A Review of Heather Dobbins’s “River Mouth”

by Elijah Burrell

In the “Notes” section near the back of River Mouth (Kelsay Books, 2017), Heather Dobbins’s newest book of poems, she admits she is “no historian.” She goes on to say, “[I] surely got some things wrong for the music of poetry.” The poems in River Mouth move with astonishing speed from one singular voice to the next. These are the voices of those who populated the Mississippi Delta from 1880–1930, whose history and river culture have all but vanished. These poems speak from the minds and mouths of Dobbins’s deckhands, river pilots, shanty preachers, and sharecroppers. The poems communicate desire, loss and hurt, and preternatural music in a way that never feels less than caring and genuine. These are lives off-the-record, long lost but striking.

Dobbins calls forth authentic diction from the period and the people. It feels unfeigned and unforced. In some cases, readers might have to read a line several times just to get at what the speaker is saying, but that is only because it feels so natural. It is as if Dobbins had piloted those boats, walked those sandbars, and worked the levee camps herself. The poems are terse and minimal, yet bursting with interesting language and an abundance of bygone phrases and idioms. In “River Mouth Blues,” the showboat piano man says:

 

When a song chooses me, my eyes get wet.

When I have one to play for, I can remember enough

to feel. Not hear the crowd, ruining pitch and harmony,

sidestepping into my shoulder. One who can shut up

his world for an evening, nevermind the talk

all around us. The one doesn’t let my glass get empty.

 

Dobbins’s speakers are irresistibly strange. Many of them are named in the titles of River Mouth’s five sections. These speakers—and the various characters in each section—assume the same traits as the river governing their lives. A river’s mouth is found where one river flows into another body of water. Such mouths are full of debris and sediment because of the constant turmoil and movement of the water. Like the water, River Mouth’s speakers must navigate their own inner detritus. In the fourth section, “The Alligator God and the River Ghosts,” Dobbins’s lines swing in all directions, surging left to right on the page, the spirits in the poems moving over the face of the waters. These forms provide implicit instructions on how we might read and understand the poems they construct. In “River Ghost Queens,” a poem that winds between the aforementioned swinging lines, couplets, and myriad other “regular” patterns, Dobbins writes:

 

Every body pours from a gutter,

goes somewhere she’s needed more—

a redirected mouth. I didn’t tell on him.

Only way to take river is in gulps.

 

At one point “In Three Days Time,” the sharecropper’s daughter tells the reader, “All life in the water trusts its home. / The river’s only promise is it will disobey.” The speakers in River Mouthunderstand this difficult truth, and they wander through these poems disillusioned and dazed. In “Don’t Tell Me,” the deckhand explains the river’s journey:

 

When you ask me how long she goes, I’ll teach

you again: The Great River opens in Minnesota,

smaller than my crew cabin. Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois,

Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The river is taken in by Arkansas, Mississippi,

until Louisiana, like fingers into gulf.

 

In “Six-day Eyes,” a poem of flowing anguish and misery, the sharecropper’s daughter teaches us about what she’s seen and made of loss:

 

Beauty has never, not once stayed.

If I have learned anything in fifteen years,

it’s that every mouth is shifting,

every one of you: another Mississippi, unsatisfied.

 

The body—most notably the mouth—is a theme in these poems. In this particular poem, a baby’s mouth drinks in its mother’s milk and cries as the mother who provided it walks away:

 

… Carried down, I dump your seven pounds

and three ounces, turn my back

to what cries out for a mother, count my steps

away from you.

 

In River Mouth, the Mississippi is call-and-response religion. It is provider and killer. The Mississippi is sex. Dobbins’s voices marry the spiritual with the erotic in surprising ways. In “Shantyfolk Dance Floor,” the shanty preacher’s daughter says, “A true river man knows / how to lean, to move with / and against.” Then, the following sestet communicates the glide of something deep and powerful—the sound of a “wet saxophone”—a step to the right and back to the left:”

 

I closed his eyes

with my lips.

Time to call.

Time to respond.

I was current

he could hold.

 

Heather Dobbins reanimates not only these many voices but the life of the old river too. In River Mouth, spirits from this long-ago place are rebirthed to bring forth their testimonies and give an account of their lives to the modern world. Dobbins wrote this book because she worried we are losing history. That is lucky for all of us, because she has found it.¨

Free Fall

kennedy-778262_1920

by Winona Winkler Wendth

On November 22, 2013, I rolled into a familiar parking space. I had been sitting there fifty years ago when an announcer crackled and hissed through an AM car radio that the president was dead.

This time, I sat in my car and looked across the campus where decades before I had attended school. The school had changed radically: the campus was bare, not only because of the tundra-like landscape, but also because the school had closed—no students, no teachers, only a single groundskeeper. Near desolation. But the essence of that place had remained: global warming notwithstanding, the air was as cold as it had been; the odor of early winter was still in the air, the ground frigid but not frozen; the sky was overcast. I could smell November—the end of the year, but not quite.

A sense of place is not so much a combination of memories and retrofitted significance as it is a sensibility, a re-creation of a moment that carries odor and temperature, texture, and a light peculiar to that place, regardless of what might have happened there. Sometimes, these sensory flashbacks come to us uninvited; sometimes we can encourage them. But we have little control over what they do with us.

My grandmother followed me while I walked past a bakery in Prague, long after she was no longer on this planet; the ghost of my mother was at my shoulder, not long ago when I sat by a wood fire in New Hampshire and caught a whiff of stale coffee reheating rooms away on a stove; damp straw almost always takes me back to the Orient and a tiny tatami-floored home crawling with cats and babies; just looking at a bottle of Mateus gives me a headache—not because it’s cheap booze, but because, entirely sober, I slipped on an icy stair, hit my head, and suffered a week-long headache around the Christmas I had discovered the stuff; sometimes, my back hurts, too—muscle memories of responsible porch shoveling through the remainder of that winter.

I must write about the buzz, the slip, the ache, not the endless, emotionally frozen months in Wentworth, New Hampshire.

A mouthful of the salty, mono-textured foodstuff that is a mainstay of institutional cafeterias takes me to my school lunches and then to next period’s algebra class with Mr. Wateverizhamewuz. And the boy whose name I’ll never forget who sat next to me, reeking of Jade East and failing the course. I must write about the boy, the cheap cologne, the scribbles on the desk in the hard-chaired classroom, not about feeling damaged by a romantic mistake.

Sometimes, the sting of those tiny, icy snowflakes typical of New England winters reminds me that I’m old and tired and sends me back into the house; but sometimes it invites me back into my childhood and for a few moments, at least, depending on half a dozen other impressions, I have all the energy in the world.

I must write about the sting, the sharp air.

On that day in November 1963, I admit that I thought little of the president, or Dallas; I was sixteen. However overcast and chilly the moment, I was sixteen and could count on new beginnings and possibilities, including the possibility of cutting English class.

I remembered what that felt like.

This is what a writer must open herself to—that instant that speaks itself, that place whose concrete information creates, then opens a trap door and drops us into a messy accumulation of sensory memories that make us who we are.

