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.
Meditation frequently asks its practitioners to ground themselves in their bodies through a series of structured “noticings.” You are gently urged to press yourself into your chair, press your feet into the floor, press your fingertips together, press your lungs out into their little cage of ribs.
It is easiest, it turns out, to notice your body when it meets with a measure of resistance. The floor is a fact your feet cannot change. To live in a body, we are told and retold, is to forget about this all the time.
When I solicited poems for this issue, I asked for work that “enacts or inscribes the feminine in fresh, unusual, or surprising ways.” Noting that gender is both inscribed upon the body and enacted by the body, I wanted to see how gender could visit the text, or the site of inscription. It is, in fact, near-impossible for many of us to forget about our bodies. This is not a failure to live within them, but a ricochet from resistance to resistance, reminder to reminder – “You do not inhabit this body. To the world’s eyes you are this body. Here is what that means.”
I’m delighted by the poems in this issue, in no small way because they make the original phrasing of my solicitation seem deeply small and beside the point. They embrace the mystic and the vulgar. They are funny, heartbroken, and kind. They dig deep for inner voice and reassemble the voices around them in a gorgeous echolalia. With plums. And hoofprints. And Kim Kardashian. I hope you like them.
Assistant Poetry Editor
DRAG NOTES – FROM A CONVERSATION WITH KINGA
by Justin Engles
by Danielle Mitchell
by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
PRAYER TO ST. MARTHA
by Leah Silvieus
Artwork by Lexi Braun
The idea of voice has been hot on my mind lately. I think the ongoing work of folks like Amanda Johnston (one of the founders of Black Poets Speak Out), has made me think closely about how I move through the world, speak for myself, for and with others. Voice is subjective, relative. It’s also incredibly relational. Although I’m not a thousand percent behind Naomi Wolf’s talk of vocal fry, I know well the phenomenon of adapting one’s voice to suit one’s audience. The question is, then, from which conventions and collectives does one draw? And why? A writer performs on the page for a hypothetical audience, introducing herself to strangers again and again. Whatever voice that writer inhabits at any given time should be considered and relevant, and it should always feel true.
Since this is my first monthly curation of Four Way Review, the theme feels apt. As editors, we think about our own voices, our voices in conjunction with other editors’, and how the pieces we celebrate reflect upon us. Last month, Ken Chen, Executive Director of the phenomenal Asian American Writers Workshop, wrote an article excoriating certain white artists whose so-called transgressive work does little more than parrot the language of violence, racism, and patriarchy. Another recent editorial at Apogee raises the idea that it is as impossible – and unethical – to “read blind” as an editor as it is to be colorblind in the way we engage with each other in the flesh.
Here’s my secret: I was a little tempted to name this issue The Anti-Rachel Dolezal Life & Times, for the sake of those of us who have worked very hard to be ourselves, to own where we come from, and to make art from that space. The aforementioned – now-infamous – identity thief, who has worked with visual media in the past, was, unsurprisingly, once accused of plagiarizing a landscape by another painter. The appropriation of style, voice, and culture all converge so neatly in her story, it’s remarkable.
With all of this roiling in my head, I found myself, more than anything, wanting to read gorgeous, powerful voice. Just that. Inventive, not necessarily confessional, but representative of the artist in an elemental, charged way. When I started feeling tired of tired voices, avery r. young and Juliana Delgado Lopera came to my mind immediately, as the balm I wanted and needed most.
I bet you’re going to like reading these folks. Their styles are very different: young’s work boasts spareness and abbreviation, often using the architecture of parentheses to slow the reader, to encourage and reward re-reading. Lopera’s narrator, on the other hand, has fluidity and grace that’s enviable. Both are immediate. Neither backs down.
It wasn’t planned, but I don’t find it at all surprising that, in young’s suite of poems and Lopera’s excerpt, both use Christianity as a springboard for their characters’ voices. Owning one’s voice often comes from looking directly at structures of power, the stories we as a culture swear by. I think it’s important to reclaim power this way. And maybe it seems naïve, but I feel the connection between the art we make and support and the way we engage each other in the world is very real. These two artists are doing the good work.
~ Laura Swearingen-Steadwell
excerpt from FIEBRE TROPICAL
by Juliana Delgado Lopera
by avery r. young
For this installment of our new monthly “mini-issues,” I wanted to present a small folio on a genre which seems to gain more and more attention, particularly among poets — the “photo-essay.” Because so much of our daily life has gone digital, it becomes harder not to primarily encounter the world through our sense of sight. And “seeing” isn’t easy. For the photographer, when a photo essay is being built, he or she must whittle down, sometimes from hundreds of photos, until the image is found; then he or she must find other images that create tension with that original image. This month’s Monthly will present you with two poet/photographers, Chris Abani and Rachel Eliza Griffiths, both of whom I believe are doing fascinating and challenging work through photography. And please read the interview I conducted with Rachel! Such wonderful answers. That said, have a look-see (ha, see what I did there), and thank you for reading.
~ Nathan McClain
ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: AN INTERVIEW
with Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Starting this spring, we’ll be sending our subscribers monthly “mini-issues,” each one edited by different members of our staff. We see these monthlies as a chance to showcase more great work, and explore more topics of interest, than we have room for in our regular biannual issues.
To kick things off, I’ve chosen work that blurs the sometimes arbitrary boundary between poetry and prose. As a reader, editor, and writer, I’m most interested in work that blends the finest elements of both — the kind of work in which one hears, as Robert Frost once called it, the “sound of sense.”
I hope you like these “poems” and “stories” just as much as I do, and will keep an eye out next month for a brand new feature, chosen by a different member of our team. Until then, thanks for reading.
~ Ryan Burden
Managing / Fiction Editor
by Kevin McIlvoy
THE LUTHIER’S MOTHER’S MOUTH’S OPENNESS
The Luthier’s mother’s mouth’s openness, her hands’ finger’s
tremblings, her red hair’s fires’ warnings. It’s what you saw if you
were making your last visit to her ever. You were the Luthier’s
mother’s Possession when you walked into her son’s guitars’
home, in which son and mother also lived together in one room.
Inside their home’s heart’s sounds: the tub’s faucet’s dripping’s
splashings and the refrigerator’s coils’ hymning humming…
by Sierra Golden
Jesse isn’t really a pirate, but the Coast Guard thinks so when he calls to say he found a body. It doesn’t matter that she’s still alive, so cold she stopped shivering, blue fat of her naked body waxy and blooming red patches where his hands grabbed and hauled her from the water. He stands over her with a filet knife, slowly honing the blade as he waits for Search and Rescue. The glassy eyes of a dead tuna stare up from the galley counter. At dusk, Jesse flicks on the squid lights…