John B. Lee on The Widow’s Land

No One Ever Comments on the Flies …

When world-renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh passed away, the curator of the national gallery collection commented on Karsh’s famous photograph of virtuoso cellist Pablo Casals, “When people talk about that iconic portrait, no one ever comments on the flies.”

I immediately went to seek out, find, and have a look at that seminal photograph with a particular interest in discovering and perhaps even counting the flies. Indeed, the photograph is pestilential with vermin. There are flies walking the tonsured forehead of his nearly balding genius, there are flies on his fingers, flies on his forearms, flies on the body of his beloved cello, flies occupying the blue-grey flesh of the back of his beautiful hands. The papery silence is almost buzzing with the refused perfection of magnificence–this being the world entire–this being Beelzebub and the uncommon fascination of forbidden beauty.

I recently returned to my home from a visit to the monument memorializing the loss of life at ground zero. The Oculus, architect Santiago Calatrava’s colossal sculpture emerging from the earth dominates the scene. It was almost completed and the name of the station at the new World Trade Centre is eponymous to that sculpture. The word Oculus is emblazoned on glass above the door. It is impossible to miss. I asked a security guard standing at the portico leading into that viewing platform dominated by this gargantuan white steel structure built from the broken remains of the twisted frame of the ruined building brought low on the disastrous day when the planes flew into history. “What is that?” I enquired of the guard. “I have no idea,” she replied. She seemed to suffer the most banal of sins, the sin of incuriosity. I look up and see The Oculus rising like a white winged Phoenix from the ashes of New York. I wonder how might I wake her? How might I help her see the world she lives in?

In my writing I want to wake everyone up to everything. I want every piece of writing to contain the universe entire. I want butterflies and moonbeams, but I also want vultures with their naked faces ugly and red raw as the inner flesh of a recent wound. I want to show the reader how beautiful, how glorious and lovely. I want both the euphonious buzz of Pablo Casals’ beloved Bach and the pestilential buzz of houseflies worrying a stained glass windowsill on Sunday morning harmonizing with the homily. I suppose having been a farm boy, raised where the high sweet rose garden stink of manure perfumed the gloaming and made life all the more worth living, I might long to give you the gift of my experience. Life. Death. Sex. Eros and Thanatos. Houseflies and heavenly angels. Within the covers of The Widow’s Land: superstition and farming–a madness of daughters, superstition and enlightened belief come to life in the same breath. Cross your fingers, make a wish, and read.

John B. Lee

Join John B. Lee and other Black Moss Press authors on October 2nd at Storyteller’s bookstore in Windsor, Ont. as he launches his book The Widow’s LandHe will be joined by several other Black Moss Press writers as they launch their books in one of the biggest events this year. Keep checking back for more details.

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