Review: THIS IS THE HOMELAND by Mary Hickman

HickmanHomelandThis Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
80 pages

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Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.

The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Persons of Interest” by D.J. Thielke


“If you expect nothing from anybody, you’re never disappointed,” wrote Sylvia Plath. Human beings can’t help but have expectations of each other and of themselves, even if those expectations are for nothing (which, of course, they never are).

In D.J. Thielke’s “Persons of Interest” (Crazyhorse 87), the expectations characters have for each other, and themselves, are what bring them together and tear them apart—sometimes both at the same time.

We meet the protagonist as he discovers that his neighbor, Mrs. Reicheck—thinking she’s alone—often gives imaginary interviews with Johnny Carson that the protagonist can overhear from next door. The protagonist grows fond of Mrs. Reicheck through the interviews. His wife Delia, on the other hand, derides his affection, saying he likes her just because she’s just a “throwback, motherly type.” But the protagonist insists she’s “honest, and tough.”

“…all these famous people, they’re all getting paid to pretend to be something, even if it’s just shiny versions of themselves. But the funny thing about Mrs. Reicheck is that she’s not anyone else, not anybody famous, in her fantasy interviews…and isn’t there something amazing about that? About not pretending?”

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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Cafe con Leche” by Joanna Lynne Ponce


There are as many names for the sun as there are languages; it might be tempting to believe that each of those names, then, means the same thing. Joanna Lynne Ponce’s story “Café con Leche” (Clackamas Literary Review XIX) exposes how critical language can be in giving definition to an object, or a person.

The protagonist Emma, we learn, grew up in a household where language was controversial subject. Her grandmother didn’t want any of her relatives “speaking the language of the gabachos in her house” (English) while her mother refused to speak Spanish to Emma and her siblings all growing up.

As a result, Emma never became fluent in Spanish, but the names of objects in Spanish took on a more powerful meaning. When having breakfast at her grandmother’s house, they had café con leche, which was “really just a little coffee in a deep mug of hot foamy milk.” Just is the key word: for Emma, the descriptions of the drink in English can’t capture the reality the Spanish name evokes. Notice how Ponce reveals this in a description of Emma’s Spanish teacher.

“La Maestra came from Colombia, and the way she said Co-lom-bi-a, said it with those Spanish Os so round and perfect, well, you could get swallowed up in one of those gigantic Os, get swallowed up and be lost for good.”

Ponce has set it up so that when Emma, now a bank teller, is approached by her boss to learn Spanish in order to better serve the bank’s Spanish speaking clientele, we know that there’s much more at stake for her than just learning a language. Her boss is unwittingly asking Emma to reenter an entire world she’d left behind years ago, and for good reason. After taking the first Spanish class, that night she dreams about being Emma Castillo at age twelve.

“Only I was never Emma when I was twelve. I was Edward, named for a father who didn’t stay around long enough to know me…I was a target for all the Pachucos and Bloods up and down East Fourteenth Street. So, I learned how to run when I should have been learning to speak Spanish so that twenty years later I’d be able to hold onto my bank teller position.”

For Emma, the Spanish language—the words, the sound of it, feel of it— evokes not just a perspective, but a name and an identity she fled years ago. So the big question Ponce has built towards, as the story nears its close, is whether Emma will be able to reconcile her adult self with the childhood self she left behind. In the end, Ponce gives us a peek at what the future holds—through language. Emma calls her mother, something she hasn’t done in years, and her mother doesn’t refer to her as Edward, but Emma. Then watch how Ponce reveals the shift in Emma’s mother:

“What I hear is the very thin accent in her voice. Something she has let slip back in after all these years, now that she is older, maybe even too tired to care who might hear, an accent now over the phone as Mejicana as my dead Abuelita.”

Through “Café con Leche,” Ponce explores how immensely powerful language is. It doesn’t just describe a reality, it evokes it, reveals it, and transforms it, from which language we use, to which words, all the way down to the smallest hint of accents. Language is the way in which we understand the world. It’s the way in which we understand ourselves.


The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace


Physical beauty is like an innate talent or gift in that it can provide wonderful opportunities to its possessor that aren’t as easily available to others, if at all. But every blessing can also be a curse. In “Miniature Lives of the Saints” by Anthony Wallace (Missouri Review 38:1) we meet a protagonist struggling with a beauty that has come to both define her and hold her captive.

Wallace reveals his protagonist’s struggle with identity early on. Though her given name was Kathleen, “Everybody knew her as Gretchen…That was just what her brother Tommy called her—had called her one time when they were teenagers—and it had stuck.”

Her whole life she’s taken what she’s been given and hasn’t sought out more…and those who are physically attractive are offered a lot. In the present, though she knows her looks could easily help her find her better work, she remains behind the counter of a CVS, and lives in an apartment above her mother’s restaurant. Meanwhile, her husband is in jail, and her brother’s friends hit on her incessantly—while Tommy just laughs.

“Yeah Tommy, that’s real funny, your sister is truly a remarkable piece of ass, the one thing in this world she still had…she was a strikingly beautiful woman. Only men smart enough and brave enough to become convicted felons were good enough for this raven-haired beauty!”

Notice what fuels the self-loathing of the last line: the perceived irony of her beauty. She’s not comfortable with her looks, but at the same time goes to great lengths to preserve them. Wallace tells us that she wears expensive, stylish boots even though they are painful to wear and she feels stupid in them. Like her looks, “The boots were perfect in every way, except they just didn’t fit.”

At an AA meeting she regularly attends, Gretchen deftly judges the other attendees based on her own preoccupation: appearance. But compared to their stories, hers is lacking when it comes to a sense of purpose. Notice a few of the phrases she uses to describe her life when it’s her turn to share: “That’s where we always ended up.”; “I just fell into life with him.”; “I didn’t really want to do that, but I ended up doing it anyway. I just drifted into it.” The verbs are almost all passive, outlining her resignation to the will of others.

Prodigies, whether in music, sports, spelling—or auctioneering—notoriously struggle with identity later in life. Who am I outside of my gifts and talents? Wallace presents physical beauty as justly capable of causing those problems.

So what does Gretchen do? After the AA meeting. she visits a local pizza parlor, and while there, adopts a prayer of Saint Brigid—a beauty herself—and begins destroying the boots.

“`Make me ugly,’ she said, and she began stepping on her boots, kicking and gouging at them, one with the other. `Make me ugly,’ she said a second time under her breath. She dug the heel of her right boot into the top of her left until she felt the leather begin to tear. `It’s all I’m asking.’”

We live in a culture that either associates being physically attractive with happiness and fulfillment, or dismisses it as shallow, meaningless, and only skin deep. Wallace gives us another narrative. Physical beauty is something whose power must be reckoned with. To be content and beautiful is far more difficult than it might appear.

The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Birthright” by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

I believed in ghosts as a kid. Since then, I’ve wondered why I wasn’t ever fascinated by the lore of other supernatural creatures. I think it’s in large part because ghosts—unlike angels, demons, vampires, or werewolves—didn’t seem to have such a strict set of rules governing their existence. In my understanding, ghosts could pretty much show up wherever they wanted, for any reason, and all manner of mysteries could be attributed to “ghost activity.”

Revolver_Full_mobileLiving a childhood where ghosts were real meant that any suspicious noise, weird animal behavior, or missing object could not only be explained but also imbued with significance. A door closing on its own didn’t happen because open windows in the house caused a difference in air pressure that made the door move. No, an angry ghost slammed that door because it was once a girl like me and she had died. But how? And what did she want now? And why was she angry?

In other words, I liked ghost stories because they at once solved and created a mystery.

