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I teach the geology class that you go to in your dreams. I have never graded an assignment, scored a midterm. No one shows up until the day of the final exam. You must identify 3,827 types of rock indigenous to earth terrains and some space rock. That was our week five unit, which you missed. You need 3,827 correct answers plus the extra credit question in order to receive a passing grade in my course.
I’m not here to discuss the final. You should have come to my study sessions. You stare frantically at the paper as the questions rearrange themselves. The classroom is a large laboratory, all hard surfaces, and when your stool squeals under you, its echoes bounce in agony. You spy a familiar Greek root and try to bubble in the scantron, but your pencil turns into a flaccid worm. I warned about worm-pencils on the syllabus. Why didn’t you read it?
I wrote that syllabus in my apartment last winter, sitting cross-legged on my patched velvet couch, with my fawn-colored bulldog cuddled up beside me whining for supper. Cataracts wall her eyes like basalt, which you wouldn’t recognize. The sound of her breathing is a network of steam pipes. To you, I am an old crone or your seventh-grade crush or the large Mexican woman who failed you on the driver’s test. My dog, sightless, still sees me more clearly than you do. I’m not going to tell you her name. You wouldn’t care.
You watch the clock do its melty spiral dance. You drop your head down over your paper, anchoring it against the breeze of the classroom door that’s thrown open twice a minute by other panicked dreamers seeking calculus exams, semiotics finals. A girl walks in naked and shy, clutching a satchel over her vagina. You gaze at her breasts and move your mouth as though in prayer, hoping this will turn into another kind of dream altogether.
You cannot leave. You enrolled in this course. You will fail this test and it won’t be my fault. I am not an unkind woman but you have made it my job to watch you suffer.
While you whimper, I make notes on the index cards spread on the desk, revising my reading list for next semester. There’s a new translation of Volokhnrenik’s seminal text on marble-cutting, and I have ordered 28 copies into the bookstore. I read it in my breakfast nook while Topaz yelped for strips of maple-glazed bacon that I can’t feed her in good conscience because of the diabetes that has claimed her eyes. Next semester, twenty-eight copies of that textbook will be returned, spines uncracked, but the book is valuable and necessary.
You approach my desk with the test, all two hundred pages bound with industrial staples. “Can I just go to my car?” you ask. You have the wild panic look.
“Once the test has been administered, no one is allowed to leave. Are you done?”
You riffle through your pages. The text drifts like a reflection on an agitated pond. You have drawn pictures in the answer boxes, remarkably deft ink sketches of your dead uncle’s hands and face.
My grade report is already filled in: a column of F’s. In the Instructor Comments field for every student I have written the same note: You could have tried harder.
I didn’t mean to tell you the name of my dog before, Topaz. It’s the answer to the extra credit question. You won’t make it that far through the test packet.
Every semester I submit these grades, wondering how I have failed. In my long years teaching in this laboratory on the fifth floor of the labyrinthine school-castle with its erratically shifting classrooms, I have never lost my dangerous hope. In a few weeks, I will wait for a new crop of students on the first day of class, holding a stack of syllabi warm from the copier, and I will press my face to the pages as the dervish clock ticks its endless dance and one by one my students fail to arrive.
I will show up twice a week at my appointed hour, reading lectures off of my index cards, listening to the click of the projector slides, no louder than the clearing of a throat. Perhaps my voice will float under the crack of the door and these important facts about rocks will get learned.
For the week-five unit on space geology, I will bring in the moon rocks that I found in my husband’s bowling bag after he passed. He worked for NASA—accountant, not astronaut—and received these moon rocks as a secret santa gift the same Christmas he surprised me with Topaz. This anecdote is written neatly on an index card that I will read aloud at the end of a Thursday lecture, before assigning the homework.
I will stay late in week ten to offer the first of my four study sessions for the final. There’s no one at home to walk Topaz, so I will bring her to school with me. She and I will settle in the classroom to give our study session, me reading the gentle teacherly jokes off of my index cards and pausing for laughter where I have written myself notes to pause. During office hours, I will eat a small bag of dried raspberries. When the cellophane crinkles, Topaz will yip aggrievedly, running her cold slick nose up my calf. I wonder, some days, the sense in withholding these small treats from her. She has only a few months and I care for her so. I worry, at times, that in trying to protect her I am failing in my greater obligation, to ease her suffering.
Kat Lewin earned her MFA from UC Irvine, where she was a recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in PANK, Word Riot, Flaunt Magazine, and other publications. She is currently revising her first novel.
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.
Antiquarian booksellers are a breed of odd, voluble people who’d seem to make better extras in a film adaptation of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop than as the catalysts of anything remotely dangerous. High-end mysteries are generally dominated by the visual arts, wherein the instant recognizability of a Rembrandt or a Brueghel heralds all sorts of mayhem. But the Kelmscott edition of Chaucer’s works? Audubon’s Birds of North America? The unassuming first edition Dracula, in yellow cloth, identifiable as a true first simply by the exclusion of an advertisement? These are not the stuff of havoc. Art heists are all about convoluted plotting and usually are depicted in fiction as almost balletic in their pulling off. On the other hand, thievery in the antiquarian book trade requires only a slightly large overcoat. In real life, bibliomysteries are acts of unromantic solitude perpetrated by people like William Henry Ireland, an eighteenth century aper of Shakespeare, or of John Charles Gilkey, the subject of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, a contemporary bibliomaniac scattering rubber checks around the world. With a little bit more exoticism, there’s Harry Gold, who hired a bunch of Bowery thugs to steal an ultra-rare 1829 poetry collection by Edgar Allan Poe. Travis McDade’s Thieves of Book Row highlights Gold’s grand-scale renaissance of crookedness in the depression-era book trade. The first and only instance of biblio-crime altering the course of history, though, belongs to Onomacritus (530-480 BCE), a forger whose screwy divinations prompted Xerxes I to go to war against Greece. These examples are, however, exceptions to the common view of bookselling as a staid occupation.
In fiction however, bookishness has its own small niche of murder and violence. From nefarious bibliophagy in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, fabricated bookmen and bookwomen make up for their unadventurous non-fabricated colleagues. Possibly the first bibliomystery is an obscure 1840s pulp fiction called Clement Lorimer; or, The Book with the Iron Clasps, notable primarily for its illustrations by George Cruikshank, and which is, as far as I can tell, the only book to blend mind-altering drugs with horserace fixing. There’s the diabolism of The Club Dumas (reworked for film as The Ninth Gate, with Johnny Depp as the book scout tracking down a grimoire). The Big Sleep has a lengthy exchange between Marlowe and a bookseller on the flummoxing first edition states of Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur; while the 2004 thriller The Rule of Four is about an enigmatic tome by Aldus Manutius, the early printer who’s believed to have originated modern semi-colon usage and italic type. However, few biblio-centric mysteries showcase the actual purveyors themselves. Here are a half dozen that do.
The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley:
This is possibly the most charming novel about anything ever, let alone bookselling. (The title refers to “the ghosts of all great literature”found in the store, and isn’t an actual ghost story). Morley’s 1919 sequel to Parnassus on Wheels sees opinionated second-hand dealer Roger Mifflin embroiled in the affair of a vanishing and reappearing biography of Oliver Cromwell. Cheesy romance between an advertising salesman and the daughter of a businessman, serious commentary on the necessity of books, post-WWI intrigue—it’s all here. The Haunted Bookshop is as erudite as a trunkful of scholars, with some early-period Hitchcock suspense thrown in for good measure. An earnest rumination on the culture of literariness, it’s also as breezy and winsome as is humanly possible.
The Bookman’s Wake by John Dunning
Raymond Chandler meets Nicholas Basbanes in Dunning’s second title to feature detective-turned-bookman Cliff Janeway. Arguably the best of the series, this one has Janeway tracking down a rare limited copy of The Raven and Other Poems, printed at a fine press in North Bend, Washington and a bibliophile who’s been murdering people for decades to get it. Along the way he’ll tangle with some nasty book-hunting figures and tease out the enigma of Eleanor Rigby, the girl’s he’s been hired to find. The author, a renowned Denver bookman, has the interior knowledge of the trade, a mastery of tough-talking dialog and a knack for totally labyrinthine plotting. It all equates to a smart, Edgar Award-nominated entry in the world of hardboiled book dealing. You’ll learn a ton about remainder marks and first edition states, and feast on lines like this: “Bookscouting gives you the same kind of thrills as gambling. You flirt with the Lady in much the same way. You get hot and books won’t stop coming; you get cold and you might as well be playing pinochle with your mother-in-law”.
Death’s Autograph by Marianne McDonald
The somewhat inappropriately named “Dido Hoare, the world-famous soft-touch antiquarian book dealer”is the hero of McDonald’s series of bibliomysteries. It begins not innocuously enough when Dido is tailed and nearly killed on her way from an appraisal. Then her shop is ransacked and a bunch of shady bookmen become fixated on getting their hands on a scrap of forged Shakespeare ephemera, which may turn out to be not quite so forged. The aforementioned William Henry Ireland lingers on the periphery of this thriller, a man whose forgeries are today avidly collected in their own right and the subject of Doug Stewart’s The Boy Who Would be Shakespeare. McDonald’s debut grazes the philosophical nature of genuineness and fakery—of people and of books. The novel, however, focuses less on the London antiquarian trade and more on the thrills of disrupting it’s rarefied setting.
Like a Hole in the Head by Jen Banbury
A scarce first edition of The Cruise of the Snark is the centerpiece of Banbury’s frenetic bibliomystery starring equally frenetic bookseller Jill. Finding herself in perpetual harm while trying to locate a Jack London first edition that was sold to her and subsequently stolen back. She’ll find herself face-to-face with a giant thug named Joke Man, a host of oddballs, one jittery dwarf, and some “central casting rejects”. If that weren’t enough, she’ll end up being tortured and seduced, while keeping her sarcasm well-honed in the process. Beyond all the madcap eccentricities, Like a Hole in the Head looks at Jack London’s habit of signing his works with others’names and especially at the weirdos who’d go to all the trouble of caring. This is definitely the funniest, most spastic bibliomystery in the canon: madcap, uneven and filled with the eccentricities of the trade.
The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett
Peter Byerly, an antiquarian bookseller, is looking through a tome of forgeries when he comes across an illustration that resembles far too closely his dead wife, a discovery that leads back in time to the origins of the Shakespeare debate. Lovett’s who-done-it moves from Byerly’s rare book internship to the late 16th-century roguishness of bookseller Bartholomew Harbottle (he who wrongheadedly, though cleverly, called Shakespeare an “upstart crow”), thence on to a murderous family feud in the drear English countryside. Lovett’s present-day mystery is overshadowed by the book’s forays into the sordid dealings of the Elizabethan age: Harbottle’s schemes, theatrical rivalries, Christopher Marlowe, literary poaching, debauchery, and a play called Pandosto that could settle the question of Shakespeare’s identity once and for all.
The Forgers by Bradford Morrow
“They never found his hands” is the terrifically memorable opening line of The Forgers. Morrow’s short novel smacks of all things antiquarian; the author’s very name conjures visions of gilt leather and badly-lighted bookshelves. Among criminals, there’s possibly no more respectable pursuit than literary forgery, and here that forger (and our narrator) is Will, a former bookman whose specialty is penning and then proffering Arthur Conan Doyle facsimiles to unwitting dealers and collectors. The novel opens when Will’s ex-lover’s hermit brother, Adam Diehl, is found murdered, sans hands, in a mess of manuscripts. Will starts receiving threatening letters from deceased literary celebrities, executed by a blackmailer who knows more about the narrator than Will is letting on. The Forger’s pseudo-Victorian tone and mood lends itself flawlessly to this bleak exploration of veracity and fraudulence. After all, who could make a finer unreliable narrator than a confessed, though unrepentant, falsifier?
Michael Peck is the author of the novel The Last Orchard in America. His work has appeared in The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, Pank and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon City, where he deals in rare books at Blue Roof Books.
