Bryan R. Monte – Vita – An Interview with Susan Lloy

Bryan R. Monte
Vita — An Interview with Susan Lloy

Susan Lloy is the author of two books of short fiction, But When We Look Closer (2017) and Vita: Stories (2019) both from Now or Never Publishing. Her fiction has been published in Avalon Literary Review; Lock Raven Review; Beecher’s 4 Magazine; Donut Factory; The Literary Commune, UK; Literary Orphans; Jumblebook; PARAGRAPHITI; Penduline Press; The Prague Review; Revolution House Magazine; The Roundup Writer’s Zine; Scarlet Leaf Review; Toronto Prose Mill; Transportation Press; The Writing Disorder; and Revolution House as well as in Amsterdam Quarterly and in The Neighbours Anthology, (Zimble House Publishing).

Bryan R. Monte: How does it feel to have two collections of short stories, But When We Look Closer and Vita: Stories, published in the last two years?

Susan Lloy: It feels like an accomplishment. However, my audience is very limited. It has proved difficult to find ways to broaden the scope of readers.

BRM: Well, you should be very proud of these two books, not only for their contents, but also for their design. Their typeface, cover art, size and bindings make them very attractive. I especially like both books’ eye-catching cover art. Were you also involved in these books’ design?

SL: Only with Vita. I chose the image for the front cover and the book’s cover font.

BRM: What is your academic and professional background, and how has this influenced you as a writer?

SL: I have a Bachelor’s of Design in Communication Design from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design University. I did a study exchange at Parsons School of Design and Cooper Union for the advancement of Science and Art in New York. I studied graphic design at Parsons and the history of experimental film at Cooper Union

BRM: That must have been an interesting and educational semester.

SL: Obviously, New York was a great influence. It was an exciting, fruitful time and it fuelled me with a lust for creative endeavours. I have always been interested in the arts and originally wanted to be a painter, but studied graphic design instead.

BRM: Do you make your living as a writer and as a graphic artist?

SL: No. I work full-time as the unit coordinator on the Cardiac Surgery Unit at the McGill University Health Centre. This takes a lot of energy, so my creative output is quite dependent on what is going on at work. Working in healthcare is an entire trilogy on its own. Maybe someday….

BRM: How long have you been writing?

SL: As far as writing is concerned … I have written from an early age. But I took a long absence from writing when I had my son in the 1990s. I did, however, write a children’s story for him during this period. Currently, an illustrator and myself are seeking publication for this story. All of my work is dedicated to my son, Nicolas.

BRM: How long have you been writing short stories?

SL: Seriously, for about the last six years.

BRM: How long have you been sending them out?

SL: Since the beginning.

BRM: Would you call yourself a disciplined writer? For example, do you have a regular schedule for writing, editing and submitting your work?

SL: When I have an idea for a piece of fiction, I get busy with it immediately. Yet, if I’m in between stories, I can be unproductive. I do, nonetheless, keep a notebook of thoughts and ideas for future tales.

BRM: I believe that what Jacob Appel does with plot in his short stories, you do with character in yours. How do you ‘find’ these interesting characters that draw the reader in and power them through your stories — through experience, observation, or pure fantasy or perhaps a combination of two or three factors?

SL: A combination of all three, as I think this is true for most writers. We all reflect, subtract and bend reality to create.

BRM: Could you be more specific? For example, how did you create the voice of the main character from ‘Mean Waitress’ and some of your other stories?

SL: The voice for ‘Mean Waitress’ is my own. I was that mean waitress. Layla in ‘Layla Was Here’ is pure fantasy. I wanted the verse to portray the uninvited person in her head. The short story ‘Vita’ is an observation in the process of an individual’s death.

BRM: Do you share some of your characters’ obsessions with Amsterdam in your short stories such as ‘Dutch Lite’ in But When We Look Closer and ‘Invisible Matter’ and ‘The Little Bang’ in Vita?

SL: Yes, I can be obsessive. I like to expand on these traits. I find it makes the characters multi-layered.

BRM: How often have you visited Mokum?

SL: I have visited Amsterdam more than 15 times.

BRM: Have you ever lived here?

SL: Yes, from 1987 to 1990.

BRM: More specifically, have you ever sat in a Jordaan café as your character in ‘Invisible Matter’ in Vita waiting to meet an ex-?

SL: Yes. Every time I visit.

BRM: What originally drew you to Amsterdam from Canada?

SL: Initially, I came to Amsterdam to take part in a three-month internship with a renowned design firm. At the time I was at a crossroads in my life following the death of my parents in a car crash. I wanted a change geographically and personally.

BRM: What made you stay?

SL: Love and friendship. Although I knew no one when I arrived, I was fortunate to meet some very good people. From previous visits, I could imagine living in Amsterdam and I thought that I would stay.

BRM: What are three of your favourite places in Amsterdam?

SL: The first place would be the Café de Klepel on the Prinsenstraat, when it was a bar. This was the place where I met most of my friends. Next, would be the Jordaan. It’s the neighbourhood where I lived. I love its beauty and its village vibe. And lastly, the harbour. I come from the sea, so I am partial to ports.

BRM: What made you decide to leave?

SL: My younger sister. It was just the two of us and she was living in Montreal. She suggested I return to Canada as I had lost interest in graphic design and I was unsure of what I wanted for the future. Sadly, my sister died from cancer not long after my return. And though I have remained in this northern land, I travel to Amsterdam in my mind each and every day.

BRM: I am very sorry for your loss.

SL: Thank you, Bryan, for your condolences. They touch me deeply. I have had a lot of loss in my personal life. I often write about this theme. Loss is universal. Everyone gets it.

BRM: Mental health issues are very important in Vita such as in ‘That Screaming Silence’ (anti-social and homicidal behaviour), ‘Voices’ (suicide), and ‘Layla Was Here’ (a woman whose artistic identity was repressed both in her life and in the record she leaves behind) and ‘Mademoiselle Energy’ (schizophrenia). Could you share how and where you found the inspiration for the characters and situations for a few of these stories?

SL: I believe these often, marginalized individuals have a purer truth and also deserve a voice. Mental health is close to my heart. Something innate. In reference to ‘That Screaming Silence’, I have always lived in noisy, urban flats. I wonder what I would do if I finally invested in a home and discovered such noisy neighbours. As far as my other stories linked with mental disturbances, they are completely imaginary, although, I may have chatted with these characters somewhere along the way.

BRM: Rebellion is also a theme in Vita’s stories. To what extent were you a rebel in your teens, 20s or later, and to what extent are you still?

SL: I was a rebel in my youth. And yes, even though I’m longer in the tooth at present, nonconformity remains inherent.

BRM: Structurally, what is the function of the shorter, poetic vignettes between the longer short stories in Vita?

SL: I find that they serve as compact, cinematic breaks between the larger stories.

BRM: Was that arrangement your idea or an editor’s?

SL: This arrangement is my own.

BRM: You prove your versatility as a fiction writer in Vita not only in your shorter pieces, but also in the characters and situations of two longer stories, ‘Layla Was Here’ and ‘California Reelin’. Did they take longer to write than the others?

SL: Yes, longer.

BRM: How long?

