Christian Kiefer is the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Ashland University and is the author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury), The Animals (W.W. Norton), One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide (Nouvella Books), and Phantoms (Liveright/W.W. Norton). Photo by Christophe Chammartin.
FWR: Let’s start with your pieces for Literary Hub, where you focus on grammar as craft. Of Lauren Groff’s writing, you say, “The style of her sentences … are the gears and wheels of her genius.” Often, when we talk about craft, we’re looking at aspects of the form—point of view, exposition, characterization. I found it interesting how you articulated conditioning these components with the shape of prose itself. How does a writer go about using language and grammar to achieve a desired composite effect?
Christian Kiefer: I think the easy answer here is by consciously reading with language and musicality in mind. For me, the sentence length is effectively the length of breath that any piece of writing asks for. That length of breath can fluctuate depending on the scene or situation, but the exhale/inhale of a line of text is mostly dictated by its rhythm and its use of pauses and end stops (commas, periods—but also textual interruptions and so on). With someone like Faulkner, you’ve got an increasingly ostentatious use of clauses and phrases meant to contribute to the flow of the text so that the length of breath becomes almost laughable. For someone like Groff, you’ve got shorter, impactful clauses often fraught with a staccato rhythm that, even when rendered by soft syllabic information, is nonetheless possessive of a kind of wave-like feeling. One doesn’t even notice the periods, the commas, because the unit of rhythm is rendered so expertly.
There’s a whole list of “grammar rules” out there on the internet, of course, and once you have those under your belt, it’s pretty easy to see when people consciously break them. James Baldwin, for example, has a deep love of comma splices, which many college professors would mark as incorrect. Or Garth Greenwell’s idiosyncratic but deeply meaningful use of semicolons. Look at the rhythm of Jesmyn Ward’s prose, or ZZ Packer’s, or Michael Ondaatje’s. These are masters in how they employ grammar as a tool of meaning-making.
FWR: You’ve mentioned in interviews that when you’re writing poetry, you don’t think about narrative, yet the sentences in your novels are so poetic, such as this passage from The Animals:
Above him, above them all, the sky had gone full dark and stars seemed all at once to rise from the tops of the trees, their pinpoints wheeling for a moment across that black expanse only to return once again to those needled shapes, as if each light had come up through the soil, through the epidermis of root hairs and into the cortex and the endodermis and up at last through open xylem, the sapwood, through the vessels and tracheids, rising in the end to the thin sharp needles and releasing, finally, a single dim point of light into the thin dark air only to pull one back from that scattering of stars, the cambium pressing down the trunk, pressing back to black earth. Time circling in the soil and the silver tipped needles. Time circling in the big sage and cheatgrass of everything to come before.
The first sentence is a kind of blazon of a conifer, used less for exposition and more as movement. You’ve mentioned considering velocity as a specific approach to writing. How do you see poetic language as capable of creating certain motion? And in that way, how can lyricism serve narrative?
Kiefer: You’ve happened upon a great peeve of mine: style guides dictate prose should strive for clarity, as if poetry is the only form of writing that gets to be poetic. On one hand, that passage you quoted is perfectly clear to a plant biologist, although of course I’ve taken some license here and there, but its point and purpose is to sink the reader into the language of the natural world, a significant and meaningful (I hope!) theme of the novel.
The motion of the above passage is paused-for-breath by the commas, allowing for a lilting rhythm. I hone this by reading passages aloud over and over and tinkering with the rhythm and the language until it feels representative of whatever effect I’m trying to work toward. Sometimes it’s very, very conscious and sometimes it’s more intuitive, but most often somewhere in between the two.
Those last two sentences above are summatory of the long sentence that precedes them. It’s a way to nail down what might be to an average reader just a bunch of nonsense. I’m offering a way to anchor the reader to something a bit more grounded, though still representative of what the passage is “about”.
This is all to say that in terms of velocity something needs to be moving forward in the text. I’m a pretty patient reader but if there’s no apparent motion, I will eventually get bored. The writer has to put pressure on something—maybe it’s on the sentences themselves, but often it’s the characters, the situation, the scene. Hemingway is known for these short(ish), punchy sentences, but when in action scenes like the end of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” he moves into a completely different rhythm, a completely different velocity
FWR: Your fiction heavily employs atmosphere. In your essay on Garth Greenwell, you call one of his passages a “stuttering delay on the details of the protagonist’s recollection and remembrance.” This relationship between the information released in each clause and what is concealed, to be released later, is a playful manipulation that lends itself to building the haunting atmospheric elements in The Animals, too. How do your terms “re-grammaring” and “re-informing” apply to your approach toward writing and establishing atmosphere?
Kiefer: This is probably something I learned from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Faulkner gives the reader so much information right from the first couple pages, yet the reader is totally flummoxed as to what is happening. Even at a basic level, the reader can hardly situate herself in the text. An elderly woman is sitting in a room telling a disjointed story to a college-aged Quentin Compson (from The Sound and the Fury). It seems like it would be straightforward, but part of Faulkner’s interest is the assumptions made by survivors of the Old South, such that most everyone knows the same characters and situations, and so Rosa Coldfield’s narrative—a narrative later assumed by Quentin’s father and by Quentin himself—is therefore fraught with assumptions about the knowledge of the listener/reader.
What this all amounts to is a text of accretion, the meaning of which deepens in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the reader’s confusion. It’s a miraculous thing and an almost impossible book to read, let alone write. I think I’ve probably read it ten times or so.
Having said that, I do think it can be very problematic to willfully withhold information from the reader, especially basic information. For those of us who are not Faulkner—and even Faulkner is not always in full possession of his talent—it’s important to set the reader into a situation or scene that is apprehensible. It can be terribly frustrating to read something and have to struggle to locate basic information. Absalom, Absalom! works counter to this because it’s very much about the act of storytelling over the gigantic canvas of history.
And thank you for your note on my use of atmosphere in my writing. It’s the part of the work that I most enjoy, which mostly comes late in the revision process. I’m doing 30 – 40 drafts of my writing, generally speaking, and a lot of that is dialing in specific textual effects and making sure that the setting is solid enough to be imagined but gauzy enough that the reader can also imagine her own version of it. In this sense, concealment can allow the reader into the text. In The Animals, I want readers to be able to envision the Nevada desert, but I also want to make sure it’s their own Nevada desert, not necessarily mine.
FWR: In Phantoms, characters and events parallel each other throughout, whether John Frazier and Ray Takahashi’s experiences in their respective wars, or John’s attempt to unravel the story of Ray against the backdrop of the town’s desire to deny it. Your syntax often mirrors this parallelism, as John views himself in opposition to or in league with different characters. Can you talk about how prose can embody what it is in fact describing, and how the goings on of a story might be inspired by its prose? How would you advise writers to play around with the tension and congruence between prose and content?
Kiefer: I would advise writers to play around with everything. In terms of the specific question, there’s a balance needed that is embodied in the syntax itself. Whenever you veer from the arrow of the narrative, you’ve got to remember that the reader is likely waiting for the text to reconnect with that (perceived) forward motion. As a microcosm, consider an individual sentence. “Once he awoke from his nap, Bob, still hung over from the night before—that last flight of whiskeys had clearly been a terrible mistake—returned to the office.” So what’s happening there is you’ve delayed the subject’s sentence by 7 syllables, then provided the subject, Bob, which immediately sets up the reader’s expectation that the verb is coming, which you’ve then delayed again by 25 syllables. You’ve got to make sure you’re deferring the reader’s grammatical satisfaction for a good reason. Too much of that will come off as an affectation. (Late Henry James is really, really good at this kind of thing.)
On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a scene where the protagonist is trying to avoid talking (or even thinking) about something, then the syntax—even in exposition—might start wrapping itself in circles in order to display something regarding that state of mind, delaying and interrupting, and so on, so that the reader can feel the reticence and avoidance without you having to state it. That’s a fine line to walk because it’s so easy to overdo.
FWR: You play around often with point of view, too. In The Animals, Nat’s perspective is in second person, and you write from the perspective of Majer, who’s a bear. Both Phantoms and One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide feature first-person plural, which in the former creates tension between community and individual and in the latter calls attention to the (inter)viewer and the nature of an artistic lens. What is point of view’s role in situating a reader closer to or farther from the text or characters?
Kiefer: This is something I’ve thought about a great deal. Pam Houston is the master of the second-person narrative, so I’m certain I learned everything I know about that from reading her work. Going back to Faulkner: he employs first-person plural often (look at “A Rose for Emily,” for example). Point of view is, for me, a decision of where to place what John Dos Passos famously called the “camera eye.” That placement can be very idiosyncratic and can even be off-putting (I remember Tin House-editor Rob Spillman commenting that he generally finds second person difficult to pull off).
What I’m interested in is using point of view to shift the position of the reader vis-à-vis the narrative. If we move from standard third-person past to second-person present, that does something significant to the flow of the text and the reader’s position to that text. The reader has to recalibrate where he thinks he is in relation to the story, which I find wonderfully invigorating (as a reader). Ondaatje does this kind of thing with scene, situation, character, and time when he shifts us into some other point in the timeline or shifting the entire narrative as in Divisadero. It’s a way to force readers to reapply themselves to the text while questioning what narrative is and what it can be.
FWR: I want to talk more about the filmic nature of your writing. One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place Left to Hide is described as a kinoroman, or a cinematic novel, and within it the narration functions at once as camera, us as collective readers and viewers, and words, as this is, of course, a book:
When she moves away we do not follow but watch her, receding, pulling out of focus as she reaches the glass doors of the casino, the reflection of the parking lot shifting momentarily across her disappearing shape. In that reflection is all of Nevada. In that reflection is you, reading these words.
Soon after, we read “We have not seen her smoke before, but she is smoking now.” This conflation of a literary feature like backstory with a note I’d expect to read in a screenplay functions as a sort of formal synesthesia. How do you draw from other creative formats in your work? And in your mind, what even is the role of form when it comes to writing?
Kiefer: I think it’s important to occupy “the arts” in a deep and meaningful way and to make sure you’re exploring how the effect of one work might be achieved in another. Like how might one create the textural quality of Anselm Kiefer’s (no relation) The Orders of the Night with words? Or the hauntingly floating opening of Hans Abrahamsen’s opera Let Me Tell You. Or Kehinde Wiley’s official portrait of President Barack Obama. That portrait makes me tear up. How could I as a writer accomplish the way it does that?
Obviously these are shifty questions. Kehinde Wiley’s portrait is wonderful because it can’t really be accomplished any other way, but I do think it’s useful to consider artistic borrowing in this capacity. After all, one isn’t trying to replicate the actual painting or music or text or film or whatever it is, but rather the feeling of that form.
FWR: John states early in Phantoms that “much of which [has written about Vietnam] helped [him] understand what happened over there and how the heavy stone of that experience continues to ripple out over a life that has been, at times, troubled by its own hidden currents.” This understanding of the Vietnam War helps the reader understand the domestic violence between the white and Japanese-American families of Newcastle as “a legacy of sanctioned violence both subtle and overt.” The formal can be of course akin to the traditional. So how can writers use formal conventions in a way that allows us to also re-understand and re-experience them?
Kiefer: At heart, I’m a traditional narrative novelist. The formal conventions are there because they work, but their existence also allows us to push against them, sometimes pretty hard, which is to say one can break herself upon the rocks of formal conventions. Despite the violence of that metaphor, I actually mean it to be positive: breaking in the sense of breaking open.
