The Magic Mountain

Time is the element of narration, just as it is the element of life—is inextricably bound up with it, as bodies are in space. It is also the element of music, which itself measures and divides time, making it suddenly diverting and precious; and related to music, as we have noted, is the story, which also can only present itself in successive events, as movement toward an end…

-Thomas Mann


Fex, Switzerland, in the region of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain

Fex, Switzerland, in the region of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain

From September to early March, between finishing my graduate writing program and beginning full time work, I had nothing but time.

It was so much time it seemed like no time at all.

With all that time I traveled, I wrote, and I read. From early January to mid-March, in fact, I spent a lot of time reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a 700 page novel devoted to the narration of amorphous, barely registered time.

Hans Castorp, who Mann ironically refers to as ¨our hero,¨ ascends above the clouds to a Swiss sanatorium, intending to visit his sick cousin for a couple of weeks. Instead, he stays seven years.

Schatzalp Sanatorium, Davos

Schatzalp Sanatorium, Davos

Even though Hans abandons the ¨flatlands,¨ with his family and engineering apprenticeship, life doesn’t stop. High up in the Alps, in ¨years neither short, nor long, simply without time, rich with experience yet null and void,¨ Hans attends sumptuous communal meals five times a day and rest cures in ¨the vertical position.¨ Through it all, he finds diversions in romance, philosophy, anatomy, botany, skiing, hypnosis, befriending the soon to be dead…

The typical things you might do when there are no pressing obligations.

The Rest Cure

The Rest Cure

Reading the novel felt a bit like being a sanatorium guest. The novel floats from scene to scene, idea to idea, and circles back and back as days— then years—pass. The pages seemed endless. I doubted I’d ever finish them and return to the real world. Slowly plowing through, with chapters and chapters to go, I wondered if I was wasting my time.

At the end of February, after I secured a job offer and neared the novel’s final section, I traveled to Switzerland and by chance ended up in the canton of Graubünden, the same region as the Davos sanatorium. Visibility was poor; clouds dimmed the sun and hid the Alpine summits.

Aside from the pines, there was only white and gray, with no starts and stops, the snow everywhere, cascading out of sight in every direction—the landscape gracious, full, indeterminate.

Fex, Switzerland

Fex, Switzerland

For so long, I was caught up in those high mountains with so much substance, so little narrative. So much happened that can’t be summarized—because what happened had no clear plot.

Then, all of a sudden, following no climax or conflict, it ended. 

I finished the novel one day before I began my new job.

And now that my days are no longer something I’m indulgently spending but monitoring, double-booking, managing, and conserving—now that I’m back on a definitive track, with goals and an outline of the future I can visualize—I don’t know if I’ll ever make sense of that time, that ¨line of elastic turning points¨ so difficult to read.




To a Locomotive in Winter

This winter, Boston’s record-breaking snowstorms paralyzed the already debt-stressed and out of date MBTA. The transportation system shut down entirely twice. Delays tripled and quadrupled in the days that followed. The general manager quit. Weeks (and weeks) later, plenty of commuters were still dealing with the aftermath.

So it was a treat to visit Switzerland at the end of February and zip around the country by train.

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The smooth, quiet comfort of its interior! The nearly to-the-second reliability! The gorgeous views, from spire-tipped Zurich to countryside, through winding bridge and tunnel to alpine village, up and up, all the way to the base of those singular, massive peaks!

Traveling by train is typically Swiss: in a sweeping way, it says so much about the country and its people, their priorities and preoccupations.

It makes me think of Whitman’s 1876 poem (shown below in its entirety), ¨To a Locomotive in Winter,¨ which celebrates the American train (and American perspective) of the Industrial Revolution.

But the Swiss train, with its punctuality, cleanliness, quality, precision, and range, seems worthy of its own ecstatic poetic apostrophe.

Thee for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm, even as now, the snow, the winter-day declining,
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive,
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass, and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating, shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the distance,
Thy great protruding head-light fix’d in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate purple,
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily-following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of the continent,
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind, and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.


The Glacier Express, travelling toward Chur, Switzerland

Fierce-throated beauty!
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earthquake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return’d,
Launch’d o’er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.

Phoenix, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Airport



I love the airport. The airport is the destination before the destination, and it always says something, usually something fundamental, about its host city.

Among favorite airports I’ve visited—Zurich, Mexico City, San Diego—my number one might be the airport of my hometown: Phoenix Sky Harbor International. (It doesn’t hurt that Sky Harbor is a great name.)

