Review: EDUCATED: A MEMOIR by Tara Westover

by Helen Patterson

Tara Westover was born to fanatically devout parents who spent most of their lives preparing for the apocalypse and the subsequent collapse of civilization. She and her siblings had little formal primary education and went untreated for serious, life-threatening injuries because of her parents’ belief that the government, school system, and all of medicine were embroiled in conspiracies. After leaving home and studying at Brigham Young University (B.A., 2008) and Cambridge (M.Phil., Trinity College, 2009; Ph.D. in history, 2014), Westover wrote Educated: A Memoir about her experience growing up, and away from, her family.

Educated-Tar Westover

Religion and fanaticism are constant themes in this book, but Westover makes clear from the author’s note at the beginning that “This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not. The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative, between the two.” Taking these words to heart is fundamental for understanding what Westover is trying to accomplish with the book. She is not attacking religion or Mormonism, and what she presents is not a morality tale or a conversion (or deconversion) narrative. The deeply personal nature of faith means it cannot be inherently good or evil; it is human. Anyone who reads Educated without taking this message to heart will miss the depth and richness of Westover’s book and her experiences.

Abuse and hardship have run throughout Westover’s life. The physical toll of working in her father’s junkyard, the debilitating injuries from multiple car accidents and third-degree burns, and the constant, grinding hardship of near-poverty are always with her. More dangerous is her unpredictable father, prone to fits of rage when his authority and religious dogma are questioned. Most dangerous, perhaps, is Tara’s brother, Shawn, who belittles and shames her, concusses her, holds her head underwater in the toilet multiple times, and breaks her wrist. Shawn drives a wedge between her and the rest of the family. He also drives a wedge inside her mind, making her ashamed and doubtful of her reason even as she succeeds academically.

In memoir, there is always the peril of falsehood. For Westover, memory—specifically, whose memories are “true”—becomes a battleground. Her abusive brother Shawn denies that he ever hurt her and reframes their every encounter so that she was the one at fault. He sways their parents to his side, and eventually this forces an ultimatum from their father: She can recant her own memories, renounce her willful, secular self, and return to the family. Alternatively, she can deny this grace, this way back into the fold, and stand by the veracity of her experience and emotions and lose her family.

Westover’s choice is difficult, but not impossible. She realizes that “Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. . . . If I yielded now . . . I would lose custody of my own mind” (304). For Westover, this is what it means to become educated: you gain your own mind and become your own person. You choose your own truth. When Westover stands up for her selfhood and denies her father, she is doing what every healthy adult does, though for many of us the stakes are lower.

While no review can do full justice to a person’s life story, I hope this one encourages readers to give Westover’s Educated the attention is deserves.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

Review: SONORA by Hannah Lillith Assadi

by Cassidy McCants

Hannah Lillith Assadi, a recent (2016) Columbia M.F.A. grad, proves herself an entrancing and eerie storyteller with her 2017 debut novel Sonora (Soho Press). In this National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree, she traces the growing-up of Ahlam, the daughter of a Palestinian refugee and an Israeli woman living in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. After the peculiar death of several of her classmates, Ahlam (who goes by “Ariel” with her friends) escapes to New York with her best friend and partner in debauchery (though this seems too harsh a word for their behavior; I think “experimentation” says it better, for the most part), Laura, with whom she shares an arguably codependent, and certainly consuming, partnership.

The New Yorker has referred to Sonora as “cryptic,” but I can’t say I agree. I find the novel, which is told in chapters labeled by months of the year, to be quiet, dreamlike, sure—maybe even hazy—but not quite oblique. At home Ahlam became accustomed to chronic fever dreams, visions she says began “in the desert and with Laura.” These dreams, often of the dead, poisoned her, making her ill for days; only the sound of her father’s voice would save her, ground her. About dreams, Ahlam/Ariel asserts, in the first chapter, “Every night we meet the faces of those we love in our dreams. Every night we meet ourselves in the faces of others. Dreams must be love’s purest territory. Some dreams dissipate with the morning, some dreams recur. Some dreams appear in broad daylight, some emerge impossibly.”

Somehow, Sonora seems to be a dream that fits into all of these categories: it’s foggy but provides a sort of consistent emotional clarity; it pulls you into a love that feels both fleeting and for life; it tells a story that’s at once familiar, inevitable, and yet faraway, often elusive. The novel reads like a lucid dream—but one that ultimately has power over your consciousness, one that eventually will pull you in so far you’re bound to lose yourself in it.

