January 9, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Barrie Jean Borich
I remember my copy of H.W. Janson’s History of Art, circa 1962, that paean to the canon that sat on so many household bookshelves, including, for many years, my own. Janson’s book is a history of the Western tradition of visual art from inception to the mid-twentieth century, a recounting with myriad gaps. I recall the rough cover and the pages broken after too many moves, how I kept the book for years to make up, I thought, for all my own missing knowledge, but finally got rid of it because of how much was left out of its pages.
The textbook’s textured gray cover, and the title centered in a formal nameplate, is replicated on the front of Ray Gouirand’s new lyric essay cycle The History of Art (The Atlas Review, 2019). The history of art Gouirand recounts is not the canon of works collected in the famous textbook of the same name, though she does borrow the title from that tome. So then, what does this borrowing mean for a contemporary queer lyric that is determinedly not about canonical art, a book that is, ecstatically, about a body that does not inhabit the approved center, a book that speaks from the gaps in all the old teaching?
Many of our books, and many of our bodies, are commonly mistaken for collections of proper and approved attributes, yet the queer femme behaves, makes, and finds pleasure in anything but the conventional template of women’s sexuality. The queerest thing about the lesbian femme is her refusal to comply. She is, in terms of the heterosexual paradigm, recognizable to straight men, but not available to them. Her “cover” is an ironic birthright. She refuses what she is told is her natural power. Her pleasures are elsewhere. “Like something that suddenly has a place to be missing from (22).”
This is the entryway into Gouirand’s History of Art. She looks at the female form, but does not make conventional connections. She begins the book describing what she sees, as a girl, in Janson’s big book of art codes. “Inside the book, the figures hard & stone, in black and white. Studyable, from a place still and bound. What made them my first lovers—I could look for as long as I wanted… We recognized each other (5).”
Gouirand describes not simply an affinity with the female form as object of her desire, not simply the early identification with pleasure, not even only pleasure itself, but something else, something queerer. She knows somehow, long before she has either language or experience to fully understand, that what she sees in the history of art are the first inklings of what will give her life. She can’t understand yet, but she will later remember. “The first time I came, that’s who was there. I filled myself instinctually & pressed down into what I felt (6)”.
The inheritance of the queer femme is the expression of what is commonly understood as the feminine, which makes the lesbian femme’s use of what is called womanly—woman being another old form with too many gaps— a lot like Gouirand’s borrowing of the book cover of an outdated history text. In an interview for her publisher, The Atlas Review, she describes her understanding of corporeal desire as not passive, but as an artist-made thing. “I grabbed the echo of that title for my own in part because I think great art is deeply erotic, and often born of echo. It draws us out of our typical abilities to perceive and sense, and expands our awareness; it confuses the limits between our consciousness and the consciousness we can access or visit or experience. There are consequences to that. Art sees us.”
To be seen by that which she sees herself is the idea through which she writes an erotics of the queer femme. The parts that art destroys are the histories that stand in the way of remaking, a woman unconstrained by canonical control who knows, and even becomes, her own pleasure. This is a new history of art. “It is like a tree cracks inside, whips the whole way up. For a split second I am exact. I am what I ask for (23).”
To understand this remaking we must consider the particularly treacherous position of the queer femme body, and consider how a book cover can either represent or skew. In a line appearing late in the cycle Gouirand writes: “I don’t look for art in search of a mirror. I look to it to destroy the parts of me that can be summarized (43).”
What are these parts that art destroys? We join the speaker’s body in these pages. We meet her at the vanishing point. We too find our missing skin. So many lines of these essays peak and resound, unmaking and awakening, but this queer femme erotic is not only about artifice destroyed but also a lyric of the parts that cannot be summarized, the body’s pre-verbal spaces.
Holding Gouirand’s essays in my hands I return to that older, broken history book, and what it could have meant to see myself not mirrored but engaged in its pages, as more than a cold stone body epically gazed upon, as a doer as well as a receiver, as a speaker who makes herself out of the base summary of those gaps. In The History of Art Gouirand writes of meeting the hunger of this queer dissatisfaction, of accessing and serving a queer body’s need to be a work of her own making.
