Pushcart 2015: LaToya Watkins, “The Mother” from Ruminate, #29

"The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas" by Jessica Lynette

“The Geneaology of Jesus – A Countdown to Christmas” by Jessica Lynette

The Visits done died down a little bit now. Some still come. The rustlers like this one sitting in front of me. They still ask bout Hawk. Bout how he came to call hisself the Messiah. Bout who his daddy is, but I ain’t got nothing for them.
I look out the window I keep my chair pulled up next to. Ain’t no sun, just cold and still. Banjo lift his head up when he see my eyes on him but it don’t take him long to let it fall back on his paws. He done got his rope a little tangled up. Can’t move too much with it like that, but he can breathe and lay down. He alright. I’ll go out and work out the knot when I can – when this gal leave.
It’s cold out there, but I ain’t too worried bout Banjo. He got natural insulation. I’m the one cold and I’m on the inside – supposed to be on the inside cause I’m a person. I ain’t got no insulation though.

Character; setting; diction: three of the mainstays of fiction. And this story – a story about storytelling – is a master class on all.

First, diction. Diction, in good fiction, informs and is informed by character. Watkins has chosen a first-person narrator, and for this character, that means a story written in dialect. It’s not easy to write in dialect. I don’t even like using the word “dialect” since it hints that there’s a standard of normal and everything else is other, but it’s a word useful in linguistics, without any hint of valuation, to describe a subset of spoken language characteristic of a particular group, a twist on language that is understandable to those outside the dialect group, but has its own rules and quirks. Dialects quickly become stigmatized (even academia or medspeak, dialects used by the highly-educated; linguistics doesn’t discriminate, that’s what amateurs are for).

I often have trouble reading stories written in dialect because they tend to include lots of apostrophes. Those apostrophes indicate absence; missing letters. More normality indicators. One of the reasons I like the way Watkins has written this story is that she’s left out the apostrophes. Yes, “about” is “bout”, but that’s different from “’bout”, I think. Visually, it’s cleaner, easier to read. Symbolically, I prefer it too: it doesn’t scream, “Something is missing here!” The word is just spelled differently, because that’s how it’s used in the dialect. She also avoids apostrophizing –ing’s by just including the –ing. Few of us speak in written English; all the little things, “gonna” and “wanna” and “yeah” show up, even when we write “going to” so why not just write it, and let people read it as they hear it, which is probably with the elided “g” anyway. We get the idea; we know how Ms. Hawkins – oh, hell, call her momma, that’s who she is, not Ms. anything – speaks. Her word choice, her sentence structure, aside from pronunciation – number, tense, vocabulary – provides the information we need to hear her as she speaks. Poking our eyes out with hundreds of apostrophes isn’t necessary. Bravo.

Setting and character are also interwoven:

I pretend in my mind I was raised here and not on 34th. Just pretend I been on the East side all along. On the East side where good-time whoring didn’t never catch, even if being strung out on drugs did. Where snow come to cover up the dirt in places where grass don’t never grow, like icing covering up chocolate cake or brownies or anything dark and sweet. The East side. Where you be happy poor and don’t try to pretend you can whore your way out. I just pretend in my mind I was brought up poor and wasn’t never no whore.

Again, we know exactly what the East side is, though I wasn’t sure what it was the East side of. It doesn’t matter. And don’t kid yourself, we all try to whore our way out. We’ll meet a few young ladies in this story who aren’t whores in the sexual sense, but they sure are trying to whore their way out (or in, perhaps): they’re reporters. As momma says, “… I know her kind. She want her story. She’ll cry to get it.”

That moves us into the story of the story. The unveiling is multi-layered and wonderful, a little at a time, so I’m not going to play spoiler.

The story gets into several issues, but storytelling itself is central. The stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell others. Stories passed on, misunderstood (deliberately or not), abused. Stories retold for the wrong reasons, and the right reasons. Stories that doom us, and stories that save us. Stories that save others. Momma is a goddess of stories, and she’s got one that never seemed to matter to anyone until her son, some kind of self-proclaimed Messiah, died in a cult mass-suicide. But she’ll only give her story to someone who needs – and deserves – it.

I think bout my last conversation with Hawk. He talked bout earthly fathers and his heavenly one. “Well, you know in one them books, Matthew, I think, when everybody get to begetting somebody else?” She nod her head. “Well, Hawk told me that ain’t had nothing to do with Jesus momma. That’s all bout Joseph. The step-daddy.”
“That’s right. The genealogy in that book is Joseph’s,” she say, nodding her head. She interested in what I got to say now.
“Well, if the Jesus, the one you and half the world think was the Messiah, and his disciples ain’t care nothing about who was and wasn’t his real daddy, why we always trying prove DNA and mess today?”

Some stories are more important than others. And some stories are more important in how they’re told, and why. Momma is absolutely correct: with all the fuss in Matthew (and Luke) about the Virgin Birth, when push comes to shove, Matthew gives Joseph’s genealogy as Jesus’, until it comes to the last line, when all the begatting turns into “and Joseph was the husband of Mary.” Biblical scholars explain there’s a reason Matthew did this: he was writing for a Jewish audience, and this type of genealogy, linking Jesus to the patriarch Abraham, was important in fulfilling scriptural promise. Mary’s lineage just won’t do for that (Luke uses it in his gospel, though he too includes Joseph). Biblical scholarship is complicated.

The stories we tell, how we tell them, to whom. And why.

Pushcart selected this story from Ruminate Magazine, a journal ” created in April 2006 by a group of fellow writers, artists, and believers who wanted a space for the thoughtful expressions of those who are nudged forward, backward, and sideways by faith in God” and featuring ” short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, and visual art that resonate with the complexity and truth of the Christian faith”. Some stories are complicated.

In an interview for the UT/Dallas newspaper, Watkins, a doctoral student and instructor, explained her motivation for telling this story: “I wanted to explore the black, matriarchal experience in West Texas since it’s a place that never saw slavery firsthand. It was a place with imported segregation; that separation wasn’t forced, but understood.”

The stories we tell. They matter.

Pushcart 2015: Ellen Bryant Voigt, “Geese” (Poetry) from Granta, #124

there is no cure for temperament it’s how
we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it
a narrowing imprisons or is opened such as when my mother
in her last illness snarled and spat and how this lifted my dour father
into a patient tenderness thereby astounding everyone
but mostly it hardens who we always were

Maybe the most obvious thing about this poem is the best place to start: the lack of punctuation, of capitals, of any notational signal as to where a sentence starts or stops, whether blocks of meaning are separated by brief pauses of commas, longer pauses of semicolons, are parts of lists, are asides within em-dashes, or end with the full stop of a period.

Whereas I, or any reader, really, would be able to notice this, Katy Diddon, in her Kenyon Review piece on Voigt’s book from which this poem comes, relates the technique to mortality through Voigt’s role as an elegist: “I believe that her choice to write without punctuation in this volume changes the argument with mortality; in particular, she puts conclusions into flux, which alters each poem’s trajectory, and therefore transforms the elegy on almost every level.”

Since I, as poetically naïve as I am, was unfamiliar with Voigt and thus had no idea she was known as an elegist, and wasn’t even aware this poem was an elegy (though it does deal with her mother’s death), I’ll have to take Diddon’s word for it. Makes sense: the period as finality, the eschewal of periods and other guiding marks a move towards fluidity, continuation. It makes great sense – if I recall correctly (and verification confirms the basics), the poetic form of elegy moves from mourning a loss to bringing the essence of what was good about the lost one into the present, and projecting that good into the future: sorrow, then hope and strength as a legacy of the beloved.

Voigt herself gives a slightly different take on this punctuation choice in her Granta:

I shouldn’t discount having my sixty-fifth birthday, which causes its own sort of impatience. After several years of idling – either silence, or more-of-the-same – I began a new poem that had a great deal of repetition, a great deal of descriptive excess, and multiple, very fast tonal shifts; somewhere around draft #25, it occurred to me those shifts could happen more easily if I removed the syntactical markers – i.e., the conventional punctuation that helps ‘chunk’ the functional parts of an English sentence. This required me to think more carefully about how those markers might be implied rather than notated, and in turn freed the line to be the sole manager of pace and pause, moments of rest. And I found that very exciting – enough so to make a commitment to the protocol and its possibilities. So there is no punctuation at all in the new book.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind when examining the poem (as opposed to just reading it), looking for ways the rhythm affects pace and even meaning.

In reading the poem out loud, I found some interesting progressions and patterns. The first stanza, quoted above, starts out in perfect iambic pentameter: “There is no cure for temperament it’s how” but that line begs to be continued of course, into the next line which also starts in perfect iambs: “we recognize ourselves but sometimes within it” – oh, a little shuffling at the end there, though it could still be considered pentameter if shift from iamb to anapest, but then it all goes to hell in the center of the stanza, and the next two lines are jumble of everything, until we get to the final line of the stanza and revert back to (nearly) perfect iambic pentameter: “But mostly it hardens who we always were.” Mostly. She could’ve written that to be perfectly regular, but she didn’t; she only wrote in mostly perfect meter. Language rhythm and syntax working together.

And yes, there is a clear break, rhythmically and semantically, as well as visually, between the two stanzas, if the remaining group of lines can appropriately be called a stanza.

if you’ve been let’s say a glass-half-empty kind of girl
you wake to the chorus of geese overhead
forlorn for something has softened their nasal voices
their ugly aggression on the ground they’re worse than chickens
but flying one leader falling back another moving up to pierce the wind
no one in charge or every one in charge in flight each limited goose
adjusts its part in the cluster just under the clouds
do they mean together to duplicate the cloud

And yes, again, we start off with a mostly iambic line again (hexameter this time) and at first it tracks just fine, even without punctuation, but then we’re caught up in the center which gets a little peculiar, rhythmically and even semantically – I gave up trying to “punctuate” it, are the geese forlorn for something, or are they forlorn – because something has softened their nasal voices, and what is the thing with chickens, is that an aside, I’ve put it in em-dashes but I’m something of an em-dash addict. In any case, the poem at that point is describing how a flock of geese moves, one goose leads, then another, “no one in charge or everyone in charge” and yet they all get where they’re going together, just as the poem seems to break up but still gets to the end, where the last five lines again settle down and speak of forcing blooms in winter.

