Welcome to Issue No. 67 of Prime Number:
A Journal of Distinctive Poetry & Prose
Letter from the Editor
The 2015 Prime Number Awards are NOW OPEN! This year, we're offering prizes in three categories: Short Story, Creative Nonfiction, and Poetry: First Prize--$1,000 plus publication; Second Prize--$250 plus publication; Third Prize: publication. The deadline to enter is March 31, 2015. Go here for information about our terrific judges and full contest guidelines.
Also, we wanted to make sure you knew that Volume 4 from our Editors' Selection series is now available. It includes the first place winners from last year's contest, plus great stories, essays, and poems from our 4th year of publication. Order Editors' Selections Volumes 1, 2, 3 and 4, shipping now from Press 53.
We are currently reading submissions for Issue 67 updates, Issue 71, and beyond. Please visit our Submit page and send us your distinctive poetry and prose. We’re looking for flash fiction and nonfiction up to 750 words, stories and essays up to 5,000 words, poems, book reviews, craft essays, short drama, ideas for interviews, and cover art that reflects the number of a particular issue. If we’ve had to decline your submission, please forgive us and try again!
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Issue 67, January-March 2015
Grief Showers by Nick Ostdick
Followed by Q&A
Quinn yanks back the shower curtain and says, This isn’t about sex, scanning my body in suspicion. She’s naked and startling with her milky blue eyes. Her tuft of blond hair is tangled and slick. Her body is still recovering, the skin around her stomach and hips a fat pudding. Good, I tell her, the shower still cool. Then it feels like an entire year goes by, every season in silence, and I wonder how long we’re going to be like this—if anything will ever feel like it did before. There was a time when just a glimpse of her bare, shiny shoulders would make me want her in this desperate, end-of-the-world-fuck-each-other-to-death kind of way. Apocalyptic love. But now when she steps inside the water spurts and chokes and goes icy cold because the pipes in the apartment are terrible and fledgling and the old woman upstairs lets her faucet drip and drip 24/7, and I flinch and curl to hide my parts like a secret is scribbled in bright black ink across my stomach as Quinn brushes by me and says, What’s the problem? I tell her the water is too damn cold and she nods once like she isn‘t buying it but like she also doesn’t really give a shit, and I swear: the end times could come crashing through the bathroom window, the stars burning up and the moon melting into the sea and the waves swallowing up the shore, and we probably would just look at each other and shrug and wonder what all the noise is about.
I’m running late, Quinn says. It’s just a convenience thing. What, do you mind?
No. I crack my knuckles. Not really.
It’s Quinn’s first day back at work. She’s taken some time off her gig as a receptionist at the gum factory in Cicero. It was only supposed to be a few days but it’s turned into damn near three weeks by now and I miss the way she used to smell of spearmint, how she’d fill the apartment with her minty flavor. I work there too on the loading dock, which is how we met, one afternoon when she came looking for one of my boys with a phone message from this girl he was seeing. Man, you should’ve seen Quinn cross the dock, real graceful and smooth like a movie girl on camera with a click of her shoes and that slim, bendy figure, and when she asked me if Tommy was around, the note feathered between her fingers, I looked her up and down and said, Tommy ain’t gonna appreciate anything you give him.
Honey-tongue, she said, and then boom, it seemed like we were living together in a matter of seconds.
That note: Tommy’s girl was pregnant. She called reception. She left a message. Quinn took it down—With child, yours, for real.
Quinn said, I didn’t want to tell you like that, sandwiching my left hand between hers one night on our sofa not long after she moved the last of her stuff in, empty boxes stacked near the back door. She was smiling. Red orbs for cheeks. And then she wasn’t. Wasn’t smiling. Wasn’t pregnant. Wasn’t orby or colorful. Just like that. Just a few months in and everything went haywire inside her. I told her it’s like running the ball up to the ten yard line and then not being able to get it across.
What does that even mean? Quinn asked from the far side of the kitchen table, knees up, shaking her head. She was half down a bottle of gin a night or two after we lost the baby. Windows open, sky perfectly dark, like the stars skipped town. She was wearing my sweatshirt and nothing else and the lone bulb above blinked and dropped shadows onto her the slope of her nose. This was our daughter, she said, Not some dumbass football game. Jesus.
I think this might be where the trouble started, because even though she was pissed at me about the football thing, I think she was terrified of being alone now. Like she had gotten used to always having something—or someone— so close. When I’m in the house, she can’t let me alone. When I’m dropping a deuce, she leans against the closed door and talks about a Judge Judy marathon she’d watched that day: And then the mom was screaming at the daughter and the daughter was screaming at the mom and it was great. She calls me at work and when I answer she says, It’s me, and I say, And? and she replies That’s all, and I tell her goodbye and she says, No, not yet, and makes me stand there listening to her breathe heavy and muffled as if the receiver is tucked inside her mouth.
When I get home and dinner still isn’t ready yet, she asks me how my day was and before I can answer she’s off to the races gabbing on and on without letting me have a turn and nothing short of telling her I’m going to knock her to the moon can stop her. Or she hops into the shower with me, like right now, just slips right in while my face is sudsy and my eyes are shut, and either just stands there and watches or maybe Nairs the tiny freckles of hair beneath her nose.
She angles some water into the crook of her armpit. The piney smell of an unwashed body fills the air. She doesn’t say much, not anymore. It’s like losing the kid had broken her tongue, and she doesn’t even look like my wife anymore—her underarms are doughy and rippled and can swing like a hammock and she has sallow cheeks and gnarled fingernails. She looks like an impostor. A dime store Quinn. But I guess that’s the thing when you lose a child: everyone looks poor and fake and remarkably unfamiliar.
But the worst part, the absolute worst thing of all, is those stretch marks. Those pinkish-brown lines etched from her bellybutton down to her hips. They still haven’t cleared. Fact is, it looks like they’re getting darker, more pronounced. Is that even possible? How much worse can it get? I want to ask her and like she can tell, Quinn rinses herself thoroughly, one side of her body and then the other, and then squirts some watermelon smelling shampoo onto a washcloth and works the white foam over those marks, back and forth. She goes up and down. She scrubs hard. A housewife trying to pull a stubborn bourbon stain from the good carpet.
Then she stops. She pinches the washcloth between two fingers like how we were told to hold a dirty diaper. She lifts her head to the ceiling, to the watery shine of light coming down. Her neck is all lines and veins and she says, If you don’t stop looking at ‘em, I’m going to pull your fucking eyes out, her voice so soft and low that for a moment it doesn’t even register.
What are you talking about?
She tilts her gaze at me. Stop it. You’re always staring at them and it makes me feel like shit.
Quinn blows a breath through her nose in frustration and goes back to considering the ceiling, eyes closed. And here’s the thing: I’d be more upset or freaked out that she just made plans to remove my eyes from my head had she not caught me. Had she not been right. Busted cold. Red-handed thief. I know I stare at those stretch marks, at her flabby, there-used-to-be-something here stomach. Even through her t-shirts, especially through those papery blouses she wears that kind of flow and drip over her shape. I try not to but it’s no use. Tractor beams for my eyes, drawing me in, and I hate them. Reminders, you know? Like some fucking sick memorial of what we got so close to before ending up so very far from. They’re gross. I make a face, scrunch my neck. She must loathe this face as much as I loathe the very middle of her body.
Tell me, Quinn says, her teeth so close to my lips, my cheeks. Tell me why.
There’s nothing to tell. I love you. We’ll be fine. It’s just a rough patch. This is normal. We’re tough. Your body is like a fucking amusement park and all I want to do is go for ride after ride.
Put these under things I should say, things a good, decent husband would offer. But instead I jam my face beneath the shower head and let it wash through my hair and down my shoulders and say, I don’t know, but I can’t stand them and if I had X-ray vision, I would glare at you until they burned right off.
You’re so selfish, Quinn says, shoving the washcloth to the floor.
Right, ‘cause I’m the one who calls you constantly at work and won’t let you shit by yourself.
Her eyes thin to tiny slits and her chest heaves. I can hear the rush through the walls now and the knocking of pipes above and then the water temp spikes and we both hug opposite sides of the shower, careful not to touch the stream, errant spray finding our foreheads and toes. When it finally cools down and we step back in and come together, Quinn looks concerned and thoughtful. Her mouth is small and smart. She glances up at where the plumbing is still creaking.
X-ray vision, huh? she says.
I don’t know what that meant, I reply. Craziness, I guess.
Let’s try it, and she drops into a crouch over the drain, a leg on either side, and once she steadies herself she braces her hands flat behind her with her stomach sticking right in the torrent. She blurts a fat, drunk laugh, wobbling a little until she finds her center. She looks like a child crabwalking in the rain, hair pressed flat and mouth hanging open in excitement. She looks like she’s about to make right in front of me, but instead she jabs me with her knee and says, Make it hotter, Danny. Let’s do it. Let’s burn ‘em off.
Yeah, yeah, do it for me, her eyes lit and full. You know you want to, she whispers. You know you do.
Aches in my ribs. Pangs in my throat. My heart going off like a whole band of bass drums in my head. I watch her wait for it, the pain, the searing. I finger the dial. She winces. Steam gathers and grows and she cries and her entire body shakes like it’s coming apart from the inside and I keep on the dial, even after she stops asking me, the hairs wilting off my ankles.
Later on we’re in bed. Quinn doesn’t go back to work today. How can she? Her entire body is appled and sore and all she can do is lay on her back while outside the sky pinks up and then darkens. Of course it didn’t work and she says, That wasn’t really the point, was it? and because she says it like that, like a question, I feel guilty and mean. The words sound like blame. Her voice pitches it that way, like this is something I’m going to pay for. Don’t worry, she says after a while, moonlight fanning across our sheets. It was a grief shower. We’re weren’t thinking clearly. I feel her try to move now, stiff Frankenstein lurches as she reaches over and tickles a hand into my underwear and grabs my dick and starts stroking it. Halting. Awkward, but not entirely bad. This’ll make it better, she whispers into my ear. Pretend the world is ending. Pretend it’s almost over. C’mon, she adds, It’s nearly done.
I close my eyes. I breathe long. I let her keep going and whisper it sure feels like it.
Nick Ostdick is a husband, runner, writer, and craft beer geek who lives and works in West-Central Illinois. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and is the editor of the hair metal-inspired anthology, Hair Lit, Vol. 1 (Orange Alert Press, 2013). He’s the winner of the Viola Wendt Award for fiction, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exit 7, Annalemma, Big Lucks Quarterly, The Emerson Review, Midwestern Gothic, Fiction Writers Review, and elsewhere.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The ending, both in the original draft and subsequent revisions, really crept up on me and still surprises me even now, in part due to the rawness of it but also because that’s really where the story and characters took over and left me behind. Attempts were made in alternate versions to confine everything to the shower stall, however, these two characters kept resisting that containment from the get-go.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I’ve been fortunate enough to study with, learn from, and buddy-up to a number of super-talented writers, which means I’ve been on the receiving end of so much wonderful advice it’s hard to zero-in on one particular dictum or mantra or code. But the one thread that sticks out amongst all the nuggets of wisdom is time and trust: in other words, writing is hard and you have to give yourself time to let the story unfold and trust that it’ll find its way. Of course, you have to work at it, but you also have to let the characters and scenes and ideas marinate and mingle. I think that’s a tough thing for a lot of writers.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago – J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories – Richard Ford’s Rock Springs – Junot Diaz’s Drown – and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. Phenomenal collections all.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: My ideal writing space is the one that’s working for me right now. In other words, some days it’s at the desk in the spare bedroom of my home, others it’s the back table near the men’s room at my local coffee shop, or at my desk during lunch.
Second Run by Michael Overa
Followed by Q&A
“They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another,
which the fire throws on the opposite wall…”
-Plato, Allegory of the Cave
The empty lot used to be a supermarket until it was torn down. Weeds and dying grass stitch together the broken concrete. Cans, cigarette butts, and crumpled fast food wrappers drift across the asphalt. Laura ducks through the gap in the chain link fence at the far end of the lot, where the metal has been peeled away from the posts. The reader board above the Valley Movie Theater is a dingy yellow wedge pointed at the highway. The mismatched letters are a collection of black and red, numbers stand in for both capital and lower case letters.
Laura pulls her baggy jacket around her as she enters the stale popcorn smell of the lobby. The intermittent sounds of the video games lined up along the far wall bang and rattle. She ignores the vaulted ceilings and stares the duct-tape patched carpeting.
