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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
I progressed, improbably, from preparing for a career as a professional violist to a position running a social justice foundation. Anyone who’s spent their formative years in music knows the training to be relentless and indelible. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest for fiction that transmits classical music to the page. I crave writers who reach beyond the emotional clichés that have a nasty way of inserting themselves regardless of musical genre. I want music that’s so finely tuned it’s inseparable from the overall composition. Is it surprising that I’m rarely satisfied? It turns out that some of my favorite music books are not about music. Instead, music drives their exploration of intractable political, and ultimately, human problems.
“Democracy is not on the program” for Marian Anderson’s iconic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In this spectacular novel, Delia Daley, a black singer from Philadelphia, meets her life partner that auspicious afternoon on the Washington Mall. He is David Strom, a physicist orphaned by the Holocaust. Their son Jonah becomes a star-touched tenor whose fast passages hang “motionless in flight, every note audible, one of those stop-action photographs.” Against accelerating social upheaval, Jonah and his pianist brother Joseph fight their way through classical music’s racist thickets. “Black or white?” their sister Ruth asks, which “is what the world asks of her.” The novel covers the vast uneven sweep of the Civil Rights movement as music’s splendor collides with craven racial violence, and family goes head-to-head with community. Written in soaring harmonies, The Time of Our Singing details our country’s conflicting legacies of hope and despair as the “American Dream and American Reality square off.”
(If you love this book, I recommend Richard Powers’ the Gold Bug Variations and Orfeo as well.)
Less successful, but interesting for its social commentary, Dvorak in Love is an early, experimental novel-in-linked-stories so popular today. Different characters narrate each chapter, recounting their interactions with the great composer primarily during his sojourn in New York and Iowa. Dvorak hovers like negative space in the middle of a painting as his friends, patrons, and family share insights and stories about him; his compositions integral to the plot. The novel notably explores xenophobia and prejudice, including America’s cavernous racial divide. Renowned African American violinist and composer, Will Marion Cook, who was, in fact, a student of Dvorak’s, figures prominently. One Bohemian (Czech) character comments incredulously about America, “It’s not true that they won’t let you into the fancy restaurants just because of the colour of your skin. You can be as white as Sam [another African American character], and they still won’t let you in. It’s not your skin but your blood.”
(Josef Skvorecky immigrated to Canada following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and wrote two wonderful novellas, published under the title The Bass Saxophone, that use jazz to probe Nazi and Communist oppression.)
As his beloved city disintegrates under bombs and snipers, a cellist goes out once a day to bear musical witness to the twenty-two people killed beneath his window by a mortar shell. The piece that the cellist plays may derive from Albinoni, but has been reconstructed by someone else; it is a piece with no identity. This is war, where claiming a true identity is an unbearable reminder of a shattered, tranquil past. When she imagines being asked the origin of her current name, the sharpshooting girl whose sole goal is to kill occupying soldiers answers, “I am Arrow because I hate them. The woman you [once] knew hated nobody.” This is less a story about music, and more one about the ravages of war, diminished, perhaps, by real life cellist Vedran Smailović’s claims that Galloway appropriated his story without permission.
Mendelssohn is on the Roof is a much more complex literary work. A Nazi officer orders the removal of Mendelssohn, a “Jewish statue,” from the Prague Academy of Music. Two bumbling workmen mistakenly remove the statue with the biggest nose—Wagner—the Nazi’s musical emblem. The novel progresses from the seemingly comedic to Nazism’s deadly underbelly. In a chilling melding of history and fiction, “Acting Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, assigned the job of liquidating European Jewry, kicks back in a concert, listening to Mozart and planning the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp just outside Prague. Poor Heydrich, who must “renounce everything personal,” in service to the Leader (Fuhrer). Concerts and opera performances no longer bring him much pleasure. Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans falls at the book’s center, sandwiched between Prague’s set up as a once “golden city” peopled with a range of quirky and lovable characters, to a besieged “Protectorate” that attacks its children and forces its Jews into acts of betrayal before murdering them. “Life had become the common price for everything.” Music gets pushed farther and farther into the background as war trumps all. Weil, a Czech Jew, writes with the power and sensitivity of one who survived.
Us Conductors is perfectly pitched between music and politics. Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the eponymously named theremin (an apparatus the musician plays hands free, seemingly conducting air), narrates his story sailing from New York to Soviet Russia in protective custody. The music in this book rings true, never more so as when Termen recalls his lost love, Clara Rockmore, violinist turned theremin player. Termen speaks of Clara in the second person with simple language that never fails to convey his longing. “You were there to perform Schelomo, by Ernest Bloch, a rhapsody for cello and orchestra…. It is a composition of sustained and devastating yearning, a wavering conversation between one voice and the ensemble. Your right hand was a fist. You opened it one finger at a time, asking and withdrawing…. In the heart of that hall, you were utterly solitary. I could not have given myself to you even if I had tried.” Summing up his lost freedom, youth, and romance, as well as his tortured present, Termen asks “How do you listen to a closed room?” This may be a love story, but it’s also a novel about the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism.
Poor and fatherless in New York, Claude Rawlings overcomes the odds and ascends to the piano world’s firmament. Claude’s trajectory is one long melody with very little dissonance, although along his musical journey, the novel explores 1950s red baiting, his mother’s mental illness, his mentor’s broken German past, and the gap between rich and poor. Conroy, a jazz pianist and legendary director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, described his challenge in this, his only novel: “[T]he experience of music is hard to convey in words.” A sample of how Conroy tried to meet that challenge: “The first three notes–the root, the fifth, and the minor third—seemed entirely magical. In their simplicity he heard the implication of the whole piece itself, and from that, from his awareness of the fugue, came an awareness of all-of-music, as if all-of-music were the overtones of any small part of music, as if all notes were contained in any single note. The perception was evanescent, but so powerful as to wipe away any thoughts of himself. Music is here!”
This is a book about music, accurately and beautifully rendered, that strikes the right balance between sentiment and music’s arduous demands. Here’s what it feels like to play in a string quartet. Details are satisfyingly accurate—from the fraught solo practice sessions, to the hothouse atmosphere of a string quartet, to the difficult professional choices forced on classical musicians. The novel unfurls the achingly gorgeous romance between violinist Michael Holme and pianist Julia McNicholl, characters whose problems may not be political, but are all too human. This book is a moving investigation of loss and love; the relationship between father and son; and the meaning of commitment to marriage, children, and above all music. In spare, elegant language Seth describes Julia’s playing as “a beauty beyond imagining – clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase, phrase echoing phrase…. It is an equal music.”
Martha Anne Toll is a professionally trained violist and writer. Her essays have appeared on NPR, in The Millions, Narrative Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books; and her fiction in Wild, Poetica Magazine, Referential Magazine (forthcoming), and Inkapture Magazine (forthcoming). She is the Executive Director of a nationwide social justice foundation based in Washington, DC. Please visit Martha at www.marthaannetoll.com or tweet to her @marthaannetoll.
They talked about writing important things. Some wrote very popular things and could talk so as to make the very popular things they wrote seem important. They winnowed. They channeled. They allowed for marginalia.
Brown water, vomitus, sloshes up running boards, foams into door cracks, saturates floor mats. Engine side of the F-150 sinks first. Shoulder strap clicks snug. He tries the key. Spit of pink light on the dash. Tries the window.
The janitors boxed up the newsroom, powercleaned the cubicles, laid the typewriters finally ad acta. The remnant hung like winter fruit, noble scribes, spare and defunded, abandoned in the wilds to reflect the mutations of mankind, the sorrows of the Second Flood.
Three inches now, cooling his socks. Creeping teawater. He tries the key again. The window.
He wrote convocations on phytoplankton, algal blooms, oyster habitats. Wanted to believe “the children” would save the lagoon. On paddleboard through labyrinthine mangrove atolls, nights of bioluminescence, he wilded out schools of mantis-lit ghosts, comets, went breathless at the sight of the river mammals.
He unclicks his belt, tries the door. The river pushes back on him, pours in over his shins. Traceless surge, born from nothing. Virginal cloudburst. Gaia flushing herself clean.
Together now: the downward lurch of the vehicle, the plunging suck of glass, and the horrifying realization that the talking might have meant more than the writing in the end.
Dan Reiter‘s sudden fiction has appeared in Spork Press, McSweeney’s, Word Riot, Burrow Press Review, and other places. His story of the Shoah won The Florida Review Editor’s Award.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
This summer, I received a galley proof of Claudia La Rocco’s selected writing called The Best Most Useless Dress. Scrolling through pages of text, I thought to myself, this is some Frank O’Hara shit. The first line of the epigraph read: I am the least difficult of men.
In graduate school we read O’Hara’s criticism and went for picnics on his grave. We need someone like him again.
The first time I met Claudia La Rocco was at an Italian restaurant in Bed-Stuy one July afternoon. I was exasperated. I lamented the nightmare of looking for an apartment in New York. Claudia doesn’t remember asking me to describe the quality of the nightmare and I don’t remember how I answered but we ended up being neighbors later that summer and I see now the kind of sacred attention Elizabeth Robinson describes in her introduction to the book.
I hope this interview matches the sophistication and sincerity of Claudia’s work, while communicating my ineffable admiration.
Whiskey Blue: In the introduction to The Best Most Useless Dress, Elizabeth Robinson asks, “what is it to be swept up passionately but uncomprehendingly in art without controlling its meaning?” Robinson (and I would posit your work, too) looks to not knowing as a mode for interacting with art. This unknowing describes a state of utmost attentiveness; of simultaneous blankness and hyper-engagement which Robinson calls “deep attention, writing that such attention, deep attention, redounds once again to desire.”
I want to know what it means to you, to be “swept up passionately but uncomprehendingly in art without controlling its meaning.” How would you describe the quality of this swept up-ness? How do you, as a critic and as an art maker, access this state? And how do desire and not knowing interact here?
Claudia La Rocco: The quality, it’s luscious. Whether it’s by art or a stranger or sleep or the tennis stroke whose perfection you cannot explain, even though it was yours—what is better than being swept up? I’m writing slowly and when I stop I notice that I am rubbing my finger tips together—so I guess I would also say that it’s tactile. Its itness is tangible, even if you can’t grasp it. I am not sure there is a way to ensure that you can access it, but I think to give oneself time, and to give oneself over to things, are important preparatory steps. Time and attention, so you can slow down enough to see what’s floating around in your mind and in your surroundings, and look at how the two worlds intersect, and how they don’t.
I always think about dating; how you can go on 100 dates and the first 99, they’re terrible, zero chemistry, you can’t even understand how people do this, or why … and then that 100th comes along. It’s so simple—could you explain why it works though? We resort to all the clichés about chemistry and timing. But, I don’t know. I think the fact that we can’t break it down is a big part of its magic. Desire and not knowing are both moments of immortality for mortals. Maybe they’re the same thing?
WB: Elizabeth Robinson also observes that there are “three formal strategies that recur throughout the book: parataxis, repetition, and theft.” When I read this, I thought it was an interesting insight into how, perhaps, you build your work; how you make a text; the way a choreographer approaches movement when making dance.
