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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.
From the outside, the Garden City Church of Christ looks like any small rural church. The building is just large enough for a sanctuary, a small vestibule where the greeters stand, an office in the back, and a basement where the choir practices and where Sunday school classes and church dinners are held. Four steps lead to the front door, the exterior paint is mildewed, the steeple seems tacked on. It’s as though it’s not a building at all, just a part of the landscape that has formed temporarily, ghost-like, into the shape of church.
The same ephemeral nature is true of the other buildings and businesses along the stretch of road that forms the unincorporated town of Garden City. There are houses made with asbestos-laced asphalt siding, trailers on cement blocks, a pole barn used for motorcycle and small tractor repair, a small pig farm, an abandoned filling station, one or two truck gardens, a cemetery, and a drive-in restaurant that serves chile dogs and tenderloins and is open five months out of the year. The government has fitted the drive-in with an elaborate water filtration system, as is true of the church and a few of the other inhabited buildings.
Everything in Garden City is separated by temporary fencing. There are no hardware stores, no clothing stores, no drug or grocery stores. Garden City, in other words, is just a strip of civilization along a strip of road, surrounded by dreaming fields of corn and beans.
When I was a child, and growing up in Garden City, I thought I knew everything there was to know about it.
If you find yourself there now, you’ll have to drive another twenty minutes or so to get to the larger town that houses the county courthouse and the factory that makes engine parts and still feeds and clothes and shelters everyone in the county to various degrees. The newer Japanese plants that make circuit boards are located even farther out in the country. They’re rectangular windowless buildings with the company name in crimson lettering. These factories seem to appear overnight as though pushed up through the soil by an underground rectangle, like those sculptures made on pinscreens. You know the ones—where you can press the pins from underneath with your hand and suddenly there’s a 3D impression of your hand. Take your hand away and it’s as though you were never there at all.
If you’re an executive at the engine factory, you’re originally from one of the coasts, and if you’re an executive at one of the new Japanese plants, you’re either from Japan or one of the coasts. No one informed you about the plume before you came, and when you found out, if you found out, you were assured you were safe from it. The plume is nothing, just leftovers from the filling station, you were told if you asked. It’s a thing that happens everywhere. We’re on top of it.
In any case, you may have driven through Garden City on your way to your new home on the man-made lakes and not paid much attention to it. Or you may have passed through on your way to the tourist town that sells fried chicken and apple butter in the autumn or on your way to the university two hours away or on your way to the country mechanic, his yard filled with rusted parts and his helpers sucking down beer and falling asleep from a combination of the beer and fumes.
Oh, who knows why you drove through, really. The ‘why’ is just something we fill our time with, sitting on our porches watching the cars go by. That’s what you think of us, right? That’s all we do, just watch you go by, centers of the universe. So maybe you have a mistress or know a prostitute who lives out in the dark spaces. Maybe your grandmother lives out in the country. Maybe you’re looking for drugs. Maybe you’re on the lam. Maybe you’re nostalgic for something, perhaps the Milky Way, and you think you might find it if you drive far enough into the country. I only know you most likely didn’t notice that the place had a name and that the church was named after the place. And it is a place. It is deeply placed in fact, as the church can attest. I was baptized in its pool. The church member who nursed my parents in their oldest age lives in one of the asphalt-sided houses. There are red geraniums in a pot on her front porch. The geraniums aren’t real, and yes, she has one too many lawn ornaments.
However, I’ll give you this: if you did notice the name of the place for some reason, you probably commented on the fact that no place in the world could look less like a city or a garden. On that we can now agree.
To go on: inside the church, the benches are made of pine, like caskets. The windows of the church are clear glass, the walls are grayish white, the floors are sloped and clad in worn blue carpet. Over fifty years ago someone painted a picture of a river and trees on the wall behind the baptismal pool. The river is chipped and faded, is poorly drawn but recognizable as river.
The white robes for baptisms hang just off stage, like sheets for a Halloween costume or Christmas pageant. Ghosts or wisemen.
Why am I telling you this? Out of love, I suppose, for this little strip of human habitation. Out of anger. Out of the wish to confess.
Oh, where to begin? With the hundreds of saints who have, over the years, dipped their white-robed bodies in the water of the Garden City Church of Christ baptismal pool, infusing sin into the pool like they were bags or balls of tea, emerging cleansed and holy?
The bitter dregs of our sins go down the drain every Sunday afternoon when the baptistery is drained and cleaned. It is refilled with water and chemicals every Friday and blessed early Sunday morning.
The water, by custom, bypasses the pipes when the pool is emptied and the holy water is pumped directly into the ground. The water, when it leaves the sacristy, rejoins the plume which is also, though little understood or talked about, its source. Was it our fault, the plume? Did we begin the separation of the body from the soul, the sin from the sinner? Isn’t it human to want to be cleansed? To pitch the dirty water from scrubbing potatoes outside the kitchen door?