So we have a wife and mother dying, and the normally-dour father finds his gentleness is accentuated by the scene. What about the daughter, the speaker? Is she a glass-half-empty kind of girl, arriving at the conclusion that in geese or families, “there is no end to hierarchy”; or is she a take-charge girl who forces blooms by “a premature and structured dark”? Can she be both? Undecided? Something else: an observer, recorder, an elegist? Is the premature dark a bad thing… can it be a good thing?

It’s a lovely poem to play with. In the end, we have some choice in how we react to our surroundings, whether a death or a flock of geese or winter. The degree of choice we have depends perhaps on something within us, as does the choice we make, and how we view the aftermath. We can let darkness defeat us – or we can use it to help us bloom.

Pushcart 2015: Thomas E. Kennedy, “My White House Days” (non-fiction) from New Letters , V79#3-4

I used to be able to tell about this straight out. Not that I was proud of it, but neither was I ashamed. Years ago, I had what used to be referred to as a nervous breakdown. I tried to kill myself. When I broke down, I decided it was because of secrets, and I didn’t want anymore secrets. Then I began to heal and didn’t want to talk about the breakdown any longer, tended to gloss over that period of my biography.
At the time, late summer-early fall of 1963, I worked in the White House – in the executive office building, now referred to as the old EOB, which housed inter alia the office of the Vice President. JFK was president. I worked as a stenographer for the White House Communications Agency – WHCA, responsible for the president’s travel. You might think you see where this is going – 1963, responsible for the president’s travel – but it’s probably not what you think.

Now, I didn’t write 30 books, as Kennedy has, nor did I go to writing school and I certainly don’t teach it (as Kennedy does), but it seems to me, if you’re going to write an essay about My Years in the White House, and your name is Kennedy, your first sentence should be “No, not one of those Kennedys” instead of tucking that information into the middle of the piece. I guess that’s why I’m not a writer. And I suppose, if he’s written 30 books and won numerous awards (this is his second Pushcart), I should’ve recognized the name. Maybe that’s my problem, but it’s just the beginning of how jerked-around I felt by this piece.

But none of that is the point. Or maybe it is the point, since Kennedy gets pretty jerked around himself, by the military in the name of National Security. The absurdity of all that, and its effect on a perfectly normal, bright and promising boy whose only failing was earnestness, is the point.

A product of Queens, NY parochial school and a less-than-idyllic home life, he joined the military in 1963 hoping for an assignment in France, where he could learn more about the literature and language he had already come to love. When offered a position at the White House, however, he saw it as a privilege to serve the President, so France would have to wait.

What he didn’t count on was the security interview:

His questions seemed ordinary enough that I don’t remember them – until he asked:
“Have you ever engaged in normal sexual relations with a woman?”
Suddenly I was back in confession with the priest. But I had what I thought was the right answer – that is, the answer they wanted…
With mild indignation, I said, “No!
The major looked up at me from his pad and asked, with slight incredulity, “No?
The trap had snapped shut. I had exposed myself to the suspicion that I was a rat who smelled strange bread in women. There was no going back. I blushed. “No.”
His eyes were on me, then dropped to his pad, where I imagined his printing in all caps the word RISK. “Have you ever had abnormal sexual relations with a woman?”

And it goes downhill from there, culminating in Kennedy’s “nervous breakdown”. Thankfully, he recovered, though it took some time – about 50 years, in fact – to come to terms with it.

To those born in the Digital Age, or even the Age of Aquarius, it may seem implausible that a 19-year-old male would assume that chastity was a virtue, or, for that matter, not a subject of shame. To those of us who grew up in the same era, perhaps around Fundamentalists rather than Catholics, and perhaps had our own troubles that assured our chastity was not at risk, and also specialized in giving authority figures the answers they wanted, let me assure you it isn’t that outlandish. I had my “nervous breakdown” – my first two, in fact – before I realized, courtesy of the psychiatric profession, that chastity was a symptom, though of what, I was never sure.

So I have some appreciation for what Kennedy went through. That he went through it at the hands of the government, in the name of some bizarrely intertwined combination of morality and national security, is tragic.

Just recently I saw the film The Imitation Game, and by coincidence a rerun of the older Fat Man and Little Boy. Both of these were set in the WWII era. Both involved men older and with more experience in the world than the 19-year-old Kennedy, but were nonetheless ground up by military authority, here or in the UK, in the name of national security. How we treat our heroes! Worse, how we treat our kids, on their way to becoming heroes, should they make the mistake of entering the military in a state of earnest innocence.

Pushcart 2015: D. A. Powell, “Calling All Gods” (Poetry) from KenyonReview, Vol.XXXV #2

"Abandoned Boat House" by Carrie O'Brien Sibley (modified)

“Abandoned Boat House” by Carrie O’Brien Sibley (modified)

Because I stand with my great unknowing yap and pray for speech.
Because I would open my body like a rasping bellows and have you fill it.
I do not know your name.

I first thought this was, per the title and the pervasive religious imagery, a one-sided conversation with a divinity who maintains a distance. The combination of religion and sex was irresistible; I gathered some sources on the uses of sexual imagery in religious texts and liturgy from the Judeo-Christian bible to Vajrayana Buddhism. I had a lot of fun.

But I read the poem again and wondered: is the poem instead about the night, about darkness? Or are they the same thing, for this speaker, a would-be worshiper of the night? In either case, the longing is unrequited, the unloved lover craving intimacy but receiving only the bare mechanics. It’s horribly sad, full of desperate longing, intensified by the title.

The final verse seems to indicate, finally, a fulfillment of the longing, and a line I love though I don’t fully understand its import: “Abandoned boathouse hallelujah.” I get the feeling this is all not about religion, or the night, but sex pure and simple, phrased in mystical terms. In any case, that boathouse – I’m intrigued. What is it that happened there? And if I can’t understand a poem, being intrigued is the next best thing. Maybe even the better thing.

An interesting side-note about the title: in the Pushcart TOC (at least the paperback edition I have) the poem is listed as “Calling All Odds”. That strikes me as a wonderfully amusing typo. What is a god, if not odd? And what is a god, if not one who defies the human odds?

Pushcart 2015: Joe Wilkins, “Say” from The Sun, #448

Let’s say we have a man and a woman.
Let’s say they’re riding in some old Chevy pickup, windows down, prairie earth wheeling past. Let’s call it Nebraska. No harm to say some old Chevy. No harm to say Nebraska.
Though, to be honest, judging by the cheatgrass spiking the ditches, those four cow skulls nailed down a fence post’s crooked length, and the great bluescape of sky, it might be Wyoming, or Montana, or a Dakota — any of those dun-colored, too-wide-open, go-crazy-you’re-so-lonesome places in the middle of America.

Given my fondness for nontraditional narrative styles, it’s a given I’d love this story (available online, thank you Utne Reader). Not that the narrative is all that non-traditional: it’s very old-fashioned in fact, in the tradition of folk tales and songs: “Now I’m going to tell you a story.” But in this story, the narrator, who in a folk tale might only supply a conduit, is central. The story’s about him.

Oh, on the surface it’s about two people fresh out of luck, heading nowhere on a bleak road. But it’s about the narrator, I’m sure of it. He’s let her down again, and he’s making up this story, willing her to sing. It won’t do for him to be the one to sing; that would just mean he’s making light of his failings. No, it has to come from her. She has to sing.

As I read these stories, I keep looking for a uniting theme, or groups of themelets, in this volume. I started out with a sense of looking back and forward; now I have a distinct sense of “is it good or bad? You choose.” And guess what: this story is about every one of us, at one point or another. How we choose. We can keep seething, we can call it quits – or we can sing.

He’s willing her to sing. The protagonist – and the narrator.

What’s the difference between “say” and “tell”? They come from different roots; interestingly, “tell” has a calculative quality (hey, I never knew that). But I think there’s a more important distinction. We could talk about transitivity and direct vs indirect objects, but here’s the gist: saying can be a solo action, but telling implies an intended tellee, a recipient. To say is to express; to tell is to communicate – or, more accurately, and importantly to the story, to attempt to communicate, since there’s never any guarantee the tellee will listen, or, even then, hear. For more linguistic fun, what’s the difference between “Say” and “I’m saying”? Again, there’s the difference in tense, but here, in the story, the switch between “say” and “tell”, between “Say” “I tell you” and “I’m saying” and I’m telling you”, isn’t about grammar; it’s all about intensification. And boy, does this story intensify.

One of the additional ways it intensifies is by going from “Let’s say” to “I’m telling you.” The first is collaborative, casual, hypothetical – it’s a pipe dream. The second is insistent, authoritative, authorial – desperate; I hear a strong chord of “please!” around the edges, and the reader can’t help but cheer for these two hard-luck cases who have a chance to turn it around.

By the way (and this has nothing to do with the story, it doesn’t fit in this post, but it’s so cool I can’t leave it unsaid): Wilkins was a math teacher. I should’ve known. For half a century, I ran away from math as hard as I could, but for the past few years I’ve been tripping over astonishingly cool math people on a regular basis. All I had to do was sing.

But let’s say — and it could happen, I promise you — she opens her mouth and begins to sing: Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? Say, down the next dry hill, he can’t help but offer up: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, / And nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free. Yes, let’s say that, despite it all, they begin to sing. It’s not so hard to imagine, is it? Not so hard to see them barreling down the road, the sun-washed wind in their faces, these getting-by tunes on their lips? Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels, / And a good saloon in every single town.

I love a story that comes with its own sound track – Dylan, Kristofferson, Parsons. But the sound track here is more than just mood music; it’s a conversation in itself, between two people who can’t say, so the songs say for them, ask and answer, offer and accept: a conversation about screwing up, hurting, losing, regret, apology, and the possibility that love can survive all that. The songs say. The songs tell the story. All we have to do is listen.

I’m telling you they sing. Listen. Hear their cracked voices whirl and ring.

The last paragraph, the last line, three sentences – it’s a poem. Wilkins is, after all, a poet as well as a prose writer. It’s all in the rhythm. Meter isn’t my strength, but these lines convince me. Start with “I’m telling you they sing”: three sing-song iambs, and you’re all set up for the fourth da-DUM you just know it’s coming, but: LISTEN. Technically it’s probably a trochee but I hear it as a spondee, almost as – oh, forgive me, Mr. Wilkins, I’m a fool from the TV generation, but it’s the Law & Order “DUN-DUN”. It stops you in your tracks: This is Important. This Means Something (yes, I’m insanely mixing references, but that’s what our psyches are, a big box of mixed references). And the rhythm of the next sentence shifts into trochee: “Hear their cracked voices whirl and sing”, with the perfect little crack in the regularity coming on the word “cracked” (unless you pronounce it in two syllables, but that would be a little too Elizabethan for this story).

