Review of Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s new book, Difficult Women, is a deeply moving collection of short stories that are by turns tender, heartbreaking, and chilling. Gay’s characters, “difficult” thought they may be, are rendered with a profound sensitivity that affirms their humanity, alongside their wounds and flaws. Gay herself claimed an affinity for so-called “unlikeable characters” in a 2014 piece for Buzzfeed, describing them as “those who behave in socially unacceptable ways and say whatever is on their mind and do what they want…and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”[1]

Difficult Women is replete with such complicated characters: women and men who make selfish and self-destructive decisions, often in response to past trauma. These stories explore the ongoing effects of that trauma in language both lyrical and intimate. In “North Country,” an African-American woman who recently lost a baby during childbirth takes a job as a professor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where she finds love with a patient and plainspoken Yooper. The story details the many microaggressions she experiences in her mostly-white small town and conveys the way these actions weigh on her as she works through her grief. In “Break All The Way Down,” a woman whose child is killed by a motorist punishes herself by leaving her husband for an abusive lover. When the lover’s ex-girlfriend abandons her own baby in the woman’s arms, the woman is finally able to return to the house she shared with her husband to begin to come to terms with their loss.

Scenes of domestic abuse and sexual violence abound in these stories, but these moments are never sensationalized. In the case of “Break All The Way Down,” Gay depicts the desire for violence as yet another intrusion of past trauma on a character’s present life. When the protagonist finally returns to her husband, she begs him to “hold [her] to the ground;” though he readily accepts this request to temporarily take charge of her life, he patiently refuses to give the physical punishment she demands of him. Many of Gay’s characters who “survive” trauma never quite finish “surviving” it, and her plots often hinge on the ways characters navigate a hostile and dangerous world while nursing wounds that never fully heal.

While several of Gay’s protagonists invite punishment in heartbreaking ways, occasionally characters’ masochism brings them closer together. In the brash and energetic “Baby Arm,” Gay explores the strange and touching intimacy between two young women who co-host an all-female fight club, an environment where a cathartic sort of misogynistic self-abasement sits uneasily beside affirmations of female companionship.  In the middle of a melee, the narrator catches her friend’s eye across the room and sees her “[mouth] ‘I love you,’ and I smile even though it hurts and another set of knuckles connects with my face, running the moment—bitches ruin everything.”

Throughout this collection, Gay takes risks not only with content, but also with style and form. The title story is written as series of vignettes that present a satirical taxonomy of diverse types of “difficult women,” including “Loose Women,” “Frigid Women,” “Crazy Women,” “Mothers,” and “Dead Girls.” Though somewhat fragmentary, the story is nevertheless clever and engaging. “La Negra Blanca” productively inhabits an uncomfortable space between realism, satire, and the grotesque. In this story, a mixed-race woman who is putting herself through college by working as an exotic dancer is stalked by a wealthy white racist obsessed by hip-hop culture and the bodies of black women. This villain is no less terrifying for being cartoonish, and the story is by turns tender and deeply disturbing.

Several stories in the collection are explicitly surreal or speculative. “Water, All Its Weight” and “Requiem for a Glass Heart” allegorize depression and vulnerability via magical realist conceits. In the first, water seeps from the walls and ceilings around a recent divorcee, warping and staining any room she occupies; in the second, a “stone thrower” married to a glass woman handles her with care, but is reckless and carefree with his flesh-and-blood mistress. Though thought-provoking and beautifully-written, these speculative stories are ultimately  weaker than others in the collection. The strength of the stories in Difficult Women derives from Gay’s remarkable ability to tease out and explore the humanity of her unusual and complicated characters, and this deep empathy is inhibited in tales in which emotions are transformed and externalized through allegory.

Published in January, this collection takes on new resonance in the aftermath of an election in which a man who once bragged about sexual assault won the presidency over a female candidate he notoriously derided as a “nasty woman”—a bit of nomenclature that seems right at home in Gay’s titular taxonomy. The dystopian premise of Gay’s “Noble Things” is especially striking in this light. In a version of America divided against itself, in which southern states have seceded after a divisive election and a border fence has been built along the former Mason-Dixon line, Parker, the son of a Southern general, longs for unity. When his young son inspects a map of the Balkanized former United States and asks “Why aren’t these states together?”, Parker responds, “They used to be,” then continues: “they ought to be.” He explains that “once, there was an election and smallminded people couldn’t handle the man who won.”

The premise evokes the racist divisions of the Obama years, in which the election and re-election of our first black president led to petitions for secession across the nation, as well a “birther” challenges to the president’s citizenship championed by the very man who would eventually succeed him. But the longing for unity expressed in “Noble Things” takes on new implications in a post-45 America that has also heard half-serious calls for “Calexit” alongside jokes from anxious progressives about moving to Canada. Abandoning the American project may have consequences (both for those who leave, as in Gay’s story, and for those who are left behind), but the imperative to stick it out takes its own toll.  In “Noble Things,” the North remains prosperous after Southern secession, while Parker’s South suffers under the austerity brought about by its “smallminded” decision. In the closing paragraphs, Parker and his wife nostalgically recall the days when there was only “one nation, indivisible until it wasn’t” and marvel at “how quickly it all came apart.” Maintaining unity means striving to heal divisions, but may also mean persisting—as the characters of Difficult Women do—in a world that feels on the verge of breaking apart.

 

[1] Gay, Roxane. “Not Here to Make Friends: On the Importance of Unlikeable Female Protagonists.” Buzzfeed, 3 January 2014, https://www.buzzfeed.com/roxanegay/not-here-to-make-friends-unlikable?utm_term=.vhW0reyjd#.svKAD7VJm. Accessed 24 September 2017.

Review of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

A skinny volume with a bright red cover, Sonya Huber’s new essay collection is vibrant and loud from its first pages. The collection details the speaker’s diagnosis of and life with rheumatoid arthritis and chronic pain, and addresses both the physical realities and the metaphysical concept of pain. In the opening essay, “What Pain Wants,” the speaker says, “pain resents being personified or anthropomorphized.” Of course, this statement is itself a clever and strange contradiction, hinting that the speaker is comfortable living in complex, imagined spaces. The relationship between this speaker and her pain is complicated. In the same essay the speaker converses with pain: “Pain prefers any texture in which tiny seeds are embedded. Pain shakes its head—no, it says, that is you that likes that texture—and will have nothing to do with spheres.” The imagery here is dense and evocative (those spheres, yes, but also glowing skeletons, egg yolks, cough drop wrappers, lumpy casseroles, nautilus shells), drawing attention to sensation and the response of pain at each turn.

In the essay, “From Inside the Egg,” there are moments in which the effects pain has on the process of writing are visceral, visible. “There’s a theory about the ‘gates’ of pain in the brain that shuttle signals, / but I can’t look it up right now. / I can only do certain kinds of thinking in pain. I can think through a keyhole.” Here, the simple act of not returning to ‘look it up,’ to add in the missing research is political, is the point. The speaker challenges the supposed laziness of sick and disabled people, and allows the absence of information to speak louder than any citation. In a collection incorporating so much research, this moment where the source is purposefully omitted stands out. “From Inside the Egg” is also one of the collection’s more lyrical essays. There are line breaks and sections that are right-aligned. The use of the field of the page almost ‘crips’ it, forcing the reader to contend with the language Huber has broken.

One of the longer and more explanatory essays, “The Alphabet of Pain,” covers an exceptional amount of terrain. The essay uses the foundation of the speaker’s body to engage diverse subjects, including queerness (“Pain sex is queer sex”), labor (“As a woman worker, I have had to speak up to resist the expectation that I will be endlessly available”), and the flaws of the United States medical system (“…only four medical schools in the country have a required course on pain management”). Pain is made both specific and universal, and is called out as political, as when Huber writes, “if pain were not political, we wouldn’t have torture and jails, both of which manipulate and use the body’s instinctive aversion to pain to instill fear and compliance.” This essay comes early in the collection, and lays an explicit foundation for the vocabulary (or alphabet) of pain that later, more lyrical essays (including “From Inside the Egg”) build on.

The collection as a whole may center around pain, but an almost equally present thread is that of the digital space. In “The Status of Pain,” Huber writes of a friend who mentioned the prominence of pain on Huber’s Facebook page. Researching her own life and digital history, Huber finds that this prominence simply doesn’t exist; she’s only posted explicitly about pain three times in the year before the conversation. On the decision to be ‘out’ with her illness and pain, Huber then writes, “will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?” The title essay, “Pain Woman Takes Your Keys,” speaks to the narrowing effect of pain on Huber’s writing process, almost confessing that “some days in the last year, all I could make was a blog post.” But then, a shift: the blog post is reframed as powerful and significant, a piece that goes viral. The essay ends with the speaker speaking in the new voice of ‘Pain Woman,’ saying “You have more options than the writerly self you think you should be writing through.”