It’s the plume I imagine now when driving by the church, when I sit in my car at the drive-in, eating chile dogs and root beer. I live farther out in the country now. Every summer my parents, the innocents, went to the drive-in for their anniversary. They brought me along. I acquired a taste. This was before we knew about the plume, though the plume was already there underneath us, phosphorescent, corrosive, on the move. Whale-shaped, the tip of its fin on top of the ground at the abandoned gas station. This was when we still trusted all the wells.
The knowledge of the plume came slowly. I have to say that it appeared first in our dreams. We dreamed of feathers and tornadoes, of rushing water and wind. Then it moved from our dreams to our senses.
First, there was the odd taste of something like oil in the coney sauce. Had the proprietor changed his ingredients? No, he had not. He added more brown sugar and it seemed to solve the problem for a while. And then the slight odor of oil in our morning coffee, the film of oil we attributed to the coffee itself. And then there was the graying of the glasses of cool water that came from the sinks, the increase in precipitate. We were used to variations in taste during harvest time and planting season. But there was the odor of something acrid in the baptismal pool, something other than chlorine, cologne, aftershave, and old hymnals on Sunday mornings.
For a while the preacher kept adding more chlorine to mask the smell. He attributed the need to an increase in the numbers of those wishing to be baptized, to the power of his sermons which were, to be honest, never powerful.
When the gas tanks first came down, when the station closed, there were pools of black sludge on the ground by the church. No real problem there we thought at first, nothing dangerous, a minor inconvenience. Oil on your workclothes, gasoline in your car, oil in the petroleum jelly you used occasionally on your skin. Familiar, the smell of oil.
But then, finally, we had to face it: the trucks that appeared at night, driving out from the engine factory. We knew what was going on. We all knew. Some of us had driven those trucks out to the dumping grounds, the expendable places. We just didn’t know we would be added to the list so soon, that we ourselves had become expendable. And so we trusted when the company said it was all safe, that the gas station tanks were built for just this contingency. The owner of the station kept making money from his failed business. Our sin-tinged holy water was so very pure by comparison.
The brain tumors came later. By the time they started blooming in our heads, muddling our responses, the owners of the land and factory had moved offshore.
I am a reliable witness and what I’m telling you is the truth. The first job I ever had was on the burr bench at the engine factory. It was the job you began with and the one you wanted to leave as soon as you were given a promotion to the line. Your job on the bench was to take a chemical so strong it made you hallucinate, so corrosive it ate through your gloves, and to work that acid into the engine parts to remove the excess bits of metal. For many years this was done by hand, the rubbing away of the burrs on the rods and cylinders. We thought of them as the thorns on a rose, on the crown of thorns. We were doing God’s work. You had to have an eye for it, a feel for the sharp places on the steel. You had to know how to apply the corrosive, how hard to apply the pressure so the engine part left your bench polished and smooth. What was left at the end of the day were the chemicals in a pool filled with dissolving metal burrs. It was not unlike the baptism pool, you’re thinking. We thought. At night the liquid was siphoned into tanks and driven out into the dark country where it was poured into the ground behind the abandoned gas station next to the Church of Christ. Who would complain? Who would we complain to? Where would our livelihood come from if we did? We would have done the same thing if we were the bosses. By morning it had seeped into the ground except for the small puddle joining with the sludge and surrounded by a fence.
It took a long time until we understood that the acid ate its way into the earth and formed a plume filled with the dissolving metal thorns and toxins, that the plume was making its way toward all the water in the world, feeding off its innocence, waiting to rise from the ground like the tornado in our dreams. Honestly, none of us stands a chance against it.
What happened to Christ’s crown of thorns? I used to wonder this. It fascinated me, the rivulets of blood streaming down his face. Was the crown removed with Christ’s body and placed into the tomb? Was it left by the cross? Might some bare-footed Roman have stepped on one of the thorns and if so, was he healed or sickened? Was the crown purified by blood or was it poisoned? Was it broken up and sold, thorn by thorn, as relics? Did it perform miracles? Or did it decay, corroding everything it touched?
I think the latter. I think it became the first plume, and every plume after that one yearns to join it. It pulses beneath the ground in this garden planet. There’s not much time now, so dip your body into any untainted water you can find, if you can find it still. It’s coming to a boil beneath your feet. Purify yourself. Rid yourself of the complicity if you can.
“FMK” by Amorak Huey (issue 12)
“Me Too” by Alyssa Beckitt (issue 13)
“Beauty” by Kyle Dargan (issue 12)
“As Fog Rolls In, Night Finds Its Footing” by Luther Hughes (issue 13)
“Things That Fold” by Karisma Price (issue 13)
“Resolution to Recover Lost Things” by Ellen C. Bush (issue 12)
“Francie and Samantha” by Janice Obuchowski (issue 12)
“Collapsed” by Michael Holladay (issue 13)
Darling Nova, Melissa Cundieff’s full-length debut, won the 2017 Autumn House poetry prize. She earned her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poem Hurt Music was published in Issue 10.
FWR: Your poems seem to be interested in the limits and constraints of language, whether the closing stanzas of “Paradox” –– “when the heart is just a lonely muscle/and language/just a tongue not knowing, not even touching/another tongue” –– or “In Media Res” –– “I once imagined my life differently/ but no one hears, so I say it again, and again/ until the words turn to ice, clear and contained”. These seem to speak to the desire of many women (myself included) to be heard, to feel as if their voices matter. Could you expand on this?