Parataxis is described as “the placing together of sentences, clauses, or phrases without a conjunctive word or words.” Would you agree that parataxis is a recurring strategy – to quote Robinson – in your work? For example, with a writer like Joan Didion, terseness and cadence come to mind when thinking about her style. Do you think your style is characterized by parataxis? Is this deliberate? If so, what does it serve?
CLR: What’s not to love about parataxis? Just the word itself … it’s beautiful. I love collage. I love the two things together that make a third thing.
I’m not sure what it serves, exactly. Maybe my adoration of parataxis comes from having to be a well-behaved journalist for the first part of my writing career. And also of course it’s a poet thing, a way to construct narrative that isn’t linear, that doesn’t depend on understanding step by step.
And of course choreography is shot through with parataxis. I mean, so much art … and I think one could make the case that this is simply because it’s a common way in which people seek to decipher experience. To translate it into manageable terms.
I think one could also make the case (I like making cases) that it’s a weakness of mine, or a limitation. That I might be well served by leaning on parataxis a little less. But I just like it so much. It’s a darling I’m not at this time prepared to kill.
From issue 46, Winter Reading.
The King Won’t Kill Me
today. He’s cleared
the court, torn up
the last treaty, trounced
the villages bordering
the empire’s southern-
most state, shackled
their dark denizens
and given the hundred
skinniest to split
among his governors.
I wore shackles once
on a boat across
the largest ocean
in the universe,
but I was the last
among my captive
people to forget
how to laugh
and the first
to remember our tribal
names. In that time,
I learned the whip man’s
slang, for when the noble
children came to gawk,
I’d listen to them, mimic,
until I was good enough
to speak back, ask
questions, chat them up
for fairy tales, prayers,
ridicule, and lies.
Dumb luck, one runt
traded me a book
for my right thumb
through the bars
of my cage—an even
barter, if you ask me.
In it were all the secrets
Patrick Rosal is the author of three full-length poetry collections. His most recent, Boneshepherds (2011), was named a small press highlight by the National Book Critics Circle and a notable book by the Academy of American Poets. His other two books are My American Kundiman (2006), and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003). His collections have been honored with the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literary Award and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members’ Choice Award. In 2009, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines. He is co-founding editor of Some Call It Ballin’, a literary sports quarterly.
The day ended like any day—at midnight. Mike, Ted, and I rolled up to the movie theater in Mike’s MGB GT, a junky 60s hatchback that looked like James Bond and his crew hadn’t made the grade. Mike was just a regular guy, like me, but Ted was a skinhead. His girlfriend was a Mexican. She was a skin too. She wore a Chelsea cut and creepers and homemade tattoos on her hands. How they tolerated her, I still don’t know, but she and Ted had been going together for a while, so she might have been grandfathered in.
We were at the midnight movies. There were a lot of other kids roaming the lobby looking for trouble while the security guard flirted with the night manager. Mike was getting popcorn and I was standing next to Ted who was waiting, arms crossed, like a real bad ass in his flight jacket and Docs. Then this Mexican dude walked right up to us. He might’ve been our age but he wore a man’s bushy mustache and a wife beater. He was built.
The Mexican said, “Hey, you bald bastard.”
I thought Armageddon was about to unleash in the lobby of the Regal 6. Instead, Ted and the Mexican did that same bro slap Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers do in Predator. The Mexican rousted his homies and they all came over and Ted and the guys re-lived old times.
“We go way back,” Ted explained later. “Used to fight his gang in Hayward. Not anymore.” We were sitting in the theater waiting for the feature to begin. It was Surf Nazis Must Die. This black granny was laying waste to the Aryan scum who killed her grandson. Ted laughed it up every time one of his guys died. Either the movie was some kind of reverse-propaganda I didn’t understand or Ted hadn’t fully bought into the charter. Later, I asked him about it as was we drove home in Mike’s MG.
He shrugged. “It’s just a movie,” he said. Then he got out and walked up the driveway to his dad’s huge house on the golf course.
That’s not how the day began. Like most days that summer between junior and senior years, it began at the Round Table on Crow Canyon where Ted made pizzas and I worked the ovens. Ted and I were on lunch break. While I devoured a toasted salami and gorgonzola sandwich, Ted was making a face.
“I guess you don’t have a girlfriend,” he said.
Right then, a middle-aged guy ambled in through the dining room’s side door. He looked like that writer Denis Johnson on a bad day. Dark glasses, big overcoat, paper bag tucked under his arm. Ted and I watched him walk down the hall past the banquet room and into the toilet.
“Homeless shower,” Ted said. While he was eating pizza, I could see Ted working up to something in that complicated shaved head. He pushed the crust into his mouth, then went into his pocket to show me a small knife. It was a shiv, I guess. He said he got it when he was in JDC for fighting on BART. He also got hand-foot-and-mouth disease and had to wear Chucks for a few weeks until the fungus went away.
“Come on,” he said.
I followed him to the men’s restroom. Inside, the guy was slicking back his hair with a comb. The dark glasses were resting on the sink.
“Whaddya want?” he said in the mirror. He glanced at the shiv in Ted’s hand.
“This isn’t a bus station,” Ted said.
“Oh, no?” He stopped mid-comb. We all stared at each other in the mirror, waiting for someone to make the next move. The guy’s face was impassive, and pitted, like a moon scarred by meteors.
“It’s a pizza parlor,” I said.
He nodded as he put the comb away inside of his coat. He wore a self-satisfied look, like we were right where he wanted us. “Whaddya think I got in that bag?” he said. The bag was sitting on top of the paper towel dispenser. It was crushed and greasy.
“Nothing,” Ted said.
The guy just smiled. He put on the dark glasses, then picked up his bag and waved us aside like a royal on his way to somewhere important. We watched him limp down the hall and out the side door. Later, we found the bag sitting on a nearby bench. Ted looked inside. He was right.
Aaron Peters is a graduate of UC Irvine’s Programs in Writing and a recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. He lives in Los Angeles.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to email@example.com with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
Now that the holidays are approaching, the days are turning cooler here in Houston, which means it’s time to begin saying goodbye to the jalapeño bushes in my garden. Earlier this year, on Mother’s Day, we planted a few small bushes, which have supplied my family with fresh jalapeños all season. In June, I was chopping handfuls of jalapeños into guacamole. In early July, I was slicing stout jalapeños onto giant cheeseburgers. And now that the bushes are offering their last fruit, I’ve started making jelly.
That’s right: Jalapeño jelly.
When I got the idea, years ago, that I wanted to make try making jelly, the Jalapeño Jelly recipe from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving was the first one I tried. The recipe calls for exactly twelve jalapeños, two cups of cider vinegar, six cups of sugar, two packets of pectin, and an undisclosed optional amount of green food coloring. For my very first batch I followed Ball’s instructions to the letter. Or, at least I thought I followed them to the letter. Probably I did not, since the jelly was a complete disaster: too sloshy, too mild, too green.
Over the years, I’ve tinkered and toyed with the Ball recipe — sometimes adding more jalapeños, sometimes more sugar or vinegar — and now have it down to a science. I’ve learned to slice the piles and piles of jalapeños longways, flicking out the seeds with the point of my knife. I have learned to wear gloves to avoid capsaicin burns and to wear protective eyewear, since I have experienced no pain quite like that of jalapeño juice droplets in my eye.
And what do I do with this spicy, dangerous, jelly?
I almost don’t go to the the reading of my grandfather’s will, but it’s important to my sister.
The lawyer reads my name and adds, “Scrimshaw, one,” and with both hands passes me a carving of a caribou antler—not one from a large bull, but a simpler cow’s. Tracing my finger along the almost-ivory, I notice the antler’s bowed slope has occurred naturally without having to be carved. And at the base, its long and smooth grain blisters into the pocked shell of a sand-dollar.
My grandfather hunted humpbacks for six months off the west coast of Vancouver Island—a year after the ‘68 moratorium—and killed most of his time idling in international waters since everything had been dead for a while. There was an emptiness in the ocean’s fluidity that he had once tried to explain to me. Something about how, in just a few days, he could see the vacancy within the waves and knew that nothing was there.
The antler is really just a whale’s vertebra, halved and cut off at the spinal canal. But it must have taken months to carve away that much bone.
I store the whale-antler atop the bookshelf. Over the next couple months, I try placing it in other spots—the kitchen table, my desk, the toilet tank—but everywhere is too conspicuous, and I feel bad, because I never correct anyone when they ask if it’s a real antler. It goes back onto the bookshelf.
Next month, picking up my sister at the university hospital, I’m a half hour early so I pay two dollars for the biology building’s basement museum. Floating through the isles of animal fragments, I see a glass case holding an elk skull with its cerebral plates all dyed rainbow colours.
And the sign beneath it, no bigger than a shoulder-blade, explains how the skull’s configuration correlates with a humpback’s, how it demonstrates that whales descended from a small deer, and that they and even-toed ungulates have a closeness of being you can only have by sharing an ancestor.
If he realized in a few days that the ocean had been sieved of everything, why did he stay for six months? Waves shrugging defeated, the gravelled pull of a knife, the sawdust of calcium. A dull ache in his back.
And what keeps me up at night, watching a raccoon’s planetary eyes orbit beyond the streetlight, is the vague understanding that everything has its own shape, a form entirely unto itself; and how my hand fluidly intuits how to hold their bodies, like I have always known them.
Richard Kelly Kemick has been published or has work forthcoming in TNQ, CV2, The Fiddlehead, PRISM, Prime Number, and Vallum among several other magazines across Canada and the United States. Richard won both Echolocation’s 2014 chapbook and Grain’s 2013 Short Grain contests. A recipient of an Alberta Foundation for the Arts grant, his debut collection of poetry, Caribou Run, is set for publication Spring 2016 by Goose Lane Editions.
The Open Bar is currently accepting submissions for Flash Fridays and Flash Fidelity. Submissions to The Open Bar should be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the name of the category (e.g. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, etc.) in the subject line.
A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise is an astonishing poetry collection, furious, tender, and true. It’s a book about hatred, desire, and love, about the past and present and the blurring of the two. “Boy,” says a burly man in Birmingham, “be / a bootblack. Your back, blue black… / I like my black boys broke, or broken./ I like to break my black boys in.” The speaker of several poems, the strongest presence in the book, Boy grieves the loss of his mother, provokes his father’s violent rage by wearing a whalebone corset, and sees flashes of his father’s face in his own. “I turned the family portrait facedown/ when he was on me,” he confesses in one poem about a tryst he imagines in a clawfoot tub, and then he wakes in his room, “Father standing at the door.”
Images from these poems linger, changing shape and color over time, like a bruise. I first read the book on the subway, savoring it from from start to finish on the way to my destination, and then I read it again on the way home. Lately I keep it on the shelf above my desk while I work to show myself how much detail and feeling it’s possible to pack into five or ten words.
Maud Newton: “I’m the self-portrait of my father,” says the speaker of “Hour Between Dog & Wolf,” standing before “the only unbroken mirror, cobalt kimono/ undone.” “Even the rage is his.” In “History, According to Boy,” Boy’s father approves of him only after he does well at the shooting range, when Boy makes a “perfect little hole in the black paper body.” “It is their one good thing.” Later, Boy’s father finds a gay porn magazine and his “fist comes down like war itself.” The idea of violence as a legacy passed from father to son permeates Prelude to Bruise, not just for Boy, but for a white lover with a racist father in “Body and Kentucky Bourbon,” and for the Biblical Abraham in “Isaac, After Mount Moriah.” Can you talk about that?
