FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE
CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW WRITERS WHO TEACH, TEACHERS WHO WRITE ONLINE
Randall Kenan Prize Essay on Michele Tracy Berger n Essay by Liza Wieland n Poetry by Catherine Carter n Creative Writing Contest Finalists and Semifinalists n Book Reviews and Literary News n And more n n n
Selections from #The100DayProject, 2021 (mixed media/collage) by
Cover artist JOAN MANSFIELD is an alumna of ECU where she earned a BFA in Communication Arts in 1976 and an MFA in Illustration in 1982. Her art and illustration has been published and exhibited widely in regional, national, and international venues. After two years as visiting faculty at East Carolina University from 1982 to 1984, she joined the faculty in the Art Department at Florida State University for four years, teaching graphic design and illustration and coordinating the Visual Communications program there. She rejoined the ECU School of Art & Design faculty in 1990 and retired in 2018 as an Associate Professor and the Area Coordinator of the Illustration program. Upon retirement she continues her work and interests in mixed media in art and illustration applications. Find her on Instagram at kestrel_studio
Read more about the cover art with the opening essay of this issue.
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 Wieland essay in this issue.
Produced annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association
© COPYRIGHT 2022 NC LR
NCLR Art Director DANA EZZELL
Michele Tracy Berger
Angela Belcher Epps
Jeffrey Franklin Savannah Geidel
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NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW WRITERS WHO
Lenard D. Moore
Dale Neal Heather Newton Valerie Nieman
FALL 2022 ONLINE
Timothy K. Nixon
Lorraine Hale Robinson
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Dolly R. Sickles
Julia Ridley Smith
Dean Marshall Tuck
Eric C. Walker
Susan O’Dell Underwood
David Sedaris Megan Smith
Dennis R. Turner, Jr. Robert Wallace
IN THIS ISSUE
WRITE n North Carolina Artists in this issue n
TEACH, TEACHERS WHO
84 n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues includes poetry,
book reviews, and literary news
6 n Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write includes poetry,
fiction, nonfiction, book reviews,
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 and fall, is an open access supplement to the print issue.
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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 #32 (2023) will feature NC Native American Literature, guest edited by Kirstin L. Squint
Issue #33 (2024) will feature NC Disability Literature, guest edited by Casey Kayser Issue #34 (2025) will feature NC LGBTQ Writers, guest editor TBA
Issue #35 (2026) will feature NC Mysteries and Thrillers, guest edited by Kirstin L. Squint
Please email your suggestions for other special feature topics to the editor.
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.
4 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
Margaret D. Bauer
Dana Ezzell Lovelace
Jeffrey Franklin Art Editor
Diane A. Rodman
Original Art Director
Stephanie Whitlock Dicken
Senior Associate Editor
Christy Alexander Hallberg
Senior Editorial Assistant Megan Smith
Lauren Cekada Ian-Christian Jones Ashley Mills
Lukis Padu Amrina Rangar Anna Roche Blake Rose
English, Lenoir-Rhyne University
English, North Carolina State University
Catherine Carter English, Western Carolina University
David S. Cecelski
Historian, Durham, NC
English, East Carolina University
Elder Writing Project, Litquake Foundation
Gabrielle Brant Freeman English, East Carolina University
Technical Communication, Mercer University
English, East Carolina University
Kate Harrington English, East Carolina University
John Hoppenthaler English, East Carolina University
George Hovis English, SUNY Oneonta
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English, Appalachian State University
Red Earth MFA program, Oklahoma City University
Tariq Moore English, East Carolina University
Professor Emeritus, English, UNC Greensboro
Angela Raper English, East Carolina University
Kennedy Center Teaching Artist
Kirstin L. Squint English, East Carolina University
Helen Stead Denver, CO
Amber Flora Thomas English, East Carolina University
Monique Truong Author, Brooklyn, NY
Dean Tuck English, Wayne Community College
Susan O’Dell Underwood English, Carson-Newman University
Robert West English, Mississippi State University
Zackary Vernon English, Appalachian State University
5 N C L R ONLINE
Introducing the Premiere Fall Issue
by Margaret D. Bauer, Editor
Welcome to the first fall issue of NCLR Online and to this section, a third installment of our 2022 feature: “Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write.” We open with ECU Distinguished Professor Emerita Liza Wieland’s moving essay inspired by #The100DayProject art by Joan Mansfield that you’ve seen on all three 2022 issue covers now. In her artist mother’s last days, Liza shared her friend Joan’s daily creations, posted on Instagram during the pandemic. After her mother’s passing, Liza ponders the loss, the art, and how art can serve to comfort loss. I thank Joan and Liza, as well as NCLR’s Art Director Dana Ezzell Lovelace, who designed the essay layout, for sharing their art with us. What a beautiful opening to this issue.
During my COVID-altered academic life, I was moved by the monthly addresses to the ECU Faculty Senate by Faculty Chair Purificación Martínez, and I asked if we might excerpt from her first address to us, during the Fall 2020 Faculty Convocation. Like Liza, Puri found inspiration in art as she endeavored during her two years as Chair of the Faculty to motivate her exhausted colleagues, as well as to remind our administration and educate our Board of Trustees about our expertise as teachers to serve the students as we all adjusted to a new normal.
Teaching experiences inspired a few of the 2022 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize finalists, and we publish them here, as well. Erin Carpenter shares her high school teaching experience in Cherokee, NC. Lockie Hunter shares her essay’s inspiration, her grandmother’s letters, with her students. And Angela Belcher Epps reveals the unintentional harm in a typical elementary school assignment in her essay, selected by the final judge David Cecelski for honorable mention. (Find more of David’s honorable mention selections in the winter 2023 issue and the winning essay in the
The 2022 poetry contest finalists were still with the final judge while we put this issue together, but we’ve included here some of the semifinalists, who are or were teachers, from high school to community college instructors and university professors, as well as another poem by Western Carolina University Professor Catherine Carter, who judged the 2021 contest and whose selections were featured in the preceding two 2022 issues, the 2022 print issue also including more of her own poetry.
Read here, as well, short fiction by UNC Chapel Hill Professor Oswaldo Estrada, a finalist for the 2021 Doris Betts Fiction Prize. As this summary of content shows, the online issues allow us to publish more of the submissions to our contests, and adding a fall issue allows for more timely publication of these works.
Another award-winner in this issue is Dolly Sickles’s essay on Michele Berger, which Glenis Redmond selected for the 2022 Randall Kenan Prize. This award, in its second year, is sponsored by the UNC Chapel Hill Creative Writing Program, providing $250 to the author of the best article on or interview with a new(ish) North Carolina writer.
Finally, as usual, you’ll find news of recent literary honors, including a North Carolina playwright receiving a Pulitzer Prize, and reviews of books by writers who teach, including a poetry collection by our own longtime poetry editor, Jeffrey Franklin. This past summer, Jeff read – and commented on – sixty poems that had been selected for further consideration from the four hundred poems submitted to the James Applewhite Poetry Prize competition. For over twenty years now, he has commented on most of the poetry that reaches him, and I am so grateful – as are the poets. Many of them wrote to me to express their appreciation after I shared Jeff’s feedback with them, whether with an acceptance or not. It is, indeed, a rare service to our submitters. He certainly is an examplary writer who teaches, and I have been most fortunate to have him on the NCLR team for all these years.
The fine writing appearing in and reviewed in this section will, I know, expand your appreciation of the n
6 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
8 100 Days Project an essay by Liza Wieland art by Joan Mansfield
20 My Grandmother’s Love Letters an essay by Lockie Hunter
24 Those Awful Family Trees an essay by Angela Belcher Epps
28 You Do Not Have To Be Good an essay by Erin Carpenter art by Rowena Bradley, Virgil Ledford, and Eva Wolfe
35 Memento Mori a review by Molly Sentell Haile n Julia Ridley Smith, The Sum of Trifles
38 Examining “Otherness” on the Page and in the Classroom with Michele Tracy Berger Randall Kenan Prize essay by Dolly R. Sickles
46 Beauty in Knowledge, Knowledge Is Beauty a speech by Purificación Martínez
49 Let it Go a poem by Dean Marshall Tuck art by Vandorn Hinnant
50 Under My Skin a short story by Oswaldo Estrada photography by Yesenia Cuello
56 Who’s Not Afraid After Flannery O’Connor? a review by Dale Neal n Beth Gilstrap, Deadheading & Other Stories n Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, Sleepovers
58 Beyond the Drawl a review by Katherine Abrams n Heather Newton, McMullen Circle
60 The Loneliest Girl in the Whole USA a review by Susan O’Dell Underwood n Valerie Nieman, In the Lonely Backwater
Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write NORTH CAROLINA
62 Cursive a poem by Catherine Carter art by Liz Miller
64 A New Collection by NCLR Poetry Editor a review by Eric C. Walker n Jeffrey Franklin, Where We Lay Down
67 Blackboard 1958 a poem by Mark Smith-Soto art by Gina Esquivel
68 “Bless all that rusts and ages” a review by Jim Clark n Paul Jones, Something Wonderful n Al Maginnes, The Beasts that Vanish
72 North Carolina Native James Ijames Receives 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama
73 Photo Albums and (Un)Familiar Faces a review by Savannah Geidel n Lenard D. Moore, Long Rain n Grace C. Ocasio, Family Reunion
76 Symphony for Snow a poem by Lavonne Adams art by John Menapace
78 The Good, the Bad, the Endless In-Between a review by James W. Kirkland n Scott Owens, Counting the Ways n —, Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming
81 Ode: February Morning at Our Rural Cafe a poem by Benjamin Cutler art by Jim Lee
82 Statriot Bland Simpson Receives 2022 North Caroliniana Society Book Award presentation remarks by Michael Ray Hill photography by Tom Earnhardt, Ann Cary Simpson, and Scott Taylor
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE
84 n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues poetry, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and literary news
7 N C L R ONLINE
100 DAYS PROJECT
WITH ART BY JOAN MANSFIELD
Read about JOAN MANSFIELD in the inside cover of this issue. These illustrations and those on the cover are from her participation in #The100DayProject, a creative prompt advertised on Instagram to challenge artists to engage in a creative project of their own design during the COVID pandemic. Joan’s 100DayProject is a series of small, square mixed media/ collage works, which you can find on Instagram at kestrel_studio.
8 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
DAY 1 DAY 2 DAY 3 DAY 4 DAY 5
You have a friend called Joan, a graphic artist.
You are both capable, slightly nervous, artist types. Not types. You both make things with your hands. You each made a child (okay, with some help) you adore, who’s out in the world now. You worry about them. Covid-19 separated you from these children more than you wanted. You won’t speak for Joan, but some days, even though you’re perfectly healthy, you could scarcely breathe with longing for this child. Then your mother died, and the longing turned into something else, something harder. You thought you might be drowning.
LIZA WIELAND is the author of nine books: a collection of poetry, three short story collections, and five novels, most recently, Paris 7 A.M. (Simon & Schuster, 2019). Paris 7 A.M. was selected by O: The Oprah Magazine as one of the Best Books by Women of Summer 2019, by BBC.com as one of Ten Books to Read in June, and by Publishers Weekly as a Book of the Week. Her other honors include two Pushcart Prizes and a fellowship
from The National Endowment for the Arts. Her latest project is a memoir about grief. Liza served as NCLR’s fiction editor from 2008 until 2021, when she retired from ECU, where she was a Distinguished Professor of Harriot College of Arts and Sciences and received the university’s Lifetime Achievement Award in Research and Creative Activity in 2019.
9 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
6 DAY 7 DAY 8 DAY 9 DAY 10 BY LIZA WIELAND
You find yourself speaking of the pandemic sometimes as if it’s over. Well, it’s not.
For one hundred days, Joan made small collages, from watercolor paints, pieces of colored paper torn or cut, inks, colored pencils. You would say she favors blue and green combinations, water imagery, undulations, soft edges, but there’s also a lot of the color
your mother called hot pink, and pointed objects to suggest pine trees or sails on boats, which was how Joan and her husband spent their summers, on their sailboat, in Maine. You find these collages almost unbearably beautiful. You want her to make a calendar, though that would only be twelve or maybe thirteen of the hundred, and she would have to let you choose which ones, but you are not bossy enough to say so.
10 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
DAY 12 DAY 13 DAY 13 DAY 14 DAY
DAY 46 DAY 21 DAY 22 DAY 23 DAY 24 DAY 25
Or you wonder how you could transfer the images onto five-by-five-inch squares of cotton or linen, and make a quilt from them. You would hand-stitch each square to the next to the next, attaching one a day, for 100 days. You think Joan would like the sound of that, the idea of it, your 100 days project linked to hers this way.
Years ago, when you wrote a book about painters, you felt even closer to Joan. Now that you are writing another, you believe you’ll feel even more so. Your children were navigating the world, and your mothers were ill at the same time. Then your mother died, and
11 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write DAY 16 DAY 17 DAY 18 DAY 19 DAY 20 DAY 26 DAY 27 DAY 28 DAY 29 DAY 30
you wouldn’t wish that on Joan, or on your other friends, but it will happen in spite of your feeble wishes.
Somehow, in your disordered, grieving mind, it’s become your responsibility to find or make an answer to this question: how will you and the rest of the world be able to see Joan’s hundred collages all at once. Or most of them. Joan, herself, seems not be bothered by this desire. You wonder if maybe you want to see them in order, days one to a hundred, starting
with the black woodcut of barren trees on the fiery red background, next the blue cracked surfaces, like a shattered sheet of ice, then a broken stone wall, followed by two thin triangles, sharp, dangerous, piercing. And so on. Maine scenes on days five (pines on a hill) and six (a white triangle on a blue lake). All blue collages for a while, edging toward orange.
12 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
DAY 31 DAY 32 DAY 33 DAY 34 DAY 35
DAY 1 DAY 6 DAY 41 DAY 42 DAY 43 DAY 44 DAY 45
A bee caught in a jar. A velvety gouache of leaves (maybe Thai basil?), then oranges and blues. You start to notice borders are a constant. Then she’s made vertical lines for a few days, a repetition of borders. Sometimes there’s text in the background: you can see the words children, footsteps, almost, road.
Give it up? For Lent? It’s the end of March by Joan’s calendar. You remember her fish below the pier collage, marking Poisson d’Avril, the French version of April Fool’s Day, the start of your mother’s dying, her last thirty days on earth.
Mostly plant life, you see now, the name Rudyard
13 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write DAY 36 DAY 37
40 DAY 46
DAY 47 DAY 48 DAY 49 DAY
This need you have to make order, to find a through-line, a narrative – can’t you move beyond that?
What did Joan do with these days?
14 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022 DAY 61 DAY 62 DAY 63 DAY 64 DAY 65 DAY 51 DAY 52 DAY 53 DAY 54 DAY 55
Kipling over and over again on the ninth. A few days of calm blues, and then batik patterns, sea green, pale yellow, like butter. A globe depicting the Americas. Pieces of a chess board for two days, then a riot of underwater bubbles, followed by a pink and blue-gray window. On your mother’s next to last day, something like a thistle with a splotch of red. And finally a window shade descending,
about to cover a chartreuse whirlwind of a tree. Two days later, after your mother was really gone, a blackbird. On Joan’s 100th day, a Bonnard palette of bright pastels, two sails, a bilious sky.
Then for the first time in more than three months, Joan posted in words: now it’s back to the garden.
15 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
DAY 69 DAY 93 DAY 66 DAY 67 DAY 68 DAY 69 DAY 70 DAY 56 DAY 57 DAY 58 DAY 59 DAY 60
weep when it’s all over.
You weep when it’s all there. And not there. Your mother. You’ve lost track of time, going all the way back and inching forward again through Joan’s Instagram (if teenagers could see only Joan’s Instagram they wouldn’t be depressed and suicidal). There it is, your mother’s last three months re-written by Joan. You want to tell her this, how moving and gorgeous and necessary, but she’s in Maine with her husband, a public health administrator, luckily retired before 2020. Later, you decide that’s certainly for the best, that you can’t tell her in person because you would surely weep. And it’s likely other people would be present,
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71 DAY 72 DAY 73 DAY 74 DAY 75
81 DAY 82 DAY 83 DAY 84 DAY 85
and well, they’d attend to you, and you prefer right now not to be noticed.
If you can’t be noticed by your mother, you prefer to be invisible.
You recall now, sometime in February or early March, before your mother’s daily decline, while she still had her famously enormous appetite, after she’d waited all day for her only visitor (because:
pandemic) which was you, you opened your phone and went to sit on the arm of your mother’s chair and you showed her Joan’s Instagram. There were maybe thirty or forty collages then, and your mother was enchanted. She asked more about Joan. That’s right, she said, I remember now. You’re the two who have children, which was only partly true. She said she would
17 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
DAY 28 DAY 32 DAY 76 DAY 77 DAY 78 DAY 79 DAY 80 DAY 86 DAY 87 DAY 88 DAY 89 DAY 90
18 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022 DAY
91 DAY 92 DAY 93 DAY 94 DAY 95
like to meet Joan someday, a painter who was also a mother, as she had been, trying to sneak away from the world and upstairs into her studio. Get away for just an hour, escape from the heartbreak, even for forty-five minutes, away from that feeling she was drowning, that the drowning was endless. n
19 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
DAY 96 DAY 97 DAY 98 DAY 99 DAY 100
FINALIST, ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE
My Grandmother’s Love Letters
by Lockie Hunter
A collage hangs above the hearth in my mountain home. Three sepia photos capture a towering woman in Americana moments. Tugging the fur collar of her wool coat at the National Monument, posing with one stockinged leg on the running board of a car in the Blue Ridge Mountains, sitting beside her young love in a garden, the serviceberry bushes forming a halo around the couple’s head.
An overlaying love letter finishes the collage. It reads: Shell Creek, TN, 1926. My grandfather spilled his feelings onto the page. “Life would be most miserable if I could not live in hopes of teaching you to love me.” And teach her, he did. They lived in harmony until his early death.
My self-appointed job is to chronicle family history. Set the record. I created this collage from a letter found in her bedside drawer a week after her death and photos found between pages of Bibles, in wig boxes, under balls of yarn. The collage has been hanging above my hearth for over twenty years, setting the record of our family.
One weekend, my father examined the collage. “That’s not your grandfather,” he said.
“What? Of course it’s him. That’s his handwriting.” I squinted at the letter affixed to the painting.
“He wrote the letters, but that’s not him in the photo.”
“Who the hell is it?”
“Honey,” he pulled me close, “that could be any one of her many admirers.”
In her glittering youth, she had been the first Miss Johnson City Tennessee – tall, likeable – and quirky.
She did not behave like other grandmothers. She favored red dresses, pink scarves, high heels and curly wigs. She spoke in a mix of Appalachian homespun phrases. Pull your skirt down. We can see clear to the promised land! Her nightstand boasted tiaras and long white gloves with pearl enclosures at the wrist. She stood in doorways, waiting to be escorted into rooms. Her high bosom laughed loud and often. In later years, she still drove, despite the revocation of her license. She did crochet, but even in that mundane task
LOCKIE HUNTER had three essays make it to the final round of consideration for the 2022 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize. Read the other two in the 2023 issues of NCLR Online. The author serves as associate producer of the poetry and prose radio program Wordplay on 103.3 FM in Asheville. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston and has taught creative writing at Warren Wilson College. Her work has appeared in several venues, including Brevity, Christian Science Monitor McSweeney’s Internet Tendency , and Blue Mountain Review scholarships/grants from The North Carolina Arts Council and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts.
20 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY
My self-appointed job is to chronicle family history.
I was especially impressed with the variety of ditties she used when judging my suitors.
“He’s not worth shooting.”
“He’s so little that if I landed on him he’d be nothing but a greasy spot.”
And perhaps the kindest phrase she ever bestowed. “There’s nothing wrong with that boy that a good haircut won’t fix.”
Though she never approved of my men, she valued male companionship, as my father teased her about her past, with a hint of disapproval.
I was in college when she died. She left an assortment of garishly colored afghans, a closet full of clothes four sizes too big for me, a large collection of estate jewelry, and seven cut-glass punch bowls (“We never even drank
father said). She also left a sizable oil painting of a handsome man with a light gray mustache, dark gray bowtie. It hung on her mantle. My grandfather? No. J.C. Penney. As in the actual James Cash Penney, the businessman who founded the chain of department stores.
My sister and I compromised over the bounty of the estate. I told her she could keep the sparkly necklaces and the punch bowls, the cobalt glass vases and the silver serving dishes. I wanted J.C. Penney.
My grandmother had worked in the major department stores as a floor model. Decades later, they built a mall and shuttered all the downtown stores in her hometown. Mr. J.C. Penney was found in the dumpster behind his onceflourishing store. My grandmother (then in her seventies and a widow of many decades) rescued him and hung him above her mantle.
“I miss having a man around the house,” she had said. I agreed. I, too, loved having a man around the house. Or a few –
My father preferred to think of his mother as eccentric and dismissed many of the things she did, understanding the futility of changing her. Instead, he helped her behind the scenes. He pled her case at the DMV, paid all her citations, and
21 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
“Look at you acting like I’m still living under your roof,” I said to him.
A plastic shopping bag. Full of love letters. Letters written on graying paper, on stationery from the war office, on a modern typewriter. All addressed to my grandmother.
“Look at you acting like my father,” she said to him. This role reversal remained acute until her death. Dad did not like men snousing around his mother any more than he liked men asking after his daughter. He thought of us as virginal. Unworldly. And, most importantly, in love with one man.
At fifty-three I am now on my second husband and have been engaged other times. I love being in love and the attention companions hereditary?
the collage above my mantle, my mother stood bag. “These are for you,” she said. “Your father
letters. Letters written on graying paper, on stationery from the war office, on a modern typewriter. All addressed to my grandmother.
scribbled in different handwritings, many with photographs of her suitors – an older man in a fur jacket and matching hat. (Something tells me that I am a fool.) An angular man in a business suit. (I thought and felt like the whole world was light.) A young boy in an army uniform. (Your letter filled me with hope.). A teen in overalls with a fiddle. (I think of you. Makes no difference what I’m doin.)
I placed the bag of letters in my trunk, and drove away.
When I turned the corner I heard the bag move, heavy with history. It lent gravitas to the car. The letters moved with the car, spilling out into the trunk.
Nine months since I took possession of her letters and over twenty years since my grandmother’s death, and her lovers’ intentions still occupy my car. My children argue in the back seat, discussing the best flavor of ice cream. I fiddle with the GPS in the front seat. When I drive, the bag disgorges more of its contents, and my grandmother’s amorous history intermingles with sweaty yoga mats, leftover school lunches and wet swimsuits. I have a similar bag of letters at home, love letters from boys whose last names I can’t recall, photos of shared flats in San Francisco and trips to Yosemite. “Keep all correspondence – letters, emails,” I tell my writing students. “They will tell the history of your time.”
I place a bottle of seven-dollar red wine on top of one stack of letters. Tuesday wine. I hear it rolling in the trunk, a sassy gal’s rolling pin, ironing out the words, marrying one letter with the other, flattening the history of the many men. Until I read my grandmother’s letters, I had preferred the memories of my own men to be compartmentalized. These are the type of boys I date. These are the type of boys I marry. Marry the
22 NORTH CAROLINA Fall 2022
The spilled sweet tea saturates one letter, written in a fountain pen; the words smudge and assume new meaning. My grandfather’s words soak into the words of other men. The words of the others do not diminish the love she had for him.
preppy, not the punker. But, in reality, I married both. If we love with abundance, does the man in the overalls vary so much from the man in the business suit? Did my punk rock wedding vary so much from my traditional wedding? The only thing that remains when I look at my photos is a profusion of love. My bag as full as hers. Love written with urgency.
I buy tomato plants and place them in the car trunk on a row of opened envelopes, postmarked from around the globe. The local plants take on exotic roots. One sits on Washington, DC, another on San Francisco. I spill a sweet tea inside the trunk and make no effort to clean it up. I’ve protected the few possessions I inherited from her (her flaking mother-of-pearl mirror is bubble wrapped, doomed to a life of sterility, preserved like a fly in amber), but I feel cavalier with her suitors’ words.
The letters from my past lovers do not diminish my love for my husband. They amplify it. I wish to tell my twelve-year-old daughter, just now cusping into a life of love, that things are complicated. Memories smear together. I give her permission to be messy, explore layers of love, damn the reckoning! The spilled sweet tea saturates one letter, written in a fountain pen; the words smudge and assume new meaning. My grandfather’s words soak into the words of other men. The words of the others do not diminish the love she had for him. Will my daughter one day rescue my love letters from the fire when my son unearths them and wants to burn them? Perhaps appreciation of multiple partners skips a generation?
I sort the letters, find the anxious loops of my grandfather’s handwriting among the others,
When I turned the corner I heard the bag move, heavy with history. It lent gravitas to the car. The letters moved with the car, spilling out into the trunk.
marry the correct photographs of my grandfather with his own words.
And now, I stare at my past error, a collage that holds his words and the photos of another man. It is in this layering that the record is set. I respect my grandmother’s capacity to love in abundance and I wonder again if I, too, will be admired for loving in abundance, or will I be judged? I hold my eccentricities close, as she did, embrace my abundance or risk becoming a humorous postscript to my own history. n
23 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
Those Awful Family Trees
by Angela Belcher Epps
One Father’s Day, as a full-grown woman, I reflected deeply about my family composition. My parents separated when I was a toddler. I have no memory of father. So absent was this figure that his name was never mentioned.
I was eight years old and looking through our family album when I thought to ask a young aunt to identify two unfamiliar men. “Those are your uncles,” she told me. Knowing these weren’t her brothers, I was baffled.
“Which uncles?” I asked.
“They’re your father’s brothers,” she explained.
“I have a father?” I literally exclaimed, utterly clueless about my origin, and clearly, about the origin of humans.
“Everyone has a father,” she answered.
There was a hah! But at the time, it was just another detail added to a list of facts about my life. I didn’t ask her to elaborate about the phantom father, nor did I have a desire to connect with him.
I was an only child surrounded by a close-knit extended family that talked and entertained incessantly. We all loved books, playing games, and socializing. We cooked with the regularity of a twenty-fourhour restaurant, both traditional favorites and cookbook recipes. Our house was filled with satisfying scents that invited us indoors
As a high school teacher, I taught my students that context is everything. The meaning of practically anything changes depending on its location and the circumstances surrounding it.
at dinner time and coaxed us from our beds on weekend mornings. If we stayed up late debating or playing cards, we’d make slab bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches at two or three a.m.
The lack of a father-in-the-flesh held about as much importance to me as lack of a llama. My father was already dead before I understood that his absence would, indeed, have an impact.
As a high school teacher, I taught my students that context is everything. The meaning of practically anything changes depending on its location and the circumstances surrounding it.
When I attended elementary school in rural North Carolina, the school year ended in May. Neither our family nor our neighbors paid any attention to that meaningless paternal holiday in the middle of June. Nobody made a special trip to town for a Hallmark card or a gift. On a day of reflecting, I wondered whether Father’s Day had been downplayed during that era in the South because there were so many blurred boundaries lingering from slavery and Jim Crow. Many Southerners could recognize a mixed-race neighbor or relative of questionable or unmentionable parentage. In such cases, it was absolutely best to leave paternity questions alone.
But in fifth grade, I moved permanently to New York City where school was in session till
24 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
ANGELA BELCHER EPPS is the author of a novella, Salt in the Sugar Bowl (Main Street Rag, 2013). Her stories and essays have been published by Essence Magazine and Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, among other periodicals. Angela’s essay “Sandhill: A Symphony of Souls” was also an honorable mention recipient of the Alex Albright CNF Prize and was published in NCLR Online 2019. She has also published two grant writing manuals as resources for nonprofit organizations. Angela earned a BA in English/Creative Writing from Hofstra University and an MA in Creative Writing from New York University and is a member of the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. She lives in Raleigh with her husband.
HONORABLE MENTION, 2022 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE
the end of June. I encountered my first catch-22 in my introduction to a schoolhouse ritual: designing the Father’s Day card. Why on earth would I write a poem and draw a picture for a nonexistent figure in my life? Refusing to participate would make me an outlier. If I raised my hand and said my truth, would I have been given an alternate assignment? And what in the world would that have been? So, I made one just like everybody else. Tossed it in the trash at the end of the day. I thought no more of it because the assignment didn’t require the father to show up at school or do anything. Perhaps, the concept of doing is key. Perhaps, I would have missed a father if there was something that needed doing that went amiss because he wasn’t there. I’m reminded of a family story. My four-year-old first cousin was in a particularly talkative stage when he’d gone to visit his grandfather. He returned with countless grandfather stories that continued for the greater part of the week. At some point, he looked at his younger cousin and said, “You don’t have a grandfather.” He pondered the matter for quite some time before saying, “Wait. Aunt Dessa is your grandfather.”
I understood his logic. His aunt Dessa was my mother. My mom was an industrious landlord, and, on her days off, you would find her cleaning the traps in the basement, mopping the hallway stairs, sweeping debris from the flat roof, and spreading tar on the puckered shingles. He might have concluded that titles were somehow conferred according to the completion of tasks in various domains, in the way that a dry cleaner or a shopkeeper could be any human.
It was not until I was in middle school, old enough to complete forms on my own, that I began to feel a twinge of discord. I repeatedly encountered that line requesting Father’s Name. I knew the name, but there was no reason to include it. There was no logical, subsequent step that followed his identification. He wouldn’t be notified for consent
My introduction to a schoolhouse ritual: designing the Father’s Day card. Why on earth would I write a poem and draw a picture for a nonexistent figure in my life?
or further information. I left it blank. Sometimes though, I’d notice a slice of sadness slithering in my spirit because the blank line signaled that no matter how happy or how satisfied I was within my family unit, a basic requirement for full family status was unmet. I began to covet a different kind of wholeness in my familial picture.
So, in eighth grade, I wrote novellas about relationships in which star-crossed lovers rushed into teenaged marriages and blissfully parented a slew of children. I glorified the dad and dug deep into the characters of these young men who shaped the destinies of a doting wife and offspring. By the time I reached high school, however, that hankering abated and the issue of my paternal parentage went into remission.
Entering the field of education seriously kindled my awareness of the political and social aspects of family structures. For fifteen years I did educational research for grant writing purposes and taught in the public school system for twelve. All my teaching assignments involved case management for students with special needs. This exposed me to situations that cut across race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Special education is a territory where some of society’s greatest complexities and challenges converge for the sole purpose of getting children through school.
In the special education arena, I continually witnessed dynamics that led to reconfigured families. A child might be physically fragile and reside in a medically equipped foster setting. Teens with disabilities transitioned from foster homes into group homes. Parents burned out and turned kids over to kinship care or the system. Students with emotional and behavioral issues got banished from their homes and wound up sleeping from couch-to-couch in temporary situations.1 It was
1 Records show that “some 5,000 [youth] reside in group homes, residential treatment facilities, psychiatric institutions, and emergency shelters,” “Congregate Care, Residential Treatment and Group Home State Legislative Enactments 2014-2019,” National Council of State Legislatures Dec. 2020: web
25 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
common for lines requesting the names of mother and father to be scratched out and replaced with aunt, sibling, grandmother, uncle, cousin, foster parent, stepfather, or guardian
In those settings, I embraced any caregiver with the utmost respect and excitement. I wanted my students to feel not a hint of trepidation in claiming the adult in charge of their lives and decisions. The “win” was to have someone who cared enough to come.
“Anybody coming?” I’d ask about an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting or awards ceremony.
“My foster mom,” he’d answer.
“Awesome!” I’d say. “Can’t wait to meet her.”
“My big sister and her baby are coming.”
“Well, that’s terrific!”
I grew a bit bulldogish and began to cringe and glower at individuals who used terms like “her adopted son” or “his real mother.” I grew increasingly sensitive to the myriad indirect ways that create stigma around the necessary connections made in response to the needs of children.
Two decades ago, my daughter came home from her educational summer day camp with an assignment to complete one of those family tree
templates divided into a mother’s side and father’s side. This activity encourages children to learn more about their families as they fill the branches with names, titles, photos, and detailed information. Many teachers still incorporate this activity into their annual cache of “fun things to do.” The sentiment is innocuous, and some kids enjoy it. For other children, however, it invites them to revisit wounds, acknowledge glaring omissions, and dig out skeletons best kept in their proverbial closets.
Instead of getting my daughter set up with the box of old photos, etc., I said, “We’re skipping this project.” I sat down and wrote her counselor. I opened by saying that I understood he was just beginning his educational career and that I wanted to alert him that some children might be needlessly stressed because of the parameters set by that tree:
They may have only one parent and no knowledge of the other side.2
They may be adopted and understand that behind one tree stands another that will remain forever branchless.
They may have come from an assisted conception with a paternal donor of no consequence tied to their existence.
They may belong to same-sex parents who don’t ascribe to all the separating and delineating.
They may live in foster care or group homes.2
I sent the note to camp with her the next day. When I saw the counselor at pick-up, he nodded and said, “I get what you’re saying.”
“Yes!” I said.
“Almost a quarter of U.S. children under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults (23%),” “National Single Parent Day: March 21, 2022,” U.S. Census Bureau March 2022: web; “Between 2 and 3.7 million children under age 18 have an LGBTQ parent,” “LGBTQ Family Fact Sheet,” Family Equality Council Aug. 2017: web; “There are approximately 424,000 foster youth nationwide,” “6 Quick Statistics on the Current State of Foster Care,” iFoster Nov. 2020: web
26 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
An excellent personal essay that makes a compelling and well-crafted argument for overcoming our traditional ways of talking about family.
—David S. Cecelski, final judge
Change is slow, however. Not all educators have realized that the status quo is morphing into something other than. We’ve become a This and That society, and some ceremonies that we’re standing on are irrelevant at best and painful at worst.
Not so long ago, I was observing a teacher in a high school classroom. She told her students, “I want you to write a paragraph stating your momma’s opinion about one of the following topics.” She had the list on the board. When a disheveled young man sat idly unfocused, she said loud enough to hear at the end of the hall, “Ray, you got a grandma, don’t you? Ask Grandma.”
For a brief period, two little girls got off the school bus with my daughter. For two weeks, they came to our house for a few hours because their mom’s schedule had shifted. One was a chatty and precocious nine-year-old. She drove me mad with her desire to talk to me as I was busy making my living grant-writing from home. My normal routine was my daughter doing homework and entertaining herself for a couple of hours while I continued to work. The little chatterbox wasn’t having it.
Because this little neighbor loved to read, I gave her the draft of a children’s book I’d worked on featuring a little girl and her siblings who went into foster care, which turned out to be a far better environment for them.
She sat on the front porch steps and dived into the fifteen, typed, double-spaced pages for a good long time. When she finished, I asked, “So, what do you think?”
“It’s too sad,” she answered, her face worried and tense.
“But it has a happy ending,” I said.
“Yeah, but we had another mother,” she said. “She was on drugs.”
Her younger sister came out of nowhere and chastised, “We’re not supposed to talk about that!”
I wrapped up that awkward moment with, “Well, you know that’s what the story’s for – to let kids know all families aren’t the same. And the best families aren’t always the ones we’re born into.”
They were satisfied with that answer, and I was quick to offer extra snacks.
I noted that even though they were thriving under their improved conditions, their reality was cloaked in secrecy. That’s understandable; privacy has its place. But it’s a travesty that children must suffer the burden of shame because someone died, left, or proved to be unfit. Psychological fallout is real, but societal messaging can, indeed, make it so much worse.
Protocols that lead us to pretend we’re all having homogeneous experiences will continue to stick in my craw. I’m certainly not casting aspersions on traditional two-parent units; I simply want society to acknowledge and validate all loving and caring configurations that keep kids safe and emotionally nourished. To be fair, I’ll no longer berate the wellmeaning educators who remain wed to the family tree assignment. Might I suggest, however, that they provide an array of trees from which children can choose to chart their unique journeys. The first that comes to mind is a resiliency tree that highlights all the people who have helped them along their journey. n
designed this essay, as well as the Carter, Epps, Hunter, and Martínez essays and the Estrada short story in this issue. She has designed for NCLR since 2000 and served as Art Director 2003–2008.
27 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS NCLR Seeks Pedagogical Essays on NORTH CAROLINA LITERATURE for K–12 and post-secondary classes Submission guidelines here
you do not have to be GOOD
by Erin Carpenter
i was not indigenous, not a person of color, not a mountain woman or even born in the bible belt, but i was their english teacher now.
The air smelled of chemicals and wet brown paper towels as three girls made a late entrance on my first day teaching American Literature. Divinity, who went by Deva, was named for the miraculous circumstances surrounding her birth. I didn’t find this out until months later, when I would also discover that her mother was dying in jail. There was April, who would be pregnant by this time next year, and Keirah, who was the oldest of eight and already tasked with the duties of a mother. When asked why they were late, they told me they dyed Deva’s hair. Green.
Second period, a stout boy in the second row wore a t-shirt that read “White people suck.” I chuckled to myself. I could see the humor, but I could not leave it at that. I was not Indigenous, not a person of color, not a mountain woman or even born in the Bible Belt, but I was their English teacher now. Shouldn’t we have some kind of discussion about this?
“Where did you get that t-shirt?” I asked, sounding to myself like a mom who had found his weed.
“From my dad.” He wore half a smile, but his knee was bouncing furiously.
ERIN CARPENTER teaches middle school English on the Qualla Boundary for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times’s Tiny Love Stories, The Sun Magazine’s Readers Write, and The Wrath Bearing Tree. She studied French at UNC Chapel Hill and received an MA in English from Western Carolina University. Her academic editing work supports scholars writing dissertations on critical race theory and social justice in education. Prior to teaching, she helped run the international business development program at UC Berkeley and worked in the wine business in San Francisco.
He could feel my mind trying to reconcile generations of wrongdoing, looking for the words to make it right. “It’s just a t-shirt,” he said in the deep, soft voice I would come to recognize in many Native boys and men.
He was de-escalating, giving me an out. He knew words could not fix this, but I lacked that same humility, so I opened my mouth, and here is what came out of it.
28 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
2022 FINALIST, ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE
The fifteen-year-old boy steeled himself against the back of his chair and said nothing. It would not be the last time I embarrassed myself.
His skinny, freckled friend wearing a long, beaded rope necklace came to his aid. He had recently returned from twenty-seven minutes in the bathroom.
“I’d tell you to get the hell off of the Rez, then.”
These are good kids, and they will put you in your place. I was on their land, after all. We are all on their land.
A few months prior, I walked into this occupied territory. A group of fifth graders had been without their teacher for months and had driven three other substitutes out, all of whom had far more experience than I did. When I entered that classroom, Justina had just pulled a two-liter bottle of Hawaiian Punch out of the overhead cabinet and was passing out cups. Axel was climbing up the side of an enormous rolling bookshelf. Hunter was doing a standup routine sitting down. Raven was in an altered state of hysterical laughter. And Danny looked around her with an angelic smirk. She knew she should help me, but she was far too amused to make it stop.
Cherokee Central Schools have been run by the tribe since 1990 when they ceased to be a Bureau of Indian Education school and became what is known as a “tribal grant school.” They answer to federal regulations in order to receive federal grant money, but they are operating independently. The brand-new school was right across the Raven Fork River from where I was living in federal housing with my husband, who worked maintenance for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and our daughter, who was three or four years old at the time. This architectural gem was built with 160 million dollars of casino money. The tall cement stucco walls were decorated in basket weave patterns using color palettes that mimicked the natural dyes from bloodroot and honeysuckle. Three buildings, one for each school, were laid out
with a seven-sided courtyard at the center of each. Breezeways connecting the buildings were etched with a fishbone pattern. It was a stunning facility and the heart of the community.
I was considering sending my daughter to school there, and I needed some intel. I didn’t want to assume anything, but no online North Carolina School Report Card was available, and I didn’t know a single person who could tell me what it was really like behind those walls. That’s how I became a substitute. I went undercover, and what I found disturbed me. Many of the kids I taught in that high school English class were reading at a fifth-grade level. As a compulsive people pleaser, terribly afraid to fail, I saw my students with their heads down on the desk, or wound up and ricocheting about, and I panicked a little bit. What would become of them? What does their lack of engagement say about me?
Third period. Tosh, whose eyelashes could ruin a young girl’s life, leaned his chair back against the wall of energy efficient windows and kicked his size twelve boots up on his desk. He wore overalls and had a body that looked like it was built for hard work or ass kicking. But the only hint of violence I ever saw out of Tosh was passive aggression. His stonewalling technique was likely a tactic he learned well before he entered my classroom, but like so many of my students’ coping mechanisms, I took it personally.
“You talk to yourself a lot,” he liked to say. “That’s only because you’re not listening to me,” I replied.
The library’s hardcover copy of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian lay on his desk every day.1 He said he had read it a couple of times already. Sometimes his nose would be in it, and if not, I could always count on him to pick it up if I called on him to answer a question about whatever I was covering in my lesson. If I knew then what I know now, I would have given him the benefit of the doubt and praised him for reading such an important book. I’d have encouraged him to relate its themes
29 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
“What would you say if I wore something like that about your people?”
1 Sherman Alexie, Dream Work (Little, Brown, 2007).
to the class as part of a larger discussion. But I thought I needed to teach him something he didn’t already know, so I insisted he do the work I was assigning.
“You’re not even a real teacher.”
He wasn’t wrong. I was a permanent sub. I had more than adequate content knowledge to teach high school literature, and I would go on to earn the credentials to teach legitimately in my own classroom, but at the time I was earning a master’s in English and focused on writing. Not until I struggled through four years of subbing, wandering homeless through the halls of Pre-K through twelfth grade with my lunch box and coat, would I accept a full-time teaching assignment. I was able to lay eyes on a large majority of the children in the Cherokee school system during that time and call them by name. I was able to finish my master’s and get my daughter settled in grade school. And then, just when I began to focus on freelancing work, a fire destroyed part of our home and many of our belongings. When the seventh-grade English Language Arts position opened up at Cherokee, I knew I needed to apply.
I’m good at learning. I knew my content area, and the pedagogy and human development classes were interesting enough, but they were of little use in the field, where what I first needed was tough skin. A roomful of
middle school kids can smell insecurity, and I gave them ample bait. When a Pre-K child called me Ms. Carpet, it was cute, and seemed like a reasonable mistake, but as students matured and the name kept resurfacing, I began to wonder if it was more of a pun. I certainly felt like I was getting walked on.
“Do you brush your hair?” Makayla asked, prompting me to buy a flat iron.
“Your face droops,” said Dustin.
“I don’t think your husband loves you very much,” said Jaydn when I shared something about my marriage.
Meanwhile, at the end of every day, I was picking up the garbage – the Takis, Gatorades, milk and orange juice cartons, Pop-Tart wrappers, broken and chewedup pencils, tiny rubber bands. I was collecting the abandoned notes I typed and printed out for them, along with the glue sticks they wouldn’t use to affix these notes into their composition books – but were happy to slather all over themselves and grind into the rug. I didn’t want the custodian to have to clean up after me. I didn’t want anyone to see evidence of how poorly I controlled them.
It was better than subbing. I could plan ahead. I wasn’t the last person in the school district to know what was going on. And I had some leverage with those students who cared at least a little bit about grades. I had
30 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
ROWENA BRADLEY (1922–2003) was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, raised on Swimmer Branch of the Paint Town Community on the Qualla Boundary. She was acclaimed for her basket technique of complex double weave, a tradition she carried forward from her mother and grandmother, weaving her first basket in 1928 before she started school. Her baskets were awarded multiple times at the annual Cherokee Indian Fairs, and she exhibited at the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual in Cherokee, NC. Her work is held
public collections, including the Asheville Art Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. Find more information in the Southern Appalachian Digital Collection at Western Carolina University.
Planter, circa 1994 (rivercane with black walnut dye, 12x12x12) by Rowena Bradley
COURTESY OF ASHEVILLE ART MUSEUM, GIFT OF BILLIE RUTH SUDDUTH, 2006.07.01.58. © ESTATE OF ROWENA BRADLEY
the rhythm of seeing them every day and building relationships. But even with my own lessons, my own roster, and my own code for the copy machine, I was trying too hard and failing at everything that mattered.
The apathy that exists in a community that has learned not to count on anyone has an insidious effect on education. Low academic achievement aggravates behavior and disciplinary consequences have little effect if students and their guardians aren’t invested in performance outcomes. Prepandemic, we used silent lunch as an attempt to correct disruptive students, but one of the many downsides to using this punishment was how hard it was for teachers to enforce silence while eating their own meal, talking with their peers, and monitoring a hundred other rowdy children. As a result, I started holding silent lunch for our grade block in the science lab. When these sessions were one on one, which was often the case with repeat offenders, I took the opportunity to make a phone call home and check in with parents and guardians. These conversations helped me see the depth of the difficulty. Usually, the classroom behavior was the tip of the iceberg, and I would try to connect the families to additional forms of support. But I came to know my limits. These kids often needed an advocate more than anything, but their families were very often struggling with their own weariness and disconnection.
For most of my students, isolation, injustice, and massive disappointment in the system that claims to serve them is nothing new. They feel unwelcome on college campuses. They feel judged in the town right down the highway – at the Walmart, or at restaurants, or at the local university. They have been turned out of hotels for being Cherokee. They have been taunted at sporting events with racist signs and chants. Why make the effort to keep up with academics? Not only does
going off to college seem, to some, like an exercise in frustration and loneliness, it’s also a financial gamble. The tribe pays full tuition, unless you fail out. Then you must pay it all back. It takes an incredible support system to take that risk. Most of my students do not have that luxury. Why are their heads down? They were up with their baby sister or their sister’s baby. They couldn’t sleep worrying about the loved one in the hospital, or they were at the hospital and didn’t get home until four a.m. The fighting got loud; the dogs were barking; they were driving around with mom until midnight. They were hungry; they were cold; they could not relax, and there was no winding down routine, no warm milk, no meditation tapes like my mother bought for me when I was sleepless in middle school. There was no peace.
Many of my students are used to chaos and disorder, to being left to fend for themselves. Remote learning only exacerbated this. In 2020–21, I had forty students, and twenty-five of them did not have reliable internet. The mountains of western North Carolina are remote by design. We tried to give out hotspots, but where there is no coverage, a hotspot will not work. We have community buildings with Wi-Fi, but most kids are not in a situation where they can get a ride anywhere at eight a.m. Eight of my students showed up to class on a regular basis, and keeping them engaged was a huge effort. I raffled off prizes every day for showing up, for keeping the camera on, for coming off mute and saying something. I celebrated every participatory act.
31 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
they could not relax, and there was no winding down routine, no warm milk, no meditation tapes like my mother bought for me when i was sleepless in middle school.
At one point, my Zoom classes started thirty minutes earlier than required, and most of my eight students showed up to talk, message, sing, and just be together. Younger siblings popped in to show off their pets, wrestling moves, and newly lost teeth. Older siblings came by to laugh and reminisce about English class in years gone by. We talked about what we had for dinner and who did the cooking, what our favorite songs were, and what was trending. I learned so much.
Before the pandemic, before I had a handle on the devastating effects of my Puritan values in an Indigenous classroom, I would not have had time for this. I would have seen it as irresponsible. In some ways this pandemic is an unexpected blessing, an exercise in learning how to belong to my students, and how to be part of their adolescent world. It is an opportunity to be okay with not being okay.
Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, an author, enrolled member of the Eastern Band, and a recently-retired twenty-five-year veteran of teach-
ballfield. They have an intimate understanding of one another and use caution when getting to know outsiders. “Who are your people?” is the unstated question when meeting someone new. These values protect their community.
When the tribe received the vaccine in December 2020, they chose Victoria Harlan to be the first recipient. The tribal elder, former US Marine, and Emergency Room Nurse Manager at Cherokee Indian Hospital said, “I started to cry because I don’t think of myself first because I wasn’t raised that way to start with. You do for others. That’s what we do here in this place. We’re here to do for other people. Because when you start thinking about yourself first then you’re going to miss something.”3
The children of the tribe are cherished in so many ways and for so many reasons. These kids are quick-witted, incredibly strong, and full of contagious laughter. They look out for peers with special needs and treat them with kindness and dignity. They are going to graduate with thirteen
many of my students do not practice traditional ways at home, but they live in close connection at school, at home, at church, or on the ballfield. they have an intimate understanding of one another and use caution when getting to know outsiders.
ing high school English, said in the Atlantic in July 2020 that “COVID-19 is merely our sovereign nation’s latest test of resilience.”2 Her article “How Our Indian Country Flattened the Curve” describes the self-preservations skills that her tribe has used since the first settlers brought smallpox.
Many of my students do not practice traditional ways at home, but they live in close connection at school, at home, at church, or on the
years of Cherokee language, culture, and history instruction, having had opportunities to learn and practice traditional crafts and dances, train with great coaches, work with dedicated teachers, and study with top-notch performing and visual arts instructors. In many ways, their school is the heart of their community. Powwow, markets, and funerals are held there. Every other week, someone is selling frybread or Indian
Atlantic 31 July 2020: web 3 Jonah
16 Dec. 2020: web
32 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
Saunooke Clapsaddle, “How Our Indian Country Flattened the Curve,”
Lossiah, “First COVID-19 Vaccine Administered in Cherokee,” Cherokee
“who are your people?” is the unstated question when meeting someone new. these values protect their community.
dinners to support a family in need. The kids look out for peers with special needs and treat them with kindness and dignity. Elders are revered. The children of the tribe are cherished in so many ways, and yet, in spite of the strength of their spirit and the wealth of their community resources, many of them are struggling to get their start.
These are good kids, and yet they are struggling. One hundred percent of our students qualify for free lunch. The chronic stress of poverty demoralizes children, and a fundamental mistrust of non-Native educators is often passed down from the boarding school days.
I used to go into these classrooms, once physical and then virtual, and see the chaos, the apathy, the hurt as a reflection of my effort and ability, but the truth is that these kids cannot and will not connect with a teacher motivated by fearful self-interest. They do not need a perfect human educator, but they do need a strong and courageous human heart. If I think too much about my own agenda – how it would look if the principal walked in for a surprise observation, or whether I am going to meet standards and collect exit tickets – I will continually miss opportunities to connect and build their trust.
The chronic stress of poverty demoralizes children, and they do not deserve any additional
pressure that stems from trying to please and placate me as I juggle the many demands that outsiders place on teachers. I know I cannot deliver the outcomes that are expected of me. But sooner or later, I am reminded that I do not have to improve their behavior; I have to improve my response to it. Once in a while, a small gesture can make a big difference. Deva, with the new green hair, black clothes, and pierced face, did no work at all until I bought a bag of Nestlé’s Toll House chocolate chips and baked for her. “I’m so sorry about your mom,” I said. “I thought you could use some cookies.” The effect was immediate. She turned in all of her assignments and started bringing a teddy bear to class.
Last year, thanks to the American Rescue Plan Act, I was able to work as an academic interventionist. Many public schools in our country are approaching school improvement with a MultiTiered System of Support (MTSS) framework, in an effort to meet the academic and social/ emotional needs of the whole child. At Cherokee Middle School, we decided to try a focus on writing enrichment as part of this endeavor.
I surveyed about 185 of my students to see who they were as writers while I was developing my curriculum. Almost seventy percent found the
EVA WOLFE (1920–2004) was a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Born in the Soco community of the Qualla Boundary, she was acclaimed in particular for her double weave rivercane baskets. She was awarded first place in an exhibit presented by the US Department of Interior in 1968, followed by selection as the first Cherokee artist to be included in a national exhibit. In 1978, she received a special grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She received the North Carolina Folklore Society’s Brown-Hudson Award in 1988, and the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1989. Her work is held in numerous private and public collections, including the Asheville Art Museum. Find more information in the Southern Appalachian Digital Collection at Western Carolina University.
33 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
COURTESY OF ASHEVILLE ART MUSEUM, 2010 ASHEVILLE ART MUSEUM COLLECTORS’ CIRCLE PURCHASE, 2011.24.01.58. © ESTATE OF EVA WOLFE
Purse Basket (single weave rivercane with walnut dye, 13.25x13.5x8.5) by Eva Wolfe
hardest thing about writing was spelling (thirty percent), not understanding how to answer the question (twenty-five percent), or being embarrassed to be wrong (twelve percent). Considering the difficulty we have with decoding and reading comprehension, written responses are a major challenge to many students, and they can quickly lose hope and shut down, which denies them the practice that they need in expressing themselves as writers with their own ideas.
I tried to make writing empowering by letting them choose some of their topics. We wrote about addiction and the ways our brains respond to vapes, cannabis, and nicotine. Some students wrote about ferrets, others about designing sneakers or how to be a teenage mother. I reviewed the fundamentals needed to teach simple sentence structure, and I corrected their errors, but too much focus on proper punctuation (which often means the use of any periods at all) inhibits children in the larger context of writing to discover who they are and what they value, which is an important step in perceiving themselves as learners. They want to see their words gather on the page; they want me to read those words and tell them that they are good. I cannot heal their past, and I cannot ensure their future, but this much I can do for them.
Fifth period. I just read them Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” which begins: You do not have to be good You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.4
Yona has fallen out of his chair. He has the same habit I had as a kid of discharging some of his anxious frustration by leaning, one hand on the desk, and rocking back and forth. He is a funny child, who once told me the uncle he lives with (who isn’t a whole lot older than he is) only went to school on the days they served chocolate milk. (“And he passed!” he reported.) He is one of the kids who has consistently given me the gift of his attention, trust, and effort. In my rational mind, I know he fell because gravity took over his seat. But in my heart, I like to think it was more than a careless stumble. I like to think that his body responded to a truth he already knew – a message to embrace his own authentic wants and needs over the prosaic regulations of a disabled government – and that to hear it spoken in poetry jostled some part of himself out of sleep and into bodily action. n
VIRGIL LEDFORD (1940–2018) was a member of the Eastern Band Of Cherokee Indians, raised in the Birdtown community on the Qualla Boundary. His woodcarving technique and style celebrated the wildlife and people around him. His work was honored by Qualla Arts and Craft Mutual, the Indian Arts and Crafts board, and the North Carolina Arts Council. In 1975, his sculpture depicting an Indian hunter and eagle was adopted as the official emblem of the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. In 1995, he was the recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award. His work is held in private and public collections, including the Asheville Art Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. Find more information in the Southern Appalachian Digital Collection at Western Carolina University.
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4 Mary Oliver, Dream Work (Grove Atlantic, 1986).
Bear, circa 2009 (carved wood, 9x11x4.75) by Virgil Ledford
COURTESY OF ASHEVILLE ART MUSEUM, MUSEUM PURCHASE WITH FUNDS PROVIDED BY 2009 COLLECTORS’ CIRCLE MEMBERS LADENE & RUSSELL NEWTON, 2009.36.32. © ESTATE OF VIRGIL LEDFORD
a review by Molly Sentell Haile
When I was in high school, my beloved grandmother sewed a red and blue patchwork quilt for me. I slept under that twinsized quilt for years. In college, on pretty days I would spread it under my favorite tree near the quad and spend the afternoon half-studying and half (or maybe mostly) flirting with my boyfriend. Years later we were engaged on that very spot. And several years after that, we took a family picture under the tree with our small children perched in our laps on the quilt. The quilt came with us to Japan for a year and then to California for three. When the kids were little, I would throw it in the back of the station wagon for our weekly trips to the public library. We would lay the quilt on a grassy spot near the birdfeeders and start reading the newly checkedout books without even having to wait to get home.
And then one day the quilt was gone.
I checked every closet, every storage box, and under every bed in our house. I checked the trunks of our cars, every local library we had ever visited, friends’ houses, the preschool, and my in-laws’ house. Nothing.
more than I grieve my grandmother, who died almost twenty years ago at ninety-three. Even though she hadn’t slowed down much in her last years, we – her family – understood that we were running out of time with her, that we would lose her one day. I never imagined I’d lose the quilt, though. It was the object that, more than any other, kept her in my life. Even as I write this, the familiar knot tightens in my gut. It’s a knot of regret and loss, of failure to hold on tighter, to be more careful with something I believed kept my grandmother’s love for me alive. It’s an ache, a desire to be reunited with that one thing she made especially for me.
A native of Louisiana, MOLLY SENTELL HAILE has lived in Guilford County, NC, for more than twenty years. She has taught creative writing at Salem College and has been instructing children, youth, and adults in other schools and organizations since 1994. She currently teaches writing for cancer patients and their caregivers at Hirsch Wellness Network in Greensboro, volunteers with Greensboro Bound Literary Festival, and is at work on her first novel. Her short story “Little Things” won the 2020 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in NCLR, Oxford American, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Award and was recognized as notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro.
That was more than a decade ago, and I’m still grieving the loss of that quilt – in some ways
Why do we humans form such powerful attachments to objects? Why do we transform them into receptacles for our grief and placeholders for memory? In what ways do they become a part of our very identities? What does it mean when they’re gone? Or how, when packing up an entire house, whether our parents’ or our own, should we go about sorting a lifetime of objects into one of those three, seemingly straight-forward piles – keep, donate, or trash? These are some of the questions Julia Ridley Smith asks in her eloquent
and has served as a volunteer docent
She taught creative writing, composition, and literature in the English Department
UNC Greensboro and was the 2021–22 Kenan
UNC Chapel Hill. Essays from The Sum of Trifles have appeared in Ecotone, New England Review, and Southern Cultures, and been recognized as notable in The Best American Essays Her fiction has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Electric Literature, Southern Review, and elsewhere.
35 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
Julia Ridley Smith. The Sum of Trifles University of Georgia Press, 2021.
JULIA RIDLEY SMITH grew up in Greensboro, NC, where, at twelve, she was the only kid in her first creative writing class, a Guilford College continuing education class for adults taught by Marianne Gingher. A freelance editor of academic books for university presses for almost two decades, Smith also served for several years as editor of Inch magazine and associate editor at Bull City Press. She helped launch the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival
Visiting Writer at her
and thought-provoking memoir, The Sum of Trifles
Ten years ago, Smith’s parents, who had owned an antique store in Greensboro since the 1970s, died within six months of each other, leaving Smith and her brother to go through their parents’ personal and professional collections of antiques as well as, among other things, their mother’s yellow legal pads of notes, their father’s journal, and his prosthetic legs. Grieving the loss of both parents, Smith and her brother put off cleaning out their house. “When Mom and Daddy died, I believed, a chasm would open between me and my past,” Smith writes in “The Art of Dying,” one of ten linked essays that comprise The Sum of Trifles. “As their things went away, the chasm would grow wider, harder to bridge. What if, once they died and we got rid of their stuff, I could never find my parents again?” (83).
When Smith turned to books for guidance and solace, she was surprised to discover that few addressed “the existential questions associated with relinquishing your parents’ belongings” (15). With humor, wisdom, and intelligence, Smith does exactly that. In “Jazz on School Nights,” her father’s nine-foot-
long, mid-century modern hi-fi and his jazz albums allow her, as a girl, to see a different side of a man whose anger and selfabsorption often kept him at a distance from the family. As her father warms up the stereo, a young Smith perches “on the wing chair nearest the hall, ready to slip away if his friendly mood downshifts” (23). When he drops the needle onto a record, “The beat vibrates through the floor into our tapping feet. We thrum with its energy, electrified by what we’re hearing. Daddy listens, is happy, and his rare happiness overjoys me. I bob my head and snap my fingers, imitating him. So giddy am I with his pleasure in the music that it becomes my pleasure too” (28–29).
In “Legs,” Smith vacillates between compassion and frustration with her newly widowed father who becomes more vulnerable after a lifetime charac-
terized by bitterness. Holding his deceased wife’s hand, he tells Smith, “I wish I’d done more. I have so many regrets.” When he dies six months later, Smith and her brother accompany his body to the crematorium. Their father’s prosthetic legs turn out to be difficult to donate, and Smith jokes to her brother, “We could film ourselves . . . Candid Camera fashion, going around public places, each with a leg casually tucked under an arm, asking people if they’d seen our dad – an older man, grey hair, beige windbreaker?” (117). Throughout her memoir, Smith’s sharp and welltimed humor offers the reader something more than just a chance to take a breath. It reminds us of how human, how redemptive, a laugh can be, even—or especially—at the hardest times.
With her yellow legal pads, her Salem Ultra Lite 100’s, her “Dossier” (a binder filled with clippings and research about a pair of nefarious neighbors), and her razor-edged wit, Smith’s mother takes center stage in Smith’s life and also in her memoir. The Sum of Trifles is, among other things, a love letter to Smith’s mother, a petite and charming sea of contradictions (But aren’t we all? the book gently reminds us). When Smith brought home a friend from high school, her mother, cigarette hanging from her mouth, greeted the friend with, “Welcome to hell!” At the
36 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
OF JULIA RIDLEY SMITH
ABOVE Julia Ridley Smith with her brother and parents
antique store, when Smith’s parents would flip over a piece of furniture to study its provenance and craftmanship, her mother liked to tell the observing customer they were performing a “full rectal” on the piece. And yet, with her pedigreed and wealthy ancestry, Smith’s mother also had exacting ideas about “nice” people and proper homes. In “The House Beautiful . . . or the House Good Enough,” an essay, in part, about Smith’s decision whether to keep or let go of her mother’s Tale of Genjiinspired Japanese screen, Smith recounts her mother’s “articles of faith” on house decorating. In summarizing the last rule, Smith is also describing her mother: “Above all else a well-appointed room conveys a sense of ease. A successful room, like a successful person, is permitted to exhibit flare, even high drama or
eccentricity, as long as it exudes confidence. There must be no hint of striving or trying to present a false image, of pretending to be what you’re not” (44).
Smith uses the antebellum, heirloom quilt she and her brother inherit from their mother to interrogate and reckon with a family history that includes ancestors who enslaved fellow humans. As she grapples with what to do with the portraits, the quilt, and other inherited objects that are remembrances if not celebrations of a part of the family legacy Smith wants to let go of, she studies Sanford Biggers’s Codex, a collection of antique quilts Biggers painted and appliquéd to tell the layered story of this country’s racial history. Smith also draws on the writing of Toni Morrison, Eula Biss, Rebecca Solnit, and Sherry Turkle to help her think about racism and its relationship to objects and stories passed down through the generations.
BY FELIPE TRONCOSO
If The Sum of Trifles is a love letter to Smith’s mother, it is also a love letter to the written word and to the practice of writing.
Joan Didion, Italo Calvino, Leo Tolstoy, Roland Barthes,
O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and George Eliot are just a few of the writer-companions who accompany and enrich Smith’s search to understand how to grieve her parents and how to live with or let go of the objects that filled their lives. Smith turns an idea over and over and holds it up to the light of other thinkers’ words. She uses white space to highlight juxtapositions. The white space also suggests silence, a place for readers to think and make their own associations and connections. The structure of The Sum of Trifles invites us in (“Come in the house” , Smith’s mother would say). And somewhere along the way the reader realizes that Smith has not only written the book she had searched for in the aftermath of losing both parents, but in writing it, in composing each quilted piece of the memoir that is The Sum of Trifles; she has created her own memento mori. n
37 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
William Faulkner, Flannery
ABOVE Julia Ridley Smith at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, TOP 19 Sept. 2021 and BOTTOM 5 Nov. 2021
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE MITCHELL
2022 RANDALL KENAN PRIZE WINNER
by Dolly R. Sickles
Michele Tracy Berger and I have been circling one another for the last few years, where we have ancillary interests in HIV/AIDS activism, fiction, and discussing all things books. I was excited to catch up with her to find out if she identifies more as a writer who teaches, or a teacher who writes.
“Coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, I never read a commercial novel that featured a character that was anything like me: African American, female, wickedly smart, urban, and geeky,” Michele Tracy Berger wrote in the Chatham County Line as part of a three-part series on Writing and Publishing in the 2020s.1 Berger earned her PhD from the University of Michigan in political science and women’s studies and is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, though she’s been an author and a storyteller since long before that. She’s a creative writer, a transformational thinker, and an Afrofuturist who occupies the space she’s created to tell different kinds of stories that reflect on the condition of the lives of Black women and women of color: “When I look back on several of my works, I see themes and patterns that speak to aspects of Afrofuturism and also my interest in the African American literary tradition.”2 Berger is a Renaissance woman, and she’s writing and teaching right here in the heart of North Carolina.
1 Michele Tracy Berger, Part 3 of “We Need Diverse Books: Writing and Publishing in the 2020s,” Chatham County Line 31 Aug. 2021: web; subsequently cited parenthetically.
38 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
2 Unattributed quotations from Michele Berger are from my interviews with her, conducted over the course of telephone and Zoom conversations, in compliance with COVID-19 practices to keep us both safe.
“Coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, I never read a commercial novel that featured a character that was anything like me: African American, female, wickedly smart, urban, and geeky.”
DOLLY R. SICKLES is an author, journalist, and creative writing instructor living in central North Carolina. She publishes romance novels as Becky Moore and and children’s books as Dolly Dozier.
COURTESY OF UNC CHAPEL HILL
on the Page and in the Classroom with Michele Tracy Berger
Professionally, Berger conducts interdisciplinary research on racial and gender health disparities. It is her scholarly writing, which draws on her training in political science, that enables her to focus on precise details of society. Outside of academia, she teaches workshops and classes on writing and the writing life to students ages twenty through seventy through her own coaching practice called The Creative Tickle.® She is a people watcher, a scholar of history, a witness to the present, and a harbinger of the future.
“Since I make my living as a professor, being surrounded by books is normal in my world. It is true, however, that when tote bags full of novels become conspicuous in the house, I will say that I’m reading them ‘because I might teach them.’ And since I’m not a literature professor, a new book pile may grow out of the floor as a part of an unspecified ‘research project.’ My husband pretends to be none the wiser as he dances around the piles to reach me. I’m afraid he might one day start naming those literary mounds after some of our favorite mountains we’ve climbed!”
Berger came to creative writing in her late thirties and early forties. Her main love is speculative fiction, which tends to be a genre umbrella term for fantastical works that include magical realism, urban fantasy, modern fantasy, science fiction, and horror. “To me, horror speaks to the fact that human existence often feels mysterious, precarious and at times absurd,” she told me. Primed for speculative fiction after reading fantasy as a teenager, she’ll tell you that much of her creative fiction explores psychological horror, particularly through the issues of race and gender.
“I credit my early horror interests in giving me an alternate way of looking at the world, one that is grittier and less idealistic.” Berger’s mother got her hooked on horror at a young age; as a proud Gen-Xer, Berger is an aficionado of Steven King, Jaws, and The Exorcist. “It wasn’t until college that I found feminist speculative fiction. That completely changed my worldview about what you could do.” College is also when she began reading other BIPOC
39 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
“One of the powerful things about being writers in North Carolina is that there’s an incredible literary generosity.”
—Michele Tracy Berger
“It wasn’t until college that I found feminist speculative fiction. That completely changed my world view about what you could do.”
SARAH ELKS designed this essay and the Carpenter essay in this issue. A graduate of Meredith College, she is based in Raleigh, NC. Find her other projects and contact her on her website
of the Black Fantastic and speculative fiction. “Over the years, I’ve gravitated more toward horror tropes in my writing as they provide a powerful way to dig into the complexities and contradictions of race and gender. I am fascinated by how coping with ‘otherness’ shapes the worldview of many of my characters.”
Otherness isn’t for the faint of heart. A little over a decade ago, when she started focusing more heavily on making a foray into life as a fiction writer, the structural realities of what it means to be a working author of color were stark. “If I wasn’t a persistent writer and confident in my ideas, I would’ve stopped a long time ago.”
“Over the years, I’ve gravitated more toward horror tropes in my writing as they provide a powerful way to dig into the complexities and contradictions of race and gender. I am fascinated by how coping with ‘otherness’ shapes the worldview of many of my characters.”
In 2020, Berger published a three-part series on writing and publishing in the 2020s and the fact that while the industry is making an effort to diversify, there’s still much work to be done for it to be more than lip service:
Publishing has a diversity problem, both in the kinds of books that get acquired, supported, and reviewed, and in the composition of the people that constitute “the publishing industry.” This is not new. What is new is that there is greater acknowledgment that this is a serious problem (which was not true even ten years ago), and a social movement composed of readers, publishing insiders and writers is active, organized, and vocal. (“We”)
It’s the gatekeepers of publishing who have been slower to diversify, she concludes, and “if they didn’t know anything about African American history and context, they may not even understand aspects of the story.” Literary context and historical knowledge affect decisions, so being the only author of color in certain craft workshops on the conference circuit was far from the only barrier Berger faced early in her publishing career.
Last year, Berger was accepted into the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) Program for emerging writers of color. The whole idea is to build a flourishing literary community. “Even though I was a more established writer,” she said, “I got so much out of it.” And in 2019, she won the Carl Brandon Kindred Award from the Carl Brandon Society for her story “Doll Seed,” published in FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.
40 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
Afrofuturism and The Black Fantastic
“I learned the term ‘The Black Fantastic’ from Renee AlexanderCraft, a professor in the Department of Communications at UNC,” said Berger. “It’s one of the rubrics that people categorize under when writing about African Americans or Black lives that transcend time and space. It allows for texts that aren’t easily categorized.” She points to Toni Morrison’s Beloved as an example as it is “a literary ghost story that ruminates on being, Blackness, death, slavery, memory, and history. I read it in a literature class. The novel made an impression on me.”
According to Penn Libraries, the term “Afrofuturism” wasn’t coined until 1994,3 right around the time Berger began writing and emerging into her identity as a speculative fiction author. Her work intersects with Afrofuturism, regardless of how it’s classified, and embodies the same importance and presence. Neither Afrofuturism in general nor Berger’s work specifically should be considered as just Black sci-fi. She said, “Afrofuturism has created a space, especially for Black women and women of color, to tell different kinds of stories that reflect on the conditions of our lives. Black women horror authors are reshaping what is considered horrific: looking at how sexuality, harassment, the legacy of slavery, and the politics of beauty have impacted us.”
Berger’s path to Afrofuturism has evolved over her career, though she still generally identifies herself as an author of speculative fiction. “I think it lines up generationally,” she said. “Maybe if I had been in a different place than Ann Arbor when I started writing speculative fiction, with different writers, it might have been different. But in my own experience in engaging with questions of race, power and belonging, speculative fiction is how I’ve always positioned my work. I’m happy that people are interested in labeling my work in the broader Afrofuturism movement, but I haven’t been conscious of engaging in that conversation until recently.”
Though celebrated now, Berger acknowledges having to navigate the literary landscape differently when she was emerging thirty years ago, particularly when talking with her students. “Younger writers see themselves in the current manifestation of Afrofuturism. I never saw myself through that lens,” she said. “My students are interested in Janelle Monáe and following people online. They’ve grown up in the last seven to ten years, and Afrofuturism is their reference point.”
Another draw for emerging writers (and some of Berger’s students) is the bridge between literature, television, and film, where Black creators are hitting their stride. In the last five years, big
41 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write 3
See “Afrofuturism” in Penn Libraries Collections of Note: web
ABOVE Berger participating in SteamFunk cosplay at the State of Black Science Fiction Convention in Atlanta, GA, 2017
COURTESY OF MICHELE BERGER
budget productions like Get Out, Watchmen, Lovecraft Country, and Candyman have focused a new lens on race in America, and all were led by or starred Black artists. “Jordan Peele changed what people thought could be created in terms of storytelling,” Berger contends. These films took advantage of broad audiences who may not have otherwise engaged in conversations of race and equality and history, forcing a reckoning of accountability and culpability through the lens of entertainment, and making it an easier pill to swallow. Great literature does the same thing, generates the same potential for conversation and self-introspection.
And when you’re an author or reader of horror, you realize there’s more to the horrors happening on the page and on the screen than on the surface. Berger has been occupying space in the horror genre for decades, first as reader, now as writer, and she’s happy for its renaissance. The genre is having a new moment across the board, even within the Horror Writers Association, where its leadership has shifted to reflect the diversity of its members and readers. “There’s a hunger and desire for people to have elevated, social horror. This intersection of creators of diverse background and the stories dovetailing is interesting.”
In 2021, Berger’s story “Etta, Zora, and the First Serpent” appeared in an anthology and was turned into an audio drama for a horror podcast.4 It was the first time she explored alternate history, and the story was very wellreceived. “I have received more emails about that story than almost anything else I have written,” she said. “The story explores the race, class and gender dynamics of the day as the Cotton Club practiced segregation – only white patrons were seated – and colorism – for example, African American female dancers that were hired were typically light skinned and/or could pass for white.” Berger’s maternal grandmother danced for a brief period at the Cotton Club, and the 1920s–1940s has always been a period of fascination for her. “While writing it, I felt as if I was in deep communion with the writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. She was ahead of her time as a writer and scholar, cultural icon and transgressive artist.”
A writer who teaches, a teacher who writes Great teachers have often been great students, and Berger is no different. “I was lucky enough to go through the Central Carolina Community College Writing Certificate Program,” she said. “The idea of it was MFA training through grass roots instructors. I’m a professor, but it was important and fundamental to me to see how professional writers were making a living for themselves, and it allowed me a richness of imagination.”
4 “Etta, Zora, and the First Serpent” was published in Afromyth Volume 2: A Fantasy Collection (Mugwump Press, 2020). The audio drama was recorded in Nightlight 30 Mar. 2021: web
42 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
ABOVE Berger reading from her “Etta, Zora and the First Serpent” story at the North Carolina Writers’ Network fall conference, 2018
BY PEYTON SICKLES
Degrees are important, she confirms, but can sometimes hamper creativity, depending on what a writer’s goals are. “Writing students want to feel nourished and be supported.” It helps for teacher credentials to be varied. MFA programs at universities need to have weight and validity to be a draw for students. But for this teacher who writes and is a student of the craft, practical things are important. “Someone who’s present with students and not phoning it in” is a hallmark for Berger during her learning process. “I’ve been fortunate as a writing coach and a teacher to have great people in my life. At the teaching level, I’m very fortunate.”
Berger has earned her good fortune as an author, too, and is on a roll with a flurry of short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction credits in the last eighteen months. Her science fiction novella, ReenuYou, about a mysterious virus transmitted through hair care products, was published by Book Smugglers Publishing in 2017.5 “I’m three drafts into a horror novel that takes place in the North Carolina areas of the Great Dismal Swamp. Prior to the Civil War, the Great Dismal Swamp housed many fugitive slaves and maroon communities.” The novel is scheduled for publication by Falstaff Books in late 2022. Berger’s progressive momentum might be summed up by two philosophical quests: how can I stay connected to my work all year, and how much fun am I having? “I try to remember I’m a writer first,” she said, “so I ask myself, ‘Am I doing the things a writer needs to do, even as I go through other parts of my life?’ You’ve got to keep up a daily practice and touch your creative work. I also look at having new experiences and opportunities. Those things are harder to quantify, so I pay attention to thinking about the intangible as well as the tangible.”
The teacher teaches
The best piece of advice Berger ever got on writing wasn’t given directly to her, but one she adopted from the late personal transformational author Barbara Sher: “Projects are very long, moods are very short.” She taped this quote to her computer. “If I’m not in the mood to write, I remind myself that it means it’s a great time to sit down to write as I have multiple projects that need working on and invariably my mood will pass.” On the flip side, Berger’s best advice is “to understand your inner critics and imaginatively assign them a new job so you can finish your work.” If only we had control over the voices in our heads, right?
At the onset of each semester, Berger can anticipate whether she’s got time for really involved writing projects in relation to the other demands in life. “I don’t try to save everything up for the summer. For me, that’s not an effective technique.”
43 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
5 Read Helen Stead’s
of the novel in NCLR Online 2019 BOOK SMUGGLERS PUBLISHING
PHOTOGRAPH BY PEYTON SICKLES
And for anyone facing writer’s block? “I tell my students who have a block that sometimes you need to find inspiration in your daily life that can be used as fuel for the page. Other times you need to push through what you consider the boring aspects of the second or tenth revision.” When Berger faces writer’s block, she moves away from the computer and goes back to writing long-hand in a journal.
“I’ll also look through my ideas file to see if I can grab something that interests me: a character sketch, an observation about human behavior, a snippet of dialogue or a description of a setting.”
Try this character-building exercise from Michele Berger. It’s a favorite of her students.
10 of the most important people in your life 10 people you know who have enraged you at some point in your life
10 things that irritate you that other people do
3 painful memories
6 events that have shaped your best friend 10 meaningful gifts you have received during your life 5 emails that changed your life
1–2 stories about yourself that you only have shared with your closest friend
5 breakup stories that have happened to either you or someone close to you
Take 1-2 two items from each list and begin to construct an inner psychological landscape for a potential character
44 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
COURTESY OF MICHELE BERGER
For the speculative fiction newbie I asked Michele for a general starting point for speculative fiction newbies, and she suggested works from Chesya Burke, Tenea Johnson, Maurice Broaddus, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, and Nicole Givens Kurtz. But her favorites – and the works she says fashioned the trajectory of her career – are:
Parable of the Sower (2012) by Octavia E. Butler: an apocalypse science fiction novel that explores environmental issues and social inequality.
Who Fears Death (2014) by Nnedi Okorafor: science fantasy set in post-apocalyptic future version of Sudan, Africa. Blends sci-fi, epic fantasy, and supernatural elements to explore gender inequality and the consequences of ethnic cleansing.
Zone One (1994) by Colson Whitehead: a literary zombie novel that meditates on American culture (especially of the 1990s and 2000s) and reinvents the horror trope of the zombie.
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) by Ursula K. Le Guin: A journey of transformation and see-realization for a young mage who makes a terrible mistake.
Red Mars (1992) by Kim Stanley Robinson: the first in a series of books that explores the settling and terraforming of Mars over two centuries from multiple viewpoints. And of course, read her own Reenu-You: “What if a visit to the salon could kill you?” the book’s description asks. When a mysterious virus seemingly transmitted through a new hair product billed as an allnatural hair relaxer called Reenu-You creates havoc in New York City, a group of women of color who used the product find themselves at the center of a rapidly spreading epidemic. The experiences of these unlikely heroines weave a tale that explores race, gender, the politics of beauty, the power of collective female friendship, and corporate conspiracy. It’s social sci-fi with a hint of psychological horror. n
45 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
PHOTOGRAPH BY PEYTON SICKLES
Beauty in Knowledge, Knowledge Is Beauty
by Purificación Martínez
Faculty Convocation Remarks, East Carolina University, Fall 2020
Introduced by NCLR Editor Margaret D. Bauer
On August 7, 2020, I sat, masked, in an almost empty auditorium, one of I believe less than a half-dozen there to serve as an audience for our friend, colleague (in one case, husband) of the Chair of the Faculty during the opening convocation for that unusual (excuse the understatement) academic year for her welcoming remarks that would stream live for the rest of the ECU community. As she spoke, I was struck, as I would continue to be almost monthly for the next two years, by the power of her rhetorical gift, but also, as I often am in my own role as NCLR Editor, by the role of fine writing, of fine art, of fine literature in guiding us in the always changing present, helping us to understand, improve, or sometimes, simply cope.
I asked Professor Purificación Martínez – Puri to her loved ones, colleagues, even her students – if NCLR might include this speech in the pages of our feature on Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write, for in her speech she had reminded me of why and how we do what we do (hint: it’s not the money). Perhaps she will inspire in others an appreciation for learning, for the Liberal Arts, in particular, that counters the increasing distrust of education in this country, which she alludes to here.
Here we are. In a blur spent redesigning courses; rethinking everything we do in our clinics, labs, and classrooms; attending town halls and special faculty senate meetings. The summer is gone, and academic year 2020–2021 is ready to start.
I don’t see your faces, but it is very likely that you are all looking a little worse for the wear. I don’t think anybody has been able to recharge batteries or disconnect from professional email. We start this academic year in our living rooms watching this convocation exhausted, anxious, spent – and ready.
On July 9th, I said as much to the Board of Trustees. I put particular emphasis on the idea
PURIFICACIÓN MARTÍNEZ , a native of Spain, is an Associate Professor of Spanish in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at ECU. She served as Chair of the Faculty at ECU 2020 to 2022. Her service to the university over many years and in many capacities was recognized with the James R. Talton , Jr. Leadership Award in 2021, one of ECU’s highest honors.
that we will be ready to teach on Monday. I am so certain of this fact, that I would put my hand in the fire, or bet my mortgage on it. Of course, I will win the bet, and then I will be able to retire and go to a paradisiacal beach and drink drinks with umbrellas, and – I must stop daydreaming. This is 2020, COVID-19 is running rampant in the US, we have an unprecedented economic crisis, and it is imperative that we work hard to dismantle the systemic racism that gave this country its wealth by exploiting and oppressing other human beings.
And we still have other pesky little problems like gender discrimination, unequal pay for equal
46 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
ABOVE Faculty Chair Purificación Martínez speaking at Faculty Convocation, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, 7 Aug. 2020
work, etc. There is no time to lose. As Henry Ferrell aptly titled ECU’s history, there is No Time for Ivy 1
Oh, how I hate the figure of speech of universities as ivory towers with ivy growing on them. As Steven Shapin states when describing the history and cultural uses of the term: “The modern monologue finds no worth in the Ivory Tower.”2 Some politicians and business leaders think that universities are defective institutions, places that need correction and reform because we are removed from real life, disengaged, lost in useless contemplations, unresponsive to the market (Shapin 24–26). However, it is widely known that a college degree is nec-
who were supposed to protect us because we serve the public good. But like “Ivory Tower,” “public” is also a problematic word these days. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, though, it is the fact that a person cannot survive or succeed alone and that investing in health, education, and research are not luxuries, but everyday necessities. The public good is real, not abstract. Universities are not withdrawn from it, we are the engines that produce it. Why don’t they understand?
This summer, while compulsively reading the news about my birth country, a sad story came into my feed: Luis Eduardo Aute, a singer and
essary to overcome poverty and achieve economic and social equity. ECU, in the top fifteen percent of performers with respect to social mobility, has proven that a university can transform an entire region one graduate at a time. The whole UNC system is a testimony to that fact. Where would North Carolina be without its public institutions of higher learning? Would the Research Triangle exist? The financial hub that is Charlotte?
Despite the facts, it seems that we have lost the battle, and instead of finding ourselves cherished and supported, we witness the defunding of higher education and hostility from those
1 Henry C. Ferrell, Jr. No Time for Ivy: East Carolina University, 1907–2007 (East Carolina University, 2006).
2 Steven Shapin, “The Ivory Tower: The History of a Figure of Speech and Its Cultural Uses,” BJHS 45.1 (2012): web
songwriter who marked my understanding of the world had died of complications from COVID-19. Rushing to my mind came other hot summer days, me as a teenager singing his songs with my friends in the little park near my house, Aute teaching us to abhor a dictator who was more oppressive than the August heat, articulating the fear of an entire generation about a very uncertain future: “miles de buitres callados / van extendiendo sus alas.” (Thousands of quiet vultures / are spreading their wings.)3
I didn’t remember the last time I listened to Aute. I know from experience that you can pas-
3 Quoted from Luis Eduardo Aute’s “Al alba” (At Dawn), 1975; this and the other translations provided by Dale Knickerbocker on slides during the delivered speech.
47 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
“We chose this profession not for money, but because of what Aute and I call beauty and you might prefer to call knowledge. We professors get to be surrounded by it every day and have the privilege of being able to share it with others.”
ABOVE Wright Auditorium, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC
COURTESY OF ECU NEWS SERVICES
sionately love a book when you are twenty and find it absurd in your fifties (and vice versa). I searched on Spotify, afraid of what would happen – but I found profound truth in a song that I had truly forgotten, “La belleza” (“Beauty,” 1990). Although written in the 1990s to denounce how the end of communism did not bring a new world order of democracy and prosperity, but war and exploitation, the lyrics still speak to our circumstances: For example: “Y el que trepe a lo más alto / pondrá a salvo su cabeza / aunque se hunda en el asfalto / la belleza” (Whoever climbs to the top / will save his own head, / but will sink beauty / into asphalt.) Or “tanto vendes tanto vales” (How much you sell / is what you’re worth.) And finally, the devastating diagnosis: “no rozaron ni un instante, la belleza.” (They touched not beauty, / not even for an instant,” from Alma ).
Let me show you a few examples of what I mean when I talk about “beauty,” all taken from what we now know as Spain, just for my easy reference.
A geologist or an engineer might want to research and teach about El Soplao.
An anthropologist or paleontologist could spend endless hours in the excavations of El Castillo.
Nobody who works with mathematics would be able to do so without the advances made by AlQalasadi in the fifteenth century.
This particular shade of black could not exist had Spain not colonized the Americas and found the dye there. Spain would have been poorer if this and other portraits like it did not make the color fashionable, a must have in all European courts. Fashion and Merchandising is not such a modern field of study after all.
We could not have advances in medicine without the discovery of the neuron by Nobel laureate Ramón y Cajal.
Margarita Salas allowed us in the 1960s to start deciphering DNA.
Others, like Salvador Calvo, use art to denounce social issues and raise awareness.
I would give anything to have been privy to the conversations that Al-Qalasadi had with his students about algebra or to have been a fly on the wall when a young Rembrandt visited an eightyyear-old Sofonisba to learn about her painting techniques and pay her homage as one of his idols. How does a woman in Franco’s Spain become a scientist known worldwide? All driven by a thirst for knowledge and determined to share that knowledge with us, their students.
We chose this profession not for money, but because of what Aute and I call beauty and you might prefer to call knowledge. We professors get to be surrounded by it every day and have the privilege of being able to share it with others. Many of us are poorly paid, but we continue teaching because we understand the importance of what happens inside the four walls of a classroom. In January of this year, the AAUP adopted a Statement titled “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education.” Hear what they have to say: “The mission of colleges and universities is to produce and to disseminate [this] knowledge, which is not a mere commodity to be defined and purchased at the whim of consumers. Higher education serves the common good, not the interests of a few.”4 A few who have never touched beauty, I may add.
They might be few and perhaps ignorant, but they are powerful. The harm they are doing is palpable. This year we not only see it in our diminished resources; we can also count it in lost lives.
We must continue disseminating and creating knowledge; it is our job. But we also must stand together, ready to use our intellects to defend this misunderstood ivory tower that is under siege.
I urge you to join me and the other Faculty Senate officers. [ . . . ] Do you know why you should do this? Luis Eduardo Aute told me a few months ago: “reivindico el espejismo / de poder ser uno mismo / ese viaje hacia la nada / que consiste en la certeza de encontrar en tu mirada, / la belleza.” (I vindicate the mirage / of being one’s self / that journey to nowhere / the certainty / of finding beauty / in your gaze.) n
Bea uty 48 NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW Fall 2022
4 “In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education,” AAUP, 2020: web
2022 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE SEMIFINALIST
BY DEAN MARSHALL TUCK
Let It Go
Somehow Tool became my favorite band –was it 1999? Prog rock, math rock, I’m not sure, but I knew there was a system, something about the golden mean, the Fibonacci sequence whispered into a nautilus, and it was almost satanic in its equations the way drums and bass and guitar did their own thing yet somehow arrived together at fixed moments, chaos courting order, and in one of those instants, when everything clicked, I couldn’t help but have a black stud punched below my lip, or buy matte cobalt rings for both my thumbs, a long chain for my wallet, wide pant legs, dingy denim, a skateboard, and black and white gradient tatts to grace my shoulder blades and biceps, all of these commerce for the macho, who throw up fists, and always smell like cigarettes, and end up in Charlotte for the weekend, and flunk Sociology midterms, and drink Rolling Rock and Milwaukee’s Best, and throw up in sewer grates, and graduate anyway, who disburse rental cars, until they begin selling insurance, and get married, and have babies and band reunions, and go back home, flip on Frozen for daughters, and feel choked up on the way to work, for the one who’s locked behind a door, a shrieking ice witch summoning her fractal ice palace shards in cascading spirals, always pointing inwards.
DEAN MARSHALL TUCK is a writer living in eastern North Carolina with his wife and daughters. His work can be found in various literary publications such as SmokeLong Quarterly, Fugue, and The Florida Review. He is currently finishing his first novel, Twinless Twin , which has been excerpted in Epoch and South Carolina Review. He is an English Instructor at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, NC.
49 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
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 art is 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.
Root Three Spiraling Fractal, 2012 (metallic inks and prismacolor pencils on Lokta paper, 20x20) by Vandorn Hinnant
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
2021 DORIS BETTS FICTION PRIZE FINALIST
Under My Skin
BY OSWALDO ESTRADA WITH PHOTOGRAPHY BY YESENIA CUELLO
It’s that time of day when the musty smell of dust hangs in the air —Gloria Anzaldúa
“That man you see over there is your godfather. Tu padrino. If anything happens to me, go look for him. He’ll take care of you. It’s the least he can do after all I did for his children.”
I hate it when my mom gets all dramatic and repeats the same old story that she’s been telling me for years. That she’s going to die. Someday. And we should be prepared.
She’s always been like that and speaks like an actress from a Mexican soap opera. Escandalosa. “You’re going to recover soon, mamá,” I assure her, kissing her forehead, fixing her hair before coming to school. “If you rest all morning, you’ll be up and running in a few hours. By tomorrow at the latest. But don’t try to get up if you’re still dizzy. Don’t go back to the field just to get paid for the day.” She doesn’t listen. She gives me that melodramatic look that I know so well. Lowering her eyelids and opening her mouth just a little bit. To say with unspoken words, this time is the end. I feel it under my skin. In my heart that’s getting old. In my bones. And she’ll die on me just to prove her point. Or she’ll pretend she’s dying so that I apologize a second before she comes back from the dead.
OSWALDO ESTRADA is a Peruvian-American writer and literary critic from Santa Ana, CA. He is a Professor of Latin American Literature at UNC Chapel Hill who has authored or edited over a dozen books of literary and cultural criticism, including a children’s book, El secreto de los trenes (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2018), and three collections of short stories, Luces de emergencia (Valparaíso Ediciones, 2019; International
“She’s very intense, isn’t she? And she’s got that actress look that everyone notices here. And that voice of hers is so amazing.” Lila Downs, my mom calls her when she’s singing her songs in the field. Those corridos and baladas that go through your skin and make you tremble and give you the chills. Even when she’s working under the sun and looks up and waves at you from a distance, she looks like an actress to me. When she takes off her hat and puts her hand on her forehead and smiles. My mom says that too. “María may be a farmworker with raggedy clothes, but she ain’t like the rest of us.”
Mamá gets all sentimental when the first symptoms appear. When she goes back to the apartment feeling nauseous, with a throbbing headache, and throws up as if she’d been drinking for days. It’s painful to see her lying in bed. All curled up with cramps. Like an injured kitty.
When she gets sick like that, I hold her head on my lap and sing to her very quietly, Paloma negra, Luz de luna, and other songs of hers. “You’re going to be fine, mamá,” I assure her, as I run my fingers through her hair. But I do get scared every time. She looks so fragile from the toxins inside her body that sometimes I wonder if she’s going to die and I’m denying it.
I wish we didn’t have to come back year after year. I wish we could always stay in one place, away
Latino Book Awards 2020), Las locas ilusiones y otros relatos de migración (Axiara, 2020; International Latino and Latin American Book Fair Prize 2020), and Las guerras perdidas (Sudaquia Editores, 2021). He has recently edited the short-story collection Incurables: Relatos de dolencias y males (Ars Communis Editorial, 2020; International Latino Book Awards 2020).
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_.1 _.9 _.1 _.9
from these tobacco plants. Like normal people, you know, with a house we could decorate and friends we could see all the time, without having to say goodbye. But we always move following the growing and harvesting seasons. We move up north to pick apples in the fall. And then winter vegetables, the leafy greens. And the kale and the cabbage that grow in the cold. We move back here when it’s warm. When these farms need workers to prepare the soil, to plant the seeds, to pinch the plants that need to produce more leaves.
Silvia has it easy because her dad is the foreman. El capataz, as my mom calls him with that histrionic attitude she has. And even all these other people who end up here every spring and summer have it better than us because they go back home at the end of the season. You see them making plans. “Next month we’re going back,” they say. “I’m not going to wear this dress now because I want it to be new when I return for my quinceañera,” this girl told me
the other day. “When we go back home, next week, next year. . . .” “This is temporary,” some say, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Happy to go back to their families. But we have no place we can call our own. No furniture that’s ours. No pictures on the walls. We’re always on the move. My mom works all year, here and there, wherever she’s hired. “To support the family,” she tells me when I get mad at her. “To send money to your grandmother,” she replies. “To help Chucho who’s going to college in Guanajuato. Or your cousin who wants to cross the border over the next few months.”
“What about us?” I complain. “Shouldn’t you worry about us first?” “We’re fine,” she says, dismissing my tantrums. “You have food, a roof over your head.” “Un techo,” she insists, as if it were the best thing that’s ever happened to us. As if living like this were the most normal thing in the world.
Easy for her to say. She can spend all day in the field. Alone or with friends. Picking strawberries and tomatoes. Piscando. Collecting those delicate blackberries or the tedious blueberries that sell like gold these days. I’m not saying that working in the field is easy or anything. Her back is constantly in pain. And her legs and her heels from being on her feet all day. But at least she’s free out there. Whistling a happy tune. Singing a song that reminds her of home. Talking with the other women and men during their lunch break. Sitting under a nice big tree where they all share Lola’s tacos, someone’s frijoles charros, pan dulce. Even fresh tamales made in the early hours of the day.
I’m always behind wherever we go.
Former child farmworker YESENIA CUELLO has lived in eastern North Carolina since the age of five. Research into the conditions of child farmworkers inspired her to lead a youth group for NC FIELD (Focusing on Increasing Education Leadership and Dignity), a nonprofit based in Kinston, NC, dedicated to supporting farmworkers in six eastern North Carolina counties.
A decade later, as Executive Director of NC FIELD, she continues her work to bring awareness to the plight of farmworkers, to fill service gaps in the community, and to promote economic and educational opportunities for farmworkers. Her photographs have appeared in Southerly and Enlace Latino NC.
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I wish we could always stay in one place, away from these tobacco plants. Like normal people, you know, with a house we could decorate and friends we could see all the time, without having to say goodbye.
Most teachers don’t say anything, but Ms. Gutiérrez gives me that condescending look. Like saying, here you are again, Corina. The migrant. The train rider. The hitchhiker. The perennial traveler who’s never here nor there. And during your absence we’ve covered all this material. Half the time I have no idea what she’s talking about because every school is different. In Pennsylvania we were reading The Bean Trees and here Ms. Gutiérrez is making us read that Manzanar memoir that gives me the creeps. She looks at us like we’re in a concentration camp or in jail. As if she were doing us a favor by discussing a book that perhaps mirrors our own hardships and difficulties. What is that supposed to mean? Does she really think that migrant students are imprisoned here? That our apartments and this school and these tobacco fields are all part of one big detention center?
I’m tired of moving every so often. Sometimes, when I go up north, we go over a lesson that we’ve already studied here. Or I come back, and they’re in the middle of a new novel, and of course the teacher never reviews the first part of it just for me. The way they teach math up north is different, I swear. And everywhere we go all teachers expect you to catch up just like that. De volada. In no time.
for the workers who get green tobacco sickness. And I believe them. They drink it warm and makes them feel better right away.”
“Do you really believe in that old wives’ tale? How can you think that a glass of warm milk or some chamomile will get rid of the nicotine that’s poisoned their bodies while handling the tobacco leaves?”
“It works, Corina. You laugh all you want. But you should give it to her.”
My mom has tried that tea many times, with warm milk and several other infusions that people take to fight the illness. Hierba Luisa. Mint. Anise. Ginger with honey. But all those drinks make her throw up even more.
And when I’m almost caught up, but not quite, it’s time to pack up our belongings again. To end up in Florida, or in Virginia, perhaps. In the fields of Texas even, if that’s where someone hires my mom for a few months.
Luis and Alex also migrate from place to place. And that girl, Tania. And Esther Santos. And several others who travel all year. We’re the outsiders and don’t even try to make friends with the regulars who attend school together all year. What for, if we’re going to leave in a few months anyway? Silvia is the only one I trust. The only friend I’ve had since I was little, when we started coming to this farm.
“Have you tried giving her some milk with chamomile? The women here say it’s mano de santo
The woman from the health department who visits the farm at the beginning of the harvest season says that milk and all other herbal brews only hydrate the person who’s fallen ill. But it doesn’t dissolve the toxic substance that’s entered their bodies. Colorless. Without any odor. Although I always think of it as a green monster that spreads under the skin. With tentacles that poison every part of you.
I wish she didn’t have to work so hard, exposed to those toxic plants that can attack when you least expect it. But we come back, year after year. As if our bodies were already addicted to these fields. At least I get to see Silvia, and her dad is nice and finds us a decent apartment every time. Not the same one ever, but without roaches and mice. We’re thankful for that. Some of the camps we’ve stayed at are all moldy and crumbling apart. With roofs that leak all the time, broken stoves, and shared bathrooms that make you cry.
I like the way those green plants look from a distance. With those big, gorgeous leaves. I love their defiant appearance when they show off, all
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We’re the outsiders and don’t even try to make friends with the regulars who attend school together all year. What for, if we’re going to leave in a few months anyway?
proud, their long spikes of flower buds that the workers snip with their bare hands. “To increase leaf production,” they say. “To let them know what they’re here for.”
My mom doesn’t want me near them, especially in the morning when the leaves are wet. The water activates the nicotine, goes through your clothes and gets to your skin. But every now and then I walk by them when the sun goes down and touch the underside of the leaves, soft and fuzzy, and wonder how they become the brown tobacco that people smoke around here. “What’s your magic?” I ask them, as if they could hear. “Why do you poison my people when they remove your leaves?”
“Call me crazy, if you want. Loca de atar, as my mom calls me when she’s mad. But I love how they smell. They have a citrus scent in the morning, an earthy fragrance in the afternoon, especially after a heavy rain. And they smell grassy when the wind blows this way.”
“But they’re toxic, Silvia, and you know it.”
“My dad says that one out of three workers, or one out of four maybe, gets poisoned every week. He does his best to take care of them but there’s only so much he can do to supervise the entire field. They know they can get sick if they don’t handle the plants properly. And yet dozens of them come back every season because the gringo pays well.”
I wonder what he thinks of us, Mr. Andrews. If he even knows how hard this life is. He drives this huge white truck, with the window down. His wife sits right next to him, happy to be alive, and his blond kids sit in the back seat, all buckled up. Five and six. Or five and seven. The gringo only talks to Silvia’s father and to that man who’s supposed to help me if my mom dies. Mi padrino. I see them talking when Matías changes the oil for him, when the gringo brings him something that needs to be fixed with his dirty hands. The rest of us are invisible to him. Cheap labor, I guess. Workers who don’t speak his language and can be replaced anytime.
When I see him driving by, inspecting the fields two feet above our level, I wonder if life would be different for us if we’d never left. Or if
we lived in one of those big haciendas that we see in our Mexican soap operas and had a huge house with servants and a bunch of fields all around the property. And horses and stables. And gigantic maguey plants. And a pond full of fish that only rich people can have.
My mom loves those soap operas too. She’d kill to be the main actress who gives orders and bosses everyone around. All pretty and well dressed in her horse-riding outfit. With a whip in her hand. And brown leather boots. And a fancy hat.
“Do you know that some of the workers call her La Gaviota around here?”
“She does look like that actress, Angélica Rivera. Doesn’t she?”
“She does, Corina. Maybe one day she’ll marry an actor like Eduardo Yáñez and you’ll get to live in a big mansion with your brand new daddy. And if that happens you better call me, or I’ll show up at your front door to remind you of your humble origins.”
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I like the way those green plants look from a distance. With those big, gorgeous leaves. I love their defiant appearance when they show off, all proud, their long spikes of flower buds that the workers snip with their bare hands.
Maybe life would be different if we’d never left, I think when I’m all alone, making dinner for us in the apartment that smells like an old closet. Forgetting that I was born here, and that she probably met my father in one of these fields.
She never talks about him. And I’ve given up on trying to find out who he is. When I was a little girl, she’d tell me silly stories of how she wanted to be a mother so badly that she asked the Virgin Mary to send her a baby daughter. And I believed her, of course. She’d tell me that every family is different. Most have a mom and a dad, or just a dad, or simply a mom. And some children live with their grandparents and their aunts and uncles, she’d say, when the parents go away. Looking for work, for better opportunities somewhere far, far away from them.
We’ve always been alone, Mrs. Díaz, away from grandparents and uncles and cousins that I’ve only seen once or twice in my life, when we went to Mexico full of gifts and money that made them all cry. Here it’s just the two of us. Picking tomatoes, harvesting eggplants and spinach leaves, and cauliflower and Swiss chard from North Carolina. And the okra that people like so much all over the South.
“We harvest it for the Farmers Market every week, but never eat it. My mom hates its slimy texture, its little white seeds and rough skin. We’re poor, she says, but we don’t eat that stuff.”
“Because we’re all mexicanos here. Give us rice and beans. Ejotes, if you want to be healthy. Nopales and green onions. Pico de gallo and all the tomato salsas that you want. But don’t give us any of that okra, please.”
Néstor came by the other day and encouraged my mom to start smoking. He’s a nice guy. We’ve known him for years now. He comes from this little town in Durango with a special contract that lets him work in this country for a few months. Six or seven, I think, before he goes back to his family with enough money to support all six of them during the winter.
“And what kind of example would I be giving my daughter?” she replied all furious.
“I’m serious, María. Why do you think men get sick less often than all the women around here? It’s because we smoke. People say it helps to have the nicotine in your system, and I think they’re right. A boss I had in Piedmont gave me that advice several years ago. Ponte a fumar. I’ve been sick twice.
Maybe three times ever since, only because I wasn’t careful enough. And it was relatively mild.”
There’s probably some truth to it. That’s why you see so many men smoking in the morning, whenever they have a break. Also at night, before and after dinner, as if they were taking their medicine. Religiously. But my mother hasn’t smoked in her life, and she’s not going to start now that she’s almost forty-five.
“If you think smoking is so bad, then why do you work for a farm that grows the plant?”
“Because I have to feed you,” she answers me all angry. “And I’m not the one producing the cigarettes nor the one who sells them.”
Funny she says that. Disconnecting herself from the tobacco that ends up in the lungs of those who can’t live without it. Oblivious to the empty boxes piled up by the garbage containers, week after week. With photos of premature babies and miscarriages, mouths destroyed by oral cancer, clogged arteries, shattered lungs, and gangrened feet. With aggressive labels that state in bold letters: “SMOKING KILLS.”
Some other times, when she’s in a good mood and we’re watching a movie together, I tell her that she’d look very sophisticated with a cigarette in her hand. Like María Félix or Dolores del Río. All elegant and bossy in one of those black and white films.
She laughs, my mom. Wears no makeup and looks like a star, better than any of those actresses you see on TV, even though her long black hair is turning gray right around the temples. Mi primera actriz. All dramatic and courageous. La Gaviota, the seagull that longs to be near the coast of Tamaulipas.
She covers herself well with garbage bags in the morning, when the leaves are wet. Or right after the men spray the fields with pesticides. But when the sun comes up, she takes them off right away, or she’ll melt. She wears pants and long-sleeve shirts to avoid direct contact with the plants. But every now and then something happens. Maybe she
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touches her forehead, exhausted from the heat, or the tobacco leaves touch her armpits, all wet from sweating all day. Or she doesn’t have time to change her clothes behind a bush. And the nicotine enters her body and stays there for a day or two.
The woman from the health department tells them to get waterproof clothing. But you know our parents cannot afford shirts that are so expensive. Or those fancy pants that make you look like an American explorer. How does she think we could pay for them living on minimum wage? And you never find them when you go to a thrift shop, or in any of the bags that people drop off at the consignment store to get a tax deduction at the end of the year.
Maybe Ms. Gutiérrez is right, and this is an internment camp for Mexican workers and their Mexican American children fighting an invisible war.
I thank you for wanting me to prepare to go to college. With the SATs and all that. Means a lot, Mrs. Díaz, considering that most teachers see us like the kids who’ll never have a chance. You’re a good a counselor. But how in the world could I ever pay for that? And how could I leave my mom, all alone in these fields, when she’s sacrificed for me all her life?
“If something happens to me,” she warns me on the verge of passing out, “go look for your godfather. He owes me. Don’t be afraid to approach him.”
“Mamá, you’re delirious. He’s a complete stranger to me. You haven’t even talked to the guy in ages, and you expect him to help me?”
“I know you don’t understand because you’re young and grew up here. But we’re Mexican, mija. We keep our promises. And he’s got some goodness under that rough skin.”
I see Matías every time we come back to this farm, working near the entrance of the rancho, fixing tractors and tools of all sorts. Plows and harrows. Wagons.
My mom helped him with his children when his wife left him for another man. She cooked for his kids, washed their clothes, and even delivered them to their grandparents when the time came. They were good friends, she says, and he accepted to be my godfather for my First Communion. But Matías wanted something else.
“I’ve heard that story. What I don’t get is why your mom thinks he’d help you if she rejected him.”
“Because we don’t have anybody else, and she’d like me to finish school, I guess.”
“What if he’s your father, Corina?”
“Are you kidding me? You make fun of me for watching soap operas, and now you come up with this nonsense?”
Maybe Silvia is right. Why else would my mom insist, time and again? Right? “Look for him. He owes me,” she repeats, when she starts feeling sick. But I look nothing like that man. Don’t have his eyes. His weight. His dark complexion. His hair. I’ve done the math in my head. There’s no way. And how could he be my father when he gives me that look whenever I walk by him?
“Go look for Matías if something happens to me,” she repeats when I give her some Tylenol for the headache, or when the nicotine keeps her up all night, like an evil potion burning her insides.
I don’t tell her that I’m scared of him.
I just pray for her to recover soon, so that she can be back on her feet again. Singing in the fields that we’re prisoners in this great nation built like a golden cage. Humming away all day, La jaula de oro. Whistling like a happy bird, unafraid of getting the evil alkaloid under her skin.
I don’t tell mamá that Matías licks his lips and scans me from top to bottom when I walk by him. When I find him all alone, by the barn near the entrance, caressing his tools with his greasy hands.
I just pray compulsively with my eyes on the ground and walk as fast as I can. I pray, Mrs. Díaz, that we move somewhere else, even if I drop out of school and work full time like other kids in the States. So that we could, for once, stay in one place. In a house of our own that we could paint and decorate with nice curtains and potted plants and picture frames. Away from these fields and their poison, that citrus scent that will kill us all. Someday. n
55 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
WHO’S NOT AFRAID AFTER FLANNERY O’CONNOR?
by Dale Neal
Beth Gilstrap. Deadheading & Other Stories. Red Hen Press, 2021.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips. Sleepovers: Stories. Hub City Press, 2020.
Writing about the South should come with its own trigger warnings. Flannery O’Conner learned that readers outside the region too often confused realism and the grotesque in her short stories. O’Connor still reigns as the shock queen of Southern Gothic, ruthlessly ready to massacre a whole family so a grandmother could get her cosmic come-uppance in O’Connor’s most anthologized tale, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
proves unafraid to bring her own “maimed souls alive” as O’Connor put it. Phillips can still shock us with the New South she depicts in her impressive debut collection, Sleepovers, winner of the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize. Lauren Groff, who judged the annual contest, rightly called Phillips’s stories “incantatory.”
Phillips drops us smack dab in the swampy, piney, humid region of North Carolina’s rural Halifax County with local landmarks like the Arrowhead trailer
park, J.J.’s grocery, and a slew of dollar stores. “You’ve really got to love this place to stay,” says one resident (186). In unflinching prose, Phillips doesn’t so much portray this place’s neglected children, troubled teens, suicidal men, and sad women, as channel their inner screams.
These are people haunted by ghosts and regrets. They sometimes sing out loud the bloody hymns of their fundamentalist churches, but Jesus doesn’t seem intent on saving them from their circumstances, which include drug addiction, masturbation, pornography, sex trafficking, bestiality, child abuse, and domestic abuse.
In the story “Unspoken,” Hal and Clara Parker contend with a young drug addict living next door with an unruly dog that gets into the Parkers’ hydrangeas. Whereas Hal is losing his patience with the low-life neighbor, his wife keeps trying to give the poor kid leftover meatloaf in Tupperware. Hal is ready to murder the neighbor or at least call the law when he catches the
DALE NEAL is a novelist, teacher, and journalist in Asheville, NC. His most recent novel, Appalachian Book of the Dead (Southern Fried Karma, 2019; reviewed in NCLR Online 2020), was a finalist for the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award.
BETH GILSTRAP is a writer, professor, and editor in Louisville, KY. She graduated from UNC Charlotte with a BA in English Language and Literature and an MA in English. She is also a graduate of the MFA program at Chatham University. Her work has been published in literary magazines such as Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Minnesota Review, Wigleaf, and Gulf Stream.
ASHLEIGH BRYANT PHILLIPS is from Woodland, NC. She has an MFA from UNC Wilmington and is teaching at Appalachian State University and in the low residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Her work has been published in Paris Review, Our State, Lit Hub, and Oxford American, among others.
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ABOVE Ashleigh Bryant Phillips reading at the Pink Moon bar in Asheville, NC, 2021
PHOTOGRAPH BY MISSY MALOUFF
addict having sex with the dog. The situation gets even worse, but Phillips ducks the sensational, filling in the backstory of the long-married couple, who had lost a young child born with a defect. This story of shock and sorrow winds up in a sacred place, the Parkers’ local congregation. “In her whole life of being in the church, Clara had never asked for an unspoken. It was a rare request, reserved for those who were brave enough to ask for prayers about the unspeakable” (51).
Phillips is a brave enough storyteller to give us stories about what too often is unspeakable. Most of these stories are told in first person point of view, typically from young girls or newly adult women, but Phillips isn’t confined by gender. In “The Bass,” Donnie Dunlow wrestles with his suicidal thoughts and being a good man to his young wife and child, but he’s tempted by the flirtatious Krystal, a clerk at the Duck Through convenience store. He goes fishing at the pond where his wife had to rescue him from a suicide attempt. Phillips offers no easy resolution, but a convincing portrait of a man drowning in his own sorrows.
In “The Chopping Block,” the first-person narrator had a taste of a better life and a higher education, even reading Sylvia Plath during a short stint at the Halifax Community College. She’s been dumped by a bad boyfriend she met on OKCupid and in Google Hangout. But she has a serious drug addiction and years of neglect with an infection in
the back of her mouth. And she is too ashamed to see a dentist even if her worthless brotherin-law pays for it: “as soon as I opened my mouth, the dentist would say ‘You’re a dumbass,’ and I’d say, ‘No, I’m just poor.’ And I didn’t want to have to say that” (188).
Phillips reminds the reader that the only unforgiveable sin in American culture is the poverty that tells people that they are worthless. She doesn’t ask us to pity or judge her characters. What truly shocks the reader is Phillips’s compassion for these troubled souls.
Southern myth loves to portray women as sassy belles in crinolines. In the hard-edged yet lyrical stories of Beth Gilstrap, women bear the brunt of the realities of our twenty-firstcentury South: dead-end jobs, bad boyfriends, drug addictions, domestic abuse, broken marriages, and broken hearts. In Deadheading & Other Stories, winner of Red Hen Press’s Women’s Prose Award, the Charlotte native gives us the lay of the land in evocative microfictions and smartly plotted longer stories, often with recurring characters.
In “No Matter How Fine,” and “Sale Day,” we follow Janine, who’s juggling an abusive girlfriend with a potential new partner. Her mother abandoned her years ago, her father is drinking too much; and Janine is trying to keep her head above water with a second-hand furniture boutique in a Charlotte of gentrified and blighted neighbor-
hoods. Janine still mourns her common-sense grandmother who died on Independence Boulevard “T-boned turning left” at the Exxon. “If her grandma was still alive, she would get her advice on buying. Woman had the best taste in the family. ‘Fabric is like people,’ Grandma Sue would say. ‘Some of it strong, some of it weak, but always true to its character’” (58).
And so Gilstrap’s characters are true to themselves. In “Ain’t Nothing but Fire,” we see Janine’s father, Hardy, years later, sober and decamped for Myrtle Beach. His estranged wife, Loretta, tracks him down. Here and in other stories, Gilstrap is very good with her ear for the banter between long-time couples, even after bad marriages. Loretta is looking for a second chance, but may have waited too long with a cancer diagnosis she reveals to her ex. The story could end mawkishly, but Gilstrap lands masterfully with a flash-forward into the future.
57 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
ABOVE Beth Gilstrap after a reading at Bookmarks, Winston-Salem, NC, Oct. 2021
PHOTOGRAPH BY BOOKMARKS STAFF
The book’s strongest pieces come at the end with two connected stories about a woman named Layla after the Eric Clapton rock anthem. In “Still Soft, Still Whole,” she meets what seems like the man of her dreams, in Home Depot of all places, in a witty, flirting argument over when’s the best time to plant hyacinth. Layla and Beau’s courtship is too quick, at only two months, before they’re married.
Violence always lurks in the background of these stories, likely to blow up like a summer thunderstorm. A black snake eats some baby chicks in Layla’s renovated back garden. In a shocking scene, Beau cuts the snake’s head and shakes out the dead birds from the reptile’s belly.
The threat is more explicit in the title story, “Deadheading.” Layla has lost her house when a trio of baseball-bat wielding brothers come to collect the debts from her deadbeat husband, who’s abandoned her. Layla moves to a dilapidated farm near Asheville. She’s still haunted by the abuse of her marriage, with snakes crawling through her dreams. But she had a chance to redeem herself from victimhood when she steps in to intervene in the child abuse she sees her neighbor Adelaide inflicting on her young daughters.
In a shocking twist of violence worthy of O’Connor’s Southern Gothic classics, Layla proves herself. “She had done so much nothing before now” (229). And Gilstrap proves her mettle as a storyteller of our changing South. n
BEYOND THE DRAWL
North Carolina fiction writer
Heather Newton’s second book, McMullen Circle, is the intricate collection of stories I needed when I was first exploring the mosaic that is Southern literature. I wasn’t exposed to it as a young reader. Our bookshelves at home were a treasure trove of C.S. Lewis, Immanuel Kant, J.R.R. Tolkien, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath. I was introduced to Southern fiction by the 1984 novel Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns, a paperback someone had given my mother as a gift, which sat, untouched, for weeks on her bedside table. I was thirteen, and within two paragraphs I was spellbound.
In particular, I was captivated by dialogue that wove words together like the threads of a burlap sack, material strong enough to carry the weight of characters’ thoughts and feelings but porous enough to let sounds slip through the cracks and scatter like chicken feed. I wanted more of the sounds that felt foreign to this rural Midwesterner, but meaning that was deeply familiar.
I came to realize eventually that this literal transcription of Southern dialect isn’t required for a novel to be Southern, and when too heavy-handed could in fact be distracting. Heather Newton knows this, so McMullen Circle isn’t filled with the vernacular of mid-century North Georgia. It doesn’t need to be, because the intricate, curious, and integral vignettes of a small community are interesting enough.
The basic experience of living in community is a universal one, complicated individually by our own nuanced experiences
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a review by Katherine Abrams
Heather Newton. McMullen Circle. Regal House Publishing, 2022.
KATHERINE ABRAMS is the Managing Editor of Cold Mountain Review and a Lecturer in English at Appalachian State University, her alma mater. She also received an MFA at Goddard College and is a member of the Black Sheep Theater.
Practicing attorney HEATHER NEWTON is also a creative writing teacher at UNC Asheville. She is the author of the novel Under The Mercy Trees (HarperCollins, 2011), which won the Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, was chosen by the Women’s National Book Association as a Great Group Reads Selection, and was named an “Okra Pick” by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. Her latest novel is The Puppeteer’s Daughters (Turner Publishing, 2022).
of belonging and disconnection, of satisfaction and disappointment. McMullen Circle layers together the uniquely personal perspectives of the folks who make up Tonola Falls, GA, against the backdrop of a desegregated South still sifting through the ongoing trauma of war in Vietnam. The voices of these neighbors and family members and the faces from their pasts reverberate against each other in what would be, were it written in anything less than Newton’s intricately piquant style, a cacophony of tones. Instead, McMullen Circle amplifies the rhythmic, irresistible chorus of life in a small Southern neighborhood.
In the opening story, “Wild Things,” Newton contrasts the drama of the upcoming investiture of Prince Charles with an introduction to the McMullen Boarding School headmaster’s wife, Sarah Pierce. She has just tasked her daughter, nine-yearold Lorna, and a boy from the neighborhood, eight-yearold Chase, to pick dandelion greens from the yard for a lunch salad. Lorna and Chase appear throughout the book as they interact with characters that other stories focus on, a reminder of the freedom once available to children and the connections that grew from such unfettered exploration of their community.
Connections like Chase and Danny in “Tupelo Rose,” where the nostalgia of World War II is confronted with the reality of post-war PTSD. Danny, a tailgunner who survived a deadly plane crash only to be captured and held for the remainder of the war
in a POW camp, has a gentle reliance on Chase’s calming presence. “Danny rested a palm on the top of Chase’s head. He could feel the warm oil at the roots of Chase’s hair from all his running around. Danny’s tremors began to subside” (36).
The book’s back cover will tell you that this novel-instories is about heroism, and I won’t disagree. Each resident of McMullen Circle faces decisions and circumstances that require bravery and even heroic action of one category or another. But as I tell my university English students, “No one writes a book that is just about one thing.” So while the question of what makes a hero is certainly embedded in Newton’s collection, there are also other questions about family commitment, community obligation, and social striation. These mag-
netic characters, certainly not all above reproach, are written with an empathy and charisma that lends a genuine kindness to even the most reflexively unpleasant of neighbors.
Newton did not invite us here to judge; rather we are asked to witness, to observe through the fullness of our own human vulnerability. And as she peels away the layers of these dozen stories to reveal the carefully hidden frailty that even a cocky bomber pilot cannot always conceal, the tremendous grief of a child’s transmuted love, or the heartbreaking selfishness required to mother through difficult times, Newton walks us around the twelve hands of her clock with patience, clarity, and immeasurable compassion. At the end we are not relieved, exactly, of the burden of witnessing. More so, we are ready to begin again. n
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COURTESY OF HEATHER NEWTON
ABOVE Heather Newton (right) with author Annette Clapsaddle at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC, 17 Feb. 2022
If you’ve read only one of Valerie Nieman’s many innovative books, then prepare to be surprised all over again when you read her most recent novel,
THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE WHOLE
a review by Susan O’Dell Underwood
Valerie Nieman. In the Lonely Backwater. Regal House/Fitzroy Books, 2022.
SUSAN O’DELL UNDERWOOD directs the creative writing program at Carson-Newman University. She holds a PhD in English from Florida State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro. Besides two chapbooks, she has published one full-length collection of poetry, The Book of Awe (Iris Press, 2018). And she is the author of the novel Genesis Road (Madville Publishing, 2022). Read an essay by this author in NCLR 2018.
VALERIE NIEMAN has published five novels – including To the Bone s (West Virginia University Press, 2019; reviewed in NCLR Online 2020) – three collections of poetry, and a volume of short stories, Fidelities (Vandalia Press, 2004). Her works have previously been reviewed in NCLR . Originally from West Virginia, Nieman now lives in North Carolina, where she worked as a journalist and a professor. She has won many literary accolades, including an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship. She currently teaches creative writing seminars and is especially well known for her courses at the John C. Campbell Folk School.
In the Lonely Backwater. Like North Carolina’s beloved Fred Chappell, Nieman has published in multiple genres, including poetry, dystopian fiction, short fiction, and historical literary fiction (in her 2019 award-winning novel To the Bones, about the Farmington coal mine disaster). Now with In the Lonely Backwater, set roughly in the Lake Kerr area of North Carolina, Nieman has written an incredibly original Young Adult novel. This presumed category shouldn’t put off any mature reader, though. Categories can be deceptive, and so can narrative perspectives. Though the narrator, Maggie Warshauer, is only seventeen, adult readers will find her story fascinating. The theme of alienation, the impressive description of setting, and the innovative narrative of In the Lonely Backwater situate this as a compelling work of fiction for any reader who loves a good mystery. But it’s the voice of the narrator that steers our intrigue through the dark backwaters of this novel.
Mysteries abound concerning seventeen-year-old Lenore Marguerite (Maggie) Warshauer, from Fillayaw Pointe, NC. Ultimately, a savvy reader may teeter on the cusp of wondering whether Maggie can be a reliable narrator of her own story. How is it that we are persuaded even through her constant contradictions? Maggie has some immature tendencies, yet she’s also disturbingly mature beyond her years. She seems sometimes a little too apathetic
about being abandoned by her “so-called mother” (23), yet she entertains flashback memories of her mom frequently and frets about her dad’s addiction to her mom. Maggie seems casually detached from her father’s self-indulgent drunken interludes and his attempts to sober up, yet her livelihood depends solely on him. She works with and for him at the marina, controlling his moods and keeping him focused.
Perhaps the biggest contradiction is that Maggie moves through the rural woods and the lake waters and even her high school hallways as a girl who is cussedly independent, yet the very title of the novel explains that she is a lonely, lonely young girl. In fact, Maggie is so lonely that she has created an imaginary boyfriend, Fletcher. And Fletcher is just one of the fascinating quirks that draw us to Maggie, though she never feels sorry for herself, and she is never a victim. Her many genius distractions, imaginary and real, focus her attention on crafting her version of a solitary haven to belie the loneliness over which she has no control. But loneliness is only an existential crisis. Maggie slowly discovers that she is in danger. This information comes to her from Detective Drexel Vann, who is investigating the disappearance of Charisse Swicegood.
The suspenseful plot is at its core a truly original mystery. Charisse, Maggie’s stunning cousin and schoolmate, has gone missing as the novel opens. But the literary narrative is shaped by the study of solitude in the narrator’s life and the living she does all alone. She finds solace in the study
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of plants and animals, guided by pages from an old book detailing the observations of Carolus Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century Swedish taxonomist. She fancies herself not only as a classifier but as a “scientist.” She describes her aptitude for wandering the woods, for sailing alone on free afternoons in her own small dinghy, Bellatrix. How crucial a plot detail that she has named her boat for a star in the Orion constellation, which translates as female warrior.
Maggie describes herself: “Me, I’m a creature like a bear or raccoon, I can live lots of ways. Daughter of Andrew, cleaner of boats, sailor of Bellatrix that I built from a derelict, roamer of woods, scientist, stalker of plants and animals, teller of tales” (41). Her most winning feature – and truly her salvation – is that she is indomitably sensitive toward nature, and that includes human nature. But is Maggie Warshauer ultimately a survivor of family dysfunction and social abuse by her peers? Or is she straddling an amoral chasm? Or is the heroine in only her own little fantasy world? Maggie is maybe most savvy in her self-perception and most misguided when she says she is a scientist. She observes without whim. She is constant in her motivation. And she is wholly objective at her best. Yet how can a teenage girl be a scientist? Maggie fancies herself a classifier as she studies the minutiae of her natural surroundings – birds, tracks, trees, sky, and weather. For all her loneliness and smarts, Maggie is hardly endearing, though. And she doesn’t ask for the reader to be enamored with her. As she tells her own story, Maggie does not just “come off” as tough. She truly is tough. Of course, she does contrast herself with others her age, but her knowledge of self is resilient, even unbreakable. The story she tells about her self-scrutiny and her world is nothing if not her fortress, up to the very final words she uses
to explain her perspective. She is confident to a fault and even abrasive if taken in the context of social graces. Sometimes, if we allow ourselves to be pulled without judgment into her world, Maggie’s sense of self is enviable, native, and wild as the landscape around her.
Mid-novel, Maggie ruminates in one of the most telling passages. She considers “The Society Islands” in the lake where she sails. They are too close for “that kind of evolution,” which fascinates her. Change, transformation, the way a story can bend, the way a person can be made to believe the facts of a situation –these are Maggie’s instruments. She ponders about the “plants and seeds . . . squirrels and rabbits” that “might evolve.” Maggie expresses the ultimate question of self when she wonders, in Linnaeus-like fashion, with scrutiny the reader sees directed at herself: “I wonder how long it would take for them to change, to make themselves over in order to survive, to morph into something else?” (90).
What morphing does Maggie do right in front of our eyes, as we turn each page? Readers will find this ever-evolving selfportrait fascinating as Maggie lives through life-threatening dangers, and they will sympathize with a narrator who can barely fancy what it would mean to be a normal teenager. Maggie’s true “backwater” is perhaps not her external environment, but the world inside she must navigate. n
61 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARGARET D. BAUER
ABOVE Valerie Nieman reading some of her James Applewhite Poetry Prize finalist poems at Scuppernong Books during NCLR’s Poetry Editor’s North Carolina book tour, Greensboro, NC, 23 Apr. 2022
FINAL JUDGE, 2021 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE
BY CATHERINE CARTER
A witch-general of the resistance, one of three recruited from the mill’s weaving-room after blueshirts broke the last union, writes a dispatch in glyphs only a witch can read, and even among witches, only an old witch: the Palmer runes she learned a thousand years ago when there were schools and she kicking third-grade patent maryjanes on chrome rungs, her bright black cornrows sparkling scarlet and turquoise with beads. All along the way, at relaypoints for dromedary, caravan, carrier pigeon, boy soldiers who have seen all the vids and plan to die with a defiant smile, the young seek to read the script, but no, only the one waiting can decode it, before dropping back on her cot to die. The young call it cursive; they believe it carries a curse, and maybe it does.
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CATHERINE CARTER is Professor of English at Western Carolina University. Her poetry collections include three from Louisiana State University Press: The Memory of Gills (2006; reviewed in NCLR 2007 and recipient of the Roanoke-Chowan Award), The Swamp Monster at Home (2012; reviewed in NCLR Online 2013), and Larvae of the Newest Stars (2019; reviewed in NCLR Online 2021). Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares , Orion, Best American Poetry 2009, Ecotone, and Tar River Poetry. She was the recipient of the 2009 Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize. Her poem “Womb-Room” won the 2018 James Applewhite Poetry Prize and is featured in NCLR 2019. She was the final judge for the James Applewhite Poetry Prize in 2021. See more of her poems in the 2022 print issue.
Only this story isn’t true, because secret writing is only a sideline: back in that longago class, the witches learned to weigh things with scales. Those boys who think they’ll die bravely silent, vital words knitted safe into scarves or knotted into bootlaces, who in the end will beg and weep and piss themselves: they have borne those boys, nursed them. And the glass slivers under the nails, the witch-waking, the water never brought: they have borne those too. No one would recruit these women to turn kids over to war, not when in the pans of their hands they have borne those lives’ weight. Their measure. Their worth. Those witches are still back in the clack and roar of the plant, breathing lint, winding bobbins, snipping threads. They have been all along. Their secret curses will never be heard.
Spontaneous Resistance No. 6, 2018 (mixed media on paper, 30x22) by Liz Miller
63 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
LIZ MILLER received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and her MFA from the University of Minnesota. Her installations and works on paper have been featured in solo and group exhibitions regionally, nationally, and internationally. Her awards include a 2018 McColl Center for Art + Innovation Artist Residency in partnership with UNC Charlotte and supported by the Wingate Foundation; a 2013 McKnight
Development Grant from Forecast Public Art; a
McKnight Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists; a
Mitchell Foundation Painters & Sculptors Grant; a
Foundation Fellowship; and multiple Artist Initiative Grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Miller lives and works in Good Thunder, MN. She is Professor of Installation and Drawing at Minnesota State University-Mankato.
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
A NEW COLLECTION
BY NCLR POETRY EDITOR
a review by Eric C. Walker
Jeffrey Franklin. Where We Lay Down. Kelsay Books, 2021.
In his second poetry collection, following For the Lost Boys in 2006, Jeffrey Franklin offers thirty-nine poems, most of which have previously appeared in journals, some as early as 1997. Collected in book form, those poems now gather in six headed sections: “Fathers and Sons,” “Making Love,” “Making War,” “Homing,” “Totem Animals,” and “Full Emptiness.” The shaping effect of book publication includes six epigraphs and six drawings that preface the six thematically-headed sections, adding to the organizing mix the voices of Donald Justice, Michael Donaghy, James Fenton, James Applewhite, James Dickey, and Les Murray. The six drawings are all by Franklin’s father, James Rodman Franklin, whose hand also supplies a seventh color image gracing the book’s cover.
ERIC C. WALKER , a North Carolina native, is a Professor Emeritus of English and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at Florida State University. He 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.
NCLR Poetry Editor
FRANKLIN has had works published in many literary journals, including Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, Hudson Review, Measure, New England Review, Southern Humanities Review, Southern Poetry Review, and the North Carolina Literary Review. He currently works as a Professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver.
Two forms of kinship – writers and families – thus organize much of the book. Additional epigraphs to individual poems draw upon Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Tony Hoagland, Jeffry Eugenides, and the Book of Psalms. Canonical writers supply the occasions for several poems: W.B. Yeats for “To a Student Who Reads ‘The Second Coming’ as Sexual Autobiography”; Mark Twain for “Huck Finn at Forty-One”; D. H. Lawrence for “Lawrence from New Mexico, 27 October, 1922”; and William Wordsworth for “Intimations of Mortality Brought on by Aging Family Members.” This pronounced literariness is finely counterpointed throughout by
Franklin’s ear for lively speech: the poem “You Talkin’ to Me, Pilgrim?” opens with this quatrain: “’You Bin Ladin? We been loadin’!” / still boasts the poster in the window / of the Hammer & Saw Hardware & Paint / in Fairplay, Colorado.” The poem “Commerce & Gender in the New South” launches with two public notices worthy of more double-takes, now from North Carolina: “‘Gentleman’s Club and Exotic Car Wash’ / (freeway billboard, Greensboro NC)” and “‘Barbara’s Beauty Shop and Chainsaw Repair’ / (store-front sign, Greenville NC).” Bending to his work both his bookshelves and languages on the street, Franklin’s primary voice throughout the book is his own, in a rich set of tones and registers, but four poems are voiced by separate personae: Huck Finn in “Huck Finn at Forty-One,” D.H. Lawrence in “Lawrence from New Mexico, 27 October 1922,” an unnamed National Geographic photographer in “Among the Surma of the Kormu Valley,” and a sailor in a Great Lakes icebreaker headed for a collision in “The Mackinaw Heads South.”
The book’s opening section, “Fathers and Sons,” collects family texts such as “Sons and Fathers” and “Personal Effects,” in which “[e]ach drawer and closet” tells tales of the speaker’s “Granddaddy.” In a later section, the poem “The Persistence of Place” reports that “My children are living happily in another city / with me, but I miss them, orphaned as they
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now are / from a place of the childhood they don’t yet know / was theirs.” “Intimations of Mortality Brought on by Aging Family Members” collects “Grandma,” “Father and Mother,” “Brothers and Sisters.” The poem “Julian Bream” includes a fine tribute to “my stepfather, bald and stooped now too.” Two poems open the book to the intimacies of the spousal: the beautifullycrafted erotic of “The Otter and the Shark” and the finely comic turns of “The Disappointment of Sleeping with One’s Fantasy.” “Kosciusko, Mississippi” brings to the fore his wife’s aging grandparents: “Draped in her wheelchair, Miss Ginny rocks a little / out of habit.”
The title of Franklin’s book, Where We Lay Down, pulls readers to the poem of the same title, which is the most personal of these family poems and opens the final section, “Full Emptiness.” In five stanzas, the poem weaves a grieving tale about three siblings, a summer storm, temporality, and death. Addressed to a sibling who in their youth shared the experience of a sudden summer storm while they spoke casually of their younger sister Charlotte, the poem shifts sharply in the middle stanza to “Years later,” when the hard knowledge that “Charlotte is dead” returns the speaker in shared memory to the night of the storm and the moment of the “hush . . . before it began.” The speaker now asks his sibling to “[r]ecall for me then what / I always meant to say,” which is reported in the
poem’s enigmatic final line, ending affirmatively: “if this storm will take me, I will give it my arms and rise up.”
In an extensive set of “Notes and Dedications” appended to the full body of poems, readers learn that Charlotte Llewellyn Franklin died in 1976, at age eighteen. Of the thirty-nine poems in the volume, twentyseven include such extra-textual information in this back-matter, some of which adds to the literary mix, as in the note to “The City That Chooses You”: “This poem owes a debt to ‘Here’ by Philip Larkin, to whose poetry I owe much more than that.” The note to the final poem in the book, “Autumnal Equinox,” supplies this annotation: “In particular, the one that occurred at 9:44 a.m. Mountain Time, 22 September 2008,” a data point that may signify more to the writer than the reader. My larger point is that readers should understand that this collection of poems is extensively curated.
As noted, the core of thirtynine poems divides into six themed, epigraphed, and illustrated sections, and this body of highly organized work is also prefaced by “Acknowledgements” and volume dedications and followed by abundant notes and more dedications. For better or for worse, the heritage model for building such a collection of poems stems from William Wordsworth, who as his career advanced added engraved plates from his artist friend Sir George Beaumont, began organizing his shorter poems into themed sec-
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ABOVE Jeffrey Franklin reading from his new collection at Scuppernong Books as part of his North Carolina poetry tour, Greensboro, NC, 28 Apr. 2022
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARGARET D. BAUER
tions (“Poems on the Naming of Places,” “Poems of the Imagination,” “Poems of Sentiment and Reflection,” etc.), and in 1843 dictated abundant notes to his poems to a family friend, Isabella Fenwick, extra-textual matter that immediately attached itself to the works, sometimes helpfully, sometimes less so. The one Wordsworthian curatorial habit that Franklin does not adopt is any dating of the poems, either by composition or publication, which means that there is no ready way to measure earlier or later work across the thirtynine poems.
The title of the book’s final section, “Full Emptiness,” points readers toward key Buddhist themes throughout the volume; the “Notes” specify that “[t]his section title is an unavoidably inadequate translation of the Buddhist concept of sunyata.” Franklin is an accomplished scholar of religion and nineteenth-century British literature, with two important critical books on the subject: The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (2008) and Spirit Matters: Occult Beliefs, Alternative Religions, and the Crisis of Faith in Victorian Britain (2018), both from Cornell University Press. In the poem “My Self My Other,” in the section headed “Making Love,” the speaker registers the elusive ideal of Buddhist quiet:
All I’ve ever wanted was to sit in the center of a wide quietness, but whenever I draw near it, I’m called from this world’s loveliness Back to the self’s intricate dramas.
In the penultimate poem in the book, “Anatman,” the title of which the “Notes” explains “refers to the Buddhist doctrine according to which the concept of an essential autonomous
self is an illusion that is a primary cause of human suffering,” the speaker seeks but cannot remain in the state of “guiding quiet,” the source of that “wide quietness” which also governs the “hush” before the storm in “Where We Lay Down”:
Who wants, who? The mind hungers, recoils in a lightless room, groping for knob or switch, voices redoubling from the walls a riot of me, me, me to drown out the guiding quiet.
Separate from the “Notes,” the power of such moments in the poems is their freedom from the risk of proselytizing effect. In “Living Right,” a poem which is a comic takedown of lifestyle extremes, Buddhism is but one option on a spectrum; the poem concludes with amused praise for the speaker’s compromising “love of work that’s good / midway between the Buddhist Middle Way / and middle-class protesting conformity.” The book’s investment in large religious and philosophical topics shades elsewhere from eastern religion toward a more westerninflected romanticism, which posits the existential homelessness of the human subject, a theme most prominent in this book in the section titled “Homing.” In the poem “The City that Chooses You,” the speaker observes, “It dawns that life has been one long commute // from almost home to not yet home.” In the last poem in the section, “The Persistence of Place,” the speaker dwells on the empty rooms and houses of past lives, ending with these lines: “Like all ghosts, I go on hungering to settle / with myself, but I’m not home. Yet. Again.”
The question of home plays out in the book within a remarkable geographical range; poems take place in or recall multiple locations in Australia and Ireland and a cross-section of the US: Colorado, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida, and, in several poems, North Carolina, where Franklin studied as an undergraduate at UNC Chapel Hill and later lived during his early professional career in the English department at East Carolina University. Animating these travels, an entire section of the book is devoted to “Totem Animals,” including porcupines, mice, squirrels, and manatees. Geography and the animal world come together in a four-part poem, “Apologia to the Opossums.” The first section, “Tennessee,” (where Franklin grew up), reports the “hijinks” of boys intent on prey “ugly as dayold dishwater.” In the second section, “Australia,” a Quantas pilot with “possums in his attic” makes a cameo appearance. The third section, “Florida,” laments the “rat-tailed slouchers” who are “so hard to love.” The last section, “North Carolina,” shifts gears, surprisingly, to admiration, addressing “you, little ghost,” who becomes “You, Old Mother,” with this closing invocation: “come to me now, lead me out past / the canting sheds, across the fields, // and into the recesses of the healing wood.” Like A.R. Ammons addressing his famous coon, the unlikely figure of a possum as muse reminds us that it was Ezra Pound who tagged T. S. Eliot as “Old Possum.” Long a resident of Colorado, but like all romantics uncertain of home, Jeffrey Franklin still finds his figures of poet and homely muse in the fields and healing woods of North Carolina. n
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2022 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE SEMIFINALIST
BY MARK SMITH-SOTO
Dense, rich, the light in the chalk, guiding letters into their places like kids set behind their desks, sun through the dust-soft windows dawning on the curve of our faces, the teacher about to turn but not yet. Not yet. Silver hair, silver watch, the chalk glows in her long hand, something important is about to happen, the letters go on and on, little squeals punctuate the air, something important is going to happen. Time is generous in the small room. It is the room, it is the teacher and the children, it is the words before the words.
Costa Rican-American poet MARK SMITH-SOTO has been with the International Poetry Review at UNC Greensboro for almost thirty years. Along with three prize-winning chapbooks, he has authored three full-length poetry collections, Our Lives Are Rivers (University Press of Florida, 2003), Any Second Now (Main Street Rag, 2006), and Time Pieces (Main Street Rag, 2015; reviewed in NCLR Online 2016). He won the James Applewhite Poetry Prize in 2012, and his winning entry and another finalist were published in the 2013 NCLR issues. NCLR Online 2013 also featured him in an essay on North Carolina’s Latinx writers, and his poetry has also appeared in NCLR 2001, 2012, and in NCLR Online 2020 and Winter 2022. Smith-Soto’s work has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize and was recognized in 2006 with an NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing. His Fever Season: Selected Poetry of Ana Istarú (2010) and his lyrical memoir Berkeley Prelude (2013) were both published by Unicorn Press.
67 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
Costa Rica native GINA ESQUIVEL is a principal consultant with Civic Campus in Charlotte. She earned a bachelor’s in Education and Counseling from National University of Costa Rica and a master’s in Change Management and Leadership from Pfeiffer University. She also studied at the New York Institute of Photography. Her twenty-five years of experience in the social services field includes work for non-profits, as well as involvement in and volunteering to improve the quality of life of marginalized communities. She serves on the Board of Directors of American Leadership Forum, Charlotte region, as well as the North Carolina Arts Council. She travels widely and is currently working on the series Hardworking People of the World.
Convergence, 2017 (digital photograph) by Gina Esquivel
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
“BLESS ALL THAT RUSTS AND
a review by Jim Clark
Paul Jones. Something Wonderful: Poems. Redhawk Publications, 2021.
Al Maginnes. The Beasts that Vanish: Poems. Blue Horse Press, 2021.
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.
Here we have the most recent volumes by long-time stalwarts of the North Carolina poetry scene, Something Wonderful by Paul Jones and The Beasts that Vanish by Al Maginnes. Both are heftier collections than your typical slim volume of poetry, coming in right around one hundred pages each. Perhaps that’s because these poets have been around long enough to have some things to say. And perhaps because they have been around a while, it’s not surprising that poems of mortality, aging, and death are a signal feature of both books. Indeed, the first poem in The Beasts that Vanish is “The Skeleton Parade,” in which the skeletons arise “crook-kneed from the nest of their military graves,” a nice echo of Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,” and more than appropriate for the troublous times in which we find ourselves. We are later warned, “those who have left youth behind / stay away knowing soon enough they will // join that procession.” “The Conversions of the Body” is a meditation on body and soul by one who avers “the church of flesh was all // I would believe in” and concludes with “our bodies and the lives they inhabit / vanishing into the shapeless / vowels of our final breath.” “What We Are Coming To” imagines a kind of purgatorial afterlife where we must try and undo all the damage we have, wittingly or unwittingly, done in our lives, only to learn it’s all for naught as “nothing you do will change / any wrong or kindness you’ve done.” The poem ends with
lines that could almost provide a credo for the whole collection: “The life you lived is all / you can leave behind. / Now eternity can begin.” Jones’s “At Seventy” begins pointedly and unforgivingly – “Days like this, I know I’m going to die” – but then in the next line makes a turn characteristic of this poet: “I also know I’m not dead yet.” The speaker lies “in grass beneath the bewildering blue,” admiring nature and taking “the slow way,” creating a mood similar to James Wright’s famous poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”
The poem concludes with the speaker opting to “just lie here on this green bed – / fire behind me and ashes ahead.” “My Precious Death” also begins pointedly: “I haven’t been giving it enough / thought these days.”
There was a time, the speaker recalls, when “every cough, every ache / flashed like a damn police car / demanding that I pull over.” This poem belongs to a genre of poems that personify Death – Emily Dickinson’s famous “Because I could not stop for Death,” where Death is described as a kindly suitor, or John Crowe Ransom’s “Piazza Piece,” which fashions Death as “a gentleman in a dustcoat.” In this case, the speaker glimpses Death in the mirror as “the skull- / faced cop behind me,” with one hand “touching the brim of his dark and silver hat / and the other, yes I saw it, on his gun.” In “Seventy-Three,” an audacious Paul Jones rewrite of Shakespeare’s beloved Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold”), the
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speaker finds himself “in twilight,” wondering “how many more before death plants me below?” Yet the years suggested by the poem’s title, provide wisdom, insight: “But here I can see further, here my life’s breadth / forms a vista,” a vantage point from which, in a very familiar sounding couplet the speaker affirms: “What we see in age makes all we love more strong, / knowing what we love we leave before too long.”
From this, one might get the idea that all the poems in these two collections are dour, morbid, or somber. Not so! I’ve followed Al Maginnes’s career for nearly thirty years and it’s always seemed to me that his greatest strength is narrative. He’s a born storyteller and has spent a lifetime honing his craft. Narrative is a powerful tool for any writer, but in Maginnes’s poetic hands it’s pure gold. His stories are painful, wry, exhilarating, surprising, and revealing, often simultaneously. When I read a poem by Maginnes I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s observation that “storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”* I’ve known of Paul Jones as a poet for a good deal longer than thirty years, and his great gift, as I see it, is imagination, which can take many forms: imitation, parody, wit, surprise, transgression, shock, bewilderment, and on and on. He is our great contemporary metaphysical poet. When I read a poem by Jones, I think of Wallace Stevens’s maxim from “Adagia”: “Poetry is the gaiety (joy) of language.” The cover art of Jones’s Something Wonderful
makes me think of Maurice Sendak. So, with that, “Let the wild rumpus start!”
The title of Jones’s book reveals one way in which his poems are gay, or joyous – they are at pains to find the wonder in quotidian objects that we usually take for granted. Like Pablo Neruda in Odes to Common Things, or Francis Ponge, the great French “poet of things,” Jones writes poems of praise to bread, cicadas, damselflies, okra flowers, slugs, old dogs, and tubers. He even articulates a sort of ars poetica about this mode of writing in “The mundane but discreetly lovely details of our daily lives.” So, in “Hot Now!” it is not surprising that he tackles that wondrous, though ubiquitous, Southern gustatory touchstone, the fresh Krispy Kreme donut. The first line presents the culinary treat as a metaphysical conundrum: “They have no ends, no centers.” Who was it that said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere”? Nobody seems to know. Voltaire, maybe? Pascal? Hermes Trismegistus? Nicholas of Cusa? At any rate, there’s something pretty special about that delectable sphere. At first “Angelically white” these “Hillbilly bagels” floating “down the river of hot oil” eventually become “tan, taut yet tender.” Jones’s judicious but generous use of rhyme,
both end and internal, as well as his heaping helpings of alliteration, add to the poem’s celebratory mode.
[T]hey come to us hot off the rollers through the shower of molten sugar, a waterfall of nearly supernatural supersaturation, the speaker tells us, increasing our desire for them, of course, but also continuing the metaphysical discourse. “I’ll down a dozen before daybreak,” the speaker, hapless mortal and slave to his senses, alliteratively avers. And the poem even manages to stay in tune with the book’s overall theme of mortality: “If I die of cardiac arrest, / at least I will have had the best / last meal. Not that I’m asking / to die, but that’s the honest truth.” And of course, “honest truth” rhymes with the earlier “sweet tooth.”
Something Wonderful also contains several delightful and well-executed parodies of poets such as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Christopher Smart, and, obliquely,
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ABOVE Paul Jones reading at Flyleaf bookstore, Chapel Hill, 22 Apr. 2022
COURTESY OF JANIS HARRINGTON
* Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times (Harcourt Brace, 1968) 105.
Dylan Thomas. If one has already included a poem titled “Against Bird Poems,” one might as well go whole hog and write a poem against poets, and so we have “I Too Dislike Them,” appropriating its title from the famous beginning line of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry”: “I too, dislike it . . . ” The poem begins, “Aspiring poets are jerks / Who confuse quirks / With sound work.” It’s up to the reader to decide if the speaker says this earnestly, or with tongue in cheek. From there, in a series of terse tercets we get a survey of what several famous historical figures have said about poets: Nietzsche, who felt that poets were purposely oblique to hide their vacuousness; Plato, who judged “They cause commotions”; Auden, who claimed “nothing happens” because of poetry; and possibly Wallace Stevens, whose ars poetica “The Idea of Order at Key West” is alluded to with its “small boats on the sea at night, / Flickering patterns of light.”
The poem ends with the tart kiss-off, “They were right, the Old Masters: / Poets are useless bastards.” Ouch.
Next up is “My Roommate Jeoffry,” a hilarious parody of “My Cat Jeoffry,” a well-known section of Christopher Smart’s much longer work “Jubilate Agno,” which Google Books claims is “the most famous piece of poetry ever written about a cat.” Perhaps. At any rate, the roommate Jeoffry’s cat is named “Nico.” Jones has Smart’s anaphoric long lines down to a “T.”
For example: “For he is a fan of classic rock. More than a fan. He played In a Gadda / Da Vida on vinyl on repeat for days. Until he misplaced the record or the / cleaning crew took it or he can’t recall just now.” The poem concludes with the speaker getting “quite serious” with Jeoffry’s girlfriend Sally while Jeoffry “is traveling to Colombia despite State Department warnings not to / go there. / For he seeks ‘the only pot worth smoking.’” Finally, we have “The Red-Vinegar Sauce,” of course a parody of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” in which Jones joins the company of such esteemed North Carolina poets of pork as A.R. Ammons, William Harmon, James Applewhite, and Shelby Stephenson. The poem is a more than credible imitation of Williams’s poem, with Eastern North Carolina “red vinegar / sauce” substituting for “red wheel / barrow,” “pulled / pork” for “rain / water,” and “white / coleslaw” for “white / chickens.” It works, and it’s delightful.
Like Paul Jones, Al Maginnes is a music lover. Many have read his thoughtful record reviews in Connotations, where he was the music editor, and elsewhere. “Playlist for a Photograph of a Record Burning,” with its gritty, journalistic feel, furthered by the supplied date of “August 16, 1966,” tells no less than the story of a generation, its ideals, excesses, and uncertainties. Our focus is on “the one boy” who “looks full on / at the cam-
era, his glare / scorching the glass lens, a challenge to all the years to come.” The others stare “raptured, into the barrel.” The first song on the playlist, mentioned in the second strophe, is The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” with its declamatory beginning of “Hot town!” The ministers, of course, declare the heat from the burning records “is nothing, / beside the fires of hell.” The speaker looks down the avenue of years to come, seeing war, protests, the revolutionary eroticism of Jimi Hendrix, and, perhaps sadly, those congregated there “enter / their own individual hells.” Strophe three lists the various albums and memorabilia – The Beatles, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Sonny and Cher – “all fuel for the righteous flame.” In strophe four, the speaker thinks “someone / loved those records once,” which causes him to recall a line from a Johnny Cash song – “Love is a burning thing” – though Cash’s records “are not the ones / burning here.”
The speaker doubts that “music could / be unheard,” and we are back to the boy who “still stares, / transfixed in the eye / of the camera.” Perhaps thinking of the riots, bombs, and other violence that were all part and parcel of the 1960s, the speaker imagines the boy, in a year or two – 1968, perhaps – wondering “if fire ever truly bought / salvation.” There follows a list of things to come: “moon landings, Nixon, Watergate, / glam rock, cocaine, Woodstock, / weapons
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PAUL JONES retired from UNC Chapel Hill in 2020, and he is currently the Vice President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network. In 2016 his poem “Clear Channel” received Second Place in the James Applewhite Poetry Prize competition and is featured in NCLR 2017. His poem “Basketball is a Kind of Poetry,” which received an Honorable Mention, appears in NCLR Online 2017.
of mass destruction, / disco, recession.” The poem concludes with “He will learn / there is never enough fire,” an ambiguous ending that suggests that while fire can purify and lead one toward salvation, the earth, with its “ten thousand things” in the Buddhist tradition, is simply too much for it, and us.
An admission: on February 22, 2022, I was re-reading Maginnes’s poem “Stern,” keenly aware that I needed to hunker down and get to work on this review. I made a few notes, and then, satisfied with my productivity, logged on to Facebook, where I promptly saw a post by my friend David Rigsbee celebrating poet Gerald Stern’s ninety-seventh birthday. I think of Al Maginnes, the poet, in terms of the lineage of his strong, supple, resonant poetic voice. Two names always come up – Richard Hugo and Philip Levine – and sometimes one or two others. From now on I may also include Gerald Stern. “Stern” begins with the speaker (pretty clearly Al Maginnes) remembering the first time he ever heard Stern read – the poem “The Dancing,” on a Bill Moyers’ TV show. Stern’s poem vividly evokes the family spontaneously dancing in celebration of the end of World War II, “the father using hand and armpit / to squeeze out farting sounds.”
It’s a joyous, almost ecstatic, moment, but Maginnes, like Stern, is ever aware of the inextricable nature of comedy and tragedy in our everyday lives, as
he notes “the three of them / safe from and irreducibly caught in the wheel / of history.” The poem’s long, supple lines allow Maginnes to paint a strikingly vivid portrait of “the cities of the 40’s.” Maginnes admires the poem, and for a while uses it as an example in his poetry classes. Perhaps because of its setting in the 1940s, so far removed in time and culture from Maginnes’s students, he finally stops using it, admitting “my taste runs counter / to my students.” They prefer, he says, typically “poetic” scenes of waterfalls, green fields, and daffodils, “while I try to explain the blossoming joys of decay, / of alleys through poor neighborhoods, the acne / of rust on a car left abandoned on the highway.” When Maginnes learns that Stern “had spent years in community colleges,” he begins to see him as a kindred spirit, and one day sees him in person “at a writers’ conference as he moved / slow as a planet
amid a constellation of smaller poets.” Having seen Stern numerous times at writers’ conferences myself, I can vouch for Maginnes’s spot-on description of Stern as “heavy with mirth and awe” and his characterization of him as “the deli owner who rings up your Reuben,” the armchair boxing critic, or “the lawyer drafting the Talmudic passages / making it possible to leave your estate to your fat dog / and not the grandkids who never visit or call.” “Tonight, somewhere north of me, I hope Stern is writing / a poem,” the speaker muses, and then ends the poem with a memory of Stern giving a poetry reading, which he left “grateful for the angels of poetry the ones who come / on half-sprained wings to bless all that rusts and ages, / who come to us when we are wild enough to dance.”
To end, I’ll paraphrase Neil Young, which both Jones and Maginnes would probably approve of: Paul Jones and Al Maginnes, long may they run. n
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AL MAGINNES received 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, and his book Sleeping Through the Graveyard Shift: Poems (Redhawk Publications, 2020) was reviewed in NCLR Online 2021. Read an interview with him in NCLR 2007.
ABOVE The Old Blue Star Taxi Lost in Tall Grass, Pitt County, NC, by Watson Brown (See more of this photographer’s work with an interview with Ben Fountain in NCLR 2020 and @planterboy on Instagram.)
COURTESY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER
RECEIVES 2022 PULITZER PRIZE IN DRAMA
Bessemer City, NC, native James Ijames received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fat Ham , which the Prize webpage describes as “a funny, poignant play that deftly transposes Hamlet to a family barbecue in the American South to grapple with questions of identity, kinship, responsibility, and honesty.” The play features Juicy, who is visited by the ghost of his father and must decide if he wants to seek revenge on his uncle for quickly, and rather suspiciously marrying his mother. However, Fat Ham does not focus on the pursuit of revenge, but instead on whether Juicy’s homosexuality will be accepted or will disappoint and hurt his family. Ijames explains that “my journey with Hamlet and my queerness run parallel to each other. . . . To that end, Fat Ham is a prayer for queer people who can’t give voice to their affection, who wish that they could ‘dissolve.’”1
Fat Ham pays homage not only to Ijames’s experience with sexual orientation, but also his childhood in the South. It is his first play with a Southern setting, though he indicated in an interview with the Gaston Gazette that all his writing is influenced by
his home and family: “In the South, when we talk to each other, there’s just like a music in the way that we speak. So that’s always in everything that I write. Even when I’m not writing about the South, I can’t really get away from it.”2
Ijames is a performer, playwright, director, and educator. He received his BA in Drama from Morehouse College and his MFA in Acting from Temple University. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Ijames has been a recipient of various awards, including the F. Otto Haas Award, the Whiting Award, and the Steinberg Prize. Ijames currently resides in Philadelphia. He is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Villanova University and Co-artistic Director of the Wilma Theater. n
ABOVE A scene reflecting the barbecue setting of the play
ABOVE Marcel Spears as Juicy in the 2022 New York Public Theater’s premiere production of Fat Ham
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1 “Playwright’s Note,” WILMABILL: The Wilma Theatre Presents Fat Ham, web
2 Kara Fohner, “Bessemer City native wins Pulitzer Prize for drama set at NC barbecue,” Gaston Gazette 16 May 2022: web
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOAN MARCUS; COURTESY OF NEW YORK PUBLIC THEATRE
PHOTO ALBUMS AND (UN)FAMILIAR FACES
a review by Savannah Geidel
Lenard D. Moore. Long Rain: Poetry. Wet Cement Press, 2021.
Grace C. Ocasio. Family Reunion. Broadstone Books, 2020.
Though many books stem from writers’ experiences and contain bits of personal information, some books are so deeply personal that the experience of reading them feels much like reading someone else’s diary or paging through someone else’s family album. Recent poetry collections by Grace C. Ocasio and Lenard D. Moore read as if intended for private eyes, giving the material a profoundly intimate feeling. Though short, both just over 130 pages, these collections are replete with emotions and memories intrinsic to aspects of the authors’ lives. Yet both collections keep readers at a distance, reminding us that, though we are invited to partake in the recollections, we may not fully understand the context. Both collections remind us that experiences, while shared, manifest differently for everyone, and time does not erase the past, as the past latches onto us all and moves forward into the future.
read through the poems, we travel up and down the coastal region, always returning to North Carolina where Ocasio uncovers memories of her family and welcomes them back from time past. The collection depicts various family members through literary snapshots representative of critical moments in each person’s life, as if Ocasio is paging through a family photograph album with us while recollecting stories passed down through generations.
SAVANNAH GEIDEL is an English instructor at Johnston Community College in Smithfield, NC. She has an MA in English from UNC Wilmington and a BA in English Education from SUNY New Paltz.
LENARD D. MOORE has taught at NC State, NC A&T, and the University of Mount Olive. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently The Geography of Jazz (Mountains & Rivers Press, 2018; reviewed in NCLR Online 2020) and All the Songs We Sing (Carolina Wren Press, 2020; reviewed in NCLR Online 2021). He was the first African American President of the Haiku Society of America. Read about his founding of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective in NCLR 2016.
GRACE C. OCASIO teaches creative writing at UNC Charlotte. She is the author of The Speed of our Lives (BlazeVOX, 2014) and Hollerin from This Shack (Ahadada books, 2009). Her second full-length poetry collection, Family Reunion received honorable mention at the Quercus Review Fall 2017 Book Award Contest. Her work has also been featured in Rattle, Court Green, Black Renaissance Noire, and more.
Reading Grace C. Ocasio’s second full-length poetry collection Family Reunion is much like attending someone else’s family gathering – you know no one, you know nothing of their history, and yet you’re thrown into the crowd of relations to try and piece everything together. Ocasio traverses time and place seamlessly, entangling the narratives of her maternal and paternal family members. Broken into five parts, Ocasio’s collection lives up to its title, bringing her kin together from across the geographical expanse of the East coast and temporal swath of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As we
Indeed, there is one actual photograph in the collection, and photographs permeate the text as an organizing motif. The first poem, “Grandma’s Portrait,” recreates Grandma Cloris (to whom the book is dedicated), though the portrait is used to uncover insight into the speaker’s father. In “Granddaddy Watkins,” a photo of the speaker’s grandfather evokes memories of their relationship when she was a child and how she holds all men to a standard he created. There is brief mention of a picture of her father in his youth. Gloria (the poet’s alias, according to the family tree in the back of the book) notes how he won’t speak about his younger years and explains how he became the man he grew into, leaving Gloria to piece the past together with photographs. The nine-part poem “Photo Album” begins with a photograph of a mother and her infant daughter and ends with a photograph of the mother as a teenager. Although these portraits are of specific family members, they create a web that links one member to another, as if the compilation is superimposing them all to cre-
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ate a scene encompassing each individual photographed – a family reunion.
It is not until the end of the collection that we are given a family tree and a timeline of events. If you read the collection as I did (and as I recommend), without paging to these endnotes, the poems become a whirlwind of information that you must grapple with while piecing together who’s who. Though this method is more difficult for the reader, the effect is a heightened engagement, an investment in piecing together Ocasio’s family story. Reading the collection without insider knowledge is challenging. As the point of view shifts from one poem to the next, the reader becomes unsure of whose memories are whose – and that’s the point. The intersections represent how families are interconnected even when separated by physical and metaphysical boundaries: the persona Gloria is the culmination of each of her family members whether she has met them or not, just as her parents were products of their ances-
tors. Thus, this collection shows family as a series of crisscrossing lines that create a web the reader cannot untangle, regardless of time or place.
Yet, in other places, we’re introduced to nameless people, as if Gloria has stumbled upon people in a family album she does not recognize. The poem “Inside Grandma’s Scrapbook” switches between second and third-person perspectives, and it remains unclear who “you” are or who “he” is – is Grandma Cloris looking at the photo, or is Gloria? Do they know “him,” or is he merely an unnamed face in an old scrapbook? Elsewhere, a poem from an unnamed narrator in 1932 shares memories of “John,” who appears nowhere else in the book. The various unnamed or once-mentioned individuals envelop the collection in what feel like family secrets. We’re left wondering how these mysterious subjects fit into the family and who invited them to the reunion. It’s not necessarily a mystery we need answers to; in fact, these unidentified people add to the personal feel of the collection. We are reminded that we are guests in someone else’s home, and we don’t need to know every detail to understand the bigger picture.
Though at times the poems feel temporally fragmented, and it becomes difficult to keep track of all the people, the collection offers a way of thinking of family in terms of what connects them rather than what disconnects them. The concluding piece, “Mama’s and Daddy’s Womenfolk
Convene for Juneteenth,” is a section of prose separated from the poems by the photograph of Cloris. The divide closes the scrapbook and moves us to the family gathering, in which we watch Gloria and her kinfolk exist in the same space at the same time. As the women sit together and discuss various details of their lives, we see the bits of each woman that Gloria sees within herself, characteristics passed down from generation to generation. It is fitting that Gloria’s own daughter, Zoe, is present at the Juneteenth gathering. She, too, is a culmination, and celebration, of the women present. Though most of the people from the collection are physically absent, Ocasio’s collection is a reminder that familial connections are based just as much on emotion, history, and spirituality as they are grounded in tangible elements of connection. Ocasio’s family history lives on through her and will continue to live on through her daughter, something no passage of time can negate.
While Ocasio evokes her kin, living and remembered, through her poetry, Lenard D. Moore transports us back to assorted moments in Long Rain. The poems, all of them five lines and untitled, recreate singular moments focused on nature’s connection to everyday life, creating tiny landscapes between the lines. The collection is broken into four parts – “Earth,” “Wind,” “Fire,” and “Water” –each beginning with a short prose introduction to a specific
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BY LANDIS WADE
ABOVE Grace C. Ocasio reading on the Charlotte Readers Podcast, Charlotte, NC, 2019
moment in time and the corresponding element. “Earth” opens with a recollection of the poet’s Great-Grandma Fannie who “walked up and down sunbeaten rows, chopped weeds as steady as machines.” “Wind” brings us on a nighttime car ride with Moore in which we witness an owl swoop “on the currents of Carolina air.” “Fire” situates us in an attic where the speaker speaks to his partner and remembers her “kisses, the fire shooting through” them. And “Water” brings us to April 9, 1968, where a fourth-grade Moore watches Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral with his class who “weep salt water.” While the prose is more metaphorically connected to the elements, the poems within each section directly correspond to the natural environment, grounding the collection in both emotional and physical connections to place. The poems detach from the preceding memory and concentrate more on the natural elements. As Guy Davenport states in his introduction to the collection, “Moore has paid careful attention to the time of day and
time of year. . . . [H]e gives up narrative and anecdote for those sharp observations of moments.” Despite the few specific memories dividing the sections of the collection, the poems zoom out to focus on commonplace glimpses of life, relying on pronouns rather than the names of specific people and a cyclical timeline that crisscrosses the four seasons. The lack of specifics positions the environment at the forefront, while in the background, humanity exists with the landscape.
Moore’s careful attention to time – or bits of time, rather –gives the collection a personal, yet familiar feeling. Each poem captures a glimpse of humanity performing actions against the backdrop of a changing natural landscape, illustrating everything from reading a book, in “Fire” – “summer sunburst: / she puts on her sunglasses / and reads the novel” – to driving after rain, in “Water” – “reflection of headlights creeping / down the two-lane road.” In many ways, Moore’s poems force us to slow down and experience the world around us,
notice the slow passing of time, the movement of light throughout the year, the scent of seasons and loved ones, strangers we encounter. As Moore states in the prose introduction to the “Wind” section, “Bonded by the natural world, I am one with the moment.” It is just that which these poems represent –moments – connected but fragmented, separate but one.
Though there are only two mentions of place in the collection (NC State in the prose portion of “Wind” and Raleigh, NC, in the prose portion of “Fire”), Moore’s collection is permeated with sights, scents, and sounds of the South. From the depictions of pine trees, bullfrogs, crickets, collards, and endless heat to the farms growing blueberries, grapes, or apples, Moore’s poetry paints a vivid image of the South’s various landscapes. Their combination creates an unbreakable connection to the region.
Moore’s brief poetic snapshots of life create a montage of experiences; the assemblage is another photo album encompassing what it means to be alive within a natural landscape illuminating and influencing our movements. Moore’s poetry transcends everyday life, reminding us to pause and observe the world around us and form deeper connections with our surroundings. Reading Long Rain takes us on a journey across North Carolina, forcing us to slow down, relish the scenery Moore paints for us, and then go search for those small moments throughout everyday life. n
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PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL GRIFFIN
LEFT Lenard D. Moore at Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, Sam Ragan Poetry Festival, Southern Pines, NC, 2015
2022 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE SEMIFINALIST
BY LAVONNE ADAMS
Symphony for Snow
1. Overture, Flurries
Winnowed by longleaf pine needles, immaculate white breath of winter.
2. Obbligato, Dawn
The sky is an unwashed sheet, dingy, no trace of blue. Snowflakes are clusters of crystals drawn together like steadfast friends. Snow follows unseen currents, swirls in whirlwinds, shifts in waves like silk scarves. This is Southern Winter, a day of snow turned holiday honoring Jack Frost. The sun casts its first shadows, like fingertips pressing against ivory lawns.
3. Glissando, Landscape
Four hours away, the Biltmore house becomes a cliff above a sea of snow; a cluster of trees mimes an island.
Just seconds from day’s end, the sky turns slate with a touch of violet and blue, a hint of pink.
Streetlights burnish each scrim of ice where tires have laid their tracks. A gibbous moon will soon rise,
but for now, birch branches are drawn with India ink. Within hours, the cessation of snow, as if the clouds
have hunched their backs and turned away. Only pine boughs sway, signaling the cold front’s last gasp.
LAVONNE ADAMS is the author of Through the Glorieta Pass (Pearl Books, 2009), two poetry chapbooks, and more than 150 individual poetry publications. Retired now, she was a lecturer and MFA Coordinator for the Creative Writing Department at UNC Wilmington. She has completed residencies at the Harwood Museum of Art (University of New Mexico-Taos), The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center, and she was a Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for Eastern North Carolina. Read more of her work in NCLR Online Winter 2022.
KAREN BALTIMORE regularly designs the poetry in NCLR. A graduate of Meredith College in Raleigh (where she studied with NCLR’s Art Director), she has been designing for NCLR since 2013. See more of her graphic design work on her website
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At first, falling snow seemed to be the absence of sound. Cold crystals compress into spheres that thwack when striking targets. Boots scrunch. Tires rumble along unplowed streets like the static of an old Motorola TV. Snow lays claim to the notes of children’s laughter, their exclamations of delight.
5. Coda, Harmony
Neighbors in shearling boots are already scraping windshields, exposing a pebbled layer of thin ice, like fossilized rain. How clean the brittle air smells. The sky is now cloudless; the sun has resumed its perpetual task of tiling earth with shadow and light. So much of nature has little to do with us. Then, as if my apartment were a lodge beside a brook, the murmuring of melting snow.
77 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
native JOHN MENAPACE (1927–2010) moved to Durham, NC, in 1956 to accept a position as Director of Design and Production at Duke University Press. He taught classes at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and Penland School of Crafts. In 1984, his work comprised the first exclusive showing of photography at the North Carolina Museum of Art, and a volume of his work, letter in a Klein bottle, was published by the Jargon Society Press of Black Mountain College. In 2006, a solo show at what is now the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at North Carolina State University resulted in the publication of his work With Hidden Noise (Duke University Press, 2007). Find more of his art in the Gregg Museum’s digital collections.
©JOHN MENAPACE; GREGG MUSEUM OF ART & DESIGN, RALEIGH NC
Untitled (black and white photography, 8x10) by John Menapace
THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE ENDLESS IN-BETWEEN a review by James W. Kirkland
Scott Owens. Counting the Ways. Mainstreet Rag, 2020.
—. Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming. Red Hawk Publications, 2021.
At first glance, Counting the Ways and Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming by Scott Owens seem to lead in different directions, one back to the dark world of a childhood fractured by physical and emotional abuse and the other into a strange new world where
Not even spring itself can know what a challenge it is to rise each day, how we struggle to find
what to do next, wonder if it’s all worth it, how we hold our breath fearing that death might find its way
To our door and see the lintel marked. (“Passover in the Time of Pandemic,” Sky)
bird.” He uses it as the structuring principle for the collection as a whole, which consists of forty-one new and previously published poems, the majority of which include the phrase “13 Ways of . . .” in the title and all but a few of which follow the same thirteen-stanza pattern as Stevens’s poem.
JAMES W. KIRKLAND has taught in the ECU Department of English for over fifty years. His reviews and articles on subjects ranging from Melville’s literary uses of tall tale to composition pedagogy and magico-religious healing traditions have appeared in such journals as English Language Notes , Medium Aevum , Western Folklore , North Carolina Folklore Journal, and Tar River Poetry . He has co-authored or co-edited seven books including Writing with Confidence: A Modern College Rhetoric (Heath, 1989), Herbal and Magical Medicine: A Traditional Healing Today (Duke University Press, 1992), and Concise English Handbook, 4th ed. (Houghton, 1997).
SCOTT OWENS teaches at Lenoir Rhyne University, edits Wild Goose Poetry Review , and runs Taste Full Beans in Hickory, NC, where he hosts Poetry Hickory, the reading series he founded in 2007. He is the author of thirteen poetry collections, including several that have been reviewed in NCLR
Upon further reflection, though, the differences seem more apparent than real, especially if we view the two books as companion volumes, each expressing in its own distinctive ways what Owens describes in an interview with Wild Goose Poetry Review editor Glenda Beall as the power of poetry to “make a difference in everyone’s lives” – to help us “recognize the value of things through their connectedness to other things,” especially “the connectedness of one human life to another. This is what allows us to achieve catharsis by watching, listening to, or reading about someone else’s experience. We recognize our own story in theirs and are able to learn from it.”*
Though inspired by Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Owens does more than simply “copy the idea,” as he intimates in “13 Ways of Deconstructing a Black-
While the “13 Ways of . . .” pattern might seem restrictive, it is in fact totally consistent with the book’s underlying principle, which Owens describes in the “Author’s Note” as the assumption that “there is a meaningful narrative inherent in tracing the occurrences of an image or motif across time,” a narrative that invites “readers to consider the vital motifs that have defined their own lives, to consider to some degree who they are now and as the sum of occurrences of objects, ideas, concepts that have played and continue to play a recurring role in their lives” (vii).
The motifs and images that “continue to play a recurring role” in the poet’s own life and art are on display throughout each of the book’s four sections, beginning with what Owens considers to be the book’s “seminal poem, ‘Breakings,’ which even though it didn’t have 13 ways was the way it had all started” (“Author’s Note,” vii). Contrasting sharply with the seemingly peaceful forest scene depicted on the book’s cover, the lead poem plunges us immediately into “the black magic of breakings” where “nothing could match / the sounds of shattered glass,” the “cries of children,” the “big-
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* Glenda C. Beall, “Scott Owens to Visit Far Western NC and North Georgia,” North Carolina Writers’ Network-West’s Mountain Writers and Poets 3 May 2010: web
handed breaking / of his mother’s face, his brother’s / mouth, his own shattered skin,” his futile efforts to “break the habits / of breaking.” Further revelations of the father’s rage and its impact on his family surface repeatedly in subsequent poems, notably in “What the Protected Don’t Know,” “13 Ways of Voices,” “Why I Don’t Like Violence in the House,” and “13 Ways of Fathers.” Yet violence is but one of the many vital motifs central to Owens’s poetic narrative.
Often, the subjects that interest Owens most are “the smallest of things” (“How Words Can Save Us”). The dirt road that runs through farmlands in “the middle of nowhere, South Carolina” is imaginatively transformed into the “Road to perdition, road to hell, / road to recovery, high road, / low road, open road” (“13 Ways of Roads”). Ordinary glass jars sitting on the kitchen shelf take on human characteristics, “mouths / open, waiting to be filled” (“13 Ways of Jars”). Cardboard boxes packed “with hand-me-down dishes, handme-down clothes” become, at different moments, “a Chinese puzzle of containment,” a “box of wounds,” a music box that plays “Beautiful Dreamer,” “The box of your voice [that] closes its lid / around you” (“13 Ways of Boxes”). On a visit home, each house he passes becomes not just one of the many places he lived but a “house of silence, / house of cries, mad house, angry house” where “walls speak with angry, familiar voices” (“13 Ways of Houses”).
The natural world, too, furnishes images and motifs that
recur throughout the collection, in poems that invite us to contemplate the “hypnotic dance of snow falling. / Trees lit up with white” (“13 Ways of Weather”), “dreamscapes of memory . . . the water dark and still / and reaching towards you like an open hand” (“13 Ways of Water”), “scraps / of clouds . . . illuminated / with midnight” (“All the Way Up to the Line and Beyond”), “yellow lights [that] dance in limbs / of apple, pecan, crabapple, / a quiet I cannot comprehend” (“Epigraph to the Firing Squad”), the “wood thrush’s wooden / music, magic flute that says / the woods are nothing but leaves singing” (“13 Ways of Birds”), “the great blue heron, / heavenly cruciform, / the X of my unwritten map” (“13 Ways of Direction”), and – most memorably – the enigmatic blackbird.
In the first of two poems titled “Deconstructing the Blackbird,” the speaker remembers an earlier time when, “in the town where he grew up / blackbirds were little more / than stealers of corn, targets / for slingshot or shotgun,” but by the end of the poem they have become the physical embodiment of “darkness falling from / darkness into darkness creating / the plural light of understanding,” a light that shines most brightly in the second and final version of the poem, which stands alone in the
book’s final section, affirming once more the connections between Counting the Ways and Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “Too few or too many blackbirds and significance would be / blurred beyond or beneath meaning. Ironic that what is is made / meaningful only through our limitations.”
Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming begins where the previous book ends, with the poet seeking new ways of seeing – and understanding – the world. But this time the inspiration comes not from fellow poet Wallace Stevens but from artist Caspar David Friedrich, whose painting Monk at the Sea occupies the entire front and back covers of the book. The painting, as Owens aptly describes it in the opening poem “Around,” is:
80% . . . sky 10 dark water Alien and empty Or unknown All but one figure of the rest Sand devoid of life”
79 N C L R ONLINE Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write
– yet the monk, “one figure of the rest”
RIGHT Scott Owens at Taste Full Beans, Hickory, NC, 8 June 2021
COURTESY OF SCOTT OWENS
. . still stands
Solitary and small
As if he could matter As if he could penetrate Sky, water, earth and understand.
Echoes of these lines can be heard in many other poems in this collection as well. The untitled haiku immediately following “Around” links the “Night sky full of stars” to “dreaming,” both of which contribute to the dreamlike atmosphere of poems such as “Filling the Void,” where stars “split the light / that filters in / through empty panes”; “The Possibility of Substance Beyond Reflection,” where a glance at a “V of geese . . . flying overhead in the / slate gray sky” provides the stimulus for philosophical speculations about “the unreflective nothingness beyond, where even / they had to question just how real they were or just how real they / might have been”; and “Yellow Xterra,” where the simple act of looking through a car’s “tinted glass” reveals “a perfect sky of stars, / broken only by shapes of leaves, / . . . the quiet of solitude, / absence of expectation.”
Nature holds other secrets as well, which Owens continually seeks to unlock through language both literal and figurative, believing that “the hope we have / grows stronger / when we can put it into words” (“Words and What They Say”). In “In the Cathedral of Fallen Trees,” for example, a walk in
the woods becomes, metaphorically, a journey to a sacred space where “the light spread / through stained glass windows of leaves, / . . . every stump . . . a silent altar, / each branch a pulpit’s tongue.” In “Subterranean,” a mole tunneling “just below the surface” of a flower bed assumes a mythic identity, reminding the poet of
. . . Atlas the earth on his shoulders forging a labyrinthine home in the dark world of bright bulbs and sweet seeds turning and reshaping the soil visible only in sound.
In “The Idea of Order at Soul’s Harbor,” a stream flowing from the mountains to the sea
. . . makes an eddy where anything, anyone, floating down might catch and climb out and find a safe place to call home
– a place “where so much / seems possible.”
The effort to put into words what would otherwise be inexpressible sometimes awakens memories of the “breakings” depicted in so many of the poems in Counting the Ways – but in Sky Full of Stars and Dreaming, these moments occur far less frequently than in the earlier volume, and always with a different outcome. “How I got here,” he explains in the poem of that title, was
. . . by having belt buckles lashed across legs, hands burned on electric stoves, by being locked in closets for hours . . . by being shoved into the back wall of a baseball dugout by my own father . . .
But this time is different: . . . shoving back, . . . never backing down from anyone wanting to be called Daddy . . . I got here on the wings of dreams and schemes and other things refusing to be kept in boxes. I got here by believing it matters to try to make a difference. I got here by writing poems.
Ultimately, poetry is for Owens a means of “redeeming everything he was given, / the good, the bad, / the endless in between” (“Just”), whether he is counting the mysterious ways of blackbirds or standing with Friedrich’s monk gazing at a night sky full of stars or sharing with us a father’s advice to his son in “Sharing a Drink on My 55th Birthday,” advice intended as much for readers as for the audience within the poem:
Be drunk on life, on love, on trees, on mountains, on spring, on rivers that go the way they know to go, on words, on art, on dancing, fighting against nonexistence, on night skies, on dreams, on mere minutes, on the ocean that stretches beyond what you ever imagined forever could be. And when someone asks you what advice you have, give them, as you’ve given everyone and everything, the best of what you have. n
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2022 JAMES APPLEWHITE POETRY PRIZE SEMIFINALIST
BY BENJAMIN CUTLER
Ode: February Morning at Our Rural Café
The red-eyed nurse with his mask down for now – only now – for the first and best of the day’s many cups. The young grandmother who receives the window’s polished rays against her face but does not squint
as she watches her small grandson –who wears Halloween pajamas in this cold month of love – trace tabletop flowers
with his soft finger. The retired artisan – in faded barn coat – who talks of gathering deadfall locust for the bassinet he will build but will not sell.
The ancient basset hound asleep at the feet of a local pastor who speaks of the poignant joys of final days – of taking his wheelchair-bound and dying sister to a pottery shop where they found the perfect vase for her ashes: How we laughed and laughed, he says, when we left and realized we had no lid. The grandson again, holding his grandmother’s hand as they step through the bell-chiming door into the vague light of day – unseasonable mummies dancing on his back, so joyfully suspended in their unraveling.
Cutout 65b, 2016, Autumn Leaves series (photograph, archival pigment ink print on fine art paper, 8x11) by
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BENJAMIN CUTLER is a high school English and creative writing teacher in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. He has published the poetry collection, The Geese Who Might be Gods (Main Street Rag, 2019), and his poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize numerous times and has appeared in Zone 3, Tar River Poetry, and EcoTheo Review, among other periodicals.
Durham, NC artist JIM LEE has a BS from NCSU in experimental psychology, animal behavior, and zoology. He earned a PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill in mass communication research. He studied printing photographs on alternative surfaces at Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains, NC, and is otherwise self-taught. His photography, sculpture, and audio art have been exhibited widely. His work is held in numerous private collections, as well as in such public collections as Andrew Young Enterprises, Cassilhaus, Duke University Medical Center, and Green Hill Center for NC Art.
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
“STATRIOT” BLAND SIMPSON RECEIVES 2022 NORTH CAROLINIANA SOCIETY BOOK AWARD
Presentation Remarks by Michael Ray Hill
Chapel Hill, NC, 9 June 2022
Twenty years ago Dr. H.G. Jones and I met at Nantucket restaurant in Chapel Hill to create the North Caroliniana Book Award. Our objective was to select annually the previous year’s best book about North Carolina, the one most likely to stand the test of time and to become a classic work of North Caroliniana. This year’s is the nineteenth such presentation and the award goes to Bland Simpson for his UNC Press title, North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky. Bland is, by his own memorable description, “statriotic.” The Tar Heel State has no better ambassador. Raised in Elizabeth City and Chapel Hill, Bland has left footprints in practically all corners of the state in his seven-plus decades. His years as an instructor at UNC, his alma mater, culminated with his appointment as Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing, a post he still holds.
His years with the Red Clay Ramblers took him from the Ranch House to Broadway with the name and legacy of North Carolina’s Charlie Poole and his own Ramblers in tow. Many will recall Bland’s appearances on public television, recounting his search for a lost boat in one instance and his search for the headwaters of the Catawba River in another. His many books include Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian’s Coastal Plain, issued by UNC Press in 1997. The newly awarded book, twenty-five years later, is essentially a sequel, extending his range to encompass the entire state. Like the earlier book, this is a collaboration with his wife, Ann Cary Simpson, who contributed photographs as did his friends Tom Earnhardt and Scott Taylor. It is no knock on Bland’s narrative, taking the reader along by water and by land with his welcoming storytelling, to say that these stellar images really make the book.
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COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS
ABOVE Lookout Light and Core Banks, Carteret County, by Scott Taylor
Photography from North Carolina: Land of Water, Land of Sky by Bland Simpson, photography by Ann Cary Simpson, Scott Taylor, and Tom Earnhardt, University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
MICHAEL RAY HILL retired in 2019 from the Office of Archives and History and was honored that year with the Christopher Crittenden Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in North Carolina history. Read more about him in the award story in NCLR Online 2020.
Prior to giving these presentation remarks, Michael Hill called the audience’s attention to a recent NPR segment, for which each state’s poet laureate nominated “quintessential reads that illuminate where they live.” North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green nominated this book, describing it as “a stunning account of not only the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains of the Appa-
lachian range, sprawling forests and the enchanted crests of the Atlantic coastline, but also its people: our stories, identities, histories, sufferance, memory, vision and the ancestral energy that remains inside of our communities.” Green concludes by calling it “a compelling love letter to our entwined ‘goodliest land’ amplifying our collective appreciation for the sanctuary of home and kinship.”* n
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“Traveling this summer? Here are book picks for all 50 states (and then some),” NPR 1 June 2022: web
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS
ABOVE BOTTOM Waters of the Haw (left) meet waters of the New Hope (right), confluence above the Jordan Lake Dam, Moncure, by Ann Cary Simpson
COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS
ABOVE TOP Hawksbill and Table Rock Mountains, Linville Gorge Wilderness, by Tom Earnnhardt
MONICA BYRNE RECEIVES 2022 MANLY WADE WELLMAN AWARD
The winner of the 2022 Manly Wade Wellman Award was named in July at ConGregate 8, a speculative fiction convention held in Winston-Salem, NC. The recipient of the award, Monica Byrne, is originally from Annville, PA. The winning title, The Actual Star (Harper Voyager, 2021), is Byrne’s second novel. Her first, The Girl in the Road (Crown, 2014), was reviewed in NCLR Online 2015, accompanied by a short interview with the author.
As well as being a talented writer, Byrne has earned degrees in biochemistry from Wellesley and MIT, worked at NASA, and has her pilot’s license. After completing her master’s at MIT, she relocated to Durham, NC, to pursue her then new passion for writing, deciding that she “liked making things up much more than finding things out” (quoted from her website).
The Manly Wade Wellman Award is named after the speculative fiction writer NCLR featured in the 1993 issue. The award was founded in 2013 to recognize outstanding achievement in science fiction and fantasy novels written by North Carolina authors. The winner of the Wellman Award is chosen by the North Carolina Speculative Fiction Foundation. This year’s jury selected Byrne’s novel from eight finalists, which had been narrowed down from nearly eighty eligible books.
Byrne’s acceptance remarks reflect the spirit of the North Carolina writing community, which she would soon be leaving (but which we at NCLR remind her, she will always be a part of):
Receiving this award is especially poignant right now, for reasons I will try to get through without crying. As it turns out, I’m leaving North Carolina at the end of this summer, seventeen years to the day when I first moved here, with the express intention of becoming a science fiction writer. I think I did it! But I could only do it because, as soon as I arrived, I realized I was surrounded by circles upon circles of people who cared. Who believed, not only that a community was incomplete without art, but that artists were the lifeblood of a community. And who put their love and time and resources
and money toward that belief. Who gave me, and so many others, firm ground to stand on and bright skies to reach for.
I feel very clear on the fact that I wouldn’t have been able to become the artist I am, if I’d moved to New York or Los Angeles, instead. And though North Carolina has changed since I moved here, and is continuing to, I will always be grateful to her communities – including this one – for welcoming me for so many years. In six weeks I’ll be taking to the road, indefinitely. Some might say I’m subscribing to my own invented religion (hopefully with a better track record than some other science fiction authors).
But a part of me will always live here, on this coast, in these forests, and these mountains. A part of me will never leave.
Thank you for this award. Thank you for having me. And may North Carolina always be a home for artists. n
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COURTESY OF MONIA BYRNE
Still More Reviews and Honors
by Margaret D. Bauer, Editor
In this section, you’ll read a second installment of Emily Dunlap Carter’s creative nonfiction piece, selected for second place in the 2021 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize contest. Read the first installment in the 2022 Winter issue of NCLR Online. The 2021 winning essay appeared in the print issue, which came out over the summer, and it is not too late to purchase a copy from UNC Press.