SL: It took me a couple of months with each of these stories.

BRM: ‘Layla Was Here’ is written in the form of journal entries from two different people, one who writes the text and the other who finds the text buried in his back garden and his response to it. The story brings together the buried narrative of a seemingly failed, psychologically unstable, female artist and the man who unearths her diary in his back garden. When did you come up with the journal format for ‘Layla Was Here’, at the beginning, or is this something that came to you as you worked on the piece?

SL: The journal format was the idea from the get-go. I also knew the ending from the start. The concept was like the discovery of a diary.

BRM: ‘California Reelin’ takes your characters out of their usual Canadian or Dutch settings. Have you ever lived or vacationed in California in the middle of a cold, Canadian winter? How did you come up with this story?

SL: Yes, I have visited California a couple of times, long ago. It’s beautiful. The inspiration for the story came from a reality show where buyers pay cash for extremely expensive properties. I thought: ‘What sort of mischief could my character get into if she went to work for one of those brokers?’

BRM: In ‘California Reelin’, your protagonist meets a man who convinces her to break into the exclusive Bohemian Grove in Northern California to learn about its secret rituals. How close is this story’s setting and characters to your own experience?

SL: Bohemian Grove is a real place, so I planted my characters into a situation that only those in Bohemian Grove can know the outcome of, whether its based on fantasy or not.

BRM: Did you find it more difficult to write these two longer stories, or did they just seem to flow once you get started?

SL: Once I moulded my ideas for these stories, they flowed rather easily.

BRM: ‘Capture’ is also a departure from your other stories because it is an account of a kidnapped, baby elephant in the voice of that elephant. What inspired you to write this story?

SL: ‘Capture’ is inspired from a photograph I saw in the Guardian International. A young elephant was captured for a Chinese zoo. It broke my heart.

BRM: Do you think you will attempt other non-human narratives in the future?

SL: I can’t confirm that at this point.

BRM: With two books of short stories to your credit now, could you share with AQ’s readers perhaps a bit about some ongoing or future projects? What are you working on at this moment?

SL: Currently, I’m working on a themed collection of stories. These stories are about retirement. Yet, the characters find themselves in unconventional situations. One marries a polygamist. Another murders her husband on a sailing trip around the Mediterranean. Someone else moves to Abruzzo, taking up the violin only to spoil the olive harvest with her inferior playing.

BRM: Susan Lloy, thank you for taking part in this interview.

SL: Thanks, Bryan. I’m honoured you asked. AQ

Susan Lloy – End of Rapture

Susan Lloy
End of Rapture

The gold-painted angel fell today. His ceramic limbs splayed all around. She should feel saddened by this, as it was given to her in a time of love when she lived in the Dutch capital. Handed to her by her former lover who had ripped it off the exterior of an Italian villa when he was playing there in a travelling quartet.

It has made her bitter. Staring at it year after year for more than thirty. She has many objects from Amsterdam strategically placed in her flat. Often a guest will inquire, ‘Oh, how lovely, where did you get it?’ ‘Amsterdam,’ she replied.

 
For many years she had boasted that she had lived there feeling like she had an edge up for the experience. She kept her Dutch language books on deck ready to brush up before travelling back more than twenty times, rolling her G’s and toning her tongue to Nederland standards. She constantly thought of her former lovers who became good friends, but of late, had wandered far from her.

 
Tourists always irked the Dutch. When she had inhabited its tiny streets more than three decades ago, they had annoyed them then. Yet, she had been able to blend in like an Amsterdammer. She remembered travellers that came for smack holidays. Seeing many a folk retching on cobbled streets. One doesn’t witness this now. On her last visit it made her nervous. Crowds tightly packed like little fish in a can. Tourists are more loathed now. Pouring into the small cafés, cluttering the squares. Boisterous Brits on bachelor stags.

When she had lived among the locals she had tried to absorb their mirth. Listening to them sing while riding their bicycles along the canals. Now bikes are full of danger. With cyclists roaring along texting, not a single eye on the road.

 
She felt a pride that she had retained her Dutch. And for the most part, Amsterdammers are happy to spar with her broken words. Still, during her last trip, when she sat at a small theatre café and left a decent tip, she had overheard the bartender turn the name, tourist, around like it was a cancer.

She has many framed photographs of her former lovers, but it pains her to hang them on the walls. They sit, hidden, in an old armoire waiting to be dismantled. Yet, she can never bring herself to complete this task. She immortalized them in print during their shared time in Amsterdam, but they never stole a peek.

So, when she looks around at hints of her Dutch past it is as if a knife sears her heart. She can’t imagine strolling the streets, sitting on a sidewalk terrace, seeing the ghosts of her past. And besides, she would be just another tourist in Amsterdam. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ25 Summer 2019 Book Reviews

Bryan R. Monte
AQ25 Summer 2019 Book Reviews

Susan Lloy, Vita: Stories, Now or Never Publishing, ISBN 978-1-988098-76-0, 151 pages.
Jennifer Clark, A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven, Unsolicited Press, ISBN 978-1-974021-44-0, 124 pages.

Unexpectedly and delightfully, Amsterdam Quarterly received two outstanding books in the post, one fiction and one poetry collection, by past AQ contributors. I would like to pass these books onto AQ’s readers, without reservation, as worthwhile additions to their summer holiday reading lists.

Amsterdam Quarterly’s readers will find something both familiar and new in Susan Lloy’s most recent, short story collection, Vita: Stories. One thing that will be familiar is that four of this book’s stories, which were first published in AQ from 2015 to 2018. Whether Lloy is discussing struggling writers and real estate in Canada’s maritime provinces, the grittiness and the increasing cost of maintaining an urban space to live and write, mental health issues or her characters attempts at a life in Amsterdam, her situations and characters are always memorable.

In this collection’s first and title story, ‘Vita’, Lloy deftly describes the mind of a dying man, Arthur, who recollects revels and romance from decades ago, which he relives through medicated dreams. Arthur states somewhat disappointedly that the reported film that flashes before one’s eyes at the end of life is more like a reedit made ‘from scraps on the floor put back together with the plot and characters all mixed up in one last fusion.’ He has flashbacks of meeting women at concerts, ‘corrupted by percussion and screaming guitars,’ in his younger, wilder years, then comes back to the present and discovers soup left by his housekeeper, Hazel. Hazel also brings Arthur Berlin Alexanderplatz and ‘I, Claudius and all the Cassavette’s films, with sagas of murder, poison and treachery;’ at his request ‘to remember New York when it was down and dirty.’ And the story’s final paragraph which describes the man running through a field of red poppies, trying to catch a woman called Daleighla, as he feels ‘everything little piece of me making a break for parts unknown’ is one of the most subtle, yet powerful descriptions of dying I’ve ever read.

Vita also includes two stories about frustrated and financially strapped writers who have spent their life savings for a place of peace and quiet in the country, but don’t find it without doing things they wouldn’t normally do. In ‘That Screaming Silence’ Edie escapes from a noisy, working class, crime-ridden, neighbourhood in Montreal to the quiet Nova Scotian countryside to write. However, she soon discovers her anti-social, criminal neighbours constantly make noise playing music on boom boxes and/or repairing cars. In addition, under the cover of night, they dump waste on her property, which she doesn’t discover until spring when the snow melts. Edie tries to make peace with these neighbours, but they don’t change their noisy ways so, in the end, she is driven to take a desperate measure.

