North Carolina Literary Review Online 2021

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NORTH CAROLINA L I T E R A R Y RE VI E W ONLINE

2021

WRITING TOWARD HEALING

FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE Interview with Belle Boggs n Essay by Glenis Redmond n James Applewhite Poetry Prize Finalists n Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction and Doris Betts Fiction Prize Honorable Mentions n Book Reviews n Literary News n And more . . .


COVER ART Sound/COVID 19, 2020 (acrylic on paper, 12x16) by Cynthia Bickley-Green ; see the full work here. CYNTHIA BICKLEY-GREEN studied art at La Brera in Milan, Italy, and in the studio of Italian Futurist painter Pippo Rizzo at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome. She holds BA and MA degrees in art from the University of Maryland and an MA in Higher Education and Human Development from George Washington University. She was part of a cadre of Washington, DC, artists active in the late 1960s and '70s and a member of the steering committee for the first National Conference for Women in the Visual Arts in 1972 held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1990 she finished her PhD in Art at the University of Georgia. She is presently a Professor of Art at East Carolina University where she has taught for almost thirty years. Her research and many publications explore the biology of art and the interaction of visual media and pedagogy and the development of social identities. She is the author of Art Elements: Biological, Global, and Interdisciplinary Foundations (Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2011).

Produced annually at East Carolina University ® © COPYRIGHT 2021 NCLR

Bickley-Green's paintings have been exhibited in over a hundred exhibitions and public collections, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; American University; and University of Maryland. Recently her work was displayed at the Elberson Fine Arts Center at Salem College, The Arts Club of Washington, the MGM Grand Resort & Casino at National Harbor in Maryland, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Her painting Yellow Miss is included in the US Art in the Embassies Program and has been shown in many locations in the world, most recently in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 2018, her painting Scarab (1967) was featured in the show “Full Circle, Hue and Saturation” in the Washington Color School at the Luther Brady Art Gallery of Corcoran School of Art and Design at George Washington University. In 2020, her painting Entoptic Shapes-Downstream Animas was included in “Front Burner: Highlights in Contemporary North Carolina Painting” at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, NC. Find more of the artist's work here.

COVER DESIGNER NCLR Art Director DANA EZZELL LOVELACE is a Professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. She has an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Her design work has been recognized by the CASE Awards and in such publications as Print Magazine’s Regional Design Annual, the Applied Arts Awards Annual, American Corporate Identity, and the Big Book of Logos 4. She has been designing for NCLR since the fifth issue, and in 2009 created the current style and design. In 2010, the “new look” earned NCLR a second award for Best Journal Design from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. In addition to the cover, she designed the Towey and Scott-Conner creative nonfiction and the two short stories in this issue.


NORTH CAROLINA L I T E R A R Y RE VI E W ONLINE

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WRITING TOWARD HEALING IN THIS ISSUE 6 n Writing Toward Healing includes an interview, poetry, prose, fiction, and book reviews J.S. Absher Loren Ashten Barbara Bennett Richard Betz Belle Boggs Rachael Brooks Catherine Carter Jim Clark Ashley Daughtridge

Janet Ford Shari Crane Fox Kati Gardner Judy Goldman Janis Harrington Maura High David Brendan Hopes Rose Himber Howse Jessica Jacobs

Wayne Johns David Joy Max Kilgore Meagan Lucas Dale Neal Daynne Romine Powell Lisa M. Pursley Glenis Redmond Brandy Reeves

Carol Scott-Conner Katey Schultz Christopher Shipman Amber Flora Thomas Hannah Towey Eric Tran Nancy H. Williard Susan Wilson Sandra Ann Winters

90 n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues includes book reviews and literary news

A.R. Ammons Margaret D. Bauer Barbara Bennett Tanya Long Bennett Peg Bresnahan Meg Cannistra James W. Clark, Jr. Jim Coby Sharon E. Colley Sarah Dessen John Ehle

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Lenard D. Moore Wayne Moore Angela Love Moser Savannah Paige Murray Michael Parker Ron Rash Lorraine Hale Robinson Jimmy Dean Smith Lee Smith Frédérique Spill Monique Truong

Eric C. Walker Reginald Watson Robert M. West Charles Dodd White Rhonda Browning White Michael G. Williams Emily Herring Wilson Marly Youmans Mayee Zhu

North Carolina Miscellany includes book reviews and literary news Malaika King Albrecht Dale Bailey Nathan Ballingrud Patrick Bizzaro Kay Bosgraaf Shuly Xochitl Cawood Jim Coby

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Keith Flynn Philip Gerard Sophia Gonzalez Leah Hampton John Hart Mary Cecelia Jackson David Brendan Hopes Randall Kenan James W. Kirkland Al Maginnes Jill McCorkle

Sion Dayson Judy Dearlove Molly Dektar Rebecca Duncan Clifford Garstang Michael Gaspeny Janice M. Harrington

Susie Hedley Rebecca Hodge Patricia Hooper Sandra Muse Isaacs Kristina L. Knotts Dorianne Laux Anna McFadyen

Ray Morrison Delia Owens Amanda Shingleton Robles June Sylvester Saraceno Helen Stead Emily Herring Wilson Annie Woodford

Kenn Kotara Christopher Lambert Juan Logan Majorie Pierson

Patricia Steele Raible Damian Stamer Malu Tan

North Carolina Artists in this issue n Rebecca Aloisio Cynthia Bickley-Green Robert Boyd Catharine Carter

Tim Christensen Mary Edna Fraser Clive Hicks-Jenkins Vandorn Hinnant


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North Carolina Literary Review is published annually in the summer by the University of North Carolina Press. The journal is sponsored by East Carolina University with additional funding from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. NCLR Online, published in the winter, is an open access supplement to the print issue. NCLR is a member of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and it is indexed in EBSCOhost, the Humanities International Complete, the MLA International Bibliography, and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature Newsletter. The 2021 issues of the North Carolina Literary Review are supported by the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

Submissions NCLR invites proposals for articles or essays about North Carolina literature, history, and culture. Much of each issue is thematically focused, but a portion of each issue is open for developing interesting proposals, particularly interviews and literary analyses (without academic jargon). NCLR also publishes high-quality poetry, fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction by North Carolina writers or set in North Carolina. We define a North Carolina writer as anyone who currently lives in North Carolina, has lived in North Carolina, or has used North Carolina as subject matter. See our website for submission guidelines for the various sections of each issue. Submissions to each issue’s special feature section are due August 31 of the preceding year, though proposals may be considered through early fall. Issue #31 (2022) will feature Teachers Who Write, Writers Who Teach Issue #32 (2023) will feature Native American Literature of North Carolina, guest edited by Kirstiin Squint

Address correspondence to Dr. Margaret D. Bauer, NCLR Editor ECU Mailstop 555 English Greenville, NC 27858-4353 252.328.1537 Telephone 252.328.4889 Fax BauerM@ecu.edu Email NCLRuser@ecu.edu NCLRsubmissions@ecu.edu http://www.NCLR.ecu.edu Website Subscriptions to the print issues of NCLR are, for individuals, $16 (US) for one year or $27 (US) for two years, or $27 (US) annually for institutions and foreign subscribers. Libraries and other institutions may purchase subscriptions through subscription agencies. Individuals or institutions may also receive NCLR through membership in the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. More information on our website. Individual copies of the annual print issue are available from retail outlets and from UNC Press. Back issues of our print issues are also available for purchase, while supplies last. See the NCLR website for prices and tables of contents of back issues.

ISSN: 2165-1809

Please email your suggestions for other special feature topics to the editor. Book reviews are usually solicited, though suggestions will be considered as long as the book is by a North Carolina writer, is set in North Carolina, or deals with North Carolina subjects. NCLR prefers review essays that consider the new work in the context of the writer’s canon, other North Carolina literature, or the genre at large. Publishers and writers are invited to submit North Carolina–related books for review consideration. See the index of books that have been reviewed in NCLR on our website. NCLR does not review self-/subsidy-published or vanity press books. Advertising rates $250 full page (8.25”h x 6”w) $150 half page (4”h x 6”w) $100 quarter page (3”h x 4”w or 4”h x 2.875”w) Advertising discounts available to NCLR vendors.


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Editor Margaret D. Bauer Art Director Dana Ezzell Lovelace Poetry Editor Jeffrey Franklin Fiction Editor Liza Wieland Art Editor Diane A. Rodman

Founding Editor Alex Albright Original Art Director Eva Roberts

Graphic Designer Karen Baltimore Stephanie Whitlock Dicken Senior Associate Editor Christy Alexander Hallberg Assistant Editors Anne Mallory Randall Martoccia Helen Stead Managing Editor Angela Love Moser Senior Editorial Assistant Max Kilgore Editorial Assistants Drake Heath Bethany Holmes Nija Knight Mary Myers Interns Elizabeth Currin Lily Johnson Vedika Modi

EDITORIAL BOARD Barbara Bennett English, North Carolina State University Keith Byerman English, Indiana State University Celestine Davis English, East Carolina University Gabrielle Brant Freeman English, East Carolina University Philip Gerard Creative Writing, UNC Wilmington Guiseppe Getto English, East Carolina University Brian Glover English, East Carolina University

Jaki Shelton Green Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University Kate Harrington English, East Carolina University George Hovis English, SUNY Oneonta Josephine Humphreys Author, Sullivan's Island, SC Donna Kain English, East Carolina University Kat Meads Red Earth MFA program, Oklahoma City University Eddie A. Moore English, East Carolina University

Angela Raper English, East Carolina University Terry Roberts National Paideia Center Suzanne Roszak English, East Carolina University Kirstin Squint English, East Carolina University Amber Flora Thomas English, East Carolina University Eric Walker Professor Emeritus, English, Florida State University David Wilson-Okamura English, East Carolina University


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A Time to Heal by Margaret D. Bauer, Editor We had no idea how appropriate featuring writing to heal would be when we first hit upon the topic for 2021. I for one had in mind the need for healing in the country, politically, and the world, environmentally. We certainly did not see a pandemic coming, and only two pieces in this issue, Barbara Bennett’s interview with Belle Boggs and Carol Scott-Conner’s essay, reference the pandemic at any length. Still, the other creative nonfiction selected for the issue fits into this section. Glenis Redmond’s second-prize essay for the Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize traces her development from absorbing to struggling against to rejecting her father’s negative influence upon her self-image. In their honorable mention essays for the contest, Hannah Towey and Susan Wilson remember lost loved ones. All three write to heal – or at least toward healing. We also determined that the poetry and fiction selected for publication here (2020 James Applewhite Poetry Prize finalists and the honorable mention stories in the 2020 Doris Betts Fiction Prize competition) reflect a healing quest of one kind or another. I am reminded of finding myself writing haiku in my head after my father’s death, although I haven’t written poetry since my undergraduate days. Months into this mental exercise, I realized I was trying to articulate and control my grief. No surprise, several of the books reviewed this year deal with the subject of healing. Perhaps we could have included all the reviews here, for the same reasons we included all the creative writing. Characters in the fiction, the personae of the poetry collections, and the memoirists suffer loss or struggle against the threat of loved ones lost to death, drugs, relationships ending. Some find healing, some are getting there. And readers are likely to experience catharsis as they relate to one or another of the struggles.

Which brings me back to my original motivation for focusing on healing through writing in this year’s issues. During this period of social and political unrest, finding myself living in a divided nation, across an emotional border from many loved ones, I am certain I am not alone in seeking healing through writing. I was sadly not as surprised by the eruption of protests over the summer as I was by the pandemic. I was, however, horrified by the echoes of a half-century ago in the violent killing of George Floyd that inspired the protesting against the violation of his civil rights, and most especially by recognizing people across the ideologial street – that is, people I know – siding with those spraying the tear gas rather than those outraged by injustice. We can find hope for healing change in many of the books reviewed in these pages. And we can encourage others to read, which, I know I don’t have to tell NCLR’s readers, promotes empathy and understanding. Just before the pandemic closed the university’s doors last spring, I was giving away a book a day for Lent, asking my students what they like to read and then giving them something from my office shelves. During spring break, before we knew we wouldn’t be returning to campus, I continued to set aside particular books for particular students. Selfishly, I’m making room for more books, as my shelves runneth over, but also, I am addressing the serious need to broaden people’s experiences. People’s limited exposure to “others” too often allows them to accept the false narratives fed them by spurious sources. What better way to allow them a vicarious experience walking in the footsteps of another than within the pages of a book. As I tell my students at the start of my literature classes, women in my family live very long lives, but for that whole time I can only be one person – that is, except every time I open a book. n


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NORTH CAROLINA

8 On Beauty; or, A Reluctant Beauty Queen an essay by Glenis Redmond 14 Promised Land

a poem by Maura High art by Damian Stamer 16 At Home in North Carolina:

An Interview with Belle Boggs by Barbara Bennett

Writing toward Healing 56 The Battle of Relationships through Different Eyes a review by Jim Clark n Daynne Romine Powell, In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver n Sandra Ann Winters, Do Not Touch 60 Measured

26 The Courage to Face Your Truth

an essay by Susan Wilson

a review by Loren Ashten n Rachael Brooks, Beads

62 Hypnopompic hallucination of you and your ex in a horse pasture five miles outside of Greensboro a poem by Shari Crane Fox

29 leftover women

a poem by Lisa M. Pursley

art by Malu Tan

art by Catharine Carter

64 Love and Marriage a review by Brandy Reeves n Judy Goldman, Together

30 Next to Godliness

a short story by Rose Himber Howse art by Patricia Steele Raible 38 Love and Death in North Carolina Poetry

a review by Catherine Carter n Jessica Jacobs, Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going n Wayne Johns, Antipsalm n Eric Tran, The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer 44 Always Timely, No Matter the Time

a review by Ashley Daughtridge n Kati Gardner, Brave Enough n David Brendan Hopes, The Falls of Wyona 47 Weeding

a poem by J.S. Absher art by Vandorn Hinnant 48 At the End of the Causeway

an essay by Hannah Towey

66 Keeper

a poem by Richard Betz art by Christopher Lambert 67 Bardo

a poem by Janis Harrington art by Rebecca Aloisio 68 Time to Start Over

a review by Max Kilgore n Dale Neal, Appalachian Book of the Dead 70 Grace

a poem by Janet Ford art by Juan Logan 71 Tallying the Cost of Addiction in Appalachia

a review by Dale Neal n David Joy, When These Mountains Burn n Meagan Lucas, Songbirds & Stray Dogs

art by Mary Edna Fraser

74 Wherever You Go

52 Solastalgia

art by Robert Boyd

a poem by Christopher Shipman art by Kenn Kotara

54 Directing Our Attention to the Finite Things of this World a review by Amber Flora Thomas n Catherine Carter, Larvae of the Nearest Stars

a short story by Nancy H. Williard 82 The Battle Inside

a review by Meagan Lucas n Katey Schultz, Still Come Home 84 The Great Dimming of the Year 2020

an essay by Carol Scott-Conner art by Tim Christensen

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues book reviews and literary news

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n North Carolina Miscellany book reviews and literary news

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On Beauty;

ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE

2ND PLACE

or,

A Reluctant Beauty Queen

by Glenis Redmond

U-G-L-Y. You ain’t got no alibi. You ugly. You ugly. Absolutely ugly. As a cheerleader on the Woodmont High School cheering squad in the late ’70s, early ’80s, this was one of my favorite cheers to tease our opponents with. It was not aimed at anyone in particular. It was a full-throttle cheer to rouse the audience and the team for a win, and we chanted it all in good sport. While yelling that cheer, I never thought about its relation to me, but deep down, the cheer resonated. I began by saying it to myself, and soon I took it on as my own personal mantra. On the outside, no one would ever know that I felt this way about myself, because I was well coiffed, well dressed, and well shod. When I went to school, I was always well turned out because my mama was a seamstress. She made my dresses and skirt suits

for homecoming court, talent shows, and musicals. I designed. She sewed. No matter how good I looked on the outside, on the inside I felt like a shabby street cat. No matter how wonderfully Mama braided or straightened my hair, when I looked in the mirror, I saw ugly, and I felt absolutely ugly deep within.

ABOVE LEFT Glenis Redmond, a cheerleader at Woodmont

Photographs courtesy of Glenis Redmond

High School, Piedmont, SC, circa late 1970s

How I Learned to Dance and Read the Weather On eggshells I danced. Grooves to fit my father’s moods: Tap dance. Bebop. Dirge.

My father had much to do with my self-image. From him I got negativity on top of negativity. It wasn’t always that way. When I was between five and eight years old, I absolutely adored and idolized him. I thought he was the handsomest, most talented, smartest man on earth. When I turned nine, my view of him changed. I saw him with keener eyes – the eyes of a daughter who had been treated poorly.

RIGHT The author as a child

GLENIS REDMOND, a South Carolina native, travels nationally and internationally reading and teaching poetry so much that she has earned the title “Road Warrior Poet.” She is Poetin-Residence at the Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, SC, and at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, NJ. In 2014-16, she served as the Mentor Poet for the National Student Poet’s Program to prepare students to read at the

Library of Congress, the Department of Education, and for First Lady Michelle Obama at The White House. The poet is a Cave Canem Fellow, a North Carolina Literary Fellowship Recipient, and a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. She also helped to create the first Writer-in-Residence at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, NC. Read her poems in NCLR Online 2019 and NCLR 2012, 2014, and 2019.


Writing Toward Healing

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I believed what my father believed, that I was ugly.

I will never forget the day we were all sitting in the den in our duplex at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington. My dad looked at my oldest sister and said, “Velinda, you have eyes like diamond pools.”

In hindsight, I wonder if I carried a security blanket, because I did not feel safe – with him. In my nine-year-old eagerness, I asked my dad, “What about my eyes?” He replied, “Yours are like mud puddles.” The damage was done. Eyes like mud puddles. I waited for him to tell me he was “just joking, Linus.” Linus is what he called me because I carried a security blanket until I was five. In hindsight, I wonder if I carried a security blanket because I did not feel safe – with him. His nickname was Sonny Boy because he was the promise of his family. His mother and sisters all doted on him. He was an amazing pianist. When he walked into a room, he brought the party with him. He would sit down at the piano and have everyone gather ’round to sing. But when I joined in, he would tell me to stop singing, I couldn’t carry a tune. I absorbed his words wholly, because he was my one and only father, and as a girl, I looked up

to him. He was right; therefore, everything about me was wrong. I believed what my father believed, that I was ugly. U-G-L-Y. My father never set the record straight. He never apologized for his cruel insults. He was completely okay with the hurt he heaped on me. Later in life, he would ask me why I did not like him. At that time, I did not have a sense of agency to tell him, “I don’t like you because you bullied and threatened me every chance you got.” I was often sullen around him. My father saw me as a weak link in the family chain because I was highly sensitive. After that first insult, he continued to find every opportunity to jab and batter my psyche. On top of that, we had a family friend who often followed my father’s lead. She spoke to me only to find something wrong with me. “Wipe your nose.” “Your knees are ashy.” “Your breath smells.” I was nine and barraged by adult bullies. What I felt about myself was shaped by those terrible moments. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my mud-ugly self. Who does that to a daughter? Who lets friends talk to a child that way? After that first insult from my father, I walked around aching. And because of a subsequent depressing void within, I pushed myself in high school. I ran track. I was a regional, all-conference, and state champion. I was on the honor roll, and I was a cheerleader. I had a lead in our school’s Cinderella play. I was a dancer. I was junior class ABOVE Glenis Redmond, 2020


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vice president. I was an avid book reader. For Senior Superlatives, I was voted Best All-Around and Most Talented. I also babysat, worked as a cashier and a short-order cook in the cafeteria at Michelin, packed and rewound tape at 3M as a summer hire. In other words, I was an overachiever. And then I entered the Ms. Woodmont contest. They had a talent competition, and I always wanted a stage to showcase my dancing ability. I didn’t place. That year, two girls were disqualified because their fathers paid the judges off with five hundred dollars. I was so outraged that I did not enter the pageant again. I was done with pageants. To get anywhere, I would always forge my own path. Over the Color Line It is strange how the stories move down the family tunnel with mouths barely open. How lore still wormed its way, buried itself deep into our pockets like unspent coins. I carry the load. One especially, how daddy’s people never liked mama. How they loathed her dark skin and flyaway hair. But, daddy planted both defiant feet three hues over the paper bag test. Married her anyway. That’s how I got here in all my dark presence shining like mama. I always thought well of daddy, and the ground he took. Until my brother brought a yellow gal with so-called good hair home. Father congratulated him, you gotcha a good one son. Was father crossing toward me or was it away? We were so far apart. Never heard an “I love you.” Or, “you’re pretty.”

I carry the weight of what my father never said . . . it took me years to untangle myself from his ugly threads.

I carry the weight of what my father never said. My father was warped, and it took me many years to untangle myself from his ugly threads. His verbal lashings only got worse as I got older. I saw what my dad saw: a mud puddle. When I look back, I was not ugly. I was a brown button of a girl with the widest and whitest of eyes, who should have been scooped up and loved. Instead, my father handed me hate on that day and many other days. This is where the self-loathing originated. I am not sure what happened to my father in his childhood for him to be able to unleash such vitriol on a nine-year-old, but it must have been horrific. Education was my way out. I would be the first in my family to finish college. I got into Erskine College in Due West, South Carolina. I did not party. I was serious. I was about the business of college. I was about the business of uplifting myself. My father tried to interfere in my college endeavors as well, but I remembered another cheer from my cheerleading days: Be Aggressive. B-E Aggressive. While I was at home one weekend, he drunkenly stumbled into the kitchen while I was taking plates out of the cabinet. He came in and yelled, “You ain’t ever going to be nothin’.” I came down off the ladder that I was on and told him, “Look, old man, you have run every one of your children out of this house. I am not leaving until I get my college degree.” I felt like Celie from The Color Purple pointing hoodoo fingers at Albert: “I curse you. Until you do right by me, everything you think about is gonna crumble!”

ABOVE Glenis Redmond on her high school’s Homecoming

court, Piedmont, SC, 1980


Writing Toward Healing

My father’s gaze felt like Albert’s attitude toward Celie. “You’re black, you’re poor, you’re ugly, you’re a woman, you’re nothing at all!” After my retort, my dad sobered up quickly. He walked away. This was the beginning of me speaking up for myself. This was me reclaiming my power. During my senior year in college, things improved. I was farther from my house and my father’s reign. I acted in college plays, edited the literary magazine, belonged to the Black Student Union, and served as a student life assistant. I also got engaged to the first man who asked me, “You don’t know, do you?” “Know what?” “That you are beautiful.” I began looking in the mirror differently, without my father’s mud-colored perspective. I kind of knew I was striking. I did not have many mirrors in my life reflecting beauty back. The television, commercials, magazines, and people in my circle said otherwise. My senior psychology project was about the attitude and perception of the beauty of black women, which was based on their skin tones. In the South, the paper bag rule still existed: I was darker than a paper bag, so I was not pretty. I hypothesized that people on campus would consider black women with lighter skin more attractive than black women with darker skin. I had people choose who they thought was the most beautiful, and my findings yielded what I had expected. On our predominantly white campus, students picked light-skinned black women with European facial traits. It proved my point. At my fiancé’s urging, I entered the 1985 Erskine College Miss Arrow pageant, though I had vowed never to enter another. Blane said it was a new day and pleaded for me to just try it. His word carried a lot of weight with me. I relented but without taking it seriously. During the pageant, I was carefree and had no hope of winning. I just threw my whole self in. I shopped with my mother on the weekends back home at the Haywood Mall for my pageant clothes. We rubbed

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our few coins together. We bought my casual wear at Casual Corner. We bought my evening gown at 5-7-9. We spent less than two hundred dollars. I was up against people who paid $500-plus for their gowns alone.

I walked out of there knowing I had done my best with both my heart and my mouth. Although there was no talent portion in the pageant, there was an interview, and I talked to that panel of judges like the poet and teaching artist I was to become. I talked about wanting to make the world a better place as a counselor. I recited lines from books. I recited poetry. I walked out of there knowing I had done my best with both my heart and my mouth. I also looked incredible in the blue silk dress with a matching belt that cinched my twenty-four-inch waist. When I walked the runway, I did it with the grace of a dancer. Every skill that I learned from “Flashdance Broadway,” the television show Fame, and music videos came into play as well. I made eye contact with the judges and the audience.

ABOVE Redmond being crowned Miss Arrow,

Erskine College, Due West, SC, 1985


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When they announced my number, 23, and my name as the winner, someone had to tell me, “That’s you.” I looked down at my number. They were right. I erupted first in shock and then into the ugly cry. Brows furrowed, hands cupped over my mouth, I wept uncontrollably. One of my male classmates later told me, “You should not cry like that.” What did he know? He had no idea of the years of shame that I had been holding back. My peers had no idea of the weight that I carried. I cried for the time my dad told me my eyes were ugly. I cried for the times my peers, both black and white, told me I was too dark to be beautiful. Winning the pageant was one of the most wonderful, unexpected moments of my life up to that point; but, the crown weighed heavily. Many people on campus did not believe it belonged to me, and it seemed the only two people in my inner circle happy for me were Blane and my mother. The wife of the president of Erskine College sent word through a friend that I should be honored to have won the title. I am not sure what I said, but I know what I thought: No, it was Erskine College that should be proud. It was 1985, and I was their first black Miss Arrow. The soccer coach sent me congratulations, but my psychology professor told me the beauty pageant was a true beauty pageant because choosing me meant it was based on deeper standards than physical beauty. A classmate came to show me the write-up of the pageant, pointing out that they put it next to the cow exchange. He thought that was funny and told me one of the white girls should have won.

I knew I had won something more than a beauty pageant. I began to look inward for my validation. Yet, even with these put-downs, I knew I had won something more than a beauty pageant. I began to look inward for my validation.

I got a counselor to help me deal with the wounds I carried from having an abusive father. I worked on myself to transfer that pain into poetry. I left the profession of counseling. I began reading and writing poetry to face my wounds. Poetry became one of the tools that I used to affirm myself and to combat his hate. I wrote my way out. Using Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life and Shakti Gawain’s work, I finessed my own healing mantras: You are a divine light fueled by the divine. You shine bright in all things you need. Health, wealth, and all things creative. I said it ten to thirty times a day. I began to radiate with positivity inside and out. I truly began to love myself.

I began to radiate with positivity inside and out. I truly began to love myself. Which showed in everything I did. I did not need a pageant to validate me, but I felt that it had been mine to win – on my own merits. I was beautiful before the crown. In 1989, when I gave birth to twin daughters, Amber and Celeste, my world widened. I remember looking into their eyes, and seeing two beings who expanded my heart. I knew that I would always tell them that they were both beautiful and bright. I am beautiful now, with my head shorn during treatment for multiple myeloma. No wigs, maybe a skullcap or an African wrap to keep me warm. Today I keep my eye on what is truly important: loving myself as myself. Eventually, I became a poet and teaching artist. I have spent over a quarter century traveling the country and the world. I teach others to love themselves through poetry. My wound turned into a mission. This is my call. Confront the past and alchemize pain into beauty. n n n

Today I keep my eye on what is truly important: loving myself as myself.


Writing Toward Healing

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Caged Bird Sings Honoring Maya Angelou by Glenis Redmond ’cause she’s born bound belts blues through shut doors with throat open wide sings raw truth Sings ’cause singing be better than weeping ask Billie and Nina Sings ’cause sky calls and she more wild than cage so she beat wings against bars finds music in pen upon paper upon heart She sings ’cause her dark skin mirrors night sky deep down she knows not everyone loves her back her black velvet contrast against moonshine

Caged bird sings ’cause broken wing hurt did not begin with her been passed down She comes from a long line of birds who don’t fly Caged Bird sings ’cause she needs exit strategy Reads Maya Angelou’s books like road maps ’til she caged no more ’cause cage bird conducts her own experiment instead of dolls black girl choose black woman self Takes her likeness off the shelf Each song she sings, mantra-like affirmations recites them over and over again phenomenal woman phenomenally She sings: that’s me. That’s me.

Knows her full lip and fuller nose in this white world be: acquired taste. She sings ’cause she can’t erase Ron Clark’s Doll Experiment circa 1950 Proves what everybody knows White child pick white doll Black child pick white doll still She sings ’cause Stamps, Arkansas Sumter, South Carolina holds black girls the same way Dome squashed with low expectations

ABOVE Glenis Redmond, 2020


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY MAURA HIGH

Promised Land For Nannie and Mary Blackwood

Two sisters, now dead, looked out over this hayfield, remembering the old road between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough and who knows what else of girlhood and seasons. the smell of men coming in from field, woodlot, and byre, their own sweat and dried blood, tubs of clothes soaking in soapy water. What should be said and not said. Jim Crow ended, debts were paid. There were wars.

MAURA HIGH lives in Carrboro, NC, where she works as a freelance copy editor. She was born in Wales and came to the US in 1971, moving to Carrboro in 1989. She is a member of the Black Socks Poets and the Carrboro Poetry Council and a frequent participant in readings, exhibits, and workshops statewide. Her knowledge of the land and its history is grounded in her work on controlled burns in North Carolina. Her poems have appeared in various poetry magazines, most recently Tar River Poetry, New England Review, and Southern Review. Her chapbook, The Garden of Persuasions (2013), won the 2013 Jacar Press Chapbook Award.


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COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Walker Farm Rd., 2016 (oil on panel, 72x95) by Damian Stamer

They, too, ended, and the men who went, most of them, came back, more or less whole. In New Hope, North Carolina, hope rose up and was erased and raised again, reiterated, hope, no hope, new hope, in a name, a hymn, a clutch of warm eggs in the coop, corn kernels in a white enamel bowl.

DAMIAN STAMER was born in Durham, NC, and has been featured in NCLR 2015 and 2017. He received his BFA in painting from Arizona State University, then studied at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. He returned to his native state to earn his MFA in Studio Art from UNC Chapel Hill. His work has been featured in numerous galleries, including Koki Arts, Craven Allen Gallery, North Carolina Museum of Art, Galerie Michael Schultz, Freight + Volume, and Rewaq Gallery of the University of Sharjah. The artist was awarded a US Fullbright Grant in 2008 and a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship in 2011. In 2014, he was a finalist for the 1858 Prize for Contemporary Southern Art, and he participated in the 2017 BAF International Artist Residency Program. See more of his work on his website.


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AT HOME IN

North Carolina:

An Interview with

Belle Boggs by BARBARA BENNETT PHOTOGRAPH BY TRACE RAMSEY

Belle Boggs is the author of a 2010 short story collection, Mattaponi Queen; a 2016 memoir, The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood; and a 2019 novel, The Gulf, all published by Graywolf Press. The linked stories of Mattaponi Queen are set along the Mattaponi River in Virginia, the author’s native state. It won the Bakeless Prize and the Library of Virginia Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The Art of Waiting was a finalist for the PEN/DiamonsteinSpielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay and was named a best book of the year by Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, the Globe and Mail, Buzzfeed, and O, the Oprah Magazine. Boggs’s stories and essays have appeared in such prestigious venues as Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Paris Review, Harper’s, and Ploughshares. Boggs has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. She is an Associate Professor of English at North Carolina State University, where she also directs the MFA program in creative writing.1 Like many encounters these days, this interview was accomplished through various electronic means during the summer of 2020. The author was born in 1976 in a rural area of Virginia and grew up on a farm where she spent many hours communing with nature. She describes her parents as hippies and has wonderful memories of her pre-school life living among nature and animals.

BARBARA BENNETT is a Professor of English at NC State University. Her areas of specialty include Southern literature, women’s writing, and ecofeminism. She is the author of five books and numerous articles, interviews, and reviews. Read her interview with Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle in NCLR 2016 and her essay on the film adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish in NCLR Online 2019.

ABOVE Belle Boggs

BARBARA BENNETT: What were your parents like? Did they prepare you to be a writer in any way? BELLE BOGGS: My parents are both creative and funny, both really good storytellers. My mom is an artist, and my dad, when I was young, was a carpenter. He actually built roller coasters at Kings Dominion in Virginia, and before I was born my mom sculpted

1

Much of this introduction is taken from the author’s website. Quotations from Boggs’s books will be cited parenthetically. Read Barbara Bennett’s review of The Gulf in NCLR Online 2020.


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some of the exhibits there. We lived on a farm not too far from Kings Dominion. It was very rural. Our driveway was a mile long, and we didn’t have a telephone. When do you remember writing your f irst piece? I “wrote” a book when I was maybe four years old that was me telling the story of what I thought my dad did at work to my mom, who illustrated it. I said he rode tigers and drank beer. Once you got to school, did your writing continue? When I went to school, the bus ride was an hour long, and I remember that at first school was this huge disappointment. I’d spent all this time imagining school as a place where we’d do fun projects and make art, like I was used to at home, but instead school was about establishing behavioral norms, making kids behave, and sitting in a desk for a lot of the day doing worksheets. ASIDE FROM LISTENING TO MY PARENTS AND THEIR FRIENDS AND OUR FAMILY TELL STORIES, GROWING UP IN A RURAL

I’ll bet getting home was a relief after that.

I was always so happy to get off the bus and see my mom and get IN NATURE, ALONE OR WITH MY YOUNGER BROTHER, WAS back to wandering around the REALLY IMPORTANT TO ME. farm, taking walks, playing in the woods. Aside from listening to my parents and their friends and our family tell stories, growing up in a rural place, where I spent so much time outdoors and in nature, alone or with my younger brother, was really important to me. PLACE, WHERE I SPENT SO MUCH TIME OUTDOORS AND

Did school ever get better? Of course there were good things about school that helped me realize I wanted to write, and I think about these things that my small, under-resourced school have when I imagine what our Masters of Fine Arts program should be doing to help public school. In my elementary school we had a young authors program that I loved, and a program called Odyssey of the Mind where you wrote plays and built robots. I think that if you ask a lot of writers or artists who don’t come from a lot of privilege what helped them most in school, it will be a small thing that their teachers did – letting them write stories (using spelling words!) when they finished their work, or inviting a writer or an artist to the classroom. Just seeing the arts as an option is really important.


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What else did you write back then? If we’re not going back as far as “My Daddy Drives an Old Blue Truck,” I think a lot of that old writing would be things that I wrote to amuse my classmates. I took any opportunity to write in school as this great gift and tried to do the most with it. I also wrote a lot of letters back and forth to my grandfather, who sent me nice stationery every year. Boggs eventually went to the Virginia Commonwealth University for undergraduate work and graduated in 1998. The next year she moved to the University of California Irvine for graduate school. A few years before this, in 1993, she met her future husband while at the Governor’s School for the Humanities in Virginia, eventually marrying him in 2002. But it was during graduate school that same year that she wrote the first story that would be published. It is now the last story in the collection called Mattaponi Queen and is called “Youngest Daughter.” Meanwhile, she and her husband moved to Brooklyn, New York.

COURTESY OF GRAYWOLF PRESS

Once that f irst story was written, how did the rest come? I did not start the others until later, when I was teaching first grade in Brooklyn. I don’t think I wrote any other stories set in Virginia while I was living in California. I remember that Geoffry Wolff sent me a letter before workshop began, and he’d written at the bottom, “Are you lonesome for the Tidewater?” I thought, hell no, I’d always wanted to move to California, ever since I lived on the farm. It’s hard to take the South out of a Southern girl, though. When did it start to occur to you that you should write about it? By the time I was in New York, I had started to miss home, or miss living in the South in particular. A lot of my students would talk about going “down South,” where their cousins or grandparents lived too, and in our version of writing workshop I’d tell them stories about where I was from. So you were writing stories then. How did you f ind time with teaching? I didn’t have much time to write while I was teaching, but I used the whole summers, riding the train to the New York Public Library, where I liked to work in the Rose Reading Room. Then when my husband and I moved to North Carolina in 2005, I kept working on the stories. I’d pick up a minor character from one story and move them into another story.


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Is this when the series of stories started to take shape as a book? Yes, I realized all the stories centered on the communities around the Mattaponi River, where I grew up. I knew I that I wanted to represent the whole of the community, to the best of my ability. No one had written a book that I knew of about this place, and it was not made up entirely of people who looked like me or had my same background. Was it diff icult writing about these people who were not like you? Did you feel a sense of responsibility to “get it right”? The collection has Black characters, a transgender character, old men and old women, and a teenage boy. And also Native Americans. Yes, writing about Native Americans was something that I tried to approach with a lot of care. The Mattaponi Tribe is very important to the Upper Middle Peninsula, and to protecting the land and water – they are the reason the Mattaponi River is, to my knowledge, still the cleanest tidal East Coast river, because they have fought development and damming the river for many years. I did research, and I spent some time interviewing Minnie HaHa Custalow, a storyteller and educator and tribe member, who was very generous with her time.

FOR ME, WRITING ABOUT ANY CHARACTER STARTS FROM INSIDE – I THINK ABOUT WHAT THE CHARACTER IS LIKE AS A PERSON, AND I TRY TO FIND SOMETHING THAT CONNECTS WITH MY OWN MIND, MY OWN PECULIARITY. THEN I BUILD OUTWARDS . . .

How do you approach creating a character? For me, writing about any character starts from inside – I think about what the character is like as a person, and I try to find something that connects with my own mind, my own peculiarity. Then I build outwards, thinking about and researching the experiences this person might have had.


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Meanwhile, living in North Carolina made her wonder if she could be considered a North Carolina writer. In an essay called “Belonging” she wrote for Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers, Boggs discusses the decision to move to North Carolina: “We chose the state deliberately. Richard went to school at Chapel Hill so we knew plenty of people here already. North Carolina was cheap enough that I could take time away from teaching to write, and – at the time – was known in the South for its comparatively progressive politics.”2 She opens her next book, The Art of Waiting with these words that would change her focus completely: “It’s spring when I realize that I may never have children” (3). Thus would begin her long struggle with infertility. The book actually started with one essay for a magazine, and then she wrote more. She began to see it as a full book.

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How did writing The Art of Waiting help you in your struggle to have a child? I think that having a writing project, just like having good books to read always helps me. I’m not myself if I’m not writing or thinking about writing, mine or someone else’s, which when I think about it, is sort of a strange thing to say, but it’s true. But I didn’t start the book because I wanted to help myself emotionally. I started writing it because I wanted to learn to write a certain kind of essay that blends or braids personal experience with research. Fertility and assisted reproduction just happened to be the natural subject for me then.

I’M NOT MYSELF IF I’M NOT WRITING OR THINKING ABOUT WRITING, MINE OR SOMEONE ELSE’S

Ultimately, did it help you deal with the realities of f ighting to have a child? It was personally helpful. It was extremely useful, on a personal level, to learn about the experiences of others pursuing their different paths to having a family. And also to contextualize my own experience and suffering within a longer history and inside a biological framework.

2

Marianne Gingher, ed., Amazing Place: What North Carolina Means to Writers (U of North Carolina P, 2015) 110; subsequently cited parenthetically.


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COURTESY OF BARBARA TYROLER

You conceived your f irst child, Beatrice, while you were still writing the book. Did this affect the rest of the book? How would the book be different if you had ultimately been unable to conceive?

Certainly, the book would have been different if I had not conceived. I wrote about half of the book after my daughter Beatrice was born, and through assisted reproduction I now have two daughters, Beatrice and Harriet. Probably I would have spent much more time interviewing childfree women and childless women. But it would also be different if I wrote it now, during the pandemic, or last year when Australia was on fire, or after I’d learned about the concept of social infertility, which I first read about last summer. Social infertility encompasses more people who desire children but cannot have them for a broader set of reasons – single people, poor people, non-heterosexual people, all issues I wrote about in my book but didn’t have this language to describe. I like the idea of broadening definitions. COURTESY OF PBS NORTH CAROLINA

Ultimately, Boggs admits that writing The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood was cathartic, much like the group therapy sessions she attended with other childless couples. She was also involved while she was writing the book in a shorter project about eugenics in North Carolina.3

How did you decide to write the article on eugenics? I started learning more about eugenics in 2012, when the fight for compensation for eugenicsbased sterilization victims in North Carolina was moving through our legislature. I started working on a longform article, “For the Public Good.” Of course, a lot of really good reporting had been done on eugenics in North Carolina, particularly by John Railey, of the Winston-Salem Journal, and Kevin Begos and Danielle Dever and Scott Sexton, who wrote an excellent book called Against Their

ABOVE TOP Belle Boggs Art of Waiting

ABOVE BOTTOM Belle Boggs

composite, by Barbara Tyroler (multi-image composite collection inspired by Mothers & Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South (ed. by Samia Serageldin and Lee Smith)

talking with D.G. Martin about The Art of Waiting on North Carolina Bookwatch, 3 Aug. 2017 (Watch here.)

3

Belle Boggs, “For the Public Good: The Shameful History of Forced Sterilization in the U.S.,” New New South Aug. 2013; rpt. Longreads web.


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COURTESY OF WFAE

Will and who’d kept the focus on victims for years.4 I was interested in approaching the story from a more personal and at the same time theoretical angle: could you put a price on the biological ability to have a child? What does it mean when a society makes that kind of reparation for past wrongs? The victims I spoke with told me, again and again, that it was not only the financial compensation but also the education they imagined being done by the state, the acknowledgement of the wrong. Some of them envisioned a memorial, like Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, with names of the victims. Others imagined a traveling exhibit that could bring education to every part of the state. I think what the legislature did, in the end, was include the history in the North Carolina Social Studies and History curriculum, which was obviously less visible and public than what the victims hoped to see. I’m amazed by how many people still don’t know this history. Since you were also going through your own battle with infertility at this time, what did it mean to you personally? It means a lot, obviously, and although my experiences did not match the victims I spoke to – I was not infertile because of state-sponsored violence – I learned a lot about longtime recovery from them. In particular, Elaine Riddick, one of the most outspoken victims in North Carolina – she was sterilized in 1968 when she was a young teenager – helped me see that a person can hold onto their loss while also growing as a person through it. I learned, talking to a researcher and therapist who studies fertility, that this is called posttraumatic growth. After dealing with such serious subjects, Boggs turned her attention to satire in her novel The Gulf, the story of a Christian for-profit writing school at an abandoned motel on the coast of Florida run by writers who are just trying to make some money so they can keep writing and not get a “real” job.

What turned your attention to the characters and plot of The Gulf? I was ready to write something funny, something to amuse my family and friends who are, like me, observers of politics and who appreciate absurdity. Also, I was increasingly interested in the intersection between creativity and capitalism. When I was nearing completion of the novel, I saw the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and there was a great exhibit by a group called Occupy Museums, ABOVE Elaine Riddick at the Eugenics

Board state highway marker in Raleigh (Hear more on “Eugenics in North Carolina and Victim Compensation,” Charlotte Talks, WFAE, 14 Aug. 2013.)

4

Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey, and Scott Sexton, Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program and the Campaign for Reparations (Gray Oak, 2012).


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COURTESY OF GRAYWOLF PRESS

a collective of artists who’d come together around the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is part of my novel’s timeframe. They’d captured different visual and audio-visual ways of expressing the many ways artists are controlled by their debt – from student loans to mortgages and credit card debt – and the connections between art and the economic conditions under which it’s created. I spend a lot of time thinking. Plus, I like to write about politics and corruption, and I’ve been particularly interested in forprofit education and the manipulation and greed involved. And it’s not just Trump University or fly-by-night art schools. The profiteering extends to our K-12 schools too, especially in a place like North Carolina, where we have so little regulation of charters. As I was working on The Gulf, I did some teaching for the Arts Council in Eastern North Carolina, and the public school where I taught had been decimated by two things: charter schools that were run by for-profit companies and the appallingly low teacher pay we have in this state. That doesn’t sound like fodder for a funny book, but I guess that’s what draws me to satire, the chance to take something that compels in a serious way and exaggerate or intensify the details. I’m not really sure we even have to exaggerate. Maybe a bigger challenge, or pleasure, of writing this kind of novel is creating the characters who are going to interact with the ridiculous world that society has created. And what are you working on now? I’m writing a novel that is set in my community. My community is a sort of hippie neighborhood on the Haw River – we all have five acres, lots of trees, no outside lights. The novel is about the choice to have children on a dangerous, maybe doomed-for-humanity planet. Boggs and her family live in a hand-built cabin in Chatham County. She has plenty of room to roam and see wildlife as she contemplates nature, both wild and human.

Anything else you’re working on, say, nonf iction? I’m also writing a nonfiction book set in Alamance County, which is about education and its impact, versus values taught at home. I used to teach high school in Alamance, and I grew up in a similarly rural, Southern, under-resourced community where there was – is – a lot of covert and overt racism. I’m interested in the way these different spaces – the classroom, the home, peer interactions – influence young people’s understanding of race, sexual identity, climate change, wearing a mask. It’s a fascinating time in Alamance, where you have Black Lives Matter protests in small towns like Graham, and where you have a sheriff who is not only opposed to the social justice


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PHOTOGRAPH BY JASON DEBRUYN; COURTESY OF WUNC

movements happening around the country and the world, but who himself has a history of racist policing. I used to teach in Alamance County, and I’m looking forward to doing a lot of research.5 You seem very interested and concerned with the education of young people. As an accomplished writer, what advice would you give to young people who want to become writers? I think the advice is still the same: read as much as you can, take a lot of walks, take breaks from your devices. And also, do things that allow you to meet people who are different from you – whether that’s through a school activity or a part-time job or volunteering.

Are you a disciplined writer? What is your writing routine? How has that changed now that you are so involved at NC State and have two daughters at home? READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN, TAKE A LOT OF WALKS, TAKE BREAKS FROM YOUR DEVICES. AND ALSO, DO THINGS THAT ALLOW YOU TO MEET PEOPLE WHO ARE DIFFERENT FROM YOU

In some ways I have more time than I used to, which sounds strange, but I used to be a public school teacher, and so I did most of my writing in the summers and over school breaks. Now as a professor, I have some time built into my schedule for writing and research, which is nice. I mean it’s beyond nice. It’s a dream! But the pandemic has upended things, of course. Ideally, I like to work in libraries, but that is not happening right now, so my husband and I take turns with the kids. I usually write in the mornings until lunchtime, and then he works in the afternoons. Sometimes I’ll do a little more writing after ABOVE Anti-racism protestors facing

Confederate statue defenders in Graham, NC, 11 July 2020

5

Read Boggs’s op-eds on this subject in Slate magazine: “How Black Lives Matter is Getting Out the Vote in Rural North Carolina,” 28 Oct. 2020, and “What I Told My 6-Year-Old Daughter After Police Pepper-Sprayed Us on a a March to the Polls,” 2 Nov. 2020.


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the kids go to bed. When Beatrice’s school starts again, it’s going to be online, and I’ve decided to do a Zoom writing workshop, like the ones I taught in first grade, with Beatrice’s friends and any other K-2 kids we can find who want to join us. We’ll see how it goes! I’M JUST VERY ATTACHED TO MY NORTH CAROLINA HOME AND ITS PARTICULARITIES AND LANDMARKS – THE BALD EAGLE’S TREE ACROSS THE RIVER, THE PLACES MY DAUGHTERS AND I HAVE LEARNED TO FORAGE FOR MUSHROOMS WHILE IN QUARANTINE, THE SWIMMING AND FISHING SPOTS ON THE HAW.

You said in your Amazing Place essay “Belonging” that “it’s been harder for me to identify as a North Carolina writer” and that you didn’t think you were “qualif ied” to do so (110, 113). Is that changing? Do you feel more like a North Carolina writer that we all want you to be?

PHOTOGRAPH BY M.A. SERAGELDIN

I think I do! North Carolina is my home, and I’ve felt so welcomed by the wonderful writers who live here and are so generous and inspiring – Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Wilton Barnhardt, John Kessel, Randall Kenan, Allan Gurganus, Jaki Shelton Green – it’s a long list, and we are lucky to have a tremendous literary community, a supportive arts council, so many excellent free reading series (like ours, at NC State!). And it’s a growing community, through the work of young writers like Tyree Daye, who was one of our MFA students at NC State and whose poetry is so deeply rooted here, or Kasey Thornton, another of our graduates, whose first novel comes out this year and is also set in North Carolina.6 Plus, I’m just very attached to my North Carolina home and its particularities and landmarks – the bald eagle’s tree across the river, the places my daughters and I have learned to forage for mushrooms while in quarantine, the swimming and fishing spots on the Haw. The two books I’m working on, both set in North Carolina, are anchoring me too. It’s a fascinating place to live and think about – as is the next election, the chance to build a more representative government. Vote! n

ABOVE Writers and artists celebrating

the publication of Mothers & Strangers, Block Gallery, Raleigh, NC, 24 Oct. 2018; left to right, Redge Hanes, Sharon Swanson, Margaret Rich, Samia Serageldin, Stacy Bloom-Rexrode, Barbara Tyroler, Elizabeth Matheson, Lynden Harris, Jaki Shelton Green, Belle Boggs, and Lee Smith

6

Tyree Daye, River Hymns (American Poetry Review, 2017; reviewed in NCLR Online 2020); Kasey Thorton, Lord The One You Love Is Sick (Ig, 2020).


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PHOTOGRAPH BY ANGELA CURRIN

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THE COURAGE TO FACE YOUR TRUTH a review by Loren Ashten Rachael Brooks. Beads: A Memoir about Falling Apart and Putting Yourself Back Together Again. Köehler Books, 2019.

LOREN ASHTEN earned her BS in Cellular/Molecular Biology from East Carolina University and is currently pursuing her MA in English and Creative Writing. She worked as an NCLR editorial assistant and now teaches composition. She is an LGBTQ rights advocate, having spoken in 130 classes across North Carolina, including at ECU, Pitt Community College, UNC Chapel Hill, and NC State University. She has published fiction and nonfiction in After the Art and The Dewdrop and has poetry forthcoming in Aurora Anthology. RACHAEL BROOKS earned her bachelor’s in Business and master’s in Accounting from UNC Chapel Hill. She is a former tax accountant and first-time author, who now serves as an advocate in the Survivor Speaker’s Bureau where she continues to join others in courageously sharing their experience as survivors of sexual violence and rape.

Whether through transforming personal experiences into the plotlines of fiction, voicing personal beliefs and opinions in a rhetorical essay, or splaying open a painful memory in a heartfelt memoir, writers often face ugly truths about the world around them as they relive difficult times. In her gutwrenchingly candid memoir, Beads, Rachael Brooks doesn’t hesitate to take readers to the root of her story from the first page of the preface: “Someone wise once said to write what you know. I was raped when I was twenty-two” (xv). Brooks leads readers through her experience, step by step, as she recounts in detail the events of the night she was raped and the four years she spent seeking justice and closure necessary to her healing. She paints a vivid picture for readers of what such a trauma is like and the process that is the reassembling of one’s self afterwards. She states, “My life felt like scattered beads all over the floor . . . moving in different directions . . . some you just stop looking for but find many years later” (26). A theme explored throughout the memoir is the precarious redirection one event can inflict upon a life, how one selfish act can irreversibly change a person forever. However, Brooks makes it abun-

dantly clear that there is hope in the turmoil. There is a way to transmute the ugliness of sexual trauma and turn it into something usable in the end: “I had this horrible thing happen to me, but there is beauty in how it shaped me into the person I am today” (xv), she writes. This year’s issues of NCLR explore the role of writing in healing. Brooks’s memoir, in the most brutal, honest, and practical way, reflects the whole point of what it means to write your healing into reality, to reach deep within yourself and take back what was stolen and, even if you don’t have all the missing pieces to do so, to determine in your mind that you are once again whole anyway. “The other side is what has given [Brooks] the courage to write this and hopefully will give you the courage to read it." She says it is her "version of a self-help book” (xvi). She broaches her subject with a conversational style that delivers her truth with candor and vulnerability. Nothing is left openended, to be misunderstood, or shrouded in obscure metaphor, to be lost to misinterpretation. Some writers consider it a duty of their work to find innovative and artistic ways of framing the ugliness of the world, to beautify and make presentable something horrible,


Writing Toward Healing

RIGHT Rachael Brooks reading for the Charlotte Readers Podcast in Charlotte, NC, 8 May 2020

drunk’” (14). Furthermore, she shows readers the physical and emotional toll it took to prove her case and fight for a chance to go to court, face her attacker, and watch justice served. However, delays ensued; her rape kit, which took hours to complete the morning after she was initially assaulted, took over a year and a half to be processed. Her rapist, already in prison for violently raping two other women, was deemed incompetent to stand trial, and the court system seemed to take every avenue to deflect responsibility for prosecution. Brooks makes it abundantly clear that the legalities of a failed and broken system are currently only good for perpetuating the victim’s trauma. With their unwillingness to listen and their sluggishness to action, the current establishment tells victims of sexual violence that their trauma is not a priority. Brooks quotes Mariska Hargitay, leading actress of Law & Order, SVU and advocate for victims of sexual assault, “You don’t matter.

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What happened to you doesn’t matter” (55). Although just after the assault she had found herself “apologiz[ing] profusely, as if it were my fault,” Brooks eventually recognizes she is not culpable: “I don’t make the rules – I was only a victim of them” (112). As a reader of Rachael Brooks’s story, I could continue writing this review with all the qualities of frank and compartmentalized journalism. However, in the spirit of this issue’s theme, and in respectful solidarity with the author, I would like to share what having the honor of reading her story means to me. I read her memoir twice. Annotated and dog-eared the pages. Wept during the moments that felt all too familiar. For hours, I tried to find the adequate words to write this review. I canned drafts halfway through. Deleted entire Word documents. Washed, rinsed, and repeated the process. In reading her truth, I, in turn, had to once again face my own. According to the World Health Organization, COURTESY OF CHARLOTTE READERS PODCAST

for easier consumption. While issues such as rape and violence against women should not be embroidered to make them more palatable for a reader, still, it is the author’s prerogative to determine how to frame her experiences within the context of her work. With bravery, Brooks expertly and genuinely tells it how it is, depicting the complexity and emotional toll of living through the violation of a person’s most inalienable right: physical agency: “I was lying naked with this stranger. . . . I didn’t cry. I didn’t make a sound. I didn’t move. I may as well have been a statue, one that was knocked over on purpose – not broken yet, but about to crumble” (9). Brooks puts into words the conflict that comes along with asking for help, sharing one’s truth with others, and subsequently forcing oneself to accept what has happened. She admits, “Some days, I wanted to scream from the rooftops that I was raped. . . . Other days, I just wanted to go back to normal. . . . I wanted everyone to know, and then I didn’t” (31). This memoir is timely in how it depicts the harsh reality that victims of rape face when seeking aid from the US Justice System, which led to Brooks's understanding “why women weren’t jumping at the immediate chance to report” (13). Brooks pulls no punches in relaying all the ways the police system and the courts failed her: “For the second time that morning, Detective Dickhead #2 said, ‘I really think you were just

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one in three women will experience sexual assault during their lifetime. Like Rachael Brooks, I am a “one in three.” In many ways, my story is different from hers, but I found that we share many similarities in our experiences. She writes about how she felt in the days that followed her own assault: “He was everywhere, and everything was different now” (22). This statement reflects the burden so many of us are forced to carry: the acknowledgement of how such a trauma has changed every aspect of our lives. Brooks so aptly describes post-traumatic feelings with the statement, “My reality had no gravity” (30). It’s a common coping mechanism used by the victims of rape and sexual abuse, to dissociate to the point that the mind can temporarily forget the trauma ever happened, so that the experience is somehow not our own. It’s a

dilution of self, an attempt to reframe reality in such a way that it’s possible to begin existing again. Brooks felt the need to create her own sense of justice and closure by reading a letter to her attacker at one final hearing, in which she tells him, “I can’t even begin to tell you how you have affected my life. . . . You have taken so many things from me that I will never fully get back . . . and yet through it all, I feel sorry for you” (123). I also had to create my own justice, having never gotten to take my case to trial. To me, my rapist, an unknown wraith, is going about his life, probably completely unaware of how his actions still affect me today. However, this is the lesson of this memoir: to be whole, you first must relinquish the burden of carrying your attacker on your back and have the strength to let them go.

Like so many other sexual assault survivors, Rachael Brooks and I have fought to rebuild ourselves and string the scattered beads of our lives back together to be functional again. In Beads, Brooks shows that there is hope of wholeness. As a fellow writer and survivor, I find it comforting to read Rachael’s story. It’s a lifeline to know you are not alone in the struggle of self-reconstruction. Willingness to share your truth so that others can be empowered to share their own is a reason some writers write about healing. Rachael Brooks captures her endeavor with her honest, candid, and empowering memoir, Beads. It is a testament to why writing the story of one’s trauma can be the medicine for others to heal as well. And like beads restrung on a necklace, held together by the thread of shared experience, one woman’s courage to face her truth is another woman’s reminder to persevere. n

Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize

$1000 for winner and finalists selected for publicaton (at least $250 for the prize-winning essay)

SUBMISSION PERIOD: JANUARY 15–MARCH 1

2021 Final Judge: Michael Parker Submission guidelines here No submission fee / Subscription required to submit


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY LISA M. PURSLEY COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

leftover women unemployed or a lawyer, plump or thin, willing or not. shrinking parents, quacking, waddling siblings: “who will care for you when you get sick?” “if you don’t have babies now we will be too old to care for them.” “all the neighbors – talking about you, about us,” in her living room on thursday evening, her loved ones gather to pass her life around, lift the lid, glance at it. each takes a turn, remarks on her selfishness as if she has an expiration date –

Boxing Day (archival inkjet print from digital photograph, 11x11) by Catharine Carter

Best If Used (i mean) Married By:____ one by one they leave; pitying hugs, noses turned up like she smells of week-old beef and cabbage. her father is last. “we were so proud of you,” before closing the door of the ice box.

LISA M. PURSLEY is a native of North Carolina who returned home after eighteen years in rural West Virginia. She has been featured in The Chaffin Journal, ABZ, Floyd County Moonshine, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, along with other journals and The Anthology of Appalachian Writers and Wild Sweet Notes II: An Anthology of West Virginia Poets. She has been selected to participate in “Women Speak” with the Women of Appalachia Project multiple seasons and was included in Women Speak: 10th Anniversary Anthology.

CATHARINE CARTER lives and works in Chapel Hill, NC. She has a BFA in painting and printmaking from UNC Chapel Hill. Her award-winning art has appeared in Diffusion Magazine, Silvershotz International Journal of Contemporary Photography, and Black and White Magazine. Her work has been featured in numerous galleries and competitions, and her fine art book, Journey: Works of Photomontage, was published by Horse & Buggy Press in 2016. She is a member of the Orange County Artists Guild. See more of her art on her website.


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NEXT TO GODLINESS BY HONORABLE MENTION, 2020 DORIS BETTS FICTION PRIZE

ART BY PATRICIA STEELE RAIBLE

ROSE HIMBER HOWSE “WE’RE GOING TO BE A FAMILY,” SAID BLAKE .

ROSE HIMBER HOWSE is a queer writer from Asheville and a recent graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro, where she served as Fiction Editor of The Greensboro Review. She has been awarded numerous fellowships and residencies. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, Carolina Quarterly, Sonora Review, and elsewhere.

