Feb 152013

Edward MaitinoThe author and his wife Michele and daughters Sophia and Isabella in a cafe just off rue de Seine in Paris

Edward Maitino is one of those unsung, mostly unpublished, really interesting writers who should be known more than he is. He was a student in a graduate writing class I led at the University at Albany-SUNY, either in 1999 or 2000, I can’t remember, earnest, dressed for the office, slightly out of place, but also the best pure writer in the class, with a Raymond Carver-ish instinct for capturing the epic solitude of alcoholism. Whenever I get a chance, I publish him. He was in an issue of Hunger Mountain (Fall, 2003, the print edition, not online) for which I co-edited the fiction with Mary Grimm. And now, once again, I have tracked him down and winkled a story out of him. Read it. You’ll see. He has a unique style, deceptively laconic and stoic. But the story has shape and mystery. It starts, jumps forward, then loops back before the beginning and tells you the story of the story. And the two stories, the two armatures, are psychological and structural parallels, the whole thing as intricate as clockwork.


Part One

I met Marty Sutherland in a hospital emergency room on the night my father died. He was brought in on a stretcher under a pile of blankets. It was Christmastime and the place was mobbed. The ambulance driver left him in a hallway across from where I was sitting with my sister.

Marty wasn’t moving. His arms were at his side under the blankets and his eyes were closed. But I could hear him moaning. Someone had taken off his boots and placed them at the foot of the stretcher. Nurses kept bringing over warm blankets to cover him. He must of had ten blankets covering his body.

It was almost like he knew I was staring at him because he opened his eyes and looked right at me. He whispered that he was thirsty and asked for water. I jumped up out of my chair. I was only eleven-years old. I ran down the hallway to get the nurse.

Marty had this crushed look on his face and his eyes were sunken deep in his sockets. I had never seen a man so close to death until a few minutes later when I saw my father. The whole mood that night was grim. The doctors and nurses were trading anxious looks or avoiding looking at anyone at all. At the time I couldn’t understand why. It just made my stomach sick.

Marty was rushed through these huge metal doors. The doors swung open and closed automatically, which made it seem—to an eleven-year old boy—like Marty got swallowed up. Later the same set of doors ate my father.

I saw Marty again about ten years later during another low point in my life. It was my last semester of college and a few weeks after my girlfriend threw me out of the apartment we shared.

I was living in this dreary basement apartment that I was lucky and unlucky enough to find. There was a reason it was available half way through the semester. I was eating a lot of junk food, cutting classes, and watching TV in the dark. I guess the apartment suited my mood.

It was late in the day and I was sitting alone in a diner near my mom’s house when Marty walked in on crutches. He sat in a booth by the window and when his pants hiked up I noticed two prosthetic legs above his socks.

After I finished eating I walked up to Marty’s booth. I’m not sure what I was hoping to accomplish.

I said, “Do you remember me?”

He looked up and shook his head.

“I met you at the hospital the night you were brought into the emergency room.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” he said.

Marty went back to his plate, cutting a piece of grey meat, mixing instant mashed potatoes with canned peas, slurping a cup of coffee.

“I was a kid then, so you’d have to picture me a lot younger. I was sitting across from you in the hallway. You asked me for a glass of water.”

Then I said, “It was December 17th, 1982. I remember the date because it was the night my father died.”

Marty pushed his plate away. He lit a cigarette. I took out a pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket. Marty handed me matches. He moved the ashtray to the middle of the table. I sat down across from him.

I found out Marty had lived on Florida’s gulf coast for several years before moving back to Schenectady after his mother died. He survived on a monthly disability check and small inheritance. Besides his prosthetic legs, he had a heart murmur and the onset of diabetes.

He didn’t say much about the night we met other than he’d lost his legs from frostbite after leaving a Christmas party drunk and passing out in his car in the bitter cold. He sued the owners of the house who hosted the party and the city where he parked his car, but his lawyer filed the papers too late and the case got dismissed.

“That’s too bad,” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders. “The system’s stacked against a guy like me.”

We paid for our meals separately and walked outside. He showed me how his car was rigged for him to drive using his hands. It had the throttle and the brakes on the steering wheel.

He pulled two cans of beer out of a cooler in the back seat. We drank the beer and smoked cigarettes under the streetlight. It was one of those warm spring nights that you appreciate after a long winter.

Marty said the next time he saw me at the diner he was going to buy me dinner.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said.

“I want to,” he said. “You got me water, right?”

“Well, I told the nurse.”

“It’s the same thing.”

I watched Marty drive his car out of the parking lot, working the controls from the steering wheel. He had this wild-eyed look on his face, as if he was half-expecting the car to lift off the ground and disappear into the night sky.

I went home that night and sat in a chair in front of the TV with the volume turned down. The apartment had this horrible odor I was trying to ignore. I think it was in the carpeting. I was thinking about my father and how much I missed him. I wished he could have seen me grow up and graduate college. I was about to be the first person in my family to get a college degree. I think that would have made him proud.

I remembered how my mother would take us to visit my father’s grave on every holiday, his birthday, and the anniversary of his death. Those first few years were tough for everyone. Then my sister stopped going to the cemetery with us around the time she turned sixteen. On the next occasion—I think it was Memorial Day—my mom and I skipped visiting the grave. We never went together after that or seldom talked about my father. I don’t know why. I suppose grief has its own rhythm.

My mother started dating a salesman she met through her work. I was happy for her. They lived together in the house where I grew up. They were able to deny living together because he still paid rent on his apartment. But he was there almost every night. I told my mother to have her boyfriend give up his place and not worry about what other people think. But she was old-fashioned when it came to couples living together, especially a widow with children.

That summer I ran into Marty at the diner. I’d been over my mom’s dropping off laundry. I was looking for a full-time job and living in the same lousy apartment. My ex-girlfriend had moved back to Long Island and wasn’t too keen about me coming down to visit. I was putting a lot of pressure on her to get back together. I wanted to get married. I think she moved back home to get away from from me.

Then on my way to the diner I remembered Marty and wondered if I would see him. Sure enough Marty was sitting in the same booth, almost like he was waiting for me to walk in. And he bought me dinner, just like he promised. Being out of work, I was happy to oblige. But I didn’t take advantage of him. I ordered the daily special and nothing else, not even a soda.

He began talking about the experience of losing his legs. He said it had been years since he talked to anyone about it. I told him a little about my father’s accident.

Marty said it was stupid and reckless to leave the party as drunk as he was that night. But he often wondered why the owners of the house didn’t try to stop him from driving home. There were people milling around outside who had watched him stumble down the front steps and skin his knee.

Before the accident Marty figured he’d get married and have children. But after all these years he was comfortable being on his own and couldn’t imagine having a wife or the responsibility of raising a family.

“Life suits me just fine,” he said. “I realized long ago this was the way things were supposed to be.”

After we finished eating Marty asked if I wanted to go out for a few beers. I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to encourage him. He was too old a guy to be hanging out with. Then I remembered that I was the one who approached Marty in the first place. I kind of felt sorry for him.

“Okay,” I said.

I put his cooler and crutches in the back seat of my car and drove to a bar that he suggested. We sat in the back room near the pool table and took turns buying drinks.

After a while Marty asked the waitress to clear the empty beer bottles off the table. She wasn’t very friendly toward us. I watched the girl stack the bottles on the tray and put down a clean ashtray.

“No reason we have to look like drunks,” Marty said to her.

The waitress forced a smile.

While we were talking I noticed how Marty would tip his chair back on two legs and stare down at the floor as if his thoughts were somewhere else.

Marty talked about being in the hospital for several weeks, enduring multiple infections and surgeries, losing one leg the night he was brought in and the other leg the next day.

“Nowadays I bet they’d be able to save my legs,” he said.

“Today, sure,” I said.

He seemed to think about this for a moment.

“When I woke up from surgery, the first one, I told the nurse I wanted to see my leg.”

I moved around in my seat.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “But I felt like it was still mine. Attached or not, it belonged to me.”

“What’d the nurse say?”

“She called in the doctor, who said I was in shock. ‘Wait a while,’ he said, ‘and see how you feel.’ ‘I know how I feel,’ I said. ‘I want to see my leg.’”

Marty took a long drink of beer. I watched him close his eyes and tilt the bottle.

“Did you ever get to see it?” I asked.

“Never did,” he said. “The doctor told me there were health laws that had to be followed. Then the next day they took off my other leg and I thought, what the hell, who cares anymore?”

I looked at him closely. Unlike the first time I saw Marty at the diner, he was clean-shaven and his hair was washed and combed. He had a flat face, queer lips he kept wiping with his sleeve, and a wide nose like you’d see on a black man.

“I don’t think I could look at my leg cut off like that,” I said. “That’s crazy.”

“For months I kept having these awful dreams. I never spoke to anyone about them. They’re the most personal thing in my life. We all have those secrets.”

He shook his head in disbelief.

Then he said, “I was too ashamed to even look my mom in the eyes when she’d visit the hospital.”

We finished our drinks and left the bar. On the way back to the diner I stopped at a market so Marty could buy beer to put in his cooler. I felt uncomfortable—sort of exposed—under the bright lights in the market. The idea of people walking around filling shopping carts with food seemed brilliant. I was like, “Who invented this system of carts and conveyer belts?” That’s when I knew I was drunk.

I stood in the checkout line with a candy bar. Marty walked up struggling to hold onto a carton of beer and a bouquet of plastic flowers. I realized I should have offered to help him shop. He paid for a bag of ice, which we picked up on the way out. I had no idea why he wanted to buy the flowers, but it made me nervous thinking he was planning to give them to me. The woman ahead of us had coupons, which took time for the girl at the register to scan.

When we got back to my car Marty stocked the cooler. He put the beer in first and then emptied the ice on top of it. He opened a can of beer and handed it to me. The flowers were on the floor between his feet.  He was looking straight ahead.

“You ever drive out to where your father had his accident?” Marty said.

“I used to go there when I first got my license. I’d drive by out of curiosity I guess. But I haven’t been there for a long time.”

“You think you could find it?”

“Yeah, I’m sure I could.”

“Let’s go put these flowers down,” he said. “I keep seeing these little shrines popping up along the road where someone’s died in an accident.”

“I’ve seen them too,” I said. “Sometimes there’ll be flowers or a wreathe. A lot of times you’ll just see a cross in the ground.”

We drove for miles on dark country roads. The sky was overcast and I couldn’t see much of anything beyond the shone of the headlights.

We began climbing up a long, slow-rising hill. On the other side of the hill the drop was much steeper. I noticed a sign near the top of the hill. There was a picture of a car dropping over a steep hill. I wondered if my father’s accident had something to do with the sign being put there.

“This is the spot,” I said. “Right here at the bottom of the hill.”

I pulled onto the shoulder of the road and cut the engine. We got out of the car. The road was built up several feet above the fields. There was a wire fence with wood posts at the bottom of the embankment on each side of the road.

I pictured my father speeding over the hill, his eyelids heavy, his jaw slack, a cigarette between his lips. I considered how much time he had to react before losing control of his car, the long-hooded sedan flying off the embankment and slamming into the ground, steam whistling out of the radiator.

I saw my father sitting passively behind the wheel, a gash opened on his forehead.

Marty was leaning against the side of my car without his crutches. Seeing him standing on his own two feet startled me.

I leaned into the driver’s side window and switched on the high-beams, flooding the dark field with light. Hundreds of bugs swarmed into the beams of light.

I grabbed two beers from the cooler. My hand went numb when I reached into the icy water.

Marty said he felt no pain tumbling down the stairs, tearing open his pants, blood trickling down his knee. “I should’ve realized right then and there how drunk I was,” he said. He tried driving home, but only made it as far as the city park. He managed to pull over on the perimeter road before passing out. Temperatures dropped into the single digits. A fresh snow fell that morning, covering his car. When he woke he was still drunk. He heard a snow plow pass by, the heavy metal blade rumbling on the pavement. Marty tried turning over the engine, but the battery was dead. He laid on the horn, but no one came to help. Hours later when the plow came by a second time to salt the road, he heard the pellets pinging against the side of the car.

“I wasn’t cold anymore,” he said. “I could’t feel a thing. When I tried to lift my arm, it felt like someone was holding it down.”

“I gave up,” he said. “I was done caring.”

That night an old man walking his dog through the park heard what he described later as “a human sound,” a whimper perhaps or a soft groan. He brushed the snow off the driver side window of Marty’s car and there in the dark interior he saw a man slumped behind the wheel.

I looked at Marty. His eyes were blinking fast. We stood a few feet apart. He lit a cigarette. When he struck the match, I could see his eyes shining.

I reached into the passenger side window and grabbed the bouquet of flowers. I set down my beer on the pavement and stepped in front of the headlights. I walked sideways down the embankment. I unlaced my boot, took off the shoelace, and tied the flowers to the fence post. I tied them tight so they wouldn’t blow away.

“How’s that look?” I said.

“Real fine,” Marty said.

“Can you see it from the road?”

“You sure can.”

I slipped coming up the bank. I could feel my foot moving around in the untied boot. I turned and looked at the bouquet of flowers. Marty was sitting in the car, leaning back in the seat smoking a cigarette. I got behind the wheel and sat for a moment.

I put the car in gear and drove until I found a spot to turn around. Coming back toward the hill I noticed the can of beer I set down on the shoulder of the road. I considered opening the door and reaching down to pick up the can, but I was finished drinking beer.

I slowed down and looked at the flowers tied to the fence post.

“I’d like to come back and see what it looks like tomorrow,” Marty said.

“Me too,” I said. “Things look different in the daylight.”

Marty seemed satisfied. He didn’t say another word driving back into town. He cleared his throat once. His face was turned toward the window most of the time. I noticed his legs stretched out on the floor. You could tell they weren’t real by the way his ankles were bent.

There was a beer can next to his crotch. When he finished his cigarette he dropped the filter into the can and swished it around. I pulled into the parking lot next to his car. Inside the diner I could see people sitting in booths by the window.

“I’m kind of hungry,” he said. “You hungry?”

“Not really,” I said. “I ate a candy bar.”

Marty wanted to give me his telephone number. I turned on the light inside the car so he could write it down. He folded the piece of paper and handed it to me. I tucked it in my visor. But I knew I wouldn’t be calling Marty or coming back to this diner. I had already decided that. I took the cooler out of the back seat and put it in his car.

“Give me a call tomorrow,” he said.

“Okay,” I said.

Marty was going into the diner for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. I tooted the horn as he crossed the parking lot. Instead of turning around, he picked up a crutch as if to wave goodbye.

I opened the window and lit a cigarette. The cool air rushing into the car woke me up. Driving back to my apartment I thought about the flowers tied to the fence post. I hoped every so often someone passing by would notice them and say a little prayer.

I realized it wasn’t much, just a handful of plastic flowers tied to a post on a road less travelled than most. But maybe people seeing it would wonder what happened down there. Maybe they’d ask themselves who was lost and who was left behind.

I drove slowly on the highway, making sure to stay between the lines. I kept my eyes on the speedometer. When a car came up behind me and flashed its high beams, I stuck my arm out the window and waved for it to pass.

Part Two

Ed was late picking up his children from school. The plan was to drop them off to their mother and go back to work. As a salesman, Ed was often out on the road making calls, which allowed him to drive his children to school and back. But he always seemed to be late picking them up. He was late so often that when the last bell rang his children reported directly to Mother Superior’s office where they sat by the window facing the street waiting for Ed’s car to turn the corner.

The nuns reminded Ed more than once that it was school policy to have all children out of the building at dismissal. They even went so far as to write him a letter, which was sent home with his son.

Mother Superior, in particular, disliked Ed. He wasn’t the kind of man a nun would admire.

When Ed’s car pulled up to the curb that afternoon, Sister Catherine took the boy and the girl by the hand and walked them out the front door. She stood under the portico staring at Ed through the snow flurries falling on the street.

Ed reached across the seat and opened the passenger side door. The girl, the younger of the two, ran toward the car and climbed in the back seat. Big white snowflakes stuck to her hair. The boy sat in the front seat next to his father.

The boy could see right away that his father had been drinking. His eyes were red and the car smelled of alcohol. The boy’s stomach began to churn, but he made an effort not to show any concern on his face. As they breathed inside the car the windshield began to fog. Ed rubbed the glass with his hand and rolled down the window. The boy looked back at his sister as they drove away. There was a book in the girl’s lap and her head was down. The wind was whipping her hair.

On the highway Ed got behind a slow-moving car. He tried to pass the car twice, but was stopped by oncoming traffic. Agitated, he threw his hands up in the air. He began tailgating the car, leaving about a foot of space between the two bumpers. In response, the car in front of Ed began speeding up and slowing down. Ed could see two young “punks” in the back seat turning their heads and laughing.

At that point something changed in Ed. He straightened up in his seat, gripping the steering wheel. The boy noticed the lazy look on his father’s face had disappeared. The crease running down Ed’s forehead seemed more pronounced.

The car in front of Ed accelerated again. The boy could hear the engine rev as the car moved away from them. But instead of letting the car drive away, Ed pushed down on the gas pedal. He got close behind the car again, but this time at a much faster speed. That’s when the driver put on his brakes. He just tapped them, but it forced Ed to react by stepping on his brakes hard enough for the children to be thrown forward.

Instinctively, Ed reached over and put his hand against his son’s chest. But the boy’s momentum carried him forward and he hit his forehead on the windshield. A bump instantly appeared above his left eye. The girl in the backseat landed on the floor and started to cry.

“You’re okay,” Ed said to the girl.

She nodded, but looked frightened. Ed reached back with one arm and lifted her back into the seat. She pulled the hair away from her face and wiped tears off her cheek. The boy smiled at his sister. He didn’t want her to be afraid.

At the next stoplight Ed shoved the handle on the steering wheel into the park position so hard the boy thought it had broken off. The boy grabbed his father’s arm and begged him not to leave. But Ed turned and got out of the car as if the boy wasn’t there.

Ed walked up to the car and leaned into the driver’s side window. The boy could see his father’s head and shoulders disappear into the car. Ed turned off the engine and took the keys out of the ignition. The boy heard voices inside the car. The voices were muffled, but full of emotion. Ed grabbed the driver by his shirt. The young man sitting in the passenger seat opened the door and sprung to his feet on the pavement. Ed stood up and pointed his finger at the young man across the roof.

The boy watched in disbelief. It was like everything was happening in slow motion. He pushed on the horn, but his father wouldn’t look in his direction. When Ed grabbed the car door handle with both hands, the driver started kicking his feet out the window. Then Ed grabbed the young man’s legs and one of his shoes fell off. He dragged the driver out of the car through the window and the young man fell hard on the pavement. Ed stood with his hands clenched in fists, waiting for him to get on his feet and fight. But the young man was too afraid to get up.

By now the stoplight turned green and traffic was backed up at the intersection. Several people stuck their heads out the window or beeped their car horns. Snow began to fall—big, heavy, wet flakes. As snow covered the windshield it grew dark inside the car. The boy turned on the windshield wipers. When the wipers cleared the snow he saw that his father was gone. He watched the young man’s car pull away. Just then the car door opened. Ed got in breathing heavy. His shoulders and hair were covered with snow.

The boy could see that his father was no longer drunk. Ed lit a cigarette and took a long drag. He put the car in gear and drove off. The girl settled back in her seat, relieved to be going home. The boy stared at his father. He noticed the knuckles on his right hand were scraped and bloody.

No one said a word on the way home. Ed pulled into the driveway and left the motor running. He kept his hands on the steering wheel.

“You two go in the house,” he said. “I’ve got a few more stops to make.”

The girl grabbed her books and ran inside. But the boy, sitting next to his father, didn’t move. The bump on his forehead tingled. He touched it with his finger. He asked his father to come inside the house.

“You’re bleeding,” he said.

Ed looked down at his hand. He took a handkerchief out of his coat pocket and cleaned off the blood.

“It’s nothing,” Ed said. “Now go inside and get your homework done.”

The boy opened the car door and got out. He could see his sister’s footprints in the snow. The tracks led to the garage. Snow was falling steadily. An inch or more already covered the ground. From the breezeway the boy watched his father’s car back out of the driveway. All he could make out were the red brake lights shining in the dark snowfall.

That evening, while his mother cooked dinner, the boy sat at the kitchen table watching television. The console television in the living room had a blown picture tube and while his parents saved to get it repaired, the little black and white television on the countertop was the only one there was to watch. The boy didn’t mind. He liked being in the kitchen with his mother. He liked the smell of the food she cooked and watching her prepare it. The girl was in her bedroom reading a book about horses that she had brought home from school.

Ed’s wife was on the telephone with a neighbor when the operator interrupted the call. They were talking about getting together one night the following week to bake Christmas cookies. Ed’s wife suddenly heard a terrible clicking sound and then a woman’s voice come on the line. The hospital had been trying to call this number regarding an accident her husband had been involved in, the woman said. When the neighbor heard the operator she hung up the receiver without saying goodbye.

“How bad is he hurt?” Ed’s wife asked.

The woman on the telephone said the only information she had was that the accident was serious and that Ed’s wife should come to the hospital immediately.

Ed’s wife hung up the receiver on the wall phone and stared at the boy.

“Get your pants on,” she said.

The boy was wearing pajama bottoms with a pattern of baseball gloves and bats that he had put on after his pants got wet shoveling the driveway. His cheeks were still flush from being outside in the cold. The boy turned off the television and stood by the counter. For a reason he couldn’t understand he felt foolish wearing the pajamas.

“What’s the matter?” The boy asked.

“Just do what I say,” the mother said. “And tell your sister to get ready to leave.”

The boy took his pants off the radiator where he had left them to dry and stepped into the legs. Parts of the pants were warm and other parts were still cold and wet.

Ed’s wife called for a taxi and explained it was an emergency. She took off her apron. She turned off the stove and moved the pots and pans off the burners. She helped the girl on with her boots. She went through this mental list of things she needed to do. The list made her feel more in control of things.

Then she stood at the front window waiting for the taxi, smoking a cigarette with an ashtray in her hand. When the taxi pulled in the driveway, they piled in the back seat and drove to the hospital.

Ed was on a gurney in a small, brightly lit examination room. When the family arrived there was a nurse standing next to Ed reading something off a monitor screen. Ed’s wife sat the children down on plastic chairs in the hallway before stepping through the curtain. The policeman who followed the ambulance carrying Ed to the hospital stood with his elbow resting on the nurses’ station.

When the nurse came out of the room the policeman straightened up. He said he was going to need her to draw blood to measure Ed’s alcohol level. The nurse’s face tightened. She stared at the policeman. When the nurse opened the curtain to wheel a machine in the room, the boy saw his father lying on the gurney. There was a gash across his forehead and blood on the front of his shirt.

Ed suddenly moved to get up. The nurse tried to get him to lie back down, pushing her hands on his chest. She was caught off guard by Ed’s strength and his ability to move around given his injuries. Then again, working in the emergency room for as long as she had, the nurse had seen many strange things possess the injured. She knew how desperate a wounded man could be.

For the first time in his life the boy saw fear in his father’s eyes. It gave him the goosebumps. Ed had fought in the war and told the boy stories. The boy thought his father would live forever.

Ed was larger than life in comparison to the other fathers the boy knew. He had never seen his father miss a day of work or stay home sick in bed. Many a morning Ed would come home from a night of drinking and playing poker to shave and change his clothes before going off to work.

The boy knew that if his father could just get on his feet everything would be okay. The doctor could stitch his cut and they could all go home.

He thought of the food his mother had left on the stove and imagined his family eating dinner. He pictured his father sitting at the table in a clean shirt and a bandage wrapped around his forehead like you see the wounded wear in the movies. His mother was there in this image too, standing over her husband in her apron holding a frying pan and filling his plate.

An orderly rushed into the room to help keep Ed on the gurney. His mother was off to one side. She was saying something to her husband. The boy could recognize but not understand the complex emotions on her face—concern, disappointment, anger.

Then all at once Ed stopped trying to get up. He let out a loud breath the boy could hear from the hallway. The doctor was called in to exam him. When the nurse saw the boy looking in the room, she closed the curtain.

A short time later Ed was wheeled into surgery by the orderly. The boy saw how grey and drawn his father’s face looked as he passed by.

The orderly was bent over the gurney, pushing it down the hallway in long, powerful strides. But what drew the boy’s attention—what he remembered all those years later—were the quick, little steps made by the nurse holding the IV bottle alongside the gurney.

There was something about the commotion in her steps that filled the boy with dread.  He was so terrified he held his breath as the gurney went by. Then the nurse, the orderly and Ed passed through these huge double doors and the hallway was empty again.

 —Edward Maitino


Edward Maitino’s work has appeared in Hunger Mountain and Event. His short story “Blackbird” won the Eugene Garber Prize for Best Short Fiction at the State University of New York at Albany. He has taught at Hudson Valley Community College.

Feb 142013

Diane Schoemperlen

Here’s a writer’s calendar if I ever saw one. Print it up and tack it above your desk. Not just New Year’s Resolutions, but resolutions by the month. For example: APRIL/ Composition — How to do it? Sing softly/ make/ make/ What a pretty face she has/ Do not let the fire go out.  Sound advice. Loopy, intuitive, surprising, charming, image seeded with words and seeded again with more images. Hybrid art, restless art, art of quotation, homage and reference.

These twelve calendar collages are a rare and sumptuous treat, a phantasmagoria, a riot, a witty extravaganza of hyper-creativity from Diane Schoemperlen, Canadian novelist and story writer, winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, who just can’t seem to sit still and write but is always extending things. What has always distinguished her as a writer is her capacity to create structural metaphors out of apparently incommensurable texts. For example her novel In the Language of Love is based on the Standard Word Association Test. Art for Schoemperlen is putting things together; juxtaposition is all. The protagonist of that book is a collage artist which is where Schoemperlen got her own start making collages, illustrating her books with art. On Numéro Cinq a couple of years ago we published Diane Schoemperlen’s story “I am a Motel” with collages. And what we have here today is a logical extension of one creative vector, collages with the snippets of text embedded, not accompanying the story but being the work itself.

Diane lives in Kingston, Ontario, a town of writers. We have been friends for years, even edited a book together once. It’s lovely to have friends like this.



This series of twelve collages called “Be It Resolved” grew out of another longer series called “Quick Studies.” In October 2012, my friend Laurie Lewis (author of two memoirs, Little Comrades and Love and All That Jazz, Porcupine’s Quill, 2011 and 2013) asked me if I had any collages to donate to a fundraiser for the Kingston Seniors’ Centre called “6Squared.” It was an art show to which I could donate up to six pieces, each of which had to measure six by six inches exactly. None of my collages were that size so I decided I would make something especially for the show. But it was less than two weeks until the deadline for donations. The creation of my usual collages is a very slow and time-consuming process so I knew I had to come up with something that could be done much more quickly. Casting about for an inspiration, I realized that the pictures on the calendar I keep on my kitchen windowsill were exactly the right size. The calendar is a page-a-day collection of art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art and I had had several versions of it over the years. Of course I had kept them in a box in the basement.

I am most intrigued by the combination of text and image in collage and so I began, first sorting through the calendar pages, choosing the ones that seemed to offer themselves readily to some additions of text bits and other images. I made use of collage material that I had been accumulating over the years but hadn’t found a place for in my other work. I cut the text bits from a number of old textbooks that I’d gathered for larger projects but hadn’t used after all. These old textbooks were spelling and reader primers for young schoolchildren, originally published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Because I had a deadline to meet, I intentionally made these collages as quickly as possible, not allowing myself the usual time I would take to ponder the placement of each and every fragment. This turned out to be a wonderful exercise in subverting my own sometimes annoying need for perfection in my usual collage process. Within a week I had six collages to donate to the fundraiser. I called them “Quick Studies.” Each collage became a small mysterious story, a story that seemed to create itself as I pasted the fragments onto famous paintings by Monet, Manet, Rousseau, Rosetti, Renoir, and the rest. I enjoyed making them so much and they were so enthusiastically received that I continued on and the “Quick Studies” series now numbers thirty-three with many more to come. For me, these collages have become the perfect way to flex my creative impulses without pressure or self-criticism. They are liberating and exhilarating, always giving me an infusion of energy and excitement for my larger writing projects.

The “Be It Resolved” series is an extension of the “Quick Studies” series. It began on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. I am not fond of New Year’s Eve and I do my best to leave it unacknowledged. Nor do I make resolutions. But I suppose I can’t help but think about the upcoming year, as everyone does. Never mind about quitting smoking, losing weight, going to the gym, or trying to be an all-round better person…in 2013 I just want to create more and worry less. I was quite taken with this idea and I posted it to my Facebook page. The positive response was immediate and heartfelt. Most of my FB friends are creative people and, apparently, most of them also worry too much, just like I do. So I made this series of collages to commemorate what had become a collective resolution, one for each month of the year, any year. The collages are intended as a reminder of how important it is to make a place for creativity in the midst of all that other stuff that needs tending to, dealing with, and worrying about. At the request of many people, I have plans to have them professionally printed as a calendar.

—Diane Schoemperlen


Be It Resolved #1 Diane Schoemperlen

Be It Resolved #2

Be It Resolved #3


Be It Resolved #4


Be It Resolved #5


Be It Resolved #6


Be It Resolved #7


Be It Resolved #8

Be It Resolved #9


Be It Resolved #10


Be It Resolved #11


Be It Resolved #12

Author’s Note: The “Create More Worry Less” calendar is now available! Cost is only $20 each + $5 shipping and handling. Please contact me at my Facebook Author Page for ordering information:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Diane-Schoemperlen-Author/22203973880?ref=hl Or send me an email with “CALENDAR” in the subject line: dianes@kingston.net

—Diane Schoemperlen

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Diane Schoemperlen has published several collections of short fiction and three novels, In the Language of Love (1994), Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2001), and At A Loss For Words (2008). Her 1990 collection, The Man of My Dreams, was shortlisted for both the Governor-General’s Award and the Trillium. Her collection, Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures won the 1998 Governor-General’s Award for English Fiction. In 2008, she received the Marian Engel Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. In 2012, she was Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. She has just completed her latest project, By the Book, a collection of stories illustrated with her own collages.

Feb 132013

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea here attacks head on the dread subject of sex but manages somewhat quixotically to ride away (on a Shetland pony named Warrior Maiden) into utterly charming reminiscences about his youthful passion for Angie Morton (his version of Dulcinea del Toboso) and a shantytown and “Colored Graveyard” he would pass traveling to and from her house. This is an instance where an author makes a virtue out of necessity, doing a masterful job of being entertaining while not writing about what he doesn’t want to write about. As Syd writes, “Before I was able to publish the one and only novel I ever composed, for example, my agent had practically to horsewhip me into juicing up my characters’ erotic encounters.” Here are beautiful, lapidary lines: “Unrequitedness thus became, as I say, an expectation.” And a sweet reflection on the complexity of life which, yes, casts up metaphors that we spend the rest of our days decoding.

This essay, along with two others, “Unskunked” and “Becoming a Poet: A Way to Know,” published earlier on Numéro Cinq, are among Sydney Lea’s contributions to a book he has co-written with fellow poet laureate Fleda Brown. The book is called Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives and is forthcoming as an e-book in April from Autumn House Books. The pattern of the book is a call-and-response. As Sydney writes, “My friend Fleda Brown, lately poet laureate of Delaware but now escaped to northern Michigan, and I are writing a book together. She writes an essay on a topic (food, sex, clothes, houses, illness, and wild animals); then I write one on the same topic. Then I write one and she follows suit. Etc. It’s fun, though I don’t know who in Hell will publish it.” We have also published here one of  Fleda Brown’s essays from the book, her wonderful meditation on books and reading, “Books Made of Paper.” And in our March issue, we’ll have another. I will be sorry to see this series end for us. (But buy the book.)




A tricky one for me, this subject. Its once-upon-a-time factor must start at ten years old or so, before I understood sexuality except by some vague surmise, In those days, I habitually rode Warrior Maiden, my fat little Shetland pony, past Angie Morton’s house.  Angie was sixteen, I think, and movie star beautiful, at least in my eyes. She was scarcely taller than I, and would never grow taller, but her figure was simply statuesque.  She had raven hair, almost chalk-white skin, and the most penetrating eyes, ice-blue, almost white themselves, I had ever seen or would ever see after.

My hope, often enough repaid, was to catch her in her yard or, far more exciting, for reasons I must also have dimly surmised, through her bedroom window. No, that’s not accurate:  the compensation for my hope was never adequate. True, I couldn’t conceive what satisfaction might entail, but I knew Angie’s languid wave or, on happier occasions, her desultory word or two of chitchat was not it.

So desperate was my need for this young woman, whatever that need comprised, that I frequently extended my rides just so I could pass her house more than a single time on a single ride. I remember tethering Warrior Maiden to an apple tree and simply sitting under it for as long as I could bear, gorging on the wormy windfalls till I made myself queasy.  At least I thought the fruit was to blame for how I felt.

