Review: My Life as a Mermaid by Jen Grow (reviewed by Ashley Begley)

Grow

 

My Life As a Mermaid, and Other Stores

by Jen Grow

 2015, Dzanc Books

216 Pages, $14.95

ISBN-13 978-1938103032

 

 

 


 

Heart beating in your ears, hidden away from the world, sinking until the cement bottom scrapes your knees. Then your arms rise up and you are flying, exploding into the sunlight. This sensation is as simple as the molecules of water that splash across Jen Grow’s words in her debut collection of stories, My Life as a Mermaid, winner of the the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition. Grow writes, “I love the thick silence water makes so sound can’t touch me…we were all muscle then and we could sink” (87). Water allows for escape—escape from the babbling of lovers that you don’t really love anymore, escape from failing to be like your perfect sister, escape from the mundane of squeaky carts at air-conditioned grocery stores.

However, Grow’s stories do not pretend to be an escape for lives crushed by bills and loveless marriages. In fact, they shine a microscopic light on all of our insecurities and regrets. And this is how it should be. In “Joe Blow,” we are left with the image of a homeless man living in his truck: “Larry is quiet. Stooped over his crutches, he stands as straight as he ever will…Larry waits. His bottle is firm in his hand” (19). Grow intimates that sometimes we are left with nothing and we won’t be able to pick ourselves back up. “Fixed” suggests that we all become the cat with “it’s balloon of a body floating in the river” as “I watch the shit roll through, slow and steady”—“he’s puffed up, except for his tail; his ears are pointed down into the water like he’s listening to faint voices, to the call of something deep below” (75). Grow pokes and prods at us, her readers, adding salt to the wounds of our missed opportunities. And her stories resonate with us because they terrify us—they expose us to ourselves and they capture us so that we cannot run and hide.

Although some of the stories seem to have the same voice, so that each protagonist is interchangeable with the next, this is not without a purpose. The voice, a universal us, a voice that could be you or me, is a strong one that pulls us through the stories so that things we have  long since buried, things that we want to stay buried, are forced to come into the light. “What Girls Leave Behind” presents a mother, with a glass of scotch in her hand, who finds “pink plastic pearls from a broken elastic bracelet…pretend jewels, or princess dreams fallen apart. I still find them, left over from years ago, pill-sized shocks of truth” (21). The truth of what we cannot say and the truth of what we don’t want to feel. Furthermore, “Still at War” depicts a woman with laryngitis, but who the reader suspects to have been choked by her husband returned from war, wishes she could tell of the horrors that her husband has seen, wishes she could tell of her own horrors: “if I had a voice, I’d tell them the war is not over” (45). The war will never be over; we will, all of us, be beaten.

These stories are not happy—they bear witness to real life. To pictures of “an old prostitute who’s seen better days…a woman who has no one to talk to, so she talks to everyone” (101-2). But Grow does not leave us stranded in despair because she suggests that it is only through our pain and through our willingness to lose everything, because we have nothing left to lose, that we are connected to each other: “She’s taking Betty’s picture, and by doing so, she’s saying something to Betty that she would never say out loud…The continental drift has begun, changing the shape of the world in incremental movements, in moments impossible to take back once they’re started” (121). These moments, as fleeting as they may be, are all we can count on, are the only certainties on which to place our hopes so that the “brown water stain on the ceiling almost looked like billowing clouds” (99).


Ashley Begley

 


Review: “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel (Reviewed by Bill Hughes)

Mitchell

 

Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of ‘The New Yorker

by Thomas Kunkel

 2015, Random House

384 Pages, $30.00

ISBN-13: 978-0375508905

 

 

 


If you have any interest in journalism as a reporter and/or as a wannabe feature writer, Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, is a good place to start. Kunkel recreates in vivid detail the life and times of Joseph Mitchell, who spent nearly six decades, from September 1938 until his death in 1996, as a staff writer at the fabled Manhattan-based weekly, The New Yorker.

A “Tar Heel” to the core, Mitchell was born in 1908 in Fairmont, North Carolina. His father, Averette Nance, known as “A.N.,” owned a sprawling cotton and tobacco farm located in the coastal plains. He was a dominating presence in his son’s life—a man with, unfortunately, little or no sense of humor. His college-educated mother, Elizabeth, mercifully, loved books and instilled in him a zeal for learning, with emphasis on the splendid works of Mark Twain and Jack London. Growing up, Mitchell also devoured Shakespeare and the Irish wordsmith, James Joyce. He could recite from memory long sections of their writings, including Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake!

Raised on a farm, Mitchell also learned to pay attention to the weather, nature, the land, the neighboring farmers, and even the creatures in the swamps. These observational skills, including becoming a great listener, he would take with him into his writing career. His father advised him, “Don’t let anyone know what you’re thinking; that might give them an advantage over you.” Mitchell, in turn, would become “very circumspect” about himself and his work.

After graduating from North Carolina U. and rejecting his father’s plea to stay in the state and become a doctor, Mitchell headed to New York City to make a living. It was just after the stock market crash of 1929; his timing couldn’t have been worse. After pounding the sidewalks and covering the neighborhood police courts in Gotham, he then worked for a number of dailies, such as the Herald Tribune and the World-Telegraph. Mitchell evolved into “a literary writer of the first rank,” according to Kunkel. In fact, while living in New York and hanging out in legendary pubs in the Village, such as McSorley’s, Mitchell became a faithful member of the James Joyce Society.

He also began a long love affair with the city. His book, My Ears Are Bent, is a collection of many of his early stories, which included celebrity profiles. A habitual walker of Gotham’ streets, docks, and markets, Mitchell first saw this metropolis, with its “skyscrapers,” when he was only ten years old. He prophetically told his dad at that time: “This is for me.”

Mitchell, a dapper dresser, who was alway seen wearing a fedora, soon married his “soul mate,” Therese Jacobsen, a “daughter of Scandinavian immigrants.” She was a photographer. They had two girls together. For most of their time in New York City, they lived in a small, crowded apartment in the Village. His pay at The New Yorker was a little over a $100 a week. In the middle of the great depression, however, that wasn’t a problem.