I love that last line. It’s the whole story, right there.

Pushcart 2015: Kara Candito, “Monologue During a Blackout” (Poetry) from Jubilat, #24

         What about zebra?—suppose
you had to come back as a zebra,
      knowing you’d spend your life
            trampling the savannah with the desperation
      of an Open During Construction sign?

I had to laugh at the first stanza – that simile is so out-of-left-field, yet so perfect. I was a little relieved to read, in Candito’s Rumpus Poetry Club conversation with Brian Spears, that a laugh, or at least a smile, was the hoped-for effect. Just in time for things to turn achingly sad in the second stanza (the poem is available online at VerseDaily). Humor/ache, black/white.

Then I tremendously enjoyed the discontinuous thought: “…anything can happen. Often // it doesn’t. The rain stops.” Is that good or bad? Black or white? Depends. In a blackout (or in a dentist’s waiting room, where I first encountered this poem, is that good or bad?) it might seem like a comfort. On graduation day, a wedding night, the first day on a new job, it might seem like a downer. Then again, wouldn’t a blackout be fun if the energy not coming through the wires were transformed to his finger tracing her chin… Is a blackout good or bad? Openness.

I’m so taken with individual lines and images – listening to Bach through headphones as “seismic privacy of tiny, angry / gods beating your middle ear” – that I barely realize I have no grasp of the overall poem. I wondered if I’d have an easier time if I knew more about the collection from which it comes, so I did a little more hunting: Spectator, “an homage to anyone who’s been displaced or redefined by bureaucratic systems of power.” Interesting. It’s so intimate. Maybe that’s how you fight bureaucracy: create your own intimate space wherever you are.

I can’t speak to the technique (just for fun, I rearranged all the lines, putting those indented at the same level together, but that was pretty goofy, even for me), but there’s an interview for that, as well, with Justin Bigos on 32Poems; unfortunately, it goes way over my head, but that doesn’t mean I don’t aspire.

Pushcart 2015: Mary Hood, “Breaking It” (Non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Spring 2013

From boredom, a way to keep me alert on a daily walk on a path I have traveled for years, I set quests. This day I noted things blue. Nothing man-made. I saw at first nothing that qualified. Blue is my hardest color.

And after this walk, blue’s gonna be even harder.

There’s a stylistic flair to this short essay, clearly emphasizing the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”. Perhaps “meditation” would fit as a descriptive. Each paragraph is broken up by white space, giving the impression of individual thoughts, related but also self-contained. The language is beautiful, varying from straightforward narration to deeper considerations of what is being narrated.

Quest as a game taken seriously strips irrelevancy just as a real pilgrimage does – nothing I cherish and winnow with my eyes is mine, nothing I claim with conqueror’s glance is real estate; I was just passing time on the surface, with a little shallow seeking for what would get me through.

Hood’s quest on this day ends up distinctly un-shallow.

Since it’s such a short essay focused on a couple of images, it would be spoiler-ish to reveal those images beyond saying it’s the juxtaposition of a stand of pines destroyed by beetles, and a bird caught on a fence of hog wire. These events allow for consideration of larger issues: the human effect on nature, sure, but also the difference between spotlighting a single victim and presenting statistics in numbers too large to understand, a difference long understood by charity marketers who know we will be moved to respond with a check to the story of one starving child more readily than to hearing the huge numbers of children who have already died. Towerkill is something we hear about on the news (or I guess most people do; I’d never heard of it), but one bluebird is a different story. And, perhaps the all-inclusive theme of legality vs ethicality.

I didn’t realize until after I’d read the essay a few times that each sentence matters, each image, each thought, builds up to the final paragraphs, to an overall thought-cloud that encompasses blue, eleven, quests, insects and pines, birds and fences, and related to all these – people, and what we do, what we can do, what we could do. It’s kind of overwhelming, really. I’m amazed at how much is in there, how, on a frame of evocative language and imagery, a wealth of interrelated musings have been somehow compressed and streamlined into four pages. To do the essay justice, I would have to quote it all. I think that’s good writing.

And as I read these essays, I say over and over, “I don’t particularly like nature writing, but…” Maybe what I don’t like are routine essays, the beautiful but routine “seascapes” (and, all too often, cute animal portraits) of the written word.

I still remember, 30 years later, an entire 90-minute linguistics class examining the word “broken” and its close relatives. “The window broke” is absurd; windows don’t just break, they are broken, but this word has a way of removing action from consequence, and leaving intent questionable. Beetles don’t intend to break trees; we don’t intend to break birds. Does that reduce the loss?

Pushcart 2015: David Means, “The Ice Committee” from Zoetrope: All-Story Vol.17 #4

It was late afternoon. It would soon be dusk.
“I don’t think I ever told you the one with Captain Hopewell in it,” the man named Kurt was saying.
“Don’t start. For God’s sake, you’ll jinx us for sure,” the man named Merle said. “Just get me thinking about that one and it’ll jinx us.”
“This one isn’t going to jinx us. If you knew the story, you’d know that,” Kurt said, and then for a few minutes both men sat silently and mulled over everything they’d discussed on the nature of luck over the course of the last few months as they’d wandered up and down Superior Street, shaking a cup for spare change, scraping for odd jobs, whatever it took to gather enough for some booze and a scratch lottery ticket. They’d agreed that to talk too much about good fortune just before you scratched would decrease the odds of it coming, because luck had to bend around the place and time of the scratch, establishing itself in relation to your state of mind at that particular moment…. Best to clear the head of all expectation and settle into a state of not-caring as you look out with silent and blissful longing at the lake.

The first two sentences nearly did me in. Who starts a story that way, besides a seventh grader? But I remembered a couple of things.

The first was a quote by Joyce Cary that I learned about through Charles May: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” If a writer of David Means’ experience opens his story with dead, limp, passive sentences, there’s a reason for it.

The second was a discussion I had a long time ago with a workshop writer about starting stories with phrases like “There was…” Turns out, he’d just done exactly that, and he did it for a reason: to emphasize the passivity of the character he was introducing.

Kurt and Merle are nothing if not dead, limp, and passive.

The story (available online, thank you Zoetrope All-Story) focuses on the time these two homeless guys spend working themselves up to scratching a lottery ticket, making sure not to “bend the luck” the wrong way. I love that notion, of luck bending depending on what you’re doing. Combined with the idea of depending on lottery tickets, it’s rich enough in thoughts and imagery to keep me going a while.

But the stories they tell each other, the thoughts they have, while they’re waiting, fill in the backstories of Merle, the Vietnam vet who can’t stop telling stories and can no longer remember if the stories are real, made-up, or a composite of fact and fiction, and Kurt, former professor who lost his way. I found it a rather tedious read, to be honest (and I usually like Means’ stories), since I was disoriented much of the time – when is this set, that a Vietnam vet is a “kid”) but there are these moments of exquisite beauty and clarity that kept me reading on.

Every big port like this one had a kid just like Kurt, a kid with sea legs on land and land legs on sea, a kid whose life had ended in country, somewhere in the Highlands, or in Khe Sanh, or in Hue, or in Saigon, as a member of Tiger Force, or as a gunner on a Chinook, depending on which version he decided to tell that day. And there was always an old coot whose life had ended in middle age, beginning with a fight over—over what? he couldn’t really remember—that had resulted in the broken vase (a wedding present), and then another fight and a broken Hitchcock chair (another wedding present), and then another and a broken jaw (Emma, oh my dear sweet Emma!). He felt the deep shame of the memory: the clutch of her long, elegant fingers around her chin and her beautiful, deep, sad, brown brown eyes as he’d glanced back one last time before striking out, moving his feet over the ground day after day, until it seemed he’d walked (and he had, for God’s sake, he had) the upper shore of Superior, across the border into Canada, and then back down, finding his way to the Hope Mission.

I’m still pretty hazy on the significance of the title, though it’s used in the piece. The Ice Committee sounds like an incompetent bureaucracy that stands in the way of sea merchants trying to make a living. I can sense something of that these two guys, who are pretty impotent in how they deal with their lives. In spite of their troubles, there’s a strong connection between the two of them, and I also felt a great connection with the pair, these two guys on a hope mission of their own – and that counts for a lot.

Pushcart 2015: Henri Cole, “City Horse” from Threepenny #134

At the end of the road from concept to corpse,
sucked out to sea and washed up again—

Rhythm is usually the last thing I notice in a poem. Yet it was the overriding impression I got here (the poem is available online, thank you Threepenny Review), perhaps with some help from the second line: a shoreline, waves coming in and out, at first with a comforting rolling pace. That can be very comforting, even at the corpse end of the road. Or it can be the indifference of the universe to the death of one creature (life on earth depends on death, after all), in spite of how deeply that death affects one little boy. But the indifference doesn’t last long; starting in the third line, the smooth regular rhythm becomes more chaotic, more choppy, as the swells break up into crisscrossing, overlapping crosscurrents:

…the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan,
a mix of white and red hairs) now powdery gray—

Then, the turn. It’s a fourteen line poem, and I’m still in the freshman lit fourteen-lines-equals-a-sonnet stage of poetic development, but I can feel a distinct turn here, after the first eight lines, the last six going from description to disembodied apostrophic paean ” O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse—dead, dead—” followed by a much more personal view, in a completely different style of diction, of the scene so vividly, artfully described. After the poetic voice of the orator, we hear the pained cry of a child:

                                  “She was more smarter than me,
she just wait,” a boy sobs, clutching a hand to his mouth,…

Rhythm, grammar, composure, all waysided by grief. But the rhythm resumes in the final lines, particularly the last line; but now, instead of a broad, rolling tide, or irregular chaos, we have a funeral march: “the heavy, black, frothing water.”