In the small break room Laura takes off her jacket and puts on the red bow tie and satiny black vest she’s required to wear. The daily assignments are listed on a clipboard hanging from the wall. She stares at the list and tries to focus on the names. This is her seventh shift in as many days, and she has had a hard time sleeping, the evening shifts throwing her schedule out of whack. Laura’s daily assignment, along with Chance, is: “Guest Comfort”.
She pushes through the heavy metal door and emerges into the lobby. Manager Dave and Crystal are behind the concession’s counter. Dave is explaining something about the soda machine. He dumps pitchers of ice into the top of the machine and checks the syrup levels. Crystal is newish, a high school kid. Laura has yet to have a conversation with her, but they’ve been introduced several times.
When a movie lets out Laura and Chance stands in the hallway making sure no one screen surfs from one movie to another. A movie is letting out, and several families make their way towards the lobby – small kids sprint down the hallway. Smaller kids are carried by their parents. Here in the lobby the lighting prevents shadows. During the summer, it isn’t until you exit the building that the sun stings your eyes; the overwhelming brightness.
Laura and Chance stand aside and let the families pass. When the next film begins they stand at the entrance to the long hallway and collect tickets, dropping them one at a time into the podium situated between scarlet ropes. Once the film starts they walk through the theater and to make sure people are reasonably well behaved. After the movies end they walk through the cavernous screening rooms and pick up Abba-Zabba and Butterfinger wrappers. They sweep stray popcorn from the sticky floors.
Rain scatters against the front windows. It promises to be a slow night, which is good. Laura will be able to slip into one of the movies and watch, or, more likely, fall asleep curled in one of the chairs in the back row. She never has much trouble sleeping here. There is comfort sleeping in a large room as a movie plays. The soundtracks and dialogue invade her dreams.
A young couple comes in and heads into a movie that has already started. They’re ten minutes late, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry. They are high school kids, probably seniors. Crystal nods to them and smiles in a way that says she knows them – a dim familiarity. Chance walks over to where Laura is running the vacuum back and forth over the same patch of carpet.
“We could mess with them,” he says.
“We could,” she says.
Chance shrugs and walks away. Laura vacuums the threadbare carpet. When she is done with one patch she puts the vacuum away and checks the ladies’ room. She scoops a handful of crumpled paper towels off the counter and tosses them in the garbage. The arcade games along the wall make roaring spaceship noises and the sounds of explosions and gunfire.
The rain is comes down in sheets, creating broad lakes of water in the low areas of the parking lot. A group of teenagers comes in. Four in all, moving like puppies, clumping together, tripping over one another. They yap and bark at each other. They shake their coats and throw back their hoods – the shoulders of their jackets stained dark with rain, and hair dripping across their foreheads. They split into groups, the girls head to the concessions counter and the boys head towards the video games. Chance straightens up and walks around the concessions counter to help Crystal with the orders of popcorn, extra-large sodas, Jujubes, Junior Mints.
Laura positions herself behind the podium between the ropes. On the top are numbered slots – each slot represents a screen. The kids bound up with popcorn and sodas and candy.
“Screen Four, down the hall on the left,” she says tearing the tickets.
“Screen Four,” she says, “Screen Four.”
She hands the tickets back and drops the stubs into the slot for Screen Four. Chance heads back to start the movie, and Laura goes past the other screen to check on the couple in Screen Two, whose movie will be ending soon. The couple is sitting in the middle row in the middle of the theater. The girl’s head leans on the guy’s shoulder and his head is leans over on top of hers. The way people stare straight forward at the screen for hours at a time is always strange to her.
Laura watches the screen a moment before slipping out and down Screen Four. The kids have the theater to themselves. They jump over the seats and throw popcorn at each other. The two boys are up near the projector window creating shadow puppets on the screen. Laura is beyond caring whether or not they mess up the theater. In the hallway she runs into Chance. He asks if the kids in Screen Four are behaving.
“Like kids,” she says.
“Did you talk to them?”
Laura shrugs. The wind buffets against the lobby windows. She stands staring at the windows. David asks if she’s already checked the bathrooms.
“Take your fifteen,” he says, “send Chance when you get back.”
Laura grabs an extra-large soda from concessions, hoping the caffeine will keep her awake. The syrup coats her teeth in sugary fuzz as she sits otherwise motionless at the break table. The sugar sits like a ball in the pit of her stomach. She feels tired and slightly sick from the soda. She walks through the lobby and nods to Chance and Chance nods back and heads to the break room for his fifteen. In Screen Four the kids have mostly settled down and are intermittently shouting at the screen.
She continues to vacuum, not because the carpet is dirty, but because she has nothing else to do. She vacuums down the hall, edging in overlapping angles. One of the boys from theater four comes out, full of a smiling, predatory energy. His age is hard to discern. He watches Laura like he has the perfect joke. Laura looks up at him as he pulls a crumpled pack of Marlboros from his jacket pocket.
“I just took a break.”
“You look busy.”
Laura glances up as Chance comes out of the break room. He slips his cell phone into his pocket and walks over to where Crystal is leaning on the counter, no doubt leaving greasy arm prints on the glass. She figures that David much be in the office. Laura slips into the break room for her jacket and walks outside with the boy.
In the alley behind the theater, near the dumpsters, he puts his back to the wind and lights his cigarette, then shields the flame for her. She has to lean close-ish to him, and she can see the black crescents of his fingernails as the flame wavers. They stand exposed to the wind and rain, trying to use the dumpster as a windbreak. Smoke drifts up and away from them in stages – blowing first one way and then another – sometimes just hanging low beside them like some sea creature caught in the wavering undercurrents of the wind. Shadows of trees waver on the wall above and behind them. He drops his cigarette and chases it with his foot, dragging a toe across the cigarette as it rolls away. Sparks scatter into momentary constellations.
Laura shivers and takes a long last draw on her cigarette. The kid skips and hops next to her as they enter through the front door of the theater. Chance looks up at her curiously and Crystal smiles with a knowingly. Crystal’s smile is the secretive sort that seems beyond her high school years. Laura hangs up her jacket in the break room; the cold dampness of the jacket in her hands.
She refills her soda, the straw squeaking as she stabs it through the lid. The taste of wax and sugar and cloying syrup. It’s barely keeping her awake. The young couple that was alone in screen two walks out arm in arm, and Chance walks down the hall to clean the theater. Even though there were only two people in Screen Two Chance will walk down both aisles and check most of the seats, sweep the floor. For the most part it is another way to take up time; to inch ever closer to the end of the shift.
Shortly after the couple leaves Dave sends Chance home. Chance jogs across the parking lot to his car. Laura watches as the headlights come on, and the wipers bounce across the windshield. A low cloud of exhaust builds turning red in the brake lights before Chance tears across the parking lot and out onto the highway.
There is only one more late night showing, the 12:10. And the three of them: Dave, Crystal, and Laura will be enough to close up. They’ll shut down Screens Three, Four, and Five and it will be even easier to close. They have to stay through the first half of the film before they can shut down if no one comes in.
Screen Four lets out. The kids come out into the hallway, slightly more subdued then when they went in. Two of the girls are walking arm in arm, weaving against each other. It’s obvious that they’ve been drinking. It’s not unusual. In fact, it’s such a common thing; they almost assume that it’s going to happen.
Passing into the lobby The Kid stays behind. He digs into his pocket and pulls out a handful of quarters. Standing before the shooting game, feet at shoulder width, he begins pumping quarters in. He takes it seriously, eyes locked on the screen. There is intensity to the way that he shoots. Focused and determined. He lines up quarters on the ledge of the game so that he can pump them in one after another. When he runs low he jogs over to concessions and cashes in several crumpled dollars for quarters.
Dave comes back down the hallway having locked up all the screens except Screen One. The film is cued up and the cinema is reasonably clean. Dave sends Laura to gather up the garbage. She takes the rolling trash bin from the cleaning closet and pushes it down the long hallway to Screen Five. After emptying the trashcans beside the entrance to each screen Laura trundles the cart outside. She shivers as she heaves the cart over the ruts and cracks of the uneven parking lot.
Laura realizes that what she thought was rain is only water flying off of the trees in the parking lot. Bright colored leaves plaster themselves to the cement – bright oranges, yellows, rust reds. The colors only slightly muted by the damp. As she parks the gray bin at an angle next to the dumpster to keep it from rolling away she wishes she’d grabbed her jacket. The lights on the side of the building are a dim fluorescent glow. She hoists one bag onto the lip of the dumpster and nudges it. She listens to the heavy thudding of the bags as they hit the bottom. The hollow bass sound as echoes down the alley.
Cigarette butts cluster at the base of the dumpster. As she lets the dumpster lid drop back into place Laura wonders how old The Kid actually is. Above her, on the wall, the shadows are painted on the bricks. She wheels the bin back towards the front doors and through the lobby, but The Kid is gone.
There’s a slow dissipation of minutes as they wait for the evening to end. Dave, Crystal and Laura lounge at the concessions counter, watching the clock, hoping that no one else will come in so that they can leave early. Laura thinks only of curling into her bed and cocooning herself in the blankets and pillows. Dave and Crystal are talking about new movies that they wish were playing at the theater. Dave has an encyclopedic knowledge of films.
“I wanted to be a director when I was a kid,” he says.
“I think it would be cool to be in a movie,” Crystal says.
“Sure, acting is one thing,” he says, “but directing.”
“If the movie flops it’s always the actors.”
“The audience only sees what the director wants.”
Laura refills her soda yet again and replaces the lid. Dave checks his watch and says they might as well shut it down. He locks the front doors and turns off the sign. He pulls the tills from the ticket booth and Laura and Crystal set to work shutting down the concessions counter, wiping down the surfaces and restocking the candy. The cinema is quiet and chilly. At a quarter to one they are turning out the lights and gathering at the front door, while Dave sets the alarm and then lets them out into the parking lot. The rain shatters the smooth surface of the puddles. Crystal climbs into her boyfriend’s pickup and Dave crosses to his sedan. They shout goodbyes to each other.
Laura walks around the end of the building and ducks under the fence and pulls her jacket tight around her. The heavy wind pushes against her thighs as it comes low across the parking lot, rattling empty wrappers and beer cans. She reaches the far end of the parking lot and glances over her shoulder at the empty lot. Inside her apartment she locks the door and crosses to the window and looks down at the street. In the early morning breeze there is nothing but shadows.
A Pacific Northwest Native, Michael Overa has worked with 826 Seattle, The Tinker Mountain Online Writers’ Workshop, the Richard Hugo House, and Seattle’s Writers-in-the-Schools Program. Michael earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in Virginia, where he was a 2009-2010 Teaching Fellow. During the 2013-2014 academic year Michael also participated in the Teaching Artist Training Lab at the Seattle Repertory Theater. His work has appeared in the Portland Review, Fiction Daily, Husk and Syntax, among others.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: Although it wasn’t initially part of the drafting process I went back and re-read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave during early revision. Initially I was worried that the connection between a movie theater and the allegory would seem cliché. Then my concern swung the opposite direction. Ultimately I decided that the epigraph was necessary as a way to frame the story.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: I think most of us have received an overwhelming amount of advice over the years, (most of which we don’t follow). The one piece of writing advice that I try and follow diligently is Hemingway’s idea that to be a writer one must go away and write.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Like many other young writers one of my earliest influences was Hemingway. Nowadays I go back to Don Delillo’s Body Artist once or twice a year. I have recently gotten into the short stories of Richard Bausch and Karen Russell.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: At the risk of sounding like the stereotypical Seattle writer, I do most of my writing in coffee shops, which have become my defacto office. I’m prone to hunker down in a corner with my unlined notebook and pen for first drafts – for later drafts I drag along my computer.
by Mimi Herman
Followed by Q&A
On a Scale from Yes to No
Fall falls off the map,
a cliff at the far right edge,
the east at 3:00 am,
where light refuses to penetrate.
We are all getting older
but not at the same rate.
I watch my father shrink into himself.
The circles of his acquaintance
Narrow in circumference.
The lenses of our eyes harden
until we can’t see what is closest to us
unless we hold it at a distance.
Nouns evade us.
Our fat, stiff, trembling fingers betray us.
We say no more often.
In the east, off the map,
the sky gains color by degrees.
The light hardens
until we can’t see what comes after us in the distance.
Hold it close.
There is a sea
where everything we might have done drifts
amid thick stalks of kelp, rooted and swaying,
small fish darting in the dark,
swift against the slow ache
of larger tides.
For Max Steele
Early this month you began popping up from the dead,
With your It’s all about me smile,
That made you, at eighty, the rock star
Of the Whole Foods breakfast crowd.
