Where the Heart Is: Davis, Kimbrell, Miller, and Vang

April 16th, 2015

cabinSara Watson: Since my MFA years at Chatham University, a program grounded in themes of nature and travel writing, I’ve developed a particular interest in poetry of place. So much of my own work looks inward, or, at its most ambitious, reaches out from my body toward another. I love it when other poets are able to look up, to look around, to record a world outside themselves. The contributors below have taken their inspiration from a number of locales, using place to investigate themes of home, family, history, and identity.

Susan Davis on “Bertie Mae”: The manuscript from which these poems have been taken is about houses and how people relate to them. How do they feel about the private and public parts, other people’s houses, empty houses telling wordless stories, ownership, centeredness, towns/villages/suburbs and cities, and how they shape the types of dwellings people call home? How did house-building develop in America? The “Bertie Mae” poems are specifically my mother’s stories, starting in 1921 on a farm, ending with a widow alone in a house filled with the memory of her husband. They are snapshots of her along that life path. Although the poems have an elegiac quality, she is very much alive at ninety-three, filling us all with admiration, and challenging me to think of how I will leave myself to my own children.

James Kimbrell on “Pluto’s Gate: Mississippi”: I ran across an article in 2013 about the discovery of an ancient cave opening in Hierapolis, Turkey, believed by archeologist Francesco D’Andria to be the famed gates of the underworld, replete with toxic mist capable of killing any animal that had the ill fortune to breathe there. We all have our own hells with their own gates. Naturally, I started thinking about my home state of Mississippi, and about how far the state—given its history of poverty and racism—has come, and how far it hasn’t. More than most poems I’ve written, I felt that this poem was out of my control, a feeling like being a ventriloquist’s dummy, my mouth getting worked by some unknown voice, both scary and one hell of a rush. In short, this poem is a love letter to Mississippi, and to my friends there, especially to poet C. Leigh McInnis, whom I’ve known since we were both teenagers in the Mississippi Army National Guard, writing poems on legal pads with our desk drawers open so that if anybody walked in our office, we could close the drawers in one quick motion and appear to be hard at work on matters of military readiness.

Wayne Miller: I wrote “Marriage” in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where my wife and two-year-old daughter had accompanied me for six months while I was teaching at Queen’s University on a Fulbright. We were living in faculty housing—a narrow, street-level apartment across from campus—and it poured freezing rain for the first three months we were there. Also important: My wife and I were in our eleventh year as a couple (and second year with a child)—a point in a relationship pretty much no one can imagine when they first get together. Probably because of the weather-induced confinement of those first three months, I kept dreaming myself into different, exotic locales, which was ironic since we’d just traveled all that way to be in Belfast—where, of course, I always woke to find myself. The way my mind kept reaching out and returning home—that lassoing—seemed to me a good description of how a relationship comes to operate ten (or more) years in. As soon as I found the rhyming form, the poem took off.

Mai Der Vang: “Cipher Song” emerged from my attempt to explore and reconcile the lack of an official literary history within my Hmong culture. It’s the idea of writing about not having writing. Yet how does one even begin to tackle such a daunting and elusive past? It’s overwhelming, to say the least, especially given that this history carries profound implications for a new generation of Hmong-American writers like myself, who are seeking to shape a literary identity. In this poem, I try to explore how something as simple as a jacket, along with other items of clothing, can have attached to it centuries of literary and historical documentation. As an oral culture, the Hmong fled southern China in the mid-1800s as a result of persecution, and many migrated into Laos along with other parts of Southeast Asia. Yet just before fleeing, the women secretly embroidered colorful symbols and patterns onto their clothes to represent what the Hmong had been through so they would not forget their history. Much of this traditional clothing is still worn today in our culture.

