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The child wanted to name the rabbit Actually, and could not be dissuaded from this.
It was the first time one of our pets was named after an adverb.
It made us uncomfortable. We thought it to be bad luck.
But no ill befell any of us nor did any ill befall the people who visited our home.
Everything proceeded beautifully, in fact, until Actually died.
• • •
His grandmother was reading to him a story by Hans Christian Andersen, the other gloomy Dane. Her memory had become spotty. She really couldn’t remember the tales very well.
It was bedtime, his mother was off doing heaven knows what with her husband. It was only the grandmother who strove to maintain the standards of what had once been their station. The child understood there was what was called a trust, which the grandmother described as “not being grand enough to corrupt you but sufficient to keep you from being entirely at the mercy of your worthless father’s salary.”
The grandmother didn’t read “The Bog King’s Daughter” or “The Ice Maiden,” for they were too long. She read “The Shirt Collar,” for it was short, then “The Jumping Competition,” for it was shorter. Still he wanted another, for at bedtime he never wanted to go to bed and his thirst for stories seemed unquenchable.
She commenced reading “The Storks,” which concerned how it came to pass that storks delivered babies to families.
“There is a pond,” Hans Christian Andersen wrote, “where all the little children lie until the stork comes and gets them for delivery to their parents. There they lie dreaming far more pleasantly than they ever will later in their lives. All parents love and desire such sweet little babes and all children want a little sister or brother. Now we will fly to that pond and bring all the good children who didn’t sing the ugly song a little brother or sister but the bad ones shan’t ever get any.”
Apparently, some awful child had sung some ugly hurtful song about the young storks. The grandmother was so exhausted after all the reading, she scarcely recalled that part.
“But the one who started it all, that ugly horrible little boy,” screamed all the young storks, “what shall we do with him?” Hans Christian Andersen wrote.
“In the pond there is a dead child,” the mother stork said. “He has dreamed himself to death. We will bring that baby to the boy and he will cry because we have brought him a dead little brother.”
The boy and his grandmother looked at one another in horror. As fate would have it, the mother was with child by the father, but several months later the infant arrived stillborn. Of course, it was not the little boy’s fault. He had never sung a cruel and hurtful song about young storks.
His grandmother, his best and most faithful friend and advocate, lost her mind shortly thereafter, whereas he grew up to be a formidable jurist, quite ruthless and exact in his opinions, none of which in his long career was ever overturned.
• • •
The Lord was in line at the pharmacy counter waiting to get His shingles shot.
When His turn came, the pharmacist didn’t want to give it to Him.
This is not right, the pharmacist said.
In what way? the Lord inquired.
In so many ways, the pharmacist said. I scarcely know where to begin.
Just give it to him, a woman behind the Lord said. My ice cream’s melting.
It only works 60 to 70 percent of the time anyway, the pharmacist said.
Do you want to ask me some questions? the Lord said.
You’re not afraid of shingles, are you? It’s not so bad.
I am not afraid, the Lord said.
Just give Him the shot for Pete’s sake, the woman said.
Have you ever had chicken pox?
Of course, the Lord said.
How did you hear about us? the pharmacist said.
Joy Williams is the author of four novels, four previous story collections, and the book of essays Ill Nature. She’s been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent book is 99 Stories of God. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, and Laramie, Wyoming.
Tourists, we think, are responsible for stealing our street sign once a summer, sometimes more often. The sign, with its precious name, almost begs to be taken: Little Memory Lane. Our town, located in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, probably invites sentimentalism as well. Our population is 408. Our houses, most overlooking the lake, nestle in the woods. Our gas station is the Mule Express, complete with a painted, polished wooden sign of a braying mule, where a group of gray-haired men talk over Styrofoam cups of coffee each morning.
Little Memory Lane, though, isn’t meant to make memory diminutive. Rather, our street and our collection of houses, called Little Mountain Acres, are both named for a man named Joe Little, who was raised on the land and lived on the land until he died. My neighbor is the one who tells me about Joe Little – he’s shared stories about him for over ten years, so many iterations that I can no longer separate what is myth from what is remembered, what is truth from what is wishfully imposed on the past. Most recently, my neighbor said that Joe used to sled with his brother down the steep, nearly half-mile hillside that is closest to my family’s portion of the land. Not too many years later, Joe was drafted for the Korean War. He trained at Fort Leonard Wood, got shipped off to war, and was hit by mortar. The story goes that Joe, after the initial impact of the explosion, imagined that he was in a snowy, silent place. He pictured himself on the hillside where he used to sled. He said he saw a few red cardinals dotting the snow in front of him, just out of reach. My neighbor says that the cardinals protected Joe for a few minutes from the knowledge that he was bleeding heavily. The land was his way out of the pain.
Joe is now deceased, but the oral history of Joe’s connection with the land is reminiscent of lines within Robert Duncan’s poem “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow:”
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos
This poem serves as the epigraph to James Galvin’s The Meadow, a book that was recommended to me by a dear professor in college. Though I’d moved every one or two years my entire life, it seemed I was homesick for the first time; my family has owned our portion of Joe Little’s land for over ten years now, which is the longest I’ve known any place. I bought the book and read one of its one- to two- page sections a night. Each made me ache for my own land in a fierce, almost visceral way.
In Galvin’s book, the land is not only a physical place. It is also an escape, a “property of the mind,” a character, and a palimpsest on which people over time have written their stories and seen them dissolve. Though the meadow is the book’s central subject, Galvin’s authorial gaze lingers on one of its residents, Lyle. Lyle “lived a life from which everything was taken from him but a place. He lived so close to the real world it almost let him in.” Galvin describes Lyle almost as being of the land, with “thinning hair…the color of last year’s grass next spring, fresh from under the long snow.” He has lived in a home within the meadow for over fifty years. Despite this, he still doesn’t see the land as his. He comments, “If you want to know who really owns the land, don’t pay the taxes for a while. Then if you want to know who owns it even more, just look out the window in a blizzard. That’s the landlord’s face looking in, snooping.”
Galvin deftly maneuvers between realms of memory, dream, and reality, and through the nuances of loss and pleasure that the meadow brings. To craft Lyle’s story, for example, Galvin weaves together several dreams that he has about Lyle, some of Lyle’s diary entries (“Worked in shop trueing up grindstone. Cold and windy.”), sections of what might be deemed oral history, and narration of Galvin’s own interactions with Lyle. Other secondary characters depict the ways that the meadow both nurtures and erodes. This collection of individuals – Clara, App, Raymond, Oscar, and others – bale hay in the snow, kill a beaver out of necessity, drink too much, build homes on their own from logs hewn by hand, nearly die of hypothermia, construct a mausoleum for a dead hummingbird, die of cancer, and find one of their father’s bullets in the heart of a tree. Continue reading
I wanted him to tell me that he loved me. I wanted him to say it more effusively. I wanted to hear something such as that without me he would perish. I was not telling him I wanted that. Instead, I was lamenting a failing of his – I can’t remember which.
He wanted things from me, as well, but I couldn’t hear his things until I believed he’d heard my things. This was on a sidewalk in Oaxaca, a weekend midnight. We jumped back when the motorcycle sped past, hadn’t even exhaled before it smacked the yellow taxi in the intersection. The motorcycle’s rear rider – I hadn’t had time to register two men so for a terrifying moment I thought one had split in half – went sailing over the taxi and landed in a pool of street light.
The motorcycle’s driver stood right away. Blood streamed from under his eyebrow ring as he walked in circles, groaning.
While we waited for the ambulance, I sat on the black street and cradled the rear rider’s head on my lap. His breathing sounded like pain. I forgot my Spanish for a solid minute, but when I remembered, I told him: “You’ll be okay.”
He told me: “No.”
An actress from Our American Cousin climbed the stairs to President Lincoln and cradled his broken head on her lap. Her health and career were wilting. She wanted a place in history. She believed that she could take someone else’s pain and suffer no consequences.
Conspiracy theorists speculate about her role in the assassination.
Soon after that night, she cut her bloody skirt into pieces and gave them away.
I was deeply depressed and researching a park ranger named Roy Sullivan who had survived seven lightning strikes. In my Google searches, I stumbled upon a lightning strike survivor convention that was scheduled for that weekend in Virginia. It felt like a sign – of what, I can’t say. I charged a plane ticket to my credit card and told no one I was going.
At the convention one man had no arms. A woman had so much skin grafting she looked like fishnet. A man who had fought in Vietnam told a story about waking up in the morgue.
“What happened to you?” they kept asking.
I mumbled something about a friend getting struck by lightning. I kept thinking about Roy Sullivan who, as an old man, shot himself over unrequited love. My bones ached from depression. From longing for something my tongue couldn’t give shape to.
The survivors had brain injuries that had left them psychic. They told stories about predicting weather, weddings, catastrophes. They told me: “You’ll feel better if you talk about it.”
Some New York City train conductors have been forced to assist suicides. By the time they see the jumper, it’s too late to brake. Many report the same experience: As the train approaches, the jumper waves, smiling, as if he’s caught sight of his lover in a crowd. Then he takes a well-timed step and falls to his death.
