The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Dreamer” by Stephen Dixon

BSS-Pshares-Header1Sometimes in workshops, dreams are spoken of with suspicion, as often through them writers try to awkwardly smuggle in some sort of psychological truth, repressed desire, or foreshadowing of danger. In Stephen Dixon’s, “The Dreamer” (The Southern Review), dreams are the main action and the medium through which the reader must try to understand the protagonist’s waking life.

Dixon opens with the protagonist marveling at having a series of “linked dreams in a row.” These dreams all involve a high school student production of a Greek tragedy. In the first dream, the narrator is attending with his wife—about whom we find some tragic and revealing information.

She seemed healthy in the dream and maybe twenty years young than when she died.

The age of the narrator is never stated, only alluded to, but nonetheless is key for a number of reasons. One is that in our society, those dubbed dreamers are often put into the John Lennon/Imagine camp: youthful, idealistic, and progressive. It can be easy to forget the role that dreaming plays in those whom popular culture pays less attention to: those middle aged and older, like the protagonist of the story.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Son of Salinas

 

steinbeck h2oLast month, I mentioned John Steinbeck’s famous declaration about the forgetfulness of his beloved Salinas Valley in matters of water and drought. He is fortunate that the valley has not forgotten him.

The National Steinbeck Center commands one end of Main Street in downtown Salinas, and a walk through its sprawling exhibits leaves little doubt that the city, the valley, and the whole of California’s central coast has reclaimed all iterations of its native son. There were times, framed newspaper spreads are quick to note, when Steinbeck’s portrayals of the valley were read harshly for his immigrants and migrants, workers and woebegones, producing varying degrees of local disavowal. Yet now, with Steinbeck enshrined a Great Man of Letters, his many legacies seemingly assured, the Center raises the question, for me at least, as to how a museum—visual, interactive, available to all and assuming broad levels of visitor familiarity with the work—can remember, celebrate, and perhaps, reimagine.

Does the Steinbeck Center, one might ask, need a human-sized model of an iPhone to make a comment about modern communication? Does lifting an old phone receiver to hear different accounts of a fruit pickers’ strike allow me to better understand In Dubious Battle, or for that matter, East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath? Does harnessing a plastic horse let me “help Jody do his chores” and read The Red Pony anew with experiential insight? Do I need to believe, even for a second, that the display of a chirping canvas bag actually holds frogs for Doc in order to appreciate the wayward generosities of Cannery Row? Do I affirm the richnesses of Lenny and George by lifting brims affixed to a wall, finding names beneath, and quizzing myself as to which Of Mice and Men head filled which hat? Did the Nobel Prize committee finish the massive wall of a Steinbeck crossword puzzle before awarding him the prize in literature in 1962? For all of it, I’m not so sure, but I admire the effort at accessibility, and there is something undeniably engaging in the mixing of media. (Do I feel transported to old Mexico and into Viva Zapata! by the stucco village and piñatas and faux fruit carts leaping out behind a bend—no—but I am usefully unsettled by the film photos of Marlon Brando’s mustache and, ah, skin color. Did the hilarious Yelp reviews of the nearby Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum convince me to skip the zombied bodies displayed in the basement of a strip mall in favor of a longer visit at the Center? Yes, but no more than the sign at that register, defensively pre-declaring no refunds.)Continue Reading

Fifty Shades of Heathcliff: Why WUTHERING HEIGHTS Isn’t a Love Story

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is often considered one of the great Victorian romances, mentioned in the same breath as classics like Pride and Prejudice and her sister Charlotte’s most famous work, Jane Eyre. But where Jane is a love story through and through, from the early meet-cute to the closing “Reader, I married him,” Wuthering Heights is a “love story” only in the most literal sense. The narrative turns on the love between two people, but ultimately, it is the story of a dysfunctional relationship between highly destructive people, whom we’re not meant to “root for” any more than we are the central couples of Tender Is the Night or Revolutionary Road.

The character Heathcliff, in particular, has been remembered as the quintessential Gothic romantic hero. And there are trappings within the novel that encourage this interpretation; Heathcliff suffers a truly tragic childhood, he is a social outcast through no fault of his own, and while he demonstrates a capacity for cruelty early and often, he always refrains from victimizing Catherine. So as a result of conditioning from the tropes of countless romantic novels, the reader is primed to spend the entire novel waiting for Heathcliff’s inevitable redemption.

But the novel is brilliant precisely because it never indulges such romantic fantasies. Brontë shrewdly plays on the reader’s vicarious desire to “save” Heathcliff’s sensitive, tortured soul by opening with a stereotypically romantic premise, and then continually disabusing the reader of any notion that Heathcliff is somehow redeemable. His abusive relationship with the naïve Isabella, especially, is a indictment of his innately sadistic, even sociopathic character. She is an innocent, but he exacts psychological torment on her for sport, even going so far as to throw a knife at her at one point. In this episode, he himself admits that he is incapable of mercy or remorse: “The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.”

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Listening to Baltimore

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Maryland Army National Guard Soldiers and local law enforcement watch protesters gathered in front of City Hall, Baltimore, April 30, 2015. The marchers shouted slogans calling for justice, equality and peace for fellow Baltimore residents. The Maryland National Guard was activated for the first time since 1968 to assist with peacekeeping operations while unrest continues in Baltimore. (Photo by U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Meet your narrator: a white woman who runs a community-based literary organization for Black kids. Your setting? Baltimore.

A year ago, your narrator sat around with four other writers. Three of us white, one Black, one Asian. We were trying to figure out how to talk about the events of April 27, 2015. “Riot” fixated on property damage. “Protests” occurred, but those which took place after April 27 were organized in a way that the initial events weren’t.

By April 28, individuals present at Penn-North had coined the term “Baltimore Uprising.” Called thugs by the same media that praised Egyptians in 2011, the neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester felt an urgency to tell their own story. Their story begins long before April 12, the night of Freddie Gray’s arrest. Their story is framed by the 51.8% of residents ages 16 – 64 who are unemployed and the 33% of residential properties that sit vacant. But “coming up with a name and a hashtag was a luxury we didn’t have time to commit energy to while in the midst of it,” Dr. Herber Brown III, a Black pastor and prominent community organizer, told me.

As the events of April 27, 2015 are processed into history — in museums, in textbooks, in our collective imagination — we need to think about who the words belong to. And as a white woman, this is a place where the words do not belong to me.Continue Reading

Liber Interruptus

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For years, I finished every book I started. Short collections, slim volumes of poetry, novels fat with lyricism, the latest tome from Neal Stephenson—I soldiered through them all. Then, a few years out of grad school, on my morning bus ride to work, I found myself falling asleep in the same three paragraph stretch of a short, award-winning novel, waking up and trying to reread it, and falling asleep again. That book—a book my writer friends raved about—put me to sleep three times before I gave up on it. It was the first book I had stopped reading that I could remember, and it felt incredible.

Juliet Lapidos, writing for The Atlantic, argues that a reader should finish every book she starts. Lapidos proposes three reasons for continuing to read a book even when you’re dying to put it down:

  • Pleasure. Because some books are late bloomers. “I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages,” she writes, “only to later amaze me with their brilliance.”
  • Fortitude. Because it’s a sign of strength to finish a novel you hate. “[Reading Atonement] built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor,” Lapidos writes. “This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.”
  • Respect. Because somebody worked hard to write that book you hate, and literary people support writers. My favorite zinger from the Lapidos piece: “Starting, but not finishing, books is one step above saying, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of that author.’”

I support Lapidos’s project; most people do stop reading books too easily, and they’re likely depriving themselves of the pleasure of completing them. What bothers me about her argument, however, is that it assumes that difficult books often end up being rewarding (sometimes they don’t), that finishing bad books builds character (this seems draconian), and that just because a writer finished a book, their endeavor is worthy of respect (guess how many storybooks Donald Trump has written).Continue Reading

Long and Short of It

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In the term short story, “short” is a little baggy. You might find, within a collection of short stories, some that are a few pages, some that are thirty or more. Compared to a five-hundred-page novel, of course, neither of these is a long piece of writing. Both are compressed worlds. But the very short short story and the very long short story have different ways of folding a whole world in.

To me, very short stories often have the feel of stunts: daring balancing acts, high up on ledges. Once the pose is successfully struck—creating the kind of image that lingers on the insides of the eyelids—it’s time to back away. This kind of intensity is only briefly sustainable. To create such a picture in so few words, sentences sometimes have to cover vast swaths of life. Grace Paley is the master of this. In her short story “Wants,” only a couple of pages long, the narrator runs into her ex-husband while returning some years-overdue library books. He tells her their marriage ended because she never invited a couple they knew over for dinner.

That’s possible, I said. But really, if you remember: first, my father was sick that Friday, then the children were born, then I had those Tuesday-night meetings, then the war began. Then we didn’t seem to know them anymore.

By the end of the story we can see this decades-long marriage, and the narrator’s current life.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “My Beard” by Eric Braun

BSS-Pshares-Header1There’s a difference between what the narrator views as the story and what the reader views as the story. By playing with that distance, writers can illuminate the deeper desires of their characters, revealed by what they choose to focus on in the telling, and what they don’t. In Eric Braun’s “My Beard,” from Redividera journal published by Emerson College, as is Ploughshares—the central story slips out slowly in spite of the narrator’s clear desire to steer the narrative in different direction.

The initial focus of the story, introduced in the title and reinforced by the section titles (My Beard at the Game, My Beard at Work, etc.), is the narrator John Ruiz’s beard. It makes him feel like a “brand new man.” But beneath appearances, Braun sets up a subtext, which questions the simplicity of the narrator’s revelation and enjoyment of the new beard. What was wrong before that the beard fixed? What problems did it solve? Simple fashion choices don’t carry much weight on their own; to give the beard so much focus implies that there’s more below the surface.

Braun supplies some hints in the third section, when Galen—the narrator’s boss at a washer factory—begins prodding John about his previously unmentioned father.

Don’t take this the wrong way, Galen says, but some people are wondering… well, maybe you should get some rest.

I’m not tired.

I mean take some time off. Visit your dad in the hospital. Have you seen him since he fell?

Before the beard, I would have done what Galen said. I would have gone home to my apartment, and I would have visited Dad. Waited for “some people” to tell me what to do. What they think is best for me.

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Words of War: Poetry and Trauma

1-17th Infantry helps clear 120 kilometers to Shorabak [Image 6 of 22]  Sgt. Tim Martin, an infantryman with Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, shows evidence of the long journey after returning from Operation Buffalo Thunder II at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, July 2, 2012. During the eight-day mission, Afghan and American forces cleared more than 120 kilometers of rugged terrain and escorted approximately 60 truckloads of humanitarian aid for distribution to the people of Shorabak. 117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie Date Taken:07.02.2012 Location:FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, AF Read more: www.dvidshub.net/image/619195/1-17th-infantry-helps-clear...

117th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment (Hawaii) Photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Mackie

“All a poet can do today is warn,” Wilfred Owen wrote during World War I. If one view of poetry holds it up as something filled with beauty or romance, the truth is that poetry found its first place more in images of violence and war—think of The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the last 100 years alone, poetry has been shaped and changed by war: from the WWI poets, such as Owen, to the more recent poems coming out (and that will surely be coming out more and more as these events are processed) about current wars. But, what about the idea of poetry as warning? Do the poems of World War I reflect on today’s wars? Are they still as applicable to us?

To examine this, I’ll bring up an example from my own experience. I teach composition and communication at the college level and when I first introduce textual rhetorical analysis, I usually do it by first broaching literary analysis (which is often something students are more familiar with rather than jumping straight into rhetoric). The way that I introduce it? By looking at Ivor Gurney’s poem “To His Love.”

Gurney, an astonishing poet, was traumatized by his time in WWI and spent the end of his life institutionalized. “To His Love” is arguably one of his finest works, and one that most clearly shows the trauma of his experience. The poem begins slowly, simply, it’s tightly rhymed structure making it seem like the most traditional of elegies:

He’s gone
and all our plans are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
where the sheep feed.

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The Best Poem I Read This Month: “A performance for intimate space with strangers” by Saretta Morgan

 

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Saretta Morgan participates in “text-based writing,” and currently attends the interdisciplinary graduate writing program at Pratt Institute. Additionally, she’s a member of the Belladonna* Collective, a feminist avant-garde group founded in New York City. These affiliations begin to orient lenses and traditions through which to read her work; but “begin” is the operative word here, as I believe Saretta Morgan’s work doesn’t simply continue any one mode of writing, but works to permutate the orderings, genres, and possibilities for how text can function. In the past two years, I’ve been following her work, both critical and creative, as it’s published online, and am pleased today to link to one of her recent works through the Ploughshares blog.

Saretta Morgan’s newest untitled piece, recently published by TAGVVERK, records seven days in late 2015-early 2016 on eight closed “window shades” that serve as tablets. The text—simultaneously diary, day-keeper, “(A performance for intimate space with strangers),” catalogue, poem—looms forward by providing a series of peaks: its entirety features a few phrases or sentences per “slide,” and a black background becomes foregrounded by making up the majority of the space. Flipping Zora Neale Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” by charging the typically all-white page with black backdrops and white text, Saretta Morgan also invokes Hortense Spillers’s piece “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” to think through black womanhood, black feminism, and black motherhood. Morgan finishes this “performance for intimate space with strangers” with the claim: “This is a stage populated by white people throwing shit around if I say so.” Therefore, the page becomes a stage, in its representation and its critique: Morgan’s piece confronts personal and public articulations of blackness and daily entries of facts translated into theories and back again, as fragments of living.

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Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading