Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Deborah Forbes, “Oasis” from Hudson Review, Winter 2018

There are many things she hasn’t known how to tell her husband since she followed him to this posting in Lusaka, Zambia, and one is how she loves the dust. Not “loves” – she wants a word less willed and compromised, more elemental. The dust seems to her not dirty but clean, fine enough to filter out impurities. When it collects in her hair and under her fingernails, it’s proof she’s here, alive – affect she finds wildly improbable, most days.

I pay particular attention to the opening and closing stories of each Pushcart volume, since, unlike BASS, the order is chosen by the editors. We started with “The Arms of Saturday Night,” a story about a teenager focused on getting to a party to hook up with the popular boy, until she realizes the reason she’s stuck at home is the death of her father’s brother. We close with a woman who has more insight into her self-focus given what’s going on around her. But what makes this an outstanding closing story is the last line, a line that keeps ringing in the air long after the book is closed. Especially right now.

Corinne is desperately unhappy in Zambia, having followed her professional do-gooder husband on some kind of fund-raising project. I’m still not clear about where her discontent lies, or if she was similarly discontent when they lived in the States. Much of the story consists of missed connections between her and other people, from her husband, to the colleague she ends up in bed with, to the waiter she sees frequently at the fancy hotel where she lunches.

These missteps stem from different roots. She ends up having an affair just to feel something other than empty and sad, and predictably feels empty and sad about the affair. It’s the part of the story I least understand.

With her husband, it’s more complicated. Corinne is beginning to understand what she is so protected from, in her nice house with the quiet maid and lunches in the nice hotel with the polite, attentive waiter. To her husband, it’s about numbers and fund-raising approaches, and the problem is that “poverty isn’t sexy enough.” But it becomes more visceral to Corinne as she serves dinner to a group of her husband’s colleagues:

“That’s why we’re working the defense angle,” Grant said. “Hundreds of thousands of kids orphaned by AIDS, growing up without adult supervision – if that’s not a security threat, what is?”
There was pleasure in her husband’s voice, a quickening on the trail of a solution, but she was listening to something else. Hundreds of thousands of orphans. She tried to steady the fact in her mind. This is why we are here.
“I’ve got something even better,” Tim said. “Plane crashes. Think of all that attention to the planes going down. Child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa is like plane crashes. Seventy-seven plane crashes every day. That’s one every eighteen minutes. And every plane filled with children.”
Corinne scraped her chair hard against the floor but kept her steps as even as she could as she walked to the kitchen. She pressed her palms into the counter. She knew people in Grant’s line of work got used to terrible statistics. She knew they had to get hard and to pain and death, like surgeons had to harden themselves to the open wound. Everybody else was OK; what was wrong with her?
She made herself open the plastic container and distribute raspberries onto the dessert plates. They were imported, shamefully expensive, but she couldn’t resist the contrast they make against the whipped cream and dark cake. Every eighteen minutes, a planeload of children was falling from the sky – children weakened by hunger as well as disease. Either this was not real or the raspberries and cake weren’t real. They couldn’t be real at the same time.

Later that night, she considers bringing this up with her husband, asking if he feels anything about these numbers, the campaigns designed to shake dollars from tight fists. But she doesn’t: “She was afraid of his versions of no.”

But consider that surgical analogy. Would a surgeon who freaks out at the sight of a gaping hole in the abdomen be any good to the patient who needs a tumor removed? There is a balance, of course, and it’s tricky, facing tragedy and horror every day with enough distance to help, but not walling off the human connection. Exactly the problem the fundraisers mentioned a paragraph before: you have present a sympathetic picture, but not a hopeless one. I think of the NYC doctor who, after treating COVID-19 cases for weeks, committed suicide just two days ago. And I think of the guys in this story tossing around statistics about dead children as marketing tools, not to mention all the talking heads on newscasts declaring it’s ok to let old people and those with underlying conditions die in order to get the stock market back on track and oil prices up, that meat and poultry workers – often poorly paid, often immigrants – should get back to work and if they get sick it’s their fault because of how they live. Damn, this story is hard reading right now.

It’s with the Zambian waiter Joseph that the full extent of Corinne’s disconnection with the realities she’s beginning to glimpse are most striking, and in this, we’re helped by narrative technique: the third-party narrator who generally speaks from inside Corinne’s head, but sometimes zooms out to provide more context. It’s a technique that gets perilously close to telling rather than showing, something I’ve become rather sensitized to by the previous essay in the collection about the mouse. But it works here, showing not everything has to be Carver or Hemingway.

Her first disconnect is fairly trivial, but shows the rift between Joseph’s world and her interpretation of it:

“How is your family, madam?” he asks the next time.
“It’s only me and my husband.”
“Yes?” he says, his face going blank, and she realizes the question was a courtesy, not a request for information.
“How is your family?” She tries to right the exchange.
“Fine, we are all fine, madam.”
The correct formula, the answer she should’ve given. But instead of stopping here, she asks more questions and confirms that he’s not a teenager; he has a three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter.
“My sister has a baby the same age,” she says. “What’s her name?”
“Oh-as-sees.”
“I’m sorry?”
“Oh-ah-sees. Like this.” He points to the header of her menu: Oasis Bar and Lounge.
“Oh, Oasis!” Corinne says. Joseph’s brow furrows at the hard “ay.” “It’s a lovely name,” she adds quickly. “A green place in the desert.”
Her remark doesn’t seem to register. “It is to give thanks to God,” he says. “This is the place from which our blessings come.”

Corinne can only interpret Joseph by her own experience. She makes some effort to at least hear him, but simply can’t enter into his experience. I suppose we should give her credit for doing as well as she does; there are people who would lecture him on the “correct” pronunciation and meaning of the name he chose for his daughter.

While this misunderstanding is quite trivial, it does show a pattern that continues to play out the next time she asks about Oasis. He says she isn’t eating, and Corinne goes into her sister’s troubles with getting her baby to eat solid foods. Considering she’s just had a literal crash course on child mortality in the area, you’d think she’d pick up on what seems ominous to me. But her frame of reference is raspberry world. The third time they speak of Oasis, Joseph reports she is now eating but has diarrhea. And that zoom-out narration does a yeoman’s job of cuing in anyone who hasn’t caught on yet:

Corinne doesn’t know enough yet to know about the taboo against complaint in Zambia. His refrain should sound like a siren screaming down the street.

These three threads – husband, bedmate, waiter – follow Corinne to the by now expected tragic end of the story, a tragedy she somehow never saw coming. A tragedy that personalizes the discomfort she felt at the dinner table. And Forbes leaves us with a final paragraph that will stay with me for a long time, a paragraph that hits hard at this moment when, still in the throes of pandemic but having flattened the curve, we’re on the brink of reopening, a time when we’re finding out whose life is worth protecting and whose isn’t:

While they are speaking, a plane full of children crashes into the earth. How much do you have not to think about, not remember, in order to live?

How would I have read this story three months ago? I can’t answer that – I suspect Corinne’s cluelessness, in spite of her good intentions, would have read the same – but that isn’t the important question. The important question is how would I read it a year, two years, ten years from now?

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Suzanne Farrell Smith, “If You Find a Mouse on a Glue Trap” (nonfiction) from Brevity #59

If you find a mouse on a glue trap, he’ll eyeball you with one black shiny eye while breathing in and out faster than you have ever seen anything breathe. You will panic, though you know the mouse is panicking harder.

Complete story available online at Brevity

How would you tell the story of finding a mouse stuck in a glue trap you yourself did not put down, but was rather a carryover from the former owners of your house? What would you want to convey: what actions, tone, emotions, persons secondarily affected?

You might use second person, if you wanted to dramatically increase the chances of some random editor/slush pile reader tossing it into the Rejects bin, then make it very short, in order to mitigate that possibility. But you’d make it all one paragraph, again shooting yourself in the foot. Then you’d send it to a litmag that specializes in very short, very creative nonfiction, that wants to see something different.

You might want to cram in a range of emotions, and make them evident not by explaining – “I felt sad/happy/scared” – but through actions and considerations. This is, of course, show don’t tell, the first rule learned in Writing 101, but if you think about it, it’s also Real Life: nobody reads a Bad News Letter and thinks, Wow, I’m sad and scared; no, you crumple up the letter, maybe throw it, maybe cry, maybe stare at nothing, maybe grab a bottle or a pile of chocolate or the phone, maybe a lot of things, but naming emotions wouldn’t be one of them. That’s why it’s a rule.

Ok, I can’t do this any more; see, its harder than it looks.

When the mouse starts to struggle, you will tell your husband to kill it, no save it, and you will run to your phone and search “how to remove a mouse from a glue trap.” Articles will tell you to use oil, so while your husband brings the glued mouse out to the back walkway so that your three young sons, in jammies and waiting with popcorn bowls for a Saturday-night Christmas movie, don’t see it, you will hunt for the carafe. Outside, the mouse will sniff and stretch from the trap…. You will cover his body with an old tri-fold cloth diaper and douse his legs with olive oil. Your husband will say, “He’s going to smell too good to predators,” and you will tell the mouse, in all honesty, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry you smell delicious.”

I would never think of a two-page memoir about finding a mouse as being interesting, but this really was, as writing. We know the narrator has conflicting feelings; we see a strange juxtaposition (every time I use that word, I worry, because I was once told it’s a signal of bad writing, but it’s a useful word and fits what’s happening here) of the drama in the basement and the kids getting ready to watch a Christmas movie upstairs. Hilarious sentences are followed by maudlin ones, but it combines to give an honest portrait of the moment.

The title had me stuck on “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie,” simultaneously the cutest and the most right-wing children’s story ever written. But the text had me comparing it to Richard Wilbur’s poem “Death of a Toad”, often considered hyperbolic, more of a satire of romantic poetry given its subject matter. Smith stays firmly within real limits, even as she explores a reaction some of us might find odd.

It’s a great example of putting the creative in creative nonfiction without going gimmicky. Yes, I know, there are those who think second person is automatically gimmicky, but it works here, distancing the narrator from herself enough to present the scene, and putting the reader in her place, a place some readers, again, might not consider, um, normal. The kids upstairs are just the icing on the cake, offering a parallel to the end stage and the morning-after scene, a scene that is as inevitable as it is… no, not heartbreaking, but more than wistful: let’s call it appropriately somber.

No, let’s not call it anything at all. Let’s just read it, and that’ll tell us more.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joanna Scott, “Infidels” from Conjunctions #71

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

Victor Hugo: Lace and Ghosts, ca. 1855

It was a damp November afternoon in Paris in 1887 when the man who would be identified in the book only as “C” suffered the first symptoms of the affliction that would make him noteworthy. He had risen from his nap and settled comfortably into his armchair by the window overlooking the Place des Vosges. Droplets from the thick fog ran like tears down the exterior of the glass. A wood fire crackled and filled the room with its soothing fragrance.1

1 I came across the story of C when I was browsing at a used bookstore in Ithaca. I read the case history while standing in the aisle. Stupidly, I left without purchasing the book. When I returned for it later, the book was gone. I don’t recall the title. C’s story, however, left an indelible impression in my mind.

This is one of those offbeat stories: I can’t quite get a handle on it, but it fascinates me. It presents as walking a fine line between fiction and nonfiction while skillfully dodging verifications. Telescoping narrations make it something like a walk through a maze of twisty little passages. And by complete coincidence (ah, yes, another coincidence; how I love these coincidences!) I happened to read something this morning that might be relevant. Or not. And this is going to be one of those posts: way too long, meandering into tangential waters, and written more for my own edification and later recall than for readers. Sorry.

The first clever trick blurring the line between fiction and fact is the (unnamed first person) narrator’s description, quoted above, of how she came across the story of C. I avoid the “I read this somewhere but I can’t remember where” thing unless I must include something with a source I can’t find, but here, it’s used as a literary device. Combined with this is the second trick, footnotes, almost always associated with nonfiction but most recently popularized in fiction by DFW (LitHub tells me Infinite Jest doesn’t use footnotes at all, but, rather, endnotes, and explains the difference in terms of reading; I confess, I hate endnotes because they do force me to choose to continue in a straight line or take a brief detour and return, having lost forward momentum, but who am I to argue with DFW).

At this point C becomes something close to a third-person narrator within the first-person narration, and the setting shifts to 19th century Paris, specifically Place des Vosges. The story will necessarily inform us, a bit later, that this is the former location of French royalty, destroyed by Catherine de Medici after her husband, Henri II, was killed in a joust there; turns out she wasn’t crazy about the place to begin with, so what could be seen as a gesture of grief might just be an aesthetic choice and the cleaning out of a really big attic now that the owner is gone. But the location is important for another reason: it was where Victor Hugo lived for sixteen years. And, by the way, is the current home of the Maison de Victor Hugo, the museum containing, among other things, his drawings. I had not known Victor Hugo drew, but it seems he left behind thousands of critically acclaimed abstract and impressionistic works, one of which I’ve used as a header image above.

C is not a fan of fiction in general, and is even more emphatically not a fan of Hugo in particular:

He was secretly critical of contemporary men of letters and blamed novelists, especially, for pandering to the public and emptying their work of useful information. The worst of them, in his opinion, was Victor Hugo, who used to live in an apartment across the square. C had read a couple of novels and a book of verse by his former neighbor. He wasn’t inclined to read more. He wasn’t at all curious. What was there to be curious about if there was nothing to learn?

I love that line about “nothing to learn.” I’ve said many times that my favorite fiction teaches me something. Here, I learned a great deal about Places de Vosges, for example, and a bit about Victor Hugo. Sometimes we learn more intangible things from fiction: another point of view, how it feels to walk in someone’s shoes, the harmful effects of our own barely-noticed prejudices. But C feels the only learning to be done is to be found in military histories and biographies.

He is reading, in fact, on that day in 1887 when we come to know him. And another touch of nonfiction: a footnote informs us the passage C is reading is from Gibbons. I checked (of course I did; in a story like this, I check everything); indeed it is. But he has a problem: when he comes to the word infidels, he can’t read it.

Really, it should have been easy enough for C to comprehend. Yet, to his dismay, the word was utterly unintelligible. His eyes processed the letters in their correct order. His brain received the information in the usual fashion. He inhaled, and his oxygenated blood flowed briskly. All organs were seemingly in working order, and C was very much awake, utterly sober and self-aware, but the eight letters of that English word were as devoid of meaning as if he had never learned to read. …
The letters were so unrecognizable that infidel wasn’t even a word to him. It was a solid blankness, a splotch of spilled ink, an absolute nothing.

Our narrator goes on to explain how this was not the phenomenon known to contemporary neuroscience as semantic satiation, where repetition of a particular word renders it meaningless. I’ve read about this many times, but I’ve never had it happen to me; I’ll have to take it on faith that it’s a relatively common experience, though it is not C’s problem.

And again, a footnote, but instead of an intersection with nonfiction, it is itself a fiction: the cited article (claiming that mobile devices have reduced the vocabulary to the point where some words are repeated more often, causing “a dramatic uptick” in semantic satiation) and the journal it appears in are fictitious.The author names are nearly comedic exercises. Pissoralüpa? Really? Then again, if someone had tried to convince me that @southpaw was really Luppe Luppen, I would have thought that was a joke, so who’s to tell with names. But none of it is googleable, so I’m assuming it’s fictional. It’s a good thing, since a later footnote cites the same article as claiming that humanity will be illiterate by 2150, again, presumably, thanks to the internet (and I just put up a major rant about blaming the internet for all of society’s ills). Yet it’s the internet that convinces me the article is fictitious. Twisty passages, see?

Poor C’s troubles don’t end with the word infidel. He is momentarily relieved to find the other words are perfectly readable, until they aren’t. “It was as if the light within each letter went out one by one, until each word was dark.” Another great turn of phrase: meaning as a light within a word, a light that can, for reasons we don’t always understand, go out.

And here’s where personal coincidence comes in to play. This morning, before I started this post (I’d pulled quotes and done some preliminary research and art searching yesterday), I saw an article on Aeon about posterior cortical atrophy, a form of dementia that alters how the brain interprets the signals the eyes send. I was interested because I remember from some of my neuroscience moocs that the eyes send signals from light falling on the retina, but the image, what we see, is created in the brain. When that goes awry, a street can look like an ocean, and words like smudges. Granted, this is not C’s problem any more than semantic satiation. His problem is specific to words, not all vision. And while strokes and other brain lesions can affect reading, they typically would affect speech as well. Still, there are interesting parallels, and the brain is the true undiscovered country.

By the way: why did Scott chose infidel as the word that would signal such a calamity? In the present American climate it’s a bit loaded, but would it have been in 1887’s Paris? Does it fit C for his distaste for Hugo, for fiction in general? Does the use of this word convey some sense of punishment being wrought upon him? And why is the word pluralized in the title? Are there other infidels in the story?

Now the narrator briefly enters the story. She describes a 1981 trip to Paris, during which time she wandered through the Place des Vosges and had a conversation with an elderly Parisian woman who told her the history of the site. It seems there is a ghost story connected to it as well: the woman claims the ghost of Henri II frequents the park, and she has seen him several times herself.

I didn’t bother to wait around to see if the ghost of Henri II would make his entrance that evening. It had become increasingly obvious to me that the woman was suffering from senility. I could only hope that she was receiving adequate care. As for me, though I appreciate a good ghost story, I thought I could tell the difference between fiction and fact – until I stumbled across the story of C.

Don’t we all think we know the difference. By the way, I can’t find any reference to the ghost of Henri II, or anyone else, connected with the Place des Vosges.

We return to the final scene of the story. I won’t go into detail – it’s much better read – but will propose that it somewhat reprises the narrator’s trip to Paris by bringing C together with a ghost and a drawing. And, in that meeting, C realizes all that he has lost:

It occurred to him that he had judged Hugo’s work too harshly through the years. His inclination to find faults had dominated his reading experience. He realized that in his urge to be critical, he had missed the sheer, absorbing pleasure of Hugo’s books….
He had failed to fully savor the distinct satisfaction that comes with reading selflessly, propelled by selfless interest. All through his adult life, when his intellect was at its sharpest, he had positioned himself in competition with the books in the library. Now it was too late to start over. He had missed his chance.

I can’t help but think this is every author’s warning, or perhaps plea to every reader. While C’s story takes only one day, it seems to span centuries, from Henri II’s 16th to Victor Hugo’s 19th to our own 21st. I learned something about the past and the present, about history and literature and neuroscience. Blended in with the question of fiction or nonfiction is the nature of reading, and the difference between reading critically (which has its place) and pleasure reading, which can take on a broader sense of enjoying the world or finding fault because it is not perfect.

This is my second encounter with Scott. Pushcart 2016 featured her story “The Knowledge Gallery” which drove me mad trying to figure out the significance of the key element. I resorted to emailing Scott, and she was very gracious in her reply, for which I am still grateful.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Hal Crowther, “Dante on Broadway” (nonfiction) from Narrative, Winter 2019

Which heroes of the past do we expect to see honored by urban statues? In the South, mostly generals. Everywhere, politicians, saints, philanthropists, famous athletes. I couldn’t see the statue’s head, up there among the spring leaves, but the larger-than-life-size (nine and a half feet, actually) male figure was dressed in an outfit that looked nothing like a military uniform, more like an academic gown or a priest’s cassock that covered the big fellow down to his shoes. A medieval aristocrat’s everyday street wear, as it turned out, specifically Italian, Florentine, thirteenth century. If I had been sitting on the other side of the little park, I would have seen its name on a large iron sign: Dante Park.

Complete story available online at Narrative

This was not my first Crowther essay. Back in Pushcart 2014, he was represented by a piece that started off with “ a wonderful riff on the crwth,” as I said at the time (a string instrument that has fallen into obscurity). Then he went on to bemoan how everything of value has been supplanted by modern versions of less aesthetic and/or humanistic worth. I rather took exception to that, though I did feel a tug of sympathy for all the crwths in the world collecting dust on antique store shelves.

He’s basically written the same essay here. And I’ve had basically the same reaction. In fact, as I’ve been keeping track, it’s the third piece in this volume that’s had me more or less in agreement with parts, yet resentful of the overall tenor.

The essay starts out with his own recent discover of Dante Park in New York, featuring an outsized statue of the Italian poet who created The Divine Comedy. At that time, he was distracted by a passing truck that specialized in shredding documents.

Representing the thirteenth century, Dante, father of the modern Italian language, progenitor of the Renaissance, disciple of Aristotle, a great poet whose sacred mission was to preserve the wisdom and literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans and protect their precious, fragile links to his own time and culture. Representing the twenty-first century, Information Destruction at Your Door.
Irony doesn’t hit us much harder than that. I like to think that a lot of people, if they had shared my vision at that moment, would have been as blindsided as I was. Realistically I know that 95 percent of the people who pass through Dante Park have never heard of the poet (“Dante? A wide receiver for the Browns?”) and would have no negative response to a Pro Shred truck. And that, of course, is a huge part of the problem.

I have to wonder if Crowther realizes the documents being shredded include things like financial and medical records containing identification numbers that could be used to pirate identities or commit various forms of extortion. Sometimes they also include obsolete manuals and forms that could just be thrown away, but shredding typically is done for security purposes. They aren’t destroying dictionaries or copies of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, or the original Gutenberg Bible or Book of Kells. Those things are, in fact, in abundant existence, not only in museums on paper (where moth and rust doth corrupt) but as facsimilies on library shelves and even household shelves, not to mention in the Cloud where everyone can take a good look at them from their cozy bed at 3am should the desire arise.

I should admit now that I became interested in Dante because the professor of a math mooc spoke so lovingly of it, and I ended up studying it with the help of another mooc, and the online site of a third university. Dante isn’t going anywhere.

In America’s social-media century, with an illiterate Twitter-addicted liar steering the ship of state, even yesterday—the past twenty-four hours and their printed, taped, and digitalized record—is routinely erased, distorted, denied. There are idiots afoot who must start every day like the first day of creation, as empty of memory as Adam waking up in the Garden of Eden.

And of course here is where I agree with him. Right now, as I read this, there’s a misinformation campaign in overdrive convince America that the Orange Man had the pandemic solved long ago and it’s Obama’s fault the tests didn’t work and Hillary’s fault China is growing bat viruses in labs and that his press conferences get the best ratings of any tv ever in history (let me be clear lest I become part of the problem: none of that is true), while medical personnel are getting sick and, in a few cases, dying because PPE is being kidnapped by the Feds and ransomed for maximal profit instead of being directed to where it’s needed… oh, never mind, just go read the news.

And yes, I agree, we tend to forget things. There’s a meme on the internet – which Crowther seems to scorn – that starts, “I’m old enough to remember…” and concludes with something that happened a year ago, or a month ago – or sometimes, just days ago. There is an epic battle for history being fought right now in the present, and revisionists are re-revisioning as often as necessary. Any attempt to show them actual proof of their former positions meets with cries of “fake news” or “you’re a nasty person”, the latter often reserved for women who have the nerve to contradict a man.

But wait a minute. Dante “wrote his greatest poetry in the Tuscan vernacular to expand the reach and influence of ‘those who know.’” This was not considered a good idea at the time, as scholastic and literary work was in Latin. Wouldn’t Dante be on Twitter or Youtube or Tik Tok today, trying to expand knowledge? And let’s not forget he didn’t know Greek and was dependent on translations of Homer. That’s not a serious flaw, but a 13th century Crowther might have seen it as one.

I’m tired of academics and the intelligentsia blaming the internet for everything. There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. In the 13th century, I’m willing to bet most of Florence was more interested in gossip and love ballads than in Aristotle. Someone like Dante would have been among the most educated, in a stratified society that depended on lower castes as laborers. And don’t forget, Dante was run out of town by the rulers of the day, and the leadership of the Church, as he exposed in “The Inferno”, was a corrupt cesspool. So don’t go crying about evil modernity and blame everything on the Internet.

There is a great deal of crap online, yes, I freely admit that, and the most popular, high traffic sites tend to be crap. You know what else is there? Courses on Dante, on Milton, on Shakespeare. Videos of lectures on topics from protein purification techniques (sorry, I’m taking a biochem mooc at the moment, that’s where my head is) to the history of Ethiopia to the differences between various musical modes and keys, as well as theoretical reconstructions of music from Egypt and ancient Greece and pretty much everywhere else. Through Twitter, I get to peek over the shoulders of classicists, astronomers, mathematicians, historians, medievalists, artists, writers, etc etc. While this alone isn’t educating, it’s often a springboard to papers, books, and courses on topics I’d otherwise never see.

If you can’t find anything but crap on the internet, blame yourself.

While I seem to be thrown by these I-agree-I-disagree pieces, I find that I like them. They help me clarify my thinking, draw boundaries without insisting that everything is right or wrong. That’s another problem we’re dealing with right now: cancel culture, the all-or-nothing approach.

I sympathize with Crowther’s sense that the world is leaving him behind. The world left me behind years ago, and I’m a little younger than he is. I prefer books to e-readers, myself. But that doesn’t mean that innovation is a bad thing. Sometimes it means the way things are saved and stored changes. And, yes, sometimes things are lost: no copies, no notes, of The Divine Comedy in Dante’s hand exist. And somehow, it’s still with us, because of the means of duplication in existence at the time.

When I saw the title of this essay in the Table of Contents, my first thought was, Oh god, someone made a musical out of The Commedia, or out of Dante’s life. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On the one hand, it could be amazing; but more likely, it’s a lot of catchy tunes and special effects rather than anything to do with the guy who got lost halfway through the journey of his life, and turned to his poetic idol to see him to a salvation that transcended poetry. So I was relieved when I didn’t have to choose.

I doubt I’ll ever get to New York at this point, but if I do, I will seek out Dante Park. And if I happen to catch sight of a shredder along the way, I won’t worry about it, but will give a toast to Crowther for drawing me there.

Japanese Books MOOC: From Manuscript to Print


Course: Japanese Books: From Manuscript to Print
Length: 9 (?) weeks, 1-2 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard/edX
Instructor: Melissa McCormick
Quote:

This course expands the definition of the “book” to include scrolls and albums, focusing on the reading experience of a variety of formats in Japan. You will begin by examining rare and beautifully preserved manuscripts in the Harvard Art Museums in an introduction exploring the material properties of Japanese books and scrolls, binding techniques, and important terminology. An examination of the illustrated scroll comes next, through a unit on the short story and visual storytelling in premodern Japan. The course concludes with The Tale of Genji, an overview of how this celebrated epic from the eleventh century was read and illustrated in every conceivable format, from scroll, to album, to printed book, into the modern era.

One of the unexpected effects of lockdown for me has been my return to moocs. It’s not that I have more time or am bored; my daily routine is much the same, and I had to put a couple of ongoing projects on hold to make time for new classes. And it’s not that I haven’t been paying attention to moocs all along; it’s just that I’ve fallen into a pattern of watching a lecture or two, then deciding I’m not interested enough to continue. Let’s face it, I’ve taken pretty much all the moocs I was interested in already, and the new ones lean heavily towards vocational/technical instruction rather than academics.

So what happened? I think it’s more that there’s so much mooc promotion going on right now, what with everyone learning online, I’ve just felt more inclined to put in the effort.

This one interested me because, of course, manuscripts! I’ve taken several moocs on European manuscripts, and had a slight introduction to Islamic works, but there isn’t much out there on other cultures which of course were producing their own works. I’ve had a very quick introduction to some Japanese work in the Japanese art mooc I took a couple of years ago, and The Tale of Genji was discussed in the World Literature mooc from the year before, but that’s about it. That turned out to be fine, since the course is geared towards novices.

One note: while the course description gives a duration of 9 weeks, that must be a misprint. There are three modules, released weekly, and each is well within the two-hour guideline. Durations are something of a moot point anyway, since nearly all moocs are self-paced; this one is open until March 2021, for those who want to take their time.

The first module looks at a 13th century sculpture of the 7th century Prince Shōtoku, which was filled with various small items: ordination promises, pieces of scripture, tokens. About a hundred of these exist now, and they were something like Buddhist time capsules. Curator and Professor Rachel Saunders went through the items, indicating their purpose, symbolism, and construction, including various forms of the books inserted into the sculpture and the kinds of paper decorations. I’d never heard of this before. A creative assignment rounded out the videos and questions: how would you design a time capsule of similar meaning?

The second module examined what was referred to as the short story scroll, right up my alley. Two stories served as examples of the ways text and art were combined, the variety of materials used, and the themes and purposes of these works. These tales are what today might be called magical realism or fantasy: gentlemen suitors who become other things, for good or evil.

Last comes the Tale of Genji, which could probably be a course in itself. We started with the various forms in which this was published, and the legend of its inspiration (it was written by a woman self-isolated in a monastary). Then, in an interesting twist, the Fraudulent Murasaki’s Rustic Genji was presented. This is something between a pastiche and fan fiction, requiring its own style.

I greatly enjoyed this material, so different from European works of the same period. The care put into the scrolls and books is amazing: paper is decorated with rock dust or ink swirls, various techniques are used to bring the reader into the story (illustrations using the same house from different angles, for instance), and calligraphic techniques that vary depending on the work. Both form and content of the works is discussed, with an emphasis on how one affects the other.

It was a very satisfying return to moocs; I’d recommend it to anyone interested in literature or art, and particularly in ways the two intersect.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Patricia Foster, “Eulogy” (nonfiction) from Ploughshares #134

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal's Vision

Hieronymus Bosch: Tondal’s Vision

“Family.” He shook his head. “It’s all Bosch and Brueghel.”

Complete essay available online at Ploughshares

The prior story, “In That Time,” let us watch a twelve-year-old discover, in one moment on one morning, a different way of viewing his father, a discovery that altered their relationship going forward. Here there’s a similar core event – new information alters the perception of a person – but it takes place over a longer period of time, and by adults, one of whom was not involved in the relationship to begin with; whether it alters anything going forward is uncertain.

Foster was aware her husband had been spent time in foster care as a very young child, never knew his father, and was abused by his stepfather and, ultimately, his mother. His rage at his mother is understandable, almost inevitable. For reasons I don’t understand, they obtained records of his mother’s involvement with state agencies, and a different picture of the mother emerged: she was, in post-WWII-America, simply another girl who couldn’t find her way out of poverty to reclaim her son. But she tried – boy, did she try.

The 40s were a different era from today. An unwed mother was an abomination, and mercy was in short supply. In order to retain what today we would call parental rights, she had to pay for foster care out of her salary as a waitress and factory worker. She visited him as often as possible: first, four times a week, then, when the foster placement was changed, once a week, the maximum permitted.

Because I’m writing this and because I can, I decide to give Ann a happy moment, an hour of delight playing with her one-and-a-half-year-old son. He’s pushing a shiny red fire truck across the floor, a toy she’s just bought him, though it will mean she’ll have to scrimp on laundry soap and stockings. But as he bends down to a crawling position and runs the toy back and forth on her old wood floors, making rrrrrhhhh-rrrrrhhh sounds with his scrunched lips and saying, “Mommy, Mommy, look,” she can’t imagine why anyone would give a fig about new stockings. His hair sticks up in a ruff, his pants are a bit too long, but he’s so gloriously occupied with the thick rubber wheels and the white plastic ladder that raises and lowers she forgets that very soon she’ll have to take him back. Back to his foster home, back to sleeping in the hallway in a house where the older boy has taught him to sing out, “Bad boy! Bad boy!” with such glee he too thinks it’s funny.

There are those who feel that most troubles are caused by bad choices. That may be true, but there are people living in circumstances where the only choices are bad ones.

And yet Ann managed to run a boarding house that provided some financial security. She still had to work, of course, and with childcare still decades away – and with the predominant moral attitudes of the era – she was still unable to claim her son. “It turns out that getting him back also requires a husband.” So she got that as well.

How can she know—can any woman know?—that the very thing that is her salvation will also be her undoing? How can she know that though the husband will adopt the boy, he’ll come to resent him and resent her for having him, will punish the boy for being such a pain in the ass without even a drop of his blood? How can she know he’ll beat him, step on his hands with his construction boots, mock him, berate him, make him stand naked in a chalked circle for punishment? “I gave the kid a name, for shit’s sake,” he’ll yell at her years later, as if he’s the one who’s been played for a sucker.
This man, who once seemed so easygoing, so playful, eating a huge forkful of birthday cake, thick with frosting, while holding her boy in his lap, will, in three years, become an alcoholic, crashing again and again into Bridgewater State Hospital’s detox unit, while she’ll be passive and hopeful, then devious and resentful, and finally depressed.

It’s quite a task, to turn an abusive mother into a sympathetic figure. Her husband finds some peace in the information. Not a happily-ever-after kind of uplift – hence the marvelous line quoted above about family being something out of bizarre and often horrific art – but a realization that his mother loved him, a realization that went a long way. “And she really tried,” he tells his wife. Yes, she did. It doesn’t make up for everything, but it makes a difference.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Richard Bausch, “In That Time” from Narrative, Winter 2018

Back in late June of 1949, when I was twelve years old, I spent a morning with Ernest Hemingway. This was shortly after I had been hauled down to Cuba, deeply against my will, by my parents, whom I had begun to think of as the Captain and his wife. The Captain had retired from the navy after twenty years’ service, and was following a friend from his time on a destroyer in the Pacific during the war. They were planning to begin a charter fishing business. The friend, who left the navy as the war ended, was already living down there, and the charter fishing idea was his. My father had wired him funds toward getting things set up.

Complete story available online at Narrative

The coming-of-age story covers a lot of ground. We tend to think of it as a teenager becoming an adult through learning what love is, or what love isn’t, or voluntarily accepting responsibility, making peace with a childhood fear or letting go of a childhood dream for a more adult goal. It’s a story that shows a paradigm shift, a new way of understanding how the world works, for better or worse.

In this story, I see the coming of age as closely linked to theory of mind, the psychological process by which children learn that other people have different thoughts, beliefs, and desires. While most kids start to develop theory of mind by age 2 or 3, possibly younger, it continues to evolve over time as they mature right into adulthood. It’s the core of empathy, and can be used for good – as in altruism and kindness – or evil – as in double-dealing and swindling.

Clark’s story takes place against a backdrop of geopolitics and high-level intrigue. His father, the Captain, had been in charge when James Forrestal, recently fired Secretary of Defense, committed suicide by jumping from a 16th story window at the naval hospital where he’d been sent for treatment of depression and increasingly odd behavior. I was unaware of this event, but a quick tour of Wikipedia and a few sites got me up to speed enough to understand the general situation.

I’m not precisely sure why Clark’s dad is so skittish about it all, if he feels like he was guilty of dereliction of duty, or if he wonders if there’s a list and he’s next. In any case, this was the event that sent them running to Cuba. The friend who was supposed to set up the charter fishing business disappeared, along with The Captain’s investment in same, leading to more paranoia. I’m not sure if The Captain views him as a scoundrel or a victim.

And this brings up an interesting point. For most of the story, we have only Clark’s point of view, and we’re not sure exactly what the story is, what The Captain is thinking. That’s a failure of theory of mind right there, not because we haven’t developed the capacity, but because we don’t have much information. Nevertheless, the result is the same: a sense of confusion, of not knowing what is true and what isn’t

As it happens, Clark is going through the same thing. His place in the family isn’t clear to him. “Of course, I had nobody, and nothing to do. Nowhere to go. I was just with them: the Captain and his wife.” And this brings up the interesting way Bausch reveals information to the reader. Why would a kid refer to his parents that way? We find out, but it takes a few paragraphs. To modify Kierkegaard, a story can only be understood backwards; but it must be read forwards (funny, I always thought that was Vonnegut; oh well, I was mistaken, not pretentious). This too plays into our confusion, our sense of not knowing true from false.

As promised, Clark does meet Hemingway when he’s sent out to do some errand meant to just get him out from underfoot.

When I came down the stairs from the top deck, there was Hemingway sitting in the café, a newspaper open on the table, coffee at his elbow, with a squat brown bottle of something on the other side of it. Right away I knew who he was: I had been obsessed with lions and Africa, and the Captain had a magazine with pictures of the author-hunter that everyone called Papa. I knew the face, and now I heard the waiter say, “Algo más, Papa?”
“A couple more fried eggs, Alejandro. With chorizo this time, please.”
“Enseguida.”
Hemingway looked at me and smiled. “And what’s yours this morning?”
It was really a wonderful smile. There was coffee in his beard, which still had some darkness in it close to the skin, and his mustache was ash-colored. He wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He had on a black T-shirt, ragged, stained white shorts, and rope sandals. I saw the hair on his legs, his big knees. I stood there gaping.
“Why’re you crying?” he said.
I hadn’t known I was. “Nothing,” I told him.

I didn’t know he was crying, either. Again, not a failure of empathy, just the way information is being parsed out. Interesting technique.

A brief scene with Alejandro, the waiter, brings this out more, shows us how some information is revealed, and some is kept. It’s extra interesting that Clark observes and understands the process here:

When Alejandro brought the orange juice, I said to him, “You were in Africa too.”
He glanced at Hemingway, who returned the gaze, grinning now. It was like some kind of joke between them. Then it seemed suddenly serious from the expression on Alejandro’s face.
“Just that you were there,” Hemingway said quietly to him.
“Oh, sí, jovencito,” Alejandro said to me. Then: “I was there, all right, young man. I was there.” He went back to the kitchen.

This information rationing is also seen in a thread that shows up with both The Captain and Hemingway: journalists keep asking them about things they don’t want to talk about. Hemingway doesn’t want to talk about his omission from the 1948 Nobel, and The Captain doesn’t want to talk about Forrestal. It gives the story a bit of a contemporary link.

The Captain eventually comes down and finds Clark having breakfast with Hemingway. Of course he wants in, and by now, Clark has revealed some details about Forrestal that Hemingway can’t resist scratching at; he was a journalist, remember. Clark observes, but finds himself in a surprising position: he wants to defend his father.

I couldn’t believe it. The man who had formed a bond. I looked at him, at the folds of his white shirt, the collar, the one button that was undone halfway down the front. Suddenly I knew Hemingway was lying about knowing Forrestal, as he had lied about everything else, toying with the Captain, for my benefit, and that the Captain was suffering, and that this morning was all part of the badness of a suicide and fear and flight to a country none of us knew, and a friend who had lied and taken money and disappeared. In that moment, for the first time in my life, I saw my father as a person. I saw a man down on his luck. And I wanted Hemingway to stop. He had bought me breakfast and was supposed to be my friend. But I wanted him to leave my father alone.

Clark’s lucky he had this moment, this seeing his father as a person with troubles that had nothing to do with him, at this age. I was a bit younger, about eight, when my parents were suddenly too distracted to worry about any emotional needs a child might have. It felt lonely and scary, as Clark says, like there’s no one for me. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had access to the information that my father was dealing with a business associate, a friend, who was embezzling right out from under his nose, that my mother had breast cancer in a time when cancer was nearly always fatal, and they were trying to figure out how to get out of the business without losing everything, then trying to set up a new business and a new life a thousand miles away. Without information, it’s hard to see the other side of things.

The story inserts a brief flash-forward of the life that would follow this turbulent time, then closes with a stereotypical scene covered by Clark’s growing ability to see things from another’s shoes. It’s a kind of hopeful-sad, a kind of road-I-don’t-want-to-take for Clark. And from the flash forward, we know the result.

I suspect there’s a bigger connection between the Forrestal suicide and its sequelae (it sounds like lunatic raving, but is is?) and Clark’s coming of age. For that matter, there’s probably a great deal of connection to Hemingway’s work and the story that I can’t recognize. The one thing that does strike me is that his first story collection (and the only collection I’ve read, but it was back in the 80s and no I don’t remember much about it except a woman turned to the wall as she bled out) was titled In Our Time, setting up some resonance with the title here. More insightful analyses will have to belong to someone else.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Megan Baxter, “A Deliberate Thing I Once Said to my Skin” (nonfiction) from Threepenny Review, Fall 2018

To consider my tattoos we must first consider skin. Skin is our barrier against the world, enveloping our body so that we don’t lose our precious water and evaporate like dew. …. The strata of our skin resemble a slice of the earth, where twenty-five to thirty layers of skin cells separate us from the outside world. Scratch your epidermis and you might flake off a few dead cells, but cut into your dermis and you will bleed and slap your hand to the cut in pain. It is in the dermis that tattoo ink is deposited and where, as the years of a life progress, the ink sinks like heavy water, fading away through layers of skin like a figure retreating into shadow.

Complete story available online at Threepenny Review

Is there a philosophy of the tattoo? Given the devotion of a not insignificant number of people to this art form, I would imagine so, but it might be a bit different for each practicioner or participant. Baxter gives us several viewpoints, all accented with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Not a bad choice, as he was the poet of everything and everyone, a singer of every physical experience a person might undertake from love to war to death to lying on the spring grass. Baxter speculates he might have encountered tattoos on Civil War soldiers he spoke to, as that was a means of identification should they perish on the battlefield. That practice, she explains, lives on in the military, particularly the navy.

