Archive for the ‘Why We Like It’ Category

Why We Like It: “Make No Bones about It” by Cindy Beebe

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Rochelle Hurt: In music, riffing usually refers to a method of composition in which a single element (like a series of notes in a specific order) is repeated, sometimes changing slightly with each new iteration, in order to form a pattern—though riffing is often improvisational. It’s a technique common to poetry as well. For example, anaphora (the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of each line) can be understood as a linguistic riff, as can internal rhyme, repetition, alliteration, assonance, and consonance.

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In her prose poem from issue 12.2, Cindy Beebe riffs on the turn of phrase “make no bones about it,” which serves as the poem’s title. She jumps right in with an extension of the title, “Not one single bone,” and then elaborates using “bone/s” as her riffing point and reintegrating the word “make”: “Make soup, if you like, though bones in the soup are not allowed. Even nice, fat ham bones, with ham bits on them.” In this brand of crafted spontaneity, repeated words and sounds become bridges to new phrases or ideas. Later in the poem, “make” and “bones” return to set off the following chain of sonic events: “Make no bones that float. Or sink, either. Make hay, rather. Make barley, alfalfa, the cows will love you. The cows will bow to you in one smooth, synchronous plié. A little cow ballet.” The progression here is not narrative, nor even logical in a traditional sense—rather, Beebe’s movement seems to be guided by an associative logic. This is a form of play, of course, but it is serious in its linguistic endeavors.

The author describes her process as a means of finding new life in worn out language: “Idioms have always fascinated me. I marvel at how they are able to retain their place in our language, sometimes for centuries, long after their origins are forgotten. If we were to look at them with our eyes open, as though we were children again, what new things might we see in them? What old things might we see differently? Writing “Make No Bones about It” was sort of like milking an old, familiar cow to find out what she might still be worth.”

While Beebe’s riffs do not form a predictable pattern, they are tied together. In this way, the poem forms an expansive network of meaning and connotation with a single idiom at its center. Each individual phrase or idea acts as a lateral extension of meaning from that center, and this allows them to cross back and forth over one another: “Such as whoopee. Such as in the morning, when you are floating still in your little boat of sleep, and the other skin, the skin that isn’t yours, comes drifting over into your own sleepy flesh. And there is this mesh like a dream you dream together. Dreams of whoopee, lots of whoopee.”

This lateral structure is precisely what makes the prose form perfect for Beebe’s poem. The prose block here is a wide plane on which this network of meanings can unfold, expanding outward rather than moving forward down the page in a linear fashion. Additionally, the condensed form supports Beebe’s associative leaps. The breathing space that would be provided by line breaks is not required here, where the reader is whisked quickly from one riff to the next—so quickly, in fact, that when one arrives finally back at the poem’s title phrase, “make no bones about it,” the arrival feels both astonishing and inevitable.

 

(The opening guitar riff from Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” is one of my favorite earworms.)

Why We Like It: “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind” by Jay Leeming

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Anonymous crawled down a muddy slot in the earth
to put red handprints
on the cave wall, Anonymous who painted the Crab Nebula
onto a rock ledge and translated the winter wind
into black ink
on vellum, Anonymous the unknown
worker, toiler in darkness, craftsman with a name
drowned in shadow. All our works are but footnotes to the creations

of Anonymous…

José Angel Araguz: So begins Jay Leeming’s “Stolen from the Cries of Ravens and the Red Smell of the Wind,” a poem whose main themes are the evolution of art both as process and as instinct, and the way in which all of mankind’s material accomplishments mean nothing in the teeth of wind and time.

Y’know, light stuff.

In all seriousness, though, there is a deftness to the lyric voice in this poem that keeps the reader engaged and the narrative fluid despite the big concepts driving it. As Leeming’s poem traces ideas of ancestry from the get-go, I cannot help but read into the poem a kind of poetic ancestry, other poems that this poem seems to point back to and be kin with.

