BASS 2015: Denis Johnson, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” from The New Yorker, 3/3/14

Zaan Claassens:  "Sea Maiden"

Zaan Claassens: “Sea Maiden”

After dinner, nobody went home right away. I think we’d enjoyed the meal so much we hoped Elaine would serve us the whole thing all over again. These were people we’ve gotten to know a little from Elaine’s volunteer work—nobody from my work, nobody from the ad agency. We sat around in the living room describing the loudest sounds we’d ever heard. One said it was his wife’s voice when she told him she didn’t love him anymore and wanted a divorce. Another recalled the pounding of his heart when he suffered a coronary….
Young Chris Case reversed the direction and introduced the topic of silences. He said the most silent thing he’d ever heard was the land mine taking off his right leg outside Kabul, Afghanistan.
As for other silences, nobody contributed. In fact, there came a silence now. Some of us hadn’t realized that Chris had lost a leg. He limped, but only slightly. I hadn’t even known he’d fought in Afghanistan. “A land mine?” I said.
“Yes, sir. A land mine.”
“Can we see it?” Deirdre said.
“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”
“No! I mean your leg.”
“It was blown off.”
“I mean the part that’s still there!”
“I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.”
Shocked laughter. We started talking about the most ridiculous things we’d ever kissed. Nothing of interest. We’d all kissed only people, and only in the usual places. “All right, then,” Chris told Deirdre. “Here’s your chance for the conversation’s most unique entry.”
“No, I don’t want to kiss your leg!”
Although none of us showed it, I think we all felt a little irritated with Deirdre. We all wanted to see.

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

In his Introduction, TC Boyle calls this “a story about stories, about how we’re composed of them and how they comprise our personal mythologies.” This makes sense, structurally as well as narratively, as the story is divided into ten named sections, each of them a little story told by our narrator, adman, husband, and semi-human life form.

There’s detachment, and Detachment, and here we have Detachment. Vignette after vignette, mostly about death, about awkwardness, about bizarre coincidences involving death and awkwardness, and Whit just recounts them all in a level tone. I can see why Johnson, in his TNY interview, referenced Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life, ” a jazz piece I’d never heard before. Like a lot of bluesy-jazz, the story is pain, violence, and passion delivered with the nonchalance of someone who can’t afford to care but needs to be heard.

I was also quite taken with Johnson’s reference to TS Eliot’s “quasi-musical decisions” and started looking at the piece from the viewpoint of sonata form: exposition of themes, development, recapitulation, coda. The story doesn’t fit classical form, but I see themes of observation without participation, disruptive pain, and a confusion about relationships recurring and recombining, with the Casanova and Mermaid sections serving as a restatement of themes, a climax of sorts, and the final section as a coda.

Narrative continuity is provided by a career award that is both an achievement and a reminder of how pathetic his career has been. Along the way we see how pathetic his life has been, how devoid of connection he’s been. The opening scene reads more like a rape scene than anything I’ve read lately, with a company of friends watching, waiting, wanting it to happen. Then there’s the confusion of which wife is dying. The award ceremony literally ends up in the toilet, with a twist that would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. Mermaid ends up in a metaphorical toilet, and is even sadder. Then, in Whit, an intriguingly misplaced introduction at the end, in which we finally learn the narrator’s name – does it matter? Isn’t he a part of us, all along – an attempt to recapture personhood, which serves as acknowledgement of its own failure.

I’ve been putting off this post, not sure how to approach this story. Intimidation and inadequacy is one reason: this is Johnson’s first story in 20 years, and I’ve never read him before. I was surprised at how readable it was. It’s also one of the most reviewed pieces I’ve encountered (both because of Johnson’s status, and because it was in The New Yorker so all of the usual suspects weighed in): I find myself confused by all the clamor, the down side of doing research before writing. It seems to be the standout piece in the collection; even Boyle’s intro gave it far more attention than other stories. So I don’t want to sell it short or be the idiot in the room who says the wrong thing. But I’m not sure what to say about it. Reading was like taking a rowboat boat down a river: never being totally in control, only a thin hull away from disaster, but never feeling truly at risk. Observing – much as the narrator observes. Taking it all in. But detached.

BASS 2015: Arna Bontemps Hemenway, “The Fugue” from Alaska Quarterly Review, #31

"The Art of Fugue": JS Bach, CPE Bach

“The Art of Fugue”: JS Bach, CPE Bach

Wild Turkey has always been mesmerized by their language, the team’s utilitarian military patois always morphing what they said just enough to approximate some slightly more surreal world, a language somehow better suited to the world they are actually confronted with. Oftentimes the unthinking word or slight lingual shift ends up being eerily or confusingly apt, in the way that Wild Turkey’s friend the TOW missile gunner whom they call Tow Head really does resemble a “towheaded boy” (the phrase surfacing in Wild Turkey’s mind from some old novel read in a high school English class), or in the way that Wild Turkey will end up buying fifths of Wild Turkey to take the edge off his highs back at home. The Shit, meaning the desert, the war, Iraq, becomes The Suck becomes The Fuck becomes The Fug becomes The Fugue, finally meaning just everything.

I think I’m beginning to understand why Heidi Pitlor’s Foreword to this volume discussed the “unlikeable character” phenomenon. It’s not really that these characters are unlikeable, but they’re often blown up to such proportions they’re not easy to get a grip on, enough of a grip to “like” them. By and large, however, they’re enormously sympathetic, as is Wild Turkey, a vet who started out with epilepsy, snuck into the army anyway and added PTSD after his tour in Iraq.

The title fits perfectly. “Fugue” is from the Italian and Latin fuga meaning “fleeing, flight, running away.” In music, this refers to a brisk pace and an interweaving of multiple themes, modulating through various home keys. In psychiatry, a fugue is a dissociative disorder, which, according to NAMI, is ” characterized by an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.” For Wild Turkey, it represents a shifting between reality, memory, and the false façade society often puts over dirty little secrets.

The style of the story reflects his condition. It’s not just the language that shifts, it’s reality itself, and the prose reflects this as we’re in the present, in the past, in another past, in another present, and who knows where. He was already dealing with a kind of multiple reality due to his epilepsy: “It will never be clear to him whether he is waking from a lacunal fit, the medicine, or a memory, as if all three are essentially the same thing.” This notion of everything becoming the same thing recurs in the story, as reality includes misperceiving reality. Everything – fantasy, memory, the here-and-now, the stories we tell ourselves – is, after all, reality to whomever’s experiencing it.

It’s a rather confusing read, and I haven’t fully sorted out the timeline. The present seems to be Kansas, where Wild Turkey slept under an overpass last night rather than staying with his brother, the minister, and his viciously judgmental sister-in-law. Interestingly, they are unnamed; every other significant character in the story deserves a name. Then there’s Jeanne, an ex-girlfriend, and the house he squatted in for a while after it was foreclosed. And the school he visits in the present which brings him back to the past. And everything brings him back to Iraq.

Wild Turkey’s PTSD is a natural extension of the confusion between what is real and what is fake, like the military training sessions conducted in an imitation of an Iraqi village built in the Arizona desert, meant to prepare his unit for what awaited him on deployment, including a pretend funeral for a fake fallen comrade, who turns out to have the name of a real soldier. I’d have PTSD before even getting to Iraq.

The crushing irony of their physical existence here: they are real Iraqi villagers paid to play Iraqi villagers in America; immigrants from Iraq given asylum and money to come to this other desert and this other village and play themselves. They are given whole complicated psychological profiles to enact, Wild Turkey knows; they each have a role and a set of actions or conversations to complete at predetermined points. They will each behave differently when threatened. They are paid for the performance of reality, for the performance of their identities rather than for the identities themselves.

I once heard a lecture on Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse that included a wonderful line: “Mrs. Ramsey dies after a comma.” One way to emphasize a major event is to just drop it in casually, and Hemenway makes use of that technique a couple of times. In a story full of chaos and spectacular events, it’s almost easy to miss how many people Wild Turkey is mourning, and how horribly they have gone. Which is the point of flight, isn’t it.

There is, of course, a climactic incident that isn’t dropped in casually, hearkening back to the training in the fake village. It’s tragic and horrific and heartbreaking. By the time I got there, I was already exhausted. Wild Turkey’s dragging around a lot, and the story is very effective at immersing the reader into his load.

I was reminded of last year’s “Evie M.” by O. A. Lindsey: a chaotic view of PTSD from the inside. Wild Turkey’s story is part of Hemenway’s collection Elegy on Kinderklavier which explores war from many sides. Darren Huang has written a highly insightful review of the collection, including special attention paid to the psychology of Wild Turkey, on Bookslut.

What really puts the cherry on top is Hemenway’s description of how he wrote this story. His Contributor Note states: “I am a little embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember actually writing this story.” The combination of a new baby with health problems requiring frequent, round-the-clock feeding, a graduate school deadline for an assignment, and research into details of the Iraq war (including the fake Iraqi village set up in the Mohave desert) created a kind of sleep-deprivation that was as disruptive to the memory and sense of reality as the PTSD he was reading about. “Somewhere in there I must’ve been writing, too,” he says, “because on the day [the assignment] was due, I showed up to class with this story, more or less in its current form, in hand.” Perfect. In fact, it’s so perfect, I have to wonder if it actually happened that way, or if this is one of those imagined memories that has become more real than life as lived – which is also, in the shadow of Wild Turkey, perfect.