Each month, we ask our staff to fill us in on some interesting content they’ve consumed recently. (That’s what we do now, right? Consume content?) We dig deep and think of what books, movies, TV shows, art, music, or other bits of culture stood out to us and inspired us, at least before we saw Fast 7 over the weekend. We can’t all just pick Fast 7.
Michelle Wildgen: So this month the book I was most desperate to return to was Richard Price’s The Whites, which he published under the pen name Harry Brandt. (I have spent more time speculating on the purpose of this hiding in plain sight than perhaps it warrants. I figure he’s using a pen name to tide us over with slightly shorter, more plot-heavy books while the next opus is still in the works.) I’ve been a big Price fan since Freedomland, which showed me how expansive the Price fictional world is. The man puts the “novel” in “crime novel.” And yes, there’s a crime, and yes, there’s mystery, but that’s never the point. The point is the deep reach of community and history, the culture of every neighborhood or profession no matter which side of the law it’s on. Don’t mistake any of this for sentimentality about the old neighborhood, either. The Price universe is a tough one, but people live in it—which means they have sex and families and children in it, they fuck up in it, they fail in it, they dramatize themselves in it, they commit loving acts and violent acts in it. If anything, Price is like the old nineteenth century narrator who sees all, goes anywhere, and doesn’t play favorites.
Conveniently, Guernica just published an interview with Price and David Simon. Or you could go back to this oldie in the Paris Review. Meanwhile, a huge portion of our staff spent March with Paul Beatty’s new book:
Thomas Ross: I’ve been rereading Mason & Dixon now for what feels like decades, but I took a break recently because Paul Beatty came to town. Our whole office has been waiting impatiently for Beatty’s The Sellout since we first read the prologue and were lucky enough to publish it in our current issue, The Rejection Issue. In The Sellout, Beatty rejects everything. From the Little Rascals to Condolleezza Rice, The Sellout tears relentlessly into America’s racist past and present, hitting every target imaginable and inventing a few extras to hit, too. Yes, there are characters, and yes, they’re actually identifiable, sympathetic, and compelling, but this book lives in its jokes. There are long passages where Beatty’s narrator seems to forget there’s a narrative going on and just bounces from one punch line to the next, but it never feels like quality over quantity, he’s never just carpet bombing with jokes, hoping one or the other lands right. Beatty’s more about the precision takedown. These are mean jokes, most of them, jokes about Colin Powell and George Bush, yes, but also jokes about everyday people and how thoughtless and destructive they can be. The book is like a thousand laser guided, nuclear-payload-carrying jokes, and by the time you realize the target is you, you’re toast.
Sometimes a book is hard to talk about because, like The Sellout, it’s too challenging, too third-rail for the water cooler. Other times, you can’t talk about what you’re reading because you’re deeply, passionately ashamed of how completely unchallenging it is: Continue reading
To read more lengthy responses to the prompt, check out our latest issue, which is filled with sad sack tales, essays, and poems dealing in rejection and regret.
One of the very first rejection letters I ever received was from Tin House. When I say letter, I mean unsigned, photocopied quarter-slip of paper. This totally unencouraging wisp of a thing took no more than three lines to deal its death blow:
Dear Writer, thanks for your submission, unfortunately we must pass, etc., etc., scene.
I know because I still have the letter. It’s taped into the earliest pages of my Notebook of Failure and Triumph, right alongside nearly identical slips from New England Review, Mid-American Review, and Zoetrope All-Story. All say the same “thanks, but no thanks.” The Tin House specimen is pinned down with care, as if extra-young writer me knew I’d struck out on a new hobby—not writing per se, but collecting rejections like butterflies.
I started keeping the Notebook of Failure and Triumph in my sophomore year of college in an effort to take my own work seriously. I wanted more than anything to be in the game. I had some sense that part of professionalizing was learning to be secretary to my own work. I also had the sense that I needed to, um, write something worth publishing.
In high school, I had decided that if I wanted to be a writer then I should be writing, and so I wrote a novel. I can say how certifiably not-good that book is now not because I’ve reached the vantage point of some much greater accomplishment, but simply because I’ve (thank god) gotten some distance from it, and because (thank god) I’m no longer in high school. The scene I most relished writing was about the main character dyeing her hair black in an act of willful rebellion. The runner-up was about kissing. I showed the book to a neighbor who had some tenuous connection to the New Yorker from a previous work life. I seethed as she told me what a great English teacher I could still be.
In college, the stories I was sending out were not a lot better. The one Tin House shot down was about sexual awakening at a school production of a play about the life of Sylvia Plath. New England Review rejected the one about clandestine supermarket lobster liberation and two kids who’ve apprenticed themselves to a saint. There were lots of Neil Young lyrics as titles, lots of sexual tension between couples who professed to be friends. They were all a little bit Wes Anderson, a little bit rock n’ roll. The darkest ones make me think of Francie’s stories in Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become A Writer,” with old people dying “idiot deaths” in freak electrical accidents and yogurt stand disasters.
For these college stories alone, I must have thirty pages of taxidermied rejection slips. If I was daunted, I don’t remember it. What I do know is that I feel daunted more now, eight years and an MFA and three publishing jobs later, when the rejections come in for whatever latest weird thing I’ve made. I’ve staked a bet on writing that very well could not pay off, and that carries a hell of a lot more consequences than it did for me as a sophomore English major. The Notebook of Failure and Triumph keeps growing—both parts of it. (Maybe because I keep on writing about lobsters?)
That bad book, though, remains one of the things in my life that I’m proudest of, along with my Tin House letter. I wish I could say I look at them now and feel smug about having ascended beyond them to some far-greater writing plane. What I can say is that they’re my favorite proof that I’ve played the game. I hereby add a Triumph page to the Notebook in honor just of that.
And if, in the process of that keeping on, I’ve leveled up enough to be on the business end of Submittable and draft a less snotty form letter for Tin House, that’s good news for Notebooks of Failure and Triumph everywhere.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is assistant editor at Tin House magazine. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, Web Conjunctions, The Story Collider, Hunger Mountain (and Tin House! Find an essay from her in the Rejection issue on newsstands now). Her only known natural enemy is the velociraptor.
We sat on the steps waiting for the storm. Rachel spit watermelon seeds into the twilight. Lightning flashed behind a bank of clouds and I got to 10 before thunder rolled.
“Hand me a slice,” I said.
We slurped cold melon, searching for seeds. Juice trickled down our wrists.
“Got one,” she said. “You?”
Mine didn’t make it past the bottom of the stairs. Rachel’s we lost sight of out in the darkness. Best of three turned into best of five then seven. She had the knack, I didn’t.
We were celebrating her resignation. Nineteen years as a psych nurse in a residential facility for kids, burnt out since year number two. At home, she’d talk on the phone for hours, to friends, her sisters, rehashing the stories she’d told me at dinner: boys who lit the classroom hamster on fire, twelve-year-olds who railed Ritalin. She made light of it, her left ear all hot and red from the phone. “The solution to pollution is dilution,” she’d say. I worked in waste water treatment, I taught her that. The edge to her voice cut a little, or maybe she was just being funny.
Lightning strobed across the prairie. Eight seconds later, thunder rumbled. Rachel shivered, although it must have been seventy degrees. I held an imaginary microphone up to her, a thing we used to do with spatulas in the kitchen. “Rachel Stevens, besides champion seed-spitting, what’s next?”
Raindrops began to fall so wide apart you could hear each one hit the ground. She stood to go inside.
“It’s hardly raining. Don’t go.” I wiggled the ghost mic. “What next?”
She sat down again. Her hair brushed my bare arm.
“I want to go away.” She sighed the words into the clouds.
More lightning. Raindrops fell faster, closer together. Wind sent some of them in under the porch to hit our foreheads and cheeks. Seven seconds until thunder.
“How about someplace the weather can sneak up on us for a change? A cabin in the Rockies, the sequoias in Kings Canyon?” I said. We would fly out of Kansas City, rent a car big enough to sleep in, like the old van back when we followed the Dead, sleeping bags zipped together, cooler stocked with beer.
“Not a vacation. Just away.” She leaned forward, hugged her skirt around her legs.
I swatted a mosquito from my ear. Seconds later the damned thing came back. I flipped up my sweatshirt hood. “You mean from everyone?”
“I do.” Wind blew strands of Rachel’s dark hair straight into the air.
I could only see the back of her, shoulders hunched. I’d wondered sometimes if it was me. What if after all the cheering her up and on, telling her: go back to college, study something new, just quit, Rach, we can manage, your happiness is worth more than $22.50 an hour, I’d been helping her solve the wrong problem?
“You waited till now to tell me?” I wanted her to sit up. Look at me. An hour ago she moaned at the first bite of the ribeye I’d grilled for the occasion, used her fingers instead of her fork on the asparagus. She’d smiled across the table at me when her teeth split the skin of the perfectly boiled baby potatoes.
“Was there a better time?” She sounded surprised that it mattered.
I pictured our rooms impassable with stacked boxes, hers and mine, how we’d sort and separate our accumulations. She’d take the cat, the piano, and probably the avocado green colander. We’d have to tell people. Jesus, was there someone else? Was she fucking around with someone else? I couldn’t breathe. I waited for lightning, counted till thunder.
“I’m staying at my sister’s next month,” she said.
Ants crawled over the melon rinds. June bugs dashed their clumsy bodies against the screens where light poured from the living room. Otis Reading crooned about his yearning arms from our stereo (my stereo, my Otis). We were supposed to be dancing now, in the storm, passing the champagne between us, the mint of Rachel’s lip balm on the bottle making every sip taste like her kiss. The rain eased, blew south. Lighting pulsed. I forgot to count.
“Tom, say something.” She sat up. Our arms touched.
“How long’ve you been planning this?”
“Thinking about it since my notice last month. Maggie needs someone for the horses and gardens when they go to Nantucket. It fell into place, you know?” She said it so casually, like telling me she needed to pick up a gallon of milk.
I’d looked at a place, a few years back – studio with two burners and a mini-fridge – over in Lawrence. The rental agent noticed my ring, asked did my wife know what I was up to. Just seeing what’s available, you never know, I said. He shook his head and left me standing on the porch in the flat light of winter.
I cleared my throat to make room for words. “And after that?”
“After that?” The crease between her brows deepened. “I’ll come home.”
I leaned forward, dropped my head into my hands. “I thought—“
“Hey, hey.” Rachel reached into my hood and squeezed the back of my neck. “It’s just a month and then I’ll be ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Anything, I guess.”
A shiver chased itself from her fingertips to the top of my head. In my mind, I unpacked the boxes I’d filled with hers and mine. The cat and the piano would stay. The colander returned to the kitchen, ours again but off-kilter, a little out of place.
Lightning flickered against my eyelids. I counted to twelve, still waiting for thunder.
Jennifer Audette lives in Vermont, where it’s still possible to have friends who don’t own Smartphones, or cell phones at all, and who navigate using collections of paper maps called gazetteers. You can read more of her work in Stoneboat, Crack the Spine, and Fiction Fix. Contact her at email@example.com
So the plot of Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend goes something like this: A guy named Don gets drunk. He’s gotten drunk before. He’ll get drunk again. He drinks, passes out, wakes up; keeps drinking till he runs out of money, finds some more money, and gets drunk again. And so on. At some point he tries to pawn his typewriter for cash. Another time he steals a woman’s purse to see if he can get away with it. He doesn’t get away with it. But that’s pretty much the plot: drinking. And more of it. There are no spoilers here to keep.
Even Don knows how predictable his story has become. Monotony isn’t a failure of his story but the point of it. If his story were interesting, its interest would distort the essentially tedious texture of its subject. That’s the thing, though—The Lost Weekend is oddly enthralling, in an aggressive sense of thrall, a state of servitude or submission. Addiction is a disease so unrelenting its repetition becomes a kind of tyranny: “there was only one thing: drink, and more drink, till amnesty came; and tomorrow, drink again.” We readers feel that tyranny like drunkards. The story of addiction pushes every other plot thread into the margins, and Jackson isn’t afraid to stay in the mangled, claustrophobic tale that remains once those threads have been lost—lost along with all that money, those friends and days, that whole weekend and the lost life it foretold.