I wondered why you were so insistent
About interrupting the month of August
Until I recalled that we were striding toward
The anniversary of your death,
The way you insisted we pretend to stride
Toward the camera, in the photograph
That sits on my desk, because
Movement makes a picture more interesting.
I went to visit you in the hospital,
Not to pay my last respects,
But with the intention
Of embarrassing you back to life.
You’d be so angry at me for seeing you—
Breathing tube, IV drip, backless gown—
That you’d have to come back
To tell me how rude I’d been.
You were the one who told me about the wonderful word
That inhabits half the parts of speech—
Exclamation, adjective, noun, verb—
As in the sentence, which pretty much describes
The way I feel today,
When you, four years dead and still insistent.
Inhabit half my waking thoughts:
Fuck, the fucking fuckers fucked it.
You were the one who told me
How halves multiply on a page
So if you write about one half of anything,
Sooner or later another half of something
Will have to come and join it, and another
Until you have a whole
Cocktail party of halves,
Catching up on all they missed while they were apart.
Yes for These Few Hours
In the barn, spare bedrooms, and all around the bonfire ashes,
guests from your friend’s party
are snoring off the half-lives of good beer and cheap wine.
The kitchen counters by the open door
are lined with half-filled mugs and glasses
where intoxicated insects have drowned.
It’s been hours since our host
climbed the stairs with his patient wife.
Wrapped in scavenged afghans, we occupy the couch
a rowboat in a sea of mess.
All has been yes for these few hours
in the middle of years of no or probably not or I just don’t know.
We’ve had two decades together apart—
apart, together. Every year I see you
on my continent in this one place.
Then you fly home to ring me up,
after closing time, drunk enough
to say come hither from three thousand miles away.
We’ve invented a language where we substitute other people’s names
for the things we can’t say about ourselves.
When you describe your friend’s colon cancer, you mean
things get twisted up inside you.
Now say morning won’t come.
I won’t have to look in clear light
at what we’ve done. The night
is drifting from your mouth to my hands, while outside
someone fries up bacon on a griddle.
Hangovers moan, cramped from awkward sleeping.
I only wanted a little more time, so I would know
that you would stay if I didn’t let you go.
Mimi Herman is the author of Logophilia and The Art of Learning. Her writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, Crab Orchard Review, The Hollins Critic and other journals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College, and has been a writer-in-residence at the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Vermont Studio Center. Since 1990, she has engaged over 25,000 students and teachers in writing workshops. With John Yewell, Mimi offers Writeaways retreats for writers in France and Italy, and on the North Carolina coast. You can find her at www.mimiherman.com and at www.writeaways.com.
Q: Memory holds us together, keeps us apart in these poems. What is your earliest memory?
A: My earliest memory is sitting on the porch with my friend Luther, who took care of the old lady who lived next door. I’m guessing he was about 45 and I was about four. Aside from Pup-dog and my (female) pony, Jim, Luther was my best friend.
Q: Paper or screen? Pen or pencil or stylus?
A: Paper (white legal pads) for poetry, with lots of crossings-out and scribblings-in. I’ve finally weaned myself from paper to screen for writing novels—but it was a long and arduous process. Definitely pen—a fine Uni-Ball in black. I buy them by the dozen.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about Max Steele?
A: Max was one of the great mentors in my life, who shaped me as a writer and probably as a person, too. I spent many hours in my junior and senior years at UNC-CH curled up in his office armchair, as he dispensed wisdom with the air of someone who is certain he is the wisest person in the room—which he generally was. Max was the consummate flirt, not for romantic gain, but to charm others by putting them on edge and at ease at the same time. I learned from him that characters in stories had to have jobs and pay rent. They couldn’t just live in some limbo-land. And I learned from him how to throw a perfect party: invite interesting people who have nothing in common and serve them foods that only you can procure. When I graduated from Carolina, Max stunned me by throwing a party for my family and friends. I still can’t think of him without wanting him back.
Q: Write one half, and another will come to join it – can you talk about how this works in your poems?
A: Literally, halves replicate on the page—though whether this is the power of suggestions or something deeper, I don’t know. I’ve never written the word “half” without another “half” appearing within a page or two of it. Metaphorically? I don’t know. I’m so charmed by the literal reproduction of halves, I’ve got half a mind not to go any further with it.
3 Poems by Judith Pulman
Followed by Q&A
Regarding the Dead Lobster Found at 60th and Stark Street
I don't know why it's there either.
His thick shell has turned maroon.
Flies circle the fetid patch of pavement.His feelers
Fell limp, green, down. He makes me think
Of you. I'd like to laugh it off
As some schoolboy's gag. Instead, I recall
The last time we spoke, when your eyes bulged with
Shock and your back clung to the barroom wall.
I would never leave a lobster thus,
Restlessly pinching into the damp
Air that never offers breath. People rush by
And don’t catch his choked gasps, or the cramp
Before his final grasp. Why couldn’t you speak,
That night all walkways turned to mud
And my fingers spun the air into punctilious maps?
I tried to prove our paths should split. That it was silly,
Us together. A reckless choice. A judgment lapse.
Did you put this lobster here, in front
Of my apartment? Once, I thought myself guileless.
But this lobster curdles my blood, his blunt
Claws slightly open, like your lips then, lunging
To express any spare oath between us, only
To choke on barnacled facts. Your cheeks
Turned blue, as if resigned to breathe
No more. I watched you retract
Into your crimson shell. What could I do but leave?
I hate this lobster. Not that I blame
Myself for his rancid presence or tragic end;
But who would pull him from the tank, claim
This creature, and drop him to rot, to fend
For himself on this rough ground. Be glad,
Dear, that you’re not dead, just without
My embrace. I didn’t know you loved me—
Would it be different if I had? I don’t know
And I’m sorry. Dear lobster, grant me grace.
Saying Adieu to the Season of Exploding Hearts
The season of exploding hearts ended with a bang.
Our newscasters blame hard water. At Hunan Delight they say
that last year was a tiger year, most of us just pray
the cause of death won’t correlate with our current pangs.
Still, the public sector’s burgeoned: our kingdom’s bounds
have grown with the graveyards. No—no: there is no sound
or sane way to mourn so many, to be so without.
Religion makes our mouths dry up, as does the local gin,
and when we kiss each other, we don’t feel a thing
except for our eyes closing, except ourselves being blotted out.
Why did their hearts burst and why didn’t ours?
There is no way, the doctor said, to clean out certain clots,
so we accept our certain today and give the past to the dead.
Not dying takes a lot of luck, we say to our spouses
and we know we’ve said too much again, as their faces
quiver at the thought of our blood gone blue and our head
sans pillow dropped back in an icy box.
We’re hurt, we don’t mean it, we just talk
as if we were the town puppeteer who daily played
on a cardboard stage and there wept and there could dream—
we aren’t that. With no formal goodbye,
all we have is our quiet collective scream.
You are walking me home through the rain
And I don’t want to start up on death again,
But what else is there? You point—“That’s dogwood,”
You say. Not a man of many words,
You lay a bud behind my ear.
Our hands brush up. You’re a bit near,
Don’t you think? The rhododendron
Is flourishing, you say it’s among
The vibrant evergreens, it doesn’t go
Away. I don’t know it; my dear fellow—
Blooms are for graves, not me. You’ve barked
Up the wrong bush. Shrub. Whatever. It’s dark
But your eyes shine like emeralds.
You hand me a broken daffodil, a herald
To lame beauty—I don’t want it. Still you smile
Like a predator; without my wit or guile,
I keep mum as you invoke the azalea.
Why are you staring at me? I impale a
Red petal with a knobby stick.
I’m not for loving either, made just to pick
Up branches and find a place to hide
Them. How did we get here? We both ride
On the porch swing, shifting lightly.
It’s a dread moment—softly, slightly
You reach for my limb—my wrist—
And I watch. I guess stately redwoods twist
About themselves to bear sticky-sweet juice—
So you say—or I think—squeezed loose
Of the dead roots, I reach for you too
And bury myself in these few
Moments so much greater than sympathy—
Without naming a thing, except for the trees.
Judith Pulman earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia. She writes poems, short stories, and personal essays. She also translates Russian poetry, just to keep things light. She has publications in or forthcoming from The Writer's Chronicle, Brevity, Los Angeles Review, New Ohio Review, Basalt, Under the Gum Tree, and other journals. She works as a teacher, administrator, and freelance editor.
Q: Memory brings together the oddest things – a former lover, a lobster in the street. What is your earliest memory?
A: Growling at my father when he woke me up in the morning. I had a very pronounced speech impediment until I was 12 or so, and I would express myself with noises rather than using words that I would inevitably mispronounce.
Q: Paper or screen? Pen or pencil or stylus?
A: Pen on paper for drafts and a glowing screen for revision. I am a methodical creature except when I am hungry.
Q: There is a language of flowers, of course – would you talk about the naming of trees?
A: “Sap” is a poem that follows a traditional elegiac theme: turning away from the deceased and back out into the wider world. The naming of the trees gives the speaker something new to fixate on, separate from the losses she has experienced.
Q: Given the strong presence of nature in these poems, winding as it does into the human-carved landscape - do you have a favorite nature poet, who and why?
A: I don’t know if Linda Gregerson is ever referred to as a nature poet, but she writes beautiful poems. I appreciate the unsentimental way that she writes about humankind’s uncomfortable relationship with the natural world. I was brought up in the suburbs of DC and now live in Oregon; I knew nothing about the value of composting until I was 27. It takes a long time for people raised with a suburban or urban ethos (certainly did for me) to grok the idea that we are living in a closed system and that no action or object in the world just disappears. So I enjoy nature poets who take me on the journey from the cities where I actually live out into nature.
3 Poems by Steven D. Schroeder
Followed by Q&A
The cover was all wrong.
The strongman killed his brother
for it, his brother who purged
all entries from circus to city
for refusing an order to fire
on civilian, also murdered.
Official versions overwrote
every nigger with happy puppy,
and we ripped out every cigarette
as rolling paper. When the map
chapter proved subversive,
the border burned. The first page
covered for what passed
as civil government to pass
laws that prevented passing
security checkpoints. A hollow
in the inner margin was just
big enough to smuggle one bullet.
We couldn’t call it the gutter.
We couldn’t pull the trigger
off the shelf. Who sold out
that we stole the letters
needed to cover each other
with good luck, motherfucker
for good luck? For God’s sake
and ours, they said, they locked it
in a glass case and cracked
our glasses. Our names went in,
no word came back. To break
our spines, mandatory sentences
lined us up and lined us through
and didn’t end when we read
the end. In indices, we found
friends and lovers who signified
the vanished, fugitive and dead.
Oh what a shock to look up
over on a body only to discover
the cover shut on us.
Henry Repeater, he introduced himself
twice to the chest. We dubbed him
Double Barrel since we didn’t know shit
from shotgun, antler from greenhorn.
Dime novels claimed his mama
gave him the Christian name
Samuel and the common name Sammy
Smile, but he gave them away
to wander a badlands panorama.
Once, the stranger formed a posse
of just a pistol and a glass eye
painted with a noose. His good eye
did evil in Deadwood years before
he blew through the prairie
and the saloon doors on a stormcloud.
Our guidebooks highlighted
favorite bordellos and outhouses
with bullet holes. They translated
every use of bullseye and cowpoke.
We called him Wild Hoss, branded
by his keepers, who kept our hands
inside the tram windows to keep them
from coming back stumps.
Arrowheads shafted through their hats
always aimed at the gift shop.
While the man saddled an appaloosa,
they showed how to mix whiskey
with wishes in a spittoon,
making wickedness. When he tried
to ride into history, they rustled
one lucky winner a carousel pony
and a scope contraption with a trigger
A for Ask him to come back
or trigger B for Bushwhack.
Both at the same time at ten paces
waylaid our antihero facedown
in the mud, opened his coffin
and made him cough up his true name,
too soft and bloodstained
What catastrophe? Who disastered?
When did past go? How far underground
did escape tunnel? Where did we hide?
Could we finish? Could we finish,
triple pretty please? Where did we hide
trapdoors so nobody would trip
through and snap necks, or trip
wires that triggered more and more
difficult riddles about the before?
What had two legs and pried?
What had none and knew the difference
between flies and flies? Did we mean
distance there? When we caught
that mosquito plague, who carried
the bug from mouth to mouth?
Where did we learn how to gut
trout and bury entrails against tracking?
What if we thought what we learned
wrong? Among 101 uses for urine,
how many worked as antidotes to lies?
Did we mean fertilize or sterilize?
If we always followed the river,
how come we walked on the same graves
over and over and over? Who lived
in those caves, and how long was this
long pig? Which way was west
when fog clung in the pissingest wind?
