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The taxidermist will mold, skin, gut, preserve, reassemble, and mount a creature, usually with the goal of making it look the way it did when it was alive. The final product can serve a variety of purposes—amusement, utility, education, and in terms of taxidermied pets, nostalgia: it helps preserve emotional connection. Carey McHugh manages the language equivalent to the art of taxidermy. The poems that make up her debut book, American Gramophone, restore life to the long dead and permit us to view, up close, these foreign and often dangerous animals, people, places, memories, or experiences. In “And Now, the Educated Hog,” McHugh writes, “You could say it was an adjustment. Like a tree/ uprooting inside me. Like being bricked up/ in a silo. Even the sun put me to sleep. At first/ I was content without a knife. Then, I couldn’t walk/ across a field without dreading roundworm.” Each poem is meticulously assembled and tightly sutured, as is the entire book; reading American Gramophone is akin to visiting a forest diorama in the Natural History Museum and standing at arms-length before a lynx, mid-kill.
In early December, Carey (who is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with taxidermy) came over to my apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. Over a few glasses of wine, we discussed her startling new book.
Robert Ostrom: Talk about the process of writing this book.
Carey McHugh: I started writing it in graduate school, and it has appeared in various permutations throughout the decade. For me, the process of putting a book together involves rearranging it and sending it out and getting a bunch of rejections and then rearranging it again and sending it out and getting a bunch more rejections and thinking, “Alright, maybe if I pulled this poem and put this one in, that’s going to be the lynchpin. Now it’s gonna get accepted!” So for a while I was stuck in a revolving door of poems, which I think I once advised you never to do.
RO: What is the oldest poem in the book and which one is the newest?
CM: The oldest poem is probably “The Ferrier.” I think the newest one is probably “Seafaring to Tracheotomy” or “And Now, the Educated Hog.” Those two came around the same time. “Self-Portrait as Shedding” is really old. “Somnambulist” is old. It’s weird to go back and still see those. In fact, I tried to take the “Somnambulist” out because it just seemed ancient and dusty.
RO: How do you feel about it now?
CM: I feel ok about it now. It took me a while.
RO: So does it sort of settle?
CM: More like congeals. Like an aspic. Like, put it in a fridge, or put it between a cover, you know, and then you think, alright this is a thing. And now I can’t change it, so it feels like it was always meant to be this way.
RO: Talk about the title. How did you come up with it? Were there other possibilities? Did you send it out under other titles?
CM: I sent it out for many years under the title Aviaries and Asylums, which is now a four-part poem in the book. And I sent it out with this title because I was thinking, “What’s holding this book together? It’s birds and madness. And I thought, well, in “Aviaries and Asylums,” there’s this strange community that’s somehow been locked up, imprisoned. And early on I was writing a lot about insane asylums that had been built in the late 19th century, early 20th century and abandoned. I think I was watching a lot of Ghost Hunters at the time, and they always go to these abandoned sanatoriums and it terrifies me. That shit scares the shit out of me. I’ll watch when I’m alone and I can’t stop.
RO: Why do you watch it if it scares you so much?
CM: Because I want to see if they make contact with the other world, ok?! I just want to see it! And every episode they’re like, “Ah ha! I saw movement! It could be a human spirit or a rat.” And I always think, “Oh this time they’re really gonna find a ghost.” So I’m kind of obsessed with those old abandoned buildings, and at the time I was thinking about asylums and captivity, and I liked the idea of writing about it.
RO: Why do you like that?
CM: Disease and mental illness are unexplainable in some ways. I’m thinking of it, specifically, in the context of “ye olde” medicine and how people didn’t understand the science behind it. It must have seemed like a connection to another world. It’s shocking and unpredictable—is it demonic possession or is it genetics? It must have been terrifying and outlandish to have gone through life facing a mental illness at that time, or to have been a doctor having no idea what you’re dealing with.
RO: I also think, at least in the poems, it serves as a metaphor, representative, if a little exaggerated, of a common state. Those extreme examples can be an easier way to talk about our own feelings.
CM: Right. It’s like our current state, but heightened.
RO: I feel like with a lot of books, while writing them, the author, herself and her work, changes. Some of this change is deliberate—you don’t want to keep making the same gestures over and over again in your poems, but other stuff is more circumstantial. Do you agree with this? And can you talk about what changes you and your work underwent during the decade-long evolution of this book?
CM: I became sort of bored hearing my voice in the same way over and over and over. I think when I started writing the book I was more concerned with language and how the sounds of words pivoted off of each other within a poem. I think I was less concerned that each poem would be understood, in terms of having a clear meaning. I was really interested in scaffolded sound and how one sound would plant the seed for another word later on in the poem. As the manuscript progressed, I wanted to start doing something a little bit different.
RO: Do you think that the change from those more sonic concerns to a different voice, perhaps concerned more with conveying experience, is also part of getting older?
CM: It isn’t getting older; for me, I think it’s becoming more vulnerable. We’ve talked before about the necessity of doing whatever is the most difficult thing to do when writing a poem. And the thing that’s hard for me is to just tell the truth and to be vulnerable in my writing. And I think I’m moving towards that.
RO: I think that’s great. My hope is that the act of writing benefits us in some way, and doesn’t steer us off bridges.
CM: Writing is like therapy plus a relief valve. Someone came up to me after the reading and said something like, “Oh now I see why you write poems like this. So that you don’t kill people.” I was like, “Yeah. Exactly.”
RO: Was that an admission?
CM: Haha. “Your honor, we have her on tape!”
I started thinking about it like, maybe poetry is where I keep my anti-civilization emotions. Maybe I just put all that in here so that I’m more free to walk around the world and not be as creepy and homicidal.
RO: Do you have a sense of what, now that this book has come to fruition, you’d like to do next? Besides work on your deltoids. Or, of course, you can talk about that too… And how does having this first one out there impact your thoughts on future writing? Could it be limiting?
CM: First of all, let me say I’m glad you mentioned my delts.
RO: They’re huge.
CM: Yeah, I’m still working up to having the biggest delts this side of the Mississippi but…
RO: Where are they?
CM: Delts? Right here.
[where the deltoids are]
RO: Oh yeah, because you want wings.
CM: Yeah. So I can get around by flying. It seems more expedient. In addition to deltwork, I want to continue writing. In the new poems I’ve been writing, there are some real bald-faced, bold statements that feel to me like, “Hey, how do you do? Welcome to my real life.” So I think maybe I will continue in that direction. Not to say that it’s all going to be autobiography from here on out, but I think it’s interesting to keep opening that door and see what sort of emotional turn it takes.
RO: It’s interesting because I feel like students are often urged to hide their experiences and emotions, or at least mask them in poetry.
CM: Well I think for this book, I wanted to just suck all of the sentiment away. I wanted it to be skeletal like branches with no leaves. I wanted it to be a creepy outline like horns on a skull. This bare, stark, maybe appalling thing. And now that I’ve done that, maybe the next book doesn’t have to be that.
RO: Ok I want to come back to that when I’m less afraid. So, now that this first book is done…
CM: Thank god!
RO: Now that it’s out in the world, do you think it can be limiting in any way? Do you think you’ve announced, this is how I write and therefore . . .
CM: I think it’s useful to have the book out. I mean you’ve got to start somewhere, right? And then you have to make a movement from that. This was my first effort, this is what I had in me, and now I hope that I can do something else. I hope this isn’t all I can do.
RO: I’m sure that it is.
CM: I wish we had a stenographer that would actually be…typing this interview.
RO: She’d have to be really old.
CM: Yeah. She’d be sitting on a stool right over there.
RO: Are you relieved in some way that your book didn’t get taken earlier?
CM: Yeah. I guess so. I can say that now because it’s out. If you had asked me that before it was published, I would’ve just flicked you off. The thing for me is, it had to stop or it would’ve just been this revolving selection of poems every time I wrote a new poem and found another to be too old. So I had to get it out so there could be a stopping point. Otherwise I would’ve revised it to dust.
RO: I know the owl poems are some of the younger ones in the book, and I’m wondering if you can talk about this project. To me, they maintain everything I love about your work, but allow a little more whimsy. Can you tell me about how the project began, took shape, and what you felt like it allowed you to do in this book?
CM: I was actually researching (I use that term loosely)… I was looking for a cool-sounding owl species to put in a poem, and I came across this website called The Owl Pages, which has a frequently asked questions section. Some are your basic owl questions: What do owls eat? Why do they hoot? And some are so outrageous and so bizarre and so spectacular and I was like, I also have these questions about owls and other living things, and I want to answer these questions for myself. They seemed to fit with all the birds in the book (they’re everywhere) and I thought it would fit well with my voice and my intentions for the book. So the questions became titles. Having question as titles, particularly absurd questions, was very freeing. It allowed me to be less rigorous. The titles are funny. So I think it opened the possibility to a little levity in my poems.
RO: Great answer.
CM: Advantage, McHugh!
RO: This isn’t a tennis match.
CM: That’s what you think.
[for comparison, an actual tennis match]
RO: I’m gonna ask you one more question and then we’ll take a break and get some more wine.
RO: When I think about American Gramophone the musical, I basically think of money. Because it’s brilliant. I mean, the book is brilliant, but also my musical adaptation is a goldmine.
CM: I hope Meryl Streep is playing the lead.
RO: Maybe. No doubt the chorus would be made up of lumberjacks and carpenters. All the instruments would be made from bird bones, rusty tools, and torture devices.
CM: Advantage, Ostrom!
RO: But really, the book has a remarkable cast of characters: ex-marksman, the farrier, the messenger, a woman with her throat cut, the warden’s girl. And yet, when I read the poems, the voice in my head is singular. They don’t feel like persona poems. Do you agree? Is it the same for you? Where did all these characters come from and why are you so drawn to them?
CM: You know what I’m drawn to? Ye olde professions. Like a farrier (a shoer of horses). Farrier is such a strange word for it, and also, what a bizarre thing to be done! Or a lumberjack—I like the idea of someone going out into the woods and just cutting down a tree with heft and delts and blade. This singular work. I’m not sure I thought of the poems as persona poems. I can’t say that I did as I was writing them, though I guess technically, that’s what they are.
RO: It just feels to me like it is the voice of your poem.
CM: It’s like my poems are wearing different hats. Now my poem has an ax. Now it has a horseshoe and an apron.
RO: It’s almost as if the poem is possessing those people, not visa versa.
Speaking of voice, talk about your writing process. Do you read your poems aloud when you’re done with them or as you’re composing them.
CM: I used to do that a lot more. I’ve found that I don’t do that as much right now until I feel like they’ve come to a state that could be a first draft and then I read them. I rarely just sit down and crank out a poem. What I do is either use an assignment, create an assignment for myself, or do a negative image, or if I find a title that I really like I can sort of have that as a platform, a jumping-off point for the poem. So those are the ways I write these days. Unfortunately. Rarely do I just sit down and blooobloooblat! And it just comes from my pancreas and spills out onto the page.
RO: If I had to describe your poems, the first word that comes to mind is density, both sonic and in terms of content.
CM: You mean destiny!?
RO: I mean density. You write about metal and horses and timber. There’s a lot of muscle in this book: commands like, “Tell the trees to pin me down or clear out.” And I love this about your writing, but I wonder if you ever received any pushback? If people maybe expected you to write differently?
CM: I think people want a story. People like a narrative, and I think sometimes what I’m aiming for is an emotional experience, or rather to convey an emotional intelligence instead of a linear narrative, so I’ve had a lot of pushback on that because, yeah, I think naturally, people want a story. People want to see me baking cookies too, but that’s never going to happen.
RO: Your poems repeatedly refer to the body, which often is injured, broken, or decaying. And, more so than not, it is resigned to this. For instance, “The spine spoils it’s own alignment.” Or, of course, “Woman with Her Throat Cut.” Why do you think this is? Where do you think this impulse towards violence comes from? Can you tell me a little about what accounts for this violence?
CM: I think of it in terms of aging, rather than violence. “Woman with Her Throat Cut” is different, of course. The title comes from an Alberto Giacometti sculpture. When I first saw it, it floored me, it was the saddest thing I’d ever seen because you can kind of make out her ribs and you can kind of see her bent knees and the trachea that’s just been a little bit cut. And even though there’s no head, there’s no hair, no real appendages that look human, it is devastating.
I think a lot about antiquated machines, like the gramophone, and the body is this organic machine, headed, ultimately towards decay, and how do we live with that? How do we reconcile it?
RO: Lots of horses in this book. What’s that all about?
CM: It’s funny because I have so many horses here in New York City! I was thinking about writing this book, because I wrote it all here, and I was wondering if I had been living in another place, if I’d been living in Tennessee, would I have written this book. Probably not. Can I talk about that in terms of taxidermy? If I can get there?
RO: Yeah and I’m also interested in what the distance from the location that’s inspiring the poems does to the poems.
CM: As you know, I moved around a lot during my life, but my extended family is in Tennessee, they always have been, that’s the one constant, the one place I’ve always returned to. When I was a kid, my father and my grandfather had a cattle farm in northern Georgia, near the Tennessee border, and we would go up there on weekends. They had horses for a while, and they had other animals, I think, but by the end it was mainly cattle. And I have these really strong memories of being there. There were all these things that were dangerous, things that we weren’t allowed to touch. “Don’t go up into the hayloft. You’ll fall out.” It was this sort of mysterious place that was so different from my suburban Atlanta life or wherever I was living at the time; it just seemed like another universe that belonged to my dad and my grandfather. And it fascinated me. There was always work to be done at the farm: roofs to be mended and fences to be fixed and cattle to be tagged and branded and fed. It informed so much of my early memory and imagination. It was something special—this whole other universe that existed outside of my life. And now my parents have since moved back to Tennessee and they have some horses and some property there. So again, it’s this place I go back to that still has these elements that are so different from where I’m living in New York.
RO: Do you think there’s something about it being in your memory that alters it?
CM: I think it’s like memory and imagination being conflated somehow. I think it’s the same with taxidermy. There’s a lot of taxidermy in the book. And in fact, we had this one deer head hanging in our living room for a long time. It was a deer that my dad had shot, and I was always appalled by it. I didn’t understand it. Why was it inside the house? Why did it have eyes? I remember being really young and looking up at it, and I remember this panic but also intrigue. How did this come to be here like this? And sometimes they’d take it down to dust it and I’d just pet it and be like, “Is it creature? Is it ornament? What is this thing!?”
It’s a reminder, maybe, of some history that I visit but don’t completely enter. Because I don’t hunt like my dad and my uncles and my brother. I’m a vegetarian in fact. But it’s something that’s always been present in my life. There was always talk of camo and bird dogs and guns. It wasn’t like those things were foreign objects. They were always in the mix somehow. And that’s so foreign to my life now that I think I go back there in my memory and I try to pull it up somehow and understand it.
RO: I remember being up at your parent’s last year and seeing all these things and thinking, oh, now I see where these things are coming from. In particular, I remember the horsehair birds nests.
CM: They’re so cool. They’re heartbreaking. Those were in a poem.
RO: Do they use them?
CM: Who? The horses? The horses can’t do a thing with them! The birds, yeah, they use them.
RO: If your book was sold with one prop or had a kind of crackerjack box surprise, what would it be?
CM: It would either have to be a rusty nail, a shotgun shell, a heron feather, or an owl feather. Or a hoof. Some sort of boney, animal part. This is not being packaged with food, right?
RO: I might have something here.
[RO reaches into drawer, pulls out a plastic bag]
[actor’s pre-enactment of McHugh’s horrified scream]
CM: Oh what is it? OH MY GOD, THAT’S NOT . . . They’re not human!?
RO: Yeah. They are.
CM: So apparently what we have here in Rob’s drawer is a human jawbone. A fragment, complete with three intact human teeth.
RO: Can you put it away? It scares me too much.
Describe your ideal reader.
CM: My ideal reader is wearing boots, some sort of work boot. They may or may not be wearing some sort of bone earing. Not human bones.
RO: Are you just describing yourself?
CM: They have a dark streak. They’re open to whatever language is giving them.
RO: This is your first book and somewhere someone you don’t know is reading it, has read it, or is going to read it. And that must feel pretty crazy. Larissa Szporluk has this line in Dark Sky Question: “the girl somewhere,/ who reads you,/ whose skin has memorized your life./ Nothing stops her fingers;/ they swim with you at night.” Talk about the experience of, after all this time, having readers.
CM: I like that you just implied I had no readers for 10-plus years. I was just writing in my dungeon at home.
RO: Well pretty much. But you know what I mean. These 10-plus years are now bound and someone’s going to crack it open.
CM: Yeah, I think that it’s very strange to have people reading it that I don’t know. On one hand it’s strange to have people reading it that know me well but who don’t know my poetry. But then there’s that other thing where people I don’t know are reading my book and commenting on it online. Which is just a whole new sort of bizarre thing because they’ll say things like, “In this poem where this is happening.” And I’m thinking, “That’s happening in that poem? I had no idea.” I’m learning a lot by reading what other people have to say and the conclusions they draw from reading my work.
RO: Is it kind of exciting?
CM: Yeah. It’s exciting. It’s a little scary too because, like, say it to my face, sucker!
Again there’s vulnerability in it. I have no control anymore. Which is somehow freeing, right. It’s like, well, it’s out there, and there’s nothing I can do.
RO: If all of civilization nearly died out, and your book was the only text to survive, how would you imagine a new people or religion that developed believing your book was a holy text? Which it is.
CM: They’re an agrarian people. They’re living off the land. I wouldn’t call them primitive, but they’re hunting and fishing.
RO: They’re aggressive. I mean, they know what they want.
CM: They have sharp tools.
RO: And sharp tongues.
CM: They’re shooting straight from the hip.
RO: Saying things like, “Plainclothes, help me to my things.” I like these people.
CM: Yeah, they’re wearing hats. They’re a little sinister. They give you the sidewinder, if you’re not careful. They’re skeptical. These are a skeptical people but they’re hard working. They’re industrious.
RO: They sound like Lutherans.
Riddle me this: Your book has to marry another book. Which does it marry?
CM: There are two books I can think of. I think it marries The Youngest Butcher in Illinois or Ritual and Bit. They’d both be really good companions.
RO: It can marry both of them.
CM: Is this a polygamy thing? Then yes, those two.
RO: In preparing for this interview, I asked my 7-year-old niece to help me brainstorm some questions. She had a lot of ideas, and I’d like to end the interview with one of her questions because I think it really implicates your readers in the writing of the book.
[Ostrom’s niece pulls no punches in her questions for McHugh]
RO: So, after the dedication to “Rob,” would it be appropriate for people to write “Ostrom”?
CM: The book is actually dedicated to my husband Rob. I’m sorry for the confusion.
RO: That’s weird because it doesn’t say that.
CM: I’m sorry.
RO: So yes?
Carey McHugh’s poems have appeared in Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, and Tin House, among others. Her chapbook, Original Instructions for the Perfect Preservation of Birds &c., was selected by Rae Armantrout for the Poetry Society of America’s 2008 New York Chapbook Fellowship. Her first collection American Gramophone (Augury Books) was released in October. She lives and works in Manhattan.
Robert Ostrom is the author of The Youngest Butcher in Illinois (YesYes Books 2012). His chapbook, Cross the Bridge Quietly, is forthcoming from Phantom Books, and Saturnalia is publishing his second book, Ritual and Bit. He lives in Queens and teaches at New York City College of Technology and Columbia University.
Lily Kaye is a second grader who lives in Western New York. She is currently working on a novel, Diary of Coco the Magic Unicorn.
The Visit of the Royal Physician, which I cannot stop reading, sometimes even long enough to eat a yogurt, begins like so:
On April 5, 1768, Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed Royal Physician to King Christian VII of Denmark, and four years later he was executed.
Why do I find this opening line—an unvarnished statement of fact regarding an obscure historical episode—so thrilling?
Ah, let me count the ways. First, because it contains a potent and nearly invisible irony: the man called upon to heal an ailing monarch winds up murdered by his patient. Second, because the reader naturally ponders how and why this gruesome event transpires and is therefore left in an exquisite state of suspense. Third, because the author, the Swedish novelist Per Olov Enquist, has established a narrative style unburdened by the pervasive modern compulsion to gin up the action by plunging us into frenzied scenes of court intrigue. We get history distilled to its essentials.
When he wants to highlight an event of particular importance, Enquist writes simply, “Here is what happened.” The effect is oddly incantatory.
So. Here is what happens: Struensee is summoned to Denmark because the teenage king has been driven mad by corrupt minders, systematically terrorized “to develop powerlessness and degradation for the purpose of maintaining the influence of the real rulers.”
The German doctor helps stabilize Christian and fosters his interest in the nascent principles of the Enlightenment. Struensee soon acquires enough power to issue edicts on behalf of the king, who prefers to spend his time frolicking like a child.
Two decades before the French Revolution, the “filthy little country” of Denmark becomes an unlikely torch amid the “reactionary darkness” of the church. Struensee sets about abolishing cronyism and torture, funding hospitals, and granting common Danes unprecedented freedoms, including the right to copulate in parks once reserved for nobles.
At the king’s urging, he begins to spend time with the young queen, a lonely and spirited Englishwoman named Caroline Mathilde. Enquist captures the rhythms of their courtship with a delicacy that befits the couple’s perilous circumstances. (It’s a capital offense to touch the queen, let alone bed her.)
If you need proof of just how seductive Enquist’s prose is, check out this scene, in which the pair transform a private reading of Ludvig Holberg’s philosophical tract Moral Thoughts into incredibly hot foreplay:
“Touch my hand,” she said. “Slowly.”
“Your Majesty,” he said. “I’m afraid that . . .”
“Touch it,” she said.
He went on reading, his hand sliding softly over her bare arm. Then she said:
“I think that Holberg is saying that the most forbidden is a boundary.”
“A boundary. And wherever the boundary exists, there is life, and death, and thus the greatest desire.”
His hand moved, and then she took his hand in her own, pressed it to her throat.
“The greatest desire,” she whispered, “exists at the boundary. It’s true. It’s true what Holberg writes.”
“Where is the boundary?” he whispered.
“Find it,” she said.
And then the book fell out of his hand.
Holberg, we hardly knew you!
Struensee enjoys a few months of prosperity. He sits at his desk, issuing humane decrees. He soothes the king. He makes love to the queen and soon impregnates her.
Then it all falls apart. The dowager queen and a canny religious fanatic named Guldberg conspire against Struensee, who lacks the political guile, and the will, to go after his enemies. The military kidnaps the king in the name of purifying the realm, places the queen under house arrest, and imprisons Struensee.
There is no cinematic intervention. Struensee’s reforms are rescinded and he himself is publicly beheaded, drawn, and quartered. Enquist reports these events without sentiment. The book’s hypnotic power resides in his quiet determination to lay bare the tortured inner lives of those embroiled in the drama.
Struensee is revealed as a well-meaning coward, the king as an unloved waif imprisoned by his court, and Guldberg as a self-loathing zealot who converts his illicit sexual impulses into a pious crusade.
The lone figure to emerge from the saga with some semblance of self-knowledge is the queen. “She had felt a unique pleasure when she understood for the first time that she could instill terror,” Enquist writes. “But [Struensee] did not. There was something fundamentally wrong with him. Why was it always the wrong people who were chosen to do good?”
The broader question is whether noble ideas alone are enough to improve the world or whether bloodshed is the necessary price of such improvement.
On the one hand, the novel is a celebration of the “Struensee era.” Even as the royal physician’s head is cleaved from his body and left to lie upon a bloody scaffold in a public square, Enquist assures us that the ideas he advocated will endure in the world.
But the scene that haunts Struensee himself as he awaits his fate tells a more complicated story. Here is what happens: At the height of his influence, the royal physician decides to take the king on a tour of the countryside, so that he can witness the conditions under which his subjects actually live.
At dusk, they happen upon a severely beaten teenage serf seated on a wooden trestle. The king, recalling his own abuse, panics. Struensee jumps out of the coach, hoping to secure a pardon for the boy. But a mob of peasants approaches and he grows frightened. Enquist writes, “Reason, rules, titles, or power had no authority in this wilderness. Here the people were animals. They would tear him limb from limb.” It’s a moment of abject personal revelation. Struensee has only the purest of motives, but deep down he mistrusts the very people he is trying to save.
The lesson is a bitter one. Reason alone will never tame our savage impulses. Moral progress cannot be issued by fiat, or legislated. It must be enforced at the price of our own valor and conscience and flesh.
Consider the case of America, a land born of war, and liberated from the sin of slavery only at the price of half a million lives. Even today, the basic tenets of the Enlightenment—scientific reason, tolerance, justice—are routinely subverted by a democratically elected ruling class, happy to exploit the tribal grievances and paranoid superstitions of an ignorant and indentured population.
And because I am crazy in this particular way, I find it impossible to read about Struensee without thinking of another enlightened neophyte who came to office promising change only to be stymied by the feverish obstruction of his opponents.
Am I suggesting that President Obama will need to declare war on the reactionary forces of our country to enforce sensible economic, social, and environmental policies? Yeah, with considerable sorrow, I am.
But the genius of Enquist’s novel resides ultimately in its ability to locate moral struggle not only within the upheavals of history but also within the private torment of the soul. “Was that what a human being was?” Struensee wonders. “Both opportunity and a black torch?”
The ultimate war is the one inside us.
Steve Almond spent seven years as a newspaper reporter in Texas and Florida before writing his first book, the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal. His non-fiction book, Candyfreak, was a New York Times Bestseller. His short fiction has been included in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies, and his most recent collection, God Bless America, won the Paterson Prize for Fiction. Almond writes commentary and journalism regularly for The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe. A former sports reporter and play-by-play man, Almond lives outside Boston with his wife and three children. His most recent book is Against Football.
The BECU parking garage with the small set of stairs we ollied down across from the church our fathers made us attend, where the middle-aged pastor whom I loathed and admired had said Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” When the cops pulled in, lights flashing silently, we fled into the rainy night, our wheels clacking over the seams of the sidewalk, trucks slashing water near us.
The planter we ollied over on the sidewalk outside IHOP at 2 a.m., where the woman studying engineering at UW found us studying a stream of ants packing pancake crumbs into a pinhole. She said we looked like her little brothers and she led us back to her apartment to sit on a rooftop over Lake Washington, listening to KEXP, while the garden lights of software engineers turned the water’s edge expensive colors. She got sarcastic when we didn’t swallow all of the prescription drugs she handed us. Doug Martsch said, “Wiggly days, wiggly nights.”
The sculpture of a broken obelisk we waxed the edge of in Red Square, where the cop car surprised us so we sprinted carefully over the slick bricks, boards under our armpits, until we found the hedge near the road where we crouched for an hour in the dripping leaves. We giggled, knocking our shoulders into each other, until they neared, they circled, they stopped (how did they find us?), their harsh light scanning through what hid us only barely, until you rose and burst through the other side and disappeared into the dark. I squatted, dizzy, doomed, until the gray-bearded man grabbed me out and handcuffed me to scare me and shouted at me for my name until I gave it to him and he shoved me free to where you waited on the porch with your father’s cigarettes for us to share.
The enormous, multi-level UW parking garage that plunged down like catacombs, like a tomb, where we escaped in the week after your mother had ordered your father out of the home for good, so we locked ourselves in the TV room downstairs while your mother strolled the halls with a cereal bowl held before her like treasure. I’d bought new ceramic bearings with my birthday money. We bombed down four levels until a pebble took my board out. We sat together on a parking block next to an empty parking booth where we watched the blood leave the wound in the heel of my hand. I asked you if you’d spoken to your father and you laughed and said no.
My bedroom in a home thirty minutes from yours, in the suburbs north of the city, where doctors or professors lived, at the edge of a ravine coyotes stalked, no sidewalks, few cars, freshly painted verandas, streets free of trash. After school, tender with worry for the world ahead, I locked my door and set my board against the wall and slipped under the covers and set my headphones over my ears against the noise of rain on the window. I wanted a darkness to quiet every thought.
The parking lot behind the video store where I landed my first kickflip. The hill by Ravenna Park where we flew. The tennis court where you caught your foot on the net and broke the bridge of your glasses. The bank under the bridge where we sat and talked to the Krishna proselytizers you made fun of. The Safeway parking lot the adults chased us out of. The gas station the adults chased us out of. The covered parking lot of the Washington Mutual they chased us out of. The middle-school basketball court they chased us out of. We rode pawnshop boards through empty parking lots, long after the day’s commerce had quieted, but they chased us like we had something of value.
Joe Aguilar is the author of Half Out Where (Caketrain). His recent work appears or is forthcoming in Okey-Panky, The Threepenny Review, and The Iowa Review.
It so happens that Michael Woodcock, whose painting St. Joseph’s Day appears as the cover of The Sleep Garden, also designed the cover of my first book of poems, a lifetime ago. It’s my hope that what follows will let others know how important he was to me and to everyone who knew him.
Awhile ago, in 2013, on Easter, after finishing dinner and observing it was still light outside, I decided to take a drive to the small hospital where my old friend Michael Woodcock lay dying. When I’d visited Michael a few days earlier, he’d drifted in and out of consciousness, but I thought this time there was a chance he might be able to say a few words, or listen, nod, or something. If not, I told myself, at least I’ll see him. The place Michael had landed, courtesy of some cost-effective insurance plan, was called a hospice but it didn’t look like any hospice I’d ever imagined. It was just a shabby, ordinary room in an extended care facility (a de facto hospice in itself, I guess), with the walk to his room a gauntlet of drooling ancients, abandoned, confused, or asleep in their wheelchairs in doorways and along the sides of the halls. Worst of all—at least to me—the staff, the nurses and the aides, had no idea who Michael was, what a remarkable person was passing away in their midst. I wanted to tell them, but of course it wouldn’t have helped.
I got to his room to find Michael in bed, lying on his back like an upturned boat. Always a big man, as his liver ceased to function, he had grown larger more full of fluid and his skin strained to enclose it all. He was unconscious, with an oxygen mask over his face, struggling to breathe, but at least, as far as I could tell, he was out of the terrible pain he’d been in earlier. His gray beard poked out the sides of the plastic mask like mattress stuffing and his eyes were shut. His wife said hello. She had been there for two weeks straight, sleeping in the bed next to his, feeding him, touching him, and she looked very, very tired. After a few minutes she asked if I would be there long enough for her to run home—about ten minutes away—and take a shower. “Of course,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
So she left and I sat holding Michael’s hand, watching him breathe. His breaths weren’t the rasping last breaths of the dying I had heard at other times, but they weren’t regular ones, either. There would be a breath, and then a pause just long enough for me to worry, and then he’d breathe again. Strangely, I found myself relaxing. It was enough just to be where I was, with him, and, for a change, words were unimportant. I’d brought a book to read to him, but realized that in order to turn the pages I would have to let go of his hand, so I just sat and held on, and listened to him taking in and expelling air. After a while his breathing got easier, and it seemed to me that somehow, even though he wasn’t conscious, I was helping him. Then his breaths got so easy I couldn’t even be sure if he was breathing at all, and I removed the oxygen mask to check. There was nothing. I felt for his pulse, and there was nothing there as well. His eyes had opened, so I shut them and kissed his forehead. “Good-bye,” I said, called for a nurse, and about that time his wife walked in, and she spent a long time crying.
The fact is that Michael had been dying for some time. About ten years earlier he’d had to retire from his job as an art professor and ever since, between seeing doctors, had spent more and more time in the garage he’d turned into a studio behind his house. He needed dental work, too, but couldn’t go because every time they touched his gums with a pick they wouldn’t stop bleeding. To me his studio looked like a mini barn, an art barn, because it was packed, floor to ceiling, with books and canvasses. It had its own small bathroom, and in later years, a bed. Toward the end he hardly left it, in part because he couldn’t go anywhere without his wheelchair, but also I think because he liked being there. It was his world, the one where he painted, made prints, and stared at his works-in-progress hung on the walls. This staring was necessary because in many ways Michael’s art was based on elaborate jokes, public and private, and it was important for him to strike the exact balance that was needed. For example, Michael liked to find a road sign, make a life-sized copy, and then replace the original with his copy. Or sometimes he would just put his copy next to the original and wait for Caltrans to haul it away the art and leave the inspiration. Or he printed copies of these copied road signs, or made lithographs of familiar images with out-of-left-field captions. But whenever there was a sky in his work, it was always the same one: a hopeful and unironic blue, Pantone 544. “Woodcock Blue,” we called it.
Michael’s favorite joke, or at least the joke I remember best, wasn’t all that complicated but he would draw it out for at least five minutes: A person from the city drives out into the country one day and stops to watch a farmer picking his crop of apples. The farmer holds a huge pig above his head, walks over to an apple tree, waits until the pig gets an apple in its mouth, and then, still holding the pig above his head, staggers over to a waiting bushel basket, where he stands above it until the pig lets go and the apple drops into the basket. So after the city guy watches the farmer repeat the process at least a dozen times, he gets out of his car. “Excuse me,” he says, “doesn’t it take a long time to pick apples that way?”
And the farmer answers, “What’s time to a hog?”
It was, Michael used to say, the funniest thing he had ever heard.
I saw a lot of him in the decades before he became a professor. He’d started a business making Plexiglas bases for art and, because he was losing money, he had time on his hands. I was living with my second wife by then, in a basement apartment with ceilings so low if I skipped—which I never did—I could hit my head on them. Once or twice a week Michael would show up in the evenings to play gin rummy and sit—disheartened, hopeful, funny, sweet, cranky, and large—with us on our carpet covered with grapefruit-sized clumps of dog hair (mysteriously, we’d managed to accumulate two Samoyeds). I would drink vodka martinis until I could barely see. Michael would drink only tea because, he explained, he wasn’t feeling good—his legs had started to swell from what he thought was gout. It was, of course, not gout at all, but the poison of the Plexiglas, but none of us knew it at the time.
So the three of us would play cards, and when I won, which was surprisingly often, considering the martinis, Michael would respond with epic, operatic, tragic howls over a universe that would allow such an imbecilic and haphazard individual to best him. Toward the end of those years he produced three elegant graphite portraits of my wife and none at all of me. For a curmudgeon, he got along surprisingly well with women.
Michael had also hit it off with my first wife when they met, which was the same day I first met him, about forty years before his death. It was a hot day in August, and I was sitting in a laundromat in Venice, California, watching my pile of blue work shirts go round in the dryer when I noticed a big guy next to me watching his load of plaid lumberjack shirts do the same. He looked like a lumberjack too, broad shouldered, with a full beard. Somehow—very possibly he told a joke—we started talking and it turned out that we liked each other. I asked him what he did and Michael responded that he was an artist. He was the first person I’d ever met who had ever made that declaration so seriously, and maybe it was the way he said it, but I absolutely believed him. I told him I was a poet and tried to sound equally convincing. When our shirts were dry, because the room in which he was living was on the way to my house, he offered to show me the canvases he was working on.
His room was about ten by ten and completely empty except for a paint-spattered mattress in the middle of the floor. Every wall was covered with paintings, big ones, some with huge Franz Kline-ian strokes, others stitched together, a technique he would soon abandon for canvases that were a grid of carefully emptied tea bags he’d glued on to them, then covered with layers of paint. Later on, he would give up the tea bags for the meticulous, beautiful graphite drawings, and eventually change to the road signs and lithographs, but at that moment they were still in his future.
Then I asked if he wanted to walk to where I was living and meet my wife. I could tell he was young enough that wives were novelties to him. They were to me, too. In Venice we were renting the bottom half of a house, and my wife had turned the front porch into a potter’s studio. The porch was where she would work all day throwing pots while I—when I wasn’t at the laundromat—sat in the kitchen and tried to write what I hoped would be important poems. Michael said, yes, he’d like to meet her, and so the two of us strolled on together beneath a blue sky filled with gulls.
So there we are, Michael young, maybe twenty-three or so, tall, strong, and full of excitement over everything he is sure will come his way, and I’m a little older, carrying a bag that holds my clean shirts. The day is still hot, and when we get to my place there is my wife, right where I said she would be, out in front, making her pots. She is young too, of course, and beautiful, with her flax-colored hair held back by a bandana and her forearms covered in wet clay as she concentrates on her potter’s wheel. Michael and I stand at the bottom of the steps and look up to where she works, oblivious to our presence, and at that exact moment it feels to me as if all three of us are gods of sorts, or at the very least, figures out of some myth I had read once and forgotten. This is what life is supposed to be—I remember thinking; a story is about to start, and although I cannot be sure of the details of its ending, I am certain it will be a great one, well worth noting.
“Hey,” I call, as my wife peers down the steps to see who’s standing there, and just for a second everything stands still: me at the foot of the stairs and her above us, smiling at me, whom in a couple of years she will be leaving, and also down at Michael, who unknowingly has just met the person whose hand he will be holding at his death. There are some red bushes in flower in the front yard and, out near the low, white, wooden fence by the sidewalk, a few cactus plants. In the window next to my wife is our new Siamese kitten that has the disconcerting habit of jumping out of drawers to startle me.
“Hey,” I call again. “You should meet Michael.” And then Michael and I walk up the steps, and everything begins.
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
My Great Uncle Adolphus had a pet duck named Patrick. Patrick was insecure, needy, foul-tempered, and brilliant. Not just brilliant for a duck either, my Great Uncle would say. Patrick possesses a keen mind. He has a deep curiosity about everything under the sun and a bracing skepticism! Patrick would hiss at us whenever we went to visit. He would laugh nastily when we mispronounced words or displayed lazy, unoriginal thinking. When we left there was always duck poop in our shoes. The price of genius, Great Uncle Adolphus would say, smiling proudly.
After my Great Uncle Adolphus’s death Patrick came to live with us. We were not Great Uncle Adolphus’s closest relatives and I have never been sure why he selected us to look after Patrick. I was six, maybe seven. Patrick was delivered in a gold cage big enough for a medium-sized elephant. It was just Mother and I at home so it must have been a week day. I was eating cottage cheese when the delivery men knocked at the door. I preferred cottage cheese served in a shiny blue aluminum bowl and it was best with a sprig of parsley on top. Patrick sat in his cage with his bill tucked tightly to one side of his breast, completely still. Mother and I watched him closely. He was breathing heavily, a deep, shaky inward breath then a long, whistling exhale that stopped and started partway through. It was the saddest noise I had ever heard. “He is an unpleasant creature,” said Mother. “But he is ours. He’ll have your room now. You will sleep on the couch from now on.”
Patrick never recovered from the heartbreak of Great Uncle Adolphus’s death. We tried to cheer him up. We remembered how he had loved to mock us because of our lack of intellectual rigor. So we put on shows in front of his cage acting as stupid as we could. I would recite the multiplication tables but make serious, ridiculous errors. I would sing the alphabet song but get the letters mixed up and give up in a show of frustration. I would list the countries and capitals but I would say crazy things like the capital of Tanzania is Baltimore and the capitol of Iceland is Madrid. Father and Mother would discuss philosophy but instead of saying Aristotle and Heidegger they would say Donald and Goofy. Nothing worked. Patrick remained unmoved.
Then one day the sound of Patrick’s labored breathing stopped. We made arrangements for Patrick’s body to be laid to rest beside Great Uncle Adolphus’s. I got my room back and I felt joyful about that, which in turn made me feel guilty. I told Father that I hadn’t loved Patrick, not really. Neither did I, said Father. But your Great Uncle Adolphus did.
Years later I found out that Great Uncle Adolphus died of heartbreak. Patrick had started seeing a dull mallard named Mathilda, and Adolphus found out about the affair in an embarrassing manner. It was a tragedy for all concerned. Or, since I don’t know what became of Mathilda, I can’t say it was a tragedy for her. Perhaps it was merely a minor embarrassment in Mathilda’s world.
It’s funny how memory works. Years after Patrick’s death I still think about the price of genius. And I still find myself checking my shoes before I thrust my feet in, on the lookout for the foul stench of that brilliant duck.
Mark Hoadley‘s recent work has appeared in Word Riot and KYSO Flash. He is co-editor of the online poetry journal The Maynard. Mark lives in Vancouver, BC where he writes memoir, poetry and fabulist fictions, sometimes all at once.
Where are we?
How did we come here?
Where are we going?
And anyway, who lies sleeping here with us?
Wherever that is—
I mean—wherever we are.
To begin: the Burrow is a low mound that rises out of the ground. It rests on what would be, if not for the Burrow itself, a vacant lot on the edge of town, though not the farthest edge. On one end of the lot, on the west side of the Burrow, and far enough away so there are no drainage problems, is a small pond. What kind of pond? Picture a body of water about the size of a supermarket parking lot, with stands of cattails, frogs, tadpoles, and such, plus various insects, both on the water and flying above it. This pond grows larger in spring and in summer shrinks to the size of, say, a convenience store parking lot. In the fall and winter it stays somewhere roughly between the two extremes. On its eastern shore is a tree, possibly a cypress, but possibly something else entirely. A sad fact about the people who live in this town is that nobody knows much of anything about the names of trees.
Still, like so many other things in the world, this particular burrow is more than its name implies. This burrow has people living in it. It has five or six tenants, depending on how many of its apartments are rented at any given time, because, as you probably guessed, the Burrow is really an apartment building, and although it isn’t called “the Burrow” in any formal sense—it’s never had any formal name at all—it was the Burrow’s neighbors, the very same ones who can’t seem to tell one tree from another, who called it that back when it was first constructed. So to this day, whether out of affection or derision, “the Burrow” is how people, including those who live inside it, refer to the place. And while it’s true that some of the children in the neighborhood say the Burrow is scary, no one offers any specifics. It’s the kind of place that children like to pretend is scary on principle. It’s part of being a child, and certainly that doesn’t stop those same children from playing in the pond next to it when school isn’t in session, albeit giving the Burrow a glance from time to time to make sure there’s nothing frightening rushing toward them from it as they play.
So picture a mound of dirt with things growing out of the top, plants, new shoots, weeds, but having a front door, and you are picturing the Burrow.
Meanwhile, inside the Burrow, Jeffery is thinking this: Suppose a person spent his whole life being way ahead of the curve, was Überbrilliant, far in front of every other person in the world who was also working on whatever problem this first person was working on, so incredibly advanced, et cetera, et cetera, that those in his dust were totally blind to the fact there was even anyone out in front of them? They would look, of course, but all they would see was a big dust cloud, without having the slightest idea what was causing it. And correspondingly, when the genius, or whatever you want to call him, looked behind, and squinted through the dust of his own making, those others weren’t visible.
But then, Jeffery thinks, one day, maybe thirty or forty years after this genius first embarked on his journey and the dust from the cloud settled, he happened to look back once again, and this time, because there wasn’t any more dust at all, he could see for sure there was nobody following him. There was only an empty plain, or road, or stage, or whatever you want to call it. In other words, whoever had been back there trailing after him must have taken a whole different path, or several different paths. So there he was—wherever “there” was—completely alone. But here’s the thing: out of all those people who, a long time ago, were working on the same idea as he was, nobody cared. Every one of them had moved on to other projects, much better and more timely ones, and as a result, the genius was not ahead of anyone anymore. He’d been totally forgotten and whatever he might have done, whatever he did, meant nothing. Zero.
And as for this supposed genius, what word would Jeffery use to describe him?
Jeffery is in his midthirties and has hair the color of untoasted whole-wheat sandwich bread. He’s still in fairly good shape because he exercises every day—squats, sit-ups, push-ups—right next to his bed first thing every morning. Though he’s starting to develop a little pot on his stomach, it’s not unusual for his age. He tells himself he needs to lay off the starch, but hasn’t gotten around to it. It’s not that big a deal.
Also: in addition to the problem with identifying their trees, none of the town’s inhabitants seem to be able to pronounce the name of their own town, St. Nils.
That is, they can and do pronounce it in one of two ways: Saint Niles, like the river, or Nils, which rhymes with pills, but it appears they have no idea which one is correct.
The fact is, it was Raymond who inspired this idea of the alleged genius-person-so-far-ahead-of-everyone-else to pop into Jeffery’s head, and Jeffery’s first Raymond-as-a-genius thought came when he was smack in the middle of Raymond’s living room in the Burrow, sitting on Raymond’s couch surrounded by a humongous number of decoys: on wall shelves, on tables, even lined up along the baseboards. Raymond had carved each one, and now, apparently, he waited for some mysterious future event to move them out of there. In addition to the finished decoys there were also several piles of lumber for future decoys. There were also open cans of paint leaking fumes and smelling up the place—not a bad smell, but, well . . . paint, and of course Raymond was living in the middle of all this.
Then Raymond sat down on the recliner opposite the couch and made it recline by means of a lever on one side. Next, he took off his right shoe, propped his right foot up on the part of the recliner that had turned into a little platform, and allowed his left foot, its shoe still on, to rest quietly on the rug.
So while it was clear that Raymond had a vision, Jeffery still had a hard time working out precisely what vision that might be.
Is he a genius or a complete idiot?
And, for that matter, what would you call Jeffery for thinking all of this?
And yet there is something troubling about the Burrow, something hard to name, maybe something about the low shadow it casts on the vacant lot around sunset, or maybe the smell of its walls after a November rain, so maybe the children—bless them— are right to keep their distance.
Because Raymond is a big guy, and gentle, and his head is big and gentle, too, with dark brown hair like burnt whole-wheat toast, and frizzy, the kind of hair a person might want to lean their own head against if he or she were tired, but if they did they would be disappointed because what they would be leaning on would be Raymond’s skull, which is very hard. As hard as a wooden decoy, a person who leaned his or her head against it might be thinking.
Meanwhile: outside the Burrow, new shoots of trees, new wood, reach out of the ground, toward air, toward sun, toward something they can’t actually see, something they have no way to be sure is even there.
What was Raymond’s reaction to Jeffery’s explanation of the dust cloud and the person making it? It was to settle deeper into his recliner and shut his eyes. Finally, after about five minutes, Raymond spoke. “Like jets,” he said, and proceeded to peel a Band-Aid from his finger and stare at the cut underneath, which Jeffery thought probably came from making decoys—a sliver or a slip of the knife. The skin beneath the Band-Aid was pale and puckered, not like skin at all, but more like those Styrofoam pellets people use for packing.
“Are you okay?” Jeffery asked. “And what do you mean, ‘like jets’?”
Raymond stuck the Band-Aid back where it was. “Like once upon a time,” he said, “there must have been some crazy old aeronautical engineer somewhere who spent his whole life thinking as hard as he could about how to get propeller planes to speed up, maybe by making bigger propellers, or shorter wings, or both, or whatever it would take, and let’s say that in the end he figured out exactly the way to do it; let’s say that he increased the speed by fifty or a hundred miles an hour, which nobody ever imagined could be done by anybody, so the guy was a genius. But in the meantime, somebody else had invented jets.”
“Oh,” Jeffery said, because he had to give Raymond credit: the man, no matter what else he was, was full of surprises, and even after Madeline left him to be with Viktor, Raymond stayed friends with Jeffery.
Because it was also true that before Madeline left Raymond to be with Viktor, she left Jeffery to be with Raymond.
Which made the two of them buddies in a way. Losers.
The winner being Viktor, of course.
Though terms such as “winner” and “loser” are pretty much irrelevant in the Burrow.
Madeline also lives in the Burrow, as well as Heather and Viktor. There used to be another guy—Louis, his name was—but he moved out in the middle of the night awhile ago, and now his room is empty.
Maybe if they put a big sign out in front, Jeffery thinks, and officially called the building “The Burrow,” then the place would be overrun with Middle Earth-o-philes, and the landlord, or whatever faceless real estate holding company actually owns this place, wouldn’t be having this vacancy problem. On the other hand, is it his problem, or even a problem?
Does Jeffery really want to have to get to know a new tenant and then have to set boundaries with him or her?
On the other hand: Who was it among the Burrow’s current crop of residents who called her fellow renters “a lonely, fucked-up group of individuals”?
That would be Madeline. She has red hair and once Viktor described her, correctly, as “a hot tamale.”
Tocar: to touch.
Meaning the fur beneath and between the fingers, meaning the warmth of skin beneath the fur, the pulse of blood, the sleeping house of muscle, its patient throb against the hand, the hand connected to that which is the other, meaning the self outside the self, the self mysterious in the way we cannot ever be a mystery to ourselves, the self known through touching others in the way we ourselves can never be known, the self outside the self, of it being touched, of our being connected, for once not alone but a part, for once no different, for once at home in a world where we are never at home, for once ourselves, remembering, wherever we may be.
To the St. Nils Eagle
I have been noticing for quite a while various problems associated with the use of firearms in this country. At the same time I cannot ignore the fact that, with crime rates being what they are, home protection is also an issue. Today I am writing because I believe there is a way to solve both problems at the same time. Namely, people should give serious thought to requiring every household in the land to have at least one crossbow on its premises, both for sport and as a deterrent factor. Here are the reasons I believe such legislation, if enacted, might reverse the trends of death by firearms and also the increasing dangers of home intrusions: 1) To load a crossbow requires a fair amount of physical strength, thus cutting down on any possibility of misuse by children, old people, or invalids. 2) Crossbows, being made of wood, are ecologically superior, and certainly do not carry with them the stigmata of cop-killer bullets and the discharge of poisonous gases or lead into the atmosphere. 3) The time it takes to pull back the string, and then to put an arrow (or bolt) in place, while not long, can provide a much-needed “cooling off” period in cases of a disagreement or domestic violence situations. 4) When necessary, they are deadly.
Many residents of the neighborhood say the Burrow has its origin in the Cold War, or even earlier, during the Second World War. Purportedly, the government built it back then as a secret place to hide officials if the fighting got too close. But to counter that theory: Why would the government build a place like that for only six people? And which six could they have been?
Others say that the Burrow has its origin in some sort of geological formation, a swelling in the earth that the builders simply used to make their job easier, digging down, in the natural direction of gravity, instead of building unnaturally upward. Then they installed plumbing, ran electrical lines, and plastered over walls of dirt. It is cool in summer, people say, and warm in winter, and they are right.
But there are still others who contend that the Burrow is not that old at all. They posit that its origin was as the entrance of a tunnel dug to smuggle drugs, or possibly humans—though from where to where is never specified. In any case, this faction claims that someone, probably a relative of one of the agents who exposed the operation, bought the vacant lot cheap, then took advantage of the considerable improvements that had already been made by the crime lords, and turned it into its present configuration of underground apartments, renting them out at an exceedingly reasonable rate.
Clearly, this is a lot of speculation by a group of people who can’t even bother to learn the names of their own trees. At the same time however, everyone agrees that one benefit to living there is that, possibly because the presence of the Burrow does not exactly announce itself to any criminal type, there has never been a break-in or a burglary in all the years of its existence. In other words, the Burrow is safe, and no matter what individual complaints its residents may have, they report feeling protected from the kind of harm they have felt in the places they lived before they arrived at the Burrow.
It has been many years since the Captain was at sea, expertly piloting his giant ocean liner, the Valhalla Queen, in and out of fjords as contented passengers lined its decks to snap photos of icebergs, glaciers, and baby seals before racing inside to the ship’s dining room to wolf down their sixth or seventh gourmet buffet of the day. Worthless, degenerate swine, the Captain used to mutter into the sleeve of his handsome dark-blue uniform, taking care that no one heard him. Then, as often as not, following his dinner at “The Captain’s Table,” the Captain hurried to the simple good taste of his own cabin, where he removed his jacket, stood in front of the bathroom mirror, put two fingers down his throat, and regurgitated everything into one of the black plastic bags he kept for that very purpose beneath his sink. When he finished, he’d rinse his mouth, replace his jacket, and carry the bag back outside, where he would nod at the various happy passengers who sat on deck chairs wrapped in blankets, staring stupidly at the Northern Lights as they awaited the midnight buffet to be set out in the second dining room. When he was certain he was totally alone, he’d hurl his former dinner as far away from the ship as he could, into the icy water, return to his cabin, and enjoy a dreamless sleep.
The Captain’s hair is white these days, but above his left eye there is still a stain: a birthmark in the shape of an anchor. He combs his hair over it, and so successful is this strategy that even people who have known him for years are unaware of its existence.
Sometimes the residents of the Burrow will ask each other about the pond or the tree that hangs over it.
“How does the tree look to you these days? Does it look healthy? Do you ever wonder what kind of tree it is, exactly?”
Or, “How deep is the pond these days?” Or, “Have the birds begun to build their nests in the rushes of the pond?”
And the answer will invariably come back: “Actually, it’s been awhile since I’ve been outside at all.”
Jeffery thinks that out of everyone who lives at the Burrow, Raymond is the wild card. And as if to demonstrate this truth, on the very day following their conversation regarding jet planes, just as Jeffery is about to grasp the knob of the front door of the Burrow to go outside, who should appear but Raymond, his arms spread, grabbing on to the sleeve of Jeffery’s tan, cotton-polyester, lightweight jacket.
“Jeffery,” Raymond asks, “do you remember your dreams?”
Even from Raymond, this is a strange question. But then, what strikes Jeffery as even more bizarre is that Raymond must have been lurking by the front door for God knows how long, like the Ancient Mariner, waiting for him. And, what is even stranger, it is clear to Jeffery that Raymond must have gone to the door directly from his bed, because he is still wearing his red-and-white-striped pajamas, which could use a wash. Truly.
Also, there are three or four fresh wood shavings in his hair, as usual.
Raymond, being the Burrow’s longest resident, is the one who remembers Louis best, and when Louis left suddenly, in the middle of the night, without an explanation, it made Raymond nervous. How could someone be there one moment and then in the next disappear? When Raymond tries to picture Louis now, he can only recall a tall, coffee-colored man with gray, curly hair who was fond of sweaters, and always polite, and who never failed to clean up after himself when he used the kitchen. But what else? He used to like to talk to Louis, he knows this, but what did the two of them ever talk about? What were Louis’s features? What happened to him? The man seems to have been washed away somehow, and the thing that sticks most in Raymond’s mind is, of all things, the sound of his name, Louis, which, curiously, was the same sound made by Louis’s worn brown leather slippers as he shuffled down the hall on his way to the kitchen. At any rate, with Heather in her room most of the time and Viktor being with Madeline these days, that pretty much leaves only Jeffery for Raymond to talk to.
No wonder he misses Louis.
Viktor’s favorite word is rectum. There are others that come close—rector, correct, erect, even rectitude—but for all-round satisfaction and simple purity of sound, rectum wins, hands down. Rectum, that great two-stroke gong of a word, beginning with the crispness of the rec, and then, just as the listener is brought to attention by the rec, comes the hollow tum of doom at the end: rec-tum, the whole journey of life in two syllables, and the end of life, too, if you think about it. And just guess where that exit point is? Garbage in/garbage out. People write all the time they ª something, so why isn’t there an equivalent for the rectum? It is literally amazing that here we have one of the most important organs in the whole human body, and yet most people refuse to give it the recognition it deserves, have failed to embrace the power of this simple word. But Viktor has embraced it. That’s his secret.
Meanwhile, Jeffery still has his hand on the knob of the Burrow’s dark front door, getting ready to leave. “Why do you ask?” he asks Raymond.
“Because,” Raymond answers, “I’ve been having the same bad dream lately, and I can’t seem to stop it.”
“Maybe you should write it down so you can remember it,” Jeffery says, and gestures toward the exit.
“I already remember it,” Raymond replies. Somewhat disconcertingly, he begins to tug harder on the sleeve of Jeffery’s jacket. It’s one Jeffery was given several years ago by an old girlfriend, and for that reason it is his favorite article of clothing. It still smells of her patchouli and, at least in his mind, of her spit, which would sweetly leak from her mouth like a child’s when she fell asleep on long rides, her head on his shoulder as he drove carefully homeward so as not to wake her. Her name was Pam, he thinks, or Jan.
“Okay,” Jeffery surrenders. “Let’s go to my apartment. You can talk about it there. ”
And what kind of town is it where people are so backward that they refuse to learn the names of the trees that are in their own neighborhood?
Cypress or pine—these careless people answer if you should ask them—what difference does it make, as long as they are there?
But aren’t the names of things important?
The Burrow, for one.
“Twilight souls” is the name the Captain gives to the uncomplicated and unaware primitive races he came into contact with during his days on the high seas, caught, as they were, somewhere between animals and a higher being. But caught where exactly, the Captain refuses to specify.
And where are we now?
How did we come to be here?
Where we going?
And anyway, do we even need to know?
Jim Krusoe is the author of the novels Parsifal, Toward You, Erased, Girl Factory, and Iceland; two collections of stories; and five books of poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. He teaches at Santa Monica College and lives in Los Angeles.
“How far can/will the elegy stretch?” Amy Gerstler asked our workshop participants this July. “Are there limits to what conventional or unconventional elegy can mourn, memorialize, honor, metabolize, question? Are there angry, comic, upbeat and/or love elegies? How about some stealth elegies?”
In her quest to find out, Gerstler examined poems from Terrance Hayes, Li Young Lee, John Berryman, Anne Carson, as well as considered the wealth of the possibilities for various elegiac incorporations in our own work.
Recorded in the Reed Chapel during the 2015 Summer Workshop, we give you Amy Gerstler’s lecture on the uses of the elegiac.
Author of over a dozen books, including the collection Scattered at Sea, which made the 2015 National Book Award Longlist in Poetry, Amy Gerstler resides in Southern California.
As a young reader, I had a fascination with stories of the American South. Maybe it was because of my favorite English teacher, Mrs. Clark, a Georgia native who taught To Kill a Mockingbird, and whose black-rimmed glasses and gray pixie cut made her look very much like the author. Or maybe it was because the South—with its “y’alls,” its grits, its Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons—seemed exotic to me, a Jewish girl from suburban Detroit.
Years later, I was excited to discover that my own family had a Southern past. At eighteen, my great-grandfather, Dave Spickler, left the Indiana farm where he and his mother had lived after emigrating from Poland. He’d planned to seek his fame and fortune in South America, but he only made it as far as Mobile, Alabama, where he spent the next decade as a bookkeeper in a lumberyard.
Ever since my grandmother related this forgotten chapter of our family history, I’ve wondered what it must have been like for Dave to live in the Deep South in the early 20th century. But thanks to Roy Hoffman’s 2004 novel Chicken Dreaming Corn, it’s no longer difficult to imagine.
Hoffman is part of a small but proud tribe of Southern Jewish writers. Growing up “as a Jew in the Bible Belt, I was in a minority,” he wrote in a New York Times essay. “I was often the only Jew [people] knew.” His family’s insider and outsider status is a subject he explores in this book, which garnered Southern literature’s unofficial seal of approval: a rare endorsement from Harper Lee herself.
Chicken Dreaming Corn is based on Hoffman’s grandparents’ journey from the shtetls of Romania to the storefronts of Mobile—and it’s a delight to read. The title comes from his grandmother’s Alabama twist on a Romanian Jewish expression, referring to the yearnings of ordinary folks for lofty, possibly unattainable goals.
The novel centers around Morris Kleinman, who lives with his wife and four children above his shop on Mobile’s Dauphin Street. When the novel opens in 1916, Morris has called Mobile home for some years, and he’s part of an international crew of merchants from Cuba, Poland, Lebanon, and Greece. He’s developed a modest but comfortable business selling everything from two-tone lace-ups to checkered skirts, making what he calls “a living, not a killing.”
Hoffman paints a vivid portrait of the Kleinmans’ lives—and how they retain their own customs, while becoming part of the fabric of the South. Morris and his wife Miriam keep kosher, pray daily, and go to a small synagogue that seems forever in the shadows of the town’s majestic cathedral. At the same time, the family mixes Southern with their Yiddish, marks down merchandise for “Good Friday Specials,” and hums marching-band melodies at the Confederate veterans’ parade.
What impressed me most wasn’t simply Hoffman’s ability to portray the Jewish experience in Mobile in this particular era, but his capacity to transform a specific story into a universal one. Although I came to the novel with a desire to learn about my own roots, the Kleinmans could be any immigrant family in America. Hoffman’s indelible characters ask questions that are fundamentally human: What do we owe our parents who have sacrificed for us? What does it mean to lead a good and honest life? What is love? How much do we need to be happy? And finally, what is the meaning of home?
As we follow the Kleinmans over a span of thirty years, we see them grappling with these questions in their own ways. Hoffman evokes the struggles of first-generation kids to fulfill their parents’ dreams, while asserting their own ideas. There’s the oldest son Abe who decides to claim his birthright and devote his life to the store, only to find himself butting heads with his father. Morris fears Abe will sully the family’s good name, while Abe grows resentful that Morris will not treat him as an equal partner.
Conflict also brews among the younger Kleinman children. The middle son Herman distances himself from the family after becoming the first to go to college. At the same time, the youngest daughter Hannah has little interest in filling the shoes of her dutiful older sister Lillian, who dies of a fever. Rather than marrying an eligible Jewish boy in town, she breaks with tradition.
Through all this change, Morris and his wife Miriam cling, however reluctantly, to one constant: the store on Dauphin Street. At times, Miriam longs for Brooklyn, where she and Morris met, and where she could have raised children surrounded by fellow Jews. Morris, on the other hand, rails against the idea of moving back to Flatbush Avenue—even after a Klansman threatens him. “We have made our lives here,” he tells his wife emphatically.
Perhaps this statement hits on the true definition of home for those of us who wander: it is the place where we set down roots. And yet, as Hoffman poignantly illustrates, each stage of our journeys stays with us. When Morris looks up, he sees not only the clear-blue Alabama sky, but also the Romanian farm in Piatra Neamt, and the park in Brooklyn where he first asked Miriam if she considered him “a good prospect.”
I never knew my great-grandfather Dave. Although he left Mobile after 10 years, a piece of the South must have remained with him. Sometimes, I think of him walking along the Detroit River, and picturing—with a hint of nostalgia—the rising and falling waters of Mobile Bay, the town clock at Bienville Square, and the smell of Japanese magnolias. It might not have happened this way, but these are the fantasies Hoffman’s novel helps me invent. After all, imagining the improbable is what makes every one of us “chicken dreaming corn.”
Kate Schmier holds an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She was born and raised in suburban Detroit, and lives in New York City.
This whole night was Cannot Sleep and so you watched
the bedroom window in the mirror and waited. Curtains
rose and fell. Imagined sailing, and for a minute the bed
was a boat to pilot, but the floor’s stagnant water
and you ran aground. Outside, the streets are dark and darker.
When I say you I mean I, which is solipsism, but, whoever you are,
be awake. On a plane, sitting in the inverted funnel made
when light isolates the solitary reader
like an experiment in a long glass tube. On a train or bus stuck
in the same phenomenon. Or in your lover’s kitchen
where you sip cold seltzer by the sink or the back yard with the constellations
of metal cans you abandon open for stray cats. Before
the fish was skinned, its scales gleamed metallic too. As did the hook
that caught it and the river under stars and moon: silver, silver. Sometimes
my days feel layered with connections that shine
the same way certain routes light up
when you press a button on 3-D Children’s Museum displays.
In the Revolutionary War room, we can follow
the path Paul Revere’s horse took on that famous midnight ride.
Note the churches and their steeples
where the lanterns glowed and huge bells shaped like metal tulips
their alarums clanged. Down the corridor in Basic Biology, you’ll find
the entire central nervous system branching out
and, next door, are veins and capillaries
like all the secret causeways ever dreamed of–static
as they unfold before you on the body’s perfect illuminated map.
Kate Angus is a founding editor of Augury Books. Her work has previously appeared in Best New Poets 2010, Best New Poets 2014, The Awl, The Rumpus, Subtropics, and Verse Daily. Her debut collection, So Late to the Party, is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Negative Capability Press.
All the best, from our ski bunnies to yours. We’ll see you back on the Open Bar in the new year. –Eds.
This story appears in Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine, edited by Ru Freeman.
Red wool, and falsely brightened, since
we need the help.
A child because
the chambers of the heart will hold so
—Still Life, Linda Gregerson
There was once.
A little girl named Lala lived with her mother in a place named Gaza, and all who knew her loved her, most of all her Uncle Hashem, who gave her a red coat and called her Little Red Riding Hood, after a story he’d read once, many years before, in America. In that story the girl was foolish and was devoured by a terrible wolf, but Uncle Hashem knew Lala was clever and would never betray herself to a wolf. Also their lives were not fairy tales—tempting as it was to imagine a clever woodsman bestowing, before the bitter end, the end to their sufferings—and it was more likely that Lala would be killed by fire flying out from the darkness of night than an anthropomorphized wolf, an otherwise peaceful creature made ugly by man’s imagination. He told her the story as a cautionary tale, saying, “I know your actions will demonstrate the strength of your mind, not the foolishness of your heart.” He believed he was imparting a special kind of wisdom to her, hopeful that she’d be able to pass it on some day, in some fashion, to the next generation. Maybe.
Lala wore the red coat with pride and was admired by the other little girls and could be seen, a great vibrant redness against the dull brown sand of the refugee camp, from kilometers away in many directions, but not too many kilometers lest one be touched by the blue of the sea or the barbed wire of an old armistice line. In this way, Lala and the little red coat became inseparable from one another and one couldn’t imagine Lala without also imagining the little red coat.
Uncle Hashem did not live near the camp like Lala. It was a matter of pride. When he returned from America, he took his wife and their newborn out of the house Lala and her mother and father lived in, and moved into an old seaside villa. He was an American educated doctor and his home would have a view of the sea. A view of the sea was a view of all that Gaza wasn’t, even if the view was from the top of a crumbling building that had survived, inexplicably, the last war no one had heard of and which even he was beginning to forget, as a man might forget the circumstances of his birth or the fact of his impending death. Never mind, it was a luxury to live in such a mindset, and he wouldn’t give this up, not even for Gaza. On the first floor he had a medical practice where he would see patients complaining from any number of illness that were all really something else. For example, extreme boredom presenting itself as a terminal and most definitely fatal chest pains by one hysterical Umm Hamdi Hamoodi, or an utter lack of interest in mathematics masquerading as a developmental delay in a boy of fourteen named Hamdi Hamoodi, or depression cloaked as a stubborn insistence on revisiting certain events of the past and asking why over and over again by one Ms. Jamilah Hussein, widow of Mr. Hussein Hussein, who perished heroically in a firefight in the last war no one had heard of and which Jamilah could not forget. In all their charts he wrote, “Diagnosis: Gaza. Patient suffers from Gaza.” Once Uncle Hashem wrote Umm Hamdi a prescription which read, “Leave Gaza, get a life” and she laughed, a great big sound coming from the cavernous mouth of the forty-seventh most anxious woman in Gaza.
“Dr. Juda. This is my homeland. It’s yours too.”
“Learn to swim Umm Hamdi. There is a sea here at your disposal. Please, it will do your heart some good and my time can be spent watching LBC in peace.”
“I’d be better off learning how to dig, Doctor.”
At that very moment the TV screened flashed with the start of a game show. All of the game shows on LBC featured beautiful women, as did all of the other shows on the LBC, the news, for example, and the dramas, and the comedies. Watching LBC gave one the distinct impression that all the women in Lebanon were voluptuous brunettes with silken skin so white it glowed and perfect little noses and great moons for breasts and voices a surgeon’s knife never touched. Uncle Hashem could fall asleep listening to them, or thinking of them, or wondering if an army of them might charm the world into mundane quietude.
“I’ll see you next week.” Umm Hamdi walked out slowly, as if there was no better place to be in the world but inside the office of an irritable middle-aged man who may have been diagnosed with any number of illness associated with a diet just less than the 2,279 calorie intake recommended by the World Health Organization and a broken heart. The lights flickered on and off and on again but the TV screen remained dark and the LBC girls were gone, for now, at least.
