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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Imagine that we’re watching a documentary & you argue
Poetry – LE Francis
Wood Grain Waves
Fiction – Gwyneth Findlay
Yes, the cascades in my psyche are yours,
Poetry – Luke Carmichael Valmadrid
Poetry – Jane Zwart
A Vestige of the Thoughts: The Voices of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’
Essay – Jessica Peng
Visual Art – Erin Bryant Petty
Poetry – Louise Mather
The city, after
Visual Essay – Ally Le
Lost in Moscow
Poetry – Charlie Bowden
Poetry – Molly J. Vander Werp
In Conversation with r beny: The Delicate Desolation of natural fiction
Interview – r beny & Nicole Fan
Stranger than Fiction: The Reality of Love in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science
Essay – Elias Brockman
An Effort to Describe
Poetry – L. Ward Abel
Some say that endings are the most difficult, but beginnings are no easier. Every endeavour commences with a propulsion of wilful belief and intrepid desire, none of which are ever benign. We disrupt to create; we can’t help but do so – our universe was born with a crack and a boom, and here we are replicating it in a myriad of ways, making our own incursions upon paper and canvas to invent something new amidst an already turbulent world.
Yet, the very friction embedded into creation is also what gives rise to much of its wonder. Whether strong or subtle, uneven forces are both all around us and within us, carving out asymmetrical contours that have been the source of our deepest mysteries. Scientists ponder why a simple imbalance of matter and antimatter engendered all existence; poets contemplate how a perfectly contained sonnet can consist of boundless depths; and no one really has an answer for why thoughts seem to surge out of the void into the slipstream of our consciousness. ‘[I]t’s another kind of beauty,’ astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser once wrote about the enigma of asymmetry, ‘a beauty of Becoming, not of Being’1 – and such strange beauty is precisely what The Primer seeks to explore.
It is fitting, then, that our first issue organically takes shape as a smooth arc marked by unexpected swerves. Bearing the unique idiosyncrasies of their contributors, they take us in different directions – inwards, outwards, upwards into space – even while being tethered to the same timeless inquiries that have intrigued people for millennia. Part One: Expansion eases us into this journey with works of displaced mundanity: we start by forging ‘imagined paths between each glimpse’ of the everyday in Rebecca Elves’s film, continue by noticing how ‘eyes house undiscovered / planets & stars so bright’ in LE Francis’s poem, and descend into uncanny undulations within Ruthenium’s evocative photography. Such magnification of the minute is exchanged for interstellar omniscience, as Gwyneth Findlay leads us into a swirling cosmos of lively planets – only for expansion to collapse in on itself. As Luke Carmichael Valmadrid eloquently captures in verse, ‘our assumptions, that all this waste would break down into beautiful things’ have to account for the potential of being irrevocably ‘vapourised’.
The charged velocity of our exordium thus sinks into a declension with Part Two: Dissolution. ‘Dear God, how I want to believe’, runs Jane Zwart’s poignant line, in a sentiment that is woven throughout these pieces of loss and vacuity. We negotiate the threshold of mortality through literature that ‘was made for ghosts, or the other way around’ in Jessica Peng’s essay, and are suspended in stillness within Erin Bryant Petty’s collages. ‘The moon’, Louise Mather writes, ‘is just the moon, / there is nothing sacred’ – especially not in the midst of Ally Le’s ghostly city, where everyone is ‘very much alive, yet we are all dead’. Even Charlie Bowden’s intricately crafted stanzas draw our attention to unstable forces of dissipation – we wander ‘lost in the maze of dead flower petals’, finding ourselves ‘going, going, greying, gone’. Can disappointment truly be illumination too?
Part Three: Recalibration neither affirms nor denies this – we aren’t brought back to any equilibrium; there is no stasis here, after all. There is only the trying. In Molly J. Vander Werp’s poem, we thus ‘draw a cube in the sand’ and rediscover the portal that we started with, perceiving things ‘again&again at different angles’. An insightful conversation with r beny illuminates a metaphysical ‘spectrum that is complex and bittersweet’ and helps us to navigate its complexity with ‘music that can be equally delicate and soft, as it is volatile and destructive’, while an essay by Elias Brockman on Nietzsche’s aphorisms explores how ‘the innumerable ways in which every person, every situation, every quality and thing is strange’ need not be resolved. Indeed, they are best left open-ended, for it is through these winding paths that L. Ward Abel lyrically transfigures ‘burden’ into ‘bounty’, rounding off our trajectory with a poem on the very uncertainty of our human endeavour.
Ascent, descent, graze the tangent, and return again: thus emerged our theme of Inflections, a capacious word that situates itself just as solidly in the field of geometry as it does linguistics2, meaning ‘simply, to bend, to curve’3. Each piece within this issue does just that, twisting into unknown crevices before ricocheting into spaces far and wide. All that’s left is for you to set them in motion with your conscious attention, and the latent beauty within this mercurial universe will, somewhat strangely but surely, start to unfurl.
