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It so happens that Michael Woodcock, whose painting St. Joseph’s Day appears as the cover of The Sleep Garden, also designed the cover of my first book of poems, a lifetime ago. It’s my hope that what follows will let others know how important he was to me and to everyone who knew him.
Awhile ago, in 2013, on Easter, after finishing dinner and observing it was still light outside, I decided to take a drive to the small hospital where my old friend Michael Woodcock lay dying. When I’d visited Michael a few days earlier, he’d drifted in and out of consciousness, but I thought this time there was a chance he might be able to say a few words, or listen, nod, or something. If not, I told myself, at least I’ll see him. The place Michael had landed, courtesy of some cost-effective insurance plan, was called a hospice but it didn’t look like any hospice I’d ever imagined. It was just a shabby, ordinary room in an extended care facility (a de facto hospice in itself, I guess), with the walk to his room a gauntlet of drooling ancients, abandoned, confused, or asleep in their wheelchairs in doorways and along the sides of the halls. Worst of all—at least to me—the staff, the nurses and the aides, had no idea who Michael was, what a remarkable person was passing away in their midst. I wanted to tell them, but of course it wouldn’t have helped.
I got to his room to find Michael in bed, lying on his back like an upturned boat. Always a big man, as his liver ceased to function, he had grown larger more full of fluid and his skin strained to enclose it all. He was unconscious, with an oxygen mask over his face, struggling to breathe, but at least, as far as I could tell, he was out of the terrible pain he’d been in earlier. His gray beard poked out the sides of the plastic mask like mattress stuffing and his eyes were shut. His wife said hello. She had been there for two weeks straight, sleeping in the bed next to his, feeding him, touching him, and she looked very, very tired. After a few minutes she asked if I would be there long enough for her to run home—about ten minutes away—and take a shower. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
So she left and I sat holding Michael’s hand, watching him breathe. His breaths weren’t the rasping last breaths of the dying I had heard at other times, but they weren’t regular ones, either. There would be a breath, and then a pause just long enough for me to worry, and then he’d breathe again. Strangely, I found myself relaxing. It was enough just to be where I was, with him, and, for a change, words were unimportant. I’d brought a book to read to him, but realized that in order to turn the pages I would have to let go of his hand, so I just sat and held on, and listened to him taking in and expelling air. After a while his breathing got easier, and it seemed to me that somehow, even though he wasn’t conscious, I was helping him. Then his breaths got so easy I couldn’t even be sure if he was breathing at all, and I removed the oxygen mask to check. There was nothing. I felt for his pulse, and there was nothing there as well. His eyes had opened, so I shut them and kissed his forehead. “Good-bye,” I said, called for a nurse, and about that time his wife walked in, and she spent a long time crying. Continue reading
My Great Uncle Adolphus had a pet duck named Patrick. Patrick was insecure, needy, foul-tempered, and brilliant. Not just brilliant for a duck either, my Great Uncle would say. Patrick possesses a keen mind. He has a deep curiosity about everything under the sun and a bracing skepticism! Patrick would hiss at us whenever we went to visit. He would laugh nastily when we mispronounced words or displayed lazy, unoriginal thinking. When we left there was always duck poop in our shoes. The price of genius, Great Uncle Adolphus would say, smiling proudly.
After my Great Uncle Adolphus’s death Patrick came to live with us. We were not Great Uncle Adolphus’s closest relatives and I have never been sure why he selected us to look after Patrick. I was six, maybe seven. Patrick was delivered in a gold cage big enough for a medium-sized elephant. It was just Mother and I at home so it must have been a week day. I was eating cottage cheese when the delivery men knocked at the door. I preferred cottage cheese served in a shiny blue aluminum bowl and it was best with a sprig of parsley on top. Patrick sat in his cage with his bill tucked tightly to one side of his breast, completely still. Mother and I watched him closely. He was breathing heavily, a deep, shaky inward breath then a long, whistling exhale that stopped and started partway through. It was the saddest noise I had ever heard. “He is an unpleasant creature,” said Mother. “But he is ours. He’ll have your room now. You will sleep on the couch from now on.”
Patrick never recovered from the heartbreak of Great Uncle Adolphus’s death. We tried to cheer him up. We remembered how he had loved to mock us because of our lack of intellectual rigor. So we put on shows in front of his cage acting as stupid as we could. I would recite the multiplication tables but make serious, ridiculous errors. I would sing the alphabet song but get the letters mixed up and give up in a show of frustration. I would list the countries and capitals but I would say crazy things like the capital of Tanzania is Baltimore and the capitol of Iceland is Madrid. Father and Mother would discuss philosophy but instead of saying Aristotle and Heidegger they would say Donald and Goofy. Nothing worked. Patrick remained unmoved.
Then one day the sound of Patrick’s labored breathing stopped. We made arrangements for Patrick’s body to be laid to rest beside Great Uncle Adolphus’s. I got my room back and I felt joyful about that, which in turn made me feel guilty. I told Father that I hadn’t loved Patrick, not really. Neither did I, said Father. But your Great Uncle Adolphus did.
Years later I found out that Great Uncle Adolphus died of heartbreak. Patrick had started seeing a dull mallard named Mathilda, and Adolphus found out about the affair in an embarrassing manner. It was a tragedy for all concerned. Or, since I don’t know what became of Mathilda, I can’t say it was a tragedy for her. Perhaps it was merely a minor embarrassment in Mathilda’s world.
It’s funny how memory works. Years after Patrick’s death I still think about the price of genius. And I still find myself checking my shoes before I thrust my feet in, on the lookout for the foul stench of that brilliant duck.
Mark Hoadley‘s recent work has appeared in Word Riot and KYSO Flash. He is co-editor of the online poetry journal The Maynard. Mark lives in Vancouver, BC where he writes memoir, poetry and fabulist fictions, sometimes all at once.
Where are we?
How did we come here?
Where are we going?
And anyway, who lies sleeping here with us?
Wherever that is—
I mean—wherever we are.
To begin: the Burrow is a low mound that rises out of the ground. It rests on what would be, if not for the Burrow itself, a vacant lot on the edge of town, though not the farthest edge. On one end of the lot, on the west side of the Burrow, and far enough away so there are no drainage problems, is a small pond. What kind of pond? Picture a body of water about the size of a supermarket parking lot, with stands of cattails, frogs, tadpoles, and such, plus various insects, both on the water and flying above it. This pond grows larger in spring and in summer shrinks to the size of, say, a convenience store parking lot. In the fall and winter it stays somewhere roughly between the two extremes. On its eastern shore is a tree, possibly a cypress, but possibly something else entirely. A sad fact about the people who live in this town is that nobody knows much of anything about the names of trees.
Still, like so many other things in the world, this particular burrow is more than its name implies. This burrow has people living in it. It has five or six tenants, depending on how many of its apartments are rented at any given time, because, as you probably guessed, the Burrow is really an apartment building, and although it isn’t called “the Burrow” in any formal sense—it’s never had any formal name at all—it was the Burrow’s neighbors, the very same ones who can’t seem to tell one tree from another, who called it that back when it was first constructed. So to this day, whether out of affection or derision, “the Burrow” is how people, including those who live inside it, refer to the place. And while it’s true that some of the children in the neighborhood say the Burrow is scary, no one offers any specifics. It’s the kind of place that children like to pretend is scary on principle. It’s part of being a child, and certainly that doesn’t stop those same children from playing in the pond next to it when school isn’t in session, albeit giving the Burrow a glance from time to time to make sure there’s nothing frightening rushing toward them from it as they play.
So picture a mound of dirt with things growing out of the top, plants, new shoots, weeds, but having a front door, and you are picturing the Burrow.
Meanwhile, inside the Burrow, Jeffery is thinking this: Suppose a person spent his whole life being way ahead of the curve, was Überbrilliant, far in front of every other person in the world who was also working on whatever problem this first person was working on, so incredibly advanced, et cetera, et cetera, that those in his dust were totally blind to the fact there was even anyone out in front of them? They would look, of course, but all they would see was a big dust cloud, without having the slightest idea what was causing it. And correspondingly, when the genius, or whatever you want to call him, looked behind, and squinted through the dust of his own making, those others weren’t visible.
But then, Jeffery thinks, one day, maybe thirty or forty years after this genius first embarked on his journey and the dust from the cloud settled, he happened to look back once again, and this time, because there wasn’t any more dust at all, he could see for sure there was nobody following him. There was only an empty plain, or road, or stage, or whatever you want to call it. In other words, whoever had been back there trailing after him must have taken a whole different path, or several different paths. So there he was—wherever “there” was—completely alone. But here’s the thing: out of all those people who, a long time ago, were working on the same idea as he was, nobody cared. Every one of them had moved on to other projects, much better and more timely ones, and as a result, the genius was not ahead of anyone anymore. He’d been totally forgotten and whatever he might have done, whatever he did, meant nothing. Zero.
And as for this supposed genius, what word would Jeffery use to describe him?
Jeffery is in his midthirties and has hair the color of untoasted whole-wheat sandwich bread. He’s still in fairly good shape because he exercises every day—squats, sit-ups, push-ups—right next to his bed first thing every morning. Though he’s starting to develop a little pot on his stomach, it’s not unusual for his age. He tells himself he needs to lay off the starch, but hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s not that big a deal.
Also: in addition to the problem with identifying their trees, none of the town’s inhabitants seem to be able to pronounce the name of their own town, St. Nils.
That is, they can and do pronounce it in one of two ways: Saint Niles, like the river, or Nils, which rhymes with pills, but it appears they have no idea which one is correct.
The fact is, it was Raymond who inspired this idea of the alleged genius-person-so-far-ahead-of-everyone-else to pop into Jeffery’s head, and Jeffery’s first Raymond-as-a-genius thought came when he was smack in the middle of Raymond’s living room in the Burrow, sitting on Raymond’s couch surrounded by a humongous number of decoys: on wall shelves, on tables, even lined up along the baseboards. Raymond had carved each one, and now, apparently, he waited for some mysterious future event to move them out of there. In addition to the finished decoys there were also several piles of lumber for future decoys. There were also open cans of paint leaking fumes and smelling up the place—not a bad smell, but, well . . . paint, and of course Raymond was living in the middle of all this.