What poison smog hung like a cross
between gasoline and jasmine
in our lungs? Did we mean minds?
Who said you forget as a threat
and made us cry? What got in our eyes?
Why was the sky ashy whitish?
Could we repeat the question?
Could we? Why? Why?
Steven D. Schroeder’s second book, The Royal Nonesuch (Spark Wheel Press, 2013), won the 2014 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. His poetry is recently available or forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review, burntdistrict, and Vinyl. He serves as co-curator for Observable Readings in St. Louis and works as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer.
Q: If you would, talk a bit about word magic – your poems crackle with it, lively as Rumplestiltskin.
A: Wordplay and sonic effects come into my poems naturally in any case, and it’s particularly important for these poems. Throughout the series, language is treated as a means to power, a tangible object, and a sentient character, sometimes all at once. I also appreciate your mention of Rumplestiltskin, because he really was a nasty little piece of work, wasn’t he?
Q: Paper or screen? Pen or pencil or stylus?
A: Brain to paper to screen is common for the scraps I write down in notebooks here and there, often as I drift into and out of sleep. Paper to brain to screen happens during revision. In any case, voice needs to be an integral part of the process well before the completion of the poem. If I am not reading the poem aloud to myself as part of drafting, it’s not going to work out.
Q: Can we still have the same relationship with the dictionary that we had before the OED and Webster's went online?
A: Well, it’s even easier to look up dirty phrases with Urban Dictionary, so I’d say so. Personally, I still have a gigantic old Merriam-Webster hardcover that I bought over a decade ago, but I don’t think it’ll go with me the next time I move.
Q: The line in “The Book” that “they locked it/in a glass case and cracked/our glasses” brought an immediate image of the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Time Enough at Last.” Were you a TZ fan, and if so, what episodes haunt your dreams?
A: I was definitely thinking about that episode when I wrote those lines, though in this case of course there’s an oppressive external force doing the breaking. The series was before my time, so I know it more as archetypes: the one person who sees the threat, the strangers who aren’t what they seem, the fraught choice with ironic consequences, etc. I love turning tropes like that to my own ends.
4 Prose Poems by M.E. Silverman
Followed by Q&A
Response to: Step on a Crack
Every kid knew the legends, how Jimmy’s Mama said she slid on ice, her legs scooped skyward, defying gravity, until thud & shriek, her bones slipping out of place, her back broken. Hard to say anything about the shiner. Put the blame on Jimmy, they taunted, step on a crack, break your Mama’s back. Father finger pointed to Jimmy, but clipboards kept coming, forms needed filling, boxes required checking. Father rode in a red-wailing car. The world felt surreal & nothing seemed the same. Worse, the rest of summer turned lame. Kids stopped playing on their side of the block. Grandma came over a lot more, while Mama moved slow-slow in her chair, that she painted tortoise-green, moving-green, new-room green. Out in the woods, cousin Judy made him cry, claiming his Father would never come back before she twirled & sang in falsetto
Jimmy steps on a crack, breaks his Mama’s back.
His Daddy hit her because he’s a little shitter.
This made his cheeks hot & he wanted to pop her in the mouth to shut that trap. It was Grandma who set him straight later that night after the bedtime ritual of reading. She was in the middle of a fairy tale, something about a forest and being lost. His mind drifted, waiting to ask about the earlier event. Oh, Jimmy, those are just folks telling tales. Not long ago, we thought the number of cracks meant the number of china dishes we would break before the sun set. He didn’t really know this “superstition”; sounded like someone patching up a large hole or hemming up new pants with Mama’s super stitchin’. Restless, he dreamed about snow & sharp shards. At his new school, his teacher with the name that sounded close to old-bird warned if kids stepped on the cracks in the street, they would get eaten by bears waiting around corners for a small snack to walk by & the thought of Judy being devoured by three bears made him feel just right inside.
Response to: Don’t Swallow your Gum or It will Grow into a Tree
For once, Mama was right & the tummy tree took root, running through my sister’s body, a nightmarish version of Tai Chi as her internal energy developed during Zhan Zhuang into bark & trunk, twisting knots & squishing through softness, a slow, strangling snake ready to swallow the waste she’d become, twigs sprout from knuckles & break through her jail-ribs but ignore the leaking heart-sack as branches fatten & stretch skyward while leaves unfurl cocoons of foil-wrapped candy bars ready for the entire neighborhood’s savage consumption until they each bloom gum ball bone & dangle cotton-candy moss forever surrounding her chewed-up altar.
Response to: I Don’t Believe You
With two words, it happened jackrabbit fast, an idea darting under the shrub & away from the speeding light, swirling into the heavy distance, a spell cast, a cause deserted. I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you. She stared incredulous, wide-eyed, with one hand on her hip & her left hand opened, ready to stop something larger than this moment, the heart’s barrier, a dream catcher of flesh & bone & nail. I. Don’t. Believe. You. He listened the way a child presses an ear to a keyhole, carrying a sense of magic & the impossible into a room caught in darkness where some sound could mean mermaid, could mean dragon. He heard her. He heard the loose strand of hem, the eye lid’s extra blink, the let loose arrow a mile away. He heard in you. In you.
Response to: You’re Going to Dig a Hole to China
If you’re reading this, you know the whole incident is classified, can’t talk about it. Sealed lips, signed forms. The works. In fact, this is “fiction.” For the dog & my kid, well, let’s just say it’s a dream, the ones where you know you’re in a dream but you go with it anyway because waking up is more trouble & really you’re just still tired, more sick & tired. I should mention, sometimes the neighbors came over on Sunday afternoon when it was our day to fire up the BBQ, bring out the dogs & turn small talk into an art. The kids would all scramble about, an organized fire crew sliding up & down the embankment, enjoying the moment, making mountains out of molehills, literally. Listen, I know the newspapers need their story, had their fun at our expense, but honestly there was nothing better than standing on flagstone, flipping burgers, breaking out a twelve pack, & watching all the kids & a few fathers scurry meerkat-like, filled with determination & joy for the moment. Make no mistake, “nothing” happened. How did it end up, you ask? The way all memories do, muddled with those little pleasurable points in time, the ones where we remember reaching over to our significant other, one hand on a shoulder or caressing hair, faces full of smiles for our life together, when sex meant sharing not warfare, before the lawyers & their blue pens, before weekend events became caught in the shadows of work-long weekdays, before we dug ourselves out of that muddy cul-de-sac hole.
M. E. Silverman is founder of Blue Lyra Review and Review Editor of Museum of Americana. He is on the board of 32 Poems and is a reader for Spark Wheel Press. His chapbook, The Breath before Birds Fly (ELJ Press, 2013), is available. His poems have appeared in over 75 journals, including: Crab Orchard Review, 32 Poems, December, Chicago Quarterly Review, North Chicago Review, Hawai'i Pacific Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Tulane Review, Weave Magazine, and other magazines. He recently completed editing Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry with Deborah Ager and is working on anthology about the body. http://www.mesilverman.com
Q: The function of memory, personal and cultural, pervades these poems. What is your earliest memory?
A: My earliest memory is standing in front of a screen door watching the rain water rise and my mother scared and screaming about a flood. Perhaps that is why I often write about water and have a series of poems about a modern-day Noah?
Q: Paper or screen? Pen or pencil or stylus?
A: I have no idea exactly what this is referring to: reading or writing? I like to read on my tablet and keep all my books in one place so that I can read poetry or mystery or sci-fi or whatever I am in the mood for with one click. But I cannot write on such a small space. I need a bigger computer size screen. Sometimes I use pen and paper to write when waiting in the car for my daughter or when I don’t have access to the computer.
Q: The prose poem inhabits much the territory as the flash fiction. What are the field marks that can help us distinguish one from the other?
A: This is the exact question I have been wrestling with! Are my prose poems poems or stories? To be honest, I cannot distinguish the difference between flash and prose poems. But if one had to force me, I would say that flash fiction has more of the elements of fiction then a prose poem which relies more heavily on imagery and the elements of poetry.
Q: Words have power, words can do magic. This was true for most of human history – tell us how you came to address it as a contemporary phenomenon in these poems.
A: I think this is true. I am writing a series of poems about the last Jew in Afghanistan who stayed even after his family did not. This idea of extinction and longing and loneliness haunts my work. I think becoming aware of these things or other emotions could prevent us from experiencing them or if we have experienced them already, then writing can help one better understand what one went through.
The Blind Seer by James Alan Gill
Followed by Q&A
was about nine or ten years old when the faith-healers came to visit my grandfather. On a weekday. I remember that because, every day after school, I’d walk the streets of the tiny rural town where our family had lived since the mid 19th century to his house, where I’d stay until my mother got off from work. The healers entered the house with hushed voices, as if someone were sick or dying. I was watching cartoons on the television, but they invited me to join them at the table. “You know all too well the price of your grandfather’s blindness,” the man said to me, a small pity-filled smile on his lips. I nodded in agreement because it seemed the correct response.
The faith healers were one of a few young couples in our church who were trying to give evangelical Christianity a 1980’s hipness: guitar strumming praise teams, Christian rock concerts, and hand-raising zeal. The man had thinning permed hair, and I remember thinking he looked like a strange cross between Richard Simmons and Luke from General Hospital. The woman was unremarkably pretty, thin with dark brown hair. She was quiet through all of this. They had a young daughter, and thinking back now, they had to be very young themselves.
They had asked my grandfather if they could interview him for the church newsletter and pray for him. I don’t think they mentioned anything about their thinking they could work miracles.
A few Sundays before in church, the man stood in front of the congregation and told a story of how their daughter had been sick for two days, and they hadn’t known what to do for her, so they prayed over her bed, laid hands on her feverish skin, and according to the man, the little girl vomited up a green, stinking mess, and afterwards was made well.
Most parents know this situation well. Not the praying and laying on of hands, but a child puking and then suddenly feeling better. But this man saw it as something more, and he stood there at the pulpit, tears in his eyes, and said that the devil had made his little girl sick, and that the Lord cast out that evil spirit and made her well. I still remember clear as day my mom saying under her breath, “That ain’t no demon. Ain’t nothing but the terrible twos.”
But they were convinced that maybe they could do the same for my grandfather. That since their healing touch worked so well with their daughter, maybe, just maybe, they could restore sight to the blind.
The first question they asked my grandfather was about how he’d become blind, and how he’d learned to live with it so well. For the first twenty-six years of his life, he was like anyone else: graduated from high school in 1941, then went to the Army and fought in Europe. But it wasn’t the war that took his sight, though he’d seen combat in France and Germany, winning a bronze star along the way.
His blindness came a few years after he’d returned from overseas and had married and had my father. A tumor developed on his brain, and the doctors were able to remove it with surgery and spare his life, but in order to do so, they had to take the part of his brain that gave him sight. The last image Phillip had of my father was that of a two-year-old boy, toddling around the house.
After he had recovered from the surgery, he left his family in southern Illinois for a year to attend a school for the blind in Chicago, and there he learned how to get around rooms, buildings, streets; how to read and write Braille; how to live in the dark.
And he did it well. He walked around our small town without a cane. And even when he was older and his balance wasn’t always the best, he carried a black cane, because he said that without a white cane, many people didn’t even know he was blind, which sounds absurd, but anyone who knew my grandfather found it easy to forget, mostly because of his wood shop.
Everyday he would walk from the house to the old garage and work much of the day building furniture (even now, I have several pieces sitting in my house). The only special tools he used were squares and rulers with Braille numbers; everything else was straight from Sears. He even ran a table saw.
As a little kid, I would sit in the floor of the shop, the sweet smell of sawdust and fresh cut lumber in the air, playing with pieces of scrap that he kept in a pile in the corner. We would be talking and then Grandpa’d say, ‘Hold your ears’, and flip the switch to the saw, then he would push the wood carefully toward the spinning blade with his fingers, never once coming close to injury. I didn’t even consider this as something extraordinary. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to mess with the table saw because I might cut off my fingers, but I never once thought it odd that a blind man should be concerned.
The young faith-healer took furious notes in a spiral bound notebook, much like the ones I used in school. When he felt he had enough history, he asked my grandfather for his testimony. In our church, this was a regular part of worship service, usually on Wednesday nights. People would simply stand up and tell the story of how they been saved. In a small town like ours, there were never many new people moving in, and the congregation was pretty much the same as it had always been, so you learned people’s testimonies fairly quickly, and there was a uniqueness and beauty to the way each person told theirs. There was a rhythm and rhetoric that each individual brought with their oratory. But sitting there at my grandfather’s kitchen table, I realized that I’d never heard him give his. He was a quiet man in church services. There were plenty of others who couldn’t wait for their turn to take the stage, but when he spoke, it was usually striking and profound.