In “Peering into the Dark of the Self, with Selfie,” Huber examines her own “pain selfies…pale olive ovals,” and the motivations behind this documentation. Much has been written about selfies. (Are they narcissistic? Do only millennials take them? And really, are they causing the downfall of modern society?) Huber engages with this conversation, through the lens of disability. “I am seeking the best light and the best side of the woman who does not have to pretend she is not in pain,” she writes. For her, these selfies and their presence on her phone are meaningful, as is the phone itself, which we’re told in “The Alphabet of Pain” serves as a conduit between the speaker and a close friend with the same illness.

“Cupcakes,” a beautiful essay about motherhood and the cupcakes the speaker doesn’t bake for her son, includes Huber again mentioning digital spaces, this time writing “I have been trying to support my new reality by following more disability activists on Twitter.” In Pain Woman, the digital space is where the speaker connects with other disabled people in ways she can’t in her ‘real’ life. It’s a space for research, it’s a space for creativity, and it’s a space for disclosure, which leads to critique from the nondisabled people around her. Just as Huber makes pain explicitly political, so does she unpack the everyday conversations with nondisabled colleagues and friends. When a friend says Huber ‘looks good,’ or a colleague mentions disapprovingly that she’s been ‘very open’ about her disability on social media, these moments are not neutral. They are moments of small but noted violence. They are microaggressions.

In Huber’s collection, pain is ceaseless. It is present in every essay. Pain’s constancy is the point. Pain is relentless, but we’re also told (in the short essay “Prayer to Pain”) that it “is not other than you.” Pain and illness are reframed as strength, as the foundations of a prosperous and privileged community excluding the nondisabled. “We cannot be cured and are therefore invincible,” Huber writes in “Welcome to the Kingdom of the Sick.” This collection does important work to lead a nondisabled audience to the water of revelation, illuminating the barriers of systemic ableism and a health care system designed to lessen time and money spent on patients. Equally, this collection does not pander to ableism. It is not always for its nondisabled readers.

Pain Woman contains moments of fantastically dark humor (“I have tried and I enjoy yoga. But if you tell me to try yoga, then I will have to fight you,” in “The Alphabet of Pain”), moments of tightly-controlled rage (“Thank you for reminding me that the world of persona and star-creation is one that excludes bodies with illnesses,” from “Dear Noted Feminist Scholar”), and moments of straightforward declaration (“I refuse to be at war with myself,” in “From Inside the Egg”). In the age of Trump, an age when the Affordable Care Act (which the speaker mentions as the reason she can access healthcare) is threatened, this book is even more important, luminous, and necessary than it was when it was published a few months ago.

Review of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador by Horacio Castellanos Moya

In an unbroken monologue sustained for over 80 pages, Edgardo Vega, the narrator of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Revulsion skewers every aspect of Salvadoran culture he can summon—from pupusas and football to the archetypal Salvadoran character. Moya channels Austrian writer and luminous curmudgeon Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), whose own style eschewed both paragraph breaks and generosity of judgment, and whose work is more often compared to the symphonies of his contemporaries than their novels. Bernhard’s Austria is a failed state, both culturally and politically, a country whose citizens cannot collectively produce a soul worth admiring. Moya’s El Salvador is no different.

Bernhard’s narrators often live abroad, are forced to return to Austria and confront their hatred of their motherland. Moya’s narrator, too, lives abroad, in Montreal. “I left,” he says, “because I never accepted the macabre joke of being destined to be born in this place.” The joke, for the reader, lies in the breathlessness of his assault on El Salvador. Indeed, it is impossible not to laugh, if only from sheer exhaustion. His indictments compound and spin out into manifestations of their own bombast. Vega tells his interlocutor that El Salvador “is a hallucination…it only exists because of it crimes.” Crimes here are shorthand for the atrocities associated with the twelve-year Salvadoran civil war. Because of these crimes, and because of the country, this slim book also exists.

Edgardo Vega lives the life of a grateful expatriate. An art history professor at McGill University, his Canadian passport immunizes him from the indignities visited on émigré Salvadorans. “Even so,” Vega says, “I came because my mother died, Moya, the death of my mother is the only reason I felt obliged to return to this filthy pit.”

Where the reader might expect an epigraph, Moya provides a disclaimer: “Warning: Edgardo Vega, the central character of this report, exists. He lives in Montreal under another name that’s not Thomas Bernhard. He surely relayed his opinions more emphatically and with more carnage than this text contains. I’ve softened perspectives that may have offended certain readers.” First published in 1997 as El asco, readers were indeed offended by its attack on Salvadoran culture and politics. Moya received death threats after the book’s release and friends urged him to remain abroad. In the afterword, he explains that his little book was conceived only as an exercise in style, a game of mimicry. He adds, “El Salvador isn’t Austria. It is a country where, in 1975, its own leftist comrades assassinated the country’s most important poet, Roque Dalton, after accusing him of being a CIA agent. I thought it would be better to go into exile than play the martyr.”

For those, Salvadoran or not, inclined to take offense, there is no dearth of material in Revulsion to do the job. Edgardo Vega’s irascibility is tireless—given a willing listener, he will bemoan “the idiocy of being Salvadoran” eternally. In the Afterword, Moya seems less concerned than amused over his countrymen’s offense. To contextualize Vega’s revulsion further, or attempt to mitigate its effects, would be like explaining a punchline, something from which Moya gracefully refrains.

The author is himself a character, present only as Vega’s silent companion. Both reporter and consummate listener, Moya sits with Vega between the hours of five and seven, in the only bar in San Salvador that Vega can tolerate—the bartender pours heavy drinks and allows Vega to choose the music. “This evening,” Vega tells Moya, “I want to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in B-flat Minor, which is why I brought my own CD with this stupendous concerto for piano and orchestra, which is why I came prepared with my favorite Tchaikovsky.” This moment depicts Vega at his least vociferous, subdued before plunging into another diatribe.

Vega is foremost paranoid. Suspicious and terrified of his countrymen, he sees everywhere “guys who were no doubt torturers and participated in massacres during the civil war.” Everyone is guilty but those who fled; namely, Vega. When Vega is generous, he’ll add Moya to his list of nonparticipants. Moya is too busy, he says, writing “famished little stories about sex and violence” to actually engage in it.

Vega’s diatribe belies his fear that he, too, despite his Canadian passport, despite his hatred of violence, is guilty of the same crimes. In order to cancel his own guilt, everyone else must be made culpable. Every bus driver, football player, and bartender is, to Vega, complicit in the most horrible war crimes. He doesn’t stop, though, with accusing citizens of El Salvador. It is their culture, too, their dietary habits, their prejudices, and their leisure activities that are responsible for the war’s atrocities. This unsparingness bleeds into hyperbole and comedy. Moya’s Vega is certainly funny, though because of the form of Revulsion, his humor is best appraised in its accumulation. It’s impossible not to laugh when everything is guilty.

The appearance of Vega’s brother, Ivo, signals the arrival of a plot to support further diatribe. Vega says of his brother, “[W]e don’t hate each other, we’re simply two planets on distinct orbits, the only thing that brought us together is the task of having inherited my mother’s house in Miramonte.” Ivo owns a chain of locksmith shops across San Salvador. An arriviste with aspirations beyond his social station, Ivo’s tastes are decidedly lowbrow. He loves football and binge drinking. He “has three televisions in his house,” says Vega, “you wouldn’t believe it, three televisions they turn on at the same time to different channels, a true hell this place is.” Here, there is a barely perceptible increase in generosity never present in Bernhard’s work, as if Vega, or Moya, is uncomfortable directing his rage at individuals.

Diatribes erect a formidable edifice in Moya’s book, but their indictments are allowed to stand unsupported. San Salvador is a stupid city. Why? Because its people are stupid. Why? Vega answers that question in a number of ways, and few of his answers are sufficient. San Salvador, he writes, is “a culture with the memory of a gadfly, crashing every two seconds against the same window glass because after two seconds it’s already forgotten that the glass existed.” Because the form of the monologue lends itself more easily to exposition than scene, Vega conveys his observations in lists, similes, and hyperbole. Anecdotes would better serve a story, but Revulsion is not a conventional story.

In the afterword, Moya notes that “the wife of a writer friend threw her copy [of Revulsion] into the street, out of her bathroom window, indignant, thanks to Edgardo Vegas’s barbaric talk about pupusas, the national dish of El Salvador.” (Vega claims that the popularity of pupusas can only be explained by “hunger and ignorance.”) Despite death threats and book burnings, Revulsion continues each year to expand its Spanish publication. Moya writes that strangers beg him to write a Revulsion for Mexico, for Guatemala, for Costa Rica, a book “that would critically demolish their country’s cultures,” that would plainly articulate their revulsions for them.

In 2016, New Directions published the book in English, as translated by Lee Klein. Nearly ten years after its initial publication, Revulsion is as timely as ever, and not only for El Salvador, Guatemala, or Costa Rica. As political backlash threatens to undo years of progressive advancement in the United States with a public resurgence of white supremacy and xenophobia, Vega’s type of paranoia is all too relevant.

Review of Phrasis by Wendy Xu

 

The poems in Wendy Xu’s new collection, Phrasis, are kaleidoscopic, forged of fragments.  As the title describes, these are poems of phrasis, a portmanteau of phrases and phasis—or phase. Linguistic and episodic moments of the speaker’s life are the primary building blocks in this collection, and from Xu’s combinations, the reader observes a world almost as if looking through a shattered, but still whole, window.  As the speaker of the titular poem states of “preemptive necessity,” these poems are made of “phrase[s] I’d like to unframe.” To do so, Xu contorts common phrases, moving them away from their conventions: “Happy birth upon a time, Nation!” she writes in “Task Force,” or, “in this trying, these times,” she reorders in “Phrasis.” These, however, are not syntactic games. The twisting in Phrasis is more violent, perhaps akin to “the war” of Xu’s opening poem “Recovery,” that is “a syntatactical construction pointing back to itself.”

And it is true, one feels a linguistic war in these poems. Xu routinely employs atypical sentence structures; elides subjects, verbs, objects; and uses comparative forms of adjectives when the comparison seems to be absent (for example: “I appear myself in public brimming nearer the bronze fountain” from “Music Box”).  However, in “Poem for our Fathers,” Xu concludes, “surely a face formed there / purely by will” and suddenly, it seems that instead of by violence, these poems are constructed by an act of will. Though an act of will requires determination and force, and can appear violent for those reasons, the goal of these poems is not to do damage, but to construct—as does “a face formed there”—a self.  Through language, as Xu states in “The Window Rehearses,” she is “driving both / hands into the space I / am allowed.”

In a 21st-century United States marred by war, oppression, commerce, inequality, capitalism, greed, love, lust, consumption, and technology “the space I am allowed” can be very small. To unframe the phrases and phases that appear to define one’s self, to reapportion them towards one’s own ends, is then an act of reclamation. Xu writes in “Theme Song”

 

mucking poorly

the clean slate, it was only how we

 

say tragic.

 

Tragedy is only tragedy because we say it is tragedy. Xu resists group-defined truths, and even resists the group of “we,” writing in “Phrasis,” “I / am telling you I speak from the representative we but / do not fill me in.” The individuality of the speaker continuously revolts against being defined by mere kinship to others. For this reason, relationships are hardly places of stability, and overflowing New York City provides an oppressive background, where only occasionally does the speaker experience such luxuries as quietly watching a boat come into harbor. One of the greatest tragedies in Phrasis is, on the train in “Five Year Plan,” to “worry a stranger’s / jutted hip and miss / that country view.” In the same poem, Xu also writes, “Out all day I wish more bars / and restaurants unto nobody.” Urbanity, and its twin, technology, strangle the mind. In “Some People,” Xu writes “Something I thought / today was system error” and in “Phrasis”—of herself? of a beloved?—“After a particularly long period of hermitage / you reek again of industry.”

In “Diagonal Sun,” the speaker simply exclaims, “I wanted so bad all that rustic shit.” But when, in “The Forecast,” “leafy nouns” appear, something like solace might emerge from language. The poems of Phrasis are filled with references to the mechanics of poetry: lines, white space, verbs, nouns. They are works of determination to write the self into a fragmented world. Not to defragment it, but rather, as Xu writes in “Phrasis:” to “refer… to the self in thirds, he there of the bent / frame, she shaded in multiplicities of orange, red,” because in divvied-up people, sewn together by color and frames, is reality.

Review of I Am the Beggar of the World by Eliza Griswold

How to endure the unendurable? Perhaps it comes down to wit—keen intelligence cutting to the heart of things. Truth-telling wit may bestow power—however briefly—to the powerless. Think of the rawest blues song, the bawdiest limerick, Shakespeare’s Fool, the anthropomorphic mouse in the old poster, middle finger raised at the bomb looming over his head.

With the help of native speakers of Pashtun, and Afghan scholars of the tradition, Eliza Griswold has compiled and translated a book of landays — a two-line form of folk poetry perhaps five thousand years old — from Afghanistan. Her piercing, matter-of-fact commentary on the poems and their historical and cultural contexts, coupled with Sean Murphy’s stark and beautiful photojournalism, adds a new chapter to the ancient story of human indomitability.

Landays are typically sung, and in all but rare cases sung by women without prompting or occasion. Traditionally, they embody sexual longing or delight, and some of the most affecting of Griswold’s collection do so without explicit acknowledgement of war or oppression, mention of which would undercut the ironic humor of the landays. “Your eyes aren’t eyes,” begins one, setting up the immediate payoff: “They’re bees.” The second line concludes, “I can find no cure for their sting.”

In her commentary, Griswold situates the landay within a rigidly patriarchal culture. In this context, the landay is inherently subversive—dangerous and hidden in plain sight, yet elusive. Consider the poem that opens the book’s introduction:

I call. You’re stone.


One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.


A dozen one-syllable words, three full stops. By means of strong stresses (“call” and “stone”), the first line makes us feel the power of the poet’s need and her lover’s implacable response. The second line plays on “look” and “find,” embodying a hope whose futility the speaker can’t quite admit. Likewise, the permanence of “stone” rhymes with the finality of “gone.” “One day” issues a threat the speaker of the poem wills herself to carry out, but not yet.

A young woman who “called herself Rahila Muska” phoned this landay to an Afghan radio program. Unlike most of the “twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Griswold explains, Muska had some formal schooling, but “poetry, which she learned from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education at home.” Because in Afghan culture “women singers are seen as prostitutes,” they sing in secret. After finding out Muska wrote poems, her brothers beat her. In protest, she committed suicide by self-immolation.

I Am the Beggar of the World documents the private, anonymous wars these singers wage, mirroring the wars that have ravaged Afghanistan for generations. In one of many stunning juxtapositions, a photograph by Sean Murphy shows five fighters on a barren piece of land, a truck in the near background, mountains in the distance. Four of the men stand, one bending over the fifth, who kneels on the ground, an automatic rifle to his right. Is the bending man helping the kneeling one shed his coat? Starting to treat a wound? Tying him up? Are they allies, or enemies?

The landay on the facing page reads:

In Policharki Prison, I’ve nothing of my own


except my heart’s heart lives in its walls of stone.

The photograph and landay play with lethal uncertainty and duality. The singer herself is not held in Kabul’s infamous Russian-built prison. She is alone with absence: her heart’s heart, her beloved, lives in the prison, and also within the “walls of stone” themselves, his being infusing stone. Because the singer can’t be sure her beloved is alive or dead, the poem supports and rewards multiple readings.

Wit infuses even the bleakest landays. For instance, confronted with “My lover is fair as an American soldier can be,” we notice the ambiguity of “fair”: is he just? Does he have a light complexion? The first line of landay plays on the variations and limits of American fairness, and the second line provides an unambiguous reading: “To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.” The singer is revealed as a voice from the grave and the lover, fair or not, soldier or not, her killer.

In her selection of these landays, Griswold works to explode the notion of Afghan female helplessness. These tough-minded, heartbroken, defiantly funny poems reject tail-swallowing irony and narcissism characteristic of some contemporary verse. Like any living tradition, the landay is simultaneously timeless and of-the-moment. It does what all poetry attempts to do: sing what’s most fundamental in human existence.

 

The Light Changes in Every Moment: A Conversation with Carl Phillips

Poetry Editors Jacob Bauer and Daniel T. O’Brien discuss poetic pauses, “musculature,” risk-taking, and restlessness with Carl Phillips. 

JB: I was hoping we might talk about the different kinds of pauses you employ in your poetry—obviously the comma, the em-dash, the ellipses—but also the line break, and how you see those functioning differently. In particular, I’m thinking about the line break—sometimes your punctuation aligns with the line breaks, and sometimes your line breaks bisect the sentence. What do you see the role of those different pauses being?

CP: I guess it’s not something I’ve consciously thought a lot about. Earlier, I spoke about muscularity, and I think of poems as being very physical experiences as opposed to objects. It’s almost like the difference between photography and videography—one seems a more static image, but you get three-dimensionality. In videography everything is moving. I feel as if these pauses—different kinds of pauses and line breaks—start to flesh out a more honest body of the poem. You get to see it almost in motion. It’s why a lot of poems sort of disappoint me. I feel as though they’re just standing there, and they look kind of beautiful, but I want to see the light changing as the body turns and catches different elements of it. I want to see the parts that are embarrassing or surprising that we don’t expect beyond the initial surface beauty. If you can think of a poem that way, maybe the different kinds of pauses and lineation create that experience.

DTO: I think that’s so interesting, particularly because it reminds me of a line of yours that I love, and it almost sounds like what you’re saying: “It’s as if/a side of me that he’d forgotten had forced into the light,/briefly, a side of him that I’d never seen before/and now I’ve seen it.” I guess if reading the poem is like watching the light changing—and you want to see it, and you can’t forget it—that’s how a poem really sticks with you. It’s the muscles and the body, the poem, and the person.

CP: Yeah, I think there is a real similarity to it. Often when I think of it that way, or I feel as if when I tell people that, they think of it as something sexual. But I think it’s more physical, or bodily.

DTO: Speaking to that, I’d like to talk about how you kind of build your poems. I’m thinking about the poem “Black Swan on Water, in a Little Rain,” specifically the way it builds momentum, which to my mind, happens in the manner we’re discussing. This poem is a single sentence, and last night you read a poem of Brigit Kelly’s, before which you said you think it is admirable to write a poem that is a single sentence. I’m curious if you’ll expand on that.

Review of One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist by Dustin M. Hoffman

Ernest Hemingway claimed that all true and good books share one common trait: “[A]fter you’ve read one of them you will feel that all that happened, happened to you and it belongs to you forever: the happiness and unhappiness, the good and evil, ecstasy and sorrow, the food, wine, beds, people and weather.” In his first book, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, Dustin M. Hoffman adds another category to Hemingway’s list of “true” experiences: hard work. His painters (“Sawdust and Glue”), construction workers (“One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist”), salesmen (“Pushing the Knives,” “Everything a Snake Needs”), refinery workers (“The Fire Chasers”), ice-cream truck vendors (“Ice Cream Dream”), and poor folk (“Can Picking”) navigate the mundane realities of laborious lives while dealing with their own tragedies and insecurities. This is a world where fathers take their sons to street fights, as in “Sawdust and Glue.” It is a world where, in “Subdivision Accidents,” painters consider dousing themselves in turpentine to support their families with worker’s compensation.

But these characters are more than representation of labor ground down by a capitalist economic system. Hoffman avoids the pitfall of Socialist Realism, in which the working-class are idealized and the narrative often obviously didactic. As the narrator of “Can Picking” proclaims, revolutions don’t make much of a difference: “Nothing changes for good.” Hoffman’s men—and they are almost all men—struggle to survive lives of endless and honest work without reprieve, and it is in this work that Hoffman foregrounds his exploration of larger concerns. Within this collection, Hoffman’s characters experience loss and regret, suffer crises of identity and masculinity, and learn to navigate modernity. They are men who have failed as fathers and sons, friends and lovers, men who flee from the past even as the past catches up.

These men have also triumphed over the quotidian and banal, decoding simple yet profound truths about existing in a gendered space. “Everyone pretends they’re bigger than they are,” Smiley observes in “Sawdust and Glue,” “and they end up looking smaller, buried in their too-large shirts.” Or as the narrator in “Ice Cream Dream” discovers, one finds freedom on the path “that didn’t need a past, only a will to drive down any new road.” With delicacy and skill, Hoffman delivers a profound and sympathetic vision of American workingmen learning to cope.

In many ways, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist feels like an intimate book because it deals most prominently with patrimony and bloodline. Many of Hoffman’s most touching stories consider the complex and evolving roles of fathers and sons. In “Fire Chasers,” a father tries to relate to his son by taking him to watch local fires against the backdrop of a failing refinery and loss of employment, but his attempts only seem to result in the emasculation of a son he can’t understand. “Sawdust and Glue” features a father whose only remedy for the past is to give his meth-addled convict son a painting job and act as second when his son fights the biggest man on the job. “Ice Cream Dream” features a father-narrator who hates kids working as an ice-cream-truck driver to provide for his estranged children. In these stories, Hoffman considers the uniquely challenging dynamics of the father-child relationship. One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist considers the question of what makes a father good or bad in a world where happiness, and even survival, is not guaranteed.

Most stories in this collection are narrated in the first person, placing the reader squarely within the consciousness of Hoffman’s workingmen. Hoffman reconciles often-conflicting impulses of literary style and realistic content, infusing his characters’ perspectives with gritty realism and transcendent epiphany. In “We Ride Back,” a group of unemployed laborers steal tools from half-finished suburbs in the hopes of pawning them for a few bucks. The unnamed narrator describes the search for tools in language that is simple yet evocative:

We hunt closets. We hunt basements. We hunt cabinets and garages and behind the furnace. We hunt alone, but there’s Lizzy’s flashlight sparking up the basement window next door, or maybe that’s Cal’s house. Neighbors of the absent. Not so much alone as apart. Not so much apart as departmentalized, delegated, defined by what we don’t do anymore, defined by what we find. And we find lots. (86)

These thieves are victims of the economy, the Recession, the loss of jobs and identities. Stealing is a way to fight back, to take revenge, to find an identity, even as an outlaw. In passages such as these, Hoffman inhabits the consciousness of everyday people, expertly and subtly infusing their observations with broader truths.

One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist offers fiction as truth. Here, Hoffman proposes a philosophy of work and identity that transcends the realities of the work-a-day world without crossing into the unbelievable, thus grounding his “working” philosophy in the pragmatic reality of daily life and its ordinary profundities.

Review of The Red Parts By Maggie Nelson

In 1969, Jane Mixer, a University of Michigan law student, was found dead: shot twice through the head, strangled, and abandoned in a cemetery. Jane was thought to be one of a series of young women murdered by a man known as the Ypsilanti Ripper, who was caught and sentenced to life in prison in 1970. However, in 2005, Jane’s family received a call from a police detective, explaining that Jane had not, in fact, been murdered by the Ypsilanti Ripper, but by another man. The detective had spent the past five years revisiting Jane’s case, and now felt that there was “every reason to believe this case is moving swiftly toward a successful conclusion.”

The Red Parts is an attempt by Maggie Nelson, Jane’s niece, to examine and understand the feeling of trading one tragedy for another, and of living with the loss of someone she never had the chance to meet. This mulling-over includes chapters of Nelson’s own life—her own “red parts”—that raise questions about inherited trauma, about unhappiness, about conflation of experience. Nelson remains preoccupied with the notion that she is not the best person to be chronicling Jane’s story—that she may not, in fact, have the right to do so— even though this is the second time she has undertaken such a chronicling.

In 2005, when the police detective contacted her family, Nelson was on the cusp of publishing a poetry collection, Jane: A Murder, a lyric response to the lingering questions surrounding her aunt’s death. “Jane is about identification, not fusion,” Nelson explains, continuing, “In the book, I don’t try to speak for her, but rather to let her speak for herself, through her journal entries.” In The Red Parts, which followed in 2007, Nelson’s voice and perspective take center stage. This new edition, a reissue from Graywolf Press, is a return to the pressing question of how to relate a true story that comes with a new preface, which asks, “What effect do years, even decades, have on a piece of writing that self-consciously attests to the turbulent, raw, and rushed circumstances of its composition and publication?”

Summer Reading: Jackie Hedeman

Reviews & Interviews Editor Jackie Hedeman on reading (so, so many) books outside this summer.

My approach to summer reading is best described as Catholic Guilt meets All You Can Eat Buffet. I attempt to make up for the disappointing trickle of mid-semester pleasure reading by going on a rampage. Do I distinguish between fried chicken, broccoli, and chocolate-dipped strawberries? Only in terms of whether they fit on my plate, by which I mean: in my tote bag for a walk, in my carryon for a flight, on my Kindle as one of the ten checkouts permitted by the Columbus Public Library. So I’ve been reading YA. Middle-grade. Essays. Comics. Memoir. Plays. Excruciatingly realist fiction. Horror.
Here are the books I’ve read so far this summer:

The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Hot l Baltimore by Lanford Wilson
George by Alex Gin
The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles Blow
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Carry On by Rainbow Rowel
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell
The Quick by Lauren Owen
A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood
Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist
The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

I read nearly every book outside. Reading outside is what elevates summer reading from summer pleasure to summer joy. (In my case, this involves nail polish-stripping sunscreen and a mental list of shady benches.) I read outside in Columbus: on the OSU oval, in tiny Miller Park in Upper Arlington, at outdoor tables at Stauf’s and Starbucks, in the arboretum. I also read outside in Paris: in the Jardin des Tuileries, in the Place des Vosges, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, in the Luxembourg Gardens, at Versailles, and in the Jardin du Palais Royal, which happens to be my favorite place on earth.

Summer Reading: A.E. Talbot

Associate Poetry Editor A.E. Talbot on the power of poetry for all ages and surprising word origin stories!

This summer, I’ve been working at Thurber House, a museum and creative writing education center which runs week-long writing camps for kids. Though one camper was convinced that a guest (the old woman who swallowed a fly) was NOT me in a costume, these are smart, smart kids. One obvious reason I love the MFA is that I get to work with others who are passionate about writing, and it was gratifying to watch second and third graders make those connections at their own level. Phone numbers were exchanged. Playdates were set. Who says writing is always solitary?

That’s all to say that part of my summer has been focused on writing prompts for eight- and nine-year-olds. And you know what? When I needed example poems, it was surprisingly fun to do the exercise myself. I’m not saying that I’ll be hitting the acrostics next time I get writer’s block, but it forced me to write in a direction that I normally would not, such as a poem with elaborate metaphors in every line. It’s out of control, but not in the worst way, and I got ideas from that exercise that might ferment into another poem.

Summer Reading: Jess Rafalko

Associate Fiction Editor Jess Rafalko talks dysfunctional family novels, Sideshow Bob, and the coming apocalypse.

 

This summer, I am trying to write a novel about a contemporary American family—and, consequently, have forbidden myself from reading any novels about contemporary American families. The Corrections has gone ignored on my bookcase for the past four summers like a dense and boorish dinner guest no one really wants to talk to, and there shall it remain: if I have chosen to work in one of the most formulaic subgenres of literary fiction, The Big Dysfunctional Family Novel, then I must do my best to ignore the extant narratives in that oft-derided, occasionally-distinguished milieu.    

I’ve even made a halfhearted gesture to avoid family-centered TV shows (and, let’s be real: I have spent far more time this summer watching TV than reading fiction), instead relying on grim procedurals like Law & Order: SVU and sexy procedurals like Castle and Grey’s Anatomy. I have not been able to give up The Simpsons, though; two nights ago I had an episode on as I was writing. To be fair, it was “Cape Feare,” the one featuring Sideshow Bob’s infamous encounter with a series of ill-placed rakes: an apt metaphor for my writing process, on most days.

Summer Reading: Cady Vishniac

Note from the editors: We’re kicking off our Summer Reading series! In this series, Journal editors talk about what they’re reading / watching / listening to / studying this summer. Read for recommendations, insight into our editorial staff, and a general good time. Our first post is from Cady Vishniac, an incoming Associate Fiction Editor. 

 

Right now, I’m allowing myself two novels, Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac and Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, as well as several thick academic texts about Jewish folklore. Later on this summer, I’m learning Yiddish at the six-week Uriel Weinreich Summer Program in New York, and I’m workshopping novel chapters with a classmate. I’m preparing two or three stories for my upcoming semester, fighting about politics on the internet, writing a new group of poems and a couple flash pieces, submitting like there’s no tomorrow, visiting family, training to be a composition instructor, gardening, attending the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, and making Lego castles with my daughter, all in no particular order.

Still, the bulk of my alone time is actually focused on other writers’ unpublished fiction, their submissions to the lit mags for which I screen or their workshop stories. Since my last class of the semester I’ve I polished off the hundred-plus fiction submissions we received at Reservoir, where I am the fiction editor, as well as the hundred-fifty or so I was assigned at Raleigh Review, where total fiction subs were closer to three hundred-fifty. I’ve been working on copy edits with the four authors chosen at Raleigh Review and will soon start revisions, copy edits, and proofreading at Reservoir. I’m also due to get a large batch of fiction subs from The Journal any day now.

Review of Ciao, Suerte by Annie McGreevy

Near the end of Annie McGreevy’s debut novella, Ciao, Suerte, a young woman named Inés reflects on the ways her life has changed since meeting her boyfriend, Miguel. They are two twenty-somethings living in Madrid—she a local, he a wealthy émigré from Patagonia—and with their union Inés finds that “the fear of nothing, the fear of falling and falling and never hitting the ground…[has] lessened.” However, any gratefulness Inés feels is tempered by disdain, as Miguel’s indifference forces her to admit her own vulnerability: “she is deeply, viscerally offended that he doesn’t feel it too,” this lessening of fear.

Ciao, Suerte concerns itself with our persistence in policing the feelings of those we love. Critics have noted the novella’s political preoccupations—it concerns the fallout of the real-life military usurpation of Argentina’s government in the late 1970s, the consequences of which reverberate to the narrative’s present-day of 2003—but the story is arguably only nominally about national politics: the sundry sins of Argentina catalyze, but do not necessarily overshadow, the various emotional exploitations perpetrated by the main characters.

These characters revolve around Miguel, and project their deepest longings and aspirations onto him. Adopted by a prominent Patagonian businessman and his wife, Miguel is the biological son of two members of the Montoneros, a group that opposed the Argentinian military’s rise to power. His birth parents, Alejandro and Sabine, were captured and murdered by the government—and Alejandro himself is the son of two wealthy Argentinians, Beatriz and Giancarlo. Their marriage dissolves in the opening pages of the novella as a result of Beatriz’s concomitant grief at the loss of her son and obsession over finding the grandchild her husband “campaign[s] to try to convince her…was never born.”

Here we get our first inkling of what this story is really about, as Giancarlo laments that “he had not understood how to save [Beatriz]” in the wake of the loss of their son. Giancarlo represents another element of love, the ways in which we are bound—by ideology, by affinity, by genetics—to other people, and the ways in which we fail to meet the expectations they place upon us.

Ciao, Suerte is largely about thwarting expectations—amongst the characters themselves, and for us as readers. The novella’s centerpiece is the reunion of Beatriz and Miguel; she has found him through Argentina’s Grandparents Index, a DNA database to which Miguel had unknowingly given a sample. In the hands of a writer less subtle than McGreevy, more concerned with the sensational or sentimental, Miguel would be flabbergasted at the appearance of his heretofore unheard-of grandmother, but excited to learn more about his biological parents—and Beatriz would be ecstatic at the opportunity to know the young man who shares so much in common with her beloved son.

Such a pat conclusion to Beatriz’s journey would be impossible: her own feelings for Alejandro, let alone his progeny, are deeply conflicted. In some ways, she blames her son for his own death; she rues the “overconfident smile…Alejandro wore on his face until the day he was killed, probably” and sees Miguel as “a posh, futuristic version of Alejandro” who is somehow “more relaxed.” This relaxation insults Beatriz, who discerns in her grandson an undeniable phoniness:

“He’s got the manners of rich kids. The manners she had when she was a rich kid. Polite, but with a mechanical sincerity. Does he use this shit on other people? Does he think he’s a European? Does it work? It must.”

For Beatriz, who has spent over twenty years surveying “[c]hilden on the street in Rosario with Alejandro’s white skin and floppy hair” in the hopes that one of them “might be [her] grandchild,” her disappointment with Miguel is not only unexpected, or heartbreaking—but also a comment on the unrealistic expectations she has placed on this encounter, and this young man, in the first place. Over a strained lunch in Madrid, Beatriz must contain her impulse “to reach out and bring [Miguel] to her, hug him until he sees what she sees, knows what she knows;” in the face of such unguarded, and fundamentally selfish, love, can we really blame Miguel for his aloof detachment?

Beatriz’s desire to shape Miguel to her own specifications is reflected in Inés, who understands upon watching Miguel flirt with an old romantic fling that “she’s falling in love with him…because she has never before had this intense desire to erase a man’s past.” Throughout the novella, parallels between Inés and Beatriz abound. A native of Madrid, Inés must contend with “run[ning] into some member of her extended family on the street or the metro” and “look[ing] across the dinner table at her brother and…see[ing] her own face.” Compare this with Beatriz’s compulsive need to scour the faces of Argentinian children in the hopes of seeing Alejandro’s reflected back at her, a “relentlessness” for which Beatriz chides herself near the novella’s end: Inés’s close family ties are a source both of comfort and that “extreme fear” she expects Miguel’s presence in her life to ameliorate.

And what of Miguel? As Giancarlo reflects on his fatherly feelings for Alejandro, he expresses frustration at being “hopelessly in unrequited love with a careless person.” It is this carelessness that binds Miguel to his biological father, but while Alejandro channeled his energies into political activism, Miguel spends a year futzing around Europe before starting law school. Alejandro dies for a cause that Miguel dismisses to Beatriz, claiming the Montoneros “talked too much.” Miguel proves himself shallow, unambitious, and relatively unremarkable: the antithesis of what a reader might expect of the man upon whom Beatriz and Inés have hitched so many hopes and dreams.

McGreevy rounds out Ciao, Suerte’s collection of characters with someone else who has devoted himself to a callous entity: Eduardo, a senile former military officer currently languishing in an Argentinian retirement community. Eduardo—the man directly responsible for the dirty adoption that stripped Miguel from his family—emerges as one of the novella’s most sympathetic characters. At turns hilariously contemptible and oddly humane, Eduardo is a stand-in for military corruption and the feebleness of aging, outmoded politics: he spends his days reflecting on women like Sabine, imprisoned by the military complex for treason, women who “had done something awful against the state, though now Eduardo can’t remember what it was.”

If the sections told from Eduardo’s point of view lend the story its highest moments of satire, they also present a twisted commentary on the events unfolding between Beatriz, Miguel, and Inés in Madrid. In imagining the successful lives of the children whose adoptions he facilitated, Eduardo reflects that “[p]eople were so amazing, and there were a million different ways to love them, even the ones you didn’t know.” This belief is shared with Beatriz, who spends decades loving an imagined grandchild only to find herself disappointed in the real-life Miguel.  Eduardo also deems the female rebels “nice girls who just got caught up with the wrong men”—a designation that might as easily apply to Inés in her single-minded pursuit of Miguel.

Although Eduardo’s comment is sexist, stripping these women of their ideological agency in perceiving them as victims of deceptive and politically-motivated men, in many ways Inés is indeed subject to Miguel’s whims. She longs to be invited back to Patagonia with him when he leaves Europe, hoping for “[a] thing that will tie him to her irrevocably.” While Inés serves doubly as a mirror of Beatriz’s insecurities and a foil for her familial isolation, at times the character feels more like a plot device than a fully-realized human being.

Inés is one of roughly six characters whose thoughts thread through Ciao, Suerte, and the novella ends with her. However, it begins with Beatriz, the undeniable heart of the story, who

“gets into bed and doesn’t get out for over a week except to use the bathroom. The only other time she was still for so long was when she’d had her wisdom teeth removed as a teenager and her father said, Think of it like four separate gunshot wounds inside your mouth. That’s what you’re recovering from….This is the same, Beatriz thinks now, thirty-five years later—it’s like bleeding inside my own head. But this will never end.”

Ciao, Suerte is primarily a narrative of grief, most potently the grief of a mother who has lost a child. Such losses are the basis of any number of literary works—that a child’s death forever alters the fabric of his or her parents’ lives is by now accepted truth—and so it is particularly noteworthy when a writer finds a fresh way to describe the mental and physical particularities of a familiar tragedy. McGreevy does her best work, and wields her novella’s true emotional power, when she uncovers these new ways of telling us truths about love and loss that we already know, but have failed so far to explain.

 

Review of Fox Tooth Heart: Stories by John McManus

John McManus’s third story collection, Fox Tooth Heart, features surreal conceits very much at home in the contemporary short story—snotty, preteen clones of Thomas Jefferson mocking each other over video chat, a psychic elephant laying a major guilt trip on a dissipated rocker. It’s delightful, but the most meaningful skewing of reality in the collection is subtle and pervasive—a slip in the barrier between thoughts, fears, and the world. Again and again in these nine stories, a fantasy or fear becomes manifest seemingly as a result of the thought itself. Abused teenage girls fantasize about murdering their rapists but then undertake a multi-state bloodbath in “Betsy from Pike.” A teenage boy worries he may have fatally injured a neighbor until he “heard on the TV news that, in a freak accident, a local boy had suffered testicular trauma, gone into shock, and passed away.” Even when reality holds, paranoia threatens to consume these characters. In McManus’s stories, the slipperiness of thoughts and action is a source of both horror and a complicated power.

Early in the collection’s third story, “Bugaboo,” a man is invited into the lair of a stranger who shares his name. The “other Max” shows the narrator an array of “a guy who looked like a skillet from overhead, his arm stretching out from a circle of black hair.” The narrator is watching his own image, from when he considered suicide an hour earlier. This moment of alienation from self and fascination with that alienated self, captured in a matter-of-fact but precise image, is exemplary of the interrogation of selfhood McManus works through these tense stories. The story of Max the narrator loops back in time, coils around this moment before the surveillance array, and spirals forward again in a loop too complicated to explain here. By the end of the story, Max seems both paranoid and trapped in a world of repeating signs. It’s among the strongest stories in the collection, in large part due to the relentlessness with which McManus leans into this paranoia.

While bodily grotesquery abounds in these stories, (a severed tendon paralyzes a child’s finger, and the “limp finger bounce[s] with every bump” in “Cult Heroes”), it’s not the violence, but the density of doppelgangers that seem to suggest McManus’s engagement with the gothic in the collection. One of the sex offenders in “The Gnat Line” assumes the stories of his neighbors’ crimes at therapy groups. In “Gainliness,” a boy assumes the name of his mother’s friend, dead from AIDS, to flirt with one of his twin neighbors, who attract and repel him with their own names—Albert and Sievert—and the weight gain and insanity that they seem to trade off. “That was when a wild idea grew in Victor. ‘You don’t even have a twin,’ he said. ‘You and Sievert are the same.’ Sievert had liked Victor because Sievert was Albert.” It’s a moment that seems to capture some of the preoccupations of the collections—delusion that is indistinguishable from insight, identity as a code. Like “Bugaboo,” “Gainliness” stands out for how unequivocally McManus embraces these guiding uncertainties. These stories share a productive looseness to their plotting, one that creates space for them to be shaped by their anxieties.

McManus draws his title from the Tennessee William’s lines that serve as its epigraph: “Men are made of rock and thunder: / threat of storm to labor under. / Cypress woods are demon-dark: / boys are fox-teeth in your heart,” and the questions of adolescence and masculinity are indeed where McManus puts these dizzyingly constructed monuments to uncertainty about identity and self to most meaningful work. In a collection where the power seems so dangerous thoughts can kill, even perfectly realized masculinity is suspect. For McManus’s characters, masculinity seems fraught with pitfalls. From other people and internalized voices, the men and boys in the stories are constantly policing their manliness. After commandeering another man’s phone in part to flirt with his violent, demeaning lover on a Grindr-like app, the protagonist of “Blood Brothers,” thinks, “[t]o be a pussy was to answer, ‘Just kidding,’ so I hit ‘ignore,’ found a jug of bourbon, took a swig.” That McManus sees the humorous extremes of masculine posturing (had to be bourbon—clear liquor wouldn’t do) does not keep him from compassion for the extent to which these are fundamental, serious questions for his characters, ones that come with special complications for the young gay men he’s often writing about.

The thematic cohesion of the collection is certainly to McManus’s credit, but also means that the collection’s less gripping stories end up occasionally feeling redundant. “The Ninety-Fifth Percentile,” in particular, covers similar ground as stronger stories—erotically charged teenage friendships, self-destructive risk-taking, class and adolescent identity—to less biting end. The plot is slight and the story’s callow protagonist cannot really hold his own against the difficult, memorable men and boys who people the rest of the collection. It is also one of few times when McManus’s treatment of substance abuse ends up feeling like it muddies the story.

Narratives of addiction and intoxication are strong throughout the rest of the collection. The narrator of “Elephant Sanctuary” assures his father after his first blackout at twelve, “‘Yeah, I’ve had fun,’ I replied, standing up, and out of shame or stubbornness I’d been saying similar things ever since.” McManus gets paradoxical addict self-awareness, without buying into a familiar idea of romanticized drinking. “Elephant Sanctuary” also exemplifies McManus’s use of blackouts and the consciousness-addling effects of drugs to toy with the progression of time and plot in satisfying ways.

There are times when McManus’s vertiginous slippage between thought and action seems to allow his characters to skitter away from questions of responsibility just when the story’s most need reckoning. When the convicted sex criminal, Stephen, in “The Gnat Line,” finally recalls exposing himself to a school bus, “[b]lind strings in one hand, pot handle dangling from the other, Stephen wondered what he’d meant to do.” It seems implausible, but perhaps more importantly, it fails to answer questions about the distinctions Stephen has drawn between himself and other sex offenders. On the one hand, it’s an impressive exercise in imaginative empathy for perpetrators of violence. But at a certain point there’s something queasy about the way in which these fully realized predators’ victims drop out of the collection’s moral arithmetic, particularly in “Elephant Sanctuary,” where killing, semi-accidentally, his (mostly off the page and shrewish) girlfriend in a car accident seems significant for inspiring a male musician to write a new album.

This sense of moral unsettledness is certainly central to McManus’s project here. That it is intentional alone doesn’t inherently justify these occasional erasures of the victims, but at its most successful, this works less as expression of concern for the well-being of brutalizers, but rather an examination of the inherent violence of the narcissistic inner life—one made more uncomfortable by including the reader in its critique. Sentence by sentence, the stories are precise and efficient, most astounding in probing the horror when the boundaries between the mind and the world are less stable than we’d like them to be.

Interview with Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek’s writing life spans decades and genres, from his debut poetry collection Brass Knuckles, to his most recent collections of short fiction, Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lantern: Love Stories. Dybek is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards for writing, including a PEN/Malamud Award, an O. Henry Award, and Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. A Chicago native, Dybek received his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and an MA in literature from Loyola University Chicago. He currently teaches fiction at Northwestern University’s School of Professional Studies.

Prior to visiting The Ohio State University for a weekend workshop and reading, Dybek spoke with associate fiction editor David E. Yee about approaches to craft, voice, and literary inspiration.

David E. Yee: I read in a previous interview that your focus has been more on craft than process. How have your opinions on craft changed over the years? Or to be less broad—what is something that has surprised you in terms of craft, something you wish you could tell yourself when you were still coming up in writing?

Stuart Dybek: I’d like to think that a writer’s relationship with craft is at once established on a foundation of basic “moves”—scenic construction, dialogue, etc.—that can, depending on the subject, be combined and recombined (the way that, say, dance operates) and that allow for an agility that accommodates change and an ongoing evolution of a personal style. At this point in a writing life, I am more consciously attracted to and fascinated by compression. Compression rather than minimalism—they are not the same. Verse offers forms that seem by nature compressive—the sonnet, for instance, and many of the poems I’ve published over the last five years have been sonnets. There’s no equivalent of the sonnet in prose, and yet I think that flash fiction can offer pieces that feel sonnet-like, that emulate, for instance, the feature in a sonnet called the turn. My old friend, the recently deceased essayist and editor, Judith Kitchen, and I used to bat that idea around.

Interview with Talvikki Ansel

Talvikki Ansel is the author of the poetry collections My Shining Archipelago (1997) and Jetty and Other Poems (2003). She is the recipient of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize and is the 2014 winner of The OSU Press/The Journal Wheeler Prize in Poetry for her collection Somewhere in Space. Two poems from this collection are included at the conclusion of this interview.

Recently, she spoke with poetry editor Mikko Harvey about the natural world, Finnish culture, and her process for putting together a full-length collection.

Mikko Harvey: Reading your poems, it becomes clear that nature—landscape, birds, trees, weather—is a key influence. I wonder if you could share any thoughts about how nature plays into your writing, and perhaps into your life. You have a poem in My Shining Archipelago titled “John Clare,” after the English poet known for his engagement with the natural world. How would you characterize your own engagement with nature? What are the pleasures, and challenges, of channeling it into poetry?

Talvikki Ansel: Yes, the natural world does work its way into my poems, and into my life, too. I’m pretty happy when I have a chance to muck around outside; that world is a source of surprise and depth and revelation. Growing up I have fond memories of freezing my butt off before school and on weekends, looking for winter ducks and shrikes. And in the past I was lucky enough to have a chance to volunteer on projects for scientists studying birds in a variety of landscapes. I think that the kind of attention required in doing fieldwork can train one to pay attention, particularly to the natural world. Of course, there is a sense of the elegiac too, and that can be disheartening: John Clare mourning the enclosure of land, and today’s development and the disappearance of habitat. But yes, I like the unfetteredness of being outside, and that world does come into the poems.

Writing and the natural world: it’s hard to say. The pleasures are multiple, but the challenges are there, too. It’s not always an easy transfer: I could fondly and happily note down observations till the cows come home (“sun on the woodpile,” “semipalmated plovers on the beach, in the dried weed wrack, one calling,” etc.), and I like noting that those things are there in that rich world, but the observations need to be right for a certain poem. They have to work, have to fit the shape and overall expression of that particular poem. There’s always the element of crafting a poem that needs to be in balance with the material.

MH: I won’t ask you to name influences, as I know that can be a fraught task, but who are some of your favorite artists, poets or otherwise?

TA: Oh dear, okay, I’m just going to glance over at my messy bookshelf for this one: Marianne Moore, Henry Beston, Emily Dickinson, Eugenio Montale, two copies of Hamlet, Henry Moore’s sheep sketchbook (I am, of course, selectively glancing, choosing books that can stay the course, and there are other shelves I will regret not looking at later). And my music stand: Bach’s concerto in D minor for two violins. I’ve been trying to learn this piece all fall (yes, 5 year old children play it competently on YouTube, as do adult violinists, I might add). I don’t know how his intertwining, rising and falling passages will influence my writing, if at all, but to echo Tranströmer: “ after a black day… I shove my hands into my haydnpockets.”

MH: Your poem “Origin Charm Against Uncertain Injuries,” from Jetty & Other Poems, engages with The Kalevala, which is regarded as Finland’s national epic poem. Elsewhere you mention “pülla,” a type of Finnish pastry. Your name includes the Finnish word for winter, “talvi.” What is your relationship, personally and creatively, with Finnish culture?

TA: You are quite an astute reader, Mikko Harvey! What is my relationship? Tenuous, but in the blood, perhaps? My mom is from Finland, and though I was raised in this country and don’t speak Finnish, it does seep into the blood a bit: domestic details & objects, stories, the sound of the language—its rhythms familiar like a song sparrow’s call when I hear someone pick up the phone.

MH: Related to that, are there any Finnish or Scandinavian artists you admire?

TA: A few writers from that part of the world that I read and admire all capture that landscape, though not the language—they all happen to be writing in Swedish, and I’ve only read them in translation, anyway: Tove Jansson, Tomas Tranströmer, Edith Södergran. In Somewhere in Space I have a poem partly inspired by Edith Södergran, a Swedish-speaking Finnish poet who was born in St. Petersburg, before WWI.

MH: You’ve now published three books, and won both the Wheeler Prize and the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. What is the process of assembling a collection of poems like for you? Do you have advice for poets who are putting manuscripts together?

TA: It can take some time before a collection of poems feels like it is of a piece, that the poems belong together in a manuscript, so, I’d say, don’t rush it; do the work, keep going back to it, but allow the time to let the book happen, to grow and metamorphose into a collection where the progression feels natural, or the combination feels interesting, a collection where you don’t find yourself averting your glance from some of the poems (those probably need to go bye-bye). Have patience.

I tend to write just poems for years, and then think of assembling after I have a good number of poems, which is obviously different from some writers who begin with a vision for an entire book. (And really, these notes just apply to me; some people write much more quickly, all in a rush.) Assembling a collection can be that dance between what one thinks the manuscript should do, and gut instinct, hoping for some unexpected coincidences—I try not to feel like I can always see the wheels turning, or the chicken going for the worm.

In practical terms, when I’m thinking “book-length,” I spread the poems (printed out) over all the flat surfaces of the house, then I can see them, move from last line to title, etc., see the poems as made things on the page, and experience the white space of section breaks; and the process feels like shaping something. That stage is so much fun. This is what has worked for me so far, but I’m also a person who still uses a manual typewriter for poems—that sense of each line as a line, followed by a carriage return; the speed of typing suits my need in making and revising the poem.

MH: What can readers look forward to—in terms of content, theme, form—in Somewhere in Space? Do any differences between this book and your previous ones jump out at you?

TA: A little hard for me to say—this is the most difficult question for me. Well, easy response: no section breaks in this book vs. the others; it just moves from poem to poem. History, half-told histories, feral cats, beached boats, sails in trees, fragments of phrases from old torn trading cards with paintings of birds, memory, and botanical forays—all these make an appearance.

Excerpts from Somewhere in Space

!50!!50!!10!Quail

!50!Quail’s instinctual dash
!50!through wet grass, rain puddles
!50!bobcat, fowling piece.

!50!Limp bird
!50!pillowed on scalloped feathers, puff
!50!cream to chestnut to horse-flank

!50!brown, helmeted

!50!on a bed of leeks, browning.

!50!I, deadly element

!50!sack’s leather straps
!50!criss-cross the chest,
!50!three dropped onto the plain table

!50!handsmell of plucked bird
!50!reached to face,

!50!wishbone too fine to want to try.

Ansel, Talvikki. “Quail.” Somewhere in Space. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015. Copyright © 2015 by The Ohio State University Press.

!50!!25!History of Private Life
!100!!100!!50!(Pagan Rome to Byzantium)

!50!From November to May
!50!they didn’t travel, it took a half year
!50!to get notice of an event. A baby
!50!was born, damn the inheritance
!50!diluted again, your earthenware ewer
!50!and city plan on a marble slab. Wait
!50!the letter boat, fresh berries and milk.
!50!Extra babies put out, exposed, for recycling
!50!or not, those no nonsense days. The Roman frieze
!50!of a couple making love, and here’s the servant
!50!bringing a pitcher of water
!100!!100!!50!& where does that take us
!50!in this robust field: buttercups,
!50!egg-yolk-yellow nape of the bobolink.
!50!Wind unceasing from the river, the aspen
!50!saplings lean, leaves blown to small buttons
!50!all withstanding the force, shirts blown
!50!up bared backs and columbine heads
!50!tormented. I miss you though they doubted it
!50!it took so long from writing to the unfolding.

Ansel, Talvikki. “History of Private Life.” Somewhere in Space. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2015. Copyright © 2015 by The Ohio State University Press.

A Conversation with Michelle Herman
Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing and Dog, the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life, the essay collections The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song, and a book for children, A Girl's Guide to Life.

Michelle Herman is the author of the novels Missing, Dog, and the forthcoming Devotion (2016); the collection of novellas A New and Glorious Life; and three essay collections—The Middle of Everything, Stories We Tell Ourselves, and Like A Song. She is a Professor of English at The Ohio State University, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing.

Recently, Herman spoke with The Journal about the Non/Fiction Collection Prize, the hybrid nature of fiction and creative nonfiction, and the importance of the prose collection.

The Journal: The Non/Fiction Collection Prize is awarded to a collection of short stories, essays, or a combination of the two. Why is it particularly important to The Ohio State University Press and The Journal to seek out collections of short prose?

Michelle Herman: Because collections of short stories and essays are the hardest things to publish in the current market. Essay collections are virtually impossible to publish—the “big five” New York publishers won’t touch them—unless the writer is already a (very) known quantity. Short story collections don’t fare much better in the marketplace these days—and even when they are published, they are rarely published well: books are simply printed and shipped (and often enough they’re not even shipped).

