BASS 2014: Peter Cameron, “After the Flood” from Subtropics #15

The Djuvanovics came to live with us after the flood because they had nowhere else to go. Well, that’s not really true. They had plenty of places to go, they had the whole world to go to, but they came to us, and that was because of Reverend Judy. It was her idea, and Reverend Judy’s a very persuasive person. I suppose that’s a good quality in a minister, but I have to say I find it somewhat grating. The Djuvanovics had to go somewhere because the house was condemned. One wall had buckled and the roof had caved in. Everyone said how lucky it was that they weren’t all killed when the house collapsed, but they were not killed. Although they did lose pretty much everything they owned.

This story grabbed me right away, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. It’s not really my kind of story. But it’s exactly my kind of story, in that it left me staring at the last paragraph, amazed at what I’d just experienced. Then I read it again, and found even more.

The narrator’s voice is perfectly captured – a no-nonsense, knows-her-own-mind kind of voice, with no interest in what’s current but willing to live and let live, a digressive style suggestive of speech rather than writing. Something very midwestern or New England about it. It’s not a voice that often grabs me (except for the digressions, which, well, you know). This time it did. I knew something was being held back, something would be revealed. I couldn’t wait to find out what.

I wasn’t disappointed.

However, it’s not easy to write a blog post about a story in which every paragraph contains another level: another significant insight into who these people are, another astute observation about who we all are and how we make certain choices, another “aha” moment. At some point, I have to narrow it down or I’ll be quoting the entire story (which is not available online that I can find, but is well worth the effort to obtain through Subtropics or your public library).

So what did I like so much? Voice, I’ve already mentioned. Then there’s character. Character in fiction is more about quirks and qualities; it has to inform what people do. And we need to know the characters pretty quickly in a short story so we can recognize significance and understand why they do what they do. We learn a lot about the narrator from this casual thought:

I was born and raised in this town. I always thought I would move away at some point, there are so many things that can take a person somewhere else, but none of those things ever happened to me, so here I am. It’s not that I want to live somewhere else; this is a very nice town and I can’t imagine a nicer place to live except perhaps someplace where it doesn’t snow so much, but I suppose every place has its good things and bad things.

So we have a woman who doesn’t move unless she’s acted upon by an outside force. Here comes the outside force: the flood. And Reverend Judy.

I’ve heard writers talk about trapping characters together, so they’d be forced to deal with each other. Put Jane Eyre in the same house as Mr. Rochester; turn one family member into a cockroach; even Stephen King put his writer into a house with a psycho in the middle of a snowstorm. That’s part of the role Reverend Judy plays: she forces characters together on many levels.

Although the narrator does take in the Djuvanovics, she isn’t happy about it, for a couple of reasons. One is her history with them; the other is her history with herself. She’d met Mr. Djovanovic at a minor social event, and tried to make small talk; unfortunately, it didn’t go very well:

I said, “What kind of a name is Djuvanovic?” No, I meant this in a very nice way, not at all like it was a suspicious or bad or foreign name, but I know that’s how it sounded because Mr. Djuvanovic looked at me oddly and said, “well, what kind of name is Evarts?” And I said, “I think it’s just a plain old American name, but your name is so interesting and I wonder what it means.” “Means?” Asked Mr. Djuvanovic. “It’s a name, it doesn’t mean anything.” I realized by his hostile tone that my question had offended him, even though I had meant it in the friendliest possible way, so I tried to think of how to restore the balm of fellowship to our conversation. “Is it European?” I asked him, because no one can be insulted for being taken for a European, but this seemed only to annoy Mr. Djuvanovic further, for he said, “No, it’s not European,” and he turned away and walked over to the doughnut table and grabbed a fistful of Pop-ems. And that was the extent of my relationship with any of the Djuvanovics, and now they were coming to live in my house.

What we have here is a privilege gap. It’s the sort of conversation people of good will take for granted; it’s also the sort of conversation people who’ve taken a lot of crap because of their “origins” are not going to appreciate. The narrator would never consider a name to be a problem; Mr. Djuvanovic seems to be lacking that luxury. I doubt the narrator was being cruel, even in a subconscious way, but I can see how it easily might have felt that way to Mr. Djuvanovic. Of course, the narrator’s never been bothered with worrying about fancy notions like “privilege.” Which is, come to think of it, pretty much the most significant marker of privilege.

She’s also remembering back when she was young and foolish and had some rather unkind thoughts about the people who lived down by the river, and she doesn’t like being reminded of those unkind thoughts. She doesn’t like being reminded about a lot of things.

The reveal that explains everything that happens in this story is doled out at a glacial pace, but somehow it has an extraordinary momentum; I think that momentum, in addition to the perfect pitch of the voice, is what so grabbed me. A slow reveal has its drawbacks, and its possibilities, but here, the hints kept building. Even when I thought I knew, I knew I didn’t know. I’m astonished at how well this was done.

As the writer forces characters together, he also has to figure out what happens as a result of that. In spite of the suspense I felt all along, what happens here was inevitable. How does that happen?

A word about the image used above: it’s the image the author chose to symbolize this work when he published it in limited edition through his own Wallflower Press (now Shrinking Violet Press). It isn’t anywhere near the image I would have initially chosen – I found a great drawing from a newspaper article about a 1941 flood in Peru, and a lovely abstract mixed media piece by Kara Barkved titled “Flood Plain”, both of which had the horizontal framing I would’ve preferred to have used. But once I thought about it for a while, I realized: the author’s selection of image, like his selection of language, is exquisite.

So here I am, the fan of unusual narrative style or bizarre situations or linguistic play, giving a standing ovation to quiet domestic realism. Because you gotta go with what works, and this story really works.

BASS 2014: T. C. Boyle, “Night of the Satellite” from The New Yorker, 4/15/13

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: "Installation"

TNY illustration by Bryan Christie: “Installation”

What we were arguing about that night—and it was late, very late, 3:10 A.M. by my watch—was something that had happened nearly twelve hours earlier. A small thing, really, but by this time it had grown out of all proportion and poisoned everything we said, as if we didn’t have enough problems already. Mallory was relentless. And I was feeling defensive and maybe more than a little paranoid. We were both drunk…. A truck went blatting by on the interstate, and then it was silent, but for the mosquitoes singing their blood song, while the rest of the insect world screeched either in protest or accord, I couldn’t tell which, thrumming and thrumming, until the night felt as if it were going to burst open and leave us shattered in the grass.
“You asshole,” she snarled.
“You’re the asshole,” I said.
“I hate you.”
“Ditto,” I said. “Ditto and square it.”

Ah, love.

I was considering this story at the same time I stumbled across a poem new to me on the discussion boards of the “Art of Poetry” MOOC: Billy Collins’ “Men in Space.” Then there’s #Gamergate as background music.

Don’t you just love it when things fall together like that?

Because this story (available online) isn’t so much about male-female power struggles, as it is about how men and women see the other sex’s power. Perception has caused more wars than reality has, I suspect.

It begins, not just in media res, but in media bellum – perhaps in media bella would be more accurate, since several wars rage over the course of the story: Mallory and the narrator, the couple on the road, dogs vs. sheep, man vs. satellite, civilization vs. gravity.

We then back up to a “before” snapshot and discover: “The day had begun peaceably enough…” But just look at the language:

I got up with a feeling that the world was a hospitable place…. Mallory was sitting up waiting for me, still in her nightgown but with her glasses on—boxy little black-framed things that looked like a pair of the generic reading glasses you find in the drugstore but were in fact ground to the optometrist’s specifications and which she wore as a kind of combative fashion statement.

Even the atmosphere is defensive: the weather is “…too hot, up in the nineties, and so humid the air hung on your shoulders like a flak jacket…”

And then they run into the silver Toyota, “stopped in our lane and facing the wrong direction.” Bring on the bella (and my apologies; my last Latin class was sometime in the 80s).

It’s an epiphany story. “If something from the sky tapped you on the shoulder, you might consider it an omen of some sort,” says Boyle in his TNY interview. And if, at the same time, if you’re watching another couple engage in the same path of mutually assured destruction you’re on, you might see yourself, and wonder why you’re on that path.

At first, I thought this was a continuation of the lives of the couple Boyle portrayed in “Birnam Wood” a couple of years ago. There’s the same sense of “why are these people together anyway?” and the same grad-student aimlessness (so many writers with graduate degrees seem to like this; makes me wonder why anyone bothers to go to grad school – or, if those who got in are trying to close the door behind them). Apparently he also used the things-falling-from-the-sky plot before as well: a meteor shows up in his 2000 novel, A Friend of the Earth. It’s kind of an interesting post-modern technique to mix-and-match pieces of other works into a collage of a new work, but I don’t get the impression that’s what he was doing. I almost which it had been.

BASS 2014: Ann Beattie, “The Indian Uprising” from Granta #126

Tina Modatti: "Telephone Wires, Mexico" [modified] (1925)

Tina Modatti: “Telephone Wires, Mexico” [modified] (1925)

‘There’s no copyright on titles,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something “Death of a Salesman”, but you could do it.’
‘I wanted to see the play, but it was sold out. Tickets were going for $1,500 at the end of the run. I did get to New York and go to the Met, though, and paid my two dollars to get in.’
‘Two dollars is nicer than one dollar,’ he said.
‘Ah! So you do care what people think!’
‘Don’t talk like you’re using exclamation points,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t suit people who are intelligent. You’ve been fighting your intelligence for a long time, but exclaiming is the coward’s way of undercutting yourself.’
‘Cynicism’s better?’
‘I wonder why I’ve created so many adversaries,’ he said, then did a good Randy Travis imitation. ‘I got friends in . . . high places . . .’
‘Maker’s Mark interests you more than anyone, every time. We used to come see you and we have a burning desire to talk to you, to pick your brain, find out what to read, make you smile, but by the end of every evening, it’s clear who’s your best friend.’
‘But pity me: I have to pay for that best friend. We don’t have an unlimited calling plan.’

This story makes absolutely no sense for the first page or so; that’s what happens when you start a story in the middle of a phone conversation with nothing but barest hints of dialog tags. It continues to resist making sense for some time, though things gradually come into slightly better focus when the phone conversation ends and some kind of physical setting is evident. But it takes about two-thirds of the story to get enough context and backstory to understand what’s happening; before that, it’s all fragments blowing around in the wind. I was ready to just say, “Who knows,” and throw it away; but that’s why I blog these stories, I’m forced to come up with something to say, and I can’t come up with something unless I at least can nail down why I can’t make heads nor tails of the story.

A funny thing happened while I was trying to document my annoyance at the lack of sense: it started to make sense. Of course, that’s partly because the text itself starts to make more sense as the context and backstory becomes clearer. But a lot of it is just being willing to tolerate confusion, see what happens, and read it again, sentence by sentence.

