Her Body and Other Parties: To Cast Off (As the Skin of a Snake)

"Will I ever be done, transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?"

"Will I ever be done, transformed in the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?"

That weird liminal space between Christmas and New Year's I was completely entangled in Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties.  When I think back on this collection I keep coming back to the phrase "sloughing off," one Machado uses many times in different stories.  Slough: a swamp.  Slough: a situation characterized by lack of progress or activity.  Slough off: to cast off (as the skin of a snake).

Maybe that's something of an apt metaphor for the women in this collection.  Powerful, coiling, venomous, sexual.  Shedding some old self, and finding a new self underneath that is somehow more raw and taking up space.  In the story "Eight Bites," this sloughed off self is especially present.  It's winter and a woman in a Cape Code decides to undergo gastric bypass surgery.  Only after the surgery is over and she's her newer, smaller (happier?) self - the rest of her body comes back to haunt the house.

I can't not think of Roxane Gay's Hunger when I read this piece.  In her memoirs, Gay writes "we continued to delude ourselves that our bodies were our biggest problem."  Because the body is an easy target when the real hurt is harder (or more painful) to disseminate.  And the hurt for Machado's protagonist is three-pronged.

In part because of a pregnancy that "wrecked me, like [the child] was a heavy-metal rocker trashing a hotel room before departing," and in part because of shame, "looking into the mirror and grabbing the things that I hated and lifting them, clawing deep, and then letting them drop."  These two are connected - this body hate that comes from motherhood and, also, just having a body.  But it's deepened and worsened somehow because of this triage of now-thin sisters (and memory of an iron-willed mother) who had somehow mastered the art of restraint.  "Eight bites" is a TERRIFYING prescription.  How impossible!  How far behind the protagonist feels.  She chides herself for having no self-control and so decides to relinquish it - but how can you relinquish what you never had?

This story is confronting the mangled idea of 'self control,' which is usually coded self hate.  This feeling that to meet certain criteria (to be 'in control') is to earn love and a happy place in this world - that to take up less space is to somehow merit more love. 

I love that the protagonist's daughter is fighting so hard for her mother to confront NOT the body but the REAL THING underneath.  She calls and says, "You think you're going to be happy but this is not going to be happy," and "Mom, I just don't understand why you can't be happy with yourself.  You've never been--"

You've never been.   (My heart.)

Ah, but the best part is when her body comes back.  We get a little premonition of this during the protagonist's last meal, as she's devouring oysters and one fought back, "anchored to its shell, a stubborn hinge of flesh."  Later she calls it "mindless protein."  That's pretty much what comes back to haunt her: a person-shaped outline, a presence.  A boneless lump she confronts in the basement. 

There's something tentative about this meeting - the protagonist is curious, gentle, touches its shoulder, feels it eyelessly look at her.  Then she says, "You are unwanted."  Then she begins to destroy her.

Everything in this story feels mirrored and opposing: "all of [the people] were alone, even when they were with each other," "sometimes [you could hear] a muffled animal encounter in an alley: pleasure or fear, it was all the same noise," "I could not make eight bites work for my body and so I would make my body work for eight bites."  Mirrors are deeply weird that way: the self you see is not the self everyone else sees.  You are optically inverted.  You don't see yourself correctly.  This is why in photographs we are sometimes surprised by who we see.  This is why it is painful for people who love us to hear us say we hate ourselves.

This story is devastating because of that palpable self-hate.  Because of (what feels like) the victory of and inheritance of self-hate.  It was never the body's fault.  It was maybe never anybody's.  In this story Machado writes, "A new woman does not just slough off her old self; she tosses it aside with force."  These sentences sear into me - camouflaged as powerful, assertive.  But a snake sheds its skin because it is growing, not shrinking.  There is no violence in it.  No malevolence.  Carmen Maria Machado has her protagonist confront her truest, softest, warmest self, and shows the tragedy of that wreckage.  How mistaken we are to see our bodies as something conquerable, something separate.  How devastating to objectify and reconstruct oneself.  How difficult and wrenching it is to self-love.

It's Winter and I'm Writing

Madly, as if my skin will slough off.  As if there is a timer full of sand in my body, as if there is a boundary I'm about to smash against like a glass bottle, as if I'm dying of thirst and writing is water.  Diamond-clear and streaming. 

I don't always feel this way.

it's winter and i'm writing.jpg

In fact, I almost NEVER do.

This is happening, furiously, I think, because it's winter break, it's winter break, there's this freedom (and urgency) in knowing I don't have to touch the real world I live in - the world of alarms and emails and planning, grading, vexing so hard my face breaks out - so I'm reading and writing like I'm starving.  I feel untethered and focused and lucid.  I feel happy.  I feel like I need to do this as much as I can until I can't.  Is this what running feels like?  Running downhill?  Furious and fast as a landslide?  Does this feeling sound familiar to anyone?

Usually, I'm guilty.  I'm not reading enough.  I'm reading too slowly.  I'm not writing because I'm tired, and there's laundry to do, and it's time to microwave leftover chicken.  I'm not writing, usually, because I'm drained, I'm crying or wanting to, I'm taking melatonin that dissolves into strawberry blossoms on my tongue, I'm stress-dreaming, I'm creaking awake before the sunrise, I'm not as on-point as I want to be.  Usually.  Why is this my usual life?

I don't know how other writers make peace with the moving components of their lives.  I feel turtlish compared to them.  I like quiet.  I like to read a story and hold it over my heart a few days before moving on.  I really loved Brandon Taylor's essay on the short story economy, and how to actually digest them.  I'm devouring Carmen Machado's Her Body And Other Parties this week - like 2 stories a day (there are 8), and I'm learning a lot.  I think, in part, because there's less traffic in my head.

There's much more quiet.

There's so much less stress I feel strange in my body.

Hunger

"I didn't know how to say no.  It never crossed my mind to say no.  This was the price I had to pay, I told myself, to be loved by him or, if I was honest with myself, to be tolerated by him."

"I didn't know how to say no.  It never crossed my mind to say no.  This was the price I had to pay, I told myself, to be loved by him or, if I was honest with myself, to be tolerated by him."

Right now in Tucson it's monsooning. Every summer it happens. All the waterless days, the empty rivers, the uncrackable heat – cracks. The sky shakes with lightning. Thunder bodyslams, thunder so forceful it sets off car alarms in the parking lot. It pours loudly, perversely. There are no grates in the streets so they flood. If you're out walking, the monsoons sweep you into them, they pour out everything all at once, pushing over and through you, and then they vanish.  

The air hangs wet.

Mosquito eggs incubate.

These are times of year I forget Tucson is anything other than hard, white-hot.  Days the city surprises me.  Bursts of purple blooms from bushes.  A dusting of snow one New Year’s Eve.  The way the mountains, when they spiral, shoulder their way from desert life to forest in what feels like magic, like the are exiting one body and becoming another.

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Roxane Gay talks a lot about the before and the after in Hunger. Before and after the rape. Before and after pictures in the pamphlets about gastric bypass surgery. This book doesn't bypass, is uncompromising. Roxane Gay says this book is "not a story of triumph," that there won't be a cover picture of her standing inside one leg of her fat pants. This is a true story. Sometimes it reads like an apology – perhaps to that past-self she wants to warn and hold and speak to. There is even something of an apology in the parentheticals around 'my' as in "a memoir of (my) body." This memoir is, still, a before and after story - the two cleaved parts of it. Even though 'cleaves' sounds to me like it should mean coming together, clutching, a tightness – it means split. Cut up. A broken chemical bond.

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Roxane Gay calls it 'delusion,' as in, "we continued to delude ourselves that our bodies were our biggest problem."  One of the biggest problems is that our bodies are most visible. Our bodies are a catalogue. I think of my body as my house sometimes, and sometimes I trash my house, and sometimes I hate being stuck in it all the time, and often I think: I should take care of this, this is where I live.  But Roxane Gay reminds me that bodies are haunted, they are hoarders and buriers (barriers). Roxane writes, "I buried the girl I have been because she ran into all kinds of trouble...and perhaps I am writing my way back to her, trying to tell her everything she needs to hear."

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I had a therapist who told me to imagine myself (the self I am now) holding my younger self. I pictured 10-year-old self. Would I tell her she was worthless, ugly, stupid? Probably not. Sometimes when I would break down sobbing I would try to imagine it was 10-year-old-me crying. I was supposed to tell the younger-me it was okay. Saying it outloud to myself felt stupid. Wrapping my arms around my elbows felt stupid. It was not an exercise I was proficient in. It was easier to deflate myself to nothing, to stomp on that nothing. "I want to be able to hold the why in my hands," Roxane Gay writes. She writes, "I don't want them, or anyone, to think I am nothing more than the worst thing that has ever happened to me."

She writes, "I don't know if such understanding is possible."

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What's hard about reading Hunger is the rawness. It's not like reading a diary – it's like reading a mind. It's like being in a mindful body, a body mindful of how it's been addressed.  How Roxane Gay addresses her body is:

·         unruly body

·         the truth of my body

·         a body, one requiring repair

·         undisciplined body

·         destroyed

·         the problem of my body

·         more solid, stronger, safer

·         undesirable

·         the body I made

·         a fortress, impermeable

·         a cage

·         abundance

·         a crime scene

·         something gone horribly wrong 

·         mute 

·         a safe harbor 

·         girl body 

·         a shield 

·         a boundary 

·         invisible

·         ruined

·         a matter of public record

·         the subject of public discourse

·         the girl in the woods 

·         the trash I knew myself to be 

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"Smaller and therefore better." This is a way Roxane Gay describes her parents' hopes for her body.  It's also the way many of us (internally or externally) do – better, for women, often means lesser – less loud, loud pimply, less colorful, less intrusive, less needy. Spaciouslessness. Protestlessness. The prefix 'un'. Unabrasive. Unassuming. Unintelligible. Roxane Gay writes she had no reason to have such low self-esteem as a young girl.  She had no reason to be in love with a boy who would destroy her. Gay maps out what so many of us have felt in abusive relationships – that feeling that we should be grateful that they bothered to treat us terribly. That early hunger is weirdly untraceable. Where does that idea come from – that we're lucky to be maltreated, because at least we're treated? That we'll never be good enough – that this is the punishment for being (not enough).   

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Right now in Tucson it's still.  For a girl who grew in the Midwest – all buzzing and chirping and rustles – it can be disconcerting how quiet the desert gets.  I hear my heart in my ears.  I feel the heat rise from the sidewalks.  I hold still in this body I’m in.  In the shade, it is somehow even quieter. 

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The New York Times has a beautiful review of Roxane Gay's book: "At its simplest, it’s a memoir about being fat — Gay’s preferred term — in a hostile, fat-phobic world. At its most symphonic, it’s an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality."  The Times notes Roxane Gay's structure, how "[t]he story burrows in on itself while expanding exponentially. She grapples with exposure, with the price of silence, with the fact that her story is horrifying yet banal."

Banal.  It means, ‘So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.’

Silence, then, as symptom.

Banality as symptom.

The horror is the unremarkableness. To be destroyed is almost a rite of passage. I remember reading an article a many years back, a woman narrating an assault, and how at the time she was thinking to herself, 'This is it. This is my rape. What day is it? How old am I?' I remember thinking that myself once. I remember other times not having the language at all. I keep thinking now how 'lucky that it was only...' 'lucky that at least he didn’t...'

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Gay writes, "I wrote story after story, mostly about women and their hurt because it was the only way I could think of to bleed out all the hurt I was feeling." Most of what I feel reading Hunger is that loud-quite I feel from the desert.  I feel myself nodding.  Yes. 

 

Shuffle Poems

A beautiful example by Naadeyah Haseeb, author of MANIC DEPRESSIVE DREAM GIRL.

A beautiful example by Naadeyah Haseeb, author of MANIC DEPRESSIVE DREAM GIRL.

Going through my old files from high-school and college, I found a sealed envelope labeled "for future Mel," which I guess is me, because I guess this is the future.

 

Inside I found cut-aparts of old college poems, poems so old I didn't really remember them, or their chopped-to-bits parts.

 

So I spread them on my desk.

 

Sorted them into vague "yes you are a poem" "no you are not" piles.

 

I further diced some fragments. Detached compound words. Stole articles. Threw more than 50% away. I can't help it when I see a puzzle in front of me. I want to build it, rearrange it, make it whole.

 

A found poem is certainly constricted by its source material. Maybe that's what I love most about it. It is bound to its bones. It is an exercise in trust and flexibility. Found text has a special sort of whitespace phenomenon - it's clear it's borrowed; it's clear it's a small part of something more.  It's beautiful the way closeups are. It's marred as burnt toast. It feels honest, even as it's withholding. Like it's wearing revealing clothes.

 

found poem scraps.jpg
found poem.jpg

 

Going through my old poem scraps, shuffle-building, rearranging, I feel like a hoarder - I want to keep and keep even if it isn't in service of the best poem. I loved "fly bite after fly bite" - and I must have loved it when I wrote (it was underlined).  I kept the "empty aerosol can of a heart," even if maybe it's too jarring jumping from a dish of moon or sugar-crusted wheelbarrows - if it feels too metallic compared to the lush naturalness of the previous imagery. I wanted to have "you full of violets" even though the clause didn't have much to cling to. I think I love found poems because they are messes, because it's me untangling their hair.  

Advice from a Polar Bear

Yoko Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear reminded me about some of the most rewarding and challenging parts of being a writer. Tawada blends absurdism and insight, philosophy and play, shapes this novel into both a story and a sort of tome to the act of writing and remembering and performance. I love what I learned from this book. Here's my take for the toolchest:

"A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence."
A writer is both receptive and perceptive. I start by engaging the senses - listening, smelling, tasting, feeling the world around me (and interiorly, in my body). A writer does this with language too, knows words have their own contours and tangs and textures. A writer treats everything inside the cavity of the imagination with the same care they treat a cracked geode. They feel it, when a sentence zings inside their head. 

"The unexpected is always the most interesting: this is a lesson I learned all over again."
I follow my sentences and not the other way around.  I ask what the story wants to be, make suggestions, am (trying) to be open when I sense a story shaking its head no.  I felt so much trust in Memoirs of a Polar Bear - the way Yoko Tawada would linger in the interior longer than maybe my characters would, the brave way she would twist in and out of 1st and 3rd person (at one point, the polar bear Knut has to learn what 'I' is, and the whole 3rd section shifts as the reader realizes Knut was speaking the whole time - he just didn't know the name for oneself). She didn't divide her book into chapters, but three long sections, each for one generation of bear. I think one of the most vulnerable parts about being a writer is not actually having that much control.  The idea of 'surprising, but inevitable' resounds to me.  The story needs support - that's where the writer comes in, giving her characters and setting and structure the durability they require to do what they need to do. The writer's job is stepping back enough to be surprised and to make that surprise is possible.

 

"The color green smelled green.  Everything red smelled red, it smelled of blood and red roses."
A writer is open to synesthesia - the overlapping of senses, where one sense (like seeing the color red) activates another (now 'red' has a smell). A writer does not have to use the technique to be open to it. I try allowing my mind beyond the boundaries of immediate logic. Allow sentences the freedom of a childhood, to let them play and experiment and break bones even.  And heal over.  And try again.  I am trying to be open to letting go of control. Being open to not understanding, and exploring that - following (instead of erasing) that sentence.  

"I didn't know of any animal called Stress. This must have been an imaginary animal the humans thought up, as if there weren't enough real animals."
Think of Stress as an animal - an imaginary animal - an animal that feeds on the imagination - that's a prowler and unproductive. I personally imagine a wolf pacing up and down outside my window. I used to dream of wolves when I was a kid in Minnesota, when my bedroom window was ground level, facing the woods. That's still how stress feels to me. It's awake and hungry when I'm trying to rest. It wants to edge its way into my mind and confiscate something from me, drains and devours. How do we tame such an animal?

Like most things, I think it begins with listening. Why is Stress clawing at the door? Write down what it says, what it wants. Usually Stress is afraid of something, is caring that's gone bad, turned poisonous. But when I write down what it wants, I can feed it something other than my attention and imagination. I can reassure the animal that we are not enemies, and care to his wounds so we can both relax, so Stress can go back into the woods, and I can go back to my desk.

"The main thing is that my heart stays warm."
Writing is like making fire.  It needs to be fed, is difficult to touch, feels good to be near.  We make fire to keep the blood in our bodies warm, when our bodies aren't warm enough.  It feels like another person, a little.  I love that the main thing is the heart.

Memoirs of a Polar Bear

"A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence."

"A fly bumped against my forehead, or wait, not a fly, a sentence."

The other day Amber Sparks asked the Facebook, "What subjects have you been told not to write about?"  A fantastic question, and the response was long: love, politics, family, animal death, sports, trauma, teenage girls, writers and writing.  In my mind, I think I've made my own private list - not necessarily that I should NOT write about them, but that they seemed easy pitfalls.  Too sentimental, melodramatic, touchy, too out-of-my-experience.  One of these has always been writing about writers.  It just seemed like a bad idea.  The only stories I'd read with writers in them were undergrad pieces about the drunkard trying to build up to writing his novel on his typewriter.  Oh, and this awesome 5th grade book about a squirrel writing poetry (but that one I didn't discover until about a year ago, to my intense delight).


Now I'm midway through Memoirs of a Polar Bear, where (in Part 1) we seem to be both reading the speaker's memoirs and dipping out of them.  Seeing the speaker writing.  Which includes (of course) the evasive parts: how she spills ink over her white belly, eats a fridge full of salmon, ducks into bookstores to learn German grammar, emigrates to Canada.  

The speaker is restless and romantic and prone to accepting advice even when she can smell the lies on someone.  She makes me smile because - I think she reminds me of how vulnerable writers can be.  Especially new writers.  She asks questions like, "How is an author to avoid repetition when one and the same scene keeps repeating itself in her life?" even though she already knows the answer, earlier in the novel: "My memories came and went like waves at the beach. [...] I had no choice but to portray the same scene several times, without being able to say which description was definitive."  She fears dying before she finishes writing her life.  She trades new installments of her memoir for bars of East German chocolate.  The Sea Lion editor seems greedy to read her work, but quick to dismiss her.  She is entranced by things she reads.  She is furious by others.  She realizes that writing an autobiography entails making up all the things she's forgotten, and wishes she could write the present instead of making up an "authentic-sounding past."

These are things I've felt -- fear and certainty and dismissal and feeling small and proud and over-my-head.  I think all writers have been because it's a humbling process, and an empowering one.  Near the end of this first section, our polar-bear narrator arrives in Canada and reads three books on the recommendation of her favorite bookstore clerk.  In the final book she pages through, she is so sucked in that I - reading Memoirs - cannot tell if I am reading what she is reading or if she is telling her future, or projecting it, or wishing for it - I kind of love that I can't tell, that my best hint is, "While I was copying out these passages from the book, I entered the story being told as its protagonist...down to the last punctuation mark."  I presumed she was reading and admiring, but as soon as Part 1 ends, what she's read has become prophetic - she has a daughter by the same name as the protagonist in the story she was reading.  If I'm reading it correctly.  If there's such a thing as correct.

Now I'm off for Part 2, where so far it's third person and her daughter's life.  

 

Big Lonesome

She imagines the most important place inside herself.  The place, she whispers, that's me.  The place that I mean when I feel or think "myself."

She imagines the most important place inside herself.  The place, she whispers, that's me.  The place that I mean when I feel or think "myself."

Joseph Scapellato is, I think, secretly a poet.  

 

His prose is tumbleweeds and fanfare, philosophic and prophetic and candid.  He is a master of the quite-short-story, and it was just as pleasurable plunging into the longer pieces.  Big Lonesome is concerned with lonesomeness, but also justice, and also jealousy, and also forgiveness, and also homeplace, and also death, and also love.  

 

His stories make me want to break apart their structure.  His sentences make me want to stand inside of canyons.  I love this book.  Here is a found poem from the text:

 

 

EVEN THOUGH HE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT LOVE WAS OR HOW IT WORKED, WHERE IT CAME FROM, WHEN IT LEFT YOU, HOW TO KNOW IF IT HAD STAYED

 

The land is answers,

apology-orbits,

legs that tighten with restraint.

It’s heavy,

brushed with blood and flour

cracking, struggling behind a headboard of clouds.

ON, he clicks, ON.  The eye stays OFF.

 

The kiss is bad.

The women who hadn’t moved with them

the living stillness

the sort of woman you felt in your throat

a crate in a cellar

a tongue of black shade

a cracked guitar

a puddle of sunset

a human person female girl.

 

The cowboy tried to point at himself

long and flat as a map.

He doesn’t kick-smash anything.

He doesn’t bellow.

 

Everything lurched and I lurched with it—

the vast black beach

like a hide he’d cut himself.

Beneath that you are a man, and beneath that you are

a place:

the door, a blade of light—

all man, all horse.

He just lay there, feeling the moon on his neck.

It bit me, it rattled,

it left.

 

There's So Much (MORE)

"I write everything down. Details are my inheritance."

"I write everything down. Details are my inheritance."

I like writing about a book while I'm still in the middle of it - I'm halfway up the roller-coaster crest, or mid-way through a meal (still hungry).  Today I finished Michelle Ross' excellent There's So Much They Haven't Told You.  The end of reading makes me feel like some bell reverberates in me.  Or like there's a well in my stomach that's been filling, and someone's lugging the bucket up.  It's a strong feeling.  It's a feeling you get when you say goodbye.

And it's of course because of the tone of the last couple of stories.  These featured broken mothers with dogs, and the daughters looking in on them.  In one, the mother has cancer, and crossed 4 state lines to deposit her dog before going on a diamond-digging expedition. "[S]he places the dog into my arms as gently and carefully as if handing me an organ from her own body," Michelle writes, making me sea-sick with familiarity (when mothers give things to their daughters, the things daughters do not always want.)  In the final story, the mother needs rent money, wants it deposited in cash at the reception desk so her daughter doesn't have to see her (her hoarder's home, her enormous, Paul-Bunion-sized dog).  The daughter asks to use the bathroom in her mother's apartment as an excuse to see - survey - take in - memorize - because sometimes that's as close to connection as one can get.

 

In both of these closing stories, there is this repelling/attracting effect between characters. They are connected to one another, kind of against their will, kind of tangled up like snakes.  They don't always want to love one another - so guilt and grief substitute.  Michelle Ross compares it to a punch card, when the speaker packs her mother's suitcase: "I folded each piece as if each fold were a punch on my responsibilities-toward-my-dying-mother punch card, which, once filled, would earn me absolution from the nuisances of guilt and regret."  

I have a difficult relationship with my own mother, so these stories leave me feeling vulnerable, twisted up.  I know what the character means when she says she finally understands the impulse towards plastic surgery - erasing the details of one's mother out of one's face.  

This is a frequent feeling while reading Michelle's book.  The stories in this collection are scientific, pulsing, lyrically on-point.  The characters inside them push away and pull towards someone or something simultaneously - with all their might.  It's like they're all waiting for the Jenga house they live inside to collapse.  It's a feeling I have when I wonder how much like my mother I am, which is probably a feeling my mother has about her mother, and so on towards infinity.  We're all coiled snakes eating each other's tails.

I love this about Michelle's writing because she seems to embrace the sharp edges of characters as lovingly as their soft middles.  I love that in "Pam's head" there's this creepy post-apocalyptic gel-world where humans dig mindlessly, even going so far as to chunk apart a body into manageable pieces to get it out of the way.  I love that in "Rattlesnake Roundout" a widow wants to the pour the remains of her ex-husband down the throat of a snake.  I love the description of hoarders as "empty and clogged at once, full to the brim with what's useless," or the description of another mother-daughter pair: "We're like mollusks or clams or conchs.  We like being sucked up inside ourselves."

This book makes me less lonely.  This book breaks into homes and bodies full of dysfunction, and looks each character in the eye.  Maybe what's most moving about Michelle's stories is they are honest.  They don't flinch.  As one story puts it, "She values preserving the illusion of cleanliness.  But me, I'd prefer to be mucked up with the truth." Mid-way through the book I felt sometimes like I was falling through air at the end of her stories.  They land where they land.  They pull me into that orbit.

There's So Much They Haven't Told You

"Always the body was regenerating itself.  Always it was dying."

"Always the body was regenerating itself.  Always it was dying."

Michelle Ross has given me a lot to think about regarding endings.  Her stories are strong and lyric and potent - and the endings always feel sharp and jarring.  I keep turning the page expecting more paragraphs because they END and they do not announce their ending.  I am the bird sailing straight into glass.  I am the coyote the moment he steps off the cliff, before he sees the abyss beneath him.  I feel like I'm standing on the earth, then realize I'm not.

There's genius in this.  It's strange to me, unconventional.   Where is the denouement?  The final outcome, resolution, "where all the secrets (if there are any) are revealed and loose ends are tied up"? Michelle Ross is keeping them locked up, or is opening the treasure chest and it's so filled with light we can't actually see inside.  I feel like what Ross is doing is creating momentum in a plot arc where usually there's a flat line.  Maybe the momentum is happening the second I go looking for more sentences.  That's when I plummet, am sucked into some me-sized black hole.

This happens right out of the gate, in Ross' killer opener, "Atoms."  Because the concept of atoms is rattling: "Nothing is solid in the way you formerly understood.  It is mostly empty space...You are mostly empty space."  The speaker is a young child, is swimming with that disarmed and alert and disoriented feeling: "you stand there and you stand there, the chalk shedding molecules all over your skin, molecules composed of calcium, carbon, and oxygen atoms, all atoms you already possess.  You can no longer see the line between things."  This feeling is not resolved or de-loosened at the end.  Michelle Ross does the opposite.  Michelle Ross starts her stories with a small tear that she then deepens.  The seams flap open instead of being sewed shut.  "Atoms" ends with the best possible question, "'There's so much they haven't told you.  Don't you want to know?'"  All of her stories end this way (for me) - I do want to know.  I kind of love that block of white space.  The refusing-to-tell-me.

I'm in the middle of the collection and have hit maybe my tenth glass-window, at then end of "Key Concepts in Ecology."  There's a wild animal somewhere outside, and inside are the highly controlled and organized employees of New Zeniths.  Outside are men in camo and daring delivery boys, there are bullets and an impasse of pines.  Inside are the cubicles, the trapped wild-animals hearts of the workers (the finance who wants to get home, who insists their boss can't keep them hostage; the employees worrying over the birthday banners and the software updates and the rule-mandating employer; our protagonist, trapped in her job, in her relationship to an unemployable man, in the very building she's been advised not to leave, in her devotion to work-ethic, in her head - since she's not the kind of person who feels she can up and quit her job).  This is the kind of story you read because you've been there - in the building you're not allowed to leave, in the job you hoped would fatten your account so you could do with your life what you intended.  You're with the protagonist when she roots for the wild animal, when someone says, "I hoped they missed it.  I hope that animals is fast," when someone else says, "If that animal's smart, it should be halfway across the state by now."  

We root for the animal because, like the protagonist, we want that freedom too.  That disrupting wildness.  We want to be the unshootable thing (or I do).  Some of us have fantasies about the kinds of wildness we don't see ourselves accessing.  We're too practical.  Resigned.  We take our power in small victories, like slightly off-color birthday banner art.  

But I do feel like the speaker of the story wants to be seen, and at the end she is, for a moment, real and untouchable as sunlight.  Right before I smack into the glass.

Letters and Poems and the First sentences of Books

4th grader poem using figurative language.

4th grader poem using figurative language.

I feel like I haven't been reading because I haven't finished a book in some time - but of course I've been reading.  I've been underlining the sentences in letters from friends like:

"I've been thinking of all those super short flash piece I wrote and I see now it's not a flash collection but a seed packet."

I've been reading a poem from a brilliant 4th grade student with metaphors like "spring brewing" and "the fiery stencils of leaves" and "in the clouds are holes, that the sun would shine like a basket of hot coals."

Or another student who wrote, brilliantly, "Bananas are when the moon falls from the sky."

I've been beta-reading a friend's sci-fi novel, where passengers on a ship "fly like a flock of the birds we've never seen, and fall back to us like the rain we've never felt."

I've just marveled over the first page Michelle Ross' brilliant opener "Atoms" where "It's as though your teacher has taken the pot she's been feeding you spoonfuls from and poured it over your head."

I've been loving Rion Amilcar Scott's stories in INSURRECTIONS, especially the one about the daughter purposefully not beating her father at chess, about how loving someone means not getting as close to them or yourself as is actually possible.

I've been reading the similes my students wrote, like:

* dark as sludge
*dark as a mouth-hole
*dark as a mustache
*dark as graphite
*dark as the road
*scratchy as burnt toast
*scratchy as sugar
*tight as the end of a balloon
*tight as a sausage
*tight as a molecule
*tight as a wedgie
*tight as a bear hug
*tight as the mouth of a snake
*heavy as the moon
*heavy as a glacier
*heavy as chains
*heavy as a lake
*wild as a sock in the dryer
*wild as Godzilla
*wild as Utah
*wild as green
*loose as a bird
*loose as a flag flying in the wind
*loose as a skirt
*light as a unicorn's teardrop
*light as a penny
*light as a toenail
*twisted as a maze
*twisted as spaghetti
*twisted as a spring coil
*twisted as headphones
*twisted as trees

 

The Bluest Eye

"What did love feel like? she wondered. [...] Maybe that was love.  Choking sounds and silence."

"What did love feel like? she wondered. [...] Maybe that was love.  Choking sounds and silence."

I know, I'm late to the Toni Morrison party on this one.  I read Beloved about a year ago and fell hard for Morrison's lush sentences, her deep unpacking of character, her truth-telling, her exposure (and understanding) of pain, the way love and violence can be so tightly braided together.  The Bluest Eye hit me just the same.

 I can't believe this is her first novel. 

The framing of this story is so brilliant - using the Dick and Jane reading books as a way to unpack a family and community.  Those books are so quintessentially white and sterile and echo-chambery.  Morrison uses them in direct contrast with lives that are not neat and clear and clean.  Where repetition is a kind of inescapable pitfall.

Those Dick and Jane lines get sewn together so there isn't any space between words any longer.  Then there isn't any punctuation.  They become chapter headings.  The effect on the story is sardine-tight, pressurized, a feeling that things come too close together that shouldn't be, that one thing or another is bound to get crushed.

Through that frame, we meet everyone twice: who they are right now (Cholly and Mrs. Breedlove at each other's throats) and who they were as children (Cholly as cast-off, losing everything: his parents to abandonment and his foster-mother to peach cobbler, his ability to love in a grief-field under flashlights; Pauline Williams - aka Mrs. Breedlove - begins with a wonky foot and imbolity, a sexless, colorless life.  Truly - when Cholly first comes to her and her busted foot, she feels flooded with purple - "and it never did wash out.")

I guess only the children - Claudia, Frieda, Pecola, Sammy, even those hateful classmates Maureen Peal and Junior - have just one life.  The choices of children are so limited.  In the Breedlove household, Sammy runs away.  "Pecola, on the other hand, restricted by youth and sex, experimented with methods of endurance."  God, that sounds familiar.  Every child trapped by circumstance, by family.

The novel gets it's tension built like a slingshot.  We place a pebble in at the start - something's going on with Pecola - and we pull back into her mother's story, and then pull back further into her father's story, and when the novel ricochets back to the present moment that poor pebble is flung so far from what her reality used to be.  Morrison's generous exploration of Cholly's history makes his violence towards his daughter so much more complicated.  He is a man who wants desperately - and is desperately unable - to love.  "What could a burned-out black man say to the hunched back of his eleven-year-old daughter?" he wonders.  His impotence with language and tenderness - that's the problem: "the tenderness would not hold."  Morrison creates a world in which we can the patterns clearly: how the lack of tenderness in one's life can undo all the tenderness one tries to put forth.  "Again the hatred mixed with tenderness.  The hatred could not let him pick her up, the tenderness forced him to cover her."

The concept of beauty has always acted as a kind of interference - find beauty and you've found love too.  That myth.  If you can't be beautiful, disappear.  Disappear into someone else's beauty.  A Shirley Temple doll or the women in the movies or even a house, like Mrs. Breedlove does, ignoring "the dark edges [of her home] that made the daily life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely."  Or Cholly - disappearing into his daughter.  These characters are convinced of their ugliness.  They pray or they prey or they fantasize or they scrub - trying to change it.  Think of when Pecola prays to disappear - "She squeezed her eyes shut.  Little parts of her body faded away.  Now slowly, now with a rush.  Slowly again.  Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow.  Her feet now.  Yes, that was good.  The legs all at once.  It was the hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull.  Her stomach would not go.  But finally it, too, went away.  Then her chest, her neck.  The face was hard, too.  Almost done, almost.  Only her tight, tight eyes were left.  They were always left."

Think of how many students who google  "does pecola really get blue eyes" because they really don't know.  Pecola is an engine of endurance.  She needs to find some way to survive.

The Sin Eater & Other Stories

"You shake your wife wake.  You take her ring finger and break in half, like a breadstick.  You say, I unmarry you."

"You shake your wife wake.  You take her ring finger and break in half, like a breadstick.  You say, I unmarry you."

Elizabeth Frankie Rollins is spellbinding.  These stories swirl with themes of destruction - a smattering of buboes indicating plague, a woman next door smashing everything inside and outside her house, the sin eater who becomes more bruised and swollen the more of your evils she eats.  The characters seem stunned by their own ability to destroy: "It looked as though I had built a ruin on purpose," or "We often heard her say, I can't take it anymore, but we were witnesses to all she could and did take."  

Her book seems to ask what is explosive about each of us.  If our destructive tendencies have minds of their own.  And, perhaps more interestingly, her stories explore the surviving of damage, coming through making art or making peace (sometimes - and other times driving away wildly with your plague body in the open air).  One of my favorite stories in the collection, "Tail," recounts a woman who begins to grow one.  "You're past the age for growing things," the doctor tells her, and she tells us, "It didn't hurt.  It grew."  She goes through stages of pride and admiration, nervousness and secrecy, neglect.  Her tail is as large as she is.  At one point the tail is so mud-caked and tangled, heavy as a body.  The woman looks longingly on at those without tails, living their tail-less lives.  

Damage is like that - that small protrusion we start noticing, that growth we didn't exactly choose, the one that's difficult to hide and needs caring for, even when we want it out of body, our bathtub, our bed.  She writes, "I thought, it's not cancer, it's not malignant, it won't kill me.  But it's a tail and it's going to follow me forever and now nobody, anywhere, will ever really understand me."   

I think one reason we turn to stories are to feel less alone.  We tell them to be understood, we hear them in order to understand.  Frankie's book goes to that most alone, most misunderstood place - and shows us her characters' choices.  Being magnetized towards that damage, carrying it on or in our bodies.  Many times the characters make art to escape.  "There is a pulling inside you, not quite sexual, but deeper, as if a hand is digging within your body, feeling for something, or maybe drawing something out, a giant white root, a tendon, a bone."  These characters are so insistent about the choices they make - they sculpt and devour and curse and run away.  They eavesdrop.  They hallucinate.  They fantasize.  They burst open like ripe fruit. Even when they know they are going to die.

Repetition

"Something is being covered up, although imperfectly--there remain traces of blood in the published version, references to the young man coming to a 'terrible end.'"

"Something is being covered up, although imperfectly--there remain traces of blood in the published version, references to the young man coming to a 'terrible end.'"

James Tadd Adcox's novella is an emotional narrative suited up as a scholar, wrapped tight in philosophy, much like it's protagonist.  Because in the world of Repetition, there's this text (called Repetition) that is heavily analyzed, discussed, the various scholars wondering, at its heart, if "repetition is both possible and necessary for human happiness" or if "repetition and therefore human happiness is impossible."  One can't help but read the novella's characters as examples - figureheads - lab mice in this (the book's) experiments.

Human happiness may be code for 'love' in this novella.  And why shouldn't it be?  Being unloved sucks.  Our protagonist sleeps in an easy chair in the den, might go days without seeing his wife, falls instantly in love ("in jealousy" perhaps?) with his graduate assistant Sandra as she panics because of her own heartbreak scenario, because the motion of that panic is what creates beauty - she exists "in time."  Often our protagonist goes to the text Repetition for Constantius' definitions of (warnings about?) love: "the woman he loves was not important in herself, but rather represented an ideal."  

Of course, this is true of our protagonist, who "was happy in that moment to feel once again the possibility of love, and [...] was determined to guard [his] love in silence."

Those aren't the only stakes--it's more about the guarding than the love.  It's more about reverse engineering - if we know what does not cause love, can we figure out what does?  It isn't as simple as an inverse.  Even Sandra, whether or not she represents an ideal, wants love to be less opaque, less multi-sided, less sharp-cornered.  "'Love,' she said, and made a kind of spitting sound to show her disgust." In a story about patterns, mirrorings, in a world (ours) which might be predicted by the right algorithms - the worst stakes are knowing your patterns as inevitabilities.  Guarding what you've come to know is yours to lose.

People With Holes

"But that was my problem, continued interest in absences."

"But that was my problem, continued interest in absences."

I first heard Heather Fowler read at AWP 2016, in a panel on magical realism, where she read excerpts from "With The Silence of a Deer" - where a women wakes with a stag's head for a head.  A woman with a hunter for a boyfriend, who finds she can't speak with this deer's head, who has to write down on paper "I'm hungry.  Please don't shoot me," before she bends over the yard to eat grass.  The comparison - predators/prey - is apt for the entire collection.  Each tale explores a coupling, drawing clear boundaries between gendered power dynamics but unclear boundaries between causation and consent.  

Often, the women in these stories don't know how to say no: "so I took to nodding and letting it be; I was, at least, good at that, getting better and better, a nodding welter-weight champion."  There's a discomfort (for me) reading this over and over: "I hear something rip.  I think, That must be passion.  My clothes had to go.  Somewhere.  Oh, the destruction!" Or: "Her life felt an endless parenthetical omission to the whisper of pleasure." Or, even when a woman is saying no - "'OhmyGod that is hot,' he said. 'I love that you don't want me.'"  

To be fair, at the end of their stories, the women largely escape their scenarios.  They retaliate.  But they never begin with agency.  They are always the bait in the trap, never the teeth.  "She was an object in repair," Fowler writes.  So not only was she an object.  Not only was she objecting.  

I appreciate most when the magical transformations in People With Holes lead to pensiveness.  When the stag-girl has time to realize that her 'Neanderthal' hunter "said the dirty words without hesitation [...] She wasn't sure he knew the other words."  I only wish Fowler lingered in these moments more.  Broke them down to the biodes.  That's always been my favorite part of magical realism - how the magic helps decode deeper truths.  Hovers for a moment in that pain.

Inter: Burial Places

"you were a whole country away from me by then//she was a hole"

"you were a whole country away from me by then//she was a hole"

Something seems unburiable in "inter: burial places."  Each poem clutches that prefix, poems excavating loss and longing and the impossibility to move beyond someone you've loved: "you've swum the reaches//of love but just because you surfaced/doesn't mean it's not hypoxia."  

Billie Tadros brings vulnerability to our lips in a cup.  Sometimes the 'you' is "a whole country away," other times the 'I' and 'you' fall into dandelions together.  Sometimes they are called 'we.' Sometimes "stop over stop/overlapping stop/lapping at me."  But often it's that luminal in-between space that's explored, or the richoceting between "I could core//you I could/cure you" and why shouldn't it?  After all, this collection is called "Inter," meaning "between," "in the midst of," but meaning also "reciprocally," "together," "mutually."  I like "in the midst of" best - that storm-center feeling her poems give: "if I can't have you/anywhere I'll have you/everywhere."

There's a sense of regret, time-loss, betrayal (I was/yours I was/your vibrating/medium I was/your bridge your cavity/music) in this collection, this juxtaposed love/lunging-for-the-jugular thing.  This comes through perhaps best in intermittent, one of my favorites from the chapbook.

And I think what's and the end of that poem is what I love best about reading Billie.  There's this on and off business (un)burying our demons.  We're up to our necks in heart meat.

 

 

The Neighborhood

"I am heartbroken still.  Or all over again.  I am orbiting the heartbreak, waiting for it to pull me in."

"I am heartbroken still.  Or all over again.  I am orbiting the heartbreak, waiting for it to pull me in."

As always, the first thing I'm drawn to in Kelly Magee's new book is her fish-lure first sentences: "When the seas warmed, the mermaids washed ashore," "Once a girl found a stray tornado," "The wire children move independently and have recognizable faces."  This is something I so admire about her writing - the right-away whirlpool of it.  The dunk-tank feeling.  Total immersion.  It's the kind of storytelling I wish to emulate.

But as much as the magic, what's really fascinating is this neighboorhood thing.  Mob mentality - how the first person plural operates as a unit, thousand-eyed and myopic.  How a fairytale creates corners.  How even our unchecked memories surround us.  Her stories study the pressure applied by communities in worship, in mourning, struggling with vicious mermaid seductresses.  There's real culpability to living as part of something larger than oneself.  

Even in the stories devoid of neighborliness, "with aggressive layers of hedges and fences and underbrush" - community dictates behavior.   A girl calls a tornado-bite a dog-bite.  A girl hides who she is in her house because that's what this neighborhood does.

It makes me think that the larger things grow the more out of control they become.  A memory that used to be a point on a timeline and is now a planet. The tornado that is thrown a stick  and fetches an apple tree. Setting a woman onto a pedestal so easily - but how impossible to come down.  

Our Dreams Might Align

Disclaimer: I love Dana Diehl.  I've so enjoyed her star-shark of a debut and hanging tight to her kite-tails of sentences.  These stories are explorers and untamable animals and worriers (in the best way).  I feel as though her characters are always on the brink of becoming dangerous versions of themselves, and I love walking that knife's edge with them.

I have so many favorite stories in this collection, from the beam-of-light-husband to the couple raising dragons to the whale-swallowed brothers who tie their shoelaces together "so that if one of us falls into intestines, we both will.