April 9, 2021 § 3 Comments
By Nicole Graev Lipson
On a recent morning, I poked my head into my son’s room during virtual school. It was literacy period, and his teacher was introducing his second grade class to the concept of “mirrors” and “windows.” Say you’re a boy who lives in New England and loves birds, and you read a book about a boy who lives in New England and loves birds. That story would be a “mirror” reflecting your world. But if you’re this same boy, and you read a book about a girl who lives in Madagascar and loves astronomy, that story would be a “window,” opening onto a world beyond your own.
Our reading life should be full of both mirrors and windows, said his teacher.
I loved these metaphors, not only for their poetry, but their order—the way they seized on an activity as mysterious and amorphous as reading and arranged it into tidy categories. As I went about my day, I considered some of my own favorite books, designating each a “window” or a “mirror.” This was satisfying, like organizing a mess of papers into labeled file folders.
It was with this framework in mind that I read Courtney Zoffness’s debut essay collection Spilt Milk. The parallels between Zoffness’s life and mine are striking. She is a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s, and I am a Jewish woman who grew up in New York in the 1980s! She has two young sons, and I have a young son! She lives in Brooklyn, and I live in Brookline—which is basically the Brooklyn of Boston. If we read, in part, to see ourselves reflected, here was a book thatcalled to me like a tremendous, shining mirror.
But from the very first of its ten searching and exquisitely-wrought essays, Spilt Milk made me question whether human experience can be so neatly divided. Circling around themes of motherhood, daughterhood, friendship, and spirituality, Zoffness’s writing illuminates, again and again, the porousness of boundaries between “self” and “other.” In the opening essay, “The Only Thing We Have to Fear,” Zoffness evokes this permeability through the lens of parenthood, tracing a thread between her five-year-old son’s anxieties and her own childhood worries and introducing a question that drives much of the collection: to what extent can we control what we inherit—from generations past, and from our culture?
Zoffness recounts turning to medical textbooks to better understand “parent-child transfer.” In its humility and poetry, her own writing emerges as an alternative to these texts, illuminating the interplay between parent and child in a way their “dense, inscrutable” language does not. Through her tender descriptions of her son’s struggles, she evokes the double-edged sensation—so common to parenthood—of feeling at once fiercely protective and culpable. In one achingly poignant scene, Zoffness attempts to comfort her son after a nightmare, but he shrinks from her. He has dreamed, he finally confides, that she was a monster. “He wants reassurance that I am who I say I am. That I’m not a demon disguised as his mom,” Zoffness writes. “He makes me pinky swear. Breath snags on a branch in my throat.”
In “Ultra Sound,” Zoffness flips the parent-child lens, probing the boundaries between herself and her own deeply private mother. In the 1960’s—a past Zoffness knows only from the wall of memorabilia in her childhood den—Zoffness’s mother was a folk singer, part of a duo that once shared a stage with Van Morrison and opened for the Doors. Zoffness captures her life-long yearning to understand a woman who has eluded her, a “paint-by-number profile with only some sections filled in.” As an adult, she finally hears an old recording of her mother singing, her voice sonorous and beautiful: “Each note from the record player is a portal I want to pass through,” Zoffness writes. Ultimately, the essay itself becomes a portal to the understanding she craves, as Zoffness the writer uses her imaginative powers to connect her mother’s creativity and her own.
Empathic imagination is also a theme in “Holy Body.” Here, Zoffness reconnects with a childhood friend who, motivated by compassion alone, has become a surrogate mother. Zoffness longs to uncover the origins of her friend’s generosity, so “unthinkable” in its hugeness. “You will spend the next several months—and likely the rest of your life—considering your relationship to restoration, and also how you can cultivate compassion in your sons,” the narrator reflects at the essay’s end. Zoffness’s handles the tricky second-person voice masterfully: “you” becomes not just the author, but all of us who yearn to bring forth our best selves forward into the world.
Zoffness’s essays interpose disparate scenes in such a way that meaning wells up subtly, arrestingly, in the white spaces between present and past, self and other. Form itself becomes a vehicle for compassion. These juxtapositions work particularly well in “It May All End in Aleppo,” in which Zoffness conjures her developing relationship with Sol, a Syrian-American Orthodox Jew who once enlisted her help writing his memoir. Listening to Sol’s stories of his harrowing escape from his birth country—and then filtering his memories through her own imagination in order to write about them—blurs the line between storyteller and listener. Zoffness describes:
“Here’s what happens when you slip inside someone else’s body. When you chant alongside his father on Shabbat. When you eat his mother’s lamb pies and pickled peppers. When the glasses out of which he peers get knocked from his face, and his head—your head—is bashed against a wall. Here’s what happens when you assume their nation, their faith: Your eyes change. You feel a sudden affinity for the Arabic writing on your neighborhood storefronts. You smile at the Hasidic women pushing strollers past yours on the sidewalk. No one, including you, looks exactly the same.”
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect evocation of what good writing can do for a reader than this passage, which is to dissolve the barriers that keep us from one another. Could I still, after finishing Spilt Milk, accurately call it a “mirror”? In the end, it seems to me the most revelatory writing—the writing Zoffness gorgeously achieves with this collection—isn’t a “window” or “mirror,” but a combination of the two, a shifting kaleidoscope that transforms what we see and know.
In our own reflection, it shows us a world beyond us. Pointing to the world beyond us, it shows us ourselves.
Nicole Graev Lipson’s essays have appeared in River Teeth, Creative Nonfiction, The Hudson Review, Hippocampus, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, among other publications. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected as a “Notable Essay” in The Best American Essays. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is working on a collection of essays. She can be reached at www.nicolegraevlipson.com.
March 22, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Jenn Gibbs
Parenthood is meeting daily the hypocrite within.