*****

Photo on 3-24-13 at 2.03 PMWinona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer’s Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, runs writing workshops, and mentors a wide assortment of writers, both published and (as yet) unpublished.  Both her fiction and essays are found online and in print in a variety of journals and has been featured on NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” Wendth holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

 

Precision Instruments

dentist-1514685_1920

by Winona Winkler Wendth

“O.K., now . . . You’re going to feel a little pinch.”

A pinch.

The dentist lifts a stainless steel syringe, leans toward my mouth, and reaches for my gums. I know what comes next: not a pinch but a sting. A piercing.

“Why do dentists use that word?” I asked, drooling in the dentist’s chair last week.

“What word?”

“Pinch. When a needle punctures my gum, I don’t feel a pinch—do you?”

I’ve been pinched a number of times over the years: fingers (in hinges), toes (remember the 60s?), my rear end (I grew up among Europeans). And what goes on in my mouth feels nothing like that.

“Wait,” I said, “Why do you say pinch?”

“I don’t know. That’s what they tell us in dental school. I never thought about it. What would you say, then?”

He stopped, syringe in hand.

“It’s a prick, a stab. The injection you’re going to give me is like a venomous sting, like a snake’s bite—a temporarily painful but prolonged venomous sting followed by a deep ache and a kind of numbness. Were I spending more time reading National Geographic and less time in places like this, I would fear paralysis and death.”

The dentist looked alarmed.

“Why don’t you just tell the truth—at least get closer to it?”

I waited for “You can’t handle the truth.” But he didn’t quite say that. He did intimate that patients would be frightened. That they wouldn’t cooperate. That health care professionals are allowed to gloss the truth for the anxious.

Dentists are like us: no one wants trouble. We probe around until we find a word that describes the way we think the world could be, not a word that describes the world as it is.

Beginning writers do this all the time: We use words that sound good; words that make us feel good; words that glaze the truth; words we hope others will like us for using; words we have read or heard before; words whose meanings and history we have rediscovered but which were lost to us, along with our original experiences. Words that won’t offend. Words that are often not honest. Words that are so vague or trite that they carry sensibility but little meaning.

Precision is a necessary instrument for a writer. A precise word is a service to both our readers and to us. When we are precise in our language and honest with our audience, we are more likely to be honest with ourselves—another necessity for good writing.

The next time I visited my dentist he prepared me for a venomous sting, told me to open wide and tilt my head toward the light while he found the precise place for the needle. His precision almost compensated for the pain.

Photo on 3-24-13 at 2.03 PM

 

Winona Winkler Wendth is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writer’s Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, runs writing workshops, and mentors a wide assortment of writers, both published and (as yet) unpublished. Both her fiction and essays are found online and in print in a variety of journals and has been featured on NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction.” Wendth holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Intention and Resistance in Writing

Kinetic - 1113x524

 

by J.L. Cooper

A friend recently asked me if I consider myself a psychologist who writes, or a writer who thinks like a psychologist. I told him to knock it off, that it’s much more confusing, not either/or, just a matter of finding my way. But the small moment generated a large curiosity about the fate of intention in writing, whether it’s critical or even useful to stay loyal to the original idea for a story, the urge to tell it, knowing it’s going to be caressed and transformed, even shredded by internal forces, some of them hidden.

It begs the question: what opposes the freedom to let a story or a poem run away with itself?

The usual fear-based suspects appear: doubts over whether the writing is any good, fear of irrelevance, fear of exposing more than we’ve thought through, negative experiences in the past. In writing, we resist being pulled away from the path we know, even though we’re well aware of the need to surrender to exploration. Otherwise, we won’t be very engaged, and will forget the magic of writing means you can try anything that comes to mind, pay off some debt owed to an impulse, bargain with death, speculate, find a torn piece of cloth in a treasure chest that was looted, and make the cloth the greater treasure.

In writing, as in daily life, we venture in and out of quasi-dissociated states constantly, in mini-daydreams, private thoughts, and reveries. Why would our characters not be allowed to do the same, to roam the twilight greys of the mind?

I believe a first draft should be a beautiful unapologetic mess: a mess of intentions and discoveries. This is exactly where it gets interesting. The forces that reside in a character can also be represented in surprising places, like a setting, an object that keeps appearing, or a fantasy told by a lesser character.

Subjectivity is so intensely personal, so reticent to being reduced, so amazing and maddening, resistant to linear thought, it’s no wonder that much of our personal realities resides in sensations, not words. There’s a daunting sense of presence in the urge to write. This, I argue, is the bread that sustains literary characters and their interactions, and links the lines of a poem, much like other tensions we cannot name, but are in us nonetheless.

My hope is to write from this region.

I recently read, Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from the New York Times in which Joyce Carol Oates comments: “To write is to invade another’s space, if only to memorialize it.” And, “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.”

The courage theme is always present. There’s more.

Too much resistance to spontaneity can flatten a story, diluting its flavor. I can say as a psychologist that everyone has a unique way of feeling stuck in his or her own subjectivity. One problem I have is thinking too hard about what I want a story to be. It reduces me to metaphors about cooking, more spice here, less salt there, and I’ve accepted I’m a lousy cook.

Poet Mark Doty, in The Art of Description: Word into World, discusses timelessness, linking it to lyric qualities. “In this lyric time, we cease to be aware of forward movement; lyric is concerned neither with the impingement of the past nor with anticipation of events to come.” I think he’s inviting us to write beyond the known intention, to free the mind from all the willful clamoring.

It is not the way I’m used to thinking about lyricism.

He goes on: “Such a state of mind is ‘lyric’ not because it is musical (though the representation of these states of mind usually is) but because we are seized by a moment that suddenly seems edgeless, unbounded.”

No matter how much I want to write about a past moment, the parallels to the present moment make appearances. The old conundrums come to visit. Everyone has tensions that have been internalized. In writing, we are supported by the internalized influence of friends, past triumphs, people who love and encourage us. But we are not completely free from the influence of the bullies in our lives, the cynics and abusers. The art of writing, in my opinion, is to express the tensions, not to be constrained to resolve them.

My own response is to make room for mental associations and images to visit freely in my writing, like I’ve given them a VIP pass to enter the page. It gets a little wild, as these can come from a narrative voice, a character, or projection into an object I’m describing. I sometimes delegate an inanimate object to be the container for something a character cannot see or know. This was my solution to the overflowing grief of my protagonist in “Path of the Ground Birds,” where the glow of a refrigerator light took over some of the narration when the character was too numb to speak.

The momentary loss of the external narrative is the most astonishing gift, perhaps in therapy as well as writing. It’s the moment when a client says something completely unexpected after talking about, say, persistent headaches, he says something like, “I never told my brother I loved him,” while looking at an vase in a bookshelf. It’s true we’ve lost one thread, but picked up another that’s far more important. This is what I strive to do in writing, to make room for what emerges.

Other masters I admire, such as Alice Munroe, Donna Tartt, Adam Johnson, Charles Baxter, to name just a few, seem to delve easily into the intimate worlds of characters and describe their attachments from within.

