BASS 2016: Daniel J. O’Malley, “Bridge” from Alaska Quarterly Review #32

He saw the old couple twice, once when they stopped halfway across to pose for a picture, and again a year later when they came back, this time without the camera, and for a while all they did was stand there.
Both times he watched from the window, which was not what he was supposed to be doing, he knew that, he knew well what he was supposed to be doing, which was studying. In the mornings, his mother would tell him things – he would follow her around the house while she did her inside work, then outside where she did her garden work and her chicken work – and he would listen and take notes in his notebook while she talked about the histories of their state and their country and their family – his mother’s family, plus his father’s family, and then their own family, the family they made when they made him – but also about the flood of locusts and frogs and other plagues that had happened before and could happen again, and he would take notes so that in the afternoon he could sit in his bedroom and study, and to then in the evening, after the supper dishes were done, he could stand and recite for his father what all he’d learned from his mother in the morning.
But his memory was strong. His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth. So most days he passed his afternoon study time staring out the window and down at the bridge, which was the only thing he could see between the trees.

Remember Chekhov’s Gun? It’s the axiom of plotting that requires that everything in the story be essential, often phrased as “If you put a gun in the first act, it better go off before the end of the play.” What about when there are two guns, and your attention is so focused on the MAC-10 you’re taken by surprise when it’s the air rifle that pops off.

The actual bridge in the story, as interesting as it turns out to be, takes second place to the more metaphorical bridge between childhood and the beginnings of adulthood, that moment when a child realizes that, though he’s been aware for a while that the world isn’t necessarily as it seems, neither are his parents. And there’s a rabbit. Maybe.

I’m always interested in the ways adults lie to children. It’s usually to shield them from tough realities they may not yet have the perspective to handle, but it’s often to shield the adults from facing uncomfortable truths as well. The most destructive lies, I think, are the ones that deny the child’s own feelings and perceptions. You know you love your sister, now go hug her. We aren’t fighting, we’re having a discussion. O’Malley zooms in on that moment in our young protagonist’s life, and sets it in a highly distracting bigger moment. So distracting, in fact, I’m still wondering about it: Why didn’t the boy pay more attention to it? Was the air rifle really that much more of a novelty than the automatic? Successful imaginary restructuring? Repression? Or the overshadowing importance of the personal?

BASS 2016: Caille Millner, “The Politics of the Quotidian” from  #31.2

The committee wants to have a word with her.
… Mikael Sbocniak (department chair) will take the seat in the middle. Tomas Ulrikson (selection committee head for her post-doc interview) will be on his left, with Ernst Lichtenberg (faculty mentor whom she’s met only once) on his right. She’ll sit on the other side of the table, facing them. A triptych of white beards, deep voices, cashmere sport coats. The same look from brewing for decades in the same stock of misanthropic contempt.
Pity. The study of philosophy should have done something for them – made them kinder or more thoughtful – but she’s not sure what it’s done for her, either. Years ago, when she was stressed starting graduate school, she’d have loved to critique the power dynamics of the meeting like this one. She’d be spouting Hegel and Foucault. Now she no longer wants to say anything at all.

I love academic snark. Some of my favorite stories – Taymiya Zaman’s “Thirst“, for instance – expose the dark side of the Ivory Towers. I don’t understand it, and I don’t know that I could tolerate it for long, since I prefer honesty and straightforwardness, if only because it’s easier than keeping straight a web of deceit. But in academia, as in business and for god’s sake politics, those things won’t get you anywhere. I follow many professors on Twitter, usually teachers from moocs I’ve taken, and while they don’t often air dirty laundry in public, it’s always interesting when I get a peek at one corner of the basket. So when I started this story, and found it featured a philosophy professor struggling with her environment, I rubbed my hands together gleefully.

As it happens, I got a lot more than I expected. And it happened so subtly, I was poleaxed before I felt the blade.

In terms of technique and craft, I think the subtlety is what makes this a Best story (if there is such a thing). I think it’s even quite possible that good readers will miss the hints to what is really going on; I didn’t catch on until the third one, for example. Spoilers will indeed spoil that element. But so does discussing how subtle it is, without even revealing what it is that’s so subtle, so too late, so I’m going to reveal more than should be revealed. But I do urge any reader: don’t proceed unless you’ve read the story. It’s really worth experiencing how Millner does it.

Our unnamed protagonist is a philosophy professor whose disillusionment begins long before a student challenges her interpretation of Barthes in class, then storms out while accusing her of incompetence. I’m nowhere near familiar enough with Kant’s aesthetics or, yeah, Barthes, keep meaning to read him, to put much out here, but AFAIK key notions are subjectivity and universality of beauty, and the higher aesthetic perception of form, as opposed to mere taste, the evaluation, outside the realm of aesthetics, of content. I’m not sure how this functions in the story, but fortunately for our purposes – or at least, my purposes – I find a great deal that coincides with the repeated phrase the politics of the quotidian: no matter what we claim to believe, it is in our everyday behaviors that we show what we value, what we believe, who we are.

Just like the experience of riding a public bus, a strange man read her refusal to make eye contact as an invitation to speak.

Who is allowed to belong? The professor asks her unruly student to leave with, “You don’t belong here right now”. She doesn’t feel like she belongs. She never has, it seems, not in boarding school where she “looked different from the other kids” (I skipped right around that, attributing it to unattractiveness or poverty, possibly disability, because our assumptions have a way of steering us around discomfort zones). She certainly doesn’t feel like she belongs in the same room as the three senior faculty profs she’s going to meet with. And the climactic incident occurs when an administrative worker (who is probably feeling the same kind of intrusion onto her competence, by the way) refuses to help her, demands her ID, and throws her out for requesting help with a computer issue.

If that sounds like a pretty poor excuse for a climax, well, I left out a crucial flashback our professor remembers when the admin tells her she doesn’t look like her photo:

If she looked different in her ID picture, it wasn’t because she was so much the younger last year, it was because the photographer didn’t have the proper lighting. She knew this only because he’d told her as much. It was his way of apologizing for the fact that her face on the ID was an orange smudge.
“These color filters,” the photographer had said. “They’re designed for lighter skin. I hope that’s not a weird thing to say. I don’t see color, myself. But the camera does, and if I had known I have brought different ones.”
“If you had known what?” She’d asked him.
“I mean, they said philosophy department,” he said, laughing.

All these people who don’t see color. What they mean is, they only see white people.

It’s a story about a life lived in the face of microaggressions. Go ahead, mock the idea, but you try being invalidated, just a little bit, every hour of every day in a hundred different ways. Is it really such a burden to ask that we examine our assumptions, our language, and consider what it feels like to be on the other side of the jokes, the cliches, the stereotypes?

I didn’t realize the protagonist was unnamed until I started making notes for this post, and realized I couldn’t find her name. Then I realized I hadn’t read the Contributor Note, which informed me this was a deliberate choice: “I knew I would take one big risk – identifying only those characters who had been accepted by the institution.” I love this choice. Names are identities: “Who are you” is almost always answered with a name. We go through great lengths to remember names as courtesy and as good business. God brought the animals to Adam for naming. To refuse to name her is to underline her exclusion. I feel pretty stupid for having missed it initially.

These are interesting times for this story. The politics of the quotidian. Who we are leaks out in everyday life. Compassionate liberals urge our government to welcome refugees and asylum seekers, then fume and complain when it takes an extra four minutes at the grocery store checkout line while the cashier figures out the voucher the newcomers must use. Public minded citizens love children and support education yet vote for property tax plans that cut school funding to lower their taxes so they can keep their kids in private school. Committed feminists sneer at pretty cocktail waitresses when Mr. Feminist smiles too long (that one’s for you, Amy Gardner). Who you are shows through what you do, every little bit of it.

I think readers are going to have very different reactions to this story. I think 48.2% will see our professor as sympathetic, 46.5% will want to know what she did to deserve it, and the second group will win because their predecessors set it up that way. And that’s why the politics of the quotidian matter.

BASS 2016: Ben Marcus, “Cold Litte Bird” from The New Yorker 10/19/15

It started with bedtime. A coldness. A formality.
Martin and Rachel tucked the boy in, as was their habit, then stooped to kiss him good night.
“Please don’t do that,” he said, turning to face the wall.
They took it as teasing, flopped onto his bed to nuzzle and tickle him.
The boy turned rigid, endured the cuddle, then barked out at them, “I really don’t like that!”
“Jonah?” Martin said, sitting up.
“I don’t want your help at bedtime anymore,” he said. “I’m not a baby. You have Lester. Go cuddle with him.”
“Sweetheart,” Rachel said. “We’re not helping you. We’re just saying good night. You like kisses, right? Don’t you like kisses and cuddles? You big silly.”
… “We love you so much. You know?” Martin said. “So we like to show it. It feels good.”
“Not to me. I don’t feel that way.”
“What way? What do you mean?”
They sat with him, perplexed, and tried to rub his back, but he’d rolled to the edge of the bed, nearly flattening himself against the wall.
“I don’t love you,” Jonah said.
“Oh, now,” Martin said. “You’re just tired. No need to say that sort of stuff. Get some rest.”
“You told me to tell the truth, and I’m telling the truth. I. Don’t. Love. You.”

~~ Complete story available online at TNY

Seriously creepy story. No monsters, no supernatural events, no blood or violence, just a kid who rationally, calmly decides to withdraw from parental affection. How’s a parent supposed to deal with that one? In this story, not well. But… what would well even look like? I suppose the natural approach to this story is to wonder, “What would I do,” but since I’m not a parent, I have no idea what to do with a typical child, let alone a child like this.

Jonah isn’t acting out. He isn’t withdrawing from anyone else – his relationship with his brother and his behavior in school is perfectly normal – and he isn’t disobedient. He’s just hyperrational, as though he’s examined his parents and found them unsuitable as bonding objects so has simply stopped participating in whatever love is. At first, the natural assumption is that he’s been abused, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. At one point he does coldly and calculatedly remind them of the consequences should he confide to a school counselor that his family forces him to hug and cuddle against his will, but don’t get sidetracked: the threat is instrumental (and terrifyingly effective) at obtaining his goal, but his withdrawal doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with any abuse.