I started out making a list of the basics (see sidebar) – who are the characters, where and when does it take place, what happens in the story – and kept coming across very interesting little touches. Took me a couple of hours to go through a fairly short (6 page-turns) story. Just figuring out who the main characters were, what their relationship is, took a while. I suspect that’s because they don’t really know what their relationship is, either. In fact, I think that’s the whole story, right there.

“I’d studied him for so long, almost nothing surprised me anymore, however small the gesture. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps part of the reason I’d stopped writing was that I studied him, instead. But now I was also noticing little lapses, which made everything different for both of us.”

It’s a variation and development of the crusty curmudgeon holding the world at arm’s length, while the underachieving protégé comes to terms with the approaching loss of her mentor over a last lunch. Several touches add drama to this to this, one being the reader’s confusion of who’s who reflecting the character’s own confusion. “She was once his student; were they also lovers?” the reader wonders; “Did I love him, do I love him, did he love me, does he love me, do I love my boyfriend?” the character wonders. You don’t typically get into a photobooth with someone you have no personal feeling for, but he repeats several times he was never in love with her. Then again, it’s pretty clear from some of his confabulations that he says things for the shock value.

Then there’s the Magical Waiter, who moves a chair no one could move, plays domestic spy, and, in a wonderfully visual moment, even mimics a magic trick: “…I’d dropped my napkin. As I bent to pick it up, the waiter appeared, unfurling a fresh one like a magician who’d come out of nowhere. I half expected a white bird to fly up.”

“Take a bite of your burrito,” I said, and instantly felt like a mother talking to her child. The expression on his face told me he thought I was worse than that. He said nothing and finished his wine. There was a conspicuous silence.

Beattie explained her first line in a contributor note in Granta: “…dialogue that I hope establishes tone; an allusion to Death of a Salesman that might take on more thematic meaning as the story proceeds. When I invoked that play, I didn’t consciously know that. If it hadn’t become necessary to the story, I would have taken it out.” I have to say, her notes seem as cryptic as the opening of the story, but it is a piece about death. I also see titles running through the piece – Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and the title of the story, which was also the title of a 1952 film, a Western, and a 1965 Barthelme story. In the story, the title comes from a remark the cook at the restaurant makes.

I love some of the moments, in addition to the magic trick. The Professor tells an anecdote clearly designed to refer to the subject of a poem he’d published, and is pleased that she picks up on the reference. “Paper is so sad. Every sheet, a thin little tombstone”: that line has particular poignancy when delivered by a writer in poor health, fully aware time is growing short. The change in their relationship is startling; he was the Professor, she the Student, and now, she’s putting his Velcro-fastened shoes (instead of a glass slipper, to begin the magical Lunch instead of a Ball) on his diabetic feet, worrying about how far he can walk.

…[E]ven if I don’t believe there’s a poem in anything anymore, maybe I’ll write a story. A lot of people do that when they can’t seem to figure out who or what they love. It might be an oversimplification, but they seem to write poetry when they do know.

I tried looking at this story in terms of some of the themes I’ve been reading about in Charles May’s book on the short story. A touch of the supernatural (Cinderella and flying reindeer in addition to the Magical Waiter); the conflict between union and separation: perhaps these two people have connected on some sub-level of these events. Did communion happen between checking for the wedding ring on the hand of the woman her ex-husband is with, and her discovery of the blood? Is just the visit enough? “I wasn’t in love with you, but now it seems like I should have been, because where are they now? Who keeps in touch? I never hear, even when a poem is published. It was just a job, apparently.” A wail of loneliness, from the crusty curmudgeon to the former acolyte, both devoted to union and separation in equal measure, both unable to move either forward or back.

That crystallized something for me: it’s the anti-story to “Dancing After Hours,” the Andre Dubus story May cites in his introduction: a couple have a magical moment of connection after hours in a seedy bar. This couple, Professor Chadwick and Maude, maybe wanted to have that magical moment, but they never got there. Where Dubus tells of a successful connection in one evening, this story is of a failed connection, after years of trying.

That clarifies the story for me. I may be completely on the wrong track, but it’s my track. If it doesn’t work for you, find your own, and tell me about it.

BASS 2014: Charles Baxter, “Charity” from McSweeney’s #43


“I’m Quinn.” He held out his hand. Black Bird did not take it. “My friend Morrow told me about you.”
“Ah huh,” Black Bird said. He glanced up with an impatient expression before returning to his book. Quinn examined the text. Black Bird was reading Othello, the third act.
“Morrow said I should come see you. There’s something I need.”
Black Bird said nothing.
“I need it pretty bad,” Quinn said, his hand trembling inside his pocket. He wasn’t used to talking to people like this. When Black Bird didn’t respond, Quinn said, “You’re reading Othello.” Quinn had acquired a liberal arts degree from a college in Iowa, where he had majored in global political solutions, and he felt that he had to assert himself. “The handkerchief. And Iago, right?”
Black Bird nodded. “This isn’t College Bowl,” he said dismissively. With his finger stopped on the page, he said, “What do you want from me?”

In a lecture at the 2013 Bread Loaf writers’ conference (helpfully excerpted by Graywolf Press), Charles Baxter talked about how requests function in a story: requests take on social consequences, they reveal power relationships, and they force character-revealing choices upon us. As it happens, he has a story collection coming out in February 2015 where each story is named after a vice or a virtue, and each story includes a “request moment.” This story (as well as “Bravery” from BASS 2013) will be in that collection.

I see three requests in this story; or, more accurately, two requests and one non-request, a void where a request should have been. That void steals the show for me.

The overwhelming image I have of the story is one of metamorphosis: how people change, and how, even when they realize they’re changing, they’re unable to prevent the change from occurring.

Matt Quinn starts out as a caring do-gooder in Africa. We see only the faintest glimpse of this in the first paragraph, before his metamorphosis begins: he returns to Minneapolis with some kind of viral arthritis that leaves him in serious pain. Doctors are less than helpful, and the predictable decline begins: from aid worker to thief, Matt robs a guy for enough money to buy street drugs.

Cut to Matt in a seedy bar buying drugs from Black Bird. It’s interesting that Black Bird is reading Act III of Othello; it’s where Desdemona drops her handkerchief, Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago, leading to later disaster. In college I wrote a paper convicting Emilia of Desdemona’s death (hey, come on, that’s the secret of success in humanities classes, come up with an outrageous thesis to perk up the prof who’s read thousands of essays about the depths of Iago’s evil), because she was the only character with enough of a moral compass to know what she was doing was wrong, and she did it anyway. Maybe Black Bird’s in the same category.

What lifts this out of the category of routine drug deal, in story terms, is, I think, Black Bird’s insistence that Matt bring a book as well as cash to their next meeting when the actual exchange of goods and tender will take place. Matt doesn’t bring a book, but he brings cash, and that’s enough for Black Bird. It’s also enough to reclassify Black Bird from someone interesting, to just another dealer. I’m sure he has his story, too; in his story, I’ll bet there was a time when he refused to sell the drugs, for any amount, to a bookless patron, but maybe he’s metamorphosed himself since then.

Then the story does something I find very interesting: it switches pov, from a relatively distant third-person with Matt as the pov character, to first-person a la Harry, the boyfriend Matt met in Africa. This switch surprised me; as I read on, I appreciated more and more the wisdom of this writer’s choice.

Their relationship is fascinating. When they meet, Harry is in Africa on business, selling medical supplies; he’s drawn to Matt’s compassion. But Matt doesn’t seem to see much compassion in Harry; as desperate as he is as he goes from sick to addicted to homeless, he won’t ask Harry for help:

He could be prickly, the boyfriend, and the two of them were still on a trial basis anyway…. The love might not travel if Quinn brought up the subject of debts or his vial arthritis and inflammation of the drug habit he had recently acquired.

Y’think?

Matt does make another request of Harry. It’s perhaps significant in that it shows how incomplete his journey back is. But the absence of request, in the context of their relationship, is the most interesting part of the story for me. Whether or not, in the end, the love travels, is a matter of opinion. Harry thinks it doesn’t; I think otherwise. I think the roles reverse. The word “charity,” while derived from the Latin caritas, is in older translations of the New Testament used as the English equivalent of Greek word agape: love in its chaste, selfless, most divine form; other-centered love.

The closing scene, while beautiful, seems overly explained and perhaps a little on-the-nose. Charles Baxter is not the sort of writer who spells it all out for his readers. That I think he does so, left me wondering if I’d missed the point entirely. Instead of metamorphosis, maybe I should look at, duh, charity. Perhaps one form of charity – love – is to accept, to allow someone else to give.

BASS drop 2014

This year, I detected a certain uncertainty in short stories, a sense of disorientation, perhaps a reflection of these unsteady times for publishing and readers. A lot of story writers relied on a character’s intuition or impulse to fuel the forward motion of their stories. As a result, many stories tended to wander – sometimes intriguingly, often into unsettling territory – rather than accelerate towards some definitive endpoint. While some stories that I’ve read this year were built up on or around some narrative roadway – and many of those appear in this volume – plenty were not.

~~Heidi Pitlor, “Foreword”, BASS 2014

Renovations on a recently-vacated storefront near my apartment building indicate a new shop is moving in. What will it be? Maybe a sandwich shop like the last tenant – will they be a great place to go for a late lunch, friendly neighbors willing to change a dollar once in a while? – or maybe a store selling something I never knew existed – I never realized foot soaking could be a commercial venture until Soakology opened – or something totally boring like insurance, or something completely unexpected, like a druid shrine or a sock store (there’s already a sock store opening down the block, I doubt my small city could support two specialty sock stores)…

Photo: 'ready to jump' by ouzouzouz; see more on deviantartAnticipation is fun.

My anticipation of each annual Best American Short Stories starts when I close the cover of the prior one for the last time. What stories have I read, or heard about, that might make it, or that I dread seeing in the table of contents? What authors would I like to see more from – or fear encountering? What would I pick?

That’s why one of my favorite moments of what has become my Annual Blogging of the BASS is the trip home from the bookstore, before I’ve looked at the table of contents, before I’ve read a word of the foreword or introduction or any of it. Maybe I’ll find confirmation of my opinion of a story from the year, or a new something from a favorite author; maybe I’ll discover an author new to me, or someone new to everyone. Chances are I’ll find a story that will make me wonder what the hell is so great about it, but I’m pretty sure I’ll also find several that will end with me staring at the page in awe, or maybe show me something new that, yes, you can do in a short story.

Last week, series editor Heidi Pitlor began tweeting single lines from stories in this year’s edition of Best American Short Stories. I was surprised to recognize two of them right away, stories I’d read during the year, from these single lines (I later recognized another, but it was after I’d seen the TOC so it doesn’t count; I also missed one. The tweets continue still).

Pitlor’s foreword begins, as quoted above, with an indication that these stories are not all linear. I found it interesting that the foreword was also not linear. In fact, it seemed as if the bulk of it – adapted into a Huffpo post – was written as a standalone, and the above opening paragraph and a few others added on to connect it to BASS. In large part, it’s a concern that writers might be outnumbering readers.