Uncle Hashem suffered his patients all morning and again, after lunch, all afternoon, until Lala appeared at his door and said, “Mama says it is dinner time.” And he took off his white doctor’s coat and put on a light jacket and walked through the narrow streets with Lala’s and imagined he was her father, and his own daughter wasn’t dead, and that she was his daughter, and her own father wasn’t dead and that they were on an early evening stroll as banal and unremarkable as a cypress tree.
“Uncle Hashem, why did you come back from America?”
“This is my home. I was only in America to study. I had to come back.” What he meant to say was he’d already had a child and the child was waiting and the mother couldn’t leave, and after all, this was home like a millstone around his neck, and he missed the bread his wife made and his mother’s coffee on Friday mornings. He should have stayed on in that small town in Georgia, where he was mistaken for black, when he was mistaken for anything, and it was better to be black in America than an Arab man with a dead wife and a dead child in the pene-exclave of Gaza, but that wasn’t something he wanted to tell Lala. He was home and apart from himself, he was alive and as good as dead. But he didn’t say any of these things. They were all disjoined and confused in his head. Sometimes he didn’t believe himself. Why had he come back? Why had he left? Why did he exist at all and as a Gazan, which seemed a particularly difficult burden to bear once one had borne exile—even a very temporary one. Don’t leave Gaza is what he should have said to Lala, I shouldn’t have left myself. It is better to know only Gaza or if you leave, to hold the fading memory in your heart like a stone, rather than come back.
“Hamid of Ramallah says if he could go to America and study like you did he would never come back here. He says Gaza is a bad place and that no one who has brains enough to leave, should stay, let alone come back. Is that true?”
“Look,” he wanted to tell Lala, “There isn’t a truth more noble than the fact of our existence. Even the Israelites who dared to leave two centuries ago came back singing their birthright songs. No one who leaves can stay away and no one who returns can forget where they have been. Lala, we are the Israelites who stayed behind. We stayed with this land too long. We became Christians. We became Muslims. We became fools over and again. We died so that we could live in the next world with those who had died before. That is the truth as I know it. The dust and the sea and the old armistice line like three wise men hunting the brightest star that someone turned off long ago. A dream you can feel but can’t remember. A divine message in analog when all that we can hear now is digital. Land of milk and honey and horseshit. Land of Dr. Hashem Juda’s despair. Land of songs and solitude, madness and repentance.” He might has well have added, “There was once, in an anemic strip of land along a very blue sea, a man who prayed for dust and two thousand years later, a long blink in the eye of the God of Bonbons, dust rained and bloomed and shimmied like slow motion angels down upon the villages of Gaza and buried those who stayed and those who loved the dust returned to claim what they took to be promised to them alone.”
But he didn’t because she was a child, and she was new in the world, and it was already too much for her—for any child—to be born with the burden of a disappeared nation, let alone hear the affected musings of a man who’d lost everything and nothing over and over again. In time, she would learn about the terrible dilemma of citizenship to a land no one recognizes, and what it meant or didn’t mean to belong to a place trapped in the gap between oblivion and annihilation, and of the desires of a free people to be free.
Instead, he squeezed her hand and said, in a fatherly way, “He is correct and incorrect, Lala. Gaza is our home and so we are drawn here, no matter how far away we travel. And while it may be inhospitable to our dreams at times and make us terribly sick, we can not deny that it is a part of us, and that it shapes us, and that we are damned to long for it, and some of us, damned to return.”
He stopped walking and turned to look Lala in the eyes, “Do you understand, Lala?”
Her eyes filled him with a strange mixture of hope and sadness. “Suffer but weep not,” he wanted to say now. “Uncle, do you think the grocery store will have ice cream bars today?”
On certain Thursday afternoons it was possible that the small grocery store on the far side of the camp would have a special and limited collection of ice cream bars smuggled into Gaza by Hamid of Ramallah. Hamid of Ramallah could get ice cream bars, Dove brand soap, Camel Light cigarettes, generic ibuprofen, lentils, tomato paste, soccer balls, tampons, condoms, and keyboard pianos. If someone wanted chocolate, say to give to someone they liked, sometimes Hamid of Ramallah could bring a Dairy Milk chocolate bar hidden in the leg of his pants the next time he crossed Eretz. But his specialty was ice cream bars and no one knew how he managed to keep them cold but he did and he was the most beloved smuggler of goods among children and adults alike, even though he was from Ramallah and a refugee, as opposed to a native of Gaza, which is different. A native wasn’t displaced the way a refugee was displaced. A native was imposed upon, forced to share, given over to giving into the open maw of the need of the refugee. Such was the burden of the natives of Gaza, including Uncle Hashem and his lot.
The grocery shop owner was a native, of course, and Hamid of Ramallah was his friend, even if he was also a refugee. And so it was no surprise to find both of them inside the shop on Thursday afternoon and for both of them to smile when they saw Uncle Hashem and a red coat with his little Lala inside.
“Peace be upon you,” they each said in turn and shook hands and kissed each other’s cheeks.
“Lala dear, I have a package of pink bubblegum just for you!” said the shop owner.
“I was hoping for an ice cream bar today. Hamid of Ramallah, did you bring any?”
Hamid of Ramallah looked at Uncle Hashem, then sighed and turned to look woefully at the shop owner, who shrugged.
“My dearest, I was not able to bring ice cream on this trip but I promise to try the next time I come.”
“But you said next week last week, Hamid of Ramallah.”
“Lala, don’t be rude. It isn’t easy to bring such things. Why don’t you try the gum?” Uncle Hashem squeezed her hand gently.
“Thank you for the gum.” Lala said and placed it in the pocket of her little red coat.
“Gentlemen, I trust you and your families are well?”
“Thank God. We are well in our house. But Hamid of Ramallah is in trouble; tell him, brother.”
Hamid of Ramallah hesitated. “No, it isn’t the time, not now.”
“Lala, wait for me outside dear.”
“No Uncle, I want to hear what is wrong with Hamid of Ramallah.”
“Yes, but some business is only between a man and his doctor, Lala.”
“Then why does he get to stay?” said Lala and pointed to the shop owner.
“Come on then Lala, I’ll wait outside with you.” The shop owner took her hand and they walked out and stood in the street.
“Hamid, tell me. What is it?”
“Umm Hamdi’s daughter is pregnant.”
“Does your mother know?”
“No, of course not. Umm Hamdi doesn’t know either.”
“No one has told you this yet, so I will, you are an idiot.” Uncle Hashem slapped Hamid of Ramallah on the back of his head.
“I don’t know what to do. She’ll be ruined if anyone finds out. She’s meant to go to university in Egypt next year. This will ruin it for her.”
“How far along?”
“There is a medicine you can obtain that will help her avoid this embarrassment. It is available in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.”
“My next trip is in three weeks.”
“That is too much time wasted. Go sooner, if you can, while this is a problem that can be fixed.”
“Brother, these things are out of my hands. The borders are closed.”
“You might have considered that before you got yourself and a nice girl in trouble.”
When they left the shop Lala asked her Uncle what was the problem with Hamid of Ramallah but Uncle Hashem was silent.
In the small house at the far other side of the camp Lala helped her mother, Tamara, turn a pot filled with thin chicken and rice upside down onto a silver tray.
“Voila,” Tamara said and smiled at Uncle Hashem.
“Tamara, this looks wonderful as usual. You are a magician of culinary magnificence. You are, dare I say, the best cook in Gaza.”
“You, brother, are the best liar in Gaza.”
The evening passed in this way as it always did; polite conversation, dishes washed and dried, coffee, and maybe after Lala went to bed, Tamara would have a cigarette with Uncle Hashem and they would speak in voices so low Lala couldn’t hear, but sometimes she could discern the soft crying of her mother and the warm voice of her Uncle saying it would be alright, all suffering has an end.
Occasionally, the lights went out or the curfew began early and Uncle Hashem would sleep on the couch in the living room. Lala liked those nights the best because she didn’t worry about Uncle Hashem all alone by the seaside in his office. On such nights Lala slept deeply, without dreaming of ice cream or wondering what heaven was like and whether Aunt Sara, her father and Tala kept each other company while they waited for Tamara, and Uncle Hashem and Lala. On such nights it was silence and velvet darkness; the kind that didn’t come screaming so very alive.
“You could sleep here every night,” Lala said as Uncle Hashem tucked her in.
“Good night Lala.”
Uncle Hashem didn’t need to worry about waking up in time to open his office the next morning when he stayed with Tamara and Lala. Lala was always dressed and beside him before dawn.
“Uncle, I’ll walk with you to your office. Mama says I can if I promise to come back right away without any stops.”
In the early morning sunshine the streets were still quiet, still recovering from the deep silence of night, slowly emerging but still endowed with a fine coating of honey colored dust. A million little motes captive in the long tendrils of sunshine. The shop windows, the street sweepers, the carts pulled by donkeys from an era before, the era they lived in perpetually, were all still faint suggestions of themselves. Uncle Hashem gritted his teeth.
There was once.
Mornings with coffee in a prosaic student apartment. In his student days in that small town in Georgia—where everything shined clean and new, even if it was old, and everything smelled of soap and hopefulness, because the world was very so completely open—one didn’t need a view of the sea to feel a moment of escape from endless dust, one didn’t feel continually submerged and emerging from some invulnerable menace. One was simply of the world, nature didn’t have a second meaning; trees grew because they could, boys and girls laughed without complications, and if there was a window you could open it. And it didn’t have to end until someone said, “tell me again how to say your name?”
“Lala, I had a very dear friend in Georgia and he was a Palestinian like us, but he’d been born in America, and couldn’t ever come back here.”
“How was he a Palestinian like us if he wasn’t born here?”
“His parents were born here but then left.”
“They didn’t come back?”
“And so he also couldn’t come back? Because they didn’t?”
“His friends and everything he’d ever known was in America, even if he constantly spoke of being Palestinian. If he came here, if he could, he would miss America the way we would miss Gaza.”
“I bet he has all the ice cream he wants whenever he wants.”
“For you, everything is measured in ice cream.”
After they arrived at the office, Uncle Hashem watched as the image of Lala’s red coat got dimmer and dimmer until his eyes couldn’t discern her anymore. When he opened his office there was barely a moment before his patients began to arrive, his patients who oppressed him with their millions of unnamable anxieties all morning and all afternoon and into the evening and beyond, for weeks, until one singular explosion stopped all their whining and half the sky collapsed upon them. Don’t believe what scientists say about the nature of time. Time stopped long enough after the explosion for Uncle Hashem to say, “wait.”
There was once.
He emerged thinking only of Tamara and Lala alone across the city and made his way toward them even as the buildings shook and smoke billowed up like so many dancing jinns all around him. Every so often he was confused by the thought that perhaps this was a dream from which he wouldn’t wake up and that he was at college again, making friends with Palestinians who’d never seen Palestine, eating ice cream in an ice cream shop with a gaggle of young people who couldn’t decide between a movie or dancing, or that maybe he’d had too much to drink and at any moment he’d be woken up by an alarm or maybe he was dead, finally, and somehow that was the most comforting of all of his thoughts; to go to sleep and to die in a dream and to find perhaps the better life you prayed for, the better life you deserved but for the skin you were born into, the better life served up without strings attached like so much water in a land of thirst. But then the buildings stilled for a moment long enough for Uncle Hashem to continue his way toward the small house on the far other side of the dust filled camp, to find the last two people to whom he belonged.
In every war the land is remade and reshaped to suit the desires of the conquerors. There was once. A house built on the edge of what became a refugee camp. A girl who might have been Little Red Riding Hood in a fairy tale about the darkness of the woods and the evil lurking there. Once there was and now there wasn’t. The building where Tamara and Lala lived was gone, a faint column of smoke remained there as a reminder perhaps or it too was confused and lingering like Uncle Hashem. Here is the place where the table was set for dinner and there was the windowsill where we sat and spoke of what had passed. That was where I took your hand and said, “don’t cry Tamara,” and lied through my crooked teeth, “you will see him again,” because the truth didn’t matter to me as much as your comfort and I couldn’t think of how else to mend your broken heart but to lie about an afterlife where your dead husband would be waiting. And there was the narrow bed where Lala, your only living child, was tucked in and told to dream of pretty things, so that she wouldn’t wake up screaming, a scream like a woman’s scream, not a child’s scream. A scream that lived into the morning and the afternoon and the evening because what else was there here, but a million orphans screaming and waiting for the day they could sleep and dream of nothing. The house was gone. Tamara and Lala were gone. If anything remained it was the suggestion of a red coat, somewhere among the rubble.
“Uncle Hashem, why are you kneeling in the sand like that?” Lala said. She must have been standing behind him for some time with her mother, regarding Uncle Hashem on his knees with handfuls of sand, crying out.
“You were gone.”
“No,” Tamara said. There was nothing to betray fear or even relief in her voice. Her voice was her voice.
“She went to the grocery store after school and when I found her she was eating ice cream with Hamid of Ramallah.” And then after a breath she touched Lala’s hair and said, “Thanks to her the house didn’t collapse on top of us. We are still alive. Still here.”
Whether Tamara had uttered a statement of fact or a question regarding the nature of existence Uncle Hashem didn’t know at that moment. Years later, beneath a hasty pile of twisted metal and concrete, he would say the same thing to no one in particular and an inch of sky.
“Hamid of Ramallah brought me strawberry vanilla crunch and vanilla chocolate swirl. And he said his problem was fixed but he still wouldn’t tell me what it was, but I think he left Gaza and realized he missed Gaza and so he came back, not just to bring ice cream and cigarettes and gum, but because he wanted to, because his heart wanted to be here.”
“Lala, where is your coat?” Uncle Hashem asked.
There was once. Once, there wasn’t.
Kafah Bachari is a short story writer, poet, and aspiring novelist. She lives in Houston Texas, with her two young sons and teaches business law at the University of Houston Law Center. Currently she is at work on her first novel, Azadistan.
On the Aegean coast of Turkey, the sea casts rainbows at olive trees, and mountains stretch eagerly into the open water, creating sheltered coves. My American husband and I arrived in one of these inlets soon after our wedding in Istanbul—though we live in Brooklyn, we were married in Turkey where most of my family lives.
In Aspat, we found the makings of a proper—if not perfect—honeymoon. Our bungalow, though too utilitarian to be romantic, was comfortable. We had blue skies, palm trees, and a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze. Starting in the late mornings, the breeze blew westward, away from the coast, and kept the water impeccably clean by carrying away all undesirable things—seaweed, plastic cups, paper napkins, water bottles—toward Greece. Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise longue in pursuit of it. I was often too slow. By the time I reached the water’s edge, most foreign objects were well on their way to the Greek island of Kos which beckoned them from an apple’s throw away.
In the early mornings, there was no breeze and the refuse accumulated on our side of the Aegean. When my husband and I walked to the pier for our post-breakfast dip, I had a hard time ignoring the trash that littered the beach. I picked up cigarette wrappers, plastic straws, water bottles, and soda cans. I fished out two diapers using a plastic bag as a glove, and washed my hands with a bottle of turquoise liquid soap that had beached conveniently next to the diapers. As I carried the bottle to a trashcan, I noticed that it had Arabic writing on it. I dragged out two bright objects that proved to be brand new pumps for inflatable boats. I found a medicine box with a handwritten Arabic note. A fanny pack containing a rusty needle and some thread coiled around cardboard. There was also a list next to the needle and thread, written from right to left, from which some items had been crossed out. I found a Tupperware box full of medicine. A ripped passport issued by the Islamic Republic of Pakistan requesting protection for its holder. A wallet holding 2500 Syrian pounds, a business card from a health and wellness center in Kobane, a letter, and the driver’s license of a very young man with a round face.
When large scale violence strikes, it’s a given that the victims suffer and die where they are; involvement of the nonvictims is usually optional. The order of the things was disturbed this summer when Syrians fleeing the war in their country spread out into the world and started appearing on the Aegean coast—the affordable and sufficiently exotic vacation spot of choice for many Europeans.
I collected the residue of other people’s lives with the same calm with which I might have collected sea shells, keeping some and discarding others. The tears that I so readily shed when I watched TV reports on the Syrian refugee’s plight were absent. Even the shame I felt over my indifference was mild. My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home. Just the act of standing under the sun, my feet resting on aquatic rainbows, kept war and death distant and surreal, despite the Syrian driver’s license I carried ashore. The only things that felt urgent were luxurious dips in the most welcoming of seas, sunbathing, warm showers, and leisurely meals capped with a glass of black tea.
On our last night, the cove was tinted yellow by a full moon. After dinner, we walked out to the sand. “Look,” my husband whispered. At the tip of his finger, a few hundred yards from us, an inflatable dinghy was gliding west. I watched it for a few seconds until it disappeared in the darkness, with nothing but the utter fascination of having witnessed it, as if it were a solar eclipse. The fate of the people in the boat was merely a passing thought—we had a lifetime to weep for the tragedies of the world. The water was calm and black with silver drops. Soon after the boat left, we stripped down to our underwear for a midnight swim.
Two days later, when we were back in Ankara, the body of a Syrian toddler washed ashore less than a mile from our honeymoon cove. We watched it on my parents’ TV and cried.
Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer and a recent graduate of Columbia University’s nonfiction program. She is also a translator from Turkish.
The impulse comes over me when I’m bored and out of sorts. Paul would say that it’s Satan at work in me. Since I know what he would say, I don’t tell him.
Looking up Marla from high school leads me to Jody, posing with two kids and a car. Her husband works for Union Carbide. Reading about her reminds me of Lisa, living in Mobile now. She has a picture of a magnolia on her web site, and her husband works for the state.
Idaho is too far from Florida for me to go to reunions, but using the Internet is almost as good. In emails I don’t have to explain that Paul surrendered to the call and is a preacher now. He was at Allied for five years. We lived in a two-story house with rosebushes when he came to me and said he wanted us to pray. We’d been trying for a baby. I thought, why not?
He said, “Lord, if you are calling me, I will come. Janine and I will serve you.”
I dropped my hands and stared at him. We went to church twice a week and he taught Sunday School, but a lot of our friends did that. None of them were talking to God about service.
Outside, a jay squabbled at the top of its lungs. Paul took a few minutes to find the right words. “Sometimes at work I’ll feel everything fall away. Or rather, I’m the one falling. I’m dropping and dropping, and there doesn’t seem to be any bottom, and all that’s around me is God. What is that, if not a call?”
His face was soft, and I could see the fear there, and who knows? He might have been right. The stupid jay made it hard to think. “I’ve never heard a call, but maybe that’s one,” I said. Nobody asked what I’d heard: a bird jabbering outside a window.
When I got pregnant a month after Paul quit his job to go to seminary, he told me this was God’s reward to us. I still won’t say he’s wrong.
God proved to be a fruitful giver, providing us with six children as Paul’s ability to feed and clothe them dwindled. “Couldn’t you at least have been called to a nice, big TV church in Houston?” I asked when we moved from Eagle to Blackfoot. He looked hurt. His sense of humor had been the first casualty of the call, while mine sharpened right up.
The pictures of Suzanne and Colleen and Annie, who’s now living in Connecticut where she says she can’t get used to the winters, show women who have kept their figures and their faces. Their husbands have, too. Occasionally their posts or web sites will thank God for some blessing, but mostly they’re busy chronicling those blessings, which sometimes include skiing.
There is nothing wrong with going to the Internet and looking up the lives of my old friends. No sin there. But I’m left queasy with resentment. Sometimes I write to them, subject line “Hello from an old friend,” and hear back “How wonderful it must be to live such a faith-based life. I envy you.”
Paul has taken to saying, “What have you thanked God for today?” instead of hello. The kids make up answers when he’s not around. “Thank you, God, for giving Dad bad hearing so he can’t tell I’m watching rap videos.” “Thank you, God, making it rain so I didn’t have to rake.” I laugh. Be honest: I encourage them.
I have exhausted my list of girlfriends before it occurrs to me to look up Richard. He existed in that zone that comes before dating, when boys and girls look at each other with terror. Our little Jonathan, age 12, is there now. Maybe it was watching him that made me go to Google, chasing the other kids away from the family computer that the church is still unhappily paying off for us.
Most of my searches take a little while, especially when I have to hunt down married names. But Richard Volking comes right up, over and over, with images. He is an architect. He is famous.
He has a house in Barcelona and an apartment in New York, and is married for the third time. In one picture his wife is kissing a cat, which makes me like her. One child from each marriage: three little saplings in a row.
I rewrite my message over and over. “What a pleasure to see your success! Our old days in Cool Springs must seem far away from you now. I just wanted to reach out and say hello, and send blessings.” The last two words are Paul’s usual sign-off.
There is so much to do. Mary’s homework, Esther’s soccer practice, visits to Mrs. Berry and Mrs. Polkman. Cookies for the soccer team, the children’s choir, Jonathan’s home room. In a typical week I make eight batches of cookies, and Paul and I are soft as bread dough.
By the time I get back to the computer I was almost not thinking about Richard.
“You’re right—those days do feel very far away, and so I’m especially glad that you reached out. I haven’t been back to Cool Springs since Mother died, but I remember it clearly. The long willow branches hung like a girl’s hair. No willows in Barcelona.”
I skim the rest. Esther asks if she can have a cookie, and I say roughly, “Take them all.”
Paul is late home from church, and when he finally gets in, his mouth is full of words. His blessing before dinner clocks ten solid minutes. He wouldn’t feel the need to voice so many thanks if he had prepared the food congealing in front of him. “For the blessings of Esther’s soccer team’s win. For Jonathan’s home room teacher, Lord, we thank you. Our hands are your hands in the world, Lord, our faces your face. Bless our hands and faces.”
He lifts his eyes and smiles. Wordless, I smile back. The lasagna is a mouthful of rubber.
Now that Paul has gone to bed, I stay up and look at the computer’s screen saver for a long time: a picture of a seagull and “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.” Josh set it up to please his father; I’m pretty sure there was another one he shared with his siblings that had a different quote. When the computer came into the house Paul blessed it, asking that it be used to serve and praise God. I am willing to think that looking up cookie recipes or helping Mary with a history paper are both service and praise.
In the kitchen, I splash ice water on my face, which is God’s face, over and over. It’s supposed to keep us from crying. It’s done it before. “Dear Richard, I pray that God will continue to send blessings upon you, your work, your children and your wives.” That ought to do it.
Erin McGraw is the author of six books of fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, STORY, The Kenyon Review, Allure, and many other journals and magazines. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins.