One winter, I was driving a rental because my car was in the shop. I was madly in love for the first time. He didn’t love me back in equal measure because we were at that age where men couldn’t love the way women could. No man can adequately serve a devotee of Sarah McLachlan. My roommate was riding shotgun. I guess I was distraught. I guess I was disoriented. I drove into the side of the house that contained our apartment. I heard something go crunch. My roommate started to laugh. I backed up, panicked, and drove into the side of the house again. There was quiet. Our breaths were visible. Viewing my breath is always disarming; I’d rather not see what’s inside me.
The next day I took the car back to the shop and played dumb.
“There’s a pretty big fucking dent,” the mechanic said.
“Where?” I said.
In college one night we were having a party and I hid Eric’s keys. He became angry the way drunk people do when you hide their keys. But we were all laughing. I’d never met anyone who had actually died of drunk driving. It was a game – our skinny friend Eric with the wire-rimmed glasses and the stringy ponytail stomping around our apartment, in search of something he’d never find. I was wearing a halter top. I did a shot by sucking vodka from a tampon. It was a good party. Everyone made out with someone, except Eric who passed out on our couch and slept through the fun part.
Four months later, he got day-drunk with friends on Easter Sunday, hopped on a motorcycle, drove into oncoming traffic, and never saw his twenty-first birthday, which, when you’re twenty, is all you want to see.
One theory about life that I find pretentious is that it’s just a dream we can learn to control; we can learn to lucid-dream our lives. If that’s true, then every accident is no accident and every death is a suicide.
One of those New York City train jumpers changed her mind: As soon as she went over the platform edge, her survival instinct leapt up like a cobra. She flattened herself between the rails. Once the train passed, she sat up.
I was driving to Wyoming to move in with my boyfriend. Everything I owned was packed into my car. I couldn’t see out the back. I skid on ice and remembered what my father had taught me: Steer into the skid. It won’t feel natural. You’ll want to fight. But don’t fight.
My car somersaulted front over back, front over back, front over back down a hill. I heard myself scream. I heard these words so loudly, I wondered who’d spoken them: This. Is. It.
I landed upside-down. I remember the song that was playing: “Time After Time.” I didn’t yet know that my face was bloody, that my right hand didn’t work, that a shard of glass was stabbing my arm. I didn’t yet know that it was 30 below out. In my t-shirt I didn’t shiver. I saw upside-down cows. My metal watch stuck to the roof. I didn’t want to move in with him. I didn’t want to live in Wyoming with the man I would one day leave. I unbuckled my seatbelt, which had done what it had always promised to do. I saw the window emptied of glass and climbed out.
Diana Spechler is the author of the novels Who by Fire and Skinny, of the New York Times column Going Off, and of a forthcoming nonfiction book based on that column. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review Daily, GQ, Esquire, New York, Glimmer Train Stories, and elsewhere. She teaches writing for Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio and for The Wounded Warrior Project. She tweets from @dianaspechler.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Emma Cline. Forget the two million dollar, three-book deal and the hype surrounding this, her debut novel. She can write. Very well. With The Girls (Random House), her language shines in amid the darkness of a coming-of-age tale based on the notorious 1969 Charles Manson orchestrated Tate-LaBianca murders. Cline’s story is rendered through 14-year-old Evie Boyd, a middle class girl, living a listless, confused life with her divorced mother the summer before heading to boarding school, and through a middle aged Evie, adrift and alone as she reflects on her younger misadventures and the tragedy that followed.
Cline, 27, succeeds in capturing the vibe of late sixties California, its chaotic tapestry of peace, love, drugs, sex and mysticism that veered into something frightening. Taking on the Manson role is the godlike Russell, a master manipulator of those in his sordid commune. Evie’s confidante and big sister figure, Suzanne, seems obviously modeled on Manson devotee Susan Atkins.
No surprise that Cline herself is from California and flirted on the periphery of show business as a child actress. She was first published in Tin House at 16. Later, she wrote a Salon essay entitled, “Am I Ready to be a Stepmother at 21?” which detailed her relationship with an older man who had a daughter. A graduate of Columbia’s MFA program (she still lives in Brooklyn) Cline won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize honoring new fiction in March 2014. She commemorated the award by writing a piece about her weird pen pal relationship as a 13 year old with Rodney Bingenheimer, a former music business exec, who spotted her walking past his table at a restaurant in her hometown. It’s not a stretch to see things that have happened in Cline’s own life, reflected and exaggerated in her novel.
Jeff Vasishta: I was told you had your first clip published with Tin House many years ago. How old were you at the time? What do you remember about that?
Emma Cline: It was a very short story that I wrote when I was sixteen. My high school English teacher was very helpful in terms of letting me know that there even were such things as literary magazines, and I sent the short piece into Tin House. My parents might still believe that it’s a magazine called Teen House that only publishes the work of teenagers.
JV: Did that early recognition give you the confidence to try and make a career as a writer? Was that ever the plan or did a career just fall into place?
EC: I was an art major in college. I think studying art was a way to learn a lot of the same things I might have learned in writing class, but sideways—by having to literalize an idea into a discrete object or performance or video or something, I was forced to think about representation, how best to engage with what I think about the world in order to make it accessible to others. Writing is the same way. It’s comforting to me that a lot of the art I was making back then deals with a lot of the same concepts that this novel does—alternative narratives of girlhood, how we experience and are often held hostage by the past.
I didn’t get serious about writing until grad school, but when I got there, I was really focused on trying to produce as much work as I could.
JV: In the novel, would you say it’s fair to say Evie’s relationship or lack of one with her father seems to influence much of her life and Suzanne becomes like a surrogate mother or big sister? What inspired Evie’s character?
EC: Do I think people do the things they do for recognizable reasons, like you can trace the forensics of their psychology? Sometimes. And that kind of narrative can be a pleasure to read. Evie’s lack of relationship with her father is a part of why she does what she does. But I try to keep in mind what it feels like to be in the world—we don’t really do things for such easily identifiable reasons. People act out of selfishness and a desire to avoid pain, but sometimes they act in ways that are mysterious to themselves. That mystery was an important part of this book, for me—making sure that the book didn’t have a tidy moral or sense of closure. That doesn’t align with how I experience life. Terrible things happen and nobody learns anything. I wanted to move away from notions of what a character has to earn or realize, and aim for some kind of truth that has more to do with life as I know it.
In terms of what inspired Evie’s character, I remember reading a post on one of these Manson blogs by someone who had been peripherally involved with the group. And I thought, why is this person actively making this a part of their identity, even these many decades later? What do they get by identifying with this long-ago crime? I started imagining a woman whose perception of herself is based on being a bystander to history, and what that person’s life might look like.
JV: Russell and Mitch are monsters. How much of their characters were researched, amalgams of other people?
EC: There are probably some biographical details of both characters that came out of research, but men like that are familiar to me as someone who’s been a girl in the world. I don’t know if I would call them monsters—monsters are mythologized, seen as less than human, and I think what is often most frightening about people who do harm is their essential humanness. Like Charles Manson being insecure about his height or Anders Breivik being proud of his polo shirts. I wanted to push against that mythologizing a bit, to let Mitch and Russell reveal themselves as basically weak people.
I remember once reading in Patti Boyd’s memoir that the members of the Beatles were afraid of needles, and that they hired other people to get their vaccinations for them. There are these somewhat pathetic realities that are often ignored—it’s more exciting to imagine people as monsters or untouchable icons or whatever.
JV: Much of this novel seems to be like a handbook on how not to raise children. Have you discussed this with your own parents or others? What has been the early reaction from those closest to you who have read it?
EC: I understand the impulse to want to know how people close to me react to work that is dark or unsparing, but I don’t think that this is a question that gets asked very often of men. I believe that partly we ask women these questions because we see women in relation to those around them, as daughters or partners or mothers, and not as autonomous artists. Asking what my parents think of my work is a way of reminding me of my social and emotional obligations as woman.
JV: Mitch and Russell remind me of the manipulative music exec in A Visit From The Goon Squad which was also set in California in the 1970s. It’s a great era and time to set a novel because so much crazy stuff went down in the hippie and post-hippie era.
EC: I’m interested in the best and worst of human impulse, and am drawn to the sixties as a fictional backdrop for the way it engendered such extreme manifestations of those two poles. Communes interest me for the same reason, the way they exaggerate the good and bad elements of the world they are trying to leave behind.
California, too, seems to provoke these extremes in people. So many people go to California to become someone else. I loved the title of Claire Vaye Watkins’s last book, Gold Fame Citrus—it says so much about the mythology of California and its lure. It’s a place where people go in search of something. If you’re seeking something outside of yourself, that’s automatically a somewhat vulnerable position. So it’s a state with a shaky spiritual foundation and a literally unstable landscape.
JV: How was it for you transitioning to life on the East Coast?
