Fiction — From the February 2013 issue

The Bloodline of the Alkanas

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Cyrus Alkana was my father, and if you can recognize this name, you belong to an inconspicuous substratum of humanity — a coterie, if such things can still be said to exist. He had his little following, cranks and fanatics like himself, including an out-of-favor critic who once dubbed him the “American Keats.” If this was launched as a compliment, it landed as a disparagement. Keats was exactly the trouble, the reason for my father’s obscurity — and not only Keats, but Shelley and Wordsworth and Coleridge and Tennyson and Swinburne, all those denizens of a fading antiquity. It wasn’t that my father worshipped these old poets who had crowded the back pages of his grade-school spelling book. He regarded himself as one of their company, a colleague and companion.

It was presumed by his enemies (he had many more of these than readers) that his formal literary education had stopped with those spellers. At sixteen he left Thrace High School for a job as a copyboy at the Beacon-Herald, the local newspaper, snatching stories fresh from the typewriter to speed them to the big clattering Linotype machines. He wasn’t so much running away from school as he was running away from home — there was something at home he didn’t like, some influence or threat that repelled him. It couldn’t have been his parents, because my father always behaved like a man who had been lavishly nurtured, and in marrying my mother he had lucked into the same cushioned indulgence. Still, some element of family there was that he wanted never again to be close to: a raving sister in an attic, or a herd of brutish cousins who habitually beat him up? He never hinted at anything of the kind; I never heard him speak of family at all. The little that came drifting down to me was only that he lived by himself in a rooming house until he could stiffen his spine for the move to New York.

It was this cramped beginning that led him to the harvesting of enemies. The American Keats, they mocked, was no more than a small-town autodidact. Modernism had left him behind, or else he had never been aware of its arrival, dizzied as he was by groves and rivulets and dawns and goddesses and nymphs. His mind was afloat with cosmic visions — infinity, and transcendence, and the sublime. Which was the least of it: born into the wrong century, he sometimes spattered his lines with ’tis and o’er and e’en. These, my mother said in my father’s defense, were conscious grace notes, not, as his accusers claimed, outlandish bad habits.

My mother regularly defended my father. It was he alone who was taking a stand for Beauty, lately driven from the world by the conspiracy of a self-styled avant-garde who despised not merely the cradlings of iambic pentameter but the very skein and pith of magic and mystery. This was how my mother spoke. She had long ago learned to be a copy of my father. She even copied his distaste for me.

At nine I had begun to dismantle all the clocks in our apartment, and soon discovered how to reassemble their parts. Out of waxed paper, school paste, and bits of wood pried from the backs of picture frames, I built fragile model airplanes, with the thinnest of wing struts. At twelve, on purpose to provoke, I announced that I had seen God, and that His name was Geometry. (My father dismissed God; he cared only for the gods.) I was absorbed by shapes and their measurements, the height and width of tables and bureaus and doors, everything hard to the touch and substantially there. I determined early on that I would shun the vapor of words my parents exhaled as from some mist-producing internal fungus — my mother’s, being imitative, somehow more egregious than my father’s. These enveloping clouds of words, and the rapture they induced, my father called the “Bestowal.” It was a term I heard often, especially in relation to its absence in me.

“The child lacks it,” he would say.

“She is wanting in it,” my mother would agree.

They had named me Sidney after a pair of my father’s favored poets: Sir Philip Sidney and Sidney Lanier, both of whom, my mother frequently reminded me, “were known to work in your father’s vein.” She spoke as if they had long ago publicly acknowledged their debt to Cyrus Alkana. I had never cared enough to look up either one.

The Bestowal had come, according to my father, through an ancestral line leading back as far as the poet-prophets Micah and Isaiah, but more immediately through one Rafael Alkana, who was said to have set down torrents of God-praises, in rhyming Ladino couplets, in the margins of his prayer book. In the Inquisitional trauma of that distant departure from a myth-clad Iberia to an equally shrouded Anatolia, the sacred volume was lost — in shipwreck or conflagration, whichever version one preferred.

“Lost yet not lost,” my father said. “Whence, even in the latter-day idiom of the New World, the power of language suffuses the bloodline of the Alkanas.” And recited:

Frigate or trireme,
Oarsmen or steam,
Onward they ploughed,
Spirits unbowed,
Unto the invincible dream.

Though whence and unto were recognizably also among his grace notes, it was unclear whether these lines were his own, or a fragment of some admired minor lyrical Victorian. I did not understand my father’s talk. I sensed only that there was some undeniable connection between these enigmatic outbursts and the mundane truth that we were always worrying about money. I was by then a demanding fifteen, shamed by the way we lived in a three-room flat on the fifth floor of a Bronx walk-up. The kitchen window looked out on a narrow shaft that plummeted down into a bleak courtyard mobbed by rows of metal barrels. I slept on a pullout bed abutting a steam radiator, on top of which were heaped the books my father periodically fetched home from the public library at the end of our street, a redbrick Carnegie whose coal furnace shook the building with its winter roar. On the coldest nights I was assaulted by the peculiar odor of heated binding glue.

These books were never the same for long. They changed their colors and thicknesses — some were squat, some tall and lean, and most had slips of paper, my father’s scribbles, stuck between the leaves. The library was as far into the outer world as my father was willing to go. “He lives in his head,” my mother insisted, and by this she meant me to grasp that my father’s cerebrations were the equivalent of what other fathers had: a regular job. And more. In that labyrinthine space, she implied, were museums and galleries and opera houses and lecture halls and cathedrals and landscapes and monuments: the whole of civilization. If his mind was a kind of Parthenon, then what need had he of the common street?

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is the author of six essay collections and thirteen works of fiction. Her most recent book is a novel, Foreign Bodies.


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  • Jenny L

    A fine parable for writers. Competition in aesthetics is the original sin of literature.

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