Kate bush and Jesus / espionage and intrigue: a look at us conductors
Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. Portland, OR: Tin House Books, June 2014. 456 pages. $15.95 paperback.
For your reference, here is a YouTube playlist of theremin music.
Us Conductors is the debut novel of Sean Michaels, a Montreal-based writer and music critic. I became familiar with Michaels’ work through his blog Said the Gramophone, which combines obscure jpegs, streaming music, and creative prose. Much of my own music and writing tastes developed from this website; its annual .zip file of the year’s best songs plays on infinite repeat for my winter months. While studying for a writing degree in college, I looked to Said the Gramophone as an educative supplement, an ancillary, a calming track when the workshops and peer critiques grew exhausting. On approach Michaels’ novellooked to deliver the same lithe and deliberate style as his posts.
Us Conductors occupies a cross-genre hinterland: part biography, part epistolary novel, part fiction and nonfiction. It is the story of Leon Termen, Russian engineer, tinkerer, and inventor of the theremin, that whooshy wooey electronic instrument recognized today as the sound of an advancing UFO, or the rhythmic through line of the chorus in the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations.” The real Lev Sergevyich Termen, or Leon Theremin, lived from 1886 to 1993, and Clara Rockmore nee Reisenberg—the novel’s romantic interest—really was a virtuosic thereminist who died at 87 in 1998. On its disclaimer page, Us Conductors reads: “This book is mostly inventions.” Add the lyrics from Kate Bush and Jesus and Mary Chain as chapter titles and you have a book that defies any kind of elevator pitch. Michaels himself calls it “a sort of love story.”
In the novel, Termen invents the theremin in Russia in 1921 and is immediately swept up by the Kremlin and asked to tour the country because “these discoveries aren’t just for the academy […] they are for the people.” Demonstrating in front of Lenin is a tent pole moment for Termen, who, for the remainder of the book, appends “(May his memory be illuminated)” onto any mention of the communist Premier.
He meets Pash, the man who would become his handler. They travel to America, where they practice music and espionage in equal measure, Termen as a reluctant spy and Pash as a Soviet heavy. In the hold of a ship bound for Russia in 1938, Termen types his account of these adventures to his beloved Clara Rockmore, the greatest thermenist in the world.
When Termen is with Clara, the novel is like a Baz Lurhmann party scene. The story is luminous, quickened—“You smiled at me and I realized we had never been together like this, not in a place like this, a place without spotlights or hidden corners; a place where you are illuminated only as you are, as bright or as faded.”
When Termen is with his Soviet handlers, the story becomes Werner Herzog voice-over.
Though there is espionage and intrigue, Us Conductors tempers and slows, mirroring the deep winters of the Motherland—“Now and then they asked me to steal, to take surreptitious photographs, but I bungled these, forgetting to remove the lens cap, taking the wrong document from the wrong folder. These lapses were neither deliberate nor accidental. I do not know what they were.”
Because the novel is written as a long form letter, the first meeting between Leon and Clara is a scene of reflexive beauty:
Outside the glass, the blizzard was infinite and slow. I remember breathing, and seeing you all breathing, chests rising and falling, under the shelter of my roof. I remember our shadows slanting by the lamps, and touching. My hands passed through the air and I looked at you, just a girl. Already, I knew: you were so many things. I tried to make the room tremble. I tried to make it sing. I think it sang.
Michaels has the ability to take an otherwise groaning setup—a man meets the love of his life in the twilight hours of a New York City snowstorm—and infuse it with an earnestness and poetry. Perhaps this is because Sean Michaels is a Canadian.
Us Conductors is the story of a man and his invention. The world moves faster than Termen can comprehend, and—over the course of 400 pages—Michaels himself conducts the dissonance between the Roaring Twenties and soviet gulags. Exiled, imprisoned, forced to work for the Motherland, Termen continues writing to Clara, and it is this devotion that founds the narrative. Sean Michaels has set his characters on a fragile board and filled them with unrealized hope. His words have within them a ceaseless waiting, like a hammer held above thin ice, or a sickle before the wheat fields.
the myth of persistent vision: A LOOK AT all movies love the moon
All Movies Love the Moon by Gregory Robinson. Brookline, MA: Rose Metal Press, 2014. 96 pages. $14.95 paperback.
Silent movies. I never gave them much thought until reading Gregory Robinson’s All Movies Love the Moon.Now, I’m slightly obsessed.
All of Robinson’s prose poems take their titles from noteworthy silent films. Each poem directly reflects a particular movie and ties some aspect of the film to the real world. For example, in the 1902 movie, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, a man believes that the images before him are real and he responds with excitement and anger. Those watching the movie find humor in Uncle Josh’s actions and Robinson’s readers also laugh at Uncle Josh’s antics, because they know better. “Everyone imagines at least one person who is dumber, worse off, or more miserable than they are,” writes Robinson. Unlike Uncle Josh we know that what’s on the screen isn’t real. Or is it? What I love most about movies is the way they stay with me long after the theater closes. I think about them—relive them in my mind. The images and the story—though they may be make-believe—stay with me and become real. I’ve connected with them and found some truth there. Through Uncle Josh, Robinson address permanence, a theme that runs throughout the whole collection and not just this particular movie and poem. “Underneath the buffoonery, Uncle Josh gets the final laugh. The would-be boob knew too well that movies are not part of time but images of time itself, how cats that die in movies haunt us as real cats do.” The silent movies of the past become permanent—withstanding trend. They are a history for filmmakers and film watchers alike.
Not only is Robinson informative about a topic that is obscured by time and constant advancements, he also presents his subject matter beautifully with straightforward prose poetry. Robinson plays against the historical aspect of the work by mentioning current cultural icons, such as Burger King, McDonalds, Sylvester Stallone, Netflix, and Justin Timberlake. His direct approach doesn’t shy away from language that exposes his love of the film genre, the movies he’s writing about, and the individuals who lived in the world of silent films. In “Orchids and Ermine (1927)” Robinson describes Pink Watson, the ever-daydreaming telephone operator, “There is too little time to suffer, to pine, to feel unfulfilled, too many possible lives in her elsewhere eyes.” It only takes one look at actress Colleen Moore to see those very dreamy eyes. Robinson chooses movies of diverse nature and creates a collection where they all seamlessly belong by giving the readers glimpses of images or moments particular to either the movie, or those involved. In the French silent movie, A Trip to the Moon, noted as the first science fiction film, Robinson addresses the myth of persistent vision against the actions of Georges Méliès, the director who ended up burning his own film reels, “It is a rare kind of monster up there, roaming the moon, ghosting the screen. It is the product of daily sacrifice, where flames sear and claws tear and eyes forget until eventually, the dead stay dead.”
As viewers of film, we are voyeurs of a sort, privy to scenes and interactions in which we have no place. It’s delicious, isn’t it—being part of something so outside ourselves? We see things from another perspective. We take on personas not our own and experience something and somewhere new. My favorite line from the collection comes from the poem “Underworld (1927)”: “There is an aesthetic to trespassing, a beauty in being where you should not.” The movie was nominated to the American Film Industry’s Top Ten Gangster Film list and Robinson’s corresponding poem situates the reader in a dark and dangerous place—perfect for a gangster film or for a person who dares to venture where they should not.
Robinson’s voice is conversational and personal and it makes the entire work feel welcoming. Robinson augments the historical bits, the on-point writing, and universality of the emotions expressed throughout the work with beautiful representations of title cards from the movies. Some funny, some serious, they allow the reader a moment in the past and make the distant art form accessible. For fans of the silent film, Robinson’s work, though not historically in-depth (wouldn’t that take volumes?), will be a fresh, creative way to view the art form. For a neophyte, such as myself, he makes the silent film world very enticing, real, and relevant. It seems to me that part of the charm of this collection is the connection it creates between a reader, the text, and film. Connection is often what we seek in this world, what we search for and sometimes miss. Robinson draws the connection between the past form of art and present day entertainment. Robinson’s collection is classic and timeless—very much like the silent films that his poems honor.
Anthony Marvullo lives in the NH Seacoast Region with his girlfriend and two cats. He is a Digital Content Editor at an educational publishing company. His web site is www.amarvullo.com and he can be found on Twitter at @amarvullo.
Lynne Landis is from North Little Rock, Arkansas. She is an MFA candidate in the Arkansas Writers Program.