MC: I think of language as the holiest muscle, because it enacts and performs transformation — private, political, creative. That no one is necessarily listening, though, is an important reality. It’s important to remember that I’m sometimes my only company. And I don’t mean to sound severe, but I suspect this is so important because when something needs to change, when it’s truly time, the words to start that change must be heard. They should be as plain as still objects on a table.
FWR: I’m struck by how the places you describe in your poems then informs the conversation about each poem. “Romance at the Abandoned Mine”, for instance, enacts the echoing of tunnels (and the lines “Sometimes, even God wants to say yes/ before he says no” have reverberated in me for weeks). How does place influence your work?
MC: I think the God line I wrote in “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” tries to speak to the ethics of wanting to not only linger in a relationship or a meaningful sexual experience, but to also linger in the earthly place where it took place. I wonder if some version of myself and of that person I was with are still there, continuing on. I hope so, because we were happy, and we didn’t yet know what would happen to us.
So, place influences my work because of whatever my experience of it was. I think place or landscape serve as our most significant hauntings — in particular, the specifics of the light or the air do. Perhaps my most complicated grief is the one I feel for my childhood home. Not for my childhood but my childhood home. I like to imagine that it still exists exactly as it once did, and I’m there, inside my own life’s prologue, and my young mother and father are as well, and we’re all immortal in our orange kitchen, Winston cigarette air, encased by the greenery and wet air of Irving, Texas. I wonder if that house, which still stands but I’m sure no longer resembles the interior of my childhood home, is as haunted by me and my young, beautiful parents as I am by it. It certainly wasn’t always a perfect place, but its walls mean to me that I was born and ferried first via a car and then by my mother’s arms to the rooms that would shelter me for eighteen years – which is not everything, but it is profoundly mysterious and somewhat excruciating, especially now that I’ve grown older and made many mistakes, now that my mother’s bones hurt her and my father will die soon, now that I have children who live inside their own childhoods.
FWR: Several poems are elegiac, particularly “Remainder”, while still resisting any attempt to aggrandize or idolize a loss. Matt Rasmussen’s collection Black Aperture comes to mind, but did you look to other poems or poets for guidance on those poems?
MC: I admire Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture very much. It’s a beautiful book. Proper elegies are foundational to me; I think a lot about death and its metaphors. And you’re right, I try not to idolize loss. I do try to talk to my disappeared. I try to impart that I survey what’s left behind and sometimes feel consumed by it. Larry Levis is a person I turn to when I write those poems. I don’t understand how he wrote the poems he did. Each and every one of them is of another world. The way he travels so distantly to return to something as bare and reduced as, “My father is beginning to die. Something/ Inside him is slowly taking back/ Every word it ever gave him” (from “Winter Stars”). His poems taught me to (try to) push language into the tall weeds, to borrow its limitlessness, but they also taught me to exhale (inside a poem) — those moments that floodlight the inflexible truth that some of us are alive and some of us are not.
Larry Levis’s Elegies and the poems for his father in Winter Stars don’t only grieve the dead or dying but make something like primordial leaps to communicate with and through them. I try to do the same — it’s a way of not idolizing loss and death but certainly a way of confronting it and even giving it a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s consuming work, a consuming process, to stare at a landscape emptying itself of the people we love. The quiet, exhaustive energy that goes into doing so needs to be communicated and offered up like a currency.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you work with the mutability of time, such as the poem “The Conqueror, 1956″, or “Burning Hair”. To me, the folding and play of time reinforce the destruction and creation associated with cycles: “when the vase breaks against the driveway the shards will reflect the blue/ scattered eye that sees clearly when one thing shatters into many”.
I was hoping you might speak further to this?
MC: Forgive me for quoting the musician Joanna Newsom now when the epigraph to my book is also a Joanna Newsom song lyric, but: stand brave/time moves both ways (from “Time, As a Symptom”). I guess I think of time as a thing that we must intellectually, physically, and creatively endure, and, like Newsom suggests, that endurance involves courage.
Maybe more significant to me, though, is memory as the fruition and uniquely private demonstration of time, and what I think requires (almost parasitically!) fortitude. I think this because it makes us feel and confront very potently our lives thus far lived. Nostalgia, too, is powerful in its great difficulty to be stymied, and it’s through nostalgia and memory (to my mind) that “time moves both ways.”
Memory, in this case my memories of childhood, is wonderful and vivid though not without trauma. Memory, more so than time, reminds me simply that time is passing. And we all know what that leads to. So, when I allow myself to sink into remembering, it’s a way of confronting the past and future, my beginning and then my end — whatever that will be, whenever it happens. And maybe memory isn’t a parasite, maybe I’m a parasite to it. I think it must be one or other though, right? All that energy of remembering or being remembered must drain from a great source.