Now that our Best of 2015 list of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and music is over, Tin House goes to the movies! By which we obviously mean “watches Netflix at home.” And also art galleries, rallies, and arcades. Look, there was only one day left in the week:
Matthew Dickman: When you are hung-over-as-fuck the morning of January 1st all you need to do is order some Thai food to be delivered and lie on your couch and watch River. This new offering on Netflix (Via BBC1) is exactly the kind of thing to spend a day and night binging on: moody, beautifully filmed, rainy and cloudy, AND a detective with real ghosts to contend with. Stellan Skarsgård is genius in the title roll.
As always, our staff are big documentary buffs, and this year offered a lot of great nonfiction movies: from Albert Maysles’s last picture to Laurie Anderson’s dog to the great ballet artist Justin Peck:
Jakob Vala: “When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.” Iris Apfel is a treasure and an inspiration—in style, in life, in love. She appeared in last year’s Advanced Style, but shines as the star of Albert Maysles’ final documentary, Iris. The film is packed with her signature layered couture and glimpses into the fashion industry. The real charm is in Iris’ disarming authenticity and in her very sweet marriage to the late Carl Apfel (a fashion plate in his own right). For Iris, style is the ultimate form of self-expression: “The worst fashion faux pas is to look in the mirror, and not see yourself.” Other favorites: It Follows and Rick and Morty (TV)
Meg Storey: I won’t attempt to summarize Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, but it is visually, philosophically, and emotionally beautiful. It’s a dream, a collage, and a meditation all at once and with a fantastic soundtrack.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: Ballet 422! Longtime readers of the Open Bar will know I am devotee of Justin Peck, the New York City Ballet dancer and choreographer at the heart of this documentary. The first time I saw one of his ballets, Year of the Rabbit, I cried all through the curtain call, so happy to think that dance and life could be like this: spirited, and empathetic, and tender. This documentary follows Peck as he makes his ballet, Paz de la Jolla. It doesn’t hurt that my all-time favorite dancer and the world’s most beautiful man, Amar Ramasar, is one of his principals. But even aside from the spectacular dance, Ballet 422 is inspiring as a portrait of artistic endeavor, and the ridiculous possibility of making something from nothing.
(Also, anyone who didn’t think The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was funny can consider themselves unsubscribed from the magazine.)
From documentary, it makes sense to go to a true story like Spotlight, Michelle’s pick for movie of the year:
Michelle Wildgen: Spotlight, Spotlight, so many times Spotlight. Somehow Tom McCarthy manages to be true to journalism and yet deliver a gripping, moving drama. All the dramatic tension is contained entirely in the tensions of going against the grain of a largely Catholic culture, of the journalist’s endless amounts of research and phone calls, and the simple human-to-human conversation.
There are, of course, other kinds of visual art out there. Yes, even in 2015, people still paint pictures. Rob Spillman took a trip to the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see some of those paintings recently:
Rob: Kehinde Wiley’s ongoing project of putting real people of color into reproductions of old master paintings was stunning in its scope and range. I went multiple times, and the people watching—a cross-section of Brooklyn, from large black and Hispanic families to Bed-Stuy hipsters—was almost as enjoyable as the work itself.
And then there are the interns, with their comic books and their cartoons and video games and Justin Biebers—we get it, we’re old and they’ll always be cooler than us:
Claire Gordon: I know a lot of folks fancy themselves too cool for the carefully crafted pop stylings of JB, but I dare you to find me someone who can resist dancing to Sorry. Take that and pair it with the incredible video, which is comprised of about 15 colorfully dressed female dancers against white walls, and it’s both eye and ear candy. On top of the sheer poppy goodness, it’s refreshing and awesome to see a video in which the star himself never appears, and that features healthy, athletic female bodies. Let’s just say: I never expected to publicly admit that I’ve listened to, much less love Justin Bieber, but this year, I’m not sorry.
Jess Kibler: First things first, I should admit that I care very close to zero about most things Marvel. Sure, the Iron Man movies were funny, but do you know how many smart-ass white dudes I know in real life? (Remember, I’m an intern at Tin House.) So it’s safe to say Tony Stark’s schtick isn’t that exciting to me, and I haven’t been bothered to watch any of the other movies or television shows. TBH, I’m also a little indifferent about cool guys walking away from explosions. So I was hesitant about Jessica Jones, Marvel’s new Netflix show, because I assumed that, like most superhero things, there would be little in it for me. But how wrong I was! Jessica Jones is often explicitly about what it’s like to be a woman, just on a grander, super-scale. Pair that with a largely female cast and an extremely compelling (and terrifying) villain who’s basically a walking misogyny machine, and it makes for something that finally, though temporarily, fills the hole in my heart that Buffy left. (And, y’know, I’m not going to say that it’s uncool to share a name with a hard-drinking sassy superhero.)
Mattie Wong: Steven Universe—I have been gushing about this show for pretty much the entirety of 2015, and I will likely keep gushing about it long into 2016. Cue insufficient plot summary: Steven Universe is a cartoon series featured on Cartoon Network about a young boy learning to use magical powers alongside the Crystal Gems, a trio of magical beings who protect the earth from evil. Sounds like your average kid’s show, but Steven Universe is so on-point in every way imaginable: strong female characters, a diverse cast (both on-screen and voice actors), a compelling and seriously intense plot which I have cried over on numerous occasions, amazing music to please your ears, amazing art to please your eyes, SO MUCH HEART. And, really, at its heart (which is so very big) the show deals with the complexity of relationships and promotes kindness and understanding in ways that are applicable to one’s life, even as an adult. Even if you’re not super into cartoons, give this show a shot. The first ten or so episodes (they’re very short, only 10 minutes per) may seem a bit lacking in substance, but stick with it (or skip some like I did) until things start ramping up, and I guarantee* you won’t regret it.
*So maybe not a 100% guarantee, but certainly a substantial number, something like 94%? 95%?
Mattie again: It’s hard to describe Undertale without ruining the experience of playing it (so nearly every review of Undertale begins), but I’ll keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. Undertale is a neato indie RPG with a unique degree of awareness of its status as an RPG game, such that it subverts many key elements of the classic genre –and, I’m happy to report, not in a gross, overly-pretentious fashion. You can expect: turn-based combat, a bullet hell dodging system, charming characters, memes (probably), regret (possibly), spine-tingling cinematic moments, LOVE, and, most importantly, consequences, i.e. different routes the game can be played with. Seriously, though, Undertale is a game overflowing with creativity, humor, and sensitivity, and it really shows in the details. I highly recommend getting a copy off of Steam, especially if you’re looking for a thoughtful, character-driven game.
Anybody who’s spent a little time around Tin House knows we like to get down. Whether at the karaoke bars of Portland or whatever venue will allow our house cratedigger DJ Mas y Menos [sic] to spin some records, we’ve been known to jump on a table or two. Expect some stirring karaoke renditions from this list if you join us for our Summer Writer’s Workshop in 2016. But first, a gauntlet must be thrown:
Matthew: A$AP Rocky’s At. Long. Last. IS the best rap album of the year. By far. That’s it. Sorry Drake.
Bold words from the poet who has been described as “America’s Aubrey Graham.” Now, onto the rest!
Rob: Courtney Barnett’s album Sometimes I Think and Sit, and Sometimes I Just Sit was on constant rotation in my house. The Australian singer-songwriter’s clever, self-effacing lyrics and catchy riffs irresistible. I was nervous to see her in concert, but at the Bowery Ballroom in May she blew me away—much more muscular than the recordings, her trio rocked for two straight hours, transmogrifying her tight, intimate songs into expansive, have-to-dance experiences.
Emma: Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell is far and away my album of the year. I know this position is controversial. As beloved as Sufjan Stevens is in other corners of the world, here at Tin House Brooklyn, he has been dubbed a “pretentious weenie.” I cannot entirely argue that point, and I don’t love or even like all of his other music, but this moved me in way I haven’t been by an album since high school, when I’d lie on the floor in the dark listening toHarvest over and over and over, feeling like it was made for me. Carrie and Lowell had for me that same intimacy. It’s so sad, and so genuinely beautiful; would that all weenies were also this real about life’s hardest stuff.
Thomas: I spent a couple weeks this summer in LA, watching a dog and driving around the city. During the day I alternated Kamasi Washington and that Snoop Dogg album (“That’s how California rolls . . .”), but at night I listened to nothing but George Fitzgerald’s Fading Love, which will always call up images of Los Angeles at night, the city spread slick, urgent, and huge, a luminous slab of desert muscle veined with red and white lit highways. The quiet expanse of Fitzgerald’s album seems to similarly just barely contain a bright, moving light.
DJ Mas y Menos: A slow burner, Ultimate Painting’s Green Lanes is weather proof. First discovered and played during late summer sunsets, it has now found its way into my rainy day rotation. Mellow without being forgettable, the hooks and harmonies fill a room with whatever type of emotional breeze you need for the day.
Jakob: Full disclosure: Dr. Light’s current/best bass player is my friend (and lawyer). Possible conflict of interest aside, their self-titled album is my choice for best of the year. It’s a polished gem of post-punk, metal-influenced rock. My favorite track, “Into the Weeds,” has a new wave vibe that makes me long for heady conversation and tumblers of scotch. Dr. Light is catchy and memorable like a drizzly, boozy night around a bonfire. Other favorites: solvent’s Modern Dystopia and Famous Lucy’s Canary in the Coal Mine
Tony: Since my favorite record is everybody else’s favorite—from Rolling Stone to the White House—I’m not going bother to extoll its virtues. Instead, I’ll plug one of my favorite discoveries of the year, the writer Kris Ex, and defer to a particularly incisive paragraph in this particularly incisive Pitchfork-thesis-defense for choosing Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as their album of the year:
“All of this Blackness is important. Important because sometimes white people need to take a metaphorical seat—to sit down, shut up, and listen to conversations in which they are a cultural object, not the center.”
Ex has become a go-to music writer for me, someone that’s equally nimble at describing the pleasures (or lack thereof) in a piece of music as he is in framing the cultural context or stakes. For white people listening to black music (so, you know, white people listening to music over the past century or so), Kris Ex’s short exegesis on the “Kid Friendly” version “Trap Queen”—”Fetty Wap and the Appropriation of Everything But the Burden“—should probably be required reading.
We’ve already gone over our favorite nonfiction and fiction of 2015, so now it’s time for poetry. Most of our staff lives in Portland, Oregon, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting two different poetry events, so we know from poetry. In July, one of those poetry events is our Tin House Writer’s Workshop, which this last summer featured an uproarious reading from Amy Gerstler, author of Scattered at Sea:
Lance: “Surprise is so akin to wonder, and is one of the elements that makes literature feel alive.” This quote from the author perfectly sums up my enjoyment of this nimble collection. Every page is a wonderful engagement with with Gerstler’s charming mania, as the mundane becomes sublime, oddity a way of life. Topics and observations carry over from poem to poem, as the author picks up and loosens conversational threads, treating the reader like a lunch date partner on a sunny afternoon terrace. I love books, and poetry seems especially adapt at this, where authorial pleasure seeps onto the page. You feel Gerstler’s giddiness throughout Scattered at Sea. It is contagious.
2015 saw the loss of some of poetry’s greatest practitioners. After losing Mark Strand in late 2014, we lost CK Williams, Franz Wright, Tomas Tranströmer, James Tate, and many more. Thankfully, their legacies will survive, and continue to effect our reading of new poetry:
Cheston: 2015: year of poetic discoveries. Was an oddity to encounter a poet recently gone, Mark Strand, in his collected poems, his late life’s work and purpose graspable in one hand. A further oddity still to meet Maureen N. McLane on the page, in her incredible books This Blue, Same Life, and World Enough, to see what she’s making of the language we share. This pair persists for me, has entered my orbit, and I look forward to circling them into 2016.
Thomas: I admired James Tate for showing just how far poetry could stretch without breaking—his poems always seem to be out on a diving board or teetering on stilts, neurotically reaching back toward the ground with extraneous dialogue tags, repetitive phrases, and oddball colloquialisms. In Dome of the Hidden Pavillion, his trademark jaunty surrealism is slightly darker, twisted by fear and confusion in the face of everyday violence and casual militarism. My favorite of the poems in here are dialogues between couples, often revolving around the total bafflement of trying to know someone else when literally everything seems shocking and inexplicable. I’ve been reading it slowly for months, and keep coming back to it when I catch myself forgetting how confusing life is. Tate was documenting the world from a specific perch that no one else will ever occupy, and if Dome of the Hidden Pavillion is to be the last missive from that high, strange place, we should savor it for as long as possible.
Tin House Magazine’s Editor Rob Spillman likes work that challenges the status quo, which is probably why Olena Kalytiak Davis’s canon-denying The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems appeals to him:
Rob: In her fourth book, Kalytiak-Davis continues her sonic and social mission to disrupt and enliven poetic possibilities. The only surprise here is that she is not more well known, partly due to her living in Alaska.
Meanwhile, Meg Storey, noted reader of prose only, has finally read a book of poetry that she loved enough to recommend in Dean Young’s Shock Shock, and her reasons are pretty convincing:
Meg:There’s a poem about checking out a cadaver (“a medium-sized somewhat shrunken/professorial-looking fellow”) from the library, when you went for a book about how to make kites, and so using the cadaver for a kite instead. “Just wait till those bastards/see this, you think walking to the park/where all your previous kites were torn apart/by screaming hawks and angels aflame.” Need I say any more?
What’s the poetry editor at Tin House been digging this year? Our man Matthew Dickman reads, sees, and writes a LOT of poetry, but as ever, his focus is on you, and your reading pleasure, and making sure you get some affection this holiday season, courtesy Morgan Parker’s Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night:
Matthew: Morgan Parker’s collection of beautiful, dangerous, empathetic, intelligent, and wild poems is what got me through the last half of this year. It’s a book everyone should have if they don’t want to feel alone and un-kissed at Midnight this December 31st! A lot of incredible poetry came out in 2015 so after picking up Parker you might grab Terrance Hayes’s How To Be Drawn, Caroline Knox’s To Drink Boiled Snow, Amy Gerstler’s Scattered At Sea, Major Jackson’s Roll Deep, Cate Marvin’s Oracle, and Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice . . . now you have a New Year party worth the champagne.
Somehow, another year is almost over. We thought we’d take this week to look back on 2015 and marvel at its greatest hits, genre by genre. Today: nonfiction. As our Editor Rob Spillman says, for something to be “best of 2015,” it needs to the the thing that upsets us the most, that throws us the furthest off our expected course. So it’s fitting to begin with The Argonauts, by the inimitable Maggie Nelson:
Rob (Editor): Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is hard to classify. Is it cultural criticism? Memoir? Who cares. I was swept up by Nelson’s nimble mind as she navigated the birth of her child and her partner’s transformation via injected Testosterone, all while surveying cultural views of gender and maternity.
Jakob (Graphic Designer): The Argonauts has stuck with me more than anything I’ve read this year. Maggie Nelson’s memoir/autotheory/poem/essay is difficult to categorize and even more difficult to write about. At its core, The Argonauts is a love story, but it’s much more complex than that, with themes of parenthood, normativity, sex, gender, identity . . . it’s both validating and challenging.
Emma (Associate Editor): Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is going to be at the top of a lot of lists here. I’ve been an acolyte of St. Maggie since her Red Parts and poetry days, and it’s been a bittersweet thing to share her with more and more of the world when so much of what makes her writing powerful is how intimate it is, as if the book you’re reading is instead a letter meant just for you. I want to retain the illusion I’m the only one receiving that letter. I’m sure you do, too. So, let’s just keep Maggie a secret from here on out, between us, the New York Times Book Review, and the Guggenheim people.
Claire (Editorial Intern): In a talk at PSU this November, Maggie Nelson was asked (predictably) about the genre-bending that figures in much of her work. She said she views it “less as genre, more as snake.” This perfectly sums up The Argonauts. I’m presuming that everyone reading this has already heard what it contains, how timely it is, and the like. I’ll only add that it’s my favorite work of hers to date, and the book I’ve purchased the most times to give away. It’s the most beautiful snake; every time I hold and look at it again, it shifts.
The Argonauts wasn’t the only incredible blend of the personal and political to shake things up this year. For another example, check out this year’s National Book Award winner, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me:
Thomas (Editorial Assistant): 2015 was a banner year for nonfiction that challenges the establishment. Between The Argonauts, Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, the most powerful nonfiction I read this year either directly challenged or just totally sidestepped my straight-cis-white male status. Like Claire suggested at our Summer Workshop, have put me in the habit of making myself and my privilege as small as possible, to forget “whiteness,” and to see as best as I can the only narrative there is from a different perspective. Reading Coates makes me feel naked in a room with racism, stripped of all cultural trappings, even the desensitizing words “privilege” or “white.” Coates’s eloquence, pain, and honesty are staggering, which is why it’s always such an illuminative pleasure to read him in The Atlantic, but framing Between the World and Me as a letter to Coates’s son adds a personal urgency to the book that makes it impossible to forget. (And as a total nerd, I can’t wait to see what he does with his upcoming run writing the Black Panther comic book.)
Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maggie Nelson aside, the situation in America seems pretty dire right now. But whether it’s a comfort or a renewed rallying cry, in 2015, Rick Perlstein’s books are a reminder that American national politics hasn’t changed that much in the last century:
Tony (Editor): My nonfiction choices this year aren’t particularly original, but there’s a reason everyone is enamored with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Maggie Nelson. And my other favorite—Kent Russell’s I’m Sorry to Think I’ve Raised a Timid Son—has been ruled ineligible based on our personal relationship. So with three of our most brilliant stylists out of the way, I’ll switch gears and recommend, for your primary season enjoyment, Rick Perlstein’s double-header of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge. It’s been interesting and edifying to better understand the demagogues of the recent past, lest we think the vile and/or cynical horseshit that’s being vomited across cable news and the internet is some historical anomaly. The blueprint is there (and it’s terrifying!). If you’re curious about how things might shake down at the GOP convention, how demographic alliances are formed, or how parties both adapt to and shape the culture, Perlstein will make for an interesting in-flight read en-route to Cleveland.
Meanwhile, a shout out to Helen MacDonald for, among other things (writing beautifully on grief and wildness), steeling our own Michelle Wildgen’s nerves re: hawk attacks:
Michelle (Executive Editor): Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk may be the most visceral and beautifully written book I read all year. She manages to make the presence of the hawk itself into something more alive and immediate than most human characters. And so when I witnessed a hawk killing a rabbit about 3 feet away from me underneath my car this winter, I was 10% less freaked out by the carnage thanks to her.
And barely in under the wire, Katy Waldman’s recent essay for Slate, “There Once Was a Girl,” is recommended intrepid intern Claire Gordon:
Claire: Before I made it halfway through this essay I had shared it with every one of my best friends. I’m usually wary of essays that focus on eating disorders, recovery, “survivor stories,” etc. But Katy Waldman does such an amazing job of first demonstrating how we’ve structured and languaged narratives around anorexia, and then dissembling these simply by telling her own story. I tend to seek out female nonfiction writers who explore new ways to mean, to express, to understand, and Waldman does this repeatedly in the piece: “Anorexia both is and isn’t a choice; the anorexic both is and is not herself. How do you make sense of that? I keep hoping that if I find the right words, I can earn a do-over, or at least transfigure the problem with meaning.” Waldman’s writing is lucid, honest, and hungry in its attempt to forge new pathways in understanding: of the disorder, of her family, of herself.
If you should have an ex-husband, who first writes, then doesn’t write, then writes to the point of absurdity, then refuses to write, refuses to receive correspondence from you, refuses to acknowledge you in any way, denies you exist, then writes again, angrily this time, then less angrily, then angrily again, then leaves off writing altogether, not without a final declaration—he has compromised himself by writing to you, you should not expect to hear from him again—and if each time you are taken in by this, are at the very edge by his either not writing or writing, are poised on the side of a cliff, waiting to see, wanting to know, which is it: will he not write? will he write? until a little time passes without his writing, and you slowly take a step back, and a little more time passes, and you take another step back from the cliff that you thought would surely claim your life, and another step, and a few more, until you find you are on a path walking the other way.
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of three books and the story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance, forthcoming from Graywolf Press.
The work of Wayne Koestenbaum has always been, for me, essential and cataract-removing. It consistently forces me into spaces of thought which feel simultaneously disorienting and familiar, collected and chaotic, and it’s the process of tunneling through those spaces that Wayne brings me to as a reader that I find so rewarding. He does not give you a map, but does offer some coordinates. He doesn’t lay claim to having an answer, but he asks the questions so adeptly, with so much insight and an almost sadistic intellect, one feels that perhaps it’s the question itself that’s the solution. In other words, Wayne Koestenbaum is a writer who makes one think, who makes one have the feeling of thinking—the feeling of if, of and, of but. His latest project, The Pink Trance Notebooks, is the product of the year Koestenbaum stopped keeping the traditional journal he had maintained for three decades and began instead a series of “trance notebooks” as a way to reflect an intensified, unmoored consciousness. The result, unsurprisingly, is staggering, and it was a prize and a privilege to get to speak with Wayne by email, over the course of several weeks, about the book.
Vincent Scarpa: One of the things that struck me in reading The Pink Trance Notebooks is how astounding it is that, though we are given these fragments in a spirit of brevity, in the shape and manner of a stream, the thoughts and sentiments the fragments hold still manage to be gigantic, suffer no loss of nuance or depth in compression; the way a fragment like “is/rumination different/from contemplation?” can appear on the page as small, but can open up in the reader some massive space of inquiry. I wonder if you could talk about compression in a general sense, but specifically if you find it, at least in this project, to be a way to amplify the possibility of meaning by, lacking a better phrase, shutting yourself up?
Wayne Koestenbaum: Compression: it’s my life’s blood. An antidote to logorrhea. A way of feeling sane, boxed-in, neatly tucked. Every button buttoned. As unbuttoned as I sometimes seem, on the page, I’m actually a buttoned-up writer. I like the edges to be fastened and tied. Hence my addiction (in prose and poetry) to blank interstices—asterisks, horizontal dividing-lines, numbers—to splice the flow of language, to create a sense of stacking (like Donald Judd sculptures). Compression is cousin to separability; I like to instigate separation between the members of my chorus. And so, in The Pink Trance Notebooks, drafted as one continuous (albeit year-long) flow, to make a book of the melee I needed to stage-manage via stanza-style compression-tactics. From the messy flow of the draft, I sought out the tiny phrase-clusters that could exist independently; I rescued them from the flood. The book, yes, still resembles a flood—a flood of fragments?—but at least I have the satisfaction of having scissored off the edges of each passage, to give each little phrase-island the illusion of individuation. A long time ago I learned, as a writer, how to cut myself up—to subdivide myself—to employ often plainspoken matter-of-fact sentences or phrases that, when stacked together, without transition, get more odd and funny and pleasantly askew by being (in their essence) lopped-off. I’m an atomizer—as writer, reader, viewer, observer. I prize nuggets. “Tidbits” has always been one of my favorite words. I wrote a poem once called “The Tidbit School of Adult Entertainment.”