BASS 2015: Ben Fowlkes, “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” from Crazyhorse, #85

Getty image via Demotivators

Getty image via Demotivators

Wallace went all the way to Florida to fight a Brazilian middleweight he’d never heard of for ten thousand dollars. That’s what it had come to.

~~ story available online (thank you, Crazyhorse).

I read that first sentence, and I thought, oh no, don’t make me read a story about boxing.

Thing is, once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed reading this. Maybe that’s because it’s not about boxing. It’s about that moment when you understand you’re a has-been – and what’s worse, you understand you’re the last person to realize it.

By the way, it’s not boxing at all, it’s one of those things in the neighborhood of cage fighting or MMA or something; forgive me if I have the terminology wrong, since to me it’s an unfamiliar neighborhood. Wallace isn’t your typical fighter in that he’s perceptive of himself and others, and comes out with pithy insights (“He was four days out from a knockout loss and I-don’t-give-a-fuck had settled in”… “Coronado was somewhere people lived on purpose”). I should say, he’s not what I typically think when I think “fighter”. Of course, I’ve never known a fighter, except the one Paul Simon put in a song (“I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains”). Maybe I’d find a lot of fighters are insightful, if I’d just look beyond my preconceptions.

Somewhere in the half-page opening fight scene, I stopped gritting my teeth and started reading. It’s great writing: how do you write a knockout from the knockee’s point of view? Fowlkes shows how; he’s primarily a sports journalist who specializes in MMA. Maybe all writers of fight stories do this, and I just never noticed, because I was gritting my teeth too hard.

The estuary scene took a couple of interesting turns, and left just the right sense of foreboding to carry through the story, to remain thrumming in the background. At the end, the story as a whole took a fascinating, completely unexpected turn in the final scene.

Yeah, Wallace thought, that’s going to be trouble. But there it was. He turned on his heels and started back the way he’d come. Behind him he could hear the sucking sound of the man pulling himself out of the mud. The man swore in stupid, broken off threats at his back. Wallace decided he was going to let the man say whatever he wanted to say. That was a choice he was making.

For some reason I was particularly struck by the repeated use of a single simple sentence: “That was a choice he was making.” That’s not a sentence that should stand out; it’s not unusual, or particularly distinctive. But it stuck with me, and I was surprised to later find it was only used twice: once in the estuary scene that sets up the major narrative drive, and once in the final paragraphs, when those chickens came home to roost. But it’s not the roost you think it’s going to be. I should’ve been prepared for this, since TC Boyle’s introduction refers to it as a “tough guy story that … ends not in violence, but in a moment of grace.”

I’m not sure see a moment of grace. Maybe a moment of enlightenment. There’s a Buddhist koan: “If you meet Buddha, kill him” (the book of that title didn’t come along for another thousand years). That’s a kind of moment of grace. Wallace’s moment of grace is a little different: If you meet yourself on the road, you’re on the wrong road.

“…Like you’re the first fighter who ever got knocked out in a fight he never should have taken.”
Wallace laughed to himself. How many times had he heard Coach telling guys to step up and fight? How many times had he heard that spiel about how you didn’t make any money sitting on your couch? But that was before a fight. It wasn’t until after that things became so very crystal clear to everyone else.

I’ve said that my favorite stories “project into the future,” that is, they leave me with a strong sense of what will happen next, perhaps two or three general options. Here, I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next – and I very much like that feeling.

BASS 2015: Louise Erdrich, “The Big Cat” from The New Yorker, 3/31/14

The women in my wife’s family all snored, and when we visited for the holidays every winter I got no sleep. Elida’s three sisters and their bombproof husbands loved to gather at her parents’ house in Golden Valley, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. The house was less than twenty years old, but the sly tricks of the contractor were evident in every sagging sill, skewed jamb, cracked plaster wall, tilted handrail, and, most significantly, in the general lack of insulation that caused the outer walls to ice up and the inside to resound.

~~ Available online (thank you, New Yorker)

The stories in BASS are, and always have been, arranged alphabetically; there’s no element of choice here, no grouping of themes or variation of style as in Pushcart. Yet I seem to be noticing, this year, a relationship between nearby stories. The narrative structure of “The Siege at Whale Cay” and “Happy Endings”; the opposite extremes of language in “Siege” and “Bride”. And now, after commenting on “Bride”‘s slow transfiguration from realism to something else, I see that at work here as well – a story that, while firmly rooted in domestic realism througout, gives a nod to the horrific surreal at the very end – and it’s only afterwards I took seriously the subtle warning signs.

One scene in particular seemed to leap out at me, though I couldn’t identify why:

When Valery turned twelve, I was cast in a supporting role in a movie that got a lot of attention. It could have been my fabled break. But Elida suddenly panicked over how unhappy Valery was in high school and decided that the schools in Minneapolis were more nurturing. We moved back. I had to accept the fact that my film career was over. I’d worked steadily and spoken a line or two, given many a meaningful glance, tripped villains, sucker-punched heroes, spilled coffee on or danced around movie stars in revolving doors. I had appeared in dozens of films, TV episodes, commercials. But Elida hadn’t been doing well, and both of us got better, more reliable jobs back home.

How does the writing work: that “suddenly” dropped in there, the vagueness of the complaint leading to the move, the casual acceptance on the protagonist’s part, perhaps did double duty to underscore, yet try to breeze over, this event. I thought maybe I was being paranoid, drawing too much on my own experience, when this screamed “Sabotage!” to me. But the manipulation became clearer as the story moved on, and other incidents piled up.

And what’s more, I think the narrator realized he was being played as well; he just refused to take notice, perhaps because then he’d have to acknowledge his participation in events it’s much easier to pretend to be an innocent victim. Take the moment when the two exes are caught having an affair by their daughter, and the narrator realizes: “You can live with a person, have an affair with a person, and still suddenly see an unfamiliar flash, like the belly of a fish in the shallows, there and gone.” I’ve had those moments, sort of like one of those perception puzzles where two profiles suddenly become a vase. Everything changes. But the narrator’s awareness is ephemeral,just like a 60’s sitcom, where insight only lasts for the last moments of a 30-minute episode, and next week, everybody’s ready to make the same mistakes over again to the same laugh track.

Prior to the ending, the closest the narrator comes to incorporating his awareness is in viewing a film, made by his wife, of all the bit parts he’s played. It’s quite a metaphor, isn’t it: to see our lives played out, not chronologically but narratively, to see the development of our souls, to see the future in the past. Skilled writing gives the section its power: it’s not easy to convey a film viewing experience in pages, but Erdrich does a great job. I know exactly what that film looked like, and I know exactly how the narrator felt, viewing it – the second time. Because the first time, he, guess what, just let it go by him. Insight doesn’t come easily to this guy. Until the last sentences. But I have confidence: when he wakes up, he’ll be back in denial until the next time.

Though I’m not particularly drawn to domestic realism, no matter how acutely observed and sensitively expressed, I found this story compelling as the unnamed narrator, a successful if unknown bit-part actor turned non-profit admin, weaves his way through life. I had to know what would happen next. Oddly, I forgot the title (I try to keep titles in mind as I read), so was completely surprised when the big cat turned up in the final sentences.

Erdrich’s TNY interview provides some interesting insight into process: she didn’t write the ending as much as it wrote her. Fortunately, she showed more insight than her narrator, and kept every skin-crawling word.

BASS 2015: Julia Elliott, “Bride” from Conjunctions, #63

St Birgitta, Revelationes, 1500, Nuremburg

St Birgitta, Revelationes, 1500, Nuremburg

Wilda whips herself with a clump of blackberry brambles. She can feel cold from the stone floor pulsing up into her cowl, chastising her animal body. She smiles. Each morning she thinks of the new penance.…
Women are by nature carnal, the Abbott said last night after administering the sacred blood and flesh. A woman’s body has a door, and opening that’s the devil may slip through, unless she fiercely barricade against such an entry.
Wilda’s body is a bundle of polluted flesh. Her body is a stinking goat. She lashes her shoulders and back. She scourges her arms, her legs, her shrunken breasts, and jutting rib cage. She thrashes the small amount of her belly. She gives her feet a good working over, flagellating her toes and soles. She reaches back to torture the two poor sinews of her buttocks. And then she repeats the process, doubling the force. She chases the filthy maggot of her carnality until she feels fire crackling up her backbone. Her head explodes with light. Her soul rejoices like a bird flitting from a dark but, out into summer air.

Guest editor T.C. Boyle described this story as “wickedly funny” in his Introduction to BASS 2015. Does that sound strange, in the light of the above opening scene? Not really – I mean, how else would you describe Wilda’s purple prose thoughts? One of my fellow readers through this volume (hi, Jake!) mentioned the straightforward language used throughout “The Siege at Whale Cay”. Here, we have just the opposite. Wilda’s thoughts are exhausting when she’s considering her evil carnality – but quite lovely when she’s in a more mellow frame of mind, smelling deeply the pomegranate juice and sulphur that serves as ink, “the happiest time of day – ink perfume in her nostrils, windows blazing with light, her body weightless from the morning’s scourge. But then the other nuns come bumbling in…”

Boy, do I know that feeling. Everything’s great until the other nuns show up.