In spite of my focus on rhythm, my attention afterwards remains on the boy’s exclamation: it doesn’t quite make sense. Is he so distraught the words are just tumbling out? Is this his everyday speech pattern? Is “she just wait” a description of having left the horse briefly tied to a telephone pole while completing some footbound task, or is it a sentence broken off in midstream followed by a plea – “She just… no, I can’t speak, wait a minute…”? In either case, it leaves an unanswered question for the reader: was the horse waiting for him when she was swept out to sea? Was it some other interrupted thought we’ll never hear – “she just always knew what to do” except for now, her own thought interrupted permanently. And what happened here anyway? What is the catastrophe that resulted in this scene? Because Henri Cole was born in Japan, I keep trying to overlay it with the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but there’s nothing in the text that particularly supports that. The poem, like the end of every life, leaves unanswered questions.

I discovered another Shark Pack Poetry analysis of this poem in my travels – why is it I’ve never stumbled over this site before and now twice find a gold mine of high-end discussion (“We believe deeply in the power of the poetic imaginary and in the intimate revolt”) – this time by Joseph Spece. In addition to a detailed discussion of the linguistic finesse, he relates it to one of my favorite poems, my favorite tropes: Auden’s examination of Breughel’s rendition of the fall of Icarus in “Musée des Beaux Arts”, the way a personal catastrophe might barely register on someone not directly affected. It was not my horse killed, not my child heartbroken, not my son fallen from the sky – until poetry makes it so.

Pushcart 2015: Barrett Swanson, “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved” from American Short Fiction #56

“The only selfless action is one that’s unintentional.”

A long time ago in some class far away, I commented that in some ways, Mother Teresa was the most selfish person in the world: if she feels a need to do good, then she’s fulfilling her own need, and that she’s helping others is merely a side effect. I had no idea this had anything to do with Ayn Rand or Darwin or the Altruism Paradox; it just seemed the logical conclusion. If you believe doing good works is “good,” or will get you into heaven, then while the works are still good and others do indeed benefit, you’re still acting in your own best interests, satisfying your own desires to “be good.” The teacher of that class wasn’t sure what I was saying, and skimmed right by it, since something like that could make a lot of people mad, if they’d been listening, but everyone was busy with his or her own little drama. I guess the teacher didn’t know from paradoxes or Ayn Rand or Darwin either.

What I love about this story – one of the several things I love about it – is that Arla, while educated about the altruism paradox both academically, and practically, may never really know how very beneficial her unintentional act – and a very un-self-ish act in that she was barely a self at the time – was to a couple of strangers.

Housesitting at her old house. If she were in front of her class, lecturing to those bovine-eyed college freshman, she’d say, “‘A plausible impossibility is preferable to a possible implausibility.’ That’s Aristotle. What do you guys think he meant by that?” To which her students would lift their eyebrows, as if to say, What the? #wedontgetit. Her students had been amending their statements with more hash tags than usual lately. Could I maybe have an extension on my paper? #ithinkimightbepregnant. Would you read a draft of my essay?
“Come on, guys,” she’d say. “What do you think our Greek polymath meant by that?”
One boy, with the scraggly beard and tilted, who’d spend the whole two-hour class looking at her tits, might say, Uh, rubbing his nose, means anything’s possible?
In block-letters, she’d write a syllogism on the board:
MAJOR PREMISE: Arla Conters, PhD candidate in applied semiotics, your instructor for Intro Ethics, gets paid peasant wages by this illustrious university to teach you how to think. She house sits in the suburbs on weekends to afford her coffin-sized studio in Wicker Park, where she lives with Mr. Bojangles, her parrot, who has cancer.
MINOR PREMISE: The house she grew up in is in Kenilworth, one of those suburbs. (Yes, parrots get cancer).
CONCLUSION: Arla Conters might have to housesit her old house.

It’s a convergence story. I fell in love with the characters, all of whom have been changed by a decision point in their lives, and all of whom, it turns out, will be changed again by their convergence. How they came to be screwed up is central to their convergence, and its effect on them. For most of it, I had no idea where things were going, and yet, when we arrived at the central moment – and the hub of the story takes place within the space of one or two minutes – everything made sense, and I realized why everything else in the story was there. I think that’s called great storytelling.

It’s a longish short story compared to most modern stories, and seems perhaps longer because it’s so densely packed; there’s no fooling around with scenery. Or, I suppose it would be more accurate to say, where there is fooling around with scenery, you better believe it matters.

With each character, I started out not liking them much. In this, it was a convergence of me and each character, since that changed as I read. Arla, too educated, too drugged out, too promiscuous. It’s easy to get judgmental on her, real fast. And yet, I can picture her, years ago, at the “edge of the pool, her legs bent, as if she were about to jump in” … and my heart breaks for her. Teenage Jake’s even less sympathetic at first; I have little patience for anyone breaking a restraining order, no matter what their reason, but when I pictured this chubby kid comparing himself to the athlete, and then read about his over-the-top Romantic Gesture going horribly awry… and my heart breaks for him, too. Twelve-year-old Gordon initially comes off as a frantically hypermotivated fundamentalist, but he, too, has his pains, his moments feeling like “the Bleakest of Coffins,” and his relationship with his dad (who is the 21st century American equivalent of the Roberto Benigni character in Life is Beautiful) is a study in mutuality.

In the boy’s ergonomic backpack were slabs of frozen meat. Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Gordon did his Care for Another meal program, which was sort of like Meals on Wheels, but because he was only 12 and couldn’t drive a car and was thus ineligible to volunteer for M.O.W., he decided to establish his own program, which essentially consisted of his ferrying vacuum-packed Salisbury steaks and chicken Kiev’s to the neighborhood geriatrics on bike or by foot, afterschool, pro-bono. He had only four clients but had been saving up his post-tithing profits from his weekend lemonade stand to afford a full-color ad in the Tribune, which he thought would be a much more efficacious way to promote his start-up charity than simply doing cold calls via the White Pages, which had been his initial strategy before realizing that it wasn’t exactly the brightest star in the whole marketing-strategy Orion.
       On Tuesdays, he had Remedial Debate, which was like a step down from Model UN, which he tried out for and didn’t get accepted into, which of course made him feel the Bleakest of Coffins for like three weeks – that is, until he got the idea to petition the Donald K. Deepmire Middle School’s Extracurricular Activities Board to let him start a Getting-the-Word-Out-About-the-Total-Fun-and-Literary-Genius-of-C.S.-Lewis’s-The-Chronicles-of-Narnia Club.

It’s so easy to feel hostility towards someone based on a single piece of information. It’s harder to look behind that one piece of information, to see a person who has reasons for that particular quality, who deserves compassion and caring in spite of it, who might have other qualities that outshine what seems like a deal-breaker – and who might just overcome the need for the burden some day, given the right convergence and the wisdom to recognize it.

I love the writing as well. While there’s lots of narrative and exposition in standard syntax, the occasional flights into the personas of each character brings them vibrantly to life. Of course, I’m very fond of unusual approaches to text, even when it takes a little backtracking. But I think Swanson’s efforts to bring us inside the heads of the three principles is remarkably effective, and a lot of fun, which is why I’ve included such extensive excerpts here. It is a long story, after all, and these parts are backstory.

Jogging down Deepmire Circle in blaze-orange Daisy Dukes, Jake’s willing decided that the first thing he did say if a police officer pulled up and collared him about violating the restraining order Annie Radcliffe and her family had placed against him last week was that he was just out here on the run and must have gotten lost. True, he was supposed to maintain a three block perimeter around the Radcliffe residence, but couldn’t the officer see his Dri-FIT Nike running shorts and matching forefend T-shirt? Jeez, he’d say, heaven forfend a guy go for a post-prandial jog in this town without getting an unconstitutional patch down, he’d say. He was just trying to shed some weight, officer. You know, stay tip-top. Trim off the floatie of blubber that spilled over his beltline. What his mother so endearingly called his life preserver. What his friends Munchie and the Beave poked during passing hours at school, yelling, “Dough-boy!” OK, OK,the truth? The truth was maybe that he was out here running because he was planning to try out for the Reese-Meyer-Shannon High School wrestling team in a couple weeks, since scuttlebutt had it that the swiveling and mellifluous Annie Radcliffe, his ex-girlfriend, was now dating Travis Blokum, the Roman-nosed stud on varsity, who bore a letter jacket and had the distinction of being the only sophomore at Reese-Meyer-Shannon with a full beard. Jake thought if he could just crossface cradle Travis Blokum during a public match, Annie’s family might drop the restraining order against him and he could win her back.

I suppose it’s not considered complimentary to say a story reminds me of something, but it does: Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination, which wasn’t that much about the convergence of characters (IIRC; it’s been a while since I read it) but about the different effects a single phenomenon can have on a variety of people. So maybe it’s not the same thing at all, but I still get that general feeling of “wow.” That’s the similarity. How can that not be complimentary?

I’m with Gordon: sometimes the simple things totally astonish me. Like a story that really, really works – though I suppose that’s not simple, at all.

Pushcart 2015: Lincoln Michel, “If It Were Anyone Else” from NOON, 2013

Photo/Illustration by Christopher Nesbet

Photo/Illustration by Christopher Nesbet

A bald man buddied up to me in the elevator, but he was no buddy of mine. He was much older than me, yet more or less exactly as tall, not counting my hair. He was holding a brown paper bag over his crotch.
“Does this go all the way to the roof?”
I made a big show of putting my newspaper down and turning my head.
“What the hell do I know about the roof? What would I do all the way up there?”
We stood still as we moved up the building.
“Just a friendly question.” He licked the bottom of his mustache with the tip of his tongue. “Hey, do you like candy beans?”
There was no one else on the elevator; then the doors opened, and a woman in a green pantsuit stepped in. She looked at us and moved to the other corner.
“Who doesn’t?” I was angry.
The man opened up his paper bag and dug around. He offered me an assortment in his palm. I took three of the red and four of the purple ones.

As I’ve said before, I don’t review books or stories; I don’t know how. I just react to them. That’s never been more the case than here, because I have no idea what’s going on with this one.

Is this a paean to one of those literary schools I’ve never studied, like post-structuralist neo-Freudian anti-colonialism? Or an Oulipo-style thing, where each word has a prime number of letters and an alternating parity number of vowels and it isn’t apparent how brilliant it is until the constraints are understood? Nah, too normal for that. There just seems to be a lot of important symbolism I’m missing.

