Attack of the Nabokovs

Look! From out of history’s darkening skies
A kaleidoscope of amorous, witty butterflies
Comes to save us—from fatuous liars
And deceivers, from ‘fake news’ and perdition’s fires.

Welcome them, friend. Let them land
Their gaudy wings upon your hand,
Or head, or nose, or knee, or bum.
Let them flit and ‘do their thing’ until the job is done!

Attack of the Nabokovs (pencil, 20220220) Stephen J. Williams

‘Poetry is a small house’

Joe—who was the chef in the restaurant he owned with my mother—whispers in my ear: “I know something I wish I did not know. A disgraceful thing. Obscene. I think I know who did it.” And he looks at me, continuing to talk this way until he finally pulls a drawing out of his coat and unfolds it to show the image of a ‘crab-woman’, a beautiful woman who happens to have lots of claws coming out of her, like something from a painting by Peter Booth except that this was clearly drawn by a child or an idiot. Joe looks at my reaction and concludes I did not make the image. So he puts his arms around my shoulders as though we were comrades and leads me into a bar or a café, somewhere it always appears to be night and it is difficult to get a table. We navigate our way through the closely set tables trying to find one that is empty. There are few customers down at the rear of this place, where we finally sit down and I order an espresso in my best-sounding Italian. Right down at the end of the room an indigo wall has an unfinished, half-head portrait (lower half) of Samuel Beckett painted on it: the brain, everything above the bridge of the nose, is missing. I notice two poets I used to know, elderly women now both dead, have taken seats at a table not far from us. Someone emerges from a bunch of architect-lecturers to give a slide show presentation now being projected high up on the wall near me. I look up and see the words “alles, was vor dem sex-maschine… alles, was beim sex-maschine… alles, was nach dem sex-maschine” intercut with images, far more disturbing than the childish drawing Joe showed me. I did not understand the message of this presentation, though everyone seemed to find the language entertaining. Among some papers that have been strewn on the table by the presenter there is a newsletter that I made many years ago for a group of writers. The papers are being handed around the group. One of the architects dismisses the design I made. Asked who I am I can only say I am a poet. The dismissive architect asks me if a company with a very exotic and impressive name has published me. I tell him, No. I offer the names of a few places that have published me, and places I have worked, and things I’ve done, and say “… It’s not an opera house, though you can sometimes hear poetry even there. Poetry is a small house, if it is a house at all. It may be just a shelter.”


Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.

‘The frogman hands me an envelope’

Under cover of the arches of what appears to be a large shopping complex a musician is blowing his trumpet unmusically and another performer, a dancer, is limbering up for his performance. The dancer looks over at me and nods in a way that makes me think it is a signal of some sort. When his performance begins, he grabs me and lulls me into a kind of sleepy relaxation so that I lie down right there in front of everyone. I close my eyes and I wonder for a moment whether he is going to help me up or I am just going to fall asleep right there on the ground. When I open my eyes, however, the sky above me is dark and I am cold and wet, lying in the middle of a field. As I stand up I notice a man, dressed in a rubber wet suit, crawling up out of a hole in the ground, and breathing apparatus and oxygen tank still attached to his head and back. A woman is lying, drenched, on the ground a few metres away from me. The frogman hands me an envelope that has money in it—a couple of hundred dollars—which seems to be payment for the inconvenience of having been disappeared against my will. I look back across the field towards the shopping complex and notice that there is a fountain underneath the arches. The woman and I have somehow been lowered into the fountain and dragged underwater by a frogman for more than a hundred metres through an underground lake. We wander off, going in separate directions. I come to a road. There is a commotion ahead. Council workers are struggling with a giant creature, like an eel but sixty or more feet in length, which has a head with whiskers like a catfish. It snarls and gulps for air, flaps about like a fish out of water, which it is, while the council workers inject it with poison.

‘The lesson in filing stories about love’

I have entered a seminar or tutorial about some subject I am not very interested in, and a strange teacher—well, let’s be generous and say that he’s more like a salesman—makes a few remarks in his odd-looking check trousers and then arranges everyone in a great circle, men forming one half of the circle and women forming the other half of the circle. He tells everyone to start picking off participants they don’t like. I have adopted the strategy of positioning myself at the cusp of the male and female semi-circles. It doesn’t seem to be working, until I realise that I am being ignored—so, in this particular case, it is working. I do not get chosen to be excluded. Understand? I don’t really understand what happened, but it’s too late and the next part of the lesson has started. The horrible man in the strange trousers has written something on the blackboard: a long sentence about sexism against women. It ends up being a very stupid question. I do not want to write about it. However, everyone else has already started, so I am behind. I go up to the blackboard to get a closer look. The writing is tiny and I do not have my glasses on. The teacher tells me to sit down. While I am up I get some nice yellow paper to write on. When I get back to my desk I realise the paper I have chosen is deep red and very difficult to write on. I write on it anyway, completing something that is pretty good, I think. I have been writing in pencil. I search through a satchel for a fountain pen that I think will enable me to write on the red paper in a way that is easier to read. While I am doing this a young version of my mother enters the room and starts talking to me in a loud voice so that everyone can hear the conversation. We exchange remarks about the subject and the man in the check pants, even though he is getting quite annoyed with us. When I have found my pen I have to find the couple of paragraphs of writing that I have done on the seminar’s stupid subject. Where are they? I look through all the files, satchels, bags, boxes and even filing cabinets that are nearby but cannot, despite my increasing frustration, seem to find them anywhere. Jeff Klooger, who appears from nowhere, tells me that I never was very good at filing. Yes, he’s right. But I don’t need to be good at filing now they’ve invented ‘tags’: I just put everything in Evernote.