I loved Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s story “Birthright” when I read it on Revolver earlier this month for the same reason. Clocking in under 700 words, “Birthright” is about a girl, never named, who resembles her dead grandmother. The story reads like a myth in its straightforward, naked aim to account for the girl’s likeness to her father’s mother, mixing modern pragmatism with fancy. The girl, referred to as an “Old Soul,” is visited by the ghost of her dead grandmother at night, both in dreams and reality, a distinction that doesn’t seem to matter because, as the narrator points out: “It is always late and dark and dreamlike.”

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Not Like What You Said” by Debbie Urbanski

The older I get, the more I notice that my handwriting resembles my mother’s. Her cursive is so even, consistent, and precise that her letters and grocery lists look like they’ve been typed up on the computer and printed out. My handwriting isn’t like that—it’s sloppy and irregular—but when I get going, when I write only in cursive and not a mix of half-print, I see that my “r”s curve like hers and the loops on my “y”s look just like hers do.

AQR Fall Winter 2014I thought about what I inherited from my mom as I took notes during my second read of Debbie Urbanski’s story “Not Like What You Said,” which will appear in the upcoming Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Alaska Quarterly Review. Urbanski’s story follows Joan, a middle-aged mother whose adult daughter Emma has gone missing. Joan hires a PI to track down Emma two years after Joan last saw her daughter in person, and several months after Emma’s last correspondence. After the PI’s evidence reveals that Emma became involved with a cult, Joan flies across the country to find out what happened to her oldest troubled daughter, and to answer the question she’s posed to herself: Is your child’s happiness real if you can never be a part of it?

In a quick summary of the story, Joan reads as an active, ambitious character. In actuality, she isn’t. She’s still married to her abusive husband Max. She doesn’t speak up or say what’s actually on her mind, instead delivering short lectures in her head to other characters when she’s alone, and even these addresses are opaque and vague in their platitude-like quality. After Emma and her husband Caul leave a visit with Joan and Max early, Joan wants to tell Caul, “Love begets love,” and Emma, “You are a person of great strength,” rather than saying what we wish she would: “Caul, don’t treat my daughter like shit”; “Emma, you can endure your marriage but you don’t have to.” Even in her head, Joan is unassertive, her language aiming to soothe rather than inform or demand, and we come to understand that her role in her family has been to keep the peace.

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From the Ploughshares Shelves: July Debuts

Are you in the market for some top-notch summer reading, ideally from an exciting new author? Does your optimized, fast-lane lifestyle leave you no time to read full-length book reviews? If so, dear reader, rejoice: you are the target audience of the following bite-sized reviews, all of debut novels released this past month.

California by Edan Lepucki

jpegAs a recipient of the widely-coveted Colbert Bump (as well as the lesser known but no less meaningful Sherman Alexie Bump), there’s a good chance that Edan Lepucki’s debut novel has already crossed your radar. The book has become a rallying point in the very public and very portentous war between Amazon and Hachette: Colbert and Alexie asked their audience to purchase the novel from a non-Amazon retailer (Powell’s), in protest of Amazon’s hardline approach to e-book pricing, and the books’ sales have shot through the roof as a result.

All celebrity endorsements and corporate power plays aside, Lepucki has penned a novel more than capable of standing on its own merits.  California follows married couple Cal and Frida, as they attempt to navigate the book’s brilliantly realized (and all too plausible) post-apocalyptic world. Tension and darkness build throughout—and this creeping intensity, when combined with Lepucki’s crisp, unembellished prose, makes the novel a genuine page-turner. Regardless of your opinions on the Amazon/Hachette conflict, California is worthy of your attention.

Buy: book | ebook

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “My Wife, in Converse” by Shelly Oria

Stories written in the first person are supposed to be more intimate and allow us greater access to the emotions and thoughts of the narrator than second or third person. But what about the characters who aren’t eager or able to articulate their feelings? What happens when we give them the mic and ask for a story?

209 paris reviewThe first-person narrator of Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, in Converse” in issue 209 of The Paris Review seems to be just this character—she’s reticent and she doesn’t always use her words to get how she feels. Divided into eighteen numbered sections, “My Wife, in Converse” is about a curtain maker whose wife is in the process of leaving her. The story opens in a cooking class. The couple decides to take this course together (or more accurately, the narrator’s wife decides and she chooses to come too), but the narrator, an incompetent cook, gets booted out early and takes the suggestion of the instructor to enroll in a poetry class instead. Through the following weeks, the narrator watches as her relationship with her wife deteriorates.

The first person narrator of “My Wife, in Converse” is a solid lady. I like her. That’s not always very important, but Oria gets at me with this character. I feel a lot of tender-hearted sympathy in her direction, which occasionally manifested as a desire to hulk out at the other characters on her behalf. I was a little surprised too, since in real life pretty much all I want to do is talk about feelings, and our narrator does not want to do that.

The narrator takes what other characters say too literally, which has the peculiar effect of making her seem both earnest and insincere at the same time. The scenes set in poetry class are especially effective in illustrating her inability or unwillingness to understand the non-literal language that makes up much human conversation, and hats off to Oria for putting her character in the environment most likely to exacerbate her flaws.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “An Animal Under the Ground” by Steven T. Gibbon

I think most of us who have ever had customer-facing jobs can say: dear god, it’s exhausting. Human beings, while resourceful and tenacious, are made of meat and therefore susceptible to all manner of physical and mental abuse. There’s only so much we can handle. After long enough, having the same conversation with a customer or reciting the same bit of information is enough to turn us all into unbalanced, weary, rage-filled monsters. Which is exactly what seems to have happened to the park ranger narrator of Steven T. Gibbon’s story “An Animal Under the Ground” published in Issue 4 of Armchair/Shotgun.

issue-4“An Animal Under the Ground” is written as a set of pre-tour guidelines for a Pink Fairy Armadillo safari, delivered by our nameless narrator, a cantankerous and seasoned park-ranger-turned-tour-guide. (I know, you guys. Here I am, loving another story that adopts an unusual form. Nobody is surprised!) The tour guide rattles off a list of dos and don’ts, complete with exaggerated stories (some of which are supposed to register as jokes to the customers), and inappropriate references to coworkers and past tours.

Gibbon establishes what’s going on right away, and lets us know that we’re dealing with an impatient, bored narrator. The story begins, “There are six crucial facts that you have to understand before you can enter the Pink Fairy Armadillo Safari. We have a nice small group, so let’s try and get through this quickly.” These first two sentences have a rote, knowing quality—our narrator has repeated himself. A lot. Mentioning the “nice small group” also makes the reader aware that there have been plenty of other groups, not nice, not small, that have heard the same speech before.

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The Best Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle

There’s a lot to love about Katie Coyle‘s story “Fear Itself,” published in the most recent issue of One Story. To start, Coyle is so spot-on in her depiction of teenage girls that about a page in, I took out my phone and snapped a quick picture of a line I’d underlined. I sent it to one of my best friends growing up with a text that read: “This is us in grade school.” (We drew comics and came up with lewd stories about our teachers—we had fun.)

Fear_Itself_Katie_Coyle“Fear Itself” begins during a high school field trip to a presidential wax museum. Kara, Ruthie, and Olive are best friends who Coyle brilliantly describes as being “cursed with a sense of moral superiority correlating directly to their social inferiority.” After catching the girls mid-argument, their teacher splits them up and Kara wanders the exhibits alone. To her (and the reader’s) surprise, she discovers that one of the wax figures—Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has not only become animate, but he hits on Kara, calling her “honey” and telling her she has “such a filthy mouth on such a pretty little girl.” Kara tells her friends after she leaves, and the girls spend the next week at school talking about this new relationship before Kara eventually sneaks back to the museum to visit him again. But wax FDR is an abusive asshole—he belittles Kara, stalks her, and behaves like an all-around creep until Olive and Ruthie later step in to defend her.

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