She mentions another historical tattoo story which I’d never heard: an Iconoclast emperor in the Byzantine empire punished two priests who refused to destroy their icons to torture, first by beating, then by tattooing poetry on their foreheads. I looked up the poem; it’s quite long, and I wonder how it would fit on one forehead. I also wonder if Kafka was inspired by this when he wrote “In the Penal Colony”, another story about tattooing as punishment.

Pain is part of the process, and Baxter finds it a benefit:

The pain of fading, the pain of mistake, is not as bad as the pain at its origin under the needle.…
But the pain is essential. It releases endorphins that flooded you with something like love and joy. The two-beer buzz. Sex. French fries and milkshakes. The good stuff. And after a while you won’t be able to describe the pain but you will know that it is a key and the release is worth the scratch.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
– Walt Whitman

Exercise advocates also insist that the pain of running or aerobics releases endorphins and improve mood; maybe my endorphin system is defective in some way, because all exercise ever did for me was make me tired and sore.

Baxter also reveals some of her own inspirations that resulted in tattoos, most dramatically, a Utah eagle, but also her first experiene as a teenager. She has seven tattoos, and considers herself done at this point. “You came into the world perfect”, her mother says after each one. She isn’t immune to the implications of that statement.

I’m pretty laissez faire about tattoos, much as I am about most things consenting adults wish to do with their bodies. I’ve occasionally thought about what kind of tattoo I would get, much as I sometimes, even in my senior dotage, think about names for children I never wanted to have. I’ve seen some beautiful work, art that used the anatomy of the body as a platform for non-planar art. And I’ve seen some stupid stuff, including my husband’s self-tattoo of my initials on his fingers.

If there is a philosophy, or a psychic drive that I don’t happen to share, that’s fine. To each their own.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Samantha Libby, “Chinko” (nonfiction) from New England Review #39.3

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

Igor Molochevski: “Invisible Beast”

The word “Chinko” means nothing. It is the name given to a river in a place where the river gets lost in thick brush and fields of termite mounds. Chinko Park, established to protect what little is left, is called a national park, but there is nothing national in a place without the rule of law. Chinko’s only defense is a handful of well-trained rangers who spend weeks at a time in the wild, waiting for poachers or armed groups to emerge from the thick bush and attack. This is a dangerous part of the world—everyone knows at least that much.
In war-torn Africa, outsiders often feel an obligation to dissect old clichés and invent new ones. But I show up empty-handed. After ten years working in human rights and humanitarian aid around the world, I can no longer be deluded as to my own relevance. I come for a reason startlingly few want to admit: I need to work and there is often work to be had in places where nobody wants to be.

Complete story available online at New England Review

Libby has had a remarkable decade working on the front lines of global justice: from Hanoi to Ethiopia to the US, from art to children to anti-violence to returning soldiers, her resume
glows with good works and challenges Twitter SJWs everywhere. As she outlines the dangers of this particular place and time in this essay – “Ambush, torture, helicopter crashes, black mambas, road accidents, strange and familiar diseases, overdoses, and friendly fire” – I lose track of the exact nature of her mission. Something about connecting remote communities by radio in the hopes of reducing violence.

But the project doesn’t matter. That’s not what the story is about. It’s background.

As we read, we find sandwiched in between the Chinko material some of the horror Libby endured as a child who became the target of an entire cohort of bullies.

The form the bullying took was varied but relentless. Sometimes it was simple and predictable. I was not to be sat next to, invited to birthday parties, or included in activities. Other times, it was violent. I was chased, pinned down, and abused. Sometimes, it defied logic. I was pushed into a self-described jury of ten-year-old children where I was judged to be ugly, stupid, and weird. When I asked why, I was beaten with sticks and driven away….
I hold on to these scattered vignettes of my childhood. I bury them, but I do not discard them. Over the years, they have coalesced and grown into a single living beast. I cannot see it, but it can speak to me and it calls me horrible names. I have acquired some strength with time. I locked the thing up in chains and threw it into my deepest dungeon. I go about my life, but as time goes on, I can feel it stretching against its bonds. I know that one day I will not be able to hold it back. What will happen when we finally meet? I am curious about this in the same way I am curious about the viciousness of war. Over the years, both have become constants to me. My Invisible Beast is deadly, but in its own way it is also precious to me.

No explanation for this abuse is given, perhaps because there is nothing that would explain, much less justify, it, even in the slightest degree. Typically, children react to some perceived difference when they choose a target for mass bullying: a physical trait, a new arrival in town, an unfamiliar cultural background, family history, something. In Libby’s case, we have no idea, and of course, as a child, neither did she. She only knew everyone else saw something terribly wrong with her, and she had no idea what it was.

The abuse isn’t really what the story is about, either. More background.

I remembered the story from BASS 2019, “Wrong Object” by Mona Simpson, and the inspiration for her fictional story: a team of domestic violence therapists believed that most abused people “spent their lives containing the trauma they had endured, working not to pass it on.” Simpson’s story was all about keeping powerful destructive impulses contained.

And that, I think, is what the essay is about: Libby struggling to keep her Invisible Beast, the pain and rage of an entire childhood, from bursting loose. Still convinced she does not deserve the kind of life others might think of in their dreams, she understands what the people of Chinko are dealing with.

Love stories and passion—not lust, but ideas of growing old in a place—are wild ideas in this place. Their evenings are twisted with dreams of women who are gentle in a way that is foreign to this land. This is not the kind of talk I have heard before, from men on remote bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, engaged in wars their leaders have determined for them. The wishes and hopes of the men of Chinko are not wrapped around the axle of desire but around a need for the kind of company that will alleviate the constant injury of life in this place. The names of the dead are never spoken. At Chinko, there is no need to acknowledge the daily constant of pain. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here.

Imagine a childhood with threats equal to the poachers, armed militias, animals, and diseases of Chinko.

It would be easy to hold Libby as an example of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” but I don’t believe that, either. Yet there is a connection between her childhood experience and her presence in humanitarian projects: by keeping her Invisible Beast contained, her energy is pouring into the negative places and making them, if not positive, at least a little less negative. Makes me feel like I’ve wasted every minute of my own life. Except I grew up with a different experience, leading to a different conviction: that the most generous, caring thing I could do for anyone was to keep far away from them.

Libby is the sort of person I could have been, the sort of person many of us could have been. Maybe someone reading her experience will realize that soon enough to do something about it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ottessa Moshfegh, “Jailbait” (nonfiction) from Granta #144

The day before I left home for college, I made a phone call to the publishing house of a writer I’ll call Rupert Dicks. Dicks had a reputation as one of the most audacious and brilliant minds in literature in the last century, and his work represented everything I held as sacred at the time – he was innovative, unapologetic and dedicated to the craft of honest prose. At seventeen, I knew I was a writer, and I wanted to know what Rupert Dicks knew. I was determined to get him to tell me.

Complete story available online at Granta

The stress of recent events must be getting to me: this is the second Pushcart piece I have a strong urge to push back on, despite finding several points of agreement.

Moshfegh tells the story of how she entranced a high-end writer she calls Rupert Dicks (the literaria probably know who he is, but I don’t) into reviewing her writing and giving her solid notes. She never promised him sex; she just let the implication hang in the air until, after what must’ve been a few months of meetings (and one touch, and an insipid kiss, both of which came as a surprise to her), she got the detailed analysis she wanted. Then she breezed off.

Part of me admires a 17-year-old who can pull that off. Twenty years later, in a terrific interview with Alex Clark for The Guardian, she’s impressed, too, “that I had so much gall.” Given all the ways this could’ve gone wrong – from blacklisting to rape – she was also lucky that the writer was basically law abiding, if lecherous.

Did she, in fact, do anything untoward at all? There was no promise. Dicks (I love the use of that name) could’ve told her to buzz off at any time. I have a feeling that the idea that a young writer-to-be wanted his guidance was as much of a draw as the anticipated sex.

Where I start wanting to push back is when Moshfegh pats herself on the back a little too proudly in the interview: “It gave me some insight into my own strengths and, like, arrogance, which has been an asset. My arrogance as a writer has been really important [laughs].” And in the memoir itself:

At thirty-six, I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism. My assumption that people are ultimately self-serving lowers my expectations and allows me to forgive. More importantly, it empowers me to be selfish, and to cast off the delusion that I’ll get what I want just by ‘being nice’. We are all unruly and selfish sometimes…. One has to be somewhat badly behaved to write above the fray in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity. One has to be willing to upset the apple cart. Apples go flying, people trip and fall, yelp, grab for one another. A street corner is transformed into a tragic circus. And everybody gets an apple, each one bruised and broken in a special way. That’s the kind of writer I have always wanted to be, a troublemaker. I can’t fault Dicks or anyone else for wanting the same.

Again, I have to agree with so much. Moshfegh has received a great deal of recognition for her work; obviously she’s doing something right. Reviewers love to use phrases like “brutal honesty” and “disruptive”, and they use them a lot with her. I’ve only read one of her stories; it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m the first to admit that isn’t really a problem. I seem to have trouble with the contemporary version of honesty.

Where I want to push back is first of all the idea that a woman using sex to get what she wants is a good thing since men have used sex to dominate women and have used women in general to get what they want forever. While it’s cute that Dicks is hung by his own petard, his own desire, I don’t see all of us getting down into the mud as a forward step. Possibly a necessary one: when men are used by women in the same ways women have been used by men, maybe they’ll realize how scuzzy their own behavior has been. I doubt it, but I allow for the possibility. It seems to me it’s more likely we’re going the route of an eye for an eye making the whole world blind.

The second thing that bothers me is the value-laden language that declares this kind of writing, this kind of writer, this kind of person, to be superior “in a society most comfortable with palatable mediocrity.” I think there are other ways to speak, to be, to write, that are not mediocre, and that palatable is not automatically bad. I continue to worry that the loud voices, the “at least I’m honest” crowd, are simply uninterested in others and don’t want to be bothered with subtlety and tact, let alone contemplation or reason. I worry that it’s not by accident that we ended up with the current national administration at this moment.

Maybe I’m just one of those quiet voices too mediocre for this moment, and jealous of the arrogant who get their way by demanding it. You have to be super-confident to pull that sort of thing off. When I get assertive, I get squashed, and then I obsess about it. Really, I still worry about the stupid things I said and did in high school, and they weren’t really all that stupid.

Or maybe I’m just grumpy from current circumstances. It really is a fun essay to read, with that pulsing thread of danger lurking underneath. Sort of like real life these days.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Dan Pope, “Bon Voyage, Charlie” from Bellevue Literary Review #35

Charlie Company was shipping out. Blair arrived for the sendoff ceremony at the Community Center a few minutes before 11:00 PM and set up his gear – the soft-boxes and reflectors, the backdrop for portraits – in a corner of the gymnasium. The enlisted men were spread around the bleachers and banquet tables in their fatigues, chatting with wives and girlfriends, mothers and siblings. Along the opposite wall, VFW old timers were serving hot food out of trays, wearing their ceremonial caps.
Blair was on assignment for the Hartford current to get a pictorial for the Sunday magazine.

I’m always uncomfortable with stories about the military. First, it isn’t a world I’m familiar with. That brings its own problems, in that we as a country have a small subculture bearing the brunt of sacrifice for decisions made by people at high levels of government who may have never themselves served. It’s a lot easier to send someone else’s kids into war. And second, there’s an aura of sanctity around the military promoted by the phrase “thank you for your service” and profiles of wounded warriors on Veteran’s Day that makes arguing about the use of military intervention a touchy subject. Nobody wants to hear they lost their son, or their own body parts, in a war about the price of oil.

That’s exactly where this story goes.

Blair is a former soldier, now photographer, who’s pretty cynical about the send-off for Charlie Company that he’s been assigned to cover. Since he served in the first Gulf War, he knows something about what the kids are in for, and has some cover for his negative attitude towards the operation, which seems to be some phase of the Iraq war. The story uses photography as a structural element, beginning and ending with photo shoots that cover the beginning and end of one man’s military career.

In spite of my discomfort with military plots, I’ve read such stories that affected me greatly. This one seemed too obvious, and I was curiously unaffected by what should have been a devastating story about a newly married soldier’s fate. The parallel implication about Blair’s war wounds, less visible but still profound, also left me unmoved. I never felt like he made sense to me as a character; his choices reflected necessities of plot, rather than of character.

That’s why I’m uncomfortable with this particular military story: I feel like I should feel something, yet I don’t. Not only does that feel vaguely unpatriotic, but, worse, I’m blaming the story. I wonder what it is that I’m missing.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Leslie Pietrzyk, “Stay There” from Southern Review, Spring 2018

Las Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Las Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

Anything in the world can change in a single instant. See? Here I am, now alone. Yet here I am, still bound to that same ache of nothing I started with, tonight and every night. I close my eyes. That. That’s the thing that will not change.

At first, I thought this was going to be another woman-turns-40-and-self-destructs stories. And it does start out that way, but it goes farther and a lot deeper. That’s why I’m not leading off with a quote from the “Oh-my-god-I’m-almost-40” sex scene that opens the story, but with where it ends up after some emotional mileage. Stylistically, it reminds me of Lisa Taddeo’s “A Suburban Weekend” or Emma Cline’s “Los Angeles”.

Our protagonist is Lexie, photographer and teacher – oh, make that former teacher, since she got fired for having a relationship with a student, Tay, who has these turquoise eyes she can’t resist and who makes her forget she’s almost forty – attending her own exhibition/party. She gets some surprising, and surprisingly devastating, news at the party. How she reacts is the core of the story.

It’s a story about relationships. The importance of relationships, how to have non-relationships, and how to ruin any real relationships that might crop up in spite of yourself. Lexie learns that syllabus, as all children learn all human skills, from her parents, primarily her prominent politician-father, now determinedly estranged. When the gallery owner tells her, “Selling art is about relationships,” she hears her father telling her politics is all about relationships; “…not until college did I realize politics is about power. Likely art is, too.”

…. I glance into the tiny mirror I’ve found in my purse. A network of lines etch the corners of my eyes and lips; I see crevices. Another thought to push away, and I start up the stairs, heels clacking. I think of when I was growing up, watching my father practice his smile in the bathroom mirror, smiling over and over, tilting his head this way and that, as I timed him with the second hand on his wristwatch. Ten seconds, twenty, a minute. “Smiling’s hard work,” he would say, “and takes muscle. You’ve got to build muscle if you want anything in life.” I thought he knew everything. It was exciting that his picture was everywhere, the smile I knew from the mirror, his famous smile. Now he’s dead to me. I rouse the muscles of my own face, forming a smile. And I stride up the stairs to this party.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in all the neuro moocs I’ve taken is that real smiles generated from emotion, and fake smiles generated by conscious command, follow two different nerve pathways. It’s why smiles are so hard to fake, why when I try to give a reassuring or acknowledging smile in a situation fraught with social anxiety, I’m often told I look like I’m grimacing in pain. I’ve improved my fake smiles, but Lexie’s politician-father has mastered it to the point of practicing to keep his smiling muscles strong. This is where she learned to smile.

This is also where she learned relationships. And where she learned stealth, because she didn’t know her parents had been separated a year before her father announced he was running off with someone younger, but that was the day before 9/11. “Can’t buy timing like that, and, lucky for him, my father’s scandal got danced right off the front page.” For the public, maybe. Is this when her father became dead to her? We know she last saw him about ten years ago at her sister’s wedding, but that was unplanned, since he wasn’t invited but just showed up, right in time to take her place in giving the toast.

By the way, her name isn’t Lexie any more. That was a childhood name, used by her friend Shannon, another relationship that’s more habit than connection at this point. And it’s Shannon who accidentally breaks devastating news to Lexie at the exhibition. Shannon who shows up with an idiot boyfriend who collects “political art” that turns out to be art by politicians (“I bought a George W. Bush at a charity auction”), but he’ll settle for art by a politician’s daughter in a pinch. Shannon who, when Lexie tells the idiot boyfriend “Basically, he’s dead to me” to dissuade him from using her as a pathway to her father, says, “You haven’t heard?”

My heart thumps, maybe loud enough to muffle her words. Once I hear what she says something will change. It’s one of those before/after moments that life whacks you with. Shannon is the one who drove through a hurricane to rescue me from the bad boyfriend’s apartment, who picked me instead of Lisa Long to co-edit the yearbook with her, who taught me quadratic equations and dragged my ass through algebra. The one who, a long time ago, knew everything about me and loved me anyway. Why did she turn into this stranger?

Lexie takes off, with Tay and his turquoise eyes in tow, because who doesn’t run from bad news. But wait… why is it bad news, if he’s been dead to her for years? It’s the end of possibility, not of reconciliation, but of apology, of acknowledgement, of seeing justice done. And maybe, just a little grief for the relationship that, strange as it was, was central for a long time. I understand that. When I got a letter announcing my ex-husband’s death, the ex-husband I hadn’t seen or talked to since the day in court, who I’d gone to significant trouble to assure I wouldn’t see or talk to, I threw the letter across the room. I didn’t know a letter could be thrown; that flat surface, light weight, all that air resistance! I didn’t consciously intend to throw it. Yet my arm heaved, and the letter ended up in a distant corner, alarming the cat who I hastened to reassure. I get it.

Lexie’s road trip with Tay takes a strange turn at a truck stop with a convenience store he’s convinced has great beef jerky when she reveals what she wants from him. Is this what she’s wanted all along, or is this a product of the night, the news, the flight? He reveals his own secret, then goes in search of that beef jerky. Enter a stranger, looking for the hooker named he’s engaged by app for $100 he’ll never see again. After a moment of fear, this leads to the most telling scene of the story:

He presses his hand up onto the window, palm flat and wide, sideways, fingers splayed. His eyes settle and fix on a point in the distance. Even so, my heart jumps across my chest. I’m statue still, though maybe I should grab for my purse or my phone. Just in case. Instead I think about Crystal and her hundred dollars. She’s probably some guy in Nigeria. She probably doesn’t exist at all. I think about a man, this man, lonely enough to send money to a girl who doesn’t exist, though surely part of his brain had been warning him no.
I cautiously rest my own hand up against the window where the man’s palm is, spreading my fingers to meet his. I’m startled to hit smooth glass, expecting his rough, warm skin, and I wonder how his rough, warm skin might press against mine, might push into the deep me of me. I’ll never see this sad man again.
All these years it was so easy, saying, my father’s dead to me, because he wasn’t dead.
Feelings explode across my mind, flaring like fireworks. Why we persist in loving things that don’t exist.

The surprise at touching a barrier instead of flesh, the confusion about what it means to connect, the recognition of another lost, lonely person without self-recognition, the broken grammar of that last sentence; this is the award-winning paragraph. This is Liv finding the Venetian candies; this is Alice relating (maybe) the underwear adventure the next day. No, the stories aren’t really that alike, it’s my reaction that connects them. And that isn’t even the climax.

The title comes from a Rumi quote mentioned in the story: “Close your eyes, fall in love, stay there.” Lexie has no trouble with the first two; it’s the last one she finds tricky. She’s almost diagnosable. The persistent feeling of emptiness; intense, unstable relationships; fear of abandonment; impulsive, self-destructive actions; uncertain self-image. I wonder what’s going to happen to her in the parking lot of that truck stop, abandoned by everyone. Not the best place to choose to stay.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Tiffany Midge, “An Open Letter to White Women Concerning ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and America’s Cultural Amnesia” (nonfiction) from McSweeney’s June 2018

Dear Dakota, Jezebel, Bronte, Caprice, Cher et al.,
I don’t mean to single anyone out here, but as an Indigenous woman it behooves me to point out that while I perfectly understand your fondness for The Handmaid’s Tale as a white feminist anthem, I can’t help but feel all kinds of something about it. Each week when all of you are discussing and posting recaps of the latest episode on Facebook, I’m resisting the urge to cram my face into the couch pillows to keep from screaming. I don’t mean to point blame on anyone, per se, but I’m talking to you, Katniss, Guinevere, and Fig.

Complete story available online at McSweeney’s

Feminism has often had a class problem. While women were fighting to get to the highest levels of the corporate boardroom, and to be taken seriously as a candidate for president, other women were trying to raise children while meeting work requirements at minimum-wage or tip-driven jobs offering no health care or paid sick leave and putting up with all kinds of crap from the boss and customers because they couldn’t afford to lose their job even if Gloria Allred had been willing to swoop into Noplace, USA to work out a settlement three years later.

By placing her Indian Handmaid’s Tale along side the popular TV series based on Atwood’s book, Midge takes the the comedy-over-tragedy approach to communicate how, no matter how crappy life is for women in the corporate world, it’s crappier on the reservation, and while a rising tide lifts all boats, some boats seem to be forgotten about. Since it’s a short letter, and available online, I’ll leave it for readers to peruse.

One touch of irony I can’t resist mentioning: considering how she peppers the letter with cute white-girl names taken from white-girl literature and pop culture, consider the name Tiffany Midge. While its origins are Greek, it wasn’t really used as a name until the 80s and had more to do with the lives of the Rich and Famous than with the Epiphany. One set of statistics (reliability unknown) claims its use is 71% white, 16% black, and .7% Native American. As for Midge, well. Yet Tiffany Midge is indeed legally recognized as Sioux. She specialises in poetry and humor. I can’t say much about the former, but I give her points for the latter.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Joy Williams, “Flour” from Paris Review #224

The driver and I got a late start. I usually decide on these excursions the night before, but it was late in the morning when I informed the friend who was coming to visit me for the weekend that I had to cancel, it was absolutely necessary for me to cancel. I had got it in my head that in her presence some calamity or another would arise and she would have to assist me in some way, rush me to a physician or something. She would be grateful she was there for me perhaps, but I would find it a terrific annoyance and embarrassment. I gave some other excuse for the disinvitation of course. Pipes. I think it was broken pipes. I should have written it down so I don’t use it again.…
By departing so late, we could not make our customary first stop. The driver and I usually spend two nights in lodgings on our route. This time three nights would be necessary. We take separate rooms, of course. If by chance we should come across one another in the restaurant or the hallways, we offer no acknowledgment.

And again, I must do something with a story I find enigmatic and impenetrable. I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about. It does intrigue me, however, which is a hopeful sign. As I have said many times, I love nothing more than a story that teaches me something, and I did learn some things from this, though they may or may not have much to do with understanding the story. Still, it’s a foothold. And it was fun. I love research.

I have also looked at what some other more erudite people have said about Williams’ other work, and that, too, provides at least an approach. An approach to what is uncertain at this time, but I do have a hypothesis. Because I am somewhat at a loss, this is going to be one of my more muddled posts. It may not go anywhere interesting or significant; it will be horrible to read, particularly if you haven’t read the story. But it will go somewhere, and that may have to suffice. Someday I may come back to it with better ideas.

Let’s start with what Williams has said about herself, and what others have said about her work.

In a 2016 Vice interview with Lincoln Michel (another writer who often leaves me stumped), Williams provided a list of “8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story (and one way it differs from a novel).”

1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
2) An anagogical level
3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
4) An animal within to give its blessing
5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary
7) The story’s effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.

I can see a few of these clearly in the story at hand. There is a clear surface with underlying disturbance, which I have rendered as “I know all the words and the plot but I don’t know what it’s about.” There are many sentences that stand strikingly alone, such as when a description of a bright yellow truck with smoke billowing from its tailpipe is interrupted by the paragraph “When a little baby dies you think, If they can do it with such wonderment, so can I.” That’s striking, all right. There is an animal, the narrator’s dog, who is only mentioned and seems to have no role; perhaps the role is to give its blessing. I can’t really say if the story is controlled; it seems to be, but my perception of it is so weak, I might not notice if it weren’t. The effect definitely transcends the naturalness of the plot, and again, I know all the words blah blah.

The others are more elusive. “An anagogical level”: Medieval Christian scriptural analysis divided texts into four levels, one of which was anagogical, or relating to eschatology; the end times, judgment day. In a more modern, general sense, anagoge refers to a spiritual interpretation of text.

“Interior voices… wildly erratically exterior”. Again, there was a medieval sense of this, described by Augustine relating to visions, but I’m going to assume we’re looking at the more modern version, of what we say in our heads and what we say with our mouths. I see it as somewhat the reverse: the narrator says very little out loud, but in her head she’s mean and cranky. She’s dismissive of the driver’s efforts at translating Coptic, though out loud she only clarifies one point about the flour. At the end, she does argue with him a bit, about the translation, in fact, and whether his rendering is correct. This may be significant when I put it together. As for the driver, we have no idea what’s going on in his head; we only have his words, and limited actions.

Consolation may or may not be there. I don’t see it, but since it isn’t necessary, it’s not an issue. The point of the story is not consolation, that’s for sure.

Numerous other writers have pointed out various enigmatic qualities to Williams’ work. At Lit Hub, Vincent Scarpa analyzes a single paragraph of one of her stories that deals with grief, beginning with an acknowledgment of the impossibility of the task:

How haughty, how criminal the endeavor to break down what it is about the work of Joy Williams that’s remarkable and astounding and utterly singular when the what it is—I know, as anyone who reads Joy knows—is fundamentally and immaculately irreducible. To write about her work in an academic mode could be seen as an effort toward taming its innate wildness; its masterful ungovernability.

“Dangerous” never rests on the laurels of the perfect metaphor that serves as the story’s conceit.

She is playing with the story’s rate of revelation…. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates?

And here I am, attempting this haughty, criminal endeavor to analyze this story, to tame its wildness. I won’t flatter myself by calling my notes here academic, but I do use academic materials, and my approach is more cognitive than emotional. It may be that I need the cognitive approach to get to the emotional core.

In any case, something to consider is how the story makes the reader experience the effects of the story’s center (such as grief, in Scarpa’s case). Don’t show, don’t tell, create an experience that illuminates.

A New York Times article declared her “one of the greatest chroniclers of humanity’s insignificance” and credits her with “misanthropic genius.” And in the contributor note to her story, “Honored Guest” in the 1995 edition of BASS, she wrote:

All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.

Not all of these attributes need to apply to this particular story at hand, of course. But in reading them, in combination with some of the elements of the story that required some research, I came up with a hypothesis – which I will get to, I promise, but first, the story elements.

The driver is translating Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language. I happen to have read Youssef Ziedan’s novel Azazeel, last year, about a fifth-century Coptic monk’s journey from southern Egypt to Alexandria to Jerusalem to Antioch, and this detail made me smile and recall Hypa and his struggle to figure out Christianity in that era.

When the driver and I first met – when I was interviewing him, you might say – he told me that he was studying Coptic.
Naturally, I did not believe this for one moment.
Without any encouragement from me he said, “The verb forms and tenses of Coptic are interesting. For example, some tenses that we English speakers do not have are the circumstantial, the habitual, the third future, the fourth future, the optative, and tenses of unfulfilled action signifying until and not yet. I am working now on translating and interpreting the story about the woman carrying flour to her home in a jar that is broken.”
“The flour all pours out?” I said.
“Why, yes.” He seemed pleased.
Everyone knows the story of the woman and the flour. Who did he think he was kidding? Still, you are never drawn to a person for the reasons you think.

