by Britton Gildersleeve

Brief Family History Cover FINAL web

I wasn’t prepared for Bryce Emley’s book A Brief Family History of Drowning. When given a book to review for Nimrod, I assume it’s poetry. And Emley’s is. But . . .

Is it mixed genre? Is it prose poetry? Does the form really matter? Well, to this writer and reader, it does. Because nothing in this tightly crafted book is accidental. Form, for a poet, is the clothing you wear to a funeral vs. the pajamas you wear to bed. It’s what you the writer deem suitable—as in, a suit vs. flannel, or a dress vs. a bathing suit. Emley’s decision to dress his griefs in clothes sewn from memoir, prose, and poetry makes of them something new. We too certainly suffer deaths of parents, regrets, and self-imposed guilts, but Emley’s book reads like a fresh iteration of these familiar losses.

The opening poem—“Prayer for Salt”—initially seems to promise more traditional form than the book delivers. But the following poem—“Renderings (My Father as Icarus)”—blows that expectation out of the water. With its overview and analysis of Icarus as a poetic extended metaphor, and the image of “his [Icarus’s] past composing his body’s mythology,” “Renderings” resonates on so many levels: Insightful imaging, reading, and more.

Much of Emley’s work in Drowning relies on an unusual fusion of marine biology and poetics, as well as (I assume) Emley’s long residence in Florida, that state of ocean and sea. In “Slow Biology: (My Mother as Greenland Shark),” the long-lived sleeper shark occasions an inquisition into death, into life. And, apparently—although she is explicitly mentioned only in the title—becomes his mother. In such lines as “It is possible death could be treated by slowing its approach . . . [i]t is possible Greenland sharks could teach us a more careful way to die,” the poet gently pulls us back to the human life behind the story of the shark, Emley’s mother’s life.

The collection of poems is a collage of sorts: images of death (Emley’s mother), illness (his mother’s cancer, his father’s stroke), and how such states of being both imprison and free, layer over a brother’s imprisonment, Emley’s grief, and reflections on all of these. Within the framework of this collage—these multiple layers of his history—Emley further develops his naturalist poetics. “Parabiosis: (My Father as Anglerfish),” leaves us with the deeply unsettling image of his father as a male anglerfish: “Mating requires a sacrificial unity: the male bites into her side, digests her flesh, fuses himself to her. There is shared blood, a becoming body.” An image which, in turn, doubles back to the Greenland shark, “living an easy, inhuman indifference to the silence growing in her gut, growing so slowly . . . growing so slowly.”

At the heart of Emley’s collection is a lengthy piece, “Mother, Mother, Ocean.” The title is a line from a Jimmy Buffet song that takes on the sheen of sorrow in this context, which has Emley attempting to negotiate the irreconcilable tension(s) from his father’s disability and his mother’s death. “It rains the day your mother died. Someone says the two events are related. / It has rained every day since, continues through the internment.” Grief and rain, Emley notes, are both processes, and similar at that. Death too is a process, one related to water: “The monitor didn’t flat-line that morning like you would have expected. It continued pulsing in waves, in-time with some other rhythm, indifferent.” Like the tide responds to the moon, so Emley’s mother’s death responds like water, in waves.

Water—rain, the tears of grief and loss, the ocean, rivers—is a critical element in Emley’s book. Almost every page shimmers beneath a watery reflection. The title has warned us—here is, indeed, a family history of a kind of drowning. Most poignant, perhaps, is the next-to-last poem in the collection: “A List of Waters.” In it, Emley moves from his detailed descriptions of his mother’s death and his own responses, to his father, as he has done earlier in shorter snippets: “When I talk about men, I always mean my father . . . When I talk about fathers, I always mean river. Or the other way around, we know them the way we read the earth where water has been.” He asks, “Is it wrong to love a man for what he’s made? / If not love, know. If not love, rend. / If not love, river. / If not love.” And ends the dark and uneasy poem there, in a subtle flourish of ambivalence.

A Brief Family History of Drowning rewards multiple readings. Don’t be misled by the prose poem style—each line is as carefully mapped as those of sonnets or other more formal poems. White space serves to set off specific images, formatting overall works much as it does in a more tightly compressed poem. And there are, to steal a bit of watery metaphor, eddies and currents and deep pools of introspection. You won’t drown, but you will understand just how you might, trying to swim through Emley’s dark waters.