Saeed Jones: One shard of inspiration for Prelude To Bruise is the fact that my father (who I haven’t seen since 1999) and I look very similar, more so as I’ve grown up. At a family reunion several years ago, I walked into my aunt’s living room and an older relative, who was sitting on the corner, looked at me and said my father’s name. For a brief moment, she actually thought I was him. It broke my heart in a quiet and permanent way. That moment definitely led to the scene in “Hour Between Dog & Wolf,” but more broadly, it got me to thinking of the various inheritances — desired and undesirable — fathers bestow on their sons. My father and I also have the same first name; I go by my middle name (Saeed) for a reason.
MN: In one poem, Boy wears a stolen evening gown in the cornfields, switches his hips for a “Sir who is no one, sir who is yet to come.” In another, he “dreams he has the/ body of a girl,/ a song only he can hear.” When he creates a profile to chat with boys, none are interested until he changes his profile picture to “a white boy with a similar height and build.” Then the flirtatious messages pour in. One of my (other) favorite contemporary poets, Brenda Shaughnessy, writes of your ability to take the reader “deep into lived experience, into a charged world divided among unstable yet entrenched lines: racial, gendered, political, sexual, familial.” Do you think growing up in the South, having a family from the South, gave you a different kind of awareness of the instability of these categories?
SJ: Lately, in part because of the book I’m writing now, I’ve been thinking about 1998. I was twelve years old that year; Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. were both killed that year. To learn about that kind of violence existing in the world — both racist and homophobic — it changed me. I don’t know if I fully understood it at the time, but I was terrified. And terror does many things but it also clarifies. (I’m reminded here of Claudia Rankine meeting a young man while she was in Ferguson, MO during the protests. He pointed to a picture of Michael Brown and said “I look just like him.” I know that feeling very well. I don’t wish it on anyone though I suspect far too many of us have had it.) Though I didn’t totally have the language, I was suddenly deeply aware of what it meant to be a black gay man in America, in the South, in this era. So, part of the project of Prelude To Bruise was examining all of the facets of my identity, and all of the desires and terrors that illuminate them.
MN: You’ve written about your mom’s spirituality and your grandmother’s more punishing fundamentalism (a kind I’m intimately familiar with). Do you find yourself tending toward belief or away from it? And do you often think about their approaches to religion in reckoning with your own?
SJ: I’ve practiced Nichiren buddhism, the faith my mother raised me with, for most of my life, but — I will be honest — in the last few years I’ve lapsed. I’m not sure that’s the word for it exactly. I still look to Nichiren buddhism as a life philosophy, but I haven’t been practicing very consistently for the last couple of years. When my mother passed away in 2011, chanting became very difficult. I wavered without her; I had doubts I’d never had before. And, though I’m not grief struck anymore, I’m more ambivalent. Maybe this will change; I’m not agonizing over faith or anything. My mother’s best friend, who I consider to be an aunt, continues to practice buddhism and I speak with her about it often. She listens; she doesn’t pressure or push; she is patient. Growing up, my family treated religion like taking sides in a war. It was awful and deeply hurtful. My mother was treated as an outcast from her family for most of my childhood. I never want to recreate that dynamic.
Josh and I were having lunch at a sandwich shop in Pike Place Market, Seattle—it was the end of February, and the two of us were on shore leave from the AWP Conference up the street—when I interrupted the conversation to say, “We should be recording this.” It’s not that either of us had said anything particularly striking. But the intimacy of twice having worked together on Josh’s fiction for AGNI, and having met in person periodically over the years, had set us up for something unusual. We knew the shape of each other’s thinking without being overly familiar with its contents.We were friends enough to ask each other pretty much anything, but not so close that the answers could be given in hints and nods. And so the idea of recording ourselves—and doing it without preparation, to see where our curiosities would lead.
Fast-forward to August, Josh on book tour for The Great Glass Sea. By luck, the tour included a stop at Newtonville Books, several T stops outside of Boston and just a short walk from my house. We met in the afternoon before walking down to the store, and, over beers on the side patio, talked again, about writing, editing, and a bit about geography too—as freely as we could with an old-fashioned tape recorder sitting between us.
Josh Weil: It’s nice to see your home. I was just thinking, the way the business is, you meet people on the road, you meet people in bookstores, but you don’t often get to see inside someone’s home, and it’s nice.
William Pierce: You remember our lunch in Seattle. A lot of what we talked about is stuff you’re probably not talking about that often. Somebody comes out with a new book, and everything ends up being about the book.
JW: Yeah, and it’s all repeated—you get the same questions in all the interviews.
WP: One thing we discussed in Seattle is this way you have of transferring your emotional ecology into stories that seem completely unrelated to your life. A lot of those stories are set in Russia or feel displaced in other ways, even in time. The Great Glass Sea is an example of that, I think.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. I find I’m almost unable to write about stuff that feels too close to my life. I don’t think it’s because I’m scared of that—I’m just not interested in it, you know? So I wind up—I remember when I was in Scotland, I was writing about Southeast Ohio. I went to Egypt on a Fulbright, and while I was there, doing research on the novel that was set there, and banging my head against the wall with that, I had the urge to write about other stuff. So I wound up writing about Virginia while I was living in this little town, Tunis. Foreigners weren’t supposed to live there at all. My friends would come out on the bus and be turned away by the Egyptian police, but I had gotten permission for various reasons. It was fairly poor, a lot of irrigated farming, and the city of Fayoom nearby, around Lake Qarun, was the center of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak was still in power, so—
WP: So the Muslim Brotherhood was banned at the time.
JW: It was banned at the time, considered a terrorist organization, anti-Western, and so Egypt was concerned about a Westerner going out there. Anyway, I was living there, wrapped in my gallibaya and my scarf and my little Muslim skullcap, and the khamsins were blowing, and I found myself writing about Virginia and the Civil War in the U.S. Somehow, I’m in this weird place as a writer—I’ve got to step out of my own life in order to take in, to be interested in, what I’m working on. Yet at the same time, I have to have enough familiarity with the place that I feel like I can accurately depict it. So it’s kind of a dilemma.
WP: I feel like when you step out so completely, those may be the times you’re writing about your life most directly. You particularly, I mean. In other words, there are two—broadly speaking there are two ways that you write: the one is displaced, and the other not at all displaced. Somebody who knows your life more intimately than I do may see that even those latter stories aren’t taken directly from your world in the United States, but still, they are set here and now.
JW: They’re pretty close—and the funny thing is, the short stories that AGNI published, both of those are closer to my life. With short stories, for whatever reason, I feel that there’s enough of a nugget of interest that I can grab onto. In “I Want You to Know That I Know That He Loved You,” I was essentially writing about my great-great uncle.
WP: The grandfather in the story was your great-great uncle?
JW: Yes. Born in Camillus, New York—all of it was exactly who that character is. And the apartment was my great-great uncle’s apartment. And then, in order to feel like I can really maybe just be brave enough—but also just detached enough that I can really dig at whatever feels most important in my own life—I have to have enough distance that I can feel like I’m not just writing memoir, that I’m not just putting my own shit out there, you know?
WP: You’ve mentioned that when you feel you’re getting closest, displacing is the only way your imagination can let itself go. When you’re writing short stories or novellas that are not displaced—talking about a great-great uncle doesn’t have the same tricky immediacy for you as taking on your relationship with your brother, for instance.
JW: I think that’s true, and I mean, I’ve written another short story, probably the closest to my life that I’ve written—it was published in Glimmer Train,and I actually regretted publishing it. It was great to have something in Glimmer Train, and I’m proud of the story, but it was so close to my life and to some personal stuff with my dad that it felt like something of a betrayal to put it out there, even though he’d read it already, of course. Somehow you feel like you’re using people in your fiction sometimes, and that doesn’t feel good. The further that I can get from my own life, the further the characters are from the people in my life—then I’m just using someone as inspiration for a character that is not that person, in a story that is not about that person. I think that distance is important for the quality of that writing, too. With my novel, the two brothers are not my brother and me. And because they’re not, I can look at the younger brother, who’s kind of taking my role, and it’s a better book, I think, if I allow that younger brother to be less sympathetic, if I can see the ways that the younger brother is problematic, which would be more difficult if that character was me, do you know what I mean?
WP: Sure, but do you feel that you’re able to do that partly by looking at your relationship with your brother from a different angle?
JW: Yeah. It forces you to, absolutely. In The Great Glass Sea, the entire story was told from the younger brother’s perspective in the first draft, and now it switches back and forth. I find that, although I feel aligned with Dima, the younger brother, a lot of readers find Yarik more sympathetic and find it easier to understand Yarik’s reasons. He’s the one who actually has pressures put on him by his younger brother. I think I couldn’t have gotten all of that without stepping outside my own life a little. I just did a reading yesterday in my hometown and my brother was there, and afterward everyone was milling around and he got asked a bunch of times, “So which brother are you?” And he had a really good response. He said he thought he was the germ of Yarik, and he had read an early draft where he felt that he and Yarik were more closely linked, but in the finished novel, five drafts later, Yarik feels like a totally different being. That’s a lot of what the process is about: finding how you can get away from your own life and fictionalize it. And then, as the fictional characters and their concerns become real, you’re just naturally going to be listening to them shape the story. In a way it’s necessary for good character development, I think, to step aside. But that’s just the way I do it—I mean, a lot of people don’t. What do you find with your writing?
WP: I was just thinking of a story that I wrote called “Compotes.” The inspiration was my parents’ relationship, or one aspect of it, and I worried I’d savaged them in it without wanting to. I guess the story was still raw enough for me—it wasn’t exactly their story, but recognizably similar—that I didn’t let the characters develop as independently as I should have. And, as you say, “should” not in order to avoid something, but the opposite: to get at something more three-dimensionally. I never showed it to them.
JW: I’ve written before with the hope that someone would recognize the story.
WP: That’s a twist. Why?
JW: It was my ex-wife. (both laughing) I was heartsick and busted up over our divorce, and I wrote this novel which is really kind of self-therapy. The book is too deeply flawed to ever be saved, but the story was about a couple who are dealing with the same kind of stuff that we’d dealt with. And although I made them different people and all of that, the trajectory of the novel was kind of, almost like proving to her, see, we could have dealt with it this way, we could have changed it this way, this is how I could have been. It was almost like I was offering up this proof of—if she had read it, she could see—
WP: But she didn’t read it.
JW: I don’t think she ever read it. Geez, you know, I don’t think so, which is kind of shocking, because I got back together with her after I’d written it. I know she read a short story—I took the thing and tried to turn it into a short story, and she read that—
WP: But didn’t recognize herself?
JW: I think she did. I think she did. And the truth is, we were back together, right?