Since its publication in 1944, The Lost Weekend has itself been nearly lost. Most people who know it only know it for the movie, a Billy Wilder flick that won the 1945 Oscar for Best Picture. The movie ends with Don putting out his cigarette in a glass of whiskey. The novel refuses any similar suggestion of closure.
Perhaps the book has been largely forgotten because its vision of alcoholism as pathology no longer seems as revolutionary as it did back in the forties, when AA was still new and the “disease” model was only gradually gaining traction in the public imagination. The Lost Weekend was one of the first novels to dramatize alcoholism as an illness—not simply a lifestyle or tragic backdrop, à la Fitzgerald or Hemingway. Jackson wasn’t drinking when he wrote it, but he wasn’t done with drinking either. He fell off the wagon five years after he wrote about a guy who couldn’t even get on it.
For the course of these pages, however, Jackson is drinking vicariously through Don. We see our antihero drinking whiskey in an uptown bar and then a downtown bar; we see him stealing money from the maid, wheedling money from the laundry lady and the bodega guy, trying to beat down the doors of a pawnshop closed for Yom Kippur. We see him settled into his favorite drinking pose—curled up in his leather chair with a full tumbler and some classical music—and we see him pissing his pants two days later, on the other side of the same bender.
You could say this is a book about a guy fighting his disease, and you’d be right; or that it’s a book about a guy fighting himself, and that would be right too. You could say the fact that both of these explanations are right means neither one is right—on its own, each occludes the other—because in truth the man and his disease are so intertwined it is hard to trace their boundaries in the dust of battle.
Really, in the end, this is a book about a guy afraid of being the protagonist in a bad book. Don is constantly thinking of his life as a story, and he constantly finds the story lacking; it seems melodramatic or trivial or both. He’s an aspiring writer who wants to tell the story of his drinking, but he also wants to pawn his typewriter for cash to buy another drink. When he imagines writing the story of his life—“if he were able to write fast enough, he could set it down in all its final perfection”—he conjures a story first punctuated by alcohol (“the long affair with Anna, the drinking”) and eventually overwhelmed by it: “the books begun and dropped, the unfinished short-stories, the drinking the drinking the drinking; the foolish psychiatrist.” Alcoholism is attended by stories without endings and flanked by the futile handmaidens of narrative and psychology. The disease can’t be explained by literature or psychiatric treatment. The drinking the drinking the drinking. Drinking isn’t just punctuation between other plot points. It’s no longer punctuated by anything else.
Don plays with possible titles for the autobiographical novel he might someday write: “Don Birnam: A Hero Without a Novel,” or “Total Recall: An Anthology,” or “I Don’t Know Why I’m Telling You All This.” He questions whether anyone would even want to read it—“Who would ever want to read a novel about a punk and a drunk!”—and the question feels rhetorical, capped by an exclamation point rather than a question mark. But the joke is on us, his readers, who are doing exactly what he can’t imagine anyone wanting to do: reading a novel about a punk and a drunk who can’t summon enough sobriety to tell the story of his own intoxication.
Don helpfully catalogs all the aesthetic failures of his story, deeming it a melodrama without suspense or climax or closure. It holds no suspense because he already knows how he’ll feel during all of its repeating chapters—after the first drink, after the tenth, after he wakes up hung over the next morning. During a particularly embarrassing “climactic moment” near the end of the book, he finds himself facing off against a maid, trying to get her to unlock the liquor cabinet, and is overwhelmed by a distinctly literary self-loathing: “Melodrama! In all his life he had never been in any situation so corny, so ham. He felt like an idiot. His taste was offended, his sense of the fitness of things, his deepest intelligence.”
Jackson withholds from his protagonist the satisfaction of a tragic climax, punishing Don—and perhaps himself, as well—with the abasement of melodrama. Don is ashamed not simply of his actions but of his genre, the fact that his own tragedy doesn’t amount to anything compelling: “It wasn’t even decently dramatic or sad or tragic or a shame or comic or ironic or anything else—it was nothing.”
Except it must have been something, because here we are—readers holding a book between our hands that is telling us we should probably put it down and pick up something else. The book makes addicts of us all, in our reading, precisely because we don’t put it down, because we can’t.
What are we waiting for, anyway? For death to end the whole thing? For salvation to present itself? Because it does. It comes in the form of a male hospital nurse, and returns fifty pages later—this time dressed as a woman. It fails both times. The drunk stays drunk. Or rather, he gets dry but can’t wait to get drunk again. He tells everyone not to make such a fuss. He tells us over and over again why we shouldn’t be reading about him. I Don’t Know Why I’m Telling You All This.
Why, Don? Because all this won’t let go of you. Because you have no other story to tell.
Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, and a novel, The Gin Closet. Her essays have appeared in Believer, Harper’s Magazine, Oxford American, and Tin House.
This essay was originally published in our This Means War Issue.
When I met Nicholson Baker, at last, after two years of reading and writing about him for B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, I told him that I thought his choices of subject matter, throughout his career, demonstrated an instinct to occupy the taboo. To this point in our conversation, Baker had been largely poker-faced, but there was something about this he liked so much he echoed it back to me.
“Occupy the taboo,” he said, with a boyish grin.
In teaching Vox and Checkpoint, you might begin with this: One is a love story, the other is a loath story. Or you might begin with the observation that both books were reviewed quite poorly on their initial release, yet, like saviors or martyrs, their critical crucifixion – their critifixion – served only to ensure that they would survive and continue to be discussed, years later. Or you might simply assert to your students, by way of a “hypothesis,” and perhaps with some hope that you will be able to make some persuasive arguments to this effect, that both books are actually about storytelling.
On the one hand, they’re practically identical. Vox is one-hundred-and-sixty-five pages long, and Checkpoint is somewhat thinner at one-hundred-and-fifteen pages, but they’re both quite short and the fact that they are short was held against them when they were first published: “Slim, strange and nearly plotless” and “Scummy little book,” respectively. Both are dialogue books, or mostly dialogue books, and both limit themselves to a single conversation that follows a simple Freytag triangle or pyramid or whatever clunky visual you’d like to use to represent the beginnings, the middles, and the climactic, purgative ends of stories. And the characters of both books, a man and woman in Vox, and two men in Checkpoint, have something of a cardboard quality to them – they’re not quite people – and while this was, again, used to indict the books, it should have been the first sign that neither aspired to the realism their reviewers appeared to expect.
On the other hand, while both books were backed by innovative marketing campaigns – the phone sex novel was sold wrapped in brown paper; the presidential assassination novel was initially scheduled for release on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention – Vox was a bestseller, while Checkpoint flopped. One is about sex, the other about death. One is a conversation that takes place only in electronic ether, the other is an actual conversation in a hotel room. One is “live,” in the sense that you read it as though you are eavesdropping in real time, the other is a document, a transcription prepared, somehow, after the fact.
Anyway, you get the idea: Vox and Checkpoint are a study in contrasts. But once you’ve read them both – and you can make your students do that – it’s hard to imagine having read either in isolation.
There’s one more thing Vox and Checkpoint have in common: if you’re going to understand them, you’re going to have to set aside prejudices and assumptions, and truly, as Goethe demands of every book we read, “yield yourself up entirely to its influence.”
And that’s not easy. As a writer, Nicholson Baker has some kind of internal divining rod for the things that “push our buttons” or “get our backs up,” or otherwise cause us to erect an emotional wall between ourselves and whatever might challenge our prejudices and assumptions. (I should not need to add that this kind of reaction is a prerequisite for censorship.) Baker’s career is consistent in this regard. Whether he’s a writing a book devoid of plot (The Mezzanine), or upending our romantic notions about the true motives of librarians (Double Fold), or contesting the fundamental rationalizations that enabled, for example, World War Two (Human Smoke – can you feel your fingers inching toward your pistol?), Baker has made a career not out of bombastic claims, I would argue, but out of a recognition that difficult truths are the kinds of truths that we can discuss only in the context of literature, which is the place we go when all other forms of human discourse fail.
So it can, and should, be said that both Vox and Checkpoint, on some level, are about freedom of speech. This is probably truer of Checkpoint than Vox, at least overtly, as threatening to kill the President of the United States is an actual restriction on the speech of United States citizens, a restriction that no one, not even Checkpoint, is clamoring to do away with it. (Incidentally, we really need an updated version of the metaphor we use for the other widely accepted restriction on speech: yelling “Fire!” in crowded theatres. It seems to me that people are more or less constantly yelling “Fire!” in the crowded theatre of the internet.) Somewhat similarly, Vox discovered, via its critical reception, that not all freedom of speech is the same, and apparently not everyone wants the kind of freedom of speech that Lenny Bruce fought and perhaps died for.
I became aware in a single whiplash instant both that there existed an opera of Invisible Cities and that there was a Pulitzer Prize granted in music. I’m admitting this shamefacedly—how reflexively I free-associated “Pulitzer” with magazine articles and books, and now that I’m working on a novel about composers, it seems that much more myopic. But it couldn’t possibly be THAT Invisible Cities, the one I’d held so ardently since I was a teenager, attempted to film in high school with my beloved English teacher, Morrow Jones, driving out to Coney Island in the dead of winter for a whiff of one of Calvino’s landscapes (probably one of the “Cities and the Dead”). That project still exists somewhere, a reel in a dusty canister, or at least some synaptic loose change. Seeing this opera as a finalist, though, was a bit like seeing an old friend, long fallen out of touch, achieving some greatness—it could hardly be…
Craziest of all, I couldn’t listen to it, because it had been written for headphones and live performance at L.A.’s Union Station. That helped, in a way—otherwise, how else to reckon with the impossible, and anyway, since at least Keats we’ve known that “unheard melodies” are the sweeter, right?
When I finally got to hear clips of it on the CD release, though, I was greedy for it. As far as I was concerned, the composer, Christopher Cerrone, had, indeed, accomplished the impossible—he’d taken Calvino’s spirit and the words in Weaver’s English translation, and made it seem like the most natural thing in the world, brought it into musical being as though music were merely one more language in which Calvino could speak. But what a language! What dialects, and what morphemes, and what unfamiliar, haunting inflections.
Over Skype, Cerrone was generous enough to talk about how the project came about, and to zig and zag with me over the shifty terrain where music and literature share and dispute their borders.
Tim Horvath: To begin with, I’m wondering what the origins of your opera Invisible Cities were. Had you read the book when you were much younger? Did it percolate for a long time? How did it actually come to be?
Christopher Cerrone: I started the opera when I was 24. What happened was that I discovered Calvino in college. I started writing all these pieces that were inspired by him. I wrote an orchestra piece based on a story found in If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler; I wrote another for chamber ensemble that was based on Mr. Palomar, and then finally I came across Invisible Cities. I was taking an opportunity to do this opera-writing class when I was in grad school, and was like, “This book seems kind of cool. I didn’t have a really clear idea that I was actually going to write a whole opera on it. I thought, “This is a beautiful book. I love the language, let me try something with this.” It was very low commitment at the time. I thought: “I’ll write seven minutes of music, and, worst-case scenario, it doesn’t come out well.” But quite the opposite, I found that there was this thing in the language that brought something completely different out in what I was writing. It was a huge, huge catalyst for me as a composer.
TH: Typically, when we think of adaptation, we think of books being transformed into films, or short stories into films, maybe into a television series nowadays. Hence the prevailing wisdom that by now verges on cliché, “the book was better than the film.” But I don’t think writers nor the general public are accustomed to thinking about what it means to adapt a text into music. Into an opera! One thing that struck me in going back and revisiting Calvino is that even though the book doesn’t really have that much of a narrative structure, being comprised, rather, of these philosophical vignettes and meditations, your opera takes on a definite trajectory. I know that the loose, filigreed structure was part of why you were drawn to it originally. At the same time, though, I think that your piece gives it this shape, this narrative momentum that the book doesn’t necessarily have.
