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SYCAMORE REVIEW

WINTER/SPRING 2012 VOLUME 24, ISSUE 1 NONFICTION BY ROB NIXON FICTION BY CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS & SAMRAT UPADHYAY INTERVIEWS WITH NATASHA TRETHEWEY & DOROTHY ALLISON

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SYCAMORE REVIEW VOLUME 24, ISSUE 1 • PURDUE UNIVERSITY—WEST LAFAYETTE, IN

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SYCAMORE REVIEW congratulates the winners of the

2011 WABASH PRIZE for Poetry Final Judge: Louise Gl端ck Winner: Maya Jewell Zeller First Runner-Up: Carrie Causey Second Runner-Up: Michael Tyrell Third Runner-Up: Grace Marie Grafton Finalists: Terry Blackhawk Sage Cohen Geffrey Davis Rebecca Morgan Frank Jennifer Hancock Lauren Hilger Stephen Massimilla Matthew Minicucci

Brad Modlin Bern Mulvey Emilia Phillips Jonathan Rice Kristin Robertson Meredith Stricker Sara Talpos Greg Wrenn

Our thanks to everyone who submitted!

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Sycamore Review, a non-profit journal for the arts, was founded in 1988 and is published twice annually by Purdue University’s Department of English. Funding is provided by the Ann Griffith Lindsey Memorial Fund, the Purdue University Department of English and College of Liberal Arts, and sales and private contributions. Each year, Sycamore Review offers the Wabash Prizes for Poetry (Fall) and Fiction (Spring) with a new Wabash Prize for Nonfiction (Fall), each with a first prize of $1000. Sycamore Review publishes original poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, translations, and graphic art. Unsolicited manuscripts are read from August 1-March 31 each year. Manuscripts sent during the summer will be returned unread. All manuscripts must be submitted through our online submission manager at www.sycamorereview.com/submissions. For unsolicited printed work, Sycamore Review pays two contributor copies, and $50 per short story or non-fiction piece, or $25 per poem. All book reviews and interviews are solicited. For art submissons: please send a query letter describing your work to sycamore@purdue.edu.Visit our website for complete guidelines: www.sycamorereview.com. Print subscriptions are $16 (USD only, $18 international). for two issues per year. Sample copies are available for $9 each ($10). Back issues are available for $5 ($6). Digital subscriptions are $8 for two issues. Make checks payable to Sycamore Review. Indiana residents add 7% tax. Please address all correspondence to sycamore@purdue.edu or Sycamore Review, Purdue University, Department of English, 500 Oval Drive, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-2038. Copyright Š 2012 Purdue Research Foundation ISSN 74470-06375 Distributed by Ingram Periodicals, Inc. Indexed in The Index of American Periodical Verse, The American Humanities Index, EBSCO, Verse Daily, Poetry Daily, and POEM FINDER

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Editor-in-Chief

Book Review & Web Editor

Jessica Jacobs

Rebecah Pulsifer

Managing Editor

Audio Archives Editor

Adam Lefton

Natalie van Hoose

Poetry Editors

Audio Archives Assistant

Fiction Editor

Art Director

Jacob Sunderlin & Corey Van Landingham

Joseph Fitzpatrick

Conor Broughan

Asia Thomas

Assistant Fiction Editor

Web Master

Dallas Woodburn

Nonfiction Editors

Ehren Pflugfelder

Shavonne Clarke & Joshua Diamond

Interns

Visiting Writers Series Coordinator Lindsey Alexander

Asst. Director of Creative Writing Jessica Farquhar

Caitlin Jordan & Megan Sietsma

Editorial Assistants Lindsey Alexander, David Blomenberg, Rob Davidson, Alisha Karabinus, Rosalie Moffett, Ping Qiu, Sam Wager, A. E. Watkins

Readers Ashley Albrecht, Brian Beglin, Michael Campbell, Lauren Carpenter, Tiffany Chiang, Lisa Curtin, Jessica Farquhar, Melissa Fraterrigo, S. C. Gooch, Kristin Griffin, Matthew Kilbane, Matthew Kroll, Juan Meneses, Terrance Manning, Mark Mengel, Elizabeth Peterson, Kelsey Ronan, Matt Townsley, Sarah White

Advisory Board David Blakesley, Marianne Boruch, Patricia Henley, Bich Minh Nguyen, Donald Platt, Porter Shreve, Sharon Solwitz, Patricia Sullivan

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Patrons Patrons

Benefactors

Sara Ann & Douglas Lindsey Bich Minh Nguyen & Porter Shreve

Michael Manley

Donors

Friends

Marianne Boruch & David Dunlap Fairfield Manufacturing

Bar Barry Liquors Judy Rechberger

Sycamore Review is a non-profit journal of the arts. Pals (gifts of $5), Supporters ($25), Friends ($50), Donors ($100), Benefactors ($200) and Patrons ($300) are honored for one year. Donations are tax deductible. Please make checks payable to Purdue University, with “Sycamore Review� in the subject line.

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SYCAMORE REVIEW VOLUME 24, ISSUE 1

Poetry Wabash Poetry Prize Winners Maya Jewell Zeller Caterpillars (Winner of the 2011 Wabash Prize for Poetry) Carrie Causey Woman in the Wall (First Runner-Up) Emilia Phillips Latent Print: Ars Poetica Ari Banias Narrative Michael Tyrell The Primal Scene (Second Runner-Up) Landscape with a Burning City Alec Hershman The Black Ducks Michael Hurley Darwin Michael Martin Shea J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Open Letter to Japan Weston Cutter If Not River Kristin Robertson Moon Elegy Blue Herons

3 14 28 29 46 48 49 55 56 101 108 124 125

Fiction Claire Vaye Watkins Ian Stansel Samrat Upadhyay Gregory Spatz

Wish You Were Here The Tall Lake Grasses This is Radio Nepal Brace

16 59 110 126

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Nonfiction Rob Nixon Iza Wojciechowska

Baboon Your Heart Beats Fast Forever

50 102

Interviews Dissection and Other Kinds of Love: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey If You Can’t Find Work, Make Trouble: An Interview with Dorothy Allison

31 75

Art Kathleen Lolley

Wildflowers Stardust Night Spirits A Good Time to be Careful Can’t Let Go Nice to Meet You Bathing Beauty Don’t Bother the Crow Herd of Reindeer Misguided Arrow

Front Cover Back Cover 2 21 30 47 58 74 123 130

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Art Claire Michie

Asia Thomas

Ginkgo Leaves Fence Jaw Lake Grass Window Knitting Bicycle Caterrpillar

11 52 57 69 104 109 129 15

Book Reviews Ha Jin’s Najing Requiem Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things Joan Didion’s Blue Nights Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars Wayne Miller’s The City, Our City Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot

132 134 137 139 141 143

Editor’s Note Contributors

10 147

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Editor’s Note

A

conversation, in its most common form, involves two people who know each other sitting down in a familiar room. But as anyone who’s ever picked up a book and had it speak to her knows, conversations can also occur in which not even a single word is said aloud, in which two minds engage each other outside the immediacy of same time, same place. In this issue, the interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey (p. 32) and renowned writer and “gawd-damned Renaissance woman” Dorothy Allison (p. 75) have just such a conversation. Their words have been with me every time I’ve sat down to write and, though I had the good fortune to hear them in person, I have no doubt that even transcribed, their voices have the ability to transcend the page. Though each author is a woman and a Southerner and writes often from and about her own autobiography, they have traveled very different paths. Yet, both have arrived at the same truth: writers must be ruthless in the pursuit of their art. For Trethewey, this means a willingness to figuratively vivisect the people and ideas she loves most in order to write about them with perspicacity, authority, and grace. For Allison, this demands she “go where they don’t want you to go” and write about the things that will make people most uncomfortable—sometimes specifically because they will make people most uncomfortable, and thereby challenge their notions of the world. But if writing is so demanding and, as Dorothy Allison says, “just simply calls everything into question,” why do so many people persist in doing it? After reading, alongside tireless Poetry Co-Editors Jacob Sunderlin and Corey Van Landingham, the nearly six-hundred submissions we received for the 2011 Wabash Poetry Prize, it seems an answer to this question might be that people write to not only make life bearable but visible. So many of those poems captured people grappling with extremes: from heartbreak to terminal illness and, on the spectrum’s opposite end, loves new and old, in many desperate and wonderful guises. Reading them was a fascinating opportunity to see a cross-section of today’s literary body politic—of where each person’s ruthless pursuit of his own truths had taken him. Several of these poems are found in these pages, including Maya Jewell Zeller’s poem “Caterpillars” (p. 14), selected by Louise Glück as this year’s winner. But prose, too, in the words of Natasha Trethewey, can “shimmer with luminous sentences” and we have many fine pieces which prove that out. Claire Vaye Watkins’ “Wish You Were Here” (p. 16) follows a woman’s examination of the adulthood in which she is surprised to have found herself, while 10

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Ian Stansel’s “The Tall Lake Grasses” (p. 61) presents two teenagers pushing past the boundaries of adolescence while exploring the darkness that can sometimes accompany this journey. Our nonfiction offerings include Rob Nixon’s comic yet haunting “Baboon” (p. 50) about a childhood run-in with neighbors for whom a simple guard dog will not suffice. Both this piece and Iza Wojciechowska’s “Your Heart Beats Fast Forever” (p. 102) represent the increase we have seen in both the quantity and quality of our nonfiction submissions. Inspired by this, we have decided to expand the Wabash Prizes to include nonfiction for the first time. We are honored to have award-winning memoirist, essayist, and poet Mary Karr, author of bestselling memoirs The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit, as the judge for this inaugural prize (full announcement on p. 13). We welcome your nonfiction entries and look forward to discovering the new facets of the world they will bring to light. Your fabricated experiences are also welcomed for the 2012 Wabash Prize for Fiction, judged by Pushcart Award-winning writer Aimee Bender, author of the short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt and the novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (full announcement on p. 12). For now, though, I hope you’ll steal a moment away from your writing to enjoy the many corners of the world on offer in the following pages. —Jessica Jacobs Editor-in-Chief

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SYCAMORE REVIEW is now accepting entries for the

2012 WABASH PRIZE for FICTION First Prize: $1,000 Final Judge: Aimee Bender Deadline: March 1, 2012 All submissions will be considered for publication and read by at least two editors. For each, send one piece of fiction (or a series of related short-shorts) totaling no more than 10,000 words, accompanied by a $15 reading fee. The reading fee includes a year’s subscription, which will consist of a print copy of the prize issue and an electronic copy of the subsequent issue. Questions may be directed to sycamore@purdue.edu

Complete guidelines for submission can be found at www.sycamorereview.com

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SYCAMORE REVIEW is proud to announce the inaugural

2012 WABASH PRIZE for NONFICTION First Prize: $1,000 Final Judge: Mary Karr Deadline: October 1, 2012 All submissions will be considered for publication and read by at least two editors. For each, send one piece of nonfiction totaling no more than 10,000 words, accompanied by a $15 reading fee. The reading fee includes a year’s subscription, which will consist of a print copy of the prize issue and an electronic copy of the subsequent issue. Questions may be directed to sycamore@purdue.edu

Complete guidelines for submission can be found at www.sycamorereview.com

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Caterpillars Maya Jewell Zeller If you believe I was a girl once, you might also believe that just for fun I would collect caterpillars and keep them in an old fish tank I found under the boat house. I’m not sure it was a boat house. It was large, planked with long brown boards, their knots showing like closed eyes that could open any time. I was already afraid of eyes—those in my own face, and those in the faces of children who, when I walked to school, I could see from the other side of the street. They had shoes I had watched in windows. They had backpacks made of plastic, the kind with characters. They walked in groups and used words I didn’t know, words from movies and T.V. shows and popular music. The boat house was off the ground a couple of feet in case the waters came in, and below the floor the earth came up damp and mossy. I found a lot of things beneath it: a cat the fishermen had spray painted, bright pink streak down its back like skunk stripe or shame. Spools of gleaming thirty-pound line. A chipped china cup, its rim painted in crimson roses. The fish tank had a crack in one side, but it was not broken, so I took it home and kept it in the mud room, beneath the wall of coats and stacks of shoes. It was as close as our house could come to the darkness of a boat house. I liked how quiet the caterpillars were. I liked that I couldn’t see their eyes. I liked that they ate leaves down to the stick, as if they were so hungry they couldn’t hold back. And, of course, I liked what they could become if they lived long enough to become it. But they lived only a few days, munching on leaves I’d given them, their orange and black bodies making little Ns and Ms, horizontal Ls, sometimes curling into balls you could roll if you had an inclination to roll bodies. And they shit. They shit all over. At first I didn’t know what the tiny specks were—like 3-D freckles littering the tank bottom. But it began to stink like the underbelly of a boat house, a place where girls like me could hide and listen to the men swear. I liked the way they spoke, and I didn’t like it. They were saying things we all wanted to say.

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Asia Thomas

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Wish You Were Here Claire Vaye Watkins It begins with a man and a woman. They are young, but not so young as they would like. They fall in love. They marry. They conceive a child. They buy an adobe house in a small town where all the houses are adobe. The McDonald’s is adobe. The young man is named Carter. Carter often points to the adobe McDonald’s as proof of what a good decision they made in moving away from the city. The woman, Marin, is also glad they’ve moved here, but she misses her friends, and the constant sound of city traffic whispering like the sea. She feels this little town tries too hard. As soon as Carter and Marin learn they’ve conceived the child, they begin to argue about it. What will they feed it, what will they teach it, what of this world will they allow it to see? They fight about these things before the child is more than a wafer of cells. Before the child is anything, it is a catalyst for fights. All the fights are the same fight: Carter wants to be sure Marin will change for their child. She has irresponsible habits. She eats poorly. She never exercises. She is terrible with money. She smokes and watches too much TV and gets bored easily and antagonizes people at parties. Carter used to be fine with her habits. They were the things he once loved about her. Marin

points this out, many times. She asks who it is he thinks he married. A child changes things, he says. A child is sacrifice. This is inarguable, and eventually she gives up arguing it. Each day he has a new stream of questions about what kind of mother she will be. Does she plan on using disposable diapers? Of course not. Will she allow the child to watch television? Only in small amounts. No. No. Not at all. Will she use a microwave to heat the child’s food? Never. When he was a boy, he says, his family had a garden where they grew fresh fruits and vegetables. He’s told Marin about this garden, many times. The garden was monstrously fecund. His mother spent days and days in their basement, canning its yields. He wants to know, Will she garden? Will she can? Of course, she says. Why does she say this? She doesn’t know. She is not willing to can. When he was a boy, Carter says, his family never ate out. He and Marin are always eating out. Their refrigerator is crammed with wire-handled Chinese takeout boxes and containers of pasta with the lids pinched on and Styrofoam clamshells of crab cakes and vegetable quesadillas and leftover restaurant

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steaks wrapped in aluminum foil. Marin pretends to be apologetic about these—it’s just that they’re so busy, she says. But she likes eating out. She is comforted by the choreography of a restaurant. And she likes to bring the leftover steaks to bed and gnaw on them, cold, while she watches TV. Marin never cooks. For dinner, she likes to make herself cereal or cheese and crackers or half an English muffin with mayonnaise and a microwaved egg on top. This is another thing that will have to change. Carter never cooks either, but this is not something that will have to change. Carter has seven brothers and sisters and when he was a boy, he says, his mother made them all a healthy, hot meal, every single night. She never used a microwave. A memory Marin often excavates during their arguments: They’d been dating only three months when Carter asked her to meet his parents. It had just rained and the two of them were walking to the BART station, trading easy jokes about the terrible, bombastic movie they’d just seen. Carter stopped on the shining, still-wet sidewalk and took her hand. Come home with me, he said. She loved the urgency of the question, and how fearlessly he asked it. The next morning they drove from San

Francisco to Seattle, then continued north to a suburb of Seattle. It was his mother’s fiftieth birthday, and their visit was a surprise. When they arrived, Carter’s mother held Marin as though she were her own baby. His mother did not have a bank account, Marin learned. His mother did not have a driver’s license. She was cooking her own birthday dinner. In the kitchen, Marin wanted to seem helpful. She opened the door of the pantry to reveal a wall of hand-canned fruits and vegetables. The stained-glass colors of tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini, and green beans. Carrot spears, halved beets, apricots, rings of apple. Small shriveled pickles and relish and a row of homogeneous dun-colored jams. Pearl onions like eyeballs. In the pantry Marin said, I need some air. No one heard her. She walked to the tennis courts across the street and smoked just a tiny bit of a stale joint she kept in her compact. Small white moths flitted silently in the halos of the court lights, and she watched these until she felt a little better. She returned to the house and over dinner she saw quite clearly that she was attending the birthday celebration of a fifty-year-old woman who had never had an orgasm. On the long drive home, Marin sat 17

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silently with her anxieties, turning them over in her head. She had a tendency to be selfdestructive, she knew. Before Carter, her life had been a string of beautiful, aloof men with names like the four legs of a very sturdy table. Even now she had the urge to call one of them up and see if he still knew his way around her. She could pass a whole day inflaming the listlessness inside her with erotic fantasies of men who, for the most part, had been unkind to her. When was she going to grow up? She looked at Carter. He smiled, blearyeyed from the drive, and put his hand on the back of her neck. She was twenty-nine. He would be a good husband. A wonderful father. He loved her as though it had never occurred to him that he could feel otherwise. She wanted to be someone who deserved a love like that. She smiled back at him and cracked her window, feeling the stale air sucked from the rental car. She inhaled deeply, and when she exhaled she let her doubts slip out the window with her breath, littered them all along I-5. Six months later, in April, Marin and Carter were married beneath a copse of papery crabapple blossoms in Golden Gate Park. Carter had already found an impressive job in the progressive high desert town with the strict

zoning laws. A place to raise a child. They bought their first car and hitched it to their moving truck and towed it out of California. Every hundred miles or so Marin asked Carter to pull over, and when he did she opened the door of the U-Haul and vomited on the side of the road. They arrived in the adobe town and the questions began. Now Carter comes home from work and wants to know, what has she eaten today? Has she exercised? How much water has she drunk? What is her temperature? Did she nap? In what position did she sleep? I don’t want to talk about it, she sometimes says. We have to talk about it, he says. He’s right, she knows. They are going to have a child together. They have to talk about everything. They will always have to talk about everything. The baby grows inside her. Carter brings home fruit and leafy greens and obscure whole grains Marin has never heard of. Before bed— when once he would have touched her—he leans down and speaks to her midsection. He insists on massaging her neck and feet, which do not bother her, and the knots 18

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running along either side of her spine, which do. Under his hands Marin cannot help but return to his mother’s pantry. Everycolor walls of foodstuff close in around her. White moths flit around the watty bulb dangling from the ceiling. How briefly her life was her own. Then, when the child is born, something unexpected happens. Carter’s questions cease. Now the child has been here for eleven weeks and it is as though Carter’s points are moot. Or if not moot, then at least he does not raise them. She can tell he would like to—she can see their shadows traveling occasionally across his face—but he does not. Perhaps he finally loves her for who she is. Perhaps he sees that she is trying. Perhaps he is as tired as she is. The weeks since the child was born have been exhausting but rewarding, too. The child lifts its head. He smiles. He sleeps on his father’s chest. Marin takes photos. The child will want to see this someday. This weekend they are taking their first trip as a family, meeting up with married friends from the city to go camping at Lake Tahoe. On the plane the baby sleeps and Carter sleeps and in this peace Marin thinks for the first time how good it will feel to see these old friends from when they were young. She opens the in-flight magazine and there in the center spread are photos of the lake and

captions which compare its waters to precious gems. Emerald. Sapphire. Aquamarine. She can see them there on the white ring of shore. Val. Jake. Old friends from before the child. How she’s looked forward to sitting beside them on the shore of the largest alpine lake in North America. They meet their friends at the campsite. Val and Jake have children of their own. They also have a dog. The children are four and six. The dog is a reddish color, a copper retriever. The group goes down to the water: Carter and Marin, Val and Jake, the children, the infant, and the dog. The beach is rockier than Marin would have liked, but the water is clearer than she could have imagined. Val and Carter swim with the children. Carter makes a spirited effort to teach the boy the front crawl—It starts with a glide, he says. The glide is everything—but the boy loses interest. Marin sits with the baby on a blanket under an umbrella. The baby wears a hat. The dog runs wild wild wild. Runs like it’s never run in its whole dog life. Jake throws a tennis ball and the dog brings it back. The dog wants so bad it doesn’t know what it wants, and each time it returns Jake must wrest the ball from the folds of its wet black lipflesh. Jake throws the ball out into the water. He 19

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wears a baseball cap with white sweat lines creeping up the band. Once, the dog jumps up and knocks the bill of the hat, and Jake lifts it slightly to reposition it. Marin is shocked to see he’s lost most of the hair on the top of his head. His thick, sandyblond hair, once hearty as dune grass. She cannot imagine when this would have happened. Each time the dog emerges from the lake it shakes itself violently, spraying Marin and the baby with stinking dog water. Jake ought to do something about this but doesn’t. Marin tries to position the umbrella so as to protect the baby from both the dog and the sun, but the maneuver is impossible. She grows to hate the dog. The damn dog’s name is Mingus. In her head she calls it Dingus. In her head she says, Go away, Dingus. Dingus, go lay down. Bad Dingus. Down the beach, a young couple is lying wrapped together in a single towel, kissing. Dingus bounds up to them and begins to growl. Jake calls to the dog, ineffectually. Sorry, he calls down the beach. Poor kids, says Marin. They’re young, Jake says. Plenty of time for that. Marin scoffs and Jake turns to her. He nods to the baby in its hat and says, Been a while? Marin looks up at him, squinting. Too long, she says.

Carter and Jake had been on the diving team together in college. Of course, she ended up with Carter, years later. But it was Jake first. Marin can still remember the first time she saw him, in the backyard at a house party, standing barefoot in the moist grass, shifting his weight gently from one foot to the other. There was a crowd gathered around him. He rubbed his hands together and pursed his fine lips. His eyes met Marin’s for a moment; then he flung himself backward, landing sturdy and fantastic on his bare feet. His audience applauded, begging drunkenly for more as Jake slipped back into his shoes. By sunset the gang returns to camp. Jake and Carter walk to the store to get beer and marshmallows. Despite their considerable protests, the children are forced to stay behind. Val and Marin start dinner. The baby sleeps faceup on a blanket in the shade. The children throw rocks and bark chips at Dingus. They scream at each other constantly. Val does not seem to hear them. A snaky twilight settles over the lake basin. There is a smell of woodsmoke and the fires of adjacent campsites visible between the branchless trunks of pine. The men return. Hatless now and rosyheaded, Jake sets a twelve-pack of IPA on the picnic table, where Marin is shucking corn. Carter goes to the baby and lifts him 20

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from the blanket. Nearby, reddening charcoal biscuits throb in the campsite grill. Val sorts through the groceries the men brought. She turns to Jake, wagging a wet package of hot dogs at him. Why did you buy these? You like them, Jake says. Remember? We had them in Mammoth. You were surprised how much flavor could fit into such a skinny frank. But I have chicken, says Val, gesturing to a plastic bowl where breasts, legs, thighs, and wings have been marinating in blood-colored barbecue sauce. The boy says, Get over it, Mom. Chicken is old cabbage. Yeah, says the girl. Old cabbage. The boy says, She’s copying me. Val is a sport. She looks at Marin and shrugs. Old cabbage, she says. I don’t know where he got that. Marin has a beer with her frank. She catches Carter glancing at the beer from across the table. She has not had a drink in nearly a year. But she can tonight. Marin stopped breast-feeding a week ago. She was an underproducer. When the child was born she could pump just an ounce from the right breast, two from the left. Carter kept a chart. The pediatrician told her to drink more water. She did, constantly, but it was never enough.

The baby had to get fifty-one percent of his milk from the breast, Carter said. Fifty-one at least. Marin tried Mother’s Milk herbal tea. She tried blessed thistle. One fenugreek capsule a day. Two. Three. A prescription for Reglan. Still, she was expressing only three ounces on the right and two on the left. His word, expressing. Finally, they went to formula entirely. Another disappointment her husband has endured silently. Or silently until today. In the rental car on the drive up from Reno he asked whether she was experiencing any pain from stopping. Any pressure. No, she said. No, said Carter, thoughtfully. I guess you wouldn’t. After dinner the troop roasts marshmallows. The boy inevitably pokes his sister with his roasting stick. She cries and pouts and is not satisfied until Val puts him in time-out in the cabin of the RV. In the commotion of discipline and fairness, Marin retrieves another beer from the cooler. Carter fetches the diaper bag and mixes a bottle using the jug of distilled water he bought at the store. He feeds his son, burps him, and passes the child to Marin. She paces with him around the site, waiting for him to fall asleep. Val, Jake, and Carter sit in camp 21

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chairs near the fire. Jake smokes a cigar. The little girl—Sophie is her name—climbs into her mother’s lap and squirms there. She asks, What does that baby like? Val strokes her hair. I don’t know, bug. Why don’t you ask Marin? Who’s Marin? The baby’s mommy. The girl considers this and then takes leave of Val, scrambling into dusty stride with Marin. Marin? she says. What does your baby like? Marin considers the question. He likes milk, she says. And baths in the sink. And binkies. And toys? asks Sophie. And toys, says Marin. What does he do? Not much, really. Eats and sleeps, mostly. Poops. Marin thought this would make the girl laugh, but it doesn’t. Sophie considers the information thoughtfully, then says, Because he’s just a baby. That’s right. Can I hold him? Marin glances at Carter. He is watching them. Of course you can, says Marin. Marin directs Sophie to sit in her folding chair and extend her arms along her lap. She

lays the child in this cradle and rotates the girl’s hands at the wrist so they curl around the baby. There, she says. Just like that. Carter watches. Sophie is sternfaced and takes her responsibility seriously, though her feet swing a little, gleefully. Marin retrieves her beer from the mesh pouch of the chair. You’re good at that, she says, then immediately regrets it. The girl smiles a smile so wide it requires the active involvement of all her facial features. Christ, thinks Marin, what a thing to say. Just then, Sophie’s brother emerges from time-out. The boy processes the scene—the baby in his sister’s lap, all adult eyes on her— and says, No fair. I want to hold the baby. Sophie is pure joy. You can’t, Aidan, she says. I am. Aidan says, But— Carter stands. The baby has to go to sleep now, he says. It’s his bedtime. Marin scoops the child from Sophie’s lap and follows Carter to the RV. Inside, Carter tries to set up the Pack ’n Play they’ve brought—never playpen—so the baby can sleep there. Val and Jake have two tents, one for themselves and one for the children. It will be too cold for the baby to sleep outside, which is why Carter and Marin were offered the RV in the first place. But now it appears 22

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the Pack ’n Play is too wide, the space in the RV too narrow. Carter allows the halfexpanded structure to fall noisily to the floor. Now what are we supposed to do? he says. As though Marin designed the Pack ’n Play. As though she engineered the RV. She says, What about the bed? Carter considers the bed Val has folded out for them, converted from two bench seats and the dining table. Will he roll? he asks. How surprised Marin is to be asked this. How satisfying it feels that Carter does not have the answer. Of course the baby can’t roll. She wouldn’t have suggested putting him on the bed if he could. The baby is too young to roll. He won’t roll for weeks. The books say so. The pediatrician says so. He can reach his arms above his head and sometimes he sort of scissor-kicks his legs inside his sacklike pajamas, but he cannot roll. But the baby can roll. Once, she laid him on his back in the center of their bed back home, in the adobe house. He was asleep. Carter was at work. She hopped into the shower. She had to. She had a cheesy something behind her ears and in the creases of her knees. She washed her hair and used the lather from the shampoo to wash her body. She did not use conditioner. She did not shave. She kept the

bathroom door open. Five minutes, tops. She stepped out of the shower and looked into the bedroom and the baby was not where she’d left him. She ran to the bed, naked, dripping wet. Then she saw him. Half wedged beneath her own plump pillow. Still breathing. Thank God, still breathing. She lifted the pillow. Still breathing and still asleep. He must have rolled in his sleep. How true, she thought, once the panic began to recede, once the baby was laid safely in the Pack ’n Play, once she was dry and dressing. To be capable of a thing only in a dreamworld. This was two weeks ago, nearly. She never told Carter. No, she says now, shaking her head casually. He can’t roll. Okay, Carter says. He builds a barrier of pillows and sleeping bags at the edge of the bed. He swaddles the child and lays him on his back—always on his back—in the center of the bed. As Carter pulls the door of the RV quietly closed, he pauses with a hand still on the knob. Those pillows, says Carter. You sure he’ll be okay? The smell of Jake’s cigar has made its way to them. He’ll be fine, she says. He can’t roll. Outside, Jake and Val put the children to bed in their tent, finally, and the adults settle into the story world of old friends. Marin gets 23

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another beer. Bent over the cooler, she can feel the warmth of the fire on her back and her husband watching her. She won’t look to him. Not tonight. She won’t see his once-fine face drooped with disappointment. She will not, will not look to him. She feels as though she has been looking to him her entire life. Around the fire it is old times. Remember? they ask. Remember walking home through South Campus? Remember filling Sandy’s mailbox with crushed beer cans? Remember our illiterate landlord on the Strand? Remember that note he left us; oh, how did it end? They all say it together, roaring: I will not be tolerated. Jake brings out a pipe and a baggie from a cloth coin purse. He offers it to Carter. Carter says, No, thanks, man. Jake extends the pipe to Marin. Em? Em. He used to call her that. Marin takes it. What the hell? They smoke a bit, Marin, Val, and Jake. After some time, Marin exhales and says, Remember when we used to climb up on my roof and smoke? Jake smiles and says, Remember watching the fireworks from up there? Marin says, Remember Tarv? Christ, Tarv! Jake’s roommate. Tarv had gotten fuckedup and was doing a happy jig to celebrate

how fucked-up he’d gotten when he stomped through the rotted roof of Marin’s apartment building. Marin and Jake climbed down the ladder as fast as their laughter would allow them. They left Tarv wedged in the building, his leg dangling through a neighbor’s bedroom ceiling. Remember, remember, remember. What ever happened to Tarv? How did they turn out to be anyone other than who they were on that roof? There is a little stretch of quiet and in this they can hear the distant voices of other campers and the hoot of a night bird. On the ground at Jake’s feet Dingus runs a dream run, then whimpers, then is still. Val stands and announces she’s going to bed. Everyone tells her goodnight. Marin looks at Carter, the firelight making long shadows on his face. He ignores her. For a moment she cannot remember why. She grows afraid. He is staring into the fire and she looks at it too. Her husband will not even look at her. Why? Where is he? Marin tamps down her fear and goes to pee in the darkness. She can see stars while she’s peeing, and these stars remind her of the town they will return to. She realizes she has no one there and grows afraid again, out in the trees with her pants down. Once, early on, Marin took Carter to visit 24

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her hometown, the T of two state routes in the Mojave desert. They drove there and spent a night at the motel where she and her childhood friends used to jump the fence to swim in the kidney-shaped swimming pool. He was the first man she’d brought home in a very long time. Jake had not been interested in that sort of thing. That night, Marin and Carter swam in the pool, alone. He held her in the soft water and kissed her, the rough beginnings of his beard chafing against her neck and her jaw and her collarbone. When the pool lights turned off, he lifted her to the edge and untied the knot at the back of her neck. He took her nipples into his mouth, first one, then the other, and after he said, I’ve been wanting to do that all night. Then he pulled the crotch of her bathing suit to one side and fucked her like he hasn’t since. We used to play a game here, she told him, when they were finished. I forget what it was called. But the premise was this: Marco Polo without the calls. Someone was It and the rest of them would say nothing. The pool was small, but it hadn’t seemed so then. Back then it seemed extravagant. Of course, visiting with Carter she saw that it was the least the town could do. In the game, the It would have to feel where they were. No talking. No calling. Just old

friends in the too-warm water. There were times when the It would be right in front of you, and you would be holding your breath, and It would reach out and touch the lip of the pool instead of you. To get away you had to slip down into that silky chlorinated dream. How inadequate that felt, to It. To be so sure you were reaching for a friend. Someone who knew you. And to touch only concrete. The lip of a swimming pool. It ought to mean something. She has to get back. She finds a firelight in the night and makes her way to it, hoping it is theirs. Jake is there, alone. She sits beside him. Hey, she says. Hey, he says. Carter go to bed? Jake nods to the RV. Baby was crying, he said. You didn’t hear? I never do. Well. Jake stands. He laughs a little, to himself. What? she says, standing and stepping toward him. Remember when you pushed Miles into the fishpond? he says. At Corinne’s parents’. Remember? Marin nods. She remembers everything. She moves closer to Jake. She can smell cigar 25

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on him. She can see miniature reflections of the fire in his eyes. She can see herself underneath him. He provoked me, she says, and hooks her fingers in the waist of his shorts. Jake smiles and tilts his head to the right slightly, the way a curious bird might. Then he steps back, allowing her hands to fall from his waistband, shaking his head. He tosses something—a twig? a pine needle?—into the fire. My God, he says, kindly. What a nightmare you must be. Jake goes to bed and Marin sits in his chair and props her feet on the warm rocks near the fire. She puts her face in her hands. She lived alone once, for a year and a half, in the building where Tarv fell through the roof. Sometimes, in that aloneness, she did weird things. She walked around her apartment wearing a piece from a Halloween costume—a pair of white silk gloves, usually, or an eye patch— or as many pieces of jewelry as she could, or a bathing suit under her regular clothes. She took pieces of metal into her mouth to get a feel for them. A coin, a pin, an earring. In her bathroom mirror she flicked her eyeliner pencil twice on her upper lip to make the two tines of a dashing, charcoal-colored mustache. She would say words that she liked out loud. Pith. Coalesce. Dirigible. She wasn’t lonely. It

wasn’t that. She was the opposite of lonely. It has gotten late, somehow. Marin kicks dirt inadequately over the coals of the fire and goes to bed. In the RV she wedges herself on one side of the bed. Carter is on the other. Between them, the child. Eleven weeks old tomorrow. As long as Carter’s forearm. What does the child do? Lift his head. Reach. Speak in a tonguey language of all ls and os. Lie between them. On the drive to the airport this morning, the sun still not risen from the horizon, Carter said, quietly, This is not how I pictured things. There is so little room on this plank of bed. She can feel the bundle of child beside her. She is light with youth, with once-love, and also heavy with the disintegration of these. In this specific gravity she slides into sleep. She dreams she is wrestling with the copper retriever, groping in its mouth for the tennis ball. Grappling with Dingus on a rockless beach. Rolling through reeds. Greengray follicles succumbing in the wind. They tumble. She is up to her elbows in the warm, wet lining of Dingus’s dog cheeks. She is laughing, rolling over mounds of perfect hot white sand. In her sleep she says, What does your baby like? In her sleep she says, This is not how I pictured things. In her sleep she rolls on top of the child and suffocates him. 26

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She wakes, too terrified to scream, and begins to dig at the blankets. There are so many of them—hundreds. The soft, papery blankets of babies, the substantial bulky blankets of adults. They all smell of wet dog. Carter is there. Right there. He moans. Between them—somewhere—is the mass of her child. Their child.

Then her hands touch skin. A very small body. She feels it in the dark. Breathing. Alive. Yes, alive. She lifts the baby, not gently, and presses him to her. The child begins to cry. Carter sits up in the darkness. Where? he says, thick-tongued and sleepstruck. Not what. Not who. Where? Where are you?

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Woman in the Wall Carrie Causey I guess something had scared her. But she is only a story my brother tells me so I can’t sleep at night. He tells me, it’s my wall she’s in. The one behind my dresser mirror, so I don’t look too long at my reflection. When we hear the branches scraping the side of the house, he says, it’s her re-adjusting her crossed legs, or playing with the rats, or straightening her collections of God knows what. When I hear the walls crack at night, I have to pray, she’s not real, she’s not real, she’s not real and when that does not calm me, I go to my parent’s room and I am so quiet they don’t even know when I’ve slipped in and closed the door behind me, or when I’ve lifted one of the pillows from their feet. I sleep on the sheepskin by the bed; then the noises are as they should be. Dad’s snoring so loud it sounds like the whole house is a great ship in the middle of the ocean. Mom’s little sighs, like the raking of leaves.

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Latent Print: Ars Poetica Emilia Phillips Back between seats, to floorboard and fetal, to lie down in the open city atlas, and begin to think of the self as only those parts that break cover: reflection, whimper. The blue light’s agyre, a voice almost singing her dispatch: Calling all officers: Such is the engine: such the work that may be done with it, and there in the back of my father’s city-issue, I became nothing as a child knows nothing: absence from the knowledge of others, beyond smallness, to stay low as told, to do as the father says even as he leaves, gun drawn, and after a time, grow curious, to rise from hiding to see a figure approaching in the mirror: and then the mirror.

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Dissection and Other Kinds of Love An Interview with Natasha Trethewey Natasha Trethewey is the author of three collections of poetry: Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guard, for which she was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of a book of creative non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, her work has been awarded the Cave Canem inaugural poetry prize, and has been a finalist for both the Lenore Marshall and James Laughlin Awards. She has been a recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. Her fifth book, Thrall, is forthcoming in the fall of 2012. After reading from this new collection, Trethewey sat down with Sycamore Review’s Lindsey Alexander before a live audience at Purdue University in October 2011. Lindsey Alexander: So you just turned in your final edits of the Thrall manuscript, which is forthcoming in 2012. Since we were lucky enough to hear you read from it yesterday, I’d like to talk a little about that. In the section you read from last night, you talked about using the Mexican casta paintings as a starting off point for that manuscript. Can you explain a bit about how you found them, and what drew you to them or spoke to you? Natasha Trethewey: Well, that’s serendipity. I was at the Bellagio in 2004 finishing up Native Guard, and there was a Shakespeare scholar there who had been doing some work in a museum in England called Bravemoore House. Bravemoore House has a series of

the casta paintings by Juan Rodríguez Suárez. And just over the wonderful conversations you have with people at a residency like that, we started talking about our interests and she told me she thought I should look at these paintings—that they would interest me. And I immediately went to the website of the museum and looked them up. I was struck by not only how beautiful they were, but also how ethnographic they were. Because they presented all the different kinds of mixed blood unions that were taking place in the colony, on each painting a taxonomy was created to name the offspring of the union: so, de Español y Negra produced a mulatto. There were so many of them, so many variations, in what the children were supposed to look like,

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what their social status would have been based on economics or some things like that. And I just started writing about different ones. I was particularly drawn to the ones that were about the mulatto figure because I have a white parent and a black parent, and sort of looking into history at these configurations of my own family and how I am. Lindsey Alexander: It seems in your work, researching and creating poems around outside cultures and experience lead you to delve into your own personal life unexpectedly. In writing Native Guard, you began with researching the Louisiana Native Guards and ended up exploring your own relationship to your home and your relationship with your mother and her death. In Thrall, you began working with these paintings and have written intensely personal poems about your relationship with your father. What about working with these larger subjects do you feel gives you access to more personal ones? Natasha Trethewey: Well, I always think about Mark Doty saying that our metaphors go on ahead of us. I always approach looking at history by asking myself some historical question as a way of coming back around to myself. I figure if I ask the right question,

it will lead me somewhere that allows for this investigation of the self within the larger continuum of history. I don’t think it would be interesting just to navel gaze and focus on me all the time [laughter]. And, well, what’s important about me is how I fit in this larger continuum of history. I think that’s true of all of us. In both Native Guard and Thrall, as you mentioned, I started with a historical subject and a historical question. I wasn’t aware of what I was going toward; so it was very much a surprise when I ended up writing about my mother. That was a part of Native Guard. This was very surprising for me in Thrall, particularly writing a poem I read last night called “Knowledge,” which is about [a drawing of ] a nineteenth century dissection. As I was writing the poem, I was really just focusing on the image of that dissection because it was so strange to me. It was very, sort of, happy looking. The anatomist was opening up the woman’s chest like this [impersonates painting; audience laughs]. He has this crazy look on his face and he’s bright-eyed; so I just started writing about it. There was just something that disturbed me about it, and it’s about two-thirds or threequarters into that poem that it shifts and goes in a whole other direction. It’s at that moment I realize I’m interested in it because 32

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of the way she’s being dissected, or parsed. She’s being studied to determine something about an aspect of her character, the source of ideal female beauty. It made me think of ways I feel parsed by language, by the language of the taxonomies and the casta paintings, but also by even the language my father has used in poems, which is a very sort of parsing kind of language. I quote the line from a poem of his that reads, “I study my crossbreed child.” I’ve been hearing that poem my whole life, but not until that moment did I figure out why it’s always bothered me. It was both the idea of study, which is very Enlightenment thinking, and the idea of “crossbreed.”

different ways of knowing, different types of knowledge, like the Enlightenment, which has given us a kind of thinking about the codification of racial difference. So, in that way, it is about historical memory because it’s connected to how we understand, how we’ve been given across time and space ideas about race or racialized thinking—and sometimes we might even forget where they come from. They just seem natural. And they’ve been made natural across centuries of thinking about the knowledge people have produced around ideas of race and difference.

Lindsey Alexander: So with these more personalized poems, do you feel like writing Lindsey Alexander: You’ve said that writing from your own biography is generative or do this book—sort of picking up on what you you find that limiting? Do you feel an urge were talking about earlier, dealing with to censor yourself ever because it’s going to be history—was in many ways a departure from made public? your larger body of work thus far because it takes up race as your main subject. How does Natasha Trethewey: You know, the truth is I it concern historical memory and historical enjoy less writing about myself. When I was record and how does it break away from it? working on Native Guard, I felt like the elegies for my mother were deeply personal. Even Natasha Trethewey: Well, you know even when though I know the elegy is a form we’ve had I say that it’s me taking on race in a more direct for a long time and that people are interested way, I realize what I’m still taking on is not in it, I still couldn’t completely imagine even exactly that. It’s more about knowledge. anyone would be interested in these elegies, And knowledge, of course, is historical— in my own grief. Because that part felt deeply 33

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personal, I was much happier writing about history. It was the same in Thrall. I’m much happier when I’m not focusing on me or something that’s connected to me, so much that, in a project I have just forming in my mind right now for the next book of poems, I really don’t want to be in it that much at all. Yet, I’ve actually found readers tend to respond more to the poems that are about something deeply personal for me, or my own experience. So it’s a strange thing. I feel so uncomfortable, wishing I didn’t have to do it and, yet, it’s a thing people tend to like more. I was talking about this yesterday with Don [Platt]. One of the things I did in structuring Native Guard was to put the elegies first, so the readers would warm up to me, to this deeply personal thing I was talking about, and then be ready to see how it fit into history. My initial thought when I was putting that book together was to put the history section first— and that’s just kind of because I’m pedestrian and linear in certain ways [laughter] —saying I should start there and go there. But I figured out that was not the best way to do it. So I have a lot of anxiety about having to do something like that in order to make the history come alive in certain ways, and I’m not exactly doing that in Thrall. I’m beginning

with the history, so I’m not beginning with anything that should make you like me. Of course, I want you to like me [laughter]. Lindsey Alexander: So is Thrall structured then more with the original intent you had with Native Guard, as far as more linear chronologically? Natasha Trethewey: It still is circular; it doesn’t move. Well, it sort of moves, and then it goes back and moves, and circles back and moves, but for the most part it begins with history, except one poem. Lindsey Alexander: So you’ve dotted the last “i” and crossed the last “t” in Thrall. What was your revision process like for the book? Natasha Trethewey: I’ve been revising it all along and changing the order, and deciding to take things out, and writing new things that got put in it. But, in some ways, I feel like the revision process feels truncated to me somehow, and I’m just trying to go with it because I trust my editor. He told me I just needed to let it go and I’m not allowed to make anymore changes at this point. Even though it’s been six years in the making, it almost didn’t feel like enough time to me. Maybe 34

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that’s because it does feel so different than what I’ve done before. I mean even Native Guard I can think of as “safer” because the period of grief that allowed for those elegies to come out was very old grief. It was twenty years old by the time I wrote those poems. This was not; this is very new. Lindsey Alexander: So do you feel like you revise pretty similarly for each book, or does the process change as each calls for it? Natasha Trethewey: I don’t know how much I completely trust myself when I’m working to revise something. I write pretty slowly, so it does take a long time for a single poem to get written. That’s one of the reasons why the books are so thin, because it takes so long. If I were to write a book twice as long, it would be twenty more years before I could finish it. I still believe in sending poems to magazines when I think they’re ready for someone to have a look at them. I always think of that as a way of vetting the poems, that if an editor somewhere can see something of value in it, maybe it’s close to being where it needs to be. I had this experience recently of thinking a particular poem was doing what it needed to do and sending it with another poem to an editor. He took the poems, and I changed my

mind about one of them because I decided it wasn’t doing the right thing at all. So I asked him if I could withdraw it and he said, “Well, let’s not do that. Let’s hold on to it until you get it into shape the way you think it ought to be.” I agreed and I kept working on it, and working on it, and it just wasn’t happening. I knew it was a poem that needed to be put aside, and maybe it would be a poem I would have to come back to years from now. I did have to finally ask him to just let me take it back, so now there will not be a poem that I am horribly embarrassed about. Ron Padgett came to read at Emory a few years ago, and he was telling this wonderful story about a book of his that’s called Poems I Guess I Wrote [laughter]. It was really about these poems that he could not finish twenty years ago, put them in a drawer, and then twenty years later—you know, you’re older, you’re different—he takes them out and all of a sudden he can see exactly what he needs to do to finish them, and he finishes all these poems and they’ve become this book called Poems I Guess I Wrote. I mean it’s interesting to think about the self that you are, writing the poem—the part of it written twenty years ago—and the other part written twenty years later. I mean you’re not even the same person anymore. It’s like a collaboration of selves 35

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[laughter]. I feel like it’s a little frustrating because I think if I had gotten that poem right, it would be very useful in this book. Whether it will be useful in a book in the future, I don’t know. It may be one of those things that never goes beyond the dark notebook. Lindsey Alexander: You talked about letting go of revisions. In Beyond Katrina two poems appear that were in Native Guard, “Theories of Time and Space” and “Providence.” Why did you feel like those should reappear? Did you have an urge to revise, or did you feel like they stood well as they were, talking about the book? Natasha Trethewey: The poem “Providence” is almost one of those “poems I guess I wrote.” There’s a very early draft of this, and you always figure someone’s going to find this— that there’s going to be some researcher whose going to see that poem and it’s not going to look anything like the poem that appears in the book. I felt like it was right to go in there, simply because it harkens back to Hurricane Camille. Hurricane Camille was very dramatic and significant on the coast. People talked about time in terms of B.C. and A.C. (Before Camille and After Camille), because it was a definitive storm that wrecked the Mississippi

Gulf Coast. All those people who you would hear about didn’t want to evacuate [during Katrina] because their houses had withstood Camille— if you can withstand Camille, what could be worse? Of course, Katrina was. So that poem was necessary for its historical context, hoping to contextualize people’s response to evacuation before Katrina. The other poem, “Theories of Time and Space,” begins Beyond Katrina just as it begins Native Guard, which I think is a strange thing, but it made so much sense to me. Both books are a journey, a pilgrimage. Both books begin with me returning to Mississippi. But the thing about “Theories of Time and Space” that makes it a completely different poem in context, is that in Beyond Katrina it’s completely literal and in Native Guard it’s figurative. It’s just a meditation on the impossibility of returning home to places we’ve left behind—not because the places are completely changed or gone, but because we’re completely changed. I turned the book in March of ’05 and by August of ’05 that poem, which had been completely figurative, had become completely literal. I could not go back to that place anymore because it was destroyed and completely changed, which of course led me into questioning my own ideas about the ability to return and what I was 36

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thinking I was returning to. It didn’t really take the devastation of the storm necessarily to change it, but it helped me enter Beyond Katrina and I think find a different route than Native Guard. Lindsey Alexander: It brings to mind that epigraph that you used for Beyond Katrina from Flannery O’Connor about never being able to return home. You use epigraphs a lot in your work, to either introduce a section of a book, or the whole book itself. Do you have an epigraph for Thrall? Do you mind sharing it? Natasha Trethewey: I’ll read them just so I don’t get them wrong. There are two of them. The first one is from Robert Penn Warren’s poem, “Audubon: A Vision.” He’s talking about how Audubon would, in his study of the birds, kill them in order to arrange them to look vividly alive. And so the epigraph from Robert Penn Warren reads: “What is love? One name for it is knowledge.” It’s followed by an epigraph taken from T.S. Eliot: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Lindsey Alexander: Why did you choose those? Natasha Trethewey: Because of this terrible knowledge. I first gleaned the idea in Robert

Penn Warren’s poem that what Audubon was doing was a kind of gesture of love. His deep need to study and to know so closely those creatures was not something else, not one of the other things we might think of it, but was indeed a manifestation of a kind of love. It had me thinking of how study, how close study and even types of classification—there’s another way to look at it when I think about my father. There’s a line of another poem I read last night that I think tries to get at this, a poem called “Enlightenment.” I’m just trying to talk about how my father would insist in our conversations about Jefferson that the pursuit of knowledge is the highest thing. It is greater than a man’s shortcomings: his attempt to know and to classify and to study and to experiment outweighs whatever else he was doing. I began to see my father needed me to believe that, in order to understand something about him. So I think that’s why the Robert Penn Warren epigraph spoke to me. The other one, the response to that, the line, “After such love, what forgiveness?”— initially when I looked at it I thought it was just a way of suggesting the obvious: After I have come to this knowledge about my father, I can also forgive. But I think it means something different than that. I hope what Thrall is 37

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it is what I love most. It’s just a Q and A at the end, and there’s just the question and then the answer, and the last answer is, “This Lindsey Alexander: You sort of subvert Robert is, of course, an interview with myself.” The Penn Warren in Native Guard. Is there a whole book, you know, has been about the poet or a group of poets you have changed self. [long pause] That really is not the answer your mind about—either who you thought to your question. was great and really spoke to you when you were younger and now feel distanced from, [laughter] or whose work is speaking to you more than before? Lindsey Alexander: That’s okay; it was a lovely answer. Natasha Trethewey: I don’t know if I can think of anyone like that. I’ve always liked Robert Donald Platt (from the audience): Now you Penn Warren because I’ve always understood just have to think of the question. him as a flawed creature, like all of us, but one in whom you could actually see the transition. Natasha Trethewey: [laughs] Yeah, this is an But by the time I came to him, I came to interview with myself. everything [he wrote] at once. I took my stand beside Segregation, the book he wrote [laughter] two years after the Brown decision that was serialized in Life magazine, and which was, Lindsey Alexander: A lighter question: What’s by the way, my biggest influence in writing the first poem you wrote where you felt a Beyond Katrina—because I loved that he made sense of accomplishment? You talked about this journey back. He knew after that decision writing poems as a child yesterday. What was for school desegregation, he had to rethink his the first poem that you wrote you felt was stand, to rethink his earlier position. And so really a poem? you see him—a man in the midst of change. You know the book is very much travel Natasha Trethewey: Well, it was probably a very narratives and interviews, but the very end of early poem I wrote. I went to graduate school suggesting is that one might [long pause]— that forgiveness might be on the other end.

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at Hollins University. I applied and got in as a fiction writer and very quickly discovered that I was not. So by the second month I was in the graduate program, a friend of mine, a poet in the program, dared me to write a poem. I accepted the dare only to prove I could not do it. You know I wanted him to see how dismal any poem I wrote would be. And so I did it and, you know, it actually wasn’t. I was very surprised [laughter] because I had tried to write poems before. The first poems I tried to write beyond childhood, when I was in college, were right after my mother died. I turned to poetry like a lot of people turn to poetry to try to convey those things that seem almost unspeakable, sort of like the response after 9/11—all the people wrote poems. So I wrote this really horrible poem about my grief in which I said, “I feel like I’m sinking into an ocean of despair.” And sinking went down the page like that [points down; laughter] and it ended in a pool of cliché at the bottom [laughter]. That was my first attempt at a poem in my adult life and I didn’t write again after that because even I knew that was bad. So, when I was in graduate school, years later, taking up this dare, it was probably with that in mind that I said, “I’m going to show you how bad this poem will be.” And then it wasn’t.

And I think I felt some accomplishment early on, or that maybe something had happened. I know what happened, though. I read more, you know? I was an idiot when I was trying to write that other poem [laughter]. I was just feeling and not also thinking. Audience: You talked about sending work out to editors when you think it’s done but are still trying to figure it out, and also mentioned that ekphrastic or historically based poems are more enjoyable for you to write, but people seem to respond to the more personal poems. So I’m wondering how much audience is a part of your writing process and/or your revision process? Are you thinking about those responses? Natasha Trethewey: I’m not thinking about those responses, but I am thinking about that very intimate act of communication, the thing I desperately need to say to some reader, some listener, clearly and precisely. I want a reader to have access to that. So I always have to write with clarity in mind— that’s important to me—with the precision of the image as well as what it’s trying to convey. That’s always about audience. Audience: As a follow up to that, after Native 39

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Guard when you became more of a public figure and your readership broadened quite a bit, did that change the feeling of being able to write personal poems? Was it difficult to write poems about those things knowing so many more people would be reading them? Natasha Trethewey: Well, the hard part now is that my father is also a poet and a professor somewhere in an MFA program with students who know him and who know me. There’s not the same kind of privacy that I have, or that the people I was writing about would have. My mother is dead. When I wrote about my grandmother in Domestic Work it was very unlikely that anyone was come up to her and say, “Oh yeah, you’re that lady she was writing about.” But that could happen to my father. That’s where my earlier emotional lapse came in, because when I was trying to talk about forgiveness, what I was trying to deal with is that we poets and writers often write about people in our family. But they’re still often able to have a kind of anonymity. You know, my father’s been writing about me my whole life, and then I become a poet and I start doing it back, setting the story straight. So there were these competing narratives. There have been a few things that have bothered me just a little bit about

appearing in his work. I feel now, in some ways, I’ve done the same thing. The poem that opens [Thrall] is the poem “Elegy,” in which I’m talking about this fishing trip and how while on the fishing trip I’m just thinking, “I gotta get all this down, because I’m going to get to write about this one day.” In some ways, you’re not fully there at the fishing trip because part of my mind was already thinking about how it was going to make something of this. You know, I do try to cut myself some slack, too, when the line reads “Your daughter, I was that ruthless.” I kind of mean “Your daughter. I was that ruthless.” What does it matter if I tell you I learned that—and I do think I learned that—but that doesn’t make me any better for having learned this thing and then acting upon it. Donald Platt: I just want to follow up on some of the issues you’ve raised, about the ruthlessness of artists [laughter] and how it relates to this idea of dissection, which seems very important to the book. Can you talk a little bit about the closeness between this ruthlessness and close study, which is also a kind of love? I think about a poem, Jorie Graham’s “Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body.” It ends with an image of dissection, 40

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of Luca Signorelli cutting open the body of his dead son, which gets to that question again of that big word: knowledge. This sort of seems like crux you’re balanced on. Natasha Trethewey: To go back to the Robert Penn Warren lines, I think that’s exactly what it’s about. After [Audubon] finished creating the drawings of the birds, he would dissect them and eat them. The kind of close, close observation that we as writers undertake in order to be able to render things precisely and to render them in ways that we have not seen them rendered before does require something akin to dissection. As you were saying that, I was thinking about how my father was told by a doctor that he has an enlarged heart—this is a condition people have—but I love the idea of that, because he does have a very big heart [long pause] but I would cut his chest open to look at it, [pause] figuratively, to write a poem about it. Lindsey Alexander: In Beyond Katrina, you have your brother Joe as a major character through the narrative, and he becomes sort of this writer at the end. Do you feel like that relates? Natasha Trethewey: I’m much more protective

of my brother. Perhaps that’s about plain old familial relationships in some ways. You know you can have conversations about what a parent’s duties and responsibilities are when it comes to writing about the children; and what are the children’s responsibilities when writing about the parents. In my relationship to my brother, I feel very protective about his personal identity—how he would want to present himself to the world, but also the kind of trust my brother has in me to do this right. It’s not even just my brother, it’s also my cousin Tammy who appears in the book. When I was working on it, Ted Genoways asked me to do for [Virginia Quarterly Review] a partnership with a radio and the magazine. I was supposed to go down there and do some documentary poems, which is how the poems that appear in Beyond Katrina get made, but part of the thing was to have this radio producer follow me around, to be with mewhile I’m making the poems. Now, in my mind, and based on what Ted tells me, what I think is, “Oh, she just wants to capture how I go about doing what I do and making a poem out of this.” But she saw it as a collaboration, and I’m yet to be able to understand [laughter] how poetry is a collaboration. I need to be in a solitary space writing it; she’s not going to help me write the poem. So I don’t know 41

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what the collaboration is, and I kind of had an attitude about it the whole time, I think. I also had an attitude because, I mean she’s a lovely woman, but it is very invasive. She wanted to be in the room when people were waking up with a microphone stuck in their face. She wanted to be in the most intimate spaces recording it for radio, and she did not get much stuff because I was not letting her get that close. Because you know who we see like that? You know whose stories we have real access to? Who we see with their hair all messed up, in dirty clothes—it’s poor people. They are people that we seem to always have access to. People who are not [poor] do not give access like that, but she wanted that and I was like, “No way.” I found subtle ways, little ways to let her interview and talk to them, and my cousin Tammy would say to me again and again, “Make me look good, okay?” She trusted me to do that. She trusted me not to let the photographer or the radio or anything else invade her life in such a way that might hold her up for a kind of ridicule or poverty porn, and I felt like a bulldog. I would have fought in the street to prevent that—they would have had me with my hair messed up and looking crazy, but they were not going to have my family look like that. [pauses, then laughs] Did that answer your question?

[laughter] Audience: A lot of what you’re talking about reminds me of that close relationship to poetry and how, so many times, the reader assumes the speaker to be the author. Has considering this issue in your own writing affected the ways you teach students trying to figure out what they want to write about, or what they should write about, or what they need to write about? Natasha Trethewey: Well I do find that I have those conversations with students a lot about their subject matter, especially if it involves family members. There are some students that I get the sense want very much to be able to explore these things in the language of the poem, and yet are very frightened of doing it because they are worried that it will reveal someone too much and hurt them when they get revealed that way. I think we have good thoughtful conversations about it. But I still feel that I have to give them permission not to write those poems if they’re not ready to write them, if they think that it’s going to be too difficult. I think I started doing it, and this is probably what else I do, I started writing about my father when I was writing Bellocq’s Ophelia. 42

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That’s a book about a woman living in the red light district of New Orleans in 1911. Her relationship to her father in those poems is where I first began exploring the relationship that I had with my father in a way I could not have written in poems that are sort of autobiographical, where the assumption is that the speaker is also the poet. So I think of the persona poem as a way to guide students who need to work out some material like that, but need to place it in a character. And, of course, when you put on that mask of a persona, you say even more than you might have in a poem where the poet and the speaker are about the same. Audience: For Beyond Katrina, how much research did you have to do?

of the major highway and the beach road that was built. That was an important thing in terms of how it affected the economy of the coast and tourism. I had to know when the growth of other kinds of developments and buildings happened and how that was going to have a role in the future on all kinds of environmental issues. I spent a lot of time talking to people at the marine resource facility down on the coast about wetlands and shore erosion and all those things that were affecting the coast. When Beyond Katrina began, it had all the kind of scholarly footnotes you would expect a historian to include in a book. Publishers who do creative nonfiction don’t want that sort of thing and you get rid of them. So now there’s this Beyond Katrina that stands as if there are no scholarly resources that I depended on to help me understand and to know all these things; but yes, they were definitely there. Then of course there’s the kind of research that involves talking to people, going to the casino, talking to the casino employees, talking to the mayor, the kind of information you get from the people who live there, as well, and have memory and experience of things.

Natasha Trethewey: I love research, so I tend to always do it. I think I need it for the possibility of those luminous details that Pound talks about—I’ve got to find those things, and research guides me to that. In writing Beyond Katrina, I had to study a lot about the history of the Gulf War. I mean, there are things you know when you come from a town—certain dates that punctuate your knowledge of a place, but I had to find out a lot more about it Audience: What advice do you have for how and a lot of it had to do with the development someone just starting out can follow her 43

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passion? How did you decide to follow your passion to be a writer? Natasha Trethewey: That’s always a tough question because it’s easy for me now to say, “Oh yes, pursue your passions because it will all work out,” but we don’t necessarily know that. There are certainly many people who have tried to pursue their passions and it hasn’t been sustainable as a way of living a life. So it seems like most of the things I would have to say would be platitudes about it, but I would say that one has to figure out over time and through different kinds of trial and error what their passions actually are. When I was growing up, there was a point in which I thought I was going to be a lawyer. The reason I thought I was going to be a lawyer was I had been very interested in the prison system, criminal justice, innocence; but, at the same time, I had been interested in mental institutions, and inmates of institutions and their rights. So I was reading all about Dorothea Dix and other people who had a lot to do with advocating for people in various kinds of institutions—incarcerated either in prisons or in mental institutions. I thought, “I’ll be a defense attorney because I’m one of the people who is still convinced that so many innocent people end up in prison on

death row, and the death penalty is unjustly applied. Well, I didn’t become a lawyer, but I was really passionate about that. Then I was really passionate about social justice. The fight against discrimination, and racism, and sexism, and classism—all these things would just burn holes in me, I was so focused on what I was going to do that was going to help alleviate all of these things. At some point, I thought I could become a historian so I could write about all of these things. But what I figured out ultimately was that I am really passionate about social justice and it is a reason I write poetry. I’m not an activist, I’m not a historian, I’m not a lawyer, but I use what I can to be true to what I’m passionate about. Audience: Did the fact that your father is a poet make you avoid poetry at first? Natasha Trethewey: Not at all. I stayed away from poetry because most of the high school teachers I had pushed me away from it. This is a sad thing, but poetry is not always taught well in places [laughter]. I was like, “Oh, that stuff is awful.” I couldn’t understand it. I thought the teachers had the answers in red. So I thought it was something that was so closed off from the possibility of me entering 44

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it and understanding it and feeling something for it, until I had a teacher in college who showed me something else and then I was awakened to the possibilities of poetry.

drawn to that. I think my mind just works like that: I always knew if I was going to be a visual artist I would be a photographer, not a filmmaker, with the stills. And of course I write sequences, and the sequences that I Audience: So what do you have access to in write are the closest thing to— poetry that you don’t have access to in fiction? What is it about poetry that won the day? Audience: A flip book? Natasha Trethewey: I think the elegant envelope of form a poem makes, the density and compression of a poem. That’s not to say that prose doesn’t also shimmer with luminous sentences—but that they exist within that crystalline little dense compressed thing, I was

Natasha Trethewey: Yeah, like Edward Muybridge, because I need that movement, but I want to focus on each little still, and poems make me feel like I can do that now. Even when I was writing Beyond Katrina, I was writing it like I was writing a poem.

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Narrative Ari Banias There is too much to catch up on. For example, I was once a sundress on a splintery swingset in Texas. The world was made of yellow grass struggling to live in sand, sand everywhere beyond our fence, across the street, sand that could have drowned us. But didn’t. Because it was a border town there were other others so we sort of belonged. The cacti looked religiously stoic, held promise, as did the mountains, cast pink in the waning sun. Then we packed up. In Illinois I tried to build a kind of Midwestern girlhood that failed and failed into the shape of a flute I played only high notes on. I stopped eating meat, stopped speaking Greek. Became an ear. Now the only one I remember from that time is the girl who looked like a boy or maybe was one, who walked the same way home as me, same coat, same sneakers, who I never once greeted, just repeated his-her name to myself: Dominick? Dominique? Massively old trees canopied the cobbled streets.

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The houses set so far apart you’d hear neither argument nor song. Dominick. Dominique. Not a stitch of recognition passed between us.

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The Primal Scene Michael Tyrell It’s winter, I’m deep in the factory called Mother, I’m near the hum of the conveyor belts, on one track, things on their way to the boxes, on another, to the compactor— before Labyrinth and Thread, before The Scalpel and The Carnage— I’m some smuggled fish, I’m the constant lights-out barracks and the weeks of scummy assemblage, the sizzle and grit of world-sounds coming in from the one-way radio. Time-traveler, stowaway: not accounted for in the temporal world, nine months not counted toward my earth-time— body inside body, Russian doll; one object in several places, an insult to physics. There are armies outside the walls. It’s an earth I hear them making, a slash-and-burn operation. Everyone has to be melted down. They’re the trees that must be set on fire, they’re the scorched dirt, a grave that can store people and the possessive case— And this is how they do it—this is how to put on a face, this is how to take it down, this is how to burn the tree of the body to make the flower of the face.

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Landscape with a Burning City (Pieter Schoubroeck, 1570–1607; oil on canvas) Michael Tyrell Who are we, where are we going—I asked the oracle Once in a dream—why are we sent here blue-faced, half-drowned, Bald & blind, without armor or language— Why do every hour almost all of us forget To ask for another hour—why only just another apple, please— Why some more milk, just a drop, like orphans— How did the makers of twins not build them alike— Whose diamond-eyed boy was it, who ended up on the poster— When did he—when do the missing know they’re missing— What date will the nuclear reactor open, I asked— It’s always about to open—when the nuclear winter— Where the return of American hostages, how the bullet in the president— When the oracle opened her mouth—gleaming Bracelet of teeth, all gold—showed me she had no tongue—& my eyes Opened—that’s when it was the future—places instead of questions— Wintersummer—leaves rising back into their branches— & when the skyscrapers turned into torches and collapsed— I was under the skylight at my office, under the roof-top, under the sky— How—when I am only this body—made to be touched & burned— How can any picture tell me what it was they saw— The ones on the roof who said holy fuck, holy fuck, holy fuck—

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Baboon Rob Nixon We lived on the fringe of town, next door Doberman and a chained baboon. The to the Bothas, who kept a flock of racist geese. Doberman and the baboon also stood watch When I cycled past heading for the grocers, over the best hill in our neighborhood— the geese would linger in our neighbors’ maybe in all of South Africa—where we quince tree shade, nattering peaceably to would build up a head of steam on our bikes, themselves. But if an unsuspecting African sweating it to the top, before flinging our legs strolled by, the birds—all twenty strong— out wide and whooping down the far, far side. would launch a rush attack, necks snaking Speed was great, if you didn’t get torn to bits close to the ground, hissing and clacking in a by the animals. The thing those animals hated most in the world was any boy who sped. cacophony of bigotry. One Saturday morning, my friend Ian For neighbors on the other side we had a Mobil filling station and a bakery run Brown elbowed me in the ribs. “Let’s go and by Greeks. The Mobil sign overhung the spy on them again.” I knew instantly who he was talking about: bedroom that my brother and I shared. Each night, I drifted asleep to the flickering neon the bullet-headed baboon and the attackgallop of Pegasus, heading heavenward past faced dog. I nudged Ian right back, harder than my window, kicking at the stars. At first light, I woke to the din of feral donkeys, breakfasting he’d nudged me. Then we pushed our bikes on Dad’s pompom dahlias. A tattered African stealthily up the hill and hid like spies behind herder, felt hat yanked low over his eyes, was the hedge. The Doberman was pacing, its body in inevitable pursuit, shouting and whipping the donkeys’ crinkled ribs. Ravenous goats, quivering with chain-crazed rage. It had a donkeys, and immense, ocher dewlapped oxen pinched face, bunched toward the teeth and loved to ford the ditch, thick with frogspawn, tiny, unfocused, pinkish-yellow eyes. Ropes of that separated our yard from the open veldt, drool dangled from its lips. The Doberman beyond which lay the railway line, the Xhosa looked thirsty for trouble, as it clawed at a shantytown, and the refuse dump. deep groove it had dug into the dirt. The dog was bad enough, but it was the A few blocks beyond the Bothas’ geese stood a dilapidated house guarded by a chained baboon I really feared. 50

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The baboon confused me. He had an animal’s mouth but human hands. He also had no shame. He was sitting splay-legged in front of his kennel, grooming, with long fingers, his solitary testicle. Then he picked up his chain, looped it over his other arm, like a waiter’s napkin, and wandered over to the shade of a guava tree. Propped against the guava trunk, the baboon stretched out all four limbs and yawned. Excellent: that’s what Ian and I had really come for, to check out his teeth. Great big slashers, fangs way too huge to be stored behind such human-looking lips. We didn’t have any lions in our neighborhood, but already I knew that a buck baboon’s canines were longer than a lion’s. Animals were my specialty. I read animal things in books and memorized them, especially the frightening bits, so I could tell them to Ian Brown. I whispered: “A baboon loves to flip its prey onto its back so it can rip out your stomach.” Ian, still staring into the baboon’s yawn, snapped back: “I know. You told me that yesterday already.” His voice wobbled with anxious irritation. From our hideout we could see how the steel collar had worn a bald, pink rut around the baboon’s neck. Even leaning back and yawning, he had a wounded energy to him.

There was a boy at school, Kobus Snyman, who had that same wounded energy: just leaning, bored, against a wall, Kobus could manage to look vicious and intimidating. I was trying to learn from him how to inspire fear casually. In private, I tried out different poses using a full-length mirror, angling my body this way and that against my patient bedroom wall. But I couldn’t kid myself: no matter what, I always failed to look properly frightening. I’d never seen the owners, the people whom the Doberman and the baboon were keeping safe. Ian hadn’t either. He cupped his hands over my ear. “Maybe they’re dead. Maybe they were too frightened to leave the house. Maybe those animals chewed them up. I bet they died in there.” It looked like the kind of house that somebody, maybe lots of people, had died in. Ian and I sniffed the air together theatrically to check for any corpses. Ian doubled over and let out a throttled laugh. Instantly, the dog’s ears shot up and the baboon sprang to its feet. Both creatures launched themselves at us, flying through the air, snarling and clanking, landing just short of the hedge. From beneath his hood of fur, the baboon’s eyes flared orange as he threw his 51

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weight against his chain, wind milling his arms at us, his whole body shaking with a furious coughing bark. That close, the baboon was nothing but a muscled ball of mange, teeth, gums and hate. We were on our bikes and gone, not stopping until the big gates to Ian’s house had clanged behind us. All the way, my feet kept slipping off the pedals, as if, while I wasn’t watching, somebody had put soap on them. One day, I asked my father to drive me slowly past the falling down house. I wanted a better look from the safety of our car. The dog was asleep. The baboon was sitting on his blue bottom, rocking back and forth. He had wound his arms around himself for warmth and company, so his hands met in the middle of his back. He looked like a man whose blanket had been stolen. “See,” Dad said, “they’re not so bad.” Dad didn’t know that the dog never slept. It just pretended to, so even its sleep was a kind of stalking. And the baboon sometimes could look nice, could do these human sorts

of things, that made you want to like him, just like Kobus Snyman, who had a sucker punch way of every now and then seeming normal, so when he turned on you again his meanness felt ten times as cruel. After that last animal attack, Ian and I had agreed that cycling past the house whose owners had been eaten wasn’t worth the risk. To visit Wing King’s the grocers or the swimming pool now took four extra blocks of pedaling: the baboon and the Doberman had seized our hill. But the longer we avoided those animals, the more I missed my downhill speed. I also missed the rush of terror as the creatures lunged at me from behind the hedge. I didn’t yet understand what that was all about; I was just starting to learn how to toy with my own fears. One day Mom sent me to Wing King’s for three extra cans of pilchards. Not the curried ones, the ones in tomato sauce. The long way to the shops was starting to feel normal. But that day, feet whirling on the pedals, I felt a quickening desire for something dangerous. I turned up the hill and listened to my breath get faster, from the steepness and the animals 52

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ahead. They were there, baboon and dog, waiting in ambush at the top. They knew my mind— they knew it even before I’d made the turn. I was their boredom buster and they’d been missing me. They lay around all day fantasizing about my stomach and my legs. I was all raw nerve as I cycled toward them. From the motion in the baboon’s hands I could tell that he was peeling something. He sensed me and looked up: his body tensed, an orange fell from his hands, and his arms slackened at his sides. I couldn’t see the Doberman, but I could hear it gnarr, and then the baboon let out a barking holler which sounded like a dog pretending to be a man. My legs started going puffy and the bike wobbled and skittered, but somehow I stayed upright long enough to scramble past. I was back again the next day, before my courage could get rusty. I had a plan. I wanted to do it three times, so I could say to Ian: “The baboon and the Doberman? Oh, I forgot to tell you. I’ve been cycling past them all the time.” I was learning the rules: the best bravery is always casual. By the third time, my legs felt steadier. I was speeding now, my bike slicing through the charged air between us. Then, above the

animals’ angry din, I heard another sound— clink, clink, clink—chain against tarmac, a chain that had cleared the hedge. I could hear something galloping toward me. My heart caromed and I couldn’t look back. I didn’t want it to be the Doberman, and even more I didn’t want it to be the baboon. Perhaps teeth and paws you could survive. But how could any boy escape from teeth that came with arms and hands that would never let you go? A weight grabbed my right leg and pulled it wide. I could feel the fangs, but mostly what I felt was a huge heaviness fastened onto me, dragging and yanking until I went down in a bone-and-metal crash. The world swirled and blackened. A woman was gently slapping my face. “You’ve had a shock,” she said. She cradled my head and fed me sips of sugar water. My head thrummed. As she lifted my neck I saw blood streaming from my calf and shin. I started to pick at the grit packed into my knees. “That dog,” she said. “That dog.” I had to get stitches front and back. My sewn leg soon became a place that other boys wanted to touch and prod and gawk at. Kobus said, “I know that dog, it bit my brother too.” But definitely he was lying, to make my prized 53

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injury seem smaller, like something anyone could have. A wound, I discovered, was a fabulous thing. It made me feel older than I was. A wound was a fine place to keep a story that you could pull out and tell like a man. Every boy needs that something special, some sign of action on his skin. If you’ve got an interesting enough wound, it can save you from a lot of playground maulings. First I was proud, then I started to get greedy. Sprawled across the road, blood oozing out of me, I had been happy it was only the Doberman. I couldn’t believe my luck to have escaped the baboon’s hairy clasp. But later, as boys lined up to finger the damage, my relief turned to regret. To be savaged by a dog was big, but no one in our whole school could boast a proper baboon bite. Six months after the attack, the baboon began to clamber through my dreams. The first night he arrived, bounding and clanking, he had a certain look about him: I knew he would return. He did, over and over. Sometimes, he just sat there, staring at me, pursing his lips as he blew the dirt off his knuckles. Mostly, he moved in on me with that side-to-side, offbalance lope that baboons have. Not too fast, just very purposeful. Like Kobus, who knew

he was going to get you anyway, so why risk his dignity by rushing? My calf gash narrowed into a scar and eventually vanished. But the dent in my shin, the deeper one up front, never went away. On humid days, it still itches and I find myself reaching absent-mindedly into its cavity. Touching that hollow sometimes sets off in me a feeling of unresolved unease, some sense of being a marked man. Two decades after the bite, a massage therapist in London was working on my legs. The right one specifically, a place where tension masses. She had extraordinary hands, hands that coaxed my body into speech. She was pulsing the flesh, moving slowly upwards from the ankle. Half way up my shin, her thumb rolled into the hollow. “What’s this?” she said. “Baboon.” The word jumped out of the hole and took me by surprise. I heard him first, harrumphing before he emerged from his pit, a fragment of snapped chain dangling from his neck. I braced myself as his soundless arms wrapped themselves around me. For a moment, one long moment, there were no years between me and his knife-toothed gape. And then the hands moved on.

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The Black Ducks Alec Hershman What given? Ore from a rock? Or the time it equals to human eyes as though the day began in question: what will you do in response? What I did was drive to the Bosky Place— little spillway tucked between hills where the sound could be a foghorn as easily as a train—slipped into water from the slant angles at which tiny lake-waves become visible from shore. The day was full of black ducks it was easy to be happy for, trees on a tiny island weaving baskets and saying casually to strangers, “Well it’s no nest, but it’s all we’ve got.” Faithful water and causeway faces. I had nothing to be jealous of. Truth was, I’d been taking litter from the shore and tossing it back. All this time. The dim minnows through thin clouds that spell out gooshin fidnish—a graph of where I go, and where I kiss you we are fossils of ourselves, chunks of limestone in bleached white piles.

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Darwin Michael Hurley Museum, you ancient bone collector. You silent trapper of souls. You ribbon-strung harp, oats ground to meal. You tickle at the back of the throat. Quiet dirt miner, with all your dentist’s tools, scarves of barbs and thorns. Come to this place in search of a myth: be the first with your gravy eyes. Come with propane and firecrackers, come with dice and streetside buskers hawking stolen music. Seek us among the stolen forms escaping time behind glass. Drown your women behind glass like maraschino cherries, pluck from their stems. Like drowned hands, your women

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are unfamiliar Cherries like the roof of the mouth, a house, frayed where the tags were Nonsense and Corduroy. Use two hands, Showoff. Fine-tune us like spectacles with a tiny screwdriver. Now, bow.

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The Tall Lake Grasses Ian Stansel Until nearly one, Beth watched as the police came and went from the McKenzies’ house across the street, in and out the front door, through the garage, around the back and into the woods behind their house, yellow spots of flashlight cutting up and down the trees. She finally fell asleep on the floor, the rotation of red and blue lights no longer alarming, but instead luring her away from consciousness. In the morning there was no news. The boy, Matt McKenzie, was still missing, having not come home from school the day before. He was last seen—by Beth, as it happened— walking along the bike path that ran twentyfive miles, through four towns, and which passed only yards from the McKenzie’s home. At six-thirty, first light, the people of the town woke and, realizing that his disappearance was not some prank, some mix-up, dressed and prepared for the day. Beth went downstairs, still in her pajamas, and her mother was in the TV room looking out the window. The action of the search seemed to be nearing full swing. Across the street, people approached the house and were sent away by the police, pointed east toward the school and the town. Her eyes still gunked with sleep, Beth could not recognize who they were, the ones coming to help.

“No school,” her mother said. It was a Friday. “People are gathering there, though. They said that was the best place to start, spreading out along the bike path.” The smell of coffee was so strong on the first floor it swaddled Beth’s head like a wrap. She went to the kitchen and poured half a cup, filled the rest with milk and two spoons of sugar. “Honey, I wish you wouldn’t,” her mother said, looking down at the cup as Beth returned to her side at the window. But they both drank and watched. “That trail,” her mother said. “We should go help out.” “Guess so,” “Stick together.” Beth scrunched her face and rolled her eyes. “Obviously.” “I’m serious. Threes. Or fours.” Beth texted with her friends. Caitlin wrote b ther in 20. Steph wrote ware suit. She showered and dressed, her two-piece under tank and cut-offs. She waited on the porch, the commotion across the street coming in waves. She prayed she wouldn’t be the one to find the kid. Her mind rewound to the previous afternoon and what she had seen as she rode away from school down the bike path that led to their neighborhood. Matt was walking

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not far from the mouth of the path. She came up from behind him and did not recognize him at first. But as she passed and his face became visible, she registered the boy. Beth babysat Matt for a short period a couple of years before. Though she was only a few years his senior, the McKenzies paid Beth seven dollars an hour to spend evenings with him while they were out. Matt was small and a bit rodent-like, with a pointy face and limp, thin hair the color of wet cardboard. Just a freshman now, he seemed to have spent this first year in a state of near-constant social panic. They did not speak to each other in school. Neither had ever even attempted. Beth let her mind pass Matt by on the bike path. She tried to see the woods, her front tire spinning over the asphalt. Did she see anyone else? This was what the police had asked her the evening before. Did she see anyone else on that path? Any friends? Anyone from school? Anyone she did not recognize? Anyone at all? She replayed it: school, Matt, the woods. But she’d ridden that path so many times— hundreds, thousands—that her mind hardly took note. She swerved around the path’s divots and raised scar-like cracks instinctually, certainly mindlessly. In this replay of the afternoon before, she simply arrived home. The ride had been perfectly eventless.

Steph and Caitlin got there along with Caitlin’s mother, and the group of women set off toward the high school. Though only May, it was hot already. Summer came early and breathing fire. People criss-crossed the parking lot, some determinedly, some simply wandering in the morning light. A woman at an unfolded table told the women to take the north side of the path. “And stay together,” she said. “That is incredibly important.” They wandered distractedly for two hours, every once in a while being directed by one male adult or another to head down that way or double back over that embankment. They did as they were told, Beth figuring that one plot of dirt to shuffle across is as good as any other. Anyway, it was cooler in the woods. Standing atop the next hill, Beth saw her father with a group of men. She didn’t recognize the others. They were taking turns looking sadly at the ground and squinting deep into the woods. Beth’s father was not a person she thought of very often. He was a nice man, caring father, she supposed, a hard worker as far as she ever knew, but when she thought of her family it was her mother who came to mind. It was always a mild surprise when she saw her father, as if they’d taken on a perfectly amiable, but unexpected overnight guest. A strange sensation, one that she had 60

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gotten used to years ago, but which never fully went away. She imagined that after she left the house, her parents would probably divorce. By early-afternoon, nobody had found anything and people were meandering away towards their homes, calling it a day. Beth’s mom said, “Well,” and Caitlin’s mother said, “Seems like we’re covering the same areas over and over, doesn’t it?” They headed to the lake while men were still spreading out and coming back together to report nothing. The water was lukewarm and thick with algae. There wasn’t much of a beach, but enough of a swath of sandy dirt to let them all make believe. A few old people were there, gathered together and talking about Matt McKenzie in hushed tones. Little kids splashed around in the shallows, floaties puffed around their arms, parents watching. There were no boats that day and so Beth took a good long swim out towards the middle. When she turned to come back she saw a figure waving at her near shore. He was separated from the rest of the suntanners by a bank of tall reeds that cut into the lake like a jetty. Beth squinted and then swam, slowed and squinted and swam. The figured waved on. It wasn’t until she could touch the gooey bottom of the lake that she recognized him, a boy named Silver. He had just moved to her

school that year, or maybe the year before. He was junior, like Beth. They had Science together. In a loud whisper, Silver beckoned Beth to come. He waved his cupped hand, said “Come here.” She came forward and stood as tall as she could. The brutal sun baked her shoulders. “You wish,” she said, a hand on her submerged hip. “I want to show you something,” he said. Beth sloshed through the shallows, the lake grasses slicing softly at her legs. Everyone else was a good twenty yards off, around the curve of the small shore. The wall of reeds stood between them and where Silver was. Beth went to him, disappearing from the view of any of her friends. “Closer,” he said. “I am,” she said, six feet from him. The water only came to his calf, where Beth was still up to her thighs. Silver was tall and thin. And he was ugly, Beth thought, with eyes close together and a too-wide jaw and pock-marked skin. So ugly. Not that Beth thought she was so very beautiful, but she never minded the look of her own face, and she thought her body had a decent shape. Plus, the boys seemed to like her fine. She’d gone out with a couple and had dates to the last two homecomings. She hadn’t liked any 61

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of them, really, but it beat going alone or making Caitlin and Steph drop their dates so they could go as a group. “Look at this,” Silver said. From behind him he revealed a thin rope about two feet long, green marsh grasses braided together. It dripped with water from the lake. He raised his hand shoulder high and then whipped the rope behind him hard. It snapped against the skin of his back and his eyes clamped shut and his mouth pulled into a grimace. “What the fuck?” Beth said, taking two clumsy steps away from him. “Why’d you do that?” “I don’t know,” he said, almost laughing in pain. “It hurts really bad.” He splashed down to his knees and limboed back so that only his chest and face were about the surface of the water. “Oh, man, that stings.” The long, stretched expanse of his torso was fish-belly white in the high sun. “My heart’s beating like crazy.” She thought she could almost see this through the thin curtain of his skin. His eyes remained closed. He breathed in and out, his sunken chest holding a small pool of water like a tea saucer. “If you’re trying to get known as the weird kid, it’s working.” Beth tried to see over the reeds to where her friends and mother were, but her toes only went deeper into the doughy

pond floor. “I have to go,” she said. “Hang on,” Silver said. He stood and seemed even taller than before. His hair was slicked down, parted down the middle, and she could see that his head was strangely shaped, pointy. “I thought I’d give this to you.” He held out the grass rope. “I was just making it for something to do. Look,” he said, and loosely wrapped the rope around his wrist a few times before tying the ends together. He slipped it over his hand. “Here. It’s not a thing or anything. Just, whatever.” Beth took the bracelet and said again, “I have to go.” She slogged through the soft lake bottom to her friends, who were just coming out of the water and dancing across the ground to where they’d set up camp. Steph and Caitlin and the two mothers all in a row. Beth got to them, slipped the bracelet under her towel, and laid down on her stomach, as if it was her own back that had been marked. Not far behind, the search party stomped through the brush of the woods. *** The knot holding the braids into a bracelet was tight and complicated. Strands of lake grass twisted together and frayed, hiding the points where the two sides came together. Beth sat on her bed with her desk lamp shining down. She tried to use only the very tips of 62

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her fingernails to pick and pick at the knot. Finally, the two ends fell apart and the loops once again became a line. For some reason it seemed to Beth that it should suddenly take on more weight, but it was still light, as if it might float away. There was something in the sound it made when it hit Silver’s back, the immediacy of the boy’s reaction, the way Beth could see the sensation consume his whole world. It distorted his face and, if only for a second, flung him away like a rock off a sling. It reminded her of times when she had to get shots from the doctor. The other children would cry and reach out to their mothers for help and protection, but the pain never bothered Beth. In some inscrutable way, she enjoyed it. In the years since, she had found moments of injury—a broken toe in gym class, a burn on her arm from a frying pan—somehow satisfying, comforting. These sensations concentrated the world into that pinprick, that fracture, that burn. It was like a television in an otherwise dark room, the way that bright light can black out everything around it. She stood and turned and thwacked the rope against the bed. It made more of a thud than a snap, as it had on Silver’s skin. She threw aside the bedspread and did it against

the tight fitted sheet. This time it was sharper, and louder. Beth locked the door and pressed play on her iPod dock. A pop song buzzed tinny through the room. She whipped the bed once more, putting her arm into it this time. It was dusk outside, the late summer sun finally settling away, the street and the McKenzie’s house darkening. The lights were on, as they had been since the evening before. Beth saw figures move across the windows. She twisted the blinds shut and turned her head to look in the mirror behind her. She pulled the back of her tank top up to her shoulders. She unhooked her bra, letting the ends dangle below her armpits, and raised the whip into position. *** Silver’s house was small—just one story— and old. The paint was chipped and the windows lent a wavy distortion to the view from outside to in. In the middle of their middle class town, there was this stretch of a three blocks that called attention to itself with its ramshackle ranch cottages, its littered gutters, its barking dogs behind chain link fences. When Beth rode up just a few minutes before, she’d felt suddenly vulnerable in her pink oxford blouse and her khaki slacks. She climbed the three steps and knocked on the door. It was flimsy, unexpectedly hollow, and 63

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it seemed as though her little knuckles could have gone right through. Up until the second the door opened, the moment she saw the gray face of the man look down at her, she did not know what she was going to say or even why she was there. But then the man said, “Hello,” in a soft, but deep, almost guttural voice (he was surely Silver’s father—she’d heard that voice in Science), and Beth said, “I’m a friend of Silver’s?” Simple. True. Kind of. “I think so,” Silver’s father said. He turned and said, “Silver, are you here?” Silver came into the hallway and a peered over his father’s angular shoulder. “Oh,” he said. “A friend of yours?” his father said. He was looking at Beth. His eyes seemed to be touring her face and head, examining it as if it were an odd animal. “This is Beth, Dad,” Silver said. “Yeah, we’re practically best friends.” One side of his mouth curled. Silver led Beth down a slightly mustysmelling stairway. “I live in the basement,” he said, turning his head halfway. “Of course you do,” Beth said. At the bottom of the steps, Silver had to lean his head sideways to fit into the squat room. It was big, much bigger than her or any of her friends’ bedrooms, and all that

space made it look empty. There was a bed, a dresser, two chairs—one upholstered, but thread-bare, and one that had been snagged from a dining room set—and a card table in the corner, a makeshift homework desk, but it was all terribly insufficient. The carpet was beige and dingy. Window wells let little light into the room. Silver sat on his unmade bed, leaned over the side and plugged in the Christmas lights that were taped into a zig-zag across two walls. Beth thought of Charlie Brown’s shirt. She sat on the straight-back chair. “Did you know that kid?” Silver asked. Beth said, “Not really,” feeling as if she was lying and telling the truth at the same time. “So what’s with ‘Silver’?” she said. “It’s a family name.” “‘Silver.’ That’s so weird.” Silver shrugged. “You aren’t wearing your bracelet,” he said. Beth pulled the grass rope from her pocket. “I don’t want it,” she said, holding it out to him. “Why’d you give it to me?” He shrugged again. “Why’d you hit yourself like that?” she said. “I already said, I don’t know.” She looked away and tried to not think of the pure, clear snap of the rope against her skin. There was a basket of laundry with a pair 64

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of dust-colored underwear on top. There was what looked to be mouse droppings in the corner. “I kind of liked how it felt,” he said. “It hurt in a really good way.” “You’re such a fucking freak.” Silver slid off the bed onto his knees and shuffled across the carpet to her. Beth thought of how disgusting that carpet was. “You should get me,” Silver said. He turned and pulled his t-shirt over his head. His long, gray swath of skin was spotted with pimples. God, Beth thought, how is it possible that he’s even uglier from behind. The faint line from the day before still ran down his back. He curved forward and his spine pressed out of his skin. “Just once,” he said. “Don’t hold back.” Beth went to get up and leave, but only got as far as taking in a deep breath and sitting up so that she was now practically looking straight down at his stippled back. “You’re so,” she started. She held tight to the end of the whip and before she could let her conscience protest, she flung it forward and slashed at his skin. Silver sucked in through his teeth. Down the length of his back an inch-wide welt line rose. She put her hand out and placed two fingers on his skin, straddling the wound. “One more,” he said. Beth whipped him again. It smacked loudly. The marks

made a tall, thin X. “Ow,” Silver said. “That’s enough.” He leaned further forward so his head was on the floor and started laughing. “Okay, shut up,” she said. She was breathing heavily. “Do me now.” She moved to the floor, laid down, and wriggled her shirt up to expose her lower back. The carpet was crunchy against her stomach. She closed her eyes and saw in the darkness of her head the image of her own skin, pale and blank. She tried to see through Silver’s beady eyes, what she might look like to him, where those eyes would go. The grass rope came down with a light swack. She sighed and said, “No, for real.” A few seconds passed, but she remained in place, determined to be patient. Then she felt the whip cut across her skin. Her eyes and mouth burst open, but she saw nothing, nor did she make a sound. She could not hear a thing, no movement, no breathing. She might have disappeared, she thought. She or the world or both. Become gone. The pain pushed out from the source in hot waves, like the wake off a vessel. She pressed her forehead into the carpet and concentrated all her mental energy on the sensation. After a few moments the undulating sting subsided and she was left with a simple channel of heat. She found Silver sitting back on his feet. 65

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“Get me a mirror,” she said. He popped up and moved to the basement steps with such speed and ridiculous abandon that he cracked his head against the stair overhang. “Ah,” he said, putting a palm to his hairline. “God, hurry,” Beth chided him. “Before it fades.” When he returned, Beth craned her neck and gazed at the red mark with a kind of affection. She squinted her eyes and saw that there were even specks of deeper red within the stripe, tiny flecks where the skin almost broke. Monday came with no word on the McKenzie boy. Reporters stood just off school grounds: a few men and women Beth recognized from the local news; a couple better looking heads she suspected to be from national channels. Beth’s classmates gathered around them waiting for their chance to get known. How many of these kids knew the kid? Beth wondered. She thought that he must have had friends, but for the life of her, she couldn’t say who one might have been. He never had a visitor any of those few evenings they spent together. They never even really spoke to each other, just watched television and ate mac-n-cheese. Beth had never talked to Silver either,

had hardly taken notice of him, and now on Monday morning she had to busy her eyes with the books and folders she carried as she passed him in the hall. She sneaked looks at his table in the cafeteria, where he sat with other school unknowns, some of whom she went to elementary school and junior high with, and yet who still remained anonymous. (She tried to think if Matt sat there. But maybe he had lunch the earlier period.) Even hunched awkwardly over his pizza bread Silver towered above the other kids. He spoke with them intermittently and unsmiling—what did they talk about? Teachers, assignments. Matt McKenzie. What else? Did he say, “I had an interesting experience with a girl this weekend”? She looked for signs: hung jaws, nervous laughing, comical dropping of forks. She saw nothing, but still she watched and worried. “I think it’ll be this week,” Caitlin said softly. “Dana’s parents are going out. We talked about it.” It was a discussion coming up on its three month anniversary: should Caitlin and Dana do it? “You should hold out for someone way better,” Steph said. “Plus I’m pretty sure losing your virginity to a guy named Dana makes you at least part lesbian.” “Like Eric was such a catch,” Caitlin said, 66

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and Steph turned her head away. As for Beth, it wasn’t as if she didn’t care, but she hadn’t been able to form an opinion. The topic made her uncomfortable and vaguely frightened. She thought of the boys she’d gone out with and tried to imagine wanting to be with them in that way. She looked over as Silver scraped a mound of coleslaw from his plate into the trash and set his tray on the conveyor. That afternoon Beth met with the guidance counselor. He said they needed to work out a way for Beth to get her GPA up before applying to colleges the next year. Beth had always been a distracted and anxious student. Tests made her an insomniac. Papers became a mish-mash of half-asserted notions and hedged bets. “You’re right on the border,” the counselor told her. “How are you doing this semester?” She scrunched up the side of her mouth. “Well we need to find a way to get the schools to notice you,” he said. He said she needed extracurriculars. Did she like debate? Student Senate hold any interest? Sports? “We need you to be involved in the community of the school,” he said “That’s what they want to see, that you’re not just another student. Too many kids, their transcripts read like they just get done each day and disappear.” As soon as the words left him, the

counselor’s face went slack. There was a taut line connecting his eyes to Beth’s. “What I mean,” he said, and then finally turned his eyes downward, away, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Jesus Christ,” he breathed to himself. *** Again, Silver’s father answered the door. All limbs, this guy. A regular Ichabod Crane. Just like his son. He raised his arm and pointed a long finger to the basement door all the while drinking from a steaming mug of coffee. Beth got halfway down the stairs and said, “Hey, it’s me. Your dad let me in.” She waited for a reply. “If you’re doing something gross, stop it.” Silver appeared at the bottom of the steps. “What would I be doing?” His room was tidier this time. The laundry was in a basket with a lid. No sign of mouse turds. “I saw you looking at me in the cafeteria,” he said. Beth’s body stiffened. She looked everywhere but at him. “I’m not going to say anything to anybody.” Beth examined the room, walked the perimeter. “Where’d you move here from?” Beth asked. “Itasca.” Beth didn’t know where that was, but thought the name sounded exotic, all those vowels. “My dad got transferred and he 67

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didn’t want to drive so far,” Silver continued. “Sucks,” Beth said. Silver sat down on the stiff straight-back chair. “Do you want to do it again?” Their Science textbook was on the card table, open to the chapter on black holes that they were supposed to read that week. “Where’s your mom?” Beth said, turning the pages of the book. “Let’s just do this,” Silver said. “Does she live here?” “Please,” Silver said. He looked at her with those silly eyes of his, pleading, and then back to the carpet. She had stumbled upon something painful for him. “Come on, where is she?” No answer. Silver was rubbing the palm of one hand against the back of the other. Beth asked the question again. “Did you just come here to be mean to me?” Silver said. “I’m not mean. I’m curious.” Silver sighed and told her, simply, that his mother was gone. “Dead?” “I don’t know. I guess not. She left, like, eight years ago. I got a card from her once. I have a picture of her.” He began to stand, but Beth said, “I don’t want to see it,” and Silver sat down again. She felt a twinge of regret at having pressed

the subject. She knew, of course, that there was something wrong there. It was in the faint mildew stench, the dust that enshrouded most every surface. It was in the way Silver had cleaned up his dank basement and in what little difference it made. But mostly, it was the quiet of the place that tipped Beth off, and the fact that Silver’s father hadn’t yet opened the door to the basement and called out some excuse—a quick question for his son, an offer of lemonade—to find out what was happening down there. But she did not want Silver’s story, not the specifics, did not want to see him get excited about some lousy picture of his deadbeat mom. Now that she had pushed him to open up, she did not want to know what variety of sadness had consumed this house. On the card table was a stack of papers held together with a black metal clip. Beth squeezed the arms of the clip, slipped it off the papers, and hid it in the palm of her hand. She walked to where Silver sat and said, “Shut your eyes.” He raised his head, but did as she told him. Beth leaned over and, with a bit of effort in her fingers, spread the clip. She carefully placed it around Silver’s earlobe, and then let the contraption clamp itself down. Silver’s eyes opened and he stood from the 68

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chair and stomped his feet lightly in place. He raised a hand to the side of his head, but did not remove the clip. “Yikes,” he said looking down at Beth. “Damn,” Beth said. “Okay, take it off,” Silver said. “No, wait a few more seconds,” Beth said. She placed her palms against his chest. “Five more.” Silver cinched up his face. “Four,” she said. “Three.” She let the last two seconds expire in silence and then removed the clip. Silver’s earlobe was red. She put her fingers to the satiny skin and found it hot to the touch. She went to where she’d set her purse down on the floor and extracted the grass whip. “Now,” she said. “But you should tie my hands first.” Silver froze for a moment like a confused pet. “With what?” “Anything. It doesn’t matter.” He scoped the room and picked up a

long, white tube sock from the floor. “Gross. Not that,” she said. She went to his dresser and opened a drawer. She tore through his clothes and pulled out a yellow oxford. “Use the sleeve.” He twisted the shirt around her wrists and tied a knot. The fabric was stretchy enough that she could have easily pulled her hands right out, but tight enough to give the impression of constraint. Beth kneeled on the floor and placed her bound hands on the bed. She laid her cheek on top of them. Silver’s shirt smelled musty, as if it had been in the drawer for a good long while, but she could still detect laundry detergent beneath that stink. She wondered what bizarre off-brand detergent his father bought. “You have to raise my shirt,” she said. He stepped to her from behind and she felt the tips of his fingers drag across her skin as he pulled up. He stopped with her lower back exposed. “All the way,” she said. A second passed before he stretched the shirt 69

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out and over her breasts and shoulders. “Undo my bra,” she said. “But don’t try anything creepy.” After a bit of fumbling, he negotiated the snap and she took in a deep breath. Silver stood to her side and she could see his erection pushing at his khakis. She scooted back so that her shorts pulled down a bit, exposing a little more hip, another inch of skin. “Do it,” she said. The first strike was low on her back, the end of the whip snapping against her tender side. “Again,” she said. This one was higher. It felt as if the thing would rip right down to her ribcage. Her eyes watered. “Is that too much?” Silver asked. “It’s good,” she said. *** Matt McKenzie’s body was found two towns over two weeks after going missing. A man was walking his dog in a field. The dog bolted. When he got to the spot where the dog was barking and whining, even before he brushed away any of the dry dirt and leaves, the stench was overwhelming. According to reporters (whom Beth watched on the television in her bedroom and out the window where they stood stationed outside the McKenzie’s house), the body was severely decomposed, due to the soaring heat that latespring, forcing the police to consult the boy’s

dental records in order to make a definite identification. They estimated that he was killed only hours after leaving school. Beth thought of how they’d wandered the woods that Friday morning and how he was probably already dead by then. There was no movement in the house across the street. Beth went downstairs and found her parents watching the news report. She could see in her mother’s face that she’d been crying. “Sit down here,” Beth’s father said. Beth sat between them on the couch. She wondered what it would be like if it were just she and him, like Silver and his father. He ran a hand over her hair and then kissed her on the temple. He rubbed her back and she almost jumped in pain when his fingers crossed her latest whip mark. “You okay?” he said. “Yeah,” she said. “Little spooked by all this?” That evening, Beth and her mother made three pasta casseroles, one for dinner that night, one for the freezer, and one to bring across the street. Out in the heat, Beth held the casserole dish with a kitchen towel while her mother knocked. A man she’d never seen before answered the door. Some uncle, Beth suspected. There were always uncles. Behind him was a house that Beth knew well, but 70

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now it looked strange. Perhaps they painted, she thought. Her mother explained quickly that they lived across the street and that they’d made this casserole and if there was anything else they could do. The man nodded as Beth handed over the dish. He quietly thanked them and turned back to the formerly familiar rooms. When they crossed the street, Beth found that the whole neighborhood seemed odd, as if it the light was coming from the wrong angle, making unnatural shadows. *** The next day, Saturday, Beth went back to the lake. Her parents were at an emergency PTA meeting at the school. The night before, a handful of other parents from the street had gathered in their living room to discuss what safety measures they might propose. They talked about getting the neighborhood watch program going for real. “Something more than a sign every few blocks,” one man said. “A patrol,” another said. Beth had stood at the top of the stairs. The adults remained there until after midnight. In the morning, Beth found a collection of empty wine bottles in the recycling bin. The police had declared a six p.m. curfew for anyone under eighteen and all residents were encouraged to stick to groups regardless of the time of day, reminding the town in

press conferences that Matt McKenzie was abducted in the light of the afternoon. But Beth had seen enough television and movies to know that any sick fuck that wanted to snatch and kill (and whatever else) a thirteen year old boy would probably have little interest in a seventeen year old girl. They have types, is what she’d learned. She went into the alreadysweltering morning and quietly cut down the McKenzies’ driveway to the bike path. The lake seemed to be abandoned even of sound. She waded into the shallows and collected the tallest, thickest grasses she could find and then sat on the dirt of the shore and began braiding a new rope. She made three braids and then twined those together, and then repeated the process until she had a whip the width of her index finger. She bent it this way and that and thwacked it against the dirt until it loosened. She swung it like a propeller above her head and then rolled it and squeezed it into the pocket of her cut-offs. Making her way through the silent woods, back on the bike path, Beth turned a curve and gasped as she was met by the long, gray face of Silver’s father. He stood as if he’d been there for some time, legs shoulder-width apart, his arms down at his sides, as if he’d been calmly waiting just for her. His face betrayed no surprise at her appearance, no 71

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twist of identification. She froze in place. Her hands and feet went numb. Her lungs were empty of air. It was then, in this split second, with three feet between her and this man, that she for the first time recognized what Matt McKenzie must have experienced: the terror that took hold of every cell of his body, the sudden understanding that horror and death might be real after all. Her heart thumped wildly. She was stuck to that place on the bike path, weighed down by all the evil of the world. Silver’s father continued to look at her and, finally, said, “Oh.” He nodded once and walked around Beth. She remained there, imagining him coming to her from behind, pinning her arms back and pulling her off to some dark place. But he did not come back. No one did. Not Silver’s father, not Matt McKenzie’s killer, not anyone. Beth stepped forward once and then again, all the while seeing in front of her the face of a boy she hardly knew at all. She saw his face the way she did the afternoon he disappeared, as she rode past him on this path. She went forward until the path opened up at Silver’s street. She went to his house and turned the knob of the flimsy front door, went down the basement stairs and found Silver just sitting up. His face, so like his terrifying

father, looked up at her in sleepy confusion. She laid down next to him in his bed and it seemed to Beth that instead of just a thin sheet, there was a wider swath of fabric over them, an endless blanket under which laid everything in her life: her mother and father, her friends, Matt McKenzie, his murderer, high school and college, boys she had gone out with and boys she had yet to meet, everything she feared and all could imagine for herself. In the midst of this cacophony of memory and thought, in this bed in this basement, Beth and Silver kissed and undressed. Their pale skin glowed. Their terrified hands brushed at each other’s bodies—all that muscle and fat and hair and bone. All that skin. At moments it felt to Beth like a struggle, but at others it was more of a dance, a strange choreography of taking and giving. The act itself, the deed, ended nearly as soon as it began, and with a shot of pain the likes of which Beth had never felt before. When they were finished, they remained there for a good long while, holding tight to one another, as if each was promising to never let the other go. *** The police caught Matt McKenzie’s killer a month later. He was a man in his late thirties who worked at a large nondescript office park in the next town over. The news showed him 72

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being led into a police car, his head covered with a blue windbreaker. That night, after eating the pasta casserole from the freezer with her parents, Beth texted Caitlin and Steph about Matt McKenzie and his killer, and about Caitlin and Dana, who still hadn’t done it. Beth looked up twice and found her mother’s eyes on her. “Are you going to stare at me all night?” Beth said. “Probably,” her mother said. Reporters once again lined up outside

the house across the street. The McKenzies, though, were already gone, having slipped away earlier that day. Beth watched from her bedroom window until after eleven, when the reporters packed up their gear drove their vans away, and the neighborhood was once again dark. She texted Silver to say goodnight, and then again, just before falling asleep, to voice a thought that was lingering in her head, that there were just too many freaks in this world.

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If You Can’t Find Work, Make Trouble An Interview with Dorothy Allison Dorothy Allison is the author of numerous books of prose and is an award-winning editor for Quest, Conditions, and Outlook - early feminist and Lesbian & Gay journals. Bastard Out of Carolina was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. The novel won the Ferro Grumley prize, an American Library Association Award for Lesbian and Gay Writing, and became a best-seller and award-winning movie directed by Angelica Huston. It has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Cavedweller also became a national best-seller, New York Times Notable book of the year, finalist for the Lillian Smith prize and an American Library Association prize winner. Her short story collection Trash won two Lambda Literary Awards and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing. Her novel She Who will be published in 2012 by Penguin Putnam. Before reading from her new novel, Allison sat down with Sycamore Review’s Chidelia Edochie before a live audience at Purdue University in November 2011. Chidelia Edochie: You write in several different genres: fiction, poetry, and essays. Is there something unique you get from each genre that you don’t get from the others? Dorothy Allison: I suppose there is—but it’s reached a point where almost everything I write begins with poetry. But I’m not a very good poet. And unfortunately I know that. I learned long ago to take strong poetry and shift it to narrative. But it’s unpredictable. I love fiction. I dearly love fiction; so that’s pretty much where I go. But it’s about what I want to achieve. I was raised in the Baptist Church and that is an issue; so doing essays is a problem

because then I start sounding like a bossy, democratic, red-dog preacher—and I try to avoid that. So I suppose I could say that that’s my least favorite form because I’m not always in control. In fiction, I’m in control, once in awhile. And that’s very satisfying. But favorite? My sister accused me of wanting to be a “gawddamn renaissance woman,” to quote her in her Florida accent. She says, “You don’t do one thing; you try to do everything. And you don’t do any of it that well.” My sister is a corrective to all of my assumptions. And she tells me that my real gift is for country music lyrics.

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Chidelia Edochie: So you were born in the late was desperate, I applied for everything and I 40’s. You were part of that early baby-boomer won most of it. It’s just, you know, they get a working class kid who can talk right and they generation. just fall all over you. You must know about Dorothy Allison: I am the last of the baby- this. That’s an accident of history. boomer generation—1949. If I were born five years earlier, I’d be a waitress, I’d be dead. About that, I have no Chidelia Edochie: How did that affect you, doubt. If I were born where you are now, where artistically and personally and intellectually, half of the scholarships that I applied for have and how do you think that that shows itself been gutted or gone, I’d be in this generation, in your work? which is not such a good place. That means I was part of this wave that moved into the Dorothy Allison: Oh honey, oh you have no colleges, and we love literature. It was a time idea. History is fascinating. Because of when of the establishment of enormous numbers of I was born—you don’t know this!—because small presses and small magazines. It was also, you live in a very different time, god save you. by the time I got to college, the early woman’s But I was born a part of a generation in which movement. I stepped into glory. I am a very education became possible for the working lucky person. Very lucky, and I’m damn clear class. There were scholarships. I won so many and damn grateful. scholarships that when I went off to be a freshman, I gave my momma money cause she Chidelia Edochie: It’s interesting to think was working as a waitress and wasn’t doing that of writers as being a products of their time. well. And I won everything you could possibly I noticed your name was listed on the win. I was like my momma’s little miracle OccupyWriters.com, and I was very pleased child. That is entirely a product of being the to see that. last of the baby-boomers. Because we had this huge population moving into colleges—I Dorothy Allison: I signed up within three won a National Merit Scholarship, I won hours of the announcement, but then I knew all those little cute Christian scholarships, I people who were working on it. won, you know, the JC scholarship. I mean, I 76

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Chidelia Edochie: How do you think writers Brooklyn and Portland, and we’re seeing a are affected by social and political movements whole new range of work in which people are being fiercely experimental and fearless in general? in subject matter, which wasn’t the case in Dorothy Allison: Well, you might as well the last decade you might’ve noticed. There write, children, cause you ain’t going to get were some really sad books getting a lot of a job. And actually, you might as well write attention. what you want to write because you ain’t This seems to me it could be that moment going to make no money. This is just the in which we crest and a new wave comes. economic reality of the moment in which we There’s every reason to think so. Especially find ourselves. I have a nineteen-year-old son since there’s a new activist generation. I can’t who’s just starting college, and I’m like, “Stay tell you how sad it got to be, cause I go to in school kid, there’s nothing out there.” I have a lot of colleges and I would go to colleges students who are extraordinary writers, who and I would say, “When’s the last time any have won major awards and can’t find a job. of you made any trouble?” and they would That means you can’t write to please anybody. all look at me like, “Trouble? What trouble? It ain’t going to make any difference, so write We’re looking for work.” But if you can’t find to please yourself, and that’s one of the things I work, make trouble! You are—never mind. see happening. Because, if they’re not going to See? There comes that Baptist preacher. I got give you a big advance, you don’t have to cater to watch her or she’ll come right on. to them. You can write what you most want to write. And now, you might be publishing Chidelia Edochie: I’d like to talk to you a little it on the web or you might be printing it off, bit about Bastard Out of Carolina, because you and I’ll show you how to operate a saddle begin it with an epigraph, which is a quote stapler. I know how to do that. from James Baldwin, and it reads, “People pay But it actually seems to me that it allows for for what they do and still more for what they the possibility of a return to an enormously have allowed themselves to become, and they vibrant literature. The kind of literature that I pay for it simply with the lives that they lead.” grew up in, as a writer. I work with Tin House Why did you start this book with this quote? magazine, which is a bi-coastal magazine in 77

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Dorothy Allison: I love James Baldwin. The high point of my adolescence was when I figured out James Baldwin was a homosexual. It just, it cracked the world open. And suddenly everything I had read by him, I went back and read again. And then when I found that line, it said to me what I knew, which is that the great tragedy of family violence ,of failure to protect our own, is that we then have to live with what happens as a result of all of that.

me in half when I went out on your campus. And I’m addicted to headline news. But I’m watching Penn State and I’m watching all these people and all these kids from the college there who are going on and talking about how their faith is shaken and they’re trying to figure all of this: how could men whose responsibility was to protect young people fail so utterly to protect them. And now we watch they all, what happens as a result. You pay for what you do. You pay for it because it stays with you. How terrible. How terrible to have Chidelia Edochie: Do you think that that been someone who failed to stand up and do quote applies to mostly to your protagonist, something, you know, a decade ago in that [Bone]; Bone’s father, who is basically her situation. James Baldwin knew about that. tormenter; or to all the characters in the book? Chidelia Edochie: So you have all these Dorothy Allison: No, it applies mostly to really interesting intricacies in Bastard Out Annie, her mother. And to Bone. Yeah. I like of Carolina. What was it like seeing it then to think deeply with James Baldwin. I think translated into film? Do you feel like you a he thought deeply. And that quote means a lost a lot in that process? lot more—you may think you’re doing fine, but it’s all going to come back on you—you Dorothy Allison: I didn’t lose shit—they paid pay for what you do. It isn’t like God’s going me cash. to come down and stomp on you, he don’t have to. You have fallen into—well. There Chidelia Edochie: Do you feel like the book goes the Baptist preacher again. lost any of its depth? Or did it gain anything Our lives become what we make them. Look from being made into a film? at what’s happening in Penn State. I’ve been trapped in the hotel room cause the wind cut 78

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Dorothy Allison: The book gained because the author was paid money [laughs]. No, I had a hard time. I was terrified of selling the book to the movies because I was terrified they would make a soft-core porn version. You know: white panties and that trickle of blood on the side of the child’s mouth that was so common in early television when they would approach the subject. I just couldn’t figure out how they could do it. And it was Barbara Kingsolver who said, “Shut up, bitch, and take the cash!” She said, “If you do not sell the movie rights, they will make a movie, call it Bastard out of Kentucky. You’ll never see a dime, and that’ll happen.” She said, “Take the money, write another book. This is the way we live.” And I had gay male friends who wrote mysteries and who lived on movie rights and they were like, “Do it!” And it’s true. The only reason I own a house is thanks to Anjelica Huston and Ted Turner and Showtime because writers don’t ever make enough money that banks will trust you. Even if you have a best seller, banks don’t trust you. They know that’s this year, not next year. But movie rights meant I could put up a third on the price of a house. But the movie itself, oh yeah. They meant well. I was raised in the Baptist Church. They meant so well. And Anjelica Huston—she sent a limo

up to my house. All my neighbors came out and looked. And my kid was impressed and I got to go to Santa Monica and meet her dog walker. She took me into her studio apartment and her husband is an artist with giant canvases everywhere. You walk through giant canvases back to Anjelica’s office and here’s Jennifer Jason Leigh sitting on the couch looking like a scared rabbit. And then there’s the most beautiful young man I have seen in my life and, you know, I hang out with gay men— I’ve seen some pretty boys. This Adonis walks into the room. I lost my breath, and I’m just staring at this guy. And he says, “Miss Huston?” And he goes under the desk and I realize there are three dogs hidden under the desk. He pulls the dogs out, nods, and leaves, and I’m like, “Who the fuck is that?” And she says, “That’s my dog walker.” And that was when I figured out I’m in the wrong place. This is another reality, and from that moment on—well then, when she leaned over and kissed me on the mouth, I lost it completely. I was like, “What do you want? I’ll give it to you. Give me money.” I kept remembering Barbara Kingsolver—“Get the money.” Chidelia Edochie: It’s interesting you mentioned Ted Turner because I know he 79

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played a big part in [the film] not being released for TNT. It was moved to Showtime. Can you talk a little bit about the controversy surrounding Bastard as a film in contrast to the acclaim it got in book form? Why do you think there were those different reactions? Dorothy Allison: Well, actually, the same issues arose in terms of the book also. The book deals with violence, and the book is a very careful construction of an account of child sexual violence. I tried to write it in such a way as to prevent anyone from deriving any erotic charge. Because let’s be clear a lot of accounts of incest and rape and sexual assault are quasipornographic. It’s what I call soft-core. And a lot of medical studies are also written in such a way as to have that erotic charge. I tried to write in such a way that you couldn’t do that. But you know, perverts are perverts. We’re, as a race, we are just amazing in how we can convert this stuff. I was clear about what I was doing but it is hard for some people to separate a book that is critical on the subject from a book that derives that other charge. And that was applied both to the novel and to the movie. It’s harder with movies because visual imagery is really much more difficult to construct and control. I actually think Anjelica Huston did a really

good job with the violence in the book. It’s interesting, I at one point clocked it against what I had written. And she pretty much went line by line in how she did the scenes, trying to be that careful. The problem with Ted Turner, which most people don’t know, was that was the heyday of the V-chip. That’s gone away, by the way, so you don’t know about this. The V-chip was an attempt to create a mechanical way to prevent violence from being broadcast. All movies, all television shows would have built into them a little code that would alert the V-chip if there was violence present. Now, that code didn’t differentiate between movies that would be about incest and critical of incest and movies that celebrate incest, that you could find on the porn channels. Ted Turner was putting a lot of money into the V-chip and when Anjelica Huston delivered the draft of Bastard with these really carefully controlled scenes, he got to those scenes and lost it. He says, “I can’t broadcast this; it’ll trigger the V-chip.” Chidelia Edochie: The V-chip that he created. Dorothy Allison: Well he and Al Gore, who was in on it too, by the way. A whole bunch of people were backing the V-chip. But it was the mechanistic, everything-on-one-level 80

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approach to violence—it doesn’t work. You know, really absurd. But he, for complicated political reasons, couldn’t just bury the movie. I actually think it also had to do with what a soft kisser Anjelica Huston is. And I think, I just have this sense of her going into his office and just saying, “Ted, honey.” And he gave her the movie. Back then it was four million dollars, which is nothing now, but this is twenty years ago. And he just gave it to her. And she walked over and said, “Showtime, honey.” Next thing you know, it’s where they derive that “Showtime, no limits” banner from. Because they broadcast this movie that was so scandalous. You can see the movie—it’s not that scandalous. It’s—it’s devastating. There’s a scene where Daddy Glen picks [Bone] up by the neck that I think is one of the most powerful scenes of child assault ever filmed. She got it dead on. Which is what I tried to do in the book, which is, this is entirely about a monstrous act. It’s not even sexual. It’s just so horrible, I can’t watch it. But I can’t watch most of the movie, for another reason, and this is much more complicated. Anjelica Huston, God bless her sweet soul, was the child of a very rich man and was raised in Ireland in an upper class—she was raised in a castle. She doesn’t understand poor people.

She doesn’t. She didn’t even understand the parts of the book that are constructed—if you read Bastard, it’s designed that there is an enormous amount of humor. That’s part of how people in difficult circumstances survive is that they have this resilient sense of humor. I designed it—I mean I’m ruthless, honey. I set it up, I soften you up. I get funny, funny, funny until it isn’t. She didn’t get that. So I call the movie one damn weeping session after another. Because she didn’t know you really have to show how people survive. Doesn’t get it. And that’s a class construction. She got the violence. I won’t even talk about how I think she has that information, but she has it very clearly, but she didn’t understand. And she didn’t understand Southern. She called me from Whiteville. They’re filming in Whiteville, South Carolina. They want me to come to Whiteville. I’m like, “I’m staying in Northern California. I’ve been to places like Whiteville. I’m not coming.” She calls me and she says, “I have to ask you some painful questions.” And I’m like, “Okay, I’m ready.” “Why do you people bury tires in your front yards?” And I’m sitting there thinking, “You grew up in Ireland, bitch, you don’t have time.” So I’m like, “Well it makes a cheap fence.” “Why, then, do you paint them white?” “So you won’t fall over them.” I mean 81

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I’m making this stuff—do I know? It’s in my genetic heritage, but can I explain it? Chidelia Edochie: Well, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about being a Southern writer. You’ve talked a little bit about the struggle of being labeled a Southern writer. Do you think that writers from other parts of the nation have to deal with that same sort of mean stereotype—like do Midwestern writers have to worry about writing in a Midwestern way? Same with New England. Dorothy Allison: Yes. Yes, we have this concept of regional literature. We have certain assumptions about it, and I’m telling you: it’s hard to be a Southern writer because the assumptions about Southern writers is that we’re all comic. I do think that’s a defensive construction a lot of Southern writers have. It’s like I said. If you’re going to survive hard times and being held in contempt, you will develop a humor to deal with it. So we have that comic element. But a lot of assumptions about Southern writing is also contemptuous of that humor and really doesn’t understand it and only recognizes it when its really easy, the cheap humor. Midwesterners, I hate to tell you, are assumed to be boring. But I love Muriel Rukeyser. I’ve had a lot of students from Indiana, Nebraska,

Iowa—mostly semi-rural, poverty level writers because those are the people who come to work with me. I recognize that there is a lot of common themes and a lot of common language. So we have regional writing. It’s just that we have these prejudices about it that really get in the way. A lot of it has to do with where they shelve you. I had an advantage being a Southern writer because we’re a recognized genre. You poor Midwesterners don’t even get recognized as a genre. You should have some really mean, awful books written about you and then you could defend yourselves. Next think you know, you’d have a movement and that could help. But we find the same thing. I live on the West Coast, and there’s this assumption about West Coast writers being more trivial, prone to a kind of not-very-deep spirituality. You know those assumptions. They’re on television. Chidelia Edochie: Well it seems like a lot of the Southern writer assumptions come from the idea that there’s a storytelling gene in Southern people in general and it comes from the grandmother in a rocking chair on the porch telling the family history. And, like, the black slave narrative being told around a fire while the master’s asleep. But you’ve made this 82

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really interesting distinction between story telling as a survival technique and storytelling as an art form. Can you elaborate a little bit more about that distinction? And how does it show itself in your own work? Dorothy Allison: Well I hesitate to feed the prejudices and assumptions. I don’t know that there is a storytelling gene, but I do know that culturally storytelling is really important in itself. But I also think it’s very important in working class culture and in poverty culture, that storytelling is something you can have access to with no other resources. It is also often the construction of a defensive narrative. Why we are the way we are is a story that Southerners are telling all the time. I think Midwesterners are also telling that story all the time. It’s the common story. We explain our lives, except that good storytelling doesn’t explain. The problem is, at least, the stories I grew up on. Two things you need to know: my mother wouldn’t tell me anything. My mother wouldn’t tell a story to save her life, or to save mine. She was adamant about it. My aunts would tell stories, but they lied. And I knew they lied, or at least I learned over time they lied. They loved a good story more than they loved the truth—they didn’t love the truth at

all—and that got to be a problem. The other thing is Southern storytelling, which might also be those stories told around the fire, doesn’t have any structure. It starts with, “You know he wrecked the car. It was that blue Chevrolet. It was that blue Chevrolet that Tom got when he broke up with Margaret. You know Margaret?” And you know, it’s like cut. Cut. Every, every sentence connects to another that cuts. And by that time you’re over into Kentucky and the people that left the farm there and the cow that died. It has no organizing principle. It just goes and goes and goes. That could be genetic, I don’t know. I do know that it’s a great way to pass the time, it’s a great way to distract children, and it seems to be what happens to grandmothers on porches. But writers, writers have to be ruthless, writers have to shape a story, writers have to have somewhere they’re going that will end— that they have a goal in mind. Otherwise it’s like, “Is she never going to shut up?” You know, story has purpose. My ideal story arc is probably that bell jar curve thing. Rising tension, rising tension, you’re more and more worried, something happens. I like to hit the wall and have something startling happen. That’s structure. Story doesn’t naturally have structure. Writers impose structure. 83

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Then there is the other detail. The greatest learning experience of my life was when they wanted to do an audio version of Bastard. They told me if I did not do it, they would do it. Which meant they would cut it by a third. They were like, “You can take out a third or we’ll take out a third.” I had read Reader’s Digest condensed novels, and I went to the book and I did it. It was deadly. It just about killed me. But I did it line by line, cause I’m not going to cut subplots and people. They wanted me to just cut out sections, big sections, and I’m like, “You can’t do that.” It was hell. It was truly hell. But I figured out how to do it. I fought like a dog to get an unabridged version because it was such a crime. I had taken eight years to finish the novel. I had cut it down, I had cut it, expanded it, cut it, and expanded it so many times—there was no fat. I had to give up meat and substance, but it taught me that anything could be tightened. I kind of learned that already sitting with my grandmother who never stopped telling the same story, from the day she was born until the day she died.

Chidelia Edochie: I love how you embrace those tags. But do you ever feel like those labels constrict you in any way when it comes to the subject matter of your work? Do you ever feel bound to only write on topics that are historically related to those labels? Dorothy Allison: Well, you heard me talk about humor. I should also talk about perversity. Part of how writers survive is that you should go where they don’t want you to go. You should do what they don’t want you to do. And for years I’ve practiced an art form I call “Don’t be what they want.” If they invite you to speak as a lesbian, show up with pictures of your child. If they invite you to come talk as a Working Class writer, show up wearing your “Queer Forever and Happy About It” t-shirt. Basically, I’ve practiced that whichever of my many identities they most emphasize with when they give me the invitation, I show up with at least one other identity that people are going to be a little uncomfortable with, just to add a little frisson to the room.

Chidelia Edochie: So what did you do for this Chidelia Edochie: Besides being a Southern [visit]? writer, you are also labeled a Queer writer, a Feminist writer, a Working Class writer. Dorothy Allison: Honey, I’ve been flirting Dorothy Allison: I’m double-shelved. with you since I got here. 84

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[laughter] Chidelia Edochie: I didn’t notice. Dorothy Allison: You didn’t notice? Oh no. I’m getting old. No, I’m old. I’m doing the best I can. Chidelia Edochie: So with the subject matter of your novels and your short stories and your poetry—they talk about poverty and rape and incest—and combining that with the personal history you’ve revealed in essays and in interviews, do people often misread your fiction as straight-up memoir? Dorothy Allison: Yes, god yes. Worse than that, ex-girlfriends show up and say, “I read that story you wrote about me.” And I say, “That’s not about you. You’ve mistaken the identity completely.” It’s complicated, but all writers have this issue. If we’re really, really good, they think it really happened. My sister Jean, when she read Bastard, she called me up—“I never knew you robbed the Woolworths. That’s so cool.” And I was like, “I didn’t rob the Woolworths, I made it up.” And she’s like, “Damn, I’m disappointed.” And I have cousins who, when they read the book, then assumed it was a verbatim account

of the family. It’s part of why I did [Two or Three Things I Know For Sure] was to clear up some of that—no, I’m a fiction writer, I tell lies. I’m just really good at it, and that’s sometimes confusing. And there’s another thing that’s a problem. There are writers in this room, right? Some of you will have the experience of writing about things that have happened to you, right? If so, then maybe you’ve had the same experience I’ve had which is if I create a scene based on something that actually happened, that I was there for, if I write it well, the scene buries [it] and I lose track of what really happened. Fiction trumps reality every time—if it’s any good at all. Actually, even if its bad, if it’s got lots of energy and authority, it will write over your memory. It’s a little bit like computers, you know, when you correct it and the earlier version is gone? But memory is like that. The novel I’m finishing is about a young woman who loses a huge chunk of her memory, and I researched it. It was fascinating to do all that research and to learn that what I learned as a writer is generally known very well in brain damage studies—that strong new memory will subsume earlier memory. You write a good version, the old version is gone. I think that’s one of the things that happened to my 85

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aunts and all those stories they told us—they just lost track. It sounded so good, it had to have happened.

Chidelia Edochie: You hope not.

Dorothy Allison: I hope not, but he sneaks off and reads things online and I can’t. I have to Chidelia Edochie: So, considering the way give it up. people often conflate your personal life with your fiction, is there anything you’re ever Chidelia Edochie: Well, when I first read afraid of writing? And how can any writer Bastard Out of Carolina, it was actually when I was studying in France. There was this course overcome that kind of fear? called “Dissidence and Disobedience in Dorothy Allison: You know, honey, that is a American Literature,” and we read your book sneaky question because I do have a list of and a few other books by queer American things I don’t write about. I have two sisters. writers. And it was the book that compelled They have kids. Twenty years ago I made a me to start writing. Is there a book that, for deal that I won’t write about those kids. you, ignited you at a young age? Or is there a Even though, my God, the material. It’s like, book that still spurs you today, to write? “Quick— grow up and die, so I can go and write about you cause, boy, the things you do Dorothy Allison: Oh, of course, yes. Toni that nobody would believe.” Your family is Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. When I read The just a repository of horrors. Just great, great Bluest Eye, it was like an explosion. I mean, I shit. God, it’s kind of daunting. No, I have had loved Carson McCullers and I love James limits. I don’t write about my son. The last Baldwin and I love Tennessee Williams. I thing I wrote about him was when I helped mean, I’m a Southerner and I’m excessive. to raise money for the [Nature Conservancy]. I love all those writers, but when I read The They were trying to save the woodlands and Bluest Eye it was just as if a light came on in a the wetlands, and I wrote an essay in which he room and the light was really simple. It said, “You can write about this, and you can write appeared and it was too easy. about it in complicated, layered, textured Chidelia Edochie: Did he ever read it? ways that nobody has ever told you was possible before.” Dorothy Allison: Fuck no. I don’t believe so. 86

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She writes not in the voice of Pecola, [the protagonist], she writes in the voice of the sister. And you know they treat Pecola terribly. It’s full of guilt and shame and violence, and enormous tenderness and enormous risk. It was just—I remember reading that book and sobbing. Because I wasn’t Pecola, I was this other little girl. This safer little girl. This hardeyed, critical, no-you-ain’t-going to-get-closeto-me little girl, that strong wonderful voice. It was like the voice of the Bible. It was lyrical. It was gorgeous. It was unafraid of talking about the smell of flowers and the taste of salt on a woman’s skin—that kind of enormous risk on the page. Nothing has ever given me permission the way Toni Morrison gave me permission. And for me, a white working class girl of the South, it was like, you know, “Get down on your knees, because you in big trouble.” Chidelia Edochie: These relationships [with books] are sort of like unrequited love. Do you think it’s important to foster friendships with other writers, and are there any challenges to doing that? Dorothy Allison: Oh, yeah. Oh god. “Make friends before you become famous” is my motto. I work with young writers and one of

the things I say is “you won’t survive if you don’t have other writer friends.” There’s a reason we drink. This enterprise is maddening. What is that quote you had, Pat? Talking about John Gardner? Patricia Henley (from the audience): Writing a novel is a sustained psychological battle with yourself. Dorothy Allison: You will go crazy. Write novels. It is the fastest gateway to an institution, you will ever find. It just simply calls everything into question. And, if you are doing it alone, well, we do it alone. This is the thing. You’re in a tiny room with stacks of books and you’re trying to add yours to the pile. The essential question is “Do I have the right to tell this story?” and that comes over and over and it’s never settled. Even when the book is published it is never settled. Then, there might be some people show up that argue with you, and tell you you didn’t have the right to tell that story. And then [there is the question], “Can I get it right?” Always, when you begin, there is this glory, there is this marvel of these amazing people in your head and this language that just, oh god, it burns, it sings, it’s wonderful. Then you put it on the page and it doesn’t burn and 87

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it doesn’t sing and you. You take something that did burn and sing and you turn it into dirt and you have to go back and—you know. There are writers in the room. We go crazy. We drive ourselves literally crazy in the pursuit of making something that will live past us, something that will live forever. You need other writers. You need other people engaged in the same enterprise—some of them just to say, “Well, drinking ain’t going to help.” This is one of my mottos. You need somebody else who actually knows what you’re trying to accomplish, and that is best sustained with people who are actually engaged in the same enterprise. I have writer friends I’ve traded work with for thirty years. My friend Jewelle Gomez and I have. We were editors together at an early feminist magazine. Now Jewelle writes black lesbian vampire novels and books of essays— really intelligent sociological analysis. It’s kind of an interesting mind that goes from sociological analysis to black lesbian vampires [who were] born in slavery and go into 2040. She’s a very different writer than me, but we know each other. We trust each other. When she tells me something, I know that there’s no sneaky, hidden “I’m jealous, I’m angry, I’m pissed.” We dealt with all that, and we grew up. We’re the same age and we grew up with a

similar politics so we have this understanding. Having somebody you can call in the middle of the night, which is when most writing gets done, let’s be clear, when the phone doesn’t ring and hopefully the cable modem is down and you can’t surf the web—someone you can call and read a sentence to, or a paragraph to, is invaluable. Or someone who can just say, “You’ve got to finish that god damn book, Dorothy.” I’m part [of a group who] calls ourselves “The Gang of Four.” Jane Hamilton, Karen Joy Fowler, Gail Tsukiyama, and I became really close friends a decade ago. Now, don’t tell nobody, but writers—we have bad habits—and one of the things we dearly love is to go beautiful places and be treated nice. There was this rumor, and at first we thought it was a joke, it was called the Maui Writer’s Conference. I mean, can you imagine? Go to a resort on Maui and, you know, talk about writing—whoa. They invited the four of us. We go off to the Maui Writer’s Conference and we were—let’s be clear—we were there with Elizabeth George and Terry Brooks and John Saul who are airport writers. Do you know what airport writers are? They have three houses and a boat, each of them. And airplanes, and they’re in all the airports. And they have movies every other year. We show 88

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up, and we’re literary writers. Worse than that, we’re feminist literary writer. We believe in sentences and they believe in twenty-five words or less plot descriptions and really fast moving and kill a lot of people. We were not on the same plane, but we were all at the Maui resort in bathing suits, with baby writers. We nearly went crazy. I mean, the four of us. We’re constantly asking ourselves “Why are we here?” It’s for the mai tais or for, “Let’s get together late at night and talk bad about the other writers.” In sheer defense, we really, really bonded. And we taught, we were ruthless. We were working with baby mystery writers and we’re like, “You can’t do that. You have to actually have actual characters people believe in. You just can’t kill them off cause they’re going to die in four pages.” It was a learning experience of the first order, but one of the things that happened is that, over fruit drinks by the pool, we talked about what it means to be a woman writer in this moment in history. Between the four of us, we have really interesting and unique experiences, and we’ve made all sort of livings as writers. I mean, Jane was an Oprah writer and Karen Joy had the Jane Austen Book Club and Gail is just a damn fine historical fiction novelist. And I come along and I write about sex and violence. But we’re all very powerfully shaped

by having, at this moment in history, really strong feminist convictions. We look at the business we’re in and how it works, and we’re very critical of it. And some of the business we’re in is just a pain in the ass. We basically formed a support group. One, we don’t lie to each other. No matter how painful it is to say, “This book is not done. I have read your galleys. Tell your editor to give you three more months and we’ll work.” We have, one of us has done that for one of the other of us. When Gail’s momma was dying, we all three were there. But the thing that we do that is scandalous and revolutionary: we talk about money. Chidelia Edochie: What’s so scandalous about that? Dorothy Allison: Because you’re not supposed to. Because American culture is completely designed to obscure the corporate capitalism nature of publishing. And who gets paid what is a big issue. It’s a big issue when you go to colleges; it’s a big issue when you go around and talk. We basically said, “When I get an offer, you will all know the details.” Then we set up a deal where, if you wanted really to get a bargain, you could get the four of us. We would give you a cut rate if you’d bring all four 89

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of us together. Because we could keep each other sane in some really horrific situations. And sometimes writers go to places where it’s an endurance trial just to get through because one gets asked unfortunate questions in public where you have your manners on and you can’t throw a mai tai at a questioner in a large hotel room. You have to treat them with respect. And I’ll look at this idiot in the room who is like, “Is it your lesbian lust that makes you make the women [characters] you make?” and I’ll be staring at this guy who asked this question and Gail will lean over and put her hand on my arm and say, “Don’t hurt him. He doesn’t know.” And I’ll say, “Actually yes, it’s all my lesbian lust. That’s where all my creative impulses come from.” Otherwise I would’ve thrown a drink at him, but Gail was there.

get rich. You better love what you’re doing. You better derive satisfaction from getting the story right and embarrassing somebody, which is one of the byproducts of writing fiction I encourage you to consider. The cash is not the point, especially not now, not in the relative collapse of publishing in the last five years. It’s coming back, and it’s coming back differently. It’ll give you a little hope, but you better love the enterprise. This is not a way to get rich. It is a way to scandalize people and to flirt with pretty girls and have a good time. Chidelia Edochie: And how does a writer put a project away for good?

Dorothy Allison: Oh, it’s never gone for good. There’s always hope. The right whiskey. A car wreck, a little brain damage. I might go back. I have three novels that are in boxes. I gave Chidelia Edochie: I believe you. my papers—I didn’t give, I sold my papers to Duke University. It’s how I’m paying for Dorothy Allison: That was revolutionary and my kid’s college education. But I kept a box. it has continued to be. We’re not supposed I’m going to give it to him when I die. It’s to talk about money, we’re not supposed to the three books that I wrote that are horrible. talk about the specifics of contracts, we’re One’s called The Word Witch and the Shadow not supposed to talk about the fact that Women. Would you want to read that? I mean, most successful novelists in America earn get real. It was awful. I mean, I read it and I’m approximately the salary of an Assistant like, “Whoa, she must have been on drugs.” Professor at the university level. You don’t 90

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Chidelia Edochie: Did you write this before Bastard or after?

departure from the themes that you explored in Bastard and in Cave Dweller?

Dorothy Allison: Oh, young. In my early 20’s. And under the influence of Feminist movement that spelled women with a “y.” You never want to really publish that shit. I’ve taken pieces of some of those and then worked them into other stories, but no, they’re in a box. You write a lot that you don’t publish. For She Who, I’ve got 2000 pages that are in a box. You won’t see it. My editor saw it. She was very unhappy. She liked some of those pages. But that’s the nature of writing. I call it accordion process. You expand, expand, expand, and then you cut, cut, cut, cut. You do that twenty, thirty times. You’ll have either lost your mind or you’ll have a novel.

Dorothy Allison: You know, like I said, I love James Baldwin. One of the criticisms of James Baldwin was he wrote the same story over and over again. And my response was that it was a damn good story to begin with, goddamn it. Sorry, I cuss. I try not to in colleges, but it’s just my nature. Yeah, your themes are your themes, your stuff is your stuff. I actually— especially as I’m getting older—I don’t think you have a choice about what you can write. Your stories come out of your life. They come out of what you see in the world, but you see what you see. Someone standing right beside you won’t see the same thing you see. And you just can only put on the page what you can put on the page. So, yes, it’s going to be the same themes. I write about violence. Mostly what I really write about is the aftermath of violence. What I really write about is what happens in families in which violence has happened, and that’s a lot of what Cave Dweller was about, it’s absolutely what She Who is about. I don’t know where everybody else lives. The world I live in, people are always, terrible things happen. I work with young writers and they’ll say,

Chidelia Edochie: How do you feel your writing has changed over the years? Dorothy Allison: I’m more ruthless. There’s some mistakes I don’t make that I used to make all the time. Now I make them when I’m tired or distracted. The world keeps changing and you write in the world and you’re shaped by the world; so you’ll be writing different stuff. Chidelia Edochie: Well, how is She Who a

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“Where does this plot thing come from?” And I’m like, “Okay, the people who live next door to me have a beautiful little girl. When we moved into our house, she was eight years old and our baby was newborn. He was oneand-a-half, and she became his babysitter. I love Noelle. She’s a wonderful little girl. I’ve watched Noelle grow up. I have admired her intensely. Her family barely survives. Her mother works in a child care unit. Her daddy’s a mechanic. He’s also had polio as a kid and he’s getting more and more crippled as he gets older, which happens to polio survivors. “It seems to me that every few months, there’s a car wreck or an explosion or something that happens next door. When Noelle was twenty, they discovered she had a metastasized brain tumor. She was a Kaiser patient, which in California means you’re at the HMO. They missed it and by the time they found it she was in big trouble. There was a lawsuit. They never paid them any money, but she gets treated, which is good, because there have been three brain surgeries. And this astonishing young woman that I adore works as a cook because her memory isn’t so good after you’ve had three brain surgeries.” That’s plot. Plot is what happens next door. Plot is what happens down the road. I wrote “Jason Who Will Be Famous”

because I kept driving downtown and looking at the tweakers on the corners. I found myself one day parked at a red light looking at this teenaged boy, maybe fifteen, standing on the side of the road—You know what tweakers are, right? Methamphetamines addicts—I’m looking at this kid and I was tired and irritable and he was doing that thing that tweakers do cause they can’t sit still cause drugs are running through them or the desire for drugs. His head’s moving, he’s tweaking. I’m looking at him, and I had this wave of hatred go through me. I hated him on so many deep and complicated levels. It’s a small town. I have a child. I have a young teenage boy. This was a young teenage boy. I just looked at him, and the thing that went through my head was, “Somebody should just slap your face.” Then it was like this wave followed behind it, and you’re looking into the face of this kid and I’m thinking, “Somebody has already slapped this kid’s face. Somebody has slapped this kid’s face repeatedly and the best he can do is what he’s doing.” And I was ashamed. I went home and I started writing this kid, and that’s where the story came from. Stories come from where you are in the world. There’s always going to be more stories. I been writing Western Sonoma County stories since we moved there, about half of which I’m still 92

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waiting to publish. A couple more people have to die. This is what happens. Plot is what you see happening around you in the world. You make it up, but it comes from somewhere. Oh, for God’s sake, just read the AP feed. I took a clipping out of the local paper today and I’m looking at it thinking, “I got to write this story,” because the most powerful plot is unbelievable until you put it into context of people you know. I’ll read the AP feed stories “Man Kills Three Children, Wife, and Cousin Who Was Visiting From Nebraska.” And I’m like, “What the fuck was the cousin doing there?” Then I think about all my cousins who are always showing up at my house and stealing the tools and I want to shoot them sometimes cause, you know, they leave and you go in and the kitchen drawers are empty and, “Oh fuck, he took that. Oh damn.” And I’m thinking that’s just like my cousin, and then I’m writing my cousin, but it’s the cousin in the newspaper article except I then give him my sister. You know, this is how fiction happens. You start with something that may be real, that actually happened, either to you or you picked it up in a newspaper clipping. I’m always being stuck in airports and, you know USA Today? There’s only one story that represents each state each day. Sometimes

it’s like a law passed in Washington in which they’re not going to allow cows to defecate by the side of the road anymore. I don’t get a whole lot of story stuff out of that. But then, “Thirty Bodies Discovered in Pit Next to New Road Construction In Peoria,” and I’m like, “Thirty? Thirty bodies?” And I start imagining. Story happens because the world is unbelievable. Chidelia Edochie: In an interview with Susanne Dietzel at Tulane in the mid90’s you said, “I don’t know any Southern writer who doesn’t begin with mama.” In Cave Dweller and Bastard Out of Carolina there is a clear exploration of the motherdaughter relationship. Do you continue that exploration in She Who? Dorothy Allison: No Southern writers and no “Country Western” writers don’t begin with mama. You know, what’s the primary story? “Mama tried.” That’s a full story. Two words—“Mama tried.” Everybody begins in that same place. I don’t know. I had a particular relationship with my mother. My mother was my lifesaver, my absolute heroine. She literally saved my life on a number of occasions in which I could just detail for you the way I’d be dead if she hadn’t done what 93

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when I was a kid and I’m really happy and proud. And he hates it. He hates the ocean. He hates the sunshine. He hates the other Chidelia Edochie: And do you continue kids. He particularly hates the child of this the exploration of the mother-daughter agent who is constantly trying to take me off relationship [in She Who]? for a drink. I let her take me off for a drink. I left my child in the presence of her child and Dorothy Allison: Yeah. Every mother- her child tried to drown my child. The rest of daughter relationship I invent is working my life I will pay for that—with guilt, shame, out something. But, god, we all work out and my boy telling me again how terrible it something. Now I have this child who I have was to be held under the water. You know: the fucked up completely I’m sure, and he will child-parent relationship. I should write the tell me all about it as life goes on. And that story except I’m so ashamed. is a whole new mother-daughter—motherson relationship. It’s a little different for me, Chidelia Edochie: Well, my final question is, but I have worked my way around it. You I’ve read a little bit about the challenges that only have the story you have. You have what you’ve faced in completing your forthcoming is your obsession. I will always go back to it. novel. Can you talk a little bit about those But, also, because it is so layered, because with challenges? And the challenges of completing the best intentions in the world we screw each a long project in general? other up. You know the Phillip Larkin poem “They Dorothy Allison: I went wrong in many ways. Fuck You Up, Your Mom and Dad”? I love I started this book writing about a young that poem. It’s so true. And then again, they woman who is assaulted in a parking garage don’t mean to fuck you up. That time I went in San Francisco. I knew that garage, and off to the Maui Writer’s Conference, part of I had all the setup and it was wonderful. why I went is I got to take my kid. My kid She gets thrown off the top of the parking was six-years-old and I go to the Maui Resort garage and she winds up in a coma for ten and I’m all thrilled cause I’m taking my son months. Yes, her mother becomes an antisomewhere I would never have gotten to go violence organizer in part because her mother she did. And then she failed utterly at other times. That’s thick and complicated.

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is convinced that her daughter was assaulted because she’s a lesbian. They don’t know that. They never find out who threw her off the parking garage. And she was raped; so, they might not have known she was a lesbian. She just was a woman in a situation where she got caught. I started writing that. I wrote from the perspective of Cassie who comes off the garage. She’s twenty-six [and] she wakes up thinking she’s thirteen. The last strong memory she has is when her father died when she was thirteen. She wakes up in a hospital and thinks, “Well there must have been a car accident, or something.” She can’t imagine what’s happened. That was really wonderful. Sometimes you get to write something as a writer that’s really deeply powerful and really challenging and exciting. Christ, I had 500 pages in four-and-a-half years and I was getting close to being done. And I thought, you know, I really should check some of this shit out. I mean, I’ve read all these books but I’ve never been to a coma ward and I’m writing about it. So I cut a deal and went down to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center down in the peninsula. If you’re a writer, and if you’ve had any attention, people like the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center love to see you coming. They’re happy to let you come in

and be on the ward and look at everything and make notes, but they want something in return. They always do. They just basically wanted me to help them raise money, which is something writers are useful for in this culture, and I was perfectly willing to do that. I discovered two things. One, I made up a whole lot of stuff that actually exists, that’s all pretty rational. I don’t know where I got it, but a lot of the equipment I imagined would be used in taking care of a coma patient actually is in use. They gave me the language, the names of this stuff, but what I hadn’t realized—I mean, I wrote about what happens to a family where the favorite child is destroyed. That’s pretty predictable emotionally in terms in what’s going to happen or could happen. And I watched that, being on that ward for a week and looking at families dealing with mostly teenage boys who had been in motorcycle accidents, who are the primary brain injury patients—at least, in California. That was overwhelming emotionally, and then I made a mistake. I was helping raise some money and they said, “Well, could you talk to this little group?” I started talking to this group of teenage girls who had suffered brain injuries. I’m a sucker for teenage girls. Not even about being a lesbian; it’s about being a female in this culture, and these were 95

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girls between the ages of thirteen and twenty who had suffered traumatic brain injury. One of them had just slipped on her steps in Oakland and fallen, hit her head, and lost language—all language—and had to recreate it. When I started, there were eight or nine. They were meeting as a support group and they were doing art stuff to try to deal with one of the big things that happen in brain injury, [which] is aphasia and loss of language. They were recreating it, and I wound up meeting with them. And in the course of that, I lost it. I mean, I worked with them for a year. I’m a sucker. I get pulled in. I got them writing poetry and stories and it was wonderful and terrible, and the book stopped—just stopped. You know what I said about the struggle is to constantly give yourself permission to tell this story? Being on the phone with these girls, going over to Oakland and meeting with them—it just stopped. I lost the right to the story. It fucked me up, and at a particularly bad time because my editor and my agent were in love with the book and wanted to publish the book and I wasn’t done and every time I looked at the book it was dirt in my mouth. That lasted three years. I should tell you I have a lot of prejudices as a working class writer in America. I have no patience with middle-class whiny insecurity.

And all of them sons of bitches running around talking about writer’s block, I used to just laugh at them. This is arrogance, and, in my opinion, if there is a God, she made a correction. She gave me writer’s block. Everything stopped. The engine of my life has been language. The engine of my life has been story making. And all of a sudden it was gone. I’ll tell you frankly, if we had not made an agreement when we made our son—you make a child, if it’s a boy, the contract is for thirty years; if it’s a girl it’s probably twentytwo years—but the contract is that you can’t drink or kill yourself for the duration of the child’s immaturity. I mean, this was—we’re lesbians. We’re really pragmatic, and we really did make that contract. In those three years, if I had not made that contract, I would have shot myself in the head. Because the thing that has always been reliable in my life went away. And I couldn’t tell anybody, cause I’m a famous writer, and I’m a famous feminist writer. And this was a pain in the fucking tuchus. I still don’t know what broke it. I know that I read every goddamn book that’s ever been on writer’s block, and I killed a chicken. I really did. I went to a Santeria priestess and we killed a chicken, and I apologized to fate and God. I went back to church, I drank, I 96

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quit drinking again. Everything you could do in three years, I did. Nothing, nothing. And then I made myself keep sitting down and trying. And dust, dust, dust in your mouth. Yuck. Then one day it started over. It was Cassie. It was the girl from the earlier book. She was looking up a hill and she was looking at a woman and she said, “She had a bullet shaped head.” That’s what I got. And I’m like, “What the hell does that mean, ‘a bullet shaped head?’ Must be ugly, must have no neck.” But she was talking again, and it started again. It was at a different place and there was this whole new woman who had not been in the early novel at all—this ex-nun who had been in El Salvador. The book went to this other place. And now my editor loves that book [laughs], but it’s hard to feel I have worked my way back into the right to tell the story. This shit can happen to you. You should get your friends in place because in all that time, when I was in a time of despair at not being able to get any work done, my friends who were writers were absolutely matter-of-fact that this will break. “You will get through this. You just have to sustain.” I think I got through it with them, and the love of a good woman. Audience:

Have you ever spoken and the

crowd wasn’t as accepting because of your background or because of a certain book? Dorothy Allison: It’s rarely about the book. Yes, I have spoken to crowds that were unaccepting. I have rarely had my life threatened, but it has happened. It is generally about me, and mostly it’s about being a lesbian. Or, in some ways, about being a lesbian feminist, which is much more confrontational than just being your everyday, average hang-out-at-thetrailways Lesbian. It’s very, very hard. It’s hard to be hated. The training ground I got was I worked in the anti-violence movement for most of my adult life, starting in my early 20’s, in the battered women’s shelters in the Red Cross centers. And I’m a weird, weird lesbian. Oh god, this is awful, but I’m a person of faith. I go to Quaker services cause they don’t fuck with me. I’m not so good with Baptist services. They do fuck with me. But for years I worked with the Children’s Defense Fund. Let me just say: to be a white lesbian feminist from the South and to work with the Children’s Defense Fund where you will mostly work with Black ministers from the South who at some point in the course of your work with them have to tell how hard they are praying that you won’t go to hell but they know you’re going to hell [laughs]. They 97

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have to tell you you’re going to hell. They don’t hate you. They have enormous pity for you. I find pity harder to deal with than hatred, and I’ve had those confrontations where people are just hateful. You know, where they’re spitting at you. That’s the grown up experience of being an interesting person in America [laughs]. I’m really interesting. My very existence seems to be a challenge. Occasionally, some tacky son of a bitch will write a critique of my work, and I want to kill him. There’s just no way around it [laughs], and sometimes the critique is interesting and has a point, but a lot of times it too is about my person. When Bastard became a best seller and there was a wonderful, laudatory review in the New York Times book review, there was this letter that came in that wasn’t about the book, it was about me. It was about why they would write a review of someone like me. It was like I wasn’t supposed to be reviewed cause I’m, you know, one of “them girls.” God. No, that’s going to happen. Every writer gets used to the idea that you can get startled by people’s discovery of their prejudices. Mostly they’re prejudiced cause we write about families and we write about women, and that is the huge layer of contempt in critical thinking. It’s that, if a man writes about families and women, like

Jonathan Franzen gets an enormous amount of admiration for writing so well about women. I write really well about women, but it’s assumed that I have, you know, licentious reasons for writing about women. You’re always going to have to deal with that. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to develop both a really strong sense of what your skill set is and then where your foibles are. And you have to balance your life between strong sense of skill sets and not being an asshole. That’s just the balance of being a writer. You have to just keep trying to be the best you can, and occasionally life will reduce you and humble you and some minister who you’ve worked with for four days will lean in and say, “It’s such a tragedy that you’re going to burn in hell fire, dear.” “Oh, such a tragedy that you think that way, sir.” Audience: With critics, those who don’t believe what you believe, do you ever try to reach out to them in your writing? And if you have, has it ever worked? Dorothy Allison: Yeah, you know, you have to be in the room with people who don’t believe what you believe. What is it? Bernice Reagon said, “Genuine change isn’t family; coalition isn’t family; writing isn’t family.” 98

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You’re going to be dealing with strangers, and the measure of your work is, can you reach them? Can you get them to step into your story? When Bastard was published, I got an amazing amount of really laudatory reviews, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful reviews. And then I got a review—not a review—an essay in The Nation by a black writer, a black queer writer whose work I greatly respect. I read that, and there were things that he said in there—he was critical about some of my language choices and he was critical about some of what I do in terms of race—and he was right. So then I went to a conference in New York and he was in the same hotel and we had coffee and talked and I’m like, “You know, you’re the only one that pointed this out.” And we became friends. If they give you genuine criticism that shows you something you hadn’t thought about, then it’s wonderful and you can be better and a better writer and can save you future humiliation, which I’m always trying to avoid. But you have to take a deep breath and listen. Sometimes if they do cheap shit like make witticisms at your expense, it’s hard to listen to the genuine criticism. And they’re so afraid. All writers are terrified. I would see other writers who would get lots and lots of praise and sell lots of books and I would

think, “Hmm. Not that good.” And then I understood, but I was very careful when I wrote reviews. This is not an easy enterprise to step into. It’s a little bit like going naked in public on a permanent basis. Audience: You talked about starting with poetry. At what point in the writing process do you feel like you move away from the compression of poetry into prose? Dorothy Allison: None of my poetry is about compression [laughs]. You grow up in the South and you grow up in the church and it’s just no, no, no. It’s about a lot of stanzas. I love prose that sings, and that’s how I think of it. It has to sing. I hate flat, and I’m trying to go away from flat. I go to poetry for that singing voice, for that lyrical, layered language that surprises you. That’s what I try to do in fiction. There, I can cut back and take words out and make it better. I don’t seem to have the same grace in poetry, which is unfortunate. But then again, you know about poets right? I think poets are saints. There are levels of sainthood. The high level are poets cause they don’t make a dime. I mean, poets only make money when they get awards, and they give them to each other, thank god. And then the next level of sainthood is short story 99

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writers who still don’t make any money, and get treated with contempt. You know, if you sell 2,000 copies of your short story collection you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m a success.” That’s not going to make you a living. You’re going to be teaching in a small college, and barely keeping your sanity. I don’t have the emotional endurance for that. I like grandiosity. I like excess. I was raised that way. You know, feed him a little whiskey and let’s see what he says, you know? But when I read for comfort, to make sense of the world, I read poetry. I go to small colleges all over America cause I’m a slow writer, and they pay me money. I also get to see good friends, and that helps. Then I sneak off and go looking for poetry chapbooks. Because at three a.m. I need a good book of poetry. I am constantly, and thankfully, finding more saints to fall in love with. I found Ron Rash when I was in one of my moments of despair in a hotel in Chattanooga. Cause one of my habits is I go to the sale table. There are all these marked down poetry chapbooks, and I’m like, “Oh look, these are three for four dollars.” If it’s got a good cover, I’ll open it. If I open it, if there’s one good line, I’m with that book, I’ll take it up to the room. My luggage

gets heavier and heavier. But there will be that three in the morning when I’m walking back and forth, chewing my nails and I’ll pull out this book. I pulled out Ron Rash Among the Believers. In five pages, I was on my knees on the floor crying because it was gorgeous, and more than that, it was my childhood. Because he grew up in the Genesee, which is just north of where I grew up, and I remember when being six-years-old and my mama driving us up into the mountains to look at where they were flooding those lowlands. They buried eight towns under water as a water control project. That meant you could get on a flatbed boat and row out into the water and look down and see towns under water. Esso gas stations and courthouses, and they were all wavery cause you were looking through water and the trees, and the leaves were coming up. I remember it from being six, seven-yearsold and looking down, and nobody had ever mentioned it again. And here I read this poem in Chattanooga in the middle of the night and Ron Rash is telling me exactly what I saw. He’s exactly describing the trees, the courthouses, the smell of the water. And I was sobbing cause somebody captured it.

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J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Open Letter to Japan Michael Martin Shea Dear Hiroshima, I can’t sleep. I kill everything I touch. The basil on the porch ran off with a knapsack & my last pack of cigarettes, & my hair’s still alive but afraid to look in the mirror. Hiroshima, I wish you were here. Feed me warm oatmeal, play soft music on my refrigerator, tell all the birds in town not to shit on my car. Any good deed a man does returns to leave nasty messages on his answering machine, you can’t kill two birds with one nuclear reaction, cats always land butter-side down, & so on. Hiroshima, I can’t do it alone. Today, I drew up the plans to bring back the ants I poisoned last fall. You bring the watermelon, the picnic blanket, the not-trying-to-end-the-world. I’ll stay inside & stare at the wall. To you, life is a snake eating its tail. If I ate myself, would I be twice as big or nothing at all?

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Your Heart Beats Fast Forever Iza Wojciechowska On his way home after dark, Bravery slinks through the shadows. Strength and Conquest light American cigarettes at the bus stop, Valor plays backgammon drinking tea. Honor walks through the park with his hands in his pockets, and Lightning catches fish. These are the boys I meet in Ankara, their names nouns laden with meaning. These are the ideas that Turkish men should grow up to embody; a father names his son after victory or pride. Entire generations of Warriors will grow up drinking tea in the shadows of mosques. Girls are named after pretty things. Girls are, after all, soft and delicate. Rain runs fingers through her hair, Silk sits at her window. Honeybees and Flowers lie in the sun, waiting for Mystery to arrive with the gossip. All these girls wear their hair long, they have symmetrical faces, high cheekbones, tiny wrists they maneuver above their heads in time to cymbals, drumbeats; they’re beautiful with dark, deep eyes. They stare at Valor and Honesty, they entwine fingers, maybe. But Honeybees and Emperors do not tangle legs, his words don’t catch in her sheets, in her hair. She will raise her eyes demurely from a tea glass from across the room; he will tell her at once that he loves her.

Here, love is carefully sought and easily found—here, everyone’s in love. The verb “to like” is scarcely used; Turkish mouths know only how to love. Seni seviyorum—“I love you” in this careful tongue—flutters on the lips like the password to some sacred city. The words so deliberately thought out in English, so weighty and important in American films and lives, are passed from hand to hand in Turkey nonchalantly. A greeting, a casual exchange, they love each other immediately. I love you means Do you want to get coffee? after meeting one week ago. It means You’re cute from across the bar. They love their friends, their families, their films, palaces, skies. They love their flag and their history, their seas and their jobs. Most of all they love Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded their country nearly a century ago, whose name it is illegal to defile, whose portrait covers fifteen floors of every building during national holidays so that streets are lined with giants, the country’s darling gazing toward the sky in every direction. Like is too weak for the passionate Turks. At a private university on a hill, in the morning, the parking lot is stagnant. Rich kids in Prada sunglasses, Dolce & Gabbana

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sneakers, smoke entire packs of American cigarettes, exhaling after the final bell rings, frantically apologizing before the teachers mark a menacing O on the attendance sheets. Twenty-two absences and they’re ineligible to sit the test for English proficiency, a pestilent obstacle to the start of their college education. Turkish teachers from the coast disperse to their classrooms to teach the affectations of irregular verbs. Young American instructors raise the prestige of the school. (“They graduated from The Ivy League! They finished school in America and came here!”) We are a welcome break from grammar class, holding lax lessons to practice English conversation. For many of the students, we are the first foreigners with whom they’ve ever interacted. We’ve abandoned Hollywood and Las Vegas to spend time with—of all people—them. Week Three’s lesson: relationships. The girls perk up, Teacher do you have a boyfriend? they breathe across the desks. We discuss the significance of having friends and families. We discuss the difference between beauty and sexiness. “When a woman is sexy, she wears a short dress and your heart beats fast for some time, maybe ten or twenty minutes,” a student says. “But when she is beautiful—your heart beats fast forever.”

I pass out notecards and ask groups of twos and threes to act out scenes from typical Turkish relationships. First: a boy and a girl meet at a bar. My students mix drinks of air in coffee cups, exchange telephone numbers and low-lidded glances. Next: a boyfriend learns his girlfriend kissed another man. The boy pulls the girl by the hair and pretends to slam her head against the chalkboard. His hand dives into his back pocket and resurfaces in the shape of a gun. “This is for the other one,” he says. A father, his daughter, and her new boyfriend. Reenacted identically in every class: the portrayal of the father with a cigarette limp in his mouth and sweaters stuffed beneath his shirt. (“In Turkish there is a word for this big stomach.” “In English, beerbelly,” I tell them and they laugh, repeating the word, understanding it.) A drunken, stubbled starfish encroaching on an armchair, watching war on TV. The daughter approaches, timid with her hands behind her back, “Father, I want to ask permission to meet my new boyfriend at a cafe.” The father’s head jerks away from the screen, his cigarette falls to the floor. After a brief argument he agrees to meet the suitor, who comes to the door, kisses the father’s hand and cheek, and assures the man

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that he loves his daughter and his intentions are only entirely noble. “No,” the father says, “no man will ever be good enough for my daughter,” and the girl weeps bitterly in the corner. “Is this accurate?” I ask in alarm after the skit is finished. “Is this how it is?” The students nod unanimously. “That is why we never tell our fathers,” the girls say, twisting their hair around their fingers. “They are too jealous.” Jealousy is common in Turkey. Selin (Flowing Water), nineteen years old and fresh out of high school, is married. Her parents don’t know. In the lesson, we discuss desirable characteristics in spouses. “He must be handsome,” someone says and the girls all flutter in agreement. But not Selin. “My husband is ugly. And he is fat.” She, on the other hand, is striking with sharp cheekbones and long black hair, long fingers and fragile clavicles, long eyelashes that she drops when she speaks. “I know he is ugly and I like that, because it means no other woman will ever want him. He belongs only to me.” When they go to a restaurant, Selin’s

husband looks at the men who look at his wife. He revels in her desirability. When the waiter takes their order, he speaks only to the husband, avoiding eye contact with the girl. Too many restaurant windows have been shattered by men like these, too many glances misinterpreted. Selin’s husband grumbles her order along with his own at the waiter while she gazes demurely at the upholstery on the chairs. In another lesson, we discuss the Internet. “No, I don’t have Facebook,” Ece tells me. She is a nice girl with dyed-blonde hair and tight, lacy shirts. Her name is an old one, the title of the matriarch in old Turkish communities. “My boyfriend made me close my account. He doesn’t want other people to look at me, at my pictures.” “Really?” I gape. She shrugs and smiles. “But it doesn’t bother me; this way I know he loves me. That is why he does it.” As much as love is necessary here, so is its absence a tragedy. “And if he doesn’t love you?” I venture. The girls all cringe, remembering recent relationships that endured one, two,

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strong weeks, then dissolved like sugar in floods of tears. Ece puts her hands together, knuckles to knuckles. “If he looks at another girl, foreign or Turkish”—she hinges her hands apart— “the heart breaks.”

girls, a miscalculated approach. Nonetheless, sex tourism still flourishes, where bored blondes will flock to the warm Mediterranean and find some poor unsuspecting waiter on Atatürk Bulvari. I’ll buy you dinner and we’ll go to my hotel, the sunburned 50-year-old might croon into his ear. He’s so exotic, after all, a “Where would you go if you could go real Turk. And she—so rich and western! And anywhere in the world?” we ask the students. they fuck and everyone gets what they came “Russia,” the boys say in unison, “the girls for. there are beautiful.” Çağrı (Invitation) sneaks a sidelong glance at Fatih (Conqueror) as he The concept of liking may be bland and says this, and they grin, leaning back in their vestigial, but as a result, to love is not so simple. chairs and crossing their arms. “You know In Turkish, love poses a semantic riddle: two what we mean, teacher,” they say, unsure that different types require a careful distinction. I do. They grin. For them, Russia is a large Aşk is love in a deep red shade, dimly lit. Aşk country filled with tall blondes ready to sleep is candles and dozens of roses, compliments with any man who looks at them. and whispers. It is the infatuation that fuels Several decades ago, Russian girls made everything else, the deepest heart of passion. an industry out of prostitution in Turkey— But sevgi is the love that transcends time they knew their fair features and slinky and difficulty, it is the bond that makes bodies would sell well, and as a result, the coexistence flourish. Aşk is impermanent, but “natashas” became a popular pastime in the more intense. Sevgi is stronger, existing always north and along the coast. Excuse me, lady, between family and friends. It is the strong are you Russian? boys will ask a blonde girl and critical bond one feels for one’s country, even now walking down the street, and follow for one’s heritage. But it is also the love her until she threatens to call the police. between two people, the carefully wrought The nationality has become a secret code for blossom that emerges after the time of the illicit transactions, but most of the time, to budding aşk has passed. the dismay of the boys and the disgust of the I met an old woman named Sevgi in a 105

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wine-making village on a mountain. She and her husband sold dark red wines they made in their cellars and fruit-flavored wines for tourists. Aptly named, she proudly showed us pictures of her daughters and explained to us in broken English about the vineyards that grew in the hills. Her husband uncorked bottles and refilled our glasses and we drank wine with Love herself three kilometers from the sea. Hey! Hello, lady! Beautiful girl, where are you from! Turkish men yell from doorways, from the roofs of carpet shops and cities. In Istanbul I am flawless: a movie star, a princess, a mythological goddess. Here, there is magic in blond hair and blue eyes. Whatever their motives, hundreds of sun-dyed, wide-eyed European women fling themselves onto the Mediterranean shores each year, but even still, fairness is a novelty. Some men ask if you’re Russian, but most are impressed enough with America. Oh, Texas! I know Texas, they say and mime pulling guns out of holsters. Bush, they grunt and are pleased when you too express disapproval. Many of them speak only enough English to sell their wares, to negotiate a price, but compliments have burrowed their way into their lexicon. Are you looking for something—a

scarf, a handbag, a husband? Each man reads the same script, expecting something wonderful. Thank you, you say at first because you don’t know how to respond. You are too beautiful. I love you! Do you want to eat or drink something? If you want, we can marry. Come see my carpets, just look, you don’t have to buy. No, you say. No thank you. Please, Turkish tea, apple tea, what do you want? Please, can I ask you a question. And before you know it, Berk or Mert or Alican (Might, Bravery, Supreme Lifeforce) has proposed to you across the street from the Hagia Sophia or through a veil of cherryscented smoke. Before you know it, you’re holding gifts of pillowcases and meerschaum camels, beaded bracelets and plums, and you’ve made promises to find these men jobs in America, if only so they will let you leave this store, if only so you can relax your mouth tired from beaming. They say they love you and ask you to take off your sunglasses one last time (Your eyes—please! Remove your glass!), and they kiss your cheeks as is customary in the culture but linger a little too long, face against face, your fingers gripped in theirs. After a while—a few months, a few days, a few trips to the grocery store—the flattery wears off and you cry as you walk down the street and ignore the men, hearing them

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calling after you, I said hello! Can you hear me?, hearing them talking about you, çok güzel, they say, very beautiful. Çok güzel güzel güzel until they are describing what seems like a thousand gazelles leaping through the streets, most likely fleeing from lions on the prowl. But for a while you are the most beautiful girl in the Grand Bazaar, and a smile will buy you a glass-mosaic lamp at a discounted rate, special price for beautiful girls. Once, as I walk home in the middle of the day, past the grocery store, past a repository of campus buses where they sleep like large lumbering bears until their drivers drag them out for duty, up a hill lined with thirsty pine trees and scratchy grass, there is a man who follows me across the street and up that hill. He has longer strides than me, he catches up to me and mumbles something Turkish and after all this time that I’ve been picking up phrases to smile with at waiters and to negotiate prices, I simply don’t know how to say What do you want? or Please go away. I know enough to know that he wants neither change nor a cigarette, which is all I have to offer as I back away, and when he grabs my wrist and thrusts his hand up my skirt I

instinctively yell yok!, repeating it again and again like a lost, squawking bird. It is an all-encompassing word for refusal. Yok means no, it means I don’t want it, it means you can’t have it, does not exist. I wrench my arm away and hurry across the street hoping he won’t follow toward my building looming through the trees and blurring through my tears. I hurry, hoping that some delivery boy will drive by and I will be rescued. I think about how the man must have a name, how his parents must have named him after something good. Perhaps victory or honor, perhaps nobility. I think about Sevgi in that village and about love in this country, and about how most of the time they just want to look at my eyes, to talk to an American and to feed me pistachios on roofs. They love me, after all—I’m so beautiful and foreign, so exotic in this country exotic unto itself. If I were theirs, I’d make their hearts beat fast forever. But I’m not, and even if I stayed in Turkey longer, persisted among this culture of smoke and lamps and flattery, something would give me away. I would still be a foreigner, someone who cannot belong, a girl at the Grand Bazaar who will smile and keep her distance.

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If Not River Weston Cutter Minnesota I’m your river. I start distant, in quiet. I ache for scene’s completion, will flow till I get there and will wonder what I’ll spill, when, where, etc. Minnesota I rise and subside depending on season, Minnesota I too swell in spring + deserve my own Corps to tend locks + help with my overflow. Like water’s all or enough: I’m made of 61 Highways and Minnesota have you heard how I sound when my sky fluoresces? Sizzling in dark and cold, that’s what, Minnesota, shivers, a whispering from the sky like a radio station that died at sunset yet here we are, still tuned in. I wonder about you, Minnesota. I’ve let your winters finger me months at a stretch, I’ve fallen (like who hasn’t) for icy beauty, I’ve gulped considering what lives in and/or through such chill, I’ve dived into a lake’s hole, January, to prove something about blood or where I belong, what I want to know is this: Minnesota am I river enough? What if I’m all boat? Will you still love me Minnesota if I admit that I, too, round up? That I don’t have ten thousand anything but I’m happy to claim otherwise? So much water. All that gouging. Minnesota you wear your trampled past well and don’t let anyone fool you: it’s not

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nice, that flinty gaze you cast west to prairie, north to another country, east to a lake bigger than sin but Minnesota don’t pretend otherwise, it’s not niceness either of us have been after this whole time.

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This is Radio Nepal Samrat Upadhyay For a couple of years after he came to Kathmandu, Manan moved from job to job. He worked as a guard at a private school, then in a tailor’s shop, which involved bringing bundles of cloths from wholesalers and delivering finished dresses to the customers. He was also employed as an assistant to a man who, although with limited means, had grandiose plans of a gemstones factory. But Manan saw all these jobs as beneath him. He didn’t like to be told what to do, and after a few weeks he simply stopped going to work or found something else. He came into contact with a couple of young men from his village, and sometimes, when he was out of a job, he mooched money from them. Then he met a man who greatly began to influence him. Gopal was a good half a feet shorter than Manan, and slightly thinner, yet he commanded a presence: people’s eyes drifted toward him on the streets. It was something in his tight, wiry frame, in the fierceness of his gaze. Gopal frequently talked about the injustices of the world, how the system was built to cater to capitalist pigs. He used words and phrases that were new to Manan, but he liked the poetry in them, how rational and righteous they sounded. They expressed much of what Manan himself felt

toward his brother, toward his sister-in-law, who he believed had been instrumental in turning his brother against him. Manan had fought with his brother before he left Gaur in a huff and came to the city. Manan’s last argument with his brother had started over something trivial—Manan had forgotten to put the feed out for the cows, or something ridiculous—but it had unleashed an avalanche of blame and recriminations on both sides. “Do you want me to leave?” Manan had finally threatened. “Is that what you’re really after?” He’d directed the final words at his sister-in-law, who was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, her eyes lowered. Yet Manan wasn’t fooled by her submissive posture: she was a major player in this family rift. She was the one who filled his brother’s ears at night, told him that Manan was a lout. Gopal put his arms around Manan as they meandered the streets of the city in the evening and said, “Manan, understand this. Pretty soon things are going to change around here. A day of reckoning. At that moment all sons of whores who have sucked people’s blood will have to kneel and produce some answers.” He made a gun out of his right hand close to Manan’s ear and shot a heavily made-up woman who was sitting in

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the passenger seat of a shiny black car that was gliding by. “Phoosh,” Gopal whispered. Manan felt something crawl up his spine. The woman hadn’t noticed the gun, nor the bullet hurtling toward her. Had she noticed, would she have ducked—like they did in the movies he’d watched in Bairgania across the Indian border from his village? “You are khatara, dai,” he said. Dangerous. Gopal smiled and blew on his imaginary smoking gun. “Tomorrow I’ll take you to meet even more khatara people.” It was clear that he wasn’t going to consider any refusal on Manan’s part. Everything Gopal said carried with it a tone of mild, unconscious threat. The way he asked for a cigarette at the shop, the way he handed over the bus fare to the conductor, even the way he chatted with the girls, his hips jutting slightly forward, toward them. One day the notion crossed Manan’s mind that if he were a girl he’d have found Gopal, as short and wiry as he was, quite attractive. He’d become hard at that thought, and briefly he’d stroked himself before getting up from his bed and going to the bathroom to pee. Gopal took him to a house behind the Boudhanath temple, where on the third floor in a small room about a dozen men and women sat in a semi-circle. A man was stationed

at the bottom of the stairs by the door as a lookout. The people spoke in low, controlled yet tense, aggressive voices. Manan didn’t remember much of the content, just their general outlines—recruitment, strategy in the south, covert identities—but his breathing slowed down, sometimes even stopped briefly. He recalled his brother and sister-in-law, their sorry concerns. One morning Manan’s brother had barged into his room and kicked him awake because he had slept past ten o’clock in the morning! Then there was that incident with the girl. Manan had a romantic relationship with a shopkeeper’s daughter: nothing serious, lingering in the woods in the hot afternoons, whispering, necking. She was pretty, if somewhat overly coquettish and immature. Then his brother got a whiff, and he went berserk. “Her father—he used to be a blacksmith before he started that shop—that’s how low they are.” His brother had gritted his teeth as he’d said this, while his sister-in-law sat on her haunches near the stove, stoked the fire and said, barely audibly, “How will I show my face to my parents now? What will they say?” Manan had broken off with the girl, eventually, but the big deal his brother had made about his passing interest in a girl, low caste or not, had left him bitter. Gopal’s eyes strayed in his direction, and

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Manan locked his eyes in Gopal’s as lovers do in crowded rooms. Except for the preliminary greetings, Gopal’s friends—colleagues, or comrades were more accurate descriptions— hadn’t paid much attention to Manan, which probably meant that Gopal had already talked to them about him, and perhaps vouched for him. In this world, Manan could easily deduce, you had to be on guard for spies, for betrayals. After the meeting was adjourned, and a few of them left the house hastily, some came to chat with Manan, asking him, with shy smiles, where he was where he was from, what he did (at that time he had just quit a job working in a cramped bookstore in Asan). He glanced at Gopal, who was talking to a woman Manan hadn’t seen before. The woman wore a Nepali khasto, and her bangles-laden wrists, peeking out from under her shawl, gestured enticingly as she spoke. She was older than both Gopal and Manan, with faint crow’s feet around her eyes and hard cheekbones, but her nose, smooth and regal, was the most elegant he’d seen on any woman. Gopal called him over and introduced the two. Her name was Maya. She put together her palms in namaste, but also bowed her head slightly like one does in front of a revered guru. “Welcome,” she said. Her bangles softly tinkled as she reached and gently touched him on the arm. She was

smiling at him, and Gopal was watching her with his own smile, and for a split-second they were locked in this three-way gaze, separating them from those around them. In the weeks that followed Manan spent long afternoons with Gopal and Maya, often in seedy hotels in the alleys near Dharahara, or in the bus stop area of Kalimati. Yes, Gopal and Maya were lovers, but they seemed more functional lovers, needing each other for physical release and mental companionship rather than for any emotional intimacy. They not only didn’t mind Manan’s presence as they lounged in the narrow hotel beds in each other’s arms, they appeared to take pleasure in his company as they stroked and petted each other, and immersed themselves in long, wet, tongue-sucking kisses. Even when the three talked about other things—and what did they not talk about, really?—Maya licked Gopal’s earlobe casually, and smiled at Manan as he became flustered. There were moments when Manan would sit in a chair in front of them, and Gopal’s head would be on Maya’s stomach and her hand would be on his crotch. Once, Gopal slowly turned his mouth so that his lips were right on Maya’s breasts, and he began to lick and suck her nipples over her blouse, creating a wet imprint, and Maya

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tousled his hair. He’s going to slide his pants down and enter her, Manan thought, and the anticipation brought beads of perspiration to his forehead. Something twisted inside his stomach, part dread, part pleasure—what was he getting himself into? But at that moment Gopal disengaged from Maya and smiled at Manan. Manan went to secret meetings with them to the outskirts of the valley, sometimes even beyond it. One afternoon they took him to Banepa, where behind a house on an isolated hilltop some young men were training in army fatigues. An older, portly man supervised them, showing them the most effective way to jab their bayonets into the air. Mist was floating across the hill. The guns used by the young men to thrust and parry looked old, even rusted, the kind that Manan faintly recalled observing in a museum, either the Hanuman Dhoka museum that housed many old royal artifacts or the bigger national museum in Chhauni. The portly man and Gopal conferred while Manan walked about the field with Maya, who kept her hands hidden inside her shawl. She told him she saw much potential in him. “One day you’ll become a leader of these men,” she told him as her shoulder brushed against his. At night he’d fantasized about sucking her nipples harder

than Gopal did, making her moan and want him inside her. He’d pictured going places with her, travelling the country, taking her to Gaur and showing her off to his brother and sister-in-law, knowing well they’d disapprove of her, her strong face, her unknown pedigree, her age. They’d ask: what was Manan’s purpose in bringing her to the village? To shame them? To have the neighbors mock them? He’d tell them that Maya was his lover. He’d use the word lover, watch them think how cheap and vengeful he’d become. Right in front of them he might even nuzzle Maya’s neck, and say, “Isn’t she pretty?” Before his brother had married, Manan had been close to him, and he had even pictured an affectionate future sister-in-law, someone with kind eyes like his mother, who’d passed away when the boys were in their teens. He’d imagined his sister-in-law cooking for him his favorite dishes—kheer, malpua, aloo ko achar—and teasing him about attractive girls who’d make good brides for him. Instead, from the moment she’d stepped into the house decked in her bridal sari, she’d plotted and schemed—to create rifts and fissures in the family so that she’d have her husband all to herself. Manan’s father’s too had been disappointed in his son’s wife, and on his deathbed he’d longingly looked at Manan

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before he’d closed his eyes and stopped breathing. “Manan,” Maya said, finally bringing out a hand to touch him on the shoulder. “I have great trust in you.” He kissed her palm. “I am so happy to have found you and Gopal.” Just saying it made him excited. How small had his life been until he met Gopal and Maya! He still didn’t fully understand their cause, and without Gopal and Maya he wouldn’t be here watching these men practice in the distance. Without the two he wouldn’t find meaning in what these men were doing, but Gopal and Maya were with him, and they’d be with him for a long time—that was all that mattered. At the next meeting of the group, held in someone’s room on Ring Road, Manan was given a task. He was sitting by the window, watching the activities on the street below— the vendors, the rotund truck drivers getting off their trucks and stretching, children clasping on to one another and laughing—when he heard his name being mentioned. They were all looking at him. Maya’s and Gopal’s eyes seemed to glisten, and he understood that this was a pivotal moment for him, and he said yes, he was ready for whatever the struggle

demanded of him. It sounded false when he said it, but he also knew that if he repeated it enough, with an emphasis on “whatever,” as these people did, that he’d come to believe it. Then his words and beliefs and his reality would all come together, a unity of body, mind, and spirit. He was still a novice at this, and he had much to learn: what did it matter if the words coming out of his mouth didn’t match what he felt in his heart? His job was to pose as a singer with an appointment for an audition. An appropriate pass would be provided for him. The button would be inside the guitar he’d carry. He’d switch it on once he was inside the audition room, or the recording studio, wherever they’d take him to hear him. He’d walk out saying that he forgot his lyric sheet with a friend who’d dropped him off and who was waiting in a tea shop nearby. The timer would activate within five minutes after being turned on. “Yes, it’s simple,” he said, “and I can do it.” He knew that he’d made Gopal and Maya proud, and now his relationship with them would deepen even more. Once his project was successful, once this government radio was silenced, Gopal told him as they left the meeting, a series of such attacks would take place across the city’s important structures. In the hotel room, Maya lay down on the

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bed and asked Manan to sit next to her. It was Gopal who sat on the chair this time. “I’m tired,” Maya said. “Don’t you feel tired, Manan? Gopal and I knew you were our very own boy when we first met you, didn’t we, Gopal?” It was strange to hear her speak as though she and Gopal were together when they first met him, whereas in truth he’d come to know her at least a few weeks after he met Gopal. The way she said it, she made it sound like she was the one who spotted him first and told Gopal. Could it be ….? He recalled the day he’d first met Gopal on the grounds of TriChandra Campus, where Manan had gone to visit a friend from the village. That afternoon he was sitting on the campus wall, below the Ghantaghar clocktower, waiting for his friend to finish his class so they could go to a movie, when a short man with an intense face swung over the wall and sat near him. Somehow they got talking—unusual for Manan as he didn’t open up to strangers easily—and Manan ended up divulging to him his anger toward his brother. When Manan finished, Gopal put his arm around him and said, “Brother, let’s get some tea.” Manan said, “My friend …,” then, “Yes, tea sounds good right now,” and the two headed into Baghbazaar. Had Maya been nearby as

Gopal sat next to him on that wall? Manan produced in his mind’s eye a picture of what was around them on that Tri-Chandra wall that day, but all he saw were students entering and leaving the campus, the buzz of the traffic on the street, punctuated by the loud bell from the Ghantaghar tower above. But today made it clear that the spotlight had been on Manan for a while now: Maya’s and Gopal’s loving gazes, the expectant look of the others. Briefly he experienced a sense of qualm, then Maya pulled him on top of her. “What’s going through our son’s mind?” she asked. It was the first time she’d called him her son, and it evoked a myriad of strong feelings in him. Her breasts were pressed against his chest. His face was inches from her hard, beautiful face and her soft eyes, and he pressed against her, almost aching in his belly because he’d wanted this for so long. This was his family. Gopal was his brother—more of a brother than his real brother. And Maya, she was love herself, a mother, a friend, a sisterin-law. A lover. He kissed her on the lips; she kissed him on the neck. On the morning of the big day he woke up in the dark to a pleasant numbness in his limbs, and around the area of his heart. During the night he’d dreamt of his father,

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who stood with his arms crossed, his face in the dark; of his brother, who appealed to him to play a childhood game involving a ball and seven stones. Very early he went to see Maya and Gopal, but the yawning hotel receptionist told him they’d already checked out of the room. In the hotel’s entrance area that served as the lobby, Manan sat, confused. It was strange that they’d left without notifying him, but he suspected that they did so for security reasons. On a whim he went to that house in Bouddha where a meeting had been held, but there too the landlord said that his tenant, a man named Aakash, had moved out a few days ago. When Manan realized that he was truly alone, a sensation climbed up his throat and lodged there. At around nine he returned to his flat and picked up the guitar, which had the device inside. He reached into the hole and felt the switch. He checked his pass, then sat on his bed and waited. His audition was at eleven thirty. The day was beginning to get hot. Downstairs he could hear his landlord whistling. The man had seen him bring up the guitar yesterday and had said excitedly, “You know how to play, Manan? Let’s hear a couple of songs.” Manan had shaken his head and told him that the instrument belonged to a friend who had given it to him

for safekeeping while he was away on a trip. “My friend is afraid his sister at home is going to break it,” Manan explained. The landlord invited him for dinner; his wife was frying some fish. The landlord was aware of Manan’s bitterness toward his brother, and frequently invited him down for meals. His wife was a sweet lady, brining snacks up to Manan often. The couple was childless, and Manan thought he brought out their paternal instincts. “I’ll try to come,” Manan had said. There was still half an hour before he’d walk out of the flat with the guitar in its case. He contemplated calling someone who might know the whereabouts of Maya and Gopal, but to use the phone he’d have to go down to the landlord’s flat, and right now it was important that he remain in the stillness building up inside. There was anxiety on the edge of this silence, like small waves lapping at the periphery of a lake, but the center itself was large. If only he could carry this quietude with him to his destination in a few minutes. He saw himself walking out with the guitar, his pass tucked in his breast pocket as he met the landlord downstairs who was sure to ask him whether he was returning the guitar to his friend. Right then the landlord’s sweet wife would peek out

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the door, tell him that she wasn’t happy that these days he was bepatta, vanished, that for days now she’d been wanting him to come down for dinner. You’ve stopped loving your bhauju, isn’t that true? And he’d feel wanted but at the same time he had a job to finish, so he’d apologize to her, profusely, even dramatize his guilt and repentance, put his arm around her shoulder, squeeze it as a show of brotherly affection, then leave, promising to return early with ample time for a drink or two and a few games of rummy with her husband before the dinner of rice and the fish soup. And truly, he’d step out of the house anticipating spicy fish as his reward for a job well done. The sun would be bright, momentarily stinging his eyes as he’d step out of the house after assuring the landlord’s wife. The softness of her flesh from the earlier squeeze would linger on the palms, her mock-anger would weigh pleasantly on his shoulders. The man with the guitar, the phrase would echo in his mind, like a character in a foreign book, or a movie, wearing a Western-style hat and a long, flowing coat. He would pretend he was out for a real audition, a man with big strides and a steadiness of purpose. Singha Durbar was about a half an hour’s walk away, and people

would look at him admiringly: a musician, an artist, someone who could give voice to the sorrow and joys they felt, voice to the pain of the country. They’d wonder if he was a reincarnation of the beloved singer whose popularity had skyrocketed overnight after his death, whose songs were now on high demand on the radio. The scene in Manan’s mind intensified, like a surge of anger, and he was there, yes he was there already, gliding past the city tower that needed a paint job, past the monument for the martyrs from a historical era that was dissolving in people’s memories, and past the large roundabout, the center of which housed a temple of goddess, with a pavilion for devotees to sit and sing plaintive hymns. And there it’d be, standing at the end of the boulevard that opened to the east of the roundabout: Singha Durbar, the Lion Palace, very European-looking with its white columns. It was at one time the largest private residence in all of Asia; it had seventeen courts and more than fifteen hundred rooms, until a fire burned down much of the palace later; now it housed both chambers of the parliament. In a large room inside somewhere, politicians stood up and pontificated, and argued, sometimes threw chairs at one another. Inside somewhere was also the government-run Radio Nepal, his

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destination. He floated on that final stretch, moving past—and at times, it seemed to him, through—government workers in their traditional garb of daura-suruwal. He approached the gate, whistling as if in possession of a song cruising through his mind, the very song he would play inside the station. The guard at the main gate asked him for his identification, and he produced his pass. After studying his pass, the guard patted him down, commanded him to open the guitar case. The guard merely glanced at the guitar, said, “Are you a musician?” He nodded, kept on whistling, swaying a bit to his own music. The guard said something unexpected, “Then why don’t you play something for us? Just one song? And we’ll let you go in.” The guard turned to his two buddies standing next to him, and they said, “Yes, yes, play for us. All day long we have to sit here, bored. Don’t we also need some entertainment?” He said he’d be late for his appointment, but the guards, laughing, wouldn’t let him in without a song. The guard waved his pass in front of his face, “Says here that your appointment is still half an hour away. That means, given this is Nepal, you won’t sing for another two hours, don’t you get it?” By this time a small crowd had gathered, watching with interest—the

hangers-on, the loiterers, the holders of small, inconsequential offices, the shoepolishers, the bootleggers. No surprise there: in Nepal all a man needs to do is raise is finger in public as though ready to make a pronouncement, and he commands an instant audience. But there was a problem: he didn’t know how to play the guitar. Another terrifying thought: what if the switch somehow got turned on by the vibration of the guitar? Or his finger managed to slide into the hole and flick on the switch. He had no intentions of dying, he knew that much, for this cause or for any other fucking cause, despite his repeated statements of allegiance to Gopal and Maya and to the comrades. Comrades. A cold word, denoting relationships bereft of emotions, except vague, nonsensical feelings of brotherhood that didn’t demand anything. It certainly didn’t come close to describing what he felt for Maya and Gopal. Didn’t his connection with them transcend the everyday pettiness he saw around him? At this last internal question, he experienced a moment of hesitation: had he misread Gopal and Maya? Why weren’t they available this morning to give him moral support? A phone call would have sufficed, even a note at the hotel, instead of being completely out of reach. They must know that he’d feel lonely, and scared—his

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first assignment after all. Then he understood. Under the warm winter sun outside the Singha Durbar, the guards smiling, the crowd murmuring in anticipation, he understood that this was very much a part of the test, that Gopal and Maya were watching. They were somewhere close by. He quickly scanned the area, his eyes stretching to the street on the other side where a swarm of pedestrians jostled, the bus stop a few yards away where the city buses squeaked and rattled, the long line of traffic on the boulevard. But—he smiled inwardly—Gopal and Maya would never reveal themselves so easily. That woman by the bus stop, the one whose face he couldn’t see because her back was turned to him and she had a shawl wrapped tight around her head—that could be Maya. The helmeted, goggled man on the motorcycle, revving up his engine, waiting for the light to change—Gopal? He sensed their presence, and it gave him a surge of confidence. Everything was going well. “Well, why not?” he told the guards. As he kneeled on the ground, the thought flitted through his mind: I am about to rupture my world. His left hand trembled a bit as he picked up the guitar from the open case. He dramatically gestured toward the guitar in the

open case, a shining Yamaha, polished to give the impression that it belonged to a serious musician, the kind for whom his instrument is sacred. He was pretending to honor its presence, and the guards and the crowd, taking that as a cue, burst into applause. There was no backing out now. He had to imagine that playing his guitar here, in front of these guards and these lookers-on, was part of his operation. In a daring move, he grabbed the guitar by its neck and, mimicking rock artists, wildly swung it over his head, drawing an admiring murmur from the crowd. Then, holding the instrument gently, he began to play, as he thought guitar ought to be played, his left palm clasping the neck in semblance of fingering chords, the fingers of his right hand strumming. He played slowly at first, then ferociously, tilting his head back and closing his eyes in rapture at his own music. What song would he sing? Not a Nepali one, for that would surely give him away. How about an English one? He could mangle the chords, cry like a frog, and they’d think that’s what it was supposed to sound like. But he didn’t know any English songs, except one nursery rhyme he’d learned at school: Ba Ba Black Sheep. But one of the loser hillbillies hovering over him could have heard this from his children and

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he’d be scoffed at. He had to sing something more sophisticated-sounding, and instantly he knew what that’d be. The other day as he’d stopped outside a music shop in Thamel he’d heard some guitar playing that actually seemed to be speaking, to communicating a deep emotion. He’d stopped only because he knew that in a few days he’d be carrying a guitar for his assignment; previously, he’d never paid any attention to the sound of the guitar, finding it too alienating, too foreign. But something about the playing of this guitar on the stereo had riveted him. The singer kept repeating a phrase that matched the painful, searing, soaring sound of the guitar. He listened attentively, then mouthed the words: black magic woman. He loved its flavor on his tongue. The refrain of black magic woman had remained with him for a day or two, then had evaporated from his head. Until now, when he struck the strings with the tip of his fingers, titled his head back and cried, “Black magic woman!” The crowd around him had thickened, and he kept singing, varying the rhythm, the tone, the inflexion so that it sounded fresh to his audience. When he stopped, people clapped, exclaimed, “Wah! Wah!” and asked for more. But he had a job to do: his head was clear now. Enough of this nonsense, this dillydallying,

this spending time with losers and stragglers. The guards saw this determination in his eyes and exhorted the crowd to give him room. “The show is over! He has work to do inside. Let him go.” The crowd parted, and in a flash he was inside, the guitar once again safely ensconced inside the case. The sunlight glaring off the massive white building momentarily blinded him. A Victorian monstrosity, beautiful in a way, built by a Rana prime minister. What an ugly history his country had: bloodthirsty ministers, stupid royals, mired-in-poverty populace (the people always wore tattered clothes around the time this palace was built, he remembered from books). No wonder the comrades were willing to die to usher in some change—any change. He could die, too, couldn’t he? The thing could go off any minute, without the switch being turned on, couldn’t it? He strode toward the Radio Nepal area, aware that colorful flowers bloomed about him and that the canon that was fired up at noon was only a few yards away (it wouldn’t be off today, after what he was about to do). Bureaucrats looking pretty in their Nepali caps were walking about him, some glancing at his guitar. He was in front of the Radio Nepal building, then inside, near what looked like a reception area, with the sound of a woman singing coming from

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somewhere deep inside, muted, as if she were ensconced in a chamber within chambers of multiple walls. The young woman behind the reception desk, with flowers in her hair, asked who he was, and he gave his name, showed her his pass. He was asked to wait on a bench, which he did, the guitar now upright between his legs, against his crotch. From somewhere inside the news in English came on: “This is Radio Nepal. I am Suman Koirala with the news. Let’s begin with the headlines first. The cabinet proposes the prime minister Suraj Prasad Ghimirey for the Nobel Peace Prize.” He let the rest of the news drift into his subconscious as an incoherent blather. He saw no one else for a few minutes, and was about to ask the woman if she’d called whoever was conducting the auditions—he hadn’t really seen her talking on the phone or step in to notify anyone—when two people entered from inside and one of them approached him. “Manan-ji, just a few more minutes, okay? There’s some problem with the equipment. Someone’s looking at it right now.” He nodded. The man stood right in front of him and talked loudly, urgently to his colleague. “Bill,” “horrendous,” “motherfucker” “peace”— these were the words that were uttered. The “motherfucker” got Manan, what with the

lovely young receptionist and Manan himself, a man invited for an audition, right there. Perhaps he should turn the switch on and leave the guitar right here, Manan thought. The man glanced at him briefly without breaking his verbal stride. Manan’s instructions were to leave the guitar in the audition room, somewhere deep in the building, someplace central so that the explosion would strike the core, then radiate outward, and that’s what he’d do, despite his instant loathing for this man. The comrades were experts, had considered this long and hard—they were professionals. Don’t make it personal. So he closed his eyes and waited, feeling his heart thump, loud but steady, like a large drum echoing in the mountains. He saw his father, his mother, his brother, his sister-in-law, the people of his village, and now suddenly, stupidly, there was yearning, a hankering for his childhood days, the intense heat under which he shouted and played, his mother’s fingers as she fed him rice and dal, and so on. When the receptionist called his name and he opened his eyes. Sadness was not part of the plan. Anger was better; it had a sharp, tangy, let’s-get-things-done kind of energy. He grabbed his guitar and entered the door. Inside was a dimly lit hallway and the singing he’d heard earlier was slightly more

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pronounced here, just a volume higher, he could make out the words in snippets—“a person’s love ….water in a stream …. glorious morning.” Although the words were positive and cheerful, the voice, high pitched and wailing, was not. He tried to locate the voice of the man he’d talked to earlier but couldn’t find it, so he moved toward the voice of the wailing woman. Maybe that was the recording room or the auditioning room, and he’d be performing after the woman. He entered. It was even darker inside, but he could make out the shape of the singer behind a glass window. She had earphones on, and her mouth was stretched wide open in a wail. Manan sat on a nearby chair and took out the guitar from the case. The motherfucker man was right in front of him. “There you are,” he said impatiently. “I was looking for you everywhere.” Manan’s trembling fingers reached into the mouth and flipped on the switch. He set the guitar down, carefully leaning it against the arm of the chair. “I have to use the bathroom,” he told the man and stood. The man rolled his eyes. “You should have

used the bathroom while you’re waiting. I have already wasted quite a few minutes here looking for you. Go—it’s right out there in the hallway.” Manan closed the door behind him, then almost sprinted down the hallway, passing the door to what was clearly the bathroom, hoping that the motherfucker man would look out the doorway and spot him leaving. He was at the reception. The receptionist, who was talking on her mobile, looked at him and gave him a perfunctory smile before she went back to her phone. Outside, the sun was at its brightest, and he relaxed as he moved toward the big gate, thinking that the man must be impatiently glancing at his watch waiting for him to return. And in the moments to come, the man would think, with further despair, that Manan had gone to the bathroom for a number two, not a number one. The flowers around him were blooming so brightly that you would think that you were in some sort of heaven, a perpetually blissful, colorful land of the gods, perhaps one of Indra’s abodes. Some soldiers were fussing with the canon, getting it ready to fire.

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Moon Elegy Kristin Robertson We can’t write about the moon anymore, even as we stand here holding spatulas or children in the middle of the street, lured from our homes like the tide. Tonight we’re so close to those craters we almost smell the gunpowder snow. On the front lawn of her foreclosed house, a neighbor sets the dining-room table. But we can’t see a chandelier in the sky, even for her. And we can’t remember the bright surgical lamp, nurses above us whispering You almost didn’t wake up. When the neighbor rises from her chair to retie her white bathrobe, we can’t imagine Artemis and ask if she’ll take us with her. If we search the dictionary for Lunar Perigee, the closest moon ever to the Earth, we’ll find it cast after Pedigree and Peregrine— stay and feed the dog, or fly away?

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Blue Herons Kristin Robertson Somewhere outside Mobile, my cousin perches on a BP bathroom sink. Her headaches are getting worse, so we’re waiting this one out. Shadowing freshwater onto her brow bone, she says she’ll work at a makeup counter and rescue sea birds on the weekends, after freeing a heron last summer. Tangled, the fishing line cut diamonds into its breast. I want to tell her how my lover studies knots, slips and shanks, and uses my body to practice, leaves me sometimes when the tea water boils, when the neighbor knocks to borrow his miter saw. I wait with welts like latticework. My cousin shows me how she’ll scrub an oil-slicked bird, her hands working the invisible down, prying open its mouth. When he pours water over my wrists, roped too tight to the bedposts, he coaches my fingers awake—pink up pink up— and he high-fives them when they do. I’m driving her to Florida to stay with friends, to wander the shorelines for the caught and the flightless. As I cradle her sick head under the faucet like one of her birds, I press her palms to my eyelids, promise next she’ll paint me with that fresh water.

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Brace Gregory Spatz When he was five years old he lost the ability to speak. Months before this he destroyed his older sister’s bicycle. Related or not, the two things from there on existed in his memory as one, inseparable: the months of wordless thought, detached and lying in the window of his downstairs bedroom, seeing the clouds puff up and wheel by, no longer having words for them or their movement, or the movement of the tree shadows and branches—all things drifting, drifting—and the image of his sister’s bicycle at the bottom of the brook, handlebars warped to one side, grips gone, seat spun around and torn, spokes unmarried from rims, pedals gone. What had he done? Why? He pictured himself up to his knees in the water, possessed by something and banging down rocks on the frame of her bike for the dull ringing sound of stone on metal, and some other pleasure he couldn’t name. Like a reverse religious immersion, negative blessing, un-baptism. Later, he became convinced that there must be an answer—somewhere in the furthest back part of his mind, alongside the remembrance of how or why he forgot the ability to speak and form words, there must lie an explanation. And he was sure he would have apologized to his sister for his actions at some point. His parents would have made

him. But he had no recollection of that either. Of this time in his life he remembered only the bicycle, destroying it, and the months afterward of floating disconnect. When the words returned they did not do so all at once and as if they’d never left him: no instant reawakening or sudden swing back to the real time world of the non-mute. He had to take things slowly, relearning words and associations, attaching and making them fit back to objects and meanings in ways which often felt to him arbitrary or just no good anymore. Aphasia, they called that. Synesthesia when he wanted a taste like the sound of water on stones or a sound like chocolate on bread. Dyslexia when he mixed up blocks and symbols or turned them around—blue for black, road for car, car for truck, cloud for sky, c for e, and e for o and a. Sometimes he felt a vague prickling in his fingers to accompany these misapprehensions, as if the weight of blood and the prickling sensation of his circulation had somehow gone outside him, inverted, and he could not say if his fingers were bloated pincushions or leathery and narrow as pincers. At times it was bad enough he’d have to hold his hands in the air minutes on end, waiting for the feeling to pass and for real sensation to return, trying

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not to let his fingers even brush one against the other. Until one day, driving with his father and sister to school it dawned on him that there was no going back. However he’d come to inhabit this misaligned world with its skewed meanings and not-quite-right words, its sky that didn’t match his notion of a sky, sister who was not like his “real” sister, bike that would never be fixed or brought back, and the forward momentum of his father’s car always too slow, too loud, just slipping aside its true path or trajectory—all of it, was in fact the only world he’d been given to know and to live in. The thought went something like: So it was all ruined to start with. There was never anything else. How come I only noticed now? Twenty-five years later on a flight into Bakersfield he had to remember this all again—the failure to know words and speech, his sister’s wrecked bike at the bottom of the brook, de-tasseled and chipped, spokes undone—all of these things, and more, which he’d forgotten or pushed for years to the back of his mind, he revisited and with the sudden, heartbroken longing of one long estranged. Outside his window the familiar brown grey patchwork of farm land and roads. Mountains and scrubland. Wisps of cloud on the horizon. Thirty-six thousand feet up.

Sky, after all, is not sky, even up close, inside it, he thought; it is only what you make of it looking up and dreaming of flight, or looking down and longing for home. And for some time after the flight attendant’s announcement that they’d be attempting an emergency landing with no wing flap and following her cataloguing of all related dangers on landing—nose gear crashing; tires exploding, igniting; brakes igniting; loss of control; slipping from the runway—he could do nothing but look out and study the distant, beloved ground. If, he told himself. If I make it back to that plain old ground I will never stop appreciating it. I will never come up here again. Ever. He knew it was a lie. Looked around the cabin—its narrowness and singularity, its well constructed entrapment, bland blues and smoothly contoured, creaking plastic molding; nowhere to go and definitely nowhere you’d want to die; pressed his feet to the floor and gripped the armrests thinking still, If I make it down. If I make it down. Looked outside again and thought of his father’s favorite old car, the Saab bug with its domed roof and chipped paint—about as unplane-like as any vehicle ever manufactured— and the time they’d driven north in it, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, him and his father, alone. Remembered the thing his

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father had said he loved best about that car: its freewheel transmission which allowed you to take the car out of gear and truly coast, not like a regular car in neutral, but really using no gas on any downhill. Freewheeling. No engine braking. Coasting down the Green Mountains and then revving back up them, on their way north for a full week of racing— good luck, triumph, money. He remembered the trophies on the winners’ platform too, one almost as big as his torso, and the ribbons and hundred dollar bills (his own, the first he’d ever seen—Benjamin Franklin smiling like he was stoned, and all the velvet-green design surrounding him that said yes! and you won! and first in your age group!), and the girl he’d met the night following the first race: Corrine. No last name. And on the way back home, stopping again in her town to see if he might find her, his father’s amazed words entering the same town from the other direction, southbound, in daylight, no race spectators, booths, cyclists, venders, road blocks, all of it gone: You never cross the same river twice. Remembered the spray of his own spit and toothpaste arcing out and flying straight back to hit him in the face and to cover the back panel and side window of the car, refusing to be let go, his father laughing at him for not knowing this simple

fact about gravity and bodies in motion, as they freewheeled into town and he finished combing, spritzing, brushing, just in case he found her. Remembered last, the night months after this, with the same girl, scared for his life, and fumblingly (his first time) making love to her on the floor of her sister’s apartment, 4AM. Her words to him as he slipped inside her—Just don’t come-off in me. It’s OK. Only as the ground rose closer, racing up on his left, trees warped by the terrifying speed, blurred but still in one piece, the woman beside him making a wordless noise in her throat that could only be called whimpering, head between her knees, only then with the flight attendant calmly intoning —brace, brace, brace, brace, brace—did the rest of it come back. He did not brace. Did not hide his face in his forearms or between his legs. He looked out at the ground rushing by, closer, closer still, and remembered why he’d lost the power to speak and why he’d been jealous enough of his sister to attempt to destroy the world by smashing her bicycle. They were one and the same thing after all— the mental freewheeling, the loss of speech, his jealousy, her, and all the subsequent years of his adolescence spent riding, riding, until his knees blew. The plane bumped down

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and back up and down again and this time stayed. Caught. Coasting, coasting, forever it seemed, an eternity—gravity weighing through his limbs and fingertips like love, pressing shut his eyelids, all that speed and deceleration thickening his senses until he felt sleepy and delirious, but for the terror.

No fires, no blown out tires, no nose gear crashing. Yellow fire engines every twenty five yards down the tarmac. And still the words brace, brace, brace echoing through the cabin like a prayer, a chant to ward off danger or to cause the world to remain fixed in one place, true to all its given meanings.

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Book Reviews

Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem Reviewed by Ping Qiu

Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things Reviewed by Lindsey Alexander

Joan Didion’s Blue Nights Reviewed by Sam Wager

Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars Reviewed by Corey Van Landingham

Wayne Miller’s The City, Our City Reviewed by David Blomenberg

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot Reviewed by Alisha Karabinus

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Ha Jin’s Nanjing Requiem Ha Jin’s latest work, Nanjing Requiem, continues to show his versatility in literary genres as well as his resourcefulness. A prolific writer, Jin has published works of poetry, fiction, and short stories; in Nanjing Requiem, he tries his hand at historical fiction. His body of work is known for his “China theme”: his work is often set in China; his characters are Chinese. In Nanjing Requiem, Jin moves from narrating stories of Chinese immigrants in America, as in his previous books A Free Life (2007) and A Good Fall (2010), and turns his gaze back to China and to the darkest period in modern China’s history. Nanjing Requiem follows a lesser-known American missionary, Minnie Vaultrin. As the acting dean of Jinling Women’s College in Nanjing from 1937-1940, Vaultrin stayed in the war-torn Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China, as the Chinese national government retreated to the country’s interior when the Japanese savaged the city. The novel gives a realistic account of the “Rape of Nanjing” by focusing on Vaultrin’s life in China during the first few years of the Japanese occupation. Nanjing Requiem draws heavily from historical documents, notably Irish Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, and the

diary of Vaultrin herself. Besides Vaultrin, many of the names and the events that appear in the novel are real: John Rabe, a German and the representative of the Nanjing office of Siemen; George Fitch, the head of the YMCA in Nanjing; Robert Wilson, a Harvard Medical School graduate; and the missionary Holly Thornton all color Jin’s work with historical accuracy. These individuals stayed and helped set up the International Safety Zone, which offered shelter, food, and care to civilians while facing life-threatening dangers themselves. In a restrained tone, Jin describes the horrors of war. The novel starts with the Red Cross worker Ban’s eyewitness account of two thousand people—soldiers and civilians— being shot by heavy machine guns. Jin writes, “Head slashed off, corpse piled up, rivers stinked with human flesh.” He describes how rivers and ponds are littered with dead bodies and gradually change color. During the first six weeks of Japan’s invasion and occupation of Nanjing, random arrests, rapes, and killings are rampant, everyday occurrences. Dr. Chu, one of the few remaining surgeons helping the wounded in the occupied Nanjing, claims, “In war, victory justifies all sorts of violence.” To celebrate their victory, Japanese soldiers behead people for sport, as a kind of

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reward and gratification. Regarded as inferior by the Japanese, Chinese people are treated as sub-humans, animals. This dehumanization makes killing easier. To be Chinese is to be “worthless.” Dead bodies are scattered everywhere, “some with bellies cut open, intestines spilled out, and some half burned with gasoline.” Facing the horror and cruelty, Vaultrin meets her special calling at this critical juncture in China’s history. As a character, Vaultrin proves to be a first for Jin in many ways. Not only is she one of the few female protagonists in his fiction, but Vaultrin’s heroic individualism also redefines the precarious relationship between individual, history, and national allegiance, the triangle to which Jin is frequently drawn. When portraying many of his male protagonists, Jin often tasks himself to examine how small individuals who are slighted by historical, societal, and political forces crash and are eventually destroyed. In this novel, Jin focuses on Vaultrin’s war release efforts, which are deeply embedded in her conviction in humanitarianism. Under her guidance, Jinling Women’s College, which originally decided to accommodate only 2,600 people, finds room to feed and house 20,000 refugees. But even in the International Safety Zone, safety is not guaranteed. Vaultrin’s

dauntless stance to fight, to negotiate, and to protect the Chinese people often puts her in danger. Many times Vaultrin has to stand up to Japanese soldiers, sometimes even at gunpoint. In one of the most devastating moments, seeing a dozen or so teenage girls with “blackened faces and cropped hair” snapped up by soldiers to serve as sex slaves in the military, Vaultrin groans, “ Lord, when will you hearken to our prayers? When will you show your wrath?” After saving the lives of thousands, Vaultrin is revered as a living Bodhisattva. Though touched, the title confounds her. She “hate[s] to see them confuse humanity with divinity.” The novel’s bigger success lies in the creation of the fictional narrator Ailing Gao, who is a Chinese teaching assistant at Jinling Women’s College. A strong woman in her fifties, Ailing embodies the best of traditional Chinese values, including moral integrity, perseverance, and unfailing strength, when she pulls people together in wartime. As Vaultrin’s Chinese co-worker, Ailing’s character mirrors Vaultrin and often serves as Vaultrin’s Chinese double in expressing compassion and conviction in humanitarianism. Ailing is also instrumental in redefining the fraught notions of family and national allegiance in the time of war. Her husband speaks Japanese and loves Japanese

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culture. Her son Haowen studied in Japan and married a Japanese woman, who gave birth to her grandson before being forced to serve in the Japanese army stationed in China. She is torn between regarding Japan as the enemy and regarding it as the nation where her grandson was born. The novel concludes with Ailing’s short meeting with her Japanese daughter-in-law and grandson outside the war tribunal in Tokyo in 1947. With tears in their eyes, they hug and kiss. The smell of her grandson reminds her of her son, who was murdered by the Chinese for being a Japanese collaborator. Jin writes that this book seeks to rediscover the legendary life of Minnie Vaultrin and hopefully to “put her soul at peace.” But Jin achieves more than this. In a time of historical amnesia, when most people are good at forgetting because it is “a way of survival,” Jin attempts to do exactly the reverse. His invocation of the horror of the “Rape of Nanjing” reminds us of the human cost of war and deepens our understanding of history. His portrayal of Vaultrin and others awes us with the triumphs of heroic individuals in a particularly turbulent time. His investigation into the question of nationalism and national allegiance resonates in today’s global political climate.

(303 pages; Pantheon, 2011, $26.95) —Ping Qiu Aleš Šteger’s The Book of Things, translated by Brian Henry The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, translated by Brian Henry, examines the world by studying how the objects in it interact with humans, rather than the other way around, as well as the inaccuracy and inability of language. Even the collection’s title exposes the unreliable and unspecific nature of language itself. Reminiscent of Charles Simic’s object poems (most famously “Fork”) in their use of spare language and content, Šteger’s poems in this collection use things to interpolate humans. These poems push beyond the notion that things are only as strange as we make them. In fact, they seem to be somewhat uninterested in the strangeness of things and more in how things exist beyond human use. Rather than artifacts of our existence, we become the scribes of theirs. In “Umbrella,” the object “. . . suffers gladly, so that you don’t have to fall into the sky. / He indulges in your pressure when cars drive past.” The poet becomes a nuisance to the umbrella; the object becomes benevolent in allowing the

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user its use. But perhaps before I turn to language in this book, I should consider it as a translation. Of Šteger’s five books of poetry, this is his first full collection to be translated into English. In his introduction, Henry notes: “Of course, the ideal translation of these poems would not be other poems, but the things themselves.” As the epigraph to the collection, a phrase of futility from a Slovenian dictionary, notes: “A word does not exist for every thing.” In the poem “Doormat,” the speaker says the doormat “. . .wipes your feet in her hair. / / Wipes your name in hers. Until it is untranslatable.” The necessary and intimate commingling of dirty shoe and mat, or one language’s concepts and another’s, or signifier and signified, create objects or actions that resist being named with language. At such intimate moments of touch, neither the poet nor the translator can adequately describe both the moment and the sensation of the moment. Yet, despite the successful play within the poems, particularly in “Doormat,” female and queer readers may find the use of heteromale-centric images and ideas a bit offputting (everything as slight as the sprinkledin mention of castration to more disturbingly unclear feelings toward androgyny, such as in the poem “Tapeworm”). While the use

of pronouns in personification makes it impossible not to enter into questions of gender, it is somewhat thoughtless, if not contrived, to have a doormat characterized as a sensuous female who “[f ]orgives the lame, the rash, the drunk. . .”, no matter how beautiful the language. That said, the book also pokes fun at the reader, the poet, and the idea of personification. “Chocolate” becomes a god to the reader or consumer, but here, the hyperbolic nature of the language works toward more humorous ends: “He died in order to be a bar of chocolate in front of you. / He wishes that you too would consume the anguish of his death.” In the same section, Šteger moves to objects, such as the umbrella, which we are to consider more seriously. These funny notes in this orchestrated collection provide comic relief, but also a self-awareness that allows one to delve more deeply into its main conceit. When speaking about humor in contemporary Slovenian literature, or of the country’s contemporary poetry at all, it is difficult to not consider the work of Tomaž Šalamun. In The Book of Things, Šteger’s poem “Hat” seems to be in direct opposition to, or at least in conversation with, Šalamun’s often anthologized “Homage to Hat & Uncle Guido & Eliot.” In “Homage to Hat & Uncle

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Guido & Eliot,” the speaker uses “Frank’s blue cap” to create a moment of memory that leads to an overtly political poem, full of sardonic humor through elevated personal references, “. . . last important reformer Uncle Guido / known among the people / for his invention of a new pipe for the steam boiler.” The poem applies a logic of realism in politics to a familiar world, reformers as uncles, innovation as fixing a boiler. In Šteger’s “Hat,” soundplay and humor drive the poem; but the poem’s humor is created not through the political; it is made through the confusing nature of objects and their uses, particularly the hat game, in which an object is hidden under one of three hats and shuffled. The player is then left to guess which hat is hiding the object. The poem creates its own nonsensical logic: “Who lives under the hat? / Under the hat, which are three? / Three hats.” But, in the lineage of Slovenian poetry, Šteger’s work is different from Šalamun’s in that it stays willfully focused. It doesn’t have the tendency to make the mental leaps of Šalamun’s work, and it is more concrete. Perhaps it is in the structure of the book, by focusing constantly on concrete objects (for the most part) that Šteger subverts statements that might otherwise seem grandiose and

prophetic. The imaginative quality in this work, is, of course, the strange nature of “normal” things—how a urinal can serve as a portal to death. Robert Hass has noted Whitman’s influence on Šalamun, and like Šalamun, it seems Šteger has been influenced by Whitman, knowingly or not, through both American and Eastern European lineages. He grounds his work in more colloquial language, as well as objects that the common man deals with daily— “Coat,” “Cork,” “Salmon” are representative titles of the poems in the book. However, unlike a typical American poet’s aesthetic, which might be understatement, or pure image, in “Grater,” he is unafraid of making high lyric and authoritative statements, seemingly without irony: “When it vanishes you, you open your eyes, like your mother / That time on the other side of the wound.” In a poem typical of the generation of Eastern European poets preceding Šteger, particularly Šalamun, it is likely that this statement would be said tongue-in-cheek, or at least with some sense of irony. Šteger gets away with it because of the conceit inherent in a poem based on an object, all the while subverting the reader’s understanding of that object, the role of the object itself, and the poem’s expected sense of humor.

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This collection bodes well for Šteger in the context of American readership—perhaps because it offers fresh poems on the effects of consumerism to a famously all-consuming market. Šteger suggests our things have more to say than we do. Not only are we evidence of our objects’ presence, but objects actually generate and deconstruct our own existence. In “Strobe Light,” the speaker reminds us: “Light creates and erases you, creates and erases, creates and erases.” (92 pages; BOA Editions, 2010, Winner of the 2011 Best Translated Book Award, $16.00) —Lindsey Alexander Joan Didion’s Blue Nights Joan Didion’s Blue Nights follows The Year of Magical Thinking, a 2005 memoir in which Didion reflects on the time after her husband’s sudden death. John Gregory Dunne, her writing companion and husband of nearly forty years, died of a heart attack shortly after he and Didion returned home from visiting their only child, Quintana, as she lay comatose in the hospital from pneumonia and septic shock. After struggling with debilitating infections for 20 months, Quintana passed away just before Magical Thinking was released. In Blue Nights, Didion

meditates on this second loss. In the book’s opening, Didion explains that her title refers to the phenomena of blue light which marks the summer sunset in New York, Didion’s home: “In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue . . . you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue.” These blue nights carry with them such a sense of energy and vitality that it is easy to think of nothing else, to “think the end of day will never come.” But the end of day does come, as does the end of the season, leaving the world with the approach of winter, with “an actual chill,” as Didion writes, turning people’s thoughts to “illness, the end of promise . . . the inevitability of fading.” In this memoir, we see that these blue nights symbolize Didion’s time with her daughter as she weaves her narrative back and forth from the time of Quintana’s adoption to her early death. Didion relays these reflections on her daughter’s life through short sentences and even shorter paragraphs—flashes of memory, like the snapshots she views of her daughter and the insights and questions that follow their viewing. Through this book, Didion paints a poignant tribute to both her daughter

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and the process of parenthood even as she pulls away from the supposed comfort of memories themselves, arguing that “memories are what you no longer want to remember” about “times past, things gone,” things that have changed and things that are no longer present, like the passing of the blue nights. Despite this expressed aversion to wallowing in memories, Didion nevertheless succeeds in constructing a collage that invites readers into key points of her daughter’s life. We see the phone call Didion and her husband receive from Dr. Watson in early 1966 as he shares the long-awaited news, “I have a beautiful baby girl at St. John’s . . . I need to know if you want her.” We are then pulled to the present, where Didion flips through a stack of photographs taken at their seaside Malibu home when her daughter was five—pictures that were deliberately designed to capture Quintana’s complex personality, evident even at this young age:

obscures her eyes with a polka-dotted cotton sun hat. She marches through the wash at the edge of the sea. She bites her lip as she swings from an oleander branch.

These pictures speak of a young girl who is simultaneously vulnerable and strong, points that are confirmed through Didion’s additional reflections. Readers see Quintana accompanying her parents to Tucson for the filming of one of their screenplays and traveling with Didion on a book tour spanning eight cities across the United States. Didion tells of Quintana’s youthful efforts to track her “sundries,” or possessions, in a cardboard box with drawers labeled as “Cash,” “Passport,” “My IRA,” “Jewelry,” and “Little Toys.” We hear of a girl who at the age of five calls up the state psychiatric facility to find out what she needs to do if she is going crazy and calls up Twentieth Century Fox to find out what she needs to do to become a star. Didion takes us to Quintana’s wedding and remembers the In the note Tony included when he sent white stephanotis woven into her daughter’s the photographs a few months ago he said hair and the plumeria tattoo visible below her that each image represented something he shoulder as well as the red-soled shoes that had seen in her. In some she is melancholy, they all could see when Quintana knelt beside large eyes staring directly into the lens. the altar with her husband. We hear of the In others she is bold, daring the camera. severe illness that consumed her daughter only She covers her mouth with her hand. She five months after this wedding and kept her 138

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almost exclusively in ICUs for the remaining twenty months of her life. Early in the memoir, Didion cautions that “blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.” Even as Didion continues to come to terms with the sudden loss of both her husband and daughter, we see her struggling to deal with her own warnings as she confronts new challenges to her own health—episodes of fainting and falling, waking up on the floor without knowing how she got there, being trapped in the hospital and submitting to test after test without receiving any concrete answers about what is happening to her. She confronts, as well, her recent struggles with writing, recognizing that the old processes on which she once relied to produce her novels and screenplays are no longer so quick to serve her. Didion interprets these struggles as signs of frailty rising in her life, the frailty her own daughter feared so much and the frailty that Didion herself now resists with all the strength she can muster: “I tell you this true story just to prove that I can.” Didion assures her readers “that my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story.” In Blue Nights, we see Didion succeed in giving us even more than a “true story.” Here, she offers a complex look at the

life-altering influences and difficult questions powerful relationships bring, even long after the individual has passed on. (208 pages; Random House, 2011, $25.00) —Sam Wager Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars Life on Mars begins with two questions: “Is God being or pure force? The wind / Or what commands it?” Tracy K. Smith’s third book of poetry navigates these questions, examining the ever-urgent issue of articulation. Of course, these questions are not easily answered. At best, the poems reside in an in-between state, not an either/or, but a both/and. This limbo space exhibits a similar duality in poems both unhinged from the earth and drawing from it, such as the long poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars.” It begins: “We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger. One man against the authorities. / Or one man against a city of zombies.” And later: “Though / Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent, // Buoyant, bizarrely benign.” Does “it” refer to the universe, perhaps, as a way of grasping for familiarity? If so, the description (“more like life below the sea…”) completes a kind of doubling, as the best metaphors do: it both decreases the distance to meaning,

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by finding new referents, while increasing the distance, by showing the inadequacy of language to do so. The points where articulation fails can also seem practically sublime, such as in the poem “At Some Point, They’ll Want to Know What It Was Like,” where, “The best was having nothing. No hope. No name in the throat. / And finding the breath in you, the body, to ask.” There is a type of purity that the reader associates with the lack of a suitable language. It provides a blank slate, where a new utterance can be formed. The desire seems to be one of being emptied of language in order to be filled by it again. Smith returns to this idea in “The Soul:” “But it’s the voice that enters us. Even / Saying nothing. Even saying nothing / Over and over absently to itself.” Again, it is the possibility of having a voice, even if it is unused, that seems to be a blessing. The repetition of “nothing” creates its own dirge for language, at once the celebration of a birth and an elegy. Elegy seems to be the impetus for these poems: mourning the death of a father, the tortured at Abu Ghraib, the many victims of the terrible run of murders in 2009. The tone in which Smith approaches these elegies, however, runs the gamut. At times sardonic, at times employing wide-sweeping, large

statements or an unabashed, dark sincerity, the work here is never static. This is surprising, given Smith’s devotion to abstraction; the word “it” is constantly returned to as a central figure. “Everything That Ever Was,” a poem that presumably navigates a failed relationship, relies on this “it” as the main trope: Like a wide wake, rippling Infinitely into the distance, everything That ever was still is, somewhere, Floating near the surface, nursing Its hunger for you and me And the now we’ve named And made a place of. This “everything” becomes the “it” in the poem, what “surges up,” and “sweeps across the leaves.” “It” is also where the emotional tenor swells: “It surprised us last night in my sleep. / Brought food, a gift.” Quite unsettling, that this abstract idea, this everything, could be so precise a force that it wedges itself between them. The speaker goes on to retell how “when finally / You reached for me, it backed away, // Bereft, but not vanquished.” The abstraction is not simple; it is not love, it is not grief, it is not anger. Admittedly, it is tinged with these, but

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(70 pages; Graywolf Press, 2011, $15.00) —Corey Van Landingham

it is something slippery, fluid, yet altogether particular: a living creature. The poem ends with the speaker under the assumption that the trees are watching her write: …as if all that stirs Under the soil is a little tickle of knowledge The great blind roots will tease through And push eventually past. The abstraction of “knowledge” is made meaningful because of how it is pulsed right through, made inconsequential, in a way, something utterly inhuman. Just like the roots. So that knowledge, like the roots, becomes something uninterested in us, unmoved by us. In one of Thomas Hardy’s many war-time poems, “Channel Firing,” God speaks, trying to assuage the dead speaker’s shock at the raucous practice gunfire shattering the church windows: “The world is as it used to be.” Life on Mars might be read as a reply: both taking issue with this unmoving, often violent world, and finding some kind of apocalyptic hope in it. Smith’s words could be the dead man’s, for, as she writes in “Sacrament,” “Sometimes / It takes forever for that song only the animals know / To climb back up into air as if to burst the throat.”

Wayne Miller’s The City, Our City I think I may read too much. Or, more specifically, I don’t wait long enough between books; they end up being one enormous book. I’ll go in an overcaffeinated rush from finishing the last page back to the bookshelves and pull another book at random to start immediately after. Lately I’ve been surprised at the common threads the books I’ve been grabbing at have; each seems actually eager to hold hands with the others. From Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (from which one of the epigraphs for The City, Our City comes), Michal Ajvaz’s hallucinatory The Other City to Alice Notley’s epic The Descent of Alette and now to Wayne Miller’s latest (his third book in four years), which is a wide-ranging, fascinating series of poems that, like the other books I’ve been reading, have the city as a character at its center, the city as a collective soul, the city as idea. Auden, in his “Memorial for the City,” reacts to the all-encompassing ruins of Europe after WWII, where, to his mind, all of what was then known about the cities of Western Europe was “erased.” The German cities

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where Auden lived through the Weimar years were pounded to powder. From his point of view, how couldn’t it be seen that the essence of the modern city was obliterated? Miller, here, with the wider perspective that seventyodd more years gives, sees instead that cities—even modern ones—are built and lost and rebuilt: a Detroit can crumble or a New Orleans dissolve in seawater, but a new Rome is gathered around the ruined city of marble columns, a modern Cairo spreads to the sands surrounding the Pyramids. The city in Miller’s book is no specific place on the map, but in context from poem to poem it could be a New York, a wartime Paris, a besieged Sarajevo. The city then, from start to finish, as it were: as living things that are born, that mature, endure calamities, and die, or are reborn. These rebirths are documented as almost seedlike germinations: “When a drop of water was found / floating on the sand, they dug a well; //and soon streets opened outward / from the core like petals, and voices / came together into houses full of air.” Miller circles his subject, documenting the idea of it in poems both visceral and detached. His “The Beautiful City (in 32 Strokes)” breaks up the City into aphoristic fragments that harken back to Wallace Stevens’

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “(1) The neighborhood shop windows, / With their shifting interiors of music and color— //(2) then the dusklight that sheets them with now”. Later in the same poem, he gives considerations of a hypothetical future: “(15) Would this silver ring still be pretty/ if it was found in a mass grave from last year’s war? // (16) From an ancient one?” War hangs heavy in clustered poems in the book, as destructive force, but also as the beginning of the cycle anew. War itself is almost seen in the same terms as the building of a city—in “A History of War,” the trenches themselves stretch out like streets and, in the rucksack of a dead soldier, contain a blueprint for new construction. “A hammer shaped this bell,” Miller writes in the numbered strokes of “A Beautiful City” (and surely he is also talking of war here?): “and thus the ring of every future note. //(31) Each glance, pressed into the world— // (32) then the world presses back: / a closed circuit.” And, speaking of rings and other closed circles, “I’ve Heard that Outside the City” shows the possible limitations of the urban outlook: the city as an insular place, with insular ideas. Miller shows a masterful range of tone and emotion, and here he looks sidelong in a decidedly lighter vein, at provincialism;

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inhabitants who see their City as a place ringed by uncivilized lands, where “those people wear superstitions like worksuits. / Their sacred books //are meant to be handled, not understood. […] Art for them is a blister. // They’re not like us, //their preachers shout in fervorous throes, / they know how to skin possums…” The City-dwellers only see things through the lens of their urbanness, imagining the loneliness of the rural dweller where “They die on the seats of their privies, / drunk in the whitefrosted fields. // When it’s night out there, / the cupped light of a house, or a bar, // is the light of the entire world.” The poems dovetail beautifully into each other, and the numbered, untitled poems that appear throughout the book as interludes begin to start and end with outward-facing brackets, a surprising move which, halfway through the book, makes the interludes the main poem and the others the parenthetical asides in an ongoing exploration of what a City is. The final poem’s unfilled bracket shows that the story is far from reaching an end. (104 pages; Milkweed Editions, 2011, $16) —David Blomenberg

Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot It’s been nearly ten years since Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, but if ever a writer is entitled to a break, it’s after winning the Pulitzer Prize. On the same note, if ever a writer is under pressure to produce genius, it’s after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Now Eugenides is back with his highly anticipated third novel, The Marriage Plot, a mature story of the developing-but-immature. After The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, readers may have come to expect Eugenides to rely on the sorts of characters who are still finding their way in life, and in this The Marriage Plot, though it deals with an older class of youngsters, delivers. Madeleine (the beautiful girl who should have everything), Mitchell (the sensitive, “right” choice), and Leonard (more Heathcliff than Heathcliff ) may be “adults” as the novel opens—we first see them on the day of their graduation from Brown University—but they are hardly settled into any sort of life. Madeleine has applied to graduate school with no real plans. Mitchell is preparing to take off for a sojourn through Europe and India. And Leonard? Well, Leonard’s just been admitted to a mental health facility due to his struggles with manic depression. Ready for the future they are not.

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But from the first words of the novel, Eugenides veers sharply away from anything else that might be expected of him. The opening line telegraphs a very different sort of story: “To start with, look at all the books.” Madeleine’s books, in particular, and like most English majors, she’s a bookhound: A lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtabl Brontë sisters… the Colette novels she read on the sly… the first edition of Couples, belonging to her mother, which Madeleine had surreptitiously dipped into back in sixth grade... In The Marriage Plot, books are everything, but Madeleine’s books are especially important considering the setting. This isn’t just any old college graduation. This is the early 1980s, and Madeleine is a traditional sort of girl caught up in a time when her fellow students were calling on Derrida and Barthes to break down narrative, and Madeleine must balance that with the books she loves—books with stories that hinge on the importance of marriage. The Marriage Plot is a marriage plot novel about the sensibility of marriage plots (and relationships themselves) in the post-marriage

era of divorce and pre-nups, and if that isn’t enough to get you thinking in circles, throw in those three very disparate characters, give them all their own point-of-view sections, add a dash of thrice-told events á la Rashomon (with rather less violence), a few charmingly twisted literary tropes, a generous helping of lit-crit philosophy, and the result is something like studying for a grad level English class while marathoning updated treatments of Austen on DVD. Eugenides is working with a plot that seems familiar, one built through and around the Regency and Victorian novels Madeleine adores. She must deal with a man—Leonard— who rejects and reclaims her, and a man who seems like a better match—Mitchell—but who loves her ineffectually from afar. To boot she’s graced (or saddled) with parents, Alton and Phyllida, who seem to have stepped right out of Austen and into a WASPy East Coast country club. The novel strikes a nice balance between the exploration of narrative and post-structuralist sensibilities, particularly as Madeleine reads and re-reads Barthes in an effort to make sense of her relationship with Leonard; she looks to Barthes for explanations (even as she decries some of them) when she and Leonard are together, and for comfort after they go

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through a break-up. A Lover’s Discourse was the perfect cure for lovesickness. It was a repair manual for the heart, its one tool the brain. If you used your head, if you became aware of how love was culturally constructed and began to see your symptoms as purely mental, if you recognized that being “in love” was only an idea, then you could liberate yourself from its tyranny.Madeleine knew all that. The problem was, it didn’t work. She could read Barthes’ deconstructions of love all day without feeling her love for Leonard diminish the teeniest little bit. The more of A Lover’s Discourse she read, the more in love she felt. She recognized herself on every page. And serious readers may recognize themselves in the pages of The Marriage Plot as well, a fact which serves as both the novel’s greatest strength and its major flaw. In examining the trend of extreme literary analysis as a modern development decried by some readers, the novel falls into that selfsame trap. As Madeleine herself notes, “Reading a novel after reading semiotic theory was like jogging empty-handed after jogging with hand weights. What exquisite guilt she felt,

wickedly enjoying narrative!” It is difficult, at times, to merely enjoy the narrative here, for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the continued focus on books. As a deconstruction and modern update of the novels Madeleine adores, The Marriage Plot succeeds wonderfully, beautifully—but as a fictional journey toward any sort of satisfying conclusion, the novel is a little lacking. In the final pages, one can’t help but wonder just why we read along so fiercely with Madeline and Mitchell. Part of this is certainly because of the conventions Eugenides draws upon to structure the novel; while the final act turns the marriage plot sideways, there are few moments in which the coming action, or behavior, cannot be predicted. This is offset by his wonderful prose—as gorgeous here as in his first two novels—but the use of the familiar, however repurposed, still makes for quite a few moments of “get on with it already.” Mitchell’s lengthy explorations of his own spirituality, and his supposed love for Madeleine (which never seems based on anything but faith), are often the novel’s weakest sections, especially since much of it, in the end, seems for naught. Realistic? Certainly—but honest realism doesn’t always make for great fiction. After hundreds of pages of struggle and analysis—and, it must be

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said, cross-country and cross-global travel— the characters end largely where they began, perhaps wanting a few different things, but only because everything falls apart. But maybe that’s par for the course with Eugenides. After all, no one in The Virgin Suicides ever makes it to a fulfilling adulthood (and the “virgins” themselves opt out without much trying), and Middlesex deals with the becoming of Calliope/Cal, and then finally, a brief look at where s/he ended up, without touching at all on that painful middle section. Eugenides gets closer to adulthood here than he ever has in a novel, and still we are brought up short, just before Madeleine and Mitchell, at least, are about to take their first real steps into the unknown. That said, one way in which Eugenides’ latest succeeds (even exceeds) is in the heartbreaking, terrifying depiction of Leonard’s illness. Entirely brilliant, completely self-delusional, and incompatible with practical life, Leonard is a character who leaps off the page even as

we are drawn intimately inside the twists and whorls of his damaged mind. It’s no wonder Madeleine, despite the urgings of everyone around her, flings herself so wholeheartedly into love of Leonard. Though we are privy to the worst moments of his tragically flawed calculations, it is hard, as a reader, not to love him a little, too. The Marriage Plot is an odd novel, certainly ambitious, already popular, and as unusual and unexpected as it is familiar. Eugenides gets caught up in his own questions, sends his characters in circles, and throws in whole pages of stunning prose, but what, exactly, is the result? Realism, and perhaps too much of it, but therein may lie the draw. The Marriage Plot is, at last, a mirror—of our times, our habits and hopes, and our studies, but mirrors can be as comforting as they are uncomfortable, and The Marriage Plot is both. (416 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, $28.00) —Alisha Karabinus

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Contributors ARI BANIAS grew up in Los Angeles, El Paso, and the suburbs of Chicago. His poems have appeared in Salt Hill Journal, Aufgabe, The Cincinnati Review, FIELD, the anthology Collective Brightness, and elsewhere. He is a 2011 recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship and is a 2011-2012 Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. He makes his home in Brooklyn, NY. CARRIE CAUSEY’S poetry can be found in Ploughshares and Plume. A chapbook of her poems, Ear to the Wall, is forthcoming from Ampersand Books. She is an MFA graduate from Vanderbilt University and currently lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she teaches Literature, Composition, and Humanities at Baton Rouge Community College. WESTON CUTTER is from Minnesota, is the author of the book of stories You’d Be a Stranger, Too, has had work recently in Forklift, OH and the Kenyon Review, and is an assistant professor at the University of St Francis in Fort Wayne, IN. ALEC HERSHMAN lives in St. Louis where he teaches at Florissant Valley Community College and at the Center for Humanities at Washington University. Other poems can be found in recent issues of Transom, DIAGRAM, Salamander, The Sierra Nevada Review, SOFTBLOW, Harpur Palate, and Lake Effect. He currently serves as poetry editor for The White Whale Review. MICHAEL HURLEY appreciates you reading his poems. He lives in Pittsburgh. KATHLEEN LOLLEY (born in Marshfield, Wisconsin) moved to Kentucky nine months after her birth. Her childhood was split between Louisville and Pittsburgh, PA. She received a BFA from California Institute of the Arts, where she experimented with hand-crafted stop motion puppets and was introduced to comics and sequential art. In addition to working on commercial animations, Kathleen has created a handful of short films. After six years in Los Angeles, she moved back to Kentucky to concentrate on painting and living a simple life. Storytelling still plays a prominent role in her work. She currently spends her time making crafts, comics and fine art. Her work can be found at www.lolleyland.com. 147

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CLAIRE MICHIE is an illustrator, designer and artist living in Portland, Oregon. She does indeed have a pillow with a bird on it. ROB NIXON is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of WisconsinMadison. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and his work has appeared in the  New Yorker, the  Village Voice, the  Atlantic Monthly, the  London Review of Books  and elsewhere. His books includea memoir,  Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy  and, most recently, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon delivered the 2011 Woodman Lecture at Purdue University. EMILIA PHILLIPS is the Levis Fellow for the Coordination of the Levis Reading Prize at Virginia Commonwealth University, the associate editor emeritus of Blackbird, and the author of a chapbook, Strange Meeting (Eureka Press, 2010). Her poetry appears in or is forthcoming from Beloit Poetry Journal , Ecotone , Gulf Coast , Indiana Review, Third Coast , and elsewhere. She lives in Richmond, Virginia. KRISTIN ROBERTSON is a PhD candidate in creative writing at Georgia State University. Her poetry has appeared recently in Bellevue Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Passages North, and Cimarron Review. MICHAEL MARTIN SHEA is an MFA candidate at the University of Mississippi, where he is a John and Renée Grisham Fellow in poetry. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, RATTLE, Salt Hill, PANK, and The Apalachee Review. GREGORY SPATZ’s most recent book publications are the forthcoming titles INUKSHUK, a novel (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012), and HALF AS HAPPY, short stories (Engine Books, 2012). His short stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The New England Review, Glimmer Train Stories, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. He is a 2012 NEA Fellow and the recipient of a Washington State Book Award. He teaches in and directs the MFA program for creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Visit www.gregoryspatz.com for more info. 148

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IAN STANSEL’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, the Antioch Review, Ecotone, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently completing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. He is the editor of Gulf Coast. ASIA THOMAS is an Indiana native born in Gary and the Art Director of Sycamore Review. She is currently pursuing a BA at Purdue University for Visual Communications Design and History, majors decided upon after studying three different languages, two sciences, several musical instruments, and the fine arts. MICHAEL TYRELL’s poems have appeared in many magazines and journals, including Agni, Gulf Coast, The New England Review, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and The Yale Review. With Julia Spicher Kasdorf, he edited the anthology Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn (NYU, 2007). SAMRAT UPADHYAY is the author of Arresting God in Kathmandu, a Whiting Award winner; The Royal Ghosts, which won the Asian American Literary Award; The Guru of Love, a New York Times Notable Book and a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year; and Buddha’s Orphans, a novel. His work has been translated into several languages. He has written for the New York Times and has appeared on BBC Radio and National Public Radio. Upadhyay teaches in the creative writing program at Indiana University. CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS was born in Death Valley in 1984 and raised in the Nevada desert. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, One Story, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, Best of the West: New Stories From the Wide Side of the Missouri and elsewhere. She has received a Father William Ralston Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a Presidential Fellowship from the Ohio State University, where she received her MFA. A graduate of the University of Nevada Reno, Claire is an assistant professor of creative writing at Bucknell University. Her collection of short stories, Battleborn, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books. 149

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IZA WOJCIECHOWSKA grew up in the deserts of El Paso, TX and received a B.S. from Duke University in 2008. Now, she is finishing an MFA in creative writing at Columbia University, studying creative nonfiction and literary translation and working on a book about a palace, art, family, and war, as well as on a collection of translated poetry by Polish poet Anna Piwkowska. Her writing and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in The Millions, Sweet, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Inventory, InTranslation, and The Common. MAYA JEWELL ZELLER’s first book, Rust Fish, was released in April from Lost Horse Press. Individual poems appear in recent issues of Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review, Camas, and High Desert Journal. Maya teaches English at Gonzaga University in Spokane, where she lives with her husband and two-year-old daughter. 

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ARI BANIAS • CARRIE CAUSEY • WESTON CUTTER • ALEC HERSHMAN • MICHAEL HURLEY KATHLEEN LOLLEY • CLAIRE MICHIE • ROB NIXON • EMILIA PHILLIPS • KRISTIN ROBERTSON MICHAEL MARTIN SHEA • GREGORY SPATZ • IAN STANSEL • ASIA THOMAS • MICHAEL TYRELL SAMRAT UPADHYAY • CLAIRE VAYE WATKINS • IZA WOJCIECHOWSKA • MAYA JEWELL ZELLER

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Issue 24.1--Winter/Spring 2012  

Winter/Spring 2012 Issue