Rust Belt Bindery is “a book bindery that’s committed to producing and distributing new work as well as repairing and rebinding existing objects. Working collaboratively with artists and writers, Rust Belt puts out limited edition works of fiction and artist books.” I found out about Rust Belt Bindery when their literary editor, Blake Kimzey, sent me a copy of Ashley Farmer’s “Farm Town,” a beautiful chapbook of poems replete with hand-colored illustrations from Meredith Lynn. Here’s one of Farmer’s poems, “Gone to Waste”:
Rust Belt has also put out a “book box” by Ryan Ridge (“Hey, It’s America,” a story told on 50 cards, also heavily illustrated and quite striking—I’m not savvy enough to steal the picture from Rust Belt’s website, so you’ll have to click here or take my word for it) and chapbooks by Drew Jackson and Blake himself. Their latest limited edition chapbook is Brian Evenson’s “The Other Ear,” the true occasion for this post.
In a 2012 interview for BOMB, Brian Evenson said, “There are aspects of [Windeye] that are more autobiographical than my other books. . . . I had a tumor in my neck about a year and a half ago. To get it out, they had to take my left ear and peel it back and then put it back in place. No one told me before the operation that they’d have to cut the nerve so I wouldn’t feel my ear. So, afterward, there was this really strange period where the nerve was there and not there, flailing, trying to reconnect. My brain was figuring out ways to pretend there was something there.”
From Evenson’s story, “The Other Ear”:
A sea anemone, he thought. An animal of some sort, a familiar. There it was, sewn to one side of his head, refusing at least in his mind to simply be an ear. His body was likely shivering in the trench, caked in freezing mud, but the ear seemed to flex and pulse and then, suddenly, ramify, spreading like a vine up and over the side of the trench. He let it go on as long as he could bear and then reached up with numb fingers, felt it back into being just an ear.
“The Other Ear” was originally published in the journal Salt Hill and then collected in Windeye. Each page of Rust Belt’s chapbook has been carefully ripped down its length (think deckle (feathered) edge) and faces an image printed on the verso—the same image (it looks like some sort of scarred monolith), reprinted thirteen times, a pencil or charcoal drawing by the artist Abigail Patterson. The pages get narrower and narrower as the story draws to its close, the image gets layered, the column of text gets squeezed.
On those narrowing pages, Evenson explores a question that, in that same interview with BOMB, he says, “so many of [the stories in Windeye] are struggling to find an answer to.” In the words of the narrator of “The Other Ear,” “which thing was more real: mind or world?” This is a question that Evenson’s been trying to answer, in one way or another, since his first book, Contagion (the first two sections of the first story in Contagion are titled “The Corporeal” and “The Place of Language”: world and mind).
“István acquired the other ear during the worst days of the war,” we are told in the story’s first sentence. It is the “other” ear because it is not his, not István’s. He has lost his ear in some other way, on some other occasion, and a doctor has attached someone else’s ear. This someone else hears things that don’t belong to István’s world. It is psychic: “The voice the other ear could hear seemed to know exactly what they were going to do before they did it. It whispered to him what he should say, how he should respond to the questions the doctor and nurse hadn’t yet asked.”
Or perhaps it is not psychic. Perhaps it is only dragging István out of the world, into the mind:
A farmhouse, like any other. Or no, not a farmhouse exactly, but a manor house, made of stone. Or perhaps even more than a manor house. It was hard to say: he had been looking at the world through the other ear for so long that he was no longer certain how to interpret what he saw through his own eyes.
István has been “looking at the world through the other ear”; in his case, the mind’s eye is an ear. The question he raises here is epistemological rather than ontological. Something exists. Something is there. What it is—or rather what to call it—is the question he wants answered. It is an Adamic question, original, an attempt at solving for an aphasia. And as with all of Evenson’s work, though language is very much part of the problem, the language of the problem is clear. There is no misdirection or prestidigitation—everything in “The Other Ear” seems exact, limpid, specific, and concrete. This is one of the reasons why I love to read Evenson: when things are not what they seem, things are not what they seem. They are simply other:
From time to time he encountered others, and though his own impulse was simply to slip into the bushes and hide from them, the other ear advised him to kill them and so he did. . . . These deaths, István sometimes thought, were unnecessary, but still he could not bring himself to feel guilty for them. After all, it was not he who was bloodthirsty, but the other ear. He himself could hardly be blamed.
The world presented is real, or seems so, no matter how horrible it seems to us or to Evenson’s characters. We’re left with that same question: “mind or world?”
Order Brian Evenson’s “The Other Ear” from Rust Belt Bindery here.