One of the things that formal conventions made possible in Phantoms was the direct critique of whiteness. A certain kind of America loves its nostalgia, but nostalgia for, say, the 1950s, a nostalgia that is also pre-civil rights, which is to say nostalgia (and especially nostalgia) can become a tool of white supremacy. So I’m writing about the Japanese internment and the American war in Vietnam, all of which is held in a traditional structure strong enough to push against—both in terms of the structure (which does shift and turn from time to time) and the themes.
FWR: Kirkus Reviews describes One Day Soon as an ars poetica, and your reflections on the creative process are refracted in the many ways in which you participate as a writer, musician, educator, and editor. Similarly, your writing encapsulates your interests, from being an ardent nature lover to having studied film at USC. Does writing have a requirement to in some way reflect on itself as a form of expression? And what then is the role of the author to do the same?
Kiefer: I’m not entirely certain how useful it is for writing to comment on writing. I don’t, for example, find traditional “craft” books to be very useful, nor do I much enjoy books that swing toward self-reference or meta-textuality. I already know I’m reading a book, so pointing out that I’m reading a book isn’t of much value to me. On the other hand, I love Italo Calvino so maybe I’m full of shit on this.
I think more important is being open to the truth that there may be no requirements in writing at all. Blake Butler, Katherine Standefer, Tasmyn Muir, Sally Rooney, Rebecca Makkai, Matthew Salesses, Emily Nemens: these are all wonderful writers who are doing very, very different things with words all while fulfilling whatever “requirements” we might place on them (or that they might place on themselves). What I want, what I long for, is a full immersion of my heart in the deep red-hot center of the text. I’m in the business of breaking hearts. We all are. And to be broken in turn.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a multimedia artist, poet, and writer. Griffiths is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books 2010), The Requited Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press 2011), Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose 2011), which was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books 2015), which was a finalist for the 2015 Balcones Poetry Prize and the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award in Poetry. Her most recent book, Seeing the Body, is a hybrid of poetry and photography (W.W. Norton and Company).
FWR: I’d like to start with the titular poem, “Seeing the Body”. In it, you write into grief and how that grief can bifurcate the life of the living. In your visualization of grief, you create imagery (such as “flowers/falling from her blood” and “bale of grief on my back, opening/ into something black I wear”) that seems resistant to more common depictions of grief. (I’m thinking of poems like Auden’s “Funeral Blues” or the gothic imagery of Edgar Allen Poe, which have become synonymous with writing about loss). Did you find yourself resisting cliche, or writing through images that you had read from others, when you first began these poems?
Rachel Eliza Griffiths: The engine of “Seeing the Body” relies on how breathing happens through a poem as much as it is also about how breath stops or is altered by grief. There is the involuntary tension of trying to sustain an image or to construct a narrative about a beloved’s life or one’s self, only to find all is ruptured.
Auden’s wonderful poem is after something very different than “Seeing the Body” insomuch as Auden’s poem calls for a moment of silence that feels quite public in its address of ordinary life. My own poem wants intimacy, to address the earth and the private echo of silence where there is the sense of falling through one’s body, one’s birth and death through the body of the mother. My mother. This poem hurt me the entire time I worked on it. Years. I’ve never been attracted to clichés, visually or otherwise, so I don’t think about resisting them. What has startled and provoked me is the immediate emotional connection I feel wherever I share these poems. I’m writing about a “common” experience yet it is anything but common for me.
I can never read this poem as it should be read. That was intentional. Each time I enter the earth of this poem I am further away from its original grief. I am somewhere else in my body and can’t get back to the woman who braced herself against the initial impact of loss. Whenever anyone experiences this poem I hope there is an intimacy of reading that does not exclude our bodies. Through language, I’m aware of forcing myself to stop in the middle of something that has neither beginning nor end.
Listen to “Seeing the Body” read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
FWR: Seeing the Body includes a section (“daughter: lyric: landscape”) composed of your photography, which is alluded to in other poems (“For years I photographed myself/ in a white dress”, from “Husband”). You write in your Author’s Note that these photos serve “as a map of the self and of the greater world in which [you] are both visualized and invisible”. Had you planned on incorporating photography from the beginning, or how did that process develop?
Griffiths: In the beginning, I didn’t plan to use any images at all in the book except I began to think about the types of photographs I had created in Mississippi just before she died. I had to go back and consider what I was “making” when I was unmade by her death. Then I also remembered the deliberate focus I gave photography immediately after her death. I clung to the machine, my camera, like a life raft. I began to perceive my own body as an urgent conduit of my grief, which meant I couldn’t leave my body outside of any landscape on the page.
Perhaps the only way now that I can truly see my mother’s body again is through studying my own. This time was weird and messy because I couldn’t read books. I had a hard time using my camera. All these tools were nothing to me. When I began to write about my mother, it was very difficult because it felt like language was forcing me to accept elements of her death I couldn’t bear.
Perhaps the only way now that I can truly see my mother’s body again is through studying my own.
FWR: Did this impact your understanding of or play with syntax? (I’m thinking here of the poems “As” and “Good Questions”).
Griffiths: “As” and “Good Questions” are fragmentary or function as what I might call a “collage of the lyric” — the rhythm and imagery bleed together in an attempt to both isolate language and to hold the visible language intact as grief itself opens through the body of the page. Photographs offered me a way to be grounded in the world, to remember there had been a world I loved before her death and that I could and must return to it. Finally, it was transformative, after so many years of being diligent that these mediums lived in separation, to ask them to touch each other and hold me.
FWR: “Color Theory and Praxis (I)” is a poem concerned with the body, but also the body in art. Specifically, it considers the painting “Open Casket” by Dana Schutz, which depicts Emmett Till. The poem questions who has the right to the body, particularly a body of color, and after death. I wonder if this influenced your own writing, as some of your poems see you imagining the voice of your mother, as in “Comedy”: ‘Yeah don’t go and write about me like that/ she says. I already know you will.’
Griffiths: I’m ambivalent about my relationship to placing myself inside the voices and bodies of others. I’ve done it, whether by persona or in certain photographic series, and it can feel tense for me. Issues of permission and imagination fascinate me. I’m not interested in policing anyone but I do have the right to challenge, to question, and to critique certain things, especially when it comes to visual arts and representation. There is a lot at stake for me even when it feels like people want artists to shut up when their work is confrontational. I read an interview where Schutz said the painting was about a conversation with Till’s mother. I disagreed with her perspective and the “terms” of this unreal, fantastical conversation, which placed the mutilated body of a black mother’s son as its focal point, as its medium. There is a photograph of Mamie Till at her son’s casket. I don’t feel like Schutz’s painting could ever listen to, or tell Mamie Till’s truth. The artist has a right to do whatever she wants but I tried to understand what and where that right was located. I mean, there’s a painting of hers that features Michael Jackson’s body on an autopsy table. Again, do what you want but do it well. Also, I noticed she didn’t use Trayvon Martin’s image, or Sean Bell’s, Tamir Rice’s, or Eric Garner’s, or Jordan Davis’, or Philando Castile’s, or Mike Brown’s, or Ahmaud Arbery’s, or…or…
I’m tired. There isn’t enough canvas, enough pigment, enough bones in this country for black artists to address the violence and harm done to our bodies, our communities, by the imaginations or institutions that can’t bear for us to live. It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?
My mother and I would go back and forth about my writing. Sometimes she’d ask me when I was going to write her story. Other times she worried about my imagination. None of the poems in “Seeing the Body” ever enter my mother’s body and use her voice. I never wanted to do that. The dialogue in “Comedy” was exactly what she said.
It isn’t our job or our art’s job to do that work either. Why is America afraid that we dare to imagine ourselves as anything but dead?
FWR: In “Good Questions”, you write, “when did the final arrangements begin? / At her birth. Inside of wet rock. When my birth began.” Throughout the text, I was struck by your exploration of inheritance, whether of womanhood or illness, and how grief lives in the body (as in “Signs”). Would you speak to the development of this thread?
Griffiths: I’m in a more explicit stage of my life where I want to think of myself within a greater dimension, in conversation with beings that arrived before me, and those who are already arriving after me. I think about what I can share with the living and the dead. I’m constantly aware that the earth is different in her temperament since I was born. I’ve been astonished by how quickly some of our geographies have reverted and have healed during the pandemic without the presence of human abuse.
At this point, my work lends me an expansive way to think about how I might, as an artist, establish or assert my own lineage or claim inheritance in ways that don’t necessarily include children. I’m constantly thinking about how remarkable it is to begin to really take into consideration the manners, culture, trauma, resilience, joys, and ways-of-being that I have inherited. These things I hold have come from my family but they have come from a larger consciousness. They also come from within me.
I’m in a more explicit stage of my life where I want to think of myself within a greater dimension, in conversation with beings that arrived before me, and those who are already arriving after me. I think about what I can share with the living and the dead. I’m constantly aware that the earth is different in her temperament since I was born.
FWR: Seeing the Body explores the shifting ownership of the female body and how language can free, as well as constrain. In “Ars Poetica”, you write of imagining becoming a writer or a woman like your mother, before the neighbor and his friend interrupt your daydream: “his friend braked hard,/ barking like a dog… Hey, Bitch, he said”. In “My Rapes” your mother asks, “why/ I listened to white girl shit. How could alternative music/ hear a black cry like mine?” Can language free us from the body?
Griffiths: It depends on so many things – whose language, which bodies, whose freedom, whose history, or memory. “Ars Poetica” speaks about some of the ways that violence can interrupt one’s dreams or one’s work. The poem is also asking questions about how we, especially black women, can afford our dreams and our work. How the world consistently fails to appraise our contributions even while our bodies and cultures will be taken as commodities, as resources. The second poem you mentioned is about some of the ways your own family will refuse to allow you (and by extension, your body) to live in songs (and bodies) that they believe are dangerous. I listened to a lot of Tori Amos because of what had happened to me. I listened to Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco. I listened to them because my mother wouldn’t hear my truth. She couldn’t bear the thought of violation because she loved me so much.
Listen to “Arch of Hysteria, Or, the Spider-Mother
Becomes A Woman” read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
FWR: Building off of that question, you thread myth through your poems. For me, the inclusion of Athena, Arachne and Eurydice roots your experiences in grief and voicelessness within a larger historical and human story of being a woman. And the poem “Myth” speaks of “the literature/ of blood the black face gasps in air. No… / the black boy’s face merely insists/ it is a face to begin with”, which, to me, seems reminiscent of the commodification of bodies of color not only in commerce, but also in art. Can you talk a bit about the inclusion of these figures?
Griffiths: This question feels similar to the earlier question about Till. In some parts of the book, I found myself returning to stories about daughters who were powerful but seemed unable to overcome their roles in a larger “myth” or story. These stories would often place women inside of cruelty and violence – rapes, murders, or “transformations” that altered or punished their bodies, or drove them mad. The poem “Myth” is about my rage as well as my grief that murders of black men persist in a cycle that renders them faceless, whether that is through death or incarceration. And there is a spectrum of micro-massacres between those extremes. Their humanity is erased.
FWR: Were there poets or writers you turned to for guidance as you wrote through your grief? (Lucille Clifton’s “oh antic god” springs to mind). Or, are there poets or poems you love to teach or share?