EC: In Northern California, you can have these lovely Lotus Eater days, almost hyper-sensual, but the years pass without a lot of forward movement. In New York, the quality of the days is sacrificed to the years, or in service of that kind of long-term ambition. I feel much more capable in California, and my life there feels a lot more like life, but I work better in New York. I miss driving and the landscape and I miss California weirdos. I will always be susceptible to a certain kind of mood and late afternoon light that I think of as particular to the West Coast.
EC: I didn’t think of them as overlapping in terms of plot, but more in terms of tone. That’s something I did learn while writing this book—often juxtaposition can do the work of intricate plotting, and can be more useful than trying to account for every cause-and-effect or trying to babysit the reading experience. The reader is intelligent, and if I place two narrative threads side by side, I can trust that their brain will understand it was on purpose, and that there are connections to be drawn.
JV: The thread of young women being taken advantage of by men in positions of power is probably more poignant today than ever, especially with some of the topics being discussed in the election. How much research did you do into the women involved with Charles Manson?
EC: I definitely read a lot about the women who intersected with Manson and Jonestown, as well as less infamous groups that didn’t end in culturally recognized violence. It’s interesting to me how even counterculture movements or groups that desire radical change still have these blind spots around gender.
JV: How long had a tale based on the Manson killings been percolating in your brain and why? What was the attraction?
EC: I grew up pretty steeped in the cultural leftovers of this era—in Northern California, 1969 isn’t so far in the past. Those stories and remnants were always fascinating to hear about: the Manson crimes were a defining moment for my parents, both California teenagers at the time. As I grew older, I felt there were large parts of this story that were missing for me. Something already so well-digested by the culture was hard to engage with in a new way. Writing a novel let me access a different understanding of something like the Manson family, and pursue what I was really interested in, which were the girls involved. A novel gets to exist separately from the expected reality, adjacent to the recognizable world but not subject to its laws. Which is to say, this is not a Manson novel.
JV: The beating heart of the novel is the friendship between Evie and Suzanne, which is fascinating, dense and complicated. What was the inspiration behind that?
EC: I wanted to write a book where the love story at the center wasn’t traditional. I’m interested in friendship as an unchartered realm—we have so much language and cultural coding around other types of relationships, like marriages or families, and friendship is free of a lot of those societal pressures. It’s undefined, which allows for the ambiguities and murky power dynamics that are most exciting to me as a writer.
Jeff Vasishta started his writing career as a music journalist interviewing legends such as Prince, Beyonce, Dr. Dre and Herbie Hancock for publications such as Billboard, Yahoo.com and The Daily Telegraph. He’s recently written for Rolling Stone, Interview, The Amazon Book Review and, of course, The Open Bar.
Emma Cline is from California. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House and The Paris Review, and she was the recipient of the 2014 Paris Review Plimpton Prize.
from our current Summer Issue, Michael Dickman’s essay “John Clare: Mud Man Punk Rocker”
apologies to M.O.
These are the bands
(listened to by me):
We’re just a Minor Threat!
We’re just a Minor Threat!
We’re just a Minor Threat!
These are the bands
(listened to by him):
The morning wind
Crows in spring
A summer shower
Hedgehogs! Foxes! Badgers!
• • •
Did it rain all the time? Not all the time. Some sunlight here and there. Trees everywhere. Heroin everywhere. Gus Van Sant’s Portland. Skaters vs Rockers. Straight Edge vs Skinheads. Fuck the Skins! Fuck the Southside White Pride! Punks vs Everybody. I was a skater. Graduated from Mrs. A’s to Cal Skates to Cal’s Pharmacy to Rebel Skates. I could ollie down a flight of stairs. Nollie. No Comply. Not sick but not a poser. Once a friend flubbed a railslide slammed hard into the handrail. His crotch was bleeding through his jeans. He used duct tape to repair his balls. Turn up the Circle Jerks! I couldn’t grow my hair long enough to be a rocker. You could get a pretty good Mohawk to stand up with enough egg whites and Aquanet. My mother said she liked the Suicidal Tendencies even though she couldn’t understand what they were saying and their name made her nervous. Hypodermic needles made me nervous. I stayed clean because I was a coward. Stacy Peralta for President, said the bumper sticker on our family car. All I ever did was skate and listen to music in my room with the door closed. When I took a bath I would set my new skate deck on the toilet so I could stare at it. I had never even read a poem. I didn’t know what a poem was.
Fuck the Skins!
Fuck the Southside White Pride!
Once a year the Ancient Ham crawls out of the sewer to sit on a curb and answer questions. People line up down the block. Before the Ancient Ham will answer, they have to poke it: they bring offerings—small sewing needles decorated with beads or feathers or floss. When the Ancient Ham reaches needle capacity, it rolls back into the sewer, sweating and shimmering.
Most questions are about health, wealth, or love. They must be yes or no questions. The Ancient Ham answers by bobbing left or right. Left is no, right is yes. When the Ancient Ham answers, people scream. They faint. They squeeze their eyes shut. They piss their pants. They dip their fingers into the ham juice that collects on the pavement, then suck their fingers and retch. Some people throw up. The air around the Ancient Ham swells with sweet breath. This makes the Ancient Ham teeter with delight. Get it real delighted, it will vibrate. Women clutch their hips, men flex their thighs.
This year, the line is extra long. The Ancient Ham answers then spins quickly to deter extra needles, extra questions. One question per person. The Ancient Ham predicts that a young woman will get a job promotion and she falls to the ground and grinds her butt into the juices. The next man in line kicks her lightly with his loafer. She gets up and hurries away, throwing up into her hands. The man asks the Ancient Ham if he should move to Australia like he has always dreamed. The Ancient Ham answers no. The man runs his hand down the front of his face, folding his nose onto his top lip. A small girl holding her mother’s hand slides a twinkling needle into the cold, wet meat, then asks the Ancient Ham if it is stupid and hateful. The Ancient Ham answers yes and then no. The girl looks up at her mother, confused. “Stupid,” the mother says, “but not hateful.” The girl squats down on the ground and dips her pinky into the juices. “Just like me,” the girl says. She rubs the juices onto her lips. “Just like you,” the mother says. The girl looks up, lips glistening. “Aren’t you beautiful,” the mother says. The Ancient Ham goes against its own rules and bobs right, right, right.
Meredith Alling is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her debut collection of short stories, SING THE SONG, will be out November 2016 on Future Tense Books. Her website is meredithalling.com.
I AM ABOUT TO BE HAPPY
Can you feel it?
You are art and you are not art
Yesterday I thought it was good to be dead
I babbled, a wildwoman boiling your pelt
I wore you as my t-shirt and mouth
I said it was good for you to be art
Save me from death, let me rise from the dead
Today I bury your body
I came into the world a young man
Then I broke me off
Still the sea and clouds are pegasus colors
My heart is pegasus colors but to get there I must go back
Back to the time before I was a woman
Before I broke me off to make a flattened lap
And placed therein a young man
Where I myself could have dangled
And how I begged him enter there
My broken young man parts
And how I let the mystery collapse
With rugged young man puncture
And how I begged him turn me pegasus colors
And please to put a sunset there
And gone forever was my feeling snake
And its place dark letters
And me the softest of all
And me so skinless I could no longer be naked
And me I had to debanshee
And me I dressed myself
I made a poison suit
I darned it out of myths
Some of the myths were beautiful
Some turned ugly in the making
The myth of the slender girl
The myth of the fat one
The myth of rescue
The myth of young men
The myth of the hair in their eyes
The myth of how beauty would save them
The myth of me and who I must become
The myth of what I am not
And the horses who are no myth
How they do not need to turn pegasus
They are winged in their unmyth
They holy up the ground
I must holy up the ground
I sanctify the ground and say fuck it
I say fuck it in a way that does not invite death
I say fuck it and fall down no new holes
And I ride an unwinged horse
And I unbecome myself
And I strip my poison suit
And wear my crown of fuck its
MY OWN NOTHING
I went under my skin
Which was my old skin
And under the skin of my soul
Which was an old soul
Though new to me
There was so much silence
I was surprised to like it
I saw that all my wounds were only dust
And when I turned to dust they would be vanished
And saw that I would have to be the mother
I have to be the tit and friend and child
And stroke my hairs and say peace
The hairs on my head and the hairs on my soul
They are bulbing in the rain
They look like crops and I am scared of them
Because one day they will be dust
And silence knows they will be dust
But what will become of silence
When everything else dusts
I have to know the silence will hold on to me
Know it not by head or by reflection
But touch it in the emptiness beneath my dust
Already returning me to light
Melissa Broder is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Last Sext. She is also the author of the essay collection So Sad Today. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, the Iowa Review, Tin House, Guernica, Fence, the Missouri Review, and the Awl among others. Broder holds a BA from Tufts University and an MFA from City College of New York. She lives in Venice, California.
It is Impossible For a Parisian to Resist the Desire to Flick Through the Old Volumes Laid Out by a Bookseller
Adam, whose debut novel Feeding Time will be out this August in the UK, spoke about everything from rare books to interesting literary marriages to the first public reading of Naked Lunch (it fortuitously happened at the bookshop).
Heather Hartley: When you think about the shop, what are the first words that come to mind?
Adam Biles: That it’s a living space. I think that’s very important.
HH: How is it a living space?
AB: It’s living in the sense of the Tumbleweeds who physically live in the shop and there’s also idea of the shop itself as a living being. The shop has a very rich history and there are many projects happening right now—there are lots of interesting things going on and a lot coming up.
HH: And they’re led by Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter and owner of the shop who became Manager in 2006, and her partner, David Delannet. What’s been happening recently?
AB: The café opened in October last year, and there’s a new children’s section that opened the same month. We have a regular series of evening events and we’re publishing a book about the history of the shop that’s being led by the Editor for the bookshop, Krista Halverson that will be available in the bookshop this July and then around the world this September.
I hope that people feel all of this when they come here—what the shop has become. That they don’t come just for the history but also for what the shop is doing right now.
HH: And now with the café you can hang out even more . . . You mentioned Tumbleweeds and George Whitman told The Paris Magazine (first published by the shop in 1967) that, “Like many of my compatriots, I am something of a tumbleweed drifting in the wind.” Shakespeare has a great and long tradition of welcoming writers, artists and visitors to come and stay in the shop itself. What does being a Tumbleweed mean?
AB: For visitors and customers coming in, one of the first things that they’ll notice is that beds are scattered amongst the books. And on a practical level, being a Tumbleweed means you get to sleep in the bookshop, you get to live amidst the books.
We generally ask Tumbleweeds to work for a couple hours—help open and close the store and help set up for events. They are really important for events because they’re sort of the heavy lifters: they set the chairs and stage up and serve the wine afterwards.
I think there are two sides [to being a Tumbleweed]: the first one being that they get to live and experience a city in a bit more of a relaxed way while getting some time to write.
HH: And there’s a direct connection with the shop. Maybe the city kind of unfolds around them.
AB: And the other side is that it’s a way of spreading a little bit of George’s philosophy that Sylvia continues today. There’s that famous quote written above the library door, “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise.”** It’s one of George’s founding philosophies and it’s a great way of encouraging people to live by that example.
HH: And that philosophy is ongoing today? Continue reading
Lindy’s yard was studded with containers of rainwater: buckets, trashcans, a red wagon, rubbery industrial barrels that once held Greek olive oil. Already, blossoms were budding on the nectarine tree. Winter in California is a brief affair. One day as Lindy was putting her kids in the car, she glanced at the wheelbarrow half-filled with water. It was glassy, and the part of her brain that noticed inconsistencies told her to move the water to the rain barrel before it stagnated. The sun beat on her hoodie, and she wished, as she got into the SUV, that she wasn’t wearing a long-sleeved shirt. She forgot about the water as she drove onto the highway.
The hills finally turned from yellow to the brilliant green she looked forward to every winter. Every year, Lindy filled four double-sized redwood garden boxes with tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini for her family to eat. She didn’t have to do this; her husband ran a tech start-up that had gone public. When it rained, she put out every container she could find to collect the water. The year before, the hills hand’t turned at all and time seemed frozen in perpetual summer, though it was cold outside and leaves fell from the trees. “I’m really enjoying this natural disaster,” her sister kept saying, but Lindy didn’t think it was funny. Sometimes, on the sides of the hills, there were curious sheens of purple, and she couldn’t tell whether they were bald spots or not. They filled her with anxiety.
When she watered the plants, she worried what her neighbors would think. Furtively, she crept out in the morning light and held the hose close to the roots, hoping no one would shame her like she’d heard on the news they were doing to people who washed their cars at the wrong time or watered the sidewalks with sprinklers. She wanted to plant flowers, but the desire for beauty felt frivolous. Still, Lindy loved the neighbor’s palm tree, planted by a pioneer in 1886. In her neighborhood, fennel from Italy sprouted in the gutters, mistletoe from England devoured the oak trees, and Afghan ivy swallowed entire cars. Lindy herself was from Michigan. Behind the garage, she had a compost bin the size of a washing machine where she threw her coffee grounds and banana peels. It was teeming with spiders. She liked to watch the remains of red peppers she bought on sterile foam trays rot away, leaving behind vinyl stickers with barcodes on them.
But she didn’t move the water into the rain barrel, and it continued to change. In one tub, buckeye seeds dropped down and dissolved into ink. In another, something small and black, a parenthesis with a head, swam through the water. Then there were hundreds of them. Animals came from all around to drink from the buckets: rats from the neighbor’s vines, raccoons from the thicket near the high school, a fox that lived in the graveyard, hundreds of crows. A skunk marked the barrel as his territory, and so did a dozen cats. On the ground, mushrooms sprouted gray tendrils like bean sprouts. Something between an animal and a plant that looked like vomit appeared, browned in the sun, and disappeared again. Sow bugs, related as they are to shrimp, dug under the bowls where it was wettest and disappeared in the loaming depth. A neighbor saw a fox standing in the yard in the early dawn, lapping from a plastic bowl, and worried about her chickens. (Later, one did die mysteriously while still inside the coop.) Ants ran in lines to the containers and came back again, carrying nothing.
Then, as the sun beat down, spores bloomed in the water. The tops of the containers turned the green of swamps, the green of hot, humid places. It’s a color that rarely occurs naturally in California, at least not since the native perennial grasses were eaten down by sheep and overrun with European annuals. The spores may have been brought to the water by ants from Argentina or the rats from Finland or the bullfrog from Scotland that sat in the wagon for most of an afternoon. It’s hard to say. When Lindy came outside one morning, all the containers had bloomed, giving her yard the sense of having been turned into a swamp. She walked among them, looking at a film on top of the water, like floating islands of puss. The water had been spoiled.
Joy Lanzendorfer‘s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Mental Floss, and others.
Kevin Sloan’s allegorical paintings tell of the intersection of natural and man-made worlds. He aims to convey the darkness in this conflict and to create a sense of hope, illustrating a
transitional world where, he says, “some things will be lost and others will continue on.” His art comes from “the tension between loss and the [remaining beauty].”
This issue’s (#68) cover art, Delicate Garden: The Bear, is part of Sloan’s Delicate Garden series, in which he depicts animals as porcelain objects. His creatures are positioned as if they are still lifes and marred with cracks. Like the natural world they are “alive, sentient, and very fragile.” They are, at once, wild and manufactured. Nature persists as flora grows through broken spaces. Our ursine cover model exudes a relaxed air, his expression pleasant, as he sits on a pile of littered clocks—evidence of humanity’s intrusion.
Sloan’s influences range from the landscape of his home state of Colorado to the visual narratives found in advertising. While he uses photos as starting points, he follows an organic process. He begins with soft charcoal and reworks the structure of each painting until he has a strong foundation. From there, he adds acrylic washes, switching back to charcoal or chalk when necessary. “Eventually,” he says, “the painting starts to need me less and less, until it has reached some sort of equilibrium. It’s almost like a perfect tone, not too sharp or flat, just right.”
You can see more of Kevin’s art here.
We are sad. We don’t have a ferryman any more. The ferryman is dead. Two lakes, no ferryman. You can’t get to the islands now unless you have a boat. Or unless you are a boat. You could swim. But just try swimming when the chunks of ice are clinking in the waves like a set of wind chimes with a thousand little cylinders.
In theory, you can walk round the lake on foot, keeping to the bank. However, we’ve neglected the path. The ground is marshy and the landing stages are crumbling and in poor shape; the bushes have spread, they stand in your way, chest-high.
Nature takes back its own. Or that’s what they’d say in other places. We don’t say so, because it’s nonsense. Nature is not logical. You can’t rely on Nature. And if you can’t rely on something you’d better not build fine phrases out of it.
Someone has dumped half his household goods on the bank below the ruins of what was once Schielke’s farmhouse, where the lake laps lovingly against the road. There’s a fridge stuck in the muddy ground, with a can of tuna still in it. The ferryman told us that, and said how angry he had been. Not because of the rubbish in general but because of the tuna in particular.
Now the ferryman is dead, and we don’t know who’s going to tell us what the banks of the lake are getting up to. Who but a ferryman says things like, “Where the lake laps lovingly against the road,” and “It was tuna from the distant seas of Norway” so beautifully? Only ferrymen say such things.
We haven’t thought up any more good turns of phrase since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The ferryman was good at telling stories.
But don’t think that at this moment of our weakness we ask the Deep Lake, which is even deeper now, without the ferryman, how it’s doing. Or ask the Great Lake, the one that drowned the ferryman, what its reasons were.
No one saw the ferryman drown. It’s better that way. Why would you want to see a person drowning? It’s not a pretty sight. He must have gone out in the evening when there was mist over the water. In the dim light of dawn a boat was drifting on the lake, empty and useless, like saying goodbye when there’s no one to say it to.