Then Raymond sat down on the recliner opposite the couch and made it recline by means of a lever on one side. Next, he took off his right shoe, propped his right foot up on the part of the recliner that had turned into a little platform, and allowed his left foot, its shoe still on, to rest quietly on the rug.
So while it was clear that Raymond had a vision, Jeffery still had a hard time working out precisely what vision that might be.
Is he a genius or a complete idiot?
And, for that matter, what would you call Jeffery for thinking all of this?
And yet there is something troubling about the Burrow, something hard to name, maybe something about the low shadow it casts on the vacant lot around sunset, or maybe the smell of its walls after a November rain, so maybe the children—bless them— are right to keep their distance.
Because Raymond is a big guy, and gentle, and his head is big and gentle, too, with dark brown hair like burnt whole-wheat toast, and frizzy, the kind of hair a person might want to lean their own head against if he or she were tired, but if they did they would be disappointed because what they would be leaning on would be Raymond’s skull, which is very hard. As hard as a wooden decoy, a person who leaned his or her head against it might be thinking.
Meanwhile: outside the Burrow, new shoots of trees, new wood, reach out of the ground, toward air, toward sun, toward something they can’t actually see, something they have no way to be sure is even there.
What was Raymond’s reaction to Jeffery’s explanation of the dust cloud and the person making it? It was to settle deeper into his recliner and shut his eyes. Finally, after about five minutes, Raymond spoke. “Like jets,” he said, and proceeded to peel a Band-Aid from his finger and stare at the cut underneath, which Jeffery thought probably came from making decoys—a sliver or a slip of the knife. The skin beneath the Band-Aid was pale and puckered, not like skin at all, but more like those Styrofoam pellets people use for packing.
“Are you okay?” Jeffery asked. “And what do you mean, ‘like jets’?”
“How far can/will the elegy stretch?” Amy Gerstler asked our workshop participants this July. “Are there limits to what conventional or unconventional elegy can mourn, memorialize, honor, metabolize, question? Are there angry, comic, upbeat and/or love elegies? How about some stealth elegies?”
In her quest to find out, Gerstler examined poems from Terrance Hayes, Li Young Lee, John Berryman, Anne Carson, as well as considered the wealth of the possibilities for various elegiac incorporations in our own work.
Recorded in the Reed Chapel during the 2015 Summer Workshop, we give you Amy Gerstler’s lecture on the uses of the elegiac.
Author of over a dozen books, including the collection Scattered at Sea, which made the 2015 National Book Award Longlist in Poetry, Amy Gerstler resides in Southern California.
As a young reader, I had a fascination with stories of the American South. Maybe it was because of my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Clark, a Georgia native who taught To Kill a Mockingbird, and whose black-rimmed glasses and gray pixie cut made her look very much like the author. Or maybe it was because the South—with its “y’alls,” its grits, its Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons—seemed exotic to me, a Jewish girl from suburban Detroit.
Years later, I was excited to discover that my own family had a Southern past. At eighteen, my great-grandfather, Dave Spickler, left the Indiana farm where he and his mother had lived after emigrating from Poland. He’d planned to seek his fame and fortune in South America, but he only made it as far as Mobile, Alabama, where he spent the next decade as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard.
Ever since my grandmother related this forgotten chapter of our family history, I’ve wondered what it must have been like for Dave to live in the Deep South in the early 20th century. But thanks to Roy Hoffman’s 2004 novel Chicken Dreaming Corn, it’s no longer difficult to imagine.
Hoffman is part of a small but proud tribe of Southern Jewish writers. Growing up “as a Jew in the Bible Belt, I was in a minority,” he wrote in a New York Times essay. “I was often the only Jew [people] knew.” His family’s insider and outsider status is a subject he explores in this book, which garnered Southern literature’s unofficial seal of approval: a rare endorsement from Harper Lee herself.
Chicken Dreaming Corn is based on Hoffman’s grandparents’ journey from the shtetls of Romania to the storefronts of Mobile—and it’s a delight to read. The title comes from his grandmother’s Alabama twist on a Romanian Jewish expression, referring to the yearnings of ordinary folks for lofty, possibly unattainable goals.
The novel centers around Morris Kleinman, who lives with his wife and four children above his shop on Mobile’s Dauphin Street. When the novel opens in 1916, Morris has called Mobile home for some years, and he’s part of an international crew of merchants from Cuba, Poland, Lebanon, and Greece. He’s developed a modest but comfortable business selling everything from two-tone lace-ups to checkered skirts, making what he calls “a living, not a killing.”
Hoffman paints a vivid portrait of the Kleinmans’ lives—and how they retain their own customs, while becoming part of the fabric of the South. Morris and his wife Miriam keep kosher, pray daily, and go to a small synagogue that seems forever in the shadows of the town’s majestic cathedral. At the same time, the family mixes Southern with their Yiddish, marks down merchandise for “Good Friday Specials,” and hums marching-band melodies at the Confederate veterans’ parade.
What impressed me most wasn’t simply Hoffman’s ability to portray the Jewish experience in Mobile in this particular era, but his capacity to transform a specific story into a universal one. Although I came to the novel with a desire to learn about my own roots, the Kleinmans could be any immigrant family in America. Hoffman’s indelible characters ask questions that are fundamentally human: What do we owe our parents who have sacrificed for us? What does it mean to lead a good and honest life? What is love? How much do we need to be happy? And finally, what is the meaning of home? Continue reading
This whole night was Cannot Sleep and so you watched
the bedroom window in the mirror and waited. Curtains
rose and fell. Imagined sailing, and for a minute the bed
was a boat to pilot, but the floor’s stagnant water
and you ran aground. Outside, the streets are dark and darker.
When I say you I mean I, which is solipsism, but, whoever you are,
be awake. On a plane, sitting in the inverted funnel made
when light isolates the solitary reader
like an experiment in a long glass tube. On a train or bus stuck
in the same phenomenon. Or in your lover’s kitchen
where you sip cold seltzer by the sink or the back yard with the constellations
of metal cans you abandon open for stray cats. Before
the fish was skinned, its scales gleamed metallic too. As did the hook
that caught it and the river under stars and moon: silver, silver. Sometimes
my days feel layered with connections that shine
the same way certain routes light up
when you press a button on 3-D Children’s Museum displays.
In the Revolutionary War room, we can follow
the path Paul Revere’s horse took on that famous midnight ride.
Note the churches and their steeples
where the lanterns glowed and huge bells shaped like metal tulips
their alarums clanged. Down the corridor in Basic Biology, you’ll find
the entire central nervous system branching out
and, next door, are veins and capillaries
like all the secret causeways ever dreamed of–static
as they unfold before you on the body’s perfect illuminated map.
Kate Angus is a founding editor of Augury Books. Her work has previously appeared in Best New Poets 2010, Best New Poets 2014, The Awl, The Rumpus, Subtropics, and Verse Daily. Her debut collection, So Late to the Party, is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Negative Capability Press.
All the best, from our ski bunnies to yours. We’ll see you back on the Open Bar in the new year. –Eds.
This story appears in Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman.
Red wool, and falsely brightened, since
we need the help.
A child because
the chambers of the heart will hold so
—Still Life, Linda Gregerson
There was once.
A little girl named Lala lived with her mother in a place named Gaza, and all who knew her loved her, most of all her Uncle Hashem, who gave her a red coat and called her Little Red Riding Hood, after a story he’d read once, many years before, in America. In that story the girl was foolish and was devoured by a terrible wolf, but Uncle Hashem knew Lala was clever and would never betray herself to a wolf. Also their lives were not fairy tales—tempting as it was to imagine a clever woodsman bestowing, before the bitter end, the end to their sufferings—and it was more likely that Lala would be killed by fire flying out from the darkness of night than an anthropomorphized wolf, an otherwise peaceful creature made ugly by man’s imagination. He told her the story as a cautionary tale, saying, “I know your actions will demonstrate the strength of your mind, not the foolishness of your heart.” He believed he was imparting a special kind of wisdom to her, hopeful that she’d be able to pass it on some day, in some fashion, to the next generation. Maybe.
Lala wore the red coat with pride and was admired by the other little girls and could be seen, a great vibrant redness against the dull brown sand of the refugee camp, from kilometers away in many directions, but not too many kilometers lest one be touched by the blue of the sea or the barbed wire of an old armistice line. In this way, Lala and the little red coat became inseparable from one another and one couldn’t imagine Lala without also imagining the little red coat.
Uncle Hashem did not live near the camp like Lala. It was a matter of pride. When he returned from America, he took his wife and their newborn out of the house Lala and her mother and father lived in, and moved into an old seaside villa. He was an American educated doctor and his home would have a view of the sea. A view of the sea was a view of all that Gaza wasn’t, even if the view was from the top of a crumbling building that had survived, inexplicably, the last war no one had heard of and which even he was beginning to forget, as a man might forget the circumstances of his birth or the fact of his impending death. Never mind, it was a luxury to live in such a mindset, and he wouldn’t give this up, not even for Gaza. On the first floor he had a medical practice where he would see patients complaining from any number of illness that were all really something else. For example, extreme boredom presenting itself as a terminal and most definitely fatal chest pains by one hysterical Umm Hamdi Hamoodi, or an utter lack of interest in mathematics masquerading as a developmental delay in a boy of fourteen named Hamdi Hamoodi, or depression cloaked as a stubborn insistence on revisiting certain events of the past and asking why over and over again by one Ms. Jamilah Hussein, widow of Mr. Hussein Hussein, who perished heroically in a firefight in the last war no one had heard of and which Jamilah could not forget. In all their charts he wrote, “Diagnosis: Gaza. Patient suffers from Gaza.” Once Uncle Hashem wrote Umm Hamdi a prescription which read, “Leave Gaza, get a life” and she laughed, a great big sound coming from the cavernous mouth of the forty-seventh most anxious woman in Gaza.
“Dr. Juda. This is my homeland. It’s yours too.”
“Learn to swim Umm Hamdi. There is a sea here at your disposal. Please, it will do your heart some good and my time can be spent watching LBC in peace.”