I may be in contradiction to writers advising that to be successful, a story needs constant twists of plot, a satisfying arc, an earthquake of a beginning, a clarifying ending, etc. I’m more inclined to settle in, appreciating a mix of tones. It’s why I never tire reading passages of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Maybe it comes to an acceptance of one’s mix, not a problem to be solved, since intentions are mixed as well.

For example, I was raised by a father who recited Rudyard Kipling and William Butler Yeats, and ballads by the dozens. He’d be transported by rhymes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. When I think of his influence, I’m inclined to write a sentence like this: “There was dread in his voice when he said to his friends that he went for a loaf of bread.” There I am, summoning the rhythms from childhood listening.

My mother was reserved, careful, and kept her worries to herself. She rarely spoke in the first person. My parents departed long ago, but I can summon her influence too. I think of her way of saying things, and add my own spin. Now I’ll write it like this: “When he left, a loaf of bread was on his mind, sliced this time, though it was not his custom.” This way keeps my curiosity going.

I don’t think resistance as a concept is simply a barrier to creativity, since it’s just as linked to identity as the way a person walks: haltingly, or leaning slightly forward. It’s folly to think that the absence of resistance opens the door to genius. We can try to use the tension rather than be neutralized by it.

To write is to live in wonder.

James Cooper2(1)J.L Cooper is a writer, clinical psychologist in Sacramento, California, and winner of the Tupelo Quarterly prose open prize, TQ9, judged by Pulitzer winner Adam Johnson. (Read his winning piece, “Path of the Ground Birds,” here.) Additional awards include: First Place in Short Short Fiction in New Millennium Writings, 2013, and Second Place in Essay in Literal Latte, 2014. His short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in The Manhattan Review, Hippocampus, Oberon Poetry Magazine, Structo, Paper Swans Press (UK), Gold Man Review, KY Story, Folia Literary Magazine, The Sun (Reader’s Write), and in other journals and anthologies. A full-length collection of poetry is forthcoming from WordTech. For more information, go to: jlcooper.net

 

From the Library to Las Vegas: the Role of Research in the Writing Process

by Thomas Dodsonlas-vegas-959084_1920

A short list of things I’ve learned from writing fiction: fairy penguins sleep for only five minutes at a time, the ancient Greeks used pine sap to waterproof their wineskins, a runny nose and excessive yawning are among the symptoms of opiate withdrawal, and pretty much anyone acquainted with a dead person can officially identify the body.

It’s true, searching a library catalog lacks the writerly glamour of dashing off a first draft. Yet the practice of research has some discrete charms to recommend it to the writer of fiction: the satisfaction of getting a physical detail, a way of speaking, or a word exactly right; of finding unexpected inspiration for a setting or a scene in a news report; or even discovering that a person or place you had thought lived only in your imagination may, in fact, correspond to some actual entity in the world. It can also be a comfort while you’re trying to publish a story (and dealing with the inevitable rejections), to reflect on how much you’ve learned—often about topics you would have never thought to explore.

I’m a librarian, so it’s probably not surprising that research plays a major role in my writing process, as it did in my story “Two Valleys,” published in the journal CONSEQUENCE. “Two Valleys” concerns the pilot of a Predator drone who, after a traumatic mission, seeks solace in a Las Vegas strip club. The idea for the story came to me one Sunday when I heard a report on National Public Radio about drone pilots stationed at an Air Force base in Nevada who regularly flew missions over Afghanistan.

I’ve never served in the military, but something about the story gripped me: two deserts and two forms of American power, both having to do with vision. In Afghanistan it was specular power, the ability of the US military to see things thousands of miles away from unmanned vehicles. By contrast, I associated Las Vegas—with its bright lights and over-the-top architecture—with the stupefying power of capitalist spectacle. I was interested in exploring how I might connect these two forms of power through the lived experience of a single character.

A couple of weeks after hearing the NPR piece, I started work on a story about a drone pilot stationed at Creech AFB, a base located only a short drive from Las Vegas.

In my experience, one of the best ways to gain perspective on some larger issue that you want to write about is to seek out personal accounts of people struggling with that issue. Very often the richest sources for these accounts are memoirs. If the experience you’re interested in is widely shared, memoirs can be great resources and relatively easy to find. In my case, however, I had to do some real digging to find a book by a drone pilot. I turned to Worldcat (www.worldcat.org), a free online database that allows you to search the collections of libraries all over the world, all at once. It’s a great way to find out whether the book you’re looking for actually exists and, if it does, which libraries near you have copies.

I found only one published memoir: Predator: the Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: a Pilot’s Story by Major Matt J. Martin and the journalist Charles W. Sasser. The book is full of just the kinds of details I was looking for. I learned, for example, that because of the great distance the signal has to travel, there is a two-second delay from the moment a pilot in Nevada moves his flight stick and the drone in Afghanistan responds. This fact provided me with an opportunity to escalate the tension in a scene in which the story’s protagonist must offer split-second aid to soldiers who are under attack.

Predator was also full of the special vocabulary used by drone pilots and sensor operators. A drone is an “RPV” (short for “remote-piloted vehicle”) and its two view modes are “IR” (infrared monochrome) and “day-TV” (full-color telephoto). Eventually banned by Gen. Stanly McChrystal, the chillingly vague term “military-aged male” had been used by drone operators to refer to most Afghan men and boys, implying that nearly half the civilian population might be a combatant—one “positive identification” away from becoming a potential target. Operators also make use of some disturbing slang; a target killed by a drone strike is a “bug splat” and a person who breaks from a group in an effort to flee is termed a “squirter.”

While books dealing with the technical, political, and moral aspects of drone warfare helped provide me with context, it was their citations that I found most useful. In a chapter from her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control, activist Medea Benjamin discusses the psychological impact on pilots of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for up to thirteen hours at a time before clocking out and commuting home to be with their families. She quotes the pilots at length from stories originally published in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. Tracking down the pieces she cited and supplementing these with searches of Lexis-Nexis, a database of domestic and international news sources, I was able to assemble a more-or-less complete list of popular press articles about drone pilots.

In addition to general background information, specific scenes in the story called for additional research and other approaches. A documentary video, Afghanistan: An Afghan Village, provided glimpses into life in rural Afghanistan. In one shot, a young boy shovels fuel into the mouth of a clay oven; in another, an old man with a bucket splashes handfuls of water onto the ground, settling the dust of the main road.

To gain insight into the protagonist’s relationship with his wife, strained due to long overseas deployments, I went looking for blogs and discussion forums that dealt with the experience of military spouses. The perspectives shared in these posts, particularly those written by the wives of Air Force personnel serving overseas, were invaluable in shaping my understanding of the central relationship in the story.

I knew that the first half of my story was going to take place in Afghanistan’s Khost Valley, but the second half would be set in and around Las Vegas, a place I had never been. I had read guidebooks and histories, of course, but knew these could only take me so far. In order to gather my own impressions of the story’s second valley, I embarked on a brief research trip to Nevada.

I’d decided that the pilot in my story would seek comfort and conversation from an erotic dancer, so one of my stops on this pilgrimage to Sin City was a strip club on Freemont Street. I’d read several books about the culture of “gentleman’s clubs” (anthropologist Katherine Frank’s winningly-titled study of regular patrons, G-strings and Sympathy, for example), but had never actually been to one of these bars. I was concerned that without personal experience, the scene I was writing would lack authentic details.