He had this way of always turning up behind you. I whipped around and glanced from him to Wanda – my mother. She’d gained some weight, and it looked good. Her arm was stretched

out, fingers spread like the twig hands of a snowman. She wiggled them, and the ring caught the light, glinting as garishly as the faux-gold orbs on the Christmas tree behind her. The 2020 Doris Betts Fiction Prize competition final judge Josephine Humphreys said of “Next to Godliness,” “I particularly admire the ways in which these characters are made utterly convincing. Their dialogue is clever and realistic, and the main character, Meredith, is both strong and vulnerable. There are no missteps in the writing.”


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COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

“Here, let me take that.” Blake slipped his stolen something for herself that was supposed fingers under the strap of my messenger bag, cut- to be mine. I leaned back in the armchair and its ting into my shoulder, and pretended to collapse. hinges squealed. “So. How are you guys?” “Christ, Meredthe adagesith! Whatever they’ve got “Well, your mother hasn’t had a cigarette in six you doing is way above your pay grade.” He wasn’t weeks,” said Blake. wrong. I was writing a grant for a multi-sensory “Wow.” playground installation at the local community center. “So? Don’t you have anyTHE A DAGES HE SPOU TED A S thing to say to us?” “Sorry, I was just taking it in – conHAU GHTI LY A S I F HE ’ D COM E gratulations.” I heard it go a little flat. U P W I TH THEM. “NE X T TO GOD I’d disliked Blake from the get-go, but I’d been trying to change my mind L I NESS,” HE SA I D ONCE A S HE ever since Wanda had told me, smiling, SQ U I RTED BLU E DI SH SOA P I NTO that Blake didn’t mind her burns. “He thinks they’re sexy,” she’d said, “because A CA ST I RON PA N. they tell a story.” He didn’t make it easy. There was the Steelers logo he’d shaved into the back of his head last football season. The adages he spouted as haughtily as if he’d come up with them. “Next to godliness,” he said once as he squirted blue dish soap into a cast iron pan. And the way he’d blurted, as if bestowing me with a precious gift, “Just so you know, I’m totally okay with your lifestyle. Love is love.” I followed them into the living room, where the tree leaned threateningly into the open space. “Babe,” said Wanda, “you said you were gonna try to fix that.” “Shoot, you’re right. Guess I got distracted by those delicious smells.” Wanda turned to me. “I made mulled wine. Learned from a YouTube video. Here, I’ll get you some.” She came back with two mugs, orange peels floating in the maroon liquid. “Listen Meredith, I am so sorry about you and Larsen,” said Blake. “Break-ups are the worst.” “I’m really fine. It was for the best.” I’d had to call last week to tell them Larsen wasn’t joining. What they didn’t know – thank God – was that I was supposed to be the one showing off an engagement ring. I knew it wasn’t reasonable, but I felt a bit like Wanda had pulled a fast one on me, Disruption III, 2020 (cold wax and oil on paper, 7.25x5.25) by Patricia Steele Raible

Charlotte-based artist PATRICIA STEELE RAIBLE earned two writing degrees before pursuing an interest in art, which launched her second career. She continued her art studies with a mentorship, various workshops, and an eleven-month residency

at the McColl Center for Visual Arts in Charlotte, NC. In addition to maintaining her studio, she teaches workshops. Her art has appeared in galleries, corporate institutions, and national publications. See more of her work on her website.


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“I know. I quit, too. All the money we’re saving on health insurance, we’re gonna put it toward a couples spa day if – when – we make it to the New Year.” “I told him I never smoked as far as Blue Cross knows, but he didn’t listen,” said Wanda, like Blake was a kid with a big imagination. “She won’t be so wrapped up in these technicalities once she’s in a mineral soak with cucumber slices on both her eyeballs,” said Blake, rubbing Wanda’s thigh. I looked away. “So,” he said. “Can you believe it? A white Christmas.” I always forgot he was from Arizona, hadn’t seen snow til he moved to Pennsylvania two decades ago.

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

“It’s actually supposed to be record warm tomorrow,” said Wanda. “It’ll probably melt as soon as it stops. Might hit low fifties in the afternoon. This way the ice will melt before Meredith and me have to get on the roads for dress shopping.” “How about that,” said Blake. “You know what I say – ” Wanda and Blake spoke the words in unison, beaming: “Everything happens for a reason.” This had been their anthem ever since they met a year and a half before, when a holiday bonus sent Wanda back to the plastic surgeon who had done her original reconstruction. She’d been burned almost to death as an eight-year-old when her seersucker Oshkosh party dress caught B LA KE LIKED TO D R O P T H E OL D “EVERY THI NG on fire at a church bonfire. It had HA P P E N S FO R A R E AS O N, ” A ND EX PL A I N HOW eventually made IN A WAY, H E R ACCI D E N T HA D BROU GHT her one of those women – a pitied TH E M TOG E T H E R , AL L T H E S E Y EA RS L ATE R. wife – for the two decades she spent with my father, who made her keep covered up, wouldn’t let her jog in tank tops, til he finally left her when I was in high school. The same day she went in for her procedure, she met Blake in the parking lot of the medical office park: he was getting a consult for laser hair removal on his back. Whenever Wanda’s accident came up, Blake liked to drop the old “everything happens for a reason,” and explain how in a way, her accident had brought them together, all these years later. As for why Wanda had to endure third degree burns to have the privilege of Blake’s love, when all he had to do to earn my mother’s was have a hairy back and a plumbing contractor’s salary to burn, well, I’m sure Blake would have a reason ready if I ever asked.

Across Time, 2014 (mixed media with collage elements on deep wood panel, 18x18x3) by Patricia Steele Raible

I turned in early. Around nine Blake had winked at Wanda and said, “If we don’t go to bed soon, Santa won’t come.” I tried to forget that as I crawled beneath the polyester lilac comforter of my childhood bedroom, scrolling through my phone. My old college roommate Rhoda, who I’d moved back


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in with after the split, had sent me a link to a they took a little skin off with the hair. Left two Huffington Post article about infidelity. Appar- raw, burning places. ently, it was the cool new thing to be cool with Larsen had been floored when I’d told her the it. I deleted the message. Rhoda was always say- story, which I’d chosen partly because I wanted to ing that I should go to therapy, but then, Rhoda see if she’d be disgusted by mention of my upper lip thought everyone needed counseling because she hairs; if she was, I’d know I didn’t need to bother was a counselor, or more accurately, finishing her with a second date. I always gave potential partners last semester of graduate school in counseling. I these kinds of little tests, and they rarely passed always half-joked that I already had her for free. I them, though women had better odds than men, wrote her back, not acknowledging the article, but which was why I concentrated my energy there. to tell her about the engagement. But Larsen proved herself, or at least I thought There were two texts from Larsen. The first so then. She was in finance, which was a strike was a plea to talk, which she’d sent nightly for against her when Rhoda set us up, but she explained five consecutive days now. The other was a photo on the first date that she’d chosen that major to of six wriggling dogs, skin pink as raw meat showing through white wisps of LARSEN HAD BEEN FLOORED WHEN hair, red and green velvet I’D TO L D HER THE STORY, W HI CH bows around all of their necks. Since her parents’ I’D CHOSEN PA RTLY BECAU SE I WA NTbusiness went under, they’d E D TO SEE I F SHE’ D BE DI SGU STE D BY started breeding schnauzers. We could have one of M E N T I ON OF MY U PPER L I P HA I RS; I F these little dudes, she’d writS H E WA S, I’ D KNOW I DI DN’ T NEED TO ten. She knew how much B OT H E R W I TH A SECOND DATE . I’d wanted a dog growing up, though my father thought they were dirty. On our first date three years ago, Larsen had help her parents save their ailing Kinko’s franchise. asked if my mom and I were close. I told her of Perhaps it had something to do with her jawline in an anonymous email sent to all the girls in my the lantern light against the exposed brick of the seventh-grade class, in which someone had copy- bar wall, but I was taken with the idea of a twentypasted an AOL instant message conversation be- five-year-old woman who made real, tangible sactween two boys who’d ranked every girl in class rifices for other people. from one to ten, and included explanations, writThe night she proposed we walked along the ten in comic sans. Frantically I’d found myself on crooked Schuylkill River, orange with mud and the second page. 4. body’s an 8!! But she has a mus- waning light. It was a few hours later, in bed, that tache!!!! Wanda heard me crying on the floor. “Oh, she told me about the guy. At the very beginning, kids are cruel,” she said when I explained. “They’ll before we were serious. So stupid, she said. An exbe onto the next thing, just you watch. Besides, periment, just to make sure – she’d hated it, just like this is nothing compared to what it was like for me she figured she would. in junior high.” She petted my head, absently, and A bottle and a half of Rex Goliath after I I cried harder because I knew it was true, what she ended it, the feeling that I’d swallowed something always implied: that I was ungrateful. And now I sharp gave way to the feeling that I should have had a mustache and a cold heart, both. The next known, some soured version of satisfaction. day I waxed my upper lips with strips I bought with my allowance at Revco. I left them on longer I woke up first on Christmas morning. Wanda had than the box said because I wanted to be sure, and no real half-and-half, just Irish cream–flavored


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Coffee-mate. Blake’s influence, probably. I hate Some yellowed car repair receipts, which I black coffee, so I used it anyway. When I closed the lifted up in hopes that maybe a lone screw would fridge, I noticed a photo of Wanda and Blake at a be rolling around at the bottom of the drawer. pumpkin patch, his cheek smushed up against hers. I had forgotten all about the photos. We’d It was stuck on with a magnet from Telluride taken a few and put them on Facebook, pretendthat we’d always had, though nobody we knew had ing to be swimsuit models or whatever. This turever been there. In my childhood that same mag- quoise-knit bikini that I can’t believe I liked. One net had held another photo: my parents in front of leg straight and one bent, hand on the knee, hair the courthouse on their wedding day, close but not clumped from the water. As if the brown sludge of touching, Wanda’s feet swollen in her sandals from lake in the background was the Miami skyline. Me her pregnancy. Her hand rested on her abdomen, as and Nina, my first girlfriend, though nobody had if she had acid reflux. known that’s what we were, as I was terrified of it I choked down as much of the sweet, oily cof- getting back to my father. The summer between fee as I could, then went to brush my teeth. There sophomore and junior year of high school. He must were two boxes of nicotine patches on top of the have printed them off. There were striations of toilet, one bigger than the other, like his ’n hers. orange from an ink cartridge running low. Something about that made me want to give a Next to the photos, a jar of Vaseline with the peace offering, and I remembered how the goofy top off, marred with slick indentations, as if it had lean of the Christmas tree needed fixing. Back in been punched. the living room I knelt down next to the stand, the When I slipped back into the house, Blake drying needles prickling my ear. I tried to right the and Wanda sat close together at the kitchen table, angle, but one of the screws was missing. slicing peeled grapefruits into segments. “I Saw There would probably be a replacement in the Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” played through shed, not that I’d necessarily know how to put it radio static. in. But I could try. Outside I balked at the weirdly “Where’ve you been?” asked Wanda. warm air. The sheen of ice on the pond was melting Blake winked. “Your mom hasn’t had her coffee with popcorn cracks. My last visit home Blake had yet.” He stood, kissed her on the top of the head. tried fishing there, spent three hours on the rot“I thought I’d straighten out the tree for us, ting dock that could barely hold his weight before so I went hunting in the shed for an extra screw.” he finally pulled up a tiny trout that bled to death Blake had his back to us now, measuring out coffee in his hand. Smiling all the while with bluing lips, grinds, but I swear his hand froze for a moment. Blake held the fish out proudly. Fish blood looked “Can you help me with these?” said Wanda, exactly like people blood. It gathered in the creases handing me a knife. The chunks she’d already cut of Blake’s fingers. He said that fishing made him feel closer to God. In the toolshed, I felt around for the grimy string that hung from the light“ WHE N YOU’ RE OL DER, YOU’ L L bulb. Weak, musty light. As if someone U NDERSTA ND, M ERE DI TH. I N had curated a museum of my childhood, there was the deflated snow tube, ripped S OM E SI TUATI ONS YOU HAV E apart by a snagged branch. A rope ladTO M A KE CONCESSI ONS. ” der I’d made when my father said he was going to redo the dock, but then never did. A box of My Little Ponies in the corner, dust in their cotton-candy colored hair. were piled in a bowl, red and raw as meat. A dish The latch to the tool closet was rusted, but it of Saran-Wrapped custard sat next to them. opened easily. Most of the hooks on the wall were “Wanda’s subscribed to a recipe mailing list,” empty, and a rusted Folgers can was filled with only said Blake, then launched into something longnails, so I yanked at a drawer until it squeaked out. winded about some clients of his who had a house


Writing Toward Healing

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Leap of Faith, 2015 (mixed media with collage elements on deep wood panel, 30x30x3) by Patricia Steele Raible

in the Poconos, how they were going to lend it to him for the honeymoon. “I’ll be right back,” I said. In the bathroom I sat on the floor, pulling my knees to my chest. I stared at the cracks in the linoleum, filled with little hairs and dead spiders, til my vision wettened and blurred. I hated that I wasn’t crying because of what happened. I was crying because I couldn’t tell Larsen about it. Back in my bedroom, I opened the closet and stared at my duffel bag. As a kid I’d carved stuff into the closet wall: initials of boys I liked, or had told myself I liked, encircled in hearts, and random letters that I’d used as codes. Most were made incomprehensible by time, but I did remember that AIG? was “Am I Gay?” and IHMF was “I Hate My Father.” I’d written that one a couple years before he left. My mother had made a chocolate cake for him to take to a potluck he had for work, but she’d used baking soda instead of baking powder. He’d cut a piece, dense and shiny as soap, and told her to try it.

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We saw the pucker of her face against her will, and I waited for him to yell. When he didn’t, just said he guessed he’d pick something up at Food Lion, I should have known. That night she went to crawl in bed and the cake was crushed between the sheets. He was still at the potluck, so she came and got me from my room and took me for a drive, and I think I believed we might be making a getaway, racing off toward a new life as outlaws in Florida or something. “I thought the dog had shit in there,” she muttered. But she made a U-turn after ten minutes on I-40, took one hand off the steering wheel and put it on my leg. It wasn’t something she usually did, but it was nice. Her knuckles were chapped. “When you’re older, you’ll understand, Meredith. In some situations you have to make concessions.” I didn’t know the word in that context, had only heard it in reference to the snacks at the movies. But I promised myself that concessions were something I’d never make. I took the two hastily-wrapped Christmas gifts from my bag. I’d gotten a blue topaz necklace for Wanda – her birth stone. For Blake, a Steelers beanie. I’d known it was a little lame – that he’d like it but that I could also have tried harder, spent more. Now I was glad I hadn’t. I tossed it into the back of the closet, where there was an ancient pile of clothes once meant for Goodwill. Wanda called from downstairs. “We’re ready anytime, Meredith!” I fired off a text to Rhoda. I know you’re doing family stuff, but if at any point you can talk – I was fucking right about Blake all along. I stopped for a few seconds on every single stair, but eventually I reached the living room. My mother was still in her bathrobe, white with big, floppy-looking irises printed on it. “Well, Meredith, you’re the guest of honor, so you open one first,” said Blake. The little box he handed me wasn’t wrapped, but it had a ribbon around it. “Big things come in small packages, you know.” That wink again. Inside the box was a gift card to a bridal shop. “Two hundred dollars,” said Wanda, a little louder than before. “So you can get any dress you want for the wedding. Well, as long as it matches our color scheme.” “Thanks,” I said, careful to look only at Wanda. “It’s from both of us,” she hinted.


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“Cool,” I said. Blake opened fishing equipment from Wanda, who then opened four gifts from him, exclaiming with increasing agitation that they’d “agreed on a small Christmas, babe,” to which Blake pleaded forgiveness. I gave her the necklace at the very end. “Oh,” said Blake when Wanda opened it. “That is beautiful! You’ll have to wear it at the ceremony – it’ll be your something blue.”

I studied her placid face, and it began to assemble. “Am I telling you something you already know?” We were far apart now; I had continued walking towards the shed and she hadn’t followed. Her arms were crossed. “You want me to be with someone like your father again? Is that what you want for me?” “Can you please answer my question?” “We can’t all live happily ever after with women, you know.” A few dead fish that had been trapped beneath “That,” I said, “is rich.” the ice were floating now, flashes of silver on the “Your life isn’t tragic. Now you can even get mucky surface of the pond. Wanda stood beside the married and everything. Nothing tragic has ever tiny dock, narrow stripes of snow balanced on its happened to you.” warped slats. When it was clear I hadn’t brought “I didn’t say any of this was tragic,” I said Blake a present, she’d said steely, “I’d like to speak quickly. I could not hear, for the millionth time, her with you outside,” and I’d followed her wordlessly. account of the accident. How she didn’t know what “Do you ever think of anyone other than your- was her skin and what was the fire. How in the hosself ?” she asked. pital the bandages had covered her eyes so she was “He has pictures of me,” I said. “From high in darkness for weeks, and so she thought she was school. He’s keeping them in the shed.” dead, that it would be like this forever. But instead, She took a labored breath. “Okay.” she said: “You know what disturbs me the most?” “The thought of your husband getting off on pictures of “ YO UR LIF E I S N’T T R AG I C. N OW YOU your kid?” “What disturbs me the C A N E V E N G E T M A R R I E D AND EVERY most is you’re clearly thrilled. TH IN G. N OT H I N G T R AG I C HA S E V E R It’s so obvious you couldn’t be more satisfied to be right.” HA P P E N E D TO YO U.” I could think of nothing to say to that. I remembered the “What do you mean, Okay? You’re going to text I’d sent to Rhoda. I couldn’t look at Wanda, marry a man who jerks off ” – here she flinched, but because now that it was named, I could feel my satdidn’t say anything – “to pictures of your daugh- isfaction, dense and knotted in my chest, an acid, ter, underage? Pictures of me wearing only – ” I re- solid thing. membered how my father had made her cover her “You had your mind made up from the get-go,” shoulders and chest with a Sarong when we’d gone she continued. “Something had to be wrong with a once to Atlantic Beach. “Of me,” I finished. man if he could love me like Blake does.” “Meredith, I just need you to be happy for me. When Wanda was emotional, the skin graft For once.” on her neck didn’t redden as much as the skin “You don’t believe me? I’ll show you. Come on, around it, and suddenly its outline showed. Like a let’s go.” pale white quilting square, clumsily cut, sewed on. Wanda had stopped walking. “Look, I’m sorry “Don’t you stare at me.” Her voice had gotten low, about whatever you saw. I really am. But he’s such a gravelly. “It’s not my fault it’s wasted on you that good man, Meredith.” men actually think you’re worth looking at.”


Writing Toward Healing

I waited until I saw the light in Wanda and Blake’s bedroom to go back inside. As I tossed my stuff in my bag I heard snippets of their whispering. Going through a bad time. Taking it out on us. The truth and lie of that at once made me crazy. In the living room, the leather couch was still indented where Blake had sat during presents. My coffee cup was on the floor by the tree. I considered tossing it onto the branches so that it would drip sickly down onto the carpet, but I just drank it, cloying and greasy as melted ice cream. It’d be a long drive home, but first, I’d take the pictures, even though it didn’t mean he couldn’t print them off Facebook again. My footprints from earlier were already hardened into the muddied ice. Before following them to the shed, I took a few steps onto the dock to look down at the crystalline patterns in the sheet of ice covering the pond. I stomped so that the lines of snow shuddered down off the wood and dusted the surface. The last time I’d been home, Memorial Day weekend of last year, I’d sat here late one night to call Larsen, Birkenstocks behind me and my toes skimming the algal blooms while I told her how we’d all watched House Hunters, Blake and Wanda’s favorite new show, and how when he’d joined us on the couch after doing the dishes he sat between us even though there was more room on Wanda’s other side. “I’m probably overreacting, I mean, I’m trying to like him,” I’d said, and she’d asked me, then, “What do you feel when you aren’t trying?”

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Before I stepped back onto solid ground Rhoda texted back – Yeah, I can talk in like ten if that works? – but it was Larsen’s thread that I opened. There was a caption on the schnauzer photo I hadn’t noticed before. Sonny (second from left) is even house trained. Yeah? I wrote it out, but before I could decide to send it I heard the shrill hinges of the back porch door. Wanda peered at the shed first, like she knew why I’d come out here, but then she spotted me on the dock, took a couple steps toward me. The topaz necklace caught the cold white sunlight. When she saw me looking, she placed her palm over the graft on her collarbone, flecked with beige make-up. A gesture she was used to making. “The necklace,” I said. “It looks nice.” Her face loosened a little and she slid the stone up and down the chain. “We did like Larsen, you know.” She was looking just past my eyes. “I don’t know if I ever told you that.” “Yeah,” I said. “I like her too.” n

MY F O OT PR I N T S F R O M E A RL I ER W E RE A L RE A DY HA RD E N E D I N TO T H E M U DDI E D I CE. BE FORE F O LLOWI N G T H E M TO THE SHED, I TOOK A FE W STE P S O N TO T H E D O C K TO LOOK DOW N AT THE C RYS TA L L I N E PAT T E R N S I N THE SHEET OF I CE COV E RI N G T H E PO N D. I STOM PE D SO THAT THE LIN E S O F S N OW S H U DDE RED DOW N OFF THE W O O D A N D D U S T E D T H E S U R FA C E .


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LOVE AND DEATH IN NORTH CAROLINA POETRY a review by Catherine Carter Jessica Jacobs. Take Me With You, Wherever You’re Going. Four Way Books, 2019. Wayne Johns. Antipsalm. Unicorn Press, 2018. Eric Tran. The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer. Autumn House Press, 2020.

CATHERINE CARTER is an English professor at Western Carolina University, a poetry editor for Cider Press Review, and the Jackson County regional representative for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Read more about her with the review of her latest poetry collection, also in this issue.

Because two of the three books I was given to review explore the terrible grief of loss, while the third opens the pages of a passionate marriage, I initially considered calling this review “Two Funerals and a Wedding.” In the end, though, the title seemed too flippant for these three books’ most serious subject matter: the temporary nature of love on earth – especially love that must struggle even for acknowledgment – and it’s inevitable end, which, surely, even the happiest among us dread long before it arrives. While none of the three were written during or for the 2020 pandemic, all are remarkably timely for pandemic reading, in a year whose losses are accruing exponentially. The three books position love, loss, and fear of loss in context of disparate experiences of and beliefs about the sacred or holy; all three pose more questions than answers, as is only appropriate when what is asked is ultimately unanswerable in human terms. Of the three, Wayne Johns’s Antipsalm most explicitly and consistently employs the language and framework of the holy. The book deconstructs conventional Christian imagery, iconography, and art to grapple with the loss of the poet’s partner to suicide. As its name suggests, the book is a tightly unified gathering of song that engages with the sacred; “Antipsalm” is both the title poem and a summary of the whole book’s matter. Faced with unbearable loss, which must

nonetheless be borne, the book entwines poems from when the speaker’s partner (the late poet Rodney Jack) was alive with poems from after his death, a push-pull of love and death, passion and loss. The book’s initial poems set the stage, beginning with a near-drowning in “Saudade,” and the excellent but often unfollowable advice for the grieving and, perhaps, the suicide: “not to pull anyone else / under, when you go under – .” Readers soon learn, however, that the loss of the poet’s partner, terrible as it is, is compounded by enforced silence. Johns’s and Jack’s partnership ends in Jack’s suicide in 2008, well before equity in marriage rights in America had been acknowledged by the 2015 Supreme Court decision. In writing of the funeral, Johns documents the fact that most of Rodney Jack’s family would not acknowledge the poet-speaker as the next of kin that he is. The shattering loss of the beloved to a suicide, which may stem at least in part from the exile and persecution to which so many LGBTQ+ couples are subjected, occurs in a context in which the bereft partner is not formally allowed to grieve. This is loss in context of bigotry; moreover, many of the poems are haunted by the fear of bigotry crossing the line into outright assault, so that the lovers can hold hands or walk arm-in-arm only in the dark. If love names us, showing us who we are and making us who we are, the action of hatred splinters the identity that love

OPPOSITE Wayne Johns reading at Scuppernong Books during an NCLR celebration of

the James Applewhite Poetry Prize finalists and winners, Greensboro, NC, Apr. 2019. (He was reading his finalist poem, published in NCLR Online 2019, and went on to win the 2019 Applewhite Poetry Prize.)


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PHOTOGRAPH BY AMBER FLORA THOMAS

acknowledged and shaped. In “Last Testament,” the poet asks, “who am I, uninvited, not / noted among the pallbearers, the survived-by, / and what right this ghostface like a negative / beside the all-black congregation.” Rodney Jack has died, but the poet has become the ghost. Johns finds this situation reflected everywhere: not only on earth, but in the heavens, too, like Jupiter’s moons in “Unrest”: Scarred from previous eruptions, calderas

chancre the surface . . .

like the souls of the lustful given flesh only

to be herded up the tower’s winding stairs and pushed, one at time, into the smoldering pit.

Undying angels, grown hideous in exile,

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Here, the dire environments of the alien moons quickly become Dante’s hell of frozen seas, murderous angels, and hacked bodies (the forest of the suicides appears later, in “Flight”). Even the diction and meter suggest the Inferno in the slowpaced, formal, prophetic iambic pentameter of the penultimate line. Many of the poems offer ekphrastic meditations on art and artifacts whose subject matter merges the divine and the failures of the all-too-human body – Dante’s Inferno, Michelangelo’s Desire, the Shroud of Turin, a painting by the narrator himself – while others find their meaning, or lack of meaning, in the nonhuman natural world. “Adieu” relates the release of a thread- and hair-entangled frog from the house back to the water, where voices from the dark, “out of the flashlight’s beam” call to it, louder and louder. As much as the poet would like to believe or discover that death is not the end of love, however, the anti-psalm can offer no such promise. Johns’s title poem, a bitter re-vision of the Lord’s Prayer, asks the divine to give us (back?) our newly dead, and to “forgive us our hungers as we have forgiven // Your open mouth, insatiable as a black hole // That consumes us in its silence.” “Marriage” depicts lovers rowing on the river’s “stained- / glass panel of inverted trees. / Water striders distort the image,” seeking to “eventually strike a rhythm.” The stained glass suggestive of church is immediately distorted by the motion of everyday creatures upon its surface and undercut by the line break that emphasizes the end word “stained.” And in “Sighing Wind,” the poet performs a deft mimesis of the extent to which loss and grief drive us all into the arms of the pathetic fallacy. In this poem, the field is split “like an old wound”; the creek “threatens” to flood; mist is “a blessing or warning”; and the “proverbial” lilies of the field (though in this case they are water lilies) “rupture the surface,” expose their throats as if to violence, and are “choked” by the long stems,

dredge the half-fleshed souls

and cast them back down.

And there will be no rest from this. Although from here, the surface almost seems serene.

WAYNE JOHNS is a Professor of English at Greensboro College and a poetry editor for The Adroit Journal. Antipsalm was the winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Unicorn Press. His prior works include the chapbooks An Invisible Veil Between Us (Thorngate Road, 1997), winner of the Frank O’Hara chapbook prize, and The Exclusion Zone (Seven Kitchen Press, 2018), winner of the Rane Arroyo prize. His work has also appeared in Best New Poets, Ploughshares, Image, and Prairie Schooner.


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“umbilical tethers” connecting them to the mud: “They’re still dying // to touch.” This description is particularly striking because, literally speaking, the lilies are not “rupturing” the surface but floating on its surface tension, and, as the poet surely knows, the “umbilical tethers” of the long stalks are keeping the lilies alive, not choking them. But in the face of devastation, what we literally know is of little use. Grief changes the whole world, including the images of immanence and holiness, into something darker: choked, ruptured, distorted, “dying // to touch.” This is the sort of move made by poets like Frost in “Design,” in which the poet consciously chooses to find a malevolent meaning in the nonhuman because the possibility, or probability, of there being no meaning at all is too painful. In the final poem, “Hope,” where poet and readers are suspended between worlds like a bird trapped in a flue, hope is no more than “this faint / flickering at either end.” In the penultimate poem, “Faith” is light that “falls / on but fails to illuminate / the black water.” In that swamp (or “what was once swamp,” but is now ruined by drought), pain is a stain marking how high the water reached on a cypress knee, a molecular scar found in the DNA of those who’ve suffered. Johns says (in one of my favorite lines), “We must go // under and rise whole or not at all.” And which it is to be, none of us can know. The anti-psalm is the only psalm the book can honestly offer.

The title of Eric Tran’s The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer suggests a more informal approach to love and grief, and to some extent it is. The title works at three levels: the “gutter” between two pages of a comic book or graphic novel, and the “gutter spread” of the action, which happens unseen in between panels and pages in such a work; the popular use of “gutter” as the lowest of possible places to end up, the supposedly ultimate destination of the addicted and the lost; and the simultaneous use of “gutter” as an adjective to condemn some form of language or sex as innately vile. That title also foreshadows the intertextuality of the allusions that shape the book, through which the poet and speaker seek both escape from and ways to articulate and interrogate grief and love through a queer lens. He adroitly juxtaposes characters from Harry Potter, Assassin’s Creed, Dungeons and Dragons, Mad Max, and DC and Marvel Comics, among others, and uses them to explore public traumatic events like the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the election of Donald Trump. As a gay man of color, Tran also explores the loss of a close friend, also to suicide, in context of a wider culture that recognizes the depth of that loss barely if at all. Although he identifies himself as “not a particularly religious person” (an appellation which, despite the “anti” in antipsalm, I would

ABOVE Eric Tran doing a virtual reading

of “Lectio Divina: Black Bolt #6,” 24 Apr. 2020

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hesitate to apply to Wayne Johns and his encyclopedic knowledge of religious art), Tran writes elsewhere: Zach Doss was one of the most miraculous things to come into my life. . . . I didn’t tell anyone when another gay male friend died a month later. Or the one after him, or the one after him. My new colleagues and friends were well-meaning, good-hearted people, but also cisgender and straight. I didn’t trust them to understand the queer phenotype of grief. . . . How I am left dumb imagining all my loved ones disappearing – that young queer death is tragic, yes, but also inevitable. For as much as grief consumed my life, there was no room for it either.*

But prayer is everywhere in this book. Five of the poems are partially entitled “Lectio Divina,” evoking the Christian tradition of reading a sacred passage four times, first for comprehension, then for meditation and

* Eric Tran. “What’s Left: Queer Grief in the Everyday,” 32 Poems 17.1 (2019): web.


Writing Toward Healing

for prayer, and finally for contemplation – and indeed, Tran’s Lectios are structured in four parts. The texts for the holy readings are quotations from fictional superheroes; for instance, in “Lectio Divina: Emma Frost,” the X-Men’s Emma Frost (a woman who can become as hard as a diamond, an ability many might envy in a world of painful feeling) draws on the tradition that associates gayness with superheroic mutation as she adjures Professor Xavier’s students, pinned by the world’s gaze, that they “must be nothing / less than fabulous.” (Emma also has a knack for a perfect line break, at least with Tran’s help.) One of my favorite of the intertextual poems is “Amadeus Cho, Totally Awesome Hulk.” Amadeus Cho is another fictional superhero, a young Korean-American also known at various times as Iron Spider, the Prince of Power, Mastermind Excello, and – as the subject of this poem – a latter-day Incredible Hulk who takes up that mantle from Bruce Banner. The speaker first remembers a cousin who felt driven to change his Vietnamese name, Hung, because I’m sure you know why. Imagine, forced to forfeit what your mother gave you because of every person who’s made dumb jokes about eggrolls, about eyes slanted like the eaves of buildings in the rain

He then goes on to hope that Amadeus Cho has never felt that loss and humiliation, that he is as “terrifying, aggressive, / and haughty as I devour in print,” and apostrophizes him: Come green man, cousin, let us be two-faced, ambitious, hungry. Tactless Asian:

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These cultural icons can offer visions of an Asian anger, power, and hunger too often proscribed by American culture, of a gay voice which can shatter mountains and crack a planet (as in “Lectio Divina: Black Bolt #6”), of remorse for our human failings, configured as an effort to stand like a dune against the tide (as in “Lectio Divina: Big Barda and Mr. Miracle”). Within the covers of popular culture, the poet can identify “He Who Helps Drag Queens Descend the Stairs,” not only as patron and saint, but even as a kind of archangel who can sound the last trumpet of Judgement Day: . . . You harbinger of a spandex pantheon, you gel-tipped trumpeter. Here, background music is heralding. Take up your brassy horn, press it to your lips, and blow.

Seen this way, it seems particularly apposite that one of the Lectio Divina poems begins with the Marvel android hero known as (the) Vision. Finally, this book finds both escape and understanding in brief single moments. For instance, consider the prose poem “Eloisa –,” one of the most explicit and most hauntingly beautiful of the book in its images of a bathhouse’s steam, mist, and anonymous touch. Over the course of the poem’s single stanza, the bathhouse becomes a maze, the elusive lover a minotaur hunted by the poet’s Theseus or Orpheus (another recurring character), though also, irreverently, one component of a handful of party mix. After an encounter that leaves the speaker unsatisfied, the man from the heart of the maze, the “dark sylph” who has been silent throughout, communicates only by touch, reaching out “to grab my wrist and [give] it a gentle squeeze goodbye.” In another moment of connection, in “My Mother Asks How I Was Gay Before Sleeping with a Man,” the speaker’s mother

Toothy, artful, heroic. Toxic, angry, hellish.

This poem illustrates some of the ways in which so-called pop culture and nerd culture, too often sneered-at as lowbrow, can indeed become divine readings.

ERIC TRAN is a resident psychiatrist at the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville and a poetry reader for Orison Press. The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer is the winner of the 2019 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize. His prior publications include the chapbooks Revisions (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018) and Affairs with Men in Suits (Backbone Press, 2014). His work has also appeared in Iowa Review, Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Best of the Net, and NCLR Online. Listen to more of Tran’s readings on the Autumn House Press Youtube Channel.


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acknowledges that “you had to reach out your hand, palm the heat / hold the fire in your fist to learn how to be afraid.” Shortly after the middle of the book, we are offered instruction in how to pray, and this, too, happens in individual moments: be willing be wild be blueberries in summer be forgiveness like a small dark box be prostrate be praise an overflowing fountain be a whistling worried kettle beg shepherd savior take me off the fire empty me out

Perhaps, in this book, the prayer has been answered. Jessica Jacobs’s memoir-in-verse, Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, explores the trajectories, tensions, and labor that underpin a marriage. It may initially feel like an easier book to enjoy than Johns’s or Tran’s because this poet’s current experience of love and marriage is generative; the connection is ongoing, the poems passionate, romantic, glorious. But this book too brims with the knowledge that all unions must in the end prove temporary: even at best, one spouse must die first, in a world of continual threat. Moreover, in poems like “Ain’t Nothing Like Breck for Stop n’Stare Hair,” the book asserts love in context of a culture that constantly works to clothe naked desire in “shame as my hair shirt,” a world (as in “Leaving Home”) that allows wildness to live in its suburbs,” only so long / as it doesn’t

bare its teeth; so long as when the light // finds it, it drops its prey and wags its tail; / so long as we confine our darkness to the dark.” Take Me with You is divided into six sections, roughly corresponding to phases of the poet’s life: her childhood as a “primal thing” (in “To Florida”) in the seasonless, alligator-haunted landscape of a home that tries to kill her; the post-Florida years in which the poet has met her future wife but resists the pull of that connection; the years of partnership, then the years of marriage; the period of terror upon “finding something” growing in her spouse’s flesh; and, finally, the aftermath in which the tumor proved to be benign, but in which the poet must continue coming to terms with eventual, inevitable loss. The poems are fearless in spelling out their thought processes and unpacking their metaphors in pursuit of clarity at the literal level – a kindness to the good-faith reader. But they are not prosy; even as they pursue controlling metaphors into crevices and around corners, they manage to end in startlingly and beautifully unexpected places, which also feel inevitable – that ultimate reading experience of “I couldn’t’ve put it like that, but it is like that.” For instance, in “What I didn’t say those years you thought I’d forgotten you,” the poet begins: was I was my own city, my own New York, and you a succession of rolling blackouts . . .

The charge too much

for any wire to hold, we passed it from one to the next in a series of cascading failures.

The metaphor of electricity for the connection between Jacobs and her then-future wife (which also recurs later in the book) is then unpacked and unrolled:

. . . Each time you returned, traffic lights failed

and pedestrians fled – the tunnels clogged as bad arteries, bridges quivering above the glossy throat of the East River. But others, others stayed. Opened

JESSICA JACOBS is the Chapbook Editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal and lives in Asheville with her wife, poet Nickole Brown, with whom she has recently co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books, 2020). Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going was one of Library Journal‘s Best Poetry Books of the year, as well as the winner of the Goldie Award in Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society and a finalist for the Brockman-Campbell Award. Her prior work includes Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press, 2015), winner of the 2015 New Mexico Book Award in Poetry. Her poetry, essays, and fiction have appeared in Orion, New England Review, Crazyhorse, and Guernica.

windows and kicked off sheets, made love to battery-powered boomboxes on stoops below, where, neighbors carried grills from fire escapes to sidewalks and shared all the food they couldn’t bear to waste. Such toothsome smells from those feasts against spoilage, those burnt offerings.


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COURTESY OF JESSICA JACOBS

them – tributes to love’s hazards as well as its delights. The tails of the kites flown together are “an exaltation of metronomes, / keeping time for their joy.” Not only in their joy, but for their joy: while the beloved and the love survive, time can still be joy rather than penance. The couple not only married, but “married / our books,” a wholehearted commitment fellow bibliophiles will appreciate. The newly wedded couple in “Elopement Epithalamium,” the recognition of whose marriage is “dependent, anyway, on what state we are flying over” makes “Nightly Visits to the Doubt Couch.” The spouses’ honeymoon years are described in “The First Rule of Rock Tumbling Is Rocks Must Be of Similar Hardness”: rock tumbler, more slurry and coarse grind, two roughs bashing at each other until our edges wore not smooth exactly, but worn into each other – gear-tight, cog in cog, turning

Here, the presence of the beloved in the city of the speaker halts everything but opens windows for communication even with noisy neighbors, sparks a shared feast, which is also a shared hecatomb to the divine – including divine love. And then comes the moment, after dark, when all these (remember, metaphorical) neighbors and citizens of Jacobs’s inner city, “like the children / we’d taught ourselves not to be,” stand together, “– hands on hips, elbows jutting / like wings, heads thrown back – remembering what had been / there all along: the night sky, suddenly visible.” The blackout brought on by beloved presence – the presence the speaker has been trying to forget – wings the people and reveals the beyond-human reality which the city’s lights have hidden: the starry night sky. The controlling figure of the poem appropriates the familiar tropes of desire as electricity and love as stars, but makes them all its own by connecting them to the tunnel traffic, the kicked-off sheets, the grilling of freezer-food, and by configuring the beloved as blackout rather than spark, the meetings of those lost years of not-togetherness a series of “cascading failures.” Any lover might rejoice in such an inventive and loving tribute, and the book is rich in

ABOVE Jessica Jacobs (right) and her wife, Nickole Brown, at

the launch for their new book, Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire, Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC, 26 Oct. 2020

our shared hours . . .

The poet, having neglected to rescue in time a turtle, which is destroyed as it crosses a road, castigates herself that “thinking about doing the right thing / is not the same as doing it” and wonders, of her wife, “Will she love me / less when she learns / I am not equal / to the person I am when she is watching?” Here, too, there is prayer: the final poem asks of moving “in time” with another, of learning another body, falling apart and coming together, “What is this if not / some kind of grace // some humansized serving of God?” And here, too, of course, is the shadow of loss to come. The tumor of sections V and VI is benign in “Nevertheless,” spurring the poet to check the doorposts of the couple’s new home for traces of the Passover blood that induces the angel of death to spare the lovers, to meditate on how they have been spared to each other, this time, and to find no answer. In “Why I can’t write the poem about how we met,” the poet begins, “Because I came to that bar with someone else / and left with her, too,” and concludes memorably, “Because // I didn’t insist, and the time we lost / is lost for good. Because whether a story is happy // or not depends on when you end it.” n


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ALWAYS TIMELY, NO MATTER THE TIME a review by Ashley Daughtridge Kati Gardner. Brave Enough. Flux, 2018. David Brendan Hopes. The Falls of Wyona: A Novel. Red Hen Press, 2019.

ASHLEY DAUGHTRIDGE is an English lecturer at NC State University, where she received her graduate and undergraduate degrees. Her research interests include Southern literature, social justice literature, and YA literature. KATI GARDNER is an author, actor, and Camp Sunshine volunteer who lives in Raleigh, NC. Brave Enough is her first novel. Flux published a sequel, Finding Balance in 2020. DAVID BRENDAN HOPES is an actor and a Professor in the Department of English at UNC Asheville. His short story “Corin and Dorinda” won second place in the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize competition and was published in NCLR Online 2019. His plays Uranium 235 and Night Music have been performed at Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre, and his latest book of poems, Peniel, was published by Saint Julian Press in 2017. The Falls of Wyona, his first novel, won the 2018 Quill Prize from Red Hen Press.

Though taking place over half a century apart, both Kati Gardner’s Brave Enough and David Brendan Hopes’s The Falls of Wyona upend prejudicial stigmas related to current social issues: in Gardner’s novel the opioid crisis and ableism, and in Hopes’s novel, homophobia, sexism, and suicide in the Bible Belt. Kati Gardner’s Brave Enough explores the tangled lives of her main characters, Davis and Cason, by paralleling their addiction recovery and cancer treatment, respectively, and juxtaposing their emotions of grief and hope to show the complexity of humanity. Faced with two seemingly impossible hurdles, Davis and Cason must navigate the stages, setbacks, and emotions that have interrupted their teenage lives. Brave Enough is a story of learning to cope with shattered dreams while discovering how to thrive in uncharted waters. The novel begins with Davis Channing, who, after overcoming cancer, became addicted to the pain medication previously prescribed to him and turned to the streets for his fix once his prescription was discontinued. After a run-in with the law and a trip to rehab, he is sentenced to three hundred hours of community service at the oncology clinic where he received his cancer treatment. Trying to navigate a world of sobriety, Davis exists in a liminal space: his past life as an addict often haunts his present and future as he struggles to separate his addiction from his current identity. Amid his journey to self-discovery in the new light of sobriety, Davis finds himself falling for a new

patient at the oncology clinic, Cason Martin. On her way to becoming a professional ballerina, Cason had her longest and most coveted dream ripped away by a cancer diagnosis. Replacing hours of sautés, piqués, and tendu effaces, Cason’s new reality includes amputation, chemo, and physical therapy. While coping with her newly changed body, Cason slowly and begrudgingly discovers small windows of unexpected happiness, despite her suffering, learning that sometimes hardships have unexpected blessings. Brave Enough follows Cason’s stages of grief as she navigates a new body, mindset, and social life, all while still pining for her original love, dance. Paralleling Davis’s addiction recovery to Cason’s cancer treatment, Gardner emphasizes that human struggle is universal, although an individual’s challenges may differ. Though much of the novel focuses on Davis and Cason’s respective transformations in the wake of their treatments and recoveries, Brave Enough is also a thrilling love story of two teens who learn to lean on each other for much needed support. Gardner crafts her novel in a pattern that alternates between Davis and Cason’s viewpoints, giving each their own chapters to highlight the development of their own new identities, while having the two main characters share other chapters to further intertwine their already complicated lives. Gardner’s refreshing ability to capture accurately the reality surrounding addiction and childhood cancer is no coincidence, having witnessed loved


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COURTESY OF KATI GARDNER

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Michelle Leonard, “Interview with Kati Gardner, Author of Brave Enough,” The Winged Pen 13 Aug. 2018: web.

importance of Cason’s struggle to maintain her sense of self in a body that does not initially feel like her own, all while navigating a world of new challenges. Summoning empathy from readers, Gardner exposes society’s tendency to judge addicts and to disregard the disabled. Gardner’s captivating storytelling and vivid imagery invite readers to submerge themselves in a story of perseverance, hope, and selfdiscovery, witnessing two lost characters learning to be brave and learning to be enough.

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community then and now. By portraying the difficulties of navigating homosexuality in the Bible Belt and the consequences of rejecting otherness, Hopes reminds readers how far our society still has to go to evolve in the name of social justice. Narrated from the point of view of Arden forty years after the events of the story, The Falls of Wyona captures the familiar lure of long teenage days full of adventure, exploration, and the sweet taste of freedom. Three long-time friends – Arden, Vince, and Tilden – discover the town’s forbidden falls as a rite of passage, soon understanding why the town’s adults kept the location a secret. With tragedies occurring regularly, the boys find that there may be more to the falls than initially perceived. Throughout the years spent on the banks of the falls, the boys venture down their own paths of self-discovery, learning to navigate the instincts that come with maturing emotions. PHOTOGRAPH BY HERBERT RESPESS, IV

ones grappling with sobriety and having been a childhood cancer survivor herself.1 Though no two addicts or childhood cancer survivors’ stories are identical, accurate representations of commonly shared experiences for both groups are crucial for inclusivity. As a young cancer survivor and amputee, Gardner sought a novel that accurately portrayed the experiences of a character with childhood cancer and an amputation. Finding no such book inspired her to create her own authentic story. Though the novel is not autobiographical, it provides the representation Gardner yearned for as a young reader. While Gardner does not shy away from portraying the uncontrollable cravings that still plague recovering addicts, even months after beginning their journey of sobriety, by showing Davis’s complex character through small moments of kindness, she also emphasizes that his addiction is not synonymous with his identity. Gardner similarly stresses the

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David Brendan Hopes’s The Falls of Wyona illustrates that the peaceful simplicity of Southern tradition is often undercut by the South’s frequent resistance to differences. Though set in the wake of World War II, Hopes provides a still-relevant warning against remaining too ingrained in tradition and ignorance. Readers can easily draw comparisons between prejudices projected upon the LGBTQ+

ABOVE Kati Gardner reading at Quail

ABOVE David Brendan Hopes reading his

Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, 21 Aug. 2018

second place Doris Betts Fiction Prize story at Malaprop’s in Asheville, NC, 3 Feb. 2019


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Though the novel revolves around the whole friend group, narrator Arden’s best friend Vince claims the novel’s primary focus. Vince Jr. aspires to be Vince Sr.’s perfect son: an All-American boy, a man’s man, tough, rowdy, popular, and definitely not gay. Though Vince does his best to fulfill his father’s legacy and honor his name, his true self begs to breathe. Being his father’s son and the high school football star is only part of his complex identity. Vince, much to his father’s dismay, also sings in talent shows, explores the enticing forest surrounding the forbidden falls with friends, and realizes he is gay when he meets newcomer and outcast Glen. Glen, an out-of-place kid who was “citified or sissified or something I couldn’t put my finger on” (11), quickly becomes the center of Vince’s infatuation. Equipped with promises of forever, campfire cuddling, love letters, and tapping on windows after dark, the two young boys dive headfirst into romance. However, without a framework for understanding their attraction, such desires are met with unintended, deadly consequences. The Falls of Wyona paints a bleak picture of 1940s America’s perception of homosexuality, especially in the South. In a society where gender roles are so deeply ingrained

that any deviation jeopardizes one’s reputation and renders one a “homo,” Vince and Glen’s only option is to conceal their relationship, but when Vince’s father discovers the truth, Vince is forced to choose between his two separate lives. A coming-of-age LGBTQ+ novel, The Falls of Wyona navigates Vince and Glen’s unfamiliar feelings of love and lust in a homophobic town. Despite their many flaws, the people of Wyona see the community as tight-knit as family. When a community member is missing or in physical distress, the town reacts without hesitation, proving their fierce loyalty to their people. Still, the community falls short in their ability to accept those they don’t understand. The Falls of Wyona seems to warn against otherness in the smalltown South, with nearly every outcast meeting a tragic ending. The repeated occurrences of bullying, homophobia, and sexism create an environment that breeds ignorance and deteriorates victims’ mental health, often resulting in tragedy for the outcasts of Wyona. Other instances of outcasting include town members who were morphed into outsiders by the war. Taking place on the heels of World War II, many young men have returned from service with no basis for navigating their PTSD and with feel-

ings of displacement. Soldiers were commonly met with a general ignorance about their experiences and a lack of assistance with transitioning back into civilian life. Some soldiers successfully reintegrated themselves into society, while others struggled with displacement and otherness. Either way, “they were sad, and all the more so because for the sadness there was no adequate explanation” (84–85). Hopes brings to our attention societal shortcomings regarding the lack of mental health support for men, veterans specifically, leading readers to make connections to the defects in the support provided to the same population today. Hopes’s background as a playwright and poet is easily detectable in The Falls of Wyona’s endless pages of lyrical prose, each line crafted with careful attention to detail, allowing readers to submerge themselves in each meticulously captured moment. When asked in an interview, “Do you think of style when you write?” Hopes replied, “My ear does. It’s all music to me. If the line doesn’t sound right, I change it.”2 With delicate, yet thrilling music being the closest comparison to Hopes’s prose, The Falls of Wyona whisks readers away on a tragic, heartfelt journey of young love and forbidden desire. n

2

NORTH CAROLINA WRITERS: Submit your books to the annual North Carolina book awards, given by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association and affiliates. Find eligibility and submisision guidelines here. Due annually on July 15.

Geosi Gyasi, “Interview with American Writer, David Brendan Hopes,” Geosi Reads 14 Nov. 2014: web.


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY J.S. ABSHER

Weeding On all fours, I pull the wood sorrel from the creeping jenny. Experts say you can never get all its rhizomes and runners. You’ll be on hands and knees every day, they mean, and I won’t mind so long as I can get back on my feet.

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Sorrel means sour, not the bright chestnut of the horse. Jenny comes from chinny, for “chin cough” (we call it whooping), and was used as a specific, not because it worked, but because they had to try something to keep the graveyards from filling with babies. Everything with a name has a history and a use. Soapwort. Purslane. Eat it, clean with it, use it for ground cover. Use it for metaphor – history, the thuggish rhizome in our garden. We creep on all fours trying to remove it, but it always comes back and we somehow manage always to get back up again – not all of us, I mean, but some. Sorrel is for sorrow.

Another Beginning, 1997 (collage, 24.25x20.5) by Vandorn Hinnant

Fifth-time finalist J.S. ABSHER had two poems selected for publication this year. Read the other one in the 2021 print issue. The poet’s first full-length book, Mouth Work (St. Andrews University Press, 2016; reviewed in NCLR Online 2017) won the 2015 Lena Shull Book Competition sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society. His work has been published in approximately fifty journals and anthologies, including Visions International, Tar River Poetry, and Southern Poetry Anthology, VII: North Carolina. He lives with his wife, Patti, in Raleigh, NC.

VANDORN HINNANT is a painter, sculptor, poet, and educational consultant who resides in Durham, NC. He received a BA in Art Design from NC A&T State University and studied sculpture at UNC Greensboro. His works of art are in private collections in Africa, North America, and Europe, and in public collections across North America. He leads hands-on experiential workshops on “The Geometry of Art and Life” for learners of all ages. He has served as guest curator of exhibitions, as juror of many fine art competitions, and as guest lecturer at colleges and universities.


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AT THE

b y

H a n n a h

T o w e y

THE HALF-MILE STRIP OF ROAD connecting South Chatham to Morris Island is called the causeway. There are no signs that say this, just local kids giving directions to tourists: “take a left at the end of the causeway for lighthouse beach.” They’ll never tell you to take a right onto Edgewater Drive because that’s a dead end. Unless you cut through some shrubs into Outermost Marina, closed now since last winter, when a storm built a sandbar too high for the water to pass. There’s another dead-end street on the opposite side of the causeway. Really, it’s more of a long, winding driveway for three small houses. The last house, number 52, is around where the Coast Guard’s thirteenth lifesaving station was, whose national motto still lurks in the collective mind of the town fishermen – “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.” The rear of the house looks over the marsh, with around three acres of woods just outside the front. During the day you can hear ducks and gulls and at night the hellish screams of coyotes and their prey, the sound of small things dying. That’s the house where I live. Every new house on Morris Island has a wall built around it because people think the island will be underwater soon. The tide eats away at more

N D

ART BY

MARY EDNA

FRASER

of the

C A U S E WA Y

Maine Coastline (batik on silk, 41x112) by Mary Edna Fraser


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HONORABLE MENTION, 2020 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE of the beach each year, threatening to submerge the already thinning causeway. Every three months or so there’s a supermoon, whose unearthly mass pulls high tide up to our car tires and to our toes. Maybe once every two years the supermoon will coincide with a storm, each drop holding the potential for a city-wide flood. On days like these, our road becomes a time machine, launching us into a future of two islands instead of one, a future without a causeway or barefoot kids running down it.

ON DAY S

Before June, there are only 6,196 people living in Chatham, Massachusetts. If you ask, they’ll say they’re from Cape Cod, make a muscle and point to their elbows. The funny bone of the island. Most local families come from the wives and daughters of fishermen. They grow up clamming in the winter, squid fishing in the spring, and avoiding tourists in the summer and sharks in the fall.

Out of the six thousand, almost all of them know the name Arthur Loomis, Popi to us, for different reasons. Some, because he made it big by selling Chatham fish to restaurants in New York City, constantly telling stories of the days when Italian mobsters ran the Fulton Fish Market. Others will remember him for the speed at which he can finish the New York Times crossword delivered ceremoniously to his house on Edgewater Drive. A few others in town know him for his stint in the Marines, or from Jersey. There’s always someone who knows him from Jersey. During 9/11 most of us were living in Connecticut. That’s where my mom and aunt met my dad and his best friend, who later became Uncle Peter. Uncle Peter was dyslexic, never a great student, and consequently had a hard time landing a job out of school. Then he was hired at the World Trade Center, a couple blocks away from my dad. A couple of years before the towers would fall, Uncle Peter made an extra thousand in cash by taking a bet to eat a cicada on the trading floor. I have this image of him standing on top of a table, dangling the

like these, our road becomes a time machine, launching us into a future of two islands instead of one, a future without a causeway or barefoot kids running down it.

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

HANNAH TOWEY is from Norwalk, CT. She completed her undergraduate degree at UNC Chapel Hill in 2021, with degrees in Journalism and Global Studies and a minor in Creative Writing. In summer 2020, she interned for The New York Times. Her journalism has been published in The News & Observer, The Greensboro News & Record, The Charlotte Post, WRAL, The Durham Herald-Sun and The Durham Voice. This essay is her first creative writing to be published.

MARY EDNA FRASER earned a degree in textiles from East Carolina University. She has photographed, taught, and exhibited internationally. Her many interests include threatened environments, particularly along the east coast, which are reflected in images she creates on silk, using dyes in the ancient medium of batik. These images are based on aerial photographs from her grandfather’s vintage 1946 Ercoupe plane, maps and charts, and her memories of the topographic features. She has collaborated on numerous books, including Global Climate Change: A Primer (Duke University Press, 2011) with Orrin H. Pilkey and Keith C. Pilkey. She lives in Charleston, SC. See more of these works on her website.


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roach over his gaping mouth, and then the building suddenly becomes engulfed in flames. In my head, he still eats the cicada. After Uncle Peter died, his wife and two daughters moved back up to Chatham, hoping to cure their haunted dreams of smoke and fire with salt air. Uncle Peter doesn’t have a grave here, just a rock with his name carved above the outline of a seagull. It is an unspoken understanding among my family that when you die, you have the option to remain on the island as a bird, shifting shapes within the protected coast of Morris Island. Uncle Peter would always be flying overhead, and that was better than any grave site or tombstone. Uncle Peter’s rock sits in a garden next to our house on Tisquantum Road, surrounded by bird feeders and nests woven from sticks and beach grass. That’s where my dad was driving when he left Popi’s house on Edgewater Drive and hit one hundred miles per hour on the half-mile strip of concrete connecting us. It was a game, reaching a hundred on the causeway. Every now and then you’ll hear an engine roaring across late at night and wonder if they made it to the end, and if the speed took them to that place they so desperately needed to be.

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EVERY

NOW

The causeway is the only place within walking distance of the public beach where you can park for free. You’ll have to beat the clammers who park alongside the road when they’re digging in Stage Harbor, so don’t try to find a space at low tide. A few years ago, the town voted on whether or not to pave a parking lot over the marsh that grows

AND THEN

you’ll hear an engine roaring across late at night and wonder if they made it to the end, and if the speed took them to that place they so desperately needed to be.

Monomoy Island (MA) (batik on silk, 48x36) by Mary Edna Fraser


Writing Toward Healing

I RE A D

EACH CLUE

around the causeway, to make more room for the cars of summer tourists. Popi knocked on doors for weeks that year, gathering petition signatures and rallying the support of local fishermen. Town Hall had never seen so many people, climbing over each other and lining every wall, all murmuring what to do about the causeway. They voted against the parking lot, so we could walk to Popi’s house over wetland instead of concrete. Our frequent foot traffic softly flattened the grass like the deer who sleep in the marsh at night, thin legs folding neatly beneath their speckled underside. Popi always taught us to look for hidden deer beds, rocky mussel clusters, and osprey nests balancing between the cross of a light pole.

OUT

LOUD,

every syllable containing a secret antidote, and strained to see the completed puzzle that I knew was hiding between the morphined layers of Popi’s mind.

By his kitchen window there’s a set of black binoculars to keep watch for the ospreys who return north every spring, to the pole that marks the end of the causeway. Popi never shared the same reverence for man as he did for these birds. Last year’s storm unlocked a saddened anger I had never experienced before, as their nest was wiped away.

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He watched them every day for the seven years they lived together as neighbors. If the father flew home one evening without fish for dinner, we would know, and every summer we watched the chicks learn to fly. On some lucky mornings I’d see them during a feeding and watch as the mama dangled bait over her chicks’ gaping mouths. “They’re trying to rebuild their nest,” Popi told me last summer. “But it keeps blowing away.” Like Outermost Marina, Popi’s pancreas was blocked by a lump that washed up one day – probably around the same time as the storm. He lived trapped alongside his fishing boat, both waiting for their sandbars to sink back into the sea, or maybe for the life-saving service to finally reach them. Every time I walked down the road to Edgewater Drive, I wondered how much longer the causeway would lead me safely to his door. The ospreys came back the day before he died, as I anxiously attempted to solve the paper’s crossword without him. Maybe, I thought, once I finished, he would wake up for good. I read each clue out loud, every syllable containing a secret antidote, and strained to see the completed puzzle that I knew was hiding between the morphined layers of Popi’s mind. But it was the ospreys that woke him up that day, and I never could finish that crossword. I sat there, pen in hand, as my mom ran panting through his bedroom door, “Dad! the ospreys are back.” The birds peered through the kitchen window, looking for Popi cooking seafood soup or shucking oysters by the stove, ready, at last, to rebuild their nest at the end of the causeway. Popi’s eyes sprang open, and I saw again how blue they were, translucent like low tide on those rare sunny winter mornings. What he said next was the last I heard from him. After days of muted slumber, his voice cracked into a relieved smile. “I knew they’d come back.” n


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY CHRISTOPHER SHIPMAN

Solastalgia We would come out of the floodgates and my dad would say “Head for the Lemon Trees!” . . . The older folks always discouraged us from going, out of respect. The legend goes that you were always to bring some kind of sacrifice, so, somebody left some lemons for the ancestors. . . . But now that it’s washing away . . . it needs to be seen before it gets lost.—Richie Blink, from “Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast Takes Ancient History with It” (89.9, WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio) It’s easy to imagine Richie Blink on the radio unblinking when he speaks

words

like floodgates or my dad. And when he says say then lemon trees

something

as simple as

really goes

going

It’s even easier to love the young ones

imagining spirits

alive in the blood the old folks left

when he says or sacrifice.

respect

But when legend of his mouth

slips out

it sounds like ancestor away

like washed like lost.

CHRISTOPHER SHIPMAN is the author of Keats is Not the Problem (Lavender Ink, 2017), co-authored with Brett Evans, and The Movie My Murderer Makes: Season II (The Cupboard, 2014). Shipman’s work appears in journals such as Cimarron Review, Pedestal, Salt Hill, and So and So, among many others. His poem, “The Three-Year Crossing,” was a winner of the 2015 Motionpoems Big Bridges prize, judged by Alice Quinn. A Ship on the Line (Unlikely Books, 2015), co-authored with Vincent Cellucci, was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. The poet lives in Greensboro, NC, where he teaches literature and creative writing at New Garden Friends School.


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I say selfishly before the final island disappears let’s tell all our stories – every one that lives in the static on every station. Let’s head for the lemon trees pluck the fruit pluck yesterday pluck ancient history pluck today. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

In that distance the past glistens

the floating house grows its own waves. Yesterday’s hanging limbs say don’t let this be the last memory of me head for the trees make an offering. Let us swim. If the water is always moving it can’t be a thing we can call water then turn away. The waves lap at the door the way an opened letter tucked in a drawer in a previous life wants another tongue.

Losing ground, 2015–2019 (mixed media on paper, mounted on canvas and wood, 50x44) by Kenn Kotara

The sky swallows their story to feed it to next life clouds. If the sky is never finished nothing is.

Louisiana native KENN KOTARA lives in Asheville, NC. He earned a BFA in Graphic Design and an MFA in Studio Art at Louisiana Tech University. The image featured uses geometry, map diagrams, and Braille to depict an abstract image of Louisiana’s loss of coastal land due to levee construction, the oil and gas industry, and weather. His work appears in numerous private, corporate, and public collections, such as the Asheville Art Museum, Louisiana State Museum, and the US Embassy, Jamaica. See more of his art on his website.


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DIRECTING OUR ATTENTION TO THE FINITE THINGS OF THIS WORLD

COURTESY OF CHRISTY ALEXANDER HALLBERG

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a review by Amber Flora Thomas Catherine Carter. Larvae of the Nearest Stars: Poems. Louisiana State University Press, 2019.

AMBER FLORA THOMAS is the winner of the 2004 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize, and the Relia Lossy Poetry Award. She has an MFA in poetry writing from Washiington University in St. Louis, and is now an Associate Professor at East Carolina University. She is the author of three poetry collections, including, most recently, Red Channel in the Rupture (Red Hen Press, 2018; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019). This is CATHERINE CARTER’s third Louisiana State University poetry collection. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, Ecotone, Tar River Poetry, Cortland Review, Ploughshares, and NCLR. She has won several awards for her poetry, including the North Carolina Literary and Historical Society’s Roanoke-Chowan Award, NCLR’s James Applewhite Poetry Prize, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition. Read her Applewhite Prize poem in NCLR 2019.

We must not hesitate to be open to the world, no matter how challenging our days and hours have been of late. This anguish, this beauty is the stuff of living. But if you cannot bear to squint into the winds of change, then by all means let Catherine Carter’s latest collection of poems, Larvae of the Nearest Stars, show you how to navigate the riches of this world one poem at a time. The first clue of the magic housed in this lush collection of poems can be gleaned from the title, which invites scientific and mythical introspection, preparing readers for a work that will challenge the earthbound and the lunar throughout. “Seining the Parking Lot,” the poem that holds the line that became the book’s title, presents us with a net of great vision, rich in opulent sound and an inexhaustible willingness to exploit as much finite detail as possible, as we catapult, clammer, scurry, and are transported along with a flood, where a wasted condom spills its . . . freight of joy

ABOVE Catherine Carter reading her 2018

or shame, split now to admit passage of

James Applewhite Poetry Prize-winning poem during the NCLR Writers Celebrating Indie Bookstores event at Malaprop’s, Asheville, NC, 27 Apr. 2019

squirming fingerling mermaids, or a glittering lively handful of what, at first, could well be bioluminescent copepods.


Writing Toward Healing

In the waste and the chaos, Carter finds the beginnings of life, the larvae and the stars. Poem after poem is imbued with images of stars as they might be found on earth, through a trick of light, turned suddenly out of a handful of dirt. Carter has opened a conduit to constellations of her own design, that we might appreciate “the sweets of earth.” “[T]his / is us,” she writes, “mortal minerals / in the brief era of stars, this is it.” By Carter’s estimation, the earth is a spawning ground for the stuff of stars, or at least a quiet hold for their transfiguration. A master of detail, Carter plunges us into the finite at every turn casting a spell that as the poet she claims is her duty because being a poet is kind of like being a witch, right? A theme that readers of Carter’s earlier books, especially her chapbook, Marks of the Witch (2015), will be familiar with. In one of the shortest poems in Larvae of the Nearest Stars, “Hot Flash,” Carter manages to be both humorous and pointed, finally illuminating the earlier claims about being a witch: “You were always a witch, / which is to say a woman / not yet cowed enough.” A reader might flinch at Carter’s parallel between womanhood and witch-hood; however, we get it by the time we reach the final lines of the poem: “You were / always going to burn.” Witches were burned for their perceived power, and the inference here is the visionary poetess with a mastery of language who is just as dangerous. She bears witness to the natural world from the heightened level of being

able to create new life through imaginative force. That budding imaginative force is clearly depicted in “First Witch” as the speaker grips a dowsing stick during childhood, and “a promise / or warning of all the earthly magics / still to come” slips over her. The focus on water in this poem, too, applies more connective glue for one of the larger themes in the book, the way in which water heralds our cataclysmic times of global warming and climate change, an end of life as we know it. But it is no accident that the dowser is the poet who recognizes her vision in these poems as an instrument of change, too. For Carter, seeing is power and her gift in poetic language is nothing short of magical. This concise series of fortynine poems of similar length and style presents contemporary lyrical poetry at its best. We slip through time and place at an uninterrupted pace, as there are no section breaks; rather the poems that touch on Carter’s childhood bleed easily into poems about her married life raising bees. The personal does not have to be political; however, Carter makes the brave choice in poems like “Where I Stand” to acknowledge her family’s roots in owning slaves: “on the hard / foundation of the big Virginia house, the one / still standing over its cotton and corn / and bones.” This poem is a manifesto of sorts, addressing the work teachers do in college classrooms across America to educate “the young, the ill-read” about what privilege is. Plainly stated, “enough / food, enough

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leisure to build love / for books” is only the beginning: . . . I teach from the top of this trembling heap of the dead and the not yet dead: scarred backs, sold children, lost languages and names, those other chains. . . .

Whether or not the history revealed in this poem is true for Carter, readers will appreciate the light she shines on our history of American slavery, which has been largely ignored or mis-recorded. As a biracial African American woman, I appreciated her step forward here and in other poems in Larvae of the Nearest Stars that speak about the impact of slavery on Americans. In the months since NCLR asked me to review Larvae of the Nearest Stars, I find myself rereading the poems, uplifted by Carter’s vulnerability as she invites me to slip into the multitudes in every “starry atom.” Every poem is a metamorphosis waiting to be discovered, as the magic of her vision explodes with newness and potential, just like larvae. At first, I wasn’t sure about the parallel between woman and witch; yet, both are visionaries of nature, and we so need to recognize how the world speaks us in its beauty and destruction. It’s a calling to life, not via motherhood so much as beauty and anguish because there is no life without death. Healing is with this poet, in her willingness to direct our attention to the finite things of the world, so when we hear the lowing, we might know the cry in our own throats. n


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THE BATTLE OF RELATIONSHIPS THROUGH DIFFERENT EYES a review by Jim Clark Dannye Romine Powell. In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver. Press 53, 2020. Sandra Ann Winters. Do Not Touch. Salmon Poetry, 2020.

JIM CLARK is Professor Emeritus of English at Barton College in Wilson, NC, where he was the Elizabeth H. Jordan Professor of Southern Literature and served as Dean of the School of Humanities. Some of his honors include the Randall Jarrell Scholarship, the Harriette Simpson Arnow Short Story Award, and the Merrill Moore Writing Award. He served as the President of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in 2015 and Chair of the North Carolina Writers Conference in 2017. DANNYE ROMINE POWELL is the author of five poetry collections, two of which received the BrockmanCampbell Award for the best book of poetry published by a North Carolinian in the previous year. In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver won the 2020 Roanoke-Chowan Award. Hear her award acceptance here. She has also been awarded fellowships in poetry from the NEA, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Yaddo. A resident of Charlotte, NC, she is the longtime book editor of the Charlotte Observer.

Here we have two new collections of poems by North Carolina poets: Do Not Touch, by Sandra Ann Winters, and In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver, by Dannye Romine Powell. Asked to review these two books, I first pondered whether they were assigned to me randomly, or with some thought to their pairing. I do not know the answer, but at the risk of violating the old proscription against revealing “how the sausage gets made,” I’ll share my notes from my first reading of both books: Mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, who were once daughters and sons of other mothers and fathers, now gone to dust, their deaths remembered, replayed, and commemorated. Children, their pleasures and pains. The pines, the moon, the wind, the flowers, that island . . . Well, enough of that, but one must begin somewhere. A simple survey of content, of subject matter, though, is the easy part. What about style? There’s the rub. The first thing that struck me, stylistically, about these poets is their elegance, and I employ that term in both its aesthetic and scientific dimensions: both poets write with a pleasingly graceful and very satisfying simplicity of style. There are differences, however, to which the fact that Winters’s book was published by Salmon Press, which has been

“Publishing Irish and International Poetry Since 1981,” provides a clue. Winters was until recently a professor of Irish and English literature and at least a couple of her poems contain notes claiming W.B. Yeats as an influence. Like those of Yeats, and perhaps another Irish favorite, Patrick Kavanagh, Winters’s poems are sturdy, earthy, but also lovely and musical. Thinking of that note of earthiness, and their various references to Irish things and places, I was tempted to say that her poems possess a “provincial elegance.” Although “provincial” has become, for some, a pejorative term, this life-long dweller of the rural American South doesn’t see it this way. Was Yeats provincial? I would certainly say he was, and also sophisticated and cosmopolitan. Perhaps you could substitute “vernacular” for “provincial” if my argument fails to convince you. Powell’s poems, by contrast, possess an equally delightful urbanity. Like the great and sadly departed American poet William Matthews, Powell writes simply and elegantly of the pains and pleasures of being human. But beneath that simplicity and elegance lies a vast reservoir of cultural knowledge and experience that infuses every well-chosen word, every beautifully crafted line. And so, back to subject matter. To come to a better appreciation of these

SANDRA ANN WINTERS served as a pProfessor of English and Irish Studies at Guildford College in Greensboro, NC, from 1989 to her retirement in 2011. She lives part of the year in Millstreet, County Cork, Ireland, where she spends time reading, writing, and presenting workshops and readings.

OPPOSITE Sandra Ann Winters reading

for NCLR at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC, 14 Aug. 2010


Writing Toward Healing

A mother’s death. Winters’s poem on this sad subject has the rather surprising title “Atlanta Braves.” The poem comprises four unrhymed quatrains featuring numerous simple, declarative sentences, such as the first line: “The moon was full the night you died.” After that terse beginning, the first two quatrains feature longer, richer, more complex sentences, which serve well to set the scene, describing the moon as “glossed gold, glazing the dark room with light.” The alliteration of “glossed gold, glazing” provides a nice bit of verbal music, as does the internal rhyming of “light” and “bright” in lines three and four. The moon is described as “a Supermoon,” which is when the full moon nearly coincides with perigee, when the moon comes closest to the Earth in its elliptical orbit. The second stanza comprises one long complex sentence in which the speaker, childlike, “climbed in beside you” in the bed, offering the tender ministrations of an embrace and “a wet sponge on your lips . . . / . . . dry and cracked.” The final two quatrains revert to simple declarative sentences again, appropriate for moving the narrative on. Each of these stanzas contains an example of unusual syntax which may or may not bespeak Winters’s Irish influences, but which lend a charming, somewhat rustic musicality to her style: “I slept on the floor beside your bed to catch you / from falling out” in the third

COURTESY OF NCLR

two poets, let’s explore how they deal with a mother’s death, a fraught relationship with a son, and, more quirkily, their relationship to an island.

quatrain, and “You cried a long night, Help me, Help me” in the fourth. These function similarly to the pleasing rural New England locutions found in Robert Frost’s poems. In order to calm her dying mother, the speaker tells us, “I sang your favorite song, ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame,’” thus explaining the poem’s title. The final line is simple and direct: “Then the moon called you away.” The prominence of the moon suggests a possible mythical allusion to the goddess Artemis/Diana, the huntress, always associated with the moon. Women who died a relatively quick and painless death were said to have been shot by one of the goddess’s silver arrows. Powell, too, has written an elegy for her mother. Titled with unflinching economy, “Dead” faintly echoes the beginning of another famous parental elegy, Anne Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know” (“Gone, I say”). Powell’s “Dead” begins emphatically (or is it beseechingly?), “I tell you she was luminous, / my mother, a ballerina.” The pronoun “you” makes one wonder whom the speaker is addressing – the reader, perhaps, or is someone else present in the poem? The stark contrast of “her blue nightgown / on the undertaker’s gray slab / of table” reinforces the disquieting

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thought that the morgue slab is a macabre substitute for the ballerina’s stage. And as we tend to think of dancers as youthful and vibrant, the speaker marvels at the momentary illusion: “The flaked and wrinkled, / gone. The stroke’s wither / and slant, vanished.” Apparently, there is another person present – “A man / brought scissors for me to snip / a lock of her silver hair” – but it is unclear if he is the “you” addressed in the poem’s first line. With beautiful and subtle complexity, the poem begins its turn here. Reaching for her dead mother’s hand, the speaker asks, “Where / from here?” It’s an odd, multivalent question. The line break suggests perhaps a slight pause, like an absent comma, between “Where” and “from here?” If so, then maybe she is asking the man who brought the scissors, “From where should I cut the lock of hair?” The emotional weight of the circumstance lends a confusing existential uncertainty to such a simple act. However, the speaker’s question is immediately followed by “She,” which is emphasized by virtue of its placement as the final word in that line. More likely, then, the speaker is asking the question (“Where do I go from here?”) of her dead mother, who of course does not answer: “She, / who believed she was sky / to my meadow, was silent.” This, then, is the truth the dead know, that they can provide no answer. Apropos of her role in the speaker’s life as “sky / to my meadow,” the mother’s silence is beautifully rendered as “the absence of sun or rain.” A fraught relationship with a son. Powell returns to this subject again and again in her collection – a mother’s attempts to deal


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PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTY HALBERG

a time when she kept his Legos in the blue plastic tub, his toy soldiers in the red one, and no matter his havoc, she could pick up all the pieces and make everything look just so.

with her alcoholic son. At least a dozen poems address this subject, including the title poem, which is also the first poem in the collection. One of the strategies she employs is the creation of a character, or persona, called “Longing,” through which she explores the subject. One of the most powerful of these poems is “Longing Weeps at the BBQ Shack in Cashiers, North Carolina.” The poem begins with an acknowledgment of the power of music to evoke memories – “She blames it on the music” – in this case Kris Kristofferson’s song “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which a performer is singing at the BBQ shack and which “her son played / back in his teens.” “No wonder / her tears,” she thinks, “last night’s news / that he’s hitting the bottle again / still salty and raw.” Like many in such a painful, lengthy, ebbing and flowing situation, she . . . believes she’s grown accustomed to this seesaw of slurred promises and boozy refusals, believes she can go through her days without giving him much thought.

The placement of “believes,” twice, at the ends of lines, emphasizes both the power of such belief as a coping strategy and its ultimate inadequacy when the alcoholic is flesh and blood, one’s own son. “And usually she can,” Longing tells us, since that’s how one makes it through such pain, day by day, and “usually” it works, “until the words / to the old songs drift by / and she remembers.” What does she remember? Oh, only a simple childhood thing, part of a mother’s daily chores:

ABOVE Dannye Romine Powell (right) with Diana Pinckney

and Miriam Herin, at an NCLR reading at Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC, 13 Feb. 2019

But those days are long gone, and the devastation is complete. Winters deals with this subject in a triptych of poems that concludes her collection. The aptly titled “There is an Edge to Our Love” is the second of these. It’s an ordinary, everyday setting – mother and son are in town, walking to the movie theater: “Mom, watch the curb. Walking ahead, / my black purse swinging from his shoulder, / he talks me over the broken pavement.” There seems to be an air of impatience about the son, though, with his querulous, overly cautious attentiveness, but also the fact that he is “Walking ahead” of her, rather than beside her, offering a steady arm to offset the potentially dangerous “broken pavement.” He is carrying her purse, which, while helpful, suggests a sort of oblivious possessiveness and intrusion into her personal space. Like Longing, in Powell’s poem, she, too, remembers something from her son’s childhood, a duty, a care: “I had held his hand across the street once.” Now, though, the son “forges on with cautions tossed,” impatient with his elderly charge, which the mother notes: “I am broken now like the pavement. He is not / trying to piece me together, but to get me there.” Once at the theater, the son continues his necessary duties: “He puts me in a recliner / pushes the buttons, I swing back, / my popcorn flying.” After cleaning up his mother’s “mess” he lets fly with the petty irritation that has been preoccupying him: “I asked you not to tell David about the car, he snaps. / I wish you wouldn’t, and if I want to buy a black BMW I will.” Though her situation is not as emotionally devastating as Longing’s with her alcoholic son, this mother is clearly wounded by her son’s simmering anger toward her, and especially by the fact that he seems to be “caring” for her only out of a sense of filial duty. The poem ends much like it began, though perhaps with a darker tone as “ledge” is


Writing Toward Healing

substituted for “curb”: “Back to the street, he walks ahead, my black purse still swinging. / Watch the ledge, Mom.” That island. Both Winters and Powell possess a keen eye for observing and describing nature. Winters’s volume includes more than one poem about an island, and one of these, an unrhymed sonnet, is called “Sherkin Island,” which lies in Roaringwater Bay (the title of the previous poem in the collection), southwest of County Cork, Ireland. It is accessible via a short ferry ride from Baltimore, a fishing village, and that’s where this largely descriptive poem begins: “We leave the ferryman, walk the path.” There are obviously two people in the poem, but the identity of the second person is not clear. Winters’s book is divided into two sections; this poem is included in the second, which mostly deals with family members, so it is likely that the second person is a family member. The poem provides a rich, detailed description of the small island: “Stone-stacked walls fill the horizon. / Trailing honeysuck-

les rove through hedgerows. / Hart’s Tongue grows. Marsh orchids bow.” The poem is largely descriptive, so the action consists of typical things people might do on an outing: pick flowers, eat wild berries, watch birds, collect shells. The details, however, are rendered in musical, charged language: “Blackbacked gulls, terns, choughs / drift on the wind. Puffins cling to a cliff. / We watch harbor seals roil in the waves.” The alliteration of “Black-backed” and “cling to a cliff” provides a perfect mating of sound and sense, evoking the restless activity of the wind and waves captured in the well-chosen verb “roil.” The poem ends with the speaker collecting oyster shells on the strand, looking “for the silver shine. / Over and over again, we are one,” the speaker concludes, expressing the momentary communal transcendence occasioned by a walk in nature. Powell’s poem about an island bears the evocative title “The Landscape of Before.” The island is not named, though we are told, “Once the island bore a

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name, spoken here / and there, inked on ancient maps.” The poem has six long lines, giving it the appearance of a brief prose poem, and like many prose poems, it has a mystical, evanescent, fairytale quality. Like Winters’s poem, Powell’s is highly descriptive: “Wind sang through pines. Lopsided moon. Water rushing between / her fingers as if it had lost its way.” The island possesses a strong, almost mystical appeal for the speaker: “She loved this island.” The poem is a dreamlike memory, as the title suggests, a long-lost landscape, a never-never land, faintly remembered from a time “before” – what? Adulthood, with all its losses, concessions, and surrenders, perhaps? At any rate, the island, and all it represents, remain a tantalizing, shimmering memory as the speaker concludes: “Sometimes, in her sleep, she tastes / those days, like something purple and wild that clustered near the shore.” It is a pleasure to immerse oneself in these two satisfying, graceful, and elegant collections and the worlds they create. n

James Applewhite Poetry Prize $250 and publicaton in NCLR

SUBMISSION PERIOD: MARCH 15–APRIL 30

2021 Final Judge: Catherine Carter Submission guidelines here No submission fee / Subscription required to submit


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HONORABLE MENTION, 2020 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE

m

r e d u s ea

Fried pies. A Southern staple for dessert or maybe breakfast. Portable and single serve, unless you want to share. I am here to learn to make the pies, to record the recipe. Quantities to measure and actions to take to make a perfect pie. Just come watch. It really isn’t hard. My grandmother has always made them; I’ve had no need to know. I’ve had no desire to learn. I’ve always been certain she’ll be around to make them. The answer I always took comfort in, until I realized it was a lie. Her flour lives in an open bowl in the cabinet to the left of the sink. It is always there waiting for a pinch of salt, a portion of shortening, a pour of buttermilk, her long sharply boned fingers. “How much shortening do you use?” My pencil willing and ready. She shows me the glob of lard. “Buttermilk?” I ask as she pours from the carton. “Until it feels right,” A home that she says while kneading the holds little dough, gently and quickly folding it within itself. My and is always pencil remains quite still. “How do you know the overflowing. right amounts?” Where few “Too sticky? More flour. Too crumbly? More milk.” things are ever Her hands pull flour measured. from the side of the bowl, deciding what to take and what to leave, never using it all. The bowl remains lined with flour while the dough rests rounded in its belly. My grandmother grabs my hand and plunges it into the bowl. The pencil rolls silently off the counter. “Here, feel it, this is just right.” The dough is rolled, the fruit folded within. They will bake in the oven – until they are done.

SUSAN WILSON is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Barely South Review, and multiple anthologies.

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by Susan Wilson

It is a shotgun style house, a clear run, front door to back, an open line of sight, everything there to be seen, nothing there to see. A home that holds little and is always overflowing. Where few things are ever measured. Poured concrete steps lead to an empty, always just swept, front porch. Warmed if needed by wood laid burning in the hearth, built in the early morning by my grandfather. A day’s supply of split wood stacked by the back door. Crocheted rugs cover bare floors. Beneath the giant oak are webbed lawn chairs and galvanized buckets waiting for shelled peas. The pump house roof, outside the reach of oak tree limbs, is draped with old sheets spread wide and covered with slices of apple set to dry before they are turned into fried pies, with pastry that will turn out crusted but tender. Bees swarm over the sheets landing for a taste of fruit, then move on heavier and lazier than when they arrived. They linger undisturbed as we walk past to pull laundry off the clothesline while the pies brown and bubble. My grandmother asks me to dip water from the metal barrel beneath the kitchen window to fill a dish for the feral cats. The barrel, almost as tall as me, is always full. Its depth both finite as I stand beside it and infinite as I look within. My grandmother died on a Friday in May. I don’t remember the date. I don’t remember exactly how old she was. Her hedgerow rose was full of tiny clustered bouquets. My grandfather was putting out food and water for the cats. The day was cool, and I saw the smoke drifting from the chimney. I saw his ax handle rising from an old tree stump, but no wood stacked by the door. A measure I finally saw for what it was.

ABOVE Susan Wilson and her grandmother, Jenny Hill,

Asheboro, NC, 1986


Writing Toward Healing

COURTESY OF THE HILL FAMILY

Janet and I grew up on farms. Cousins. Both ready to leave as soon as we could, both terrified of leaving. Just a bit older than me, Janet was starting a career while I was starting college. Scared of failure and returning home, I was equally scared of success and never going back home. She had an apartment and a car and a full-time job. She took me out to dinner and introduced me to my new home, making sure I knew the best places for breakfast and shopping and pastry. She made sure I had groceries. She made time she didn’t have. When I almost gave up, she took me in and let me sleep on her couch. She fed me dinner, shared her heat, gave without keeping record and taught me fear was just part of being fearless.

COURTESY OF THE PIERCE FAMILY

When the diagnosis came, pancreatic cancer, Janet tried the chemo, but after the second dose, she judged the cure a poor alternative. Her husband had died just three years earlier from It took her only the same diagnosis. Something in the water? An unfortunate cothree weeks to die. incidence? He battled the disease A measure she for two years before it won the could not escape. war. The battle had been hers as well, but her war was ongoing, now five years and counting. An enemy she and her husband had first called cancer, that she had renamed grief. An enemy that shape-shifted and pretended to retreat only to attack from her blindside when she tried to slowly advance. An enemy now come full circle. Little white liars told her she looked good. “Do they think I look good, or good for a dying woman?” she asked. Context. I’m sure they meant well. So Janet passed on the chemo, decided to win by losing, decided not to count her life by rounds of therapy or in white ABOVE TOP The home of Jenny Hill in Asheboro, NC, 2020 ABOVE BOTTOM Susan Wilson’s cousin, Janet Pierce

Wilson, and Janet’s husband, Rick Wilson

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blood cells. No tally marks or checkboxes. Fearless. It took her only three weeks to die. A measure she could not escape. Janet lived fifty-nine years, five months, and twenty-four days. It would not be difficult to calculate the difference between us. An amount I choose to leave undetermined. A minister attempts to define her life within those numbers. We celebrate the plenty while we acknowledge the stark painful confirmation of what was shorted. Too late now to celebrate. Carefully chosen words chalk the passing of years, mark accomplishments, and make us smile. All of us trying to be brave while we grieve the words whose absence disclose what never was. All of it neatly laid out as if it were deliberate and planned. It is too soon to celebrate. We memorialize and we mourn; then we gather for lunch with the family, Janet’s closest friends, people I see daily, and people I’ve never seen. Losses must be fed. My grandmother died years ago, so I have made the pies. The flour roughly scooped with a cup, the salt poured into my palm then thrown into the mix, the shortening sliced from a stick. The buttermilk poured and the dough kneaded until it felt almost right. But I have nowhere to dry apples and no time to wait for them to sweeten with age. Mine are fresh and tossed in sugar. The pies baked until they were done. None of it measured. None of it timed. I watch as a neighbor eyes the pies. Then he turns away. Too full for a whole pie, he says. No problem. I lift one from the plate and roughly tear it in half. “Here. Just have what you want.” It’s time to visit the gravesite. A last goodbye. My grandmother is buried here too, but I couldn’t find the exact spot without going grave to grave. The dates I can’t remember are carved into a stone I’ve never seen. I do not visit her here. Janet’s space has been prepared, the raw ground precisely cut. Carefully and gently filled. A mound of earth for cover that will slowly flatten in time. As it heals. As if it had never been torn open. The wounded earth above her now concealed by flowers too numerous to count, waiting for a single marker in stone that will never truly measure. n STEPHANIE WHITLOCK DICKEN, who designed this essay, has worked with NCLR since 2001, serving as Art Director 2002–2008. Contact her for freelance design work.


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY SHARI CRANE FOX

Hypnopompic hallucination of you and your ex in a horse pasture f ive miles outside of Greensboro You’re with him again, waiting for your scrap of connubial bliss like a dog beneath the table, your mind having plopped you into a pastoral scene this time, tension dimpling like the dry field grasses scratching at your ankles. And because it’s a dream, he’s lost his paunch and his indecision, a typey bull of a man, stacked like a bulldog on a sidewalk. You tell yourself there must have been a time when it all meant something, when the distance didn’t warm you like coffee in your favorite cup. You tell yourself that there are cracked cup people, and there are new cup people, and honestly, this isn’t your first cracked cup. Divorce is such a delicate thing. Still, the gardeners work the yard because someone needs to please the neighbors.

SHARI CRANE FOX comes from Cherokee, Lakota, Blackfoot and Irish roots. She holds advanced degrees from the University of Arizona, UC San Diego, the Mayo Clinic, and Stanford. In 2019, she won the Carl Sennhenn Poetry Prize. She received first prize in the 2019 Oregon Poetry Association contest and was a semifinalist for the 2019 James Applewhite Poetry Prize. In 2018, she received an honorable mention in the OPA contest, and in 2016, two poems were finalists in the Patricia Dobler Contest. In 2016 she was also selected for Apogee Journal’s #NoDAPL issue. She lived in Greensboro, NC, during a research fellowship at Wake Forest University. She now lives in Portland, OR.


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COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Existential View (oil on canvas, 30x24) by Malu Tan

You tell yourself there must have been a time without excuses bleached like grass beneath a bucket, a time without death cozying up behind you with a hard-on. You remember a spotted dog you once rescued, how you took her with you to the pasture as the sun palmed the hills, how gently she touched her nose to the nose of your spotted pony before she laid down and died. That pony stood guard over the corpse all evening, as if death can fill any shape it is offered, as if a marriage, which begins with so little, must finally ask for everything.

MALU TAN was born in Manila, Philippines, and studied at the Art Academy in London. Tan’s abstract expressionist pieces are featured in the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, Katonah Museum at Schoolhouse Theater, Monika Olko Gallery, Charlestown Gallery, Faber Birren, The Philippine Consulate in New York, and the permanent collection of the Yale New Haven Medical Center and Cartus Corporation. She lives in Charlotte, NC. See more of her work on her website.


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LOVE AND MARRIAGE a review by Brandy Reeves Judy Goldman. Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap. Doubleday, 2019.

BRANDY REEVES received her BA in English from Salem College and her MA in English from NC State University. She is currently an Adjunct Instructor of English at Forsyth Technical Community College. JUDY GOLDMAN is the author of two memoirs, two novels, and two collections of poetry. Her writing has appeared in literary magazines like Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Gettysburg Review, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, and Crazyhorse, as well as Real Simple, USA Today, The Washington Post, and Literary Hub. She has received the Irene Blair Honeycutt Lifetime Achievement Award, the Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters, the Fortner Writer and Community Award for “outstanding generosity to other writers and the larger community,” and the Beverly D. Clark Author Award from Queens University.

ABOVE Judy and Henry Goldman in Colorado, 1979 and OPPOSITE at their

fifty-second wedding anniversary, 2019

Judy Goldman’s memoir, appropriately titled Together, is “about why and how two people come together and why and how they stay together” (224). Together centers on the medical mishap that changed Goldman’s marriage when her husband Henry’s battle with paralysis reshaped the traditional gender dynamics of their marriage and, in turn, the author’s image of herself. The memoir is a journey to finding oneself in the midst of change, accepting what cannot be changed, and recognizing a new normal, as well as about healing and forgiveness. Together begins with a typical Goldman morning in 2006 before Henry’s epidural procedure for spinal stenosis. During the epidural, the doctor nicked the wrong vein, causing temporary paralysis in Henry’s entire lower body. The accident is a life-changing event, but the memoir begins with no indication of angst or worry about the pending procedure to prepare the reader for the upcoming upheaval that so much of the memoir will cover as the couple desperately struggles to find and regain the normalcy of that morning. After “The Accident,” Goldman shifts the narrative between their lives after the incident and early memories of her courtship and marriage, from their blind date, the engagement on their third date, their small and intimate wedding, the honeymoon period to follow, to the first five months into their marriage. These memories are sandwiched between desperate moments of

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the present that describe their struggle to resume normalcy. Months following “The Accident,” after battling with hospitals and doctors to heal her husband and to understand how this could have happened, the Goldmans are again enjoying a normal afternoon – Henry using a cane by this point – when it becomes clear that they are far from how things were before. Henry trips on the rug, injuring his legs – and his pride, as their role reversal during his recovery will evidently continue. In the second chapter, Goldman describes how she was called Flimely, Yiddish for “little bird,” as a child. It is a characterization that she internalized to the point that she “like many women of [her] generation, married and made [her]self at home in the role of LookedAfter Wife.” This characterization created the dynamics of Judy as the passive wife and Henry


Writing Toward Healing

as the active husband: “Henry would be the protector. I’d be the protected. . . . If Henry is strong, I must not be” (10). As Goldman continues to examine her marriage throughout the years, she must recognize that the “[i]ssue of identity [is] so key in marriage” that she and her husband must ask, “Who am I when I’m with you?” (267), and rethink why they are together after “The Accident” changes who each is with the other, Judy as the active spouse now and Henry the passive. This introspective look into her identity leads to “scrap[ping] the illusion that marrying that one perfect person will end our suffering, bring endless bliss, fix everything” (262). Goldman relates how her husband was Tired of relying on me. Tired of this role reversal, ready to switch back. I’m ready too. But neither of us can figure out how to reverse a reversal. (259)

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As Judy Goldman takes us through her journey to understand herself and her marriage, it seems as if she wants her audience to understand that the only way a person can understand why we choose to stay in a marriage is if we understand who we are as individuals. In the last chapter, as the Goldmans are settled into a new life adapted to Henry's handicap, the lesson learned from their journey shows that only through acceptance of change can they reclaim a happy (new) normalcy. The book’s message then shifts from marriage to acceptance and forgiveness as Goldman states that “this book is my attempt to try to figure out how to forgive . . . what happened to my husband” (260). Once forgiveness is achieved, her memoir can end as she lies in bed with her husband, realizing that “Happiness is keeping me awake” (269). n

COURTESY OF JUDY GOLDMAN

With their almost desperate desire for the convenience of the previous roles that defined their marriage, Goldman’s memoir shows recognition that the normalcy they found in their gendered roles is gone and they must accept the irreversible change to their marriage. This shift toward acceptance is gradual and with each memory of their lives together matched to each hardship of the present, the focus is geared toward feeling the moment, portraying their shock, and showing their desire to keep their lives “normal” before they realize they must create a new normal.

Through this role reversal, Goldman describes an awareness of double-consciousness. Since “The Accident,” she noticed an emergence of two versions of herself: the internalized “little bird” self, and “the not-so-well-known Judy, whose strong sense of rightness compels her to take control” (13). Often referred to as her “hospital personality” or “hospital Judy,” Goldman describes how through this version she came to recognize her own strength and resilience, an innate quality she did not utilize until she and Henry had to rely on it. By the end of the memoir, Goldman shows how “the Accident” allowed her to see a new side of herself: “I never saw myself as strong. As far as I could tell, neither did anybody else. I colluded with the people who shared that opinion of me. I’m just now fully acknowledging the strength that was mine all along” (267).

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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY RICHARD BETZ

Keeper

Untitled #21 (oil on canvas, 48x48) by Christopher Lambert

I am the keeper of my father’s piano, and the memory Of long golden hours listening to him practice, A Bach minuet, its internal rhymes echoing As it spooled out in measured steps across the room. I am the keeper of my grandmother’s rocker, the one she Rocked him in when he was a baby, and the memory Of her undoing her braid at night, in my sister’s room Where she stayed summers – that long, silken hair, Bound up tight all day, brushed into a silver waterfall. And I keep the book in which I write, the sheaf of music, The pebble I pocketed in Scotland from the North Sea, The piece of green sea glass I found along Beaufort Inlet, Lined up atop my roll-top desk like chess pieces In a game that I have come to consider a draw, Because I hold myself accountable for what I keep, For what I have lost, for how to live each day, How much suffering to endure, what kinds Of miracles I choose to hold in my hand And carry home at the end of the day, Where I sit in the rocker and listen to Bach.

Pennsylvania native CHRISTOPHER LAMBERT lives in Raleigh, NC. He earned a BFA in Metals, Jewelry, and CadCam from Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is artist and founder of CRL Pursuit, based in Virginia and a gallery assistant at Gallery C, where you can see more of his work on his artist page.

RICHARD BETZ grew up in New England but has lived in North Carolina for almost fifty years, first in Asheville, then in Highlands. An outdoorsman and an avid runner, he has run twenty marathons including the Boston Marathon. He has been a finalist for the James Applewhite Poetry Prize six years now, twice receiving Honorable Mention.


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY JANIS HARRINGTON

Bardo

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Keep his things, play his music, leave on lights, my sister’s Buddhist friend advises after the suicide, he’ll linger for forty-nine nights. Daily, they confer, Tsarina and Rasputin. Wary, I eavesdrop, want to warn, charlatan. It can’t be healthy: constant Tchaikovsky, or the staged pretense of her husband’s non-absence – brass lamp’s glow beside his chair, a glass of Chilean red, book open to last page read. Available for his ethereal touch: razor on sink, towel on hook, socks curled in balls – and on their bed, unaided by sleeping pills, alert for a sign or caress, his wife – denied a goodbye, left behind in this life.

Suspended (mixed media on paper, 44x57) by Rebecca Aloisio

JANIS HARRINGTON’s collection of narrative poems, Waiting for the Hurricane, won the 2017 Lena M. Shull Book Award, given by the North Carolina Poetry Society, and was published by St. Andrews University Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies, including Tar River Poetry, Journal of the American Medical Association, Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease (Kent State University Press, 2009), Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Kakalak, Hermit Feathers Review, Flying South, and Orchards Poetry Review.

REBECCA ALOISIO earned her BFA in sculpture from the Cleveland Institute of Art and her MFA from Syracuse University. She has held residencies at both the Penland School of Craft in Bakersville, NC, and the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, NC. Aloisio currently teaches in the College of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She is a recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Grant and has had solo exhibitions at the University of Rochester, the Schweinfurth Art Center, and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. See more of her work on her website.


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TIME TO START OVER a review by Max Kilgore Dale Neal. Appalachian Book of the Dead. Southern Fried Karma LLC, 2019.

MAX KILGORE is working on his master’s degree with a concentration in Creative Writing at East Carolina University, where he also earned his BA in English. As an undergraduate, he served as an NCLR intern, and during his graduate program, he served as an editorial assistant and then as Senior Editorial Assistant. DALE NEAL is a novelist, teacher, and veteran journalist. His previous novels are award-winning Cow Across America (Novello Festival Press, 2009) and The Half-Life of Home (Casperian Books LLC, 2013; reviewed in NCLR Online 2014). He currently teaches fiction and nonfiction at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville Center for Graduate Studies.

Dale Neal’s newest novel, Appalachian Book of the Dead, follows four displaced strangers as they each find themselves starting a new chapter of their lives in the fictional Appalachian town of Yonah, NC. Though a diverse group in age and background, these strangers are drawn together by their common experience of suffering an immense loss. Neal employs the scriptures and structure of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to frame the events of his story. The forty-nine chapters in Neal’s novel parallel the forty-nine days of readings from The Tibetan Book of the Dead necessary “to comfort and guide the living into their next life” (204). Excerpts from the religious text also recur throughout the chapters, usually marking an important step for one of the main characters and foreshadowing the events that will unravel by the chapter’s end. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is first introduced to the reader when Ainsley Morse remembers a time she and her now-deceased boyfriend, Bernie, attended a Buddhist service focused on reincarnation during which the religious leader, Zhan Wu, explained the Buddhist belief: “we cycle endlessly along the Wheel of Birth and Death, confused and deluded unless we can see how to get off the merry-go-round” (41). According to Wu, with each cycle there are six realms one can be born into. Many readers presumably recognize this form of reincarnation when humans are transmigrated into lower or higher status or even animals based on the kind of person they were in their life, but Wu takes his explanation a bit deeper, providing Ainsley

(and readers) with the remaining realms that are often overlooked in popular culture, those of the Gods, Titans, and Demons. The final realm he mentions is that of the preta or “hungry ghosts,” big-bellied specters who are “always hungry, but they can never get enough to eat down their tiny mouths and their long thin throats. More, more, but never enough.” This realm prompts Ainsley’s interest as these eery beings remind her of the "yellow skin[ned]" Bernie who "always needed the next fix" (42). She asks if Wu believes the hungry ghosts are real, to which he responds, One way to look at it, is that we pass through these bardos ourselves every day before we physically die. Who among us hasn’t been blue as a human, or gone all the way into hell, lashing ourselves with our own fears disguised as demons. . . . And don’t you think you meet hungry ghosts every day, those people who are addicted to drugs, to drink, to power? They are never satisfied, they can’t get enough. (42)

This spiritual idea of the preta is a recurring theme in Appalachian Book of the Dead, as mentioned earlier, each of the story’s main characters suffers through their own mysterious losses that seem to keep them stuck in the realm of the past. Neal explores these losses and regrets through perspective shifts that feed the reader bits of these characters’ sordid pasts. These bits are not given all at once but rather sprinkled throughout the book, feeding readers just enough information to leave them wanting more by the end of the chapter, maintaining an air of suspense as the story shifts to its next narrative.


Writing Toward Healing

with addiction, slips down a steep slope of lies and deceit in his relationship with Joy as the isolation of their new life begins to wear on him. Cal’s descent inadvertently proves one of Wu’s teachings correct in that “[t]he last trap of the ego is to think you’re going to get rid of your ego” (197). Joy, Cal’s second wife and no relation to his son, is plagued by the death of her mother and her misgivings about Cal as she watches her husband slip away. Joy had “latched on to Cal’s fiery temper, his spirit” (87); she loved much about him but most of all that he was broken. During their time in Yonah, she learns that “you marry a man and all his memories, all his exes and regrets” (135). But also in Yonah Joy ventures to find a life for herself, taking up pottery as a hobby, appreciating that with each mistake in the clay it is simply “[t]ime to start over. All part of the process” (235). Finally, Ainsley Morse, whose grandmother owns the local campgrounds, abandons her West Coast life of spiritual enlightenment and drugs to live in a yurt on the grounds. Through pulling up stakes and resettling her life in Yonah, Ainsley hopes to heal from the death of her boyfriend by reconnecting with the safety she had felt as a camper as well as by focusing her attention on reviving Camp Bee Tree. Introspective about her wellbeing, Ainsley plays the role of the novel’s Buddha, as she strives to achieve a state of enlightenment. Unlike the others, Ainsley is moored by the Buddhist teachings of Wu and,

ABOVE Dale Neal at his book launch, Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC, 12 Sept. 2019

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COURTESY OF DALE NEAL

The resulting suspenseful nature of this novel is enhanced by the knowledge that, just before these characters move to Yonah, a serial killer disappeared into the mountains after a chase that left one officer dead. The killer himself, though thought to be dead, is believed by some to still be lurking in the area. This legend is perpetuated by the superstitious regional local, Doyle Smathers, who is described by Ainsley as someone who “used to tell the worst ghost stories at our weekly campfire. More sad than scary, really” (31). Tasked to oversee the upkeep of the local Camp Bee Tree after its closure and the tragic death of his wife, Doyle’s efforts seem to have been in vain as, after years closed, the camp has fallen into disrepair, with “something in the land [not liking] people, not even natives” (25). The derelict camp seems to reflect Doyle's own wasted life as, without his wife to push him forward, he became trapped in Yonah, stagnant and deteriorating without love to sustain him. Doyle soon finds new meaning as he befriends two new residents, Cal and Joy McAlister, who both moved from their busy Chicago life to find peace in the North Carolina mountains. The move was suggested by Joy after the couple’s retirement to help Cal find his voice and write a memoir detailing many of his struggles in life, including the death of his son from a drug overdose. Sadly, the couple’s past troubles accompany them to Yonah as Cal, who, like his deceased son, struggles

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despite her grief, allows herself to peer into her past, keeping herself open to whatever she may find. Along her journey, of self discovery, Ainsley is faced with several tough choices. She makes mistakes but faces them head-on and deals with them and with her grief over the past and her relationship with the McAlisters in the present. Ultimately, through acknowledging and making peace with her past, Ainsley is able to resolve her present issues and carve a beautiful future for Camp Bee Tree. While Joy, Cal, and Doyle all work to represent the different realms one may become stuck in during life, it is through Ainsley that we see Neal’s final response to the teachings of the Buddha and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Neal’s novel, true enlightenment is a spirit free from the shackles of the past “dying to run like hell, never at rest in this life, hurrying into the next” (250). n


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FINALIST, 2020 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE BY JANET FORD

Grace There was nothing but sin up and down that street, and in the fall of the year Daddy got his apple money and he and Ransom Meadows would stay over there a week. They’d come back drunk, tuckered as hounds from a hunt. She had pieced a quilt from a length of cotton and some old work shirts, and now a drunkard’s path of yellow roses sprawled across the room. She bent above it stitching into the late afternoon.

COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

The lazy tick of the clock on the mantel; a shift in the stove as the pine logs settled. More than once, Mama packed us up and took us to her folks. We’d stay a night or two, laid like cordwood over pallets on the floor, but where can you go with a string of young’uns? More than once, her mama told her, “Mary Grace, you made your bed; you’ll have to lie in it.”

Passed Down (acrylic paint, puzzle pieces, and glitter on canvas, 72x96) by Juan Logan

So she bundled our things and we walked back home, and for a while, they made wide circles around each other. She kept her head down, her hands in the biscuit bowl. He went out back and started a fire. He’d sit in his shed, rubbing the handles of his pruning shears with beeswax and turpentine. Her thimble chased the flash of the needle, running the patches like a minnow in a stream. She could cook anything he brought her – river turtles, rabbits, squirrels. We had our own wheat, our own corn, eggs and butter. We never missed a meal. The sky had been holding back all day, and with nightfall, a light rain peppered overhead. Daddy called the rain a farmer’s holiday. “It’s doing more than we can,” he always said.

Belmont, NC resident JUAN LOGAN earned his MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He is Conservation Manager for the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Project in Wilson, NC. He has received fellowships, from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Carolina Postdoctoral Scholars, among others. His work can be found in numerous collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. See more of his work in NCLR 2018 and 2019 and on his website.

JANET FORD lives in the Brushy Mountains of western North Carolina. In 2017, she received the Guy Owen Prize from the Southern Poetry Review. Poetry South, Great Smokies Review, and New Southerner are among the publications that have included her work.


Writing Toward Healing

Novelists have always wrestled with story and plot, knowing that something has to happen to keep a reader enthralled with a book. In Aspects of the Novel (1927), E.M. Forster sketched out the rough difference between story as one damn thing happening after another, much like raw life, and the added refinement of plot, where characters take actions based on impulses and feelings. But too often plot is a woodchipper that characters get tossed into, as the poet-turnednovelist Ocean Vuong has observed.* Good novels, whether tightly plotted or loosely lyrical, reflect their settings and society. Now in Appalachian writing, we find more writers wrestling with the region’s ongoing opioid crisis. Addiction raises the narrative stakes, since addicts are doomed to repetitive, even boring, behaviors. They rarely change. A plot built on addiction feels like a merciless woodchipper that characters fall into. Accomplished Appalachian novelists like David Joy of Cullowhee and debut novelist Meagan Lucas of Hendersonville show they can create cinematic page-turners with suspenseful, remorseless plots while still offering their characters a glimpse of possibility or the call for change. They aren’t peddling happy endings, but emotionally true turning points.

TALLYING THE COST OF ADDICTION IN APPALACHIA a review by Dale Neal David Joy. When These Mountains Burn. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020. Meagan Lucas. Songbirds & Stray Dogs. Main Street Rag, 2019.

DALE NEAL is a novelist, teacher, and veteran journalist. His most recent novel is Appalachian Book of the Dead (reviewed in this issue). His previous novels are award-winning Cow Across America (Novello Festival Press, 2009) and The Half-Life of Home (Casperian Books LLC, 2013; reviewed in NCLR Online 2014). He currently teaches fiction and nonfiction at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Asheville Center for Graduate Studies. DAVID JOY was born in Charlotte, NC, and is the author of three other novels published by Putnam: The Line That Held Us (2018; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019), Where All Light Tends to Go (2015; reviewed in NCLR Online 2016), and The Weight of This World (2017), as well as the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey (Bright Mountain Books, 2011), which was a finalist for the Reed Environmental Writing Award. MEAGAN LUCAS has a BA in History from Wilfrid Laurier University, an MEd in Curriculum and Instruction from Ferris State University, and an MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. She teaches English and Creative Writing at AshevilleBuncombe Technical Community College.

In his fourth novel, When These Mountains Burn, David Joy extends his mastery in a style that’s become known as Appalachian Noir, exploring the low lives in the high mountains of

Ocean Vuong, Reading at Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 3 Sept. 2019.

*

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the Southern Appalachians. This is not the sentimental, stereotyped South of front porches and country churches, but a region hit hard by changes in American society, devastated by climate change and the economic impacts of tourism trying to replace lost manufacturing jobs. Out-of-control wildfires that ripped through the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in the fall of 2016 provide the smoldering backdrop for Joy’s novel. But the real holocaust Joy portrays is the horrific consequences of drug addiction on broken families and small towns. Raymond Mathis is a nononsense mountain man and former Forest Service employee, keeping company with his faithful hound dog, Tommy Two-Ton, which is pretty much the only family left to him. A widower, Mathis has poignant memories of his late wife, Doris, buried in a small family plot up the mountain, while his son, Ricky, has been lost to drug addiction. After endlessly bailing his son out of trouble, but only enabling Ricky’s insatiable need for the needle in his arm, Mathis has largely given up. “I’ve thrown you ropes til my arms is give out and I ain’t got no more to give,” Mathis warns his son (56). But Ricky is caught up on the wrong side of a local drug ring, owing its sinister ringleader ten thousand dollars, which Mathis grudgingly coughs up. The face-off comes early, but we know that the mountain man and the drug dealer will tangle again. Meanwhile, drug agents are zeroing in on the operation, which they suspect has the backing of corrupt local law enforcement.


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Joy expands into other characters’ points of view. Denny Rattler, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is breaking into homes on the Qualla Boundary, trying to feed his own heroin habit. Through Denny, Joy gives a sense of the rush and relief that every addict is chasing. We see Denny finally score his fix and shoot up on the mountainside, as close to ecstasy as he can come: “Nightglow narrowed into starlight that shone like broken glass and he lifted his hands as if to dip his fingers into the firmament and wash them in that quicksilver shining. The world settled onto him like fog on a mountain, and, in that moment, was as close a thing to love as he’d felt in forever” (32). Through Denny’s eyes, we see the harrowing necessity of the addict’s life as he rides around on a motor scooter, trying to rob a convenience store armed only with a candy bar. At least, Denny has the remnants of a conscience, a spirit not completely erased by his addiction. He was raised on the reservation with an uncle who had to sell a fake Indian heritage to tourists by “chiefing” – parading around

in the headdresses of Hollywood Indians rather than the authentic Cherokee culture. Denny’s plight underscores how too much of authentic Appalachian life has been traded for a quick buck. In short, fast-paced chapters, Joy keeps his narrative moving to its terrible ends, cranking up a page-turning tension along the way. There’s heart-stopping action when an addict comes back to shuddering life, nodding off with a needle in his neck. Joy stays true to Western North Carolina in his details of the landscape and the customs of our contemporary country. No log cabins or white chapels in the laurel, but delapidated trailers and dollar stores out on trash-strewn highways. Joy has a sharp eye for the class and economic differences that define our contemporary society, where mountain counties have long been left behind more prosperous urban centers. Women can get short shrift in Joy’s criminal world of weak but toxic masculinity. We first encounter a female, a nameless drug addict who is unmercifully and graphically beaten in a trailer. Mathis's late wife Doris is a mere memory. And there is

Leah, a green-eyed blonde who works in the sheriff’s department and serves as a surrogate daughter for the lonely Mathis. A good novelist is also a good reporter, and Joy offers up the kind of firsthand details that make for a believable and authentic story versus the Hollywood crime versions that can limit too many books. We learn for example a hunter’s trick of affixing reflective strips on trees that can offer an easy exit up or down a mountainside, which will come in handy when Mathis decides it’s time for rough mountain justice against the drug dealers who have stolen his boy from him. Joy is after more than a quick crime caper. What fuels his novel is a burning righteous anger at the waste of the drug epidemic that has ravaged the small towns and mountain communities of the Appalachians, which has a long, sad history of poverty and national misunderstanding. Looking back, Mathis figures the problem started with the advent of television. Mountain folks understood they talked differently than other Americans. From the loss of local speech to the loss of familiar landscape as mountainsides are clear-cut to the loss of good manufacturing jobs as factories were closed and shipped offshore, the residents of Appalachia lost their sense of identity and worth. The promise of a quick drug fix seems to offer the only escape from a poverty of imagination. There’s no happy ending to such a tale, but Joy does offer a lyrical uplift to a broken family regathered if only in remembrance: “When the days grow shallow there are only the memories, the stories that remain


Writing Toward Healing

scattered like seed, the tales that bind us in this world” (255).

OPPOSITE LEFT David Joy at home in

ABOVE Meagan Lucas reading from her

Jackson County, NC, 10 Aug. 2020

novel at Flat Rock, NC, 28 Aug. 2019

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Lucas is particularly good at sketching out the authentic details of Appalachian lowlife, that ever-present scourge once known as white trash. Roy Gamble makes a creepy villain, menacing to Chuck even though he’s half Chuck’s size. Lucas isn’t afraid to show the world toxic testosterone at its worst. Evil masquerades its banality in Roy’s boss, the nondescript drug kingpin Jackson: if a person didn’t know who they were dealing with, Jackson would fool them. He looked chubby and soft in his corduroy jacket and unbuttoned thermal undershirt but the broad shoulders hinted at the sneaky strength underneath. Too much beard and too little hair covering his shiny dome, he was a holdover from a decade past, like almost everything else in Southern Appalachia.(71)

COURTESY OF MEAGAN LUCAS

In her debut novel, Songbirds & Stray Dogs, Meagan Lucas demonstrates a talent for page-turning plot worthy of more experienced writers. The title at first glance might sound sentimental, until you note the Pat Conroy epitaph: “Eternal life seemed sweet to folk who had eaten songbirds & stray dogs for dinner and who tried to coax measly crops from fields more granite than loam.” Like Joy, Lucas has a clear-eyed vision for the costs of drug addiction, small town corruption, societal hypocrisy and male violence, while underscoring how women in particular can bear the brunt of those injustices. Her protagonist, Jolene, has been handed a raw deal from the get-go, abandoned by her addict mother, Leah, on the doorstep of a rigid aunt, Rachel, who never lets the girl forget her background. Rachel’s Christian charity comes with a frown, and Jolene lives in years of fear of her aunt’s perpetual frown of disapproval. Plain, plump, with crooked teeth, Jolene, with her sweet, if naïve, personality, draws the unwanted attention of some nogood men, including the loser shrimp fisherman who runs off to sea rather than take fatherhood responsibly. Fired from her restaurant job, kicked out of the house by her aunt, who is mortified by the pregnancy, Jolene hitches a ride with a supposed Good Samaritan from Beaufort, SC, to the hills of Hendersonville, NC. But her would-be rescuer turns out to be an ongoing stalker. In the course of this novel, Lucas isn’t afraid to put her characters, if

not into the woodchipper, certainly through a cruel wringer. Jolene will face and survive an attempted rape, physical assault with a hair-dryer in a bathtub, choking, attempted drowning, even a house fire. But Lucas steers clear of melodrama by grounding her characters in physical detail, particularly Jolene’s pregnancy with its morning sickness, strange pains and dreams and the added bulk: “It had been creepy at first, feeling something moving inside her, something she didn’t control. But then the movement found a pattern and it was easy to imagine it was a person. A tiny person getting excited when Jolene ate something sweet or doing a dance for her attention when she lay down at night” (152). Lucas expands her cast of characters to include Chuck Hannon, a recovering addict who runs a landscaping business in Hendersonville. He’s caring for his nephew, Cash, who’s been abandoned by his mother. When Jolene shows up in town lost and alone, Chuck comes to her rescue, the one good man in a world of predators.

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Chuck will find himself beaten and thrashed, with everyone he holds dear under threat from these drug dealers. Two lost souls trying to find their way in a fallen world, Jolene and Chuck find themselves drawn inextricably together, but Lucas keeps their growing relationship believable and authentic. Abandoned by relatives, cheated by society, victims of their own bad decisions, these characters not only endure their circumstances but begin to prevail, forming a new family. Lucas taps into the novel’s deep history of a naïve and innocent protagonist tested by society and circumstance. Jolene escapes the woodchipper of plot to make her own life and way in the world. Songbirds & Stray Dogs is a satisfying read, and Lucas proves herself a writer to watch in this everchanging Appalachia. n


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Honorable Mention 2020

DorisBetts Fiction Prize

WHEREVER

YOU GO by Nancy H. Williard

with art by Robert Boyd

Born in North Carolina, NANCY H. WILLIARD returned in 2014 after twenty years in California’s eastern Sierra mountains. She earned an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is working on a Young Adult novel about foster children. An editor, educator, researcher, and writer, her writing can be found in Southern Women’s Review, Long Story Short, Delta Women Ezine, and Southern Review of Books.

The 2020 Doris Betts Fiction Prize competition final judge Josephine Humphreys called “Wherever You Go” “a powerful story about the need to escape – from grief, from memory, from love – and the gradual realization that escape may be impossible. Moving to a new place will not be the solution. The narrator is ultimately able to extract only minimal compensation, and yet at the same time it is compensation enough, no matter where his place on earth ends up being. A clear streak of honesty runs through this story.”


Writing Toward Healing

If we were smart, we would have been in

bed asleep since it was almost tomorrow. The three of us just sat by the firepit shivering, passing a pint of whiskey. Andy’s voice rose above the sound of the waves lapping up against the boats and the boats knocking up against the dock of the marina. I had to be here at 5:30 in the fucking morning to haul the boats out for the morning load of fishermen who were still asleep for sure. But the stars were out and there was still wood to burn and whiskey to drink. Jeff could sleep in. Sunday was his day off. This was the last of the weekend money for me. Fishing season closes at Halloween, but the Boss would lay us off soon. Andy was all wound up, talking fast like he did, telling me and Jeff everything we already knew about fish, boats, the lake. How to handle the tourists to get the best tips. He passed this huge doobie to me which I waved off. The skunky smoke still floated my way. I had had just about enough of Andy’s bullshit. I grew up here. I got quarters for carrying tourists’ bags into the hotel when I was ten. Plus, I knew where the fish were. He didn’t. But Boss hired Andy as a favor to someone, to be the assistant manager. He got the best money and free rent at the cozy trailer out back. Slick. Maybe Boss took him in like a rescue dog. Andy was always flipping between his motormouth “got it all under control” and a kind of heavy metal despair. I could handle him up, but down? No. Plus he was a grown up, I mean he was young but like thirty or something. You could tell by the beer belly and the balding under his Fenwick ballcap. Maybe he was sent here for the geographical cure, you know, maybe if you move, everything will be alright. It’s not you, it’s them. My mother was at home worrying about me. I could just feel her knitting away with the TV on for noise, worrying about nothing. After awhile, I knew I would get cold and not want to walk all the way down to my house. If I texted her, she would be awake. She would put her Carhartt coat on over her pajamas, stick her feet in her old Sorels and come and get me. She would be too tired to argue or complain. I would be too fucked up to talk. We would ride in silent darkness watching for deer to jump into the car’s headlights. But that night, she came early, just showed up and sat down. She had been at Donna’s and she was still awake, no pajamas. That was the night Andy pulled out the 40-caliber pistol in front of her as we sat around in a circle at the firepit.

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The gun was slick. It was a Springfield XD 40. The barrel was soft purple-black and the golden lights flickering from the fire disappeared in the darkness of the barrel. Andy pulled out the clip and pulled open the slide to make sure there was nothing in the chamber as we all watched. Mom straightened up and pulled her coat around her. Each of us guys held it, balancing the weight and sighting down the barrel. My hand closed on it like it was mine. Even without the magazine, the muzzle tipped down and I had to think to hold the weight of the thing tipped up. When I sighted down the barrel, I pointed at a star over the lake. The clip was heavy too. The bullets were huge shiny copper cylinders in the clip. The .40 almost looked like a cartoon, a drawing of a gun, not a real thing. I wished I owned that instead of the .22 my dad left me. “Yeah, my uncle gave me this because I need to protect the property.” Andy winked at my Mom, “Bears.” The rest of us knew that you didn’t need to shoot the damn bears, but Andy was no local. My Mom is pretty good at handling a gun, but Andy didn’t know that. Her eyes got wide at his bragging, but she didn’t say much about the gun as we all sat by the firepit. She just walked away after

We would ride in silent darkness watching for deer to jump into the car’s headlights.

ROBERT BOYD is a mixed-media artist, shop owner, and painter, who is based in Charlotte, NC. He is represented by Sozo Gallery in Charlotte. See more of his work on the gallery's website.


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a little bit, so we could smoke one more joint and I could say my goodbyes. She was in the car listening to the radio when I got in. “Are you sure he’s going to be alright?” Mom asked. That night was just another night I thought she worried for nothing, and I blew her off. “What do you mean? Andy’s cool.” I said this, although I had been thinking the same thing. He was unknown, a new friend. It was not like we grew up together. “Well, he seems pretty drunk to be playing with a gun.” “No, Mom. Just mind your own business. He’s cool.” I had been talking to her like that since Dad died, kind of snotty, but she pissed me off. She was always on me about something. We rode home with just the radio on. I was happy to see Mom out. She spent too much time at home in the little cabin lately. Just work and home. We had been through a whole two winters since Dad died and it was about time she got out. Before, Mom was busy, always volunteering in our little town, talking to everyone and worrying about the old folks. Everyone she served breakfast to on her shift at the Hot Pot thought she was their best friend. Mom knew everyone’s children and where they lived and how many grandchildren they had. My Mom remembered that, along with exactly which jelly they wanted with their toast. That’s why she was such a good waitress. Dad had worked for the road maintenance crew. Back then I was just a happy little kid. I remember the day they came to the door and told us. Mom fell on her knees, just crumpled up. The road crew driver came up to the door with the highway patrol officer. The officer said all the stuff, what happened. Dad had been working late to get overtime, and it was dark. A car blasted through the slow zone and either swerved or Dad stepped out. “He died on impact,” the officer had said. The lawyer said maybe one day I would get some money to go to college, but the courts were slow and the insurance companies slower. The road crew helped us out for a while, but we got by, Mom and me. The morning after the firepit night, when Mom dropped me off at the marina, the store door was still locked. “Hey man, seen Andy? He has the store keys, and I can’t bust the boats out because the keys are in there.” George came up to me hollering. He liked his routine, old George; he was about a hundred

and had been at the marina through four bosses. The boss was never around but I knew he was up at the Hot Pot having breakfast. I called Mom on my cell phone and told her we needed the keys. Boss blasted up about five minutes later in his shiny new Jeep. “What the hell? Can’t you guys figure this out? That’s why I pay Andy to sleep on the property. You go get the keys,” he hollered. George shrugged like it wasn’t up to him. “Boss, he’s asleep and he was up late, and you know he can be – ” I tried to explain but I could see the tourists beginning to pull into the parking lot and unload their fishing tackle from their SUVs. I gave up and walked toward the back of the marina. “Go over there and wake his ass up!” Boss roared after me and turned to smile and greet the fishermen. The trailer was a little twenty-some-odd-footer stuck behind the garage where George fixed the motors and patched the boats. The grass was high around it except at the entrance. Beside the stairs, there was a lawn chair with a silver ashtray stand, a dirty cooler, and a pile of whiskey bottles. All the faded orange curtains were closed tight. I climbed the stairs and pounded on the door. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

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Reeling (mixed media on panel, 40x40) by Robert Boyd


Writing Toward Healing

“Andy, Andy, we need the keys.” No answer. “Andy, I’m catching hell out here from Boss. Throw me the keys, man.” No answer. I pulled on the handle and it turned. I opened it a crack and hollered again. “ANDY!” Dumb ass was probably passed out still. I stepped in and had to blink before I could make anything out. The first thing to hit me was the smell and the heat. The space heater was humming. Garbage and a bitter metal smell. The hair rose on the back of my neck and my knees began to tremble. In the orange light, I could just see a lump in the bed and what looked like paint splattered all over headboard. I don’t know why but I stepped in. Andy’s foot was sticking out of the covers. I touched it and shook it a little. No response. The foot was ice cold. “No, no, no!” I said as I backed up and stumbled down the stairs. Outside, I threw up in the weeds. I heard George walking around the garage. “Hey!” I held my hand up to stop him. “Go back. I got this.” He turned, grumbling, and marched back around the corner of the garage. No way did I want to have to deal with George. After a minute, I opened the door again and found Andy’s pants on the chair. I slipped the keys out of the pocket. Outside with the door closed, I threw up again. I hoped that was over. I wiped my mouth and my eyes and, taking a big breath, I went back to the store. Boss was still talking to impress the fishermen, pointing out the good spots for fish. I opened the store and waited until all the fishermen went in. While they were fingering the lures and lining up for the bathroom, old George made coffee. I pulled Boss aside. I have to say, Boss did well. His smile did not change when I told him. He kept waving at the fishermen and nodding like everything was just fine. Only his eyes changed. “Andy’s dead.” I held his arm, slipped him the keys, and whispered. “I think it was the gun.” “Call the sheriff,” Boss whispered pulling me so close I smelled his coffee breath. “Wait at the trailer and don’t let anybody in.” So, I did all that. I spent the whole day standing in the sun feeling nauseated, dealing with the sheriff

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My mind let loose and I stared at the flickering sunlight on the lake

and the county medical examiner. I had to repeat the story and write a statement and fend off tourists and children all day. When I finally got back to the pier, I saw that Boss had called in Ben who was part-time when we were busy. Ben was making a mess of putting the boats and tackle up, so I stepped in. “See, turn the ropes like this so you can flip them off when boats go out in the morning.” The rope was cool, wet, and solid in my hand. The rhythm of pull the line, secure the rope, turn the wench, spray the boat clean settled me. My mind let loose and I stared at the flickering sunlight on the lake as I moved back and forth. Bending over hurt my back after a while and I straightened up and took a deep breath. A few old fishermen were still cleaning fish. Even fish guts smelled good at this point. The water sparkled, and the breeze made me feel clean. “Oh boy, some guy caught a five pounder!” Ben said. “Hey, where’s Andy? I want to show him this lure.” “Never mind,” I said. “I’ll tell you later.” Of course, everyone in town knew in ten minutes. When my shift was over, Mom came to get me and didn’t wait for my call. When we got home, I went to my room without a word. She made my favorite dinner that night – spaghetti. I couldn’t eat a forkful.


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I just went back to bed. I wondered what could have changed if anyone had listened, to Mom or to Andy, but nobody heard anybody. I certainly didn’t. The next day, Boss handed me a bunch of garbage bags, a new plastic garbage can, and a shovel. “Get Ben to help you clean out the trailer.” “No,” I said. “He was my friend. I’ll do it.” Boss would make me anyway. Time to man up. In my town any funeral was a big deal. Everybody knew everybody so if someone died, we all missed them even if we hated them or didn’t really know them. Plus, it was a chance to get dressed up and eat cake and get free drinks. Andy’s mother came up from the city and we all wanted a look at her. She wore town clothes, a pink and black dress with a black sweater and high thin heels that kept slipping into the grass. The funeral was in the park and the local preacher set up the microphone on the little stage they used for the Fourth of July. The mic squealed as he started. “Friends, we are gathered together to celebrate the life of Andrew Moreland. Although Andrew was a new friend in this town, he was welcome among us. He enjoyed the wonder of God’s world here. We offer our sympathies with his mother, Mrs. Moreland.” Here Pastor Bill nodded at the mother, who sniffed into a Kleenex. He went on to say some stuff about God calling people home before their time. What he said about Andy made it obvious he didn’t know him, but I’m sure it made his mother feel better. Andy’s mother came up to the mic. Her voice trembled, and she clutched her sweater against the breeze off the lake. “I know Andy was only here a short time, but he told me how much he liked all of you. You were such good friends to him. He was such a good boy.” Then she cried, with a handkerchief, not like boohoo. The whole town went to the Hot Pot and had cake and drinks. Mom told me later the mother’s name was not Moreland but Kerry. Mom said she was leaning on all the guys by the time the thing was over. Andy’s mother didn’t even spend the night but left after the cake. That next summer, I worked at the Hot Pot washing dishes. When I finally went to college, I found that the people there were pretty much like the people in my little town, just more of them. I stayed away from the ones like Andy and the boss. At break, I stayed on campus. Everything about home seemed to

I wondered what could have changed if anyone had listened.

irritate me. School went well, but when Mom called, I was short tempered. I didn’t want to think about the town back there. At the end of the semester, my psychology class had a speaker who talked about PTSD therapy. Although the sergeant was talking about military men, I thought about Andy. But I didn’t say a word. I figured it was better to not bring it up. What would I say? Boss was just an asshole and it was too long ago to bother with it. So, life was not fair; so what. The whole thing just pissed me off. Mary seems such a simple name to carry so much feeling for me, but I knew I would take her home as soon as I said her name out loud and she turned and looked at me. I drove her home freshman year at Christmas. Mom liked her, so that was all good, but then I thought I should show her off. Mom gave me a look when I said we were going out to have a drink. The trip to the bar was fine, but then Jeff and Carol Beth wanted us to come over. We went to their cabin to be polite. I could see by the way Mary’s face went blank when Jeff pulled out the pot and handed the whiskey round that it was not good. I wanted to leave but we had just gotten there.


Writing Toward Healing

“So, what are you studying?” Jeff asked me. “I’ll probably major in psychology, but I’m not sure yet. I’m taking a criminal justice class now.” “Be able to tell us all what we’re thinking before we say it?” Jeff joked and squinted his eye as the smoke rose into it from the joint. I waved it past. Mary just ignored it. Jeff shrugged and took another toke. Carol Beth handed us two glasses with ice and opened the whiskey and poured hers straight into a Solo cup. I took a little whiskey and so did Mary. “I’m going to get my CPR certification at the firehouse this next winter. I want to be an EMT. They make good money,” Carol Beth said and smiled at Mary. Mary’s smile seemed a little frozen; her major was British literature. I hadn’t seen her shy before and I felt bad. We shouldn’t have come. “Hey, my Mom’s waiting up for us. She’s wanting to quiz Mary here, don’t you know.” I sat up smiling and grabbed Mary’s hand. “Sorry, but I just thought of it. Maybe we’ll see you tomorrow.” Mary and I stood up together. “But you just got here,” Jeff protested but he didn’t get up. “I’ll catch you later.” I said and backed Mary toward the door. We pulled our coats off the coat COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Out of Reach (mixed media on panel, 40x40) by Robert Boyd

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rack and something heavy fell hard on the floor. Jeff hopped up quick and lifted a gun. He tucked it back into a holster on the coat rack and pulled his coat back under it. All I could tell was that it was a little gun, a pistol. “Just a little protection,” Jeff bobbed his head, “you know, bears.” He smirked at Mary who looked confused at his joke. On the couch Carol Beth took a hit and blew out a cloud of smoke. “You all come back and hang out.” Carol Beth was being friendly but not willing to go out of her way. Smoke was filling up the tight cabin. Mary had her arms in her coat and her hand on the door. “Yeah, sure.” I opened the door. We went out quickly and shut the door. Outside, pulling our coats together against the cool air, we looked at each other and laughed. Without talking, Mary and I both knew we would not go back. That’s how it was getting to be between us. I liked that. “The coat rack was not where I’d keep a gun,” Mary said. “Yep, me neither.” After a bit of thought I asked her, “You shoot?’ Her face turned up at me and her eyes were puzzled. “I guess I’m just a townie. Does it matter?” “We could go shoot tomorrow, if you want.” I thought of Dad’s .22. I’d need to clean it, and it would be fun to hit some cans. It was a lovely rifle, a Ruger 10/22 Carbine Standard with a walnut stock that still smelled of the lemon oil my dad used to polish the stock. I remember when that rifle felt big to me. Mary could handle it. “I thought you were going to take me fishing.” Mary took my hand and we walked toward the car. “But it doesn’t matter. Whatever you want.” She wasn’t pushing me either way. I thought about the boys at the dock. Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea either. Holding her arm close in mine, we walked to the car. She smelled of lavender. We didn’t go home, however. We parked at Doe Ridge until the moon got over the hill. That summer while I was back home from college, Mom and I were watching Unsolved True Crime. Well, I was watching, and she was reading. The show showed a scene of a gunshot to the head. Not thinking at all I said, “It doesn’t look like that.” Mom took off the little readers she uses now and said, very quietly, “What?” “It doesn’t look like that when someone blows their head off. These guys on this show need to get


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Disappearing and Forgetting (mixed media on panel, 40x40) by Robert Boyd

their facts straight. You know all these shows need to do some research. Just from what I personally know they are all – ” “Son, son, look at me. What are you talking about?” Something came over me and I launched myself off the couch. “Fuck the marina, fuck this town, fuck everyone! Fuck you! Just leave me alone goddamn it!” I screamed at her, standing over her. My mother set her book in the easy chair near the wood stove and stood up to face me. I screamed louder than I ever had, so hard my throat felt torn. “I hate you. You don’t know anything. I hate this place! Why did you ever bring me here?” At that she broke. Her face crumpled and she cried. “To be safe,” she blurted and sat down. Looking down at her head, I realized what I had just said, how I was talking, and to whom. My Mom’s hair was more silver than blonde in the firelight. My mouth was dry. I hugged her and she was trembling. Inside it felt like a hot water bottle had broken inside me.

“Well, you know,” I stammered, “Andy.” That’s all I could say. I sat back on the couch and looked at the TV. Mom came and sat next to me and touched my shoulder. “I never realized you saw him.” She said softly. I couldn’t sit there. I jerked away and headed for the kitchen. “Boss made me clean up.” “What?” Mom’s face flushed red up to her scalp. She stood up with her hands on her hips and her chin out. I couldn’t take back what I had said. I had never ever told anyone, even Mary. How do you talk about a thing like that? “WHAT?” She repeated louder than I had ever heard her shout. She began to stomp back and forth in the kitchen. “He made me clean the fucking trailer!” I couldn’t look at her. Holding the refrigerator open, I looked inside, but I wasn’t seeing anything. My heart beat like crazy. Mom walked over and put her hand on my arm. Gently she closed the refrigerator door. I stood looking at the closed door. “Tell me.” She spoke so quietly it was like she spoke inside my head. When we stopped talking the stars were out and we had talked about Andy, and Dad, and all kinds of things. Life is complicated. The next day, my Mom gave the boss hell in front of everyone in the cafe, but that night in the kitchen, we ate spaghetti and I cleaned my plate. In March of senior year, Mary was accepted to a big ivy league grad school. Mary talked about our future, but I knew. Mom asked if I felt like my heart was broken when I told her about Mary. “Well, sort of,” I had answered. “But you know, life goes on.” Mom laughed and then told me she was making a change too. She asked for my help. The November wind buffeted the car as I drove through the long valley. I had not come this way since school; the sights were alien somehow, dramatic. The moon and the stars backlit the dark hills in front of me as I drove to our town in my old Chevy. The struts squeaked at the turns. The radio was out of range, and I didn’t want to listen to any human voice. Human voices and intellect and all the grand words and thoughts of college just tired me out. College was over and so was Mom’s time in the small town, and mine. This trip was just to close up the


Writing Toward Healing

house. My mother was living with her younger sister in the city, enjoying the library and museums. Free of this beautiful, terrible place. Neither of us would return after the house sold. I would miss the wide sky, the lake, and the empty land. But not much else. The blue dial on the dashboard read 2:00 a.m. The hills began to close in tighter, and the road turned one way and another. I pulled over to stretch my legs and pee. There were no other lights for miles, no cars at all. As I stepped out the cold wind hit me, and I headed for a small grove of pines. I looked up and followed the lip of the Big Dipper to find the North Star. As I zipped up and turned toward the car, a shadow, or maybe two caught the corner of my eye. Coyotes. I walked more quickly but did not run to the car. There are coyotes in the city, but I had not seen one in a long time. Once, when I was little, Mom and I were travelling home in a sudden snowstorm at night back from shopping in the big town. We were cheerful, singing after a dinner out. Mom stopped and got out to brush off snow piled on the windshield. She tells me that I called out to her, “Look! Doggies!” She said that she never had her heart jump so. She hopped back in the car and we watched a pack of coyotes fade back into the darkness of the forest. Sitting back in the car with the heater on watching the black pines sway darker than the sky, I thought of the risks in the city and in this beautiful country. I was wary of coyotes here, and wary in the city of other people. So many in the city thought the country life must be pure and peaceful. The people in the small town thought the city was filled with riches and excitement. The city social services used to send the worst problems up on the bus to the small town escaping those big city dangers – drugs, homelessness, poverty, mental illness. I guess they thought the homeless could have an easier life camping in our mountains rather than under the freeway bridge, that geographical cure. No place was special to me, no place was the cure No place in the world. The next morning I awoke on the one piece of furniture left, the old dog haired sofa. Snow had fall-

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en; crystals shone, reflecting all the colors possible in this life. Mom had cleaned out most everything but my closet. The next morning, I began taking things out. My old Legos, snowshoes, my fishing gear, and Sorels. In the back corner stood the old .22. I took it out of the case to look at it. The wooden stock still smelled of lemon oil. I held it to my shoulder to eye the barrel like Dad had shown me. At the back of the top shelf in the closet was a shoebox. When I opened it, I smelled lavender and saw Mary’s letters. I didn’t remember putting them up there so Mom must have. Underneath the shoebox was the ballcap from the marina, the liner brown with sweat salt. I put it all in my truck to carry with me, wherever it was I was going. After I put the key in the realtor’s lock box, my car just turned off the main road to the marina. Part habit and part intent. The marina was empty, a still life of cold wilderness morning fractured only by the gulls calling. If I threw the .22 into the lake, the splash would echo down the canyon and disturb the silence. Disturb the fish. Looking down the pier at the perfection of the lake, I could feel where the fish were. Whatever came next, I knew where the fish were in this particular lake. n

Snow had fallen; crystals shone, reflecting all the colors possible in this life.


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THE BATTLE INSIDE a review by Meagan Lucas Katey Schultz. Still Come Home: A Novel. Apprentice House Press, 2019.

MEAGAN LUCAS is the author of the award-winning novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs (Main Street Rag, 2019; reviewed in this issue). She has a BA in History from Wilfrid Laurier University, an MEd in Curriculum and Instruction from Ferris State University, and an MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and lives in Hendersonville with her family. Still Come Home, KATEY SCHULTZ’s first novel, received the 2020 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction. Hear her award acceptance remarks here. Schultz’s story “Something Coming” was selected by Ben Founain for the 2019 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network. It was published in NCLR 2020. The author earned her MFA in Writing from Pacific University and founded Maximum Impact, a mentorship service that provides transformative online curricula for serious writers. She has been awarded writing fellowships in eight different states. She lives in Celo, NC.

Katey Schultz’s novel Still Come Home takes place in war-torn Afghanistan. If you’ve read Schultz’s first book, Flashes of War (2013; reviewed in NCLR Online 2014), you might expect that Still Come Home, with its Middle East location and soldier characters, would be focused on the war, and it is, in the way that the setting of this story is integral to the plot and character motivation. But if you’re expecting details of maneuvers, or minutiae about battles or weapons, you’d be wrong. To label this book as a “war novel” ignores its depth and resonance. It is about battles, but not those won or lost on the ground, rather those waged inside our hearts and minds. Still Come Home is a story of desire and shame, loneliness, redemption, and atonement, and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks after. In Still Come Home, three people navigate three lifechanging days. The story is told in chapters of alternating perspectives, and the three-day countdown structure creates effective tension. The first character we meet is seventeenyear-old Afghani, Aaseya, who “wants her freedom . . . to do everything she shouldn’t” (3). She is educated and ambitious, but naïve. Aaseya’s family, accused of being American sympathizers, were murdered by the Taliban three years before. Aaseya, the sole survivor, was forced at fourteen to marry a friend of the family, Rahim, in order to survive, but effectively she’s been left with nothing: “the Taliban reduced her fate to one moment of dust and vibration that stole everything from her but her own heartbeat” (18). Aaseya rebels against the

restrictions and misogyny of her small town and her culture, but what is most compelling is her upbeat attitude in the face of devastating loneliness. The loss of her family and her marriage to a man who is a partner in name only has left her isolated and searching. She befriends a mute orphan who provides her with not only companionship, but a buffer from her shame of being childless. The theme of shame, introduced early when Aaseya’s sister-in-law tells her, “The only thing worse than death is shame” (10), is a current that runs deep, through all of the characters’ motivations. National Guard Second Lieutenant Nathan Miller is on his fourth tour. His wife and daughter are back home in North Carolina, and Miller considers this tour as his “final chance to find his cool again, forget that he ever drafted a suicide note, and land softly back home, back into marriage, composed and capable as ever” (25). Miller, a natural and empathetic leader, is struggling with guilt over the death of one of his soldiers and the miscarriage of a child as he leads his platoon into a dangerous final mission. Miller is a well-developed, nuanced character. Schultz shows him at home in North Carolina, uncomfortable in civilian life, in contrast with his prowess on base and during dangerous military missions. Where Aaseya is naïve, Nathan is worldly. He has seen too much to be innocent and verges on being jaded. While Aaseya searches for independence, for freedom, Nathan is looking for forgiveness and something to cling to. Forty-year-old Rahim, Aaseya’s husband and the third


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main character, is less developed and functions more as a representative of the Afghani people and metaphor for the land as a whole: “his body was like his country; it would survive, and it would always be used” (61). He has a terrible past where he’s been a victim of the regime, and like Aaseya he has been paired with a partner who doesn’t love him. Rahim’s pain, shame, and isolation mirror Aaseya’s and witnessing them navigate this gulf is satisfying. Through Rahim the reader is able to understand the great pain of living in a country so torn and used by war and how that affects the culture and decisions of the people: “His country is an open wound, a mess of parasites, everyone coming to dig in and take their fill” (174). The following passage from a section discussing the American soldiers fighting just as aptly describes Rahim’s

participation in the war: “And with that, the war is theirs. They will fight for these reasons. Not for freedom. Not for politics. Not for God or country or trucking companies. But for individual things. The needles of hurt across the spectrum of life” (102). All of the participants in this story fight to prove something to themselves. War becomes an individual battle with oneself to demonstrate worthiness, to overcome shame, and to be able to let go of the burden of the past. Richard Price advises writers, “the bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” In Still Come Home, Schultz demonstrates perfectly the value of this oft-

ABOVE Katey Schultz at Shut in With Stories, a virtual reading of Doris Betts Fiction Prize

winners, co-hosted by NCLR with the North Carolina Writers’ Network, 17 Sept. 2020.

quoted advice with her “small” story of three days in the life of three regular people, where choice details allow the reader to feel the heat on their skin and smell the dust, and know the dry ache that would cause an apricot to taste like “candied moisture, a wet slice of sunlight in the mouth” (3). We are able to know these characters through their small moments, through their burdens, shame, guilt, and isolation. But we also learn much about the individual devastation of the bigger picture of war, that “war only works in service of itself” (221), as we watch this huge machine roll over soldiers and civilians alike. The reader is taken not only to war-torn Afghanistan, but into themselves, to the battle where their own shame, loneliness, and desire reside, and they are asked to question their understanding of “other” and if we are all not so different after all. n


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CAROL SCOTT-CONNER was born in Towanda, PA. She earned her BS in Electrical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, and her MD from New York University School of Medicine in 1976. She remained at NYU to complete a five-year general surgical residency in 1981. She is the author or coauthor of nine major surgical texts and a book of short stories. Her other works to date have included numerous papers, chapters and presentations on a wide range of surgical topics. She is currently at work on a third book of surgical stories, and happily revising two of her textbooks. Additionally, she is a graduate student in the creative writing program at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Asheville, NC. She lives in Iowa City with her husband and teaches surgery at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

TIM CHRISTENSEN, a molecular geneticist, is an Associate Professor of Biology at East Carolina University. He earned a BS from the University of Utah in 1996 and a PhD from Cornell University in 2002. He is currently pursuing an MFA at ECU. He has displayed his fine art photography multiple times at Joyner Library on ECU’s campus and is the winner of the 2019 Friends of Joyner Library Purchase Award. Additionally, he has given TED talks about his work in astrophotography and the role biology can play in art. These works are part of his 2014–2017 Space project. View more of his work on his website.

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Four large bright stars outline the body of the constellation Orion, the hunter. His right-hand shoulder, facing us, is the bright red star Betelgeuse. The stars that comprise Orion are not bound together in any way. They drift, each on its own journey through the universe, separated by vast distances that are compressed from our limited viewpoint into this transient pattern. The hunter will lose his shape as the eons speed by and the stars move relative to each other in cosmic time. You and I will have been married forty-six years come summer. Like a double star, we are bound to each other by our mutual gravitational pull. If we were indeed stars, we might look like a single point of light to some alien astronomer on a planet encircling Betelgeuse. It has been cloudy for days. As dusk darkens into evening, I search the sky, hoping to glimpse a star. When I see one, I make a wish. It is always the same wish. It is bad luck to tell the wish, but I will say this – I don’t ask anything for myself, I wish for something for us. And I wish it with all my heart. In January, I learn that Betelgeuse is dimming. This large star is normally one of the brightest stars in the night sky of winter at our latitude. Now it


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Orion Nebula (astrophotograph) by Tim Christensen

T H E S TA R S T H AT CO M P RI S E O RI O N A RE N O T B O U N D T O G E T H E R I N A N Y WAY. T H E Y D RI F T, E AC H O N I T S OW N J O U RN E Y T H RO U G H T H E U N I V E R S E . . .

is growing faint. I have read about this and I am frantic to see it myself. The skies remain cloudy. I want to show you Betelgeuse, but we are in the deepest part of winter. When it is clear, it is terribly cold and icy. I look out the windows. It is still overcast. Night after night. Somewhere up there, behind the clouds, the moon wanes, moving in its inexorable cycle toward darkness, the new moon, and rebirth. Sometimes an old star goes out with a bang as a supernova. Other times it goes out with a whimper. If Betelgeuse goes supernova, it might happen anytime in the next one hundred thousand years. Or it might happen next year. The waning light could be a prelude to a supernova. It could mean nothing. I have wanted to see a supernova since I was a young child, when I first learned that a star could die in a final burst of brilliance. I retired from surgery more than four years ago. Nights, I often dream that I have been called

back to practice. It’s always after midnight, some kind of emergency. “But I don’t have privileges,” I say to someone in the dream. Privileges are what we call the formal approval to perform certain kinds of surgery in a particular hospital. In my dreams, it doesn’t matter. In my dreams, I struggle to remember all the key steps of the operation I will have to do. Sometimes I am actually operating, but I never have the right tools or any assistance. The anatomy is different. It is kitchen table surgery at the most macabre. My hands twitch in my sleep, you tell me. Sometimes I try to speak, and you jostle me awake just enough to calm me down. Betelgeuse is almost seven hundred light-years away, so whatever we see happening now actually unfolded seven hundred years ago. As we look farther out in space, we look farther back in time. Betelgeuse is a semiregular variable star, wellknown for cyclic changes in luminosity over time.


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This variability was first documented by Sir John Herschel in the mid-nineteenth century. It is now thought that there may be three separate cycles of variability; and that the present dimming may simply be the coincidence of three periodic minima. Astronomers have studied the surface of Betelgeuse. It is a red supergiant, raging hot and fast and very near the end of its brief cosmic lifespan. In comparison, our own sun is a well-tended lantern in the darkness of space, burning steady and stable, generating just the right amount of heat and light and not too much heavy ion radiation. The skin of Betelgeuse boils deceptively slowly with convection cells much like those that cover the surface of our own sun but significantly larger. These alternating bright and dark cells are large enough to possibly explain the visible decrease in brightness if, for example, the surface facing us had a temporary preponderance of dark cells. Maybe Betelgeuse just belched out a lot of gas – stardust, that is – forming a dense cloud between us and the luminous surface and thus blocking much of its light.

Or, and this is the most exciting possibility, it may have burned its way up the fusion ladder, hydrogen nuclei combining to create helium and so on to heavier and heavier atoms, each step requiring more energy so that now it has reached iron. And when it gets to iron, Betelgeuse will have poisoned itself on its own fusion waste products. It will collapse and become a supernova. Or maybe it will become a black hole, ravenously sucking in any neighboring stars and their worlds, perhaps even forming the nucleus of a new galaxy. All these things, and others that we may not be able to fathom, are possible. One night, we drive home from a restaurant after dinner. Venus is low in the West. The stars are out. As you pull the car into the garage, I see Orion. “Wait,” I say. “Let me show you Betelgeuse.” We cling to each other and creep cautiously ten feet out onto the icy driveway, turn back, and look up. “See Orion? There?” I say. “Yes.” “Betelgeuse is one of his shoulders.” “The red one,” you say. Your eyes are better now

Running Man Nebula (astrophotograph) by Tim Christensen COURTESY OF THE ARTIST


Writing Toward Healing

than mine, but I am more sure-footed than you. Once I joked that we were going into old age with the halt leading the blind. You didn’t laugh. As long as your frailties and mine don’t overlap, I think, we can navigate the terrain ahead of us. Now I can see Betelgeuse, and it is indeed far dimmer than it should be, but I can’t perceive the color. “It should be much brighter,” I tell you, and you believe me. I have already made my wish for us on the first star I saw. But I don’t tell you that. By February, Betelgeuse is still dim. It now shines with around forty percent of its average luminosity. This is unprecedented. Astronomers have gotten a better view from a ground-based telescope and they think that it simply exhaled a big cloud of gas, which has veiled part of its brightness. They have posted a photograph of the star, greatly magnified, with the bottom half of the surface dimmer than the rest, as if it were wearing a mask. It is not about to go nova, not yet. Maybe in one hundred thousand years. Still, the possibility of this distant calamity lends the dimming a horrible fascination. Could there be distant worlds, strange planets circling Betelgeuse, whole populations now in peril? Any such planets are likely to be as alien as the star itself; gas giants in their own right. Not earthlike. If you could take Betelgeuse and put it at the center of our solar system, displacing our own benign sun, its surface would reach the asteroid belt. It would envelope and immolate Mercury, Venus, Mars, and our own world in an immeasurably short instant. Here on Earth, a strange and deadly illness flows silently and virtually unnoticed across China. In the autumn of 1992, you and I spent two weeks in China. I was part of a small group sent to teach a new surgical technique. The streets were full of bicycles, and the parks were full of Chinese doing Tai Chi in the mornings. In a park, an old man stood practicing calligraphy on concrete squares, using a long brush loaded with plain water for ink. His writing evanesced under the noonday sun as the water evaporated, but he wrote on. The young flowed around him, chattering to each other, walking upon his work, unheeding. Some believe this new virus began in the so-called “wet markets,” where live animals are sold for food and traditional medicine. One of the surgeons in our group went out in the early morn-

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A S LO N G A S YO U R F R A I LT I E S A N D M I N E D O N ’ T OV E RL A P, I T H I N K , W E C A N N AV I G AT E T H E T E RR A I N A H E A D O F U S .

ing to such a market and returned with tales of living exotic creatures caged and in aquariums. It was food kept alive until it was about to be eaten. Fresh food, as contrasted with the long-dead food under plastic wrap that we buy in our supermarkets. Every morning, a bicyclist towed a massive open cart overflowing with bok choy through the hospital courtyard and delivered it to the kitchen building. Outside the kitchen, a small bamboo birdcage holding two songbirds hung from one of the eaves. One day the cage was empty and one of the many delicious small lunch plates they served us contained tiny bones. This was food as fresh as you could possibly get it. We returned to China three more times over the subsequent decades, watching its rapid transformation. The last time that we went, the city streets were full of cars and the nights full of neon. Bicycles had been banished to the lanes and countryside. Parks were filled with construction. In Beijing, I counted more than ninety construction cranes on the skyline as we approached the airport. Suddenly the whole world notices and now the news is dominated by this strange plague. Now everyone is talking about “wet markets,” and the exotic animal trade. It is probably a bat virus which might or might not have jumped to the endangered pangolin and, adapting fast, took advantage of every opportunity, thence to human hosts. It is a coronavirus, so-called because it looks like a crown in cross-section on early electron micrographs. The beautiful spikes on its crown are the tentacles by which it attaches to our cells, gains entry, subverts the mechanism of our body to make more virus particles to infect more and more cells, and to spread to another human host. The new disease has a name as well: SARSCoV-2. We call it COVID for short. We have a face and a name for the enemy. Battle lines are drawn. The dyad is complete. By March, all of the news is of COVID. Who has the mental energy to even notice Betelgeuse? I go for days without even trying to see if it is still


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dim. It would be low in the sky in any event, lost in the tall trees that circle our home. Some nights I even forget to wish upon a star. My wish, heartfelt, is still the same. Maybe even more fervent. Most nights a damp grey mist obscures the stars. I can’t even see the moon. I lose track of its phases. My world revolves around statistics: numbers of cases of infection, number of deaths, trends. Logarithmic increase. We talk about “flattening the curve” so that our hospitals and ICUs are not overwhelmed. They close the libraries and send the students home from school. I meet one last time with my small group of medical students, stand looking around my tiny office, and pack everything I might need for a couple of weeks into my knapsack. No one but essential clinical staff is to return after spring break. I will teach the students via remote learning. Research that is not related to the plague is curtailed. Elective surgery is cancelled. Only the astronomers watch Betelgeuse now. NASA sent a research plane carrying a 2.7 meter telescope into the thin upper atmosphere for better viewing. Now they publish their results, which do not directly support any particular theory. They can say what it probably isn’t, but not what it is. In the supermarkets, panic buying leads to strange shortages of improbable items – toilet paper, baking flour, boxes of pasta noodles. There is an abundance of fresh produce. They are still selling the “rotisserie chickens,” whole chickens, roasted that day and packaged in plastic. I buy one almost every week. It is reassuring to see these chickens lined up shoulder to shoulder, all the same size. Food is

There are plenty of younger doctors to care for the seriously ill. Can I still call myself a physician, a surgeon, when I do not accept the risk and answer the call to serve? I no longer dream I am operating. In the long cloudy nights of April, Orion spends more and more time below the horizon before disappearing completely. It will not appear again until autumn. It used to be thought that Orion’s reappearance in the fall heralded the onset of storms. Astronomers have been busy studying what is now termed “The Great Dimming” of Betelgeuse, which has gradually returned to full luminosity. The most likely explanation is mundane – an exaggeration of its periodic dimming cycles. As if in consolation, it is now reported that the Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the brightest supernova ever seen, SN2016aps, in a galaxy about 3.6 billion lightyears from Earth. If any planets were lost during that stellar explosion, it was 3.6 billion years ago. Outbreaks of disease flare up in meat packing plants in the Midwest, where workers must stand shoulder to shoulder and prepare the chickens that become the “rotisserie chickens.” Workers sicken and die of the virus. The chickens must be just the right size, so that when they come down the assembly line, hanging by their feet, the cutting blade slices their necks cleanly. If a meat-packing plant shuts down, farmers must scramble to find another market for their chickens before they grow too big. The restaurants are not buying as much. Food is going to waste and yet people are hungry.

H OW D O W E K E E P E AC H O T H E R S A F E I N A WO RL D WHERE STARS MAY EXPLODE, OR NOT; WHERE BATS H A R B O R S T R A N G E A N D D E A D LY D I S E A S E S T H AT C A N S W E E P AC RO S S T H E G LO B E AT T H E S P E E D O F A PA S S E N G E R J E T ?

abundant, but prices on some things have gone up and the whole country is hurting for money. At my hospital, clinicians over the age of sixty-five are told not to report for patient care. I am seventy-three. We elders are a liability, a vulnerable population; if we get sick, we are likely to get very sick indeed, and to use precious resources and distract our colleagues from other patients. Iowa is a rural state and so far has not been hit very hard.

Two or three times a week, I go out of our house into a world that I now see as dirty. I gown up in old clothes as if going into the room of a sick patient. I wear plastic gloves and a mask that I cut from an old T-shirt. I buy groceries and bring them home and I drop everything I’m wearing on a hot zone near the door. You wear gloves as you unpack the groceries. I feel triumphant; I have returned home safe again, brought home food again. But with


Writing Toward Healing

the food, I may have brought contagion. Even now, it may be in my breath, in the touch of my hands. I prepare a Quarantine Room in a spare guest bedroom in our basement. If one of us gets sick, I will go down there. If one of us gets sick, we can manage. If we both get sick . . . if we both get sick . . . if we both get sick. That is the thought that runs through my mind like a hamster running its exercise wheel. You watch me coming and going to the spare room in our basement carrying old towels and sheets and blankets in my arms but say nothing. People use the phrase, “when we are on the other side of this.” It may be a year or more before we are on the other side, and that is a long time. I hug you as often as I can. How do we keep each other safe in

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a world where stars may explode, or not; where bats harbor strange and deadly diseases that can sweep across the globe at the speed of a passenger jet? Orion is below the horizon until next winter. Now I watch for Venus, which glows in the western sky after sunset. It almost always shines through the wispy clouds obscuring the stars of early evening. As the gloaming darkens into dusk, I look west. I have lost track of the phases of the moon. I have lost my anchor on our position in the universe. Then, one night, I see the slender waxing crescent moon near Venus. I feel myself reorient to the ancient celestial rhythms. As April moves into May and Betelgeuse shines brightly in more southerly skies, I pretend Venus is a star and make my wish. It is always the same wish. n

Rosette Nebula (astrophotograph) by Tim Christensen COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

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Sharing North Carolina’s Rich Literary History by Margaret D. Bauer, Editor Several of the books reviewed in this section relate to themes of past issues: North Carolina African American (2019), Appalachian (2010), War (2014), and Young Adult (2006) literature and Literature and the Other Arts (2017). Others are by or about writers featured in past issues, from A.R. Ammons, who published new poems in the earliest issues of NCLR, to Leah Hampton and Katey Schultz, previous winners of the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, and including authors interviewed previously, like Ron Rash, Monique Truong, Marly Youmans, and Randall Kenan. I will take this space, therefore, to ask for your help putting copies of the print issues into libraries across the state. We have at least a dozen complete sets left of the twenty-nine annual print issues. Please propose to your book club, writing group, or other organization the idea of sponsoring a gift of a complete set to your local library. For just $400, postage included, your gift will not only put NCLR on their shelves, but also help us to reach our annual revenue expectations. To each of these fortunate libraries, we will also send, as part of your gift, the thirtieth issue when it is published later this summer.*

* Find this complete set option in our online store here.

Individually, you can also help us to meet our income goal and empty our storage closet by purchasing individual back issues to complete your own set. Go to our store here to purchase online, or find an order form here if you prefer to pay by check. I assure you, back issues of NCLR, like the fine literature featured and examined in our pages, don’t get old. (And Charles Frazier says they really class up a place.) At this writing, and with the support of a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, we are preparing to digitize the earliest issues of NCLR, published in the days before digital subscription services. More difficult than scanning the issues from before the days of providing a final .pdf to the printer is gathering the necessary permissions from writers, artists, and other image sources to publish the 1992–2020 content via digital databases. If you are among these contributors to past issues and have not yet heard from us (or not yet replied to our inquiries), we would be very grateful if you would contact us. We may have had difficulty finding a current address for you. Our primary mission, as you know, is to promote and preserve North Carolina’s rich literary culture. Let’s get NCLR into libraries and the hands of readers across the country and beyond. n


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FLASHBACKS: 92 Ammons Among North Carolina Friends

a review by Eric C. Walker n Emily Herring Wilson, “When I Go Back to My Home Country”: A Remembrance of Archie Ammons 95 2021 John Ehle Prize Awarded to Essay on Ehle 97 Something (More) Rich and Strange

Echoes of Past Issues 118 The Heart of the Story

a review by Tanya Long Bennett n Monique Truong, The Sweetest Fruits

a review by Jimmy Dean Smith n Ron Rash, In the Valley n Frédérique Spill, The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writings

121 In Search of “Wonders Hidden and Huge” a review by James W. Kirkland n Peg Bresnahan, Hunger to Share

100 A Little Bit of Suffering in Common

A (New) Wonder Book a review by Lorraine Hale Robinson n Marly Youmans, Charis in the World of Wonders

a review by Jim Coby n John Hart, The Unwilling n Charles Dodd White, How Fire Runs 104 Short Story Sequencing

a review by Sharon E. Colley n Leah Hampton, F*ckface and Other Stories n Rhonda Browning White, The Lightness of Water & Other Stories 107 2019–2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award Winner

108 A Map to Everlasting and Liberating Truth a review by Philip Gerard n Wayne Moore, Triumphant Warrior 110 Angelic Voices Sing in North Carolina

124 Homage to Hawthorne:

128 Love, Power, and Beauty in an Aspirational Rome

a review by Mayee Zhu n David Brendan Hopes, Night, Sleep, and the Dreams of Lovers 130 Discovering Who We Are

a review by Angela Love Moser n Sarah Dessen, The Rest of the Story 132 Make Your Own Kind of Happily Ever After a review by Savanah Paige Murray n Sophie Gonzalez, Only Mostly Devastated n Mary Cecilia Jackson, Sparrow

a review by Reginald Watson n Randall Kenan, If I Had Two Wings n Lenard D. Moore, Editor, All the Songs We Sing

134 Debut Novel by Meg Cannistra Wins NC AAUW Award

112 Remembering Randall 114 Michael Parker Awarded 2020 Thomas Wolfe Prize

a review by Robert M. West n Keith Flynn, The Skin of Meaning n Al Maginnes, Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift

115 Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith Mine the Past,

139 2020 Caldwell Award Winner James W. Clark, Jr.,

by Margaret D. Bauer

and Both Find Gold a review by Barbara Bennett n Jill McCorkle, Hieroglyphics n Lee Smith, Blue Marlin

135 Secure Invitations

North Carolina’s “Johnny Appleseed of the Humanities”

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE 6

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Writing Toward Healing an interview, poetry, prose, fiction, book reviews, and literary news

140 n North Carolina Miscellany book reviews and literary news


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AMMONS AMONG NORTH CAROLINA FRIENDS a review by Eric C. Walker Emily Herring Wilson. “When I Go Back to My Home Country”: A Remembrance of Archie Ammons. R.A. Fountain, 2019.

ERIC WALKER, a North Carolina native, is a Professor Emeritus of English and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at Florida State University. He has taught classes at Florida State University since 1984 and specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature. His current research focuses on adoption studies for a book on Romanticism and adoption. His book, Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism: Wordsworth and Austen After War (Stanford University Press, 2009) was awarded the 2009 SAMLA Studies Book Award. EMILY HERRING WILSON’S books include The Three Graces of Val-Kill (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), Two Gardeners: Katherine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence: A Friendship in Letters (Beacon Press, 2002), and North Carolina Women Making History (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). She is a recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature and the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities. She lives in Winston-Salem, NC.

“No Species of Writing seems more worthy of Cultivation than Biography.” With this 1750 declaration and his subsequent Lives of the Poets, Samuel Johnson lofted literary lives – often very uneventful – to the front of modern biography. Johnson’s own life would soon become the most famous example of his own theory, with the publication of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson in 1791. But before Boswell published his big book, numerous personal accounts of Johnson appeared in the wake of his death in 1784, such as his close friend Hester Thrale’s Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, published in 1786. Emily Herring Wilson’s new book about A.R. Ammons, “When I Go Back to My Home Country”: A Remembrance of Archie Ammons, offers a fascinating new event in this venerable tradition, which for other modern American poets includes books such as Peter Brazeau’s Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered and Helen Muir’s Frost in Florida: A Memoir. Ammons, a native of Columbus County, graduate of Wake Forest College, longtime teacher of writing at Cornell University, and a primary voice in twentiethcentury American poetry, died in Ithaca, NY, in 2001. In advance of his Cornell colleague Roger Gilbert’s biography, Wilson, a key North Carolina friend of the poet and his family in the last three decades of his life, frames her book as a rich “remembrance” of Ammons: “This is my story of a friendship and my

story of a poet, A.R. Ammons. Everybody called him Archie” (11). The Wilson and Ammons families became fast friends during Ammons’s sabbatical year at Wake Forest University in 1974–75; Wilson’s husband Edwin, who was Provost, had taught Ammons at the old Wake Forest campus in the wake of World War II. The friendships forged during that year grew and flourished for the next quarter century in abundant visits, residencies, and road trips back and forth between North and South, lovingly and vividly recounted and memorialized in these pages. Johnson’s 1750 Rambler essay on biography describes the method for Wilson’s book: “the Business of the Biographer is often to pass slightly over those Performances and Incidents, which produce vulgar Greatness, to lead the Thoughts into domestick Privacies, and display the minute Details of daily Life.” Such quotidian focus yields the great interest of Wilson’s book, as readers overhear Ammons often initiate “a conversation about teeth – cavities and crowns – Archie’s subject of first resort” (53) and hear about a Winston-Salem neighbor’s cat named Napper Tandy, part of the scene as Ammons crosses the street to read new poems. This narrative harvest is richly counterpointed by an abundance of photographs throughout the book, which stretch from Ammons in childhood to an image of Emily and Ed Wilson with Ammons’s sister Vida in 2017. I’m especially fond of an


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COURTESY OF ALEX ALBRIGHT, R.A. FOUNTAIN AND JOHN AMMONS

image of Ammons and his son John gazing at a 1974 Sesame Street Activity Calendar and two shots of Ammons at the piano, at each of his Ithaca houses. The photographs and text also track in important ways the vivid world of Phyllis Ammons, from her childhood through her long marriage, from Hatteras to Ithaca, to a child of the South practicing poetry in the North. In its enthusiastic grounding in the everyday, in both text and image, Wilson’s book reads like a long Ammons poem dedicated to that very aesthetic, such as the famous Tape for the Turn of the Year (1965) or the later Snow Poems (1977). Wilson’s book generously offers many additional voices. A section headed “More Friends” includes reminiscences by the North Carolina poet Shelby Stephenson, the composer Ken Frazelle, and Ammons’s student and colleague Ken McClane.

ABOVE A.R. Ammons reading to his

son John, 1974

Stephenson’s comments are especially telling: “My dominant image of Archie: always wanting to stay put somewhere and yet not at home anywhere” (105). The book includes an extraordinarily moving email from Phyllis Ammons in February 2002, a year after Ammons’s death, recounting her morning walk on a winter beach in New Jersey (136). This assembled choir of voices dear to Ammons includes Alex Albright, the book’s publisher, adding this book to his notable contributions to the Ammons bibliography: his two editions of The North Carolina Poems and the collection The Mule Poems.* The reader can catch Albright’s voice in what might get passed over as a modest “chronology” appended to the end of the book, headed “An A.R. Ammons Timeline, introduced by Alex Albright.” This text is very much a part of the poem that is the book, giv-

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ing us the tale of how Randolph Ammons became Archie and the tale of how the young John Ammons responded to the news that his father had been awarded the Goldwin Smith Chair at Cornell in 1974: “Why didn’t he already have a chair? Where did he sit?” (145). Wilson’s book also supplies an important contribution to a developing sub-field of Ammons scholarship, the study of his paintings, which are much less widely known than his poetry. In addition to the biographical account of how, soon after the sabbatical year at Wake Forest, Ammons “began painting watercolors” (85), the book reprints a key text, Ammons’s 1981 “Prose Statement on Painting,” with its elliptical exploration of a “poetics of anger” and its affirmation of the supreme value of “still completed things,” preeminently poems and paintings. The “Timeline” and the narrative together enable a history of exhibits of the paintings: in 1981 at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem; in 1983 at the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill; in 2002 at Wake Forest; and most recently and notably, in 2020 at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, enabled by the loans from Emily Wilson, whom Ammons entrusted with these precious artifacts when he and Phyllis downsized into a retirement community in Ithaca late in his life. In the spirit of this warm and generous book and its many voices, I’ll close with one more brief remembrance of Archie Ammons. In the spring of 1975,

* Alex Albright, ed. The North Carolina Poems (North Carolina Wesleyan College P, 1994; Broadstone, 2010), The Mule Poems (R.A. Fountain, 2010); reviewed in NCLR 2011


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ABOVE TOP Emily Herring WIlson

(right) and Ed Wilson with Vida Ammons Cox, 2017

do-you-do, I observed that “my mother’s a Clark from Clarkton,” and the two of us started spinning a web of various Cox connections (Ammons’s sister Vida married a Cox and lived in Clarkton) all over Bladen and Columbus counties (“Yes, Great Aunt Eva married Nathan Cox . . .”) COURTESY OF ALEX ALBRIGHT, R.A. FOUNTAIN AND JOHN AMMONS

during Ammons’s sabbatical year at Wake Forest, the poet Howard Nemerov was booked for a campus reading. I was a senior down the road at Davidson, busy on an honors thesis on Virginia Woolf. A close friend and classmate from “up North,” as we used to say, was writing his thesis on Ammons and scored an interview in Winston-Salem. After his appointed talks with Ammons during the day, I caught up with my friend for the Nemerov reading that evening and piggybacked on his invitation to a reception (at the Wilson home, I’m now guessing – belated thanks to the gracious hosts!). Soon my very Northern friend worked me across the room to prove the harvest of his day by introducing me to his trophy, the famous poet A.R. Ammons. I could sense my friend’s rising confusion as Archie and I, to that point strangers, immediately slipped into an old Southern dance like an old familiar pair of shoes: after a polite how-

and so on. I caught a ride with my friend back to Davidson. He had lost his voice by now, but he managed to mutter, “Are all you people down here kin to each other?” Well yes, sort of. (He had missed the Faulkner seminar.) Several weeks later Ammons came and read to a small group at Davidson, on the basis of which I’ve never entirely bought the many stage-fright stories that stalk him, although I understand the steep cost to a very private person of staged public events. But on that evening, he read “Corson’s Inlet” in a voice that kept us all spellbound. Emily Herring Wilson wraps her excellent book with this great blessing: “This is what I have to give in return for his many gifts to me: my love” (13). Like an Ammons poem or painting, her book is the fine accomplishment of a “still completed thing.” n

ABOVE BOTTOM A.R. Ammons in his Ithaca, NY, home, circa 1970


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2021 JOHN EHLE PRIZE AWARDED TO ESSAY ON EHLE The North Carolina Literary Review is pleased to report that for the first time since its creation, the John Ehle Prize for NCLR content related to a neglected or forgotten North Carolina writer will be awarded to an essay on the work of John Ehle himself, written by Savannah Paige Murray. Murray, a native of Asheville, NC, has reviewed regularly for NCLR since 2018, when she was a graduate student at Appalachian State University. After earning her PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Virginia Tech, she returned to North Carolina to serve as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at her alma mater. Her writing focuses on Appalachian literature, the French Broad River, and the Blue Ridge Mountains.

According to NCLR Editor Margaret Bauer, “The Ehle award was created after John Ehle’s passing as an appropriate means of honoring his memory.” Bauer added, “I felt gifted when a review copy of Press 53’s 2006 edition of Ehle’s The Land Breakers introduced his work to me. This fortuitous occurrence inspired me to encourage essays on and interviews with North Carolina writers like Ehle whose work has not received the scholarly attention they deserve.” According to Murray in the excerpt below, included in her original submission, she was also introduced to Ehle through gifted copies of two of his novels. Murray’s prize essay, “An Ethic of Everyday Nature in John Ehle’s The Road,” will be published in the 2021 print issue of NCLR. Murray will receive $250 from the prize’s co-sponsor, Press 53 of Winston-Salem. n n n

Savannah Paige Murray on Finding John Ehle’s Mountain Novels I had never heard of John Ehle before the frozen deep in a Ron Rash phase (which I have never recovered pipes burst in the Yancey County Public Library from). “Oh well, you would love John Ehle, then!” Dr. in Burnsville, NC. In 2014, I was interning with Barron said. During lunch later, I scrawled Ehle’s name archivist-extraordinaire Heather South at Western along with a couple of titles of Dr. Barron’s favorite Ehle Regional Archives (WRA), in Asheville, my hometown. “Mountain Novels” in my notebook. I expected to create finding On our third and final aids and assist researchers day working alongside “IN MY STUDY OF JOHN EHLE’S WRITING, during my four-week stint the good people at the I NOT ONLY DEVELOPED A GREATER at WRA, and for the most Yancey County Public part, I did just that. But, I Library, Dr. Barron handed APPRECIATION OF MY OWN ANCESTORS, could not have anticipated me a taped-up cardboard WHO – MUCH LIKE THE CHARACTERS the January 9 call from Dr. box as I was heading out. Dan Barron, Avery-MitchUpon my return, I opened IN EHLE’S SEVEN-PART SERIES ‘THE ell-Yancey Regional Library the box to find that Dr. Director, reporting a burst Barron had gifted me with MOUNTAIN NOVELS’ AS DR. DAN CALLED pipe in the Yancey County two of Ehle’s novels, gorTHEM – STRUGGLED TO CREATE A Library that damaged hungeous first editions of The dreds of history books. Land Breakers and The LIFE IN THE MOUNTAINS OF NORTH Dr. Barron reached out Road, the very same titles to South, as leader of the I had added to my noteCAROLINA, BUT I ALSO CAME TO SEE newly developed Cultural book’s ever-growing “To HOW EHLE’S NOVELS OFFER READERS Resources Emergency SalRead” list. vage Team. In true “South” Although I’ve stayed A NUANCED UNDERSTANDING OF THE fashion (she is a remarkin touch with “Dr. Dan” ably kind and helpful indisince my days on the salNATURAL ENVIRONMENT IN SOUTHERN vidual), within two hours vage team, I’m not sure APPALACHIA.”—Savannah Paige Murray we arrived in Burnsville, I have ever let him know ready to help Dr. Barron how much these books and several Friends of the Library Volunteers who meant to me. Dr. Dan’s gift came at the perfect time in my had shown up to try and dry out the library’s newly life. I was in the process of learning more about my own water-logged tomes.1 family’s mountain roots, tracing the lives of Goforths, As I worked alongside the volunteers and library Davidsons, and Trueloves, who lived in Buncombe County staff, placing paper towels every fifty pages or so, in the eighteenth century. I was beginning to learn the and setting the books upright to dry, we chatted value not only of my own family’s history but of the hisabout the mountains and mountain writers. I was tory of Appalachia and what it means to live in the lovely,

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“Yikes in Yancey,” blog, History for All the People, State Archives of North Carolina, 14 Jan. 2014: web.


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strange, and staggeringly beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina. At that time, too, I was trying to answer the complex question that bewitches most young people – what was I going to do with my life? While I am still working on the answer to that query, reading John Ehle’s novels helped me make a giant leap in that direction. The following year, I began my studies toward a Master of Arts degree in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, a truly transformational educational experience, which culminated in a thesis project about John Ehle’s mountain novels under the direction of the brilliant Dr. Sandra L. Ballard, editor of Appalachian Journal.2 Learning more about John Ehle and delving into The Land Breakers and The Road have inspired much intellectual curiosity in me. While I had not heard of Ehle until January 2014, I certainly know a lot more about him now, for which I will always be grateful to Dr. Dan. In my study of John Ehle’s writing, I not only developed a greater appreciation of my own ancestors, who – much like the characters in Ehle’s seven-part series “The Mountain Novels” as Dr. Dan called them – struggled to create a life in the mountains of North Carolina, but I also came to see how Ehle’s novels offer readers a nuanced understanding of the natural environment in Southern

2

Appalachia. As a scholar and an interdisciplinary researcher with roots in history, environmental humanities, and Appalachian Studies, I now see Ehle’s work as offering a particular version of the interaction between nature and human nature. While many works of historical fiction about Appalachia romanticize the rugged individualism of mountaineers who arrive in the region to settle the rugged wilderness into tame farms and homesteads, Ehle’s novels do not idealize the process of living and developing the mountains. Instead, in Ehle’s novels there is a strong showing of nature as a part of, rather than apart from characters’ daily lives. Nature in Ehle’s “Mountain Novels” is not a passive entity willing and ready to be tamed but is instead an integral part of everyday life and one that requires constant negotiation and interaction. In my upcoming NCLR essay, “An Ethic of Everyday Nature in John Ehle’s The Road,” I explore the ways in which HenryAnna, the remarkable, spunky young female protagonist of this Ehle novel, enacts an ethic of “Everyday Nature,” which helps her heal herself from tragic romantic entanglements and also offers an ecofeminist method for engagement with the natural world as an integral part of our daily lives. n

Savannah Paige Murray, “In This Way the Mountain Lives: An Ecocritical Reading of John Ehle’s Appalachian Fiction,” 2017, Appalachian State University, MA thesis.


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SOMETHING (MORE) RICH AND STRANGE a review by Jimmy Dean Smith Ron Rash. In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on Serena. Doubleday, 2020. Frédérique Spill. The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing. University of South Carolina Press, 2019.

JIMMY DEAN SMITH teaches English at Union College in Barbourville, KY. His articles about Ron Rash have appeared in Summoning the Dead: Critical Essays on Ron Rash; Ecocriticism and the Future of Southern Studies; Representing Rural Women; and NCLR. RON RASH is the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. In the Valley is his twenty-third book. He has been featured often in NCLR, including interviews in the 2004 and 2014 issues and essays about his work in 2004 and 2011. His numerous honors include, most recently, the 2020 Thomas Robinson Prize for Southern Literature given to him by Mercer University’s Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies. FRÉDÉRIQUE SPILL is an Associate Professor of American literature at the University of Picardy-Jules Verne in Amiens, France. She has written extensively on William Faulkner as well as on Ron Rash. Spill co-edited The Wagon Moves: New Essays on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (Editions L’Harmattan, 2018).

In the Valley is Ron Rash’s sixth book of short stories, the first since Something Rich and Strange (2014) collected thirtyfour of his earlier works in a career-spanning retrospective. The subtitle of that volume, Selected Stories, foregrounds the act of criticism Rash himself performed in preparing the volume: he “took a backward glance at his own writings, grappling with the difficult task of choosing some and overlooking others” with a commercial eye toward “mak[ing] [the] author’s work available to a wider readership” – that is, selling short stories to people who don’t usually buy short stories (Spill 146). Rash’s acts of self-criticism also included, of course, giving a name to that selection, one that would define the ethos for the short fiction he chose to represent his work. With the new volume, Rash gives us an opportunity to play a party game, to decide which of the ten stories comprising In the Valley are, in fact, rich and strange, which, like the dematerializing body of a drowned girl in the gorgeous story that gives the selection its name, startle and instruct and mystify. For many readers of In the Valley, the big news will be the return of Serena Pemberton, the world-class villain in Rash’s best-known novel, Serena (2008). A human cancer, an invasive species in black jodhpurs, Serena has been away, preparing her assault on the forests of Brazil, for the last nine months. Now she must complete the hands-on job of deforesting Western North Carolina’s mountains. Readers will be pleased to hear that her grotesque henchman, Galloway, and his weird mother return as

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well, and that foolish or unlucky people make the mistake of getting in Serena’s way. In the novella as in the novel, Serena wreaks surgically precise havoc on her ecosystem. It is commonplace to connect Serena with Lady Macbeth, but in “In the Valley,” as in the novel, other Elizabethan characters come to mind – Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the world-beater, for instance, or, sticking with Shakespeare, the gleefully evil Richard III. When we first spot an eagle soaring above the denuded wastes that used to be timberland, we immediately look for Serena to start being horrifying. The novella has no hero to match Serena’s Horace Kephart (the novella even floats the suggestion that the real-life Kephart’s recent death was Serena’s doing). But Snipes’s motley-clad work crew assumes a more central role, shifting the perspective of the story toward the working people and the hard decisions industrial modernity has forced on them. One character compares Serena with the cruelly inhuman efficiency experts of textile mills, about whom Rash first wrote in “The Stretch-Out” in Eureka Mill (1998). Brief inter-chapters tell of the many extinctions that deforesting causes – of mammal, birds, and reptiles – an elegiac trope Rash has repeated throughout his career. For all its concessions to the clockwork rationality of industrial rapacity, however, In the Valley is rooted in rich, strange soil, where skeletons mount fog-bound hillsides, and the back road to Asheville crosses over the Styx. Many readers are familiar with Ron Rash’s enthusiasm for self-revision, as in revisiting an earlier novel for a sequel, as is


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the case here, or to explore an idea or theme that is suggested but not developed, as is the case between the story “Something Rich and Strange” and its precursor novel, Saints at the River. While the first nine stories in In the Valley are not so explicitly linked to earlier Rash works as those, Rash does return to familiar places – Madison County, the French Broad, small towns west of Asheville, state parks – and themes. His run of Civil War stories continues with “Neighbors,” which opens the volume with an examination of tortured loyalties, and “The Belt,” a study of kinship, courage, and cussedness. “The Baptism,” a Best Short Stories of 2018 selection, is set in that indeterminate contemporary past where mythological Appalachia lives. And In the Valley occupies a brief time in the early 1930s, when the Depression fills the jail with “forgotten men” who can be hired out to work in death traps. The other stories are set in the present, and most address issues that trouble Western North Carolina today. The narrator of “Sad Man in the Sky” is a veteran who seems to live a normal life even though, as Rash shows us in two or three small strokes and a devastating last sentence, his wartime experiences stick with him. In “Flight,” the trauma survivor is a park ranger (with Leah Hampton’s “Parkway” and Rash’s own Above the Waterfall (2015), a pattern is starting to emerge).1 “When All the Stars Fall from the Sky” addresses, as other Rash 1

Leah Hampton, “Parkway.” Ecotone 26 (2018): web.

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stories have done before, the effects of in-migration (retirees, “Florida people”) on old mountain manners and the people who try to live by them. The economic realities of the present, it seems, preclude tradition and what that entails – honor, trust, decency. Serena Pemberton is a fleshand-blood malignancy whose will to dominate rewards readers with grotesque thrills. In many of this volume’s stories, as in stories Rash published in the past, the pernicious invader of the mountains is more mundane and far less entertaining. To say that Rash repeatedly returns to drug culture does not mean that he plays the situation for crime thrills, as he did in The World Made Straight and as David Joy does, for instance, in his own Western North Carolina literary thrillers. Instead, Rash’s interest lies, as the title of his second story collection puts it, in casualties—the half-frozen couple in “Back of Beyond,” the defeated college boy in “Those

Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” the little boy in “The Ascent.” In the drug stories in In the Valley, Rash expands his coverage to include opioids, with pharmaceutical companies acting more or less as Serena does, as outsiders who invade the ecosystem and throttle life and lives therein. While “the programmed disappearance of the old agrarian lifestyle” (Spill 92) leads to acts of banal evil throughout Rash’s stories – a not-unsympathetic pawnbroker uses addiction to turn a bigger profit, for instance – Rash also allows a gesture of human decency into In the Valley’s “Last Bridge Burned,” suggesting that kindness might be all the heroism the situation allows, though still, somehow, enough in these hard times. To return to the parlor game of canonization I mention at the beginning of this review, I’d say that the following stories from In the Valley are strongest – as strong as any of Rash’s short fiction: “Neighbors,” “L’homme

ABOVE Ron Rash during a virtual award ceremony for the Thomas Robinson Prize for

Southern Literature given to him by Mercer University’s Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies, 19 Sept. 2020 (Read the press release for the prize, and watch his acceptance remarks and reading.)


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Blessé,” “Flight,” “Last Bridge Burned,” and “Ransom.” “Sad Man in the Sky” does not seem as strong till its last remarkable sentence, which snaps everything into place and makes me question if I underestimate the story. “In the Valley” is inspired by Serena, one of two American novel masterpieces Rash has published (the other is One Foot in Eden), but it is a different thing altogether – more brutal, more polished, more focused – and might be better than the novel that inspired it. In the Valley is a remarkable collection of the rich and strange.

have a focus that allows Spill to explore texts from specific perspectives: the Macbeth connection in the Serena chapter, violence in the chapter on The World Made Straight. The remaining chapter is, as Spill says, a “compromise” in which she considers all volumes of the short stories together rather than devoting one chapter to each. The resulting limitation of coverage is a disappointment, and seems to have been to Spill as well, since “short stories constitute [Rash’s] favorite genre” (9). However, that chapter, the longest in the book, offers keen insights, particularly in regard to Rash’s habitual reconfiguration of his own earlier work, e.g., revisions of the stories in the hard-to-find Casualties (2000) for inclusion in other books. Radiance also includes three interviews Spill conducted with Rash and endnotes that, Spill hopes, can “make . . . a separate reading possible in the form of a short, secondary, and . . . independent text” (10). This aim she has met: the notes are an amiable addition to the critical chapters. A good deal of Spill’s book’s content appeared first in French, for a French audience that adores Rash, which may account for how much the critical background relies on French theorists. This is not to say, however, that Spill engages in “French critical theory.” Her prose, with a very few minor infelicities, is clear and on-point, a result of her dedication to close reading.

In this review, I have quoted Frédérique Spill’s Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing. Spill has been central to Rash studies for the last half dozen years, especially in France, where she has published scholarly articles on Rash, among other Southern writers, and hosted Rash at a conference she organized. Her study of Rash, then, has coincided with other Rash-centered criticism issued by the University of South Carolina Press: John Lang’s Understanding Ron Rash (2014). Randall Wilhelm’s Ron Rash Reader (2014), and Wilhelm and Zackary Vernon’s Summoning the Dead: Critical Essays on Ron Rash (2018).2 In ten of its eleven chapters, Radiance covers Rash’s four collections of poetry and the first six novels (The Risen, published in 2016, appeared too late for inclusion). Because several of these chapters first appeared as journal articles, they 2

I should note that one of my essays appears in Summoning, as does one of Spill’s. Read reviews of these books in previous issues of NCLR Online.

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The theory she is practicing, that is, is New Criticism, a tactic she first displays in the introduction when she focuses our attention on the prevalence of drops of water in Rash’s fiction and poetry. Rash’s writing “starts with images” (6), and thus Spill constantly and profitably returns to the small and evanescent; beads of water are just the beginning. Spill’s concern with “small things that somehow contain bigger things” (8) leads to such virtuoso performances as a discussion of how different speakers’ uses of the word hillbilly in Saints at the River allows Rash to interrogate ways of being Appalachian – of writing Appalachian (70). Her discussion of parakeets in The Cove (142) can stand for the other times Rash develops perhaps his most characteristic theme – vanishing – by naming species that are gone.3 Spill’s critical methods are perhaps most impressive when she focuses on the music of individual poems. While attention to the characteristic imagery is what the book’s title promises, The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing takes exquisite care pondering the sounds of words and how they flash forth meaning. Conversely, Spill also gives close attention to the “big things” in Rash’s writing: the structures of his books, for example, and the perhaps unfamiliar social backgrounds of the books. As it is with the small things, so is it with these: the clarity and enthusiasm of Spill’s prose captures the radiance. n

It has to be noted that Spill’s reference to “parakeets” [pet store birds] rather than “Carolina parakeets” [extinct species] suggests that her usually excellent English does not include some specialized language, like that of ornithology. Likewise, her use of “weaver” to name textile workers of the Piedmont seems off as well – though I concede this quibble may have more to do with my over-familiarity with mill villages than with any deficiency of Spill’s.


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A LITTLE BIT OF SUFFERING IN COMMON a review by Jim Coby John Hart. The Unwilling: A Novel. St. Martin’s Press, 2021. Charles Dodd White. How Fire Runs: A Novel. Swallow Press, 2020.

JIM COBY received his PhD in English with a focus on Southern literature from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University-Kokomo. He is a regular reviewer for NCLR and has also published an interview with Matthew Griffin in NCLR 2017. His scholarship has been published in the Ellen Glasgow Journal of Southern Women Writers, Teaching American Literature, Pennsylvania English, South Central Review, and The Explicator.

As our collective reality spins toward an ever-increasing mire of incertitude and instability, it is perhaps not without reason that thrillers have become the genre du jour for many of our most talented writers. Two new works from authors with strong ties to North Carolina exemplify this idea, as John Hart and Charles Dodd White each explore the resonances of history, race, hatred, love, and aging in their new novels. A compulsively readable work propelled by not only raceagainst-time action, but also the endearing bonds between siblings put at loose ends by war, prison, and addiction, John Hart’s The Unwilling provides a unique, if somewhat overly plotted, thriller, well-suited for our times. Although he is not as concerned with Southern histories of violence as contemporary thriller writers such as Attica Locke or Greg Iles, Hart, too, plots his work in the American South, choosing as the hub of his action Charlotte, NC, a town where “people knew your business, or thought they did, or thought they had the right” (103). When a gruesome murder shakes the city and its residents to their core, Jason becomes the primary subject in the investigation. And it becomes the mission of Gibby, his sixteenyear-old brother, to exonerate Jason by locating the actual villain and unearthing a host of secrets that the town would prefer to remain buried. While the salacious work of sleuthing comprises the bulk of Hart’s book, the first quarter of the novel revolves not around the murder, but rather with Jason’s return to his hometown

after three tours in Vietnam and a brief stint in prison. Not since Emmett Smith in Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country have we seen a Vietnam veteran so troubled, yet so deeply fascinating, exist against the backdrop of a small Southern town, with all of the security and scrutiny that accompany such a life. As a gun-smuggling, drug-pushing, womanizing Vietnam veteran, Jason embodies many of the worst stereotypes of those returning from war. What separates him from these stereotypes, however, is his mental dexterity and the fact that he remains totally and completely self-aware of his actions and trespasses. And when his “crimes” are revealed later in the novel, it releases a wave of reassurances among readers knowing that they were right to be sympathetic to this character for much of this roller-coaster of a novel. Unfortunately, Jason’s presence in the novel, at least his presence beyond the confines of prison walls, is short lived. As a result, we miss out on much of what makes Jason so endearing and interesting – his interactions with the world from which he feels alienated and paranoid – and instead get to know him primarily through his engagement with those inside the prison walls, especially his bareknuckle fights with a prisoner named X. What small degree of verisimilitude is found in the first portion of the novel is thoroughly submarined by the introduction of X, an inmate at Lanesworth Prison. X quickly reveals himself to be a fierce, maniacal fighter, an amateur philosopher, and a deep and passionate admirer of Jason’s self-reliance. The senti-


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the hysterical, the virginal, and the less-thanwholesome. Perhaps it comes with the territory of men attempting to craft words for flat characters, but the dialogue concomitant to Hart’s women characters frequently induces cringes and eye rolls. As an example, after Gibby returns to Becky’s house to ask for a favor following their first date at a swimming hole (excusing the absurdity of going on a date at all when the police have incarcerated your brother, a motorcycle gang is on the hunt for you, and your mother is experiencing a traumatic breakdown), readers encounter this exchange: She bent low, her elbows crossed on the window frame. “Tell me I’m beautiful.” “You’re gorgeous.” “Why should I believe you?” “Because you’re a gorgeous, beautiful girl, especially in your underwear.” (186)

Chalk it up to a couple of nervous, inarticulate teenagers if you like, but dialogue such as the above exchange tests the reader’s willingness to endure uncomfortable interactions. Still, there’s far more to praise

JOHN HART was born in North Carolina and earned degrees from Davidson College and the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, which have been translated into thirty different languages and can be found in seventy different countries. He is the only author to win Edgar Awards for consecutive novels and has also won the Southern Book Prize as well as the North Carolina Award for Literature. A former defense attorney and stockbroker, Hart now writes full time on his farm in Virginia.

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ment that X distracts from the realism of the text should not be read as a lament, however. If anything, he’s one of the few elements that brings new life into a genre where it can sometimes feel as though every possible plot device has already been employed. With a selfdirected and observed morality not dissimilar to Melville’s Ahab, McCarthy’s Judge, or David Simon’s Marlo Stanfield, X operates with a single-minded drive for respect and experience that proves utterly engrossing (not to mention terrifying). X’s lawyer at one point yawns over the countless times he’s been privy to X’s moralizing ramblings “about respect and clarity and purity of purpose” (354). I have to side with the corrupt lawyer on this one; although there are countless reasons to be drawn to X’s debaucherously macabre character, his musings on the nature of right and wrong are not among those reasons. You’ll be forgiven, then, if you find your eyes glazing over when X described the philosophy behind his next machination, but then tuning back in to learn the nuts and bolts of the operation. As rollicking as Hart’s novel is, the familiar complaint about male-authored mystery thrillers remains: thinly, if not lazily, drawn women characters. While male characters receive redemption arcs and are presented with full-throated voices, their counterparts might well be drawn into three categories:

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than to criticize in this compact thriller. Overly mercurial characters and outlandish plot devices occasionally prove distracting, but isn’t that the point of thrillers? They provide a distraction. And in that sense, Hart’s novel proves very much successful, as it allows readers a bit of escapism from the tumultuous world around them, while also occasionally providing a lens through which to discuss the nature of policing and incarceration in the US. While Hart’s novel takes an ostensibly believable plot into the realms of excess bordering on absurdity, Charles Dodd White’s new novel, How Fire Runs, evolves in the opposite direction. Set in Elizabethton, a small town “a hair under fifteen thousand souls” in the hills of eastern Tennessee (17), How Fire Runs in saner times might read as a cautionary tale against the ABOVE John Hart at the On the Same

Page Literary Festival, West Jefferson, NC, Sept. 2017


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lure of authoritarianism and racist agitators. As it stands, however, the novel instead reads like reportage from the front lines of an increasingly polarized and frightening political and social landscape. How Fire Runs revolves around Kyle Pettus, a local politician and outspoken progressive, who finds himself on the receiving end of threats and intimidation when a neoNazi community called “Little Europe” decides to establish a base of operations in an abandoned mental asylum not far from Kyle’s home. When Gavin Noon, the frighteningly charismatic and articulate figurehead of the Little Europe community, decides to run for a vacant seat on the city council board, it is up to Kyle and his likeminded citizenry to expose the dangers of accommodating even a fraction of Noon’s politics. What follows is an occasionally brave, frequently upsetting, but always ambitious account of political intrigue and the lengths that a community will go through to fight against the forces of evil. Rather than focusing the bulk of his attention on systemic and latent racism and violence (though he does this to an extent, as well), White delves headfirst into the difficult questions of how a community must respond to a threat anathema to what they believe. During a particularly contentious debate between Frank, the Democratic Party’s candidate, Wenton Keane, the Republican milquetoast candidate, and

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Gavin Noon, the charismatic and utterly horrifying candidate representing both the Republican and American Nazi Parties, Noon provides unsettling apt commentary on perceptions of the region in which he has decided to build Little Europe. “These mountains,” he proclaims, “are either a momentary stop for tourists looking at autumn leaves or some strange halfimagined place they call Appalachia, though they don’t know what that means or how it has persisted through history” (200). It’s a risky move on White’s part. To provide such commentary is to undermine many of the preconceived notions that readers may well have about east Tennessee, and his risk-taking should be appreciated. Throughout White’s novel, we witness myriad ways in which characters and circumstances butt against preconceived notions of the area. The bigger gamble, of course, comes from placing these words into the mouth of a cardcarrying Nazi. Throughout his novel, White has his readers spend time inside of the Little Europe compound, occasion-

CHARLES DODD WHITE has lived in Asheville, NC, and received the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing and the Appalachian Book of the Year Award in fiction for In the House of the Wilderness (Swallow Press, 2018). After publishing four novels, White was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame in 2018. He is currently an Associate Professor of English at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, TN. Read a short story by him in NCLR 2010.

ally with members looking to escape after realizing the horrors with which they are involved, but more often with its most dedicated and sincere members. To be sure, it makes for an uncomfortable reading experience, but it’s to White’s credit that he is willing to take such a chance and engage with the members of Little Europe. Readers cannot change the channel to a less uncomfortable news story; they cannot simply point their browsers to something more lighthearted. No, they must reckon with the fact that such places as Little Europe genuinely exist and within these areas are human beings seemingly capable of rational thought. It’s an unsetABOVE Charles Dodd White at his book

signing at City Lights Bookstore, Sylva, NC, 17 Oct. 2020


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tling reading experience, at best, but one necessary if readers hope to genuinely confront the evils of white supremacy both latent and explicit. While the conflict between the residents of Elizabethton and Little Europe undergirds the bulk of the novel’s plot, countless streams of plot meander from this major artery. Amidst the primary actions are considerations about elder care and abuse, mistreatment of women in selfsufficient “utopian” societies, the still-stigmatized nature of same-sex relationships in much of the South, and the ways in which love ebbs and flows over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps no tertiary thread emerges so clearly as concern for the environment and the ways in which its degradation endangers both wildlife and human life. Embodied in two of the novel’s most compelling characters, Orlynne and Gerald, elderly community members who have lived their lives working the soil of the mountains, the theme of entan-

glement between ecology and people further underscores ideas about communities finding ways to protect themselves from forces that threaten to disrupt balance and apparent harmony. A significant scene late in the novel involves a harrowing paddle on the Doe River as Kyle and company attempt to escape a wildfire that spreads ferociously. In the midst of the struggle to escape, however, commentary about the deleterious effects of the fire on local flora and fauna draw back the reader’s attention to the ways in which humankind has irrevocably impacted the landscapes of Appalachia. What all of this significant plotting speaks to is the rich tapestry of people, ideas, and lives that embody Appalachia and its culture. While both Hart and White’s books forge their own paths and create their own identities, where the two intersect most clearly is in their plotting. While Hart’s book occasionally suffers from too many threads

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competing for the reader’s attention, White’s seems to revel in creating overly complicated and enlarged imbroglios. For example, toward the middle of the book we encounter a political race told from two sides, three torrid affairs recounted from as many voices, and a fight to lessen the environmental ruin threatening the novel’s place. It’s a lot to keep track of, but White, mercifully, fills each character with a rich, distinct voice, so it never becomes too jarring or onerous to move from plotline to plotline. In each of these thrillers, we read of characters at odds with systems and cultures antithetical to their innate sensibilities and driven to action by their devotions to righting injustices. By having their characters so embattled within these situations, White and Hart caution readers against the potential oncoming political or cultural storm tempest. In short, each of these novels serves equally as entertainment and warning. n

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SHORT STORY SEQUENCING a review by Sharon E. Colley Leah Hampton. F*ckface and Other Stories. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. Rhonda Browning White. The Lightness of Water & Other Stories. Press 53, 2019.

SHARON E. COLLEY is a Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University. Her scholarship includes a forthcoming article on Elizabeth Spenser’s Starting Over as short story sequence, as well as an essay on Lee Smith in NCLR. She is a regular reviewer for NCLR. LEAH HAMPTON lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, she has received North Carolina’s James Hurst and Doris Betts Prizes for fiction. Her work has been featured in Ecotone, Electric Literature, and many more. Read stories by her in NCLR 2013 and NCLR Online 2018. R H O N DA B RO W N I N G W H I T E lived in the Piedmont region of NC from 1985 to 2001, and currently resides near Daytona Beach, FL. She completed an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, SC. She was awarded the 2019 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction for The Lightness of Water. Four of her stories have been nominated for 2021 Pushcart Prizes, and she has been awarded a fellowship from Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise.

Two debut short story volumes, The Lightness of Water & Other Stories by Rhonda Browning White and the startlingly titled F*ckface and Other Stories by Leah Hampton, use different styles but similar literary forms to tackle contemporary life in Appalachia. White’s clean but lyrical prose delves into the crises of present-day characters struggling with values, relationships, and connections to mountain land. Hampton’s volume features characters more connected to grocery stores and Dollywood than insulated mountain communities. The stories are more vulgar (as the title suggests), yet often comedic and touching. Both texts arguably utilize the short story sequence to deliver evolving volumes rather than loosely connected collections. The more unified The Lightness of Water deals with the common struggles and uncertain future of its communities. F*ckface, though it features characters from similar locales and cultural backgrounds, focuses on individuals isolated in the separate stories. The short story sequence or cycle has become a commonly recognized literary form, thanks to critics like Susan Garland Mann, J. Gerald Kennedy, and James Nagel. The short story sequence combines independent short texts into a larger volume that takes on more thematic depth with the juxtaposition of the stories. Often, sequences feature recurring characters or character types, settings, or situations that are approached from different angles. In The Contemporary

American Short Story Cycle: The Ethnic Resonance of the Genre, Nagel observes, “writers from a wide variety of ethnic groups have used the form for the depiction of the central conflicts of characters from their own race or nationality.”1 The form can communicate the experiences of community members without identifying one as the ethnic experience. The characters in White’s and Hampton’s books are easily recognizable as ethnically Appalachian, living in the mountainous areas of North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. Even when they venture to Florida or other regions, their love of mountain land, independence, and endurance suggests connections to traditional Appalachian culture. Many characters have a conscious connection to the Southern Mountain Region, which may be positive, negative, or, often, complicated. Both volumes, however, are firmly set in the recent present, exploring how the characters cope with changes in economics, culture, and environment. The Lightness of Water & Other Stories by Rhonda Browning White is more clearly a short story sequence. The first and last stories in the volume feature the same characters; the final story is a continuation of the initial one, albeit from a different character’s point of view. The volume begins, “These mountains are killing me – killing all of us – though I know it’s in self-defense” (1). Many stories explore different aspects of this

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James Nagel, The Contemporary American Short Story Cycle: Ethnic Resonances of Genre (Louisiana State UP, 2001) 15.


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theme by dealing with the mistreatment of the land through mining, mountain top removal, and other human-created tragedies, as well as the devastating human consequences. The title story occurs near the middle of the book, providing something of a tent pole between the frames. Protagonists from all age groups are represented in the various stories, from the ten-year-old who learns the hard way of her favorite uncle’s alcoholism to the Vietnam veteran looking for the man who stole his Medal of Honor. Some individual stories highlight young couples trying to start families, a circumstance that forces decisions on where they will live and what values they will pass on. “The Lightness of Water” centers on a young couple whose husband believes “selling family land is like selling your soul” (67), while his newly pregnant wife worries about what holding onto the land may cost. On the other end of the spectrum, “Worth Fighting For” focuses on how the seri-

ABOVE Rhonda Browning White at

Scuppernong Books, Greensboro, NC, 14 Dec. 2019

ous illness of the protagonist’s mother causes him to reevaluate what he knows about his parents’ marriage and his own. Moments of decision, crisis, and rude awakenings are highlighted by the separate climaxes of the independent stories, while the combination of stories in the volume suggests communities with struggles in common. The Lightness of Water & Other Stories features characters saturated with traditional Appalachian culture. Though they live in the late twentieth century, at times I was startled by the intrusion of Myrtle Beach t-shirts and university nursing programs, especially in the frame and title stories that feature more isolated communities, because the characters are so convincingly immersed in more traditional versions of Appalachian culture. In “The Lightness of Water,” protagonist Lurleen is learning folk medicine from a “grannywoman” (76) so that she can provide care for the local community. Keeping to one’s self is valued, and many characters wrestle quietly and desperately with significant choices. In the ending frame, “The Big Empty,” the young couple worry about the consequences of selling OxyContin to finance a move. The wife reassures her spouse with, “I know that don’t make it right, but it’s nothing to worry over now” (134). By weaving together need, tradition, and current situations, White creates a volume that feels deeply Appalachian in culture as it grapples with contemporary realities. Though at times White’s style is reminiscent of Bobbie Ann

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Mason in its clarity, the prose is more gripping and the stakes are high in the typically openended stories. “The Lightness of Water” ends with an invitation that could be extended to the reader as well: He takes my hands and blesses the food, and when he starts to let go, I keep holding on. “For better or worse?” He leans forward, studies my face. “For better or for worse.” I grip his hands tighter, soak up their warmth, feel their roughness beneath my fingertips. “Johnny,” I say, “there’s some things I’ve got to tell you.” (87)

The provocatively named F*ckface and Other Stories by Leah Hampton is less unified than White’s book. There are no frames, recurring characters, or formal links between stories; rather, the character types, settings, and variations on themes provide the connections. The Wendell Berry epigraph, “You cannot save the land apart from the people, or the people apart from the land,” provides a suitably Appalachian touchstone. The book focuses on mostly working class characters with Appalachian identities. Folkways are less real for Hampton’s characters, who work in shopping centers, national parks, and industrial farming. Nonetheless, Hampton touches on familiar topics, such as family, identity, and the consequences of abusing the land. Hampton has a talent for great opening lines. The opening/title story begins, “Nothing’ll ever fix what’s broken in this


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town, but it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at Food Country” (1). Intriguing and at times startling openings like this one pull the reader in to learn more, often expecting something a bit comical or off-center. The stories oblige but they regularly lead the reader into a more thoughtful revelation and meditation on character. “F*ckface” focuses on protagonist Pretty’s barely acknowledged love for her straight friend, Jamie, and her need to find a way to live in her hometown “without going crazy” (13). “Wireless” begins with what sounds like a risqué story but ultimately becomes an examination of past trauma and its lingering effects. Hampton’s characters are arguably more tied into contemporary culture at large than White’s. “Boomer,” for example, zeroes in on a “state forest service guy” (14) as he spends weeks desperately trying to gain control over a destructive blaze while his marriage is ending.2 “Twitchell” examines the possible environmental and public health impact of a decadesold chemical plant, but also glances at the distant relationship between locals and young Ukrainians brought in as seasonal camp counselors each summer. In some ways, Hampton’s characters resemble more those found in contemporary Grit Lit than Appalachian literature. Her characters vape, wrestle with their sexuality, and work in retail and as skilled labor. While the mistreated Appalachian landscape and environmental issues 2

“Boomer” received the Kerne Prize for Literature at the University of Texas and was first published in NCLR Online 2018.

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take precedence, her characters seem more influenced by the larger Southern and working class culture than White’s. Hampton’s volume features open endings in many stories, some that must be teased out. “Meat” is a fascinating story that follows a college-age agriculture major onto a pig farm that experiences a tragic fire. Protagonist Alison, identified as a “mountain girl” (152), compares the people she sees shuffling through a funeral receiving line to livestock: “The cleanup, the smells and screams, the whole experience of the hogs weighed on her, silenced her. Before this, she had had no idea” (159). The juxtaposition of people and pigs suggests a knowledge of death may be the connection made for her. Other open endings provide a moment of solace, as in “Twitchell,” where the protagonist receives a biopsy in a room of only female medical professionals. The reader doesn’t know her prognosis, but the moment of communal support suggests a deeper healing than physical.

Hampton’s stories typically stress individual experiences. The final story, involving a trip to Dollywood and an affair gone wrong, ends with the protagonist reflecting on the “delicate things in the world” that “break if I ever try to get them in my hands” (187). Hampton’s stories often mourn the loss and isolation of individuals. In contrast, the closing frame story of White’s book offers a lament for community: “Daddy once told me the greatest joy of a man’s life was a walk through the woods with his child. There will be no child for me. No woods, either. No coal mining. No slaying trees. No babies. No more” (139). Both approaches, individual and communal, are valid. Both volumes are to be commended for depicting demographic variety in the Southern Mountain Region. Appalachian culture is often a classed culture, with outsiders perceiving residents as poor, uneducated folk. While both volumes may highlight working class culture, they are not restricted to it. In White’s volume, “Kicking Time” ABOVE Leah Hampton at Shut in with

Stories, a virtual reading hosted by NCLR, 17 Sept. 2020


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deals with a college professor from a fine family who has descended into the life of an addict, suggesting both upper middle status and descent from it. “Heritage” features a woman trying to move up socially by being accepted into the Daughters of the American Revolution by women who looked down on her in high school. She ultimately decides that the prize is not worth the cost. In Hampton’s final story, “Sparkle,” the protag-

onist is upset when asked if her childhood home was like the three-room shack Dolly Parton grew up in, now on display at Dollywood. “No, Professor, . . . I had plumbing and everything. . . . Heck I even read a few books when I was a kid, when I wasn’t losing teeth. . . . Even managed to gra – jee – ate college” (176). With the social classes and educational variations in the texts, as well as some connections to outside

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culture in both books (two of White’s stories are set in Florida), the short story sequences contribute to a more realistic and expansive view of Appalachia. White’s stories read as more interior monologues or third person tales than speakerly texts directed to an audience. At the end of “All Grown Up,” the speaker says, “I shake my head. He can’t ever give me back what review continued on next page

2019–2020 MANLY WADE WELLMAN AWARD WINNER Michael G. Williams received the 2019–2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award for his novel A Fall in Autumn, published by Fallstaff Books in 2019. Williams’s futuristic noir novel takes his real-life experiences of growing up an outsider and having to find his own truth and puts it in a flying city where a washed-up private eye, reviled for his imperfect genetics, must solve a mystery from the fog-shrouded past. What Williams planned as a detective story wound up a memoir of refusing to settle for less than the truth. Williams is a native of western North Carolina. He has written several short works of speculative fiction, as well as the Withrow Chronicles and the Servant/Sovereign series. He and his husband live in Durham, NC. The Manly Wade Wellman Award was founded by the North Carolina Speculative Fiction Foundation in

2013 to recognize the state’s own speculative fiction writing community. Upon accepting the award, Williams thanked: everyone else who was nominated, the longlist, the shortlist, finalists, most of all for helping to create an environment in North Carolina where it is possible for someone to join in and try to find their voice and be a part of this amazing environment of writers, and feel very supported and very welcomed at all times.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the award ceremony was conducted during the Con-Tinual livestream, which has allowed North Carolina’s conventions to continue online. (Watch the award ceremony here.) Read about Manly Wade Wellman in NCLR 1993. COURTESY OF SAMUEL MONTGOMERY-BLINN

ABOVE Michael G. Williams receiving the Manly Wade Williams

Award from Samuel Montgomery-Blinn at Con-Tinual


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they were. They were the prettiest mixing bowls in the world, a grown-up present bankrolled on Daddy’s weary shoulders” (42). The language communicates the essence of the characters but is seldom played for humor as Hampton sometimes does. Hampton’s stories often have a speakerly voice with a Southern twang. One of the most notable is Beth’s in “Sparkle”: “Since I was thirteen, I have wanted to meet Dolly Parton, to exist for a minute in that cloud of glittery badassness. I don’t even like country music. Just Dolly. All that light; she brings light into the world, or did into mine when I was a kid” (169). Part of the pleasure in Hampton’s stories is the sometimes jarring way the characters tell about their worlds. Hampton can be deft and sensitive, but her general tone ranges from outrageous to thoughtful. White’s tone remains more quiet and lyrical. Both White’s and Hampton’s short story sequences provide thoughtful explorations into their characters’ worlds. White’s is the more technically impressive and haunting of the volumes; Hampton’s speakerly texts recall the raucous humor of Grit Lit – and perhaps even Flannery O’Connor, if she had a hard R rating. The texts add to the increasingly complex body of Appalachian fiction and, since these are debut collections, we can look forward to the unfolding of the authors’ careers in future years. n

A MAP TO EVERLASTING AND LIBERATING TRUTH a review by Philip Gerard Wayne Moore. Triumphant Warrior: A Soul Survivor of the Wilmington Ten. Warrior Press, 2014.

PHILIP GERARD, recipient of the 2019 North Carolina Award for Literature, teaches in the Creative Writing Department at UNC Wilmington. He is the author of, among numerous other books, the novel Cape Fear Rising (Blair, 1994; rpt. 2019; reviewed in NCLR Online 2020), inspired by the 1898 Wilmington coup d’etat. WAYNE MOORE is founder of the Wilmington Ten Foundation for Social Justice, dedicated to serving youth and families in Wilmington, NC.

OPPOSITE L to R, George Kirby, boycott

activist; Reverend Ben Chavis, one of the Wilmington Ten;, and Angela Davis, supporter of the protest to integrate New Hanover County schools and the campaign to free the Wilmington Ten, 1971 (other man not identified)

This eloquent memoir by Wayne Moore is a coming-of-age story of a very special and troubling kind: a Black high school kid, caught up in the ugly politics of desegregation, has his future stolen from him in a travesty of justice that makes international headlines and, over the course of four decades, requires the intervention of Amnesty International, a Congressional delegation, President Jimmy Carter, two governors, and a federal appeals court. “In many ways, I was an allAmerican Black boy fixed on being a man my mama could be proud of,” Moore writes (xvii). As a teenager, he has his heart set on attending Williston Senior High, the engine of upward mobility in Black Wilmington, a school that traces its origins to 1865, when the American Missionary Association established the first classes for liberated Blacks. Moore explains, “If this book had a million pages, it still wouldn’t be enough to convey the bone-deep, heart-deep, pride-deep – love-deep – place Williston Senior High School occupied for generations of us in Wilmington’s AfricanAmerican community” (17). But facing a court order to desegregate its three high schools, in 1968 the school board votes to shut down Williston High and bus its 1,100 Black students to the two white high schools, where they face ongoing harassment from white students and belligerent non-students who attack them on campus – and even from some faculty. In his words, they feel like Williston “refugees” (51). In January 1971, Moore is an eleventh grader at John T. Hoggard, a suburban high school


Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

five miles from his neighborhood. He and a handful of fellow Black students request a memorial assembly to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and are summarily refused. They stage an impromptu sit-in and are expelled, and when the school superintendent offers no help, they stage a citywide school boycott. Students camp out in Gregory Church, which becomes the headquarters for the boycott. A young activist named Reverend Benjamin Franklin Chavis is called in to help steer the effort, and what follows is a cascade of bad choices by white city leaders and attacks by white vigilantes, often abetted by police. Violence overtakes the city for a month, and in the ensuing chaos of shooting and arson, the students’ original – and very modest – demands get lost. Under pressure from white Wilmington to hold someone accountable for the violence and more than two dozen fire bombings of businesses and a church, police and the FBI target nine Black men, including Chavis and

Moore, and one white woman. They are indicted for arson and conspiracy to fire on police officers and firefighters. Moore recounts the surreal nature of their trial, in which prosecutors manufacture testimony from “witnesses” who were not even present during the events in question. “They have all been rehearsed by the state,” James Ferguson II, the young defense counsel, tells the court. “The state is director, producer, and scriptwriter. . . . This case is simply this: it is an attempt to get Ben Chavis” (177). Given that he was the victim of an actual conspiracy to engineer a guilty verdict, Moore could be forgiven if he were to let his emotions cloud his narrative of events. But instead, he lays out with cool precision the facts of the case, presenting evidence, including witness transcripts, that plainly illustrates the prosecutorial shenanigans that come to light later on appeal. Tracking closely with The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s, a scholarly work by

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COURTESY OF NEW HAVEN COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY

Kenneth Robert Janken, director of the UNC Center for the Study of the American South,* Triumphant Warrior offers a detailed and very personal chronicle of the events of 1971. But it is much more. It is the story of how thoughtless, seemingly minor decisions can have catastrophic consequences in a community. How bureaucratic policies can devastate an individual life. How a failure of enlightened leadership – in a school, a police department, a city – can leave its children at the mercy of bullies, robbed of their bright dreams of adulthood. How racism is still, in too many places, the rotten core of the American dream, a lesson we seem to need reminding of again and again. The present Black Lives Matter movement – and the backlash against it – endow this book with renewed urgency. In clear, compelling prose, we follow Moore through the dark days of the violence, the sham trial, and his incarceration, and emerge into the light of his ultimate exoneration. The “triumph” of the title is a personal one, and rather than let himself be consumed by anger and bitterness, Moore emerges from prison having found an inner strength, determined to bear witness to injustice, to make the world a place that bends “toward the just and the humane.” To that end, he established the Wilmington Ten Foundation for Social Justice. He writes, “I hope this memoir can be a map to such a place where truth is everlasting and always liberating” (xxi). Amen. n * Kenneth Robert Janken, The Wilmington Ten: Violence, Injustice, and the Rise of Black Politics in the 1970s (U of North Carolina P, 2016).


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Through a mixture of poetry and fiction, along with references to history, both the anthology All the Songs We Sing, edited by Lenard D. Moore and introduced by North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, and the short fiction collection If I Had Two Wings by Randall Kenan depict a diversity of North Carolina voices and various aspects of Carolina culture and landscape.

ANGELIC VOICES SING IN NORTH CAROLINA

The themes of spirituality, history, and loss in the collection All the Songs We Sing, edited by Lenard D. Moore, are explored via various forms of poetry and prose that effectively reflect the people and landscapes of North Carolina. In “A Reminiscing Daddy,” Moore, reminds us of how quickly life can come to an end as he describes the loss of a daughter when she was a freshman at East Carolina University. In Evie Shockley’s “The Ballad of Bertie County,” we find ghosts of slavery and historic preservation. In the poem “Rattle Grass at Fort Fisher,” Darrell “SCIPOET” Stover describes how “Wind carry whispers” of the US Colored Troops who engaged in the taking of Fort Fisher in Wilmington (102). Poets like L. Teresa Church in “Golden Whistles for Emmett Till” sing of martyrs, as does Diane Judge in “Because of Emmett Till,” who reminds us

a review by Reginald Watson Randall Kenan. If I Had Two Wings: Stories. W.W. Norton, 2020. Lenard D. Moore, Editor. All the Songs We Sing: Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. Blair, 2020.

LENARD D. MOORE, a native of Jacksonville, NC, received the 2014 North Carolina Award for Literature. He has taught at NC A&T, NC State, Shaw University, and the University of Mount Olive, and he has served as President of the Haiku Society of America. His poetry has previously appeared in NCLR 1996, 2004, and NCLR Online 2018, among many other venues and in his several books (many reviewed in NCLR). L. Teresa Church’s essay about his founding of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective in NCLR 2016 is reprinted in the collection reviewed here.

COURTESY OF QUAIL RIDGE BOOKS

REGINALD WATSON earned his PhD from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is an Associate Professor of English at East Carolina University, where he has been awarded the ECU Outstanding Service Award and the NAACP Legacy Award. In addition to his scholarly articles on African American writers, he writes plays, like A Black History Play; The Kwanza Story; I’ve Seen the Mountaintop, But It Don’t Look So Good; and A Princeville Play.

that freedom rides and sit-ins, inspired by Till’s “open coffin,” launched a movement that emancipated the nation (66). Issues of racism past and present are also recalled in Patricia Johnson’s “In a Place Where,” which describes the lynching of G.P. Johnson, who was burned alive and decapitated in Virginia. Celeste Doaks’s “Black Barbie” evokes the regal presence of First Lady Michelle Obama. Other historical figures, like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr., come to life in works by Gina M. Streaty and Moore, while references to slavery and the Middle Passage are brilliantly imagined in “Ashe” by Afefe Lana Tyehimba, in which the poet describes the slave outpost Goree Island and the “Door of No Return” and invokes the African Goddesses Billow and Theit. This collection is full of references to sacrifice during slavery and the civil rights movement, as well as within the context of war. “Sweetness” by Sheila Smith McKoy shows what happens to McKoy’s “bastard cousin” (72), a soldier who returns home, absent without leave, probably struggling with the mental demons of PTSD. His “sweetness” gives way to violence, when he kills himself and his “wayward” wife “miles away from his ‘M-16’” (73). In McKoy’s


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“Sanctuary,” we witness the heroics of Pete Cofield, referred to as the “Dark Soldier,” a man who saves two young Vietnamese boys, Ahn and his brother Hoai, after their village is wiped out. After Hoai dies, Ahn is taken in and given “sanctuary” by the “Dark Soldier,” whose demons predate the war. Like the “bastard cousin” in “Sweetness,” Pete Cofield does not survive Vietnam, which is made painfully clear when Ahn, in his hopes of greeting Pete at the RaleighDurham Airport, is met instead by a woman looking much like Pete, holding a placard with his name on it (162). Like RDU, familiar to many of these books’ readers, various place names in North Carolina – Greenville, Kinston, Durham, and Chapel Hill – are mentioned in Randall Kenan’s new collection, along with his fictional Tims Creek. The book, published just before the author’s untimely passing, seems to foreshadow what transpired on Thursday, August 27th of 2020. The book’s title, If I Had Two Wings, along with the ten stories inside, form an unintentional goodbye message to Kenan’s readers. The collection’s overall tone is not sad, however. I laughed when reading “Now Why Come That Is?” as Percival (Percy) Mal-

OPPOSITE Members of the Carolina

African American Writers’ Collective L. Teresa Church and Lenard D. Moore reading their anthology works during a virtual Zoom launch hosted by Quail Ridge Books of Raleigh, NC, 18 Oct. 2020

colm Terrell is tormented by a hog that only certain people can see. He is a white man with demons, which Kenan brilliantly describes as “a tangle of happenstance and botheration” (195). Percy suffers from his father’s exploitation of the land and the black people who inhabited it. He occupies his own “hell” on earth until the hog disappears from his life, but not before he is forced to see himself in the eyes of the animal. Unfortunately, his suffering is not over by story’s end because in the book’s last story, “God’s Gonna Trouble the Water or, Where Is Marisol?,” it is reported that during a major hurricane, Percy lost his big mansion and all the hog farms that helped make him rich. The theme of reaping what we sow is prevalent as the reader realizes that Percy, like many of the other characters in the work, is definitely no “angel” and the hurricane in the last story is a reminder that God will sometimes cleanse the “hog shit” in the world. The Good must sometimes suffer with the Bad, which is evidenced, too, in the final story when Mrs. Streeter’s housekeeper Marisol loses one of her children during the storm and is forced to relocate. However, throughout the entirety of If I Had Two Wings, Kenan makes it clear that his focus is mostly predicated on

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the positive aspects of spirituality and the divine. Religious imagery is abundant in these stories, especially in the names of the characters, like Cicero Cross, whom we meet in “I thought I Heard the Shuffle of Angels’ Feet.” He is visiting his uncle Dax Cross in the Seraphim Care Assisted Living. The opening scene with his “emaciated and ashen” uncle, whose “coughs thoroughly wracked his body” (27) foreshadows the death coming to Jacson, Cicero’s former lover, who has AIDs. The story ends as Cicero informs his uncle that he will not sell the family land, a decision that seems to calm the irascible old man. In “The Eternal Glory That Is Ham Hocks,” we’re reintroduced to the Cross family in Crosstown. A young man’s mother tells him that, once upon a time, she was asked to cook for a young Howard Hughes. The value systems indigenous to Eastern North Carolina come into play as Mrs. Chasten makes it clear that she can’t be bought, telling Hughes, “I put my family and my responsibilities first. Above all else” (65). Kenan brings life to characters like Ed Phelps, a plumber, whose trip to New York is transformed by music icon Billy Idol, who pretends to mistake him for a

RANDALL KENAN (1957–2020) earned English and Creative Writing degrees from UNC Chapel Hill. He taught courses at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. He also worked for Random House and Alfred A. Knopf before joining the faculty at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the author of a novel, A Visitation of Spirits (Grove Press, 1989); a collection of short stories, Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992); a biography of James Baldwin (Chelsea House, 1993); a collection of oral histories of African Americans, Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the TwentyFirst Century (Random House, 1999); and The Fire This Time (Melville House, 2007). With his passing, he left behind an unfinished book titled There’s a Man Going ‘Round Taking Names. Kenan was the recipient of multiple awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Sherwood Anderson Award, a Whiting Award, the John Dos Passos Prize, the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. He was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2018.


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famous Blues artist; Lazarus Barden II, a minister whose pride is resurrected when he whips his wife’s lover in public; Velmajean Hoyt, the miracle worker who, after resurrecting a dead girl, is exploited by a jack-leg preacher; and Amanda, a young black girl who is protected by an African water spirit as slavecatchers and their dogs approach.

In “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” we meet Gloria Brown, a funeral director/owner who “dreamt her daughter would die in a helicopter” (93). While working to console a man who just recently lost his wife, Gloria starts to think about her daughter, Tamar, who is a soldier serving overseas. The story ends with Gloria saying a silent prayer for her

daughter as her bereaved client looks into her eyes, an indication that he senses her fears. Gloria realizes that she and the man share something, much like “the passing of an angel in the darkness of the night” (98), a reference to Ezekiel’s vision of cherubim that gives us some hope that Tamar will come back to her family alive.

REMEMBERING RANDALL by Margaret D. Bauer the plantation South we began with, and turns them upside down and inside out, along with truths about family and religion, also familiar themes of Southern literature. A few years into my role as NCLR editor, about the time I was beginning to feel some confidence – or at least less anxiety – about approaching North Carolina’s literary luminaries at the many literary events I attended across the state, I saw Randall Kenan just ahead of me as I approached a crosswalk in Chapel Hill during a lunch break from some meeting I was attending. When I reached the light, I caught up with him, turned to him, reassured myself it was him, and reintroduced myself. As I morphed into the COURTESY OF UNC CHAPEL HILL DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH AND COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Randall Kenan was, if not the first, most definitely one of the first “famous writers” I wrote to in my new capacity as Editor of the North Carolina Literary Review some twenty-five years ago. I’d heard about him, read something indicating he was working on an oral history project (his book Walking on Water, it turned out), and asked if he had anything for my first issue of NCLR, which was focusing on oral history. Reading about him, I’d noticed we were the same age, both Pisces, as he was just a few weeks younger than me – which gave me the courage to approach this rising star of North Carolina letters. I smile now at the thought of needing courage to approach Randall Kenan. All he had to do was smile, and you felt welcome in his orbit. Around that time too I heard him read his short story “Foundations of the Earth” at a conference as part of a panel celebrating the new Norton anthology of Southern literature. He was noted to be the youngest writer included, as I recall. That story of a grandmother coming to terms with learning about her grandson’s life only after his death touched my heart. The woman had been taught by her religion that homosexuality was an abomination, but she raised that boy, and loved him, and she was determined to understand him, even if it was too late to tell him he would have been welcome home, whoever he loved. I still teach that story every year in my Southern literature survey course. It is an ideal way to close the class, as the story’s gifted author draws on tropes of

ABOVE Margaret Bauer, NCLR Editor, with Randall Kenan,

inductee into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, Southern Pines, NC, Oct. 2018; OPPOSITE Kenan with Daniel Wallace, Bookmarks, Winston-Salem, NC, Sept. 2019


Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

In “Resurrection Hardware or, Lard & Promises,” a character reminiscent of (and named for) the author himself relates buying an historic home and his dealings with friends in academia. The story takes a strange supernatural turn as the homeowner’s visiting ghost of, apparently, an escaping slave is taken in by a mysterious boatman at the end

of the work. As the boat launches, the narrator says after him, “Take care of yourself, brother. May Jesus and his angels bring you to safety” (140). An image of that same boatman coming back for Kenan is stuck in my mind. As suggested previously, Kenan’s untimely death seems foreshadowed by the epigraph of this great work:

COURTESY OF UNC CHAPEL HILL DEPARTMENT OF ENGLISH AND COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

writer groupie I always become in the presence of the amazing bastions of talent that are part of “the best job an English major could ever find,” he responded graciously, humbly. We chatted (I probably gushed) as we walked along, until we parted ways. And I am certain I thought to myself, not for the first or last time, “I love my job” even though at that moment, I was just crossing a street at an opportune time. But I knew it was my job that brought me to Chapel Hill that day and that had introduced me personally to the man Randall Kenan. The last time I saw Randall, I was on a panel with him, Big Fish author (and Randall’s “boss” at UNC – i.e., director of Creative Writing – Daniel Wal-

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Two Wings to veil my face. Two Wings to veil my feet. Two Wings to fly away, and the world can’t do me no harm.

Well, Randall Kenan, the question implicit in your new book’s title, If I Had Two Wings . . . , is now answered for you: both wings are now intact, and a new angel has been born. Rest in peace. n

lace), and North Carolina Writers’ Network Director Ed Southern during the 2019 Bookmarks festival in Winston-Salem. What fun we had! Randall and Danny were cracking each other up. I am sure that Ed was, like me, glorying in what great jobs we have that we could be part of this, as the four of us discussed what it is about North Carolina that inspires so much great literature. The community of writers, we all agreed. Writers here are so supportive of each other – as evidenced by the playful chiding among the four of us. Randall Kenan was such an example of this support, as you can hear about if you listen to the memorial service UNC conducted online after their beloved colleague’s passing.* As colleagues, friends, all clearly loved ones read from the literary treasure left to us by the man they were (are) mourning, I could hear Randall’s strong voice come through each reader. I may not be able to talk with Randall at the next literary event about the short story in his newest collection, in which he places a character named Randall Kenan, but we can all read and reread his five books of fiction and nonfiction and the collections he edited that reflect his participation within the writing community. Yes, he might have written more, if he had not been such a devoted teacher, but he leaves an equally enduring legacy of guidance to the students and other writers he mentored over the years. Doris Betts would have been – was – so proud of how he reflected what makes North Carolina what she called the writingest state. n

* Find here a link to watch the many tributes recorded for “Homegoing: A Celebration of the Life of Randall Kenan,” as well as more information about Randall Kenan and his literary legacy and the Randall Kenan Memorial Fund.


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Established in 1999, the Thomas Wolfe Prize “recognizes contemporary writers with distinguished bodies of work. And in doing so, the program seeks to give University students and the surrounding community the opportunity to hear important writers of their time.” Due to the restrictions to gathering safely during the pandemic, the “surrounding community” for the 2020 award lecture extended far beyond the Chapel Hill area. On October 6, from his home in Texas, North Carolina native and author of eleven books Michael Parker accepted the award and entertained his listeners on Zoom. Parker graduated with honors in Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill in 1984, then earned an MFA at the University of Virginia in 1988. He joined the faculty at UNC Greensboro, eventually serving as the Dr. Nicholas A. Vacc and Dr. Nancy N. Vacc Distinguished Professor of English. He retired in 2019 after almost thirty years. His previous honors include three O. Henry Awards for short fiction, the 1994 Sir Walter Raleigh Award, the 2006 North Carolina Award for Literature, and the 2010 R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award for significant contributions to North Carolina Literature. Introducing Parker, Elizabeth J. Gualtieri-Reed, Chair of English and Comparative Literature at UNC, described his work as “the kind of startling fiction that * Quotations are from the “History of the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture,” UNC English & Comparative Literature, web; Parker’s eleventh book is due out in 2021. Read more about the event in Kelly Kendall, “‘Carolina is in my blood’: UNC Alumnus Awarded 2020 Thomas Wolfe Prize,” Daily Tar Heel 7 Oct. 2020: web.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TERRY KENNEDY

MICHAEL PARKER AWARDED 2020 THOMAS WOLFE PRIZE

wakes us up to life – our own lives, as well as the lives of his deeply human characters. Their troubles, their failures, their hopes, desires, missteps, and redemptions are our own.” Parker’s former UNC professor Marianne Gingher noted that although his work has been compared to writers like William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, “his own bluesy, North Carolinainflected voice sing[s]” through. Read an interview with him, conducted by one of his former students, in NCLR 2005. n ABOVE Michael Parker visiting with Editor Margaret Bauer

at the NCLR exhibit table during the 2019 Festival of Books and Authors, Winston-Salem, NC, 7 Sept. 2019

Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize $1000 for winner and finalists selected for publication (at least $250 for the prize-winning essay)

SUBMISSION PERIOD: JANUARY 15–MARCH 1

2021 Final Judge: Michael Parker Submission guidelines here No submission fee / Subscription required to submit


Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

In Requiem for a Nun, William Faulkner writes the oft-quoted line, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”1 Jill McCorkle has taken this quotation to heart in her newest novel, Hieroglyphics, by giving us a book in which characters dig through their memories to help them make sense of their present. Lil, half of a married couple who has moved from Boston to North Carolina in their eighties, lives almost completely in her past, reading through old diary entries and letters that she will leave for her two children when she dies. The entries and notes reveal the course and secrets of her marriage to Frank, a retired archeology professor, who once strayed from his marriage to have an affair with a younger colleague. Like Frank, who spent his life’s work sifting through signs and symbols of the past, Lil is searching for her own Rosetta Stone to help her understand the hieroglyphics of their life together. Frank is also exploring his past, trying to get access to his old childhood home to see if the bottle of trinkets he left in the backyard is still there. Examining the past and its influence on the present is not the only nod to Faulkner in this novel. In fact, McCorkle seems to channel Faulkner in many ways. The novel includes multiple characters through whose eyes events are told, even braving the mind of a six-year-old, much like Faulkner did in As I Lay Dying. In the short story “A Rose for Emily,” Faulkner

JILL MCCORKLE AND LEE SMITH MINE THE PAST, AND BOTH FIND GOLD a review by Barbara Bennett Jill McCorkle. Hieroglyphics: A Novel. Algonquin Books, 2020. Lee Smith. Blue Marlin. Blair, 2020.

BARBARA BENNETT is a Professor of English at NC State University. She is the author of five books including Understanding Jill McCorkle (University of South Carolina Press, 2000) and Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor (Louisiana State University Press, 1998). She is a frequent contributor to NCLR, including an interview with Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle in NCLR 2016. She lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

1

William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (Random House, 1951) 73.

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describes the memories of Civil War veterans as “not a diminishing road, but, instead, a huge meadow which no winter ever quite touches, divided from them now by the narrow bottleneck of the most recent decade of years.”2 Like much of Faulkner’s work, McCorkle’s story is not told chronologically, but rather the reader is given small snippets of stories through memory and its artifacts, like pieces of a puzzle that the reader has to put together to understand the tale. As Lil notes, “It’s mysterious how fluid time has become for me; I wake and pour a glass and have no idea what I’ll find” (15). As is often true in Faulkner’s work, McCorkle’s novel is built around tragedy and violence. Both Lil and Frank lost parents at an early age, and they still seek to understand the meaning behind these random events. Neither one has completely accepted the unplanned abandonment of a parent, haunted as they both are by questions. A third major character is Shelley, a court stenographer with a six-year-old son, Harvey. Shelley records word for word court cases about murders and rapes and bodies stored in freezers, and she, too, is affected by the “what ifs” of each tragedy. Her son, himself a victim of a cleft palate that has left him with a scar he covers with pretend moustaches, has absorbed these tragedies through his mother and his older brother, who is in college. Harvey can’t help but repeat to

2

William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily,” Collected Stories of William Faulkner (Random House, 1950).


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his friends the grisly things he has heard about, and Shelley seems at a loss about what to do to allay his fears, as she also confronts her own painful past. In fact, this book is about being a child and trying to understand the grown-up world, but it’s also about being a grown-up and realizing it still does not all make sense, especially when looking back and trying to comprehend childhood. The stories of the two families at first seem to be linked very tenuously: Shelley and Harvey live in the house where Frank grew up, and he comes by Shelley’s house to ask to walk through it, only to be turned away by Shelley who is too unsure about just what this elderly gentleman wants. In the end, though, we find that old people and children have much in common, and there is a generational connection that ties the stories together.

Lee Smith also delves deeply into the past, but it is her own past – at least a fictionalized version of her past. In “Geographical Cure,” an addendum to her new novella, Blue Marlin, Smith tells us the “real” story, at least as real as memory can get.3 Smith writes that in January 1959, she and her mother and father drove south to Key West, FL, in order to “cure” her parents’ emotional ailments as well as their faltering marriage. The question is, why doesn’t Smith just tell that story as nonfiction? Because, she writes, “I can tell the truth better in fiction than nonfiction. Real life is often chaotic, mysterious, unfathomable,” but with fiction, “you can instill some sort of order to create meaning, so that the story will make sense – where real life so often does not” (118). Smith begins the tale long before the Key West trip, with

McCorkle said in a phone interview that this is the novel she’s wanted to write for a long time but hadn’t been ready to write. It is definitely her darkest novel to date. Tragedies of all kinds abound in her earlier work, but they’re always tempered by a wry sense of humor and scenes of comic relief. In Hieroglyphics, there is little to laugh at, although McCorkle believes that the novel is ultimately hopeful – a thin line of hope, surely. It is a sophisticated novel, though, as McCorkle brings us gently into the lives of her characters, filling in their stories gracefully, and making the reader comfortable being observers in their existence. Like most McCorkle novels, the plot is not the point; rather, it is the development of characters whose thoughts and memories open us up to the possibilities of living in this confusing world, either as a child or an adult.

JILL McCORKLE is the author of eleven books, including Creatures of Habit (2001; reviewed in NCLR 2003), “Final Vinyl Days” and Other Stories (Algonquin Books, 1998; reviewed in NCLR 1999), and Life After Life (2013; reviewed in NCLR Online 2014), all published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, the R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award for Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2018. She is a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and a participating faculty member in the MFA program at NC State. She grew up in Lumberton, NC, and now lives in Hillsborough with her husband, Tom Rankin.

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The story appeared as “Live Bottomless” in an earlier collection of short stories called News of the Spirit (1997; reviewed in NCLR 1998). ABOVE Frances Mayes (right) talking with

Jill McCorkle (left) about her new novel at a virtual booklaunch hosted by Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 28 July 2020 (Watch on Flyleaf's Facebook page.)


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a paragraph that is one of the most engaging first paragraphs I’ve read in a long time. It’s pure Lee Smith. It starts with protagonist Jenny’s personal revelation that “In 1958, when my father had his famous affair with Carroll Byrd, I knew it before anybody” and ends with “Before, I’d been just any old thirteen-year-old girl on a bike. Now I was a girl whose father was having an affair – a tragic girl, a dramatic girl. A girl with a burning secret. Everything was different” (1). And dramatic she is, secretly spying on neighbors and imagining the most amazing things going on in her small town. While Smith admits that “most of this book is my own creation” (121) and in fact her father never had an affair, an affair is just the spice the book and the thirteen-year-old Jenny need to add even more drama to her fledgling and so far, inconseCOURTESY OF SIBA

ABOVE Lee Smith giving a virtual reading

with the Reader Meet Writer program sponsored by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, 2 June 2020 (Watch here.)

quential life. When the affair is unveiled and Jenny’s mother has to spend time at a retreat to recover from the shock and humiliation, Jenny is sent to Cousin Glenda, a Bible-thumping Christian who somehow convinces Jenny that she must be good in order for her parents to reunite. Smith admits that “I just made Glenda up, feeling that I needed some humor at this point” (118), but I have to argue with that. The novel is packed with classic Smith humor, from absurd but endearing character traits (Jenny wants to be a professional mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs when she grows up) to crazy (but true) details of cohabitating with movie stars in a motel called the Blue Marlin when they are in Key West, meeting Tony Curtis, and becoming extras in a movie called Operation Petticoat. This is the kind of story that could only happen to Lee Smith, and she is the author to do it justice in its fictional retelling. Tales of initiation are a staple in American literature, but this one will make you smile more than most. Jenny does follow the classic pattern of separation, initiation, and return, and she does fight her own demons as well as the dragons in the world in order to come to a new understanding of life and love – and

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the movies. But Smith does it so affably that the reader follows along jovially, enjoying the ride. Jenny doesn’t become perfect, as she believes Cousin Glenda wants her to be, by doing a good deed every day (one of which involves taking gifts to prostitutes near her hotel in Key West). And it’s not Jenny who saves her parents’ marriage. But she is changed both physically and emotionally, as is the norm in tales of initiation. Near the end of the Key West visit, she notices “that I had gotten such a nice tan and a new haircut and had my ears pierced and did not have to be good anymore. I had grown up, I felt. I had been tongue-kissed, and lived among stars” (110). When she goes home and finally gets her period and grows breasts, something she had begun to believe would never happen, she admits, “I will never be really good again. I am not good. I am as ornery and difficult and inconsolable as Carroll Byrd” (113). Smith claims that “of all the stories I’ve ever written, this one is dearest to me, capturing the essence of my own childhood” (117), but I hope it’s not her last romp through her childhood. Let’s all hope she has many more memories that can be turned into enchanting and, as Jenny would say, dramatic! tales. n

LEE SMITH was born in Grundy, VA, but now makes her home in Hillsborough, NC, with her husband, Hal Crowther. She has written seventeen books of fiction and a memoir, including Dimestore: A Writer’s Life (Algonquin Books, 2016; reviewed in NCLR Online 2017). Her career has garnished numerous awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature and the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel Oral History (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998) is discussed in essays in NCLR 1998 and 2008, and The Last Girls (Algonquin, 2002) is discussed in NCLR 2014. She was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2008. Read a new interview with her in the 2021 print issue of NCLR.


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THE HEART OF THE STORY a review by Tanya Long Bennett Monique Truong. The Sweetest Fruits: A Novel. Viking, 2019.

TANYA LONG BENNETT grew up in Texas and earned her PhD in English at the University of Tennessee. She is a Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. In addition to numerous journal publications, she is the author of “I have been so many people”: A Study of Lee Smith’s Fiction (University Press of North Georgia, 2014). She is a regular reviewer for and an editorial board member of NCLR. MONIQUE TRUONG was born and raised in Saigon, South Vietnam, before coming to the US as a refugee. She settled in Boiling Springs, NC, which also served as the setting for her second novel Bitter in the Mouth (Random House, 2010). This novel received the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Family Foundation Award. Her first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), was a national bestseller and received seven different awards. This third novel has so far received the 2020 John Gardner Fiction Book Award and was named among the best fiction of 2019 by Publishers Weekly, Mental Floss, and PopMatters. Read an essay on a Truong short story in NCLR 2004 and, in NCLR 2015, an essay on her North Carolina novel and an interview with her.

Monique Truong’s readers have come to expect from her novels both captivating storytelling and rich, delicious prose. Those expectations are certainly met and exceeded in her 2019 novel, The Sweetest Fruits. Narrated by four women, over six decades, the novel unfolds the life of historic figure Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, who was born in 1850 on the Ionian island of Santa Maura and died in 1904 in Ōkubo, Japan. In between, Hearn found his way to Ireland, England, the US, and the Caribbean Islands. Born of a Greek mother and an Irish father, Hearn experienced loneliness, poverty, and creative frustration at times, yet over the course of his life, he achieved fame and success as a writer and earned respect as a translator and as a professor of English literature in Japan. A keen observer of culture and an adventurer at heart, he is best known today as one of the first to provide Westerners with a glimpse into the culture of Japan, which, upon his arrival in 1890, had only recently opened up to the West. Portrayal of such a fascinating though underappreciated figure through historical fiction is certainly a worthwhile pursuit. Yet, Truong goes a step further: To portray Hearn in all his complexity, this work of historical fiction diverges from the conventional strategy of a single point of view, instead decentering the narrative provocatively in order to remind us that “you can’t understand only one man’s story. Those around him have things to say too” (150). To render a richer version of Hearn and, simultaneously, reflect the complex and important dynamic of human story-

telling, Truong yields the floor first to Hearn’s mother, Rosa Antonia Cassimati, who, as she dictates a letter to her son, has just left two-year-old “Patricio” with his Irish great aunt. This great aunt has agreed to make “Patrick” her heir under the condition that he be left to her guardianship, so Rosa is returning to Santa Maura to deliver and raise her third child, with whom she is now pregnant. Although Hearn never receives the letter, the story Rosa tells in it is intended to explain why she has made the decision to leave him and to provide him with an understanding of his own history, which is contingent on hers. In a narrative that follows this letter, Alethea Foley describes Hearn’s early adult life in America in an interview with biographer Elizabeth Bisland. Having been released from slavery at age nine or ten by the Emancipation Proclamation, Alethea is still unable to read and write, but having been married to “Pat” for over five years, and possessing a strong imagination and narrative voice of her own, she is able to illuminate for Bisland a great deal about Hearn’s character, experiences, and development as a young journalist. Finally, his second wife, Koizumi Setsu, tells of Hearn’s later life, of their time together in Japan where he seems to have matured and his reputation solidified. Although it might be tempting to oversimplify the novel’s message and view these three women’s stories as political usurpations of Hearn’s own, Truong places these narratives, to interesting effect, in relief against excerpts from the more conventional biography that

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Elizabeth Bisland published in 1906, The Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn. The resulting structure highlights the fullness of understanding achievable only by juxtaposing official accounts with contingent stories, such as the unconventional narratives of Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu. It might be argued that Truong plays “fast and loose” with the truth in employing this strategy, but as the final arbiter, she follows the advice of Shigeyuki, a former student of Hearn’s who transcribes Setsu’s narrative onto paper for Bisland: “Facts are akin to fish bones. . . . If what you want is to serve the flesh, then the bones can be discarded” (234). To read this book is to take a captivating journey across time, continents, and cultures and to return with greater understanding of storytelling as a fundamental human impulse as well as of the contingent quality of truth, since all stories overlap like expanding rings of water when a handful of pebbles is flung into it. If what I have described thus far sounds like a confusing compilation of narratives, let me clarify. The novel reveals the events of Hearn’s life chronologically for the most part, our desire for resolution pulling us forward, as with any compelling story. But each narrator’s personality is manifest in her narrative, her own stories enriching its texture. During Bisland’s interview of Alethea, whom she ultimately does not even name in her commercial biography, Alethea defends herself against

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Bisland’s impatience with her tangents. In what Bisland perceives as an irrelevant side story involving Althea’s friend Charlotte, Alethea insists that such overlappings are crucial: “Charlotte and I, we grew up with stories that were brambly, full of leaves, and with branches going every which way. When you reached the middle was when you were rewarded with the juic[iest] berries, the sweetest fruits” (81). She offers a subtle, if rustic, lesson to Bisland – “There’s more than one way to arrive at the truth” (136) – illustrating with her own account that the meaning of Pat’s story is contingent on the stories that overlap his. When she presents Bisland with a note that exemplifies Pat’s clever communications with Alethea through pictograms preceding and during their marriage, drawing himself as a raven and her as a dove, she clarifies for Bisland: “To see these bits of paper . . . for what they are, you would have to know my story” (149).

Setsu exhibits understanding of how complex story-making is, as well, noting that a story’s features should be based on purpose and audience. The narrative she offers here is the second telling of her life with Hearn, the first having been a quick version requested by Bisland for the biography. This second telling is to the ghost of Hearn himself, ostensibly to cast the full experience of their lives into words before she “redact[s]” it (185) into another book for public consumption, one she will call Reminiscences, which she hopes will support her and the four children she had with Hearn, now that he has passed away. With the novel’s structure, Truong calls attention to the stories that many official histories lack. It is not surprising that of the intriguing figures portrayed in the novel, the person whose legacy is preserved in historic annals is Hearn, a white Western scholar, writer, and traveler of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

a ABOVE Monique Truong at East Carolina University with (left to right) NCLR Editorial

Assistant Megan Brown and Editor Margaret Bauer and Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Whichard Distinguished Professor in the Humanities Kirstin Squint, Greenville NC, 1 Oct. 2019


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Rosa is denied an education altogether because, as her father explains, there will always “be a man present to tell [her] what was written and what was important to know” (9). Alethea began life as chattel, in the eyes of her society, a system that not only assumes the irrelevance of literacy for slaves but requires their illiteracy to sustain itself. Setsu, allowed to go school until the age of eleven, when she was assigned to work as a seamstress in the textile industry, can read and write Japanese, but the only outlet she finds for these abilities is as Hearn’s assistant. Even as the novel reveals the inequities of history, however, it immerses the reader in a sublime world of relationships

and words. Although Hearn “borrow[s]” the tales of his wives and others to publish in newspapers and story collections, those narratives benefit much from the collaborative process by which they are produced. According to Alethea and Setsu, Hearn’s rapt attention to their tales as well as his pleas for their repetition bring great pleasure to both the teller and the listener. When he revises these stories for his own purposes and audiences, he changes and interchanges details as needed, in order to generate “the snake [that] can creep underneath the readers’ skin” (139). Because Hearn does not write about his own life, his stories, Alethea alleges, are “full of holes” (92),

and, she asserts, sometimes he “miss[es] the heart of the story” (123). To achieve the effect he desires, though, Hearn learns to take advantage of Alethea’s and Setsu’s editorial sensibilities, particularly when his wives can often introduce him to a captivating story as well as recognize its “heart.” One wonders if, on some level, Truong herself identifies with Hearn, adept at gathering stories she has heard and read, and linking them artfully with others to create something both true and beautiful. In any case, this sophisticated work of historical fiction, with its brambles and “branches going every which way,” definitely offers readers a taste of “the juic[iest] berries, the sweetest fruits.” n

Doris Betts Fiction Prize Short Story Competition

SUBMISSION PERIOD: SEPTEMBER 15–OCTOBER 31

Final Judge: Monique Truong author of Bitter in the Mouth

Winner receives $250 and publication in NCLR and up to $250 for finalists selected for publication Submission guidelines here SPONSORED BY


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IN SEARCH OF “WONDERS HIDDEN AND HUGE” a review by James W. Kirkland Peg Bresnahan. Hunger to Share: Poems. Press 53, 2019.

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Following a course similar to that of her previous book, In a Country None of Us Called Home (2014), Peg Bresnahan’s latest collection, Hunger to Share, skillfully blends almost fifty new and previously published poems in five thematically grouped sections: “Picking Threads off a Lover,” “Wonders Hidden and Huge,” “Fringe of Magic Carpet,” “The Other Side of Air,” and “Enormous Things.” The borders between sections, however, are extremely fluid, the poems in one part linked overtly or implicitly with those preceding and following, all of them inviting us to join her on what she describes in the book’s dedication as “life’s surprising journey.” Nowhere is this boundary crossing more evident than in the frequent iterations of the phrase “hunger to share.” We see it first on the cover of the book, which depicts a scene from the flower-candle ceremony later described in the poem “Rickshaw through the Night: Varanasi,” and there are notable variations in two earlier poems, “Picking Threads from a Lover” – where a lovers’ quarrel ends with the speaker imagining her love “leaping out open windows, / loose on the macadam, hungry for air” – and “Knife Lake” – where a camping trip “up in the Boundary Waters” of the Great Lakes reveals the “miracles [that] surround us”: . . . I woke my tent mate. We sat at the edge of Knife Lake zipped in sleeping bags, sipped wine . . . until Aurora Borealis unplugged. If I’m the last creature alive, no matter what shape earth is in, and I discover a wonder hidden or huge, I know I’ll panic, break into an icy sweat with the hunger to share. My tongue will swell with the intensity of untelling.

JAMES W. KIRKLAND has taught in the East Carolina University Department of English for over fifty years. His reviews and articles on subjects ranging from Melville’s literary uses of tall tale tradition to composition pedagogy and magico-religious healing traditions have appeared in English Language Notes, Medium Aevum, Western Folklore, North Carolina Folklore Journal, Tar River Poetry, and other journals. He has co-authored or co-edited seven books, including Writing with Confidence: A Modern College Rhetoric (Heath, 1989), Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today (Duke University Press, 1992) and Concise English Handbook, 4th ed. (Houghton, 1997). PEG BRESNAHAN graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Her poetry has appeared in Kakalak, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and The Great Smokies Review. The poet has been a finalist twice in the James Applewhite Poetry Prize, and her poems have been published in NCLR Online 2016 and 2017. She lives in Cedar Mountain, NC.

Other “wonders hidden and huge” are in fact pervasive in all sections of the book, conveyed in language rich in sensory details: the sight of sandhill cranes – “slate gray, / the male with crimson crown” – feeding along the shore of a mountain lake, where “coontail and duckweed thicken” and the “birds’ footsteps send watery rings” (“Lake Clara”); the “mesmerizing tremolo / of loons, dawn’s frescoed sky – / birch and spruce netted with mist” (“Chicken Bone Lake”); “the taste of plunder, / the sound of hooves / as they paw, maraud,” (“Portent”); “volts of dry lightning” that “split the seams of night” (“Skin”); the “clear pool above the falls” on Buckhorn Creek that “mirrors hemlocks, sweet gums, chinquapins” (“Small Piece of the World”); and “Mekong’s Golden Triangle,” where “Fairy bush flowers cascade over cliffs, rocks tall / as temples stand along shore or in the water” (“World of One Thousand Greens”).


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officer who in the poem of that title Bresnahan imagines reflecting on his unexpected encounter with a group of foreign tourists, including her and her husband, who arrive at a remote village on the Upper Mekong River on a pig boat after their luxury liner had run aground: My kiosk sits on the bluff. Deities lean from their spirit houses. I protect the river and the valley That fans from the water like dragon wings. Tourists have never left Laos from the Upper Mekong before. I was told to expect them in a luxury riverboat.

While the majority of the poems in Hunger to Share remind us of the beauty and sublimity of the earth – “its history, / waterfalls, moss-coated boulders, / the creatures calling it home” (“Commodity”) – others tell a very different story. In "Finding Jeff," Bresnahan recalls the day thirty years earlier when a polar vortex swept her friend Jeff off a bluff above Lake Michigan “through brittle brush that snapped and tore,” leaving him encased in ice, “his mouth crystal.” In “Girl in a Red Dress,” she takes us to the coast of Southeast Asia, where in 2004, “the seabed slipped and fell to its knees / unleashing a crescendo of energy that roared . . . toward the beach and reared, a wall of water taller than the tallest palm.” And in “On the Outskirts of Phenom Penh,” the setting shifts to the killing fields of Cambodia, where “after the rains, / the soil weeps bone, teeth, pieces of fabric” and the screams of the victims still haunt the memory of the survivors, including the tour guide, who speaks the final words of the poem: They came for me, took me to a boy’s compound. I was twelve – in charge of a cow. If I brought her back at dusk, I lived. One day the cow disappeared. I crawled through a rice field. It belched rancid odors. A forest of chankiri trees. That’s where I found her. Loud speakers rigged to the trees blared sounds of heavy machinery mixed with music to smother the screams. I still hear it.

In other poems, too, we hear different voices – most memorably that of the Laotian customs

ABOVE Peg Bresnahan and her husband, Dan, on

the Mekong, crossing the border from Laos to China

These people are on a pig barge. They don’t like walking the gunwale. They step to the rock around the family with a pig as if they didn’t want to touch them. I cannot allow them to sail to Jing Hong. The deities agree.

More typical in terms of narrative point of view and poetic form are the many poems in which Bresnahan speaks directly to other people within the respective works. “To the woman who said, Deer are like rats, they are everywhere,” for example, is a poem-length response to the title character’s sentiments, a prayer for “any god / to place” the dying doe that has just struck the narrator’s car “in the bowl of sky so at night / everyone would see her / bounding beside Pegasus.” “The Mortician Explains” is a dramatic dialogue in two stanzas, the first spoken by the mortician – who explains in cold, depersonalized language how, after cremating the speaker’s mother, he will “scoop her skeleton / into a special blender / and pulverize, / sift the metal and plastic from her hip and back” – and the second by the daughter, who counters with an eloquently understated testimonial to the things “that held her together” the “turquoise silk blouse and skirt she wore, the stockings and girdle she refused to be without.” A few poems later, in a brief moment of comic relief (“Regrets Only”), the poet addresses her deceased friend Howard, contrasting his “ignoble exit” with her imagined “class act” demise at “A restaurant like Le Bernardin on 51st, / me in my red silk that flares at the knees, / those bell earrings with the


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rhinestone clappers, / four-inch stilettos, sipping Dom Perignon.” Similar in form but different in subject and tone are poems such as “Auricles,” one of several dramatic monologues in which the poet shares with her husband Dan her love for both him and the wondrous world that lies just beyond their doorstep: When the cat hid one of your hearing aids in my hiking boot, I walked down the trail with its rub. My big toe heard a mole tunnel among sassafras roots, a rabbit thump its warning. We don’t have conversations the way we once did. No longer do I ask a question from another room, talk with my back turned. Now, it’s face to face. When the phone rings for you, I walk rooms, hallways, rap on closed doors. Absurd to be annoyed when I cannot imagine you gone, the house an echo, your office a space for guests. Do you know at night, when I round the corner into our room, the first thing I look for is the hill of your feet beneath the sheet?

As these few examples suggest, Bresnahan is a gifted storyteller with a lyric sensibility and an acute awareness of the power of metaphor and other forms of figurative expression to transform commonplace events into moments of transcendent understanding or to ground even the strangest experiences in the realities of everyday life. A hike along a mountain trail takes a surreal turn when the poet imagines her big toe listening, with a hearing aid deposited in her boot by the family cat, to the sounds of nearby animals. In "Wisteria," “Purple flowers / swaying in the dark” are cloaked in cosmic grandeur as they fall, not from branches but, in the poet’s imagination, from the “slender waists” of the “seven celestial sisters” of the Pleiades. In “Summer Music,” an outdoor concert is magically transformed into an intricately choreographed dance performed by “moths, mayflies, lacewings” that “swooped Mahler’s First” then “vanished in an arabesque / among riggings of light and sound.” In “Night Walk,” a snake, briefly illuminated in a flashlight’s “circle of light” appears “cloaked in the last sun / like a new skin,” while in “Skin,” the old skin of a copperhead found “yards from our front door” provides the basis for an extended simile likening the snake’s shedding of

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its skin to the human desire to slip into new and younger selves, like some imagined billionaire at “a clinic / in the Alps,” who “just when his old form was comfortable . . . zips into a twenty / year old, his cerebrum filled with hindsight, / bursting to do it right – this time with style.” Inanimate objects come to life in what Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea describes in another context as moments of “dazzling revelation.” The moon in “Portent,” like some gigantic beast, “hooks its horn / over the mountain, / borrows the sun / to light its own lantern.” In “Picking Up Litter along Sky Valley Road,” a “mason jar labeled Watermelon Moonshine” nestled among beer cans, hubcaps, and other litter at the edge of a mountain highway brings to mind “lunar light, the black-seeded smile / of a red-haired witch / sweeping the sky with her broom, / the glow of a strawberry moon.” The “Finding Jeff” winter storm that “carved . . . into sculpture” a car parked too near Lake Michigan seems endowed with artistic powers commensurate with those of the metal sculptor in the poem “Firebird” who welds a “sheet of steel” into “what he saw behind his eyes” – a living figure “wreathed in flame . . . ecstatic in the welder’s light” – and the wood artist of “A Tree Holds Its Story Close” who liberates from a rectangular block of Spanish oak “The Swimmer [who] waited inside.” Ultimately, “life’s surprising journey” and the “hunger to share” all the discoveries made along the way converge in the book’s final poem, “Our Last Night.” Set on the Upper Mekong River, between Laos and Myanmar – countries far distant from the places the passengers called home – they gather “two by two” on the deck of the pig barge, now reimagined as “ark,” to pay tribute to the river god Naga in a ceremony that reminds us one last time that “miracles surround us” everywhere: Dan and I face each other, grip a bamboo frame shaped like a lampshade wrapped in rice paper, each end open, poised to fly. The fuel cell ignites, billows light. Arms stretched high, we release our fiery plea. Stranded on a rock At midnight, in the middle of the Upper Mekong, Myanmar on one side, Laos on the other, we hold the moon. n


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In a novel that is richly echoic without being derivative, Marly Youmans’s Charis in the World of Wonders reaches into a deep repository of traditions (literary and psychological), and posits answers to protagonist Charis Herrick’s probing questions. Reflecting the stop-start nature of life itself, Youmans varies the pace and scale of her novel, from intensely concentrated detailed writing about a “small” event or a short moment, to a rapid excursion through a longer period of time. Charis in the World of Wonders offers diverse sources of enjoyment – an exciting adventure saga, for example. Or, readers interested in the philosophical concepts of time and place, tracing the path of Charis’s adventure offers attractions. For readers interested in history, the book presents a vivid and engaging picture of “a world lit only by fire.”1 Or for those of a metaphysical bent, there is the fascination of the bewildering “forests” of contradictions that drive Every Woman Charis’s interior, psychological journeys. For readers who relish the mot juste, there is delicate and nuanced writing craft and a sparkling use of kennings. My own recommendation is to read the book for all of its many wonders. Set in the late seventeenth century in Falmouth, ME (just north of present-day Portsmouth, an outpost of the civilization of the time), Charis’s adventure begins during an attack on her town and her home. With parents who them-

HOMAGE TO HAWTHORNE: A (NEW) WONDER BOOK a review by Lorraine Hale Robinson Marly Youmans. Charis in the World of Wonders. Ignatius Press, 2020.

LORRAINE HALE ROBINSON is Instructor Emerita in East Carolina University’s Department of English where she served as NCLR Senior Associate Editor from 1998 until her retirement in 2013. During her tenure on staff, she wrote the serialized “Dictionary of North Carolina Writers” and numerous sidebars. MARLY YOUMANS grew up in Cullowhee, NC, and other places in the South. She received degrees from Hollins College (now University), Brown University, and UNC Chapel Hill and now lives in Cooperstown, NY. Read interviews with her in NCLR 2006 and NCLR Online 2020. She has published poetry and had several of her books reviewed in NCLR and NCLR Online, and she has served as a regular NCLR reviewer.

1

William Manchester, The World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age (Little, Brown, 1993).

selves embraced the unknown, Charis is heir to the same courage and trail-blazing spirit that led her parents to leave the relative comfort and safety of Boston for the remote, northern settlement. Taking her younger sister Mary with her, Charis flees the attack and finds her way – literally by a thread – to a “bower place” in the forest, the first of her journey’s many waypoints (27). The “green shelter” provides brief respite, but Mary will die in the forest and her body will be – necessarily – abandoned there, a wrenching choice for Charis (33). At that point, Charis will embark alone on a journey that will take her from Maine across coastal New Hampshire and into Massachusetts where she will eventually marry and settle until accused of witchcraft. Her escape from her imprisonment while awaiting trial and her final river-crossing form the last events of the book. Marly Youmans takes Charis and readers on an exciting quest that has many parallels with the classic mythological hero journey articulated by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Time is the thread that leads Charis inexorably forward as the “call to adventure” summons her from the past and propels her through a series of challenging tests and trials.2 Charis wants to “go back,” but in the charred remains of her home and her past, there is nothing to which she can return. Mehitabel Holt, a sometime friend during Charis’s later sojourn in the “frampled”

2

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, 2nd ed. (Princeton UP, 1968) 58.


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Holt household (89), reminds Charis, “We cannot go back. We can only go forward” (101). Charis experiences and reexperiences the separations and initiations of Campbell’s classic hero journey, but at the end of the novel, for Charis, there is no absolute sense of the stasis of a settled return: she is still on the move, saying “we . . . made our way” (314). For Youmans, “time [is] a kind of place,” and her own interest in colonial New England was intensified both by family involvement with a 2015 production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and by a personal attraction to the writers (Old World and New World) of the period.3 That interest was deepened when she was an alternate fellow at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA, and her probing research there is reflected in the historical authenticity of the novel as it unfolds. In Charis in the World of Wonders, the author produces ever-widening concentric bands of enquiry, and, for the twenty-first century reader, Youmans’s enduring text becomes larger than the author alone, larger than the characters in the book, and larger than the circles of present-day readers. An appealing aspect of Youmans’s craft is the novel’s exploration of the tense layers of contradictions in New England 1690. The broad assumptions of that time and place were, as assumptions are today, just that – mere assumptions. Charis herself (an educated female with

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some knowledge of Greek and Latin) contradicts the expectations for seventeenth-century women, as she contemplates and lives out her resolutions to these tensions. She assumed that home was safe and the forest dangerous; however, reality is quite the opposite: Falmouth burns to the ground, and the forest provides safety and haven. In the forest, Charis and her sister are “secure and sheltered” (27), and, as Charis continues her journey, she discovers that the “wild world was often more lovely than [she] had been told” (64). Charis is equally (and ironically) astonished that, upon arriving at one of her early jour-

Barbara [No Last Name], “Q and A with Marly Youmans, Author of Charis in the World of Wonder,” Women Writers, Women[’s] Books, 11 Apr. 2020: web; subsequently cited parenthetically.

ney way-points, she is “alarmed in the safety of rooms with English people” (91). Through the course of the novel, Youmans presents the reader with a woman who becomes increasingly self-aware of life’s dissonances: using observation and the evidence of her senses, Charis reconciles and brings to equipoise those contradictions. The ability to see things from differing perspectives was suspect in much of the orthodoxy-driven culture of 1690 New England – tacit acceptance of received wisdom was the norm. Mehitabel Holt remarks that, for her, the onset of winter meant bringing with

ABOVE Collage of art by Clive Hicks-

Jenkins featured in Youmans’s novel


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it the vague fears that “wolves will sing their weird, wavery songs, and they will come into town and howl for flesh,” but Charis remembers actually seeing wolves, and “how eerie but peaceful it had been” (147–48). The evidence of her own actual experience – not divination with sieve or scissors – will be Charis’s beacon, as she remarks, “Falmouth . . . changed me so that my mind was always double, quietly considering another’s words while my thoughts often protested” (171). By the end of the novel, Charis has reconciled many contradictory elements in her life, concluding that human beings are “a crossing of the particular and mortal by the infinite in which there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Gentile or English or Wabanaki” (Barbara). In her own mind, Charis arrives at a point where all persons and all truth are (as in The Vedas), and this may be her journey’s most significant discovery: “The Brain – is wider than the Sky.”4 This mind-doubling is what makes Charis particularly apposite in the twenty-first century: then and now “darkness and light dance and struggle together in the chambers of every heart” (274). Another set of contradictions that Youmans explores is the presuppositions about gender and female identity formation in a patriarchy. Puritanism clearly privileged maleness, whether that privileging be in the temporal or the spiritual sphere. (Not only were males perceived to have all the power on this earth:

4

Emily Dickinson, #632 (1862).

they even had a “better” – i.e. immortal – soul, as opposed to the presupposed transitory feminine mortal soul.) Charis exists in the male-dominant society, but she is a woman who is “situated in a matrix of signs and symbols, of meaningmaking (semiosis), of perspectival interpretation and perception . . . a discursive space in which subjectivity, identity, and meaning are created, dispersed, and interpreted,” and a woman whose own identity formation consciously involves “rethinking how meanings and identities are created.”5 Charis is clearly a woman of the seventeenth century but also a person whose impulses transcend time and bring her, in the fullness of her evolving humanity, very close to readers in the twenty-first century. Charis may, on occasion, be conflicted about her gender, early in the novel lamenting, “I often wished that Mary and I were not the only girl cousins in the family” (27); but others recognize the power of Charis’ atypical independence of mind, sometimes before she herself does. According to Mehitabel, Charis “ought to be a boy and go to college” (123). And Jotham Herrick, Charis’s husband, observes, “I have an unusual wife . . . she wants to learn everything” (193). In an era when women generally could not own property, enter into contracts, or conduct business, Charis will continually traverse (and transgress) countless conventional gender boundaries. And in the twenty-first century,

5

Noëlle McAfee, “Two Feminisms,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 19.2 (2005): 140.

such boundaries are still being challenged and renegotiated. But Charis is not the only one of Youmans’s characters who desires to renegotiate traditional gender boundaries: Mehitabel Holt desires a marriage in which she would “go hunting.” Holt promises, “I’ll teach you how to shoot when I learn,” to which Charis replies, “That would be quite a wonder” (148). But in some ways, perhaps the most surprising character whom Youmans creates is Jotham Herrick, the smith who will marry Charis: with neither hesitation nor rancor, Herrick relinquishes the traditional authority of his gender, his home, and his livelihood as he and Charis and their son make their way to a new life in Rhode Island. The quality of Youmans’s writing in this novel matches the power of the journey saga. Youmans uses recurring imagery (of wonders, of forests, of thread and cloth and needlework, and more) to tighten the fabric of the story, and her language is aptly elegant. There is an occasional flavor of kennings. Following the thread in the forest, shortly before her death, Mary says softly, “I am a string-walker” (25), and after Mary’s death, Charis describes the coming of night: “The lamp-bringer in the sky was firing the wicks of the stars” (51). Playing with the language of coscinomancy, the author describes the night as Charis pulls herself from the Merrimack River: “The colander of the heavens was a pale glory of scattered light” (282).


Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

In nineteenth-century domestic matters, people “enquired within upon everything,”6 and today, people power up the computer for some answers – as I just did. A 2007 report (positively prehistoric in technology terms) turned up the claim of 140 search engines or related searching tools – any one of which is where the real searching begins. Youmans presents an engaging hero who enters a forest of contradictions in search of the answers to life’s biggest questions while simultaneously trying to disentangle the processes by which she comes to know. It is no accident that the word “question” is the root for “quest”: Charis, in trying to discern where she is, examines who she is and why. “I wanted to know everything about what it

6

Robert Kemp Philp, Enquire within upon Everything (Houlston, 1856).

meant to be a woman – to be a human being wandering the face of the earth” (266), and in her quest for the answers to that allencompassing question, she discovers the wonders of the world around her and the wonders of the world within her. Charis’s quest for answers is our own. In the dark forest of 2020’s COVID 19 pandemic, the way is uncharted. Thus far, there does not seem to be any thread to grasp and follow to a safe haven. Youmans’s book takes us on the archetypal journey, physical, imaginative, spiritual – a quest for both self- and other-knowledge. In the summer of 2020, twenty-first century life seems to be suspended in “pause” mode; individuals are unable with the naked eye to see the “demonic” positive-

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stranded RNA organism with its spiked glycoproteins, but its dangers are hellishly real. That Youmans brings to life an era circumscribed by social constraints and largely invisible “demons” may not be so far from life in 2020. “I drop the finished novel on the crest of a sigh – Is it worthwhile?”7 The answer is a resounding yes – on many levels; but equally tantalizing is Youmans’s line just before the epilogue. Charis and her family have “made [their] way” (314). It seems that there is more movement than finality in that language, so the door stands open and beckons toward Charis’s future. If Marly Youmans writes a sequel, I’ll be at the bookseller in a trice. n

7

Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction” (1919); read online in The Floating Library.


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LOVE, POWER, AND BEAUTY IN AN ASPIRATIONAL ROME a review by Mayee Zhu David Brendan Hopes. Night, Sleep and the Dreams of Lovers. Black Mountain Press, 2020.

MAYEE ZHU served as an NCLR editorial assistant while earning her MA in English from East Carolina University. She has published fiction in 101Words, Flash Fiction Magazine, Nanoism, Five2One, and Flash. DAVID BRENDAN HOPES is an actor and a Professor in the Department of English at UNC Asheville. His short story “Corin and Dorinda” won second place in the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize and was published in NCLR Online 2019. His novel The Falls of Wyona (also reviewed in this issue) won the 2018 Quill Prize from Red Hen Press. His plays Uranium 235 and Night Music have been performed at Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre, and his latest book of poems, Peniel, was published by Saint Julian Press in 2017.

ABOVE Lexington Ave, Asheville,

NC, 2009

Set in Asheville, NC, David Brendan Hopes’s Night, Sleep and the Dreams of Lovers is a love letter to the city, which becomes almost a character itself. The author describes historical landmarks and community centers in vivid detail, from Asheville’s exclusive Masonic Hall to the bustling Lexington Avenue. Hopes notes that “Asheville, though hit hard by the Depression, was a land of possibilities” (7), a perception that applies to both the town and to its denizens, from secret millionaires to a down-on-hisluck adolescent boy who is not only ethereally beautiful but also a talented artist. In spite of setbacks, these characters continue to see life in Asheville filled with opportunities. The secret millionaire, TJ, only discovers his dream of becoming a public official after trying to commit suicide by overdosing. After he survives, he comes to an epiphany that he wants to make something out of his life: more specifically, run for public office and reshape Asheville. Talented teenager Charlie moves to Ashville with dreams of producing art, despite his

traumatic history of abuse and neglect by family members and caretakers. This dream unwittingly causes TJ and Charlie’s lives to intertwine not long after Charlie arrives in Asheville. But first, Hopes dives into TJ’s childhood to examine the events that sent the character down his road of depressive self-medication. We learn that growing up, TJ always admired the beauty in others and had an archetypal Oedipal dependency on the only family member who showed him true kindness, his mother: “TJ worshiped her. She was always the prettiest girl to him. For a while he thought he would never marry but stay with mother forever. She needed him. She depended on him” (13). This obsessive nature carries through to all of TJ’s future relationships, notably emerging in the one he develops with Charlie. He and the boy become very close, both physically and emotionally, though the two never consummate their relationship. It’s a rather odd dynamic and even TJ himself “could not be sure exactly what was meant. . . . He held Charlie tight and nibbled his neck and ear and lis-


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tened while the boy giggled and struggled to get free” (130). Hopes explores blurred sexuality in the novel. TJ is sexually involved with two women throughout the book, but his experiments at the Y assured him that he didn’t find intimacy with men repellent. . . . TJ realized that intimacy with Charlie was a strategy of conquest. Charlie needed it; he did not. Charlie would yield, would volunteer, would reveal any number of things to keep that door open. Charlie loved him more than he loved Charlie, and that’s where the power would lie. (130–31)

In less than one paragraph, Hopes demonstrates a form of twisted love and power, giving the reader insight to TJ’s manipulation of the relationship as he uses intimacy as a tool to control Charlie. The author also shows that just as the lines between sexuality and intimacy can be blurred, so are the lines of power dynamics and trust.

Despite his tragic backstory, including being sexually assaulted and raped as a child by his closeted father’s lover, Charlie never loses his appreciation for the world’s beauty and creates numerous pieces of art to memorialize the beauty he sees. Indeed, Charlie seems to be the story’s embodiment of beauty as even his own otherworldly good looks are continuously referenced throughout the book. These angelic features coupled with Charlie’s passion and eye for art make him desired by many. This includes TJ’s best friend, Barry, who becomes enamored with Charlie and ends up in an explosive fight with TJ concerning Charlie’s future. Charlie emerges as the personification of beauty, art, and Asheville, and others consume and almost ruin him in their desire to harness him and his art for their own gains. TJ wants to transform Asheville like he wants to transform Charlie. Although

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS: THE PAUL GREEN PRIZE sponsored by the Paul Green Foundation To inspire scholarship on the works of North Carolina’s preeminent playwright, the author of The Lost Colony, the Paul Green Foundation has provided a $250 honorarium for the author of the best Green-related content accepted for publication in NCLR. Submit for prize consideration using the Flashbacks category in Submittable, unless your submission is relevant to the next issue’s special feature section theme. Submissions will be blind reviewed by appropriate Green experts. Scholars interested in this opportunity might consider applying for an Archie K. Davis Fellowship for funds to visit the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill, where the Paul Green Papers are located (Davis fellowship applications are due by March 1 each year).

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TJ wants them to prosper and become more successful, he still wants to control both. TJ even likens himself to the Medicis: obscenely powerful, wealthy, and a sponsor, benefactor, and curator of the arts. Hopes implies TJ does not truly love Asheville or Charlie, even as he is twistedly possessive of both. Instead of seeing them as a person or a city with tens of thousands of individuals’ lives in the mix, he sees them as statues to chip and carve away to mold into his own view of them. Even though TJ succeeds in many aspects of his life, such as achieving power and status, in the conclusion of his novel, Hopes implies that men like TJ – undeniably ambitious and power-hungry – though they may very well have good intentions, may cause undesirable endings for the very places (Asheville), ideas (beauty and art), and people (Charlie) they cherish the most. n


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DISCOVERING WHO WE ARE a review by Angela Love Moser Sarah Dessen. The Rest of the Story. HarperCollins, 2019.

ANGEL A LOVE MOSER earned her BA in English and History from Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, KY. She earned her MA in English, with a concentration in Multicultural and Transnational Literature, from ECU, during which time she served on the NCLR staff as Editorial Assistant and then Assistant Editor. After graduating, she volunteered as Managing Editor while teaching at Pitt Community College. She is now also pursuing a master’s in History at UNC Wilmington. North Carolina native SARAH DESSEN is a #1 New York bestselling author of Young Adult novels. In 2017, she was the recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award from the American Library Association for her outstanding contribution to young adult literature. Since her first novel, That Summer (1997; reviewed in NCLR 1997), she has published two dozen more. She lives in Chapel Hill with her family. Read an interview with her in NCLR 2006.

ABOVE Sarah Dessen with

D.G. Martin on North Carolina Bookwatch, 22 Oct. 2019

One of the major recurring themes in young adult (YA) fiction is the search for identity. As teenagers, most of us probably questioned who we were and who we wanted to be. As we grew up, we discovered that our parents didn’t know everything, the world was a lot bigger than we thought, and life was not as simple as it seemed when we were children. As the characters in YA novels question who they are and discover that the answers are not as clear as the questions, young adult and adult readers alike may find themselves asking the same questions Sarah Dessen’s protagonists tend to ask themselves in her twentyfive YA novels: Who am I? Am I the person I thought I was? Who/What is important to me? Whom should I trust? Where should I go from here? In The Rest of the Story, Dessen’s newest novel, Emma Saylor Payne’s struggle with her identity is reflected in her name: her mother’s side always called her Saylor while her father and his family have always called her Emma. Similarly, the lake central to the novel’s setting is called

by two different names, Lake North and North Lake, depending on which side of the lake the residents live on. Although “[t]here had always been invisible lines between the two sides and the two communities” (355), this did not stop those living on the different sides from interacting. It was on the shores of this lake that Emma’s parents met and fell in love. Her father’s family enjoyed the wealth and luxury of Lake North, while her mother came from a hardworking family on North Lake. Emma has vague memories of time spent on the lake with her mother’s family and local friends, but since her mother’s death from an overdose of painkillers and alcohol, she has been far-removed from their lives until, with no other options available, Emma’s father arranges for her to stay with her maternal grandmother and family while he honeymoons with his new wife, Tracy. With this family on North Lake, Emma begins to discover who Saylor is. Emma’s father blames himself for his daughter’s high anxiety, which manifests itself in her


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obsessive need to keep everything tidy and organized: “He took my anxiety personally, as if he’d broken me or something. Which was nuts, because all he’d ever done was hold me together, even and especially when the rest of my world was falling apart” (24). However, they are unable to talk about her mother. Emma has very few memories of her mother, which leaves her with a missing piece of herself. She explains, “The past was always present, in its way, and you can’t help but remember. Even if you can’t remember at all” (82). At the same time, Emma is unable to grieve for her mother: “Part of grieving is letting go of the past. But how can you let go if you never knew it in the first place?” (237). The loss of a parent is difficult, especially for a child. Add to that the circumstances of Emma’s mother’s death, even after numerous visits to rehabs, it is no wonder that Emma is a bit lost and out of touch with who she is. Another influence over identity is socioeconomic status. Cut off from her mother’s working-class family, Emma did not have any experience with their way of life. Money had never been an issue, and she had never worked before, for example. At first, considered a guest among them, Emma is not allowed to help clean the motel they own. However, her cousin is in her eighth month of pregnancy and her grandmother has a hurt knee, so Emma insists on helping and realizes, “I felt a wave of shame as I realized I’d never given much thought to the people who cleaned our rooms, even after seeing them or their carts in the hallways. It was just like magic: messy became clean. Except it wasn’t”

(107). She realizes, too, that she has brought her “rich cousin” (110) views with her, but Saylor starts to emerge: “Emma was the rich cousin from Lakeview who organized things and worried. Saylor, well she could be anyone” (119). With this freedom to be anyone, Saylor starts to understand who she is and who she wants to be and realizes, “You can make your life, or life can make you. Was it really that simple of a choice?” (229). Yes. Prior to these new experiences, Saylor had been floating through life letting other people make decisions for her. But with the realization that she can make her own decisions, she vows to do so. When her father returns from his honeymoon, Saylor wants to stay at North Lake. Due to construction delays at both her father’s and paternal grandmother’s houses, the newlyweds decide to stay at Lake North and Emma is to stay with them at the resort. While Emma would have just gone along with the plan without question, Saylor wants to decide for herself: “Now that I’d pledged to take control of my life, the last thing I wanted was to hear more plans that had been made for me” (239). Even though the resort is only across the lake, it seems a world away. The differences between the two families becomes even more pronounced when her father says, “I know you’re having fun. But I don’t think these people are on the same level as Tracy, Nana, and myself” (240). Saylor then questions why there are even “levels” in the first place. These levels are manifested in her cousins and the friends that Saylor makes at North Lake and Lake North. Her family and friends at North Lake work hard every day. Her friend Roo even works multiple jobs to help his

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single mother and to save for college. On the other side of the lake, the college boys she meets, Colin and Blake, work at the resort, but it is a much different type of work. They help people get their boats ready to sail, and they get to stay at the resort while they work there. To them, it’s just a fun summer job that they can add to their resumes, while to the people at North Lake it’s life. After interacting with Colin and Blake, Saylor realizes “that not thinking about money was a luxury, and one I should have been appreciating more” (181). She compares people’s attitudes towards money through Roo and Colin and realizes that Colin “was someone to whom things came easily, always: a job, a future, a girl” (203), while Roo had to work more than twice as hard for the same things. She begins to understand the value of hard work and her own privileges. While Saylor experiences other events that influence who she is becoming – her best friend from back home comes out of the closet, she has her first kiss, she gets drunk for the first time, and a hurricane sweeps over the lake – it is her experience with her mother’s family that influences her the most. Confronted with the end of the summer and her return to her home, Saylor is faced with who she is: “North Lake had changed me. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to change back” (328). Would she remain Saylor, or would she return to being Emma? She asks, “What did I see, or want to see, ahead?” (383). Don’t most, if not all, young adults (and even adults) ask this question every day? It’s this question that leads us to discovering and rediscovering who we are. n


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MAKE YOUR OWN KIND OF HAPPILY EVER AFTER a review by Savannah Paige Murray Sophie Gonzales. Only Mostly Devastated. Wednesday Books, 2020. Mary Cecilia Jackson. Sparrow: A Novel. Tor Teen, 2020.

SAVANNAH PAIGE MURRAY is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at Appalachian State University. She holds a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Virginia Tech. Her writing has appeared in Appalachian Journal, The Journal of Appalachian Studies, among others, and she is a regular reviewer for NCLR. A native of Asheville, NC, she writes about Appalachian literature, the French Broad River, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. SOPHIE GONZALES writes YA queer romantic comedies. Her other novels are The Law of Inertia (Amberjack Publishing, 2018) and Perfect on Paper (Wednesday Books, 2021). Also a psychologist, she lives in Melbourne, Australia. MARY CECILIA JACKSON has worked as a middle school teacher, an adjunct instructor of college freshmen, a technical writer and editor, a speechwriter, a museum docent, and a development officer for central Virginia’s PBS and NPR stations. She lives with her husband in Western North Carolina and Hawaii. Sparrow is an honor recipient of the SCBWI Sue Alexander Award and a YA finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest.

As a younger reader, I often steered clear of novels labeled as coming of age or Young Adult (YA). I mistakenly thought I didn’t have much to learn from these stories and instead opted to read “classics” like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Crime and Punishment. Ironically, now that I can no longer be mistaken for a “young adult” myself, I’ve embraced this valuable genre. YA novels offer so much more than a trite rendition of the loss of innocence trope. Instead, the YA genre, when done right, offers readers a glimpse into the complicated, traumatic, hilarious, beautiful lives of others, sparking curiosity and empathy, like all good “adult” novels do. The recent releases Sparrow by Mary Cecilia Jackson and Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales are excellent examples of what YA fiction can be, offering spectacular character development, fast-moving and dramatic plots, and above all, a way in to identifying with characters different from many readers. In Jackson’s Sparrow, readers meet Savannah Darcy Rose, who goes by the nickname Sparrow, an ambitious, dedicated ballerina, who spends more time in tights and pointe shoes than wondering about the boys at her high school – that is until she quite literally bumps into Tristan King. In her initial courtship with Tristan, it seems that he is a god among young men, but his shining armor starts to crack, and it becomes quickly clear that he is not Sparrow’s prince. Similar to Sparrow’s disenchantment with Tristan, in Gonzales’s Only Most Devastated, we meet Ollie, a witty, endearing, and incredibly charming high school

upperclassman, who after having a splendid summer fling with Will, is shocked and disappointed when Will refuses to acknowledge his presence, much less their relationship when the summer ends and another year of high school commences. In both Sparrow and Only Mostly Devastated readers are plunged into the less-than-perfect world of a modern high school student, a life that is often a far cry from a fairy tale. Both Sparrow and Only Mostly Devastated are guided by the promise of a happily ever after, which seems to be lurking just out of reach. Sparrow thinks her happy ending involves Tristan, a devilishly handsome young man whom she has long admired and who finally begins to notice her and her talent as a ballet dancer. During this time, Sparrow is cast in the coveted role of Odette, the Swan Queen, in her ballet conservatory’s upcoming performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Finally, Sparrow’s life seems to be improving, after a mysterious and unfortunate upbringing with her difficult, but now deceased, mother. However, as her romance with Tristan turns from touching to turbulent, her happily ever after quickly falls apart, robbing her of romance and her favorite creative outlet. As Sparrow’s life starts to unravel, so does her sense of self and her rationality, as we see her torn between Odetta, the white swan, and Odile, the black swan and the primary antagonist in Swan Lake. As someone who spent countless hours as a young person in the ballet studio, I delighted in the clever merging of life and art in Jackson’s novel as the lines between reality and ballet


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PHOTOGRAPH BY WILLAM TRIPLETT

blur, accompanied by dreams of feathers, outbursts of frenzy, and even a flash of white in Sparrow’s previously dark brown hair. In Sparrow, the parallels between Swan Lake and Savannah’s life add to the dramatic and fascinating climate of the novel. Another fable guiding the novel is the tragic tale of Aubrey O’Meara, who at nineteen died by suicide at a waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway, after being rejected by a married man who impregnated her. In a storyline that mirrors an Appalachian murder ballad, Aubrey begins to haunt Sparrow’s dreams: Sparrow sees her mother, who was an artist, painting images of Aubrey “weeping and floating and dying” (39). However, when Sparrow looks closer, she sees that the pictures are not of Aubrey, that her mother has put Sparrow into them, and to great alarm Sparrow realizes, “I’m the one under the water. I’m the one staring sightlessly up at the night sky. All of the paintings. All of them. They’re all of me” (39). While Sparrow had

ABOVE Mary Celiclia Jackson signing

bookplates at her North Carolina home, Mar. 2020

thought she’d been handed a happily ever after when Tristan King first took her hand, as their relationship turns violent, readers recognize that if Sparrow is to have a happy ending, it has to be one of her own making, and to obtain it she must cast out the demons of her past and move toward the future. Much like Sparrow, Ollie in Only Mostly Devastated thinks that his summer romance with Will is a sign of a happy ending, that is until it quickly unravels as Will abandons him. Charming Ollie wins the reader over with the opening of the novel: “It was late afternoon, on the very last Wednesday of August, when I realized Disney had been lying to me for quite some time about happily ever afters. Because, you see, I was four days into mine, and my prince was nowhere to be found” (1). Will “ghosts” Ollie before school starts, which makes for awkward encounters once they return to school. Ollie’s self-deprecating humor and original voice make Only Mostly Devastated a joy to read, even as it is clear that Ollie’s path towards happiness will be a long and circuitous one. NCLR readers will enjoy the role of the North Carolina setting in both of these novels. Although most of Sparrow takes place in the fictional town of Hollins Creek, nestled in the Virginia Blue Ridge, Sparrow’s best friend Lucas travels to visit his darling Grandmother Deirdre in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains, outside of Asheville, after getting into an altercation with Tristan King. Lucas’s

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discussion of Ruby Grove, his grandmother’s town, offers a poignant and palatable description of place. As Lucas drives through Main Street, which is “only five blocks long,” he sees “three dark and dusty stores that sell tchotchkes to the tourists who still trickle through to see the fall foliage” (253). Bears with clocks in their stomachs. Enormous purple geodes that probably came from China and have been on the shelves for decades” along with “Dish towels with stupid sayings like I Love You More Than Biscuits and Gravy” (254). This stale version of Southern identity marketed to tourists and secondhomers who travel through western North Carolina is also juxtaposed with the immense beauty of the Blue Ridge. Lucas describes turning into his grandmother’s driveway “just in time to watch the sun slip behind the hills,” and Lucas observes, “When the sun goes down, the mountains turn into bluish-gray shadows, and sometimes the valleys are filled with clouds. At night there are no lights anywhere, except for the moon and the stars, no sign that there’s anyone else out there in the wide world” (255). While Lucas responds to the tourist-driven economy of Ruby Grove with a healthy amount of adolescent snark, it is clear that in nature, the North Carolina landscape provides him with a sense of awe and peace. For Ollie, in Only Mostly Devastated, however, North Carolina is much less of a healing escape. Ollie is forced to


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relocate to North Carolina from California to help his parents provide palliative care to his dying Aunt Linda. After Aunt Linda’s cancer diagnosis became more severe, Ollie and his parents rent a neighboring house at a lake in North Carolina because “she’d needed some time away, to chill out and see family and actually enjoy herself for once” (3). Ollie is quickly “appointed the unofficial, unpaid, uncomplaining” nanny to Aunt Linda’s young children. Although he is busy chasing around his cousins, who he describes as “so damn cute,” Ollie has a good summer, “Great, even,” largely thanks to his burgeoning romance with Will (4). When Ollie’s relocation becomes permanent, however, and he finds that Will is not just a summer fling but also his closeted classmate, Ollie becomes much more unsettled about being in North Carolina. Ollie, as a gay teen, is nervous

about being himself, much less “coming out” in his new North Carolina small town. On his first day at Collinswood High, Ollie realizes he will “have to ‘come out’ here sooner or later, if you could call it coming out” because he had been out for years back home in San Jose (23). Ollie feels frustrated for what this relocation to North Carolina means for his identity, because he had “already gone through all that awkwardness” of coming out and felt as though he’d paid his dues. While Ollie hoped “people would kind of figure it out” and “we’d all just know and act like it was normal,” his “coming out” at Collinswood was certainly not that straightforward (23). Throughout the novel, Ollie has to grapple with his sexuality and being “out” in the rural South, both what that means for himself and what that means for Will. While his transition to North Carolina was certainly not easy, Ollie eventually

DEBUT NOVEL BY MEG CANNISTRA WINS NC AAUW AWARD Awarded since 1953, the American Association of University Women Young People’s Literature Award recognizes the most significant work of original juvenile literature published by a North Carolina author within the preceding year. In 2020, Meg Cannistra of Charlotte received the honor for her debut novel, The Trouble with Shooting Stars, published in 2019 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. Due to the pandemic, the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources posted Youtube videos of the winners’ responses to the news of their awards. In her award acceptance remarks, Cannistra explains “the inspiration” for her novel comes from my own childhood growing up in an Italian American family. I really wanted to showcase a positive representation of the Italian American culture . . . and show that Italian American families and being raised in an Italian American family is pretty typical. There’s so much love, a lot of food. Occasionally, we are stepping on each other’s toes, but at the end of the day we all support one another and truly care about one another.

Hear Cannistra’s full remarks here.

makes his own way in the “good Old North State,” and by the end of the novel, Ollie is able to create his own type of happy ending, even if it is not the fairy tale he initially expected. In both Sparrow and Only Mostly Devastated, readers will find unexpected, unique stories that reach far beyond the loss of innocence saga typically associated with YA fiction. I once spotted a sign at my hometown public library in Enka-Candler, NC, that read, “Don’t be afraid to read Young Adult fiction! Young Adult books are not just for young adults.” Books like Sparrow and Only Mostly Devastated make this statement ring true. In these novels, readers find stories of strength, violence, grief, and renewal that are worth reading, no matter one’s age. From Sparrow and Lucas, Ollie and Will, all of us have much to learn about love and loss, grief and laughter, and above all else, how to create our happily ever afters. n

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SECURE INVITATIONS a review by Robert M. West Keith Flynn. The Skin of Meaning: Poems. Red Hen Press, 2020. Al Maginnes. Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift: Poems. Redhawk Publications, 2020.

ROBERT M. WEST’S poems, essays, and book reviews have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, Pembroke Magazine, Appalachian Journal, Asheville Poetry Review, Carolina Quarterly Cultures, Poetry, and NCLR. He has also published two poetry chapbooks, Out of Hand (Scienter Press, 2007), and Convalescent (Finishing Line Press, 2011). He has a MA and PhD in English and Comparative Literature from UNC Chapel Hill and a BA in English from Wake Forest University. He is Professor of English at Mississippi State University, where he is an Associate Editor for Mississippi Quarterly. He is also the editor of the twovolume Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons (W.W. Norton, 2017; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019).

Nineteen ninety-one was an eventful year; the news was full of happenings that remain important points of reference today. The US waged its first war against Iraq. Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court and was replaced by Clarence Thomas, following Anita Hill’s unsettling testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. South Africa abolished the legislation undergirding apartheid. Jeffrey Dahmer was captured and indicted. Freddie Mercury died of AIDSrelated pneumonia. The Soviet Union formally dissolved. Don Marquis famously compared publishing a book of poems to dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. If that’s generally the case, it certainly wasn’t going to be otherwise in 1991. That was the year Keith Flynn and Al Maginnes brought out their first collections: The Talking Drum and Outside a Tattoo Booth, respectively. Though neither book met with much fanfare, they initiated the careers of two poets who have turned out

ABOVE Keith Flynn and Al Maginnes

Raleigh, NC, circa 2013

to be among North Carolina’s most vibrant and compelling. Keith Flynn’s latest collection, The Skin of Meaning, is his sixth. The cover handsomely reproduces Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, a painting widely believed to have inspired Wallace Stevens’s long poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” Stevens’s guitarist, one of his most appealing figures for the modern poet, confronts his audience’s disappointment with his performance and attempts to correct their expectations: when they object that he doesn’t “play things as they are,” he explains that “Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar.” We encounter Stevens more directly in the book’s epigraph, which quotes his poem “The Creations of Sound,” a diatribe against the wrong-headed poet “X”: “Speech is not dirty silence / Clarified. It is silence made still dirtier.”* Before we read the book’s first poem, then, we’ve been signaled twice that the book in hand is likely to challenge rather than satisfy – or rather that it may satisfy by

* From “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” originally collected in Stevens’s book The Man with the Blue Guitar and Other Poems (Knopf, 1937); “The Creations of Sound,” originally collected in Stevens’s book Transport to Summer (Knopf, 1947).

PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF HARDIN

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challenging, for those capable of such satisfaction. In other words, if you’re looking for neoclassical argument, dry stand-up comedy, or inspirational pablum, look elsewhere. Such warning should come as no surprise to those familiar with Flynn’s past work. He has long embraced avant-gardism; that’s true not only in terms of his own style, but also in terms of the artists whose work he has honored in his poems, reviews, and essays, and whose work he’s promoted through the journal he founded twenty-seven years ago and continues to publish, Asheville Poetry Review. So we may be prepared to encounter at the book’s outset the oblique mysteriousness of the title poem. Here are the opening lines: He was late to the party and without directions, though his invitation was secure, and his instincts keenly honed to an acceptable edge, and as we are waiting to see if the fates will hear our ode to joy, we are given the sound of a man losing everything; this is the hissing of his agitation, the sound of his broken heart as it is given and fills with shards, a piece of stone in an overgrown garden

The lack of explanation as to who “he” is or what “the party” might be, the oddity of the matter of whether his “invitation” was “secure,” the shift to mention of “his instincts” and the claim that they were “keenly honed,” the question of whether “the fates will hear our ode to joy,” the title and later passages’ suggestion that “he” is someone concerned with semiotics – these and other aspects will incline some readers to approach this poem as the poet’s self-portrait, written in metaphor and cast (mostly) in the third person. What better way to describe a sense of belatedness (which any well-read twenty-first-century poet would be afflicted by) than as “late to the party and without directions”? And a poet who, despite that sense of belatedness, felt sure of his calling to be some kind of poet, would feel “his invitation” to that party “was secure.” His loss of “everything” and his “broken heart” would be known only by those who knew him best, but we don’t need detailed explanations: those experiences are as common as they are profound, and if they produce the rest KEITH FLYNN is the author of six collections of poetry including The Golden Ratio (Iris Press, 2007; reviewed in NCLR 2009) and Colony Collapse Disorder (Wings Press, 2013; reviewed in NCLR Online 2014). He is the founder and managing editor of The Asheville Poetry Review.

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of the book’s “hissing,” well, we’re here to listen to the music of that hissing, not to acquire the detailed schematics of someone’s psyche. Eventually, we learn, with the advent of “colder weather,” our poet trims the fat of his summer words and their loose darkness swims round his leather chair, the garden vines emptied of tone, their edges’ innuendo snarling, the hidden realities so carefully furrowed in shy smiles and feigned deference which fasten his fading future, slowly shot through with the wrinkles of original meaning that he has never outgrown.

The hypnotic language is intriguing and suggestive, and we end on a memorable paradox – with wrinkles, which are usually associated with age, but these are wrinkles we’ve “never outgrown.” He grows into the “original meaning” with which he began, thereby evoking the lifelong progress idealized by many of the great Romantic poets, one that restores a kind of innocence through the acquisition of experience. If it is in fact autobiographical, “The Skin of Meaning” wouldn’t be this book’s only such poem: a few others – such as “The Neurologist,” “Portrait of the Artist as a Spark,” and “Thoughts on Easter While Digging a Grave” – narrate the experiences of an un-distanced “I.” And while the speaker of “Writer’s Block” could be anyone suffering from that impediment, there’s no reason not to attribute ABOVE Keith Flynn performing at the White Rock Hall in

Marshall, NC, Aug. 2017 OPPOSITE Al Maginnes, Greensboro Public Library, Apr. 2015


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AL MAGINNES has recently joined the faculty of Louisburg College. He previously taught at Wake Technical Community College. He earned his BA in English from East Carolina University and his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. His book The Next Place (Iris Press, 2017) was reviewed in NCLR Online 2020. Read an interview with him in NCLR 2007.

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A single man stands fingering the strings in the Dolemites among the reverent limbs of the lovely spruce making a song that the wood can recognize as the new violins are forming in the ageless swaying trunks

How to respond to writing of such imagination and beauty? With gratitude. Whereas The Skin of Meaning opens with a bow to Wallace Stevens, Al Maginnes’s new book suggests a tutelary spirit of its own. With its depictions of working-class life, expressions of brotherhood with other poets, and prophetic perspectives on the state of the nation, Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift recalls at times the work of Philip Levine. This is Maginnes’s twelfth collection, though, and there’s nothing remotely derivative about it: these are Al Maginnes poems through and through, made of his own life, his own voice, his own inventiveness. Maginnes recently retired from many years of teaching at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh; before beginning his career in education, PHOTOGRAPH BY SYLVIA FREEMAN

the voice to the poet himself. Flynn faces outward at least as often as he faces inward, though, and much of The Skin of Meaning spotlights others, especially other makers and performers. “The Soul in Marble” comments on Bernini’s career, and “Caravaggio’s Carnal Gospel” does the same for that painter. “Louis and the Wolf” celebrates Louis Armstrong and Howlin’ Wolf, while “Glenn Gould in Carnegie Hall, 1962” meditates on that pianist in a way subtly reminiscent of “The Man with the Blue Guitar.” “Basquiat” crafts a portrait of the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and “Wonder Woman” ponders the various achievements of that character’s creator, William Moulton Marston. “Houdini and the Dead Letter Office” brings the famous escape artist back to life. In “Clinton Redux” the former president gets to speak for himself in a monologue beginning with this memorable declaration: “Two decades later and I don’t look so bad. / I sorta felt that way about women, from 40 yards / away, they’re all beautiful.” Nina Simone tells us about her life and work in a six-page poem titled “Look for Me in Liberia.” One of Flynn’s virtues is the fact that he’s intellectually omnivorous, and this collection reflects the variety of his interests. In addition to poems about the arts, there are poems on history here, such as “World Boogie” and “Antietam.” There are poems on current political and social issues, with straightforward titles like “Democracy,” “Climate Change,” “The Justice System,” “Capital Punishment,” and “Gaslight: Inauguration Day.” There’s “Dear Reader,” a lovely little poem about the spirituality of sex, and then there’s “Going to Ground,” a darkly comic speculation of what it would be like to be killed by a platypus. (They’re poisonous; who knew? Flynn did.) “The Great Blue Heron” joins my list of favorite bird poems, and the untitled poem beginning “Snow is ghostly” captures that feeling perfectly, ending as “A cold wind holds us fast in the / bright collision.” And one of the book’s very best poems, “Prayer,” combines its maker’s interest in nature and culture, identifying the Italian valley where grow the spruces from which the finest violins are made, and ending with an image that’s quite satisfying indeed:

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though, he worked various jobs, many involving manual labor. His poetry is much richer as a result: many contemporary poets’ experiences seem too circumscribed by the academic life, and their work suffers from that limitation. They can’t tell you with much authority what it’s like to start the workday at a construction site, but Maginnes can. Here’s the beginning of “Morning Labor Song”:

of giving it up. Maginnes opens his own poem by informing Logan (who died in 1987, five years after Hugo) that he discovered him

We smoked and drank coffee, talked scores or last night’s TV

He recalls the life of excess that Hugo, Logan, and he himself had once lived, “All for love or art,” then writes,

until light the color of nails started

over the trees, moved

slow as the first beading of sweat on the forehead. What proof that we were intact unless we saw our shadows

shaking in spring cold?

A door opened, then another. Someone took a last swallow of coffee, someone spit. By the time we walked onto the job still carrying tools,

the chill sun divided us.

inside Hugo’s letter poem, an ode to intemperance and mortality, a message from one ex-drunk to another.

Now

what I wonder is when I will ever be done with drinking. Not the drink itself – that glass emptied years ago – but the myth that keeps me writing about it, retelling the same stories the way Keith Richards jokes

First came predawn communion, time spent being whole people in conversation and not just hired hands, but sunrise put an end to that, and then each was off into his separate burden of the workday. There’s only one adverb in that passage, and it earns its place: Maginnes writes that he and the others “walked / onto the job still carrying tools” (emphasis added), as if they’d never put them down from the day before. Respite felt all too brief. In “Where I Was,” the poet looks back with no nostalgia on that part of his life: Now, buildings rise without us, and we say

nothing of what it costs to live like that,

but sometimes I stop the car and stare a while

as a concrete truck backs up to a pour

or a crane flies a load to the top slab

of a high rise, and I reach again

into the empty pockets and hard sleep

of a life that didn’t want me to remember

about the heroin he gave up decades ago.

The answer is probably “never,” and he more or less says so in another poem here, “Fairy Dust.” That poem begins, “After my daughter and her friend filled a mesh-fine bag / with glitter and called it fairy dust, we found / those flakes everywhere for a few days,” stubborn reminders of “imagination’s hold.” Going on to remember an occasion on which he and his writer friends succumbed to the temptation of the liquor store after a reading, he likens the alcohol they enjoyed to that would-be-magical glitter: “We were as shining as angels then, / each holding a full measure of the bright dust,” the substance that helped them imagine their way past all the failures and other disappointments and taste only “the glory of tomorrow.” But such temporary delusion comes at a terrible price:

or write down a single word, and touch again

the cold still ready to hold me.

That “life that didn’t want [him] to remember / or write down a single word” wasn’t just one of such labor: sober for over thirty years now, Maginnes has often written about his time in the grip of alcohol and the spiritual work of overcoming that. The first time the subject comes into focus in Sleeping Through the Night Shift is in “Letter to Logan,” which, as Maginnes tells us, was inspired by Richard Hugo’s poem “Letter to Logan from Milltown.” In the earlier poem, Hugo rhapsodizes to his friend the poet John Logan on the role of drinking in both their lives, and the partly regrettable necessity

I had no idea how many years of work waited for me

when shadows darked the dull moons of my hands

outside Dickson Street Liquors that night and how,

thirty years later, those little scales still

spark my hands even after I wash them clean.

Maginnes’s soft-spoken and affecting portrait of his personal struggle with addiction and delusion is mirrored by his equally sensitive depiction of our recent national scene. The book’s first poem, “My Country,” announces that “My country is a rock and a breath of wind, / a dream of steel and steel itself,” but also “[t]he shaking hand / of a friend who said


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2020 CALDWELL AWARD WINNER JAMES W. CLARK, JR., NORTH CAROLINA’S “JOHNNY APPLESEED OF THE HUMANITIES” COURTESY OF NC LITERARY HALL OF FAME

For his exceptional contribution and integral role in youth development and public education in the state of North Carolina, Professor James W. Clark, Jr. has been awarded the 2020 John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, the most prestigious honor bestowed by North Carolina Humanities. For nearly sixty years, Dr. Clark has had an ongoing essential role in promoting the humanities and public education in North Carolina. After completing his bachelor’s degree in English at UNC Chapel Hill, followed by a master’s and PhD in English from Duke University, Clark served as an English professor at NC State University under Chancellor John Tyler Caldwell, for whom the award is named. Together, Clark and Caldwell worked to promote the humanities through work with the North Carolina Humanities Council, the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association, and other humanties organizations in the state. Clark has also been instrumental in the development of 4-H camps for youths throughout North Carolina, serving as the lead on committees to establish them for the advancement of education. For this work, he was inducted into the National 4-H Hall of Fame. As a strong believer in free and accessible education, Clark has volunteered in promoting 4-H records and outreach, produced a series of social studies text-

books, taught literary history seminars, and worked for the digitization of free educational materials for students. Robert Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, has referred to Clark as “the Johnny Appleseed of humanities in North Carolina.” This year, the Caldwell Award ceremony was hosted virtually by the North Carolina Humanities Council. The keynote address, presented by Dr. Christie Hinson Norris, Director of Carolina K-12, will be published in the 2021 print issue of NCLR. In the meantime, watch the ceremony here. n

ABOVE James W. Clark, Jr. accepting his induction into the

North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, Weymouth Center, Southern Pines, NC, 7 Oct. 2018

‘I’ll be all right’ so often / it was clear he would not be.” In “Dark History” he reflects on the longstanding national sense of entitlement we’re paying for now: “The dirt, the grass, all earth was ours to take. / This was the myth that seasoned us. Rivers, / trees, coal, would be infinite forever. / We could laugh at those who thought such things holy.” Maginnes is too honest, though – too free of hubris – to offer himself as an all-wise authority, and he’s willing to foreground the limits of his understanding. Part of his authenticity as a prophet-poet lies in that very humility: in the poem “America,” he writes, “Sometimes when I think of America these days, I recall / the used car where I stood one afternoon, looking deep / into the unknown land of an old engine, seeking the source // of a strange noise I could hear but could not name.” Nevertheless, as someone willing to confront hard truths about himself, Maginnes is equally willing to take a hard look at his homeland. In one of the

longest poems, “Surviving the Storm,” he tells the story of a neighbor’s tree that fell into his yard, and as the poem concludes he makes fairly explicit a metaphor he’d been gently developing all along: When the rot that swallows the cracked trunk of the tree’s republic sets its claws,

when it spreads enough

that the body falls to time and gravity, how long will we trace the snarl of roots torn from the dirt-womb and splayed before us

until

we understand that what killed the tree did not invade. It was born there.

Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift offers some of the best work by a poet worth celebrating – and worth heeding, too. n


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Welcoming New Writers and Making New Plans by Margaret D. Bauer, Editor To the writers reviewed in this section, welcome to NCLR. We hope to see more from you: submissions to our creative writing competitions, as well as more books to review. I know we are going to see more of Nathan Ballingrud: Jim Coby has interviewed him for the 2021 print issue. As always, we thank our reviewers, who provide the great service to NCLR. Over fifty books reviewed in this issue! Thanks go to long-time editorial board member Donna Kain, who teaches an editing and publishing class at ECU. With a summer teaching grant from the ECU Faculty Senate, she and I developed an assignment that gave the students in her class experience with formatting and layout as they helped to prepare many of this issue’s reviews for publication. I wonder if other professors might like to involve their students in NCLR. We are always in need of more book reviewers. Please send me recommendations of your best graduate students who might be interested in writing book reviews. And if you would like to incorporate a reviewing assignment into your writing or literature class, I would

be happy to visit virtually to talk with them about reviews and then to consider their reviews (of new North Carolina literature, of course) for NCLR. Due to the large number of reviews in the annual online issues for the past several years now, NCLR is working on an evolution to follow the release of our thirtieth print issue this year, similar to our evolution after the twentieth annual print issue, when we created NCLR Online. Our plan is to expand NCLR Online to two or perhaps even three issues a year. Stay tuned for more news about this development after the 2021 print issue’s summer appearance. We appreciate a gift from the Cold Mountain Fund with the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, which is providing support for these impending changes. And we welcome your gift toward the sustainability of this and other NCLR projects, which will require additional staff support for the additional work necessary to bring more NCLR to you. Please look for information about donating on the back cover of this issue. n


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Miscellany

142 Yearning Over Yonder a review by Susannah Hedley n Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing art by Marjorie Pierson 144 Themes That Persist: Coming of Age Tales

of Race, Family, and Identity a review by Amanda Shingleton Robles n Sion Dayson, As A River n Molly Dektar, The Ash Family 148 Resilience and Connection a review by Kristina L. Knotts n Rebecca Hodge, Wildland 150 If This Be Life

a review by Rebecca Duncan n Judy Dearlove, Play On! 152 Building a Better Birdhouse:

Clifford Garstang’s Troubled Men a review by Dale Bailey n Clifford Garstang, House of the Ancients and Other Stories and The Shaman of Turtle Valley 155 2020 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award Honors Eastern Cherokee Stories

158 When We Talk About Love, There’s Pain a review by Helen Stead n Shuly Xóchitl Cawood, A Small Thing to Want n Ray Morrison, I Hear the Human Noise 161 Triad Stage of Greensboro Receives Hardee Rives Award 162 Yesterday and Today

a review by Emily Herring Wilson n June Sylvester Saraceno, Feral, North Carolina, 1965 and The Girl From Yesterday 164 To Speak in Your Own Voice

a review by Janice N. Harrington n Dorianne Laux, As the Day is Long n Annie Woodford, Bootleg 168 Lessons in Persistence a review by Anna McFadyen n Kay Bosgraaf, The Fence Lesson n Patricia Hooper, Wild Persistence 173 Voice and the Reliable Narrator

a review by Patrick Bizzaro n Malaika King Albrecht, The Stumble Field n Michael Gaspeny, The Tyranny of Questions

156 Caught in the Teeth of Love

a review by Jim Coby n Nathan Ballingrud, Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell

ALSO IN THIS ISSUE 6 n Writing Toward Healing an interview, poetry, prose, fiction, book reviews, and literary news n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues book reviews and literary news

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COURTSESY OF THE ARTIST

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YEARNING OVER YONDER a review by Susannah Hedley Delia Owens. Where the Crawdads Sing: A Novel. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.

SUSANNAH HEDLEY, originally from Elizabeth City, NC, is currently enrolled at NC State University, where she is earning her master’s in English with a concentration in Film Studies. She received her BA in English from East Carolina University and is a former NCLR intern. DELIA OWENS is the co-author of three internationally bestselling nonfiction books, published by Houghton Mifflin, about her life as a wildlife scientist in Africa: Cry of the Kalahari (1984), The Eye of the Elephant (1992), and Secrets of the Savanna (2006). She has won the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing and has been published in Nature, The African Journal of Ecology, and many others. She lives in Idaho.

In 1952, Kya’s morning begins with abandonment. At six years old, she watches her mother’s retreating figure, blue suitcase in hand, leaving Kya and her four older siblings to fend for themselves against an abusive and negligent father. Without Ma’s stable warmth and affection diffused throughout their battered shack on the North Carolina coastal marsh, the only home Kya knows becomes unfamiliar. And once her mother departs down the lane without a backward glance, it doesn’t take long for Kya’s siblings to follow suit, until the only person she has left is her father, an unreliable man who is either drunk or absent and who eventually leaves, too. Here begins Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, a novel about a young girl who learns to navigate this land and her childhood alone, though right outside of Barkley Cove, a small town feeding into the Atlantic Ocean. Kya rarely ventures into town, but on the few occasions that she does, she braces herself for ridicule; the Barkley Cove townspeople see

Kya as the feral Other, whom they vehemently try to avoid. When they bother acknowledging her, they tend to employ the cruel moniker “Marsh Girl.” To Barkley Cove, Kya isn’t viewed as a child to be helped but as an unwelcome spectacle, better suited for the swamp she emerges from. Left on her own, Kya takes refuge in her only constant, the marsh, which becomes a main character in this story. The comfort of its sheltering trees, salty air, green lagoons, and sweeps of grass eagerly stand in as Kya’s family, haven, and dearest friend, especially when her human relationships seem heartbreakly transient. Exposed at a young age to how unreliable other people can be, Kya, instead, looks to the ground beneath her feet for solace: she “laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother” (34). Still, Kya needs most what she has the least of. Having been sentenced to the periphery of this small town, she desperately yearns to be known and loved,

ABOVE Placid, 2009, from the Bald Head Island series, by Marjorie Pierson (See more of

her work in NCLR 2018, NCLR Online 2020 and read about her on her website.)


North Carolina Miscellany

to feel “anchored to something” (45). Kya struggles to find this form of acceptance, aches for it, seeking it out in places it doesn’t exist and attempting to grasp it even when it proves to be unobtainable. And though she does find genuine companionship in Tate, the kind boy from town who teaches her to read, and a distant comradery with Jumpin’, the owner of the marina gas station, Kya is ultimately alone. Growing accustomed to her loneliness is not without consequence; with each long year that passes, Kya finds this isolation becoming more of a conscious decision rather than an unfortunate circumstance. She slowly closes herself off from others, skeptical of negotiated kindnesses and cognizant of the crushing weight of disappointment, resolved once more that “needing people ended in hurt” (145). Alongside Kya’s quiet adolescence and solitary journey into adulthood, Where the Crawdads Sing tells the more calamitous story of a death that has happened in present day. This other narrative begins in the year 1969, directly north of Barkley Cove where Chase Andrews’s body is found at the bottom of an abandoned fire tower. A beloved son and husband, renowned for his days as the high school quarterback, the death of this young man throws a disturbing fog over Barkley Cove. Sheriff Ed Jackson and Deputy Joe Purdue head the investigation of Chase’s death, not entirely convinced that it

was an accident. As these two men turn to the townspeople for answers, what starts as an inquiry into Chase’s life quickly turns into a malicious assignment of blame, with one individual the townspeople have unanimously decided to be the culprit: the Marsh Girl, Kya. The macabre nature of this present-day investigation contrasts starkly with Kya’s gentle exploration of the marsh, as she determinedly documents the existence of every creature she comes across. Mainly visible through Kya’s relationship with the wilderness surrounding her, Where the Crawdads Sing presents an unwavering dedication to descriptive imagery and character subjectivity that radiates throughout this novel. Thanks to Owens’s writing style and detail in metaphor, Kya’s interiority is detectable through the words the author paints on the pages, similar to how Kya paints the lives of every overlooked creature on the walls inside her shack. At the center of these two investigations, the resulting trial over Chase’s suspected murder, and Kya’s coming-of-age story, is the author's examination of humanity and nature. Owens subtly unveils questions about what happens to people when they are removed from ostensibly civilized situations or from human involvement entirely. The novel explores what people need the most, companionship, and what happens when they’re denied relationships with others. Owens delves into what drives

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people to act uncharacteristically, examining how “life had made [Kya] an expert at mashing feelings into a storable size. But loneliness has a compass of its own” (151). Owens’s own experiences as a published nature writer and a wildlife scientist undergird her debut novel. Though Where the Crawdads Sing is a mystery, a romance, and a bildungsroman, it is also an undeniable tribute to the North Carolina coast and the creatures found there, even as it develops larger themes, both ruminative and invariably ontological. Owens’s novel ties in her studies of biology and nature with a more human study of what it means to be truly alone, how it is we fall in love, and what we do to protect ourselves from hurt. The author connects the two disparate worlds of Barkley Cove and the marsh, blurring the line between perceivably right and wrong ways of living, and broadening our understanding of where the crawdads sing. Owens depicts a location in nature that delivers undeniable beauty and tranquility, but one in which “critters are wild, still behaving like critters” (111). Through it all, Kya embodies a gentle resilience and unapologetic independence while also letting her emotions guide her honestly. Her staggering intelligence and kindness toward innocent life are detectable even when Kya is at her most vulnerable, and she becomes a striking example of what it means to be human in an inhumane world. n


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THEMES THAT PERSIST: COMING-OFAGE TALES OF RACE, FAMILY, AND IDENTITY a review by Amanda Shingleton Robles Sion Dayson. As a River. Jaded Ibis Press, 2019. Molly Dektar. The Ash Family. Simon & Schuster, 2019.

AMANDA SHINGLETON ROBLES grew up in Morehead City, NC, and earned her BA in English and Communications from ECU. She is currently a graduate student in the ECU English Department as well as a teacher at Southwood Elementary School in Kinston, NC. Her writings have appeared in The East Carolinian. SION DAYSON was born in New York, grew up in North Carolina, and currently lives in Valencia, Spain. Her work has appeared in The Writer, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Hunger Mountain, Utne Reader, The Wall Street Journal, and several anthologies. She has an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

ABOVE Sion Dayson, recipient of the

2021 Crook’s Corner Book Prize, a $5000 award for the best debut novel set in the American South (selected by final judge Monique Truong)

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As a River, Sion Dayson’s debut novel, artfully tells the story of a young man, Greer, who must return home to Bannen, GA, a small, dirt-road town that most of its residents never leave, to care for his sick mother. Dayson’s novel crosses decades, and interspersed with Greer’s story is his mother Elizabeth’s love story about the man Greer believes was his father. Their love had been “fast and deep” (25), and Elizabeth lives under the cloud of her grief for the rest of her quiet life after she loses this lover in a tragic accident shortly before Greer’s birth. When the adult Greer returns to Bannen, he meets young Ceiley, whose father is also unknown to her, and soon Ceiley and her mother Esse’s own mysteries add more complications to the novel. Ceiley latches onto Greer, captivated by his stories of worldly travel, as well as the older male presence her life was lacking. In the novel’s present it is sixteen years since now thirtyyear-old Greer left home, the site of his first, star-crossed love and his discovery of the shocking truth of his father’s identity. During his youth, Greer’s griefstricken mother never spoke of his father, and somewhere in the blank space he longed to fill, he

fell for Caroline, a girl it’s dangerous for him to be involved with, for in Bannen, “colored boys who went near white girls – that always had a terrible end” (65). But Caroline was spirited and in love and wanted to “forget every stupid rule we were ever taught” (64) as they explored the intensity of their feelings for one another – until a secret Greer uncovers about their pasts inspires him to flee, mortified and heartbroken. Dayson weaves an unexpected tale, quickly pulling readers in with intrigue and maintaining suspense until the novel’s end. And indeed, questions may linger unanswered in the reader’s mind even then. What were the circumstances surrounding Esse’s becoming a young mother to Ceiley? What happened to Caroline and Greer’s love child? The novel’s open-endedness may be frustrating for some readers but could also allow for the possibility of a sequel. Strong imagery in the novel connects readers to both the physical and emotional state of Dayson’s characters, with metaphors like “that of a tumor resting too close to her heart” (8) to describe Elizabeth’s fragile condition. The way Greer utilizes words to absorb and process life might reflect the reader’s


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reaction to her prose: “Sometimes other people’s words are so beautiful . . . it’s exactly what you’d want to say, if you only thought of it. And sometimes words are ugly . . . so you don’t speak any of your own. I guess I’ve found it easier to rely on words that have already been tested” (101). Dayson gifts readers with simple but lyrical descriptions like “river all over her face” (27), crafting beauty in the midst of grief with language, like “silver pebbles in her hair and liquid jewels adorning her body” (25). Dayson illuminates and explores the various behaviors of the grief-stricken, from the firm-handed manner of Esse, to the withdrawn and quiet ways of Elizabeth, to the retreat and avoidance of Greer. Esse’s method of moving forward with the unexpected circumstance of young motherhood, likely intersected with trauma that is never clearly defined, is found in her strict adherence to her faith and religion. But what serves Esse ultimately traps her daughter, who comes to seek her own escape in Greer and the hope of adventurous freedom. Elizabeth’s refusal to remember aloud her lost love or to acknowledge her failing health frustrates her son, who seeks answers to his unsatisfied questions of identity: “how did he exist with half of himself unknown?” (59). He later grieves for a known someone more deeply than he did for his unknown father, when he feels it necessary to quickly exit Caroline’s life and his hometown indefinitely. Both Elizabeth and Greer, then, find themselves

in a ghostlike state, which Dayson describes as being “forever trapped in . . . the one his soul cannot get past” (82). Upon returning home, Greer contemplates how full his life could have been if the circumstances of both his and his mother’s loves had been different. As a River also reveals the complex conditions of the feminine, including Elizabeth’s relation to the world as African American and as a single mother. Dayson presents the not uncommon, often tragic sexual relationship between the African American woman and the white male authority figure, and between that shameless and manipulative man and his wife, who dares to question his relationship with Elizabeth. Through the relationships between men and women, including Thomas and Elizabeth, Thomas and his wife, Major and Elizabeth, and Greer and Caroline, Dayson reveals an incredible understanding of the Southern woman, white and black. The novel has a timely sociopolitical backdrop of lingering racial violence, oppression, and continued segregation in the South despite increasing civil rights for African Americans in the rest of the country, in which “the wars outside mirrored one within” (79). The slow disintegration of segregation touches upon the lives of the characters as they are played out in East and West Bannen, both a river and a racial line between the two. As characters’ stories are told, Dayson draws a parallel between the seemingly small, personal life and the larger, sociopolitical scene. Racial tensions and preju-

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dices and the struggle for civil rights lie beneath individual loves and losses. Within the river metaphor running through this novel, Dayson unveils tragically beautiful, multigenerational love stories cut abruptly short, developing layers within these stories, each with its unique collection of relational, racial, political, and social contexts. Also within these situations, the author captures the rush and thrill of falling in love for the first time. Dayson eloquently exposes primal passions, as well as the recklessness of young love. The novel beckons to human emotion and empathy through love, loss, longing, and birth – bonds that tie humanity together despite race, time, or geography. By the close of the second chapter, Dayson has put readers in touch with a brilliant perception into the human spirit and the behaviors stemming from it. Readers journey intimately with Elizabeth in her deep grief, the kind that causes her to experience “the shame of wanting to feel good because it hurt so bad” (27), and witness the complex consequences of those feelings. Dayson’s ability to depict the nuanced conditions of humanity is admirable as she portrays the knowledge of the seasoned and experienced. With As a River, Dayson admirably captures so many of life’s most difficult lessons and conditions, and her tale leaves us much as life often does, captivated and experiencing the story just as intimately and intensely as we’ve felt our own great loves and losses. In fact, we may find we relive them as we journey with Dayson’s characters.


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Molly Dektar’s first novel, The Ash Family, explores themes of identity, home, and family through nineteen-year-old Berie, who is leaving Durham bound for a Virginia college. Instead of heading off to school as planned, she follows confident and seductive Bay, a man she’s met at the bus stop whose attempt to define her draws her in. He leads her back to a holler in western North Carolina and introduces her to an off-grid lifestyle in his family’s commune. Naive Berie, an only child, is fleeing a life she feels has been chosen for her by her single mother. A fatherless young woman who “grew up into the loss” (155) of a male void, Berie sees in Bay and the Ash family the hope of a fresh start and an entirely new family, as well as the intrigue of a different kind of life. Members of the family leave behind previous lives to find “freedom in the mountains” (70); take on new names given by Dice, the leader whose words are accepted without question; and relinquish typical social ideologies such as material owner-

ship and couple relationships. They are to have no children, as the earth has been sufficiently, and then overly, populated. New members of the commune like Berie, renamed Harmony by the Ash family, must earn the trust of the others while learning skills of daily selfsufficiency like herding sheep, milking cows, baking bread, and slaughtering lambs. Commune members share everything, never ask to leave the property unless invited to for in-town tasks like dumpster diving, and are given the option, upon arrival, to “stay at the farm for three days or the rest of [your] life” (4), no more and no less. Believing that there is “magic on the margins” (5) of her carefully cultivated and socially proper life, Berie flings herself completely into the Ash community, to her a Utopian world of acceptance, wild nature connection, and meaningful eco-activism. As the novel progresses, however, Dektar begins to reveal not only the deficiencies and shortcomings of this essential life, but its dark underbelly. Berie is an insecure girl who always “wanted to be wanted” (97) and as she longs for male attentions and validation from characters like Bay and Dice, whom she views as stronger and wiser than herself, she blindly accepts their guidance, sinking deeper and deeper into a life that replaces initial good intentions with immoral control. The members of the family so desire a place

A native of North Carolina, MOLLY DEKTAR lives in Brooklyn, NY, and is a graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA program as well as Harvard College. She was awarded the Hitman Brown Award and the Brooklyn College Scholarship for fiction as well as the Louis Begley Fiction Prize, the David McCord Prize for the Arts, and the Charles Edmund Horman Prize for Creative Writing. Her work has been featured in the New York Times Book Review, Electric Literature, and Lit Hub.

of belonging that they have allowed Dice’s ideas to infiltrate and take over their own, sacrificing individualism and eventually, compassion, safety, and the well-being of their own members. Readers may connect with Berie’s initial act of feminist defiance, the attempt at breaking the societal restraints that had limited the women of her family to specific genderdefined roles. Yet as the plot delves into the nooks and crannies of group assimilation, readers might find themselves challenging the depth of Berie’s feminism after her swift acclimation to the Ash family. Is she thoughtfully and genuinely freeing herself, or simply transferring her discontent to a new social locale? Furthermore, after being meticulously groomed and brainwashed by a suave leader, what is the point of realization for followers that gives them pause, and returns them to a place of security in their own good judgment and opinions? As the value of human life decreases on the farm, and Berie’s mother’s life is endangered, all with a manipulative “greater good” explanation, the true nature of the commune is revealed. Regardless, Dektar’s descriptions give her readers a closeto-earth sense, one that is at times peaceful, as when Berie finds herself in the “sacred backwoods” (225), and at others shockingly primal: “One of the last lambs of the season got ABOVE Molly Dektar at her book launch

for The Ash Family, The Regulator Bookshop, Durham, NC, 16 Apr. 2019


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stuck on the way out. . . . Queen cut off the lamb’s head with a bread knife. . . . My job was to hold the ewe’s head. I couldn’t let her see the dead baby,” says Berie (101), who learns to do what is expected of her in the name of collective contribution for survival. Dektar captures well the Appalachian spirit of the state’s mountain region, with its tendency toward minimalism and eco-consciousness. The novel’s hippy vibe will linger with readers, despite its culminating tendency toward the extreme. Furthermore, Dektar introduces thought-provoking questions of belief systems, along with ruminations on how far a believer will go to ensure that their particular principles are upheld. At the novel’s end, Berie experiences an abrupt men-

tal shift as she recognizes the dangerous shortcomings of the commune, leaving readers to fill in the gaps regarding the girl’s internal transformation on the Ash community, as well as her own development of confidence in decision-making for her own life. Despite this disconnect, readers will find delight in Dektar’s portrayal of western North Carolina, its unusual characters, and the distinctive practices of traditional Appalachian life. Dektar also draws attention to the possible dangers and realities of groupthink, encouraging thoughtfulness, security in the self, and balanced principles with her storytelling in this coming-ofage novel. Both novels examine unbalanced social equations. While

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As a River explores the power struggles of race and forbidden love, The Ash Family focuses on the strong power of group identity. Both constructs determine individual decisions, relationships, and consequences. Essentially, both novels might serve as separate and distinct representatives of colonialism and oppression, under the guise of a greater moral and social code of ethics. The protagonists are then on a unique journey of self-discovery and the true location of family. The main characters of both As a River and The Ash Family long to experience the magic to be found in life. In their tales, they discover that what they seek is accompanied by its own set of imperfections, hardships, losses, injustices, with the magic lying somewhere in its murky midst. n

Call for Submissions

NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW

for NCLR 31 (2022)

FEATURING NC WRITER TEACHERS Submit interviews with and critical analyses of North Carolina writers who teach.

DEADLINE AUGUST 31, 2021* Submit poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction through our three competitions.

DEADLINES VARY BY GENRE* * For more information, writers’ guidelines, and submission instructions, go to:

www.nclr.ecu.edu/submissions


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RESILIENCE AND CONNECTION a review by Kristina L. Knotts Rebecca Hodge. Wildland: A Novel. Crooked Lane Books, 2020.

KRISTINA KNOT TS has a PhD in English from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and works as an Adjunct Professor in the English Department and as Assistant Director of the Banacos Academic Center and a Program Advisor in the Learning Disabilities at Westfield State University. She reviews regularly for NCLR. REBECCA HODGE lives and writes in Raleigh, NC. She’s also a clinical research scientist and veterinarian. Wildland is her first novel.

OPPOSITE Rebecca Hodge reading

at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, 25 Feb. 2020

Set in the mountains of western North Carolina, Wildland by Rebecca Hodge is part character study and part action adventure. This debut novel reveals insight and a sensitivity about its characters, all of whom are experiencing transition of some kind in their lives. Wildland illustrates the qualities readers search for in literature, particularly empathy and the need for human connection. Along with the author’s careful building of relationships between characters, she creates a novel that bursts into an action adventure story as her characters fight for their lives to elude a fast-moving wildfire. At the start of the novel, the main character, Kat Jamison, a high school teacher from northern Virginia, has retreated to a cabin in the mountains to vacation in seclusion. Struggling with a return of breast cancer and widowed for two years, Kat seeks a month of “unbroken solitude” on the mountain to come to terms with her diagnosis and to be at peace with her decision not to pursue further treatment (29). The initial tension of the novel begins with Kat and her daughter, Sara, arguing about Kat’s decision to not seek medical intervention. Sara thinks her mother should resume treatment, while Kat considers herself “done with this battle” (5). Kat is a smart and caring woman but doubtful about her future, and the later events of the novel demonstrate

her capabilities, those known and unknown to her. Wildland features other characters, those vacationing near Kat, who are also adjusting to change in their lives. Scott Bradford is a single father who’s trying to reconnect with his preteen daughter, Lily, whom he seldom sees. Malcolm Lassiter is a war veteran and a new father to Nirav, a nine-year-old son he recently adopted from Pakistan. Before moving to the US with Malcolm, Nirav had barely survived a train wreck and fire that killed his parents. Two dogs also play important roles, and even they are in flux: Juni, a rescue Sara leaves with her, and Tye, an injured puppy Kat finds. While Kat is sometimes uncertain of her own abilities, Wildland features competent, capable female characters. Though they play minor roles, their characterizations are memorable. Early in the novel, we meet Dr. Lawrence, a veterinarian, who is both wise and empathetic, and during the forest fire we meet the helicopter pilot Lou who, along with her partner, Pete, shepherds Malcolm and Scott to search for their loved ones. These women’s strengths foreshadow what Kat must discover in herself. The novel’s two single fathers, Malcolm and Scott, couldn’t be more different, in terms of life experience and interpersonal skills. Malcolm has an adventurer background and


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is both thoughtful and careful in his dealings with others. Scott presents as more brash and unthinking. But the novel’s events place them together in a dire situation where they must work together for the good of their children. The novel’s plot impels them to reappraise themselves and each other. The landscape, the mountains of western North Carolina, is also vulnerable, as the novel begins with the mountain setting suffering severe droughtlike conditions. From the first pages of the novel, Hodge’s narration subtly weaves in the intense dryness of the surrounding countryside, from the “drought-stricken grass” (2) to the “Patches of dead trees . . . stripped of greenery like weathered skeletons” (22). These delicately interspersed details set the scene for the later storm and wildfire that will envelop the mountainside where the characters are vacationing and imperil them. One of the strengths of the novel, aside from the interpersonal connections Hodge explores between the characters, is the action-packed narrative that follows Kat and the children and dogs as they face the onslaught of a forest fire and are forced to flee to seek safer ground and hope for rescue. Building urgency, each chapter cites the day and time. The first seven chapters cover the first week as the characters settle

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into their vacation and get to know each other. Chapters eight through thirty take the reader through the space of about seven intense hours, the day the deadly forest fire sweeps up the mountain. The chapters pivot from Kat, the children, and dogs trying to flee to safety to Malcolm and Scott and a helicopter rescue team trying to locate them. Hodge’s narration about the swiftly encroaching fire vividly illustrates the terror and danger they all face. Kat and her group, fighting to breathe, are endangered by the smoke and fire. Noise from collapsing trees terrifies them, sap sizzles and pops, and they dodge animals fleeing the fire. Malcolm and Scott search for the children from the vantage of a rescue helicopter, but their search over the burning, smoking terrain is overwhelming and frightening.

Wildland demonstrates the power and the fragility of the mountain landscape as well as the important connections Hodge’s characters discover there. Though the author doesn’t explicitly state that climate change is a cause of the mountains’ extreme aridness and resulting wildfire, given the state of the planet, the reader can’t help but think of similar situations people will have to flee from in the future. Yet despite these dangers, Hodge, a veterinarian and clinical research scientist as well as a writer, brings hope and optimism to her characters and their growing relationships. Despite the traumatic journey her characters take, Wildland is hopeful, as the characters’ shared purpose binds them together: to each other, to their animals, and to the landscape. n


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IF THIS BE LIFE a review by Rebecca Duncan Judy Dearlove. Play On!: A Novel. Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South Press, 2019.

REBECCA DUNCAN is Mary Lynch Johnson Professor of English at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC, where she teaches British and global literatures and professional writing courses. She earned her BA in History and her MA in International Affairs from Ohio University and a PhD in English from Florida State University. Her essays and fiction have appeared in Mosaic, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Pisgah Review, Southeast Review, and Mused: BellaOnline Literary Review. Read her essay on North Carolina poet/journalist Zoe Kincaid Brockman in NCLR 2019. JUDY DEARLOVE is a retired English professor living in Durham, NC. She earned both her MA and PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia. Her debut novel, Play On!, is a finalist for the INDIES Book of the Year Award.

As the country’s seventy-three million Baby Boomers plunge or phase into retirement, the stories this generation enjoys are likely to follow them to new places and reflect new perspectives on life. And so we might ask, What will those stories look like? Will they follow the lead of popular entertainment and give us the sitcom chuckles of Golden Girls or the hijinks of the films Cocoon and The Last Laugh? Will they focus on the end of life as a cipher for all that comes before, as Jill McCorkle’s multiple narrators do in her 2013 novel Life after Life? Hollywood’s stereotyping of the elderly as useless and befuddled goes hand in hand with our culture’s tendency to shuttle our seniors off to retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes, where they fill the hours with bingo and shuffleboard, watch Lawrence Welk reruns, and await the dying of the light. Yet it is unlikely that many Boomers will accept an early passage into agedness, in life or in literature. As a demographic, they enjoy better health and longer life expectancies than their predecessors, and many continue to interact with and contribute to society long after a traditional retirement age. It is this new narrative for seniors that Judy Dearlove’s Play On! explores through the adventures and perspectives of characters who, from within their Arizona retirement community, resist both isolation and decline. A colorful cast of characters inside and outside the Foothills Retirement Community enliv-

ens this touching buddy story focused on the feisty Maxine and the more temperate Louise. Maxine is a retired English professor who remains angry ten years after the sudden death of her beloved husband, Tom. Louise absorbs Maxine’s intensity as she totes around a breathing device on a cart named Seabiscuit. The two women, eightyish in the 1990s, as Internet and email technologies are emerging, read a job posting for an assistant director at the Foothills that reflects a very circumscribed vision of life for the residents. Just for kicks, they craft a response and at the touch of the Enter key, discover that they have submitted an online application using an alias. So much for the stereotypical decline in these women. Maxine, as Octavia Olson, is invited to interview for the job. Although she has applied on a lark and more or less by accident, she decides she truly wants to give it a try. To do so, she and Louise rely on the encouragement and assistance of a younger generation. Celine, the Foothills housekeeper, suggests a remote interview using holograph projection that will maintain Maxine’s cover, at least for a while. Maxine’s godson, Peter, makes it happen. One thing leads to the next, and the adventurous pair find themselves frequenting a local night club and palling around with a drag queen and the leathered, tattooed leader of a motorcycle gang for reasons that should not be spoiled here. So much for isolation and confinement within their community.


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In this novel, the realities of congregate living come to light through internal conflicts, gossip, and general intrigue. Bridge games can be brutal, and the dining room often sizzles with grumblings about the food, conversational volleys, and conspiratorial laughter. Dearlove draws on these conditions to enrich characterization, allowing Celine to observe crucial details, and the bossy and judgmental Carlotta to launch conflict. Readers meet Rupert, the Foothills executive director, through his own perspective and those of others, a narrative touch that adds complexity to his character and his role in shaping the residents’ lives. Through all of the fun, though, Dearlove remains mindful of the realities of growing older. Louise’s declining health figures at pivotal moments, and their beloved friend Harry faces cognitive decline. Intergenerational family relationships figure as well. Parallel subplots involving Maxine’s daughte and Carlotta’s granddaughter remind us that it’s never too late to inflict good or harm on those we love. Together, these characters – even the drag queen and the gang leader – give us a world that we can believe, a nuanced alternate vision of how life can be lived, not simply endured, in our later decades. Moments of introspection fuse seamlessly with levity, but we are encouraged to laugh with and not at the silver-haired. Most of all, the authentic and devoted friendship between Maxine and Louise will not be easily forgotten.

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At readings, Dearlove has told her audience that one constant in her life has been the desire to write a novel. On the way to that goal, she earned an MA and a PhD in English literature at the University of Virginia and became a tenured professor at Duke University and later at Meredith College, where she also directed the Learning Center. Duke University Press published her critical book Accommodating the Chaos: Samuel Beckett’s Nonrelational Art (1982). She has also published reviews, critical essays, and book chapters on Beckett, several British novelists, and the writing process. In between the academic positions, she was recruited by IBM when the company expanded in the Triangle; in various roles she handled technical communications and customer support and headed corporate communications for an engineering initiative. As

a result of these experiences, readers will find in the novel a playful take on technology, an ironic view of bureaucracy, and an intellectual spark that may not quite extend into Beckett’s inescapable void but surely flickers with a sense of Shakespeare’s comedic work. Although set in Arizona, the novel was nurtured over the years by several North Carolina writing communities. Dearlove credits workshops sponsored by Table Rock at Wildacres, Doe Branch Ink, and the RCWMS (Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South) Pelican House for vision, critique, and support. And perhaps it’s the teacher in her that makes her readings so lively and engaging. Readers will want to seek her out for some face-toface time once the health crisis ends and we can reunite with the North Carolina writers we have come to love. n

ABOVE Novelist Judy Dearlove gives

book reading at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC, 11 February 2020


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BUILDING A BETTER BIRDHOUSE: CLIFFORD GARSTANG’S TROUBLED MEN a review by Dale Bailey Clifford Garstang. House of the Ancients and Other Stories. Press 53, 2020. —. The Shaman of Turtle Valley. Braddock Avenue Books, 2019.

Hickory, NC, resident DALE BAILEY is the author of eight books, including In the Night Wood Wood (John Joseph Adams Books, 2018; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019). His story “Death and Suffrage” was adapted for Showtimes’s Masters of Horror television series. His short fiction has won the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award and has been nominated for the Nebula, World Fantasy, and Bram Stoker awards.

About halfway through Clifford Garstang’s debut novel, The Shaman of Turtle Valley, Aiken Alexander, his protagonist, starts building birdhouses. It takes him a while to get the hang of it – he describes his first birdhouse as a “monstrosity” – but once he gets the birdhouse ball rolling, he never looks back (at least until someone burns down his workshop, but we’ll get to that). He’s soon cranking out birdhouses that look like pagodas, cathedrals, and, memorably, the Chrysler Building. When they start piling up, he takes a few to the local farmers’ market in Turtle Valley, VA, home to generations of the Alexander clan. Business at the farmers’ market picks up fast. Soon it’s all Aiken can do to keep up with demand. He’s got a thick roll of farmers’ market cash in a coffee can under his workbench. The owner of the local gift shop wants to stock his passerine palaces. Finally, he has to build bleachers in his workshop to accommodate the tourists driving out to watch him at work. I mention this not only because birdhouses are a major element of The Shaman of Turtle Valley’s plot, but because Aiken’s birdhouses are a pretty good metaphor for the work every novelist or short story writer – and Clifford Garstang is both – undertakes. Like Aiken,

who builds birdhouses explicitly modeled on real buildings, a fiction writer is in the business of building illusions so convincing that the reader is compelled to set aside the world around her, slip inside the pages of the book, and make herself at home. Tested against this birdhouse aesthetic, both The Shaman of Turtle Valley and Garstang’s second collection of short stories, House of the Ancient and Other Stories most resemble Aiken’s early and imperfect products. They are polished and sturdy, but they never quite achieve the soaring majesty of the cathedrals and Chrysler Buildings that Garstang seems to be aiming for. There is in both books the sense that Garstang is making – or trying to make – some grand statement: the stories in House of the Ancients, like The Shaman of Turtle Valley, focus on men and their relationships with the women around them. At their best, those men are cast from the same mold as Aiken Alexander. They are troubled and inarticulate, broken by the world and constrained by a model of masculinity that allows them little latitude to express – or even understand – their emotional turmoil. At their worst, and they are often at their worst, they are cruel and selfish and violent. They are sexual

CLIFFORD GARSTANG received an MFA from Queens University in Charlotte, NC. He’s the author of two linked short story collections published by Press 53: In an Uncharted Country (2009) and What the Zhang Boys Know (2012), which won the 2013 Library of Virginia Literary Award for Fiction. His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Shenandoah, among others. He has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series, the Confluence Fiction Prize, and the GSU Review Fiction Prize, and has had a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and scholarships to both Sewanee and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, as well as residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, Hambidge Center for the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony.


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father. In “The Open Book,” he tries to seduce a young Thai monk – “a teenager, with a close-cropped shadow of black hair that frames his handsome face” (60) – only to discover that the boy is a prostitute. Oliver’s fantasy about the boy’s purity is broken, but so is his fantasy about himself. In the next and final story in the sequence, “The Scream,” Oliver flees into another fantasy and tries to rekindle a relationship with a grad school girlfriend, whom he meets in Oslo, where they visit the Munch Museum. Standing before one of Munch’s iterations of The Scream, he is overwhelmed by a memory of his brother’s drowning. Back at the hotel, his ex-girlfriend tells him that when they’d broken up she’d aborted their child. When Oliver claims he’d had no idea she was pregnant, the ex, Toni, says dismissively, “You’ve always been obtuse” (66), a conclusion that comes as no surprise to the reader after nine stories in Oliver’s company. But it too often seems as though Garstang feels the reader may be obtuse, too. In “The Open Book,” Oliver, deeply conflicted about his sexuality, finds himself reading Of Human Bondage. If this seems a step too far, Oliver’s panicky recollection of his brother’s death in front of The Scream seems like a step still further. Toni’s genderneutral name is yet another step in the same direction. Garstang would be wiser to trust his reader, and his own considerable skills. He does a fine job of sketching Oliver’s neuroses; he’s the most convincing character in the book. It’s clear enough in “The Scream” that Oliver is in flight from his homosexuality, an

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predators (“Adjunct”), abusers (“Cyrus and Jeanette”), bullies and murderers (“Last Call”), racists (“House of the Ancients”), and misogynist control-freaks who seek to impose their wills on the women they purport to love (“In the Palace of Cortés”). Taken individually, these stories work well enough; taken together, in the context of a collection that offers few other visions of masculinity (and there are surely other ways of being a man), they feel over determined and over similar, cut as a piece from the same basic template. One is reminded of Aiken who ultimately gives up crafting individual birdhouses in favor of mass production. “It’s efficient,” he thinks, “like a factory,” noting that the “uniqueness [of each birdhouse] doesn’t feel so important anymore” (208). But uniqueness is important in stories. This narrow scope of vision is evident throughout the collection. Even when Garstang’s men are not explicitly violent, they are almost uniformly driven by selfish desire. In “Cousin Barnaby Is Dead,” the teenage narrator, Robbie, turns Barnaby’s death into a platform for his own narcissism; he’s so anxious to carry the news to one of Barnaby’s old flames that he doesn’t even think about the way it might affect her. Oliver Warner, the protagonist of the sequence of stories called “Oliver’s Travels,” struggles throughout to come to terms with his homosexuality, which he is reluctant to admit, much less accept. In “Justice, Inc.” Oliver’s fixation on a boy in a class he’s teaching in Kazakhstan betrays him into blackmail by a local bureaucrat, the boy’s

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inescapable identity baked into his genes. Do we really need an ex-girlfriend named Toni to drive the point home? This problem crops up most overtly in “A Fire in Winter,” in which a young white man, Trace, travels south to meet the family of his black fiancée, Claudia. Turned away from the door by her disapproving father, Trace flees into a blizzard. When his car slides off the road, he’s forced to take shelter in an abandoned old house, where he must pull books off the wellstocked shelves and burn them in the fireplace for warmth. Among the titles singled out for mention, The Klansman, William Bradford Huie’s 1967 novel about racism and sexual violence in the South (though it may be also be an indirect allusion to Thomas Dixon’s racist novel, The Clansman, basis for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Trace isn’t “sure what [Gone With the Wind] is about” (90), but the reader no doubt will be, and the subtext of tossing the book into


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the flames – if it can be called subtext – is not hard to read. It becomes even more clear when the snowstorm breaks and Trace realizes that he’s spent the night in a decaying “plantation house, . . . home to rich white people. Probably people who owned slaves” (96). In fact, Trace notices from a distance, the house “doesn’t look like the rundown husk he knows it to be.” In the closing lines of the story he wonders if the “glowing yellow” light in the windows is “a reflection of the sun, or something else” (97). Something else, I’m thinking: the metaphor is hard to miss. It’s like being bludgeoned with a shovel when a feather duster would do. The Shaman of Turtle Valley, for all its considerable promise, is riven by the same kinds of problems. A family saga set in rural Virginia, it is built around the pregnant young bride, Soon-hee, Aiken brings home from South Korea, where he serves out his army contract after a tour in Desert Storm that left him emotionally shattered – you might even say achin’, with a deep, pervasive soul-ache, like the mysterious backache that plagues him at various points in the novel. And if that reading of Aiken’s name doesn’t immediately occur to you, Garstang has Soon-hee throw an elbow to make sure it does: “What does Ay-ken mean?” she asks (38). Aiken soon finds out what achin’ means, when, in the course of eight months in 1996: Soon-hee kicks him out of their home and takes their young son, Henry, and disappears. Aiken has to move in with his parents, who promptly die within a few weeks of one

another; he gets fired from his job; he sees a promising career building birdhouses literally go up in smoke when arsonists torch his workshop; his dog is done in with a shotgun blast to the chest; his ne’er-dowell cousins Jake and Tammy scheme against him to steal the (non-existent) treasure buried up at the old home-place; he learns that he is the product of an infidelity and will never know the identity of his true father; he wrestles with the death of his beloved older brother, Hank; his ex-girlfriend, Kelly, who miscarried his child without letting him know she was pregnant, accuses him, convincingly, of rape. 1996 is a full – not to mention achin’ – year for Aiken. Too full, in fact. The abundance of plot threads makes the book seem simultaneously overly crowded and strangely empty. Garstang is so busy racing from one plot revelation to another that he rarely gives the story time to breathe. Scenes that need to be to be fully dramatized hurtle by like the view from the window of a bullet train. Garstang resorts to a kind of shorthand to fill in the lives of the women around Aiken – short first-person chapters narrated by Soonhee, Tammy, and his mother. His mother’s scenes work best because of their narrative context: as she grows progressively ill, she’s taping key family memories to pass on to Aiken and his son. It seems natural that these memories (and, ultimately, confessions) unfold as sparse narrative summary. The same technique flattens Soon-hee and Tammy, however. Their motives and backstory are sketched in with the efficiency of a man cutting out the components of a

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birdhouse with a template and a table saw. These chapters tell – Soon-hee and Tammy literally just state what the reader needs to know – when they ought to show. Tammy is an aspiring country music star who joins forces with the loathsome Jake to get her hands on the rumored Alexander fortune so she can go to Nashville and cut a demo. Her one-dimensional motives reduce her to a plot contrivance. It sometimes feels like she and Jake have wandered in from another novel, a shard of nasty hillbilly noir (and I mean that in a good way) by the likes of Jim Thompson or Daniel Woodrell, who would have dramatized all the pulpy action (murder, arson, dog killing) that Garstang keeps tastefully off-stage. Soon-hee is similarly flat: a woman adrift in a land not her own, she mostly just fills us in on her experience as a culturally displaced Korean shaman. When she retreats to a cave on nearby Brother Mountain (echoing the Brother Country she points out to Aiken in Korea), she also retreats into – or assumes the power of – her own culture; invokes San-


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sin, the Mountain God, to protect her; and develops her shamanistic powers. She stays busy for the rest of the novel exorcising all the family ghosts floating around in the Aiken ancestral home and protecting Aiken’s dying parents from demons. Garstang plays coy on how much of this stuff is “real” in the context of Aiken’s western culture, but there’s a pretty good Southern gothic knocking around inside The Shaman of Turtle Valley, one in which the women of the Alexander clan, like Turtle Valley’s Korean shaman, are busy behind the scenes, pulling the strings of the men in the novel. Aiken’s mother, for example, is a traditional folk healer who sometimes brews up sinister potions that she later regrets using. Garstang spends a lot of time building these parallels between Soon-hee and Aiken’s mother – “that girl and I, we’re too much alike,” Aiken’s mother remarks (130), in case we’ve missed it – but they don’t pay off with the punch they seem intended to have. Unfortunately, they do lead to a troubling conclusion in which Soon-hee disappears onto

Brother Mountain, presumably in spiritual form, rescinding her role in her son and husband’s lives so that Aiken can be reunited with Kelly, his first love, who tells Aiken that he “can’t just expect [her] to forget about what happened between us,” and then promptly moves in with him (390). The rape is, if not forgotten, forgiven, and the uncomfortable business about Aiken’s missing wife is resolved when Soon-hee conveniently becomes, according to Aiken’s son, Henry, “some kind of good spirit watching over us [who] has managed to frighten away whatever – or whoever – was haunting this house” (391). In short, Soon-hee cedes her role as Aiken’s wife and Henry’s mother to an American surrogate, but sticks around as a loving spirit protector for his new family. Her actual fate as a corporeal human being is never quite clear. She just evaporates once she has fulfilled her function as Aiken’s redeemer. It’s hard not to see this as a variation on the Magical Negro trope, in which a brown person with

Originated by the Louis Lipinsky family and now also supported by Michael Sartisky and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Advisory Board, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award is presented annually to a work that focuses attention on Western North Carolina. According to Catherine Frank, Chair of the 2020 selection committee, Sandra Muse Isaacs won “for her scholarship and for offering us a new lens on the original people of our region” in Eastern Cherokee Stories: A Living Oral Tradition and Its Cultural Continuance (University of Oklahoma Press, 2019), which “helps the reader see the oral tradition of the Eastern Cherokee as both an ancient and contemporary means of expressing culture and identity. She allows us to see the ways in which stories continue to have the power to educate and motivate a people rooted in a deep respect and understanding of all living things.” n

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mystical powers sorts things out for some benighted white person, before conveniently sacrificing herself (or otherwise disappearing), so that the newly enlightened white person can get on with his business. I don’t think this novel is the birdhouse Garstang intended to build, but this seems to be one he has built. I admire the ambition of the craftsman who made it, but the seams don’t meet quite as tightly as they should, and I’m not at all comfortable with the ideological implications of the wind that’s blowing through the cracks. I believe there are better birdhouses out there. But it’s worth remembering the arc of Aiken’s birdhouse career. He starts with saltbox house “monstrosities,” keeps practicing his craft, and winds up building cathedrals. The evidence on offer in House of the Ancients and The Shaman of Turtle Valley suggests that Clifford Garstang’s career might follow the same arc as Aiken Alexander’s. If he keeps the table saw running, he may yet make a cathedral. n

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2020 THOMAS WOLFE MEMORIAL LITERARY AWARD HONORS EASTERN CHEROKEE STORIES

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CAUGHT IN THE TEETH OF LOVE a review by Jim Coby Nathan Ballingrud. Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell. Saga Press, 2019.

JIM COBY received his PhD in English with a focus on Southern literature from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and is now an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University Kokomo. He is a regular reviewer for NCLR and has also published an interview with Matthew Griffin in NCLR 2017. Read his interview with Nathan Ballingrud in the 2021 print issue of NCLR. His scholarship has been published, or is forthcoming, in the Ellen Glasgow Journal of Southern Women Writers, Teaching American Literature, Pennsylvania English, South Central Review, and The Explicator. NATHAN BALLINGRUD studied literature at UNC Chapel Hill and the University of New Orleans. He was born in Massachusetts but has spent most of his life living in the South, currently in Asheville, NC. He has won two Shirley Jackson awards and his novella The Visible Filth (This Is Horror, 2015) has a film adaptation called Wounds (Annapurna Pictures, 2019).

OPPOSITE Nathan Ballingrud

reading from Wounds at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC, Apr. 2019

In his 2013 collection North American Lake Monsters Nathan Ballingrud created a world in which evil and the supernatural, while sometimes visible, were often lurking around the peripheries of the stories. His prose, sparse and direct but evocative, suggests what might happen if Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie happened to discover a monster living in their basements and sought to record their experiences. A book of evil hidden just out of sight may well have been appropriate for that time, but the year 2020 demands horror that more explicitly addresses the uncertainty, the anxiety, and the fear that comes with living in our moment. Enter Ballingrud’s newest collection of terror: Wounds: Six Stories from the Borders of Hell. In his new collection, Ballingrud eschews much of the implied nature of evil and the supernatural present in his first collection, and instead looks horror right in its face, asking readers too to refuse to avert their eyes. Don’t be misguided: the subheading “Six Stories from the Border of Hell” is no misnomer; nor is it metaphorical. In each of these stories we witness characters, sometimes willingly, sometimes not, encountering and engaging with otherworldly forces, with monsters, demons, and all manners of ghoulish concoctions spilling over the gates of Hell. A forte of Ballingrud’s that went largely unexplored in his first collection is that of worldbuilding. With Wounds, Ballingrud has free reign to devise countless dark creatures that inhabit the borders of Hell, as well as much of the esoterica

about this geography. In order to map out Hell, you need cartographers, of course, and Ballingrud crafts these with a race of humans who cover their visages with lead boxes, the Black Iron Monks, and venture into Hell to record topographic features such as the Love Mills, the Breathing Mounds, and the Grieving Fields. These evocative and haunting bits of knowledge permeate the text and hint at a darker, scarier, and more expansive world than can possibly be contained within a single collection. Which is to say that even with all of the explicit horror in the text, a latent world of the unknowable and unthinkable exists just beyond reach. Each story in this collection proves relentlessly readable and fascinating, but the best of the lot engage with humans (which I suppose would be assumed in other books, but, given the surfeit of ghouls running around, requires pointing out here) grappling with unexpected and senseless losses. The trauma inherent in a story such as “The Butcher’s Table,” a rollicking maritime adventure from Gulf waters to, where else, Hell itself, comes from Captain Toussaint’s deceased love. In the standout “The Visible Filth,” a cellphone left behind during a brawl at a New Orleans bar begins to receive disturbing images from some unknown force. As if the disturbing missives weren’t enough, the story’s protagonist, Will, finds himself on the verge of losing his partner, his best friend, and his mind, as his alcoholism and the stress of the haunted phone apex.


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PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW FULLER

“The Maw,” is perhaps the best and most unassuming of the collection’s stories, and yet finds Ballingrud at his emotional and narratological finest. This story of exploration and world-building centers around Mix, a seventeenyear-old urban explorer who chaperones wanderers and seekers – in this case an older man named Carlos – into the burnt-out and Hell-occupied husk of a major city, “The Maw.” At stake in this story is Carlos’s immense sense of loss and disorientation when his life partner of fifteen years, Maria, a “scruffy tan mutt” (94), goes missing. Amidst a beautifully, if macabre, rendered setting, Mix and Carlos dart between buildings in an attempt to avoid detection of the various monsters haunting the streets, while also seeking out the missing pup. Ballingrud’s take on the platitude of lovers’ willingness to travel to Hell and back for their partner is to send a man into Hell’s depths to locate his canine, at once upending the cliché, while at the same time emphasizing the emotional bond that people form with their pets. At its best, Wounds captures how deeply unsettling the notions of dependency and love can become. No single ghoul or Hellbeast in this collection holds a candle to the distress elicited from a character rebuked and denied love and affection. And it is in “The Maw” that we see the themes of loss and reconciliation portrayed more explicitly than in any other story. For all of the horror that pervades this collection – and, to be sure, there is plenty of it – there are also moments of levity and humor that serve to disrupt

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the onslaught of evil in a way that paradoxially not only provides comfort but also creates a sense of false security. In the wonderfully deranged “Skullpocket,” for example, a cadre of ghouls (quite literally, ghouls) invite a platoon of children into a haunted house, where a disembodied brain affectionately known as Uncle Digby regales the guests with a recounting of some of the town’s more nefarious and frightening traditions before the children themselves have the opportunity to participate. Any horror story involving children is likely to immediately raise readers’ alarms, but Ballingrud ingratiates his grotesque characters to readers in clever and subversive ways: for example, Mr. Wormcake, “the Eminent Ghoul” (49) of the town has deteriorated into little more

than bones, the remains of an ill-fitting suit, and “eyes [that] have fallen to dust” (50). In a typically understated comment, Ballingrud writes of Wormcake: “He looks frail, and he looks tired” (50). Ballingrud peppers such descriptions, clever asides, and bite-sized pieces of humor throughout his collection. As a result, the moments of intensity that so define this collection punch all the harder. While far more gruesome than his first collection, Wounds is also Ballingrud’s most fun work to date. As with the best horror movie, you might well find yourself wanting to turn away, but utterly incapable of doing so. Compulsively readable, timely, and inventive, Wounds is a necessary addition to the library of anyone who has even an inkling of interest in horror. n


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WHEN WE TALK ABOUT LOVE, THERE’S PAIN a review by Helen Stead Shuly Xóchitl Cawood. A Small Thing to Want: Stories. Press 53, 2020. Ray Morrison. I Hear the Human Noise. Press 53, 2019.

HELEN STEAD earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Tennessee, where she was the Editor of Grist: A Journal of the Literary Arts. Her writing has appeared in journals, including Echo Ink Review, Blue River Review, and Rougarou, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She previously taught at ECU and continues to serve as an Assistant Editor of NCLR from her home in Colorado.

Love is the absence of hate, like light from darkness, or goodness from evil, or so we’ve been told through fairy tales, television, and religion. But after thousands of years of writing about love, from the Sumerians’ cuneiform in Mesopotamia to Snapchatting your boo in 2020, we still don’t know what it actually is. Love is an abstraction, and the job of writers is to attempt to ground that unknown. In two new story collections, Ray Morrison’s I Hear the Human Noise and Shuly Xóchitl Cawood’s A Small Thing to Want, characters make connections to others through deaths, beatings, stalkings, cheatings, abandonments – as if inextricably linked to love – and seem to ask, can we have love without feeling its pain? These collections echo Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, in which the title story carries the weight of the question: what is love? In it, two couples discuss the answer. Terri explains that her ex, Ed, beat her because he loved her so much and would say he loved her over and over again while pummeling her. Terri’s (now) husband, Mel, a heart surgeon, responds with a story of a brutal car accident in which the survivors, a mangled elderly couple, make it, but the old man is depressed because he can’t see out of the eye holes in his body cast. Mel exclaims, “the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife.”1 Mel tries to counter Terri’s example of love with a tender moment, yet there is still pain and death in his example.

1

Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Vintage, 1989) 126; subsequently cited parenthetically.

Carver’s connection of love to death or pain is a common theme in Ray Morrison’s I Hear the Human Noise, which takes the title of the collection from the very last sentence of Carver’s story: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark” (129; emphasis added). Like Carver’s matter-of-fact style, Morrison crafts death expertly, without excessive emotion or flamboyance. Morrison lives in WinstonSalem, NC, where he works as a veterinarian. The clinical approach to death in his stories is pungent. In most of them, the terrible thing happens at the beginning, not to serve as a surprise or crisis point but as an avenue to investigate the conditions necessary for it. The pacing is generally even but begs for reprieve in some moments, as tension is held high throughout, refusing the reader a chance to look away. In many of Morrison’s narratives, the deaths are a sort of mercy: in “Dawn Branch,” a troubled daughter drowns in a river. The story moves retroactively to show the relationship between the parents and the daughter, and it is revealed that the parents were afraid of their teen. In the narrative, the mother remembers the daughter’s birth, when the baby is crying on her breasts, and she “presses her daughter’s head against her, and the baby quiets” (14). On the surface, this is an affectionate moment after birth, but situ-


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PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARGARET MORRISON

ated next to the teen’s drowning, it is sinister as it asks the reader to think about the tenderness of life and death. As the girl is drowning, she “feels the water’s comforting warmth and realizes that the river loves her more than she’s ever been loved before” (9). It is only in death that she feels loved. Similarly, “Ripples” contains an overt mercy killing. Guy Monroe, a gastroenterologist, gives his toddler, who is dying of cancer, a “fatal overdose of potassium chloride, then [shoots] himself in the head” (66), and again, the story is not about the deaths themselves, but what precipitates them. It opens with this horrible act and then switches points of view to people connected to the deaths and their responses. When the toxicologist examines the cause of death, she wonders if “the inordinate amount of courage it took to push the plunger on the syringe . . . actually made Guy Monroe in some way better than everyone else. Could she, she pondered, ever love someone so much that she could ABOVE Ray Morrison reading at Bookmarks

in Winston-Salem, NC, 5 Jan. 2018

do what Monroe had done?” (72). This resonates with Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” when Terri explains that her ex-boyfriend “loved her so much he tried to kill her” (114) and that he he “was willing to die for it. He did die for it” (118). These merciful deaths seem to stand in as a measure of love: if you can kill or “die for it,” then that is true love. The entanglement of death with love is executed well, but there are some missed opportunities to connect more with the reader. For example, “Best Laid Plans” is a trio of vignettes that end in an ironic situation, and because we don’t know the characters, it forces an unclear moral onto the three stories, seeming to assert that if you have had a hard life, good things will come. Perhaps it is meant to be a type of hope, but here, it feels gimmicky. Unlike “Best Laid Plans,” “Life List,” doesn’t have any moralistic undertones, but the descriptions of the protagonist birding are dull. This is especially disappointing because the story, being in first person, gave Morrison the opportunity to make the quiet hobby of watching birds fascinating. Unfortunately, the protagonist appears to be as bored as his reader. Much like Carver’s strippedback style, Morrison’s underspoken stories don’t often lend to descriptive passages. That, combined with the shorter nature of the pieces, makes it difficult to connect with some characters and draws attention to the narrative devices or structures beneath. “Best Laid

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Plans” is a tryptic of ironies that highlights its own structure, forcing the reader to attempt to make sense of them. “Ripples” flips perspectives every couple of paragraphs. In “For You,” a crazed fan writes letters to Bruce Springsteen reminiscent of Eminem’s “Stan.” While the forms themselves work to shape the stories, the problem is that the devices often feel like devices rather than an organic part of the narrative. However, “Dawn Branch” is especially effective in using the retroactive narrative arc to unfurl discoveries about the parents and the drowned daughter and serves well as an opener into the investigation of love and death. Can we hear Morrison’s human noise? The collection is clever, the scenarios well thought out, and the clinical approach to death spot on. Some of these stories are beautifully horrid. “What Courage Looks Like” and “Poke” are standouts that bring the reader close to the characters with language. But the weight of Carver’s influence often presses on the narrative style, creating a distanced narrator, and detached characters, a removal of emotional weight and the beating of human hearts. While Morrison’s collection weaves death into life, Shuly Xochitl Cawood’s A Small Thing to Want focuses on the fallout from abusive or decaying relationships. Cawood’s work stretches across genres: she has publications in nonfiction and poetry as well as fiction,

RAY MORRISON is the author of a short story collection, In a World of Small Truths (Press 53, 2012). His short fiction has appeared in various journals including Ecotone, Fiction Southeast, and storySouth, and in a number of anthologies, and has won the 2011 Press 53 Open Awards and Honorable Mention twice in the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition.


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and her attention to the wordlevel of language is clear as she juxtaposes two unlike objects to create something ominous: “Dale finds smears of red lipstick across the pillowcases, as if he has cut Antonia open and caused her to lose something vital” (10); “The bruise wrapped like a black snake around the place he had clutched to keep her from leaving” (92); and “He twists strands of her hair around his hand like a bandage. That’s how long it is: this night, her hair” (23). These innocent objects have been made gorgeously malicious. Cawood’s language creates intimate connections with her characters through their pain, even when they make unsavory decisions; the understandable is made concrete. She carries precision in her similes and metaphors, which allows the reader to be consumed by her writing: “Shame was like a wet dress: it threatened to show even the secret parts of someone” (50); and “‘Oh.’ She opens her mouth, closes it, a camera shutter figuring out the necessary exposure. ‘Oh’” (22). The language works on a visceral level, engaging the senses and allowing the reader to fully imagine the scene. And while most of these images pay off, there are a sprinkling that just don’t fit: “And then the deer was there, flashed in the headlights, eyes caught like a hooked fish” (20) – having a fish simile immediately placed next to a deer doesn’t work logically or in the world of this story – and “her shoulder feels like a doorknob. An opening. A closing” (75) – does it really open and

close like a doorknob? I’m not sure I see it. As part of the decaying relationships, infidelity and abuse have deep threads throughout this collection. “Hank’s Girl,” was especially effective in showing a woman dependent on her abusive husband, Hank. But Cawood makes sure that the reader knows what an animal Hank is: “The room smelled of wet dog, though the dog was nowhere in sight.” And compounding this image, after Hank promises to make Franny happy, Hank immediately asks, “where’s my girl?” referencing his dog, which he adores more than his wife (71). You can taste the disappointment at the end of the narrative, for Franny, and for the life she chooses. In another story, “The Snowstorm,” Flavia makes a different decision when her abusive ex-boyfriend Seymour shows up at her door from several states away. The narrative switches perspectives, giving the reader an opportunity to watch the dynamic of abuse at play, but in a page-long middle section, the perspective flips every sentence between “he remembers” and “she remembers,” which jars the reader out of the narrative. Seymour admits that Flavia is changed, noticing that her “apartment is nothing like Flavia. It is a place drained of color and comedy. He wants to give that back to her. He is sure he can” (93), as he believes “no one else will ever make her happy. He is absolutely sure of that” (92). Later Flavia echoes this same sentiment, “Maybe no one will ever love her the way he does” (95). In this way, Cawood reveals

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the cycle of abuse: the manipulation into thinking that pain is necessary for love. While there’s no overt abuse in “Bag of Boots” – the story is about relationships in decay – the speaker is tired of her partner Miguel coddling his mother after her divorce, and Samoya, his mother, is all-consuming. Cawood plays with an image as the speaker explains Samoya and Roy’s relationship: “Ever since I’ve known her, all she’s had for him is a bag full of why can’t you and why do you always and for goodness’ sake” (18), and this bag of her complaints is juxtaposed against a concrete bag of boots that Roy has stashed under the bed, ready to leave her. This story contains some of the strongest imagery in the collection: “Sometimes I wish Miguel played music . . . the way a man who knows what he is doing can break a handful of chords in half and put them back together again, make them sound like new” (19), and “A blue quilt, looking worn enough to smell of secrets, hung off the edges of the bed” (22–23). Being

ABOVE Shuly Xóchitl Cawood reading her

collection at the Press 53 15th Anniversary Online Book Fair, 10 Oct. 2020


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in first person, these images connect the reader with the speaker, who is not particularly likable, and take us right to the heart of the matter, to the human noise that Carver seems to be talking about. Does Cawood also subscribe to this notion that death or pain and love are interconnected? Perhaps Mig, one of the two main characters in a trio of connected stories in A Small Thing to Want, summarizes Cawood’s

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together because we are human, and we cannot separate them. These authors tell stories that seem to say we cannot have love without pain, and love, according to a Stanford University study in 2010, actually mitigates pain like opioid-analgesics.2 Like an addiction, we’re stuck in the pain-love-pain cycle. Morrison’s characters sometimes kill for love; Cawood’s characters survive love, and this is part of our human noise. n

collection best in “Happy” when he tells his wife: “love isn’t about happiness, Suzette. . . . It’s about survival” (126). That is what many of Cawood’s characters are doing: they are just trying to survive love. While as children we learn that love is the absence of hate, darkness is the absence of light, and goodness is the absence of evil, perhaps the reality is more that hate and love are knitted

SHULY XÓCHITL CAWOOD’s MFA in creative writing is from Queens University of Charlotte, and Charlotte, NC, does show up in some of the stories in this collection. Her other books are The Going and Goodbye: A Memoir (Platypus Press, 2017), 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 (Cimarron Books, 2018), and a poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning (Mercer University Press, 2021). She has been published in Brevity, The Rumpus, and Cider Press Review. She also earned an MA in journalism from Ohio State University, and she writes columns for Johnson City Press and The News & Neighbor and teaches memoir writing.

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2

Jarred Younger, Arthur Aron, Sara Parke, Neil Chatterjee, and Sean Mackey, “Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems,” PLOS ONE 13 Oct. 2010: web.

TRIAD STAGE OF GREENSBORO RECEIVES HARDEE RIVES AWARD The 2020 Hardee Rives Award for Dramatic Arts was awarded to Triad Stage. Triad Stage began with the dream of a regional theatre serving the communities of the Triad. Their core values include “audacious artistry, creative collaboration, curious learning, Southern voice, and welcoming community.” Triad Stage was named “One of the Best Regional Theaters in America” by New York’s Drama League and “one of the top ten most promising theatres in the country” by the founder of the Tony Awards, The American Theatre Wing. They are also in partnership with the UNC Greensboro COURTESY OF TRIAD STAGE

Theatre and UNC School of the Arts in a commitment to serve “as a bridge between educational and professional theater.”1 After forming their artistic relationship at the Yale School of Drama, Preston Lane and Rich Whittington co-founded Triad Stage in 1999, and three years later, after major renovations to the former Montgomery Ward building, they held their grand opening at the newly named Pyrle Theatre with the production of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer. Triad Stage has now produced more than seventy-five productions and sold more than 350,000 tickets. The 3,200plus Seasonal Passholders and the four hundred-plus annual donors allow funding for constant improvements, renovations, and expansions for Pyrle Theatre. The Hardee Rives Award for Dramatic Arts has been given by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association since 2009 “in recognition of excellent, exemplary work in and significant contribution and service to the dramatic arts in North Carolina.”2 Recipients have included individuals such as Bo Thorpe, William Ivey Long, and Terrence Mann and institutions such as the National Black Theatre Festival and the Roanoke Island Historical Association, among other distinguished recipients. n

ABOVE Publicity photograph for Triad Stage’s 2019 production

of White Lightening, by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, about NASCAR and moonshine

1

Qtd. from the Triad Stage website.

2

Qtd. from the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources website. Hear the group’s acceptance remarks here.


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YESTERDAY AND TODAY a review by Emily Herring Wilson June Sylvester Saraceno. Feral, North Carolina, 1965. Southern Fried Karma, 2019. —. The Girl from Yesterday. Cherry Grove Collections, 2019.

EMILY HERRING WILSON’s books include, besides the memoir on A.R. Ammons reviewed in the Flashbacks section of this issue, The Three Graces of Val-Kill (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), Two Gardeners: Katherine S. White and Elizabeth Lawrence: A Friendship in Letters (Beacon Press, 2002), and North Carolina Women Making History (University of North Carolina Press, 1999). She is a recipient of the North Carolina Award for Literature and the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities. She lives in Winston-Salem, NC. JUNE SYLVESTER SARACENO was born in Elizabeth City, NC. She received a BA in English from East Carolina University and an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University. She is Chair of the Humanities and English Department at Sierra Nevada University, the director of Writers in the Woods literary speakers series, and is founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review.

In a frightening summer of a virus that has spread and killed all over the world, especially in America, we have been quarantined with our own fears, held at bay by boredom, but still remaining so very close to our fragile lives. To distract ourselves and pass the time, many readers have gone through their own libraries to reread old books, and I have been grateful that our independent bookstore in Winston Salem, Bookmarks, has continued to fill orders. And then as a gift out the blue, the North Carolina Literary Review sent me two new books by an unfamiliar writer, and I read them the first day. It was glorious to meet a woman living in Nevada with Southern roots and to be in on the births of her new books. I thank NCLR for keeping book reviews vitally a part of their splendid journal and for June Sylvester Saraceno for writing her poems and her fiction. In a time of trouble many readers look for poetry that might save us from despair, at least distract us for a little while. The poets themselves may have moved on, perhaps comforted by their own words (at the least, they worked something out), and we are left to mine their treasures for all the help we can get. In The Girl from Yesterday, new poems by Saraceno, a seasoned writer, editor, and teacher of different forms, I marked up lines that saved the summer of 2020 from a quarantine of boredom and anxiety. We are not alone to fend for ourselves; poets are on stand-by to help us get through. Saraceno’s poems are clear, by which I mean she does not contort her meaning into pretzels of confusion. Still, she inspires me to look twice for more meaning, which I often find. Sylvester knows how to keep our attention. I’ll quote “Night Currents” in full to tempt you to order your own copy from the publisher: Night Currents At the bridge a train passes through my center, a meteor splits the sky into two darknesses, without direction a blue zipper grinds its teeth. When the bike messenger came with our papers we had to tell him he was centuries too late. History had closed the book, the alphabet changed. Now when the river eddies into noirish snakes,

OPPOSITE Main Street looking west, Elizabeth City, NC,

we do not fear it. We still do not understand it,

circa 1945–60

but we care less and less. One day it will empty.


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In her first novel, Feral, North Carolina, 1965, Saraceno follows the familiar advice to write

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Can someone explain “noirish snakes” to me? (In school no one would ever confess to not understanding, as she slid down in her seat so as not to be called on). I read this several times, and I “still do not understand it.” The poet’s life has been harsh, we learn in the first poem, “Legacy.” Although she loved the dirt and the ochre earth, she “hated the belt.” We read about hurt, but she does not leave us in a nightmare; rather, she directs us to the “sunshine and grass / waiting outside,” and concludes the poem, “Look to the sea. / Go there.” I spent the rest of a June afternoon there. In “Window” are details of “gardenia bloom[s] . . . / . . . humid air, my sister’s voice,” corn stalks and “boys climb[ing] / them to carve their initials in the flesh of the moon.” I feel forgiveness for my sins when reading “Overdue Elegy for Granddaddy Gray,” “[t]he farewell so long overdue,” it betters my relationship to the dead. And on a hot and humid, tiring afternoon I am grateful to be carried (a Southernism that suits me) to County Cork, one of my favorite places on earth. Here is the last line of a really fine prose poem entitled “County Cork”: “What to make of such a place – the stout hearted, the fierce music impassively played, the cliff abyss, and all the while a green of things inexhaustible.” Saraceno’s poems will resonate with Southern readers looking for the familiar. She may be a “girl from yesterday,” but she is vitally alive to us today.

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what you know. The novel puts me in mind of Eudora Welty’s essays about how she learned to write in One Writer’s Beginnings (1984): “Listening,” “Learning to See,” and “Finding a Voice.” Like Welty, Saraceno has listened well to stories told in her family. The Southern speech appears as too much of an effort at times, but it does ring true. I appreciate the author remembering the South so vividly as she reaches back to her childhood for details of Southern life. Feral, North Carolina, 1965 is a coming of age story about a ten-year-old girl, Wilhelmina Mae, who insists on being called Willie and wants to be as adventurous as her brother, who is something of a brute. (He binds and gags her and leaves her in the attic, for starters). I am reminded of A Member of the Wedding (1946), by Carson McCullers, about an elevenyear-old tomboy who also wants to be like her brother. Saraceno’s choice to tell Willie’s story in first person works well. She has interesting supporting characters, including Willie’s brother, his school friends, her mother, and her mother’s friends who bring

out the best and worst in each other. Saraceno describes a vivid setting, the rural coastal South, with a (fictional) small town, small farms, country people, and the forbidding Dismal Swamp in northeast North Carolina. She has a mystery or two, and she has violence, which bookends a mysterious death at the beginning. (I won’t give it away.) Saraceno sets the novel during an ugly time in the South that resonates today: 1965, the beginning of school integration, when violence is always just below the surface. With a sense of foreboding, we wait for the rope to swing. The author is unsparing in the horror of it all as a child growing up in the racist South rejects the hatred her family directs toward blacks, deciding for herself that she likes all kinds of people, not just “our kind,” as recommended by her mother. Universal understanding comes naturally to her. In all these elements, Saraceno has the makings of a good debut novel, though it could have been extended. When it ends, Willie is on her bicycle with both arms outstretched, “like a girl in flight.” I am eager to see what she will do next. n


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TO SPEAK IN YOUR OWN VOICE a review by Janice N. Harrington Dorianne Laux. Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. Annie Woodford. Bootleg. Groundhog Poetry Press, LLC, 2019.

JANICE N. HARRINGTON, born and raised in Alabama, teaches poetry writing at the University of Illinois. A poet and children’s writer, her latest poetry book is Primitive: The Life and Art of Horace H. Pippin (BOA Editions, 2016).

Imagine two poets on a back porch, in easy conversation, swapping poems like recipes, Dorianne Laux’s conveying adult sorrow over her mother’s death and Annie Woodford’s expressing a childhood yearning for a working mother taken by a nightshift. Woodford shaping her first words from a book on her Aunt Alice’s shelf, You Can Speak with Your Dead, while Laux reads “Dark signs / that crawled toward the edge of the page” under her sheets at night with the aid of a flashlight. When Woodford points to the 1920s–30s bluegrass of Charlie Poole, Laux counters with Mick Jagger. Laux has assembled a retrospective of her career, while Woodford launches her debut collection. They have much in common even though they have followed different muses. Laux writes in “Mine Own Phil Levine” that Levine taught her “to hold true / To my vision, to speak in my own voice / To say the thing straight out,” while Woodford’s “Flying Kites with Elizabeth Bishop” suggests what she has learned from the great descriptive poet: “When memory aches, she can stroke feathered flanks / and begin again to write.” Memory is not an act of sweet nostalgia. Memory aches – it is alive, it has a body – but each poet approaches the ache differently. Like Levine, Laux tackles memory straight on. Like Bishop,

Woodford approaches memory with a taut restraint. Memory, storytelling, and empathy infuse Dorianne Laux’s must-read volume, Only As the Day Is Long: New and Selected Poems. Each section of the book has an underlying urgency that drives readers into Laux’s life and perceptions. Throughout, Laux writes about difficult experiences in a straightforward, conversational tone laced with subtle musicality. The opening poem, “Two Pictures of My Sister,” returns again and again to the pronoun “she,” a return that begins to feel like the blows of a belt: “She dares him. / Go on. Hit me again.” Laux resolves the poem, which describes her father beating her sister, in a back-and-forth play of simile and metaphor. Her sister’s welt is like a flower in a nature film. Her eyelid is a violet petal. Her eyes are like the eyes in a painting. And the memory of her face is the moon that follows you everywhere. After such lines, who can’t imagine the sister’s face or how it haunts? In the fifth section, “The Book of Men,” Laux acknowledges her poetic debt in “Mine Own Phil Levine”: “The greatest thing, he said, was presence / To be yourself in your own time, to stand up.” Laux learned his lessons well. She maintains a firstperson perspective, even when revealing the abuse she suffered


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COURTESY OF ECU CONTEMPORARY WRITERS READING SERIES

at the hands of her father. Laux tells it straight. She shows painful family complexities but tempers the pain with tenderness. Readers will feel compassion as much as sorrow. The difficulties in the first section, “Awake,” soon shift to tenderness and erotic love in “What We Carry,” a juxtaposition that heightens the resonance of both. The pleasures of reading Only As the Day Is Long, aside from Laux’s spot-on craft, come from its engaging variety and emotional range. Readers meet poems about marriage, mating beetles, 1960s music personalities, ecological angst, and poems like “Awake” that show Laux’s obsession with light: You will open your eyes. The sun will flare and rise. Chisel the hills into shape. The sax player next door will lift his horn and pour music over the downturned Vs of rooftops, the tangled ivy, the shivering tree, giving it all back to us as he breathes: The garden. The hard blue sky. The sweet apple of light.

We have not been flung from paradise after all. The notes of a saxophone give back what we

ABOVE Former US Poet Laureate Philip Levine, subject of

Dorianne Laux’s poem “My Own Phil Levine,” reading at East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, Apr. 2012

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lost. In Laux’s poem, the apple from the tree of knowledge is an apple of light that allows us to see through the darkness. The poet’s close observation and precise language allow us to reimagine the meanings of what we see. New readers as well as longtime fans of Laux’s work will eagerly await the final section, which gives the collection its name: Only As the Day Is Long. Here new poems recall the death of Laux’s mother and its impact on Laux. The section highlights the poetic formality in Laux’s writing, showcasing her sonnets, rhyme schemes, and formal stanzas while underscoring her poetic commitment to looking directly at the lives around her and her own feelings, as she does in “Lapse”: “ I / do not think my dead will return. They will not do / what I ask of them.” Laux offers a poignant homage to her mother, elegiac, questioning, struggling to come to terms with the loss. She reveals her mother’s imperfections while contemplating her own feelings about death. Yes, she knows her mother is dead. Yet in “Lapse” she undermines that certainty with questions: “It / isn’t possible to raise them from their beds, is / it? Even if I push the dirt away with my bare hands?” Imagine the metaphorical desperation of digging the ones we love from their graves with our bare hands, the difficulty and the pain of it. In the title poem, “Only as the Day Is Long,” Laux writes, surprisingly, that the memory of her mother will not last: “Soon she will be no more than a passing thought.” But again she undermines this belief by showing how her mother will in fact continue: “Her atoms are out there.” Laux lists the parts of her mother that will remain, as well as parts of her mother that will remain lost: “but not her piano concerto / atoms, her atoms of laughter and cruelty.” The poem ends with a question: “Lord her slippers, where are they now?” The everyday objects that she associates with her mother continue to resurrect and hold her mother’s memory. She will find herself wondering, as those touched by grief do and must.

DORIANNE LAUX has published five books of poetry, including The Book of Men (Norton, 2011), which received the RoanokeChowan Award from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. She has won the Paterson Prize and the LenoreMarshall Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. With Kim Addonizio, Laux has also co-authored a popular craft manual, The Poet’s Companion (Norton, 1997). She teaches at NC State University.


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People turn to poetry when they need or want someone to say what they cannot find words for. Laux’s poetry in Only As the Day Is Long expresses what might seem inexpressible. Like Woodford, Laux writes a democratic poetry. And her poetry, like Woodford’s, will appeal to fans of Michael Chitwood, B.H. Fairchild, or Ted Kooser. Laux’s poetry not only stands up, it steps forward and shakes its reader’s hand. To bootleg means to sell illegal goods and particularly to brew and sell moonshine whiskey. Annie Woodford’s debut collection, Bootleg, best fits the second meaning: inebriating spirits. Exploring family history, motherhood, the enduring strength of women, and the lush natural landscapes of south-central Virginia, Woodford fills her poetry with pensive tenderness. Her poems trigger thoughts of home and youth and times lost. But memory’s ache is also touched with joy, as in “Trampoline”: stuck to dried mud. My daughter

These lines seem to show only a lovely sentiment of mother and child at play: a mother, who like any parent, metaphorically helps her daughter to fly. But like Laux, Woodford prefers frankness. She shows you the troubles waiting just beyond a hedge: meth, violence, lawlessness, and the loud energy of a boy racing his dirtbike: “the sound of his engine / scraping the evening clean.” “Scraping,” Woodford writes, in the same way that one might scrape a plate and leave only emptiness, removing anything good or satisfying. Interwoven with resonant scenes and small, intimate portraits, Woodford’s poetry, stitched with references to sound and music, feels cinematic. The poems entice readers with precise detail and close observation, and then, in the same way that Poole might have plucked a banjo’s strings, Woodford strikes a chord of perception or a moment in which the reader will want to say, “Yes, yes, that’s true,” as in “Melisma”: Cyndi or Whitney hitting all the high notes from your mother’s youth,

and I alternate bounces,

that youth always past tense because daughters bloom

counting off until with one big bottom-drop, I shoot her

right under the hands toweling dry their hair. They grow in the radio

skyward, an arc of tawny

dial’s green glow, in between ads for cars

leg and laughter. Breathless, we stretch out to rest.

& the songs of last summer:

Bootleg is poetry to recommend to anyone searching for poems grounded in a sense of place: defunct textile mills, red dirt, coal vein burns, highway fifty-seven running along a wall of laurels and childhood rivers where “we had to be still and wait / in blackness, the water talking all around us” (“Riparian Right”). As its frame, Bootleg uses the life of Charlie Poole, one of the banjo-picking, hard-drinking, travelling men of bluegrass music. Woodford then lightly draws on Poole as a touchstone either by way of a quotation, a fact, a musical term, or a lyric. Like Elizabeth Bishop, whom Woodford admires, Bootleg offers wellcrafted poems woven with formal rhythms, alliteration, telling details, and clear language. The poems strike a musical lyricism that Poole might have envied. In “The Early Days of May,” for example, “The Kwanzan’s heavy blossoms / are gone now and summer creeps on apace, / a green lady in green lace.” Shaped into couplets or patterned stanzas, these poems look at the world through a lens of memory. Instead of grand epiphanies or abstract meditations, Bootleg favors a deep human attentiveness. The poems end quietly, and the collection offers a range of feelings from loss, wistfulness, and hope to deep gratitude: “it is enough we saw a world / that hadn’t

ANNIE WOODFORD holds an MA in creative writing from Hollins University. A runner up for the 2019 Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition, she received the 2017 Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Prairie Schooner, Southern Review, and Rattle. She teaches English at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC.


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The mother slurs her speech, her teeth gone from poverty or something else, though she has the brow and bone of beauty. The children are so happy to crush those cans, spring coming on no matter what, the interstate one block away breathing like a beast behind us.

“Easter Project,” “Personal Narrative Transmuted into Light,” and “Snake Cane” show Woodford’s structural inventiveness. “Easter Project” moves as the mind moves, smoothly making connections from the feathers that a child uses to make a clock, to a crow’s hoarded treasures, to, finally, a question of faith. “Personal Narrative Transmuted into Light” shifts from third to second person, from looking at a mother struggling with her sick child to speaking directly to the child, while “Snake Cane” twists and winds long sentences into an engaging wildness: Search for them in our tick-breeding woods – mumbo-jumbo of undergrowth, full-throated green, saplings bent, knitted together with briars, mayapples pushing past skunk cabbages & then the dying that comes with the first frost,

been walked on,” she says in the poem entitled “Enough.” “Scrap Aluminum Gets Thirty-Eight Cents a Pound” compares a woman’s body to a “worn-out dogwood.” But more than lost beauty, the poem suggests an underlying violence that has overtaken the lives of both dogwood and woman. The outside world remains a threat that waits only a highway away, or – given the woman’s missing teeth – perhaps not that far. And yet, it retains a sense of hope, “spring coming on no matter what,” or maybe the fatalistic doggedness of the region: One worn-out dogwood graces the yard. The children have climbed its bark off, but there it is, at its bride-white best, scant branches, blossoms shot with sun.

ABOVE Charlie Poole, leader of the North Carolina Ramblers,

circa 1920s

oak leaves baked brown & sycamore platters curling inward on the ground, poison ivy dried up to one hairy vine thick as a man’s wrist.

In an early epigram, Woodford writes that Poole bridged the gap between old-time string music and bluegrass. In this collection, Woodford smoothly bridges past and present, without hiding the risks in doing so. “Also in this tree, the crow caught a question: How do you identify your brother’s body?” she asks in “Easter Project,” which offers nothing more about the brother’s death. It doesn’t need to. Woodford knows the eloquence of restraint. After reading and rereading these poems, you will feel Woodford’s ache of memory and ties to place and celebrate Laux’s compassionate but unflinching directness. n


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PHOTOGRAPH BY SYLVIA FREEMAN

LESSONS IN PERSISTENCE a review by Anna McFadyen Kay Bosgraaf. The Fence Lesson: Poems. Kelsay Books, 2019. Patricia Hooper. Wild Persistence: Poems. University of Tampa Press, 2019.

The latest poetry collections by Kay Bosgraaf and Patricia Hooper invite readers to pay attention to what William Wordsworth calls "the still, sad music of humanity” that contributes to “the joy of elevated thoughts” and allows us to “see into the life of things.” Whether escaping into natural splendors, processing friction between family members, or transcending the world in an airplane, Bosgraaf and Hooper contend with the keenest observers in our state. Both are Michigan natives who have made North Carolina home, and their books complement each other thematically. These birds of passage narrate lives traveled through and grieved through, as vistas of wisdom open to them in maturity. They do not shy from grim subjects, yet they celebrate the gift of human experience that must not be rejected simply because it is difficult. Their penetrating diction and poignant storytelling evoke the words of fellow Midwesterner Mary Oliver: “We shake with joy, we shake with grief. / What a time they have, these two / housed as they are in the same body.”1 Unlike Oliver, who is typically effervescent outdoors, these poets admit doubt in the face of nature’s solace. Their landscapes may harbor snakes, but mankind proves the more dangerous animal. In Hooper’s “Copperhead,” the coiled “rope of silk” has dignity and beauty, a creature as fundamentally innocent as the nearby garter snake

ANNA MCFADYEN, a resident of Raleigh, NC, received her MA in English Literature from NC State University and her BA in English from Meredith College, where she served as a chief coeditor of The Colton Review and was a Norma Rose scholar. Her graduate research focused on English Romanticism in the context of natural history, as well as on young adult literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She has reviewed for NCLR since 2018 and was a semifinalist in the 2020 James Applewhite Poetry Prize competition. KAY BOSGRAAF lives in Durham, NC, and grew up in Hudsonville, MI. Her previous works include Song of Serenity: Poems (University of Tampa Press, 2005), which was one of three winners in a competition sponsored by Northwoods Journal, and a chapbook, Blue Eyes and Homburg Hats (Presa Press, 2018). She has had a long career teaching at several colleges, including Montgomery College in Maryland, where she is Professor Emerita. She received a MacDowell Colony residency in 2016 and has held two residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. PATRICIA HOOPER, a resident of Gastonia, NC, and native of Saginaw, MI, has published four previous books of poetry, a chapbook, and four children’s books. Her poems have appeared in American Scholar, Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, Southern Review, Ploughshares, and New Criterion, as well as other journals and anthologies. She has received numerous prizes, including the Norma Farber First Book Award of the Poetry Society of America, the Roanoke Chowan Award for Poetry from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Society, and the Writer’s Community Residency Award from the National Writer’s Voice. 1

From William Wordsworth, “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour; 13 July 1798"; Mary Oliver’s ” We Shake with Joy” is in Evidence (Beacon, 2009) 13.


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that suns on a sidewalk “the way a baby takes a nap / on a blanket at a picnic, undisturbed.” The narrator acknowledges, in her shovel’s swift action, the way humans often kill what scares us, though we have no greater right to life. North Carolina’s flora and fauna glimmer – or slither – through both collections, and are contrasted with those found in Michigan. In “Holy Ghosts in North Carolina,” Bosgraaf marvels at White fields in fall, not snow and birch trees as in the north in winter, but strange white fruit gleaming against brown soil in the sunshine while shadows run up and down the trunks along the railroad tracks, great puffs of cotton on bushes, white on brown and white on white.

. . . I’d sit on the stifling porch and think of heroines in southern plays or novels: sultry, steamy women whose ways I didn’t understand before – like Blanche du Bois reclining in a chair, restless, desirous, half-daft, but barely able to rise, or lift a hand . . .

However, Hooper finds consolation in her Southern garden, and she dwells frequently on Carolina scenes. Songbirds at her feeder draw her heart into delight as much as the Great Smoky Mountains make her words dance with awe. Playful humor infiltrates both collections, despite dark observations. Both writers speak universally to the human condition. Their poems are confessional, whether or not fully autobiographical, admitting failure, despair, and even triumph; but Bosgraaf and Hooper look beyond their lives, inspired by photos of strangers, airports, paintings, or current events. Headlines of THROUGHOUT Photography by North Carolina writer/

photographer Sylvia Freeman

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global terrorism or abuse feel personal because the poets, too, have known how a prognosis or wreck can abruptly explode one’s peace. As Hooper describes in “The Missing Girl” and “Sunflowers,” anyone’s child may adorn a faded missing poster or lie broken at the bottom of a ravine, making one afraid to live. However, Bosgraaf rewrites the dread of tragedy in “The Warrior,” where a plucky preteen uses self-defense training to free herself before her kidnapper drags her to the woods. The repetition of “Imagine” at the beginning of each of this poem’s stanzas reminds us that victory remains a fantasy for most victims, even as Bosgraaf encourages girls to empower themselves. In this and several poems, she wishes a better world for women at every stage of life, urging, “Imagine all glory. Imagine no fire.” Each collection deals heavily with death and physical debilitations that make joy feel inaccessible. In these cases, nature’s brutal impersonality adds insult to injury, epitomized by the mockingbird that sings “without manners or mercy” after a suicide in Hooper’s “One Day.” Yet in the face of PHOTOGRAPH BY SYLVIA FREEMAN

Similarly, in “December: In the South,” a homesick Hooper looks at garish camellias by her mailbox that she “had never seen up north” and longs for frigid Michigan, pressing her face to a “white envelope from home . . . as if it carried / snow, or the scent of snow.” Her wry poem “End of Summer in the Piedmont” imagines Michigander friends jogging outside while the narrator wilts:

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inevitable pain, Hooper reminds us in "Sightings" that “The world leafs out again,” offering the portrait of a paralyzed grandson gazing through his car window:

when the shock passes, the narrator says pitifully, “The red barn gleaming in the sun seems far away.” The glow of childhood recedes as she realizes this lesson is the first of many that will hurt her. Bosgraaf contrasts the “warm and gentle creatures” in the barn with the callous aggression of man. In particular, the narrator's abusive father bullies her mother, whose tenderness makes her eventual retreat into “Alzheimer’s forest” all the more heart-rending for the daughter. In “My Mother’s Hiding Place,” Bosgraaf writes, “I now want back into her womb – / to be unaware of the wretched in this hateful world – / the mutilation, always the wounds.” However, the narrator understands that, for her mother, “songs were her womb to rest in – // . . . To extinguish the violence, she sang,” and this bequeaths her a bittersweet hope. The narrator cries out, “Sing, Mom, Sing! / No more trouble now – sing the hell out of it all.” Bosgraaf’s collection follows the trajectory of a woman’s life through girlhood, adolescence, wifehood, motherhood, divorce, career struggles, new love in middle age, and twilight years. Her narrator learns to protect herself as she grows, best illustrated in two poems with feminist undertones. In “Sex-Ed,” the developing fourteen-year-old takes control: “I sex-eded myself when I was roller skating / with Bertram holding me close around my waist.” She exults, “No longer / aware of him – only of myself . . . / . . . I loved it, my body . . . / . . . mystery and secret.” On a first date at fifteen, she soon wields “more sex-ed sitting in the front seat of Harry’s car.” She says, “he had not kissed me / or even flirted, not even with his eyes,” disliking that “his hand kept crawling up” her leg. The narrator interrupts her growing uneasiness: “So I

. . . The winter-damaged fields are sown, and there, along the ridge, unraveling, spirals of song birds, drifts of dogwood trees restored to blossom, beauty that breaks the heart. And you whose spinal cord could not be healed: you’re lowering the window, looking up at miles of wings, your face alive with joy.

These collections are strong in sequence, each building a sense of a lifetime’s hard-won endurance. Kay Bosgraaf’s second collection of poems, The Fence Lesson, opens with childhood scenes from farm life in Michigan, reminiscent in tone and texture of a Winslow Homer painting or of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” in which the poet writes, “I was green and carefree, famous among the barns / . . . In the sun that is young once only.”2 The young narrator observes the world’s detail with all five senses, and the little surprises accompanying these lessons bring to mind the poetry of Ted Kooser, a Midwestern master of unfolding ordinary life. Bosgraaf’s down-to-earth voice captures childlike wonder in its vulnerability and quiet inquisitiveness. However, adults betray that trusting innocence and inflict cruelty. The narrator portrays our first struggles to grasp amoral motives, lacking the tools to understand or cope, though discerning more than adults appreciate. Despite its serene setting, Bosgraaf’s title poem frames a core complication of her book. The narrator’s grandfather, “His face / kind and sweet,” leads the child to an electric fence surrounding the cow pasture:

Through my wooly thick mitten, I feel painful electric currents and I do not cry but I wonder why he told me to do that and I think he was not playing a trick on me but teaching me a cow lesson and then I wonder what other kinds of lessons he is going to teach me.

Perhaps he wanted her to learn to be on guard; perhaps it was a thoughtless abuse of trust. Either way, 2

Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill,” Horizon Oct. 1945; first collected in his Deaths and Entrances (Dent, 1946).

PHOTOGRAPH BY SYLVIA FREEMAN

. . . he tells me I can touch it.


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. . . fell from group reasoning to be an individual thinker who lives within himself in a home of others who live within themselves in special mental spaces with special

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slid over, opened the car / door, stepped out, and strolled into my house.” In one cool motion, she resists the boy and adult sexuality, but she exhibits maturity, too, expecting more substance from romance. “Gynecology,” secondly, relates healthcare’s perils for older women as the narrator ages. A “young, sandy haired doctor looking like a surfer // at Myrtle Beach” is hesitant to perform her exam: “if I insist, he will do // my pap smear. He goes on to say because I am in my 70s / and my life expectancy is 80, my chances of getting cervical // cancer are slim. Stop! I hear Merna warning me from the grave." She thinks of women she has known who died of breast and ovarian cancer in their seventies or nineties: “Calmly he sings his statistics to back up his recommendation. / . . . My heart is beating faster as he begins / to talk about the unnecessary breast exam . . . / and all I hear is my mother crying out to me, Be careful!” Bosgraaf punches back, “How dare he tell me I am not / viable? I will have my exams.” The exam room looks like “a cold empty shipping container headed out to sea” as the narrator sits on a paper “shroud,” but she refuses to be written off. Bosgraaf points out the invisibility and devaluation of senior citizens – as if stats excuse a doctor’s squeamishness to inspect older bodies. Bosgraaf explores other infirmities in “Uncle Tim’s Stroke,” describing the event that “split that brain into halves // and dropped him to the ceramic floor,” as he

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Beyond the snares of affliction, Bosgraaf confirms the relevancy of older populations, their right to matter, and their persistence in passion. In “Spring Tease at the Hardware,” after “old folks surge / down the aisles of Lowes / . . . hair just so” and fill their carts with vibrant flowers, they go home to plant “sinuous borders / in front of their azalea bushes, / water the plants, raise them up, / absorb the ample sex of it.” Their playfulness crowns her closing poem. Personal histories are complicated in this book, as Bosgraaf portrays the dignity and indignity of aging. The narrator is defiant but aware of her faults; she flounders but survives, as life continues to teach her fence lessons.

privileges. . . .

Compassion is not black and white, however. Tim has always been a bully, like the narrator’s father. When Tim yells at his roommate at the nursing center, Bosgraaf writes, “This time there are consequences . . . / . . . This grown man gets / scolded.” She counterbalances justice with pathos, concluding, “Poor bully man.”

Patricia Hooper’s fifth collection of poetry, Wild Persistence, cycles through the ephemeral rhythms of the seasons, dwelling in tandem with the ecosystem. In this respect, it resembles her previous collections, including Separate Flights (2016) and Aristotle’s Garden (2003). She writes with a naturalist’s eye and returns to favorite subjects like ornithology and aviation. Earth’s


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as the sparks of bonfires, / igniting the whole boulevard.” She encourages trust in life in “August in the Little Field,” which marvels at “the goldfinch, / who knows that whatever / she needs will arrive in time.” Though it is midsummer before thistle seeds appear, the poet asks, Wasn’t it wisdom not to have given up? All morning I've thought, suppose she had doubted, suppose she’d grown tired of waiting?”

Hooper admires “her faith so simple / I could only wish it were mine.” Characteristically, Hooper retains a humble selfawareness of individual smallness on earth. “In the Clearing” narrates time spent in solitude in a bright fern glade under the forest canopy. She writes, Here, there’s no one else, no one to worry over or argue with or love. Maybe the earth was meant only for this: small comings and goings

beauties juxtapose with personal tragedies in irony, while at others times nature offers inspiration to persevere in delight. The title of her collection alludes to the persistent flourishing of wildlife – as delicate as a hummingbird – that finds us right when we need it, as well as to human persistence that seeks wilderness regardless of our fragilities. Hooper thanks the earth simply in “Ode,” saying, I was only thinking of the long winter we came through, someone I love

on the forest floor, the understory astir with its own secret life. If I sit still enough among the damp trees, sometimes I see the world without myself in it, and – it always surprises me – nothing at all is lost.

Fans of Mary Oliver will find welcome enjoyment in Hooper’s poetry, with her minute attention to detail – whether feathers, petals, or bird behavior – as well as her reverence of wildness as a cherished gift. In “Sandhill Cranes,” she describes with gratitude the comic pirouetting of two cranes outside her glass door, courting their own reflections in their “scarlet caps” and “black leather slippers.” She writes,

dying,

I thought it was just in time

and then the leaves unfurling their many stanzas,

that they found their way to the house

and then the birds.

Though dread haunts several poems, meditations like “Autumn” make the thought of death less jarring. Hooper learns from the leaves’ “skittery dance / into oblivion,” asking, “how could we call it dying / this flying, the way they’re rising / light

in which I was grieving,

and the weights flew from my shoulders

seeing them rise

and disappear

into the sunny morning

where I stood staring up long after

in my surprise.


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Likewise, fans of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (1992), with its intimate dialogue between garden, creator, and creatures, would appreciate Hooper’s closing “Ode,” in which Hooper speaks directly to nature: I would like to thank you for your persistence, the way you begin a new life every April, the way you drop everything in a hurry, gold, ochre, brown . . .

Yet she stops herself, saying, There I go again making you sentient . . .

VOICE AND THE RELIABLE NARRATOR a review by Patrick Bizzaro Malaika King Albrecht. The Stumble Fields. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2020. Michael Gaspeny. The Tyranny of Questions: Poems. Unicorn Press, 2020.

when what I admire most is your reticence, how you can be and not say.

The poet periodically draws a sharp contrast between her enjoyment of the garden’s quietude with terrorism elsewhere, as if asking why she is deserving of this peace and how long it will last. Even though these thoughts almost petrify her, Hooper returns in five poems to the indomitable mockingbird who “has to keep on singing, / to know he’s really here,” whether above a house of mourning or of joy. Similarly, Bosgraaf says the mockingbird sings the best he can, even in imitation, concluding, “Not / a bad way to live, I think.” These poets keep singing, too, in order to weather a dangerous world and to celebrate the beauty that contradicts its disasters. Hooper and Bosgraaf remain open to channels of delight – a gift to the rest of us. n

PATRICK BIZZARO has published twelve books and chapbooks of poetry; two critical studies of Fred Chappell’s work published by Louisiana State University Press (poetry in 1997 and fiction in 2004); a book with NCTE on the pedagogy of academic creative writing (2014); four textbooks; and numerous poems, essays, and reviews in magazines. He is on the editorial board of New Writing and Impost and is a contributing editor to Asheville Poetry Review. He has won the Madeline Sadin Award from NYQ and Four Quarters’ Poetry Prize as well as a Fulbright to South Africa in 2012 to assist in developing an English language literacy program and a writing center at University of the Free State. He is Professor Emeritus of English at East Carolina University.

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Voice has come under scrutiny in writing studies over the past twenty years, in many ways to compensate for the relative lack of interest in persona. Perhaps Wayne C. Booth has said everything that needs to be said about persona in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). But the two fine books under review here enable us to reconsider voice in productive ways. Michael Gaspeny’s newest collection of verse, The Tyranny of Questions, is a sequence of poems boldly told by employing voice in its nearness to persona. His female protagonist, Addie, is the person best positioned to tell the stories in this fine collection. After all, the poems recount intervals in Addie’s life as she grows into adulthood and approaches death. By narrating in a woman’s voice, Gaspeny offers a credible series of dilemmas that portray Addie’s growth in consciousness between 1933 and 1973. Crises of race, gender, and class serve as backdrop to her growing development as a troubled but conscientious citizen of the world. The only things we can be certain of are Addie’s convictions, in spite of her sometimes tragic awareness of herself as the liberal minority. She has many questions and finds her answers in her personal experiences. We might all find ourselves, in what we realize to be our dying moments, reflecting with moral uncertainty upon our lives, as Addie does in the book’s final poem, “I Died the Other Day, 1973”: “I always hoped to redeem my sins by a perfect death, / . . . But planning / your


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end’s a delusion of grandeur.” Her personal experiences, narrated by Addie herself, offer a historical continuum suggesting that inequities are intertwined, thereby revealing her growth in consciousness in response to the people and events around her from her girlhood to her death, presumably more than forty years later. Gaspeny has Addie remark on the most critical moments in her development. Indeed, the moments Gaspeny reveals are poignant and resonant. Her conflict over race is representative of her confusion over issues related to class and gender as well. Much of the book reads like rewritten clinical notes from the speaker’s conversations with

ABOVE The cover of Gaspeny’s collection

featuring distinguished photographer, author, and philanthropist, Dorothy Norman, a woman Gaspeny has said to have “a haunted look suggestive of Addie” (the collections narrator)

her psychiatrists. The opening poem, “Dr. Petway is Retiring, 1962,” sets up a series of analyses: “Dr. Petway listens. He doesn’t tell me / to count my blessings, polish the silverware. / He says my pain is justified, arising from the good inside.” This observation proves true as we witness Addie in her struggles to liberate herself from a domineering mother and drunken father, only later to marry such a man and to behave in ways that make her think she is, indeed, her mother incarnate. The fundamental tension caused by Addie’s conscientious resistance to inequity is represented in the book’s second poem, “The Carp, 1933.” Someone has “slit the Rag Man’s throat,” Addie’s mother, Mogre, shouts “over molasses-soaked toast.” Then the characterizing racist assessment from Mogre: “That’s how jigaboos settle scores.” Knowing Addie had had a moment of contact with the Rag Man – “In a flash, I saw him. He saw me,” she says – Mogre concludes, “Look what she did behind / our backs. Addie’s got a crush on the Rag Man!” The uncertainties and tensions about race follow Addie throughout her life, and Mogre continues to be her foil. Inevitably, as a factual history of the Jim Crow South demands, Addie’s life experi-

ences, after she moves to the South, require her to come face-to-face with her biases. Hers is a conundrum that only she can resolve and that can most effectively be rendered in her voice. But she is in turmoil because she feels the weight of our common racial pasts. In “Brown-Skinned Service, 1952,” her friend Nell tells her, “Honey, you look a trifle pale. High time / for some brown-skinned service.” Addie hires Edna but goes on to confess, “I felt ashamed.” Thus, without elaboration, Gaspeny skillfully allows the reader to contemplate Addie’s crisis in conscence. In this book, as they must in Addie’s consciousness, issues of race connect to issues of class and gender, both of which persist in Addie’s life and, therefore, in her evolving consciousness. Edna, quits when Addie refuses to permit her to eat lunch at the dining room table instead of in the basement where the dog is kept. Later, in a striking scene in “Who Did I Think I Was?,” Addie is surprised to see Edna again: “Next day, the club met at Nell’s. / In a frilly apron, Edna opened the door. / Stunned, I spun back down the steps. / What had I thought I was – a Southern Belle?” After Addie and her family move up socially from “the shoebox on Welcome Avenue”

MICHAEL GASPENY is the author of the chapbooks Re-Write Men (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and Vocation (Main Street Rag, 2013). He has won the Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition and the O. Henry Festival Short Fiction Contest. His verse has inspired a sculpture and appeared in a florist’s window. His poems have been published in NCLR Online 2020, Tar River Poetry, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature, Cave Wall, and Kakalak. His fiction has appeared in storySouth and Greensboro Review. He received the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Volunteer Excellence for hospice service in Greensboro.


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to a home in a new development, Thoroughgood Shores, Addie speaks figuratively in her observation that she now has “more room and money . . . but so dark.” Edna comes to Addie’s mind again, and the social issues of race, class, and gender likewise merge effectively in Addie’s conclusion about the inequity in their relationship: Edna, supposedly inferior, knew more than me about everything. Why don’t I fight for civil rights? In this country, Negroes live in shacks pick white people’s crops, dragging burlap sacks through row upon row as I drive to the beauty parlor.

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Take, for example, how she moves skillfully from the concrete to the ethereal in “The Dream of Endless”: “The ghost wants me / to feel something.” Everything is in constant motion in this book, and transition is the normal state of being: “He’s walking backwards / through the rooms again / as if he can unwind time.” After reading these lines for the first time, I closed the book to reflect upon them and noticed the book’s provocative cover. As I stared at the photo there, I thought I saw the woman in the art shift her weight. This book set my senses into a tumble and allowed me to see the world around me as if for

While Gaspeny demonstrates how voice might be appropriated to great success in making an authentic narrator, Malaika King Albrecht, in The Stumble Fields, uses voice as a mechanism to record what she sees and, thereby, quoting Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” to “see into the life of things / . . . / In darkness and amid the many shapes / Of joyless daylight.” Another important Romantic, the Coleridge of Biographia Literaria, might not have considered at the time that what he described as “the willing suspension of disbelief” is a necessary precondition for readers he leads to new insights into the relationship between the phenomenal and noumenal worlds.1 Thus, Albrecht challenges readers to see differently and more clearly, as her narrator models. “Truth May Not Be Solid,” a pivotal poem in The Stumble Fields, offers an observation about nature that nicely doubles as a claim about the poems in this collection: “So much is utterly invisible. / The bird. The song. The air.” This observation is central to the underlying theme of this collection and is further clarified in numerous poems about ghosts.

MALAIKA KING ALBRECHT lives in Ayden, NC, where she works as a therapeutic riding instructor, a reiki practitioner, and a yoga instructor at Freckles Farm. She has served as the inaugural Heart of Pamlico Poet Laureate since 2018. Her book What the Trapeze Artist Trusts (Press 53, 2012) won honorable mention in the Oscar Arnold Young Award. She has also published two chapbooks with Main Street Rag, Spill (2011) and Lessons on Forgetting (2010), which was a finalist in the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Awards and received honorable mention in the Brockman Campbell Award. Her poetry has been nominated for Pushcarts, and awarded in contests sponsored by Poetry Southeast, the North Carolina Poetry Council, Salem College. and Press 53. She’s the founding editor of Redheaded Stepchild, an online magazine that considers poems rejected by other venues.

COURTESY OF MAIN STREET RAG PUBLISHING COMPANY

Gaspeny allows Addie to speak her own awareness of gender, race, and social inequity. Surely, Addie is the right person to tell this story, and Gaspeny renders her voice with insight and skill.


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the first time. More specifically, these poems heal rifts between states of being, as in “When I Sleep”: “Frozen, / I hear a red crocus pierce the snow. / Everywhere is melting.” There is loss, which is gain, which is accumulation by addition, as in “How to Make a Ghost”: “Ghosts create themselves from / our breathing when we sleep.” Indeed, ghosts inhabit these pages. Using the title as the poem’s first line, “The first time I saw” continues “this ghost, I didn’t recognize / his faded jeans, faintly walking past me / in the hallway as if he lived here.” Test your senses against what is produced by the ghost’s presence at the end of this poem to see if they resist the summersault the poem invites them to take. I had to refocus after reading it and came to see such teases as purposeful. His walking obscured the floor. I had to be careful where I stepped because sometimes there were clouds, other times rocks, and once when I meant to find the stairs, a cliff.

This book repeatedly tricks our senses in this way and offers a sensuous feast for the careful reader. It is not an easy book, but in saying so, I offer praise not criticism. Readers of poetry need a challenge much contemporary verse does not offer. In The Stumble Fields, we find loss and grief as well as playful perceptions and endless possibilities. Albrecht leads us to resolutions that are made possible by an integration of opposites: body with spirit, known with unknown, living with dead. That the stairs become a cliff in “The first time I saw” is remarkable enough, but it is not necessarily a transformation (reminiscent of Richard Brautigan’s best hallucinations) as much as it is a rich imagining. “After Meditation” asks a critical question: “See how each room’s the same / but different?” To be the same but different requires an act of imagining that integrates opposites, creating what Albrecht calls “intersections.” Intersections enable us to explore what can be learned when a consciousness is prepared to embrace the natural as a door to the supernatural, as Blake says famously in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” As must be clear by now, this reader believes that Albrecht offers us a kind of Romanticism, not in its political idealizations but in its perceptions. She sees more clearly than most of us and challenges us to see differently as

we read her poems. Much to this point, she writes in “How to Kiss Fire”: “All magic transpires in this elemental mix. / When water or earth touches air or fire, /intersections birth thunderstorms, / forest firsts, waterspouts.” Loss and grief are fundamental to the world of Albrecht’s making, but there is little self-pity. These are the terms of the self intersecting courageously with the not-self: “It’s outside that I’m most inside / my body.” This is, indeed, something different from and yet more than transcendence. It is, in fact, “intersection,” to complete Albrecht’s most compelling point. Resolution is always possible in the willing unification of being, a coming together rather than a dividing of sense experience. In response to many of the poems, our senses introduce us not only to new perceptions but to new perceptions of new dimensions that we do not encounter in our day-to-day life. It is as if to say that a raised consciousness is possible if we let it happen, if we do not shy away from a new insight as if it’s a ghost sent to scare us. The voice of Albrecht’s narrator in these poems is credible and thereby leads us to an understanding that these points of contact where unification is possible are always present to the prepared consciousness, the expanded awareness that perception makes possible. The product of expanded awareness and improved perception is the “intersections” Albrecht shares in her poems. This is a wonderful and sometimes challenging collection of poems/intersections. I urge lovers of poetry to read this book alongside Gaspeny’s to get the full impact of the voices these poets employ. In Albrecht’s words, “Walk into unfamiliar woods / as if your life depended on it.” n

Call for Submissions for NCLR 32 (2023)

NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW

FEATURING NATIVE AMERICAN LITERATURE OF NORTH CAROLINA

Guest Editor, Kirstin Squint deadline August 31, 2022 * For more information, writers’ guidelines, and submission instructions, go to:

www.nclr.ecu.edu/submissions


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All people. All cultures. All for North Carolina. All together, amazing. The humanities are everything that makes us human, traditionally with an emphasis on culture, history, literature, and philosophy. It’s the collective fabric from all of North Carolina and its people throughout history, from every corner of the state, from all walks of life—a colorful reminder that our differences are just one of the many things we have in common. Experience our shared humanity, and join the conversation at our new website NCHumanities.org, formerly “The North Carolina Humanities Council.”

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