Bryce Emley, born and raised in Florida, has published poems, essays, and fiction in various national journals: The Atlantic, Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Experimental Writing, among others. He is the author of a forthcoming poetry chapbook, We Might Never Be This Beautiful Again (Seven Kitchens Press), and Smoke and Glass, a fiction chapbook (Folded Word, 2018). Emley is Poetry Editor of Raleigh Review and works at the University of New Mexico Press.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in NimrodSpoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

A Brief Family History of Drowning, by Bryce Emley. New York, NY: Sonder P, 2019.



Meet the Intern: Ethan Veenker

it's a me flipped

Tell us a little about yourself:

My name is Ethan Veenker, and I’m a second-semester senior at The University of Tulsa who’s not looking forward to graduating this May.

I’ve been reading and writing since I was young. My first try at fiction writing came about in the first few pages of an attempted fantasy novel, the name of which I won’t repeat here, but rest assured that it inspired a lifelong love for fiction and for writing in general. I guess you could call the shade of fiction I now attempt to emulate “literary fiction.” (There’s also an errant part of me who’s attempting to make it as a music journalist.)

Beyond all of that, I drum. I had an electronic drumkit in my dorm room for my first two years at TU and, due to this, was never on good terms with my neighbors.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

I’ve submitted to and been rejected by dozens of literary journals at this point, so the opportunity to work for one isn’t something I’d pass up. I love short fiction. I love literature in general, and Nimrod is one of the journals out there that’s publishing writers new and experienced, bit by bit establishing what will one day be literary history. There’s something exciting about reading one’s contemporaries without the hindsight of scholarly introductions and forewords and afterwords and classic editions, critical editions, et cetera. I’m not reading what I’ve been told is good; I’m getting to see for myself what’s good. That’s honestly thrilling.

What’s your major/what are you thinking about majoring in? Why are/were you drawn to that major?

I came to TU in 2016 as an English major and that went well for a couple of years. I then added on a creative writing major, and it’s still going all right. I chose these majors against the advice and wishes of nearly everyone from high school (save for the English teachers—thanks, Ms. Baker, Mrs. Charlson, and Mrs. Miller!), and while it remains to be seen if I ultimately made a wise choice, I’ve been happy with it. As I’ve said, reading and writing are pretty much my prime passions. I don’t think I would have enjoyed studying anything else.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

3. Franz Kafka. I honestly haven’t read as much of him as I should have, but the bits I have read have been delectable. I took German for the first two years here, so getting to read his work in its original language was exciting. Reading The Metamorphosis was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had.
2. Jorge Luis Borges. One of the few writers who can make me enjoy not understanding his work.
1. George Saunders. Crazy, hilarious satire and other things. Saunders boasts a fictional range that few other contemporary writers draw near, in my opinion. His short fiction and his novel—it’s not often an easy read (bad things happen to decent people), but the way it’s written is just endlessly surprising and engaging. I’ve loved his work since coming across it in my first English class at TU. What luck.

What are you most looking forward to learning or experiencing with Nimrod this semester?

I’m after diamonds in the rough. I’ve already read a few submissions for Nimrod and there’ve been plenty of good ones, but I’m really itching to see the great ones fall in my lap.


by Rilla Askew

Life moves fast. Novel writing moves slow. Historical novel writing even more so—terrapin pace. At least this is so for me. I’ll spend years, decades, long tedious days and hours in studied concentration, poring over history books, archives, obscure articles, how-to resources: how were personal letters written, folded, delivered in Tudor England? How did one travel from downtown Tulsa to Greenwood in 1921? How do men drill for oil? Ride the rails? Make a gun? You have to know so much more than can ever go into the book, and you don’t know what you need to know until you write it. There are other ways to make historical fiction, I’m sure, but I don’t know them. I only know this one. The process is slow, methodical, exceedingly inefficient.

And yet the pace suits me. I have a tortoise-not-hare temperament, a lento reading tempo, a need for immersion—some residual Baptist instinct, maybe. Full immersion. Studying texts. It’s the pace at which I read for pleasure, a few pages at a time, going back over passages, savoring language. It’s how I write books: going back over and over the language, tweaking, rearranging, pulling out, putting in. I sometimes wish for a jackrabbit temperament, an ability to dash forward and write one of Anne Lamott’s famous shitty first drafts. I just can’t. If the language doesn’t work, if I’m unsure of the history, I can’t move forward. Oh, I put in placeholders sometimes, for language or history, but I can’t leave them there long, else they’ll become part of the book. And then later I’m sorry.