The two Elliott stories I’ve read prior to this were on the science fiction end of the literary spectrum – that’s more or less where she hangs out in general – but this one made more use of psychology. I was intrigued by the idea of setting a story in the scriptorium of a medieval monastery. I’ve taken several recent MOOCs about manuscript creation, and it’s fascinating stuff. Wilda’s descriptions of the ink, the fine vellum used for special projects, the tedious, difficult, and physically wearing task of the scribe rang true to me. And it fits with the theme from that month’s issue of Conjunctions, which was:

Writing about writing itself and about the books that are home to the written word. A library of ideas about language and the book in all their forms, Speaking Volumes collects poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction on historic, forbidden, repurposed, mistranslated, imaginary, lost, and life-changing books—books of every ilk.

Again, a story about writing, about language, about stories, about storytelling.

But the story Wilda is telling is one set beneath – or is it above? – the material she scribes. In a marvellous scene that to me encapsulated much of the entire story, Wilda’s natural curiosity and intelligence leak out around the edges of religious repression when she copies a passage about bees:

Today she is halfway through the entries on bees… They begin as worms, squirming in putrid meat, and “transform into bees.” Wilda wonders why the manuscript provides no satisfactory information on the nature of this transformation, while going on for paragraphs about the lessons we may learn from creatures that hatch from corpses to become ethereal flying nectar eaters and industrious builders of pipes.
How do they get their wings? Do they sleep in their hives all winter or freeze to death? Two fresh swarms hatch from/each spring?

I think the story here is how Wilda finds the answers to these questions. She learns about transformations – and so do we, by following along with her.

If read as straight realism, the story fails as over-the-top, but those opening paragraphs are a clue: See what happens here. Yes, Wilda will continue to be over-the-top, but her thoughts will change, events will transform her, and the story. The slide from realism to surrealism is gradual; there’s no point at which I said, “Oh, now we’re off the grid” but by the end of a sequence of events of increasing absurdity, I was, along with Wilda, very off the grid, with no recollection of how I got there. All I can say is, it was a very interesting ride.

BASS 2015: Diane Cook, “Moving On” from Tin House, #59

They let me tend to my husband’s burial and settle his affairs. Which means I can stay in my house, pretend he is away on business while I stand in the closet and smell his clothes. I can cook dinner for two and throw the rest away, or overeat, depending on my mood. Or make a time capsule full of pictures I won’t be allowed to keep. I could bury it in the yard for a new family to discover.
But once that work is done, the Placement Team orders me to pack two bags of essentials, good for any climate. They take the keys to our house, our car. The crew will come in, price it all; a sale will be advertised; all the neighbors will come. I won’t be there for any of this, but I’ve seen it happen to others. The money will go into my dowry, and then someday, hopefully, another man will marry me.
I have a good shot at getting chosen, since I’m a good decorator and we have some pretty nice stuff to sell off and so my dowry will likely be enticing.

I seem to be noticing this narrative structure of “disruption of the status quo” in these stories; I’m not sure if it’s the stories that emphasize it, or just what is foremost in my reading mind for whatever reason. Again we have a story that begins with the disruption, and we only catch glimpses of the status quo that was. And again, there’s an intriguing narrative in the foreground, while an intensely emotional personal process plays out underneath, and eventually takes over. Just yesterday, I read a quote that stuck in my mind, maybe because I was thinking of this phenomenon: “A-list movies are always about a B-list plot; B-list movies are always about an A-list plot” (Benjamin Percy, quoted by Ben Shattuck in “The Writing of Art” in the 10/19/15 Morning News). Funny how your mind grabs what it needs when you think you’re just running through your reader feed.

At first I thought this was an action-adventure story – and A story – set in a future dystopia in which jobs are limited and those without them are kept in shelters unless they can be “placed” – that is, married to an employed person. Although the main character is a woman, there are men in the same situation. In fact, the presence of the men’s shelter across the street contributes to most of the tension in the foreground story.

But underneath – the B story – is an exploration of the process of moving on from bereavement, particularly the conflict when social forces require a schedule the emotions simply can’t follow.

In my first “Moving on for Widows” seminar we are given a manual of helpful exercises and visualizations.… I’m supposed to pretend our wedding day was lonely, and that rather than love and happiness, I felt doubt, dread. It’s all very hard.

In her Tin House interview, Cook recounts the long process of writing the story in layers, and her own experience with a family that wanted her to move on from the grief of losing her mother before she was ready.

In the end, I’m left with the image of the across-the-void desire, the real-life pseudoromance from one window to another that echoes the yearning to reach someone who’s been lost to death. It’s quite touching, this imagined possibility, the ache to communicate, since communication isn’t possible and the relationship exists only in the woman’s mind. Reminds me of the internet, in fact.

BASS 2015: Kevin Canty, “Happy Endings” from New Ohio Review, #15

All his life McHenry had lived with someone watching him: a mother, a father, a wife, a daughter, his customers. He dug wells for a living and his customers were cattle ranchers and wheat farmers, which meant they were always about to go broke, except when they were rich. They didn’t make a show of watching him but they did….
So he learned to look like he was working when he worked. He learned to act like a father with his daughter was around, to look like a husband when Marnie needed a husband. He did what people expected him to or maybe a little more. He always tried for more. McHenry had a brisk practical manner, plastic glasses, and a crew cut that turned gray early, and all-purpose character that didn’t change. He got along with people. It was way through.

Every once in a while, I come to a story in one of these prize collections that has me scratching my head, trying to figure out why it’s so prizewinning. Like here. It’s a perfectly nice story, with a character who changes and some nice markers by which we gauge his progress, but… is it really a “best” story? Did I miss something along the way? I don’t know (obviously; if I knew, I wouldn’t have missed it); if anyone out there does, please tell me.

McHenry is a regular guy who finds himself alone after his wife dies and his daughter goes off to make her own life. He’s ready for a change. He’s been a hardworking guy all his life, so he shuts down his business and discovers… nothing. He’s still alone. Aloner, in fact. And, by the way, he’s really horny. A casual conversation bring the massage parlor in Billings into his range of vision;he gives it a try, and it turns out to be the catalyst for the usual turning-the-world-upside-down, freeing of the soul type thing that forbidden sex is often credited with.

She was clothed and he was naked. She was at work, in charge, she knew where she was and what she was doing. While McHenry was way out past the safe shallows. This made no sense to him, the fact that he was here.

There’s a nice bit about Spring: initially, he observes it’s a “hard season” recalled in the context of his departed wife and a freezing rain; after his awakening – literally, after he steps out of the massage parlor – he sees spring as warm and inviting. And there are some great lines: his observation that the room in the massage parlor is ” easy to clean, like a veterinarian’s exam room” bringing in the conflation of clean and dirty, how the dirty part allows life to spring from a formerly sterile spot; and the question he poses to himself, ” What if this was not wrong?”

I’ve encountered Canty before, in a New Yorker story. It left me confused, but there was a lot to it. Here, I’m not confused at all, but I miss the conglomeration of elements. I find it ironic that two reviews of Canty’s work (one, two; he’s published three story collections and five novels, so he obviously knows what he’s doing) warn readers that his stories do not have happy endings. It seems fitting somehow that he’d write a story about happy endings with a happy ending.

BASS 2015: Justin Bigos, “Fingerprints” from McSweeney’s, #47

A story: A man, once a wealthy banker but now anonymous in rags, retired, richer than ever, wandered the streets of our city. He dug through trash, ate trash, slept on sidewalks, walked with a slight limp, as if he had years before suffered a minor stroke, or a terrible beating. Years before, in fact, his wife and children had died on a highway. After drinking away a decade of his life, the man quit alcohol, quit his job, quit his life. He became someone else. Do we still think it possible? To become someone else? We know this is just a story, so:

Justin Bigos wanted to write a story about storytelling, according to his Contributor Note. I have to admit, that wouldn’t have occurred to me as I was reading. Oh, it should have, given how many times story is referenced, including at the very beginning above. But the drama is so front and center – and the confusion – I didn’t have room to think about storytelling.

Confusion? Oh, yeah, that. It’s a story made up of fragments. Story fragments. Some of the are probably true. Some are probably… not lies, exactly, but confabulations, exaggerations. The kinds of things a child might think – might wish – about a chaotic father who’s no longer there. That’s a frequent theme in BASS stories, I’ve noticed – stories we tell ourselves. Family stories that may not be true (my family still tells a hilarious story about my visit to an ear doctor: pain, humiliation, powerlessness, the whole nine yards, but my family played his abusive treatment of me for laughs so they don’t have to admit they stood there and watched while I was traumatized). Cultural stories we know aren’t true (the American dream, my ass) but we can’t let go because we might have to face something ugly in ourselves. So we’re both right: it’s a story about stories, some of them exactly the kind of story a confused child might dream up, and the rest might be fragmented memories, augmented by conversations overheard, imagined, or avoided.

These stories make up a story about a family.