“I’d be better off learning how to dig, Doctor.”
At that very moment the TV screened flashed with the start of a game show. All of the game shows on LBC featured beautiful women, as did all of the other shows on the LBC, the news, for example, and the dramas, and the comedies. Watching LBC gave one the distinct impression that all the women in Lebanon were voluptuous brunettes with silken skin so white it glowed and perfect little noses and great moons for breasts and voices a surgeon’s knife never touched. Uncle Hashem could fall asleep listening to them, or thinking of them, or wondering if an army of them might charm the world into mundane quietude.
“I’ll see you next week.” Umm Hamdi walked out slowly, as if there was no better place to be in the world but inside the office of an irritable middle-aged man who may have been diagnosed with any number of illness associated with a diet just less than the 2,279 calorie intake recommended by the World Health Organization and a broken heart. The lights flickered on and off and on again but the TV screen remained dark and the LBC girls were gone, for now, at least.
Uncle Hashem suffered his patients all morning and again, after lunch, all afternoon, until Lala appeared at his door and said, “Mama says it is dinner time.” And he took off his white doctor’s coat and put on a light jacket and walked through the narrow streets with Lala’s and imagined he was her father, and his own daughter wasn’t dead, and that she was his daughter, and her own father wasn’t dead and that they were on an early evening stroll as banal and unremarkable as a cypress tree.
“Uncle Hashem, why did you come back from America?”
“This is my home. I was only in America to study. I had to come back.” What he meant to say was he’d already had a child and the child was waiting and the mother couldn’t leave, and after all, this was home like a millstone around his neck, and he missed the bread his wife made and his mother’s coffee on Friday mornings. He should have stayed on in that small town in Georgia, where he was mistaken for black, when he was mistaken for anything, and it was better to be black in America than an Arab man with a dead wife and a dead child in the pene-exclave of Gaza, but that wasn’t something he wanted to tell Lala. He was home and apart from himself, he was alive and as good as dead. But he didn’t say any of these things. They were all disjoined and confused in his head. Sometimes he didn’t believe himself. Why had he come back? Why had he left? Why did he exist at all and as a Gazan, which seemed a particularly difficult burden to bear once one had borne exile—even a very temporary one. Don’t leave Gaza is what he should have said to Lala, I shouldn’t have left myself. It is better to know only Gaza or if you leave, to hold the fading memory in your heart like a stone, rather than come back.
“Hamid of Ramallah says if he could go to America and study like you did he would never come back here. He says Gaza is a bad place and that no one who has brains enough to leave, should stay, let alone come back. Is that true?”
“Look,” he wanted to tell Lala, “There isn’t a truth more noble than the fact of our existence. Even the Israelites who dared to leave two centuries ago came back singing their birthright songs. No one who leaves can stay away and no one who returns can forget where they have been. Lala, we are the Israelites who stayed behind. We stayed with this land too long. We became Christians. We became Muslims. We became fools over and again. We died so that we could live in the next world with those who had died before. That is the truth as I know it. The dust and the sea and the old armistice line like three wise men hunting the brightest star that someone turned off long ago. A dream you can feel but can’t remember. A divine message in analog when all that we can hear now is digital. Land of milk and honey and horseshit. Land of Dr. Hashem Juda’s despair. Land of songs and solitude, madness and repentance.” He might has well have added, “There was once, in an anemic strip of land along a very blue sea, a man who prayed for dust and two thousand years later, a long blink in the eye of the God of Bonbons, dust rained and bloomed and shimmied like slow motion angels down upon the villages of Gaza and buried those who stayed and those who loved the dust returned to claim what they took to be promised to them alone.”
But he didn’t because she was a child, and she was new in the world, and it was already too much for her—for any child—to be born with the burden of a disappeared nation, let alone hear the affected musings of a man who’d lost everything and nothing over and over again. In time, she would learn about the terrible dilemma of citizenship to a land no one recognizes, and what it meant or didn’t mean to belong to a place trapped in the gap between oblivion and annihilation, and of the desires of a free people to be free. Continue reading
On the Aegean coast of Turkey, the sea casts rainbows at olive trees, and mountains stretch eagerly into the open water, creating sheltered coves. My American husband and I arrived in one of these inlets soon after our wedding in Istanbul—though we live in Brooklyn, we were married in Turkey where most of my family lives.
In Aspat, we found the makings of a proper—if not perfect—honeymoon. Our bungalow, though too utilitarian to be romantic, was comfortable. We had blue skies, palm trees, and a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze. Starting in the late mornings, the breeze blew westward, away from the coast, and kept the water impeccably clean by carrying away all undesirable things—seaweed, plastic cups, paper napkins, water bottles—toward Greece. Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise longue in pursuit of it. I was often too slow. By the time I reached the water’s edge, most foreign objects were well on their way to the Greek island of Kos which beckoned them from an apple’s throw away.
In the early mornings, there was no breeze and the refuse accumulated on our side of the Aegean. When my husband and I walked to the pier for our post-breakfast dip, I had a hard time ignoring the trash that littered the beach. I picked up cigarette wrappers, plastic straws, water bottles, and soda cans. I fished out two diapers using a plastic bag as a glove, and washed my hands with a bottle of turquoise liquid soap that had beached conveniently next to the diapers. As I carried the bottle to a trashcan, I noticed that it had Arabic writing on it. I dragged out two bright objects that proved to be brand new pumps for inflatable boats. I found a medicine box with a handwritten Arabic note. A fanny pack containing a rusty needle and some thread coiled around cardboard. There was also a list next to the needle and thread, written from right to left, from which some items had been crossed out. I found a Tupperware box full of medicine. A ripped passport issued by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan requesting protection for its holder. A wallet holding 2500 Syrian pounds, a business card from a health and wellness center in Kobane, a letter, and the driver’s license of a very young man with a round face.
When large scale violence strikes, it’s a given that the victims suffer and die where they are; involvement of the nonvictims is usually optional. The order of the things was disturbed this summer when Syrians fleeing the war in their country spread out into the world and started appearing on the Aegean coast—the affordable and sufficiently exotic vacation spot of choice for many Europeans.
I collected the residue of other people’s lives with the same calm with which I might have collected sea shells, keeping some and discarding others. The tears that I so readily shed when I watched TV reports on the Syrian refugee’s plight were absent. Even the shame I felt over my indifference was mild. My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home. Just the act of standing under the sun, my feet resting on aquatic rainbows, kept war and death distant and surreal, despite the Syrian driver’s license I carried ashore. The only things that felt urgent were luxurious dips in the most welcoming of seas, sunbathing, warm showers, and leisurely meals capped with a glass of black tea.
On our last night, the cove was tinted yellow by a full moon. After dinner, we walked out to the sand. “Look,” my husband whispered. At the tip of his finger, a few hundred yards from us, an inflatable dinghy was gliding west. I watched it for a few seconds until it disappeared in the darkness, with nothing but the utter fascination of having witnessed it, as if it were a solar eclipse. The fate of the people in the boat was merely a passing thought—we had a lifetime to weep for the tragedies of the world. The water was calm and black with silver drops. Soon after the boat left, we stripped down to our underwear for a midnight swim.
Two days later, when we were back in Ankara, the body of a Syrian toddler washed ashore less than a mile from our honeymoon cove. We watched it on my parents’ TV and cried.
Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer and a recent graduate of Columbia University’s nonfiction program. She is also a translator from Turkish.
Now that our Best of 2015 list of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and music is over, Tin House goes to the movies! By which we obviously mean “watches Netflix at home.” And also art galleries, rallies, and arcades. Look, there was only one day left in the week:
Matthew Dickman: When you are hung-over-as-fuck the morning of January 1st all you need to do is order some Thai food to be delivered and lie on your couch and watch River. This new offering on Netflix (Via BBC1) is exactly the kind of thing to spend a day and night binging on: moody, beautifully filmed, rainy and cloudy, AND a detective with real ghosts to contend with. Stellan Skarsgård is genius in the title roll.
As always, our staff are big documentary buffs, and this year offered a lot of great nonfiction movies: from Albert Maysles’s last picture to Laurie Anderson’s dog to the great ballet artist Justin Peck:
Jakob Vala: “When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.” Iris Apfel is a treasure and an inspiration—in style, in life, in love. She appeared in last year’s Advanced Style, but shines as the star of Albert Maysles’ final documentary, Iris. The film is packed with her signature layered couture and glimpses into the fashion industry. The real charm is in Iris’ disarming authenticity and in her very sweet marriage to the late Carl Apfel (a fashion plate in his own right). For Iris, style is the ultimate form of self-expression: “The worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself.” Other favorites: It Follows and Rick and Morty (TV)
Meg Storey: I won’t attempt to summarize Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, but it is visually, philosophically, and emotionally beautiful. It’s a dream, a collage, and a meditation all at once and with a fantastic soundtrack.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Ballet 422! Longtime readers of the Open Bar will know I am devotee of Justin Peck, the New York City Ballet dancer and choreographer at the heart of this documentary. The first time I saw one of his ballets, Year of the Rabbit, I cried all through the curtain call, so happy to think that dance and life could be like this: spirited, and empathetic, and tender. This documentary follows Peck as he makes his ballet, Paz de la Jolla. It doesn’t hurt that my all-time favorite dancer and the world’s most beautiful man, Amar Ramasar, is one of his principals. But even aside from the spectacular dance, Ballet 422 is inspiring as a portrait of artistic endeavor, and the ridiculous possibility of making something from nothing.
(Also, anyone who didn’t think The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was funny can consider themselves unsubscribed from the magazine.)
From documentary, it makes sense to go to a true story like Spotlight, Michelle’s pick for movie of the year:
Michelle Wildgen: Spotlight, Spotlight, so many times Spotlight. Somehow Tom McCarthy manages to be true to journalism and yet deliver a gripping, moving drama. All the dramatic tension is contained entirely in the tensions of going against the grain of a largely Catholic culture, of the journalist’s endless amounts of research and phone calls, and the simple human-to-human conversation.