This is where I had the most fun. I first wanted to know if we were dealing with real things here – real tenses, a real story – or if this was something the driver was making up, or we were in fantasy land. Both the tenses and the story are real. Coptic has a wide variety of interesting tenses, so I’m going to think it might be significant that Williams chose these particular ones for the driver to name, rather than others. I’m not concerned with the actual form or translation of these tenses – that would be too much – but with what the word “optative” suggests (choice) to the English speaker. So many futures! One dictionary definition of circumstantial declares it “incidental, not essential”. Anyone who’s watched a courtroom drama knows circumstantial evidence isn’t enough to convict without a witness or motive. Unfulfilled action, again we’re so concerned with time and the future. We don’t seem to care about past tenses at all, although there are quite a few.

The story is also real. It’s from the Gospel of Thomas, a gnostic gospel considered non-canonical. It was discovered in modern times, and presumed hidden because early Christians objected to its teachings. I’m not comfortable going into more detail – it’s complicated – but it involves truths revealed by God.

I found a wonderful site that offers various translations of the story, plus scholarly (and lay) interpretations (I have no standing to determine the scholastic quality of the site, so I am going by faith; if someone knows of a more academic resource, please let me know). I find two different interpretations, and have to admit to being a bit confused. The story:

All three refer to the woman as analogous to the Kingdom of the Father. At first, I thought, that makes Heaven sound pretty careless. Then I came across a wonderful article – a book, really, in manuscript form online – dealing with the Gospel of Thomas in depth, and discovered several interesting things.

First, the Kingdom of the Father is not Heaven, it’s not a place at all in Gnostic thought:

The Kingdom is thus not something absolute that exists in some localized place and that we need only to see. It is a state of mind and consciousness that slowly begins to manifest as we do spiritual work. As we are caught in the everyday “flour” of life, we need to remember that there is a powerful life energy that brought us into being, the colostrum, and we need to stay in touch with that energy in order to shape ourselves into “large loaves”, like the large branch of Saying 20, i.e. a person who stands out and is noticeable for their inner radiance, peace of mind and tranquility.
….[T]he message is: do not get caught in the material world, the world of growth, decay and death, the “built” world that then becomes “unbuilt.” Fix your sights on the stable, permanent, self-generated Higher Realm of the Father’s Kingdom.

This links to an element of the story, the division of the three tiers of the car, which, by the way, seem like a very strange car, but maybe it’s like a station wagon with an extra row, or some kind of minivan. I don’t understand minivans, they came along after my period of car ownership. In any case, the arrangement of the car, interesting just on the face of it, becomes loaded with subtlety in light of the passage above:

The car is a big one, encompassing three rows, three tiers behind the driver. It amuses me to think of them as the celestial, the terrestrial, and the ­chthonic. In fact, I quite believe that all things—every moment, every ­vision, ­every ­departure and arrival—possess the celestial, the terrestrial, and the chthonic.
The dogs had pretty much stayed in the terrestrial section where their beds were, as well as a few empty plastic bottles. They liked to play with them, make them crackle and clatter. Sometimes I ride in the chthonic with the luggage, the boots and coats, the boxes of fruit and gin and books. It smells strangely good back there, coolly hopeful and warmly worn at once. But usually I stretch out in the seat behind the driver and watch the landscape change as we rise from the desert floor.

This three-part division of existence was predominant in Greco-Roman theology (and has indications in various Eastern religions as well) but, as we’ve seen before, it’s changed over time. While today we might think of it as heaven, earth, and hell, to the ancients it was more about the realm of the gods, the surface of the living earth, and the underworld or realm of the dead. A place of divinity, a place of life, and a place of death. Note that the driver is on the other side of the celestial realm. Could this make him a divinity? Or place him outside the three realms, in the Kingdom of the Father? Also note that, throughout the story, the narrator restlessly moves from one compartment to the other, even sitting with the driver for a while, “but find I can gain no perspective.” I again want to think of her as searching for the Kingdom of Heaven, but being unable to find it since it isn’t a place but a state of mind she is not, at least yet, capable of.

As for the parable the driver is translating, there are at least two interpretations. Again, the Koepke document is very helpful:

Read one way, the empty jar describes the spiritual emptiness of being too caught up in the outside world and of not cultivating one’s inner self. The woman lost her essence of life by letting it flow out of the jar; she
was too unaware even to notice and not until she got home did she even discover that the jar, her inner self, was empty.
But the problem with this reading is that the whole story is a parable of the Kingdom and that is only used for higher spiritual states. In addition,the unrealistic nature of the handle of the jar breaking, which would not cause the flour to pour out, is a deliberate clue to alert us that the surface meaning of the story doesn’t add up.
So there is also a higher state of emptiness of letting go of mental concepts, categories and endless inner chatter to attain true consciousness. When the woman comes to the end of her road (her life), she attains serenity (being beyond toil), she reaches into her house (her inner self) and finds emptiness (readiness for a higher spiritual state).

So we have one case in which it’s bad the flour – the essence of life, awareness of higher things – is leaking due to preoccupation with the trappings of the world, and the emptiness of the self that results is terrible; and another case in which it’s good that the flour – preoccupation with the unimportant – is being discarded and the resultant emptiness is preparation for a higher spirituality.

And what of the brokenness of the jar? Is it the brokenness of our souls that lets the life force out – or the blessing of enlightenment that lets us let go of the trivial? “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in,” per Leonard Cohen. The light can’t get in if it’s all full of flour.

Now, here’s the hypothesis for the story, the hypothesis I promised many words ago: It’s a story about spirituality, enlightenment, a higher consciousness. The narrator’s journey echoes the journey of the woman with the jar. The driver is a kind of guide: the Dao, as Lao Tse or Zhuang Zi might put it. As the narrator says, “Still, you’re never drawn to a person for the reasons you think. Besides, he was the only one who had applied for the position…” Koepke sees the Gnostic Jesus in a similar vein as the Daoists, as a philosopher (Saying 28), hoping to get people to view themselves more clearly so that they can achieve spiritual growth.

The narrator chooses to take her journey, as she has chosen to take it before. Yet she resists it every step of the way, dismissing the comments of the driver. At one point they stop for a picnic, bread and water. It evokes many ideas: prison, “thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies,” and the Eucharist (would wine be too on-the-nose?). On one former journey she made the bread, but it was terrible, so the driver now provides it, underlining the Eucharist. She’s uncomfortable no matter what car row she sits in.

The ending provides a crucial moment, as the driver tells her:

“What is important is the quality of the emptiness she eventually discovers,” he agrees. “And that is what is so difficult to suggest.”

The ending paragraph has them arriving at their destination, a destination that was never defined for us. She sees it as “utterly foreign.” He sees it as “much the same as always.” Is this the emptiness she has discovered? Has she, in fact, reached a more advanced state of emptiness than ever before, so things look different? Whether the difference is good or bad, we don’t know. This is in keeping with the two interpretations of the parable. Has she been drained of worldliness and is now open to spiritual growth, or has she been drained of spirituality and is now bereft? I would tend towards the first.

I have an alternative hypothesis: it’s a parable about death, evoked by the line about the baby dying with wonderment. But the repetitive nature of the journey makes me think that isn’t quite right. Maybe the wonderment attaches to every experience in which the spiritual consciousness is engaged, not just dying. But it is something to keep in mind.

Many comments in the story seem important, for that matter, and I’ve skipped over them. The yellow trucks. The bedraggled blanket used for the roadside picnic. The journey rising from the desert. The art in the second hotel. The bathrobes in the last hotel. In a five-page story, every line is important, every image, every thought, but I’m having enough trouble with the major moments.

I go back to something Vincent Scarpa said about the story creating for the reader the experience it was intending to describe. Spirituality is a difficult path. With religion, you can learn a creed and some prayers and follow some rules and participate in some rituals and call yourself a Catholic or Jew or Buddhist or whatever. But the path to enlightenment, to spiritual growth, is less defined. You can look up a bunch of references on the internet and quote philosophy professors and literary icons, but how do you know when you’ve got it right?

In one of the many philosophy moocs I’ve taken, the professor indicated that Kierkegaard felt Christianity should be confusing, that the existence of God should not be something that can be proven. This is the leap to faith he advocated: you don’t believe in salvation because you find evidence, you just believe. I don’t really understand that. I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun, even if I’m not sure the empty vessel at the end is a good thing, or a bad thing.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Allan Gurganus, “I Confess: My Cultural Misappropriation” (nonfiction) from Salmagundi #197-198

I.
It kicked in early, my confusion: When is cultural appropriation appropriate? By the age of six, I owned three good puppets. Those being gifts, I had not made them. My mother boasted a Master’s degree in education; so Christmas brought me a cardboard marionette theatre. It was red and gold. My arbitrary players? A yellow fur lion, one ancient Austrian woodcutter and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Having only these actors might seem limiting; but, odd, all my plays about the world fit them exactly.
The character-puppet I did not need was one representing a sensitive freckled white boy with bangs, seersucker shorts, and his own National Geographic subscription. He would have bored me very much. It was others, always others, I pursued. The less like me, the more I needed them. What I didn’t know, they were. By asking them, by moving them around our little stage, I farmed my life toward theirs. I kept trying to understand them from the inside out. My strings lifted their hands and paws. Manipulation, you say? Don’t puppets require that? Isn’t all art manual labor in the service of certain truth-telling tricks?

Complete story available online at Salmagundi

Once in a while, I run across a story in these anthologies that suffers by mere timing. When originally published in early 2018 in an issue devoted to “This Age of Conformity” it would’ve been an interesting extension to the discussion of cultural appropriation. Now, in the post-American Dirt period, it seems a little late. Some things, when lead times of over a year are involved, can’t be anticipated.

Gurganus defends his ability to write characters unlike himself by recalling two experiences from his childhood. One, as above, is his puppet collection. The other is his foray into ventriloquism, and the metaphor of throwing one’s voice. He also raises, in the third part, the artistic tradition of the homage, of building on an older work and continuing the development of an idea. He also brings in his own oeuvre, which started off with a bang in 1989 with the immensely popular and highly acclaimed The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. That novel included a prominent black character, and he provides testimony for the authenticity he endowed her with.

This is all well and good, though it seems like a self-defense to a charge not made. Much of the appropriation discussion sounds like that, with writers asserting their right, their mission, to bring to the page the lives of people unlike them, to leave the “write what you know” advice in the past and use imagination, research, and empathy to include characters that serve the work, whatever their demographics. It is a confusing conversation, to be sure, one that I struggle with. But I think we’ve reached a point where it’s agreed that there’s no prohibition against white writers writing non-white characters, as long as a) they are honest characters and not stereotypes, and b) not all non-white characters are translated through the vision of white writers.

About a month ago, in the wake of the American Dirt controversy, my blogging buddy Jake Weber wrote a few posts about his experience dealing with the question of appropriation as a writer. I felt like I got a little closer to understanding the boundaries as a result. If Gurganus’ post does the same for others, I’m all for it. The metaphors are quite clever. But I’m still aware that every time a writer of color objects to a particular work, white men line up to argue back.

I’d suggest that such ethnic guardians—advocating enforced cultural monopolies—are accidentally practicing their own form of one-voice one-note puppetry. To say that six-year-old black children should be issued only puppets depicting six-year-old black children—that backs us into an enslaving literalness. I grew up in the south of water fountains marked “Colored ONLY.” To willingly re-nail that sign onto any human replenishment as essential as Narrative, that repeats a tragic mistake for tricky new reasons.

Until the 60s, white American children played virtually exclusively with white dolls. I would venture that in most households, they still do. We don’t call that enslaving literalness; we don’t call it anything, it just is.

This is a complex issue. I don’t mean to argue with Gurganos. I haven’t read any of his work, so
I have no standing whatsoever. I’ll leave the arguments to those better versed in the details. I will just say that, while more or less agreeing with his basic point – that a writer can find ways to incorporate characters unlike herself – I’m a bit antsy about the overall tone. And frankly, I’m tired of the whole argument. Hmmm… is that called privilege?

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Diane Williams, “The Important Transport” from Egress #1

Photography by Lucien Clergue

Photography by Lucien Clergue

Otto told me that our opportunity had been squandered and that i should have felt compelled to contribute something. He said, “It is too bad you don’t understand what is happening here.”
And, I saw that it was true – that I had failed to do my best.
This was to be our short interregnum. How to proceed next?
That morning the wake-up radio music alarm had been set, but the volume knob had been wrenched by somebody, counter-clockwise, full on. My first thought was that the window must be open and that the wind had caught at the blinds and that it was blowing across the fins – the slats, rather – and that they were vibrating and causing this tremendous sound before it dawned on me that this blast was something other and it made me afraid.

I’ve said many times that the context in which a story is read can change how it’s perceived. This was a case in point, though quite by accident.

I originally read the story back at the end of February, and had no idea what to make of it. Because it’s so short – a page and a half – I somehow skipped over it and went from “Hao” to “Pattycakes”. I say somehow, but it’s possible that I mentally filed it as poetry; I won’t deny the possibility that I just didn’t want to deal with it at the time and ‘accidentally’ moved my bookmark. In any case, I forgot about it until my friend Andrew (hi, Andrew!) asked if I’d read it and what I thought. So I turned to it again, on this weekend where reality feels apocalyptic, and it’s a different story.