1 Gleiser, Marcelo. A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe. New York: Free Press, 2010. 104.
2 In mathematics, an inflection is the ‘[c]hange of curvature from convex to concave at a particular point on a curve’, and the notion of modulation is evident in linguistics as well, where inflection involves the ‘modification of the form of a word to express the different grammatical relations into which it may enter’. See ‘inflection, n.’. OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2022. Web. 22 Aug. 2022.
3 ‘inflect, v.’. OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2022. Web. 22 Aug. 2022.
Window’s Edge explores the window as a digital-architectural threshold, using a dialogue between captured footage and animation to reflect on the role of the virtual mediator in our lives. The window becomes significant in this project not only as a framing device which contains and offers a portal to visual information intangible in person, but also as a virtual iteration of an architectural feature which frames the world beyond our walls. Drawings from Street View-facilitated journeys between Venetian frescoes are interspersed with images created looking through the windows whose rooms I inhabit. Animation forges imagined paths between each glimpse, while layered window-scapes offer up constellations of tensions in spaces between interior and external worlds. In creating moving images within these spaces, the deadened, mediated, unreachable world can be reanimated, and the edges of the ways in which we might be trapped are offered up for exploration.
POETRY \ LE FRANCIS
Imagine that we’re watching a documentary & you argue
that there is no mathematical expression of beauty, & I will try. I will say there are numbers which fit elegantly inside each other, inside themselves. & I will describe your eyes as dark universes, the home that nurtures every story I'd ever want to tell. Your eyes house undiscovered planets & stars so bright I can feel their heat as I stand nearby. & I know there is an elegant way to describe it all, there is a language, there is a hexadecimal code that knows the color of each planet’s home soil. There is a degree to your smile & an oblivious angle to your gaze which I have learned to avoid, to remain in this state of both existing & not. I suppose there are a few pixels in your phone that could solve for obvious, reveal fractions of my heart but you are written into the code of the universe. Red bird, sunshine, nonexistence; uncertainty knows a state of both love & not, & still there is no place where I’m not always & already yours.
PHOTOGRAPHY \ RUTHENIUM
Wood Grain Waves
FICTION \ GWYNETH FINDLAY
‘The giant impact hypothesis [proposed that] toward the end of the planetary accumulation process, the protoearth collided with a planetary body having a substantial fraction of its mass.’ 1
‘The Moon is thought to be the product of such a Giant Impact. […] I refer to this extinct impacting Moon-forming parent planet by the name ‘Theia’, the mother of Selene, the Greek Goddess of the Moon.‘ 2
1 Cameron, A.G.W. ‘From interstellar gas to the Earth-Moon system’. Meteoritics & Planetary Science, Vol. 36, No. 1 (2001). 13.
2 Halliday, Alex N. ‘Terrestrial accretion rates and the origin of the Moon’. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Vol. 176, No. 1 (2000). 21.
I was born the same way you were: amid violent collisions in a hot plane of swirling gas, the accretions of our dead elders coming together to form new life. The fabric of my being danced for millennia around a rapidly expanding ball of fusion and flame, forming and crashing and growing anew among billions of bits of other one-day masses, all bound wild and steady in this new sun’s orbit. Once, I was small. I was tiny. I was a speck of dust. I was shaken by passing clumps of matter, tossed about in the expanse until I met other specks of dust. They too were me, and together we became a clump, like a pebble, like a nugget, like nothing we had known before. And then our – my – clump met another clump, and it was also me, and in the shock of our meeting we became one. I continued to assemble myself, my pieces encountering each other in the vast cloud of dust and saying, Oh, it’s you! You’re me! We’re us! The invitation reached every piece of me suspended near my orbit, beckoning each fragment to come home. Sometimes I was cold, so cold I could not explain my sensations. Other times I was brutally hot, daring fate with my uneven shuffle through the cosmos. I swung to and fro as my siblings coalesced around our Mother Sun. I passed them by, near or far: the gaseous giants that spun rapid, rambunctious; the molten balls of rock that never strayed far from the sun’s hot comfort. Our nursery raged with chaos, but our family, at last, was forming. After a thousand eras as particles in the ether, we had found the pieces of ourselves. We had found each other. We were all the same age, cosmically speaking. Mother Sun was our centre, our vitality, our raison d’être, but we were not born of her, as children are often born of mothers. This sun and her children sprung from the same stuff: our molecular cloud collapsed, and a family emerged. Young and mischievous, we played together, craving camaraderie. Yet Mother Sun kept us separated in her domain, circling her at different speeds and distances. On occasion, more infrequently than the flare of a distant comet, she allowed us to align for the briefest moment, for a whisper of this existence. Then we returned to our paths, our balance across her pocket of sky. One of my fellow rocky planets twirled near to the sun, though not so close that she became brittle or choked with gas. Her region was comfortable, even; warm and illuminated. After my initial journey from the outskirts toward Mother Sun, I danced circles along this sister’s orbit, at times so intimately that I could feel the heat radiating from her fiery surface. I was so much smaller than her, and I had so little to offer in return. I simply rejoiced in the moments I could be near her, could exchange cosmic companionship amid