Barrie Jean Borich is author of Apocalypse, Darling which PopMatters said “… soars and seems to live as a new form altogether. It’s poetry, a meditation on life as ‘the other,’ creative non-fiction, and abstract art.” Her memoir Body Geographic won a Lambda Literary Award and her book-length essay, My Lesbian Husband won the Stonewall Book Award. Borich teaches at DePaul University where she edits Slag Glass City, a journal of the urban essay arts.
January 2, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Christy Stillwell
I love a book that is unapologetically female. The market is brimming with explorations of female experience, books that examine issues such as food addiction, shame, sexuality and the process of aging. Men struggle with age, I know. Each time I complain about my gray hair, my husband points at his head and says, “At least you have hair.” But when it comes to perennial dieting, body shame, and loss of youth, women struggle in much different ways.
I devoured Hunger, by Roxanne Gay, and I’ve read everything by Brene Brown. I relished Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women, an exploration about female desire. I am astonished to see the thread of shame and scarcity running through my own life. Even at middle age, I don’t know what I want. In fact, in an effort to immunize myself against disappointment, I’ve made a habit of not wanting anything at all.
When I found Dorothy Rice’s memoir, Gray is the New Black, the book felt like a cosmic gift. In this memoir of self-acceptance and healing, the writer lays bare her disappointments and struggles with sugar addiction, dieting, and bad men. What’s more, she digs into her past to see the part she has played in her own unhappiness, a courageous move.
A retired California civil service worker in her early sixties, Rice discovers she needs a year “to get my shit together.” She aims to “crack the code of living my life in the now” to make “peace with the past and embrace the present.”
Early in the book, her sister challenges her to stop coloring her hair, a loaded request considering that when Rice tried this years ago, she was mistaken for her sister’s mother. In the spirit of personal rebirth, Rice accepts the challenge, and the author’s gorgeously thick, gray hair becomes the central image of the book. Throughout her ups and downs—both in spirit and weight—her hair bolsters her. It is the one thing she allows herself to love about herself, even as she admits to a debilitating sugar addiction, a long relationship with a sexual predator, an abusive first marriage, and ongoing struggles with yo-yo dieting.
Rice is upfront about her food addiction. “I routinely eat myself sick,” she admits. “I claim to fear migraines more than anything, and when I’m in the grip of one, I vow never again. Yet I forget . . . . or rather, I don’t forget; I’m overcome with sugar lust.” The scene in which she loses her battle with a bag of Halloween candy reads like the description of a junkie shooting up. The power of the scene comes in part from the book’s structure; Rice lets readers witness the first binge early, and we dread the inevitable recurrence. We know, as she does, that the sugar will not only sabotage her weight loss, it’ll also make her violently ill.
The memoir takes a darker turn as Rice explores the root causes of her shame. Most women she knows have a rape story. It’s a fact—not defended or analyzed. Rice’s rape story is unconventional; she was not attacked late at night, but lured into the car of a twenty-something predator who trolled her high school. He didn’t pin her down and force himself upon her; he unzipped his pants, grabbed her by the neck, and forced her to perform fellatio. In his car. Parked on the side of the road. In broad daylight.
The (non)relationship with Ron continued intermittently for two years. Never gratuitous or self-pitying, Rice’s descriptions of these encounters are riveting, as is her honesty about her own confusion:
It’s hard to understand why I kept seeing Ron, why I didn’t stop. I do know that even as I came when he called and did what he asked, I desperately wanted a real boyfriend. I knew that what I did with him was nothing to be proud of. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I didn’t even like to think about it. Nor did I enjoy it or look forward to the next time. . . . It was never about me, or even about sex, but rather power, control, domination. I didn’t get this intellectually, but I knew it in my bones. I’d surrendered free will.
What sets Gray is the New Black apart from other self-reckoning memoirs is the author’s willingness to take responsibility for her own self-delusion. She’s openly curious about why she clung to these false truths about Ron. In a similar way, Rice investigates the stalemate in her marriage to Bob, and here the reader sees change unfolding.
A retired engineer, Rice’s husband is a “literal kind of guy” and more than a little dense when it comes to speaking his feelings. The author baits him repeatedly, trying to get him to say what she wants, a test he fails repeatedly. I “batted my lashes and hunched my shoulders so my breasts pressed together,” then she asked, “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
Though he fails in the compliment department, he loves her. He tells so all the time. And Rice loves him. She admits that she can’t be angry; she has gained weight, knows she doesn’t look her best. By the book’s end, after a year spent excavating shame and a trip to a Utah fat farm, Rice faces herself:
I have waited all my life for a man to say the prescribed magic words to me, to perform the prescribed grand gestures. . . . I have felt cheated out of my due of Lifetime movie moments.
Understanding that this cycle of dissatisfaction is based on fairytales, she asks herself: Are these good enough reasons “to hold my husband at arm’s length until he utters the magic words?” No, she concludes:
It’s time to look at what I’ve been pining for all my life and ask if that’s still it, do I need that anymore, or am I a bigger girl now? Does my piano have more than one insistent sour note to plink?
With incisive, lyrical prose, Dorothy Rice articulates a longing for a generation of women seeking an honest way to see themselves, a way to authentically exist in the world. Her tunneling investigation into why it was once so important to fit in, to be wanted by a man, even the wrong man, feels essential. Even if Rice doesn’t give readers solid answers, it doesn’t mean they should stop asking the questions.
Christy Stillwell is the winner of the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. She is the author of The Wolf Tone (2019 Elixir Press) and the poetry chapbook, Amnesia (2008 Finishing Line Press). She lives in Montana.
December 27, 2019 § Leave a comment
By Chansi Long
In one of the early essays in his debut collection, Meander Belt: Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working-Class South, M. Randal O’Wain retells a poignant memory of a family friend’s suicide. In this essay titled “Arrow of Light,” O’Wain weaves normal childhood milestones alongside a horrific tragedy, recalling how his father picked him up from Webelos in his beat-up truck, but instead of driving home, he careened across town to Jimmy’s house.
O’Wain reassembles blurry details, combining his own memories with things he learned later, to tell the story of how his father’s best friend shot himself. While his father examines the truck where Jimmy’s body is, ten-year-old O’Wain plays in the yard, teaching himself to tie a square knot so he can graduate from Cub Scouts early. The narrator’s desire to mature early in such an innocuous way becomes salient as we discover that his environment will force him anyway into the adult world prematurely.
O’Wain’s father pilfers some gore—viscera and tissue—from the body, and later, O’Wain, his older brother Chris, and his father go to a meadow to bury a cigar box filled with these remains. O’Wain describes the memory thoughtfully, viewing his father’s decision to steal and bury pieces of the corpse with understanding and empathy. The fact that his father took him to Jimmy’s, rather than shielding his innocence by taking him home first, is a point of pride and a defining memory for O’Wain, bringing him closer to his father and the adult world he yearned to join.
Like Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, the essays in Meander are placed in chronological order, and deliberately ordered to provide structural and thematic coherence. The essays change in pace and tone but the voice—solid, compelling, honest, and funny—carries us through. One of the best is “The Junk Trade,” which has a theme similar to “Arrow of Light.” O’Wain, a fifth-grader, is once again eager to jettison his innocence for the adult world. He drinks black coffee, works his first job, smokes cigarettes, and makes out with his sixth-grade girlfriend Tatum. But the adult world is darker than O’Wain anticipates.
In this essay, a character called Junk Man Wayne sexually assaults O’Wain, and O’Wain follows the adult masculine models of his culture by staying silent on the matter. Reading this essay, I recalled my own attempts to grow up early with smoking, drinking, and sex. At fifteen, I once told my friends I wanted to have sex with a local twenty-one-year-old; a virgin, I was stunned when the man approached me at a party and took me to the woods. Too scared to say anything when he pushed my head toward his crotch, I felt obligated to perform oral sex for the first time in my life. At the time, I brushed the experience off as no big deal, but it was an ushering into the adult world that I wasn’t ready for. There are lots of innocence-shedding moments like this in O’Wain’s book.
O’Wain skillfully integrates humor into his darker material. In one scene, his mother is jamming to “Brown Eyed Girl,” “bouncing in her seat and waving her arms over to me. ‘Car dance,’ she said. ‘Come on, honey, car dance.’ But Tatum was half an hour late, and I didn’t feel like car dancing. ‘Used to love the car dance,’ Mom said, glowering.”
“Superman Dam Fool” is a numbered listicle that braids historical facts about Superman’s death with O’Wain’s personal vignettes on violence; most of the scenes O’Wain recounts occur at a Memphis public middle school where O’Wain was both threatened with a gun, and expelled for carrying a roofing blade in his unicorn emblazoned wallet. In this essay, O’Wain’s humor—an obvious defense mechanism—lightens the tone. “I learned people beat you up less when you acted crazy,” he writes. He was once told he didn’t like Virginia Woolf because he didn’t try hard enough. His rebuttal: “Perhaps you try too hard.”
Most of the essays are written in first or second-person, but there is a sizable section written in third-person. The middle part of the book is comprised of a three-part essay called “Memento Mori.” In this section we witness the movement of O’Wain’s mind as it focuses on his father. In his early twenties, O’Wain traveled the country touring with his band Sicarii, while his father stayed home living out the same-old routine he’d had for decades. With painstaking detail, O’Wain recreates his father’s day-to-day rituals working at a construction site. He embodies his experience using close narrative distance and third-person voice, imagining his father’s feelings and thoughts, and speculating what his life was like as he developed panic attacks.
Initially it’s unclear why O’Wain invests so much attention in recreating the onset of his father’s anxiety—especially when he wasn’t present for these moments. But then his father dies unexpectedly of a heart failure at age forty-eight. O’Wain’s exploration of his father’s last days seem like an attempt to reanimate him via written word, to both grow closer to him and empathize with his struggle.
“Memento Mori” is artful, but it’s not the best part of this book, and in ways, it feels out of place. The other essays are more concise, and they tell us about characters through the author’s perspective, rather than trying to take on their points of view. O’Wain’s voice is strongest when he focuses through his own lens.
William Zinsser’s description of what a memoir does has always resonated with me: “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.” And that’s what O’Wain provides—a deliberate construction of salient moments, when read, that trigger our memories, produce their own, and linger like lived experience.
Chansi Long is a graduate from the Nonfiction Writer’s program at the University of Iowa. She has been published in the Washington Post, River Teeth and others. Living in southeast Kansas, she is working on a memoir about foster care and poverty.
December 19, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Magin LaSov Gregg
At nineteen, Julia Koets falls in love with her best friend Kate, a college roommate, and a lover who denies her own desires. At the heart of this denial is a dominant cultural narrative that understands same sex attraction in what Koets terms “The queer creation myth (of ) born this way,” often considered “The only queer creation story.”
Ultimately, Kate cannot acknowledge her feelings for Koets because the former does not have a born this way origin story of same-sex attraction. The former lovers attempt a tenuous friendship but drift apart, and ultimately lose one another to a limbo “where queer lives are erased.”
In The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays, Koets artfully examines her own experiences of queer erasure alongside larger cultural erasures, at times symbolized by enduring figures such as astronaut Sally Ride or D.C. Comics’ Gay Ghost.
The lyric essay form, reliant on gaps and fragmentation, beautifully aligns with Koets’ own experience of compression and expansion, as her narrator moves from a closeted existence to one of self-acceptance and personal liberation. Her memoir demonstrates the profound costs of rejection, silencing, and exclusion within powerful social systems, where love and inclusion often hinge on self-denial.
The Rib Joint won the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Book Award judged by Mark Doty, and was released in November 2019. Natural elements of the coastal south—azaleas, the ocean, beaches, and even sharks’ teeth—offer organic entry points for storytelling. Nautical imagery reinforces the tension between self-liberation and self-submergence that drives Koets’ narrator.
Her memoir’s title chapter begins with the controlling image of an octopus who lacks a skeleton, and so “protects itself by hiding in plain sight.” Readers might recognize this essay, which first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Creative Nonfiction (Let’s Talk About Sex).
In order to survive, Kate and Koets hide their relationship at the small college where they meet, and where a stifling conservative Christian ethos pervades the student experience. Only years later, will Kate confess her true feelings, a moment in which the possibility of who the lovers may have been together expands to offer a new story of liberation.
“I felt our story bend, the way ribs curve to hold the lungs, the heart,” Koets writes. “In one story, we lived in a jar. In another story, we opened the lid and swam out into the darkness of the ocean.”
The rib signifies the power of origin stories to shape human experience and identity, and recalls one creation myth in Genesis, where Adam’s rib generates a subordinate Eve. However, Koets references an older and often overlooked companion myth, which envisions man and woman originating at the same time, neither owing existence or allegiance to the other.
“In the first myth, after the great whales, the cattle, every herb-bearing seed, God created Adam and Eve as equals, Eve’s body all her own,” Koets ruminates, demonstrating the power of interpreters, and not texts, to oppress or free.
Her memoir additionally interweaves experiences of sexuality with symbols associated with Christian worship, such as praise houses and pipe organs, to reveal the formative influences of religion. Koets’ resistance of heavy-handedness and refusal to condemn those Christians who ironically condemned her, are admirable.
I found myself equally struck by Koets’ choice to dedicate her book to her grandmother who died without knowing Koets was gay. The memoir, in a larger sense, voices an authentic selfhood Koets was unable to share with her grandmother, due to fears of judgment and rejection.
In her chapter “Spectrum,” Koets examines the linked etymology of “spectrum” and “spectre”—words she’d once conflated—to question binary categories of sexuality and reveal their limitations. “Spectrum” also includes a true ghost story, as ghosts are, perhaps, ultimate symbols of erasure.
“If there’s no record of a relationship, did it ever really exist?” Koets asks. “For a long time only Kate and I knew we had been together—and for years Kate said she wouldn’t name it that way—being together.”
The character of Kate becomes a living ghost who haunts Koets’ narrator. Yet, a later-in-life reconnection between the former couple offers greater friendship and a healing perspective on the past.
Perhaps to echo the hopeful promise of new possibilities, The Rib Joint ends with a stunning image of regeneration—a mature tooth growing in the place of a lost baby tooth—reminding readers of our lifelong capacity to recreate our stories and ourselves.
Magin LaSov Gregg’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Solstice Literary Magazine, Bellingham Review, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s working on a memoir about love, loss, and going forth.
December 17, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Sarah Chaves
Cindy Clement Carlson, a library staff member of Sandy Hook Elementary, recalls a specific thing she did after the infamous mass shooting. She developed a habit of counting twenty-six people everywhere she went—twenty-six people she saw in churches, malls, and grocery stores for the twenty-six lives that were lost on December 14, 2012.
“The destruction and loss [were] unfathomable,” she writes. “My mind could not take it in so my eyes needed to see it, to size it up, to make visual and tangible the horrible enormity.”
If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings, an anthology of essays culled by editors Amye Archer and Loren Kleinman, offers testimonies and opens up a world of woe many have tried to ignore or pad with thoughts and prayers. This book has no such padding. Similar to the experience viewers had with the Sandy Hook Promise PSA that was released last month, readers cannot turn away from the raw reality of school mass shootings—students using tube socks as tourniquets, teachers using bookcases as barricades. Each chapter offers a very real testament to what has been lost and the unimaginable trauma of mass school shootings.
There are twenty-one chapters in the book—twenty-one mass shootings, beginning with the most recent Santa Fe High School shooting in Texas, May 2018, and ending with one of the oldest, the University of Texas at Austin shooting in August 1966. Stories are told by letters, tweets, comics, time-stamped memories, and speeches. A pain-painstakingly clear pattern emerges—there’s a need for action.
Megan Doney, an English professor who worked at the New River Valley Mall campus at the time of the 2013 shooting states, “But when it comes to the people who are in the classroom with their students when the shots pierce the air, educators who have to decide in an instant whether to flee or barricade, open the door or lock it, our voices are absent from academic literature and public discourse.”
In December 2018, I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about my fears of being a teacher in an era of limited gun control laws. From the way the media idolizes late teachers who saved the lives of their students, I feel pressured every day to act more like a martyr—like the renowned Dave Sanders, the only teacher shot and killed in Columbine—than I do an educator. I imagined my teacher evaluation form highlighting my Need for Improvement if I did not actively run towards a shooter, thus ending my life, to save the lives of my students. One commenter noted they were glad not to have their grandchildren in my classes.
For months, this silenced me. But reading If I Don’t Make It, I Love You came with a deep reckoning. As Megan stated, teachers have been largely left out of this conversation, but not anymore. Nearly 800,000 people protested in the streets of Washington D.C., on March 24, 2018, in the March for Our Lives campaign with hundreds of sister protests across the country. Not only teachers, but students, parents, first responders, community leaders, and supporters gathered to end the normalization of gun violence.
Archer and Kleinman’s accomplishment lie in the ability to gather a myriad of diverse voices into one distinct call to action. There is unapologetic despair on every page, be it a mother cutting off a piece of her fallen daughter’s hair to a father’s helplessness in watching his surviving son search for exits and escape routes wherever they go. But among these tales of sorrow is a deeper message, one that goes beyond shining a light on those whose stories have predominantly gone unheard.
At Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tenn., where victims from the Marshall County High School shooting were brought in, Sterling Haring, a first-year resident physician, will tell you, it’s devastating to realize that “images of children being rushed from a building, bullet wounds packed with gauze, ambulance helicopters landing on a high school lawn before whisking young people off to undergo emergency surgery in the next state over” has done little to introduce stricter gun legislation than to invoke thoughts and prayers. For the survivors, those days are gone.
As chapters 1-21 lead readers through the heartbreak and suffering of survivors who must deal with the long-lasting trauma of school shootings, the final chapter calls readers to do their part in ending this narrative. Hollye Dexter, a dedicated activist for gun violence, details how we all need to do our part in order to see real change. But perhaps the most resounding call for action is by Charlene Mokos Hoverter, a former middle school teacher and principal of a Catholic Grammar School. She writes, “I’ve never been involved in a school shooting. Nor have my children. Nor have my grandchildren. And here I’m tempted to include the word ‘yet.’”
I, too, have not experienced a school shooting, and yet, my school has not been immune to credible threats. I have instructed my students on what to do in the case of an active shooter—I’ll shut the lights and lock the door, you hide here and here, don’t make a sound. In the most desperate scenario, run. Don’t look back. I say these instructions with severity as if their lives depended on it, because they do, but I always end with a smile. “Don’t worry,” I say. “We’re safe here.” But more and more, I find myself lying awake in bed at night, my husband snoring beside me, wondering whether my job is worth my life.
For me and many survivors of mass shootings, the answer is as simple as Cindy Clement Carlson says. At what number will enough be enough? It’s time for everyone to decide and let that number be zero.
Sarah Chaves is a former Fulbright scholar who currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Her most recent work has appeared in Glamour, The Washington Post, and The Lily among others. Find her on Instagram @sarita_chaves.
November 26, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
“He dropped acid like it was going out of style. He drove trucks into trees without remorse. He was the son of a garbage collector and a country western singer, and the first time I saw him, he was passed out in the cab of his stepbrother’s pickup,” writes Jennifer Militello in Knock Wood: A Memoir in Essays.
“He’s trouble,” her friend warns her in “Theory of Relativity,” the first of twenty-nine short, lyrical essays in this collection. The comment only makes the sixteen-year-old curious and desperate to know bad boy Harry.
Militello’s essays weave in and out of three rather complex stories: a mentally ill aunt in an abusive marriage who throws herself in front of a subway; Harry, the high school rebel, who’s intense, complicated, and doomed; and the author who ends up arrested for a larceny she didn’t even know she committed.
The title, Knock Wood, refers to an old superstition. Knuckles are rapped on wood to thwart misfortune or attract good luck—perhaps a Celtic tradition, turning to tree spirits for help.
On an airplane, Militello reads a Murakami novel about a man with cancer and immediately feels compelled to knock on wood to prevent illness. However, she can’t find wood, so she finds the next best thing: paper. Yet, paper doesn’t have the power of wood, which she learns the hard way. “I had knocked on a newspaper eighteen years before, while dating Harry,” Militello writes, “and now I was waiting to pay the price.”
Knocking on wood becomes the over-arching metaphor for the ways people try to escape misfortune. They knock on wood, toss salt over their shoulders, jump over cracks in the sidewalk, recite Hail Marys, hoping, always to no avail, to be saved.
The author’s hazy, slightly nightmarish dreamscapes, such as Militello’s first date with Harry, make this book hard to put down. The girl arrives at Harry’s house to find him “with his arms elbow-deep in the guts of a car.” When they stroll to the back, he pulls a rabbit from the hutch. She insists on naming it Hazel, to which Harry replies, “It doesn’t need a name.” Soon, she learns why: “the pelt has been hung, stretched on a rack, and maggots crawled over it, cleaning it of flesh. Four solid pegs held it in place and its shape seemed obscene and exposed. Vulnerable.”
My mind drifted to Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which puzzled me at first. Both are small books: Knock Wood, 128 pages; The Lover, 144. As I studied Duras’ book again, I realized both tell stories of romances doomed from the start. Duras is fifteen, attending high school in Saigon, where she meets a wealthy, older Chinese man, and engages in a secret, complicated, and intense affair. Naively, she believes the man might rescue her family from the financial ruin that has befallen her family since her father’s death. However, she’s French. He’s Chinese, and there’s no way his family will approve their marriage.
The lyricism alone is reason enough to compare the two books, but it’s also the authors’ cool, haunting scenes, narrative distant, and spare, yet vivid descriptions.
As Militello sits in jail, shocked at being arrested for driving Harry, his friend, and their stolen goods, she studies the many names carved into the table before her: “The wood rough, the ink fading in some places, and in others, dark and clear, it occurred to me that attached to every name here was a person who had committed a crime.” She learns, she will be tried as an adult—the only one of the three who’s eighteen. “I should have explained to the cops that they’d made a mistake. That I was not one of them,” she writes. “Except, I now realized, all that made them them was their actions.”
The poet’s words are evocative, terrifying, mesmerizing, and elegantly shaped throughout. Part of me wanted just to savor the language. The other part wanted to rush ahead to find out what happens to these sad, quirky characters.
I’m not superstitious, never knocked on wood. However, I watched my grandmother pick up the salt shaker and fling tiny white granules into the air. They scattered across the floor, became smashed into the wood by our shuffling feet. After a life of factory work, poverty, and sheer exhaustion, Grandma died at fifty-seven. Yet, I like to picture her with that salt shaker held high, glowing with possibility, imagining a better end.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay “Gargoyles,” appears in the anthology, Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
November 6, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
One day, the Our Lady of Grace statue, the one that had stood in Corpus Christi Church, in Rochester, New York, for practically a hundred years, had vanished. It happened during a great migration of new parishioners, coming from neighboring Mt. Carmel and Holy Redeemer churches, which had closed. They brought with them their favorite hymns, traditions, and statuary. Soon the Corpus Christi sanctuary looked like a convention of painted plaster holy figures. That’s when Our Lady—the Mary with the bluest mantle, the humblest expression, the most endearing face, which had held Livingston’s gaze since she was an altar girl—had disappeared.
But where? Livingston, a self-described obsessive, needed to know. Like Nancy Drew, she gathered facts and began tracking down the statue. In The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the author travels to churches and salvage businesses, such as Pittsburgh’s Used Church Items, in search of her Mary. These short, engaging essays not only invite readers along on her quest, but delve into other church-related matters, such as Catholic rituals, history, and devotion.
Livingston grew up Catholic, though admits to attending sporadically, sometimes skipping for years at a time. “So, while I came eagerly to Mass, served proudly at the altar, and noticed the way that people from the neighborhood perked up at church like wilted plants given doses of water and light, I was not—by even the most generous interpretation of the word—devout,” she writes. Just speaking of God made her “shifty-eyed and spastic.”
I know the feeling. Some thirty years ago, I converted to Catholicism, shortly before I married my husband. He was Catholic, though did not expect me to become one. I’d grown up Southern Baptist, but the hell-and-brimstone preaching always left me wide-eyed and shaken. Marrying my husband presented an opportunity to become part of something that had mystified me as a teenager. I’d visited the local Catholic Church a few times with a friend. The priests’ gold embroidered robes, jewel-crusted chalices, and mysterious rituals spoken in Latin left me in awe. Just imagine my surprise looking into the dusty gold frames hanging on the walls and discovering bits of leg bone and skull fragments. I loved Easter when the priest strolled down the aisle, shaking the thurible, raising clouds of incense, sending sweet, musky prayers over the congregants. The pipe organ’s dark bellows rattled my breast bone, leaving me breathless and dazed. Any effort to put these feelings into words would have left me blushing and tongue-tied—like trying to explain a dream.
Perhaps devout Jews have it right, not speaking God’s name. In her essay “Absolute Mystery,” Livingston writes, “Theologian Karl Rahner preferred Absolute Mystery to the word God, saying: God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names.”
After becoming Catholic, I’d sit in the pew under St. Lucy’s stained-glass portrait, where the window’s cool, watery purples and Lucy’s gentle, rose-blushed gaze fell upon me. I can’t remember how many Sundays I sat there before I noticed dear Lucy had a thorn sticking out of her eye. I’d learn she had been martyred—her eyes gouged out. She was the saint to turn to for eye problems, and when I needed help, we talked.
In Montreal, in St. Joseph’s Oratory, a heart floats in a formaldehyde flask. It once beat in the chest of Brother André Bessette, who used his miracle oils to heal the sick. Upon his death, the church honored his good heart by putting it on display. However, in 1973, thieves stole it and held for a $50,000 ransom. In “The Heart Is a First-Class Relic,” Livingston tells how the church refused to barter for the beloved heart, describing it as priceless. A year-and-a-half later, a tipster led authorities to a basement apartment, and there, inside a footlocker, they found the flask, still with the heart. A little formaldehyde had leaked out, yet the heart remained in good condition.
Perhaps the most somber essay is “Miracle of the Eyes,” in which Livingston recounts her trip to Ireland to visit the Ballinspittle grotto. On a cold, drizzly night, on January 31, 1984, a fifteen-year-old girl, wearing her Catholic school uniform, gave birth in the grotto, next to the Our Lady statue. “Ann Lovett trudged through winter fields, pain mounting with every step,” Livingston writes. “Perhaps, she thought as she approached the church—letting herself believe in the beautiful way only the most desperate do—perhaps Our Lady will help.” No one came, and Lovett and her infant son died in the cold on the grounds of the Catholic Church—the institution that made sure birth control and abortion remained inaccessible.
This essay is exceptionally grim. In general, Livingston’s essays are light-hearted, witty, told in a comforting, sisterly voice, someone you can trust, someone who speaks her mind, someone who explores those things lost and found.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.