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.



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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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.


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.



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.


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.



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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


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.






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:

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


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. 

Han­nah Sanghee Park is the author of The Same-Dif­fer­ent (LSU Press).

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.