Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics

Criticism / Rachel Greenwald Smith

:: Six Propositions on Compromise Aesthetics ::

1. Compromise aesthetics underlie a range of critical approaches to contemporary fiction and poetry, but their emergence has yet to be adequately historicized.

In her introduction to the Norton anthology American Hybrid (2009), Cole Swensen celebrates the tendency for contemporary works of poetry to make fertile compromises between traditional and experimental forms. She argues that this tendency, a quality she sees as integral to what she calls “hybrid poetry,” is defined by an interest in “placing less emphasis on external differences, those among poets and their relative stances” in such a way that “leaves us all in a better position to fight a much more important battle for the integrity of language in the face of commercial and political misuse” (xxvi). In scripting the “battle” in these terms—poetry, envisioned in utopian terms as a united progressive front, against the “misuse” of commerce—Swensen at once makes a powerful plea for the social advantages of aesthetic compromise and affirms poetry as an essentially politically useful (i.e., leftist) enterprise. This stance typifies a position that I will call “compromise aesthetics,” or the belief that contemporary art is at its most socially relevant when it forges compromises between strategies traditionally associated with the mainstream on the one hand and those associated with experimental departures from the mainstream on the other.

It was not so long ago that the very works that refused to compromise, those that placed clear emphasis on differences among writers’ relative aesthetic and political stances, were seen as the primary means by which any battle against the “commercial and political misuse” of language could be fought. This is how the experimental movements of the twentieth century constituted themselves against the literary norms of their period and sought to expose such norms as implicitly in support of the social, as well as the aesthetic, status quo. [i] Yet the past few decades have seen a dramatic increase in critics and writers whose interest in formally innovative work once may have made them seek out oppositional positions arguing instead that such polarizations are no longer necessary. Observing this trend, Ron Silliman has recently asked, “Why is it that so many young writers are conflict averse in a world in which conflict itself is inherent? What is the attraction to not taking a stand?”

This essay is an effort to answer that question through an assessment of recent critical appraisals of the contemporary literary climate, including the defining statements on hybrid and elliptical poetry; postlanguage lyric; and post-postmodernist fiction. My interest here is not in the accuracy of these appraisals as they pertain to particular literary works. Instead, I focus on the tendency for critics to celebrate what they see as the end of the debates that emerged in the postwar period between those interested in the destabilizing potential of various experimentalisms, and those interested in the expanded access, populism, and social immediacy associated with more accessible or mainstream forms.[ii]

In developing an umbrella term for this affirmation of aesthetic compromise, my aim is to trace a surprising consistency among a range of seemingly discrete critical responses to the present and to argue that such efforts should be understood as symptomatic of the historical period in which they have appeared, rather than as responses to an autonomous literary sphere. Invocations of compromise tend to have an end-historical valence, as compromises are generally figured as permanent solutions to specific historical battles. In turn, my aim in emphasizing the historical context for the rise in compromise aesthetics is to highlight their contingency and challenge the appeal to inevitability and permanence that is at the heart of the very concept of compromise.

In what follows, I will argue that the dominance of compromise aesthetics in evaluations of the contemporary literary climate should be read in the context of the rise of neoliberalism in the United States over the past three decades. Ultimately, my aim is not to argue for the continued relevance of polarized distinctions between mainstream and experimental aesthetics. Instead, I will suggest that the hybrid gestures many critics read as signaling compromise might better be read as pointing to the continued presence of tension and dissent in literary and political culture alike.

2. Compromise aesthetics are symptomatic of the cultural entrenchment of neoliberalism.

While the particularities of compromise aesthetics have varied from critic to critic, genre to genre, most share the foundational assumption that contemporary literature is formally interesting primarily in its efforts to produce a compromise between experimentalism and convention; difficulty and readability; and the underground and the mass market. Most also share a fundamental literary-historical narrative that sees this aesthetic shift as initiated at the turn of the twenty-first century by a generation of writers who came up in an age dominated by a highly polarized field consisting of the experimentalists of the 1970s—Language Poets and postmodernists—on the one hand and the counter-revolutionary commitment to mainstream accessibility epitomized by the influence of New Formalism and the perceived conservatizing influence of Creative Writing MFA programs of the 1980s on the other. The new generation of writers are described by the proponents of this narrative as frustrated by the limitations of these two positions, and as a result rejecting en masse the notion that formally inventive literature requires intentional opposition to the norms of mainstream writing and the expectations of mainstream audiences. As Stephen Burt explains, by the late eighties and early nineties, young writers “sought something new: something more open to personal emotion, to story and feeling, than language poetry, but more complicated intellectually than most of the creative writing programs’ poets allowed” (Close Calls 8).

It is easy enough to see why this and other similar narratives have been so compelling. Its institutional analysis is largely accurate, and it echoes what many writers describe as their motivations for seeking out compromise modes. But the noteworthy elision in this way of understanding the evolution of compromise aesthetics is the contemporaneous advent of neoliberalism—that is, the enforced privatization, financial deregulation, and diminished social services (including arts funding) that emerged during the Reagan era and have continued to provide the backdrop for the political and economic policies of every subsequent administration. Neoliberalism has widely been acknowledged to have had a dramatic effect on cultural, as well as economic, formations. David Harvey and others have argued that core neoliberal assumptions have transcended the world of politics to “become hegemonic as a mode of discourse” (3). And as Wendy Brown explains, neoliberalism is fundamentally defined by the tendency for aspects of life previously imagined to be separate from the market to become established and evaluated according to market norms, “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (40, emphasis in original). By the 1990s, when the rise of compromise aesthetics began, neoliberalism had ushered in an entire structure of belief that put the pursuit of profit, the spirit of entrepreneurialism, and movements toward corporatization as essentially not in conflict with moral, social, or political values. 

With this shift came a corresponding effect on the arts as well, as the notion of artistic “creativity” was appropriated as a key aspect of entrepreneurial behavior and economic success. [iii] The result has been increased bleed between the spirit of economic activity on the one hand and the spirit of aesthetic activity on the other. Johannes Göransson makes a related point in his review of American Hybrid:

One of my major problems with the rhetoric of the introduction is the liberal ideology as aesthetics: These poets are superior to more extremist poets, poets who stick to their agenda, because by reading across camp-lines these poets have more “tools” at their disposal. And more is better. More formal tools, fewer considerations for politics. Or as Cole [Swensen] writes: “hybrid poets access a wealth of tools.” They’re rich with poetic tools.

Neoliberal attitudes—in this case an entrepreneurial interest in using all the tools one has at one’s disposal in whatever way is most effective in the moment—are here revealed to be expressed first in the formal choices of writers and second in selections and evaluations by anthologists and critics.[iv] And when these values are used to discount the necessity for collective oppositional positions toward the status quo, they suggest by extension that developing an entrepreneurial capacity to marshal resources effectively should outweigh social or political forms of alliance.

3. Compromise aesthetics claim universal relevance by emphasizing the personal.

The pressure to develop an entrepreneurial posture toward one’s own art carries resonances of the neoliberal expansion of market values to all aspects of life. And, as Göransson shows, those pressures contribute to the tendency for contemporary writers to work in hybrid modes. But compromise aesthetics are not merely affirmations of hybridity; they are arguments for the permanence and universal worth of aesthetic compromise as a general form. The primary argument that proponents of compromise aesthetics invoke to underpin this claim is the belief in the universal value of the personal.

It has become commonplace to define the literature that emerges after postmodernism as returning the personal to the forefront of literary experience. This argument is exemplified in Burt’s definition of elliptical poetry. For Burt, the most compelling contemporary poets 

try to manifest a person—who speaks the poem and reflects the poet—while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. (“Smokes”)

In this view, there is no fundamental incompatibility between “the verbal gizmos” of the language poets and the attempt “to manifest a person” in a posture consistent with the traditional lyric.[v] As a result, literature is imagined as gaining a more immediate sense of relevance to contemporary readers by its engagement with the personal, and by extension, the emotional. Paul Hoover’s effort to define the “postlanguage lyric” as one of the prevalent modes of the post-1990s generation in his introduction to the new edition of the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry also relies upon the notion that the personal has a natural primacy in literature. According to Hoover, “postlanguage lyric cannot be said to constitute a school but rather the natural inclination of poetry toward sweetness and depth of expression” (xlvii). This invocation of “sweetness,” with its valences of Matthew Arnold, as well as the notion that “depth of expression” is a “natural inclination” seems like it should be in tension both with Hoover’s previous alliances with various avant-garde movements and with his argument elsewhere in the introduction to the anthology that “avant-garde poetry endures in its resistance to dominant and received modes of poetry” (xxxiii). The fact that both statements coexist as easily as they do is a function of how compelling most readers find appeals to the universality of personal expression.[vi]

The postmodern novel has also come under fire by critics trying to come to terms with the perceived waning of social relevance of literary fiction. Post-postmodernist fiction is envisioned as a remedy to this problem, replacing what is widely perceived to be empty language play with a measure of the social immediacy associated with realism. Robert McLaughlin defines this turn in fiction in terms consonant with compromise aesthetics:

Many of the fiction writers who have come on the scene since the late 1980s seem to be responding to the perceived dead end of postmodernism, a dead end that has been reached because of postmodernism’s…tendency, as one writer once put it to me, to disappear up its own asshole. We can think of this aesthetic sea change, then, as being inspired by a desire…to have an impact on actual people and the actual social institutions in which they live their lives. (55)

For McLaughlin and others, literary engagement with the social sphere requires a more direct engagement with “actual people.” In practical terms, this often leads to the belief that the most important innovation in contemporary fiction is the coexistence of formal play—the incorporation of images, metafictional devices, exuberant and excessive plots—with characters who seem like real people. From “The New Sincerity” advocated by David Foster Wallace’s critical essays to the “post-ironic” aesthetics of McSweeney’s, the coexistence of what Wallace calls “untrendy human troubles and emotions” with self-consciously anti-realist plots and other estranging literary devices, is widely celebrated by contemporary fiction’s most influential critics (192).[vii] Think, for instance, of Sam Tanenhaus’s celebration of Jonathan Franzen as the progenitor of a “new kind of novel” which, through its representation of psychologically dense characters, “cracked open the opaque shell of postmodernism, tweezed out its tangled circuitry and inserted in its place the warm, beating heart of an authentic humanism.” Such hyperbole suggests something beyond an assessment of Franzen’s work and toward a global claim about the future of literary fiction, a future that is imagined to be vastly improved by a renewed focus on the personal.

4. The personal mode of compromise aesthetics, like the neoliberal model of the entrepreneur, sees the individual as both self-consciously constructed and immensely valuable.

Some of these arguments rely upon conservative rhetoric, appealing to the notion of tradition and promising to return literature to its concern with “real people,” but today’s critics have learned from the postmodern critique of the subject. Their claims therefore do not rest on any given literary work’s capacity to represent the universal truth of any individual subject position. Rather, literature is said to affirm the fundamental existence and importance of individual subjective experience in general even if works demonstrate skepticism toward any individual subject’s reality as universal. One of the most noteworthy compromises animating compromise aesthetics is thus the alignment of the postmodern emphasis on the social construction of the subject and the artificial construction of the literary personae with the neoliberal primacy of being an individual person (constructed or not). 

For instance, Burt makes a distinction between poems that insist upon artifice for artifice’s sake (envisioned as the domain of late twentieth-century experimental poetry) and the kind of contemporary works he celebrates, which often “demonstrate that selves, personalities, egos, are themselves artificial, effects of a social matrix.” Yet for Burt, these works “hold together if we can imagine a personality behind them” (13-14). In this example, the personality that allows such works to “hold together” can be an overt product of literary falsification, but the personal is still envisioned as being at the root of contemporary poetry’s readability and, by extension, its relevance.

This capacious concept of the personal that underlies compromise aesthetics resonates with the model of the entrepreneur. Just as compromise aesthetics allow that the personal might be self-consciously invented in a work of literature, envisioning the self as entrepreneur rests on the notion that the self is and should be buildable from scratch, able to be tactically molded according to different needs in different contexts. It is this model of the flexible subject, as both Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze speculated at the end of their lives, that might be one of the most lucrative tools late capitalism borrowed from postmodernist and poststructuralist theory. 

For instance, in a late essay, Deleuze notes with great bewilderment that “many young people strangely boast of being ‘motivated’; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training” (7). He argues that this tendency stems from the fact that the rigid form or mode associated with the disciplinary society, which held sway for much of modernity, has begun to be replaced by “modulation…a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other” (4). In this model, not only are contemporary individuals artificially shaped, they are perpetually and actively under construction so that the process of shaping is always on the surface. Whereas it may have come as a surprise for liberal subjects to encounter Althusser for the first time and find that what seemed like their integral sense of self had, in fact, been called into being within a particular matrix of power, neoliberal subjects are eager, active, and continual participants in the production, activation, and commodification of themselves.

This model of the entrepreneurial subject requires the same paradoxical compromise as the mode of the personal we see in compromise aesthetics. In both cases, there is a need for the personal to have deep and specific value and yet nevertheless be a self-conscious product of active construction. Postmodernist aesthetics saw an insistence upon the artificiality of the subject as a form of critique. Postmodernist works therefore tended to minimize the affective pull of the individual by emphasizing that artificiality. Compromise aesthetics, on the other hand, celebrate works in which the constructed nature of the individual is highlighted, but where that constructed individual nevertheless remains the vessel of enormous emotional energy. As Stephen J. Burn explains of post-postmodernist fiction, such works are “informed by the postmodernist critique of the naïve belief that language can be a true mirror of reality, and yet they are suspicious of the logical climax to this critique: Derrida’s famous statement that ‘there is nothing outside the text’” (20; qtd. Derrida 158). This compromise between opaque textual construction and the appeal to actually existing personal and emotional value is in pronounced agreement with the neoliberal model of the entrepreneur, who is envisioned as both an artificial construct and intensely important, both mutable and unique, both the result of a process of production and a site of specific and undeniable value.

5. Compromise aesthetics posit an end of literary history that mirrors the end of history fantasies of neoliberal utopian positions.

The compromise narrative has a compelling teleology, inevitably leading to the conclusion that the disputes that led to the polarizations of the late twentieth century (and that have always underpinned self-consciously anti-mainstream aesthetic movements) have been satisfactorily and permanently resolved through an egalitarian form of compromise. In this sense, the fact that this position has been called “Third Way” aesthetics by some commentators has more than a nominal relationship to the rise of “Third Way” politics:[viii] both positions are consistent with a neoliberal end-of-history perspective in which taking a major ideological stand is represented as unnecessary, hysterical, or thoughtlessly utopian, and that the need for such positions is rendered moot by the availability of tactical interventions that are essentially not challenging to the status quo.[ix] 

These tactical interventions may seem groundbreaking, or even radical. Think, for instance, of Third Way proponent Michael Bloomberg’s controversial trans-fat ban during his tenure as mayor of New York City. Banning trans-fats might, indeed, constitute a challenge to individual “liberty” and therefore anger proponents of a truly laissez-faire capitalism on the right, but when the action is aimed at increasing worker productivity, optimizing the health of the population, and decreasing healthcare costs overall, the move falls very much in line with the state-based management of the free market associated with neoliberalism. [x]

Similarly, critical statements associated with compromise aesthetics often see the works they praise as significant, even surprising, interventions in the status quo that nevertheless leave the basic expectations underlying mainstream literature unchanged. This is one way of understanding how James Wood, perhaps the most vocal defender of traditional psychological realism in fiction, was able to make his peace with compromise aesthetics in a recent review of Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers (2013), despite his longstanding hatred of novels that, like Kushner’s, perform types of esoteric knowledge and highlight the process of their own making. He writes:

Put aside…the long postwar argument between the rival claims of realistic and anti-realistic fiction—the seasoned triumphs of the traditional American novel on one side, and the necessary innovations of postmodern fiction on the other. It was never very edifying anyway…Some novelists, neither obviously traditional nor obviously experimental…blast through such phantom barricades.

Crucially, Wood’s willingness to embrace a work like Kushner’s, which he sees as miraculously both “scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice,” is a function of its ability to touch on something universally meaningful: a “novelistic vivacity” that, while achieved through techniques that are more experimental than Wood would ordinarily tolerate, gives the reader a sense of a “living reality”—the ultimate aim of realism—simply through new means (Wood). Kushner’s work “blasts through”—it does not merely obey conventions—but its impact, in Wood’s view, is the perpetuation of what we already know to be valuable: the representation of what we already recognize as “real life.”

The very finality and reach of compromise aesthetics is therefore reminiscent of a range of neoliberal utopianisms, from the putatively conservative Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man to the avowedly center-left Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, that see the totality of global capitalism as a solution to global political unrest. Just as Fukuyama argues that while specific implementations of liberal democracy might show defects, “the ideal of liberal democracy could not be improved upon” (The End of History and the Last Man xi, italics in original), proponents of compromise aesthetics allow that individual works might continue to demonstrate aesthetic evolution, but by seeing oppositional aesthetic positions as superseded by compromise, they implicitly suggest that the general form of aesthetic compromise achieved in contemporary literature need not undergo any significant transformation.

To be done with polarization, to see formal techniques, old, new, estranging, intimate, experimental, conventional, as a mere grab-bag of neutral tactics waiting to be marshaled for the success of the individual work, to forge an indefinite truce with the demands of mainstream expectations, is, in this context, just another mode of capitulation to a form of domination that scripts itself as neutral, permissive, and permanent.

6. All hybrid aesthetics are not compromise aesthetics.

The tendency for compromise aesthetics to coincide with critical positions that ignore the historical conditions of literary production is, at least in part, a symptom of the fact that the very notion of compromise obscures historical contingencies. Compromise signals a satisfactory settlement, an enduring resolution, a calculated truce that serves the interests of two previously polarized camps. In turn, the notion that our tendency to value the form of compromise, both in literature and in politics, might be historically specific undermines the sense of inevitability and permanent satisfaction that is at the core of the very concept. 

Proponents of compromise aesthetics do have one thing right: if we are looking for a coherent avant-garde in contemporary literary culture, we are unlikely to find it. Today’s literary production is largely characterized by the prevalence of hybrid forms that bring together a range of techniques from previously opposed aesthetic schools. But lining up the utopianism of compromise aesthetics with the utopianism of positions like Fukuyama’s shows that the belief in the triumph of compromise aesthetics is just as inattentive to the continued presence of crises and conflict in the domain of literary aesthetics as the belief in a global capitalist utopia is to the political realities of the present. 

It has become clear that the end of the formal polarizations that characterized the Cold War and the national alliances that preceded it did not mean the end of global conflict. Likewise, we now know that the end of state-sponsored segregation in the U.S. in the form of Jim Crow laws did not mean the end of racial unrest. It is equally true that the end of a clearly demarcated avant-garde in literature does not mean the end of substantive challenges to the very structure of mainstream literary production and consumption, but the persistence of compromise aesthetics suggests that we currently lack ways of reading to make us attentive to that fact.

If we look closely at contemporary literary works, we can see that aesthetic challenges continue to exist in works that at first glance look like they conform to the qualities championed by compromise aesthetics. Many of these works are hybrid in form: they bring together formal strategies from a range of aesthetic inheritances. Yet this hybridity does not resolve into an easy state of compromise. 

Returning to Kushner’s novel, for instance, it isn’t entirely clear that the overall effect of The Flamethrowers is to “blast through” unnecessary distinctions between the mainstream and the avant-garde. Even Wood, later in his review, allows that this might be the case, when he argues that the book’s engagement with the relationship between political radicalism and art “seems like an overloading of the novel’s thematic circuits, a wrongheaded desire to make everything signify.” Ultimately, Wood passes these aspects of Kushner’s novel off as small oversights in an otherwise perfect compromise form. But this misses a glaring irony: the very theme that Wood finds suspicious and therefore pushes aside as marginal—the novel’s insistence upon the connection between political violence and aesthetics—could also be understood to constitute the book’s argument against the possibility for compromise between the kind of aesthetic novelty that Wood praises and the political status quo. Indeed, one of the novel’s major achievements is the conflict it highlights between the feelings of pleasure produced by its formal features and the political volatility it associates with the aesthetic impulse. 

The novel accentuates this tension first and foremost through the passivity of Reno, the narrator, a young artist who sees herself as not so much actively living as quietly “shopping for experience” (313). Reno’s tendency to sit back and let experiences happen to her is what allows the novel to achieve its blend between realism and the insistence on artifice that it maintains through its metafictional reflections on art, its incorporation of documentary photographs, and its fictionalization of historical events. Despite the fact that the novel is about experimental art and is narrated by an experimental artist, it offers the illusion of direct, unmediated experience because of Reno’s passive posture. As a result, the novel can be read without much concern with the questions of mediation and artificiality that it might otherwise highlight, because Reno seems like a reliable and neutral vehicle for the registration of a larger social landscape. 

But the apparent neutrality of the novel’s narrative form is exposed as potentially volatile when, at the end of the novel, we learn that Reno may have unknowingly contributed to the execution of her ex-boyfriend’s brother by the Red Brigades. She has done this, crucially, through a passive activity: by waiting. In the novel’s final pages, when a member of the Italian left fails to meet her where he is supposed to, she paces, seemingly indefinitely, at the foot of Mont Blanc, while the future assassin is likely to be stealing off into the mountains and preparing his attack. Inaction, observation, and neutrality are here figured as paradoxically contributing to an act of revolutionary political violence, while elsewhere in the book the same attempts to withdraw from politics on the part of members of the elite are figured as contributing to various forms of state-sanctioned violence, from the horrors of fascism to the brutality of labor exploitation. Art, in this vision, cannot withdraw from polarization, even in its most seemingly conciliatory modes. The belief that it can do so is, The Flamethrowers suggests, a dangerous source of potential complicity with whatever political force insinuates itself in the moment.

The Flamethrowers is just one example of how works of contemporary literature accentuate the formal and conceptual frictions that result from the very attempt to put conflict to rest. This, in turn, underscores the degree to which compromises will always remain unstable and incomplete. What appears to be a logic of formal compromise, in many of these works, is often the precise opposite: an incorporation of recognizable experimental and mainstream modes that demonstrates the inherent instability of both. 

There is no end of literary history, just as there is no end of political history. Even in times characterized by the most seemingly complete forms, tension, contradiction, and transformation nevertheless abide. At least in that small fact, we might take comfort.

 


Notes

Many thanks to Davis Smith-Brecheisen for his rigorous engagement with this essay.

[i] See, for instance, Silliman’s resurrection of Edgar Allen Poe’s term “The School of Quietude” to draw attention to the specificity of conventional poetry, poetry that he argues possesses “something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement.”

[ii] Compromise aesthetics are not defined merely as attempts to run skew of aesthetic debates; such a notion would be nothing new. If the works typical of compromise aesthetics resemble any single, unadulterated individual literary mode that predates the contemporary period, they most closely resemble middlebrow works, which like compromise works, are “very good at co-opting and commercializing the highbrow” (D’hoker 261). Yet most historians of middlebrow culture agree that “the middlebrow is all about class” insofar as middlebrow works are defined primarily by their middle-class, non-academic readers (260). The very designation “middlebrow” is dependent upon a class-based identification of a specific readership; it is not a stable aesthetic designation. In this sense, no matter how much individual compromise works might seem to echo the middlebrow mode formally, their celebration in high literary culture is specific to the contemporary moment.

[iii] For a thorough account of the appropriation and instrumentalization of the notion of “creativity” toward neoliberal social goals, see Brouillette.

[iv] Debates about contemporary poetics tend to skirt pragmatic market considerations, in part because the market for poetry is so small as to be financially inconsequential for all but the very most famous poets. This is less true in assessments of fiction, which tend to be more aware of the complex interplay between aesthetic decision-making and changes in the publishing industry that themselves stem from larger economic currents. Yet these changes affect poetry too—if not by a direct financial incentive to authors then by the slow creep of a wider literary culture that asserts the value of aesthetic trends that themselves are based on market logics.

[v] Jennifer Ashton offers a compelling account of the compatibility between Language Poetry and other seemingly “anti-lyric” positions and a thoroughgoing emphasis on the personal consistent with more traditional expressions of lyric form. Indeed, Ashton’s capacious definition of the lyric tradition suggests that some of the features that I am attributing to compromise aesthetics could be conceived as accompanying a range of works within the lyric tradition, including works of the anti-lyric movements of high modernism and Language Poetry. It does nevertheless seem significant that both the way in which writers self-describe and the most prevalent critical accounts of those writers have shifted over the past few decades, so that writers and critics whose interest in formal novelty once may have made them committed to experimentalism are now vocally embracing features of the lyric that once were contested by anti-lyric positions.

[vi] Oren Izenberg’s contention in Being Numerous (2011) that the various binary oppositions that have been applied to poetics obscure poetry’s fundamental social grounding falls very much in line with compromise aesthetics. Yet his interest in how some works of poetry offer up a minimal definition of the personal provides a crucial corrective to the tendency for a focus on the personal to mean a focus on individual experience and expression. The study therefore manages to recuperate a properly liberal theory of poetry in a moment when many attempts to imagine a relationship between aesthetics and a liberal social agenda, particularly those grounded in an interest in the articulation of personal experience, risk bleeding over into the neoliberal prioritization of the individual over the social and experience over structural critique.

[vii] On post-ironic literature, see Konstantiou. On “The New Sincerity,” see Kelly.

[viii] On the rise of “Third Way” poetics, see Richie.

[ix] In Walter Benn Michaels’s account, prevailing theoretical approaches to literature “[turn] disagreement about the meaning of texts into the registration of their different effects.” Consequently, “[r]eaders at the end of history… differ, but they don’t disagree. And they don’t disagree because they have nothing to disagree about” (80). Beyond the effects of literary theory, my argument here is that this end-historical quality of today’s literary culture is a broad symptom of a basic aesthetic judgment that sees the major formal disputes of the twentieth century as reducible to a plurality of styles. These styles are figured, often by writers themselves, as value-neutral options among endless other equally interesting options. In other words, today’s formal innovations, when they occur, might be understood in Francis Fukuyama’s terms as a practice of “the endless solving of technical problems” in the aesthetic sphere (“The End of History?” 25).

[x] As Wendy Brown puts it, “Neoliberalism does not conceive of either the market itself or rational economic behavior as purely natural. Both are constructed—organized by law and political institutions, and requiring political intervention and orchestration. Far from flourishing when left alone, the economy must be directed, buttressed, and protected by law and policy as well as by the dissemination of social norms designed to facilitate competition, free trade, and rational economic action on the part of every member and institution of society” (41).

 

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—–. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992. Print.

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Kelly, Adam. “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction.” Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays. Ed. David Hering. Los Angeles and Austin: Sideshow Media Group Press, 2010: 131-146. Print.

Konstantinou, Lee. “Wipe That Smirk Off Your Face: Postironic Literature and the Politics of Character.” PhD diss. Stanford University, 2010. Web. 18 September 2013. 

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—-. “Wednesday, June 24, 2009.” Silliman’s Blog. N.p., 24 June 2009. Web. 19 June 2013.

Swensen, Cole. “Introduction.” American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry. Ed. Cole Swensen and David St. John. (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009): xvii-xxvi. Print. 

Tanenhaus, Sam. “Peace and War.” The New York Times. 19 August 2010. Web. 25 June 2013.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 13, no. 2 (1993): 151–94. Print.

Wood, James. “Youth in Revolt: Rachel Kushner’s ‘The Flamethrowers.’” The New Yorker. 8 April 2013. Web. 10 

 

Rachel Greenwald Smith is the author of Affect and American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2015. Her essays have appeared in journals including American Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, Mediations, and Twentieth-Century Literature. She is currently Assistant Professor of English at Saint Louis University, where she teaches courses on contemporary literature, environmental literature, and critical theory.

 

Guest Criticism Editor Davis Smith-Brecheisen is a PhD student in English Literature at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His areas of research include American literature, the history of the novel, literary theory, and economic thought.

The Paris of the West

Nonfiction / Cyan James

:: The Paris of the West ::

“Over here,” David says, “you gotta come see this!” Then he holds up a warning hand. “Only if you have a strong stomach.”  

I crouch beside him and peer into a concrete reservoir. In the play of his flashlight beam, a large ginger-colored dog floats head-downward in a stew of maggots and old bits of wood. The dog’s inner organs have burst. The dog’s center is a piece of knitting assembled from wriggling white maggot-worms.

I snap a couple photographs. “You’re not revolted?” David asks.

“No.”

I find deaths, including animal deaths, things to be faced, and sometimes have difficulty looking away from them.

David, his girlfriend, ten other people, and I are exploring the 40-acre grounds in Detroit, MI, where the Packard company once churned out 49,000 cars a week (and housed patients during the influenza epidemic of 1918–1919). The place was closed in 1956 and has slowly rotted since. Plants sprout from the floorboards. Squatters leave piles of blankets and shredded newspaper in not-so-drafty corners. Sometimes people fall or are killed and drown or are placed in places water has gathered and eventually freezes, leaving only these people’s feet sticking out of the ice.

 

The Packard Plant is now a Brownfield property (an abandoned industrial site another company would like to acquire), and also a dumping site for stray mattresses, busted-out TVs, and, today, a smashed red Ford pickup with a teddy bear left as a relic in the driver’s seat. Tin hangs in shreds through gaps in the ceilings. Almost every windowpane is cracked, punched out, or punctured with bullet holes. Gravel rattles under our feet, and those of us not smart enough to wear gloves soon get grit and oil rubbed into our palms. We need flashlights in the ambient dusk that filters down the elevator shafts. We need paper masks against the asbestos and lead paint dust. It’s a cluttered place: mirror fragments in the bathrooms, old boots in the corners, mustiness everywhere. Offices full of overturned desks—I bend to the floor and retrieve a notice of payment, the paper grimy, brittle, dated 1946.

David finds me wedged into a bathroom stall, one leg propped on a broken toilet, the other cantilevered into a windowsill as I try to photograph blue paint flaking from the bathroom walls. 

“I wish I had brought my camera,” David says. “I’m going to have to come back…”

We get each other’s numbers before we leave.

 

***

 

A few weeks later, David, Elise, and I meet again, this time to investigate the ruins of the Fisher plant. We climb over huge pipes and scale a water tower. The details—rampant graffiti, mounds of refuse and castoff, windblown building material—remain the same. We walk through dripping corridors and offices whose walls have been half ripped away. Iron hooks hang from runners in the ceiling. Tiny plants grow in damp wooden trestles. When I look through any of the windows, I see parking lots and similarly desolate buildings splayed, eviscerated, all around us.

We traverse broken glass and peer into long-dropping elevator shafts. There are no safety rails and no one to stop us. A gutted cafeteria. A hot-tar roof. Walls of crumpled marble. Shards of Art-Deco carvings. I feel lonesome and strange in the derelict rooms but something also feels home-like about them; something resonates.

I sit in the middle of a yellow-painted room, close my eyes, and listen to the wind toy with the building. It’s so peaceful I have a brief fantasy of camping out here for a week in summer when I won’t need much.

Every time David finds the edge of a sheared-off floor, he calls us over to stand next to it and get vertigo staring down. Elise says she wishes she had a scuba suit so she could explore all the shafts and underground tunnels now filled with rainwater and unknown trash. Vandals before us have stripped copper wiring and piping for its resale value, and have pulled much of the marble from the walls. But much still remains. And for now it is ours.

The savagery of Detroit is not confined to its killing ice. A gang-member here shot another in the chest. The man waited in the bushes until his victim was strapped onto a paramedic’s gurney before dashing out to deliver more rounds to his target’s torso right in front of the paramedics. The mayor funneled off city money for personal Escalades and hookers. The policemen do not pause at stop signs for fear of attacks, and they will advise people to blow through red lights to escape particularly dangerous stretches. White people do not walk on the West Side. Nobody walks on the West Side if possible—where West Chicago runs into Livernois Avenue, for example, one’s chances of running afoul of something bad top 1 out of 7. 

 

***

 

I once went to a casino late and came out with a few white friends. Our parking attendant, a black man, was waiting for us, hiding behind a car. As we passed he leaped out and yelled, and then doubled over laughing at us being startled. “I got you! I got all of you!” Actually, we laughed, too. You have to, when everyone’s mutual discomfort and bad assumptions get pulled out in the open.

But Detroit is not the Wild West or some lawless frontier—Detroit is what’s left after a plague (poverty) and an apocalypse (neglect).

 

David and Elise and I go to Mephisto’s, a goth-themed bar and club on Detroit’s outskirts. Black-clothed, chalked with the dust of the city’s decay, we sit in a smoky line. Vodka tonics and blue martinis. One or possibly two too many for him, David says. He leans from his barstool to whisper in my ear: “What’s your race?” Our wide-busted waitress pours another drink as electro-goth music rattles and whirs. “We think we can tell you now,” he says. He drapes an arm over my shoulder. “We’re…supportive of white interests.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’re not Nazis,” he insists. “We’re just really pro-white.” The bar is so dark I can’t see him clearly. We three like hard-edged music, death photography, abandoned building break-ins. Only two of us like racism, I think. I should probe and interrogate. I hold my tongue. I observe. I feel little wires crackle inside.  

 

***

 

Type the words “Packard,” “plant,” and “Detroit” into Google and the first hit used to be a Stormfront page with a photo essay and accompanying text claiming: “A huge non-White population, combined with annual arson attacks, bankruptcy, crime and decay, have combined to make Detroit—once the USA’s leading automotive industrial center—into a ruin comparable with those of the ancient civilizations, with the cause being identical: the replacement of the White population who built the city, with a new non-White population.” 

I ask Elise if she believes in white power as well, and she says yes, she came to the conclusion on her own that the Nordic races should remain as ethnically pure as possible.  

 

***

 

Less than 23 miles away stands Michigan’s Holocaust Memorial Center. The visitor begins at placards and plaques and all the usual markers of museum-type knowledge. Then the pile of books burned. The clothing mounds taken. A boxcar in which you stand, surrounded by the noises of the rails trapped inside it and with the noises people make when they are packed bare elbows to bare torsos, no food in those torsos, lungs full of awakening diseases, noses running, bladders full, knees locked into standing positions while the boxcar jerks over the rails through Europe in December. Shadows of these people are cast against the boxcar walls as though you stand among them.

You continue the journey they made. You see camp conditions. At one point you must squeeze through a narrow passageway to proceed. Then a long metal catwalk over the bottom of an inverted glass triangle. The walls of the triangle and the pit below display huge photographs blown up black and white: naked bodies (dead). The stacks of people whittled down to piles of spines.

The bins holding the breath of those allowed to live left as words. Stories.

The bins of the teeth for those who did not live. Their breath traveled already far past dentition. 

 

I have been to that museum many times. After almost every time I go I afterward visit a large dim-sum restaurant and eat plates of small meat dumplings, all different kinds. I like the discrepancy: the rending history, the dim sum (little pieces of heart) salted on my plate. Dim-sum is carts and carts of serving dishes steaming delight and people sharing dishes and lazy Susans and “pass the soy sauce, please”; it’s shrimp and pork and beef and scallops and squid and chicken doing complicated dances together inside translucent wonton wrappers. Dim-sum is a balm.

 

Years afterward I look more into our modern systems of meat. It’s not good. It’s long boxcar rides and the wrong kind of food and hours upon hours of animals standing in their own shit. It’s open sores and high stress levels, and for what—my tongue?  

 

***

 

I have even worked in a chicken rendering plant. It was my first summer back from college, and I’d been laid off from the veterinary clinic because of the bad economy, and the only thing left in all that bad southern Washington economy to do was pick up shifts at the local Tyson plant, where they would give you a bundle including a blue plastic apron, blue plastic arm guards, a hairnet, yellow and blue earplugs, and gloves. This was your uniform. This is what you wore for eleven hours a day on shift, so that when you returned home the red lines cut into your wrists still hadn’t faded, and your ears still rang from the earplugs, and you weren’t sure how you had spent the last eleven hours, exactly, only that there had been pink mush and a fine-jetted mist of water frequently directed over shining machinery; there had been a march of chicken parts, some of which were still strung and spattered on all your plastic gear, which you would need to clean off before resting or eating, so that the yellowish, slightly rancid smell of chicken grease could pursue you all night, and the morning alarm clock would be augmented by the bitterness of bleach up your nose from the pan you soaked the plastics in—despite your best efforts, the plastic, now bleach-dampened, would still shine with grease you donned six days a week. You worked next to Vietnamese, Mexicans, Nigerians. You worked at chopping parts while wearing chain metal mesh; you worked at packing hearts and livers onto yellow trays; you applied stickers; you applied a dumb buzzing impatience as the clock swept around its slow revolutions. No talking, no music. Big tubs of reddish mush. The man who would steal smashed chicken heads that accidentally came down the line every once in a while so he could make soup at home. The man who tried to cop feels from me. The man who had immigrated here and given up his own future so his son could go attend college to be a doctor. The night schoolers. The single mothers. The woman who died while working the line. We were all there, repeating our motions and our thoughts day after day to pull chickens apart and wrap them in plastic and put them on freezer shelves for your dinner.

Even then I still ate chicken; I still ate meat. Because eating meat was normal in my environment. 

 

Some environments are now mostly gone, or perhaps left alive only in imaginations. Bergen-Belsen is one of these, we hope. Chernobyl is a changing environment. Coral reefs are an environment being extinguished. But you can now buy a sea burial—you inside your coffin becoming an artificial coral reef so that you may now in turn nurture shrimp and other crawling things.

 

Crawling is a pose enforced by slavery and by other kinds of subjugation.  

 

Crawl, because you lack the strength to stand. Crawl, because we have bound your feet into unreasonable shoes. Crawl, because you have only your ankles left; the wrists are tied and you cannot run. Crawl because we will not let you do otherwise. Crawl, bitch.

 

Even sugar has a sordid past. When Africans were shipped as slaves to Brazil to work the sugar plantations, they were manacled. As usual, for slaves. When you give enslaved people machetes to hack down sugar cane, you must exercise care and unmanacle their hands, and perhaps William Clark considered this when he brought his inherited slave, York, along with the rest of the expedition. Frank X. Walker considers what may have been going through York’s mind in his poem “God’s House”: 


          Where else but God's house can a body servant
          big as me, carry a rifle, hatchet and a bone handle knife
          so sharp it can peel the black off a lump a coal
          and the white man
          still close his eyes and feel safe, at night?

Rather than crawling, the sugar slaves started a dance. A whirling one, one that turns a human body into a pinwheel of jumps and swirls and kicks, kinetic as breakdancing and lyric enough to lure opponents within range. Clever violence hidden in an ebullient elegance of movement: capoeira. An art meant to kill when necessary and to bind a community when not. Something you can do with your wrists manacled, something you can tell the slavemaster is an innocent cultural practice. Something you can do to protest being a slave. A way you no longer have to crawl.

 

***

 

One hundred twenty-two miles from the Packard plant stands the sanitarium in Battle Creek, MI, where the founder, John Harvey Kellogg, had a series of fights with his accountant, his brother William Keith, over sugar and sometimes over slaves. John Harvey was a doctor who adopted several African-American orphans, but wrote that the races should be kept separate. He hated sugar, impure things, sex, mixed races.

He loved sunlight, fresh vegetables, fresh air, and chastity.

He advocated never masturbating, never eating meat, taking yogurt enemas, doing regular exercise, and otherwise establishing what he considered a healthy life. No corsets for the ladies. Electricity and radium-laced water therapy for those afflicted by nerves. Special vegetarian foods for those fattened on steaks and wines. Carbolic acid applied to the genitalia of the masturbators.

It was a trendy place frequented by Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and anyone else looking for an excuse to spend time among the most influential minds of America and Europe.

John Harvey’s brother, William Keith Kellogg, thought it would be a good idea to add sugar to the corn flakes developed as a vegetarian food at the San. John Harvey thought sugar would addle everyone’s minds.

William Keith took the Kellogg name, put it on the cornflakes, and started officially selling it; and, even though they continued to live in the same area into their early 90s, that was the end of the brothers speaking to one another.

The San, along with its various advisable and questionable practices, lapsed into obscurity. Kellogg’s Cornflakes succeeded. One of its most popular cereals, Frosted Flakes, sells wildly, eleven grams of sugar in each serving. A tiger in your tank.

The San helped support research contributing to eugenic policies in America, and, eventually, in Nazi Germany. John Harvey Kellogg said breeding registries should be kept, and those unfit to produce America’s next generations should be excluded. One unruly child with three docile siblings looked to Kellogg and other eugenicists like evidence of the Mendelian (simple) inheritance of unfit characteristics. And this looked like a pattern of incompetence they could eliminate by enforced sterilization.

More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized to promote racial cleansing and more than 350,00 were sterilized in Germany. The U.S. sterilizations went from the early 1900s through 1970. I used to read dozens of these sterilization records daily as I transcribed mental institutional sterilization records into Excel databases while working at the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.

 

A white female, 16: “Irrational, tears clothing, bedding, complains of pains in head, temporarily insane during menses, noisy, restless.”

 

 A white male, 38: “Imagines Lord guides him in actions, accosts women on street, unable to care for self, dangerous at large, noisy, violent, wants to fight world.”

A Latino, 20: “Irrational, strange, cut penis with knife while in county jail.”

 

The women had their uteruses and ovaries removed, the men their testes.

 

More from Stormfront: “…decay followed the rapid demographic transformation of Detroit from a prosperous majority European American city into a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken majority African American city propped up by government handouts, band-aids and feel good charitable donations from corporations.”

 

***

 

They don’t want to harm blacks or Jews, David insists, they just believe whites should strive for racial purity. I press them harder: how did they get these beliefs? David says he usually hides them; he doesn’t directly answer my question. He says he grew up in Flint, MI., an area even more bleak and downtrodden than Detroit, but with a smaller percentage of black residents.

Michael Moore: “Sadly, a majority of Americans have written off Detroit, and for those of us who grew up in Michigan and still live here `heartbreaking’ doesn’t really describe it.”

 

At a Thanksgiving I held for a large, bearded, black-clad friend who became a mortician and for my Japanese language partner with her three-year old daughter (who forced the soon-to-be mortician to do many cute, embarrassing things like playing house), I told Elise I wanted to someday visit China.

“Why would you want to go there?” she asks, eyebrows raised as though I am slightly deranged. “It’s dirty, and it’s full of Chinamen!”  

 

My mother almost married a Chinaman. Her love for the culture is why I eat dim-sum, her romantic and cultural preferences transmitted to my taste buds. After the racism cataloged by the Holocaust Museum, dim-sum comforts me.   

 

Pork is one of the main ingredients in dim-sum, and the pig is also a useful animal for growing the organs we need for certain transplants. Your liver transplant may have started in a pig. You can put a piece of pig in your mouth, or you can sew a different piece of it into your body.

Racist pigs.

 

I attend an exhibit in Detroit at the African American Museum. This museum also forces you into uncomfortable places—you eventually walk down a plank into the hold of a ship recreating the conditions in which slaves were shipped to Brazil, to Jamaica, to Georgia. You see the narrow benches stacked high and the rings for the chains, and you read how if a ship went down, the chains would not be loosed, and you read how if a slave gave birth or died while giving birth while chained, she might not even then be unchained.

The ship tumbles you out onto the recreated streets of a cobblestoned American town. Then come the nooses and fires and the photographs of the lynchings Americans did while laughing. If you have a vivid imagination, you imagine how it must have smelled. Bodies still look like bodies even when they have become charcoal. People were lynched for looking at the wrong woman. For having the disease, drapetomania they called it, of wanting to run away. For trying to run away. For protesting. For not wanting to crawl any longer.

They used to sell postcard pictures of hangings you could send to relatives.

“This is where they lynched a negro the other day. They don’t know who done it. I guess they don’t care much. Shit, do you?”

It’s like this: the horror put together with the mundanity. Capped with a smiley face.

“Black people shouldn’t go,” an African American professor at an Ann Arbor community college told me. “But white people should see what really happened.”

I buy a book of these lynching photographs. Because they matter, and to look away or not want to look, to me, means you want to deny what we did. Sick at the stomach, nauseated, about to vomit—is this not exactly how you should feel looking at these photographs?

No one wants to look at these photographs. My friends want to look away. The same way they try to change the topic, especially if they are men, especially if I bring up sexism, sex trafficking, sexual slavery, the slave trade of both white girls and non-white girls in our own backyards and across our states and at our fucking Super Bowls and Olympics and anywhere else crowds may gather for pleasure.

I think less of them for it.

 

***

 

Elise and David leave town: he to New York where he makes black friends and slowly emerges not so racist after all. Elise migrates to Denver’s steam punk underground. Fewer black people there.

“Fucking miss you,” David texts me one night.

I visit Elise a year later on a summer road trip across the nation. She had shaved her head.  

 

The Packard plant has since been bought by a Peruvian real estate mogul who expects to pour some $350 million into it. Maybe it’ll host various related businesses, despite its now-tenuous connections to the rest of Detroit. Maybe it’ll host a go-kart track. Maybe it might even thrive.

It’s easy to knock Detroit. But it’s also easy to lose your heart among the tiny black holes of knocked-out windows and knocked-over civilities.  It’s not all back-lot shootings and corrupt drugs and armored Escalades. It’s got a clenched-teeth grit and vibrancy that makes me completely understand why someone like 23-year-old Drew Philp buys a house there for $500 and re-does the whole thing, despite having to wire his own electricity, despite someone trying to kick down his door in the night, despite the fact that the house next door, an arm’s length away, is one of the wrecks someone likely wants to burn for fun. “It would be only one house out of thousands, but I wanted to prove it could be done, prove that this American vision of torment could be built back into a home,” Philp wrote on Buzzfeed.

Philp’s neighbors let him know he’s welcome even though he’s white. Some of them let him shower at their house before his own plumbing works. Some invite him to twice-a-summer hay balings. Some of them help him understand Detroit is a place where the hair on your nape never completely lies down, and yet you can feel warmer than you ever knew possible.  

 

Rich Wieske is one of Detroit’s quiet builders—he builds, in all things, with bees. A former commercial apiarist, he now raises bees on his own, and regularly loads white bee boxes into the back of his truck to distribute around Detroit to whoever wishes to host them. You can stand in a humming cloud of them and not feel particularly about to be stung…they want flowers instead; they make much more honey than they will use; they will seal their unclean spaces off with propolis, a resinous gum that can numb your mouth and serve as a preservative in embalming.

Detroit used to hold an estimated 2,000 hives in the city, each hive packed with 30,000 bees; Wieske says there are now somewhere between 500 and 600 hives.

I asked him, wouldn’t people vandalize the bee boxes?

He used to think so. But instead, people appoint themselves guardians of the bees. They man neighborhood watches to keep the boxes secure; they cheer when flowers arrive and the bees get busy; they cry when a huddle of bees fails to survive a Detroit winter. The bees, they say, are little sparks of happiness.  

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

Biologists, hippies, and economists will all let you in on it: we are not alone. We are intimately connected through history—both as shared time and as shared genes—and through the ways we currently live and die, no matter what we think of each other. In this essay, I try to track many of the memories and mental threads Detroit, a city I deeply love yet struggle to comprehend, brings to mind.

A non-fiction piece feels like an opportunity to play with facts in a way usually reserved for fiction, and this piece in particular pushed me to hint at the richness Detroit encompasses without becoming too disconnected. Free association is at play here, though many of the subjects mentioned are geographically intertwined or chronologically overlapping.

It’s these connections I attempt to track while using personal memories that spanned a summer as a rough map. In these pastiche-style essays, I enjoy the chance to use white space as an unmarked place readers may inhabit with their own memories and associations. Maps lose their fun if every little thing is noted, and I find that writing loses its tang as well if too much is explicated. I’m not sure of this style yet—it’s like scenes flickering by seen through train windows—yet I find the form true to how our minds work, true to how one image leads us to stumble upon the next, and, finally, true to how the texture and sense of our memories are held together with the tacks of fact.

 

Cyan James earned her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she taught composition and creative writing. Her latest publications include The Harvard Review, Blackbird Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Oleander Review, and The Arkansas Review. She has attended several residencies and been awarded a number of literary recognitions, including three Hopwood awards. Currently she is completing a PhD in public health genetics at the University of Washington and is finishing drafts of an essay collection about death and a novel on B-52 bombardiers.

The Same River

Fiction / Meaghan Mulholland

:: The Same River ::

Today, Sharla is going on about her daughter’s ex again. He is suing for custody, even though when they were married he often came home drunk and sometimes didn’t come home at all, and could never be bothered to pick the kids up from daycare, or take them to the park, or go to things like Kayleigh’s dance recitals or Kayden’s T-ball games. Now he wants them all to himself, just out of spite. “Some people have evil in them,” Sharla says.

All people have evil in them, Lexie thinks. She doesn’t bother saying this to Sharla, though, because she knows Sharla isn’t interested in having a discussion. Sharla wants a captive audience, and she has one in Lexie, at least on the days that they have to file title insurance forms together in the back room. The best strategy in these situations, Lexie has learned, is to disengage: pretend to listen while mentally going someplace distant.

She has disliked Sharla from the start. In the five months since she began working at Anderson, Bell and Bergman, Sharla has never once expressed an ounce of concern or compassion for Lexie, or for her father’s illness. She’s never said anything nice to Lexie at all. Instead Sharla seems to find pleasure in teasing her and bossing her around and emphasizing, with exaggerated eye rolls, her frustration whenever Lexie asks her to clarify something or (on certain rare occasions) makes a mistake. The eye-rolling reminds Lexie of her own mother’s frequent small belittlements, and this makes her hate it more than the bossing or the teasing.

She’s relieved when Sharla goes upstairs for a drink—damn change of lifeI’m burning up—leaving abruptly without offering to get anything for Lexie. Her head is throbbing, but she tries to focus on her task of slipping color-coded folders into alphabetized drawers. Rizzo between Reynolds and Roth. Her thoughts are elsewhere, though—traveling back to when her father’s cancer first made itself known, just a month into her first semester of college. The doctors said it was likely he’d make a full recovery, but the treatments and subsequent convalescence meant he would have to miss work at the roofing business he’d started with his cousin, and Lexie’s mother would have to take time off from her job in the security line at RDU. So it was decided that Lexie would take a semester or two off from school and get a job to help defray expenses. Never mind that her father seemed like his regular old self—cussing at Panthers games, stomping around in his muddy work boots—at least until the treatments began; never mind that there were such things as scholarships and student loans, all of which Lexie could have applied for and most likely would have gotten, had she been given time. She could always go back to school later, her mother said—but it was time to think about giving back to her family. To stop being selfish and grow up.

The thing is: Lexie isn’t selfish. Even as a small child, she was a goody-two-shoes. Not perfect, of course, but always obedient. Her mother would get annoyed when people said what an angel Lexie was all the time, and tell them, “She ain’t always good, believe me,” in a tone that made it seem like Lexie was a terror behind closed doors. This wasn’t true: Lexie never threw tantrums, never broke rules. In the bit of Psych 101 she was able to attend before being forced to drop out, she learned that selfishness is a natural part of development—that children are supposed to be selfish, at least for a little while. She can only imagine Mama’s reaction if she shared that bit of wisdom with her.

For as long as she can remember, Lexie has had a strong inclination towards calmness and order, both things that are in short supply in her parents’ house. There, someone is always in crisis, and something is always in disrepair. Piles of things where they shouldn’t be—unopened mail on the couch, unfolded laundry on the dining table. From the time she was a toddler, Lexie’s mother would marvel at her compulsions, calling her “neat freak” for the way she put her toys away without being asked or hurried around the house before her friends came over, stuffing loose papers and detritus into cabinets and drawers. Her father would inevitably get angry later as he ransacked the house, unable to find something he needed.

Even in high school, Lexie never rebelled—unless you count those confused fumblings with Rob Skirmerhorn in the field house at church camp, but that was more desperation or boredom than anything else. No keg parties (not that she was invited to any). No making out in parked cars (not even close). She worked hard, not smart enough to be valedictorian or anything, not beautiful but not bad looking, either, so afraid of being ostracized for some unwitting social blunder that she succeeded, for the most part, in blending in with the walls.

When she got into State she was allowed to enroll and drive to campus twenty minutes away in Raleigh, but she had to live at home. She’d gaze longingly at the students loafing on benches outside the dorms, and strain to catch the faint music and laughter drifting out the open windows—but loved college nonetheless, and felt a part of things even if only a commuter. Crossing the quad on those golden afternoons, she thought this was the Utopia they were talking about in Western Civ: the shirtless boys playing Frisbee, the student activists manning their tables with banners and clipboards, offering a free cookie if you supported their cause. There were so many causes! So many horrible things were happening, in places Lexie had never even heard of. Just taking a flyer for the Gay-Straight Alliance’s Fall Mixer was enough to fill her with awe at her burgeoning independence—though she made sure to throw the flyer away before leaving campus, lest she leave it in the car for her parents to find. The linoleum-tiled hallways of the academic buildings she wandered were plastered with colorful flyers, every tattered slip promising a show or lecture or club that she was welcome to belong to, all of it vibrating with the thrum of knowledge.

The law firm of Anderson, Bell and Bergman doesn’t vibrate with anything, except perhaps the barely audible hum of the overhead fluorescent lights. Lexie appreciates the general air of calm here, at least, and the ability to see her tasks, however menial, through to completion. Her organizational tendencies, compulsive or otherwise, serve her well in her duties, which primarily include filing, photocopying and answering phones. Some days the phones ring non-stop, multiple lines at once, requiring a deftness she enjoys—manipulating the hold buttons, keeping track of who is on which line and whose situation is most urgent, clicking the intercom buttons to ask various attorneys if they’re available, or putting callers through to voicemail if a red light shows he is already occupied. She likes the predictability and orderliness of office life, as well. Whether new parents coming in with their babies to close on first homes, middle-aged couples to manage investments or navigate divorces, or frail elderly folks drawing up wills, at Anderson, Bell and Bergman, all stages of life are dealt with decisively, and there are predetermined forms that apply to each.

“You know what the worst thing is?” Sharla asks, returning from the kitchen and resuming where she left off, slumping onto her swiveling chair and watching Lexie insert another file into the drawer.

Water-boarding? Lexie wants to say. Burning at the stake? Dying alone? She wonders what the actual worst thing might be. There are so many types of hardship: illness, loneliness, heartbreak. And you can’t really protect yourself from any of them, no matter what you do.

“The worst thing,” Sharla says, “is she could have done better.” Her daughter wasn’t stupid, Sharla says, but she squandered her potential by falling for the first boy who showed interest in her. “Like every parent,” Sharla says, “I wanted more for her. More than I had for myself.”

There is only one window in the back room, and beyond the blind-slats Lexie can see the sky is still gray, the rain still coming. She’s not sure she believes that Sharla is as selfless as she describes, or that all parents necessarily want more for their children. That hasn’t been the case in her experience, anyway.

“Anyone could see that boy was trouble. Just ’cause he drove a fancy car in high school, she thought he was going places. By the way, you hear about the BMW that Geoff got for Wylie?”

Lexie looks up to see Sharla’s eyes fixed on her and wonders for a terrifying moment if she knows. Hearing his name spoken aloud causes something new to rupture inside her, and she turns away, pretending to rummage for something in the cabinet on the far wall.

She met Wylie at the Christmas party three months earlier, held at the home of his father, Geoff Bell, one of the senior partners. She hardly ever speaks to Mr. Bell, whose office is upstairs. He rarely passes her post at the reception desk, and when he does, he’s in a hurry—headed out to court or to grab a sandwich, or escorting clients to the conference room down the hall. He is a tall, straight-backed man with thick salt-and-pepper hair who walks without moving his arms, which gives him a slightly robotic air. He wears a suit to the office every day. Lexie wonders how many he owns. She pictures a walk-in closet full of them, with an electronic revolving rack like they have at the dry cleaners.

She was glad to be invited to the Christmas party, if only for the chance to escape the gloom of her parents’ house. She’d expected to drink hot chocolate and admire the holiday decorations—the Bells live in Hope Valley, a neighborhood of sprawling mansions known for their tastefully elaborate light displays. She hadn’t expected to meet someone like Wylie there, looking like a younger, floppy-haired version of his father, or that later that night she would share a joint with him outside under an electric candy cane blinking red, like a streetlight that had shorted out after a storm. She’d tried marijuana once before, in that glorious first month of college, when she was allowed to stay late one night for a group project and then tagged along to a campus party with her classmates. She’d only taken one hit, and hadn’t felt anything substantial, but this time a tingling warmth spread from the center of her chest, and her limbs went rubbery, and when Wylie made a joke about “Santa’s Little Helper,” she laughed so hard her eyes filled with tears.

He looked like a typical Southern frat boy—and was one, Alpha Tau Omega at the University of Virginia—but Wylie had also just returned from a semester abroad in Argentina, after which he’d spent weeks traveling down the Amazon River, and at some point on the journey had attended a shamanism retreat in the heart of the jungle. He had to explain to Lexie what ayahuasca was—a sort of psychedelic stew, made of various plants—and how it opened the mind to new dimensions. “I definitely felt like I tapped into something when I did it. Like, a higher life form.” He glanced at her, his gray-blue eyes momentarily wide and vulnerable. Then he looked away. “It sounds stupid.”

“No,” Lexie said. “It doesn’t.” She was enthralled. His stories about the jungle—swimming with piranhas, sleeping in hammocks on riverboats, snakes hanging from the trees—were something out of National Geographic. During the rainy season, he said, the water came like bullets from the sky, knocking twigs and insects off the plants and drenching everything. He would hang his clothes to dry after getting caught in a cloudburst, but they never did completely. There were certain places in the jungle, he said, that the sun never reached, the canopy was so thick.  

As if making contact with higher life forms wasn’t amazing enough, at the shamanism retreat Wylie also met the movie star Kurt Van Landingham. “None of us recognized him at first,” Wylie said. “He’d lost a lot of weight, looked pretty dirty. Unshaven. I guess we all did.”

“Researching a role?” Lexie asked. She knew from celebrity gossip blogs that actors did this sometimes—went undercover to get deep into character—and she was proud of the savvy, nonchalant way in which she asked this. But then Wylie shook his head, with an almost pained expression—no, no, that’s not it at all—and she felt foolish.

“Nah, he was down there searching for truth,” he said, “just like the rest of us. He’s been through a lot of ups and downs. Money, fame—all that stuff you think you want, Kurt knows that’s not what it’s all about. That’s not what you should seek if you want true happiness.”

True happiness—did such a thing exist? The idea of a life spent in pursuit of it was a revelation to Lexie. She thrilled at the way Wylie talked about Kurt: like an old friend, this famous millionaire who had recently gone through a lengthy, acrimonious divorce and then lost one of his children in a boating accident. She pictured them sitting by a campfire together, talking into the night, and knew she would have been too star-struck in such a circumstance to say anything at all.

“Do you think you’ll go back?” she asked.

“I’m hoping to go for Spring Break, actually. A crazy thing happens every year—the Atlantic current makes this giant wave that travels down the river for miles. People come from around the world to surf it, to surf the Amazon. If you do it right you can ride it thirty minutes or longer. They say it’s the longest wave in the world.” He went on to describe how the wave destroyed everything in its path, that you could hear it coming long before you saw it, and it carried lots of debris—trees, frogs, poisonous snakes.

When the joint was finished, Wylie lit a cigarette and told Lexie he was headed back to Charlottesville tomorrow to tie up loose ends, but he would be home again in two weeks for Christmas. “We should hang out,” he said. “We should go ice-skating. They put in that rink downtown.”

“Sure,” Lexie said. She had never been ice-skating. It never got cold enough to skate here. She hoped Wylie might kiss her then, but was still surprised when he did, stepping forward and backing her against the bricks in a wave of something not quite cologne—muskier and sweeter, like incense. His lips were soft, and as they moved against hers something opened inside her, a gnawing like hunger. She didn’t care then if Mr. Bell and the entire office staff came out of the house and saw them—but then the sliding door to the deck opened, and voices drifted to them around the back of the house, and they pulled apart. “You’re a good kisser.” Wylie said. “Two weeks can’t get here fast enough.” He kissed her once more and then let her go.

Two weeks later, she rode with him downtown toward the converted tobacco warehouses where a skating rink had been installed on the public green. They parked, and he paid for their tickets and skates at a booth strung with blue icicle lights. The evening was warm, even for December in North Carolina, but the air that lifted off the ice was cool. The perimeter of the rink was lined with cardboard cutouts of snowmen and smiling reindeer, and the speakers played Christmas carols, the music floating over the steady whoosh of blades slicing into the ice.

At first Lexie clung to the outer rail, terrified of looking like a klutz. The rink was crowded, some people sailing past in laps, others attempting spins and figure eights in the center. Wylie stayed close, trying to coax her out, occasionally zooming off to do a loop and then sliding up beside her again. When he skated away, she watched; he moved gracefully for someone so tall, leaning into the turns, straightening up and letting his arms hang comfortably at his sides as he slowed to approach her again. He wore jeans with rips in the knees and a black Patagonia fleece that made his eyes look even bluer than she remembered.

After a while he convinced her to hold his hand and let go of the rail, and towed her gently around the oval once, twice. She wobbled and winced and at the same time felt giddy at the way their fingers were interlaced, at the way he met her eyes and grinned. A song from The Nutcracker was playing, the part where Clara rides in the sleigh with the prince. As a kid Lexie had recorded a performance of the ballet off the TV and watched it religiously. She felt like Clara now, gliding through a whimsical, frosty world, far from everything familiar. After a while, Wylie released her and gave a whoop as she ventured off without him, and soon she was sailing around in loop after loop on her own.

When they’d had enough, they clumped off the ice together and collapsed onto a bench.

“Did you know Eskimos have over a hundred words for ice?” Wylie asked as he bent to unlace his skates.

“Is that really true?”

“Yeah. They’re really specific things, like—I don’t know, uggawugg means ‘melted ice, not safe to walk on’ and gagagoo means ‘thick ice close to shore.’ Stuff like that.”

Uggawugg and gagagoo, huh?”

When he realized she was teasing, he grabbed her and smothered her into his chest, mussing her hair with his free hand. She pretend-struggled, giggling. When he let her go, he left his arm resting on her shoulders and looked down at her with an eyebrow raised. “What are you doing right now?”

She wasn’t sure how to respond to this: she was here, with him, sitting by the ice. She wondered if he meant it as a spiritual or philosophical question, if he was asking what she was doing with her life.

“I don’t know,” she said, and shrugged.

“Want to do something?”

They stopped at Only Burger first—Lexie too nervous to do more than pick at hers, Wylie devouring his Bacon Bomb, fries, and vanilla shake before polishing off what was left on her plate as well.

“Why do you work at my Dad’s firm, of all places?” he asked between mouthfuls. “Isn’t it boring as hell?”

“It’s okay,” she said carefully—not wanting to disagree, but not wanting to get herself in trouble, either. “It’s good until I go back to school.”

“How do you like State?”

“I liked it for the little while I was there.”

He swallowed, put the burger down, and looked at her with new seriousness. “Your Dad’s going to get better, you think?”

“Yeah, I do. When he recovers, I’ll go back to school, and things will get back to normal.” This was the opposite of what she hoped, really; she hoped her father would get better, of course, but she also hoped—she counted on—that when she went back to school, everything in her life was going to change.

After dinner, they went to a party at Wylie’s friend’s house. His parents were away, and the street outside his house was lined with cars. Wylie was only a few years older than Lexie, and they’d grown up in the same town, but she didn’t know any of his friends; they had all gone to private school. He mixed her a rum and Coke in the kitchen and soon they were upstairs, laughing at a framed picture in the hallway—a professional portrait in which an entire tow-headed family sat before a black velvet background, everyone looking to the left with frozen smiles.

Then they were stumbling into a bedroom, Wylie shutting the door and leaving the light off, and then they were kissing on the bed. Lexie didn’t care whose room this was, whose bed; she had known—she had hoped—that they were headed for this all evening.  They rolled around, skin on skin, on the musty bedspread for a while. Wylie’s mouth tasted like Coke and French fries and cinnamon gum. When he leaned back to look at her and whispered, “Do you want to do this?,” she thought she knew what he meant, but wasn’t sure. She wondered if she should tell him she had never done it before, but feared it might make him stop—so she simply nodded, yes. Then he was off the bed, grabbing his jeans off the floor and fumbling for something in the pocket—a condom. She lay watching in amazement as he rolled it on. The moment seemed impossibly intimate. How vulnerable they were, like this, naked together. This is life, she thought stupidly, happily: this is life, and it’s happening to me.

Sex hurt at first, and then it didn’t. Wylie appeared to be working hard, focused on a task that seemed to involve her indirectly. When he finished, he collapsed on her chest. She felt his sweat on her, inhaled the incense smell of him. She didn’t know if the sex was good or not, but she knew that she enjoyed being as close to him as possible. They lay together a short time, Wylie catching his breath, Lexie wondering what she was supposed to do now, and then he pulled on his boxers and handed her her sweater and said, “We should probably go.”

When he pulled up at her parents’ house, she was glad it was late and the street was dark and he couldn’t see how shabby it all was, how their meager window decorations somehow made the house look even smaller and sadder.

“Merry Christmas,” he said, and kissed her, and she thought as he drove off that she wasn’t sorry about anything. Not her job at the law firm, or even—this was an ugly thought, but she couldn’t help it—her father’s illness, provided of course that he got better as he was supposed to. As Wylie said, beauty came from ugliness; all things were connected. The cancer seemed to be making her father more reflective, at least—less prone to flares of temper, though perhaps he was just weakened by the pain. She turned her key in the door, remembering something else Kurt Van Landingham had said to Wylie: When a door closes, a new one opens, but sometimes you don’t see it because you’re still looking at the closed one. Or something like that. This is your life, Lexie told herself now: this is a new door, open it and go on through to the other side.

She saw Wylie twice more before he returned to Charlottesville, and both times they had sex—once in the back of his SUV on a country road near the mall, once in his bedroom at his father’s house on a night his parents went to a charity benefit.  Though Wylie was perfectly pleasant afterwards, talking and joking with her as naturally as before, she found herself at the door and saying goodbye to him sooner than she would have liked. “Hope your Dad gets better soon,” Wylie said, looking into her eyes. This was not the note she wanted to end on. “Take care.”

After she got into her car and turned on the heat—it was January, a rare dusting of snow on the ground—she looked at his house once more, the neat brick walk curving up to the white-columned verandah. Through one of the tall front windows she could see the lit dining room, through another the chandelier glittering in the vaulted foyer. Though she hadn’t been to their houses, she knew the other partners at the firm lived in this neighborhood as well. They were all broad-shouldered, booming-voiced men who served on charity boards and belonged to golf and tennis clubs and invested in local businesses. Such a degrading illness as cancer would never befall any of them.

After Wylie returned to school, she waited a week before emailing, drafting the message several times until it captured what she hoped was the right mix of friendliness and flirtation. She included a link to an article she’d found, in which Kurt Van Landingham mentioned a “transformative experience” that he’d had in the South American jungle.

After sending the message, it was all she could do not to refresh her inbox constantly. She tried to distract herself—sealing stacks of envelopes, typing names and dates onto real estate contracts—but it was a slow day at work. Wylie didn’t reply until later that night: Haha, that’s great, thanks for sending the link about Kurt. hell yeah it was transformative experience. hope alls good with you. Ill give you a shout when im home next. No signature—no love or miss you, or even xo—but she would cling to this promise of future contact, even after she started to give up hope of him inviting her up to Virginia for a visit. One Saturday night, she got a text message at 3 am—hey sexy, what are u doin—but she didn’t see it until the following morning. She waited a few hours to reply—as long as she could restrain herself—and then wrote: hi how are you? No response. The next day she wrote: Got your message. What’s up? Nothing. She sulked a few days, and then one of the lawyers gently chastised her for misfiling a contract, and her father was getting sick in the bathroom every evening, and she told herself to forget Wylie for the time being, that she had more important things to focus on right now.

Two weeks later, she drove to a Rite Aid on the far side of town, telling herself the whole way no one gets pregnant the first time they have sex, it’s like physically impossible, it’s a story people tell kids to scare them into abstinence.  After buying the test she stopped at a gas station on a back road—the same road where they’d had sex in Wylie’s SUV. She remembered now, him saying shit, I think it broke, want me to stop? To which she replied no—not because what they were doing felt particularly good, but because she imagined herself a different person in those moments, and she wanted the feeling to last as long as possible. She brought the test into the Family Restroom and sat there the full two minutes, wouldn’t let herself look at the stick until her cell phone timer went off. When she saw the line of blue, she read the directions again, ripped open another wrapper, waited the two minutes, and saw the same results.

On the drive home, even with this proof, she felt she could not understand what was happening. She seemed no different physically, except for the odd sense that she was not alone in the car anymore, which was of course ridiculous. She couldn’t let herself imagine how her parents might react to this news, or how it might affect the rest of her life. So she thought instead of Wylie’s enormous, well-lit house, and that this meant she would have to see him again. Such a revelation should be made in person. She imagined him meeting her at his door and embracing her, then talking with her into the night about what they should do, kissing her and telling her that whatever they decided, they would get through this together.

She bought a Pregnancy and Childbirth book at Barnes & Noble and hid it in her closet to take out after her parents went to bed. In this way, she learned that the baby was not yet the size of a pea; that she shouldn’t drink coffee or Coke or eat cold cuts anymore; that she might suffer from nausea or intense moodiness and perhaps hemorrhoids and other unpleasant-sounding things. In a matter of months, the book said, she would be able to feel the fetus moving inside her.

Two weeks later, she left the house early in the morning and instead of heading to the office drove three and a half hours north to Charlottesville. On the way she called in sick, claiming a stomach bug, which wasn’t a lie if you counted the morning sickness that had begun to assail her at odd times of day. She could get to UVA, talk to Wylie, and be back by five-thirty when her parents would expect her home—unless he asked her to spend the night, to stay with him, in which case she might never come back. The drive was mostly rural roads, tobacco and sorghum fields and then rolling hills and vineyards into Virginia. She sang along to the radio to calm herself—funny, how many songs included the word baby. There had to be thousands. She had no idea what to say to Wylie, not even how to greet him after weeks without contact—but she would trust in the universe, trust that once she saw him, the right words would come.  She tried to envision positive outcomes, beyond his inevitable initial shock: they wouldn’t have to get married, at least not right away. They could spend time getting to know each other. He could still travel the world, like he wanted; perhaps they could travel it together. Or if they weren’t ready for parenthood, they could give the baby up for adoption: a noble sacrifice, a secret they would share for the rest of their lives.

In Charlottesville, she found the Alpha Tau Omega house almost by accident, turning onto Greek row and recognizing the symbols on the side of a sprawling brick building with a half-collapsed volleyball net in the yard. She parked on the street, walked up to the porch and, finding the front door propped open, went in. A big screen TV in a vast, unfurnished common room to the left was blaring ESPN. She went further in, called “Hello?” A boy in a backwards baseball cap came around the corner carrying a lacrosse stick and a bottle of Mountain Dew. When she asked, he pointed her toward the stairs and said Wylie’s room was the first on the right. He didn’t seem interested in why she was there, or who she was, and she climbed the stairs alone.

At the second landing a long, straight hall stretched ahead of her. It was carpeted and smelled like the sports equipment closet at her high school—basketballs and old sneakers and unwashed uniforms. The white walls were scuffed and chipping. The door to Wylie’s room was open, but he wasn’t there. The room was small and almost entirely devoid of decoration—a futon, a dresser, a loft bed. Immediately she noticed a single photo tucked into the frame of the wall mirror: Wylie wearing a tie-dyed shirt and Hawaiian lei, standing behind a girl in a grass skirt and bikini top with his arms around her waist. The girl was smiling, dark-haired, pretty. They stood on a surfboard before a tropical backdrop, the photo imprinted with the words ATO Date Dash: Cheese-brothers in Paradise, and dated less than a month ago.

Wylie’s bed was only reachable by ladder, so Lexie sat on the futon to wait. Her eyes roved the room, flitting back to the door every few seconds, afraid some passerby might get the impression she was snooping. She tried to avoid the photo on the mirror but her eyes kept going back to it. After thirty minutes her stomach was grumbling and she felt light-headed. She thought about going to find food but didn’t want to leave and risk missing him—it was important, for some reason, that she catch Wylie off-guard. Almost forty-five minutes passed, and then there he was in the doorway.  When Wylie saw her, he looked startled but cheerful, and the sight of his smile flooded her with relief. Then he seemed to realize who she was, and his smile vanished.

“I’m in town to see a friend,” she said.Thought I’d stop by to say hello.” The words came before she could weigh them, consider how believable they might be. His discomfort was palpable.

They stood facing each other in the center of the room. After a moment, he exhaled through pursed lips, then asked, “What’s up? How’ve you been?”

She shrugged. “Okay.”

“How long are you in town?”

“Just today. I hope I’m not bothering you.”

“No, no problem. I just have class, is the thing…” He glanced at the doorway. “How’ve you been?”

Why hadn’t she thought about what she would say to him? She looked wildly around the room. “So,” she said. “This is where you live.”

“Yup. Pretty fancy.”

“It’s not so bad.”

“How’s your dad doing?”

“Okay.” Wasted, wasting—she didn’t want to talk about him. “How’s the semester? Is it weird to be back?”

“After Argentina? Not really. That place seems far away now, which sucks.”

“You’ll go visit, though, won’t you?”

“Definitely.” He glanced at the door again.

“Are you still planning to surf the Amazon on Spring Break?”

He shook his head at this, and gave a sharp laugh. “Nah, just Cancun with some buddies. A package deal type thing. A lot cheaper and closer than South America, and I’m less likely to get killed. Though who knows, it can get crazy in Cancun.”  He laughed again, haha. She laughed. They were laughing at the idea of him getting killed. “Listen,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I was just rushing back between classes—I can’t really hang out …”

“Of course.” Her mind raced, searching for something that he would latch on to. She saw the electric candy canes he had made fun of at his father’s house; the Blues Brothers poster on his bedroom wall; Kurt Van Landingham, tripping his face off in a thatch-roofed hut. Tell him, she commanded herself. Tell him now. “I understand,” she said, taking a backwards step toward the hall. 

“It’s good to see you!” he said, clearly glad she was leaving. “I’ve been so busy with school. Sorry I’m shitty at email and all. Thanks for stopping by, though. Maybe I’ll see you this summer.”

She was in the doorway, almost gone. “Do you remember,” she said—a last flailing grab, “when we went ice skating?”

Wylie stiffened; then something in him seemed to soften and he replied in a gentler voice, “Of course.”

Hope flared inside her. “We talked about how challenges in life make you stronger,” she went on, “and show you the person you really are.”

She’d struck a chord here. For the first time, Wylie was looking at her, really looking at her.

“People are brought together in unexpected ways,” she said, “and that’s when life really starts to happen—when you go off the path that’s been laid out for you, and make your own choices.”

He was squinting at her now, still interested but wary. She hurried on, “Your father, for example. He has an idea of who you are, he thinks he knows you, but only you know who you really are, and what you are capable of.” She paused—Wylie had only mentioned his father once in their previous conversations and spoken disparagingly of him, something about him being a slave to the system.

Wylie smiled now, the same glorious smile she remembered. “Did you come all the way here to remind me of that?”

“No. I came to tell you something.” She was calm; he had relaxed, and she had his undivided attention. “Something big.”

His eyes widened, and then he exclaimed, “Hey!” in a bright voice, and Lexie turned to see the dark-haired girl from the photograph standing in the hallway behind her.

“Hey,” Wylie repeated. He brushed past Lexie, took the girl’s hand and pulled her into the room to stand beside him. “This is my friend Lexie, from home,” he said to the girl. “She’s up visiting someone and stopped by to say hi. Lexie, this is my girlfriend, Beth.”

Beth flashed a brief, dazzling smile.

“Lexie works at Dad’s firm,” Wylie went on, still talking to Beth. As he spoke, he placed his hand on her back. “Sorry—what were you saying, then, Lexie?”

Lexie tried to swallow, but her throat was coated with dust. She tried to speak, but no words would come.

“You mentioned my Dad,” Wylie went on, with a nervous chuckle. “Did he send along a care package or something?”

Lexie shook her head. “Aw, come on,” Wylie went on, looking panicked. “I thought the old man would have given you something for me, if he knew you were coming all the way up.”

Mr. Bell didn’t know Lexie was coming, of course; no one did. At the office, he acted as obliviously toward her as he always had. If he knew about her outings with Wylie over Christmas break, he had never mentioned them.

She had to do something—send Wylie a message, at least; a signal to remind him of their connection, perhaps hint at the revelation to come. But he and Beth formed a wall before her, arms around each other’s waists, and there seemed nothing she could do to reach him short of blurting out the truth.

“I was just going to tell you,” she began. The desert in her throat choked her anew. They stood watching, waiting for her to continue. “Your Dad….” She faltered, her mind gone blank, white noise roaring in her ears. “He got you a BMW,” she said at last.

Wylie turned to Beth in shock. “Are you serious?” he asked. “Are you really serious? Hey, Lexie?”

But she was already in the hallway, hurrying down the stairs and out through the entrance hall past the still-blaring television, then down the front walk past the boys who sat smoking on lawn chairs, watching their friends whack a badminton birdie over the sagging net.

She got into her car, started the engine and peeled away from the curb without looking back. Then she drove blindly through the neighborhood of mostly brick academic buildings, turning left, then right, then left, not caring where she was going as long as it was away. Tears stung her eyes, but she held them in, and soon a cold fury rose in their wake, though toward what or whom she was not certain. She knew only that she had made a mess of things. If Mr. Bell learned of her spoiling his surprise—the BMW was to be a gift for Wylie’s upcoming birthday—he would have every right to be angry. She would probably be fired. She had lied and skipped work, first of all, and then ruined this joyous revelation. She should have told Wylie not to let on that he knew, but it was too late. She had blurted out the first thing that came into her head.

There was nothing to do now but drive back to the highway, back to North Carolina, the only home she’d ever known. Getting fired should be the least of her worries: it dawned on her that the secret life inside her was truly a secret now, hers alone. She couldn’t tell Jamie, who though just a few hours away at Appalachian State was also a virgin and evangelical Christian who believed in saving oneself for marriage. She couldn’t tell her parents—her father so weak and weepy now, hardly recognizable as himself; it scared her to think what such a shock might do to him. What she needed was to stay calm. Make a plan. She would go to the free clinic during her lunch break on Monday and arm herself with facts. She would find a way to see Wylie again, fix this botched attempt and start over.

That weekend she watched a numbing stream of game shows, re-runs, local news, and black-and-white movies with her parents in the dim, wood-paneled den, eating the whole time: corn chips, salted mixed nuts, Oreos straight from the box. When Mama made a crack at one point about the “freshman fifteen,” for a horrifying moment Lexie was certain that she’d given her condition away—but then her mother went back to her crossword, and Lexie went back to her Oreos. Later, after showering, she stood naked before the bathroom mirror, turned sideways and puffed her belly out, trying to picture the tiny person curled inside. She lay in bed that night and dreamed of herself years in the future, shopping with a teenage daughter. The two of them could be mistaken for siblings, swapping clothes and confiding in each other like sisters. 

On Monday morning she noticed faint rust-colored spots on her underwear and snuck a peek at the book in her closet, checking the index for “bleeding.” As far as she could tell, at this point in pregnancy it was either nothing to worry about or a sign that something was terribly wrong. The morning at work passed uneventfully; if Mr. Bell was planning to fire her, he was in no immediate hurry to do it. At lunch she drove to the clinic across town, where people stood huddled outside, praying and holding signs with gruesome pictures she didn’t look at.

After she filled out the required forms, the nurse weighed her and took her blood pressure and asked the date of her last period to gauge how far along she was. Then the nurse led Lexie into an examination room, asked her to take off her bottoms and sit on a paper-covered chair, and gave her a thin cotton blanket to cover her lap. A short time later, a woman who introduced herself as “Tonya, the physician’s assistant,” and an ultrasound technician came into the room and dimmed the lights. Lexie put her feet onto metal stirrups and the technician inserted a probe, and then they all looked to the monitor to see what it might reveal. Lexie thought this was what being abducted by aliens must feel like. The room was dark and full of whirring, bleeping machines, and the technician was moving the probe around inside her, but seemed unconcerned by her presence, or of the life-changing weight of all of this. Lexie thought of her father and his hatred of hospitals and doctors—even now, even after all their attempts to heal him in recent months. “They get their hands on you and look for something wrong till they find it,” he said. What Lexie was viewing on the monitor screen looked like an alien landscape, or perhaps the bottom of the sea, swirls of fluid accompanied by a faint hissing sound like heavy rain. The technician moved the wand as the P.A. studied the screen, murmuring instructions. To Lexie the tech seemed a bit rough, a bit callous—but what did she know? She had never been to a gynecologist; she had only had sex three times in her life. Maybe this discomfort was normal. She tried to lie still, to give in to the experience as Wylie said he had done with the ayahuasca, watching the gray screen as blobs of light loomed up and shrank back again. Her body was the sea bottom, and they were searching it for sunken treasure. Then, there was something: a white dot amidst the gray. The P.A. and technician studied it, leaning close, then used arrows and clicks on a keypad to rotate and zoom, all the while murmuring to each other. “There’s the embryo,” the physician’s assistant said to Lexie, after a pause. Lexie stared. It didn’t look like a baby, but there it was. They watched in silence another few moments, as the doctor rotated and zoomed a bit more. Lexie would have liked to keep looking, but then the P.A. said “Okay,” and the tech removed the wand and re-covered Lexie’s lap and told her she could sit up. Without turning on the lights, in the glow of the now-blank monitor screen, the P.A. told her that there was no heartbeat, that the embryo wasn’t viable. It was nothing Lexie did, she said. Nothing wrong with her or her body.  These things happened sometimes, when there was a problem with development, for whatever reason. “It’s nature’s way of ending a pregnancy,” she said, “that wasn’t meant to be.”

She put a hand on Lexie’s shoulder. The technician produced a box of tissues. Wasn’t meant to be. Lexie was crying, but not for the reasons they thought. Or maybe for those reasons and others, too.  

She was late returning to the office. In her purse was a prescription for a pill that the P.A. had said would “speed the process along.” It could take weeks, otherwise—a prolonged, bloody agony. On the drive back, she passed through a sudden downpour and thought of Wylie and what he’d told her about the rainy season in the Amazon: how the jungle animals would cry out when the rains started—the monkeys and birds and other creatures, all making these panicked warning sounds. As if there was anything they could do to stop it! As if, no matter how many times it happened, day after day, they never got used to the flood.

Now she is here in the back file room, sorting forms while Sharla says that her daughter will be paying for her mistakes for the rest of her life.

“You don’t know that,” Lexie says. She is almost as startled as Sharla at the sound of her voice: it isn’t like her to respond to Sharla, especially not to contradict her. “You can’t know someone’s destiny,” she adds, sinking onto a desk chair, her knees suddenly weak.  

Sharla stares a moment, then laughs her dry coughing laugh. “Honey,” she says, “come back and talk to me when you’re my age. You don’t know what life is, yet.”

“Yes, I do,” Lexie says. “I know a lot about it.”  And she wants to spill everything to Sharla then—to tell her about the baby and Wylie’s deception and her own family’s slow unraveling, about her terror at the thought of being stuck in this place, as the person she is, forever. Sharla has seen all of these things and worse—and Lexie wants her judgment: to share this burden regardless of the consequences; confess her sins and be damned or absolved. However Sharla reacts will be better than this silence, this emptiness inside her. But then Sharla’s grandkids arrive, tromping into the room in their swishing plastic raincoats, towing child-sized roller suitcases decorated with cartoon characters. Kayden’s is Ironman, Kayleigh’s is Tinkerbell. Lexie remembers then that Sharla watches the kids on Mondays when their mother takes a night class. 

“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” Sharla says. “How was school?” As always, Lexie is amazed at the transformation—her sharp-tongued, sour-tempered colleague now a gentle, smiling grandma, watching with wide-eyed interest as Kayden reenacts a scuffle that occurred on the playground that day. Lexie wonders if this is how Sharla behaved with her own daughter when she was a child. It seems unlikely. She stands up, watching Sharla and her grandchildren as if from a great distance, feeling stranded somewhere between them with a long way to go in either direction.

In the ladies’ room stall, she sees the blood is coming more heavily now. Her abdomen has begun to ache; the Motrin the clinic gave her isn’t working yet. The pill she is supposed to take that night might make her sick, the P.A. warned. Lexie wonders how she will hide something like this from her parents—her father, who is always retching in the bathroom these days, her mother who is never satisfied, demanding that Lexie help clean and cook and ease her own sadness, always without complaint.

She flushes the toilet, watches the blood swirl away down the drain. Blood is a visible sign of pain, she thinks—like a bruise. Like the time Miss Rosado saw them on her arm—imprints of her father’s fingers—and touched her shoulder and said, “You know you are wonderful, don’t you, Lexie?” She clings to that memory, a secret that embarrasses her now.

As the blood disappears, she remembers she is supposed to look for pieces of tissue, to make sure her body is flushing everything out. The horrors we endure, as her mother might say. Nine weeks from conception: could you call that a life? What about fifty-seven years—the age her father will be, if he makes it to the summer? Lexie doesn’t know. Sharla is right: she doesn’t know what life is, not really.  

She comes out of the bathroom and walks down the hall, passing the closed doors of the conference room behind which she can hear muffled voices—people sitting at the mahogany table, planning their futures, signing their names over and over on stacks of white paper. She reaches the file room from which float the high, excited voices of the children telling Sharla another story, and goes past it, out the back door into the rain. She gets in her car and sits watching the water pelt the windshield, thinking about where she will go. She wants only to drive and drive without stopping—unfettered, free of all care or worry, free of anything resembling hope. Through the windshield the back door to the office blurs and then dissolves completely as the rain comes down. You can’t step in the same river twice—another nugget of wisdom, bestowed on Wylie by Kurt in the jungle.  She tries to imagine the unending wave he described—how it would feel to stand on the riverbank and hear it in the distance, then see it surging into view, carrying with it all it had touched on its journey, all the branches and animals and houses and trees, everything torn straight out of the ground and in a sudden, singular act of nature swept away. 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I conceived of the closing scene of “The Same River” before anything else: a young woman who discovers she is suffering a miscarriage returns to her desk at work, and pretends nothing is wrong. Only after finishing a draft of the story, years later, did I alter this ending so that Lexie leaves her post, goes outside, and thinks about the river’s destruction—suggesting at least the possibility of an escape from her misery. The story was inspired by a part-time administrative job I took at a law firm after grad school, which I hoped would lend some structure to my days while allowing me mornings to write. During this period I also became pregnant and suffered a painful miscarriage, which I kept secret from my employers. I began “The River” in earnest only long after I’d left the job—the image of that grieving young woman returning to her desk stayed with me, and I began to write about a girl on the cusp of womanhood who felt trapped by circumstances in her southern hometown. As I was writing, I knew only that this was a story about heartbreak. It’s part of a collection of linked stories, entitled Aqua Vitae, that explore the parts of life I’m most frightened of or intrigued by, now that I’m a parent: innocence and loss, independence and accountability, and the hazards of neglect.

 

Meaghan Mulholland’s stories have appeared in Playboy, Five Chapters, Post Road, and the Colorado Review, among other publications. She is currently working on a collection of linked stories and a novel set in Sicily.

Storm Room, or, Participatory Theater with Moms

Fiction / Megan Milks

:: Storm Room, or, Participatory Theater with Moms ::

PARTICIPANTS will enter one by one and form a line against the front curtain. Posture, posture. Face the audience. Face your scripts.

You are our MOTHERS. Your job is to love us.

MOTHERS (nod): We do.

You will splash birth on the stage, shove this cord up your anuses. We take one end in our mouths.

We suck. We should be grateful. We’re not. We never wanted mothers at all but HEROES WHO LIFT CARS TO SAVE US.

MOTHERS: We are not your mothers.

Everyone is our mothers. You are our mothers, too. Hug, hug, kissylips. Curtain lifts.

*

FIRST ROOM, CENTER ROOM: STORM ROOM

We have learned through correction that the sunroom is not the storm room. Sunrooms have windows. Storm rooms do not. You called the sunroom the storm room. You gave us the wrong name.

Now we’re the storm room. We storm and storm.

The GIRL IN THE WELL WITH HAIR. The ABANDONED GIRL. The LEFT FOR DEAD GIRL. The SHADOW GIRL. The BELOVED GIRL. THE BELOVED DAUGHTER. The UNGIRL. The NOT-YOU, the NOT-YOU.

All skipping around THE MOTHERS. A storm.

We sing. The cockaroach is the cockroach. The dirtypillows are tits. The catten is the kitten. Brownies are not blonde. You are our mothers. We don’t know how to speak. How to find a word or mean a thing. How to be rich.

*

SECOND ROOM: BATHROOM

MOTHERS you will take off our shirts and underpants and lift us into the tub. Lift strong like HEROES WHO LIFT CARS.

We will be curious as we settle in. We will have realization. Splash. The bath water is like the toilet water. We will try it. Push.

MOTHERS: Fish out our shit. Then say yes. There are logical reasons to do that. We are not wrong. This is love. What you are doing. Thanks.

The GOOD MOTHER, the BAD MOTHER, the EARTH MOTHER, the MOM, the SLUT MOTHER, the DEAD MOTHER, the GOD MOTHER, the MOM.

Go on. Murmur among yourselves.

We sing. How to have a body. How to cuddle on the couch. How to move away. How to have an argument. How to make sense. How to make doilies. How to use the internet to learn how to make doilies.

*

THIRD ROOM: FAMILY ROOM

We are looking at our reflection in the television. Suck in our gut it’s flat.

THE MOTHERS: (You will not make a comment on our body at this moment. You will not.)

MOTHERS: But you’d be so pretty if

Stop. We are so pretty. We are pretty girls.
No we are not; we are mannish, and men, aliens and monsters and murderers.
You will examine our faces and gloat at our little chin hairs. No you won’t.

*

How to bang our heads against the wall. How to speak on the body it’s ours. How to sew up our words they’re ours. How to take a dismemberment journey. How to choose an ax.

*

FOURTH ROOM: SAD

There will come a time of sadness. Our fever will burn us deeper than we will ever show to you.

MOTHERS: We understand.

You’ll never understand. We don’t know what to believe in.

MOTHERS: We don’t know who you are. You’re weird.

Ha. Admit it you’re lying about you love us no matter what. You’re lying about you’ll never stop loving.

MOTHERS: No. It’s true we love you no matter what. We love you even now you flash blades before us.

Love is a drug not words you say before knives. Conflict is inevitable. Violence is not. Stick to the script please. Please.

*

How to survive in neo-capitalist America. How to be enough. How to read Freud. How to pack a box or punch. How to be right. How to convince others that we are right. How to be butch. How to stop giggling.

*

THIRD ROOM: FAMILY ROOM (REDO)

MOTHERS: You look fantastic. Everything you ever look like, fantastic. You are a star. An apple. A bon mot. You are right, you have always been right and never wrong.

You’re wrong. We are sometimes wrong. It’s okay to be sometimes wrong.

Let’s try it again, from the top.

*

TALKBACK

What did we just act out?
What did it feel like to be our mothers?
Why do you say that?
How are we healed?

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve written a few stories where father figures figure fatherly. I mean prominently. With “Storm Room,” I wanted to balance it out, like Alison Bechdel—but this isn’t memoir. I was interested in literalizing a Freudian stage, which turned into a perverted form of faux-participatory theatre, an opportunity to explore the transformative power of reenactment. At the 2013 &NOW festival in Boulder, I attended a panel on mother figures, which Christine Wertheim introduced by discussing mother-daughter plots and the relative absence of maternal perspectives. Here, the child’s perspective governs. But these roles are both binary and fluid. Even as we are all hurt, not-enough children, we are all mothers, too (mother as both a feminine and universal/gender-neutral term), enlisted—sometimes involuntarily, like these unwitting participants—in the care, validation, and education of others (and ourselves).

 

Megan Milks is the author of Kill Marguerite and Other Stories (Emergency Press, 2014) and the chapbook Twins (Birds of Lace, 2012), which enlists the Sweet Valley Twins in a choose your own adventure. Her fiction has been published in three volumes of innovative writing as well as many journals. She is co-editor of the volume Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (Routledge, 2014) and editor of The &NOW Awards 3: The Best Innovative Writing, 2011-2013. She teaches creative writing, journalism, and literature at Beloit College.

Three Works

Art / MaDora Frey

 

 

From the artist

:: Account ::

The tenuous relationship that exists between what is usually considered natural versus that which is artificial and the subsequent synthesis of these elements are ongoing explorations in my work.

In the visual arts, “Nature” is most often depicted as that which is untouched by the hand of man. My work extends the definition of NATURE to all things, including the man-made world, and consequently regards it with the same sense of wonderment. Working in series in a wide range of media from photography to kinetic sculpture, various hybrids of this synthesis and wonderment are created in my work. The approach might be identifying and employing shared physical and visual patterns, as with the machine series. Or it may result from combining a mechanical/systematic approach with organic materials.

The images featured were created using liquid graphite and a plastic composite paper. Visually and materially, they conflate the language of photography, drawing, and painting. To avoid controlling the image too much, brushes are rarely used. When the graphite puddles, it appears reflective—capitalizing on its mineral qualities. When watered down, it crawls across a surface, separating and leaving behind incidental patterns. By allowing the materials to move freely and collaborate with one another, these images, suggestive of nascent landscapes or aerial perspectives, can almost be seen to generate themselves.

 

Originally from the Southern U.S., MaDora Frey is a multi-media artist and curator working in New York City. Her current work takes the form of kinetic sculptures, and works on paper in various media. Frey has exhibited both domestically and internationally with solo shows in Seattle, Washington and New York City. She studied at the Florence Academy, Florence, Italy and received her MFA, magna cum laude, from the New York Academy of Art. Her work is held in numerous private collections.

Hymenopus

Poetry / Amy Wright

:: Hymenopus ::

	Environment: Room temperature, mist daily. 
			—Bugs as Pets

Walking flower, dandy
orchid mimicker with rose-mottled 
forelegs, transformer petals
ready to drawbridge on the hapless.
Tart mantis, nectar decoy
who waits and is rewarded
for manipulating the stage show,
proffering an empty banquet
before ticklish curtains, 
your pollen-lined thorax 
a bestial trick of the great 
pretender. Rare specimen 
who traverses the lip of a lady 
slipper, a bluebottle buzzes 
your lavender ovules, unblinking 
skyward, raindrops wetting 
the bittersweet chasm 
of your badness.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I am not a parent, but when I saw the book Bugs as Pets, I imagined being or having the kind of parents who would facilitate such a wild learning experience for their children. No Golden Retrievers here! If I gleaned patience from training the Labradors of my youth to sit, and received affectionate thanks in the form of hand licks, I wondered what memories and insight would come of having a pet one might not, in most cases, actually pet.

Looking through this book was part of the research for my current manuscript about insects, which calls attention to the often-unseen population crawling and flying and swimming around us. Having grown up on a farm, I developed a love of ladybeetles and June bugs playing in the fields and woods around our house. Naturally, I was alarmed when I learned about Colony Collapse Disorder and how pesticides containing neonicitoids (banned in Europe and recently in Eugene, Oregon) are killing honeybees and other species of pollinators. I am responding by paying homage to the creatures that contribute billions of dollars each year to our economy and the biodiversity of our planet.

The Orchid Mantis, or Hymenopus, stood out to me as a particularly rich metaphor waiting to be written. With its lavender raindrop eyes and gorgeously ominous mandibles, it illustrates to me how beauty is that truth John Keats promises is “all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” It is a harder lesson than we might think or want—especially for our children, which is why the context of the book needs to remain with the poem in the form of the epigraph.

I hope that some readers note the scientific name, which recalls my mind to the ancient fear of the female body, for it too has petals that can consume you or be consumed. There may be no greater risk than to be taken in by another, but how can we not? Love is a merger. This flower mimic understands the appeal and inevitable threat. It makes its living capitalizing on what others want, but who is to say the fly is good and the mantis bad? Humans can, but with a questionable ability to judge and bias when they decide. Our nature is entangled with theirs in the last line, as we are all bound up in each other’s fates, whether we realize it or not.

 

Amy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press, the author of four chapbooks, and the recipient of a Peter Taylor fellowship for the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop. Her work appears in Bellingham Review, Brevity, Drunken Boat, Quarterly West, Southern Poetry Anthology (Volumes III and VI), Tupelo Quarterly, and is forthcoming in POOL and Kenyon Review.

Standard Aerosol

Poetry / Nance Van Winckel

:: Standard Aerosol ::

          Gold Silence on a shelf,
               may it mutter us 
                    as riders upon a crest, 
froth at our feet, our wild spray, 
          the uppercase AH!
      	       of our were 
 	            against a wall.

 

 

Van-Winckel-image

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve been photographing graffiti and wall art for many years, and lately I’ve been experimenting with adding (digitally) my own tiny bits of text to the “conversation.” (See above.) I appreciate the in-your-faceness of wall-writing. In my dreams my poems are not on paper, in books, or online. They are on walls and appear as snippets of larger and ongoing exchanges. “Standard Aerosol,” now the title poem for a book of graffiti-inspired poems, is, in a way, an ode to those dreams, or an homage to the graffer life I lead there.

 

Nance Van Winckel has published six collections of poetry, most recently Pacific Walkers (U. of Washington Press, 2013), and four collections of short fiction. A novel in the form of a photo scrapbook is forthcoming this fall. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her text-based digital collage works have appeared in Cincinnati Review, Body, PANK, Sleeping Fish Review, Kenyon Review Online, Poetry Northwest, and other journals.

More of her text-based digital collage work may be viewed here:
http://photoemsbynancevanwinckel.zenfolio.com/f557413680

Soraya 4.

Poetry / Anis Shivani

:: Soraya 4. ::

Blood of descendants, Soraya, platinum
graphs of Polynesian math, somewhere
in the darwinian islands polymaths’ braille
brains loosen lotus notes, lost for words.
Coloratura saturates democracy taking root
in ashes, aspidistra assigned to blow-dried
circadian dividers of the island. Obloquy
favors ocarina made of occidental mouth-
piece. Phoenix rising from phosphorous
doge telephone, Soraya, your philippic
this examined morning snowing letters
and business, sniffing out the soft clam
wherein I solemnize solfege of typhoon
typewriters. Tweedy, our twilight-fused 
twins, twisting in the wind on twig beds.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Platinum / graphs of Polynesian math”: Poetic forms congeal and rust over time; their original meaning becomes a burden rather than an aid to liberation. Poetry wants to be free, yet knows freedom is the vastest burden (because meaning comes only from its opposites). The paradox in the preceding statement compels me to articulate new boundaries of freedom, knowing that with each lavish phrase or concept I am further hedging myself in: nevertheless, poetry as pure potential, poetry as the raw input of languages of self-deceit, poetry as the effulgence of dynamic metrics and barely cohering subversions, is what interests me the most at the moment.

“I solemnize solfege of typhoon / typewriters”: In this Soraya sonnet, as in the accompanying 99 others (why 100? because a century is a fickle construct absolutely provocative to historians), I am steeped in a dead (but still kicking) history of surrealism that informs my outward self in a way that usually fails to saturate the inward self. The sonnet splits divisions, heals chasms, bridges separations, is a form of love in its own unique way, for me the most potent of all traditional apparatuses for suture.

“Your philippic / this examined morning snowing letters / and business”: There is something Jungian about the late practice of sonnetteering, knowing as we do that romantic (particularly troubadour) love is a lost cause, has no place in the contemporary economy of meanings, yet we are unable to deny ourselves its valid pleasures. The poet, when he constructs a sonnet today, offers himself up for sacrifice or martyrdom of a dubious kind: in his own image, narcissistic and lushly egoistic, in the eyes of the world, a potent machine for myth-making, fully justified and rationalized. Why not push the duality to extremes?

“Phoenix rising from phosphorous / doge telephone”: The robotic is an obvious corollary that emerges from prettified myth-making of a compulsive kind, and I play with this notion throughout this book—it is a book in the sense that it finally submits to beginning, middle, and end, yet has a dual opinion about its reproducibility, both agnostic and affirmative at the same time. Anyway, robots can be poets and vice versa, or so we are propelled to believe as we waver on the edge of the age of artificial intelligence. What happens to unreconstructed, irreproducible, anomalous intelligence? Is this one of the demons poetry is most urgently fighting today?

“Coloratura saturates democracy taking root / in ashes”: As language becomes flattened in all its usages—comparable to the controlled demolition of surreal urban towers—and proceeds according to a terrorism of diction, why not imagine the impromptu rise of towers taller than any we have warrant for? Why not expect language to rise vertically and at feverish rocket speed from the ashes of the conspiracy that has all but won the day?

“Somewhere / in the darwinian islands polymaths’ braille / brains loosen lotus notes”: From Young Hegelians via Kierkegaard to Nietzsche and beyond (we still live in the corrupted age of Freud, besotted with our vanities) is a fruitless (and often seamless) transition. Along the trail there have been disasters galore, primarily the loss of the ability to articulate, which comes from our flawed notion that everything (poetically) that can be articulated has already been done so, that this is a late, unbemoanable, age of sorts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world is embryonic and unmade yet; we know not the first thing about language, our fundamental tool of expression; if only we stop trying to bend it just the right way, something new can still be born, and of course it will, there will be a veritable demographic explosion such as will please the hearts of fascists and democrats alike. Not so much hybridity and mongrelization—quaint words, these, at this point in time—as terrorists rigged out in bombs clasping each other under the heavenly spring sunlight. Yes, I was there, and so were you.

 

Anis Shivani’s sonnet is part of Soraya: Sonnets, forthcoming in early 2015. Sonnets from the book also appear in Black Warrior Review, Borderlands, Everyday Genius, The Journal, Mudlark, Omniverse, Volt, Waxwing, Whiskey Island, and elsewhere. Anis’s recent books include Anatolia and Other Stories, The Fifth Lash and Other Stories, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, and Karachi Raj: A Novel. Books recently finished or in progress include the novels A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less and Abruzzi, 1936, and a collection of essays called Literature in the Age of Globalization.

Two Poems

Poetry / Hannah Sanghee Park

:: Wall ::

You must believe me it means I made this to tell you
I will keep you out I will keep you out of sheer will
I will it to stand. Decision of division. The widow couldn’t
stand the scholar, his need to possess his possessing need.
There is no thing that will keep you out I will lift up stone will
join it fast with mud I will build of you what is wished, and when
it stands my Lord will it stand? It will stand and when I cannot
bear it further then it will be known you will never ask
of me my hand you will leave you will never come back.
Out of mercy the king killed his son, who was mad. Who was made
to rule who could not love his father more who could not love his
subjects. This is the need of desire: nothing more than to consume.
And when nothing more is left to consume the king was at his wit’s
end the prince at his end Out of mercy the king killed his son, who was
dragged, struggling out into the courtyard no will to forgive.
It was July. Sun messy over the ground put into a rice chest
to be buried alive or boiled alive. In eight days he at last died
his body later moved in the stone to soon be a fortress.
I have built of you a wall I will keep you out of mercy. The king
is left to consume of me my hand you who could not love his
need of desire: nothing, there is no thing that I will build of you.
It stands, my Lord no will to forgive. It means I made
need to possess his life in my hands and when I cannot
bear it further mud on a skirt marrying me to the rock
and when nothing more will lift up stone will never come back
into the sea I will go messy over the ground I will keep you out
Father of stone and stone you will never ask what is wished, and when
and when I cannot bear it further Father I will
never come back but you must believe me in: I did this for you.

 

:: Excerpt from Elegy ::

How horribly human
how insensate divine

The life left
when the body bided its time

Summer of savagery
Your god was divine

Sun god above
The word was divine

Torturous men
made torturous rooms

Man is a monster
His heart was divine

You couldn't decode it.
The coda's defined

So go and
divine me
divide id
from mind

Whittle at
what little

providence
divined

Now speak to me of rot.
Now tell me what ruptured in 

someone who was loved
and anything divine.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems deal with loss—where the loss for words eventually becomes words, and perhaps from there it lessens. “Wall” melds a Korean folktale and an account from Korean history. “Excerpt from Elegy” is for a more recent passing, and is indebted to Laura Cechanowicz.

 

Hannah Sanghee Park is the author of The Same-Different, the winner of the 2014 Academy of American Poets’ Walt Whitman Award. The book is forthcoming from LSU Press in 2015. She is currently an MFA candidate in the Writing for Screen & Television Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Two Poems

Poetry / Ladan Osman

:: Apparition: One ::

White tiger in the snowy sandbox,
a concrete corner visible in lamplight.
It guards the alley to the bad boys’
house, the two who held their mother 
hostage. The alley where dogs go crazy.
Every single one of them lunges for a face.
Every one turns to that single lamplight,
strains on tethers towards a far corner. 

 

:: Apparition: Two ::

We saw ghosts near the cat-shit sandbox. 
We beckoned the girl-ghost once. 
She wore white, rode a white bike
around the lamplight, in perfect loops.
The air around her looked like a video game
played in a lightning storm: 
shredded newspaper, or dirty snow.
She would not ride her bike closer.

 

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

These poems appear as a kind of estuary in the last section of my book, The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (April, 2015). The poems just before them start to suggest an interest in surrealist possibility, while the ones after them enter atmospheres beyond dreams and prophecy. These poems prepare a reader to trouble an expectation of truth, to widen faith in witness. Many of the images mirror places, objects that are mentioned earlier in a narrative around play and magic.

When I revisit my childhood home, my memory’s museum doesn’t have regular floors and doors. It’s not a static place. It maybe exists in dark matter. I’m not sure how I entered or how to exit, but the walkways and courtyards and small, open spaces there invite meditation. I feel I can put anything there. I can erase a girl, make her a ghost, and she still exists, with static between us. I want even impressions to be living, to make demands, to demand as much emotion as straightforward figures do, to resist our desires for logic.

I also submit to limitations. That my speaker says “Be!” to a figure, and nothing happens because she doesn’t have the power to generate, only to describe, interact, move and pair. That seems to be the hardest work for me as a poet lately. What is the language of origination? Generation? How do I respond to the incredible archive of the material and immaterial? And maybe most importantly, how do I dismiss the urge to value, name? When the figures in my book insisted on their freedom, I stopped asking myself: Does this make sense, is this good? and started asking: Is this true?

 

Ladan Osman is the winner of the African Poetry Book Fund’s 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets for her manuscript The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015). She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Michener Center for Writers. A 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Life in Poetry, Broadsided, Narrative Magazine, Prairie Schooner, and Vinyl Poetry. She lives in Chicago.

Two Poems

Poetry / Shara McCallum

:: Ghazal: Invention ::

These days in what passes for self-discovery,
we flit through hours of our own invention.

Abandoned, I travel to the western edge of myself,
cultivating wilderness as an invention.

Snow in April troubles my faith in redemption.
Or is time one more ill-conceived invention?

Even if smoke and mirrors, the beloved is all the rage.
Love, how do I go on being your marvelous invention?

When you arrived, did bells ring at Our Lady of Exile Abbey?
Or is memory a liar, craving invention after invention?

Oh the monkey business of the mind, swinging from thought to thought:
smug, self-satisfied with its acrobatic inventions.

If I sometimes misplace myself, who can I blame?
The country of loss was my miscalculated invention.

Despite evidence to the contrary, you continue believing in myth.
Shara, you are the most fleeting of my inventions.



:: Ghazal: Now I’m a Mother ::

What does the world look like? Sublime, you ask, now I’m a mother?
Sometimes. But, thing is, I also suck limes now I’m a mother.

Watch me whirl, a spinning top, kaleidoscopic universe of hurry.
Always in a flurry, I’m anxiety’s mime now I’m a mother.

Everything I’ve said and done has come back to bite me in the ass.
Humility’s the lesson I’m learning—time after time—now I’m a mother.

You hear the same lament on talk shows, in self-help books, at water coolers:
I was too blind/young/foolish to see. I was in my prime. Now I’m a mother.

My friend expounds: each of you are remote, a theory based on his own mother.
I can’t help wondering—is loneliness my crime now I’m a mother?

In the end, I couldn’t keep up the charade: my child figured out I was no God.
What a relief! It was exhausting, perfection’s climb. Now, I’m a mother.

Nothing about it is sublime? you try again. Younger version of me, take heart:
yes (at times) days chime a perfect rhyme now I’m a mother.

My real name’s Dispenser-of-Bandaids but call me Earth, if you would rather.
It’s all the same to me. Even Shara is just a pseudonym now I’m a mother.



 

From the writer

:: Account ::

The ghazal is a poetic form I came across in my twenties when I first read The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali. I have been attempting it since. While I am a free-verse poet, I enjoy working with structural and conceptual motifs, whether pre-ordained or of my own making. With traditional forms, I am most interested in what I consider their organic rather than mathematical precepts: which is to say the reasons they have persisted, some like the ghazal across hundreds of years and geographic expanses. Since many of the poetic forms we English-language poets have taken into our tradition have their roots in other languages, peoples, times, and places, the historical and cultural imperatives of these forms are what I consider most when working in them (even understanding that such essentials are neither fixed nor can be fully translated). Because meters aren’t consonant between languages, the use of meter as a defining feature of any borrowed form makes less sense to me, seeming prompted by the fashion in English-language poetry at the time of the form’s entry or by the fact that English has the habit of absorbing and erasing the origins of whatever it comes into contact with. When writing ghazals, the principle to which I attach is the idea that each couplet is a discrete, self-contained world that yet speaks to the other couplets in the poem through the use of refrain—repetition and echo. Sometimes I use both refrains, as in “Ghazal: Now I’m a Mother,” which sounds that phrase intact at the end of each couplet and adds the chime of the penultimate rhymed word preceding the phrase; other times, as in “Ghazal: Invention,” I repeat only the single word, a fainter reverberation. This decision is influenced by what happens in the first few couplets I draft, which signals to me if the poem wants to be a ghazal and whether I will wrestle with one refrain or two. In thinking about the ghazal, I have also considered Ali’s pairing of it with the sonnet in his illuminating essay, reprinted as the introductory essay to his anthology on the form, Ravishing Disunities. Particularly as the ghazal and sonnet are the forms to which I most return, I have come to think of them as two sisters who love each other deeply yet fight fiercely: the ghazal, launching her argument through her dazzling displays of non-linear logic; and the sonnet, who is the seemingly less showy rhetorician yet deft and swift in delivering her final blow. Still, with form as with people, even these distinctions are too simplistic; for inside each of us lies the shadow of our opposite.

 

From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of The Face of Water: New and Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2011), This Strange Land (Alice James Books, 2011), finalist for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, Song of Thieves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003), and The Water Between Us (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize for Poetry. She’s received a Witter Bynner Fellowship, an NEA Poetry Fellowship, and other awards. She directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches at Bucknell University.

Two Poems

Poetry / David Baker

:: Two Iguanas ::

Spines in the
flame tree.
        And tongues beaded 
        with blood just-drawn at the shuddering tip of

the two of them.
Males, if the expansive
        gullet, the ornate, fine-finned, armor-
        unfolding dewlap are

indicative, and the bigger jowl
and head
        are, too. One so big 
        he straddles a flame bough, licking—tail drooping off

a good three feet.
He’s been up there all the days we’ve been down here.
        Now the younger one— 
        new-leaf-green along

his body and banded tail—
wants the cluster of
        flame blooms the big one 						
        was in the middle of

nipping off, chewing.
He’s got 
        his whippy tail uplifted like 
        a bow, a scorpion.

All this time the tree seethes—
bone-brown boughs 
        shine. Half a dozen doves and black grassquits
        sit up there and where

the red blossoms molder are a few
fern leaves and lime-like 
        flower buds, buff as knuckles, 
        growing in groupings.

I think the big one
sees the little one, though he’s below—
        perhaps the rudiment of lens and retina in
        the flat third eye

senses motion. They’re hardly moving,
except for the talon claws
        of the big one twitching at
        the limb, the slow-

motion, pushup 
tensing of the small one like 
        a breeze, itself sweet 
        with a tincture of hunger and heady scent

of a hundred hibiscus and
pink cedar flowers.
        Then he falls!—or 
        did he just jump, the big one?—forty feet down in

a crashing now of vines
and brittle limbs…and hits the
        ground hard, with a thump, and lifts to look back 
        through the canopy.

He’s been up there all our days.

And now he’s going up again.


:: What You Said ::

But before I died I smelled them, I could
        have missed them so quickly rushing elseward.
Captivation depends don’t you think on
        willingness sometimes to be caught be called
back as I was once, wet lowland where they
        were leucojum vernum honey-like “They have
a slight fragrance” and a bright white button
        of blooms “as soon as the snow melts in its
wild habitat” or small pill-shaped pale
        with a green (occasionally yellow)
spot at the end of each tepal. Did you
        find them soothing, did you affiliate
—sane and sacred there—particularly
        in the singing, don’t you think it’s too late.
No I was walking for my health, lean down
        and savor there, heard bleeding the thrush throat
the lilac. You have gone too far you say
        things so as not to say something else. I
did wish to go back.  Then you miss them
        —too early for lilac—tell me where’s elseward—
I don’t even know what were they snowdrops
        snowflakes each to keep and all and passed on
as quick as that, you are everything that
        has not yet been lost is what you said—

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

“Two Iguanas” takes place on the island of St. John, my favorite Caribbean island, slow-paced, soft-spoken, low-tech. Most of the island is protected national wildland. A couple of years ago, for a week, my girlfriend Page and I watched the exchange between these two big lizards, scaly, long-spined, brown-and-green, each with its parietal eye, high up the massive flame tree growing in the wild backyard of a house where we like to stay on Giftt Hill. Huge tree, tiny dry green leaves, clusters of bright red flowers, and branches that spread out laterally for a good place, if you are an iguana, to bask. So we sat there, too, on the back deck and watched. The big one seemed to live there in the tree, morning and night, while smaller iguanas climbed and ate and sunned and went back down to the big nest-hole in the yard. And what a racket on the second day, as the poem describes, when the big one fell or leaped, shaking down through the little leaves and big limbs to the ground. That day I started this poem—as I often do—in decasyllabic lines and took it back apart to find this more sinuous lineation and stanza. I’d write a few lines, fiddle around, and watch some more, and walk around, and write a few more lines. The poem took me all that week mostly to get in readable form, and then I fiddled with it for months more. I think it’s a fairly straightforward lyric, intoned with issues of gender and power/powerlessness and, of course, underwritten by the lyric poem’s fundamental subject, time.

“What You Said” is a more oblique or slippery poem. Winter now, early March, and back home in central Ohio, along a street where I often take my constitutional walk—two miles in thirty minutes, a pretty brisk pace but not so fast I can’t look around. This poem is probably more interior and its connections more suppressed, transitions erased. I’ve been trying to write poems for a while now that worry over the notion of a single speaker, as if we are a single person, as if the language in a poem is, in fact, speech. Here one part of the language seems to be interrogating another part—almost like a therapist would, challenging, doubting—while other parts of the language bubble up from unnamed sources. Maybe a book on flowers, maybe a distant lover, maybe a line or two from a contemporary poet, maybe (well, certainly) a touch of phrasing from Whitman’s lilac elegy. My poem is simply about noticing the detail, in the snow, of central Ohio’s first late-winter flowers, the snowdrop and snowflake (two different flowers), white growing out of the white, and thinks of Whitman’s great elegy, another spring flower poem, as another kind of companion. Who speaks when we speak? Who listens? This one started in pieces and shards and worked toward the ten-syllable line. I think of blank verse as one of the fundamental sites for lyric meditation, that single interior voice, thinking. But who is thinking when we think? Who listens?

 

David Baker’s new collection of poetry, Scavenger Loop, will appear in May 2015 from W.W. Norton. His Never-Ending Birds received the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize in 2011, and Show Me Your Environment: Essays on Poetry, Poems, and Poets appeared in 2014 from the University of Michigan Press. He is Poetry Editor of The Kenyon Review and lives in Granville, Ohio, where he teaches at Denison University.