The first that came to mind was “Hands” by Robinson Jeffers, which starts:

Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara
The vault of rock is painted with hands,
A multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men’s palms, no more,
No other picture

These opening lines echo Leeming’s. Both poems make use of the image of handprints, but where Jeffers reads into it a connection to earlier humanity and life, Leeming takes the symbol of the hand to begin a meditation on the artistic process. His “Anonymous” is fast at work in the first stanza, throughout time and mediums. When the speaker of Leeming’s poem says “All our works are but footnotes” to the work of Anonymous, he is acknowledging the precedent and connection to Anonymous via art, as if each new artwork was a way for an artist to turn and face those that came before and raise a hand in greeting.

I find another poetic “ancestral” link via the layout of the poem. Noting how it is structured in eight-line stanzas on the page, I immediately thought of Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” a carnival of a poem that doles itself out in the eight line stanza known as ottava rima. Beyond sheer number count, where Byron and Leeming meet is in ambition. Byron’s poem is a favorite of mine not for sheer virtuosity (though hundreds upon hundreds of rhymed stanzas is no small feat) but for the elasticity Byron is able to work into his lyrical line, a line able to hold politics, myth, literary criticism, and humor.

Leeming accomplishes a similar feat as he moves from meditating on the “early works” of Anonymous to casting an eye to our contemporary world:

…So short a journey
from runes carved on a ship’s bow to egg tempera
on a walnut board, from manuscripts illuminated with the colors
of crushed acorns to a thirty-foot-high poodle
constructed of pink birthday balloons
and neon-green hubcaps.

As Leeming’s poem comes to its conclusion, the speaker tells us of a tribe “whose every member/ was born blind” and:

who out of the cries of ravens
and the red smell of the wind carved a spiraling labyrinth of skewed huts
and towers crafted only in jubilant answer to the visions

of the inner eye…

This image of a blind people creating in the dark returns us to the opening note of the poem, back to Anonymous and how little we know of the humans inhabiting that era aside from what they left on a cave wall. Reading these lines, the reader is once again before Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “traveler from an antique land,” who tells us about Ozymandias and his ruins. But where Ozymandias, that “king of kings,” asks us to “Look on my works, ye Might, and despair!,” Anonymous’s call, according to the last line of Leeming’s poem, is to create art despite the knowledge that it will be “…scattered to all the thousand/corners of the air where no hand or eye will ever find it again.”

Why We Like It: “Book of Distances” by Brandon Amico

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015


bulletCaitlin Doyle:
 Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously advised writers that a gun introduced in the first act should always go off in the second. Poet Brandon Amico aims his gun in the opposite direction: “In my book of distances a bullet fired / on page thirty-seven pricks the reader’s / thumb on six.” Amico deftly blurs the line that separates the universe inside of his “book of distances” from the world of his poem, in which the mysterious book has been figuratively placed. We can never be sure whether something will stay within the book’s covers or break though (like the thumb-pricking bullet) to penetrate the many boundaries that Amico tests—between poem and book, past and present, reader and words, self and other.

On a first encounter, “Book of Distances,” with its wild leaps and surprising juxtapositions, might discomfit a person accustomed to experiencing language as a linear and narrative medium. Yet the poem never alienates such a reader. What I admire about Amico’s work here is that the piece rewards both seasoned poetry-lovers familiar with navigating associative modes and readers who come to poetry in pursuit of more basic pleasures. By placing an imagined book inside of a poem, one form of written artifice inside of another, he asks us to reconsider the relationship between art and creator. He also spurs us to reflect on our own relationship to artistic works and those who make them. “Book of Distances” embraces difficulty and eludes easy understanding, even while inviting us into a world alive with images that we can see, touch, hear, smell, and above all, feel.

RooseveltAmico observes “how far Aeolus’s breath carries the resilient germ / of history, / genicular, Franklin and Eleanor / Roosevelt being fifth cousins.” He then informs us that “genicular has no closeness to genes / except in the brain’s language center,” information that is “covered in detail in chapter eight” of the book of distances. It’s no accident that Aeolus (known as the ruler of the winds) is a name shared by multiple characters in Greek mythology, all of them thought to be genealogically related, much like Franklin and Eleanor.

When Amico notes how the “brain’s language center” joins “genicular” to “genes,” even though there’s no shared etymological connection, he extends his exploration of genetic ties to an examination of how we view units of language in relation to each other. As readers, we can’t help but develop an association between the two words, despite the poet’s insistence that none exists. This paradox comprises one of the many slyly artful strategies that Amico uses to interrogate how humans both inherit and create different forms of connectivity.

As the poem progresses, we move backward from chapter eight to the “fourth chapter” in the book of distances, which is “a compendium / of keys. / Office key, key to the city, / car, the shed . . .” Initially, the keys appear to promise another kind of linkage, a bridge between our yearning to enter closed-off spaces and our ability to tangibly do so. They also seem to glimmer as a possible symbol for the larger question of how we might unlock the poem’s complicated meanings. But when Amico observes that the locked shed can be entered without a key—“the frame/ can be shifted, the latch slid out”—he suggests that keys of any kind, whether literal or metaphorical, may prevent us from seeing that we can often access what we desire without relying on means beyond ourselves.
GunLitDeviceOf course, no writer should introduce Chekhov in the first paragraph (is there any gun more loaded than that?) without returning to him. So it seems fitting for me to finish my appreciation of Amico’s poem by evoking, once more, the Russian maestro. As the piece approaches its end, Amico asserts that, whether or not we read the book of distances, “we still stretch / toward our lovers’ knees and our first homes.” Like a weapon introduced in a play’s first act and fired off later in the show, the knee image here brings us back to the word “genicular,” with its surprising meaning (of or relating to the knee), in the poem’s opening lines. Amico compels us to remember his use of “genicular” in association with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. When we picture one of them reaching for the other’s knee, Amico’s exploration of the human hunger for connection finds its final, strangest, and most memorable embodiment.

Why We Like It: “Raisin Man” by Chelsea Bieker

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Samantha Edmonds: Voice is something one tends to hear a lot about when discussing fiction writing—“Oh, this has a great voice!” or “The voice of this piece really compelled me.” Those of us who teach may encourage our undergraduates to make better use of it—“Let your character’s voice drive the story.” But what exactly does it mean for a story have a great voice?

It doesn’t (usually) mean writing in dialect or slang or barely recognizable jargon. Rarely does it include, though it certainly can, the sprinkling of a foreign language. The best voices are subtler than that, more innate, something to be felt in the character, not just a rendering of speech.

voiceGreat voice is a line like “the way she forgot to wear unders like a lady should.” This appears in the first paragraph of Chelsea Bieker’s gorgeous story “Raisin Man” in CR’s current issue (12.1) and immediately gives the reader a clear sense of who Herd Collis is, where he comes from, the way he was raised.

In writing that something is “sweet like cane” or “the crops ain’t fit for nothing,” Bieker is offering more than characterization; she is offering backstory, setting, insight into why and how the narrator behaves as he does.

The voice in “Raisin Man” is also worth praising for its restraint. The language never becomes overbearing. It does not try to sound the way many think a narrator in a rural setting should, burdened with dropped g’s and verbs ending in apostrophes and phonetically spelled dialect; it merely shows us a particular human, both in scenes of great interiority and in spoken dialogue. The sentences are short but elegant in their brevity, simple and gorgeous, and the overall sense is that Herd is standing just before you, saying all of this out loud. Even when he isn’t speaking, you can hear him in every word.

Reading Our Readers

Monday, October 12th, 2015

lightbulbsIt’s Celebrate Our Readers day. Not the readers of our journal (though we are ever so grateful for you), but the diligent and conscientious behind-the-scenes readers of the six thousand plus (and rising!) submissions we receive each year. These intelligent and dedicated humans, who are just as busy as you are and receive no payment for their pains, spend hours every week rendering thoughtful assessments of the random poems and stories, by writers both new and seasoned, that continuously fill their inboxes. Below are a few examples of our readers’ reactions to the work you send our way.

Good poems, but not very inventive or new—except for the last one, which I think does something sort of fresh by reversing the typical depictions of boys/girls and children’s perceptions of gender—but then undercuts itself in the final line. Would like to hear another poet’s thoughts.

*

I feel like this one is on the cusp? The reveal feels kind of like a trick, and there are many disturbing unanswered questions, specifically about character motivation, but it’s beautifully written and interesting and haunting.

*

Well written estranged father-and-son story. Not horribly interesting, though.

*

From this batch, I recommend “O——” for further consideration. The poem deviates and subverts the ekphrastic tradition throughout. At the beginning, it does this via nuance, but by the end the poem has taken the narrative (and the reader!) to a whole other immediate place. It is this immediacy at the end that is most compelling to me, especially in an ekphrastic poem, most of which tend to dwell in the past tense of description.

*

This is not really a literary poem, though it does occasionally exhibit startling word choices. A bit like Jim Morrison, if Jim Morrison were a tanned teen girl in a bathing suit crushing on her boyfriend.

*

Wow, this story hooked me. The author’s use of indirection is superb, and I love the how insistent and forceful the protagonist is when it comes to protecting/maintaining the dignity of symbols (snakes and fish). The dialogue is convincing, the pacing well controlled. Guess what I don’t like? The ending. I sense the writer couldn’t find a way out of the story so concocted a deeply symbolic and ambiguous gesture.

*

Well written, but I find the frame this story uses much less original and interesting than its focus. I don’t know the narrator enough to really feel affected by his lost son. The whole conceit feels contrived in order to give weight to the frame.

*

There are nice observations and images concerning things like lawn mowing and drug stores, but the poet doesn’t do much new or interesting with these images. Adjectives over insight.

*

Story is over 10K words, contains “Track Changes” corrections, and features laborious stretches of description (mountain wilderness and dogs). The piece exhibits no sense of pacing, though there are fleeting moments of mystery / tension.

*

I pass this batch on because I enjoy many of the images and a lot of the wordplay in the first three poems. I’m on the fence overall, but when I’m on the fence with poetry, I figure it’s best to let another set of eyes see it.

*

These are worth further consideration. “S——” introduces a conceit and doesn’t over-indulge in it, rather it stays focused on the emotional resonance of the ending. “O——” made me think of Pablo Neruda’s odes to everyday objects, but with a modern sensibility.

Schiff Awards Follow-Up!

Monday, October 5th, 2015
Thanks to everyone who entered our seventh annual summer contest. You sent us essays: There was that beautiful meditation on the altered state of motherhood, for example, as well as that investigative, yearning search for a family past erased by slavery. You sent us pitch-perfect comic stories: We got one featuring a computer coder with a suicidal grandma and a girlfriend obsessed with an Amish reality show. (You thought you had problems!) You sent us sharp and lyrical realist stories: We received several heartbreaking and disorienting tales about what it’s like to live with dementia. You sent us imaginative fabulism and odd magical realism: We got many stories that explored gender, including one in which a woman wakes up with a man’s (ahem) hardware. And you sent poems. One of you imagined the sex life of zombies. One of you imagined the sex life of Gollum. Several of you reimagined that original sex scandal in the mythical garden of yore.  You sent us secrets and heartbreaks, childhoods and dreamscapes. You sent lists and villanelles and rondeaux, and a record-breaking number of prose poems. You sent us (vicariously) to the boulevards of Paris, the villas of Italy, the research labs of Antarctica, and the backyards of post-apocalyptic America. We had an embarrassment of riches, and we’re embarrassed we could only pick one winner.