GlitterGulchSo that’s how I found myself occupying a stool at the long oval bar that, padded with red felt and appointed with a colonnade of silver poles, served as both counter and catwalk for The Girls of Glitter Gulch. There I talked with a dancer (stage name “Jordan”) about what men, especially regulars, came looking for, and what her conversations with them were like. By the time I left, my wallet was lighter, but I’d gotten some important (and very specific) details that I could use for my story.

I’d also known that there would be a scene in which the protagonist drove from Creech AFB to Las Vegas in the middle of the night. In an attempt to get the details right, I took this drive myself. Alone in my rental car, I set my digital recorder in the passenger seat, pulled on to Ninety-Four South, and delivered a running monologue of my impressions. One detail that struck me in particular was the crisp, resinous smell that blew in through my driver’s side window. Later, a little online research into Nevada vegetation and I concluded that this arboreal odor had probably come from the piñon pines in the Spring Mountains.

Transforming my notes of the drive into a scene required a different kind of investigation, what I’ll call “craft research.” When I do craft research, I go looking for writers who are good at something that I would also like to do well. For my scene on the desert highway, with the city of Las Vegas appearing on the horizon, I knew I wanted to imbue the setting with a sense of monumental menace. I recalled a passage in William T. Vollman’s story “Red Hands” that had that feel, a description of a ship’s nighttime arrival in New York Harbor as experienced by Seamus, a fugitive IRA operative. I had a copy of the story in Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design and set to studying the passage along with Bell’s meticulous commentary.

In Vollman’s story, the first impression of New York is “the smell of garbage which must have blown into Seamus’s nostrils from the landfill on Fresh Kills Island.” As the city comes into view, it expands, “revealing its vastness, cruelty and coldness in the grin of its skyscraper-teeth.” As the buildings seem to become “taller and wider” they “cast their burdens of light upon the harbor” and cars move “along the shore freeway like glittering beads.”

Studying Vollman’s language helped me imagine how to approach my scene. In “Two Valleys,” Vegas appears first in a display of seductive splendor: “Las Vegas flickered at his left and then unfurled itself: a sweep of golden points, pixel-prickly in the arid dark.” The notion of Las Vegas rapidly filling the protagonist’s visual field is similar to the revelation of New York in “Red Hands,” and the image of the city’s lights as a field of golden pixels is not unlike Vollman’s freeway of “glittering beads.”

The culmination of research in a final draft can be deeply satisfying. The completed story bears the traces of hours spent searching databases, haunting libraries, scribbling notes, and maybe even hitting the road. Ultimately, however, all this activity has been in the service not of the writer, but of the story and its reader.

With your cabinet full to bursting with factual curiosities, there is the risk of assuming your reader will be as interested as you are in your discoveries. This is seldom the case, and the writer should resist the urge to teach the reader something at the expense of telling a good story. Distinctive details, surprising words and ways of speaking, that fine point known only to insiders; these can’t be allowed to loaf about in your story. They must earn their keep by advancing the plot, contributing to character development, or instantiating a theme. The process of fiction research, then, consists of two complementary phases: the gathering of actualities at the beginning and a culling down to the most serviceable ones at the end. As with other aspects of our writing, we may be called on to murder some of our darlings. The result, however, is a striking fictional world, one a reader can fully inhabit while turning the pages and vividly recall when the story is finished.

thomas_dodsonThomas Dodson is a writer, designer, and librarian living in Somerville, Massachusetts. His short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Chicago Quarterly Review, CONSEQUENCE Magazine, and elsewhere. The full text of several stories, including “Two Valleys,” is available on his website (thomasadodson.com).

Be the Best Writer You Can Be

Read outdoors

My guiding principle in writing has always been that I try to write the very best essay, story, or poem that I can at that moment. I’ve spent much of my career writing essays and feature articles for newspapers and magazines, and now, of course, for online news sources and journals. Sometimes the print publications are free to the community, or cost the reader one or two dollars. Mostly, I’ve gotten paid for my work, even if often it is barely enough to buy a new inkjet cartridge for my printer.

The key is that I never say to myself, “I’ll just slop something down. It’s just The Beach Reporter” or “It’s only Main Line Life” (two community newspapers I have written extensively for in southern California and suburban Philadelphia). Whether I’m aiming for The New York Times or the Pioneer Press, my commitment to excellent writing is the same.

When I write for publications in my community, I feel a special commitment to doing my best work, even though I am not garnering the prestige and pay of a national news outlet. I think of all the readers (they might be friends and neighbors) sitting down to breakfast or lunch, skimming the headlines, restlessly turning the pages or clicking their mouse, looking for something that catches the eye: my column, my essay, often buried in the “Lifestyle” section, sometimes below the fold. They start to read. They are willing to give me a sentence, a paragraph. This is where I have to reel them in. I can feel them as I tap-tap my next essay into my laptop. I don’t just toss something down because I’m only getting fifty or seventy-five dollars and no one outside my zip code will ever read it.

I think, I tap, I delete. I race forward at breakneck speed, I eat chocolate, I puzzle. I consult my synonym finder, I go back and put paragraph three where paragraph two was, I sweat blood over the last sentence. The readers are all. I am writing to them. I aim to make them laugh or cry or ponder. I want to entertain, provoke, inform, and move.

It would be easier not to care.

But this is my life. This is what I do. I’ve tried other things, but I’ve always returned to what I love, what I’m actually good at. And, with that in mind, every time I begin to write I always try to make it the best I can at that exact moment.

The carefully selected detail that illuminates the larger picture. The story that a reader will remember ten years down the road. The image that will resonate inside someone, in some secret place that maybe they were not even aware of. Until they read what I wrote.

The essays and short stories of Kathy Stevenson have appeared in an eclectic array of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Newsweek, Red Rock Review, Chicago Tribune, The Writer, Philadelphia Inquirer, South Boston Literary Gazette, Los Angeles Times, Clapboard House, and many others. Kathy is a frequent contributor to newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia. She earned an MFA from Bennington College. A link to her essays can be found at: www.kathleenstevenson.blogspot.com

Freedom in Small Spaces

 

A paradox:

confining a story

within the concrete walls of a hard word count

can emancipate it.

 

Flash fiction seems

to me

a form wholly distinct from the short story,

more receptive to experiment.

More liberated.

It’s easier to risk

a miniature canvas

than a mural.

 

#

 

I imagine that most readers find flash fiction manageable, inviting. Almost anyone can take in three hundred, five hundred, one thousand words—a screen or two of text—in a single sitting, even granted the distraction that is our modern condition. Limiting length makes the task of writing a flash piece more approachable, too. Flash, however, demands more of the reader (and the writer) than at first appears. When every word counts, just as valuable as what’s written is what’s left unwritten. Flashes neither show nor tell as much as they hint. They flash: to arouse, yes, but also to coax
the reader into participating. You, the piece urges, pulling the reader on stage. Help me with this.

 

#

 

They’re strangers to one another, sharing a bus stop shelter. Beaming from the wall beside him, a bright advertisement for the Gap. Check out our new arrivals! Knits and khakis: your favorites with a twist!

Quietly, she sheds her coat and bares herself.

Even before he turns, he senses her misfit appearance. He’s a conventional man, accustomed to conventional beauty, wholesomeness and suburban chic, discomfited by the flamboyant, the awkward, the strange.

But he glances over, anyway.

He stares.

He studies her.

He cannot look away.

Long after she’s covered up, boarded her bus, and ridden off, he’ll remain intrigued, smitten. He’ll trace and retrace what was revealed to him, the marks branded on her torso, the patches of translucent skin, the beating organ on the right side of her chest, and begin to sketch for himself the rough lines of her story.

 

#

 

Or maybe the writer sets out to establish a more traditional courtship, a tale in which a stalwart knight seeks the hand and heart of a lovely maiden. Her father sends him on a perilous quest that will prove the knight’s worth. Traveling far and wide, Knight survives grave dangers, overcomes intimidating obstacles, experiences poignant moments of growth. Ultimately, he returns in triumph. Maiden, however, appears unmoved. She cannot admit how she admires his courage and fortitude, appreciates his chivalric manner, thinks tenderly on the compassion he shows the peasants and the care he gives his hounds and steed. She dismisses Knight’s considerable achievements and declares his devotion false. For how can she otherwise avoid his bitter disgust and certain anger when the hues of her colorful past emerge? Perplexed and more than a bit miffed, Knight begins to doubt himself. He questions the suitability of the match, the very nature of love. An old scullery maid looks on as Knight shuffles away and Maiden begins to weep.

Is there time and space in a flash for happily ever after?

 

#

 

The gospel according to Luke: “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

The gospel according to the logician: Those who are given less enjoy greater license.

Can you compose a story

  • entirely in bullet points?
  • as a series of Facebook posts and comments?
  • or as marginal n
    otes on a student’s essay?
  • store signs, catalog descriptions, or While You Were Out notes?
  • bathroom graffiti?

 

#

 

In flash fiction, the preposterous seems plausible. In fewer words, but with wider range. While the elephant thunders, the sparrow takes wing.

 

Bryan Shawn BryanWangWang is grateful for his freedom. His flash fiction has appeared in places such as decomP, LITnIMAGE, Flash Fiction OnlinePrime Number, Vestal Review and the anthology Sudden Flash Youth (Persea Books). He lives in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania with his wife and children. www.bryanshawnwang.com

26 Shades of Fun

A-TO-Z

I recently taught a group of high schoolers about six-word memoirs. And not just any group, but a church group; and not just any six-word memoirs, but spiritual memoirs. My plan, I prayed, would allow each—after an initial rather expansive free-write exercise—to sculpt her convictions and confusions into a mere six-word sentence.

So why six-words? What could possibly be the point? Or, should I say, “Why six-words, what’s the point?” (Spend a little time with this drill and all communication begins to consist of six-word locutions.) I told the kids this would help them center themselves; help them learn to name what is difficult to name. I wanted the alphabet to become a rosary of possibility—wanted them to rub those letters until a path was made straight or a supplication answered.

Our Unitarian Universalist religion encourages a covenant of seven principles (such as a free and responsible search for meaning) instead of a firm-footed creed. Sometimes all the spiritual possibilities can leave a person a bit wobbly. For this reason we suggest members develop an elevator speech—a brief description of belief distilled to the time of an average elevator ride.

The six-word faith statement makes for a quick trip.

We discussed Hemmingway’s supposed and famous baby shoes: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. And talked about how a line can develop into an entire story, a narrative with staying power for the rest of the day. That’s the way it is with good writing. Wanderings and wonderings are explored, and hopefully the reader—that quiet collaborator in all our creations—is left with something to care about.

The teens did a pretty good job. Lots of goofiness, lots of angst. In general they’re much more worldly than I was as a teen—or maybe still am. This group’s been raised to look at a thing from all sides, to form their own opinions instead of accept another’s version of the truth. Of course that might be where the angst comes in. It’s easier to rebel against a creed than to drop a principle.

I tried a couple (“Nothing a long walk won’t solve.”), but soon began daydreaming about six-word memoirs for writers. At home, a Google search revealed plenty of examples from famous and not so famous wordsmiths. Apparently I’m not alone in seeing the benefits as well as the endless possibilities for waking up the writing bones: summarizing thoughts, distilling a passage’s meaning, avoiding other work. And, most importantly, allowing oneself to find other ways to play with language.

That’s what we writers are doing after all; playing with words—zooming in and out, crystalizing what needs to be said. Giving solid shape to the ephemeral. Those 26 letters shuffled again and again until they tell a story—or find a truth.

In her memoir “What Comes Next and How to Like It,” Abigail Thomas describes having her new students write two pages about a decade of their life. The catch? The sentences can be only three words long. “You can’t hide behind a sapling,” she writes.

Dang, true that. With six words I can still enhance and improve, create an effect, add a darling. But it’s pure exposure with only three words. Some silliness can get you started: The sun rose. The sun set. Let’s not fret.

That kind of defensiveness can’t be sustained though. Thomas must know this, that the impulse to move quickly through the assignment will become impossible. I imagine her classroom becoming still, the pauses between pen scratchings or key strokes lengthening as life is divided into ten-year spans and memories are dredged. Dirt will be found. The initial luxury of two waiting pages may become a fearful journey of three-word planks—with no opportunity to hide from emotion or slow a disclosure with craft elements. Distraction is futile. My chest tightens.

Tightens and then gets curious. Yeah, it’s my chest that gets curious as I consider my own two pages. Feelers of possibilities rove out to the rest of the system—wake up the brain, whisper to the fingers poised above the impatient middle row, press the j reach for the o, hurry.

What if the planks turn into scaffolding? What if in whittling down to the support beams I find some long-forgotten church key? An entry into why I’d willingly spend a Sunday morning with teenagers instead of at home with the newspaper. I could uncover ten years of plot points or create two pages of three-word sentences that all start the same: Then came…. The exercise opens up, pulls me in—surprises me with new material. The fun begins. Cool.

“You can’t hide behind a sapling.” Thomas tells us. That’s good stuff. Six-words mind you, but still, damn fine writing.

 Joanne Nelson, an educator and writer living in Hartland, Wisconsin, is the nonfiction editor for the Tishman Review.

Review of My Torn Dance Card by David James

Review of My Torn Dance Card  by David James

The Fly Came Near It, 2015

94 pp.

by Robert Haight

David James has been a well-known figure in the Michigan writing community for a long time. In the nineteen seventies, he was something of a prodigy. In his early twenties, James was included in The Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry published by Wayne State University Press. Before he was thirty years old, James published his first full-length book of poetry, A Heart Out of This World, from Carnegie-Mellon University Press. Though a second collection did not appear for many years, James continued to write consistently, publishing in little magazines and producing chapbooks as well as writing plays, reviews and occasional articles.  He was also included in Wayne State University Press’s second Third Coast anthology (1988) and New Poems from the Third Coast: Contemporary Michigan Poetry (2000). He has been teaching writing at Oakland Community College in Michigan while continuing to practice his art.