Everything seems highly significant (holding the bag over his crotch?) and thoroughly extraneous (is a green pantsuit supposed to mean something?) at the same time. Height seems important; not just the height of the narrator and the bald man, but the heights of buildings and the levels of the floors on which the narrator has worked. Given the automatic association of height with superiority, I have to assume that isn’t an accident, that it has meaning in the context of the story. I even drew a diagram of the narrator’s building so I could understand the floors, since the wording seemed strangely convoluted (and something that’s simple, but is worded convolutedly, often means it’s important).

Once I start drawing floor plans, I know I’ve lost my way. So I did something a bit unusual: I sought professional help.

I noticed the story was nominated by Marc Watkins. I’d encountered his “Two Midnights in a Jug” several years ago in my first-ever Pushcart read, and he left a kind comment. So… I emailed him, and asked him why he nominated the story, what I was missing. The kind of email that gives the impression I’m a little bit nuts (as I am – but harmlessly so).

Turns out, sometimes you can depend on the kindness of strangers: Marc answered.

The story is an odd duck, but that is what drew me to it. The plot seems to spiral in and around itself, threatening to collapse under the weight of details that range from the mundane to the bizarrely specific. There’s a claustrophobia in it that reminds me of Kafka, yet the world never feels so alien that you lose connection with the narrator…. May be the story hints at something profound, or perhaps it is a stylistic exercise; regardless, the reason I liked the story and nominated it is because something moved me while reading it. The alienation (which seems to be a major theme in the narrative) was similar to how I feel in some of my writing, even though I grew up in the polar opposite environment than the world described in the story, I felt a connection. And in that small way I felt the narrator and myself were kindred.

~ Marc Watkins

I felt a little embarrassed. Here I’d just done a passionate defense of not barreling headlong through literature in search of The Meaning in my reaction to Sandra Lim’s “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue”. I’d just read, at my library’s quarterly poetry share, Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry“). And that’s exactly what I had done wrong: I was all focused on [ What does the mention of height mean? What does the bald man represent, why all the sweets – candy beans, a cookie store (what the heck are candy beans, and I’ve never seen a cookie store) – and what’s with the baseball game? A floor plan? That’s about as tie-that-sucker-to-a-chair as a reader can get ] instead of: trust the story to take you wherever it’s going. It’s a Pushcart story. It can be trusted.

I read it again, this time looking out the window to see Paris instead of non-stopping it to the Rome of Meaning. And by golly, it worked. No, I still don’t know what’s going on. But I just enjoyed the ride, and came across an obvious question: Why does the narrator bother with this guy at all? Why on earth would he get into a car with someone who appears to be a stalker, if a relatively harmless one? For that matter, why is the bald man pestering him?

He got up beside me at the counter.
“Hey, buddy, I got an idea. Do you like ball games?”
The woman at the counter was asking me about my order. Here eyeballs rolled in their sockets.
“Sure,” I said. “Everyone likes ball games.”
“Let’s go to the ball game. You and me. Just tow guys watching a ball game. What’s wrong with that? I got an extra ticket.”
I didn’t look back at the man, but I felt his hand pressing down on my shoulder. I could tell he was going to keep bothering me. He was like a lost mangy dog I’d accidentally fed scraps to.
“Just this once.” I sighed. “One ball game.”

What is the relationship?

That’s a lot more interesting than the significance of green, isn’t it.

Once I started down that road, a lot of things coalesced. Tiny details – the reciprocity of the hand on the shoulder. The two bystander women looking askance at the pair. The narrator treats the bald man like a kid at several points: the “Just this once” of the above passage, the scolding about the messy car. Maybe the bald man is some kind of “inner child” if you will – yes, he’s initially described as a lot older, but he’s acting like a kid, there’s a great deal of candy and cookies, and a baseball game, and wheedling.

Once I let myself got that far, I found the narrator’s hand on the bald man’s head to be sweetly tender, the bald man’s disappointment to be heartbreaking. You made your choice, pal. Tall buildings, not baseball games. And, until the bald man came by, you never even realized you’d made a choice.

We were getting somewhere now.

Thanks so much for your help, Marc. I would’ve missed Vienna, if it hadn’t been for your remarks.

Pushcart 2015: Sandra Lim, “A Tab of Iron on the Tongue” (Poetry) from The Account, Fall 2013

Eraser Art by Bridget March

Eraser Art by Bridget March

Each time you see a full moon rising,
you imagine it will express
what your life cannot otherwise express,
that it’s a figure of speech.

This one (available online, thank you, The Account magazine) took me back to ModPo, for a variety of reasons.

From the first stanza, I thought – “I dwell in possibility!” – the Emily Dickinson poem that was a semi-mantra for the course. It’s perhaps a recognition of something above and beyond language, which is an odd proposition for a poem, a form that celebrates and lives within language. But it’s the image that has the deep meaning here in the first stanza; the words are a transportation system.

At least, that’s what I thought until I went looking for hints, and found a marvelous commentary by Christopher Kondrich: he points out the “it” in the fourth line has two floating antecedents, and while that’s no-no’d in composition classes, it’s the art of this poem: what is it that’s a figure of speech, the moon, or your life? Both? Back to Emily and Cid Corman and John Ashbery. And I missed it until Kondrich underlined it for me.

An image, a poem, can be like a figure-ground perception test: is it the face, or the vase? The old woman sunken into a shawl, or the young lady in the fashionable hat, looking away? Is a bed a raft or an island?

This really means watching yourself
turn something unknown into
something manageable.

The second stanza made me quite sad, until I looked at it line by line. To start with, “This really means watching yourself” sounds like a warning – hey, watch yourself, buddy; be careful. But the phrase then turns into a proposition of observation. It’s not, Watch out for yourself, but Watch how this happens. That shift happens because of a line break – a break that changes the perception of figure and ground, a break that unites multiple perceptions. We’re so certain we know – we turn the unknown into the manageable all the time, those of us who recoil from ambiguity and uncertainty – but watch out! Because the unknown might just be what we’ve turned it into, and something else, and a dozen other something elses, all at the same time, and poetry, the figure-ground perception sketch with words, is how we hold that.

When Schoenberg pointed out
the eraser on his pencil, he said, “This end
is more important than the other.”

The final stanza is something of a mash-up, bringing in John Cage, another ModPo poet. We may turn the unknown into something manageable, but Cage, Schoenberg, and Lim remind us to keep our erasers handy, because it might also be something else at the same time, and Watch Yourself! or you could miss all the worlds the something else implies. Maybe we can get away from seeing erasure as obliteration of an error, and see it as another doorway, an alternative.

One of my favorite quotes, from Charles DuBos: “The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. ” Maybe something like this applies to our take on the world – but certainly, to our take on poetry, on art. A drawing of a cat can be banal. Or it can be a pretty cool example of what one can do with an eraser. One of my least favorite aphorisms is “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when you get there.” But that assumes there is benefit in getting there, instead of getting somewhere else. If you barrel your way determinedly from London to Rome, you’ll miss what’s just outside your window, which could be… Paris. And you’ll never even glimpse Vienna.

What fascinates about the last stanza – one of the things that fascinates me – is that this is only part of the quote, from Cage’s Lectures and Writings: 50th Anniversary Edition published in 2011; the next sentence is: “After twenty years I learned to write directly in ink.” But that’s not part of the poem – perhaps because it’s exactly the opposite of the poem’s mood, how growth happens: we start out writing in ink, giving the right answers, knowing everything, and if we’re lucky, we run into Emily, and dwell, with our erasers, in possibility. And in stating that, it sounds so definite, as if I know. As if it’s written in… ink…. Uh-oh. Emily, hand me a pencil, please.

Pushcart 2015: Shawn Vestal, “Winter Elders” from Ecotone #15

They materialized with the first snow. That was how Bradshaw would always remember it. He was standing at the living room window, listening to Cheryl shush the baby, when he saw specks fluttering like ash against a smoky sky, then caught sight of someone on his front step, though he hadn’t noticed anyone coming up the walk. He could see about an inch of a man’s left side at the window’s border—an arm in a dark suit and a boyish hand holding a book bound in black leather. He knew instantly that there was another suit and another leather-bound volume out there, a companion to complete the pair: missionaries.

Some stories, like this one, knock me over with how well they do their job. In this case, the job is to
entwine themes and increase tension throughout what is a shorter story than it reads, leading to a tragedy that is so surprising, so unnecessary, it’s hard to believe it’s inevitable – but of course, it is. I also like the immediate establishment of the backwards-looking tone set in the first sentence by the word “would.” This has already happened, and some undefined, nebulous, omniscient narrator – someone else – is reporting it.

But it’s not just a technical marvel – it’s also a very human story, one I can feel not only personally, but in more thematic terms. And, by the way, it’s perfectly suited for the journal in which it appears.

Bradshaw’s in that horrible place I explored last summer through Charles May’s I Am Your Brother: “The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation…” (May, Introduction). This basic conflict also played a major role in the Georgetown MOOC on Dante’s “Inferno”, as sinner after sinner narrates his refusal to give up individual will to unite with God (at least, that’s my take on it).

It’s a basic theme of human relationships as well as theology, then: becoming part of something means giving up some degree of autonomy, but not being part of something means being alone, and we want both to belong and to be autonomous. Marriage necessarily involves giving up a piece of one’s autonomy, but it’s parenthood that is perhaps the ultimate unity, at least, on the earthly level.

So Bradshaw’s having a hard time.

What could he tell her? That he felt like he was being filled with life and drained of life all at once? That he had not imagined the consuming force of it? That he ached for the way he used to be filled with himself, only himself, all Bradshaw?

Enter the missionaries, with the knock at the door that just won’t go away, the request for entrance that requires constant rebuffing (it’s why telemarketers are required to hear you say “no” three times before they give up). It doesn’t help that one of them is very good at everything he does.

Bradshaw isn’t your random house on the street for the missionaries. He’s twelve years removed from the church, having gone to the unusual length of having himself officially excommunicated to keep these guys from pestering him to come back. Until now.

Of the two missionaries, it’s Pope who does the button-pushing. Interesting choice of name, with both religious and family connotations (“pope” is literally “father”). Bradshaw’s family issues precede his son’s birth; his own father would not allow family ties to interfere with his independence, and left. And Pope plays into both aspects, being not only infallible (he wins in every contest they have, from a tussle with a rake to a dog attack) but certain of his belief. Bradshaw isn’t even sure whose footprints, going nowhere, are in the snow.