It’s clear from the beginning that Laura and Ariel bond over their gloom: as Ariel suffers through her dreams, Laura worries she herself is a curse after being told by a psychic she’s a “witch,” like her deceased Native American mother. The two move in with Dylan, an entrepreneurial hotshot, in New York, which leads to a romance for Laura—but Ariel (Dylan prefers Ahlam; it’s “more exotic”) remains a constant in their love life. She almost never strays from Laura’s side; she’s there for parties, drugs, even sex, though Ariel herself abstains from sexual contact for years following a violent incident back home. Laura sings and Ariel dances—Laura seemingly the more captivating of the two, at least in Dylan’s eyes, and definitely in Ariel’s. They’re a package deal.

In keeping to the dreamscape, Assadi weaves in and out of past and present; throughout the novel an adult Ahlam reflects on this intense friendship while visiting her father, a taxi driver who calls his car his Battlestar Galactica, in the hospital. Ahlam’s love for her father is evident in these scenes, as is her pull away from home as she recounts her life with Laura.

The Ahlam-and-Laura story often is gloomy, but Assadi manages to summon hope from within Ahlam throughout: reflecting on her high school years, those early years with Laura, she concludes, “With the years, we become even more ourselves and call this change.” Maybe this sentiment is not in and of itself hopeful, but it reads to me as a sort of confirmation of life, a realization of one’s trajectory, one’s place in the world. Both Ahlam and Laura, from the beginning, feel alienated, unable to find the space they should occupy. Sonora follows their search, not for fitting in, but for belonging. Assadi perfectly captures this preoccupation with being an outsider with a story about Laura revealing a strange scar on her chest, ostensibly from being hit by lightning (“ . . . what if it’s some sort of curse? Or, like, a map to a constellation where there are aliens,” Laura asks upon showing Ahlam the mark):

“I have always loved those with beautiful scars. My father was born with a mark beneath his calf he claims is the exact shape of his homeland. I wonder if the doctors ever notice, if they wonder at a body, its marks of particularity, its pinpricks of love, of drunken stumble, of bruise. Or if in their haste to save our lives, it is only our blood pressure, our liver function, our heart rate that concern them. If an alien beheld the earth and saw us scrambling for the rush-hour train, pumping gas at the local station, slowed in the highway traffic, our bombs fireworking the sky, they might think we are the scars. We are the wounds. This is why aliens always appear in the desert. It is empty. It is clean.”

This story, like many, is one of stumbling into adulthood, of the search for the meaning of home, of love and infatuation and loss. Assadi’s descriptions of the desert are poetic but not necessarily romantic—Ahlam sees her home for its beauty and its failings, just as Assadi as author recognizes both the strengths and the weaknesses, the good and the bad, of her characters. This novel is unique in its portrayal of a Jewish-Palestinian family (Assadi herself comes from a Jewish mother and Palestinian father), and it’s universal in its depiction of the quest for identity, for love, for belonging.

Cassidy McCants, an associate editor of Nimrod, received her M.F.A. in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Intern Interview: Claire Olson

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Tell us a little about yourself:

I’m a senior from Edmond, Oklahoma. When I was growing up, my mom always encouraged me to read regularly. She made sure there were plenty of interesting and diverse books on our shelves, and so I was constantly surrounded by good literature. Now I am able to study literature in college, and I’m looking to continue my studies in grad school next year. In my free time, I like to drink lots of coffee and make baked goods.

What made you interested in working with Nimrod?

Since I was about sixteen I have wanted to work as an editor. After an editorial internship with a veterinary journal, I wanted to work at a journal that was more focused on my own personal interests. I thought that Nimrod had the potential to be a really good fit, where I might have the opportunity to develop my own editorial skills while becoming exposed to the world of literary publishing.

What’s your major? Why were you drawn to this major?

I am triple-majoring in English, History, and French. I originally started out with just the English major and a French minor, but I was drawn to studying literature from a historical perspective, so I decided to add history to my schedule. After studying abroad in France, I wanted to continue studying French, and so I decided to add the third major! I have always loved reading, and so studying English was the most logical choice for me; I’ve seen people choose majors simply because they want to make comfortable incomes, and they tend to quickly become bored with their careers only a few years after graduation. I wanted instead to be able to work in a field that would continue to interest me for years.

Who are a few of your favorite authors?

Many of my favorite authors as a twenty-one-year-old are some of my favorite authors from my youth. I am a big fan of writers such as Edith Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, and Victor Hugo. When I have the opportunity to re-read some of my favorites, I’m likely to pick up something like The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, or The Once and Future King by T. H. White. In college I’ve come to appreciate some modernist authors, such as William Faulkner and T. S. Eliot, that I wasn’t exposed to as a kid.

