emails we were trying to decipher, to read between the lines of, had been dashed off in a hurry—one of a list of chores gnawing at the conscience of someone not in love, but too vain, perhaps, to let go. We congregated in the kitchen and read poems out loud to each other off someone’s iPhone. The sinister singsong of the villanelle: I think I made you up inside my head / I should have loved a thunderbird instead. An unusual conference of the lovelorn: each of us had given up on the cause of our respective misery, but a molten core still churned inside. And X., whose English was difficult to understand, who appeared at noon each day to make his wonton, stopped, in a rare moment of curiosity, to listen in. Someone asked him if he’d ever been deeply in love; break it down, we learned, break the phrases down into individual, simple words. The rephrasing of the question; the widening of eyes when he understood. Yes, X. had been deeply in love. He frowned. But never again, he stated with a sudden, lucid burst of fluency. Better not to love someone else. Love someone else and you suffer, he said as his hand made a rapid slicing motion in the air before him. Better to love yourself, he said, and he slapped his chest several times to underscore that he would never again squander away its contents on anyone as undeserving as the woman who had evidently broken his heart.

I have taken to my bed, and I’m not quite sure why; is it fatigue, or a kind of incubation? Each night I resolve to wake up early the next morning and to remain awake, to begin work, to turn this nocturnal life around into something that more closely resembles the lives of those around me. And each morning I rise with the alarm, make breakfast, and then slip back beneath the covers after my son leaves for school. Only another hour, I tell myself, but I know that I’m lying, know I won’t make that ten-o’clock-appointment, and even still I willingly believe the only-another-hour story and pull the covers closer to my body. Only an hour, only another hour, I chant, and then I drift off into blessed sleep.

Is it the medication? I have another month to presumably sleep through before I speak to the doctor about reducing the dosage. I could sleep, sleeeeeeeeeeeeeeep, there are no limits to the hours I could spend in bed right now with a cat at my side and another at my feet. I’ve found my new world: crouched under the covers, the window open wide, I can have my comfort and fresh air at the same time—what more do I need? To think that only a year ago I jogged five kilometers each day is not only startling; it seems like a blatant lie.

We talk nearly every night now, we never run out of things to tell each other, but sometimes we lie there with our eyes closed and remain silent, each of us in our own bed, nearly a thousand kilometers apart. I am pupating, resting on the threshold between one phase of my life and another. When will I wake up, and what will I be?

I hadn’t been outside in over five days; on the way to a reading on Tuesday I stopped at the bank to make a cash withdrawal. I typed in my PIN, but it was wrong; I typed it in again, wondering how I’d made a mistake, wrong again, and stupidly, instead of pausing to think—but why is the number wrong?—I typed it in a third time. By this time, the sequence of four numerals had begun to feel strange, as unfamiliar as a word one turns over in the mouth again and again until it’s sucked clean of meaning; I had begun to doubt myself, my own memory, only five days and already my PIN, as familiar to me as my own birth date, was dissolving in my mind like a mirage. Wrong for the third time: the automat informs me that I can no longer use my card.

That was three days ago. For three days I have been planning to get to the bank to correct this problem. In the meantime, it came to me like a flash, the correct number materialized in my mind, and it didn’t seem strange in the least—I’d transposed the first two digits, that was all—and once again I felt reassured that the world I live in is indeed familiar, hasn’t mutated in my absence. Although it occurs to me that I couldn’t remember my neighbor’s name recently, a name I’ve said hundreds of times. I was about to insert it into a sentence—and it was gone. My mind groped around the cubbyhole reserved for this particular neighbor, felt the sides, the bottom and top. I knew her name began with the letter S, but the cubbyhole was empty and remained empty for what felt like a long time.

I am not old enough for this to begin happening. I meant to tell you this, but forgot. Is it a side effect of the medication? Is this what it feels like to have your life crumble away from you? One name, and then another, and then the dates start to go, telephone numbers, numbers you haven’t had to write down in decades, numbers you have to search for but cannot find because they aren’t written anywhere, they’re too obvious to write down, as obvious as the names of friends too close to require a surname in your mind—but what if you’ve forgotten the name, what do you do then? And what if you’ve forgotten your own? Like the class photos from grade school: I still remember thinking that I would remember my classmates forever, thinking how stupid adults must be who look back on their youth and can no longer remember the name of the boy in the third row, second to left, or the girl next to him. How can you forget your own life, I used to wonder in disdain.

I was recently contacted by a woman on Facebook; she claimed we’d graduated high school together. She had a clear memory of me: who I was at the time, the things people thought about me, said about me, the places they’d imagined I’d go one day. Nearly twice my entire lifetime at that time has passed since. She attached a photograph of herself: tweezed eyebrows and eyeliner, blow-dried hair, an Italian-American name like thousands of others on Staten Island—but I could not, for the life of me, remember her. And how many of them have forgotten me?

What, you ask, does the first paragraph have to do with the second, or with the ethical repercussions of any given endeavor, and what does any of this have to do with love.