VS: As I was reading, I would stumble upon certain fragments and think, “God, Wayne would be so great on Twitter.” A line like “‘Salmonella’ sounds like a bitter drag queen,” from Trance Notebook #18, for example. I read that and thought, Fuck, that’s funny, I’d retweet that. But then I sort of stepped back and saw how each fragment really does ricochet off the ones before and after it, and it’s that endless ricocheting that so delighted me as a reader. Were you conscious, in the crafting, of wanting even the most disparate entries to create a sort of ringing between one another, or was this just an accidental fortune of your process? And, hey—if compression is your life’s blood, and, to quote you, “self-exposure has always been the name of [your] game,” why aren’t you on Twitter? Does it interest you at all?
WK: I could imagine loving Twitter, as a writer, because I love index cards, post cards, tight discourse-spaces. Some of my first poems—in 1981 or 1982—I typed on the back of “While You Were Out” pads, when I was working as a temp. I loved those pink While You Were Outs—they licensed internal expansion, liberatory flight. I could say rash, improvident things, within the confines of While You Were Out. When I started writing sonnets (in 1982 or 1983?), I had the same feeling: my mind exploding, associations ricocheting, because of the cramped confines.
In The Pink Trance Notebooks, during the process of assemblage & revision, I aimed for ricochet, even while I allowed non-similar thought-spasms to abut each other. I didn’t try to iron out the non-consecutiveness and non-sequitur, but I tried to arrange the syntax so that the movement between spasms (I consider each little stanza a “spasm of utterance”) contained a ghost of logic and continuity. Certain spasms ineluctably connect; the grammar permits matrimony between Spasm #1 and Spasm #2. But the matrimony is also instantly dissolvable. The spasms are polyamorous?
The downside of Twitter: I’d want response. Retweetings. Ripple effects. When I type a poem on a While You Were Out pad, the response I crave is the embrace of the pink page’s edges—the pleasure of squeezing my words into the small rectangle, whose tightness serves as sufficient reciprocation.
VS: Were you aware at the start that your mother and her illness would occupy much space in the book?
“Why does the voice in my head have an Adam’s apple?”- Claire Vaye Watkins, 2015 Summer Workshop
The talk that started it all…..
Written on the occasion of Claire’s “troubling realization that she has been writing to impress old white men,” this call to action was given during our 2015 Summer Workshop.
The lecture took place in the late afternoon. The setting was a chapel. The audience sat in pews.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan
A modified version of this essay can be found in the latest issue of Tin House.
While we wait Molly explains to me from the backseat the secret history of San Francisco.
There didn’t used to be hills, she says. That’s what they said at school. It used to all be just water from where the bay is now. That used to go on for more, where the ground is, and you couldn’t walk anywhere because there was nothing to stand on. People didn’t walk here or drive, because there weren’t any cars back then either. Ships would sometimes come though because it was all water, and that’s what started San Francisco, the ships. They’d come sometimes because there were lots of fish, because there was lots of water, and so they’d come for the fish because it was fresh, straight from the water. And they’d clump around where all the best fish were, the ships. Lots and lots of fish out in the water, that’s why there’s so many seals because that’s what seals eat. The seals were around so that’s how the ships knew where the fish were. They’d go to where the seals were or close to where the seals were, where there were still fish that hadn’t been eaten yet. And the ships liked it there near the seals because the weather was better than it was in Alaska. Oh yeah, that’s where the ships came from in the first place, I forgot to mention that. They came from Alaska, and it’s cold there. So they started liking where the fish were because it was hotter, and it was green, and they decided to stay and build ground so they could walk. Ships are so rocky, it’s hard to walk because they’re always moving so much. So the people from the ships put paving on everything so it would be ground, but they didn’t move the ships first, and so they just paved over all of them. That’s why there’s so many hills. They’re the ships stuck under the pavement.
I ask Molly who told her this, and she says Becca Cauldey, who read it in a book about whales. Why did a book about whales mention San Francisco, I ask, and she says that it wasn’t actually a book about whales but a book about San Francisco narrated by a whale. His name is Elton, she says, of the whale.
I ask Molly when her mom gets home from work and she says usually seven, but we’re supposed to buy groceries before that. I know, I tell her; I have the list. Why aren’t we buying groceries, she asks, and I tell her that the lesson of today is delayed gratification, and that putting off our tasks until they’re pertinent makes them all the more satisfying, and anyway the produce will be fresher if it waits in the store and not in the car. What does pertinent mean, Molly asks. I tell her it’s why you wait to harvest crops until they’re ripe, but Molly doesn’t know about agriculture and thinks that whales can talk. Why are we waiting in this car and we’re not close to Trader Joe’s, she asks, and her voice lilts like that’s an uncle instead of a grocery store. We’re waiting because your mom’s gone, I say, and don’t you want to see her. I do, Molly says. Those are the crops, I say, and Molly doesn’t understand.
We’re on an incline that Molly thinks is a ship and I watch the boys bomb down on longboards, some of them colliding at the bottom. I flash my lights and ask Molly when was the last time she got something she didn’t want. Last week, she says, I got a B on my spelling test when I wanted an A. That doesn’t count, I say. What’s a thing you got that you didn’t want, like a toy or something. That’s hard, Molly says. I usually want things. Try harder, I say.
Molly sniffs, like her nose is stuffed. Last week I wanted a book but my mom got me a different book instead. Why didn’t she get you the book you wanted, I ask. It had swear words in it, Molly says. The guy who has my pot knocks on the window.
What’s that, Molly asks, and I roll up the window. My groceries, I tell her. Those aren’t groceries, she says, you just bought drugs. What was I telling you before about delayed gratification, I say. I wasn’t listening because it was boring.
I turn around. Molly’s the kid who loves her mother so much she’d crawl back up inside her. Where would you want to be, I ask, in a body. Huh? Now that you’re out of the womb, you could be anywhere in your mother’s body, I say. Lungs? The heart? My brother had a doll named Molly when he was your age, I tell her. An expensive doll. He saved up for it because he really wanted it, and my parents wouldn’t buy it for him because he was a boy. They probably thought he was gay. So he saved all his money for it and bought it himself. I remember seeing him with the catalogs, before he had enough money saved. Looking at her face. I remember him kissing her every night, before he’d go to sleep.
Devyn Defoe is pursuing her MFA in fiction at Columbia University. This past summer she attended the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. She’s currently working on her first novel, about a family of grifters and psychics in Northern California.
“I wish to make no attempt to speak for all geology or even to sweep in a great many facts that came along. I want to choose some things that interested me and through them to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks.” —John McPhee, Basin and Range
The Library of Congress heading for John McPhee’s Basin and Range is “Geology—the West”; for the sequel, In Suspect Terrain, it’s“Geology—Northeastern States.” But other headings might apply: Geology and metaphor. Scientists and writers—analogies. Deep time—experience of. Nonfiction, experimental—aesthetics and principles.
McPhee’s work on geology has to be read slowly. Like a poem or an equation, it is so clear, or its clarity is so dense, that it takes time to absorb. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the subject matter. The processes involved are physically massive, temporally vast, and endlessly complex: the mountains rise and erode and tilt, all at once, on continents that are themselves moving, an inch at a time, over eons too long to grasp. In space and time, his subject both illuminates and defies the limits of human perspective. McPhee writes, “The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it.”
Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain aim at that comprehension anyway, but they are also about what kinds of expression might achieve it. Like poems, they hold up metaphor to depthless mysteries, but unlike most poems, their mysteries are made of rocks and time. McPhee, like the geologists he shadows, is interested in imagining what already exists, and from this perspective, deep time is as strange and interesting as trauma or transcendence, and an angular unconformity is as interesting as the divine.
We spend a lot of time with McPhee and his interviewees on Interstate 80. They lean in close to roadcuts, with the continental history exposed in front of them and tractor-trailers flashing by behind. The situation illuminates a central theme: the juxtaposition of human experience and events of inhuman scale. A decades-old highway exposes eons-old strata, which the geologists hammer, peer at, explain. McPhee observes them observing, listens to them making sense of what they see. In so doing, he studies the problem of imagination itself, and—in the books—offers an implicit answer, a conglomerate studded with clues. This essay takes a hand lens to the strata of his pages.
Early in Basin and Range, McPhee writes:
“I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive.”
McPhee’s writing is nothing if not descriptive, and in his writing on geology—not unlike Seamus Heaney’s poetry—the variety and physicality of his language correlates obliquely with the landscape’s physical variety: “dike swarms and slickensides, explosion pits, volcanic bombs. Pulsating glaciers. Hogbacks. Radiolarian ooze.” The pleasure is equal parts precision and strangeness, peculiar words for peculiarities in the world, and the long roll call of unfamiliar nouns illustrates a distinguishing feature of McPhee’s style: his splicing of an arcane, specialized vocabulary into a living voice. (His hybridized diction also implies his role as an ambassador or translator, someone with one foot in the specialist’s world and another in the reader’s.) In a small way, that textured language is part of the book’s general impulse: to move from measurement to comprehension, to render geology not just as information, but as experience.
In this effort, McPhee’s main linguistic tool is metaphor, and the metaphors have an insistent pattern: they shrink massive events to human scale, rendering space and time in terms of the body. The Appalachians, McPhee writes, “are something like the ribs of a washboard. The direction of the structure lies across the direction of scrubbing.” Describing glacial grooves in rock, he writes, “It was as if a giant had drawn his fingers through an acre of soft butter. The grooves were parallel. They were larger than the gutters of bowling lanes. Aggregately, they suggested the fluted shafts of Greek columns.” Describing an “angular unconformity,” where one rock formation visibly borders another, McPhee writes, “You could place a finger on that line and touch forty million years.” Drawing back to contemplate that forty million year span, he writes:
“If you were to lift your arms and spread them wide and hold them straight out to either side and think of the distance from fingertips to fingertips as representing the earth’s entire history, then you would have all the principal events in that hillside in the middle of the palm of one hand.”
One image of a hand after another: McPhee’s imagination is insistently embodied, as if he wanted us not just to see but to touch—to grasp, in every sense. His prose is as tactile as it is cerebral. The typical situation on any given page—McPhee and a geologist, walking along a roadcut, looking at exposed rock—distills eons to a brief walk. Describing his progress through sedimentary strata, McPhee writes, “as we moved along besides the screaming trucks, we were averaging about ten thousand years per step.”
Though McPhee’s books are nominally about geology, his metaphors, with their distortions of perceived time, often seem rooted in physics. Time collapses, elongates, and slows relative to the observer, as if we were traveling near the speed of light. Note, for example, the temporal changes in this passage. It begins with a static image:
“Human time, regarded in the perspective of geologic time, is much too thin to be observed: the mark invisible at the end of a ruler.”
We then accelerate suddenly. “If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, on the other hand,” McPhee writes,“sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go away . . . continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks down an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden of fireflies.”
The passage is densely inventive: the larger metaphor (geological change as a sped-up movie) is composed of smaller ones (like amoebae, like rainstreaks, like puddles). The next three sentences decelerate into human time:
“At the end of the program, man shows up—his ticket in his hand. Almost at once, he conceives of private property, dimension stone, and life insurance. When a Mt. St. Helens assaults his sensibilities with an ash cloud eleven miles high, he writes a letter to the New York Times recommending that the mountain be bombed.”
In Suspect Terrain and Basin and Range are road books, and the paragraphs mirror the action: like a geologist driving at high speed, then swerving to look at rock formations, McPhee speeds up, slows down, changes direction, stops. The books are acts of attention, and as such they show an impersonal science through a deeply individual filter. The voice is as complex as the landscape: wry and enthusiastic, quiet and provocative, laconic and expansive at once.
Rereading these books, I began to notice elements of other genres, like veins in rock: road novel, profile, historical sketch, textbook. There are McPhee’s signature lists of unattributed quotations, like brief, experimental plays:
“A roadcut is to a geologist as a stethoscope is to a doctor.”
“An X-ray to a dentist.”
“The Rosetta Stone to an Egyptologist.”
“A twenty-dollar bill to a hungry man.”
“If I’m going to drive safely, I can’t do geology.”
There was the list poetry of geological names: “Clinoptilolite, eclogite, migmatite, tincalconite, szaibelyite, pumpellyite. Meyerhofferite.” Now and then, I stumbled on nuggets of concrete poetry, in which print suggests a physical reality. McPhee embodies the Mountain West landscape in single-word sentences:
“Basin. Fault. Range. Basin. Fault. Range.”
Explaining synclines and anticlines, McPhee writes:
“When rock is compressed and folded (like linen pushed together on a table), the folds are anticlines and synclines. They are much like the components of the letter S. Roll an S forward on its nose and you have to the left a syncline and to the right an anticline. Each is a part of the other.”
The inventiveness borders on mixed metaphor, rocks becoming linen becoming the letter S (which has a nose), but the images are just separate enough to work; and the very surfeit of metaphor, the successive transformations, are themselves suggestive of McPhee’s subject, a planet in flux.
His rendering of that planet has overtones of science fiction, except the reader is the time-traveling protagonist. In Basin and Range, McPhee takes us on an imagined road trip on I-80 at the end of the Triassic, “[moving] west from the nonexistent Hudson River,” before the Atlantic has opened:
“Behind you . . . where the ocean will be, are a thousand miles of land—a contiguous landmass, fragments of which will be Africa, Antarctica, India, Australia. You cross the Newark Basin. It is for the most part filled with red mud. In the mud are tracks that seem to have been made by a two-ton newt.”
The variety of McPhee’s prose reflects the complexity of his subject: a world where place is not stable and time is unimaginably vast. “At a given place—a given latitude and longitude—the appearance of the world will have changed too often to be recorded in a single picture, will have been, say, at one time below fresh water, at another under brine, will have been mountainous country, a quiet plain, equatorial desert, an arctic coast, a coal swamp, and a river delta, all in one Zip Code.”
In the Triassic, we take a lightning road trip across the continent at one point in time; here, we are relatively fixed in space, watching the continent itself change. These are varied approaches to a shifting picture which, McPhee acknowledges, cannot be seen at once. It’s not only that “a given place” changes in appearance; it’s that the idea of place is itself provisional. “The poles of the earth have wandered,” as McPhee writes in the opening of Basin and Range, as have the continents, and so “it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude—a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.”
McPhee’s prose disguises a poetry grounded in science. Like the best poetry, it surprises and dislocates: time and space are not what we think they are. But then, for McPhee, geology is an imaginative endeavor, a literally grounded conjuring of unseen and inaccessible worlds. It is methodical and surreal, where observation and deduction lead to the obvious conclusion that rocks are both floating and flowing. Solidity dissolves, rational inference leads to fanciful landscape, and an Interstate highway roadcut contains eons, millions of years you can touch and walk beside.
If McPhee’s work depends on metaphor, it is because metaphor is one way of reaching above and beyond and around the linear movement of language, a way for a thing to be itself and another thing at once, to be both solid and transparent; and McPhee’s rocks are tangible, immovable, while simultaneously yielding to a vision of something else, a landscape that existed underfoot and is gone.
McPhee’s inventiveness—the science-fictional landscapes, the metaphors reducing eons to moments and all time to a ruler, the concrete poetry, the slyly self-reflective moments throughout—are solutions to a formal problem: the subject, vast as it is, can only be disclosed one word at a time. McPhee faces not only the limits of human imagination, the inability “to comprehend deep time,” but the limits of the medium, the mismatch between deep time and sentence time, between planetary changes and parts of speech. It is a special case of the problem faced by all writers. A book is a thread longing to be a tapestry. Necessarily, then, the tapestry has to be woven for and within and ultimately by the reader. It is specified by suggestion.
Taken together, McPhee’s writing constitutes an explanatory poetry, rendering the physical with metaphysical surprise and force. But even as McPhee explores the expressive possibilities of prose, he also meditates on expression itself. Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain are not only about deep time, but also about writing.
McPhee’s preoccupation with expression is visible in one of his root metaphors: the likeness between geology and language. There are numerous variations on this theme. For example, describing the complex geology of the Appalachians, McPhee writes:
“Whole sequences might suddenly be upside down, or repeat themselves, or stand on end reading backwards. Among such rocks, time moves in and out and up and down as well as by.”
It’s a remarkable pair of sentences: the first equates geology with language, and the second unfolds the equation. But the sentences are also telling us something about McPhee’s method, the way he defies the linear progress of eons and the linearity of the sentence. In his prose, time becomes plastic, its linear, layer-cake chronology fused and upended, moving in and out and up and down as well as by.
McPhee also defies the linear through repetition. It’s a poetic tactic, like a refrain. “Geology repeats itself,” says the geologist Anita Harris, pointing out the lithified evidence of a four hundred million year old river; and four pages later, pointing to rocks of different ages in a single conglomerate, she says:
“You’ll see Silurian pebbles in Devonian rock, Devonian pebbles in Mississippian rock. Geology repeats itself.”
To repeat the sentence geology repeats itself is a concise stroke of genius. The sentence is true on at least two levels. The rocks repeat themselves: mountains build, erode, and build again. But at the same time, the science builds and erodes, cycling through new theories. McPhee attempts to give us this double sense of placement: on the actual land, and on the ideas that drive our understanding of that land. His deliberate echo of the phrase geology repeats itself is a self-referential moment. It is a clue, an embedded fragment in the page’s strata, the book implying something about the way it works, about the way a linear medium (language) copes with a complex history.
If McPhee’s writing both embraces and defies the linear movement of language, it is partly to render a complex sense of time: both linear and cyclical. Time, deep time, is linear, the accretion of millions of years, and cyclical, in its repetitive processes. McPhee’s sentences are a single line from beginning to end, but his use of repetition is cyclical. Occasionally the two paradigms are combined, as when McPhee writes, “[b]elow the disassembling world lie the ruins of a disassembled world”: by repeating a short phrase and altering a verb form, McPhee suggests both cyclical change, and the unimaginable duration required for the cycles to occur.
Whether in its linear or cyclical aspect—or both—geological time can only be imagined in the present moment. Throughout these books, McPhee both inhabits and reaches beyond that moment. Locating us beside “the west apron of the George Washington Bridge,” he imagines a time when “the future site of the bridge was under ten thousand feet of rock.” The present time includes all others. It is a composite picture, one time containing many, and it is mostly gone; but McPhee’s implication is that both scholarship and imagination are required to see and express what is left.
Much of In Suspect Terrain is about the Delaware Water Gap, “where a downcutting Delaware River . . . sawed a mountain in two,” and in a key passage, McPhee invokes George Inness, who “painted the Delaware Water Gap many times”:
“I have often thought of those canvases . . . in the light of Anita [Harris]’s comment that you would understand a great deal of the history of the eastern continent if you understood all that had made possible one such picture. She was suggesting, it seemed to me, a sense of total composition—not merely one surface composition visible to the eye but a whole series of preceding compositions which in the later one fragmentarily endure and are incorporated into its substance—with materials of vastly differing age drawn together in a single scene, a composite canvas . . .”
In this passage, Inness is an implicit figure for McPhee, who—through repetition—is trying to grasp the whole. But in McPhee’s hands, language becomes a medium uniquely capable of capturing a phenomenon too complex for any one art: it can convey the look of a roadcut, the meanings of the cut, the way the exposed rock came to be formed, a sense of what used to be there overlaid on what is there now, profile the observing geologist and the observing writer, splice colonial and geological history. It can charge a single scene with both motion and specific significance; and most of all, it can translate that significance, move an understanding from specialists to lay persons, from one social stratum to another. It can teach.
In McPhee’s books, geology is ultimately a social process. Comprehending rocks depends on comprehending what other people think about rocks. His announcement of purpose—“to suggest the general history of the continent by describing events and landscapes that geologists see written in rocks”— equates landscape with language, and in so doing joins scientist, writer, and reader in a common enterprise. Geology is part of a conversation over time, one that ultimately includes the reader. In McPhee’s account of that conversation, the geologist, the writer, and the reader are implicitly aligned. All are readers: geologists read the rock, McPhee reads the geologists, the reader reads McPhee. But all are writers too: Anita Harris, Kenneth Deffeyes, and the others seek not only to read the rock, but to express what they see, to imagine a vanished landscape into words; McPhee, based on their imaginings, creates his own; the reader, interpreting McPhee’s words, creates yet another.
In McPhee’s hands, that social process is specifically American, and Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain are American books, discussing the continent’s geology and the country’s history. Which returns us to the interstate highway that links both books, in space and deep time.
In books filled with metaphors that ultimately reflect on writing, I-80 is a central image. It allows McPhee to juxtapose human and geological time scales, but it also yokes together continental and national identities, splicing American time, American stories, with continental movements: not only stories of the geologists profiled, but histories of the regions studied. In a book that includes tropical Ohio, alpine New Jersey, and a California that has not yet risen above the ocean, I-80 becomes a metaphor for the book itself: a single thread of words, a human path cut through ancient rock.
John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
George Estreich’s memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome, The Shape of the Eye: A Memoir, won the 2012 Oregon Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. His prose has been published in The Oregonian, Salon, and The New York Times. He lives in Oregon with his family.
Tucked at the back of every issue of Harper’s Magazine, Findings takes recent scientific discoveries and composes them as a three-paragraph column. Or maybe it’s a three paragraph collage essay. Or a prose poem. As much an act of creation as curation, Findings uses a kind of austere, lyric juxtaposition to turn what’s essentially a compendium of facts into something full of wonder. From February 2013:
Happy adolescents become richer adults. Summer babies are less likely to grow up to be CEOs. Smart children are less likely in adulthood to report chronic widespread pain. Autistic children take longer to learn to be afraid of new things. Many Swedish children who self-harm don’t really mean it. Lying increases the temperature of the nose. A wandering mind shortens one’s telomeres. Fetuses yawn.
As a devoted Findings reader, I always feel simultaneously more sure and less sure about the world we live in by the end of each column. And as a writer, I’m continually impressed with the way straight expository writing can be put to such creative use, evoking such a wild array of emotions within a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence. Findings runs without a byline, but there is a single person behind every month’s column from start to finish, so I sought out that person: Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, a Harper’s contributing editor and at the time its managing editor, who has written Findings from December 2007 through the present. We spoke in August 2012 in a café on the Bowery and later over Skype.
Findings: An Illustrated Collection is out today from Twelve Books.
Dave Madden: Findings is a fairly new feature of a very old magazine. What was the thinking behind its genesis?