In our defense, Andrew and I, Williams isn’t the easiest author to read. In his introduction to The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Ben Marcus writes:

Diane Williams has spent her long, prolific career concocting fictions of perfect strangeness, most of them no more than a page long. She’s a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days. The stories are short. They defy logic. They thumb their nose at conventional sense, or even unconventional sense. But if sense is in short supply in these texts, that leaves more room for splendor and sorrow. These stories upend expectations and prize enigma and the uncanny above all else. The Williams epiphany should be patented, or bottled—on the other hand, it should also be regulated and maybe rationed, because it’s severe. It’s a rare feeling her stories trigger, but it’s a keen and deep and welcome one, the sort of feeling that wakes us up to complication and beauty and dissonance and fragility.

That gives me some freedom to go with gut feelings without searching for hard evidence on which to base them. And here’s where context comes in. I see this as a banal love story written as apocalyptic literature, with an ending that signals recovery.

The title was instrumental in that. To me, a transport is a military operation, generally moving troops and equipment around. Holocaust literature refers to the trains to the camps as transports. The title set up a grim tone for most of the story.

The word interregnum in the third paragraph reinforced this. While it’s a term that can apply to many situations, it stems from the time between reigns of kings. A standard dictionary definition goes, “a period when normal government is suspended, especially between successive reigns or regimes.” Normality is suspended. In the story, it seems to be the period between staying together, and moving apart. A period of questioning, of deciding. Denial and settling is over, but they’re not yet at the point of moving on. Disruptive and chaotic.

The story is great at conveying this sense of suspended normality. It feels like a desolate time, a place of destruction, but what is really there? A radio alarm, and Venetian blinds. Granted, there’s a scene in which they create a moment of chaos, but if that’s all the chaos you have in your lives, count yourself lucky.

Then there’s the ultimate commonplace, a cheating spouse. Is this to underline the narrator’s sense that her world is crumbling, even in is ordinariness? To show how threatening the benign can look when the psyche is in pain? Is this the root of the chaos?

“Where did you go?” I asked.
“Kay,” he said. That’s my name.
“You’re all I have. Where did you go?”
“Do you like it here?” he said.
“No, I don’t like it here. Why should I?”
“I know. I know,” he said. “Some water?” He had to walk and to walk, to go such a short way, it seemed, to get that for me.
We had another such dialogue the next day.

Adding on the “that’s my name” seems awkward, but the Cary rule applies: it means something. Not only do we get the first-person-narrator’s name, which is handy, but in the next dialog – and calling it a dialog adds a theatrical element, a play two people are putting on for themselves with set lines, rather than a conversation in which two people communicate – he gives the name of the woman he was with. It’s something like effect-before-cause: she has to tell us her name is Kay, so we’ll understand Suzette is the other woman in an almost parallel scene in which the other woman replaces her. And, by the way, Suzette is the perfect name for a younger, other woman you want to hate.

The Important Transport comes at the end:

I have had to wait for my own happiness. I married Eric Throssel, who is a good companion – and I thought I was very happy when we had finished supper one night. But the more important transport occurred on route to Long Grove while I was driving.
Eric spoke, and his words I don’t remember them, but thank God they served to release the cramping in my neck, and in my shoulders and my back and they provided for an unexpected increased intake of oxygen and can we leave it at that?

When in doubt, I go back to the dictionary, and discovered a meaning of transport that I was vaguely aware of, but had completely forgotten about:

an overwhelmingly strong emotion.
“art can send people into transports of delight”

Broken hearts can mend. Is there anything more trite than all this? Yet this is all wrapped in enigma, as Ben Marcus indicated in his introduction. We don’t know what Eric said, and she isn’t going to tell us, because what difference does it make. The point is, tension evaporated and it was a breath of fresh air. A hint of the orgasmic in there. Who knows what she thought happiness was; now she knows it’s better.

Why tell a routine love-lost-and-found story in such a way? Those of us who have known love as war and disaster might understand. In literary terms, I’d call it defamiliarization. But in a broader sense, at this moment when for most of us normality is suspended, the upbeat ending is like an oasis. Let’s hope we all get there.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Erin Singer, “Bad Northern Women” from Conjunctions #70

Michelle Tsosie Sisneros:  Six Sisters Harvest

Michelle Tsosie Sisneros: Six Sisters Harvest

In the culture in which these women were raised, power is physical strength, fear, money, respect. Power is male. The mom might be able to skin a deer and pay the light bill, but she’s a poor mother of four and that means she eats shit every day. It would never occur to the Tocker sisters that they might be powerful.

No matter how hard their mother works, no matter how important she thinks her family name is, no matter how many bad bitch stories she tells her daughters, the girls see that their father just has to stroll in the door and he has more power.

Erin Singer, author interview with Catapult Magazine

That’s really the story right there, but it’s quite remarkable how many different ways Singer packs it in to what is a fairly short text, only eleven pages. It’s told from the point of view of the teen daughters of the family in first-person-plural narration. They know how their parents see the world; they know how people outside the family see the world; and they themselves see the world. Then they come to a decision: stay with Mom, or go with Dad?

We are Tockers, descendants of thirty-six feet of long lean Saskatchewan woman: six Tocker sisters, six foot tall, exemplary ax-women all, so says our mom. At the kitchen table this morning we are mixing our Nesquik and Mom is quoting from Taking Our Time: A History Of Tockers. Citing each Tocker triumph she stabs the book with her file, showering its curling cover with fingernail dust. Tocker Trucking! Compass Sawmill! TT’s Laundromat! Stab! Stab! Stab! Mom plants the file in an old baby corn can crammed with white pencil crayons and shards of rulers and dried out pens. She rubs her eyes until mascara moons arise underneath. Our spoons clack inside our plastic cups.

That opening paragraph contains a lot. They see Mom as stabbing the book of family history. Does Mom feel like she’s stabbing it, or does that perception belong to the daughters? In other words, is she really doing subconscious violence to her family history, or are the girls overlaying that in a kind of wish fulfillment, seeing as it’s what keeps them bound to their mother, and their mother bound to the town. And the file: I read the word file and see a manila folder, but the little detail of fingernail dust, and the perception of stabbing, makes it clear it’s a nail file. Something you really can stab with, after you’ve erased part of your body to make it more acceptable. The old can and its contents cry of a life filled with junk.

The daughters’ lackadaisical interest – you’d think a mom doing a that pontificating and stabbing would arouse some curiosity, or maybe alarm, rather than continued focus on stirring chocolate milk – gives a hint that this is a recurring event, not something unusual for a Saturday morning.

We get a glimpse of Dad, who notices the scratches on their legs from the stray dog he brought home. But there’s something more important to notice about Dad: he’s got one foot out the door, and the girls know it. This, too, seems like a recurring event.

The tension of the story hinges on whether Mom and the girls will go with him. Or, maybe just the girls. That seems to be a delicate question. Does he want them, if Mom isn’t coming?

We see life in the town through the girls’ eyes, and it isn’t pretty. They don’t seem to have friends; the other girls ignore or ridicule them. And their future doesn’t look so great, either, as they make clear in an apostrophic address to the town:

Before we die we’ll slick your Teen Burgers with Teen sauce, make chicken salad on a cheese bun and keep your kids from drowning in the public pool and we are jolly bun fillers of sub¬marine sandwiches and we ring up your Trojans and Lysol and scented candles, and we shovel your snow and push your babies on the swing set, pare your grandpa’s toenails, harvest your honey, detail your urinals, hold the papery hands of your dying, nestle newspapers in the rungs of your mailbox and ladle gravy on your French fries and we push logs through your sawmill, bring you size-ten Sorels, then size eleven, then size ten and a half, and climb onto our mattresses at night with gasoline on our hands and dog bites on our ankles, chicken fingers on our breath, cigarette smoke in our hair, ringing in our ears and our men’s hands snaking up our thighs.

This is powerlessness. The symbols of size and power are everywhere, from their dream of owning a truck “big enough to cruise around town looking down on everyone else’s roof” to mom’s story about the eagle who catches a fish too big for him and drowns. This interplays with the thread of who’s going with Dad when he leaves. “In the morning, Dad gives us one final pitch. He asks us who we want to be.” And we find out something very interesting about Mom, something that may have everything to do with the girls’ decision, or nothing at all.

It’s one of those rare literary stories with a happy ending. The interview above brings out the use of “distant future” to reassure us that the girls’ decision is the right one. It’s very satisfying in a way that doesn’t glorify poverty or dead-end lives, a trope I’m so tired of seeing. This feels more honest. Life isn’t perfect, but there are moments when you have a shot at making it better, and Singer does a nice job of illuminating one of them.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Claire Luchette, “New Bees” from Ploughshares #43.4

David Pettibone: Beekeepers (2012)

David Pettibone: Beekeepers (2012)

We bought the nylons before evening prayer at a twenty-four-hour grocery three miles away. They came folded inside paper envelopes, tawny mesh showcased under cellophane windows. We bought a dozen. They tend to rip.
Later we disagreed about whether the envelope could be recycled. If paper’s affixed with plastic, is it still paper? Eventually, we stripped the cellophane squares from all twelve envelopes and sorted the scraps.
Everything has a thousand uses. When nylons run, we slip our hands inside and dust shelves, polish silver, buff our leather shoes. There’s always a way to give something new life, but most people don’t realize this. Most people don’t want to know all the lives contained within disposable things.

Welcome to another episode of My Journey Through This Story. It’s a charming, rather short short piece, and just fun to read on the face of it. I could stop right there. But that isn’t really what I’m here for, is it.

The first paragraph would be pretty run of the mill if it weren’t for that reference to evening prayer. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about short stories, it’s to keep reading even when I’m confused. I can always go back and re-read, especially when I’m only on the first page, and maybe I’ll realize I missed something. But in this case, the details filled me in as I read. Slowly, and kind of sneakily, a word casually dropped in there (like the evening prayer) the next paragraph following some white space:

That spring, we wanted new bees for Harriet. They hadn’t wintered well, our bees. Only a few hundred were left by the time Harriet came to the convent. She didn’t know there used to be thousands, so to her, there was a bounty. She’d go out bare-handed and give the hives some air. She’d coo and grin, watching them float. She was unlike us – we found them fearsome. Agatha was allergic to bees, and Mary Lucille was seventy-three, frail as linguine. Therese avoided pain, and I avoided anything with violent rage.
The winter survivors moved slowly. They were depressed, having witnessed the deaths of their babies and their parents, who had come to lie in piles at the bottom of the apiary.

So this is a convent. At first I thought we might be doing another first person plural narration, but then the “I” slipped in there. It’s still got the feel of group narration, though. The four nuns. And Harriet, the newbie, for whom they want to get new bees. Oh, I see.

The description of the depressed, mourning winter bees is one of the many great details of the story. So are the individual reasons the nuns feared the bees. It’s a skill of writing, to know which details to highlight, and how to highlight them. In spite of the darkness of the information being revealed – a dying bee colony, a nun who avoids violent rage (why, I wonder; is it so far outside her experience, or was it once too far inside?) – the tone is brisk and… not quite cheerful, but upbeat. I found myself smiling. Maybe it was the mention of the Oreocookie cow. I had no idea there was such a thing, more formally known as belted Galloways, so I had to look it up. It’s hard not to smile with an Oreocookie cow in front of you. Later, we’ll read about the nuns getting out of their van, “one sister at a time”, another perfect little smile-generating detail.

But for now, we find out more about Harriet.

We were having trouble with Harriet, it’s true. She was a novice – hadn’t been veiled, hadn’t been given a religious name. During morning prayer, she had this look of hurt. It’s not unusual. 5:20 is a painful time to be praying if you are usually dreaming then. But it was harder for Harriet than for most. She displayed none of the joy we felt, none of the love. She worried the skin under her eyes. She never had an appetite. She had a round crater on her neck where an old boyfriend had stubbed out a cigarette.
So we wanted to surprise her with new bees. Many times, all a person needs is somewhere to be and something to do.

By now, I’m recognizing some of the very smart things Luchette does. On second read, that is; on first read, I don’t analyze, I just read and maybe make notes when I notice something. Again, there’s the detail casually dropped in, this time Harriet’s scar. In addition to making Harriet more of a concrete character, it connects with the narrator, and makes her fear of violent rage more likely to be part of her history as well.

The paragraph ends with a little aphorism. The story contains a lot of these thoughts: “[Bees] like inertia, just like us…. It’s best, more often than not, to say nothing, rather than something…. [Harriet] didn’t know yet that privacy was not a punishment, but a gift…. It’s possible to be candid about your candor’s limits…. It is terrible to be conscious of all the ways you can be hurt…. If you look long enough, there is always something to blame…. Many times the greatest mercy you can grant a man is the chance to believe himself the hero…. Everything comes with a price…. It is our belief that the greatest grace you can grant yourself is the private knowledge of your own strength.”

I’m a little divided about this technique. Shouldn’t the story bring out those ideas, rather than stating them so baldly? Isn’t this tell, don’t show? But then, why did the writer, who must know this, whose story made it through several rounds of eagle-eyed editors, do it that way? Yes, it’s the James Cary quote again, “Why did you do it so clumsily like that”, and it turns out there’s a reason. I don’t know what it is. Maybe just because an aphorizing nun fits so well in the story, keeps the tone lighter than it might be while conveying what is sometimes heavy-duty truth. And is sometimes just funny, like the hero line, and is sometimes banal, like everything having a price. It also fits the characters: when things go a little sideways, and this calm, rock-solid nun has an aphorism for it.

As much as I enjoyed this story about the sisters’ trip to buy bees, I have trouble putting it all together. I contrast this with the earlier story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”. That, too, was a delightful read, but it fit together as a whole. While this story was just as much fun to read, I don’t quite get the gestalt. Let’s consider the possibilities.