The external forces we are subject to—the social, political, and economic structures we operate within—provide a set of conditions we are not at liberty to escape; one way or another, we must negotiate with them. Where religion is a driving force, all behavior is measured in relation to it; it permeates the perception. The same goes for a prevailing economic system: we speak, think, dream in its metaphors. We “spend” time, “invest” our energies in another person (or not), apply the laws of supply and demand or of diminishing returns as human encounters increasingly come to resemble, and be regarded as, “transactions.” And so here we are, locked as it were in an economic reality, and everything we see and do is contingent upon its laws, its language and expressions. What, then—when it fails to obey these forces—does love become? By its very definition, a transaction that does not yield profit creates loss.

And yet love has a way of bleeding through the balance sheet, of asserting itself in spite of its impracticality, of reminding us that the nature of being human does not, in fact, perfectly coincide with the circumscribed spaces we allot to its expression. The true mode of love is anarchy; to experience it, it requires that we abandon ourselves to it. We miss telephone calls, cease to be punctual. We are no longer able to manage things efficiently. Love demands time, it demands space; it plants its flag and asserts another code of law altogether. Those that come under its power have a choice: either to succumb to it, or to escape.

Free will? Pessoa remarked that the choleric individual, for instance, can only hope that he will not, upon provocation, explode in anger. It makes no difference whether or not an angry reaction is in his own best interests, or what he resolves to do or not to do ahead of time. The fact that his reactions are not fully under his control demonstrates the limitations of free will. We are driven by anger, by passion, by greed; we are also driven by the sheer force of habit. Propagandists, for instance, have learned to use these facts of human nature to exert influence over entire populations, to shepherd them into doing all kinds of things against their own better interests. Individual choice exists, of course, but it is a mistake to overestimate the power, or even moral imperative, of free will.

And so we give in to love, perhaps, when we have no other recourse. It asserts its larger truth as everything else pales in its presence. At first, lovers laugh at the absurdity of the human spectacle, feel magically free of limitations, lighter somehow; this eventually gives way to sorrow, to a fear that the world’s ways will conspire against their love and render it impossible. The state of grace circumscribed by love is a territory to be defended, a state with another system of government. One becomes a citizen of another country; takes on an allegiance to another flag. One learns that one must fight to keep one’s love.

Morality is a term unequivocal to those who purport to be its staunch supporters. Yet morality has little relevance when it comes to the irresistible urge to figure things out. Human beings are seekers of truth; this goes for art, literature, philosophy, science. The applications are secondary; the implications another field altogether. The main thing is to know, to take each question as far as it can go, to build upon discoveries and continue building upon them until the facts they reveal take us to the next stage, and the one after that. We are insatiable in our will to know. Genetic engineering, for instance, sets the stage for any number of potential scenarios ranging from curing incurable diseases to breeding a new, sub-human species to fight kamikaze wars or perform menial labor. It’s all highly interesting, and there will always be more than enough individuals keenly committed to solving the problem at hand, putting the next brick in place, paving the common path—but to where? Non-scientists tend to think of scientists as Doctor Frankenstein figures sewing cadavers together to create horrific monsters. But the truth is that every human endeavor harbors the full range of possible extremes. The monster, of course, is within. There are those who would search out the error of the species and reengineer Homo Sapiens itself.

What am I trying to say? What does any of this have to do with love? But couldn’t I just as easily counter this question with another: isn’t the very fact of existence enough to stop us in our tracks, to shut us up? Take a look around; pretend you’re an alien visiting Earth for the first time. What would you see?—Collections of individuals massed together according to specific complexes of organizing principles. But as we analyze these, we discover that they do not, as initially assumed, serve the overall benefit of the species; instead, there seems to be a parasitic force at work whereby some individuals enjoy benefits grossly disproportionate to the whole. Further analysis suggests that not only do the organizing principles governing the activities of these mass collections of individuals actually favor a disproportionate sharing of the benefits produced by the efforts of any given group; they are also implemented in a manner that harms and ultimately endangers the survival of the species. Closer study reveals that while alternative organizing principles exist, they are systematically repressed. What, then, would be your conclusion?

To be continued.



You ask me if it really happened that way. If it was really like that. Don’t we all live in our own reality? In V.’s mind, no provision had been made for me to tag along; he’d imagined picking a trinket up along the way, hailing a cab, and that would be the end of that. He hadn’t anticipated that I’d come along for the walk, and then for the taxi ride, babbling as we hurried down the street because I felt happier than I’d felt in a long time—loved, even. In the taxi I grew silent; I stared out the window, trying to commit to memory the cars and trucks and storefronts and endless people blurring by like a smeared painting. I sank down in my seat and leaned into him. He wanted me to sit upright, to keep a distance—I could sense that—but as often happens when I register information too jarring to process, too contradictory to my emotional needs, I packed it away and saved it for a later time. For V., no doubt, it was all too much, too many conflicting states: the reality of the hotel room, and now the far more urgent reality of heading home. This was not his usual way of operating. I was leaning into a man I longed to lean into, leaning into him as though he could hold me up somehow. But he was already negotiating the leap back into his life; he would soon make a clean break and let me fall.