the fury smouldering across our young sky. We spoke of the future, of our aspirations for the time after we all settled into our rhythms among the stars. What would we do? Who did we hope to be? In my fantasy, a calm eternity stretched ahead of us, the routine of communal life spinning happily along until Mother Sun expanded and reclaimed many of our family’s scattered parts into her whole. My sister, though, held wondrous visions: of love, of life, of children more numerous than all the suns of the galaxy. Her revelation disquieted Mother Sun, and titterings about her prospects spread among our siblings. I came to learn that the vitality my sister desired was unlikely, even impossible, on her dry, fiery surface. The distant bodies whispered about a bond of hydrogen and oxygen, a molecule essential for facilitating this life she sought. Yet this building block only developed far from Mother Sun’s warming glow, in the region where I came into being. I examined myself and found it: the water my sister lacked. The bitter luck of formation, of finding my parts in the gaseous sea, had bestowed it upon me while my sister was barren. I cradled this burdensome discovery for many rotations. I could not bear to conceal this sole hope until the end of our time. In the dark, lonely patches of our sky, I devised a solution. I said farewell to my siblings, though they did not realise it was goodbye. I waited until each one had passed, until I had sent my love to the very reaches of Mother Sun’s solar expanse. Lastly, to my most beloved sister, I said, I love you. I’m sorry. Remember me. She did not have time to react. We were moving so quickly, and I’d manoeuvred myself so close. Mother Sun, powerless but desperate, whipped plasma into my path, as if the magnetic pulse could interrupt my indomitable trajectory. My tiny body collided into my sister’s side, and I became nothing but chunks of rock and clouds of dust. Debris exploded from my sister, too, but she was not devoured. As we whirled along her orbit, her mass gained control of our distant fragments. Parts of me became parts of her, coalescing under her gravitational influence, and what remained created something entirely new: a moon, large and looming, circling her as I had once circled Mother Sun. It spun, then slowed, its face steadily focused on her, on us – now siblings bound as one, two beings in two bodies yet separated by none. After millions of orbits in these new forms, the rumours proved true: life, that impossible endeavour, sprang up from our oceans. It evolved in billions of ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once. Some grew to know us, to embody the love that had brought them into being. They named us – their home – Earth, and our second body they called Moon. Many of their years passed before they remembered me; the old me, as I had been before my sacrifice made us whole. They named me Theia, after the Moon’s mother in one of their fading cosmologies. Now I dream of embracing each human and saying: I am the Moon, and you are my child, and my love begat all the life you’ve ever known.
46 million light-years away
55 million light-years away
3 million light-years away
LUKE CARMICHAEL VALMADRID
Yes, the cascades in my psyche are yours,
but so too exactly did hail always fall in April, whose sublimation rusted my airways, our solution to which was not electrolytic or sweet, but to inhale coarsely for that bitter texture, the kind of air that abrades to embrace. Nothing dulcet baked without volcanic doubt, that volcanic-deep-down, I was the lava in a lava cake, just a soloist for your caprice – I imagine a symphony orchestra that plays Mozart divertimenti in my head, singing with perfect intonation and too many voices our assumptions, that all this waste would break down into beautiful things in our lifetime. My last three spiritual thoughts go something like “Thank god I’m 22,” “Thank god I’m 25,” and then “If I hadn’t stopped praying to the entity I really pedestaled, god.” I told you I loved you and then blundered my flaws and mistook your faults and took them on and never apologized. In your name, I bent over backwards and became that snake that eats its own tail, but actually got to the end and deserved it. I did love you, but I fell into love on a comet and crossed the stars myself; even if I went back in time, we would only remember the good things as I vaporized.
Dark, Dark, is all I find for metaphor;
All else were contrast – save that contrast’s wall
From ‘Interim’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay
POETRY \ JANE ZWART
for Devin Gael Kelly
Disappointment, Devin says, is illumination, too. And if not the kind we wanted--well, that doesn’t mean it’s unkind. The light just shines on a different thing. . . . The light just shines on a different thing-- how I, almost as stubborn as effulgence, want him to be right. How I want to believe in the radiance beaten, with an oversized key, from the mat of a haji who dares ask Allah for impossible things and in the radiance harder to rout than a pestilence of fireflies-- routeless photons, candling swarm-- dear God, how I want to believe.
ESSAY \ JESSICA PENG
‘A Vestige of the Thoughts’: The Voices of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Remember’
Literature survives by echoing. When works are read, recited, quoted or translated, they find themselves in new spaces, so they sound a little different each time. When you watch a Shakespeare play, the production is different to its earliest performance in Blackfriars or the Globe. Each translation of Homer’s Odyssey has a different inflection and shadow. Even if you read a book that was published yesterday, it will be under different circumstances as the ones read by the New York Times reviewer, or your friend, or even yourself again two months later. The space is different, so the sound is too. The ‘original work’ – or sound – is only known to us through echoes, created after travelling through space and time. Perhaps these are corruptions, but they are also the only remnants of the original, if something so pure ever existed.