In ‘Sailor’s Rest’, Olive, another writer who escaped to the country, discovers she can’t live alone when a tree comes crashing through her uninsured house during a storm. Coincidentally, her friend Uta, has to get out of Montreal, and a local sailor, Gerald Blackburn, and his cat, Harriet, can no longer live on his boat alone and all three are looking for a place to live. Due to the financial pressures of home repairs, Olive must invite all three into her home even though Uta is a Hare Krishna, Gerald is a womanizer, and Harriet likes to claw Olive’s Persian and Afghan carpets and furniture. It also sets the neighbours tongues wagging with two single women and one single man under the same roof. However, Olive makes her peace with it because it keeps her, as a homeowner, financially afloat.

Other themes explored in this volume’s stories are health and sanity in “Voices’ about a woman, who sees a young male, subway suicide and then jumps from a roof wearing a dress and heels, ‘Mademoiselle Energy’ one of the most realistic stories I’ve read recently about an locked, observation ward and its schizophrenic residents, and ‘Layla Was Here’ about a repressed female artist whose inspiration comes primarily from the poetic voice in her head. In each of these stories, Lloy is not just an observer. She takes you directly into the minds of her characters in a way that is sensitive and accurate.

Something new in Vita compared to But When We Look Closer is Lloy’s interspersing of short, psychological, horrific vignettes, which sometimes read as prose poems and/or exercises in characterization, in-between some of her ‘longer’ short stories. These include ‘Mama’, ‘Monster’s Laugh’, ‘Underground Thoughts’, ‘Rubber Rage’, ‘Wishful Thinking’, ‘Abode’, ‘Mammaries Speaking’, and ‘Capture’. ‘Mamma’ includes the voices of a teenage and/rebellious son or daughter, and his/her mother, who has emotionally withdrawn. ‘Monster Laugh’ is about a monster in a mirror, who haunts a woman to have plastic surgery and in the end cover her mirror in red velvet. ‘Underground Thoughts’ is about a woman, who is hypersensitive to the sound of another woman snapping gum on the subway and who wants to ‘knock it out of her mouth,’ but is prevented from doing so from a sudden crushing influx of passengers. A departure from Lloy’s human psychological narratives is ‘Capture’, which is about the thoughts of a captured, baby elephant. This last story shows Lloy’s versatility and willingness to experiment. I hope she continues to experiment with narrative techniques and subjects in future stories and books.

Jennifer Clark’s A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven includes poems in different meters, lines lengths and subjects all of which wrestle with the theme of the real boundaries between the corporal and spiritual and the very small and the very large. Its approach can be seen most clearly in her poem, ‘If You Could Stand on Saturn’:

A speck of light we are
A smudge of brilliance
Amidst ever expanding darkness

This poem reminds me of William Blake’s ‘To See a World in a Grain of Sand.’ Only in Clark’s poem, our 21st-century, non-sustainable, earth-bound civilization is that grain of sand, as seen from Saturn, a ‘not yet even a blue marble’.

A Beginner’s Guide to Heaven is divided into three parts: ‘In the Beginning’, ‘The Holy Family’, and ‘In the Meantime’ with inter-related themes that bridge these physical divisions. In the first section, Clark sometimes confuses the natural with the human world such as in her poem ‘A Field Guide to Crows and Widows’. This poem compares crows to women who can or who had to live without men. Clark warns of the damage widows could cause if they ever flocked together, like crows. In ‘Like the Parents They Never Knew’ Clark reports the mating habits of an unspecified arthropod, her sensuous description, seeming to bridge for a moment, the difference in mating between the two worlds:

The moment his feet touch her silk
She shudders and shudders, feels her weight
Three times his size, she is golden, her abdomen
can hold a thousand eggs. He shudders.

Clark reveals some of the mystery and the fierce beauty of the natural world in this poem. In its last stanza she describes the male’s death, offering up his life, after the impregnation, for the future of his progeny and species.

The first section also contains poems about the speaker’s youthful Catholicism including the nuns with their strict discipline in contrast to a forgiving, living Christ riding the breasts in ‘Fourth Grade Place Settings’. In ‘Grieving the God of My Youth’ Clark depicts the parishioners struggle with the Vatican II replacement of a dead, crucified Christ up front versus a representation of the living, risen, Christ: ‘A piece of art, it makes you think’ (the speaker’s mother’s words) brought by the new priest, that is taken down and again replaced by the crucified Christ: ‘eyes-closed-can’t-hold-you-now-I’m-busy dying Jesus’ once the new priest retired. In ‘On Good Friday, Walmart Wants to Save You’ in the section three, shopping for bargains is described as America’s new religion due to superstore’s abundant variety and slogans such as ‘More Easter for your Money’ and ‘Live better’.

In section two, Clark addresses subjects such as Alzheimer’s, ‘Zombie Mommy’, mothers-in-law and their antagonism, and other domestic problems including families and our unfortunate genetic inheritance such as skin problems in ‘Psoriasis Siren’. ‘I Want A Church’ in section three uses metaphors of a boat for a church and sailors for priests, brave enough to step onto dry land and ‘chisel watery souls with love.’

Life specific to the Midwest is also covered by some poems in the first two sections. For example, Clark’s explanation of which part of the ‘hand’ of Michigan where she grew up is described in ‘A Concise History of Michigan Cartology.’ Homeless or lost people are also described in ‘Cotton Candy Lady, Corner of Fifth and Wood.’ ‘The Trouble with Reading in Your Hometown’ describes the advantage and disadvantage of small towns where ‘everyone knows your business’. And driving during the harsh, changeable weather is described in ‘Winter Kudzu of Kalamazoo’.

References to popular culture and its influence on Clark are made in ‘Castaways’ (Gilligan’s Island), and in ‘Longing for Dynamite Days’, (Road Runner and Tweetie Bird comics). The American obsession with materialism and holding onto things is discussed with wit and humour in ‘What We Do With Our Stuff’ along with what her mother-in-law saved from her partner’s childhood years in ‘Lists’. The subject of space is also addressed from a radically different perspective in Clark’s concrete poem, ‘How to Become a Virgin, which is in the shape of a woman’s pregnant belly. Here the poet affirms that anyone can conceive something great, they just need a ‘space’, no preconceptions, a source of impregnation or ‘irritation’, to be ‘patient’ and the foreknowledge that what they bear will not make them ‘lucky’.

‘Oberon, Rock of the Ground Where Sleepers Be’ is a nod to Shakespeare and to a Michigan beer that’s sold seasonally and signals the return of spring in a part of the country that can be snowed under anytime from October to April. It joyfully affirms: ‘We’ve survived another winter. We’ve survived each other.’ This makes a good ending for this collection of poems about faith, courage and hard-won happiness from America’s Midwest, familiar territory presented from a new perspective. AQ

Bryan R. Monte – AQ25 Summer 2019 Art Review

Bryan R. Monte
AQ25 Summer 2019 Art Review

Maria Lassnig — Ways of Being, Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, 6 April to 11 August 2019.