Divers came. Frau Schwermuth made coffee for them, they drank the coffee and looked at the lake, then they climbed down into the lake and fished out the ferryman. Tall men, fair-haired and taciturn, using verbs only in the imperative, brought the ferryman up. Standing on the bank in their close-fitting diving suits, black and upright as exclamation marks. Eating vegetarian bread rolls with water dripping off them.
The ferryman was buried, and the bell-ringer missed his big moment; the bell rang an hour and a half later, when everyone was already eating funeral cake in the Platform One café. The bell-ringer can hardly climb the stairs without help. At a quarter past twelve the other day he rang the bell eighteen times, dislocating his shoulder in the process. We do have an automated bell-ringing system and Johann the apprentice, but the bell-ringer doesn’t particularly like either of them.
More people die than are born. We hear the old folk as they grow lonely and the young as they fail to make any plans. Or make plans to go away. In spring we lost the Number 419 bus. People say, give it another generation or so, and things won’t last here any longer. We believe they will. Somehow or other they always have. We’ve survived pestilence and war, epidemics and famine, life and death. Somehow or other things will go on.
Only now the ferryman is dead. Who will the drinkers turn to when Ulli has sent them away at closing time? Who’s going to fix paperchase treasure hunts for visitors from the Greater Berlin area, in fact fix them so well that no treasure is ever found, and the kids cry quietly on the ferry afterward and their mothers complain politely to the ferryman, while the fathers are left wondering, days later, where they went wrong? Those are mainly fathers from the new Federal German provinces, feeling that their virility has been questioned, and once on land again they eat an apple, ride toward the Baltic Sea on their disillusioned bicycles and never come back. Who’s going to do all that?
The ferryman is dead, and the other dead people are surprised: what’s a ferryman doing underground? He ought to have stayed in the lake as a ferryman should.
No one says: I’m the new ferryman. The few who understand that we really, really need a new ferryman don’t know how to ferry a boat. Or how to console the waters of the lakes. Or they’re too old. Others act as if we never had a ferryman at all. A third kind say: the ferryman is dead, long live the boat-hire business.
The ferryman is dead, and no one knows why.
We are sad. We don’t have a ferryman any more. And the lakes are wild and dark again, watching, and observing what goes on.
Saša Stanišić was born in 1978 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently lives in Germany. His award-winning debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has been translated into 32 languages. Before the Feast was a bestseller in Germany and won the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read Before the Feast by the “offensively gifted” Sasa Stanišić. The novel has already sold over 70,000 copies in Germany, and won the 2014 Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Clever, funny, and whimsical, the novel builds in short comedic chapters that detail 24 hours leading up to an annual feast in the small village of Furstenfelde —how each citizen prepares, both for the feast and for life after. But despite its fairy-tale-like whimsy, Before the Feast is getting at something bigger. Stanišić tackles the flattening effect of capitalism as well as the disappearance of tradition, regional identity, and the particularities of a people and a place and a time.
We surveyed our galley club members and here are their responses.
Saša Stanišić was born in 1978 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and currently lives in Germany. His award-winning debut How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has been translated into 32 languages. Before the Feast was a bestseller in Germany and won the prestigious Leipzig Book Fair Prize.
From our current Summer Reading issue, Dorianne Laux’s “HONEYMOON.”
Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are Facts about the Moon and The Book of Men. She teaches poetry in North Carolina Sate University’s MFA Program.
She thought that the moment was probably supposed to be poignant—when she discovered the origins of her name—but since she was sitting on the toilet when she read the letter it lacked elevation. Henceforth, when she imagined her name, she saw it written out in her father’s slanty cursive beneath a harsh yellow light and behind it, her thighs.
When she finally brought herself to listen to the song—the beat-up 1967 record was among the possessions he’d left her, part of a hoard of cultural memorabilia she figured was meant for her “education”—it was, in fact, patterned with words that a daughter might like to hear (“my little darling,” “angel,” “pretty one,” etc), and carried a message appropriate to a father who’d abandoned his child under dubious pretenses, and she could have been singing along by the end of minute two. But only marginally deeper, it revealed itself to be another case of the Conniving Poet, a song about a desperate girl (the eponymous Marianne) and a powerfully disinterested boy, something she could imagine her father listening to while he was wantonly fucking women in 1970s Berlin, a name chosen during an afternoon he’d assigned himself the task of selecting it, casting his eyes around his studio on Potsdamer Strasse and scanning for relevant influences, falling on the record, his hand idly down the front of his pants. Visible through the window of the apartment, across the street, there were colonnades, a Jürgensburg horse, but there were no good songs about them.
He told Nikki when she was fifteen, in the first of what was to be their monthly phone calls—a smirk she could somehow feel through the phone—and she knew instantly that she hated her father. He hadn’t told her mother where the name came from those years ago, just left it with her with its appealing diminutive and atypical double-consonant and promptly fucked off forever, this stupid little mystery in his wake.
Nikki hadn’t known the song or the movie, but as she heard the controversial lyrics for the first time and realized how callous her father had been in telling her now, how plainly vindictive, she felt increasingly like her name had been the first move in a game set up for her by someone else, planted like a goalpost, and she was only working up to it. She didn’t like the idea that her $145 Hieronymus Bosch shoes and torn tights were somehow genetically predetermined. She wanted them—needed them—to be singular, and in the aftermath of the call, scuffing along the side of the most populated road in her neighborhood, which was mainly a place people came to transfer trains, she imagined the parallel moments, when her father looked down at his newborn daughter and decided that she should be named for the most famous sex fiend in all of popular music, and later, when he felt the stippled holes of the phone’s speaker on the corner of his mouth, pictured the body connected to a voice he was hearing for the first time and which, if he played his cards right, he might one day be fortunate enough to meet, and decided that he was ready to relieve this burden.
It happened that we were driving through Ramallah late at night searching for the grave of the poet Mahmoud Darwish. The location of the site was well-known to the locals, but not to us, and our driver kept pulling over to ask for directions from passersby on the sidewalk, at traffic lights, on bicycles. He began asking in Arabic, “Where is the grave of Mahmoud Darwish?” but over time, as the night grew later and it became clear that we weren’t making any real progress towards our destination, his entreaties became more and more abbreviated and clipped, until we’d reached a point where he would careen towards the sidewalk whenever he spotted a pedestrian, roll down the window and shout, “Wen Darwish?”—Where is Darwish?—until the poet became one with his resting place, existed in singular form somewhere between life and death, totemic, connoting all in one a time, a place, and a name.
Simon Jacobs is the author of SATURN, a collection of David Bowie stories available from Spork Press. He may be found at simonajacobs.blogspot.com.
Dear Indie Booksellers,
Without you, we are nothing.
Forever yours, Tin House
Let this Summer Reading 2016 issue be a love letter to all of the fantastic indie bookstores and booksellers around the world. Those who took a chance on us when we first debuted in the spring of 1999, when “distribution” required hand delivering issues from the back of a beat-up old Audi, and to the bookstores today who continue to help sustain us.
In January I was in Denver for the Winter Institute for independent booksellers, where I had the honor of hanging out with six hundred of the most passionate readers of contemporary literature I have ever encountered. Their enthusiasm was infectious and after a single afternoon with these tireless, ruthless pushers of the written word it was easy to understand why bookstore sales are up, and why the number of indie bookstores, which in the dark Amazonian year of 2009 numbered 1,700, has increased to over 2,300. Booksellers like the ones I met in Denver challenge us to keep seeking out the most exciting and thoughtful work by new and established writers from all over the world, and because of them we’re confident there is an audience for their work. In this issue we’re proud to bring you two fabulous translations: Dorthe Nors’s “By Sydvest Station,” translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, and Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s “The Dress of Honey,” translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. Alexis Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, was an indie sensation, and here we feature an excerpt from her follow-up, Marrow Island. Smith is joined by other indie darlings, Deb Olin Unferth, Josh Weil, and Saša Stanišić, as well as esteemed poets Dorianne Laux and John Ashbery, who return to our pages. We’re also happy to welcome new-to-us poets Anna Journey and Sam Rivierre.
To all of the booksellers who have carried us and who continue to carry us, we thank you. To all of our readers, who have carried us and continue to carry us in your backpacks and handbags, on planes, trains, and buses, we are so grateful.
—Rob Spillman, Editor
Watch this space for more excerpts from the Summer Reading issue, or buy it now from your local indie bookstore! (Or from us!)
I am walking the border
of a playing field in the back of a school,
the dog running ahead.
I stop to peer down into the undergrowth–
a tangle of bushes,
small yellow berries in clusters,
a sudden reminder
that no scalpel is whizzing
along my abdomen this morning,
nor have I been taped to a chair
in order to be questioned, slapped,
and asked the same question again.
So I have the luxury of standing
here looking at yellow berries
wondering if they are safe to eat–
a thing I would need to know if I were starving,
if there were no market down the road
where all kinds of berries wait in their boxes.
who probably know the answer,
surprise me when they twitter up from the knotted vines.
And as I watch them fly off,
I decide that when my day comes,
I am going to refuse to die–
just chin-up, arms-folded refuse,
unless I am guaranteed clusters
of yellow berries
hanging in the afterlife,
a spacious green field,
and well-informed birds darting through the air.