I don’t know anyone, other than writers, who reads short stories (low-end writers’ workshops openly acknowledge this; they’re writing for writers). Oh, maybe they read the one in The New Yorker once in a while (skimming it is more likely, followed by a complaint that “stories don’t make sense any more”), but when the Reading Group at my library got to Alice Munro’s Dear Life, the most frequent comment was, “I don’t like short stories.” It seems most people decide the stories are over before they have a chance to get into them; but that’s when the story starts, for me. Some have this idea that short stories aren’t “serious” literature, and since they aren’t on best-seller lists, they’re not party-talk, so what good are they?

What good is Mozart, Picasso, the doily your nearly-blind 93-year-old grandmother crocheted for your wedding gift? The good of art is in how it changes the way we see the world, the things we notice, in how it changes us. And that changes the world.

I’m rambling. Must be this unsettled, wandering thing in the air. Then again, rambling is one of my favorite things.

Jennifer Egan guest edited this edition, meaning she had the final say of which of the 120 pre-selected stories would appear.

I’m biased toward writers who take an obvious risk, formally, structurally, or in terms of subject matter, over those who do a familiar thing exquisitely.
If there was a single factor that decided whether a story ended up in my ongoing pile of contenders, it was its basic power to make me lose my bearings, to envelop me in a fictional world.… The vehicle for this transport into alternate worlds is vivid, specific language.

~~Jennifer Egan, “Introduction”, BASS 2014

As it happens, I have a similar bias: I like some kind of weird in my stories, and I’m not fussy about how or where the weird comes in: odd sentence structures? My kind of thing. Unusual narrative technique? Great! A character I’ve never seen before (and, since I’m not that widely read, this one tends to be easy), a bizarre plot? Bring it on. First person plural, second person, third person plural, fluid povs? My favorites (though I think they’re my favorites partly because editors do a good job of weeding out the “ok” stories in the selection process – a second-person story has to be really good to make it into a magazine, or a prize collection). A good sign?

Maybe the table of contents is a more reliable sign. Out of the 20 stories, I’ve read four of them; two of them I loved, one I seriously appreciated, and even though I wasn’t convinced by the fourth, it included a spectacular scene. I’m looking forward to seeing what Karen Russell brings. I’m downright thrilled to see Stephen O’Connor; his “Another Nice Mess” from One Story #162 was one of those miracle stories that left me open-mouthed, and though I followed up with a collection of his, I wasn’t able to connect, a miss I hope to rectify now.

I’m always slightly peeved to see how clustered the selections are around the same cluster of big-name journals – The New Yorker, Granta, McSweeney’s, etc. I understand there’s a reason those are big-name journals, but I also know there’s some wonderful work out there from less-obvious places. I see an unfamiliar title in the list this year: Image. No idea what the journal is, no idea what the story is, but I’m glad to see it there.

Another confession: I miss the old cover design. I'm just not the glossy-slick-bright-shiny-colors typeI confess: I haven’t been reading current stories in 2014. It isn’t lack of interest, it’s lack of time. As I take more and more MOOCs (right now, I’m juggling Kierkegaard, logic, music history, Dante, and a poetry course, as well as a variety of MOOC-inspired math learning projects), I have less time for contemporary reading. That makes me sad, but I don’t know how long MOOCs will be around, how long they’ll be free, and how long they’ll be as unique as some of them are right now (Robert Pinsky is teaching the poetry MOOC, and, by the way, the University of Iowa is running a “How Writers Write” MOOC; you haters can get over yourselves) so I’m cramming everything in while I can. I’ve taken the time from reading/blogging TNY and One Story. I’ve even dropped the O.Henry prize volume from my anthology rotation.

If I ever drop BASS, check my pulse; I’m probably dead.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3 – The Novel and the Short Story

Sharon Burgmayer, "Interface"

Sharon Burgmayer, “Interface”

My assumption is that when we discuss the differences between long fiction and short fiction, we must discuss basic differences in the epistemology of the two forms, that is, the way they attempt to “know” reality. The short story is short first of all because of the kind of experience or reality embodied in it. And the kind of experience we find in the short story reflects a mode of knowing that differs essentially from the mode of knowing we find in the novel. My thesis is that long fiction, by its very length, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that primarily derive from, and in turn establish, the primacy of “experience” conceptually created and considered; whereas short fiction, by its length and tradition, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that derive from and establish the primacy of “an experience,” as John Dewey has distinguished these terms, directly and emotionally created and encountered.
 

~~Charles May, “The Novel and the Short Story”, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never understood the distinction between short story and novel as do those who have a more thorough grasp of the theoretical underpinnings of both. I think this chapter of May’s book – with a little help from John Dewey and Isak Dinesen – has helped close that gap a bit.

Start with Dewey. I’ve always thought of him in terms of educational theory, but here, Art as Experience is the focal point particularly Chapter III, Having An Experience. May applies Dewey’s separation of “experience” and “an experience” to the novel and short story, respectively. Dewey’s distinction:

Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living…. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience.…
             In contrast with such experience, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences. A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives solutions; the game is played through…. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience….
              An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience…
 

~~ John Dewey, Art as Experience

As I read it (and, always keep in mind, I’ve been known to head off my own track from time to time), May sees the territory the novel covers as experience, whereas the short story focuses on an experience. Much of that seems to be a by-product of length. A novel, which might be read over the course of days (or weeks, or who knows, months), has as its foundation experience. Theoretically, there is a force of unity, but there are sub-plots, character-defining scenes, backstories and expositions to cover before the central thrust of that unity can be delivered. A story, on the other hand, is intended to be read in one sitting; the experience of reading is itself an experience, and the story recounts an experience. A great deal of experience might be omitted – we don’t know the heroine’s relationship with her mother or the hero’s favorite childhood toy, no matter how character-revealing it is, unless it is central to the “an experience being recounted. It’s a slightly different angle on the “unity” required of the short story, as described in May’s Chapter 1 on genre.

As I was paging through Stanford’s Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (often referred to as “Plato”) to make sure I was understanding Dewey correctly, I stumbled over an idea I’d overlooked in the original chapter:

Dewey believed it unfortunate that no term covers the act of production and the act of appreciation combined as one thing…. production and consumption should not be seen as separate….
                Dewey believed that art brings together the same doing/undergoing relation that makes an experience what it is. Something is artistic when the qualities of the result control the process of production. ….Aesthetic satisfaction must be linked to the activity that gave rise to it. For example the taste of the epicure includes qualities that depend on reference to the manner of production of the thing enjoyed.
 

~~Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Plato”), “Dewey’s Aesthetics

This brought me to Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen. Though I suppose it’s the other way around; Dinesen is the pseudonym, but the name by which I always think of her.

Dinesen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” is used as a reference point in this chapter (and in a future chapter); I’d already read it in preparation, and I’ll discuss it presently. Part of that story, indeed, is a clear explanation of the difference between novel and story by one of the characters, making it self-referential in a way I adore. But the above exegesis on Dewey brought to mind another wonderful Dinesen work, my first encounter with her, in fact, though originally through film rather than through text: “Babette’s Feast.” I haven’t read it in quite some time, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but what remains is this: Everything in that story comes down to a magical meal that redeems lives and talents tragically wasted by circumstance; and the line, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist, ‘Give me the chance to do my very best.'” The meal is an experience, rising far above culinary delight; in fact, at first the sisters are determined to stoically reject any pleasure it might bring, out of some notion of Christian asceticism, but it is the “an experience” that triumphs, lifting all to that encounter with the sacred. Reading the story is, likewise, anan experience.

“The Cardinal’s First Tale” is also an experience for the reader, and for the characters in the story. The Cardinal of the story must answer a penitent’s question: “Who are you?” The story is wonderful; I found a chapter from Susan Brantly’s book Understanding Isak Dinesen to be helpful along with May’s notes.

The Cardinal of the title tells a self-referential story to answer the question, “Who am I?” The story-within-the-story itself is great, a tale of an overwhelmed teenage princess impregnated both physically and spiritually (the latter being an idea I discovered in, and have enthusiastically embraced from, Brantly’s analysis) to the point where she delivers twins. The twins are regarded in classic opposition: a studious Priest-to-be for the Prince, an artistic sensualist for the Princess. There’s a bit of a mystery which leads to the revelation of the artistic unity of sacred and profane.

When the Cardinal has finished relating his tale of the twins, he talks to his penitent at length about story versus novel, using the very tale he’s just told as an example of the centrality of plot. She’s a little dismayed by the way “story” knocks people – characters – around, separates lovers, puts enemies together, and so forth (this reminds me of Steve Almond’s prescription in his teeny-tiny self-published book of flash and writing advice, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey: “[I]t is your sworn duty to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires”), but he assures her, that the story will provide (“Love your characters” means to give them a story to inhabit) and that it is story, first, last, and always, that makes us human:
 

“Mistake me not,” said the cardinal, “the literature of which we are speaking [the novel]– the literature of individuals, if we may call it so – is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it – and that is what his named the day of judgment….
              “Hard and cruel as it may seem,” said the cardinal, “yet we, who hold of our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, fairly, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe. If you tell them – you compassionate and accommodating human readers – that they may bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them. For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that’s one cry of heart of each of them: “Who am I?’
 

~~Isak Dinesen, “The Cardinal’s First Tale” from Last Tales, 1957

As I read that last line, I felt a great deal of similarity, in tone, to a line from “Babette’s Feast”: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” But even more, this harks back to May’s “Introduction” chapter, in reference to C.S. Lewis’ ideas on the basic human conflict, “which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.” In this story, the sacred and profane are literally embodied in the Dionysian/Apollonian twins, their union unintentional but nonetheless profound, surviving even the physical destruction of one.

An experience. I love that phrase, as I understand it. We all have many moment like that, of course; a conversation that resonates for decades, a magical night when the stars seem aligned. They don’t have to be universally pleasant, I don’t think. I can remember, as a teenager under the spell of an absurd crush, seeing the object of my feelings with another girl, and realizing they looked right together, in a way he and I would never look right. As devastating as it was, it was also highly instructive; forty years later, I still remember the color of the sky and the feel of the grass. During each of my once-a-decade experiments to see if I still suck at writing fiction, I try to capture it in prose, and fail each time. But at least now I know what to call it, and that, with a plot that makes the moment surprising yet inevitable, it belongs in a short story.