There are the surprise success stories, of course—the exceptions that I suppose “prove the rule.” I’m thinking about Leslie Jamison’s smart, interesting first collection of essays, which Graywolf, one of the best independent presses we’ve got, published—and did right by—and that was a book that reached its intended audience.

There are our own MFA alumni Claire Vaye Watkins and Don Pollock—just to name two of the stars in our firmament—whose first collections of stories were published beautifully by New York houses and went on to do very well indeed.

But these truly are exceptions. I think that university presses are, more and more, trying to fill that gap that’s been left behind by the failure of the New York presses to bring interesting new writing to readers. I wanted us to do our part to bring a wonderful collection of either—stories or essays—or both—into the world each year.

Review of Loving Day by Mat Johnson

Warren Duffy, the narrator of Mat Johnson’s Loving Day, is caught in the middle. The son of a black mother and a white father, Warren compares himself to a “Latvian rugby player” and describes his physical appearance as a “racial optical illusion” akin to those drawings that can look like either an old crone or a beautiful young girl. At the novel’s beginning, he’s just returned to Philadelphia from Wales to attend to his dead father’s affairs, which consist primarily of a crumbling old mansion in Germantown. He intends to stay only long enough to patch the place up and then burn it down. He’s broke and in debt to his ex-wife for a considerable amount of money. Arson seems like a solution to his problems.

Working a comic book convention to make some cash (he’s a failed artist), Warren is confronted by two strangers: one is a beautiful woman who shows up to a panel he’s on with other black artists to ask him about being biracial. He tells her he’s not biracial; he’s black, end of story. The other, Tal, is the seventeen-year-old daughter he never knew he had, the product of a brief teenage tryst with a girl named Cindy, who is now dead. Tal shows up on the rotting porch of the crumbling mansion, looking for refuge. He takes her in, and his plans change.

Convinced that Tal needs a crash course in her newly discovered heritage, Warren wants first to send her to an Afrocentric charter school, and then, when she rejects it as “too black,” allows her to attend The Mélange Center, a school for biracial people whose “goal is to overcome the conflict of binary” and to find “sacred balance” between their black and white identities.

The school’s physical location mirrors its students’ sense of cultural dislocation: The Mélange Center consists of a bunch of mobile homes illegally stationed in a public park. The Center’s very existence is provisional, dependent on a protracted court battle that cannot be won, but that keeps the school protected as long as it wages on.

Tuition is expensive, so Warren takes a job at the school teaching art in exchange for a discount. The kids at Mélange take Portuguese (the justification being that Brazil is somewhere where mixed race people will blend right in), make graphic novels about mixed race communities in history, and take a hilarious test to determine whether they’re too “black-identified” (Warren) or “white-identified” (Tal, who was raised by her Jewish grandpa). Oh, and the beautiful woman who confronted Warren at the convention is now his co-worker and teacher, Sunita Habersham.

Loving Day moves at a rapid clip as Warren tries to connect with both Tal and Sunita (albeit in very, very different ways), plot the perfect arson to burn down his dad’s decaying house, and reckon with his own increasingly muddled ideas about who he is. Identity plays a central role in Loving Day. Warren makes terrible fun of the Center, even as he’s drawn in by its promises, because he’s drawn in by its promises. Despite declaring, at the novel’s outset, that race in America is about choosing sides, about picking a team, he can’t help but notice the effect the Mélange Center has on him:

The very idea, of creating a tribe where I would fully belong, of changing my definition to fit me instead of the other way around, terrifies me. It scares me because it’s not crazy. It’s just priced at abandoning my existing identity and entire worldview.

Johnson confronts issues of identity head-on without ever coming off as preachy or didactic. Part of this is due to Warren’s first person narration: his intense self-awareness, both defensive and crippling, is the perfect vehicle for extended riffs on the performance of identity. Warren knows this particular dance better than almost anyone: he’s painfully conscious of how he’s perceived by everyone he meets. In the book’s early pages, he describes a meeting with a fellow black comic book artist:

What I’m really doing is letting my black voice come out, to compensate for my ambiguous appearance. Let the bass take over my tongue. Let the South of Mom’s ancestry inform the rhythm of my words in a way few white men could pull off.

Tal is an excellent foil for Warren’s hyper-awareness: she’s mostly clueless, unprepared for the implications of her newfound paternity, and, at the novel’s start, constantly saying the wrong thing. Her clumsiness when it comes to matters of race (her own, Warren’s, somebody else’s) compounds the inherent awkwardness of a father and daughter trying to connect after seventeen years as strangers. Through their affectionate if testy exchanges, Johnson highlights the subtle ways racism may permeate the most benign interactions.

The thorny nature of racial identity has long been a theme in Johnson’s work, and Loving Day deals explicitly with themes only ever implicit in previous works. In Incognegro, Johnson’s 2008 graphic novel, a light-skinned reporter (loosely based on the NAACP’s Walter White) goes undercover as a white man to investigate lynchings in the Deep South. In the 2011 novel Pym, a biracial academic is denied tenure because he studies Edgar Allen Poe instead of hip-hop and won’t serve on the college’s diversity committee. In these works, the characters’ blackness is never questioned; they are mistaken for white, they pass for white, but they never consider that they could possibly be white, or even half-white.

The satire of Loving Day is milder than that of Pym, and its characters’ schemes notably more realistic, if no less questionable. Unlike Pym, Loving Day has no Thomas Kinkade-esque commercial painter who creates a Biodome in the Arctic or a race of ice giants called Snow Honkies who love junk food so much that Zebra Cakes become a kind of currency. In fact, almost everything about Loving Day feels exceptionally plausible. In the era of Tumblr, where every single identity—racial, sexual, or otherwise—can be meticulously delineated, explicated, and parsed, the idea of a school dedicated to finding balance between identities (black and white) long considered mutually exclusive doesn’t seem so far-fetched, or even a bad idea. I had to remind myself, or allow Warren to remind me, that this was supposed to be crazy.

Johnson writes with startling efficiency; within the first two chapters he’s fitted Warren with a dead father, an old mansion, a long-lost daughter, and a new love interest. Later he adds possibly copulating ghosts of America’s interracial “first couple,” séances, and elaborate tattoos that make the Center’s students’ ambiguous heritage part of their flesh. It all culminates in a celebration-cum-fundraiser-cum-protest on the book’s eponymous holiday, which commemorates the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage throughout the US.

Nonetheless, Loving Day, for all its lively plumbing of identity, remains a novel about parents and children. Tal and Warren, both recently orphaned, try to love and understand each other across generations and ingrained cultural identities. Warren, in turn, tries to understand his flawed and complicated parents. Johnson writes about loss with remarkable insight, about the way that parts of our history disappear without our noticing. Warren is grieving for his father, and also for his mother who died long ago, and for his ex-wife in Wales who does not miss him, and even for Tal’s mother, the girl he barely knew and hadn’t spoken to in years. While the Mélange Center focuses on finding that “sacred balance” between identities, Loving Day ends by reaffirming the humanity of all peoples, regardless of the way they present themselves to the world, or the way the world sees them.

Loving Day has been optioned by Showtime to be a television series, and reading the book, it’s easy to see why: one can imagine more for Tal, Warren, Sunita, and the Mélange Center. Johnson has created a rich world full of dramatic possibilities. It will be interesting to see how that world changes and shifts to fit a more open-ended format.

Review of Reveille by George David Clark

Each blurb on the back cover of George David Clark’s Reveille—winner of the 2015 Miller Williams Poetry Prize—identifies the surreal, dreamlike element of these poems, an element that is of our world, but not quite. Reveille, French for “to wake up,” is just that—a call to attention. It is also a view of this and other worlds that reaches past literal experience and into the realm of the imagined. But this is not a surreal book. We aren’t being asked to leave realism behind. Rather, the poet asks that we reconsider boundaries of our existence, of our realities, of our imaginations, and of our conceptions of religion and reverence. To do any of that, we must, first, wake up.

Review of Yearling by Lo Kwa Mei-en

Lo Kwa Mei-en’s inaugural poetry collection Yearling asks no easy questions and provides no single answer—rather, it gives us duality warped over and over. She moves effortlessly between the violently sexual and sexually violent, the poems overlapping one another, not unlike an embroidered backstitch. Images and language are reused and re-imagined; we never read them the same way twice. The sea is dark and ruthless in one moment and the tides are agents of change, “made in the image of a shut door,” in the next. Embedded in this interweaving is the glimpse of a family narrative, of migration, and of the cyclical nature of a woman’s place in that journey. The speaker never shies away from self-damnation (“I am half-spent and hell-bright as / the bad ones are, mother, a flicker deeper than the sea”) and we feel the crushing weight of feminine expectation in “Rara Avis Decoy”: “My name is I know not what I am / as a country of mothers and fathers comes down.” Mei-en gives us a grim and foreboding portrait of the future in “The Extinction Diaries: Psalm” when “the white coin of vertebrae // in a bowl of hips tells the future. May the meek inherit / something dangerous. May I.”