There are, of course, other kinds of visual art out there. Yes, even in 2015, people still paint pictures. Rob Spillman took a trip to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see some of those paintings recently:
Rob: Kehinde Wiley’s ongoing project of putting real people of color into reproductions of old master paintings was stunning in its scope and range. I went multiple times, and the people watching—a cross-section of Brooklyn, from large black and Hispanic families to Bed-Stuy hipsters—was almost as enjoyable as the work itself.
And then there are the interns, with their comic books and their cartoons and video games and Justin Biebers—we get it, we’re old and they’ll always be cooler than us:
Claire Gordon: I know a lot of folks fancy themselves too cool for the carefully crafted pop stylings of JB, but I dare you to find me someone who can resist dancing to Sorry. Take that and pair it with the incredible video, which is comprised of about 15 colorfully dressed female dancers against white walls, and it’s both eye and ear candy. On top of the sheer poppy goodness, it’s refreshing and awesome to see a video in which the star himself never appears, and that features healthy, athletic female bodies. Let’s just say: I never expected to publicly admit that I’ve listened to, much less love Justin Bieber, but this year, I’m not sorry.
Jess Kibler: First things first, I should admit that I care very close to zero about most things Marvel. Sure, the Iron Man movies were funny, but do you know how many smart-ass white dudes I know in real life? (Remember, I’m an intern at Tin House.) So it’s safe to say Tony Stark’s schtick isn’t that exciting to me, and I haven’t been bothered to watch any of the other movies or television shows. TBH, I’m also a little indifferent about cool guys walking away from explosions. So I was hesitant about Jessica Jones, Marvel’s new Netflix show, because I assumed that, like most superhero things, there would be little in it for me. But how wrong I was! Jessica Jones is often explicitly about what it’s like to be a woman, just on a grander, super-scale. Pair that with a largely female cast and an extremely compelling (and terrifying) villain who’s basically a walking misogyny machine, and it makes for something that finally, though temporarily, fills the hole in my heart that Buffy left. (And, y’know, I’m not going to say that it’s uncool to share a name with a hard-drinking sassy superhero.)
Mattie Wong: Steven Universe—I have been gushing about this show for pretty much the entirety of 2015, and I will likely keep gushing about it long into 2016. Cue insufficient plot summary: Steven Universe is a cartoon series featured on Cartoon Network about a young boy learning to use magical powers alongside the Crystal Gems, a trio of magical beings who protect the earth from evil. Sounds like your average kid’s show, but Steven Universe is so on-point in every way imaginable: strong female characters, a diverse cast (both on-screen and voice actors), a compelling and seriously intense plot which I have cried over on numerous occasions, amazing music to please your ears, amazing art to please your eyes, SO MUCH HEART. And, really, at its heart (which is so very big) the show deals with the complexity of relationships and promotes kindness and understanding in ways that are applicable to one’s life, even as an adult. Even if you’re not super into cartoons, give this show a shot. The first ten or so episodes (they’re very short, only 10 minutes per) may seem a bit lacking in substance, but stick with it (or skip some like I did) until things start ramping up, and I guarantee* you won’t regret it.
*So maybe not a 100% guarantee, but certainly a substantial number, something like 94%? 95%?
Mattie again: It’s hard to describe Undertale without ruining the experience of playing it (so nearly every review of Undertale begins), but I’ll keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. Undertale is a neato indie RPG with a unique degree of awareness of its status as an RPG game, such that it subverts many key elements of the classic genre –and, I’m happy to report, not in a gross, overly-pretentious fashion. You can expect: turn-based combat, a bullet hell dodging system, charming characters, memes (probably), regret (possibly), spine-tingling cinematic moments, LOVE, and, most importantly, consequences, i.e. different routes the game can be played with. Seriously, though, Undertale is a game overflowing with creativity, humor, and sensitivity, and it really shows in the details. I highly recommend getting a copy off of Steam, especially if you’re looking for a thoughtful, character-driven game.
The impulse comes over me when I’m bored and out of sorts. Paul would say that it’s Satan at work in me. Since I know what he would say, I don’t tell him.
Looking up Marla from high school leads me to Jody, posing with two kids and a car. Her husband works for Union Carbide. Reading about her reminds me of Lisa, living in Mobile now. She has a picture of a magnolia on her web site, and her husband works for the state.
Idaho is too far from Florida for me to go to reunions, but using the Internet is almost as good. In emails I don’t have to explain that Paul surrendered to the call and is a preacher now. He was at Allied for five years. We lived in a two-story house with rosebushes when he came to me and said he wanted us to pray. We’d been trying for a baby. I thought, why not?
He said, “Lord, if you are calling me, I will come. Janine and I will serve you.”
I dropped my hands and stared at him. We went to church twice a week and he taught Sunday School, but a lot of our friends did that. None of them were talking to God about service.
Outside, a jay squabbled at the top of its lungs. Paul took a few minutes to find the right words. “Sometimes at work I’ll feel everything fall away. Or rather, I’m the one falling. I’m dropping and dropping, and there doesn’t seem to be any bottom, and all that’s around me is God. What is that, if not a call?”
His face was soft, and I could see the fear there, and who knows? He might have been right. The stupid jay made it hard to think. “I’ve never heard a call, but maybe that’s one,” I said. Nobody asked what I’d heard: a bird jabbering outside a window.
When I got pregnant a month after Paul quit his job to go to seminary, he told me this was God’s reward to us. I still won’t say he’s wrong.
God proved to be a fruitful giver, providing us with six children as Paul’s ability to feed and clothe them dwindled. “Couldn’t you at least have been called to a nice, big TV church in Houston?” I asked when we moved from Eagle to Blackfoot. He looked hurt. His sense of humor had been the first casualty of the call, while mine sharpened right up.
The pictures of Suzanne and Colleen and Annie, who’s now living in Connecticut where she says she can’t get used to the winters, show women who have kept their figures and their faces. Their husbands have, too. Occasionally their posts or web sites will thank God for some blessing, but mostly they’re busy chronicling those blessings, which sometimes include skiing.
There is nothing wrong with going to the Internet and looking up the lives of my old friends. No sin there. But I’m left queasy with resentment. Sometimes I write to them, subject line “Hello from an old friend,” and hear back “How wonderful it must be to live such a faith-based life. I envy you.”
Paul has taken to saying, “What have you thanked God for today?” instead of hello. The kids make up answers when he’s not around. “Thank you, God, for giving Dad bad hearing so he can’t tell I’m watching rap videos.” “Thank you, God, making it rain so I didn’t have to rake.” I laugh. Be honest: I encourage them.
I have exhausted my list of girlfriends before it occurrs to me to look up Richard. He existed in that zone that comes before dating, when boys and girls look at each other with terror. Our little Jonathan, age 12, is there now. Maybe it was watching him that made me go to Google, chasing the other kids away from the family computer that the church is still unhappily paying off for us.
Most of my searches take a little while, especially when I have to hunt down married names. But Richard Volking comes right up, over and over, with images. He is an architect. He is famous.
He has a house in Barcelona and an apartment in New York, and is married for the third time. In one picture his wife is kissing a cat, which makes me like her. One child from each marriage: three little saplings in a row.
I rewrite my message over and over. “What a pleasure to see your success! Our old days in Cool Springs must seem far away from you now. I just wanted to reach out and say hello, and send blessings.” The last two words are Paul’s usual sign-off.
There is so much to do. Mary’s homework, Esther’s soccer practice, visits to Mrs. Berry and Mrs. Polkman. Cookies for the soccer team, the children’s choir, Jonathan’s home room. In a typical week I make eight batches of cookies, and Paul and I are soft as bread dough.
By the time I get back to the computer I was almost not thinking about Richard.
“You’re right—those days do feel very far away, and so I’m especially glad that you reached out. I haven’t been back to Cool Springs since Mother died, but I remember it clearly. The long willow branches hung like a girl’s hair. No willows in Barcelona.”
I skim the rest. Esther asks if she can have a cookie, and I say roughly, “Take them all.”
Paul is late home from church, and when he finally gets in, his mouth is full of words. His blessing before dinner clocks ten solid minutes. He wouldn’t feel the need to voice so many thanks if he had prepared the food congealing in front of him. “For the blessings of Esther’s soccer team’s win. For Jonathan’s home room teacher, Lord, we thank you. Our hands are your hands in the world, Lord, our faces your face. Bless our hands and faces.”
He lifts his eyes and smiles. Wordless, I smile back. The lasagna is a mouthful of rubber.
Now that Paul has gone to bed, I stay up and look at the computer’s screen saver for a long time: a picture of a seagull and “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” Josh set it up to please his father; I’m pretty sure there was another one he shared with his siblings that had a different quote. When the computer came into the house Paul blessed it, asking that it be used to serve and praise God. I am willing to think that looking up cookie recipes or helping Mary with a history paper are both service and praise.
In the kitchen, I splash ice water on my face, which is God’s face, over and over. It’s supposed to keep us from crying. It’s done it before. “Dear Richard, I pray that God will continue to send blessings upon you, your work, your children and your wives.” That ought to do it.
Erin Mc Graw is the author of six books of fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, STORY, The Kenyon Review, Allure, and many other journals and magazines. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins.
Anybody who’s spent a little time around Tin House knows we like to get down. Whether at the karaoke bars of Portland or whatever venue will allow our house cratedigger DJ Mas y Menos [sic] to spin some records, we’ve been known to jump on a table or two. Expect some stirring karaoke renditions from this list if you join us for our Summer Writer’s Workshop in 2016. But first, a gauntlet must be thrown:
Matthew: A$AP Rocky’s At. Long. Last. IS the best rap album of the year. By far. That’s it. Sorry Drake.
Bold words from the poet who has been described as “America’s Aubrey Graham.” Now, onto the rest!
Rob: Courtney Barnett’s album Sometimes I Think and Sit, and Sometimes I Just Sit was on constant rotation in my house. The Australian singer-songwriter’s clever, self-effacing lyrics and catchy riffs irresistible. I was nervous to see her in concert, but at the Bowery Ballroom in May she blew me away—much more muscular than the recordings, her trio rocked for two straight hours, transmogrifying her tight, intimate songs into expansive, have-to-dance experiences.
Emma: Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell is far and away my album of the year. I know this position is controversial. As beloved as Sufjan Stevens is in other corners of the world, here at Tin House Brooklyn, he has been dubbed a “pretentious weenie.” I cannot entirely argue that point, and I don’t love or even like all of his other music, but this moved me in way I haven’t been by an album since high school, when I’d lie on the floor in the dark listening toHarvest over and over and over, feeling like it was made for me. Carrie and Lowell had for me that same intimacy. It’s so sad, and so genuinely beautiful; would that all weenies were also this real about life’s hardest stuff.
Thomas: I spent a couple weeks this summer in LA, watching a dog and driving around the city. During the day I alternated Kamasi Washington and that Snoop Dogg album (“That’s how California rolls . . .”), but at night I listened to nothing but George Fitzgerald’s Fading Love, which will always call up images of Los Angeles at night, the city spread slick, urgent, and huge, a luminous slab of desert muscle veined with red and white lit highways. The quiet expanse of Fitzgerald’s album seems to similarly just barely contain a bright, moving light.
DJ Mas y Menos: A slow burner, Ultimate Painting’s Green Lanes is weather proof. First discovered and played during late summer sunsets, it has now found its way into my rainy day rotation. Mellow without being forgettable, the hooks and harmonies fill a room with whatever type of emotional breeze you need for the day.
Jakob: Full disclosure: Dr. Light’s current/best bass player is my friend (and lawyer). Possible conflict of interest aside, their self-titled album is my choice for best of the year. It’s a polished gem of post-punk, metal-influenced rock. My favorite track, “Into the Weeds,” has a new wave vibe that makes me long for heady conversation and tumblers of scotch. Dr. Light is catchy and memorable like a drizzly, boozy night around a bonfire. Other favorites: solvent’s Modern Dystopia and Famous Lucy’s Canary in the Coal Mine
Tony: Since my favorite record is everybody else’s favorite—from Rolling Stone to the White House—I’m not going bother to extoll its virtues. Instead, I’ll plug one of my favorite discoveries of the year, the writer Kris Ex, and defer to a particularly incisive paragraph in this particularly incisive Pitchfork-thesis-defense for choosing Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as their album of the year:
“All of this Blackness is important. Important because sometimes white people need to take a metaphorical seat—to sit down, shut up, and listen to conversations in which they are a cultural object, not the center.”
Ex has become a go-to music writer for me, someone that’s equally nimble at describing the pleasures (or lack thereof) in a piece of music as he is in framing the cultural context or stakes. For white people listening to black music (so, you know, white people listening to music over the past century or so), Kris Ex’s short exegesis on the “Kid Friendly” version “Trap Queen”—”Fetty Wap and the Appropriation of Everything But the Burden“—should probably be required reading.
We’ve already gone over our favorite nonfiction and fiction of 2015, so now it’s time for poetry. Most of our staff lives in Portland, Oregon, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting two different poetry events, so we know from poetry. In July, one of those poetry events is our Tin House Writer’s Workshop, which this last summer featured an uproarious reading from Amy Gerstler, author of Scattered at Sea:
Lance: “Surprise is so akin to wonder, and is one of the elements that makes literature feel alive.” This quote from the author perfectly sums up my enjoyment of this nimble collection. Every page is a wonderful engagement with with Gerstler’s charming mania, as the mundane becomes sublime, oddity a way of life. Topics and observations carry over from poem to poem, as the author picks up and loosens conversational threads, treating the reader like a lunch date partner on a sunny afternoon terrace. I love books, and poetry seems especially adapt at this, where authorial pleasure seeps onto the page. You feel Gerstler’s giddiness throughout Scattered at Sea. It is contagious.
2015 saw the loss of some of poetry’s greatest practitioners. After losing Mark Strand in late 2014, we lost CK Williams, Franz Wright, Tomas Tranströmer, James Tate, and many more. Thankfully, their legacies will survive, and continue to effect our reading of new poetry:
Cheston: 2015: year of poetic discoveries. Was an oddity to encounter a poet recently gone, Mark Strand, in his collected poems, his late life’s work and purpose graspable in one hand. A further oddity still to meet Maureen N. McLane on the page, in her incredible books This Blue, Same Life, and World Enough, to see what she’s making of the language we share. This pair persists for me, has entered my orbit, and I look forward to circling them into 2016.
Thomas: I admired James Tate for showing just how far poetry could stretch without breaking—his poems always seem to be out on a diving board or teetering on stilts, neurotically reaching back toward the ground with extraneous dialogue tags, repetitive phrases, and oddball colloquialisms. In Dome of the Hidden Pavillion, his trademark jaunty surrealism is slightly darker, twisted by fear and confusion in the face of everyday violence and casual militarism. My favorite of the poems in here are dialogues between couples, often revolving around the total bafflement of trying to know someone else when literally everything seems shocking and inexplicable. I’ve been reading it slowly for months, and keep coming back to it when I catch myself forgetting how confusing life is. Tate was documenting the world from a specific perch that no one else will ever occupy, and if Dome of the Hidden Pavillion is to be the last missive from that high, strange place, we should savor it for as long as possible.
Tin House Magazine’s Editor Rob Spillman likes work that challenges the status quo, which is probably why Olena Kalytiak Davis’s canon-denying The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems appeals to him:
Rob: In her fourth book, Kalytiak-Davis continues her sonic and social mission to disrupt and enliven poetic possibilities. The only surprise here is that she is not more well known, partly due to her living in Alaska.
Meanwhile, Meg Storey, noted reader of prose only, has finally read a book of poetry that she loved enough to recommend in Dean Young’s Shock Shock, and her reasons are pretty convincing:
Meg:There’s a poem about checking out a cadaver (“a medium-sized somewhat shrunken/professorial-looking fellow”) from the library, when you went for a book about how to make kites, and so using the cadaver for a kite instead. “Just wait till those bastards/see this, you think walking to the park/where all your previous kites were torn apart/by screaming hawks and angels aflame.” Need I say any more?
What’s the poetry editor at Tin House been digging this year? Our man Matthew Dickman reads, sees, and writes a LOT of poetry, but as ever, his focus is on you, and your reading pleasure, and making sure you get some affection this holiday season, courtesy Morgan Parker’s Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night:
Matthew: Morgan Parker’s collection of beautiful, dangerous, empathetic, intelligent, and wild poems is what got me through the last half of this year. It’s a book everyone should have if they don’t want to feel alone and un-kissed at Midnight this December 31st! A lot of incredible poetry came out in 2015 so after picking up Parker you might grab Terrance Hayes’s How To Be Drawn, Caroline Knox’s To Drink Boiled Snow, Amy Gerstler’s Scattered At Sea, Major Jackson’s Roll Deep, Cate Marvin’s Oracle, and Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice . . . now you have a New Year party worth the champagne.
Round two of our Best Of lists, and today it’s all about fiction. 2015 offered a lot of reasons to want to retreat into fictional worlds and satirical distortions. But sometimes a novel is the kind of funhouse mirror that you gradually realize isn’t distorted at all—it’s just reflecting the monstrous state of the real world. Paul Beatty’s Sellout is one of those novels:
Emma: The Sellout. The Sellout, The Sellout, The Sellout. This book is a reminder of what it might really mean to be incendiary. What a singular feat of voice. What explosive, merciless humor. I have the privilege of reading it in galley form, looking for an excerpt for our magazine. What was meant to be a dip into the beginning in search of a stand-alone section turned into a morning charging my way through the whole book, knowing that what I was holding was white-hot and set to start a few fires.
Rob: Paul Beatty’s The Sellout had me squirming uncomfortably from beginning to end, laughing out loud, continually saying “oh, no, he didn’t” as Beatty ramped up the racial satire.
Of course, America isn’t the only country producing brutal, frayed satire. Although Toni Sala’s The Boys is considerably darker and features thousands fewer jokes than The Sellout, it is as sharply cutting about political and economic conflict, especially in Sala’s homeland of Catalonia:
Thomas: This fall, one of my favorite sources of literature in translation, Two Lines Press, published The Boys, a novel by Catalan writer Toni Sala, his first to be translated into English. It’s a strange, sad, unnerving look at the aftermath of a small town tragedy. Gruesome without much real violence, The Boys depicts an economically depressed, politically fractured Spain, yet despite the novel’s sometimes suffocating resentment and nearly hallucinatory tour of grief and pain, Mara Faye Lethem’s beautifully lucid translation preserves a vein of levity. It’s unforgettable, and I can’t wait for more of Sala’s work to reach American readers.
One of the highlights of 2015 for our Portland crew was seeing hometown hero (in the truest sense of that word) Tom Spanbauer propose to his longtime partner Michael Sage Ricci at the Oregon Book Awards. Spanbauer’s novel I Loved You More was another high water mark for this year:
Jakob: No one writes about love and heartache and fucking up like Tom Spanbauer. His characters are honest, exposed. His voice is both brutal and kind—never false. I Loved You More is no exception. I’ll read anything he writes.
We also feel that way about Jim Shepard: we’ll read anything he writes, even if it’s a relentlessly harrowing account of a child of the holocaust, like his Book of Aron:
Lance: The discipline of the author to keep the entire story told through the limited perspective a young boy who is both (unknowingly) an accomplice and victim to Gestapo barbarism is what makes this unlike any other atrocity narrative I have read. Shepard, through this closed world view, allows himself the ability to have Aron engage in actions whose consequences seem distant to him, while immediate to the reader. This heightens the horror of what is taking place, for we know that Aron will not live long enough to atone for these mistakes. To become a better person. This novel may not have earned the awards it deserves, nor garnered the type of internet attention one needs to make the bestseller list. But make no mistake, Shepard has done something remarkable with this writing. Through his fiction, he has added to the historical record. Time will always side with that sort of grace.
Thomas: The Book of Aron is a slim novel about what a coming-of-age story looks like in a time when children are murdered systematically and en masse. While it covers the work of Janusz Korczak, real-life Jewish educator and defender of children’s rights, it’s narrated by a kid who’s not good and not bad, but just a kid—pre-moral in time and place that is decidedly post-moral. Shepard depicts the terror of that naivete masterfully, delivering punch after punch to the reader’s gut. But the coup de grace is the long list of sources that follows this slim book—it’s a reminder that Aron isn’t just Aron, he’s any kid, anywhere, at any time, and Jim Shepard isn’t just a novelist, he’s one more in a long line of keepers of the flame that lights a sometimes horrific world.
Of course, not every work of fiction fills a book on its own. Short stories are our bread and butter over here at Tin House, and this year saw a much-deserved retrospective of one of the living masters of the form in Joy Williams’s The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories. Little can be said about this modern classic that hasn’t been said a million times by whoever your favorite writer is, except to ask one nagging question:
Tony: I don’t want to raise Lance’s child in a world where Joy Williams’s stories aren’t part of the canon. It’s such a thrill to see the summation of her work, but maybe even more thrilling to see, with the new stories, that she hasn’t missed a beat—she’s still hilarious, still fierce, still writing like no one else. If this thing doesn’t win one of the big prizes, you, Literary Establishment, have failed us.
Rob: Seriously? This wasn’t nominated for the National Book Awards?
Enough said. At our Summer Writer’s Workshop in 2014, we were lucky enough to often have Joy Williams in a room with one of the other great magicians of the short story, Kelly Link, whose collection Get In Trouble was released almost a whole year ago, but sticks to our ribs even now:
Emma: I heard Karen Russell say once that she read George Saunders to be reminded of how much fun writing can be, that she needn’t treat it as such work. Kelly Link serves that purpose for me, in part because she is so good at doing the work of writing without it ever appearing to be such. Her stories as as cleverly, smartly built as they are magical. I am so grateful to get to sail away in them.
Speaking of books that came out what feels like a long time ago, here’s Michelle Wildgen, known shirker of rules and regulations, recommending in our Best of 2015 list a book that came out in 2013. Say what you will about Michelle—she may be late to the party, but she’s not wrong about Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat.
Michelle: Bobcat by Rebecca Lee. Okay, look, this book came out a couple of years ago, but for some reason I only read it this year, and it was so electrifying that I don’t care what year it came out. Life in these pages feels shifted just a few degrees into something unexpected and idiosyncratic, only this writer’s view of the world and no one else’s, and I found it thrilling at every level.
Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature also came out before 2015, but it’s been under our skin all year:
Jakob: The stories in Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature are insidiously creepy. These are tales of isolation in a planetwide flood, parental anxiety personified by a ghoulish and persistent child thief, and institutionalized divorcees. Each story is brilliant in its own right.
Further problems with time and space: Meg Storey’s pick has not one but two caveats, but Kate Cayley’s How You Were Born is still a worthwhile read if you can get your American hands on it:
Meg: This came out in late 2014, and it was only published in Canada, where it won the 2015 Trillium Book Award, but I was lucky enough to receive a copy and I read it from start to finish on my flight home from Toronto. Every story is a small gem. Cayley’s spare yet precise prose has a quiet power that builds within a story and throughout the collection, and that remains with you long after you’ve put the book down.
Here at Tin House, we’re never afraid to take the unpopular position and champion writers most readers may never have heard of. Adam Johnson is not one of those writers, and praising Fortune Smiles is not one of those positions:
Thomas: Adam Johnson is one of those writers who can pack the entire fraught complexity of an issue into a single story, and still make it personal, credible, and contained (relatively contained—these stories are LONG), so it’s no surprise that a book featuring only six of his stories (half of which were originally published in Tin House!) is still powerful enough to win the National Book Award. Honestly, sometimes I come across an issue in the news that’s so convoluted and upsetting that I can’t wrap my head or heart around it, and I just cross my fingers that Johnson is out there, somewhere, already writing a story about it. (I’m talking about drone warfare. Adam Johnson, if you are reading this, please write a story about drones ASAP.)
Somehow, another year is almost over. We thought we’d take this week to look back on 2015 and marvel at its greatest hits, genre by genre. Today: nonfiction. As our Editor Rob Spillman says, for something to be “best of 2015,” it needs to the the thing that upsets us the most, that throws us the furthest off our expected course. So it’s fitting to begin with The Argonauts, by the inimitable Maggie Nelson:
Rob (Editor): Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is hard to classify. Is it cultural criticism? Memoir? Who cares. I was swept up by Nelson’s nimble mind as she navigated the birth of her child and her partner’s transformation via injected Testosterone, all while surveying cultural views of gender and maternity.
Jakob (Graphic Designer): The Argonauts has stuck with me more than anything I’ve read this year. Maggie Nelson’s memoir/autotheory/poem/essay is difficult to categorize and even more difficult to write about. At its core, The Argonauts is a love story, but it’s much more complex than that, with themes of parenthood, normativity, sex, gender, identity . . . it’s both validating and challenging.
Emma (Associate Editor): Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is going to be at the top of a lot of lists here. I’ve been an acolyte of St. Maggie since her Red Parts and poetry days, and it’s been a bittersweet thing to share her with more and more of the world when so much of what makes her writing powerful is how intimate it is, as if the book you’re reading is instead a letter meant just for you. I want to retain the illusion I’m the only one receiving that letter. I’m sure you do, too. So, let’s just keep Maggie a secret from here on out, between us, the New York Times Book Review, and the Guggenheim people.
Claire (Editorial Intern): In a talk at PSU this November, Maggie Nelson was asked (predictably) about the genre-bending that figures in much of her work. She said she views it “less as genre, more as snake.” This perfectly sums up The Argonauts. I’m presuming that everyone reading this has already heard what it contains, how timely it is, and the like. I’ll only add that it’s my favorite work of hers to date, and the book I’ve purchased the most times to give away. It’s the most beautiful snake; every time I hold and look at it again, it shifts.
The Argonauts wasn’t the only incredible blend of the personal and political to shake things up this year. For another example, check out this year’s National Book Award winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me:
Thomas (Editorial Assistant): 2015 was a banner year for nonfiction that challenges the establishment. Between The Argonauts, Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the most powerful nonfiction I read this year either directly challenged or just totally sidestepped my straight-cis-white male status. Like Claire suggested at our Summer Workshop, have put me in the habit of making myself and my privilege as small as possible, to forget “whiteness,” and to see as best as I can the only narrative there is from a different perspective. Reading Coates makes me feel naked in a room with racism, stripped of all cultural trappings, even the desensitizing words “privilege” or “white.” Coates’s eloquence, pain, and honesty are staggering, which is why it’s always such an illuminative pleasure to read him in The Atlantic, but framing Between the World and Me as a letter to Coates’s son adds a personal urgency to the book that makes it impossible to forget. (And as a total nerd, I can’t wait to see what he does with his upcoming run writing the Black Panther comic book.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maggie Nelson aside, the situation in America seems pretty dire right now. But whether it’s a comfort or a renewed rallying cry, in 2015, Rick Perlstein’s books are a reminder that American national politics hasn’t changed that much in the last century:
Tony (Editor): My nonfiction choices this year aren’t particularly original, but there’s a reason everyone is enamored with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maggie Nelson. And my other favorite—Kent Russell’s I’m Sorry to Think I’ve Raised a Timid Son—has been ruled ineligible based on our personal relationship. So with three of our most brilliant stylists out of the way, I’ll switch gears and recommend, for your primary season enjoyment, Rick Perlstein’s double-header of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge. It’s been interesting and edifying to better understand the demagogues of the recent past, lest we think the vile and/or cynical horseshit that’s being vomited across cable news and the internet is some historical anomaly. The blueprint is there (and it’s terrifying!). If you’re curious about how things might shake down at the GOP convention, how demographic alliances are formed, or how parties both adapt to and shape the culture, Perlstein will make for an interesting in-flight read en-route to Cleveland.
Meanwhile, a shout out to Helen MacDonald for, among other things (writing beautifully on grief and wildness), steeling our own Michelle Wildgen’s nerves re: hawk attacks:
Michelle (Executive Editor): Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk may be the most visceral and beautifully written book I read all year. She manages to make the presence of the hawk itself into something more alive and immediate than most human characters. And so when I witnessed a hawk killing a rabbit about 3 feet away from me underneath my car this winter, I was 10% less freaked out by the carnage thanks to her.
And barely in under the wire, Katy Waldman’s recent essay for Slate, “There Once Was a Girl,” is recommended intrepid intern Claire Gordon:
Claire: Before I made it halfway through this essay I had shared it with every one of my best friends. I’m usually wary of essays that focus on eating disorders, recovery, “survivor stories,” etc. But Katy Waldman does such an amazing job of first demonstrating how we’ve structured and languaged narratives around anorexia, and then dissembling these simply by telling her own story. I tend to seek out female nonfiction writers who explore new ways to mean, to express, to understand, and Waldman does this repeatedly in the piece: “Anorexia both is and isn’t a choice; the anorexic both is and is not herself. How do you make sense of that? I keep hoping that if I find the right words, I can earn a do-over, or at least transfigure the problem with meaning.” Waldman’s writing is lucid, honest, and hungry in its attempt to forge new pathways in understanding: of the disorder, of her family, of herself.
If you should have an ex-husband, who first writes, then doesn’t write, then writes to the point of absurdity, then refuses to write, refuses to receive correspondence from you, refuses to acknowledge you in any way, denies you exist, then writes again, angrily this time, then less angrily, then angrily again, then leaves off writing altogether, not without a final declaration—he has compromised himself by writing to you, you should not expect to hear from him again—and if each time you are taken in by this, are at the very edge by his either not writing or writing, are poised on the side of a cliff, waiting to see, wanting to know, which is it: will he not write? will he write? until a little time passes without his writing, and you slowly take a step back, and a little more time passes, and you take another step back from the cliff that you thought would surely claim your life, and another step, and a few more, until you find you are on a path walking the other way.
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of three books and the story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance, forthcoming from Graywolf Press.
As this issue hits newsstands, a number of spawning salmon travel upstream. In “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” Robert Lowell describes them rushing over one another, “nosing up to the impossible / stone and bone-crushing waterfall.” The rivers are a flush of clamoring red. In our cover art, artist Inga Poslitur parallels this difficult journey with her experiences as an artist and as a woman—the idea of “going against preconceived ideas in society, regarding [her] role and responsibilities.”