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

I’m looking forward to being a part of a journal that does some really cool work. I think that my time at Nimrod will prepare me for work I will do after graduation, whether at a publishing house or in grad school. I’m excited too that Nimrod publishes poetry, because I haven’t been able to study much poetry throughout my college career, and I’m beginning to realize that my poetry knowledge base is extremely lacking! Overall, I think working at Nimrod will be a great way to round out my four years at TU.

 

 

Review: Wyatt Townley’s REWRITING THE BODY

by Britton Gildersleeve

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State poet laureates can be a . . . mixed bag. Some are excellent. More are adequate. A few are downright awful. I’ve sat on committees to choose state poet laureates—and met many, as well; there’s a huge arc from ghastly to great. In other words: the title alone isn’t that impressive.

But every so often it’s richly deserved, as it is in Wyatt Townley’s case. Townley, Poet Laureate Emerita for the state of Kansas, has a new book—Rewriting the Body[1]—that should be required reading for lovers of poetry, and especially for writers interested in craft. It’s relatively easy to find engaging topics in poetry, but to construct a book of poems crafted so that they interest (fascinate!) another, critical poet? To link poems through leitmotifs—smallness, darkness, closets, rings of boys and men, what matter is—to place poems so that they converse across the bifold pages of a book (“Morning Coffee” & “Night Wine,” for instance)? And to do this with the lightest of hands, almost a feather-whisper touch? This is far beyond the abilities of most poets, laureates or not.

Here there be villanelles and concrete poems, where form is shaped by content (“The Back of Beyond” and “Song of Myself”), as well as brilliant command of poetic tools: anaphora, meter, rhythm, and slant/internal rhyme focusing the reader’s attention so very subtly. In poem after poem, Townley’s grasp of her craft frames with dark precision the content of her poems: the villanelle “The Closet” haunts with its refrain The shoes lead here—all shoes show up at night. That Townley pairs ruby slippers and red shoes in the poem—conflating the technicolor Oz with the horrific Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale—further illuminates the dark corners of poetic memoirs written “in a closet rendezvous.” While the title sequence—“Rewriting the Body”—stuns with its various stratagems, from the framing stage directions to the quietly brutal section titled “Sold As Is/Inspections Welcome”: . . . where one life ended / someone else’s began / your childhood yanked / from you beside the roses. . . . your small legs a wishbone. . . .

A current of violence runs through the collection like a discordant jazz riff, coloring even the recurring wedding dress motif: “Black Wedding Train” (a black wedding train / made of catshit weeds and mud / in its folds boys / circle a girl / facedown in the dandelions / the ants bear witness / to her fisted silence / and the zipper’s long scream); “Wedding Dresses,” where the dresses outlast us. / They whisper in their caskets/ in the corners of attics . . . ; the poignant promise of “Advice,” which confesses All I can say / is what the wedding gown / whispers to the lawn. Listen to the internal music of “dresses” and “whisper,” while “caskets” echoes so very softly “outlast us,” and leads inevitably to “attics.” Wow, right? 

Relationships move beyond weddings, however, and Townley’s luminous “Thirty Years,” like Mona Van Duyn’s famous “Late Loving,” succinctly celebrates a long and happy relationship: whatever we were about / to say now rises / in our throats the same /words we know better / than our name / while hair went white / across a table we’re / still mid-prayer /mid-bite. As a poet once noted wryly, there are few good poems about successful relationships. Rewriting the Body challenges that aphorism with its gleam of polished words reflecting the patina of familiarity. 

But Rewriting the Body is not a gilded pæan to love, nor even life. The finale—the book’s title sequence—marries the writer’s passion for poetry with her own aging mortality, as well as nightmare passages familiar to far too many of us. And yet . . . there is an exquisitely lyric loveliness to #12 in the sequence. It opens with a quotation that notes that only 4% matter is included in the universe’s mass, after which the poem explodes with a list of both what matter is—a juddering fridge . . . the pencil crossing / the page like a wave to shore /coming back for what /at its tip is /the sound of wind—and what the things are that matter: It’s whatever we touch / and later scatter / How can so little matter / matter so much.

What should matter to readers of Nimrod is that this is a book you’ll both learn from and marvel at. It’s a book that—like its wondrous final sequence—defies easy categorization. Craft to study? Absolutely. Content to amaze and awe? That too. And I’ve only touched on a handful of the work included. Suffice to say that it’s worth buying. And that you’ll return to it more than once.

Wyatt Townley’s work has been featured in both Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry column and Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac radio program. Her poetry collections include Perfectly Normal (1990), The Breathing Field: Meditations on Yoga (2002), and The Afterlives of Trees (2011).

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon 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.

[1]Rewriting the Body by Wyatt Townley. Austin, TX: Stephen F Austin UP, 2018.