“Toward Home” is a poem in search of the idea of home, which, to me, is also the search for origin. I feel like I’m constantly digging toward the past, trying to find vestiges of my Hmong cultural history because so little of it was documented. While this poem does not explicitly take up that notion, it still tries to convey the sense of searching for something unexplainable only to be left feeling vulnerable. Craft-wise, I was obsessed at the time with pairing odd objects together, things that just didn’t make any sense. I seem to always be journeying backward, and so much of that internal process can be confusing and bewildering yet still lead to some bizarre and beautiful discoveries, like an oryx as a window, or a lighthouse inside a cave.

Special Fiction Feature: Tom Paine’s “It Was Just Swimming”

April 13th, 2015

covsketch_final (2)We’re doing something unusual with this feature—running a piece from our pages (in this case a story in our current issue, “It Was Just Swimming” by Tom Paine) in its entirety on our blog. We hope to present you with more such content in the future, and we are grateful to LSU Press for allowing us to reprint the story, which will appear in Tom Paine’s collection, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, this October. Below we offer commentary from volunteers and staff members Katie Knoll, A’Dora Phillips, and Nicola Mason, as well as remarks by the writer on his work. To read “It Was Just Swimming,” click here.

From A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns:  Stories by Tom Paine, Copyright © 2015.  Reprinted by permission of LSU Press, lsupress.org.  All rights reserved.

Katie Knoll: Tom Paine’s “It was Just Swimming” is the perfect example of a story going where you’re convinced it won’t, where it can’t—where, in its first lines, it has already promised to go. “They asked the clerk at the Best Western if the water was safe. . . . of course it was safe!” Reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Paine lets disaster lurk in every line, capturing the strangeness and danger of a day on the Florida beaches. The story’s roving gaze makes each image unexpected, each action as surreal as the next. “People up and down the beach baked under a sherbet of umbrellas. The American flag was snapping. The sky was plutonium blue. He was going to ask his girl to marry him tonight.” The piece has this delightful willingness to just experience itself—the world it creates—and the mind of the man who takes it all in. This willingness to just see lends a wild energy in the piece, which races from grandmothers giving tongue-kisses to asphyxiating boys to car-chase scenes, all while maintaining the kind of heart-stopping line-writing like “when the sunset murdered the sky.” “It Was Just Swimming” left me reeling; eager to stay in Paine’s world, a little scared to get out of it.

 

A’Dora Phillips: Who doesn’t wonder what might be lurking in the ocean’s depths? In “It Was Just Swimming,” this ubiquitous sense of unease adds to the bewitchment in the story’s backdrop: Is the water enchanted or dangerous? The eerie slipstream mode Paine has adopted works well to create an elusive sense of what is real. The trouble, we might think, is the narrator himself, who has “gotten weird lately,” his impressions warped as his mind feverishly travels from thoughts of his pregnant girlfriend giving birth in a Jacuzzi to perceptions of the Kodachrome-brilliant beach. At the vacation hotel, the clerk seems too old to have children, yet his “twin boys” are out there, catching silver minnows. When there’s “something grainy,” some “weird alien stuff” on the protagonist as he surfaces from the waves, we don’t necessarily realize that we ought to be on alert. The kind of person who throws himself into experience, our narrator takes in stride the water tasting of Clorox, his burning eyes.
beachThough the story is securely anchored in contemporary reality, Paine is preoccupied with the “tripline of miracle” that surrounds his characters. Instead of the old fisherman and his wife, instead of the lighthouse keeper, Paine gives us the twenty-first-century seekers: the narrator, his girlfriend Catalina, and his friend Jimbo. And when the inevitable occurs and something does emerge from the water, something terrible, you wonder why more writers are not reconditioning the ancient tropes of storytelling in light in today’s real-world horrors.

 

Nicola Mason: “It Was Just Swimming” is a masterpiece of pitch. It hits the highest register in almost every paragraph, and though Paine never swings away from this extreme mode of expression, the tone modulates, toggles back and forth, blends, lending the pitch wildly varying shades of emotion. He’s like a virtuoso playing a one-stringed violin. What begins as jubilance (“It was 101 degrees out! Who wouldn’t charge the ocean? The ocean was liquid salvation! God’s own swimming pool!”) merges with incredulity as the narrator and his pal Jimbo encounter a strange substance in the surf (“The only way to get the waxy orange stuff off was to go at it with plastic knives from the dining room of the Best Western. Even then a couple of layers of skin were lost!”). Soon thereafter, alarm enters in (“He scooped up the kid who was clawing the air. The beach was spinning under him, but he charged with the boy to his Harley. Taking action!”), followed by outrage (“Those twin kids were just playing on Fort Walton Beach! Building a sand castle like every other American kid in summer! That’s not supposed to be playing with napalm! There was something in the water! In the water!), fear (“They zapped Jimbo’s heart with the paddles. Handlebar doctor glared up at the red numbers of the digital clock and stopped compressions. Handlebar stopped compressions!”), confusion (“It was like every pore in his body was leaking at once. But he had no temperature! You can’t sweat buckets without a spike in temp! He was coming back negative—negative negative negative—on all the tests.”), and an odd form of realization (“A lot of these guys had been his sworn enemies. Jesus! They were going to miss him!”). The story does not relent until everyone—characters and readers alike—are inhabiting the same charged consciousness, feeling the same pervasive dread, the same stunned grief. Then—in the final line—it releases us, grimly, beautifully.

sperianAnd yet as tragic as the piece becomes, there is something about its excess that reminds one of those movies titled “Outbreak,” “Contagion,” “Carriers,” “Quarantine.” It is grandly, madly tragic; even absurdly so as odd moments of humor slip in (“Jimbo had the other kid by the hand and was telling him to keep gargling Coke. Jimbo had a strange faith in the curative power of Coke”); or bits of bloviation (“No, he wanted to be more help, he did! But he was a shrimper, not a doctor”); or melodramatic medical gobbledygook (“I’ve got four autopsies already of people who went swimming today. I’ve seen dissolved esophagus, enlarged hearts, and we’ve got samples of ethylbenzene, m-xylene, hexane-2, 3-methylpentane, and isooctane. . . . This guy’s body is full of things you wouldn’t believe.”)

The story is both horrifying . . . and entertaining. It gives you that gut-sick feeling . . . and makes you snort. It is, to use an old simile of my dad’s, as serious as a wolf in the woods, yet it’s also a spoof of sorts. With “It Was Just Swimming,” Tom Paine creates a new genre: the contemporary eco-disaster black comedy.

 

Tom Paine: I’m a little uncomfortable with writing about a story. Commenting on one’s work means using the word “I” a lot, and maybe that’s why I moved to fiction. The anonymity. But here goes: Corexit. We sprayed Corexit, a cousin of Agent Orange, all over the Gulf after the BP oil spill. Corexit adhered to the oil and pulled it out of sight to reduce BP’s liability. But Corexit made some Floridians very, very sick. Medieval boils and pox and vomiting and death. Not to mention we left the Gulf an ecological septic tank and took a very oily shit on the sealife. So the story seems like SciFi, but is based on testimony. People really did have these horrible allergic reactions and died–not that it made the news. We live in a time when water and skin–the simplest relationship– is in question. What happens to the ancient sea-loving soul when the sea is poison?

 

Crossword Key

April 10th, 2015

Gold keyFor those who haven’t yet puzzled through this month’s puzzle—or for you crossword whizzes who just want to check your answers—click here for the key. The winner (submitting her solution approximately an hour after we posted He Hath No Fury) is Katherine Karlin, whose remarkable story “We Are the Polites” appears in our current issue. Congrats, Katy. Look for another puzzle next month. . . .

A Note on AWP

April 8th, 2015

chickenWe’ll be there, of course. Look for our book-fair table amid . . . the gajillion other book-fair tables. We’ll stand out because we have real live chickens foraging around the table (watch out for slippery brown spots), and we’re giving away free eggs. As they are produced. After we draw a CR logo on them with a Sharpie. All going along with this year’s theme: Literary Eggcellence.

Not really.

But we ARE running our 3-for-1 special again this year. You can nab a subscription to our fine mag (if we do say so), Mid-American Review, and Ninth Letter—all for the meager outlay of $33. If you haven’t seen our graphic play, you can check that out too. It comes free with a year’s subscription.

Happy AWP, everybody! Chickens next year. Or goats. Or maybe a friendly aardvark.

Aardvark

Crossword #3: He Hath No Fury

April 6th, 2015

bali-pirate-mapA post for our passionate puzzlegoers—“goers” because working a puzzle is a bit like taking a journey, both physical (you cross spaces, traverse territory) and mental (you explore both your mind and the puzzle-maker’s). Not to mention, there’s a map—a tricky one, rather like those soiled and tattered bits of parchment in pirate movies, with signs that even intrepid adventurers can’t parse until they’re in the thick of things (dangling from unraveling rope bridges, in the clutches of cannibals, etc.). The title of this month’s puzzle (by, yep, fiction ed. Michael Griffith) is He Hath No Fury. (And yes, there’s a clue in that there adjusted adage.) As before, the first person to send the correct key to cincinnatireview[at]editors[dot]com gets a free issue! Time to head into the volcano, friends. Watch out for the glowing red stuff.

Hey There, Sports Fans

April 1st, 2015

We have arrived again at that special time of year: the time when our favorite local pub is disturbingly packed, when the word “bracket” is overheard in distinctly non-punctuation-related discussions, and when the guys over at Esquire put together lists that include items like “No Brent Musburger” and “Gonzaga.” That’s right, people, it’s March slamdunk-girl-colorMadness (even though it’s April!), and if you think it’s got nothing to do with The Cincinnati Review, think again.

We’re thrilled to report that some literary-minded folks have put together a little Festivus for the Rest of Us, and—thanks to your much-appreciated votes—The Cincinnati Review has made it to the Sweet Sixteen of LitMagMadness. While we chow down a triple-tiered pink and gold birthday cake, head on over to cast your votes!

 

Cranial Comparisons: Ashley Anna McHugh

March 31st, 2015

The human skull—perhaps no artifact so powerfully represents ephemerality and longevity, vulnerability and strength, enlightenment and its concommitant darkness, apex and nadir, life and death. Its complex and conflicting associations have historically made the skull a powerful symbol in art, literature, mythology, and ritual, representing the unknown as well as the known. Meshell Ndegeocello has remarked, “I’ll never understand what makes our minds do the things we do. It’s like that statue of the monkey holding a skull. We’re trying to use a thing we don’t understand to understand ourselves.” In an evocative long sequence inspired by two ornamented skulls, Ashley Anna McHugh offers a richly contemplative exploration not just of the head, but of the heart.

Ashley Anna McHugh: My manuscript Descent unspools the mythology and beliefs of our earliest civilization in three interwoven poetic sequences to see what it has left us, and what lasts. In Descent, “The Red Hours” forms part of a sequence about prehistoric burial rites in the ancient Near East, and it was inspired by the archeological finds of skulls in Jericho (7000 b.c.)—and commonly across the Near East, actually—that were decorated to resemble fleshed human faces.

HirstWhile considering what these finds might mean to us now, I came across Damien Hirst’s For The Love of God—a real human skull casted in platinum and encrusted with over eight thousand diamonds. Originally, in an early attempt at writing about these two skulls, I made a one-to-one comparison, but it eventually seemed to me like my poem wasn’t as good as the art it was about—a challenge that any ekphrastic poem must overcome.

So I started from scratch. I studied and took notes about traditional historic interpretations of skulls and diamonds, and I tried to make connections; I wrote questions in my notebooks, though I had no answers. I copied out Hamlet’s speech to Horatio by hand, and I listened to Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)” on loop for weeks while I wrote. In short, I tried to uncover why both of these skulls—the one from Jericho, the one created by Hirst—were meaningful to me, each in their own distinctly disturbing way.

In the end, what struck me about both skulls was how they each tried to overcome death, to remake death—through love, through beauty and wealth—and how they both failed. In “The Red Hours,” I wanted to capture the mind grasping for a rationalization, for a proof against death—and ultimately, finding nothing to hold. I wanted to illustrate both our intense longing to outlast death in some way, and the inevitability of the fact that we won’t.

Why We Like It: Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” with Wim Wenders’s WINGS OF DESIRE

March 26th, 2015
Rochelle---aka The Angel of---Hurt

Rochelle—aka The Angel of—Hurt

Volunteer Rochelle Hurt, who will be coming on staff next year as one of CR’s assistant editors, once went by a different name. After college, drawn by the bright lights, frenzied crowds, and—it must be said—classy costumes, she devoted herself to the glory known by professionals as the grappling arts. As the avenging Angel of Hurt, she powerbombed, chokeslammed, and moonsaulted her way to the top of her field. Yet standing upon the stacked spines of conquered opponents, she felt . . . empty. Whereupon she saw something . . . up there . . . twinkling in the distance. Yea, the ivory tower glowed even more powerfully than a klieg-lit coliseum. There was one more celestial stronghold left for her to scale. She promptly applied to grad school.


WINGS_OF_DESIRE_SE-21Rochelle Hurt:
 Reading Susan Wheatley’s “The Recording Angel” reminded me of a favorite Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), in which angels roam Berlin, invisible but always in close proximity to humans. Against a backdrop of graffiti and 1980s pop cultural icons (including Nick Cave and Columbo’s Peter Falk), these angels listen to and record the thoughts of humankind. Susan Wheatley’s angel plays a similar role. The poem begins: “For he observes when the posts are well sunk beneath the frost line/ And he knows when they are not, and the wooden church will fall/ For he stayed the hand of Abraham and keeps the oceans in check.” The potential for sentimentality in a list like this is undercut by the poem’s point of view: We’re not given the recording angel’s unfiltered observations, but rather an image of him in the recording process. The poem is really about the act of amassing knowledge, not the knowledge itself. There is an emphasis on lack and passivity in the angel’s process: “he knows when they are not”and “keeps the oceans in check.” This kind of knowledge-building through lack is mimicked in the poem’s rhetorical structure, which piles up information through the anaphoric repetition of “for,” suggesting that these bits of knowledge are explanations of an antecedent we never get in the poem. Its absence allows the poem’s content to accumulate indefinitely, because it avoids the closure of a complete sentence.

Both Wenders’s and Wheatley’s angels serve as artist figures, though the two have very different temperaments. While Wenders’s angels take pleasure in even the most mundane human musings, Wheatley’s can hardly bear the earthly world: “he bandages his ears so as not to hear the people pleading.” The risk of becoming emotionally overwhelmed is implicit in the angel’s struggle. In this way, speaker-as-writer and angel are compared. Likewise, in Wenders’s film (which he explained was partially inspired by Rilke’s poetry), the creative process as a result and a means of observation is examined through music, acting, writing, drawing, and performance—and this process is far from painless for Wenders’s characters. One of his angels begins to feel too much for the world he observes, falling in love with a circus performer. In doing so, he essentially assigns more value to the content of his recordings than to the art itself, sacrificing his ability to record the world for an ability to participate in it. The similarly meta-poetic quality of Wheatley’s poem (a recording of a recording) is explicitly recognized in the final stanza: “For he is scribe and intermediary/ For I am scribe and intermediary.” Angel and writer watch each other, and so they seem equal, but the poem’s final turn reveals the fallacy of this logic: “For I cannot see/ And he cannot turn aside his many eyes.” Ultimately the writer cannot see the world from the distance afforded the omniscient angel, while the angel cannot not see the world in its unbearable totality.

What We’re Reading: The Things I Don’t See

March 24th, 2015

CvrThingsDontSee_bookstoreDon Peteroy: Hemingway notes that in effective prose, writers will omit aspects of the story, but the reader will nonetheless sense the presence of what’s not there. “The dignity of the movement of an ice-berg,” Hemingway says, “is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.” Likewise, in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud describes the empty, transitional space between comic panels as a potent ground for the untold story beneath the surface. Nathan Holic’s novella, The Things I Don’t See, exemplifies McCloud and Hemingway’s theories of omission through conventional storytelling and comic graphics, creating a haunting and sometimes terrifying reading experience. Though it’s marketed as a horror novella, you won’t encounter haunted houses or monsters. The ghosts in this story are our own monstrous secrets, refusing to be brought into the light.

Craig, aspiring to live life like a “sitcom dad,” has relocated his wife and step-son to a developing community outside of Orlando. Unfortunately, Phase II of the construction is cancelled when the recession comes, and Craig’s family is surrounded by unfinished homes, dirt roads, muddy craters, and the unfulfilled promise of a pool, a clubhouse, and communal happiness. His step-son, Taylor, was already a “problem child” before they’d arrived in the ghost-community, but its emptiness seems to have exacerbated his growing hatred toward Craig. A horror film fanatic, Taylor draws pictures of Craig being murdered in the most gruesome ways. The child’s violent fixations become the object of his step-father’s obsession, culminating in a power struggle. Each chapter alternates between timelines conveying Craig’s childhood and present. Even as Craig reluctantly confesses the truly horrific things he’d done as a child, we see him “investigating” Taylor, attempting to preempt or prevent what Craig believes will be Taylor’s intricate, bloody revenge. He knows Taylor is keeping dangerous secrets because that’s what he’d done as a child, and presumably, that’s what all boys do:

“. . . we were children and we believed our own lies and we were fucking evil, everything that an adult should be afraid of. And I don’t care how many diapers you change or how many loving glances you receive from your baby, you don’t know what children are capable of when your eyes are shut, when the clouds choke out the sun. A damaged child, full of hate? Shit. Best not to shut your eyes.”

Craig discovers on Taylor’s computer a series of animated drawings that are difficult to see as anything other than a promise of destruction, yet we can never be sure what Taylor’s drawings are telling us, or what the story between the frames actually is. Either way, both Craig and Taylor show signs of psychopathic potential, and by the final scene, we’re not sure who is going to do the killing, or if there will be any at all.

I’ve read a lot of horror stories, and those without the ghosts or murderers (Shirley Jackson comes to mind) can be just as terrifying as those with these elements, sometimes more. Aside from Holic’s ability to render sophisticated characters, his sentences are alive with haunting details of an abandoned suburbia, idiosyncratic in voice, poetic at times, and attentive to the power of each word. When horror writers actually care about the prose (about half do)—get this—the sentences intensify the thrills in the plot. Holic wants his readers to believe and feel the terrors on the page, and he succeeds by raising the bar with careful, artful prose. In 126 pages, he manages to juggle multiple themes, which pull the reader in as effectively as the sentences: aging, brotherly rivalry, the death of a loved one, abandonment, 1980s nostalgia, peer pressure, middle-class ennui, denial, passivity, honesty, humility, and ultimately, what it means to be a father.

You can purchase The Things I Don’t See from Main Street Rag Publishing at http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore

 

Crossword Solution

March 16th, 2015

pencil-happyThe first puzzle-solver to send us answers was the ever-so-sharp Laura Somerville (who won many—perhaps all—of our blue pencil prizes some years ago). Congrats, Laura! And the runner up (around 3 hours shy of first place) was contributor Katherine Karlin, whose haunting story “We Are the Polites” is in our current issue. Thanks for playing, Katherine!

Click here for the crossword key.