Standing in the produce aisle, I weigh my kids’ need to eat greens against the karmic repercussions of a plastic clamshell. Should I buy the unwashed bulk kale? When I’m on deadline (which is always), that is a sure path to a container of slime behind the mayo. And it’s been hard enough propelling two teen boys through the agonies of online school to add food prep to their chores.
Also, and this is important, that meaty bulk kale doesn’t taste as good as this tender baby kale. Which is organic, by the way. Surely that tips the scales. I put two in my cart and roll on over to Meat where I’ll agonize over the affordable, monstrous Valu-Pak chicken that elder teen can mow through in two days versus my preferred yet painfully priced and teensy packages of the humanely-raised, cage-free, organic stuff. I will again consider pescatarianism then recount all the reasons that hasn’t worked for us. I will repeat this ritual in front of the beef, pork, and sausage. When I finally get home, exhausted, my partner will tease me about how long I’ve been gone.
Nicole Walker would understand why grocery shopping can be a fraught ethical exercise for all but the purest of eco-warriors and climate deniers. The poet and essayist’s latest collection of creative nonfiction, Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, is all about the tension between our appetites and ideals, our need for change and our habits as individuals and as a collective. With wit and wide-ranging imagery, she places her own warring drives and impulses in the center of the plate, revealing how a self can be a microcosm of a society that can’t seem to bring the body in line with the logic for a healthier planet.
The collection opens with “Salmon of the Apocalypse,” on cooking fish in the desert to ward off the hypothetical crisis of Y2K, and ends with the very real crisis caused by COVID-19 in “Impurities” and “The Body.” Throughout, Walker wrangles with a chronic dissonance between appreciating the case for zero population growth and meatless living on one side and a deep desire to create babies and eat bacon and beefsteak on the other. “My dream of becoming a pure vegetarian fails,” she admits, “just like any of my dreams of being purely pure.”
Throughout the book, Walker presents the joy and terror of motherhood refreshingly free of sentimentality and mingled with ecological concerns. “What the Dirt Knows” juxtaposes an inability to get pregnant with the difficulty of growing tomatoes after environmental degradation—both conditions made more puzzling against a family history of prolific fertility of both womb and garden. “Anti-Bodies,” “Veal,” and “Move Out” set harrowing experiences with a premature infant alongside botulism, meat production, and air quality. “Pork Technologies” intersperses the anxiety of listening for wheezing lungs during the H1N1 pandemic and solutions for CO2 overload in the atmosphere with a hodgepodge of porcine-related ponderings such as how to prepare pork belly and one highly memorable way that housing a pig in an apartment can go awry. (My note in the margin there: “I can’t unsee this.”)
These essays are studded with moments of delight, many the result of low-simmering, situational humor bubbling up. Did someone mean to compliment Walker’s restraint at limiting herself to two kids—or two steaks? And while Walker doesn’t mug for her audience, I could swear she’s inviting us to laugh along as she serves poached salmon that falls squarely into the trap her cousin’s boyfriend (irritatingly, to this reader at least) warned against? Environmental writing skews toward the somber for good reason, and while Walker hits low and mid-range notes beautifully as well, a bit of levity is part of living at the intersection of competing values. There’s a compassionate wisdom to the wit in this collection, an understanding that we sometimes have to fumble along with ambiguity or the consequences of making what, in retrospect, proves to have been a bad call. After all, without joy, hope, or pleasure, what is the point? “[T]hese babies and these steaks are so delicious and there is only one life to live and we should dig in an enjoy it.”
For readers accustomed to essays structured around chronological, causal relationships, Walker’s lyric-dominant approach to form may feel as disconcerting as being served a taco with everything but the tortilla that holds it together—a dish described in “What the Dirt Knows.” Narrative is an important yet secondary ingredient in this book, where transitions tend to be associative. “Trying to get pregnant is lot like trying to make cheese,” opens the brief and delightful “How to Make Mozzarella,” which then leaps, not to cheese (which comes along in a moment), but to climate change. Yet these junctures are more than quirks of Walker’s style; they contribute to the book’s theme: the interdependence of individual and collective bodies, culture, and the environment.
Sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant, always peripatetic, Walker’s meditations offer not answers but companionship for anyone who tries and fails to align rational mind with all the other parts that come into play when guiding the choices we make for ourselves, our dependents, and the wider world. Processed Meats makes the point that we’re in the thick of it, here and now, together. As Walker writes, “We establish boundaries between you and I but what if there really is no separation?” Whether or not we buy the prewashed greens encased in plastic, eat the steak, or have the babies, we are inseparable from one another, our planet, and all that we turn to for nourishment.
Jenn Gibbs is a writer, editor, and communication Swiss Army knife specializing in prose forms and the creative process. Her stories and essays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including The Gettysburg Review, Ocean State Review, The Chattahoochee Review, and Literature and Racial Ambiguity. She makes art, a living, and a life in Salt Lake City.
March 5, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Jody Gerbig
When I was a college student visiting home, I chose to spend many of my limited afternoons and evenings with my grandparents, then in their mid-sixties and early seventies. They were, in their retirement, some of the most interesting people I knew, my grandfather playing violin with his chamber-music group or cooking the latest New York Times recipe, my grandmother trying new bridge tactics and attending symphonies. I enjoyed sitting among them and their friends, eating brie and multigrain crackers, discussing art exhibits, new memoirs, and the moral implications of farming salmon. Their lives felt uncomplicated by young children or work stress, their days filled with chosen pursuits. No one else I knew led such rich lives. No one else seemed so leisurely contemplative, free to let thoughts wander.
I was reminded of those visits while reading Rick Bailey’s essay collection, Get Thee to a Bakery, an exploration of daily life lived mostly in retirement, including long lunches with foodie friends, special trips to the “vegetable guy,” and discussions about key changes in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.