Review: THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura van den Berg

by Helen Patterson

Set in 2015 Havana, Laura van den Berg’s new novel, The Third Hotel, draws on film theory and criticism, zombie folklore and film, and the clash of the past and the present. Clare, an elevator salesperson, goes to Havana because she and her recently deceased husband, Richard, a prominent horror film professor, had tickets to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and meet Yuniel Mata, the director of Revolución Zombi, the first horror film made in Cuba. Before Richard was killed in a hit-and-run, Clare’s relationship with him was strained, and she sees this trip as a means to retroactively connect with him, to find out why he acted so strangely before his death. As Clare wanders through Havana and Cuba, she grows increasingly displaced from reality.

The title is a reference to Clare’s difficulty locating where she is supposed to be staying when she first arrives in Havana: she ends up at the wrong hotel twice before reaching the correct place, “the third hotel”. This sense of displacement and of being trapped in a liminal space resonates throughout the novel. Clare is constantly uneasy. She cannot stop thinking about Richard’s death, and she also cannot stop thinking about her father, who is slowly dying of dementia.

If the novel took place in America, Clare would already be displaced as a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis. But as this is all happening in a foreign country, Cuba, where Clare is a tourist and alone, adding a second layer of displacement. In addition, Cuba itself is rapidly modernizing, changing, and displacing the old with the new. This means that Clare is displaced and alienated a third time, trapped between two different versions of Cuba, the past and the future, colliding in her present. These layered displacements create a dreamlike atmosphere of unreality throughout the text.

Clare is not a stranger to traveling. In her former life as a salesperson, she spent over 200 days away from home a year. She “believed that if she just kept moving she could elude the most painful parts of life” (34). But Clare learns she cannot escape the memory of her husband. In Cuba, she sees Richard, alive and well—unless he is just a ghost, a zombie, or a figment of her imagination. The atmosphere of the uncanny that van den Berg builds never allows readers to quite make up their minds.

Relentless as a zombie herself, Clare follows Richard, even speaks to him. The question of whether Richard is an undead monster or some different, alternate version of himself, brought to life by her will and set loose into a different reality, is never fully resolved. The crucial thing is that Clare alters dramatically as she realizes that it was she, not Richard, who changed. Earlier she had interpreted Richard’s actions before his death as an inexplicable change that he instigated, but it turns out he was changing in response to her, to her strangeness.

Overwhelmed, Clare begins to witness reality itself as if she were Richard critiquing a film. The weight of an invisible camera lens, of a voyeuristic unseen other, makes Clare feel that she is both the subject/protagonist and the passive viewer of the film of her life.

Clare eventually returns to the States (minus her job), but she is so altered by her long immersion in a liminal state that it is doubtful she will ever again become the person she thought she was. Moreover, the last disturbing line of the novel, “That night the moon looked like it was going to kill them all” (209), pulls the whole world into Clare’s liminal nightmare, including the reader. The Third Hotel is a rich, disquieting novel, and highly recommended reading.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

Image: Laura van den Berg with Jeff Martin at Magic City Books on October 28th, 2018. 

 

In Praise of Beautiful Language

By John Coward

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

So begins Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella, A River Runs Through It, an opening sentence as crisp and intriguing as one can imagine. Maclean’s first paragraph continues, reeling in the reader with more hints of the story to come:

We lived at the junction of great trout streams in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He taught us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

To my ear, this is enchanting prose, words and ideas strung together so vividly and memorably that they capture the imagination in a flash of wonder and expectation.

Opening with a stylistic bang is good prose technique, of course. In journalism, the first sentence in a story—known in newsrooms as the “lede”—is considered the most important sentence in the story because its job is to hook the reader and create interest in the story.

Maclean, a long-time English professor at the University of Chicago, knew this perfectly well and practiced it in his writing. In another story, Maclean opened with this magnificent sentence: “I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew I was not beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but I hadn’t noticed it yet.” (The story is “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky,” one of three stories in A River Runs Through It.)

Vladimir Nabokov also knew the value of a strong beginning. He opened his novel Lolita with this astonishing first paragraph:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Nabokov, a native Russian writing in an adopted language, mastered an English prose style so lyrical that it almost sings on the page. More than that, this opening paragraph suggests a passion—or, more accurately, a lust—that drives this controversial story forward. Despite its unsavory theme—a middle-aged professor’s obsession with a twelve-year-old girl—many readers were enchanted by Nabokov’s elegant prose.

Another writer who mastered the lyricism of English was James Agee, the Tennessee native perhaps best known for his book on Depression-era poverty in rural Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although Famous Men is a notoriously difficult book in many places, Agee was capable of extraordinarily evocative prose. In “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a short passage that opens his novel, A Death in the Family, Agree recalls his family lounging on blankets on their lawn after dinner. He begins, “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Agee goes on to expand this particular evening on the lawn in language as beautiful and evocative as any ever written by an American writer:

We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

As I said, Agee’s language is sublime. Indeed, the music in this passage has not been lost on Agee’s readers, one of whom was the composer Samuel Barber, who adapted Agee’s prose into a 1947 rhapsody for voice and orchestra, a piece also known as “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”

For me, these words, these musical sentences and paragraphs are an enduring literary gift, openings to a greater world of the human imagination.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

The Worst That Can Happen: Trevor’s Promise of High Drama in “Events at Drimaghleen”

by Adrienne Perry

Scary farmhouse

As a writer who often and unexpectedly unveils the most shocking elements of my stories in their final pages, I was caught by the first sentence of William Trevor’s short story “Events at Drimaghleen”: “Nothing as appalling had happened before at Drimaghleen; its people had never been as shocked.” What was Trevor up to, suggesting such drama at the story’s start? Not only what was Trevor up to, but how would he manage the tension roused by this sentence?

Trevor’s slow release of the story’s dramatic events counterbalances the high stakes introduced at its beginning. Trevor’s tone, pacing, narrative distance, and emphasis also moderate the action, revealing the high drama in a manner that eventually guided me to see its role in the narrative beyond the triggering event.

Alluding to a horrific scene near the story’s beginning sets a tone and raises expectations; I read on in anticipation of learning about these “dramatic occurrences.” Trevor layers the first paragraph of “Events at Drimaghleen” with words and circumstances to encourage that curiosity without fully contextualizing it. Distress is mentioned, in addition to three anecdotes from Drimaghleen’s history. One after the other, these vignettes mount in their degree of strangeness and violence: “[A] woman known as the Captain’s wife had run away with a hunchbacked peddler . . . there’d been resistance in the hills and fighting in Drimaghleen itself. During the Troubles a local man had been executed in a field by the Black and Tans.” Trevor’s readers glean that none of these scenarios will compare to the “horror of the tragedy” in Trevor’s story.

Whatever this horror, Trevor seems in no hurry to tell us about it. Spoiler Alert: Before showing readers the double homicide and suicide that constitute the most “appalling” event in Drimaghleen’s history, Trevor slows the pace; after his opening paragraph, he temporarily places our expectations for high drama on hold. We turn from an execution to an everyday farm couple approaching this life-changing “day as they always did”: dressing, bathing, starting chores, and their wasted attempts to rouse an often-sluggish daughter. The pacing mirrors the scene’s quiet, domestic nature, with its pulling on of boots and its teakettles. The urgency of the first paragraph and its potential for high drama still exist in this scene, but they are muted—a dampening that lends a sinister quality to the McDowds’ otherwise typical morning. We’ll get our horror, but without melodrama.

This measured approach to the release of information does not diminish the scene’s overall narrative energy. Trevor’s first scene at the McDowds’ brims with tension because its pacing toys with our expectations. By providing early insight into the story’s eventual tragedy, Trevor has ensured that our anticipation colors all we see—from milking cows to the McDowds’ morning meal. Trevor’s creation of tension in this farmhouse scene, alongside his cultivation of the reader’s suspicions, relies on a canny use of narrative distance. The amount of information Trevor shares does not suggest irony on the scale of a Greek tragedy, but the omniscience and larger Drimaghleen context established in the narrative’s first lines drive the reader’s response.

Outside of the narrator, we are the only other souls informed enough to anticipate the shock. Trevor’s readers look for menace in otherwise mundane details. As Mrs. McDowd pounds on Maureen’s door—“Come on now, Maureen!”—the reader’s mind races forward in an attempt to place information in a larger, mysterious puzzle. We wonder, is Maureen dead or sick? Where is she, if not behind that door? When Mr. McDowd is finally “jolted . . . into an awareness that what had been wrong was that Maureen’s bicycle had not been leaning against the kitchen window-sill,” we suspect his sense of “wrong” is only half of the truth. Trevor’s readers know more than the McDowds, but we cannot claim farsightedness. We have enough insight to gather from Trevor’s emphasis on the McDowds that this will ultimately be their tragedy and that Maureen—from the moment she is discovered missing—will be at its center. We have enough insight to think her parents ought to hurry their breakfast, or to wince as Mr. McDowd calls Maureen “the little bitch.” The McDowds “both felt the same, anxious and cross at the same time, not wanting to believe the apparent truth. Their daughter had ungratefully deceived them. . . .” Readers appreciate the McDowds’ concern and yet see a disparity between their sense of Maureen’s deception and the anticipation of tragedy the narrator has cultivated.

The McDowds’ relative “apparent truth” dissolves as soon as Trevor shows us “their daughter lying beside the pump.” For different reasons, this is a pivotal moment for the McDowds and the reader. Hereafter, as we enter further into the horrors Trevor promised, the reader’s privileged perspective on the narrative narrows, its field eventually no wider than that of the McDowds’.

Does this shift in narrative distance mean that Trevor has broken his contract with his readers? No. The narrative addresses the devastating events suggested in its beginning. The emphasis on the McDowds, and Maureen in particular, is not misplaced. And this shift in perspective confirms that “Events at Drimaghleen” will take on other dimensions. Trevor does not expect his readers to find the story’s meaning solely in its violent, triggering event. The violence only matches the psychological pain underscored by the story’s final scene, as Mrs. McDowd “sat at the blue-topped table with her lips drawn back from her teeth, one short, shrill scream following fast upon another.”

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.

Contributor Interview: Marcela Sulak

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Sulak

Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

My piece “Physicians in the Dark” was written at the beginning of a virtual correspondence and acquaintanceship between me and a young father/teacher from Gaza who was trying to rebuild a community library after the last Gaza/Israel war/battle/exchange of fire (I’m not really even sure what to call it). In fact, we never discussed how the library happened to be destroyed. But that summer, Gaza was without electricity and we in Tel Aviv were trying to set up a reading in which he would skype in, to raise money for his library.

After the successful reading/fundraising, we kept in touch. We skyped. We showed one another our streets with the video camera. It is very very difficult for Israelis and Gazans to communicate, and this man has been very brave. But with very limited electricity, people were falling sick. His very young daughter fell sick and was hospitalized. He was desperate for medicine–the hospitals were out.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

The title comes from Wallace Steven’s “Of Modern Poetry” in which the poem is an artist who is also a “metaphysician in the dark.” In the case of my friend, this line was warped into “physicians in the dark.” For that is his reality, hospitals running on limited generators, and his reality changes mine, too.

I draw on Wallace Stevens because, since living in Israel, seeking out difficult encounters and maintaining them, forces you to rethink everything–as in the poem “of modern poetry.” But when you move ideas into a different physical space and physical reality, when your very building material for the world changes, so do your ideas.

Today it was the time of year to teach Wallace Stevens again. One of my students came up to me later and said, “Wallace Stevens wouldn’t write that like if he weren’t white. He’s a wonderful poet. but he’s a very white poet.”

I see what he means.

But my favorite line from the poem is:

“for metaphysicians in the dark are busy moving

sets behind the scenes,”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

The advice I’d give young or beginning, or old, or continuing, or middle aged or mid-career writers is exactly the same: read a lot and take public transportation, take walks, observe the life around you.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

The other thing about this poem–and the “strange/funny/interesting” thing about myself (it’s a strange thing to be asked–to name a “strange/funny/interesting thing. “The most basic things about myself people find strange or interesting–my growing up on a rice farm in Texas. To me it was neither strange or any more interesting than anything else). But anyway, one of the major leitmotifs of this poem was inspired by the Prague Black Light Theater. Where stage hands dressed in black move scenery around with the lights off, so it looks like the objects are floating. I translate from Czech. It was both my parents’ mother tongue, though now they speak English.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

Currently I am translating two Israeli poets–Eli Eliahu and Sharron Hass. And I’ve completed a memoir in flash called “Drawn that Way” about translating fairy tales, growing up on a farm, and religious conversion. I’m also trying to get a collection of octava rima poems published. They were written while riding public transportation and running along the river every day.

Marcela Sulak’s poetry includes Decency and Immigrant. She’s co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. Her fourth translation, Twenty Girls to Envy Me: Selected Poems of Orit Gidaliwas nominated for the 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. She hosts the podcast “Israel in Translation,” edits The Ilanot Review, and teaches at Bar-Ilan University.

THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker:  a kind of review

by Diane Burton

Briseis and Achilles, 1803 |Thorvaldsens Museum | Wikimedia CommonsBriseis and Achilles, 1803 | Thorvaldensen Museum | Wikimedia Commons

A couple of weeks ago I read The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.  I always look forward to a new Barker novel; her work is remarkable for the way it conveys the texture of everyday life and acknowledges the individual complexity of characters from every milieu.  She is especially skilled in portraying life under stress, individual and/or communal, as in times of war or social upheaval.  Her Regeneration Trilogy, three novels about both home front and battlefront in the First World War, is my favorite, so I was eager to get into the new novel, which tells a piece of the story of the Iliad, specifically the story of the Trojan women.

It is told mainly from the point of view of Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus in Asia Minor, whose city has fallen to the Greeks, her husband, father, and brothers killed in the fighting. Briseis, now a slave, is awarded to Achilles as his prize for taking the city, but the return of another captive, Chryseis, Agamemnon’s prize, to her father leaves Agamemnon without a concubine of high station. Agamemnon, a king, pulls rank on Achilles to demand he turn over Briseis and choose a lesser prize.  Achilles, insulted, refuses and retires from the fighting.  This is the source of the wrath of Achilles, the famed sulk that begins the Iliad.

As much as I like to read about the ancient Greeks, I’m no scholar of the classics, so my reading of modern retellings is always colored slightly by a suspicion that the classical world is just too long ago and far away for any present-day reconstruction to convey it adequately, and the accompanying assumption that any present-day reconstruction will use the ancient story to reflect our contemporary concerns.  This is, after all, part of why we revisit the classics, part of why we consider them classics—we hope or fear that if they still speak to us today they may have in them something about the human condition that is timeless.

The story of the Trojan women after the fall of Troy has long engaged my interest and my dread, almost against my will, from the Iliad itself to the plays of Euripides, to Ovid’s Heroides, to the various versions of Troilus and Cressida, to Simone Weil’s dissection of the essential abjection resulting from force:  force is that x that turns a person into a thing.

In the context of the Trojan War, men of the defeated side were killed, women were taken captive, and any captive was a slave.  A slave, by Weil’s formula, is a thing, at best a former person; if women are already semi-chattel, slavery formalizes, makes official, reinforces the marginal status of even the highest-ranking women: a queen is just a more valuable prize than a woman without a crown.

In Barker’s novel, Briseis accepts her diminished position, even her enslavement, but she is never less than a person and always a person determined to survive.  Her strength of character and clear-eyed vision of the world she lives in provide entry into an existence that seems at first unimaginable. As the novel proceeds, the conditions of that existence become not only easier to imagine but more and more familiar.

For Briseis, romantic love holds little value or even meaning.  Her first husband, now dead, was foolish but tolerable; she’s hardly overcome with gratitude for her assignment as concubine to Achilles, though she and he negotiate a grudging reciprocal respect, even liking, over their short time together; she feels nothing but contempt and disgust for Agamemnon when he appropriates her, knowing his claim of droit de seigneur is about insulting Achilles rather than valuing her; she accepts marriage to one of Achilles’s men as a safeguard against a harsher fate.  Briseis is practical: marriage and concubinage alike are transactional arrangements, made for purposes of advantage and/or security on the part of everyone involved.

The romance in the novel is between Achilles and Patroclus, quite literally a bromance, between two highborn warriors who have grown up together, with some undertones of homosexuality but more of homosociality, and most of all of brotherly love.  Brotherly love here is founded not only on likeness but on difference, on affection but on competition as well. Women have no place in the heroes’ enmeshment with each other, no emotional valence in their interactions. Briseis accepts this as the way of the world, though she finds herself feeling real affection for Patroclus and deep sorrow at his death.

Maybe you can see where this is headed.

 The Silence of the Girls is a fine novel, well written, even gripping, especially since readers have a pretty good idea of how it will end. But it will never be a favorite of mine among Barker’s work, partly because of when I read it, in early October of 2018, just after the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh.  Those proceedings, with their demonstration of male entitlement and privilege, and the nominee’s and his supporters’ outrage when those conditions are questioned, especially by women, made me wonder how much has changed in the millennia since the fall of Troy. Achilles, sulking in his tent, was no more petulant than the aspiring Justice; Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, showing off for each other and laughing at the helpless women—in more than one of the allegations—come across as a bitter parody of Achilles and Patroclus, with all of the competitive bravado and none of the courage. And who plays small-minded Agamemnon here, intent on saving face while insisting on his prerogative?

The men, then and now, perform for each other, to establish or contest status, position, impunity from consequences:  Look how much we can get away with!  The women now are no longer slaves, but their voices and experiences carry no weight with the decision-making body.  The attention paid to the harm they have suffered is shallow at best; the hearings and investigations into their allegations were grudging and half-hearted, paying lip service to the seriousness of the misconduct alleged, but undertaken and conducted in bad faith.

There is a minor character who appears briefly in the Iliad and more notably in the plays of Euripides, but does not figure by name in Barker’s novel.  This is Talthybius, the herald of Agamemnon, who escorts Briseis from Achilles’s camp to Agamemnon’s; who takes the child Astyanax from his mother, Andromache, to be hurled from a cliff to his death so that no child of Hector’s remains alive to threaten the Greeks; who announces to Hecuba the killing of her youngest daughter, Polyxena, as retribution for the loss of Greek heroes.  Euripides portrays Talthybius as sympathetic, tactful, gentle in words and manner, trying to soften the impact of invariably horrible news he delivers. The herald knows the orders he carries out are monstrous, but he is a soldier and he carries them out.

When I first noticed this character, years ago in graduate school, he reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s powerful phrase, “the banality of evil.” Arendt, of course, referred to the bureaucrats of Nazi Germany, in particular Adolf Eichmann.  I do not mean to suggest that the recent hearings are anywhere close to equivalent to the atrocity of genocide or to the killings enacted after the fall of Troy.  What I do mean to suggest is that tact, sympathy, lip service toward  humane values and respect for individual persons, whatever their gender, status, and position, are not enough and may even compound injury with insult.  Thus, those who professed to believe Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony and to be moved by her experience but who found it possible to ignore its implications for the Supreme Court, the Senate, and all of us, in support of Kavanaugh’s confirmation, might to their benefit examine the character of Talthybius.  If many circumstances have changed in the last couple of thousand years, some have not, and Talthybius, who recognized cruelty when he saw it but acquiesced in it to preserve the status quo, is no more admirable a figure now than he was to Euripides.

Diane Burton is an associate editor of Nimrod.  She retired from teaching at The University of Tulsa two years ago.

The Slog Blog: Slumps, Doldrums, & More!

by Eric Morris-Pusey

Eric October Image

A particular slant of light on cold, overcast mornings; the particular knocking and grinding sounds a half-severed cooling fan makes against the engine of our car; the peculiar and vaguely threatening advertisements for short-term loans and for the annual Armageddon conference piled in the mailbox—these are all things I’ve thought of putting in a poem lately. I haven’t used a damn one of them.

I’m in a deep slump, poetry-wise. Among other writers I know (even some of the successful ones), it’s common enough. That knowledge doesn’t always help.

For a poet, not actually writing any poetry feels like a case of athlete’s foot, or like being slightly more drunk than everyone else at the party and wondering what the hell these fine people see in you. It just happens every now and again. It’s not all that big a deal, really. It’s all you can think about.

While I would love this to be a Buzzfeed-worthy inspirational post, complete with Instagram-ready success quotes framed against majestic peaks or rippling muscles, it won’t be.

In the year and almost six months since I finished my M.F.A., I’ve written two new poems. Both of them were pretty bad. I’ve revised a bit more than that, but it always feels like doing dishes on a treadmill, with a hangover. Or like failing to do that well enough and feeling sorry for yourself about it.

It seems almost dangerous to connect oneself so thoroughly to something as most of the people reading this have connected themselves to writing. Like gambling your last couple of bucks or falling in love, the act can be exhilarating and the payoff incredible. But when it doesn’t work out, the comedown is infinite, and you’re left alone with that infinity.

For the first six months of my slump, all I thought about was writing, or not writing. As I sat in front of the laptop or with pen to paper, the walls to my left and right shrank toward me. The space between me and the great nothing I was trying to turn into a decent something became wider and more improbable.

My vision blurred. I didn’t shower as often as I should’ve. The lights in my office, or the laundry room where I sometimes wrote, were always too bright or too dark. It felt like someone was watching through the window, and always disapprovingly.

Like trying to get to sleep, trying to write usually doesn’t work, except as a misery engine.

While I’m not saying to give up, and I certainly haven’t, sometimes it may be better to turn away from that void, that infinite comedown, for at least a minute or two. Athletes get injured, singers get head colds, and everybody gets tired. Sometimes there’s no point in doing something you just can’t do right now.

For both our writing and our health, a step back is sometimes necessary, as is forgiving ourselves for that step back. Virginia Woolf tried it on a Friday in April 1921, and though she said, “I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room,” instead she chose to “write down the reason why I can’t.” While I haven’t tried this particular technique myself, simply allowing oneself to not write, even if only for a moment, seems a radical act of self-forgiveness. Additionally, I don’t think it hurt Woolf’s career.

While I haven’t written a decent poem this past year, I might’ve read more than I have in the past two. I’ve submitted more work than ever before and even managed to get a couple pieces picked up. I continue to read submissions for Nimrod. And my step back from poetry has allowed me to focus on another project, something I’m (cautiously) hopeful about.

These rationalizations and justifications work halfway, half the time, to convince me I’m all right. And while part of me is writing this for you—because this happens to so many of us, and because it can be so deadening—part of me writes for myself, too. Because the slump never gets easy, even if it doesn’t stay as hard.

I felt the first stirrings of being able to write poetry again last weekend, hearing my former advisor Rick Jackson read a few poems and talk about poetic structure, the ways in which the stylistic choices a poet makes say just as much as the words they choose. Something flared for a brief moment; a dead fluorescent bulb flickered quietly on.

I haven’t written another poem yet. I know, or at least hope, I will soon.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.