I’m not sure why I never read more of Dinesen’s stories; I quite enjoyed this story. With so much to read, a lot ends up deferred, but I’d like to revisit her at a later time. And, of course, I’ll keep reading Prof. May’s book; I’m quite enjoying it as well, and encountering numerous wonderful treasures in its pages.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 2 – History and the Short Story

Boccaccio: The Decameron - Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

Boccaccio: The Decameron – Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

My own study of the short story is based on the assumption that a group of literary conventions cluster around short fiction because of its shortness and its relationship to other genres throughout its history. … The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

Having established some guidelines for “the genre” of short story in Chapter 1, May now turns to looking at the development of the form over time, with a more historical approach to the development of the short story: its origins in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the Renaissance and embraced a few centuries later by the Romantics; the nineteenth-century period of development showcased by Poe and Hawthorne; and the modern tale of Chekhov and Carver. I’m a bit disappointed not to see any indication of the more post-modern take on story, where narrative itself is optional, but, after all, the current historical period is still open. In any case, since my weakest knowledge is of the past, this is a good place for me to focus. There’s some overlap with Chapter 1, as these are all previously published academic essays collected in this volume, but the focus is one of time, not genre.

A good place to begin, in any history is the beginning; but what was the first short story?

Perhaps the most equitable and yet the most manageable starting point is that era when short narratives, written in prose first moved out of the realm of popular oral folk tale and religious allegory and qualified as a form of individual human art. Most historians agree that such a point was reached with the publication of Boccaccio’s revolutionary collection The Decameron in the middle of the fourteenth century.

This surprised me. In high school, I was taught Guy de Maupassant was the first short story writer; in college, that shifted to Poe. The Renaissance? Interesting…

I can see the point, though. At the time of Boccaccio, religious allegory was the major formal literature in Europe (and we are taking a highly Eurocentric view of literature throughout this book). But folk art will not be denied, and “vulgar popular folktales” consisting of “anecdotes, bits of gossip, vulgar jokes, and ribald tales without established traditions of narrative procedures and rhetorical devices” (pg. 31) coexisted with the approved forms. Boccaccio’s achievement was to combine these approaches: to write a tale with a narrative structure and a point, but to base characters and events on real life people and situations instead of idealized visions that existed only to personify morality. Part of the task, May says, was to ” transform meaningless everyday reality into a meaningful teleological event with a formal unifying pattern” – to create the inevitable surprise that underlies successful fiction.

I have not read The Decameron nor do I particularly wish to (I’m about to dive into Dante via another MOOC, and I only have so much verbal energy, not to mention time for intense reading). Overall, the structure of the whole reminds me of The Canterbury Tales, which has its share of vulgarity, as well as significant resentment of higher religious authorities (those who think popular culture today is a mess should check out Chaucer): an assortment of people find themselves together (in a village escaping the plague-ridden city, or on a pilgrimage to Canterbury), and tell stories to pass the time. Canterbury was, of course a poem, not prose, but the comparison remains.

I did read one story chosen at random (I.6, An honest man, with a chance pleasantry, putteth to shame the perverse hypocrisy of the religious orders), and perhaps saw the “poetic justice” and “ironic patterning” to which May refers, as incorporated into the plot. This, he says, marks a shift from the religious allegory, which exemplifies a religious ideal thus refers to an external moral point, to story form, in which the plot takes on the burden of creating meaning by the structuring of events. In the story, a winemaker is taken to task by religious authorities for claiming he has a wine fit for Christ to drink, and is assigned to eternal torment; on payment of a fee to the official, the sin is mediated. He later invokes a Bible quote to embarrass the official by pointing out the greed and gluttony of the cleric’s habit of feeding only his table scraps in a broth to the poor, thus hoisting the man of god on his own petard, so to speak – the “reversal of intention” May links to such stories as “The Gift of the Magi.”

The basic romantic tendency is to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine. The return to romance of the nineteenth century is a return with a difference; the formulaic stories remain much the same, but they are now given a new basis of authority – the subjectivity of the teller – even as the story events themselves are presented as if they were objective events in the phenomenal world….This focus on the individual perspective creates a new tension in the old tale – undermining the mythic or supernatural authority of the story and placing an increasing emphasis on the relativity of reality, the ambiguity of the event, and the skepticism of the teller.

When I read this, I thought of the Greek & Roman Mythology MOOC I recently completed. Peter Struck of the University of Pennsylvania talked about instances of Vergil’s “rationalizing impulse” in The Aeneid: is Dido’s undying love of Aeneas due to the meddling of the gods, or to the sympathetic framing of the hero caring for his son; is Anchises’ appearance in a dream a visitation from the spirits, or a psychological manifestation of Aeneas himself? I think that’s something like the tension analyzed here.

May then turns to the Romantic period of the 19th century. There was, in fact, a resurgence of interest in Boccaccio at this time, and The Decameron was again of interest to scholars. To illustrate the Romantic period, I chose to read Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which May mentions as an example of a work which “presents a situation that is seemingly supernatural and symbolically significant, but which the narrator simultaneously undermines with his skeptical ironic point of view.” In the Introduction, he also mentioned it was the source of the title of this collection of essays: the main character, teased and harassed, finally breaks his tolerance with an outcry: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and, though he is never aware of it, those words have a profound effect on one of the bullies and allow Gogol to spell out the direction of the tale: upcoming revelation of hypocrisy and artifice.

In these moving words, other words resounded –”I am thy brother.” And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and noble.

 
~~ Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, “The Overcoat”

I wish we could all have those moments at critical times – when an abused child braces herself for a blow, when a minimum-wage worker is told how motivating poverty is, when a young boy cries, “Don’t shoot!” perhaps. But back to the story, and the tension between hints of the supernatural, against the ironic distance of the narrator.

References to the supernatural are scattered throughout, from the granting of Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin’s very name (was it the fate of opening the calendar to certain days, or merely a family name handed down – or a mother’s disregard for her child?) to the “involuntary sensation of fear, as if his heart warned him of some evil” just before his cloak is stolen (the presence of a wraith, or the usual fear of being in a deserted, strange area late at night?), to the rumored haunting of the Kalinkin Bridge by a dead man (or was it the same thief – was there even a thief at all, given that the coachman saw nothing amiss, or was it the magistrate’s conscience that tricked him into creating a thief out of the wind?). All of this, as May says, is related by a highly visible narrator who maintains a tone of reason throughout. Yet the “poetic justice” of the second theft somewhat relieves the sadness of the first – I say “somewhat” since, after all, Bashmatchkin is still dead.

May revisits Poe’s discussion of aesthetic unity as the primary requirement of the short story, adding “the psychological obsession embodied in a first-person narrator” to the array of techniques used in the nineteenth century. Just the mention of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is enough to illustrate this point. I wonder if the repetitive nature of Poe’s poetic forms, such as “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee”, suggested or merely dovetailed into this notion.

We move forward to the era of the “modern” short story:

…[R]eality in the modern short story seems to be a purely objective event, even as at the same time the intense selectivity practiced by Chekhov, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver results in an intensification of reality that no longer seems objective and real, but what some critics have called “hyperrealism”…. reality is so attenuated and restricted (rather than developed and expanded as in the realistic novel) that it takes on an hallucinatory, dreamlike effect….objects and events are transformed from mere matter into meaningful by the motivating force of the story’s own thematic and structural demands.

I chose to re-read two stories as exemplars for this section: Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Carver’s “Chef’s House”; neither are explicitly mentioned in this chapter, but they seem to fit the bill, both of the above hyperrealism, and of what May refers to as the movement of the character from ignorance to knowledge.

In Hemingway, the landscape itself becomes symbolic of the conflict between the couple. As such, it’s constantly emphasized: the arid, sun-bleached hills on one side, the lush greenery on the other. I was always taught that the dry side signified barrenness, thus the option of abortion, which the man prefers, while the other side is associated with life should the pregnancy continue. That’s fine – but I’ve always wondered if the man’s viewpoint might reverse those, if he sees the stark side as his life burdened with woman and child, while living will forever be at his back. Not to excuse him – I certainly see him as a bit of a bully and shirker in this – but to mix things up a little. Two people look at the same landscape, and have opposite associations. Different readers often come to very different conclusions about this story: just what was decided, if anything?

In the context of this chapter, I’m more interested in the movement of both characters from ignorance to knowledge. The knowledge, I think, is not one of which side to choose: each knows more about the other, and more about him/herself and the extent of his/her power in their relationship. I also suspect this relationship is doomed.

“Chef’s House” shows another couple moving towards knowledge of the other; it’s a favorite of mine. I read it a couple of years ago having seen it mentioned in Prof. May’s blog in connection with another story. I see here also the landscape, the details, exaggerated and symbolicized to this dreamlike state. I said at the time: “you can see the ocean, but you have to look beyond the access road and freeway – the ocean is on the other side of ‘access’ and ‘free’.” There’s a double negotiation: in the beginning, Wes convinces Edna to come live in Chef’s House with him, and at the end, Edna tries to convince Wes that the loss of the house need not be the end of their idyllic (to her) summer. Wes prevails in both cases, as each discovers what he/she wants, and whether or not the other can participate in that goal.

In neither case of these “modern” stories is the supernatural, or some higher moral principle, or even a narrator, an element. The story is in the setting, the characters, and the choices they make, the actions they take.

The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

May’s historical view of the short story ends here. I wonder, on reflection, if the emergence of the importance of form in narrative over the past 20 (50?) years is a new trend, or just another glint in the window. I’m a fan of unusual narrative devices: lists, dialog captures, found text, instructions. Most recently, comix (aka “graphic stories”) which have a grammar of their own – One Story opened up a world I’d previously dismissed with Matt Madden’s “Drawn Onward” in Issue #182. I look forward to new things.

I also look forward to Prof. May’s Chapter 3, “The Novel and the Short Story.” My life is about to be complicated by concurrent MOOCs, plus the publication of BASS in October, so I can’t promise a schedule; it will happen, however. Inevitably, surprisingly.

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 1 – Genre and the Short Story

The difference between the many critics who doubt that a definition of the short story is possible and those few, like me, who argue for the validity and value of such a definition, revolves around two different concepts of generic definition… I do not need to argue for a definition that satisfies necessary conditions to distinguish the short story from the novel. I do argue, however, that if we develop an understanding of the generic characteristics of the short story, we will be able to read individual short stories with more appreciation and understanding.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

What is a short story? Is it merely defined by length? Or is there some more underlying characteristic? Is there a type of tale best suited to this short form, as opposed to the novel? These are some of the questions Prof. May looks at in this essay, printed as Chapter 1 of his book. This is not a review of that book, by the way; I wouldn’t presume. I’m using it as a springboard for my own exploration, at a much simpler level, of the ideas and materials he incorporates.

As before, I’ll focus on a couple of source documents he uses in his argument. Neither of these are short stories – one is a philosophy treatise, one a book review – but that’s what this chapter holds; we’re looking at the genre of the short story, and, to some degree, the history of that genre (the history will be continued in the next chapter). Edit: I added in a short story on reconsideration of my overall purpose here.

May begins with Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations, aphorisms 65 – 67, Wittgenstein argues for a description of language that uses, not a checklist of features every language use must have, but a group of characteristics generally shared:

(65) …Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,—

but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”… (66) And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall

similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. (67) I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”…

~~Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations

I stumbled across Wittgenstein last Fall and Winter, running into him over and over again – in a philosophy class, obviously, but also in a math class and a poetry class (not to mention one very odd but compelling film). I was also in a Norwegian loop at the time, encountering references to Norway in several venues (including three works of fiction new to me, and one pre-existing one). Turned out Wittgenstein retreated to Norway at a particularly troubling time in his life. Networks, indeed.