That is not to say Bailey’s writing is all highbrow, however. His essays are often funny and self-deprecating, focusing on either the mundane (shopping for nativity Jesuses in San Marino), or the hilariously grotesque (ordering dog poop by the gallon to teach his neighbors a lesson). In “Alien Pleasures,” he admits to enjoying the odd hotdog left on the counter overnight. In “You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You?,” he considers eating the squirrels invading his bird feeder. His writing is sharp, ironic, and humorously honest, but his character is contemplative, thoughtful, even sweet, his affection for his wife seemingly unwavering.
Just as dynamic are Bailey’s feelings about aging, sometimes mourning his youth and other times celebrating life’s changes. Appropriately, he opens his collection in the fall season, when air is both “crisp and faintly rotten smelling.” Perhaps he should not be climbing the ladder to clean the gutters himself anymore, but he does anyway, an attitude that carries him through most days. Of his food preferences, he says, “as you age, your taste buds dull and die. Bitter becomes okay,” a lucky thing, he thinks, for someone trying to drink his eight servings of vegetables each day. His gradual hearing loss makes crowded restaurants more difficult but allows him to use the word circumambient obnoxiously often. Bailey essays approach aging not as an end, but as a transformation, like a caterpillar becomes a moth, or like someone wipes his Kindle clean to make room for new lists of highlighted words to look up. With age, he says, comes longer lists, more to remember, so it is best, occasionally, to start fresh.
Bailey’s writing style makes defining his collection difficult. In each essay and throughout the collection, he revisits seasons, conflicts, and motifs in such a way that I sometimes felt I was reading an epic poem and other times watching an episode of Seinfeld. I am mesmerized by his ability to weave together disparate ideas. In “Back to Comanche,” for example, Bailey covers as many as five topics (moths, road rage, revisionist history, and hypertension), ending with the realization that most rage is pointless and self-destructive. Only at the end of the essay did I ask myself whether all five topics were related, though I didn’t mind the possibility they were not. Bailey’s details are often fascinating and real on their own, capturing both the arbitrary and connected nature of our days. Rather than espousing a thesis, his collection evokes new questions, creating an experience similar to the one he describes while assessing Susanna Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: “All day long stuff happens to us, we are flooded with sensations, experience, and meaning. The mind processes the experience, stores it in memory, in code—images, words, figures, sounds—in symbols that we access and organize, and shape and reshape into meaning. We live in a swell, a tide of significance that rises, envelopes us.”
Like with my grandparents, I wanted to hang out with Bailey’s essays longer than I was afforded. In them, I felt comfort, inspiration, joy. In some ways, they make me look forward to my own retirement in which I might dare to climb the ladder when I shouldn’t, or lean back too far, threatening to fall. And, why not? Perhaps the view from that climb will inspire an interesting thought. Perhaps, if I fall, I will land with my eyes pointed skyward, noticing, like Bailey does, the delightful oddness of the everyday and the wonder—the gift—of still being alive.
Jody Gerbig lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she is raising triplets and a writing career. Her essays have been published in Columbus Monthly, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Brevity Blog, and elsewhere. She also writes fiction and serves as an editor at 101 Words and Typehouse Magazine.
February 27, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Jehanne Dubrow
This past month, as I’ve struggled with the daily scald of acid rising in my throat, my sleep wrecked by the sensation that I’m drowning in my own saliva, my breathing asthmatic, my waking hours hoarse-voiced and blurry-eyed. I have had many occasions to meditate on my body. The fact is, I do not notice it when it doesn’t summon my attention with pain. I only remember that I live inside a thing called a body when it stubs itself, when it winces or twinges, when it bleeds or scabs over or scars. The pain brings me inescapably back to myself, even as it makes me want to run from my own skin.
In her first book of creative nonfiction, Pain Studies, poet Lisa Olstein meditates on the paradoxes of pain. Pain, she writes, is “vivid even in its opacity, vague even in its precision.” It simultaneously “reduces and expands, diminishes and amplifies,” so that the suffering body is drawn away from others and inward to the pulsing hurt.
Divided into thirty-eight short chapters, the text swirls from ache to ache, nonlinear as the pain it narrates. The book’s title implies that pain is a scholarly discipline. Olstein functions here as both scholar and sufferer, her approach brief and fragmentary, as if she worries that to linger too long on any single narrative might lead her to feel more pain. The book also functions as a series of artist’s studies, each chapter a sketch that presents the outlines of its subject matter. Like an artist’s drawings of a bird or a human hand, Olstein’s studies show us pain from dozens of angles so that we eventually see its whole shape.
Like any good scholar, Olstein grounds her assertions about pain in essential texts, including Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill,” Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” and Elaine Scarry’s landmark interdisciplinary text, The Body in Pain. Olstein’s analyses are wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, because pain too reaches everywhere, touches all corners of a sufferer’s life. She writes about the character of Gregory House—who is, provocatively, both a doctor and a patient—from the television drama, House, M.D. She links the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras to Emily Dickinson. She connects her own chronic migraines to the work of artist Donald Judd, his sculptural installations in Marfa, Texas, prismatic in much the same way as Olstein’s debilitating headaches. “If migraine’s prism could be painless,” she writes, “if migraine mind could be prismed through the lens of a hundred brushed aluminum boxes reflecting desert earth and sky, it would look like this.”
A central preoccupation of Pain Studies is the narrator’s examination of the suffering of Joan of Arc: “I find myself acutely, at times even obsessively, interested in Joan—specifically, in her trial. That is, what she had to say.” Finding references to Joan of Arc everywhere—in the writings of Anne Carson, Elizabeth Willis, even the former UN Ambassador Samantha Power—Olstein tries to understand “Why Joan?” In Joan’s trial, the author finds a menacing reflection of the “doctor/patient” relationship: all those unanswerable questions, all the poking and prodding, all the “deeply biased men” circling the small form of a woman.
As compelling and beautiful as I find Olstein’s language, I can’t decide if her analogy goes too far. She points out that “[t]he word pain derives from the Latin poena (penalty, punishment, execution).” When pain strikes, it does indeed feel like the body has been put on trial.
I was named for Joan of Arc, Jehanne the medieval spelling, how scribes signed the saint’s name on all extant letters. When Olstein asks, “Why Joan?” I can’t quite see my own pain as persecution. I know the hurt comes from inside my body. At night, I lie on a wedge-shaped pillow, my back angled at a 45-degree angle, trying not to choke on the acrid water rising in my mouth. Someone is squeezing my lungs with a fist. But, no, there is no hand around my breath. I have not been imprisoned; I am my only prison. At least for me, there is no burning at the stake.
Jehanne Dubrow is author of nine poetry collections and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes. Her lyric essays have appeared in New England Review, The Common, The Colorado Review, and Image. She is a professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.
February 19, 2021 § 1 Comment
By Elizabeth Bales Frank
Cinéaste. That’s a fun word, with its emphasis on sophisticated enthusiasm. Unfortunately, that word did not reach peak popularity until the early aughts. In my teen years, I was just a nerd in my dark bedroom, in thrall to the glow of the goings-on in what a certain female relative described as “those boring black and white movies you watch all the time.” Undeterred, I left the Midwest for film school and the art house cinemas of Greenwich Village.
David Lazar, whose latest essay collection is Celeste Holm Syndrome: On Character Actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, grew up in those art house cinemas and revival houses, travelling from Brooklyn into Manhattan to feast on the offerings of the Hollywood Dream Factory. If the terms “Hollywood Dream Factory,” “Celeste Holm,” or even “character actor,” leave you cold, if you don’t drive by Turner Classic Movies while channel surfing just to see what’s on offer, if you concur, in other words, with my relative’s judgment on “boring black and white movies,” this book is probably not for you. Lazar’s knowledge of his topic is so thorough and he explores it with such zeal that neophytes will feel in the dark—and not in the transporting dark of the cinema. But if you are a cinéaste, this collection is an education and a delight.
“Have you ever watched a film and just focused on the supporting characters?” Lazar asks. “As a child who felt as though he were destined to play a supporting role, a watching role . . . the action, it seemed to me, was on the sidelines.” Later, he explains the allure of character actors: “What magic, to suggest human dimensionality on a flat screen in just a few minutes. What humility mixed with persistent faith, to think that these occasional moments of impersonation . . . could really matter to those of us sitting out there in the dark, ensembles of one.”
In this collection, Lazar explores the films of Preston Sturges, who ran a kind of cinematic commedia dell’arte in the 1940s, employing the same actors in numerous films. In “The Two Oscars,” he compares the wit, outsized talent, and outsider status of Oscar Levant and Oscar Wilde. In other pieces, he explores some terrifying or sacrificing (or both at once) movie mothers (Thelma Ritter, Elizabeth Marvel), and provides solo monographs on Jack Carson, Martin Balsam, and Edward Everett Horton. But it is the title essay, “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” that brings it home in this collection.
The “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” you see, is not about being a character actor at all. It is the practice that Hollywood has of “sexually undermining interesting ‘mature’ women when their roles called for economic power or independence.”
As examples of the “Celeste Holm Syndrome,” Lazar cites Eleanor Parker, the Baroness in The Sound of Music, and Nina Foch in An American in Paris, who loses Gene Kelly to the charms of Leslie Caron. (Lazar might have an obsession with Nina Foch, who occupies a large digression of the Oscar Levant essay as well, as Levant played the musician sidekick in that film.) Other examples include Eve Arden and Celeste Holm in numerous films, women who don’t need to be schooled by men, women who enter the scene “vibrantly sexual, verbally playful, self-aware and forward in their intentions, [who] end up humiliated, disposed, cast aside for ingenues.”
Notice above I wrote “Hollywood has” and not “Hollywood had.” Do we not see repeated examples, in our entertainment, the “Celeste Holm Syndrome”? To my mind, the term should elevated in the popular lexicon to the status of the “Bechdel test.” (And for those not familiar, the Bechdel test, created by Fun Home’s Alison Bechdel, demands that two women in a movie have a conversation that is not about a man.)
Lazar’s writing is both erudite and ardent. He is both professor and cinéaste. In his essay on Franklin Pangborn and Eric Blore, who played quietly snarky valet and butler types, he declares that they have names which confirm his “long-held belief in nominal determinism.” Another way to say that is to declare, as he does, is that one of Jack Carson’s wives was called Kay St. Germain Wells—“whose name I may elope with in my dreams tonight.”
Elizabeth Bales Frank’s work has appeared in The Sun, Barrelhouse, Epiphany, Post Road, The Writing Disorder and other publications. She earned her MLIS from Pratt Institute in 2018 and encourages you to support your local librarians, especially if you live in Missouri. Her novel Censorettes was released by Stonehouse Publishing last November.
February 9, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Susannah Clark
When The New York Times finally called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, late in the morning of Saturday, November 7, Brooklyn danced. Masks on and champagne in tow, hundreds gathered in Prospect Park, culminating in a giant dance party on the Great Lawn. Wireless speakers blasted “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Party in the USA,” “WAP.” We shimmied at strangers, dipping and dabbing, twisting and twerking. It felt like Coachella. It felt like the Before Times.
A cynic might say we were only celebrating the defeat of Donald Trump; no one I know was particularly enthusiastic about the Democratic candidate, and I had seen relatively few Biden/Harris signs out in the neighborhood. But I’d like to think we were reveling not in the fate of one, but in the will of many. We triumphed over tyranny without resorting to violence. We played by the rules, and, unlike four years ago, the system worked. Or so it appeared.
Opening with the first steps of George Washington’s “Virginia Reel,” Colin Rafferty’s newest essay collection, Execute the Office: Essays with Presidents, is bookended by dancing.
“Why do we dance?” Rafferty wonders, “…we dance for the possibility of connection with another human being.” In the closing essay, he marvels at how one of the first things we ask the newly inaugurated president to do is dance in public. “How strange it is to see them in this physical task when what we have asked them to do is so thoroughly cerebral.”
Told in forty-four flash essays, one for each presidency, this collection might have also been subtitled “a lyrical history of the United States,” but non-history buffs needn’t worry. Rafferty’s nimble prose sashays away from ever reading like a textbook. I can’t promise you won’t learn anything, but the overall effect is more artful than educational. Most of the standout essays are about the least famous presidents, particularly those in the first half of the nineteenth century, whose obscurity might be explained by what the author describes as “the long smear of history obscuring your view between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.” Rafferty is at his best when experimenting with form: the presidency of Franklin Pierce is represented by a series of doctor’s notes, Eisenhower gets to play every character in The Wizard of Oz, and George W. Bush is taxonomized by hurricane categories.
Rafferty projects a larger narrative arc by dating each essay in relation to three historical milestones: the signing of the Constitution (the setting), the Emancipation Proclamation (the conflict), and Nixon’s resignation (the rising action). The climax may have happened just a few weeks ago. I started reading Execute the Office days before the right-wing extremists’ insurrection of the Capitol. I finished the book over a week later, on the day that Donald Trump became the first president in history to be impeached twice. At 150 pages, this collection could easily be read in one or two sittings, but I kept getting interrupted by push notifications with couplets of breaking history. By the end, I was glad to have been forced to pace myself. A reader might approach these essays more like poems, giving them each some time and space for rumination against the baffling backdrop of our present day.
The most poetic essay in the collection is “bully,” about Theodore Roosevelt. Rafferty casts the shadow of a norm-busting president by breaking conventions of syntax and punctuation:
i do not mean to praise him or his strength or suggest he is without flaw or argue that combat is our first route to success because that has not been america’s story these days or my story or perhaps not your story but there is something in the striving that i admire something in the desire to gain power so that it might be used well for the less fortunate that seems like the best impulse of this country because either a constitution written by landowning males has malfunctioned because it has expanded its rights to people they did not or could not conceive as human or it has functioned exactly the way they meant it to function, unclenching the freedoms it took violently, letting them expand, letting them breathe, letting the air of liberty rush into the lungs
Execute the Office works because no one is lionized. The reader is left with the dissonant chords of America’s contradictions ringing in their ears. The prose does not explain or justify, but it does dance.
Susannah Clark is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has been published in Inside Higher Ed, PopMatters, under the gum tree, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net anthology and the Pushcart Prize, and has a Notable essay listed in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology.
February 5, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Jody Keisner
When my oldest daughter was small, she erupted in frantic physical tantrums that afterward left both of us exhausted, huddling on the floor together, crying, unsure of what had just happened. Her anger, it seemed, came from someplace deep inside of her, or maybe from someplace beyond her. So little it took to upset her back then and so disproportionate were her responses, it was as if she was born with anger much bigger than herself and her short time on earth. It was as if she’d inherited my anger. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I’d endured my father’s verbal and mental abuse, my face and body pliant, while fury pooled inside of my chest. I never allowed myself to express any of it, instead shoving my uglier emotions down into my gut, where they stayed for two more decades and I finally had a reckoning with my father. Or so I thought.
Then I came across Jeannine Ouellette’s stunning essay, “Bent: Daughterhood Recalled Through Skin and Bone,” co-written with her youngest daughter Lillian Ouellette-Howitz and first published in CALYX. In “Bent,” mother and daughter converse remembering the stories of abuse they’ve lived, witnessed, or told each other—or possibly inherited. Referencing epigenetic theory and intergenerational trauma, Ouellette writes, “Trauma, they say, is coded into our genes, mapped into our DNA. Trauma, they say, shapes us and our children for generations to come. Still, I had you. Still, I have you.” While it’s the penultimate chapter in Ouellette’s debut memoir The Part That Burns, the questions “Bent” raises are examined throughout the book: Can the genetic markers of trauma be passed down to our children, influencing the choices they make and who they become? Have our parents’ experiences affected the expression of our genes, too? These are frightening prospects for Ouellette when so much of her life has been characterized by volatile relationships and repeated upheavals from home, yet Ouellette is less afraid than she is determined to look at the truth of her own girlhood, motherhood, marriage, and survival.
Spanning a few decades, from when Ouellette was four years old to when her own three children are grown, her book takes place in dozens of homes and apartments—including two foster homes—across Minnesota and Wyoming. Often circling back around to emotional cuts she’s suffered in earlier pages, Ouellette structures most of her chapters as flash, segmented, and braided essays, with sub-headings that function as symbols or metaphors that point to painful truths.
In the opening segmented chapter, “Four Dogs, Maybe Five,” for example, Ouellette reveals the abuse she suffered from her mentally unstable mother and her sexually predatory stepfather when she was a child, and then she skips ahead to her failing first marriage—all through the focal point of the dogs her family has kept and lost. The dangers and neglect the dogs endure parallel the dangers and neglect in Ouellette’s life. The effect is gut-wrenching: One dog gets hit by a car, another disappears with her stepfather after he has a brutal fight with her mother, one’s jaw is torn off during a brawl with another animal, and yet another gets sent to the pound, etc. Her mother’s attitude toward loss is callous: “But when big things go missing—men, houses, dogs—you don’t ask questions. You don’t mention it again. You simply move on.”
Her mother doesn’t ask questions either when her husband sexually assaults four-year-old Ouellette, instead choosing to ignore it and kick Ouellette out of the house when she’s aggravated. “I should have aborted you when I had the chance,” she tells her after a violent argument that results after Ouellette, a teenager, and her younger sister order the wrong pizza topping. Despite this, Ouellette shows compassion toward her mother, alluding to reasons for her brokenness.
At times Ouellette’s luscious, feral prose left me dizzy. In “Big Blue,” a chapter about how the places we’ve lived stay with us after we’ve left them, even if it was vital to our happiness to flee, Ouellete captures the texture of Minneapolis in one long-sentence:
A city crammed with beauty and filth, fields like amber oceans and blighted summer parking lots soft as dough, clover and creeping thistle under chain link, winter snow melting into gutters, and most of all, people, people with their mouths full of food and gum and each other’s tongues, acid-washed jeans and men’s wool overcoats from the surplus store reeking of mothballs and old sweat, hair stiff with gel, red Solo cups and warm skin.
Ouellette is discovering who and what to get away from and when to stay. She accepts her mother back into her life when she has children of her own, but she dissociates from her body—“fiery and floating”—while having sex with her first husband, a reliable family man who helps around the house but blames their lackluster love life on her being “frigid.”
The book’s title takes on symbolic significance in many chapters, of course, but not in the ways I could have anticipated. Ouellette writes of those times she leaves her body: “My body is not me. I am the part that burns.” And she evokes the imagery of fiery explosions to describe giving birth to her first child at twenty-two: “Somehow the walls did not buckle and fall, the floor and ceiling did not blow out, though she expanded everywhere, like sea, like sky.” The descriptions here echo a startling tragedy from the past and caused by her mother, then eighteen and in love with Ouellette’s father, but I won’t say more because part of the pleasure of reading The Part That Burns is in discovering these interwoven metaphors and realizing how they connect and spread like wildfire within seemingly disparate memories.
Reading Ouellette’s memoir-in-essays, I thought about the scientific plausibility of my own fury leaving a chemical mark on the genes I passed down to my daughter, who I’m happy to say, has learned healthier ways of expressing her anger. “Scientists say our cells hold everything forever,” Ouellette writes, “But also, cells are constantly dying and regenerating. Sometimes cellular regeneration hurts, but not always.” Honestly, The Part That Burns is going to hurt readers a little, too, especially when Ouellette’s younger narrative persona describes moments of abuse, clear-eyed and unsentimental, or when she unexpectedly merges with the adult narrative voice during an unsettling scene. Ultimately, though, Ouellette’s story is one of truth and beauty, full of lyrical language and images, and filled with moments of awe and wonder between Ouellette and her children.
Jody Keisner’s essays and stories have appeared in Fourth Genre, Cimarron Review, Post Road, Brevity, The Rumpus, The Normal School, and many other literary journals and magazines. Her first book, Under My Bed and Other Essays, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. You can read more of her work at http://www.jodykeisner.com.
January 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Heidi Czerwiec
After reading The Witch of Eye, Kathryn Nuernberger’s new collection of meditative and lyric essays about the cruelties inflicted on certain women—mainly “witches” but sometimes saints, though their ends are often equally as bloody—I was furious. As Nuernberger puts it, “I have anger and anger to spare.” Not because of reading the familiar stories—even if the named individuals are new to me, the stories are always “one version of the tragedy after another.” But because of how, as we are reminded in “Translations of the Conclusions & Findings Report for Catalina Ouyang as the True Confessions of Johannes Junius,” a piece on the gross institutional failures of Title IX investigations, words may be used against you: “your words aren’t words, your words are evidence, your memories are words, your feelings are evidence of the opposite of your words, except when they are consistent with something the panel considers evidence.” Having experienced this myself, when a former institution I worked for allowed my words to be twisted and violent threats made to me when I followed the institution’s own policies, I know, as does Nuernberger, that even being a writer does not translate to control over your own words, especially within patriarchal systems. The silences from these institutions were telling.
Creative writing that incorporates research often is about looking past the official account, reading into the apocrypha, the off-the-record, marginalia. Especially into erasures and silences. As Nuernberger relates, “A translator once told me that the first act of translation is to move silence into words.” This tactic is stated in that Title IX essay, which occurs at the end of the collection, but it’s truly Nuernberger’s strategy for both The Witch of Eye and her most recent poetry collection, Rue. While I am here to review The Witch of Eye, I’d argue for a paired reading of these two texts, two sides of the same silence being translated. Both books deal with women and knowledge that have been marginalized, erased, and/or demonized. Rue tends to zoom in more on the knowledge—the natural lore (especially of plants traditionally used for birth control), the whisper network of how to navigate the world of men—that gets deemphasized, suppressed, forgotten. As a forager, I was thrilled after reading it, began looking for the plants she notes, noting descriptions in my mushroom guides of the telltale phrase “brings on the menses.” Rue’s sister, The Witch of Eye, focuses more on the women targeted for possessing this knowledge.
The distinctions of content and genre between the two books are fine—where they differ is in style. Rue is comprised of long poems that trace the twists and turns of the author’s process of mind as she processes these ways of knowing and how they’ve been received, long passages that attempt to create connections to this knowledge, grapple with it, reclaim it, and weave it into a current consciousness and context. In contrast, The Witch of Eye is quite fragmented—punctuated with white spaces that echo the silences she is writing into, translating. These essays are rich, dense with information and images, and yet so clear-eyed in their focus and project. Like the hagstones—the naturally-occurring stones with holes, the “stone monocle” she describes in “The Eye of the Hagstone”—“they can help you see what is real.” Nuernberger braids together historical details, records of confessions and torture, philosophical mediation, myth, personal reflection and narrative, social and literary theory, and theology. These are related in terse sentences and fragments juxtaposed in such a way that you can watch her mind at work on the page and follow the connections she makes as she leaps. In “Titiba & the Invention of the Unknown,” when Nuernberger introduces us to historian Michel de Certeau, who “wants to know what makes ideas possible,” and who insists we ask “what makes something thinkable,” and follows it with bits of transcript from the interrogation of Titiba in Salem, it’s clear the question we are to consider is, how can a culture simultaneously imagine such horrible things are possible, and yet insist that the woman is the cause, despite her denials? Nuernberger also implicates our systems of power in how such imagined horrors are projected onto scapegoats, while actual horrors get glossed over: murders of women, Title IX panels that protect colleges over victims, Carlisle Indian schools, the incarceration of migrant children by ICE.
Lest I make the issues introduced in the The Witch of Eye seem reductive or simply a performance of female outrage, this book is quite complex. Throughout, Nuernberger wrestles with her own involvement. She cites Adrienne Rich: “Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience…and [w]e have a profound stake…in describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other.” She struggles with all the ways her marriage makes her crazy, yet also needing to fully present herself to her husband, and how that became a spell, “a slow spell and often a very boring and repetitive one…. It has made me more dangerous and more kind than I would ever have figured out to be on my own.”
These essays are fascinating—while their titles often seem like we’ll be covering familiar material—“Titiba,” “The Devil’s Book,” “Hildegard von Bingen,” “Medusa,” “Marie Laveau”—this is no pop-culture recitation à lá Sabrina or AHS: Coven. Instead, Nuernberger zooms in on the unspoken details: “in ‘The Torture Used Against Witches’ (1577) the cherubic boy-man with curly locks has a boner so big it almost interferes with his capacity to turn the wheel that pulls the woman’s arms unaccountably backwards.” In a lurid depiction of torture, “The parchment is centuries old and tattered, but the pigments have not lost a shade. Or maybe someone came back later to add this color so they could imagine the moment more vividly.” On the pressures of inquisitions to get “new” information and, therefore, the need for inventive details and additional accusations, Nuernberger admits “there are aspects of an inquisition I would probably enjoy [like] adding decorative touches to the archetype of the devil.” Yet she also works through resistance: “The vow of silence is not necessarily a refusal to invent…. It can simply be a promise not to invent each other.”
While musing on the lush green meditations of Hildegard von Bingen, Nuernberger makes her own confession: “I started reading about witches because I thought I’d find people talking about how they felt this green world offering to take over their bodies if only they could figure out how to let it…. Like anybody, I live at the intersection of longing and discipline. Like anybody, I am not sure if I have made the right choices.” This longing for knowledge, and the means to use it, can lead to rage, confusion, and silence. But I’m so grateful for Nuernberger’s attempts to translate those silences.
Heidi Czerwiec is an essayist, poet, and author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.
January 8, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Sarah Curtis
“It’s one of our great tragedies of contemporary life in America, that families fall apart,” the playwright Sam Shepard once said. “Almost everybody has that in common.” I kept thinking of Shepard’s quote while reading Debra Di Blasi’s memoir (if that’s the right word) Selling the Farm: Descants From a Recollected Past (C & R Press, 2020). Written in a series of lyrical vignettes, the book is an elegy to the wild Missouri farm where Di Blasi grew up and to the complicated family who bore witness to it.
In Di Blasi’s hands, memoir is not a work of confession. As she writes in the prologue, she views autobiography as pretense—observing the past inevitably alters it, and any memoir that fails to recognize this fact is fiction. She calls attention to her self-editing through white space, indented text that often breaks the fourth wall. As Di Blasi explained in an interview about the book, “The intent is not only to illuminate the many facets of remembering but also to reflect the process of writing and revising one’s recollections, exposing the fallibility of memory and the intrusion of self-aggrandizement.”
Instead of autobiography, she categorizes Selling the Farm as “a biography of a place I happened to intersect.” In this place-based biography, narrative takes a backseat to lyricism. Animals occupy as much space (if not more) as humans, and human conflict reveals itself in brief, nightmarish flashes. Her parents fight. Her father rages. The family lives in squalor. Her mother tries to overdose on aspirin. A sister dies from cancer caused by chemicals in the groundwater. A mysterious fire consumes her childhood farmhouse.
Yet there is light amidst the darkness. Though Di Blasi and her four siblings lack the conventional comforts of indoor plumbing and happy parents, they are rich in immaterial gifts, in “a kind of wealth high beyond the flat innertubes and broken dolls of childhood.” The book is a kind of extended meditation on the wonder of childhood, a phase unburdened by memory, when time is experienced “head-on.” This is not to say the book romanticizes childhood. The siblings wreak havoc on their natural world like small, vengeful gods, pulling wings off grasshoppers and shooting frogs to placate their boredom. They were, she admits, “terrible.”
But the country cruelties are outnumbered by moments of staggering awe. Marrying prose and poetry, Selling the Farm is the kind of book you want to read with a pen on your lap, to mark its slippery metaphors and juxtapositions. Earth is “licked clean of time,” algae “resembles metallic threads loomed for a queen,” coyotes “come nosing the night’s lost virginity.” In one of my favorite vignettes, Di Blasi recalls the sensory thrill of being the first to lay boot tracks in a snowy field. “I’d reach the stand of black-skinned elms with iced branches clicking like graceless castanets. Turn in the blue knives of shadow. See where I’d been. The past, I saw, would dissolve in the heat of each moment, each step of the way.” It speaks to Di Blasi’s skills as a writer that she’s able to turn this ordinary event—stomping through fresh snow—into a transcendent statement on time’s impermanence.
The book advances seasonally, beginning with autumn and ending with spring. To end with a season of rebirth hints at hope; instead, Selling the Farm ends with the death of Di Blasi’s sister. This is a book, after all, about grief—grief for a sister, for a family torn asunder, and for a farm lost forever.
Or is it? “Do the trees remember us?” Di Blasi asks near the end. “I choose to believe that somewhere inside a sweet wet ring of uncut tree trunk’s an unchanged piece of who we ever were.” The sun melts our boot prints. The house burns down, or is sold. Our families age, and yes, as Sam Shepard noted, they fall apart. But certain places in our lives are so influential they never leave us, and perhaps we never leave them.
Like Di Blasi, I was raised on a rural cattle farm by parents who didn’t always get along like the smiling sitcom families I envied. My childhood farm was smaller, and less hardscrabble, than Di Blasi’s, but I saw myself in her story. Like her family, my parents sold the farm years ago. Today when I visit them, I sometimes ask my father to drive me back there.
That’s it? I think, looking out the car window at a vista of baled hay and rolling hills—pretty terrain, if common. In my memory, the farm is a cathedral of green, shaded by towering oaks that know my name. Such is the reverb of “memory’s echo,” as Di Blasi calls it. I found myself wishing she had returned to her old farm in person to make a similar assessment, but maybe it’s for the best we leave these landscapes in our mind, congealed like the tree branches inside a snow globe, shaken but sealed in the moment before our childhoods rise in flames, or evaporate in smoke.
Sarah Curtis is a writer in Michigan. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Creative Nonfiction, Crazyhorse, Salon, the American Literary Review, and the anthology River Teeth: Twenty Years of Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on a biographical memoir. More of her writing can be found at sarahcurtiswriter.com.
December 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
More than twenty years before Jennifer Worley takes us behind the scenes of the Lusty Lady club, in Neon Girls: A Stripper’s Education in Protest and Power, I was slinking across the stage of one of the many strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach. ‘Sex work,’ a term later introduced by prostitute, performer and activist Carol Leigh, highlighted that our activities involved the same economic and labor considerations as any trade or profession. While the term wasn’t in use when I was a struggling dancer, by Worley’s time, it had become part of the vernacular. She and her cohort in 1990s San Francisco would make an imprint on efforts to recognize sex work as real work, through their landmark success at unionizing and eventually owning the Lusty Lady, and their ultimate takeover of the club is the framework for Neon Girls.
Worley’s evolution as a stripper from outsider to insider started while working toward a master’s degree in English literature, needing to increase her income and work fewer hours. A Lusty Lady advertisement promised $22 an hour—twice what her entry-level publishing job paid. (Sex work is still generally more profitable for women than other service sector employment.)
The Lusty Lady wasn’t a typical club with a raised stage and a solo performer—the kind of place where I’d danced. Rather, the Lusties were sealed behind glass—untouchable. Usually, four girls swayed, wiggled, and spun around poles in a 10 x 15 room with mirrored walls and ceiling offering an orgiastic illusion. The stage was designed so the ladies could manipulate what was seen. The group performance encouraged a sense of sisterhood.
All the Lusties picked stage names, but names did more than assure their privacy—they impacted and defined their personae. Worley became “Polly,” and after living for five years with “an unfortunate split-second impulse” that labeled her more schoolgirl than seductress, she re-emerged as Delinqua, reflecting Worley’s transformation through her experience as a Lusty. Most of the women, with their chosen stage names—Sizzlean, Decadence, Cinnamon—and their adopted personas, developed alter egos giving them newfound confidence in their mainstream lives.
After about a year at the club, Worley began tackling the administrative dynamics of the Lusty Lady. Performers were being prioritized for shift assignments by race, hair color, and breast size. An incident involving being filmed (forbidden but difficult to control) heightened Worley’s motivation. “I hated the idea that men I didn’t know or trust now had records of the work I did, that they could carry Polly, naked and unawares, from the safe refuge that birthed and nurtured her, into that other world where I had to live my life.”
Worley’s academic background is evident as she explains the Lusties’ place in the lineage of sex workers. We learn how sex-worker liberation may have started on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill—known more nowadays for the neighborhood’s feral parrots than for the Chilean women who settled there during the Gold Rush. They took in laundry by day and sold sex at night, probably establishing the city’s first red-lantern district.
A tradition of resistance among sex workers laid the foundation for the Lusties’ unionization campaign, initiated in Spring 1996. Said Worley, “This wasn’t just about some one-way windows…It was about confronting the systems that commodified women’s sexuality for the benefits of everyone else involved.” They picketed in front of the theatre, chanting “Two-four-six eight, don’t go here to masturbate,” with passing cars honking in support. Within a few weeks, their union contract was ratified, affirming their right to organize and advocate for themselves. Over time, the workers transformed the club into a cooperative.
At the Lusty on and off for over ten years, Worley describes how the “Bright passionate women…had drawn me out of my graduate student shell and into the Lusty fray…to get involved and make change. … I felt responsible for continuing the legacy of sex workers…” But, performing one day, suddenly the tears began falling, and she was enveloped by shame. It was over for her. On her last day, she returns to the club—the “tiny little pit”—where she’d “grown up.”
This kind of introspection highlights what’s missing for me in the narrative. More instances of self-reflection would give the reader a better understanding of Worley’s emotional process. How did she go from Polly to Delinqua to tears in front of a Private Pleasures booth? “It was confusing to feel this depth of shame so suddenly… But this was not the sudden belated eruption of some long-repressed shame…; rather, it was an accounting for the many ways I’d bracketed and sidelined my own aspirations for the sake of the collective.” That bracketing seems to have sidelined her from her feelings, although she acknowledges resentment for how male authority governs the world of commercial sex, their preferences determining who’s hot and who’s not.
Worley has invited the reader into a world unfamiliar to most, Stripping the strippers of their negative stereotypical identities, they’re revealed flesh and blood, thoughtful and intelligent, with the same life goals and challenges as anyone. While our experiences were separated by more than twenty years, Worley confronted as I had the feminist implications of working as a professional sex object. In sex work, the experience of personal power can be simultaneous with feeling exploited.
Worley endured and came into her own working as a Lusty. In contrast, for years I’d kept my own brief stint as a dancer a secret, until one day it became part of my life story. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d had the moxie and the self-confidence to make the stage my own. Worley gave me an intimate glimpse into that world.
Nancy Jainchill’s writing has focused on sex positivity, feminism and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Entropy, the Albany Times Union, and Brevity among others. She is a psychologist living and working in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @nancyjainchill.