Cosmology is the practice of discovering and articulating origins: scientifically speaking, the origins of the universe. But human experiences have their own murky geneses to wade through, and they deserve (or at least require) an equally diligent attention. Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of Iowa novels – including Gilead, Home, and now Lila – offers such singular focus. The books can be viewed as a careful unpicking of complex human relationships, but if you take things one or two steps farther, they can also be seen as a study of the origins of suffering.
I recognize that there’s a lot of hope in Robinson’s writing, many second chances. An old preacher (Gilead’s narrator, John Ames) finds a wife and fathers a child after a lifetime of loneliness. A woman (the eponymous Lila) leaves behind poverty, exhaustion, and shame for a home and family. A prodigal son returns to his hometown (in Home) and finds his own family, still waiting. (Anyone who’s read the books knows that to be a woefully inadequate description of Jack Boughton, but it is nonetheless true.) You’ll have to forgive me, then, for focusing on the bone-deep sadness and taking it for my theme. Robinson herself, in a recent New York Times profile, said: “I hate to say it, but I think the default posture of human beings is fear.” These books do not fear to tread in dark water, and so neither can we, when we consider them. And anyway, around the corner from Robinson’s evocation of perdition is always a lighter shadow: the twin form of grace.
It might also be fair to explain why I’m so interested in perdition. Robinson’s own reasons, from what I can tell, come from an interest in the human condition at large. In the same way that religion (and art, and science, and all exploration or purposeful devotion) can be seen as an expression of the divine through accreted human habit, Robinson’s books are an expression of human emotion through persistent literary work. Her writing is an empathetic science, whereas my interest in it is more selfish and particular.
I grew up with two sisters and one brother – a passel of children not large enough to rival that of Jack Boughton (who is the son of John Ames’s best friend and Ames’s own namesake – Jack has five siblings, besting me by two), but large enough. Robinson describes the Boughton household as having been, in its prime, full and happy – with the exception of Jack, who carried some inveterate loneliness even as a child. For our part, my siblings and I were always close – we fought, we bit, we played, and as adults we chose to be friends. All except the youngest of us, who is a mystery.
Robinson’s Iowa books feel familiar to me because of this shared family phenomenon, this preternatural discomfort that makes one child hold himself apart from the rest. For Robinson, that’s Jack Boughton (and in a different way, Lila). For me, that is my younger sister, J. The littlest girl, with a white streak in her hair that’s been there since birth. As if something scared her deep in the womb, and has kept on scaring her for all these years.
Let me talk a little bit about Jack and Lila. Jack is a trouble-maker from his earliest days. Small potatoes at first: firecrackers in the mailbox and petty theft. Later he graduates to impregnating a young girl from the wrong side of town, and leaving without a backwards glance. Even in the bosom of his family he’s shifty, hoping to find a way out of each room he enters before someone has the chance to notice that he’s there. But if you look closer, you see that the shiftiness doesn’t come from ill-intent. It’s more like a terrible shyness, a certainty of not belonging, a semi-justified fear that some dark kernel inside him will hurt those he loves. Jack doesn’t trust himself, and it pains him deeply when others do. (Though it also seems to pain him when they don’t.)
Lila, on the other hand, grew up itinerant but not unruly. She was raised by a woman named Doll who stole her off the front porch of a house where she was being ignored and unloved. Doll had no home of her own, so she and Lila bounced around, most often with a group of traveling workers who were short on money and long on pride. Lila’s life was practical: don’t make waves. Do your work, and don’t ask questions, or hope to belong. Stay close to Doll, because she’s the only one who understands your private language of inner solitude; she’s the only one who shares it. “Doll used to say ‘No cussing!’ and they would laugh because of all the things they knew and nobody else did. But if you’re a stranger to everybody on earth, then that’s what you are and there’s no end to it. You don’t know the words to say.”
When Lila arrives in Gilead as an adult, she doesn’t know how to stay still or trust anyone’s good intentions. She’s been a prostitute (though not a very good one), and has dreamed of stealing a child of her own, with whom she can recreate the life she had with Doll, before Doll died. Watching her try to trust and love John Ames, who is twice her age and a respected Congregationalist minister, is like watching a kicked dog get up the courage to take food out of a kindly hand: approach and shy, approach and shy. That she might be able to offer him love, which he will value much more than anything he gives up for her, does not occur to her for quite some time.
My sister J, as I’ve said, is the youngest of us. I can remember a time when she played our games and seemed happy to do it. I remember a photo of her with my older sister and our neighbor, mounting a prank protest about the price of milk at the grocery store. They’ve drawn signs, and wear duct tape over their mouths, but you can tell they’re smiling underneath the tape. You can tell they’re pleased and amused.
I remember listening to some maudlin CD in middle school, crying in my bed. I had no reason to be sad, I was just full of burgeoning teenage emotion – too much empathy with no outlet. And so the songs made me weep. J’s room was across from mine, and when she heard me she came in to see what was wrong. My room was dark, but there was a light coming in from the hall, illuminating her outline and just a few of her features. A lip, bitten. Two eyebrows, raised. She was gentle and concerned, and she didn’t understand me, but she wanted to help. She couldn’t have been more than ten years old.
Later, I remember beginning to catch her in lies. She was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, and I was off at college. I left some jewelry in a drawer and she stole it, maintaining her innocence until the very moment that I told her I’d uncovered it among her things. One night, during Christmas break, I came upstairs to find her awake and alert and babbling. I was tired and just wanted to go to sleep, so I didn’t press her on why her eyes were so red, what she was talking about. I didn’t ask her why she’d been in my room, though I’d later find out that she and her boyfriend were growing pot behind a panel in my unused closet. The least of the drugs, the least of the problems.
Any mention of her specific misdeeds, though, seems unfaithful, not because it exposes her but because it exposes her the wrong way. For example, I could tell you about the time she was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after holding a knife to that same boyfriend’s throat while they were both high. I could tell you about her more recent stints in jail, or the long months when we haven’t known where she was or how she was living. But those don’t tell you anything about her. They just tell you that I don’t know anything true to tell.
My sister is sad in the way that Jack and Lila are – that’s a simple enough way to say it. Each of them has been ashamed of themselves far longer than they’ve had any reason to be. Each of them, for reasons either obvious or obscure, seem to have been born into their condition.
As we continue to take applications (Deadline is December 17th!) for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
Next in the water, Jon Raymond.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Jon Raymond:The first workshop I ever took was taught by none other than current Tin House author Darcey Steinke. It was a great class. She helped me figure out some things about my first novel that probably saved me a lot of time and internal strife, i.e. don’t try and write half your book in antique, ersatz Jamesian prose. She also turned me on to some craft writing that I still use in my own classes, specifically the essay “Stillness,” by Charles Baxter.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
JR: I don’t remember most of my workshops as a student anymore, so I’ll have to make recourse to my own recent excellent advice: when writing a nonfiction biography about a real-life horse, be open to speculating about said horse’s inner emotional life.
TH:Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
JR: I haven’t had anything too notably lurid happen in my workshops, unfortunately. No nudity or mental collapses or fisticuffs or anything like that. I recently traveled to Amman, Jordan to do some screenwriting workshops, and that was kind of strange. To be talking about the story arc of Castaway while staring at a slummy hilltop neighborhood that began as a Palestinian refugee camp, that was kind of strange. US military planes flying overhead; prayer calls; Palestinian film directors orchestrating Oscar campaigns, all strange.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
JR: One great piece of craft writing that recently passed under my eyeballs was an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was about an often misunderstood mental phenomenon called imagination. Here’s a good sentence or two from it: “The job of the imagination, in making a story from experience, may be not to gussy the story up but to tone it down. The fact is, the world is unbelievably strange and human behavior is frequently so weird that no kind of narrative except farce or satire can handle it. The function of the storyteller’s imagination sometimes is simply to make it more plausible.” (Ursula K. Le Guin “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?”)
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Rain Dragon, The Half-Life, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2004, and the short story collection Livability, winner of the 2009 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, and cowriter of the Emmy-nominated screenplay for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Raymond’s writing has appeared in Bookforum, Artforum, Tin House, the Village Voice, and other publications.
Fifty drunk teenagers in a backyard. The girls pair off by height: tall with tall; short with short.
The night is balmy, blameless. Jonah Tate, whose backyard it is, makes a ring with white masking tape.
Becky Brady stands in her corner, gloves limp at her sides. A boy whispers something in her ear and she nods slowly. She wears a striped pink tank top and her sterling silver monogram choker from Tiffany. Sometimes I wonder if that choker is the only thing weighting Becky Brady down, keeping her from drifting into space like a lost Macy’s parade balloon.
You’d think girls wouldn’t want to fight their friends. But the inverse is true. The more inseparable the girls, the more we want to punch each other’s lights out.
Example: I love Becky Brady. We’re sixteen years of friendship bracelets and passed notes and afternoon boredom in refinished neighborhood basements.
I gulp down something sweet from a red cup and let Jonah Tate slide heavy gloves on my hands. Mike from chemistry class kneads my shoulders.
Jonah Tate shouts go and we go. Me from my corner, Becky Brady from hers. She has a sweet face and has gotten kind of fat since she started taking the pill. Her middle yields like a sponge. We’re the same height, but I’m taut from soccer practice. I punch and she sort of swats back.
I land three for every one of Becky’s and after a while my arms start to ache. Becky Brady’s bangs are plastered to her forehead with sweat. She rests for a second, hands on knees.
“Pig fucker,” she pants under her breath and looks a little sad.
Becky Brady can’t hang in honors English and our teacher Mr. Jenkins knows it. One day during vocab he asked her too pointedly what “bovine” meant and eyed those Ortho Tri-Cylcen boobs of hers. I took a month of Saturday detentions for standing up and calling him a dickhead bully and then seeing myself out of the classroom. Becky just looked confused and laughed.
Becky Brady’s feet are milk-white and veiny, sliding around on the dew. Under them the grass looks blue. There’s a damp spot on her tank top, smack in the middle and spreading.
My dad always says to go half-speed when you’re facing off against someone weaker than you. That goes double in a battle of wits. And one thing you don’t do is punch a soft, dumb girl in the neck as hard as you can.
But Becky Brady suddenly connects with my jaw and maybe knocks something loose, because that’s when I punch her right in the stupid Tiffany choker. There’s a hard-soft crushing sensation that I can feel through my glove. Becky’s eyes bug out and she makes a sound like hawking a loogie and staggers to one side.
I hear a boy shout, “Yes!” and another shout, “Stop!” and a third shout, “Holy shit!” Or maybe those voices are inside of me and the boys are stunned and silent.
I watch Becky Brady stumble around for a second. The moon is so bright I can feel it like the sun.
I know I should stop. But what if I don’t? What if I shove her down, and straddle her like a lover and hit her until her nose lays flat against her face? What if I make it so her eyes can’t see and her mouth drips blood and tissue? What if it gets all over the gloves so that Jonah Tate’s got to throw them out altogether or else sneak down to the kitchen later tonight after his parents go to bed and stand hunched over the sink in the dark, scrubbing Becky Brady off of them?
Erin Somers‘ writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, One Teen Story, Gigantic, Slice, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2013 Neil Shepard Fiction Prize from Green Mountains Review. She lives in Brooklyn.