Sky Harbor perfectly represents the urban landscape of Phoenix. Like the desert roads beyond its walls, its concourses are straight and expansive. Like the inside of an adobe house or a low-slung concrete warehouse, its interior is dark, in extreme contrast to the bright light outside. For the most part, Sky Harbor is plain and no-nonsense, but underneath there seems to lurk something mysterious. Like meeting someone with a flat personality, it makes me wonder what else is going on beyond the surface.

Maybe I love Sky Harbor because it’s the airport of my childhood. Still, I think there’s more to the feeling than simple nostalgia. Something about this airport’s energy captures the essence of travel, of moving towards a new and not entirely understood destination.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who periodically fled the Midwest for Arizona and built his sprawling Taliesin West just outside the city, had a peculiar architectural principle when it came to hallway design. He wanted hallways to feel cramped, uncomfortable, primal. To Wright, passageways should be built to make the person within them feel like a caged animal, physically—even psychologically—constrained. In Wright’s homes, the transition from the hallway to the open space of a room is meant to affect a release—a sensation of freedom and possibility.

Stepping out of a plane to the corridors of Sky Harbor, I feel like I’m passing through something like Wright’s transitional zone, and as I move on—especially on late evenings, the concourses empty and quiet—it seems I have become, or I am just about to become, absolutely free.



A Few Lines from A.R. Ammons



…it is not so much to know the self
as to know it as it is known
by galaxy and cedar cone,
as though birth had never found it
and death could never end it…

A.R. Ammons, from ¨Gravelly Run¨

Bisbee, Arizona

Near the U.S.-Mexico border and isolated within the Mule Mountains of Southern Arizona, this former mining town has a layered, living past that its residents can’t escape (or don’t want to escape).





The Double


In September, in a used bookshop in Marseille, I discovered a book of poetry by Jules Supervielle, a poet well-known in France but little known in America.

As I first flipped through the book, titled Poems: 1939-1945, Supervielle’s style reminded me a bit of Wallace Stevens, especially in the circular, giving way the poet’s subjects bleed into one another, leaving no firm truths or times, nothing definite to hang on to.

The physical book itself struck me as special. The printing date is stamped on the last page: December 20, 1945. Just a few months after the end of World War II. Made of delicate, browned, shaggy-edged paper and wrapped in an old wax paper protector, the book is remarkably preserved and cared for.

Written in graying ink—not on the cover’s inside flap, not on the title page, but on the upper right corner of the first page of poetry—is a woman’s name. Her first name is easy to make out: Monique. But her family name is unclear.


Monique Ballat? Monique Balmat? The last name is underscored with one bold, confident line, as if Monique’s ownership of this text—and her identity—were firmly resolved.

But who was she, and how did she come into possession of this book? Did she read it as a young girl, or as an older woman, as mother, a grandmother? How did she take these poems, with the destruction of war still so present and reverberating?

And more: how long had this book waited in this dusty bookstore, waiting for a new reader? Monique and I: have we been the sole two owners of this book? What drew both of us to it: something about us—our likeness?

Later that afternoon, I rushed to Marseille’s main library, off the wide Canebiére that leads to the city’s extravagant port, and I translated one of the poems. It seemed to speak directly to me. I wonder if Monique read it, and if it spoke to her as well.

The Double

My double approaches. He looks at me.
He says: ¨Ah there he is! the one who dreams,
who imagines he’s alone (as I watch him
lower his eyes and plunge into misery.)
Dark, dark, darker: in this black night
he cannot hide; it’s bound now to my solitude.
I too am thrown to the depths of sleep. I rise
to seek him—not as a wolf, so gray-like, rude—
but rather as electric light, too soft
and weak to scare him off. I approach myself
in him; I study him there. I shine on the thing
that escapes his heart. I signal it to come to me.¨

Imitation of Life

Recently, I was struck by an extraordinary Roman sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If anything comes close to a likeness of the human, and by extension, a likeness of life, I think it has to be this.


The devious satyr is unsettling in his beauty—even uncanny. Arrested in this one pose, mangled, mounted in sterile space, he still seems capable of taking a breath, of magically coming to life, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.

Uncanny was also the first word that came to mind when I watched a video of BigDog, Boston Dynamic’s robotic animal, a machine eerily animal and eerily not so.

Sculpture and robotics are both technologies, both imitative arts. Where sculpture was perfected in antiquity, robotics is being perfected now. In both, there seems to be the potential for life to leap from objects, regardless of purpose and whether those objects move or remain still.

Maybe, as so many theorists predict, robots like BigDog will someday come to life. Maybe they never will, or maybe they already have, and will only grow more alive, through technology—which is to say, through imagination.