In order to echo, literature must be made of voices. The simplest demonstration of this is a poem with one speaker, whose identity is not the real-life poet’s, but who is rather self-defined as ‘the speaker of the poem’. More complex works, like omniscient novels or multi-figured plays, are simply made of more voices: narrators, choruses, characters, scribes. These voices do not belong to actual people either, but instead float around as speakers who are wedded to the page. Reading is the act of allowing these voices to echo in your head. The author’s words are reflected from the page into your mind and when you become the host for these words, you distort them, even very slightly. Made from a strange mix of textual and imaginary stuff, the voices in literature speak through whoever is reading them. A reader is like a medium, communicating beyond this world. Literature is full of ghosts, and you are being haunted.
By ‘medium’, I mean what the Victorians meant. The Victorians invented the word ‘medium’ for someone who communicates between the living and the dead1. They needed a word for it because visiting a medium became for them a hugely popular pastime. In a society with a permanently grieving queen who seemed half-dead herself, the public eye was trained to fixate on the space between life and death. The Victorians were obsessed with finding their way into this space, paying for mediums who could go into trances and speak as if possessed by someone deceased, their bodies an anchor for a voice estranged from its owner. The space between life and death was made visible by mediums, often women, whose bodies could connect this world with the next.
The Victorians didn’t have poststructuralist theory2, but they had writers who already knew that literature was made for ghosts, or the other way around. Take a work like Christina Rossetti’s sonnet, ‘Remember’. Written in 1849, this famous poem features a dying speaker’s final words for those they are leaving behind. Here it is:
Remember me when I am gone away, Gone far away into the silent land; When you can no more hold me by the hand, Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay. Remember me when no more day by day You tell me of our future that you plann'd: Only remember me; you understand It will be late to counsel then or pray. Yet if you should forget me for a while And afterwards remember, do not grieve: For if the darkness and corruption leave A vestige of the thoughts that once I had, Better by far you should forget and smile Than that you should remember and be sad.
Almost two hundred years after it was written, ‘Remember’ remains a hugely popular funeral reading. This sentiment is sound enough: of course the people left behind wish to remember the deceased, and the poem’s insistent turn that forgetfulness is not betrayal is additionally comforting. But ‘Remember’ is written in the voice of someone close to dying, speaking to someone soon to be left behind. Within the poem, the funeral guests are not the speaker but the audience: as is, technically, the person reading it at the ceremony. Why, then, are they speaking words which belong to the dying?
The question of voice which began this essay is particularly apt when applied to a poem like ‘Remember’. The poem’s reception tradition sees it being quoted twofold: firstly, the funeral reader is quoting Rossetti’s poem; secondly, they are implying that these words are what the deceased would have said by standing in their place. Speaking in the voice of the dead, the living create a flickering imitation of the deceased’s presence. Moreover, if quotation is echo, then ‘Remember’ must have one of the loudest in English literature. Each reading quotes not only Rossetti but every funeral service this poem has attended before. Its silent predecessors haunt each new reading.
This scene, reading ‘Remember’ at a funeral, bears an uncanny resemblance to that of a séance. The reader is the medium and through them, someone who has left this world can communicate with those they left behind. Sat in pews, the audience watches the performance, participating in the illusion that it is the deceased’s words that are being spoken. A funeral commemorates the deceased’s absence, but the gathering of friends and family, the recollection of memories and the overall reconstruction of who they were practically conjures up their presence. The coup de grâce is delivered when the poem reaches out from the ‘silent land’ and tells us what the deceased would want us to know — or whatever we think that is.
This, for me, is the miracle of Rossetti’s poem. It treats voices as sounds that can be heard, echoed, repeated, ingrained. Its speaker’s voice has deep emotional reserves, but at the same time it remains practically anonymous. Reading it closely, we might guess that the speaker is young and addressing her4 lover, but this is hardly explicit. The poem conveys feeling without necessarily telling a story. Rossetti understood that poetry could be spoken not only by characters — as in the dramatic monologues that were so popular in her day — but also by mere ‘vestiges of thoughts’ (12)5. The audience-readers would do the rest. She stripped away the heavy ceremony of Victorian mourning traditions and wrote a poem so purely vocal it was practically weightless. Passed from speaker to speaker, each instance quoting all the times before, Rossetti’s words have echoed through many readers and even more mediums.
1 ‘medium, n.’ 6b. OED Online, Oxford University Press, 2022. Web. 23 Aug 2022.
2 I draw on now-mainstream poststructuralist theory for much of the first two paragraphs. The notion that literature is opposed to free conversation is touched on in famous works such as the essays in Barthes’s Image – Music – Text and Derrida’s ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’.