Salmon Swim was created as part of Poslitur’s MFA thesis, which discusses societal pressures placed on women. The women in her collection are tattooed as well—the ink used as a storytelling device—markers of important life events.
Poslitur says that her distinct style has evolved naturally over time. Growing up in Russia, her influences were varied, from Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt to the early twentieth-century Mir iskusstva (World of Art) movement. Her organic lines are rooted in the art nouveau aesthetic. Her portraiture has a strong art deco feel, as it draws from the work of Tamara de Lempicka and others.
You can see more of her art at www.ingaposlitur.com.
Part of this interview originally appeared in The New Yorker on . Here it is, for the first time, in its entirety.
In an essay from his new book, Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio recounts a trip he took to the “rudiments of an eco-village” in East Austin: “I was more than willing to believe in a world in which, quite beautifully, nothing was outcast or lost or abandoned.” But in these essays, he seeks precisely people and places and ideals that have been abandoned or dismissed: rundown utopias and desolate bus stops, his own brothers, his own thwarted intimacies, the trial of a woman universally condemned. He looks at suicide and schizophrenia, at reading as a mode of survival; at a Christian haunted house and a Russian orphanage; at whale meat and witch hunts. The essays move between the material of his own life and the lives of strangers. For D’Ambrosio, complexity is not just an intellectual or aesthetic boon, a way to be “smart.” It is an ethical necessity. His details—a sputtering Coleman lantern, a boot full of rocks—hold grief and desire and the unceasing mystery of being a person and wondering, always wondering. Wondering what? Why a father wrote poems or a brother jumped off a bridge or an orphanage doesn’t have any trash cans. D’Ambrosio follows the wondering rather than trying to resolve it. “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning,” he writes. He is committed to the questions that “salt and preserve life.”
I’ve known Charlie for nearly a decade: he has been a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. I’m grateful for what he’s shown me about how writing can make a mess—and how this mess can move us deeper into the quivering nerve endings of a subject. In workshop, he was hard on our stories because he believed in what they could be. In these essays he is hard on easy answers and false resolution because he believes in what lies beyond them. With this book, I felt like shaking strangers in the street and saying, Read these essays; they will move you. Instead of doing that, I sent Charlie some questions about writing them.
Leslie Jamison: I’m struck by how many moments in these essays are marked by a figure standing outside some kind of threshold: “I feel more in my element,” you write, “as the man who is out there standing in the rain.” You also write about train-hopping and gazing up at random helicopters, wondering if your girlfriend is in them; even the title Loitering suggests the presence of someone who doesn’t quite belong. How does a sense of outsiderhood inflect these essays?
Charles D’Ambrosio: Now that you’ve called it to my attention that figure on the threshold seems to be standing around in quite a few of these essays. It’s a little spooky to realize how porous the personality is in writing, porous or just plain incontinent, leaking out everywhere, so that things get revealed even when—or especially when—you haven’t given them much conscious thought. I’m always surprised. It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to indulge a goopy confessional mode to write a personal essay—you’re more mysterious than you know, more naked than you imagine, and whether you intend it or not, you’re going to be exposed.
I don’t deliberately seek out that threshold or the ambivalence it offers but the fact that I return to it over and over suggests that it isn’t entirely innocent either. I mean, I must go there for a reason, but why? Without wallowing too much in my biography, I was a vigilant kid, and vigilance as a perspective on life depends on distance, a certain remove. You’re always kind of there and not there, sitting in the room but also watching the room, alert to some other, less innocent possibility. That distance feels safe, but it also stirs up the most intense feelings of loss and longing, the dream of making the distance go away, of ditching the divided self and all its tensions and simply being there—you know, just crossing that threshold and coming inside, coming home. But it’s hard to do, hard for me to do, anyway. As an undergrad I ran across a quote from the German Romantic, Novalis, who said something to the effect that all thinking was a kind of homesickness, an urge to be at home everywhere. That quote stuck with me, crystalizing a vague feeling I’d had since early childhood, a sense that I didn’t quite feel at home anywhere. Of course at this point standing on the threshold comes naturally to me. In a sense, the threshold is my home.
But there are so many ways to slice this question. My vision of things was shaped by a place, or at least I was sensitive and available to that shaping, and I sometimes wonder if the “outsiderhood” has something to do with my hometown, Seattle—the heavy low clouds skimming the hilltops, the cancelling rains, the early November dark, all that stuff that fills the senses and grips the imagination and eventually makes you over on some cellular level. Jonathan Raban nailed the mood of the region in a book I revere, (A Passage to Juneau) and feelings of loneliness and exile and terror of the unknown seem to be at the heart of it. As Raban sails north along the Sound and then up through the Inside Passage, pushing further into wilderness, the Native American stories he’d come to know (as a British transplant) begin to lose their strange exotic quality and gain what he calls “a melancholy realism” rooted in the physical landscape. In those traditional stories loneliness is a dominate theme, with loads of madness and suicide. And even more, they’re stories in which no fate is worse than being an outcast or exiled. All of this seems to reside deep in the place and Raban’s not alone in feeling haunted by it, nor am I. So maybe what’s registering in the essays as a rhetorical strategy is really a lesson the weather taught me. Or maybe me and my family are just this bad dream Seattle had one night.
Leslie Jamison: What kind of vision does the state of not-belonging grant? What sort of perspective or tone does it permit?
Charles D’Ambrosio: Probably the truest thing I can say about most of these pieces is that I was stumbling around in the dark and then left a trail of that lost wandering on the page. I hate to sound that dumb but in some ways I am that dumb, so why pretend? Any ideas I might come up with now about the essays would be retrospective, an enjoyable leisure-time activity, but it wouldn’t be accurate to say any of those ideas informed the struggle to write the stuff. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’ve discovered that I enjoy that feeling, that I have an aptitude for not-knowing. I can’t think of a single piece in the book that began with a thesis and then stuck to it. I do my discovering on paper. Beyond that, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to some great and tolerant editors, people who gave me the chance to learn on the job and do a lot of my failing in public.
Not-belonging promises freedom, which is nice, but then immediately there’s the pain or anguish or whatever of feeling like you don’t fit in anywhere—but then nested inside that awareness there’s a boon, the deep sympathy and solidarity you come to feel for all the misfits in the world, who seem to be everywhere. So your soul and your prose seek out those people and situations and you go around doing as Whitman says you should do, you stand up for the stupid and the crazy. You take ridiculous positions, you defend the indefensible, probably because you know you’re ridiculous and indefensible too. In “Casting Stones” I was moved to write about Mary Kay Letourneau mostly because she’d been scorned by everyone else. In “Whaling out West” I wrote about the Makah whale hunt and their attempt to revive tradition because no one seemed willing to imagine their profound isolation. In “One More Paradise” I wrote about Dave Santos, a crank, genius and prophet, squatting in a vacant lot in East Austin, because he seemed haunted by the likely prospect that his vision would prove ephemeral and be forgotten by everyone. I spent a week in Russia and wrote about orphans and in the broken narratives of those kids I found one hundred and seventeen brothers and sisters. And all the while, every time out, I was probably standing up for myself a little too.
What else? Lurking on the threshold, neither in nor out, suggests that you’re already conflicted, which can either lead to an awful paralysis or it can set the mind in motion, providing mobility of perspectives, freeing you up from what one my sisters calls “stuck consciousness,” which is probably fatal for the personal essayists or a writer of any kind –or any human being, for that matter. And then for better or worse the outsider isn’t beholden to anyone. Any of these dubious traits might be considered bad news in a normal life –not the stuff of solid marriages, say– but they’re all gains if you’re going to write essays.
Going back to your original observation about the book’s title—in the main you’re right on, of course, but I want to note that the title—Loitering—began as an attempt at belonging. At first I wanted to call the collection The Loiterer, just because I was once crazy for Samuel Johnson and the periodical essays he published in The Idler and The Rambler. I dig that whole tradition, which includes the Tatler and The Spectator, as well as a magazine actually called The Loiterer, published by Jane Austen’s older brother. But that seemed a little arch—you know, clever for an audience of one—plus as a title for a collection of essays The Loiterer sounded off, too inert or ominous or novelistic, maybe too pretentious. Or it gave the impression of a really lame action hero in a comic book. A superhero who does nothing but lurk. But that discarded idea led to a good one when I switched to Loitering, which I think is an apt and very decent title for the book. I think of the essay as a way of entering and writing about disputed space. Anyway, the title began life as my dorky stab at belonging, at least referentially, to a tradition of essayists.
The work of Wayne Koestenbaum has always been, for me, essential and cataract-removing. It consistently forces me into spaces of thought which feel simultaneously disorienting and familiar, collected and chaotic, and it’s the process of tunneling through those spaces that Wayne brings me to as a reader that I find so rewarding. He does not give you a map, but does offer some coordinates. He doesn’t lay claim to having an answer, but he asks the questions so adeptly, with so much insight and an almost sadistic intellect, one feels that perhaps it’s the question itself that’s the solution. In other words, Wayne Koestenbaum is a writer who makes one think, who makes one have the feeling of thinking—the feeling of if, of and, of but. His latest project, The Pink Trance Notebooks, is the product of the year Koestenbaum stopped keeping the traditional journal he had maintained for three decades and began instead a series of “trance notebooks” as a way to reflect an intensified, unmoored consciousness. The result, unsurprisingly, is staggering, and it was a prize and a privilege to get to speak with Wayne by email, over the course of several weeks, about the book.
Vincent Scarpa: One of the things that struck me in reading The Pink Trance Notebooks is how astounding it is that, though we are given these fragments in a spirit of brevity, in the shape and manner of a stream, the thoughts and sentiments the fragments hold still manage to be gigantic, suffer no loss of nuance or depth in compression; the way a fragment like “is/rumination different/from contemplation?” can appear on the page as small, but can open up in the reader some massive space of inquiry. I wonder if you could talk about compression in a general sense, but specifically if you find it, at least in this project, to be a way to amplify the possibility of meaning by, lacking a better phrase, shutting yourself up?