It was not that Pope was right and he was wrong, and not that Pope was wrong and he was right. It was that Pope had something he could not have, and he would spend his life not having it.

I understand Bradshaw’s distress. I’m perpetually uncertain of everything. As an agnostic who just can’t accept any official view of deity yet gets misty-eyed at Christmas and feels moved by a great deal of “church music” tied to the very aspects I reject, I envy, not only the religious zealot, but the committed atheist as well. Even though I’ve found my place is in not-knowing, I wonder what it feels like to know – not to be right, necessarily, but to believe bone-deep that I am right. So when Bradley finds himself squeezed between believing and not, I empathize. The story’s focus of all the conflict so sharply on Pope makes the climax, the wrestling between individual and unity, between mortal and deity, exquisite, if horrifying.

The aftermath – the resurgence of that most human of needs, appetite; the meaty sandwich dominating over fear and regret and self-hatred – is also brutally exquisite. This is how a family story about the conflicts inherent in parenthood reaches into more universal territory.

I mentioned the significance of journal in which the piece appears – Ecotone. Setting is crucial. The snow of winter becomes not just an atmosphere but a character, an engine for the narrative drive, and the timing – around Thanksgiving – has an emotional appeal without the baggage of Christmas. But Ecotone does more than just reimagine place, if such a thing can be called “just.” Their mission statement: “An ecotone is a transition zone between two adjacent ecological communities, containing the characteristic species of each. It is therefore a place of danger or opportunity, a testing ground.”


Pushcart 2015: Pacifique Irankunda, “Playing at Violence” (non-fiction) from The American Scholar #82.3

Image from Tom Clancy's "Ghost Recon Future Soldier" video game

Image from Tom Clancy’s “Ghost Recon Future Soldier” video game

On a fall afternoon a few years ago, inside my dorm room at Deerfield Academy, I started hearing gunshots. I had been warned that in America people hunt with guns. I comforted myself with this thought at first, but the sounds went on and on and grew increasingly familiar. It can’t be hunting, I thought. Why would anyone be hunting on the grounds of a Massachusetts prep school?

One of literature’s enduring techniques is defamiliarization. Sometimes it’s used in historical fiction, such as in Naomi Williams’ “Snow Men“, an account of the Tlingit Indians’ first encounter with Europeans in the 18th century (her novel Landfalls, coming this summer, will expand on the story). Science fiction and fantasy makes heavy use of the technique as well; some of the most beloved Star Trek characters, such as Data and Mr. Spock, are fashioned as mirrors by which humanity can see itself (not that it seems to have helped much).

Irankunda is the mirror in this very personal essay (available online), reviewing his experience as a Burundi teen newly arrived at an American school. He holds the mirror up to our tendency towards violent recreation, specifically, first-person-shooter video games.

Irankunda knows a thing or two about first-person violence. He tells us about the war that filled his life for over a decade, as well as what we might see as lesser violence: Burundi-style school hazing. It’s in his exploration of the hazing that I truly felt pulled into this story, since he intimates that the bully needs his victim, even considers him a friend, and just doesn’t have the empathy to realize that it’s no fun being the target of this type of aggression.

I lived through 13 years of civil war. I know that violence can become almost a culture in itself, and that it twists not all but many of the people who are trapped in it. Of course, not all the children who grew up in the war became violent. How you responded to your own resentments, whether you seethed with thoughts of revenge, how your parents, neighbors, and friends responded to the bloodshed—all of these things helped determine your own taste for violence. I was lucky. Many others were not.

Violent video games have become a divisive point in American culture; it seems there are those who feel they cause real-time violence, and those who think that’s nonsense. I’ve never played a shooting video game, or any modern video game since PacMan, not even Angry Birds, since I don’t have a gizmo. While I’m very curious about Portal and puzzle-solving games, I have no desire to place myself in a combat or crime situation. It isn’t so much that violence bothers me (though my tolerance for tv and movie violence has decreased over the years); I’m just not that interested.

I can’t really say what the difference is between me and a player of war games, other than preference. If I had a kid who played shooters all day, I’d be a little concerned. I don’t know if I’d have reason to be; lots of people play them and don’t end up shooting up schools. I lean towards the “they’re attractive to those who are prone to violence” rather than the “they cause violence” side. But I have no real basis for that, other than a recent study that showed no correlation, let alone causation.

But there’s still this guy from Burundi wondering why we’re so obsessed with violence. Be honest: though video games are more participatory than spectator sports, we love our movies bloody as well. Boxing and football are big business, and the blood (and permanent neurological damage) is real, not pixels on a screen. Revolutionary and Civil War reenactments, though blood isn’t involved (except accidentally) are cultural heritage in some families. The news media’s dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” exists for a reason.

Game journalist Gus Mastrapa read Irakunda’s article, and considered something I’ve often thought about: “Part of me wonders if I haven’t come to appreciate games about a particular kind of struggle because I’ve found a somewhat comfortable place in my life.” I’m not sure that would hold up in an empirical study, but it’d be interesting to find out. Irankunda obviously doesn’t have a taste for video gore; he wonders (as do I) if Chrysostom, the bully, would. Then he thinks of the soldiers who turned his world into nonstop terror; would they like on-screen violence? I wonder: would a video game give them a safer outlet and remove them from real-life violence, or merely inflame them to more bloodshed?

I think back to the documentary film “The Act of Killing”, examining the present-day reaction of Anwar Congo to the participatory reenactment of his past: in the 1960’s he was a “gangster” responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent citizens at the behest of a corrupt government. He seemed to feel genuine remorse, both in the present and over the past. Was that a matter of maturity, of having seen more of the world and thus being less willing to destroy parts of it? Or is it a matter of personality, the nugget of repentance in him? Are other former mass slaughterers more sanguine about their role?

This simple essay raises multiple questions. If the answers existed already, we wouldn’t need to ask questions.

From Deerfield Academy, Irankunda went on to study psychology and political science at Williams College, and now works for educational and mental health services for Burundi; his essay won the Elie Wiesel Prize in ethics. He’s got his life’s work cut out for him; lots of human psychology could come out of the study our appetite for violence. Maybe, with his experiences in mind, he’ll discover something that will help keep us from turning violence against each other.

Pushcart 2015: Bob Hicok, “Why We Must Support PBS” (Poetry) from Field #89

Art by xildgolee

Art by xildgolee

“I didn’t think of it as killing them,” the executioner
from the late eighteenth century said to Charlie Rose,
still wearing a hood, his axe resting on the wood table
I’ve assumed is oak. “I don’t know how to put this:
it’s as if I loved them in the moment I swung, loved them
and wanted to offer them peace.” Charlie Rose was smiling,
excited. Even more than usual, the joy of an otter
seemed to be swimming through the long river of his body…

I have to admit: I have no idea what’s going on in this surrealist account. I’m pretty sure it’s satire, but that’s about it.

I’m partly hampered by my lack of familiarity with Charlie Rose. My impression, based on his multiple journalism awards for “timely and incisive interviews of leaders from all walks of life,” is that he’s highly respected, as opposed to interviewers who are more or less publicity outlets.

The interview in the poem does, however, sound more like a typical book tour (if an interview with a magically transplanted 18th century executioner can be considered typical anything, but I’d bet it’d come with a book tour), complete with metaphysical-sounding but ultimately nonsensical closing. Is this the sort of interview Charlie Rose would be doing if he were condemned to commercial tv? Or is it highly insightful, the sort of thing Charlie Rose does – is he the only person who would interview an 18th century executioner in this way – and I just don’t see it?

I don’t see the otter, either, but it’s unlikely I would, even if it were there. What does an otteresque person look like, anyway? I’m not sure, but it’s a delicious image. Otters do have this frolicsome quality about them, yet they’re actually quite vicious, which fits perfectly with this poem, with both Charlie Rose as the friendly but incisive (from the Latin, “to cut into”) interviewer, the executioner as the affable and reformed but blood-stained guest.

…I drifted off, half-dreamed I’d arranged a tropical
themed party on a roof without testing how much dancing
and vodka the roof could hold, people were falling
but still laughing, falling but still believing
there was a reason to put umbrellas in their drinks, …

The dream sequence in the middle feels a bit more familiar. I’ve had some pretty surrealistic experiences myself falling asleep watching PBS, most notably when I dozed off during some music program – Peter Paul & Mary, maybe, or an opera, those tend to be the sorts of things I watch – and woke up to a film honoring the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” which, in addition to moving me deeply at 2 a.m., became my favorite piece of post-modernist music. So I can understand people at a party believing in umbrellas in their drinks. It’s one of those things I’ve never thought about – why do they put umbrellas in tropical drinks, to keep the sun from melting the ice, and though they’re served indoors in the middle of Manhattan winters these days, they remain part of the tradition, like the human appendix or the muscles that give goosebumps or other vestigial traits?

All I can say is that it’s a dark-sounding poem (broad, open vowels, long lines), but hilarious at the same time. An executioner who sees the error of his ways and is hawking his book to prove it – and a guy who can’t stay awake to listen to him. And we’re all on the roof, having a party, believing in umbrellas like truth, justice, and the American way, our consciences clear, while our modern-day executioners swing the axe.

Pushcart 2015: Joni Tevis, “What the Body Knows” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.6

Orion art by Ursula Schneider: "Demarcation Point"

Orion art by Ursula Schneider: “Demarcation Point”

I had tried to prepare – trained, researched gear, plotted distances – but as the little plane surfed and dropped in the thermals, I saw that it wasn’t enough. “What made you want to visit the Refuge?” the pilot asked, and my throat closed. Cliffy mountains on either side, and below. Snow caught in their creases. And marks where hooves had struck stone. “Got a bee in my bonnet,” I said, and as soon as I heard the words I want to take them back. Why did I want to go? I wasn’t sure. More than just curiosity, although I did want to see what all the fuss was about. Wanted to see a place with a bounty on his head, a place outside my ken, a place with no trees or roads or (now, midsummer) darkness. In the cockpit, unlock it swung from a knob, and a picture of the pilot’s kids covered a dial. He belonged here, not me. But the truth was, I had to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for myself: if we waited, I somehow knew that it would be too late.

Maybe I’m still stuck on the last story. Maybe it’s a New Year thing, Janus looking back and forward at the same time. Maybe the symmetry just appeals to me, or I’m really eager to find a theme. Maybe it’s in most good writing, and I just haven’t noticed it until now. But for whatever reason, I see past-present-future again in this piece.