I came to writing historical fiction not because I was so taken with history but because I wanted to understand the contemporary world I lived in. That world—Brooklyn, 1989, a world of landline phones and dot matrix printers and Betamax VCRs—is history now. But the human grief and joy and brutality that lived there then lives in us now and always. This was the year of the Central Park Jogger and the killing of Yusef Hawkins, a black youth surrounded by a gang of white boys in Bensonhurst; it was the year Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing debuted. It was also the year I learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. I wanted to write about that.

But the massacre didn’t explode from nothing; it came of what went before, and before, and before. To understand 1921, I had to go back before 1921. As my favorite historical novelist, Hilary Mantel, says: “Beneath every history, there is another history.”

To write about early twentieth century Oklahoma, I had to go back to Indian Territory in the late nineteenth. I had to learn (because I didn’t know it) the story of how my people migrated to the Territory—and what they brought with them. I asked questions of living elders, read histories, traced elliptically through hearsay and conversation and handed-down narratives the outlines of how my family came by covered wagon into I.T. from Kentucky in 1887. That tracing and imagining became my first novel, The Mercy Seat. Writing it, studying my way into the earliest days of Oklahoma’s story, trying to know what happened, and why, and above all how, I learned what has been for me the hardest lesson: that you can never know all you want to know. All you yearn to know.

In that book, a young girl finds a tin box holding her dead mother’s belongings; she tries to decipher her mother’s life through reading the items: a lock of hair, a cheap snuffbox, a charred torn-out page of scripture, a child’s pair of eyeglasses. But she comes to see that

. . . she could not know her mother’s life, not lived nor told nor unfolding in the strength of imagination nor in dream or vision. Her mother’s life was locked away from her, eternal, as she was locked away from all others, as we each are locked away from one another in the pores of finite mind and skin . . .

This is the metaphor, for me, for writing historical fiction. We’ll never know the truths of their lives, those precious or mediocre or loathsome ones who came before us; they’re locked away from us as the dead are locked away from the living, but we keep poring through the tin box anyway, reading artifacts, piecing mismatched parts together, creating the narrative from imperfect words. When we begin, we learn everything we can learn, and then we learn, by writing, how much more we need to know. Then comes another hard lesson: we have to leave out so many of these fascinating facts we’ve learned, because they impede the narrative or make the story read like hey-look-at-all-my-fabulous-research.

So, we become meticulous, devoted, openminded, openhearted, humble enough to hide our hand, we hope. Still we see we’ll never know all we need to know.

But if we love this work, this reading and writing of historical fiction (and I don’t call my work historical fiction anyway, I call it “literary fiction set in the historical past,” which is a phrase that’s never going to fly with any publishing publicity person, ever), then we’re willing to work and work and work, even knowing we’ll have to submerge a good portion of what we learn, even knowing that, no matter how hard we try, we’ll still get things wrong.

In her wonderful essay “Why I Became a Historical Novelist,” Hilary Mantel says that she’ll make up a man’s inner torments but not, for instance, the color of his drawing room wallpaper. “ . . . someone, somewhere, might know the pattern and color,” she says, “and if I kept on pursuing it, I might find out.”

I share Mantel’s essay with students in my historical fiction writing class. I tell them: we’re writing to the one who knows the wallpaper.

Or anyway, I am.

It takes courage in all cases to be a writer, and a particular kind of courage to write outside one’s own lived experience, to try to create for readers the lived experiences of others in an era in which we have never lived, in a place where we’ve never lived—because, even if we have lived in our story’s location, inside our own period’s overlay, even if we travel (as we must do) to our story’s landscapes and cities, or study with intricate attention the paintings and photographs of the age, we can never experience the precise quality of light on the southern plains in 1837, or the ambient sounds on a Kansas City street in 1902, or the stench of burning flesh in 1546 in London, or on the streets of Tulsa in 1921.

For that, we must imagine.

