by Neil Coghill

(N.B. Instructions in italics are not absolutely necessary for the completion of the origami (thyroid) butterfly. They will however assist with certain other matters.)

1. Clear off a work surface as near as possible to an oriel window. Don’t pick the window with my campsite though. I’d rather you chose another. But preferably a south-facing one, with a view of rue St-Gabriel. Still, if you must choose my window, since it’s view is the best, try not to step on my sleeping bag.

2. Place a square of paper, colored side down, on your work surface so that its point are facing up and down, left and right.
Look out at the cobbled stones of rue St-Gabriel. Take a few deep, calming breaths.

3. Bring the left point of the square over to meet the right point. Crease and unfold.
Think of your little brother, your responsibilities toward same.

4. Bring the top point down to meet the bottom point. Crease and unfold. Imagine how with this sheet of paper, you are caring for your own embattled thyroid.

5. Locate the center of the square by determining where the crease lines made in 2 and 3 intersect. Ask yourself, ‘Have I taken all my medicines today? In their correct dosages?’

6. Bring the top point down to the center of the square. Crease and leave folded. Ask yourself, ‘Have I eaten properly today? More than just a bit of Ichiban here and there?’

7. Repeat Step 5 for the remaining points of the square. Turn the model over.
Imagine a separate course for each fold. Soup course; entrée; salad course; dessert. Make sure to imagine foods that you like. Otherwise you might as well not bother. Eating is a pleasure to many people, you know.

8. Bring the top point down to the center of the model (use the intersection of crease lines as your guide again). Crease and unfold. Repeat with the remaining points. Or just do whatever you like.

9. Turn the model over and open out all the flaps. See if I care.

10. Position the square so that its edges are facing up and down, left and right. Bring the top edge to the center of the model. Crease and leave folded. Repeat with the bottom edge. You will now have a rectangular shape in front of you.
Really, imagine it’s just an origami, if you like. Just don’t make that joke about the pipe. It’s a stupid joke. Of course sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.

11. Push the top left point of the rectangle towards the center of the model, in between the two layers of paper—the corner should collapse along crease lines made in previous steps. Repeat for the remaining points of the rectangle. The resulting shape (seen in the crease lines) should resemble a square with triangular shapes extending from the left and right edges. Turn the model over. But consider that you were the ones—both of you—who taught me how to use this imagination you so impugn as a tool of persuasion.

12. Bring the top edge of the model down to meet the bottom edge. Crease and leave folded. Your model should now resemble a boat.  The top left corner and the top right corner should now have three layers of folds. Unless your problem is just that these instructions are too hard…

13. Pull the top layer of the top left point down so that the model collapses along the left side of the upside-down "v"-shaped crease extending out from the top center of the model. In the process of bringing the left point down, the top left point of the model's second layer should automatically be brought over to the center. Repeat with the right side of the model, which should now be shaped like a triangle, long edge facing away from you. Turn the model over. That these instructions might be having the opposite of their intended effect.

14. Bring the left point over to meet the right point. Crease and unfold. Turn the model over. If that’s the case then I’m very sorry. If that’s the case and you still want the butterfly, just take a few more deep, cleansing breaths and wait for me to get home. I should be home soon, I tend to get home at a quarter to four, as you probably know. And then you’ll have your butterfly and a hundred more where that came from.

15. Place a thumb and forefinger at either side of the model's center, vertical crease line, at the top edge of the model. Bring the right half of the model over the center crease line just enough so that the bottom point of the model separates into two wing-like shapes. Crease and leave folded.
But, on the other, hand, I really bet you can do it.

16. Turn under the loose corner that was brought over the center crease line. Re-crease the center portion of the butterfly to secure the folds.
Imagine you are the great goddess Inanna. You can do anything! For example, here you will have recreated your own thyroid in the image of a butterfly, healthy, powerful and resolute, but delicate. Well worth the effort. Well worth it.

Gilgamesh & US Hegemony

Speaking of how a leader can be taught how to be good to his people...

I often think George W. Bush would have been a perfect Gilgamesh if only he could have met his Enkidu somewhere along the line. Don’t you think? He had the perfect lack of self-awareness.

As it stands, he only gave us the first half of the story though, submitted his people to an Ius Primae Noctis of sorts, throughout his presidency.

And then the middle part of the story seems to have handed the role of Gilgamesh to Saddam Hussein, who spent months wandering in the wilderness. I know he was an awful tyrant, but a face like that does make me wonder whether his style of leadership might have changed after such an experience. Like Gilgamesh. During his reign he suffered from terrible hubris. I wonder if life in a hole in the ground can wash any of that away, the way it does in the movies.

So Bush tag-teamed Saddam in playing the part. But nobody bothered to give us the ending, where we find the leader older and wiser and more compassionate. No ending. Everyone plundering and blundering through history, forgetting to give the people an ending. Unless Obama is the ending...