Each new book that James composed reveals a poet more versatile in tone and theme, more comfortable in his expression of feeling, more experienced in his range of subject matter. His new collection, My Torn Dance Card, reveals a poet who has achieved a continuing maturity in his sensibilities and a command of his craft.

David James
David James

The collection comprises two parts of over thirty poems apiece. It’s a full-length book, to say the least, spanning ninety-four pages. The first half of the collection, titled “Listen,” includes a variety of subjects and patterns: some poems in traditional stanzas, some in more free lines, and some unlined. The poems in this section, though not tightly connected, are generally more playful, innocent, and grow more worldly as the progression continues. The second half of the book—“Dance”—is more seasoned. The poems look squarely into the mirror, acknowledging impermanence while celebrating the enduring blessings of life and love.

James is familiar to many poetry readers for his humor in a genre that often seems to ignore it. My Torn Dance Card, like its predecessors, contains a number of poems that are playful, light, and amusing. In “What I Learned About My Handwriting Analysis” James writes,

 

Right off the bat

the large issues come to light—

my ease with the unknown,

a preference for folly,

a definitive reliance upon

religion and philosophy.

 

The missing ‘n’ in Everything

points clearly to a lack

of breastfeeding as an infant.

The ‘y’ and ‘g’ dip below the line

but never come back to right themselves.

 

Another rhetorical approach to the poem that James has used in the past and employs again in this collection is a movement from seemingly ordinary circumstances to a sudden confrontation with the bizarre. In “Rapt Devotion” (with its clever pun), a wife covers her husband with wrapping paper while he sleeps. In “Falling in Love” James describes an unkempt woman entering a hospital emergency room. By the end of the poem he asks,

 

How lonely does a woman have to be

to love a hot dog?

At what stage of life

exactly

does meat look physically appealing,

start whispering your name,

and promise to be all yours?

 

The mark of James’s growth is apparent in the poems that risk tenderness and name the losses people eventually must experience with age. The subject matter of the poems in this collection becomes increasingly elegiac, and a poem such as “What Comes to Mind at the End” shows just how far David James has traveled from cleverness toward wisdom:

 

February, a cold morning, Friday,

and we bury another friend.

We’re at that age, you know,

when people begin to say goodbye

to this earth, and find their way

 

back to mere dust. There’s a long

path that weaves through the snow,

descending below a gray sky.

We all walk it in the end.

Our lives light up like a song

 

and then flash into nothing.

Silence becomes a stifled cry

and time lifts its bandage to mend

the wound. But when it’s our turn to go,

there won’t be angels on wings

 

or chariots blazing from above:

we’ll simply lean over or fall or bend

down and die. The north wind will blow,

relatives and friends will come, then drive

home, worrying about the end of love.

 

Numerous other poems confide in the reader with questions about mortality, worries about reaching middle age with the pains and perils it brings, anxiety about a future where nothing is guaranteed and nothing is certain but losses and eventually death. Still, though troubled by these grim realities, James never gives in to despair, knowing that “each day you wake to play a part.”

In a time when so many books of poetry are tightly constructed sequences focused on narrow themes or collections more interested in language as an end to itself, My Torn Dance Card offers the clear, articulate words of a poet who brings readers a breadth of human experience they can welcome. These poems embody the laughter and tears, the joy and sorrow, the love and loss that leave their notches in the lives of those brave enough to think and feel but not necessarily understand. After all, as James reminds us,

 

Sometimes you’re left to raise

your fists to the dark sky

and pray

for more time, more grace,

for more love than is humanly possible.

 

Robert Haight’s most recent book of poetry is Feeding Wild Birds (Mayapple Press, 2013). He divides his time between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan.

Lightness in Childhood

Italo Calvino writes in his Lightness lecture in Six Memos for the Next Millennium of literature’s existential function as being “the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living.” Childhood most often depicted in fiction is one that was abruptly terminated by a difficult, or heavy, event. But, autobiographical material related to traumatic childhood events poses a challenge to handle in a way that best serves the artist and his vision. While many authors have used their childhood experiences in their work, if we examine these works using Calvino’s Lightness lecture, can we find evidence of lightness?

Calvino looks for several elements to be present in a work that exemplifies lightness. In the fictional depictions of childhood that I read, few authors managed to have all of the elements within the work but nearly all used at least one. I was most attracted to the works that were filled with lightness – Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and James Agee’s A Death in the Family.

What I also found throughout the childhood literature was an attempt at capturing the essence of childhood prior to its abrupt termination by the traumatic event. For some authors, such as Woolf, what happens prior to the trauma comprises a great deal of the work. The time prior is often depicted as filled with the usually pleasant wonders of childhood. It is as if the writer is examining the childhood prior to test if the impressions remain associated with the lightness he feels about that time or is the lightness a delusion created by the counter-weight of the trauma?

Virginia Woolf’s mother died in 1895 when Woolf was only thirteen years old. In her essay “Reminiscences” Woolf writes, “…her death was the greatest disaster that could happen; it was as though some brilliant day of spring the racing clouds of a sudden stood still, grew dark, and massed themselves; the wind flagged, and all creatures on the earth moaned or wandered aimlessly.”

The family was profoundly affected by the mother’s death. To make matters worse, Woolf’s oldest sister Stella Duckworth, who had taken on the caregiver role, died just two years later. Woolf’s father died when Woolf was twenty-two and her brother Thoby died two years after. In her essay “A Sketch of the Past” Woolf writes of her novel To the Lighthouse: “But I wrote the book very quickly, and when it was written I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.”

In his Lightness lecture, Calvino recounts the story of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus cuts off Medusa’s head without being turned to stone. He puts it in a bag and takes it with him. Calvino states, “Perseus’s strength always lies in a refusal to look directly, but not in a refusal of the reality in which he is fated to live; he carries the reality with him and accepts it as his particular burden.” The refusal to look directly at a childhood monster is one of the keys to imparting lightness to the work.

Woolf casts an indirect gaze upon the tragedies of her childhood in her novel To the Lighthouse. She creates the Ramsay family, based upon her own family, in fine detail. Yet, there are no scenes of the family member’s deaths; rather she tells us of the tragedies in short passages marked by brackets.  And she does this in the second section of the novel in which she writes primarily about the Ramsay’s deserted seaside home.

“ Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.”

“Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything they said, had promised so well.”

“A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsay, whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous.”

Calvino states, “The images of lightness that I seek should not fade away like dreams dissolved by the realities of present and future.” Lightness “goes with precision and determination, not with vagueness and the haphazard.” One of the ways to prevent the “weight of matter from crushing us” is to “allow atoms to make unpredictable deviations from the straight line.” He calls this the “atomistic concept of the universe” or life down to its fine particles.

Woolf brings her eye for acute detail grounded in sensory impressions to her writing in To the Lighthouse. What surrounds the brief bracketed passages of the characters’ deaths is a narrative engaged in the description of setting – the holiday house by the sea. A wind of darkness, or “nothingness” as she calls it, moves through the house, exemplifying Calvino’s concept of the atomizing of things or “the poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities” – showing what is “infinitely minute, light and mobile.”

So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed around bedroom doors.