What is a ten-year-old’s meaning of “I love you, Dad” anyway? Admiration of adult capabilities, gratitude for parental duties, familiarity, need, blackmail, mimickry? Granted the existence of a child’s wish to stay close to his parents – and there’s no indication that Jonah wants to leave his home – is that called “love” by default? What is it like when parents are called on it: I don’t dislike you, I want your caretaking, I respect your authority, but I don’t love you.

There’s also a very interesting twist about religion and identity: when Jonah starts reading about trutherism, the natural reaction of his father is to freak out over his son talking about Jewish conspiracies. “Listen to me, you know that we’re Jewish, right?” Martin asks his son. “Not really”, the boy answers, because to him, Jewishness is measured by religious observance that’s been absent from their lives rather than cultural heritage, which doesn’t seem to play that big a part either. I think I could’ve handled that conversation better than Martin did, which was basically, “Because anti-Semites think you’re Jewish.”

It seems to be contagious, this isolation, in effect if not in cause: Martin and Rachel have a sex scene that’s disgusting, not because of any graphic descriptions of hot, sticky animal passion, but because of the total absence of it. The family shows early signs of disintegration.

It’s the rationality that’s creepiest, since it scratches through the millimeter-thick shell of social conditioning we all adopt as part of civilization. The conflict is between Jonah’s newfound stance in rationality, and the parents’ continued existence in emotionality and social convention. I wonder if they’re unable, or merely unwilling to give up the comforts little white lies and niceties allow us, even for a moment, even to understand their son. They simply want him back the way he was yesterday; he simply doesn’t want to come back. Impasse. He’s crossed some barrier, and his parents can’t reach across. Will they learn how, as time goes on? Or are they all stuck, with Jonah in something like a dimensional shift out of a science fiction movie?

The progression of the story is pretty much what you’d expect: a series of attempts by the parents to laugh off, wait through, reason away, and pathologize what’s going on. Something like the five stages of grief, but we never get to acceptance of the “new normal” as Marcus refers to it in his highly informative Page Turner interview. Will they ever get there? Marcus leaves that for the reader to decide.

BASS 2016: Lisa Ko, “Pat + Sam” from Copper Nickel #21

It was a cold October night in 1974. They smoked back then, everybody did. This was before Pat’s two children became Sam’s and before there were three children, before they grounded the oldest when Pat found a pack of Newports in her room. By then they would have forgotten their own youth, or rather, they would hold to their children to higher standards. The children would be confident and happy – they’d feel entitled to happiness – and for that Pat and Sam would resent them.

And here I am in that awkward place where, despite having connected earnestly with several moments in the story, and despite appreciating the overall narrative technique, I found the contributor note to be more enlightening on the whole than the story. I suspect it would succeed wildly, however, as a first story in a collection of linked stories about Pat, Sam and the family they eventually form, and it just so happens Ko has written some of those linked stories. This one interested me greatly in finding out where these people went next.

But first, what we have in front of us: A nascent-relationship story told by alternating points of view. I was thinking how much this reminded me of Groff’s earlier story, where the characters were isolated, not sharing much, but the reader connected them. Turns out Ko makes exactly that point in her Contributor Note, admitting “The story came together when I stopped resisting the alternate points of view.” I’ve read that before, a writer not wanting to write the story that wants to be written, and discovering that it’s so much better when you let the story tell itself as it wants to be told.

Well-written moments abound. There’s an incident of racism in a New Jersey restaurant, and again that isolation becomes a force: Pat is relieved that Sam didn’t make a scene when white families are seated while their Chinese family – or pseudofamily, since he’s just a date at this point – is left waiting, but he wonders if she’s disappointed at his lack of confrontation. And as the reader, I have to smile at the implied chauvinism: if she felt confrontation was a good idea, why wouldn’t she have done it herself?

Another nice moment, and a subtle one, comes when Sam, on their first date after having met at a party, tells Pat her husband died.

“It was almost a year ago.”
Only? Almost? “I’m sorry.”

We’re in Sam’s head, so he’s the one wondering if she’s saying, “It was only a year ago so don’t expect too much of me” or “It was almost a year ago so I’m ready to get on with my life.” But I wonder: does Pat know for sure if it’s almost or only?And what opinion does the reader bring? All that, conveyed in so few words. Very nice. And again, highlighting the isolation of a new relationship between two reserved people. How does anyone every manage to get past that? Slowly, laboriously, anxiously, we find out.

I like to think about the typography of the title in that vein. Not “Pat and Sam” or “Pat & Sam”, either of which would be more expected; fiction readers occasionally encounter ampersands but rarely plus signs, although they are both symbolizations of the Latin word for “and”, et. Today, the plus sign connotes addition, which makes the title a mathematical expression – not an equation, since there is no equals sign, which leaves us with the question: What do you get when you add Pat and Sam? This story holds no solution, only the question..

I was also quite fond of one of Sam’s observations, that at one point “Pat began to take on a new shape, that of the steely, vulnerable survivor. Someone who’d been wanted, before.” We all have those moments when we discover new information, and everything looks different. I was, as a teenager, panting after a boy, but when I saw him with a friend of mine I realized they were right together, and we were… not. Not at all. These moments can be hard, but they’re important. Reality is always important. Remember that going forward, by the way. There’s also Pat’s sense of unease in New Jersey, highlighted by her thought, as she walks through her back yard littered with autumn: “She had never raked leaves in her life.” And the perennial truism: “When you start to hope, then comes the danger.” Yep. Hope is the thing with feathers that, if we had any sense, we’d strangle before it ever chirped. But we don’t, because to do so is death.

But, as I said, to me the story works so much better as a first chapter. So when I discovered via the Contributor Note that it is in fact a first chapter – an origin story – I was a lot happier:

I’d previously written stories with the two characters in the present day, as retirees, and others from the points of view of their daughters, but always wondered what got them together in the first place. I started the story knowing how I wanted it to end, with a particular image that had been chasing me, a man and woman in bed, physically close but emotionally distant, weighing the compromises they’re about to make.

I’m guessing one of those later stories was “Proper Girls” featured in One Teen Story in early 2014. I’m also guessing her forthcoming novel, The Leavers, is unrelated to this family, but having now read a sample of her capabilities, I’m very interested in taking a look.

BASS 2016: Smith Henderson, “Treasure State” from Tin House #64

People being the way they are, few realized that their dead had been robbed. They returned from the funeral and set out the cold cuts on the silver trays, the faceted glasses, and the punch. They stocked bottles of beer and cans of Coke in buckets of ice, smoked a quick cigarette out back, and met the grief-stricken, the condolers, and the well-wishers at the door. The furniture smelled of the person they’d just praised to heaven and commended to the dirt. The mourners assembled along the walls in grim or conversant clusters, depending on their affinity with the dead and the yet living. Then they stole away to the upstairs bedroom or the chest in the basement or the desk in the study, only to discover the particular heirloom missing. And the surprise turned hot, and they tiptoed out of the room, slowly pinched closed the door, went up or down the stairs, and took their spot along the wall. They glowered at their kin, wondering which one had got there first.

Some people find they can’t go home again. Others discover they can never leave.

Brothers John and Daniel find out their abusive father is getting out of prison – he had a life sentence, but his terminal cancer has earned him some kind of compassionate release – and they head for the hills. Or, Montana, actually. They’ve never been there, but they like the name, they don’t like cities, and it’s got to be better than Gnaw Bone, Indiana. They’ve got a point there. Funny, I wanted to go to Montana when I was a kid, because of the Hoyt Axton song “Somebody Turned on the Light.” Funny what grabs us. But for John and Daniel, what they don’t want is for their father to grab them.

How do a couple of teenagers, even those who’ve been on their own for a while, survive a long road trip without much in the way of resources or skills? They rob houses during funerals, of course. Henderson tells us in his Contributor Note that the story came to him, nearly complete, when he read about this practice in a newspaper. On one heist, they pick up a girl who’s trying to run away. On another, John discovers more than he can handle. Then it turns out… no, that would be a spoiler.

It’s a very readable story, lots of forward motion, quirky characters and interesting, often amusing, events. Still, it’s not pure plot, for a lot of reasons, including John’s memory of smashing pumpkins with a hammer (I was a bit alarmed by the plethora of images I found just by googling pumpkin hammer to use as header art, until I remembered the rock band) then seeing Daniel take the beating for it, and how a hammer plays oh so subtly into the end. The final scene is ambiguous in a pleasant way, allowing for speculation and imagination of what happens next. And the kids are sympathetic as all get-out, making a story about death, abuse, poverty, and emotional need a fun read somehow.

This is the second Smith Henderson story I’ve run into. Like Thomas McGuane, he focuses on the rural West, which makes them stand out in a field of city and suburb stories. But that’s just where they put the stories; what they write about is universal.

BASS 2016: Meron Hadero , “The Suitcase” from Missouri Review, 38.3

All month Saba had failed almost every test she’d faced, and though she’d seized one last chance to see if this trip had changed her, had taught her at least a little of how to live in this culture, she’d only ended up proving her relatives right: she wasn’t even equipped to go for a walk on her own. What she thought would be our romantic, monumental reunion with her home country had turned out to be a fiasco; she didn’t belong here.

Some stories succeed because they touch on very deep and sombre themes. Some succeed because the writing gives goosebumps. Sometimes it’s a character, sometimes a plot that teases the reader along a path of delayed gratification that’s worth it. And sometimes a story works just because it’s charming, and heartfelt, and says something old in a unique way. I think the latter is the case here.

Saba is visiting Ethiopia to connect with the country her family left when she was too young to form a memory, to meet those they left behind. It isn’t going terribly well. The initial scene in the story has her trying to cross a street in downtown Addis Ababa. I lived in Boston, where driving is a contact sport and extra points are given for hitting pedestrians, for 20 years; I’m guessing even Boston would be no training for Addis Ababa. A local man tells Saba about a guy who tried to cross the street, gave up, and now lives on the median strip. “Don’t start what you can’t finish,” he tells her. She ends up taking a cab, and bemoans her failure.

The suitcase of the story is the second central image. Apparently it’s expensive to ship items between the US and Ethiopia, and their arrival is iffy. So her trip serves a dual purpose: mail carrier. But not just any mail.

At her mother’s insistence, Saba had brought one suitcase for her own clothes and personal items at the second that for the trip there was full of gifts from America – new and used clothes, old books, magazines, medicine – to give to family she had never met. For her return, it would be full of gifts to bring to America from those same relatives and family friends.
Saba knew this suitcase wasn’t just a suitcase.…[It] offered coveted prime real estate on a vessel traveling between here and there. Everyone wanted a piece; everyone fought to stake a claim to their own space.… An empty suitcase opened up a rare direct link between two worlds, so Saba understood why relatives and friends wanted to fill her bag with carefully wrapped food things, gifts, sundry items, making space, taking space, moving and shifting the bulging contents of the bag.

The tension of the story builds around the suitcase being so stuffed with Ethiopian love for the trip back, it’s overweight. It’s kind of a false tension; Saba could pay the overage fee, even though her relatives don’t want that. But it’s more interesting to ignore that logical flaw and go with it. That means decisions must be weighed about which of the gifts from Ethiopia to America are to be weeded out: chickpeas; loaves of bread; doro wat (a kind of spicy chicken stew); gunfo (a porridge particularly traditional for post-partum women); spices (corrorima, grains of paradise, berbere). Each relative pleads his or her case, explaining why their gift must reach loved ones on the other side. Each gift has a special resonance of meaning. And Saba must decide.

The structure of the story mimics the plot. Just as the US and Ethiopia are at the ends of a transit of goods via the suitcase, so Saba’s street crossing and her final decision are attached by a transit of sorts. Will she make it across the now metaphorical street, or will she, too, end up living on the median strip, between cultures?

It may be a flawed story (and what story isn’t), but it’s charming nonetheless, and that makes it work.

BASS 2016: Lauren Groff, “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” from American Short Fiction 18:60

Leo stood on the high window ledge, his wisp of a body pressed against the glass. Here, the frames rattled if you breathed on them wrong. There was rot in the wood older than Amanda herself. But Leo was such an intense child, and so purposeful, that she watched him until she remembered hearing once that glass was just a very slow liquid. Then she ran.
He was so light for four years old. He turned in her arms and squeezed her neck furiously and whispered, It’s you.
Leo, she said. That is so dangerous. You could have died.
I was looking at the bird, he said. He pressed a finger to the glass and she saw, down on the white rocks, some sort of raptor with the short beak. Huge and dangerous, even dead.
It fell out of the sky, he said. I was watching the black go blue. And the bird fell. I saw it. Boom. The bad thing, I thought, but actually it’s just a bird.
The bad thing? She said, but Leo didn’t answer. She said, Leo, you are one eerie mammerjammer.
My mom says that, he said. She says I give her the wet willies. But I need my breakfast now, he said, and wiped his nose on the strap of her sports bra.

This is one of those stories where nothing really happens, nobody changes, but the stylistics are interesting and if you look at the whole picture and know some background, there is a point. Sort of like a French art film with no plot, where you’re supposed to notice light and dark and who’s bigger or smaller and who has agency or power or all those other things that make French art films nearly impossible to watch. Just don’t get distracted by the dead falcon and the peeping tom. I’m going to go into more detail than usual because otherwise I’ve said all I can say, so if you dislike spoilers, stop now.

First, the players and what serves as a plot. Amanda and Grant are in France, visiting Amanda’s long-time friend Genevieve and her husband Manfred. Genevieve was Jennifer back in the old days, and Manfred’s recovering from yet another manic-depressive episode. Their four-year-old son Leo finds a dead falcon and, having seen a picture of a phoenix rising from the ashes, sets it on fire. I’m a little worried about this kid, particularly since he wets the bed; isn’t that a psychopathic triad? Turns out he didn’t kill the bird, so I guess that’s only two out of three. He does seem to like ladies, though.

The only revelation along the way is that the house they’re all staying in isn’t Genevieve and Manfred’s, but a friend of theirs, as they’ve had to sell their multiple properties and are now down to one house. There’s also a little drama about a piece of cheese that later turns out to be poisoned, but since we don’t know it’s poisoned during the drama, it’s not all that dramatic, unless you count thinking “wow, he could have died” four pages later if you remember the cheese at all. Then there’s a highly clichéd, grass-is-greener scene that reveals some reason these two became friends in the first place:

Remember that Frost poem we used to say when we were wondering which of our families would kill us first? Amanda said. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Et cetera. I would have given anything for a little ice.
At least you had some joy in your family. At least there was love, Genevieve said. She blinked fast behind her sunglasses. Amanda squeezed her knee.
At least her family never made you bleed, Amanda said. All the time.

Poor Amanda: She doesn’t know “who to envy now”.

The only other events of note are the arrival of Mina, Amanda’s niece, who will be playing nanny in exchange for a month in the French countryside. The only reason her arrival is interesting is that she turns out to be black, to Genevieve’s surprise. Not that Genevieve has anything against black people, but she knew her when she was a kid, and she wasn’t black then, except of course she was, she just wasn’t as dark seeing as her mother’s white. Poor Genevieve: she’s broke, her husband’s chronically ill, and people change race on her.

There’s some very nice writing – “But as they watched, shivering, there was a great crack, and a bolt of light split the plaza wide open, and the lightning doubled itself on the wet ground, the carousel in sudden grayscale and all the animals bolt-eyed and fleeing in terror” – and I’m pretty sure between the dead raptor and the lightning and the intrusion and Mina, there’s all kinds of symbolism, though don’t press me to pin down any of it.

I did find some interesting elements overall. First, it starts with intrusion: somebody driving by on a tractor (hey, don’t ask me, what do I know about the French countryside, apparently the place is lousy with tractors) stops by the bedroom window where Amanda and Grant are, shall we say, waking up the fun way. As readers, we too intrude on the intimacy of these people through narrative technique rather than glass. Each character is isolated, keeping much of their feelings private; Amanda doesn’t know Grant is hitting on Genevieve, for instance. The story is written in revolving close third-person, but since every character gets a turn, it feels very much like omniscient view, establishing a connection between them, missing in their lives, through the reader. And a touch of dramatic irony: we end with Mina, young and optimistic, wondering what’s wrong with the others that they’re so miserable, unaware they once felt her optimism, too.

The other stylistic element I find interesting is the lack of quotation marks in a story that’s heavy with dialogue. Some writers feel quotation marks clutter up the page and get distracting so are better omitted. I don’t have any objection to that, but in this case, I found it difficult to follow in places, not sure if someone was thinking or speaking a phrase or sentence. I wonder if that was the point: erasing the boundary between what is said and what is thought and what is done, making it all a single tableau for our instrusive reading.

And the point of it all? The Contributor Note indicates the story was inspired by a long-ago visit to France, and in particular the French lullaby “Au clair de la lune” (not to be confused with Debussy). It’s a catchy little ditty about pens and fires on one level, about banging the neighbor, any neighbor, on the other. The lullaby creates the title, as the singer entreats the first neighbor “For the love of god” and the second, “For the god of love”, which, finally, creates some sense of the story’s purpose: we start out, like Mina, all about the god of love, but not that many years later we end up, like the other four, clinging to our sanity for the love of god.

BASS 2016: Yalitza Ferreras, “The Letician Age” from Colorado Review 42.2

Leticia’s mother spotted the glint in between the cobblestones, near the statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colón, across the edge of her stomach like a tiny sun on the horizon. She bent down sideways, careful not to fold on the fetus that would soon be her baby girl. The ring was tiny, sized for a rich child’s finger. A pronged crown nestling a ruby intercepted the gold band.
I hope it’s a girl.

Leticia’s connection to rocks began before she was even born: the cobblestones of the street, the ruby of the ring, glistening like… well, like the red braids of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who watches over volcanos, whose hair runs down their slopes as lava flows and folds, and later becomes wispy slivers of volcanic glass. But Leticia starts out in the Dominican Republic and then New York.

An obsession with rock formations and volcanos begins for her at a young age. When her family moves from the Dominican Republic to New York when she’s 8, she begins to collect rocks in a shoebox: ordinary rocks picked up in random places, but she paints them with colors and thinks of them as various minerals and formations. It’s not only the beauty of the rocks, or the science, that appeals to her, it’s about the power displayed in geological forces, a power not available to her:

Geological changes that took thousands or millions of years to occur looped in Leticia’s head like never-ending movie: mountain ranges pushing out of the earth, minerals being formed from fluids that solidified and turned into beautiful crystals, rocks being compressed by heat and pressure, and the tiny scream of a mosquito as its life was pressed away. In volcanoes, the slow processes were sped up like cataclysmic changes she wanted in her own life, but most people were like rocks – shaped by circumstances and time. Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes something else.

I very much like that metaphor of how lives are created by forces that are outside of our control. I like a lot of the imagery and language in the story. One of the ways Leticia is shaped by circumstances is with the accidental death of her younger brother; when someone asks her if she has siblings, she tells him, “Yes, two. But now one.” That’s an interesting phrasing, connoting both the initial state, and the change, and highlighting the loss by forcing the listener (and reader) to think about it. Yet it’s not “written”, which would be incongruous in spoken dialogue; it sounds like an explanation an intellligent young woman who’s been asked this question many times might have ready. And when she meets the man who will become her fiancé, an astronomer, she admires someone who looks at the night sky all the time. He replies, “No, these days I spend very little time looking at actual stars. It’s mostly looking at hard data.” Having taken a course in solar system astronomy, I can agree that a great deal of the telescope work our instructor showed us was analylsis of signals and mathematical modeling of probabilities rather than stargazing.

Leticia’s parents are more practical-minded, and while they think rock collecting is a nice hobby, they encourage her to train as a secretary or accountant so she will not work in a factory like they do. I understand that; they’re hoping she will have a better life than theirs, but they see only one step ahead, rather than the three or four Leticia’s seen. The death of her brother solidify her plans, first with a lassitude that makes her unable to resist the path of least resistance, and second as she steps into the breach created by her parents’ grief-diminished ability to support the family.

But the astronomer does come along, and it’s on a romantic trip to Hawaii that the rocks of the earth reclaim her. Or, in another reading, that she chooses the lithosphere over the biosphere. The subsequent events aren’t entirely clear to me, and again I felt left up in the air, but the story is about that choice she made to return to her natural element; the rest, I suppose, is commentary.

According to Ferreras’ Contributor Note, the story is based on her own youthful fascination with geology and volcanology, and a “terrifying incident” that apparenty sent her in other career directions. She wrote an autobiographical essay about it, titled “Ten Famous Geologists and the Failed Geologist Who Loved Them,” a highly descriptive title. Snippets of those geological biographies are scattered through this story.

[addendum: I apologize for having done a very crappy job on this entry. I’ve been… distracted for the past couple of days. More like distraught, really. But you get the idea.]

BASS 2016: Louise Erdrich, “The Flower” from TNY, 6/29/15

TNY art by Gray318

TNY art by Gray318 (detail)

Outside an isolated Ojibwe country trading post in the year 1839, Mink was making an incessant racket. She wanted what Mackinnon had, trader’s milk—a mixture of raw distilled spirits, rum, red pepper, and tobacco. She had bawled and screeched her way to possession of a keg before. The noise pared at Mackinnon’s nerves, but he wouldn’t beat her into silence. Mink was from a family of powerful healers. She had been the beautiful daughter of Shingobii, a supplier of rich furs. She had also been the beautiful wife of Mashkiig, until he destroyed her face and stabbed her younger brothers to death. Their eleven-year-old daughter huddled with her now, under the same greasy blanket, trying to hide. Inside the post, Mackinnon’s clerk, Wolfred Roberts, had swathed his head in a fox pelt to muffle the sound, fastening the desiccated paws beneath his chin. He wrote in an elegant, sloping hand, three items between lines. Out there in the bush, they were always afraid of running out of paper.

~ Story available online at The New Yorker

I’m always interested in how a writer decides on names, particularly who gets a name, and who doesn’t. Here, it isn’t really a writer’s choice. Of course everything that happens in a story is the writer’s choice, but in this piece, Erdrich has chosen to leave the choice to the eleven-year-old daughter of Mink, who chooses to keep her name to herself even as she and Wolfred forge a bond of those alone against the world. The third time he asks, “[s]he laughed, not wanting him to own her, and drew a flower.”

Of the characters introduced in that first paragraph, the story comes down to the two children, Wolfred and the girl, who save each other and escape the adults who have betrayed them in unspeakable ways.

It’s peculiar how kids often miss an abusive parent, and this girl is no exception; her loneliness for the mother who sold her into sexual slavery for a few days’ worth of booze permeates the story. I think it’s deeper than the loss of a parent: she loses her culture, her entire way of life, when Mink dies. Wolfred, himself only 17, becomes her protector – and later, in a beautiful display of loyalty, her patient – but he can’t make up for the loss. In fact, his misinterpretation of the flower underlines the gulf between them: she can’t imagine why anyone would be named after a flower, a thing that dies.

She brings her culture along in some ways: her mother’s drum, a dog who joins them as they escape from the store where Wolfred murdered MacKinnon, her nighttime flights over the treetops, the healing skills she’s picked up from her family. But the dangers of the adult world cannot be left behind so easily:

Mackinnon’s head, rolling laboriously over the snow, its hair on fire, flames cheerfully flickering. Sometimes it banged into a tree and whimpered. Sometimes it propelled itself along with its tongue, its slight stump of neck, or its comically paddling ears. Sometimes it whizzed along for a few feet, then quit, sobbing in frustration at its awkward, interminable progress.

I very much like this semi-fantastical element, particularly as it’s presented: both she and Wolfred see it, so it becomes more real than some flight of fancy or a hallucination. While the head is the embodiment of rage and they flee from it in fear, I would guess it represents different things to each of them. To her it’s the white world trying to own her; to him, it’s the guilt of having murdered someone, even though violence was his only choice.

But they are not alone in the world, and eventually, they must re-enter. For Wolfred, this is probably a good thing, but the girl will lose more of herself when she’s put into a school where the idea is to drain her of everything Indian, to make her acceptable in the white world:

At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her again. But there was no answer. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But that was all of herself. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they called her now—Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language. It was hard to divide off parts of herself and let them go. At night, she flew up through the ceiling and soared as she had been taught. She stored pieces of her being in the tops of the trees. She’d retrieve them later, when the bells stopped.

The last sentence of the story is quite pointed, but in general I found the end to be unsatisfying, leaving the story unresolved in a way that feels unfinished rather than a projection into the future. I seem to be noticing endings a lot these days. In her Page Turner interview, Erdrich does cite a forthcoming novel, LaRose (published this past summer), but tells us this story does not appear in this form though its elements are scattered throughout. I’m curious: does that mean one of the girl’s descendents is a character in the novel? Or did she become a cultural icon as an adult? How did her story get carried forward? In any case, I’m glad it did.

BASS 2016: Ted Chiang, “The Great Silence” from e-flux, 5/2015

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

Images from The Great Silence: a video installation by Allora, Calzadilla, & Chiang

The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?

~~ Available online at e-flux

I was sobbing like a baby by the last sentence on this one (the first tears I’ve cried over this year’s BASS). I’ve burst into tears three or four times since, just remembering it. I’d assumed it was my own personal reaction, but I see lots of other readers around the internet have had the same reaction. Junot Diaz mentioned in his Introduction that this was his favorite story of this anthology. Thing is, I had no idea, when I was done reading, what technique of craft, what deftness of language, what structure, what character development made this so effective.

It wasn’t even written as a story: it was the text to accompany a video installation by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. Much has been written about both the installation and the story; I had a good idea of what I would be reading via Karen Joy Fowler’s introduction in Electric Literature before I even knew the story had been selected for BASS.

I’m late to the Ted Chiang party. I only heard about him a couple of months ago, when one of my moocbuddies mentioned “Story of your Life” as his favorite science fiction story. I checked the collection out of the library and I could see why (the film version, “Arrival”, is due for release in a few weeks). So I was very happy to see him included in this anthology; while BASS has included science fiction several times (and, by the way, the last Diaz story I read was science fiction, part of an in-progress novel), the literary fiction community in general has long had a bug up its ass about anything that smells like science fiction, and I’m always happy to see signs of that changing.

Because of the enormous emotional impact, and my inability to explain it, I asked the same mooc friends who recommended Chiang to give me their impressions. One person, who preferred the theme to the writing, mentioned “[t]he juxtaposition of very simple language with a complex topic”. I think the language, since it is the expression of the parrot, had to be simple; it’s grammatical, but a bit atypical. On reflection, I also noticed the short paragraphs of equal size, and equated that to a bird’s repetitive chirp (which is a stretch, as it is probably more about the original video-installation setting of the piece).

Shawn Urban pointed out the irony of “[t]elling this story from the perspective of one of those things we have that is disappearing, particularly while pointing out how worthwhile and like us this thing is, is inspired. I like all the implications (sound, breath, hope) tied to the parrots and man’s scanning for things (extraterrestrials) he does not have. These implications have double, poignant meanings in the story. The irony and dramatic irony are subtle yet sharp.” Yes, that’s good, the irony of looking so hard yet ignoring what’s right in front of us, and all, in a twist of the ironic knife, revealed to us by that which is, by being overlooked, about to be destroyed.

We seem very determined to maintain the belief that humans are the only source of intelligence on earth. While a few researchers look in other directions, psychology, philosophy, and medicine are quite adept at changing the definition of intelligence when it seems possible that other creatures may share this quality with us, in order to maintain our uniqueness. But would this make me cry?

Then Paul Oldroyd wrote: “But the central message of random, unwitting violence by a species that is nonetheless the subject of unconditional love is what gets me. We have such greatness and arrogance within us.” Yes, that unconditional love. A grace so rich, the trespass goes unseen. Put side-by-side with our ongoing refusal to see, let alone acknowledge, our responsibility: this very well might be what starts the tears, even now. Add to that a single victim with a story, rather than a parade of abstract statistics about rainforest destruction, and you’ve got a recipe for affective engagement.

I’m not that much of an environmentalist, I’m not particularly fixated on extraterrestrial life, I don’t have any particular connection to parrots, and still Chiang knocked me off my feet. People yammer all the time, saying whatever is instrumental to their purpose at the moment, but once in a while, a human-created non-human voice touches me deeply – whether it’s Jade Rabbit or fictional parrot – when it speaks its truth, simply to speak it. All we have to do is listen. I hear you, little bird. Hang in there. “You be good. I love you.”

BASS 2016: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Bears” from Glimmer Train, #93

Once, when I was convalescing, I was sent to a farmhouse in the country. No one there knew I had been sick. A woman came to cook in the evenings, and her daughter would appear at odd hours with a mop and bucket, keeping the place clean. There were many kinds of tea to be found in the kitchen, and a woven tray on which you could arrange the tea things. Also there were deep old wooden chairs lined up along the front porch, so you could sit as long as you liked, looking out over the fields, the trees, and sometimes even the mountains if the sky was truly clear. Because of the porch and the tray and the slow way the day ended, I felt, in this place, though no one knew of my miscarriage, as if I were being gently attended to, as if all the demands of the world had been lifted away, and that I should rest.

I’d like to announce the naming of a previously known but unacknowledged disorder among readers: Protracted Furrowed Brow Syndrome (PFBS), contracted when you’re never quite sure what’s going on in a story. Fortunately, it’s only mildly painful. A glance at the Contributor Note, as well as a second read, often effects a reversal of symptoms.

The initial stages of my PFBS were barely noticeable, within normal limits of any reading experience where I hop on someone else’s train of thought. Opening with a line like “while I was convalescing” set the scene, and hinted at more details to come. But then came the narrator’s conflation of sickness and miscarriage: did she have a miscarriage because she was sick? Or was it the other way around, and complications of the miscarriage became the sickness? Or is the miscarriage itself the sickness? That led to some contemplation about how I normally wouldn’t think of a miscarriage as a sickness, but then, what would it be called? Perhaps the term sickness brings in the psychological heartsickness that followed, but further details revealed this pregnancy was not expected and the whole relationship was less than forever-after in her mind. Is her ambiguity part of the sickness as well? Or is it an engagement device, a way to get the reader asking questions and thus reading on in the hopes of finding answers?

Also peculiar was the aspect of being sent to a farmhouse, which appeared to be some kind of rustic hotel, to recover, until it became clear it was more of a writer’s retreat. But between the impression that someone had authority to send her somewhere she was not otherwise inclined to go, and the realization that she was there of her own volition and for her own purpose, I experienced more progression into the initial stages of PFBS.

This area remained practical and suspicious. At frequent intervals, sometimes only two or three trees apart, the signs were posted: PRIVATE PROPERTY, they said. Then came a list of numerous activities, followed by the words STRICTLY FORBIDDEN, and for final emphasis, the phrase SHALL BE PROSECUTED. As if these yellow signs left room for doubt and interpretation, some people had gone to the trouble of making their own: NO VISITORS, said one. NO TRESPASSING, said another. And even the cornfields were wrapped around with barbed wire. But not once did I see another person walking along the road.

The retreat itself, and the surrounding environment, delighted me and seemed just right. My brow relaxed a bit: ok, now I know where we are, the forbidding signs, the atmosphere of unseen threat (all around us, whether of trespassers on a deserted road or of pregnancy in a routine relationship or of miscarriage with the uncertainty that brings under even the best of circumstances: Am I ok? Will I ever?) and, charmingly, the house that becomes a trigger for her idyllic fantasies. I’ve done exactly that, decided that the people who live there – or, once, the veterinarian who practiced there – must be wonderful, because assholes would never have a house that so fit into my idea of family warmth and kind generosity, a house that looked so much like me. And, of course, we often imagine wrong.

It was during the running scene that PFBS truly blossomed. I understand that some people like to run, but for someone who hasn’t done a lot of running, and was still convalescing, she seemed to run for a very long time over quite a distance. My brows didn’t try to shake hands, however, until the bleeding started. And then she went into the fantasy house. Who does that? Is this a dream, a fantasy? Her reaction to Jerry Roth made me downright angry, which probably transferred to an irritation with the whole story.

And as the man drew closer, I understood more and more clearly the size of him. He moved laboriously, shuffling more than walking, halting every few steps to catch his breath. His head shone and his shoulders heaved. The hem of his bathrobe fluttered above legs that looked at once curdled and bloated, swollen to the point of bursting. His leg flesh drooped over his knees.
I knew but did not accept that this man approaching the house was Jerry Roth…. It seems impossible that the man responsible for this house was the same as the huge, repellent person kicking at his lawn. I was too inexperienced to understand how the two were not at all irreconcilable.

I think I barely skimmed the last couple of pages before turning to the Contributor Note and finding the key: Fairy tales. Oh. Silver Hair, indeed. The Bears. I get it. Would I have gotten it if not for that note? No one else seems to have had a problem with it. Are Junot Diaz, Heidi Pitlor, et al, more familiar with fairy tales, or just smarter than I am, or just more used to seeing such things, or at least more familiar with Bynum’s specialty, which is incorporating fairy tale plots into contemporary stories? Or am I just stupid? I suppose the name Robert Southey should have been a clue, but it seems I’m not up on my Lake Poets or my fairy tales.

I read the story again, and somewhat to my surprise, liked it quite a bit (I kept thinking of a line from Alt-J’s “Handmade”: “There’s bears in the wood and they’re out to get me, and I’m safe from harm if I stay in this chalet”) until the last couple of pages. I was done before the story was – and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I felt a satisfying conclusion towards the bottom of page 66 and I still haven’t really read the remaining paragraphs. I have a hard time believing neither Glimmer Train nor the BASS crew would’ve noticed that Bynum wrote past the ending, so maybe there’s some treasure there I’m missing; that’s fine, I’ll get it on the next pass.

I’m still puzzling out a few things: What is the thematic connection between the fairy tale – trespass, pickiness – and the narrator? The passage on blondeness seems particularly shoehorned into the story: does the character think blondes don’t have miscarriages, or ambiguity, or writing block? Jerry Roth is clearly Pappa Bear, but there were three bears: who are the other two? The boyfriend? The non-baby? The book on William James? Or am I interpreting too rigidly? And speaking of William James, I found the description of his work on emotion to be fascinating, and I realized I’d heard it before. It’s been incorporated into various cognitive-behavioral therapeutic techniques under the heading of “anxiety/sadness/anger is just what you call this collection of somatic sensations, so stop calling it that and you won’t be anxious/sad/angry any more.” Such is treatment in a world of cost-driven medicine.

What’s the treatment for PFBS? Better reading skills? In the meantime, the only prolonged effect is wrinkles, and at my age, who cares.

BASS 2016: Andrea Barrett, “Wonders of the Shore” from Tin House #66

Illustration from "Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore"  by Charles Kingsley -1859

Illustration from “Glaucus, or, The wonders of the shore” by Charles Kingsley -1859

I.
The sea-shore, with its stretches of sandy beach and rocks, seems, at first sight, nothing but a barren waste, merely the natural barrier of the ocean. But to the observant eye these apparently desolate reaches are not only teeming with life, they are also replete with suggestions of the past. They are the pages of the history full of fascination for one who has learned to read them.

The very word seashore brings together two opposites into an ecosystem all its own, neither water nor land nor something in between but its own thing entirely. The dual nature fits Henrietta perfectly: not part-schoolteacher and part-scientist, not a half-perfect melding of any two poles, but a unique whole though created from two opposites.

The story starts with deep background: an old book, the likes of which those of us who frequent used book stores have seen many times. The book itself becomes a character of sorts, certainly a structural element as a brief paragraph from its imagined pages begins each numbered section. And with every section, we find out more about what it is to be seashore.

II.
It is hoped that this book will suggest a new interest and pleasure to many, and that it will serve as a practical guide to this branch of natural history, without necessitating serious study. Marine organisms are interesting acquaintances when once introduced, and the real purpose of the author is to present, to the latent naturalist, friends whom he will enjoy.

Barrett’s Contributor Note includes the observation that the “demure fringes” of botany and marine science, such as Henrietta and Daphne occupied, were “relatively welcoming” to women. And Daphne, author of the fictional Wonders of the Shore (as opposed to Charles Kingsley’s volume of the same title, as shown in the header above), not only remains where she is welcomed – producing marine biology books for non-scientists – but has a secret alter-identity, known only to Henrietta, as a successful cookbook author. Neither this, nor that. In Daphne’s case, however, I sense the watery-land view of seashore: not something whole and unique, but two halves pasted together, one half always wanting to expand but crowded by the other. But maybe that’s just my reading.

The focus of the plot itself, once the stage is set (and the impatient may find themselves straining at the bit to get there – but do yourself a favor, relax and let the story set its own pace) is one of the annual vacations Henrietta and Daphne spend together making observations and collecting samples for the forthcoming Wonders on Appledore Island at the invitation of writer Celia Thaxter. Appledore Island, the Isles of Shoals, is a real place, though the hotel is long gone. What remains is the Shoals Marine Laboratory which continues investigating the seashore under the direction of Dr. Jennifer Seavey, as women are now permitted beyond the demure fringes of science.

Celia Thaxter was a very real person as well; in fact, about a decade ago I sang for a choral director whose specialty ran to historically based programs. He’d earlier created a concert of Victorian and contemporary art songs titled “Music from Celia Thaxter’s Parlor” based on Thaxter’s poetry and the sheet music that remains, just as the island and the sea remains. Celia doesn’t come off very well in the story, I’m afraid; she seems to be a bit of a snob, in fact. I’m hoping the real-life poet was more generous.

III.
Every coast-line shows the destructive effects of the sea, for the bays and coves, the caves at the based of the cliffs, the buttresses and needles, are the work of the waves. And this work is constantly going on. The knotty sticks so commonly seen on the beach are often the hearts of oak or cedar trees from which tiny crystals of sand have slowly cut away their less solid outer growth.

We see the destructive effects in the human story as well. Daphne is embraced by the crowd at Mrs. Thaxter’s salon, while Henrietta does not fit in so well. A storm blows through the island one evening: “By morning the storm had blown away, leaving the shore littered with seaweeds and all kinds of creatures – exactly, Henrietta realized when she woke, what Daphne needed.” But Daphne has her own plans, and Henrietta is excluded. Yet this destructive effect, like the storm, provides all manner of opportunity for Henrietta, including some time spent with another Thaxter guest who did not quite fit in.

V.
As each wave retreats, little bubbles of air are plentiful in its wake. Underneath the sand, where each bubble rose, lives some creature. By the jet of water which spurts out of the sand, the common clam mya arenaria reveals the secret of its abiding-place. Only the lifting of a shovelful of sand at the water’s edge is needed to disclose the populous community of mollusks, worms, and crustaceans living at our feet, just out of sight.

Barrett has a real talent for telling stories about historical science that subtly mirror parallel stories outlining the complexities and puzzlements of the characters’ relationships and emotions. The connections are between the dual threads are powerful, yet never obvious.

I wondered, at the end of the story, if Henrietta had regrets. I don’t think so, beyond a momentary flicker once in a while. I think, had she been a different persons, she could have felt out of place on either land or sea, caught between science and teaching, between married and single, between secrets and revelation, but instead found her own place in the wonders of the shore. Maybe not a place anyone truly understood, not even Daphne, but her place. Seashore: not land, not water, but something entirely its own.

BASS 2016: Tahmima Anam, “Garments” from Freeman’s, Fall 2015

One day Mala lowers her mask and says to Jesmin, my boyfriend wants to marry you. Jesmin is six shirts behind so she doesn’t look up. After the bell, Mala explains. For months now she’s been telling the girls, ya, any day now me and Dulal are going to the Kazi. They don’t believe her, they know her boyfriend works in an air-conditioned shop. No way he was going to marry a garments girl. Now she has a scheme and when Jesmin hears it, she thinks, it’s not so bad.
Two days later Mala’s sweating like it’s July. He wants one more. Three wives. We have to find a girl.