Wayne Koestenbaum: Compression: it’s my life’s blood. An antidote to logorrhea. A way of feeling sane, boxed-in, neatly tucked. Every button buttoned. As unbuttoned as I sometimes seem, on the page, I’m actually a buttoned-up writer. I like the edges to be fastened and tied. Hence my addiction (in prose and poetry) to blank interstices—asterisks, horizontal dividing-lines, numbers—to splice the flow of language, to create a sense of stacking (like Donald Judd sculptures). Compression is cousin to separability; I like to instigate separation between the members of my chorus. And so, in The Pink Trance Notebooks, drafted as one continuous (albeit year-long) flow, to make a book of the melee I needed to stage-manage via stanza-style compression-tactics. From the messy flow of the draft, I sought out the tiny phrase-clusters that could exist independently; I rescued them from the flood. The book, yes, still resembles a flood—a flood of fragments?—but at least I have the satisfaction of having scissored off the edges of each passage, to give each little phrase-island the illusion of individuation. A long time ago I learned, as a writer, how to cut myself up—to subdivide myself—to employ often plainspoken matter-of-fact sentences or phrases that, when stacked together, without transition, get more odd and funny and pleasantly askew by being (in their essence) lopped-off. I’m an atomizer—as writer, reader, viewer, observer. I prize nuggets. “Tidbits” has always been one of my favorite words. I wrote a poem once called “The Tidbit School of Adult Entertainment.” Continue reading
Each July Tin House turns the Cerf Amphitheatre at Reed College into a temple of the written word. At our Summer Writer’s Workshop, editors, faculty, and over two hundred participants come together to recharge and share and risk. Night after night faculty and guest readers dazzle and disturb, and after a week of readings and talks everyone leaves spent yet rejuvenated. Often we are lucky enough to grab new work and pass it along within the magazine’s pages. This summer, Dorothy Allison shook us with her story “Something Not Unlike Love,” a ferocious depiction of how sexual attraction gets its hooks in. Cornelius Eady read two of the remarkable poems printed here, as well as performed a song for Trayvon Martin. And Claire Vaye Watkins gave a talk about how she got over “writing to impress old white men.” It was stirring, powerful, most of us in the room hearing articulated what we strongly felt but hadn’t quite been able to formulate into words. Watkins modified the talk into an essay, “On Pandering,” and we are proud to share this call to arms.
A huge thrill for us is to see workshop participants grow and flourish. Past participant Caroline O’Connor Thomas is a poet to watch, as you will see from her two poems here. The rest of the issue features a few familiar faces, including Helen Phillips, and her surreal tale of parental anxiety, and powerful new stories by old friends Martha McPhee and Andrea Barrett. Barging into the familiar circle is Drew Ciccolo, with his first published story, “The Leash,” about a disobedient father, as well as Portland’s own Patrick deWitt, with his offbeat story of an undaunted man laying siege to a shady RV dealer. And we’re always happy to give you the unexpected in our Lost & Found section, which champions underappreciated books, this time discussing work that ranges from Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants to Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.
Wherever you are this winter, we hope that you will hold the light we tried to capture from last July. And if you are in the neighborhood next summer, drop by and join us.
“Why does the voice in my head have an Adam’s apple?”- Claire Vaye Watkins, 2015 Summer Workshop
The talk that started it all…..
Written on the occasion of Claire’s “troubling realization that she has been writing to impress old white men,” this call to action was given during our 2015 Summer Workshop.
The lecture took place in the late afternoon. The setting was a chapel. The audience sat in pews.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan
A modified version of this essay can be found in the latest issue of Tin House.
While we wait Molly explains to me from the backseat the secret history of San Francisco.
There didn’t used to be hills, she says. That’s what they said at school. It used to all be just water from where the bay is now. That used to go on for more, where the ground is, and you couldn’t walk anywhere because there was nothing to stand on. People didn’t walk here or drive, because there weren’t any cars back then either. Ships would sometimes come though because it was all water, and that’s what started San Francisco, the ships. They’d come sometimes because there were lots of fish, because there was lots of water, and so they’d come for the fish because it was fresh, straight from the water. And they’d clump around where all the best fish were, the ships. Lots and lots of fish out in the water, that’s why there’s so many seals because that’s what seals eat. The seals were around so that’s how the ships knew where the fish were. They’d go to where the seals were or close to where the seals were, where there were still fish that hadn’t been eaten yet. And the ships liked it there near the seals because the weather was better than it was in Alaska. Oh yeah, that’s where the ships came from in the first place, I forgot to mention that. They came from Alaska, and it’s cold there. So they started liking where the fish were because it was hotter, and it was green, and they decided to stay and build ground so they could walk. Ships are so rocky, it’s hard to walk because they’re always moving so much. So the people from the ships put paving on everything so it would be ground, but they didn’t move the ships first, and so they just paved over all of them. That’s why there’s so many hills. They’re the ships stuck under the pavement.
I ask Molly who told her this, and she says Becca Cauldey, who read it in a book about whales. Why did a book about whales mention San Francisco, I ask, and she says that it wasn’t actually a book about whales but a book about San Francisco narrated by a whale. His name is Elton, she says, of the whale.
I ask Molly when her mom gets home from work and she says usually seven, but we’re supposed to buy groceries before that. I know, I tell her; I have the list. Why aren’t we buying groceries, she asks, and I tell her that the lesson of today is delayed gratification, and that putting off our tasks until they’re pertinent makes them all the more satisfying, and anyway the produce will be fresher if it waits in the store and not in the car. What does pertinent mean, Molly asks. I tell her it’s why you wait to harvest crops until they’re ripe, but Molly doesn’t know about agriculture and thinks that whales can talk. Why are we waiting in this car and we’re not close to Trader Joe’s, she asks, and her voice lilts like that’s an uncle instead of a grocery store. We’re waiting because your mom’s gone, I say, and don’t you want to see her. I do, Molly says. Those are the crops, I say, and Molly doesn’t understand.
We’re on an incline that Molly thinks is a ship and I watch the boys bomb down on longboards, some of them colliding at the bottom. I flash my lights and ask Molly when was the last time she got something she didn’t want. Last week, she says, I got a B on my spelling test when I wanted an A. That doesn’t count, I say. What’s a thing you got that you didn’t want, like a toy or something. That’s hard, Molly says. I usually want things. Try harder, I say.
Molly sniffs, like her nose is stuffed. Last week I wanted a book but my mom got me a different book instead. Why didn’t she get you the book you wanted, I ask. It had swear words in it, Molly says. The guy who has my pot knocks on the window.
What’s that, Molly asks, and I roll up the window. My groceries, I tell her. Those aren’t groceries, she says, you just bought drugs. What was I telling you before about delayed gratification, I say. I wasn’t listening because it was boring.
I turn around. Molly’s the kid who loves her mother so much she’d crawl back up inside her. Where would you want to be, I ask, in a body. Huh? Now that you’re out of the womb, you could be anywhere in your mother’s body, I say. Lungs? The heart? My brother had a doll named Molly when he was your age, I tell her. An expensive doll. He saved up for it because he really wanted it, and my parents wouldn’t buy it for him because he was a boy. They probably thought he was gay. So he saved all his money for it and bought it himself. I remember seeing him with the catalogs, before he had enough money saved. Looking at her face. I remember him kissing her every night, before he’d go to sleep.
Devyn Defoe is pursuing her MFA in fiction at Columbia University. This past summer she attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. She’s currently working on her first novel, about a family of grifters and psychics in Northern California.
“I wish to make no attempt to speak for all geology or even to sweep in a great many facts that came along. I want to choose some things that interested me and through them to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks.” —John McPhee, Basin and Range
The Library of Congress heading for John McPhee’s Basin and Range is “Geology—the West”; for the sequel, In Suspect Terrain, it’s“Geology—Northeastern States.” But other headings might apply: Geology and metaphor. Scientists and writers—analogies. Deep time—experience of. Nonfiction, experimental—aesthetics and principles.
McPhee’s work on geology has to be read slowly. Like a poem or an equation, it is so clear, or its clarity is so dense, that it takes time to absorb. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the subject matter. The processes involved are physically massive, temporally vast, and endlessly complex: the mountains rise and erode and tilt, all at once, on continents that are themselves moving, an inch at a time, over eons too long to grasp. In space and time, his subject both illuminates and defies the limits of human perspective. McPhee writes, “The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it.”
Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain aim at that comprehension anyway, but they are also about what kinds of expression might achieve it. Like poems, they hold up metaphor to depthless mysteries, but unlike most poems, their mysteries are made of rocks and time. McPhee, like the geologists he shadows, is interested in imagining what already exists, and from this perspective, deep time is as strange and interesting as trauma or transcendence, and an angular unconformity is as interesting as the divine.
We spend a lot of time with McPhee and his interviewees on Interstate 80. They lean in close to roadcuts, with the continental history exposed in front of them and tractor-trailers flashing by behind. The situation illuminates a central theme: the juxtaposition of human experience and events of inhuman scale. A decades-old highway exposes eons-old strata, which the geologists hammer, peer at, explain. McPhee observes them observing, listens to them making sense of what they see. In so doing, he studies the problem of imagination itself, and—in the books—offers an implicit answer, a conglomerate studded with clues. This essay takes a hand lens to the strata of his pages. Continue reading
In the half-light, I am most
at home, my shadow
When I feel hot, I push a button
to make it stop. I mean this stain on my mind
I can’t get out. How human
I seem. Like modern man,
I traffic in extinction. I have a gift.
Like an animal, I sustain.
A flock of birds
when touched, I scatter. I won’t approach
until the back is turned.
My heart betrays. I confess: I am afraid.
How selfish of me.
When there’s no one here, I halve
the distance between
our bodies infinitesimally.
In this long passageway, I pose
against the wallpaper, dig
my heels in, catch the light.
In my vision, the back door opens
on a garden that is always
in bloom. The dogs
are chained so they can’t attack like I know
they want to. In the next yard
over, honeybees swarm
and their sound is huge.
Camille Rankine‘s first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship.
Think of this as a little whiskey for your morning coffee….
More information can be found here.
We look forward to seeing you next summer (if not sooner).