Another story: Sometime in your teens, in high school, around the time your father started showing up again, your house was robbed….
Also missing: two slices of bread, half a pound deli turkey, a handful of lettuce, a fat slice of tomato, and lots of mayonnaise, scooped out with fingers. The thief had left the dregs of his late-night snack on the kitchen table along with a rusty knife….And there was mayonnaise everywhere, oily mayonnaise fingerprints all over the house. On the jewelry box: fingerprints. On the coffee pot: fingerprints. On the toilet flush (but he didn’t flush): fingerprints. On the photo of my father and me on the desk (the father clearly drunk, the boy on his shoulders screaming, but look, maybe in July, into light, and the father, let’s face it, the father is happy): fingerprints. The cops dusted it all, didn’t need any of it. Asleep at the wheel. High as a kite.

So much happens in this section. First of all, language. Though it isn’t evident from the pared-down quote, Bigos uses the words “thief”, “stealing”, and “burglary”. There is a legal difference between these terms. Theft is the overall act of taking someone else’s property, and can apply to crimes in which there is no personal contact with the property (embezzlement, copyright infringement) as well as to robbery and burglary. Robbery is a crime committed against a person, and is classified as a violent crime whether or not actual injuries are inflicted. burglary is taking property from a structure, whether entry is forced or not. Now think about those definitions in the context of a boy whose father left, whose contact with him is intermittent and chaotic. Then think about those terms in the context of another vignette (true? invented? some of both?) about a custody battle, where a child is taken through a train window. It’s an astonishing scene, made more so by the echoes of the burglary already laid down.

I also noticed the poetry. Bigos is, primarily, a poet; this piece was started in grad school as a “try another genre” exercise; he put it aside and didn’t get back to fiction for ten years. The paragraph reads as poetry. For that matter, the entire story has a very distinctive voice to it; the paragraphs almost always have a closing cadence. You can watch Bigos read a substantial excerpt taped at Northern Arizona University’s Narrow Chimney reading series.

The episode is anchored around the father’s irregular, and clandestine, visits. Normally, a burglary would serve as an anchor point for other events – “I started fifth grade a few weeks after the burglary” or “The burglary was with me all summer.” But here, it’s the father’s visits, and non-visits, that anchor everything in this boy’s life, and along with the burglary runs through his life, his story, like a trail of bread crumbs.

But of course the biggest resonance was the fingerprints, emphasized by the title of the piece. The criminal left evidence everywhere. But it wasn’t needed, because he was stupid enough to get caught sleeping it off nearby in the car he stole from the family. Fingerprints everywhere: that’s a capsule characterization of this boy’s experience of his father if I ever heard one.

I feel incredible empathy for this boy, but I also feel empathy for the mother, sister, stepfather, and, yes, for the father. That’s what growing up, realizing your own flaws, does to you. While you know, these aren’t my flaws, you also know they very well could have been.

BASS 2015: Megan Mayhew Bergman, “The Siege at Whale Cay” from Kenyon Review, #36.4

Georgie woke up in bed alone. She slipped into a swimsuit and wandered out to a soft stretch of white sand Joe called Femme Beach. The Caribbean sky was cloudless, the air already hot. Georgie waded into the ocean and as soon as the clear water reached her knees she dove into a small wave with expert form.
She scanned the balcony of the pink stucco mansion for the familiar silhouette, the muscular woman in a monogrammed polo shirt chewing a cigar. Joe liked to drink her morning coffee and watch Georgie swim.
But not today.

Descriptions of short story architecture usually run something like: The status quo is disrupted by an event that starts the narrative action; the action then increases in complexity and intensity until a climax is reached, at which point there is a fundamental change in a character or social structure, followed by a denouement which may clean up loose threads or clarify the effects of the change. This story follows that pattern nicely – except that the fundamental change may be in fact a refusal, or perhaps an inability, to change.

Marian Barbara “Joe” Carstairs was a real person, a real heiress, a real WWI ambulance driver, and a real champion speedboat racer. She did purchase and “reign” over an island, in the Bahamas where she imported glamorous actresses for rollicking weekends and various beautiful women for in between. As with much historical fiction, fact is the setting, but the real story happens in a place not included in the historical record, in this case, in the heart and mind of one of Joe’s companions.

When Joe transplanted Georgie from the Orlando mermaid show (I grew up in Florida, I remember ads for Weeki Wachee) to the magical island, it must’ve seemed like a miracle. Imagine, being plucked from the ordinary life of breathing underwater in front of hundreds of strangers, to live on a tropical island paradise flowing with champagne and extravagant glamour. “’What I like about you,’ Joe had told her on their first date, over lobster, ‘is that you’re just so American. You’re cherry pie and lemonade. You’re a tickertape parade.’” But when Marlene – Dietrich, that is – arrives for her turn with Joe, Georgie starts to feel cherry pie just isn’t good enough:

She pulled her hair up using two tortoiseshell combs she’d found in the closet, and ran bright Tangee lipstick across her mouth, all leftovers from other girlfriends, whose pictures were pinned to a corkboard in Joe’s closet. Georgie stared at them sometimes, glossy black and white photographs of beautiful women. Horsewomen straddling thoroughbreds, actresses in leopard print scarves and fur coats, writers hunched artfully over typewriters, maybe daughters of rich men who did nothing at all. She couldn’t help but compare herself to them, and always felt as if she came up short….
She loved the way Joe’s lavish attention made her feel—exceptional. And she’d pretty much felt that way until Marlene put one well-heeled foot onto the island.
Georgie wandered into Joe’s closet and looked at the pictures of Joe’s old girlfriends, their perfect teeth and coiffed hair, looping inky signatures. For Darling Joe, Love Forever. How did they do their hair? How big did they smile?
And did it matter? Life with Joe never lasts, she thought, scanning the corkboard. The realization filled her with both sadness and relief.

Much of the story looks at Georgie’s inner landscape, and it’s a tribute to Bergman that it’s every bit as interesting as Joe’s flamboyant life. We see her gradually realize she’s still performing, and she’s only one in a long parade of performers who have preceded, and will succeed, her. She’s traded the public exhibition of the mermaid show for a private exhibition. When we come to the end, we expect her to realize it’s time for her to go, as many things on the island, beyond her illusions, are beginning to collapse. But it’s more complicated than that. Could you leave Paradise that easily, even when you’d noticed the tarnished edges?

David Lynn of The Kenyon Review gives an interesting take on what he calls “the first quiet paragraph” of the story (the first quoted section above) in his Why We Chose It article: he was drawn to the implications of the word “alone.” I had a similar reaction to the sentence just following that opening: “Curious, Georgie toweled off, tossed a sundress over her suit and walked the dirt path toward the general store, sand coating her ankles, shells crackling underneath her bare feet.” We’ve gone from a pleasant morning swim to the irritation of gritty sand and sharp shells – much as Georgie goes from the idyllic status quo of being Joe’s cherry pie, to the uncomfortable comparison with the Beautiful People who arrive.

I was also interested in how diving and swimming, which start the story, played out. When Georgie wants to get Joe’s attention, she uses her own area of mastery: she dives into the ocean. And at the end, when she’s considering her options, again, she dives. I wonder if she realizes that she has a talent. Of course, there isn’t a swimmer alive who can outrace a speedboat, but sometimes we choose the arenas in which we must compete.

The story was part of Bergman’s collection, Almost Famous Women. In her interview with Bustle, Bergman said, “Somehow I felt like writing about their first person perspective just felt too on the nose, and I felt interested in what it was like to orbit those people who had fame.” Her BASS Contributor Note likewise indicates a fascination with Joe.

But I read it as clearly Georgie’s story. Maybe that’s because, while Joe is glamorous and eccentric and fascinating, it’s Georgie I understand. Or maybe it’s because I like this method of tucking one story inside another, of using glamour and fame as a setting to highlight the true star: the mundane choices of the heart we’re all faced with. I suppose “Gatsbyesque” is a way to describe it, but I somehow thought of abysses. Here, Georgie doesn’t even realize there’s an abyss to look into, until she notices it looking into her, swallowing her whole. Joe doesn’t care about abysses, she just skips right over them. I’m naturally drawn to the abyss-gazers.

Happy Anniversary to BASS 2015

Where we'd be living if nothing had progressed in the past 250 million years.

Where we’d be living if nothing had progressed in the past 250 million years.

One hundred years ago, when Edward O’Brien inaugurated this annual volume in celebration of the short story, things were both different and the same….The Model T gave way to the Model A and to the Ferrari and the Prius, the biplane of the First World War to the jet of the Second, modernism to postmodernism and post-postmodernism. We advance. We progress. We move on. But we are part of a tradition and this is what makes O’Brien’s achievement so special 0 and so humbling for us writers bent over our keyboards in our own soon-to-be-superseded age. The Best American Short Stories series still follows his template and his aesthetic too, seeking to identify and collect some of the best short fiction published in the preceding year.

TC Boyle, Introduction, BASS 2015

Happy 100th Anniversary, BASS!

This year, we have not one, but TWO Best American Short Stories: this one, the 2015 volume anthologizing selected fiction published in the calendar year 2014 (yes, it’s confusing, deal with it), and a 100th anniversary celebration including stories selected from the past 100 published volumes. That will have to wait for another day; for now, I’m going to stay in the near-present, and see what TC Boyle and Heidi Pitlor have chosen for this year.