All the churches in our area loved to put on Christmas Plays and Passion Plays, and great effort was put into their productions: I once saw a man carry a life size wooden cross while wearing a crown of thorns made from Bradford Pear branches, the thorns actually drawing blood from his forehead; earlier in the play, he’d been whipped with a cat-of-nine-tails that had been soaked in fake blood so that with every stroke, his back became more and more covered in gore.
The Christmas Plays were much less violent, usually involving children as shepherds and angels, and wise men dressed in bathrobes and towel-turbans, looking more like they’d just had a shower.
In one of these Christmas plays, my Grandpa Phillip played Simeon. That year someone in the church had had a baby in the fall, so there was a real infant to play the Christ child, and I can still picture my grandfather taking the baby from its mother’s arms and holding in front of his dim eyes, saying “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, a light to lighten all people.” And in that moment, you believed it. When you were with my grandfather, it was easy to have faith.
So now, for the first and only time, I heard him tell the story of how he’d come to that faith. Of course he’d been raised in church like most people in that time and place, but his young life wasn’t particularly righteous. The story Philip told of his conversion is a sort of Paul on the road to Damascus in reverse. It was in the mid 60's and he’d been blind for fifteen years at that point. By this time, his marriage had deteriorated and it was known by most that they were only staying together for their kids. They had a daughter eight years younger than my father, and gossip questioned whether she was even my grandfather’s, though I never heard anyone in my family speak of it. My dad had just graduated high school and gone into the service, destined for Vietnam.
During this time, Philip went to a church revival that was being held in the West Frankfort Illinois high school gym. He never said anything about the sermon, just that being in the hot gym, sitting in hard wooden folding chairs with the whisper of the women’s fans as they waved them back and forth, had been a comfort. All that human energy bound up in one place with the talk of faith and hope hovering over their heads. Then while the congregation was singing, he looked up, and as he told it, the darkness over his eyes washed away, and for about ten seconds, he could see the roof of that gym--the hanging lights, protected by wire screens; the iron girders criss-crossed under the curved roof; the giant black furnace, quiet and cold on that July night, suspended over center court--then the edges of vision blurred and darkened, closing in to a single point until there was nothing.
Not long after, he and my dad’s mother divorced. Maybe it was his failed marriage that drove him back to the church, the need for something to give meaning to what seemed a life gone wrong. Maybe he felt his blindness was a sort of punishment for backsliding. I never remember him saying as much, but things change over time; things once believed fall away, replaced by new interpretations. With each year, my grandfather continued to accept his life without sight, and by the time I knew him, any anger or bitterness that may have been there was no longer a burden to him. Saved by the grace of God, he would say.
Who knows what my memory of this day would have been if it would have stopped there. If this young couple would have thanked my grandfather for his time and taken their notebook and went to type up their article to be mimeographed and passed out at the church. Instead, the young healer pulled out a little glass bottle of oil (I’m not sure what kind it was; olive oil wasn’t common in rural southern Illinois back before everyone started dropping dead from heart attacks, so for all I know it could have been Wesson) and he dipped his finger, and said, “Phillip, I’m going to pray over you now,” and he rubbed the oil over my grandfather’s eyelids. Then he and his wife began to pray, standing on each side of the chair grandpa sat in, invoking the power of God to reach down and restore his sight, saying that miracles were real and not something of long ago, that scripture taught that the disciples of Jesus Christ were given his power to heal the sick and cast out demons through the Holy Spirit, and so now they commanded, “Reach down with your mighty hand, oh Lord, and touch the eyes of Phillip.”
And I prayed too. At first I simply watched and thought how strange it all looked, these grown people with their eyes crunched tight, touching the bald head of my grandpa above his patient face. But then I thought, wouldn’t it be great if he really could see again. He could come to my baseball games and see my dad all grown up and watch television instead of just listening. And then I thought, what if the only reason it won’t work is because I’m sitting here watching instead of praying. And so I prayed. I shut my eyes and I prayed at earnestly as I could. God, I said, if anyone deserves a miracle, it’s him.
I don’t know how long it was before they gave up. When I finally opened my eyes and saw them still there with faces strained with belief, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for them and their snake oil religion, and embarrassed of myself for actually buying into it.
They did finally give up, and awkwardly shook hands with my grandfather and told him they’d continue to pray, that God works in mysterious ways, etcetera, and then they left. I sat waiting for my Grandpa to say something. I wondered if he was disappointed. I wondered if he had the same feelings I did, had been skeptical, then hopeful, then ashamed. I don’t know. He never spoke of it again. We just sat there in the quiet of his house, the clock ticking in the other room, and then he stood and put on his ball cap and went out to his wood shop, and I went back to my cartoons, as if we’d just been visited by people selling insurance or energy efficient windows.
James Alan Gill has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry most recently in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, Midwestern Gothic, Night Train, and Atticus Review, and has work forthcoming in the anthology Being: What Makes A Man. He is the Dispatches editor at The Common and currently lives in Eugene, OR.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The biggest surprise was how difficult it was to capture my grandfather. He was such an amazing and unique man, I found myself continually reworking the narrative in order to include as much detail as I could about him without sacrificing the forward movement of the story. I’m still not sure I succeeded.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: My mentor, Kent Haruf (who just recently passed away), wrote this to me once in a letter, and I continually go back to it to remind myself what is at stake when writing, that it isn’t a contest or a ladder of success to be climbed, but instead about something that transcends those things. He said, “It seems to me too that somehow someway you have to trust that if you will write at your deepest most personal level, most idiosyncratic level, at your most engaged level, writing what you yourself truly feel without regard to what anyone else says or has written before, believing in the truth and value of your own experience and feelings, then you have a chance—a chance—of writing something lasting.”
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I have been inspired by so many writers, and continue to be inspired by new writers all the time. But the three that I’ve had the privilege to study with closely and to know as friends, the ones I would consider mentors, are the novelist Kent Haruf, the poet Rodney Jones, and the novelist Whitney Otto.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: This continually changes. I’ve written well in both public and private spaces. Lately, I’ve taken great enjoyment writing rough drafts on my 1950’s portable Underwood typewriter. When I first started writing, in elementary and high school, and then on into undergrad, I wrote on a typewriter not out of nostalgia but due to financial limitation: I longed for a computer. After years of writing on desktops and laptops, I’ve again found the visceral joy of pounding on keys and getting words on the page without concern for spelling or format or visual polish. Going back to correct or rewrite isn’t convenient, so one can only go forward, filling up the page with words and more words. Revision is done by hand, then the entire page typewritten again, then revised again, then typewritten once more before being put into the computer. It forces me to be deliberate and present in my process.
Three Secret Places by Kathleen Blackburn
Followed by Q&A
Now, when I look back on that leaden summer of my father’s passing, I see the month of June as a partitioning of two existences, the before and after, the universe a landscape of abstractions fueled by grief and memory; but in 1998, when I was thirteen, the world was split, simply, between my parents’ white-brick ranch-style home and the ground beneath the branches of an overgrown peach tree in the alley. I discovered the peach tree when I was carrying out the trash one afternoon. Heat refracted off the metal bins. Flies buzzed above the waste and I turned to go back to my parents’ gate, back to the house where inside my father was crying for more Codeine, when I saw the tree branches, like a curtain at the edge of the alley, fill with breeze.
The leaves were brittle and thinned at the tips. Peaches hardened and fell to the ground too early, but to me everything about those branches was sacred and of paradise. I leaned against the fence and crossed my legs. I combed for peaches that hadn’t fallen yet but were ripe enough to eat. Some were light green blushing to yellow. I savored each bite, pressing the flesh to the roof of my mouth with my tongue. My mouth watered.
I went back as often as I could. Maybe three times a week. The shade was cool and dark brown between the neighbors’ fence and the tree limbs, which brushed the dirt floor. I waited for birds and white butterflies. Black ants marched across my sandals. I spied on the neighbors driving by on Raleigh Avenue: the Johnsons’ Chevrolet Suburban, the Laceys’ Toyota 4Runner that smelled like pot, which my dad had told me was a worse kind of cigarette. I felt to see if the hard knots of my breasts felt bigger. They did, and less painful. To preserve my peach tree spot, I planted the leftover seeds. I imagined an enormous peach tree blooming at the edge of the alley on Raleigh Avenue with peaches like gold bells tucked away in the boughs. I pictured it thriving as few trees in West Texas do, flowering like a lavish bouquet in spring, the petals drifting down the streets like snow. And no one would know, I thought, in the years to come, after everything else that will have happened in the world, that I planted the magical peach tree at the edge of Raleigh Avenue.
I can’t speak for other children. I know the desire to imagine other worlds, alternate realities, is common. I obviously don’t know what my life would have been like had I not, at 13, had a father who was dying of fourth-stage colon cancer inside my parents’ house. Perhaps I would have imagined something more fanciful than another peach tree in the alley. Something with centaurs or dragons. Something altogether separate from this life; not of a tree rooted to the earth next to the dumpster in the alley, right by the fence that my father built. Between the posts I could see the empty yellow swings of the swing set he also built. He moved that swing set to three different houses before he died, each time untwisting then twisting back into the earth the twelve-inch ground anchors he used to secure each pole. I peeked through the peach tree limbs and saw the windows of our house. They were dark for how bright it was outside.
I didn’t stay long behind those branches. My mother would have come looking for me and anyone’s discovery would have ruined the whole thing. The ground there was secret and I became secret when there. I disappeared into the peach blossoms. The supine leaves.
Days, or perhaps weeks, after my father died, the neighbors cut the peach tree. I’ve lost count.
In the fall of 2011, when I was twenty-six and had, temporarily, given up drinking so much whiskey, I moved into a small house in Columbus, Ohio, two blocks west of active train tracks. I used to take walks in the evening, as the air dried to winter, and watch the train. It ran north/south, parallel to High Street, Columbus’s main thoroughfare. I’d been told once, by a soft-spoken and kind Midwestern man, that High Street was the spine of the city, and have, in the years since – during which I’ve taken up whiskey again, returned to my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, where I was found stumbling through the parking lot of a lawnmower shop called “Paul’s Parts”, by a policeman who said that the only thing that really breaks in a person is the heart – imagined that cities are lithe, scaly vertebrates sleeping on their bellies.
Beyond the tracks arched I-71, the interstate that takes you north to Cleveland or south toward Indiana and connects beyond to the highways fluttering like ribbons in the hills of Missouri, and bounds west to the red dust at the Oklahoma/Texas border. Someone or some group had fashioned makeshift benches out of quartered hay bales and placed them alongside the tracks. I happened upon them in a clearing beside the train when, one evening, I decided to walk toward the tracks. I imagined that we were all part of some secret train-watching society. But I never saw anyone else at the tracks. The smell of hay mixed with the acrid smell of steel. Blackbirds gathered on the telephone wires while I waited and the sky turned the color of smoke.
The train came through every day, or that’s how I remember it. I’ve been gone now for over two years. The train reminded me of the day’s passing, like a grandfather clock does the hour.
Maybe I shouldn’t refer to the time since I’ve lived by the train in years, but in days: it’s been eight hundred and twelve days since I sat on the hay bale benches and waited for the train in Columbus, Ohio.
Recently, I’ve started seeing a man named Michael from Utah County, Utah, who tells me about the Wasatch Mountains. He says that it’s not uncommon for a person of Utah County to refer to a particular mountain as “my mountain.” He tells me that often you’ll hear folks ask, “What do you think of our mountains?” But it wasn’t until Michael took me to Utah County that I realized that Provo, Orem, and Pleasant Grove are nested in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, like miracles of the spring melt. That, unlike the Flatirons in Denver, which are distant vistas in comparison, these mountains enforce their presence, like city borders. Like the walls of a river. A local woman told me that she knew each ridge, every idiosyncratic peak of the mountains in her hometown. Like creases in a face. To me, the mountainscape blended together in a fortissimo of crests and furrows against a sky of changing blues. Only time and awareness would reveal each one and lead to the kind of intimacy and longing that I heard once in Michael’s brother’s voice when we were back in Texas and he asked Michael, “Do you miss the mountains?”
The leap from a train in Columbus, Ohio, to the Wasatch Mountains is an ambitious one, and there is maybe nothing in common between them but this: they impose. They connect you to your surroundings. They remind you that you are alive.
In other words, when someone from Utah County tells me how much he loves his mountain, I want to say that I miss my train.