Griffiths: Yes, I return often to Ai and Lucille Clifton! I’m thrilled at the forthcoming publication of a selected, How to Carry Water (BOA Editions Ltd.), edited by my dear sister, Aracelis Girmay. It will be a feast! When my mother died, Aracelis shared a poem with me by Joy Harjo, our current National Poet Laureate. It’s called “Remember” and I read it aloud often. If I were brave enough to get a tattoo it would feature lines from this poem.
FWR: To start, I want to give you an image of my reading of Boat Burned. I was getting a pedicure and reading. I think part of what had me so enraptured in your writing in that moment was that I was already in a place where I was thinking about my body, and the relationship it has with the world, as someone was very physically touching my body. It created a very visible power difference between us, as he sat and touched my feet, in addition to a racial difference, a class difference and a gender difference, and I feel that these are layers that you explore and speak to in Boat Burned.
I saw in an interview with Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, you had talked about your love of metaphor and the body as metaphor. I don’t want you to feel as if you have to repeat that conversation, but I did want to ask how you opened yourself up to writing about the body and the body in all of these different circumstances that threads through the book.
Kelly Grace Thomas: I think that at first it came from necessity. I can’t remember a time after the age of seven when I did not have a complicated, if not contentious, relationship with my body. I think that body image is the silent insecurity that no one really talks about, yet it’s a problem that we see in almost all women, as 25% of women have an eating disorder or experience disordered eating in some way. I think that growing up, I had this behavior that was modeled for me, and of course when you have a mother who has body image issues, you internalize that shame because her body gave you your body. I started to dig deep, in my poetry, and I realized most of the things that make me the woman I am– my body, how it looks, how it functions, all of these things– sprang from a source of shame. I decided I wanted to explore that.
I was in a Korean spa in Los Angeles. All the ladies were naked, and I felt so uncomfortable. I remember thinking, “I am so ashamed to be naked in front of these people”. It felt so vulnerable, and I thought, “you have to find a way to talk about this.” I sat down, and I thought, “if I’m not a human, what would I be?” And then I had the immediate thought, “I’d be a boat”. I wrote the poem, “The Boat of My Body” and once I had this metaphor, I felt like I had a mediator to have a conversation with my body that I hadn’t had before. It had been too close, and too painful, to touch, but once I had this metaphor that I could lean on to interpret these things or filter them, then I had a way to open up the conversation.
I feel like it’s a civil war sometimes, this idea that the mind and the body, or the soul and the body, became two separate things. I wanted to work on healing that in some aspect, and I think the metaphor helped. Once I started thinking about the body, then the layers came. I began thinking, “where did I learn this behavior? Why do I believe this? How does my body compare to other bodies? How does my body compare to others of different age, gender or background?”
FWR: Springing from the idea of that civil war and that experience of learning shame, reading Boat Burned, I was stopped again and again by your description of the inheritance of bodily dissatisfaction or trauma, which threads poems from “How the Body is Passed Down” (“My mother was still hungry. Royal/ with fridge glow. Learned/ that loneliness/ eats with its hands”) to “I Try on My First One Piece in the Dressing Room at Ross” (“My trunk is thick. / I don’t look/ expensive.”).
And as I started following this little bit of water, I realized, “there’s a river here. No wait, there’s an ocean here.”
KGT: I think growing up, I learned shame about my body, especially with regards to its relationship to men and being an object of desire. Once I began exploring this in my poetry, I found that this ran deeper than I ever realized. And as I started following this little bit of water, I realized, “there’s a river here. No wait, there’s an ocean here.”
FWR: I’m thinking of the line you have of the body as “monstered/ or womaned” (from “We Know Monsters By Their Teeth”), when you think of the body as a tool, it creates a separation so that you can’t judge it. I think what makes the metaphor of a boat so apt is that as a woman, your body is supposed to do all of these things. It’s supposed to mother, to carry, to nurture, and to charge ahead so that others can follow in the wake–
KGT: And still be tender, and still be sexy. It’s such a contradiction. As a poet, I think you’re an observer. For me, as a poet, you’re listening and watching all the time. I’m also an empath, so I’m feeling all the time. I can walk into a room and feel the sadness of the women. I was very much raised in a matriarchy, by these astonishing, powerful women who were on their own. I constantly saw themselves reaching outside themselves for power. I think so much of that goes back to someone telling them that, “your body is meant to do X, or supposed to do X”. I think that if gender is a performance, there is no bigger performance than a woman’s body, sadly, in terms of what the audience expects it to do.
For me, I became the audience and the performer. I was critical of myself, because I bought into this idea of what a woman’s body was meant to do to be tolerable for society. It’s so interesting that women are looked at for the function of their bodies, and men are looked at for the function of how they provide. The message is that our bodies are our skills, and if our bodies are not skilled in the ways that others want, they can be conceived as broken.
FWR: Exactly. And staying with the metaphor of woman as a boat, just a bit longer, is such a profound metaphor for you because it speaks to the different roles of a woman, but also ties in the personal significance that the ocean and boats have had for your family.
KGT: I grew up racing sailboats. My mom and dad grew up on sailboats. When I was ten, my dad went bankrupt and our family lost everything. The IRS took everything but his boat. My parents were already separated at the time, but we spent Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays with my dad. On Sundays, we would sail together as a family. So when my father said that he was going to move to Florida to start over, we took a trip on the sailboat, which was a month-long goodbye. As a kid, I found it extremely upsetting and confusing, and I could feel this heaviness that we were all not talking about.
FWR: What you’re describing, being a child and being aware of these things not being talked about but felt, this to me, speaks to how you thread the personal and political through your poetry. You’re aware of the bodily privileges you have, as an outwardly white woman, but also the bodily disadvantages you have, from being a woman. This creates a mixture of tension and privilege, for example in a poem like “Arson is a Family Name”, written in response to white women who voted for Trump, or the poems that deal with the relationship your husband has with the world, such as “I Suggest Omid Shave His Beard”.
KGT: Omid, my husband, is Persian. Both of his parents were born in Iran but he grew up in California. From this relationship, I’ve experienced stepping into how the political plays out in the everyday. My husband is a very gentle soul but he was also very clear when we got together that, because he is Middle Eastern, the world, especially the white world, thinks that he was going to treat me like shit. He was so conscious of the stereotype and aware that every choice he made was to defy that stereotype through kindness. When Trump first came to office, I remember that Omid’s father and mother told him to shave his beard because it is not safe in this country for him. I’ve thought about that a lot.
FWR: What you’ve said about his beard, that is a variation of the idea of the body as performance. By shaving his beard, it makes him more ‘accessible’ or sending the message that he’s not ‘like those other people’.
KGT: Totally. I’ve learned so much from him, in terms of how he won’t apologize or won’t perform. But as a woman, society has trained me to perform. I feel overly programmed and conditioned that there is something about me that needs to be fixed. I think that’s a gender thing, but I think it’s also a marketing and targeting thing.
FWR: This makes me think of the performance of sexuality and sensuality. I think you thread a fine needle between those two, as there are poems that are sexy and there are poems that are sensual, and yet they do not seem as if they’re meant to titillate. It made me reflect on male writers who will treat the woman’s body as something to be objectified, and thus demeaned. I was wondering if that was something you were conscious of as you were writing.
I think through that sensuality, I am opening a bridge to acceptance.
KGT: I don’t know that I always think about, or even do think about, about the line between sensuality and sexuality when writing. Whenever I have a dialogue about sexiness, there’s always the insecurity there. I can’t always separate those, though I’m getting better. From Omid, I’ve also learned about self love. It’s been a hard thing for me to feel like I’m beautiful. I think there is a sensuality in appreciation of the body, and tenderness and beauty. There’s an intimacy that comes from this, and I think that’s what’s coming across in the poems. I think through that sensuality, I am opening a bridge to acceptance. Intimacy, for me, is not pulling away. It’s agreeing to let someone look at you, and not feel the shame that you might feel. There is a trust in that, and there is a trust in someone teaching you to love the body.
I’m always working towards self love. There are many poets who have said that every poem is a love poem. While I think there are a lot of heavy themes in this book, I think it was a love poem to myself and to the women around me. I can think of the women who raised me, or the women I work with, who are amazing and strong, but they are not told that or that they’re beautiful. In fact, they’re often told the opposite. So I think this book is a love poem for them.
FWR: Does it feel like, with the book out in the world, that you’ve been pushed to the forefront of your own self love?
KGT: A year ago, I don’t think I was there. There’s a specific line in the poem “In an Attempt to Solve for X: Femininity as Word Problem”: “Tell the junior at UCLA/ you have the answer. Use words like better now / then walk her to her car. Do not tell her/ like you, she will always be hungry.” It sprang from a friend who I had told what I was writing about, and she asked what I had figured out. I felt like a fraud, saying that I didn’t know. I felt like I had to have all the answers. The book came in different stages, over years, as any book does. At the end, I had rewritten probably 30% within the last six months before it was finished. It changed and changed, as I thought it could be better.
I started in a place of shame and punishment, and then I asked myself what conversations could lift me out of that.
I believe that a poetry manuscript, like a piece of fiction, should have an arc and an ending. There’s growth and transformation in all art. I believed that not only was I taking myself on a journey, I wanted the reader to be on that journey too. So, the poems at the end of the book, I wrote with the intention of healing and with the intention of dialogue, and the intention of praise and honor. I started in a place of shame and punishment, and then I asked myself what conversations could lift me out of that. Now that it’s out, I do think that I love myself in a completely new way.
I was really intentional to have a dialogue with the self and with the body that represented women in their multifaceted complexities, that came from a place of deep introspection and love. It’s not that I have all the answers, but I have more answers than I used to. My definition of beauty has shifted, my definition of power has shifted. My fundamental beliefs have shifted in a really beautiful way.
Before the book came out, my mother and I drove to Las Vegas. She asked me to read through each poem, and after every poem, we stopped and talked about it. It was one of the most healing, beautiful things that I have ever experienced. I think part of this book was to come to terms with the fact that yes, there was a lot of sadness for me, but there was also a lot of sadness for my mom and my sister and the women around me. No one talked about it until years later. This book is an effort to do that, to hold one another.
FWR: It feels as if it’s also unfurling the layers of shame and body back, to say that once we’ve gone through all these depths, here we are as people and true to themselves. It reminds me of what you said earlier, about having this discomfort with your body after about the age of seven.
KGT: Exactly. I very much want to be a mother, however I come to be a mother, and I felt that I had this responsibility to deal with my shit before my children come along. It’s so important to me to celebrate my child for who they are, without my hang ups. I think shame is learned, and while some of that shame is necessary, there is so much additional shame for our natural body. It takes muscle to unlearn that shame.
FWR: This tradition of parents passing down shame, or their ideas of what’s natural, that brings to mind the poem “My Father Tells Me Pelicans Blind Themselves”. Though I know it comes much later in the text, to me it felt like the entrance into the whole of Boat Burned. It wraps in ideas of family who both love and wound each other (“[they] hatch/ hungry children. They peck/ at parents who strike/ back”), the body (“appetite: my deepest/ grave”) and the desire to turn both of those very human experiences into a lesson or, at least, a story that can give meaning to us (“they starve into myth”).
KGT: When I think about my family, I think there’s so much of us that exists in these corners of silence and that is silenced around the hunger we have for the things that we are not getting or giving each other. This leads us trying to fill that lack. I think of the line, “I have drunk all the body that this wine will allow”; you come to a point that the sadness or the silence is so deep that there’s no outrunning it. That poem ends with the lines “Father, rock me/ like a child./ Sing me the sea“; there’s a sweetness in that and a surrender. I don’t know if I will ever outrun this and at many points in my life, hunger, or the insatiability of it, has felt like a type of violence against the self or against others.
In “The Polite Bird of the Story”, I have the line, “Food is just another ghost story/ the starved like to tell.” I feel like that role of food being a ghost story, is the same function as love in the book. You’re so starved for love that you do these things, whether taking on shame or apologizing for yourself, because you’re so hungry. I’ve been on a diet since I was eight years old, so yes, I am hungry all the time. Either I feel like I’m hungry, or I feel like I’m fat because I’m eating what I want, but I am also hungry for so many other things.
FWR: This reminds me of the poem “No One Says Eating Disorder”, when you end with the lines, “The small gods/ we let control us. / We were so hungry/ for anything/ to love us back.” That desire to feel something, even if it’s not the feeling you wanted.
KGT: Yes, that feeling to feel wanted is such a human need, and it’s even more complicated for women. We are taught that we are put on this earth to be wanted, to be these things of beauty. All we want is to get some kind of love, and when you don’t get that love, it turns into a form of self harm. It becomes a never ending cycle.
FWR: Part of what I think you do so well in this book is that you talk about that cycle, and that inheritance of cycle.
KGT: I think speaking of that cycle is the first step to breaking a cycle. I work with youth poets, and I feel like I have a responsibility there to show both sides of the looking glass. As an adult, as a mentor, it’s important to do the work so that you can get to a place where you can help others.
I had to learn Algebra Two, but not how to love myself.
Out of all the poems from this book, the one that has gotten the biggest response is “No One Says Eating Disorder.” I’ve done poetry readings, and women will come up to me to say, ‘thank you. This is not something we talk about.’ I was so scared to write that poem, because I feel like it’s such a cliche to be a white girl talking about body issues. It feels like there’s a vanity there or that it’s not a real problem. But I think the lack of self love in this country is a real problem. I had to learn Algebra Two, but not how to love myself. And I have never used Algebra Two!
I think there’s so many wonderful things about being a woman, but I don’t think that that’s highlighted on a daily basis.
FWR: I wonder if I could ask you about “What the Neighbors Saw”. Reading this poem, I was struck by the structure of the poem and how it mirrors the fragmenting of thoughts and emotions after trauma, and how that fragmentation becomes the memories themselves. It ripples across the page, as words and images (the butter, the door) revisit the speaker and gain new resonance. The syntax shifts throughout the poem means that each line unsettles the next and previous. Could you talk about the development of this poem?
KGT: I was at the Kenyon Young Writers Program, and I was a fellow for them. I was instructing but also learning. We had read “Dead Doe” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly. I was rocked by the language and the imagery and scenes, and I was rocked by the interruptions and how real those interruptions felt as emotional symmetry.
I’m really connected to the idea of motherhood and wanting to be a mother. I think some of the greatest pain someone can experience is losing a child, or not being able to have a child. So I was thinking a lot about children, and the other fellows and I were given this writing prompt where we each wrote images on index cards and passed them around.
That poem, I sat down and wrote in about 15 minutes. It came out whole, except for maybe two lines that I cut and some things I tweaked. That poem is a journey for me, inside life and stories and a complicated house. It’s not biographical, except for feeling emotionally true. It’s still rooted in the autobiographical experiences of the book and the same threads of shame, silence and punishment.
FWR: To hear your process, it matches the experience of reading it. The poem is so emotionally wrought; the fragmentation reminds me of a record scratch, where it continues to be stuck on an image or idea.
KGT: I’m at the point in my life where I think about motherhood, and I am struck by how fragile it all is. When you’re thinking about the role of the daughter, you’re also thinking about the role of your own daughter, or at least I am. There’s a line where the husband says they can start again, and the speaker had to assert that she is still hurting, and that it will be her body that will feel motherhood from the beginning. I think it speaks to the evolutionary pressure on a mother, that we were supposed to care for the children and make sure that they don’t die. That is another expectation for women and the role they must perform. This poem speaks to what happens when a child dies, and how the world responds to that and how a mother internalizes that.
FWR: Although I have a good sense from your acknowledgements, were there poets or writers you turned to for guidance as you began to explore these topics in your writing?
KGT: My biggest poetic influence of all time is, by far, hands down, Patricia Smith. I was introduced to the poem “Siblings”, which explores the different personalities of hurricanes. Because I grew up on sailboats and my dad lives in Florida, I have a close, personal relationship with hurricanes. They’re kind of like a family member that comes around every August. I was really affected by the way she personifies these hurricanes. When I first came to poetry, Patricia Smith and Rachel McKibbens, both, blew the lid off of language. When I read them, it’s electric. I can feel the way they play with language, or manipulate parts of speech, or throw out syntax, through my body. Those two poets unlocked a gate for me when it came to language. It’s like I found a whole new part of being.
I never got a degree in poetry, but when I started publishing, I decided I was going to go to some workshops with poets. The first one I ever went to was Tin House’s Winter Workshop with Patricia Smith. It was amazing, and I learned so much from her. She is one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever met. I’ve been lucky to study with Jericho Brown, with Danez Smith, with Paige Lewis. I remember that there was a poem that Jericho Brown asked me, “what is this? There’s such a distance here. You’ve either got to let us in or not write about it.” And that helped shape how I approach my writing.
Another person whose work I gravitate towards is sam sax. He does a lot of really interesting stuff with language and in terms of performance, I find him to be really captivating. The last person I want to mention is Shira Erlichman. I’ve studied under her but she also helped me in terms of editing and working with me one-on-one. I love the way she looks at language, what she calls “peanut butter and fireworks”: the things that normally don’t go together but can create tension and complication in language in fascinating ways.
FWR: I completely see those elements in your writing. Patricia Smith, I think, is so good at detail. Her language is gorgeous but she never loses sense of the physical. She roots her writing in the world, even as you follow along with these grand ideas. I think each of those writers, Jericho Brown, sam sax, it comes back to the body and the body in this world.
KGT: I agree, and I think they all talk about the complications of the body. The body is a responsibility that’s heavy, that we carry in so many different ways. I heard Nikki Finney say that one of the keys to writing is “never arriving, always becoming.” As poets and writers, we always have to be working to improve ourselves and to improve our language, and continuing to read and learn. I think about that all time. I think I have a little more of that, because I didn’t go the traditional route for writing. And I think I have a hunger to always be learning from those around me. It’s important to keep transforming.
Dilruba Ahmed is the writer of Bring Now the Angels (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) and Dhaka Dust (Graywolf 2011), which won the Bakeless Prize. Ahmed is the recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Prize, and she holds degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.
FWR: In an interview with the New England Review, you stated that, “I’m interested in the ways that—particularly during difficult times—a seemingly small act can contribute to a greater purpose. And how those acts, even when they occur in relative isolation, can bind people together toward a common goal. While you made this comment while reflecting on the term “resistance” with respect to your poem, “Underground,” I think it speaks to the other poems in Bring Now the Angels, as well. Illness frames much of the text, as you reflect on “SickDad” and how cancer impacted your family with an eye towards the minute detail.
In the poem “Local Newspaper, Floating Photographer, Father’s Day Edition”, you describe images of vitality: “Describe your father. / Midnight scrambled eggs each New Year’s Eve. The insistence: ‘say yes to cake’ … Describe your father / Why do children keep growing, in their small and ignorant bliss?” Each of these small moments construct a man and a life, and by sharing these moments of specificity with your reader, you have brought us into this man’s life more effectively than broad strokes. In this movement from the broad (father; illness) to the keyhole (“pizza purchased for men searching dumpsters in Columbus”), did you find it easier to write about small moments? How did you find the lens with which to view these grander, binding moments?
Dilruba Ahmed: My new book, Bring Now the Angels: Poems, is an extended meditation on loss, both personal and public. In the personal realm, the poems mourn the many losses associated with chronic disease and terminal illness in the Western world. During a 3-year battle with multiple myeloma, my father lost his health, his mobility, and his typical daily activities. Some changes were sudden and dramatic; other losses accrued slowly.
The ripples kept growing. We experienced a loss of confidence in Western medicine, which both saved my father and destroyed him, and for me, in faith. The disappearance of our bearings and touchstones transformed the world into a place suddenly strange and unfamiliar.
The situation was painfully personal, but everything happened within a larger context. We witnessed firsthand the cost of being ill in America: the associated expenses, maltreatment, discriminatory practices, and reckless over-use of painkillers. Not to mention access issues to dialysis centers and the related questions about quality of treatment and quality of life. In each health care facility, for every deeply caring and attentive health care professional, there were physicians who were out of touch with their patients and the mission to heal. My family members and I experienced the corruption and carelessness of our country’s healthcare system even as a few shining stars gave my father the best possible medical attention he could have requested.
While small moments often sparked poems like this one, in my revisions I’ve tried to consider their larger contexts so I’m not just “zooming in” but also “panning out.” I’m making an effort to examine the layers surrounding personal moments by asking, “What are the social, cultural, and historical contexts relevant to this poem? Who has been represented here, and who has been erased?” Claudia Rankine has called for white writers to examine how the racist history of our country has shaped mainstream thinking about both whites and people of color—and our representations of both. From the intersections of my identity, there’s still work to do as well.
These questions have led to deeper revisions, as with the title poem of my new book, “Bring Now the Angels,” which began as a measured acceptance of a terminal diagnosis and the adjustments accompanying physical and cognitive losses. In subsequent revisions, I situated personal loss in more universal ways, focusing less on the diagnosis and more on the indictment of a society that permits the vulnerable to suffer under dismal conditions, with poor medical treatment and exorbitant costs. I revised from a first-person narrator to an oracular, choral voice that bears witness to maltreatment, misuse of addictive painkillers, and debt.
FWR: In the poem ” With Affirmative Action and All’ , you write, “in any given American town, / there is a room inside a room inside a room/ where thought shapes word shapes action”. Several of your poems, such as this one, or “Self-Guided Tour”, wrestle with what it means to be in America, and what America means in a globalized world. Did you look to other poets for guidance in writing about the political in our current state?
RA: Yes! I have many inspirations informing my poems – sometimes overtly, sometimes playing it the background like a poetic playlist.
In some poems in Bring Now the Angels, I was experimenting with W.H. Auden’s notion of “indirect communication” with the reader. Auden believed art couldn’t move people to faith, for example, but that it held power to show them their despair. My explorations led to poems such as “Choke,” which recasts “Jack and the Beanstalk” in two voices: an unidentified interviewer and an Indian farmer. In the poem, I envision the effects of large-scale corruption on the individual, with hopes of eliciting awareness. In “The Process,” I try to channel the distanced tones of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” to critique our shared complacency, hoping readers will realize our collective agency. In “The Children,” a poem meant to locate our heartbreak and humanity as immigration policies shift dramatically, I attempt to capture intimacies between parents and children in stark contrast to brutal family separations at our border.
One of the more overt influences on my politicized work includes Roque Dalton, a Salvadorean poet whose poem “OAS” holds both dry wit and bitterness. His work inspired my poem, “Self-Guided Tour.” More generally, Adrienne Rich’s writings frame my engagement with politicized material: “No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice… it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”1 In my writing, my hope is to embody resistance on multiple levels. For example, “Underground,” attempts to situate the resurgence of American civic engagement, including my own. Striving for a global perspective, I tried to broaden my focus beyond conventional actions such as public marches and activist phone calls. I wondered how might I witness courage and agency that goes unseen—actions not necessarily recognized as resistance.
My musings resulted in a poem about private and public resistance by Afghani women under Taliban rule. I strove to represent the women’s resistance as not only fighting back, but also finding ways to thrive under threatening circumstances. By engaging with this material, I hoped to lend perspective to the present American challenge of political organizing among work and family obligations—actions that occur, for many of us, within an existence of relative privilege and freedom.
There are many, many poets who make up my playlist when it comes to politicized poetry, including Claudia Rankine, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Rick Barot, Ilya Kaminsky, Matthew Olzmann, and Elizabeth Bishop….
FWR: In this vein, the poem “Incident” has haunted me long after I first read it, with its juxtaposition of maternal love and parental violence. It also seems to read as an ars poetica, with the lines : “If I love my sons— / their sleep-ruffled curls… with even more ferocity/ and mindfulness, can I erase / the girl’s pain?” It also reflects back the love and pain that is so often built into relationships within families. Could you speak to this poem?
RA: One of the questions fueling Bring Now the Angels is related to witnessing the suffering of others, and the resulting sense of powerlessness to enact change. I think that, for those of us who may feel overly porous to the world’s violence and the distress of others, everyday living can quickly become very overwhelming.
With my father’s sudden decline and subsequent diagnosis of multiple myeloma and end stage kidney failure, in many cases there was very little I could do to alleviate his suffering. But through it all, I’d like to believe that the loving presence of family members provided a healing force. In my poem,“Incident,” I was grappling with both a sense of powerlessness over other’s actions, and the possibility that greater harm could result from any apparent response from me. Because this poem was based on an actual incident, the poem also speaks to the ethical dilemma of failing to act—by not attempting to intervene as a situation cascaded into violence, did I in effect participate in that violence? I, too, remained haunted by this incident and have been unable to reconcile it for myself, despite the risk of unintended consequences for the person I felt compelled to help.
And you are right: the poem could be read as ars poetica that both laments the seemingly ineffectual nature of poetry to create change in the world even while trying to recenter the speaker’s energies on mindfulness and deep love. In the end, the poem implicitly yields to the fact the speaker only has power to effect change in the realm that is most directly hers, acting from a deep love that could, perhaps, hold the potential to ripple out beyond the immediate moment. But ultimately, the poem consists of a series of questions for which there are no answers.
FWR: Much of this collection wrestles with grief. How did you approach this experience in your writing? Did the poems emerge organically, or did you sit down to write about loss? Were there poets you looked to?
RA: In an interview with Terry Gross, poet Marie Howe says poetry is “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said,” explaining that “[e]very poem holds the unspeakable inside…The unsayable…that you can’t really say because it’s too complicated…too complex… Every poem has that silence deep in the center…”2 Writing about grief was very much a process of finding ways to access those deep silences.
To convey my emotional truths about chronic illness and loss, I tried different approaches—lyric, narrative, and prose poems, with tones ranging from deeply intimate to the distanced language of form letters, medical records, and Google’s autocompleted phrases. Restlessness regarding form and content’s relationship led me to write ghazals, as well as poems with less conventional structures–including one governed by a childhood toy, the Viewmaster.
Many of the poems emerged in a flood of writing about one year after my father’s death. As daughter and as a parent, I’d struggled with my understanding of mortality without finding ways to authentically engage with it in my writing. When an old story about my uncle’s childhood snakebite assumed mythic proportions, I found that the use of parable finally helped me to unlock some related emotional truths. The result was “Snake Oil, Snake Bite,” one of the first pieces I wrote about my father’s battle with cancer. I knew then that I’d made my way to the poems that would form the new book.
Literary heroes in this endeavor include Marie Howe, Agha Shahid Ali, Carl Phillips, Elizabeth Bishop, W. H. Auden, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Donald Justice…
FWR: I was struck by the shape of your poems. I am hoping you might speak to your process in a poem like “Vanishing Point” or perhaps your use of the ghazal form?
RA: “Vanishing Point” took on many shapes during my revision. In the end, I aimed for a shape to convey the slipperiness of memory and the general sense of unease. I will forever be a student of the ghazal form; this book represents my most recent efforts.
FWR: I always love to ask: what the poems or who are the poets you love to teach or share?
RA: There are many – Donald Justice, Elizabeth Bishop, Agha Shahid Ali, Ilya Kaminsky, Natasha Tretheway, Mathew Olzmann, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rick Barot, Ann Carson, Craig Santos Perez, Jenny Johnson, Adam Zagajewski…
1. “Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman.” Introduction to The Work of a Common Woman: The Collected Poetry of Judy Grahn. Oakland, California: Diana Press, 1978; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978. Reprinted in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, pp. 247-58
2. Poet Marie Howe On ‘What The Living Do’ After Loss https://news.wbfo.org/post/poet-marie-howe-what-living-do-after-loss Originally published on October 21, 2011 10:23 am
As we approach the end of the year, we want to thank our writers for entrusting their work with us and our readers for helping us celebrate and recognize so many wonderful voices. In addition, 2019 has brought new changes to Four Way Review. David Lerner Schwartz will be serving as the new Fiction Editor for Four Way Review. Currently the writer-in-residence at St. Albans, his work has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, New York magazine, and produced by Red Bull Theater. He holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. We would like to thank Hananah Zaheer and K. K. Fox for the many years they have given our community and their work in celebrating fiction. Read our new fiction standards here and submit!
Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently The Boy in the Labyrinth (U. of Akron Press, 2019). The Boy in the Labyrinth works in poems that utilize autism screening questionnaires, prose passages, and allegory via the Greek myth of the labyrinth and the minotaur to explore de la Paz’s experience in raising two neurodivergent children who fall under the Autism Spectrum. de la Paz is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press, 2012). He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry, and teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
FWR: The Boy in the Labyrinth functions as a type of katabasis, a descent into the underworld. This gives the manuscript structure, and, to me, a feeling of reading a novel. You write in “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth” : “I realized that I had been writing about my sons for several years in the form of this allegory”. When structuring the manuscript, did you treat it as writing a complete whole (like a novel)? Or did you find that emerging organically, after you had begun constructing the poems?
de la Paz: When I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems I had no intention other than to explore atmosphere and tone. The process of writing those specific sequences only started shifting right around my third year of generating more of them—I was probably thirty to forty poems into what wound up being almost one-hundred poems. As I became more conscious of my process, I became more intentional in implementing narrative elements. Threads of sequences have similar settings and characters, for example the boy in the sky became a character for a handful of poems. Additionally the opera house became a locus in a few of the poems. All of these disparate entry points into the world of The Boy in the Labyrinth created organizational issues. It wasn’t written as a linear narrative and yet I needed to convey to the reader a sense of forward movement. My restructuring of the collection began four years ago when I began to write the “Autism Questionnaire” poems. I saw the “Autism Questionnaire” poems as mile markers in the progression of the work. So I began structuring around them as though the book as a whole were a three-act play. I then layered the “Labyrinth” poems around them to suggest momentum/movement. And I also added the Greek Chorus elements to the work as a nod to the structure of the Greek Tragedy.
FWR: On this note, The Boy in the Labyrinth veers into different inventive forms and poetic structures, such as the “complete the sentences” poems or the use of the Autism Screening Questionnaire. Were there other forms you attempted to unlock these poems? How did you decide to utilize these structures?
de la Paz: The forms came to me organically. I was thinking about all things “diagnostic”, like SAT or GRE questions [and] how they’re expected to create an understanding of the test-taker based on an algorithm. The “Autism Screening Questionnaire” poems were something that I approached with a great deal of intention after having completed a series of intake forms for my middle child. And by intention, I mean critique. I wanted to quarrel with the form. There’s the expectation of the binary “yes/no” response to the form, but they’re a flawed tool, so I wanted to respond to the questionnaires from an emotional position rather than a diagnostic one. Once I started writing poems in that diagnostic structure, I felt the need to explore other structures. So you see a number of standardized test-like forms throughout the book with the “Story Problem” poems that close out all three sections. I imagined the “Story Problem” prose poems to serve multiple duties—to invoke diagnostic forms but to also highlight the challenge of my perspective as a neurotypical parent writing about my neurodiverse children.
FWR: Staying on the questionnaire poems, it seems to me that they suggest the imagery that you utilize in the episode poems, which take place in the labyrinth sections (self harm, unusual tastes, kinetic movement and soothing). I experienced that tension as a means of making sense of a neuro-divergent experience as a neuro-typical reader. We, as a reader, are experiencing the distortions of the boy in the labyrinth, whose “voice tries to pierce through the gloom… the sound of him spills its waves into a disfigured future.” Can you speak on this?
de la Paz: Yes, the “Labyrinth” episodes do highlight the moments in the questionnaire that are viewed as “deficits” to the neurotypical population. I wrote most of them as I was still learning and growing as a parent. It’s interesting, but much of the work in the episodes trace my development as a parent, so it’s a chronicle of my misunderstandings and in many ways, failure and flaw. The writing is asynchronous with who I am and who my children are now, so I must first acknowledge that. And what I’m very clear about now is that much of the work as I was writing explores this “disfigured future” but that future, as I had conceived of it, was the future of my imagination and not my child’s. As I was writing the “Labyrinth” poems, I was really writing about and for myself. It was a way of measuring time and comprehension and I look back on it now as an artifact. Certainly, I’m proud of the work that I had done but I am also aware of how it may be perceived by the neurodivergent populace. And so that voice that is trying to pierce the gloom is my voice trying to start a dialogue, both with my children and with other parents who may be as lost or fearful as I had been.
FWR: Reflections and refractions feature prominently in the work: geodes, light splashing off water, the appearance of the minotaur and his masks, the shadow boy. Are we, the presumed neuro-typical reader, the minotaur? Or is this an example of “the labyrinth turn[ing] in circles and [multiplying] its falsity”? An attempt, to quote another poem, “because a reference needs a frame: we are mother and father/ and child with a world of time to be understood”?
de la Paz: You know, the minotaur was always a character that troubled me. I always imagined myself to be the minotaur—the devourer of Athenian young. I imagined the monstrosity to be the task of taking on the story. The beast is as lost as the boy in my tale. I was always fearful that the monster would be misconstrued, so I took steps to move the monster and boy towards a reconciliation. I think, as well, that the “Story Problem” poems that mark the three sections are my way of saying that writing from my neurotypical perspective about neurodiversity is fraught.
FWR: We normally close by asking writers to share other writers or pieces that they love to teach or share. I wonder if, in addition, you might point to writers who influenced this work.
de la Paz: Sure, there were multiple. I started writing the “Labyrinth” poems after hearing the poet David Welch read from a new selection of work back in 2008. I believe those poems became the book Everyone Who is Dead.
Alison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon was a tremendous influence, namely the obsessive quality and interlocking nature of the prose poems.
Meteoric Flowers by Elizabeth Willis was something that I would refer to if I wanted to bounce around some syntactic shapes. I really enjoy that book and the shapes of its sentences.