I was pleased but somewhat perturbed to make my first acquaintance with the work of painter, sculpture, and animator Maria Lassnig at the Amsterdam Stedelijk retrospective April last. I was pleased by the depth and artistry of the work on display. I was perturbed that I had not heard of her previously.

Stedelijk curator Beatrice von Bormann helped explain at the press viewing why perhaps I hadn’t previously heard of Lassnig. The Stedelijk only owns two of her works and Lassnig had had only one show there, back in the 1990s. In addition, Bormann put the difficulty of being a female artist in context by quoting the statistics that in the US, 87% of the artists are male and 85% are white. Furthermore, according to artist Jacqueline de Jong, quoted in an article entitled: ‘Onsporen en verdraaien’ in the VPRO Gids #22 (1 to 7 June 2019), only four per cent of the Amsterdam Stedelijk’s collection is by female artists.

Despite this level of discrimination, however, Lassnig during her lifetime produced a large body of work, represented in this retrospective by 250 pieces including 80 works on paper and eight videos/films/animations, many on loan from the Albertina Museum in Vienna. Lassnig called her style or technique ‘body awareness’ which to this reviewer appears in her portraits as more of an ‘out of body experience’ as her torso floats above the New York City skyline in Woman Power, (oil on canvas, 1979). Other disembodied images including one of the exhibition’s promotional images, a painting of a woman with a white face with no hair and the back of the head missing such as in Selbst met Mehrschweinchen, Eng: Self with Guinea Pig, (oil on canvas, 2000). These facial images are chillingly reminiscent of the recent Sophia AI interface created by a Hong Kong technology firm.

From these paintings there’s no mistaking Lassnig’s message and her realization of the difficulty of her struggle. If one enters the exhibit at gallery 1.1 at the end of her career, instead of at gallery 1.15, at the beginning, the first image one is confronted with is that of Lassnig with a gun in each hand: one pointed directly at the viewer and the other pointed at her own head entitled Du oder ich Eng: You or me, (oil on canvas, 2005). According to Bormann, the exhibition has been organized in reverse chronologically, and thematically. One starts here in the 2000s and works one’s way back through time, room by room, to the 1940s, when Lassnig began painting.

However, if one begins at 1.15 with her paintings in the 40s and 50s, it is easier to see Lassnig’s development and what she achieved during her sixty-five year engagement/struggle with painting, sculpture and animation/film. Her work in galleries 1.15 and 1.16 includes paintings with cubist blocks (Flachenteilung, klein, (Eng: Field Divison, small), gouache on cardboard, 1953), and abstract strokes of colour next to or on top of each other such as the rectangular white with green centre Body Housing (oil on canvas, 1951) and orange and ochre rectangular brushstrokes of Tachismus 4 (oil on canvas, 1958). These rooms exhibit her exploration of cubism, expressionism, and abstract expressionism.

In the ’60s and ’70s, she would later abandon these non-human styles for her own more realistic, but somewhat disembodied ‘body awareness’ technique in which she would paint her body with a variety of quite realistic but dramatic physical complications, for example, Zelfportrait mit telefon, (oil on canvas, 1973), with her head at table height, the phone off the hook and the cord wrapped around her neck.

In this period Lassnig also created a series of animations and films. These provide some comic relief in this otherwise very tragic exhibition. One animation is entitled Self-Portrait (1971). It begins with a woman’s face obscured by dresser drawers, which then fill and drip with foam. Next, her face is obscured briefly by a wooden beam, then a camera, and after that by a device that covers just her mouth, nose and eyes. Finally, her face is freed from these blockages and she begins to imagine herself as a more beautiful and idealized film star, first with her hair up like Audrey Hepburn’s, and then in waves like Marilyn Monroe’s until a Monty Pythonesque fist and a thumb comes down from above and pushes this idealized face back into a more realistic representation of Lassnig.

In the mid to late-1970s, Lassnig also painted partial, disembodied imaginary self-portraits, one with her body entangled by the mythic snake (Woman Laocoön, oil on canvas, 1976) similar in style to the Vatican’s Laocoon and his Sons sculpture. However, unlike the Vatican’s work, Lassnig’s female figure in the painting battles alone with the serpent. Other portraits in this time period include a move into disembodied torsos, including one with a hand covering a vagina and another with a head, with its mouth wide open, shouting, with hands coming from the back of its head covering its eyes Ohne Titel, Schreiende Frau, Eng: Untitled, Screaming Woman, (pencil and watercolours on paper, 1981).

Another method she used to depict her struggle as a woman artist was to paint human forms trapped between different planes such as in With My Head Through the Wall, (oil on canvas, 1985). In the ’80s she would also paint anti-militaristic subjects such as Rocket Base Missiles #2 (oil on canvas, 1987) and Atommütters (oil on canvas, 1984), with two women holding small, dead children wrapped in black shrouds in their arms. In the early 21st century she would continue to create such confrontational paintings such as Profitanski (oil on canvas, 2001) which includes images of green birds laddled into her head and her hand over her vagina and the Du oder ich painting mentioned previously.

Time will tell if Lassnig’s struggle will yield more female artists’ works in the Amsterdam Stedelijk’s collection. If Touria Meliani’s, Amsterdam city councillor for the arts, comments about Reins Wolf, recently appointed the Stedelijk’s new director, are any indication: … heb ik alle vertrouwen in dat met hem de verschillende verhalen die nodig verteld moeten worden, een plek krijgen. (‘I completely trust that with him, the different stories that must be told, will receive a place.’), perhaps an increase in the percentage of women’s works at the Stedelijk is finally on its way. AQ

Lianne O’Hara – En route

Lianne O’Hara
En route

Another car must have turned unexpectedly, as I was nearly catapulted all the way to the front window when the bus came to a sudden halt.

‘Alright love,’ the driver yelled without looking. I politely told him I was fine and refrained from asking any more questions; this would only trigger a monologue about his wife’s absence, his daughter asking him for money but no longer for advice, she had outgrown that, but money they never outgrow! and endless variations of similar topics of conversation. For now, however, the bus was empty, and I was thoroughly enjoying the silence, supported by the soft humming of the motor, and the sound of raindrops ticking against the window in a neatly patterned sequence.

‘I see you’ve brought an umbrella.’

I looked up, and in the seat opposite from mine a man had taken up position, folded newspaper in hand, ready to attack. In a desperate attempt not to be too obvious I looked around the bus, but it was still empty, save for the one seat opposite from where I was sitting. I couldn’t get up to sit somewhere else, it would be rude, but I could also not ignore him, since evidently he had been talking to me, as there were no other passengers on the bus. I did have an umbrella, parked against the aisle seat left from mine, so as to avoid anyone sitting down there and striking up conversation.

‘Yes, I have,’ I told him, and turned my face to look out the window again.

‘Will you believe,’ he said, ‘that I once owned an umbrella just like yours.’

From the corner of my eye I checked my umbrella, thinking of something to say, but what was there to say really about a fairly generic black umbrella? I told the man, who introduced himself as Rey, with an E not an A, that I did believe him. ‘Umbrellas like these must have been around for a good few centuries now.’