I was also struck by the similarity of this “family relationship” classification to the medical diagnostic model. Not everyone with a cold has the whole menu of a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough, mild fever, fatigue, and body aches, but your doctor will diagnose a cold if you have three or four of those, and lack certain others (high fever or rash, for instance). For some reason, we expect literature to behave more rigidly than a rhinovirus. This is amusing, since there is no such thing as “the” cold virus – there are hundreds of them, and new ones crop up all the time, which is why some prefer your sinuses and some your trachea, and they will land in different places thus set up shop in the nose, eyes, or throat and spread from there. Isn’t this a great analogy for literature? I know I can enjoy stories in different ways for different things: beautiful writing (and that alone can define a multitude of beauties), a moving theme, a charming/hilarious/admirable character, a clever narrative or structural technique. They’re all stories. Why shouldn’t the definition of the perceived “story” – the symptoms – also be given some latitude in diagnosis?

At some point in what passes for my formal education, mediocre as it was, I came across a definition of “short story” that limited them to events occurring in a limited amount of time – hours, days, maybe weeks. By this definition, the number of words was irrelevant. I took that as The Definition, only to find it wasn’t (like I said, a mediocre education). In my periodic explorations of fiction writing (once a decade, I check to make sure I still can’t write fiction or play the guitar), the “short story” required of editors has word limits. That’s a rather superficial definition, however. So just what is a short story?

May looks at Poe’s consideration of the short story, through his 1842 review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. I found a copy of Poe’s review online via Eldritch Press; it offers a comparison of the “tale”, and poetry, but demands both uphold the same primary standard: “unity of effect or impression.” While rhymed poetry is his #1 choice for “how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers,” it seems that he feels prose, thanks to its lesser intensity, can sustain the all-important unity for a longer period, and that the tale – the short story – is the highest form of prose.

I find his writing advice to be remarkably similar to that offered even today, when the short story has had nearly two centuries to develop and evolve; new schools and structures seem to crop up in every generation, but this unity remains:

A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents–he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Many of us, thanks to our ninth-grade English teachers, associate Poe with horror, mystery, and the macabre, and thus dismiss him as a serious artist. He was, in fact, a diligent literary critic and analyst; none less than Jorge Luis Borges claimed him as a major influence, writing several “doubles” to Poe tales.

Poe’s expertise is borne out by the longevity, not only of his stories, but of his advice. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules of Writing – rules often given as laws in high-level writing programs, by the way – is: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Steve Almond, a devotee of Vonnegut, relayed an anecdote in his itty-bitty book of half-writing-advice/half-flash This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey that echoes this:

Years ago, at a writers conference, I asked one of the teachers the sort of question that I now dread having to answer. “When I revise,” I said, “what am I supposed to cut?”

The teacher responded by quoting the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, which I suppose served me right. “Ask yourself, ‘What work does it do?'”

“What work does every sentence do?” I said.

“Every word,” she said.

Poe’s exhortation to unity, and the technical process through which that needs to be achieved, is upheld and passed along from Brecht (early 20th C) to Vonnegut (mid-late 20th C) to Almond (late 20th/early 21st C) to the unknown author writing her first lines today. And whereas in the public mind the short story has been of late eclipsed by the novel, abandoned to “new writers” as a kind of introductory offer, there are those – Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, for example – who still work exclusively, or nearly so, in this medium.

Poe’s essay looks at other differences between poem and tale. His concept of what is and is not poetry is, I think, what limits its scope in his view; I’m glad that the modernists and their successors have freed poetry from strictures of structure and allowed such things as blank verse and prose poetry to flower. I think the dividing line is much less apparent today, as our idea of “beauty” has shifted:

The writer of the prose tale, in short, may bring to his theme a vast variety of modes or inflections of thought and expression–(the ratiocinative, for example, the sarcastic, or the humorous) which are not only antagonistical to the nature of the poem, but absolutely forbidden by one of its most peculiar and indispensable adjuncts; we allude, of course, to rhythm. It may be added here, par parenthèse, that the author who aims at the purely beautiful in a prose tale is laboring at great disadvantage. For Beauty can be better treated in the poem. Not so with terror, or passion, or horror, or a multitude of such other points.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

To continue my exploration into short story, I read one of the Twice-Told Tales Poe refers to in his review: “The Minister’s Black Veil” (also available online through Eldritch Press). I chose that particular story, first, because Prof. May also mentions it in his Introduction (though I didn’t mention it when I wrote about that chapter), and secondly, because of the distinctly snobbish attitude Poe brings to his comments:

“The Minister’s Black Veil” is a masterly composition of which the sole defect is that to the rabble its exquisite skill will be caviare. The obvious meaning of this article will be found to smother its insinuated one. The moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye (having reference to the “young lady”), has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.

~~Edgar Allan Poe, “Twice-Told Tales: A Review” from Graham’s Magazine, May 1842

Apparently Poe considers that Hawthorne’s mention of the funeral was sufficient cause for the reader to conclude that the reason for his veiling was an encounter with the young lady funeraled. As I read the story, I did indeed think it was odd that a young woman would die and no mention of the cause of her death would be made; I realize life was a bit more precarious in the early 19th century, but I’m not under the impression that the death of someone described as “young” would be regarded as routine, as if they were dropping like flies in the streets. I wondered if her death had significance that I lacked the historical/cultural background to understand. Now I wonder if suicide was the cause, and it was not mentioned out of propriety, and the very non-mention would have signalled that to a contemporary reader. In any case, to me it’s flimsy evidence.

I far prefer May’s reading of the story in the Introduction to this book, comparing it to the double-layered “parable” of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

It is not a simple story from which a moral lesson can be drawn, but rather a verbal construct that presents basic Enigma, essential Mystery. The minister puts on the black veil that shuts him off from the rest of the world as a symbolic objectification of what he has realized to be implicitly true. It is the townspeople’s intuitive awareness of that reality that strikes fear into their hearts when they see the veil.

~~Charles E. May, “I Am Your Brother”: Short Story Studies (2013)

There is no mention of a specific sin that drove him to don the veil, though it may be inferred anyway. I had thought of it more as Original Sin, the minister being a minister and all. It is a core tenet of most Christian sects that “sin” is “separation from God,” and some see the terrors of Hell not as fire and brimstone, but as that separation made manifest and eternal, generating a suffering of the soul that is equated with fire and brimstone. A veil would do the trick on this mortal plane, as it physically separates the Minister in a rather trivial way, but goes on to separate him in a more fundamental, human sense, from his fiancée, from friendships and relationships – from the community at large. And yes, I can see May’s interpretation that, like the Mariner, the Minister is a walking reminder of the existential isolation we all experience.

The next chapter broadens the question of genre when it looks at the historical development of the Short Story. Be back soon.

Charles E. May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies (2013) – “Introduction”

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second.… There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relations – a realm that the novel has always taken for its own – and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable – a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

I discovered Charles May – Professor Emeritus at Cal State, short story specialist – several years ago through his blog in which he discussed some BASS and PEN/O’Henry stories; he was particularly helpful as I untangled Alice Munro’s “Corrie” and a few other of her stories. I don’t always see what he sees in particular short stories, but I’m always interested in what he has to say, so when he recently self-published I Am Your Brother, a collection of previously published essays on the short story form, I bought it right away. I’ll be going through it slowly, chapter by chapter, over the coming months, enjoying along the way some of the stories he uses to illustrate his points.

In the Introduction (which is available online via two posts on his blog) May delimits the short story and the novel: “As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams–not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.” Maybe this is why short stories appeal to me, given my fondness for the “weird” – unusual narrative techniques, structures, diction, characters, situations, reactions.

Another key concept May uses is that of the “I” versus “other”, which weaves through psychology, theology, philosophy, cognitive science, and, of course, literature. Last summer I spent a few months happily exploring this theme (“the only way to understand the other is to become the other”) in literature via The Fiction of Relationship , a MOOC taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, which spanned novels – Beloved, Jane Eyre, Disgrace – as well as short-form (Borges, Kafka, Melville), so I’m not sure I’m ready to concede the “mythic” to the short story quite yet. Still, it’s a theme that resonates with me:

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.… This tension constitute fiction’s chief resemblance to life, says CS Lewis… For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and events.

I’m intrigued by May’s exploration of this theme through, first, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. During my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I encountered several explanations for various parts of this tale: Cain’s “fruits on the ground” meant rotten fruit, it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, he didn’t offer enough. Just poking around the Internet, I see lots of similar explanations, including one that admits the appearance of unfairness, and incorporates it into the theme of the story. All of these, however, have a religious, rather than a literary, grounding. May sees it a bit differently, as I understand it: it’s almost as if God models free will by capriciously rejecting Cain’s offering, then Cain turns around and exercises his own free will by killing Abel, resulting in separation from his brother, and, later, from his people.

He also examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, one of my own favorites from the standard Western canon I’ve otherwise largely ignored. I spent some time listening to a splendid dramatic reading (Richard Burton, John Neville) while following along with the text. May’s reading: the Mariner’s act of killing the albatross is an expression of free will, one pole of the human dilemma mentioned above; the rest of the poem shows the consequences of this free will, this separation from the whole resulting in a loss of unity, in aloneness: “The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world… a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck.…”

May also references Robert Penn Warren’s essay on Coleridge, “A Poem of Pure Imagination.” I have to admit I don’t quite see the distinction, as May does, between Robert Penn Warren’s “One Life” assertion, and his own “Separation of Life” but they both go deeper into literary theory than I’m equipped to handle. What I love about Penn’s essay is his discussion of the Mariner’s motivation for shooting the albatross in the first place, a starting place for many an English Lit paper:

The fact that the act is unmotivated in any practical sense, that it appears merely perverse, has offended literalists and Aristotelians alike… The lack of motivation, the perversity, which flies in the face of the Aristotelian doctrine of hamartia, is exactly the significant thing about the Mariner’s act. The act symbolizes the Fall, and the Fall has two qualities important here: it is a condition of will, as Coleridge says, “out of time,” and it is the result of no single human motive.

It’s right there in the poem, with the placement of a comma: we are all, all alone. Whether you want to call it Original Sin – separation from God – or free will – separation from each other – and whether you see one as a creation, or consequence of the other, is up to you.

May also uses Andre Dubus’ “Dancing After Hours,” from the story collection of the same name, in this Introduction. It’s a story new to me, and though I didn’t see what he saw in it (that happens sometimes). I enjoyed it for the focus on time from the very start. “Dancing after Hours” is an evocative phrase itself, speaking of an evening that’s over but must continue. The story opens with Emily’s age – 40 – which, as unfair and ridiculous as it is, has a certain echo; a 40-year-old woman bartender is very different from a 40-year-old male bartender, or a 25-year-old female bartender (stop before you write that nasty comment: 40 was a long time ago for me). In the first paragraph: “….she went outside to see the sun before it set.…” And she does.