The Open Bar accepts submissions year-round! Submissions to Flash Fridays or any other features on The Open Bar may be sent to email@example.com with the category name (i.e. Flash Fridays, Flash Fidelity, Art of the Sentence) in the subject line.
The story, which you can read here, appears in Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York.
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Jonathan Dee is the author of five novels, including The Privileges, a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and A Thousand Pardons. He is a Contributing Writer for New York Times Magazine, a frequent critic for Harper’s, and a former Senior Editor of the Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and The New School.
Time for another round of Broadside Thirty, our showcase for poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. This time around, we present a new poem by Elisa Gonzalez.
SECRET AND INVISIBLE FOLDS INTO THE VISIBLE
Lately I have been lullabying myself to sleep with erotic fantasies. Familiar vision: my psychiatrist, pinning me against his door, gold lotus print I recognize from the Met trembling next to us. Wall calendar shaking over his shoulder. As I pass into dreaming, the woman pushes me into a bathroom stall to show me the black bootlace dangling from my vagina. This is how they control you, she whispers, and presses the aglet’s silver tip with her manicured thumb. The Editor would delete all of this, protecting me from my propensity to humiliate myself. But I have a young man’s mind, deranged with desire.
Elisa Gonzalez is Puerto Rican, the oldest of eight children, and was raised in Ohio. She graduated with a B.A. in English literature from Yale University and is currently enrolled in New York University’s M.F.A. program in creative writing. She, predictably, now lives in Brooklyn.
Submissions to Broadside Thirty (poets under thirty years old may submit up to three poems, each under thirty lines) or any other categories on The Open Bar may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org with the category name in the subject line.
“People don’t notice whether it’s winter or summer when they’re happy.” Chekhov must’ve been happy when he wrote that. And why are we happy to keep pushing that boulder up the literary hill when we know that it is just going to roll back down and we’re going to have to start all over again? Because putting out issue after issue truly does make us happy. We believe that great writing is as essential to our well-being as bread and wine and a roaring fire. It is also an honor and a thrill. A thrill to be surprised time and again, even from work that comes from beyond the grave.
Frank Stanford, the gritty Arkansas poet nicknamed the “swamprat Rimbaud,” died nearly forty years ago, but recently a cache of unpublished gems surfaced and we’re delighted to share them with you. Then there is the family of Tin House writers we’ve long known and who never fail to dazzle us with their ability to show us the world anew.
In this issue Joy Williams channels the spiritualist Georges Gurdjieff visiting the Arizona childhood home of Susan Sontag and Ursula K. Le Guin leads us into a brutally unforgiving desert in her parable “The Jar of Water.” Any slings and arrows of outrageous submissions are worth it when you get to read new poetry from Dorothea Lasky and Richard Siken. And all of the toil and trouble gives way to the excitement of discovering new voices, herewith Madeline ffitch’s story “The Big Woman” and Julia Clare Tillinghast’s poems “And War” and “Nature.” As Tillinghast writes, “In the woods even the insects / Are moving jewels.”
That’s why we keep pushing that snowball up the hill, and why we will keep on keeping on. Throw another log on the fire and join us in forgetting whether it is winter or summer.
You can read excerpts from (and ORDER!) our Winter issue here.
The man of Small Island is dreaming of a wolf. The wolf has blue fur and green eyes, eyes unlike any the man has ever seen in waking life. The boy, really, because in the dream he is a boy again: eight years old, with skinny legs and short pants. Just the age he was when his brother went into the sea and never came back.
In his dream, the boy walks toward a big tree standing by itself in a clearing not far from the sea. On Small Island nothing is very far from the sea. The tree is an oak, one of the tallest on the island. The wind blows hard on Small Island most of the year, and not many trees grow to be tall. Above the boy’s head, oak leaves rustle in a light breeze. Everything else is quiet; no insects or birds are singing. It’s high summer, the time of afternoon when the sun stands still and everything hushes. Even the sea.
The boy walks to the spot where his brother is buried. Awake, he has never come to this place. He refused to come to the funeral, a tiny gathering that included only his mother, a few of her relatives and the pastor. His father stayed away, drunk for three days. His mother insisted on his brother being put into the earth here and not in the little cemetery, overgrown with stones, where all the other dead of Small Island are buried. He doesn’t know why she wanted this. Many things are mysterious to him—and nothing is more mysterious than whatever was between his mother and his brother.
His brother went into the sea and did not come back for three days. On the third day, the sea decided it had had his brother long enough and returned his body gently to a rocky beach not far from this oak. The boy is not sure he wants to see where his brother is buried, and he moves slowly but is unable to stop. He is small and thin, and with each step his boots weigh more. As he approaches the tree, he feels as if he is lifting the entire island with every step.
His brother’s stone is a small rectangle facing the sky between gnarled, polished roots. He moves toward it, helpless. In daylight he doesn’t feel this way. In daylight he is a man of Small Island, with a man’s tools, a man’s drink. But in the dream the flat stone seems magnetized, and he moves toward it step by step, with no will of his own. Extending from the stone is a patch of grass as long as a fourteen-year-old boy and darker than the grass around it.
He puts his left foot on the darker grass, and the wolf comes into view, long forelegs appearing first from behind the tree. The wolf’s coat is the blue of the sky. On his belly, legs and muzzle, the blue shades into white. His eyes are green: glowing and human, full of sorrow and knowledge. They look straight into the boy. At first he thinks the wolf means to eat him, and it takes every bit of his courage not to look away. He knows the wolf has something to tell him and that if he looks away, wolf and message will vanish forever.
In the daylight world, there are no wolves on Small Island: They were hunted away long ago. There are still wolves in some parts of the Mainland, and every child has seen them in picture books. While the boy stares, the wolf’s eyes soften, as if the beast has decided to spare this child. The wolf says nothing that ears can hear, but his eyes speak clearly, telling the boy what he must do.
The man wakes slowly under sheets heavy with sweat. He can’t tell whether he is hot or cold. He knows he is still sick, sicker than he has ever been before. People on Small Island don’t get sick often. When they do, it is usually just before they die. But mostly they die in other ways than from sickness. They drink themselves to death, fall through the ice into the sea, cut each other with knives on Saturday night in Harbortown. All of this they understand and take for granted. But they don’t know much about being sick.
The man doesn’t know how to do it or what it requires of him. He looks to the woman sitting on the edge of the bed, which is her bed, for a sign. She is small and dark, barely denting the mattress. Her palm takes some of the heat from his forehead.
“Have I been sleeping long?”
“A little while.” To tell him the truth about how long he has been in and out of waking would frighten her. She reaches a towel into a basin of water, twists the water out, folds the towel and presses it to his forehead. He lies back and closes his eyes.
He has been in her house above Harbortown for two weeks with a bad fever. She has been changing the sheets, bathing his forehead with the towel dipped in water, wringing a few drops into his mouth, trying to see that he doesn’t burn up.
“How did I get here?”
It is the first time he has slept in her house. In the time they have been together, he has met her at her door, walked away with her through the snow in winter, over the wet earth in spring, the grass in summer, but until now he has never been in her house more than a few minutes at a time. The sheets are scratchy. He has a fever. He knows what fever is, as the children of Small Island know what a wolf is without ever having seen one except in books. But he doesn’t know what to do about it. In his world, there is a tool for every job. For sickness, he has no tools.
“Don’t worry about how you got here.” She wrings the towel out into the basin and presses it to his forehead. His face is narrow, his eyes a brown so dark it is almost black. His mustache droops over his mouth, gold sprinkled through the brown. There is dark stubble on his cheeks. Usually he is cleanshaven, except for the mustache. By Small Island standards he is a tidy man, though frequently drunk, sometimes for weeks at a time. On Small Island, this is not worthy of notice or comment.
She brought him to her house in a wheelbarrow, the one that usually stands outside his shed. He was in no shape to walk. When he hadn’t come to see her for three weeks, she was frightened. She knew he had been drinking. When he is drinking, he doesn’t come to see her for days, and she knows he will be in one of the bars in Harbortown. But they’ve been growing closer recently—at least she feels they have—and three weeks is too long for him to give no sign. Ignoring her shame, she asked after him in town, but no one had seen him.
She walked up to his shed, standing in a grove of maples away from other houses. He was sweating and delirious, lying on the floor. He didn’t recognize her, pushed her away when she reached for him. His wheelbarrow was outside the shed under a tarp, his hoe, axe and shovel piled in it. She took the tools out, went inside and took him under the arms. She has no idea how she got him into the wheelbarrow.
She wheeled him out under the leafless maples and over the packed snow to her house, his arms and legs dangling. The snow squeaked under her boots and the barrow’s wooden wheel. It took hours to get him to her house and walk and carry him up the narrow stairs to her bed. For the two weeks since, she has slept in the next room with her daughter, sleeping lightly, waking at every sound.
“Was I drinking?”
“Yes. But that’s not it. It’s fever. I brought you here to get better.”
What she does not say is: I was afraid you would die.
He looks at her, not knowing what to think. His dark eyes glow above purple half-moons. With his head against the pillow, the bald spot at the back of his head isn’t visible. Under the stubble he is paler and thinner than when he’s healthy, and there’s a red spot on each cheek. The way he looks tears at something inside her.
Waking this way, helpless in her bed, he feels suspicious. Suspicious of her and also grateful to her—not an easy combination. She reaches to touch his shoulder above the bedclothes. His body is hot. She knows the fever is not finished with him. And she is reaching the limit of her powers. She is tired, all the way to the bone. She thinks of calling the doctor, then puts that thought away.
He hears a soft noise and turns his head, his neck painful. The girl is in the doorway. In her build she resembles the woman: small, tightly knit, strong. But where the woman has dark hair and eyes, the girl has thick blond hair and blue eyes. The girl watches him in bed, making him feel weak, exposed. He has spent little time with the girl, and not all of it has been easy.
“Is he going to die?”
“Of course not.” The woman is off the bed, sweeping the girl up, moving her into the other room, tucking her back in bed. Hushed words pass between them, protests, then murmured agreement.
It has been ten years since Richard Siken’s first collection Crush was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Since its release, I have turned to Crush many times to take pleasure in the images and voices that populate its poems. Pleased to discover that Copper Canyon Press will soon release his second book War of the Foxes, I invited Mr. Siken to correspond with me through email to discuss this long-anticipated collection. The poet’s resistance to answering certain questions—and his generosity in responding to others—reveals a deep respect for his art, which I am grateful that he shared with me.
[Ed. Note-You can read two of Richard's poems in the latest issue of Tin House]
Peter Mishler: In your new collection of poems War of the Foxes there are lines that express concern about art’s ability to represent reality. This is your first collection in ten years. Do these questions of representation have anything to do with the significant length of time between books?
Richard Siken: Even before I could attempt to address my concerns about the problems of representation, I had to come to terms with the ramifications of having already made something. After Crush was published, many people accused me of contaminating their bookshelf or bedside table with my melancholy. You never make me happy, but you can always make me sad, they said. I hadn’t anticipated this response and I wondered about what kind of culpability I might have. I, personally, was being held responsible, rather than the work—which had the undertone of “poetry isn’t art” because they refused to, or were unable to, understand that I had made a thing. They didn’t see the thing, they only saw me.