Not your typical wedding story. No bridesmaids complaining about dresses, no estranged relatives forced into the same room for the first time in decades, no kids being cute and/or troublesome, no muttering from giver or givee about presents. Just three girls and a guy getting married because they’re all broken, in one way or another, and “Jesmin sees marriage as a remedy. If you are a girl you have many problems, but all of them can be fixed if you have a husband.”

I’m not sure a wedding can fix the particular ways these particular people are broken. Take Mala:

Jesmin watches the back of Mala and Dulal. She knows that Mala’s brother died in Rana. That Mala had held up his photo for seven weeks, hoping he would come out from under the cement.… Mala’s face was cracked, like a broken eggshell, until she found Dulal. Now she comes to the factory, works like magic, tells her jokes, does her overtime as if it never happened, but Jesmin knows that once you die like that, on the street or in the factory, your life isn’t your life anymore.

The theme of female brokenness crosses oceans. The factory in which the girls work makes, among other things, Spanx. The story refers to them as Thanks, so called, the rumor goes, because the women who wear them look so good, they say “Thanks!” to their panties. Broken women in Bangladesh, making high-priced super-control underwear for Western women trying to fix their own perceived brokenness. But it isn’t just the women: we discover Dulal, the husband, has his brokenness as well, a brokenness he tries to fix with three wives. And then there’s the very real-life broken factory, the 2013 collapse of which in Rana killed 1,137 people besides Mala’s fictional brother.

Back in a linguistics class in another millennium, we spent a class period examining the usages of “broke” to obscure or locate intent or blame. The window was broken. The window broke. He broke it. The ball broke the window. All the ways we can distance violence from breakage, and all that’s left are shards to be swept up and something that needs fixing, the kind of broken a husband, three wives, or six ounces of Spandex can’t touch.

BASS 2016: Mohammed Naseehu Ali, “Ravalushan” from Bomb #131

"Zongo Street" by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

“Zongo Street” by Ruben Gozi, Tema, Ghana

The music we heard on our radios that morning was nothing new to our ears; it was what the soldiers played whenever they make a coup. The brassy, instrumental military music had been playing since dawn, and every now and then a deep male voice interrupted with the same announcement: “Fellow countrymen and women. The New Ghana Proletariat Revolutionary Council, N.G.P.R.C., is now in full control of the Castle and the radio stations in all nine regional capitals. We advise everybody to remain calm and to stay tuned for a speech. By the Leader of the Revolution. At ten o’clock.”
Revolution?
It was the first time we had heard the word, and it sounded more serious than the coup d’état we were used to.

Story available online at Bomb magazine

I often don’t recognize the first person plural point of view; I just assume it’s singular and don’t realize the “I” never emerges. In fact, I’m not 100% sure there isn’t an “I” somewhere in this story, but I don’t think so. I think the town is the main character, and the story is about how the town changes during the Ravalushun, finally descending into a despair so dark, it can’t even be seen but only heard through perverse laughter.

Unlike the prior story, set in Nigeria but applicable to anywhere, this one is rooted firmly in Ghana by everything from religion to street names. Just as with the point of view, however, I didn’t catch on for a while (I never claimed to be the brightest bulb in the chandelier); I thought it might be some kind of Freedonia, the story a kind of Marx Brothers spotlight on the absurdity of freeing the land only to take it hostage (a theme we might pay close attention to in this time), of destroying the village in order to save it. I read it as dark satire, something like Catch-22 or, even more specifically, Stephen O’Connor’s short story, “Another Nice Mess” from just a few years ago. But I was wrong: according to the Contributor Note, it is based on Ali’s recollection, as a 9-year-old child, of a very real, very bloody 1979 coup.

“We seized power in order to give it back to you, the people,” the new leader continued, his voice awe-inspiring and uplifting…. Listening to his angry speech one could have sworn by the Quran that Sergeant Leader, the name we instantly gave the new head of state, was sent by Allah himself to rescue us. To lift up Zongo Street from its poverty, to give us the opportunities other tribes enjoyed, to buy some respect for us and all the common folks in this land. The speech lasted not more than six minutes and, before concluding, the Sergeant Leader explained that some anti-revolution soldiers were trying to stage a coup to counter his “Uprising,” and that in order to stabilize the situation, a six-to-six curfew had to be imposed nationwide, “Until further notice.”

It’s a nice community, with a Catholic school and a madrassa and kids who play together and a barbershop where querulous men argue politics and a merchant who might be considered rich but does not engender any hostility, a couple of harmless guys who are non compos mentis but are tolerated just fine. It was a nice community until it was freed, at which point initial celebration turned to fear turned to horror turned to survival instinct turned to something inhuman as an owl looks on.

BASS 2016: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Apollo” from TNY 4/13/15

I sometimes felt like an interloper in our house. My bedroom had bookshelves, stacked with the overflow books that did not fit in the study and the corridor, and they made my stay feel transient, as though I were not quite where I was supposed to be. I sensed my parents’ disappointment in the way they glanced at each other when I spoke about a book, and I knew that what I had said was not incorrect but merely ordinary, uncharged with their brand of originality. Going to the staff club with them was an ordeal: I found badminton boring, the shuttlecock seemed to me an unfinished thing, as though whoever had invented the game had stopped halfway.

~~ Story available online at The New Yorker

Deceptively simple is a phrase that shows up a lot in discussions of literary works. And here it is again: on the surface, this is a story of life changes, of growing old and growing up, of regrets that last a lifetime. That rich surface is supported by text that keeps on giving; I’ve read the story three times, and each time I see worlds I missed before. And then there’s the subtext I never would have seen, like the post-colonial theme Betsy points out on The Mookse and the Gripes, or the nuggets Adichie mentions in her TNY Page-Turner interview about loving an adult voice recollecting the childhood incident, about endings that change beginnings. I’d given short shrift to the opening of the story, but reading it again with that in mind, I see what she meant. And, because this was written by a highly popular literary author and published in The New Yorker, many reviews can be found on many blogs that outline plot, trace themes, and examine the technical details of how the story works.

But I haven’t done that sort of thing in a while now, partly because I’m not trained for it, and partly because I’d rather report my own experience of the story. It’s my reading philosophy that every story becomes a partnership between writer and reader, each with their own experiences, so every reader reads a different story. All I can discuss is the story I read.

I’m struck by the universality of the story set in Nigeria, a story that, Betsy’s comments about post-colonialism aside, could be set in Boston or Chicago or LA, anywhere things like class division, parental expectations and kids who don’t meet them, can be found.

Raphael and I practiced in the back yard, leaping from the raised concrete soakaway and landing on the grass. Raphael told me to suck in my belly, to keep my legs straight and my fingers precise. He taught me to breathe. My previous attempts, in the enclosure of my room, had felt stillborn. Now, outside with Raphael, slicing the air with my arms, I could feel my practice become real, with soft grass below and high sky above, and the endless space mine to conquer.

I’m intrigued by what’s left out: we don’t know what Okenwa is doing in the present, only that he has no family of his own, and visits his family. Did he eventually turn to books? To business? Does he run a martial arts studio? His parents don’t bemoan his lack of professional status; does this imply approval? Why does Adichie not put some clue in the story? Is it because it doesn’t matter, or because it does?

I love the dance of Okenwa and Raphael’s relationship, itself a kind of martial art story, ending with a cutting blow. They progress through stages, leading to a scene of great tenderness and caring when Okenwa medicates Raphael’s inflamed eyes. But the relationship is not balanced; it can’t be, since Raphael is an employee, and alone; Okenwa has his family to take care of him when he gets sick, whereas Raphael only has Okenwa. The film scene that first signals their common interest – Bruce Lee wiping blood from his chest and tasting it – speaks volumes of how these two not only bear their eventual pain, but learn to savor it.

Does Raphael share Okenwa’s growing feelings for him? He might (I think it’s likely he does, in fact), but if he does, he turns away from those feelings. For every reaction there is a counteraction – I’m sure someone more familiar with the martial arts could phrase that better – and his turning away becomes his downfall – and, in a way, Okenwa’s downfall, as well, since he still carries that moment with him still.

I touched his face, gently pulled down his lower left eyelid, and dropped the liquid into his eye. The other lid I pulled more firmly, because he had shut his eyes tight.
“Ndo,” I said. “Sorry.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me, and on his face shone something wondrous. I had never felt myself the subject of admiration. It made me think of science class, of a new maize shoot growing greenly toward light. He touched my arm. I turned to go.

The story as a whole takes place in Okenwa’s parents’ home as a flashback. I’d like to understand better how that works, by the way, the initial conversation Okenwa has with his mom that leads us to the heart of the story, the function of those first paragraphs that introduces to Okenwa and his present-day life, hints dropped like breadcrumbs to prime the subtext of the flashback, to the point where eyedrops become erotic symbols.

The final scene ends abruptly, like a knockout punch (again, the help of martial arts experts would be welcomed). But it ends in the past, still within the flashback. And so so the story leaves us in the past, not with the grown-up Okenwa and his present-day parents, but with him as a twelve-year-old just beginning to try on the guilt of a child’s lie, a lie told from hurt, a lie that echoes in the present, an echo that began the flashback. Did he realize back then that he could fix it? Or does he just realize that now in the present?

I like stories that use standard elements – character, time, setting, language – in unusual ways. Here, I like the simultaneity of past and present as Okenwa remembers his youth, and I especially like the implied link between past and present in the last sentences: the guilt that was, the guilt that is. I like that we’re left with silence, with Okenwa, left to construct our story from the text Adichie has created for us.

Hello BASS 2016

If the novel is our culture’s favorite literary form, upon which we keep all our desiccated literary laurels, if the novel is, say, our Jaime Lannister, then the short story is our very own Tyrion: the disdain and little brother, the perennial underdog. But what an underdog. Give a short story a dozen pages and it can break hearts bones vanities and cages. And in the right hands there’s more old in a gram of short story than in almost any literary form. It’s precisely this exhilarating atomic compound of economy + power that has entranced readers and practitioners alike for generations, and also explains why the story continues to attract our finest writers.