Where Prof. May and I didn’t connect on this one was in the central climax of the story, the actual dancing after hours, which I saw as clichéd and overwrought with a Hallmark Hall of Fame Epiphany of the Week: Let Love In Even If You Fear Getting Hurt. May sees in the dancing that occurs, this union that fulfills the yearning proposed of the psyche. I see it in terms of what might be called “flow,” the sense of time stopping when you’re fully immersed in a soul-deep venture, be it physical (like sports), creative (writing), or exploration (reading, listening to music). I can see how the possibilities intersect I can also see the wonderful writer’s touches that go into the story, from the details of the opening I’ve already mentioned, to how Emily observes in great detail a man in a wheelchair exiting his van, eating, talking. That kind of detail, taking it all in, noticing, isn’t just exposition; it’s part of her character to be so intrigued. But the “And they all rode off into the sunset having grown a bit and everything will be all right and tomorrow’s full of possibility” ending felt a bit too pat for me; I have a nasty urge to see a postscript in which Emily gets seasick on her fishing trip with Jeff, Kay and Rita find no chemistry and come to work the next day awkward and embarrassed, and Drew never returns to the bar. I still have some growing to do as a reader.

I’m looking forward to continuing this book, and to encountering more stories new to me along the way and learning more about how the short story works.

Joel Christian Gill: Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (Fulcrum, 2014)

As an undergrad, I had researched some ideas for paintings based on lynching photographs. Now, I felt was the time to follow through. I listened to the song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday, based on the poem by Abel Meeropol, and I decided to call my paintings “Strange Fruit Harvested: He Cut the Rope,” showing me with a noose around my neck, holding the frayed end. I was trying to say that I was in some ways freed from the fear that had plagued my father and grandfather. However, I also wanted to convey that because the rope was still there, we still had a ways to go.
What does this have to do with black history, you might ask?… I wanted to tell stories – sometimes great and sometimes tragic – of other people who were also able to “cut the rope.” So, I began to research and draw comics about obscure black history. I looked for stories of people who were not in mainstream history books. I wanted to tell stories that people had not heard.

I’ve just recently gotten over the major stick-up-my-butt about graphic novels thanks to Matt Madden’s One Story #182 selection, “Drawn Onward”, a wonderful piece that introduced me to the heretofore unknown (to me) grammar of comix. So when I saw a post on Brain Pickings for Gill’s collection of nine lesser-known black history biographies presented in comic-style, I had to check it out. I’m so glad I did.

In How To Be Black, one of Baratunde Thurston’s riffs starts with the notion that Black History Month recycles the same five or six historical biographies of African Americans, and that’s about the extent of it. That’s what I love about this book: these aren’t people anyone’s likely to know. They lived before television, certainly, but they also lived before anyone in the mainstream thought ordinary people, let alone ordinary black people, could possibly live lives worth celebrating. Yet their lives have been preserved and celebrated, and now, Gill recelebrates them with all the nuance and significance of a Great American Novel. Because this, though denied for centuries, this is the Great American Novel. Maybe not the one we expected. But it’s the one that shows us, all of us, for who we are. Heroes are everywhere, especially when mere survival requires a level of personal heroism most of us never approach.

My favorite of the biographies – if “favorite” is the right word; perhaps I should say, the one that struck the hardest, since it happened here in Maine – is “The Shame”, Gill’s casting of the story of Malaga Island, and the wholesale institutionalization, criminalization, and in some cases, sterilization of members a law-abiding, hard-working, but mixed-race community. For those who keep insisting slavery was a long time ago, the eviction of these people occurred in the 20th century; an official apology to the descendents was issued in 2010.

Gill’s own favorite is “Two Letters” featuring, as the only text, two letters written by escaped slave and Union army soldier Spottswood Rice. The first letter he wrote to his children, still enslaved, to assure them he would be back for them, and that, though their owner at the time claimed that would be stealing property, he believed God would give precedence to the relationship between father and child over that of child and slaveowner. The second letter was to the slaveowner, to inform her in no uncertain terms that he and an army of black men would be coming to get his children. Gill’s artistic interpretation uses a unique grammar of comix, one I’m delighted to learn about –speech bubbles devoid of words, with the intensifying colors signifying escalating anger and fear; images instead of words; and, of course, the use of the letters as the only text.

This is great work, and makes innovative and powerful use of the combinations of words and images. Gill’s website includes more information about the construction of the book (happily, Volume 2 is in the works). I again must apologize for my years of dissing this art form.

But, more importantly, the timing of this book reminds me we are living now – last weekend, this week, as we watched Americans line up to yell at and threaten frightened children, this past year, in which voting rights are being etched away day by day, these past two years in which teenagers can be shot with impunity as long as someone believes black skin is itself a danger – in a moment for which we will again be apologizing for a long, long time, if we don’t destroy ourselves first.

Mohsin Hamid: How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Riverhead, 2013)

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or a movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama” looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama.”
But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

When this book showed up as the June selection for my library’s monthly reading group, I remembered I’d already read “The Third-Born”, an excerpt of the first chapters in The New Yorker (available online). While I appreciated several things about it, I wrote at the time: “Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.” So given the opportunity to read it – and knowing it was a fairly short book – I figured I might as well go ahead and read the rest of it.

I had much the same reaction to the novel as I’d had to the excerpt: I appreciated many things about it, but it didn’t reach me.

I like unusual approaches, and framing a pretty standard rags-to-riches-to-fall life story as a self-help book is a clever idea; I liked that. I liked that there are no names in the book, yet we always know exactly who is who; people are identified by their relationship to the narrator. I liked that it dips into metafiction from time to time, talking about the purpose of writing a book and the process of reading. I liked that the narrator, and The Pretty Girl, are on similar trajectories, and end up in similar circumstances. In short, I liked the way the story was told. I just didn’t like the story all that much.

In some ways, I think that’s the nature of the beast. We have a narrator who seems to have intense emotions from all he says and does, but they remain deep inside him. For example, The Pretty Girl. She first appears in the self-help chapter about not falling in love if your objective is to become filthy rich. It’s pretty clear that he would’ve rather had her than wealth at that point; her departure, instead of being the regret of his life, becomes a lucky break. That’s the sound of a broken heart, trying to make the best of things.

Lots of interesting ideas came out during the group’s discussion. No names are used in the book, not a place name or a person’s name. The setting is left open: when I’d read the excerpt, which was titled differently, I’d thought of Northern Africa or the Middle East; most readers thought Pakistan or Afghanistan; one woman was surprised, as she’d vividly envisioned it in China. Another reader mentioned it’s not at all about getting filthy rich in Asia, bringing up the point: it’s about everything else, and maybe that’s a key to the narrator. In the closing chapters, he is finally united with his lifelong love, a woman on a similar trajectory – first up, then down – and only then perhaps is he filthy rich.

Another reader raised the question: could the son be the author, writing about his father? That idea appeals to me, though it’d be hard to see how the son would have access to the information about the early years. This leads to another observation: periodically, the narration shifts to reveal the inner thoughts of one character or another; are these actual thoughts, or are they the imaginings of the writer? In that case, is it possible this is penned by the son, who has imagined and pieced together his father’s early life from family stories he’s heard? This becomes a stronger possibility as I re-read the opening:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author…
None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

The more I think about it, the more I see this book as written by someone not the narrator. It could be a son’s – not memorial, exactly, maybe imagining would be a better word – of his father. A way for him to come to know the man he never knew, the man who kept his feelings deep inside where they wouldn’t betray him. But I have a different idea.

The one place where the narrator’s feelings are explicit and extreme are in Chapter Seven, Prepare to Use Violence, when he fears gang reprisals; the terror was palpable to me as I read, as opposed to his love and even lust for the Pretty Girl; or, for that matter, his drive to become Filthy Rich. The son was not yet born at this time. But the narrator was married; his wife, at 20, was studying law, and per their agreement, she would postpone childbearing until her education was complete. I wonder if the wife, later ex-wife, wrote this. One of the most prominent features is the narrator’s distance from his wife; she just appears out of the blue, in this chapter on violence, in fact, and she’s a muted character throughout. I wonder if she’s writing his biography, and the fear is so exposed because it was her fear.

Interesting book. I’m glad my library book group selected it.

Pushcart 2014: The End

When I started this volume back in January, I guessed I’d finish by July by doing one piece from each genre (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) a week. I didn’t realize at the time that, first, there isn’t an even distribution between genres (a year and a half of math MOOC after math MOOC, and I still can’t count), and, second, I’d need to put the project on hiatus for six weeks while I MOOC’d myself silly (which, by the way, I’m doing again though to a lesser extent; I just can’t help myself).

Nevertheless, here it is the first week of July, and approximately 13 fictions, 17 CNFs, and 36 poems later, we’re done.

I was originally drawn to Pushcart by the fiction, but I was more impressed by the other genres this time, perhaps because it’s more unfamiliar territory; I learned what was possible. The non-fiction, for example. A comment on an art installation can be art, a personal essays on house painting or a car accident or sudden illness or other tragedy can swing wide and deep into the collective human experience, and the aftereffects of publishing a memoir or story collection or an op-ed can generate a new stream of thought for the writer which generates yet another new stream of thought for the reader, who in writing about it and generates a new…

It was with the poetry I grew the most.

As I’ve said, I’ve always been afraid of poetry; I don’t understand it, meaning I can’t get the right answer on a test or see what some poetry handbook says I should see. Then I took a MOOC that presented an interpretation, but also honored and celebrated other possibilities, that gave “open” the final say. Did I “get” every poem? Not even close. Did I discover more about what poetry can do, and how? Absolutely. I even bought a book of poems for the first time in decades (two books, actually, but Tin House’s Whitman, Illuminated was unrelated to Pushcart).

One of the unexpected delights of blogging short stories – blogging anything, really – has been finding the right art to go with each piece. An interesting exercise: what image do I see with this piece? I know nothing about art, so my choices may seem either simplistic or obscure. With a couple of poems, my search led to new background information that enriched the reading experience. I spend what might seem to be an inordinate amount of time on art; the benefit to me is worth the effort, though I doubt a reader would think so.

So what were my favorite selections from 2014?

I was less than amazed by the fiction this time around; I’m not sure if that’s about the material, or about me, and if the latter, if it’s good or bad; maybe I’ve just encountered enough really good short fiction that a good story doesn’t surprise me the way it used to. I did have three favorites, all pieces with an odd narrative style:

Robert Coover, “The Reader
Ayşe Papatya Bucak, “Iconography
Taymiya Zaman, “Thirst

In non-fiction, I’m hard-pressed to choose, because this is the category that stood out this year. Some pieces made me think; some made me laugh; some made me cry. If I had to pick a top three:

Andrew Zolot, “The Piece Need Not Be Built
Eric Fair, “Consequence
Tess Taylor, “The Waste Land App
Bill Cotter, “The Gentleman’s Library, a Nowaday Redux
Pam Houston, “Corn Maze

But wait, you say, isn’t that five? It is; deal with it. I would’ve liked to have included a couple others, in fact. I notice now that all of these deal with writing in some way. I’m not sure if I have a special affinity for reading about writing, or if writers have a special affinity for writing about writing.

I feel a little silly choosing favorite poems, since my grasp of poetry is still quite feeble, but I did cherish a few above and beyond:

Ocean Vuong, “Self-Portrait With Exit Wounds
Mary Ruefle, “ During a Break from Feeling
Eduardo C. Corral, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
Susan B. A. Sommers-Willett, “Tallahatchie

On a more somber note: I was blindsided – twice – by the grim discovery, after I’d read the works, that two of the authors included here were deceased, both tragically early in their lives. Both works involved deaths, as do many poems and stories.

A little bird (named Zin) told me the Zoetrope “BASS office” was turning to Pushcart, so I joined again, just to talk about these stories all over again. I’ll be interested to see if my read of any of the stories changes; it hasn’t been that long, but who knows. In any event, it’ll be fun to revisit them.

Onward…

Pushcart 2014: Jake Adam York, “Self-Portrait as Superman (Alternate Take)” (Poetry) from New England Review, Summer 2012

At twenty-four frames per second, sixty seconds is two hundred
             feet of film you’ll never see: Christopher Reeve
ready to become mild-mannered Clark Kent — sharp
 
                     trilby and blue chalk-pinstripe suit—
once they call Action, the Who-me smile fading
             to bit-lip circumspection, cover story and secret,
 
hand on the button-down’s placket, ready to pull
                     the buttons from their eyes, peel
the rough-hewn cotton from the ancient crest, the S
 
             that curves like a river between the mountains,
a snake curled inside a chest, invulnerable aorta
                     of Kal-El’s dense alien body, gone spectacular
 
in the air of his new home planet, to run, almost,
             out of his clothes and into the air, faster than
a speeding track star alone in the Kansas wheat,…

This poem is available online in text and audio. I urge you to read the complete properly typeset version rather than these excerpts (pay attention to the curving, curling line indents as you read the text above), and I urge you to listen, particularly to the audience, who supplies an enthusiasm rarely heard at poetry readings. I especially urge you to watch a video of a reading York gave in November 2012 which has nothing to do with this poem, but includes his explanation, at about the 4 minute mark, of a “long term life project”: to write a poem for each of 120 Civil Rights martyrs.

That project will remain unfinished.

A few days after the publication of this poem in December 2012, Jake Adam York died of a stroke at age 40.

I must let the poem, and the poet, stand on their own. I can’t bear to do more for the second Pushcart writer this year to leave too soon.

             He’ll smile again as he always does, boyish
and pure, the curl’s wag ready to swing free,
                     waiting for the call that lets him arc
 
across the sky, high over the heads of any tragic
             chorus, arms open to catch the screaming woman
who, it seems, is hardly ever there. He’ll ease
 
                     again, two hundred feet of acetate,
to the ground, where they’ll curl in their questions—
             Who are you? What was that?—in a darkness
 
where he can unbutton his shirt and graze
                     cramped fingers over skin
burned like a meteor in the rays of our yellow sun.

Pushcart 2014: Jude Nutter, “Love Like That” (Poetry) from The Briar Cliff Review, January 2012

Cannula, from the Latin, means little reed,
and how could you not be thinking of the hero, ricocheting
through the forest, tailed by the enemy, then breaking
cover to find himself at the frayed margins of a swamp
where the water parsley and the hemlock are fuming
into the slow fireworks of their umbels, where,
on the first try, he severs a perfect length of reed and submerges –
simply sinks beneath the convenient surface of the water –
to breathe, calmly, through its long, hollow body.
But your mother was drowning anyway, propped up
on a pale talus of pillows, the twin stems of the cannula
looped demurely behind her ears, and you know, now,
that such escapes are not possible…

When we think of poems about the death of loved ones, we expect scenes of grief, memories, and expressions of emotion such as loss, love, and sorrow. We don’t expect cannulas. But cannulas are the instrument here through which the poem (available online, thank you, Briar Cliff Review) breathes, just like the submerged hero. It’s the means by which the poem takes its first breath before moving on to the subject of dying, and, of course, grief, memories, and expressions of emotion. It’s an interesting beginning that connects to these emotions. Just as the speaker realizes that breathing through reeds isn’t possible, the poet understands that talking about what is to be talked about here cannot be done without powerful emotion. Yet, while we do soon arrive in the mother’s hospital room, perhaps choosing this beginning backs us away from the overwhelming sentimentalism to which such a poem might be prone.

Throughout the poem, I see many images of leave-taking, linked with somber feelings: the hospital’s garden includes “drapes of ivy from which a single robin kept flying / in red arcs of lament, breaking out from behind / the waxed latches of the leaves.” Then, a few lines later, we discover: “She had no use for that garden…” Of course not; she already has an intimate relationship with that arc of lament.

The natural world, and the intersection of humankind and nature, also echoes this bittersweet sense of leavetaking, the “It’s been lovely but I must be on my way now” that runs the universe:

And we don’t talk enough
about the moment when that light abandons the water
at evening and the sea, turning its back, becomes suddenly
secret and remote. And it’s like a door closing.
It’s like a heart shutting down. And too much has been said
about the boats casting off from the quay and leaving
the clutch of the harbor; all that tonnage –
blocks and shackles and nets – upheld and under power,
catching and riding the swells. But that’s what they do,
those boats leaving the harbor – they head west
toward the hour of such abandonment.

The poem, however, is not the relationship between the speaker and mother; in fact, the speaker’s feelings are muted throughout, expressed only through what s/he notices. This selection of attention speaks volumes, of course. The poem isn’t even about the mother, or death or loss (though it brushes up against all these) or any of a hundred other things we might’ve expected had not the cannula signaled from the beginning a departure from the ordinary. No, the poem is in the fulfillment of the title.

I’m interested in titles, how they work, how they’re chosen. My Flash Fiction Hero, Randall Brown, wrote a bit about the possibilities of titles (“…count five lines up from the bottom. There you’ll find the title. Every time”) as focusers of attention. I tend to be very fond of titles that serve as first lines of a poem (or prose, for that matter) as in my recent discovery, “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes”. I’ve seen other descriptions – to identify the subject in an ode, for example, so the reader knows the poem is addressed to a skylark (or a goldfish). A contemporary, if skeptical, view might see the title as click bait.

But here, the title strikes me as a destination, what journeys have always been about, from the Odyssey to the Orient Express to the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Read this poem, and you will get to Love Like That.

Pushcart 2014: Timothy Donnelly, “The Earth Itself” (Poetry) from Poetry Northwest, Spring/Summer 2012

Turris Babel

Turris Babel

To quantify the foolishness of the already long since failed
construction project, the famous German polymath
 
undertook to calculate the precise number of bricks
the Tower of Babel would have required had it ever been
 
finished. The figure he came up with ran an impressive
eighteen digits in length, climbing all the way up
 
to that rarely occupied hundred-quadrillionths place.
Looking at it now, between loads of laundry, the figure
 
calls to mind an American telephone number…

I’d never heard of Athanasius Kircher before reading this poem (it’s available online). He was indeed a famous German polymath of the 17th century, a Jesuit priest whose studies spanned the arts and sciences, from magnetism to Zen philosophy to acoustics to Egyptology to music to, yes, the physics of the Tower of Babel. But this piece is a poem, not an encyclopedia article.

I was struck by the rhythm as I read the poem out loud: no matter how I tried to read in lines, or sentences, I ended up reading in phrases, phrases of different meters strung together. The iambic tetrameter and kin stuck out the most – “To quantify the foolishness… undertook to calculate…The figure he came up with ran… I feel a little lost / through the hypnosis of those zeroes, but I still pick up / the phone and dial …” I felt a little lost by the hypnosis of that excerpt, but except for that last one, these are interrupted enough to keep it from becoming sing-songy. I wonder if that’s what’s happening here: a Tower of Babel of phrases, in different meters, laid in neat pairs of rows/lines.

Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s an intersection of the extraordinary and the mundane: the Tower of Babel, and the laundry. Physics, and a phone number. The World is Bound with Secret Knots (one of Kirchner’s studies of magnetism).

The last couplet, fulfilling the promise of the title, leads to an entirely new line of thought; it’s quite remarkable, though I may be the only person on earth who hasn’t heard this one before. No, I won’t quote it here; the poem’s out there; it’s short, it’s accessible. Go read it. And when you get to the last line, remember, I told you so.

Pushcart 2014: Bob Hicok, “Getting By” (Poetry) from Frequencies (Yes Yes Books), Jan 2013

I love the idea of climbing a ladder
carrying another ladder.

As whimsical as this poem starts out, there’s a sadness underneath the whimsy that I find touching. I find the progression similar to that of “Akhmatova”, but with a higher energy throughout; the poetic version of rapid-cycling bipolar mood swings, complete with the cause-and-effect element: light causes dark causes light

Buddhism, as I understand it (which isn’t very well) incorporates something called the Law of Opposites: “Let a man overcome anger by love; let him overcome hatred by kindness; let him overcome the greedy by liberality; the liar by truth.” In a similar way, the speaker of this poem is embracing that which is distressing, be it drought or rejection: he loved his wife for leaving him, and she came back; then he loves the drought: ” I love my thirst / for its willingness to kill me.”

We don’t find out if that quenches his thirst; throughout, desperation comes through:

…the people
in the city who look up
and want moonlight, even a quarter moon,
even the word moon on a string will do.

I’m not sure what happens here; is this a warning? This lowering of standards is what happens when you embrace that which hurts you, when you start settling for less and less? Or simply a recognition that here is where we are, where we have always been, all of us, unable to get enough love, or water, or moonlight?

Another poem that leaves me with more questions than answers. And that’s just the way I like it.

Pushcart 2014: Matthew Dickman, “Akhmatova” (Poetry) from The American Poetry Review, Jul/Aug 2012

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova (1911)

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova (1911)

That’s right! Now I remember. I was on the beach
looking at Haystack Rock,
putting my finger into the mouths of sea anemones,
their tentacles sweeping over my knuckles, I was whispering
the word brother
to one, and the word sister to the other
though maybe they were both. I wanted to be close
to another species.

I think of this as a poetic painting in alternating tones: bright, dark, bright, dark; it struck me powerfully, even in the places I don’t fully understand. I don’t have any idea how to talk about it without going through each line, each sentence, each idea, so it’s a good thing it’s available online (thank you, Poets & Writers) in both text and audio , read by the author – I was surprised to discover how young he sounded, then surprised again to find out he’s almost middle-aged. As I read, I imagined someone much older; as I listened, much younger. Alternating tones.

Bright: The opening image of the boy whispering “brother” and “sister” to the sea anemones; poking his fingers into their mouths, into the natural world. Charming, even to me, who tolerates rather than enjoys reading about children and nature.

Dark: “I had been reading about the dark windows / Akhmatova looked through / to see if her son had been let out of prison.” Akhmatova? Some ancient mythological figure, perhaps? (I make no secret that I’m not exactly widely-read) Close; Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet whose life spanned from Nicholas II to Kruschev; her son, historian Lev Gumilev, spent most of Stalin’s reign in a Gulag, and she was none too appreciated post-revolution herself. What does this have to do with sea anemones, with a little boy putting his fingers into nature? I’m not really sure: Hey, reader, yes, these anemones are adorable, but wait, darkness is always just around the corner, a thought away. Who is it that’s in prison, who is it that’s looking through dark windows?

A moment in Light again – I so love the phrase “feeling like I had done a good job being myself” – before returning to Dark:


I heard my third-grade teacher
whisper into my ear
what’s wrong with you? You want to be stupid your whole life?

I get a lot of that, myself. A casual visitor to my apartment, seeing my awkward models of geometric shapes and badly-drawn diagrams of compass-straightedge constructions, asked if I have children, and refused to take no for an answer: “Do you teach, then? Take care of the neighbor’s kids?” Eventually I just changed the subject, rather than explain my recent fascination with Euclid. All the time, I get asked if I’m ever going to try writing again: “If you don’t want to write fiction, you could write essays.” Yes, I suppose I could, couldn’t I.

Recently, my Favorite Math Blogger (Humor Division), wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the gap in perspective between students and teachers: “A moment the teacher barely remembers might stick with the student for years.” We all carry voices, good and bad, light and dark: voices of people who remember what they said, of those who have forgotten, of those who at some point changed their minds, voices of people long turned to dust, voices of people we’ve long surpassed, or still strive to equal, in courage, morality, achievement. We may not get to choose which of those voices we hear, but we get to choose which we listen to.

The poem then returns to Akhmatova, in a section that, particularly when I listen to the reading, sounds like the rhythm of the sea. “No matter… No matter… will still…. will still… will still….”

I got a bit sidetracked during my research by turning up a Greenpeace action against the Russian ship Anna Akhmatova, with protestors defending nature by chaining themselves to the anchor line of the ship working on a deep-sea oil rig; as convenient as those references may be, it took place in summer 2012, far too late to be a reference for this poem (but I do love a good coincidence, not to mention digressions of any kind).

Back to the question of what Akhmatova has to do with a boy exploring nature: Is this “fingers into the natural world” a more general metaphor (well, duh, did I really think it was about anemones?) for a kind of personal liberation from artificial strictures? Anna Akhmatova’s son ran afoul of Soviet authorities due to, among other things, his theory of “passionarity” to explain the rise and fall of powers (I think; I’m not going to begin to figure it out here); talk about poking your finger into nature; does the speaker feel a kinship with the son, chained to his homeroom seat with Mother Nature looking on? Or (and/or) is the speaker looking at the boy (himself) as his son (younger self) as imprisoned, longing for his release from homeroom into the world of anemones? That moment is in the past; it can’t be changed, but neither must it be a permanent state: the boy can grow up and visit all the anemones he likes, it’s only the speaker’s mind that keeps him frozen in the past.

Come out of the dark and play in the light, the water’s fine. Sincerely, Anemone.

Pushcart 2014: David Hernandez, “All-American” (Poetry) from The Southern Review, Autumn 2012

Kumi Yamashita, "Origami, 2005" (modified)

Kumi Yamashita, “Origami, 2005″ (modified)

I’m this tiny, this statuesque, and everywhere
in between, and everywhere in between
bony and overweight, my shadow cannot hold
one shape in Omaha, in Tuscaloosa, in Aberdeen.
My skin is mocha brown, two shades darker
than taupe, your question is racist, nutmeg, beige,
I’m not offended by your question at all.
Penis or vagina? Yes and yes. Gay or straight?
Both boxes. Bi, not bi, who cares, stop
fixating on my sex life, Jesus never leveled
his eye to a bedroom’s keyhole.

Politicians have a fondness for categories; the fewer categories, and the more stereotyped, the better for figuring out what to say to capture votes. When their simplistic discourse filters down into the popular consciousness, we end up looking at people by one characteristic – age, race, sex, occupation – and ignoring the rest. Hernandez’ poem reminds us that there is no such thing as “The Latino”: that there are far more than fifty shades of brown.

Right from the first phrase, the poem sets out to confound expectations. When I hear “I’m this tiny,” I immediately expect to hear, “little thing,” a noun phrase of some kind; not another phrase contrasting tiny with statuesque. As someone who habitually sees at least twelve sides to any issue, I enjoyed this tour of the variety of people on this planet.

There’s a rolling rhythm to the poem, very conversational, with occasional accents of emphatic syllables (“I don’t hunt”) and a lovely chugalong at the end that meshes perfectly with semantic content (“gather the shopping carts into one long, rolling, clamorous and glittering backbone”) but for me the heart lies in the overall statement, and in the images that meld into each other:

                                                       ….Against
gun control, for cotton bullets, for constructing
a better fence along the border, let’s raise
concrete toward the sky, why does it need
all that space to begin with? For creating
holes in the fence, adding ladders, they’re not
here to steal work from us, no one dreams
of crab walking for hours across a lettuce field
so someone could order the Caesar salad.

Hernandez has recorded a reading of the poem on Soundcloud; there’s also a lovely video by motionpoems available on Youtube, for an appropriately diverse experience.

Pushcart 2014: François Villon, “Villon’s Epitaph (Ballade of the Hanged Men)” (Poetry) translated by Richard Wilbur, from Hudson Review, Autumn 2012

O brother men who after us remain,
Do not look coldly on the scene you view,
For if you pity wretchedness and pain,
God will the more incline to pity you.
You see us hang here, half a dozen who
Indulged the flesh in every liberty
Till it was pecked and rotted, as you see,
And these our bones to dust and ashes fall.
Let no one mock our sorry company,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.

I do some background research on all the pieces I blog; any reviews or blog comments I can find, information about the author. I usually find an interesting tidbit or two. This one was an absolute gold mine.

Translation fascinates me: given all that language contains, just how close can any translation come to the original? So much needs to be translated: semantic meaning, of course, but also nuance, associations, images, sound, rhythm. Given how hard it is to convey anything precisely within even a more-or-less homogeneous culture, how can even the essence, let alone the nuance, of a work be translated outside that culture? I got a small taste of this back in college when we looked at some of the issues with respect to Beowolf; it’s hard enough with prose, but given poetry’s additional elements of meter, rhyme, and form, how is it at all possible?

Translator Richard Wilbur has taken a highly formal piece from medieval France, and translated it to 21st century America. He’s preserved meter, syllable count, and a complicated rhyme scheme, while creating a moving poem with contemporary sociopolitical overtones that is nonetheless, as far as I can tell, true to the original. This is remarkable work. And it is available online (thank you, Hudson Review). If you prefer the original French, that’s online too (there’s supposed to be an acrostic of Villon’s name in the original somewhere – but I can’t find it in any language. If you see it, please let me know), with a literal (but far less poetically true) translation, and several French readings are available on video as well.

François Villon, the original poet, led a tumultuous life; born into poverty, he was rescued by a cleric whose name he adopted, and thus had access to education. But he couldn’t stay out of trouble. This poem was written while he awaited hanging, but he was exiled instead and disappeared from history.

The form is the Ballade Supreme, with a highly restrictive format: three ten-line stanzas, each ending with the refrain line, then a five-line “envoy” (new word, never heard that one before) at the end, for a total of 35 lines. Each line is ten syllables. The rhyme scheme allows only four rhymes throughout the entire poem: ABABB/CCDCD repeated for each ten-line verse, with CCDCD as the envoy. This severely limits word choices. It’s why I’m all the more amazed that Wilbur was able to pull it off, and still end up with a lovely poem.

The voice is first person plural – the “we” voice. I’m not sure if this is common in medieval poetry, or in current American poetry for that matter, but it’s one of my favorite artistic choices in contemporary prose, typically used to emphasize like-mindedness. This usage is a bit different; the speaker is a group of six hanged men, asking those who view them – the reader – to look on them with mercy, and I suspect it could be looked at as more of an “I” as a representative – something like the royal “we” – rather than a true plural voice.

It’s quite grim in diction – rotting corpses, picked by birds, soaked in rain, dried and blackened by sun – “pitted like thimbles” – and each stanza ends with the plea, “But pray to God that He forgive us all.” That’s what I love, the sudden expansion of the “we” – “that He forgive us all” – not just the thieves, but those that hanged them, and those who scorn their remains. Of course, that’s a 21st century reading from someone who has a few feelings about being a citizen of one of the few countries that still kills people in the name of justice.

For a close look at the translation, let’s try a table of a few particularly interesting spots:

At this point I’m a bit biased, but it seems to me that, in addition to preserving the literal meaning and formal elements, Wilbur’s translation is also more beautiful. At first I was worried about “pitted like thimbles” – such a great image, and, I thought, perhaps generated from the sense of “as if it were sewed” in the literal translation. But it turns out, the French word for “thimble” is “dé à coudre” which is right there in the text. Whether the particular 15th century juxtaposition of “pecked”, “birds”, and “thimble” means one thing or the other, or whether, having already used the “pecked by birds” imagery in the first stanza, Villon, and then Wilbur, simply expanded and, ahem, embroidered that image, I can’t say… but I know which one strikes me more as a reader.

I’m curious, however, about the use of “forgive” rather than “absolve” – there’s little change in meter, yet Wilbur chose the former. Why? I don’t know, but here are some clues: “absolve” is from the Latin prefix-root combination ab-solve meaning “loosen from”; “forgive” is from the Old English forgiefan meaning “give, grant, allow” and, later, under the influence of other languages (including Latin) such as English has historically been prone, to mean “give up desire to punish”. It seems to me that “absolve” changes the condition of the miscreant; “forgive” changes the condition of the forgiver. Those are two different things. I’ve also discovered that there’s a difference in Catholic theology, but I’ve found differing interpretations of that difference. One is that the Church absolves, but only God forgives; the other is more or less the reverse of that. Being as unfamiliar with Catholicism as I am with French, I’ll have to pass on the issue of which is canonically accurate.

But going back to the first distinction, between the sinner being absolved but the merciful forgiving, I wonder if that’s why Wilbur chose the word he did. Villon wouldn’t have had access to the word “forgive,” of course; is Wilbur assuming it’s the word he would have used, if given a choice? Was Villon’s speaker in the poem, the congregation of hanged men, more interested in convincing onlookers to let go of their scorn, than in being set loose from the already-fulfilled consequences of the crimes?

Formal analysis, justice, the nature of forgiveness, translation theory – all that, and a lovely poem, too. Who could ask for more.