He frowned, and said I must have misunderstood. ‘When I said just like yours,’ he continued, ‘I meant there is a greater similarity between your umbrella and mine than between any of these other generic, as you called it, umbrellas floating around town.’

‘Floating,’ I said.

Rey looked as if he wanted to sigh, but instead he sat up a little straighter and continued. ‘In Amsterdam, in 1974, I met a woman. Her name was Sheila, or Sharon, one of the two anyway, and she was the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. Maybe her name was Shannon, come to think of it. In any case,’ he said, ‘she was beautiful. Not only beautiful, she was also highly intelligent, and was one of the nominees for the 1974 Miss Mind Awards. She didn’t win the prize, in the end, but it didn’t matter. For me, she’d always be the best candidate.’ Rey smiled a little when he said this. He had a small mouth, with very wet lips, which he occasionally licked in the intervals between sentences, where most people pause to breathe. His hair, which was quite thin so I was given a good view of his scalp, was tied back in a ponytail. I could see flecks of dandruff on the shoulders of his suit jacket, which was a little tight around the waist. His most remarkable feature, however, was his nose. It was a large, Roman nose, proudly sprouting thick grey hairs in all directions. Balanced on its bridge, there was a pair of glasses, held together by a thin golden frame, which Rey pushed a little further up multiple times, almost in sync with the licking of his lips. ‘Where was I,’ he said. ‘Oh yes, Sylvia.’

‘Sheila,’ I said.

‘Whatever,’ Rey said, and pushed his glasses up a little. ‘Sylvia and I met, as I told you, in Amsterdam in 1974. It was the beginning of, let’s say, a little more than a beautiful friendship. We adored each other. See, in my younger days, I was quite the catch. Some, of course, still think I am’ – he gave me a little wink – ‘but I won’t deny age has left its mark. Round here, mostly!’ He grabbed his stomach with two hands and shook it in my direction.

‘Right,’ I said, and wished I had taken an earlier bus.

‘It was a warm summer’s day,’ Rey continued, ‘and we stared at each other for a good few seconds before she came over. Why, she asked me, on a delicious summer’s day like this, are you walking around with an umbrella? See, if I had known she was right on her way to leaving me after having emptied my pockets, my bank account, and whatever I kept stored in the boot of the car, I would have never answered that question, of course. But I didn’t know that, and she was, as I’ve told you, incredibly beautiful. I took her hands in mine and I said darling, beautiful delicious darling, this umbrella is to shield you from harm, come hell or high water. I will fend off any interlopers, no one but Rey shall elope with you, my love!’ As he said this, Rey threw his hands up in the air dramatically. He was an animated talker, and once had been, he told me, a very successful actor.

‘So then,’ he continued, ‘naturally, she went home with me. I was quite the charmer, back then in Amsterdam in 1974. Three beautiful weeks we spent together, wining, dining, dancing, the lot. And then, one day, she was gone.’ She’d phoned him once after from a pay phone, to ask if he could wire some money to Berlin. Berlin, he had said, have you lost your mind? She’d called him a sad old miser, and hung up the phone.

Rey had stopped licking his lips, and kept them pressed together very tightly for a while. ‘You see,’ he went on, ‘she even took the umbrella. The money was replaceable, that wasn’t the problem, but I had carried around that umbrella for nine years.’ Admittedly, he had used it to charm women before, it seemed to lend itself very well for these occasions. ‘But she didn’t know that,’ he said and glanced at my umbrella, which was still leaning against the seat adjacent to mine. ‘If you don’t mind,’ Rey said, ‘perhaps you could lend me your umbrella for a week or two?’ AQ

bart plantenga – Boatspotting

bart plantenga
Boatspotting

Nina Ascoly, IJ Triptych, photographs, 1996

I’m a boatspotter. I sit and eat or write or drink and stare out the window. Not an ordinary window with an ordinary view but a triptych of glass 3 meters high and 4 meters across. Outside this abandoned makeshift office facility (converted by squatters in the late ’80s into ateliers and living quarters) along the Westerdoksdijk, is a spectacular view of the Shell Research complex across the water in North Amsterdam. At night its intricate mosaic of lit cubicles and network of lights, pipes and stacks resembles the inside of my old transistor radio which served to escort me through childhood nightmares induced by Roger Corman’s drive-in renditions of Edgar Allen Poe stories.

Early mornings I beg (as if yearning can influence fate) for the sun to come out from behind the research centre and chase the damp chill from my room. I wait. I wipe condensation (evidence that my body is still warm and breathing) from my window to prepare my view for the watching that will sustain me. I wait for the window to fill up with a life I don’t have. The squadron of swans with the sinister aspect of aim sights on old rifles, crane their necks searching for floating sustenance under my floor.

There is nothing to do but wait (Ik heb een kamer. I have a room, I read in my Dutch lesson book.) in this industrial sector abandoned by industry and left to colonists of this post-colonial calm, venturesome settlers, nest hunters, and urban pioneers living in converted quarters, ensconced in surreptitious abodes. The former workshops and smithies of artisans have been converted into big windowed living interiors. A massive granary-silo (A grey Gothic imposition against the low sky) 200 meters down the coast has housed Amsterdam’s largest squatter community for years. (Mijn kamer is aan de achterkant van het gebouw. My room is in the back of the building.)

A rusty “floating” parking garage flanks the left of my studio which juts out into the fat busy river IJ, poised precariously upon its posts. I live on water, ON the water, am 25% water, 45% beer (which is 98% water) 25% urine, and 5% trace metals. Docks for cargo and pleasure ships flank my right, with the central train station in sight. The walk to the most enchanted section of Amsterdam, that horseshoe ring of canals in the heart, is about 10 minutes. I do not ask myself or anyone why it is that the more ancient districts of any city are its more humane.

The IJ (for the sake of non-Dutch speakers, somewhere between eye and aye) is a dramatic river which connects the North Sea with the harbour of Amsterdam and the old Zuider Zee, now a chain of interconnected lakes: IJ-Meer, Markermeer, and IJsselmeer. (Het IJ loopt langs mijn raam. The inlet called the IJ runs along my window. I improvise.) I live not far from where fresh water turns to salt. Brackish is the marine term for that no-mans-land where the two co-mingle. There is some understood boundary defined by laws of chemistry which keeps them mostly sequestered, keeps one from infiltrating too far into the other. This is where I do my boatspotting in this land of wet (although martinis, gin and Dutch humour tend to be dry).

What, might you ask, is boatspotting? Well, in a polite, best-light approach, it’s a form of meditation. Or a method for transferring the terrors of modern living in an alien context to a more amiable locale; or making some sense of one’s surroundings; or decorating the passage of time with lyricism. Like one might paint a dreary room, boatspotting renovates the dinginess of our less tangible interiors. Obsessive-compulsive behaviour rendered poetic. Procrastination in the guise of documentation.

(De schepen varen voorbij, en er is altijd wat te zien. I discovered that ships drift by my window all day long, and there is always something to see). Huge rusty barges loaded to the brink of sinking with mounds of sand (how can something so heavy float?) pushed by tugs; massive, elaborate tankers with personal automobiles on rooftops and potted plants and lace curtains in cabin windows — VERTROUWEN — their length limited only by the tensile strength of available materials; LASH ships, modern freighters designed to carry nearly any cargo in steel lighters or barges, each lighter 18 by 9 meters and capable of handling 500+ tons of cargo (this is what I read that I have written that I have read); elegant ancient sailboats (how do the crews know which rope does what?); windjammers — CINDERELLA — of luxurious lacquered wood; old modest motorboats gurgling along; eclipse-inducing luxury liners (its inhabitants staring with opera glasses into my humble abode and I staring back at them—what a strange way to encounter strangers, this détente of observer observing the observer); menacing cargo boats — GRAVELAND, AMBULANT, NOBODY — gloomy and unadorned; police boats skittering across the surface like water spiders; trawlers, their prows padded with thick braids of hemp; sleek pleasure boats — STARLIGHT, ROYAL PRINCESS — with well-tanned faces aimed at small instants of sunshine; fishermen in rowboats outfitted with small sputtering eggbeater motors (as I write this the regular fisherman is right outside my window, 50 meters off, standing in his old boat, casting his line).

All these vessels have names emblazoned on their bows. Romantic names, superstitious ones, exotic, mythological ones — ORION, BLOOM — hearkening to other worlds, names of lovers lost, or of mothers dearly departed? I can only speculate. And that I do as I sit at my big slab of desk doing whatever it is I do. Listening to the cheap radio that shorts out whenever it feels like it. I tap the volume knob to bring back Clifford Brown which seems to ride atop the IJ’s various currents. I notate with utter enthusiasm the names of all the ships as they pass. I interrupt the most holy — ESTRELLA — thought in my writing to notate one in my notepad. Interrupt card games, dinner and John — GRAAFSTROOM — Coltrane on the radio to shout out the name of another — ANIMA — vessel as if shouting out — BORNEO — its name will aid in unveiling its secret — SIRIUS, HIRUNDO, DIADEMA, CONDOR, MEERVAL, SATURNUS, FURY, SPECULANT, ISALA, ROPE OF SAND, ALEMARIA, TOLERANCE, KOOLE ZAANDAM, CONFIANCE, SAILOR BOY, LOMBARDIJE, MUTABEL, CALENDULA 10, ORCA CLUTE, LENTE-WIND, BRANDARIS –

Like mantras that transfer us to realms beyond our own — ANWI-Ja — the mere notation and pronunciation of these names transports me, as someone else, to somewhere more appropriate for my internal demands. Because a soul is like other internal organs—if not properly fed it will begin to feed on — SALA KAHLE — itself and eventually find its way into the marrow, devouring even that and then we collapse — SFINX, PRINSENGRACHT, AQUA VITA — like a damp shopping bag from a store that has gone out of business — ERIC-B, LUMARA, TABERNA, REMBRANDT, AFRA, CUBA, MINERVA, MONIQUE, RHEIN KONINGEN, NOISELY, EARLY BIRD, GALAXIE, TOUCQUET, JULES VERNE, PARTIZAN, KAMELEON, OREADE, ORION — The pace of these vessels, their peculiar syntax, the way they float by — RECINA COELI, FLEVO — has an effect on my own movements. I am drawn into their tempo. Lulled into the languor of their — CONTENTO — sway. I sit, watch, contemplate, inhale the head off my beer, take a deep — NEVADA — breath. The ships’ ancient progress regulating us the way a pacemaker regulates a heartbeat. The very idea of flotation — ALCHIMIST LAUSANNE — and cadence has always implied the technology of a device. In my case, bobbing along on the serendipitous rhythms created by the river of — BLUE SEA — words.

One way to neutralize the invasiveness of the passersby, the tourists with their recording devices, their passive voyeurisms, disposable cameras, and their eyes like dim specks of corrosive dust floating in air, is to wave back at them. I had never waved at passersby before in my life. But now I wave back at the tourists’ dark faceless heads in the well-lite tour boats — PRINCESS CHRISTINA, MEERKWAARDIG — some wave back. And then I just stare. Stare at their stares. What happens next?

Now I understand why prostitutes in the Red Light District get incensed when tourists try to take their picture. They are snatching an image from its glorious heart, making off with an implement that will enhance their own prurience and esteem; leaving behind nothing but the empty crumpled film box and a flatulent spectral haze along the cobbled streets.

The Dutch really are a seafaring people. They are at ease on the water. They gulp down raw herring, have robust cheeks, are drawn to the sea. Heads stern in the breeze. Fishermen under umbrellas in a downpour continue to fish on a Sunday morning. And my grandfather was a sailor….

The MANTA, a sailing vessel, passed into the fog (grimy as if it has been coloured in with a discarded eyebrow pencil) just beyond the parking garage like a lodge pole pine floating into the mouth of a sawmill. Sending out fibrillating wavelets glimmering across the calm surface of the IJ.

It is night (Ik zit graag op mijn kamer. I love to sit in my room.) and I place my head on my pillow with all the care with which a priest places the host upon the tongue of a cunnilinguist. Or the way Afghani’s build their tea houses with decks spanning the gurgling creek to fulfil the same function as the Zen garden — inner peace and contemplation.

——————————————————-

Since I wrote this in the late ’90s, everything in that area has changed dramatically. De Silo, an old grain silo converted to an art squat where people lived and worked from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, was also the HQ of pirate station Radio Patapoe. The transformation into a mix of upscale and social housing was completed in 2002. The banks of the IJ between the Silo & Central Station have become unrecognizable: from peaceful derelict land to the bustle of upscale and touristic overdevelopment. Meanwhile, desolate Noord has emerged as a booming hotspot for art, pleasure and innovative architecture. In the year and a half I lived on the IJ, I collected the names of nearly a thousand ships. AQ

Samuel Prince – Amsterdam Winklepicker Moon

Samuel Prince
Amsterdam Winklepicker Moon

He was looking into the wheelhouse. It was a man – I was sure of that by his size and definition, although his back was turned as he stooped to peer in the window. The lights were off, we’d locked the door and there wouldn’t be much to see in that cramped upper compartment, fit for a small table between two rows of cushioned benches and the steep ladder descending to the living area. It had begun to hail – a slight peppering as the first ice pellets fell, but growing ever more percussive and intense. I stopped in front of the splendid Spinoza statue and continued to observe the man who’d adjusted to a different pane, but still bent, seemingly peering intent into the cabin.

This was our houseboat – our weekend rental – and this was the last night of the booking. Only I would be staying and sleeping here after Rob had left for his early flight home, but check out wasn’t until the morning. Who was he? The owner? That was a woman, Brigitte, with whom we’d corresponded when making the booking. Her partner? A friend? An opportunist snooper – or worse? Nobody was home – the dark interior testified to that – so why would he be so inquisitive? Brigitte had our numbers, too – she said she’d call or text if she needed to get hold of us. The houseboat was intact, dormant, sheathed in shadow, moored alongside two others on this stretch of the Amstel – both unoccupied, it being late winter, but both similarly quiet and idle.

I could see now that he was moving towards the terrace on the deck. He took another, penetrative look in the wheelhouse through the windows from that new vantage, and then sat down on the wooden bench, facing the towpath. He was waiting, as the pitch of the hail further increased and the chill sharpened in serration under the vivid winklepicker-toe moon.

             *

I didn’t know as much about Spinoza as I’d have liked – but then, who couldn’t I confess that about? I’d once included his name in a list of writers and thinkers I meant to sample, to flaunt at least a cursory knowledge. However, this became another casualty of questing, adolescent ambition conflicting with my innate laziness and slack attention span. Gramsci and Breton were fellow fatalities, I remembered this – how I’d written those names and a ream of related books and titles in a bid to impress, but as to who, well, I wasn’t sure then, or now. That was, that is, the rueful truth of my life: the things I’d done as if somebody was constantly looking over my shoulder. A somebody I’d always be looking back to check they were still there, still watching. But there was nobody there. There never is.

             *

Rob had caught his taxi to Schiphol from the Green House Namaste Coffeeshop on Waterlooplein. Sunday evening, it had been mostly empty beyond the guy working the counter, who sold us a gram of pineapple kush and two wan lattes. He was sinewy and pallid in complexion, beneath his baseball cap, in a too-tight t-shirt and paint-flecked baggy jeans. The décor was a mishmash – some loose hung throws on the walls depicting mystical symbols, Western saloon-style doors for the bathrooms, a muted flat screen TV showing a compilation of snowboarding feats and mid-volume house music seeping from the speakers stacked in the corners.

We sat on one of the large, low slung, tan pleather couches and Rob prepared the joint while I sipped coffee. This had been our third long weekend away together in Amsterdam – it had become an annual fixture. Four nights on a houseboat and an itinerary of walking, talking, light drinking and heavy sinking into the brain-braised and blazed fug of the occasional hour or two in Coffeeshops. That morning Rob had received word that some unmovable meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the day after our flight back, had, in fact, been moved forward to Monday. He’d hastily rebooked his travel plans while we crossed on the ferry from Centrum to Amsterdam-Noord. This had meant I’d be spending the final night of our stay on the houseboat alone.

By the time we were mouldering in the Green House, Rob with his weekend bag at his feet, me in my fully-zipped anorak and slouch beanie, we were in a conversational holding pattern over the banalities you tick-off when a parting of the ways is imminent. Plans for and a recap on what our jobs held for the week ahead; coming football fixtures; a last sombre sweep of news on mutual or former friends. We were in the desultory drift and dredge of the kush and its effects – monosyllabic, deliberate of movement and sluggish in thought, semi-transfixed by the TV images of snowboarders shredding and searing down the Aspen slopes. I dwelt on the contrast of their speed and vim, the luculent mountain air and fabulous blue skies with my lassitude, smoke-tangled lungs and arid eyes.

             *

I couldn’t linger and pretend to be absorbed by Spinoza unduly. Not as the hail poured and ricocheted all around and over me. He didn’t seem perturbed by this as he sat in position in his mysterious vigil, hood-up, on the deck, but that only served to heighten my increasing concern. I wasn’t going to stand from this distance and stare back – what he wanted or represented, I didn’t know, and if he was looking for me, or Rob or both, I didn’t know either. The Amstel as far as I could see was deserted of cruise or passenger boats and the Amstelhoeck bar behind me was closed, so even if I wanted to slip in, find a table with a view of the houseboat and surreptitiously observe the watcher, I couldn’t. Besides, that wasn’t me. I wasn’t a man given to stealth or discretion and I feared I’d crack; that I’d wilt in such a stand-off, burst out of there and demand he reveal himself and his intentions. I had coward blood. I resolved to walk on, to walk by the houseboat, continue along the Amstel, past the Opera House, turn left on Waterlooplein and circuit back, but slowly, slowly, to check whether he was still there and if he was…? I’d rethink then, again in front of Spinoza.

             *

Rob and I had said our goodbyes and made an imprecise pact to meet up again in London soon. He heaved his bag over his shoulder, more elaborately, almost slow motion thanks to the kush we’d shared and the accumulative impact of all the others over the weekend. With a thumbs-up salute to the guy behind the counter, who raised his head from looking at his phone to acknowledge, he left to meet the driver who was less than a minute away.

I sat back down on the couch and contemplated the remainder of the joint perched like a fishing rod over the ashtray. I could finish it, descend ever deeper into the dappled daze, wallow in front of the snowboarding supremos, then perhaps roll a new one, all for myself, and see out the evening in a zoned-out bliss. But I was done with weed. My chest was crinkling with every in-breath, it was significantly less fun solo and, more pitifully, I’d never been able to roll a joint with any structural integrity. I left the remainder of the gram in its seal bag on my saucer and made to leave. I resolved to head back to the houseboat, hydrate, recalibrate and get an early night before flying back tomorrow. The temperature had plummeted and the forecast told of hailstorms – at least it would be atmospheric and dramatic on board. I could watch the moonlit river being assailed by the weather and make a memory of the moment.

             *

I affected a gait and stride that I thought best conjured cold and bothered but purposeful, with somewhere to go which categorically isn’t the houseboat this eerie figure is sitting on… I put my hands in my pockets and kept my hatted head bowed forward and made towards the mooring dock. Closer to the houseboat I raised my eyes and clocked the watcher, as he clarified from hail-obscured shadow to something more monochrome, but better defined in the glare from the lampposts. The snapshot glance I took told me he was wearing a long dark overcoat with a hood which shrouded his face and features, but he was gazing square in my direction as the only other player on the scene. The hail, as all hail must, had switched from sustained bombardment to a slighter strafing and some drizzle had now joined the downpour, but despite this he was prayerfully still and composed – a squat counterpart to Spinoza, who oversaw all.

The temptation flashed through me to confront, challenge, contest who he was and what he was doing sitting on my houseboat? Sheer fear has a way of rumbling to a boiling point of hot anger, but I’d never mastered the elusive cocktail of stern tone, authority and firm words when trying to be assertive, and this truth froze my tongue. Instead, I veered left, as planned, and quickened my pace, as if a fleeting look at a hooded stranger sitting on a houseboat in foul conditions was wholly typical.

             *

My first visit to Amsterdam was with my Dad in 2005. We’d never been on holiday together previous to that, and we’ve never repeated it since. It was an anomaly – a perfectly pleasurable anomaly, but an anomaly all the same.

I have a cachet of photos from that trip, somewhere in a box file with several others which survive the periodic purges of possessions I pursue to maximise space in my tiny London flat. These photos, they serve only to prove my relative youth – the glint and sheen of my early twenties – and my Dad before his hair turned a shade of ashpan and he still wore heeled shoes. There’s one of me in a duffel coat in front of a bicycle stand outside Centraal and one of Dad beaming on Nieuwmarkt with The Waag in the background. We had stroopwafel and oliebollen and bought little cigarillos which we smoked by one of the canalside bars. Tourists always feel obliged, compelled to visit national museums and landmarks. As if you can’t satisfactorily claim to have done a place until you’ve communed with and paid heed to its past. We got lost on our way to The Resistance Museum, which proved worth the confusion when we did eventually find it, while the Rijksmuseum, undergoing renovation, was overwhelmingly busy and neither of us knew how to appreciate Art. I remember queuing interminably on a staircase and suggesting to my Dad we could leave, and go to Vondelpark, if he wanted to, or the pub, which I knew he would and willed him to choose.