Sometimes, I waited an hour in a calm so quiet I could hear the clip of a car door echo throughout the streets. I heard the currents in the telephone wires. Then the train’s light and horn blared at the same time. The air that had settled over the tracks split like waves and blew tree branches back. Birds flew. The ground didn’t just vibrate; it pulsated in time with the spaces between the train cars, which flashed a slideshow of the interstate sparkling with headlights. It felt like the city might get up and crawl. The train was an electric shock. Further south, where the city traffic intersected, a bell rang. It kept ringing long after the train disappeared.
I haven’t found my third secret place yet.
When I was twenty-two, I used to climb onto the roof of my parents’ house at night and smoke Parliament Super Slims. The roof was shallow. The shingles glittered silver and stars were there as long as you could look. But I liked to tell my friends about it. Once, I took Emerson Stone up there after a long night of karaoke and we talked wise until the street-cleaning truck brushed Raleigh Avenue and the taste of hose water filled the air. I’d light cigarettes, rest my neck on the peak of the roof, and think about stars getting brighter as they age. I felt high and exposed on that roof, not hidden.
I found a yellow farmhouse six miles past the Lubbock city limits when I was twenty-seven. It sat like the center of a radar surrounded by thirty-two hundred acres of cotton land. For one year I lived there and learned to watch light. I studied the shadows of small gray rocks and lumbering beetles on a dirt road. Since moving back into the city, I miss hearing the register between a moth in the closet and trucks raging down the caliche. On the shelf in my kitchen sits a vase of cotton bowls gathered from the edge of the field behind the farmhouse where I used to wait for jackrabbits.
Though the farmhouse was remote and quiet, and I felt well-hidden enough to begin controlling again only those things I could – what I ate for breakfast, the number of squares I traced on a sketchpad, the time of night I turned off the lights and vanished into the buzz of insects at the screen – the farmhouse, like my mother’s roof, and many other places in my life, was a place I looked for. Secret places, like secrets themselves, or grief, or joy, can’t be sought and found. They happen. They form without beckoning and become places of belonging.
Still, I’m alert. I thought that maybe I’d discovered a third place the other day. I was walking my dog Jonah in our neighborhood of houses built in the 1950s. There were other people on foot, on bike. Other dogs tempting Jonah with their playful trots, their plumed tails. I take a different route every time, zigzagging through the neighborhood, trying to make a labyrinth of a grid, to surprise myself. We turned the corner on a street called Gary and a hush fell. Enormous oaks arched from both sides of the street and formed a canopy over us. To the east, a house, shrouded in ivy, sat vacant, a “For Sale” sign stationary in the yard. The house was blue with a red brick patio; it sagged into the ground like some old women do into their hips. The fence was in disrepair and peeled back like leaves. Grass glistened on the other side. An empty can rattled down the street.
It wasn’t my place. But the trees curved and quieted the street like a cathedral. The house was empty and waiting. I stood there a long time with Jonah. It wasn’t my place but it was close.
I was thirteen when the peach tree branches appeared, twenty-six when I stumbled into the train-watching spot. Perhaps there will be thirteen years between the second and the third place; perhaps I will be thirty-nine, the age my father was when he passed. Perhaps I have nine years more to wait.
Kathleen Dorothy Blackburn was born in 1984 on a U.S. Air Force base in Agana, Guam, and raised in Lubbock, Texas. After graduating from Texas Tech University, Kathleen earned her MFA from the Ohio State University. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Diagram, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Journal, The Pinch, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her essay “Where Now Is” was listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays of 2013.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The ending. I wrote it early, put it first. Then I moved it to the middle, before I realized it was the end.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Dennis Covington told me once to write like a house on fire. Erin McGraw said to get out of my own way. Both suggestions are similar, at least to me: I had no idea what they meant when I heard them. I’ve only recently started to figure them out. It has something to do with trusting the strangeness of my writing brain over anything else.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: Kim Barnes, Claudia Emerson, Eula Biss
A: I grew up in a big, loud family, and learned early how to tune every child’s howl, dog whimper, and sound in between, out. So, anywhere: that’s the short answer. But I’m also thinking about when I was working on my thesis for graduate school, and I moved into back into my mom’s place for three months. I stayed in my sister’s bedroom, and she was kind enough to give me some space in her closet, and two drawers in her dresser. Besides that section in the closet and those two drawers, no space in the house belonged to me; my privacy was completely wiped out. I’d go to a coffee shop, the library, a park. I could write in any of those places, and I craved my time writing. Because I’d become a kind of nomad in my life, I discovered my only privacy, my only space, was in the writing itself. That’s still true. The writing is the space.
Interview with Sergio Troncoso by Brandon D. Shuler
The Nature of Truth
Houston: Arte Publico Press, 2014
Sergio Troncoso is the brightest border writer of his generation without condition. He has edited anthologies, written novels, published book-length personal essay collections, and has a collection of short stories: His co-edited anthology with Sarah Cortez, Our Lost Border: Essays on Life amid the Narco-Violence (Arte Publico Press, 2013) most recently won both the Southwest Book Award and the International Latino Book Award; The Last Tortilla and Other Stories (University of Arizona Press, 1999) won the Premio Aztlan Literary Award and the Southwest Book Award; Crossing Borders: Personal Essays (Arte Publico Press, 2011); and From this Wicked Patch of Dust (University of Arizona Press, 2011).
Troncoso was born and raised by his Mexican-immigrant parents in Yselta, a small colonia outside of El Paso, Texas. Most of his works explore the challenges of growing up, living, and raising a family on the Border. But, Troncoso does so with hope, beauty, pride, and a nuanced approach that many Border writers do not explore.
Troncoso is a graduate of Harvard College, and he studied international relations and philosophy at Yale, where he earned a Fulbright to study in Mexico. He was recently inducted into the Hispanic Scholarship Fund’s Alumni Hall of Fame and the Texas Institute of Letters. The City of El Paso honored him by naming the Public Library Yselta Branch after him. He is currently an instructor at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York and a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Conference in New Haven, Connecticut.
Brandon D. Shuler: Let’s discuss your most recent works, or, at least, your most recently released one, The Nature of Truth by Arte Publico Press. This was your first novel, and though acclaimed at the time, in light of your other works, it appears to address the masterpieces of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain. But where their protagonists run away from their identities and racial markers, your protagonist embraces his dual racial identities, both the positive and negative of them, while banishing the racial ideals Helmut Sanchez’s nemesis tries to bury and escape. This is all done with a Nietzschean overlay of the Superhuman. Can you explain how these works and authors inspired a young Sergio Troncoso and The Nature of Truth?
Sergio Troncoso: The most important influences on The Nature of Truth were Nietzsche, Heidegger and Dostoyevsky, truth be told. I have always loved philosophy in literature, or works in which a riveting story is also an exploration of ideas. Ideas do matter, and people act on ideas and morality (or at least their version of it). People also take ‘The Truth’ seriously, or at least some of us do. I had read Heidegger as a graduate student at Yale, and Being and Time was fascinating to me, particularly the concept of Being-towards-death: here Heidegger argues that to lead the true philosophical life one must always have one’s death at the forefront of the mind, to be philosophically. That is, to act so that your actions reach toward the most important part of what it is to be a human being, and for Heidegger that meant the mind and its concerns with philosophy. Friendships shouldn’t matter, emotions shouldn’t matter, and everyday concerns are relegated to a secondary status in Being-towards-death. This is a simplistic summary of Heidegger’s complex arguments, and I have left much out. As for Nietzsche, I believed he was an excellent writer not to mention a path-breaking philosopher. Nietzsche dug into himself to understand human beings in a way that I found exciting and exacting and also trustworthy. He would be relentless in his pursuit of understanding himself, and understanding the human being, and he gained a sense of power and vulnerability in this self-pursuit. At least that’s what I remember I found in Nietzsche.
As for Dostoyevsky, he was my favorite writer. Crime and Punishment was the kind of novel I loved, about serious issues of morality, exploring nihilism and truth, and personal responsibility, and a story that was a comment on a certain time and place. I thought Dostoevsky should have written a novel in which the crime was acted upon for the sake of the crime, and not instrumentally. What I mean is that if you are truly questioning right and wrong, then you should be focused on writing about someone committing a wrong for the sake of that wrong and believing it was right. When Raskolnikov kills the old woman, he is doing it for the money, not because he wants her dead. Not because in Raskolnikov’s mind the old woman deserves to die. Also, I thought the end of Crime and Punishment was somewhat of a cop-out, this sense that Raskolnikov discovers Christianity and saves his soul (with the help of Sonya). Why couldn’t someone believing he does something right (although society and most others think his act is wrong) save himself after he commits the deed? That kind of novel would be even more revolutionary, in a way. That kind of novel would question morality at its core.
Amid these literary influences, I had been at Harvard and Yale, places where intellectual combat is the norm, places where sometimes very intelligent people act immorally. I was always shocked by the intellectual violence I witnessed at many Ivy League seminars, how people would just eviscerate each other with words, in pursuit of ‘The Truth,’ and how often they would lose themselves in these arguments. They would lose their humanity, in my opinion. Not everyone did, but so many bought into that culture of win-at-all-costs, at least from an intellectual point of view. I also did not feel what was decided or chosen to be ‘The Truth’ in these seminars was anything but well-argued perspectives, and these well-argued perspectives could be different, even incompatible, or contradictory. Perhaps I was a poor philosopher in some respects, and I mean poor as in ‘I did not understand every argument.’ But I did not want to lose myself as a philosopher, and lose my heritage, and lose my humanity. I wanted to write a novel about someone wrestling with these issues of morality and identity, someone picking and choosing where he goes and who he is, a moral actor stumbling badly as he is consumed by the pursuit of ‘The Truth,’ and then finding himself with the help of friends. And finally saving himself.
I knew about Roth’s The Human Stain and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and their questions of identity are paramount in The Nature of Truth. But these novels were not my major influences. I think you are right that these racial ideals were something I was questioning deeply in The Nature of Truth, and certainly the racial ideals of the character Werner Hopfgartner. But I think my point was that abstraction—and that abstraction often pursued at great universities, that pursuit of an abstract Truth that is at the heart of the Enlightenment—is a type of categorization that is at the root of racism. Helmut empathizes with Anja and others who are not quite like him, because his mixed identity (mestizo, so to speak) bestows upon him that opening to consider the person in front of him, rather than to assume he or she is ‘that category’ or ‘this category.’ He must make himself and who he is, rather than assume he is such-and-such a person. That making-of-self is fundamentally Aristotelean, in a way, giving importance to the senses and emotions, which also balances with the mind.
BDS: The Nature of Truth and obviously your border works in From This Wicked Patch of Dust, Crossing Borders, and The Last Tortilla & Other Stories address the idea of border, but with little respect for borders, either real or conceived. In your works, it seems all discussion is meant to recognize the border, while in a sense erasing them. I see this theme or idea forming in The Nature of Truth. For you, Ysleta, and the America and Mexico border, what is it, outside of the obvious splitting of families and lands and ideologies, that makes the ideals of gender, racial, geopolitical, and familial borders such fertile ground for authors.
ST: I think you are right: in my work, I want to explore what it has meant to live on the border, not quite belonging here nor there. So I do recognize the border, I am a child of the U.S.-Mexico border, but that also meant I had to choose who I would be. This identity for me was not pre-ordained, but rather a question from the beginning. So yes, I set out to recognize the border and erase it at the same time in the sense that I was picking and choosing who I was. I had to dig deeply to find out what was the best way to be, and that meant I could not have some sort of pre-conceived status or identity. Identity is the eternal question, and not an answer, I think. You are right that this is a central question in The Nature of Truth, the philosophical underpinnings, so to speak, of the work that would come later. Truth is about declaring an identity, to act, to find comfort in who you are, to understand an issue. But at the same time that those ‘Truth declarations’ have value they also restrict you. Living on the border you understood intimately these restrictions, beyond living between two languages or two cultures, beyond racial or gender identities. Someone like Aristotle would say that you don’t understand the Truth unless you practice it, that to comprehend it you have to live it: Truth is not something comprehended abstractly, but intimately imbedded in its practice, and work.
So that, for me, is why the border is such a fertile ground for writers. If you are self-aware enough you will understand, as a border dweller, that you are an issue, you are a work-in-progress, you must pick and choose who you are, and not assume an identity. You could say you are in play as a person, but not everybody appreciates that type of permanent uncertainty. Some people run away from it, rather than try to achieve a balance between knowing who you are and also challenging yourself to search for who you can be: that stretches identity to a sense of a work-in-progress, to artwork that finds who you are as well as challenges who you are.