Not only has an additional issue allowed us to publish more of the finalists in our contests, as you saw in the previous section, but also we are publishing more reviews, which we are now releasing weekly via social media and our new website, as well as in these issues. In this section, we publish reviews of books by writers we’ve featured before: Heather Bell Adams and Robert Wallace, both of whom have been Doris Betts Fiction Prize winners; Jeffery Beam, whose poetry and essays have appeared in previous issues; David Sedaris, who shared one of his essays when we produced a CD of humorous readings to complement our 2008 issue; and Judy Goldman, who has had several books reviewed in our pages previously. And while Megan Goldin is a new writer to our pages, her new mystery “flashes back” to our 2018 issue, which featured North Carolina On the Map and in the News.
And congratulations to Monica Byrne for her recent honor: once a North Carolina writer, always a North Carolina writer, I say to her, noting that she announced in her acceptance remarks that she is leaving the Old North State for new adventures abroad. As she points out, the writing community here is supportive – a big family, I might suggest. And just because someone leaves the nest doesn’t mean they are out of the family. So we hope she will submit her writing – perhaps about her adventures – to our contests. n
Echoes of Past Issues FLASHBACKS:
84 Monica Byrne Receives 2022 Manly Wade Wellman Award
86 Sandspurs and Briars, II an essay by Emily Dunlap Carter
90 Coping and Connection: The Ever-Present Struggle a review by Dennis R. Turner, Jr. n Robert Wallace, As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea
94 Secrets and Friendship a review by Megan Smith n Heather Bell Adams, The Good Luck Stone
96 Sound and Sense Take Flight a review by Lorraine Hale Robinson n Jeffery Beam, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements
100 A Study of the Human Animal a review by Timothy K. Nixon n David Sedaris, The Best of Me
102 Memoir in Search of Understanding a review by Josephine Humphreys n Judy Goldman, Child
106 North Carolina on Trial and Readers in the Jury Box a review by Jenn Brandt n Megan Goldin, The Night Swim
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE
6 n Teachers Who Write, Writers Who Teach poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, book reviews, and literary news
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SECOND PLACE, 2021 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE
BY EMILY DUNLAP CARTER with photographs from the author
BSandspurs and Briars, II
Paper Sacks and Baby Jesus
I grew up in Bethlehem Baptist Church. I shared a nursery crib with the Harris twins, hunted for Easter eggs among the sandspurs, memorized Bible verses, and sang “Jesus loves Me, this I know.”
Miss Leona made Rice Krispy treats, which she passed around to us after our Sunday school lesson. The letters of Paul and trials of Abraham pale in excitement to that sticky, crunchy deliciousness. She made you extra on your birthday.
Bethlehem was established in 1834 by Noah Richardson, who served as the first pastor. When I was young, I thought it was the ark and flood Noah, but at seven, everyone over thirty seems to be aged of Biblical proportions.
The original church burned in 1977. Something malfunctioned in the furnace one Saturday night and those fat pine boards of the 1800s cooked hot and fast. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The word came around to our farm that the church had burned, and we went, just as we would have any other Sunday. The men, transformed in one incident into fire marshals and crime scene investigators, stood around smoking cigarettes. The women fidgeted, sad in their skin, a sense of forsakenness on their faces. My mama cried.
EMILY DUNLAP CARTER is a lifelong North Carolinian. She grew up in the Sandhills, went to Appalachian State University, and currently lives in Beaufort with her husband, John. She is a board member of The Writers’ Exchange and a contributor to Haunted Waters Press. Read more sketches from “Sandspurs and Briars” in the winter issue of NCLR Online 2022.
When I think about Bethlehem now, I envision the church that was resurrected after the fire, but when I smell grape Kool-Aid, I’m transported into that old structure’s basement where the coldest, purple beverage was served from a silver dipper during August Bible School. It was at the old church that I swung patent leather shoes from a wooden pew, snug between my parents or beside my Granny. Mostly I was thinking about fried chicken and hot biscuits that would be our lunch. Granny sometimes gave me half a stick of Doublemint to quiet my feet.
Final judge Michael Parker selected Carter’s “Sandspurs and Briars” for second place, describing it as “vignettes assembled . . . from the wispiest of memory or detail . . . developed, without evident exertion, and with great economy, into nuanced observations about family, time, memory, landscape and language.” Parker remarks that Carter “has brought the world, lively and flawed, to us.” Read more sketches from “Sandspurs and Briars” in the previous issue of NCLR Online 2022.
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Preaching started at eleven o’clock and usually lasted an hour, unless the man of the Lord sensed the impending return of our Savior and got wound up hearing himself ramble, or we had special music, or the Holy Spirit lingered, coaxing another verse of “Just as I Am.”
“Oh, won’t you come,” said the sweaty minister. A restless wind blew in around 12:10, and it was time to release the sinners, the saving to be continued at Wednesday night prayer meeting.
I did it all. I walked the aisle. I got Baptized. I rededicated my life. I felt joy and guilt and shame and happiness. My religion is entangled into who I am, and some days it fits well and others it’s itchy and uncomfortable.
I tell people that I’m a recovering Baptist. I’m joking in a way that most of us kid around, with the truth being a sizeable percentage of the humor. I’m grateful for my Baptist upbringing, even with the hellfire and brimstone. It gave me a foundation for scripture and hymns, and I do love a good Baptist funeral.
I liken my religion now to windshield wipers. I’m sure glad to have faith when life pours on me. Most of the time, I’m set to intermittent, washed clean at intervals, redeemed in the blood of the Lamb. One of the things I have come to know about myself is that spirituality, faith, religion, and God are all part of my engine. The outward practice is random and the internal is without ceasing. My Maker and me, we are just fine.
Like many small, country churches, there were scandals, conflicts, and splits. There was a fist fight on the steps and rumbles of adultery in the choir loft. People left to form other churches. It wasn’t perfect and preachers came and went, such is the way with the Baptists.
I get nostalgic for Bethlehem in December. There was one thing that Bethlehem got right and that was Christmas. Remembering the decorations alone makes me smile. The communion table was
wrapped in magnolia and holly from the yards of the congregation. There were strands of colored lights and a cardboard sleigh.
The Christmas pageant was performed by adults. Tobacco farmers and mill workers renovated themselves into Joseph, innkeepers, and wise men. If you were pregnant in the winter, you were going to be cast as Mary. If you delivered before the third Sunday in December, go ahead and swaddle that newborn because there’s nothing like a live baby Jesus to jazz up the grand finale of the nativity scene.
The play climaxed with the angel rising up from the baptismal pool, glowing in white with a gold tinsel halo. Oh, my heart. Along with the angel, we sang “Joy to the World” and a medley of Christmas carols that Miss Irene banged out on the piano, along with such secular favorites including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Sometimes Santa came in at the end and crooned along. It was pure magic.
As we left the performance, the Hannon family gave every man, woman, and child a Christmas goody sack. It was a paper lunch bag, stuffed, folded, and stapled with care. Waiting inside was an orange, an apple, a couple of pecans, a Hershey’s kiss, and a peppermint. I will never forget those Christmas sacks, a reminder of a simple blessing through action and love.
The Hannon family farm was a few miles from ours. Grown brothers and sisters lived there together, continuing to care for one another until old age and death.
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I liken my religion now to windshield wipers. I’m sure glad to have faith when life pours on me. Most of the time, I’m set to intermittent, washed clean at intervals, redeemed in the blood of the Lamb.
There were eleven children born to Charles Thomas Hannon and his wife, Louisa. Influenza passed through the community in March of 1925, killing the parents and four of the children in the span of ten days. After that intense loss and sadness, the remaining Hannons served one another and our little church in many ways.
This twisted tribute is about a place I call home, a place where Jesus and Santa were friends; where grown-ups sewed costumes, learned scripts, and carried hand-hewn sticks for shepherd’s hooks; where an angel rose up from the depths of a baptistry; where ordinary people looked together toward a star shining in the east. And for a season, the world was centered around a place called Bethlehem.
Wednesday was mop day. My mom put us kids outside like Dino the dog on the Flintstones, then latched the screen door. We would be permitted back inside when the floors dried. Perhaps it was the North Carolina humidity or the specific brand of Mop & Glo, but there were days that drying was prolonged. We rattled the door, yet she was unphased by our requests for the potty or our overdramatized cries of being near death from thirst. She was alone in the small brick house that was usually thick with five kids and my dad. Factoring the square footage of the home I grew up in, per human would be about the size of a two-person tent. My mom held the sacred space of self-sanctuary for about an hour every hump day.
BI hated this. It wasn’t that I was all up in her grill twenty-four, seven. We often played for hours in the woods, damming the creek and simulating military battles, then summoned home by her
adamant bugling of the car horn. It was that she was my mom and I wanted an unlimited access pass to her. What was she doing in there without me? Why had she locked the door? I didn’t care that my siblings were cast outside. I despised being excluded from her, and I wanted in on the Wednesday secrets she was keeping with her conspirators, mop and bucket.
I attempted all sorts of strategies to get Mom to let me in. I was being attacked by bees. I claimed to have what appeared to be a gunshot wound. I was foaming at the mouth, a sudden onset of rabies. The cows, chickens, and pigs were being abducted by aliens. There was a trumpeting in the sky signifying the apocalypse. She answered that I would probably live, that aliens were vegetarians, and that Jesus wouldn’t return to earth on a Wednesday. She would open the door when the floors had completed their drying cycle. Period.
It was Rural Route 2 in the 1970s, and we were lucky to secure three channels on a good weather day. She wasn’t binging on Netflix or pinning on Pinterest. When pressed about what else she was doing during her Wednesday alone time, because I was a pressy kind of kid, Mom said, “I was resting.”
I narrowed my brain around this idea. Although my mom taught and modeled one of the best work ethics and healthiest lives I have ever witnessed, this resting behavior was sketchy.
I dig movement. Every personality inventory or assessment I have ever taken maxes me out on the action side. It’s how I’m wired. I make lists of things I’m going to do during meditation. Shavasana brings me sleep or an intense staring
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My mom held the sacred space of self-sanctuary for about an hour every hump day.
Bat the ceiling, silently chanting, “When will this be over?” among an alleluia chorus of hardcore in- and exhalers. As though rushing the rest phase might somehow super-infuse the zen.
In addition to movement, I also appreciate a good measuring. I track the miles that I run, cycle, walk, and paddle. It’s not that I’m in some big life competition, but if there ever is one, I’m prepared. I have a passionate love affair with the Garmin Forerunner data demon that I wear on my wrist. It tracks my steps and breathing and heart rate. We used to be one. Since our recent quarrel, things have turned a little rocky.
It all started when I added a few extra miles on a Tuesday run and slowed my pace a little. In my defense, it was cold and rainy and at least I was out there getting it done. When I finished and looked at my results, Garmin called me (and this hurt) unproductive. I am a lot of things, but I am not unproductive. The nerve.
I considered going back to my Apple Watch. It never resorted to name calling, but I’m a forgiving soul. Well, I was, until the following Saturday, when Garmin called me – hold on –sniffle – Garmin called me, overreaching. When I clicked on the support data, there was some blahblah about my training level being too high: “Your body needs a rest.”
My sports activity tracking device is slinging insults about my performance and demanding that I rest. Hmmm.
My husband (also known as my Smokin’ Hot Love Biscuit) is a fan of a break. He likes a nap. He likes to sit in the boat and gaze at the water. He likes to rock on the porch and hold my hand. He totally gets the art of being.
Over the years, on airplanes headed to vacation destinations, SHLB has tried to negotiate late sleeping and lounging. I get twitchy thinking about all that empty space, all that down time, all that hiatus-ing. I’m a filler but I’m starting to consider how all that movement, measuring, and stacking might be disruptive to meaning. The manic and frantic are loud in their unproductive,
overreaching attempts to make noise and drown out what might show up in the silence. Filling –the drunk, obnoxious roommate of feeling. Recently, in a Man Cave harmonica jam session, SHLB demonstrated on his harp that the notes that bump against the quiet make the deepest kind of sound. The silence in between the blow, draw, and bend creates a space in the music, opening my ear canal to a river of hearing. And when I really hear, really listen, to both the notes and the silence, I’m compelled to become part of the song. This can’t be overexplained or overthought or overtaught, it’s an arrival when there’s room, the rests become a reverberation, hoisting the notes and holding them tight.
It reminds me of great speakers and artists and conversations that filled the void with a message while holding strong and steady in the space, expanding the experience.
If I sit on the charging station that rest provides and I’m open to the tranquil offerings of reflection, significance, and insight, perhaps the movement and the words and the notes ring truer. It’s a lesson that eluded me back in the day on Rural Route 2.
My mom has been resting in peace for almost fifteen years. In the space that has passed, the quiet hasn’t made her disappear or less relevant, it’s made her more poignant and real. I use the term “the rest” as though there’s something else –the rest of the story, the rest of the pie, the rest of the week. n
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COPING AND CONNECTION: THE EVERPRESENT STRUGGLE
a review by Dennis R. Turner, Jr.
Robert Wallace. As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea. Main Street Rag Publishing Company / Mint Hill Books, 2021.
Family, friendship, and romantic love are thought to be great comforts in life, and you are supposedly able to rely on them to help you through your problems. But what happens when they cannot? What do you, as a family member, friend, or lover, do when you see a loved one slipping away and their pain, trauma, or inner turmoil is a mystery to you? What do you do when the things you carry set you off from those who love and care about you and you find more kinship amongst strangers and casual acquaintances?
Though characters and circumstances change from story to story, the inhabitants of Robert Wallace’s new short story collection, As Breaks the Wave
Upon the Sea, all struggle with feelings of emotional isolation and estrangement, of being set adrift. They yearn to reach out, and Wallace relates their struggles and inner turmoil with empathy and sensitivity.
DENNIS R. TURNER, JR., is from Oak City, NC, and earned his BA and MA in English from East Carolina University. While teaching in his alma mater’s English Department, he served as Submissions Assistant for NCLR. He now teaches at Pitt Community College in Greenville, NC.
ROBERT WALLACE is a recipient of an Emerging Artist grant from the Durham Arts Council and a Writer’s Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council. He has published fiction in the Bryant Literary Review , the Raleigh News & Observer , International Journal of Comparative Literature and Translation Studies , and the anthology Racing Home: New Short Stories by Award Winning North Carolina Writers. He has critiqued manuscripts for the North Carolina Writers’ Network for the past twenty years and is a two-time winner of the Doris Betts Fiction Prize. Wallace’s novel, A Hold on Time, was published by Paper Journey Press (2007). He lives in Durham, NC.
The characters in Wallace’s story collection all struggle emotionally and psychologically in some way. In “The Science of Air,” a young girl has a very close relationship with her orchard farmer father but wrestles with the enigma that is her depressed mother, whose long-ago pain and loss has rendered her almost unknowable to her daughter.1 At one point, the daughter enters her mother’s room, where she is reading to a visiting cousin, and the meeting is described thusly: “My mother doesn’t respond to me. Her face
is blank, her lips sealed in secret like the Mona Lisa. . . . I lift my mother’s arm and begin stroking her palm. She turns her head to look at me, but the expression on her face doesn’t change. She is almost as unmoving as drying cement” (5). Later, she recalls an incident that symbolizes the gulf between them, despite their blood relation: “When my mother gave the photograph to me, she had a smirk on her face. I remember it as a smirk because her face was twisted to one side; it seemed to be telling me this is the real me. When I reached for the photo, she held it for an instant, and, failing to release it, we stood there separate yet tethered” (12). Wallace shows that even blood relatives can be hard to fathom, for we do not always know the back pages to their personal stories.
Likewise, in the book’s title story, a young wife feels like an outsider looking in as she watches her Iraq War veteran husband become increasingly closed off and struggle with civilian life while keeping his war-time traumas bottled up inside.2 She explains, “I hold his hand steady. All the while it trembles and pulls, grief stricken with something” (15). Meanwhile, Wallace also shows what the husband’s inner life is like now that he is stateside: “Some days I fritter away the hours by doodling page after page of musings about nothing at all. I sit in my chair holding pen and paper like an author on some kind of drug. This is something
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1 Both “The Science of Air” and “As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea,” discussed next, received the Doris Betts Fiction Prize and appeared in NCLR (2018 and 2011, respectively).
2 Brian Glover discusses this story in his essay, “Hitting Home with the New Story Project: Teaching with the North Carolina Literary Review in North Carolina,” published in NCLR Online 2016
I often write: How often do I think of my buddy? I never stop thinking of him. He moves in my mind like a permanent thought” (18). As the story progresses, this chasm between them grows and he acts out in more perplexing, frustrating ways.
Elsewhere, in “Taking Bright Home,” Ava, an older woman on a seemingly mundane trip with her husband Wally from Michigan to Chapel Hill, NC, to see family, tries to come to grips with her husband’s encroaching mental decline and is confused by his bond with a teenage hitchhiker they have picked up along the way. Toward the beginning of the story, she explains her befuddlement with her husband’s behavior: “The change I have been noticing in my husband mostly seemed to be in the area of judgment. One incident by itself could be put off as a momentary lapse, but the tractor mishap, the full
price paid for the Explorer, and now picking up a hitchhiker . . . added up to much more than a coincidence. But what it added up to I couldn’t say” (23). Her frustration and alarm grow as a quick stop to drop the boy off at a trailer park in West Virginia turns into an afternoon with the boy’s mother while the boy and her husband frolic about together. In one passage she remembers, “Last night Wally and I had walked in the fields as if it would be for the last time. I’d felt a pulling in my chest as I held his hand” (33). She feels increasingly cut off from him. The theme of emotional estrangement from those who are closest to us continues throughout. In a pandemic- and civil war-torn dystopian America of “We Who Were Living Are Now Dying,” a young man’s relationship with his girlfriend unravels when she comes home from the war with another soldier girl
in tow. The story is told from his girlfriend Jennifer’s perspective, who explains her boyfriend’s reaction when she first arrives home with her friend Ariel: “We began smoking cigarettes, and Ray looked at me like he didn’t know me any longer, like I came back from the war a different person” (83–84). Later, she tells Ray that she and Ariel want to take a little road trip, to which Ray replies, “I don’t understand… Are you gay?” (86). Three is ultimately a crowd and Ray fails to understand why he is the odd man out. His anxiety over the growing gulf between himself and Jennifer manifests itself in suspicion and homophobia.
In “Big Daddy’s,” a young woman in a couple recently transferred from Michigan to Roxboro, NC, watches her boyfriend lose interest in the relationship just as they are building a life together, even as she has given up a lot to follow his wishes. Early on, Anna ponders misgivings about the move south that she’s kept to herself: “She was beginning to wonder about the whole adventure. She knew that’s how Sam approached it. He was impulsive. The move down south, the renting of the house, all were his ideas” (43–44). While things appear good between them, her unexpressed second thoughts put a strain on the relationship. Wallace writes, “God she loved him, but she wondered if living in the boondocks was good for them” (51–52). Sam’s friendship with neighbor Clarence does not help
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ABOVE US Marines with 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, in northern Iraq
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROMAN LAZARUS
COURTESY OF DEFENSE VISUAL INFORMATION DISTRIBUTION SERVICE
bridge the gap between them either, as Wallace explains, “From that first visit they had become friends, and it seemed to Anna that Sam was spending most of his free time, when he wasn’t working on the house, with Clarence” (52). Sam and Clarence often go to local watering hole Big Daddy’s without her. After one particular night out with Clarence, during which Anna knows Sam did something he should not have but is not saying what, her frustration and dissatisfaction reach a breaking point: “They turned down Julian Cross Road, a gravel road, with finetoothed ridges in the middle that made the truck shake violently. Anna thought about putting the truck in neutral, and with one good kick the door would open wide, spilling Sam” (55). Their ensuing argument ultimately shreds the relationship, all due to unspoken resentments and diverging interests.
In “There’s Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” this idea of being connected and separated simultaneously continues. In the early days of the COVID pandemic, two elderly sisters, Clara and Kate, isolate together in a New York City high-rise apartment and find themselves both bound to and separated from each other in mutual grief and guilt over a past family tragedy, the death of their little brother when they were children. They are thrown together by aging and the state of the world, with strong feelings of guilt and resentment left unacknowledged between them. For instance, Clara recalls
a time decades ago when she tried to confront their pain, only to be shut down: “Her sister had looked at her with such hatred, as if she alone was to blame, though they were equally at fault. She tried not to take Kate’s words personally, but the sharpness of her sister’s tone made her feel that it was a mistake to have come home. . . . It was at that moment that she felt like she didn’t know her sister” (124). Now, in the midst of pandemic isolation, these old issues between them slowly bubble to the surface.
Through these stories, Wallace illustrates people’s struggles to stay moored to those they care about, even as the gulf continues to widen. However, not everything is struggle, despair, and loss in Wallace’s collection, and he does offer possibilities of hope, healing, and being understood, even if these opportunities do not always come in expected ways and forms. For instance, in “The
Science of Air,” the young girl does eventually break through to her mother after the mother goes missing during a depressive episode. As she makes childish airplane noises while searching for her mother in a barn, the mother says, “I want to play,” and the daughter describes her feelings as such: “I stand in the light, my arms outstretched, making the airplane sound. All I feel is air. It lifts me” (14). One gets the sense that healing can begin.
In the previously mentioned “Taking Bright Home,” though she initially puts up walls due to class differences, Ava ultimately finds comfort in the obese, palm-reading mother of the teenage hitchhiker she and her husband bring home during their road trip. At first, Ava is full of judgment of the woman’s appearance, home, and life: “I glanced at Angelica’s undulating stomachs, and then looked around the trailer. An odor of wetness permeated the air. A
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ABOVE Robert Wallace reading his 2010 Doris Betts Fiction Prize story “As Breaks the Waves Upon the Sea” at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, NC, 25 Jan. 2012 (hear on YouTube here)
COURTESY OF NCLR
sour stench, like mildew, filled my nostrils. Although I couldn’t see all the way into the kitchen, the trailer was small enough for me to view a leaking faucet” (28–29). Later, her judgment gradually melts away as Angelica reads her husband’s palm and gives him a message meant both to prepare him for what is ahead and to show Ava she understands the situation: “This is a different kind of trip. This is a trip of the spirit. A most different kind of experience altogether. You will meet others, some will travel with you. . . . And I see a lot of confusion. Or what I mean is, I don’t know” (38). Ava sees she has underestimated the perceptiveness of her hostess.
In “The River While Swelling,” a retirement-age coach for a traveling women’s baseball team is saddled with a player’s secret that she cannot tell her husband and, while struggling with this burden, is hit with the surprise of his own imploding marriage, eventually finding comfort and understanding through a chance encounter with another woman. Early on, during a trip to the hospital over an injury, Coach wonders why his pitcher needs him there: “Coach wanted to ask Grace why she didn’t want Flynn here. Or, for that matter, why she wanted him as opposed to one of the players. He felt a little uncomfortable being here with a woman, though he of course knew Grace well” (61). Later, upon finding out her secret, wrestling with it, and being dealt his own personal setback, he meets a forty-something, freespirited college teacher who
calls herself Pandora. Pandora becomes an emotional lifeline for him: “He felt that Pandora knew things, what things he couldn’t say, but he knew emptiness had suddenly overwhelmed him, seeping into his body like some kind of murky vapor. He waited for Pandora to say something, maybe give him some advice, or tell him it wasn’t his fault that his wife was leaving him, but she didn’t say anything. She handed him another energy bar” (79). They bond over baseball history, and after this night he is better able to carry on.
In the aforementioned “We Who Were Living Are Now Dying,” during a road trip to see pandemic monuments, Jennifer’s jealous, dejected boyfriend ultimately accepts that their relationship is ending after realizing that the bond between Jennifer and Ariel is not born out of romantic attraction but shared trauma and loss on the frontlines. Jennifer explains, “I looked at him then, and I saw something there that told me he understood. Not everything maybe. But he understood that everything was changed now between him and me. . . . He was saddened by it, but he understood that whatever we had together was now over, that compared to what Ariel and I now have, ours had never really amounted to much” (101). Sometimes experience forges a stronger bond than love, making strangers of those who once thought they knew you.
In “A Kayaker’s Guide to the Pungo River,” Winsome Pinnock,
a widower from the Triangle area who has recently moved to Belhaven, NC, and started channeling his grief over his wife’s cancer death into lonely kayak trips down the Pungo, has a series of encounters with Tia Ruiz, a young, quirky Latina woman with a fixation on stealing a seemingly abandoned boat. Winsome feels the need to save her from making such a bad decision, which ultimately helps him move beyond his grief. After the story reaches its climax, he has an epiphany: “And as he drove past town, he realized that he had been close to giving up, that his wife’s death had nearly suffocated the life out of him. He hadn’t realized how close he had been to giving up until he had given the kayak to Tia” (119). Even unlikely connections can be lifesavers. In these stories, Wallace illustrates how, if we allow ourselves to do so, there is great comfort in reaching out and being reached out to.
Throughout the eight short stories that comprise As Breaks the Wave Upon the Sea, Robert Wallace shows that, however desired and necessary they may be, human connections can become frayed, especially for those who withdraw inward in the face of trouble and pain; however, internalizing feelings or withdrawing is not the best way to handle those feelings. Even if you do not always feel like your loved ones can recognize your pain, Wallace’s stories show it is not the worst thing in the world to let them try or to find someone who can. n
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SECRETS AND FRIENDSHIP
a review by Megan Smith
Heather Bell Adams. The Good Luck Stone: A Novel. Haywire Books, 2020.
While Hendersonville, NC, native Heather Bell Adams set her debut novel, Maranatha Road (2017; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019), in contemporary Appalachia, she alternates the setting of The Good Luck Stone between World War II in the Pacific and modern Georgia and North Carolina. The novel also alternates between two female perspectives, exploring the lasting impact that decisions can have and the power of friendship throughout life’s trials.
they met, Penny bought matching jade brooches for the three of them, a sign of the friendship shared by “[t]he unbreakable three” (57). At this point, the island the three nurses were assigned to seemed far from the war, and the young women, still the carefree women they were before their war experiences, initially enjoyed their hours away from the hospital by sunbathing on the beautiful beaches of Manila Bay and dancing with American soldiers.
MEGAN SMITH , a native of Beaufort County, received bachelor’s degrees in History, English, and Classical Civilizations from East Carolina University in 2021. During her MA program at ECU, she is serving as Senior Editorial Assistant for NCLR
HEATHER BELL ADAMS’s writing has won the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award, the Carrie McCray Literary Award, and the James Still Fiction Prize, and has appeared in, among other literary magazines, Still, The Thomas Wolfe Review, Atticus Review, Broad River Review, and Pembroke Magazine
A lifelong North Carolinian, she works as a lawyer in Raleigh and serves as the 2022 Piedmont Laureate. Read her story, “The Virgin of Guadalupe’s Moon,” the winner of the 2021 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, in the 2022 print issue.
Adams opens the book with an introduction to Audrey, the ninety-year-old matriarch of the prominent Thorpe family in Savannah, GA. At an event exhibiting Filipino artifacts, Audrey remembers her time as a nurse during World War II, which prompts a journey to face the decisions she made during the war. While Audrey struggles to conceal the secret about her leaving the war – a secret that could cause dire consequences for her family – she is also trying to prove to her concerned granddaughter, Deanna, that she is capable of caring for herself, despite her worsening health. Deanna convinces Audrey to hire a caretaker. In Laurel, an unemployed mother struggling to find the means to pay for her son’s education, Audrey finds a confidant for her secret and an ally in her fight for independence.
Throughout the novel, Adams provides glimpses of Audrey’s life during World War II as she unfolds the story behind the secret that Audrey has hidden from everyone she loves. During the war, Audrey met Penny and Kat, and the three young nurses formed a bond that impacted the rest of their lives. Shortly after
Once the three nurses volunteered at Fort Stotsenburg, however, they witnessed the horrors of war as they were thrown into harrowing circumstances. While traveling with wounded soldiers, Audrey had to “[k]eep everyone calm and together” during a bomb raid threat (116), despite her own fear. And eventually, when the women were stationed on Corregidor, the island was captured by Japanese soldiers.
For a reason Audrey had to keep secret from those around her, their commander allowed her to escape. Her decision to leave threatened the bond she had with her friends, but she was too ashamed to admit the circumstances for decades to follow, until confronted with the possibility that her secret could cause an irreparable rift between herself and her granddaughter.
In modern Savannah, while under Laurel’s care, Audrey receives a letter from a woman who recognized her at the art exhibit because of a brooch she wore. Terrified that this woman would reveal her secret, Audrey travels to Wilmington to stop her. Knowing that Audrey’s abrupt decision to leave town
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without informing her granddaughter may result in Deanna’s decision to take away Audrey’s independence completely, Laurel follows Audrey to help her.
The journey to find Audrey also helps Laurel face her own trials. Laurel and her husband are struggling with their relationship after years of trying to have a second child. When Laurel starts working for Audrey, she believes that her husband has “given up. Not only on another baby, which would have been bad enough, but on her too” (273). Laurel’s adventure with Audrey gives her time to think about her relationship with her husband, and once she returns home, she gains the strength to talk to him about the goals each has for their life together. Through caring for Audrey, Laurel regains a sense of purpose. Like Audrey, she recognizes the importance of caring for one’s family. After seeing that Audrey’s life has taken a different, but fulfilling, path than
the one she planned for herself, Laurel realizes that her own path in life was not “what she’d imagined,” but “she’d somehow ended up in this abundant and sustaining place” (274).
Audrey’s life during the war also sheds light on historical events often neglected by providing an insightful and emotional look into the lives of nurses during World War II. Throughout her life, Audrey often wondered about what happened to her fellow nurses. After the war, she spent her life “collect[ing] newspaper interviews with nurses who were captured by the Japanese on Corregidor,” interviews in which former captives “described the claustrophobia, the pitiful rations, the constant bomb raid sirens” they had faced; yet throughout their captivity, the women “kept serving as nurses, caring for the wounded and sick internees” (223–24). Indeed, in an “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel, Adams provides
resources for more information about the nurses captured at Bataan and Corregidor. Often referred to as the “angels of Bataan and Corregidor,” these nurses from the American Army and Navy continued to care for the wounded throughout their captivity, and all seventyseven nurses were rescued after spending almost three years in captivity. The nurses hardly received any recognition following this event, but many modestly claimed “that they didn’t do anything extraordinary, they were just doing their jobs.”*
While it is not uncommon for war narratives to detail the bonds that soldiers form with each other, in her novel, Adams illustrates the bonds that nurses form during war and the dangers they face, providing a rare perspective on World War II. And throughout The Good Luck Stone, Adams illustrates the importance of friendship and the sacrifices that people make for those they love.
By offering different perspectives throughout the novel, Adams also examines the complexities of aging and the difficulties that people and their loved ones face as they age. Her characterization of Audrey depicts a strong woman who, while aware of her declining health, is unwilling to give up the independence that she has worked for throughout her life. And as Adams takes the reader on the journey of Audrey’s life, she illustrates the ways that friendships can transcend time and space and persist throughout generations. n
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* Kim Guise, “Nurse POWs: Angels of Bataan and Corregidor,” The National WWII Museum May 2021: web
PHOTOGRAPH BY U.S. ARMY
ABOVE a group of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor in Manila after their rescue from the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, 1945
SOUND AND SENSE TAKE FLIGHT
review by Lorraine Hale Robinson
Jeffery Beam. Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements . Paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Kin Press, 2019.
Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements is a rich collection of poetry, visual art, and music that transcends customary boundaries between aesthetic disciplines. In addition to the poetry by Jeffery Beam and the art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, the volume includes introductory headnotes from the writings of Lindsay Clarke and Joseph Campbell, a preface by Jeffery Beam, and essays by Sarah Parvin, MaryAnne Constantine, and Claire Pickard; biographies of Beam, Welsh artist Hicks-Jenkins, Constantine, Parvin, Pickard, and singer/song writer Mary Rocap; and a CD featuring Beam and Rocap. Designed by J.C. Mlozanowski, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements embraces the complementary art forms of painting, literature, and music.
reader to pause and fill in the blanks of meaning. To appreciate this artistic compendium, it helps to know that the artist Hicks-Jenkins’s father was deeply affected by the Welsh winter folk tradition of the Mari Lwyd (grey mare). Taken from house to house on the evenings between Christmas and Twelfth Night, the Mari Lwyd (the mare’s “skull” bedecked with streamers and greenery) accompanies mummers who seek admittance to houses they visit each year. Related to other traditions of Twelfth Night “misrule,” the beast creates chaos – and in the case of Hicks-Jenkins’s father –a shatteringly haunting and lasting fear.
LORRAINE HALE ROBINSON is Instructor Emerita at ECU 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.
JEFFERY BEAM is the author of numerous poetry collections. Until his retirement in 2011, the poet spent thirty-five years as a botanical librarian at UNC Chapel Hill. Read his poetry in NCLR 1995, 1996, and 1997.
CLIVE HICKS-JENKINS is a Welsh artist who started his career in the London theatre industry, but moved back to Wales in the 1980s to pursue his painting. His work has inspired everything from puppet shows to original music, and poetry.
The volume traces Beam’s hero’s Campbellian journey and examines the complex pilgrimage toward expanded self- and other-knowing. In some poems, Beam enlarges the reading experience with quotations from other writers (among them William Blake, Rainier Maria Rilke, and William Butler Yeats). The book is organized with images on verso pages and the related poems’ texts beginning on the recto page. The association of the book’s visual art with the printed texts of Beam’s poems is strongly reminiscent of graphic fantasy novels that connect conventional literary elements and images. Visually, the handsome volume has generous white space around the book’s images and texts, inviting the
The Beam/Hicks-Jenkins collaboration is the result of a densely layered process that combines visual art, theater, and literature in an almost Biblical catalogue of “begats” of inspiration, evidence of an exciting, synergistic relationship among the diverse art forms of Erato, Terpsichore, and Apollodorus. Early in the twentyfirst century, prompted by this Mari Lwyd tradition and by his father’s intense response to it, Clive Hicks-Jenkins exhibited a series of drawings entitled “The Mare’s Tale.” Those drawings led to a multimedia presentation, the Jordan Morley maquette (based on drawings inspired by and of dancer Morley), the Dark Movements Toy Theater, and eventually to Hicks-Jenkins’s “Dark Movements” exhibition of paintings that became a par-
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Art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins © 2015, as published in Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements © Jeffery Beam, Kin Press, 2019.
ticular stimulus for North Carolina poet Jeffery Beam. Clearly one of Beam’s muses is HicksJenkins’s visual art, and there is a palpable synergy between the images and the facing texts begetting an aggregate effect much larger than the sum of each individual element.
Hicks-Jenkins presents paintings of various imaginary maquettes, the visual components of which he deconstructs, distorts, reconfigures, and reassembles. The artist plays with images of almost mechanistic, stylized flowers, and the various paintings (or parts of them) accompany the Clarke and Campbell introductory texts, the author’s headnote, the title page, and the poem “Birth.” The toy theater image that accompanies the first poem, “Spectral Pegasus,” is deconstructed and reconstructed, and components of this painting are modified and kaleidoscopically reassembled throughout the volume until the iconic visual elements emerge newly reconfigured in the image accompanying the final poem, “Dark Movements,” creating a powerful sense of the circularity of time.
Hicks-Jenkins’s toy theaters remind us that all the world’s a stage, and the maquette pictured alongside “Spectral Pegasus” is the stage where Beam begins. The skeletal horse; the contorted proscenium; the misshapen castle, houses, and viaduct are a visual introduction to many of the collection’s themes. And it is in and about this “theater of wants and needs” (in
“Dark Movements”) that the poet will write so compellingly. Hicks-Jenkins sometimes paints in muted browns and greys and white, and there is a sense of “skiagraphia,” particularly in the image accompanying the poem “Region of Shrouds” with its delicate grey shadings. But in much of the artwork in the volume, HicksJenkins paints in powerful blues and reds, a visual contrast that arrests the viewer’s eye and draws the reader more deeply into both the image and its related text. The painter incorporates vivid red tulips, often associated with perfect love (as in Persian folk tradition) and, more significantly, with rebirth. But there is a kind of bitter irony here: many of Hicks-Jenkins’s dynamic images invoke Wales, with its historical ties to coal mining. The contorted physical structures depicted in the paintings are representative both of a societal macrocosm losing hold of its historic source of eco-
nomic stability and of a personal microcosm in the terrifying and permanently unsettling memories of the artist’s father.
In the poems, Beam expands on the visual artist’s leitmotifs and engenders new ones. Rooted in Western and Eastern traditions, Beam situates himself alongside other writers whose literary journeys bring them face to face with the “big” questions. Like Campbell’s hero, Beam’s poetic persona undergoes physical and psychological trials. Beam is both at the center of his writing and distanced from it: space is simultaneously “called Distance and Here” (in “The Quickening”), and the observer/participant reflexively pronounces, “I am the dream dreaming itself” (in “Birth”).
Beam’s word-play is varied and felicitous. Adapting Psalms 139:1, Beam gives the reader “Lwyd you searched and knew me” (in “Veil”). Echoing John Milton’s epic, Beam writes “Making Death forget himself and
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ABOVE Birth by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
sing / Paradise regained” (in “Pegasus”). A modern “makar,” Beam deploys a vigorous matrix of literary devices: alliteration, natural and aureate diction, and refrain-like repetitions. Beam creates a roundedness to the entire poetry sequence, beginning with “Spectral Pegasus,” the first poem and the first part of the volume’s title, and concluding with “Dark Movements,” the final poem and the latter part of the volume’s title.
Of the book’s sixteen poems, five have equine-related titles. And the book’s title invokes the classical winged white horse. In Celtic tradition, horses have been viewed as good luck “charms”; white horses have been regarded as sacred; and, whether aerial or not, horses have presented human beings with opportunities for greatly enlarged mobility. Beam treats his spectral Pegasus as a spirit animal, both companion and vehicle to other loci. But the horse also represents sexual prowess, and Beam’s equine allusions bring a powerful and direct eroticism to his poetry. Arising from the “theater of [human] wants [and] needs,” boundaries are blurred among the human, the animal, and the mythical: “always comes the beast” (“Dark Movements”; emphasis added) reminds us that “clear boundaries” between different entities may not be so clear and may even re-emerge circularly as union.
Beam’s clever, layered puns play with appositives as well as sound. In “Spectral Pegasus,” for example, “I rode that Night
Mare” and “Jockey me into other eternities.” In “I Turn the Corner of My Dream: Jordan Morley Maquette,” the poetic persona speaks first to the reader, “stitching you in Time,” and then allies the reader with the poetic voice: “The Lord-Maker stitching us in Time” (emphasis added). To read Beam is to hear resonations of the Aeolian harp of Englishlanguage poetic tradition.
Beam looks at and writes about both the “obverse” and the “reverse” of his myriad themes and archetypes exploiting the tension of contradiction. In Beam’s art, neither boundaries nor size are necessarily limitations: infinity can be contained in the infinitesimal (a theme echoing Tennyson’s “Flower in the Crannied Wall”). Everwidening circles of time and space (referenced in the William Blake headnote to Beam’s poem “Flowering Skin” and secondarily via the Blake headnote in “I live my life in widening circles”) start at a tiny point – within the
center of a flower – and expand outward to eternity. With his apt and elegant “I germinate” in “Meeting the Centaur: Horseman,” Beam again subtly reiterates the idea that the small can expand and grow. Beam’s writing creates a permeable scrim, allowing the reader to shift seamlessly between meanings and tantalizing the reader to consider whether verges are even real. In “Flowering Skin,” Beam refers to “Skin’s illusory boundary”; in “Meeting the Centaur: Horseman,” he implies a “spatial synchronicity,” asking, “Are you terrestrial or real or both.” Beam writes about selfperceived human limitations, quoting Blake in “Pegasus,” where the mental and physical prisons that people construct for themselves are Beam’s personal “mind-forged manacles” to be crushed.
Beam’s poetry omits conventional punctuation. Rather he uses varying line length, casing, italics, and occasional exclama-
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ABOVE Pegasus by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
tory marks to add emphasis and to shift and sharpen the reader’s focus. The general absence of punctuation allows ideas to pass freely from line to line and stimulates the reader’s imaginative participation in the creation of meaning. Like Blake, Beam reaches deep into the tension of juxtaposed “opposites” and propels movement forward. Beam asserts in “Pegasus” that “without contraries is no progression.”
Building on the idea of contraries is the catalog of pairings that Beam presents: spectral horse/dark movements, life/ death, seeming/actuality, waking/sleeping or dreaming, emptiness/fullness, and human/ animal – the latter specifically what Mary-Anne Constantine calls the “erotic proximities of man and beast.”1 Images double, redouble, and shift shapes. Beam’s concepts of time and space are numinously bent, contracted, and conflated. In “The Quickening,” “that which is . . . never becomes” and “that which always becomes . . . never is.” Like Allen Ginsberg’s “total animal soup of time,”2 in “Birth,” Beam pushes the reader into shifting “time zones” of past, present, and future – “I am Again and Then and Was and Ever” –and forces the contemplation that the fact of birth implies the inevitable and concomitant fact of death: “The starborn’s heart to genesis aroused / For deathless death the end of time and sleep” (“Dark Movements”). But the twenty-first century humanistic “consolatio” that Beam offers us is that “Every funeral
prophesies resurrection” and that “Liberty and Love” make “Death forget himself and sing” (“Pegasus”). Beam’s frequent use of the image of death as related to coitus is situated firmly in the long tradition of love poetry (especially that of the English Renaissance). The voice in Beam’s “Region of Shrouds” erotically demands, “Make me equine erect,” and in “Spectral Pegasus,” the “man-pole” shivers “into ribbons.”
The realities of modern Wales pervade “Flowering Skin” with the poem’s direct references to “coal-belching chimney[s] and sinister-steep wobbling roofs” and the traumatic memories of the artist’s father. But following the exorcism of traumatic memories, there is consolation and “wild beauty”: “No skull on a stick but majestic / Broken free.” Even in the face of terrible memories, there is the possibility of resolution, salvation. Beam “sings” of this triumph over fear and memory in “Pale Horse,” which is presented as a printed poem and sung by Beam and singer/musician Mary Rocap on the accompanying CD. “Pale Horse” revisits the idea that division is “an earthly dreaming” and that nature is “The Truth beyond all seeming.” Described by Beam (on the CD sleeve) as a “new ‘antique’ ballad,” the song is largely in the Aeolian mode with its haunting use of the sub-tonic on the first half of the tune. Then, at the end of each stanza, Rocap alters the sub-tonic to become a leading tone (a sound quite literally on the precipice of
melodic resolution), creating a more definitive resolution for the listener, and one that occurs in the traditional folk ballad canon.
Beam misses the mark on occasion when he overdoes the alliteration: “scissory scissors” and “stringless susurrant sinew” (“I Turn the Corner of My Dream”) or bends language to a point of excessive contortion: “Let me descend sleep into you” (“Pegasus”). And there is some editing inconsistency – for example the variant spellings of Monserrat Pratt and later Prat. But Beam achieves literary artistry in many more places, and his deft, nuanced diction makes the reading of the printed page a pleasure and the hearing of the readings on the accompanying CD a bonus: “And the wounds / the wounds / into April’s May have ruby ridden” (“Flowering Skin”); “Manes of Ardor Manes of Memory” (“Veil”); “ancient as the sea’s sweet syllables whispering the yew” (“Drift”); and my personal favorite, “the parapet of my previous life / The brief before” (“The Citadel”). Beam’s “sounds,” as well as his “sense” demonstrate a formidable ear for the music of poetry.
We all live on the narrow precipice of the past, Beam’s “brief before.” In the time of COVID, we are, perhaps, also on the narrow precipice of the present. As we pursue our own journeys into the future, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements by Jeffery Beam, with art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is a volume to take along and savor. n
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Allen Ginsburg, “Howl,” Howl, and Other Poems (City Lights Pocket Bookshop, 1956) 79.
1 Quoted from Constantine’s essay, “Dark Movements: Clive Hicks-Jenkins and the Return of the Mari Lwyd,” included in this volume (78).
A STUDY OF THE HUMAN ANIMAL
a review by Timothy K. Nixon
David Sedaris. The Best of Me. Little, Brown and Company, 2020.
TIMOTHY K. NIXON received his PhD in English from the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He is a Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Shepherd University and author of Selected Short Works by Klaus Mann (Peter Lang, 2016). His literary essays include one in NCLR 2021 on Randall Kenan’s short story “Cornsilk.”
Although born in New York, DAVID SEDARIS was raised in Raleigh, NC. The author rose to national prominence when his “Santaland Diaries” appeared on NPR in 1992. His latest book, A Carnival of Snackery (Little, Brown and Company, 2021), is a second installment of diary entries. His writing has been included in The Best American Travel Writing 2006 and 2010, and The Best American Essays 2010
OPPOSITE TOP The Sea Section, Emerald Isle, NC, referenced in David Sedaris’s “The Ship Shape”; hear the author read this essay on Mirth Carolina Laugh Tracks, a dual CD component, OPPOSITE BOTTOM, featuring art by Dwane Powell, released with NCLR’s 2008 humor issue (available for purchase from NCLR)
David Sedaris has certainly attained fame, celebrity, and recognition. He has appeared on numerous late-night talk shows, is adored by fans of public radio, and can be seen doing cooking segments on daytime TV with his sister, actress Amy Sedaris, even though he has admitted before that he cedes the kitchen almost entirely to his husband, Hugh. David Sedaris’s distinctive voice – slightly nasal, slightly lispy, what he himself describes as “high-pitched and girlish” (56) – is readily recognizable to listeners of This American Life, and his sold-out audiences in public venues are repeatedly shocked and amused by his swings from the profane to the philosophical, from the obscene to the astute. More than this notoriety, however, Sedaris has earned for himself the designation of an established American writer. His essay “Jesus Shaves” has been anthologized by W.W. Norton in its Introduction to Literature, placing his work in college classrooms across the US –no surer sign of having arrived, of having become canonical, exists.
It seems appropriate, then, for us to be presented with The Best of Me, a greatest hits collection if there ever was one. The Best of Me includes pieces extracted from almost all of Sedaris’s previous books, from Barrel Fever (1994) to Calypso (2018), and many of these pieces have also appeared in publications like Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. However, his published diary entries from Theft by Finding (2017) do not find their way into this collection. What we uncover in The Best of Me is a sampling of some of
the finest public writing Sedaris has authored. More than that, though, we are confronted with a career that has an obvious and notable through line: a study of the human animal.
Whether it is through careful curating or because of his body of work’s persistent focus, The Best of Me demonstrates emphatically that David Sedaris relishes placing Homo sapiens beneath the proverbial microscope. In the fictional pieces included in the collection, Sedaris attempts to inhabit the minds of people far removed from and even distasteful to the author himself. The collection opens with “Glen’s Homophobia Newsletter Vol. 3, No. 2.” The reader could be forgiven for assuming Sedaris would align himself with the narrator of that piece, given that they are both gay men with writerly ambitions. However, what becomes quickly apparent is the derision and disdain Sedaris feels for his narrator, someone he depicts as happily aggrieved, an individual enrobed in victimhood. Likewise, “Just a Quick E-mail” reveals the bitchy cattiness of a woman relishing her social, financial, and relationship successes, which come at the expense of her sister’s happiness and well-being. In these and other fictive pieces within the collection, Sedaris appears to be, not unlike James Baldwin, trying to see the world through the eyes of people who hold views he finds repugnant, albeit with more humor and irony than Baldwin ever employed.
Other works in The Best of Me also show Sedaris examining human subjects, trying to understand their motivations,
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BY SANDY CARAWAN, SANDY SHORES PHOTOGRAPHY
limits, and worldviews. He is not beyond laying himself out on the examination table so readers can observe these dissections. The account of his sister Tiffany’s suicide in “Now We Are Five” and his mother’s alcoholism in “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” are stunningly candid considerations of David Sedaris – the individual, the brother, the son – and are rife with pathos. Additional, more light-hearted essays in the collection demonstrate Sedaris’s willingness to be the butt of his own jokes, whether his awkward queerness is highlighted in accounts of his childhood in Raleigh, NC, or his neurotic quirkiness is foregrounded in anecdotes about his interactions with family and neighbors during his frequent trips to Emerald Isle, NC, as an adult. Furthermore, it is truly interesting to see how the reader is occasionally studied as well, as is the case in “Dog Days.” This brief sampling of doggerel proceeds from the infantile and silly – “Rags, the Shatwells’ Irish setter, / doubles as a paper shredder” (75) – to the indecent and disgusting. Rather than being somehow illsuited to this collection because of its wandering into experimen-
tal genres, however, this particular piece seems to be doing nothing more than testing the reader’s sense of humor and tolerance, as if Sedaris is repeatedly asking, “Okay, you’re still with me? Well, how about this?” Nevertheless, in all cases the works included in The Best of Me illustrate how Sedaris repeatedly places individuals – his characters, his readers, and himself –under a magnifying glass.
In addition to laughter, readers’ initial reactions to the individual pieces, not to mention the collection as a whole, will be a mixture of confusion and curiosity. Nothing seems to motivate Sedaris more than forwarding bizarre juxtapositions that take the reader a bit of time to understand. His essay “Laugh, Kookaburra” provides an especially useful example. In that piece, Sedaris considers family relationships and his connection to his siblings and parents, but it is all done through this seemingly random, somewhat unrelated account of a trip to Australia that included the experience of feeding a wild kookaburra strips of raw duck meat. The encounter with the bird, narrated in vivid, almost breathless detail,
captivates the reader, but it is a memory trigger for Sedaris as he recalls a spanking from his father and more recent tensions. These juxtapositions occur frequently and should lead the reader to contemplate whether they are non sequiturs or analogies or something else entirely.
In his introduction to The Best of Me, Sedaris reflects on his public writing. He says, “When I first started writing essays, they were about big, dramatic events, the sort you relate when you meet someone new and are trying to explain to them what made you the person you are. As I get older, I find myself writing about smaller and smaller things. As an exercise it’s much more difficult, and thus – for me, anyway – much more rewarding” (6–7). The emphasis on scale is significant here. Sedaris is talking about his scope and perspective; he is not referring to his subject. Although unstated, it becomes apparent to readers of The Best of Me that over the span of his career, the public writing David Sedaris has produced has engaged in a persistent, repeated study of the human animal: those around him, his readers, and the author himself. n
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MEMOIR IN SEARCH OF UNDERSTANDING
a review by Josephine
Judy Goldman. Child. University of South Carolina Press, 2022.
I’ve just finished reading Judy Goldman’s new book, Child, a memoir about her relationship with Mattie Culp, the black woman hired to care for Judy as a child in Rock Hill, SC, during the 1950s. I am deeply moved by this honest look at a complicated and important relationship, one I’ve often thought about.
JOSEPHINE HUMPHREYS is an American writer, born in Charleston, SC. She has four published novels, including Nowhere Else on Earth (Viking, 2000; reviewed in NCLR 2002), an historical novel featuring North Carolina’s Lumbee Robin Hood of the Civil War, Henry Berry Lowry. She also listened to and transcribed the life story of Ruthie Bolton, Gal, which Harcourt, Brace then published in 1994.
JUDY GOLDMAN is the author of now three 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.
The best memoir (okay, the kind of memoir I like best) is not simply a collection of the writer’s memories – not history, not autobiography, not a report. Instead, at its best, I think of memoir as belonging to the genre of mystery, with the memoirist as a kind of Agatha Christie sorting through available clues in search of understanding. First of all, what happened, exactly? And then, why? This is precisely what Judy Goldman asks in Child. I have never read a memoir that so intimately involves the reader in this sort of sleuthing. Let’s figure this out, Goldman seems to say, and we’re with her from the first sentence. We struggle with her through the developments that were hard to understand and the troubles that arose. We worry with her when she fears she may sound paternalistic. She invites us to share the writer’s secret doubts and hesitations and to help solve the mysteries.
It is that sense of investigation shared between writer and reader that makes Child a remarkable achievement. The mystery to be solved is one that many of us have known, especially those of us who are older Southern white women: the sur-
prising and abiding love we have felt for black women, especially those who were hired to raise us during the years of segregation and segregation’s aftermath. This love is not a new thing. You can find it even occasionally in slavery times. Calling it “love” is clearly irrational, contradictory, self-serving, and yet, weirdly, somehow true.
Although I’m definitely an “older Southern white woman,” I never had the kind of experience with a nursemaid that Goldman describes. But I will remember forever an experience that had a similar effect on me. Riding a Charleston city bus when I was about seven, I was the only white person on board. In the back, a dozen black ladies sat together, headed home after working in downtown houses.
I had been told to call them women, not ladies, but that made no sense to me, like other things I didn’t understand. In this sixty percent black city, I had no substantial connections with black people, but I was aware. I knew about slavery and
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ABOVE Mattie Culp, circa 1944
COURTESY OF JUDY GOLDMAN
segregation and racism. And I knew those things were wrong. So I felt distinctly uncomfortable on that bus, and a little bit afraid. The black ladies surely hated me. Why would they not? I tried not to look their way, but when we turned north from Broad onto Meeting, approaching my stop, I had to walk back to the exit. The door was already open; all I needed to do was go down the three steps and then out onto the sidewalk and I’d be free. But something went terribly wrong.
I was so small that, when I started down the steps, the driver could no longer see me in his mirror. My head was below the level of his view, blocked by a metal partition. Just as I was about to step onto the sidewalk, he closed the door, thinking I’d already gotten off. The bus began to lurch forward. I panicked and burst into tears.
All of a sudden a cry went up from the ladies. “Stop the bus!” they yelled to the driver. “Stop the bus!” Two ladies jumped up from their seats and came to my side. “It’s all right, baby,” one said. “It’s all right.” The bus stopped, the door opened, I was released. They had saved my life. Well, of course that wasn’t exactly true. I probably would not have lost my life if I had missed my stop. But something had happened, some kind of truth had been shown to me, something clear and real and important. “It’s all right, baby.” I can still hear those words. I was, and am still, grateful. In a way, they did save my life. I loved them.
Ideally the best kind of memoir will have a certain looseness, some threads that need tying up, just as a mystery novel may not solve the entire mystery. A piece may be solved, a perpetrator named, motives explained, but always a sense of deep mystery remains, and that is the treasure of Goldman’s Child. As she works through her memories of the past and her love for Mattie, Goldman asks, and answers, a number of smaller mysteries. Why did Mattie leave her own child to go live with a white family and take care of someone else’s child? Why did Mattie not want Judy to go to church with her? But the larger and clearly more important mystery is the South itself, its divisions, its violence, its beauty and humor and religions and stories and contradictions. What are we to make of this place we love and inhabit? And what are we to make of ourselves?
Toward the end of Child, Goldman writes,
Can we trust anything inside the system we were brought up in? A system founded on, and still dependent on, oppression? Can I see the world as it really was, as it really is? And has it even changed that much? Black maids calming cranky white children in grocery store checkout lines. Hispanic nannies pushing white children in park swings. So many women, so many years, taking care of other women’s children. (134)
Her answer, to herself and to us, is this: “What I’ve finally come to: It is possible for love to co-exist with ugliness.”
I want everyone to read this book because it’s true, and it’s important. It’s a reminder that there has been love between us and there can be more.
Love can co-exist with ugliness, and then proceed to conquer it. n
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ABOVE Mattie Culp and the author, Thanksgiving, Charlotte, NC, 2000
COURTESY OF JUDY GOLDMAN
PUTTING NORTH CAROLINA ON TRIAL AND READERS IN THE JURY BOX
review by Jenn Brandt
Megan Goldin. The Night Swim: A Novel. St. Martin’s Press, 2020.
Megan Goldin’s The Night
Swim begins with an epigraph from Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and like Hardy’s tragic masterpiece, places gender, class, and sexual consent at the heart of its intrigue. Set in the present day, the novel tracks two parallel mysteries in the fictional North Carolina coastal town of Neapolis. At the center of it all is journalist Rachel Krall, who uncovers more than she bargained for while reporting on a sexual assault trial for her popular podcast, Guilty or Not Guilty Rachel travels to Neapolis to follow the trial of Scott Blair, a local college student and Olympic hopeful who has been accused of rape by a high school girl. The upcoming trial, and the media storm it has created, has divided this small North Carolina town, as both Scott and his accuser come from prominent Neapolis families.
trial especially fraught. Goldin uses the case, and the responses it elicits, to highlight the strong divisions and sexist beliefs that still exist around sexual assault as embodied by the attitudes of the town’s residents and audience reaction to Rachel’s podcast. Guilty or Not Guilty bills itself as “the podcast that puts you in the jury box” (25), and The Night Swim attempts to place readers in a similar position as the novel’s two mysteries unfold.
JENN BRANDT is an Associate Professor and Chair of Women’s Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her research explores the relationship between contemporary narratives of identity and institutional structures of inequality. She is the co-author of An Introduction to Popular Culture in the US: People, Politics, and Power (Bloomsbury, 2018). Her current book project explores the position of contemporary women writers with respect to the Internet, digital media, and other online platforms in response to the sexual politics of our present moment. Read her interview with Gwendolyn Parker in NCLR 2020.
MEGAN GOLDIN is the author of two previous novels, including The Escape Room (St. Martin’s Press, 2019), and has worked as a journalist for Reuters, the Associated Press, and other international media outlets. She currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.
Upon arriving in town, Rachel begins receiving mysterious letters from a woman named Hannah, who urges Rachel to help her investigate the death of her sister, Jenny, whose murder in Neapolis some twenty-five years prior had been ruled an accidental drowning. Told from both Rachel’s perspective in the present day and Hannah’s recollections from the past, the novel moves at a fast pace with both narratives complemented by “episodes” of Guilty or Not Guilty, which provide further details, context, and commentary on the Scott Blair trial. Local connections – and reputations –run deep in Neapolis, making the
While perhaps not quite as tense as Goldin’s previous novel, The Escape Room (2019), both the Hannah and Rachel chapters of The Night Swim quickly draw readers in and manage to work well together, rather than make for a disjointed reading experience. Like many contemporary psychological crime thrillers, The Night Swim contains multiple mysteries, issues of morality, and questionable narration (in the case of Hannah). Goldin, a former Reuters and AP journalist, draws on her experiences, as well as from real-world examples, such as the Brock Turner trial,* to lend an authentic feel to the novel. Similarly, playing off the success of Serial and other true-crime podcasts, the inclusion of Guilty or Not Guilty is an inventive way for Goldin to provide context for some of the novel’s broader themes, including objectivity and the media, America’s obsession with true crime, victim blaming, and the he said/she said dichotomy of sexual assault trials.
While the first season of Guilty or Not Guilty focused on a hus-
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* Brock Turner was convicted for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman at Stanford University in 2015.
band falsely convicted of murdering his wife and the second on a cold-case murder, Rachel decides to deviate from her traditional format for her third season and follow an active trial in real time, arguing that a rape trial is “topical, controversial, and had the potential to spark conversations at water coolers and dinner tables alike” (15). Just as a podcast directly addresses its audience, at times Guilty or Not Guilty seems like Goldin’s way of directly addressing readers, such as when Rachel tells her audience, “I want to make you think about how rape and the threat of rape affect the lives of women in a hundred different ways” (22) and “When it comes to rape, it seems to me ‘if only’ is used all the time. Never about the man. Nobody ever says ‘if only’ he hadn’t raped her. It’s always about the woman” (24). While the rape trope, in general, is an over-used narrative device, The Night Swim’s inclusion of the Guilty or Not Guilty podcast manages to help avoid a lot of the clichés that befall stories that carelessly use rape to advance the plot, although it should be noted, there are some gratuitous scenes and unrealistic details surrounding sexual assault in other areas of The Night Swim.
As the Scott Blair trial progresses throughout the novel, Guilty or Not Guilty covers some of the nuances of sexual assault trials, such as the burden of proof and the ethics of cross-examining accusers, especially when one is a minor.
Meanwhile, Rachel gets more and more drawn into Hannah’s correspondences and the mystery surrounding Jenny’s death, ultimately uncovering shocking connections that have implications for both of the novel’s mysteries. The Night Swim does a good job of tying up its loose ends by its conclusion, and the trial’s verdict seems fitting given the novel’s larger aims (although may leave some readers unsatisfied).
Despite being given only one brief mention at the end of the novel, of particular note is the importance of North Carolina as the setting for The Night Swim; indeed, during an episode of Guilty or Not Guilty, it is mentioned that the Scott Blair “case might not have met the legal definition of rape in North Carolina, which requires threats, such as the use of a deadly weapon, for a sexual assault to be deemed rape” in the state (333). Although it may be easy to overlook a small detail such as this, it speaks to a very large problem with rape laws in the United States, and North Carolina’s particularly egregious past with them. In 1993 North
Carolina was the last state to outlaw marital rape (although twelve states still have legal exceptions), and it wasn’t until 2019 that North Carolina’s Senate Bill 199 passed, closing the loophole that prevented someone from withdrawing consent once sexual intercourse was underway. SB 199 also changed the legal definition of “mentally incapacitated,” which previously stated that it was not a crime to have sex with someone who was incapacitated due to their own behavior, such as consuming alcohol or using drugs.
Given this context, North Carolina is an especially fitting backdrop for The Night Swim Just as sins of the past continue to haunt several Neapolis residents, North Carolina’s outdated laws serve as a reminder of how far we have – and have not – progressed as a country in our attitudes toward or our protections for sexual assault survivors. Through the fictional trial of Scott Blair and by putting readers in the jury box, The Night Swim reminds us that both the court of public opinion and our legal system remain damaged today. n
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PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE MARTIN;
COURTESY OF CAROLINA PUBLIC PRESS
RIGHT Governor Roy Cooper signing a package of Senate Bill 199 reforms, Greensboro, NC, 2019
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