These delaying maneuvers resulted once in a frightening but thrilling trip home after dark.  In our corner of Montgomery County lay a small settlement of southern-born blacks, who had made the hard trek north in search of better fortunes. Most of them went to work in an asbestos mill in Ambler, though a fair share took jobs on local farms, or, if they were women, they labored as domestics in the more prosperous households. I found their little dwellings fascinating and somehow foreboding: in the warmer months, the front doors seemed always open, but the interiors were kept so dark that I could never quite make out the figures inside. In one tiny house, a harmonica seemed always to be playing, though I couldn’t find the musician. Each shack seemed multi-generational: I could tell that much by the wide variety of human heights among the shadowy occupants.

The shantytown had an aroma of cuisine, exotic, at least to me, pungent, and attractive; but the truly unusual feature of the community was its cemetery, with those knife-thin, tilting headstones, each adorned and surrounded by shards of broken glass, and the bordering trees full of suspended bottles.  To ride by that half-acre graveyard plot after sunset, and after having laid my adoring eyes on Angie; to hear indistinct rustlings of nocturnal animals in the brush; to be forced to rely solely on the pony’s sense of where home lay: this mixture of adventure, reverence, mystery, fear and trespass would come to serve as a kind of under-aura to such sexual experiences as I would have in my adolescent years– and later ones too.

However strangely it strikes me today, I seem somehow to have believed that my life would never amount to anything, that I would never know that obscure condition people called happiness, if I couldn’t be with Angie, even if, as I’ve conceded, I didn’t understand what that sort of “being with” entailed.

The notion was absurd, of course, and yet it didn’t end as I came to maturity, at least of the physical kind.  For too many years, I would spot a woman in some public place– museum, train, airport, restaurant, campus– and would be convinced that if I could not know her in the Biblical sense my entire life would be no better than despair. The inane measures I took to guarantee myself, if not a conversation with her, at least a glimpse of my exalted Angie were paltry compared to the extraordinary lengths I went to in order to put my person in the way of these coveted women. I can’t even describe the sanest of those tactics, so embarrassed do I remain by reflection on them.

The tactics, of course, were almost always met with rebuff, or simple non-recognition. Indeed, such a response was no more than I expected, the expectation itself a carry-over from my horseback days.  Not that Angie ever cruelly rejected me.  I suspect she knew full well the profundity of my crush on her, but she spared me all mockery, let alone recourse to nasty words.  She appeared always to have enough time for a brief exchange of remarks, which I both craved and resented.

None of her acknowledgments was enough. However banal my part in the conversation, I always hoped she could read it allegorically somehow, could know that my commentary on the weather, for example, was freighted with double-entendre.  Alas, she never appeared to decode the allegory, and despite my knowing, even at ten, that her failure to do so owed itself to my own clumsiness and to no defect in her, I was free to regard the failure as a kind of dismissal. Unrequitedness thus became, as I say, an expectation, though being the oldest son of a mother whom I seemed always to disappoint must have factored into all this too. That, however, is another story. Or at least I choose to think so.

I will be forgiven for lacking the temerity as a child to declare my devotion to the paragon Angie. But that I should remain oblique, even prudish to this day when it comes to talking about sex seems an odd thing, so elaborate and ardent were my efforts as a young man to get as much of sex as permitted by such charm as I owned and by 1950s mores, which I felt both thrill and shame to violate when I could. Before I was able to publish the one and only novel I ever composed, for example, my agent had practically to horsewhip me into juicing up my characters’ erotic encounters. Though the first draft referred to those encounters, it stopped leagues short of depicting them. In forty years of teaching, for further instance, I never felt other than acutely uncomfortable when discussing student work that showed significant carnal content.

One problem that has always concerned me, at least in my avatar as prose essayist, is what I call the temptation to closure. That is, I may lay out a series of memories, emotions, and events, and then discover myself hunting for a way to herd them into a narrative corral. I don’t know if that’s what I am doing here. I honestly do not. In any case, I wonder if my unease in talking about sex out loud or on the page may go back to a certain horseback ride after dark, when – full of vague lust, longing, and melancholy– I passed what was then referred to as the Colored Graveyard. The sense, as I lingered under Angie Morton’s window, that I was on the brink of an exciting but forbidden trespass may have been further impressed on body and soul by my traveling on horseback by those darkened cabins, each so full of mystery, then under those suspended bottles, which seemed to betoken a universe I had no right to visit. That, after all, was what made it so scintillating to imagine.

—Sydney Lea


SYDNEY LEA is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, 2012. Skyhorse Publications just brought out A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife, and in April, his eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is due from Four Way Books. His most recent collection of poems is Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock. His 2011 collection is Young of the Year (Four Way Books).

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Feb 122013

San Francisco Intl Festival

I love this photo of Yahia Lababidi. How can you resist a man with words written all over him and a book in his hand? Egyptian-born Lababidi is a poet, aphorist, essayist and mystic. He is steeped in the traditions of Western philosophy but comes from a world where the desert reminds you constantly that you are surrounded by a vast inimical emptiness; the ancient Christian hermits used to sit in the Egyptian desert because from there you could place a toll-free call to Paradise. But it is also a world in which mysticism finds an easy partner in eroticism, the metaphors of love. This is equally true of some Western traditions but especially those with Arabic influences, for example, the fantastic love poetry of the Troubadours. It’s not much of a stretch to see that influence standing behind Don Quixote’s passionate ideal love for the non-existent Dulcinea del Toboso, the adoration that drives him through 800 pages of Cervante’s great novel. These are poems toward a future collection, poems that are often aphoristic in their turns, poems that turn often on a relationship to a self, an other, an alter ego (Pessoa is cited) or a wound. Although it may seem contradictory to say so, the mystic is a person in conversation; everything in him burns toward that conversation.

NC earlier published a selection of Yahia Lababidi’s aphorisms entitled “Flirting With Disaster.” But you will find a helpful introduction to the man in this essay “The Artist as Mystic” written by Arie Amaya-Akkermans.



Dark Room

Awoke, with an unseen
reel of dream film
I’d found wandering

And, now wondering
where does one develop
such unreal pictures?


Alter Ego

“ I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me.” – Fernando Pessoa

The first thing you noticed was how pale
the skin – the second, was how naked
a mess of long limbs, knees and elbows
you’d not have known what to make of it

The albino squirmed in the cruel sunlight
a thing of porcelain, as brittle and bright
grass scarcely covered the strange flesh
and birdsong masked its muffled cries

All day the dream-being remained that way
an odalisque of indeterminate sex
clearly in exquisite pain, yet alluring
and commanding an odd authority

Only when night fell did it make sense
-the androgynous specimen was male-
the way it crouched, danced and leapt
luminous in the moonlight, fearless.


Pen pal

He went to bed, cradling a pen
his back turned to the woman
when he awoke, she was gone
and, in her place, a giant pen.



Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.  – Rumi

What unexpected turns our losses take
in winding their way back into our arms:

an absent lover returns as many others,
a nation forsaken in the shape of a new life;

poems might take the place of mothers
and friends gone come back as a wife.

If Love were not always a step ahead
how would it ensure we kept up the chase?


Master and servant

Rarely, having neglected his art
the man catches a glimpse of the artist

that cold, appraising gaze
the glint of an eye-tooth

better to turn away from the mirror
and best not to have a blade in hand.


St Sebastian

Sometimes, he found it difficult
to dislodge the arrows
preferring to keep them there
reverberating in silence
along with his invisible wounds.


You again

You again, of the singing wound
here again, lost and found and lost
trafficking in metaphysics and eternity
as the nearest hopes

where to, pilgrim
outdistancing chasms
rationing emotions
seeking sustenance

for the self too subtle and proud
for words
nocturnal flower, nurtured solitude
watered night

there you go, restraining the impulse
to say it all at once
even surrounded by silence
still filled with noise

now, having stirred some thrumming
hour when the moon throws
her full-bodied light
over all, like a silver screen night
of silent films, the whirring
of the reel.

—Yahia Lababidi


Egyptian-born, Yahia Lababidi is the author of three collections:  Signposts to Elsewhere (aphorisms — 2008 Book of the Year at The Independent in the UK), Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (essays) and Fever Dreams (poetry). Lababidi’s work has been widely published in US and international journals as well as being translated into several languages, including: Hebrew, Slovak, Spanish, German, and Italian. A juror for the 2012 Neustadt Prize for International Literature, his latest book project is a series of ecstatic, literary dialogues with Alex Stein, titled:  The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi. Here is a link to a conversation from The Artist as Mystic, where the author discusses how he began writing aphorisms (among other things)

Yahia Lababidi

Feb 112013

Alexander MacLeod

The son of author Alistair MacLeod, Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection, Light Lifting, was published by Biblioasis in 2010, though it wasn’t released in the United States until 2011. A sharp, poignant volume of wonder and nostalgia, the book went on to collect a laundry list of accolades. It was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Frank O’Connor award, and was named “Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, Quill and Quire, The Coast, and Amazon.ca.

I’ve been a fan of MacLeod’s since first reading his story, “Miracle Mile,” which follows two elite runners as they compete for a spot on the Canadian national team. Being a runner myself, the story felt real, alive, almost as if MacLeod was reporting rather than conjuring. I reviewed Light Lifting for Rain Taxi Review of Books, and now feel fortunate to have spent some time talking with such a gifted young writer.

We spoke via Skype on a lazy Sunday afternoon in mid-January. I was home in Connecticut, while Alexander, fresh from constructing a Lego ghost ship with his children, checked in from Nova Scotia.

— Benjamin Woodard


Benjamin Woodard (BW): I want to start by asking you to speak about the physicality found in your writing. Most of the stories in Light Lifting involve either athletics or some sort of corporeal task, from bicycle delivery to bricklaying to walking long distances down the highway. Was this a conscious decision on your part when constructing the collection?

Alexander MacLeod (AM): I was very interested in the stories I was trying not to write. So I didn’t want a story that could take place in an entirely psychological way, something that could just be how events were interpreted internally. I wanted to see a story—both in terms of the characters and the narrative—that could actually work in a presentation of physical scenes, scenes that had a physical dimension, so readers could come up to a moment where there would be a physical juxtaposition.

One that I always think of from a narrative point of view is the boy [in “The Loop”] who comes up to the threshold of the house and has to step across and perform mouth to mouth. There is a whole sequence of events that unfold here that would be different if he stays on the other side. I was interested in seeing not just character decisions, but narrative decisions taking on a physical dimension, so that if an action took place, then the action was going to be unambiguous: you were either on this side or that side.

Sometimes physicality is an alternative to ambiguity, sort of a clarifying function. For the runners [in “Miracle Mile”], that’s very clear—for runners it’s very clear that [a time of] 3:36 is different than 3:39. So I wanted to have the psychological stuff going on, all those good internal emotions, but I also wanted to have physical manifestations so that, when those emotions arrived, they wouldn’t be ambiguous.

Light Lifting

BW: As a reader, it feels as if research is a vital part of your storytelling, as all of your narratives are filled with intricate facts. I’m thinking of caravan engine construction in “The Number Three” and head lice in “Wonder About Parents.” What kind of role does research play when you write? And how do you create balance so that your research doesn’t overtake the creativity of the narrative?

AM: I actually didn’t do very much research at all, and I’m kind of strategic about not knowing things on purpose. I try to see the research in “Wonder About Parents” as totally embedded in the character. The character reads that book, and the character doesn’t know anything about lice, he just picks up this absurd book. And the absurdity of the book was very shocking to me when I read it. I thought, “Wow, this book is itself a kind of stunning.” It would be classified under epidemiology. Hans Zinsser wrote that book.

The other stuff wasn’t really researched. It was just things in the air. The caravan in “The Number Three,” yeah, I did ask some guys who work in the van plant. I have cousins who work in that plant, so I was interested in those different chassis. And it turns out I was more interested in it than lots of readers. They always find that stuff boring.

I did want to be right on those details because I thought that, though literary people don’t care about it, I knew that people would be reading the story who did know what was right and wrong. I had to have the horsepower right. You couldn’t say that the problem with the Dodge caravan was that it had no guts and that they gave it some guts. I didn’t want to be totally wrong as far as they were concerned. So I was definitely thinking about those people. I don’t know if that’s research as much as it is peer pressure.

BW: I want to follow up by asking you about your use of layering in the collection. You often inject asides in your narratives, little tidbits that provide contextual information about your protagonists: “Wonder About Parents” contains a scene where characters talk about basketball nicknames; “The Loop” features all those small scenes between the delivery boy and his elderly customers. I’m curious if these tiny moments are things you’ve collected over the years for this purpose of fleshing out a character’s history, or if they organically grow from the narrative as you’re writing?

AM: Anne Enright has a great line about description, where she says description is not passive, it’s active; it’s your stance on the world. When you’re describing something, you’re taking the world in and kind of spinning it back out. So there are lots of scenes that people think are descriptive, those side moments that aren’t really essential to the plot, or they’re not critical scenes. But to me, when I’m building this story, they are essential. Like that scene with the Pistons: I was really keen to get Vinnie Johnson into that story, because they called him “The Microwave” because he’d heat up in a hurry. I found those Pistons interesting; they fit into my story well.

And the old ladies fit in completely the same way. I often come back to those old ladies in “The Loop” as, perhaps, the most physical people in the whole book. Everybody thinks it’s about the runners or the guys laying bricks or the kid riding the bike, but the old ladies who are shoveling the snow, who have made that decision, are interesting. When you’re 76 and your children are going to try to boot you out of the house, your physical being takes on this really important level of significance. So I wanted to make every aside part of the center. Those old ladies who might seem peripheral were essential to how you think about the story. If you had them in a scene, the old lady who just peeks through the cracks of her door, or the lady who always carves the pumpkins, those are two different ways to be in the world, and I was trying to bring them closer to bigger concerns of the whole book.


BW: How do you construct your stories? Do they start with an image, or do you come up with a broad concept and try to build from there?

AM: I try to approach them like poems, a little bit. I’m interested in images, and I try to imagine an image that will hold the whole story. So in “Adult Beginner I,” I pictured that girl jumping off the Holiday Inn in the dark, and I saw her body in the black sky, with the black water underneath. And then I thought the whole story would answer, “How did she get there, and what are the consequences of that action?”

If you can just plant the image in the reader, even if they can’t remember the name of the character or the consequences, if they just have that image, then the whole story is sitting there. Same with the runners or, again, the kid stepping across the threshold. When I build them, I might have 2 or 3 images that I really want to get right. I want to put the image in a scene. Kind of build a scene from an image and then build a story out of four or five of those. Something happens, or you imagine how something happens, in an image, then a scene, and then a story. That’s how I work.

BW: You’re a runner, right?

AM: Yes.

BW: Does running help facilitate your writing?

AM: Definitely. I’m kind of hurt right now. I have a bad Achilles tendon right now. And I find that when I can’t get out and can’t be alone like that for an hour or an hour and a half every day—is it freezing in Connecticut?

BW: No, actually it’s warm right now. I was running this morning in just a shirt and pants. We’re in a heat wave in the middle of January.

AM: Well, we have these Halifax cycles, where we get 40 cm of snow, then this horrible melt/freeze combo, so when you get a horrible footing, there’s no place you can go. And I was running in that and I screwed up my Achilles, and it has been a week of compromise.

I like whatever it is about running, or “old man running,” I suppose: just putting in time and committing to a process with no idea of what it’s worth. It’s not really worth anything anymore. It’s very personal. I think that running and writing have an awful lot in common. You kind of have to give yourself over to it and you have to think it matters before anyone else will think it matters, and you have to kind of be doing it in a way that’s separate from yourself.

If you watch running, you say, “Well, what is it this David Rudisha doing?” Well, this is a guy who’s going to go to the Olympics and he’s going to win the 800mm. To me, there’s something very pure and outside of subjectivity when you get to that level of talent. I always say I’m more interested in good writing than I am in good writers. When you judge a contest, all the names are gone and you don’t know who this person is, where they come from. You just read paragraph, paragraph, paragraph. And it’s amazing how writing can get beyond the person and just be the thing itself, like running. I don’t know. It could just be that I’m a runner who writes. There are lots of us out there.

BW: While on the subject of running, the story “Miracle Mile” features the following passage about balance: “You have to make choices: you can’t run and be an astronaut. Can’t run and have a full-time job. Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run. When I stopped going to church or coming home for the holidays, my mother used to worry that I was losing my balance, but I never met a balanced guy who ever got anything done … You have to sign the same deal if you want to be good—I mean truly good—at anything.” This philosophy seems to fit into what you’re saying about the writing life.

AM: It’s this idea that every activity is kind of artistic. I do believe that and I was trying to hit on this in the book, with the guys who put down the brick [in “Light Lifting”], or the guys who work on the line. Everybody sorts his or her life out according to a principle. And to be really good at anything requires something from you more than it does something from the thing that is out there.

I have friends who are neurosurgeons. They try to get grants for cancer research and whatever it is they work on. And we maybe all go out on a Thursday, and when they talk about whatever the big thing is for them, I can sense from their emotion what they’re saying is a big deal, but I don’t really speak their language. In the same way, they don’t speak my language about 3:34 or 3:36. So I’m interested in how any great achievement has to really become, not antisocial, but something that can’t be shared with everybody.

Eventually, we do get down to the algorithm, or eventually we do get down to just some gene, and that’s not something you can talk to your Aunt Frida about. It requires so much knowledge just to get to the point of significance that a person would need to know a lot before they can see the importance of the little. And that’s what I guess the “Miracle Mile” characters are interested in. If you’ve ever gone to watch a big marathon, there are all kinds of heartily disappointed 2:11 runners. Tons of people come across the line at 2:11 and they’re weeping and angry and cursing. Someone’s trying to hug them and they’re pushing them away. And then they’re all kinds of people coming in at 4:20 with looks of pure (he thrusts his arms in the air and laughs).

BW: Absolutely.

AM: And they’re looking for the camera and they’re posing. So I was interested very much in how something like that shows you the personal index of success and failure versus this other thing. And the other thing is, you know, whatever is happening to those 2:05 runners. I have a friend who was a 2:20 marathoner. He was at a party and someone said, “Oh, you run marathons. What’s your best time?” “Oh, 2:20.” And they were shocked. “I’ve never seen anybody who can run 2:20!” And he said, “Well, I’ll be the fastest person you’ll ever meet, because people who run 2:11 can’t go to parties.” I’m interested in people who sign over their own signifying power, who say, “This is what’s going to matter to me.” Either if it’s model cars, or stamp collecting, or vinyl collections. I’m interested in how they’re doing this more than what they’re doing.

BW: There was a big hoopla here in the US this past election concerning Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s phantom marathon time.

AM: He underestimated how much people have to put in to run a 3-hour marathon. He said, “around 3 hours.” He thought that that might work for the general public-

BW: Which it probably did, but not with the running community.

AM: Well, not even the serious running community. There are people who, in their offices, their whole personality and healthy lifestyle are wrapped up in being “a marathoner.” So when this guy says he runs around 3 hours, they want that confirmed. And when it’s not, it is, to them, very revealing of character.

BW: As a writer who is also a runner, do people read a story like “Miracle Mile” and assume it comes from real experiences, that you really ran the train tunnels?

AM: They always ask. The thing with the tunnel is that people can’t believe that it’s really there. It really is just like that. I find the tunnel is something that’s more interesting to them than the running. And the tunnel is amazing, because, like so many things, it is this totally threatening thing only if you choose to see it as a threatening thing. Otherwise, it’s just banal, something that has sat there forever. But it is there and there’s no fence around it, and you can still go and run into it today. So, I think the reader is shocked both by the story of it and by the fact that it is real. It seems like it should be more threatening than it really is, I guess.

BW: Could you talk about how do you approach scenes of action and tension? You seem to have a gift for slowing time in these situations to great effect. I’m thinking of Mikey and Burner’s race, Stace’s near drowning in “Adult Beginner I,” or even the very brief shark encounter in “Everything Underneath,” which you wrote for the Canada Writes series.

AM: That’s the first time anyone’s asked me that. I’m interested in slow reflection on fast happenings. The happenings are fast, but their significances are slow, and I’m interested in how they would be registered and reported to the reader. Probably when you’re panicked, you’re not thinking like that. When you’re running, everyone thinks it’s super-physical, but your brain is the problem when you’re running. Little significances are coming through you all the time. You can feel a little tight somewhere, and then your brain makes it much worse. Swimming is like that, and I was interested in that [in “Everything Underneath”]: a quick thing happening that fires your whole brain, where your brain realizes this fast thing may be the most significant thing to ever happen to you.

We spend all our time thinking out plots in which we are the main character, or that we’re in control of these actions, and then, boom, the real significant event comes from over here. You don’t have any way to prepare for it; all you can do is respond. And things do slow down when you are responding to an acute event that comes out of nowhere.

BW: “Everything Underneath” came out this past summer. What other writing are you currently working on?

AM: I wrote one story last year that isn’t quite done, but I also have another one coming along that, I don’t know, my stories are always long and this is one of those things that’s on the border of something. I’m definitely not working on a giant project. I don’t know if I’m working on a novel right now (chuckles). I have this story and it may be bigger than I thought it was. But I’ve only written, in the past year, a story and a half and then this monster. That’s what I’m doing right now.

I’m not locked into anybody, which was the same thing that happened with the stories before. I just start working on them, and then when I feel good enough about them, or feel like they’re ready to go, I’ll show them to someone. But I’m not tied into anybody, where they say they need 260 pages by May 1. I haven’t ever done that, and I don’t know if that’s wise or stupid.

BW: How long does it take you to complete a story?

AM: Sometimes that come really quick, and sometimes it takes a while. But never really that long when I know exactly what I’m doing. I spend probably 90% of the time thinking it through, trying to see what the images are—what the first one, middle one, and end one are. I don’t write drafts. Pretty much by the time I get to the end, then I’m 90% done that first time through.

If I was doing it full time, I could probably finish a story in a month, but it’s never full time. I work very quickly when I’m on them, but sometimes there’s older stuff that you just need time away from. That’s what sort of happened with “The Number Three.” That was one that I had to get away from and come back to a couple times. I had that last image of the guy walking, but I didn’t know what the daughter’s role was in that. It took me a while to figure out how to use her. I knew the image better than the characters. So sometimes you need time away to fix things like that.

BW: We’ll finish up with a couple of lighter questions. What are you reading now?

AM: Right now I’m reading Pélagie-la-Charrette, an Acadian book by Antonine Maillet. It’s one of the great, great works of Canadian literature, but hardly anybody knows about it, or they don’t pay attention to it. It’s written in Acadian French and is an amazing book.

As is often the case with my job, sometimes I’m teaching a course and I get to reread stuff in order to teach it or to write about it for an article. I often go back to older stuff. I’m not totally caught up in what the latest thing is, not too much 2012.

BW: What or who inspires you as a writer?

AM: I’m definitely inspired by my dad, mostly for the way he took care of his craft and the way he fit his craft around our lives. I was totally impressed, and still am, at how Dad just does his work. He doesn’t really care, or doesn’t concern himself, with whatever happens to it afterwards. And so I try to do that. I try to keep up with the Lego, keep up with the running. I don’t do much literati stuff. But when I go to work on the literati stuff, I try to go at it like you probably do with your running: absolutely no one cares how fast your Ks are being done except for you. So I do try to be sincere. I know that I have whatever limitations everyone else has, so I try to be sincere. It’s not ironic. I try to be honest with myself when I write, so that I can actually hand it out there and say, “That’s about as good as I can be. I did what I could with it, and that’s what I could do.” So I find my dad really inspiring.

I also find the kids really inspiring. It’s a great privilege to hang out with my kids and their friends and get to that pure moment when people aren’t really self-aware yet. My kids are still young enough, but I can see it dawning on them: who’s the nerd and who’s cool and who’s pretty. But I do really enjoy trying to keep that sincerity. They’re not too hip yet.

— Alexander MacLeod & Benjamin Woodard


Alexander MacLeod lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and teaches at Saint Mary’s University. His first book, a collection of stories called Light Lifting was published in 2010 by Biblioasis. It was named a “Book of the Year” by the American Library Association, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, Quill and Quire, The Coast, and Amazon.ca.


Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His reviews have been featured in Numéro Cinq, Drunken Boat, Hunger Mountain, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. His fiction has appeared in Numéro Cinq. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.

Feb 102013

Bunkong Tuon

God damn it! Books make a difference. They get under your skin and into your brain and attach themselves to your DNA and change you. They become your father and your mother, your brothers and sisters and best friends, your confessor and therapist, your spirit guide and your kindly mentor. They make you fall down and weep, and they make you race to the barricades.

Bunkong Tuon’s grandmother carried him out of Cambodia on jungle trails on her back. In California, he was a lost kid, a dropout working in a donut shop, too bereft to find a footing in the West. One day he pulled a book off a library shelf and it changed him. The book and the author became this fatherless exiled orphan’s new father.

I still have a tough time reading these lines, they are so full of youth, splendor and joy, the young man (or woman) setting out on a life of books and writing.

I also remember walking into a local pawn shop and buying a used typewriter, the one where the keys got stuck after striking the second or third letter.  Still, I typed the night away on that thing, while my aunt slept in her room and my uncle made donuts at his shop in Bell.  I remember the cockroaches coming out of their crevices to keep me company.  It was magical then; the tuition was cheap, something like 200 bucks for each semester, and I had few responsibilities other than to read and write whatever I wanted.

This is a poignant, moving essay about loss, fathers, books, and writing. It is a lament and a confession. It is also a strangely hopeful message for us all.



Maybe it was the wine in me that made me blurt out, “You know, I’m annoyed with having to defend ourselves all the time.  The writers I read in my twenties saved my life!”  Then I began to tell the story of how I fumbled into a local library, picked up a book from the shelf, read it from cover to cover, then went back to the same aisle and chose other books by that same author.  I told my friends how the author spoke to me that day and how he changed my life.

This happened at a party to celebrate the end of another academic term.  We were talking about the plight of the Humanities.  A few years ago, a local university eliminated several language, literature, and culture departments.  That fall, the President told the American people that, in order to build a strong future for our nation, we must support our education system—only math and science were specifically mentioned as important areas for development.  In the face of the current 7.9 percent unemployment rate, all of us knew how hard it was to talk about the values of the Humanities to our students, to explain to them why reading, discussing, and writing about literary texts matter.

The hostess of the party, a good friend, asked, “So tell us, BK.  Who was that author you were reading?”

And I couldn’t utter his name.  I was ashamed of him.

Once in an interview with the Franco-Swiss director Barbet Schroeder, this writer got mad drunk, cursed his wife, and literally kicked her off the sofa.  He was not a good man, but he was my literary father.

As for my biological father, I have written about him with pride.  My poems are a kind of love letter from an orphan to a father he never knew.  In “Cambodia: Memory and Desire,” I wrote, “My father sold ice cream in train stations,/ competing with street peddlers with his/ good looks and easy talk” (323).  In “Lies I told about Father,” I went even further with my admiration.

With a son’s quiet adoration, I chiseled you:
a gangster from the East, a Khmer Krom
whose veins bled out Khmer characters (not Vietnamese),
who, guided by fate, found himself in the West
and married mother for her virtue and beauty.

In my poems you drink because, well, real men
drink, curse, and sleep around (the cursing
and sleeping around, you didn’t do, of course,
because of your love and respect for Mother).

My father is mythic in my writing.  He is clearly someone I’m not: a “gangster” with a sense of adventure, a man’s man who can hold his liquor and charm his way out of troubles with “good looks and easy talk.”  The truth is: I never knew my father.  He passed away in Cambodia in the 1980s, while I was a high school student in Malden, MA. When my grandmother, uncles, and aunts left for the UN camps along the Thailand-Cambodia border in 1979, my father decided to stay in Cambodia with his new family.  Like many other Cambodians who had fallen victim to Pol Pot, his wife, my mother, had passed away from sickness and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1976 or so.  My father took another wife several years later, when Vietnamese forces liberated Cambodia.  Fearful that, as a stepson, I might be mistreated by my new family, my grandmother took me away from my father, carrying me on her back as she and her children trekked across the border, avoiding landmines and jungle pirates, to where the UN had set up a camp, rumored to have an abundance of food and medicine.

This is the story I’ve inherited from my grandmother, aunts, and uncles.  It is the story of a father I never knew, and, in the absence of knowledge, I have the freedom to invent him in any way I want.  Out of a desire to be like my cousins who have the good fortune to have fathers, I “chiseled” him, in that freedom that only imagination provides and that desires shape, in a way that made sense to me, an orphan refugee child.  In my writing about him, I never once mentioned the stepmother and my half-brothers.   The father possesses masculine qualities, or what, at the time, I imagined “masculinity” to be, with the hope that someday I would inherit those qualities myself: rough on the outside but gentle on the inside, good looking and, more importantly, good with words.  He is not necessarily a man of letters.  As long as he is comfortable in a social setting, able to leap with ease from one social group to the next, then this man is my father.  He is the father I never knew; he is the father I created.

The literary father, the one I knew, is the one I’m embarrassed about.  He is Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles poet of the damned.  In his own belligerent way, the guy saved me, saved me from an early death of the mind and spirit.  In the early 90s, I was working for a maintenance service company in Long Beach, California.  From six in the evening to four in the morning, I’d go to people’s houses, offices, private and religious schools and scrub their tubs, mob their floors, and empty their trash.  Before that, I’d worked at my aunt’s donut shop in Bell, California.  I was never good at customer service.  Although I didn’t get fired, my aunt was quietly relieved when I found a job elsewhere.  And before being a failed donut maker in Southern California, I was a college dropout in eastern Massachusetts.  One day, I just stopped attending classes at Bunker Hill Community College.  I had gone there because a friend’s mother had taken me by the hand, had driven me to the campus, and had enrolled me.  And before community college, I had been a high school punk who had ditched classes one day to go skateboarding, had forged my grandmother’s signature the following day, had been busted and had been sent back home for a two-day suspension.  The school graduated me because they didn’t want me to come back.  They didn’t know what to do with me, just as I didn’t know what I was doing reading Shakespeare and Chaucer in English classes.  Neither the books nor the teachers could explain why I felt so different from my surroundings.  Nothing made sense.

But, for some reason, the world according to Bukowski did make sense to me.  On that day in the local branch of the Long Beach Public Library, Bukowski spoke to me.  I can still remember that day: a typical sunny Southern California day, nothing strange about it.  I got up about ten in the morning after a night of cleaning toilets, mopping floors, and emptying trash bins, and mysteriously, I felt an urge, a summoning, to go to the library.  I borrowed my uncle’s car, drove to the nearest library, and sat in its parking lot, watching children and their parents going in and out and thinking about that closeness—that intimacy and trust with another human which seemed to evade me somehow.  Once the parking lot was empty of people, I got out of the car and made a beeline for the library’s entrance, which I walked quickly through, eyes downcast, towards the walls of books on one side of the large room, where I could hide myself.  I roamed in aisles of books until I found myself in front of the A-B row, picking up and putting back several books until I came to Play the Piano Drunk like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.  The world then opened up for me.

It was a world of men and women who had lost their way, a world of sadness and cruelty with occasional beauty, a world of outsiders living on the cultural margins.  Somehow the filth he described in those poems felt pure and honest, and the madness seemed sane, a logical outcome of being exiled from Eden for so long.  Writing, for me, and I think for Bukowski too, has to do with working with that state of exile, where loss is the center of many ghostly things and homelessness is what you have always known.   I don’t think we can ever fill that void, so we write about it.  No matter how much we believe in the transformative power of words and the imagination, loss is eternal.

After devouring Play the Piano Drunk, I began picking out other poetry books by Bukowski and reading them in that section of the A-B row: Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, The Days Run Away like Wild Horses over the Hills, Dangling in the Tournefortia, and that wonderful collection of poems and short stories, Septuagenarian Stew.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to sleep in roach-infested bungalows and seedy motel rooms, buy cheap wine by the gallon at a liquor store on L.A.’s skid row, or bet on luck at your local race track, but I could relate to the feelings of alienation, loss, desperation, and loneliness from which Bukowski’s bums, drunks, gamblers, and prostitutes suffer.  It was the feeling of being broken and living with it, although I knew then, just as I know now, that our brokenness has different sources.  For me, it was that historical rupture of being ripped away from home—from my mother, my father, my Cambodia.  My poetry collection, Under the Tamarind Tree, came out of this historical moment; it’s a story of a refugee child trying to piece together the broken pieces of memory, of places and lost time, and rebuilding himself.

The title poem, for instance, has to do with my most powerful and early memory of loss, the death of my mother under the Khmer Rouge regime.  Here is my exile from Eden.

The child is sitting on the lap
of his aunt, under the old tamarind tree
outside the family home.

The tree stands still, quiet
and indifferent.  The house sways
on stilts cut from the bamboo tree

in the backyard, where grandfather’s garden lies.
Monks in saffron robe, and nuns with shaved heads,
their lips darkened with betel-nut stain, sit

in the veranda of the family home, chanting prayers
for the child’s mother in Pali, which sounds like
a nursery song from which the boy is excluded.