BDS: Let’s shift gears from your works’ themes for a second. You were recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters for your contributions to literature. When one studies your works, you have a couple of novels, collections of short stories, and personal essays. Most often, writers simply try to perfect one form while struggling to find them. What is your advice to an author looking at all three forms? How do you slide back and forth amongst each form with such nuance and success? Do you have a preferred form? And with your prolificness, I have to ask, how do you balance your writing time between each form, is there a mindset you have to find to write in a particular form for the day? It appears even your writing form attempts to bend and shrug off borders.
ST: I am an explorer at heart, and want to know, want to try something new. I will always take a different path to the same destination just so that I can see something new, and awaken my senses. I love being curious, but I think it takes effort to be curious, to prep yourself for discovery, particularly as you get older. You have to be self-aware enough to know that this, whatever ‘this’ is, will open your eyes, will cause you to see the world differently, will encourage you to challenge your assumptions. That’s why I skip around from novels to essays to stories.
I don’t have a preferred form. But I work on multiple projects at once, and focus on whatever is working on the page. I do have a sense of what is different for each form. Stories are more akin to poetry, to a tight literary space in which you can only focus on a few characters, or even just one character, and a moment in time and why that moment is meaningful. Linked stories get closer to the novel in a way, and a collection of stories should have a certain momentum that builds story to story. I reserve my novels for complex questions and characters, where the answers are the experience of the characters on the page. That experience through time becomes the novel, in my mind. Essays are about particular moments in my life, sometimes trivial moments, in which I am trying to make sense of something that happened, to give it meaning. Essays are also about exploring a topic philosophically, so to speak, to dig deeper into something that could also be apprehended by the reader. I like to stay busy, and I have discovered the more I do the more I can do. It’s a self-fulfilling process. I don’t try to analyze it too much, but focus on the work at hand. I’m not a machine, and I do get tired, but I also like to get tired, so tired that I am often exhausted. Is that kind of sick? I love what I do.
BDS: Your writings definitely are for the thinking reader. You tackle big themes with subtlety and nuance with an academic’s approach. Your writing is obviously also informed by post-modern theory and, I think, I read some Lukacs' The Theory of the Novel in your work, but your writing does not necessarily privilege Derrida’s différance nor does your writing suffer from the abstraction that seems to pervade the modern novel. You’re straightforward, but your themes delve deep. How do you balance an academic’s approach with writing for a popular audience? And which comes first, the concept your work explores or the characters and their plight? I guess I am asking, what is your process?
ST: I wish I could tell you I have a neat formula for the balancing act of philosophy in literature, but I don’t. I simply try different stories, and sometimes a few work, and others don’t. I think I believe in writing simply, and I have even been criticized for it. But what I think the more careful reader of my work will notice—and you certainly are one of those readers!—that I am digging into a complex series of questions through straightforward writing. That’s the teacher and explorer in me: I want to tell the reader that we can together explore an issue, we can understand it along the way in as direct a way as possible, and then we can reach an understanding, an experience, that enlightens both of us. Writing simply does not mean you are writing about simple questions. Quite the contrary. But many modern readers may not appreciate the difficulty of the questions, and may just focus on the simple language and judge it superficially.
My process is that I often come across a question that baffles me, and I want to explore it. Sometimes the question pops in my mind. Sometimes the question pops in my mind after I witness something in front of me, a potential character, and then I start thinking about how to write a story about this question/character. So it could be abstract, or it could be concrete, but then I start going back and forth until I have something that I think readers will appreciate. I think about my stories for weeks, even months, before I write anything down.
BDS: You are defined as a Border writer, but a vast part of the border corpus suffers from a sense of being beaten down, underprivileged or lacking a specific identity. Your writing transcends this and shines with a message of hope, perseverance, and exudes pride and equality. Border writers Ben Saenz, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Carmen Tafolla, and Dagoberto Gilb all are on the cusp of being big names, but outside of literary circles and border studies, they have not gained the notoriety that their writing deserves, but again their writing lacks the hope yours does. I am seeing the same thing occurring with young up and coming Border writers, with the exception of Oscar Casares and Domingo Martinez. What is the defining hope for Border writing and what advice would you give to a young writer from Ysleta, Mission, or some small colonia in the Southwest that wants to become a writer?
ST: All of those writers mentioned above, I admire, for one reason or another. I think there is a large part of our border community that is poor, and neglected, and abused, by the wider world. Believe me, I have even had the door slammed in my face. So I understand and appreciate this hardship and racism portrayed in part of our literature. I think it should be. But I don’t believe we should stop there, or even dwell primarily there. If there is any ‘hope’ in my work, as you describe it, what differentiates me from many of these writers is that I will not be defined by the arrows flung at my heart, I will not be beaten down even when I am beaten down, and I will fight back to determine who I want to be, even if it upsets one community or another. Would you call that Will? I guess I would. That Will to survive, that Will taught to me by my abuelita, that hunger to know and not be defeated or determined by obstacles. That fierce determination to rise, at any cost, even at the cost of my life, at the cost of breaking taboos or upsetting the well-to-do or the politically correct. That Will is about character, and as you know Aristotle is about character. Character is about working to become a good human being, and it’s not a stasis, but an anti-stasis. When you push yourself that way, when you become acutely self-aware of who you were, who you are, and who you could be, then, well, you will never suffer fools from any camp, and you will learn to appreciate those who are fighting just as you are, and want nothing more than the opportunity to determine themselves.
Elise Juska's The Blessings, reviewed by Curtis Smith
New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014
We live as individuals. Our struggles, our pains—they are ultimately and uniquely our own. Yet we are also parts of greater wholes—our workplaces and communities. Our families. For many, the closest relationships are the ones we share with our families—these are the ties that shape us, that forge our deepest currents and give us—for better or for worse—our greatest sense of self. As we grow, we must define ourselves, both within and without our families. In our blood, we carry echoes of the past and the hint of the future. In our breath, we carry the present and our responsibilities to be the people we were raised to be. The Blessings, Elise Juska’s touching and intelligent new novel, offers a look at a modern family, its good times and bad; its complexities, its resiliency, and its love.
I’ve long been an admirer of Juska’s writing—and in The Blessings, her talents shine brighter than ever. Juska’s work carries an understated beauty, her images crisp and precise. She is observant, calm, and her sentences flow with the cadence of music. Consider this early description of a family gathering:
The aunts are in motion, cutting the boys generous slabs and beaming as they head back to the living room, mouths full, sucking frosting off their thumbs—Stephen thick and slope-shouldered, Joey with his bristly crew cut and confident swagger, Alex hunched and bony—where they are absorbed into the crowd of men gathered around the TV. Abby can just hear her roommates: You mean the women in one room, men in the other? This has never struck Abby as strange before; it’s never struck her at all. In ten years, things will be different. People will have died or divorced; lines will have been blurred. But for now the men are in one room, the women in the other, and this demarcation feels comforting, familiar.
Juska places us in the midst of this swirl. We hear the family’s voices, feel the jostle of so many bodies as they navigate tiny rooms. Then she takes us deeper, beneath the surface, and the book’s complex heart waits in the presentation of characters honest and real. Later in the same scene, Abby, who’s home from college on Christmas break, sinks into herself as she observes her gathered family: “Abby feels loneliness now, pooling up inside her even as she sits among the people she’s known all her life. It’s the beginning of what will become and unsolvable ache. When she’s away, she’ll miss her family; when she’s with her family, she’ll miss herself.” Who among us hasn’t felt this tug, this place that feels so odd because we are lost among those we love most? Juska’s talents shine in moments like this, the revealing of unexpressed emotions, the confessions characters in silent turmoil. We not only see her characters; we feel them.
The Blessings is divided into eleven chapters, each told from from the point of view of a different family member. We see this family through lenses colored by generation and gender, by illness and loss and attempts at connection. Years pass—not with a jolt but with an ease that makes us feel as if we were aging along with the characters. We witness major life events—while others are observed in the rearview mirror, leaving us to see how these people cope with the return to normal that follows tragedy. Lives are shaken by the things we fear most—the late night phone call, the positive test result. Some prayers are answered, others not. We are left with a collage of sorts, nearly a dozen different portraits that provide reflections of both their narrators and of the Blessings. These collected takes on this family provide a core, a center that’s rich in detail and rendered in a depth made possible by the book’s shifting perspectives.
Families, like their individual members, possess public and private faces. Love runs deep in the Blessing family—but it’s a love that’s most often expressed in strength, in an allegiance to duty and responsibility. They offer their best to each other, yet each member harbors private fears. Here is one of the book’s most satisfying motifs—the manner in which we often look at one another, even those closest to us, yet we are powerless to truly recognize their struggles; how we hide our insecurities and secrets, either unwilling or unable to share them with those we love the most. It’s this denial of self while being present for others that give Juska’s characters their quiet nobility. Here’s the family’s matriarch reflecting on the death of one of her sons:
The nurse arrived with morphine and for the next six hours, Ann and Margie and Patrick and Lauren sat around him, encircled him, hands on him. Watching him destroyed Helen, broke her forever. But in the moment she withstood it, wanting his final image of her to be of comfort, determined to be strong for her son.
Grace—the word often came to mind when I read this book. There is grace in strength, grace in sacrifice, grace in understanding that self-realization often lies, in part, in sacrifice of the self. The Blessings takes us deep inside an ordinary family—we witness faith and struggle, success and failure. We hear the stories of individuals—and by the book’s end, we realize these individual voices are actually part of a chorus that sings a greater song, a song of family and the ties that bind like no other.
Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned Life; Sound and Noise; and Truth or Something Like It. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing List of The Best American Spiritual Writing.
Okla Elliott's The Cartographer's Ink, reviewed by John Guzlowski
The Cartographer’s Ink
New York: NYQ Books, 2014
In his book of poems The Cartographer’s Ink Okla Elliott gives you what all the great artists always give you: the world.
I remember the first time I saw Orson Welles’s motion picture of Kafka’s The Trial. I stepped out of the theater after seeing the film, and I stepped into the film. The streets of Chicago were suddenly the maze-like, claustrophobic, black and white streets of Welles’s vision of Kafka’s imagination, populated by the lost and the losing and the threatening people of Kafka’s mind. This happened because Welles had given me in his film the world in a way I had never seen it. It was his world, and I was invited for a time to live in; and I did, and it was wonderful (and frightening) and taught me something about what my world sometimes is.
This is what Okla Elliott does.
He gives us his world—and lets us live in it for a while.
And what’s this world like?
It’s a world where a writer can try to use everything he’s read and experienced to make sense of a world.
I sometimes think that Okla Elliott is a throwback to the great existentialist writers of the 50s and 60s: Bellow, Mailer, Roth, and Oates. Like them, Elliott has turned to the great world shapers to understand what it is we’re doing here. He’s read Gilgamesh and Isaac Newton and Lenin and Kierkegaard and Heidegger and Buddha and Solzhenitsyn and Montaigne and all of the others who have shaped the world for Okla Elliott and for all of us finally.
Elliott’s poems are always in dialogue with the words and deeds of these great world shapers. And perhaps this is his great strength as a thinker and writer, this sense of dialogue. He takes what he has read and presses it against what he has lived, and then he wonders about how the words and understanding of the others and his words and understanding come together or don’t.
The central poem for me is Okla Elliott’s prose poem “Helpless.” It begins with what amounts to a linguistics lesson about the development of the Korean Hangul alphabet in the 15th century. He tells about Sejong the Great, the difficulty of adapting Chinese script for the masses, and the creation of something called the “Songs of Flying dragons” in a new Korean alphabet. All this erudition that Elliott wants to convey to you and me, his readers, however, suddenly runs up against the problems faced by the woman he wants to tell all of this to in the poem.
He says in the poem, “This is what I want to tell my friend when she says she has miscarried.”
At that point begins the deluge of real world problems that threatens to drown Elliott’s:
But her body is still preparing for a birth, her stomach swelling with useless uterine fluids. “And I have these strange allergies,” she says, “to bananas—and I fucking love bananas—and grass oils and green peppers.” There’s nothing to say and I know there’s nothing to say and she knows there’s nothing to say. But I tell her how the Hangul alphabet was invented and that there used to be politicians who wrote poems to teach their people the joys of literature. She cries and leans on me, and I don’t let myself pull away when the helpless swell of her stomach presses against me.
All of the interesting and transformative things to learn in the world are here, and they exist alongside a real human grief, but it’s a grief that is not overwhelming to him, he doesn’t “let myself pull away.” There’s something so conscious here, something so real about the human condition. Elliott captures our different identities, our different understandings of the world as they exist in dialogue with each other in such a way as to suggest a human complexity that finally only great writers give us. Elliott knows there is nothing to say, but he says it any way. Simultaneously, he’s pulled to what he has learned from history and philosophy, and he’s pulled toward this woman, and he’s conscious of that pull and conscious of trying to help even though he knows it’s hopeless.