Furthermore, memory isn’t even remotely reliable; it both guards and abandons the past; it entails multiple versions of and revises what has and has not exactly happened; its nature is to be both vivid and scattered; it always enters the room with a knife in its teeth. It’s so fractured and multitudinous that I often feel consumed by it, and so writing about memory requires writing about time, as well. Drawing often unexpected connections between the past, present, and future is to exist in all directions, is to both create and destroy our own ghosts, is to make living memories, which is what I hope my poems partly are.
FWR: Is there a poem you love to teach or share?
MC: To name a few: Adrienne Rich’s “Power”, Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Salvation”, Trey Moody’s “Dream with Gun and Five-Year-Old Daughter”, Hayan Charara’s “Mother and Daughter”, Norman Dubie’s “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont”, Roger Reeve’s “Cymothoa Exigua”, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City”, and Cara Dees’ “Vigil Hemming In”.
On the day after Hazel died – it was a Tuesday afternoon in early March – George stood at his woodworking bench, whittling a bowl. He pressed the piece of yew down, and used a bowl gouge to scoop a smooth sliver of the pinkish-white wood so that it curled upwards and away, falling to the bench. He did this repeatedly – he tried not to think of anything else, not Hazel, not the empty house – and then, tired of that singular motion, he reached for sandpaper and ran it over the burrs and birds-eyes until the wood was warm and smooth to the touch.
George looked through the window, out on to the loch, where the water was as flat and as grey as slate. On the loch’s far shore, lying low across the hills Beinn Bheàrnach, Beinn a’ Bhainne, and Beinn Taladh, was a bank of cloud that made the hills seem like stubs that ended only a few hundred feet up. These were the hills that George and Hazel had looked at every day of the 43 years that they had been married. Peat and granite and died-back bracken were George and Hazel’s winter-time palate; these were the hues that stayed with them through the darkest months of the year, until April when the first of the dog violets reared their purple nodding heads.
Hazel hadn’t been well, but despite the pains that tore at her bones, and then the operation just before Christmas, she had been out in her garden every day. A few weeks after the operation, even, she had pulled on her wellies, got her gardening gloves down from the hall shelf and wrapped her purple rain jacket about her. Concerned, George had watched her through the long window at the back of the house climb carefully up the steps, clutching at the wooden rail, and enter her labyrinthine vegetable garden. He had watched as she had become smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind the poly-tunnel, just a purple speck on the hillside, a trowel in her hand.
Now white wood shavings curled on George’s fleece jacket, and flecks of wood dust sprinkled his arms and shoulders. He didn’t bother to brush himself off. When the light grew dim, he switched on the overhead strips, which flickered and growled to life. He would stay out here until he saw his tools in double; only then would he go inside the empty house.
The next afternoon, the minister called in to visit. George watched him drive up the road in his faded Ford Cortina, and then they sat in the living room where the stove glowed with coals. George served him tea and some Ginger Nut biscuits which Hazel had bought at the Spar Shop just Saturday. The minister had mild Parkinson’s disease, and his hands shook, the tea cup rattling on the saucer. He spilled a little of the milky tea on the beige carpet, both of them pretending not to notice. George didn’t mind; he just wanted the minister to leave. He wasn’t ready to talk about Hazel.
The minister offered his condolences. “Thank you,” George said, and then looked at the spot on the carpet where the tea stained brown. He asked if Hazel had left any wishes for her funeral, any specific requests – cremation, burial, that kind of thing. “We hadn’t expected her to die,” George said, thinking how cruel to be taken, after everything they had been through, by a stroke. He got up to stand at the window.
From there he looked out onto the edge of Hazel’s vegetable garden, which staggered in wild, overgrown terraces up the hillside behind the house. Neither George nor Hazel knew exactly how many acres the garden covered, because as demand for Hazel’s produce across the island had increased, so the garden had stretched out into their land at the back of the house. From the outside, the garden looked nothing more than untamed gorse bushes and rowan trees, trees that Hazel had planted when they had first moved to the house because in local lore they were thought to ward off witches. But on entering, and following the muddy path up the hill, the garden stretched out into large areas planted with every kind of vegetable that could grow in the island’s short season.
Raised beds were planted with leeks, spinach, kale, squash and kohlrabi, beds that sat alongside fruit cages, potting sheds, and a poly-tunnel which in late spring brimmed with sweet peas and, in summer, with strawberries, runner beans, trailing tomatoes. Up higher were whole sections reserved for root vegetables – crops that in summer burst their green tops through the rich loamy earth, and in autumn delivered creamy white offerings of parsnip, potato, turnip, Jerusalem artichoke, roots that kept them going through the cold dark months of winter.
From up here, Hazel had often told George at the end of a long day of work, she could look out across the house, the fields that surrounded them, and beyond to the loch, the hills, and the islands beyond theirs. From here she could be reminded that they lived on an island, because it was so easy to forget, an island that they had chosen randomly off the map all those years ago, its very virtue being that it was disconnected from the rest of Britain. She said that she felt reassured, when she was looking out on the sea that kept them apart from the mainland, that this would stop the rest of the world from encroaching upon theirs.
George now stared out at the rowan trees that bordered the garden, clasping his hands behind his back, his fingers picking at an old woodworking cut on his thumb. Behind him, the minister fidgeted and shook. George wondered what he was going to do about the garden. Keeping it up had been Hazel’s job, not his.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes,” the minister said kindly, and George turned to find him still sitting there.
“The garden,” George said, then trailed off. The settee springs creaked as the minister prepared to get up. “If it’s cremation you choose, it will have to be a mainland service,” the minister said. “Or there’s burial in the village, of course. It’s a lot to think about, and so soon. Perhaps you will call me when you’ve had time to consider?”
George nodded heavily, his mind darting to when he had seen Hazel in the hospital, just two days ago, after the doctors had said she was gone. He blinked the image away, and right then, through the window, he thought he saw a movement through the trees. He looked closer, squinting his eyes, straining to see through the silvery branches if what he thought he had seen was real. A pair of eyes looked back at him, white and wide, and then another pair, and then another. He saw a flash of tawny hide, a glimpse of cream, the sharp points of antlers. Deer, George started, and the Minister looked at him quizzically.
“Never mind,” George said, and then rushed the Minister to the door, hoping he hadn’t been rude.
“You’ll be in touch about things?” the minister said, “and of course, if there’s anything.”
When the minister had set off in his car, down the steep driveway towards the sea, George went upwards, towards the garden. There, he saw how the deer had got in: a fallen strut had left a gaping entrance to Hazel’s garden, and the fence had been trampled. The deer might come out on their own, but it was unlikely. He would need to fix the fence, and he would need help to get the deer out. He couldn’t do it alone.
Early the next morning, frost glinted on the tufts of shoreline grass, and herons stood still and long-legged at the water’s edge. George looked out from the window in the living room, and then picked up the phone to call his neighbour, Karl the farmer, and ask if he had time to come over.
The deer were still in the garden. George had watched them from the living room window as they destroyed an elderflower bush, the bush shaking in great waves as it succumbed to the violent nibbling of teeth. Now George felt a kind of weariness that two cups of coffee hadn’t shaken, a deep tiredness that had lain with him all throughout the sleepless, cold night and had risen with him at the blue hued dawn. It was a tiredness that loomed over him so that he felt if he didn’t keep working, it would crush him.
He was finishing up a slice of Hazel’s sourdough bread when Karl’s truck pulled up outside the house, his two sheepdogs, Ailsa and Aidan, turning circles in the truck bed.
“Hello, mate,” said Karl, eyeing him cautiously. He held out his hand, across the pile of condolence letters that littered the doorstep.
“Karl,” said George, shaking his hand, looking down at the letters. “I’m okay.”
“Whatever you need,” said Karl, and George nodded.
Karl was younger and taller than George, broad-backed, big-boned, carrying a head of bright blond hair. His face glowed red above the neck of the Guernsey sweater he always wore. George and Karl had been neighbors for going on 25 years, when Karl had taken over managing the farm on the Ashworth estate, and had moved to the cottage four miles along the road. The Ashworth estate stretched as far as George and Hazel’s house, and continued on the other side, so George had seen Karl come down on his quad bike, or in the truck if it was blowing a hoolie, twice a day, every day for the last two and a half decades.
George stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. The cold air stung his nostrils. Hazel loved this kind of weather, the ground still hard but spring somewhere nearby. She loved the white stillness of frost and the long evenings when a stew simmered on the stove, when she and George would play Scrabble together, which Hazel usually won. Hazel had always been good with words, ever since school where she had won the spelling competition. That was when George had first noticed her; they had both been thirteen.
George led Karl around the side of the house to the garden.
“Part of the fence fell,” said George, pointing to the gap. “This was her department. I haven’t been round here since,” he paused, “the operation. Before Christmas.”
“I see,” said Karl. “Can you get a new section of fence up?”
“I can get some posts,” he said. “And some new wire fencing.”
“When do you think you’ll have it ready?”
“Tomorrow, maybe. By the weekend for sure. I’ll have to go to the town for supplies.”
“Okay,” said Karl.
“But the deer,” said George. “There must be five of them at least. They’ve been watching me.”
Karl nodded. Over the years, Karl had become a feature in George’s life, if not quite a friend then someone George could count on. Hazel had sold her produce every week at the market, sixteen miles away in town, so she knew nearly everyone. But George rarely went away from the house, unless to fit a door he had made or sell his turned wooden objects. He was fine without friends; he had Hazel, and he had his work.
But when Hazel had got sick at the start of the winter, Karl had begun dropping in every now and again after he’d fed the sheep, offering Hazel and George lifts to the ferry for hospital appointments in Glasgow, picking up medicine for them from the town. Karl’s wife, Mandy, might send along a cake or some bread, and recently Karl had shown up on his quad bike with a fallen branch of rowan wood from the estate. He had asked Mr Ashworth’s permission to take it to George to turn bowls with, and Mr Ashworth had said, given the circumstances, that this would be fine.
These were little things, but where they lived, they made all the difference. During Hazel’s sickness, George realized, he had come to rely on Karl and Mandy in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Karl and George stood now, looking into the garden, until they saw movement, a swaying of branches, the snap of twigs and the flash of red between the shades of greens and greys.