Incense perfumes the hot dry air.

There emerges a strange familiar song
between the child and his aunt that day—
a distant song, melodic but somehow harsh,
as if the strings are drawn too tight—

Each time the child hears Buddhist prayers
coming from the house, he cries;
each time he cries, the aunt, a girl herself,
pinches the boy’s thigh.

The boy cries because he doesn’t understand
why strangers are making noise while his mother
is trying to sleep.  His aunt pinches the child’s thigh
because it is her first taste of loss.

The Khmer Rouge eliminated from their utopia, their Cambodia in Year Zero, any trace of Western influences, which they saw as corroding the country’s moral and cultural fiber.  Schools, banks, the free market, hospitals, and religion were abolished.  Monks were forced to defrock or face death.  That was how my grandmother came to marry her second husband, the only grandfather I knew.  But, in this poem, I gave my mother a proper funeral rite.  In the face of filial duty and an orphan’s desire to do something right for a mother he never knew, I gave her the dignity and respect of which the Khmer Rouge had deprived her and many others.

On that day in the library, I also found in Bukowski a voice that was clear, direct, and raw.  I was a kid who had barely made it through high school only to become a community college dropout, but I actually understood what I was reading.  There were no tricks, gimmicks, and secret codes to be deciphered by the select few, the educated and well-informed readers.  When the wellspring of Bukowski’s poetry books ran dry at that library (the Dana Branch of the Long Beach Public Library), I turned to his semi-autobiographical novels.  Post Office, the book that put Bukowski on the map, wasn’t exactly Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, and Ham on Rye was no A Portrait of the Artist as a Young ManBut they were easy for me, a college dropout, to understand.  Bukowski was a writer for the common man, who recognizes immediately when someone is in pain, when he is burning in water and drowning in flame.  Pain is pain: it’s immediate and real, and Bukowski was good at capturing it unflinchingly.

So free, so private, so enormous, that moment in the library, that rebirth, and like any birth, so full of possibilities, so hopeful, so alive.  In “How Everything Changed,” I described what happened to me that day:

It was in one such corner, hidden away
from the sight and sound of suburban
mothers and their children, where I
picked a random book off the shelf:
a book of poems by that drunken
old man, a book filled with social misfits
and outcasts, drunks and prostitutes,
barflies, cockroaches, and vomit;
at that moment, I felt my first breath.
I was gasping for air.
I felt my own sweet suffering in others.
Loneliness was extinguished,
and compassion bloomed in my chest.
I am telling you this, so that you know
in the worst storm of your life this mad love
can hit you, smashing you into billion pieces,
interconnecting with everyone and everything.    

On that day, I was somebody new.  I didn’t want to die anymore.  After the poems, short stories, and novels (it had to be in that order, for my child’s mind was still learning to build a mental picture from each joining of words) came the essays, where Bukowski introduced me, in his own arrogant way, to other writers.  Somewhere, somehow, in that web of intertextual electricity, I came to Hemingway and Carver, the French poets (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Genet, who scribbled his own dirty notes in prison), and the Russians like Chekhov, Tolstoy, and that great psychologist and spiritual advisor, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

I wanted to be a writer then, but I knew I couldn’t write.  I didn’t have an education.  I enrolled myself at Long Beach City College, taking classes that interested me, classes in philosophy, history, anthropology, and English—relearning the basic skills of reading and writing and returning to those books I was required to read in high school and couldn’t get through the first page.  I remember reading late into the night Shakespeare’s King Lear for an English class and being moved to tears.  (Many years later, as an English professor, I watched a Shakespeare & Company’s performance of the play with friends from the college, and I still couldn’t hold back the tears.)  As for Chaucer, I found his Canterbury Tales as dirty as, heck, even raunchier than Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man.

I also remember walking into a local pawn shop and buying a used typewriter, the one where the keys got stuck after striking the second or third letter.  Still, I typed the night away on that thing, while my aunt slept in her room and my uncle made donuts at his shop in Bell.  I remember the cockroaches coming out of their crevices to keep me company.  It was magical then; the tuition was cheap, something like 200 bucks for each semester, and I had few responsibilities other than to read and write whatever I wanted.  I wrote songs and poems, with occasional flash fiction thrown into the mix.  The writing was amateurish at best; the topics were the usual explorations of angst, love, and death, but there were a handful of poems that were honest, reflecting my life experience, such as “Early Saturday Morning in Malden, MA (1986)”:

Saturday morning
grocery shopping at the only Asian
market in the city;
putting back fish sauce and soy sauce,
picking up milk, bread, and cereal,
I told Grandma to be quiet—

Because Jeanine and her mother were there too.

When I had too many credits at LBCC, they gave me an Associate Degree and transferred me to California State University in Long Beach, where I took a poetry workshop with Gerald Locklin.  Locklin was a rock star to me.  He was the only person I met who had met the man himself, drank with him, and invited him to read at the university.  Bukowski had already been dead several years; so Locklin was as close as I could ever get to my literary father.

After Long Beach, I went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I was simply fearful of the life of poverty that Knut Hamsun’s nameless character had suffered in Hunger.  I knew enough of hunger in the refugee camps to keep me from falling into romantic revelries about the starving artist.  In graduate school, I did what I had to do.  Most of my time was spent deciphering the works of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Bhabha, and other theorists.  Nevertheless, I managed to eke out a memoir, Under the Tamarind Tree, on which my poetry collection is based.

Then I won the academic version of winning the lottery: I got a job after graduation.

I now teach at a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, working with students whose life stories aren’t exactly like mine.  I’ve shared my story with those students who have come to my office and seem to have lost their way, reminding them of the magic and possibilities in life’s offerings, of finding one’s voice and passion and, in the words of Joseph Campbell, of following one’s own bliss.  But I have yet to talk openly with my colleagues about Bukowski without feeling anxious.  At a place where I can’t afford the cars that some of my students drive, I feel embarrassed, inadequate, that the writer who influenced me, who gave me life, was a bum who roamed skid row, jumping from one rooming house to the next, working odd jobs and writing in roach-infested motel rooms, cursing the world for worshiping other writers while forsaking him, being god-awful mean to women and men, to whites and blacks alike.  I already feel different enough with the way I look and how much money I have in my bank account; I don’t want to also feel different intellectually.

Listen, I’m not suffering from what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence.  I don’t have an oedipal complex with Bukowski: I’m neither denying his influence nor trying to topple him, nor do I tremble under the shadow of his great name or from holding his books in my hands.  I know who I am, know where I came from, and know what kind of stories I like to tell.  Maybe, as is the case with our biological fathers, we don’t choose our literary fathers, no matter who they happen to be.  Maybe Carver is right.  “Influences are forces—circumstances, personalities, irresistible as the tide,” he writes in “Fires.”  Carver became a poet and a master of the short story because he didn’t have time to work on a novel.  When he was learning his craft, Carver was a young father who had little money and felt overwhelmed by parental responsibilities.  He tells us:

During those ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn’t have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy.  The circumstances of my life, the ‘grip and slog’ of it, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, did not permit it.  The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else.  They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems. (34)

Under “those ferocious years,” Carver didn’t have a room of his own in which to develop his craft. It was his teacher, John Gardner, who offered the young writer his office in Chico State University to write on weekends.  So, by necessity, by circumstance, Carver became Carver.

As for me, I became who I am because of Bukowski, because of the circumstances surrounding my early years, because I left home and lost my way.

I wish I could go back to that party and, without hesitation, without much anxiety, answer my friend’s questions, “Who was the writer who influenced you so much?  What was the book that you read in that library?”

He was Charles Bukowski, a poet from L.A.  The book was Play the Piano Drunk like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.


Works Cited

  • Carver, Raymond.  Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories.  New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  • Tuon, Bunkong.  “Cambodia: Memory and Desire.”  The Massachusetts Review.  45.3 (2004):

—Bunkong Tuon


Bunkong Tuon teaches in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.  His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Journal of War, Literature & the Arts, The Truth About the Fact: International Journal of Literary Nonfiction, genre, The NYAPD Journal,  Khmer Voice in Poetry, and In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself.



Feb 092013

Deborah Zlotsky

Start looking at these painting thinking in terms of accident, depth and drips, not the usual sorts of things one thinks about experiencing art. Think of them as works that begin with a chance conception, a moment of perception, a hunch that grows and accretes by, yes, reflecting the subterranean structures of the artist’s mind (must be, right?). Deborah  Zlotsky‘s paintings have a monumental quality, an architectural quality (I like that phrase from geology “accreted terrane”). At first glance they work by creating a drama of thrusting bulky forms and receding spaces, composed of flat planes and angles, lighter colours and darker colours. But peer closer and the flat surfaces resolve into a textured density of drips, lines, drools (okay, maybe there is a better word but I like it) and craters. These do not show up so well in a digital reproduction on your computer screen or Ipad. So trust me. Here is a link to a lovely and really informative video interview with Deborah Zlotsky which gives you a better look at some of this detailing. The interview was filmed during a 2011 show at the Kathryn Markel Gallery in New York. And here is a very intelligent essay by Viktor Witkowski on Deborah Zlotsky’s paintings, tracking the context for the accidental in art back through Paul Klee to the early Modernist German Romantics and painters like Kaspar Friedrich. And here, below, are the artist’s own words, in response to an email I sent her about the paintings; it was so good I just copied the whole thing here.


Brief note about the work.   Yes, painting and writing are similar, though of course I am fluent in a visual language only, when it comes to being creative. I can think of ideas for novels and films (to the annoyance of my husband!), but never the fleshing out, the creating of nuances and connections and tensions. I can do this fleshing out with painting however. When I paint, I do it for the same reason I read a good novel—to find out what happens, to see how crazy and screwed up things get, but also how some sort of balance or idea prevails. When I begin a painting, I start with something both accidental and familiar—a few colors, a few shapes. I might have a tiny idea, a faint memory of the way sunlight moved through my grandmother’s apartment or a notion about the sensory lushness of a flower’s complexity or a pile of laundry. These initial colors and shapes start a process of discovering unintended proximities and relationships, of finding logic and meaning in the unique situation that emerges. For me, beauty is bound up with accumulation and time and the realization of the necessity of change.  The first marks and shapes are catalysts for a process that requires me to constantly reevaluate what’s important so I can find out what the painting will be.

—Deborah Zlotsky

Be-all (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012)

Waiting room oil on canvas, 60x48 inches. 2011Can the devil speak true? (oil on canvas, 36×36 inches. 2012)


It happened but not to you oil on canvas, 60x48 inches. 2011Derring-do (oil on canvas, 60x48inches. 2012)


Everything must go (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012)


Insofar (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012)


Derring-do oil on canvas, 60x48 inches. 2012It happened but not to you (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012)


Everything must go oil on canvas, 60x48 inches. 2012Not so happy, yet happier (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012)

Be-all oil on canvas, 60x48 inches. 2012)Waiting Room (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012)

Waiting Room (oil on canvas, 60×48 inches. 2012).—Deborah Zlotsky


Deborah Zlotsky is a 2012 recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in painting. She is represented by Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in New York. In 2010, she exhibited her work at Pierogi Gallery as the “Artist of the Week” and, in 2006, her work was included in Twice Drawn, a contemporary drawing exhibit curated by Ian Berry at the Tang Museum. Zlotsky’s drawings are in the curated flat files of Pierogi Gallery and The Boston Drawing Project at Joseph Carroll and Sons Gallery, as well as the online-curated registry at The Drawing Center. Her work has been exhibited in shows across the country and is in the collections of Nordstrom, Progressive Insurance, Rutgers University, the Waldorf Astoria, the New York Palace Hotel and the Albany Institute of History and Art, among other private and public collections. Over the past 10 years, Zlotsky has received residency fellowships at Yaddo, VCCA, Ox-Bow, Millay Colony for the Arts, Ragdale Foundation, the Weir Farm Art Center and the Kimmel-Harding-Nelson Center for the Arts. Zlotsky received a BA in Art History from Yale University and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Connecticut.

Feb 082013

SwanJohn Haney, Weidendammer Bridge, Berlin, November 2004

Amanda Jernigan and her husband John Haney collaborate here on a gorgeous photograph and poem combination, the photograph providing the inspiration or focal point for the poem which is an irregular sonnet, a gorgeous thing, that builds its power through a series of contrasts, contradictions, and denials: delivered/abandoned, surreptitious/scandalously bright, dying swans sing sweetest/swans aren’t known to sing, never spoken/never taken back, (white — note: a word not used in the poem)/black. Read this way, you can see how achingly poignant each of the contrasts or denials is, sad, beautiful reversals. Even the poet reverses herself and seems to begin to disappear in that amazing double negative “we could hardly feign not having seen it,”  or near double negative. In the middle, the poem offers a dense run of literary references, other poems and books, swans, sirens, all concentrated in the moment when the vision of the glowing swan (see the photo; the swan has an aura) disappears under the dark bridge. Note also the rhymes leading to the end: Brewer/truer and sirens/silent and the gorgeous back/black that bookends the last line.

Amanda Jernigan earlier contributed five poems to Numéro Cinq that went into her collection Groundwork which NPR picked as one of the top five poetry books of  2011.




The swan slipped under the bridge — a palmed card,
a dropped coin, a swaddled child, delivered
or abandoned — a surreptitious movement,
but scandalously bright, and we could hardly
feign not having seen it. I thought about
Macpherson’s swan, white habited; and Baudelaire’s,
an exile from its lac natal; the snow-
white somnatational swans of Outram’s
‘Ms Cassie by Tarnished Water’: dying
swans sing sweetest, Brecht maintained. But Brewer
tells us swans aren’t known to sing. The sirens,
too, were silent, according to Kafka. Truer
words were never spoken, never taken
back. In your negative the swan is black.

—Amanda Jernigan


Pearl Street South 2

Amanda Jernigan is a poet, playwright, essayist, and editor. Her first book, Groundwork: poems, was published by Biblioasis in 2011; her second book, All the Daylight Hours, is forthcoming from Cormorant, this spring. She is the editor of The Essential Richard Outram (Porcupine’s Quill, 2011), and is currently at work on a critical edition of Outram’s collected poems.

John Haney is a photographer, sculptor, and wood engraver. His work has been exhibited in public and private galleries in Canada and abroad. He is represented by the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and in Europe by Emerson Gallery Berlin. He is currently at work on a series of black-and-white contact prints entitled Common Prayer (http://johnhaney.ca/common_prayer/), for exhibition at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in Newfoundland, in the spring.

Amanda and John are sometime, amateur letterpress printers. Since 2000, they have collaborated annually on a hand-printed pamphlet or broadside, featuring one of Amanda’s poems and one of John’s photographs, issued in a small edition under their imprint Daubers Press. ‘Reflection’/Weidendammer Bridge … is in that tradition — the first of their collaborations to make its debut in digital form!

Amanda and John live in Hamilton, Ontario, with their young son Anson, and their loyal dog Ruby, of previous Numéro-Cinq fame: (http://numerocinqmagazine.com/2011/01/21/five-poems-from-the-sequence-first-principals-by-amanda-jernigan/).


Feb 072013

Jacob Glover


Jacques Derrida’s book The Gift of Death contains a particularly playful and complex chapter entitled “Tout autre est tout autre” or “Every Other is Entirely Other.” The underlying theme of the chapter is the relationship between humans and other humans (what I will call ethical) and humans and God (what I will call religious). Derrida uses the phrase tout autre est tout autre to deconstruct the relationship humans have with God according to the Bible (specifically in the Gospel of Matthew). He demonstrates that the phrase “tout autre est tout autre,” which is foundational to ethics, also undercuts and obscures the biblical characterization of the relationship between God and humans. What Derrida is doing in this argument is showing the incommensurability of Christian doctrine with a more contemporary articulation of ethical theory.

To begin with we need to address the dual meaning of the phrase tout autre est tout autre. Derrida frequently says that this phrase trembles. It cannot be said to mean one thing or another but must mean two things simultaneously. Derrida says that we can understand it either tautologically or heterologically which means that either this phrase is just saying that every other is every other, or it is saying that every other is all, completely, or entirely other (different).[1] The translator David Willis construes the phrase as: “Every other (one) is every (bit) other”.[2] Willis is trying to allow for the double meaning while maintaining a sensible translation. He includes the words “one” and “bit” in parentheses to suggest that they need not be read as an explicit part of the sentence. In this way Willis preserves the tautology of the phrase: every other is every other, but he also includes the secondary meaning: every other one is every bit other. The only problem with this translation is that it seems to prioritize the tautological reading over the heterological. This is, of course, the way the phrase appears at first glance, but we need to be careful not to say that one version is more true than the other.

The double-meaning of this phrase is not the problem for Derrida. The problem arises out of the implications of one of the possible versions. Derrida says: “One of the [versions] keeps in reserve the possibility of reserving the quality of the wholly other, in other words the infinitely other, for God alone, or in any case for the single other. The other attributes this infinite alterity of the wholly other to every other, in other words, recognizes it in each, each one, for example each man and woman, indeed each living thing, human or not.”[3] So, on the one hand, the phrase suggests the distance between humans and God; God is wholly other and a singular other. This version is in line with the biblical characterization of God. While, on the other hand, this phrase seems to imply that anything which is other to me is wholly other, therefore, nothing is more other than anything else. The phrase implies that the alterity of God is indistinguishable from the alterity between one human and another. Furthermore, as Derrida says, “if every human is wholly other, if everyone else, or every other one, is every bit other, then one can no longer distinguish between a claimed generality of ethics that would need to be sacrificed in sacrifice, and the faith that turns toward God alone, as wholly other, turning away from human duties.”[4] Derrida is saying that if God is just as other as every other other, then there is no way to distinguish between religion and ethics.

Now it might be too strong to say that Derrida has a problem with this conflation of the ethical and religious spheres, but, religiously speaking, it is problematic to posit that God and humans have a relationship that is indistinguishable from the relationships humans have with one another. God is no longer God (i.e. as he is characterized in the Bible) if He could also, just as easily, be a human. In a sense “tout autre  est tout autre equivocates between humans and God.

Derrida brilliantly continues his deconstruction of God-man and man-man relations with a discussion of the Gospel of Mathew. Mathew contains two famous stories which deal in the relationships between humans and God and humans and other humans, namely, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s temptation in the desert. Taken together, these two stories separate the inherited nature of ethical rules from the textually authoritative imperatives of religion. But Derrida doesn’t focus on these stories as a whole; his discussion concentrates on one specific line from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “The Father who sees in secret.”

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches his disciples proper relations between humans, relations that will ensure a ticket to heaven, e.g. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[5] But he is quick to add: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.”[6] The word for law in this quotation is νόμον which may also be translated as traditional custom or inherited habit. Jesus is referring to ethical life among humans here and not religious law. In part, the ethical life of a person dictates admission to heaven, but this is separate and distinct from the religious life described in the Temptation of Jesus.

In the story of the temptation, God leads Jesus into the desert “to be tempted by the devil.”[7] The devil asks Jesus to turn stones into bread, jump from the top of a temple, and offers him the chance to rule over the entire world.[8] Jesus answers each of these temptations with a rule of action for how humans are to relate to God, beginning each rule with the prefix: “It is written.” There are three such rules: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” “You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” and “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”[9] According to Jesus and his undisclosed written source, God’s words are as necessary as physical sustenance. Moreover, God’s authority is beyond dispute. And, finally, God is the only divinity humans will serve or worship. Essentially, Matthew here articulates the radical power and authority God has over humans which does not come from an inherited tradition but from a mysterious source.

As I said, Derrida’s discussion of the Gospel of Matthew focuses mostly on the line, “The Father who sees in secret,” which Kierkegaard quotes in Fear and Trembling. And I think it is important to note that the line “the Father who sees in secret,” when taken in context, contains a synthetic quality; the meaning of this line coagulates the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the religion of the Temptation of Jesus. Derrida says of Kierkegaard’s allusion that “[it] describes a relation to the wholly other, hence an absolute dissymmetry.”[10] This line parallels the version of tout autre est tout autre which reserves absolute alterity for God, i.e. God is wholly other and radically different from humanity. What we should remember is that for Derrida the titular phrase for chapter four, i.e. tout autre est tout autre, seriously problematizes the ethics that this scriptural quotation sets up.

The first time Jesus says “The father who sees in secret” he is telling his disciples not to display their piety or alms-giving publicly. He says: “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them…But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[11] In this moment Jesus concatenates ethics and religion. He sets the boundaries of what is to be within the realm of person-to-person and what is in the realm of human-to-God, but these two spheres, however bounded from one another, share the unseen gaze of God. All this is to show that, in the Bible, the relationship of humans to other humans is divided from and radically different from the relationship humans have with God. And contrary to Derrida’s formulation tout autre est tout autre religion is not soluble in ethics.

It should now be clear that, as I said above, that the characterization of God and His relationship to humans in the Gospel of Matthew is not in line with the phrase: toute autre est tout autre. God, in the Bible, remains wholly outside yet “conditions” human interaction and existence. But tout autre est tout autre implies that the ethical and the religious are indistinguishable spheres or relationships. This indistinguishability, according to Derrida, should render us at some level “paralyzed by what can be called an aporia or an antinomy”.[12] But in fact society “operates so much better to the extent that it serves to obscure the abyss or fill in its absence of foundation, stabilizing a chaotic becoming in what are called conventions”.[13] For Derrida, this indistinguishability is a hole in the logic of society; ethical interaction should not be possible because it lacks a clear articulation. Nevertheless, due to “a lexicon concerning responsibility that can be said to hover vaguely about a concept that is nowhere to be found,” we beat on.  Society, it seems, manages to obfuscate the lack of foundation with those very νόμοι, which Jesus claims he is not here to abolish. The customs and conventions of society conceal the fact that the reason for ethical interaction, whether it be for one another or for God, is unclear, yet out of habit and tradition we remain blindly ethical and secretly religious.

—Jacob Glover


  • The Bible, Revised Standard Edition. Meridian Books, New York: 1974.
  • Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans. David Willis. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 2008.


Jacob Glover is in his senior year in the Contemporary Studies Programme at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is a frequent contributor of book reviews and essays.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Gift of Death, 83
  2. Ibid., 82
  3. Ibid., 83
  4. Gift, 84
  5. Matthew 5:10
  6. Matthew 5:17
  7. Matthew 4:1
  8. Matthew 4:1-10
  9. Mathew 4:4, 7, 10
  10. Gift, 91
  11. Matthew 6:1
  12. Gift, 84
  13. Gift, 84
Feb 062013


Herewith an excerpt from Stig Sæterbakken’s Self-Control, translated by Seán Kinsella and published by Dalkey Archive Press. Self-Control’s narrative is that of Andreas Felt tottering on the brink of unsettling his entire life. In this excerpt—the opening chapter of the novel—his first spoken words to his daughter are ironically “You’re all settled in then?” This sentence has a very meta and unnerving quality when thinking about the book as a whole. Also in this passage, you’ll get hear the stammer in Andreas’s voice (which I don’t mention in my review). The use of ellipses is an eccentric technique that runs throughout the novel, adding silence to Andreas’s confession.  These small silences add to the reveal at the end and recalls Jeanette Winterson’s idea: “When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one.”   —Jason DeYoung



I hadn’t seen her… talked to her of course, but hadn’t seen her, in… how many years had it been?… even though she was my own flesh and blood… and that’s why it seemed natural to me to explain it this way, because it was as though the opportunity arose so seldom that it have us both… or me at least… a sort of fear of failure with regard to the benefits of our rather hastily arranged meeting.  Even though she wasn’t the daughter who lived farthest away, no, on the contrary our homes were so close to each other that actually it was a wonder that we didn’t bump into each other unexpectedly from time to time.  That this wasn’t the case made it natural to assume that it was because she didn’t want to, and for that reason had taken measures not to… or simply… and perhaps more likely… because it was extremely seldom that I… if at all in the past year… had deviated from my regular daily route through the city.

She had lit a long, thing cigarillo, I got the idea that it was chosen on account of her fingers, which were also very long and thin.  She kept looking out the window all the time, as if there was something exciting going on out there, or she stared down at the table or at the cigarillo when I answered her or asked about something: surveying with great interest, it seemed, the grey glow advancing down along the slim stem.  A bit put-on, this excessive nonchalance.  But what else could I expect?  Every time she opened her mouth I thought I’d hear something terrible, that she’d blame for something, or tell me about something horrible that had happened to her.  But after a while, as the conversation ran its course, still without any particularly unpleasant subjects being brought up, I ascertained to my surprise that it was all progressing in an extremely polite and restrained way: I couldn’t help but imagine how friendly and relaxed our little meeting would appear to an outsider, one of the café’s random patrons.

I took a glance out the window, in the hope of perhaps discovering something of interest that could explain her slight absentmindedness.  But there was nothing to see, not from where I was sitting anyway, nothing other than a fire hydrant that stood on the other side of the street, squeezed against the fence, with a drooping bush as a roof.  It had a sort of dignity, standing there.  A few long blades of grass had struggled up through the asphalt an grown closely around it, and a couple of dandelions had accompanied them, of which there were only a few greenish-brown leaves left, making it look like a headstone.  It was completely calm, cars passed without a sound.  Yes, it all seemed so peaceful that it appeared almost staged.  I started to think about that girl who’d been reported missing earlier in the day, she was sixteen and hadn’t come home from a party the night before.  We’d heard the police appeals on the news during our lunch break but it didn’t seem like anyone else had taken any particular notice of it… perhaps you just hear about that sort of thing too often nowadays?… and this had exasperated me, I realized, even though it was only now, in retrospect, that I noticed what an impression it had made.  It was so tranquil in the park as well, when I strolled through it, a bit before six, and still warm in the sunlight.  The pea shrub bushes crackled like a lively fire in a hearth along the promenade, the empty pods hitting the asphalt with a dry slap.  She’d suggested the place to meet, I had to ask for directions twice.  And when I finally opened the door, a couple of minutes late, and caught sight of her… she had sat down at a round table, in the middle of the café… there was something strange about her, just at first glance, that made me proud, like a confirmation of something, without my being sure of what it was.

Our chairs were plastic, the seat felt cold against my behind when I sat down and I had a hard time ignoring the goose bumps it gave me on my skin down there, it felt like tiny nails being pulled out of my rear.  All at once I became aware that I was frightened of running out of things to say, and I thought I recognised the same fear in her.  Then I thought that I could actually say anything at all, that it still wouldn’t make any difference.  It was as though the lack of contact, on a regular basis, which at some times bothered me and at other times didn’t, relieved us of all responsibility: however you looked at it, we didn’t have the time we’d need to become so acquainted with one another that it would be of any significance, no matter what we said.  At the same time I couldn’t quite get away from feeling a certain sort of secret admiration for her.  Because I did see, to my amazement, that it was a grown-up and extremely sensible woman sitting in front of me, one who wouldn’t allow herself to be knocked off her perch just like that, wonderful to see, yes, quite beautiful actually, it struck me, as I studied her more closely.  I thought I could picture her reprimanding one of her colleagues for substandard work, or rolling her eyes over a particularly stupid remark from Karl-Martin, with whom she had unfortunately and for reasons that were incomprehensible ended up; she who could probably have chosen anyone she wanted…

“You’re all settled in then?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, a little sullenly, as if the question bored her.

“And everything at work is all right?”


“And Karl-Martin?”

“Karl-Martin’s work is okay too.  He’s just started in a new job.  The last job he had was just awful, he hated it so much he was on the verge of… well.”

I nodded, even though I didn’t know what she was going to say.

“But he’s happy now,” she said, it seemed like fatigue was on the verge of overwhelming her.

“Do the two of you have any particular plans, or…”

I immediately regretted the unfinished sentence, because I knew she wouldn’t help me in the way I had helped her.  She looked at me.  As I’d thought.  She just waited.

“Or are you both…?”  I felt I’d already entangled myself in something that would be impossible to find my way out of again.

“Y’know?  Thinking, right now, how should I put it…?”

She gave a wry grin.  “About children, you mean?”

I threw my hands up.  “Yes, for example.”

“That can wait,” she said, but it seemed from the way she said it as though this was out of the question.  She began to tell me about Karl-Martin’s job, not her own… described in detail what his new position involved, how much responsibility he’d been given, how much they expected of him, how much freedom he had to plan his workdays.

While I sat there listening to her I noticed something peculiar about her lips, how they stuck to each other at a particular point at the far corner of one side of her mouth when she spoke.  This detail, insignificant as it was, now caught my attention in such a way that I lost sight of everything else.  I couldn’t manage to take my eyes off it.  It bothered me to look at it, all the same I let myself become completely absorbed by it.  There was something about it that didn’t fit… was that why I was so fascinated?… the rest of her, something that didn’t match, no, absolutely not, with what I otherwise took as being her, or rather her outward face.  It was as though that small, and to a certain extent innocent, defect did something to her expression, gave her a certain quality of… well, mercilessness, completely lacking in compassion, as if she was ready to clear every obstacle out of her way by whatever means necessary.  It frightened me when I saw it.  It was like I was sitting face to face with a superior power.  I looked at her, closely examined her whole face, which I had studied with pleasure only a few minutes before… but it seemed as though it had changed, and now I thought it was a wonder that I hadn’t noticed it right away, this cool, calculating, yes, cynical feature of her mouth.  It wasn’t possible not to see it.  And what I had initially considered a disruptive element, a blemish, was now revealed as the very thing that, in reality, have her her own particular appearance.  I stared at her mouth: unmistakably hers.  And eventually… unavoidably perhaps… there was something nasty about it, the slow, sort of lazy motion at the corner of her mouth… it was as though I was hearing the sound of them, her lips, every time they tore free of one another, again and again, for every word she spoke.  And it was only when I realized that she had been sitting staring at me a while without saying anything that I managed to tear my eyes away from that fold of skin… only to discover that I hadn’t the slightest notion of anything appropriate to say…

Once again it was she who saved us from an embarrassing silence.

“How are things with Mom anyway?” she asked, in an offhand kind of way, as if it didn’t matter to her whether she got a proper answer or not.

“Marit,” I said, squeezing my buttocks together, because a brief bout of stomachache had suddenly become a bubble of air that wanted to get out, and it was as if the coldness of the seat was trying to pull it out of me by force.

“Your mother and I, we’re getting a divorce.”

She was startled.  It was as unexpected for her as it was for me.  I had to use all my strength to tame the demon that was wreaking havoc down in my rear end, a loud piercing fart cloud cracked against the seat before I managed to gag it, but she was, fortunately, too beside herself to notice.  Because we both sat there, shocked by what we had heard.  Yes, even she sat there now, with glistening eyes and a flushing flower on each cheek.  But only for a moment, she was quick to regain her composure, find her way back to her pale, feigned attitude of insensitivity.

“I see,” she said.  “I see, so the two of you are getting a divorce.”

A few moments passed, then she added: “That was a surprise.”  She shrugged, in resignation… or indifference perhaps… as if to illustrate how little she cared, and drank what looked like the last dregs from her cup.  I said a silent prayer that she would let the subject lie, which it seemed she wanted to do as well.  She was probably uneasy about showing too much interest in the unexpected news, and at that moment I was indebted to her for exactly that.  because what would I have answered, if she had begun to question me… about the cause of the breakup… about our reasons for wanting to leave each other… about how we planned to organize our new lives… when we had no intention at all of doing any of it?

My spontaneous lie made it difficult for us to continue our conversation, that was plain to see.  So I drank up as well, a cold, pasty sediment that made me shiver, and we took care of what we had met up to take care of in the twinkling of an eye, quickly and efficiently, without saying any more than was necessary to each other, like a customer and an employee; I gave her the money, we exchanged a few words, I waved to the waiter and asked for the bill.  Marit insisted on paying, but I was strongly opposed, there was no sense in it, I thought, if she was going to use the money she had just gotten.

She said good-bye to me as soon as we were outside the café.  I was a little bewildered since the most natural thing would have been for me to accompany her, I could almost have followed her home without going out of my way… on the other hand I was also aware of how easily an awkward atmosphere could develop in the course of an unplanned extension of our time together… possibly it was precisely this that she was considerate enough to want to avoid by our taking leave of each other… or she could have to run an errand downtown for that matter… what did I know?  I wondered if I should ask her to say hello to Karl-Martin, but thought it best not to mention his name any more than was absolutely necessary.  We shook hands.  And suddenly I felt the impulse to hug her, to hold her, just for a moment… be left with a perfumed imprint on my body as a memento… but I refrained, I thought that it would only make the situation more difficult for her.  And for me.  Maybe she would have to twist herself free from the embrace… as from an assault… and then she would have gone home with the feeling that she’d been molested, a feeling which would then be imprinted on her memory of this meeting, overshadowing all its positive aspects, no matter if they were in the majority… which they were… as opposed to now, I thought as I stood there watching her walk away, there where we parted, if not in an especially affectionate way, then at least in a polite and level-headed one, so she could walk home, if not with any great happiness, that’s for sure, then without bearing a grudge, without having experienced her father as a particularly clumsy or unpleasant person.

Her head stuck up out of the coat like a flower from a vase, I saw her neck, white beneath her close-cropped hair, and I thought I could almost picture the way it had been when she was small… there was something about her neck… their necks… that made such an impression on me every time I saw them, although I couldn’t remember the reason.  But there was something nervous about the way she walked, out here… she sort of danced along… which didn’t quite fit with the impression I had gotten from her in there, cool and self-assured, that arrogant attitude she had adopted… which she had probably had from the start, it had just taken a little time before I recognised it… and which my insane fabrication about the divorce had been the only thing that… for a fraction of a second… had managed to puncture.  I tried to remember if I’d had any firm opinion of myself when I was her age.  In any case, I was convinced it was a lot less developed and self-assured than hers.  I had once wished all the best for her, I thought no matter what.  As little pain as possible, and as much joy as possible.  That she would succeed in everything she did, however far her interests might be from the pursuits I myself considered meaningful.  No matter what she chose to invest her time and energy in, that the investment would prove to be worthwhile, that the profit would be plentiful, that her efforts would only make her stronger.  I wanted her to be a fast learner, wanted her to do all right as far as her circles of friends; wanted her to have, preferably, a prominent position; wanted her not to be bothered by anyone, have the wool pulled over her eyes by anyone; not to be exploited by any two-faced creeps, stripped of her independence and self-respect by some twisted psychopath or other.  I wondered if she and Nina still kept in touch, or if the years had come between them, as they can so easily, and so quickly, between siblings… and I remembered that that was what I’d been thinking about beforehand and had wanted to ask her, if it had been a long time since she’d heard anything from Nina, if they ever met up, or rang each other now and again, if she knew where Nina was at the moment, where she lived, who she lived with if she wasn’t living alone… I tried to think, were they more alike than unlike, those two, would a stranger seeing them for the first time notice the similarities or the differences if told that they were sisters.  But it was as though I couldn’t quite manage to picture both of them side by side… it was as though I didn’t have room in my thoughts for the both of them… only Marit, or someone who resembled Marit…

She disappeared behind a growling bus, and I couldn’t help feeling  certain relief at the thought that it would probably be a good while before we would meet again.  I let my eyes wander, slowly.  I tried to remember if there was any particular name for them, the clouds I saw, which looked like they were stuck to the blue of the sky, clouds that would soon diminish and which awoke a strange and highly conflicted feeling in me… It was as though I was close to exploding with joy over something that in reality was dreadfully sad.  I stood looking at the traffic light, just there where Marit had disappeared, a round, red blot, like an overripe apple that would soon fall.  Finally I decided to go… why hand around there, in the middle of a busy sidewalk, with my bag in my hand?… besides, I was freezing… and I turned my head slowly as I walked so as not to let the traffic light out of my sight: I thought that if it changes to green while I can still see it then a disaster is going to take place somewhere in the world tonight, a catastrophe so big that it would be all over the front pages tomorrow morning and that there’d be newsflashes on the television all afternoon… several hundred people dead, an entire area razed to the ground… but nothing happened, it was still red as I crossed the street and went into the parking lot outside the big shopping centre on the other side: its name stood humming in the twilight in a seething shimmer of orange and yellow.  My hands turned yellow, and the people I met looked sinister, as if their faces were about to come loose from their bodies.  Even the parked cars shone in the light of the store’s letters, like animals asleep in a field.

—Stig Sæterbakken


Feb 052013


Self-Control is a disquieting novel of Beckettian stasis that simmers in that prolonged “state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.”  Its narrator, inexplicably possessed by sadistic thoughts, off-putting desires, and weaknesses, lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction in a world that seems to take little notice of him. He is man intoxicated by his own pain, an agony that has dulled him to the point of despair, and throughout the novel we witness his (initial?) efforts to confront his reality only to have them thwarted either by those closest to him or by his own self-control.   —Jason DeYoung


Stig Sæterbakken
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
154 pages

In response to the question how can we enjoy something sad, Stig Sæterbakken writes in a short essay titled “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music”:

I believe disharmony and asymmetry correspond to a disharmony and an asymmetry within us, because we ourselves are not whole, or complete. Because we are never fully and completely ourselves. Because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us. Because our wounds are meant not only for healing, but also the opposite, to be kept open, as part of our receptivity to that which is around us and within us. And because there is also relief in this, not to be healed, not to be cured, melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction, it clams us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency, the state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.[1]

Self-Control is a disquieting novel of Beckettian stasis that simmers in that prolonged “state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.”  Its narrator, inexplicably possessed by sadistic thoughts, off-putting desires, and weaknesses, lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction in a world that seems to take little notice of him. He is man intoxicated by his own pain, an agony that has dulled him to the point of despair, and throughout the novel we witness his (initial?) efforts to confront his reality only to have them thwarted either by those closest to him or by his own self-control.

Influenced by writers such as Poe, Celine, and Georges Bataille, Stig Sæterbakken doesn’t write pretty books nor does he write novels that close with an upstroke of sweetness.  Instead, his novels remind us that there are fates worst than death, namely life—long, horrifically normal life, in which people do not know you and you do not know yourself.  Life in which we cannot find congruence with one another, even though that is what we yearn for the most.

Before he took his own life in 2012, Stig Sæterbakken was renown as one of Norway’s best living novelists—as well as one of its most infamous.  As a writer, Sæterbakken insisted “that literature [be] a free zone, a place where prevailing social morals should not apply…[that] literature exists in a space beyond good and evil where the farthest boundaries of human experience can be explored.” His novels investigate much of what is unflattering about human behavior—evil, which he called “the most human condition of all.” [2]

This exploration of evil bled over into his professional life as the Content Director of the Norwegian Festival of Literature in 2008, when he invited the controversial author and Holocaust denier David Irving to be the keynote speaker for the 2009 festival. The Norwegian press demanded Sæterbakken disinvite Irving and even Norway’s free speech organization Fritt Ord asked that their logo be removed from all of the festival’s publicity. Sæterbakken refused.  He called his colleagues “damned cowards.”  Although reviled by some as a stunt, the David Irving invitation has been seen by others as within keeping with Sæterbakken’s examination of evil.[3]

For all this talk of evil, however, Self-Control is not an evil novel—or I do not perceive it to be—but it does delve into unattractive human behavior, specifically our indifference to the pain of others.  Self-Control is the second novel in Sæterbakken’s S-trilogy, so called because the title of each book starts with an “S”.  The trilogy starts with Siamese, which Dalkey Archive Press published the first English translation of in 2010, and concludes with Sauermugg (not yet available in English). The S-trilogy novels are linked by their exploration of male identity problems, and a “disgusting descent into the hell of human flesh”[4]

Outraged by the complete indifference and self-centered behavior of the people around him, Andreas Felt, the narrator of Self-Control, begins a series of deliberate actions to defy the social norms he sees as the barriers between us. His rampage (of sorts) starts with a lie he tells his daughter that he and her mother are divorcing, a lie that is spontaneous, meant to puncture the “cool…arrogant attitude” his daughter has adopted. Only briefly does his daughter seem touched by this news.

During the second scene of the book, Andreas carries his rampage into his boss’s office.  His boss is a man “five to ten years” his junior, and Andreas thinks to himself that their whole relationship is built upon formalities: “we only need to leave the premises and go to another place…in order to see how ludicrous…how implausible” it all is.  He walks into the office and without provocation calls the man a “little shit” and a “miserable bastard.” He tells him that he is “one of the worst imaginable types of creeps that crawls on the surface of the earth,” reminds him that he got his job through fraud, and that he “probably couldn’t put two words together if someone came up and asked what it is we actually do here.”

Andreas expects dismissal or some sort of reproach.  Instead his boss says simply: “My wife is very ill.”  His boss wants to discuss his wife’s illness, not Andreas’s tantrum.  As with his daughter, Andreas’s expectations are rebuffed, this time by an exchanged of one outpouring of pain for another.  A quick search through this slim novel (154 pages) reveals that the word “expect” shows up fourteen times, and its close cousins “usual” and “usually” appear fourteen times and sixteen times respectively. Self-Control is a novel that shows how our lives are ruled by the “familiar” (a word that appears eleven times), by “habit” (a word that appears eight times), by route and routine (a variation that appears six times).  Granted it is a translated text—but this is a novel of spurned expectations.

What Andreas wants is for our usual, familiar, habitual behavior to go away—a full extirpation of all our hideous decorum. Of a houseguest, Andreas says: “His discretion has always irritated me.”  He imagines leaping upon this man and biting his nose; this thought he says, “cheered me up.” As Georges Bataille writes: “Society is governed by its will to survive…and based on the calculations of interest… it requires [savages] to comply with…reasonable adult conventions which are advantageous to the community.” [5] In Self-Control, characters are govern by social norms, and will not tolerate Andreas.  Where he breaks with custom, others rebuke with conventionality.

Reappearing like a compass heading throughout the novel is the disappearance of a sixteen year-old girl.  The girl goes missing on the same day as the novel begins and lends a sense of imminent tragedy to the narrative.  But the presiding sense of doom in the novel also manifests in Andreas’s almost worshipful attitude toward disaster and catastrophe. When observing his colleague Jens-Olav, who has lost his wife and house and most of his possessions in a recent fire, Andreas thinks: “I didn’t know if it was compassion or envy I felt most. Grief like that…I couldn’t imagine to think of it as anything other than liberation, liberations from all the trivial things that otherwise have such power over you.”  At other times, he lies in bed fantasizing about living through war.  He also desires misfortune on others: “I thought that if I could only mange to find out who [carved an obscene word into the lavatory wall at work] then that person would undergo a transformation, right before my eyes, and it would be a lasting change.”  But his obsession with tragedy is part and parcel with his desire for change. Late in the novel while watching a movie in a theatre for the first time in years, he thinks:

I didn’t want it to end. I wanted a new beginning. Everything over again…fresh and unfamiliar…without any clues as to how it was going to go…what was going to happen…no end. Only beginnings. One after the other. That was the way I wanted it. To know that everything was in front of me. That nothing was decided.

Andreas covets his own sovereignty, but he is fearful of taking real action toward obtaining it. Instead he longingly looks upon tragedy as a source of freedom—“It was as though I was close to exploding with joy over something that in reality was dreadfully sad.”   This promise of tragedy invades his decision making as he put faith into chance occurrences: “if [the traffic light] changes to green while I can still see it then a disaster is going to take place” (page 12); “if a taxi drives by the department store next…then I’ll call [home]” (page 86); “if the next person who goes by the window has a hat on I’ll make the call” (page 90); “if a female newsreader comes on the radio at the top of hour I’ll leave [my wife]” (page 153). When he finally sees someone who has what he wants it is a bum seated a few table over from him, farting:

[T]he power in the eyes of a man who has given up on everything…at least that was what I thought I’d seen in them…one who has nothing left to lose…who has no interest in the workings of the world…and so take people for what they are, not for what he wants them to be… a look so pure and hard and clear that I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Inferior, I felt completely inferior… I felt like a fool, like someone whose development has been at a standstill since his youth and has never been corrected, who’s never been made aware of the grotesque disparity between reality and his perception of reality.

For all his desire to “freshen” life, to be “transformed,” to change the “usual” course of things, Andreas is a man boxed in by self-control, too.  If the reader stops listening to Andreas’s flat, rather monotone torrent of thought for a moment, and thinks about his actions, what we discover is that he is really very similar to those around him.  After he rants to his boss, his boss confesses that his wife is ill.  Andreas can’t show any compassion toward the man, who so clearly desires it, but he does asks “politely” what’s wrong with her, and many of the other “usual” questions one perfunctorily asks when told such news.  During a diner party, Andreas’s guest so plainly wants to enliven the mood. Andreas refuses to play along.  After a meal in a restaurant, where Andreas over tips the waitress, the waitress begins to go on and on about how hard her work is, and she wants to show Andreas the kitchen, which is a terribly confined space, where a sick person, wrapped up like a larva, lingers in a corner.  Again, the social norms are tested—what he seems to want—but our flummoxed narrator retreats.

I’m resisting the urge to spoil Self-Control, because there is a profound silence in it—an important character who doesn’t speak. What I will say is that the final sentence of this novel reveals that one of the worst tragedies that can befall a person has already happened to Andreas, and the end of Self-Control blossoms with complexity only suggested on the previous pages. It is a line that attacks and shakes you from compliancy in Andreas’s nightmare. It is testament of Sæterbakken’s great skill as a writer, too, that he manages to withhold its information for so long and uses it to obliterate our perception of his narrator, to show how insidious Andreas’s stasis is and perhaps how impossible to overcome.

                                                            —Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music” by Stig Sæterbakken. Literature & Music. Vol. 1, Fall 2012.
  2. “Stig Sæterbakken—Between Good and Evil” by Gabriella Håkansson, Transcript.
  3. I am not trying to defend Sæterbakken’s decision or ethics here, but to give a sense of his character. He does seem to be a person who lived by a code near to Terence’s “I am a human and consider nothing human alien to me.”
  4. “Stig Sæterbakken—Between Good and Evil” by Gabriella Håkansson, Transcript.
  5. Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille. Trans by Alastair Hamilton. Marion Boyars, 1988.
Feb 042013
Gordon Lish photo by Bill Hayward

Gordon Lish photo by Bill Hayward

One gets tired of all the logrolling articles about Gordon Lish’s editorial dramatics and possibly malign influence on the likes of Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah or Amy Hempel. They are refulgent with schadenfreude and envy. He bought my novel The Life and Times of Captain N for Knopf on the strength of 50 pages and was decent and helpful to me. He would phone me, launching into monologues in that deep, stentorian voice. “Douglas, you have a contract with Knopf, the finest publisher in America, you have nothing to worry about. You are writing to God.” Something like that, meant, I am sure, to encourage me, although the effect was often rather more alarming. These phone calls were terse and epigrammatic (sometimes, though, he would talk about his wife dying or his troubles with his son) — and distracting. I ended up taking notes and putting some of what he said in the novel (the dwarf Witcacy occasionally speaks Lishian).

I don’t say he was perfect; he had some very eccentric ways. But through the editorial process and an interview I did with him later, I realized he had a method, a theory behind what he was saying, that he was not anything like the middle of the road, tell-a-good-story, sentimental realists that are so commercially successful in America. His own best fiction is monologic, obsessively recursive, relentlessly pushing the story and images forward, yet seeming to invent out of a few initial narrative axioms. He loved to cut words, he talked about the whiteness of the page, and about limiting explanation in order to reveal mystery. Mystery is a word that has a special meaning to him. Above all he was thinking about art, not the market.

We publish here a long and comprehensive essay, not about the the Lish-Carver debate circus, but a thorough and honest look at Lish’s theory of composition. Lish hasn’t written this down anywhere. Jason Lucarelli, a young writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania, had to work with class notes published by former Lish students, interviews with Lish and interviews with some of his former students. And then he looked at the writing, Lish’s own work, and the work of people he edited or taught. This is really the first essay of its kind, the first to take Lish seriously as a theorist and try to parse what he says. Lish comes out of an era, the sixties and seventies, the golden age of American experiment, the high modernist years of Hawkes, Barth, Barthelme and Coover (among others). But he is also deeply influenced by French critical theory, especially Deleuze and Guattari and Julia Kristeva. He has had a profound influence on American writers, something like Gertrude Stein in the 1920s. Jason Lucarelli here begins to balance a rather one-sided view of the man who was once known as Captain Fiction.




“…a topic he took up had to be thought through to the end, everything involved in it had to be gone over point for point before he could be satisfied, to take up a topic means to think it though to the end, no aspect of it must be left unclarified or at least unclarified to the highest degree possible…” – Thomas Bernhard, Correction

“Let us endeavor to sum up. How much repetition does it take?”  – Diane Williams, “Scratching the Head”

W HEN I STARTED LEARNING TO WRITE, callow and rebellious like an adolescent, I wanted to repudiate tradition, deny the classics, and discover my art only in what was new and original. I found my natural bent in the modernist aesthetics of Gordon Lish and, especially, people he taught and edited — writers who seemed to me to be in full cry against every convention. Yet when I put my mind to studying Lish, painstakingly decoding his enigmatic nomenclature, I very slowly began to realize that what seemed like an eccentric focus on recursion and “attack sentences” was actually a brilliant way of re-describing the compositional process, how the repetition of words and sequences of events progress toward a naturally developed short story with a coherent plot structure. I gradually began to understand that what he was saying was not so very different from the advice of the classicists — good writing is, after all, good writing. Lish’s genius is in making it strange that we might see it better.

Fiction editor at Esquire from 1969 to 1976, editor at Alfred J. Knopf from 1977 to 1995, publisher and editor of The Quarterly from 1987 to 1995, Gordon Lish edited, taught and championed writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, Diane Williams, and Christine Schutt. Lish also taught private fiction writing classes where he talked at length about a compositional toolbox he called consecution, a writing process of “going forwards by looking backwards.” Decoded, consecution seems to mean moving forward in a story while keeping in mind what has gone before through the use of repetition.

Christine Schutt—whose first collection of stories Nightwork was one of the last books to be published by Lish at Knopf—was also one of Lish’s students. She defines Lish’s concept of consecution in the following way:

Each sentence is extruded from the previous sentence; look behind when you are writing, not ahead. Your obligation is to know your objects and to steadily, inexorably darken and deepen them…Query the preceding sentence for what might most profitably be used in composing the next sentence…The sentence that follows is always in response to the sentence that came before. (Believer, 71)

For Schutt and Lish, consecution is about continually coaxing action, conflict, and interest out of prior sentences by bringing out what is implied or suggested in what has already been written. Lish further outlines the type of plot-profitable narrative material most beneficial to a story when he says:

Examine your objects for the tension inherent in them, the polarity, the natural conflict, the innate conflict, what is already there, and in the unpacking of this tension, you will reveal…the whole of your story, and how each unpacked object relates in [the] story to every other object. (Lish Notes, 47)

This “relationship” between objects is the same relationship discussed by Viktor Shklovsky when he says, “A literary work is pure form. It is…a relationship of materials” (Theory of Prose, 189). Douglas Glover says that, “In many stories, much of the material is used again and again” (Copula Spiders, 36). This relationship between and recycling of materials begins at the sentence level and extends outward over the work as a whole. Progressive construction and narrative logic evolves out of clearly represented relationships between materials while indicating what these relationships mean within the context of the rest of the work.

Consecution involves repetition at the sentence level and at the larger structural level of a narrative. The recursive compositional methods of Lish’s principle of consecution are a means of using form to create content.


Starting the Narrative Riff

The start of any story is in its initial sentence, the goal of which is to create interest and draw readers into the world of the story while also announcing, in some way, the essential desire, topic or structure of the story. Lish calls the initial sentence of a story an attack sentence. In a set of class notes transcribed by Tetman Callis, a student who enrolled in one of Gordon Lish’s private fiction workshops, Lish is quoted as saying, “Your attack sentence is a provoking sentence. You follow it with a series of provoking sentences” (Lish Notes, 15). By provoking sentences Lish means sentences that initiate intention, action, opposition, and conflict—all words on loan from Douglas Glover.

Lish continues, “You take the initial sentence, your object, and you extrude and extrude, unpack and unpack, reflect and reflect, all in ways thematically and formally akin to the ways in the attack, the opening, the initial sentence” (Lish Notes, 41). In other words, the attack sentence starts the riff of the narrative, then what follows pushes the narrative forward through a kind of narrative logic that says whatever comes to the page must be a function of what is already present on the page. Consecution is about unpacking or revealing more and more of what is implied—the natural conflict, the innate conflict, as indicated by Lish—in what has already been written.

Lish refers to the process of querying the preceding sentence for what might be profitably used in composing the next sentence as refactoring. Refactoring is the mental process of finding a better or clearer way to word something through continually reinventing upon the initial conditions established in the attack sentence of the story. Think of refactoring as sentence-by-sentence refining, or exposing and excavating of details in the text only hinted at in the prior sentences. The objective of each successive sentence of the narrative is not to fill the narrative space with inconsequential details, but narrative details that further develop character, motive, and conflict.

In the lecture notes transcribed by Tetman Callis, Lish is also quoted as saying, “Curve back in your stories in every possible way: thematically, structurally, acoustically” (Lish Notes, 4). This is not only the key to consecution but to all forms of fine writing. When Lish says “curve back” he means repeat references to hints or clues deposited by earlier sentences through methods of consecution that aim at profitably extending the construction of the plot, the theme, the image or word patterning, or simply words mentioned previously.

Douglas Glover explains more of what should be considered narrative material:

Stories have a liner component based on the forward movement of plot and time. But the stuff, the textured density of material draped over this bare bone of plot, often takes on a churning, recursive quality. Words, thematic topics or motifs, images and memories start up and then recycle through the story, coming back again and again, with variation. (Copula Spiders, 36)

These materials naturally develop relationships as they repeat and recycle throughout a narrative. Glover’s compositional premise is in line with Lish’s consecution. Glover continues to articulate Lish’s recursive compositional method of “curving back,” adding:

A rule of thumb: during composition, when a gap opens up and the story seems to resist moving forward, reach back into the earlier text of the story, find something to bring in again and proceed from there. This recycling or juggling of a basic set of materials contributes to the overall effect of unity and coherence in the story. (Copula Spiders, 36)

This “juggling of a basic set of materials” is accomplished through compositional techniques of consecution that aid in the progressive development of a story by “curving back” or “reaching back.” These same strategies are at the heart of consecution.


Methods of Consecution

The main technique of structural consecution concerns the repetition—or recycling—of relevant plot elements or motifs through the progressive, step-by-step repetition of a story’s main desire and resistance pattern. Glover defines story plot as “a structure of desire and resistance (conflict) in which the same desire and the same resistance meet in a series of actions (events)” (Copula Spiders, 85). Glover uses words like “goal,” “intention,” and “motive” to describe desire while he defines resistance as “the force pushing against the achievement of the concrete desire” (5). Parallels between the main plot and subplot of a narrative are another technique of structural consecution.

A technique of structural consecution at the level of the sentence involves the use of a but-construction—a Douglas Glover term—to create tension at the level of the sentence. Glover defines a but-construction as “the use of the word ‘but’ or cognate to create contrast or conflict between what comes before and what comes after” (106). Lish’s name for this narrative turn is a swerve, meaning to contend with. But-constructions help formulate contrast and surprise or juxtaposition and opposition as a way of adding a surprising turn in the momentum of the narrative.

Parallelism at the level of sentences and paragraphs is another technique of structural consecution that uses sentence-to-sentence repetition in the form of parallel construction (using the same pattern of words to juxtapose or compare equal ideas), tautological repetition (rephrasing an idea using an alternate choice of words), and anadiplosis (ending a passage or paragraph with one word and following that passage or paragraph with that same word).

The thematic method of consecution is the technique of repeating references to the desire and resistance pattern of the story with the aim of adding narrative depth by exploring and questioning character action and motive and general story meaning. Another technique of thematic consecution is the use of rhetorical questions through varying forms and points of view that help to develop deeper insights into the narrative while opening up the possibility for new and surprising action. Another technique of thematic consecution is the use of aphorisms, or stylized assertions that offer insight into the actions and motives of characters in a story, and thereby providing observations about overall story meaning. Aphorisms can help enforce a story’s theme. Image patterning is a technique of thematic consecution that repeats the same image, word or set of words in altered contexts.

The acoustical method of consecution involves, as Christine Schutt says, taking narrative direction from sound. She says, “As a writer, I find that sound can give me meaning, narrative direction. Produce a sentence with any sound and respond to it” (Believer 67). Acoustical techniques include alliteration (the repetition of stressed first-syllable-sounds), assonance (the repetition of vowel sounds), and consonance (the repetition of consonants). Dating back to the classical Greeks, these ancient techniques are often used in harmonious and poetical combinations of sounds within the same sentence or paragraph.

At the level of the sentence, consecution focuses on carrying or pushing forward plot-profitable narrative material, like thematic passages, as the story progresses. At the level of the story as a whole, consecution aims at the progressive step-by-step development of the desire and resistance pattern relative to what has gone before.

As Gordon Lish, in his roundabout way, says, “A story must be about what it is about and continue to be about what it is about” (Lish Notes, 38).

Example Texts and Story Analysis

While these recursive principles abound in all examples of fine writing, I thought it would be interesting to look for examples of all three methods of consecution in writers edited by Gordon Lish or who studied under him—writers whose writing strategies were heavily influenced by Lish’s teaching and insights into composing prose under the methods of consecution. My examples of structural, thematic, and acoustical consecution will come from four stories: Gordon Lish’s “The Death of Me,” Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” Christine Schutt’s “Daywork,” and Gary Lutz’s “I Crawl Back to People.”

Gordon Lish’s “The Death of Me” is a story written in the past tense and told by a first-person narrator who remembers the event that evidently became known as “The Death of Me.” The story reads like a monologue or voice-driven fiction. Lish uses an unconventional plot, or, what is essentially a non-plot. All external action has occurred up to the start of the narrative, which begins with the narrator stating his desire (“I wanted to be amazing.”). The monologue traces the progression of that desire as it meets resistance inside the narrator’s obsessive mind. The boy narrator wants to be amazing and has become amazing by winning every field event during his camp’s annual day competition. However, after becoming the only boy ever to win every event in the day competition, the narrator begins to feel everyone around him forgetting his achievement. Lish’s narrative employs consecution at the sentence level where he employs techniques such as parallel construction and tautological repetition to slowly work his way through the ongoing desire and resistance pattern inside the mind of the narrator. At the end of the monologue, the narrator waits with his father and mother for the head of the camp, who comes to shake the boy’s hand. Then the head of the camp goes away and the narrative ends.

Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars” is written in the past tense in a first person, reminiscent point-of-view. “Water Liars” is self-referential and uses repetition to create meaning through the story’s thematic connections. The story begins in a monologue style similar to Lish’s “The Death of Me,” though without the obviously repetitive sentence constructions. The narrator begins by telling us what occasions typically send him down to Farte Cove where old men tell lies and invented tales on the dock. The plot begins when the narrator reveals that he is still upset over his wife’s revelation on the morning after his thirty-third birthday, a birthday that seems important to the narrator “because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three.” On that morning, the narrator’s wife revealed that he was not her first sex partner as she had sworn when they married ten years before. The external action of the story begins in a scene in Farte Cove where the narrator and his friend Wyatt listen to “a well-built small old boy” tell a story about high school kids boozing, smoking dope, and swimming naked. Hearing this story reminds the narrator of his wife and the high school kids who had trespassed against her in the days of her youth. Then “a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered” tells a story about being frightened during a fishing trip by “unhuman sounds” coming from shore. When the man went in search of the source of the sounds on shore, he discovered his daughter having sex with another man behind a bush. The other old liars are outraged at this story because it is not a lie. But the narrator feels a kinship with the old man who told the story because, as it turns out, they were both crucified by a sexual truth. The final line of the story coupled with the earlier reference to Jesus being crucified acts as the story’s resolution and evidence of Hannah’s use of thematic consecution to aid in plot development.

Christine Schutt’s “Daywork” is a present tense single scene story told by a first-person female narrator. The external action begins when the sisters enter the attic with the desire of cleaning out the attic, including their mother’s old, unused appliances—the medical and prosthetic devices she relied on to aid in her mobility. Conflict arises when the sister agree that they might be too early in taking apart their mother’s house since she is not yet dead. Each device or appliance in the attic triggers memories of the mother’s hospital trips and her long struggle with sickness and death. The items in the attic (“…these parts of mother that seem a part of her still…”) also trigger the subdued conflict between the sisters over varying care tactics (the narrator buys her mother cigarettes while the other sister spoon-feeds her), and the conflict each sister feels over sending their mother away to live under someone else’s care. Throughout the text, Schutt uses rhetorical questions—a technique of thematic consecution—in which the narrator calls attention to separate instances of resistance against the sisters’ desire to simply clean out the attic. Schutt’s use of image and word patterning links associations between the different appliances littering the attic. By the end of the narrative, the narrator realizes that the sisters are finally cleaning out the attic in the way that their mother wished she could have done herself: “Hose down, no care.”

“I Crawl Back to People” by Gary Lutz is written in the past tense and told by a first person narrator who recalls four separate love affairs all ending in failure. The title itself—“I Crawl Back to People”—is a tip-off to the technique of structural consecution Lutz uses in the story; after each relationship ends for the narrator, another one begins and the narrator moves on to someone new. The story is divided into four sub-headed sections containing parallel plots that detail the rise and fall of relationships. The first lover Leatrice leaves the narrator after discovering a hint in a dream or a diary that the narrator would not be having her much longer. The narrator takes her to the airport, and afterwards, begins searching other people for signs of her. In the second section about a male lover named Caulen, the narrator moves in with him and begins sending Caulen off to bars alone for reasons unknown to the narrator. The narrator’s third relationship with a female named Kell begins with mutual feelings of “I’m not going anywhere,” which eventually progresses to “I won’t keep you.” The final fourth lover is named Faisal, a woman the narrator loves but who eventually grows tired of the relationship and asks the narrator for a lift to the airport. In each story, there is an overlapping theme of the narrator continually looking for remnants of former lovers on the next one. The final section ends with the notion that the narrator has likely reconstructed his most recent lover’s features all wrong in memory, which suggests that the narrator is looking for remnants of someone that he or she cannot even accurately recall.


Techniques of Structural, Thematic, and Acoustical Consecution

I. Plot Structure as the Main Technique of Structural Consecution

Techniques of structural consecution at the level of the work as a whole include the step-by-step progression of the main plot via repetitions of the desire and resistance pattern, and plot doubling in the use of sub-plots and parallel plots.

On the “progressive structure” of plot construction, Viktor Shklovsky says, “The story usually represents a combination of circular and step-by-step construction, complicated by development” (Theory of Prose, 57). By “circular” Shklovsky means “action” and “counteraction,” another way of understanding Glover’s idea of plot as a repetition of a primary desire and resistance pattern. The step-by-step development of the desire and resistance pattern occurs within a series of scenes or event sequences in which, says Douglas Glover, the “central conflict is embodied once, and again, and again” (Copula Spiders, 24). The progressive construction of scenes or event sequences extends the desire and resistance pattern, which develops intensity over the course of the narrative.

Gordon Lish, Gary Lutz, Barry Hannah and Christine Schutt eschew the conventional scene-by-scene embodiment of the same desire meeting the same resistance. Instead, they choose to subvert the conventional linear progression of the desire and resistance pattern of conflict in favor of variation of form.

Let’s look at the progressive step-by-step development of the plot in Gordon Lish’s “The Death of Me.” The desire and resistance pattern occurs in a linear series of steps inside the mind of the narrator. The narrator’s concrete desire is initiated in the opening lines: “I wanted to be amazing…I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point.” The narrator’s desire to be “amazing” is refined when the narrator becomes “the best camper in the Peninsula Athletes Day Camp.” This desire develops a step further when the narrator says, “I was better than all of the other boys at that camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else,” and then refined even further when he says, “I felt like God was telling me to realize that he had made me the most unusual member of the human race…” Recognition for the narrator’s “amazing” feat comes in the form of a shield with five blue stars of which the narrator is the “only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it.” Suddenly, the narrative momentum shifts and the narrator encounters resistance inside his own wobbly, obsessive mind. First, the narrator feels himself “forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it.” Then he feels “everybody else forgetting—even my mother and father and God forgetting.” More resistance occurs when the narrator says, “I felt like God was ashamed of me.” The narrator attempts to thwart this internal resistance when he says, “I had to be quick about showing God that I could be just as amazing again as I used to be and that I could do something, do anything, else.” Instead, the narrator oscillates between “lying down on the field,” “killing all of the people” or “going to sleep and staying asleep” until his parents are dead and there is a new God in heaven who likes him better than even “the old God had.” This indecisiveness represents the plateau of action and counteraction inside the narrator’s mind, and when his parents ask him where they should go, or what they, “as a family,” should do, the narrator says, “But I did not know what they meant—do, do, do?” which is repeated again, “I did not know what to do” and again, “I could tell my parents did not know what to do.” While the narrative continues for a few more paragraphs, this is where the desire and resistance pattern ends. In “The Death of Me,” Lish depicts the desire and resistance pattern, or action and counteraction, in an internal fight within the mind of the narrator using techniques of repetition in the form of parallel construction and tautological repetition.

Another technique of structural consecution is the repetition or reflection of a story’s main plot within the sub-plot. In Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars,” the main plot concerns the narrator and his inability to handle the truth of his wife’s past lovers: “I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago” (8). The sub-plot concerns the man on the dock who discovers his daughter having sex with another man. After the man tells his story, the narrator says, “He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about” (10). The conflict between the narrator and his wife mirrors the conflict between the man on the dock and his daughter. Coupled with a reference to the narrator turning the age of Jesus when he was crucified (“Last year I turned thirty-three years old…I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life—because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three”), the last line of the story ties the main plot and the sub-plot together: “We were both crucified by the truth.” This level of repetition works on the structural and the thematic level. On repetition of this sort, Viktor Shklovsky says, “In spite of this symmetry, the repetition carries a different nuance the second time around, thereby revealing the full meaning of the story’s structure” (Theory of Prose, 58).