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi: Findings was an invention of Roger Hodge, who was the editor of Harper’s from April 2006 until February 2010, and who then edited the Oxford American. Harper’s is very far from having anything like a house style. There are certain forms and certain postures and certain concerns that crop up again and again, but the way that the comma is used or a piece of reportage is structured from one writer to the next may vary enormously. At the time Roger introduced Findings there were three areas of the magazine that helped to form the house voice. There was the Web-only Weekly Review newsletter, which is bylined, but it’s always written in the same deadpan style. It’s always three paragraphs, the same way Findings is. There was the Index, which is not bylined and also very deadpan. It has the same not very veiled irony. And there was the Readings section, which is more curatorial, because it’s all excerpts and the editors just write the introductions. What Roger did with Findings was create a further expansion of this Harper’s voice, where you use discovery and juxtaposition, and where the editorializing tends to consist in the ordering of things and in the choice of what to talk about. But within the sentence itself everything is played quite straight.
DM: Those old columns felt more newsy. There’d be more direct quotation from the study itself, say, and not as much juxtaposition as you do now. Was that a conscious change you made when you took it on?
RK-Z: When you have an inherited form that’s not bylined, you have an institutional responsibility, and you don’t mess around with it that much. It would be interesting to go back and see how a Roger Hodge column from 2006 compares point-by-point to one now. You’d notice small things. The changes in syntax and punctuation. Different kinds of cheap jokes. Different sets of recurring concerns or interests. There were a lot of . . . not missed but deliberately untaken opportunities for funniness—especially in the lesser degree of obscurity and of convolutedness. But the basic, kinetic, punch line–seeking structure of the sentences, to take an example, has been extremely consistent. I’m vaguely recalling not an actual line here but a piece of information from an old column, and I remember it as: “A cat gave birth to a dog in Brazil.” Now, what’s interesting is that a cat gave birth to a dog. “In Brazil” is just dead language sitting at the end of the sentence. You don’t care about it by the time it happens. So if that were my line I’d go: “In Brazil, a cat gave birth to a dog,” so you’ve got the kicker at the end. Or . . .? Better . . .? Can you guess?
RK-Z: “A Brazilian cat gave birth to a dog.”
RK-Z: Because it’s worth getting Brazil in, but it’s not worth having the end of the sentence muffle itself and trail off.
DM: Right, that I get.
RK-Z: At the beginning of the sentence it’s just a necessary adverbial bit of information. But when you shift it to that adjectival mode, then something goes slightly queer about it. Because there are some species where the common name will have a name or placename attached to it. Geoffroy’s cat or a Siamese cat. A Russian wolf hound, a Hungarian sheepdog. So for one thing it starts to generate a little bit of tension because it’s being misused in that way. And then also, if you put that before anything that has to do with the female anatomy, then you have Brazilian, obstetrics, and “pussy” all falling in the same sentence. So there’s a lot that you can do with a little. The greater confusion of that sentence is that this should not be happening. A cat should not be giving birth to a dog. But you can do that further defamiliarization by saying, “Does this cat have a nationality? Is the pertinent fact here that the cat was Brazilian? ” It’s just the idea of being in Brazil is much deader than being . . .
DM: Of Brazil.
RK-Z: Yeah. Being of Brazil is very different than being in Brazil, and being of Brazil in that situation seems to open up a much larger set of possibilities for innuendo, for anthropomorphism, for taxonomic confusion. There’s a lot more play at play when you do that particular line that way. And it turns out, now that I’m looking up that original column, that the line we wound up with here is exactly the line as Roger wrote it.
DM: The older columns were a lot more categorical. There’d be a paragraph about astrophysicists and space stuff. And then one about animals. Whereas now there seems to be a lot more play in moving among topics within paragraphs than there was.
RK-Z: Yeah, part of that is the pleasure of making different kinds of turns. So you start with something that’s about sperm quality and that moves to something that’s about fetal development and then you move to something that’s about premature birth. (I think I may actually be describing an arc that I’ve used.) Then you move to something that’s about childhood development, then you move to something that’s about how child development will diverge depending on the race of the child or on the economic circumstances of the child, then you may move to something about adults of a particular demographic—African American men are more likely to suffer from sleep paralysis, or rich Americans are more likely to sue their doctors—and from there you’ll have further steps, but you can follow a very particular progression where each item’s relationship to the one that preceded it is clear. Or you can have something where there’s a transition that’s just incredibly cheap. Like the Spitzer Space Telescope to prostitution. And then you can put astrophysics before that pairing and you can have sex and relationships after. I think the way that
I actually wrote that one was probably Spitzer– hookers–blow, but I could’ve split a paragraph neatly into two sets of topics with one very cheap trick. Then of course one of the pleasures of the form is the non sequitur, which has a very particular flavor in Findings.
DM: How would you characterize that flavor?
RK-Z: Often there is this expectation that a paragraph will end on something that is a non sequitur, that diverges substantially from the general tone that precedes it. It’s a very classical use of certain devices. You can have a bathetic effect with the non sequitur. So you move from cosmology into scatology, for example. Or you flip it the other way. You can have the most somatic, gross-out sort of sticky human concerns and then the final thing would shift completely out of that realm and be one short sentence about a radio signal from a star 27 light-years distant.
DM: Is that just fun to do, or do you think there’s an overall effect. Findings is going for that that move helps achieve?
RK-Z: The self-consciousness of the form induces in the reader ideally a sort of consciousness of his or her own values. The non sequitur pairing I described is a bit of a memento mori, which is often an effect Findings goes for.
DM: What are the differences as you see them between a Harper’s Finding, a scientific finding, and a fact?
RK-Z: A scientific finding is inherently useful whether or not it involves a definitive result, because it’s part of the grand ongoing project of acquisition and dissemination of knowledge as conducted by humans in the universe. A Findings finding is interesting if it’s interesting, if it’s an encapsulated simplified version of some discovery about or event in the phenomenal world that withstands multiple tests of human boredom. And by human boredom I mean the boredom of a single human, which is me.
DM: But when it comes to the column’s disseminating facts, what’s your responsibility? What kind of fact-checking do you do?
RK-Z: We tend to take at face value the press releases whatever lab or university has issued. Sometimes—either for reasons of lack of clarity about process and data or just sloppy writing or excessive brevity—an article or press release won’t be sufficient and I’ll read the original study, if it’s out, or contact the individual scientists. I think the only time we’ve not been able to do that satisfactorily was with a study about sippycup injuries to toddlers. It was a very comprehensive study. It said that 70 percent of such injuries involve the mouth, 20 percent involve the face, head, or neck, like you would expect. And it said less than 1 percent of injuries involve the leg, the groin, and the kidney area—something like that. Obviously what I want to know is what percentage of injuries are to the groin. At first the study authors were cooperative. We didn’t even ask specifically for the groin data, we just said, “Of the things where the percentages were so small that you didn’t list them separately, you must have specific numbers? Can we just have those actual numbers? ” And they kept waffling and going back and forth, and after three days they came back and said, “We don’t want the data to be misused.” Which really pissed me off because all the other data they had made available.
DM: And how would you misuse them? Incite more sippy-cup violence?
RK-Z: Right. And then sometimes what you want to say requires further calculation. So if 3 percent of U.S. automobile owners suspect their cars might be haunted, then you obviously want the total number of cars that are suspected of being haunted. Then you have the problem of individual persons who own multiple cars or multiple persons who jointly own individual cars. If you can fiddle your way through that, and you can say maybe 210 million automobile owners in the United States, you end up with roughly 6 million haunted cars. For this hypothetical study they probably would not have interviewed enough people for us to apply that to the population as a whole with that kind of confidence, but that’s one of the liberties that would be taken.
DM: I want to push this, what you said about obviously you want the number of haunted cars. Why, exactly? What end purpose does that fact better serve than the percentage of cars?
RK-Z: Would you tend to agree with me?
DM: I think I agree with you. But I can’t figure out why.
RK-Z: With that statistic in particular, what you’re put in mind of with the percentage of car owners is that there’s a number of people who are a little batty and superstitious about certain everyday objects. Whereas if you can get the number of cars that are suspected of being haunted, then you know you’re driving down the highway with ghost cars. One thing is a scientific finding, the other thing is a grave spiritual concern.
DM: You had said something about the ways in which the style of Findings is kind of an imitation and celebration of scientific study.
RK-Z: I didn’t say of scientific study. I said of scientific reporting, which is usually bad.
DM: Bad in what way?
RK-Z: Well, the bad habit that Findings is directly in conversation with is the news-driven—now more specifically, page view–driven—definitive, declarative, pithy statement of research results. The column gently parodies those headline-only articles by imitating them, frequently with a tweak: in the many staccato sentences that constitute a column there’s alternately a lot of passive voice and a lot of actors doing the finding. Someone is always responsible for the experiment or the observation or the reporting, and all those processes involve design and selection and narrowing, which I guess I then do as well. In Findings the immutable statement of isolated fact, especially when it relates to experimental study, is often a counterpoint, punctuation. One of several styles. There’s actually a great deal of caution and weaseling for a form whose presentation is aggressively cavalier!
The headline-ese problem is well known, but it still interests me, particularly the subproblem of the media’s love for confectionary social-science studies that have very small sample sizes. I myself love these. So ten female college students pick from an array the photo of the man whom they find least threatening, and then suddenly it’s like, “Ovulation makes straight women less afraid of masculine men!” Well, that’s a combination of the actual findings plus two or three less supported extrapolations plus an off hand statement the lead author of the study made to a reporter or the university’s press office. Or take experiments in behavioral economics. Those usually involve extraordinarily abstract setups and operate via psychological metaphors that are at multiple removes from reality. This red poker chip is “market price” for that banana, a $5 bill is “being wealthy.” So what such a study produces is this attenuated, 32-bit Amiga simulation of what human beings are like, and from that come some interesting implications, but when the story appears, it’s talking entirely about the implications of the implications. This isn’t to say there aren’t persistent problems in long-form writing about science for educated audiences—there are, and that’s territory I know from the inside—but that’s not what Findings is sort-of-parodying.
DM: Was that parody part of the spirit of it in the beginning?
RK-Z: I think it was.
DM: Because in an early column of yours I think there’s an end-ofparagraph non sequitur that reads, “Men are both smarter and stupider than women.”
RK-Z: That would have been December 2007, the first column I wrote.
DM: And I think of that as a classic Findings line, how it doesn’t say anything about anything, and yet it says a lot about what we believe.
RK-Z: Sometimes what’ll happen with the press release about a study is that there’s almost no way to rephrase it. So everyone who reports on it says the same thing, including me. But very often you get a sense of when very boring studies are going to contain something interesting. I can run through a list. There’s finding counterintuitive to fact. Confirmation of the obvious—there are ways to be incredibly reductive though accurate; there might have even been a study about this, which found that black people tended to agree that George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people, something like that, where it would’ve been a nuanced, carefully worded, rigorously carried out study by an independent polling center or by a major research university, but, you know, five months after Katrina they called up a bunch of people and that is actually the essence of what they found. And then there’s human–animal conflict. Pathetic fallacy is another. That’s similar to anthropomorphism. I used to have a lot more sex in the columns.
DM: I guess there hasn’t been as much lately.
RK-Z: No. There used to always be an entire paragraph about sex, and I think this has changed because of my switching from Google Alerts to RSS feeds.
RK-Z: I was also maybe just getting sick of it, but I think that was the thing. It used to be that I’d get Google Alerts for sex study and behavioral study, and I would get separate alerts for every kind of inherently funny animal. Inherently funny animals are still a favorite subject. They can be funny either because of the name or because of the animal itself. Like a mongoose by any other name would not be so funny, but a platypus by any other name would still be funny. Platypuses are almost cheating, because everyone knows platypuses are funny.
DM: What are some other funny animals?
RK-Z: Macaques, because they’re monkeys and many have red butts. I’ve been actually harassed by macaques on numerous occasions.
DM: Oh, wow.
RK-Z: When I was a child, they’d come into the house and steal bananas, steal my diapers, or things like that. Bears are inherently funny.
DM: Are they?
RK-Z: I think they retain some of their totemic fascination. There’s no way to reconstruct the original Indo-European root for bear from any Germanic languages because to speak the name of the bear was apparently taboo. Words for bears in Indo-European languages are euphemisms, though the euphemisms themselves may go back to an Indo-European word, for “the honey-eater,” “the brown one”—as with bruin, that sort of thing. Even the supposedly original word, *rkthos-, which persisted in languages like Greek and Latin, may be a euphemism: for “the destroyer.” Another one, not funny but innately compelling, is bees. Bees had privileged status in classical antiquity. They stood for an ideal of civilized order. And they’re important for early Christianity because they practice parthenogenesis, or maybe it’s that parthenogenesis is observed among them.
Other common subject matter is just a bias that results from my choices of reading material: for example, so many silly and twee things tend to happen in the U.K. because there are so many funny place-names and there’s this kind of Tolkien-esque quaintness about the proximity of certain cute animals to civilization. There’s not this same stark progression from city to suburbs to countryside there. So you have all this stuff involving hedgehogs and badgers in places that have adorable English or Scottish or Welsh or (Northern) Irish sounds.
DM: Lots of y’s or something?
RK-Z: The Welsh ones are funny because they’re unpronounceable. The English ones are funny because, like, “Hug Me ’Pon-the-Tyne” would be the name of a town. In these places the human-animal interactions are instances of benign concern or symbiosis,whereas in America animal stories are so much more often about a rattlesnake dropping out of an acoustic tile ceiling. And in America this happens in part because of the rapid expansion of exurbs into totally inappropriate places. Los Angeles. Florida. I mean, The Orchid Thief is like a catalogue of how inappropriate it is for modern humans to live in most of Florida.
DM: If Findings were an animal, what kind of animal would it be?
RK-Z: Uh . . . A rara avis?
DM: Nice try.
RK-Z: I mean, is Findings an animal that’s capable of tool use? Is it a raven? Is it a dolphin? I would say that Findings is a dolphin. It’s an animal of tremendous intelligence and versatility that’s constrained within the inarticulate joy and rage of its water-lockedness and its lack of opposable digits.
DM: That’s pretty good.
RK-Z: I wish it weren’t an animal that was so ’90s, but, there you go.
DM: I guess this is a place to ask about process. Do you keep files?
RK-Z: All of it’s done in about a day.
DM: The whole column?
It happens pretty fast. It depends on how interesting science is that particular month. Sometimes science is pretty boring. I let my science-news feeds build up over a month. Then I go through and star anything that might be interesting—whether that interest is something that’s obvious from the headline, or whether it’s an article that appears boring but that there could be something ridiculous buried in it or in the study itself. Usually I look at the headline or the summary text for a little over 1,500 articles, and I wind up starring maybe a couple hundred. Then I go through and read the articles and skim the studies, and I start writing the lines in a rough form. Part of the test of whether I keep something is whether the line works at that stage. Or whether they come together. If I start noticing eight different things about penguins, I’ll type the penguin lines near each other. I’ll get a little penguin block. Then I’ll go through and start cutting and organizing. Because it’s such an intensive all-at-once process that very quickly leads to boredom, whether I keep something depends solely on whether looking back at it a few hours later or the next morning it still seems interesting. That process of culling is also a process of matching. So if a line seems to pair well with another line, I’ll move that over. Maybe eight or ten blocks will start to float together as it gets cut down, and by the time I have those blocks it usually gets down close to the word count, which is a little over 500 words.
DM: So all that’s a day.
RK-Z: It’s about 16 hours of work, depending on the state of science. And yeah and then it goes to the factchecker. But again it’s basically a clip job. And citation in the magazine would undermine the column’s confusing charm as a prose poem.
DM: How much of the character of Findings is your character as its author, and how much belongs to the form itself, as you inherited it?
RK-Z: To the extent that it’s about me, it’s about what bores me. Or what I do to stay interested. I’ve gotten into the habit of trying to provoke people with the way that Findings lines are phrased. For example, many young Israelis travel to India after they complete their military service. They go backpacking and get stoned. So the Israeli government issued a travel warning that said there’d been a number of rabies outbreaks in places frequented by Israelis in India. The line that I wrote in Findings was, “The Israeli government feared lest its citizens become rabid.”
Which is the most grotesquely editorializing thing I could do. Surely someone will write in about that, I thought, but nobody did. The only thing to date that got anything approaching a really notable number of complaints was when I said that vegetarianism may cause brain shrinkage.
DM: What? Brain shrinkage?
RK-Z: Yeah. And the vegetarians lost their minds—because of course their brains were shrunken. But really, they lost their minds because the study was actually about how those who don’t eat various sources of animal protein are at high risk for B-12 deficiencies and therefore brain shrinkage. But it was phrased in a very reductive way and those people just went bananas.
DM: So is Findings mostly just a bunch of jokes?
RK-Z: It’s equal parts to inform and to amuse, and these kinds of facts don’t have to be forced very hard to do both. They naturally lend themselves to both. To the chucklesome and to the sublime. So that seems to be something that the form exploited almost from its inception. It’s actually hard to say whether that’s because there’s something deeply funny about these kinds of discoveries, or just that the capacity of them to be funny has been underused. I mean, you take a realm like politics. The humorous potential of the news there has been exploited tremendously. What I’ve been exploiting more and more is the limitless opacity of certain scientific findings. (Many of them don’t meet the standard that grant seekers by and large are terrified about, which is a kind of amorphous vested-interest standard: “I’m a hematologist. Can I get money from the military to study an obscure form of childhood anemia because it’s possible that this would have some application to soldiers on the battlefield and how we might be able to promote clotting in wounds? ”) But there are some things that it might be possible to explain, but it’s actually a lot less fun to explain.
DM: Almost like an art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic but for scientific study and research?
RK-Z: When you have a line in Findings like “U.S. Department of Energy researchers broke Kasha’s Rule,” I’m not going to explain what Kasha’s Rule is. When you say—when I say—that scientists hope to harness the Casimir Force, some people who took some advanced physics class may remember what the Casimir Force is, but I’m also not going to explain that.
DM: Well, what’s your aim in not explaining it? Is it to maintain a kind of strangeness?
RK-Z: It maintains a kind of strangeness and also it’s about the extent to which science can observe things or offer explanations. When you have “The Bruce Effect was documented among wild gelada monkeys,” I don’t bother with who Bruce, the woman, was or what her effect is, but the Bruce Effect might just be something where, you know, grooming tends to be proffered by subordinate males to dominant males rather than demanded of subordinate males by dominant males. I don’t know. Part of this is the process of becoming bored by explaining. It reminds the reader that—actually, a very talented and technically literate writer I’ve worked with, Hamilton Morris, said it well: Much scientific research is fascinating precisely because it is not intended to appeal to a general audience.
I think the people who read this column and understand and appreciate it are over the idea that science takes place for science’s sake, to the extent that this idea both is and isn’t true. Findings celebrates the idea that modern science is a tremendously powerful and productive and beneficial and motivating and clarifying force, but the idea that everything that goes on is part of this heroic, conclusive, triumphal narrative is also silly. You know, the universe defies and denies and startles and confounds us just as our own bodies defy and deny and startle and confound us. Findings’ being funny is partly a corrective to that particular form of triumphalist narrative.
DM: One of the things I like about scientific findings is that they seem to be presented as the end of a story. But in your column, findings become simultaneously the end and the beginning of the story. An example would be the Brazilian cat, or that goose in Arkansas named 50 Cent who survived being shot? Again these things have a resolved feel, and yet all they do is suggest suggest suggest, and you can’t help but think, Wait, so what happened next?
RK-Z: Yes. I’ll do these very discrete or atomic presentations that are antinarrative and that resist the pressure on contemporary science, for reasons of funding, to present itself along those narrative lines. You’ll find that often when it’s a line where the method or the parameters of the experiment are what get discussed but the results or even the hypothesis are left unstated. “Scientists stripped mice of two-thirds of their fur and injected chloroquine in their thoracic spinal cords.” That’s one where the question would normally be, “What are they trying to test, and what did they actually find out? ” But both those things might be more boring than just being reminded of this single event that is equal in value and in form to a goose being shot seven times.
The mouse model is an interesting thing I come back to once in a while. A recent study found that most lab mice are allowed to eat whenever they want, so—among other reasons we already know— it’s a really bad comparison for humans. It’s like if you were doing a clinical trial on humans who were sitting in a Chipotle twenty-four hours a day and had unlimited credit at the counter. You’re bored ’cause you’re sitting there in the absence of rich stimuli and all you can do is, say, read your book and keep ordering gigantic burritos. Are those the people on whom you want to be basing important medical research?
It’s interesting to see these stupid popular overgeneralizations. And also the way that things have to be explained to sell them. Sometimes it’s nice to make science opaque and unsexy, whether that’s by interrogating the method or by including some really obscure part of what was found. Or by the refusal to explain difficult terms, because there’s also this idea that, aside from pure math, anything that anyone does should be explicable, especially to Americans. Clearly that’s not true of everything that goes on in physics and chemistry and genetics.
I mean, some of it is just really dense difficult stuff and it’s just a pain in the ass to make yourself understand it, and even if you understand it, it may not be very interesting, or it may not have large implications. And sometimes it’s fun just to leave those in their radiant opacity.
DM: Where does Findings belong in today’s reading landscape?
RK-Z: It can easily be broken up and turned into many iterations and promotions of itself across different social media platforms. It works well on the Web. It works well for short attention spans. A finding is the length of a tweet or a text message. So that’s one thing that I think will help keep it in place. You learn things from it that are useful to regurgitate in cocktailparty form. It’s excellent toilet reading. Each month may have a different tone, a different set of concerns. You can sometimes tell my emotional state, especially from the last paragraph.
DM: That’s one of the things that works for Findings, is that it’s so clear in the selection of facts and the wording and the tone that it has a more singular personality or authorship than, say, the Index—which seems group-compiled and voiceless. The fact that it is, like you say, a prose poem, that it’s three paragraphs and not a list. Those things alone seem to do so much to add a kind of character to it.
RK-Z: I think an unbylined house voice, or a house voice that could as well be unbylined—it’s hard to get to that point. You find it in interesting places. I mean the Economist, obviously. But then you have places like the New Yorker or Gawker that have a strong enough orientation that in particular kinds of reporting or cultural criticism you could remove the bylines and it would just be a great piece of New Yorker prose or a great, incisive, nasty Gawker post. And it’s hard for institutions to develop those. It takes time and it takes innovation. You have to be the place that perfected it. At its very best, it inspires imitation, it inspires reevaluation.
DM: Can you talk more specifically about this possible influence of Findings’ voice on science writing, or nonfiction in general?