“I see them,” said Karl. “Little pests.”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in there,” said George. “Hazel, she hasn’t been out here since, well – ” His shoulders hunched and his chest caved, as if he were folding in on himself.
“It’s okay, mate,” said Karl, reaching out a hand and placing it gingerly on George’s shoulder. George raised his forehead, pulled back his neck, sucked in a little air.
“Since Saturday. She was fine on Saturday. She was out here on Saturday.”
“Well, it sounds like they’ve had enough of a feed,” said Karl. “What say we get these rascals out of there? I’ll get Ailsa and Aidan from the truck and see what we can do. How does that sound?”
While George and Karl were out in the garden trying to get the deer out, the minister left a message on George’s answering machine.
“It’s Reverend Paul,” said the message, which George listened to later on that night. “From the church.” He asked if George might call him, or if he might come round again, to discuss the arrangements. George had listened to the beeps that followed the message and then had pressed the delete button.
George and Karl were unsuccessful with the deer. The sheepdogs did their best to round them up but every time one of the dogs cornered one, the deer leapt away into some further reach of the garden. Karl and George stayed with it until around lunch time, when Karl said he had to go and see about the cows.
“Of course,” George said. “You be getting along.” He tried to say it in a way that didn’t make Karl feel bad. Even so, Karl shifted awkwardly from one rubber-booted foot to the other and offered to come back another day if the deer still hadn’t left.
“If it’s no bother,” George replied, trying not to sound relieved.
“It’s nae bother to me at all, I want to help,” Karl said. “You’d do the same for me, right, mate?” George dipped his head, a heavy nod of agreement.
As darkness fell that Thursday afternoon, George went out to his workshop. He pressed the light switch on the wall, and the caged strips flickered to life. The bowl he was working on lay on the bench, its corners cut, its insides gouged, its surface rough with the scoops and turns of his tools.
George had been woodturning for as long as he had been married to Hazel, 43 happy years as a husband and a woodturner. You couldn’t rush either one if you wanted to do them right. George had learned about wood from his father, growing up in the New Forest, where his father had taken George on his wood-seeking trips around their house. By the time George had left school, at fifteen, he had learned to love wood with the same passion that his own father had.
George earned his money from making doors and gates for people, kitchen cabinets, those sorts of useful things. But what he rose for every day, was to turn discarded, forgotten pieces of wood into beautiful bowls, platters, vases, objects that would live in people’s houses for years, maybe even be passed on to the next generation. He wasn’t good with books, or words, or spelling, like Hazel had been, but he was good with his hands and he had the love of wood buried deep within him.
George looked out of the dark window at his own reflection staring back, and then at the row of tools clipped in hooks along the wall. There was the red handled chisel his uncle had bought him when he had turned his first bowl, the saw, 40 years old, a new blade bought on Amazon just one month ago. A bradawl, the rubber grip long since turned sticky but the blade still up to the job, which he had bought in an old man’s yard sale on their first holiday together in 1976. A jack plane that Hazel had bought him for his twenty-second birthday, the same year she briefly went to work at the Clydesdale before deciding an office life wasn’t for her and took to gardening full-time. A sliding bevel square, one of many tools left to him by Jack, who used to farm next door. The froe that George had bought himself, the gimlet he had found. The rasp, the spokeshave, the twybil; a brace, a broadaxe, a bucksaw.
George ran his hand over the blades and handles now, ending with the set of Sheffield steel bowl gouges his father had left him when he’d died. George had spent nearly his whole life with these tools, each one so precise, existing for one single purpose only. He looked once again up at the window out of which he could see nothing, only his own ghostly reflection. What would his purpose be, now that she was gone? What would he be?
Lying on one end of the bench was the piece of rowan that Karl had brought to him from the estate. It had been sitting there, gnarled and knobbled, waiting for him to do something with it, but with everything that had happened – the operation, the slow recovery, and then, this, Hazel’s death – George hadn’t got around to even splitting it open. He had no idea, and could not tell from looking at it, what was inside, what colours and patterns he would find when he eventually laid it out and cut it through with the saw.
But he had the urge to touch it now, to rub his fingers over the bark, and then he wanted to take the branch in his hands, and he did, feeling the weight of it pull on his arms. Then, it were as if his body were acting on its own, and the deer, Karl, the minister’s visits, even the fact that Hazel wasn’t inside cooking dinner, all of that became a kind of haze to which George was now numb. He took the branch over to the saw table and laid it down in front of the circular blade. He pulled on his safety glasses, stretched his fingers into some gloves, and flicked the switch on the side of the saw. The jagged mouth of the blade roared, a blast of sawdust-speckled air gushed upwards onto his face. The teeth began to pierce the rough skin of the wood and the noise drowned out the darkness that had permeated George’s mind. Just the rowan, the blade, and the devastating cut of metal on wood.
George shut off the saw and laid the two pieces of wood down on the workbench, blinking the dust from his eyes and taking in the colours before him. Cream and copper, tan and taupe, specks of auburn and swirls of russet, freckles of chestnut and honey and peach. He swept off the dust, and then licked the tip of one of his fingers and rubbed a little saliva into the wood. Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.