So then we’re doing what all novelists of all genres and in all ages do: imagining our way into the lives of others, burrowing into their psyches, walking in their skins, finding our way, through imagery and language and sensory detail, into their world, and inviting readers inside with us. That’s the art of it, this great imagining, this welding of histories and artifacts and qualities of light to the human heart in all its joy and grief and suffering. Historical novelists aren’t writing to the past but to our own time. Each age has its obsessions, surely, but the fundamentals of the human story don’t change. We’re looking to create who we are now by imagining who we were before—who, indeed, we always have been.

Rilla Askew is the author of novels about westward migration in the late 1800s (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (Fire in Beulah), and the homeless and dispossessed during the Great Depression (Harpsong). She’s currently at work on a novel about the Protestant martyr Anne Askew, who was burned at the stake in London in 1546. Rilla’s essays have appeared in Nimrod, AGNI, Tin House, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.

Voices of Native American Women: An Appreciation

by John Coward

“I have only one golden rule: I try to read as widely as possible, so rather than staying in the same mental comfort zone year after year, I like to travel across disciplines and genres and cultures.”
—Novelist Elif Shafak, New York Times Book Review, December 26, 2019

I decided to take Shafak’s advice even before I read the passage above. My idea, hatched some months ago, was simple: to learn more about the lives of others by reading about people very different from me. That notion led me to consider the books of indigenous writers, including Native women, writers who have long been overlooked in the literary landscape.

Native women have made their voices heard, enriching mainstream culture with their storytelling abilities and their original perspectives. One of the most prominent of these voices is poet and performer Joy Harjo, a Tulsa native of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation who was recently named U.S. Poet Laureate, the first indigenous person to hold that honor. Beginning in the 1970s, Harjo has published numerous volumes of poetry (She Had Some Horses, In Mad Love and War), as well as a one-woman play (Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light), and has recorded several albums (she plays the saxophone and flute).

In 2012, Harjo also published a memoir called Crazy Brave. It’s a unique memoir in many ways, filled with poems, dreams, and visions. It is also unusual because Harjo builds her memoir around the four cardinal directions, starting with East: “East is the direction of beginnings. It is sunrise.” Harjo moves North next: “North is the direction where difficult teachers live. . . . It is the direction marked by the full moon showing the way through. It is prophecy.”Then there’s West: “West is the direction of endings. It is the doorway to the ancestors, the direction of tests.”Harjo’s concluding section is South: “South is the direction of release. . . . It is the tails of two snakes making a spiral, looping over and over, and eternal transformation.”

Within these sections, Harjo tells the story of her childhood in Oklahoma, a time of struggle and family troubles but also of simple joys and her budding imagination. She recalls, for example, playing with bees in a patch of clover when her mother visited with a neighbor. Harjo transformed the bees in her imagination:

They became people in my stories. I set them down on the ground as I imagined a house and the rooms of a house and the stories going on in the house. I moved them as I talked a story for them. One was the father, one the mother. The others were children, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren.

Less happily, Harjo recalls her complicated relationship with her father, who she loved and who loved her, but who later abandoned her and her mother. Then there was her stepfather, an angry man who took out his frustrations—sometimes violently—on her.

There’s much more in Crazy Brave, ample evidence of Harjo’s spiritual and literary gifts. There’s also much in her memoir to educate a reader like me, a white male whose middle-class background in Mississippi and Tennessee is pretty different from Harjo’s. Yet those differences are a compelling reason to read Crazy Brave. Harjo’s life and experiences are unlike my own in myriad ways, but people like me—a person who has benefitted from white privilege all his life—need to hear her voice and consider her perspectives and experiences. The American conversation, which has long been dominated by white males, living and dead, suffers when it ignores such voices at Harjo’s and those of other Native women.

The voices of Native women fill the gaps in the literary imagination, telling stories the rest of us need to hear. More than that, these voices also give us a reason to read. Poems and stories by Native women give us new ways to experience and appreciate the world. They enlarge our own understandings of the human heart and the human condition.

This is a journey worth taking. Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave was my first step; other books by Native women will follow. On my list: Heart Berries, a memoir by Terese Maria Mailhot, a member of the Seabird Island Band in the Pacific Northwest, and Bad Indians, a tribal memoir by Deborah A. Miranda, a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation in California.

If you’ve never heard of these writers or their work, that’s precisely the reason to find their books and read them.

John Coward is professor emeritus of media studies at The University of Tulsa and a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board. His most recent book is Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press, published in 2016 by the University of Illinois Press.