~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016, available online

First thought: It seems smaller.

I checked page counts. The last page number of the last story: 288. Last year, it was 351. The year before, 325, then 325, 321, 322, 387, 314, 323. I wonder if that means something, if TC Boyle and, especially Richard Russo just happen to prefer stories that run a few pages longer, if Junot Diaz likes his stories particularly lean, or if it was something completely unrelated, like fonts, margins, introductions (I still remember Richard Russo’s introduction to BASS 2010, an Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote on the purpose of short stories: “To entertain, and to instruct”), etc.

I’m not worried. It’s not the size of the story in the read, it’s the size of the read in the story. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t the page count, it’s the impact.

And of course, I started thinking about stories: how the reading group at my library emphatically declared they did NOT want to read any short story collections or anthologies, how “everybody” knows the only people who read short stories are writers and students, how so many people, like Junot Diaz, are nevertheless captivated by the job short fiction does and how it does it.

I’ve been taking some moocs in ancient Chinese philosophy lately, and one of the things I noticed is the preponderance of stories told to illustrate a point or convey a concept. Zhuangzi in particular liked to use stories, about the Butcher Ding, the Carpenter and the Oak Tree, the gourd that grew too much, his own butterfly dream. Illustrative stories aren’t unique to the ancient Chinese, of course: the Bible is full of stories. Genesis is a collection of interrelated short stories; Jesus told parables regularly. The epics of Sumeria and Greece depended on embedding stories within a longer narrative to keep the energy up, or just to prolong the recitation. Stories decorate our oldest artefacts and remains. Nor are stories relics from antiquity: the cautionary tale, the dinner table anecdote, the opening of most public speeches, stories all.

Maybe it’s my Caribbean immigrant multiplicity, the incommensurate distances between the worlds I and have it, but my life has always worked better when understood as a collection of short stories than anything else. Thing is, I’m all these strange pieces that don’t assemble into anything remotely coherent.… I guess some of us have crossed too many worlds and lived too many lives for unity.

~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016
A good short story can ground the reader. It can give hope, solace, comfort – things that are more crucial than ever.

~ Heidi Pitlor, foreword, BASS 2016

I already see a lot in this volume that interests me, just from the table of contents. I’ve always liked Andrea Barrett’s science-history; Karen Russell often makes me smile. I just recently discovered Ted Chiang when one of my mooc friends recommended “Story of your Life” (a movie version is scheduled for release in November), so I’m looking forward to reading more from him.

But most of the names are unfamiliar: new friends just waiting to be made, points of view I may not have seen before. The titles are intriguing, hinting at directions that interest me. Díaz has always been a champion of the voice that’s drowned out, the immigrant, the non-white, the other. Given current events, I can’t think of a better guest editor for this year’s volume. I wonder if that’s coincidence, or if it was planned that way.

Querida reader, ultimately I hope these stories do for you what they’ve done for me – at the very least I pray they offer you an opportunity for communion. A chance to listen, if not to the parrots of our world, then to some other lone voice struggling to be heard against the great silence.

~ Junot Díaz, Introduction, BASS 2016

So stop sneering at stories, and enjoy them. This might be a good place to start. If nothing else, they’re likely to be on the short side.

Boethius and Bojack

As, then, righteousness itself is the reward of the righteous, so wickedness itself is the punishment of the unrighteous.
Accordingly, by this way of reckoning, whatever falls away from goodness ceases to be; whence it comes to pass that the bad cease to be what they were, while only the outward aspect is still left to show they have been men. Wherefore, by their perversion to badness, they have lost their true human nature. Further, since righteousness alone can raise men above the level of humanity, it must needs be that unrighteousness degrades below man’s level those whom it has cast out of man’s estate. It results, then, that thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book IV Chapter iii

Last year, when I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, I noticed a lot of references to Boethius in the Hollander notes. I’d come across the name before, but had it filed under “medieval Catholic theology” and thus had ignored it. Dante was a way of finding some points of interest in that category, so I made a mental note to look into Boethius a little more. And, like most mental notes, it got lost.

Enter Bojack Horseman, the most unlikely route to medieval Catholic theology ever. I had no idea how unlikely, however, since I knew less about Bojack Horseman than I did about Boethius. A recent Millions article by Joel Cuthbertson teased with: “We’re born broken, and yet our wicked choices punish us. Somehow, BoJack the alcoholic, humanoid horse has bumped into Boethius, the 6th-century Christian philosopher.” That got my attention.

I started with Bojack, since I figured he’d be easier to comprehend than Boethius. Problem is, I’ve never taken to animations a la The Simpsons or South Park, and my tolerance for frat boy pranks and sex humor is limited, so after a couple of episodes I got the idea – he constantly misbehaves and feels quite bad about being a jerk, but not bad enough to change his behavior – and figured I’d be better off with Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy.

It seems the most popular point from Boethius is the paradox of God’s omnipotence coexisting with free will. For whatever reason (hmmm…?) that topic, fascinating as it is, just doesn’t interest me at this time; I’m more interested in his idea that bad people feel bad, even if they seem to be feeling pretty good, because that’s part and parcel of being bad. Some years ago, as a self-comforting measure, I decided we don’t know what people go through in their heads, we only know what we can see, and I have to imagine bullies, tyrants, and megalomaniacs can’t be truly happy people, no matter how they taunt the rest of us with their power. Maybe this is fantasy, but it’s how I cope with seeing the bad guys win again and again.

For Good Fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, and most seems to caress, is always lying; Ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she shows her inconstancy. The one deceives, the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favour by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness.

Finally, Good Fortune, by her allurements, draws men far from the true good; Ill Fortune ofttimes draws men back to true good with grappling-irons.

~~ Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy , Book II Chapter viii

It seems to me Plato made some gestures in the direction of goodness as a benefit in itself, rather than as an instrumental benefit, at least as concerns his theory of justice in The Republic. But that’s not quite the same as what I’m getting from Boethius (who is, incidentally, classified as a neo-Platonist): that doing evil, no matter how profitable or pleasant, degrades our humanity, and getting away with it degrades our humanity even more. Hence the animal metaphors, from Circe turning Odysseus’ men to swine, to the animal lexicon in reference to evildoers (dog, pig-headed, beast, the word “animal” itself), all the way to Bojack’s world where about half the players are half-animal.

Consolation… is divided into five Books, each Book divided into alternating chapters and songs. As a special treat, I discovered the folks at Cambridge University reconstructed the music of those Songs, a project not as easy as it sounds, since written music was still in its infancy in the sixth century. In fact, Boethius himself is credited with the system of using letters for names of notes (though he used a lot more than just A thru G and staves didn’t exist yet), which Guido built on a few hundred years later. The chapters are dialogues between Boethius as a prisoner awaiting execution, and Lady Philosophy, who offers him consolation, hence the title of the work. They read to me very much like Plato’s Socratic dialogues, though I’m sure a more sophisticated philosophical historian would notice significant differences.

Why are Nature’s changes bound
To a fixed and ordered round?

Love it is that holds the chains,
Love o’er sea and earth that reigns;
Love—whom else but sovereign Love?—
Love, high lord in heaven above!

Love, all-sovereign Love!—oh, then,
Ye are blest, ye sons of men,
If the love that rules the sky
In your hearts is throned on high!
 
Boethius, COP, Book II, Song vii

 
 
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved,
The Love which moves the sun and the other stars”
 
Dante: Paradiso, XXXIII, 142-145

I can see why Dante would have been interested in Boethius, given the similarities between them: both were punished as enemies of the state, both created their greatest works while in desperate straits, both used muses as figures in their writing, both constructed belief systems to deal with injustices dealt to them, including a view of a higher, deeper, more meaningful goodness and justice, and a more jaundiced view of the prosperity of the wicked. Dante even borrowed Lady Philosophy for his work In Convivio. But I also see a difference: Dante then turned to his Divine Comedy where he completed his journey through the hierarchy of joy: poetry at the bottom, then philosophy, and above them both, the divine. In this way he did Boethius one better, though it seems to me Boethius, or at least Lady Philosophy, considers philosophy and religion to be one and the same.

Cuthbertson stops short of attaching any of this to the authorial intent behind Bojack: “these specific theological and philosophical ideas are no doubt alien to the explicit vision of Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman. For all the moralizing, pseudo-psychology, and downright pontification of its characters, the show is written by comedians struggling with felt truths.” The scripts have a tendency to drop a line or two of profound insight into the strangest places once or twice per episode (of the two I’ve seen, that is), and while I’m not willing to sit through the rest of it to get a better feel for the series overall, I can’t believe the character’s name and his combination of human and animal characteristics was chosen randomly.

In any case, I’m glad this came across my path. I’ve just done the most preliminary reading of Boethius, of course, and am just sketching out some points that interest me at the moment. I’m just starting a Philosophy course that begins with proofs of God’s existence, and as a vaguely Christian agnostic still recovering from the religious trauma of my youth, I hoped this would get me closer to the right frame of mind. I hope to run into a more rigorous, structured outline of all this at some point, to put it into a more accurate frame. But I’m glad my mental note from last year was moved to the top of the pile. Funny, where a half-equine reprobate can lead, if you give him half a chance.

Finishing Pushcart XL

At the Mediterranean Café I scribbled a note in my journal “why not a best of the small presses.” I let it drop for a year, coming back to that notion in the summer of 1975 in a seaside cabin on Long Island.… What happened next with my best of the small presses idea was astonishing and continues to amaze me. The Founding Editors said okay, good idea, and off Pushcart sailed on a venture that brings us to this introduction decades later.… Many did not expect it would last more than a year, maybe two.… But the Prize refused to die…

~~ Introduction, Bill Henderson, Editor

Every year, I take a little longer to blog through Pushcart. That’s ok, I’m not in any hurry. I like taking my time with each piece. In fact, I’ve been delaying this final post because I’m not quite ready to admit I’m done – and BASS doesn’t drop until October. But it’s time.