In poem after poem, Elliott is testing what he has learned of the world from others with what he has learned of the world through his own experiences. And the former never overwhelms the latter, and the latter never overwhelms the former. It’s a dialogue that finally brings us to a greater knowledge of the great world shapers and a greater knowledge of Okla Elliott and ourselves.
As he experiences and re-creates the essential dialogue between what he has learned from others and what he has learned from himself, he describes a journey into the multiplicity of the self that is astonishing. We see this in all of the autobiographical poems in this book. Elliott tells us of his experiences as a young boy tracking a three-footed rabbit, interacting with his father and schizophrenic mother, his experiences as a young man listening to his former lover talk about her father’s cancer over the phone, his experiences as a student who finds himself in Germany and Russia and Korea. We assume all of these selves are Elliott, but he makes no obvious effort to link them in the narrative the poems construct. As a result, they participate in the greater dialogue that informs the book, world shapers and selves in an endless dialogic dance that spins the reader and spins the reader and spins the reader.
Elliott truly captures this in the poem “Pointless Movement.” Toward the end of the poem, he writes:
Our patterned selves, playing at being ourselves,
non-coextensive concepts—me and I, you and you.
The canopy of our consciousness streaked by jet-streams, often.
I checked my watch,
but the time kept changing.
Amorous spirits, we pursued our selves,
but sometimes we got lost, forgot us, became scattered puzzle pieces.
We stopped to populate our histories and futures,
suturing each to each, fertile with bizarre need.
As the reference to “scattered puzzle pieces” suggests in this poem, however, the dialogue, the attempt to make sense of our lives and the words and wills of others, is finally a playful act that finally may or may not be playful.
That is Elliott’s secret in this finely crafted and brilliant book. Like all the great poets, he tells us what we have to know in language that we have to read. They draw us in as Okla Elliott does, and they tell us they have some important secret, and we look and we realize that they are also saying they can’t tell us what this secret is.
Oka Elliott is an Illinois Distinguished Fellow at the University of Illinois where he works in the fields of comparative literature and trauma studies. He also holds an MFA from Ohio State University. His nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, Harvard Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, among others. He is the author of the fiction collection From the Crooked Timber. His novel, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-authored with Raul Clement), is forthcoming in early 2015 from Dark House Press.
John Guzlowski is published in The Ontario Review, Atlanta Review, Exquisite Corpse and other journals. His poems about his Polish parents’ experiences in Nazi concentration camps appear in his book Lightning and Ashes. Regarding the Polish edition of these poems, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said the poems are “astonishing.” Guzlowski blogs about his parents and their experiences at http://lightning-and-ashes.blogspot.com/
Dominique Manotti's Escape, reviewed by Michelle Newby
London: Arcadia Books, 2014
Escape by Dominique Manotti is part political treatise, part love story, part sly send-up of cowardly corporate cynicism, and part cultural commentary on the isolation of the individual, masquerading as a crime thriller. The story is borne of the “Republic of Salò” where Mussolini attempted to establish the Republican Fascist Party as his army was driven from Rome. These politics have poisoned the region since 1943. Manotti has written: “To understand Italy, one has to remember the immense and profound support for Mussolini and the proximity of the War to the events in this book. Fascism had only been defeated for twenty-five years in 1968, leaving numerous live fascist cells behind” (159).
Escape begins with the prison break of Carlo Fedeli, a political prisoner and charismatic former leader of the Red Brigades, and his cellmate Filippo, an uneducated hood from the streets of Rome. Filippo’s naïve fantasies of two comrades-against-the-world are dashed when Carlo is met by a getaway car and refuses to take Filippo with him. Instead Carlo hands him a pack with a change of clothes, a couple of sandwiches, a little money, and a name: Lisa Biaggi, Carlo’s girlfriend and a political refugee living in Paris.
A few weeks later Lisa buys an Italian newspaper to learn that Carlo has been killed by the police in an attempted bank robbery. Convinced that Carlo was set up and assassinated, Lisa is suspicious of Filippo when he shows up at her door. Filippo is inspired by the newspaper accounts of Carlo’s death and spends his nights writing. Before long he has a manuscript. When that manuscript is published as Escape, the story of two best friends who break out of prison and go on to rob a bank that results in the death of one and the flight of the other to France, Filippo becomes a sensation. Filippo coyly maintains that yes, he knew Carlo, but everything after the prison break is simply a novel. As the publicist with Filippo’s new publishing house tells him:
Let me be clear. If you’re possibly a cop-killer, that makes you an attractive young hoodlum. But if you are a declared cop-killer and proud of it, then you become a criminal no one wants to be associated with. It’s a delicate balance. We have to maintain the ambiguity without putting you directly in danger. “It’s a novel, talk to my lawyer.” (79)
Filippo’s novel turns out to be critically-acclaimed and a popular hit. Lisa cannot abide Carlo being remembered as a petty criminal and launches an amateur investigation of her own, thereby inadvertently alerting the Italian government. It appears that the Italians will demand Filippo’s arrest and extradition—if he lives that long.
“Years of Lead” is the moniker given to a period of political strife and violence in Italy in reaction to the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan that killed seventeen and wounded ninety. It was followed by terrorism that extended well into the 1980s. when a bomb exploded on a Florence-Bologna train line. It wasn’t until 2014 that secret files on these events were declassified and confirmed the involvement of Ordine Nuovo and the Armed Revolutionary Nucleo, fascist organizations whose aims were to destroy the Left and cause extreme fear in the population. Translator Amanda Hopkinson writes in the afterword to Escape: “Revealed are the lengths to which the state will go to create a ‘strategy of tension’ to sow disorder, resulting in popular demand for imposed order. … Is Escape, written two years before these disclosures, a case of fiction anticipating political disclosure of historical fact?” (160)
Dominique Manotti was born in Paris in 1942. A former trade unionist and political militant, she was a professor of nineteenth-century economic history at the University of Vincennes. She is the author of ten novels addressing the intersection of crime and politics, including Dead Horsemeat (short-listed for the Duncan Lawrie International Dagger Award) and Lorraine Connection (winner of the International Dagger Award and nominated for the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards).
Michelle Newby is a writer, reviewer and blogger at www.texasbooklover.com. Her work has previously appeared in Monkeybicycle, an imprint of Dzanc Books. She is at work on a collection of short fiction.
Elizabeth Kadetsky's The Poison that Purifies You, reviewed by Clifford Garstang
The Poison that Purifies You
C&R Press, 2014
The stories that make up Elizabeth Kadetsky’s excellent debut collection are diverse, but they also have commonalities. They are set all over the world—New York City, Portland, India, Guatemala—and in a variety of environments—the Manhattan bike messenger world, an Indian antique shop, a cross-country road trip—but their protagonists all share a longing to connect. Sometimes this longing is for a child, but other times it is for a romantic or spiritual relationship. The stories, which revolve around calamities large and small, also share a quiet darkness.
In the collection’s opening story, “An Incident at the Plaza,” Maria has maternal longings that begin when she sees a frog try to escape its watery confinement at a New York City Chinatown seafood shop, only to be caught and returned to captivity. “From that instant forward she felt a need become palpable. She needed a child, needed one like a lost child at a fair needed a mother.” She proceeds to get pregnant, deceiving her current lover, thinking a baby is what she’s longing for. When her need persists and she grows increasingly unhinged, she sets her sights on a frolicking toddler in the park.
A woman’s longing for a child arises in the next story, too. “Loup Garou” is about a couple from Portland, Morey and Cecile, who begin a cross-country drive. Because of childhood cancer, Morey can’t or won’t have children. On the road, Cecile, who thinks she might want to be a writer, begins to compose a short story in her head “about a couple who set off on vacation hoping to resolve a disagreement about whether to have a child.” In her story, overcoming her husband’s objections, the wife expresses a willingness to adopt, but, instead, a child appears “miraculously” by the side of the road. Morey dismisses her story idea as lacking the necessary heroic elements, and the reader senses that their relationship is doomed, although this story, like most in the collection, concludes with a tantalizing non-resolution.
Several of the stories take place in India, including the title story, which earned a Pushcart Prize for Kadetsky. In “The Poison that Purifies You,” a young American has come to India to escape the “sterile . . . painted landscape” of California. Jack actually wants to become part of the continent: “He will let India deep inside him. The squalor of India will become a part of him, so much so that it has lost the power to make him feel dirty.” Although the dirt has no power over him, he is intrigued when a young Indian man, Rohit, informs him that microbes from the air fall into a water bottle, no matter how briefly the cap is removed. Jack, who is gay, finds Rohit attractive, and so accepts his invitation to visit his village. The two men do seem to connect and have much to discuss, but Rohit is not what he seems, and Jack finds himself in an awkward and perilous situation.
One of my favorite stories in the collection, “The Indian Friend,” is also set in India. A group of expatriate friends gathers and shares outrageous stories about what they’ve seen in India, along with negative comments about the locals. “Indians’ll eat their own,” says one of the worst offenders, Brian. Marcus is uncomfortable with these stories because of the presence of Rajesh, his Indian friend who has brought the group to an excellent food stall in Old Delhi. “Marcus wished his friends would be more polite to Rajesh, who after all had taken an afternoon off work to bring them here.” But Rajesh gets the last laugh when he tells the group a story about a foreigner and a monkey that embarrasses pompous Brian.
And two very different stories are set against the backdrop of an earthquake—one in Guatemala and one in New York City. In “It Was Only Clay” Joseph arrives in Guatemala to scavenge for objects that may have emerged from the ground following a recent earthquake. Upon arrival, he stops taking his anti-depressant medication, something he hasn’t done for ten years. Between his mood swings and the danger of his looting valuable artifacts, Joseph finds himself in some danger—real or imagined. “What We Saw” takes place in the aftermath of a recent East Coast quake that rattled New York City and seems to have called forth bugs, mice, discarded furniture, and crazy neighbors. The narrator also puzzles over the apparent disappearance of her twin sister, Melody, while coping with this new plague.
The overall effect of these gloomy, open-ended stories is to suggest that longing is a perpetual element of the human condition. Which is not to say that happiness is out of reach. But, like Jack in the collection’s title story, we gain power over our disappointments by ingesting them and making them part of us. Despite the darkness, The Poison that Purifies You is a fine book that serious readers will find deeply satisfying.
Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of a memoir, First There Is a Mountain, and a novella, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World.
Clifford Garstang is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine.
Lindsay Curren is a 1992 graduate of the School of Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University. She's been creating broadside posters since age 16 both by hand and in computer-generated graphic design. Her current projects include 31 Days of Urban Agriculture—31 broadsides on food and cities—and handcut linoleum block letterpress cards/posters. She also works in textiles, and is a freelance and ghost writer focused mainly on lower carbon-footprint living (conservation and DIY lifestyles). She lives in Staunton Virginia with her husband Erik and their two teenaged daughters. See more of her work at lindsaycurren.com.
Lindsay Curren writes about her process for creating London 67:
Handcut linoleum block print for Prime Number #67 cover art
I wanted to do an image for issue #67 that would be fun to see in a linoleum block print. And since I like typography, I was hoping to find something interesting or iconic to work with.
After a bit of research into things associated with the number 67, I lit upon this vintage electronic music amplification overdrive device from 1967, from a company called Tonehunter. Apparently it was an early iteration of "cranking up the amp," in the rock world, a favorite of luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, Robert Palmer, and Eric Clapton, among others.
In the first image you can see a photo sourced from the web of the amp device. Next to it is a blank linoleum block. On the bottom row there's my drawing of the device, and on the right my initial cut of the linoleum block.
In the second image on the top from left to right and top to bottom you can see my supplies, an inking of my glass, and a rolling of the ink across the glass plate with the ink brayer. Then I did a couple of test runs on lower quality paper to see where I was before making some refining cuts to the block, inking it again, and running what I hoped would be final prints on better paper — handmade Japanese kitakata paper. You can see there my baren, which is used to hand press/print the inked plate onto the paper.
In the final image I've run several prints on the Japanese paper and am pretty happy with the result—this vintage rock and roll amp overdrive looks cool! The knobs and switches and psychedelic 60s font lend themselves well to the "gross" qualities of a linoleum block print (a slightly easier cousin of the woodcut printing method).
In the last photo set I laid a purple filter over the image (it's not purple ink) just because I thought it looked very rock ‘n' roll for the Web. On paper though it's just black ink over beige paper.