So with the house empty and the doors locked and the mattresses rolled round, those stray airs, advance guards of great armies, blustered in, brushed bare boards, nibbled and fanned, met nothing in bedroom or drawing-room…

Woolf, in my opinion, was a master of, as Calvino puts it, the “lightening of language whereby meaning is conveyed through a verbal texture that seems weightless, until the meaning itself takes on the same rarified consistency.”  This lightening of language is one of the three senses of lightness Calvino looks for in a work.

I must confess that understanding this sense of lightness has been difficult and so I asked several writers for their take. Their responses varied. Calvino is looking for ethereal prose that carries a weighty subject and/or uses language to shape time. Rather than use heavy language, such as subject-verb-direct object, which thuds on the page, use indeterminate clauses and figurative language. In this way, subject matters are implied, rather than being photographed exactly. We can also use sentences that start with a solid noun, which are weight-neutral, and move to lighter words and images, using a light verb so that a sentence moves from darkness and weight to light and lightness. We must also remember that letter sounds have physical connotations, some move against gravity such as the high frequency vowels (ee, ay, long i). These high frequency vowels are associated with exhilaration and energy, or movement, and movement implies lightness.

Woolf writes:

When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again.

Calvino writes, “As soon as the moon appears in poetry, it brings with it a sensation of lightness, suspension, a silent calm enchantment.”

He also tells us that another sense of lightness is imparted by the “narration of a train of thought or psychological process in which subtle and imperceptible elements are at work, or any kind of description that involves a high degree of abstraction.”

Woolf travels freely throughout the novel into her character’s minds, using a stream of consciousness narrative. In the second section, titled “Time Passes”, Woolf captures the emotions surrounding the deaths using subtle and imperceptible elements as revealed to us by  – the nothingness in the deserted house, the stray airs that creep through it, the divine goodness, loveliness and stillness residing there, and even weary, old Mrs. McNab, the reluctant housekeeper.

Woolf writes:

Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers.

The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.

Calvino describes the third sense as “a visual image of lightness that acquires an emblematic value.” He quotes Paul Valery, “One should be light like a bird, and not like a feather.” A bird implies willful movement, the ability to carry oneself into the sky. Woolf uses at least two visual images of movement and transformation that imply lightness in the novel. One being: the decay of the empty holiday house. She even writes that rats carry off bits of the house to gnaw on. The house had anchored the family together in their happiest moments and now it is disintegrating. “If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion.”

Yet transformation can bring beauty. Woolf writes, “Tortoise-shell butterflies burst from the chrysalis and pattered their life out on the windowpane.” Much as we love our parents, there can be a sense of freedom felt when they pass on.

The other image is that of the long-awaited boat trip to visit the lighthouse. After many years, the family returns to the seaside house and Mr. Ramsay finally takes his children to see the lighthouse. Something he refused to do while their mother was alive.

Lily Briscoe also returns to the holiday house, as Woolf did in her mind, and “Through the open window the voice of the beauty of the world came murmuring…” Just as Perseus made the ground soft for Medusa’s head to lie upon and the beautiful coral then grows there, and the nymphs desire this coral and feed the decapitated head in exchange for it, Woolf was able to lay her tragedies down and create something wholly beautiful and enchanting.

In 1916, James Agee’s father was killed in an automobile accident when Agee was six. But Agee didn’t want to write a memoir. Rather he sought to treat his painful autobiographical material one-step removed. He writes, “I must decide between a completely detached and a deeply subjective treatment. I doubt if in complete detachment there is a story there. Rather, do the subjective, as detachedly as possible.”  The result is the novel A Death in the Family. The story of six-year-old Rufus and the death of his father, Jay Follett, in an automobile accident in Knoxville, Tennessee (where Agee grew up). Unfortunately, Agee died before the completion of the novel.

And just as Woolf did not create scenes in which her personal tragedies are shown directly, neither does Agee. Though Agee wrote sections of the novel from the father’s point of view, he did not compose a scene in which the accident occurs. We read about what happened to Jay Follett as is told by a character who came upon the wrecked vehicle and the dead father. And this is not told directly by the character but by another character, the Uncle of little Rufus, as Andrew heard it from the eyewitness. The revelation of the tragic details feels removed through this use of second-hand accounts. In fact, no one witnessed the actual accident. Follett was alone.

Agee also focuses in on three particular details of the accident. Andrew recounts, “‘Something caught in his lights and it was one of the wheels of the automobile… it was still turning.’” Andrew repeats this statement. So Jay’s car must’ve been upside down for a wheel to be turning in the light of some headlights and for the wheel to still be turning, it was a bad accident. Andrew goes on to tell Jay’s wife, Mary, the vehicle was upside down, but we have deduced this already. Mary must’ve also and the conversation proceeds in this gentle, caring manner with information being revealed indirectly.

Then we learn that the first responder couldn’t find “anything wrong except a little cut, exactly on the point of his chin.” And this image of the little wound on Jay’s chin is carried through to the funeral when Rufus sees his father’s corpse resting in its coffin. “At the exact point of the chin, there was another small blue mark, as straight and neat as might be drawn with a pencil, and scarcely wider.” The disfigurement is so inconsequential and benign that we feel the senselessness of the tragedy even deeper. How shocking the accident must’ve felt to Agee and his family is captured precisely with this non-disturbing image of a wound that didn’t even bleed.

Then we get the image of the cotter pin from Jay’s car. “They found that a cotter pin had worked loose – that is, had fallen all the way out – this cotter pin had fallen out, that held the steering mechanism together.” Andrew describes the cotter pin as “like a very heavy hairpin.” Hairpins are small. So something very small, something easily lost, caused this enormous and shocking tragedy.

And while we learn that the car must’ve hit a rock and Follett lost control because of the fallen-out cotter pin and hit his chin on the steering wheel, which killed him instantly, the images we hold of this horrific event are: the spinning auto wheel, the small chin wound, and the cotter pin. I think Agee was trying to express something he’d learned about life with the use of these images. Something along the lines of how life can change in a very small amount of time and that the catapulting event can derive from what are often almost unnoticeable details. Details we can be obsessed with after the event in our human quest for understanding. Cancer starts as a single cell, deadly viruses must be viewed with a microscope, the destroyed Space Shuttle Columbia lost some re-entry tiles, and Jay Follett was killed by a fallen-out cotter pin.

Calvino speaks in his Lightness lecture about the necessity of an “atomistic concept of the universe.” Despite our intellectual capacity to think in the abstract, man remains a sensuous creature. We experience our existence and all its attendant emotions through the five senses, and what is striking about this, is that most of the information our senses gather comes to us in minute and often unseen particles. The small atoms that comprise matter are not all visible, some are gaseous. Odors can be sensed but remain unseen. Sounds are a sequence of pressure waves. Calvino says, “the knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world, leading to a perception of all that is infinitely minute, light, and mobile.” He goes on to say that only a poet who has no doubts about the “physical reality of the world” can issue poetry of the “invisible, infinite unexpected possibilities.”

Agee seems compelled to permeate the tragedy of his childhood with lightness, in as many senses of lightness as he can muster. He wants us to hear his childhood, “They (the locusts) are all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell of heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums … the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.” Agee draws our attention to not only a sound but its individual notes.