3 Rossetti, Christina. ‘Remember’. Selected Poems, ed. Dinah Roe. London: Penguin, 2008. 16.
4 I personally think the poem implies a female speaker through the Eurydice-like ‘turn to go’ and Rossetti’s habit of writing lamenting women, especially around themes of loss, betrayal or lament. For me, the unspecified gender evokes a sense of the speaker’s fading out of existence as well as the poem’s steely impersonability–but does not have to be interpreted as neutral.
5 Rossetti, Christina. ‘Remember’.
VISUAL ART / ERIN BRYANT PETTY
POETRY / LOUISE MATHER
I am no longer a siren, or I never was. You are not the emperor – you do not have his ribs, or the bow that turned willow to water. I never wrapped eggs with petals of myrrh, or took them out to sea for the phoenix. The moon is just the moon, there is nothing sacred – seeds of a scarlet apple are just dust for the harvest.
Inspired by The White Goddess by Robert Graves
VISUAL ESSAY \ ALLY LE
The city, after
Dying slowly of an indeterminate illness, the city is laid down on a stretcher and patched up in crude cement. White paint splashing over walls, bandaids ripped off writings that were never. Come, drink a bowl of herbal tea to dissolve yeet hey and calm down. Bitter medicine cures all illnesses. I love jasmine tea and hargaw. I love being called lenglui. Lovers make no promise. Music has no sound. A Better Tomorrow is a film starring Chow Yun-fat. Drunken days followed by smoky nights. Heatwaves and smog over Shenzhen Bay as seen from Tsuen Wan. Hang Seng Index is red. Quarantine 4+3. I try to find my way home but I misread Google maps. I have been trying to find my way home but I am seduced by harbour and hair. I have been trying to find my way home for a long time but I am already at #HomeKong. In four white walls that I no longer recognise. In a shell that I haunt but will never replicate. Do not look into the mirror you will see a closed eye and an unblinking open one. Shops close at 10. Have you scanned your Vaccine Pass yet? Do you have YUU membership? Would you like to make a donation to save Lantau? The wilderness is wilding and my hands try to break free from the city’s clutch. Friends drift apart. Goldfish slip away. You chase the bus only to find the last seat taken by the person right before you. It takes nearly an hour to cross Hung Hom Tunnel during peak hours, that’s why you should run along the East Rail Line in a virtual marathon. When the last train of the night has vanished into the abyss. In the earliest moment of consciousness when my quadrilingual tongue is all tied up, impotent and tripping, I am haunted by the tram bells piercing at dawn. New day, new city. This is a cold city but there is sunlight everywhere. I am not dead yet. You are not dead yet. He is not dead yet. So is she. So is it. So are they. Everyone here is very much alive, yet we are all dead. We have long been dead, buried in a sea of white chamomiles and sticky wet April memories.
POETRY \ CHARLIE BOWDEN
Lost in Moscow
When night falls I will soldier on, ignore the wild dogs and deadly boulders that seem to be found everywhere in this town. The cabaret taught me to see red in Moscow but it’s just black, silk and spilt milk and sirens who fill your nightmares. The hairs on your head fall in line soon enough, going, going, greying, gone like the half-hearted fizz of an already opened carbonated drink. Grey, silver, the clink of metal, the clicking of knees on cobblestone, like a deranged cabaret act, lost in the maze of dead flower petals. The city’s not what it’s cracked up to be; only the strange ones and the statues can feel truly settled. The rest, like me, are just lost, looking for scarlet, waiting for the cost of trusting a cabaret starlet.
When the world is reduced to a single dark wood for our two pairs of dazzled eyes — to a beach for two faithful children — to a musical house for our clear understanding — then I shall find you.
From ‘Phrases’ by Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Wallace Fowlie
POETRY \ MOLLY J. VANDER WERP
Cutting the tree in three years like rings in rings like pond water rippling bringing the world back to me again&again at different angles. God: the water drop cupped between duck’s neck and back. Silver-wet sphere, safe in the curve of the water bird. Remembering, I draw a cube in the sand as they taught us: two squares intersecting in one smaller than themselves— squaresinsquares a portal. God: the impossible color of evaporating water on the oil layer. Duck, feather-bent, and wet with that chink of blue between wing and you.
INTERVIEW \ r beny & NICOLE FAN
In Conversation with r beny:
The Delicate Desolation of natural fiction
Drifting through a prism of dreamlike wonder, r beny’s music leads us into sibylline soundscapes where wind chimes seem to twinkle even as icy glaciers begin to crack. In the hands of the California-based musician, electronic synthesizers become architectonic instruments with the ability to build ambient worlds – and his 2020 album, natural fiction, perfectly epitomises such acoustic spatiality. Described as the ‘soundtrack to a film that does not exist’, it charts out imagined topographies in a vividly cinematic manner, crystallising auditory vibrations into layer after layer of emotional resonance. Now, two years after its initial release, r beny (the alias of Austin Cairns) looks back on natural fiction with us, and shares what had gone into an album that glimmers with such hope and melancholy.