George ran his hand over the wood once more, taking in the brightness of the colors, and then he watched as they began to fade, as the air in the workshop oxidized the wood. It was as if their lights were going out. The colors lost their brightness, the wood lost its shine. It would never be the same piece of wood again.
The week lumbered on, bringing with it an entourage of lady-callers, women who lived on the island, many of whom people George had never even met. He had made the mistake of letting one of them through the door, early on in the week, and then they had talked on Facebook, probably, or at the post-office, and before he knew it, they all wanted to come in.
They brought cakes, mostly, but also soups, stews, trays of flapjacks, an apple strudel, a multi-coloured chilli plant from the village shop, all of which lay abandoned on the shelf inside the porch where in April, Hazel would have been laying out trays planted with seeds, ready for outside sowing in June. When the women knocked at the house, he didn’t answer, and so they cupped their hands to the window and then pressed their faces into the aperture their hands created. Then they would decide he wasn’t there and back away, leaving their offerings inside the porch.
Eventually, someone brought George a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, even though he hadn’t had a drink in God knows how many years. The bearer was new to the island – a blow-in, locals called these people – and had no idea that George had promised Hazel a long time ago that he would never touch another drop. George snaffled the whisky into the pocket of his woodworking jacket and took it out to the workshop. He didn’t bother with a glass.
There was an old leather armchair in his workshop, and he sank back into it, rested the bottle on his knee, and looked up at the rafters. He let out a sigh. Then George twisted the top off the bottle, put it to his lips, and glugged at the amber liquid, wincing and enjoying the pain as it slipped down his throat. The whisky burned the back of his tongue, and gouged tears of surprise from his eyes because he had not tasted whisky in so many years and now he remembered how disgusting and how delicious it was.
He thought of Hazel, and of her garden, and of her windowsill which should be covered in trays of seeds but instead was covered in trays of brownies and other things he would never eat. He tugged at the neck of that bottle and forced himself to swallow the whisky, and after a few minutes of drinking his arms felt light, as if they might lift of their own accord, and his head was woozy, and then he couldn’t remember why he was sitting in his workshop at all. With the confusion came a momentary, welcome relief.
But the feeling that had been plaguing him since Hazel had died, the weight that hung around his shoulders, that dogged him in the house and followed him when he went to bed and when he got up in the night to go to the toilet and when he finally rose to deal with the day, the immense and stupefying weight of her absence still clung to him, and even though he was drunk and he felt like throwing up everything that was inside him, still it was there. And the thought that it would never leave, that Hazel’s absence might for ever hang around his neck, was, even in his drunken discomfort, also a strange kind of relief, because at least that meant that he would always feel her close by.
When George woke up to a hand on his shoulder nudging him awake and Karl looming over him, he didn’t know where he was. But by the light coming through the windows, he could see that it was morning. His head was raging.
“You okay, George?” said Karl.
“Just give me a second,” said George, who felt sick and mortified by what Karl had seen. “I was just…”
“Yes,” said Karl, who ran his finger along a knotted branch of ash that lay drying on the racks, looking away so that George could gather himself, straighten his jacket and kick the bottle underneath the chair. “I came about the deer,” said Karl.
George had forgotten about not getting the deer out yesterday, and felt immense gratitude for Karl having come round. They went outside to Karl’s truck, where the sheep dogs snapped and twisted in the back.
“You okay, mate?” Karl said, eyeing him closely.
“I’m getting there,” said George, who had now been without Hazel for four whole days, the longest they had been apart for twenty or more years. “I’m not really sleeping,” he ventured. His head felt as if it were bursting.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Karl “Mandy says do you want to come over for tea?”
“Aye, maybe one of these days,” said George, who would have loved to eat a meal at a table with someone else. He had been surviving off sourdough bread and cheese, which he nibbled at while standing up at the kitchen counter, too afraid to sit down alone. “Maybe later,” he said, worried that too much warmth would crack him. “I’ll let you know,” he said, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
The sheep dogs, Ailsa and Aidan, pressed their muzzles against the grill at the back of Karl’s truck.
“How about them deer?” said Karl, “are they still up there in your garden?”
“They’ve taken out the rowans,” said George.
“Oh dear,” said Karl, knowing Hazel had planted them. He twisted the handle on the tail gate and the dogs piled out of the truck, panting and dangling their long pink tongues around the rims of George’s boots. “Come,” Karl snapped at the dogs. To George he said, “let’s see what we can do, shall we?”
The deer took fright when the dogs appeared, and scattered to every corner of the garden. “You stay by the gate,” Karl shouted, following the dogs with his whistles and clicks up through the paths that wound from each part of the garden to the other. “They might come out,” he shouted, his voice fading as he went further away. Then Karl was gone, only his red jacket visible in flashes.
In actual fact, Hazel had told George when she had gone for her operation before Christmas that, should anything happen to her, she wished to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the garden, Hazel had said, underneath the rowan trees. George hadn’t wanted to talk about it but Hazel had insisted. “Just in case,” she had said, holding his hand in bed the night before she was due at the hospital. “I just want to know that we talked about it.”