Additionally, readers began to ask me if the poems were “true,” by which they meant, “Did they really happen?” which seemed both beside the point and also intrusive. I realized that if they thought poems were biographically accurate, then they could walk away, knowing I was just a sad little man. If, however, the poems were crafted and framed with intent, then they would be confronted with a piece of art. No longer able to simply pity me, these readers would have to take ownership of their feelings and reactions.
And even more additionally, poets use the materials of conversation for not-conversation, and this makes people angry and confused. So I had several immediate problems to solve before I would be ready to share new work. I needed to take myself out: I had to sidestep the premises of “you are the work” and “the work is true” while making the not-conversation of it all (lying and singing) worthwhile and engaging. That’s what took years, ten years, between books.
The first lines in the first poem of the new work insist that an artist can be faithful to the world or the representation of the world, and the speaker declares that he will be faithful to the paint and not the landscape. Later, in the same poem, the speaker says, “they see the field but not the varnish” to remind the reader, perhaps even redirect the reader, to the concern of the work: the varnish. Put simply, this is lying and singing. This is storytelling.
PM: I am impressed with a sense of conflict when reading these poems—do you have a sense of whom or what this conflict might be with?
RS: I don’t know what you’re asking. Or, if I do, I insist it’s the responsibility of the reader to deal with. All art has conflict. Explanation is easy and the truth is boring. What are you really asking?
PM: What do you find yourself writing against? Are there particular worldviews, principles, occurrences—aesthetic or otherwise—that you find yourself abraded by, or in conflict with, that lead you to start writing lines of poetry?
RS: I’m still not sure I understand what you mean by conflict. And when I don’t understand a concept, I’m usually so immersed in it that it’s invisible to me. In an early interview, right after Crush was published, I was asked why my aesthetic vision was so violent and grim. I answered, truly without guile or hostility, “What world do you live in? Because I want to live there.”
It seems to me that everything in the world is actively trying to kill everything else in the world, on every level, and always has. I think we live in a world of palpable abrasion. Microbiology is the study of conflicting entities; and Chemistry, Geology, Thermodynamics, History, Anthropology, and Literature are as well. I guess poetry seemed like an arena where I could investigate these abrasions.
PM: Could you describe your development as a poet, pre-Crush, pre-War of the Foxes?
RS: I started keeping a journal in high school. I didn’t write anything interesting before reading dozens and dozens of books. My development as a poet increased at the pace with which I read. School helped, peers helped, working with literary journals helped, but if I ever feel disengaged, I read. I’ve also noticed that I feel discouraged when I only read work I love. When I read work I hate, I get motivated to make something in opposition to it. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the “conflict” question you asked.
PM: Did you have any early experiences with poetry that have informed or shaped your work in significant ways?
RS: I loved it when I first discovered work that had concerns other than plot. Gertrude Stein and Thomas Pynchon rattled me. Attention to language was important, they assured. It was electrifying.
PM: You are also a painter. What has painting taught you about making poems?
RS: After I wrote Crush, I had nothing left to say. I went back to painting. I opened the tubes and looked at the colors, pushed them around. Not much happened, not for a long while. Eventually, I began making things that were worth keeping, that evoked. I realized the hand could say what the voice could not. That helped inform the new work.
PM: Can you elaborate?
RS: I made paintings and then wrote about making paintings. The elaboration is the book.
From our 2010 Winter Reading issue (#46), Dan Chaon’s To Psychic Underworld.
Critter was standing outside the public library with his one-year-old daughter in his arms when he saw a dollar bill on the sidewalk.
It came fluttering by, right next to his tennis shoe, carried by the wind along with a leaf.
He hesitated for a moment. Should he pick it up? He adjusted Hazel’s weight. She was straddled against his hip and watched with silent interest as he bent down and snagged it.
He’d had the feeling that it wouldn’t be just a normal dollar and he was right. There was writing on it. Someone had written along the margins of the bill in black ink, in a clear deliberate handwriting that he guessed might be a young woman’s. “I love you I miss you I love you I send this out to you I love you please come back to me I will wait for you always I—”
This written all around the edges of the bill, and he was standing there studying it when his sister, Joni, came down the steps of the library toward them. He had come to pick her up. That was one of the conditions of his current circumstance. He used Joni’s car during the day so long as he was there at the library to pick her up from work.
“Hello, soldiers,” Joni said brightly. “How goes the war?”
“Mm,” Critter said, and Hazel stared at Joni sternly.
“And what have we here?” Joni said, indicating the dollar bill he was still clutching between his fingers. “A little offering for your dearest sister, perhaps?”
She took the love-dollar from him and looked it over. He watched as she read the writing on it, one eyebrow arching. “Ye Gods!” she said.
“I just found it,” Critter said. “Just right here on the sidewalk.”
Their eyes met. She was still his older sister, though she was also a tiny librarian woman with short hair and a pointy face, and he was an unemployed Sasquatch of a man a foot and a half taller than she.
She handed the dollar back to him. “Yikes,” she said. “Geez, Critter, you’re quite the magnet for freaky notes lately, aren’t you?”
He was, yes. A magnet, he thought, as they drove back to Joni’s house. That was one way to look at it.
He’d found the first note a few weeks after his wife’s funeral, on the sidewalk not far from his apartment. It was written in spiky block letters on an index card:
OTHERS (ANIMALS TOO).
ANIMALS ARE NOT
MADE OF HATE.
CEASE AND DESIST.
I take my truck to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. It’s a 2000 Toyota 4Runner, a big battered muscular machine that’s served me well in Colorado. I’m not a terribly mechanical person. I marvel at the complex innards of the engine when the hood is up, but I don’t have much interest in learning how to change my own oil or diagnose worrisome noises myself. So I am always somewhat at the mercy of car mechanics, and can only try to gauge their honesty and character.
In the Jiffy Lube garage I am standing with one of the employees at the computer where they chart your various fluid levels, your front and rear differentials and so forth. The computer screen is stationed alongside the open maw of my truck, and I’m admiring the tough, dusty elegance of my loyal 4Runner’s motor when I happen to peer down into the hollow compartment which houses the air filter they’ve just removed. Something tiny and pink is moving around in there. I step closer and see a ball of fluffy nest material in the air filter compartment, a mix of laundry lint and leaves. Half a dozen baby mice—hairless, blind, helpless on their backs—are squirming on the hot plastic bottom of the box.
Soon all the guys in the garage are peeking down into this miracle. They are tattooed and Latino and, to my relief, find the baby mice adorable and heartbreaking and have no intention of wantonly destroying them. “Aw man, so cute,” one says.
Then the mother mouse appears, silver-brown and quick; she grabs one of the babies in her mouth and disappears into some pipe leading off the compartment. We all cry out in unison, as if reacting to a clever interception in a football game.
It is decided to remove the nest material, and as the mechanic is delicately extracting the wad a hidden baby mouse falls onto the plastic lip of the compartment’s top, limbs kicking, eyes sheathed in blue skin. I put out a finger to stop it from falling off the edge into the engine, and am startled at its fragility, so soft and weak it has no weight, it barely feels there. I can’t even pick it up between my fingertip and thumb for fear of pulling it apart. I slide it onto a sheet of paper and return it to the litter.
The mechanic forms a plan—he’ll attend to the oil first and wait for the mother mouse to collect all her young, as she seems to be doing. Already she has snatched up two more and vanished into the labyrinth of my vehicle which she seems to know like a maze runner. One by one she will relocate her family—birthed in the amazingly protective air filter chamber, which until now was sealed and mostly filled with the fuzzy white air filter, itself—to some other unknown mouse-sized niche, away from the slowly probing human giants. Once the mother has collected the lot of them, the mechanic will reinsert a clean air filter.
Foolishly—or serendipitously—I did not see the operation through; instead I ran an errand nearby. When I returned I was told the plan had succeeded, and the mother had come back for them all. This meant, of course, that the family was now either nestled somewhere else in the engine, exposed to god-knows-what when the truck started—or that they had abandoned the truck altogether. But we couldn’t dismantle the whole motor to find out. I had no choice but to assume they were safe, and drive home.
Mice are recurring characters in my life. My roommate and I rent a rustic drafty wooden house on a horse ranch a few miles north of Boulder, in a grassy valley of the foothills. A small family of field mice has their run of the place; several generations of the lineage have grown from bald sucklings to adults over the year of our cohabitation. They hide by day and scamper like racing cars over the carpet and counters by night, usually two of them at a time—mates or siblings. They nibble into whatever they can, and leave their tiny black rice-like pellets behind in the oddest places, inside frying pans or shallow cups in the cabinet. It sounds disgusting, I’m aware, but really the droppings are easy to clean and the mice are extremely cute. Neat and brown with huge black eyes, agile and precise, skirting the walls but sometimes making a bold dash across the open floor. Sometimes they’ll lose their traction on the kitchen tile and skid like cars on ice, careening into a table leg or a cast-off sock. My roommate and I have this pipsqueak falsetto voice we give to our little invaders as we mimic their defiance of our rule—jauntily telling us to go fuck ourselves and calling us “pussies.” In these scenarios we are the over-tolerant, beaten-down parents: “Come on, guys, really? In the Scotch glass?”
I know about mousetraps. I’ve seen the aftermath over the years. The sharp snap in the night, the disjointed bloody body in the morning. Or far worse, the odious glue trap, snaring the wretched rodent by the paws and tail and making it shit like a machine gun and clatter over the floor and shriek in terror when you come to investigate. When you use a glue trap you have to perform a coup de grace on the poor mouse, clomping frantically across the floor in futile escape.
Every now and then in our ranch house, one of our mice will die of “natural” causes, occupational hazards. One got crushed in the mudroom by the heavy hiking boots strewn about. Another fell into the tall garbage can while we were away for a few days; there was no bag in the can and the poor thing clawed and smashed itself to a pulp against the walls of the plastic oubliette. When a death occurs, there is a brief cessation of nocturnal activity, and my roommate and I will jokingly take credit for the elimination and mimic the bereaved cowed falsettos of the mice: “They got Louie! These guys aren’t fucking around anymore!” But soon enough the nightly circus begins again.
Most people would call the exterminator. “I mean, they’re vermin,” said Tom, the ruddy jovial maintenance man for the property, when I asked him about the problem. Vermin is an ugly word. We reserve it for the animals we regard as dirty, inconvenient, serving no immediate purpose. Mice are quite clean, however, far more fastidious than the large slobbering shedding dogs people keep in their homes. And mice do serve humans a purpose. It’s a noble and horrible service that we do not like to consider.
My younger brother Andrew is a scientist, working through the PhD portion of his MD-PhD in a prestigious lab studying Regulatory T cells which modulate the immune system and help prevent autoimmune disease. He conducts his research on mice, as do thousands of scientists around the world. Mice are particularly conducive to disease research. They have essentially the same organs and cell types as humans, and the genes and proteins are conserved between our two species, meaning that the processes by which we develop diseases are often similar. Mice are small and storable in great numbers, and they mature and breed with rapidity; generations can be bred and studied within months. And the genes of mice are also, interestingly, easy to manipulate; it’s easier to insert or to “knock out” a particular gene in a mouse than in a rat.