Its elegantly articulated lines, with a hint of casual confidence, caught the eye of personalities ranging from the Duke of Windsor to Marcello Mastroianni. I wonder if you’re making any progress on your translation. You’ve taken an absurd amount of time to render a mediocre advertising text into German; your sense of self-respect requires that you improve it, your intellect that you verify its claims, your business acumen that you analyze the degree to which the language speaks to its target group, your experience in international finance to assess future prospects and risks. You have immersed yourself in the world of luxury shoes, where the words “insolent” and “audacious” evoke the theatrics of the boardroom, of big money. You are incubating, preparing yourself for reentering the professional world: creative and bold, perennially in vogue, the superlative reference in … But will it change you, turn you into one of them? You once told me that you thought you were being punished in advance for some wrong you would have inevitably committed, had you continued in what you were doing. There are ethical repercussions to everything, but they are considered irrelevant if they do not impact the home team: repercussions of trade negotiations, of pharmaceutical research, of moving other people’s money around, of eating meat. I read about the development of weapons robots the other day; horrified to the very fabric of her soul, a Nobel laureate had spoken out against them, but then a researcher proceeded to turn her argument around, stressing the need to implement technology to help combatants abide by the “ethical” rules of war. When putting an innovation into practice, given a choice between the most beneficial application to mankind and the most destructive, humanity invariably chooses the most destructive. But although history has demonstrated this, the ongoing idiocy of “positive thinking” is still, bafflingly, not yet apparent to all.


The origins of Coel Mor, classical bagpipe music, reach back into a largely unknown history throughout which the oral mnemonic teaching method of canntaireachd, the singing of the composition to commit it to memory, was considered a more accurate and enduring form of musical “notation” than a written score. This suggests that the laments, summonings, and salutes of this highly formalized musical tradition, in which the slightest variation or embellishment transports precise meaning, might have constituted its own language for recording history; might, like the poetry of the bards, have once been a vehicle for passing down tales of genealogy and clan lore. Indeed, writers, among them Proust, have frequently pondered the idea that music, somewhere in its ancient origins, could once have been a medium for a more direct form of communication among humans and for recording information in a manner that was somehow fundamentally truer than spoken or written language—in other words, that at some stage of our prehistory, the development of speech and the evolution of music were parallel endeavors with an open outcome.

Published in the spring 2013 issue of Quarterly Conversation.

Empty circus stage


Arrivals and departures. M. and I were lying together on his bed when he became distracted, or discouraged, pulled his hand away from me, and started to roll a joint. I sat up, put on my clothes, and left without a word. We’d had encounters of this nature before; I recall him following me home to Schöneberg in the middle of the night, on his ramshackle bicycle. I wanted him to go away, I was pedaling furiously, but he had no trouble keeping up with me; he just laughed. I don’t remember the lovemaking, I only remember the dawn, which crept down the façade of the building across the small courtyard like a dab of opaque white bleeding into a darker hue. That and the sound of a nightingale echoing off the buildings as M. slept. And another night, an encounter by chance at a music festival, when we crept up the steps of the bleachers we’d been sitting on to talk above the din, spied a slit in a tent, and slipped inside, where a huge space opened up before our eyes like a hallucination. A circus tent without a circus, empty, off-limits to the summer night’s event: we’d been beamed into a magical world in a matter of seconds, the noise outside already a distant memory. These were the kinds of encounters we had: an abandoned amusement park in Treptower Park shortly after the Wall came down, rusted equipment and the Soviet War Memorial nearby. But then M. grew chilly in his thin jacket, the charm wore off, and we were expelled from our little garden, thrown back into the day with its overcast sky and colorless, listless disposition. I am always looking for someone to escape with, it seems. And you? We’ve invented a secret language; we communicate through signs that only you and I understand. A rendezvous, and then a departure. A moment in which we share an antipathy for clocks and calendars, airports and train schedules. I pack quickly so that I can return to you, hold you in silence. Later, in the airport, you watch my transformation into an alien, an efficient traveler: my laptop already out of its bag, ready to place in a separate bin; my coat draped over my arm, the boarding pass in my hand. You stood behind the barrier and watched from a distance. I’m not an alien, I wanted to say, I am merely passing through security, but you are far more capable than I of negotiating these shifts in perception, in reality; you were trying to signal me to jump the line. Today I feel afraid; how would it be to have you near me? The sun’s rays creep quietly along the wall, illuminating a silver tea set in a glowing quadrilateral of light that has traveled an unimaginable distance just to be here in this moment, this and no other. V. never noticed these things; V.’s mind was already elsewhere, checking his alibi, looking for anything that might not hold up under scrutiny. We hurried down the street, and he asked me if I remembered a certain store that carried objects made from carved glass. It was only later that I realized he was planning to pick up a gift for his wife on the way to Penn Station.