What was it about Mitchell’s prolific profiles in The New Yorker that set him apart from other writers? Dan Frank, who edited Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of his New Yorker writing, put it this way: “Joe took ‘Sloppy Louises’, and ‘Mr. Hunters,’ and represented them with all the imagination, depth, and complexity that a novelist employed in the creation of his characters.”

It turned out Mitchell wasn’t without his flaws. He made things up! In fact, in shades of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, some of Mitchell’s subjects, such as “Hugh G. Flood,” didn’t exist. He was a composite created supposedly in the name of a higher literary good. Kunkel deals sensitively with this issues and other journalistic’s failings on Mitchell’s part. The author also has an explanation of sorts for why Mitchell never wrote another word from 1964 until his death in 1996—32 years of writer’s block—but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say, Kunkel’s book skillfully captures Mitchell, warts and all, and an era in our literary history worthy of a spotlight.


 Bill Hughes is a photojournalist and author. His book, “Baltimore Iconoclast,” can be found at http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000076922/Baltimore-Iconoclast.aspx


Exquisite Duet: Jack Cooper and Margaret Malone

the-duetExquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.


Going Once

by Jack Cooper

Memory attempted to share a childhood
of not liking grownups
and not wanting to be one
because they smelled like soap or cigars
and laughed like crows
and were gross and busy
and talked at you too much
without answering important questions
like why frogs never tried to bite you
or why chickens seemed so happy
why grandpa lived alone in the basement
or why your mom and dad never held hands

Parents attempted to sell a childhood
when they put the old homestead up for auction
pennies on the dollar
a pittance for their parenthood
their century of sentience
What is an earnest life worth?
How much for that sled?
Do I hear one? Two? How about three?
Three children bouncing over snow spilling laughter
careening into grass drawing blood
And this old birdcage
four parakeets a-screeching
five snakes a-writhing
six grasshoppers a-hopping?
How much for all these pale moments of panic
these small forgotten deaths
The old fishing gear?
Dried bait dried dreams of a simpler life
hooked in the gills by boredom rebellion and goodbyes
Shells from places that used to be
books from friends no longer alive
furniture of a thousand voices a thousand tears

A childhood attempted to share a memory
of looking for tall grasses to crawl through
and big roots to sit on
to tell yourself stories you forgot you made up
a childhood of unresolved recollection
going once going twice
gone without your knowing
like small change lost in the corners of cushions

 

Me Versus You

by Margaret Malone

Memory: attempted to share a childhood game of Battleship with my invisible friend Shep. Right away he sank my submarine. It’s like he knew exactly where it was cruising in my flat blue plastic water. Then he launched right into the rest of the vessels, one by one, the red pegs filling up each grey ship’s hull. A-12. B-7. E-6. He didn’t get a single miss. Also, he kept eating all the Oreos my mom put out for our snack. I mean, Oreos were my favorite. He knew that. I know it’s been a long time, but man, I’m still a little mad about the whole thing. That stinky, good-for-nothing, freckle-faced Shep. What a jerk! Even if he wasn’t invisible, I don’t think we would have kept in touch. Shep really wasn’t a very good friend.


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Jack Cooper’s first poetry collection, Across My Silence, was published by World Audience, Inc., 2007. His work has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize. His poetry and microfiction have appeared in many publications, including Santa Fe Literary Review, Connecticut River Review, The South Dakota Review, The Evansville Review, North American Review, and KYSO Flash.

Margaret Malone’s work can be found in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Swink, Coal City Review, latimes.com, and elsewhere, most recently in Propeller Magazine and forthcoming in the Timberline Review.  A recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship and an Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship, Margaret lives in SE Portland where she is a co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE. Her debut book, a story collection titled PEOPLE LIKE YOU, is forthcoming from Atelier26 Books in November 2015.


Essay: Barb by Melissa Ballard

I scanned the black and white senior pictures on the “In Memorium” page of my high school reunion website.  I clicked on one, moved closer to the screen, and peered at it over the top of my glasses.  I studied her solid smile, the trim glasses, and her short hair with its ghost imprints from the pink plastic rollers she’d probably slept on the night before.

***

 “How many?” Barb asked.   It was 1969, a Sunday afternoon in late September.  As usual, we sat at the counter at Webb Pharmacy, hunched over our soft drinks.

“How many what?  Is this some kind of riddle?”

“How many books that weren’t assigned did you read this month?”

Barb knew I spent hours in my bedroom, with the door shut, reading.  I never did very well with the texts or even the novels we had to read for school, but I couldn’t stop reading for pleasure.  Recently, with the faded-red covered, sixty-cent paperback that held the collected sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, I was discovering the joy of rereading.  In fact, the pages were turning stiff and fragile from frequent handling.

“I don’t know. I don’t keep track.” I said.  We sipped our vanilla phosphates in silence for a while.

“Any ideas about what you’re going to do next year?” Barb finally asked.

I stared into my drink and swirled my straw.  “I’m going to do that fashion merchandising program.  It’s only nine months, so by the time you start your sophomore year of college, I’ll be a women’s clothing buyer for Halle’s.  That’s if you’re still planning to go?”

To Barb’s credit, she did not snort soda from her nose and poke holes in my ambitious career plan, the one in which I would start at the top.  She did take a minute before answering.  “That’s still the plan. I’m working on figuring out how to pay for it.”

“That’s great,” I said.  “But it’s not for me. We can’t afford it, I’m not smart enough, I hate school, and I love my retail job.”

Again, Barb did not argue with me.  It wasn’t her style.   I was drawn to her calm persona.  I worked for spending money; she worked to help pay her family’s bills.  I was an only child, from a two-parent home.  Barb had three brothers and a sister, and her dad died when she was in the eighth grade. I was baffled by and slightly hysterical about my future. Barb knew she wanted to be a nurse.

Friday nights we went to football games.  Saturdays we double-dated with two best friends from the football team.  Sundays, Barb went to mass in the morning. I slept in, because I had stopped going to the Methodist Church soon after my confirmation.  Afternoons, we met at Webb’s for those syrupy, bubbly vanilla phosphates.

Finally, sufficiently fizzed up, we walked to one of our houses, to do homework and talk some more. Detroit Avenue is always sunny and cool in my memories of our walks that fall.  We passed Roman Fountain Pizza, shuttered so early in the day, but the scent of pepperoni and Parmesan lingered in the air. On the other side of the street was the unlit marquee of the Detroit Theater where, in the days before movie ratings, I saw The Graduate against my dad’s wishes. It was a vista of small businesses we’d known for years, and took for granted.  Nothing ever changed, and we remained mostly oblivious to all that was going on in the rest of the world.

I have conveniently forgotten exactly what led to the end of my friendship with Barb, but I’m almost sure it happened after I abruptly and gracelessly changed boyfriends.  I broke up our foursome and, back then, dating relationships often altered female friendships, even close ones.  I don’t think I ever saw Barb again after we graduated.

***

The accident took place 2.9 miles—six minutes—from where I am sitting in my home office, writing this essay.   At the time, I lived forty-one miles away, but I might have been sitting at the same large teak desk I’m using now. A car hit Barb while she was running, in the rain, across Route 20. She was trying to get help for her husband, who had been injured in a traffic accident.  He survived; Barb died in the intensive care unit where she worked as a nurse.  She was twenty-seven.

I was too young to notice newspaper obituaries at the time, so I never knew.  What would I have done, though?  Barb and I were no longer friends and, in my twenties, I was unforgiving and my decisions were final.  Also, I was both terrified of and angry about death.  While I like to think I’d have gone to visit Barb in the hospital and attended her funeral, I can’t be sure.

It’s an Ohio-humid August evening, so the sudden rain is a relief.  Soon enough, though, the pavement is slick. I’m glad I’m not driving, because rain and reflections are making it difficult to see.  I brace my hands against the dashboard when I see a figure move into the lane of traffic.  A horn blasts, glass shatters, and there is the dull thud of body against metal.

I wake with my hand on my throat; I’m trying to scream, but no sound comes out.  This is not the first time I’ve had this dream.  As I stumble to the kitchen for a glass of water, I repeat to myself, “I wasn’t there.”

I wasn’t there.

***

Here’s what I wish I could say to Barb: I’m thrilled that you became a nurse and got married (I’m not sure of the order of those events), and I wish you’d had a much longer life. I’ve already lived more than twice as long as you did, and I hope I haven’t wasted too much of that time.  I finally went to college.  I got married, had a daughter, and spent my career working with children, adolescents and young adults.  I still read all the time and, for the last twenty-seven years, I’ve kept a list of the titles. I have no idea why, and I don’t really tell people about it, but now I would be able to answer your question about how many books I’ve read in the last month. I know now that friendships sometimes end, or just run their course, but I like to think I’d now be more thoughtful about letting ours go than I once was. I’m sorry. 

I’d like to be telling Barb this at Webb’s, but it is now a dry cleaners.  Still, I can taste the sweet fizz of those vanilla phosphates and see their golden color inside the sweating, old-fashioned Coca-Cola glasses. I remember being too old to use a straw to blow bubbles in a soft drink, but doing it anyway, and laughing and choking when liquid came out my nose.  I remember being too old to twirl on a soda fountain stool until I felt giggly and light-headed, but doing it anyway.

And, I still remember talking about everything and nothing, with the friend who made me feel as though I might, one day, be capable of figuring out my life.  Our heads were bent close to each other, just in case someone else was listening.  But nobody ever was.


 

Melissa Ballard studied fashion merchandising, worked retail, and was a bank teller and a public school camp counselor before attending college. She has since worked as a speech-language pathologist and a college instructor.  Her personal essays have appeared in Brevity, Gravel, Inside Higher Ed, and other publications.

 

 

 

 

 


Review: The Dead Wrestler Elegies by Todd Kaneko (reviewed by Sean L. Corbin)

wreslter
The Dead Wrestler Elegies

poems by Todd Kaneko

2014, Curbside Splendor Publishing

120 pages, $14.95

ISBN-13: 978-1940430249

 

 

 

 


Professional wrestling has long been a secret pastime, a form of entertainment often enjoyed by those comfortable with being entertained in solitude – or, better yet, those with thick skins. Since its early days as a carnival attraction, professional wrestling’s “legitimacy” – or lack thereof – has been its defining characteristic; it is a “rigged” sport, an exhibition where the outcomes are preordained, and therefore unworthy of the serious contemplation given to, say, baseball or college football. Wrestling has never had a real foothold in the literary community beyond occasionally-successful memoirs like Mick Foley’s Have a Nice Day! (and even those rare successes are greeted with backhanded compliments or dismissive shrugs). Todd Kaneko’s recent collection of poems, The Dead Wrestler Elegies, changes that, taking full advantage of wrestling’s metaphoric potential and lending to the much-maligned “sport” an artistic legitimacy it has been desperate to achieve for nearly a century.

In The Dead Wrestler Elegies, Kaneko embraces the faux-machismo, the overly defensive nature, of professional wrestling and its stars, and uses these contradictions to explore the relationship between a son (the speaker) and his father (often the subject of the poems). The speaker’s mother abandoned the family when the boy was young, leaving his father a sad and broken man, and the son unable to connect with his remaining parent outside of their frequent wrestling viewings. After his father’s death, the speaker reflects on their collection of wrestling tapes, finding his own history amidst the fake elbow drops and bombastic ring entrances.

Kaneko’s poems erupt like pyrotechnics during a main-event entrance, their lines as striking as a superkick. In “Sputnik Monroe,” the speaker compares his parents’ marriage to his own:

     Some nights, as my wife sleeps upstairs,

            I watch my father’s video tapes and

     imagine what I would have done that day

            if I knew that my marriage depended

     on what I did with my hands.

In straightforward language, Kaneko introduces readers to a sympathetic and engaging family history, but always makes sure to keep the connections between the speaker’s personal narrative and the symbolic nature of professional wrestling strong. While many of the poems feature similar structures and colloquial language, at times the poems are elevated by more repetitive forms, more reverent vocabulary. In “Long Live the King of Hearts,” Kaneko uses the litany of “Because…” to raise Owen Hart – a wrestler famous for falling to his death from the rafters of an arena – to the level of hero, even martyr:

     Because a man must do the job he is given.

     Because there is no such thing as flight, only desire

            for freedom from home.

     Because my father claims to have seen the Blue Blazer

            fall that night on television, his head snapped

            back like a man who has just lost everything.

     Because he wanted something to talk about with me

            those nights we sat together watching wrestling.

     […]

     Because there is no such thing as falling, only belief in flight.

Later in the collection, Kaneko devotes a poem each to Andre the Giant and Giant Baba, two larger-than-life performers whose lives have expanded into mythology. While these poems share humorous anecdotes and nearly deify their subjects, they also relate to the ways in which professional wrestling has become a kind of mythology in and of itself for the speaker. It does not matter that Andre the Giant didn’t actually scale “the Empire / State Building with Marilyn Monroe / in one hand, Cleopatra in the other” – what matters is that, especially to those who saw him as children, Andre the Giant seemed that large and powerful. And even though it’s true that professional wrestling is fixed, it does not matter to the speaker; what matters is that, for he and his father – and for countless readers Kaneko’s age and younger – professional wrestling was truth.


Sean L Corbin


The Let Go by Jerry Gabriel (reviewed by Robert Boucheron)

GabrielThe Let Go

stories by Jerry Gabriel

Queen’s Ferry Press

2015, 278 pages

paperback, $16.95

 

 

 


 

Jerry Gabriel’s first collection, Drowned Boy, was Sarabande Book’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction in 2010,  and his second collection, The Let Go, from Queens Ferry Press, continues in the vein of intriguing characters and bleak, mid-Western landscapes. The seven long stories are set in and around Columbus, Ohio, and lack quotation marks, creating distance a dreamy quality that often is juxtaposed against first-person narration.

The first story, “The Visitors,” is a grim tale of illegal trapping and sheltering fugitives from justice in 1972. We see everything through the eyes of a girl named Camille, as though watching a documentary: “Years later she pieced all of this back together the way you might a dream after waking with just a shard in your mind.” Camille’s father lost a brother in Vietnam, and his ongoing grief somehow explains his antisocial behavior. When one of the “visitors” stays too long, tension mounts. A scene in the woods features guns, hypothermia, and a hot-wired truck.

“Above the Factory,” by contrast, is light comedy. Nicholas and Sharon, a young professional couple, relocate from the desert West to the idyllic hamlet of Annecy, Ohio, a 45-minute drive from the city. He is an architect and she does pottery. They would like to have a child. They buy a house on a weekend visit. Only after moving in do they discover that the house has a factory in the basement. As in a story by Gogol, the absurd plot unfolds in detail: “Oh, yes, there are always details, Hampton said profoundly. With this he turned and boarded a small electric forklift, and took off with a load of medium-sized cardboard boxes, Korean or Chinese characters across them, a small beeping noise marking his path.”

“Dishonor” takes us in another direction—the alcohol abuse, deep rage, and physical violence of Specialist Phillip Dante. Shortly after Operation Desert Storm, flown back to Saudi Arabia, the drunken Phillip accosts a Saudi woman in the street. Before you can say “international incident,” the army flies Phillip to Fort Bragg and cuts a deal. “If he signed, he could walk, discharged. Other Than Honorable.” He signs, drives north to Ohio, gets a job as a bar bouncer, nearly kills an errant customer, and looks up a former girlfriend named Tara, now married. Tara tells him to get help.

In each of the next three stories, a young man comes of age. Each has issues with his father, and each is troubled. Chris Conner, age fourteen, is the narrator of “We’re in Danger, All of Us.” A talented basketball player, recruited by a sleazy coach for a team to tour Romania, Chris is a poor student but shrewd. His father is a nutcase, kicked out of the house by his mother, while his twin sisters Teri and Keri, who talk in a private language, call in a bomb threat and wreck the family car. There is some murky stuff about Communist spies—the story seems to happen 20 or 30 years ago—a rich kid who goads Chris into fighting.

Martin in “Long Story, No Map” is a confused twenty-something who lost his job in the 2008 recession. “He’s become part of the Great Let Go.” He hangs out with college boys in Columbus and sleeps with a graduate student in biology, until she kicks him out. An old man named Choi, who escaped years ago from North Korea, hires Martin to help replace the roof of his apartment house. A former epidemiologist, Choi becomes a mentor. His fall from the roof is both tragic and funny: “No, Choi agreed. Not dead yet.”

Marcus is another confused young man in “Panic.” He suffers from panic attacks. He tutors a married Korean woman in English and falls in love with her, while his older sister Jill throws out her cheating, workaholic husband. Meanwhile Marcus’s drug-addicted, thieving roommate gets his act together and departs to enter law school. The comedy here is dark, literally so at the end: “I made my way through the apartment, feeling almost giddy at the thought that I didn’t need the light.”

“The Defense”is the last story and the finest of this collection, partly because the characters face serious problems: prostate cancer, and the defense of a PhD thesis. Three are middle-aged, two are young men (again), and all are related. It’s a tight family group with a web of emotions, worthy of an Italian opera. Maggie passes her defense, and Turner narrowly avoids a fight with the research star of her department, who fathered her son. By cellphone, Turner’s son tells him to go outside and look at the constellation Sagittarius. He does, and as he is “trying to make out the figure in the sky for the first time in his life,” Gabriel, who says he is interested in “the feedback loop between place and identity,” has created a collection of quiet compassion and deep satisfaction.


 

Robert Bouchercon

 


Essay: Pace by Kinzy Janssen

My parents’ next-door neighbors keep binoculars on their window sill, next to a Birds of North America identification booklet. In the center of their lawn, an orange extension cord pumps electricity to a birdbath like a vein to a giant heart.

This is how my mom and dad can tell that Stan and Lisa are really serious about birds.

My parents are fascinated by this sudden pursuit yet unwilling to join, as if to do so would necessitate crossing a threshold. Today, they watch their neighbors watching the birds, watch Stan unhinging birdfeeder roofs and scooping birdseed, watch Lisa hanging suet in the maples, almost tripping over the family dog at her feet.

From their windowed vantage point, my mom and dad hold mugs of coffee and lean in close, their rings sometimes tapping against the glass.

How did they get so old? My mom asks.

*

When I was twelve, my journal contained strands of my own hair, carefully taped to the page. My blonde hair was darkening. I began sticking specimens to the white notebook pages, looping them up so the end was next to the root. In the mirror, the root-to-tip effect was hardly noticeable. Only by staring at the seemingly magnified version of my hair could I see the new pigment seeping from my roots. I was morbidly fascinated by the transition, and I’d take my journal out of its shoebox hiding-place just to stare at it—to steel myself against an embodiment of the future. I was mourning.

Around the same age, my mom returned home from a shopping trip and handed me a Kohl’s bag. Inside was a satin training bra on a plastic hanger. I lifted it out, touching only the hanger. It reminded me of the hand-me-down slips I never wore, with their glued-on rosettes, their Grandma-lace, their rose-shaped holes. I took the bag and stashed it under my bed for a year, trying not to think of it at night. But while I was afraid of what wearing it meant, I was also afraid of what not wearing it meant.
Maybe, secretly, my parents are plucking and taping and staring, too.

*

My dad’s briefcase was never without its bulky bow of tied-together running shoes. Neon soles, neon laces. Even at a young age, those shoes on that briefcase seemed like a triumph over something generic—like an antidote for a colorless office world. I thought, People must like him for that. My dad is a likable man.

My dad used his Asics every day. He’d coordinate lunch-breaks with a group of friends who worked across the street at the Leader-Telegram, and they’d take off running, a packed-together group of sweaty pale skin and muscle. Sometimes, riding along Clairemont Avenue, I’d see the group and shriek at them from the passenger window. It was always a thrill spotting my dad in the real world.

On Sundays he would speed home from church and change into one of his Buckshot Run T-shirts (there were fifteen of them, at least) and nylon shorts (the ones my mother was periodically hiding, to “send him a little message” that they were too skimpy). Then he’d stand at the sink and drink a whole glassful of water—not out of immediate thirst, but as a sort of duty to his body. He knew he’d need it later.

You coming along?” he’d say apropos of nothing.

You’re a runner at heart.
It’s in your blood.
It’s in your bones.
You’ve got the gene.

Everyone knew I had a predisposition to running; the only debate seemed to be where it lived in my body. I’d smile wanly. It was the grammatical tense that bothered me. They didn’t say, you’re going to be a runner. They said you are a runner. Everyone but my dad. He would just smile and ask if I was coming along, as a courtesy, just as he would ask if I was coming along to Menard’s, or the driving range, or the city brush pile. He’s a patient man.

Sometime during my college years, my dad stopped running, though I don’t remember exactly when. It was unspoken. Something about his hip. I wondered if my mom was finally purging the skimpy shorts from his dresser drawer. I wondered if my dad knew which run was his last.

I took note of his sudden interest in bikes, how he traced his thumbs over the lightweight frames at Scheel’s, squeezing his lips together as he squeezed the tires at eye-level. He’d duck his head beneath the frames to consider each mechanical aspect from the distance of a few inches. He never spoke as he appraised the bikes; his calculations were mysteries.

*

My maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather were both raised on farms, active and tanned well into their seventies. My grandma keeps her Green Bay finches well-watered and stuffed with seeds and suet, and my grandpa makes bluebird houses with kits. At Christmas one year they were both given bird clocks. Everyone’s grandparents were given bird clocks that year. Sometimes during weekend visits I’d wake up momentarily confused—was the birdsong real or battery-operated? Grandma’s or grandpa’s house? City or country?

Maybe the backyard birds are frightening because they are not an addition to a list of hobbies, but a replacement. Something else gets scratched off. We feel our lives tunneling down to inevitability. These standard red hummingbird feeders. These ubiquitous bird clocks. This repetitive song.

*

My dad was never deterred by the rain. Or, at least, he pretended not to notice the threat on days when the clouds thickened like fists. He needed running that badly. I remember one November evening my dad came home with a bloody smear on his forehead; he’d slipped on the glare ice and gashed his brow. His legs were mottled and red with cold. Hair-icicles were dripping on the linoleum. He was laughing, but also shaking. I was frightened by the blood, uncomfortable with a desire rising up in me to scold him. Relieved when my mom did it for me.

I like to think running was a way for my dad to engage with the natural world without having to apologize for it. It was an excuse to appreciate the weather and the colors of our tree-lined streets without calling attention to the noticing. If someone notices you noticing a leaf, you stop noticing the leaf. Thoreau said something about that. We look over our shoulders too much.

The only time I asked my dad point-blank about God, he mentioned this feeling he gets when the sky is suddenly deeper and bigger than he can bear, and wonderful for that very reason.

I would play softball again just for the colors of a wet day. When it rained the night before, the infield was saturated with color: a yellow ochre so pure it was like freshly-ground tincture. I should alert the paint companies, I thought. The bats got all greasy with this golden paste and clanged against the stone of the dugout, which smelled like cold earth.

From my new apartment, it’s a short walk to the local baseball diamond. But there would be no purpose to the day, no other team, no Bluejays in cursive on my back.