I’m not a big fan of nature writing – or of nature, for that matter. To me, nature is the heat, the cold, sneezy pollen, bugs, and please chain me safely to my computer again. Nature writing frequently waxes poetic and tends towards the panegyric, but how many different ways can you ooh and aah over the majesty of mountains or the interdependence of critters in the wild? I am, however, quite fond of information, and of metaphor, so tell me how the mountains and critters got there, and relate it to some aspect of human history, psychology, life, whatever – and I’m with you.

Tevis includes significant information, and builds in metaphors everywhere.

The doctrine of signatures, which once dominated medical thought, holds that the plant’s appearance reveals its use. Nettle has a milky sap, so it’s good for lactating women. Pine needles resemble front teeth, so a tea made from them promotes healthy gums. This is the same idea behind what anthropologist James Frazer calls “sympathetic magic” in The Golden Bough, his landmark study of belief and ritual. The key tenet of sympathetic magic, he says, “is that like produces like… And effect resembles its cause.”

If like produces like, then where we live, what we see, who we know, becomes crucial. We are not just known by the company we keep, we’re shaped by it. I think it can also serve as a repellent, however: “I don’t want to be that; I want something different” may have generated more change than anything else. Moving away may not be moving towards, but at least it’s moving. First, of course, we have to know something different exists, which is why literature is such a good idea.

We also hear about other interactions with the Arctic over time and culture. “When a person harvests a medicinal plant in the mountains, besides speaking correctly to it, he should also leave a small gift, such as a thread or a match or a bit of tobacco, in place of the plant” is a bit of wisdom from a local native tribe: give something back in its most concrete form. That sounds like an attitude worth cultivating in general, an attitude we’ve bulldozed over for the past century. She tells of mirages recorded in exploration history: “…the men see their distant camps hovering above the horizon. The angle of the light and the curve of the earth made their far-off colleagues seem to walk upside down, heads to the tundra and feet treading thin air.…” The National Snow and Ice Data Center documents many of these phenomena, commonly known as Fata Morgana, which are possible anywhere on earth, but most common towards the poles. Can we trust what we see? And I learned the Arctic is, in the summer, plagued by mosquitos desperate for animal blood. I told you, nature means bugs.

But a non-fiction essay is more than an educational treatise.

As I stand there on the bank, the river leaps along, slicing a new channel for itself, carrying ancient meltwater and grit, catkins and leaves, swelling after rain, tugging the valley this way and that. I cup my hand and drink, wipe grime from my face. Make me different, is the thought I can’t put into words. I don’t want to be the same after this trip. Bolder, maybe, less concerned with things I can’t control.

Tevis’ life is about to be very different, though it’s unclear in the essay at just what point she realized she was just slightly pregnant: “Brooding over these things, eyes scanning the tundra, I sense something strange taking root deep within myself, and insistent wriggle of thought I dare not speak aloud.” Welcome to the future, while standing in the present learning about the past. A future that may include the Refuge, or may not, depending on decisions we will make, on priorities we will decide.

Orion, the original publishing journal, is of course known for “nature writing” but it’s mission is broader than that: “It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.” They provide an excellent online interview (audio) with Tevis, in which she talks about how the structure of the piece took place over a significant time, and how she chose to fold in the pregnancy. She had a sign over her desk: “Keep it strange” so she wouldn’t “edit out the discomfort, stress, confusion.” And she says something that I’ve come to live recently: “There’s value in going to a place that really is too hard for you….” I might put that sign over my desk.

Eventually, we’ll register for gear at the baby superstore, staring gobsmacked at the wall of wipes and rubber nipples and nail clippers kitted out with tiny flashlights. If only we were outfitting the trip to the Arctic, I’ll think. At least then we’d know what to pack.
     Memories of the truck stop at Coldfoot will come flooding back to me, suggesting the many ways that a chore in a like ours could go wrong. A framed collage of disaster snapshots hung on the wall next to the pay phone. Big rigs jackknife into a ditch; two trucks loading a mangled SUV.… In for a penny, in for a pound; if the inclines don’t get you, the frost heaves will. But what can you do? You can’t stay here.
     And so we’ll tick our boxes, take our chances, and exit the store to face the mystery of what’s to come.

Raising a child is too hard for anyone. And yet we’re here.

From the past of glaciers and rocks, to the decisions of the present, to the promise and anxiety of the future. Nice job. Maybe I like nature writing more than I thought.

Pushcart 2015: Emma Duffy-Comparone: “The Zen Thing” from One Story #175

"Family Day ~ At the Beach" by KJ Carr

“Family Day ~ At the Beach” by KJ Carr

Each year, like a shifty circus in a truck, the family unpacks itself for a weekend on a beach and pretends to have a good time….Expectations are low.

I didn’t particularly like this story the first time I read it. But since I have faith in One Story, I put it aside, and came back to it after a few weeks. That doesn’t always work, but this time, it did.

Initially it seemed like another dysfunctional family exposé, with one quirky character after another. To some degree, it is that, though who’s dysfunctional and who’s not is debatable, an interesting feature in itself. But more importantly, there’s a reason for these characters; their quirks serve a purpose beyond humor. They’re deliberately constructed, of course, and maybe that’s what put me off at first. But I have to admire what’s accomplished: a young woman in a tough situation looks at all her futures – and all her pasts – embodied by her family on a day at the beach.

Anita’s boyfriend, Luke, seems to have it all – movie-star looks, charm, earnestness, Rumi quotes – and then some. It’s the “then some” that’s the problem. He’s older; he’s married. He was her art professor; they moved in together five months ago following a two-year affair:

Luke has taken to drinking each night before he calls his daughter, Matilda, who is eight and who, because he cannot bear to tell her, and because his wife is certain he will come back, still thinks he is on a business trip.

It’s odd how an earnest guy who’s “gentle and curious and frequently undone by factual tidbits from the BBC” can look different in another light. Say, beach light. It’s quite a trick to make someone look sensitive when he’s being brutal. The scene reminds me of the quip about the guy who murders his parents, then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.

Anita’s pushed up against her family on this beach trip, each of whom have little tendrils into her situation. Sister Theresa was a wild child, but recently started flying straight and is now married to a rich Libertarian insurance agent and takes parenting her two-year-old very seriously. Through her, Anita sees what it is to grow up, but also what Easy Street costs in human terms. She isn’t sure she likes what she sees:

She has turned into an important, scolding mother. Anita liked her sister better when she wore a Budweiser bikini and made great mix tapes, when they stayed up late watching movies and scratching each other’s back for ten minutes apiece.… Theresa sits down, too, picking grains of sand, one by one, off her arm. She is most likely afraid they will interfere with her tan. Her diamond is a sparkling mouse on her finger.

Anita’s grandmother married Frank five years ago; through them, she discovers her horror of aging, all the while acutely aware that Luke is 25 years her senior. Her mother has her quirks (she still gets hot flashes, “which make her stop whatever she is doing, unhitch her bra, and whip it out of her sleeve like a rabbit from a hat”), but when Frank has a problem, she’s the one who, though her dislike for Frank is well known, steps up. And her mother is also still bitter about her own father, who left the family when she was eleven.

Amidst all this, Anita finds herself thinking about Ben, her former boyfriend.

She has been thinking about this situation more than she would like to admit. She has been trying to remember what was so bad about him in the first place. True, he pronounced supposedly “supposably.” He gave her noogies sometimes. Once, when she asked him if he found her attractive, he said, “I like the buttons on your jacket.” Still, when she is fifty, he will be only fifty-two.

In her One Story Q&A, Duffy-Comparone shows us the process behind this story: it was inspired by her own awkward family beach trip, so she “thought of something Very Awkward and then put everyone in a bathing suit.” It was also written very quickly, in one night – “I couldn’t get precious about every sentence.” Though I’m sure it’s undergone significant editing since then, I think perhaps my initial reaction to the story might have been related to this; some sentences read awkwardly, like the one about Anita’s mother: “She has been talking a lot about death lately, and her own father, who left the family when she was eleven and years later got drunk, drove up an off ramp and was killed before Anita’s mother got around to forgiving him.” I’d assumed this was a stylistic choice for that particular sentiment, since in other places, the prose is positively poetic:

She watches children crouch and slap their hands in the tidepool that is winding across the flats. All the women, breasts heavy and tired in their suits, pull wagons and strollers across the sand and begin to set up shop. Everything is a production. There is sunscreen. There are so many toys.

I did have a few issues with the story. There’s a lot of character exposition up front (the story is all about character; there’s virtually no plot) and all that quirkiness gets a bit wearing. I found the ever-popular ambiguous ending less than satisfying; it felt more like additional character exposition. Maybe that’s the point: our lives are one long character exposition. Or maybe it goes back to the title. Or maybe it’s an ironic twist, and Anita remains in her rut, because breaking out of it, even with all the evidence around her, is just too damn hard. But I still found myself intrigued and impressed by this parade of complex people – people who are both good and bad, people who are doing the best they can, people who have a lot to teach Anita about the road that lies before her – and was glad I watched them spend a day at the beach.

Addendum: I wrote this post in March 2013 when I first read this piece in One Story. I didn’t clearly remember it at this point, but had an impression of a roll call of crazy people who, when looked at from one angle, messed up their lives, but when looked at from another angle, have what they need. Except Anita, who’s the camera, looking forward and back at the same time, taking in this day at the beach that is no day at the beach. Because, really, every day at the beach means sand in your shoes.

And now this story kicks off Pushcart XXXIX. In his Introduction to this volume, Bill Henderson explains it “became the first-ever-first-published story to be featured as a lead in thirty-nine years of Pushcart volumes.” I wonder why. Now that I’ve read the second story, I’m looking at the past-present-future theme, but that could be my own invention. Last year started off with Davy Rothbart’s non-fiction “Human Snowball”, another ensemble piece of oddball characters, and in XXXVII, Millhauser’s “Phantoms” started things off on a mysterious (as well as ensemble) note. Either approach is a fitting way to introduce the works of this anthology.