‘A design generator’

Someone I know has sent me to pick up a book. However, when I arrive at the shop I realise that the book is being designed, written and created as I wait for it, and that it has not been paid for. I am not happy about this, at first, but the book-creation process is very interesting… As soon as I arrived a camera mounted in a wall display took a picture of me and began to analyse and display a version of it on a screen. Sheets of paper begin to shoot out of a printer in the centre of the room. There are chapters relating to fashions in clothing containing many drawings about the development and materials all of which has been very neatly laid out. The machine continues to generate more details based on my name, age, physical condition, and so on, showing different versions of me, none of them actually me but, rather, versions of how I may have turned out under different circumstances or having made different choices. The printing machine at the centre of the room sometimes prints very large sheets, folds them, cuts them and re-folds them into elaborate paper models and packaging. Every new component is being stacked on a growing pile of fictional data amounting to many thousands of words, diagrams, and photographs. The stack includes a drawing of an ideal person I could be, and paper templates of suits and other things that could be made for me.

‘The future’

I am in the future again. This time I am I being dragged around ‘the sights’ by a guide who it not very communicative. In fact, he doesn’t tell me anything at all, doesn’t answer any of my questions. Nevertheless I do appear to have complete access to his house and life. He is always around. There are always other people—all of whom are equally unhelpful. I wonder why. There is no doubt they still go out in the same way that people used to go out for a good time, except that that it doesn’t look like they are having a very good time these days. For a start, everyone is wearing white. Not only is everyone dressed in white, the dominant color choice for decor is also white. In the absence of talking and laughter, there does not seem to be much point in drinking or eating. The meeting places are lounges with long tables and sofas where people sit together for hours on end. It is not really clear to me what they are exchanging, if not words or conversation, but there is little talking being done. One afternoon, my guide is working on some papers at his computer. He hands me a pair of glasses, like a band of metal. At one end there are the letters “GLASS REC JON:” which is followed by a string of letters and numbers. I put the glasses on my head and, after a little while trying to adjust it, the image on the glasses has cut off what I would normally see through my eyes, and I can hear a drum beat through little speakers near my ears. Most troubling, though, is that I am thinking thoughts that are not mine and I know they are not mine. The disembodied thought seems to take me by the hand and drag me impatiently down the street. When I look into the cafés and clubs now I can see what it is that people are actually doing with each other: they are talking and sharing impressions and recordings that they have made. They are doing this with these devices attached to their heads. It doesn’t seem like a very good idea, but I can see why it’s popular. For a start, there are no awkward spaces or silences; they have been edited out. We are walking along a small street where the outer wall of a garden surround a house or business has little planting boxes in it. My guide sends me a recording through the glasses, like a memory, that shows how one night he had pissed in all the plant boxes. “It wasn’t very nice of me, pissing on all their strawberries.” Later, everyone in the house is surprised to hear I think it is obvious their failure to communicate directly is the main reason they are so unhappy. “Are we unhappy?” “I didn’t know… That’s horrible.” Several of them leave the lounge room to get coffee. Later, while I am recording a message through the glasses I notice that the image of myself is not quite right, perhaps because it has been made from the ‘inside-out’. In any case, I decide to compare the image of myself with my real self and to do this by opening my eyes. I open my eyes. I expect to see myself like I would see myself in a mirror, but there is no mirror. All I can see is [a cupboard and a part of the ceiling in my room.] I close my eyes and see the image of myself in the recording. I open my eyes again, and again nothing, except that in my mind is a flash of recognition that my real body is several shades lighter in color and heavier in weight than the one in my dreams.

‘The Bullet’

It is the future again. I am in a large skyscraper where some renovations are being done to the elevators. Some of the elevators are still in use, some surrounded by high fencing. Queues are growing around the elevators and people start to remove some of the fencing that protects the elevators that are not working properly. I decide not to go in them. I find, instead, a moving walkway, like those used in airports, and that this new service has just been opened. It is called ‘The Bullet’. I step onto the walkway and it immediately begins to gather speed. I am surprised that it does not remain horizontal. It is taking me down the side and outside the building at tremendous speed and there seems to be no way to get off it. Other people on the walkway move to different lanes with ease while the walkway appears to compensate its speed allowing them step between the lanes without falling over. I give it a try and it works. When I am outside, however, the walkway continues to move me out of the city into areas I have not seen before. It is a wholly new city, really. Have I really been away this long? Could it have changed so much that I am a stranger in my own hometown? The walkway is speeding me further into unknown territory. There are cars, but the ‘walkers’, if that’s what they could be called, are moving just as quickly. I step off the walkway at an intersection where there appears to be some maps and travel information. None of it makes any sense to me. I ask for help from a young man who is handing out printed information at a stand that prints all newspapers and book as they are requested. It is a bookshop, the centrepiece of which is a machine for making books, maps and newspapers. The young man prints out a docket that has a long series of stops and directions on it, telling me where I have to get on and off different modes of transport that will take me home. It looks very complicated. “Is there any way I could get a taxi around here?” I must look very weak. Maybe I am close to tears. “It’s all right, Sir. I am finishing here, soon. I’ll take you there.”

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