RK-Z: I think Findings is something that in its synthesizing capacity, in its collations and its curations and its ironies, is aware of and is sensitive to the dangers of a certain kind of expository and confessional sincerity in nonfiction writing generally. It’s so intensively and deliberately not about the self. And yet Findings, even as it resists that earnestness and that omphalic gaze, is still a very self-involved thing. It’s a self-involved thing that doesn’t have a byline. Even as it resists the easy triumphalist narratives and the gee-whiz wonderification of any kind of disposable scientific discovery, it occasionally buys into that completely. It buys into it and celebrates it.
And it’s influenced the way I’ve approached other, longer prose projects—that technique of synthesis and deadpan condensation that’s highly editorialized but doesn’t seem that way on the surface. But, again, it shows a kind of nonfiction writing that’s radically different from this explicit privileging of the self for which I think there’s typically too low a bar. I mean nonfiction writing in the therapeutic vein. There are many great practitioners of personal nonfiction and I don’t want to dump on anyone’s projects, but one thing Findings shows is that you can be deeply self-indulgent without being so deeply self. That’s something that I would like to see more of.
I guess a lesson that I’ve learned from writing the column is that you can always say much, much less and still get everything across. Now part of that’s a little fallacious or easy for me to say because it’s such a condensed form, but the thing I mean more broadly is that rigorous juxtapositions and an economy of language, when you’re trying to explain a discovery or a feeling or an irony or a sadness or some sense of joy or absurdity, can convey a lot. If Findings teaches one person to turn in something at 3,000 words and not 4,500 because the main narrative episode is compressed by 50 percent, then that would be a great thing and I would feel that it had a worthy and useful effect on the culture.
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and has been writing the journal’s popular “Findings” column, among other features, since 2007.
Dave Madden is the author of The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy and If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, forthcoming in May from Indiana University Press. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.
This essay, which is featured in our forthcoming Winter issue, was originally given as a lecture during the 2015 Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop.
It was met with enthusiastic applause.
Until recently I was a professor at a private liberal arts university in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a little town located at the exact point of overlap of a three-part Venn diagram. Draw one in your mind: label circle #1 Amish country, label circle #2 coal country, label circle #3 fracking country.
The towns near Lewisburg have names like Shamokin Dam, Frackville, Minersville, and Coal Township. You might have heard of a place called Centralia, a modern-day ghost town thanks to a vein of coal that has been burning beneath the ground since 1962, belching up smoke and carbon monoxide, forcing people to flee their homes and poisoning those who refuse. That vein, by the way, is expected to continue burning for another 250 years. So if you haven’t visited Centralia, there’s still time. Centralia is about forty miles from my old house, and people from the Buffalo Valley, where I lived, often took day trips there. So basically all you need to know about this particular region of central Pennsylvania is that we went to Centralia—a smoldering village of noxious fumes—on vacation.
The Buffalo Valley smells like pig shit, puppy mills, or burning garbage, depending on which way the wind blows. It is not uncommon, when hiking, to come across a tarry black field where old-growth forest has been recently clear-cut, the ground still soaked with diesel. This all sounds pretty bleak, and it was, even to me, a person with a high tolerance for bleakness and an affection for abused landscapes. Living there, I can admit now that I’ve fled, corroded a part of my soul. Driving to a neighboring town for a prenatal checkup felt like driving through Capote’s In Cold Blood. During the time I lived in central Pennsylvania the adjective I used most to describe the place to faraway friends was “murdersome.”
And yet the little town of Lewisburg, where this expensive private university is located, is actually quite pleasant. The houses are gingerbread Victorians and stately brick colonials, all turrets, stained glass, and sleeping porches. Market Street is lined with parks and bed and breakfasts and small local businesses from another era—a shoe repair shop, a butcher, a vacuum cleaner repairman, a chocolatier, an independent bookstore, a single-screen art deco movie theater where they put real melted butter on the popcorn. The town square boasts a Christmas tree in the winter, scarecrows in the autumn, and alfresco concerts and community theater in the summer. Every street is lit by old-fashioned globe lampposts, the proud town’s icon. It is a place, as residents often insist, that time forgot.
In short, Lewisburg looks almost nothing like its neighbors in coal-Amish-fracking country, which time has remembered all too well. Obviously, this has everything to do with the university—one year spent at this college, located about three hours from New York City, costs $62,368. Generally speaking the campus can be fairly characterized by the setting of Frederick Busch’s wonderful short story “Ralph the Duck,” a “northeastern camp for the overindulged.” Money from the school, its faculty, its students and their parents props up the local economy. Simple enough.
But the true relationship between the town and the university did not occur to me until one of my students, from Youngstown, Ohio, described how much her mother loved coming to Lewisburg, how each time she visited her mother would say, “Look at that adorable chocolate shop, look at those gleaming lampposts. I just love Lewisburg!” My student, sharper than we give Millennials credit for, told her mother, “Of course you love it. It’s for you.”
What she meant, I think, is that Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is a town in coal country the way Disney’s Celebration, Florida, is a suburb of Orlando. Lewisburg, and countless other so-called college towns like it, is Bedford Falls in loco parentis. It’s a country-mouse theme park for young people wanting the illusion of distance, wanting the sense of being away on a journey and all the self-discovery that promises. It’s for them, and it’s for their parents, who will tolerate this distance and this freaky looming self-discovery, so long as it comes with the quaintness of the country, the control of a company town, and all the safety that $62,368 can buy.
All to say that for the past four years, I lived in a landscape of pandering.
Stephen Elliott Comes to Town
Let’s segue into one of my favorite subgenres of literary gossip: writers behaving badly. What writers’ conference would be complete without it?
It is the fall of 2009 and I’m in the final year of my three-year MFA program. The program is hosting a reading by the writer and P. T. Barnum figure Stephen Elliott, who, in addition to being a novelist and memoirist, is editor in chief of the online literary magazine The Rumpus. The university does not provide him accommodations so our program director passes along his request that someone put him up for the night. I volunteer. Kyle Minor, another writer and an alumnus of the program, fetches Stephen from the airport. Stephen, Kyle, and I have lunch, where we talk about Denis Johnson, our works in progress, and our agents. I’d landed a hotshot agent six months earlier, am still freaked out by how, when I Google her, names like Junot Díaz and Jonathan Safran Foer appear. I have a story coming out in Granta, a collection in the homestretch, and I’m eager to talk about all this with writers who’ve been there. After lunch, Stephen takes a nap at my house while I go teach. I come back and take him to his reading, then to a bar with the other grad students, then to get donuts on our way home. Stephen flirts with me all night and back at my apartment he attempts, with what I’ll graciously term considerable persistence, to convince me to let him sleep in my bed rather than on the air mattress I’ve inflated for him in the other room. I decline several times before he relents, doing so only after I tell him I’m seeing someone. He sleeps on the air mattress, and in the morning we have breakfast and then I drive him to the airport.
Later that day, a friend forwards me the Daily Rumpus e-newsletter, which Stephen wrote in the airport and sent to his subscribers, allegedly a few thousand readers, writers, and fans of his site. Its subject line is “Overheard in Columbus.” Of the visit Stephen wrote:
It was really a great time, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. It might have been the ride from the airport with Kyle Miner [sic] who’s living the post MFA life with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school. Or it might have been Claire, the student I stayed with. Or the walk for donuts at 10:30 on a Wednesday night, which felt late in that town, especially on the strip.
I tried to get in Claire’s bed. It was a big, comfortable bed. She said no, how would she explain it to the boy she was getting to know. I said there was nothing to explain to the boy, nothing’s going to happen. It’s like sleeping with your gay friend. But she wasn’t so sure. She had been drinking and I don’t drink. I slept on the air mattress in the other room.
Now, I realize I’m not a special snowflake, that every woman who writes has a handbag full of stories like this. There is probably an entire teeming sub-subgenre titled “Stephen Elliott Comes to Town.” I offer this here partly because it was my very first personal run-in with overtly misogynistic behavior from a male writer, and so perhaps my most instructive. I learned a lot from that Daily Rumpus e-mail (which is a sentence that has never before been uttered). I want to stress that I’m not presenting Stephen Elliott as a rogue figure, but as utterly emblematic. I want to show you how, via his compulsive stream-of-consciousness monologue e-mailed to a few thousand readers, I was given a glass-bottom-boat tour of a certain type of male writer’s mind.
I scrolled up and down, reading and rereading, and through that glass-bottom boat saw a world where Kyle Minor was Kyle Minor, a writer “with a book of stories out, a couple of kids, teaching classes up in Toledo, finishing what sounds like a fantastic novel and contemplating law school.” Whereas I was Claire, no last name, “the student,” owner of a big, comfortable bed. Until my friend forwarded that e-mail to me, I’d been under the impression that since I wrote, I was a writer, period. If I wrote bad I was a bad writer, if I wrote good I was a good writer. Simple as that. I was, I knew, every bit as ambitious as Kyle Minor and Stephen Elliott. I loved books just as much as Kyle and Stephen did, read as much as they did, and worked just as hard to get the right words in the right order. But now I was confronted with Google Groups listserv proof that, to Stephen, Kyle was a writer and I was a drunk girl.
But fuck ’em, right? What did Tina Fey say about sexists in the workplace: over, under, and through. The problem with responding to sexism with Sesame Street is that if you read that e-mail as I read that e-mail, as I was being trained to read—that is, carefully and curiously, over and over—you’ll see something more than the story Stephen told himself about me as a writer or, in this case, not a writer. I saw, in the form of paragraphs and sentences, my area of expertise, how it took only a few lines to go from professional dismissal to sexual entitlement to being treated as property to gaslighting.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I tend to think professional sexism via artistic infantilization is a bummer, frustrating, disappointing, but distinct and apart from those violent expressions of misogyny widely agreed upon as horrific: domestic violence, sex slavery, rape. Stephen Elliott did not rape me, did not attempt to rape me. I am not anywhere close to implying that he did. I am saying a sexist negation, a refusal to acknowledge a female writer as a writer, as a peer, as a person, is of a piece with sexual entitlement. No, more than of a piece, it is practically a prerequisite. Humans are wide, open vessels, capable of almost anything—if you read you know this—but you cannot beat the mother of your children, or rape your childhood friend while she’s unconscious, or walk up to a sorority outside Santa Barbara and start shooting without first convincing yourself and allowing our culture to convince you that those women are less than human.
I know that’s an intense analogy. I intend it to be.
Here, Stephen Elliot handily provides a clear illustration of an idea most recently proposed by Rebecca Solnit in her important essay collection Men Explain Things to Me: these things exist on a continuum. Sexist dismissal of women as artists and the assumption of sexual entitlement over them that is necessary to make something like rape okay in our culture—and it very much is okay in our culture—are not separated by vast chasms of principles. Look here, they are two paragraphs of the same story, separated by only a keystroke.
When I said, I’m a writer, Stephen heard, I’m a girl. And, because I was a girl, when I said, No, you cannot sleep in my bed, he heard someone who “wasn’t so sure.” I continued, in his mind, to be unsure, and only the man I was dating—in Stephen’s infantilizing phrase “the boy she was getting to know”—could be sure for me. The story Stephen told himself went: “She had been drinking and I don’t drink.” Because I was not a writer, not a person, I was easily made into a drunk girl unable to tell her own story.
That is, until now.
Watching Boys Do Stuff
But you know all this, even if you haven’t heard it recently, even if you haven’t heard it out loud. I am not interested in why Stephen did what he did. I was a women’s studies minor, I get it. What I’m curious about is what I did with what he did.
For years, I thought this encounter was formative. I described it as I have above, a kind of revelation. These days I think, if only. After all, it’s so much gentler to be presented with an ugliness of which you’d been previously completely and honestly oblivious than one you were trying to pretend didn’t exist. The truth is, the fact that our culture considers male writers more serious than me was not a revelation. I’d been getting the messages of Stephen’s e-mail long before my friend forwarded it to me—all women do. We live in a culture that hates us. We get that. Misogyny is the water we swim in.
As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. I have been trying to give it up recently, since moving away from Bedford Falls, since around the time my daughter was born. But nearly all of my life has been arranged around this activity. I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.
I’ve watched boys play the drums, guitar, sing, watched them play football, baseball, soccer, pool, Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve watched them golf. Just the other day I watched them play a kind of sweaty, book-nerd version of basketball. I’ve watched them work on their trucks and work on their master’s theses. I’ve watched boys build things: half-pipes, bookshelves, screenplays, careers. I’ve watched boys skateboard, snowboard, act, bike, box, paint, fight, and drink. I could probably write my own series of six virtuosic autobiographical novels based solely on the years I spent watching boys play Resident Evil and Tony Hawk’s ProSkater. I watched boys in my leisure time, I watched boys in my love life, and I watched boys in my education. I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens, watched even when I didn’t particularly like what I saw—especially then, because it proved there was something wrong with me, something I wanted to fix. So I watched Nabokov, watched Thomas Hardy, watched Raymond Carver. I read women (some, but not enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind. The writers with megaphones in my mind were not Mary Austin, or Louise Erdrich, or Joan Didion, or Joy Williams, or Toni Morrison, though all have been as important to me as any of the male writers I mentioned, or more. Still, I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.
I have been reenacting in my artmaking the undying pastime of my girlhood: watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.
Speaking of things that are invisible: picture me in New Mexico, where I’ve come to teach for a week. Marijuana’s just been legalized in Colorado and a friend from there gifts me a joint. I approach another writer, this one down from Alaska, who is standing alone beside the glowing hotel pool. I make small talk:
I say, So, how long have you lived in Alaska?
She says, Well, I’m an Eskimo, so . . .
I ask if she wants to share the joint. She looks circumspect, which is puzzling to me. I’ve heard her mention Mary Jane before and I’m pretty sure we’re of the same mind about it.
Right here? she asks.
Yeah, I say, looking around for what’s bothering her. It’s dark, only the pool lights glowing, and we’re the only ones outside. The stars overhead are staggering.
She says, But weed’s not legal here.
I note that it’s legal in Colorado, and that Colorado touches New Mexico.
What if someone calls the cops?
They won’t call the cops! Are you crazy? We’re guests of the hotel.
What if we get arrested?
At this point we’re both super puzzled, not understanding each other at all. I’m thinking, Lighten up. People smoke weed in city parks, at music festivals, on hiking trails. The last time I smoked was at a wedding in Maine.
I say, Come on, they’re not going to arrest us for one tiny joint. We’re professors for fuck’s sake!
Okay, she says finally, lighting up. But if they call the cops you better hide me under your invisible cloak of white privilege.
At moments like this, when my whiteness materializes in front of me and I can see it, I am so embarrassed of it and also so angry at myself for not being always as aware of it as I am there in that awkward, painful, absurd, essential moment. I want to unsee it, make it invisible again, and usually I do, because it feels better. I have that privilege.
I have watched writers go brown right before my eyes. My husband, half Cuban but made much more so on a job interview, is told by a white male scholar specializing in African American literature that his inventing and imagining aspects of Cuba in his novel was “problematic” and that according to this white professor, he got things about Cuba “wrong.”
My best friend, a Basque American, publishes a book set in the Spanish Basque country and Publishers Weekly lauds it “just exotic enough.” My iBooks library categorizes Joshua Cohen as “Literary” and Toni Morrison as “African American.” Think about that for a second: it’s either/or. Meaning, according to iBooks, you cannot be African American and Literary. And it was only two years ago that, over on Wikipedia, American authors whom editors suspected of being in possession of a pussy were removed from the category “American novelists” and relocated to “American women novelists.” These categories—writer or student, writer or girl, woman novelist, Eskimo, Latino, Literary or African American—matter. As Sontag told Mailer, “Words matter, Norman.” They affect the way we live—whether we can smoke a joint beside a hotel pool in New Mexico without fear of being arrested; whether someone will hear no when we say it—and they affect the way we write.
The “little white man deep inside of all of us”
It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?
Myself, I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati. Not only acquiescence but a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.
But whom do I mean when I say white male literati? Sounds like a conspiracy theory, one of my favorite genres of American storytelling. I mean the people and voices real and imagined in the positions of power (or at least influence) in writing and publishing, but mostly I mean the man in my mind. James Baldwin wrote of the “little white man deep inside of all of us” but mine is tall. He’s a white-haired chain smoker from New Mexico, the short story writer called “Cheever’s true heir.” It is Lee K. Abbot I hear in my mind. This has little to do with Lee himself, a mentor I admire, a writer I adore, whose encouragement has helped land me before you, whose support I treasure. I am not talking about Lee K. Abbott who once turned to me in workshop when I was a first-year MFA with a dead mom, a desert rat without a proper winter coat and in bad need of a thumbs-up, and asked me, because I’d turned in a story he liked, “Claire, who are the great Nevada writers?” And when I sputtered something about Robert Laxalt and Mark Twain he stopped me and said, “No. You are.” I am speaking not of Lee Kitteridge Abbott the man but what he represents. Or rather I am talking about them both, about the representation and the man himself, for didn’t I know he would like that story, about an old prospector who finds a nubile young girl left for dead in the desert?
Glad you like it, Lee. It’s for you.
I am talking about this reading I gave in Montana in the fall when it was so beautiful I almost never went home, where a late-middle-aged white cowboy—let’s call him the Old Sumbitch—waited in my signing line, among the brown-haired girls with glasses, and when he got to me said, “I usually don’t read stuff like this but Tom McGuane said you were all right.” I am talking about being at once grateful for the friendship and encouragement offered me by Tom McGuane but also angry and exhausted by the fact that I need it. The Old Sumbitch would not have read me if Tom hadn’t said I was all right. I am hiding under Tom’s invisible cloak of male privilege. At issue is not Tom McGuane or Lee K. Abbott or Jeffrey Eugenides or Christopher Coake or Chang-Rae Lee, all of whom have offered me guidance and friendship for which I’m tremendously grateful. But why should their voices be louder in my head than that of Karen Russell, a beyond generous certified genius and, with any luck, my future sister-wife? Why should they be louder than Antonya Nelson, who wrote the most illuminating review of Battleborn I’ve ever read? Why should they be louder than Erin McGraw, who read Battleborn in its every incarnation, who taught me how to get a job and keep it, who’s written me about a hundred letters of recommendation and done everything short of hand me this microphone today?
The stunning truth is that I am asking, deep down, as I write, What would Philip Roth think of this? What would Jonathan Franzen think of this? When the answer is probably: nothing. More staggering is the question of why I am trying to prove myself to writers whose work, in many cases, I don’t particularly admire? I recently finished Roth’s Indignation with nothing more lasting than a sincere curiosity as to whether Roth is aware that these days even nice girls give blow jobs.
I am trying to understand a phenomenon that happens in my head, and maybe in yours too, whereby the white supremacist patriarchy determines what I write.
I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander. Look, I said with my stories: I can write old men, I can write sex, I can write abortion. I can write hard, unflinching, unsentimental. I can write an old man getting a boner!
Here are the lampposts, here is the single-screen movie theater. It’s all an architecture of pandering. It’s for them.
She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.
A fellow on Twitter says:
“A lot of young women (not to mention this WM) loved that book. Should I tell them to disregard their reading experience?”
If you like my book I’m grateful. But I remind you that people at the periphery will travel to accept and even love things not made for or toward them: we have been trained to do so our entire lives. I’m not trying to talk anyone out of their readerly response, only to confess to what went on in my mind when I made the book, to assemble an honest inventory of people I have not been writing toward (though I thought I was): women, young women, people of color, the rural poor, the American West, my dead mother.
This is frightening on its face, but manyfold scarier because I thought I was doing this for myself. I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.
is either an aesthetic/artistic/personal epiphany or my ritualistic prepublication freak-out; perhaps a little of column A, a little of column B. I’ll tell you this: I have not written anything of consequence since my daughter was born. It’s easy to say, You had a baby, you’re busy, it gets better, and I’m really glad to hear from those of you who have said as much. But I wonder if part of the reason I have not been writing is because I have not been seeing. My gaze is no longer an artist’s gaze.
Why would that be? I think it has something to do with the fact that I don’t wander in the desert much anymore. I spend my days with a baby and that, patriarchy says, is not the stuff of art. Once again I am a girl and not a writer. No one said this. No one has to. I am saying it to myself. That’s the terrible efficiency of gaslighting.
After watching Girls for the first time my friend Annie McGreevy says, “That was my experience, too, but I didn’t know it was okay to make art about it.” And maybe it’s still not okay. After doing an event with Miranda July, Lena Dunham tweets this quote from Lorrie Moore, writing on July in the New York Review of Books, “When one googles ‘Wes Anderson’ and ‘fey’ one gets a lot of pictures of him and Tina Fey.”
About a year ago I had a baby,
and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about.
“Nothing’s happening to me,” I bemoan to Annie. “I need to go shoot an elephant.”
Annie replies, in her late-night Lebowskian cadence, “Dude, you’re a mother. You’ve had a child. You’re struggling to make your marriage work, man. You are trying, against your nature and circumstance, to be decent. That’s your elephant!” Yet when I write some version of this down it seems quaint or worse. I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious. I tried a story in the form of a postpartum-depression questionnaire and it felt quaint. Domestic. For women. Motherhood has softened me. I have a tighter valve on what I’ll read and what I’ll watch. I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.
I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your “telepathic heart” (that’s Moore on July) is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.
I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down. But I am afraid I don’t know how. Though I do have some ideas.
Let’s punch up.
Let us not make people at the margins into scouts or spies for the mainstream. Let us stop asking people to speak for the entire cacophonic segment of humanity that shares their pigmentation, genitalia, or turn-ons.
Let us spend more time in those uncomfortable moments when our privilege is showing. Let us reflect there, let us linger, rather than recoil into the status quo.
Let us continue to count, and talk, and think about the numbers.
Let us name those things that are nameless, as Solnit describes, the way “mansplaining” or “rape culture” or “sexual harassment” were nameless before feminists named them. Let those names sing.
Let us hear the stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves. Let us remember that we become the stories we tell. An illustration: I was talking with the writer Elissa Schappell about how much we are both anticipating Carrie Brownstein’s new book. I asked Elissa what she made of this new trend of memoirs by badass women: Carrie Brownstein, Kim Gordon, Sally Mann, Amy Poehler. Was this trend the result of Patti Smith winning the National Book Award five years ago? Was the trend indicative of a new wave of feminism? Elissa interrupted me. “You keep using that word,” she said. “Trend. It’s not a trend. We are here now. We’re not going anywhere. We are here now.”
Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.
(I will start us off by spending no more of my living breath apologizing for the fact that no, actually, even though I write about the American West, Cormac McCarthy is not a major influence of mine.)
Let us use our words and our gazes to make the invisible visible. Let us tell the truth.
Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories.
Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan