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This summer, all the kids call themselves Zion. They come one by one and hang on the fence behind the backboard, then drift in until they’re standing under the basket, waiting for the rebound off my shot. Teams form by nods and dissolve at eleven or twenty-one, each of us breaking off into the veins of city streets and subway tunnels. The summer I emigrated, every kid on the courts wanted to be like Mike, and I was thrilled because that was my name, Mikhail. The last time my sister and I got chased home in Minsk, my parents decided: Israel or America, whichever we could reach first. Chubby, with harsh Russian dribbling down my chin, my second language became one of cuts and jumps, of lay-ups punctuated with a single English word. Dude! I cried, when my shot fell through the hoop, when I got fouled, when I slapped my sweaty hand against a tall teenager’s after a play. Dude, they always replied, their faces lit with sweat and admiration.
My sons are too young to join the pick-ups downtown, and I doubt they’ll want to anyway. My youngest is so loving he won’t throw the basketball at me. He hugs it and runs across the blacktop of the playground near Central Park. “Here, Daddy,” he says, and places it gently in my hands. My older one likes grass fields to fall on. He prefers to stick a foot between his opponent’s legs, then tumble to the ground before standing to defend his innocence. “I was going for the ball,” he shouts and throws his hands in the air. “Come on, he was going for the ball,” I yell at the soccer ref from the sidelines, though I know he wasn’t.
In our bright breakfast nook, a huge calendar hangs on the wall, the days divided into neat colored sections, the boys’ hours nestled safely inside the weeks that will carry them to adulthood. It resembles my own electronic one, blocked with meetings and calls, each hour traded for more money than my family had when we landed at JFK. On warm afternoons, I close my office door, shut down all three monitors and lie in the middle of the Isfahan rug. I recall a deep boredom, my sweating body splayed face-up before an English-squawking television, the laugh tracks breaking like waves while my parents were out searching for work. I remember the echo of the ball in the parking lot six stories below, and how I slammed it against the brown bricks of our apartment building, shooting into an invisible hoop again and again, beating away some unnamed thing while a wild hope climbed in me.
You’re just so darn cute
She tugged up the cheeks of my swimsuit
shown two small pears, fleshy & bright
bookending the neon green fabric—this was the 90s
my first two-piece & I thought I was a big girl
despite every comment about my size: petite, skinny,
thread-and-thimble thin, string bean. Strangers
would say so & that I was pleasingly blond
curly, a little Shirley with a temple, a future
temptation. She wanted me to claim what had been taken
from her body too young—she wanted me to claim it
by showing it off, flaunt it if you got it even if you’re six.
I loved her then, abandoning myself. I loved her
the way a dog pulls meat from a bone
the eyes like twin flames. Just another
animal. She said I love you
to anyone, my mother.
I hold on, I hold everything I can, to capacity
hold like the handle I wore paint from
bought for 50 on sale at Home
Depot & I liked it, slipping hands around it
liked it best in the moonlight throwing
silver on the snow, all the quiet hibernations
across from me a dark field of sage specked
by track lines. Not elk, surely too late
in the season for this altitude. The goats then
who else could wander silently as a group of houses
billowed chimneys behind them. Beyond the field
a team of mountains sleeping in a heap.
All that silent night, if I screamed into it, nothing
but echoes. I want to scream into it
because a room has never been big enough for me.
& I want the echo—I want the curse
the flame. When I wrap my fingers around
that solid handle which come to think of it I bought
at Farm & Fleet for 43 because same thing better deal
(the guy at the counter told me I’d have to swing it hard
if I didn’t keep it sharp) I start by measuring the log
in two with the edge of the blade, then wind up
I can’t claim to understand the violence but the tree
was dead before I found it—bringing down the head
the splinter & crack. I loved when it worked in one swoop
when it took 20 whacks to work around the knots
& branches which came out like arms, her pulling
my hair as she whispered rat’s nest,
bring it down into the big stump, to stoop
& gather shreds, pulling her from it as I leave
leaning her against the wall just inside the door
dropping the load xylophonic to the floor.
As we approach the end of the year, we want to thank our writers for entrusting their work with us and our readers for helping us celebrate and recognize so many wonderful voices. In addition, 2019 has brought new changes to Four Way Review. David Lerner Schwartz will be serving as the new Fiction Editor for Four Way Review. Currently the writer-in-residence at St. Albans, his work has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, New York magazine, and produced by Red Bull Theater. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. We would like to thank Hananah Zaheer and K. K. Fox for the many years they have given our community and their work in celebrating fiction. Read our new fiction standards here and submit!
Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The Boy in the Labyrinth (U. of Akron Press, 2019). The Boy in the Labyrinth works in poems that utilize autism screening questionnaires, prose passages, and allegory via the Greek myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur to explore de la Paz’s experience in raising two neurodivergent children who fall under the Autism Spectrum. de la Paz is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press, 2012). He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry, and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
FWR: The Boy in the Labyrinth functions as a type of katabasis, a descent into the underworld. This gives the manuscript structure, and, to me, a feeling of reading a novel. You write in “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth” : “I realized that I had been writing about my sons for several years in the form of this allegory”. When structuring the manuscript, did you treat it as writing a complete whole (like a novel)? Or did you find that emerging organically, after you had begun constructing the poems?
de la Paz: When I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems I had no intention other than to explore atmosphere and tone. The process of writing those specific sequences only started shifting right around my third year of generating more of them—I was probably thirty to forty poems into what wound up being almost one-hundred poems. As I became more conscious of my process, I became more intentional in implementing narrative elements. Threads of sequences have similar settings and characters, for example the boy in the sky became a character for a handful of poems. Additionally the opera house became a locus in a few of the poems. All of these disparate entry points into the world of The Boy in the Labyrinth created organizational issues. It wasn’t written as a linear narrative and yet I needed to convey to the reader a sense of forward movement. My restructuring of the collection began four years ago when I began to write the “Autism Questionnaire” poems. I saw the “Autism Questionnaire” poems as mile markers in the progression of the work. So I began structuring around them as though the book as a whole were a three-act play. I then layered the “Labyrinth” poems around them to suggest momentum/movement. And I also added the Greek Chorus elements to the work as a nod to the structure of the Greek Tragedy.
FWR: On this note, The Boy in the Labyrinth veers into different inventive forms and poetic structures, such as the “complete the sentences” poems or the use of the Autism Screening Questionnaire. Were there other forms you attempted to unlock these poems? How did you decide to utilize these structures?
de la Paz: The forms came to me organically. I was thinking about all things “diagnostic”, like SAT or GRE questions [and] how they’re expected to create an understanding of the test-taker based on an algorithm. The “Autism Screening Questionnaire” poems were something that I approached with a great deal of intention after having completed a series of intake forms for my middle child. And by intention, I mean critique. I wanted to quarrel with the form. There’s the expectation of the binary “yes/no” response to the form, but they’re a flawed tool, so I wanted to respond to the questionnaires from an emotional position rather than a diagnostic one. Once I started writing poems in that diagnostic structure, I felt the need to explore other structures. So you see a number of standardized test-like forms throughout the book with the “Story Problem” poems that close out all three sections. I imagined the “Story Problem” prose poems to serve multiple duties—to invoke diagnostic forms but to also highlight the challenge of my perspective as a neurotypical parent writing about my neurodiverse children.
FWR: Staying on the questionnaire poems, it seems to me that they suggest the imagery that you utilize in the episode poems, which take place in the labyrinth sections (self harm, unusual tastes, kinetic movement and soothing). I experienced that tension as a means of making sense of a neuro-divergent experience as a neuro-typical reader. We, as a reader, are experiencing the distortions of the boy in the labyrinth, whose “voice tries to pierce through the gloom… the sound of him spills its waves into a disfigured future.” Can you speak on this?
de la Paz: Yes, the “Labyrinth” episodes do highlight the moments in the questionnaire that are viewed as “deficits” to the neurotypical population. I wrote most of them as I was still learning and growing as a parent. It’s interesting, but much of the work in the episodes trace my development as a parent, so it’s a chronicle of my misunderstandings and in many ways, failure and flaw. The writing is asynchronous with who I am and who my children are now, so I must first acknowledge that. And what I’m very clear about now is that much of the work as I was writing explores this “disfigured future” but that future, as I had conceived of it, was the future of my imagination and not my child’s. As I was writing the “Labyrinth” poems, I was really writing about and for myself. It was a way of measuring time and comprehension and I look back on it now as an artifact. Certainly, I’m proud of the work that I had done but I am also aware of how it may be perceived by the neurodivergent populace. And so that voice that is trying to pierce the gloom is my voice trying to start a dialogue, both with my children and with other parents who may be as lost or fearful as I had been.
FWR: Reflections and refractions feature prominently in the work: geodes, light splashing off water, the appearance of the minotaur and his masks, the shadow boy. Are we, the presumed neuro-typical reader, the minotaur? Or is this an example of “the labyrinth turn[ing] in circles and [multiplying] its falsity”? An attempt, to quote another poem, “because a reference needs a frame: we are mother and father/ and child with a world of time to be understood”?
de la Paz: You know, the minotaur was always a character that troubled me. I always imagined myself to be the minotaur—the devourer of Athenian young. I imagined the monstrosity to be the task of taking on the story. The beast is as lost as the boy in my tale. I was always fearful that the monster would be misconstrued, so I took steps to move the monster and boy towards a reconciliation. I think, as well, that the “Story Problem” poems that mark the three sections are my way of saying that writing from my neurotypical perspective about neurodiversity is fraught.
FWR: We normally close by asking writers to share other writers or pieces that they love to teach or share. I wonder if, in addition, you might point to writers who influenced this work.
de la Paz: Sure, there were multiple. I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems after hearing the poet David Welch read from a new selection of work back in 2008. I believe those poems became the book Everyone Who is Dead.
Alison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon was a tremendous influence, namely the obsessive quality and interlocking nature of the prose poems.
Meteoric Flowers by Elizabeth Willis was something that I would refer to if I wanted to bounce around some syntactic shapes. I really enjoy that book and the shapes of its sentences.
I read a lot of Jennifer Chang’s book The History of Anonymity, again for the shapes of her sentences.
I also want to put in a plug for an extraordinary book of rhetoric by Melanie Yergeau. It’s a rhetorical analysis book written by an autistic author who is using queer theory as an analytical lens for disability writing. I also want to plug the work by Chris Martin and Mary Austin Speaker over at Unrestricted Interest. They make extraordinary chapbooks.
Our staff is located around the world and we pride ourselves on publishing writers representing a variety of voices and hometowns. However, as of September, three of our staff members now live in Tennessee.
TWO POEMS by Kendra DeColo
BLINDKEY POINT by Norris Eppes
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach is the author of The Many Names for Mother, selected by Ellen Bass as the winner of the 2018 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry prize and published by Kent State University Press. Her second collection, Don’t Touch the Bones won the 2019 Idaho Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Lost Horse Press in March 2020. Look out for her newest collection, 40 WEEKS, forthcoming from YesYes Books in the fall of 2021.
Four Way Review: Throughout The Many Names for Mother, there is a recognition and fracturing of identities (mother, child, immigrant, woman)– where does poet fit? On this note, how do you guard your time for writing?
Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach: I’m going to start with the second half of your question, as I sit at my favorite writing café, having just nursed Remy for the umpteenth time, now rocking the stroller with one foot as I type the answer to this question and watch her drift in and out of sleep mid-cry. So, guard? I’m certainly not there yet with the 2-month-old (as I’m now down to typing this with one hand, holding her with the other). Truer to my experience is that I make my writing a part of my mothering and mothering a part of my writing.
Since becoming a mother, I think I’ve become a keener observer of the world around me, learning from the way my son takes it in. Everything he sees is new and marvelous. Everything is a kind of epiphany. Everything I thought I knew all too well is transformed to a revelation. And this is what poetry strives for also, to make our shared human experience feel at once familiar and novel.
This is also the case for language. Watching my son learn how to make sound and then meaning has shown me that children are born poets. Metaphor comes as naturally to them as speech. It’s the way they make sense of the world, through magical comparison. I first noticed this when my son became fascinated with the moon. He would find it in the sky at first, and then, he began seeing it everywhere. Each circle or light became “Yuuuuooona,” his way of saying the Russian word “Luna,” meaning moon. And this is metaphor. Seeing the likeness in two unlike things, comparing the celestial body of glowing rock to the dark ring of my belly button to the puddle outside to the wet outline his tiny mouth leaves on my shirt. This is an image chain. This is my child making poetry, and me stealing it from him for many poems in the book, but especially the poem, “In Everything, He Finds the Moon.”
In Everything, He Finds the Moon
Yuuuuooona, he calls, pointing up and drawing
out the ooo, the Russian “L,” still
too hard to form “Luna.”
We understand, make meaning
out of what its left us: Yuuuuooona,
on the shoulder of my shirt
where his sleeping mouth’s wet outline
left imperfect waning, Yuuuuooona,
in the fabric covering my belly, where
his finger found a hole through which
skin shone like moonlight, Yuuuuooona,
on the wings of every moth or butterfly,
Yuuuuooona, more Yuuuuooona, our cats’ eyes
twinkling in darkness, spinning spheres
he is still too slow to catch, My Yuuuuooona,
in the daylight’s glare, he names the sun
as his, asks it to come closer, and opens wide
to hug, to swallow, to hold
its unfathomable glow, and in the water too,
in any water, Yuuuuooona, Yuuuuooona,
bath, puddle, lake, sea, ocean, rain,
our faces and the light, a river, and
in the window, any window, especially
a stranger’s, Yuuuuooona, this December,
morning, through smoking sky
and a cobweb of trees, he finds it there,
even as it fades, and in my pocket,
I find it too, Yuuuuooona, an envelope
of his first-trimmed crescent hairs,
so many fallen moons.
Originally appeared in 32 Poems
I thought that having children would turn my gaze away from the ancestral past I’d been obsessed with throughout my poetry career, and towards a future unburdened by it. On the contrary, having my son has made me think all the more about the lineage he comes from, the traumas of the Holocaust, WWII, and immigration into which his own story is unwillingly written. In fact, I’d been trying to publish a poetry collection about immigration and ancestry for four years, but it wasn’t until being pregnant with my son and writing, “Against Naming,” the opening poem of this collection, that this book and the real story I had been trying to tell, finally took shape.
Becoming a mother has not only changed my relationship to poetry, but more critically, to the past, which is now inexorably tied to the fleeting present. Motherhood feels like a uniquely lyric experience, relishing in an instant as it swells to include temporalities that came before and the potential of all the ones to follow. It’s also an intergenerational experience, connecting me to all the mothers I come from, while helping me find a home in my own body as it exists in the present moment.
FWR: While reflecting on your grandmother and her memory of her past, along with your relatives’ memories of your grandmother, you write that “memory’s a wild and fragile thing” in “Learning Yiddish”. Many of the poems in The Many Names for Mother carry the weight of generational memory that either you have been given or that you seek to pass down to your son. I’m struck by your clarity and boldness, entwined with your respect for the experiences of your ancestors. To me, this speaks of a desire to recognize the past but not to be cowed by it. Could you speak on the poet’s relationship to a shared past? What is her duty, if any, to move beyond memory?
JKD: In Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Michael Rothberg writes that “memory’s anachronistic quality…is actually the source of its powerful creativity, its ability to build new worlds out of the material of old ones.” I think this is a really apt description for what I try to do with the stories and fragments of the past that have been passed down through my grandparents, to see them not as static and set-in-stone, but as dynamic and wild, as the building blocks for poetry. I’m not trying to retell a linear story, because this is near impossible when it comes to the past, and especially a traumatic one. Rather, I think the poet’s “duty” then, is to stay true to the emotion of the experience and not necessarily be bound by its narrative—staying true to the music, the affect, the lyric impulse I mentioned in response to your first question.
When it comes to the particularities of the atrocity in the Soviet Union, moving beyond memory and record is essential because so much was forbidden, withheld, or destroyed. I am constantly working to recover or uncover pieces of my family’s past, like the circumstances surrounding my great-grandfather’s death, which remain unknown. Because so much of this is irrecoverable and not a part of anyone’s memory, poetry is left to fill the gaps, to reconciling the known and unknown, remembered and forgotten, past generations past and present ones, as well as the shared and individual past.
FWR: Your poem “The Moon is Showing” is a force, carding together threads on cleanliness, the body and poetry, breaking apart the idea that “poetry / is clean & shining & not/ about the body.” How do we open poetry to a bit more filth? Are there poets doing this who we can turn to as guides?
JKD: What a great question! Motherhood is the catalyst for my fascination with filth, what Julie Kristeva refers to as the “abject.” Not to get too theoretical, but Kristeva traces that humans have socially dealt with excrement—bodily fluids like blood, piss, puke, spit, shit, saliva, puss, etc. —as a way of separating ourselves from the animal, the primitive, a way of repressing that carnal side of us, what she calls “primal repression.” The abject is also the moment of separation between the child and the mother, between the self and the world around. I’ve gotten too Lacanian and psychosexual and theoretical, the plight of a poet getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature.
But back to my experience, pregnancy, birth, and then caring for a constantly excrement- producing little person surrounded me in filth, in the grotesque beauty and love of it. It reminded me how animal the human truly is. In “Genesis,” the poem where the book gets its title, I write, “How animal / to fit inside / another / and human / to tear our way /back out.” I think facing our animalistic, dirty qualities, can conversely make us more empathetic because we realize just how gorgeously flawed, sexual, and abject we all are. How we all share the beastly experience of being born into this world and navigating through its/our filth together. Even in tracing the etymology of the world “Mother” in one of my “Other women don’t tell you” poems, I discovered that it comes from Middle Dutch modder “filth and dregs,” Polish mul “slime,” the Sanskrit mutra– “urine,” and more abject relations. So, I guess what I’m saying is that the experience of motherhood at its core is one of filth and that filth is beautiful and full of love and that filth is what unites us all. And there is no shame in it, or there shouldn’t be. A child’s joy at going to the bathroom or playing in a disgusting puddle or being covered in remnants of sticky foods or even their own vomit, reminds us that filth is a natural part of our bodies in which we should take pride and even find joy.
Other women don’t tell you
mother is born from “a thick substance
concreting in liquors,” like the whiskey
they tell you to rub on new gums or the red wine
my mother told me would help his forming heart
grow stronger, Look how resilient you turned out, she says,
not knowing she too comes from “lees” or “scum” or “waste
of skin,” probably from Middle Dutch modder
“filth and dregs,” what’s left of us after
we’ve been named, but also see mud, found in many
words denoting “wet” or “dirty” or “damp” or “moist”
and other women tell you how they hate
the sound of it, without explaining why, that word
between the thighs, how they would rather come
from Old Irish muad for “cloud,” would rather look up
in wonder, counting cows or crows or clowns, imagining
their bodies too can change back just as easily, can shift
from solid into air then back to water, without coming
from the Polish mul “slime,” the Sanskrit mutra– “urine”
other women don’t tell you is okay to talk about and be and let
release without becoming “excrement,” without relief being
related to the German Schmutz “dirt,” but your son’s hands
are full of it, the scum and dregs and filth, the earth he shovels
in his mouth, devouring the world both of you come from,
moving from mud to mouth to you so easily, you realize
that being named for the “lowest or worst of anything,”
in his hands, is as close as you can get to flying.
Originally appeared in American Poetry Review
There are many poets currently writing on this topic, but I’ll just point you to a few poems. Chen Chen’s “Winter” is all about the love found in embracing another’s excrement, a love we could all learn from. Maxine Kumin’s “The Excrement Poem” reminds me of the adult version of the wonderful kids’ book, Everybody Poops. I love sam sax’s ode, “Butthole Butthole Butthole Butthole.” Bridgit Pegeen Kelly has a way of finding reverence the filth of death, particularly in “Dead Doe,” one of my favorites of hers. I’ve also learned a lot from incredible women who for decades, haven’t shied away from filth, from looking at the parts of the body that we’ve been wrongly taught to hide; these voices include Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Muriel Rukeyser, Anne Sexton, Kim Addonizio, and Ellen Bass, among many others.
FWR: Fear threads through these poems, whether a fear of the past, as in “Afraid Ancestral” ( “Mom is afraid/ the sky will fall / because it’s fallen / before” ), or the fear for one’s child, as in “While everything falls apart, imagine how you’ll teach your son about guns.” There is also a resistance to fear, in search of joy or faith or connection. Can you speak to this investigation and resistance in poetry?
JKD: In a way, part of poetry’s job to be unafraid. To admit that which is most terrifying—to say the name of a monster to make him disappear. To work through fear by expressing it in language and come out on the other side. Or, to share the fear with others, and in turn, find a community that makes us feel we are not alone in our worry. I guess poetry, in a Freudian way, is about working through fear, a “talking cure” for an emotion that cannot be wholly remedied.
On a more generational note, I feel like I am constantly writing away from the fears of my mother and her mother. Fears, that while justifiably grounded in their traumatic experience of the past, beg to be overcome—though in today’s threatening America, these fears become more real by the minute. So, while I am writing away from fear of the past, I am also inadvertently writing towards what is terrifying in our present and future, worrying for the prejudices and violence my children have been born into. Still, in my poems, I am always trying to find a way out of this fear, even when it feels impossible. The will to keep writing, to keep resisting being overcome by terror, is how poetry, for me, stands unafraid.
FWR: Is there a poem (or poet) (and feel free to respond in the plural!) you love to teach or share?
