Amid Nonsense

I found my name in a book, amid nonsense:

…cool rewrite power rewrite rewrite      rewrite
feb rewrite continuous            rewrite to rewrite
martha      rewrite      engber rewrite rewrite
rewrite      (            ) rewrite… (Alan Sondheim, “@touch,”
VEL, 73)

I found the passage when searching my name on Amazon to see if my new book would appear. While my title didn’t, my name did.

Of all the billions of words printed every year, most tell a story. They tell where people went, how plants grow, why the universe happens and how to stitch a quilt. They tell something, whereas the book that mentions my name, the one written by Brooklyn cyber poet and media artist Alan Sondheim, reads like a compilation of white noise ostensibly recorded from the Internet. Like much of his other writings, the not telling appears to be the point, and I’m there in the not telling:

What appears to be a book about words is a book about the spaces between them… (Sondheim, The Beginning of the Book)

Of the two parts of my name, my parents gifted me Martha. When asked why, they said, We liked it, a well-meaning, but unsatisfactory sentiment akin to we wish for you a pleasant mediocrity. Of Aramaic origin meaning lady, the Puritans made the name popular, as did Martha Stewart. There are thousands of Marthas in the world, by which I mean Martha in specific, as opposed to a variation like Marfa (an actual spelling rather than the phonetic rendering of a dog’s bark) or Mirtha, which, according to the odds of irony, must occasionally belong to the mirthless.

I acquired my last name when I got married. I have no emotional attachment to the surname other than gratitude for allowing me to dump my maiden name of Podhorn.

Though not as heartburn-laden as that Eastern European dumpling, my married surname of Engber has proven to be just as unique, because even if you spell the name for people, they have an almost supernaturally-inspired urge to add G or T to the end.

E — N — G — B — E — R, I say.

T, they say.

No, I say.


There’s no T.

They look at me like I don’t know how to spell my name. Then again, maybe they’re right. If my maiden name had, as my sisters and I suspect, been mangled by an overworked Ellis Island employee, maybe Engber was the altered version of a commonplace ethnic name, which would explain why the surname has no apparent past. While there are pages of genealogical information for Jones, Smith and Brown, for example, there’s almost nothing for Engber. A few so-named immigrants funneled into America through Germany and England, a migratory trend that peaked in 1881 and spread a few pinpricks between New England and the Great Lakes. The name has no known meaning, place of origin or link to any specific line of work.

When I Googled my first and last name together, I didn’t find one reference to anyone but myself among the 470 listings. Therefore, the chance that Mr. Sondheim’s Martha Engber referred to someone else, or that he just happened to choose Martha and Engber separately and combine them, seemed remote. That meant the author must have selected my name at random. But how and from where?

So that names slip out, are misspelled, transformed…(Sondheim, “Second”)

While humans often claim to strive for the truth, what most of us mean is we seek a favorable theory that makes for a digestible reality. Reason told me my name wound up in Mr. Sondheim’s book by happenstance, probably because he used a random search tool to gather his material. But who likes to think such inclusion is the result of impersonal coincidence? So I poked around for a more satisfying answer, which was how I found Mr. Sondheim’s website.

His resume includes hundreds of credits. A university degree from Brown University. Gigs at schools of design, film, art and social research. A handful of books, a list of experimental films screened in all places B — Berlin, Brussels, Brisbane — and dozens of exhibitions and lectures and grants and reviews. Then the man’s life seems to end in 2002, at least creatively. He was an assistant professor of new media at Florida International University, then nothing. I imagined the Internet absorbing him one pixel at a time into the synaptically-flashing cyberspace about which he writes so passionately.

The writing encompasses, past and present, but wagers the future as well; the emphasis is on extended virtuality. Read in any order, any direction. The text is resonant. (Sondheim, The Internet Text)

When I first found my name in Mr. Sondheim’s book, I felt odd, like I’d walked into a stranger’s room and found my face taped to the wall amid hundreds of other photos. I’d been singled out, yet buried. But I was busy at that point in my life and so shelved my curiosity and moved on.

Yet over the next year I found myself returning again and again to the martha rewrite engber excerpt of Mr. Sondheim’s book. Every visit took me back to the stranger’s room where, one by one, the photos of other people dropped to the floor until only mine remained. Why was I there? Why did I even care?