The rabbit lives in a suitcase in my husband’s closet and rarely sees the light. She’s grey with pink ears and her best friend is a stuffed bear that used to belong to my father and also now lives in the suitcase. I’ve sewn both of them back together several times. The bear is missing his mouth and nose. The rabbit’s fur is coarse and stained. Each winter, I open the suitcase to take out our coats and the two come tumbling out together in a ball of familiar must.
I used to buy books for the children’s section of a bookstore and my biggest love was for picture books. I watched hundreds enter and leave the section but my favorite remained The Velveteen Rabbit. Among the children’s books shelved next to our bed is the abridged Golden Book edition my parents read to me when I was young. Recently, I pulled it out and read it to my husband. I could call many passages my favorite, but one strikes me with each reading.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints, and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
The rabbit was an unusual gift from my grandmother. She’s a loving woman but not sentimental, and most of the gifts she’s given me over the years have been jewelry or clothing we picked out together at Nordstrom. Though I was getting to be too old for this, I began sleeping with the rabbit every night, and eventually, her soft fur wore down and became patchy, and her body flattened, and her white face grew yellow.
My grandmother has lived near my parents in Florida since my grandfather’s death. My aunts and uncles and cousin flew in for Thanksgiving, and at the end of the night, my husband and I drove my grandmother back to her independent living facility. She occupies an apartment in a building with 200 other people after 65 years of living alone with my grandfather, in their home in Cleveland.
The space was cluttered, though a woman comes once a week to clean it. Papers sat stacked atop the kitchen counter next to an open bag of individually wrapped Ghirardelli chocolates and two large, potted orchids. Gift bags were lined up in a cardboard box on the sofa, each containing pieces of costume jewelry she’d bought as Hanukkah presents from a vendor who made rounds in the retirement facility. Entering, I asked my grandmother if she needed us to help with anything, but – as so often happens nowadays – she didn’t answer. Instead, she led us into her bedroom, where my grandfather’s engagement photograph hangs next to hers.
“He looked like a movie star,” she said.
“He was a very handsome man,” I said honestly. I reminded her of a conversation we’d had when my grandfather was still living. I’d called to wish them a happy anniversary, and asked my grandmother how she managed to make a relationship work for almost sixty years when I couldn’t even make one last six months.
“You said he was cute,” I said.
“He was. Then he went and died on me.”
It upsets my husband when I tell him I know what he’ll look like when he’s old. I know the bones of his face so intimately, it’s easy to imagine how his skin will hang around them. His cheeks will hollow; he’s already thin. The lines around his mouth will grow more defined. Folds will deepen across his forehead – worry lines. His eyes will still be bright and curious.
We often acknowledge how lucky we are to have met at a young age. Neither of us are in the best shape, but we’re limber and energetic, can stay up late and make love for hours, and have the privilege of enjoying bodies that don’t yet know cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or any of the myriad scourges that rob people of their vivacity.
While my grandfather was dying, my grandmother would rage against the cancer eating away at invisible places inside him that she couldn’t heal. In his final days, while he lay on a Hospice bed in their living room barely conscious, she suggested we try to get him up and walk him around. It was inconceivable to her that he’d never again be the man who approached her at the Valentine’s Day dance in 1946.
It upsets my husband when I bother him about smoking. I tell him how frightened I am of someday not hearing him breathe while he sleeps. I tell him how painful it will be to struggle to inhale, how it will be even more painful to exhale. I tell him I worry he’ll suffer intensely and I’ll have watch him. Though I know it’s inevitable, I worry about our children suffering the excruciating truth that their father can die. Even before I know them, I want to shield them from this pain.
I worry this will happen before we’ve enjoyed the best years of our lives, that they’ll be stolen from us.
When I was a child, it seemed the Boy’s scarlet fever sat someplace outside the Rabbit’s story, that the fever had little to do with the Rabbit. Now I know that it wasn’t for the Boy that the Rabbit stayed with him. It was also for the Rabbit.
I stand in the doorway of the Bibliothèque Nationale reading room, the soaring sanctum before me, above me the ceiling a grandeur of opaque glass wreathed with names of great cities: Alexandria, Athens, London, Babylon, Jerusalem, Byzantium, Peking. I’m here in search of Rainer Maria Rilke. Strapped for cash, unschooled, twenty-seven years old and devoid of curricula vitae save years of ardent reading, I’ve already spent an absurd, obsessive half-decade writing a novel about him. It’s grown to more than one-hundred-fifty-thousand words. I hope to complete it in Paris.
The roundness of this room suggests a vast egg enclosing the world’s knowledge. I want to swim forth through the bluish light, amid the desks and along the curving walls shelved four stories high with books, but the clerk at the entry explains that I cannot come in. I lack the proper license: the coveted carte de bibliothèque. Malte, the main character in Rilke’s single novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), cherishes the card permitting him entrance to this room — not only for the learning the card allows him, but because the card puts an honorable seal on his otherwise dissolute life. A young scion of erstwhile aristocrats in Denmark, Malte has fled the land of his ancestry to fin de siècle Paris where he will live as a poet — or die a nobody, as his notebooks’ agitated first words suggest: “So, people do come here to live. I would have sooner thought that this is where one dies.” Malte’s health is failing him. Destitute, squalidly housed in the Latin Quarter, he fears he’s becoming indistinguishable from his neighbors: the sick, the desperate, the mad. His library card saves him, temporarily at least, from the spiritual degradation shown in those impoverished “husks of humanity” who ambulate the grim cobbled warrens around his apartment. “It is possible that one day it may occur to them to come as far as my room,” writes Malte while sitting in the hush of this salle de reference.
They certainly know where I live, and they will take care that the concierge does not stop them. But here, my dears, here I am safe from you. One must have a special card in order to get into this room. In this card I have the advantage of you … I am among these books, and then taken away from you as though I had died, and sit and read a poet.
Discontent to stand in the doorway, I decide I must get a card of my own. Fumbling through the necessary questions in my quasi French, I’m referred to one attendant after another. Finally, at the Accueil, an English-speaking clerk directs me across the library’s palatial foyer to the enclosed area marked “Orientation des Lecteurs.” Bureaucracy-phobes acquire nightmares here.
Wound up and out of sorts, I breach the shrine and install myself in a chair before a librarian’s desk, babbling. Gatekeepers make me nervous. And now I’m much too aware, in my tongue-tied foreignness, in my pullover and backpack and scuffed sneakers, that I cut the figure of a failed pretender, a would-be tourist-cum-scholar. Worse, I give the impression, despite myself, of knowing my own charade, knowing I cannot claim legitimate candidacy for the access I seek. The library wardens — officious, serious, and thoroughly French in their skeptical decorum — reduce me with every sidelong glance. They won’t grant a card to just anybody. As my stuttering interview concludes, I’m instructed to return with passport and proof official of my status as an author; e.g., a published book. I will thereafter be informed of materials in the library relevant to my research.
Rattled, I exit the marbled lobby, cross the cobbled courtyard to the ravine-like rue de Richelieu, and start back toward my cramped studio apartment on the Left Bank. As I walk I pocket my clammy hands and replay the interview. Did I call myself un écrivain or romancier? Which was more correct considering my motive? I know I said recherche — that was a kind of lie. But how can I explain that I’ve got nothing to research, at least not in the manner they mean? How explain that I simply wish to sit and work in that reading room, that the spirit of the room itself is what I’m after?
A Vespa skirls past, the rider’s shadow splayed like the covers of an open book, half on sidewalk half on stone wall. The green dome of the Ópera swells beyond the buildings ahead, the sun shafting low along its bulge. The river, when I cross the Pont du Carrousel, will be a blinding glare. I’m not sure whether I’ll follow through on today’s attempt. I do have a published book, but for some reason I demur to brandish it like a business card. “Merci, mais non,” they could say, dismissing book and boy with a wave of the hand.
Arriving here in his disturbed autumn of 1902, applying to the library wardens behind their imposing desks, twenty-six-year-old Rilke himself probably worried they’d deem him ineligible. He’d likely rehearsed the process in his head, working out the French phrases (he was far from fluent yet). He would explain that he meant to do research about their great sculptor Rodin — this was true, he was writing a monograph, a commission for which he’d left his wife and small daughter at home in the north of Germany. But he probably felt the stony dusk of the foyer reducing him, and he knew he lacked the brio of a credible academic. Thank God, then, that his publisher supplied him a letter. This letter would render his intentions official, it would work like ersatz confidence, he could brandish it and let it be his brio.
How would Rilke have comported himself in the absence of a letter? It’s important, from this obscure future, to wonder such things. I was intimidated, to be sure. But as Rilke’s own work attests — as Malte demonstrates — a sufficient sense of helplessness can return one powerfully to one’s beginnings, and for an artist this is proper. Exposed and vulnerable, one avoids a numbing insularity. One senses the world anew. If the library personnel have sensitized me to my status as an unapproved, unaffiliated outsider, they’ve done me a peculiar service. A few words from Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne ring in my head, a fine affirmation for just such a moment: “One has to be able at every moment to place one’s hand on the earth like the first human being.”
Rainer Maria Rilke strove unceasingly to wrest poetic creation from experience, “to see in everything I encounter a challenge, a task, a claim to artistic transformation.” That was his drastic lifelong vow, made early on and relentlessly fulfilled, so that this everything included even Rilke’s final experience, his death. In Switzerland in 1926, as his last bleak hours steepened with pain, he barred his door and refused all visitors. Not even his wife Clara was admitted, for Rilke had pledged himself to this, if death was what it was; he would embrace it without intermediary. He was fifty-one. For weeks he’d writhed with what his physician would call leukemia, but Rilke allowed no one to tell him the name of the disease undoing him. In striving to confront his fate, to create by unmediated perception that last experience, he refused all medicine. If it was torment, it would be his own — not the doctor’s, not the disease’s. Unnamed, pure, and purely awful, it would be his death, a thing achieved, a thing as suited to him as his birth and no less singular. What else, as Rilke saw it, could being a poet mean? What, but to begin and begin, to remain endangered, to embrace one’s honorable obscurity and accept its absence of reward, to reconcile oneself to life’s mortal loneliness, to nurture one’s vision in that solitude and sing? Art, as Rilke wrote to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus in July of 1903, “means loving one’s solitude and bearing its pain by making beautiful sounds of one’s complaint.”
“Young person anywhere, in whom something is rising up that causes you to shiver,” says Malte Laurids Brigge, “make use of the fact that no one knows you. … Beg no one to speak of you, not even contemptuously.” Though the protagonist pens them, these words belong as rightly to the author himself. One of the great self-chroniclers of all time, Rilke dispatched more than eleven thousand letters over the course of thirty-five footloose years. This correspondence rehearses the story of his life, stringing the narrative onto an armature of a few key episodes, obsessively testifying to their importance. They include: Rilke’s mother rearing him as a girl following the death of an infant daughter prior to his birth; that mother’s inculcation of a superstitious spirituality in the boy, accounting for the poet’s lifelong sensitivity to ghosts and the sub harmonic vibrations of the paranormal; a young and sickly René Maria (as the pious mother christened him) suffering five miserable years of military boarding school; the poet’s artistic coming-of-age under the influence of Lou Andreas-Salomé (lover, Madonna, muse); the poet’s reverence before his Master, Auguste Rodin, who became idol and surrogate father in one. From unpromising beginnings through his ongoing tribulations of homelessness and alienation, adoration and heartbreak, his incapacity to be loved, his brushes with incandescent beauty, the letters chronicle everything important to the poet, all experienced in the name of art. Rilke presented to the world the persona of the unadulterated artist committed wholly and exclusively, at every living hour, to his work — and committed no less to that work’s frequent lacunae in which, semi-religiously, he strove to “be inactive with confidence.” As he wrote to an aggrieved Clara in 1906, amid years of separation for the sake of this work, “I am absolutely determined to miss none of these voices which are to come. I want to hear each one.”