Billy Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003. He was very kind when he once found himself of a Brooklyn Book Fest bingo card made by Tin House.
She was late to the Mass dedicated to her boyfriend’s late mother, who died just two months before her father. Stepping into St. Monica’s, making sure her heels didn’t click too loudly, she saw him—Matt the Agnostic—In the very back pew.
She slid in next to him. “You told me it was on East 81st,” she hissed. “It’s actually on E. 79th.” Her own mother would rather turn around and go home than enter church late.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know. I don’t know why I said that if I did.”
“Think about it,” she said. “Think about it” was a code in their relationship. It meant, in psychoanalytical terms, to think about both the latent and manifest meaning behind what you meant by what your actions. Like, keeping basic Freud in mind, did he unconsciously tell her the wrong address on purpose? Maybe he didn’t want her to come. Or . . . had she considered the real reason behind why she was late? If there even was one.
“What?” he said. Thank God, he hadn’t heard the “Think about it.”
“Nothing,” she said.
She figured she needed to have an answer.
“I have to pee,” she said. “Like, for real.”
“Oh.” He conferred with his sister. “It’s on the right, downstairs.”
“I’m not going during service!”
“OK,” he said. A small sigh.
When Mass was over, he told her she could light a candle for her dad. They went over to the candles, which lit up electronically with the push of a button. He gave her a dollar, and she dropped it into the slot, then pushed a button for her candle. Nothing lit up. She pushed another. Nothing. She pushed one button after the other, and not one of them worked. She looked at him in a panic.
Matt started stabbing at the buttons like it was a video game. She could tell he felt responsible, since he was the one who told her to do this in the first place. She wasn’t even really Catholic. Her father was Catholic. Her mother was Baptist. She hadn’t been baptized in either church. Was it maybe time to take care of that? After all, Matt’s step-father was a deacon. He was sort of a big deal at St. Monica’s, actually. And her ties to St. Monica’s was that when Elaine’s was still
open, she would occasionally drink with Father Pete, who until recently was the pastor there. So at least she was well-connected; that was important.
Matt pushed random buttons over and over until finally, finally, a candlelit up. She crossed herself and kissed her fingers. It was sort of the way she picke dup since she sort-of decided to be a Catholic. It was the most ostentatious way and everyone knew she appreciated that.
Matt then directed her over to a place to kneel and pray and she asked, “Is that how it works? It seemed like there were a lot of steps.”
“I don’t know, he said. It’s just what I’ve seen people do.”
About three weeks before his death, her father had turned to her and said,“You have deplorable taste in men.” This was unfair, pretty much completely. If he was upset about the drug thing, well, that was in Matt’s past. To dwell on it was just so middle-class.
And yet, his words stuck in her head. To her left was a statue of two saints. People were touching the saints, rubbing them, touching their fingers in holy water and touching the statues again, crossing themselves, then kissing their fingers. Oh, how her mother would laugh. Perhaps—think about it—her budding Catholicism was a rebellion against her mother and a way to posthumously ally with her father.
Worth thinking about it, to be sure, but not too much.
She went downstairs to the bathroom. It was completely dark.
She reached for the light switch, but then stood for a moment in the dark.
She thought about what she and Matt had both lost and, with that in mind,if they were enough for each other. If this was why people got married—partially out of love, part out of fear—well, then, now she could see how that could happen. Of course this was why people grasped onto traditions—traditions previously empty to her, but now, well, maybe they meant something. Or maybe they didn’t. But there was a purpose to all of it. At the very least, something to pass the time.
Sheila McClear’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, both where she was a features reporter, Gawker.com, the Daily Beast, and the New York Observer.
Not long ago, I attended a book party in New York. The host, an urbane and high-powered magazine editor, toasted the author warmly, claiming that “this is a book that might explain Los Angeles to the rest of us.” Charmed as I was by the tribute to my native city, I was also confounded. What is it about Los Angeles that seems to demand an explanation, an argument, a plea, even? One might say a book “describes” San Francisco, or Paris, or even New Orleans, but “explains”? Only Los Angeles, that most vaporous and bewildering American idea (I’ve always thought of it as somewhat akin to Italo Calvino’s “Penthesilea,” the city he describes—in Invisible Cities—as merely “the outskirts of itself”), seems to demand as much.
Enter Eve Babitz, whose radiantly specific Slow Days, Fast Company (actually, the full title is Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A.: Tales, but we’ll get to those subheadings in a moment) might serve to explicate LA better than any other book I’ve ever read. Except it does more than that, naturally–so much more. If there’s a reason Babitz’s book isn’t better remembered, isn’t as widely circulated as it deserves to be, I’d wager it has something to do with that subtitle, or at least with that deceptively gratuitous-seeming “and L.A.” (Shouldn’t The World and The Flesh be signposts enough?) Slow Days, Fast Company is, as you’d expect if you know anything about Babitz’s life story (goddaughter of Stravinsky, famously photographed naked with Marcel Duchamp, lover of everyone from Ed Ruscha to Harrison Ford, etcetera), studded with boldfaced names and locations. Musso & Frank, Ports, Tana’s, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin: the Los Angeles of the late 1960s is magnificently accounted for. And yet, of course—or perhaps not “of course,” since if there’s anything that’s a drag about the way Babitz is remembered, it’s how she tends to be presented as some scenester whose books are practically incidental, Mata Hari with a paper trail—what renders the book worthwhile isn’t merely the experience it describes. Rather, it’s Babitz’s radical intelligence, her insight, her style. Like her generational and aesthetic peer Renata Adler, Babitz has a nervous, windblown eye, a knack for perceptual and associative leaps. Like her West Coast fellow Joan Didion, she has a stringent–in fact, rather stark–intelligence. Unlike Didion, she clamps down on the geography of Southern California in a spirit of pure exuberance, even exultancy. Writing about the Santa Ana winds and a night when they “were blowing so hard that searchlights were the only things in the sky that were straight,” Babitz comments on Didion’s regard for such winds as evil forces, and then notes: “Every time I feel one coming, I put on my dancing spirits.”
Such dancing spirits abide, indeed preside, throughout Slow Days, Fast Company. That “flesh” in the book’s subtitle isn’t incidental either: one is reminded that the Bloody Marys at Musso’s (“unparalleled in Western thought”) smell like cinnamon, that the Hamburger Hamlet in Palm Springs is drastically inferior to the ones in town, and whenever Babitz opts to describe actual flesh, the effect is close to jaw-dropping. Of one character, a singer named Terry Finch, she writes, “Her eyes were a strange gray color, her teeth were small and white, and her inside bones were brittle lace. But she was covered with skin that always seemed as though she’d just stepped off the yacht, tan and poreless, with cheeks the color of baby’s feet. One by one her eyelashes spiked their way around her gray eyes, a miracle of textures.” The precision and the playfulness of such writing, at once vulnerable (“baby’s feet,” “brittle lace”) and pointed, are miracles of texture themselves. Continue reading
THE IRANIAN BLUE-GLAZED POTTERY
sat on our parents’ shelves for years, the best memento, more valuable than the hookah with the handsome mustachioed man painted on the base, the long rope of copper camel bells, more treasured than the leather saddle seats with brass studs, the rough clay worry beads, the woodblock tablecloth that never seemed to fade.
The pottery bought by Father for 3,000 paper rials at Tehran’s bazaar was the symbol of that time, when on our alley a scratchy recording of the mullah blared, calling our neighbors to prayer, the apartment’s aviary filled that spring with plastic ferns and dusty taxidermy peacocks that stared accusingly at the American family unsuccessfully studying Farsi around the borrowed kitchen table.
The blue plate once served the Barbari bread shoveled from deep ovens and purchased on chaperoned walks down the block, the black pebbles clinging to the doughy seams like barnacles, chipping our mother’s teeth. In the blue cup we once arranged the overblown roses gathered on jeep trips past wide cement gutters full of water for drinking / cooking / washing, into the provinces where men in vests and loose pants travelled the empty roads to mosques adorned with thousands of tiles far bluer than the summer sky, then farther still to the Caspian Sea, a quiet green monster asleep on its side.
Don’t wake it, the memory too big and rich to swallow, like the soapy tasting gumdrops rolled in sugar we bought on Citroën cab rides to Tehran’s corner shops — dastè râst, dastè chap, turn right, turn left, nearly all of the broken Farsi we could recall. Everywhere, the women in black veils like dark ghosts who came alive when the autumn winds threw open their chadors to expose rock concert T-shirts, Chanel skirts, the wrists laden with gold bangles snapping the cloth closed again, a magic trick almost too quick for our eyes.
The blue-glazed pottery overflowing with images of Zafar, the houseboy forever sweeping our front steps, dark eyes full of murder, laughing mouth full of white teeth when we pushed the winter snow from the apartment roof down onto his bent back. Then he was gone, the Shah’s portrait replaced with the Ayatollah’s in every shop, chanting from the main street, the electricity failing as though in a nightly storm, khodahafez, good-bye, the last of our Farsi, truly.
Flying home with all of the other Americans, off to Wichita and New Brunswick and San Diego, we watched the brown country recede through the plane’s window, saw it move even farther away through the glass screens of TV evening news reports, finally disappearing to a pinprick, until one day the tablecloth had faded, the beads cracked, and the Iranian blue-glazed pottery had vanished, sold at a California garage sale to a stranger for one U.S. dollar, paid with a pocketful of change.
Lynn Mundell’s work has appeared in The Sun, Superstition Review, Eclectica, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Literary Orphans, and in many other literary journals. She lives in Northern California, where she co-edits 100 Word Story.
Termites never sleep. From birth until death, they eat nonstop, consuming plant-based cellulose in felled and decaying wood. They rarely kill living trees. The matter they digest is returned to the soil as nutrients.
My first winter in New Orleans, I took my coffee on the front stoop. There was a small corner bakery across the street, where familiar but nameless faces dined at tables along the curb. From my steps, I listened with a lazy ear.
One morning, my mother called me. She never calls.
“I have to talk to you,” she said.
“Is it depressing?” I asked.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because whenever you call it’s something depressing.”
“Your grandmother had a stroke. She’s in the hospital.”
My grandmother was a woman who was arrested at age 86 for protesting unfair labor practices. In the 1970s, she organized fundraisers for the Black Panthers, with whom she not-so-subtly implied she had had affairs. After her husband left, she spent decades as a social worker for drug addicts and the homeless.
As my mother explained the fallout, I noticed a pile of leafy debris collecting on the top step where I sat. Papery slivers snowed down from the jamb and architrave of the door. Termites, I grimaced, as I swept away the pile.
The next day, my friend Holly invited me to the insectarium. We packed her son Zion into his car seat and headed for the Quarter. Inside, he scuttled from one terrarium to the next, falling and picking himself up. When he took an interest in the leaf-cutters, Holly read him the description in a slow and even tone.
They left me behind in the termite room. A whole room dedicated to the termites. I read about New Orleans’s dueling species: the eastern variety, indigenous to the city, and Formosan subterranean termites, which arrived on ships returning from World War II and spread along the Gulf Coast.
Eventually, Zion rescued me from my own distraction. Taking my hand, he led me through the Louisiana Swamp Gallery to a verdant artificial garden. Arias of brightly colored canaries were locked in a cages along the wall. Holly stood on a plastic bridge and butterflies filled the air. An immense azure morpho landed atop her head. She knelt down to show Zion its palpating wings.
On the drive home, Zion kicked off his shoes, ready for a nap. I thanked Holly when she dropped me off at my place. As they drove off, I noticed another pyramid of flakes gathering atop the stoop.
Formosans termites aren’t deterred by obstacles that keep other species away. They circumnavigate plastic barriers and concrete walls, building tunnels 300 feet long. Using a mixture of chewed wood, mud, saliva and excrement, they can build nests in trees and the walls of buildings. I texted a picture of the refuse to my landlord.
Up close, a termite is a pale, vile-looking creature. Workers are about the size of a grain of rice, with distended, semi-translucent bellies. They pile hungrily atop one another, eating then returning to the nest to regurgitate their meal. Their nature is so ingrained that death is their only respite.
My mother moved from Los Angeles to New York after graduating college. Her parents had separated while she was at college and she needed to put a nation between her and her family. She met my father at a party in Manhattan and they have been together since.
Four decades later, my grandmother took a fall and was no longer able to live on her own. She left the fragrant L.A. apartment where she had lived for thirty years and moved to the East Coast to live a tiny cube half a block from my parents’ house.
Sitting on my stoop the morning after the insectarium, I remembered when I was a boy, my grandmother took me to an artist friend’s studio. She chatted with her friend, a longtime student and friend of Sol LeWitt, as I wandered around the palatial studio filled with paintings that pictorially represented musical rhythm and meter. This woman had spent her life creating these meticulous colored grids. I put my coffee down on the steps and went to buy a ticket home. Continue reading
A GOD TO BELONG TO
I want to kiss as I want
to weed the garden—a cleansing.
This, too, is how God would kiss,
I imagine. I am myself also
a God. Because my body, too,
housing surprise at the grand narratives
we’ve created. Heaven, Hell—
just other words for garages bloated full
of belongings from the dead. I am walking
and I remember something that you wrote:
“be your best gifter.” You, sweet friend,
who are also a God and you knew it, which is why
you are no place and every place. Which is why
when I walk I walk to pay attention. There are kittens
or a newborn crying from the house nearby,
who can tell? Dahlias in dusk light
from a stop sign in the rain.
I am thinking about the last of the milk
weed flying about the yard and how it is erotic
turning to tuft like that as it does, unfurled
in its last becoming. God is the romance of the world
trying to free itself. Of this, I am sure
as I stand in front of these autumn dahlias. I reach
out to touch them like sun fingering contrast
into the day and I think again of the fool that
I want to become. An unlocked thing: the milkweed,
the kittens and newborns in new skin
sagging in the dusk light—all Gods
in their quiet declarations—showing in a moment
all it is we can belong to.
Rebecca Maillet is a poet, an educator, a lover of the earth, and is deeply committed to educational justice. She teaches and studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is a PhD candidate in English. She currently lives in Northampton, MA with her beloved dog, Oliver.
I was looking for a song. All around Bed Stuy were these record shops that were really junk shops that were really some guy’s basement, accessible from the street. Summer afternoons, I dug through stacks of disintegrating LPs in dim, mildew-scented cellars.I had heard it at a party or in a passing car or a bar—where in the year 2000 in New York, I could still drink at nineteen years old. This was before Shazam, before I bought my first cellphone. It was before mp3s took over, when we still had binders of CDs, before I stopped making mixtapes. I was studying creative writing in college, but spent my nights and weekends shooting speedballs and fanatically arranging playlists on blank tapes whose tracks I piped from the record player in my apartment to the heavy double cassette deck that sat atop my record crates.
No, no, no, went the song. You don’t love me and I know now. No, no, no. It was a haunted minor-key blues progression transformed by the one drop rhythm of reggae. The singer’s voice seeped languorously over the beat, No, no, no, you don’t love me yes I know now. She was broken hearted but oh so far away, her keening remote, transmitted through a pipe, or the distant end of a telescope. It was a sound I recognized from Billie Holiday, whose music had prompted me to study singing for four years. It was the early Phil Spector hits that I had gorged on as a girl. It was spooky and sad and sunk its teeth into the soft bowl of my hips, set them steady rocking. Her lover was not there to listen so she sang to us, to her own cracked heart maybe, of that sorrow emptied of desperation.
I was sorrowful and I was desperate. I craved that distance from my own relentless hungers, a remove at which the tragedy of them could be a pretty, haunted thing. A story to tell to the bartender. A song to play at the end of the night.
I must have known I’d find it. I also appreciated the easy tension of looking for something that I simply wanted, that I didn’t need the way I needed heroin. It made me feel human. And unlike heroin, sometimes when I found a thing I wanted, I got to keep it – that hunger sated for good.
Feel Like Jumping: Best of Studio One Women was one of the more satisfying purchases of my young life. I listened to that record more than any other, more than “Crimson and Clover,” more than Cyndi Lauper’s cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” more than Otis Redding. Well, maybe not more than Otis.
My only easy memories of those years are Sunday mornings home alone. If I wasn’t dopesick, if I had enough weed to roll even a small shwaggy joint, if I didn’t have anywhere to be or anything to chase, I could slip that record on and just be okay—a rare and precious quality for me back then.
Studio One, “The Motown of Jamaica,” was founded by Clement “Coxsone” Dodd who cut his first recordings at the Kingston studio in 1963. His house band, Sound Dimension, defined the trademark sound that evolved ska into rocksteady into the reggae that birthed dancehall in the late seventies and was introduced to a mainstream white audience through the hits of acts like Blondie, Paul Simon, and The Beatles
Griffiths was best known for her 1989 recording of Bunny Wailer’s “Electric Boogie,” the highest selling reggae single by a woman singer in history and the basis for the dance, “The Electric Slide.” “Feel Like Jumping” was her first success, in 1968. It’s a good song, though far from my favorite on the album.
My favorite, the song I had sought in those basements, was Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No).” It is a 1994 dancehall revision of a song Penn recorded at Studio One in 1967, based on Willie Cobbs’s blues standard, “You Don’t Love Me,” which was based on Bo Diddley’s earlier “She’s Fine, She’s Mine.” That is to say, encoded in the song is the history of American music, at least as it interests me.
In a recent literature class, frustrated by my (all white) students’ slowness to grasp the legacy of Frederick Douglass’s narrative; the progression from it to the works of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and ZZ Packer; I resorted to an analogy I knew would reach them faster: music. Through the classroom projector, I played recordings of early African American prison work songs, Youtube videos of early rhythm and blues performances, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn,” and finally Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.”