As I walked away from the houseboat, I thought of Dad, that weekend and how he might have reacted to the watcher. My Dad was mild-mannered, decent and unassuming. He barely had a temper or proclivity for indignation beyond the odd sarcastic retort to news readers on the radio, but there was also a deep-rooted hardiness and resolve, albeit I only saw simmer to the surface the once, when I was about 12.

We were waiting by a bus stop outside the back of one of the large department stores in our local town centre when a motorbike purred out from an alley next to the store loading bay, but instead of turning onto the road, mounted the pavement as a shortcut and accelerated towards, but then swerved by us with reckless abandon. I felt the sensation and airflow of him building speed as he cut past. I noted his khaki cargo pants tucked into large black boots, the crimson streak of racing stripes on his leather jacket and the chrome helmet, lustrous as a clairvoyant’s ball. Dad didn’t hesitate, as if something ignited within him. He leapt to his feet and yelled, but it wasn’t in protest, it wasn’t plaintive or pleading, appealing for reason or awareness – it was something guttural and splenetic that carried weight and righteous might.

The rider looked back, some 20 metres away, then abruptly braked to a stop. He waddled off his bike and then marched back towards the bus stop and my Dad, stood up with his arms held out wide like a spirit-possessed Baptist, stepped forward to narrow the distance between them. Motorbike man was shouting and unfastening his helmet strap at the same time, and when it came loose and he took it off, I could see his face contorted, his mouth snarling and shooting back at Dad. He had a close shaved head, covered with a membrane of sweat. He was all threat, bile and stiff-moving menace. Dad maintained his position, stood his ground and returned verbal fire, until the biker was mere feet away, his right hand plunged into his helmet as though it was a big bauble-esque boxing glove. I sat on the bus stop bench and marvelled at the exhilarating choreography as they went nose-to-nose.

             *

It had been 15 minutes since I walked away. I’d reduced my pace to a shuffle on Waterlooplein, heading north. The further I’d retreated from the houseboat, the more unsettled I became. It struck me that I wasn’t even sure how to phone the Police in Amsterdam, and even then, what was I going to report or ask for? A tourist calling for Police assistance because someone was sitting on their rented houseboat – a tourist who’d been in the Green House Namaste Coffeeshop not more than an hour ago – didn’t sound credible or without reason for skepticism. I considered calling Rob, who must be at the airport now and explaining the situation, but again, I’d knew he’d laugh, tell me I was hallucinating, paranoid, but that the kush was as premium as promised.

There were only few people on the sodden streets. The rain wasn’t abating and I was beginning to sniffle and shiver. Even if I did return and find the watcher had vacated his perch, was no longer waiting, I doubted I’d be able to endure the long night on my own. The houseboat was riven with creaks, strains and jarring sounds – and that was without the potential menace of a trespasser skulking on the deck whose potential footsteps and padding would be indistinguishable from the rat-a-tat of the rain that was expected until dawn. I toyed with the prospect of walking around Amsterdam and deferring the showdown until sunrise, but in the wet bitterness of a Sunday in February, the city didn’t feel heady, happening or accommodating to that whim. There was nowhere I wanted to go, or could go, other than the place I was afraid to face.

             *

My full navigation of the square was almost finished – I’d turned onto Zwanenburgwal, next to the Rembrandt Corner café. It was just shutting up – a man in a white shirt and serving apron was bearing the elements and stacking chairs outside in columns of four. Two women, the last customers, were leaving. One of the women made an exaggerated teeth-chittering sound to register the shock of the chill. They linked arms, laughed in unison, swaddled in Puffa jackets, gloves and woollen scarves, and turned right on Jodenbreestraat.

I began walking down Zwanenburgwal, helplessly nearing judgment time. In a few more steps I’d have a beeline on Spinoza, and once I was at his feet, I’d be able to see whether the watcher was still there, eyeballing my approach, waiting for me to stop pretending and come home. And if he wasn’t there? I’d be no better for his absence, spending the rest of the night in dread suspension.

Earlier in the morning, Rob and I had strolled down this street and the market which lined it during the day. I’d abstractedly inspected the stalls selling tulip seeds, ceramic windmills and Jenever gin and bought a black and white postcard of a canal scene at night. It depicted a small bridge, a shimmery river, a silhouetted lamppost with a bicycle leant against it. As I held the postcard to pay, I noted how my thumb also obscured a thin moon – a silver circlet or archer’s bow – in the top right corner. It occurred to me then, and came back to me now as some hail seeds returned to spike the rain, how I’d wanted the picture, without seeing it complete. I’d wanted it without spotting the essential detail which made it what it was. AQ

James H. Schneider – Rembrandt’s Dog

James H. Schneider
Rembrandt’s Dog
(on an etching in the Rijksmuseum)

In the etching Rembrandt made from
his own painting, ‘The Good Samaritan’,
a servant supports the bandaged victim on
a horse, while his rescuer pays the innkeeper
for the man’s care. A fellow in a cap watches
from a window, but the stout woman bending
over a well minds her own business. A dog
squats in the foreground, doing what dogs do.

It seems Rembrandt made the etching
for himself — the painting has no dog
in it. If there were, can’t you just see
a plump merchant in black silk, wearing
a wide-brimmed feathered hat, spluttering,
Why should I pay good guilders for
a work with such a filthy detail?
What does this young artist mean?

Could it be that in real life you may
regret helping others? That they might
pester you for more handouts? The burgher,
puffing on his pipe, might well ponder this.
Or could being kind to someone in need be
as natural as a man looking out a window,
as common as a woman drawing water,
as ordinary as a dog easing itself?

Meryl Stratford – October, in Amsterdam

Meryl Stratford
October, in Amsterdam

We wake up in Amsterdam.
It’s 1973.
We’ve sailed through so many time zones—
I don’t know what time it is in Buffalo,
Bermuda, the Azores, or Dover.
It’s almost noon in Amsterdam.
Last night we walked the red light district,
saw women perched like wares in windows.
We are broke.
You’re sulking in your bunk
or tinkering with something down below
while I’m out dodging bicycles,
crossing bridges, getting lost on my way
to the Van Gogh Museum.
You sulk, and so many years later
I still wonder why.
You never saw the Sunflowers.
You will never see this poem.

David Subacchi – Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

David Subacchi
Rembrandt at the Rijksmuseum

Everything is included in this exhibition
From the honest self-portraits to the famous groupings,
Assembled men of ‘The Night Watch’ look out solemnly,
‘Syndics of the Drapers Guild’ disguise irritation
At our intrusion into their private proceedings
And the proud father of ‘The Jewish Bride’ nods calmly,
As we pause briefly to admire on our procession.

‘Once you leave the Rembrandt section you cannot return’
A whispering gallery assistant announces
When we look over our shoulders hesitatingly
Anxious not to leave any sketch or painting unseen
‘There are works by many other Dutch artists here too’
Scolds a security guard as we descend the stairs
Towards the exit, Amsterdam waiting patiently.