Don Bogen on the winning poem: Jaime Brunton’s “Chase” is the first prose poem to win the Schiff Award and a great example of the genre at its best. Here are some things I especially admire about it.  First, it’s definitely a poem. Neither narrative-driven nor expository, “Chase” can’t be mistaken for flash fiction or a paragraph in an essay. It uses sentences the way a good poem in free verse uses the line: with grace, variety, and special attention to sound. “Chase” revitalizes phrasing, so that the most impersonal, empty constructions—“There is,” “There are”—come to support subtle emotional exploration. What the poem has to say about time, loss, and our hopes for a clear arc in the lives of those we love is marked by discovery and insight. “Chase” is sharp, sensitive, and brilliantly rendered, a standout among prose poems and poems in general.

Michael Griffith on the winning story: Robert Long Foreman’s “Awe” features a documentarian who, adrift after a project gone tragically wrong, has quit his profession and is seeking . . .  well, is seeking renewed access to the sublime, to awe. His bizarre stratagem is to arrange through Craigslist to watch a woman give birth. In Foreman’s nimble hands, Bill’s alternately comic and poignant (mis)adventures with the couple who agree to allow this make for a delightfully askew, surprisingly emotional story.

Check the blog tomorrow for our distinguished list of HONORABLE MENTIONS. (Sorry, meant to announce them today, but there have been logistical . . . complications, and we don’t want to leave anyone out!)

 

Why We Like It: “Abeyance” by Amanda Lee Kallis

Monday, September 14th, 2015

kodi-the-peekapoo-31125-1414709407-8Rochelle Hurt: Hybridity is a topic of much discussion of late: hybrid cars, hybrid crops, hybrid dogs (the Goldador, the Peekapoo, the Schnoodle). It’s always exciting to encounter something that inhabits two seemingly separate worlds at once. What I love most about hybrid dogs is the way their breed labels carve out entirely new spaces for these creatures. The Goldador is not a Labrador that looks sort of like a Golden Retriever, nor is it a Golden Retriever that barks sort of like a Labrador. It’s something else entirely; it’s a Goldador.

Amanda Lee Kallis’s “Abeyance” in issue 12.1 also inhabits (at least) two worlds at once, making use of literary conventions associated with two different genres. Viewed from one angle, “Abeyance” is a long prose poem sequence (which is how it’s categorized in our issue), but from another angle, it’s a segmented lyric essay. The best way to read it, in my opinion, is from a vantage between these two. Let’s call it an essem or a poessay—or better yet, let’s not worry about its particular genre and instead just revel in its strange beauty.

Kallis blends scientific terminology and philosophy (from Descartes, Horace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others) with lyrical descriptions in a fragmented meditation on mind and body. In the first section, Precursor, she writes: “Negligible or non-senescence is observed in the hydra, a water creature. . . . The price of biological immortality: pearly simplicity and some nettling tentacles about the mouth.” Through a fusion of the discursive essay voice and poetic metaphor, she creates a fresh mode for discussion of the body. Her movement through the piece is largely associative, following rhythmic echoes of phrases and images. Take, for example, this passage from section 11, Scale: “So much talk before speech. You have to snake the clog. My insides are pitched. Immortality is a snaking thing. Immortality is a dog chasing its tail.”

“Abeyance” uses formal hybridity, not simply as a means of innovation, but rather as a reflection of its content. In this piece, the acts of aging, seeing, reading, writing, and understanding, are often hybrid processes. In section 8, Monsieur C, Kallis writes: “A stroke, of course. A shattering deep somewhere. A visible silence. The most significant finding for our purposes is that, in all of that circuitry, the seat of writing is not that of reading and yet we can talk, you and I, in an uneven silence.” The use of synesthesia in the phrase “visible silence” reveals the body as a natural hybrid. We process information through a series of almost imperceptibly distinct mechanisms (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) that become one through the very act of perception. In this way, “Abeyance” is also a piece of meta-writing that provides a guided tour through our own process of reading it.

Dear Committee Members reviewed

Friday, September 4th, 2015

dear-committee-members

Here at UC, we and the rest of the English Department are anticipating the October visit of Julie Schumacher, who’ll read in the Elliston Poetry Room at 4 p.m. on the 26th of that spooky month. Staffer and fan Don Peteroy reviews her latest—Dear Committee Members—below.

Don Peteroy: In Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Jason Fitger has had enough. He’s a former novelist, has had several divorces, and works as a burnt-out creative writing teacher at Payne University, where literary arts are becoming obsolete. His students—usually international finance or software engineering majors—are either apathetic or apt to write stories that celebrate excessive gore. The university is remodeling the floor above the English department, where the financially privileged economics department resides, and Fitger must deal with the constant noise of jackhammers and toxic plumes coming through the ventilation.

Taking place over the course of an academic year, the novel is told in epistolary form. The majority of Fitger’s correspondence involves requests for letters of recommendations from adjuncts, current students applying to other programs or universities, English majors from years ago applying for catering jobs, and, in one specific instance, a student who’d received a C- in Fitger’s writing class who seeks employment at Avengers Paintball, Inc. Fitger explains to Avengers Paintball that the student’s “autobiographical essay on the topic of his own rageful impulses” makes him a perfect candidate for the job. Other letters involve departmental politics, and Fitger’s persistent, but unanswered, requests for the university to take notice of the increasingly hazardous state of his work environment, due to the renovations.

Early in the novel, we realize that Fitger has blown his cork. He uses his letters as a medium to rant about the IT department’s incompetence, redundant documentation, and his failed relationships and literary career. His tirades are hysterical not only because they’re unprofessional and, at times, completely random, but because they’re honest. For instance, he writes, “Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.”

Dear Committee Members is not simply a collection of witty letters, though. There is a narrative arc, and a central conflict through which the novel achieves greater sophistication. Beneath the humor, a tragedy concerning one of Fitger’s students, Darren Browles, brews steadily. Fitger cares deeply about Browles, but as the student’s plight worsens throughout the year, Fitger finds himself powerless to help him. Browles becomes the victim of a culture that privileges certain individuals over others, institutional oversight, and administrative bloating. While Fitger’s letters written on behalf of Browles ridicule institutional ethics (and are therefore funny), they also highlight how deeply serious and horrible Browles’s situation is becoming.

Practically every other page of Dear Committee Members made me laugh. In each letter, Schumacher reestablishes and reinvents the terms of her humor, so the novel stays fresh, with surprises all the way until the end. At the same time, I found the tragic element so heartbreaking that, upon closing the book, I couldn’t do anything but remain seated and staring ahead for long minutes.

 
Julie Schumacher grew up in Wilmington, Delaware and graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University.  Her first published story, “Reunion,” written to fulfill an undergraduate writing assignment (“tell a family tale”), was selected by Anne Tyler for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 1983. Subsequent stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, The New York TimesMs., and Prize Stories The O.Henry Awards: 1990 and 1996.  Her first novel, The Body Is Water, was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her other books include a short story collection, An Explanation for Chaos, five novels for younger readers, and, most recently, Dear Committee Members, a national best seller and winner of the midwest independent bookseller award.  She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.

 

 

CR Sampler

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

samplerHey, everybody. The term starts next week, the winter issue is with the typesetter, and we’re already back to considering and reading submissions for our upcoming spring 2016 number. Actually we never stopped. It has taken us all summer to . . . almost . . . catch up. (Only thirty more to go from last term!)

For those unfamiliar with the journal, we urge you to give us a read before submitting. Sample back issues are seven bucks. There’s no fee to submit to CR, but our system prevents you from submitting another piece (or packet) before you’ve heard from us on the last one you sent. With a response time of (usually) three or four months, that means you’ll only get a couple of shots at it in a given reading period. In other words, choose carefully. In other, other words, send us your best stuff.

For a few samples of material that has been published in our pages—and commented upon by our staff and contributors—check out our blog:

http://www.cincinnatireview.com/blog/category/soapbox-and-cr/

AND

http://www.cincinnatireview.com/blog/uncategorized/special-fiction-feature-tom-paines-it-was-just-swimming/

The latter story, a marvelous piece by Tom Paine, is included in his new collection, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, just reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly.

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

Monday, 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?