JKD: There are so, so, so many. This is always one of the toughest questions to answer because there are centuries of incredible writing that came before us and so much goodness being written now. When it comes to teaching, given the Anglo-centric nature of the workshop and the field of poetry in the US more generally, I particularly love exposing students to foreign voices, especially ones of the Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam. Since I am able to read aloud in Russian—my mother tongue—students can hear how lyric makes music in another language, something I think we need much more of. Other favorite global poets to teach in translation include Czesław Miłosz, Miklós Radnóti, and Paul Celan—because I am glutton for elegy and deeply invested in poetry about the Holocaust. Studying with Garrett Hongo at the University of Oregon instilled in me a commitment to teaching poetry entrenched in history. Rather than provide a long list poems or poets, I’ll say that whether earlier voices or those of my contemporaries, I try to teach poetry that sings its way into making the past ghostly present.
Rigoberto González has written books spanning poetry, young adult literature, children’s literature and memoir. His most recent book of poetry, The Book of Ruin, was published by Four Way Books in 2018. He has been awarded fellowships by a variety of organizations, including the Guggenheim Foundation and the NEA, and recognized with the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry, and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, among others. He is a professor of English and the director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.
Four Way Review: As I read The Book of Ruin, I kept thinking of the word “revelation.” It has both apocalyptic connotations, as in the Book of Revelation, and also positive, as enlightenment can give us guidance. This play between pain and knowledge threads through your poems. Does knowledge always necessitate pain?
Rigoberto González: I believe that pain can be physical or emotional, as in the revelations or epiphanies that come to us after we make mistakes or make the wrong choices. Also I’m gesturing to that common phrase, “The truth hurts.” To achieve clarity something has to be surrendered or compromised, and most of the time it’s our caprices, comforts, or stubborn ways. This may sound like a terrible process, but in fact it’s a way out of a terrible place that we don’t recognize or refuse to recognize as toxic. We become accustomed to unhealthy situations. We make a habit of negative feelings and conditions. We grieve what we lose, no matter the benefits of gaining knowledge. It’s a beautiful flaw that makes us human.
FWR: In one of your recent Los Angeles Times columns, you write: “It’s the immigrant condition to always explain one’s distance from home as a way to make peace with the separation.” To me, this gets at the idea of liminal space and how immigrants (and poets!) must, at times, exist there, in places of transition.
These transitions exist throughout The Book of Ruin; in some poems, this enables you to speak for the unheard (nature, for example, warning humanity that change is coming) or the silenced (a poem from the point of view of the father of one of the Iguala students forcibly disappeared in 2014). In “43”, a poem that threads both one’s relationship to the land with the vanishing of a murdered child, you write: “You’ve become/ the man on the crest of the land of the dead– / earth force-fed the evidence of man’s insidious/ acts that rots its viscera away.” This poem falls within a suite of poems (A Brief History of Fathers Searching for Their Sons) that see both fathers and nature in positions of mourning and perpetration. But in “43”, there is a transference from the destruction we wreak on the earth to the pain we cause one another. Can you speak to the development of those poems? Did you initially begin that suite planning to write on the Iguala students?
RG: For me, the book came together in 2014. That was the year of the Iguala travesty, that was also the year of the Ferguson protests sparked by the murder of Michael Brown, it was also the centennial commemoration of the Ludlow Massacre, in which mostly women and children perished in fires set by the National Guard as a tactic to quell a labor strike at the copper mining town. All three events appeared to mirror or reflect the rage and frustration we were experiencing with intense natural catastrophes brought on by climate change. The natural world and the human world were colliding constantly and we sat at the crossroads doing so little about it that we might as well do nothing. I didn’t write about Ferguson because I felt it was not appropriate for me to do so when so many African American poets were writing heartbreaking poems about that and the current assaults on black bodies. But I did write about Ludlow and Iguala because Mexican people were involved. I chose the father-son relationship after I saw the father of one of our students at the Rutgers-Newark MFA Program attend a tribute to his son, who had been killed in a car accident. I saw him sitting at the train station with the saddest expression I had ever encountered. That took me to other instances in which fathers lose their sons—migration, war, political conflict, natural disasters. The larger statement here is that we are ushering in our premature deaths because we are destroying the planet and ruining our community’s health with our desperation, belligerence and aggression.
FWR: This poem brings me to the suite of poems “The Incredible Story of Las Poquianchis of Guanajuato”. These poems revolve around the Gonzalez sisters, who ran a prostitution ring resulting in 91 murders through the 1950s and 1960s. You write, in “Las Ánimas I”, “That you remember us/ says more about your deeds than ours.” While this might speak to humanity’s tendency to focus on the most violent or cruel moments of history, you go on to write in “The Fourth Sister’s Daughter”, “she too is part of the story, no matter how/ much it pains me to admit it to you”. Thus, the fourth sister [Carmen Gonzalez] must be remembered. What is the poet’s responsibility to the past? How can poetry instruct without giving undue power to those responsible for terrible acts?
RG: I’ve always believed that the poet has a responsibility to communicate the complexity of a life or issue or event, no matter who or what it is. I think people bristle at some of our subject matter because they’d rather it go away, be silenced, disappear from public knowledge as an act of self-preservation. (When I teach Sexton or Plath, for example, a few students usually express their distaste for the work.) And I understand that. But as the poet, I also know that we poets spend much of our energy unearthing, examining, and exploring even those things we find in the dark. Some call it bravery or courage, others call it foolishness, but I’ve yet to encounter a good poem that doesn’t want to show me something as opposed to want to hide something. Over the years I’ve accepted that criticism for my own work, even from close friends who tell me I only gravitate toward the sad stories and human tragedy. My response is that I write about what I feel is urgent and needs to remembered and said again. Silence is the precipice to forgetting.
FWR: Staying with those poems and the idea of silence, the cast of speakers here remind me of a Greek chorus, as they reflect on the lives of those lost and those responsible for their deaths. The suite ends with “Las Ánimas II”, in which the murdered women speak: “Being found was worse/ than getting lost. / We no more belong/ to this world dead than we did/ alive”. Myths thread through The Book of Ruin, and here, the mythologizing of the dead seems to reflect more on society’s tendency to rue rather than prevent. What brought you to the stories here?
RG: I had exactly the Greek chorus in mind when I wrote this poem. When I saw photographs of these sisters, all of them in black, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s witches or the mythological Three Fates. I came to Las Poquianchis right after the series of mass graves was being discovered throughout Mexico because I kept hearing that nothing like this had ever happened before. A familiar expression I’ve heard in the U.S. about the level of racism and white nationalism. It floors me because this only betrays a person’s lack of historical knowledge. I go back to another adage, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Well, here we are. That’s also what took me to the Mexican Revolution poem, where another travesty was committed against the Chinese community of northern Mexico. But I wanted to do something more with both poems. Therefore I decided to bring forth the lives of Las Poquianchis and complicate their motivations, because it was also not right to reduce them to evil—that makes them aberrations and a one-time story, when in fact Mexico’s poverty and lack of opportunity pushes many people into lives of crime. This doesn’t excuse or forgive criminal acts—that’s not the point of the poems. My purpose is to revisit these events in order to fuel a conversation about what shapes a criminal and what can be done to stop the cycle.
FWR: You’ve spoken about how your parents’ involvement with unions has influenced your work as a poet, in that your writing is part of a larger conversation to invoke change. In “Ghosts of Ludlow, 1914-2014”, you write “a century of silence in violence”. The story of the Ludlow Massacre, which I think has been forgotten or silenced for many Americans, is in conversation with contemporary events. Can you speak about this poem and how it fits within the larger conversation concerning class, race and power?
RG: I came to this poem through Woody Guthrie, my favorite protest singer. His song “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is what inspired my previous book, Unpeopled Eden. So when I came across his song “Ludlow Massacre”, I immediately connected to it because of my family’s lengthy relationship with unions. Since this took place in Colorado, I actually traveled there. Ludlow is now a ghost town with a run-down memorial. I even stepped into one of the pits that had been dug to shield the miner families from the cold—they had been evicted from their shacks because of the strike. It was in such a pit that people died. It was the Ludlow Massacre that turned the tide in favor of unions. And 100 years later, there’s now a political party that’s aiming to dissolve them. Again I ask: Have we not learned anything? Oh, we learned. And then we forgot what we learned. So now we have to have another devastation reminder. That just makes me angry and sad. When I first started considering I was going to write a book with environmental concerns, it was when the monarch butterflies were diminishing in record numbers due to deforestation and climate change. I grew up in Michoacán, land of the monarchs. Killing them was killing my homeland, my memories, and one of my greatest joys. I turned my anger into language, hence “Apocalipsixtlán,” the epic poem at the end of the book.
FWR: You begin the second part of the book with an epigraph from “Ozymandias” by Shelley. What follows are poems set in a post-apocalyptic landscape after environmental calamity (“promised land turned purgatory”). The speakers, the Bigger Ones, revile the Muddies and chase the Smaller Ones, who have journeyed North. This too is an immigrant narrative, albeit one seemingly more in line with Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower than what we may think of as migration today. Did you look to other writers for guidance as you constructed these poems that seem both speculative and prescient?
RG: Again, you found my exact reference. Octavia Butler is one of my literary gods. When I came across Wild Seed and Kindred in college, I knew I was reading incredible narratives set in the past but really speaking about the present. And when I read those narratives set in the future, like Parable of the Sower and Fledgling, she was also speaking about the present. But I also reread Eliot’s The Waste Land, Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Fifth Extinction, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I read these books in order to keep my language grounded and fueled by critical thought and not distracted by my own emotions. I also wanted to try the long poem, so I read as many as I could in order to learn how to sustain its strength and energy. A few standouts were Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History and, of course, Allen Ginsburg’s Howl.
FWR: Switching gears, what are the poems or poets you love to teach or share?
RG: That’s easy: Aracelis Girmay, Ada Limón, Harryette Mullen, Gary Soto, Dianne Seuss, Tyehimba Jess, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Mary Ruefle, and Li-Young Lee, to name a few.
A poet and multimedia artist, Diana Khoi Nguyen’s debut collection, Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), was selected by Terrance Hayes for the Omnidawn Open Contest. In addition to winning the 92Y “Discovery” / Boston Review Poetry Contest, 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Colorado Book Award, she was also a finalist for the National Book Award and L.A. Times Book Prize. A Kundiman fellow, she is currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and teaches in the Randolph College MFA and Lighthouse Writers Workshop.
FWR: Ghost Of plays with ideas of erasure, whether through the transformed photographs included, or the way you manipulate text. Erasure also seems to speak to the way each of us forms identity — which parts of our parents, our culture, and our homes we carry forward or move beyond. Our identities can also be transformed forcibly by removal — through the death of a loved one or the loss of a homeland. The lines “If one has no brother, then one used to have a brother. / There is, you see, no shortage of gain or loss” (from “Ghost Of”) seem to speak to this. Would you mind speaking about what draws you towards erasure or this play with text?
DKN: I would say that prior to my brother’s death, I wasn’t really thinking too much about erasure — at least not actively. Two years before he committed suicide, in the middle of the night, he cut himself out of the family pictures. That’s an act of self-removal, which is unfortunately common in those who have suicidal ideation… But [it also] activated all of the silences that occur within our family. When that happened, my parents didn’t notice right away that the pictures were all missing a person. Everything kind of looked normal and then came the realization that everything is marred…
And then nothing happened. My family didn’t take the pictures down. Nobody talked to him. We just kind of continued on. And then two years later, he killed himself. And then the pictures still stayed up. Those pictures had a terrible weight to them. They kind of represented our failure to really communicate with him about his state — his emotional state, his physical state — and also our failure to really talk to each other about it. There was so much avoidance and I think buried in all of that is also my parents’ kind of willful silence about their own past and how they came to the States.
…I remember in the fifth grade we were supposed to learn the story of how our relatives or our ancestors came to this country. But my parents’ response was that there’s nothing to talk about; the war ended and we’re here. It was very evident to me that my parents had no interest in sharing with me their past and their story. I only learned about what the Vietnam War was like, and what it might have been like for my parents to try to escape after the war ended, through documentaries and through Hollywood films.
But this is all a way of saying those images of my brother really kind of activated thinking about erasure. And I feel like with my parents, it’s a silence, which is, I think, a real fear of not wanting to go back [into the past]. I can’t begin to speculate, but I can say that they are very forward thinking… Part of my dissertation project right now is interested in verb tenses within the Vietnamese language. The Vietnamese language has present, past, and future tenses, but what it doesn’t have is the subjunctive mood– the “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve” tense. So that’s interesting to me. It’s like within a nation, or at least within the mind, there’s not a possibility of entertaining alternate paths. It’s just like there’s the past, and then there’s the present, and then there’s the future. And my family, at least, is very focused on the future and they don’t, at least verbally, engage with each other about other possibilities.
This is all a way of saying that I’m drawn to countering that erasure– my brother’s, my family’s — because I think that what happened in my family isn’t unique to [us]. I think it happens in a lot of different families, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. I think there’s a lot of taboo around mental health and mental illness and wanting to move past traumas. But I think that if there’s so much silence around trauma, it also acts as a kind of ghost within a family that haunts.
When I started to write the book, I didn’t even think about the book as a book. It was the second anniversary of my brother’s death and I thought, I need to do something about these pictures. They still hang up on the walls. We don’t talk about them. They foreshadowed his death, and they represent our failure as a family and our lack of communication… So I had my sister scan them and send them to me. I wanted not to appropriate my brother’s voice or his experience, but to rather use his absence, or that void, as a kind of portal to reach him, I wanted to do something to fill in that space, a kind of reaching towards the dead or reaching towards the past, whether it’s his past or our shared past or my parents’ past, to bring it back into a conversation. I think the only way to end silence is to initiate a dialogue with whatever is being silenced. The artifact, the cut out pictures, enabled me to do that. If there had been no pictures, I don’t know if I would have engaged with it in the same way. I don’t think it would have been so urgent for me. So those pictures were crucial to thinking about erasure.
And then there’s that question about playing with the text. Once I had filled in the void, I felt as if I had unlocked something, a process that was really fruitful for my grief and enabled me to examine my family as an outsider… I thought, “well, the people in those pictures aren’t the same as now. What if I allow for the text to be the support system around that white space?” Thinking about all of us who survived the son, the brother, who is no longer there, what happened to us?
FWR: As you talk about your process, I’m reminded that I read that you write in compressed, marathon sessions. Could you speak a bit more about this?
DKN: Primarily I am an educator during the academic school year and when I’m teaching, I can’t write. I can’t split my brain — I’m kind of obsessive — I can only think about my students and my class. So I only write twice a year, in 15 day intervals, in the summer and the winter break that I have for myself. And that’s the time that I write. I dedicate my time to writing and making, because I’m doing more than just writing in those periods. That’s a process I’ve been doing now for almost eight years and it’s been fruitful. Ghost Of, for example, was really written in thirty days — August and December in 2016.
In the months leading up to, but then also during, those intervals I’m immersing myself intensely with various kinds of material. I structure it similarly to comp lists, like within a PhD in English… you might choose a time period, a major figure and a genre and you generate these long comprehensive reading lists around those topics. It’s so intense but you get to choose. You get to nerd out. I loved that process. I don’t want to repeat it but I’d love the idea of compiling comprehensive reading lists.
Each time I have this marathon, I compile an intense list around some kind of theme. For example, one year it was everything related to sand. And I don’t read much poetry during that time because I’m worried about other poetry forms and styles becoming embedded in my mind. I read a lot of non-fiction. I watch a lot of movies. It’s a way to expose myself to different kinds of styles, different texts, that I wouldn’t normally read. During one writing session, I was watching animal documentaries and I watched one about eels. I became really obsessed with eels and what we know and we don’t know. For example, scientists, at least up until 2016, don’t know how eels procreate. They have never been able to witness it. They know that eels spawn in the ocean deep and then they travel to freshwater. What’s really fascinating to me is when the eels are usually within their adolescent stages when they’re making this treacherous journey, because of the rise in dams and all the stuff that man has done to many rivers and freshwater spaces. When there’s a dam, some of the eels have adapted to travel on land, for a time. Some of them are even able to climb vertical walls because of this biologic imperative for them to overcome these obstacles.
The eels in the adolescent stages remind me of my brother. Adolescence was when everything turned from [him being] a really bright, kind of precocious, gifted child to this sullen, depressed teen. We all thought it was a phase, except he never got out of it. It persisted into his twenties and then he committed suicide. And so I think a lot about his loneliness and his struggle to overcome his depression, and something about the eels’ journey allowed for a sense of correlation, a metaphor to help me understand him.
This leads me to the gyotaku. It’s an old technique, predating photography, in which there’s an application of ink applied to one side of the creature or fish and then pressed onto muslin or paper. It only captures the essence of the thing, because it can’t capture the 3D nature of the thing… but it remains for posterity of that moment. Thinking about that process and thinking about impressions, this is all I have left of my brother at this point. I can’t conjure up new memories and I only have diminishing memories of him. I began to play around with the idea of the body/text, concrete poems, with the idea of gyotaku, and manipulating [the images and poetry, questioning]… what would this mean if the text was a stamp.
…Moving the text in so many different ways brought things alive for me. It’s an acknowledgement of decay in [the process of creating gyotaku], in that the ink isn’t the same strength when you use it a second or a fourth time, but there’s something new that’s generated out of the repetition of the image, no matter how diminishing or decaying. It creates a visual echo. And there are a lot of repetitions within the book. Ultimately, there was a lot of play visually within the book. It wasn’t enough to just write the pieces. There’s a vitality in working and moving with that body. There’s a movement inherent within visuals and that movement signifies vitality. I don’t think I could have done this within a traditional layout.
It also made sense to explore the gyotaku as a form of preservation. Simultaneously, while working on this text, I also began working with my family’s home video archives. That’s the only place now where my brother exists wholly. I’ve been doing a lot of video work in terms of examining the past and discovering that what’s on the video is very different from what I remember. There’s a reconciliation with memory with record, as curated by father and a camcorder.
FWR: Were there texts you turned to as possible models or possible influences? I thought of Gregory Orr or Matt Rasmussen, but I’d be interested to know if you looked elsewhere or if you decided that you wanted to consider this experience within your own context or the context of your family?
DKN: It was absolutely the latter. I’d read a lot of different poetry about grief and elegy, prior to this happening with my family, but during these intense sessions, I was not only not reading elegiac works but I wasn’t reading poetry. I have to say that I’m heavily influenced by Susan Howe’s work. But I would say that I was reading her more intensely after writing my own work.
I wanted to originate out of something else, not because I was trying to be inventive but because I wanted to find something organic within this personal instance. For example, I was given the prompt in one of my classes to do some kind of radical eulogy. It gave me a different way to construct around thinking about my brother… which I hadn’t been doing much with at that moment, creatively. I think I was afraid of mining my family trauma for the sake of art-making.
This idea of a radical eulogy, which was low stakes, made me think of the most traumatic moment within the process, which was his cremation ceremony when we pushed him from a cardboard box into the crematorium… I had also been thinking a lot about radical empathy, meaning, can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes but also, why do that? Is it helpful to imagine the kind of trauma that someone else has been through? Does someone need to put on the suit of someone else’s trauma in order to relate to what they have gone through? And what does radical empathy look like with a corpse? … So I built a cardboard coffin in my house and I would lie in it every day. It was scary but then when you’re in there, you can only look up. It becomes a meditative space and it allowed me to think in a different way. I ended up doing a video project to document it.
…I don’t know what was going on in his life, I only know these clues in terms of the moments leading up to his afterlife. But doing this ritual around his death and to retrace [his death] was a way to be with him. So this became my radical eulogy. I also printed out facsimiles of the cut out pictures and carried them around with me that spring. Everything was starting to bloom, and I would put the pictures out in the world. I wanted to fill in with the natural world this death and provide a larger context. On a grand scale, our death doesn’t really mean anything, we live, we die, and the ecosystem continues. But the emotional burden of grief remains.
FWR: This ties back into the way the natural imagery in Ghost Of normalizes death, which is a natural process, but the way the human body responds to death and process grief and mourning is different from other creatures. On one hand, this enables our empathetic connections but on the other, it forces us to experience pain that not everything else is feeling. What you’re describing, with taking these images out into the natural world, seems like an attempt to gain that guidance from the natural world, even as it’s an acknowledgment that this guidance is limited. I think of the lines from ‘A Bird in Chile, and Elsewhere’:
There is no ecologically safe way to mourn.
Some plants have nectaries
that keep secreting pollen even after the petals have gone.
You are being compelled by a loss, and that loss has changed you.
DKN: So much solace came for me in thinking about what flora and fauna do. Which is, [they go] on. It’s so much easier to say than do — how do I just go on? — and there’s the contradiction of not wanting to die, but wanting to be with my brother. So what to do with this grief so that I can still live a life? And what does it mean to bring my practice of grief into a daily living practice?
…What I’ve taken to doing now is to push through the moment of discomfort, to normalize it. I try to bring him into those moments because I think it’s nice to include him, as if he was here, rather than erasing him. He’s gone physically, but we knew him, he was part of the family. Let’s keep him in the conversation. How can we honor and remember someone without eulogizing him? Let’s keep him alive in the conversation. It’s a resistance against the silence that can enable trauma to occur.
Thinking about nature, things decompose and they’re recycled into the earth and atmosphere. We’re composed of dead things. It’s part of a larger framework of how life exists. And that helps me move on.
To tie this back to reading, I love to read about animal behavior but also what ancient cultures have done. I love reading about ethnography, anthropology, sociology — I find it helpful to learn patterns of behavior that make us human. One person whose work was really influential was Eliot Weinberger. A lot of his work blends myth with rumor and gossip with fact. He’s famous for this one piece, “The Dream of India”, which has all of these contradictory and physically impossible statements but you realize that he’s collaging all of the documents that he read. It’s a different take on nonfiction, in that it’s not necessarily true but it’s a collaging of historical documents and experiences. This influenced the poem “Grief Logic”.
FWR: Speaking of “Grief Logic”, the repetition there seems to speak to the nature of grief and how it transforms and distorts. And repetition appears in other ways throughout the text, whether the poet burning his life work in “The Exodus”, reminding the reader of your brother cutting himself out of family photos (“Family Ties”), or the revisiting of images in the gyotaku poems. I wonder if you might talk about what draws you towards repetition, and what you might resist?
DKN: Having some kind of logic or algorithm helps one to do the work of living after a trauma. Repetition can be a kind of engine to help you continue. Then, in doing the living, there’s ultimately a deviation from the repetition, which makes me human as I figure out ways to go on after my brother. Grief is immobilizing, and repetition can help. But to repeat only, and not address what happened, is dangerous. Repetition can afford us a kind of safety.
FWR: I think this goes along with the idea of a familial lineage, to say, “you have so-and-so’s laugh or their sense of humor”, or other non-physical characteristics that we associate with the past, because there is a comfort in the repetition. There is a sense of being able to identify where something came from, even if it’s a distortion of the original. I think, not to be morbid, that happens within death as well, because we all will have a variation on the same experience but we put a sense of individuality on the experience.
This made me think of you leaning into the uncomfortable experience of keeping your brother in the conversation, because that is a disruption of the repetition, or cycle, of silence. While he may not physically be with us, if we distort our tendencies slightly, then a presence of him can be maintained. I think it’s a universal experience to have to recreate ourselves or recreate our loved ones as our understanding of who they are, or were, changes. To go back to your project with the home videos, it’s the realization that your memory isn’t perhaps entirely correct — or the only memory of that event that might exist.
DKN: Absolutely. It’s funny, because in doing this work, it wasn’t initially intended to be shared with anyone. It was a way for me to reconcile my specific family’s past. But to think that this work has been able to reach so many people, it reiterates that we are all unified in that we all live and all die, and we wrestle with those states for ourselves and for others. It’s been really moving for me to experience. I’m so grateful. Never before in my life have I ever talked about death so much with so many strangers!
…I’ve been doing a lot of work that all originates with this terrible thing that happened to my family. While this does have utility in processing my own grief, I also want to engage the larger community in thinking about these kinds of issues. Suicide affects so many more individuals and families than we talk about on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard for me to talk about the book, but if I feel like it serves a larger service, then I think it’s okay.
FWR: Is there a poem or poet (or several!) that you love to teach or share?
DKN: One of my topics for my comp was Asian-American literature and exile. I’m interested in displacement and feeling outside of a community. So I’ve read a lot of work by people who left their homeland or people who grew up in America but felt unincluded or marginalized. Most of the institutions that I studied at, especially at a higher level, didn’t offer any classes that would teach me any Asian-American work. It’s important for me, as an Asian-American writer, to understand my context that I’m operating in. So I chose that comps list to educate myself, because nobody had ever shared work of Asian-Americans in my classes.
When I teach, I bring in a lot of different texts of these alternative experiences, which don’t always align with my aesthetic. But I’m not interested in propagating my aesthetic. I want my students to figure out what inspires and excites them. I’ve been writing plays and thus I’ve been reading a lot of plays and befriended female playwrights. They’ve given me reading lists of other female playwrights who were operating at the same time as their male luminaries but they didn’t get that kind of attention. I’ve been reading them and it’s been blowing my mind… I want a more holistic view of the voices that have been operating in genres and time periods.
So, works that have been formative for me include Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and the work of Myung Mi Kim. For Myung Mi Kim, I feel like a lot of her work isn’t being taught because it’s thought to be too experimental or too avant-garde. I think some [writing] takes a lot of work to read, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to do the work to read it. I think that does it a disservice. What I want to do in the classroom is tackle hard-to-read stuff. How do we process it? It’s all in English, so let’s do that work. I want to train writers to be able to read difficult work, which is another way of asking, how do we read inclusively?
There isn’t enough cross-pollination. If we can venture into conversation with other disciplines, I think it’s fruitful. This is why I love hybrid work; I’ve been able to have conversations with documentary filmmakers, sculptors, playwrights — I learn so much and I can see similarities across them. It’s how ideas arise: why keep them isolated? This is my not-so-secret-goal: I want us all to be engaged with everybody because we’re humans. We make stuff. We should be able to talk in a way that we can communicate what we’re doing and appreciate what we’re seeing, even if we don’t always understand what we’re seeing.
Oceanic is the fourth collection of poetry by Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). Concerned the fragility of the natural world and the humans who live within it, Oceanic moves in and out of ecopoetry. She explores various forms, creatures and voices to create a vivid portrait of a world at once beautiful and at risk of irrevocable change.
Nezhukumatathil was the 2016-2017 Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi, where she is a professor of English in the MFA program. She has received, among other awards, a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and fellowships to the MacDowell Colony. She is also the author of three previous poetry collections: LUCKY FISH (2011), AT THE DRIVE-IN VOLCANO (2007), and MIRACLE FRUIT (2003)––all from Tupelo Press. Her most recent chapbook is LACE & PYRITE, a collaboration of nature poems with the poet Ross Gay.
FWR: What spurred the writing of Oceanic?
AN: I never set out to write a book—even after 4 books, I still find that prospect daunting. Instead, I focus on the individual poems, getting those done week after week. And sometimes some quiet times in between too. Lots of ‘not-writing.’ And after some time, I take inventory of my poems and see if anything is gelling together or having arguments with one another.
FWR: I was struck by the appearance of the haibun in your collection. What brought you to this form?
AN:I started experimenting with haibun more seriously after having my first child. I was head over heels in love with this new creature and while I loved articulating this newness in poems, I also wanted to be private about this special new time for my family. Traditionally speaking, the haibun’s focus is on landscape or travel—more outward than inner observations, though of course how you describe the outdoors can evoke an inward glance. During those sleep-deprived months, I could just about think in haibun and then write haibun more than any other form. Something about that concentrated sensory experience with a sort of ‘rose clipping’ (the haiku) at the end was very conducive to my state of being those heady first years of being a new mom.
FWR: While thinking more broadly of form, you range through different forms, utilizing prose poems and ghazals, and dipping into poems that seem their own form (“Daughter” and “Too Many Cooks Spoil the Broth”). Could you talk a bit about your relationship to form?
AN: I love using form as a way to corral and round up the ecstasy of writing a line that wants to unfurl messily down the page. I’m all for mess, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes a large initial image needs a little belt-tightening, a little trimming—so it becomes a puzzle in the best sense of how to lock and align your poem to a form.
FWR: I’d love to look specifically at “The Falling: Four Who Have Intentionally Plunged Over Niagara Falls with the Hope of Surviving.” These poems seem to speak to a love of destruction inherent in us (whether causing pain to another or the planet). Yet, there’s such joy in the destruction rendered in these poems, even as Annie Edison Taylor says, “Don’t hate me because I sent the cat first” or “Look / at your life: it can count” from the “Steven Trotter” section. Could you expand on what drew you to these poems?
AN: My (not-so) naughty little secret is that I read way more natural history/ science/ history/ biographies than I do actual poetry. I remember reading a newspaper article that celebrated the anniversary of Annie Edson Taylor’s first plunge over the falls, and I just became intrigued/ horrified/ delighted about the history of the number of people who intentionally went over Niagara Falls. Many of these people died in relative obscurity and I was hungry to hear their voices, their rationales, their fears, and their desires through a contemporary lens with persona poetry.
FWR: I’m interested in how you play with images of the body and motherhood, and juxtapose those against images from nature. In doing so, there’s a freshness that appears (I’m thinking of a poem like “In Praise of My Manicure” or “The Body”), which might seem pat in another’s hands. Did you find yourself resisting any of these poems or images?
AN: Thank you so much! But no—98% of the time, I start a poem with an image and I’ve had to learn to trust my digging towards (and away) from that image to see why it had lingered with me in the first place.
FWR: I saw that you are working on a book of illustrated nature essays (World of Wonder, 2020, Milkweed)— how is the process of writing essays different from (or similar to!) the writing of poetry? What lead you to that project?
AN: It came from a very real and deep love and wonderment about the animals and plants of the world that don’t always get heralded or adored. I feel lucky that though my parents did not directly encourage my writing; they very much unintentionally encouraged it by making sure my younger sister and I had family road trips to outdoor landmarks all over this planet from such a young age, and they taught me the names of animals and plants that weren’t usually found in zoos or nurseries. Most of all, they showed me by example what it means to be curious about this planet: it means you’ll never be bored or lonesome. How could you, knowing there are such wondrous creatures that live below hundreds of feet of ice, or deep in the backwaters of south India? But in all my reading as a young girl—I never saw brown women authoring these books. Of course, there must have been marginalized voices writing and publishing about the outdoors back then, but I certainly never had teachers who taught these authors. And I tried and tried to find them in the library myself to no avail. One would think brown women did not even go outside if you looked at the average library shelves in the 70s and 80s. This absence of Asian American voices praising the outdoors, naming the precariousness some of these animals, and frankly showing how extraordinary this planet’s strange and beautiful inhabitants are before they disappear is something I’m hoping to remedy.
FWR: Is there a poem (or poems!) that you love to teach or share?
AN: I love to teach Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Mint Snowball.” It’s quite literally the first poem I ever fell in love with from a living writer, and I love to see the smiles and delights on my students’ faces when we discuss it together now too.
Jessie Chaffee’s debut novel, Florence In Ecstasy (Unnamed Press), was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2017 and has been published or is forthcoming in Italy, the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland, Turkey, and Romania. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to Italy to complete the novel, during which time she was the writer-in-residence at Florence University of the Arts. Her writing has appeared in Literary Hub, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Slice, and Global City Review, among others. She lives in New York City, where she is an editor at Words Without Borders. Find her at www.JessieChaffee.com and @JessieLChaffee.
Florence In Ecstasy follows Hannah, a young American in Florence who is recovering from an eating disorder that has severely affected her emotional and physical health. Determined to defeat the disorder, Hannah joins a rowing club, propelling her into the vibrant and tight-knit community of Florence. However, Florence’s mystical history and art, particularly as it pertains to the saints –– women who starved themselves in the name of God –– is seductive, triggering in Hannah a desire to return and reclaim her disorder. Throughout the novel, Hannah asks herself the questions we all must eventually ask ourselves: “Who was I?”, “Who am I?”, and, “Who will I become?”
FWR: To begin, I want to ask you about the origin story of the novel. Did you always know you were going to place Hannah’s story in Florence or was it a discovery along the way?
Jessie Chaffee: The origin was really two things. One was that I was in graduate school and I was reading a lot of books about women on the fringes. And around the time when I started this book, I read the full canon of Jean Rhys, and in particular, her book Good Morning, Midnight, which is amazing. Good Morning, Midnight is about a woman who is descending into alcoholism in Paris and her rendering of that mental state –– which is really hard to do, I think, to capture altered states and addiction believably –– and what is really a love affair with alcohol was so powerful. I wanted to know how to do that.
Almost a decade earlier, I’d had an experience with an eating disorder in my early 20’s, which was less extreme than Hannah’s. I hadn’t written about it and hadn’t been able to write about it, but it left me with questions, and questions are always a good place to start a book. I hadn’t seen an eating disorder written about in the same way that I had experienced it and really Jean Rhys’s account of alcoholism came closest.
FWR: That’s interesting that you say that you hadn’t seen eating disorders written about the way you experienced it. So often I feel that eating disorders are written through tropes and act as warning stories. Like, these characters are the consequence of low self-esteem, or women who have experienced major traumas and destroy their bodies as a result. Much of Hannah’s experience with her eating disorder is wrapped up in art. While so much of her experience seems to come from a search for meaning, especially towards the end of the novel, it also comes from this desire for ownership. She describes the disorder as creating, carving, and sculpting. Can you say something about Hannah’s relationship to art and her disorder?
JC: Thank you. That’s a great question. So, her background in the book is in art and it is how she understands the world and sees the world. And one of the reasons that I wanted to set the book in Florence was because I wanted to put this woman in a place where she would be alone, but also not alone. Florence operates like a small town, so inevitably she can’t remain anonymous forever. But also because Florence is full of art and history –– it’s everywhere –– it made sense to me that she would go there looking for answers, so to speak.
In terms of the artistic creation, one of the things that I wanted to capture about the disorder was the high of it. When I began the book, the saints weren’t a part of it. It was in the writing that they emerged. Reading their accounts of ecstasy and about their very sensual, fulfilling, but ultimately painful relationship with God, I found their experiences resonated with somebody who’s caught up in an addiction. To the outside world, of course, it looks like Hannah is simply starving herself and abusing herself. But the reason that the disorder is so hard for her to get out of is because it’s seductive. It gives her a high. Because there is something about it that makes her feel as though she’s creating herself in this really powerful way. So, I think that’s where the connection to art comes in. She feels as if she’s creating herself. And it is not about beauty. It’s not really about how she looks. It’s about what happens internally when she’s in the process of doing that that drives her.
FWR: Yes! I realized that you’re exploring this idea, especially with Hannah and the saints, of erasure as a way to create. Hannah and the saints are making space by erasing what is already there, in order to create. For the saints, it’s more of a spiritual creation. But for Hannah, it’s a kind of knowledge of the self through the erasure of the physical self, which seems both counterintuitive but also so clearly what we’re often doing as artists–– clearing the space to actually create. Even when you’re filling the page, you’re removing the initial space, you’re changing the actual platform. When you’re painting, you remove the color or the absence of color, and sculpture is also a removal of physical parts. Especially in writing, so much of the work is actually erasing so much of what you put on the page in the first place. There is something in Hannah’s experience that rings so true about the agonizing but also amazing experience of being an artist, just creating and erasing, creating and erasing.
JC: Absolutely! And you’re also trying to erase the self. The best writing for me, and the best moments of writing, are when I disappear, when I feel like I’m no longer in it. I think there really is that kind of total self-erasure where you hit whatever it is that you’re reaching for. It doesn’t happen most of the time, but when you get there, it is almost like this ecstatic state. It is, I think, what can make artistic creation addictive and make you come back to it. And in those moments, I feel like I’m really gone.
FWR: And that brings me back to this theme of ownership. There’s a moment in the book where the reader thinks Hannah’s going to be alright, she’s in a relationship, she’s eating, she has a job at this library full of rare books. But then she steals all these old manuscripts of first-hand accounts of women saints’ spiritual ecstasies, and their experiences trigger her addiction, sending her into a downward spiral. While this is happening she starts talking directly about the disorder, and she’s saying that she “loved it,” that she “clung to it,” but also that it was hers. There’s this real desire for ownership, but she also says that she belongs to it. So then, it seems to me, the big question the novel begins to ask is one of ownership, whether it’s ownership of the self, or art, or history, or the body.
JC: Yeah, that’s great. Hannah does repeat throughout the book this idea that whatever this thing was, it was hers. She states directly, “It was mine.” You know, that’s not necessarily said with pride but is said with a recognition that this relationship is so intimate that it is necessarily a part of her. It’s not just something that is being done to her. And she’s also a part of it. That’s the tricky thing about any addiction, I think, that getting out of it is so difficult because you’re not just letting go of the thing but you’re letting go of a part of yourself. You’re letting go of a version of yourself that is yours. With the saints, I was really interested in their desire to erase, both their individual identities, and also their physical selves through starvation, other kinds of self-mortification, or other behaviors to deny the body. Because their purported goal is to totally erase themselves, right? To give themselves over completely to God, to erase their physical bodies, to be fully in the Spirit, to be completely pulled away from all things earthly and all things of the flesh. However, when they’re practicing this extreme behavior, they’re actually creating these very powerful identities that were long-lasting. And so they were creating the exact opposite of erasure. They were creating a legacy for themselves. And I think there’s real ownership in that. I’ve mentioned it in the book, but the fact that there are all these accounts that begin with “I, Angela”, “I, Catherine”, “I, Claire”. That kind of “I-ness” of the saints is really about the legacy they’re creating through the stories they’re telling about their experiences.
FWR: You do such a good job telling their stories through Hannah’s experiences and growing obsession with the saints. But what I found so interesting is that while she, and the saints, are wanting to erase, so much of Hannah’s experience with them, and with Italy, is physical. You’ve got all these relics, and she goes to see Saint Catherine’s head, and she’s got all these old books that she hauls home. And she’s also in Florence, and is physically experiencing Florence, and joining a rowing club. So much of her identity, in Florence, then, is developed through the physical, and through physical intimacy and pleasure with Luca, as well as pain, like the saints. Can you talk a little bit about how the book is looking at the relationship between the physical and visible and the spiritual and intangible?
JC: I think the saints are so fascinating because their descriptions are so physical. Even though, supposedly, it is about erasure, they have these incredible visceral descriptions. They are very much in their bodies. Even the mortification of the self is really about being in the body and the pain inflicted on it. And I think for Hannah, part of the struggle is to come back into her body. I purposefully set the book after she has really lived in the depths of the disorder because I didn’t want to romanticize that. You see glimpses of it because the reader has to understand her experience, but she comes to Florence to live. She’s trying to live and she’s trying to be back in her body, and so I think she comes to a place that really forces her to be present. Her relationship with Luca forces her to be present, too, and to be present in her body, and so does the rowing. You can’t row without a body. You can’t row with a weak body. You can’t do that if you’re starving yourself. So I think the physical ends up being important to her and that ultimately, even though she’s bumping into all of these remnants of the saints and recognizing the power of their ecstasies and also their mortifications and the behaviors they practice to gain their independence, and to gain their voice, that part of her becoming a body again, is rejecting some of that.
FWR: You said you didn’t want to romanticize the actual disorder addiction. I think one of the ways that you achieve that is actually showing not only her wrestling with it but also the physical pain that she’s experiencing. For example, there’s that scene where she runs and shoves saltines down her throat and drinks a bunch of water, but instead of reducing the pain, she becomes more uncomfortable. It’s not that you are giving the reader these grotesque images of it, but it’s just very real. It’s a very real kind of desperation. Also, what I loved is that you don’t give an origin story or blame the disorder on a huge trauma that happened to her. It seems really important that it is just a state of being that Hannah struggles with, in relation to her status as a woman, not only now, but throughout history.
JC: Yeah, it’s an old story.
FWR: Totally! And you seem to be hitting on a larger societal ill in relation to feminine subjugation. Could you talk a little bit more about what you were thinking as you were developing Hannah’s addiction, but also her intellectual experience of it, because the reader is so much in her head.
JC: A lot of what she’s trying to figure out in the book is: why did this happen to me and where did it start? Thinking about structures and things that you get rid of in books further along, when I started the book, any flashbacks where distinctly set off in italics, and they all began with the line: “This is where it starts.” And it was all sort of an indicator of her searching for the origin of how she ended up in this place where she really lost herself. I appreciate that you say that I don’t give an origin story because I didn’t want there to be an easy answer for “this is why this happens.” And I think that makes some people uncomfortable. I’ve certainly had people ask me, “Why did it happen to Hannah?” And I don’t know if you would get that question when it comes to other addictions, right? Why does somebody become an alcoholic? I mean, you start engaging in a behavior that becomes addictive. Certainly with not eating, there’s this initial positive response. There are so many women of all ages who are at war with their bodies and have negative relationships with food. Hannah is on one extreme end of an eating disorder, but when you think about the spectrum of people’s relationship with food and their bodies, women and men have really disordered behavior all the time. I didn’t want to give a single reason for why this is happening. Also, I was less interested in the reason that it was happening than why somebody would get caught up in it, and what would make it hard for them to get out of it. I also was hoping that people reading the book would be able to relate to it so that whatever kind of addiction or abusive relationship anyone has experienced, they might be able to find some of that in Hannah, rather than saying, well, I didn’t experience this trauma so I don’t relate to this.
FWR: I don’t think you need to have experienced a major trauma or addiction to be able to connect with Hannah. She’s simply struggling between the desire for control and the desire to let go, which is innately human. Yes, Hannah is an extreme version of that, especially in today’s world. But these desires were also experienced by the women saints. Their ecstasies are about control and fulfillment, right? And meaning. So many of the saints’ lives are interpreted historically as a way to escape a strict patriarchal system that limited their agency. Saint Catherine didn’t want to get married. Saint Bernadette also wanted to avoid being forced into a relationship with a man, and so many other female saints experienced ecstasies or visions in order to remove themselves from the society that wanted to control them. But they also wanted to remove the feminine connected with that society, maybe perhaps in order to have control over their own selves. And with Hannah, she has this conversation with Luca about not eating, and Luca asks her if it’s because she wants to be skinny, as if it has to do with being sexy or attractive, and she immediately rejects this idea. And it reminds me of all these conversations I’ve had with friends and essays I’ve read about wanting to hide the body, to avoid being seen as sexy and feminine, and instead attempting to hide the self through baggy clothes, or boyish looks, or anything that might help make the feminine part of the body disappear.
JC: Right. Wanting to not go into the world body first, which is what happens for girls as soon as they hit adolescence. Your body is no longer yours once it begins to be seen and noticed. Throughout the book, Hannah has this sense that she’s being watched all the time. There is this desire in her to disappear, which in a certain sense is a removal of the feminine. But that ultimately isolates her and her ability to connect intimately with other people. And I do think a part of her actions throughout the novel are about wanting to disappear. The disorder is certainly not about her wanting to be beautiful, but it’s about something different. Part of that does become about erasing herself. But part of it too, and this is the hard thing about any addiction, is that it starts as one thing, and then it becomes something else. So it begins as maybe a control, or self-erasure, or the desire for something that she hasn’t found, and it becomes a place of meaning. You know, it becomes a kind of philosophy. It’s great to find meaning and it’s great to find your philosophy if it’s in a place that’s healthy, but often we find those things in places that are unhealthy and that makes it really hard.
FWR: One of the things I think the book is doing so well is that it makes some really interesting statements about what it means to form identity, and what are the consequences and risks of claiming, creating, or denying identity. And so much of Hannah’s eventual reclaiming of her identity is dealing with those consequences. She goes to Florence, she starts rowing, she becomes romantically involved with a man, and so much of the trajectory could just move towards this idea of the runaway love affair that will save her, but then you take an entirely different turn. And, without giving too much away, so much of Hannah’s reckoning with her own identity is dealing with the world she’s run away from.
JC: Much of that was very conscious. Many of my favorite books are incredibly dark, where things don’t end well. And I didn’t want to write a book that had this easy, unrealistic, happy ending, but because I was writing about something that I’ve experienced and I know a lot of people experience, I didn’t feel like I could leave the book in a totally dark place. There had to be some hope. I feel hopeful for Hannah and her ability to not necessarily get out of things, but to live with things and survive. It’s not something that can be answered and fixed by somebody else loving and accepting her. So, I always felt like she had to go home because part of actually taking ownership of her life is dealing with her life. Part of being an agent in her life is facing it and dealing with it. That doesn’t mean her relationship with Italy and with Luca isn’t meaningful. It is meaningful. But just because it’s meaningful doesn’t mean it’s the answer.
An excerpt from Florence In Ecstasy
I wake the next morning to rain that doesn’t let up. At the club, everyone will be indoors—all bodies crowding in, all sounds echoing loud, all the older men clustered in the bar instead of on the embankment, all eyes and voices. I avoid it. I should open my laptop, look for work, but I avoid that, too.
I visit San Frediano in Cestello on the other side of the river, the Oltrarno. Luca was right—the church is beautiful. A small plaque on the wall outside announces that the mystic, Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi, lived and died in the adjacent convent. Inside, there is a chapel dedicated to her with a painting of the saint in ecstasy, and in the chapel’s belled ceiling she welcomes souls into Heaven with sweeping arms. This is why he sent me here. There is nothing more, though—not in the little brochure I was handed and not in my guidebook—and the gates leading to the convent beside the church are locked.
I find a small café not far from the church, glowing warm on this gray day. I stop for a coffee, but the place seeps in, holds me there, and I stay from early afternoon into evening, alternately reading and watching people battle the rain through the wide window. I return the next day and the day after that. The waitstaff has no qualms about my making the transition from a coffee and salad to a glass of wine when the café empties and they have their staff dinner, scraping at plates and laughing, while I watch the gray light stretch across the tables in shifting bands and catch in my glass.
I’m still reading about St. Catherine. As a teenager, she pleaded to join the Mantellate, a group of older widows cloistered in the Basilica of San Domenico, but her parents refused—she was not old and was not a widow. She would be married. Until she grew ill, so ill that even when her father took her to the thermals baths, the boiling waters had no effect. Her illness was a sign from God, she said, and so her parents acquiesced, allowing her to join the widows in prayer, and Catherine was healed.
Her career began with a movement inward, with visions and ecstasies. When in a trance, she did not wince at the needles that disbelievers jabbed into her feet. This and her vision of a mystical marriage to Christ secured her celebrity. As she grew older, she looked outward beyond San Domenico. She cured the lame, drew poison, and drank pus from the sores of the sick. She learned to read and became politically active, composing letters of criticism to the pope.
And she made herself empty for prayer. By age eight, she was slipping meat onto her brother’s plate. By sixteen, she ate only fruits and vegetables, then used instruments—a stalk of fennel, a quill—to throw them back up.
As another steaming dish arrives nearby, the thick, smoky smell drifting my way, my stomach turns over—with desire, then revulsion—and in this, I understand the saint’s denial. I remember well when my days became punctuated by sharp sensations:
Sunlight too bright.
Counting. And with the counting came praise and with the praise came questions. How do you do it? Claudia asked, one of a chorus when I began losing flesh, December into January into February. There was admiration in their voices, and I knew what they were asking: How do you cut so close to the bone? By the time Catherine joined the Mantellate, she had stopped eating almost entirely. This body of mine remains without any food, without even a drop of water: in such sweet physical tortures as I never at any time endured. She was empty, open. I’d like to think that she belonged to no one but herself, that the sweetness of the pain was hers alone. But she writes, My body is Yours.
Love. Her letters are filled with the word. The soul cannot live without loving… The soul always unites itself with that which it loves, and is transformed by it. I envy her ecstasies, emptied of everything. Is that love? All that emptiness and the trance that follows? Love is a tunneling, I think. An envisioning and then a tunneling of vision, the edges disappearing until all that remains is the beloved. I had hoped that I would feel that with Julian, that with him I might escape the mornings when I woke tamped down and pressed myself back into dreams that did not soothe. But he was no match for the other solace I found. He fell away with all the rest.
By the second day of my residency at the café I’m almost all the way through Catherine’s life. The soul is always sorrowful, she writes, and cannot endure itself. Outside, people are hurrying through the rain to the evening service. The bells begin to clang furiously, ricocheting off one another as one of the staff appears.
“Un altro bicchiere?” he asks, lifting my glass.
“Sì,” I say, wanting him to leave me to listen to the bells. They are playing a hymn. It is familiar to me and I feel a rush of happiness, uninterrupted. Even in this gray light it grows, and I’m afraid of the moment when I’ll slip over the peak and feel it dissipate. I close my eyes and the bells continue. They are asking a question: Are you searching for? Are you searching for?
Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, is about love, loss, and the art of running. Late Air (Little A) hit bookstores November 13th. Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University. She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf and Tin House Writers’ Conference, and her work has appeared in Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub, among others.
Four Way Review sat down with her recently over coffee, and eventually cocktails and ice cream, to discuss her writing, grief, and what it means generally to be a human being
FWR: Okay, I figured we could start with the basics, which is essentially asking you about the genesis of this story, and how you actually began approaching your first novel. So, what is the origin of this story and when did you realize that it was actually a novel more than a short story?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Well, originally I just wanted to tell the story of this accident that came to me out of the blue. I was running along the Bronx River Parkway, and I had this horrible thought: what if a stray golf ball hit me on the golf course? I trained on a golf course [while running at Yale] without really being afraid of that happening, but something about looking at it from a present vantage point made me look at the risks differently. It suddenly seemed really dangerous! So I started writing this short story about a coach dealing with a golf ball hitting his star runner. It was a world that I knew really well, so I decided to set this opening scene on the course where I could really ground my imagination and my senses and kind of observe the possibilities.
When I’d finished a draft, I gave it to a friend in my MFA program, and she was like, “My God, this is so compelling. You have to keep writing it!” So that gave me the courage to see it to some kind of finished point. Then I submitted it as a story that took place in a couple of weeks, and was only about Murray, the coach, trying to deal with the accident, but in a much more sympathetic way than the novel seeks to portray him. But after I had finished writing the story, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t providing enough conflict or enough understory to really to make it something that felt real. So I went deeper. I didn’t want to hide behind this really sad and pathetic character who’d had this horrible thing happen. I had to really figure out what his life was before this event and what were all of the ramifications of that past into the present.
So that led to a lot of layering in order to develop his moral ambiguity and place around this event. And later that summer, after I’d written the story, I tried out writing from whole other point of view, which became Nancy, Murray’s estranged wife, and this became an interesting way to look at Murray’s past. Once I started exploring all of her memories and ideas about marriage, I started to conceive how these two timelines might intervene in the present. I started looking for as many potential echoes as possible between the two. I was really interested in how the associative echoes that are happening with Murray’s psyche and his consciousness in the present and how there might be these points of correspondence with the past and what Nancy remembered. I drew from a lot of colors and essential images that re-emerge throughout the story to create parallels in the narratives, constantly bouncing off Murray, trying to force him to confront this repressed past. I guess the genesis of the story really came by trying to imagine what this man’s mind like, what are all the different timeframes that might be operating in it, and pushing the story to be more about him.
FWR: What did you want the story to be about, then?
JG: I really wanted to write about a marriage, which meant I had to develop Nancy. So the revision process really became about Nancy not just being in the service of her husband’s story and past, but about a woman’s journey that in many ways is opposite to Murray’s. It’s through that counter narrative that I could explore the ways we grieve. Once I realized this was really a story about the process of grief, I was able to shape this vision into a more realized story about finding truth or recognizing shared pain.
FWR: You just said something really interesting. You said you were running and you suddenly had this imagined fear of something that could have potentially happened in the past. But you never had that fear during the actual time you were running on golf courses.
FWR: Which is interesting because I think a lot of the book is about not having fear in the present but then actually reflecting on the events of the past, which creates a fear for the present. When the characters are together, they are in the moment, and they actually don’t have fear. But when they are later separated and the trauma has occurred, they seem to be incapable of being in the present. In particular, Nancy, envisions not only the fears from the past, but that fear invades her present. She becomes kind of obsessive in her own feelings and the things that could go wrong from the vantage point of looking back. Do you think that there’s anything in there that you were examining in terms of how we perceive our past or how we establish fears based on the examination of the past and past trauma?
JG: I don’t think I could have seen that in the writing process because I think I was just reacting to my own fears. But I think that this book is capturing what posttraumatic stress is like. As I was writing this book, I was confronted with my own traumas, especially during college. I didn’t necessarily know that was a traumatic time in my life because I had never really given voice to admitting that it was traumatic. I just thought I was very stressed. When I was in college, I actually remember not feeling very much at all. Like I was just so programmed to achieve these prescribed goals. It felt like this insurmountable thing and I didn’t really even know what it was that I needed to achieve. I was so terrified of failing that it consumed my daily operating systems so much so that I couldn’t even pinpoint what I was so afraid of.
I think maybe that’s why something about the ball literally coming out of left field was so jarring, because it was asking me to look at that time and for me to recognize that that was a painful time. Maybe that’s also why I could relate to Murray’s character so much– he’s clinging to these systems for order and control through running, which has always been my go to since I was young. That was how I made sense of my world when it felt chaotic. But it also has blinded me to the fact of that trauma, because it was like, “oh, I’m always muscling through this thing”.
I’ve come to believe that when things are really incomprehensible and painful, you can’t possibly know how you’re going to feel until much later, after the event. The story feels born out of that because Murray and Nancy couldn’t have known that their child was going to die, the suddenness of that. And I felt like I did experience a sudden trauma in college. So I think I was drawing from the suddenness of something that I would have really wanted to be able to prevent, but that I really had no possible way of preventing and fixing once it was over.
FWR: But there’s also something so fearless about Nancy and Murray’s characters when they first meet. That first initial meeting in Paris, there’s something almost risky in their leaps of faith in each other. They’re willing to rush into this love. They’re willing to take these risks that allow them to take each other in, both physically and emotionally. Then, even before the trauma, that risk begins to erode when life become settled. It’s similar to what you were saying about your own personal experiences as a young person running on the course: you had no fear. But looking back on the experience, and reflecting as an older person, you recognize that a danger or a potential danger was always there. So there’s almost something being said about evolving and growth and not only the pros of maturity, but also the cons, like what we sacrifice. When we agree to be mature, when we agree to be adults, we sacrifice a kind of fearlessness that allows us initially to be creators, whether it’s a baby or a book.
JG: There’s always this inherent risk in everything you do. I think what I was really looking at through these characters, especially in their past, is idealism. I think it’s at heart of everything. As much as it is about perfectionism, it’s also about idealism. This search for this idea of perfect love or the idea of being the perfect parent, or appearing one way on the outside. Like you really have everything that you could possibly want. It’s really about attaining an ideal, like a dream. And these Ivy League institutions breed a kind of mindset that ignores and tries to hide what’s really going on behind the scenes or how corroded that dream could be.
And if you’re in a place as romantic as Paris – and I’m also really fascinated by Paris as this place built on this nostalgic dream and I think that’s really one of the big reasons why Giovanni’s Room plays a big role for me in thinking about Nancy’s character. For me, [James] Baldwin is writing about this idea of Paris after he leaves America and is looking at the unrest from the Civil Rights Movement from a distance, but Paris isn’t really real and there’s a denial built in. You don’t know that when you’re reading Giovanni’s Room until eventually it all crumbles.
I think that’s what I was trying to achieve—the kind of stories we tell ourselves when we take these risks and build these ideas and dreams around what we think we want and what love is and what marriage is, when in reality it’s all a constant imperfect test.
FWR: Your prose is just so vivid and alive, and so for the most part I was just enthralled and caught up in the narrative, but now that we are talking, I realize how much of the story is about reflection. It’s not really about the initial experience, it’s about reflecting on that experience and placing meaning on it after it’s happened.
JG: One of the things I was trying to think about was tense. I couldn’t really write the whole thing in past perfect, but that’s kind of how you could read Nancy’s section because, like you said, so much of this is comparing the past to the present, and so much of Nancy’s story is in the past, and a lot of it is thinking about things that could have been, but even that could have been has passed. So the future, present, and past are all in the same stream. I had to be really careful about my tenses and figure out how to artfully break the rules of time so I could get Nancy to a moment where she’s got to break that dream mentality of what could have been and just deal with the reality of grief.
FWR: Much of his book is centered on a marriage, but it’s not really about a marriage as much as it is the collapse of a marriage because of the inability to communicate grief and pain. So much of that pain — even before the grief occurs — is centered on the physical, but in very different ways for each character. In what ways does the book examine the physical manifestations of grief and how and why do they differ in each character?
JG: That’s really at the heart of the story. A lot of these manifestations are really interwoven in the characters’ identities. So a lot of the expressions of grief are really about survival of the self. But on the other side, there’s a whole subconscious narrative because there isn’t a voice for that pain because it’s so unspeakable and impossible to sit with. So even though the characters are doing all these things that make them think they are feeling the pain, they aren’t really, because the real pain necessary to heal is so deep and so real and so beyond the rituals of the physical. So there is a lot of running away instead of running towards, but eventually you have to run directly towards it, or at least hopefully that’s what happens.
Jaclyn Gilbert was interviewed by Jessica Denzer for Four Way Review. Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her BA in English Literature from Fordham University and her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, painstakingly trying to make the writing magic happen.
From Late Air
Late August, Monday
“Remember our goals,” Coach Murray said. He and his number one runner, Becky Sanders, were in his car headed to the campus golf course. Through the darkness, the empty streets, Murray relied on his headlights. He tuned the radio to a clear station: the Doors.
“We’re aiming for 5:00–5:10 pace,” he said.
“Okay.” Becky was peeling a small blood orange, one long sheath unfurling on her lap. At 5′2″ and ninety-five pounds, she reminded him of his two-time cross-country All-American Sarah Lloyd. As a senior, Sarah had set a course record of 16:23.14 in the 5K. Becky was only a sophomore, but Murray believed she had even greater potential than Sarah; he saw Becky winning Nationals this year, maybe even competing in the Olympics one day.
Murray hadn’t showered or shaved in three days. It was humid in the car, and the gray stubble around his long mustache felt damp.
He hadn’t always had a mustache. In his youth, Murray was clean-shaven, but he’d worn his blond hair a little long through his own college running days. He’d run on full scholarship for the University of Scranton. Growing up in Luzerne County, he’d gone by his first name, Samuel, but on Scranton’s track, the chant Mur-ray had sounded best—especially at the age of twenty-three, when he’d qualified for the ’80 Summer Olympics in the 10,000-meter run.
Now, almost three decades later, Murray was sixty-two and no longer ran. His two knee replacements made walking so difficult that at the golf course, he’d have to use a cart to get around. He couldn’t miss a split.
At a red light, Murray noticed as Becky carefully removed two strings of pulp from the orange, then divided out the first quarter section. She raised a sliver to her lips and bit in slowly.
Murray’s breakfast sandwich still lay warm on his lap. No cheese, just ketchup and egg. He smelled oil and toasted bread, and then the juice misting the air as Becky’s thumbs pressed down.
He’d grown accustomed to their prolonged silences. In fact, he’d come to welcome them. Becky never challenged his insistence on their two-a-day practices, the first of which always happened in the morning, and the second later in the afternoon, when he held practice for the whole team. Murray had started his precedent in ’01, when he’d been named head coach—the year after Sarah Lloyd had joined his ranks—and he had groomed at least a dozen other phenoms since then, each as hungry as the last to qualify for Regionals, then Nationals, to earn the elite status Murray had tasted in college too. Every record Murray set had depended on running before daylight, the darkness an ideal time for finding focus, this protected space where he could demand only the best from his girls.
Becky warmed up at the fairway of the first hole. She did some form drills: high-knees, butt kicks, some rabbit hops. The sun had partially risen, mist clouding the first hill a soft, dusty green. Becky’s father, Doug, was an ardent golfer, and he had met Murray for eighteen holes the summer he’d started recruiting Becky. It was then that Murray had told Doug about his recruiting plan to help earn Becky’s admission to Yale, given her slightly subpar grades and test scores. In the end, she’d chosen him over all the other coaches vying, even those offering full scholarships. The pressure for her to keep up academically remained high, but he felt assured by her 3.6 average last year, when she was still a freshman.
He marked a tall elm as the start line and read her target splits from there. He told her to focus on her foot strike, keeping her weight centered. She’d have two minutes of rest between sets. “Four of them,” he said.
Becky rolled her neck around. She jounced her knees. When she readied her stance, he began his three-second countdown, stopwatch tight by his thumb. He clicked hard, and she bounded forward, her stride chiseling the mist. Her tan calves parted as they pushed into the fairway grass. Her thin, muscular arms sliced the breeze.
To Murray, Becky would always be like a Belgian warmblood, this magnificent breed he’d once bet on as a child, with his father, at the Erdenheim Steeplechase. The horse had a pinwheel brand on its left thigh. Becky had a scar, too, but on her right shoulder.
Last year, Becky had placed third at Regionals. Murray had taken her to a diner for a pancake breakfast to celebrate. It was there, her fork circling tiny slivers of pancake, that she told him how she’d been burned by someone’s still-lit cigarette. She’d been walking with Doug on Atlantic City’s crowded boardwalk when someone brushed her hard. She hadn’t really eaten any breakfast that morning, so Murray had finished the pancakes for her, a heaviness in his stomach he’d disliked; it was the hunger he longed for, the exertion that earned it.
Murray watched Becky in the distance as she hooked around the first bend, the quarter-mile mark.
Her forward lean looked good, legs kicking back nicely. Gravity was taking her, he thought. She let gravity take her.
He lumbered over to his golf cart but had a difficult time lifting his right leg and stepping in; even more cumbersome was crouching down into the seat.
Just two minutes to get to the finish at the base of the fairway on the second hole. He turned the key and floored it. He kept one hand steady on the wheel, the other over his notepad. A breeze cooled his face and the sweat that had gathered along the back of his neck. He focused on the bluish grass unspooling beneath him.
At the finish point, he pushed hard on the brake. He checked his watch: 4:55.16. He squinted his eyes, waited for a sign. Checked again: 5:10.39. Where is she?
5:25.16. He slammed hard on the pedal and careened up a side path. He called her name several times, but nothing came back.
It wasn’t until several minutes later, in the distance, that he saw the white of her T-shirt, shapeless and crumpled. The closer he approached, the more he could discern of her body: fetal, motionless. He checked his stopwatch—10:23.57—and clicked stop. Frantically, he thrust his body forward, shoulders jerking unevenly to make up for his wobbly stride. He bent over where she lay in the grass. A dark purple bruise marred her right temple. He squeezed two fingers together and touched the side of her neck. A pulse. He lowered to his belly, met her at eye level. With a middle finger and thumb, he peeled the right lid open. It was dilated. He leaned in toward her mouth, careful not to move her head. A difficult angle, so he had to drag his cheek over the grass. Her warm breath emanated, but it was ragged and shallow: one deep inhale followed by two seconds of apnea.
“Becky.” He spoke close to her ear. “Blink if you can hear me.” When there was no movement, he shouted, “Please, Becky! Blink!” He waited three more seconds, close to her mouth, monitoring the warmth, and then he was fumbling for his cell phone, fingers pressing for 911; he was shaking. He heard himself on the phone, specifying Becky’s head trauma as severe, maybe a level 6 if he went by his years of sports medicine training. A first responder asked him to keep close watch of the time, to note any changes in her vital signs. He reminded Murray to stay calm and—above all—not to touch her neck. Estimated wait was seven minutes.
Murray dropped his phone into his pocket.
Last night he’d called ahead to the clubhouse; no golfers had been scheduled. They were on a slope by the woods. Could the ball have rolled? He thought he saw a shadow moving from behind a tree. He called out, asking if anyone was there. But no one answered: there was just his own voice resounding, and then the deadening silence after that.
Becky’s hands were curled tight and close to her chest. Like an infant—silent, spine tucked into her mother’s womb. He thought he sensed a blue light passing overhead, lucid and wavering, then this slow ascension of her body.