I can see a certain symmetry in the open-and-close stories. We started in New York, with an intercultural intersection gone awry, and ended in Detroit with harmonics from the personal to the national to the global all ringing together. At this moment I believe we are all both fundamentally alone, and inextricably linked; these stories highlighted different angles of this paradox, through the lenses of the cities and lives chosen as their subjects.

I saw some other pairs: two poems used broken cups as metaphors, and two stories involved unsatisfactory meetings of young women with older mentors after a long absence. Two pieces featured bells.

To pick favorites is a bit silly, since I change my mind every so often about what I love in a read, but I’m going to try anyway.

For fiction, Colum McCann’s “Sh’khol” still stood out, as it did when I first read it in BASS 2015. Not only did it affect me emotionally, but it kept me turning pages even on second and third reads.

I was mesmerized by Joanna Scott’s “The Knowledge Gallery”, though I’ll admit I was disappointed to find the symbols carried no authorial intent. I’m still debating whether or not intent is required for meaning.

Asako Serizawa’s “Train to Harbin” impressed me both technically and from a broader human perspective; it’s historically-based fiction with significant sociopolitical implications for the present, as well as a deep and touching character portrait.

For non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed James Hannaham’s “Artist’s Statement”. This is the second time that art-gallery prose has been at the top of my list, in spite of my complete ignorance about art. Maybe I should start going to art galleries.

A Ring of Bells”, Catherine Jagoe’s memoir of bell-ringing in England, struck a chord (sorry) with me. Part of it was content-related, but I enjoyed her interweaving of the personal with the informational.

I think I have to give the prize for Essay that Most Made Me Think to Daniel Lusk’s very short “Bomb” which ended with its own bomb of sorts and again made me wonder about the line between fiction and nonfiction.

How can I separate out three poems from the many that were scattered through the volume, poems that varied from a few lines to a few pages, some that required more training than I have to fully appreciate. While acknowledging those, I’ll stick to the ones that were more at my pay grade, starting with Kurt Brown’s “Snapshot” for its use of form to evoke a sense of what is missing.

Form also played a primary role for me with “The Soldier of Mictlán” by Rigoberto González. The rhythm is addictive, yet, like the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony, it takes full advantage of the power of repetition to direct the reader’s experience.

I must give the award for bad timing to Dan Albergotti’s “Holy Night”. It’s not his fault I read his poem at a time of particular turmoil, but I’m pretty sure I’ll remember it because of that.

And so, as hard as it is, it’s time to put the book on the shelf, and turn to other things. It’s all still with me, and as always, I’ll recall something from this anthology in the future and look back to find perhaps a completely different reading. Art is a living thing, after all; we take it in, and it grows within us.

Pushcart XL: Perry Janes, “Night Movers” from Glimmer Train #90

The month my stepbrother Tony died in a ball of gas-lit flame, the Sarychev Peak Volcano erupted in Russia and changed the Michigan sunset. It was all over the news: particles blown into the atmosphere and diffusing across the continents. The way they interfered with the refraction of light over the Mississippi, the Chattanooga, the Detroit River. It turned the sky true lavender, no pinks or reds or blues.
… The way I saw it, I opened each night with the show of what the day had offered. Red meant the day had been a mild one. Orange, the city had run itself hot, and overflowed. Those stripey motherfuckers that looked like a stack of multicolored pancakes, filled with pinks and all the rest, meant the day had been a tired one.
But that lavender had me stumped.

Pluck a guitar string; play a note on a piano; tap a spoon on a crystal goblet: the sound will continue long after the initial strike. In contrast, the sound of a smack on a pillow ends immediately. Musical instruments are designed for resonance. Some materials, like crystal, have a natural resonance that others, such as cloth, lack.

One definition of resonance: “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.” Note the two components: reverberations of the original sound off nearby objects, and additional sound generated as those nearby objects are themselves put into motion by the original sound. For some astonishing effects of sound resonance, take a look at science Youtuber Brusspup’s demonstrations with salt and water. Powerful stuff, resonance.

It’s a word I tend to use a lot (at least six times in reference to different stories throughout this blog) as a kind of shorthand for something that touched me in a lot of ways. Multiple overtones and harmonics, rather than a one-note story. I’m not sure this story resonates with me, but it sure resonates with itself, creating layers upon layers of interwoven imagery from a variety of surfaces and neighboring objects, things as diverse as the raped and abandoned city of Detroit, a death not yet fully mourned, and ashes from a Russian volcano. All of that resonance comes together in, obviously enough, a massive schoolyard bell mysteriously out of context.

Zeke hasn’t been working for Tye as a night mover for very long, only a month or so since his brother’s death. I’m not familiar with night movers. Apparently it’s a thing the foreclosed and evicted do at the last minute, though I’m not sure what moving out in the middle of the night buys them; how much more evicted can they get? The point is that these evictions are so routine, businesses have set up to accommodate them. I’m reminded of the Michael Moore film Roger and Me showing a similar string of evictions from Flint homes.

The insidious poverty and despair is another harmonic running through the piece. ” Tye was part of a new migration of suburbanites to Detroit, enamored with the idea of rebuilding what was left behind.” The more cynical among us might wonder if all that leaving behind was engineered, or at least not seriously resisted, for the express purpose of rebuilding at bargain rates. The catastrophe we glibly refer to as stalled socioeconomic mobility resonates through Zeke’s brother’s death, as well as through the job Zeke uses to tame his insomnia.

Emptiness is a vacuum; absence is a memory.

I’m enchanted by that difference – if it even is a difference. Perhaps it’s meant to be a recapitulation, but I see emptiness and absence as very distinct things. Emptiness is a base condition. Absence is the result of something that was there, but is no more. Like a brother. Or a city.

The plot of the story covers one night, one moving job. I’m quite taken with Zeke’s observation about evictees always leaving a photograph behind. Ashes spread around the globe, perhaps. A presence to resist the absence. And in this home, a strange discovery: a huge schoolyard bell, tipped on its side, far to heavy for two men to move.

Then I realized that the bell was humming. Note so low it almost went unnoticed. The ringing peaked and quieted like my echo talking back.

Resonance. The ashes from Russia, the bell from a schoolyard, the diaspora of the poor, a haunting death. And now, the literal resonance of this bell, emitting sub-aural tones. That’s pretty impressive story construction, all those elements, none of which feels emphasized, but all of which create an ominous roar.

In checking out the author, as I tend to do when I encounter someone for the first time, I discovered that Janes (who, forgive the stereotypes, looks far more like the president of his high school computer club than a weaver of darkly perceptive resonance) has made a short film titled “Zug”. That surprised me, since the quote just above reminded of Jamaal May’s poem, “The Hum of Zug Island”, which I encountered in last year’s Pushcart. Zug Island outside Detroit has achieved some notoriety for its subliminal hum. I also note the story was recommended for Pushcart by Timothy Hedges, whose tense piece about a Detroit bus appeared in the 2013 Pushcart. All the writer’s horses and all the writer’s men can’t seem to put Detroit back together again. And again I must wonder if that’s because someone wants it that way. Privatized schools, privatized prisons: are privatized cities the next step? Or do I need to get a tin foil hat?

I see this is the final piece in this year’s Pushcart. An interesting choice: a final note that continues to sound after the book is closed. Powerful stuff, resonance.

Pushcart XL: Barbara Hurd, “The True Seer Hears” (non-fiction) from The Fourth River, #11

Insects outnumber humans by two hundred million to one. Most of them hear, most of them make noise – clicking grasshoppers, stridulating dung beetles, head-banging termites…. and except for the usual crickets and cicadas, most of them do it out of audible reach of the likes of me, who rose early this morning to sit with my granddaughter Samantha on a downed hemlock at the overlap of forest and field and test the truth of the poem I loved many years ago. You will never be alone, William Stafford wrote, you hear so deep / a sound when autumn comes. Autumn – with its sounds of coherence? – has clearly come to Appalachia – the hills are yellow and bronze.

I confess: I’m not much of a nature lover. I further confess that a big part of my unenthusiam stems from a near-phobic aversion to insects. As a result, reading this essay was less than comfortable for me. I appreciate the sentiment, however, and understand the importance of the tiniest (and creepiest) critters in the overall biosphere. All I ask is that they keep away from me.

I’m particularly fond of the multisensory aspect conveyed by use of the term “seer” (which is indeed a formed from “see”) and the emphasis on hearing in both Hurd’s enumeration of buggy sounds and in the title of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which is the focus of much of the essay. Carson’s book was perhaps the first academic-quality ecology book to make its way into the general public consciousness. Published in 1962, the first Earth Day would follow in 1970, leading to the current division between those who want to leave an intact planet behind for their grandchildren and those who bemoan the passing of such things as incandescent light bulbs and spray cans. Who could’ve guessed.

But Hurd’s point is more general than one book, or even one movement:

Can we simultaneously hear what’s not yet come, what’s here, and what’s gone? Polyphonic silences, like polyphonic music, demand deep listening. Such listeners historically have been called seers, or fools – the difference is sometimes very slight. Is a fool someone whose listening has not yet led to truths? Or someone who hears sounds that do not and never have existed, nor ever will? And can one hear too much? Perhaps to truly hear the world requires both heightened sensitivity and a fair amount of filtering and skepticism. Balance, in other words.

There’s Carson, and there’s whatever celebrity is pushing the latest antivax or contrail conspiracy theory. Alfred Wegener never saw his plate tectonics theory accepted; today it’s taken for granted. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren waited years before the bacterial cause of peptic ulcers was made part of the medical canon. Physicists keep changing their minds about whether the universe will expand, contract, or just peter out in time. Science takes its time – wisely so – before putting the stamp of approval on an idea. And many of us will never forgive the medical establishment for all those years of margarine.

But it goes beyond scientific theory as well. Every time we take a stand on any issue, particularly a controversial one, we are preparing our epitaph. For those in the public eye, every decision becomes part of history. It might be worth thinking about how you want to go down in history when choosing a hill to die on.

Also remember: history is always written from a point of view. Insects have been around 2000 times longer than people, and, as Hurd points out, greatly outnumber us. Who will be around to write the history?