Ploughshares’ stated theme for this issue was “how we react to change in our surroundings.” We have Harriet, the newbie, not adjusting well to life in the convent, possibly because she is, to use a phrase from some TV movie, running away from something rather than towards something. We have winter bees feeling sad at their fallen comrades. We have nuns encountering a very strange person in their effort to buy bees, and then dealing with technical difficulties on the ride home. Is that the point, that the nuns have learned to deal with pretty much anything, from a strange man who lives in a house with millions of bees and asks them to come into his garage in a scene that recalls Buffalo Bill asking the Senator’s daugher to help him put the chair in the truck, to a van that won’t steer, to a priest who needs to feel like a hero? Would Harriet develop this competence if she were to stay with them?

I see another possibility stemming from that first paragraph, the aphorism about the lives contained in disposable things. All of these people seem disposable. That isn’t criticism; most people are disposable. But they contain so much. Even the bee guy. First, there’s the coda to the nun’s phone call setting up the meeting:

After he said goodbye, his phone hovered in its receiver, and we heard him whispering tender words: “Oh, darlings. You can have my waffles. Yeah.” We hung up, flushed with the hot shame of happening, uninvited, upon an intimacy not our own.

They have no idea who he’s talking to, but they recognize intimacy. Later, they will realize who he’s talking to, and perhaps rethink that. But then, in his garage, there’s an incident with his dog: “On his face, there was, for a moment, tenderness. Care.” Again, a moment of what might be considered craziness is seen for something much sweeter. What might seem disposable contains beauty. The same insight seems to extend to the priest when they call him for help they don’t need.

As a third possibility, I spent some time considering the similarities between bees and people. The nuns certainly are busy; is the convent a beehive? It doesn’t seem like it’s dying, though they do mourn the loss of Harriet when she leaves.

From a different angle, it’s tempting to see the nuns as beekeepers, particularly with their habits; several images of beekeepers evoke this as well. They do a great deal of tending, from their concern about recycling materials to calling the priest for help they don’t need. Harriet would fit in with this; she’s a bee they tended who flew away. I like the idea of this approach the best, but it’s still a little wobbly.

So I don’t feel like I’ve got it yet. That’s ok; sometimes it can be frustrating to not “get” a story, and sometimes it can be an intriguing puzzle. Maybe it’s because the story itself read so nicely, I’m willing to let this simmer, hoping eventually the flavors will blend and I’ll see it as a whole. Or I’ll understand why it isn’t a whole, and accept it as such.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Camille T. Dungy, “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” (nonfiction) from Georgia Review, Fall 2018

‘Autumn in Georgia,’ by Hale Woodruff, ca. 1931

‘Autumn in Georgia,’ by Hale Woodruff, ca. 1931

We are in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction…. Yet some people prefer to maintain categories for what counts as environmental writing and what is historical writing or social criticism or biography and so on. I can’t compartmentalize my attentions. If an author chooses not to engage with what we often call the natural world, that very disengagement makes a statement about the author’s relationship with her environment; even indifference to the environment directly affects the world about which a writer might purport to be indifferent. We live in a time when making decisions about how we construct the products and actions of our daily lives—whether or not to buy plastic water bottles and drinking straws, or cosmetics with microbeads that make our skin glow—means making decisions about being complicit in compromising the Earth’s ecosystems.
What we decide matters in literature is connected to what we decide will matter for our history, for our pedagogy, for our culture. What we do and do not value in our art reveals what we do and do not value in our times. What we leave off the page often speaks as loudly as what we include.

Complete essay available online at Georgia Review

I’m a little off-balance with this essay. It’s like I’ve walked in on a counterargument, but I’m not sure what the original argument was. As a result, I agree with many of the points made, but since it seems to be pushing back against an unknown proposal, I keep changing my mind about whether I agree overall or not.

As I read the counterargument on the face of it, because writers all exist in and are influenced by their environments both in the present and over the course of their lives, and because the subject of writing exists in an environment or is devoid of an environment either intentionally or not, all writing is environmental writing. Therefore, anything can be called environmental writing.

This is similar to the argument, made by Roxane Gay in BASS 2018, that all writing is political because the act of writing is inherently political. I agree with that, in that if you’re writing a simple boy-meets-girl story, you’re erasing a large part of the world, and if your characters all live in the John Cheever suburbs of the 50s, there’s a statement to be made about what has been ignored. But if I pick up a volume billed as a political anthology, I expect a more direct observation about what’s left out, an analysis about who is privileged and who is ignored. And if I select an anthology of environmental writing, I’d expect the environment to feature in the stories, or for the volume to include some analysis of how conveniently it was left out and why that might be.

But on the face of it, I do agree that we are influenced by our environments, and that those environments include choices, made by us or by others, about what is important and what is not. I agree that leaks into writing, mostly deliberately, whether via a positive or negative impression of the ethos the environment reflects. And I also agree that to exclude interactions with nature or with one’s environment is to make a statement just as the inclusion would be.

Take for example the powerful poem from Pushcart XLII, Christopher Kempf’s “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s”. I would say this poem includes equal parts environmental, historical, social, literary, and biographical writing, in a synergy that exploded for me as I reached the last lines. If it were included in a volume of environmental writing, I’d have no problem with that. Nor would I object if it were in an anthology of any of the other subject headings.

In contrast, a recent story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas” by Jason Brown, also combines these elements. The environmental aspect is not as pronounced, but it’s there, but it’s more of a family story with historical and social overtones influenced by environment. Is it an environmental story? Yes, but putting it in a volume so labeled would puzzle me unless there was some analysis emphasizing how the environment influenced the characters present and past.

On the other hand, something like Lisa Taddeo’s “Suburban Weekend” or Tony Hoagland’s “Into the Mystery” are clearly influenced by the environments in which they are set, but I would balk at putting them into an environmental anthology that doesn’t analyze why they are there. Maybe Dungy feels that’s the reader’s job, but that seems more of a way of reading than a way of labeling writing. And that may be a good point: maybe to put such stories in an environmental volume trains us, as readers, to think of all stories in that way, to look for the role the environment does – or doesn’t – play in the story as written, and to consider why the writer chose to compose it that way.

In such urban environments, it might be difficult to remember that you are, in fact, in an “environment,” given that we’ve come to think of the terms environment and nature as referring to someplace wild and nonhuman, more akin to the foothills of my childhood than to the cul-de-sacs terraced into their sides. But that line of reasoning slides us toward the compartmentalization I resist. Our environments are always both human and other than human.

Again, I agree. When I read Wendell Berry’s “The Great Interruption” in BASS 2019, I argued with him a bit when he said, “It meant in Port William what it could not mean, and far more than it could mean, in any other place on earth.” It was a story of curiosity, of innocence, of putting two and two together, of growing up, a story of humor and unexpected interruptions in the most delicate of moments. I disagreed that such elements are unique to any place on earth. It was a story told around town with a knowing smile for years, that evoked certain emotions. I see that as a function of community, and while the community in the story is rural, there’s no reason an urban community – and I mean the word community in the sense of people who know and care for each other – wouldn’t react in similar ways.

In 2009, when Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry was published, one of the most remarkable statements the book made was that black people could write with an empathetic eye toward the natural world. In the general public perception of black writers, the idea that we can write out of a deep connection to the environment—and have done so for at least four centuries—came, and I think still comes, as a shock.
As the editor of Black Nature, I was able to make the anthology a complete project by expanding the presentation of how people write about the environment. Not all the poems in the anthology are of the rapturous I walk out into nature and find myself  ilk, though such poems are there…. And so, many of the poems in the collection do not fall in line with the praise school of nature poetry but, instead, reveal complicated—often deadly—relationships. The authors of these works mix their visions of landscapes and animals into investigations of history, economics, resource extraction, and other very human and deeply perilous concerns.

This may be the source of the original argument I am lacking: has there been discussion about this volume not being environmentally themed? This seems to run side by side with the troubles in the science fiction community when women and writers of color started getting recognition and winning prizes for their work: one subset of the community felt they weren’t writing science fiction at all. The idea that there are those with a different way of viewing the environment, or science fiction, or poetry or music or anything creative, aren’t conforming to norms is how art mummifies itself. And, let’s be honest, if these volumes with different points of view and different ideas had come out of the white male community, a la Raymond Carver or David Foster Wallace, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise the innovation and adopt the style.

But I’m just guessing at all this. I am curious about that 2009 anthology. I took a quick look at the table of contents, but of course since I read very little poetry it didn’t mean much to me. However, I can think right away of several more recent poems I’ve encountered that Dungy might call environmental while others might not.

One is “Tallahatchie” by Susan Sommers-Willett, a mirror addressing the river as a mirror of Emmett Till, reflecting the deeply complicated relationship with nature that Dungy refers to elsewhere in the essay. The second is Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition”, clearly setting out the dynamic (“We thought / Fingers in the dirt meant it was our dirt”) with a heartbreaking echo. Then there’s Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” which brings me to tears with every read. For that matter, the song “Strange Fruit” has a similar vibe.

Yes, all these poems connect dead African Americans to nature. Yes, some readers of environmental writing might be more comfortable to see them classified as black poetry, or political protest. Interesting how segregation finds its way into interesting corners of our lives. To see a poem that connects Eric Garner with nature is a way to broaden the environmental tent; it can also be seen as making visible something that some might prefer not to see, and thus might be kept out of the tent.

The history of human divisions is often constituted of stories about one set of people being hostile toward the presence of others. An ideology that would demand the exclusion or subjugation of whole populations of human beings is an ideology quick to assume positions of superiority over all that is perceived to be different. If you can construct a narrative that turns a human into a beast in order to justify the degradation of that human, how much easier must it be to dismiss the needs of a black bear, a crayfish, a banyan?

One thing that has stuck with me from a mooc on the philosophy of human rights was the recognition that the Western world tends to view people – especially Western people, that is, white people – as having intrinsic value, and everything else as having only instrumental value. This is what I hear in this paragraph of Dengy’s essay. But what if it works in reverse of the order she imagines, as the Kempf poem above seems to intimate? What if, upon arriving, Europeans in search of trade goods to build wealth saw the people they encountered as just more of the wildlife of the uninhabited (because they were uninhabited by Europeans) forests and plains? That the entire tableaux was of instrumental value, as blessed by the God who gave people dominion over the earth, the Bible once again being used as justification of whatever was most profitable?

Since I agree with so much, why am I having trouble with Dungy’s argument? I think it’s mostly that I can’t see what she’s arguing against, since it’s not included. I’ve changed my mind several times in the course of writing this piece, and I’m still not sure just what it is I agree with and where I draw the line.

But when I ran into the idea of segregating certain areas of literature, whether it be science fiction or nature poetry (whining, Why do you have to bring politics into everything), and thus excluding black poetry and relegating it to its own corner so genres like environmental writing or science fiction can be kept pristine and not upset readers (that is, the readers who “matter”) with such ideas, I can understand the counterargument better. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get it.

Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Farah Ali, “The Effect of Heat on Poor People” from Kenyon Review Online Mar/Apr 2018

Saba was beginning to think that Kamil was a belligerent man. When she’d married him, she’d known that there wasn’t going to be a honeymoon because his financial circumstances didn’t permit extravagances, but she wished they could put some neutral space between them. They had each taken three days off from work after the wedding, and in the hours and weekends that they had to spend together, they discovered they had precious little in common. After the forced post-wedding holiday, they gratefully fell back into their jobs. Saba was a receptionist in an office building, and Kamil was a reporter for an English newspaper. Because they had seen their parents, uncles and aunts, and older cousins make the best of bad relationships, they stumbled along clumsily.
Saba couldn’t understand how Kamil could sound angry even about things that excited him.

Complete story available online at Kenyon Review

The irony of the title about covers it. Remember, the word poor has more than one meaning. Financially poor, sure, but there’s also “oh, those poor people”, and it’s this sense that applies to these two. And then there’s also multiple meanings of the word heat.

A matchmaker set up the couple; Saba was twenty-six, and her mother figured she’d better get her married before it was too late. He was ok-looking, and he had a decent job, so Saba agreed. Now she’s getting to know the man who is now her husband.

As the weather grows hotter and hotter, Kamil looks outward at the people in the community that is his journalistic assignment; Saba turns inward. In that sense, the effect of heat on these poor people is very different. While he goes out into the heat to observe and find material for the article he’s writing, she goes to an air conditioned office, thankful for the respite. Those of us who are aware that air conditioning is part of an acceleration of increased heat for those outside the walls might have a bit more sympathy for Kamil’s hostility.

One evening he stalked into the kitchen where she was washing a teaspoon under a small waterfall and wrested it from her soapy hands. She shouted that he smelled like garbage, and he hit her on her face. Right away, he looked horrified at what he had done. He stammered that he was terribly sorry, that it was the heat, or all those thirsty people clutching their throats as they died one by one by the sides of roads he went on every day. Saba stayed quiet, scrutinizing the event that had just happened, like a scientist in a lab coat peering quizzically into an unidentified object. She did not feel angry at Kamil, and she recognized that that was a curious thing. Instead, she imagined severing her nerve endings with tiny scissors and shutting off her pores, sealing herself in.

The bruise becomes an intersection point for them later in the story.

I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more to this story than I got from it. Sometimes it happens that way; I’m glad it’s online so readers can decide for themselves. I don’t see either of them as bad people, just mismatched people with different expectations of marriage. Kamil wants to save the world with his writing; Saba wants to be loved. They’re facing different directions, a problem exacerbated by the heat crisis that grabs all Kamil’s attention and passion. To view it in a broader, more symbolic way, Kamil is the voice crying in the wilderness, hoping to save the world, and Saba is the world, just interested in the realities of her own life. This view makes the ending particularly tragic.

This story was published before last year’s heat crisis in India in which Chennai ran out of water completely. This is what we’re in for. And those running the world from air-conditioned offices don’t really give a damn, because they will always be able to buy comfort. At least, they believe they will.