CC: I’m not totally sure how I feel about that. I was actually drawn to the piece because I love the architecture of it. The alternations of the cities and the descriptions of the interactions between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo…that was something I really wanted to take from the book. And also, and maybe it’s partly that when you try to adapt something, your personality goes into it a lot, in the way that you try to…well I was like, “I’ll do a pretty straight adaptation.” I always saw the book as having this kind of shape, from a very light tone, and that the book grew more and more morbid and morose, and that was a really big thing that I wanted to take from the book, but maybe I just brought more and more of my own moroseness into it.
TH: When I first read Invisible Cities I was much younger, so Kublai Khan looking at the ruins of his empire and contemplating death felt like much more of an abstraction to me, the stuff of myth and imaginative pathos. But now as I stand here that much closer, well, it’s substantially more palpable and real, and those passages come into a starker relief. They feel more imminent. Even in the opening of yours, you capture that sense of ruin…and it’s harrowing to behold the empire in that state.
CC: Yes, I tried to. I know this sounds kind of like a corny story, but I remember very distinctly opening to the first page, and sitting down to the piano in graduate school and playing the first few notes of it. It really came to me in a way…and my music really changed in that moment. It was denser, and more complicated. And I felt like that music and the need to evoke the melancholy of that opening—something changed in terms of what I do as a composer.
TH: How would you describe that change?
CC: I think I was writing much more complicated music, and I suddenly felt a strong desire towards clarity. And that was sort of the thing that made the turn for me—the desire for transparency and clarity. Calvino, of course, talks about that stuff a lot too, so I felt that it was a legitimate pursuit. What are the Essays for the New Millennium? There’s “Lightness,” “Exactitude,” “Multiplicity”…all of those became more significant for me at that moment. I simplified things, which didn’t mean that it became less complicated. I just became more transparent. So that’s the thing I tried to do: create a music of more direct emotional expression. Because that’s the other thing I love about Calvino, which is that despite the fact that it’s very heady, there tends to be a lyric strain running through it, and that really struck me about his work
TH: Undoubtedly related to that is Calvino’s use of space on the page, which seems particularly pronounced in this book. He almost seems to demand the reader participate in a certain way. I, for one, tend to forget that Kublai Khan is being regaled with these stories and I start to read “you” as “me” as the book goes on. And really stop between cities to ruminate and reflect and let it sink in. I wonder if musically you see some parallels with that in terms of how the listener experiences your work?
CC: I initially read the book very quickly, and I always had a very clear idea that I wanted to do something with it. And then I reread it, and I read one page a day, or one story a day, for a summer. Because I felt as though there was no other way for me to actually understand all the depth of that book unless I read it really slowly. I was like, “I can only handle one story per day, I’m going read three pages and I’m really going to think very hard about those three pages.
TH: That leads naturally into another question, which is…you’re reading one of these every day. You’re sort of digesting it, ruminating over it…how did you come to focus on the cities that you did choose, because I could imagine that that would’ve been a really difficult decision? I’m guessing that almost any one of those cities could’ve become, in your mind, a springboard for a section.
An excerpt from Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset, coming soon from Tin House Books.
She hung up to see her mother cannoning from the crowd, all four-foot-eleven-and-a-half of her, jaunty in her beret, her bling, her snow-blindingly new running shoes, hurrying toward them with a funny splay-foot walk that reminded Mary Rose of Maggie. Was that new?
Duncan came into view behind her, walking stolidly as though over rugged terrain, his mouth set in the Highland perseverance that peopled the globe and its boards of directors, dapper in his peaked cap, yellow windbreaker and rubber-soled brogues.
Dolly’s brows arched above her big dark eyes, her mouth formed an O! of astonishment, she raised both hands, framing her face with delight, and swooped down on Maggie, assaulting her with “Sitdy kisses”—this used to make Matthew cry, but Maggie screamed with laughter. Duncan looked on, amused, then after the first flurry he crouched, took Maggie’s hand and said softly, “Hi there, Maggie, how are you, sweetie-pie?”
“Jitdy,” said Maggie, just as softly, and reached for his cap. He gave it to her.
Jitdy was Arabic for “grandfather,” a name that, for Mary Rose’s blue-eyed father, was a source of pride and amusement.
Dolly cupped Mary Rose’s face in her warm hands and looked up into her eyes. Mary Rose looked down into the familiar overheated expression of affection; the old eye-laden look that staked mute claim to martyrdom. She formed a smile and received the slightly too-long hug, registering a guilty yet inexplicable annoyance with her adorable little mother.
Duncan rose with an attempt at spryness. “How are you, Mister, you’re lookin’ great.” He bonked her on the head with the flat of his hand like a shingle—the Scottish equivalent of a hug. She was almost feverishly glad to see her father. It was always this way, as if an engine revved inside her, stoked with an urgent message. Dear Dad, I!
“How was your trip, Dad?”
“Like the fella says, ‘uneventful,’” he replied heartily if a mite hoarsely, she thought.
No sooner had she lost the battle with him over who would carry their overnight bag—it was on wheels, but he insisted on carrying it by the handle—than she turned to see the stroller standing empty.
“I let her out,” confessed Dolly with a mischievous glint.
“Jesus Christ, Mum!” Mary Rose swung to face the crowd—a blur, a black inland lake. “Maggie!”
“Relax.” Her father’s voice behind her, the one he used on her mother. “There’s no panic, Rosie.” Paneek.
She looked down. Maggie was sitting on the stone floor, going through Dolly’s purse, grown-up legs scissoring past her.
When out looking for antlers in Wyoming in January, it is important to walk slow. You are not exercising, you are out looking for antlers, and antlers won’t appear to you if you are too focused on breaking a sweat. Your feet will slide on the snow where it is packed, and they will sink where it is loose and pillowy. Usually you will go in up to your ankle, but sometimes you will fall all the way to your knee or even your hip, a quick drop that leaves you breathless, your exhale still floating somewhere above your head. Sometimes you will step forward, ready to sink, but the snow will be unexpectedly hard. It will not even crack under your weight, and you will wonder about the physics of snow, why it sometimes holds you up and sometimes pulls you down.
It is important not to expect to find anything. Antlers do not reward greediness. Pick up every little bit of fuzz you spot, no matter how un-antler like, no matter how soft and wispy. Hold onto it even though each passing breeze threatens to loose it from your grasp. Little bits of fuzz come from animals, too, even if they lack the hardness of true bone.
If you’re only in it for the antlers, you are bound to be disappointed.
When you come to a fork in the road, take the way that calls to you, even if the map says otherwise. Remember which footsteps are yours. Bring enough water and dress in layers. Even though it is fifty degrees and sunny when you set out, the temperature can drop fast once the sky moves from bright to dusk. Dusk is when the mountain lions come out, so walk tall and sing a song to yourself, loud enough that they can tell you are person and not prey. If one does come, remember you are supposed to fight, not flee.
Out here, the deer shed their antlers in December, January, February, the cold, white months that reward a watchful eye. How they shed, you don’t actually know, but you picture them dancing in the snow, a careful choreography that involves no pain, only joy, the way you used to feel sometimes but now feel less and less. You can’t remember the last time you felt the way a deer dancing on its hind legs in the snow must feel.
When out looking for antlers in Wyoming in January, it is easy to get discouraged, when you have spent days walking past neat piles of scat and weaving patterns of tracks but have found nothing but antler-like sticks. It is easy to think that you are simply not the kind of person who finds antlers in Wyoming in January. It is easy to give up.
But then you will crest the summit, and as you walk straight into a ceiling of blue sky, you will see something up ahead, on a patch of ragged grass where the snow has melted. Probably it is a stick, you will think, but your heart will beat faster, your body overruling your reason. Your reason will remember all the letdowns of the past, but your body will know only this moment, the creaking of the snow, the movement of the clouds overhead, the stick-like object that has awakened an electricity that runs through your flesh.
Still, you will tell yourself it is a stick until the moment you are right above it, standing over it in wonder – wonder at its curving prongs, its desiccated stump. Wonder that you could have ever mistaken a stick for an antler, the latter so much more solid, impossible to break, impermeable to decay. Wonder that you are the person standing here, on this day, in this spot.
You will feel a weight that you did not know you were carrying fall away. A lightness will rise from the base of your spine. And as you pick up the antler, its surprisingly smooth surfacealive in your hand, your legs will start to move towards home.
Claire Miye Stanford‘s work has appeared in Front Porch, Word Riot, Booth, Necessary Fiction, Paper Darts, Grist, The Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She holds an MFA from the University of Minnesota and is based in Minneapolis.
I’m twelve. My mom is annoying, but I love her. I need to keep her safe, so I try to imagine all the ways she could die right now:
She could have a seizure and drive into the river.
A dog could dart into traffic causing us to swerve into a tree,
or a cat could,
or a baby.
Thinking of the thing makes it less likely to happen. If I could predict how we die, I’d be magical. If I were magical, I wouldn’t be afraid of death. I’m not magical, so futures I predict are canceled out. It’s simple logic.
The passenger seat is fully reclined. Treetops, clouds, sky slip past. Gone and gone and gone. The rhythm is nice. The car shakes in a way I love, a familiar jostle. My body remembers it’s really just water and never the same drop for long.
“Almost there. You awake?”
She sounds annoyed, a little. My mom drives me everywhere and mostly I lie like this. I love her close, carrying me though the air. To the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston today, but any ride will do. She wishes I’d talk to her. This is so much better. Near each other and a hum all around us.
Even if I wanted to sit up and talk, I couldn’t. In the car I have to stay low, because of the windows. I love art class at the MFA so much, it would be a shame if I were killed by random gunfire on the journey there.
Our winding drive along the Charles isn’t dangerous, but people are always being surprised by their deaths. I may be surprised by mine, but not because I didn’t pay it any mind. I don’t know how people can live their lives so casually. Every single minute it’s a miracle you didn’t end.
A plane could crash into us.
An earthquake could split the road wide open.
I bend sideways to reach the dial on the radio and turn it till it catches“Livin’on a Prayer.”
I sing, “…some-day….”
Someday is just one stop along the road. Right now is someday from before. When someday comes this me will be gone.
It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not? Does Bon Jovi believe that? How could he?
Today the treetops along Storrow Drive turn the sky to lace. This sky is ending as I watch it. This all can end at any moment. Best to stay low.
I could go crazy and yank the wheel,
or cover her eyes.
My mom quiets the music.
“Tell me what you’re painting in class.”
“Like— a swirling thing. I don’t know. If you were in a plane with, like, part ripped out of the bottom.” I’m interested in painting how it feels to fall. It’s hard. I’m not getting it.
“An airplane? Why?”
“What do you mean? Because. Because that’s what I’m painting.”
I turn the sound back up.
The road sighs along under us.
“Okay…creative. Does it feel scary?”
There are other ways to stay in front of death. For example, reading signs. It’s a little like daring God to show his cards: If the next car that passes is red, my mother won’t die today. If I can hold my breath till the next underpass, if we pass three boats of rowers, if none of the rowers look my way. Sometimes it’s a little like prayer:God, if the MFA is safe make my stomach gurgle.
Sometimes I weight the dice: If my mother is silent for one full minute I’ll die this afternoon.
“How did you choose it? Is it from a picture?”
Twenty seconds. It doesn’t really count. I knew she wasn’t ready to give up, I knew she had another question waiting. But if God is really in control he could have made her silent. So maybe it counts after all.
“No,”I say, “I just wanted to use the paint you make from that metal dust.”