Pushcart 2015: Open

Book carvings from the culture warrior series by Long-Bin Chen

Book carvings from the culture warrior series by Long-Bin Chen

Thousands of editors and writers have helped keep this series thriving. Back in the early 1970’s Stuart Brand’s small-press published The Whole Earth Catalog was an inspiration to millions. It billed itself as an “access to tools” of all sorts – books, medicines, bikes, shelters, etc. And drew its inspiration from thousands of people who helped.
       Brand’s idea of asking many people to help out was borrowed by Pushcart in 1976 for the first Pushcart Prize. At that time, twenty-six distinguished founding editors assisted us as did hundreds of little magazines and small press book editors with nominations. Over the past thirty-nine years “the people who helped” listing on our masthead and back pages has grown to almost 950 for each edition. “Access to literature” might be our motto, and our gatekeepers are readers everywhere.

Pushcart is something of a contradiction in terms. In eschewing the large circulation glossies – TNY, The Atlantic, Harper’s – they focus on small presses. The stories have few boundaries of authorship, form, or theme. But then, there’s that whiff of exclusion from the years when the introduction raved against online literature (a fight they seem to have abandoned); this year, there’s a rant about vanity presses, which I can’t argue with, except I know a couple of people – academics as well as literary writers – who’ve self-published books, not to ring up receipts, but to contribute, to speak, to teach. So, as usual, I see twelve sides of every issue, but it boils down to this: I love Pushcart.

I love the oddness of many of the pieces, how they don’t fit into typical categories. I love the combination of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, though it’s taken me a while to get on board with the latter two categories, mostly out of intimidation: I know little enough about literary fiction, but even less about the others. As long as I don’t hold myself out to be an expert or a critic, but merely a reader reacting to what’s on the page, I think that’s ok.

I recognize four stories, two from the BASS I just finished, and two from One Story. I see a few familiar fiction writers – David Means and Bennett Sims among them – and I’m looking forward to reading them again. What’s really exciting is that I’m starting to recognize contemporary poets. I guess that’s what happens when you start to read contemporary poetry – who knew?

This is my fifth Pushcart read, and each year, I’ve approached it a bit differently. Last year, I tried to include a work from each of the three genres per week, though time made that impossible for a while. It also resulted in a lot of extra poetry left over at the end. I suspect I also lost the overall statement of the volume. Unlike BASS and PEN, Pushcart chooses the order of selections. Last year, I noticed some themes emerging and mutating, but because I didn’t read it in order, I wasn’t experiencing it as the editors planned.

So this year, I’ll go back to my usual process: start at the beginning, and read each piece in order. This, combined with other demands on my time, may result in weeks when I do three poems, or weeks when I do one story – or two weeks when one story is all I can handle. I’ll just keep going, and see what happens. My time budget is six months, which seems like a lot of time to spend on a single book – even a 573-page book – but I like to take my time, let each piece sink in, sleep on it, research what feels necessary, and occasionally, find just the right art to go with the post. It’s the upside of not having to please anyone but myself, of having no purpose other than to learn something from everything I read.


Bye-Bye BASS 2014

Last year, I thought BASS was a little on the safe side. This year was anything but safe.

Nearly every story was initially confusing, in a variety of ways. Structures that weren’t immediately predictable. Unexpected voices. Tense shifts, blurry settings, missing landmarks. And nearly every story, with a little patience and a little work on my part, delivered.

I had a good time. And I learned a little bit more about what’s possible in a story.

Putting together my “favorites” list is always hard, since how I feel about a story or a group of stories varies from day to day, from year to year, and sometimes changes on re-reading on another day or in another year. But I like forcing myself to prioritize. Each of my favorites is a favorite for a slightly different reason, sometimes because of the emotional punch, sometimes because I admire the craft that went into it, sometimes both. And misses are embarrassing, since they always end up on someone’s “best story of the year” list and I feel like an idiot for not getting it. Nevertheless, my list:

The stand-out:

La Pulchra Nota” by Molly McNett

Other favorites:

Kattekoppen” by Will Mackin
Hover” by Nell Freudenberger
The Breeze” by Joshua Ferris
After the Flood” by Peter Cameron
Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” by Karen Russell
Antarctica” by Laura van den Berg

My least favorite:

Next to Nothing” by Stephen O’Connor

I could’ve added a few more to the “Other Favorites” category, but that’ll cover most of it.

Some themes emerged. Religion seemed prevalent. As I look back at the list, I see overt religion prominent in only one story, really, maybe two, but was a factor in several others. Is this unusual, or was I simply primed by taking a couple of MOOCs with religious content? Looking back over past tables of contents, I think there was slightly more mention of religion this year, but some of it was merely in titles or passing reference, so it’s probably a combination of both. I found a lot of eye imagery, but again, is that unusual, or did I just happen to notice it? War made its appearance, but war has a way of showing up in fiction. So does bad weather. Troubled children. And death.

I keep coming back to the elusiveness of the stories as a unifying theme. For me, at least, these weren’t lyrically beautiful casual reads about familiar human relationships; these stories took more roundabout paths that required more effort. There was often lyric beauty, and of course human relationships are pretty much what lies at the heart of all fiction, whether it’s about war or a frat party or an unexpected house guest or a music student; but the key relational aspect wasn’t always evident at first glance, because the story presented some challenges to getting on board. I like that. I’m no fan of unearned intimacy.

I have to wonder: If I’d encountered this volume five or six years ago – would I have hated it? Would I have had the patience to find the way in to stories which, for the most part, were as disorienting as Jennifer Egan promised in her introduction? That leads to a more important question: what am I too impatient for, right now?

BASS 2014: Laura van den Berg, “Antarctica” from Glimmer Train, #88

In Antarctica there was nothing to identify because there was nothing left. The Brazilian station at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula had burned to the ground. All that remained of my brother was a stainless steel watch. It was returned to me in a sealed plastic bag, the inside smudged with such. The rescue through had also uncovered an unidentified tibia, which might or might not have belonged to him. This was explained in a cold, windowless room at Belgrano II, the Argentinian station that had taken in the survivors of the explosion. Luiz Cardoso, the head researcher at the Brazilian base, had touched my shoulder as he spoke about the bone, as though this was information intended to bring comfort.

Secrets, guilt, mistakes. The Antarctic – cold, isolated, unknown. A researcher killed in an accident. His sister on a mission. And Eve, the wife/sister-in-law who hovers over and underlies all of it.

Much of the beauty of this story (and it is beautiful) lies in the unfolding, how we start with very little grasp of the situation and move towards understanding. Just like the narrator.

That artful reveal makes it difficult to write about, however, since what is unknown is just as important as what is known. There’s a tension in places partly created by the scene, and partly by the knowledge that there’s another shoe to drop and eagerness to know what that shoe is. It’s as if the author has a secret, and the force of that secret propels the reader onward.

I missed the perfect chance to tell my brother everything. The day before he left for Vancouver, I went to see him at MIT.… I should’ve had a plan, but I didn’t. Rather, the weight of Eve’s secret had propelled me toward him the way I imagine the current tugs at the objects that find their way into its waters…

I think we keep secrets for different reasons. Some we keep because they’re embarrassing. Some, because they’d cause pain to others and wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. But a great many secrets are kept because the secret-holder doesn’t want to deal with another person’s reaction. This story is full of secrets – and the understanding that, sometimes, we’d rather not know.

Lee, the narrator, has the central secret – we only know her thoughts, so in narrative terms she’s the richest secret-bearing possibility – and her secret has grown like rock candy crystalizing on a string. But she narrates a great many other secrets. Eve’s secret, for example, is the seed crystal: why does Eve keep her secret from her husband? Does she fear he’ll see her differently? Has she left that person, the one she was, behind, and she’s unwilling to risk being burdened with her again? Or is it some kind of shame from guilt, however inappropriate the guilt may be? Or did she learn secret-keeping where most of us do, in the family?

Her parents think they’re protecting their child by keeping her from understanding her own experience. Parent want to protect their children, of course they do. But is it protection at all, to deny, repress, ignore truth? When parents protect their children, are they at heart protecting themselves from the pain of the truth, turning away from knowing? Do parents unwittingly convey attitudes to their children that way, pass on a legacy of choosing to not know?

There were so many times when I wanted to tell my brother everything – when, in the middle of the night, I wanted to kneel by his bed and whisper, I have a secret. In Cambridge, I’d told myself these were Eve’s secrets to keep or expose; it was her life to walk away from, if that’s what she wanted. And the more time that passed, the more unimaginable the truth seemed. To admit one lie would mean admitting another and then another….Some of these things I did not know – not because they were unknowable, but because I had turned away from the knowledge. In Antarctica I decided that was the worst thing I’ve ever done, that refusal.

Luiz, the Brazilian researcher who serves as Lee’s guide to the Antarctic station where her brother died, demonstrates other aspects of secrets. He defers telling Lee how her brother was viewed on the station for an admirably long time, but Lee, no longer turning away from secrets, persists, until Luiz has to reveal the truth. He could’ve kept repeating the party line as the other researchers did, and he must’ve known how Lee would react. For that, his willingness to give up the secret and deal with the consequences, he may be one of the most admirable characters in the story. Lee will probably agree, some day.

Van den Berg has several interviews of note available online. With Larry Dark at The Story Prize blog, she discusses the decade-long process of uncovering this story, an effort that began with the wrong protagonist and overly obvious Emperor penguins. Writing a story like this isn’t easy, so it took a while for her to come up with the multiple story lines and the opening line that became her hook into the meat of the story. With Amanda Faraone at The Bomb, she talks about catching the right balance of haziness and presence for the brother’s character – who, I believe, is unnamed throughout the story, in what I’m guessing is part of the haziness side.

It’s one of those stories that doesn’t end with a tidy little bow, and that’s what appeals to me: the story, the wondering about what I’ve read, goes on in my head after I’ve turned the last page. I sometimes wonder about the way stories are arranged in BASS, alphabetically by author’s last name. Most story collections are carefully fit together to amplify a theme or develop a concept or maybe to provide variety between styles, but that option isn’t available in these anthologies. Sometimes, like this time, I wonder if the last story meant no one with a name later in the alphabet would make that volume, no matter how good the story, simply because the last story was such a perfect closing touch. Were the eight stories in the “Other Distinguished Stories” list with author names after van den Berg just out of luck?

I doubt it. I suspect it’s more that I know I’m at the end of the volume so I “hear” more of a closing note with the last story no matter what it is. But I still wonder. Because this is a great way to end – without ending at all – this anthology.