George’s head was still thick with the whisky that he wished to God he hadn’t touched. The feeling of having broken his promise to Hazel was enough to make him realize that it was the last time he would ever drink again. He heard a shout from the top part of the garden, somewhere up near the brassicas, then he heard the dogs barking, and then a scuffle of hooves around the perimeter fence as two white-faced stags came trampling down the hill towards him.
“Look out!” shouted Karl, whose head was just visible above a clump of gorse bushes. George was momentarily fixated by the way the animals leapt towards him. One of the stags had just a small pair of antlers but the other was an eight-pointer, maybe a ten. Its haunches undulated as it ran. A fine drizzle had begun to fall on George’s face and it seemed as if the drops were falling on someone else’s skin entirely. The two stags were nearly upon him, undeterred by his presence.
“Let them through, George,” Karl shouted, “stand back.” The stags made directly for the opening in the fence. All George had to do was to let them pass. They streaked by in a flurry of fur and bone and hoof.
“Well done, mate,” said Karl, who had come down the hill towards him. “I’m afraid we’ve got trouble with that young fallow, though,” he said. “She’s tried to get through the deer fence, and I think her leg may be broken.” A fine layer of mist had settled on Karl’s face too, and the two of them, bedraggled and damp, look out at one another beneath rain-soaked hair.
Karl came back that afternoon after milking and shot the injured deer. It had been a young one, its leg mangled by trying to jump over the fence, its antlers small but perfectly formed. They laid the deer on plastic sheeting in the garage, split it open from end to end and removed the gralloch which Karl plopped into a bucket, the kidneys and intestines trying their best to slip through his fingers. He left the head on a tarpaulin, and took the feet for his sheep dogs to chew on. Together they hoisted the body up onto a hook in the roof beam, put there for such a purpose. George would skin it for its meat once it had bled dry.
Afterwards, they sat in the house and George lit the wood-burning stove, resisting the urge to ask Karl if he wanted to play Scrabble. George produced the apple strudel, and together they ate it and drank a pot of tea. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about the – ” Karl paused, “about Hazel. About the funeral?”
George sipped at his tea, and said, finally, “Yes.” He knew what had to be done, and tomorrow he would call the minister. “Hazel wanted to be cremated,” said George. “She wanted her ashes scattered underneath the rowans. They’ll grow back, won’t they?” he asked.
When they had gone up to free the deer from the fence, and found its leg broken and the deer weak having wrangled all night, they had found the garden in a state of destruction. The beech trees’ lower branches had been bitten to the core, the purple sprouting, kale and other winter greens were flattened and snapped, stems bleeding white, open to the sky. The potato patch was churned with cloven-hoofed prints, and the rowans were naked, stripped of their bark, the sapwood within shredded and torn as if an angry clawed animal had been trying to get its guts out.
George had run his hand along the trunk of one of the trees, once smooth and silvery, now rough against his palm, like strands of old rope. George didn’t know if the rowans would survive another year, but Karl had suggested he call James the farrier, who was good with trees, to see if he had any advice. When Karl finished his tea, George didn’t offer him any more. They said goodnight at the door, and George heard the truck bounce down the lane to the road, the dogs whining from their cage in the back.
In the garage, the deer hung from the hook. In the stark glow of the strip lights, the deer’s hide shone bright, tawny with patches of cream, specks of brown, hazy spots of auburn faintly visible. The head lay on the tarp still, and the deer’s eyes were closed now, its lids pressed shut against its face. But when Karl had taken a rifle and nuzzled it up against its struggling head, its eyes had been wide open, bright with fear and pain, the eyeballs engorged, straining through its own scull. George had hardly been able to bear it, though he knew that this was the kindest thing to do.
“Best to put it out of its misery,” Karl had said, and then he had pulled the trigger. The fawn was killed immediately, its body slumping against the fence where its leg had been caught, but for a few seconds, its muscles had twitched and its eyes had gone on blinking, the nervous system firing impulses even though its heart had stopped. George wasn’t religious, or even spiritual, but he thought, for a moment, that he might have been able to see something pass from its eyes, something fade, before the eyes stopped blinking and the muscles ceased to shiver.
George closed the door to the garage, turning his back on the deer. It would still be there in the morning, and a few days later when George would skin it and carve up the meat for the freezer, taking a parcel along to Karl and Mandy. George went back inside the house, past the trays of cakes, to the table where the phone lived. Holding the receiver, he dialed the minister’s number, and waited for him to pick up on the other end.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
TWO POEMS by Kerrin McCadden
LAUGHTER IS CLOSE by David Rivard
THREE POEMS by Alyssa Beckitt
THREE POEMS by Jessica Hincapie
THINGS THAT FOLD by Karisma Price
SUMMONS by Jess Smith
TO MY CHILD BEFORE SHE ARRIVES by Brian Simoneau
LAMENT FOR SOME OTHER SAIGON by Sarah Audsley
AS THE FOG ROLLS IN, NIGHT FINDS ITS FOOTING by Luther Hughes
“This is How I Remember Her” by Blas Falconer