He sure looks tired here though.

But this is all very rude of me, perhaps. I am, after all, only a Canadian. Shouting from the wings, as it were.

Today of all days, though, I have the right to look south of the border with a critical eye. Because I see someone has been talking about me behind my back.

Runner & Ruby Coghill

There’s a book by Hillel Schwartz called The Culture of the Copy. It’s a beautifully written, seemingly influential, phenomenological approach to the idea of facsimile over many centuries of human culture (one example: he attempts to locate the origin of the phrase The Real McCoy and learns that origins themselves are legion.)

In the last century, we have been unable to escape the age of mechanical reproduction. It fills my own days more than I usually realize, from the moment I might see an image of the Mona Lisa in the newspaper to a comic routine on youtube or a real-time conversation with my brother on Skype.

Shwartz’s book makes the case for the copy being itself a symbol of post-post-modern-modernism etcetera ad infinitum… It’s the world that the members of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women’s Book Club are living in when they encounter one of the oldest stories in the world. Their retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a modern mirror image, a copy of a copy of a story someone once told. Carved cuneiform in clay at play in the modern world.

It also brings the modern world to a stop.

It’s possible to be both a copy and an original. Runner and Ruby Coghill, the twins that preside over The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal, are by no means copies of each other. One of them isn’t even alive anymore.

When I read The Culture of the Copy, I had already decided that the book was only going to tell the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh on the surface. Its undertoad might actually, (I thought), croak out the tale of two Sumerian goddess sisters, Inanna and Erishkigal. One was the goddess of fecundity, the other the queen of death. They never saw each other. Theirs was, in Runner’s words, ‘the best and oldest story of twins.’

Runner tells the story better than I do.

It’s about Inanna, goddess of life, descending to the realm of her sister Erishkigal, because it was the only place in the universe that she had never been, and she was curious. So she went. To get there, she had to pass through seven gates. As she went through each, the guards would make her remove a piece of her garment, until when she came before her sister Erishkigal, Queen of the Dead, she was … naked and ashamed, and then her sister struck her dead and hung her body on a nail. That’s how they tell it: hung her body on a nail. Erishkigal was jealous of her sister’s primacy in the upper world, and wanted her to stay down there. These two women, though. They were so close as to be almost the same person. When Inanna’s servants came down to claim the body, they found Erishkigal moaning and doubled over, as if she herself were experiencing the physical pain of her sister’s death. And she wouldn’t let her go. It was like they had to be together, the two sisters, but also they couldn’t be together, and the only way Inanna could be returned to her place in heaven was if someone she loved would come and take her place.
Gilgamesh himself is a character who is caught in the universe of these two sisters — a universe some of us are familiar with, in which death follows life and is itself eternal. One wonders why it can’t be the other way around? As it is, for example, in the Christian universe, wherein we might as well just up and bleed the world, drop a few bombs and hasten our way to the afterparty?

The Sumerians, in short, were saner with their religion than we are. And they had a saner way of demonstrating to a leader how he should be good to his people.

And Runner and Ruby Coghill preside over the universe of the Lacuna Cabal just as Inanna and Erishkigal do with the Sumerians.

Which is not to say I like the idea of this book being presented in the genre of metafiction. No way. All these characters — Missy, Emmy, Coby, Du, Romy, Aline, Priya, Neil (though their names have been changed to protect the innocent) — are masters of their own destinies. The narrative does not govern them (despite what the Coach House book jacket might say). Rather, it is their love for the narrative that governs them. This distinction makes all the difference in the world. It’s something that can happen to real people, Don Quixote being a perfect example.

Not that Don Quixote is a real person, but you know what I mean.

To paraphrase the narrators, Jennifer & Danielle (whose names have not been changed to protect the innocent): Anyone who think we’re making metafiction can just fuck off. Maybe later we’ll let our convictions in this matter get a bit sketchy, but for now…

I will however confess to the presence of a little bit of the supernatural though. I recently read an interview with a Canadian playwright whom I admire, who said she just can’t help believing that ghosts belong in serious fiction. It's because she’s Irish, she said.

I'm Irish too. At least partly.

Which is how I can bring my twin sisters back together in the realm of serious fiction, even though one of them is dead.

And then there are the narrators—the so-called anti-twins—Jennifer and Danielle, who feel they are not worthy of telling this story yet are the only ones who can.

The reader might be surprised to read all these highborn claims connected to what is after all a story of shallow little book club being told by a pair of unscholarly girls.

But it’s my hope that the reader won’t make the mistake of confusing the narrative voice (humble, self-abasing, attempting to prove at every turn that they are neither worthy or bright, like the copiers of the Gilgamesh Epic for the library of the great king of Nineveh, Ashurbanipal, who conducted their work in chains)

... for the authorial voice (which asserts that, yes, J&D are worthy. and yes, J&D are bright; and yes, J&D can achieve the grace that comes from steeping oneself in great literature.)