For the first time since I’ve been blogging BASS, I don’t recognize a single story in the Table of Contents. As I started MOOCing more, I started reading less, and now I’m down to Pushcart and BASS. That saddens me, but, as Boyle says, everything changes, and next year or three years from now, I may be doing something entirely different. I was doing something entirely different three years ago, after all (remember the Project Runway years?).

I’m excited to see what I’ve missed.

I recognize many of the authors, of course, and see a lot of new names. I like that. It’s nice to feel some sense of continuity, but also nice to discover new people, perhaps writers others know well, but who are new to me. Things change. We progress. I have to remember that, since there are days when the news seems to indicate we’re going backwards. That, too, may be progress, like crouching low before taking a jump. I hope so.

Pitlor’s Foreword deals with the “unlikeable character.” I’m always puzzled by this debate. I can only think of one book where I liked a character – to the point where I truly missed him at the end of the book – and I’m pretty sure it had more to do with my personal psychology than with any personal affection, and certainly nothing to do with literary or aesthetic appreciation. When I read Coetzee’s Disgrace for a MOOC, I clearly remember despising Lurie in a visceral, physical way, but it never occurred to me this would be a flaw in the book. I likewise found Emma Bovary to be hilarious – as well as Manon Lescaut – but judging them as people wasn’t as important as understanding how those characters fit into the stories they inhabited, how they interacted with other characters, why things happened as they did – and how that fit with my view of people, the world, life. Pitlor seems to have a similar approach:

To readers who tend to think primarily in terms of liking or disliking characters: these people are fictional. They do not stand before us asking to be liked. They stand before us asking to be read. They asked to be seen and heard and maybe even understood, or at least for their motives to be understood, if that is what the author is after. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend these characters are in fact real, that they are human beings standing before us. Let us open up at least a little to those we might not like – in their presence, we might experience something new.

Heidi Pitlor, Foreword, BASS 2015

TC Boyle’s Introduction was equally puzzling to me, though for a different reason. After a brief rant about the non-existent commercial market for short fiction today (a problem my blogging buddy and TC Boyle fan Ken Nichols is facing by creating new readers via his latest project, Reading is Not Homework), he goes on to pretty much eviscerate the stories in the early BASS volumes: “I’d like to report that there are hidden gems here…but that ‘s not the case. The stories are rudimentary…..” Oh. Well, that’s a surprising approach for a BASS guest editor. And, perversely, it makes me more curious about the stories: could I tell if they’re that bad?

Ultimately, though, what I was looking for wasn’t much different from what O’Brien was: stories that grabbed me in any number of ways, stories that stood out from the merely earnest and competent, that revealed some core truth I hadn’t suspected when I picked them up. Another editor might have chosen another lineup altogether from them 120 finalists, but that only speaks to its subjectivity each reader brings to his or her encounter with any work of art. If I expected anything, I expected to be surprised, because surprise is what the best fiction authors, and there was no shortage of such in this year’s selections.

TC Boyle, Introduction, BASS 2015

Time to progress: Annoy me. Surprise me. Change me.

Goodnight, Pushcart

"Funny games Pushcart race in England" (Ullstein Bild,1930)

“Funny games Pushcart race in England” (Ullstein Bild,1930)

Every time I come to the end of one of these reading projects that stretches over time – Pushcart, BASS, Dante, whatever – I find myself slowing down, postponing the inevitable. I’m not someone who does well with change; I’m more comfortable with patterns, and shifting from one project to another has always been difficult. So I’ve let this blog sit far too long without officially closing the cover on Pushcart XXXIX. But I find a wrap-up to be useful in itself; it gives me a chance to reflect on what happened, from slightly outside the experience.

One of the best things about Pushcart is that it stretches my comfort zone.

I’m still a little afraid of poetry, and forcing myself to encounter dozens of poems in various styles allows me to figure out an approach to each – an approach that may differ. Poetry, art, isn’t constructed on an assembly line, so each aesthetic experience is unique. I also don’t have much opportunity to encounter contemporary poetry outside of Pushcart. While I might run into a reference about Wordsworth, Sandburg, Keats, in the course of reading anything, it’s less likely my daily travels through words will mention Ocean Vuong or Rachel Zucker.

Through this volume I encountered poetry that used language differently. Susan Stewart gave me a new way of looking at trees, and at words, in “Pine”. I have no idea if I found what Mary Szybist intended me to find in “Too Many Pigeons To Count And One Dove“, but what I found impressed me. And while my first reaction to Rachel Zucker’s “Mindful” was – as I said at the time – “no way,” I soon recognized my own reality there, reminding me how important it is to keep an open mind, to notice but not be constrained by first impressions.

This experience of exceeding my own self-imposed limitations isn’t just part of the poetry I read. I grew impatient with Lincoln Michel’s “If It Were Anyone Else” and was ready to dismiss it as some kind of postmodern fiddle-faddle, but a second look, a willingness to trust the words on the page, generated a second-look experience I wouldn’t have missed for anything. Three times, I thought I knew where “Animals” by Michael Kardos was going, and three times I ended up somewhere else.

Because of the breadth of the volume – stories, poems, non-fiction – as well as the number of pieces, I’m going to forego any attempt at “favorites.” As I look back over the posts I’ve made in the past nine months (yes, this project stretched out longer than I’d expected), I realized I couldn’t really remember one piece I’d enthused about; I wonder what that means. Was it fast food – or did it strike so deep, I’ve repressed it? As usual, the few pieces that didn’t really mean anything to me are more memorable, but a “not-favorites” list seems rather negative. And that they are more memorable may mean I have more growing to do before I’m ready for them.

Though it’s hard to put one thing aside and move on, it’s time. Good night, Pushcart XXXIX, I won’t forget you just because you’re on my bookshelf along with your siblings, and we’ll spend more time together.

Pushcart 2015: Alan Rossi, “Unmoving Like a Mighty River Stilled” from Missouri Review, #36.3

"Icarus": sculpture by Russell Whiting

“Icarus”: sculpture by Russell Whiting

Blake’s SUV wound along the highway, and in the distance the Sierra rose gray and snow-specked against the horizon. Blake was driving, rarely watching the road, and talking about the new helmet camera he had bought. Kieran sat in the backseat and watched the back of Blake’s long, ponytailed red hair, wondering if Blake noticed how often he was correcting for left of center, while Blake continued talking about the helmet cam, his head bobbing while he spoke. Kieran occasionally glanced at the back of Ian’s head, shotgun, a clean-shaved-bald head, to see how he was responding to Blake, if he was as annoyed as Kieran. He didn’t think Ian was. Blake was going to use the helmet cam on the climb up the Dome, he was saying, correcting left of center, and then hop into a canyon right behind Kieran with the helmet cam on to record the entire thing, POV. Ian could take the pics, but Blake wanted to hear the fear, is how he put it.
All you’re going to hear is a lot of wind, Ian said. But you go ahead, little buddy. Watch the road.

While I had enormous empathy for the main character Kieran and found his existential dilemma both familiar and intriguing, this story was by far the hardest for me to read in this anthology. I don’t think it was the long – sometimes multi-page long – paragraphs, or the contemporary eschewal of quotation marks or the unfamiliar situation of three extreme sportsmen out for a climb, or a fly, or whatever the hell it is they’re out for. I just found it extremely hard to connect my understanding of Kieran’s dis-ease, as he puts it, with the story. I wonder, as I often do when I struggle with a piece, if that’s the point.

He seems like someone I’d enjoy knowing. His friends seem like frat boys I’d avoid. I have a hard time understanding if he used to be more like them, or if they’ve become more like themselves, or if I’m just an old fart who has no patience with this show-off he-man thing. Hey, I watch American Ninja Warrior, and watched the original Ninja Warriors when it was available, so I can’t have that hard a time with show-off he-men.

And yet, I struggled to read this piece. I’m still pretty sure I missed most of it.

One of the main reasons for self pitying: he worked as a Client Relations Manager for an insurance claims unit. He could not see himself as an Insurance Claims District Manager. Yet he was one, chatting and approving or disapproving claims and making small talk, the whole time watching himself, sickened by it, doing this chatting and small-talking. His voicemail had become a point of great disturbance and dis-ease in his life. He often thought “dis-ease” and then “disease” and then “dis-ease.” Titties, titties,titties, Blake was going.

It’s passages like that, that make me think I’ve missed something great. Maybe someday I’ll go back for it. Because this recognition that something is basically wrong with the way one is living one’s life, this analytical approach to a state that is all jumbled emotion, this being stuck with the moronic Blake and wondering how to get free, or if it’s possible to get free, that’s something that interests me.

Pushcart 2015: Marilyn Hacker, “Ghazal” (poem) from Little Star, #5

Across the river, in the orchard on the hill, a woman
said, sometimes a handful of red earth can fulfill a woman.

I’d never heard of the ghazal before: a poetic form indigenous to Middle Eastern and Indian literature, featuring a theme of love and separation – unrequited or absent love, separation, longing – and using a structure of couplets which end with the same word throughout the poem. The focus here is obviously on a woman: the speaker? The poet?