I didn’t explain how the name, “rhythm and blues” evolved from “race music” or that Bo Diddley’s name likely derived from a hybrid of the “diddley bow”—a West African influenced instrument played by southern field workers—and “diddly squat.” But I did draw a line on the chalkboard and suggest that at its leftmost end were American slave songs, and nearly all the musical culture that they had ever worshiped was traceable along that line.
I knew only a little about this progression when I was their age, when I found this album in a Bed Stuy basement. I knew better what sounds set my hips rocking and echoed my own heart in their howl. I heard the Rolling Stones before I heard Muddy Waters, Blondie before Marcia Griffiths, Paul Simon before Lee Perry. But the further back I followed that sound, the clearer I heard it.
Music is my one true hobby. It is the only thing I have loved as long and as hard as I have loved books, and perhaps is a purer love, because I have loved music privately, never conflated its value to me with my value to anyone else. Music performs the most direct alchemy of all art that moves me—a universal pain rendered beautiful in its specificity. Encoded in the musical DNA of every song I love is the long tragedy of our human history, not just lovesick hearts, but the colonization of land and bodies and sound, and the ways people have found to answer it.
The word reggae is said to have originated in the Jamaican patois term, streggae, which denotes a loose woman, a raggedy woman. Maybe, I love it so because I am also a woman who has made art out of a loose place, a raggedy place. And the naming of my own pain has been my best solution.
I still listen to the music I discovered in my worst years: Studio One era reggae, dancehall, and soul songs typified by (especially the early) Stax Records. In these songs and on my favorite tracks of Feel Like Jumping are the same irresistible ache nestled in the cradle of rhythm.
Back in 2000, the only place I much felt like jumping was off the Brooklyn Bridge. I might have died back then. I came close. The things that saved my life were art and faith and the love of good people. The practice of prayer, like the practice of creation, like that of love, is a lot like moving to those old dancehall hits—the mind recedes, the body’s percussion takes over, becomes a boat that can carry that weight when our minds cannot.
It was a dark time, a keening time, and it has passed. But the stutter of the one drop rhythm still moves through me, as it moved me through those Sunday mornings.
Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for eight years.
You and I had not seen each other for decades when we decided to meet, with our husbands (acquired in the meantime), at an old hotel built during the gold rush. Of the two of us, you had changed least, looking much the same as the pretty girl I remembered from Maine, an only child, always at the top of our class. Unless I am mistaken, it was late September and slightly cool when we met again, but we opted to have dinner outside anyway, the only guests who did, and at some point during the evening a slight, blond woman in a summery dress came out to have a cigarette. Green and deep red ivy covered the back of the brick building, which she leaned against, smoking, below the string lights crisscrossing the patio. Our husbands had hit it off right away, both of them charming and talkative, generous with the wine and bourbon, probably relieved that what might have been an awkward evening was going smoothly. The sounds of live music, some sort of wedding party, drifted out of the hotel whenever the blond opened the door to lean in and listen for a few seconds, before she let it close again and lit another smoke. The truth is, I don’t remember much about her because you were telling me about a ghost from your childhood, that of a woman who had once lived in your centuries-old house and been raped repeatedly by men in the area because she was disabled and unable to fend them off, and you’d had had filmy visions of these doings as a child without understanding what they meant. One doesn’t hear a compelling ghost story very often, and you had such a rapt audience for your tale that neither of us cared that the blond, bored with smoking and a bit tipsy, it seemed, had come over to talk to our husbands. Kristen—I will call her that; she looked like a Kristen—told them her ex was inside and she didn’t feel welcome there, also that she was a hairdresser; she ran her fingers through my husband’s afro to indicate, I suppose, that she knew how to work with black people’s hair. Now you were at the crux of your story, though, and I paid them scant attention. Often women try to engage my husband because he has a kind face and expressive eyes. Will you believe me when I say that I didn’t even mind when she sat or fell down in his lap? He must have resisted a little then because suddenly she rose, came to our side of the table, and took our hands as if she were a priestess, saying how special it must be for us to see each other after so long. Only then did I notice how young and drunk she was, how hard she was trying to stay upright, and I didn’t care, I only wanted her to leave so you could finish your story. Which has long since laid itself within this one, causing me when I am not paying attention to mix up Kristen with the woman in your story, and vice versa.
Beth Spencer edits poetry and short fiction for Bear Star Press. “Women Be Wise” is from her unpublished chapbook of acrostic micro-fiction, Bebop Galactic. Her poems and stories have been published in a variety of print and online journals and blogs. She lives in rural Northern California with her husband and dog.
There’s a quote I love by Susan Sontag from her collection of essays On Photography: “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
These lines never fail to move me, because there is an inherent nostalgia in their honesty. We can never truly preserve a moment in time. Trying to only makes its transience even more obvious. Attempting to capture and still a moment, Sontag tells us, is the fastest way to come face to face with time’s passing. And yet in a photograph an echo of the past does remain, forever preserved in the archive of things even after the actual moment has fled.
According to science, salt, or sodium chloride, has over 14,000 uses – it can season food, restore a sponge, remove watermarks from wood, deodorize armpits, detoxify bodies, set color in clothes, kill bacteria, freshen breath, emulsify skin, kill slugs, preserve food.
Today I want to talk about preservation.
What is salt if not the oldest form of preservation? A way to slow the quickness of time? To keep its power of decay at bay, if only for a little while?
In his book Salt, Mark Kurlansky tells readers that a history of salt is in fact a history of the world. The body needs salt to function and since the beginning of time, civilizations have been finding ways to exploit and trade it.
When colonizers first embarked on the seas, how far they could travel was limited by how much food they could carry. When sailors discovered they could soak food in brine to preserve it, that salted fish and meat lasted longer, their colonial exploits expanded. Their violence spread over the seas, salty themselves, and beyond.
What does it mean to preserve something? In today’s world, who chooses what gets to last?
Readers of Audre Lorde will recognize this quote, lifted from the epilogue of her book Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
In a blog post about the quote titled “Selfcare as Warfare,” Sarah Ahmed reminds us that for some people, to last is to embark on war. To last in a body that the world does not want to see last, radical act. To continue to love people that the world does not want you to love, a fight. To flourish in a skin color the world is trying to hold down, defiance.
Bodies that are brown or black or any color that does not quite fit into the picture culture wants to paint of itself. Bodies that want to love the kinds of bodies society tells them not to. Bodies that are fat or alter-abled or do not have the right religion or do not have the right eyes or the right hair or the right vocabulary or the right passport. These are the bodies that go to war when they choose to care for themselves, when they shirk the shadows and seek out visibility – to “slice out a moment” from their life “and freeze it.” They thread themselves into the future.
I’m reminded of course of the anti-trans bathroom bills in passing now in North Carolina. It has become a newsworthy event for trans teens to go to the bathroom in their schools. Trans people open themselves to violence on a daily basis to do the kind of rote tasks many of us so often take for granted.
To become visible is to strike out a place for oneself in the currents of time – to say I am here, and I refuse to disappear.
How do you find salt? Lifted from dried up seas, dug up from salt licks, panned from living oceans. Hundreds of feet below ground salt rivers flow, waiting to be exhumed. The early globe is sliced to bits with trade routes established solely for the transfer of salt – a commodity so precious it sometimes doubled as money.
To be worth one’s weight in salt is to be deserving of your pay. Our English word salary comes from the Latin salarium which means salt. Because rumor has it, salt is what Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in.
Salacious comes from the Latin salax which refers to someone in love, or more appropriately, in a salted state.
Since the beginning of time, animals have plodded trails to salt licks. Early humans followed their tracks to uncover the saline sources. You see, people have always understood the power of preservation. Whether they used the power for good is another story.
When we archive something, we save its place in history. We give it weight, belonging, sometimes a shelf or a frame. We create space for it among other narratives. Our histories inform our present. The stories we tell and retell shape our tomorrows. What we choose to archive, to add to our spaces of preservation, are direct reflections of what culture – at least parts of culture – finds valuable.
When the tides of time wash over us, as they invariably do, what is left behind? What do we give to the libraries of our future?
Archives need not be static, dusty shelves filled with past ornaments and withered pages. They can be evolving, breathing ideas that move alongside culture, pressing up against belief systems, normativity, stasis. They construct concurrent realities that give breathing room for other bodies and document, if you will, an alternative truth to the one shown on the news each night.
A literary journal is kind of archive. Blogs, Google maps, and Facebook newsfeeds are kinds of living archives. Twitter? A forever refreshing archive. When we “like” a comment or photograph, we give it a kind of historical weight. The things we salt with attention get folded into the future.
We are all of us archivists, armed with our own kinds of brine. When you see something powerful, don’t let it slip through your fingers, preserve its power, fix it from decay. Make it last.
A version of this essay first appeared as a spoken editorial introduction to Amsterdam’s reading series VERSO /.
Genevieve Hudson is an American writer living in Amsterdam. She earned an MFA from Portland State University, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch, Portland Monthly, The Rumpus, The Collagist, Alpinist, Believer Logger, No Tokens, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.