I returned to Mr. Sondheim’s website. I found his email address. I sent a message.

He didn’t reply.

The mobility of the name crashes against the onslaught of real bodies, enumerated, named, forgotten. (Sondheim, “The Case of the Real: VI”)

Science seems to tell us the Earth is a random happening, an improbable planet of living organisms that came to exist through a complex set of circumstances amidst a vast and deadly universe. I’m a speck. I know I’m a speck. Yet I belong to a species that, through its ability to fill in white space with colorful imaginings, tells me I matter. The contrast between these two extremes, the miniscule within immensity, contributes to a highly conflicted state of mind. I’m a single human among billions. Then again, that I’d found my name in an abstruse book — a feat akin to finding a particular grain of sand in a vast desert — seemed too monumental to be coincidental. That, I realized, was why I needed to talk to Mr. Sondheim. If he could confirm my name had been randomly culled, I’d embrace my speck-ness. But if not, you see, if not…If not, I could tell myself I was part of a design, a necessary piece, my existence made significant.

When Mr. Sondheim didn’t respond to my email, I left a message on his blog.

He didn’t reply.

Writing, Clar says, is the debris left behind, the Subject of Abandonment, the pole or locus. (Sondheim, “Cancer Txt.”)

In May of 2004, a friend sent me an email urging me to check out a play currently appearing on Broadway. My friend suspected that a well-known British playwright had stolen material from a play I’d written, a suggestion that seemed outrageous. Why would a famous playwright steal from a young and as-yet unknown California writer? Unless the playwright assumed the no-name writer would never find out, or if she did, be too timid, humble or incredulous to pursue what might seem like an outlandish possibility.

I checked into the matter and here’s what I found:

  • British playwright Byrony Lavery titled her play Frozen, while mine is Frozen, or Dead?
  • Subject: Her play is about a grief-frozen mother who confronts the killer of her young daughter. Mine is about a grief-frozen mother who confronts the killer of her young daughter.
  • Characters: Ms. Lavery’s play has three characters. Mine has two. Both plays revolve around the murder of a daughter, who is 10 in Ms. Lavery’s play and 9 in mine.
  • Ms. Lavery’s play hit Broadway six years after mine was produced in Hollywood.

A theory: she’d read my play — maybe because she’d helped judge the playwriting contest that led to the production of my work — liked the premise and taken the next several years to work on her own version. Despite such a crazy idea, I couldn’t resist sleuthing the nonsensical. I found Ms. Lavery’s writing credits. Amid the long list of her accomplishments, I found what seemed like incontrovertible evidence. I sent an email asking for confirmation of the fact and within two days got an answer: while Ms. Lavery’s play appeared on Broadway six years after mine, the world premiere of her work took place at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England one month before mine.

Before mine, meaning two plays of the same name and theme had been created simultaneously, yet separately, on two different continents and performed within one month of each other, a situation that boggles the mind. At last I had proof that coincidence happens and randomness is reality.

Yet I’m human and meaning is what humans do. Even when provided with insurmountable evidence of our species’ random development, our brains seem wired to disregard facts in favor of unverifiable beliefs and patterns. We know stars are masses of gas, yet when we turn our eyes to the night sky, we see warriors drawing their bows. We learn early that clouds are no more than groupings of fine, drifting water droplets, yet we still long to flop into what look like the softest pillows we’ve ever seen. We withstand the bruises others cause, both literally and figuratively, yet insist these people love us. Horoscopes, fortune-telling, superstitions: we use whatever method allows us to find significance, even though documented data, not to mention our own experiences, tell us there is no meaning. We create tommyrot to survive a nonsensical existence. We’re here on this planet at this stage of development just because, just as my name had probably been sucked into the jabberwocky of someone else’s book just because.

I knew this.

I knew this.

And yet I called Mr. Sondheim.

Read in any order, any direction. The text is resonant.

A journalist by profession, Martha Engber is the author of two novels, Winter Light (due out Oct 6 2020, Vine Leaves Press, Melbourne, Australia) and The Wind Thief, and Growing Great Characters From the Ground Up. She’s had a full-length play produced in Hollywood and over a dozen short stories, essays and poems published in anthologies and literary magazines such as the Aurorean, Watchword and the Berkeley Fiction Review. A workshop facilitator and book editor, she currently lives in Northern California with her husband, bike and surfboard.

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