I read a lot of Jennifer Chang’s book The History of Anonymity, again for the shapes of her sentences.
I also want to put in a plug for an extraordinary book of rhetoric by Melanie Yergeau. It’s a rhetorical analysis book written by an autistic author who is using queer theory as an analytical lens for disability writing. I also want to plug the work by Chris Martin and Mary Austin Speaker over at Unrestricted Interest. They make extraordinary chapbooks.
The summer I became a bird —the very week, in fact— the meatpacking warehouse across the street turned into a dance club.
At first, it was called “The Killing Room” and then, tall walls repainted to a sky blue, “Cielo.” I’d heard someone say that it had no ceiling, only skylights, and the idea of such a large space unprotected from night, gaping, open to sky whims and acts of weather, scared me.
Weeks later, when they hired a crow for a bouncer, I took it as a sign I’d never be a woman again. Maybe had never really been one. He was dark, of course. Black hair, black sunglasses, black t-shirt, pants and boots. Sometimes he wore a black jacket that glittered against the club’s light walls. He had a serious stance, a dignified attitude, and when I saw how seldom he smiled at the sparrow girls who strove to catch his eye, a part of me wondered if I even wanted to be turned back into a woman.
Before him, those first few weeks as a bird, I’d thought obsessively of skin, of limbs, possibly lost forever. I perched for hours at a time on the fire escape of the little West 12th Street flat that still belonged to the woman I’d been, unable to remember what I’d done to become this nervous little beast whose feathers shook in still air.
Now I thought only about keeping my tarsus straight while wrapping the hind toes of my feet firmly around the railing as the beats from the club raged on, for the first time, wanting to fly.
But I couldn’t. A sudden bird with a woman’s inherited fear of flying, I was still an outsider among the winged, watching other birds come and go, longing to be seen by the pigeons and blue jays, the rock doves and swallows, yet unable to connect. Some things had not changed.
As a woman, I’d been a normal girl working in an anomaly: a literary magazine with a wealthy owner and plenty of money. Our offices were on Broome Street back when Soho was considered a gritty place with real soul and I’d walk to work regardless of season, only stopping for coffee, convinced I was Mary Tyler Moore living a career girl’s dream, tossing my cap into the sky of a real city: tall, dark, mysterious, full of possibility.
I’d read and write and type my summaries, carefully writing the page and line numbers of passages I wanted the head fiction editor to notice on the margins of my reviews. I skipped lunch, left work at nine, walked back to the little West 12th Street apartment, as large as the four stories-high fire escape I now live in, to play out the lonely routine of undressing down to my panties, opening a bottle of wine and sitting by the window naked, reading and drinking until I fell asleep.
Once in a while, a boy would come over. Usually, he turned out to be a man who couldn’t stay the night and, in the morning, I’d do it all again.
All through winter and into spring, I’d known parts of me were disappearing, hollows being created inside a body needing less food with every passing day. Then summer arrived with skies the color of brushed steel (a sign I should have seen) and my skin turned sallow and dry and developed an ink-tinged translucence. I told myself it was just summer desiccating everything. But it wasn’t just that. The nightly wine glass became a craving for (stronger!) amber-colored puddles and I became that woman always longing to wet her beak in other people’s spirits. I was exhausted from surviving, afraid of getting out of bed, and lost so much weight; my arms like tired wings, drooped alongside my too-small body until my disease, surely already visible to everyone else, revealed itself to me.
When I didn’t make it in to the office at all, I was fired over the phone. I felt relief. Slight breezes had been tipping me over for months. Curt nods had sent me to hide in the women’s bathroom, crying uncontrollably, unable to care who heard me.
This was good, I thought. Things would change now. Maybe, during the day, I could peck morosely at translation work an editor-lover from my human days still scattered my way. At night, under a purple-gray ashtray of a sky, I could perch on metal and listen to the hip hop that spilled into the air each time the big blue metal club door swung open.
And when the door was closed, I could watch the crow hold court on the sidewalk, deciding who could enter and who would stay outside longer or forever, which I did, watching him for hours on end, day after day, reading him like a story, filling in the gaps with what was missing, and believing everything I added was the truth.
How much in common we had; how lonely we both were; how confused we’d been upon arriving in New York, the soot and smog making us feel small. He needed me, this bird that I’d become. I could save him. He was mine; had even taken to making signals and noises in my direction whenever the line thinned and there were more people coming out than going into the club. It was a sign and it isn’t wrong to believe in signs if you find yourself a bird without a soul in New York and signs are all you have.
Soon after, on a windy night, I heard the rustle of feathers, crisp and loud. A couple of sparrows were cat-walking past the line of geese, ducks, and the occasional early hen toward the club’s entrance.
“Hey, Aldo baby. This is my friend Annika,” one of them cooed, her wings lined in gold and tinsel, their leading edges sequined. She had a bright red, bow-shaped beak that I could see clearly from my post. Annika, wore tight pink Lycra pants and high heels and walked like a pelican.
Aldo. I savored his name, chirping with excitement at the discovery, relaxing my grip around the chipped metal fire escape railing. Aldo. A bird, lost like me, my find to love.
Then the wind shook cold, blowing me off my perch hard onto the windowsill. I searched for my crow. There he was. Smiling. Taking a good long look at the birds, as if he could decide their worth with his eyes. They were smiling too, coming closer to him, and I chirped louder, this time to catch his attention.
The wind blew and blew and I stayed where I’d landed, unable to get back up onto the railing, my dusty brown eyes fixed on Aldo. I wanted him to forget them, to be unaffected by their beauty, to know they were nothing. Or maybe I just wanted him to hear me, to help, to show me I had not been alone those happy nights thinking I’d been found. The wind kept blowing. I let myself lay against the concrete of the window ledge and closed my eyes.
When I was a woman, I wanted my men-crows to read poetry and have the ambition to become something, chefs, paramedics, street poets. Now all I wanted was for this bouncer to climb my rail along with the sun, his sharp black eyes up close and trained on my face. I pictured the muscles of his barrel chest under the black feathers that peeked out from the neck of his black t-shirt, strong and weighty and vibrating, and longed to be someone lying still beneath him. “What happened to you?” I hoped he’d ask, looking at me as intently as he’d looked at those birds on the sidewalk while I waited.
A new wind cut through the block making spurs jangle, sequins chime, and me open my eyes as I shook and almost fell through the rusty red slats of the fire escape, and, still, I looked for Aldo. Aldo taking off his sunglasses and ushering the birds into the club as they cackled excitedly, the door shutting behind them.
When he assumed his post under the glare of the lampposts, forgetting to do so much as look up, search for me, I knew he was no crow, his skin, like mine, a translucent brownish gray with dull and matted feathers, nothing black or shiny about him. He would never feed anyone as a chef, nor save a person’s life by reading a poem on a sidewalk. It would not occur to him to come up a fire escape with the first sun. I was still alone, needing to find my own way back onto the railing, desperate as I suddenly was for a puddle of amber to drink from.
Diaspora Sonnet 40
So much improvisation—the improvised way
I enter a room. The way I walk market aisles:
with purpose borne of worry. The tumult of cereal
packages, an array of landscapes crossed over
in a plane. I am flying above the patchwork of
mornings and feeling dizzy. Truly I am
making this up as I stay here. Morning into morning
into the next. Consecutive tiles worrying themselves
into the shape of purpose. I can’t tell you why
we boarded a plane many years past except
to say the plane was there and we needed another
“there.” I can’t tell you much about flying then except
that I was nauseous. Disorientation is its own
improvisation. A mind spins until it finds its foci.
Diaspora Sonnet 41
The word “home,” ensnared with thorns.
Gored by. A resident ache in the back
of my mouth. At any moment a shock
from teeth to the skull to say it. I’ll not
dwell too long in the angular and persistent
knife. What strikes me is how long I’ve held
my tongue back with incisors. Far too many
unsayable residences. Too much factual
want. In speaking, the balletic turn of
phrase to kindred who’ve not the common
language. Our regard for each other, stuck
in long pauses. Milliseconds into multitudinous
gazes. The sticky-notes pasted over this and that,
like “refrigerator,” “bed,” “brush,” and “door.”
I had been afraid of the cold silent body I held to my belly but when we at last reached the engine and clambered up the frozen metal ladder and into the relative warmth of the interior, the child jerked awake and began to wail, a thin, gasping sound that bit directly into my heart. Alive. The babe was still alive.
How long I had been outside in the blizzard I did not know; it could not have been more than five or ten minutes and yet I was shivering with cold. The baby’s parents were entirely soaked through, the girl’s lips a faint, pale blue. The young man had found the heater and stood before its orange filaments, rubbing his hands. His eyes looked wild, hair matted to the shape of his skull, teeth clenched down in his jaw. Jeans and a thin denim jacket. At his feet rested a shapeless knapsack, soaked through and dripping.
“Blanket up there,” I said to the girl.
She reached for it and when she made no move to take the child from me I nodded down into the well of my coat. “She’s OK,” I said.
Still the girl said nothing. Probably no older than sixteen or seventeen, her clothes utterly insufficient for the weather: a thin sweater, threadbare skirt, canvas shoes still caked with ice and snow. When she looked up at me through her lank hair, her hollow eyes spoke only of exhaustion.
“You’ll need to take her,” I said “I gotta get this thing moving.”
Only then did she step forward, hesitantly, as if unsure of what I meant to do, but she took the child. That warmth moving away from me.
Then I was at the controls again and the engine took up its growl and began to slide forward. Relief that it had not frozen to the rails. “Coffee in that Thermos there,” I said over my shoulder. Later I said my name.
“Tommy,” came the response from behind me. “And here’s May.”
The plow was moving and I had cranked up the engine to regain its speed, the whole machine vibrating with barely restrained fury. “You might all’ve froze,” I said.
“I think we did,” Tommy said.
As if in response, the baby resumed its mewling cry. I did not turn. “Girl or boy?” Beyond the window glass: the onrush of snow.
May’s voice was small and thin. “Jilly,” she said.
“Little Jilly,” I said.
“No,” she said. “Just Jilly.”
A child with a child, I thought.
* * *
After my crack-up, they took me off freight and assigned me to the plow engine where there was almost no chance I would see a single living soul on my runs back and forth across the pass. In the first years on the mountain, I could still sometimes see the girl I had killed, her body turning to meet the engine as if greeting a friend. Martha Evans had been twelve years old on the bright spring afternoon that my locomotive had dismembered her and although I knew—and had been assured over and over—that her death was in no way my fault, the vision of her continued to haunt me. I had lifted the pieces of her from beside the tracks and under the freight cars and had set them next to the locomotive in some approximation of her living shape as if she were a doll that only needed stitched back together.
In the weeks and months that followed, I wanted only to be left alone. It did not seem too much to ask and indeed my coworkers and dispatcher were kind enough to give me that much and to keep me employed when I probably should have been let go, my dependence on alcohol being such that I could not much be trusted around heavy equipment. And yet the plow had provided a way back for me, the locomotive’s handling requiring all my skill as an engineer and its blade producing an effect that was tangible and immediate. The way before was obscured by hissing snow and the great spreader blade did its work so that my path was marked by clean silver lines of track that extended on into the darkness, ready for whatever train was next to come.
My solitude had felt like penance at first, the little girl’s unconcerned gaze staring back at me from around each bend in the rails, but that too faded with time until my loneliness came to feel more like meditation than anything else, the blurred snow outside the glass swirling and the train invisible under its flow such that I oft felt as if I had become wholly untethered from the world of men. I could read the hidden topographies of that trackless snowfield as if all of it were part of my body: turns and twists and wildly descending slides and hard uphill climbs.
And then you. And everything to come after.
* * *
The headset lay crackling on its little hook and I placed it upon my head again, its pads against the flesh of my ears.
“What’s that do?”
Tommy had come up next to me and stood now strangely close in the tight space at the head of the engine, his finger pointed to the headset.
“Keeps me in touch with dispatch,” I told him. “How’d you get out there anyway?”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s kind of like my home office. Gotta check in now and then.”
He did not respond for a time. I did not know if he watched me or watched, as I did, the onrushing snow through the window. Then he said, “Got stuck on the road is all.”
“Isn’t the highway closed?”
“Weren’t on the highway.”
“On a side road?”
“You ask a lot of questions, mister,” he said simply.
“Just making conversation.”
Throttle back. The spreader vibrated and I brought it up and alongside. The forest seemed to roll out under us like a great wave and we upon it, barely in control.
“You’re dang lucky I saw you.”
“That was May. She was waving.”
“Lucky she did. I almost didn’t stop.”
At first I did not speak. Because of Martha Evans, is what I wanted to say. Instead I told him that I was not sure what I had seen. “Thought it was an owl,” I said.
“An owl?” He turned toward the back of the engine. “You hear that, May-May? He thought you were an owl. Hoot hoot!”
“Yep, hoot hoot,” I said. And then, loud enough that I hoped May could hear me: “Better get hold of something. We’re gonna get a little fast through here.”
“How fast?” Tommy said quietly.
“Fifty or sixty.”
“That doesn’t seem fast,” he said.
But then the hidden tracks pulled over the lip and the train tipped forward, the lights illuming a rushing flood of snow and forest, a whole topography of surprised motion. Tommy let out an audible gasp as we descended that wild loop.
“She all right?” I called to him. I did not take my eyes off the swirling window glass and when he did not answer I called to him again, the same words, the same question.
“Who?” he said at last.
“May,” I said.
“She’s fine,” he said but I do not think he so much as looked toward the back of the engine. The lever forward against the weight of my palm. Oh how I throttled into that deep dry powder like some great knife and how it flew, flew away into the darkness of the forest all around, the tracks clean and pure and silver in my wake and already the engine beginning, once more, to rise. The grace of that movement. The secret joy.
“Boy that’s something,” Tommy said. “How’d you get a job like this?”
“Kind of happened into it.”
“You already knew how to drive this thing?”
“They trained me,” I told him. “Didn’t know a thing when I started.”
“Lucky,” he said.
“Could be,” I admitted. “I just kind of stuck with it, you know.”
The train heaved against the uphill run. Edge the throttle forward. A bit more.
“You can run this all by yourself?” Tommy asked.
“There’s a rotary if it gets much worse than this,” I told him. “That one takes a whole crew. This one here’s pretty simple, really.”
“How’s that?” he said.
I gave him the basics then. To this day I do not know why; perhaps simply because he was there in the locomotive with me. It still felt a kind of miracle I had seen her waving hand and had stopped and had found them, shivering in the snow, a little family: man, woman, and child. I had taken the baby from her so quickly, an action totally without conscious thought, and had tucked it into my jacket in the blowing snow and had told them to follow. It had felt so cold against my chest, my belly. Martha Evans’ severed legs had been warm, almost hot. How her mother had screamed in the station office. I had sat there weeping in the cracked Naugahyde chair as the station manager tried to calm her but I wanted her to keep going, to break all the windows with her screams, to shake me to powder.
I placed Tommy’s hand on the tiller. On the throttle. On the brake. He asked what to look for and I showed him. The drift that might secret the great bulk of a tree within its frozen milky shape. The way to read the track. How to lean the whole engine into a curve so that the force of the plow continued into the heaving snow without cease. How to throttle back in a downhill run and when to throttle up for the momentum to ride the next rise.
It was then my dispatcher’s voice came through the headset. “Hang on,” I said to Tommy. “Dispatch this is Thirty-Two. I hear you, Donna.”
Her voice was a loud tinny squawk in my earpiece. She asked me how it was looking, the storm. “Looks like a blizzard,” I said.
“You hit eight-two yet?”
“Not quite. Just through Yaw’s,” I told her.
I glanced over at Tommy and found, to my surprise, that he was no longer staring out the windows of the train but was, instead, staring at me, his expression like a cold spear of ice running along my spine. What that gaze meant or might have meant I could not guess but for the first time I wondered who it was that I had welcomed into my engine. Donna was still speaking but her voice sounded far away now. Through it I could hear May’s voice, although it was not nearly so loud: “Tommy,” she whispered, “don’t do nothin’. He’s been nothin’ but kind. That’s all.”
There was a pause. Tommy’s face showed no emotion whatsoever, just that cold staring, as if the visage of an animal. Then May again, louder now: “Mister,” she called. “Just don’t say nothin’ about us. Please, mister. Just don’t.”
Donna, in my ear: “You still read?”
“Yeah, Donna,” I said. “Everything’s A-OK.”
A few more forced pleasantries and then I set the headset back on its hook. “What’s this about?” I said, trying to sound pleasant, trying to sound, that is, as if May’s words had not brought a tingle of fear to my gut.
“You just mind your own business.”
“You in some kind of trouble?”
“I said mind your own goddamn business.”
The baby had started to mewl again and now its voice spiraled up in a long howl of anguish.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy yelled. “You make her stop!”
May had begun bouncing the babe against her, her face leaning down to shush it, a kind of wild heat in her movements.
“Goddammit, May,” Tommy said. “I’m warning you. You make her stop right goddamned now or I swear to God I’ll throw her right off this goddamned train.”
“OK,” I said now. “Let’s just take a breath.”
He swung at me so quickly that I had no time to react, the impact of his fist upon the side of my head swift and violent and without warning. I looked up from the floor into the space where he had been. Just before me hung the torn bare wires of the headset. My ears rung. Tommy and May were far away, across the open space of the car, Tommy shouting something and May cowering under the lash of his words.
I clambered to my feet again, peered out the window, lay my hands on the controls and then removed them again and turned to face Tommy and May at the back of the train. My heart clenched hard in my chest. A rivulet of panic.
“He doesn’t know anything,” May was whispering. “Please Tommy. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t.”
“He sure as shit knows something now, though. Don’t he?” He spun and looked at me.
I put my hands in the air. “Just minding my own business,” I said, although that seemed a hollow, cowardly claim after I had been struck and knocked down. When I turned back to the tracks, to the storm, my hands were shaking. So dark outside that the headlight beam was a cut hole in the shifting texture of the night. I tried to steel myself against what was to come but there was only my fear like a great avalanche cascading down through all parts of me at once.
After I had put Martha Evans’ body together I had crawled up into the engine and curled into the corner and fell asleep there. It was a strange response, I know. It might have been that I thought it all a dream and that I might trick myself into waking from it were I to will myself asleep. But I awoke to all manner of police and officials and it was no dream and never had been.
“Where’s this train go, mister?” Tommy had come up next to me again and put his face up near my still-ringing ear.
“Switch yard’s in Camperville,” I said. “I could get you there easy.” My voice sounded filled with stones. This was no dream either. I had learned that much at least.
“How far’s that?”
“After Camperville it goes on northeast.” Behind us the baby had taken up its crying again. I could hear May’s voice trying to quiet her, shushing, whispering, a muffling to the baby’s sound that might well have been her hand over that tiny mouth.
“How far?” Tommy asked me, his face twisting anew at the sound of the squalling babe.
“All the way across the country,” I said. My throat felt very dry.
“I don’t know what you’re asking me.”
But Tommy had turned and lurched away from me towards May, towards the baby. “Jesus Christ, May!” he shouted. “Give her here!” and then she was on the ground against the cold steel of the back wall and he was pulling the baby from her grip, her voice calling out to him, “No, no no, Tommy, no,” but he pulled and then the child was in his grasp, its screeching voice raised to a pitch that bent the insides of my hearing. He held the baby out before him as if it were a sack of flour and began to shake it, screaming all the while to shut its mouth, to be quiet, to goddamned be quiet.
I did not even know I was shouting until my voice closed down around that single syllable, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” and the baby was in my arms once more, the whole of that transference accomplished with such rapidity that I hardly understood myself what had happened, what I had done, Tommy standing utterly still for a long strained moment before reaching around behind him to the hollow of his sodden back and producing from that place the pistol he now held out before him in the air. May’s voice was a quietness from many miles away: “No, Tommy. Please. Please don’t.”
God knows what the tracks might bring. The curve and then the last descent as the iron moved down towards Camperville. All hidden in the blur. And where had I left the throttle? The snow hissed and ran. The engine rattled. How strange to worry about the state of the tracks when a man held a gun to my chest, but so ran my thoughts.
“Goddammit,” Tommy said. His voice shook, his eyes shining with tears. “Wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“You’ll be all right,” I said, my voice quiet, almost a whisper.
The blanket had come partially unrolled and I tucked it around the baby as best I could. The child stopped crying in my arms. I do not know why.
“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody,” Tommy said.
The baby felt was warm and heavy. “You’re alive,” I said now, and I did not know if I was speaking to Tommy or to the babe.
“You don’t know,” Tommy said. He tapped the gun butt against his temple. “I got a temper,” he said. “I know it. And I wish I didn’t but sometimes May makes me so mad. And little Jilly there. I ain’t proud of it but sometimes she just goes on and on screaming like that. You heard her.”
I might have told him something now, that the baby’s bright, hard squalling was proof that she was going to survive and that everything was going to be all right in the end. But I could think of no words. There was an axe near the back of the engine. I could see it there, in its metal loops upon the wall. A tool box where I might grasp a wrench large enough to knock him unconscious. But I held a baby in my arms. Warm now and alive. Near the back of the train, May stood and wiped her eyes and watched us without comment. “You want her?” I said. I was speaking to May but it was Tommy who answered me.
“No,” he said simply. “I never did.”
“Tommy?” May said from behind him.
The pistol still hovered in the air between us. I could grab for it. Maybe I could. But the baby.
“Move on back,” Tommy said.
And I did, the baby warm and silent, the pistol following me along the sidewall of the engine. At some point he waved May away from me, away from the direction in which I was headed toward the rear of the engine, to the door that led out into the night.
“Open it,” Tommy said.
“Just open the goddamned door.”
May’s voice was quiet behind him. “Tommy, you can’t,” she said.
“Shut up, May.”
“The one at the bank was an accident. Anyone could see that. But this one ain’t.”
He whirled so quickly and with such force that it seemed as if she simply jerked backwards of her own accord, her head whipping back from the blow and her whole body crumpling to the floor.
“Don’t,” I mumbled. “Please. Look, I’m opening the door. Like you said.”
The cold was immediate, a sharpness that shot into the warm interior of the train.
“Now jump,” he said. “Do it, goddammit.”
I held the baby out towards him.
“No,” he said. “Jump.”
And then May seemed to understand what was happening. She did not rise. “No, Tommy. No!”
“Shut up! You can’t even keep her from crying.”
“But she’s mine!”
“I’m gonna count to three, mister,” Tommy said, “and you’d better jump before I get to the end or I swear to God I’ll blow a hole through you just like I done to the bank man.”
Behind him, May rose to her feet, her eyes wild. I thought she might rush for the baby, but she did not, her voice rising in a shriek that went on and on as Tommy counted out his numbers.
“Wait, please,” I whispered.
But already it was too late. When I jumped it was into black frozen air. I hit the snow hard and the impact blew my lungs empty. When I rolled to a stop and looked down into the gap in my coat, there you were, your eyes staring up at mine in the darkness.
“Tell me again,” you would ask me later, when you were seven and eight and ten. A kind of fairy tale spun between us. What I heard in my own voice was the story of someone unrecognizable to anyone but you.
What I know is that when I did not respond to the radio, Donna diverted my plow engine onto a spur and ran it into the gravel. It was found empty and the team that rescued me came on snowmobiles along the tracks. Tommy was shot dead in Nevada a few months later. I do not know what happened to May. I think if she were alive she would have come for you at some point but she never has and this is why I think she too is gone. I lost two toes from that long walk through the blizzard. I would have given more than that had I been asked.
But what I remember most of all, what I return to when my sleep is troubled and my mind filled with worry, is the black shape of the plow engine against the forest, the bright dots of snow streaming their shadows across the flat white blaze of the headlit night. There it is, my engine, my very own, moving away, moving away from me. From both of us. There as a shadowy glow. And then finally gone. What remains, for a time, is the sound, a kind of hum that fades into the wind and the trees and the hiss and shake of the blizzard. After that there is only darkness. So cold that it feels as if my breath might freeze a cloud of snow into the air. Quiet against my chest. And so still. The two of us afloat in the black of that night, following the one thing we can see: the twin silver lines of the rails. How clean they are. And, despite everything, how bright.
If the TV is on, it’s morning. I might have never noticed if I didn’t think it had spoken my name.
Good god good morning. It did not speak my name. No one did. I hear rustling in the bathroom and there is light coming from under the door. Warm yellow light that tints the edge of the carpet where it meets the tile floor.
The banner at the bottom of the TV catches my eye. The screen is impossible to read. The movement is simply out of control. It makes me feel sea-sick so I focus on the pictures.
“Honey, you’re going to need to go. The news is showing traffic. There’s so much construction.” I urge the robin from the nest, but he flutters behind the bathroom door, busily doing things that slow his departure.
My arm hangs off the bed. If I could reach something to throw I would. The wreckage on the TV is clear, and I feel like I can reach out and touch the cars, maybe detangle them, wind them up and send them on their way. A familiar van lies on its side.
“Honey. I think this van is Herman’s from down the street. It’s got to be. It even has the sticker on the back of the whole peace frog thing.”
My enabler comes out of the bathroom.
“You hear the kid crying, right?”
“I thought it was the TV.”
He shakes his head and walks out of the room. I didn’t hear the cries. I don’t know how he did. The bathroom door was shut and the fan was on. I can only imagine that it’s been crying since before he went into the bathroom. The little wails must be just the right pitch for me to not hear them. Like a dog whistle. I should give the child a whistle. I could probably hear that.
This face in the mirror is not mine. It has wrinkles and dark circles. I don’t have those things. The hair that hangs down and covers it is stringy and split. It’s thin. If it were any more runny and thin this body could just slink down the shower drain. I don’t think that would be so bad.
I choose one of the six orange bottles on the shelf and swallow a pill, re-inflate, regain my mass. My ghostly figure fills in and develops color and shape until I can see myself again. I do the basics, brush teeth, pull the hair out of my face with a scrunchy. I want to melt back into bed, but there are obligations. And expectations.
The door to the den is cracked and I push it with my slippered foot. It makes a sort of whinnying horse noise as it opens. The child is puddled on the floor watching movies on the IPad and I’m overcome with relief. I was afraid it would be watching TV. I drift into the kitchen. My husband looks up from the food that I didn’t prepare.
“Please put a shirt on.”
Quietly, I float into the bathroom and open bottle number two. This pill is a little larger, so I find the Diet Coke can from last evening on my nightstand and help the chalky domino tumble down my throat. I feel immediate peace, even though I know there is a half-hour delay before the effects kick in.
I emerge from the room a new person, and then turn back around to put on my bathrobe. Child is watching a movie. Good. Kitchen is vacant. Okay. Car is pulling out of the driveway. Everything is under control. I feel normal.
My list for the day sits on the kitchen counter. It is jotted on a notepad with a large orange cat looking uncomfortable and bloated. My husband’s made an interesting choice in using a green pen on the orange pad. The colors remind me of a jack-o’-lantern.
Has the child eaten? I’m not sure, but it doesn’t look hungry, and it isn’t acting hungry. The child is currently in suspended animation. I will have to ask it when the movie is over. I usually put the movie on a loop, hopefully my husband did too.
I’m ready for another Diet Coke. We made our Costco run yesterday, have tons of twenty-four packs. There is nothing else to buy for a week. We love to go for the samples and the colorful boxes in bulk. They never seem to bother the child, but the forklifts beep when they move around the store and sometimes I feel like they are dancing and spinning toward my demise. Like they lurk around corners waiting to beep at us and flash their yellow light as it twirls in circles.
The cabinet above the refrigerator is a reach but this is good for keeping the vodka away from the child. This is Yoga. The vodka handle is lighter. We will have to go to the store. My neck tingles with excitement. Fortunately, there is still enough for my morning Diet Coke. I crack open the can and pour out the first few sips into the sink, replacing them with the clear contents of the larger bottle. I swirl the mix and drop in my flexi-straw. It looks like a waterspout.
The child starts to wail. My husband clearly didn’t put the movie on loop. We will have to start our day.
Driving is not real. We are in the air, blowing down the highway like a lost leaf. Our flips and turns are punctuated with car horns. They are subtle; the insulation in the current model year is as comforting as a cave. We are spelunking. We climb into these crevices and then move them with pedals. I am an explorer, we are explorers. This expedition will take us places.
We stop at the coffee shop and I pull up an episode, hand the IPad back to the boy, and leave the car running with the air on. The barista is watching me. They have my coffee made for me by the time I get to the register and I slowly place an extra dollar in their tip jar. I wait a moment for their eye contact. In the car, the episode is still going. I want to give the boy some peace so I walk over to the outdoor tables and wait for conversation with the other moms. They look at me but don’t approach, so I get back in the car and watch them. They make big hand motions and have such wide eyes. They have such big shiny teeth.
Driving is so pleasurable. I alternate sips between my iced coffee and Diet Coke. Sometimes I feel like I make my best friends on the roads and highways. I wave at people when they let me over. I smile at them and see if they smile back. If they do, I try to stay with them for a while. Sometimes I see where they go.
Soon we are all stopped. I look around and see who I’m sitting with. The man to my left in the truck waves at me. Maybe I know him. I wave back with my mouth hanging open slightly and say “hey.” He is still waving, and I wave a little bit more vigorously, with more bend in my wrist. My fingers look like tentacles. I feel like a jelly fish. Now he is rolling down his window and I am excited. I run my hand through my hair and roll my window down. He is saying something and I hold my hand up to my ear to let him know he needs to talk louder. I wonder if he will notice my nice earring and well-proportioned ear.
“Your brake light is out!”
“Oh.” I nod. I smile a little. He smiles too. I have a new friend.
“This traffic stinks!” He has a dark mustache.
“Yeah. It does.”
Looking out on the gray hair of the highway with all of the little red dots like little lice, I have an uncontrollable urge to scratch and take a sip of Diet Coke.
“You should probably get that fixed!”
I wish he would stop being loud.
He’s now the accidental friend I’ve made while waiting to make a cooler friend. We sit for an uncomfortable amount of time with our windows down, inadvertently inhaling exhaust and looking over at one another occasionally with a smile.
Eventually I reach over and push the button to roll my window up while staring straight forward. He pretends to look at his phone, but I see him sneak a few glances here and there. I finish my iced coffee and placate my wailing child with a sip of Diet Coke and a feature length film.
After what seems like hours, we move.
We unload on the chipping pavement of the grocery store parking lot. Unloading is easy when you’ve forgotten to buckle the child up in the first place. I tell him he better not do that again.
The sky is gray with the sun peeking through in patches. The clouds look like jack o’ lanterns. God could be a Jack-o’-lantern, a giant Jack-o’-lantern with sunlight pouring out of his triangle eye sockets and laughing his big godly laugh all deep and baritone, looking like he wants to gobble up the whole city. He could have a few birds for sure, maybe geese. I don’t understand geese. It seems to me that they’re always headed north. Maybe they are confused, or maybe I’m turned around on which direction is north. We are spinning on a compass and I close my eyes for a moment to make it stop. These geese.
Every aisle holds potential. Proper shopping requires a visit to each aisle. We spend time visiting with the cereal. The monkeys and tigers, leprechauns and ghosts spread color and smiles in their reflections on the freshly polished floor. We walk on a rainbow and laugh. When the rainbow starts to fade and the tank with the lobsters looms it’s time for another dose. The tin box in my pocket holds fun shapes and sizes of pills, orbiting one another like planets. I dose up and the rainbow returns.
We slide like a bobsled through the freezer section, and end our run in a checkout line behind a mid-fifties bobbed haircut. She leaves her cart full of groceries in front of us and searches the store for an item she forgot. I learn of world events from the magazines at checkout. The faces of celebrities are Zen and I know that their yoga pants fit better than mine. They sit on mountains of honey that suck them in to the brine holding them in amber forever. They can be thawed when needed or wanted. Their teeth are what mine should be. The spiders in my hair climb down threads of stringy mess of their own creation.
“Ma’am, did you want to buy something?” The clerk is so smart. She has noticed something.
“Of course I do.”
“What did you want?” She is kind and soft, like a grown baby, cooing at me with her thinning lips, blowing kisses of comforting air with each puffed word.
My cart is empty, except for this child.
“I’ll have this balloon.” Am I speaking? I can’t tell. I’m waiting for the words to launch, I can see them as they slowly float to the clerk, whistling into her ear and stepping down the stairs into her skull. They register and her eyes light up with relief.
“It’s a really nice balloon.” She scans the dangling tag of the balloon.
I love her. I want to hold her and let her keep me warm in this cold grocery store. Her button says, “Beth.” I give her money.
“Thanks Beth.” I hold the “th” in my teeth and make a sound like I’m blowing up the balloon. Eventually the balloon even feels the breeze. It’s face says “I’m Sorry For Your Loss” and flutters giddily, showing its rear as it spins, “R.I.P.” I hand the string to the child, and push the buggy out the automatic doors.
In the parking lot, the child drops the balloon’s string, letting the heavy plastic tag tether it to the ground. It blows in the breeze and looks like it is walking. I get the child situated in the backseat. Then a voice surprises me.
“You dropped this.”
The thin man corners me between the open door and the car. The scent of fried chicken floats through the air. The words, “Stranger Danger” flash neon in my head and I paint him with pepper spray. With my door closed, the only noise I hear is the balloon as it rubs the child’s window. The balloon and the child squeak their desires. R.I.P. nuzzles the window, as does the child. They connect. There is no one parked in front of me and I pull away. The child scrapes its fingers on the window until the glow of the IPad paints its blank face again. Behind me, the balloon marks a pile of bones in the parking space.
For a moment, my heart beats, and I know that it is still there.