In another similar parallel or repetition in “Water Liars,” when the narrator in hears a story on the dock at Farte Cove concerning naked teenagers smoking dope and swimming, he is instantly reminded of his wife: “I could see my wife in 1960 in the group of high schoolers she must have had. My jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me” (10). This repetition represents a perfect instance of “recycling” or “reaching back” with the purpose of referencing and advancing the main desire and resistance pattern, which concerns the conflict between the narrator and his wife over the lovers she had before him.

Let’s look at structural consecution using parallel plots. On parallel structure, Viktor Shklovsky says, “In a story built on parallel structure, we are dealing with a comparison of two objects” (Theory of Prose, 120). In the case of Gary Lutz’s “I Crawl Back to People,” Lutz relates four parallel plots concerning the “displacement of one object by another” (Theory of Prose, 120). “I Crawl Back to People” contains four sub-headed sections titled for the narrator’s lovers: Leatrice, Caulen, Kell, and Faisal. Each sub-headed section is a depiction of a failed relationship that leads up to another depiction of a failed relationship. Lutz’s parallel plots are based on the same object being brought back in a different way, the same set of issues embodied in a different character.

Besides the repetition of plot structure, each parallel plot carries repetitive details of characters that are seemingly created through comparison. As Shklovsky might say, these details act as a way to “transition from one plot line to another” (Theory of Prose, 138). For example, the narrator cannot tell whether Leatrice was “on the mend or not yet finished being destroyed”; Caulen was “the type not ruinable ordinarily”; Kell “was none too grubby for having dug herself out from other people”; and, finally, Faisal “had suffered at all the right hands.” In the first sub-headed section, the narrator drives Leatrice to the airport after their relationship ends. In the final sub-headed section, the narrator drives Faisal to the airport after their relationship ends.

After Leatrice leaves, the narrator says, “In a couple of days I was already picking her out by the piece here and there on other people…” This is the narrator’s desire—to find pieces of former lovers on other people. After the narrator’s fourth lover Faisal leaves, the perhaps-purposely-genderless narrator is told that, “I would turn up something nicely remindful of her dry-boned elbows or collusive knees on somebody nearer my own age.” The narrator’s desire in this sub-headed section mirrors the narrator’s desire initiated after Leatrice left. While the narrator’s desire is to find these “remindful” remainders of previous lovers on other love interests, resistance occurs when the narrator finds reminders only to lose them once the relationship ends. In an after-story where the narrator meets a kid of seventeen after Leatrice leaves him, the narrator says, “In fact, it was this kid, a high schooler, that I mostly got her dwindled down to by the end of that first summer.” The “her” here is Leatrice, and there are two more instances where the narrator succeeds in finding a “piece” of her: “I could get him to feed me the seizing feel of her sometimes.” And again: “I milked his arms for further thrill of her farewell.” These are all repetitions of the narrator’s central desire.

The fourth section, concerning a female named Faisal, begins with, “There were holes in what I felt for people, and it was through these holes that I slid finally toward this fourth,” which is, essentially, an aphoristic statement that mimics the parallel plot pattern of each sub-headed section. “There were holes in what I felt for people…” is also peculiarly thematic in the way that it references the narrator’s desire to turn up “remindful” remainders of former lovers on new one. When skeptics of the relationship between the narrator and Faisal ask, “What does she see in you?” the narrator responds with, “I told them I was doubling for somebody.” The narrator’s response carries a hint of irony, since the narrator’s new lovers seem to be filling in for the ones of the past. Finally, the narrator’s assertion of the fourth lover (“I have probably got her features collated all wrong in memory anyway”) suggests that the cycle of thematically parallel relationships will never end.


II. Techniques of Structural Consecution at the Level of the Sentence

Techniques of structural consecution also happen at the level of sentences and paragraphs; these include parallel constructions, tautological repetitions, but-constructions, and the use of anadiplosis.

Douglas Glover defines a parallel construction as “a means of using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. This can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level” (E-mail from Douglas Glover). My first example of a parallel construction is an example at the sentence level: “I wanted to be amazing. I wanted to be so amazing. I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point. I wanted to go past that point. I wanted to be more amazing that I had been up to that point” (160). In this series of parallel constructions, Lish begins with the attack sentence, “I wanted to be amazing,” which initiates the narrative by naming the desire of the narrator. While Lish adds slight variation to the next sentence, the sentence uses a parallel pattern of words to the one that preceded it (“I wanted to be so amazing.”) In the third sentence, Lish adds the phrase “up to a certain point,” further unpacking the circumstances surrounding the narrator’s desire within another parallel construction (“I had already been amazing up to a certain point.”) With each repetition, Lish lures readers deeper into the world of the story by baiting them with the narrator’s intensifying desire “to be amazing.” Each addition to the following parallel construction becomes the obsession or base formulation of the following parallel construction: “I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point.” After a sentence turns the narrative momentum on a but-construction, Lish repeats “point” from the prior sentence (“I had already been amazing up to a certain point”) and introduces motive with “I wanted to go past that point.” The next sentence refines the desire again (“to be more amazing than I had been up to that point”). With each consecutive parallel construction, the narrator’s motive increases in intensity.

The next example of a parallel construction—an example at the clause level—comes directly after the first example:

I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one. (160)

In this example, Lish elongates the construction on the clause level. In the first half of the parallel construction (“I wanted to do something which went beyond that point and which went beyond every other point and which people would look at and say that this was something which went beyond all other points…”), Lish elongates the sentence by inserting the conjunction “and” between a range of restrictive phrases that quickly raise the narrator’s motive in steps: “…to do something which went beyond…” 1.) “…that point…”; 2.) “…every other point…”; 3.) “…all other points…” The parallel construction continues on with the added contingent: “…and which no other boy would ever be able to go beyond, that I was the only boy who could, that I was the only one.” The narrator’s desire grows throughout the sentence until he arrives at a place attainable by no one other than himself.

The next example of a parallel construction continues along the same desire line: “It was 1944 and I was ten years and I was better than all of the other boys at the camp and probably all of the boys at any other camp and all of the boys everywhere else” (160). Here, Lish also refines the circumstances regarding the narrator’s desire “to be amazing” within consecutive clauses. The narrator was “better than all of the other boys” 1.) at the camp; 2.) at any other camp; 3.) everywhere else. Again, Lish uses the conjunction “and” in order to link the range of restrictive clauses. Lish might call each move within a parallel construction “refactoring the attack sentence,” but basically he is using repetition as a way of refining the narrator’s desire while feeling his way toward the story.

Viktor Shkolvsky refers to tautological repetition as an “impeded, progressive structure” with a “peculiar poetic cadence” and which “reveals a need for deceleration of the imagistic mass and for its arrangement in the form of distinct steps” (24). He also says that within tautological repetition “a parallel is often established, not between objects or actions of two objects, but between an analogous relationship between two sets of objects, each set taken as a pair” (25).

First, let’s look at Lish’s use of tautological repetition in “The Death of Me”: “They said that I was the only boy ever to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it. They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it” (161). This example offers a further refinement of the narrator’s desire (“I wanted to be amazing”) by establishing relationship between the narrator becoming the 1.) “only boy ever” 2.) “to get a shield with as many as that many stars on it.” At this point, the narrator has reached the pinnacle of his being “amazing,” and Lish employs tautological repetition to linger on this moment for added emphasis.

The next example of tautological repetition also comes from Lish:

My parents kept asking me where did I want to go now and what did I want to do. My parents kept trying to get me to tell them where I thought we should all of us go now and what was the next thing for us as a family to do. My parents kept saying they wanted for me to be the one to make up my mind if we should all of us go someplace special now and what was the best thing for the family, as a family, to do. (162)

In this example, the overall progressive structure of the narrative is also decelerated. The impeded progress of the narrative concerns where to go and what to do now that the narrator has reached the pinnacle of his achievement. The narrator is caught between action and inaction, and Lish uses tautological repetition as a way to emphasize the narrator’s internal conflict. Interesting enough, these tautological repetitions are also couched in a series of parallel constructions.

Here is an example of tautological repetition with slight variation from Schutt’s “Daywork”: “Here they are tiled against the attic walls: the legs, the arms, the clamshell she wore instead of a spine. Here is some of mother leaned up in the attic” (57). Schutt’s use of tautological repetition has a way of refocusing on and refining a specific detail in the narrative for emphasis, which is, in this case, the mother’s old medical devices that haunt the sisters as they clean the attic.

A but-construction is a grammatical swerve that torques a story’s progression with subversion, conflict and surprise. According to Douglas Glover, the use of a but-construction “demands content that might not initially be there in order for completeness” (Copula Spiders, 72). The use of a but-construction is a way of creating content—and conflict—at the level of the sentence. Again, a but-construction creates contrast or conflict between what comes before the “but” or cognate and what comes after.

Let’s look at a but-construction from the passage I previously referred to from “The Death of Me”: “I had already been amazing up to a certain point. But I was tired of being at that point” (160). Here, the narrator’s emotional state changes from a contentment at “being amazing up to a certain point” to being “tired of being at that point.” The but-construction undercuts the previous sentence and adds conflict to the narrative by suggesting that the narrator’s success in being amazing is not enough, that he is not satisfied, and that he is motivated to do something else. Lish applies the same sort of contrast in the next example of a but-construction: “They said that it was unheard-of for any boy ever to get as many as that many stars on it. But I could already feel that I was forgetting what it felt like for somebody to do something which would get you a shield with as many as that many stars on it” (161). In this example, Lish combines the but-construction with repetition (“…as many as that many stars on it…”) for easy-to-follow refinement and subversion as the narrator feels himself forgetting his “amazing” achievement. The but-construction initiates the issue of “forgetting” that intensifies to the point where the narrator is afraid that everyone is forgetting about his achievement.

Now, let’s look at an example of a but-construction from Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars”: “I could not bear the roving carelessness of teenagers, their judgeless tangling of wanting and bodies. But I was the worst back then” (10). This but-construction juxtaposes the behavior of teenagers—which, because of the recursive pattern of relation in Hannah’s text, also includes the “high schoolers [his wife] must have had”—with the narrator as himself as a teenager, whose behavior was “the worst.” The association provides temporary comfort to the narrator, who is bothered by the number of his wife’s past lovers. This but-construction is a crucial turn in the narrator’s desire and resistant pattern of conflict.

Let’s look at a cognate of the but-construction in which the narrative momentum of the text turns on “yet”: “It makes no sense that I should be angry about happenings before she and I ever saw each other. Yet I feel an impotent homicidal urge in the matter of her lovers” (8). The narrator introduces reason into his first statement (“It makes no sense…”) and then undercuts his previous assertion in the sentence that follows (“Yet I feel…”). This swerve helps increase the narrator’s conflict while developing the main desire and resistance pattern of the narrative.

Anadiplosis, another technique of consecution at the level of the sentence, is an ancient Greek device in which the last word of a preceding sentence is used in the beginning of the succeeding sentence. Schutt uses this technique a few times throughout “Daywork.” For example, here: “…the patched on nipples from when her breasts had seams and looked shut as drawstring purses. / Purses, there are none here in the attic…” (59) Here again: “…the nurses have been turning Mother, keeping Mother clean in a clean bed. / The nurses, I half expect to see them in the attic…” (63). Then another example with variation: “‘…Remember, will you, visit.’ / One of the visitors…” (58) Anadiplosis helps with continuity between narrative sequences, while also informing the narrative direction of the next narrative sequence.


III. Techniques of Thematic Consecution

Thematic consecution adds a deeper level of coherence and unity to a story with passages that offer insight into story meaning. On thematic material, Douglas Glover says, “A thematic passage is any text in which the narrator or some other character questions or offers an interpretation of the action of the story. Characters in the story explore the meaning of the story by asking questions of their own impulses and actions” (Copula Spiders, 37). These questions are sometimes literally asked through the use of rhetorical questions. Other techniques of thematic consecution that reinforce theme or overall story meaning include the use of image or word patterning and aphorisms. Glover says, “Authors use repeated images, words and concepts to reinforce the thematic encoding of a text” (125).

Rhetorical questions are a technique of thematic consecution that increase thematic narrative depth while opening up the opportunity for surprising new motivation that might aid in the development of the plot or the desire and resistance pattern of conflict. As Douglas Glover notes, rhetorical questions often take the shape of inquires like, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Why is that other character doing what he is doing? What does this look like? What does it remind me of?” (Copula Spiders, 7). Rhetorical questions speculate on character motive and overall story meaning. Glover continues, saying, “Thought is action. Characters don’t necessarily have to be right in their assessments, they just have to be true to themselves in the context of what’s gone before.”

Let’s take a look at two examples of rhetorical questions from Schutt’s “Daywork” that explore the theme of the mother’s dying. The first example: “What does Mother want? we wonder. For what cruel attentions does she still lie down?” (59) In this example, the long amount of suffering the mother has endured throughout her life is brought up as the sisters speculate on how long the mother means to live. Another rhetorical question: “Oh, why should it be strange how, loving death the way she has, our mother wants to live?” (64). While the sisters have withstood the mother’s long amount of suffering, this rhetorical question, from the point-of-view of the narrator, seems to suggest that the mother lives by “loving death.” This particular rhetorical question opens up the possibility for new action while speculating on the larger truth of the mother’s existence. Together, these rhetorical questions present the conflict the sisters feel over their mother’s way of living through sickness.

Aphorisms are another technique of thematic consecution that offer insight into the actions and motives of characters in a story, or observations about meaning in the story that result in references to the story’s theme. On aphorisms, Douglas Glover says, “Aphorisms are short, pithy, somewhat artificial statements…stylized forms of thought, or conjecture, mostly structured on the contrast of opposites…” and are good for “rendering thought vigorously, concisely and authoritatively” (37 and 76). An example of an aphorism comes from Gary Lutz’s “I Crawl Back to People”: “What I mean is that people shaded into each other pretty easily, and all I had to do was find her somewhere there in the gradients” (119). A bit ambiguous at first, the first half of this aphoristic phrase references the thematic nature of one relationship displacing the prior one, while the second half reveals character motive through the narrator’s desire to find traces of former lovers on new ones.

Regarding image or word patterning, another technique of thematic consecution, Douglas Glover says

Image (or word) patterns begin with mere repetition and accumulate meaning by association and juxtaposition, splinter or ramify, sending out subsidiary brand patterns, and finally, discover occasions for recombination or intersection of the various branches in…tie-in lines. (Copula Spiders, 95)

Schutt and Hannah use a variation of word patterning by using the same word or set of words within altered contexts, often splitting the main image into associated images throughout the text. Sometimes, these word patterns have a way of reinforcing the narrative’s thematic coding, and other times, these word patterns help to initiate motive and deepen overall meaning.

In “Water Liars,” Barry Hannah uses a variation of word patterning as a technique of thematic consecution, though Hannah’s use of word patterning also progresses the desire and resistance pattern of conflict concerning the narrator and his wife by creating parallels that aid the structure and form of the narrative.

Hannah initiates the main word pattern in the title: “Water Liars.” The main pattern continues in the first sentence: “When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another” (7). The main pattern of “liars” continues, but with “lie”: “The lineup is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again…” Another reference: “On the other hand, Farte Jr., is a great liar himself.”

The main pattern splits into a subsidiary image of “ghost people” and “ghosts”: “He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.” Then another branch pattern begins with “crucified” (portions of text in italics increase the significance of the image or word with history): “Last year I turned thirty-three years old…I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life—because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three” (8). Here, the narrator establishes a significant parallel between his age and the age of Jesus when he was crucified. In the same scene, Hannah develops a branch pattern with “truth,” arranging a pattern of opposites, or juxtapositions: “On the morning after my birthday party, during which I and my wife almost drowned in vodka cocktails, we both woke up to the making of a truth session about the lovers we’d had before we met each other” (8). The branch pattern also reveals the conflict of the narrator’s wife having lied to him over how many lover she had before him: “For ten years she’d sworn I as the first,” or, in other words, she lied.

Hannah’s word pattern extends to include “liars,” “ghosts,” “crucified,” and “truth,” of which subsidiary branch patterns include “lies” and “sworn.” Hannah brings the main pattern back around to “liars”: “Then I’ll get myself among the higher paid liars, that’s all” (9). This is ironic—the narrator has been lied to, though he claims to be a liar himself.

Toward the end of the story, while on the dock with his friend Wyatt, the narrator overhears two old men on the dock tell stories about “ghosts,” continuing the branch pattern. The first story involves a man named Doctor Mooney having “intercourse” with a “ghost” while the second story involves the “ghost” of “Yazoo hisself.” What follows is a series of tie-in lines that serve an important structural purpose. First, comes the story from “a new, younger man…with the face of a man who had surrendered.” The man says, “We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts” (10). This word pattern with “ghosts” seems to extend along the similar path as the ones before. Instead, the source of the sounds is revealed not to be ghosts, but the man’s daughter having intercourse with another man: “My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts.” Hannah ties the word pattern of “ghosts” and “truth” together when an “old geezer” on the dock asks, “Is that the truth?” Then again from the narrator: “He’d told the truth.” And finally, in the most important plot-profitable tie-in line: “We were both crucified by the truth” (11). Here, the narrator feels allied with the man at the dock who tells the true story of discovering his daughter having intercourse with another man. This tie-in line references the structural consecution technique of parallel plots between the main plot, which concerns the narrator and his wife over the narrator’s inability to cope with the truth of his wife’s earlier sexual relationships, and the sub-plot, which concerns the man on the dock who “never recovered from” discovering his daughter with another man. Hannah’s use of word patterning works two-fold by advancing the thematic coding of the text with “lies” and “truth,” and also progressing the parallel conflict between the narrator and his wife, and between the man on the dock and his daughter.

The next examples of image or word patterning come from Christine Schutt’s “Daywork” and concern the main image pattern of “the attic”: “We enter the attic at the same time, which makes it all the more some awful heaven here, cottony hot and burnished and oddly bare except for her appliances, the parts our mother used to raise herself from bed” (57). Here, the main image “the attic” begins and splinters into a subsidiary image pattern of “appliances” and “parts,” which is given meaning through revealing history. The next reference to “the attic”: “We make such terrible confessions, my sister and I, which is why we are uneasy in the attic in the presence of these parts of Mother that seem a part of her still, quite alive and listening in on what we talk about” (59). The image of “the attic” and “parts” are tied together for the significant reason that being in “the attic” means being in the presence of “these parts of Mother” that aided in her mobility around the house. References to “the attic” are related to setting while references to “parts” and “appliances” are related to the mother’s history with being ill. There are an additional four references to “the attic” throughout the text, but it would be best to trace the subsidiary image patterns. First, the subsidiary pattern with “appliances”: “So what are we going to do with these appliances, these sheets?” (63) Then, the subsidiary pattern with “the parts”: “Dark bags full of Mother’s house—so much we don’t know what to do with we throw out: old clothes cut to fit over the parts that Mother buckled on” (58). In this subsidiary pattern concerning “parts,” another pattern branches off from “Mother’s house.” An additional two references to “Mother’s house” occur in the text. The next example concerns a subsidiary pattern with “the attic walls”: “Here they are against the attic walls: the legs, the arms, the clamshell she wore instead of a spine” (57). Here, the main pattern of “the attic” splits into “the attic walls” where the pattern of “appliances” is extended by the naming of these “appliances.” Another pattern branches off “the attic walls” with a reference to “the legs”: “I look at Mother’s legs, how they stand up by themselves in the attic” (62). “Mother’s legs” is an extension of the subsidiary image pattern concerning “parts” and “appliances.” An additional reference to “the attic walls”: “She is looking at the hinged machinery hooked on the attic walls: a cane with teeth, a bedside pull, a toilet seat with arms” (58). Again, in this reference to another subsidiary image pattern of “the attic walls,” the “machinery” image pattern is detailed in similar fashion to the “appliances” pattern. Image patterning allows the details of the text to pursue themselves into other details later in the story that add depth and significant history when one image is tied to another. Schutt’s compositional patterning of images adds to the cohesion of the single scene story of sisters cleaning out their mother’s attic.


IV. Techniques of Acoustical Consecution

The final method of consecution, acoustical consecution, involves ancient recursive techniques in which sounds repeat in the form of alliteration (repetition of first syllable sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), and consonance (repetition of consonants). Viktor Shklovsky, advocating for poetical techniques in prose, cites Nietzsche’s aphorism on “good prose” in which Nietzsche says that only in the presence of poetry can one write good prose (Theory of Prose, 21). In a lecture delivered to writing students at the University of Columbia about the strengths of focusing on the effects of sounds in composing prose, Gary Lutz says:

The words in the sentence must bear some physical and sonic resemblance to each other—the way people and their dogs are said to come to resemble each other, the way children take after their parents, the way pairs and groups of friends evolve their own manner of dress and gesture and speech. (Believer, January 2009)

In acoustical consecution, sounds repeat when one word discharges something within itself into successive words in the same sentence. Whether in the composition of poetry or prose, writers often use multiple acoustical techniques within the same sentence or sequence of sentences. Before I highlight the effects of alliteration, assonance, and consonance at work in the same sentence, I would like to highlight examples of each effect separately, starting with alliteration.

On alliteration, Lutz says, “Avail yourself of alliteration—as long as it remains ungimmicky, unobtrusive, even subliminal. Such repetition can be soothing and stabilizing, especially in a sentence whose content and emotional gusts are anything but” (Believer, January 2009). An example Lutz’s use of alliteration: “Go-betweens impart important impromptu breadth to any population, keep cities backed up and abrim” (123). The alliteration is evident with the inclusion of “impart,” “important,” and “impromptu,” though Lutz also uses a slight variation of alliteration with “breadth,” “backed,” and “abrim.” Another example of alliteration from Lutz: “You get better and better at dialing down the light to the point where passerby decide the place is probably closed” (121). Here, the alliteration within the sentence also overlaps between one set of words (“dialing,” “down,” “decide”) and another set of words (“point,” “passerby,” “place,” “probably”). As Lutz says, the content and emotions of these sentences do not pack much of a punch, and so he relies on the repetition of sounds to briefly carry the momentum of the narrative.

On assonance, Gordon Lish says, “The force of English lies in its vowels. You want to resonate the stressed assonances in your work, in a phrase, a clause, a paragraph, a sentence…” (Lish Notes, 45). Similarly, Lutz says, “…reserve assonance for the words in a sentence deserving the greatest stress…” (Believer, January 2009). An example of assonance in a fragment from Lutz: “Jollied a lone, focal mole along the slope of the nose” (124). The assonance is evident in the force of the “o” in “jollied,” “focal,” and “along” and the “oe” sound in “lone,” “mole,” “slope” and “nose. A similar effect of assonance is created in this sentence from Schutt’s “Daywork”: “But we look and look at how the blistered skins of covered bins and trash bags have gone yellow” (57). The assonance is seen in the shared “i” between “blistered,” “skins,” and “bins.”

Now an example of consonance from Lutz: “I milked his arms for further thrill of her farewell” (120). Lutz’s use of consonance is evident in the shared “l” between “milked,” “thrill” and “farewell.” Another example of consonance from Lutz: “We were together one spring, briefly, tickledly, and then it came to her—in a dream, in a diary entry; I forget, that I would not be having her very much longer” (119). Lutz uses the consonantal sound of the shared “y” between “briefly,” tickledly,” “diary,” “entry,” and “very” to drive the rhythm of the sentence.

Finally, let’s look at a sentence bringing together the combined effects of alliteration, assonance, and consonance in another sentence by Lutz: “I could make out the timid din of who she had already been, a hum of harms hardly done” (123). The alliteration effects in the sentence: “hum,” “harms,” and “hardly,” “din” and “done.” The assonance effects in the same sentence: “timid,” “din,” and “been,” “harms” and “hardly.” Finally, the effects of consonance concerning the consonant “d” in the same sentence: “timid,” “had,” “already,” “hardly.” In this example from Lutz, the combined effects of alliteration, assonance, and consonance create a wholly recursive effect of sound throughout the entirety of the sentence. Christine Schutt says that she takes narrative direction from sounds. In a sentence that is so busy with overlapping effects, it’s easy to see how these sounds might have driven the narrative direction of the sentence during composition.

While acoustical consecution holds effects for strong prose at the most fundamental level of composition, Lutz advises against searching solely for sound when composing sentences without keeping in mind how this smaller technique works most effectively in the larger structure of narrative form.  In Lutz’s lecture to writing students at the University of Columbia, he says, “Such a fixation on the individual sentence might threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside…” Something similar might also be said about the techniques within structural and thematic consecution at the level of sentences. In fact, what Lutz warns against is what Viktor Shklovsky also warns against when he says, “Images alone or parallel structures alone or even mere descriptions of the events do not produce the feeling of a work of fiction in and of themselves” (Theory of Prose, 52). Douglas Glover takes this point a step further when he says, “The structures which lend plausibility, focus and meaningful density to a piece of writing are primarily structures of repetition and it is by repetition that we know that reality through our ability to apply consistent and predictable descriptions to it” (127). While the techniques of structural, thematic, and acoustical consecution provide readers with a self-referential map for finding their way through a story, they are techniques that are repetitions—or reflections—of the development of a story’s plot. The logical sequence of events as a depiction of the step-by-step progression of the desire and resistance pattern of conflict is the main feature of narrative, and the recursive details relative to the ongoing action (desire) and counteraction (resistance) are what bind the narrative with unity and cohesion.



Reaching back into the text to pull forward something deposited earlier that can be used to further flesh out the world of the story is the heart of narrative logic. On narrative plausibility, Gordon Lish says:

In the business of world-making, logic is everything…Nothing can be there that you don’t put there, so be careful about what you put there, and be careful about what you assume is there but is, in fact, in the eye of your mind and not in the words on your page. (Lish Notes, 31)

Even with the structural, thematic, and acoustical methods of consecution in my pocket, my problem still lies in improving the situation between what I think is on the page and what actually ends up on the page. More advice from Lish that points to another limp of mine while composing drafts of stories: “You must learn to look and see if what you are writing is appropriate to the form of your story, or if it is mere decoration, empty and pointless fluff” (20). The point here, of course, is learning to write while staying true to the content or structure initiated in the attack sentence of the story, and never leaving the surface of the true narrative as it develops in the moment. As far as I can see, this will always be my struggle. The very least of what I have learned from Gordon Lish through the mouth of Douglas Glover is that the work is never over.

—Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli

Jason Lucarelli


Works Cited

Callis, Tetman. “The Gordon Lish Notes.”1991.

Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Biblioasis. 2012.

Hannah, Barry. Long, Last, Happy. New York: Grove Press. 2010.

Lish, Gordon. Collected Fictions. New York: OR Books. 2010.

Lutz, Gary. I Looked Alive. Black Square Editions and The Brooklyn Rail. 2010.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press. 1990.


Jason Lucarelli lives in Scranton, PA. He is in the final stages of completing his MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Feb 022013

In Alice Winocour’s short film “Kitchen,” a woman struggles over the span of one day to bring to the table what “le mari” desires for dinner.  She idly asks him during their morning ablutions what he would like for dinner and he says, “whatever you want . . . not meat in any case.”

In an attempt to please him, “la femme” brings home to this rather drab apartment and this rather drab life two shiny oil-black lobsters with pink underbellies. They are terrifying. They are alien, set out in stark contrast to the bland colour palate of the apartment and measured by the woman’s horrified and frustrated expressions framed in uncomfortable medium to close portrait shots. Their primal, thick insect-like bodies seem made to writhe and spasm, a disturbing life-filled force compared to the stagnant marriage they have scuttled into.


Dinner in this film is of course not simply dinner. It is the culmination of a relationship that has reached its tipping point. When the husband insists “not meat in any case,” he implies that perhaps married life has become a routine meat course. It forces the woman’s hand. She must struggle to find a new recipe.


As the end credits note, no lobsters were harmed in the making of this film. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some convincing violence against lobsters as the woman struggles to deal with these purchased but unwanted visitors and their valiant attempts to survive even if these are their last moments before dinner.


Winocour mirrors shots in the film to make connections between the lobsters and the couple: the opening shot of the wife in the bathtub mirrors the shot where she at the end of the film seemingly sets the lobster free, before she seals his fate.


It’s a solid film and it could reasonably end when the husband gets home. But it’s the final shot that tips this film over into the sublime. We see the woman as she struts towards the low angle, sidewalk camera and as she approaches the shot retreats, moves with her – we yield to her. She is not going to the market for meat instead of seafood. She is not getting take out pizza. She is leaving and we are going with her. Winocour makes a perfect song choice here scoring it with Madeleine Peyroux’s melancholy cover of Elliott Smith’s rock bottom “love” song “Between the Bars.”

This walk, as thrumming with intent as the lobsters’ thrusting tails, stands as both a beginning and an end and yet neither. It is an act unto itself and calls to mind other walks and runs in cinema. The title character in Zho Yu’s Train who runs after a train she cannot catch.


Lola’s running in Run Lola Run.

Even the character Carrie’s walk away from a relationship in Sex and the City.

The woman’s walk in “Kitchen,” like the walks and runs above,  is an affirmation, an attempt, and a declaration. It is her only way out of the drowning drab of the apartment and the dilemma between a suffocating meat course and an impossible and traumatizing lobster feast.

Winocour has made three short films including “Kitchen,” and her first feature film, Augustine, was released last year. “Set in Belle Époque France, director Alice Winocour’s sensual, fiercely intelligent tale of female sexual awakening follows nineteen-year-old “hysteria” patient Augustine, the star of Professor Charcot’s experiments in hypnosis, as she transitions from object of study to object of desire” – TIFF

–R. W. Gray

Feb 022013

Rosalie Morales Kearns

Rosalie Morales Kearns is a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent.  She identifies three major childhood influences on her writing: fairy tales (unexpurgated) from all over the world; Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; and her parents’ well-intentioned efforts to raise her a Catholic, all of which gave her a deep appreciation of, and respect for, absurdity.

That special appreciation is much in abundance in her first book, the story collection Virgins & Tricksters (Aqueous Books, 2012), which contains an ecumenical cast of spiritual characters (gods from all over the world), and a diverse collection of humans (a psychologist, a biology student, and the wives of a pirate, a revolutionary, and a priest, to name only a few), all of whom range about a wide field of history.  And throughout these stories Kearns offers equal opportunity to realism and its cousin, magical realism.

“Triptych” is the only story in Virgins and Tricksters without magic-realist elements, though it shares with the other stories a deep sympathy with misfits and a celebration of the potential for human connection.  Many stories in contemporary fiction begin with a version of normal and then slowly break it to pieces; “Triptych” reverses this familiar plot pattern and instead offers the reader, brilliantly and with sweet empathy, three lonely souls who slowly find their way to each other.  The writer Katherine Vaz calls this story “a little masterpiece of carefully observed lives–Larry with breathtakingly long hair emerges as one of the most memorable characters a reader can hope to find–and when divergent paths merge, the book concludes with a satisfying upsweep.  Solitary beings settle inside mystery.”

Philip Graham

Kearns cover




Saturday midmorning Larry wakes up, enough to turn off the muted TV and worry that he’s forgetting something important, not enough to keep from falling asleep again. Hours later when the screen door opens, shuts, and he hears his daughter’s voice, it all seems part of the same long, pleasant daze. He keeps his eyes closed, can hear Molly in the kitchen. She’ll be unloading her school books, her laptop onto the table. Now she’s leaning over him.


“Hey, baby.” He looks at his watch. Almost noon. He’s on afternoon shift now, and still hasn’t managed to adjust.

“You fell asleep on the couch again.”

He sits up, gives her a kiss on the forehead, lets her steer him into the kitchen.

“No offense or anything, Dad, but it’s kind of an old-man thing to do. Even Grandpa doesn’t fall asleep in front of the TV.”

Larry opens the refrigerator, considers his options.

“You want a sandwich, Moll? Eggs?”

“I ate already, I’ll just have coffee.”

Slowly he starts thinking straight, finding what he needs—spatula, frying pan, oil. As he feels more alert the nagging thought from the early morning comes back. Something he needs to remember. He almost has it.

It’s gone.

He opens the fridge again, takes out eggs, Canadian bacon, a package of shredded cheese.

“How’s your mom?” he says.

“Fine.” Molly switches the coffee maker on, takes two mugs from the dish rack.

“She says hi.”

Larry tries to picture Cynthia saying this, Cynthia at the wheel of her Mercedes. Have a nice weekend, honey. Tell Larry I said hi. He tries it different ways. Tell your dad I said hi. Say hello for me. None of them work. His imagination stalls right after Have a nice weekend.

Cynthia wishes him well. When she thinks about him.

She’s planning on taking Molly to Italy with her for a few weeks this summer. Time when, normally, Molly would be staying with Larry. But okay, he can hardly begrudge her. Italy instead of Globe Mills, Pennsylvania, population 316. Adjacent to Meiser, population about the same. And beyond that the livestock auction, open Wednesdays and Saturdays, and beyond that Route 522 will take you to Kreamer with its grain elevators to the east, and Middleburg the county seat to the west.

Molly lives with her mother and stepdad in the next county. Lewisburg’s a college town, but even that’s boring for Molly. She asks Larry sometimes, what he did at her age, and he doesn’t feel right telling her. Larry at sixteen was drinking beer, getting laid. Not taking SAT prep classes, drinking coffee at bookstores with her friends, volunteering on environmental projects to clean up the Susquehanna River. Not going to Europe.

Larry sits down at the table with his plate. “Well,” he says, “you tell your mom I said hi too.”

Molly nods, takes his fork, and picks out bites of scrambled eggs, avoiding the Canadian bacon.

He looks at her textbooks. Chemistry, pre-calculus. Another thing he wasn’t doing at her age.

“How’s it going with those?”

“Fine. I’m getting all A’s.”

Molly hands him his fork and he starts eating.

Just the other day he’d been sixteen himself. Back then he couldn’t imagine anyone more different from him than a sixteen-year-old girl, especially a smart one. Now here he is almost thirty-eight and one of them is sitting across from him at his own kitchen table.

“I never could figure out math,” he says, and the memory from the morning, the nagging thought, comes back to him now. The synapses have made their necessary connections. Perhaps his subconscious was counting up all the other things that are mysteries to him, and now he’s grabbed his keys and is rushing out the back door.

The truck.

He gets behind the wheel, pats the dashboard. “Okay, honey?” he says, and slides the key into the ignition.

The “service engine” light comes on, as bright and alarming as it looked last night.

Last night. When he’d decided, if he paid attention to her first thing in the morning, everything would be okay. No need for repairs that he couldn’t afford. And here it is noon.

“I take you in for maintenance regular as clockwork. Get your oil changed, your tires rotated.”

He pops the hood and goes round to inspect the engine, making sure to pull his hair back first. Ever since he let it grow long he’s been wary of anything that throws off sparks. He frowns, tries to convince himself he understands what he’s seeing. People expect him to know about cars, he expects himself to, isn’t sure where he was or what he was doing when other boys were learning about this stuff.

He gets back into the driver’s seat, tries to relax. He and the truck, they’ll relax together. “You’re going to change your mind,” he says. “I’m a patient man.”

He flinches, but only a little, when he hears a fist pound on the roof of the truck. The arrival of his neighbor, Dirk, is usually punctuated by loud noises: a door crashing open, stomping feet. Dirk leans down to the open window and bellows, “Got a cordless power drill I could borrow? Mine broke.”


“How about a Yankee screwdriver?”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“Shi-ii-it. My kitchen window, hinges on the shutters’ve rusted off. If I ever buy another fixer-upper, take a two-by-four and beat me.”

Everything about Dirk, including his voice, is outsized. He’s six-four and two-forty, heavy beard and a full head of hair even though he’s over fifty. A man like this, Larry figures, has to know about car engines.

“Hey,” Dirk says, “they’re hiring at the UPS on Rt. 15. Pays more, I bet, than driving that ambulance. Plus benefits.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” He might have to work two jobs, to get the truck fixed. “Can I ask you—”

“What’s on your face, man?”

Larry runs his hand over his cheeks, remembers the sofa and its burlap-like upholstery. “Couch pattern.”

“That’s sad.”

“Dirk, what would you do if you saw this light on your dashboard?”

“Service engine? Hell, I’d take it to a mechanic.”

“Should have checked her this morning,” he says to Molly later. “I knew there was something I had to do when I woke up.”

“How would that have made a difference? I mean, it’s not like the truck felt neglected, right? Dad. Right?”

“Okay, well. I thought maybe, if the engine, I don’t know, had a chance to rest overnight.” Or change its mind. He doesn’t say that out loud.

“That’s magical thinking,” she says. “We learned about it in social studies. Seeing connections between unrelated events. People have been doing it since prehistoric times. Like if there’s mist in the morning and you have a successful wooly mammoth hunt later on, you think the mist is the reason for it.”

Wooly mammoth—that would taste gamey. They sell bison burgers at the concession stand at Penn’s Cave and Larry hasn’t been able to bring himself to try one.

“Or if there’s a certain constellation of stars on a day when something good happens, you think it happened because of the stars.”

“How do we know it ain’t connected?”


She stands behind his chair, kisses him on the top of his head. She runs her hands through his long hair, something she’s been doing since she was small. That, at least, hasn’t changed with the years.

“There’s no cause and effect relationship,” she says, slowly and carefully, “no connection between your attitude toward the truck and whether or not it has engine trouble.”

She saw the connection when she was little. If the yolk don’t break when I crack this egg, he would say, we’ll have perfect weather to go swimming down at the Middle Creek. Or If we spot the Big Dipper tonight, we’ll see a bear tomorrow when we drive over Shade Mountain. She played along enthusiastically, checking the night sky, or reminding him not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. Cheering when the yolk didn’t break, or the engine started on the first try.



Monday afternoons Patrice is allowed to close the fabric shop early. That way she can get to Lewisburg in time for the memoir writing class she’s taking at the YMCA. She doesn’t know what today’s assignment will be but she’s nervous about it already. She’s sure she didn’t do it right last time and the teacher seems like she’s losing patience with her.

“To explore a memory,” the teacher is saying when Patrice arrives, “it helps to start by focusing on something ordinary. Small, concrete, vivid details.”

Patrice lingers in the doorway. She doesn’t want to interrupt, and she feels shy around the others here though she’s normally outgoing. There’s a retired chemistry professor in his late sixties, but other than him Patrice, at 52, is the oldest person in the room. Also the plumpest. And from what the others have said about themselves, she knows she’s the only one there who hasn’t gone to college. One of the women is a full-time mom, another works as a personal trainer, and there’s also one who works at the college with an impressive-sounding title, dean of something or other. There’s only one other man, the owner of a café in town.

They’re clustered together along one side of a cafeteria-style table, listening to the teacher as she paces in front of them. They turn when they sense Patrice behind them, smile, make room for her. People used to do this for her in high school and on lunch break at the factory.

“We live our lives in our bodies, we touch things, we see things. It’s that ‘thing-ness’ that you want to always be aware of. Try to bring that into your writing, and it’ll lead you to more profound, interesting realizations. That’s what we want to do here, write honestly about ourselves, our lives.”

The teacher is wearing a flowing skirt and blouse, both black, with flashes of deep color, turquoise, forest green. Her bangle and bead bracelets make bright clinking sounds when she moves. She’s in her mid-forties and wears her long hair proudly undyed. The silver streaks against her dark hair look dramatic, sophisticated, unlike Patrice’s random swirls of gray, hidden somewhat with the help of Clairol’s Golden Medium Brown.

Patrice catches the teacher’s eye, but she responds with an overly bright smile that she holds up like a shield, and Patrice knows what the teacher is seeing: frumpy middle-aged woman in relaxed-fit jeans, lavender sweater. She’s probably particularly annoyed, Patrice thinks, with the appliquéd flowers at the collar. But why not wear flowers on your clothing, Patrice thinks. It’s spring.

The assignment today is to write about something they did over the weekend. “Concentrate on the sensory details,” the teacher reiterates. “What things looked like, sounded like, smelled like. Make the reader experience what you experienced.”

On Sunday Patrice had gone with some friends to a cemetery off Rt. 522, out toward McClure. Mildred and Gerri are old friends of hers from the bottling plant; they and her other former coworkers are still Patrice’s closest friends. You make connections with people you see every day for such a long time. Patrice had been there seventeen years before it closed and everyone scattered, squeezing themselves into other jobs here and there: convenience store, hair salon. Gerri got a file clerk job at the car dealership. Now that Mildred’s retired she’s thrown herself into family history. That day she was trying to track down the dates for some great-uncle. Patrice had gone along—her friends had gone with her to one museum after another over the years and never complained, no matter how bored they were. So while Mildred was taking notes, she and Gerri tromped around, looking at headstones and yelling to each other out of old habit, as if there were loud machinery they had to shout over instead of the headstones and neatly mown grass, so peaceful. One headstone in particular had interested Patrice, and she writes about it now:

“The last name, Huttner, is in big letters at the top of the stone, then beneath it on the left, John, 1918- and next to that, Blondine, 1918-. No death dates. I like to think they’re still alive, going strong at ninety-four. They bought the burial plot when they turned seventy, sat down with the funeral home director, a nice boy. They picked out the caskets and decided on a memorial service, chose a design for the headstone. I like to think they visit that stone now and then, John and Blondine, that they look at it and link hands and smile at each other, but they’re a little sad, too. So many friends, even the funeral director, have passed on in those intervening years.”

She stops writing when they run out of time, and when she reads her exercise out loud, another woman in the class says, “I think John and Blondine got divorced. John was probably unfaithful and Blondine kicked him out. They regretted it the rest of their lives, and they’re both buried somewhere else. Neither one could stand the idea of lying there alone underneath that marker.”

Patrice likes that version too, though it’s sadder than hers. The teacher gives them a strained smile and says something about Patrice’s writing being “speculative,” but then it’s time to go and she doesn’t say anything more about it, and Patrice is too embarrassed to ask. It’s clear to her she should have written about something else.

Later, since she skipped supper, she stops at the convenience store for an egg and cheese biscuit sandwich. The girl at the counter is talking to another girl who’s come in.

“I thought high school was boring,” the girl says to her friend. “I come in here every day and I feel dead from the neck up. I can’t believe this is my life.”

Patrice wonders, listening to them, whether she’d felt that way when she was nineteen or twenty, and if she hadn’t, and if she doesn’t feel that way now, is there something wrong with her?

She should write about things like that for her writing exercises, things that really happened. She could describe the sound of the girl’s voice, the dusting cloth she holds bunched in her hand, the way the glass and metal case where the hot dogs are roasting feels warm when you lean against it. The teacher likes details like that.



JulieAnne feels like she’s been moving in slow motion ever since she opened the latest batch of photos. She’s only looked at the first one. It’s still in her hand, a picture of Amanda in black and white.

She has a color photo of Amanda in the same pose and right now she’s looking at the real Amanda in the same pose as in both pictures: sitting crosslegged on her bed, a mirror in one hand, mascara applicator in the other.

“So Mom and Dad said they’d try this low-carb diet with me,” Amanda says. “Isn’t that cute? And we’ve all gained, like, five pounds since we started.”

JulieAnne is only half listening. She has been in Amanda’s bedroom practically every day since they were seven years old. She knows it as well as her own: the dresser, made of some kind of quilted material glued over plywood, jammed up against the bed, the bedspread in shades of maroon with metallic gold threads running through it, the nightstand lamp with the mustard-gold shade that Amanda found at a yard sale. Amanda with her dark eyes, quick, businesslike movements of her hand as she applies eyeshadow, blush, lip gloss.

JulieAnne sees the real Amanda doing all this. She looks at the Amanda in the color photo doing the same thing. She raises her camera and looks through the lens at the real Amanda. She lowers the camera and looks at the black and white Amanda.

“I’m ready for the reality shows,” Amanda is saying. “All my life I’ve been having conversations with a girl who’s got a Minolta auto-focus stuck to her face. I know how to act natural in front of the cameras.”

JulieAnne hasn’t shown Amanda her black and white image. She knows she won’t be able to explain the difference in words. She wants to keep looking at the picture, studying the light and dark, the sharp edges and blurry shadows.

It was an accident, the black and white film. Amanda had bought it for her by mistake. People are telling her she should get a digital camera, how easy it is, how convenient, but her dad grumbles that he can’t afford a digital camera and JulieAnne doesn’t want one anyway.

She walks around Amanda’s house, looks at the rest of the pictures slowly, rationing them. When she stands in front of the real thing she pulls out a photo of it: laundry on the clothesline, pot of soup on the stove.

Color had always seemed so important. Why look at a photo of laundry if not for the bright sky behind the clothing, the contrast of a dark blue work shirt and a quilt patched with pinks and golds, and next to that a T-shirt faded to pale green? But in black and white she notices how they hang on the line, or curve and flap in a breeze, notices a splash of cloud and how much brighter it is than the clear sky around it.

She wonders if she should send some of these to her mother, or whether she’d find them boring. JulieAnne has never been good at letter writing. For years now, it’s been so much easier to send her mom photos. She tries to pick interesting images—a view of the Susquehanna River from the top of the bluffs at Shikellamy State Park, the small black bear she’d seen wandering through Mrs. Aumiller’s garden. Not the everyday stuff.

When Amanda is finally finished with her makeup they drive to Lewisburg for their after-school jobs, JulieAnne at a café and Amanda at the sporting goods store across the street. JulieAnne takes the photos with her. When things are slow she looks at the black-and-whites she’s taken here, shots of the customers, the cappuccino machine, the pastries in the lighted glass case.

The light is what fascinates her. It flashes off the ceramic mugs and varnished wooden tables like a live thing, like it should be dazzling the people sitting there sipping coffee, reaching for sugar. Instead they talk to each other or stare into nowhere; they look like they’re from a foreign country, another century. They seem kind. They’re used to shimmering light. That’s how their world is.



Tuesday afternoon is a slow day at work. They have only a few calls. A sprained ankle at the mall. A little later a possible concussion over at the high school soccer field. Mostly Larry plays cards in the dispatcher’s office with Kevin.

He asks Kevin about the truck, what the problem could be, how much it might cost.

Kevin says he doesn’t know. This is his response to almost everything Larry says.

Larry can’t decide whether to apply for the UPS driver job. He’s not sure how good he would be at it. If no one’s there to accept delivery you have to decide whether to leave a package, whether there’s enough overhang over the front door to protect it from rain, or go around to the side and risk running straight into an angry dog. Or you open the door to a screened-in porch and a jumpy homeowner opens fire on you. It’s harder than it looks.

He tries to hold onto a job as long as possible, no matter how bad it is, because he hates job interviews. They always ask you about the meaning and direction of your life. Where do you see yourself in five years? in ten years? and he can tell they’re asking because they’ve seen the questions in some management textbook. They don’t care how you respond. It’s just, they’re the boss and you’re a worker and that gives them the power to ask you a personal question and sit back and watch you squirm while you try to think up an answer that’ll sound good. Just once he would like to be able to be honest about those questions.

So, Larry, why did you leave your last job?

I didn’t actually leave. I’m a nice person, and I try, but I’m kind of scatterbrained.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Well, in five years Molly will be 21, and finishing college, that’s how I figure time, ever since she was born. She’ll probably keep on with her schooling, become a professor or a rocket scientist or something. And I’ll be 43 and that’s a pretty good age, I think. It’s not the age when men have a midlife crisis, but that’s relative, isn’t it, midlife. And Molly’s mother will be 43, and still married, and still beautiful and we won’t have any reason to say anything to each other until Molly graduates from whatever, and then I guess there’ll be a wedding at some point, maybe baptisms and such. Oh, I guess you’re asking me about my job, what kind of work I see myself doing. Let’s see, I drive an ambulance now, so I guess the next step is EMT and then after that nurse, and then doctor. So yeah, I guess in five years I’d like to be a surgeon.

In the early evening a call comes in for an elderly woman with chest pains. They pick her up at one of those huge new houses over at what used to be Middleswarth Dairy Farm. Enormous picture windows, cathedral ceilings, heating bills alone that must be more than Larry’s rent. Cynthia has a house like that.

The place is in an uproar, everyone talking at once—the woman with the chest pains, her daughter, son-in-law, grandkids, dogs. The daughter’s yelling, she wants to go with her in the ambulance and the mother’s saying no, she wants to go alone, leave her in peace.

As soon as Larry backs out of the driveway, she says she feels better.

“We’ll just check your vital signs, ma’am,” Kevin says. He’s sitting in the back with her. “And we’ll have—”

“—Call me Virginia. It makes me feel like a fossil to be called ‘ma’am.'”

“Okay, uh, we’ll have the doctors look you over to be sure nothing’s going on.”

“I always feel better after I get out of my daughter’s house.”

“Virginia?” Larry says.

“Yes, young man?”

“Maybe it was a panic attack.”

In the rearview mirror he can see Kevin give him a look to remind him that he, Kevin, is an EMT and Larry is merely a driver and should keep his opinions to himself. Kevin had been a driver too, until he took the EMT training.

“Considering the patient is eighty-one,” Kevin says coldly, as if “the patient” can’t hear, “we’d better let the doctors decide.”

“I’m not too old to have anxiety, you know.”

Larry sees a slight movement by the side of the road. There’s no time to respond. A doe shoots out in front of them. Larry brakes, swerves hard to the right to miss her.

They careen onto the shoulder as the front tire hits something sharp and makes a loud hissing noise. They bump to a gentle stop.

“Jesus God,” Kevin says.

“I’m all right,” Virginia says. “Don’t have a heart attack on me.”

Kevin is out the back door of the ambulance and into the passenger seat next to Larry, sweeping his hands under the seat.

“Where are the goddamned flares?”

“Can we watch our language here?” Larry says.

“I would, but I don’t know a polite word for fuck-up.”

Larry and Virginia sit at the open back of the ambulance, legs dangling out, while Kevin rushes around setting flares and talking to dispatch. “Right,” he says into the cell phone. “Keep the patient calm.” He gives Larry another meaningful look.

“Well,” Larry says slowly, “I guess we should put things into perspective.”

“That’s an excellent idea.”

All kinds of ways it could be worse. One alternative is the ambulance flipping upside-down, spilling its contents of driver, EMT, and old lady all over the road, probably a dead deer somewhere in the picture too. And him fired. That could happen even without any injured humans or deer. For puncturing the tire with a patient on board. For being someone the supervisor doesn’t like.

He starts to tell that to Virginia, but changes his mind. She could be really stressed right now; she could get overexcited and her old, fragile heart would flutter to a stop.

“Why don’t I go first?” she says. “It’s a beautiful summer evening, and we’re sitting here on a country road surrounded by these lovely old oaks and maples and hickories. Your turn.”

“Okay. It’s almost the end of my shift.”

He decides there’s nothing quite like the sound of an old-lady laugh, dry and delicate. Impossible not to laugh yourself when you hear it.

“And do you always puncture a tire at quitting time?”

“Only every so often.”

“He also dents the fender,” Kevin says. “Leaves the windows down in the rain. Runs out of gas.”

That last isn’t quite true, but before he can argue, Virginia turns to Larry as if Kevin weren’t even there.

“I can’t help but notice,” she says, “you’ve got your hair tucked into the back of your shirt. Is it very long?”

“Yeah, pretty long.”

“You don’t see that so much these days. How interesting.”

He pulls his ponytail out and undoes it, without waiting for her to ask.

“Young man. My goodness.”

Some women love his hair, can’t wait to get their hands on it. It’s long, down to his waist almost, as thick and healthy-looking as when he was eighteen. His buddies hate him for it, the ones his age are already starting to thin out on top.

“It’s kind of a pain, takes forever to dry,” he starts to say, but she’s already reaching out, asking if she can touch.

“Go ahead.”

The old-lady tremor in her hands isn’t so noticeable while she runs her fingers through his hair. In fact she’s surprisingly strong.

Behind Virginia’s back, Kevin gives him a disgusted look. Larry grins. It feels good. He always likes to have his hair stroked.

“How daring,” she says, “to let it grow this long. When I was young it was considered quite bold. And getting a tattoo, that was the other thing no one did. Now all the young people get them.”

“Well that’s a funny story,” he says.

Suddenly he doesn’t have the heart to tell it. Back when he was with Cynthia she wouldn’t let him get a tattoo, said it was something only white trash did. Then when she dumped him, he went to a tattoo artist, feeling somehow he was declaring independence, he was starting over as his own self. Turned out he couldn’t decide what kind of tattoo to get.

Later his supervisor, Richard, asks him what he’s learned from “this incident.” Larry is thinking about tattoos, which pattern to get if he ever gets around to it. Maybe a leaping deer, or the letters MT for Magical Thinking. Also he’s feeling sleepy, which always happens when someone’s been stroking his hair. He makes a stab at answering Richard.

“You’re never too old for a panic attack?”

Richard looks tired. He likes “teachable moments.” He’s that kind of supervisor.

Larry tries again. “I shouldn’t swerve to avoid a deer?”

“Try to pay more attention when you’re behind the wheel,” Richard says. “That’s all. Just try.”

All told, the day went well, Larry decides as he heads for the parking lot. It could have gone badly, very badly, but it didn’t. He turns the key in the ignition, feels a surge of optimism.

The “service engine” light flashes on.



It’s a slow morning in the fabric shop. An older couple comes in needing yarn. The husband took up knitting when he retired, jokes that it’s an excuse to socialize with his wife’s lady friends, but Patrice can see the artistry in his work, sweaters in intricate patterns of soft silvery grays, muted browns, grayish blues. She wonders what things would have been like if he’d been given art classes when he was young.

Margaret comes in, the owner of the bookstore around the corner. She’s a Civil War reenactor and needs blue wool cloth for a new uniform jacket.

People expect Patrice to know all about knitting and sewing. She kind of expects it herself, that somehow she would have absorbed this knowledge just by being female and living in Union County for five decades. When she first started working here, if customers had questions they would go to her rather than Tanya, her young coworker. Patrice would smile a lot, exude helpfulness. The regular customers soon caught on. Between them and Tanya and old issues of Fabric Trends and Quilter’s Newsletter, Patrice has learned all kinds of things. She knows exactly what weight and weave Margaret needs for her Union Army uniform, but she can’t resist pointing to another flannel nearby. “This plum color goes so much better with your complexion,” which makes Margaret laugh so hard she’s almost in tears.

“Nobody fought in plum,” she manages to say finally. She’s still chuckling over it later when she leaves the shop.

Patrice pictures a battlefield, infantrymen showing up in bright yellows and oranges, in polka dots, in macramé and feathers. They would cancel the war, naturally.

She writes up an order for rug-making kits, restocks the knitting needles. Tanya is straightening up quilt patterns on the sale table, and since no customers have come in, Patrice takes the opportunity to pull the hymnal out from beneath the counter and bring it over to her. She opens the book and sets it on a stack of embroidery kits.

“Tanya, honey, can you try this one?”

Now what?” Tanya says, but she smiles. She reads the hymn through quietly, Patrice looking over her shoulder.

“It has a nice limited range,” Patrice says. “I can sing most of it except for the high notes here, and here.”


“I won’t, don’t worry.”

Tanya starts singing softly.

“What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul…”

Patrice has to close her eyes to imagine the way it would sound if a hundred people were singing it, and if those voices weren’t being absorbed by piles and bolts of fabric but were bouncing off a polished wooden floor and stained glass windows on a Sunday morning.

Being Unitarian Universalists, of course, they’ve changed the lyrics: there’s no reference to God at all, let alone his righteous frown, or cursed souls, or death. The UU version has blissful hearts, friends gathered round.

She knows that Tanya doesn’t much care for church music; most girls her age don’t, but she sang in her high school choir and she can sight read music.

“Thanks, hon.”

“Where are you going to put it?”

“I’m thinking of using it for the ‘greeting your neighbor’ part. That’s the part where everyone says hello, you introduce yourself if you haven’t met the person before. Only instead of speaking, everyone would just be shaking hands while we’re singing this.” Patrice still isn’t sure about this particular song. Beautiful as it is, she’s worried that it sounds melancholy.

Patrice is trying to imagine a church service that’s conducted entirely in song. She’s been giving it a lot of thought and outlining alternatives in her notebook. She hasn’t brought it up with her minister, but as she’s told Tanya, that’s the joy of being a Unitarian Universalist. Ministers there try pretty much everything.

The chimes ring as the mail carrier leans in and waves at them and puts the mail on the counter. Patrice bought those chimes herself and put them up, thin pieces of white quartz crystal that clink against each other with every movement of the door. They make Patrice think of the factory where she worked all those years, a bottling company that did specialty soft drinks like sarsaparilla that only gourmet stores and such wanted anymore. The workers were gentle with the bottles, but there was always something that set them to vibrating, rounding a curve on the assembly line or when they were hoisted in their wooden crates onto hand trucks, and bottle touching bottle made sounds like small glass voices. She likes having an echo of that old life in this new one.



JulieAnne is in her bedroom, door closed, but it’s a flimsy door—the whole place is poorly constructed—and she can clearly hear her father on the phone shouting, something he hardly ever does.

She’s trying to distract herself by looking through a book of black and white photos, a pictorial history of Union and Snyder Counties that Tracy, her stepmother, gave her. You’re not going to cry, she tells herself, ignoring the tears she’s already wiping away. She wants to climb into this book, into the black and white world of fifty years ago, a hundred years ago. Color is for high drama. Yelling. Slamming doors. Black and white is quiet, undemanding. Over and done with.

“After twelve fucking years.”

Another thing her father hardly ever does: swear.

Not that people didn’t yell and slam doors back then, she’s sure, but you can see that people in this book stopped what they were doing to look at the camera. For a minute they let go of whatever momentary thing was bothering them—bills, injuries, ex-wives. As if they knew that someone would look at this picture long after they were dead.

“You think she’s a dog, she’ll just come when you call?”

JulieAnne’s mother, Kath, has asked her to visit her out in California. She can afford the airfare now, she told JulieAnne on the phone this evening. She’s got a guest bedroom in the place she’s staying.

JulieAnne looks at the framed photo of her mother on the dresser. She vaguely remembers her as enormous, probably because she wasn’t quite four when Kath took off, minutes ahead of the county sheriff, who swept in just hours before the federal agents arrived. Still she imagines her mother as towering over her father, a short, morose man, permanently stooped as if no matter what, he’s always ready to lean over a car engine and start taking it apart.

In her vague memory, her mother is not only large but also soft and warm, with long brown hair. In the photo Kath’s hair is now short and graying, and she’s wiry and fit, kneeling in front of a kayak by a mountain river.

I’m getting my act together, her letters would often say, when the letters started arriving after five years. I want to come see you honey, and then no word for months at a time.

Her father is still shouting, but not as loud. He’s running out of steam.

“Should’ve called the DEA when I had the chance, you hippie freak.” And then: “Leave my family out of it. Moonshine’s a different story. If pot were legal you’da had no interest in growing it.”

By the time she started getting in touch with JulieAnne, Kath was living on the West Coast, running a mail order business of hemp products and healing crystals. Soon she had a website (Harness the Healing Power of the Earth). Now she seems to be running a wilderness survival program. “Rich people pay good money for this,” she told JulieAnne. “It’s all those Survivor shows. People want to have that experience themselves.”

“Don’t talk to me about no statute of limitations. Is there a statute of limitations on abandoning your child?”

JulieAnne considers sending Kath a photo of Neil, so she has an image of something other than the angry man who’s shouting at her long-distance. JulieAnne’s favorite is one where her father has a big grin; he’s listening to Amanda reading the headlines from Weekly World News. “‘Moon to Explode in Six Months,’ Mr. K, what do you think of that?” “It could happen.” “What about ‘Hikers Find 20-Foot-Tall Gingerbread House’?” “You never know.”

Amanda moved in next door nine years ago, when she and JulieAnne were seven. She was there when Kath started sending letters. By then she was fiercely protective of JulieAnne. There she’d be, ten years old, eleven, sitting at the kitchen table with Neil, each one outdoing the other in indignation. Who does she think she is? What kind of mother would leave a kid like JulieAnne? They’ve bonded over their outrage at Kath.

Her father has hung up the phone. Now she hears him, almost shouting at her stepmother.

“Why now all of a sudden? Is she between boyfriends?”

“Neil, you hush this very second.”

JulieAnne realizes she has something much more immediate and practical to consider than abstract things like whether Neil will let her go, how she’ll feel, whether to be angry, what to say.

Her mother has no photograph of JulieAnne. Not a real photograph. Or rather, she has photographs of real people, but they’re not JulieAnne.

She doesn’t think of it as lying, precisely. It began as an accident. When her mother started writing to her she’d asked for a photograph, and JulieAnne wanted to send her one of a pretty, happy little girl. Her father and stepmother didn’t take many photos, and in the ones of JulieAnne she was usually in the picture by accident. She showed up in the margins, blurred, part of her face cut off by the edge of the picture, or else looking startled, called in from someplace else to pose for a family shot without having any time to comb her hair or arrange her face with the right expression, so that a faraway mother she’d never seen could look at it and admire the image of an intelligent, interesting child.

Back then Amanda looked kind of like her, except with shorter, more reddish hair, and her face a bit plumper. JulieAnne ended up sending her mother a picture of Amanda that Amanda’s mom had taken, curled up in her bed grinning up at the camera through a crowd of pillows and stuffed animals. It was close enough.

She knew that after that, her mother would expect more pictures. For her tenth birthday she asked her father for a camera and he got her one, to her surprise, that was sleek and silvery and easy to use. She started photographing her friends: Amanda on the swingset at the height of an arc, hair flying, face upturned; or Tiffany turned three-quarters away from the camera. They were prettier than JulieAnne anyway, and more photogenic, and the little differences would be easy to explain: her hair grew fast, or she had just cut her hair, or had tried a henna shampoo for highlights, or had gained a little weight recently, or lost it, and yes, wasn’t she getting tall fast? Her mother never pinned her down with pointblank questions, but every once in a while in her letters she would mention in an offhand way, “You know, honey, somehow you look different in every photo.”

JulieAnne has tried to put off sending her a recent shot. In the last couple of years Amanda has gained a lot of weight. Anyone else would get teased and called a fat girl. Not Amanda. She takes over a room when she walks in. Her low-pitched musical voice is loud and unapologetic. She’s a force of nature, too overwhelming a presence to be a fat girl. Meanwhile Tiffany has stayed as skinny as they all were when they were eleven. Even at odd angles, the two of them look too dramatically different from each other. JulieAnne could claim to have drastic fluctuations in her weight, but that would make Kath worry for no reason.

You have to be grown-up about this, she tells herself.

She has to tell Amanda and Tiffany what she’s done. She has to get a real photo of herself to send to her mother.

She looks in the mirror, tries to picture herself in black and white.



On his free afternoon Larry stops at Cynthia’s house. Hank, her husband, answers the door. His hair has been getting shorter over the years. It’s almost a crewcut now; it makes his receding hairline harder to notice. He’s a tall guy with a puffed-out chest like a gym teacher, a guy who’s used to giving orders. He’s bigger and stronger than Larry. If he tried to punch him Larry’s only advantage would be his quickness. He could sway and dodge out of the way of those stone fists and succeed only in looking ridiculous in front of Cynthia.

“Hi, Larry,” he says with a tired voice and carefully prepared smile. He goes back in, and Cynthia comes out with the same smile as Hank. She’s wearing a beige tank top and blue jeans, more like a college student than the VP of a bank.

“I…” He never knows how to start when he talks to Cynthia. “Molly says you’ve got all these plans for the summer.”

“I told her to let you know. She’s going to Italy with me for two weeks in July. In August she’s taking an intensive SAT prep course, Monday through Thursday all day for three weeks.”

“I won’t hardly see her.”

“Larry. This is important. If she’s going to do early decision at Harvard she needs to take the September SATs.”

“Harvard. That’s over in…”


She steps out onto the flagstone-paved front patio. There’s a teak bench next to a stone planter, but she sits down on the step that leads down to the sidewalk. She motions for him to sit next to her.

“It’s not like you’ll never see her. You’ll have her on weekends, just like you do during the school year.”

He looks at Cynthia’s bare feet, the graceful arches and polished toenails. He can hear Hank’s lawn mower out back, coming closer, fading, coming closer. The two of them were doing yard work together after supper. Hank mowing, Cynthia probably planting some annuals.

Hank has a job Larry doesn’t understand, something to do with finance. He likes to give everyone, including Larry, a hearty handshake and a clap on the shoulder. No reason we can’t be friends, he’d told Larry right off. They’d even invited him to their wedding. And the weird thing about it is, Hank could be sincere. Larry has been watching him for years, waiting for some sign of hypocrisy.

Hank likes to give brief motivational speeches. He’s given Larry one every time Larry gets fired. He even gave a speech at his wedding, to some men Larry presumed were other businessmen: something along the lines of, When I get married, it’s for life. I’m in this for the long haul and so on. You don’t walk away if there’s a problem, you make it work out.

Larry still wonders how Hank would solve the “problem” if Cynthia sat him down one day and calmly, politely wrote him out of her life. You’re a nice guy. You’re a good person. But I don’t love you. The way Larry sees it, you have no choice but to walk away from a problem like that. But not before you beg and plead and cry. At which point you stagger away, or crawl. There’s no question of actually walking.

He tries to picture giving Hank a motivational speech after Cynthia dumps him. What’s more probable is him, Larry, comforting Cynthia a decent interval after Hank’s funeral. He’s a hard-driving man; guys like that get cardiac problems.

“How far away is Boston?”

“From here? About twelve hours by car.”

“Do you know how old my truck is? It’ll never make it.”

“Larry, maybe we could talk this over by phone.”

“What’s the matter with the colleges we have here? They’re expensive enough.”

“What kind of message would I be sending her if I don’t expect her to try for the best? Think what that would do to her self-esteem.”

Hank comes around the front of the house with a pair of hedge clippers. He starts working on a yew near the bay window, and says to Larry in his jokey voice, “She’s hired me as gardener. Keeps me out of trouble.”

One of Larry’s best jobs was working with a groundskeeping crew at the golf course. Things got complicated only after the Canada geese showed up. They wandered around in packs, left droppings everywhere. More geese arrived every day. Management wanted to get rid of the geese, didn’t care how—shoot them, poison them. Larry refused. It felt wrong to kill them, and what’s more, there wasn’t any logic to it. They had to live somewhere. “We should try to understand them,” he’d said. He meant they should try to figure out what the geese liked about the golf course, how the grounds crew could change that, or find a place the geese liked better. But they laughed before he could explain. “Great idea,” a supervisor said. “How do you say ‘Take me to your leader?’ in goose? How do you say, ‘We come in peace’?”

This was the same supervisor who’d told him another time, “You’re damn close to the border of mental defective, Larry. You’re barely on this side of the line.” Larry doesn’t even remember what he did to provoke that. “You ain’t stupid, son,” his dad tells him sometimes. “You just don’t pay attention.” They’ll be sitting in the living room and his mom will go stand behind Larry’s chair and drape her arms around his shoulders, kiss him on the top of the head. “He’s easily distracted, is all.”

All of which makes him forget what he wanted to say to Cynthia, and he doesn’t think about it until he’s in his truck.

Larry: This don’t have nothing to do with Molly’s self-confidence. Your family’s richer than God. She knows she can have the best of whatever she wants.

Cynthia: What are you going to do, Larry, guilt her out so she doesn’t leave?

The real Cynthia wouldn’t put it that way. This is all he can come up with.

Larry: I’m not going to guilt her out. She shouldn’t stay around here if she doesn’t want to.

She should see the world. Italy, Boston. Cynthia, as always, is right.



That evening, the exercise for the memoirs class is to write about yourself in the third person.

“Patrice loves museums,” she writes, and it makes her want to chuckle to write about herself as if she were someone else. “Especially the furniture part. Not that she doesn’t like paintings, she does, but what she loves are the ‘period rooms’ with the authentic furniture that real people used in earlier times.” Patrice knows she’s supposed to focus on concrete details. “For instance,” she writes, “a parlor, with dark hardwood floors and plaster walls painted a warm rose color, and the ornate trim around doors and windows painted in a gleaming white for contrast. The mantelpiece is made of white marble. On it are fresh flowers in a crystal vase changed every day (the flowers, not the vase). There are floor-to-ceiling windows with gauzy white curtains that I, that she could pull aside every morning to enjoy the view of the gardens.

“Patrice dreams that she lives in a museum like this. She is allowed past the velvet rope keeping people out of the rooms. She can relax in the wingchair upholstered in maroon silk, or sit at a desk and write thank-you notes on linen stationery. She gets a little annoyed at the endless stream of visitors during museum hours, but she’s grateful for all the cleaning done by the custodial staff. And at night when everyone is gone the people in the paintings climb down from their canvasses, and stretch and smile, and serve her pastry and give her foot rubs. Sometimes she agrees to change places with them, and will climb into a painting and stand in the background, and then the next day they all watch to see whether any of the visitors notice. She feels most comfortable in the medieval paintings, the ones done in oil on wooden panels. The women are solid and sensible-looking, like she is, and she feels much more at home with them than with the skinny ballerinas, although she notices that some of the nudes are large and fleshy like her, and she wonders when she’ll have the nerve to show up in one of those paintings.”

The teacher obviously disapproves, but all she says, with that tight little smile, is, “Try and remember, everyone, this is a memoir-writing class, not fiction. We write about our real lives.”

“Patrice is confused,” Patrice writes in her notebook. If she wrote fiction she would give all the nice characters a happy ending, and every overweight woman would have delicate wrists and ankles and have artists begging to paint her portrait.



The guidance counselor looks exhausted with boredom, as usual, and JulieAnne doesn’t blame him. She can never think of anything to say in these meetings. What do you want to do after high school? What are your interests? She shrugs, manages an occasional “I don’t know.” Now he’s telling her he doesn’t think she should sign up for Honors English next year; she’s been making only average grades with the non-honors track, and she wouldn’t want her grades to get any lower, would she? No, she wouldn’t.

She’s also thought about learning Italian. It sounds so musical. She doesn’t mention that.

He’s filling out her class registration form. “You’re doing well with your word processing and your business math,” he says. “That’s what they’ll want to see on your record. If you decide to go ahead and get that associate’s degree.”

“I like to take pictures,” she says, surprising herself. The counselor looks surprised too. His eyes just brush the surface of her and then flicker away. Like my camera, she thinks. But no, that’s unfair. She reaches for it where it rests against her, hanging from its vinyl strap around her neck. Her camera sees much more.

As she leaves the building she shows Mr. Giacinto, the maintenance man, the photo of the west corridor, afternoon sun shining through the large window at the end, lockers shut, floor gleaming.

“Look how clean it is,” he says. “No students around, that’s why. Ha! No offense, kid.”

She wants to take a picture of the same place but with him in it, with his mop and cleaning station. He lets her talk him into it though he complains a lot and she can’t make him understand that the picture is more true with him there, if that makes sense. That the mop and the angle of his stooping body make it perfect.

By the time JulieAnne gets home there’s a family meeting going on in the kitchen: her father, her stepmother, Amanda. They acknowledge JulieAnne, go back to talking among themselves.

JulieAnne leans in the doorway, watching them.

I’ve handled this all wrong, Kath said to her last night on the phone. Neil’s so sensitive, he’s like a walking bruise.

No one has ever used the word “sensitive” to describe her father.

“So her mother wants to see her,” Amanda says. “It’s about friggin’ time.”

“Too damn late, is what it is.”

“I’m not defending her, Mr. K.”

The three of them sip their coffee. Amanda is the only sixteen-year-old JulieAnne knows who likes Maxwell House instant, with hazelnut nondairy creamer, the drink of choice in Neil and Tracy’s kitchen.

Her father lights a cigarette, takes a few drags, then passes it down to Tracy, who takes one puff and then stubs it out. They’ve been doing this for six years now, it’s their attempt at quitting smoking. One of these days Amanda will grab the cigarette and puff on it and they’ll let her do it; she’ll be completely one of them.

“It’ll happen sooner or later,” Tracy says gently but firmly. “She’ll want to meet her mother, it’s only natural.”

Amanda breathes a long, drawn-out sigh, then a prolonged hmm, meaning she has pondered this, she concedes that Tracy has a point.

Neil looks down at his coffee. The three women have learned to interpret his silences. They lean in, listen to it, breathe it in. This one feels, if not relaxed, at least not too tense.

“She talks about my family being hillbillies,” he says after a while, “like her family ain’t every bit the same. Don’t give me none of that peace, love, and understanding crap.

“Mr. K,” Amanda says, delighted, “that’s Elvis Costello.”



One night Larry goes out on a date, sort of. A nurse at the Selinsgrove clinic has invited him for coffee at a place in Lewisburg. There’s a poetry reading going on that evening at the café, and Larry’s afraid he’ll be bored and confused, but it turns out people are reciting poems they like, real poems from books, not stuff they’ve written themselves. The only rule is you have to recite from memory, not read. People are standing up who didn’t plan to, they get brave and say stuff they memorized years ago and never forgot. “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” stuff from Alice in Wonderland. Everyone’s laughing and clapping. Yelling lines when a reciter hesitates. And then other people have prepared. They say stuff by Robert Frost or poets Larry’s never heard of, but good ones. He wonders if it’s easier to understand when you listen to someone saying it than when you read it quietly to yourself.

The nurse runs into an ex-boyfriend at the café and ends up going home with him. She apologizes to Larry, gives him a kiss on the cheek. Larry understands. He wonders whether Cynthia would be tempted, if she ran into him after not seeing him for a long time. She’s never had a chance to miss him. Maybe that’s the problem.

When Cynthia broke up with him he showed up at his parents’ house with a few cardboard boxes. He managed to get himself to work and back, but otherwise he stayed in his old bedroom, now the sewing room. He showered only when his mom reminded him, stopped shaving, stopped getting haircuts, even though his mom offered to cut his hair herself. What he mostly remembers from that time is long fits of weeping, staring into space.

The hair started growing. He’d kept it short all his life, but soon it hung down past his ears, grew down his neck, grazed his shoulders. He didn’t notice it except to sweep it back out of his eyes, but his mom started commenting on it. She’d convince him to let her wash it in the bathroom sink, and it felt good to close his eyes and feel the warm water and her strong fingers working the suds around. The shampoo was girly-smelling but he didn’t want to offend her by saying so. “You were born with an adorable head of hair,” she told him. “But first your dad and then you, kept it short ever since.”

Molly was twenty months old at the time of the breakup. Cynthia’s parents brought her over every weekend. At first the sight of her made him cry more. He was supposed to see his baby girl every day of her life, not just on visits.

“Honey,” his mom said, “You can grieve over her the rest of the week. Sunday through Thursday, cry all you like. But are you still going to cry when she’s right there in front of you?”

“Mom, you’ve never had this. You don’t know what it’s like to be a divorced parent.”

“You were never married.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean, and you were never married.”

He started to understand what everyone else had figured out from the start. Most likely his buddies and relatives had been making side bets over how long it would be until Cynthia threw him out.

He lay on the couch, watching his parents play with Molly on the living room rug. They’d bought her some little dinosaurs and there was this set of dominoes they had that she liked, and the three of them would make the dinosaurs talk to each other and move around and build caves out of the dominoes. Then there was this complicated situation where the dominos were standing up in a line and the dinosaurs pushed them over so that the toppled dominos formed a road that one group of dinosaurs needed to travel to another group. Why the dominos had to be stood up in the first place, Larry didn’t understand.

Molly would scamper over to the couch sometimes, gently take hold of a strand of his long hair. “Daddy pretty,” she would say.

Molly pretty.”

He picked himself up, started walking upright, showering regularly. He started shaving again, but he never did cut that hair.

Molly continued to be impressed. “Look, Dad, your hair’s almost as long as my Barbie dolls.”

“Let’s call this one Larry.”

“That’s a boy’s name!”

“You know how your mom gets mad at me if I bring you home late? This is what she’s gonna do to me next time.” He picked up Larry and swung it around by its hair, its rigid plastic smile the only thing they could see as it whirled around faster and faster. Molly laughed so hard she started hiccupping.

People saw that hair and made all kinds of decisions about him. He was gay. He took drugs. He was a hippie. And here and there a woman who loved it. He couldn’t tell what Cynthia thought of it, though once when he’d dropped Molly off after a weekend visit, it was late and Cynthia had had some wine. She backed him up against the wall, pressed up close to him. “I’m confused,” Larry had said, and she’d laughed and shaken her head as if she’d come to her senses just that moment.

Confused was not sexy. Women didn’t want confused.



The writing assignment is something the teacher calls an “inventory of the self.”

“Interpret it however you want, but try for rich description, close attention to detail. I want you to dig deep, write honestly and fearlessly. Remember, you don’t have to read it out loud if you don’t want to.”

Patrice begins to write. “On Nittany Mountain the rain seeps through crevices in the ground, drips through limestone and lands in Penn’s Cave. You take a boat through it, riding on all that accumulated rain. It carries your boat out through a little opening so you have to duck down, and then you shoot out into the open. It’s the beginning of Penns Creek that goes on for miles until it empties into the Susquehanna, but there at the cave opening, it looks like a pond. There are swans, beautiful and bad-tempered; they blare at you or ignore you with elegant scorn. Then you get out of the boat and go through the animal preserve. Elk, bison, white-tailed deer. Some of the deer are albino or recessive or something—all white. If you came across one of those alone in a forest you’d think you’d seen a ghost. Wolves, timber and gray, they point out which is the alpha male and the alpha female as if you couldn’t tell just by looking. And the black bears. One of them is a black-bear version of albino, they call him a cinnamon bear and that’s exactly the color of his fur. They tumble all over each other; they like people but you wouldn’t want them playing with you. They could snap your neck without even meaning to—oops, the toy’s not moving anymore. And then a mountain lion, just one can bring down a deer, where it takes a whole pack of wolves to do the same thing, and she comes right over to the chain link fence and you’re inches from those cool feline eyes looking into yours”—and time is up.

“Yes, but this is an inventory of the self,” the teacher says. “Where is the self in this piece?”

At first Patrice’s instinct is to back down, apologize, but she’s tired of backing down.

“The self is what’s looking at the animals,” she says. Polite but firm.

I’ve been on this planet longer than you, she thinks. That should count for something.

The teacher looks stunned. “We writers,” she says after a pause, “we’re artists, you know, we takes things in all different directions. That’s something I’m learning from you, Patrice.”

Sometimes, Patrice realizes, all it takes to stop a bully is to tell them they’re being a bully.

After class she meets three of her friends at the mall. Mildred needs something at the Dress Barn and Ruth and Gerri want to look at baking dishes at Boscov’s, and then they follow Patrice to the bookstore, their last stop. They’re tired by now. Mildred, Ruth, and Gerri settle heavily into armchairs near the religion section, where Patrice looks for the next title they’ve decided on for the book discussion group at church, something by the Dalai Lama. Gerri scans the titles she can see from where she’s sitting.

When God Was a Woman. What’s with the was? Heck, she still is.”

“The title should be, God Is a Woman.”

“With gray hair.”

“And blisters on her feet.”

“And cellulite.”

The cellulite part makes them laugh. Patrice didn’t even know the word when she was growing up, none of them did. They still don’t care.

Later Patrice smiles at the memory, Gerri’s laugh like a loud hoot that she’s never self-conscious about, no matter how many people stare. Mildred does a kind of hee hee hee, a devilish cackle that makes the rest of them laugh more.

They can’t sing any better than Patrice. They’ve threatened to come to the UU church the day of her musical service “and join in the heehawing,” as Ruth put it.

It’s after nine when she gets home. She turns on the armchair lamp in the living room, then the kitchen lights and the little TV she keeps on the counter. No husband there to welcome her, never has been one. Then again, no husband to demand to know where she was, no husband to ignore her or criticize her for getting fat. Her friends have the whole range of husbands, and they leave them at home in the evenings, eat out together after work, and then go shopping or to a movie.

Patrice finds her notebook and writes down more ideas. For Joys and Concerns, they could divide it up. People who wanted to light a candle of concern could sing “There Is More Love Somewhere.” The line “I’m gonna keep on till I find it” is perfect for it. She hasn’t figured out what to have for people lighting candles of joy. But she’s decided she wants “Come Come Whoever You Are” for the opening hymn. They could even start it up while people are still coming in and taking their seats. It’s a round, so people could keep it going. She especially likes the line, “Ours is no caravan of despair.” It makes her imagine the early days when Universalism was getting started, back when all you heard from your preacher was hell and damnation, only a few predestined to be saved, the Devil lurking everywhere. If you took a sip of ale after a long day working in the fields, the Devil was there. He was there if you wanted to dance a few steps to the sound of a fiddle, if you wanted to lean against a split rail fence for a moment, put down the bucket of water you were hauling and enjoy a breeze or a sunset. Patrice imagines some circuit riding preacher showing up one day, riding from village to village, stopping at farms and mills, calling out, “Salvation is universal, brothers and sisters! God has saved us all!” and people cheering, tossing hats and babies into the air.

She gets up to make a cup of tea. The television is still on in the kitchen. There’s an interview, an old man with an English accent, and as far as Patrice can tell, he’s famous for being eccentric. He doesn’t look too good, his voice is shaking, and he seems to have on garish makeup. The interviewer asks him what he thinks about sex change operations. “Good heavens, I’m much too old for surgery. Now if they’d had that procedure when I was young…”

The kettle starts to boil. Patrice is looking for a lemon and when she closes the refrigerator door she hears him say, “I certainly shouldn’t tell anyone about it, you know! One sees interviews with people who have had it done. There was that famous tennis player, and a pianist fellow, rather recently, too, and it amazes me that they tell the world about it. If I’d had that operation I shouldn’t have told a soul. I should have changed my name, got a whole new identity. I’d have moved to some small town and worked in a fabric shop and lived a nice peaceful life, and no one would know I’d ever been a man.”

Patrice adds honey to her tea and laughs. While she’s been imagining so many other lives, someone is out there imagining hers. She feels sorry for the old man, wanting so badly the things she takes for granted, the simple fact of being born female and never having to think about it. Being able to paint her nails without getting disapproving stares, being able to wear flower-print dresses and a delicate gold chain bracelet and have a soft, high-pitched voice. Actually her voice isn’t that soft and she realizes the old man probably isn’t imagining someone quite as loud as Patrice. Tomorrow morning she’ll look through the hymnbook for a song of thanksgiving; they should be sure to have one in the service. Maybe she’ll send the old man a postcard, Greetings from the fabric shop. Enjoying the life you’ve dreamed up for me. Thanks.



Amanda sits behind the counter, trying to stay out of JulieAnne’s way while she waits on customers. They’re hoping for a lull so they can take some photos.

“So I tell my parents I’m thinking of going to a service over at the Unitarian church. You know the one in Northumberland?”

“Mmm hm,” JulieAnne says. She pours mocha syrup into a latte. Checks on the milk steamer.

“And they’re fine with it. So I ask, What are we, in terms of what church or whatever, and they say we’re UCC. And I say, So what does that mean? And they go, Well, it means we don’t burn anyone at the stake for believing differently than we do. And I’m like, Well, that’s good to know.”

The last person in line takes forever to make up his mind. Finally he decides on green tea and a maple pecan scone.

“So that was it. They’ll talk about anything else. Drugs they told me about long ago. Sex too. But religion?”

The customer walks away and JulieAnne hands Amanda the camera.

“Go over by that pillar and focus over here. What do you see? Zoom in so it’s just my shoulders up. Now what do you see? No, don’t take it when I’m looking straight at you.”

They waste a lot of time before JulieAnne gets the idea to stand Amanda in her place while she figures out things like angle, distance, degree of zoom.

“Okay, stand right here and take the camera. On this spot.”
“I love it. This is the most you’ve talked in years.”

“Wait till I get back to the counter. Okay, now what’s the light doing?”

“What’s the light doing? Do you expect me to understand that?”

Also she’s not sure whether she wants the background to be blurry or sharp. She likes the idea of glass behind her, the tumblers for iced coffee, bottles of syrup. Glass is hard and shiny and beautiful and she’s hoping it will make her look sophisticated, artistic. Something. She tries to imagine her mother looking at the picture.

Amanda’s got the hang of it. She’s moving around, ordering JulieAnne to turn this way, look in that direction. Mr. Graybill doesn’t even ask what she’s doing. Amanda has worked across the street at the sporting goods store for two years and she refuses to quit there and come work for him, but she gives him advice and he always takes it, like painting the walls deep colors and putting a quartz candle holder on each table.

He asks Amanda what she thinks about holding the poetry recitals out by the river during the summer months. She’s skeptical.

“Traffic from the bridge,” she says. “Too much noise.”

“How about Selinsgrove?”

“Isle of Que in the summer? Do you know what the mosquitoes are like?”

He stands near Amanda as if supervising the photo shoot. Now two sets of eyes and the camera are looking at JulieAnne.

Mr. Graybill tells Amanda, “I’ve been trying to get your friend here to sign up to recite something, but she claims she’s too shy.”

“I happen to know that JulieAnne likes poetry.”


Amanda ignores her. “Me, I have no patience for it.”

“Neither do I,” Mr. Graybill says.

She must have been watching them, she thinks, in the picture she ends up choosing to send to her mother. She looks amused and affectionate. She’s figured out just before the shutter clicked that the approving smiles they’re sending her way are meant for each other.



Larry sits at his kitchen table with a cold bottle of beer and a stack of poetry books that Molly has brought over. It’s hard to concentrate. He feels giddy with relief and gratitude.

Nothing’s wrong with his truck. She’s fine.

Turned out the gas cap was loose, that was all. No engine damage. No big repairs that would require Larry to get a second job.

He’d been on a back road he hardly ever drove, and on an impulse he’d turned in at a sign for Neil Kerstetter, Auto Repairs. The mechanic was an odd guy, said maybe a total of ten words. He was short and skinny, hunched over, never looked directly at him but Larry could tell he was thinking all the time. He knows the look: the guy has too much time to think. Wouldn’t even accept any money. Larry had tried to insist: “You took the time to check it out, you did your job.” The mechanic walked away, raised a hand briefly, gesture of goodbye or dismissal or both.

Larry leafs through a poetry book.

Molly, out in the living room, yells over to him above the noise of her TV show.

“How’s it going, Dad?”

“Fine, no problem.”

He starts at the front but quickly decides to flip to the back, figures the newer ones won’t be so hard to understand.

“What makes it poetry if it don’t rhyme?”

She mutes the TV.

“Dad, it’s not a rule. Lots of people write poetry that doesn’t rhyme.”

From the sound of her voice he can tell that people have known this for centuries, probably, and she must be thinking what an ignorant hick he is.

She never comes right out and says it, though. Cynthia never did either; he has to give her credit. Her family, though, different story. When he and Cynthia were together, her brothers and father kept referring to Larry as a high-school dropout even after he showed them his diploma. And then what a scandal, what a disgrace that this redneck had gone and got their daughter pregnant.

What they didn’t know was that Cynthia was the one who had chased after him. She didn’t mind his lack of education when his body was young and lean. We fit together so well, she used to say. He’s begun to understand what a novelty he was back then, how rebellious she must have felt to sneak off to his apartment at midnight after being at some fancy charity event with her parents. In the morning he’d find the jewels and designer dress draped over his jeans and work shirt.

Never a personal insult. No sarcasm or deceit or mind games. I just don’t love you.

He turns pages. Anything with sunsets or flowers makes his eyes glaze over. He remembers “The Highwayman,” some awful story about people tying up a girl and shooting her. He wonders if they still make kids read that.

“How about Robert Frost?” Molly calls out. “‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’—no, I can’t picture you saying that with a straight face.”

I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. He has no idea what it means but he likes the sound of it.

Something catches his eye. When you are old and grey and full of sleep

“I like this Yeets person.”

“I know it looks like that, Dad, but it’s pronounced Yates.”

Yates. But one man loved… This can’t mean what he thinks it means. He tries to picture Cynthia in a bonnet and severe gray clothing, baking pumpkin pies, sewing by firelight.



“Don’t laugh.”

What, Dad?”

“What’s a pilgrim soul?”

She turns off the TV and comes into the kitchen and explains that pilgrims are people who go on pilgrimages, like in the Canterbury Tales. They travel a long way to get to a holy place.

It doesn’t really describe Cynthia, but it’s a cool poem anyway and he’s proud of his kid. She knows this type of thing, she’ll be comfortable at a place like Harvard. And that makes him think about how she’s leaving in another year. Even this summer it won’t be the way it used to be. The day she leaves for college a huge expanse of time, the rest of his life, is going to open up in the space where she used to be, and he’s going to curl up on the couch and cry. You could call it a time-honored method by now. A tradition.

And she’s a trouper, this kid; she’s already been trying to cheer him up. I’ll be back for Thanksgiving, she’d said the other day, a whole month at Christmas, spring break, almost four months for summer. You’ll hardly know I’m gone.

In the backyard Larry starts up the grill—veggie burger for Molly, ground beef patties for him. While he waits for the charcoals to get going he walks over to talk to Dirk, tell him the good news about the truck.

The only thing separating their backyards is the small parking lot behind the gun shop, but while Larry rents a ranch house on a small plot, Dirk lives in a farmhouse that’s been there for more than a hundred years. The house was decrepit when Dirk bought it and he’s been working on renovating it ever since, evenings and weekends, plus he built a summer kitchen out back and always has a huge vegetable garden.

Like most big guys, he moves slow, but somehow he’s always moving, and Larry follows him around as he breaks up a wooden crate into narrow shards, carries armfuls back to the garden to stake up the tomato plants.

“Soil looks good,” Larry says.

“Rototilled it late, though. And I tell you what—” Dirk’s voice gets loud as he pounds in each stake with a mallet. “There better not be no damn woodchuck in my broccoli this year.”

The more time Dirk spends on his garden and other projects, the less actual work he gets done in his house, which is fine with Larry and Molly, though they don’t tell Dirk that. They like the farmhouse the way it is, the tilted floor in the front parlor and the low, crooked threshold into the kitchen.

Larry’s not crazy about the bearskin rug and the dead animals mounted all over the place, but he likes Dirk’s stories, like the time he was out hunting and got tired and climbed up a tall pine to take a nap, and when he woke he looked down and saw a bear and her two cubs moving past the tree, not making a sound. Larry was relieved to hear he didn’t shoot them; maybe it was deer season or turkey or whatever, but it does seem to Larry that after Dirk met him and Molly he hasn’t done as much actual killing as he used to. Then there was the story of the peacocks escaping from the livestock auction out on Rt. 522—there’s Dirk at home minding his own business and he looks out the window and there’s peacocks perched in his trees.

“Have to run chicken wire all around here,” Dirk says, but he seems to be talking to himself, or maybe the woodchuck. He sounds irritable. “Do you know Trent Heimbach, buddy of mine?”

“I don’t think so,” Larry says.

“Had a stroke couple of weeks ago. Still in the hospital. And two days ago a guy at work, his wife had a heart attack, died instantly. She weren’t much older than me. No, I lie. She was my age, 52.”

“That’s awful.”

“What the hell, we ain’t even old yet.” He straightens up, rubs his lower back. “Used to be I had these cookouts on that property my folks got on Shade Mountain, back behind Paxtonville. We had picnic tables up there, barbecue pits. I ain’t talking no burgers and hot dog thing. I threw parties that lasted for days—we had roast pig, ribs, kettles of chili, I don’t know how many kegs of beer. We’d easily have eighty, a hundred people there at any one time. And I don’t know when that all stopped. Suddenly we was all too busy. Jobs, kids, I guess.”

“Wait a minute,” Larry says. “I think I went to some of those parties. They were yours?” He remembers sleeping on the ground, waking up to yet another friendly stranger handing him yet another beer. Women would pick the pine needles out of his hair and laugh.

“I must have been in high school.”

“Shi-i-it,” Dirk says, but he’s laughing. He throws an arm around Larry’s shoulder. “I don’t remember you from back then, man. But I guess we was both pretty fucked at the time.”

“We can do one now,” Larry says. “How about Fourth of July weekend? I’ll help you, I know how to grill. Between now and then, we’ll invite everyone we know. Or even anyone who looks familiar.”

“Hell, anyone who looks fun.”

Molly yells over to them. “Dad, I’m putting the burgers on before the charcoals burn out.”

“You should make some of those, what do you call, caramelized onions,” Dirk says. “Put ’em on the burgers. I saw it on that food channel.”

Larry brings over the food. He’s made enough for all three, and they eat their burgers and sliced tomatoes from Dirk’s garden at the picnic table. Soon it’s twilight, and the bats that nest in Dirk’s barn come flying out, like planes taking off one by one. This always creeps Molly out, but Larry loves to watch them. He and Dirk stand downhill from the barn, directly in the bats’ flight path. They’ve been doing this so long they don’t even cringe any more as the bats swoop down at them. They stand there and grin when they feel the breeze from the bats’ wings ruffle their hair.


It’s starting to fill up already for the poetry recital. Three college guys come to the counter and JulieAnne puts her book down to take their orders: mochaccino with no whipped cream, double cappuccino but go easy on the foamed milk. The last one orders plain black tea and JulieAnne feels like thanking him.

One of the college boys has noticed the book and asks, “Are you going to read something too? What is it, Emily Dickinson?” They smirk and JulieAnne can feel her face getting red. “Look at her, it is Emily Dickinson!” and the way they’re trying not to laugh is worse than if they came right out and laughed in her face.

“Let me guess: ‘I’m nobody, who are you’?”

“No offense,” another one says, “we’re not making fun of you. Really.” With his elbow he jabs at his friend. “It’s just that, every high school kid on earth picks that poem. It’s been done to death.”

JulieAnne feels so stupid she can hardly look at them, but she hears another voice, someone waiting in line behind them.

“Did you like that poem when you were in high school?” he says to the college boys, but friendly, in a making-conversation way. One of them says yes, and this other man says, “It probably meant something to you then, probably explained how you felt about things. So why not let her feel that way, too, the way you used to feel?”

When she finally looks at the man, JulieAnne’s first thought is that, much as she loves black and white film, she’d have to use color film to do him justice, not only for that amazing long hair but those eyes, the kindness in them.

As he drinks his coffee Larry thinks about who he’ll invite for the Fourth of July party at Dirk’s property on Shade Mountain. He’ll ask that shy girl at the counter, he’ll ask anyone whose poem he likes tonight. Tomorrow he’ll walk around town grinning like a fool and whoever smiles back instead of looking away, he’ll invite them too.

Last time they had this kind of recital thing, they’d had a flyer talking about the poetry collection at the college library, for people looking for stuff to recite. The librarian had been so proud of it. “We’ve got anthologies,” she’d said, “organized by theme, organized by time period, you name it. We have collected works. Poetry journals. We have little obscure books by people no one’s ever heard of,” and Larry smiled but didn’t tell her he hadn’t heard of anyone anyway. He pulled things off the shelf at random, figured he’d relax and see if anything grabbed him.

I stand in the cathedral of your house / humbled by your perfection. It should make him sad, it’s so hopeless, but he relishes having the lines in his head where he can get at them anytime, words someone else wrote, a stranger, feeling exactly like he does. I leave with my questions / still crumpled in my pocket.

The women at the next table are laughing, loud, and he recognizes one of them, a mom-looking type, though now he realizes he’s seen her at the last recital and at the library, and never seen her with kids. “I’m not nervous,” she’s saying to one of her friends, “I can’t wait to get up there.” Larry smiles at her and she smiles back, and he makes a mental note to add her to his invitation list. He wonders why he was so sure she was a mom, not that he noticed her much except in the background. Maybe because she was overweight and friendly and older than him, and he’s annoyed at himself for making assumptions.

Two of her friends are practicing their lines, from different poems, at the exact same time: “Whose woods these are I think I know.” “I’ll tell thee everything I can.” “His house is in the village though.” “There’s little to relate.”

What’s funny, Larry thinks, is that there are lots of couples that look like this woman and him. She doesn’t have many wrinkles, meanwhile Larry’s face is lined already and he walks bowlegged and slow like an old man. Town people would think of them as one of those hillbilly couples you see from way out in the country: dimwitted skinny guy with fat wife, stunned-looking red-faced kids straggling along behind them.

And then what he notices most, when she walks up to the little stage and starts to read, are her odd, greenish cat’s eyes, her heart-shaped face, her musical voice. Time wants to show you a different country.

He sits up to listen, and JulieAnne has the same reaction, these lines, she wants to grab them and hold on to them, You have a breath without pain. It is called happiness. When the poem is over JulieAnne leans against the counter, fights the urge to close her eyes, and Patrice is feeling energized; she’s done something she’d never imagined doing and her friends are congratulating her and she knows, clearly and all at once, that she should take up kayaking next, her and her friends squeezed into tiny boats paddling away on the Susquehanna and laughing whenever one of them capsizes, which is often.

She doesn’t really understand the poem she recited if she takes it apart line by line, but you shouldn’t do that anyway. It’s like breaking up a vase so you can pick up the pretty pieces and play with them. She notices the girl serving coffee, wide shoulders, like a swimmer’s—not fat, but clearly not comfortable in that big, strong body. She probably thinks she looks like a cow instead of realizing how lovely she is with that high forehead and those enormous hazel eyes, how beautiful especially when she’s listening to poetry with all her soul.

They won’t remember those first impressions, the three of them, soon they won’t even be able to imagine a time when they hadn’t known each other. But tonight they listen to more poems, drift into and out of their own thoughts.

Patrice is getting sleepy. The voices around her, rising and falling, finding a rhythm and then dispersing, make her think of her church service all in song. She imagines the soloist, the adults’ choir, the rounds that move from one side of the aisle to the other.

Larry daydreams about Cynthia. Hank’s out of the picture somehow: she’s sad and Larry’s comforting her, and he shakes out his long hair and she reaches for it and says, I’ve always wanted to do this.

JulieAnne remembers a dream she had this morning and forgot till just now. In the dream she’s playing with one of those magnetic poetry kits. She can hear somewhere, though she can’t see, small children on a playground. Their voices are an indistinct hum except that sometimes they rise into “they all fall down” and then their voices subside and she wonders whether they do fall down, they sound so weak and tired when they get to the word “down.” She sees that word, down, among the ones spread out before her and she picks it up, and it turns into a photograph of a star-pattern quilt. She picks up another word, rust, and that turns into a photograph of shutters on an old house. She’s trying to make a poem but the words, peach, fingernail, topaz, all turn into images and she wonders whether, if she tries to arrange the pictures into a collage, they’ll form a poem instead.

“Can you sing?” Patrice calls over to Larry the next time they’re at a reading.

“Not hardly,” he answers, and soon he’s moved over to her table and he’s singing “Wreck on the Highway,” off-key, and she applauds boisterously.

“My dad loved Roy Acuff,” she says.

“So’d my granddad.”

They both applaud JulieAnne when she recites a different Dickinson poem. She’s flawless, and when she finishes she walks past the college boys like she doesn’t see them.

On her breaks she sits with Larry and Patrice. Soon she brings in her photos to show them, and then she’s bringing in her camera. They talk about camera angles and lighting and places they’d like to photograph. They listen to Patrice read her writing exercises, they talk over her plans for the church service in song. They hear Larry’s stories about the patients he meets driving the ambulance, ponder whether he should look for another job. JulieAnne would like to take a photograph of Cynthia, but she and Patrice worry that Larry might brood over it. They’ve never seen her but they’re sure of her unattainable beauty.

Amanda and Tiffany help JulieAnne get her photograph ready to send to her mother. It’s blown up to 8″ x 10″, protected by cardboard and bubble wrap. Her friends feel they’re Kath’s daughters too, in a way, now they know Kath’s been getting photos of them all these years, and that feels right somehow to JulieAnne; the two of them are like her sisters. She feels she hasn’t been hiding herself from her mother, her self is the one doing the looking, and the girl-daughters in the photos, after all, have been looking at her, JulieAnne, while she’s taking the picture. The smiles are for her, the expression in their eyes is something she’s earned.

The girls feel there should be some kind of ritual send-off of the picture, the True and Authentic Portrait, as Amanda calls it. It should go off in its own little boat, set loose on Penns Creek, or its own little propeller plane rigged up with popsicle sticks and rubber bands. The best they can do is accompany it to the post office, stand at attention while it goes into the “Out-of-Town” mail slot.

Something unblocks after that. She wants to make a portrait of everyone she knows, as themselves, not posing as JulieAnne or someone else’s long-lost daughter or anyone else they’re pretending to be in their ordinary lives before JulieAnne’s camera tells them, It’s all right, don’t be afraid, it’ll feel so good.

She and Patrice walk around town together, and Patrice drives her around the countryside. They look for interesting scenes, faces. Patrice has no shyness; she’ll ask total strangers whether JulieAnne can take their picture.

They go to Larry’s place, and he takes them over to Dirk’s to take pictures of the farmhouse. At twilight the bats come streaming out from under the barn’s eaves. If you stand downhill from them they look like they’re flying right at you, like they’re going to crash into your forehead, but at the last minute they pull up and fly over your head, just inches above. You can even feel your hairs stirring in their wingbeat. JulieAnne and Patrice love the bats as much as Larry does. They shriek and laugh and shiver but keep standing there, keep watching. JulieAnne eventually calms down enough to aim her camera at them. It occurs to her one day to turn to her left, and the picture she takes then of Larry, bracing for the next wave of bats, ends up in a juried photography show at the university art gallery.

Another photo of JulieAnne’s winds up at the Boalsburg arts festival. She takes it at the musical service Patrice arranges at the Unitarian Universalist church. You just barely see the tops of people’s heads in one corner of the photo, and the rest is the rafters, hanging lamps, stained glass windows.

Everyone attends the service: Larry, JulieAnne, Amanda, Dirk, the people from Patrice’s writing class, including the teacher, Patrice’s friends from old jobs and new, her landlady. Her fellow congregants, being less reverent than the visitors, make jokes about “UU-ism: The Opera,” and using charades rather than hymns next time, but the Drum Circle folks want to work with Patrice on designing a service, and the pastor asks her to be on the ministry committee.

Most of the people at the service end up coming to Dirk and Larry’s party the next weekend. When he sees the carfuls of Unitarian Universalists, Dirk sings in a surprisingly good baritone, “There is more beer somewhere,” and they get the joke, start singing other hymns with substituted lyrics that get raunchier as the night goes on.

Larry has also invited Virginia and other patients he’s met while driving the ambulance, his many coworkers from every job he’s been fired from, JulieAnne’s dad Neil, the mechanic who diagnosed Larry’s truck, half the audience from the last poetry reading, total strangers who smiled at him on the street in the last few weeks.

He and Dirk let Molly invite all her friends, also Cynthia and Hank and Cynthia’s parents, brothers, extended family. Some of them even come. Some of those even shake Larry’s hand.

After a while, people at the Shade Mountain Inn hear something’s going on further down the mountain, and so do customers over at the Moose and the Vets, the Country Tavern, the Middleburg Hotel. They all show up, as does anyone else who’s wandering around looking for something to do and just follows the noise and the smell of food cooked in the open air.

JulieAnne shows up early, bless her, to help with the food. She’s getting ready for the trip out to California. Her mom has sent her more photos and she’s brought them along, shows them to Patrice and Larry and Dirk while they slice onions, chop tomatoes, open cans of beans. “Here’s my mom at the lodge where she runs those wilderness trips. Here she is in her garden.”

Later that night Dirk gets to thinking about those photos. Larry too. It’s not only the beer that lubricates their memory, it’s Bob Seeger and Jeff Healy on the CD player, it’s being in the forest at night, and it should be feeling cool by now but there’s all these warm, contented bodies all around.

“I think I…met her,” Dirk says.

“I think I might have…met her too.”

“Picture her with long hair,” Dirk says. “Weren’t gray back then. Brown, kind of curly?”

“I… uh…I mean, what are the odds?”

“She was real friendly,” Dirk says. “A real…warm person.”

Dirk remembers that she’d shown up at parties with some quiet little guy whose face he can’t recall. Probably just as well, now.

She loved how big Dirk was, wanted to climb him, she said, like a bear up a tree.

Girl was on the run long before the federal agents came chasing her.

Larry remembers how fragrant she was, a potent combination of sandalwood and pot. Life is too short, sweetie, she’d said, strong warm hands caressing his hair, his face. Life is too damn short.

“I don’t recall a wedding ring.”

“Neither do I.”

They hadn’t been looking hard, though.

Maybe too many years have passed for them to feel like the wrong or the right of it matters much. You see someone running like that, flying past you, all you can do is hope she makes it safe to wherever she’s going.

“JulieAnne’s what, sixteen?” Dirk says.


“How good’s your math, boy?”

They strain to remember what year, what month. They do the math. They feel relieved.


Patrice takes out her notebook and pen. The light from the campfire is enough to write by. Larry has fallen asleep next to his daughter’s sleeping bag. Patrice is afraid his long hair, fanned out on the ground, will catch a spark when a log shifts on the fire. She pushes him and he rolls further away, grumbling.

You should write a novel, her writing teacher told her on the last day of class. Patrice is flattered, but she’s not much good at making things up. She likes to write about what she observes, people she knows, the things they tell her about their lives.

She doesn’t know what they stand for. She’s not sure she can make meaning out of all these random fragments of people’s experiences; she knows only that she wants to weave their lives together, make good things happen to them.

It’s naïve and sentimental, she knows, to want this, as it is to get so much joy out of appliqué flowers, strong fingers stroking your hair, bats winging straight toward you at twilight.

It’s her life, their life.

She makes no apologies. She keeps writing.

—Rosalie Morales Kearns


Rosalie Morales Kearns has an MFA from the University of Illinois and has taught writing at the University of Illinois and the University at Albany. She is the founder of the Lake House Collective, a group of feminist writers dedicated to reviewing books by women. The story “Associated Virgins” from Virgins and Tricksters earned a Special Mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize volume.

Our guest introducer, Philip Graham, is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon and the newly released Braided Worlds, co-authored with his wife, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb.  His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, The Washington Post Magazine, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere.  He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor.  Graham teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at www.philipgraham.net.


Feb 012013

Maggie Kast

Here’s an essay by Maggie Kast that has the immense virtue of leaning, in part, upon a book I love, E. K. Brown’s Rhythm in the Novel. Consider, especially, the section on the narrator as a symbol which, by implication, draws into focus the artful and artificial aspect of all narrative. And the section on words as arbitrary symbols (with the lovely George Szirtes quotations). And then begin to ask yourselves what is left that is not symbol.




Symbol as Action

The word, “symbol” traces its origin to Greek syn, as in “synthesis,” meaning together, and ballein the verb, “to throw.” The object that gave rise to the word was a coin consisting of two halves joined or thrown together, promising fulfillment of an agreement between two parties. The noun, symbalon, came to mean a badge of identity, much as the donkey and elephant symbolize U.S. political parties today. The verb, symballein, calls our attention to the action aspect of “symbol,” the way symbols induce movement from outward sign to inner reality, from manifest to hidden.

According to French phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur, “…symbol is the very movement of the primary meaning that makes us share in the latent meaning and thereby assimilates us to the symbolized, without our being able intellectually to dominate the similarity.”[1] Symbols invite us to look behind, beyond or within them for that hidden meaning, and they do more than invite. Charles Baudelaire sensed a special power in nature’s “forest of symbols,” such as the wood that “with knowing eyes keeps watch on every move,” as he says in his poem, “Correspondences.” [2] Baudelaire’s sense of being seen reflects the symbol’s power to interact, to move the viewer or reader from outward manifestation to unseen sense.

Fixed and Poetic Symbols

Semiologist Pierre Guiraud differentiates between the signs he calls technical, which signify by a fixed code and have a single meaning, and poetic or aesthetic signs, which signify by a much looser sort of interpretation. For example, at the beginning of Madame Bovary, Flaubert describes Charles’s cap: “It was…one of those poor concoctions whose mute ugliness contains depths of expression like the face of an imbecile. Egg shaped and stiffened with whalebone, it began with three circular, sausage-like twists, then alternate diamonds of velvet and rabbit fur…” and the description continues with exquisite and devastating detail.[3] Guiraud points out how these words create a picture in our minds. Both words and picture signify the cap, the words arbitrarily and the picture congruently. But the cap also signifies in a different way: it’s the sign of Charles’s clumsiness, which is a sign of his relations with Emma, which is a sign of a certain form of marriage. Thus the words and picture designate the cap by a fixed code, but the cap signifies clumsiness, Emma, marriage and more, as part of a vast network of signs both technical and aesthetic.[4] “Everything is a sign,” says Guiraud, “a luxuriant sprouting of signs; trees, clouds, faces, coffee-mills…are enameled with layers of interpretation which twist and knead the semantic dough.”[5] Theologian Paul Tillich is comparing technical and  aesthetic symbols when he says, “Wrong symbolism makes us look away from one thing to another for which it is a symbol, while genuine symbolic power in a work of art opens up its own depths and the depths of reality as such.”[6]

E. K. Brown, in Rhythm in the Novel, distinguishes between “banner” symbols, which remain fixed throughout the work, and “expanding symbols,” whose “repetition is balanced by variation . . .in progressively deepening disclosure.” As an example of the latter, he talks about the role of hay in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End. Initially hay distinguishes two groups of characters in a fairly superficial way: one allergic to the plant and the other not. Later a wisp of hay joins with “the bunch of weeds, the trickling grass, the grass on the Six Hills and the bumper crop of hay,” to point to the primacy of nature, intellect and art over “telegrams and anger,” which typify the businessman’s relationship to “organizations and committees, things.” Finally, with the triumphant harvest of hay at the end and the revelation that Howards’s End and its gardens will be passed on as the original owner had intended, even though this means the property will go to the son of a clerk, hay (and other plants) expand to signify justice, respect for the past and connections among people.[7]  Ricoeur identifies three sources for this kind of expanding symbol. “First of all,” he says, “it is the sun, the moon, the waters—that is to say cosmic realities—that are symbols.” Grass, hay and other aspects of nature could surely be included in this category. Secondly, symbols come from dreams that “plunge beneath the private archeology of a subject into the common representations of a culture.” Third, symbols arise from the poetic imagination.[8]

Thus symbols can move us from an outside, accessible to the senses, to a hidden inside, either by congruence between the two or by an arbitrary connection. They can arise from nature, the cosmos, dreams or the imagination, and their codes can be fixed or multiple, expanding and fluid.

Tension within Symbols

According to liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell, the human need to be seen is fundamental to the nature of symbols. Basing his understanding on the psychology of Erik Erikson, he speaks of the primal urge to gaze and be gazed upon by the parent. Humans develop “rituals of recognition” to insure the presence of the gazing other, but this presence always implies a threatened separation, as the child grows and separates from the parent. Thus ritual symbols may signify a presence, but their shadows simultaneously signify an absence, and the symbol’s double effect can put together realities that appear to be contradictory. “A symbol,” Mitchell says, “is thus a kind of pivot, a point of exchange that permits people to confront an enormous range of ambiguous experiences: presence and absence, belonging and separation, acceptance and abandonment, and ultimately life and death.”[9] When the two things “thrown together” by a symbol are opposites, the tension between the parts can propel a reader or viewer to a new level of perception or understanding. A narrator with contradictory identity provides a literary example of such a symbol.

Narrator as Symbol that Holds Together Opposites

The first-person narrator of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories is in one sense the author, for he did ride with the Red Cavalry and wrote journalistic pieces for the Krasny Kavalierist, The Red Cavalryman, the newspaper distributed to the fighters of the Cavalry during the Russian-Polish campaign of 1920.[10]  However, Babel, a Jew, wrote these pieces under the Russian, gentile nom-de-plume of Kiril V. Lyutov, a persona Babel adopted in his daily life at this time as a way of deflecting the ruthless anti-Semitism of his Cossack colleagues. According to translator Peter Constantine, “There is the ‘I’ of Isaac Babel and the ‘I’ of Kiril Lyutov, the very Russian war correspondent (who might go so far as admitting that his mother is Jewish).”[11] This contradictory “I” is a symbol that draws the reader into contact with a hidden reality, the “twoness” of Babel’s life with the Red Cavalry.

A second conflict divides Kiril Lyutov.  He is a young intellectual of the new Soviet Union, whose role as a journalist is to incite his fellow fighters to action by means of propaganda and Bolshevik slogans. In one of these reportages he writes, “Beat them, Red Fighters, clobber them to death, if it is the last thing you do!” He supports and admires the Fighters, but he also makes fun of their crude speech, stupidity and brutality.  In Babel’s short story “My First Goose” the unnamed, first person narrator feels this same ambivalence. He views the Division commander, Savitsky as “gigantic,” his “long legs look[ing] like two girls sheathed to the neck in riding boots.” The narrator envies his “steely strength and youthful complexion,” while Savitsky greets him with the Cossack’s contempt for Jews: “You’re one of those Mama’s boys…with glasses on his nose, too, uh. A lousy little squirt!” The Cossacks continue to make fun of the journalist, informing him of their standards for conduct: “But if you mess up a lady—a real clean little lady—then you’ll see how popular you are with the boys.” The narrator lies down to read from Pravda the text of Lenin’s speech at the Second Congress of the Comintern.

In order to gain acceptance from the Cossacks, the narrator then kills a goose, seeing “its head burst under my boot and its brains spilled out.” At the Cossacks’s request, he reads Lenin’s speech aloud, savoring “the concealed curve in Lenin’s straight approach.” The narrator sleeps entangled with the Cossacks for warmth, apparently reconciled, but ends the story in pain: “Only my heart, bloodstained from the killing, whined and dripped misery.”

Both the killing of the goose and the reading of Lenin’s speech bring the narrator closer to the Cossacks, whose friendship he both wants and despises. The conflicted narrator of this story draws us into Babel’s world and permits us to experience his need to be both Jewish and Russian, both an enthusiastic Communist and a disparaging critic of the military leadership, both an admirer and a despiser of Cossacks. Tensions within the narrator permit us to confront the ambiguity of his world and character, each half of the symbol pointing to its opposite.

Words: Arbitrary Symbols

Hungarian poet, George Szirtes, observes, “I cannot help feeling that what language theorists tell us must be true, that language is a very thin integument or skin stretched over a mass of inchoate impressions, desires and anxieties. I cannot help feeling that the gap between signifier and signified is potentially enormous, and that the whole structure of grammar and syntax is a kind of illusion that hides this unpleasant fact from us.”[12]  He is referring to the early-20th-century work of Ferdinand Saussure, who differentiated between signs like gestures and drawings that resemble the thing signified, and words, whose relationship to things is entirely arbitrary. Saussure pointed out that a word is linked to a concept without any natural connection between them. Unlike gestures or visual images, words have no similarity to the concepts they signify.[13]

I suspect that Szirtes’ switch from Hungarian to English at age eight shocked him into this awareness of the arbitrary relationship between words and things. For native speakers of a language it takes a moment of reflection to recognize that a table could just as well be called “cup” or a horse, “cow;” yet these capricious connections are at the root of the working of verbal signs and symbols.

Contradictory Nature of Metaphor

In a lecture she gave in 1934, Gertrude Stein lamented the problems of writing poetry in a “late age,” when the words “moon” and “mountain” no longer give one the moon or mountain.[14] Late or early, writers have always used all kinds of tropes in an effort to bring the reader “in touch” with things. Inevitably, they fail, for metaphor is inherently contradictory, in the sense that my love is and is not a red, red rose, and Juliet is and is not the sun.

Scholars of metaphor question the traditional belief that language is literal first and figurative second. In the proceedings of a multidisciplinary symposium on the subject, philosopher W.V. Quine says, “It is a mistake to think of linguistic usage as literalistic in its main body and metaphorical in its trimming.” He says that we acquire language by applying words to events or objects first loosely and often inappropriately, then with better and better fit. I can attest to this from the experience of reading to my three-year-old. In a picture book, three people stand on a curb in the rain, and one of them says, “Here comes a taxi.” It took me weeks to figure out that she was referring to that picture whenever she saw three people in a row and said, “Look, a taxi.”

According to Quine, cognitive discourse comes last. He says, “The neatly worked inner stretches of science are an open space in the tropical jungle, created by clearing tropes away.”[15]  Mitchell puts it more fancifully:  “…we need to think of language not as a stern disciplinarian who orders ideas into neat logical rows, but as a rebellious animal that struggles to free itself.”[16] Philosopher Karsten Harries, in the same symposium on metaphor, says, “Metaphor speaks of what remains absent…the dream of an unmediated vision,” in which we could get objects into our heads directly, without the arbitrary go-between of words. Thus, “metaphor implies lack,” and the absence that is implied by an effective symbol can be traced to the metaphorical nature of language.[17] “What makes a symbol possible,” says Mitchell, “is the hole, the cipher at the heart of language, to which metaphor inevitably leads us.”[18] The hole, the cipher and the lack are precisely what Gertrude Stein lamented, that words fail to connect in any but arbitrary fashion to concepts, much less to things, the unreachable realities of existence.

The passion to eliminate absence, to close the gap between language and reality, to “let things speak to us,” is expressed with agonizing necessity by Hugo von Hoffmansthal in his “Letter” (known in English as “The Lord Chandos Letter”)[19]. After some years writing poetry, von Hoffmannsthal lost the sense of connection first with abstract words like “soul” and “body;” later all words “disintegrated in my mouth like rotten mushrooms.” Finally, “isolated words swam about me; they turned into eyes that stared at me and into which I had to stare back, dizzying whirlpools which spun around and around and led into the void.” At the same time, he had moments of direct perception: “A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse—any of these can become the vessel of my revelation.”


The arbitrary nature of language dooms the search for unmediated access to things and can lead to regret, as with Stein, or to breakdown, as with von Hoffmannsthal. Symbols, however, abound in the treasure houses of the imagination, dreams, nature and the cosmos; requiring only that one accept multivalence and contradiction as essential aspects of the world. Symbols invite and draw us from their outward manifestations to their hidden depths. Holding together contraries, they can reveal both presence and absence.

The reader or writer who wanders in this forest of ambiguity can hope to hear “mute things speak” or be grabbed by von Hoffmannsthal’s transcendent “half-filled pitcher, darkened by the shadow of a nut tree.” Though words may seem a whirlpool leading to a void, they permit the construction of playful castles suggestive of the things inside.

—Maggie Kast


Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack Between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir. She received an M.F.A.—Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and her  stories have appeared in The Sun, Nimrod, Rosebud, and others. Her  essays have appeared in America, Writers Chronicle, and Image. She’s currently at work on a novel, I Never Knew You Had a Girl, an excerpt of which is just out in Red Claw Press’s anthology Seek It: Writers and Artists Do Sleep.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Ricoeur, “The Hermeneutics of Symbols and Philosophical Reflection,” International Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 2 (1962), 194.
  2. Baudelaire, “Correspondences,” tr. Walter Martin in Complete Poems (New York: Routledge, 1997), 19.
  3. Flaubert, Madame Bovary, tr. Mildred Marmur (New York: Doubleday, 1997).
  4. Pierre Guiraud, Semiology, tr. George Gross. (London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1975), 43.
  5. Guiraud, op. cit.
  6. “Art and Ultimate Reality” in Diane Apostolos-Cappadonna, ed., Art, Creativity and the Sacred (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 224.
  7. (Toronto, Canada: U Toronto Press), 46-52.
  8. Symbolism of Evil, tr. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 11.
  9. Nathan Mitchell, O.S.B. Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1982), 377-382.
  10. Isaac Babel, Lyubka the Cossack and Other Stories, tr. Andrew MacAndrew (New York: New American Library, 1963).
  11. Peter Constantine, Forward, The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, ed. Nathalie Babel, tr. Peter Constantine (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 32.
  12. George Szirtes, “Formal Wear: Notes on Rhyme, Meter, Stanza and Pattern.” Poetry CLXXXVII: 5 (February 2006), 417.
  13. Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz, Introducing Semiotics (Cambridge: Icon Books, 1997.)
  14. Gertrude Stein. America, ed. Gilbert A. Harrison (Washington, D.C.: Robert B. Luce, Inc., 1965), 90-91.
  15. W. V. Quine, “A Postscript on Metaphor” in On Metaphor, ed. Sheldon Sacks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 160.
  16. Mitchell, op. cit., 393.
  17. Karsten Harries, “Metaphor and Transcendence” on On Metaphor, 88.
  18. Mitchell, op. cit., 395
  19. The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings, tr. Joel Rotenberg (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005) 117-128
Jan 312013

Joe Milan
Herewith Joe Milan’s lovely, ever so slightly melancholy portrait of the Seoul he has come to know teaching at the Catholic University of Korea. This is contemporary Seoul, dominated by a priapic, neon-lit tower, the traditional architecture destroyed by war and rebuilt to resemble someone else’s urban dream. What should be his own world is strange to Joe Milan; his life in the city is punctuated by memories of home in America and rumours of war. His Seoul is a complicated place, riven with memory, tradition, absence and paradox. But sweepers shape the piles of raked leaves to look like hearts and the rice cakes his grandmother serves have the scent of pine.

This is the latest in our growing collection of What It’s Like Living Here essays, the 41st in fact. Think of that.


Seoul Tower


Seoul Tower, a tourist magnet in the heart of the city and the best quick way to see the place, reaches into the sky, perched alone on a forested hill apart from the packed clothing shops, red sauce stained food carts and sterile department stores of Myung-dong. In the shade of trees, you huff your way up the winding road. There are heart shaped piles of leaves raked onto the walkway and every few meters piles of rocks stacked beside the path. A young child, biting his lip, totters toward one of the piles with a rock. His mother cheers him on, “Put it on the top and make a wish.”  Years ago you did the same. But unlike this child, you tumbled and fell short before the stack.

The tower stabs the sky, a rocket ready to leave the trees and the ancient rock walls behind. For centuries this hill was a lookout. You imagine bored men with long beards and spears in hand staring out to the ridgelines, waiting for the signal fires of incoming invaders. Today’s soldiers stand watch on hills fifty kilometers north of Seoul. They are mostly eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys doing their military service, cursing their fate, waiting for a different sort of fire that would pop and boom and flash and screech and burn.

Heart-shaped leaves

When you reach the elevator doors it is dark until the walls burst into blue light from hidden projectors in the ceiling. An image of the tower at night appears on the elevator door, back-dropped by stars that you had never seen in the sky in Korea. Lasers write in English “love n tower.” You wonder if they are going for “lovin tower” or “love in tower.”

At the observation deck you’re greeted by an attendant dressed in white and black like a maître d’. She bows slightly–a nod really–and motions you around the half-wall to the windows that surround you. From up here the city is field of concrete buildings and glass towers rising and falling toward the river: the Han River. You are not sure, but it could mean the “One River,” or the “Korean River,” or even the “Suffering River,” but your Korean isn’t as good as it should be. The river is a bluish crack between the two halves of gray city. Crisscrossing veins of tight alleyways wrinkle the city, hold the city together with backstreets wide enough only for scooters loaded down with TVs and tin boxes of cheap Chinese food. Alleyways walled with brick and concrete branded with random acts of paint that always seem to morph into the same dull gray. This gray, like fog smothering and hiding a hillside, is the Seoul you remember from your childhood visits.

But this isn’t the same city. Speckled in the gray are wide highways and glass towers and miniature red brick boxes that litter the gray field to the base of white stone mountains wrapping the city. Your eyes trace the spine of the mountains where, long ago, tigers cloaked by the black of night, crept down and preyed upon the villages clustered just outside of the city walls. Now on those same peaks blasé hikers dressed in florescent pink and blue Gortex drink rice beer and eat savory pancakes.


You think of the mountains of your life in America, the jagged knife edges of the Cascades and the Olympics: young and bold mountains skirted in a shag of green. These mountains in front of you have spots too ragged for the trees where the naked rock shows white. The new concrete poured over cracks in the alley by your apartment, yet to turn gray from the rains, is white, too. The rains leave trails of gray streaks clinging to the cracked corners of windows and the bars that guard them. You think about the concrete your father taught you to pour. When you rushed, didn’t let it settle right, tiny fissures and wrinkles broke to the surface. He would shake his head as his finger traced the cracks and say, “Haste makes waste, boy.”

Here, in Korea, elderly faces speak of decades of haste.


Have you eaten?

You finger the stenciling on the window in front of you. It reads 9,596.52 Km to Los Angeles. Seattle is in the same direction, though not as distant. You remember the cold damp air coated in the smell of pine and cedar. Below the tower, to your surprise, are green blotches dropped in the gray field: parks. They’re newer, brighter, than the growth on the mountains. This is where old men in Member’s Only jackets, hunched over lacquered wood boards tattooed with black grids, play Go. They argue over where the next white or black game piece should go. Old women gather in the parks, too, chatting while they unpack their foiled rolls of seaweed and rice: Kim Bap.

The other green blotches are the palaces with tree lined parade grounds rebuilt for the umpteenth time after the invasions that came every century or so. Out of the rubble of the last invasion, people rebuilt Seoul anew with brick, glass and concrete. They rebuilt Seoul replicating the buildings of the world outside of Korea. The replicas of itself are the only buildings built with wood.

You try to find your apartment, Block 20. One gray lego block among thirty other blocks flanking the glistening steel bowl of World Cup Stadium. Twenty-five years old and already your apartment looks dilapidated. You’ve considered calling a location scout. You would tell them, “Hey man, I got the perfect place for you to film 1984 and you know remakes are all the rage.”

When you open the creaking cold metal door, walk down the half-wall corridor, step into the dark stairway where the lights flicker to life after a few steps, emerge out of the building into the hazy sunlight, and find your way through the maze of double parked cars jamming the parking lot, you see them. The retirees. Beside the first floor windows they crouch over trashcans and styrofoam packing boxes tending their gardens of verdant life. The old men and women are guerrilla gardeners suited up in dirty white gloves and teal visors. They start early in the morning, planting, weeding, battling the gray one clump of vegetables at a time. No one tells them, “You can’t do that” since, they are old. And here, at least for people, age gets respect.


A vine has snaked up three floors of your building, clinging to your window, offering what could be cucumbers, or some knobby vegetable more bent and rugged than anything you’ve seen at the supermarket. Can you take one for a salad, or will a battle-weary old woman come knocking on the door to ask for her harvest?

From the trashcans and styrofoam boxes along the sidewalks, the gardens grow. On rooftops and huddled in demolished housing lots, these gardens grow. But you know this is no green fad. This is memory that is spoken even now in the elderly’s greetings, “Have you eaten?”



Yesterday you pushed and swayed and weaved through the currents of people in the subway station and jammed yourself into the subway car. You let go of your briefcase and it didn’t fall to the ground. It floated, defying gravity, hanging with the friction of bodies dressed in suits.

Youthful figures in black, their headphones jammed in their ears, all silently ignoring the chug of train tracks as if this is part of a pact where everyone pretends not to be clutched by the crowd swaying with the train. The flat-screen monitor above the exit doors loops a video about how to use a smoke hood hidden in padlocked glass boxes at the station. There are at least ten steps and you felt like you should take notes. There had been fires on the trains before.


At lunch you heard the sirens. Wailing loudspeakers erupted from their hiding spots on poles painted like trees. Fake branches and leaves shrouded the speaker horns and square boxes. Radio transmitters? Looking out your office window, you saw the cars stop and the sidewalks cleared. You waited for the flashes from a far off ridgeline, artillery fire booming and shells smashing and battering the buildings, dogs howling, fires exploding and engulfing the city then raging and rioting all the way up to the peaks. The office corridor hummed without pause, and you heard someone laughing. You alone, it seemed, wondered of the possibilities.



Everything in Seoul Tower is in English. Everything new is tattooed with it. On neon signs jutting off buildings, on the menus in the Korean dive bars serving “pork intestine,” in catchy commercial slogans, and on K-pop tracks that old expats describe–with derision–as nothing more than “nursery rhymes slapped over euro-techno beats.” English isn’t hidden away in the enclaves of black walled of foreign bars of Itaewon anymore. It was in those kind of places you hid after work, always looking for a blank space of wall to add your name in chalk. You hid there with the other English teachers and American soldiers. Those places are gone like most of the people who wrote their names on walls.

In Itaewon, vendors shout in English “we have clothes in your size.” But outside this little corner of Seoul, you force yourself to speak Korean, hesitantly, trying to spit out phrases while gagged by the rocks of verbs and conjugations. In the beginning you motioned and pointed and people would look at you with confusion and ask, “Mwol?” But now, they understand you and applaud you. You can order yourself a coffee. It is something, although your pronunciation is butchered to the point of another language altogether. Being half-Korean doesn’t help. Nor does that feeling of shame whenever you utter that fact and they search your face for something left behind.

You worry that your English is getting worse. With lightning speed, chopped and spliced with slang, you feel lost with your friends in America on the phone. English is continuing without you as each year passes. You are losing your ear for the only language you have while surrounded by a language you should have had.


The concrete house

As you make your way back to the elevator in Seoul tower, you see through an opposite window a fog of buildings climbing a hill in the distance. That’s where your grandmother lives. You know it; its shade of gray is darker and older than the rest.

Next week is Chuseok, an ancient holiday celebrating the harvest and the dead. Your apartment, like the subways, the streets, all the gray city should be empty and cold except for a few stragglers without a hometown or a family to go to. Almost no one is from Seoul. You’ll buy a box of fruits to give your grandmother and you’ll carry it with you on the abandoned subway on one of the few days you can get a seat.


But the night before Chuseok, you’ll gather with your friends and have a few drinks. Someone’s girlfriend will feel bad for all of you. And before she leaves for her own hometown, deep in a dark corner of a friend’s concrete walled apartment, you and your foreign friends–who each have lost a parent to one disease or another–will solemnly stand as she lays out a table with food and empty plates. She will tell you this is a Jaesa: a way to honor the departed family spirits, something many Koreans don’t do anymore.

There will an empty plate set out for your father. You’ll pour liquor into a shot glass and circle it around the incense smoke three times and pour it out into a bowl. Taking a fork, instead of chopsticks, you’ll clang it down three times against your father’s empty plate and rest it on the fried fish dish. You’ll imagine him tearing apart southern fried catfish, the crumbs littering the plate. He had always missed “real catfish from way back down home.” He would say the same here, but maybe the thought will be good enough. Three times all the way to the floor, resting your forehead against your hands, you’ll kneel and bow and breathe deep. Then you’ll walk out of the room so your father’s spirit can eat. You’ll miss your father as you stare at the web of cracks scarring the wood print linoleum floor.

On Chuseok you’ll go to your grandmother’s apartment. The two of you will eat: glassy japjae noodles, chilly red pork, and damp white and green rice cakes filled with sugar and the smell of pine. Afterward, as the sun sets behind the haze, you’ll walk with her through the grayed alleys on cracked pavement. Soon her neighborhood, built forty years ago, will be torn down and buried in memory for newer apartments that too, will crack and gray with the rains. She will say in Korean to her friends that pass by, “This is my grandson. This is my grandson. He came home for Chuseok.”

When you reach the old house that she lived in years ago, built when the concrete buildings were new and clean, she’ll say, “This is where I lived.”

“I remember,” you’ll say.

—Joe Milan


Joe Milan has spent nearly a third of his life traveling and living outside the borders of the USA, and his most recent landing is in Seoul where he writes and teaches at the Catholic University of Korea. Joe is a recent graduate from the Vermont College of Fine Arts .