When Jay leaves his family for the last time, Agee provides a two page treatment of the sounds his automobile makes, the vehicle that kills Jay. He attempts to replicate the sound through the usage of the letters of the alphabet. Calvino talks about the alphabet as a model for combinations of minimal units and that we can view letters as atoms in continual motion. The teaching of phonics is comprised of the learning of the singular sounds each letter represents. Alphabet sounds carry their own weights, with some sounds being light such as the vowel teams ‘ee’ and ‘ay’ and the long vowel ‘i’, and other sounds being heavy. These are the low frequency vowels which bring energy down, such as the diphthongs ‘ar, ‘ow’, ‘oi, ‘aw’, ‘oo’ and the long vowel ‘o’. Consonants carry differing weights also, whether they are made mostly by using air (r, p, h, f, sh, w) or by using the tongue and lips (b, d, k, g).

Agee draws our attention to minute particles: “The moistures of May drowned all save the most ardent stars, and gave back to the earth the sublimated light of the prostrate city.” Here not only are we looking at both natural and artificial light but how light can be reflected by droplets of moisture so that it casts itself back upon the city. He writes of Jay’s wife, “She was never to realize his intention of holding the warmth in for her; for that had sometime departed from the bed.” Our loved ones do hold warmth within them and just as that impression of their warmth remains only briefly in the beds they rise from, the warmth of their physical presence in our lives departs instantly when they are taken from us.

When Jay is driving away from his family, on his way to eternity, “the auto bored through the center of the darkness of the universe; its poring shafts of light, like an insect’s antennae, feeling into distinctness every relevant small obstacle and ease of passage…” Particles of light are indeed minute and an insect’s antennae make sense of the smallest atoms. Even time can be thought of in very small units; seconds can be broken down into milliseconds and life can change in what seems to be an instant. During Jay’s accident, Agee writes, “At the most there must have been just the tiniest fraction of a second when he felt the jolt and the wheel was twisted out of his hand, and he was thrown forward.”

There is also energy, which can be measured and sometimes manifests itself visibly, such as lightning. It largely remains unseen to us, but rather is felt.  It can be said that energy is made up of atoms. Andrew reflects that when he saw Jay’s corpse he was aware of “a prodigious kind of energy in the air.”

The lightness of the atoms which make up our universe that Agee constantly brings to the forefront of our attention contrasts starkly with the feeling his characters have when faced with the tragedy. Over and over Agee writes of the weight his characters feel when they learn of Jay’s death.

Calvino states that there are two tendencies in literature: to “make language into a weightless element that hovers above things, like a field of magnetic impulses” or to “give language the weight, density and concreteness of things, bodies and sensations.” He explores the ways in which writers “remove weight from the structure of stories and from language” as he himself tried to do in his writing.

Agee seems to have been conscious of trying to lighten the language he uses throughout the novel, especially when dealing with the most difficult aspects of death. And in certain instances, the manner in which the language is used, leads to a lightening of the character’s thoughts. Just before Mary thinks Jay is in the house in the form of a ghost, she has an unbearable, what she calls “terrifying”, thought that the accident was due to Jay driving drunk. To counter this she begins thinking “with such exactness and with such love of her husband’s face, and of his voice, and of his hands, and of his way of smiling so warmly even though his eyes almost never lost their sadness, that she succeeded in driving the other thought from her mind.” The repetition of and of and with such provides an uplifting rhythm and the phrases begun in this manner carry us lightly through the time in which Mary is dealing with her “terrifying” thought.

Agee imparts beauty and lightness to many moments that would be considered heavy in subject from the scene in which Jay’s coffin leaves the house on its way to the cemetery to the moment when Rufus sees his father’s coffin for the first time: “Rufus had never known such stillness. Their little sounds, as they approached his father, vanished upon it like the infinitesimal whisperings of snow, falling on open water.”

As for the second sense of lightness, Agee uses the train of thought technique throughout his novel and with nearly all of his characters. There is an entire 28 page stream of consciousness section in the novel that reveals the thoughts of Rufus, modeled on Agee himself, and immediately follows the realization by Mary of the deep loss the family has suffered.  We have this heavy infusion of sorrow followed by the lightness of hearing how the boy tries to fit in with the neighborhood children. I believe that a train of thought narrative imparts lightness by forcing the reader to view the character with empathy rather than sympathy. It is a different feeling to view the world from another’s vantage point than it is to take on their burden.

Agee also takes us into Mary’s thinking process as she gets ready to attend her husband’s funeral. “I am carrying a heavier weight than I could have dreamed it possible for a human being to carry, yet I am living through it.” Agee begins this section drawing attention to the heaviness of sorrow. “She thought: this is simply what living is; I never realized before what it is. She thought: now I am more nearly a grown member of the human race… She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the strength that human beings have, to endure; she loved and revered all those who had ever suffered, even those who had failed to endure. She thought that she had never before had a chance to realize the might, grimness and tenderness of God.” Agee goes on with this train, beginning nearly every sentence with She thought, creating a soothing rhythm until Mary finds the courage to leave her bedroom and go to the funeral.

The blood of Medusa gives birth to the winged horse, Pegasus. Calvino writes, “the heaviness of stone is transformed into its opposite.” Agee creates at least two visual images of lightness that directly deal with his father’s death and both involve transformation. The first visual image is that of Jay’s ghost. While the family is discussing the recent news of Jay Follet’s fatal car accident, they begin to experience an unusual sensation. Mary thinks someone is in the house “… and whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness…” Mary claims that it is Jay and she begins speaking to him. She follows his ghost into her children’s bedroom, and “she could feel his presence as strongly throughout the room as if she had opened a furnace door.” Our presence is lightest when we have shed our physical bodies. Agee balances this thought of Jay as a spirit devoid of weight by following the ghostly experience with the discussion Andrew and Mary must have about the funeral arrangements. He writes, “Earth, stone, a coffin. The ugly craft of undertakers became real and tangible…”

The weight of the dead upon the living is carried through to the funeral scene, when the coffin must be put inside the funeral carriage. The movement continues when Agee creates a second visual image, that of a butterfly. Andrew tells Rufus:

Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow just like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the – coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe, like a heart…until it (the coffin) grated against the bottom like a – rowboat.  And just when it did the sun came out just dazzling bright and he flew up out of that – hole in the ground, straight up into the sky, so high I couldn’t see him any more.

The novel ends with this image of transformation forefront in the reader’s mind. Calvino points out in his lecture that Ovid shows lightness in his work by displaying the “continuity of the passage from one form to another” or that “everything can be transformed into something else.”

Is literature written only for the benefit of the reader or does a quest for lightness as a counterbalance to the unbearable weight of life drive an author to explore difficult autobiographical material in a certain way? And can we as writers, benefit from re-visiting our childhood traumas when we imbue them with lightness? Perseus indirectly gazes at his monster Medusa, conquers her yet keeps her with him; her blood births Pegasus and with his hoof, Pegasus creates the spring the Muses drink from. Calvino states, “Whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space.”

calvino_sixmemos0