It’s a highly evocative poem (you can find it on tumbler), but it’s unclear to me exactly what in particular is being expressed. Because I know about the unrequited love theme, because I know a little bit about Hacker’s world view and see the poem’s connection to Arabic poetry, language, and stories (the “red earth” imagery appears in A Thousand and One Nights), I sense an emotional reaction to the political, the loss one of place and identity – or, given the turn to imagery with more violent content at the middle, perhaps a loss of a way of life, of safety.

Another feature of the ghazal is the maqta: the last couplet includes the author’s name, “often in very creative ways.” Fittingly, the word hakawati is the Arabic word for “storyteller.”

The hakawati with grey hair and no breasts
writing words and crossing them out is still a woman.

I’d say using the word self-referentially as a name is pretty creative.

Pushcart 2015: Patricia Lockwood, “Rape Joke” (poem) from The Awl, July 2013

The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.
The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.
The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee.
Imagine the rape joke looking in the mirror, perfectly reflecting back itself, and grooming itself to look more like a rape joke. “Ahhhh,” it thinks. “Yes. A goatee.”
No offense.

I remember when this was first published online at The Awl. I have a very small, tightly curated Twitter feed (I’m one of those people who actually reads every tweet) yet dozens of links showed up on the first day, dozens more on the second. I resisted – I really don’t need to read a piece complaining about rape jokes, any more than I need to read a post opposing murder, racism, or kicking puppies – but eventually I read the poem. It was a surprise, because it accomplished more than I’d thought it could.

By now I’m sure everyone with an internet connection has read it. Maybe you’ve heard about the ensuing controversy: the New Yorker review of the collection in which it appears, taking a rather dismissive tone towards anything that might work on Twitter. The kickback on The Toast. The writer who felt censored when his essay was removed from HTMLGiant. The story on The Wire about the real-life rape joke, the guy convicted of attempted rape on the day this poem was published, who explained his actions: “My prank was supposed to be to scare her by grabbing her from behind and taking her down to the ground….her eyes made me think that she had a good sense of humor and she was a good person to play the prank on.” Ha. Ha.

That’s pretty much why rape jokes aren’t funny, why the rape joke is itself a rape. It’s a way of dismissing in word what can’t be abused in act.

Lockwood’s poem made it more concrete by turning the rape joke into a character and occasionally conflating it with the victim via self-referential text that can’t decide if it’s prose or poem, changes POV and voice every once in a while, and is as confused as a 19-year-old who’s raped and told it wasn’t really rape because she was drunk. Or as any woman told she had it coming because she wore a tight skirt, or was out late at night, or she went on a date, because it’s more convenient for the attacker, our preconceptions and prejudices, and sometimes the entire community, that way. The poem reflects the absurdity of that.

Lockwood has a sense of humor that’s as serious as a heart attack. “There’s something inherently funny about being suddenly pretty well-known for writing a poem called ‘Rape Joke,'” she says. “If I had known that that was going to happen, I would have put it in the poem as the punchline.” I think she still should. Claudia Rankine updated the list of names in Citizen with the second printing. Lyn Hejinian updated “My Life” to include more of her life. Art, life and death continue beyond publication dates. So does rape.

Pushcart 2015: Aisha Gawad, “Waking Luna” from Kenyon Review, #35.2

Art by Huda Lufti: "Femme Gaultier and Egyptian Pop"

Art by Huda Lufti: “Femme Gaultier and Egyptian Pop”

My cousin Luna sleeps on a Super 8 motel bed in Jersey City, in a room that overlooks the Holland Tunnel toll plaza, next to a Home Depot that makes me sad because I can’t imagine anyone in this place having a home for which they might ever need a hammer or some drywall or satin-finish paint. But there it sits, massively waiting, just in case. New York is just eight dollars and ten minutes away.

When we were eight and first learning how to pray, we used to think the world would pause for us until we had finished. We would slip our little white prayer scarves over our heads, kneel and bend and kneel and bend, turn our heads and say peace be upon you and the Mercy of Allah to the right and then to the left, and when we stood up, yanking the scarves off, we were always shocked to find out that we had missed the first ten minutes of Ducktales.

Two cousins, a rescuer and rescuee. Luna is a pole dancer with bad habits chemical and personal, and Amira shows up to get her out of whatever jams she gets herself into. It’s so much an “I love the black sheep of my family” story, yet it’s set in a cultural background that adds depth to the double portrait.

I very much like two of the scenes from this story. One is above, and I can see these two little girls with their own eight-year-old visions of how the world works, and their surprise at learning they were wrong. They have learned many similar lessons since then. The description of the Ramadan fast – who cheats, and who doesn’t – also stood out. It’s a scene KR editor David Lynn mentions specifically in his “Why We Chose It” column. He reads a great deal about the immigrant experience into the story. While I loved the way the specific cultural background played into the story, I instead found myself focused on a more universal element: the tie between some family members that can’t be broken – even when it is:

I remember when I still felt like there was a bungee cord running from my lungs, dragging along the streets of Brooklyn and up into her mouth, no matter where she was, every breath connected, my inhale dependent on her exhale. I don’t remember when it snapped.

My favorite stories give me a sense of what I keep calling “projection into the future” – a sort of sequel that plays in my mind after I’ve read the last sentence. I can imagine several futures for Amira and Luna. Perhaps Luna gets tired of calling for help. Or perhaps she learns from her mistakes, and no longer needs to call for help. The one possibility that I don’t see, is that Luna calls, and Amira doesn’t answer. I’ll admit, that may be wishful thinking on my part.

In her KR contributor conversation, Gawad points out these two characters are from a novel-in-progress; it’s a scene, she says, that “never makes it into the storyline of the novel but yet still informs it emotionally.” Sounds like an interesting novel.

A few months with Dante: vines, hyperspheres, and forgiveness

Domenico di Michelino, “La Divina Commedia di Dante” (1465)

Six months, 1600+ pages of translation/commentary, approximately 60 hours of video lectures later, I can say I’ve read Dante’s Commedia. It’s something I’ve always wanted to read, given its importance in so much Western literature, but I’ve always been intimidated. An unusual concatenation of disparate events finally got me going. You never know when a project’s going to crop up. But one of my life truths is: never question a healthy impulse.

One of those events was the announcement of a series of three Georgetown MOOCs covering the Commedia as well as La Vita Nuova. Since I described my experience of the Inferno course earlier, I’ll skip over most of that. I will say that I may be the only person who found Inferno to be the least interesting of the three Divine Comedy canticles. Granted, part of that may have been because I was distracted by the material in the MOOC, which I found more oppressive than educational. For “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso”, I focused on the Hollander translations and commentary, along with the Yale Open Course lectures by Giuseppe Mazzotta. I still used the Georgetown material, but to a far lesser degree, and more as a supplement than a focus. And I do love how they incorporated art into the text. For me, it worked much better this way.

I was surprised at how attached I became to Virgil along the way. I was never crazy about Aeneas’ dismissive treatment of Dido when he decided to move on to fortune and glory, and that alone colored my impression of the entire Aeneid. I was downright resentful of what I referred to (to the amusement of some of my fellow students) as Dante’s cultural bias – come on, Brutus and Cassius as Judas’ compatriots in the mouth of Satan? Seriously? – particularly his depiction of Ulysses as one of the most execrable sinners, a transgressor of boundaries, as theologically sound as that might be in the context of the poem, while Aeneas was a hero. But Virgil grew on me. His understated departure from the poem, again a structural and thematic necessity, was devastating, and I was surprised to find myself in tears. I did not react well to Beatrice’s abrupt and harsh treatment of Dante at that point, and apparently I’m not alone: Prof. Mazzotta mentioned one of Jorge Luis Borges’ Nine Dantesque Essays complains about that exactly. I was doubly displeased when Georgetown focused on the importance of the transfer and the meaning. No one wants to let anyone mourn any more. Well, I mourned for Virgil. And I still think he got a raw deal, being sent like an errand boy to guide Dante around, only to be dismissed without any acknowledgement, locked out of the heaven to which he guided others. On the plus side, his home in Limbo among the Virtuous Heathen, surrounded by Plato and Aristotle and Homer, struck me as a better place for him than the Paradise where there’s nothing left to say.

I should reiterate – although it’s probably evident by now – that while I was intensely religious in my tweens and early teens, and have always been interested in the study of religion through history, sociology, and philosophy, I’m more of a secular humanist than a theist. Fact is, I don’t have any beliefs rigid enough to label, though I see possibilities everywhere. But those more heathen than I have found much to enjoy in Dante. Obviously, I’m not going to “review” the poem – that would be ridiculous, given my lack of background in the dozens of areas necessary to fully explore all that’s there – but I will recount some of my experience, which is all I do here anyway.

I’ll start with where the primary impetus to read at this point in time this started: with the hypersphere.


Another of the events that sent me down this path was, of all things, a math MOOC from last summer. Not only did one of my favorite fellow students use the name “Purgatorio,” but it turned out the instructor was, among other things, a Dante fan, and had given a lecture in another venue which referenced Dante’s view of the universe in Paradiso as a hypersphere (the pertinent part of the lecture begins at about the 14 minute mark, but the whole thing is worth watching). I read Dante almost heading towards that scene in my head. I still don’t know enough about hyperspheres to really “get” it, though I found an animation featuring a kind of “flipping of pages” which makes sense in this context. I have no way of knowing how accurate that is, but any representation of a hypersphere is going to be approximate.

But two things really grabbed me about the scene: first, Beatrice’s explanation, in medieval Italian which, of course, I don’t read – “Da quel punto depende il cielo e tutta la natura” – that gets translated into “From that point depend the heavens and all nature.” That ties in with the four-dimensional hypersphere, as I understand it: there’s a point at which, in three dimensions, everything turns inside out on itself. That’s the point where the pages are flipping in that animation, the point in the lecture at the 19:30 mark) where we “flip past an equator” to discover concentricity around a different pole. And, as I tend to do, I get carried away, and my mind went straight to William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, a humbler point from which, all the same, so much depends. And if I haven’t blasphemed poetics enough, let me add that the drunken angels of Canto 30 brought to mind Emily and her liquor never brewed, leaning against the sun.

And finally, to cap off this hypersphere obsession, I discovered something wonderful in the Yale OCW lecture by Giuseppe Mazzotta (about the 41:00 mark): a little rebus in which the words “When” and ” cross at the word “hemisphere”, describing, as he puts it, the universe as two hemispheres (the caveat being that the poem did not drop nicely typeset from the sky). He’s referring more to creation, but there’s also this hypersphere Dante experiences when he turns and sees the point and what is ahead is suddenly behind and inside out.

So lest it seem like some of us are going off into an unrelated hyperspace on this hypersphere notion, none less than Robert Hollander also provides a modern structural reference to Canto 27, line 109 – though he includes a caveat to “temper an enthusiasm for such “premodern physics” on Dante’s part” with consideration of Bonaventure’s Itinerarium mentis, V, something else it seems I need to read. Every time I read something, I find something else I need to read…

Forgiveness and “cheap grace”

Purgatory showed the sweat behind seeking forgiveness. I think we’ve lost this idea in society, if we ever truly held it. We look for, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, cheap grace. We want to drink our little wine and eat our little cracker and feel cleansed without ever thinking about what might need cleansing. We want to take down a single flag and declare the whole 450 years of racism even. We want to cry on tv and earn the compassion of everyone who’s ever made a mistake. What we don’t want to do is change. Reading Purgatorio, seeing the souls carrying out their penance in a spirit of eagerness rather than resentfulness (this is fiction, after all), was a good reminder: Absolution should cost something, involve work.

I had a harder time with the idea of giving forgiveness. The example in the canto was of the martyr Stephen forgiving his murderers even as they stoned him. I think the point was not that they no longer were guilty of their crime, but that he was relieved of a burden of hate and rage. But I wonder: is such forgiveness possible in real life? Shortly after I read that section, some of the families of nine people murdered in Charleston, SC proclaimed their forgiveness for the racist shooter. A lot of thoughtful people I respect had a great deal of trouble with that; it seems another burden placed on one already burdened community that isn’t expected from others. But the point is: we need to forgive for our own sake, not for the sake of those who wrong us. And, I believe, one can forgive, and still seek justice, because those are two separate things.

But if I was a bit shaky on forgiveness, I found I could far more readily understand faith, though probably not in the way Dante intended.

The Faith of a Vine

Three cantos in Paradiso are devoted to Dante’s oral exams prior to his graduation to the Empyrean. Really, they’re overtly based on the medieval process for obtaining academic degrees, which, as I understand it (having never gone through the process) persists to this day in the oral exams and dissertation defenses of even the most secular academic institutions: a process of close questioning by faculty who just keep digging until they’re convinced the candidate isn’t just repeating words but understands the meaning of his profession. In the case of Paradiso, these oral exams are on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, given by saints most associated with those qualities: Peter, James, and John, respectively.

While Peter questioned the protagonist Dante (as distinct from the poet Dante) about faith, I discovered faith in a different way. It’s my habit to do my reading at a back window of my apartment, where there’s a broad sill to use as a standing desk, in part so I can work out the kinks from hunching over a computer for hours. The view from the window is less than inspiring – a parking garage – but I usually find something of interest out there anyway: the tree that aligns with my window, squirrels or birds in that tree or on a railing or even, rarely, on the outside ledge of my window. Maybe just the contrast of sky and brick as I look out at the buildings in the distance. It may not be the view I’d choose, but it’s the view I have, so I do what I can with it.

As I read Dante’s defense of his thesis on faith in P.Canto [23], I noticed something new in my view: a vine poking its way a few inches up the window, sticking off into empty space as it left the bricks that anchored it to the wall. I don’t typically see the back side of my building, but when I looked later, it does appear that I am now the closest I will ever get to the Ivy Leagues: vines cover part of the back wall. And one vine, on some mission to spread, was growing out into nothing. Eventually, it grew long enough to sag under its own weight and found the bricks at the bottom of the window sash.

That’s faith. It doesn’t know if it will find anything, but it grows because it must grow, and faith has to be at the core of that growth; otherwise it would stay in the safety of the known. Faith is coded into the DNA of this vine, so that it reaches out, for something it can cling to. This has been a particularly bleak time for many of us, as we watch bluster preferred over wisdom, greed over cooperation, anger and fear over everything. But we have to keep growing, in the faith that there’s something worth growing towards.

I highly value Dante’s exquisitely constructed defense of faith, and the learned lectures of the professors from Georgetown and Yale on the theology and poetics, and feel nothing but admiration and respect for more contemporary artists who fold Dante into their work. But that vine growing on a brick wall behind a parking lot made faith more real to me.

For a heathen, I got a lot out of this reading, but of course, it’s the kind of massive work that requires multiple re-readings. I want to let things settle a little, maybe pick up a little more background in some of the key references. But I definitely plan to read it again, using a different translation/commentary as a primary guide. I’m interested to see what reads differently in another time. And what reads the same.

Pushcart 2015: Fady Joudah, “Mimesis” (poem) from Alight (Copper Canyon Press)

My daughter
                     wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles

I hesitate to quote even that much of this poem, first because it’s so short (13 lines, less than 60 words), and second, because it turns so perfectly on such an honest, unexpected, heart-stopping point, that to cut it up is to do it disservice. Fortunately, it’s available online (thank you, Poetry Foundation).

We’ve become inured to suffering. We’ve even got a term for it: compassion fatigue. We rush past the appeals for help on our way to writing blog posts, finishing online courses, getting to work on time, making dinner. And then one poem makes the suffering of millions very personal, very real, and one little girl shows wisdom that would benefit us all.

The poem is from Joudah’s collection Alight. In a Kenyon Review interview with David Baker, Joudah mentions the poem is in the second half of the collection, where he focuses his attention on “the life of family and parenthood as it relates to the mind in the world.” That’s it exactly: this sweet domestic scene, father and daughter, becomes an emphatic reminder that the world is not the way it is by accident. Refugees don’t just happen. They are created by policy, policy instituted by people.

“Mimesis” is often defined as imitation, the process whereby art imitates life. Plato objected to mimesis, as being inaccurate, prone to misuse, and potentially harmful to the psyche. Aristotle thought otherwise, seeing it as the most natural process by which we learn all things, and as emotionally cathartic. I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle, as even the best things can be used to harm, and the humblest to heal.

I’m still reeling from this poem. I think I’ve written too much already. I think I’ll let it stand at this, and we can listen to the echoes of that last line:

isn’t it?

Pushcart 2015: Bennett Sims, “Fables” from Conjunctions, #61

Art by James Jean

Art by James Jean

The boy begs his mother to buy him a balloon. As they leave the grocery store and cross the parking lot, he holds the balloon by a string in his hand. It is round and red, and it bobs a few feet bove him. Suddenly his mother looks down and orders him not to release the balloon. Her voice is stern. She says that if he loses it, she will not buy him another. The boy tightens his grip on the string. He had no intention of releasing the balloon. But the mother’s prohibition disquiets him, for it seems to be addressed at a specific desire. Her voice implies that she has seen inside him: that deep down – in a place hidden from himself, yet visible to her – he really does want to release the balloon.

I’m not always sure what Bennett Sims is doing, but I always enjoy trying to figure it out. I’ve encountered him twice before, once in a Tin House short story and once in his fascinating philosophical zombie novel A Questionable Shape.

Here, he’s presented a group of five short fables (an audio recording of him reading four of them is available online, thank you, Conjunctions) describing a boy’s discovery of various aspects of the human psyche through contacts with animals and inanimate objects. And inanimate animals.

I’m fond of checking the precise definitions of words whose meanings seem obvious, and my superficial trip into the internet in search of the meaning of “fable” shows why. For example, Rev. Gregory Carlson (no relation), Professor of Literature at Creighton University, distinguishes between parable and fable beyond the talking-animal feature of the latter: “Parables invite reconsideration of our values. Fables usually stop short of challenging our values. They lure us rather into playing our way into understanding; they invite us to expect that snakes will be snakes and foxes foxes; they urge us to be ourselves, to be savvy and perceptive.” I’m not sure it’s possible to see yourself in a mirror without smoothing your hair or adjusting your tie, but what if you don’t realize it is yourself you see, and think instead the fable applies to all those other people?

One distinction between classic fable and these stories is that the animals and inanimate objects that illustrate the morals of the stories are not the explainers of those morals. In all five of Sims’ stories, a generic character, “the boy,” is both the experiencer of the events, and the interpreter. The animals and things that he encounters do not interact with him; there is no anthropomorphization, and they are not subjects. The boy is the subject, and only through his assignment of motives, patterns, and overall truths to the objects in each story does a moral emerge. In that, perhaps it’s more of a psychological study of a boy, who is, of course, created by a writer, serving as a sample of humankind.

Sims has already performed a self-analysis on these stories, particularly the first one, in an interview with Amy Scharmann of Subtropics, so I feel a little silly writing about what I saw in the pieces. However, I still think meaning is a cooperative act between writer and reader, so I’ll offer a few thoughts, held before I found out what the fables really meant.

I felt a strong connection between the balloon story and Eden, the fall, hamartiology, and theodicy, with the mother as God and the balloon as the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It’s not an exact fit, but close enough. Does sin – or evil, if you prefer – exist in a vacuum, or does something need to precipitate it? Does the existence of good itself force evil into existence as a negation of good? Or are we born just aching to sin, to let go of the balloon, just for the power of it? And of course there’s the whole “why did God put the Tree in Eden anyway, only to forbid it?” Having just read through Dante, I’m familiar with the approach used to explain this, but the question remains: was Creation a rigged game from the start?

Sims’ second story spoke to me of power and the desire to control, to manipulate. The boy wants the crow to caw, not because the caw is a beautiful thing to hear, but simply because he wants that damn crow to do his bidding:

The crow is unfazed. It retracts its head on its neck slightly but it doesn’t caw, and it is careful neither to open nor close its beak. It really is as if there is something in its mouth, something that it is determined not to drop. But its mouth is empty, and so the boy imagines that it is this very emptiness that it is bringing back to its nest, that it is building a nest of absences, gaps. The way it jealously hoards this absence between its mandibles, like a marble. Its beak must be broken, the boy decides, broken open. Or else, no: The bird is simply stubborn. It could caw if it wanted to. It is resisting only to spite him.

For a while, I wondered if the boy was a psychopath, but no: don’t we all have it in us to be jealous of nothing, simply because someone else has it? Poverty is the ultimate equal opportunity gig, and there are many who seem to be jealous of how easy life is for the poor. Can we covet another’s lack? Or is it simply an excuse for exerting power over the powerless, because it feels good?

A dead chipmunk leads to a take on Appointment in Samarra, the connection made crystal clear by the last line. Yet there’s something else going on here, a matter of perception, of projection. A dog enclosed by an invisible fence likewise poses a threat that must be countered. I’ve often marvelled at the invisible fences we all obey: domesticated animals that don’t tear us to pieces but instead purr on our laps and walk beside us on leashes, for example. But human behavior as well. Civilization itself might be defined as the near-universal obedience to invisible fences; having just re-read Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents for a mooc, I recognize the cost of this obedience, but also of the absolute necessity for it, as preferable to Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, short” natural life. And yet, we sometimes flirt with our invisible fences. I fear that’s happening right now in politics, and I have a rather pessimistic view of the outcome – much as the melting ice cube is purported to have in the final story. Doom is the inevitable end of life, but do we have to chase it so gleefully?

I think there’s a larger theme at work here, something covering all five stories: a kind of projection of will, of malicious intent, onto others, be they the mother who forces the situation with the balloon, the stubborn crow, the frightened chipmunk and the obedient dog who are only seconds away from violence, or the melting ice cube rushing to meet its death. The preemptive strike is necessary. Kill or be killed. The law of tooth and claw. Not out of necessity – there is no reason for the greed, we have enough for all – but out of some primitive instinct poking its way through our neocortex. And all the malevolence takes place between the ears of a child.

That is the paradox the ice has been presented with: this light at its core, the light that is killing it, is what enables it to escape. It has to glide along a film of its own dying. The faster that it moves, the more of itself that it melts, and so it is alive with its own limit, animated by this horizon inscribed in its being. There is a lesson to be learned in this, the boy thinks.

Maybe we’ll learn that lesson just in time. If not: melting ice is the perfect fade.

Pushcart 2015: Michael Dickman, “John Clare” (poem) from Brick, #92

Now I remember
I wanted to talk to you
between your Selected Poems
and the punk rock music
playing on the radio
Between the blue irises and the Mexican lawn service
The skaters and the dragonflies
Do you know what it’s like here
Scared beneath trees
the light on the one rose
is the one light
The sun keeps going

At first, I thought this poem (available online, thank you, Brick) was the voice of a parent speaking to a beloved child, lost. That’s because I’d never heard of 19th century English romantic poet John Clare (poetry is like math: the more things I find out about that I never heard of, the more I find there is to find out beyond that). In his interview with Andy Kuhn for the Katonah Poetry Festival, Dickman says: “….[M]y most recent influence is John Clare. A Mud-Man Punk Rocker from the 1800’s. All I want to do these days is write a poem about a bird’s nest, all because of him.” So it’s perhaps more of an homage, a child speaking to a beloved long-lost parent.

I went looking for John Clare. I found some interesting biographical material – poor boy makes good, but ends up in an asylum anyway – and a couple of poems that made a special impact on me. Heartbreaking poems, considering the context: “I Am”, written during his second stint in the asylum: “I am – yet what I am none cares or knows;…I am the self-consumer of my woes….I long for scenes where man has never trod / a place where woman never smiled or wept / and there to abide with my Creator God / and sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept.…” Now there’s a poem about a beloved child, lost.

The other Clare poem that stood out to me, particularly in reference to Dickman’s poem, is “The Nightingale’s Nest.” It was written earlier in Clare’s career, and is more of a narrative about his adventures as a boy hunting for birds’ nests – and then leaving them undisturbed to flourish in nature as they were meant to do: “Deep adown, / The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell…./ So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, / As the old woodland’s legacy of song.”

This, then, is the overriding Clare theme that Dickman has chosen to illustrate: the collision, illustrated so clearly in the opening lines, of the rural and the urban, the natural and manmade, the idyllic past and the unknown, complex future. That intensifies the poignant, mournful quality I’d misinterpreted:

Flowers call you on the telephone
and the rain passes you notes
none of us will ever read
now I remember every line
a pine needle
falling at your feet

Nature itself connects the living to the dead, the past to the present. Whitman’s shared atoms, our concerns and joys still the same after millenia of kingdoms rising and falling: beyond inspiration, there’s a direct communication here that I find very beautiful.

In the end, it’s a love poem:

I wanted to show you

What could be more loving?

Pushcart 2015: Amaud Jamaul Johnson, “Pigmeat” (poem) from Darktown Follies

Come: these hands, this beat, the broad
Hiccup, a smile. Here, when all the heat
Has been washed & wrung clean from the body
When the men begin to open their leather cases
& hold their monocles a little closer to my heart
& the parable of the homegrown &
The parable of the artificial Negro
Will be told.

And here’s another poem that benefits greatly from a little context. Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham started out in black vaudeville shows and by the middle of the twentieth century, started performing in burlesque with the likes of Milton Berle and Eddie Cantor – in blackface. A complicated story, a complicated history, a complicated man.

These complications show up in the poem. The “Artificial Negro” plays on the Flannery O’Connor story with a blunter name there’s no need to spell out here. O’Connor’s artificial Negro is a Christ figure in the form of a lawn jockey who offers reconnection and salvation to a grandfather and his grandson, two lost souls accidentally touring hell. But Johnson’s Pigmeat as the Artificial Negro is more of the Creator Created by the Creation: a black man in blackface? What to make of that? What to make, in the first place, of the minstrel shows that appropriated black culture in order to mock it? Johnson’s collection, Darktown Follies, is patterned after these minstrel shows, as he explains in an excellent Next Big Thing entry, where he writes: “I wrote this book because I wanted to create a framework for those hesitations regarding race and power…. I hope my readers feel a little off-balance.” This one did.

And what to make of a poem that uses Markham’s linguistic patterning, a fluency that has become the hallmark of rap and hip hop…

Here, come Hell or high-water; Hell
Or some falter. All the ease in legalese,
Here comes my tautology –
A blackness of a blackness of a blackness.
My monochromatic rainbow,…

…to mock back?

Pigmeat Markham performed what could be considered the first rap song. His “Here Comes the Judge,” initially a comedy routine in his act, became a standard bit on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which led to the release of a single (as well as an imitation), and to a gig for Markham on the series (if you’ve never heard of Laugh-In, well, that’s what Google is for). Who created whom?

What’s amazing is how that goofy phrase, so familiar to those of us who grew up with it as a joke, turns ominous at the end of the poem. The Artificial Negro, like Christ, is a figure of salvation, but also of a day of judgment and reckoning. Poetry, at its best, finds all the nuances in words and phrases we thought we knew, stands them on their heads, and knocks us flat with implications. Here comes the judge. I sure hope so, because the list of those whose blood cries out for justice gets longer every day.