N: You’ve described the tracks in this album as ‘music made of light and fog’ – and they truly seem to be as such, especially in iridescent polyphonies such as ‘alone in the pavilion’ as well as ‘round glass and concrete prism’. I’d love to hear about what drew you to these delicate textures; does music help you to navigate between the clarity of light and the haziness of fog?
r: One of the main intentions behind my music has been an attempt to express complex emotions that I have felt – emotions that are difficult for me to express in words, whether due to inadequate vocabulary or due to past trauma. I’ve found the dichotomy of fog and light to be an apt metaphor for this difficulty of expression. Fog obscures, making indistinct of what is there. But it isn’t darkness. You can still make out the shapes, but maybe not the delicate details. Light illuminates, revealing what is there – details, warts and all. I like to imagine my music as a combination of the fog and the light, but also as the mountains, valleys, forests, rivers, and even architecture that is being obscured or revealed. Instrumental music provides an interesting canvas for interpreting these thoughts. I’m drawn to sounds and textures that imitate or are inspired by nature. I think that manifests in music that can be equally delicate and soft, as it is volatile and destructive. I do find the process of making music helps navigate some of those difficult emotions.
N: The airiness of the album’s sonic spaces is certainly undergirded by a sense of stark desolation and gritty brutality, which resonates in tracks like ‘we used to know’ and ‘mamiya’. This interplay between the visceral and the ethereal permeates other albums in your discography (such as echo’s verse and eistla) – but the sharp edges strike me most vividly in natural fiction. Is this raw materiality a recent development in your creative practice, and (if so) where would you say it emerged from?
r: The interplay of the visceral and the ethereal has certainly been a catalyst for my music. This is partially drawn from the aforementioned themes of nature. Having grown up in Northern California, I developed a sense of connection and respect for nature – an appreciation for that which can hold so much calm and beauty, yet can be extremely volatile. I’ve also found nature to be an apt metaphor for the human psyche, at least my own. I don’t think of it as the contrast of light and dark or good and evil, but rather a spectrum that is complex and bittersweet. I’ve been drawing upon these themes for my art more and more, but I think it has always been present on some level and will certainly be more of a focus going forward.
N: That’s really evident in the title of your album – natural fiction – which is itself an enigma that invites us to contemplate the complex dualities in your music. The seemingly juxtaposed terms of ‘nature’ and ‘fiction’ touch upon the idea of there being different layers to reality, of art being inextricable from life. What is natural about fiction and what is fictitious about nature to you?
r: From time to time, I’ve imagined what the earth would be like post-humanity, or if humans had never existed at all. How much damage have we done to this earth, how much damage have we done to each other? This theme was present in my mind while recording natural fiction, specifically a post-humanity or post-human-centric world. I had previously explored this on my album called cascade symmetry, specifically the tracks ‘cities sleep like seeds’ and ‘empty grids’. natural fiction was finished right as the Covid-19 pandemic was starting, and all of a sudden these themes I had been pondering became starkly real. It felt as if we all experienced this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction shift of reality.
The album title was partly derived from that perceived shift. Nature – and truth – could be stranger than fiction. It was also partly derived from that which we do not perceive in nature, such as the history of a tree – or how a mountain came to be. We are left to create fiction for how these things might have happened and what the experience may have been like. Even with scientific explanation, I think our minds tend to fill in the gaps with fiction, whether it be mythology or art or something else.
When the album came out, I framed it as a “soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist”, almost from a place of escapism from the pandemic. With hindsight, I’d probably frame it now as a “soundtrack to an alternate reality” or a “soundtrack to a dream I once had”.
N: This cohesion of reality and artifice also seems to speak to your creative practice, as much of your music is rooted in the natural world but created using modular synthesizers. What appeals to you about these experimental electronics; did they enable different kinds of artistic expression compared to more traditional forms of music-making?
r: Modular synthesizers appealed to me in their open architecture – both in the ability to make an instrument catered to your exact whims or needs and in terms of open signal flow, where audio and modulation become one and the same. Prior to working with synthesizers and modular synthesizers, I was primarily a guitarist and I felt like I struggled to adequately express myself through the music I was making. After playing in bands throughout my teens and early-20s, I ended up quitting music altogether for about a year after feeling disillusioned with the music and dealing with heavy grief after losing my mom.
Discovering and connecting with synthesizers and then modular synthesizers not only enabled different kinds of artistic expression, but for the first time I felt like I was able to actualize that expression. Even 7-8 years later, I remain inspired by working with synthesizers and modular synthesizers. Due to that open architecture and signal flow, it feels like I’ll never truly explore every corner of these instruments. That burden of choice can be daunting at times, but it invites the chasing of whims and experimentation, whereas I felt somewhat boxed in with guitar.