These storytellers aren’t like the tweeter whose post I read on Twitter the other day, a teenage girl who wrote that she would rather claw her eyes out than ever be subjected to the Epic of Gilgamesh again. J&D’s approach is somewhat more adventurous. And they take their task so seriously that they seek to track their own growing awareness in the telling.

Gilgamesh is a longtime obsession for me

I adapted the epic of Gilgamesh once before, in a very long spoken ballad with musical accompaniment, as part of my play Aerwacol, written over a decade ago. Why Gilgamesh is a subject for another post, but the song grew to be so long that I felt compelled to present it in three parts over the course of the play. I have long suspected this to have been a cop-out on my part, and that perhaps I should have edited instead...

Recently though I had the pleasure of seeing a new production of the play, in St. Louis, Missouri, and I found that the journey of the song (and the songwriter) through the play turned out to be one of its strongest components. Along with the fact that they answered the script's call for a manual railroad cart with the real thing.

An added bonus of the St. Louis production was this review, by Richard Green, on a regional news site called Talkin' Broadway.

... a band of slightly gob-smacked Canadians, broken by recent tragedies, sets out across the plain. They roll along on a railroad push-cart (a "jigger"), only to meet with unwelcomed success. Gradually, they disband until we reach an ending that still defies explanation, in my mind ... Aerwacol is a masterpiece of the commonplace, the desperate, and the impossible.

The whole cast is remarkable, natural and polished. We are led into the wilderness without a map, just as Christopher Harris (as a pig farmer) is led through the woods and ditches in the opening minutes by his delirious wife (Donna Parrone). And in that flight, she says the absolutely unspeakable, instantly rising to mythic stature...

It would probably be boring to read about every little unexpected bit of naturalistic humor or stagecraft that makes Aerwacol so transcendent, but you'd be surprised at what magic can arise from small things: a fine mist from stage left catching the cool white rays of dawn; a country cottage that snaps open like the end of a long fever-dream; and an odd chicken-wire shell surrounding the top of a mine, creating echoes of mysterious depths whenever its platform is struck with a shovel or plank. Taken all together, it makes you think there may still be a couple of centuries of good theater still ahead of us.

I'm old enough now to know that a notice like this doesn't mean I'm en route to Broadway, but it's a nice thing to see, fer sher.

Here's the ballad from the play. It focuses in on a detail in the Gilamesh story — his encounter with the barmaid, Shiduri.

Sources close to the Mayor conceded last night,
Callyhoo is not up to the task.
He lost his brother last month in a skiing accident
And he’s no longer up to the task.

This was clear yesterday when, found by the river,
Still swollen from last week’s flood,
He’d lost his shoes and his socks and his hat and his Pride;
His renown is unfortunately now stuck in the mud.

The distraught Callyhoo stumbled into a bar
For to try and catch his breath,
The barmaid looked at him straight in the eye
Said don’t waste time with your challenging Death.

Don’t waste time with your challenging Death my man
Let your days be untroubled and free
Pay heed to the little ones that hold you by the hand
And the touch of a woman like me.

Of each day make a feast of rejoicing my love,
Let your people be a comfort to you,
So when you pass on they’ll remember, they’ll say
That man new life. That Mayor Callyhoo.

But the Mayor said “No!” “No!”
He had to learn on his own.
He had to wander the roads of the earth
To fill the hole that was there in his heart with a home.

For awhile Callyhoo went with Wild Bill's Fair
On display for the leering crowd
For awhile he worked on a high scaffold
Where he shouted his questions at God out loud

In his travels he found hearts ravaged as his
Were numbered as stars in the sky
So he founded a town where they could all lie down
Where all were welcome to come lie down and die

Now people came to this town from miles around,
By the hundreds or more, to be dead.
Callyhoo lay there living for 99 years
Then he stood up again and scratched the top of his head.

He thought he recalled something that he had once heard
That seemed in a flash to make sense
And a damn sight wiser than all this lying around,
So he addressed all the supine ladies and gents

He said let's not waste time with this pretense of death,
Let's make our days untroubled and free
pay heed to the little ones that hold us by the hand
And build up a town for you and for me

A town with fresh water and plenty of wine
And land all around for to make
A garden of Tears that would reap Happiness
In our Village of Early Awake.

"Each day must be full of rejoicing and love
For the people are a comfort to you.”
He proclaimed all this and said "When I pass on
Tell them that man knew life – The Mayor Callyhoo!"

Keep Calm and Carry On

There's a poster shop in my neighbourhood that sells one in several different near-primary colours. It looked like a vintage design, so I looked it up and found that it appeared all over London in 1939, courtesy of the Ministry of Information.

I recall reading how this was also the manner in which Londoners responded to the Underground bombings in 2005. They kept calm. They carried on.