It comes in vials of shiny powder that I mix with thick oil. I want to cover everything with it. It reminds me of being little and pressing my eyes hard with my fingers till lights showed up in glints. It reminds me of wallpaper from somewhere I can’t locate. Orange, glittering. Or like the sparkly inside of balls I get from quarter machines at the supermarket. I buy them just to hold in my mouth. I run my teeth along their smooth, round sides so they squeak. Their taste in my nose is sweet and shuddering like gasoline, or an orchestra.
“Metal dust? What kind of metal? Is metal dust safe?”
“Ooooo, we’re halfway the-ere.”
If I can’t get all the way to safe, I can distract myself. One way is to play songs against the inside of my bottom teeth. Each place tooth meets tooth is a note. I turn my tongue and push it hard into the dips, hard enough the tip feels scraped. It’s a cool feeling like mint or screaming.
“O-O! Livin’on a pray-er!”
I don’t understand how, but it counterbalances something. This pressure, soft pain and rhythm, this distinguishing the end of one thing from the start of another and turning that division into music keeps something else from falling. It’s about balance. It’s about weight distribution.
If she touches me we live.
My mother puts her hand on my knee.
Laura Green lives in Portland Oregon. She’s working on a memoir tentatively titled Bastard Child of a Renegade Nun, excerpts of which are published on the Hip Mama blog and in an upcoming edition of Vinyl Poetry. She attended the Tin House Workshop in 2012.
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.
It’s time for another entry in our digital broadside series recognizing poets under thirty years old via poems under thirty lines. This week Richie Hofman brings us the title poem from his upcoming collection.
The water, for once,
unmetaphysical. Stepping over
the stones, you pulling
your shirt over your shoulders.
blood that constitutes you
could have been anything and yet
appears before me
as your body. Wading out again,
I am a little white omnivore
in the black water,
the absence of shame.
We lie on our backs
with our underwear on.
The soul is an aristocrat.
It disdains the body,
staring through the water
at the suggestion of our human forms.
Richie Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Second Empire, is forthcoming from Alice James Books in November 2015. He is a doctoral student and Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University.
Just to prove we have skin (if not submissions) in the game, we asked our staff members to recall a time in their lives when they were dealt a heaping hot slice of rejection pie.
To read more lengthy responses to the prompt, check out our latest issue, which is filled with
sad sack tales stories, essays, and poems dealing in rejection and regret.
I dyed my hair pink two weeks before meeting my ex’s father and stepmother. I was twenty.
We rode the overnight train from Seattle to Spokane, sleeping across empty rows and taking turns entertaining our baby. Bill and Deb’s home is in the far northeastern corner of Washington, where their closest neighbors are a farm family with eight red-headed daughters and a few nomadic participants of the occasional Rainbow Gathering. You can see Canada from the backyard.
I’m no stranger to rural life. I grew up in the middle of the woods, with no running water, rode a horse around the time I took my first step, and graduated from a one-room schoolhouse on an island. My roots form a network of old-school farmers, liberal back-to-the-landers, and the lesbian couple who let my parents run a hose from their well.
I had no delusions of blending in and Jen had encouraged the change, had assured me that no one would care. She had, in fact, driven with me to purchase the Manic Panic Fuchsia Shock that bloomed like an urchin from my head.
Bill met us at the station in a dark cowboy hat and a duster. He was a facsimile of my oldest uncle, a real cowboy, but his friendly demeanor was genuine. He drove a black sports car.
The two-hour drive to The Ranch was sleepy as Bill pointed out passing landmarks and filled us in on local trivia. He and Jen caught up in the way of mildly estranged relatives. I tried to shake the travel haze.
What the family calls The Ranch is three wooded acres with a tin can target fence and a jeep (for tours, I gathered). The house, itself, is a patchwork of additions, made obvious by slight shifts in the roofline and jarring structural disruptions in the interior. The center of the house forms a tower—the office, where Bill conducts research and Deb pens historical fiction.
We neared the gate, with its ornamental sign, and I became nervous. I’d met all but one of Jen’s six siblings and their spouses. Each of them had cautioned me about Deb. She’d been described as passive-aggressive, creepy. The Devil. I was advised to keep quiet. A brother just shook his head and laughed. Their concern was real, but I knew they hoped I’d blow it and return with a juicy story.
Deb was all smiles as she welcomed us from the sweeping front porch. She was decked out to match the cowboy-pastiche of her home: dyed red braids, denim, plaid, artfully scuffed boots, turquoise and silver ornamentations everywhere. I could get behind that kind of kitsch. Maybe I’d be okay.
After a quick tour, Deb showed us to the Bridal Suite, a cozy nest heated by a wood stove (haul your own wood)—the communal bathroom is located at the opposite end of the house. The Ranch is marketed as a western B&B, though it’s difficult to imagine the sort of person who’d pay to stay there. The parlor sits below Bill and Deb’s partially open loft bedroom. One wall features the skin of a bear cub—an accidental trophy killed by Jen’s oldest brother. The library is a single wall of shelves with an ample selection of sex manuals and cookbooks.
As the evening passed, we moved to the parlor where I sat on a stiff-backed period piece and bounced the baby. Jen flipped through a magazine and chatted with her dad. I half listened to their conversation.
Deb came in from the kitchen to announce that we were attending a talent show on our last night. She knew a lot of creative types, she said and smiled at me. Jen made a face, but I thought it sounded great, figuring we’d need some sort of outing to change things up.
Deb’s smile went saccharine. “You know,” she said and rocked back on her heels, “Jakob will need to wear a hat.”
I raised my eyebrows, half smiled—thought she was kidding.
“We can’t do anything about the piercing, and he’ll obviously be wearing long sleeves, but we can’t let anyone see that hair.”
I looked to Bill who was busy with his chair.
Jen argued on my behalf. “No one will care. He’s not wearing a hat.”
Deb’s voice grew churlish. “These people are my friends. You’re going to embarrass me in front of my friends. You will wear a hat.”
I made a noncommittal response and Bill finally contributed by clearing his throat. I wasn’t going to cave. The show was days away.
The rest of our time at The Ranch was uneventful. We took walks around the property and met one of the red-headed farm girls. Jen and I cooked a dinner or two. Throughout, Deb’s disapproval was a constant: I was too quiet. I opened a bag of veggies incorrectly. I was too loud with the baby. I was.
The night of the talent show we drove into Colville, a town most known for the illuminated cross on its northern hill. I was wary and hatless as we walked through the door of the grange and into what may have been the most welcoming atmosphere possible. Of course, the only cultural event within 50 miles attracted every gay person, every liberal, every outsider in the area. My flaming head of hair earned me immediate acceptance and, while Deb seethed through the evening, I basked in compliments. Little old ladies smiled in my direction, kids hovered, men hit on me at the buffet table. My little family and I were invited back anytime.
We drove to Spokane the next day, where we spent a tense night in a shared hotel room, before catching the train back to Seattle. The evening crawled by, hushed by an absence of conversation. We ate downtown where Deb refused, at first, to enter the restaurant with us. Bill coaxed her inside and I squirmed through the meal, a migraine budding in my head.
Later, we wandered through the Davenport Hotel, where the annual Christmas tree display glittered in tacky opulence. Though the detour was her idea, Deb charged through the lobby, determined to distance herself. Something was brewing. She stopped me near the center of the lobby while Bill sequestered Jen near the door. Deb accused me of gross disrespect over the hat incident. She went on to question my upbringing, to suggest that I was mentally ill, and finally, to demand that I cease acting as if I were part of the family.
My headache blossomed; my feet felt like water wings. I thought I might puke. “No,” I said.
“I’m part of your family,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere and you’ll have to get over it.”
I walked away, to Jen, and we all trudged down the street to our hotel. Deb ignored me for the rest of the trip, went so far as to pass comments through Jen and Bill, as if we were in some sort of sitcom.
Jen’s siblings got their wish. Not only did I have a story to tell, but so did Deb. Months later, I met Jen’s other brother. He laughed when he saw me, said he’d heard I was a hulking menace, that I’d physically threatened Deb in a hotel lobby. Then he congratulated me as the only person to say no to Deb.
Ultimately, I was rejected by the entire clan, but for a few months I was a legend.
Jakob Vala is the graphic designer at Tin House. He grew up in a small cabin in the middle of the woods and attended a one-room schoolhouse where he learned to bake soufflés and recite Shakespeare. He has a BFA in Communication Design from Pacific Northwest College of Art.
Our Endless Numbered Days will be published in nine territories, and as far as I know all the covers will be different, and I can’t wait to see them.
It always seems to surprise readers that writers don’t have a huge amount of say in the covers of their books. I’ve already had many people ask me whether I designed, or even drew mine. I didn’t; I wouldn’t presume to know what will catch the eye of my audience and so it’s very lucky that I love all those that I’ve seen so far. Of course just like the story, the cover images can be interpreted in many different ways.
Here’s what I think:
The UK jacket went through a couple of iterations at Penguin before the chalk on blackboard image of a cabin was finalised. For me it sums up perfectly the child-like surface level of the story and its darker undertones. And the picture is a wonderful echo of a scene in the novel where the father draws with charcoal over the walls of the cabin he is living in with his daughter, Peggy.
The Canadian cover from House of Anansi, is perhaps the most literal interpretation, with the image of a figure tramping through the snow, but still visually arresting. The person could be any age, female or male, and who knows where they’re going? To raise these kinds of questions from an cover is hopefully a great way of getting readers to pick the book up. Underlying the title are the branches of a tree in winter, and I see these as inspired by the line: ‘I looked at our view, with the bare branches of the trees standing out spidery and black against the snow like the lungs of the world.’
The USA cover was pure serendipity. My editor at Tin House and the in-house designer knew of an illustrator, Julianna Swaney, who drew in a style that might work, and they had a look through her back catalogue, and came across the image. That a girl of the right age, in the right clothes, collecting kindling as Peggy does, already existed is nothing short of spooky. And, standing behind her is a mysterious figure – a cloud of flies – which have been used to great effect in the titles and chapter numbers. It’s perfect.
Which one do you like best, and why?
Mary chose black, and I chose Baby Color. She was sunning on the dock, but her skin was still pale, paler against the black suit. If I pulled my straps down, I could find a tan line, at least something to bring home with me at the end of summer. I hated the suit my mom said was lovely after she denied me a two piece. She called it Lavender. I called it Princess Color. Baby Color.
Mary didn’t even want a two piece. “The world doesn’t need to see me in a bra and panties,” she said.
But she lost her modesty back at the lake house. In our room she’d sprawl on the bed reading her comic books in less. It embarrassed me in a way it hadn’t when we were thirteen.
Mary didn’t need a two piece to be sexy. There were boys on docks, boys fishing at the ends of boathouses, boys on boats. And Mary had a deep V on the back of her suit. Mary had blonde hair and the kind of pale skin that wasn’t problematic.
The day before, the boys on the dock across from us called, “Hey, blondie,” but she just slid into the water. I followed. I hid my body and tread water and thought about having shoulders like Mary’s. At least my Baby Color suit had a deep scoop too. When I looked in the mirror, I could at least say my back was nice.
The boys called, “Hey, ladies,” but I knew it wasn’t for me. Not with my church haircut and what my brother called a shelf butt.
“Go talk to them if you want,” Mary said.
“Are you kidding? My parents are right inside.”
My mother asked too many questions about Mary’s home life. I was sure she smelled the smoke on us after dinner. Mary found three perfectly good butts in an ashtray, and all the gum in the world couldn’t ease my stomach after.
When Mary wouldn’t respond, the boys pointed to their cooler. “Y’all need some refreshments?”
Backstroke had been Mary’s event, but she dropped out of swim team at the start of summer. She swam to them, but she didn’t race. I watched her strokes. The suit made her chest look small, but it made her waist look even smaller.
She waved at me from the boys’ dock, but I shook my head. I was pruning. I hid my body in a towel. The sound of pop tops carried over the water, and I thought my parents would check on us any minute. Mary let the boys touch her shoulders, her knees, higher.
“Don’t be so worried and boring,” she said after. My flip-flops flung pine straw at my calves.
That morning, the boys were asleep on their dock and Mary didn’t even notice them. I poured sunscreen into my palm and hoped they’d burn.
Mary rolled onto her back. “Want me to rub some on you?”
“No. I want my back to get tan.”
“Okay, weirdo. Want to swim then?”
“No. I don’t want to wash my hair.”
When we were kids, we’d take showers together after our swims. That summer Mary kept suggesting we try again. The night before, her breath sour with the two beers I’m sure my mother could smell, she asked a third time.
“You’re drunk,” I said, though I wasn’t sure she was.
Mary dove in with no splash. When she surfaced, her hair was at least brown. “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You’ll have to wash it anyway.”
“I just don’t feel like showering today, okay?”
I watched from the dock as Mary sank herself. I knew she was counting. I counted too.
“Hey there, movie star.” My father and his camera, usually reserved for sunsets and blue herons. He mostly knew to keep his distance beyond meals.
“Dad, no,” I said.
“Come on, I need at least one decent picture of you.”
Mary dolphined out of the water, her inhale loud enough to scare the birds. She pushed herself up onto the dock, her arms still swimmer strong.
“90,” she said. “I think.”
“Alright, get together, ladies,” my father said. “Get together and smile.”
“No way.” Mary sat on the dock and dipped her feet in the water. “Not in a swimsuit.”
“Swimsuits are off limits,” I said.
My father adjusted the lens. The boys on the dock were awake. I could see them whispering about us.
“I guess it’ll have to be candids then,” my father said. And the clicks began
He had never been this insistent. He didn’t even like Mary.
Maybe he knew what I was just starting to understand. This would be one of his last opportunities to document our friendship. With Mary, it would be easiest to let her fade.
“Let’s just take the picture,” I said. “Then he’ll leave us alone.”
“That’s the spirit,” my father said.
I took Mary’s hand, but this time she didn’t squeeze back. I pulled, but she went cripple even with both my hands pulling. My father snapped photo after photo. “Smile, ladies. Smile.”
Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote. Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Salt Hill Journal, PANK, Juked, and others. She is a contributor to the Small Press Book Review and teaches in Western Massachusetts. For more information visit www.christycrutchfield.com.
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.
As a journalism undergrad in Arizona, I signed up for an Intro to Poetry class, not really knowing what to expect—I was not Well Read. In high school, I developed a casual fondness for Charles Bukowski and read over the shoulder of the student with the scar on the back of his head—he did hallucinogenics and I worshipped whatever he scrawled in his notebooks when he wasn’t paying attention in class.
Then, I read Sarah Manguso’s first poetry book, The Captain Lands in Paradise. I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. I read it over and over, often ignoring my actual schoolwork in order to read a few of her poems for the twentieth time. It was the first book that made me think, “I want to do that.”
Sarah later became my mentor and I continue to regularly reach for her books whenever I need a lesson in clarity. In her newest book, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf), Sarah shows us her relationship with time, her son, life, death, and the compulsion she has to document her life. She writes, “And then I think I don’t need to write anything down ever again. Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.”
It’s a beautiful, haunting book that I had a lot of questions about.
(Ed. Note-Sarah will be reading this Friday, March 20th @ 7:30pm at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside)
Chelsea Hodson: On the first page of Ongoingness, you write, “I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination—so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.” When I write, I will often end up perpetuating my own obsession. Do you often have the sensation of relief or letting go after writing about something?
Sarah Manguso: I always feel relief after I get it down right, but getting it down right can take a very long time.
CH: You write that you stopped taking photographs at age 12 because you thought they were ruining your memory: “I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings.” You also mention that you never made audio recordings, and I assume you never felt a compulsion to video, either. Why didn’t you? Video and audio seem more effective methods of documentation.
SM: Sure, but before smartphones, they weren’t really an option. Staring into the twenty split seconds captured by my Kodak Instamatic at summer camp almost drowned out the rest of July 1986. Almost twenty years later, those media still don’t capture things the way that writing can, and anyway, I’m a writer. I’m not a creative monster. I’m interested in writing.
CH: I wonder about the exercise you mention doing with your students—to sit silently for up to forty minutes and then write about it. What value do you think can be found in those daily voids, in those little gaps of “empty time”versus moments that feel “too full”?
SM: If I can perceive and understand one small thing thoroughly, I gain a greater sense of peace and power than I’d feel having paid semi-attention to a vast thing.
CH: Do you envy people who don’t have the same compulsion to document their lives—people who are perhaps content to look at old photographs?
SM: I can’t imagine how they manage to continue.
CH: What are the dangers or risks involved in forgetting someone, someplace, or some year?
SM: Those who forget history…no, that’s too easy. My problem is that I can’t stop thinking about something until I write about it. Have you heard of the Zeigarnik effect? It states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.
CH: No, I haven’t, but that makes sense. You write, “Shortly after the turn of the millennium, I read the diary from beginning to end. Finding nothing of consequence in 1996, I threw the year away.”Do you ever regret that?
SM: I just remember thinking that the writing seemed worthless. I might have been in the middle of a long, slow corticosteroid overdose. It’s funny because a lot happened that year, and much of it is depicted in Decay. I guess I have the book instead of the diary, in that case.
CH: Has anything ever been too painful to write in the diary? Are there topics that you avoid? Do you feel a duty to be honest?
SM: I don’t include every joyous or hideous detail, but economy doesn’t feel dishonest. I prefer the pathos of understatement.
CH: Do you ever cross-reference a memory with the diary and find you’ve misremembered it?
SM: Yes, but I also misremember quotations from other books.
CH: You describe writing in the diary as an “essential component of [your] daily hygiene,”but you also refer to it as a vice. What other vices do you indulge in, and how do they differ from the diary?
SM: I’d be interested in other people’s estimation of my vices, since a daily diary is so often vaunted as proof of discipline. For me, writing a diary is not an application of discipline; it’s a surrender to desire.
CH: What makes a vice useful as opposed to reckless?
SM: I don’t know that those adjectives necessarily oppose each other.
CH: You mention your diary being unintentionally read on a few occasions, but have you ever felt compelled to deliberately share parts of your diary with a certain person? Sometimes if I write about someone, I selfishly want to show it to them.
The Open Bar is excited to publish an exclusive excerpt from Morning Sea by Margaret Mazzantini, translated from Italian by Ann Gagliardi. Morning Sea will be published in April by Oneworld Publications.
Farid has never seen the sea, never gone in.
He’s imagined it many times. Dotted with stars like a pasha’s cloak, blue like the blue wall of the dead city.
He’s looked for fossilized seashells buried millions of years ago when the sea extended into the desert. He’s chased after fish lizards that swim beneath the sand. He’s seen the salty lake and the bitter lake and silvery camels advancing like shabby pirate ships. He lives in an oasis on the edge of the Sahara.
His ancestors belonged to a tribe of Bedouin nomads. They set up their tents in wadis, riverbeds covered with vegetation. The goats grazed; the wives cooked on fiery stones. They never left the desert. They didn’t entirely trust the coastal people, merchants, and pirates. The desert was their home – their open, limitless sea of sand, mottled by the dunes like a jaguar’s cloak. They possessed nothing, only footprints, which the sand covered over. The sun moved the shadows. They were accustomed to withstanding thirst, drying out like dates without dying. A camel opened the way for them with its long, crooked shadow. They disappeared in the dunes.
We are invisible to the world, but not to God.
They moved from place to place with this thought in their hearts.
“At the risk of sounding parsonic, it seems to me we’ve ceded so much space to the expert and the confident authority that expressions of real doubt or honest ignorance are now regarded, in the demotic mind, as a kind of recreancy, a failure of loyalty, the sign of a faith betrayed.” – Charles D’Ambrosio, “By Way of Preface” (Loitering)
I read this sentence this year, so I can’t claim it as a well-worn favorite. But sometimes you come across sentences that are like cairns, evidence the trail continues, and you are so grateful to have found them. This was one for me. “Our doubt is our passion,” Henry James said of writers. It is a notorious passion to be stricken by, one that insists with equal force to be held and released. How does one keep faith not only among but in uncertainty? I suspect the answer cannot be asserted, but the question can be followed to courageous lengths. This sentence does just that. It treats style as a responsibility to its subject, and that subject is doubt.
“By Way of Preface” is the name of the piece you can find the sentence in. Is it an essay, preface? The work eschews any title or status, apt for a paean to a kind of skepticism and the essay as a form best suited to follow it. As D’ambrosio puts it earlier in the piece, quoting a gloss on Augustine, the essayist is “Seeking faith with doubt, that’s definition enough for me. Or strike faith, if you must, and leave it at seeking with doubt.”
And yet capturing the sinewy movements of doubt is tricky business. Like most things you know close-up, you almost never see it captured. You’ve got to follow its rhythms, involutions, and turns. Qualifiers abound: “it seems to me,” “at the risk of sounding parsonic,” a halting phrase that begins the semantic spin cycle into which the rest of the sentence is swept. Who, after all, might we expect to champion “real doubt” or “honest ignorance” less than a parson? The whole sentence joins this inversion: we’re in a world in which a faith betrayed is a faith kept, where recreancy is a badge of honor (If you had to look up recreancy, you’re not alone). This is the alchemy of the sentence. It repurposes the very tenacity of uncertainty, turning it into a kind of untrammeled dissent, an insistence.
The very style of the sentence fights against the ceding of space it names – and against those to whom it is ceded, the experts. Space, a good word to use.The sentence itself seems to open a physical space, not where this encroachment of the expert is batted back (that would be too active, too certain) but where a kind of aporia, a safe house of doubt, can be preserved, within the defenses of style. The passive voice (“are now regarded”), the modifying clauses, protect the sentence’s meaning, as would a burrow, in which a hunted creature has gone to live, briefly unhounded by the worst of the world.
The ten-dollar words also stand guard. “Parsonic,” “demotic,” “recreancy.” You’ll know or look them up if you care enough, and if you don’t care enough: good, nothing to see here. They’re shibboleths, initiatory. (Later in the paragraph, D’Ambrosio hints at a small community elected by loneliness: “I would wonder, in my uncertainty, where all the other people are who don’t know, who don’t understand. Are we—the hesitant, conflicted—all alone?”) Recreant, from the Old French recreant – “defeated, vanquished, cowardly.” The adjective recurs throughout the collection, a notable repetition for such a brilliant stylist. In its dramatized obscurity, the word itself feels recreant. In its refusal to assert, the whole sentence does. It’s as if it were playing dead, to be ignored by the marauding armies who mistake the prone for the defeated.
Discussing the essays of M.F.K Fisher earlier in the essay, D’Ambrosio writes, “…soon enough it was the language itself, and more specifically, the right she assumed to be exact about her life, that won me over completely.” This is what won me over completely in this sentence, essay, and collection: the exact, which supports the blind reachings of doubt, like a spotter in gymnastics. I will return to this sentence when I need to remember why and with what care one writes.
Jacob Rubin’s first novel, The Poser, is now available from Viking. His writing has appeared in the anthology Best New American Voices, www.newyorker.com, New York magazine, Slate, The New Republic, n+1, and The Cincinnati Review. Times Square, a screenplay he co-wrote, was recently acquired by Focus Features. He lives in New York.
The poems in Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty take measured steps across a wooden floor. Rolling between the real and the remembered, the interior and the exterior, The Beauty cuts to the heart of our shared existence.While I’ve always been a fan of the tenderness and mystery in Hirshfield’s work, there’s something about these new poems and essays that go even deeper. Released in tandem with a new collection of essays, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, Hirshfield’s The Beauty stayed with me like a comforting ghost.
In anticipation for her upcoming book release and reading at Powell’s later this week (7:30 p.m. March 18 at Powell’s City of Books) I had the chance to write to Hirshfield and chat over email about mushroom hunting, secret rooms—and as she puts it, unplugging the landline.
Rebecca Olson: The Beauty is being released at the same time as your new collection of essays. Were you working on these two projects simultaneously? Do you see the two books as speaking to one another, and if so, how?
Jane Hirshfield: The last-written chapters of Ten Windows coincide with the time of writing The Beauty, but I don’t work on poems and essays at once. They walk on different legs, speak with different tongues, draw from different parts of the psyche. Their paces are also different. A poem’s essential discovery can happen at a single sitting. The cascade of discoveries in an essay, or even finding a question worth exploring in one, seems to need roughly the time it takes to plant and harvest a crop of bush beans.
Ten Windows records the desire to understand others’ poems I’ve felt transfixed and transformed by: “What is a good poem doing?” “How is it done?” “Why does it work?” I want to understand the piers of language and music and comprehension that can hold up a building even when what the building houses is an earthquake. This thinking must surely come into the poems I write, but more by osmosis than will… Art-making is learned by immersion. You take in vocabularies of thought and feeling, grammar, diction, gesture, from the poems of others, and emerge with the power to turn language into a lathe for re-shaping, re-knowing your own tongue, heart, and life…
Craft consciousness burnishes the tool, but the tool is already there. Perhaps it sensitizes, or expands the reach. Certainly it sharpens attention. Still, the ability to name poetry’s gestures and rhetorics isn’t required to write or read them, any more than a painter needs to know the physics of color to bring forward a landscape. The eye and hand and ear know what they need to know. Some of us want to know more, because knowing pleases.
A person could take these two books and undertake a kind of checklist comparison. It would feel strange to me to do that myself. I want to preserve a certain unknowing about my own poems—perhaps because unknowing is in itself a useful poetic thirst. To move the perimeter of saying outside my own boundaries is one reason I write.
RO: Speaking of boundaries, houses, rooms, windows, walls, and doors appear throughout The Beauty. Did you concentrate on this architectural imagery intentionally, or did this thread develop on its own?
JH: These things are for me a feeling-provoking vocabulary. Each poet probably has his or her own cupboard of magnets. For some, it is cars; for others, works of art, or certain patterns of form or sound; for others, certain stories or places, Philip Levine’s Detroit, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Chicago, Seamus Heaney’s time-tunneled, familied Ireland. . . It’s not that these things are the whole of what a poet may write, but they recur. Go back to The October Palace, which came out in 1994, and there are poems with windows, doors, the rooms of the gorgeous and vanishing palace that is this ordinary world and ordinary life. Jungian archetype would say the house is a figure for the experienced, experiencing self. Gaston Bachelard described this gorgeously in The Poetics of Space. Houses are fundamental metaphors for self, world, permeability, transition, interiority, exteriority, multiplicity, and the power to move from one state of being to another
A certain amount of housekeeping also goes on in my poems. I wash doorknobs, do dishes, mop floors, patch carpets, cook. But a person could draw a too-easy conclusion about what this may mean, or an overly narrowed one, anyhow. A poem can use anything to talk about anything. The poem in Come, Thief about washing doorknobs also holds war-grief. A poem in The Beauty about mopping the floor holds being brought to my knees for other reasons. A house is a place we live in with others, and like anywhere else, it’s a place connected to the whole of human experience. Someone made the cup that holds my morning coffee; someone picked the coffee. We are tethered to others by power lines in more ways than one. “After every war,” wrote Wislawa Szymborska, “someone has to clean up.” Poems are always interested in what Ivan Illich called ‘shadow work,’ not least because that is no small part of their own way of working.
RO: Your combination of architectural elements with descriptions of the self in poems like “Many-Roofed Building in Moonlight” and “My Life Was The Size of My Life” feels dream-like to me, in what feels very much a Jungian way. What kinds of buildings or structures do you dream about?
JH: One recurring dream, many others have also: you go into a familiar house, discover a door or hallway, and find the house continues into hidden rooms. Sometimes a whole second house is there, a larger and unknown extension of the familiar dwelling. In my own variation of this dream, the newly discovered part of the house is always under construction. Sometimes it’s close to finished, other times it’s torn down to raw studs and plywood. I’m sure this dream somehow underlies the poem “Of Amplitude There Is No Scraping Bottom.” Its closing image is of a door on the outside of a building that can’t be found on the inside. That particular door did in fact exist, in a cabin I stayed in for a month. I never did figure out where it led to, since it was padlocked. I liked the mystery of that.
RO: In the poem “A Cottony Fate” the speaker reflects on a piece of advice they were given long ago to “avoid or.” The poem closes with the line: “Now I too am sixty. There was no other life.” This struck me as both hopeful and hopeless—there is peace in accepting our life the way it is, but also grief for lost opportunities. How did this poem come to be?
JH: The advice was given me by Ted Weiss, who was not only a very fine poet and teacher but as generous a figure as American literature has known. Ted and his wife Renee edited The Quarterly Review of Literature for fifty years, in whose almost uncannily prescient pages they brought forward the early and later work of an entirely extraordinary range of poets, from the not-yet-iconic William Carlos Williams, early on, to Anne Carson’s first (completely forgotten) collection of poems, to a 1982 translation by multiple hands of the then unknown-in-English Szymborska. One of the listed translators was the equally unknown ‘S. Olds.’ I think of Ted’s cautionary rule any time I find the word “or” in a poem, and always test my use of it against his warning.
This poem applies his words to the life, though, not to poetic craft. And you’re not wrong in your understanding. For a young person, a life is filled with possibility and choice. We believe we can do this or do that, that all paths are open. At a certain age, that is no longer so. I will never become a horse trainer, a biologist, a person competent with a hammer. My loves were my loves. Certain doors are closed. And yet, I don’t myself feel this poem as being about either hope or hopelessness, precisely. I feel it as more about thusness, about saying yes to one’s own existence…. Moment by moment, we write in indelible ink. This poem finds its way to assenting to that recognition.
At another level, though, poems can craft an eraser—we can’t revise the past, but poems allow us some malleability, an increased freedom of response, comprehension, feeling. Choice, what choices are possible for any given person, is another theme that’s run through my work from the start. So much of our lives depends on accidents of birth, time, and geography. This haunts me. In some lives, few “or”s are possible. The pain of that is behind the second stanza of this poem.
The sous chef has opinions, like frozen shrimp invite the devil in.
He, Chef D, is second in command at the upscale Chinese restaurant where celebrities don’t eat, the one that is unquestionably better than the upscale Chinese restaurant where celebrities do, though it failed to make last year’s LA Times 101 Best. But LA is an undiscoverable, filthy city, and people binge and purge on the filth. Coyotes eat pocket poodles for desayuno. Cats talk up a dust storm in neon, over lit alleys. Snails copulate on sidewalks where sprinkler systems hit. And misguided celebrities, when craving soup dumplings or tempeh bao, flock to Fu’s Blue.
Fu’s Blue stands on the water, and rumor has it they freeze their shrimp. Chef D often imagines a tidal wave pulling Fu’s Blue right off its peg legs and into the ocean.
Rumor engulfs the sous chef, too. Not untrue either; he’s had a rough go. Three years back Chef D gained so much weight, then lost it in thirty days popping ma huang. The ma huang habit, they say he’s yet to lose, and that’s just what got him started. They say these days Chef D won’t turn any upper down.
As a man, Chef D is unpalatable. Last year, the Times might have featured the sous chef’s restaurant instead, but Chef D grew impatient as the food critic looked on with fault hungry eyes.
“You want to know how I make my noodles? You want a pen to write this down?” As he spoke, Chef D wiped sweat beads from his nose. “Flour and water. Leave the food processor out of it.”
At the end of each day, the sous chef goes home to meet his son who rarely meets him there, though home is technically where his son still lives, rent free, because who could kick the boy out? His son has a sweetheart in the valley. Now, father-son bonding occurs when the son and his sweetheart come around to ask Chef D to make them lunch on the house.
“Love this veggie fried farro,” his son says between chews, which is the closest the two come to “love you”. The sous chef will take it.
Chef D’s wife? A four car pileup. Four years ago. She’d been more beautiful than all Hollywood stars combined.
The night of the accident, seconds before the police called their house, Chef D’s son tripped over an end table and shattered a pink Himalayan salt lamp. It was uncanny, the timing. It wasn’t how real life was supposed to unfold.
After the salt lamp, many things broke.
Chef D does think of moving, someplace where change is built into the seasons, but a part of him fears dark nights without the glow that never quits. At least in LA he wakes at two a.m., then three, then four, and it always looks like dawn. It’s a city that can trick you into believing. It gets you to inhale as the smog rolls in.
A thought that keeps Chef D breathing: some day soon the heavens will grow a mouth. A mouth with big, swollen lips like that star who eats at Fu’s Blue, the one who cut off her two prized assets and got better ones with a ten-year shelf life. Chef D believes in the big societal picture, cancer with a capital C. He believes the heavens with its mouth will call everyone in, say ‘come here, I’ve got a secret’, and everyone will come, and that will be it. It will all deservedly go poof. And Chef D will be the only survivor, the one who never gave a damn what those big lips had to say. Might as well stuff a soup dumpling in them.
The thought that keeps Chef D breathing most: can his son stand to lose a mother and father? Can he stand it if his son can?
But some day soon the mouth will open wide. His son will go. His son’s sweetheart will go. Every chef will go at Fu’s Blue. Shrimp, by the bucketful, will freeze over. The heavens will gulp it down.
Until then, Chef D will wake at two, then three, then four, and it’ll always look like dawn. He’ll buy thermal blackout curtains, a padded sleep mask, he’ll paint the walls deep red, then darkest brown. He’ll try, but won’t shut out the light.
Alison McCabe‘s fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, Third Coast, and other journals. She’s currently at work on a novel and becoming a licensed therapist. For more, visit alisonfmccabe.com.
Just to prove we have skin (if not submissions) in the game, we asked our staff members to recall a time in their lives when they were dealt a heaping hot slice of rejection pie.
To read more lengthy responses to the prompt, check out our latest issue, which is filled with
sad sack tales stories, essays, and poems dealing in rejection and regret.
We were planning on Raccoon for supper. My boyfriend’s dad, Stewart, had paid a hunter to shoot it, skin it, and bring it—wrapped in a plastic grocery sack—to the Superior Federal Bank he owned in downtown Rogers, Arkansas. The bank was one of the reasons I liked his son. We’d go there to study and sneak Dum Dum suckers from the teller counter and snack on fresh, buttery popcorn from the old-fashioned popper in the lobby.
I’d been invited, last minute, to go camping and though it felt like a father-son type of getaway, Chris assured me his dad wanted me there. Stewart illustrated this by swiftly grabbing a can opener (attached to a keychain, attached to his belt), popping the cap, and handing me a wine cooler the color of pink lemonade. For gentle drinking.
Stewart poured a bottle of beer into the cast-iron pot. The pot was perched directly on the kindling and the fire sizzled from the few stray drops of Michelob Light. We’d stopped at Last Chance Liquor on the way, one mile before the dry county line. The raccoon cooked slowly, the dark purple meat almost camouflaged within the cast iron pot.
When Stewart decided it was ready to eat, we huddled around the fire—the sun just down behind the Ozarks—and ate from paper bowls resting in our laps. The meat was tender and greasy. My first bite felt like a pad of butter in my mouth and I had to resist the urge to spit it out. The second and third bite tasted like oily duck.
As we were cleaning up, a loud bang filled the quiet night. Another boom sounded, followed by the sound of crackling metal. Chris told his dad we were going to walk down the road, deeper into the campground to investigate. Stewart put his hands up; I’m not your keeper.
The hollow tree stood upright, tethered to the ground by four large metal cables. At fifty yards away, it looked like a grand chimney without a house around it. About two-thirds of the way down were large holes drilled into the trunk and hours of firewood circling its base. The fire looked blue-hot: shot flames through the trunk, piping smoke from its top.
One of the men, he looked a teenager, darted from the log yelling something that sounded like Redbug!Redbug! and a few others jumped behind their trucks, waiting. The log whined and hissed, louder and louder till it blew, and shot fire and metal high up into the sky. The boy flung his fists into the air and was soon surrounded, hands smacking his back, others offering a fresh beer.
We started to walk closer, but were stopped by a man sitting on the bed of his truck. The Allman Brothers Band crackled through the speakers in the cab, windows down. The man had a beer can in each hand, drinking from one—spitting chew in another. You looking for somebody?
I asked him what they were doing. It’s called a Blow Log. Its purpose, he told us, was to blow stuff up and destroy the log. They threw in spray paint cans, hairspray, anything under pressure. All the trucks that were parked in a large circle around the log belonged to men in Newton County. He called them neighbors. Only the men who kept drinking could keep throwing. He couldn’t remember the man who had won the blow log last year, but bragging rights are involved.
We moved to get a better look, maybe to try tossing a can or two, but the man leaned and touched my elbow. Sorry, hon, no ladies at the Blow Log.
Later in the tent, I listened to the explosions in the distance. I closed my eyes and saw night stars moving over the tethered log with the fire burned from its top like yellow and orange leaves. The men passed out in trunk beds, hands stuffed into the waistbands of their pants. The last men standing, still drinking, still trying to blow up the log, throwing in last cans of hairspray.
Where did they get it? I wondered. From their girlfriends, their wives? I thought about the poisonous mix of butane, spray paint and hairspray, a mix that probably made the men feel a little bit sick and a little bit good. I tried to picture the women that were not allowed at the blow log. Were they worried about their boyfriends and husbands and sons, out in the cold, drinking and handling explosives? Did they want to be invited or were they sitting warm indoors, glad to have them gone, thankful for the peace and quiet?
Masie Cochran is an editor with Tin House Books and The Open Bar. After working for Inkwell Management, a literary agency in New York City, she now lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and son.
Claire Fuller’s standout debut, Our Endless Numbered Days will publish on March 17th. Our Endless Numbered Days has made many most anticipated lists including Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Globe and Mail, and The Guardian. And, now, we are thrilled to offer you a sneak peek!
Highgate, London, November 1985
This morning I found a black-and-white photograph of my father at the back of the bureau drawer. He didn’t look like a liar. My mother, Ute, had removed the other pictures of him from the albums she kept on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and shuffled around all the remaining family and baby snapshots to fill in the gaps. The framed picture of their wedding, which used to sit on the mantelpiece, had gone too.
On the back of the photograph, Ute had written James und seine Busenfreunde mit Oliver, 1976 in her steady handwriting. It was the last picture that had been taken of my father. He looked shockingly young and healthy, his face as smooth and white as a river pebble. He would have been twenty-six, nine years older than I am today.
As I peered closer, I saw that the picture included not only my father and his friends but also Ute and a blurred smudge which must have been me. We were in the sitting room, where I stood. Now, the grand piano is at the other end, beside the steel-framed doors which lead to the glasshouse and through to the garden. In the photograph, the piano stood in front of the three large windows overlooking the drive. They were open, their curtains frozen mid-billow in a summer breeze. Seeing my father in our old life made me dizzy, as though the parquet were tipping under my bare feet, and I had to sit down.
After a few moments I went to the piano, and for the first time since I had come home I touched it, running my fingers without resistance across the polished surface. It was much smaller than I remembered, and showed patches of a lighter shade where the sun had bleached it over many years. And I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Knowing that the sun had shone, and the piano must have been played, and people had lived and breathed while I had been gone, helped steady me.
I looked at the picture in my hand. At the piano my father leaned forward, his left arm stretched out languidly while his right hand tinkered with the keys. I was surprised to see him sitting there. I have no recollection of him ever sitting at the piano or playing it, although of course it was my father who taught me to play. No, the piano was always Ute’s instrument.
“Then what should it sound like?” Eliot asks. The swivel chair hisses as he stands.
“Don’t’ be like this.” Claire shifts to the edge of their burnt orange couch. “Its not as if—”
“You’re stepping out on me?” Eliot is still in hospital scrubs after his thirty-hour shift. He paces across the frayed rug to the mirror crowning the gas fireplace. He tries not to look at her. When the side of her mouth gets that semi-annoyed hook he always feels how his mother made him feel: Oversensitive, and precious because of it.
“Let me finish. Can you do that?”
He nods, glancing at her through the mirror. She’s leaning forward.
“I love you,” she says.
He shakes his head.
“What?” she asks.
“That just sounds like—” but he doesn’t finish. Like you’re making up for something.
Two years ago he’d been engaged to a woman. Her business dinners ran late, and later. Her boss. Afterwards, to the other interns, to his mother, to his father—to everyone—he said it’s for the best and better to find out now then after the fact. He made a point to ask out a nurse just a week later to prove to everyone he was fine, which—as his mother and step-mother both pointed out—only proved the opposite.
“I’m not Steph,” she says.
He kisses his teeth and turns around. “Who said you were?” Sure, they’d agreed to never let past relationships dictate the present, but that was like trying to define love. And, anyways, if they were going to talk about Steph, why not talk about how his parents had spent a decade in matrimony before his father went on a business trip and some woman in the hotel bar smiled? Within a week, boxes were stacked on the lawn and the oil stain in the driveway from his father’s pretentious Buick was all that was left of him. Then, when Eliot went to suburban Tucson to visit, his father was tan and his teeth had been whitened and he’d lost a bunch of weight and Eliot couldn’t decide which was worse: that his father left, or that he seemed so fucking healthy now that he was gone.
Shit can change in an instant. You are under before you realize a needle has pricked your arm.
Claire removes her thick-framed glasses and rubs her eyes. “What would you like me to say? It wasn’t sexting.”
“He asked what you were wearing.”
“It was a joke. He’s a perv. But more importantly, he’s no one. Just some guy who lifts while I’m working. I should be offended that you’d even consider him a threat.”
“A perv? That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
“This is my work phone. Work. Phone. And anyways, do you know how many guys hit on me? Why do you think they transferred me to membership sales?”
“Such a team player.” He paces back and forth. If only he had a bigger apartment he could leave. “Just forget it.”
Claire says nothing. He looks over and her eyes are closed. She’s not casual any more. She’s fingering the engagement ring. “I didn’t mean it like this,” she says. “Honestly. He means nothing to me. We were just flirting.”
“Just.” Eliot rubs his forehead. Airbrakes whistle outside their apartment. “Don’t you understand? Put yourself in my shoes.” He sits down in the chair opposite of her.
“I know. I can see that now. I’m sorry.” She pulls her legs up beneath her. “But if you think about it, we both have people who’d try. Who will try. What matters is that you trust me.”
She stares at him. He knows what he should say.
But that word: trust is a tourniquet, something only capable of slowing the bleed. Something that by its very necessity proves the wound’s already too deep to stop on its own.
“Fine. I’ll stop,” she says. “No more flirting. Fuck, I’ll block him.”
“It’s up to you,” he says, as if now he’s the one who’s casual. He knows what he’s doing, hates it, but here he is, latex gloves suckled to his fingers, mask snug around his mouth and nose, scalpel peeled from the sterile packaging.
She leans forward, fingers somewhere near her lips. Pauses. Then she grabs her brown leather purse from the floor. “Look, I’m going for a walk. I’m going to leave my phone here.” She sets it down on the table. “Have at it. And I’m not going to be the one to decide where this goes next. You’ve already asked me, and I’ve already said yes.”
“Later.” He stares her down.
She waits there for a moment, eyes glinting. She grabs her coat from the rack next to the door and leaves.
He gets up from the chair and walks over to her phone on the coffee table. He’s standing above, a surgeon over an open heart.
Ross McMeekin’s stories appear or are forthcoming in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Redivider, and PANK. He’s a weekly columnist for the Ploughshares blog, where he reviews short stories. He has been awarded fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw Studios.
Kathleen Ossip’s The Do-Over, her fourth book of poems, is a study in poetic crosshatching as it slashes moments of recollection and longing with that of inquiry and curiosity. The speaker functions as a character within her own life, a character in the life of long-lost relatives, (too old for her to remember), and a character in conversation and contemplation with dead writers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. The collection brings the reader into Ossip’s life as a mother, pop-culture fan, poet, and as a young 20-something trying to find success in Manhattan. Her poems are as complex in form, as they are in intensity; this is a layered book about the loss of her step mother-in-law, but also about the near-loss of the selfhood of a young woman. Readers familiar with her book, The Cold War, will enjoy a similar narrative and reflection into the many worlds we straddle in a single day.
Leah Umansky: This collection not only weaves between different voices and forms of writing (such as prose poems, formal poems and experimental poems) but also between dreams and visions. How did this book inform your choice of form, as a poet?
Kathleen Ossip: As for the question about form: I’m easily bored. Sameness makes me itch. I’m not a reader who likes to read the same kind of book or poem all the time. As a writer, if I can do many different kinds of things, why wouldn’t I want to?
To be utterly transparent, the shape and texture of this book were inspired by what’s probably my favorite album of all time, Tusk by Fleetwood Mac. It’s this big album of songs by three very different singer/songwriters and I love the way the different kinds of songs (some raucous, some dreamy, some bouncy, some just plain weird, etc.) and the different voices create this epic harmony and polyphony that’s almost novel-like. And the subject of the novel is heterosexual love, and you get all these different facets, narratives, shadings around that subject. I wanted to do something similar around the Grand Subject (of Death) in my book.
I also found, predictably I guess, that some things I wanted to explore in the book could only be achieved by using certain forms. The best example of this is the short story, “After.” The book follows the dying and death of A. At a certain point in that narrative, I realized I would need to confront the idea of an afterlife—really, the desire for an afterlife—and I couldn’t figure out how to do that in a poem, because I wanted to make the afterlife seem and feel real. So I wrote my first and so far only short story.
LU: The Do-Over seems as much an elegy to your step-mother-in-law, Andrea Forster Ossip (referred to simply as A. throughout the book) as it is an elegy to the past.
KO: I think of my previous book, The Cold War, as the one “about” the past. But I guess all elegies are looks back.
LU: I found this book to be very much like a self-help book, in the best way possible. Through addressing and accepting loss, we find understanding and in that understanding, a guide to life. In this book, you have a series of “A. in ____ “ poems, for your late step-mother. In “A. in May,” you say, “…We are still studying. Each of us one cell in a universe of process” Can you elaborate on this process you mention?
KO: No matter how much you think you understand death, death is a bewilderment. But I actually believe I understand very little. I think often of the Wallace Stevens title “How to Live. What to Do.” That’s why I need poetry, as a reader and a writer: to figure out how to live and what to do.
LU: I agree, we need poetry for that exact reason. As a female poet, how much of your writing would you say is “feminist”? Is it something you sought after in your work? After all, this is the age of #readwomen 2015.
KO: At a certain point last summer, there were a great many public debates going on that I just couldn’t fathom. I remember clearly that one of them began when a professional football player was arrested for hitting his small child. And then the debate began: Is it ever OK to hit a child? Athletic organizations weighed in , and religious groups, and the usual talking heads and bloggers. And SMH, as the kids say. I couldn’t believe that this debate was happening. To me, it’s obvious that no, we don’t hit kids (or anyone else).
That’s how I feel about feminism. Of course! It’s a question that shouldn’t have to be asked. What is there to debate? But feminism as a subject doesn’t automatically presents itself to me as fruitful for poems—I’m not saying this is a good thing, just that my head is in that other “no debate necessary” place. Social criticism plays a part in some of my poems and since I move through the social world as a woman, there’s bound to be a feminist stance.
More specifically, some of my poems come out of motherhood, and that kind of assertion is feminist, I think. Also, there’s a Great Man character in some of The Do-Over poems who’s both a patriarchal figure, an agent of death, and someone to be empathized with as completely clueless.
Beyond that, I believe that writing poems is a political act in all sorts of ways (the importance of the individual voice, the utterly free space the best poems inhabit) so since my politic beliefs encompass feminism, the poems do too.