N: Finally, what draws me – and many other followers – to your music is simply the ‘shimmering and obvious’ beauty of your ambient soundscapes. I’d love to know what beauty means to you, as well as how you appreciate it in your life.
r: I think I am still working on and searching for what beauty means to me, beyond surface level. I believe beauty may be that which affects your soul. For myself, that means the connections I share with my closest friends, the connection we as humans have with nature, the journey and ups-and-downs of life. Awareness, kindness, empathy, compassion. The in-between and the unexplainable. Of course, I love my share of music, art, and nature that exemplify beauty. I attempt to show my appreciation by practising mindfulness, as well as sharing and reflecting the ideas and virtues that I believe embody beauty.
ESSAY \ ELIAS BROCKMAN
Stranger than Fiction: The Reality of Love in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science
A vital question comes up periodically in life: how do we find something (or someone) to love? Friedrich Nietzsche has an answer in his aphoristic masterpiece, The Gay Science:
One must learn to love. — This is what happens to us in music: First one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life. Then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearance and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity. Finally there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we wait for it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing; and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it. […] In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange: gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty.1
Each of us tends to believe that we alone are normal and that the people we encounter in our day-to-day lives are the strange ones. But this, Nietzsche claims, is a baseless prejudice. It is unjust to hold others to the standards we set for ourselves, because, in reality, each of us is deeply strange. To do justice to another person requires us to recognise the differences in others and ultimately embrace them. But this skill of embracing the strangeness of others, which Nietzsche calls ‘love’, is not a skill that comes naturally to most of us. Love, too, has to be learned.
There are many aspects of this aphorism that one can grasp at and attempt to unravel. If, in Nietzsche’s opening metaphor, the strangeness of another person is akin to a melody in music, he suggests that it takes time to even notice what makes them unique to begin with. Our minds naturally put people into recognisable categories. When we first see a person, for example, driving a bus (or working any other type of job), we tend to imagine that they are functionally equivalent to all others in their profession, to assume that they will act a certain way. But this way in which we use conceptual shorthand to make sense of our social environment prevents us from truly seeing the innumerable ways in which every person, every situation, every quality and thing is strange. ‘If you’ve met one human, you’ve met them all’, says the misanthrope. ‘All women are alike’, says the misogynist. ‘All members of this specific ethnic group act the same’, says the racist. Putting people into categories diminishes them. To love someone, we must first decategorise them. We must take all the assumptions we have about them from our first encounter, and dismantle those assumptions, until finally we discover the real person who lies behind them.
This process of discovering what is strange in others begins with pain. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ is what psychologists call it when our expectations are contradicted by reality. When we discover something odd about someone, discomfort creeps in. We have no easy way of explaining why they are like that. ‘Something must be wrong with them’, we think, if they are acting out of the ordinary for how a person ‘like them’ should act. But in truth there are no such categories of people, or no real ones at least. For Nietzsche, to love someone is to see them as they are, in all their strangeness. And if you think of those who are closest to you, I’m sure your lived experience will confirm that every single one of them is deeply strange. To fail to see these qualities, is a failure of love. And when we think of people who fail to love us, it is often in this that their failure consists. They don’t get us. There is some important quality of ours that they simply cannot see.
Perhaps the most profound part of Nietzsche’s aphorism is its ending – that ‘[e]ven those who love themselves will have learned it in this way; for there is no other way’ 2. Yet, many of us have never learned to love ourselves, because being strange is stigmatised. From a young age, we are taught about what types of people we ought to consider role models, and we are encouraged to model ourselves after those roles. When we fail to live up to the expectations that others have of us, we are made to feel shame. We are rewarded for telling the teachers what they want to hear, for saying the right things to the right people in the right ways. But not necessarily in our ways. At a certain point in adulthood, many of us have lost those strange qualities that we once possessed as children. We can no longer detect and distinguish our own melodies, let alone tolerate them, let alone love them.
To love, for Nietzsche, is to learn to detect the social rules that order our lives and, brick by brick, to destroy that order – even if it means abandoning all the pretences that had helped us to get by . Instead, if we can exercise the necessary ‘good will’, ‘patience’, ‘fairmindedness’, and ‘gentleness’, we may come to notice the myriad of subtle differences that distinguishes all things – and when the beauty of those differences gazes back at us, we will not want to look away.
1 Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm . The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books, 1974. 262.
POETRY \ L. WARD ABEL
An Effort to Describe
A last charcoal fleck passes through the far edge and it’s night again, to the point of it never having left. Day here is a frenzy a hive no matter what month even after dark during winterish. Like a ziggurat it rises from great stalked acreage, width only measured in gods’ cubits divided by holy grace and space/time. And again night—the hold on our dreams our shadows within hearing of others— it awakens bathed in sweat and effort. Such a burden a bounty smoothes us down to a spot that loses all physics— though a song may come to mind.
Born and raised in Vietnam, Ally Le (she/they) holds a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) in Comparative Literature and Hong Kong Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She’s currently working in Hong Kong and has contributed translations and creative writings for Zzz Review, Mekong Review, and Canto Cutie.