*

Did I make the decision to start running, or did my bones? The 12-year-old me hated inevitability, but acceptance isn’t a loss of agency. The inner “no” is stubborn and miserly, fending only for itself. It felt oddly comfortable to say “yes” to running.

I run on the gravelly shoulder of a county road called Lowes Creek, named for the creek bed that lies at the bottom of the embankment, out of sight but not earshot. Cars give me a wide berth. The tar is cracked. I notice that.

My dad doesn’t walk his old running routes, and I know why.

When the forest along Lowes Creek Road is backlit, the red pines expose the sun intermittently, like a strobe light. When we run, the strobe beats fast and the gaps are smooth like animation. But when we walk, the blinks are slow. Blink. Blink. Blink. Unbearable. Dogs don’t chase walkers. People don’t shout from cars—with glee—when spotting a walker. You don’t need expensive shoes.

You’re a runner at heart.
It’s in your blood.
It’s in your bones.

That may still be true for my dad, but people won’t say so. They’ll say, used to.

My dad keeps his worn-down Asics in a cardboard box marked Fragile from a long-ago move. In the garage, more accessible, are a pair of garden clogs and a shiny bag of birdseed.


Kinzy Janssen is an editor, essayist, and poet living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a 2014/2015 winner of the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series in nonfiction writing, and she currently serves as Associate Editor of The Riveter in Minneapolis. In addition to reading her poetry aloud on Wisconsin Public Radio, her work has been published by Innisfree Poetry Journal, Wisconsin People & Ideas, and Volume One.


Communion: Essays by Curtis Smith (reviewed by Robert Boucheron)

CommunionCommunion

essays by Curtis Smith

2015, Dock Street Press

154 pages, paperback, $14.00

 

 

 

 


 

There is no clear and simple definition of the essay, and for that we can all be thankful. From the time of its invention by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), the essay has been a vehicle for analysis, history, humor, memoir, philosophy, and anything else the author likes. It can be long or short, informal or literary. Montaigne rambles and is intensely personal. But the essays of Addison, Steele and Johnson from the early 1700s are models of detachment and precision.

Curtis Smith uses the essay to present brief sketches of daily life, calm observations, and beautifully written scenes, with characters and dialog. His new book Communion has twenty-one short essays, all but one of which have appeared in literary magazines such as Hippocampus, The MacGuffin, and JMWW. The book has a clear theme, announced in the first essay: the gentle bonds of family life, especially the bond between Smith as a father and his young son, who makes his First Communion in church.

As he sits in the pew beside his wife and elderly mother, the author confesses: “I admire faith. I feel the tug of spirit. I believe in forces beyond my comprehension. But I falter when human hands claim these notions.” Several pages later he says: “Although my heart remains open, I can’t deny the peace that has accompanied the abandonment of my struggle to justify God.”

The title and cover, a photograph of three round communion wafers, are a little misleading, then. This is not a conventional faith journey. One essay is called “On Not Believing,” while another is called “Prayer, a Personal Evolution.” Yet the second begins years ago on the roof of a factory, where Smith works as a “college kid.” With a bucket of hot tar, he repairs leaks with a maintenance crew, under an overseer nicknamed “The Reverend” for his exclamations such as “Praise Jesus!” The essay moves to Smith’s first school-teaching job, with its homeroom “moment of silence,” then to Smith praying with his son at bedtime. In eight pages, by showing us these three pictures, he makes a case for “the tangible miracle of prayer in this non-believer’s life.”

A friend of mine says that an essay must argue for an idea. Aldous Huxley says that an essay may be one of three things, the first being a “fragment of reflective autobiography.” Smith’s “Forty Yards” is only two pages long, and all it does is show a footrace between the author and his son, from the woods where they have been hiking to their car in a parking lot. We know from other essays that Smith is about age fifty, and his son is about age eight. From “Decline” and elsewhere, we know that Smith feels the bodily and mental effects of age. In this scene, “My son pants, but not like me. He is young. He grows stronger by the day.” The boy wins the race. “In the tiniest of ways, a border has been crossed, and now, neither of us can go back.”

Smith never names his son. Other family members are “my wife,” “my brother,” and “my in-laws.” The essay “On Rereading” begins: “The call comes late on a Sunday evening. My father has had a stroke. It’s serious, my mother says, her words weighty for a family where voices are seldom raised.” The father lingers for a few days in a hospital bed, and the family waits by his side. Smith tells us that he reads Bernard Malamud during the night vigil. But at the end, all we know is: “My father breathes, but not for long. The story is over, and what remains are its echoes, the words and memories I will carry beyond this day.” What words and memories? For that matter, where are we? In which hospital and city?

Two or three times, the essays mention a “chocolate factory” in town, and there are several references to Pennsylvania, including cold winter weather and driving on I-80, which runs the breadth of the state. Smith’s website confirms that he lives in Hershey. The website has links to interviews, where the curious reader can dig into personal information. Smith’s most recent publication is another book of essays titled Witness, from Sunnyoutside Press. He has published three novels, two collections of flash fiction, and two story collections from Press 53. The back cover of Communion says: “Curtis Smith’s stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals.”

Given this commitment to literary self-expression, the lack of names, places and descriptive detail is puzzling. Smith can be witty and earthy when he chooses: “I’d never heard of the town where I’d settle, a roadmap blip in rural Pennsylvania. . . a town seemingly forgotten by time, a place where many students wore the royal blue jackets of the Future Farmers of America, the smell of cow shit carried on more than one pair of boots.”

“On Aggression” flashes back to a “beautiful spring afternoon in my senior year of high school,” when two thugs attack Smith and a friend. Smith “became aware of the long kitchen knife inches from my hand. Thirty-three years have passed since that afternoon.” He leaves the knife there and is badly beaten. The essay ends with his son wielding “a wooden samurai sword,” a ninth birthday gift.

In “The Fears of Children” we get a vivid picture of the boy’s fears of disease and death. In “Left Behind” father and son discuss ghosts. “A ghost is a memorial your body gives itself,” the boy says. In other pages, we see his obsession with the weapons and army tactics of ancient Rome. “My son prefers documentaries to cartoons. War, science, nature . . . He drinks in facts and repeats them later with unflagging precision.” The bragging of a proud father is audible and perfectly in tune. So, among other thing, this book is a loving and often touching portrait of a boy. I look forward to reading about him in years to come.


Robert Boucheron


Exquisite Duet: Helene Cardona and Myfanwy Collins

the-duetExquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.


 

All the Sweetness in the World

by Helene Cardona 

The dreary memory of those two words spewed out
while she lay unconscious, a place in chaos.
The truth is you can never believe what anyone says.
I flash back to years of misunderstandings, love
absolute, the importance of geography, rough lessons,
our destiny settled before we knew it.
One day my heart will stop exploding when I see her face
and smile instead. I’m not saying it gets easier.

The best memories should look like enigmas.
Each time I write I think about her, gone
with summer. I can always make sense of an animal-
like state of grace preceding the end.
Keep going, start again with your name on jasmine.
I hear the bell in The Wasteland.
That’s it. Love, powerful as roses.
See what you’re willing to give up.

 

GIGO
by Myfanwy Collins

The dreary memory of those two words spewed out. She sat on a wobbly kitchen chair in a spot where once a spill of red wine had morphed into a rusty stain upon and within the tile. They had scrubbed that mess but nothing would do. The tiles were trashed. Garbage. That was it. That was it.

Garbage in. Garbage out.
GIGO.

Those were the words. Put garbage in and that’s what comes out. Not two words, but four. There was a time when words were compelling. A note, an aside, left to consider. What was left was the memory of words. A time before the spill, the wine. There was a time when words came easily, spilling, staining. There was a time. The mess of words spreading like a disease. The garbage.


 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator and actor, author of Dreaming My Animal Selves (Salmon Poetry), Pinnacle Book Award & Reader’s Favorite Award, The Astonished Universe (Red Hen Press), Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016), Ce que nous portons (Éditions du Cygne, 2014), her translation of Dorianne Laux, and Beyond Elsewhere (White Pine Press, 2016), her translation of Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac. She holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, taught at Hamilton College & LMU, and received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut & Universidad Internacional de Andalucía. Hélène Co-Edits Dublin Poetry Review, Levure Littéraire, and Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics.

Myfanwy Collins has published a novel, ECHOLOCATION (Engine Books, 2012), a collection of short fiction, I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND (PANK Books, 2013), and has a young adult novel, THE BOOK OF LANEY, forthcoming from Lacewing Books in March, 2015. Please visit her at: http://www.myfanwycollins.com

 


Six poems by Roy Bentley

 

Blood on the Chrysanthemums

Consider how they say boys will be boys.
Consider that some boys have a moral sense
of rage that other boys draw on for inspiration,
though most hold stores of their own sufficient
to whatever task or adventure. I wake to a memory
of my cousin Bob holding a fallen tree limb, saying,
No, you first and handing it over, that fat tree branch,
as if metaphorically baptizing me in the facts of rain
and locked doors. We’d arrived home from school
to an empty house. It began to rain as we waited.
Did I mention he liked going first—to ride a bike
or ask a girl to go steady—though he was younger?
I recall it was May. I remember taking one step
and ramming that limb through the back door
so that one of us might reach through the glass.
And I remember we got in but that I cut myself.
Not deep, a slice across the top of my fingers—
my hand must have slid along the jagged glass
like a human creature with a mind of its own.
I recall there wasn’t much of a flow. But what
there was, flew from whichever hand. Droplets
fell onto my aunt’s flowerbed of chrysanthemums,
the spatter bright against the white flowers, flashing
boyish insubordination as—what else—the color red.
Part of me wishes there had been applause. Because
we got in big trouble, Bob going first to the paddle
for seeing the world as the door that should open.
Bob’s dead. And I feel the failures of language
and the shock of existence in the word dead or
I want to feel it. I want his going before me to be
that serviceable limb he handed over. Smiling,
knowing there was nothing else to do or say.

 

Herons, in April in Ohio

These wade the development lake, stirring
sleepy banks of reeds like revelatory winds.
Thieving sustenance, they move like a hand
on an abacus, the click-click of bird mouths
keeping track in the calculus of the shallows.

Backyard orioles materialize as if last light
were cause to feast. They harass the herons,
wheeling in the frayed sleeve of air. Trespass
and theft are a postcard from US 23 in April.
In spite of downpours of agricultural toxins,

noise levels equivalent to carousels in endless
revolution, these build the unbuilt world. Nests
are the archival threadwork of the ground litter
and ephemera of ordinary days. Grocery sacks
are gorgeous, at least this once, with new use.

But not even the beautiful answers for the racket,
the hanging veil of semi-truck exhaust by the road,
though the birds do seem to have become American
in their capacity to coexist with the lack of respect
for everything. In the golds of sunset, I go down

and walk and wish for the healing to come soon
so we can review the state of things and go on.
If this were your last hour, wouldn’t you want
what you want?—for a heron to stand upright
in light like this. To feel the wind of wings.

 

Blood Relative

Her name was Susan, and I recall she wore the look
men wear after going to war and returning. My father had it—
like he had seen more than one thing worth turning away from.
Not to mention, his mother staring at nothing in a sanitarium
where they took her after she shot at a man she did her best
to kill but somehow didn’t. To be animated and sentient
is sometimes a matter of sitting for hours in a rocker
and thumbing the low hills of flesh of one hand.

That was what she was doing when I asked her
and spat out the name of my grandfather Bob Beach,
my father’s DNA-donor-only father, our blood relative.
Why she was where she was and had been for many years.
“Who?” she shot back through her hard mouth, the first sound,
the only sound, she had made since we’d entered the room.
I reached for the water near her. Handed her the glass.
A blue tumbler that beaded droplets of a darker blue.

She took it, the glass. Sat it back down where it had been.
They had brought me to see her. Had no idea I might speak.
And I’m sure they were afraid of what she might say back.
Some lives are irretrievably ruined. Hers was one of those.
Mostly she sat in her rocker. All day, every day. The boy
I was reached for her hands. To stop her hurting herself.
She brushed me aside with the gesture they translated
to say we could leave and not be missed. And then

my father called her “Mother”. He leaned down—
to stop the incessant rubbing. I can’t say why she
didn’t knock his hands away, only that she didn’t.
If there is a God and justice, it’s for those like her.
I was five. I wasn’t thinking about God or justice.
And when she did look up, it was into a shadow
on an opposite wall, the blue-on-blue eternity
she may have imagined answers to a name.

 

Nettie Dolores Potter Discovers Scarlett O’Hara

The librarian, Miss Webb, tells her she’s got a book for her.
Miss Webb does this every day or two. Just hands them over.
It’s 1950. Neon, Kentucky. And she offers Gone With the Wind.
I can see my mother as a young woman, not yet a wife or mother,
assume a place at a table in the library of Fleming High School.
I can’t make out words on the page, but I’m watching her read.
The radiant look on her face says she found someone like her.

Of course she’s seen the movie. Could be Vivien Leigh’s sister.
Russet hair aglow with rain. A wasp-waisted, long-legged waif.
I picture Mammie cinching a corset around her skinny middle.
I hear my angry mother, Nettie Dolores, telling her to piss off.
Pages turn. She moves a second chair around. Props herself up.
She’s taking advantage of a privilege afforded basketball stars.
This isn’t Tara, the plantation world she will dream of tonight

and for the rest of her long life. This is Neon. And her mother
won’t let her read at the house. She will want her to hoe beans.
Slop a sow she’s yet to name that has to feed them this winter.
For an afternoon her world is her own. Thanks to the librarian
who’s sure Nettie Potter will never sit in a college classroom.
She’s working a strand of hair as Rhett makes an appearance.
Maybe she imagines Bobby, her boyfriend, in a moustache

or dodging some antebellum heirloom she’s tossed at him.
Maybe her Rhett is mocking her Oh Ashley! and smiling.
The rogue-arrogant smile the Old South never conceded.
Not to subjugation nor the years of hunger after the war.
What she knows of brutality isn’t in Margaret Mitchell.
It’s in the mud-dirt roads of hollows she calls hollers.
In the fists of those she knows as father and brother.

 

Kentucky Love Story

One need not weep romantic tears for them,
But when the last moonshiner buys his radio,
And the last, lost wild-rabbit of a girl
Is civilized with a mail-order dress,
Something will pass that was American,
And all the movies will not bring it back.
—Stephen Vincent Benet, “John Brown’s Body”

When she is nude, barring a stretch mark or two
and her tendency to eschew black gartered stockings,
his lust for his wife Blanche is like a swallow of moonshine—
impossible to down without loving the reviving nature of it.
These days, any thoughts of her with that Belcher boy, Johnny,
can push him over the edge. The rumors are a taunt. Nothing
that Blanche will admit to. Except to say, Never happened.
He was away in the South Pacific. Serving in the Seabees.
Rumors are why Bill Barnett and Blanche’s brother Bill Potter
are lying on their bellies with TNT pilfered from stockpiles
of some eastern Kentucky coalfield. Like more than a few
who stayed behind during the war, Johnny has it coming.
And Bill sees his duty as making sure that Johnny gets his.
With four kids, Bill Barnett volunteered for the Army. Blanche,
newly shorn of all hope of a helpmate, was left to fend for herself.
It’s a story of a woman sleeping with a man after a dance and whose
child is whose become very much in doubt. So there are two Bills
on a hillside and Johnny Belcher needing blown to smithereens.
Between pulls on a fifth of bourbon whiskey, J.T.S. Brown,
Bill says, “I’ll duck-walk my dumb ass down this-here slope.
I’ll light this and toss it. And run like hell. You wait here.”
He pats the TNT in a pocket of his long black coat. Smiles.
The other Bill seems about to open his mouth and complain.
He doesn’t. He points to the silhouette of Johnny’s oldest
waltzing onto the porch. Which means that no one named
Belcher will be killed or die tonight in an eerie hollow
in a region named from a mispronunciation of a Cherokee
word for the land that lies south of the Ohio River. It seems
mistakes are as good as you make them if you’re waiting for the world
to answer for the lies it tells you about itself, on the way to truth.

 

Angel Lust

Where I grew up in Ohio, a mortician’s daughter
once told me how a dead man can get an erection.
We’re talking, soon after death. She said, Daddy
says he’s seen some raise a sheet
, then laughed.
She had a wild and ungovernable laugh. Told me
her father did small favors for the Dayton mob.

Said he’d embalmed a Don shot through one eye.
We giggled. Guffawed. I could tell you her name,
but I won’t. Since her family still runs the business
in that town known for the Wright Brothers circling
Huffman’s Prairie, performing loops. Figure-eights.
She and I were rescuing the unextraordinary hour

with stories of stiffs sprouting stiffies. Kid stuff.
Of course these were souls enduring the indignities
and nonsensical quirks of Being and blood flow,
without the aid or benefit of a single trumpet blast
or harp-note from celestial sheet music, without
the flash of a spruce-sparred Wright Flyer tipping

its Pride of the West muslin in salute to the fallen,
the whoosh of wings a one-eyed wink at the world.
It isn’t blasphemy to want to laugh out loud at death,
especially in Ohio where everything melts into grey
and we fail to glimpse our just-dead raising a flag
of self, lifting that flag to the status of blessing.


Roy Bentley has earned fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, and the Ohio Arts Council. He has published four books: Boy in a Boat, from University of Alabama Press, Any One Man, from Bottom Dog Books, The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana, from White Pine, and Starlight Taxi, from Lynx House Press. These days he teaches for Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey.


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