Teddy has been sitting on the same brown sofa in the family room for over ten years, staring at Rita’s photograph across from him. There’s a faraway look in his droopy eyes, and from the way he stares at my wife’s photograph, I can tell he is trying to say something, but can’t get the words out. After Rita passed on, I laid him down on the sofa. He has been there ever since.
Teddy is a chubby little stuffed bear. Sepia brown in complexion, he measures about a foot and a half. He came to Rita soon after her surgery as a gift from Millie, our only daughter, and stayed with her for two years until she said her last goodbye.
“Call me after the surgery,” Millie had said when I phoned her the day before to give her the bleak results of her mom’s colonoscopy.
I did. Waves of sobs followed the news of the presence of malignancy. She took the earliest flight to Austin. As soon as we got home, she rushed upstairs where Rita was resting. After a long hugging and crying, she gave Rita the stuffed bear. Despite the sudden upheaval in her life, she had not forgotten her mom’s love for stuffed animals.
Rita never parted with Teddy until the day she left. He was her constant companion. I often wonder if Rita ever spoke to Teddy when they were alone. Perhaps she asked him questions she couldn’t ask anyone else. Perhaps his answers gave her the strength and the will to carry on her fight. When he was not lying next to her, she would hold him close to her chest, or sit him up on her lap and mumble sweet baby talk to him as they watched TV together. She carried him in the crook of her arm like a baby wherever she went.
I did not let go of Teddy after Rita left us. I wanted to hang on to him as my bridge to her memory.
“I think we should dress him up in a fancy outfit,” I had told Rita soon after Teddy came into her life.
At first Rita thought I was being funny and laughed at the idea.
One day we went out in search of an outfit for Teddy and found a shop that had hundreds of fancy dresses for stuffed animals. Rita picked up a beautiful blue satin outfit.
“Do you think it will look nice on Teddy?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.”
She put the outfit on Teddy when we got home. Her face glowed with affection as she held him up and looked at him. She clasped on to him for the longest time as she carried him around and showered him with hugs and kisses.
“Doesn’t he look cute?” she said.
That outfit has been on Teddy ever since. I’ve often thought about adorning him with a new one, but every time I thought about doing so, I’ve been held back by a desire to keep him just the way Rita had left him.
On Friday evenings when I get home from work, I sit across from him, ready to pickle my brain. He engages me in a voiceless conversation, keeping me company in the silence of my lonely sanctuary. For a while, I’m quite cognizant of his presence until I reach the moment of euphoria and begin to float in the Pink Clouds. Gradually I reach a point when my world is filled with disembodied figures engrossed in hushed confab. I’m no longer alone. Teddy has helped me get there.
On some of these evenings, when I can inspire myself to practice music, he’s the only one in my audience, listening in rapt attention to whatever melodies I can belt out. “Keep yourself occupied with music,” Rita had said more than once when she realized she wouldn’t make it through her battle. As my baritone voice reverberates in the melancholy rendition of timeless songs, I see in Teddy’s glassy eyes his pain of lost companionship. I pick him up and mourn with him our mutual unspoken grief. I feel a lump rising in my throat and can hardly breathe.
What will happen to Teddy when I get my own clarion call? Will someone adopt him as a bridge to my memory, or will he be tossed away with the clutter of this house?
I wish Teddy an eternal life. I would like him to be the bridge between generations, a wellspring of strength, a crutch to lean on through cycles of birth and death. Maybe someday, in the dead of night when the rains come down hard against the windows and the winds screech and whistle through the trees, Teddy, from his permanent perch on a brown sofa in someone else’s lonely sanctuary, will finally let out a cry of anguish, pleading that his failures were not his own doing, but the will of some unseen forces to whose rhythms we all dance.
Shiv Dutta’s essays have appeared in River & South Review, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hippocampus Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Epiphany, The Evergreen Review, Silk Road Review, Front Porch, and other journals. He has also produced many technical papers and co-authored two technical books. One of his personal essays was nominated for Pushcart Prize. He lives in Round Rock, Texas.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
Next on the dock, Justin Hocking.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Justin Hocking: Sophomore year at the University of Colorado, over twenty years ago. I studied psychology, but my first writing workshop felt much more important and consequential than Behavioral Neuroscience or Statistics. I wrote a poem, in ALL CAPS, about the Buick I drove at the time. The title of the piece was, unsurprisingly, “MY BIG ASS BUICK.” During workshop, the instructor said the the piece had “pizazz.” I savored his words for days afterward—my poetry has pizazz! It’s all a little embarrassing to think of now. But it was the only class where my own life seemed to matter, beyond my ability to memorize facts and fill out scantron tests. It taught me the importance of meeting students where they’re at, giving gentle encouragement, and staying open to every writer’s creative potential.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
JH: I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Barry Lopez. He entered the classroom and immediately began futzing with the computer monitor connected to the overhead projector. We thought he was getting his Powerpoint ready, but in fact he was removing the entire computer from the classroom. He just carried it out into the hall and left it there. It was his way of meeting us on an authentic, human level, without the ever-present distraction of technology. He also wanted us, as writers, to bust out of the one-dimensional mindset that so often sets in when we stare at a computer screen for hours on end. I’m also consistently blown away by Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing and unconventional teaching methods. I once heard her tell a group of young writers not to worry so much about genre boundaries or labels when you’re drafting, to instead just let the language and images and stories pour out of you onto the page, without inhibition, like water. That’s some of the best and boldest advice I’ve heard.
TH: Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
JH: My roommate in graduate school had an unusual writing practice. It began in the late afternoon, when he spent an hour or so online, pricing out the best champagne for under $20. Later, he’d come home from the liquor store with two bottles of bubbly in his knapsack. Over the course of the evening and well into the night, he drank all the champagne and typed up short stories that were part Hunter S. Thompson, part Dudley Moore. They made for some strange workshops, indeed.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
JH: I’m a fan of Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola—lots of solid advice re: drafting, revising and publishing creative nonfiction. It also contains one of my favorite craft essays of all time: “A Braided Heart” by Brenda Miller. In it, the author recalls the revelation of discovering lyric essayists like Albert Goldbarth, who braid in multiple narrative threads, themes, images, etc. into single works. The concept of braiding sparked a major breakthrough for Miller—her essays began diving into more deeply personal material, while simultaneously expanding farther outward, weaving in news of the wider world. Miller relates all of this via a brilliant craft essay that is itself braided with multiple sections about the collage artist Joseph Cornell, French braids, and even recipes for challah bread.
Justin Hocking served as Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center from 2006 to mid-2014. His his work has appeared in the Rumpus, Orion, Thrasher, The Normal School, the Portland Review, Portland Noir, Poets and Writers, and elsewhere. His memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014. Wonderworld was a Barnes and Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers’ 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing and teaching. He is a cofounder, with A.M. O’Malley, of the yearlong Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and also teaches in the Wilderness Writing MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.
My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta. Powdered and encapsulated for my Yuki—two, three, four or more a day depending on my level of sadness and how much I believed the vitamins and hormones within the tissue would make me whole again. Pan fried and stuffed into dumplings for Toru. A smoothie and two yakitori for Keiko. But my doctor remains silent this morning, collapses into the deepest bow, and offers the plastic container as I get situated in a wheelchair. Somewhere in the building Ayu’s tiny body, caught in the strained expression of her first and last cry, rests in drawer, waiting for someone to fetch her.
When we get home from the hospital, I put the placenta in the freezer. Recipes and tips for preparation cover the fridge. The children, young as they are, know enough to keep their distance, to remain silent, and move slowly through the house like ghosts. I hear their footsteps outside my door. I hear my husband whispering to them. I flip through a legal pad in bed covered with notes about ancient Chinese methods for dehydrating the placenta—Zi He Che—(steamed with ginger to shrink the organ before heating in the stove), variations of herbal blends for tea. My husband has created a fort of pillows and blankets around me. He says:
“We don’t have to do it this time—just because we have it.”
“We should do it because we have it,” I say. I write down daal and naan. I write cumin and cardamom. But I’m not sure if I want to do Indian. “I need to do something.”
Despite being regarded as unusual, eating the placenta (placentophagy), can help women restore hormonal balance after labor and provide much needed vitamins and nutrients: Iron, B6, B12, Estrogen, Progesterone. Before I had Yuki, I was determined to do everything possible to ensure that I would be okay, that motherhood would not leave me. Most mammals in the animal kingdom eat their placenta to solidify the bond with their offspring, to ease pain, and encourage lactation. Ingesting what has given life in order to connect to life and ensure survival. I once watched a lioness in a documentary lap at her placenta, licking it clean of blood before consuming it in a couple of bites. I admired the instinct, envied it.
The Baganda of Uganda believe the placenta is a spirit double and plant the organ beneath a fruit tree. When the fruit is ripe, the family has a big feast after which the parents make love, delivering the copy of their child’s spirit into the mother. In Iceland, the placenta is called fylgia, which means guardian angel. Placed beneath the floor of the mother’s bed, the guardian angel would be protected and grow into an ox, a bear, a wolf, or whatever guide best suited a child. These traditions brought me comfort with my other children. But I am not a lioness. We do not have a yard or a tree to plant (and I cannot wait). And if there was a guardian angel somewhere inside the purple membrane inside our freezer, a cub, a wolf pup, an eaglet, she failed to do her job.
Later, in the kitchen, my husband stands behind me as I slice my placenta into jerky-like strips, running my fingers over the thick tangle of veins that streamed life to my daughter for the past several months. I do not know what I am going to make, but I turn around and ask my husband to get the olive oil, as I take down our largest frying pan and turn on the stove.
I pick up a piece of placenta and instead of placing it on the pan, I hold it in my hand for a while, its cold, jellyfish-like consistency between my fingers—a leech, a sea slug, the flat worms my Yuki said he dissected in school that could duplicate itself if you cut it. I pour a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau for myself and my husband and pop a slice in my mouth, barely chewing, letting it slide down my throat. My husband stares at me, his mouth agape. I grab two more slices and give him one. He examines it, sniffs it. I hold his free hand and tell him, “On three.” And we swallow. And we sit across from each other at our dining table with the tray of placenta between us. And we will stay there until everything that connected me to my daughter, all that allowed her to be for the span of a breath, is taken back from the world and absorbed inside us.
Sequoia Nagamatu‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Conjunctions, West Branch Wired, Redivider, Puerto Del Sol, Bat City Review, and The Fairy Tale Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and a visiting assistant professor at The College of Idaho.