Charlie Bowden is a student from Hampshire, England, who discovered a love for writing poetry in lockdown after spending years studying it at school. His work has been included in collections by Young Writers and the Stratford Literary Festival among others and he won the 2021 Forward/emagazine Creative Critics Competition.
Elias Brockman is an educator and writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of Cold Pastoral, a “read along” newsletter examining poetry and prose from the past. Additionally, he is the founder and director of The Mind on Fire Institute, an educational program that operates on the principle that students learn best when they study material that they find intrinsically interesting.
Erin Bryant Petty (she/her) is an artist and writer living in Michigan. She appreciates the uncanny, the weird, and the overlooked. When she’s not making things she prefers to be in the woods, gazing at mushrooms. Find her on twitter @ebryantpetty.
Gwyneth Findlay is a writer and editor based in the northeast of Scotland. She writes for the post calvin and has appeared in Leopard Arts and The Hellebore. Find her around the internet @findlaypum.
Jane Zwart teaches at Calvin University, where she also co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, HAD, Threepenny Review, and TriQuarterly, as well as other journals and magazines.
L. Ward Abel’s work has appeared in hundreds of journals (Rattle, Versal, The Reader, Worcester Review, Riverbed Review, others), including a nomination for a Pushcart Prize, and he is the author of three full collections and ten chapbooks of poetry, including his latest collection, The Width of Here (Silver Bow, 2021). He is a reformed lawyer, he writes and plays music, and he teaches literature. Abel resides in rural Georgia.
LE Francis is a recovering arts journalist writing poetry & fiction of varying length from the rainshadow of the Washington Cascades. Find her online at nocturnical.com.
Louise Mather is a writer from Northern England and founding editor of Acropolis Journal. Her work is published in various print and online literary journals and her pamphlet ‘The Dredging of Rituals’ is out with Alien Buddha Press. She writes about ancestry, motherhood, endometriosis, fatigue and mental health.
Luke Carmichael Valmadrid enjoys cooking tofu, qualitative research, IU’s prolific body of work, and playing video games with faraway friends. Is also an M1 at UCSD. Hopes to make some music soon. One time.
Molly J. Vander Werp is a writer and laboratory technician from Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is a recent graduate of Calvin University (‘21), with degrees in writing and biochemistry. Her work has appeared previously in The Night Heron Barks and Dialogue.
r beny is the ambient electronics project of Northern California-based artist Austin Cairns, exploring themes of emotion and nature through the use of synthesizers and other electronic equipment.
Rebecca Elves is a multidisciplinary artist based in Kent. Recent exhibitions include solo show The House Was Like Her at Daphne Oram Gallery, Canterbury (2022), Supple Octopus at The Tub, Hackney (2022), What I See I’ll Never Tell at Wilder Gallery, London (2021), The Studio at 4 a.m. at Hastings Contemporary (2020), and two-person show Plus One with Catherine Anyango Grünewald at Limbo Arts, Margate (2019). In 2016 she graduated from the Royal College of Art, where she received the Gordon Peter Pickard Award to make drawings in Montréal. She is currently a fully funded practice-based PhD student at Canterbury Christ Church University, where she was awarded a 2021 British Council Venice Research Fellowship.
Ruthenium (they/them) is an artist currently living in the state of uncertainty. They believe creativity is real-life magic, and are obsessed with texture, context, light, and the question “what if?…” Their art has been published in Rabble Review, Celestite Poetry, Vulnerary Magazine, Messy Misfits Magazine, and Warning Lines Literary, among other wonderful places. Their various presences and publications can be found at https://linktr.ee/Ruthenium.
A diarist before anything else, Jessica Peng (she/her) writes as her way of navigating the world. Direction, movement, shape and form are aspects of literature that she can talk about for hours. A recent graduate of University College London’s BA English degree, she is now The Primer’s Poetry Editor and reliable contributor. In the past she has written about Anne of Green Gables, the deaths of stars and Marilyn Monroe films. Her downtime is usually taken up with wandering through charity shops and telling everyone she knows about her latest read.
Swinging between writing and image-making, Mihaela Elena Man is a Romanian-born artist, producer, and editor drawn to exploring how everyday stories, angles, and textures feed into broader developments of culture. A recent graduate of art practice and theory degrees from The Ruskin School of Art and The Courtauld Institute of Art, she is fascinated by the meeting point between material culture, nature, technology, contingency, and memory, particularly in relation to recent forms of visual art and literature.
Nicole Fan is drawn to all kinds of enigmas and loves exploring critical questions in creative ways. Having recently graduated from University College London with a BA in English, she is now pursuing an MSt in Early Modern English at the University of Oxford alongside running The Primer. Unable to resist the pull of old bookshops, sunny parks, and art galleries, she can usually be found wandering around them throughout her week.
Additional graphics are adapted from open-source images found on Unsplash.
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